Seen It All and Done the Rest: A Novel

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9780345481122: Seen It All and Done the Rest: A Novel

For Josephine Evans, home was on the stages of the world where she spent thirty years establishing herself as one of the finest actresses of her generation. Josephine was the toast of Europe, and her fabulous apartment in Amsterdam’s theater district was a popular gathering place for an international community of artists, actors, and expatriates who considered themselves true citizens of the world. Josephine lived above and beyond the reach of conventional definitions of who and what an African American diva could be, and her legions of loyal fans loved her for it. She had a perfect life and enough sense to live it to the hilt, but then a war she didn’t fully understand turned everything upside down, thrusting her into a role she never wanted and was not prepared to play. Suddenly the target of angry protests aimed at the country she had never really felt was her own, Josephine is forced to return to America to see if she can create a new definition of home.

Camping out with her granddaughter, Zora, who is housesitting in Atlanta’s West End; and trying to avoid the unwanted attentions of Dig It!, the city’s brand-new gossip magazine, Josephine struggles to reclaim her old life even as she scrambles to shape her new one. Hoping her friend Howard Denmond is as good as his word when he promises to engineer her triumphant return to the European stage, Josephine sets out to increase her nest egg by selling the house her mother willed her, only to find the long-neglected property has become home to squatters who have no intention of leaving.

But an unexpected reunion with an old friend offers Josephine a chance to set things right. Spurning an offer from unscrupulous land developer Greer Woodruff, Josephine gathers new friends around her, including Victor Causey, a lawyer whose addictions left him homeless but still determined to protect his mother; Louie Baptiste, a displaced New Orleans chef hoping to return to the city he loves; and Aretha Hargrove, recovering from her role in the same scandal that sent Zora running for cover. As Greer gets serious about her plan to tear the community apart, Josephine finds herself playing the most important role of her life, showing her neighbors what courage really is and learning the true meaning of coming home.

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About the Author:

Pearl Cleage is the author of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day . . . , an Oprah’s Book Club selection; Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, a Good Morning America Read This! book club pick; Babylon Sisters, for which she was named the 2006 Go On Girl! Book Club Author of the Year; and Baby Brother’s Blues, winner of the 2006 NAACP Image Award and the African American Literary Award for fiction. She is the author of two works of nonfiction: Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth and Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot; as well as the poem We Speak Your Names. She is also an accomplished dramatist whose plays include Flyin’ West and Blues for an Alabama Sky. Cleage lives in Atlanta with her husband, Zaron W. Burnett, Jr.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

We were already on our second round of drinks, and Howard had shown no sign of calming down. In fact, I think his indignation was rising along with his voice. At least we were sitting outside. That way the noise floated up and away rather than bouncing off the walls and driving the other patrons crazy. The International Sky Café has a nice little patio where you can drink and smoke unmolested and that’s where we had been encamped for the last hour and a half, almost two. The outdoor seating promised that the pungent smell of world-class ganja would gently surround anyone passing by, and practically guaranteed a contact high if you lingered. Marijuana and hashish are legal in Amsterdam, and it is not uncommon to see people sitting in outdoor cafés, reading newspapers and having a little smoke with their morning coffee, but Howard and I weren’t smoking today. We were ordering champagne by the glass and trying to make sense of what had just happened. “I’ve been thrown out of places for being too black, too queer, too loud, too drunk, too hip, and too too, but I have never, ever been tossed out on my ass for being too American!” Howard was working himself up into a pretty good rant, but we were entitled. We had been asked to leave the funeral of an Iraqi director who had been a close friend and collaborator of ours for years. The problem was that Halima’s relatives were there from Baghdad and the war wasn’t just a blurb on the six o’clock news to them. It was real. Even though she died in a boating accident, nowhere near a war zone, her family was still outraged at the presence of Americans, any Americans, soldiers or not. “It wasn’t a question of degrees, Howard,” I said. “It was a question of citizenship. They were pretty clear about that. No Americans. Period.”

Thirty years ago, our pain at the loss of our friend and our general sorrow about the fucked-up state of the world around us might have spun us into a long afternoon of passionate, awkward, just need to feel alive sex, ending in a good long cuddle, maybe a nap, and an evening out laughing too loud, drinking too much, and not giving a damn. The fact of Howard being unapologetically gay would not have been part of the equation. At those times, it wasn’t about gender. It wasn’t really about sex. It was about comfort, connection, and an unequivocal affirmation of life. This happened frequently when too many of my friends were dying of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Being a practical sort, even in the midst of panic and confusion, I learned to put my diaphragm in and pack condoms before funerals, just in case.

Howard was still fussing. “I’ll tell you one thing, missy, this is my first and last time being tossed out of somewhere for being an American. An American! Can you believe that?”

His voice rang with equal parts incredulity and indignation. The very idea that he, Howard William Denmond, Jr., born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, could be mistaken for a first-class American citizen was beyond the scope of Howard’s experience or comprehension. We were black Americans, after all, not the other kind, and we were not used to being held accountable for their sins.
“So I look like John Wayne to you?” Howard was on a roll. “Can’t they see that we’re niggas?”

We spend so much time defining ourselves as outsiders when we do get invited to the party, sometimes we can’t remember why we even wanted to go. I raised my eyebrows at him.

“Oh, excuse me, missy. We’re Negroes, okay? African Americans! Jigaboos! Take your pick! All I’m saying is, we’re not real Americans!”

It suddenly occurred to me that in all the confusion, I hadn’t had a chance to share my other bad news. It never rains but it pours.

“Try telling that to François,” I said.

“What are you talking about? François knows it. He’s been around black folks so long he’s practically an honorary spook himself. If it wasn’t for that damn accent, we could pass him off as a Louisiana Creole and nobody would be the wiser.”

“He fired me.”

Howard was waggling his long, slender fingers at the waiter to indicate we were ready for another round. My words didn’t register at first.

“He what?”

The waiter, gliding between the tables like a dreadlocked Fred Astaire, nodded to acknowledge Howard’s gesture and disappeared.

“Fired me,” I said, draining the last of my champagne in preparation for another. When I turned fifty, I decided that the only alcoholic beverage I would consume would be champagne. Now I can spend all that time I used to waste looking at the wine list looking for a new job.

Howard frowned at me across the tiny table. “He can’t fire you!”

“Well, he took me into his office, closed the door, took my hand, and told me the board didn’t want me to open the season. What would you call it?”

“The board?” Howard snorted derisively. “That’s absurd! Beyond absurd! Since when does the board make artistic decisions? They wouldn’t even have a theater if it wasn’t for you! And François would still be directing those wretched little pieces he used to do in that awful space by the train station.”

It was an awful space, and most of the work that was presented there was distinguished by its passionate intensity, not its artistic excellence.

“I did some good work there.”

Exactly! You did! Not François and the rest of that crowd. You!

Howard snapped his fingers for emphasis as the waiter appeared with our drinks, scooped up our empties, and then stopped to peer at me quizzically. I knew that look. He just realized that he’d seen me in a movie, or at a film festival, or on a stage somewhere. The idea that I could have stopped in to have a few too many glasses of champagne in the café where he happened to be working was not something he had ever considered. In New York or L.A., I could walk down the street stark naked and not get the time of day, but here in Amsterdam, or London, or Paris, even Rome on a good day, I’m a recognizable face if not a household name.

“You are a bona fide star, missy. What possible reason could he give for firing you?” Howard said, not even noticing the waiter.

“Would you believe for being an American?”

Howard choked on his drink and started coughing like a maniac.

“Excuse me,” the waiter said, seeing his break and jumping in before Howard could catch his breath.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry, but . . .” The waiter was ignoring the presence of other thirsty customers as if we were alone in the room. “But are you...are you Josephine Evans? The actress?”

As opposed to Josephine Evans the pig farmer. I nodded, smiled, reached out to shake his free hand. “Yes, I am.”

“Thank you,” he said, his eyes filling up with tears. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Well, you’re very welcome,” I said, wondering what I had done to deserve such unabashed adoration.

Howard, fully recovered, was grinning at me like the Cheshire cat. “So you know Ms. Evans’s work?”

The waiter nodded. “Oh,yes! I’ve seen every play you’ve done since 1992. You’re the reason I became an actor.”

An actor-slash-waiter, I thought. “How old were you in 1992?” He looked like he was barely old enough now to be legally serving us drinks.

“I was ten,” he said, sounding breathless and amazed. “We were in a play together.”

That could mean only one thing. The only play I’ve ever done with children was Medea and I got to kill them at the end. A lot of actors will tell you never to work with kids or animals because they’re too cute or too fidgety, and in either case, you can’t compete. I thought that was good advice the first time I heard it and I still do, but the kids are on stage for only a minute or two in Medea, and she’s so wonderfully crazed by then, there is no way any kid, even a seriously cute or terminally twitchy one, can compete with that.

Medea, right?”

He nodded.

“Were you my son?”

“Yes!”He almost gasped in his delight.“I was the older one.The one she stabs first. I can’t believe you remember me after all these years.”

“She never forgets a line or a face,” Howard said, reaching in his pocket for a pen and a piece of paper which he slid across the table to me. He knew the drill. Smile, acknowledge, autograph, say goodbye.

“Well, my son, you grew up nice,” I said, teasing him gently, pen poised above the scrap Howard had provided. “Would you like an autograph?”

“Oh, would you mind?” he said, still ignoring the increasingly impatient people nearby, hoping to catch his eye for a refill.

“What’s your name?” I said, unprepared for the crestfallen look my question elicited. Oh, my God, I thought. This sweet baby actually thinks I remember his name after fifteen years!

I twinkled at him in a way that once would have been flirtatious but, since I’m old enough to be his mother, was only sweetly conspiratorial. “You know how we theater people are,” I said a...

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