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Category Archives: Fiction

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 Ear Hustler (flash fiction)

(PHOTO: stfudii)

“YOU LOOK GOOD,” the guy tells the woman. They’re standing behind a teacher in a coffee shop where the audio selection shifts from jazz to acoustic world music to blue grass, then back to jazz. Grounded coffee beans claim the space with their fragrant presence.

The guy has close-cropped white hair. He’s wearing a gray sports blazer over tan khaki pants. He’s much older than the woman, who’s dressed as if she’s heading toward the gym or as if she’s just finished jogging and came inside to cool off, having had the sun bake her complexion a pumpkin hue when it seemed to scream its heat over everything uncovered.

The teacher taps his fingers on the countertop. He took his students out for a writing exercise. He told them where to set up, and figured he had enough time to grab a drink and get back before his students noticed him missing. He needed something cold for his dry throat made dryer by the 78 degrees. He watches the couple, who, at first, appears to be father and daughter—that is, until he sees how the old man is holding her shoulders.

The woman looks no younger than 25, yet something about the touch still seems inappropriate—the old man rubbing her arms and squeezing her flesh, how his touches linger. That she doesn’t shrug him off says she’s comfortable with this, that he’s done this before. It says she even enjoys this as he leans back and slowly rolls his appraising gaze over her new body. “How much weight did you lose?” he asks.

A woman making drinks tells the teacher his Green Tea frappuccino is ready. She tops it off with whip cream while the teacher smiles like the young woman who tells the old man, “I lost thirty pounds.” The teacher pops the straw through its paper sheath; he slides it through the dome cover and into his drink, which a student will later say looks like guacamole and sour cream, stunning the teacher with her imagery.

But at the moment, the teacher sips the gooey goodness of milk, ice, and green tea powder. The old man asks the young woman, “How did you lose the weight?” The teacher nearly chokes from her response: “I got divorced.”

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2012 in Fiction

 

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At the Corner of Reservoir Road and Wisconsin Ave NW (a Flash Fiction)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, the weather was so good, I took my poetry students (only two showed up for class) out to Wisconsin Avenue NW in DC’s Georgetown. Their assignment was to people watch–observe how strangers interacted with one another. The students were supposed to also observe the strangers’ body language, and then create a flash fiction story. I took part in the exercise and wrote the story below.

(PHOTO: Peter Dworin/ NYTimes)

A BIKE MESSENGER WHIZZES BY, running late for a delivery she should have made an hour ago. She has one more time for a client to complain before she’s fired. She flies by the sound of Bengal music wafting from the red Honda Civic that waits for the traffic light to turn green.

She passes the cyclist whose rolled up yoga mat is in her bike’s rear basket rack. She passes a guy late for an interview. He’s got a folder with copies of his résumé. I should have worn a watch, he thinks. He puts his face against the glass panes of an art shop, and then bolts when the store’s clock tells him what time it is.

The courier passes the woman rolling her bag along. I don’t know how I let the sales lady talk me into buying this, she thinks. The pink and green rose pattern is so ugly. The courier passes a woman on the phone outside Long & Foster Realtors. Then the courier’s gone before a green Saturn whips a U-turn ahead of the silver Audi station wagon that’s about to pounce the intersection on the green light. The Saturn turns before the officer in the tinted out black Denali with strobe lights notices. It turns in front of the old guy who’s waiting for the cross walk signal. He shakes his head at what he thinks was a careless maneuver.

The old guy’s wearing black dress slacks under a mud-colored Parka and lily pad green winter hat. I should’ve checked the weather before I left home, he thinks. I’m burning up out here. It’s 65 degrees, for Christ’s sake. He looks around and spots a writer and two girls. Who’s that guy scribbling in his book? the old guy continues. What are those two girls doing up on that wall?

The old guy shoves the thought from his head when he’s nearly trampled by three students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts skateboarding down Wisconsin Avenue. One of them is a junior. He’s brave enough to wave at a teacher from his department, as if the junior didn’t have an art block class to attend. The skate boarders avoid the woman pushing a stroller up the sidewalk. The woman’s a young mother—she couldn’t be older than 21.

(PHOTO: Travel Smart)

The mother snaps her head away from the couple who both look as though they stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad. Supercuts! the young mother thinks. That’s where they got their hair cut!

The couple laughs and points at a bald man in the passing pick-up truck. Pick-up truck dude’s smoking a cigarette and wearing a button-up shirt with too many medals to be a civilian. He stares at the writer and two girls hanging out on the wall. I fought in Vietnam for what—so some hippies could sit on some wall instead of working and write about nothing.

He shakes his head. And people like them wonder why republicans want to cut funding for the arts, he continues. Well, I’m all for it. Stop wasting that money and put it towards something useful, like war. But those comments are lost on the writer, who’s preoccupied with another old guy walking up Wisconsin Avenue in a biker’s jacket that probably fit him three decades ago. Now, the jacket grabs at his shoulders and elbows like officers subduing a perp on the run.

The writer glances up at his students staring at what’s across the street. To where, he doesn’t know or care. His attention’s on the woman in black tights and a light sweater. Every step she takes, her athletic legs flex like a whisper that teases him for looking—that is, until he remembers his fiancée at home. Next to her, the woman in black tights is Medusa. Every time he’s around his fiancée he pinches himself. That his fiancée is still there after the pinch, that he hasn’t awaken from what feels like a dream, only proves how lucky he is. The teacher’s jarred from his thoughts when one of his two students asks, “Mr. King, are we going to do this until five o’clock?”

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2012 in Fiction

 

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Geritol Hightower: ‘I’m the REAL Ironman’ (Satire)

(SKETCH: Gregory Culp)

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction I wrote back in 2007. It first appeared in The Spoof, an online publication like The Onion that publishes satire. I thought I’d repost it here and introduce you, dear reader, to Geritol Hightower.

At 72, Hightower leads the fight against agism. Say “Iron Man,” and Marvel Comic fans automatically assume you’re referring to Tony Starks from the Avengers crew.

But unlike the superhero, 72-year old Geritol Hightower didn’t need a shrapnel wound to the chest nor did he have to sell out to the Vietnam Communist party to become Iron Man.

“How do I feel being compared to a comic book character? You’re a reporter, right? How would you feel if someone compared you to Clark Kent or Peter Parker?” he says reclined in a cushioned wicker chair at his Miami home. “It’s kind of sick if you ask me. I’m flesh and blood while this…this thing prances around with his friends. And he’s a super-hero?”

Joined by two auburn-colored women apparently in their mid-30s — whose rippling backs and carved buttocks are visible through the thin fabric of their two-piece bikinis — he takes off his shades while one of the women rubs the throbbing vein at his left temple after patting down the onyx shine the perspiration gives his cool, charcoal-colored skin.

A two-time Olympic Gold medalist and the Ironman Pro champ five consecutive times, Geritol defeated Puerto Rico’s Gustavo Badell and Australia’s Lee Priest in the 2005 competition.

Right now, he’s the most sought after power-lifter turned body builder, appearing on the cover of the current issue of Iron Man Magazine with Fitness Olympia’s spokesperson and hardbody model Timea Majorova.

(SKETCH: Danomyte)

Growing up, Geritol knew something wasn’t quite right when he discovered he could out-lift most men twice his age. At 15 years old, all he wanted was to be noticed by Carla Dibbs, who he’d had a crush on since elementary school.

Attempting to catch her eye, while playing a prank on a faculty member, he and his boy Drink Water lifted their high school gym teacher’s car three feet off the ground and walked it to another parking spot. That day etched him and Drink Water into high school history.

Geritol smiles as if the moments were reeling before him.

“Man, we didn’t know what girl troubles were before that happened,” he says. “But afterwards, we damn near needed a stick to beat off the ones that were begging for a bit of our time.”

“Things were different when we were coming up,” Hightower continues. “It was 1949. We had just gotten the right to vote and went crazy with whatever little freedom we had.”

During that time, the U.S. had entered into World War II, and with his father off fighting, he took a job at Dino’s Diner in Silver Spring, Maryland as a short-order cook, earning 43 cents an hour.

“We were hard workers, our generation. You don’t get that from the kids these days. And certainly not that wannabe-cartoon figure,” says Hightower, taking a bite of his veggie club and munching his beat chips before washing them down with a wheat grass smoothie.

“This generation doesn’t understand that. Most of them looking for a quick way to everything. Some even turn to violence for a means to an end,” he says. “Well, for you young people out there who think robbing old folks is fun, you won’t be the first or last to be introduced to a good ol’ fashioned, never had it quite like this, ass whuppin’.”

He continues, “I’m talking ’bout giving one of those type of beatings where the paramedics checking to see if you still breathing. Just try me.”

(IMAGE: Milosh Kojadinovich)

Geritol remembers such a case, when a young man assaulted him in a 7-11, wildly wielding a switch blade. The guy, who stood at 6′ 4″ and 320 lbs., had Hightower by four inches.

He acted like he was going for his wallet in the back pocket, then delivered a fierce backhand that sent a bloody tooth spiraling out of the boy’s mouth before he stumbled backwards.

After disarming his attacker, Geritol was still beating the boy when the cops arrived. It took 10 men clubbing him with nightsticks and shocking him with tazers to handcuff him while they strapped and rolled the kid out on a gurney.

“It’s not just the young. People, in general, see an elderly fella and dollar signs pop up where their pupils oughta be. Shiii.. Folks’ll never be done exploiting us,” he shakes his head. “Some guy from the drug company asked if I would be in one of his commercials for Viagra.”

Just then, the women start chuckling. Geritol stops abruptly, and without being verbal about it, he shoots them a look that says get the hell out the room! One makes her way to bring him some more beet chips while the other goes to prepare him another vegetable shake.

“I looked that fella in the eye,” he continues, “and said ‘Is you crazy, boy? Would a healthy man such as yourself allow his likeness to be used on a poster for herpes and gonnorhea? Get the hell outta here ‘fore I beat your ass off GP.'”

The interview’s interrupted again when Geritol’s eyes expand like rubber “O’s” after answering his cell. Then he jumps up. “Iron Man Mag wants to know if I’m available for a cover shoot with Lenda Murray and Anja Langer,” his pitch rises with excitement. “Hell yeah! How many 70-something year olds you know that can say they shared the covers with two legendary hardbody models?”

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2011 in Fiction

 

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a short-story-in-progress (fiction)

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 untitledI 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.”

“Amazing, how?”

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.”

“Yeah, so?”

“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.

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Posted by on July 27, 2010 in Fiction

 

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