An inspiring conversation led me to rethink the beginning of Sin Against the Race. Long time readers of the gar spot might recognize some of the material from what had been Chapter 3.
Beginnings, beginnings, the bane of every storyteller in every medium, whether it be the shortest flash to the longest tome. Where does the story really begin? Here’s my latest take, below. Constructive criticism is always welcomed.
Sin Against the Race – Chapter 1
Early Monday Morning, First Week, Huckleberry Park District, The City
Sirens broke Alfonso’s sleep, but when he awoke they’d gone. His mind switched on, he again found himself deposited in the desert of another restless night, his forehead drenched in sweat. 3 am, 4 am, the hours lumped along. His body made slight motions of stillness, while his closed eyes feigned sleep. In time, he gave up trying. Thoughts of sirens, their comings and goings, possessed him. Eventually, his mind, like the world outside, drifted into what his cousin Carlton described as a halfway to dawn state, neither dark nor light, neither asleep nor awake. He wanted to linger in that state for as long as possible and cocoon himself in its ambiguities.
“Halfway to dawn is a Billy Strayhorn expression,” Carlton explained.
“Who’s Billy Strayhorn?” he asked his cousin, who scowled and said, “You better get an education, young man!” That night, they listened to ‘Lush Life,’ ‘Chelsea Bridge,’ and other wonders.
Certainty had been kicking his ass a little too much lately and though he ached to deny it further opportunities, he feared for the worse. His junior year at State College officially started in a few hours. With the welcomed distraction of classes would come, he dreaded, a gauntlet of “how was your summer” questions. And he knew that in the circles he traveled, he just couldn’t go there. He could never explain to them why he always heard sirens.
Dawn announced its presence in the window above his bed. He denied it by placing his pillow over his head.
Then his iPhone vibrated on the nightstand. He fought the urge to reach for it. Halfway needed to last just a little bit longer. It was the only time his cousin visited.
Moments later, a different sound caught his attention. He recognized the heavy footsteps as either his father’s or his sister Belinda’s. Before he could decipher which, he heard his father’s voice outside his bedroom door, at the top of the stairs.
“No, no, that’s alright. What’s going on?” “No! Really?” “Seriously?” “It’s burning all the way down?” “Oh, man.” “No, you did not call me too early.” “You made my day, my friend, you made my day.”
He heard his father descend the stairs. The words became fainter.
The phone buzzed again. He couldn’t ignore it a second time, especially since his father was also up and excited about something. He leaned over towards the nightstand and reached for it. The time flashed 6 am.
Two text messages from the local news station jerked him upright.
“Holy shit!” his dry voice croaked.
His late cousin’s community AIDS clinic was on fire.
* * *
Whiffs of heavy smoke crept through the cracked open window of Mrs. Parker’s bedroom. She heard sirens in her halfway to dawn state and ignored them. But the smell of smoke gave their cries a sudden urgency so she forced herself out of bed. Her living room window faced the south side of Huckleberry Park. Trees and dark twilight hid whatever burned from her view. She could taste it in her mouth, though, and knew it smoldered nearby. There was nothing for it, she concluded, but to get dressed and go outside.
She crossed 48th Street and walked west along the southern edge of Huckleberry Park, all the way to the corner at Lincoln Ave. There in the distance up Lincoln, in the middle of the long block that lined the west side of the park, she saw a gathering of fire trucks with lights flashing. A building across from the park billowed smoke into the air.
“Oh, Lord!” she said.
* * *
Smoke did not enter Bingo’s condo, nor could he hear the sirens. He had his windows shut and his place was too well soundproofed. The phone woke him. He cursed the device, but took the call anyway. It was Sammy. Get down to the clinic, now, his voice said, the whole building is up in smoke. Bingo literally blinked his eyes three times. He swore he thought he was still asleep, having an anxiety dream.
* * *
Alfonso hurriedly dressed and threw together what he needed for the day. He made a point of rushing past his father’s study on his way out the front door so that his passage would go unnoticed. Did Dad really say, “You made my day” about the clinic fire, he wondered? He pushed those words out of his head.
His family lived at the top of the hill on Beacon Street, a community laced with stately old houses and small, colorful landscaped gardens. He descended the hill into The Huck, an area pickled with boarded-up storefronts and urine-smelling alleys. Rhymes and beats – police don’t give a fuck, if you’re livin’ in the Huck – imbued the area with a persona that most hills folks disavowed. They cautioned their children against wandering its gritty streets, particularly after dark. Most did, anyway, in search of creds.
Alfonso wound his way from Beacon Street to Peele then 52nd then Stevens, until he reached the northeast corner of Huckleberry Park at Stevens and 51st. All the while unseen sirens circled and screamed in the distance.
The park’s expanse, several blocks long and several wide, separated him from his objective. When he entered, his sneakers scuffed yellow crime scene tape that once roped around the trees and now dragged in the dirt. He closed his eyes and paused for a second.
The tape marked the spot where a mix of iron bars and alcoholic hubris brutally beat down Eddie, one of Carlton’s dearest friends. Four weeks in a coma, and still no response. Alfonso had forgotten that he had been avoiding that corner of the park for a reason. He shoved blood-soaked thoughts of Eddie aside and started moving again. It was too much to process at once. He couldn’t deal.
A large playing field sat in the center of the park. In recent years, newer neighbors from different motherlands played soccer in the vast space. But Alfonso remembered playing baseball with his father in the field when he was little, practicing catches and swings, before his father finally gave up baseball for good.
After going up an embankment and through a thicket of trees, he reached the park’s western border at Lincoln Avenue. He stayed hidden in the bushes. From there he watched helplessly as angry orange and red tongues licked his cousin’s life’s work to death. Tongues also lashed from a few of the apartment windows one floor up.
“Why?” he said silently, choking on tears and soot.
Over the summer, the clinic became a memorial for him, a place of homage. He went by it nightly, after it had closed for the day, to glimpse at what his cousin helped to bring into the world. And during each visit, he stared at a photo of the clinic collective that hung just inside the front door. It was taken on opening day. The founders stood in front of their new space, faces beaming brighter than the sunlight that struck them. And at the far end of the group, sitting down with a reserved smile on his gaunt face was Carlton. Alfonso didn’t attend the opening ceremony, but his cousin didn’t give him grief about it. “I’m still bringing your ass down there to get your HIV test!” he warned. He told Carlton that he was looking forward to it. Of course, that never came to pass. Two months later, Carlton was dead.
Through his teary eyes, Alfonso recognized familiars from his cousin’s world also dealing with the fire. He saw Mrs. Parker in a long, black dress, sitting in the middle of the street next to an ambulance, nursing a young boy with an oxygen tank. She was Carlton’s favorite nurse and his cousin hated when they forced her to retire. But retirement clearly did not diminish her sense of duty.
“Fierce!” Alfonso said.
Then he saw a familiar bald, white dude wearing his trademark jeans, white T, and leather biker jacket race towards the engulfed storefront, and his heart sank. He met Bingo a number of times at Carlton’s apartment. Their paths also crossed at the hospital, just before the end. Alfonso loved his mustache, which Carlton often quipped came mail order from the old Drummer leather magazine. And Bingo always retorted, “No, dear, this is a Tom of Finland exclusive!” His laugh and smile were priceless.
That morning Alfonso saw neither. He heard Bingo scream, “It’s my clinic!” several times as police restrained him from entering the charred inferno. Then he just stood with his hands over his face.
He wanted to rush to Bingo so that they could support each other, but he couldn’t. His father pinned him in place. The words returned – “You made my day, my friend, you made my day” – not as a misty, halfway to dawn abstraction, but as a hard, cold political reality. His father never approved of the Huckleberry Community Clinic’s presence in his district and often disparaged it as “that damn needle-exchange clinic.” Small wonder Councilman Alfonso Rutherford “Ford” Berry II, danced an early morning jig – and he’d expect others, particularly members of his family, particularly his heir presumptive, to dance along with him. Alfonso Rutherford Berry III never felt so crushed by the weight of his family legacy as he did at that moment.
In frustration, he turned himself away, and walked back towards the center field of the park.
* * *
Sammy bent over to pick up the Monday papers as he entered his corner grocery store at 52nd and Carver Street. He threw the stacks on their racks still bound by their tight plastic straps. He resolved to get back to them after a while. Before doing a damned thing, though, he needed his morning cup of blues coffee. He walked to the back room to set himself upon this ritual task.
Making blues coffee was more like invoking an incantation than following a recipe. After waking to the news of the clinic fire, he needed his blues old school, so he put on the disc featuring Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin, and Victoria Spivey. Miss Spivey soon rang out with “Black Snake Blues.” And as always, for authentic blues coffee, he used his old tin drip pot on an electric burner in the storeroom at the back of the store. Once he boiled the water and got the coffee brewing, he returned to his store opening chores.
Charlotte Hunter arrived right on cue, the usual bag of croissants in tow. Sammy didn’t sell his coffee – he didn’t have a license to sell cooked food – but he gladly shared a cup or two with his old war buddy, and other store familiars he felt like being bothered with. He figured she would arrive in short order. She walked to the storeroom without pause and poured mugs for them both, while he remained seated behind the low end of his front counter. To his she added a little cream. Hers received no decorations. Sammy waited for her verdict, since she took it straight, to see if it passed muster.
“It’s a keeper,” she said.
Sammy nodded and took a sip.
“I can’t believe this shit, Charlotte. I just can’t believe it.”
She shook her head.
“Did you go over there?” he asked.
“I didn’t have the heart. Saw it on the news, though. Liz and I both couldn’t stop crying.”
She felt a sniffle coming on, and Sammy handed her a tissue with which she dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. “I hate to think what that man is going to say on the news today about it,” she said.
The reference to Councilman Berry caused Sammy to scowl.
“‘I won,’” he said.
Charlotte shook her head and dunked a croissant into her mug.
Alberta Hunter began singing about reaping and sowing when her doppelganger walked through the door. Mrs. Parker not only shared Alberta’s deep seasoned voice, but both worked as nurses well past normal retirement age. Ash discolored her coif of straight white hair and her long black dress, but she otherwise looked her usual stately self.
“Got anymore of that coffee back there, Sammy?” she said.
“Mrs. Parker!” Charlotte said.
“Great Dizzy!” Sammy said. “What happened to you?”
“You weren’t at that fire, were you?” Charlotte asked.
“Yes, I was there, and what a heartbreaking sight it was. Just heartbreaking. Poor Bingo looked like a zombie talking to the police.”
“But what happened to you?” Sammy asked.
“Oh, nothing. I guess I look a mess. No, I was just helping them out some.” She sat on the crate next to Sammy behind the counter.
“Let me get you a cup, Mrs. Parker,” Charlotte said. “You take cream and sugar, don’t you?”
“Yes, Charlotte, just a little of both, please. They had just rescued this little boy out of the building. He lived with his mother in the apartment one floor up. It’s been gutted, too.” Sammy shook his head. “But anyway, the paramedics were busy with his mother and the baby she was carrying, and on some other folks, too, and the little boy was just coughing and coughing. So I went over to him and then I went to one of the ambulances and asked for an oxygen tank and some albuterol. He had raced back into the building to find his asthma medicine.”
“That’s beautiful, Mrs. Parker,” Charlotte said, handing her some coffee.
“Mmm. This tastes mighty fine, Sammy. Thank you for getting me some, Charlotte.”
“That’s good that they let you help,” Charlotte said.
“Well, I told them that I was a nurse and that the boy was my godson. He-he. It worked. At least I was half telling the truth.”
* * *
Most hills folks avoided Carver Street because of its lavender tint, not its flatland rough edges. Carver Street hosted the Huck’s most successful business district, but that didn’t matter. The wrong type of people hung out there. Hills parents did not have to warn their kids against going to Carver Street. That programming was hardwired into the DNA.
I ain’t no dyke! I ain’t no queer! You ain’t gonna catch me, hanging out there!
Alfonso trashed his hardwiring as he walked towards Sammy’s store. His feet beat a path through the center of the park to its border at 51st Street, right where Carver Street began its route northward. He thought of going straight to campus, but the gauntlet of questions awaiting him there deterred him. And going home to his crowing father was a nonstarter. After wandering around the park for nearly an hour, he realized that he needed the sympathy that only fellow travelers could provide.
“You need an education,” Carlton scolded often. “Go and meet Sammy, young man! He’s the den mother of all the neighborhood children coming into the life.”
Blues coffee greeted him at the door. He recognized the soothing pulse of Duke Ellington’s “Happy Reunion” playing over the stereo and lingered a moment to soak in Paul Gonsalves as he began his sax solo. Scanning the little store for the first time and finding it quite ordinary looking with its narrow aisles and produce tables, he saw Charlotte on a stool behind the register at the high end of the counter, Mrs. Parker sitting at the low end, and Sammy sitting in between. Alfonso had never seen Sammy before in his life, but he looked just like he pictured him based on all that Carlton had told him: large build, a round face, slightly graying hair, and an old school, hepcat goatee under his lower lip. He looked at them looking at him, a skinny black kid with a dull, short Afro and sullen face.
Sammy recognized him at once. He looked so much like his cousin when he was that age.
“Alfonso!” he called out.
Sammy squeezed his girth behind Mrs. Parker and walked out in front of the counter to give the new arrival a big warm hug. Neither wanted to let go. The embrace had been a long time coming.
“It’s so good to see you, baby,” Sammy said.
“Oh, Sammy!” Alfonso said. “It feels like I’ve lost him all over again!” He began sobbing.
Sammy held him tight, rubbing his head and back. Charlotte came around and joined them.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” she said to him.
He switched his embrace to her and she cradled him against her shoulder. Then they released and looked at each other. Their eyes met and exchanged so many things. At first, he didn’t know what to say. What could he say to someone who his father bashed so mercilessly when they ran against each other for the city council seat? But her eyes conveyed no malice, no lingering hatred or suspicion. If anything, her warm brown orbs sought to dispel any anxieties he possessed. He raised his left hand and patted on her on the shoulder.
“Thank you, Charlotte,” he finally said. And she smiled.
“You want some coffee, honey?” Sammy said. “We finished the first pot but the next one should be ready now.”
“It sure smells good, Sammy,” Alfonso said.
Sammy went to the storeroom to pour a mug. Alfonso turned towards Charlotte again.
“I can’t believe that it happened. I walked past it yesterday and it was just like it always was. I just can’t believe it.”
“None of us can, sweetheart,” Charlotte said. “We’re all in grief.”
Sammy brought up a mug of black. “Oh, I forgot to ask if you take anything in it.”
“Thanks, Sammy. Naw, just black.”
“Yep, just like Carlton!” Mrs. Parker said.
“Ooo, this is good,” Alfonso said. “This is from a tin drip pot, isn’t it?”
“You know it,” Sammy said.
“My grandmother has one. I like the way it chars the coffee.”
“That’s the blues effect,” Sammy said. “It ain’t blues coffee unless it’s been bruised a bit, to get some attitude. The trick, though, is not to bruise it too much, or it will get bitter.”
“Well,” Mrs. Parker said, standing, “I think I better get home and wash up. Otherwise I’ll smell like soot all day, and I certainly don’t want that. Charlotte, do you think you can walk with me home?”
“Of course,” Charlotte said. She picked up Mrs. Parker’s cue instantly: let’s leave these two alone.
“You sure you don’t want us to call a cab?” Sammy said.
“Naw,” Mrs. Parker said. “Better to walk. Need the exercise in any case. Sammy, thank you so much for the coffee. It’s still the best on the block.”
“Anytime, Mrs. Parker.”
As she passed Alfonso, she stopped to give him a hug. “Take care, sugar. Come by and see me whenever you want. You know where to find me.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Parker.”
They exited the store, leaving Sammy and Alfonso alone. It remained an eerie, still morning, as if the fire had sucked the oxygen out of the neighborhood.
“Come join me behind the counter, baby,” Sammy said. Alfonso obliged, sitting where Mrs. Parker had sat and dropping his backpack on the ground. He stared forward at nothing in particular. Then he closed and opened his eyes slowly, before taking another sip of black.
“This summer has been hell, Sammy,” he said. “Carlton, Eddie, and now this fire. I feel like his whole world is being erased and that I’m the only one who can see that. At home, it’s like everything’s normal. No one recognizes where I’m at.” He took another sip of coffee.
“His service was an abomination,” Alfonso continued, his voice deep and thick with emotion. “The Reverend said his name twice. Just twice, I counted. The rest of it was all this stuff about Jesus and going to glory and about how his soul was saved and this other bullshit that had nothing the fuck to do with him. Hell, I was there, OK? His mother wasn’t there! His father wasn’t there! I was fucking there in the hospital every fucking day staying with him while he was dying! He did not suddenly ‘convert’ or ‘repent,’ OK? Shit!”
Sammy took hold of his hand and held it tightly.
“It was the reception afterwards that was the worse, though. It was at his parents’ place. There was lots of food. Lots of family. Lots of distant relatives. Lots of people eating and talking and drinking. Sammy, it was like any other fucking family get-together! You know what I mean? Carlton was invisible at his own fucking funeral! Invisible! No one mentioned him. Not once! Hell people were laughing and shit like it was fucking Thanksgiving or something, not somebody’s service. I’m feeling like fucking shit, OK? And these people . . .”
He took another sip and looked at Sammy.
“Aunt Emmy, Carlton’s mom, ignored me, straight out. She talked with everyone else, but she wouldn’t even look at me. Uncle Bert acted the same way. These people, my own family, refused to acknowledge me and where I was at. I started to feel invisible, for the first time, and it really scared me, Sammy.”
“Yes,” Sammy said.
“Carlton was invisible in my family, OK? He didn’t go to family functions because he knew he wasn’t welcomed. And nobody ever talked about him or asked about him. You just didn’t. Frankly, I’m surprised they even had a fucking service for him, but I guess that would’ve looked bad if they hadn’t. Whatever. So anyway, at the reception I went from being sad to getting pissed. I got real mad and took off. I didn’t say nothing to no one. I just left. I went home, went to my room, put on some Aretha Franklin, and fucking cried my eyes out.”
Sammy nodded knowingly. Aretha made several appearances at the remembrance celebration Carlton’s friends held. How sad it was that Alfonso didn’t go.
“So when my family got home, my mom comes up to my room. She knocks. I open the door. And she has this look on her face. Never mind that my face is all wet, she has this look on her face and then she went on about how disrespectful I had been for leaving the reception early. I yelled ‘DISRESPECRFUL?’ and slammed the door in her face. Sammy, I swear, I had never done anything like that before.” He paused and looked into his empty mug. “And then later on, after they all had dinner, my father came to see me. He asked me why I made such a scene. He said I made my mother upset. He said that I was being too emotional. He said that none of this was going to bring Carlton back, so that I had better get over it. By this point, I was like, whatever. Yeah, whatever.”
He paused and listened to the track playing on the stereo. Another lonely sax solo echoed over their heads as street traffic went by.
“That’s ‘Checkered Hat,’ isn’t it?” he said. Sammy nodded. “A eulogy for Johnny Hodges.”
“That’s right,” Sammy said.
“Carlton tried to teach me everything you taught him.” Sammy smiled. “He gave me his jazz collection. I listen to a lot of it. When I have it on and close my eyes, it sometimes feels like he’s in the room with me.”
“Yes,” Sammy said.
“I don’t like that my family can’t see me for who I am, Sammy. I’m not used to it, though I guess it’s always been like this. I just never noticed.” He paused. “My dad calls me his First Lieutenant. He’s always called me that.”
The words returned. You made my day, my friend, you made my day. He couldn’t repeat them. Even as they pounded him on the head, he didn’t want to go there. He just couldn’t. He needed instead to convince himself that his father was not a monster.
“You know, Carlton didn’t think much of my father. I’m sure you can guess why.” Sammy sat respectfully still and listened. “Once we got into about him. Carlton was in one of his moods. He was going on about politicians who didn’t do shit about AIDS so of course I knew who he was talking about.”
“Look,” Alfonso finally said, “if you mean my father, then just say so, alright?”
“Alright. Uncle Ford doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that he has a relative that’s living with AIDS. Uncle Ford doesn’t use his position to deal with AIDS issues. Uncle Ford seems to think that AIDS doesn’t exist. Uncle Ford hasn’t done shit for me!”
Alfonso tensed up.
“Look, he’s done some things, alright? He voted for an AIDS education program recently. It’s not like the city is responsible for health care anyway. That’s the county.”
“Oh. Education. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo,” he said, twirling his left index finger in the air.
“I finally got so mad that I gave him the finger and stormed out of his place. It wasn’t a great moment for us. Later he sent me the nicest card. He told me that the next time he got like that to just slap him good upside the head.” Alfonso giggled at the very thought, just as he did at the time he received the card. “Sometimes he could get so angry.” My father is not a monster, he wanted to add, but didn’t. “I really miss him, Sammy.”
“I know you do, baby. He loved you so much.”
“I loved him. He was the only one in my family that . . .” Instead of crying, Alfonso began chuckling. Giggles spurted out like leaks in a dam. Sammy looked on with an earnest face. “Just thinking about something Carlton always said. He said you gotta have someone in your life it’s OK to fart in front of.” He laughed out loud.
Sammy let out his own low-pitched staccato, “He, he, he.”
“Well, feel free to come here and fart as much as you want, honey,” he said. “You’re always welcomed.”
“Thank you, Sammy.”
“You want some more coffee?”
“No, thank you. I better get on up to campus. Year three’s in the house. God, I don’t want to face those people, though.”
“What people, baby?”
“Oh, my friends at college. You know, I’ve known most of them since high school, and it’s like we never left high school. We treat each other like we aren’t changing or becoming different people. I can’t talk to them about Carlton, who he was, why he was so important to me, or even how he died. They don’t know who I am, Sammy. I can’t fart in front of them.” He smiled.
Sammy nodded. “Well, this store is the safe spot. Stop by any time, you hear?”
“I will.” He stood up and bent over to give Sammy another hug. Then he reached down to get his backpack. He slowly walked around the counter and towards the front door. He looked out the large window facing Carver Street to the left of the door.
“I hear sirens, Sammy, all the time, sirens, when I’m asleep or awake. Ever since Carlton died, my ears ring with the sound of sirens. And when I hear them, my body jumps and I think ‘crisis.’ I heard them when I was in the hospital visiting Carlton. I swear I heard them the day Eddie got beaten. I heard them this morning, before I knew about the fire. I need to stop hearing them, Sammy.”
“Yes,” Sammy said, “I know you do, baby. Believe me, I know.”
Alfonso stood at the door a bit, and then went out into the world. He walked up Carver Street north, not really noticing or caring who saw him.
* * *
Charlotte did her best to avoid looking to the west and seeing what remained of the clinic, though the trees and bushes along Lincoln obscured the view of the carnage on the other side. Mrs. Parker kept her eyes forward, silently noting, as she always did, the further deterioration of the park, its landscaping and facilities. She normally eulogized its yesteryears whenever she traversed it with someone, but uttered none of her familiar verses during their long walk through the center of the park. When the 48th Street brownstones came into view, she stopped suddenly and turned to face Charlotte.
“You’ve got to get rid of that man,” she said, referring to Councilman Ford Berry. “This area can’t survive four more years of his neglect. It’s been eight years since you last ran against him and I know that ain’t a whole lotta time, but a lot has changed since then. The demographics have changed. People moving in want to see a real, thriving neighborhood. Not the mess it is now. Besides destroying a beautiful health center, you know what that fire did? It gave the neighborhood another boarded up storefront and that’s the last thing we need.
“Anyway, he can’t pull the same stunts he pulled eight years ago and get away with it. Attitudes have changed. Folks won’t take kindly to that sort of bigotry no more. People respect you. They respect the work you’ve done. He can’t take that away from you. There, I’ve said my piece. And I’m not gonna talk about it no more, alright? But I’m asking you, I’m asking with all my heart to at least think about it. Please do that, Charlotte. Talk to Liz and think about it. OK?”
Sammy gave her crap about running again constantly, which she usually dismissed with, “Don’t start with me, Samuel Turner.” But somehow she didn’t mind hearing it from Mrs. Parker. In fact, she was flattered by her breathless appeal. And though she loathed to admit it, the thought had been on her mind that morning.
“Alright, Mrs. Parker,” she said. “I promise. I’ll think about it.”
“Good. Good. Thank you for walking me through the park, Charlotte. I’ll be alright from here.”
Charlotte gave her a hug. She watched as Mrs. Parker crossed 48th Street to her brownstone, and then turned around to head back to the north side of the park.
© 2012 – 2013, gar. All rights reserved.