I'm Telling: A Novel

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9780743214353: I'm Telling: A Novel
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An engaged literary agent finds her relationship with her twin sister threatened by the secret that her twin and stepfather had consensual sexual relations.

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About the Author:

Karen E. Quinones Miller is the author of the Essence bestselling novel Satin Doll. She lives in Philadelphia with her daughter, Camille.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Shit!" Faith stumbled back from the greasy cabinet door as a large mouse scurried from behind the two-pound box of Uncle Ben's rice for which she had been reaching.

"What did you say?"

"Nothing, Mommy," Faith hollered from the kitchen into her mother's bedroom. The rice was unopened, but she inspected the packaging carefully to see if it had been assaulted by the fleeing mouse. It hadn't.

"Yes you did. I heard you say something," came Miss Irene's teasing reply. "And don't you be cursing in my house. You may be thirty and a hotshot literary agent, but I'm still your mother, and I can still get up off this bed and put a foot in your behind."

"Twenty-nine, Mommy."

"What?"

"Nothing."

"What did you say?"

"Nothing," Faith hollered again.

"Yes you did. I heard what you said. I'm your mother and I know how old you are. You're thirty years old. I don't know why you have to keep lying about your age," Miss Irene hollered, before bursting into laughter.

Faith grunted and looked around the tiny kitchen for something to wipe her hands with. She picked up a hand towel that was thrown over the back of a rickety wooden chair, but threw it back down when she realized it had large, black mildew spots on it and smelled. Ugh.

She used to come over and clean up for Mommy, but gave up when she realized that Mommy didn't care one way or the other and that the house would be back to its same nasty state in a matter of days. Faith once thought that Mommy had had a nervous breakdown a few years back and somehow this accounted for her wanting to live in utter filth. The house was never like this before Papa left Mommy for a younger woman. Faith even once suggested that Mommy see a psychologist, but her mother flew into a rage. It had to be some kind of neurosis; no normal person could actually want to live in a pigsty -- especially someone who prided herself on her personal appearance, like Mommy did. What was even more amazing was that Mommy's sometimes live-in boyfriend, Ronald, didn't seem to care about the filthy conditions either. But then he didn't seem to care about much besides figuring out where he was going to get his next drink. He seldom made it home before the bars closed.

Faith gave up and wiped her hands on the back of her olive green wool skirt. Thank goodness she hadn't worn anything fancy, although she still wished she had thought to bring an apron to cover the skirt and light-green knit turtleneck sweater. Mommy always said she and Hope should avoid green -- that the color was unflattering to their skin tone. She had listened when she was younger, but discarded the fashion advice in her late teens after her boyfriend -- Henry -- bought her a fabulous green suede coat with a golden lambskin collar. It was the first of many expensive gifts he lavished on her over the years. The coat was a size twelve, and she was a size ten at the time, but she didn't care. Now, ten years later, the coat (which had long since been donated to The Salvation Army) would perfectly fit her mature body. At five feet four inches and 140 pounds, with breasts so firm she seldom wore a bra, Faith had a small waist and a big butt that drove men wild. She loved buying clothes now as much as she had as a teenager, and with her growing business as a literary agent she could well afford the expense. But she still enjoyed getting lavish gifts, and Henry still enjoyed giving them. She pushed her auburn, shoulder-length hair out of her face and licked her full lips as she thought about the floor-length golden beaver coat that Henry had bought her the day before. She had thanked him properly that night and looked forward to thanking him again when he returned from Chicago in a few days.

God, I hope they finish this deal soon, she thought. Being an investment banker, Henry had to frequently take trips to evaluate the financial stability of companies that his firm was considering investing in. He'd been traveling back and forth to Chicago for the last month or so, to assess a small publishing company that in two years had managed to put out four books later grabbed up by larger publishing houses and turned into New York Times best-sellers. It was one of the few times when Henry's line of work and Faith's actually intertwined.

She turned down the flame under the heavy metal saucepan and threw in a handful of diced onions and bell peppers, which sizzled noisily in the hot olive oil. She reached inside the counter drawer, ignoring the sprinkling of brown roach eggs, pulled out a can opener, and opened a can of tomato sauce to add to the oil and vegetable mixture. Then she added two tablespoons of salt, a dash of black pepper, garlic powder, and oregano -- and the kitchen began to fill with a spicy aroma. She searched briefly for a measuring cup, then finally gave up and went to the sink full of dirty dishes and washed a Skippy peanut butter jar. She filled it with Uncle Ben's rice and dumped it into the saucepan, followed by two peanut butter jars of water. She covered the saucepan, wiped her hands on her skirt once again, and headed out of the makeshift kitchen and into her mother's adjoining bedroom.

The whole house had at one point been converted into kitchenettes or efficiency apartments, as had so many brownstones in Harlem during the Great Depression, when people needed cheap rental space to live and homeowners needed extra money to pay their mortgages. Mommy rented out the second and third floors of the brownstone and kept the basement level and most of the first floor for herself -- and whichever one of her kids needed a place to stay at the time. At the moment that was Hope, since Allen had moved in with his girlfriend the year before and Johnny was still in the army. Faith had been the first of the children to leave the house, departing at age sixteen because of her hatred for Papa. She didn't even return for visits until after he moved to Brooklyn with his new woman, who was one-third his age.

The basement level had a full kitchen and two bedrooms. The first floor once contained an enormous parlor, a small coat room, a dining room, and a small bathroom. Miss Irene, though, turned the parlor into a bedroom that she sometimes rented out, converted the coatroom into a tiny kitchen, and turned the dining room into a combination bedroom and living room for herself. Pushed to the left corner of the large room was an ashwood captain's bed, from which the four-hundred-pound Miss Irene seldom strayed. Next to the bed was a badly chipped mahogany night table, upon which sat a brand-new 32-inch color television and VCR. In front of the television was an aluminum folding chair, reserved for anyone who stopped by to say hello. In the middle of the room sat a rickety brown couch with urine-stained cushions that one of the tenants had dragged in from the street. A sagging triple dresser and chest of drawers hugged the wall, along with a computer desk that was covered with old papers, but no computer. The computer Faith had bought her mother a few months before had been stolen by one of the tenants, which really didn't matter since her mother had never used the thing.

"Mom, I'm going to have to make you a steak instead of pork chops." Faith pushed aside the dirty laundry, including smelly underwear that had been thrown on a raggedy armchair -- once gold, but now brown with dirt and age -- and sat down.

"Why's that?" Miss Irene, clad in a gray housedress, size fifty-two, lay on her side, her salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into a bun and her brown-rimmed glasses perched on her nose. People meeting her for the first time would always say, "She's so pretty to be so big." She had golden brown skin, with large slanted eyes, and a light smattering of freckles around her nose. Her hands were small and dainty, like those of a young child. Her nails were always meticulously manicured and polished.

"Why can't you make my pork chops?" Miss Irene asked again.

"No mustard," Faith replied, gearing up for an argument.

"But I had my mouth all fixed for your delicious pork chops," Miss Irene whined. "Can't you just run to the store real quick?"

"Mom, come on. It's pouring down rain outside, and it's freezing. Can't you just eat steak?" Faith whined back.

"Why do you need mustard for pork chops?"

Faith had forgotten the presence of Tina, also known as "Third Floor Front," after the space she occupied in the house. Faith didn't like the woman, whose face was sunken and skin an ashy gray. Like most of Mommy's tenants, Tina was a crackhead and was always coming up with excuses about her rent being late.

"It's a special way we fix them. We season them with vinegar, salt, black pepper, and garlic powder," Miss Irene explained to Tina, who sat on the aluminum chair facing Miss Irene's bed, "then we spread mustard on both sides, dip them into flour, and fry them."

"I've never heard of it. I guess it's good?"

Faith rolled her eyes. She knew what was coming next.

"It's delicious. You've got to try some," her mother answered, while enthusiastically licking her lips.

"Well, I tell you what, I'll run to the store for mustard if you make me one of those pork chops." Tina turned to Faith with a smile that revealed yellow teeth thickly covered with plaque.

"Nope." Faith looked Tina straight in the eye, daring her to say anything else, but Tina looked away and got up as if to leave the room.

"Faith, why do you always have to be so evil?" Miss Irene glared at her daughter before turning back to soothe her favorite tenant, who seemed to be near tears. "Tina, don't worry. I'll make you a pork chop myself if you'll run to the store for me."

Yeah right, Faith thought, but said nothing as she waited for Tina's reply.

"No, that's all right. I'm really not that hungry anyway," Tina said, as she wiped her runny nose with her coat sleeve. "But I'll go to the store for you anyway, Miss Irene. You're always so nice to me, it's the least I can do."

Faith rolled her eyes but said nothing. That's what the crackhead witch should have offered in the first place, she thought.

"Thank you, sweetie. Let me give you some money." Miss Irene sat up and reached for a white envelope that lay on the corner of the night table. She handed Tina a ten-dollar bill.

"I don't mean to be a bother, but could you hurry up? It smells like the rice is almost done." Miss Irene faced Tina as she spoke, but looked at Faith out of the corner of her eye.

Faith noticed the signal and obediently walked Tina through the kitchen to the front door.

"Now, you know if you don't come right back with my mother's change I'm going to kick your ass again, right?" Faith crossed her arms and stared after Tina, who hurried out the door in silence.

Faith had nearly reached her mother's bedroom when she heard the unlocked front door fly open. She whirled around, fists clenched, thinking that Tina had found some backbone.

"Hey beautiful!" Hope grabbed her around her neck, almost knocking her down with enthusiasm, and planted a big wet kiss full on her lips before Faith could get a word out. Faith shivered slightly from the cold rain on Hope's coat sleeves. "Long time no see, Baby Girl! Where you been hiding and stuff?"

"Nowhere, Baby Girl. And stop yelling!" Faith grinned as she always did when she saw her bubbly, energetic twin sister. They looked almost exactly alike, although Hope was just a shade lighter, which to enough people meant that Hope was the "pretty" twin. Faith noticed that Hope had also dropped a little more weight. She was getting downright skinny.

"I know, I know, I talk loud and stuff," Hope said with no apology in her voice as she grabbed Faith's hand and pulled her toward their mother's bedroom. "Anyway, whatchoo cooking? I can smell it all the way from outside."

"Is that what made you finally bring your butt home after two days?" Miss Irene looked at Hope and sucked her teeth. "The least you could have done was call and say you were okay."

"I know, I know, I'm inconsiderate and stuff. Whatchoo up to, Mom?" Hope leaned down and kissed her mother on the cheek. "Look what I bought ya," she said as she dipped her hand into her coat pocket.

"What's this?" Miss Irene smiled with delight as she turned over the small silver contraption in her hand.

"It's a tape recorder, Mommy! See, it takes little, tiny tapes," Hope said, pointing to a minuscule compartment on the front of the recorder.

"It's a micro-cassette recorder. I have one of those," Faith said with a laugh. "Hope, what is Mommy going to do with one of those?"

"I don't know. There was some guy selling it hot for five bucks on Malcolm X Boulevard, and it looked like something Mommy would like and stuff, so I bought it," Hope shrugged. "If she doesn't want it, you can have it, I guess."

"No, she's going to have to buy her own. This one's mine!" Miss Irene's eyes gleamed as she turned the small recorder in her hands over and over again.

"Like I said, I already got one. And y'all should both be ashamed of yourself buying hot items off the street." Faith sniffed the air, then ran into the kitchen. "Oh, shoot, I have to turn off the rice."

"Don't pay her any mind, sweetie, you know she's a snob. You just keep buying your Mommy these nice gifts," Miss Irene said as Hope sat in the aluminum chair and clicked on the television to watch music videos.

"No, you guys really should stop. You know darn well that the guy you bought that from probably stole it from someone. You're supporting theft," Faith said as she returned to the bedroom. She looked back and forth at the two of them -- Miss Irene still gushing over the tape recorder and Hope trying to look wide-eyed and innocent as if she really cared about what Faith was saying.

"Oh forget it," Faith said finally, plopping back down into the armchair.

"What did you tell Tina when you walked her to the door?" Miss Irene asked, finally putting the tape recorder down on the bed beside her.

"Just what you wanted me to tell her," Faith answered. "I told her she'd better get back here with your money quick or I was going to hurt her."

"Good. I wanted to make sure she didn't run off with my money."

"Baby Girl, you so mean," Hope said, though her eyes never left the television screen. Her favorite show, Wheel of Fortune, was on. "You know Tina is scared to death of you since you beat her up last time you were here."

"I only did it because of you and Mommy," Faith protested. "It's not like I care about that crackhead one way or the other."

"Well, she deserved it," Miss Irene said solemnly. "I know she was the one who took my twenty dollars out of the night table. And then for her to threaten Hope after she confronted her about it -- well, she needed someone to show her that she can't get away with treating people like that."

"But see, Mom," Faith leaned forward in the chair, "then you can't understand why I get upset when I come back and she's right up here in your face again."

"Well, you already taught her a lesson," Miss Irene said defe...

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