U is for… [U]ndercooked #AtoZChallenge

The turkey was undercooked. Ma planned to roast it overnight, have the whole house smelling like a Thanksgiving feast by morning. But we woke up freezing, a surprise dusting of snow on the lawn, enough to slick the roads, but not enough to delay the holiday traffic.

Tony and Kerry arrived at noon, arguing again, though I’ve stopped caring what for. Something about Kerry wanting to move back to Raleigh after Tony just got a promotion. Let her go. She’s not the one for him, but Tony married her anyway. He doesn’t listen—he never listens.

Dinner was scheduled for 1:00, but at 2:30, I sat alone by the window, watching for Gregory’s car to pull to the curb. I hadn’t seen him since his birthday on October 24, a week before Halloween, and it was terrifying to see him then. He looked as if he had grown six inches. His face was fuller, half covered in a thick, coarse beard, but the rest of him was so thin and frail, he almost looked like Tony, a physical characteristic the two brothers never shared. While Tony was the spitting image of his father, both in name and appearance, Gregory favored me—the short, stubby fingers, the flat nose, the extra weight around the stomach and arms. But his arms were toned, muscular, the outline of them seen through the thin, sweat resistant short-sleeve shirt he wore, too cool even for mid-fall.

It was Tammi who texted me they’d be over for dinner. Gregory’s phone was off—he hadn’t paid the bill. Gregory had been missing a lot of bills lately—puzzling because his father and I taught him how to be a good steward over his finances. It was as if all of his upbringing left him the moment he met her. Over and over he asked me for money, a car note here, rent there, Tammi’s parking tickets, which I flat out refused. But I didn’t want to completely abandon him, so I slipped him change when I could. The more I gave, the less I saw of him, and when I realized he only came home for money, I stopped giving all together, and his visits became more infrequent.

Before his birthday, June was the last time I’d seen him. He’d even missed our Fourth of July family cookout in Ma’s backyard. After it got dark, we would climb up Ma’s roof and watch the fireworks shot off from the high school football field while enjoying burnt hotdogs and Carolina burgers with chili and slaw. It had been a family tradition since Antonio was alive. No one ever skipped it, rain or shine.

I could hear Ma scrambling in the kitchen. Not much to cook with a twenty pound bird taking up most of the oven, but we had to eat something—it was Thanksgiving after all. With a shrunken menu, the sweet potato casserole, became plain yams, the mac and cheese stovetop, the dressing stuffed inside the turkey to cook them both at the same time, while on the back burners, the greens boiled.

Ma kicked me out of the kitchen shortly after she realized she never turned the oven on last night. “You know you’ve never been a cook,” she said. “You’ll only slow me down.” I was given the assignment to make Tony and Kerry chicken salad sandwiches—the salad already prepared, all I had to do was spread it over the bread—to hold them over to dinner and hopefully to quell their arguing.

And it worked. We had silence for a while . . . until Tammi and her mother showed up, and without Gregory.

I had never met Jacquelyn. She’d tried to introduce herself several times before, calling to explain why she had allowed my son to live with her and her daughter in their overcrowded trailer, knocking on my door in the middle of the night to tell me she’d kicked them out. The vibrations in her voice told me she was nothing but drama then, and now she was standing right before me expecting a free, and she didn’t even bother to bring Gregory with her. And the striking resemblance between her and Tammi—how old was she when she had her? Any stranger would think they were sisters.

“Where’s my son?” I had no interest in shaking hands, fake smiles, or “how do you do’s.” These people overstayed their welcome the second they stepped foot on Ma’s front porch.

“He at work.” Tammi smacked her lips. Her nonchalant attitude quickly got under my skin.

“I was expecting to spend Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I don’t know you.”

Tammi’s mother reached out her hand. “Hi I’m Jacqui—”

“And I don’t care to!” I snapped.

Ma entered, putting the oven mitts she was wearing under her arm. “We may need another hour. That turkey just won’t cook.” When she noticed the tense atmosphere at her front door, she said, “Who’s this?”

“Tammi, and Jacqui,” I cut my eyes at the mother, “decided to invite themselves without Gregory.”

“Where’s Gregory?” Ma asked.

“He had to work,” Jacqui answered.

“On Thanksgiving?”

Jacqui started to say something, but quickly closed her mouth. By the way they shrugged their shoulders, avoided eye contact, it was obvious they were lying. My worried mind went straight to the marathon episodes of Snapped I often watched to fill my Sunday afternoons when I came home from church. It was the worst thing to watch on a Sunday, a holy day of rest. All it did was disrupt my peace. Women taking vengeance into their own hands, taking a life. When Gregory went weeks without calling, I feared the worst. What had they done to him?

I heard Tony barge down the hall, and I knew things would quickly escalate with him in the room.

“You know they’re getting married, right?”

“Who?”

Tony pointed to Tammi.

“Yea, we engaged.” Tammi shrugged her shoulders, flashed the small diamond on her left hand.

A ring. He’d bought her a ring. With what money? I remembered those times he called, whining that his lights were about to get turned off, that he would be evicted if he didn’t pay rent by the end of the week, that he couldn’t afford to have his car repossessed because then he’d have no way to get to work. Were they all lies? The money I’d been giving him—a little here, a little there—had he been collecting it until he had enough to buy a ring and propose? No, no. Heaven forbid I inherit another lethargic, unappreciative daughter-in-law like Kerry, who had secluded herself away in the dining room to pretend she was crying.

Instinctively, I clawed at Tammi’s hand, snatching of the ring I paid for and a thin layer of skin along with it. She yanked my arm back with one hand— with much more force than her petite frame would lead anyone to believe— and with the other hand, slapped me clear across the face. There was shouting and screaming, and at some point Kerry finally appeared in the kitchen doorway behind Ma. I could feel Tony’s arms around my waist. He and Jacqui pulled Tammi and I apart, and backing up, I tripped over Tony’s size 13 shoe and hit the side of my back on the back of the couch, re-agitating a muscle I pulled a few weeks ago when moving around the furniture in Gregory’s room.

“I ain’t gon stay where I’m not wanted!” Tammi was screaming.

“Then why the fuck are you still here?” Tony yelled.

Suddenly the smoke detector in the kitchen went off, setting off all the others in the house, including the one in the living room right above the space of floor that separated me from the intruders. The piercing peal silenced us for several seconds.

Ma rushed back into the kitchen, brushing past Kerry. “Jesus, Kerry, you don’t smell my greens burning?” She stirred the pot, added water and flicked off the eye. She grabbed a towel and begin flapping it under the detector to clear the smoke.

When the noise finally ceased, I looked directly at Tammi. “You need to leave.”

“Gladly.” She turned around and kicked open the screen door, making a sound like ripped metal and leaving behind a dent in the bottom left corner. Jacqui stayed behind for a brief moment, as if considering an apology, but quickly spun around and followed her daughter to the car. I shut the door behind them and noticed the engagement ring on the floor; it must have fallen out of my hand during the scuffle. I quickly kicked it away. The sight of it disgusted me.

“She’ll be back when she realizes it’s gone,” Kerry mumbled.

“Oh, now you got something to say? Where were you when that bitch was hittin’ my mama?” Tony shouted.

Kerry rolled her eyes and turned away. “I’m not arguing with you, Tony.”

“But you gon listen!” He stormed past me, my throbbing face obviously not too much of a concern, to finish his tirade with Kerry from earlier.

Ma returned from the kitchen, her shoulders hunched. She looked just as defeated as I felt. “Why not Chinese? They’re always open on Thanksgiving. I don’t think I can save this dinner.”

“There’s still the turkey and stuffing.”

“That won’t be for another hour. You know my old stomach has to eat early. I’m feeling lightheaded already.”

I tried to force a smile, but my face was so tight, I probably looked constipated. “Why don’t you sit, and I’ll make us some chicken salad sandwiches.”

“Can we eat them outside? I’m sick of those two yelling, and I need to cool off.”

I nodded and looked back to the window. Eating outside would only make me more anxious about Gregory, wondering if every car that drove by was him. I shook my head. No, there was no sense in waiting for him anymore. He wasn’t coming. And Tammi would surely tell him what happened here. Then, after that, I don’t think he will ever come home.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Prologues, character sketches, structure planning, or in the case of this post, more backstories. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

Q is for… [Q]uarrel #AtoZChallenge

“Hello?”

This was a mistake, but I ask for Gregory anyway.

“Who this?”

Hang up, I tell myself, I must have the wrong number. But his last text came from this phone. A single word: Sorry. Sorry for what, I wonder. It came three days after I sent him the message Proverbs 6:20

My son, keep your father’s command
and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

Where did I mess up? After Antonio’s passing, Mama said I needed to be strong for the boys, and Lord knows I’ve tried not to let this be a loss for all of us, but it’s so hard, God, it’s so hard, to open my eyes each morning and not see my soulmate smiling back at me. Not to have him here to beat the stiff-necked stubbornness out of Tony, to show Gregory the way he should go, not this path he’s veered off to, choosing a girl who can’t even think to remember me, over his own family.

“Is this not Tammi?”

She smacks her lips. I hate that sound. Smacking lips, like popping gum. I imagine her leaning up against something—a door jamb, a wall, a counter top—all her weight shifted to one side, one hand on hip, holding her phone to her ear with her shoulder, examining the chipped fingernails on her other hand, not bothering to care who I am or why I’ve called.

“This is Gregory’s mother.” It’s humiliating that I even have to introduce myself. Who else would be calling? Who else would be asking for Gregory? How many other Gregorys does she know? It wouldn’t surprise me that she’s sleeping with any of them. Lord, help my son not to be weak like Ahab. Help him to recognize this Jezebel he’s let take over his life.

She smacks her lips again. I want so badly to snatch that tongue right out of her mouth. She doesn’t understand the two-edged sword she wields. It can’t be controlled, a restless evil, pronouncing both blessings and curses.

“With all due respect, Ms. Fields,” she begins, and I know disrespect will only follow. Honor your father and mother so you will have long life. With that mouth she kisses her own mother, she kisses my Gregory, and my stomach goes uneasy, as if suspended in midair, at the thought.

“I’m getting real tired of you calling my phone. Greg ain’t here. I don’t know where he’s at, and I don’t care. But you not gone be blowing up my phone all times of day looking for him. He got a phone. It ain’t my fault he don’t pick up. I got two babies to feed. I ain’t got time to be raising no grown ass man. That’s your job!”

My hand is shaking, skin pulling at the knuckles. I feel I can break this phone in half. “You’re living with him aren’t you? He’s paying your bills, isn’t he?” I snap. “You’re sucking his dick—” Bridle your tongue! the Holy Spirit convicts me. I immediately bite down, but I’m too late.

“Wow. How Christian of you. Don’t call my fucking phone again. I’m blocking your number.”

I hurl the phone toward the wall before I can hear her hang up, though my arm is not as strong as it used to be, and the pinch in my shoulder prevents further force behind my throw. It skids across the floor, barely making a sound because of the carpet. I wish I had hardwood. At least then, I’d have the satisfaction of seeing a cracked screen.

I rise from the bed to retrieve the phone and consider calling her again, if only to apologize. But it’s so easy for her to curse another made in God’s image. No respect for her elders, no respect for her boyfriend’s mother. And can I be sure I’ll respond to her graciously, my words seasoned with salt?

Why must they make it so hard for a mother to talk to her son? I am berated with insults from Tammi, even worse when Jacquelyn calls and tries to teach me about my own child. What news do I need to learn? I raised him! And Tony says I should just let him go. He doesn’t care, so why should we? But can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?

So why has he forsaken me? And what of these two babies Tammi mentioned? By whom? Surely they’re not Gregory’s. I won’t accept that. He hasn’t been gone long enough to start a family with her—a separate family, away from me—has he? The months are meshing together, this season extending longer than I prayed it would go. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen his face. Lord, provide me with your guidance, your strength. I need a way out. I have no other options but one, and it scares me to death.

I’ve never called the police on my son.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Prologues, character sketches, outlines, backstories. Today’s backstory is kind of like a prologue. It happens right before Leslie reports Gregory missing. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

N is for… [N]ag #AtoZChallenge

All week he’s demanded I make a decision on a birthday present, impatience in his voice. He makes it feel like an obligation, not out of love but necessity. I try not to complain about his attitude, try to accept that he wants to give me anything at all—he doesn’t have to—since I’m so unappreciative, so ungrateful.

I must think of something reasonable, not like the Birkin bag I asked for last year. I never wanted it to begin with; it was a test he failed. With the amount of money he spends on name brand tennis shoes, Rolex watches, designer shades, gold chains, and other expensive jewelry for himself, surely he could spare a couple thousand for his wife. I was wrong. Instead, he bought me a knockoff Michael Kors, and he took it back when I was too slow in saying thank you, made a big show of getting his refund—all twenty-six fifty of it.

I think long and hard about what I truly want. What he can give me to show for our five years of marriage. Besides his grandma’s rental home we’re living in, besides my wages being garnished because he defaulted on his student loans, besides his lavish spending on himself while we’re to our eye sockets in debt, credit too low even for a mortgage from shady online loan companies that approve you next day.

But I shouldn’t complain. I’m such a nag, he tells me. I can’t just be happy. I can’t just love him. The reality is I do love him, since high school I’ve loved him, but being in love and being homeless is not a life I want to live.

So I want a divorce.

There’s no easy way to ask him. His temper runs so hot and cold. I’ve made it worse for myself since loaning his brother money. It was only for gas—twenty dollars tops. He’d spent $260 on shoes just that day, I didn’t think he would miss it. On the contrary, he noticed right away, even more so when he found out who it went to. Tony curses anyone who gives Greg money. He doesn’t deserve it. In Tony’s world, nobody deserves nothing.

He’s stretched out on the couch now, half asleep. A re-air of the game from last night plays on the television. I reach over his shoulder for the remote, held loosely in his hand that hangs over the arm of the couch. As I try to pry it away, his grip tightens, and his eyes shoot open to glare at me.

“The hell are you doing?”

“I was going to change the channel. I didn’t think you were watching.” There was something on the news I wanted to catch. Something about a robbery at the bank where I used to work.

“That’s because you don’t think. Ever.” He sits up, pulls his in legs from across the opposite arm of the couch, knees popping. He’s tall enough to be playing in the NBA instead of half-watching games that don’t matter—neither team made the playoffs. Despite his height, he was never good in basketball—couldn’t handle the ball, worse than Shaq at the free throw line, swatting air, and sometimes faces, when going up for the block. In high school he rode the bench one season before finally quitting and becoming the team’s equipment manager, a job usually reserved for the fast-ass girls in our class—future groupies, ex-basketball wives, and baby mamas—who couldn’t make the cheerleading squad.

I prep what I’m going to say in my head, choosing the most gentle of words to dissuade him from exploding—I’m not happy; I can’t deal with the mood swings anymore; I think we need some time apart, maybe counseling; I’ll stay at my sister’s, she’s already expecting me. I try to avoid using the word “you.” I read somewhere that “you” can be connoted as argumentative, like I’m placing the blame, nagging, that female shit like we always do, according to Tony.

Before I’m able to speak, he turns the volume up to an ear splitting level, the buzzer marking the end of the third quarter ringing in my head, so loud it’s like we’re in the arena. I look at the screen and the volume level is at 85—the highest it goes is 100. “Do you mind turning that down?” I shout.

“Do you mind shutting the fuck up?” He turns it up even higher.

Sometimes I want to hit him for the way he speaks to me, but I fear his reaction, his anger like an unattended to tea kettle about to blow its top off. Last night while preparing dinner I snapped at him for picking food out of the pot after just coming in from work. I don’t want to eat asbestos, I said, lead-laced paint chips in my food.

“Shows how much you pay attention,” he said. “You’re so selfish. You only think about yourself. Do you even think about me during the day? Do I ever cross your mind?” Before I could say anything, he answered for me. “No. I got promoted six months ago, dumbass.”

That was right. He was the new facilities coordinator, the boss of the men  inhaling asbestos and lead-laced paint. How could I forget, as much as he talks about his job, how much money he makes—$40,000 would seem like a lot when grandma’s still flipping the rent—assuming it’s more than my weekly check from the bank because each payday means another impulse purchase for him, while I haven’t bought a new pair of pumps in three years—the faux suede on my old ones ripping at the heel—trying to cover all the bills he hasn’t paid.

But I couldn’t say all that. So I stirred the stroganoff in silence, but to no avail because once he’s started, he can’t let things go. A simple request not to touch the food until it’s ready set him off, and before long I feared the neighbors would hear the insults he screamed at me, his tongue like a double-edged dagger piercing into flesh.

I’m tired of being called stupid, of being told to act like an adult when he’s the one screaming like a teenager. I took the lid from the pot and put it in his face. Not to hurt him, just to silence him, melt his lips like wax so that they sealed shut and the reverberating sound of his voice would finally cease. Instead he knocked it clear across the room, split it in two, then grabbed me by the neck and threw me against the wall, knocking the back of my head into the plaster and leaving a hole and an excruciating migraine. I’ve been taking aspirin pills all day.

It was the first time he ever put his hands on me, and the last straw.

I press the power button on the TV, relieved to have silence in the calm before his storm rages.

“We need to talk.”

“About what?” He slams his hands down on his knees, leans over, cocks his head to the side, twists his lips, charred black from smoking, a nasty habit I wish he’d quit. I don’t like the smell. It’s in his clothes, his skin, on his breath. I’ve asked him numerous times to be considerate of my feelings, that I don’t smoke, that I’d prefer him not to in the house, or at least not around me, but he only shrugs it off, tells me to get over it or stop breathing.

I’m reminded of an article I read online about weed. How it freezes your mind at the age you begin smoking. I don’t know how credible it is, if there was a scientific study to back it, but looking into his eyes, yellow like parchment paper, I realize he hasn’t changed since he was fifteen, when we first started dating. Both he and his brother, teenagers trying to be men. They’d see it if they’d only talk to each other.

I can’t think of what to say next, my practiced speech useless. It’s impossible to have a rational conversation with Tony, they too quickly turn to arguments.

With a sigh I ask, “I’m going to the store, you want something?”

“Really? That’s all you had to say?” He waves me off, aims the remote around my body in front of the TV and presses the power button. “Bye! Get out! All that shit for nothing. Nothing!”

He’s still yelling when I shut the door behind me, the sound spilling from the siding of the house. Now I know the neighbors have heard every argument we’ve ever had. The house just as fragile as our marriage. I don’t want to provoke him any more. I’ll come back for my thing tomorrow, when I know he’ll be at work.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Prologues, character sketches, outlines, backstories. Today’s backstory gives you a glimpse into the character Tony, Gregory’s older brother. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

I is for… [I]ce Cold #AtoZChallenge

He remembered it being cold that day. First day of Spring and ice cold, not uncommon in North Carolina. The state was known for its erratic weather patterns. One could experience all for seasons over the course of a week—14 degrees on Sunday, 70 by Thursday. He’d seen it happen more than once.

He remember laughing at the forecast as he dressed for work that morning. A high of 39 after such a warm February. Trees budding early, pollen already upsetting allergies, people wearing shorts and flip flops despite the groundhog predicting six more weeks of winter.

He remembered misplacing his service weapon. The case he had been working on for the last three months was getting to him. Five-year-old girl missing. Drug addicted mother suspected of selling her into sex slavery for a hit. The night before, he and Spence chased a lead all the way to the Virginia border. Black male, long dreadlocks with gold tips, fitting the dealer’s description, entering the woods behind a park with a little girl in a pink floral Sunday dress. Emerging a little over half an hour later alone.

In collaboration with the local police department, they swept that park until well past midnight, brought the hounds, half the town, the father and his family from Texas. No luck finding a body, or any trace that the little girl had even been there. It was disheartening for everyone, to be so close and still not find any answers, but what upset him more was that father. How he could leave his daughter in the hands of someone clearly unfit to be a parent.

The mother’s addiction didn’t start overnight. He remembered interrogating her back at the station. How she looked—skeletal—her words incoherent, sentences choppy, laughing at her own flat jokes, referring to random events in her past that had nothing to do with the case or her daughter, not knowing her own daughter’s name. How it was so easy for her to sell her child to the devil for a day’s high. This addiction sprung from years of seed taking root. The father knew this, and left anyway. As far as Frank was concerned, he was just as responsible.

After calling it a night due to darkness and fatigue, he remembered taking out his handcuffs, threatening the father, decking him hard in the jaw, ended up spraining his hand pretty badly because the man was built like a linebacker.

Spence dragged him home after that. He remembered crashing on the couch, waking up what seemed like minutes later to bright sunlight and his cell phone’s obnoxious ringtone.

“Don’t tell your mother I forgot our anniversary,” he remembered his father had said.

“Aw, Dad, at your age, I think she’ll forgive you,” he’d said laughing. He rolled to his side, found the floor, and balancing on the arm of the couch, pulled himself up to his feet.

“Remember, you gotta get this old one day.”

He remembered he flicked on the bathroom light, studied himself in the mirror. His disheveled hair, the ring on his cheek from how he slept on the couch. “With this job, I don’t think I’m gonna make it to that age, old man.”

“Bad news on the case?”

“Worse news is no news.” He sighed, squirted toothpaste on his toothbrush and ran it under the faucet. “At this point, we’re looking for a body. I just hate that his happened to a little girl.”

“We all do, son. She didn’t deserve this. There’s a special place in hell reserved for people who do that to children.”

He held the phone away from his ear and spat into the sink, then took a towel from the rack and wiped his mouth. When he finished in the bathroom, he said, “Yea, well they better hope I’m not the one to send them there, ’cause I’ll make sure it’s painful.”

He remembered they were silent for several minutes. Frank noticed his father’s heavy breathing on the other end and asked if his sleep apnea was getting any better. Of course the old man denied ever having a problem.

“I’ll probably be over tonight after work, around six. If nothing new happens with the case.” Frank said later.

“Don’t rush. I’m gonna run over to the floral shop, see if I can’t buy your mother some flowers.”

“Anything but roses.”

The old man chuckled. “Funny, I can remember she’s allergic to roses, but I can’t remember our blasted anniversary.”

“You remember what you want to, old man.” It was the last thing he said to his father before they hung up.

He remembered first reporting his missing service pistol that morning when he arrived at the station, figuring he must have lost it back in Virginia, after all the chaos of the scuffle. Then he had a meeting with the captain to discuss the consequences of his behavior. The father was threatening to sue, said Frank broke his jaw. Unbelievable. He could barely hold a pen long enough to write a report, but he had managed to break the man’s jaw.

He remembered there were no new leads that day. After all the promising evidence in Virginia, they found nothing. The suspect got away. The girl was still missing. He left the office an hour earlier than he expected. When he got to his parents’ home, his father had yet to return from his run to the florist that morning.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Prologues, character sketches (2) and monologues, brainstorming, outlines, backstories (read more here and here). In today’s post we take a break from Leslie and Gregory and look deeper into the disappearance of Detective Maye’s father. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

H is for… [H]ungry #AtoZChallenge

Stella had never seen someone eat so fast. It was as if he hadn’t had a meal in days. Looking at his scrawny frame, maybe he hadn’t. He had been a husky boy since birth—all those powdered donuts his mama guzzled down while pregnant with him. Now it looked as if he weighed no more than 150 pounds. It terrified her.

She considered calling Leslie, but decided against it. That woman would be flying down the road like a bat of hell to get here, not caring whose car she sideswiped, how many cops were on her tail. If Gregory wanted to see his mother, he would’ve called her. Instead, he called Grandma, and lucky for him, she was just putting up the leftovers from Sunday dinner.

“We missed you at church today,” Stella said with her back turned to him. She wrapped a plate of baked macaroni and cheese in foil and put it into a plastic bag. Her prayer partner, Wanda, had finally caved in and given her the family recipe. The secret ingredient: almond flour. That would explain why some church members suddenly broke out into hives whenever they took a bite.

“You know I don’t live in the city, Grandma.” His voice was muffled for all the food crammed in his cheeks. Stella resisted the urge to chide him for talking with his mouth full. She was thankful just to have him here, talking with her at all.

“You’re not still at that nasty trailer park, are you?” When Gregory and Tanisha first met, she was living in her parents’ mobile home, across the street from the old landfill that had been shut down after reaching capacity a few years ago. Stella didn’t have anything against people who lived in mobile homes—some mobile homes looked nicer than the ones on foundation—but the neighborhood was complete trash, and that had nothing to do with the landfill—the people were trash.

She watched the ten o’clock news every night before bed, and she couldn’t remember a time when there wasn’t a report of a mugging, or a rape, or a gas station robbery in the area. A few years ago, when the city began building a greenbelt through downtown for joggers and bicyclists, they tried to extend the trail to that part of town, as a way to clean up the streets. The expansion was immediately tabled when a woman on an evening stroll sat down to rest on a park bench and while leaning back, planted her hand on top of a used condom, semen still inside. That night, the evening news showed graphic footage from the traffic cameras nearby of a man having sex with a girl barely of age just hours prior, in broad daylight.

Stella was so disgusted when she’d found out that Gregory had been living there with Tanisha and her parents. She’d blessed Leslie out when she finally came clean about it after three months.

“Why don’t that boy want to come home?” she’d demanded.

“I don’t know,” Leslie’s response.

“Where’s her mama? She let him shack up with her like that? She don’t have no more respect for her daughter? For herself? There can’t be no room in there— they sleeping in the same bed?”

“I don’t know.” It had become Leslie’s answer to every question concerning Gregory. A shrug, a sigh, a rolling of the eyes, an “I don’t know”—it was as if she had given up hope on ever reconciling with Gregory.

“We got an apartment,” Gregory said after washing down his food with sweet tea in consecutive gulps. Instinctively, Stella walked to the refrigerator, took the pitcher and refilled his glass. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

At least he still has manners, Stella thought. She returned to packing his to-go bag, arranging a large barbecue chicken breast and leg and thigh in a Styrofoam dinner tray, along with wild rice and collards, because Lord knows the boy needs his greens. “Just you and her, right?” she prodded. “Her mama not living with y’all, is she?”

“Sometimes it feels like she is. She don’t never go home, and when she does, she takes half of what’s in our fridge with her.”

“That woman,” Stella began, but she stopped herself, remembering the morning’s sermon about having a slanderous tongue. “And what does her husband do?” she asked instead.

“Sit on his ass.”

“My God.” Stella tapped her foot, looking toward the ceiling. She prayed Gregory’s eyes would open to the hell he was living. Couldn’t he see that nothing about his relationship with Tanisha was normal? Toxic was more like it. As toxic as the air surrounding that landfill.

Only one thing could possibly be keeping him with that girl, and when she realized what it meant, she both praised and cursed Antonio’s teaching him of a man’s responsibilities before he died—this being the one exception when she would not only condone Gregory for bolting, but commend him, to save his own soul. But she knew she couldn’t keep him here. No more than Leslie could keep him in her own home. Even if she made a bed for him, he’d be gone by morning. So she opened the refrigerator and took out more leftovers. “What does an old woman like me need with all this food anyway?” she said.

Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Prologues, character sketches (2) and character monologues, brainstorming, outlines, backstories (2), and more. Today’s post is an other backstory. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

G is for… [G]iving to God #AtoZChallenge

I’m still waiting on the floodgates to open, still waiting on my blessing to pour out. There’s plenty of room in my pockets for it. My wallet holds more empty gift cards, expired coupons, and overdraft slips from the bank than it does little green soldiers, but I still tithe. Been tithing since Pop taught me how to cut grass, made a business of doing the neighbors’ lawns. A dime for every dollar, one for every ten.

Pop told the neighbors to pay in change so it’d be easier for me to give, because once the money was in the bucket, you couldn’t get cash back. One Saturday, after a week of rain, our next door neighbor Mrs. Wick gave me twenty dollars, and Pop said, “You always reap more than what you sow.” So I sowed more that summer, sometimes putting everything I earned for a weekend in the bucket, and when it was time to go back to school in the fall, Ma and Pop started me on a weekly allowance.

That was the year Pop died.

Somewhere between then and now the well dried up. I give when I can. I don’t always make it to church, but technology’s so advanced now, you can log into services online, pay the offering through PayPal. Every Sunday I scrap together ten percent of all the money I made for that week, which usually ain’t more than $300, and pass it up to the altar with a smile on my face, because “God loves a cheerful giver.” Still, I’m more broke than I was as a teenager. Just wondering when God’s gonna cut me a break.

Don’t make no sense that I have to wake up a quarter past five every morning to walk half a mile to the nearest bus stop, catch the bus to the depot, then hop another bus to Burlington Steel in time for my shift when I have a car. I damn sure feel the payments come out of my check every month—$250 on the eighteenth like clock work.

The car’s just under three years old, worth about eleven grand, but Walt, the lot owner, charges me extra in interest to overlook my credit. I’ve had it six months and haven’t driven it twice. Tanisha insists on keeping it. For what? She works the night shift, and I’m home by six. “The twins,” she says, but you don’t rack up 500 miles a month driving to doctor’s appointments and the store for formula.

They do pile up when you’re going back and forth to some nigga’s house in Charlotte. Lamar has a homeboy down there, says he’s seen her. I swear, if it turns out to be true, I just might kill her this time. Got me out here looking stupid, begging Roscoe to find me some work again because Burlington Steel handed me the pink slip today, saying I’m a good worker, but they can’t keep an employee who doesn’t value being on time.

Meanwhile, she’s driving God knows where in my car, doing God knows who. Got her mama back home babysitting the kids and charging me for it. Her own damn grandkids! She’d leave them babies out in the cold if it meant she got paid for it. And she knows they ain’t mine. The whole fucking neighborhood knows they ain’t mine.

Rent’s due in three days, and I got fourteen dollars in my pocket. The apartment manager’s threatening to evict us if we’re late again. Sometimes I wonder if it’s better just to let it happen. What more do I have to lose? We can sleep in my car, or I can. Maybe she’ll finally leave, with no roof over her head, move in with her parents—if they even let her—or that nigga down in Charlotte. I got three days for a miracle, and if it doesn’t come, I might as well stop waiting, figure things out my own way.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Prologues, character sketches (2), brainstorming, outlines, backstories (2), and more. Today’s post is a different kind of character sketch for Gregory. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

E is for… [E]ulogy #AtoZChallenge

The day went by as a procession of footsteps, blurred clothing streaking across her vision as bodies walked back and forth, praying, offering assistance, giving condolence. From dawn to dusk, she cried a river of tears on shoulders, into coat sleeves, and damp, balled up tissues. And when her eyes dried and burned like salt, a hoarse, guttural wail she didn’t recognize escaped her throat, and underneath the sobs, her entire core shuddered.

Her friends and family surrounded her. Their hands caressed her. Their words cooed her. Her church family came to her aid. They spoke God’s tongue. “To be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord,” they proclaimed. “God is our refuge and strength, and ever-present help in times of trouble,” they consoled. “Let the peace of God transcend all understanding,” they comforted. Despite the love all around her, Leslie felt completely and utterly alone.

Finally, as the evening approached and the crowd started to dwindle, she collapsed on the couch and lay motionless. She felt as if she had become the couch and the weight of herself sat on top of her, pushing her down into the springs and boards. She plucked at the bags underneath her eyes, the skin raw from lack of sleep and ceaseless crying since that dreadful morning four days ago when the cardiologist announced they couldn’t resuscitate, that Antonio, her soulmate, the man she spent twenty years of her life with, was gone.

“Get up.” A slap on her knee jerked her upright. Her mother stood over her, hair pulled back into a high bun. She pointed her cane toward the kitchen. “Pull yourself together for them boys.”

Tony and Gregory were sitting at the kitchen table. She had assigned them both tasks in preparing for their father’s funeral. Tony was in charge of keeping record of all the gifts—who brought flowers, who brought food, who signed the guestbook. Eventually, she would have to write all those people “thank you” cards. An arduous mountain climb she couldn’t imagine tackling for another month. Gregory was given the job of writing Antonio’s eulogy. He  slouched in his chair, tapping the eraser of his pencil against the blank sheet of paper in front of him.

“They need you to be strong,” her mother urged. “They lost a father. Some would say that’s more significant.”

Leslie let out an exasperated sigh, but she knew her mother was right. She pulled herself to her feet, feeling heavy, as if emerging wet from a pool, side-stepped her mother, who took her place on the couch, and joined her sons in the kitchen.

“I can’t do this,” Gregory said, wiping his eyes. “Can’t you give it to Tony?”

Tony looked up from his doodling in the guestbook. “You crying, boy?”

“Tony,” Leslie warned sharply. She stood behind Gregory, rubbed and kissed the crown of his head. “Yes you can, sweetheart. Just say whatever’s on your mind.”

“That’s the thing. I can’t think of anything.”

Leslie lowered her head into her son’s, kissing him again, over and over. She closed her eyes tightly, trying to hold back the next wave of tears. “Oh, precious boy, yes you can.”

“Man, can I go?” Tony huffed.

Leslie winced at his tone. She shook her head, reminding herself that he was a teenager, that his nonchalant attitude could be a form of grief. “Did you write down everything people brought?”

“Yes,” he said quickly with a loud exhale. Leslie didn’t believe him, but she let him go anyway, not wanting to deal with his stubbornness in her current state of mind.

She returned her attention the Gregory. She leaned over his shoulder, took his hand in hers and held the pencil upright. “Remember when you and your dad used to fix things around the house?”

He shrugged.

“Come on, honey. I can’t do this alone.” Gregory was never one without words. Always asking questions, eager to learn. He hung on his father’s every word, repeating everything he said, and living by it. Unlike Tony, Leslie and her husband rarely had to discipline Gregory, or repeat themselves several times before he would finally do what they asked. This was new territory for her. With her world already shaken, she tried to disguise her frustration. “What’s one lesson you remember him teaching you? One that you will always hold on to?”

“I don’t know, Mom!”

The ground under her feet began to vibrate as Tony returned to the kitchen, dribbling his basketball between his legs.

“What did I tell you about bouncing that ball?”

“Ok, Mom!” He stuffed the ball under his arm and left out of the back door.

“Can I go with Tony?”

“No, you need to finish.”

“I told you, I can’t!” He pushed his chair back from the table, knocking Leslie off her balance and into the cabinets behind her. He stormed past his grandmother who had come to the doorway of the kitchen, hunched over her cane. Leslie started to follow him, but the older woman raised her hand to stop her.

“You told me to be strong for them!” Leslie cried, but her voice cracked. All of her strength had left her, she had no crutch to lean against, and the greatest testing of her faith, Antonio’s funeral, was still yet to come.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. prologues, character sketches (2), outlines, and in the case of this post, backstories. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

B is for… [B]roken Vow #AtoZChallenge

I was never excited about the baby. We’re barely making ends meet as it is. She works part time at Chick-fil-A, and I work with my homeboy Roscoe putting shingles on roofs, repairing fences, sawing away tree limbs from power lines. He only calls me when he needs an extra hand, since I’m not on the official payroll and can’t afford to lose half my check to taxes and wage garnishments.

We don’t have the money for a baby. How are we going to buy clothes, diapers, formula, a crib that won’t randomly kill it in the middle of the night? Who’s going to pay for the fucking health insurance?

The day she broke the news, she slammed the bathroom door in my face because I told her to make an appointment at the clinic, pee-stained Clearblue test still in my hand. “How would you expect me to react?” I yelled through the door. “We’re fucking broke.” She stayed there all night, slept on the toilet seat, didn’t even bother to flush after she’d taken the test.

Now she’s telling me there’s two. And neither one is mine.

She’s standing in a corner of the kitchen between the refrigerator and stove, her arms folded across her chest. Her eyes shift between me and the Kool-Aid stain on the tile under her foot, left behind by the apartment’s previous tenant. She sighs audibly, and with each sigh, her shoulders sink lower. Before long she’ll be curled on the floor, her knees drawn her her chest, her face tucked behind her thighs.

“Stop looking so damn pathetic,” I say finally.

“I wish you’d just talk to me. Tell me what I’m supposed to do. How can we fix this?”

“I told you.”

“That’s out of the question.”

“Then I ain’t got nothing else to say.”

“Greg, please!”

I hate it when she begs. It’s not that I think it’s unattractive—depending on the object, her begging and pouting can be a turn on—but the mercy she requires of me now she’s never willing to offer whenever I come up short. And this is far beyond my short comings. She fucked up, and as always, she expects me to turn the other cheek and clean up her mess.

“Who is this guy anyway? How’d you meet him?”

“At work.”

“Oh, you quitting that job.”

“And how are we supposed to pay the bills?”

“Bitch, I pay the bills!” I strike the edge of the island in the center of the kitchen and wince when the corner pierces the side of my hand. “Did you forget how rent was paid last month?” Without a dime and forced to throw away all my pride, I went back home, groveling to Ma for three hundred dollars. I suffered through two psalms, three proverbs, the fifth commandment to “honor thy father and mother,” and a repeat lesson on the Prodigal Son before she finally drove us to the ATM to get the money. On my Pa’s grave I will never ask that woman for anything again. Not for bills, not for a baby, not even if the IRS came banging on my door for tax evasion.

“You don’t have to call me outside my name,” she says.

“You lucky I ain’t call you something else.” I walk past her her to the refrigerator, open the freezer door, and grab the first thing I see in the half-empty, ice-coated compartment—fish sticks. I feel her eyes staring as I walk past her again to get the baking sheet from the cabinet above the stove. “You hungry?” I ask over my shoulder.

“Of course I am. I’m eating for three.”

The soft little chuckle she tacks on the end of her sentence sends me over the rails. “Dammit, Tanisha!” I dump half of the fish sticks on the pan and sling the other half, still in the bag, across the room, peeved that only three mange to spill out onto the floor. “You want me to forgive you, you want me to take care of another man’s babies, and you want me to let you keep working with him, so y’all can just fuck again and you get pregnant again!”

“Once I start showing, he’s probably gonna quit anyway to avoid me. He has a girlfriend.”

I throw the baking sheet—fish sticks piled in no particular arrangement— into the oven, the tray slamming against the back wall. I closet the door with a whack and turn the temperature dial with a flick of my wrist, not caring if it’s too high or low. “First you tell me we’re having a baby. Then you come back and say no, it’s just you having the babies. With this guy, who has a girlfriend. So what am I to you, a pillow you hump every once in a while? Then give me my fucking ring back.”

She brings her left hand to her chest and shields the stud diamond ring that I’m still paying for with her other hand. “Greg—”

She’s begging again, and I’ve had enough. I go straight for the door.

“Where are you going?” she says, but I don’t answer. I close the door behind me and pull out my phone. Lamar, another one of Roscoe’s unofficial employees texted me earlier today. When Roscoe doesn’t call him, he deals on the side, and right now he’s sitting on a pound of bud he just brought in from his supplier.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. prologues, character sketches, outlines, and in the case of this post, backstories. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

A is for… [A]cross the Street #AtoZChallenge

SunTrust Bank sits across the street from the Shell gas station. The worst place to put a bank. Just last week, a kid I went to high school with was murdered by pump number five. His killer still at large. Nobody saw nothing. Even at two in the morning, in a part of the city steadily flooded with flashing blue lights, the silence of sleep pierced by sirens, someone sees something, has to hear anything.

Through the narrow glass windows of the bank, I see his reflective construction vest first, made with neon lime and orange fabric. He stands in front of the gas grill hauled by the white pickup parked next to the sign that displays the prices—$2.39 a gallon, a crime itself. The man by the grill holds out a burnt black hot dog wrapped in foil, and it’s the desperation in the way he digs deep into the left hip pocket of his jeans, counts the change once, then twice, and then a third time, that tells me he’ll be coming to the bank next.

He devours the hot dog in three bites, wipes his hands on the front of his pants, and approaches the curb. I check the wall clock behind the teller’s counter. Two minutes to my lunch break, but I feel obligated to stay in place, to protect him from a foolhardy decision that will inevitable get him killed, another black body gunned down in the street by police, another wailing mother praying for justice.

The glass door swings open, and the sharp inhale of breath next to me tells me my blond coworker has already pressed the silent alarm underneath her drawer.

“Give me the money,” he says to me.

“Do you have a checking account with us?” I look into his eyes and see the soul of my own son. His sadness when he mispronounces a word on his homework. His dejection when his teacher gives up on him for being too slow to catch on with the rest of the class. His fear when the assistant principals follow him to the bus after school.

“Don’t do this,” I whisper softly so the others who dread him don’t hear. “There are other ways.” But he looks away, breaking our connection. The world has told him this all his life—there are other ways, other options—giving him no examples, no choices, condemning him either way.

“Just give me,” he says, raising his voice, then lowering it, “the money.”

During a robbery, we’re trained to empty our drawers, whether the suspect has a gun or not. I pray he does, that he’ll reveal it from behind his back the second I look down. Not having one won’t save him, but at least with a gun pointed to my face, my fear will be justified—handing over the money as a method of self-preservation. Instead, I worry for his life.

Two thousand dollars tucked inside his vest, he sprints back across the street and disappears inside the gas station as the distant echo of sirens draws closer.

My coworkers, cowering behind the counter and under the desks in offices, quickly crowd around me.

“Are you alright?”

“Fine,” I snap.

“Oh my god, my heart was pounding.” The blonde to my left beats her hand against her chest.

“I could tell he was bad news. He looked seven feet tall.”

My manager drapes his arm over my shoulders. “They’ll get him. Robbing a bank on foot? He won’t get far.”

I know this, and I try to hide my disgust, wiping the tears from my eyes. I turn my attention to the narrow windows facing the Shell, now flushed in blue. Lord, protect him, I pray. And protect his poor mother from ever learning the truth of his final moments.

—Nortina


Written for the A to Z Challenge. This year, I’m getting a head start on planning my novel for NaNoWriMo. Backstories, character sketches, outlines, and in the case of this post, prologues. Stick around as I try to figure out what the heck I’m going to write in November!

31 Days of Holiday Hooligans: Possibilities

“So what’s her name?” The bartender leans over the counter and wipes the condensation ring left behind by Antonio’s last Heineken. His name tag reads: “Joe.”

“Who?” Antonio asks absently. He hangs his head over his plate of home chips, hot out of the grease. He’s waited close to an hour for them—Mother Goose’s has never been known for its fast food service. In that time, he’s typed seven multimedia-long text messages to Elise, and deleted them all, knowing her response will be the same three words: “Fuck. You. Nigga.”

Coming here was a mistake. He’s not even drunk, but he feels the dizzying effects of a hangover coming. He’s cursed Elise out seven different times, but can’t muster up enough liquid courage to hit send. He knows he’ll lose Ryder if he does. Funny how he can lose someone he’s barely even had. He’s already missed Ryder’s first steps, his first words—or more specifically, his first babbles that could be construed into words.

Elise has stolen it all for herself, claiming title of both mother and father. A false superheroine, making feign sacrifices for the sake of the child she keeps captive. Baby mamas—they all have this I-can-do-bad-all-by-myself complex, like they deserve a trophy, a Nobel prize, for raising their own fucking kids. It’s not like you were forced to do it alone, bitch, he mumbles to himself. He’s here; he’s always been here, but she’d rather play victim than accept him back in her life, even if that means her son, her black son, will have the black father he needs to raise him right—not bitter and angry and hating him like his mother.

“Her.” Joe nods toward the booths by the pool tables, and Antonio looks over his shoulder to see that Renee has joined Tash’s one-woman pity party, which is less pity than party now. A plate piled high with at least twenty hot wings sits between them. Tash goes in on—from the looks of the stripped clean bones stacked on the napkin by her elbow—her seventh one. Her shot glass has been replaced with a glass of water—probably took some convincing from Renee, everyone’s human conscience.

Tash doesn’t seem as depressed as she had when Antonio called Mitchell. Maybe she was only waiting for Renee. Mitchell could be on his way to crash a possible bachelorette party about to begin—Rita not far behind, coming to to light shit up with some trees. A party wasn’t live until Rita’s thug ass arrived.

“You’ve been watching her since you got here. Both of y’all looking at your phones, throwing back drinks. It’s pretty obvious,” Joe continues.

Antonio shakes his head—wrong girl. “That’s my friend’s fiance.”

Joe shrugs and turns to the tap on the back wall, places a glass underneath. “She doesn’t look too thrilled to be getting married,” he yells over the television in front of him. “I say you still have a shot.” He hands the curved glass, cold brew foaming at the top, to a waitress who sits an orange slice on the rim and takes it to a table under a flat screen showing the Warriors game.

Antonio looks back toward Renee and Natasha’s table. Bartenders seem to have a sixth sense about reading people. They can tell a person’s fears, weaknesses, who they’re pining over as they take another shot. They can tell a person everything they’ve ever done from their choice of booze alone. Antonio bets, in this day, even Jesus could be a bartender. He did turn water to wine.

But the keep’s surely got this one wrong. Antonio will admit that maybe he had a thing for her back in college—she was definitely a sexy drunk—but Tash’s always been crazy about Mitchell. And if there’s anyone Mitchell could love more than Jesus Christ Himself—though Mitchell would flat deny this to ever be true—it would be Natasha. What could the bartender possibly have seen that would make him think she’d even be interested?

He thinks back to his phone call with Mitchell, how Mitchell sounded like he’d just finished a sprint when he finally answered the phone, nearly out of breath, yelling Natasha’s name like a sudden gust of wind. Still, Tash looks fine now. Maybe it was just a little lovers’ spat—cold feet before the wedding.

Joe approaches the counter, wiping his hands on the apron tied at his waist. “When’s the big day?” he asks.

“Christmas.”

“Damn,” he says, and Antonio looks at him, trying to decipher from his eyes if that comment was surprise at a holiday wedding, or an apology to him for it being so soon.

“Look man,” Joe says, “I’m not here to break up any friendships or ruin any marriages. And I know all too well what it’s like to get dumped on Christmas Eve. That ‘Last Christmas, I gave you my heart . . .’ song still gets to me this time of year.”

“Hmmm,” Antonio grunts.

“But chick is hot.” he shakes his head. “If I were you—”

A hand suddenly slams down on Antonio’s shoulder, and he jerks back. Mitchell stares at him, his coat askew—buttons fastened in the wrong holes—his eyes red, either from crying or lack of sleep. He runs his hand over the tiny balls of naps in his hair that he hasn’t brushed, then quickly shoves his hands in his pockets, as if a mental mirror has just appeared and he sees how awful he looks.

“Hey bruh, you ok?” Antonio asks shakily. He turns to Joe and discretely shifts his eyes toward Renee and Natasha’s table. Joe nods and offers a draft list to Mitchell.

He waves it off. “I don’t drink.” Then to Antonio, “Where is she?”

Antonio spins around in the stool to face the booth by the door, where Renee and Natasha are already watching, frozen in mid-feast of hot wings. Mitchell storms over.

“Mitchell, wait!” Antonio calls after him. He wrestles his wallet out of his back pocket, puts two twenties down on the counter, and slides them across to the bartender. “Uh, just keep the change.”

“Thanks, man. Aye, remember what I said.” He points to Natasha.

“You got it wrong, bruh,” Antonio says as he follows Mitchell to the booth, and then again, quietly to himself, “You got it wrong.”

—Nortina


Written for 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans

Read the previous installments:
——
Day One: Before the Wedding
Day Two: Time to Decorate the Tree
Day Three: Alone with the Clouds
Day Four: Distractions
Day Five: Driving Down Memory Lane
Day Six: Seeking Righteousness
Day Seven: Booze Induced
Day Eight: There’s No Such Thing as Santa Claus
Day Nine: Sober Reluctance