the Nine series (novel excerpts)

A Meta-Workshop.

An aside: Writing fiction is like slipping into a home and taking things— hushes, aromas, and laughter, for instance. Unless you’re good at it—like, acrobatic cat burglar good—you never quite know how to get in and you never escape unnoticed. Your presence is a loud and clanging reminder that you’ve inserted yourself into a space where you don’t belong.

To write well is to avoid notice. But how? Do you start at the back door or the front? Should you try the basement window? These are not naive times; there will be no spare key under flowerpot or welcome mat. Your own your own. Find yourself some tools:—a hairpin, a credit card, a crowbar—and get to breaking and entering.

But once you’re in, however you manage it, you can’t discard your stealth. You’ll need it to capture the awkwardness at the dinner table, to pocket the longing in the teenager’s bedroom, to siphon the mother’s resentment-for later, literary use.

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It always took Nine about five false starts before she found the right entryway for any of her stories. She was always tempted to start in the middle, a conjunction igniting her first sentence: “And then we were silent,” she’d type, or “But Bessie wasn’t ready.” This never worked. A novel wasn’t an episode of Lost, after all, and Nine had little patience for flashbacks. Beginning at the beginning seemed too obvious; she didn’t believe the hype about Occam’s razor. And starting at the end posed many problems similar to attempting an arc in medias res.

Mind you, Nine didn’t arrive at this kind of indecision—paralyzing indecision, the kind that renders you immobile as deadlines march doggedly on, as merciless as Gestapo—on her own. She’d gone into a great deal of student loan debt to learn this brand of self-doubt. She’d sat, for two years, in a series of crumbling Tudor cottages, taking courses led either by wizened codgers hard-pressed to find anyone’s work impressive anymore or by the young, hip, and newly published (their skin as intricately inked as atlases, their best advice: besot your work with casual sex and obscenity).

But now that Nine she was unconscious, she was also un-self-conscious. Without any of her customary hemming and hawing, she had found herself already in. Whole paragraphs materialized, unaided. Her clever turns of phrase (“The wind is a sieve,” indeed.) were ambling along on a blank mental slate reserved, it seemed, for precisely these kinds of health crises.

Nine could hardly stand it, prolific at last! Eloquent self-narrative was emerging with legendary swiftness. Just look at that: “tectonic shift!” Were she awake, she would’ve stricken through that phrase and written, “Inaccessible reference?” Not here. Here, in her coma, every phrase worked; though, irony of delicious ironies, here, in her coma, there was no one to read them.

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the Nine series (novel excerpts)

Collapse.

Five years ago, Nine baked a rainbow cake to impress Ahmir, who she’d been seeing for three years by then. Three years was, by far, the longest she’d made a relationship last. There’d been 22-year-old Levi when she was eighteen; he stuck around for a year. And when she was 21, there was Damon, who she dumped after six long-distance months. Her relationship with Ahmir was uncharted territory. Was he a blessing or a barnacle? She hadn’t decided. Until she did, it made sense to continue crafting a certain self-mythology for his benefit.

She wasn’t much of a baker, though she’d been at it since toddlerdom. To keep her occupied, her mother would shake a bit of unsifted flour and tap water into a shallow bowl for Nine to mix. Mixing had been a favorite pastime of Nine’s ever since. Stirring ingredients by hand, in rhythmic, clockwise motion, was nothing short of cathartic. Over the years, she’d come up with her best lines of poetry while absently creaming butter and sugars. She’d discovered her ability to hit high notes in accurate pitch, while melting German chocolate on a stovetop.

On the Sunday of the woebegone cake five years ago, Nine had cooked an entire meal. Seafood alfredo (sauce from scratch). Steamed lemon-butter broccoli. Garlic bread, also from scratch. It was a good meal—great if you you were Ahmir and used to subsisting on value menu items at McDonald’s.

And so Nine’s mythologizing gained momentum. The dinner was more than enough to reinforce her position as a steady girlfriend. But the cake, if properly executed, might just secure a proposal.

It was a basic white cake—not from scratch. If it were about the mixing alone, she would’ve been just fine. But there were layers. Nine knew nothing of layers and how to pour the batter evenly between three round pans or how long to let each cool before attempting to wrest it from its metal casing or how to balance one atop the other, neatly, unbroken.

Still. All this might’ve been managed, were it not for the jello. Three different kinds were required. (After all, how else would the cake be a rainbow?) This meant adding careful measurements of hot water to the the powdered gelatin and a delicate hand to drizzle each color atop each layer of cake.

She tried. Oh, how the girl tried! She held her breath, watching the cherry and lemon and lime liquid-jellos soak into the white cake, staining it red and yellow and green. She placed the layers onto a cleared rack of the refrigerator and waited the necessary two hours for the liquid to gel.

Things seemed to be going well, and if she cleared this hurdle, there was only one more to jump: the even slathering of Cool Whip frosting. She pulled each layer from the fridge and smiled that her cake seemed to have reached its proper consistency. But when she tried to jimmy one tier from its pan, she realized she’d been far too liberal with the jello drizzle. It’d seeped straight through to the bottom and stuck. Each rainbow color was a fault line, her every movement, no matter how gentle, an earthquake. There was no way the remaining white sections of the cake would survive as a whole. This, she thought, must be what her middle school geography teacher was trying to tell her about tectonic shift and its potential repercussions for California.

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the Nine series (novel excerpts)

Delusions and Candor.

You are no flea in petrified amber, no exoskeleton for the world to fossilize. You are not the serendipitous cadaver whose arrival on a research slab will result in the healing of cancers. You are merely a woman of twenty-nine years. If you go, there are few who will mourn you. There will be Marcheline and there will be Hadley, whose eyes will, at first, bubble over like hot springs ever time the number nine is mentioned. Then, over time, even they will only remember to weep for you as they push their fingers into pie crusts and recall your fondness for doughy fruit cobblers.

Your lover will suddenly realize how desperately he wishes to marry, despite the eight vowless years you spent coaxing him toward that commitment, and four months after your burial, he will make some 22-year-old virgin from an AME church his wife. They will have the two sandy-skinned children with coarse, copper hair you’d hoped for. Cumin-colored freckles will cover their angular cheekbones, and one day, while they surreptitiously rummage through the box their father keeps tucked in the attic, their fingers will flutter over the scrapbook cellophane protecting the only photograph of you that he’s kept. For days thereafter, they will wonder who you were, but they will fear their father’s mercurial moods too much to investigate.

Your own father will drink vodka until it renders what’s left of his recollection sterile. He will not allow himself the sobriety required to mourn you, but occasionally, he will find himself plumbing the vestiges, after dementia has scooped out the meatier parts of his memory like a melon-baller. Before long, you will receive word of his arrival in a district adjacent to your own, and when you meet again, you will be strangers.

But none of this should weigh upon your decision to return to Marcheline or to Hadley, to your lover or to your father. None of this has much bearing at all. The illness was congenital. That you would one day find yourself overexerted, then tumble balletically into unconsciousness was inevitable. But the myriad comforts you’ve discovered in this comatose state were not intended. And some day quite soon, you will be forced to emerge, either with open eyes and independent breaths or divorcing from eyes and becoming breath itself.

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the Nine series (novel excerpts)

The Store.

Jesus works a series of doubles at the only checkout counter that’s ever open, the one where the flickering globular light overhead seems ever in need of repair. Jesus is just over six feet tall, making the long, burgundy, pocketed smock he wears seem prominent and absurd. The smock is unmarked, as are the paper and plastic bags hanging from a revolving corral no higher than his hip, nameless, as is the off-white awning that arches over the entrance.

Under the smock, he is customarily clad in jeans, fraying at the hems, and a white linen shirt with loose stitching. He seems to have a vast array of white linen shirts with loose stitching. His hair, a thick, dusky mass of loose curls about six inches long, is held away from his olive-skinned face by an athletic sweatband. He has the kind of toes one would imagine, long and slender, with sand in the crevices of the nail beds. His footwear tends to vary, within the narrow range of huaraches and flip-flops and Birks. His eyes are an unremarkable brown, but his lips are exquisitely full. He has the nimble, four-inch fingers of a basketball player and Nine has grown to love watching him, as he keys in esoteric codes on the cash register touch screen.

Today is like the others. She, untethered from the trappings of consciousness, finds herself unceremoniously present with no recollection of arrival. Soon, she will materialize in some other holding cell, perhaps among an unusually vivid array of memories or in a dark corridor amplified with self-narration. And when she does leave Jesus’s curious company, it’s unlikely she’ll recall how she exited.

Until then, here she is, wanly pushing her empty cart, allowing herself to be zigged about by its rickety front wheels.

Jesus spritzes the conveyor belt with Windex before pushing a cloth in circular patterns across it. After watching it streaklessly dry, he folds the damp cloth and tosses it into a bin below the counter.

Like ivy along old brick, an inexorable pity creeps all over Nine. “This store is a front, isn’t it,” she whispers, more to herself than to Jesus, who chooses to ignore her, as is sometimes his wont.

He leans against the cash drawer, slinging one long leg in front of the other before folding his arms over his broad chest and lifting his wrist to aim the tiny remote control in his hand at the black and white surveillance monitors dangling over the automatic sliding doors.

It must be awful, Nine muses, to have to hang out in the abandoned recesses of someone else’s body, waiting for decisions to be made. She watches Jesus yawn, and there’s something endearing about the oval his lips form and the satisfied little sigh that escapes his throat.

He’s as stuck here as she is.

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the Nine series (novel excerpts)

Do Disturb.

Contrary to her family’s expectations, Nine had made herself at home in the sterile, freakish underworld of St. Mary’s Hospital. She liked the crinkle of the accordion tubing and sacks that wheezed and sighed as often as she did. The rubbery footfalls of the nurses and the snatches of their gossip and gripes she’d gathered since her arrival provided a great distraction from the constant cinema flickering inside the dark cavern her brain had become. Nine also enjoyed the metal clack of her chart whenever the doctor opened it, the perfunctory snap of the occasional latex glove, and the understanding that, ever so often, needles and chutes were curled into her veins like crochet needles, eliciting a pain that would be excruciating if she were still able to feel it. While, for others, the constant drip of saline may have seemed ominous, she rather relished the music the liquid created. And the warm sponges squeezed into basins beside her daily reminded her of a woodland stream and, by extension, she often imagined a red-cloaked heroine in the Hans Christian Andersen tradition, foolishly courageous, skipping through a slalom of tall, barren trees.

But there were also sensations she did not favor. She did not, for instance, enjoy the company of visitors and willfully closed her ears to their nervous chatter. She did not like their nostrils and the suddenness with which they honked or slurped back snot. She detested the soggy, germ-soaked Kleenex they left to harden in her only wastebasket. She did not like the smell of the carnations they left behind, once the water grew murky and the velvety petals browned. And there were other agitations, far less superficial and more alarming than these others: the strange awareness that preceded her heart’s intent to stop; the sizzle of defibrillator panels as they shot electricity through her greasy skin; the jolt of expectation to open her eyes when her sluggish heartbeat reluctantly returned; the firmness of her boyfriend’s touch, waning with each increasingly infrequent visit.

These were the occurrences that reminded her. There are decisions to be made, came a voice over the PA system of her subconscious. The store is closing.

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the Nine series (novel excerpts)

Retracing.

Work backward. Think of the moment they married, between the 8 and 11 o’clock services at your church on that July Sunday when you were ten. Think of the accordion partition, cordoning off their nuptials from the simultaneous Youth, Singles, and General Sunday School classes being held in various other sections of the sanctuary. Think of iridescent streamers that should’ve been there, descending from the walls in curling tendrils, or the tiny votive candles with their wavering yellow-orange flames, or the delicate boxes of cherry cordials offered as party favors. Pity that you had to dream them. Pity that they were whipped from the same imaginative froth that conjured unicorns, castles, and faeries to fill all your lonely spaces. Think of the eleven or so guests–three of whom you did not recognize–gawking at the vow exchange like a side-ring act at the circus.

Remember that you felt pretty. Your hair had been hot-combed for the occasion and wrangled into a menagerie of rubberbands, twisted into a series of puffy little ropes. You could hear the plastic pink barrettes at the ends clacking gently whenever you turned your head. You were turning your head all day, eager to hear all the overlapping grown folks’ conversations. Like a chorus in the round, there were toasts and traditions and whispers of lingerie.

There were no warnings.

Consider the pomp and the tumult: the non-alcoholic champagne for toasting; your grandmother’s ex-boyfriend, pitching his lilting baritone above the din of clinking glasses; your mother’s cavernous absence, once as she absconds to Centennial Lake for wedding photographs, then later, as night falls and her new husband whisks her off to Delaware.

Who honeymoons in Delaware? You should have noted that. You should have recognized forboding when you felt it.

Recall how unaccustomed you still were then, to the tenor of your stepfather’s accent, how it still reminded you of coconut and calypso. Because you were young, you were full of stereotypes. Because you were young, you knew nothing of Jamaicans you hadn’t gleaned while watching the “Hey, Mon!” skits on In Living Color. Because you were young, you thought brown skin meant common culture, that Black Americans and Black Jamaicans understood one another. You did not know that patois was not language, but lifestyle.

But you mustn’t drift into the lofty.

Think of the Peptol pink of your dress and how you grinned and you grinned and you grinned. Think of the navy blue suit worn by your best friend in the world, a boy (named Kenya). Note now, as you never could have then, that he was your insulation. He, of the goofy faces and marathon games of tag, he whose single-mother upbringing left him mannered and intuitive and kind. He, who encouraged you to forget what you were getting into and allowed you a well-deserved respite from all your tiring precocity. You would love him, long before you understood why and long after he disappeared.

Pull the recollections around you like an electric blanket. Pull, until you’re so uncomfortable that you smother and wriggle and sweat. Pull until you have no choice but to let go.

Only then will it become apparent that when they were pronounced man and wife, you called him Dad because your own father was missing. In those days, you uttered the word with abandon. You uttered, unaware of what would come: the ten-year litany of accusations; your volleying waltz across their marital chessboard; your mother’s cavernous absence.

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the Nine series (novel excerpts)

Dejame.

Nine was born Ninah Jude Brown in a cold single-bed room at Sparrow Hospital. It was 1979 in Lansing, Michigan, which meant that the White nurses were merciless in their “care” for her unmarried mother, Marcheline, as she writhed and shook her legs at the sheets like they were puppies nipping her ankles. These angels of mercy in their trapezoidal bonnets and bobby socks pursed their lips disapprovingly at Marcheline’s bare ring finger. Knowing there’d be no hovering husband to complain on her behalf, they refused her a cold compress as sweat poured from her feverish forehead, denied her ice chips when her lips cracked and her tongue went coarse, and would not hold her hand as her uterus contracted, for fear that the melanin would rub off.

In her epidural haze, she even thought she heard one of them tsk, “When will these nigger-girls ever learn?” Months later, Marcheline would rather absently repeat this to her mother, who stood several feet away, pushing pureed carrots beyond Nine’s puckered lips. Her back turned, Marcheline would fail to notice how her words bolted up her mother’s spine and rocked her for a moment, right where she stood, baby spoon suspended just out of Nine’s reach. Then came the tremble with unspeakable anger at her own hospital ward tale, wherein the nurses weren’t White but were just as full as vitriol and there was no sweet anesthetic to muffle their judgmental asides. Just as Nine would begin her hungry whimpers, her grandmother would emerge from her swoon of recollection and Marcheline would rush away from the bathroom mirror with makeup impeccably applied and race for the honking car downstairs in a sweater dress seemingly designed to make her date forget her new motherhood.

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