The Vanishing Half

An excerpt from the author’s new novel.

Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock
Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

A notice was pinned to the front door of every house in the Palace Estates, calling for an emergency Homeowners Association Meeting. The Estates, the newest subdivision in Brentwood in 1968, had only called one emergency meeting before, when the treasurer was accused of embezzling dues, so that night, the neighbors gathered in the clubhouse, whispering hotly, expecting the hint of a scandal. What they did not expect was this: current president Percy White standing in front of the room, his face beet red as he delivered regretful news. The Lawsons on Sycamore Way were selling their house and a colored man had just placed an offer to buy it. The room sputtered to life, and Percy threw up his hands, suddenly finding himself in front of a firing squad.

“Just the messenger,” he kept saying, although no one could hear him. Dale Johansen asked what the hell was the point of having an Association if not to prevent such a thing from happening. Tom Pearson, determined to out-bluster him, threatened to withhold his dues if the Association did not start doing their jobs. Even the women were upset, or perhaps, especially the women were upset. They did not shout like the men but each had made a certain sacrifice in marrying a man who could afford a home in the most expensive new subdivision in Los Angeles County and she expected a return on that investment. Cath Johansen asked how they ever expected to keep the neighborhood safe now, and Betsy Roberts, an economics major at Bryn Mawr before she’d married, complained that their property values would plummet.

But years later, the neighbors would only remember one person speaking up in the meeting, a single voice that had, somehow, risen above the noise. She hadn’t yelled — maybe that’s why they’d listened. Or perhaps because she was ordinarily so soft-spoken, everyone knew that if she was standing to her feet in the middle of a raucous meeting, she must have had something urgent to say. Or maybe it was because her family currently lived on Sycamore Way, in a cul-de-sac directly across from the Lawsons, so the new neighbors would affect her most directly. Whatever the reason, the room quieted when Stella Sanders climbed to her feet.

“You must stop them, Percy,” she said. “If you don’t, there’ll be more and then what? Enough is enough!”

She was trembling, her light brown eyes flashing, and the neighbors, moved by her spontaneous passion, applauded. She never spoke up in their meetings and hadn’t even known that she would until she’d already clambered to her feet. For a second, she’d almost said nothing — she hated feeling everyone watch her, had wanted to run shrinking at her own wedding. But her shy, faltering voice only gripped the room further. After the meeting, she couldn’t even make it out the door without neighbors wanting to shake her hand. Weeks later, yellow flyers flapped on trees and light posts that read in big block letters, “Protect Our Neighborhood. Enough Is Enough.” When she found one stuck in the windshield of her car, she was startled to see her own words reflected back to her, as foreign as if they’d come from a stranger.

“Did I make a fool out of myself?” she asked later. She was sitting in front of her vanity, brushing out her hair. Blake eased behind her, unbuttoning his white shirt.

“Of course not,” he said. “But it’ll never happen, Stel. I don’t know why everyone’s getting all worked up.”

“But you saw Percy up there. He looked plumb scared.”

Blake laughed. “I love when you say things like that.”

“Like what?”

“Your country talk.”

“Oh, don’t make fun. Not right now.”

“I’m not! I think it’s cute.”

He stooped to kiss her cheek, and in the mirror, she watched his fair head bend over her dark one. Did she look as nervous as she felt? Would anybody be able to tell? A colored family in the neighborhood. Blake was right, it would never happen. The Association would put a stop to it. They had lawyers on hand for such a thing, didn’t they? What was the purpose of having an Association if not to stop undesirables from moving in, if not to ensure the neighborhood exist precisely as the neighbors wished? She tried to steady that flutter in her stomach but she couldn’t. She’d been caught before. Only once, the second time she’d ever pretended to be white. During her last summer in Mallard, weeks after venturing into the charm shop, she’d gone to the South Louisiana Museum of Art on an ordinary Saturday morning, not Negro Day, and walked right up to the main entrance, not the side door where Negroes lined up in the alley. Nobody stopped her, and again, she’d felt stupid for not trying this sooner. There was nothing to being white except boldness. You could convince anyone you belonged somewhere if you acted like you did.

In the museum, she’d glided slowly through the rooms, studying the fuzzy Impressionists. She was listening distractedly as an elderly docent intoned to a circle of listless children, when she noticed a Negro security guard in the corner of the room staring. Then he’d winked, and horrified, she rushed past him, head down, barely breathing until she stepped back into the bright morning. She rode the bus back to Mallard, her face burning. Of course passing wasn’t that easy. Of course that colored guard recognized her. We always know our own, her mother said.

And now a colored family moving across the street. Would they see her for what she was? Or rather, what she wasn’t? Blake kissed the back of her neck, slipping his hand inside her robe.

“Don’t worry about it, honey,” he said. “The Association will never allow it.”

In the middle of the night, her daughter woke up screaming, and Stella stumbled bleary-eyed into the girl’s room to find her in the throes of another nightmare. She crawled into the tiny bed, gently shaking her awake. “I know, I know,” she said, dabbing at the girl’s tears. Her own heart was still pounding, although she should have been used to this by now. All those nights she’d scrambled out of bed, following her daughter’s screams, always fearing the worst, only to find Kennedy twisted in her covers, clenching the sheets. The pediatrician said that nothing was physically wrong; the sleep specialist said that children with overactive imaginations were prone to vivid dreams. It probably just meant that she was an artist, he’d said with a chuckle. The child psychologist examined her drawings and asked what she dreamt about. But Kennedy, only 6 then, never remembered, and Blake dismissed the doctors as a waste of money.

“She must get it from your side,” he told Stella. “A good Sanders girl would be out like a light.”

She told him that she used to have nightmares when she was young, too, and she never remembered them either. But that last part wasn’t true. Her nightmares were always the same, white men grabbing her ankles and dragging her screaming out the bed. She’d never told her sister Desiree. Each time she’d snapped awake, Desiree snoring beside her, she felt stupid for being afraid. Hadn’t Desiree watched from that closet too? Hadn’t she seen what those white men had done? Then why wasn’t she waking up in the middle of the night, her heart pounding?

They never talked about their father. Whenever Stella tried, Desiree’s eyes glazed over.

“What you want me to say?” she said. “I know just as much as you do.”
“I just wish I knew why,” Stella said.

“Nobody knows why,” Desiree said. “Bad things happen. They just do.”
Now Stella gently brushed back the silken blonde hair from her daughter’s forehead.

“It’s alright, darling,” she whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

She held her daughter closer, pulling the covers over the both of them. She hadn’t wanted to be a mother at first. The idea of pregnancy terrified her; she imagined pushing out a baby that grew darker and darker, Blake recoiling in horror. She almost preferred him thinking that she’d had an affair with a Negro. That lie seemed kinder than the truth, momentary unfaithfulness a gentler deception than her ongoing fraud. But after she’d given birth, she felt overwhelmed with relief. The newborn in her arms was perfect: milky skin, wavy blonde hair, and eyes so blue they looked violet. Still, sometimes, Kennedy felt like a daughter who belonged to someone else, a child Stella was borrowing while she loaned a life that never should have been hers.

A week after the Association meeting, Stella started to see the signs that her worst fear had come true. First, the literal one: a red “Sold” sign tacked onto the Lawsons’ front yard right in front of their rose bushes. She didn’t know the Lawsons well; she rarely spoke to them, beyond the expected pleasantries at the neighborhood potluck, but she still forced herself to wave down Deborah Lawson in her driveway one morning. Deborah glanced back at her, harried, as she ushered her two tow-headed boys into the backseat of her sedan.

“The new family,” Stella said. “Are they nice people?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Deborah said. “I haven’t met them. The broker handles all that.”

But she wouldn’t look directly at Stella the whole time, brushing past her to climb into the car, so Stella knew that she was lying. Still, Stella held out hope that her suspicions were wrong until Blake came home from racquetball, wiping his sweaty face with his T-shirt, and told her that the Association had rolled over.

“The colored fellow threatened to sue if he wasn’t let in,” Blake said. “Hired a big lawyer too. Got old Percy running scared.” He noticed her fallen face and squeezed her hip. “Aw, don’t look like that, Stel. It’ll be fine. I bet they won’t last a month here. They’ll see they’re not wanted.”

“But there’ll be more after them —”

“Not if they can’t afford it. Fred told me the man paid for that house in all cash. He’s a different breed.”

He almost sounded as if he admired the man. But what type of person threatened to sue his way into a neighborhood where he was not wanted and would not be welcomed? Why would anyone insist on doing such a thing? To make a point? To make himself miserable? To end up on the nightly news like all those protesters, beaten or martyred in hopes of convincing white people to change their minds? Two weeks ago, she’d watched from on the arm of Blake’s chair as cities across the country lit up in flames. A single bullet, the newscaster said, the force of the gunshot ripping off King’s necktie. Blake stared mystified at devastated Negroes running past flaming buildings.

“I’ll never understand why they do that,” he said. “Destroy their own neighborhoods.”

The country was unrecognizable now, Cath Johansen said, but it looked the same as it ever had to Stella. Tom Pearson and Dale Johansen and Percy White wouldn’t storm a colored man’s porch and yank him out of his kitchen, wouldn’t stomp his hands, wouldn’t shoot him five times. These were fine people, good people, who donated to charities and winced at news reels of Southern sheriffs swinging bully sticks at colored college students. They thought King was an impressive speaker, maybe even agreed with some of his ideas. They wouldn’t have sent a bullet into his head — they might have even cried watching his funeral, that poor young family — but they still wouldn’t have allowed the man to move into their neighborhood.
“We could threaten to move out,” Dale said at dinner. He was rolling a cigarette between his fingers, peering out the window like a sentry on look-out. “How’d the Association like that, huh? All of us, just up and leave.”
“Why should we be the ones to leave?” Cath said. “We’ve worked hard, paid our dues —”

“It’s just a tactic,” Dale said. “A negotiating tactic. We leverage our collective power —”

“I’m telling you it’ll never happen,” Blake said, leaning over to light Stella’s cigarette. “I don’t know why you all are getting yourselves so worked up.”
“It better not,” Dale said. “I’ll see to that.”

She couldn’t tell what unnerved her more, picturing a colored family moving in or imagining what might be done to stop them.

Days later, a yellow moving van crept slowly up the winding streets of the Palace Estates, halting at each intersection, in search of Sycamore Way. From her bedroom window Stella peered through the blinds as the van parked in front of the Lawsons’ house. Three lanky colored men climbed out the back in matching purple shirts. One by one, they unloaded a leather couch, a marble vase, a long furled rug, a giant stone elephant with a flared trunk, a slender floor lamp. An endless parade of furniture with no family in sight. Stella watched as long as she could until her daughter sidled up behind her and whispered, “What’s happening?” As if they were playing some spy game. Stella jolted away from the blinds, suddenly embarrassed.

Heading to bed that night, Blake reassured her. “It’ll be fine, Stel. They’ll keep to themselves, if they know what’s best.” The room fell dark, the mattress creaking as he rolled over to kiss her. Sometimes when Blake touched her, Stella saw the man who’d dragged her father onto the porch, the one with the red-gold hair. Tall, gray shirt partially unbuttoned, a scab on his cheek as if he’d nicked himself while shaving. Blake pressed open her thighs and the man with the red-gold hair was on top of her — she could almost smell his sweat, see the freckles on his back. Then it was Blake’s clean Ivory soap again, his voice whispering her name. It was ridiculous — the men looked nothing alike and Blake had never hurt her. But he could, which made her grip him even tighter as she felt him sink inside.

From THE VANISHING HALF, by Brit Bennett. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright © Brit Bennett, 2020.

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The Vanishing Half