A friend recently said she has read Young Adult novels all her life. When another friend asked why, she said, “I find them more honest.” When I return to Memphis, I am carrying with me in the trunk of my car as a gift to my friend the novel, Almost Paradise, by Corabel Shofner. It makes me smile to think I will have introduced my friend to Ruby Clyde Henderson, and now I’m doing the same for you.
I must confess: I read a snippet of Almost Paradise when the novel was in the works. Corabel is my cousin’s cousin, no blood kin of mine, but she labels us “leap cousins,” which I love. At some point on the long road we call “getting published,” she shared parts of her writing with me. Ruby Clyde’s voice—Lord help me, it jumped off the page and grabbed ahold.
Now, such a wonderful voice could be hard to sustain. Or not supported by the plot. Or turn sappy at the end when it comes time to wrap things up. Without the other structural elements in place, voice is nice but not enough. The book will collapse of its own weight. Almost Paradise has all these necessary things, plus wonderful secondary characters, humor that never gets stale, and unexpected plot twists. It is simply delightful.
Okay, to be more specific: Ruby Clyde is twelve years old. She was born when her father was shot during a robbery, and her mother, witnessing the shooting, gave birth prematurely. This history affects her in ways gradually revealed as she tries to extricate herself from a situation that is humorous only because of Corabel’s deft telling. I believe the story is Middle Grade (which might be a subset of Young Adult?), but there is nothing babyish about it. We should all be so lucky as to have the wisdom of Ruby Clyde.
The story takes Ruby Clyde from a campsite in Arkansas to the rolling hills of Texas. It involves a bad boyfriend, a nun, and cowboy boots. It’s Southern. I don’t want to give any more away, except there’s a pig named Bunny. The folks at Farrar Straus Giroux (one of the Big Five in New York City!) knew a winner when they saw it, and I’m so glad they did. Thank you, Bel, for bringing Ruby Clyde into the world.
My sister lives in a neighborhood with a replica of Mount Vernon.
The houses are big and solid. On one lot, a developer razed a house and put up two modern “high-end” houses. They look cheap as hell. I bet the other houses hate the interlopers.
Some of the houses have brass plaques sponsored by the Raleigh Historic Association. Strategic ivy climbs facades, pea gravel softens driveways. Mt. Vernon has a “Service Entrance Please.” In every house, the garbage cans have their own niche.
I love the neighborhood, how thick and solid the houses are. It’s not flat; unlike Memphis and New Orleans, Raleigh has hills. I walk and admire the stately allees of crepe myrtles and the formal triple-deep shrubs. I tut-tut the scraggly pines and skimpy cast iron plants. It’s like walking in a park from the early 1900s. Porte cohere is a word not out of place here. The whole damn neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In this neighborhood, my sister has a vegetable garden in her front yard.
The front yard garden curves behind double crescents of deep luscious grass.
Hidden inside are paths for people, baths for birds, and flowers for caterpillars hoping to become butterflies.
The entire yard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat.
This evening as rain sprinkled our heads, my sister and I headed into the garden and harvested the crops.
For supper, Tom will make cornbread, and we will eat vegetables from a garden nestled beautifully in my sister’s front yard in the most exclusive neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina.
If I had lived during the 1860s, I probably would’ve done exactly what my mother’s grandfather did. Cursing, I would’ve picked up a gun and left my Mississippi family to protect my homeland. I would’ve fully understood I was fighting for a cause I did not support—preserving the right to own people. But the irresistible love of home would’ve forced me to take on lice and rain and mud and cannon fire. I would’ve tromped through land that so recently had been someone’s backyard, aiming to kill men I had no quarrel with.
When the war ended and my side was the glorious loser, would I have wanted to see monuments erected to the politicians and generals who’d gotten us into the war? Helllllll, no! Those fools forced me to fight a war I didn’t want to fight, and then the sons of bitches f**ing lost!
So I’m not surprised veterans didn’t erect the Confederate States of America statues strewn across the American South. Almost all were erected after 1900. Quick reminder: the American Civil War ended in 1865. Reconstruction—the post-war era of Southern occupation by Federal troops during which it might not have been prudent to erect statues—ended in 1877.
It wasn’t until 40 years after the war that CSA statues gained momentum. (You think we waited a long time to come to terms with the Vietnam War and erect a memorial? Saigon fell in 1975. The Vietnam Memorial Wall was fully completed by 1983). Those still seared by the heat of war didn’t erect the CSA statues. White people erected the statues in a cold, calculated move to assert white race dominance.
The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. . . . These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
True, the statues are “historical.” But the only history they teach is about America’s continuing surges of white supremacy. If you can’t answer the question, what was happening in 1900, 1909, 1957, and 1962 that led Americans to erect statues of a war that ended in 1865?, we can’t begin to have a conversation about whether the statues should stay.
You might say, “My ancestor fought in the Civil War!” But, yeah, so did mine. It’s not enough. You have to ask yourself, would my great-grandfather really want me to peg my identity on the worse experience of his life? Isn’t it more likely that his fervent prayer would be that his children and grandchildren live good lives? To be better in all things than they were? If your ancestor didn’t fight to preserve slavery but to defend his homeland, allowing the war to take center stage offends the reason he served. So there’s your choice: my ancestor fought to own people (unacceptable) or my ancestor fought to defend his home and I’m gonna ignore that to focus on the war (unacceptable).
I know—there’s that sticky thing called pride. Listen, I absorbed my family’s story about a relative going overseas with a legislative committee to buy one of these damn statues. We were proud of our relative—he sailed across the ocean to France, mind you. Only with time did the glow fade as we collectively absorbed the fact that the honoree was one of the most virulent racists the state ever produced. Personal pride can’t trump maturing enlightenment.
We must stop loving the South for its war. We must love it for the same reason our ancestors did. For the ripe figs and pebble-bottomed creeks and the light calling us home at night. To do otherwise sells the South down the river. We can’t cling to our ancestral myths when we really do know better.
(“Godzilla vs. The Code” first appeared in Barrelhouse)
My husband has a favorite Japanese actor, and he can pronounce the man’s name. To-shi-ro Mi-fu-ne. At our house, Mr. Mifune appears in Samurai movies, mostly on Saturday afternoons. I’ll walk into the TV room and there’s my husband on the couch, reading subtitles. The men on TV are dressed in black, they huff out their lines.
(“Mother Mary Commutes to Memphis” first appeared in The Pinch)
“Elvis Presley Enterprises shall exclusively own all now known or hereafter existing rights to the submissions of every kind throughout the universe.”
EPE Legal Notice
White robes squashed against blue-swirled upholstery, wads of chewing gum lined on a fuzzy armrest. The salty smell of boxed fried chicken mixing with diesel exhaust, music whining from a teenage boy’s Walkman.
(excerpt from Model for Deception, a Vangie Street mystery, currently being shopped to agents)
The Next Step kitchen was abuzz with activity: one man was washing dishes, another removing clothes from the dryer, someone else peeling a cucumber. I walked through the room at a clip, not only because of the slightly unpleasant smell of leftover spaghetti. Truth tell, folks at the Next Step shelter made me nervous. I knew poor—half of Kurt Jamison’s clients were skinny white women in faded sundresses with a baby on the hip and a toddler at the knee. Clients at the Next Step were different. Not just because they were overwhelmingly male. My wariness was due more to the sense of isolation each seemed to exude. The men milling through the house came across as disconnected from the rest of the world, as if the Next Step were simply a way-stop on what was otherwise a long, solitary journey.
In the Beginning was the dress. And the dress came up from New Orleans and lived in a closet in Memphis and waited for a party. One day, the husband said, “We have a party.” And the dress came out: the velvet-flocked, spaghetti-strapped, leopard-printed, spandex-induced dress. And the dress slipped on the gold bracelet and the gold necklace and the gold earrings. And the dress picked out the closed-toed pumps because the dress knew that one more inch of skin would be too much. And when the husband saw the dress, the husband said:
On August 7, 2001, I stepped into the 50th Anniversary celebration of the discovery of oil in Williston Basin, Williston, North Dakota. I knew no one. My family had not been back to the Williston Basin since the December night in 1960 when my father had run his car into a train—as squarely-hit as any the police had ever seen—and died.
(“Held at Gunpoint” first appeared in Image; the story received a Special Mention from Pushcart Prize)
A new couple—a white couple—came to the funeral service, but Preacher Butler went ahead and told it anyway. “Morgan Cook served sixty-five years in this white folks’ pigpen and now he’s gone to the resting place.” Everyone nodded—they hadn’t seen the couple slip in, sit on the back pew. Preacher fluttered his robes, told it some more about Morgan lighting the white man’s world, then everyone listened to the stuttering tape to the grandkids.
When I was a child, one of my favorite places at my grandparent’s farm was the hill above the big lake. There, a square of concrete hid beneath the pasture grass. In the springtime, yellow and white daffodils pushed through the grass and bloomed in swaying clumps. Someone had planted the flowers; they spilled down the hill. We children played there, skipping across the broken concrete, pretending we were in the kitchen or bedroom or dining room of our very own house. Intrigued, I would squat in my shorts set and part the grass. Planting my palm on the pebbly concrete, I dreamed of what I never knew.
Since I quit practicing law, I’ve done two tasks first thing in the mornings: clean up the kitchen and check on my plants outside. The latter was on hiatus for several years. My hips went to crap, and I quit working in the yard. Since the hips have been recovered, I haven’t had a yard to work in. I do now.
I know, I know—I’ve been missing as of late. For two months, I’ve been holed up inside my novel doing everything I can to meet a self-imposed deadline for revision. The first of March, I received a reader’s report from my paid editor on JAZZY AND THE PIRATE. As you, my readers, know, I’ve been working on this novel since God was a toddler. I had finally reached the point where I thought someone could read it. Ordinarily, I would ask several Beta readers to take a look at it before I sent it to the editor. But I was in a hurry. Like I said, I’ve been working on it a loooooong time.
The rose is scraggly. Its head droops. The petals cannot hold their shape. It’s damn lucky to be here.
One Mother’s Day, a long time ago, my dad gave my grandmother a rosebush. The bush was planted beside the lattice gate. The two-story, white-columned house has a grand front door, but everyone comes and goes through the back gate. The rosebush grew large and tangled and mighty. It threatened to grab everyone who entered (what were they thinking, planting it in such a well-traveled path?). In the spring it was covered with a blanket of pale pink, delicate roses. Soon, my dad died, quite young. Later, Bigmama died, quite old. Then the rosebush began to die, and now it’s dead.
One winter day, I was walking through the parking lot at Laurelwood Shopping Center. Laurelwood is a safe, comfortable place. I was in my late 40s. A woman stopped me. She was gray-headed, probably mid-60s. She grasped my arm and, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, fixed me with her gaze and said, “Young men are going to jump out of the bushes and rape you young women, the way you dress.”
My dress was a black turtleneck sweater dress. I had on black opaque hose. The sweater dress had long sleeves. I wore suede pumps. The pumps were complemented by a suede pocketbook. I probably had on dark sunglasses, but maybe not.
“What are you giving up for Lent?” my tribe asks. I say “tribe” because my brilliant writing coach friend taught me to view those who share my questions in life as my tribe.
The question didn’t spring itself on me this morning. I knew Lent was coming since the day of Epiphany in early January. Mardi Gras (or carnival) inevitably rolls into Lent with its ever-present question—what during the church’s traditional season of asceticism and preparation for Easter am I giving up?
One thing: my husband is our cook so whatever food he gives up, for the most part, I give it up too. I don’t consider this my Lenten discipline; it’s his discipline that I piggyback on. It leaves me to answer for myself the basic question: how will I focus on God this season?
I try not to get angry at people when they disagree with me. It’s not because I’m a saintly woman. I’ve simply learned that when you get sanctimonious with someone, God will turn around and bite you in the butt.
As soon as I climb onto my soapbox and start chugging soap suds into the biosphere, I’m sure to be slapped in the face with the very activity I’m decrying. “Don’t judge!” I rant . . . only to immediately feel myself judging the next person who posts something ridiculous.
The exploitation of Black Americans in my lifetime shows itself as mass incarceration. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not calling those working in the judicial system racist.
I don’t blame the white woman who confused my Black friend for a purse snatcher months after the actual mugging took place. I don’t blame the police officer who arrested my friend with no evidence other than the woman’s shaky testimony. I don’t blame the judge who let every person in the courtroom leave except me and the white social worker before he asked if the witness could identify the one Black man left in the room as the perpetrator. I don’t blame the underpaid Public Defender who never bothered to read my friend’s file. I don’t blame him for looking at my very distinctive friend and saying, “They have an eyewitness. Look at him—who’s going to mistake him for someone else?”
Cast your mind back to 1982. The time is the NCAA Basketball Championship. The game pits the Georgetown Hoyas, coached by the brilliant John Thompson, against Dean Smith’s Carolina Tar Heels. The Hoyas’ star is the new phenom center Patrick Ewing.
As the game opens, Carolina puts up a shot. The seven-foot Ewing soars to the rim and knocks it down. “Goaltending!” the ref calls. Not once, not twice, but three more times, the same thing happens.
I shop at the Family Dollar or Dollar Tree or the downtown Walgreens rather than the ritzy Walgreens because one does not have to exercise class privilege just because one has it.
I choose to place myself in situations where I’m the only white person around—such as my Ob-gyn’s office—because I need to be constantly reminded of what it’s like for Black folks so much of their lives.
I always try to say “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am” to African-American clerks in a vain attempt to make up for the decades of Southern “etiquette” that prohibited such a thing.
I look at the world through racial lens because I know from whence I came and awareness is necessary.
I shuffled clothes through the narrow hallway. Brick wall on one side, eclectic paintings on the other, I didn’t have much room to maneuver. I’d spent the week sorting my stuff (this pile goes with us, this pile to the Salvation Army) and two suitcases had come with me to our small apartment in New Orleans, not a particularly good solution. Earlier, on my 59th birthday, I had decided to physically get up and move every day until I turned 60—my decade birthdays always generate a year-long preparation. This year, I vowed to be in motion every day in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise done—mostly walking really fast down the sidewalk. As I shoved a bag aside with my foot, it dawned on me that I had inadvertently landed on a theme for the year.
I’ve never been with a winner. Well, except that streak when the North Carolina Tar Heels won the NCAA Basketball tournament and the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series and Peyton Manning and the Colts won the Super Bowl.
That was an outlier.
The problem is, I don’t tend to pick my “teams” based on winner criteria. For example, at the onset of my legal career when I was choosing law firms, I didn’t make my decision based on where I could make the most money or whether the firm was considered “the best” in the state. I looked at a firm’s history: during Mississippi’s Civil Rights wars, which side was the firm on? As a result, the firm I joined was not the one at the top, the “winner” in the eyes of a state that really wanted to forget its Civil Rights history. It was simply the most principled law firm in town.
For almost a week now, creeping unbidden into my brain is the image of me early voting. I keep seeing me walking across the voting precinct floor. I pause, touching the arm of the poll worker who is leading me to my machine. He is older, African American, and he pauses too.
“I feel like I did when I voted for President Obama,” I tell him, trying to explain my emotion.
For some of you
this might be too much
but for too long we haven’t shared
then complained when others don’t understand.
So here goes:
During the abortion wars of my youth (and by “youth” I mean when I was in my 30s) when the airwaves were filled with demands to ban abortion even in the case of rape or incest, I wrote a letter that, if I found myself pregnant with a rapist’s child, I could leave for my family explaining why I killed myself rather than allow someone to have that type of control over my body.
Usually, when I vote, I dress to scare the other voters standing in line. I want them to look at me and think, “Dear God—she’s got the right to vote?”
But this morning when I thought about casting my vote to elect our next president, I went back to 1982 when I arrived at Wise Carter law firm in Jackson, Mississippi as a new associate. I’d brought with me six pieces of clothing (three bottoms and three tops) that I intended to transform into my wardrobe by mixing and matching. My sister, who’d been living in Jackson while I’d been in North Carolina, wisely advised that Mississippi wasn’t yet ready for a female lawyer wearing pants.
My wardrobe thus cut by a third, I drove to New Orleans (because for 19 years I refused to admit Jackson had clothes worthy of my style), and I bought four new pieces. Two of these were an Armani blouse and an Ann Klein skirt. I did not buy any more clothes for a longggg time.