I excel at premises and exposition. It’s the plotting and pacing that trip me up. I can have an intimate knowledge of characters–what motivates them, where they live, how their experiences have converged to create the versions of themselves that we meet in my stories. But making them do something, in real-time, is a challenge. If I clear that hurdle, it’s even more difficult to make their doing reach some sort of resolution. Below is an example of the type of work I can trot out with ease. I texted these 1,100 words on my Blackberry Friday and yesterday. They poured right out of me. But now that it’s time to make the characters–the narrator and Uncle Sonny–do something, I’m stuck.
I’m posting this, in part, because it’s the first new fiction I’ve written in months. But also because this is where I post things I want people to encourage me to continue writing. This is where I look for readers to say, “There is something here. Keep going. We want to know what it is.”
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“Mississippi ain’t what it was, but it still ain’t shit, if you wanna know the truth about it.”
Uncle Sonny flicked a long-nailed finger across his tongue, removing a flake of loose tobacco. He smoked unfiltereds so relentlessly that sometimes, along with the stink of stale cigs past, you could also smell the death hounds, held at bay, perhaps, by the prayers of great-aunts and Grandma, but gunning for him, all the same.
We spoke often, in my family, of the death hounds, and how, by and large, we’d dodged them. They felled Grandpa with angina back in ’96. He was nearly 90, a Baptist minister who bickered often with his wife and barely knew his sixteen children, least of all Uncle Sonny. He accepted love in the forms of fatback and collards, cornbread softened by buttermilk, and thick cut bacon far more white and red when raw. He gave love in the form of the strap, in hard words for his sons and few words for the daughters, in the sweat soaked through three shirts a day in fields and foundries.
Uncle Sonny’s position here, in the living room of the high-ceilinged rowhouse, with the stained glass in the parlor and the upright piano in the sitting room, was the direct result of Grandpa’s labor. But even as the intended beneficiary of the deed in the event of Grandma’s passing, Uncle Sonny would be hard-pressed to acknowledge that.
“Most of these niggas round here came up from North Carolina…”
I grinned to myself at the musicality of his pronunciation: Cuh-LIE-nuh. He was beautiful, Uncle Sonny, and by far, my favorite uncle. At 70, only his language belied the grimier bits of his past, bits to which I’d only become privy in the last year, when the aunts began raising their hushed tones till they were just loud enough to overhear.
You had to be at least 25 before this happened, in my family. I was 31 and still learning.
“The NAACP buried the N-word a few years ago, Uncle Sonny.”
“Can’t bury nothin’ you ain’t got the power to kill, baby.”
He crushed the burnt remains of a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray made of sterling, then sipped from a mug of coffee he’d made, so bitter it tasted as though it’d been brewed from the grounds of that very tray.
In solidarity, I sipped from the serving he’d given me, presented in a teacup with two sugar cubes on the saucer. Forcing a grin, I resisted the urge to check the recorder I’d started–or thought I’d started–just after we sat. There was a strong chance Uncle Sonny had forgotten it was there. Calling attention to it would be counterproductive.
“Like I was sayin’, most of these niggas here came up from North Carolina. That’s why they always skinnin’ and grinnin’ for these peckerwoods.”
Peckerwoods? It wasn’t the first time I’d heard Uncle Sonny use this particular white-folks-pejorative, but it was one of the few for which I hadn’t researched the etymology. I typed it into a Blackberry memo and set my phone back down on the coffee table.
“What you over there writin’?” It was a question he never ceased to ask with suspicion. Ever since I’d started writing poetry in high school and gave Grandma that pretentious 80th birthday poem with the tiny font and the five-dollar rhyming words, I’d become known as the next writer in the family and, for us, it wasn’t a role of honor.
The last writer in the family, Aunt Edie, had penned a memoir about being the eldest of sixteen, born to ex-slaves from Mississippi. It was compelling work, filled with the brutal accounts of flogging and selling and sit-ins you’d expect of such a piece. It was also, the whole of it, a lie. Grandpa and Grandma were born in 1908 and 1911. Even their parents had been born free, all except Grandpa’s father, perhaps, who bequeathed him his deep brown skin but didn’t stick around to provide him much else. Grandpa couldn’t have told you his father’s middle name, much less whether or not he’d ever been owned.
Before Aunt Edie, there was Cousin Vuretta, who’d penned a very convincing letter to the school principal, accusing Sylvester Dotson, another of our distant cousins, of a rather ghastly assault, after they’d been caught in a consensual indiscretion in the lunch room, after hours. Sly got sent to a home for wayward boys, where he learned the fine arts of hardened crime, and within a few months of his disappearance, Vuretta recanted her story.
Then, there was Elester Pitts, whose writing was limited to love letters, discovered in the various homes he’d broken by pilfering the affections of other men’s wives.
Baltimore may be a major metropolis to some, but for us, it’s a just a big town with a long memory. Grandpa and Grandma moved up here when Uncle Sonny was just seven years old. He was second-born. They’d come up as a family of six—my Ganny was the baby then, soon to be displaced by Uncle Wally. I supposed, since then, we’d developed quite the reputation, “country” as we once were, “hood” as we are now.
I know very little about it. Somehow, I’d been insulated. My mama, Denise, was what the rest of our kin referred to, under their breath, as a Jesus freak. By and large, we were a family of Baptists. Mama was a devout neo-Charismatic, which is as far left of my family’s church experience as James Cleveland is from Jimi Hendrix.
I was already a zygote when she gave her life to the Lord in that open space below the raised pulpit that’s often called the altar.
She hadn’t told anyone about her pregnancy, being eighteen, college-enrolled, and unwed. But she raced home to tell my Ganny and her sisters, engaged in a heated game of bid whist, that she’d gotten saved. Perhaps she thought, naïvely, that it’d soften the blow when, months later, they noticed how big I’d gotten under my mother’s silk blouse.
Aunt Xenobia raised her glass of gin, making the ice cubes tinkle in congratulation.
Aunt Imogene just pursed her lips and cut her eyes, which are generally her sole contributions to any conversation.
Aunt Edie humphed. Ever since she’d been called a liar to her face by every living family member–and, to hear Uncle Sonny tell it, even some dead who’d taken to stalking her dreams–Edie thought it prudent, on most occasions, to keep her mouth shut.
Ganny was the most vocal: “‘Saved,’ huh? You could’ve ‘saved’ the gesture. You already baptized. I made sure of that.”
Mother needlessly gathered the fabric of her sweater around her still-flat stomach and slunk up to her room.
“That gal ain’t got the sense God gave a tick,” Aunt Addie Mae could be heard quipping behind her.
“You need to hush,” Ganny scolded, by obligation, before snickering.