"A few years ago, I heard a story about a husband and father who simply disappeared," says author and journalist Anissa Gray, known for her buzzy debut, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, which was optioned for TV by Gabrielle Union. "The vanishing—and the questions it raised—reverberated through that family in some profound ways for generations. And I wondered: What would happen if the fate of a long-lost loved one was eventually revealed?"
Unsettling generational secrets drive Gray's upcoming novel Life and Other Love Songs, which tells the story of Oz, a husband and father that goes missing on his 37th birthday. His family triumphed over a difficult history: They fled the Jim Crow South and poverty, eventually achieving the American dream in segregated 1970s Detroit. But they risk losing it all when haunting hidden histories come to light.
In the exclusive excerpt below, "Oz's daughter, Trinity, is visiting with his mother, Pearl, on the first anniversary of Oz's disappearance," Gray says. "Trinity had a close and tender relationship with her father before he vanished. As the family tries to figure out exactly what happened to him and what comes next, no one is coping well. Trinity is looking for comfort in the one place she has always been able to find it: with a grandmother who is not characteristically grandmotherly."
Life and Other Love Songs will be out on April 4, 2023.
"Well, look who it is!" Pearl pulled me through the door and bear-hugged me in her all-encompassing way. Then she held me out at arm's length, like she hadn't seen me in years. "Wait, what're you doing here?" She waved the question away and looped her arm through mine. "Don't matter. It's good to see you. And look like you got here right on time to be of some use."
I raised an eyebrow.
"You'll see." I let her guide me down the hall. She stopped at the entrance to the living room.
"Samuel!" She called out to her boyfriend. Mr. Burton was sitting in his leather easy chair, the only piece of modern furniture in the room. The rest of the space was filled with fussy pieces from a more formal era, preserved under plastic. I was always tempted to tell her what an old lady thing that was to do, but I knew better. Pearl saw herself as a modern woman. And she acted like one too. She was the furthest thing from grandmotherly one could imagine. I didn't even call her Grandma, Gran or any derivative of grandmother. She'd always insisted on being called by her first name, Pearl.
"Look who's here!" Pearl said to Mr. Burton.
He looked up from his transistor radio, which he was always either listening to or tinkering with.
"Hi, Mr. Burton," I said, waving from the doorway.
"It's good to see you, Dear." He smiled, and his eyes crinkled behind his horn-rimmed glasses. He was the exact opposite of Pearl: Old, slow, stoic. He pointed to the single white earphone in his ear. "Trying to catch a game. You wanna listen?"
"Next time," I said, going over to kiss his cheek.
"All right, then." Mr. Burton patted my hand. "Have fun with my Pearl."
I followed Pearl down the hall. "You want some dinner? Made pork chops and we got a couple left over in there." She pointed off vaguely in the direction of the kitchen.
I declined. Still, I knew I'd be leaving with a pork chop sandwich, whether I wanted it or not.
"How's your mama?" Pearl asked, glancing at me over her shoulder. "What's she up to?"
"I don't know."
Pearl threw me a look over her shoulder. At the end of the hall, she opened the door to the office and waved me in. "She know where you at tonight?"
I shrugged. "I'm sure she'll guess." I'd dropped Virginia off at her house, declining all of her fun ideas: The mall, watching TV, prank phone calls. Even though her house was right across the street from my house, I didn't go home. I made the half-hour drive into Detroit to Pearl's house instead. Home wasn't where I wanted to be right now. Not on the anniversary. My mother would be there. Probably acting upbeat, as if nothing at all was wrong. Or maybe she'd be like she was most often these days, sitting at the kitchen table or on the couch staring at the phone, with a glass of wine or a cocktail close at hand. Probably her second or third glass. Maybe fourth.
"You might wanna call her while you here," Pearl said. "Let her know."
"I won't stay too late," I said, collapsing onto the loveseat that lined one wall of her tiny office. The rectangular room was full with a loveseat and floor-to-ceiling bookcases brimming with encyclopedias, romance novels and old issues of Jet and Ebony magazines. It was a lot. Her desk faced a wall with a window that looked out on the side yard to the small garden I'd planted with my father when I was a kid and we lived upstairs. Pearl had kept it going after we'd moved. She would revive it, come spring, like a memorial.
Pearl settled into her desk chair and pulled a sheet of paper from her typewriter, a turquoise Smith Corona that I'd taught myself to type on when I was little. I'd sit at Pearl's desk, a pen tucked behind my ear, pounding out articles from old news magazines, word for word, pretending I'd written them myself. It was how I became an overly articulate student who rarely spoke in class. Typing out all of those articles, I would imagine myself writing about things I cared about, rather than what I was actually doing, which was copying down someone's analysis of U.S.-Soviet relations or political commentary.
Pearl handed over the piece of paper she'd pulled from the typewriter. "I been working on this letter," she said.
I scanned the paper. It was a letter to Mayor Young. Pearl had once loved him, but now…
"There are a lot of exclamation marks in here," I mumbled, finishing the letter and chewing on the red editing pen she'd given me. "And some strong language, Pearl."
"Nothing he ain't heard—or said—before." She raised her chin in defiance.
"Right…" I said, smiling to myself about the strong language and extreme Pearlness of it all.
She was devoted to the city of Detroit and had made it her mission to help save it. In addition to sending frequent letters to the mayor, she also engaged in a kind of letter-to-the-editor activism, writing to the Detroit Free Press about stories and events she saw as racist or sexist or just plain ridiculous. She was printed twice. Both letters included blistering attacks on Coleman Young. The clippings were framed right there on a wall near her desk, along with family pictures, including various ones of me, a kind of life progression, from infancy onward. There was also a picture of my father and Tommy when they were boys. The only one that had survived their house going up in flames, she'd told me.
"So, you gon' wordsmith it for me?" Pearl asked.
I sighed and handed the letter and the pen back to her. "Maybe later. I'm pretty wiped."
She took off her glasses and let them dangle around her neck on their lanyard. Another old lady thing I turned a blind eye to. She crossed her arms and said quietly, "I know. It's October. I miss your daddy, too."
"He'll come back," I said. "Or we'll find him." I paused for a second, considering whether to say what I couldn't stop thinking about. "Can I tell you something?" I asked.
I took a moment, then said, "I kind of feel like I need to be around, you know? Close by, for when he's back."
Pearl side-eyed me. "And what's that mean?"
"Just…I've been thinking about school. College. Where to go."
She nodded slowly, still looking at me that way.
"I mean, I was thinking about applying to schools out East or on the West Coast, like Berkeley. Wouldn't someplace like Berkeley be cool?"
"That's a little too flower child hippie for my tastes, but if that's what you want…"
"I don't know what I want. I feel like I should be close. For Dad."
Pearl got up and came over to sit next to me on the couch. She tapped me on the forehead. "Look here. God gave you this brain and that good schooling so you'd have choices. Somebody like me? I didn't have many choices. I spent most of my life making do with what came at me. You understand?"
"No," I said. "What were your choices? What came at you?"
She blinked, then shook her head. "That don't matter. It's your choices that matter. If you wanna go to the moon to go to school, you do that. If you just wanna go up here to Wayne State, then do that. But choose to do what you wanna do, okay?"
She held my gaze until I nodded.
"Good. Me and your mama, we'll worry about your daddy. And you know if we get him back, he'll find you wherever you are. Because he loves you."
I nodded again, but I was still unsure.
She hugged me. Grandmotherly or not, Pearl was the most comfort in the world.
She pointed across the room to that picture of my father and Tommy. They were standing in a dirt field with a shack that appeared near collapse off behind them. My father had on short pants. Tommy had on long ones. "You know this here's back in Alabama," she said, rocking me from side to side. I knew the story, but I let her tell it again. "Oh, I guess your daddy must've been around eleven here, so Thomas was about nine. They were good boys." She rocked me a little slower now and her hand tightened around my shoulder. "They were good." Her voice broke.
"It's okay," I said. "We're both just missing him right now. That's all."
She smiled and kissed my forehead. "That's just so, Ms. Trinity. That's just so." She looked over at the picture again. "But I don't want you missing him so much you miss your chance at life." She gave my shoulder a squeeze. "Okay. Enough of that." She stood and walked toward the door. "Come on."
"Oh, God. No. Not that," I said, wiping at tears.
"Come on. It'll be good for both of us. Get this sadness worked out a little. And your competitive juices flowing for them college applications."
"I either get in or I don't, Pearl. It's not a blood sport."
I followed her down the dark, narrow stairs to her basement. She went over and pulled the string on the naked lightbulb. There waiting for us was a torture device. Her ping pong table. She threw me a paddle. "All right little girl, best two out of three."
It was no contest. She was always merciless and given to trash talking as she destroyed me. But when it was over, she was good about not rubbing it in. With Pearl, when a thing was done, it was done.
"You gotta know how to keep keeping on," she'd say. "Always eyes forward."