Editor’s Note: I’ve been busy trying to fit in a few novels on my summer reading list that I haven’t updated the blog. Hopefully, I’ll have some new material up for August. July is almost up, but I couldn’t let this month pass without posting something. So here’s something new. A work-in-progress. If you asked me a few months ago what my craft was, I would’ve told you that I am a poet and journalist, that I only write poetry and nonfiction prose. But at her poetry reading at the Folgers Shakespeare Library in DC, award-winning poet and author Patricia Smith gave the crowd some words of wisdom. I’m paraphrasing here, but she said that writers shouldn’t limit themselves to only writing in one or two genres, but should write in as many as possible. A story, she said, can be told many ways. Writers have to leave themselves open to other ways of telling it. So here’s a work of fiction. It’s untitled—I might get one of those, eventually, but here’s a draft.
SHE HADN’T NOTICED HIM the first time. The guy in the bookstore was typing away on the computer until a customer’s questions had him in the “Politics and Culture” section. He was shorter than six feet. Anyone close enough might have noticed a thick crease on 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, wound past the bar and high tables into 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 on K Street. She glanced at her watch again. She exhaled with her arms crossed. Her purse hung from her elbow. She tapped her toe. “Come on,” she repeated. “Where are you?” She might have been waiting for her man, or a male friend from work. Either man, if they existed, would hear about their tardiness.
Roe squinted through bright lights at the exotic artwork on the walls. Was this a place she would 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 it looked like she was about to leave, a woman 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 as if on 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 on a dead radio station. At first, he thought he left the TV on the night before. It had been hectic working that 4:30p.m.-to-midnight shift. His eyes were barely opened when he got home. His mind was impatient and had already started dreaming without him. He tossed his keys and missed the small knit basket on a counter top near his door. 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 status on Facebook, or typing away to whoever was still up on GChat.
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 would consider short. As far as Chase was concerned, nobody had no business being over 5-foot-8. That was a normal man’s height. Anything above that, he was convinced was a freak of nature.
His eyes lifted towards the direction of the sound that woke him. Looking through the window, Chase was sure if the day had flesh and bones, it would feel the way he felt at that moment. Something inside him, a feeling he couldn’t quite place, mirrored the overcast clouds, the rain pelting a hot asphalt and sidewalk that steamed from the touch. In his mind, Chase went back to a time before his body tried to get grown, before the bills, when he hadn’t yet become another number on a collector’s call log. He remembered those summer rains in Texas, and the smell of something reborn, the smell of what he imagined to be 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 the dreams engraved on them. 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, Chase thought, 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 into journalism as a freelance photographer, with work in several national style magazines. When he realized his art couldn’t sustain him, he took on various odd jobs, being at his current one the longest of any of them. It’s only temporary, he thought. 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 would involve, 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 in the mail two days ago. Hadn’t he been saving his sick days for such an occasion? he wondered. He had to use them or lose ‘em, his supervisor had told him last week. Hmm, he thought, but then changed his mind. There was a book event today in the Dream Keeper’s bookstore. His supervisor would never forgive him for being left alone to handle the mob that was sure to pour out of the performance space on the other side of the wooden double doors in the restaurant.
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 in what Chase took to be a condescending slight. Well, to hell with them, he thought. To hell with this weather, too. A big wind shoved around a leaf on the street before sending it up over the roof of his apartment. If he was lucky, he thought, just like that leaf, the winds of opportunities would soon 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 to 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 in the right place and that the book spines were plumb with the shelves. He had worked his way from “Activism” and “Politics and Culture” to “Poetry”. He noticed the woman in “Fiction”. There was something familiar about her. That’s it, he thought. Sometimes he saw her at the bar with her friends, but she mostly kept to herself in the lounge area, sipping wine and caught up in the pages of some book. He couldn’t make out the titles from his post at the register; she was too far for that but close enough to notice the covers. They were always changing, he noticed. She managed to go through two books a week. And as many times as she’d been in that place, she damn near bought up the whole bookstore, he remembered; 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 focused on 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.”
Roe studied Chase’s face while he pulled up the store’s inventory on the work computer. 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. The slight twang in his voice reminded her of the men back home in North Carolina.
“You always got a Walter Mosley novel on you,” Chase said.
How did he know that? Roe wondered.
As if psychic, Chase responded: “It’s the covers. That’s all I’m able to make out from here.”
“I know Mosley’s your man and all, but he does mysteries mostly.” Chase looked up at Roe when he said this. 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 in a 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 go into most bookstores and find Walter Mosley on the shelves. Where were Williams’s books? Meat and potatoes? Roe wondered. That just sounds bland. Mosley, for her, was catfish with hot sauce and a side of collards. She had loved his delicious imagery as a child. So much so that his characters Easy Rawlins and Mouse, even Socrates Forlow, had become familiar enough for her to see them beyond their fictional settings and in the reality of her hometown called Hamlet—she saw them on the faces of the men outside the Piggly Wiggly and Food Lion, helping her mom load the bags into the car; or on the faces of those 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 in the town.
Chase looked up. “Sorry. We don’t have anything by John A. Williams at this time.”
Hmph, Roe thought, 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 they 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 in 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 dropped in a comment box, instead of vented to a bookstore clerk with no sayso in 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 in sections based on 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. Got it in 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, and thought, ‘This guy’s a writer of some sort.’” 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 you can call me Chase.”
* * * * * *
ROSETTA, ITALIAN IN ORIGIN. Back in Hamlet, North Carolina, she was everybody’s “Little Rose” because of her striking resemblance to 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 put in 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 in their one-room apartment. Children needed a place to play and should be able to run free in a yard of their own, he thought. 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 at 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 in their room. Moses was convinced he was well enough to go back to work, Rose thought otherwise. When Rose’s voice got shaky and her eyes were teary, the determination in Moses dissolved 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 in The Virginia Pilot. At 8:30 a.m., a deep fat fryer combusted, igniting the gas lines in the ceilings. At the time of the incident, about 90 workers were in the factory. Twenty-five people died and 54 workers were injured. Among the injured, several suffered burns and blindness, some died later from their wounds and a decade since the fire, others still suffered. 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 upon which both Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek writing were engraved. Like the stone, Roe was hard to decipher on the surface. But her teachers at Fairview Heights Elementary School noticed early on 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 down to North Carolina, 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 incurring a potentially malignant type of pneumonia that spread to humans from infected poultry. Her father was already breathing through an oxygen tank. 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 and to live well in our old age, and then have us too ill to enjoy it.
Roe didn’t want to go to bed with those thoughts on her mind. So she turned on the TV and flipped through the channels. She settled on a movie on the Lifetime network. She never really watched the movies, and only wanted some kind of noise in the background. She eyed the books on her shelf, determined to find something to put her bed. She thought about her day and how nice it was to chat with Chase, even if she disagreed about what he had to say about her author. He would 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.