Jewell Thompson nosed her sedan into the narrow Philadelphia street. She had directions on the seat next to her, and also the letter. In her mind, a voice from the past, her grandmotherâ€™s, shouted: â€œWe home!â€ which was ridiculous, since sheâ€™d never been on this street, or even in this section of the city, before.
Outside her noisy mind, rows of identical two-story brick houses squatted beside Cobbs Creek Park, muffled by heavy fog and a cold, early-spring, early-Sunday-morning quiet. She had to drive cautiously. No more than four or five inches separated her driverâ€™s side from the curb or her passengerâ€™s side from the parked cars, whose owners had carefully folded in their side-view mirrors. She slowed nearly to a stop when she saw house numbers that matched the return address on the letter. They were gold and white, painted onto a glossy black brick face. Prim white sills and lintels, like shirt cuffs, shone through the drizzle, and white lines traced the mortar.
When sheâ€™d left her house, Jewell had told her husband that she might, depending on the way things looked, knock on the door. Now, presented with the reality of this shiny black cookie jar of a building on the misty working-class West Philadelphia street, she doubted sheâ€™d have the courage.
In front of the house grew a large sycamore that had buckled the sidewalk. At the level of the second floor, mottled limbs reached out over the street and twinkled with tiny white Christmas lights. An extension cord connected them to the second-floor window. She couldnâ€™t quite see, but it looked as if theyâ€™d drilled a hole in the storm-window trim for the cord, so as not to have to leave the window open. Jewell smiled to herself. Clever. She imagined that the lights made the little street feel inviting at night. A parking space under the tree beckoned, but it seemed too close and obvious, so she let her car roll forward one car length to the stop sign. Some bright, false part of herself congratulated her on the trip: There, done. Now I can go home.
Instead, she sat motionless at the stop sign. She did not even notice the large red pickup truck behind her, until the driver touched his horn. In her rearview mirror, she could see a man of about thirty, who seemed to fill the cab. He indicated the parking space under the tree, which he could not maneuver into with her car in the way. The truck would have to swing out very wide. Jewell crossed the intersection, put her foot onto the brake, and checked her rearview mirror again. The big, ocher-colored man was unfolding himself from the cab of the truck and stepping into the street. She shifted in her seat to see him better. He looked familiar.
The letter to her was folded in its envelope on the front seat. Sheâ€™d read its block capital letters so often in the past week, she almost knew it by heart.
Dear Ms. Jewell Thompson,
I am looking for my mother, formerly Jewell Needham, the daughter of Bobo Needham, originally from the town of Gunnerson in Beaufort County, SC. Please let me know if you are that lady.
We lived in New York, in Harlem, I think, until I was about 7. Then I was sent to my grandfather Bobo Needham and his stepmother Selma Needham in SC, who also raised him.
Now I am 30 years old. I am doing well, I am a contractor now, and just received my first contract with the city of Philadelphia. I said that I wished I could tell you, and my girlfriend suggested that I write this, and she would try to find an address for me to send it to. I live with my girlfriend and her son. He is about the age I was when I was separated from my mother. Thatâ€™s another reason Iâ€™m writing. Watching him grow has made me think about you.
I hope that you will agree to meet. If you are not the right person, please let me know. This could just be one meeting, if you like, it doesnâ€™t have to be more.