After Isaac puts the Pontiac in neutral and maneuvers it out on the driveway, he asks me to hand him a screwdriver. He tightens some do-ma-hickey then replaces the battery with the one he picked up at the local auto part’s store.
“You sure know a lot about a lot of things, Isaac Ford,” I tell him. “And don’t dare say anything stupid like, ‘so you think I’m smarter than the average colored boy.’”
“I read a lot. And my mama teaches at my school. The Academy for Black Youth in case you’re wondering.”
“We don’t have any Negros in my school. Not because they can’t come but because most of them live across town.”
“Separate but Equal,” he says, shaking his head.
I think of my summer reading assignment — A Separate Peace.
“Thing is, Chicken Coop. I want to make something of myself. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how. I can’t play music, I don’t want to be a preacher—”
“Then do something else. Be a mechanic. Be a teacher. Be whatever you want.”
“Okay. I’ll be a surgeon. After they let me in a university because of my a-Maze-ing chemistry and biology grades, I graduate. Then, I look for a job that will hire a colored surgeon. And, if I’m lucky enough to land that job, white folks will say, ‘I don’t want some colored boy operating on me.’ Then, I’m back where I started. Without a job.”
“You’re so cynical, Isaac.”
“Cynical?” He points a finger at my chest. “You know nothing. Nothing! What do I have to be cheery-faced about? Huh? That I can fix a goddam car? Tell Olvie it’s ready. She can drive it in the garage her own damn self. I’m going home.”
From my WIP about forging friendships during the Civil Rights Movement (1963)
Further up on the right is another house. It looks kinda like an old Wayne Dennis house, falling down on one side. Car parts litter the front yard.
“Who lives there?” I say.
“Oh, some damn white man,” says Ike.
“Still like that Cherokee part ’a ye, huh Ike?”
We get to the bar and meet Andres, Ike’s friend. “This here’s my grandson, Cono,” Ike says.
“Pleasure,” I say, shaking his hand.
The three of us sit down at a table for four and a short little old lady in a Pink uniform comes over to take our order.
“Bring us three Pearl beers,” says Ike.
“No beer fer me,” I say.
“Still not a drinker, Cono?”
“Still not,” I say.
“Sody Pop then?”
I turn to the waitress and say, “Ye got Nehi Grape?”
She nods and says, “Be right back.”
For eleven o’clock in the morning the place is busy. The early lunch crowd has come in. Andres starts to talk while Ike listens. And I’ll be damned, Ike’s twirling his index finger around his thumb. They say an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. This is one habit Dad’s pulled down from his father, but as far as I can see, and unfortunately, the only one.
Ike starts to talk but Andres keeps saying, “What are you saying? I can’t hear.”
Finally, after gulping down his beer, Andres says, “Hell, let’s go someplace quiet where we can talk.” I pull out my wallet to pay but Ike says, “Put that away, Cono. You need ta save yer money.” I do as I’m told, grateful of the man beside me who appreciates my hard work.
Ike and me gulp down our drinks and head down the street to a little dive of a bar, a place that doesn’t sell food.
“This is better,” says Andres. We all sit down at a table and order another round from the bartender, the only person working here.
In the middle of cow talk, a man with a black mustache that matches the color of his eyes opens the door, pulls out a pistol, and shoots a bullet right past Ike’s ears and into the mirror behind the bar. The bartender pulls out his shotgun, aims it at the shooter and says, “Jose, you drop that gun right now. This ain’t no way to settle a bar tab.” The man backs down and yells something I don’t understand, and then he leaves.
As cool as a cucumber, Ike clicks the left side of his cheek, turns to Andres and says, “Ye got another quiet place ye wanna go?”
Isaac grabs Olvie’s arm as she reaches the doorknob. “Olvie, don’t you do it. I don’t need protection just because a man’s called me names. I’m used to it. And you marching over there and giving him a tongue lashing will only make things worse.”
“He’s right, Olvie,” I say.
Then I realize. Isaac’s endured this kind of treatment his whole life. So have his friends and family and so many others. I also realize that the bigoted man across the street is using Isaac to calm his own domestic storm, to diffuse the quarrel by placing greater importance on what he doesn’t know as his personal fear and stupidity.
We didn’t hear the rest of the conversation. And now, Deputy Garvey has driven off.
Something else occurs to me. “Olvie? You used to harass Isaac’s uncle every morning.”
“What? You think I’m no better than Roberts of Asshole? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
It’s a thought worthy of her Pursuing. “No. I’m just wondering why you stopped messing with him.”
Olvie shrugs. “Guess having his nephew work for me is a good enough retaliation.”
“Well, that makes me feel peachy,” say Isaac.
“Oh, Wisenheimer, don’t be so sensitive. It has nothing to do with you. You, I happen to like. Your uncle and me have had a beef a long while now.”
“Why? What did he do that was so bad?” Isaac asks.
Although Olvie turns to the side, I see the tears puddle in the corner of her left eye.
“That,” she says so quietly I can barely hear her, “is a long story. It’s also my story.”
Work in Progress – a novel about diverse friendships in 1963.
Moved to a room full of cots, women lay moaning, talking to themselves, soiling their sheets. Some chained to their beds, others forced into straight jackets before bedtime. Most stared up at the flaking, gray ceiling.
Everything existed in a different time and place. I had one thing in common with those women. We all stunk of fear and hatred, the odor I couldn’t place when I first arrived.
I wondered, if they ever let me out, what I would do when I next faced my mother. No, I wouldn’t slap her again. But that evening amidst the mournful sorrows of the women around me, I squeezed the fingers of my right hand into a tight fist—opening, closing, opening, closing. I felt my feet revving up to charge the witch into hell to await her appointment with the Devil.
Finally allowed to go outside, attendants surrounded the crazies. Me, now one of them. For the most part, the sky remained clear. The few scattered clouds resembled claw marks as if God—if there was one—was trying to scratch his way in to find me. I knew better. The claw marks were mine, attempting to slash my way out.
From The Last Bordello, a historical novel set in 1901.
I had eaten my Swanson’s TV dinner on top of the TV tray and watched and listened to what I could on TV. Even Dr. Kildare, who usually makes me foolishly swoon, looked more like Barney Fife. I’m going bonkers. I know it.
But bedtime was bliss.
The “TSR”, the Temporary stay room,” as Olvie calls it, could be a lot worse than it is. Although the dresser and the headboard on the twin bed are stained puke green, the room itself is at the front of the house. I have one window that looks out to the street. The window on the side gives me a view of the neighbor’s trashcans lined up against their pink brick house.
I had discovered that the window locks are easy peezy. One twist and I could be home free. I know where our spare house key is hidden. How hard would it be to go home, at least for a few hours? Crank up my record player. Listen to Booker T. or the Isley Brothers on Mom and Dad’s new Magnavox player. Or, with the money Mom gave me for “emergencies,” I could go someplace else. Like, for days.
Current Work in Progress, a novel set in 1963 during segregation.
With one glance at the oversized house, I knew it wasn’t the right address. I flashed him a cold smile. “That remains to be seen.”
“Everybody knows it’s The Boarding House. Just what you asked for. Owner’s a nice lady, too.” He smirked. “Well, I’ll be off then.” He set the luggage down, shuffled his feet, and glared at me. When I stared back, he turned with a mischievous grin. Then, the loose soles of his shoes flapped as he cull-umped away.
I neared the front door and stopped to read the sign. Madam Fannie Porter’s Boarding House. The term “madam” did not escape me. Nor did the sparsely dressed and licentious female “boarders” I spotted through the slightly parted curtains.
I sat on the curb, too tired to cry.
A thick raindrop thumped my hat; the second thudded my skirt. A lightning bolt forced me to stand.
I glanced back at the grand house of ill fame, swallowed the Bitter taste of doubt, and inched toward the red doors.