(“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.
Jesus summed up this phenomenon with his “plank in your own eye” lesson, as well as his “the measure by which you shall be judged” warning. I think too often we take Jesus’s sayings as scoldings rather than simple truths: this is the way the world works. Listen and learn. Proceed at your own risk.
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?”
What do London and San Francisco have in common?
They are the top two cities downloading my short stores.
Where in Canada—the third highest download site—are listeners downloading the stories?
Everywhere but Nova Scotia—Nova Scotia don’t like Cain’t Do Nothing with Love.
After France, what’s the next most popular country downloading the stories?
Where do Moscow and St. Petersburg fit in?
Right after Queensland and Victoria in Australia.
Beijing and Frankfurt.
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.
Goaltending. Goaltending. Goaltending. Goaltending.
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.
“It’s important, voting is,” he says.
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.
The alarm went off, and I drifted, reliving my dreams. Startling awake, I checked the time. I still had an hour to make it to church. Until I looked closely. The secondhand was stuck on the 4, click, click, clicking. After I hurriedly dressed, I ran downstairs where real clocks exist. I had 8 minutes to make it to St. Mary’s.
I was only a bit late, as were others. This service fills up as the liturgy unfolds. By the time Dean Andy asked me to come down front and assist with the chalice, the space was bursting with worshipers.
Because we all need a little break:
Why am I so mad about the presidential race? Because I’ve lived through this shit. I’ve been stalked while riding my bike, cutting and swerving through the neighborhood, trying to get away from the pickup truck, pedaling as fast as I could, realizing I couldn’t outrun him, couldn’t keep up my flight much longer. I’ve had a man press his hard penis against me in a crowd, leering at me in glee when I whipped around to find out what the hell was going on. I’ve been violently grabbed by my supervisor and forcibly kissed when I thought I was building a professional relationship.
That’s not why I’m mad.
Her face is alive with joy. And beauty, such beauty. In her fitted navy dress that hugs every curve, with Bigmama’s diamond bar pin sparkling in the vee of her neckline, she walks down the aisle with perfect poise. And confidence. She has such confidence. My heart swells with love for, and pride in, my sister. My big sister. The mother of the bride. She is gorgeous.
Those cities in the US experiencing dramatic declines in police shootings, how did they do it? Did they round up the citizenry and instruct them on the proper way to react during a police encounter (“Nope, nope, nope—hands on the wheel”)? Or did they go into African-American neighborhoods and distribute fliers (“When stopped by the police, make no sudden movements”)? Maybe they aired PSAs during the nightly news (“Even when surrounded by five officers pointing guns at you, remain calm”)?
The young woman squirmed in her seat, responding to the hypnotist’s questions. She and I were students at North Carolina’s Governor’s School in the 1970s. In the lecture halls of Governor’s School, I first learned of quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity. I also first experienced hypnotism.
Put under, the student was regaling us with her memories of being a sailor on an 18th century French ship. The hypnotist told us if he touched her arm with a piece of chalk, telling her it was a lit cigarette, a blister would form. But he didn’t do that with minors. So, instead, she spoke of sailing terms which she, when conscious, knew nothing about.
What was I thinking? Sending out such a request? Yes, my agent is shopping my novel to big name publishing houses. Yes, editors at those houses—complete strangers—are judging my work. Plus, I’ve been in writing groups for years where judging nascent work is the name of the game. But this is different.
I put out a request on Facebook for Beta readers on my Memphis mystery, Harboring Evil. The story is set in Memphis and features a formerly homeless man who gets involved in a murder (the technical genre is “amateur sleuth mystery”). Here is its “elevator” sentence:
1: You don’t get Fitbit steps by wearing walking shoes.
2: The heat index is real.
3: Toilet paper doesn’t buy itself.
4: The dog likes me best when I’m giving her a treat.
5: When I say “I don’t want to do anything today,” I mean, “I only want to do what I want to do today.”
6: I spend most days not doing what I want.
7: Doing what I want is really hard.
8: Some days it is simply too hot to be outside (see #2 above).