The Turner House
Angela Flournoy is a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for The Turner House. Flournoy’s novel tells the story of the Turner family of Yarrow Street, Detroit. As both the family and their city suffer hardships, the Turners reunite to decide the fate of their house, and ultimately, the fate of their family. The Turner House explores the love that binds a family together and the sacrifices that must be made to keep it together. The following is an excerpt from the novel.
In the summer of 1967, when Cha-Cha was twenty-three, he worked at the Lynch Road Assembly Plant putting together Dodge Chargers. In June of that year Viola announced she was pregnant again, at forty years old. This thirteenth and final pregnancy might have been the most memorable event of the summer if only Detroit, the country, and maybe even the entire world had seen a different July.
On the morning that Detroiters began to realize the skirmish on Twelfth and Clairmount had morphed into something larger, Cha-Cha and his fellow line workers went to the plant as usual. Anxiety crackled off of people like static. Nervous behavior led to carelessness, and by lunchtime Cha-Cha’s coveralls were splattered with the blood of another man, a man who let himself get distracted. He left the plant determined to find a new job.
Before that July, a burning building felt like a particular and tragic occurrence to Cha-Cha. The smell of brick and clothes and small pets smoldering urged a person to stand tall like a prairie dog and crane his neck in search of the emergency. Afterward, a burning house became an olfactory norm akin to skunk spray; as long as the source of the odor wasn’t too close, you eventually ignored it. Cha-Cha’s shared apartment on Forrest and McDougall had no kitchen, so when he felt particularly lonely, he used the excuse of needing a home-cooked meal to come back and check on things at the Yarrow house. If he’d had no younger siblings to worry about, he might have joined his own friends from the neighborhood in search of new shoes, lightweight appliances, anything with resale potential. He wasn’t above recreational looting. But as the eldest, he kept in mind that the fires, the looting, and any police beatings all qualified as reasons a Turner boy might get into serious trouble, or maybe even die. He felt responsible for making sure nothing happened. Quincy was in army boot camp in South Carolina. Miles, Duke, and Troy were all under the age of eight and therefore still under Viola’s thumb. This left Lonnie and Russell. The two of them were standing on the porch when Cha-Cha pulled up.
“Everybody in the house?” Cha-Cha asked.
“Yeah,” Lonnie said. “Except Daddy’s not home yet. They’re sayin on TV there’s a curfew tonight. They got snipers on the roofs shootin at the police.”
Lonnie stood with his chest puffed out, his bony shoulders thrust back. He was thirteen but already as tall as Russell, with tight knots of pubescent muscle on his arms, and his father’s strong chin. Neither him nor Russell asked Cha-Cha about the blood on his collar.
“Where y’all goin?” Cha-Cha asked.
“To get bricks,” Russell said.
Cha-Cha stared at his brother as if he didn’t comprehend. He knew Viola was kneeling on the couch on the other side of the front window, listening. He walked toward the door.
Russell stepped in front of him.
“I said we’re gonna go get bricks, Cha, and we want you to come with us.”
“I heard what you said. You see all that smoke? They probably shooting niggas on the west side by now,” he said.
“Well, we on the east side,” Lonnie said.
“I heard they looting on Harper too,” Cha-Cha said.
“So? I’m not gonna sit up in that house like a girl, watching everything on the news,” Lonnie said. His new, deeper voice cracked as he spoke.
“Kowski pays a nickel a brick,” Russell said. “All this shit goin on, you think anybody cares about the bricks we take from tore-up buildings? We could be doing a lot better money-wise, but ain’t nobody gonna shoot us over bricks.”
When he was sixteen, Cha-Cha had also felt and looked as much of a man as Russell did. He knew that no matter what Russell felt like inside, living in the Yarrow house meant he was still considered a child. Still reduced to bickering with younger siblings and begging Viola for pocket money. To wait patiently while Viola, eyes closed, mouth scrunched, rooted around in her purse and extracted a few crumpled dollars was the ultimate humiliation. Russell sometimes worked for a Polish man he called Kowski, short for a longer name Cha-Cha never knew. He swept up trash and debris on constructions sites in East Detroit. A nickel per brick could add up quickly.
Cha-Cha agreed to go with them. He wasn’t old enough to forbid Russell and Lonnie from doing what they wanted, or strong enough to drag them both into the house. And if he stayed home and something happened to them out in the streets, what then? He turned his back on the window where his mother was likely spying on them, and offered his truck for the transport of bricks.
Every block seemed devoid of women. Most porches were empty. A half dozen were occupied by young men and older boys, their postures communicating a readiness to protect whatever resided on the other side of their thresholds. Cha-Cha knew most of them had guns within easy reach. Old hunting rifles brought up from Down South, and newer, lighter weapons acquired here. But who would they shoot, the police? They surely wouldn’t shoot their neighbors.
Russell guided them to a house several streets west of Yarrow. It sat on a block abutting Harper, and its overgrown yard suggested it had been vacant even before flames from the neighboring dry cleaner burned through its roof and much of its second floor. By 1967 whites had already started their retreat to the suburbs, leaving vacant houses in their wake if black folks couldn’t afford to buy or rent them quickly enough.
Cha-Cha stayed on the sidewalk while his brothers went to the side of the house. Judging from the way Lonnie walked ahead and Russell kept looking back, it was clear that the younger of the two had set this plan in motion. Although he was underage, Lonnie had talked himself into a job with Ron Vollick’s Universal Teen Sales Club. Vollick organized carloads of colored teens to go door-to-door in white neighborhoods selling overpriced goods (dish soap, thermometers, measuring cups) to fearful housewives. Lonnie was a top salesman that summer, an expert at convincing ostensibly smart people to do stupid things.
Alone out front, Cha-Cha heard the whup-whup-whup of helicopters and the frenzied bleat of fire truck sirens. The sounds seemed to be moving away from him, toward the northwest of the city. He realized they should have had a better plan, one including a wheelbarrow. They wouldn’t be able to make very many trips without attracting suspicion, and they needed twenty bricks just to make a dollar. The ferric scent of blood from his work shirt made him queasy. He should have at least changed clothes.
Cha-Cha’s particular duty on the assembly line at work was to wait until a team of three men led by a fellow named Bryson bolted the body of the Charger to the lower frame. A train track-style conveyance then brought the car to Cha-Cha’s bench. He had to reach under the body, connect a hose to the gas pump, and use a set of brackets to secure the rear axle. At first the line had moved smoothly despite everyone’s nerves, but soon Bryson’s team fell behind. Each bench had an approximate minute to complete its job before another car came down. Plenty of time in normal conditions. To prevent any backups, one relief man oversaw a clump of benches, and jumped in to help speed a job along if necessary. Cha-Cha and Bryson’s relief man was Michel, a large, curly-haired white boy from Montreal.
Maybe it had been too long since Michel had helped out the line. Maybe Michel’s mind was on the fighting and the fires in the streets. A minute should have been long enough to get Bryson’s team caught up before the next Charger reached them. In a minute’s time Michel managed to lodge his thumb between the lower frame and the upper body of the car, and Bryson’s team bolted the two pieces together without noticing. The line stopped moving. Cha-Cha looked down and saw the blood sprayed across his own coveralls.
Now Lonnie and Russell loped toward Cha-Cha with large heaps of bricks in their arms. They dumped them into the back of the truck. Russell’s chubby cheeks were smudged with soot, the front of his shirt drenched in sweat.
“Come on back and help us, Cha,” he said. “That way we can get outta here quicker.”
Lonnie and Russell sorted through the bricks, and Cha-Cha cradled the ones they passed to him. Russell had brought along a tiny hammer to knock off bits of mortar from the edges of the bricks. Lonnie wanted to climb down into the ruined basement where most of the bricks would have fallen, but Russell pointed out that the bad air quality might suffocate them.
What kind of adulthood was this? Cha-Cha wondered. He watched his teenage brothers hastily appraise ruined bricks for their resale value while the streets raged less than a quarter mile away. He had the feeling that he would always be this person, seesawing between adult and child, as long as he stayed in Detroit. Quincy was gone, and in a year’s time Russell would enlist and be gone too. Francis and Viola would surely force Lonnie to leave the city when he was of age; a boy as smart and reckless as Lonnie would come to ruin otherwise. Cha-Cha knew he’d stay here through riots and layoffs and whatever else came. His parents needed him to stay and help them with his siblings, and he would not disappoint them.
On Cha-Cha’s third trip along the side of the house he saw a police car parked behind his truck. The officer was white, wide around the middle, and peering into the brick-filled cab.
You get into trouble. You throw a ball where you shouldn’t, you try to brush up against the wrong girl’s ass at a party. You take off running. Cha-Cha dropped his bricks, turned around, and ran back to his brothers. Ran past them. There was no time to stop and explain. Russell and Lonnie followed him through the backyard of the house, and the three of them jumped the gate to an alley. They separated as soon as they reached a side street. Cha-Cha should have stopped running. Better to walk as if he’d been walking all along, then make a slow circle back to his truck. But he couldn’t stop himself. He wasn’t skilled at “acting natural.” He thought it smarter to get back to Yarrow as quickly as possible. He ran east through alleys parallel to Seneca. He heard sirens up ahead where Seneca intersected Lambert. He panicked. A house to his left had a raccoon-sized hole in the lattice under its porch. He crouched down, kicked the hole a bit wider, and scooted feet first until he was inside. He lay on his back with his arms folded on his chest. Under the porch smelled like dead leaves and wet fur. Cha-Cha listened for the rustlings of rodents but heard none. He heard sirens instead, still as close as before, as if the police had parked on the block. He heard himself wheezing long after he believed his heart rate had slowed. He blamed the smoke in the air.
Taking refuge under the porch was not the smartest decision. He would be covered in dirt when he came out of the hole, and coupled with the blood he already had on his shirt, that would make him look more suspicious than ever. He still heard sirens.
Cha-Cha’s mind might have wandered for less than five minutes or a dangerous fifteen minutes. He heard footsteps crunching through the dry summer grass toward him. The sirens had stopped. Slowly, Cha-Cha turned onto his side. He recognized those boots. That slue-footed, toes-outward walk. It was his father. Francis was a hummer and a smacker. He hummed the same song mostly, about a train headed to Glory, and he smacked as if something sticky was lodged in between his molars.
Why didn’t he crawl out then, and walk with his father home? Cha-Cha didn’t know. His heart told him to keep still. Francis stopped very near to Cha-Cha’s hole in the porch. He stood there and hummed. Francis burped and Cha-Cha realized he was drunk; he could smell the beer from where he hid. Only Francis Turner could find time to sneak away and drink during an uprising. Cha-Cha heard him unzip his pants.
Earlier that day, when the body of the Charger crushed his thumb, Michel had said, “You can’t.” Just “You can’t” once, quickly, and then a low-register wail when the bolts were removed and the rest of his hand freed. As Bryson’s team carried him away, Michel mumbled a string of words in French that no one understood. Cha-Cha wanted to yell “You can’t” from under the porch, but he didn’t. He merely closed his eyes.
Most of the urine did not reach him, but an unforgivable amount splashed onto his forehead. It took nearly two minutes for Francis to relieve himself, and Cha-Cha was convinced that Francis had done it to him on purpose. A few years later, when Cha-Cha started tailing Francis on Viola’s orders, he would learn that this corner on Seneca and Lambert was Francis’s preferred one for clandestine drinking and occasional public urination. The knowledge did nothing to change his initial beliefs. His memories of the event were not swayed by reason. They were the culmination of the wrong kind of day, and too many realizations about the kind of life Cha-Cha felt destined to live. His father had pissed on his forehead when he should have been at home protecting his family, and this seemed a special, premeditated disrespect.
Francis shook himself, zipped up, and walked away, still humming about his train to Glory. Cha-Cha waited until he heard Francis slam his car door and drive off before he crawled out and walked back toward his truck, no longer worried about how suspicious he looked.
Excerpted from The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Copyright © 2015 by Angela Flournoy. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Read more from the finalists of the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
- “A Contract Overseas” by Mia Alvar
- Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng
- Interview with the finalists
Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners and finalists here.