Leaving Atlanta
By Tayari Jones
Published by Warner Books 
August 2002; 0-446-52830-7; 272 pages

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Leaving Atlanta by Tayari JonesFrom PART 1
Magic Words

Hard, ugly, summer-vacation-spoiling rain fell for three straight months in 1979. Atlanta downpours destroyed hopscotch markers carefully chalked onto asphalt and stole the bounce from yellow tennis balls forgotten in backyards. On the few days the rain didn't fall, children scurried to play 1-2-3 Redlight under low-hanging gray clouds. Red Georgia clay clung to inexpensive canvas sneakers and the kids tracked it into light-carpeted living rooms. Mothers slapped their narrow behinds with leather belts before dabbing at the marked floors with wet rags, worrying about the expense of carpet cleaners or loss of deposits. When the rain fell, it did so to an accompaniment of growling thunder and purple zigzag lightning. Bored kids were told to sit still. Be quiet. God is talking. The children listened to the water smack against the windowpanes and figured that God's message must not have been meant for them to understand.

But on the first day of school, the students at Oglethorpe Elementary did not sweat inside yellow plastic jackets or carry umbrellas. The eight-AM sun winked as they tromped on broken sidewalks with brightly colored book satchels and lunch boxes. The unfamiliar light turned the girls' plastic barrettes into prisms, casting rainbows on their cheeks. Everybody wished the sun had come out the day before, when they had been free to chase the ice-cream man. But this, they kept to themselves.

Perhaps someone said under her breath, but still out loud, Why the sun had to come out today when we got to go to school? And maybe God heard. For although fifth-graders couldn't understand God's language, no one doubted that He knew theirs.

By recess, the sky was as gray as it had been the day before, but the fifth-graders went outside anyway. Although they had looked forward to moving to the trailers recently added to the rear of the old school building, and standing apart from the lower grades, the windowless metal room was claustrophobic and cheerless, foiling the bright bulletin boards' attempts to welcome them back. At noon, the children stampeded out to the damp playground, but LaTasha Renee Baxter was the last to leave the trailer, carrying the heavy jump rope that had been coiled since school let out last June.

 

 

Jumping rope had been the proving ground for girls as long as she could remember, and for equally as long, Tasha had been embarrassingly incompetent. This was fifth grade, the last year of grade school; next year she would go to Southwest Middle School, which was closer to her house. Her parents had chosen Oglethorpe Elementary School because it was near her mother's work, which was good when Tasha was little. Mama could get to the school in less than five minutes if need be. But now that Tasha was getting to be a young lady, Mama and Daddy thought that it would be better for her to be on her own side of town, rather than across the street from the projects.

Because this year would be her last chance to make a place for herself among the girls in her class, Tasha had devoted most of the vacation to improving her rope-jumping technique. Because of the summer's inclement weather, she had practiced in her basement, tying one end of the rope to a wooden chair and forcing her eight-year-old sister, De-Shaun, to turn the other end. Tasha had worked on all the skipping rhymes. She was best at "Ice Cream" and could get very near the end of the alphabet before losing her footing. But she had decided already that she would deliberately falter at "P" since there was no boy in her class whose name began with that initial.

After untangling the rope, she held one end in her hand and waited for someone else to grab the other, but no one did.

"Y'all don't want to jump?" she asked.

A small kneesocked cluster of girls shrugged in unison and looked toward Monica Fisher, the best rope skipper ever seen in Georgia. She had been born in Chicago where the girls skipped two ropes at once and chanted rhymes that sometimes included cuss words.

"Nah," said Monica. "I don't have time for that baby stuff. Y'all going to make me sweat out my hair." She stroked her straightened page boy, pulled off her face with a wide headband. Tasha noticed horizontal imprints where rollers had been fastened.

Tasha dropped the rope as if it were hot. She had washed her hair for the first day of school, but Mama had not subjected her to the torture of a pressing comb. Now she was unprepared. "That's alright," Tasha said. "I didn't really want to jump. There's just not nothing else to do."

"Look at her just lying," said Forsythia Collier, Monica's best friend. Forsythia's hair was also pressed, and her oily ringlets coiled all the way to her shoulders. "She probably practiced all summer."

Monica laughed a little louder than was appropriate and continued her cackle until the other girls joined her.

Tasha decided to laugh too. Didn't Mama tell her that a person needed to be able to laugh at herself? And besides, she didn't want to start a feud with Monica and Forsythia.

Then the rain started and Tasha was relieved, although she groaned along with everyone else as they ran toward the tin box that was their classroom this year. She even cried out, "My hair!" although her tight cornrows were impervious to climate.

Inside the trailer, the noise of the rain on the roof rose into magnificent crescendos with the wind. "Let's play jacks," Tasha shouted over the weather.

"Okay," Monica said.

Tasha turned her head to hide her smile as she reached into her book bag for the purple felt sack that held twenty jacks and a purple rubber ball. Jumping rope wasn't the only thing she had practiced over the summer.

The girls made a clearing by pushing all of the desk chairs over to one corner. Most of the boys argued over comic books under the supervision of their new teacher, Mr. Harrell. Tasha sat cross-legged on the floor across from Monica while her classmates breathed over them with gumball breath. "Anybody else want to play? Up to five can play jacks."

"No," Monica said. "Let's just let it be us."

"Okay," Tasha said, tossing the tiny pieces of metal.

Tasha won, as she had planned to, but she meant to quit before whipping Monica's siditty tail. But she couldn't make herself stop showboating, demonstrating all the techniques she had perfected over the long, wet summer vacation. She even knew maneuvers that none of them had seen before, things Tasha's mother learned as a kid in Oklahoma. Midwestern jacks had an entirely different flavor.

The girls clapped when Tasha perfectly executed an around-the-world with double bounce and tap. Even a few boys came over and watched.

"Dang," Roderick Palmer, the cutest boy in class, said behind his hand. "She killing Monica."

Tasha couldn't resist saying, "Wanna play again?" although it was clear that Monica had had enough.

Monica heaved herself from the floor and crossed her arms over her chest, hiding the outline of her training bra. "That's alright." She dusted off her pants with sharp whacks. "I just let you win because my mother told me that everyone is supposed to be nice to you because your parents are getting separated and everything."

"Uh-uh," Tasha clarified. "They're not separated . They're living apart right now. It's different." She paused for a minute, trying to explain what was different about her household and Monica's, or that of any of the other kids who didn't have a father anymore. She still had her daddy. He called her on the telephone almost every night and picked her up from ballet lessons on Tuesdays. Separated was different, harsher. Almost as bad as divorce. And not once had her parents used that word.

Monica laughed and touched Forsythia with her pointed elbow, soliciting a complicit chuckle.

"It's just for a little while," Tasha insisted. A warmth spread from her chest up to her face as she gathered the jacks. "So," she shouted at Monica's back, "my mother says your parents live outside their means!"No one watching responded to Tasha's comeback. Monica, who had taken a sudden interest in the boys' comic book wars, didn't even turn around. Only Rodney Green, the weirdest kid in class, seemed to ponder her remark. With his face extended by two cheeks full of bubble gum, he studied her with scrunched brows behind his glasses, until Tasha felt uncomfortable and turned away.

She went to the girls' room, sat in a stall, and rested her humiliation in the palms of her hands. Closing her eyes hard to stifle tears the way pressing down on a cut stops bleeding, Tasha felt dumb as a rock.

Two weeks earlier, Daddy had moved out. Tasha wasn't so dumb that she didn't realize this was trouble. At first, when he and Mama came to tell her, Tasha thought they were going to tell her they were having another baby. That was what happened to Tayari Jones just last year. Tayari told everyone in class that her parents had come into her room smiling and holding hands and 'just like that' told her that there would be a new baby in the house in August. So what was Tasha to think when Mama and Daddy knocked softly on her bedroom door and silently stepped over the clutter, holding hands? They never held hands or really touched each other, except a quick smack on the lips on each other's birthdays. Thank you,baby. Then the kiss.

And true enough, they hadn't been smiling like Tayari's parents. Mama held Daddy's hand tight so that her knuckles stood out and her face had worn a sorry, stretched look, like her chin was too heavy and was pulling her round face into a sad oval.

But Tasha figured this was an appropriate precursor to news about an impending baby. Where in the world were they going to put it? In the guest room? It didn't seem fair that a baby should have a room to itself while she had to share with DeShaun. And if the guest room was to be full of baby, then where would Nana stay when she came to visit from Birmingham? She knew Mama and Daddy weren't going to suggest putting it in here with her and DeShaun. There was not enough room for their two canopy beds and a crib.

"What?" Tasha said, looking at Mama's abdomen.

Daddy pulled his hand from Mama's and touched Tasha's face. "Wait till DeShaun gets here."

Tasha climbed onto her bed and hugged her knees. This was serious. Twins? Oh, Jesus. (She could take the Lord's name in vain all she wanted to as long as she didn't do it out loud.) One little sister was more than enough, really. She could imagine twins in identical prams. People would be saying how precious they were and how cute. It would be like being the only regular girl in a class full of pretty people. She got enough of that feeling at school already; having it at home would be unbearable.

Tasha wished she had X-ray vision so she could look right in Mama's stomach and see what was going on under the brown blouse tucked into the waistband of her tan slacks. Her stomach poked out a little bit, but not any more than anyone else's mother's did. Or did it? Mama ran her hand across her front, flattening the pleats.

There was the sound of a toilet flushing and DeShaun came in.

"What?" the little girl said, looking from her parents to her older sister and back.

"We been waiting for you so we can find out," Tasha said.

"I was using the bathroom," DeShaun whined.

"Tasha," Mama said, "don't snap at her like that."

"All I said was?"

Daddy cleared his throat. "Delores." He took Mama's hand again, but she didn't wrap her fingers around his. He let go to touch the sisters on the crown of their heads. His fingernails were neat rectangles against their dark hair.

"Girls," he said, "I love you very much."

Especially DeShaun, Tasha thought. She could remember the time before DeShaun was born. Mama said she couldn't possibly since they were only twenty-three months apart, but Tasha did remember and she knew that people used to love her more back then. What would life be like after the twins? She turned her face toward the wall and Daddy gently twisted her head so she had to look at his sober and unhappy brown face.

"And I love your mother too."He turned toward Mama, who seemed to be studying her knees. "But your mother and I think that it is best if we live apart right now."

Tasha looked up at him quickly. There was no baby?

"For a while," he said, looking at Tasha before turning to look at Mama.

"For a while," Mama echoed. "Just to see how things work."

"Okay," Tasha said fast. Relieved.

Her little sister DeShaun pulled a piece of loose skin from her wobbly bottom lip.

Now, Tasha felt stupid. Monica was right. Tasha was immature. And Daddy was in the wrong too. He should have said, Tasha, DeShaun, your mother and I have been playing with matches and your whole life is on fire.

After school that first day, Tasha did not wipe her feet before coming into the house. After leaving her wet umbrella on the carpet, she tramped into the kitchen leaving mad, muddy, size-six prints on the floors. She drank juice from three different glasses and didn't rinse a single one out. Frustrated, she flopped onto the couch and put her feet up on it.

"You're not supposed to put your feet up on that sofa," DeShaun reminded her.

Ignoring her little sister, Tasha placed her glass on the coffee table without a coaster. "Did you know Mama and Daddy were separated?" she asked.

DeShaun bit down on a carrot stick. "What's that?"

Tasha searched her mind. "It's the same thing as divorce."

"I don't know what that is either."

"Divorce is when the parents aren't together anymore. When the dad lives someplace else."

"I already know that Daddy is living someplace else." DeShaun looked confused. "You know that too, right?"

"Yeah, I know that much."Tasha was insulted. "I'm asking you if you knew they were separated."

"And I said what's that," DeShaun protested.

Separated was kids who only had a mother to come and hear them say a poem on Black History Day. Or the ones who had stepfathers that they called by their first names. Ayana McWhorter, Tasha's best friend, had one named Rex who didn't like Ayana or any of her friends. He was young, according to Mama, clicking her tongue against the back of her teeth, but Tasha couldn't see it. Rex was tall and thin with a narrow scar on the side of his face, which he tried to hide with a thick beard. (Unkempt, according to Mama.) Tasha wouldn't have noticed the scar at all if Ayana hadn't pointed it out: That's where someone tried to kill him. After that, Ayana always came over to Tasha's house to play because Tasha didn't like going over to her house and Mama didn't think much of the idea either. Last June, when Ayana had spent the afternoon, Mama had pulled them out from in front of the TV and spread construction paper out on the kitchen table.

"You girls need to do something productive," Mama said, putting down newspaper to protect the floor. "Since Father's Day is right around the corner, you all can make cards."

Tasha thought that it was a good idea. She loved arts and crafts.

"I'm not making a card for Rex," Ayana said, loud as back talk.

Tasha looked at Mama, expecting her to be mad, but Mama only touched the girl softly on the back of her neck.

"You can make a card for anyone. Your granddaddy, or an uncle."

"I don't want to make a card for anyone," Ayana murmured.

"Okay, you can just draw a picture."

Ayana didn't draw a picture. Instead she ate paste and then threw up all over the table, ruining the paper Tasha had neatly folded and glittered.

Mama had put a cold towel on Ayana's forehead and made soft clicks with her tongue.

Separated was regurgitated glue and sour spangles.

Tasha went to her room to wait for Mama to come home.

"LaTasha Renee Baxter," Mama bellowed. "Come down here right now."

When Tasha got down to the kitchen, DeShaun was pleading innocent.

"I had some juice, but I rinsed out my cup and put it right here in the dishwasher. And those aren't my footprints neither. My feet are littler than that; see?" She put her foot beside one of the dirty marks.

Mama, satisfied with the evidence, waved DeShaun into the other room.

"You are really trying my patience today," she started. She had taken off her high-heeled shoes and was gesturing with them. "What is your problem, Miss Lady?" She aimed the pointed toe of her pump at the empty juice glasses and the dirty floor. "I just mopped this floor last night. There is a mat?" She realized that Tasha was not paying attention. "Look at me when I talk to you."

Tasha raised her eyes to her mother's face. She tried to talk with her teeth closed like grown ladies did when they were really mad. "You didn't tell me you were separated."

Mama was caught off guard. Tasha could tell. "What?"

"Monica said that her mother told her that you were separated. You didn't tell that to me."

Mama sat down heavily in one of the wooden kitchen chairs and patted the one beside her.

"I don't want to sit down." She could hear her heart beating in the sides of her head.

"Tasha, Daddy and I told you and Shaun both that we would be living apart."

"But you didn't say separated!" Tasha had never raised her voice at an adult before.

Mama's face changed and Tasha ran, frightened, to her room and shut the door.

Half an hour later, Mama's voice climbed the stairs. "Dinner's on the table!" Tasha didn't answer and no one came upstairs to see about her.

The sounds of silverware clicking against plates she could endure, but the whirring of the blender made her put her face into her pillow and scream; Mama and DeShaun were downstairs enjoying milkshakes. Last week, DeShaun had refused her cabbage and Mama had coaxed her into eating it. Just one little bite. It was such a big deal that DeShaun might not get all her vitamins but no one cared if Tasha went to bed without any dinner at all.

She dug around in her closet until she came up with a small package of peanuts that Nana had given her from the airplane and a stale marshmallow egg left over from last year's Easter basket. She swallowed with great difficulty, choking on salty sadness and thirst.

I will not eat with them again, she promised herself. They can have milkshakes from now until kingdom come and I will not even eat one bite.

For two days Tasha kept her word. She ate ravenously at lunchtime and spirited away granola bars under her bed to tide her through the evenings. She chewed each bite slowly, trying to make it last.

"Tasha will eat when she gets hungry," Mama said into the telephone. "She's not going to sit up in that room and starve to death." She was quiet. "That's easy for you to say . . . Um-hum. Hold on." She hollered up the stairs. "Tasha, pick up the phone."

She went into her parents' room. "Hello."

"Hey, Ladybug." Daddy's voice was dark and smooth like a melted crayon.

She wanted to cry. "Hey, Daddy," she whispered.

"Your mother says you don't have much of an appetite."

"I'm not hungry."

"She's really worried about you. Why don't you just eat a little something so she won't have to worry."

"She's not worried about me."

"Don't say that," he said. "Your mother loves you."

"She don't act like it."

"What?"

"Nothing."

"So are you going to eat?" The timbre of his voice masked an undercurrent of pleading, as if her refusal to eat dinner made an adult difference.

"Yeah," Tasha said. She couldn't bring herself to disappoint or disobey him.

But she couldn't bring herself to eat dinner at the table set for only three.

The next day, Mama stopped ignoring her.

"Tasha, come down here and eat." She accented each angry syllable with a tap on the banister with a spatula.

"I'm not hungry,"Tasha yelled through her closed door.

"Well just come down and sit at the table."

"I don't feel well."

"You looked pretty healthy ten minutes ago."

Tasha didn't answer. At the sound of Mama's feet tiredly coming up the stairs, she kicked off her shoes without undoing the buckles and sprawled across the bed, hoping to appear at least a little queasy. Mama came in, disregarding the handmade signs ordering PLEASE KNOCK and ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

"Tasha,"Mama said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I'm tired. Come down and eat. I know you miss your daddy, but a hunger strike is not going to solve anything." She searched Tasha's face for a smile. "Come on, Tash, get up. I fixed cheese-dreams just for you."

Tasha sat up on her elbows, looking at her mother with a quizzical half turn of her head. Mama was blinking her eyes about a million miles an hour, like DeShaun did when she was about to cry. Tasha lowered her brows and pursed her lips. What was going on here? Was all of this an elaborate ploy just to get her to eat?

"Don't you want cheese-dreams? "Mama put her elbows on her thighs and leaned her face against her hand. The softness of her cheek bulged brown and gentle through the cracks between her fingers. Shutting her eyes, she said, "Don't you want cheese-dreams?"

Tasha heard it, a subtle change in pitch, the precursor to tears. She wanted to put her shoulder against whatever door was threatening to open and press hard. She wished she could put her finger in the hole like the Little Dutch Boy and save what was left of her life from the flood.

"I didn't know you made cheese-dreams," Tasha said, hoping to make it seem like her refusal to eat had been a standoff over menu. She started toward the door, more spry than she felt, refusing to look at her overtired mother still sitting on the bed in her work-crumpled blouse and skirt.

"Come here," Mama said softly.

Tasha stopped walking but she didn't turn around; she didn't want to see.

"Give me a hug," Mama said.

Tasha could hear her exhausted misery. Turning on the balls of her feet, she moved toward her mother's unsteady voice. Mama's hug held a desperate fierceness that Tasha had not felt since she had narrowly missed being hit by a car four years earlier. Mama had gripped Tasha then in a melting embrace until she had felt herself disappear. She had been aware of the heavy pressure of Mama's lips on the part between her braids, her forehead, each of her cheeks, and her quivering lips; then she knew nothing but the outdoor smell of pine and Mama's neck.

Mama squeezed Tasha today with the same famished affection. She felt, this time, the intensity of grown folks' emotion and gasped with the heat of it. The hug lasted several unendurable moments more before Mama released her.

"Let's eat," she said.

Tasha and DeShaun sat at the table, staring at each other with curiosity. Having cheese-dreams itself was odd enough. Mama had declared more than once that grilled cheese sandwiches made with French toast and smothered in raspberry syrup was not a balanced meal. On the rare occasion that she would consent to serving this treat, the girls were forced to eat a green salad first. But today, not only were they not required to choke down anything leafy, but they evidently were going to be allowed to ration their own syrup. Tasha poured a generous dollop on the center of the sandwich. It rolled down the sides of the bread. No response from Mama. She squeezed the bottle, releasing another raspberry globule. No response. She squeezed a little more. Then she realized that she had no idea how much raspberry syrup was enough. She didn't stop pouring until the design on the plate was concealed and DeShaun was begging, "Give me it!"

Tasha carefully cut a triangular section of the cheesedream and popped it into her mouth. She was overwhelmed by sugar and a faint food-color bitterness. Mama looked at her daughters, struggling with too much of a good thing, and laughed.

Her laugh was clean but heavy. The power of it shook her bosom, bouncing the gold locket around her neck. Tasha laughed too, although her favorite meal was all but ruined, drowning in sweetness. DeShaun giggled too.

Mama rescued the sandwiches from their gooey beds and set them on clean saucers. Putting them down in front of the girls, she said, "I do believe that we are going to be alright."

Copyright 2002 Tayari Jones
Reprinted with permission.
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Synopsis

Beautifully evocative and written by a distinctive new voice in fiction, this novel is a unique literary event: a portrait of one of the darkest—and most overlooked—tragedies in American history, told through the voices of three unforgettable children...

It was the end of summer, a summer during a two-year nightmare. African American children around Atlanta were vanishing, and twenty-nine would be murdered by the end of 1981. Like all kids across the city, fifth-grade classmates Tasha Baxter, Rodney Green, and Octavia Harrison were discovering that back-to-school now meant special safety lessons, indoor recess, and being thrown into a world their parents couldn't comprehend, one in which the everyday challenges of growing up were coupled with constant fear—and the news of the murders of one's peers.

Tasha can't understand why she daily falls in and out of favor with her classmates—she isn't weird like Rodney or "too dark" and outspoken like Octavia. Then, through a sudden crush on a boy from the wrong side of town, she finds that words have the power to both heal and wound. (The next thought was that Tasha herself had brought it upon him with her hateful words. "I hope the man snatches you." And she meant it when she said it.)

For her classmate Rodney, almost everything feels wrong. Not tough enough to be loved by his strict father, too different to be accepted at school, he struggles to fit in somewhere. How far will he go to escape his bleak inner landscape? (Nothing you know is in the direction you're heading. Home is the other way.) And Rodney's "almost friend" Octavia, the loner the kids call "the Watusi," who lives near the projects, will discover that she, too, has something left to lose. (I cried because it seemed like everything good in the world was locked in a box. "Mama, let me stay.")

Movingly detailed and quietly heartbreaking, LEAVING ATLANTA shimmers with the piercing, ineffable quality of childhood. It is the hurts and little wins we all went through, the slow and all-too-sudden changes, and the forces that swept us into adulthood and forever shaped our lives.

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Author

Tayari JonesTayari Jones was born in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, and she spent most of her formative years in Atlanta. Jones attended Spelman College as an undergraduate, then went on to the University of Iowa to earn her Masters degree. After serving as a remedial reading teacher in Prairie View, Texas, Jones decided to pursue her writing. Then, while attending a conference in Portland, she ran into one of her favorite authors, Jewell Parker Rhodes , who offered Jones the opportunity to study creative writing under her tutelage at Arizona State University.

Three years later, Jones is celebrating the publication of her first novel, Leaving Atlanta. Jones received First Prize in the Hurston/Wright Award for 2000, a prestigious national literary competition. She also received the Robert C. Martindale Award for fiction, the Arizona Council for the Arts Artist Fellowship, and the LEF Foundation Prize.

She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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