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Curtis Crisler’s New Book “…Out-Schools Every School of American Poetry”

Curtis L. Crisler’s new book, “This” Ameri-Can-ah (Cherry Castle Publishing, 2016) “out-schools every school of American poetry.” That’s according to Jericho Brown, American Book Award Winner.

Indiana’s Poet Laureate George Kalamaras called Crisler “…the bone man, the heart man, the roaming coyote-man howling from the breath’s bowels.”

And the praises don’t stop there.

“Curtis L. Crisler has a humorist’s knack for off-kilter Rockwellian portraiture,” noted Douglas Kearney, National Poetry Series Award Winner.

By now, it’s obvious Crisler’s new collection is a knock out among these rising literary heavyweights. “This” Ameri-Can-ah launched yesterday.

Watch this video for Crisler’s take on his inspiration for this collection and the themes with which he’s working.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Announcements, Commercial, Feature

 

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Cherry Castle Publishing Trailer (Official)

If you haven’t heard of Cherry Castle Publishing, this press is a gem, where diverse voices flourish. It’s also an award-winning indie publisher.

I’m honored that Publisher/Co-Founder Truth Thomas, who’s also an award-winning poet, trusted his vision for the video with Humble Bear Production and Sojournals.

I want to thank the Cherry Castle Publishing fam, who got together on a chilly November morning for this shoot. (Shout out to White Room DC, where we recorded!)

Through prayer, this video resulted in much more than we could’ve imagined.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2016 in Commercial

 

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The Proposition

 

135

SHE HADN’T NOTICED HIM the first time. The bookstore clerk was typing away until a customer’s questions pulled him over to the “Politics and Culture” section. He was shorter than six feet. Anyone close enough might have noticed a thick crease across his forehead from a do-rag tied too tight.

Sitting at the bar littered with suits and ties, Roe glanced at her watch, then at a walkway of polished stone that snaked around lounge chairs, slithered past the bar and high tables through the sunken seating area, and stopped at a pair of wooden doors.

She glanced at her watch. Overheard the conversation between two suits at the bar, and learned that one was an accountant. The accountant and his lawyer friend both worked around K Street. She glanced at her watch again. She exhaled with her arms crossed. Her purse hung from her elbow. She tapped her toe. “Where are you?” Roe wondered aloud. She might have been waiting for her man, or a male friend from work. Either man, if they existed, could expect to hear about their tardiness.

Roe squinted through bright lights at the exotic artwork covering the walls. Was this a place she’d visit often, she wondered. She craned her neck to take in what looked like a restaurant and performance space. The music switched from jazz to neo-soul to drum and bass. She wondered, could she enjoy her book and a glass of wine in this environment?

When Roe was about to leave, her friend pushed through the heavy glass doors. They hugged before a hostess called her name and a server led them to a table.

That was two years ago. Roe had now grown accustomed to walking the two blocks from her office to the Dream Keeper’s Lounge. Recently, Roe bypassed the restaurant and bar, heading toward the bookstore with a mission. Something a friend recommended had her combing the fiction section, when the face she hadn’t noticed approached her. “Excuse me, ma’am. Need any help?”

 

CHASE MONTGOMERY AWOKE to what sounded like static from a dead radio station. At first, he thought he forgot to turn off the TV the night before. It had been hectic working that 4:30p.m.-to-midnight shift. His eyes were barely open when he got home. His mind was impatient and had already started dreaming without him. He tossed his keys and missed the small knit bowl atop the counter near the entrance. It was obvious what he wanted to do, but something always hindered that action. If he wasn’t checking his “urgent”-marked emails or responding to overdue messages requesting him to read somewhere or help organize readings for out-of-town writers with new books out, he was updating his Facebook status, or GChatting with whoever was still up.

He swung his legs from the bed to the floor. Got up and stretched. He wasn’t a tall man, but also wasn’t what he considered short. As far as Chase was concerned, nobody had any business being over 5-foot-8. That was a normal man’s height. Anyone taller was a freak of nature.

He turned towards the sound that woke him. Looking through the window, Chase believed if the day had flesh and bones, it’d feel the way he felt at that moment. A feeling he couldn’t quite place mirrored the overcast clouds, the rain pelting a hot asphalt and sidewalk that steamed from the touch. Chase went back to a time before his body tried to get grown, before the bills, before he was another number collectors had listed. He remembered those Texas summer rains and the smell of something reborn, what he once thought was God’s breath filling his lungs and blowing the loose hair missed by a barber’s brush. Those times, the world seemed like a pond, and his wishes were coins lining the bottom. A voyeur, passing through his thoughts, might pick up a coin from the pond and be puzzled by his engraved dreams. One coin might show a 15-year-old holding a wrestler’s mask. Chase was determined at one time to be a professional fighter, like “Macho Man” Randy Savage or Jake “The Snake”, after his grandmother had taken him to every WWF match that came to Odessa. He had already picked his wrestling name, Chase “The Human Brace”, and imagined himself perfecting the collar tie and underhook hold; then the referee’s count, the bell, camera flashes and an arena of screaming fans holding up paraphernalia—his face on the items. Another coin engraving might show an image of a young boy operating a printing press. That would be him one day taking over as editor of Black Tail magazine. He’d work his way up the ranks starting as beat reporter, covering the rise and fall of Biscuit Gable and Lady Cottontree, the porn industry’s equivalent of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. But, over time, something had dried up that pond, and the loose change of his deferred dreams had been plucked by the harsh hands of reality. While he wasn’t a beat reporter for a men’s magazine, he found his way towards journalism as a freelance photographer, with work splashed across the pages of several national style magazines. When he realized his art couldn’t sustain him, he worked various odd jobs, being at his current one the longest of any of them. It’s only temporary, he kept telling himself. Just until his photography took off and it won’t be long before Vogue and GQ were commissioning him for photo essays.

The rain stopped. God was breathing through his window again. Chase thought the weather alone would justify him calling out. Hadn’t he been coughing a lot lately, enough for his supervisor to advise him to have it checked out? The best cure for a persistent cough, as far as Chase was concerned, came from his favorite three vitamins: T, L and C. He could invite ‘Netta over to “nurse him back to health” as they called it. Chase laughed at what that idea entailed, and then dismissed it. ‘Netta complained they did that too often. “It’s OK for you to hold me sometimes without us doing anything,” she had told him. Maybe he’d call her over for some homemade soup and some Netflix movies he got through the mail two days ago. Hadn’t he been saving his sick days for such an occasion? He had to use them or lose ‘em, his supervisor had told him last week. Hmm, but then changed his mind. The Dream Keeper’s bookstore had a book event today. He couldn’t leave his supervisor alone to handle the mob that was sure to pour out of the performance space and flood the bookstore.

Chase showered and dressed. He fixed a meal of steamed spinach and chicken. Everything he did was drawn out, as if sulking through some torturous exercise. When outside, the temptation to call his boss still hung around him like the gray clouds, the moist air, the drip-drip sound of water plopping the pavement from storm gutters. The bookstore was losing two of its employees, who were leaving for grad school. He remembered their responses to him becoming a professional photographer. “That’s nice,” they had told him with a tone Chase took as a condescending slight. Well, to hell with them; to hell with this weather, too.  A big wind shoved around a leaf, sending it up over the roof of his apartment. If he was lucky, just like that leaf, the winds of opportunities were coming to whisk him away.

When Chase arrived, Todd, his supervisor, had already gotten the backroom ready for the book event. All that was left for Chase to do was put out copies of the author’s book at the signing area near the register. The event had already started, and wouldn’t be done for two hours. Chase figured that gave him time to go through the store, check to see that the titles were shelved properly with the book spines plumb with the shelves. He had worked his way from “Activism” and “Politics and Culture” to “Poetry”. He noticed the woman searching through “Fiction”. There was something familiar about her. That’s it. Sometimes he saw her at the bar with her friends, but she mostly kept to herself by the lounge area, sipping wine and flipping through the pages of some book. He wasn’t always able to make out the titles from his post at the register; she was usually too far for that but close enough to notice the covers. He noticed that the books were always changing. She managed to go through two books a week. And as many times as she’d been to that place, she damn near bought up the whole bookstore; she knew where everything was and what the store did and didn’t carry. That’s why Chase couldn’t understand why she seemed lost. After helping a customer find the bathroom toward the rear of the bookstore, he went over to help.

 

UH, MA’AM. NEED ANY HELP?”

Roe was startled by the question. So preoccupied with the task at hand, she hadn’t seen him approach. Her impulse was to tell him no. It wasn’t a big deal if she found it or not. She thought for a second, and then faced Chase.

“Yes, actually. I’m looking for anything by John A. Williams.”

Roe hadn’t heard of that writer until two days ago, after reading an online review of Williams’s work.

Chase smiled. “That’s a bad dude.”

“Oh, so he’s a friend of yours?” Roe was curious.

“Not at all. I just think his work is amazing.”

“Amazing, how?”

Roe studied Chase’s face while he used the work computer to pulled up the store’s inventory. He had a southern way about him, she thought. He did call her ma’am, and there was his unhurried and relaxed way of moving about the bookstore. His slight twang reminded her of the men from North Carolina, where she was born and raised.

“You always got a Walter Mosley novel on you,” Chase said.

Roe wondered how did he know that?

As if psychic, Chase responded: “It’s the covers. That’s all I’m able to make out from here.”

“Yeah, so?”

“I know Mosley’s your man and all, but he does mysteries mostly.” Chase watched Roe when he said that. She wasn’t sure if his expression was a smile or a smirk. “Williams doesn’t need a mystery formula to create and sustain the suspense in his work.” Chase shrugged. “He’s a meat-and-potatoes type of writer. I read his books and I’m full the way Mosley can’t fill me.”

“How do you know he doesn’t fill me?” Roe said, slightly annoyed at the comparison.

At least she could find Walter Mosley’s book at any bookstores. Where were Williams’s books? Meat and potatoes? That just sounded bland. Mosley, for her, was catfish with hot sauce and a side of collards. She had loved his delicious imagery as a child. His characters—Easy Rawlins and Mouse, even Socrates Forlow—had become familiar enough for her to see them beyond their fictional settings. These men occupied the reality of her hometown called Hamlet. They were as familiar as the men outside the Piggly Wiggly and Food Lion, who were always helping her mom walk grocery bags to the car; Mosley’s characters were as familiar as the men sipping whiskey with her dad, their creaky-wood laughs rising from the basement. Sure some of these men were ex-cons who served hard time and had experienced the other side of violence, when they themselves became somebody else’s victim, but despite their past, Roe saw them for their gentle and patient ways they took with her and the other women.

Chase looked up from the computer. “Sorry. We don’t have anything by John A. Williams at this time.”

Hmph, her point proven.

“But we can special order it for you,” the book clerk said.

“No. It’s ok,” she said. “It’s not that serious.” She paused, then: “You an artist or something?”

“Why?” The question caught Chase off-guard. “I’ve never had a customer ask me that until now.” As far as his customers were concerned, he was just ‘the guy in the bookstore’ and nothing more—except for when nitpicky patrons used him as a sounding board for their frustrations about everything: the long wait for a table at the restaurant, a server’s attitude and slow service, and what they considered to be a limited menu—complaints that should have been directed to the owner of this place, or a manager; complaints that could easily be sent to the comment box, instead of vented to a bookstore clerk with no sayso of the matter.

Complaints about the bookstore were a whole other matter: the lack of street lit titles (“How yall not gonna have Zane or Omar Tyree?” a customer snapped at him. “I know yall a social justice bookstore, whatever that means, but yall too good to carry real books?”), the tone of the “Activism” and “Politics and Culture” sections (“Is it really necessary to carry books that teach hate?” another customer asked. “Are you guys in the business of manufacturing ‘white guilt’?”), then the arrangements of authors (“I know we’re post-racial and everything, but how come you guys don’t have your authors sectioned by their ethnicities? When they’re all together like that, it gets confusing.”)

Chase thought he’d heard it all, but not this question. Was he an artist?

“Call it a hunch,” Roe said.

“I got a Masters in Fine Arts from Old Dominion University, if that answers your question. I studied poetry, but I also write essays. My real passion is photography. Why?”

“It makes sense,” Roe said. “You didn’t just say you liked Williams’s work. I saw the passion in your response.” Roe also thought he would be perfect for her proposition. “Here’s my card. My name is Rosetta Windstrom.”

Chase took the card before shaking her hand. “Nice to meet you Rosetta—”

“Call me Roe. My friends do.” She smiled.

He smiled back. “OK, Roe. I’m Chauncey Montgomery, but call me Chase.”

 

 

ROSETTA, ITALIAN IN ORIGIN. Back in Hamlet, North Carolina, she was everybody’s “Little Rose” because she strikingly resembled her mother Rosalind Winstrom, a retired school teacher. Her father, Moses, gave her that name. He had worked at the Imperial Foods building, which had been used for various types of food processing. Dating back to the early 1900s, it had at one time been an ice cream factory. When Moses was there, it was a chicken processing plant.

Six years after Roe’s birth, Moses still worked long hours at the factory to pay off the house he bought before he thought of being a father. His wife had been anxious for children, but he didn’t want to start a family out of a one-room apartment. Children needed a place to play and should be able to run free around a yard of their own. Even birds were smart enough to build a proper nest before they started laying eggs, and he was determined to provide a proper home for his young family. What her father Moses called a “work accident” kept him home for two weeks. While lying in bed, all Moses could think of was the money he wasn’t making—each day at home pushing him farther from his goal.

On the morning of Sept. 3, 1991, six-year-old Roe heard her parents quarreling upstairs. Moses was convinced he was well enough to go back to work, his wife thought otherwise. Rose’s shaky voice and teary eyes deflated Moses’s determination as he held his wife and promised to follow the doctor’s orders. If that morning’s quarrel hadn’t happened, if her mother’s voice hadn’t cracked and her eyes hadn’t become teary, Roe later realized, her father would have been at the factory during the fatal grease fire that burned down the plant. Roe listened while her father read about the fire The Virginia Pilot reported. At 8:30 a.m., a deep fat fryer combusted, igniting the gas lines in the ceilings. Ninety works were at the building during the time of the incident. Twenty-five people died and 54 workers were injured. Among the injured, several suffered burns and blindness, some died later from their wounds, and others still suffered a decade since the fire. The fire became known as the “Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster of 1991.” A monument has been erected where the plant once stood. Moses hugged his two roses close.

His daughter’s name was Rosetta, like the slab of stone covered by both Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek writing. Like the stone, Roe was hard to decipher at surface level. But her teachers at Fairview Heights Elementary School noticed early that she had a knack for solving problems. Roe whizzed through class puzzles at Monroe Avenue Middle School, and by the time she attended Hamlet Junior High School, she discovered her life’s calling. A scholarship to study Education at Howard University brought her to DC, where she’d been living out her calling as a guidance counselor at Cardozo High School.

Roe’s initial plan was to move back home, but her parents insisted that she take the job she was offered before graduation. “You can always visit us on holidays,” her father had told her. Moses never fully recovered from his “accident”.

Though he was nowhere near the factory on the day of the fatal grease fire almost two decades now, the factory had other safety violations such as the three previous non-fatal fires. Then there was what Roe overheard the doctors telling her mother. Her father’s continual contact with chicken carcasses made him prone to developing a potentially malignant type of pneumonia that spread to humans from infected poultry. Her father was already breathing through an oxygen mask. The doctors weren’t sure. His digression was subtle: a persistent cough one moment, then irregular heartbeats. It didn’t accelerate until after Roe graduated from Howard. He was sleeping a lot now and complained of his shortness of breath. It’s just like life, she thought, to have us working hard and sacrificing for our families so we can enjoy life during our old age, and then have us too ill to enjoy it.

Roe couldn’t sleep with those thoughts still drifting through her mind. So she powered the TV and flipped through the channels. She found a Lifetime network movie. She never really watched them. They were background noise. She searched her shelf for a book, determined to find something that’d put her bed. She thought about her day and how nice it was chatting with Chase, even if she disagreed about what he said about her favorite author. He’d be really good for what she had in mind. Coming back from her thoughts to the book shelf in front her, Roe decided against reading anything that night.

 

 

TODD MCDUFFY SPED down the bike trail, riding his 21-speed Schwinn hybrid. The Northern Branch Trail ran throughout Hyattsville, Maryland—passing through its towns: Mount Rainier and Brentwood. The trail headed toward the West Hyattsville metro station, College Park and beyond.

Biking gave Todd space to clear his head and reorder his priorities. Arriving at that space any other way was difficult. He was always preoccupied with operating the Dream Keeper’s bookstore. There were always books to order and store events to plan and coordinate.

Todd whizzed by joggers on a trail in Brentwood. He nodded to on-coming cyclists. The recent book event was successful. Dr. Cornel West’s books sold out and people lingered among the bookcases and lounge an hour after the reading to take pictures with the Harvard professor and philosopher. Thank God Chase came. Todd had been Chase’s boss for almost a decade, a working relationship that started at a big book chain and continued when he brought Chase along to help him run the Dream Keeper’s bookstore.

His burning thighs and sweaty olive skin gave Todd a sense of accomplishment, especially after tackling hills that dipped and peaked like mountains, hills that strained him to the point where the red underneath his skin went off like a silent alarm and he thought his thighs would explode. It was all worth it, though, for a few hours to reflect. After 15 years of selling books, Todd couldn’t figure out why book-event crowds always unnerved him. Despite anticipating the overcrowding, people shoving and fights breaking out, every event was well-handled.

Todd squeezed his brakes at a stop sign, when he reached the town of Edmonston. He waited for cars to pass before continuing the River Road trail. Perhaps it was time for him to do something else. At 54, Todd couldn’t keep working at the bookstore if he and his wife Meredith were going to retire and live comfortably. They had planned a trip to Italy, where they’d spend a month at Bologna. They’d learn to make gelato. Then come back to the DC metropolitan area and open their gelateria in Georgetown. It sounded good. But the reality was that tuition at Gelato University for the couple was about $2,000. Then they’d need another $70,000 for machinery, not including the cost to lease the space.

Hearing an ice cream truck’s chime in the distance, Todd wondered if it was that time already? It would take him longer than expected to get the money. Most nights, while closing up, he emptied the register draw and counted out bills before they were swallowed by a leather pouch he zipped. The pouch had a key lock zipper. The pouch was always taken to the bank the next day and the money deposited to the store’s account. If it was ever known that monies were missing, Todd was sure who’d people suspect first: it certainly wasn’t going to be a middle-aged white manager. Nothing personal; he actually liked Chase. The guy was a hard worker and knew his literature. But what Chase had men Todd’s age would give almost anything to get back.

Todd had been out cycling for almost two hours. Meredith would start calling soon, wondering his whereabouts because it was getting dark. Twenty years he’d been married to her. Todd remembered them struggling: him holding down odd jobs while enrolled at grad school and Meredith working as an inner-city school teacher. Those times, a dollar could’ve been elastic the way they stretched it. They ate rice and beans for breakfast and dinner. They shopped at international food markets because the produce was cheaper than those at larger grocery chains. In those 20 years, Meredith was the only constant Todd had. She still loved sci-fi films that put him to sleep. She fussed when he came home late from work. She still called his friends, looking for him when he’d leave his cell phone at the house. Todd owed it to Meredith for a better life.

The clouds huddled. There was a chill breeze. Todd felt a vibration, then heard his ringtone. He decided to head in when he saw the house number.

 

 

“HEY CHASE.” Todd called around 4 p.m. to let his employee know he needed him to open the store the next day. “I need you to make a deposit as soon as you can.” Todd also ran down the list of duties. “Don’t forget Nikky Finney’s coming through to do a reading and signing. I’ll be off-location at another event. Make sure to have her poetry collection out with the other new arrivals. We don’t want another incident like the Baraka blunder.”

Two years before, Amiri Baraka was scheduled to do a signing at the bookstore one evening. Signals got crossed between Baraka’s people and the Dream Keeper’s events staff. First he was coming; then he canceled. A disagreement over money was how the staff put it. But later that evening, the bookstore got a phone call. They were on their way.

“They who?” Todd had said. “For what?”

Baraka’s people became frustrated. “For the signing. What you think?”

“But we thought you weren’t—”

“I know what you thought, but it’s still going down. We looking for parking as we speak.”

Oh shit! Todd’s brain yelled. A glace over at “Poetry” and “Fiction” made Todd smile. He spotted several copies of Baraka’s books. “Maybe we can pull this off,” he told Chase. They cleared off the new arrivals table and displayed the author’s books. Chase got a chair from the restaurant. That makeshift author’s section was where Baraka would sit and sign his books. All that was missing was…the people! Todd frantically looked around the bookstore; it was empty. A few people were sitting at the bar, and for the first time ever, Todd could count the restaurant’s patrons and have fingers left uncounted. The silent alarm under Todd’s skin had gone bright red. They needed to attract a crowd fast. Chase jumped on the bookstore’s twitter account and tweeted the event; he even blasted it through both the bookstore’s and his personal Facebook accounts. Todd ran outside, yelling down the block: “Amiri Baraka will be here any minute. Come see the father of the Black Arts Movement!” The passersby looked at one another before passing the bookstore. At a bus stop nearby, two elderly black men shook their heads. One told the other, “This city ain’t been the same since St. E’s closed down and let all those nuts loose.” Chase had just gotten off the phone before some folks pushed through the heavy glass doors. “Welcome to the Dream Keeper’s Lounge,” a hostess said. To this, the folks asked, “This where the signing at?”

Recalling the events of that night, Chase assured Todd, “Not another Baraka blunder.”

Todd finished off his list and they both hung up the phone.

Chase spent his day off stretched out on the futon, flipping through an old hip hop magazine from a stack towered above the hardwood floor. They were throwback issues of The Source and XXL. The articles in those issues were that good. They could be re-read at leisure. Chase decided they were timeless. Both magazines had articles on hip hop artists overseas. The writers brought American emcees to life in their articles that made them three-dimensional, complex characters in a tale that was expository essay but with the narrative pace of a novel. Chase’s subscriptions cut off at 2002. He hadn’t bothered to renew them because the quality of writing was declining. The writers from the throwback eras had moved on. The current crop was lazy. The long-form, in-depth stories that gave artists larger-than-life qualities were replaced by Q&As. The magazines became thinner. Ads became more abundant.

Chase marked a spot between the glossy pages with the card Roe gave him. Several months passed since their first encounter in the bookstore. Within that time, they became friends. Roe stopped through the store almost every weekday, consulting with Chase on new books. Or she simply popped in to say “hi” then was off on her way.

He hadn’t seen Roe recently. She told Chase she was taking a few days off and driving down to Hamlet. Her father was in the hospital often. She said she went down to spend time with the old man and to help out her mother. They spoke over the phone less frequently. Whenever Chase inquired about the proposition, the conversation was always cut short. At first he didn’t care, but now he was dying to know. “In due time,” Roe kept telling him. Chase didn’t have time for these games. He was ready to toss the card, but used it to mark his place.

 

 

WAIT, WAIT! SLOW DOWN,” Roe said into the phone receiver. She was still in Hamlet visiting her parents. Their conversations were less frequent since her trip.

Chase was in his apartment, fuming over the day’s event. He felt he had to call someone before he did something stupid. If he wasn’t caught off-guard, he might’ve charged at Todd or punched his face. He might have taken down a crew of bulky managers who sometimes acted as the restaurant’s bouncers. Chase might’ve started throwing things, and went out like a madman. Instead, he stood there, unable to speak or move.

“What were they doing at the lounge?” Roe said.

When Chase left for work that morning, a chill stirred the air. No sign of snow yet, and it was already December. He had planned to open up the store and stay later for the holiday party.            “Are you OK, Chase?”

Every year, the Dream Keeper’s Lounge was closed to host a private party for employees. Hors d’oeuvres were usually laid out near a fountain of punch. The bookstore doubled as a coat-check. Every year, the restaurant became a biblical city on the verge of God’s destruction, a city whose inhabitants were as listless as Ulysses and his men, stumbling over objects and one another. It was a city where what was repressed was unleashed. And several times, Chase almost stumbled over his co-workers making out on the floor of the darkened bookstore, he found them steaming up backrooms and the men’s room stall. It was a city of off-beat revelers gyrating around a gilded platter of pita and hummus, salad and falafel balls. Or off-beat revelers struggling as if the beat were a swarm of locust they were trying to fan off, some sign of God’s warning that what they’ve become will face His wrath.

But that didn’t stop Chase from dying to be a part of that city each year. It was one of few small pleasures he had. When Chase went into work that morning, ready to carry out the task of the day, he did so knowing his reward of the day was hours away. He did so without knowing what waited to blindside him: officers surrounding the desk while one took down Todd’s statement.

When Chase went to work, Todd pointed him out to the officers.

“That bastard!” Roe nearly shouted into the phone.

An officer and Dave, a manager, approached Chase. “Sir, come with us,” the officer had said.

“What’s going on, Dave?” Chase’s body went hot; he was a drum fear kept striking.

“Just go with the officers, Chase. Don’t make things difficult.”

“Somebody’d been skimming from the register,” Chase told Roe.

He was at the station for hours, answering questions. Before the interrogation, Chase was told he could leave at any time. When he stood up, the detective said, “But you could benefit by telling your side of the story. The evidence doesn’t look good.”

“What evidence?” Chase had seen this scene played out through enough TV shows to know the detective was trying to get a confession out of him. “Bullshit!”

“We got a few of your coworkers who’ve said they seen you take that money.”

Chase knew the detective was full of it. The routine was the same. In one TV drama, Chase watched the officers work a confession out of a boy. The officer told the boy they had evidence that he was trafficking controlled substance. The boy said it wasn’t true and unwittingly told the officer the drugs weren’t his, and that he found them while going through his coat pockets. In trying to exonerate himself from the charge of Trafficking Controlled Substance, the boy legally confessed to the lesser crime of Drug Possession. Chase wasn’t going out like that.

“So they just let you go?” Considering that Chase being a young black man, which embodied America’s fears, Roe was surprised he wasn’t still at the station, or worst, behind bars.

Chase told Roe what he learned upon his release. After hours of interrogation, there was a knock on the door. Then low pitched mumbling between the interrogating detective and his colleague before Chase was led down a hall. A representative from the nonprofit that ran the bookstore waited at the entrance.

During the drive back to his car, the rep explained everything. He told Chase the nonprofit had suspected the books were cooked, and hired a private investigation firm. The two workers leaving the bookstore for grad school were plants. When Todd and Chase weren’t around, they double checked the inventory, compared it with the receipts and the bank deposit stubs. The entire operation was carried out over several months.

“Take it as a sign that you need to get the hell out of there,” Roe said.

“And do what?” Chase was slightly annoyed. Get the hell out, she had said as if it was his plans to be there for the rest of his life. Chase felt as though Roe was judging him.

“Remember what we talked about? That proposition I gave you that night, months ago?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you ready to walk away from everything?”

Of course Chase was, especially after his experience that day. As Chase spoke about the rest of the matter, Roe was lost in her own thoughts. For nearly two weeks, she and her mother, Rose, sat by Moses’s hospital bed. Watching the tubes that entered and left his body, Roe thought of a science project in her middle school biology class. On a cabinet near the teacher’s desk, a potato powered a digital clock. Roe remembered learning how the potato could become a battery because its chemical energy converted to electrical energy. She resisted the childish urge to pray for God to turn what lived inside her father to something useful.

Roe watched her father unsure if his heart, or the machine he was plugged up to, was the potato that powered what she loved. Moses had told his daughter about her inheritance, a portion of the settlement from his “accident” that he invested for her. His last wishes were for his daughter to take her portion “…and make it happen.”

At the thought, Roe wiped her wet cheeks. The tears and light made the room blurry. Chase was still talking when Roe heard the dead man’s words again in her mind: “…make it happen.” She closed her eyes and saw herself at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Another scene had her walking past a newsstand. She read the various headlines: “Former Counselor Reaches Troubled Teens with New Facility,” “New Program Turns At-Risk Youths into Advocates,” “Teen Says Nonprofit Saved Him with Art.”

“…make it happen.” A third scene had Roe walking down the hall of a brand new facility. She heard voices coming from a classroom down the hall. When she looked through the door pane, she saw Chase leading a discussion on style and technique. Maybe they were critiquing a poem. Or they were studying a photograph. She smiled when Chased glanced and then stared at where she was standing, and then she was gone.

“Hey, Roe!” Chase said through her receiver. “You still there?”

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2016 in Fiction

 

Tags: ,

The Hagakure of Cornbread Othello

pg3

(view excerpts from this graphic novella-in-progress)

 

“During happy times, pride and extravagance

are dangerous. If one is not prudent in ordinary times,

he will not be able to catch up. A person who advances

during good times will falter during the bad.”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”

 

THEY RAN DOWN 31st Street NW. It was midnight. Man 1 carried a sack full of expensive items over his right shoulder. Both men headed to their van a block away at N Street NW.  They might’ve parked closer if all the spaces outside the row house weren’t taken.

A cold wind and the snow-covered sidewalks said it was winter. Both men saw their breaths when they talked. The mist left their mouths and hovered over them like empty thought clouds.

It had been an easy job as Man 1 promised. No guns. The cold meant there’d be no couples strolling home from a romantic dinner at the Georgetown restaurants that lined M Street NW. There’d be no surprises. The block was quiet except for cars cruising through intersecting streets.

Bypassing the home security was a piece of cake. After cutting through the land-line with bolt-cutters, the system was ineffective. The men disabled the audible alarms by smashing the control panel once they got inside the house. Their dark clothing helped conceal them as they walked through the darkened rooms. Outside, they’d blend with the shadows of parked cars and bare trees.

The rich residents kept their windows bare for everyone to see their priceless artworks, grand pianos, and jeweled vases. Wasn’t it time someone showed these people what happened when they flaunted their excesses while others struggled just to survive.

Man 2 followed behind Man 1. The second guy smiled as he neared the getaway van until a kick to the ribs bounced him back, as if he’d ran and jumped against a rubber wall. The pain was a wild fire spreading through the forest of nerves while he lied on his back, next to the bag; its contents—his-and-her platinum Rolex watches, gold decorative plates, and several pieces of jewelry scattered over the street.

Man 1 wheeled around with his ivory-handle fixed blade out. He was startled by the figure standing before him at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. The pale white skin, red eyes, and bushy yellow afro almost threw Man 1 off his game. But he shook his fear. His combat knife, nearly the size of his forearm, did a dance in the air before he lunged at the figure, who sidestepped the attack. A strike to the bicep and wrist made Man 1 drop his weapon. A kick to the groin brought him down, and a blow to the head put him out cold.

The avenger tied up both men back to back against a lamppost before calling the Metropolitan Police Department. A civilian employee at the Second District Station picked up.

“Hey Case, I left you something,” the avenger said.

“What you got for me Cornbread?” the employee said.

“Two amateur burglars wrapped with a bow,” Cornbread said. “Call it an early Christmas present.”

“How the hell they get on your radar?”

Cornbread Othello was already at his car, a black Lexus ES300. It was a 1998 model that he bought used. Earlier that night, he parked it around the corner from the 7-Eleven. He was leaving with a beef patty and TropiKing all natural fruit punch when he saw the two men.

“I saw two dudes running; one had a sack over his shoulder,” Othello said. “I knew they weren’t Santa’s elves.”

Case chuckled. “We have cars patrolling the area.”

“What the hell’ve they been doing? Just hanging?”

“Easy, Cornbread.”

The albino smiled. “Aight, peace!”

 

 

“Our bodies are given life from the midst

of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing

is the meaning of the phrase, ‘Form is emptiness.’

That all things are provided for by nothingness

is the meaning of the phrase, ‘Emptiness is form.’

One should not think that these are two separate

things.”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”

 

CASEY MALONE HUNG UP the phone. He radioed a car patrolling Georgetown to make the pickup. That normally wouldn’t have been his duty since he wasn’t a dispatcher, a job usually held by civilians and retired officers. Dispatchers had their own building where they answered and sent emergency calls and assignments through a police radio to officers out patrolling.

As a civilian employee assigned to work from the station, Casey wasn’t on the street responding to 911 calls, and he was OK with that. He’d seen enough action as a Marine in Afghanistan, where he served with Cornbread. The news reports of blown up hummers and soldiers living with lopsided heads, after having parts of their skulls blown off, were G-rated next to everything else Case and Cornbread had seen.

Yeah, Case was through with the action. But that call about the two men and the botched burglary attempt was funny as hell. He had to dispatch that call himself. He knew the guys would enjoy that.

Leave it to Cornbread to jazz up an otherwise mundane night of answering phone calls for accidental property damage or taking reports on thefts from automobiles—mostly iPods, phones and other electronic devices people carelessly left lying around. Those incidents accounted for more than half of the crimes in the Second District.

Case’s job gave him something to do and earned him some extra income. He could survive off that and his military pension since he didn’t have a family anymore. They were another thing the war took from him. He looked at what were once his flesh-and-bone legs.

Seven years had passed since his injuries brought him home. The first two of those years were tough. Case hated his wife’s pity—Susan following behind him, ready to assist with everything. He wasn’t a little boy. The last straw was the night he had snapped, blaming her and their son and daughter for what happened to him. Susan couldn’t understand why Case thought he was the only one suffering. It was already hard for her to see him the way he was. She loved him enough to hang in there though, but not at the expense of her and the kids being his scapegoats. Susan took the kids and left that night of the argument. A year later, she filed for divorce.

Seven years since his injuries, and his mind continued replaying the IED attack that blew off his legs below the knees, took a finger, and fractured both arms. The force of the explosion caused a traumatic brain injury that made it impossible for Case to be an officer.

Case liked the ease of his job, but it wasn’t for everyone. He couldn’t see Cornbread doing police reports for walk-ins—booking and watching over people who didn’t make bail. He had to be where the action was.

Casey knew the war had affected Cornbread differently. Back when it started, both he and Casey were eager 23-year-olds ready to put their boot heels up some Taliban asses. When Casey first saw Cornbread, he thought he was straight out of a Rambo flick—the way he seemed fearless amid enemy fire. And at times, Cornbread came off to Casey as a jarhead, even if everything he did was according to principle. Cornbread was always carrying around a little black book and quoting from it.

“In a matter of life and death, a true warrior chooses death,” Cornbread once told him.

It was after the U.S. and Afghan military fired on al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, both of whom were staked out in the mountains. The U.S. under-estimated the Mujahideen militias, which fired back with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. That day, Casey watched eight of his fellow soldiers die—guys who had just scratched the surface of what it meant to be adults.

That point went over Cornbread’s head. He was convinced that his role over there was that of a samurai, which didn’t make sense to Casey. Samurai were Japan’s most influential class of citizens even though they had masters. Cornbread didn’t come from a life of privilege. The only connection Casey made was that Cornbread, like the Samurai, carried a heavy responsibility to restore order. Where Cornbread’s responsibilities came from, Casey didn’t know.

But he knew Cornbread was brainwashed by his black book.

“To consider a man who died without reaching his full potential as a wasted death is only foolish,” Cornbread continued. “In death, the true warrior finds his way.”

“And what way is that?!” Casey had shouted. He’d had enough of this Way of the Samurai bullshit. “Our men are dying, and we still haven’t found any weapons of mass destruction,” Casey said, shaking his head. “You and that little black book are as full of shit as the government that has us here.”

Casey remembered Cornbread being unfazed by his comments. The disillusionment didn’t hit his friend until the Marines body count kept raising. As the war continued without them uncovering WMDs, Cornbread, like Casey earlier, wondered why they were there.

Cornbread wasn’t with Casey during the IED explosion, but he was nearly as traumatized when he found out that fellow Marines targeted Afghani civilians for murder, hacked them up, and kept their body parts as trophies. Cornbread saw some Marines pissing on the corpses, and that’s when he was changed. He’d be a lone samurai, an avenger who fought on behalf of oppressed peoples.

That vision was a far cry from that of the Metropolitan Police Department. The Second District Station clock above his desk told Casey it was 00:30 hours. Ten minutes had passed since he dispatched the botched burglary call. He stood up to stretch. With his prosthetic legs, he was just under his original height of 5-foot-7.

Casey liked his job because it kept his mind busy. No time to replay events. He did have time for a bathroom break before it was back to the phones—answering questions and assisting other civilians with directions. His mind could not be idle for too long.

If the calls were already taken care of, he’d do a sweep through the holding cells and watch over those locked up, or handle and distribute property for those who made bail; anything to keep from remembering.

 

 

“…if one thoughtlessly crosses a river of unknown

depths and shallows, he will die in its currents

without ever reaching the other side or finishing

his business. This is the same as when one is

indiscriminately eager in being a retainer without

understanding the customs of the times…and, as a

result, is of no use and brings ruin upon himself….

One should consider first stepping back and getting

some understanding of the depths and shallows

and then work…”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”

 

JAPANESE HISTORY SAYS samurai were the only class of people who could have both a family name and a personal name. Born Julius Johnson, Cornbread Othello’s personal name came from nicknames his teachers and peers gave him. He was Othello to his teachers because of his talent for acting and his love of poetry—he had a sick Shakespearean flow, everything from sonnets to rhyming couplets.

His peers called him Cornbread because he was lighter than cornmeal, a result of albinism. The doctors told his parents that they both carried the hypomelanosis recessive gene. That’s why their son lacked melanin pigment in his eyes, hair and skin.

Cornbread Othello’s first encounter with power and abuses of it wasn’t as a Marine, but as a kid. He remembered how the other black kids at his elementary school were scared to touch him because they thought they’d catch what he had. Looking back, Cornbread chuckled at the irony—white folks were once just as scared that black people’s skin color would rub off on their own.

Those encounters didn’t get better in middle and high school.

“Ey, golden boy,” one kid shouted when his crew cornered Cornbread after classes. “You know you’re ugly as shit, right?” Everyone laughed.

“Well, at least I’m not brown like it,” Cornbread said.

It got quiet. The ringleader shoved him. “Whatchu’ say, Powder?”

“You heard me, Black Pepper!”

The boy shoved Cornbread again. Cornbread kicked his groin, and the crew was all over him like ants on a crumb. Cornbread was in a hail storm of kicks and punches until a voice yelled, “Y’all leave that boy alone, yuh hear!”

The ringleader spun around. His tight face went slack and his fists unclenched when he saw the tall, middle-aged man wearing an aqua blue windbreaker and the crispest New Balance he’d ever seen. “Hey, Mr. Cookie,” the boy said.

That name seemed to be the magic words that stopped the brutal storm and changed the weather real quick. Cornbread knew Cookie, the owner of the Soup Spoon Diner off Florida Avenue NW, who sponsored the Summer League basketball games at the Barry Farms projects. Cookie had enough pull to bring together the best pro streetballers around the country for intense showdowns that continued long after the sun was replaced by the rec center’s outdoor lights.

Shaquille O’Neal, Stephon Marbury, and Allen Iverson were regulars, who ran a few games with the Barry Farms All-Stars against the AND1 streetball crew. One year, Cornbread and his parents were at a game, cheering when Skip To My Lou, one of AND1’s popular ballers, had three guys on him. When the guard saw an opening, he smiled before bouncing the ball through the first guy’s legs and faked an around the back past that got the second guy off him. With the third guy so close, Skip brought the ball left, and through his legs to the right before doing a spin move that sent the guy crumbling across the blacktop.

Those games were partly responsible for Cookie’s popularity. His cache of street cred among criminals was that Soup Spoon was a front for his illegal arms business. His sophisticated scheme involved crew members employing their family members in other states to buy small increments of pistols and long guns from their local gun shops. This kept the operation off the ATF’s radar, which would otherwise become suspicious of a large or repeated purchase by a single individual.

After getting word, Cookie’s crew went to retrieve the firearms across state lines. Under the guise of a family barbecue, none of the neighbors were suspicious of the unknown cars on their street and the people going back and forth with cake boxes and large Tupperware containers that hid the guns. The Soup Spoon had a hidden door to a basement that only Cookie’s crew knew about.

Staring at the gang that had beaten up Cornbread, Cookie gave them a look of disappointment. “Ain’t y’all got some better to do than beat down someone because they look different?”

The boys lowered their heads.

“See, that’s what’s wrong with your generation. Y’all don’t know your history. If you knew how white folks and their laws beat us down because we were different from them, you’d know better than to continue that oppression.”

No one dared to challenge Cookie. They all kept quiet and let the man speak. Cookie’s slicked back hair and gold Rolex told anyone that his gear wasn’t for a workout. Cookie was so clean he made anything he wore look stylish, even the aqua blue windbreaker that would’ve looked corny on anyone else.

“Y’all get outta’ here before I kick your asses myself.” He pointed to Cornbread. “Get in the car.”

Cornbread got inside Cookie’s cream-colored Lexus GS300. It was a 1998 model. The black interior made it seem like nighttime. Cornbread stared at the glowing large circles of the dashboard and at the navigation system. He noticed the wood trim along the console and the gear shift handle.

“It’s a mean ass machine, ain’t it,” Cookie said when he got behind the wheel.

Cornbread nodded.

“Out of all the luxury cars, the Lexus is the most reliable. You can’t say that about a Mercedes. Those cars stay in the shop so much, it’s like Cheers when you go to their dealerships; everyone knows your name. But not with the Lexus.”

Cornbread kept quiet, bobbing along to a bouncy piano solo.

Cookie smiled. “You like that, hunh?”

“Who is this?” Cornbread said.

“That’s Herbie Hancock. This is his song ‘First Trip’.”

They both listened as Cookie drove Cornbread home. Cornbread continued bobbing along while Cookie tapped his hands against the steering wheel.

When the song finished, Cookie let out a sigh. “See that, right there? That’s Lexus music. If they were to do a commercial for these cars, they’d have Herbie Hancock playing in the background while the car does all these mean clean maneuvers.

“The Lexus is a different type of animal. It handles so well that even the big machines, the road bullies, think twice before messing with a Lexus.” Cookie glanced at Cornbread. “You gotta carry yourself the same way.”

“Like a Lexus?” Cornbread said.

“That’s right,” Cookie said. “You gotta let folks know you’re not to be fucked with, but do it so it’s classy. What’s your name by the way, son?”

“Julius, but everyone calls me Cornbread.”

“Jesus,” Cookie said, shaking his head. “And you don’t know how to handle yourself? With a name like that?”

Cornbread didn’t have anything to say to that.

“You’re gonna have to know how to protect yourself, boy. You looking the way you do, it ain’t gonna get any easier.”

Cornbread gave Cookie a hard look.

“Don’t be mad at me, son. I ain’t the world that’s putting you through it. Don’t nobody like someone who looks different. You heard me out there with them boys. Look at the history of white folks and what they do to people who don’t look like them.

“You’re gonna have to know how to fight them, your own people and the system. When I say fighting, I don’t mean just with your hands. You gotta build up your mind too, son.

Oh, yeah. My name’s Cookie, by the way.”

Cookie pulled up outside Cornbread’s house and parked. When his parents saw his face busted up, when the school administration refused to take action since it happened outside of the building, Cornbread’s parents felt helpless until Cookie, who had decided to take Cornbread under his wing, offered to pay for him to take a self-defense course.

Through his training, Cornbread built up his self-esteem by striving harder at defending himself. If the other black kids wanted to exclude him from extracurricular activities and social events, he had Judo, which he excelled at before studying other martial arts. He entered tournaments, won medallions and gold medals. Cookie was at every match, cheering with Cornbread’s parents.

During that time, Cornbread developed an interest for Asian culture, especially after learning that the first Japanese Shogun, Sakanouye Tamuramaro, was a black man born during the eighth century. Cornbread beamed with pride at knowing that scholars of Japanese history called Tamuramaro a “paragon of military virtues.” Tamuramaro was who the Japanese government called when the crimes got out of hand and incidents outnumbered the police force. Cornbread felt a kinship with the black shogun—both of them tasked with the thankless job of bringing about justice. That connection was felt so much so that the shogun’s spirit, which warned of danger, became to Cornbread what the “spidey senses” were to Spiderman.

Tamuramaro’s story was somehow tied to the African presence in ancient Japan. The earliest evidence uncovered was a Stone Age hut near Osaka that looked like the earth lodges of the Berbers in Tunisia. Japan’s ancient hut was dated to be about 22,000 years old.

That some Japanese scholars still dismissed Tamuramaro and Africans in ancient Japan as myths didn’t surprise Cornbread. They reminded him of some American “historians” who pretended that slavery didn’t exist.

And on that topic of slavery, the only issue Cornbread had with the samurai code was the part about warriors honoring their masters and/or lords, which he saw as another form of oppression. That’s why when he came back to DC after his seven-year tour of Afghanistan, Cornbread lived as a ronin. They were masterless samurai, who weren’t always fighting.

During peaceful times, ronins were Confucian scholars and teachers. Some of the best writings and works of art from ancient Japan were done by ronins. They were also martial arts instructors and bodyguards.

Back home, Cornbread was a cultural critic for the Washington City Paper, while moonlighting as a bouncer at the 9:30 club. As a columnist, Cornbread’s essays about displaced residents and city council corruption motivated people to protest and exercise their voting power. A piece he did highlighting a film student with financial hurdles spurred an outpouring of donations from readers that helped the student complete his thesis film.

Cornbread also loved being a bouncer, but night club security could be crazy like what happened a few months before. Third District Police responded to a call from the club. An off-duty officer and his boys were causing a disturbance outside when Cornbread wouldn’t let the officer carry his gun with him. “Sorry, it’s club policy,” the bouncer said.

“Sorry?” The officer mocked him. “You’ll be sorry, if you don’t let me and my boys through.”

“No one goes inside with a weapon, unless they’re officers on official business.” It was clear that the cop, who was already intoxicated, wasn’t there for official business.

When Cornbread offered to check the officer’s weapon, the cop said, “I could arrest you for harassment.”

“I’m not harassing anybody,” the bouncer said. “You’re just not getting through with that piece.”

When the officer shoved Cornbread, the bouncer felt the presence of Sakanouye Tamuramaro’s ghost. A big guy grabbed the bouncer from behind and attempted to move him aside. The shogun’s ghost worked through Cornbread, lifting the bouncer’s arms and dipping him low enough to slip from under the hold. Cornbread’s wristlock had Big Man tippy toeing. Holding the beefy arm like a bat, the bouncer swung low, dropping Big Man across the sidewalk. Shortly after, Tamuramaro’s ghost was gone.

Everyone backed off, except the officer, who told Third District Police that Cornbread threatened him, which was discredited by the people waiting outside and the heavy smell of alcohol on the cop. At the request of a Third District sergeant, the officer left the club.

Every night wasn’t always like that, though. Earlier that evening, when Cornbread Othello caught the burglars, he was on his way to 7-Eleven after the Pharoahe Monch show at the 9:30 club. That was one of the perks of being security. He got to see his favorite emcees for free.

Now, he was headed home, cruising through Rock Creek Park in his black Lexus that took the turns like a cougar prowling the night. He rode with his stereo loud, tapping the steering wheel while flowing with Pharoahe: The epitome of lyrical epiphanies/ Skillfully placed home we carefully plan symphonies.

Nobody was rapping like that. It had been a good show. The crowd’s energy was right. Corn didn’t have to throw anyone out the club.

He came to a stop light, and watched the moon above the Potomac River. That night it was close enough to its water-worn reflection that, together, they formed a mouth as round and sumptuous as a woman’s. That night, it was hard to miss Desiree, the bartender. She’d had her eye on Cornbread, who was so focused on his job that nothing else mattered. How hadn’t he noticed this tea-colored woman, her short and shapely frame?

She turned it up that night—her curves more pronounced, they even shouted through her dark form-fitting top and tight skirt. Cornbread Othello watched some guys spend all night trying to get with her. They left alone. She was usually quiet, perhaps waiting on him to spot her checking him out before he made a move. However, that night, she initiated the small talk. She flirted every time he passed her section.

When he had a minute, Othello leaned against the bar and they talked about the show and their favorite emcees. He was happy she was a Pharoahe Monch fan, and not just a fan of his solo stuff. Desiree knew the lyrics to most of the tracks on the Organized Konfusion albums. That impressed Cornbread.

They talked about why they hated the radio and artists who needed a public platform. Desiree blindsided Othello when she mentioned Cannibal Ox and their debut album.

“Whatchu know about The Cold Vein?” Cornbread asked.

“It was only Vast Aire’s and Vodul Mega’s ground-breaking album,” Desiree said.

Cornbread was still catching his bearings. This sista was a hip hop fan for real.

“C’mon!” Desiree said. “That album’s the best thing since 36 Chambers.”

Cornbread dug how fun and easy it was to talk to her, but he had to get back to his post. Around closing time, Desiree told the bouncer she enjoyed their conversation and that they had to do it again, next time off the clock. She smiled at that last part; they both laughed and exchanged info. She jumped in her BMW.

“Nice body,” he said.

“It’s a 7-series,” she said.

“That much room, huh?”

Desiree smiled.

“I bet it’s fast.”

“Watch it. I’m a good girl.” She winked at that last part.

“I was talking about the car.”

The both laughed when the BMW hummed before she took off.

The traffic light was still red. Cornbread glanced at the Memorial Bridge that seemed elastic the way it stretched over the Potomac River. Across the water was Virginia, where Desiree lived.

He sighed and smiled, tapping the steering wheel as he continued rhyming with Monch. He peeled off when the light turned green.

 

 

“There is nothing so painful as regret. We would all like

to be without it. However, when we are very happy and

become elated, or when we habitually jump into something

thoughtlessly, later we are distraught, and it is for the most

part because we did not think ahead and are now regretful.

Certainly we should try not to become dejected, and when

Very happy should calm our minds”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”

 

CASEY MALONE WAS ALREADY EATING when Cornbread Othello entered the Soup Spoon diner. At noon, it was packed. The servers scribbled orders, while busboys pinballed between the busy brunch patrons, clearing off tables. Watching all of this, Cornbread enjoyed Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” playing through house speakers.  He looked around and spotted Cookie standing at Casey’s table.

The old man was still sharp. He wore brown dress slacks and matching tie over a mustard color dress shirt—not even the white apron tied around Cookie’s waist could dull the old man’s style. When Cornbread got close, he and Cookie slapped palms before they embraced. “I’ll send out Amanda to take care of you,” Cookie said. He pulled off the apron and wrapped it over his right arm. “I’ve got to set some stuff up.”

“Is everything OK, Cookie?” Cornbread asked. He thought it was unusual for the old man to seem hurried. Any other time, Cookie couldn’t wait for Cornbread to stop through. The two men would sit and shoot the shit about sports, women, and music. Even when Cornbread wanted to be alone, he never told Cookie. The old man was nice enough to let him eat for free—something he did for folks he called “family”.

Something wasn’t right. Cornbread felt it despite how calm Casey seemed, folding his toast and shoveling hard-scrambled eggs and melted cheese over the crease. Cornbread watched Casey chomping through what looked like a sad fajita or a goofy soft taco.

“I gotta go, son,” Cookie said. He snatched his coat off the chair back. “I already told Case, and I’m telling you now, y’all let me know if you need anything.”

The way Cookie said anything, Cornbread knew he wasn’t referring to things a customer might ask for: an extra order of fries or free refills on fruit juices.

Cookie grabbed Casey’s shoulder, held it for a beat, and was gone.

“You know those two burglars from yesterday?” Casey asked, swishing the last of his coffee around.

“Yeah. So?” Cornbread asked, going over the menu.

“Well, you really stepped in dog shit with those two.”

Cornbread looked up and studied his friend’s blank expression, waiting for the smile that always told him Casey was messing with him. That’s when Amanda came by their table. “So what’ll it be, Sweety?”
“Buffalo wings with bleu cheese and a small order of fries,” he said.

“Anything to drink?”

“Water’s fine. Thanks”
“Coming right up.” Amanda said, heading to the kitchen.

Not seeing his friend’s smile, the bouncer asked: “How much of a mess did I get on my shoes?”

“Those two guys are part of the Hornets Crew.” Casey said. “They’re a professional network of burglars hitting homes and businesses throughout DC, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, and northern Virginia. This crew was organized enough to have three divisions: residential, retail, and junior league.”

“A junior league?” Cornbread asked. Amanda brought his order and asked if they needed anything else before she left. Both men said they were fine. Cornbread started on a drumstick as he shook his head. “Lord knows what those boys have to do for a promotion,” he said.

Casey told Cornbread that that division committed thefts from automobiles. A plain white van drove around, dropping off boys at parking garages near subway stations. The boys took the steps to the top floor, and worked their way down. They’d pick the passenger side door lock. If the alarm sounded, they had enough time to pop the hood and disconnect the battery without drawing attention. They made off with car radios, CDs and electronics.

The retail crew was a whole ‘nother beast. During 62 thefts, these masked men stole over $200K from the registers of fast food chains, discount shops and gas stations. Any DNA evidence was destroyed when they splashed bleach over the crime scene.

And there was also residential. This squad usually hit around Christmas Eve and Christmas. Drivers were sent to scope out affluent areas—to pass through these neighborhoods, park and sit in their cars and watch for residents heading out of town. The drivers jotted those addresses down and came back through with the crew.

“Last night, there were only two guys because it was supposed to be a piece-of-cake job,” Casey said.

“That’s why neither of them was packing,” Cornbread said. “I’m willing to bet they both had blades in case they ran into trouble.”

“And trouble put them both down.”

Cornbread laughed.

“I’m serious,” Casey said. “You mess with any member, and a swarm of them come for that ass.”

Cornbread sometimes forgot that Casey wasn’t a brother—well, not on the surface. He was one of those white boys who grew up around black people, and who genuinely spoke the way he did and wasn’t trying to be what he wasn’t. That’s why he and Cornbread hit it off right away. “It’s a soul thing,” Cornbread once told him.

He shook the thought and was on his last wing. Watching Casey, he asked, “What these hornets stinging with?”

“Something serious,” Casey said, smiling when Amanda brought the bill.

In recent weeks, hundreds of firearms were reported missing from area gun stores and pawn shops. Casey said the guys at the station believe it might be related to the eight burglaries done by the Hornet’s retail division, where over 200 firearms were stolen.

“Those guys will do the time because they know what’ll happen if they snitch,” Casey said. Both suspects’ hornet tattoos on their necks were dead giveaways to the officers at Second District Station. “Watch your back,” Casey said. “Most likely, they’ve already phoned back to the hive and gave them your description.”

“You too, Case,” Cornbread said. “Us sitting here all chummy like this, they’re bound to get ideas on how to bait me.”

Casey hadn’t thought about that, but he wasn’t worried. He’d cross that bridge when he got there, if he ever got there.

They paid the bill and were laughing as they exited the diner until they saw Cornbread’s car—four tires slashed and the windshield busted. His pulse drummed. The adrenaline rush made the air smell clearer. The back of his neck and the rest of him went hot as he looked up and down the block. He looked at the car and found what he thought might be a vengeful note under the one windshield wiper that wasn’t yanked off. It was just a folded photo of Cornbread.

Case walked his friend away. He’d give Cornbread a ride home. But, first, they’d have to get the car towed to a shop. Cornbread stopped to glance back at the wreckage. Without looking, Casey said, “Stings, don’t it?”

 

 

“It is good to carry some powered rouge in one’s sleeve.

It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking

from sleep, his complexion may be poor. At such a time

it is good to take out and apply some powered rouge.”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”

 

Two months later.

 

DESIREE WRIGHT WAS ONLY WEARING an over-sized jersey. She crossed the bedroom, looking around her desk and under the comforter that fell from the bed the night before. It had been a full evening that started with drinks and light refreshments after a staged reading, of which Cornbread Othello was a cast member. It was a play about an English statesman whose dirty dealings from his past he kept a secret from his wife, who was proud of the honest man she thought she married. The statesman feared that if his wife knew what he’d done, she’d stop loving him. Cornbread played the role of the friend who counseled the statesman.

Over Eggplant with Garlic Sauce and Sauteed Orange Chicken at a China town restaurant afterwards, she told Cornbread she enjoyed his reading the best. They laughed about the elderly woman who snored through one of his lines, and who—after being elbowed awake by her friend— dropped her cane when she fell asleep again. The evening ended with a drive through Rock Creek Parkway, past Haines Point and the Lincoln Memorial, and through Virginia.

When Cornbread rolled over and didn’t feel Desiree, he sat up to see her already dressed— wearing grey windbreaker pants and a matching top. She pulled her locks back into a bun. “Kind of early, don’t you think?” Cornbread said, wiping sleep from his eyes. He looked at his cell phone; it was 5:30a.m.

“Go back to sleep,” she said. “You know my morning routine.”

“But it’s Saturday.”

“And?” She smiled as the light blue washing away the inked-out sky said the sun wasn’t far off. The moist after-the-rain smell that drifted through her bedroom window was calming. Those mornings, she’d plug up her ear buds and take off for the Custis Trail down the street from her Arlington apartment. She’d run through the rose garden at Bon Air Park to Wilson Boulevard, and along the Key Bridge at Rosslyn. “You know what I gotta do,” she said.

Those morning jogs started nearly a decade ago, when Desiree and her sister, Deidre, were invited to a friend’s pool party. They were both in their early twenties at the time. That day, the two women went out shopping for swimsuits.  While modeling their suits for each other, Deidre cracked up at how Desiree’s tummy and love handles spilled from the two-piece. “Damn, girl!” she had said. “That thing tight enough to be a blood pressure cuff.” To which Desiree said, “I don’t know why you’re laughing. On you, that one-piece looks like a snake swallowing a whole animal?” They left the bathing suits at the store. That night, they sat by the poolside, watching their friends splash around and have fun. When their friends called them over to the water, the sisters tried to smile as they waved them off. Desiree and her sister found out about an aerobics class from a woman, who was close enough to hear them talk to each other about being self-conscious of their bodies.

They enrolled and got with an instructor who set them up with a routine. When they shaped up nicely, the instructor suggested they tone up by lifting weights. The guys at the gym started checking out Deidre, who was more disciplined than her younger sister. While she took her routines seriously, Desiree dragged her feet. When Desiree complained about the lack of attention, Deidre said, “You’ve got to work hard if you want what I’m enjoying.”

And when Desiree did, the sisters talked about running marathons and traveling the world. It was Deidre’s dream, and Desiree was down to tag along. To show she was serious, Deidre made her loop pinkies and promise to carry out those dreams if anything happened to her. It wasn’t something Desiree wanted to think about: being without her sister. They were inseparable for as long as Desiree remembered. Everyone around their hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, jokingly called them the Double Mint twins, though Deidre was two years older.

Over several months, the sisters started training for their marathon dreams, which seemed attainable—that is, until Deidre was rushed to the hospital. Earlier that day, Deidre called off training because of a headache and ringing in her ears. She complained about her head feeling tight just before she was admitted. When a doctor came out to the waiting room and told the family that Deidre was suffering from a brain aneurysm, Desiree panicked. She fainted when the doctor said Deidre died when the bulging blood vessel had burst.

And so went their dreams, Desiree thought. She stopped training and went into a deep depression, which she eventually got out of with her family’s support and prayers. She was on her way to a full recovery when she met Cornbread, who she wasn’t expecting. That night they connected during the Pharoahe Monch concert, she knew there was something more than just the bouncer who kept riffraff out the club. He was gentle. When she told him about her sister and nearly broke down, he held her. Cornbread told her about his friends he lost while fighting in Afghanistan. They were like his brothers; so he knew what it meant to lose a sibling. He supported her whole-heartedly when she decided to start back training.

Desiree laced up her white New Balance. “Will you be here when I get back?” she said.

Cornbread yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Probably not,” he said. Saturday was one of the days he trained at the Mixed Martial Arts gym above the wine and spirits shop on U Street.

Desiree adjusted her armband mp3 player and plugged up her ear buds. “I’ll call you later,” she said, smiling before went out the door. Her playlist, which started with Pharoahe Monch’s “God Send” and shuffled to MF Doom’s “Lickupon,” was the perfect soundtrack to the still wet streets and dewy air. She took a deep breath and set off for the trails.

Later that day, while checking his cell phone after the workout, Cornbread saw he had a missed call from Desiree. He played the message and was concerned when he heard a man’s voice. The voice told him he messed up some serious money by botching the burglary. So, in exchange, he took something valuable from Cornbread, who heard a muffled sound somewhere behind the voice. If he wanted to see her again, the voice instructed him on where to meet up with the payment.

 

“Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old

or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that

they will one day die. It is not that we don’t know that we

are going to die, but we grasp at straws. While knowing that

we will die someday, we think that all the others will die

before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a

long way off.

Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a

joke within a dream. It will not do to think in such a way and

be negligent. Insofar as death is always at one’s door, one

should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”

 

IT TOOK A WHILE for Desiree’s eyes to adjust to the dark. The outlines of a desk and opened file cabinet told her where she was used to be an office. She was bound to a metal chair with her arms and legs tied up. The rag in her mouth made it hard to keep her throat moist. The moldy smell from the damp carpet and mildew dotting the wood paneled walls told her that the room was old. If what she saw was any indication of the rest of the facility, the building had been abandoned for some time.

Nothing Desiree saw around her hinted that she was at the old Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake Factory by S Street NW in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, an area that transformed from a freed slave settlement to the pre-Harlem hub of black intellectual and cultural life during the early 20th century. That area’s northern boundary was marked by Florida Avenue and the adjacent neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and LeDroit Park. Shaw’s highlights were Howard University and both the retailers and theaters along U Street, 14th Street in the Logan Circle area, and centered along 7th Street NW.

The Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake Factory was a 50,000-square-foot facility. Dudley Development tried to convert the abandoned building to office and retail space, but the bad economy sunk those plans. The developers even tried to renovate inside to host art soirees as part of an international cultural festival—that is, until a city inspector said the building wasn’t structurally safe. Desperate to keep the warehouse from being demolished and bulldozed, Dudley Development submitted applications to have the factory added to the DC Inventory of Historic Sites.

From where Desiree sat, there was nothing history-worthy about what she saw. Any value it might have had was also lost to Cornbread Othello and Casey Malone, who watched the building from Casey’s car parked a block away. The Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake Factory, which dated back to 1913, was now an eyesore of busted glass and rusted window grates. Cornbread and Casey knew, according to word around the way, that addicts went behind the factory to speedball, or shoot up a cocktail of cocaine and heroin.

Watching the building, Cornbread was struck by how human the tired structure seemed—its gaze just as listless as the dope heads who once nodded along the alley beside it. “This can’t be the hive,” Cornbread said, looking through a pair of binoculars. Across from the factory were small Victorian row houses. The gridded streets were quiet except for the few cars that passed by the building, headed to 9th Street—what was known as “Little Horn of Africa” for its string of Ethiopian and Somali restaurants and bars.

Behind the warehouse was the abandoned Howard Theater, a 1,200-seat venue, which faced T Street NW. When it was up and running, the theater hosted acts such as Duke Ellington and his band, Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald. Later, when it became a venue for rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues during the mid-20th century, Sarah Vaughn, Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Washington and Lena Horne were among the stars to grace that stage. In 2002, two decades after it closed, the DC Preservation League listed the theater among the city’s Most Endangered Places.

Across the alley from the theater was a restaurant that specialized in Pan-African, Caribbean, and Soul Food dishes named after historic figures such as the Harriet Tubman Burger, Martin Luther King Greens, and Lumumba Sweet Potato Fries.  During its heyday, it hosted live performances, a poetry open mic, and independent film screenings any day of the week. But shabby service and bad accounting put the restaurant on life support. It was further doomed when the owner unsuccessfully tried to rescue the establishment from debt by hosting strippers for Friday night performances. Rumor has it that the owner set the grease fire that almost destroyed the restaurant to collect insurance.

“I don’t think this is the hive,” Cornbread said again, still looking through his binoculars. He didn’t trust the Hornets to let him simply exchange the money, which he planned to borrow from Second District Station’s evidence room, for Desiree. What’s to stop the crew from shooting them both? He and Casey planned to burglarize the factory the day before the scheduled money drop.

“Think of this factory as a temporary spot for the swarm to cluster,” Casey said, checking the magazine clip of his Beretta CX4 Storm. “You sure you’re not gonna need any firearms.” Casey loved his semi-automatic civilian rifle that was equipped with red-dot sight and tactical light. If he came head-to-head with trouble, he could let off 10-20 rounds.

“I’m good,” Cornbread said, patting the .40 caliber blowgun he laid across his lap. His left pocket held the darts, which had been dipped in both Thorazine and Navane—two anti-psychotic drugs used to treat paranoia. These were major tranquilizers that knocked out their targets fast and quiet. Cornbread got the drugs from Casey, who had those prescriptions to treat his severe Post-traumatic stress disorder.

Casey shook his head as he watched Cornbread inspect the sharpened wire darts. “You still tryna’ be a ninja.”

“You know I follow the samurai code,” Cornbread said. Besides, his blowgun, which fired darts at 350 feet-per-second, had all he needed. Cookie gave them a catalogue for him and Casey to pick whatever they wanted. “Check it; I got a foam hand grip for easy handling, an anti- inhale safety mouthpiece, and a muzzle guard with handy sight. If I need to move quickly, this sling right here makes it easy to throw the blowgun over my shoulder and haul ass.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” Casey said. “It’s still a toy, if you ask me.”

They left the car and walked up the alley. With both the theater and restaurant unused, they provided great cover from T Street NW. Cornbread and Casey didn’t have to worry about anyone discovering them cutting the lock off the factory’s back door. Walking through the dark basement, they split up to look for Desiree.

 

“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.

Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one

should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles,

spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves,

being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by

lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, fall-

ing from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing

seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without

fail one should consider himself as dead.

There is a saying of the elders’ that goes, ‘Step from

under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and

the enemy is waiting.’ This is not a matter of being careful.

It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hagakure”

 

Cornbread wandered through the warehouse’s basement until he came to a stairwell with plush pink walls and a read liner that almost seemed poured down the middle of the marble steps. He couldn’t help thinking how it looked like the interior of an esophagus. He took the steps cautiously with his blowgun drawn as he approached the voices swarming at the top.

He was surprised at the casino-style layout of the second floor. All around him were maroon-colored felt roulette wheels and black jack tables. There were also slot machines…and those voices. They were coming through house speakers—idle conversations about NBA games (whose team would take the championship this year, players that were going to be traded and was thought to be overrated, and so on). Cornbread wondered if someone mistakenly left the mics live. The place wasn’t well lit except for a few lamps. There were plenty of dark spots for him to move through without being spotted by security cameras.

Crouched by one of the tables, Cornbread had a flashback to Afghanistan, where he and a small team of marines cautiously approached what looked like an abandoned factory. The structure was one of several on the list of WMD sites. Cornbread remembered it being too quiet. If it was a trap, they were ready. They wore their facemasks to protect against any biological attack. They were scared and, at the same time, driven by their curiosity of what the WMDs looked like.

Cornbread wondered how Desiree would look when he found her. He imagined her tied up, gagged, and sweaty with her hair wild. He also imagined her scarred up from when the kidnappers tortured her to find out what she knew about the Hornets. They were a shadow operation; you knew they were there, but never saw them. And they intended to keep it that way. If they killed Desiree during the questioning, as far as they were concerned, it was worth it to keep their anonymity.

Cornbread slipped through the floor to a side hallway, looking for the voices that were now laughing at a sitcom playing in the background. He went room by room until he came to one at the end of the hall with a maze of cubicle walls. It was Afghanistan again with his team of marines carefully moving through the labyrinth of plaster and cement, waiting for something to explode or jump out shooting. He lifted his blowgun with his lips already on the mouthpiece, ready to take out what was hiding behind the last wall.

His fingers trembling and his pulse drumming, Cornbread whipped around the corner and was stunned. This was the last room. And, like the WMDs, Desiree was nowhere around. Instead, what he saw was an elaborate computer system wired to the building’s alarm. It was as if the Hornets were expecting Cornbread and Casey. The recorder, plugged to the sound board for the casino speakers, were set to go off through the alarm’s sensors, which Cornbread and Casey triggered when they broke the back door’s lock.

It was a while before Cornbread heard a soft chime, before he realized that chime was coming from a bomb wired to that computer system. Staring at the maze of rooms before him, he couldn’t help but feel like Theseus. Cornbread remembered the Greek mythology, the Labyrinth, which he read as a kid. He was sure that Daedalus, who barely escaped his own labyrinth, would be impressed by how the Hornets laid this trap, complete with an exploding Minotaur to wipe out intruders.

But the more Cornbread thought, the more he realized his luck was far from that of Theseus’s. After all, the Athenian hero had slain the Minotaur—not the other way around. Plus, Theseus had the good sense to plot his own escape before entering the labyrinth, and he did it using thread. Watching the bomb’s remaining 10 minutes, Cornbread listened to its incessant beeps tethered to his and Casey’s inevitable doom. He listened without a thread of a clue to lead him to Desiree.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Light Inside

jaz

for Jazmyn King (due date: Dec. 30, 2015)

You were a print of light pressed
into a waxy dark sheet. Your mom framed you
while I carried you in my wallet and phone.

I stood in your white room — the black window
trim and floor boards, the Espresso dresser and
crib watched me fold your onesies,

watched me contemplate the country of fatherhood,
where experience alone won’t grant you citizenship.

I hang the fluffy pink sleepsack, the doll-like plaid
dress, the white coverall and cap freckled with
green and blue Cockatoos.

Everything hangs, waiting for you to fill them
the way your mom and I waited for you

to fill her womb, we waited through the tears —
pacing and praying you’d be stronger than the ones before,
barely a glimmer when they dimmed.

Now, your mom’s a lamp, whose light comes
from your kicks and punches, from watching the star
in your chest flash on the ultrasound,
from your persistence to enter our life.

If there’s one thing waiting taught us
it’s that patience is the currency
of anything worth having.

So I rub your mom’s tummy to
feel your elbow, then your fist —
grateful for the light inside.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2015 in Poem

 

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Lela Malona

This piece, which I wrote in 2006, first appeared in The Arabesque Review.

bus stopLela rises at 4a.m. to catch the W13 for 5:45 downtown. She reaches the office at 6:30 to start coffee and have a fresh pot brewed for the workers stumbling in at 7a.m.

She was always known to bring in snacks and treats for her co-workers: Sugar cookies, candy bars and Now&Laters. Even though she wasn’t paid extra for her enthusiasm, her reward was the smiles of office mates as they enjoyed her goodies.

Barely a year on the job and she’s earned accolades from everyone along with numerous awards that amount to nothing more than condescending pats on the head. Kind of how a master praises his dog for entertaining his friends with tricks and being well behaved.

The things rewarded ranged from cubicle cleanliness to best personality to on-the-spot action.

Lela earned the latter that day she heard the loud, beeping sound of the fax machine and saw the blinking message indicating it was out of paper. But Lela’s swift action in ordering reams of blank sheets saved the day when her coworkers thought they were all but doomed.

“Good job!” A team manager told her.

“Keep this up. We just may have to give you a brand new name plate over your desk,” said another team manager as he glanced at her breasts and thighs. “You may even be promoted to Secretary. Way to take the initiative.”

He knew 10 months ago that she had the job when he interviewed her. He had introduced himself then as Clyde Holder.

Clyde usually took off his wedding band when he was interviewing women. That day, he wasn’t expecting to get caught up in the soft glow of Lela’s olive skin, her curly brown hair, and jell-o bosom.

The whole game of going through the interview process was so he could enjoy the eyeful. From that day on, he spent his nights lying beside his wife, dreaming of romping with Lela and sweating her curls straight.

Clyde knew then that he couldn’t go straight at her for what he wanted. No. If there was anything he’d learned from his years of office negotiations, it was to soften her up with shallow praises and phony certificates he had stacked in his drawer.

Another quality Lela’s coworkers noticed was that she was a voracious reader.

She was well-read on nearly every popular street lit novel from Hustla’s Anthem by Felon E. to I Ain’t Yo’ Father, Boy by Ms. D. Meaner to I’m ‘Bout to Slap You, Shawty by Juve Nile 10den-C.

She was reading the relationship self-help book,  You Know Yo’ Man Cheating When…, co-authored Tiara Sprinkles and Mello Mike.

Their bios alone were drama. Tiara Sprinkles (birth name: “Tia Jenkins”) decided to keep her stripper name even after she was born again and co-pastored the mega church, Party of Saved, with her husband Bishop Mack McCloud, with a mission of reaching out to women at risk of straying from the love of the true man, Jesus Christ.

Mello Mike was a failed emcee, whose hype men jumped him on a video shoot after they found out they were being replaced by the GEBCO dancers.

He met Tiara during an altar call when she offered to pray for him after he blessed the basket with a large sum he’d retrieved from the church ATM.

You Know Yo’ Man Cheating… was a collection of anecdotal info from their own experiences and those of several other church members. When publishing companies refused to pick up the manuscript, they decided to self-publish and distribute it at several church seminars.

Almost half-way through You Know Yo’ Man Cheating…, Lela—who had attended one of the seminars weeks ago—moaned in affirmation at each of the passages she read at her desk.

“Hey yall. Listen to this one: ‘If a woman ask a man out, then she does not know if he’s interested in her.’

“Here’s another one: ‘If your man doesn’t want to have sex with you anymore, then he was never physically attracted to you.’ Mmph! Mello and T bringing it, yall.'”

Right across from Lela’s cubicle was Chris’s workspace.

He wasn’t in the mood for any nonsense that day. He tried ignoring her, but was pulled into the conversation when he was asked what he thought about the passages in the book.
“Are there footnotes or a page for sources that you can research on your own?” He told Lela without looking away from his computer screen. “Do they even have degrees?”

“Anybody can speak the truth,” she snapped. “You don’t need a degree to write a book like this.”

Lela flipped through and read a few more passages out loud.

“Keep that ghetto shit to yourself, then. I ain’t trying to hear you read off a checklist for sistas, who look for Mr. Right at every Happy Hour and Cabaret.”

Chris was getting ready to put his headsets on to drown out Lela with MF Doom’s Vaudeville Villain album.

“You can limit your chances of meeting these wack dudes by doing something out of the ordinary. Try going to a reading or an art exhibit.”

At 6′ 3″, he had a commanding presence when he entered the suite despite his position as clerical officer. His laidback demeanor was often mistaken for laziness and his cool temperament for being timid.

Why was he the only guy in that workspace? Chris wondered. He hated that Lela tried to make him a source for everything she wanted to know about guys.

He was only one man, who could only speak about what he liked and disliked. Chris couldn’t stand guys who tried to be a mouthpiece for every man.

That’s why he never liked Terrance Mason and his syndicated radio talk show. The guy’s divorced and he’s giving relationship advice, he thought.

He despised Terrance’s sold out plays: “Why Men Walk in the Dark” and “Disarming Shango.”

Chris had considered getting with Lela when she started working in the office, but quickly dismissed that idea. They were from two different eras despite the fact that she was a few years younger than him.

He was from an era where developing craft was the most important thing an emcee can do. Storytellers like Ghostface, MF Doom, Pharoahe Monch and others were legends that people of his era worshiped and saw as the torchbearers for true lyricism.

Lela was of the Laffy Taffy era. The era of the Chicken Noodle soup.

Great. Dances that sound like sides, he thought. What’s next? The Italian Wedding? The Cheese and Broccoli?

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Cornbread Othello’s Reflections on the Coco Loco

Editor’s note: Several years ago, while studying Journalism at Howard University, I started to appreciate prose. Having written mostly poems up until that point, I enjoyed the freedom prose gave me that I didn’t have with poetry. Poems seemed more demanding because of the various literary devices and space. Prose opened a new world to my writer mind. With that discovery, I started writing flash fiction pieces. The following one first appeared in The Arabesque Review, an international arts journal. I borrow a character, Fatback McGristle, who was created by my friend and fellow writer, Derrick Weston Brown. Thank you, Derrick, for permission to include Fatback in this story. Here it is:
__________________________________

bbA line inside of Coco Loco stretched along the bookstore walls, wrapped around the Poetry shelves and passed through the Biography and Fiction sections.

Every Thursday night, eager performers rushed Fatback McGristle for the list as they cried, “Ohh.. mee, mee!!” The tired host let out a frustrated sigh while his gold capped tooth gleamed among the other three remaining ones.

Outside, Cornbread Othello was brushing back his sandy-brown ‘fro before taking the Black&Mild from over his right ear, lighting up and puffing tight O’s that stretched to loose hoops the higher they climbed the cool air.

“I ain’t never seen people this excited for the open mic since Yogi Records in Adam’s Morgan. But that was years ago. A few of these pups were nursing their mother’s tit then.”

Cornbread peeked inside at Fatback gesturing wildly that the list was closed, and that there were no intentions of squeezing on late-comers.

“This was a whole different scene nine years ago. D.C. was fierce then. Can you imagine being at a reading and every poet there at the caliber of those in the Black Arts Movement? You left every reading ready to put pen to paper under some desk lamp or whatever light you had to work with.”

Cornbread got his name from reading on the scene. It was awhile before the older cats took notice and was feeling his Shakespearean flow–everything from sonnets to rhyming couplets.

After the council of elders had watched Lawrence Fishburn play Othello, and after considering that his skin was lighter than corn meal, they unanimously decided what to call him.

The rest was history. From there, he’d go on to share his work in Switzerland, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Cornbread’s work was in several national and international anthologies. He published over 20 collections of poems, 10 novels and numerous articles for the Washington City Paper, The Afro, EMERGE, and the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

Cornbread was also nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and the National Book Award. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and journalist was invited to do speaking engagements throughout the African continent.

The D.C. scene was definitely a different place then. So much onus was on the writer to study their craft and not to take the reader for granted. Even the audience was well-read not just in poetry, but other literary genres and current events going on around the world.

“One night, this self-proclaimed elder got up on the mic and started doing this number by the Last Poets.”

Cornbread takes a long drag on his Black&Mild, now smoked to the mouthpiece. “He never even acknowledged that it was their piece.” He holds it in as long as he could before releasing a stream through his nostrils.

“I felt so sorry for that cat when he finished that poem. Right after, the host counted to three and damn near everybody in the place recited the same poem back to him before they banned his ass from ever performing there, again.

“That was then. Recently, I was at another spot nearby. Nag Champa was burning strong that night. This one cat does a poem and bites several lines from Saul Williams’ ‘Amethyst Rock.’

But everybody was so busy being righteous that they didn’t catch it and the chump got daps and back pats. I was so disgusted that I left. ”

Cornbread pushes through the heavy double doors. Cornel Shalom was on the mic.

Cornbread couldn’t stand this extra-righteous brother. Something about the guy’s whole image seemed artificial. Cornbread ran into many of these dudes preaching that “king” must love the “queen” rhetoric.

Most of these guys were womanizers, who postured as photographers, poets, teachers, and founders of non-profits. At 6′ 4, Shalom–who was bald–was wearing a long flowing ceremonial garment.

“The Tax Man’s!!…the Tax Man’s debt!!” ranted the militant, who was said to resemble Morpheus. “The Tax Man’s!!…the Tax Man’s debt!!”

He said it as if he were somehow stuck on repeat, as if the idea were a scratched record struggling to play past that point.

“The Tax Man’s!!…the Tax Man’s debt!!”

At first, Cornbread thought he was having a seizure. He was reaching for his pick just in case the performer tried to chew off his tongue.

But he realized it was a part of the performance when he picked up on the dramatic pauses and the way Cornel looked intently into the eyes of the mostly-women crowd. Five more runs of this and his piece was finished.

Cornel then whipped out two African Peach incense, lit them, and cued his boy to dim the lights before going into the love poem called “Black Queen,” a tribute to Baskin Robbins’ new flavor due to be released during Black History Month.

Cornbread thought, for a minute, that he was in a Dark & Lovely hair commercial when sistas gave Amen-affirmations to Cornel on the mic. Cornbread half-expected a cream-colored, dreadlocked brother to come from backstage–barefoot in Capoeira pants and a linen shirt, handing out roses to women in the crowd.

Cornbread shook his head.

“These people want to be entertained instead of enlightened. They don’t appreciate the poets sharing their craft with them nor do the poets appreciate the crowd. Instead they do poems for the cheap applause.

“Back in the day, a poet had to be on their p’s and q’s because they could be approached afterwards by someone in the crowd and have their work critiqued on the spot. If they misused a word, someone usually pointed that out while talking to the artist.”

Gone are the days of honest and constructive criticisms, he thought.

“And don’t even think of approaching people today because then you’re ‘hating’.” He disliked that whole practice of dismissing criticism: “Oh, you hatin’!”

But this wasn’t the worst night at Coco Loco’s. No sight of Moans da Poet, who usually walked around, ogling strange women with his lazy eye before trying to grope them.

Whenever Moans was around, he signed the list so he could do his sex poems to get the women in the mood.

But it was hard for anyone to grasp what he was trying to say in these pieces. One minute he was talking; the next he was making sonar noises.

Cornbread once overheard two women from a nearby table say it reminded them of PBS’s special on mating sea mammals.

“Things really were different nine years ago,” Cornbread remembered. “Rita Dove was the Poet Laureate of the United States then, which led to the discovery of the Poetry on the Metro Project.

“It was founded by this lady named Laurie Stroblas, who went around teaching writing workshops in D.C.’s public elementary and middle schools. You gotta get ’em while they’re young and the appreciation’s still there. I used to love to see the kids faces light up when they saw their poems going to and from school on the public transit system.

”’Hey Mister,’ one of them would tug on my sleeve. Keisha, I think was her name. ‘That’s my poem! Look!’

“I told her, ‘Keep doing your thing, sweetie. Don’t forget about those that came before you. Read all their work and keep it moving.'”

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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What the PLUCK!

Here’s the rundown on this journal, according to the editorial team:

pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, takes its name from a Nikky Finney poem of the same title which appeared in RICE. The journal features poetry, prose, and visual art from writers who identify with multicultural experiences based in the Appalachian region.

The journal was founded by Frank X Walker and debuted in the Spring of 2007. pluck! is currently released twice a year through the University of Kentucky.

I got my issue, the Black Poets Speak Out edition (learn more about Black Poets Speak Out). It’s a blessing to have my poems in the company of so many amazing writers and thinkers.

Want your copy? $15/copy sent to pluck!

1215 POT, University of KY, Lexington KY 40506 | $30/subscription for individuals, $100/sub for institutions and organizations

Visit pluck! online.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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New Video for My Poem, “Conundrum” – DRIFT Book Trailer pt. 2

Here’s another trailer for my poetry collection, DRIFT (Aquarius Press/Willow Books, 2012).

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Anicia’s Wild Adventures

I wanted to try my hand at telling a children’s story in video format (at some point, I’ll start doing voice overs instead of using text in my video stories), so I made this short video for my 5-year-old niece, Anicia.

With her mother’s permission, I’m posting it here:

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2015 in story

 

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