I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.
It was a call from an international number and I have an unlisted number. I figured it had to be a mistake or scam, but I picked it up. I heard a crisp British “hello” from the other end of the line and an introduction of who it was — a reporter for a BBC news program. The interviewer in his crisp British accent wanted to know if I was related to Meghan Markle. I was surprised that he had found my number and thought it ok to call me to ask if I knew one woman in a city as large as Los Angeles.
It took a moment to realize what was going on. Meghan Markle is from Los Angeles, and she’s a light skinned black person, so I assumed they were calling all the light skinned black people in Los Angeles to see if they were related and had some tales to tell about her.
I felt giddy about how stupidly obvious it was, and how serious the guy was about digging up whatever they considered to be dirt and we, her huge light skinned family, were going to provide that dirt without even tossing in an enticement.
“How do you know Ms. Markle?”
“We’re cousins,” I said without hesitation.
I could hear the reporter give a little gasp of happiness.
“So you’re related?”
“Yeah, my second cousin on my mama’s side.”
Another long pause as the breathing of the reporter sharpened.
“I knew her when she went by Shirley.”
“Tell me more,” he asked eagerly, and I accommodated him.
“Once when I came over to visit, she had a dead cat in a big pot cooking it.”
The interviewer gave another gasp. I felt in control, and it was fun, but wrong. Plus it wasn’t Meghan who put the cat in the pot. It was my cousin Sheryll who looked very much like Meghan and who had an anatomy class assignment of reconstructing the bones of a dead cat. She just had to boil it first … in the kitchen to string together its bones. I was just a kid when I saw the boiling bones and I was sure my cousin had lost her mind.
The BBC guy took it all very seriously and he asked a number of questions all at once, but he didn’t proffer some kind of renumeration, so I was done.
I hung up.
Later when I mentioned it to Roger, light skinned black guy from LA who was an accomplished actor, he laughed and said, “Yeah, I got that call too, but I wouldn’t talk to him.”
It amused me to think of all the light skinned black people across LA hanging up on this poor bedraggled Brit reporter doing his best to dig up dirt to help destroy Meghan’s happy life. It was surreal and kind of truly gangster cool.
Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.
Photo of Giselle Tervalon as Meghan Markle.