Leaving Brooklyn for the first time to visit their grandparents in the Virginia countryside, Genie and his big brother, Ernie, discover that their grandfather is blind and ask countless questions about how he copes before realizing that he never leaves the house. By the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award-winning author of When I Was the Greatest. Simultaneous eBook.
Jason Reynolds is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, a Newbery Award Honoree, a Printz Award Honoree, a two-time National Book Award finalist, a Kirkus Award winner, a two-time Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors. Reynolds is also the 2020–2021 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His many books include When I Was the Greatest, The Boy in the Black Suit, All American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely), As Brave as You, For Every One, the Track series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu), Look Both Ways, and Long Way Down, which received a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Honor. He lives in Washington, DC. You can find his ramblings at JasonWritesBooks.com.
*Starred Review* Reynolds' first foray into middle-grade fiction follows the path of other stellar writers like Christopher Paul Curtis and Rita Williams-Garcia, who have brought their young protagonists home to meet the family. Our narrator is 11-year-old Genie, a worrier from Brooklyn who's headed, along with his older brother, Ernie, to his grandparents' home in backwoods Virginia. There's culture shock aplenty (no Internet, no TV), plus the more visceral earthquake of learning Grandpop is blind. And the aftershocks keep coming: Grandpop carries a gun. Genie's notebook of questions-a wonderful literary technique-opens wide this thoroughly realistic narrator's world of concerns and brings readers closer to him. The story's richness comes in part from its evocative descriptions of place, with every sense invited to the party. Readers don't just see the dog poop that covers the yard; they feel the weight of it as the brothers shovel it into the woods and can smell it all over the boys. But it is the intricate lacing of relationships that makes this so remarkable. There are second-, even third-generation problems being worked out between fathers and sons. A Jim Crow history has had a hand in shaping the issues, but there are also personal trials, hurt, and despair that hinder resolution. Yet through his inquisitive young protagonist, Reynolds movingly shows that although sometimes love hides, it still abides. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Reynolds comes off the one-two punch of the 2015 award winners The Boy in the Black Suit and All American Boys as a newly branded kidlit superstar. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.
Eleven-year-old Brooklynite Genie has "worry issues," so when he and his older brother, Ernie, are sent to Virginia to spend a month with their estranged grandparents while their parents "try to figure it all out," he goes into overdrive.First, he discovers that Grandpop is blind. Next, there's no Internet, so the questions he keeps track of in his notebook (over 400 so far) will have to go un-Googled. Then, he breaks the model truck that's one of the only things Grandma still has of his deceased uncle. And he and Ernie will have to do chores, like picking peas and scooping dog poop. What's behind the "nunya bidness door"? And is that a gun sticking out from Grandpop's waistband? Reynolds' middle-grade debut meanders like the best kind of summer vacation but never loses sense of its throughline. The richly voiced third-person narrative, tightly focused through Genie's point of view, introduces both brothers and readers to this rural African-American community and allows them to relax and explore even as it delves into the many mysteries that so bedevil Genie, ranging from "Grits? What exactly are they?" to, heartbreakingly, "Why am I so stupid?" Reynolds gives his readers uncommonly well-developed, complex characters, especially the completely believable Genie and Grandpop, whose stubborn self-sufficiency belies his vulnerability and whose flawed love both Genie and readers will cherish.This pitch-perfect contemporary novel gently explores the past's repercussions on the present. (Fiction. 9-12) Copyright Kirkus 2016 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Chapter One ONE #460: Poop. Poop is stupid. Stupid poop. Stupid. Poopid. Poopidity. Is poopidity a word?
Genie stood a few feet away from Samantha’s shabby old doghouse, scribbling a mess of words in his notebook. His older brother, Ernie, was luring the mutt to a cleaner spot in the yard with a big pot of leftover chicken, bacon, grits, greens, and whatever else was for doggy breakfast.
“Okay, that should keep her busy for a few minutes,” Ernie said, successful. He walked over to the side of Grandma and Grandpop’s house, grabbed a rusty shovel, then came back to Genie and started scooping up crusty piles of dog poop.
“What I wanna know is what you ’bout to do with that mess?” Genie asked, pinching and pulling his shorts out of his butt. Ma must not have noticed how much he had grown since the year before when she packed all his old summer clothes.
“If you put that notebook down, you’ll see,” Ernie said, holding the shovel out and walking toward the back of the house where all the trees were. When he got close enough to the wood line, he looked over his shoulder. Genie shoved the small notebook into his back pocket. “You watchin’?” Ernie called out, making sure all eyes were on him.
Genie hustled over. “Yeah.” Ernie flashed a sly grin, one that worked perfectly with his dark shades. Then, without giving any kind of warning, he cocked the shovel back and flung it forward. The poop flew into the air and out into the woods, slapping against the trees and exploding.
“Ooh yeah!” Ernie cheered, holding his shovel up as if he had just scored a touchdown.
Genie gaped, his mouth falling open as Ernie came back to scoop up more dog crud. “You just gon’ stand there, or you gon’ get in on this?” Ernie asked, chin-pointing to the other shovel leaning against the side of the house.
No way was Genie going to miss out on slinging poop. On poopidity? No. Way. How often does anybody get to catapult doo-doo into a forest? Never. Genie ran and grabbed the other shovel.
“Get this one,” Ernie said, stabbing at a gross mound, still stinky.
Genie grimaced, but he slid the shovel under the poop, grimaced again at the scratchy sound of metal on dirt, then lifted it and followed Ernie back to the tree line.
“Go for it,” Ernie said, nodding.
Genie put one foot forward, holding the shovel as if it were a baseball bat and he was about to attempt the worst bunt in history. He whipped the shovel forward, but not nearly hard enough. The poop plopped down only about a foot away. It was a pretty sad throw, and it was way too close to being a situation where poop was splattered all over Genie’s Converses. Yeah, they were already covered in dust, but dust is one thing, even mud he could handle, but dog poop? There’s no coming back from that.
“You gotta fling it, Genie. Fling it.” Ernie demonstrated with a few ghost flings. “You see that tree over there?”
Genie looked out at all the trees in front of them and wondered which one Ernie was talking about. It was pretty much… a forest. Trees were everywhere. And Ernie wasn’t really pointing at any one in particular. He just said that tree over there as if one of the trees had been marked with a sign that said THIS TREE, DUMMY. But Ernie was always on him about asking too many questions, so Genie just nodded.
“Watch and learn, young grasshoppa.” Ernie held the shovel low, letting it hang behind him before hurling its contents into the woods. It splat against a tree. Perfect shot. It must’ve been the one Ernie was aiming for, because he threw his hands up in celebration again. “Bang, bang! Got it!” he howled. “Now, try again.”
Genie picked up another clump, questions flying all over the place like those flies on the… poopidity. Why was there so much of it in the first place? Did nobody else care that there was mess all over the yard? When was the last time the yard had been poop-scooped? Genie tried to mimic Ernie’s every move. He held the shovel low and let it drop back behind him a little so that he could get some good momentum. We’re talking technique here. Sophisticated stuff.
“Aim for that old house back there,” Ernie said, pointing into the woods. Genie focused and counted off. One, two, and on three, he swung his whole body, a kind of broke-down golf swing, the mess whipping from the shovel head. Genie definitely got some air on it this time! But he hadn’t quite figured out how to aim it—Ernie left that part out. The poop zipped off behind him, slamming into a window in the back of the house. The wrong house. His grandparents’ house.
“Genie!” Ernie shouted, his eyes bugging. And right after that came Grandma.
“Genie!” she called out. “Ernie! What in Sam Hill are y’all doin’?”
Grandma was the one who put Ernie and Genie on poop patrol in the first place, in case you were wondering. Neither one of them had ever had to shovel poop out of anybody’s yard before, because first of all, in Brooklyn, most people don’t have yards. And secondly, most Brooklyn folks just pick it up with plastic Baggies whenever a dog does his doo on the sidewalk. Not everybody, but the majority. But there were no sidewalks here in North Hill, Virginia. No brownstones with the cement stoops where you could watch the buses, ice cream trucks, and taxis ride by. Nope. North Hill, Virginia, was country. Like country country. And Genie and Ernie were staying there in a small white house on the top of a hill. Grandma and Grandpop’s house. For a month. Like thirty whole days.
The boys had arrived two nights earlier after a long, cramped ride in the back of their dad’s old Honda. Cramped at least for Genie, because Ernie, in a cheeseburger coma, had stretched out on the backseat as if it were his own personal couch, forcing Genie to be smushed against the window for most of the trip. Genie had thought about playing Pete and Repeat by mimicking Ernie’s nasty snores, but then he realized it wouldn’t matter because Ernie wasn’t awake to get annoyed by it anyway. And that was the whole point of that game. So to take his mind off the discomfort of being trapped under Ernie’s leg, stewing in the thick silence between his folks, who had managed to not talk to each other for the past four hours, Genie flipped through pages of his notebook—where he kept his best questions. Some had already been answered, and some were still mysteries. He landed on one that he had totally forgotten about—#389: Do honey badgers eat honey?—then tried telling his parents about how he’d read on the Internet that honey badgers actually do eat honey and how many of them have been stung to death by bees because they wanted honey from the hive so bad. The toughest, craziest animal ever.
“They’re like weasels or somethin’. But tougher, know what I’m sayin’? Like, they’re small, but they ain’t scared to get busy, even on lions,” Genie had rambled. The fact that his parents had neither asked him about honey badgers, or even knew why he cared about them in the first place, never stopped him from offering up random info at random times. That was sort of his thing. He was different from Ernie in that way. Genie was the kind of kid who kept a small jacked-up notebook and pen in his pocket just so that he could jot down interesting things whenever they came. The point was to keep a list—a numbered list—of all the things he needed to Google, because to Genie, the more questions you had, the more answers you could find. And the more answers you found, the more you knew. And the more you knew, the less you made mistakes. Genie wasn’t about mistakes.
Ernie, on the other hand, was the kind of kid who wore sunglasses 24/7 just to make sure everybody knew he was cool, and to him, the biggest mistake anyone could make was not to be. That, and not being able to defend yourself. As a matter of fact, one of the only times Ernie didn’t wear his shades was whenever he was doing karate, which he had been learning since he was seven. He was a brown belt, or as he put it, a “junior black belt.” Genie loved to watch Ernie’s matches and tournaments, but not quite as much as he loved to watch Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. Ernie, on the other hand, liked to watch girls. Genie liked to build model cars. Ernie… liked to watch girls.
“Boy, if you don’t go to sleep, I’m a honey your badger,” Ma had droned from the front seat after Genie finished telling her about the video he’d seen of a honey badger actually taking on a lion. She was staring out the window, and had been the entire time they’d been on the road. Genie sucked his teeth. That was when Dad adjusted the rearview mirror so that he could see Genie.
“Son, tell me something.” He darted his exhausted-looking eyes from the rearview back to the road. “How much you know about sloths?”
“Sloths?” Genie thought for a moment. “Well, I know they’re lazy, and they sleep all the time,” he answered reluctantly, feeling the setup coming.
“Uh-huh,” Dad said, flat. He glanced back in the mirror. “See where I’m goin’ with this?”
Genie sucked his teeth again. He knew exactly where Dad was going with it. Straight to Genie please be quiet and go to sleep town.
But Genie didn’t go straight to sleep, even though that was what his parents wanted. Instead, he stared out the window, like Ma, for about an hour, peering into the darkness, thinking about his girlfriend, Shelly, and his best friend, Aaron. He wondered if they were going to do all the things they always did in the summer, like play in the hydrant and buy rocket pops from the ice cream man, without him. If they were going to miss his rants and all his knowledge about random animals and insects, and if Shelly would be able to spot a bedbug like he had taught her. He wondered if Aaron would try to impress Shelly with his backflips (girls love dudes who can do backflips) and if she’d eventually fold to his flippin’ charm and kiss him. Of course, if she did, it would be a loaner kiss, Genie decided. A kiss to make up for the fact that he wasn’t there. Nothing real. Genie sat there thinking about all these things, annoyed by his brother’s snoring, listening to his parents not say a word, totally unsure about what was going to happen when they finally got to Virginia. The only thing he did know for sure was why they were going to the country in the first place, why he and Ernie had to spend a whole month away from Brooklyn for the first time ever.
It all had to do with Jamaica. Well, really it all had to do with his parents “not saying a word.” They were “having problems,” which Genie knew was just parent-talk for maybe/possibly/probably divorcing. They said they needed some time to try to figure it all out. When his mother first told him about the “problems,” all Genie could think about was what his friend Marshé Brown told him when her parents got divorced, and how she never saw her father again. When he asked his mother about whether he was going to have to choose which parent he wanted to live with, or if he and Ernie were going to have to split up too, all she said was, “No matter what, me and your daddy love you both. Always.” But that didn’t really answer the question, which made it clear in Genie’s mind that “fig uring it out”—which, by the way, was supposed to happen in Jamaica, the first vacation his parents were taking without him and Ernie—really meant figuring out which parent got which kid, which, of course, meant this would probably also be the last vacation his parents would be taking without them. And it got Genie thinking about who he’d want to live with, Ma or Dad, which led to him scribbling a list in the dark. Really, two lists.
Living with Dad
Pro: I’d be safe from fires and thieves.
Con: Dad works all the time and is never home.
Con: So I probably wouldn’t be safe from fires and thieves.
Pro: I could watch scary movies.
Con: Dad can’t cook.
Con: Dad stinks almost all the time, because of work.
Living with Ma
Pro: She can cook, real good.
Pro: She never ever stinks.
Con: She won’t let me watch scary movies.
Con: I don’t know if she can protect me from fire and thieves.
Con: Which means I’d have to protect her, and I don’t know karate!
Eventually, after going back and forth in his mind about who he’d want to live with, and messily jotting his thoughts in the notebook, the smooth, dark road hypnotized Genie, finally coaxing him to sleep. He hadn’t even realized he had drifted off until he was awakened by the sound of tree limbs scraping the sides of the car. The Honda was bumping its way up a hill, and the limbs looked like long fingers on big stick hands trying to get in and grab him. It was still dark, Dad had his window cracked, letting some air in, and he had changed the music from slow jams to nineties hip-hop.
“We here?” Genie muttered, wiping sleep from his eyes. He looked out the window but couldn’t see anything except branches. The car dipped and bucked every few seconds as Dad kept slamming on the brakes to avoid potholes.
“Jesus! This road is a mess,” he fumed, turning the radio off so he could concentrate. Genie quickly patted the space beside him on the seat, searching for his pen. Once he found it, he flipped to the next page of his notebook. #440: Does turning the radio off help you drive better? he scrawled as Ma turned to him and flashed a sleepy smile.
“Yes, honey, we’re here.” The skin on her face looked heavy, and Genie wondered if she had slept at all during the ride. Actually, the skin on her face had been looking heavy for a few months. Since her and Dad had the big blowup where she screamed, like screamed screamed, and told him that all his time went to work and the boys, but he could never seem to make time for her. Ernie and Genie had been outside having a snowball fight, and Down the Street Donnie, known for being a jerk, had covered a quarter in snow and zinged it at Genie. Zapped him straight in the eye. Ernie had run over to check on him and when he saw the coin, most of the snow knocked off, he commenced to karatisizing Down the Street Donnie, all the way… down the street. Meanwhile, Genie had run inside, his palm to his eye, and stepped right into Ma and Dad’s crossfire over how she was feeling neglected. The swelling around Genie’s eye eventually went away. But the heavy on Ma’s face never did.
Anyway, the point was, Genie hoped Ma had gotten some sleep on the way to Virginia, because the one thing he thought he knew about Virginia, he was right about. It was far. Way too far to be awake the whole time.
Ernie, on the other hand, had slept the entire trip—was still asleep, his mouth hanging wide open in that way that made the bottom half of his face look like it was melting, his sunglasses lopsided, only covering one eye. Genie pushed Ernie’s leg off him, but it snapped right back up to its place on Genie’s lap as if it were spring-loaded.
“Ern, wake up,” Genie said, jamming his fingers into Ernie’s thigh. “We here.” Ernie didn’t budge. “Ern!” Genie cried out, loud enough for Ma to hear. She turned around and slapped Ernie’s leg. He snapped awake, confused, fixing his shades and wiping spit off his chin with the bottom of his T-shirt.
As the car approached the top of the hill, the sound of a dog barking came out of nowhere. Genie pressed his face against the window. Was that Grandma and Grandpop’s dog? What was it doing outside? Did they know it had gotten loose? Was Grandpop up this time of the night walking it?
“Ernie, you remember Samantha?” Dad asked, cutting the engine a minute after cresting the hill.
Ernie craned his neck to see out the window, yawning. He had been to North Hill once before, a long time ago when he was four. Genie hadn’t come with him because at the time he was still a baby. That was also the last time Dad had seen his father. It had been almost ten years. And Genie had no idea what that was about.
So this was Genie’s first time to North Hill. As a matter of fact, this was his first time really going out of town at all. He had been to New Jersey, but that didn’t really count. It took longer to get to his other grandparents’ house, his mom’s parents, who lived in the Bronx, than it did to get to Jersey.
Genie had never met Dad’s dad, his grandfather, but he had met his grandmother once. She had come to New York to visit when he was much younger, but he didn’t remember too much about her except for the fact that she looked like Dad. An old lady version of him, minus the mustache and the beard. And she smelled like soap. Genie remembered that.
“Of course I remember Samantha,” Ernie grumbled, his voice groggy from car sleep. He finally moved his leg and sat up. Genie could hear a dog chain dragging across the ground, then popping when the slack was up. He wasn’t usually scared of dogs, and he wasn’t really really scared of this one either, but it was definitely comforting—and weird—to know that this Samantha dog was chained up outside in the dark. Dogs left outside in Brooklyn ended up in the pound!
“We made it. Everybody out,” Dad said, and by the time all the car doors had opened and Dad had popped the trunk, a light outside the house flickered on. The front door opened and a shapeless shadow filled the doorway like some kind of ghost. The dog, the trees, the little house all alone on the top of a hill—this, Genie thought, was definitely the makings of a scary movie.
A kinda scratchy but firm voice called out, “Sam! Stop all that dern yappin’!” It was the same kind of scratchy firm voice that Genie recognized from all those three-minute, twice-a-month phone calls that were always about how he was doing in school, and if he was taking care of his brother and his mother, which always confused him because he was the youngest person in the family. Grandma’s voice. Now Grandma stepped onto the porch and closed the screen door behind her. It was a darker shade of dark outside than Genie was used to, but he could still make out the flowers on Grandma’s long nightdress.
Dad nodded to Genie and Ernie to get moving, and led the way, lugging the family suitcase to the top step of the porch. He set it down and wrapped his arms around the old lady, tight. “Hey, Mama.”
“Lord,” she said, kissing him on the cheek, then reaching out for Ma. “Took y’all forever to get here.”
“You know how your son is,” Ma said, giving Grandma a quicker hug, then swinging around to make sure Genie and Ernie were right behind her. “Five miles over the speed limit is against the daggone law.” Ma shook her head like she was annoyed at Dad, a look Genie saw all the time at home. But Genie didn’t really understand it this time, because, well, five miles over the speed limit was against the law.
Genie let his mother take his hand as she pulled him forward. Ernie hung back.
“Well, you can blame me for that one, sugar. I’m the safe one in the family,” Grandma said. “Now come on in, come on in. Let me look at y’all,” she continued, excited, as she opened the door wide. “Right this way.”
Inside the house was just as dark as outside until Grandma finally flipped a switch. A dim, yellowy light came on that made everything look like a smartphone picture with a vintage filter on it. They were in an old kitchen with peeling sea-green wallpaper, a school-bus-yellow fridge buzzing as loud as a Laundromat washer.
Grandma’s face was slightly wrinkled but still looked like Dad’s around the eyes. That was all Genie could see of her—her face—because everything else was covered up by the flowered gown that looked more like a bedsheet with a hole cut out for her head to go through than an actual nightdress.
“Line up and lemme see,” Grandma directed as they shuffled around on the plasticky floor. “That city’s beatin’ on you, ain’t it?” she said, sizing up Dad first.
“Mama, I been up since nine yesterday morning,” he explained, sounding irritated and tired.
“I know, I know,” she said, patting him on the belly. “At least you eatin’ well up there.” Then she turned to Ma. “Thank you for feedin’ him, dear.”
“My pleasure, Mama.”
“And look at you. My sweet daughter-in-law,” Grandma said with a little oomph in her voice while checking Ma out head to toe. “Two kids and still look like you in grade school.” Ma bit down on her bottom lip for a second before letting herself smile. A little bit of attention goes a long way, Genie noticed. He also thought Grandma was a liar. He had known lots of girls in grade school, and most of them looked way better than Ma as far as he was concerned. Especially Shelly.
“And look at this cool guy,” Grandma said, moving down the line to Ernie, who, of course, had his sunglasses on.
“Ernie!” Ma barked between clenched teeth. Ernie snatched the sunglasses off. Quick.
“Ohhh, it’s okay. How are you, Ernie?” Grandma said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
“Fine,” Ernie muttered, Ma’s mad eyeballs all over him.
“And check out this one here, getting so big,” Grandma finished up, putting her hand on Genie’s head. “You ’member me, Genie?” She wrapped her arms around him. He could smell the soap. The same soap he remembered her by. The same kind his mother used.
After the lineup, Grandma herded them up a set of stairs, Ernie, Genie, Ma and Dad, all in one room with two big ol’ beds. Ma and Dad conked out quick, no surprise since they had been driving all night. Ernie fell asleep right after them, because, well, he just never had a problem sleeping. It didn’t matter if it was in a car or in a strange house, Ernie was going to find a way to catch zzzzs. But not Genie. He couldn’t get comfortable. He wasn’t in his bed. Or his house. Or even his city. He just lay still in the dark on a mattress that stank of sad old socks. A mattress so thin he could feel the springs in his back, like lying on a bed of fists. And to make it even weirder, it was crazy quiet! No police sirens, no loud music, no couples arguing outside his window on the street. No hungry cats, whose meows, for some reason, always sounded like babies crying. Only sound besides Ernie’s snoring was about a million crickets, and a million frogs playing Pete and Repeat with the crickets. No way was he gonna ever get to sleep. No way…
When morning came, along with the brightest sunlight EVER, and the smell of eggs and bacon coming through the cracks in the wooden floor mixed with the smell of Ernie’s big toe, which was way too close to Genie’s nose, Genie woke up. So he must’ve fallen asleep after all. Ma was already up, the bed she and Dad had slept in already made as if they had never been in it, and the end of a colorful blanket was tightly trapped between Ma’s chin and chest as she folded the bottom. She’d taught Genie how to fold like that at home. He still hadn’t gotten it down, but she was a master.
“Good morning,” she singsonged, making one more fold, then setting the blanket on the edge of the bed. A perfect rectangle. “Sleep okay?”
Genie, noticing the bags under his mother’s eyes, wanted to ask her the same question, but instead just nodded and slipped out from under Ernie’s leg. He thought Ernie was asleep, but then he felt his brother shaking from giggling.
“Hey, Genie, what my toe smell like?” Ernie busted out laughing from beneath the covers.
“Smell like your butt!”
“Genie!” Ma snapped.
He sat up just as Ernie tried to shove him off the bed with his knee.
“Stop!” Genie said, pushing back, trying not to fall.
“Ernie, cut it out. It’s too early for this,” Ma warned.
“What? I’m just playin’ with him.” Ernie reached for his sunglasses, which he had set carefully on the floor beside the bed the night before. Ma gave him the Don’t you dare! look.
“Come on, Ma. It’s stupid bright in here,” he protested, sliding the shades on, cool. The windows didn’t have curtains or blinds, so the sun just poured in. It bounced off the wood floor and the yellowy walls, making the entire room seem orange. Almost seemed like they were on the inside of the sun.
The room was crammed full with things. Old things, like posters of basketball players in crazy-looking wedgie shorts. A faded calendar on the wall from 1985—Back to the Future themed. A dresser with navy-blue paint peeling off like the skin on someone’s nose after they’d been in the sun too long. There were also some medals and ribbons there, a folded-up flag. And a small red truck—an old-school fire engine—on top of the dresser. Genie hopped off the bed for a better look.
“Watch for splinters, son,” his mother warned as he walked over the gapped wooden slats to the dresser. The red truck, he realized, was a model, and the details, the ladder, the side mirrors… perfect. Even better than he could—dang! He’d left his models back home! And Ma had just bought him two new ones, specially for this trip. Double dang!
He’d just reached out to pick up the red truck when Grandma yelled from downstairs, “Rise and shine, babies! Breakfast is ready!”
The boys and their mother followed the smell of food down the shaky wooden steps to the kitchen doorway. Grandma was standing over the stove, flipping bacon with a fork. The grease popped every time she poked the bacon, but she never flinched. An old man—Grandpop!—sat at the round kitchen table. He had on a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and, like Ernie, dark sunglasses. His face had that look old men get when they’d shaved the day before and the beard was just starting to grow back, white specks of dust all over his cheeks.
“Come in here and say hi to your grandfather,” Grandma said, setting the fork on the counter and stirring something in a copper pot. She nodded to Genie, then at the empty chair to the right of the old man for Genie to sit in. Ernie sat in the one across from him. Ma sat next to Ernie, completing the circle.
Ernie spoke first. “Hi, Grandpop.”
“Ernie. The almost-birthday boy.” Grandpop grinned, holding out a huge hand. “Been a month of Sundays, son. Long time no see.” Genie wasn’t sure what “a month of Sundays” meant but figured Ernie must have known because he reached a hand out and gave Grandpop a five. That voice. Genie recognized it too, also from the phone calls. Grandpop was the one who would always ask if Genie was taking care of his father, which made it seem to Genie that his grandparents expected him to take care of everybody.
Ernie nudged Genie, urging him to speak.
“Hi,” Genie said softly.
“Genie.” Grandpop put his hand out again. “Nice to finally meet you.”
Genie went to give him five, but Grandpop caught his hand, clamped down on it like a mousetrap on a mouse, and shook it hard and tight. Tight enough to make one of Genie’s eyes close up. Tight enough to almost make him ask, What’s your problem?
“The first one is always like this.” Grandpop leaned in close enough for Genie to smell him—a mix of sweet and sweat—and lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “But now that we know each other, all the rest’ll be fives.” Then he grinned big. His teeth were like Dad’s and Ernie’s. Perfect, white. Speaking of Dad, Genie wondered where he was and when he was going to show up and maybe save him from this white-toothed crazyman. With Grandpop still clutching his hand, Genie peered around, looking for his father.
“Leave that boy alone, Brooke,” Grandma said, slapping the old man on the shoulder, setting a plate full of breakfast food in front of him. Grandpop released his grip and Genie, happy to finally have his hand back, massaged his fingers. Grandma must’ve noticed Genie’s nervousness, because she asked, “Who you lookin’ for, your daddy? He outside. Be back in a second.” She kissed Grandpop on the cheek, then dodged him as he swatted at her butt on her way back to the counter for another plate. Her silver hair was wound into a bun on top of her head, and her flowered nightdress was much prettier in the daytime. So was she.
The next plate was Genie’s. Eggs, bacon, toast, and some globby white stuff that must’ve come from that pot Grandma had been stirring. Looked like movie prison food.
Grandma beamed. “Hope you boys like grits.”
Ma laughed. “They don’t know what grits are, Mama Harris, but they’re gon’ try some today.”
Genie stuck his fork into the white slime and hoped it didn’t taste like peas. Peas were the one thing he hated to eat more than anything. This stuff wasn’t green, so that was a good sign. He let the gritty goo slip between the tines of the fork and plop back down onto his plate. He looked at his brother. Ernie seemed just as worried but lifted the fork straight to his mouth and tasted it anyway. Ernie was brave like that. He made a face like the white stuff—the grits—was good, so Genie tried it too.
“Taste like sand,” Genie blurted, not quite wanting to spit it out, but not wanting to swallow it either. He just wanted to let it sit there in his mouth until it dissolved.
“Genie!” Ma hated when he said stuff like that. At the same time, she was always after him to tell the truth. And the truth was, to him, the grits tasted like he was eating sand.
“Sand?” Grandpop said, looking amused. “Well, I got somethin’ for that.” He pushed his chair back just as Grandma finally sat down, and went over to the counter where there were three coffee cans. Popping the top off the middle one, he stuck his fingers in it, then closed it back up. He returned to the table and sprinkled something on top of Genie’s grits.
“What was that?” Genie asked, worried.
“Magic dust.” Grandpop grinned, a little less creepy this time, and sat back down. “Try it.”
Genie picked his fork up and touched it to his tongue, just enough to taste. Sugar! And yeah, now the grits were so much better.
Grandma was looking intently at Genie, her head tilted like she was trying to figure something out. “You know who else didn’t like grits unless they had sugar on ’em?” she asked.
“Uh-huh. Wood,” Grandpop said. He’d been stabbing his eggs with his fork, but stopped suddenly, as if eating was getting in the way of thinking. “Wow. That’s somethin’, ain’t it?”
“Uncle Wood?” Genie piped in.
“Eat your breakfast,” his mother commanded. “Your grandfather got it all sugared up for you.”
“Please don’t have my son’s teeth rotten by the end of the summer.” A new voice in the room. Dad’s. He appeared out of nowhere. Walking over to the table, he kissed Genie on the forehead, then Ernie. Then Grandma. He leaned in and just grazed Ma’s cheek with his lips, awkwardly. It was friendly, but not… loving. But it was better than what Grandpop got, which was no kiss at all.
“Your plate’s on the counter, but wash your hands before you eat,” Grandma said, low, as if Dad was still a little boy. “Been out there foolin’ with that dirty dog.”
“What you talkin’ ’bout, rotten teeth?” Grandpop said on top of Grandma telling Dad to wash up. “Please. You ate more sugar than any kid in history, and you still got pearly whites, don’tcha? Just one cavity your entire life.” Dad didn’t respond, just rinsed his hands in the kitchen sink. Grandpop started to pile his eggs on his toast, grits on top of that, topping it all with a slice of bacon. Ma glanced at Dad uneasily while taking in a spoonful of grits herself. Ernie, after watching Grandpop construct his breakfast tower, did the same thing. Pete and Repeat! That made Genie wonder if maybe Ernie got the idea of wearing sunglasses in the house from Grandpop too.
Dad dried his hands on a towel hanging from the oven door and stayed standing. There weren’t enough chairs at the small table, but it didn’t seem like he wanted to sit anyway—when Grandpop offered Dad his seat, Dad refused and ate at the counter.
“So, Mama,” he said, “why don’t you let me put some money into fixin’ up this place? The floor upstairs is all warped, and the planks must’ve shrunk; they’re all spaced out—I can see straight through to the living room.”
“Don’t need no fixin’ son,” Grandpop answered before Grandma could get a word out. “My blood and sweat is in this house, built it with my own two hands. It’s just gettin’ old, just like me. But it’s still standing, just like me.” Grandpop lifted the breakfast tower to his mouth and smirked. “And… just like you.”
Dad rolled his eyes and Grandma chimed in. “Ernest, um, that’s sweet. But you save that money for these boys. And Jamaica, okay? You fly out in what, two weeks, right?”
“Yep. And I’m so grateful that you could take the boys for so long—this was the only time we could get them down here, especially with Ernest having to pick up extra shifts so he could take off two whole weeks—” Ma was saying apologetically when Grandma waved her apology away, her eyes bright.
“Oh, baby, it’s no problem. Happy to have ’em, she insisted.
Dad just bit down on his bottom lip and glared at his father before turning back to his food. Genie, however, was fixated on Grandpop—on his face, specifically his shades. Every few bites, Genie would look up and see his own reflection in the sunglasses. Then he would look back down at his plate, embarrassed for staring. But he just couldn’t help it.
“What is it, Genie?” Grandpop asked at last, tower demolished, plate clean. He took a slurp of his coffee from a white mug that said in black letters, VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS, hearts replacing all the Vs.
“What is it? You keep staring at me. I told you, we know each other now, after that handshake, so that means you can tell me anything.” He took another slurp, swallowed. “So spill.”
Now everyone was staring at Genie. Except for Ernie, who was too busy trying to pile everything left on his plate on the last piece of toast. Ma nodded, which meant it was okay for Genie to say whatever it was he wanted to say.
“Um,” he started, nervous. “Well, it’s just that—” Genie looked at his mother one more time, just to make sure. She nodded again. “It’s just that Ma always says you shouldn’t wear sunglasses in the house. She says it makes your eyes go bad, plus it makes you look crazy.”
His mother dropped her fork. His father snorted.
“Papa Harris, I’m—” she started immediately apologizing, but Grandpop cut her off.
“Well,” he started, “your mom is a smart woman, but for me it’s different.” He wiped his mouth with a napkin, then balled it up and dropped it on the table. “Wanna know why?”
“Why?” Genie asked.
Grandpop leaned in close again, this time enough for Genie to get a whiff of the coffee on his breath. “Because I already can’t see a thing, and I been crazy for years.”