Step 1. Pick up a book.
Step 2. Read the book.
Step 1. Pick up a book.
Step 2. Read the book.
“Oh, what types of stories do you write?”
I was recently ask this question, and would you believe– it stumped me!
For any writer, when it comes to communing together with family and friends over the holidays, it’s almost a guarantee that the subject of one’s writing career will be brought up.
When’s that book coming? Post anything new on your blog lately? And the ever-depressing, Do you get paid for it at all?
They show just enough curiosity to make it look like they care, but not enough to actually go and look up what you have out on the interwebs, share it with their friends, increase your readership– you know, a Christmas gift a writer can actually appreciate, apart from a brand new journal, of course (which was my present to myself *pats back and smiles humbly).
There are some who do, and you make sure they get the tight bear hug, while everyone else gets that “I couldn’t be bothered” side hug.
One must always be prepared for these types of questions and have an answer ready. A quick answer, three sentences, five tops. Nothing too elaborate; don’t go on babbling about your current work in progress, because they really don’t care, just making small talk to fill in that “awkward silence” lull that occurs between every seven-minute conversation. (My cousin said he read that somewhere once; it has plagued us ever since.)
So I was ready for the book question (I’ve won NaNoWriMo so many times, remember?). I was ready for the new blog post question (Hello! Twitter party all Christmas Eve long, catching you up for the final chapters of Countdown coming this week!). I even had my death stare waiting in my back pocket for any questions related to my writer income.
None of these questions came, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
But for some reason, I was not expecting the one question I did get, and it left me with my jaw dropped, my eyes looking everywhere but at the person asking, as I tried to figure it out…
What is my niche genre?
I don’t think I gave an answer. Eventually, I did mention something about dabbling a bit in thriller/suspense. I love to read these books. Last night I binge read The Girl on the Train, which I’d put down some months ago after giving in and watching the movie (totally ruined the book for me, but both were still really good, and if I hadn’t watched the movie first, I know those plot twists would have hit me hard).
I also love paranormal/ghost stories. That’s the closest to fantasy you’ll every catch me reading. Raised in a Christian home, I was not allowed to read Harry Potter, or any books about witches, warlocks, demons, etc. I was never a big fan of “creatures from other realms” stories—I’d read them, but the feeling was always… meh. I had my vampire phase when I was about 12 or 13. That’s the main reason why I couldn’t get into the Twilight books, which came out much later.
My dystopian/Young Adult phase ended in high school, but there are a few series I’d like to finish. I put them down because they took an unexpected turn that had “publisher wants more books, author doesn’t know how to end the story” written all over it. Still, I’d like to know what happened to the characters I’d grown to love (or hate).
The ironic thing is the three genres I hate (that’s not a typo; I absolutely abhor) to read the most are the three genres I would categorize my writing in: Romance, Women’s, and Christian.
I’ve talked about my disdain for Romance before. My biggest complaint has always been that Romance Fiction has no plot. Apart from an unlikely couple getting together, nothing else happens, and I need something a little more interesting than a simple love story to make me want to read anything past the cover synopsis.
Call me cynical.
And while we’re on the topic of unlikely couples, the two lovers are so different, one has to wonder what exactly brings them together? It has to be more than just spilt coffee at the local bakery. Why does he want this train wreck? (Because the female protagonist is always a train wreck.) Is the author just forcing this? And once you read the sappy happy ending and close the book, you realize, the author did just force this.
I don’t like happy endings. Do I write them in my stories? Yes, but not always, which is why I would label my writing as Women’s Fiction so I’m not confined by the Romance restrictions (Romance Fiction must always have a “happily ever after”; there’s no getting around it. If the couple doesn’t get together, your readers will burn you at the stake in the Amazon reviews.)
Women’s Fiction and Christian Fiction have many similarities. There’s always a redemptive arc, and the plots tend to veer toward the melodramatic (just imagine any of Tyler Perry’s movies written as a novel). Everything bad that can happen to our main character does happen to our main character, and she (or in some cases, he) is left nearly broken.
And yet, somehow, they find hope in the end. How? I mean, yea, sure, that’s good… but how? Why haven’t they had a mental break yet; why aren’t they cursing their family, shooting up the work place, kicking the cat? Why doesn’t the book end with them walking out into the ocean (in a manner to hint suicide by drowning) like Kate Chopin’s Edna in The Awakening?
Not only is this “hopeful” ending unbelievable, it doesn’t make any damn sense! Real people don’t respond so (for lack of a better term) chipper to that kind of pain. There’s anger, there’s depression. Sure, the silver lining comes, but not so soon—they need time to grieve, to understand their emotions (reasons why I axed the original ending to Love Poetry, because I saw that same problem). But there’s also the possibility that the silver lining doesn’t come. It happens, and I wouldn’t fault an author for showing that; for some books, I’d even expect that.
Another problem I have with Women’s and Christian Fiction is that feeling of familiarity one gets when reading. You swear you’ve read this before, and in fact, you have. They’re ALL. THE. SAME.
This isn’t to say I haven’t enjoyed books written in these genres. I have. Unfortunately, not enough to willingly go to a Romance, Women’s, or Christian section of a bookstore to find my next read, or to read an author whose work I’m not already familiar with.
Which makes me wonder why I write in these genres. Or why I follow bloggers who also write in these genres. There must be something I like about them, right?
Because deep down, I really am a hopeless romantic?
Or maybe it’s because I think I (we) can do better.
Cocky, Nortina, very cocky. Especially since you haven’t published that book yet…
Whatever the reason, these are my niche genres, I suppose. I wet my pen in suspense, paranormal, even dystopian and young adult/coming-of-age, but I am primarily a Romance, Women’s, and Christian fiction writer. I love it and I hate it at the same time.
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her 26th birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stays grow longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
Kindred, a neo-slave narrative (fictionalized account of slavery), shows how slavery can still affect us, even when we’re generations removed from it. For Dana, it has a very literal effect. While unpacking her things in her new home with her husband, Kevin, Dana falls under a sudden dizzy spell that sends her back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she meets a distant white relative (hence the title, Kindred). She’s drawn to him each time his life is in danger and must assimilate herself into a very different era and culture — become a slave — and when needed, save his life enough times so that he can eventually father her great-grandmother. Every time Rufus draws her, the stay grows longer, extending from hours, to months, to even years, and Dana must come to terms with the fact that she must play the part of a slave woman, denying herself the basic freedoms she had back in 1976, in order to survive until she can find a way back home.
So often we treat slavery like a history lesson — a dark chapter in our country’s distant past that we choose to forget or pretend has no relevance in today’s world when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Slavery very much becomes a reality for Dana, and no matter how hard we try to ignore it, it has been a reality for us too. Think of terms such as light skin vs. dark skin (house slaves vs. field slaves), Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, the “N” word, white guilt, or white privilege — all are effects of slavery that still sting today.
Chapter three presents an excellent example of white privilege. It’s Dana’s third trip back, and this time, Kevin accompanies her. In this chapter, we learn that Kevin is white. For two months, Dana and Kevin “act” out their roles of slave and slave master. Then Kevin makes the mistake of saying life in antebellum Maryland isn’t so bad. To him, it would be like acting, but Dana is constantly reminded how she fits in this world. She sees the little black children play slave auction, learning their own objectification early. She’s forced to watch a man have the skin whipped off his back — a warning to the other slaves against insubordination. And later, she herself receives the same beating for teaching another slave how to read.
But Kevin will soon learn that antebellum life isn’t so easy, and it will age him, tremendously.
Reading Kindred made me want to retrace my family tree, as Dana had. While my Ancestry DNA results revealed a lot about my heritage, they did little to connect me with my distant relatives, so I found a 100% free database to search for records using the names I had from our family tree.
Unfortunately, especially for blacks in America, we will inevitably reach a date where all the information suddenly stops. For me, it was 1870, roughly seven years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the U.S. From that 1870 census, I learned that my great-great-grandfather, who was rumored to have been white, was actually labeled mulatto, and his parents — also mulatto — were more than likely born slaves. As far what happened to them prior to 1870 — who their parents were, who their masters (and most likely my distant relatives) were — I’ll probably never know.
That’s how slavery slaps you in the face sometimes.
Like it slapped Dana, and beat her, and whipped her, and attempted to rape her. That’s another harsh realization Dana has to face about her ancestors (and I about mine, as well); it’s highly probable that she — or rather, her great-grandmother — was not conceived from a mutual love between two parents, but from one overpowering the other simply because there’s nothing that tells him he can’t.
What’s most striking about this novel is its concept of home. The more time Dana and Kevin spend in the past, the harder it becomes for them to adjust to normal life when they return “home.” And even when they’re back in 1976 California for good, the first thing they do is fly to Maryland to visit their ancestral home to see what happened to the people who had become like family to them.
Of course, they’ll never know what happened. If they did, we wouldn’t still be asking questions today.
Why do we continue to run back to the past? Yesterday, I was telling my aunt that every year, there’s a new movie or television special out about slavery. This year, Hollywood is releasing two feature films: Free State of Jones and The Birth of a Nation. On TV, the History Channel is presenting Roots on Memorial Day, and Underground premiered earlier this Spring on WGN.
I fear we’ll always have questions about our troubling past, and no matter how many books we read, how many movies with watch, how many plantations we visit, or how many historical databases we search, we’ll never find the answers we seek. We may be over 150 years removed from slavery, but it’s not rid of us yet. It probably never will be. It’s why I love how this novel ends so much. Some may find the ending unsatisfying, but can any answer we receive from slavery ever truly be satisfying? What happens on Dana’s final exit from the past is a very literal and physical illustration of how slavery snatches so much away from us, even when we’ve never experienced it ourselves.
Kindred is probably the best novel I’ve read so far this year, and while I felt some parts could have been edited or polished better, especially in the beginning and in some of the character dialogue, it didn’t make that much of a difference on my score…
She sees the teenage girl on the train platform, standing in the pouring rain, clutching an infant in her arms. She boards a train and is whisked away. But she can’t get the girl out of her head…
Have you ever read a book that just completely ruined your life? You never asked for it. You just wanted something to occupy the time when work was slow, or when boyfriend still hadn’t called you back. You didn’t expect to get swept into this twisted realm of lies, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and murder, to the point that once you finally got to the end, you had a mental break just like the characters.
While many novels that I’ve read lately lollygag for the first two or three chapters before finally getting to the plot, Mary Kubica’s Pretty Baby opens right into the action.
Heidi Wood, a charitable woman who works for a nonprofit organization helping illiterate refugees and other unfortunate souls, spots the wretched Willow Greer with her infant daughter standing in the pouring rain—apparently invisible to the rest of the commuters on the train platform—and can’t resist the urge to help her. Eventually, she invites Willow and baby Ruby back to her home, much to the dismay of her never home investment banker husband, Chris, and her temperamental 12-year-old, Zoe.
As the novel progresses and you learn more about Heidi and her past, you start to wonder if maybe it wasn’t Willow she wanted to save, if maybe her motivations for bringing Willow and Ruby into her home were more perverse than we might have thought. Eventually the question becomes not whether Willow will pose a threat, but is she or any of the other characters safe, alone in that house with Heidi? Once you reach the climax of the novel, everything happens so quickly, you’re forced to go back and read it again to identify the exact place in the novel where it all suddenly went south.
Overall, Pretty Baby is a great read. There were some parts where the plot dragged, but I’m glad I stuck it out. I wouldn’t quite classify it as a psychological thriller. In a psychological thriller, I want my head to spin, and unfortunately, Kubica’s plot twists didn’t surprise me as much as I wanted them too. However, there were some surprises that I didn’t see coming, and while I figured out the ending early on, the quickness of how everything deteriorated was definitely a shock.
Unfortunately, I do have two major issues that almost got this book shelved. First, am I the only one who thinks that telling a story from three or four different points-of-view is extremely overdone? Personally, I think it disrupts the flow of the story, especially if the next character’s chapter doesn’t pick up where the last character left off. For example, the end of one of Chris’ chapters had me dying to know what happened next. Unfortunately, I had to go through six or seven Willow and Heidi chapters to get there. It didn’t help that all of Willow’s chapters were set in her past (by the way, the novel is written in present tense—something excitingly different). By the time I got back to Chris, the novel had jumped to the next day, and all that tension from his previous chapter was gone.
Secondly, I absolutely hated Willow’s foster father, Joseph. Not because he was an unlikeable character, because anyone who reads my writing knows I live for unlikeable characters. Joseph, however, was obnoxiously unlikeable, and his character was so stereotypical that I was left wondering if Kubica put any imagination into his profile at all. Why is it that every literary antagonist that is a devout Christian is so despicable that his very existence would cause Jesus to swallow his own vomit? I’ve seen this type of character in too many novels. Note to writers, if you’re thinking about making your novel’s main antagonist a hypocritical Christian, stop right there! I promise you, it’s been done before, in every genre. There is no way you will ever be able to make that kind of character original. Avoid the melodrama and take another route.
Thankfully, Willow’s chapters were usually short, so I didn’t have to deal with that disgusting pig for long.
Other than those two cons, I really enjoyed Pretty Baby, and for that, I give it (drum roll, please) . . .
A lot of Amazon reviewers said that her debut novel, The Good Girl was much better. I’ll be the judge of that. I’ve already downloaded the free sample, and if I like it, I’ll buy the book and finish reading, but first . . .
When a brutal rapist is murdered, a loving father stands accused of the crime. Defense attorney Dismas Hardy must defend his brother-in-law and old friend Moses McGuire in a thrilling case that hits far too close to home.
So, I’m thinking about starting a new book review series title, “Why I Didn’t Finish It.” I know it’s strongly advised that authors don’t give bad reviews, but as some of you may know, I didn’t find my pot of gold at the end of the reading rainbow in 2015. I read a dismal five books! While I attempted to read plenty more, I found myself giving up on a lot of novels for a variety of reasons—editing, dull plot, unbelievable characters, etc. So, in case that drought continues in 2016, I just want to explain to you how it is absolutely possible for an avid reader such as myself to only finish five books in a year.
It took me three months to read Pretty Baby, and it took me that long because I was really trying to give The Ophelia Cut a chance. Co-workers would see the book on my desk collecting dust and say, “Oh, I love his books! I can never put them down!” Well, I couldn’t even pick this one up. I literally fell asleep on the last chapter I read, and for most of the novel, I had no idea what was going on. Finally, a co-worker said to me, “It’s ok to let it go, Nortina.” So I did.
My mistake might have been choosing a book that was 14th in a series. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, and when I found out, I was under the impression that it could stand alone. It couldn’t. From the beginning, I was lost. There were way too many characters to keep up with, and because I’d never read the previous books, I couldn’t connect with any of them. They also kept referring back to an event that happened in the last novel, and I felt Lescroart didn’t provide enough background on what happened or why it happened so that I’d understand how it would eventually connect to the events of this novel. Add on top of that, the main conflict of the story, the thing that hooked me into choosing the book in the first place, the above quoted description, didn’t even happen until well after I’d given up.
I might give John Lescroart another chance, preferably with a stand alone novel, but I’m on a mission to read more than five books this year, and I cannot be held back.
So what do you think? Have you read Pretty Baby or The Ophelia Cut ? How did you like them? I’m crossing my fingers that “Why I Didn’t Finish It” will be a one and done. I hate giving up on books.
My next novel to read is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Hopefully it won’t be June before I write a review!
behind every book—
a child’s dusty face; foster
home for the abandoned.
Written for 3LineTales, hosted by Sonya (Only 100 Words). A picture is worth three lines. What tale can you draw?
New Year’s Eve, 2014. As the ball slowly descended onto Time Square, counting down the seconds to midnight, I recited my list of resolutions I wanted to accomplish in 2015: Lose weight, eat healthier, make better choices in boyfriends, write a novel, read at least 100 books.
365 days later. Did I meet any of my goals? Well, I lost a few pounds…and gained several more. I ate healthy…sporadically…for a few weeks. I don’t have a boyfriend. I’ve started on my novel (two, actually), and while I haven’t posted any updates on said novels for several weeks now, I am still fervently writing. As for the 100 books? Um, no. Not even close.
I might have read five—count ’em, 5—books in their entirety this year. Three I’ve posted reviews on (Fifty Shades of Grey, Mrs. Poe, and White Oleander). Between the other two, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean, I enjoyed the latter more. The Deep End of the Ocean is an amazing story of family drama, love, pain, suspense, mystery, self-discovery and coming-of-age, and much more. Out of the five—count ’em, 5—books I’ve read this year, The Deep End of the Ocean is the one I recommend you all to read if you haven’t already (White Oleander comes in a close second). Gone Girl was good, but I didn’t much care for the second half of the novel. It got predictable, and for lack of a better word, cheesy. And I just hated that god-awful ending. Talk about anticlimactic!
So why is it that I’ve only read five—count ’em, 5—books in 2015? Well, it has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve just been a picky reader this year. I’ve picked up (insert downloaded) many books this year, but by chapter six, I lose interest, and in some cases, even sooner than that. Either the books were complete snooze fests—pages and pages of boring and useless descriptions that did nothing to propel the plot—or they had no plot at all—complete chapters with nothing but dialogue, short paragraphs of summary and more unnecessary dialogue, flat characters, cringe-worthy repetition, a wandering narrator…
This Christmas, I spent nearly two hours on Amazon.com looking for a good book to have sent to my mom’s kindle on Christmas Day. After reading countless previews and finding nothing that piqued my interest, I finally settled on James Patterson’s latest Alex Cross novel. Couldn’t go wrong with that, right? I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t reading James Patterson and his iconic character, Alex Cross. However, the whole point of spending my entire lunch hour and more surfing Amazon was to find a great book and a new author she’d get hooked on and read for years to come, like James Paterson.
The problem I have with Amazon is that it has so many books that just aren’t good. I would find a book with a four or five star average rating, but after reading the preview, I’d wonder, how on earth did this even get published? Often I find myself reading the negative reviews first. Unless it’s a controversial author, the negative reviews are usually the most honest and less bias. If they don’t sound too bad, then maybe I’ll consider making the purchase. For some books, however, I don’t even get past the back cover for the very confusing synopsis. If the synopsis is that bad, the book has to be horrible!
Most of the novels I’ve purchased from Amazon lately are in desperate need for an editor. I don’t mean to say that they are poorly written. On the contrary, many authors are excellent wordsmiths. Unfortunately, 300 pages of pretty words do not always make a good story, and that is the problem I’ve been consistently running into.
Maybe in 2016 I’ll have better luck finding good books to read. I won’t aim quite so high, though. My resolution is to read (cover to cover) six books next year—that’s one more than this year. Hopefully, I’ll far exceed my expectations.
Did you struggle to find a good book to read this year? What novels do you recommend I read to get out of this funk? If you’re an author, post in the comments a link to your novel! I’ll add that to my list of books to read in 2016. I can’t promise a review, though. I’m too much of a procrastinator for that. 😉
Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued
“So I bought that gargantuan turkey for no reason!” Rebekah’s blond hair tumbled from the crown of her head as she stood in front of the bathroom mirror and plucked Bobbi pins from her high bun.
“I really wanted to cook the turkey for everyone.” Cheyenne sat on the lid of the toilet, knees drawn to chin.
“There’s always next year, sweetie.”
“I won’t be in Mrs. Watson’s class next year!”
“Well.” Rebekah shook out her hair, scratched her scalp. “I’ll just stick it in the freezer. We’ll eat it for Christmas. You’ll cook it for the family like you always do.”
“Oh, alright.” Cheyenne poked out her bottom lip and slid down from the toilet. She wrapped her arms around her mother’s thigh and stared down and her pedicured toenails, painted pastel pink.
“Being an Indian could be fun.” Rebekah traced the tip of her fingers down the back of Cheyenne’s neck then slipped her hand underneath Cheyenne’s sweater and rubbed her back between her shoulder blades. “They have powwows, and you already wear your hair in pigtail braids. And what’s cooler than a headband with a feather in it?”
“Am I part Indian?”
“That’s an odd thing to ask.” Rebekah lifted Cheyenne’s chin toward her. “Did someone tell you that?”
“Mrs. Watson said I look like it, and my name is Indian.”
“Cheyenne can be a girl’s name too,” Rebekah said in a high-pitched voice, as if trying to convince herself. “I thought it was cute.” Rebekah leaned over Cheyenne and tore a sheet of toilet tissue from the roll behind her. She dampened it under the running faucet, brought it to her lips. “That woman’s got some nerve,” she said to her reflection in the mirror as she forcibly wiped red lipstick from her lips. “She’s been trying to figure out what you are ever since you started at that school.”
“But what am I?” Cheyenne asked.
Rebekah sighed, balled the wet, pink tissue in her fist and tossed it into the trashcan. “I don’t know, sweetheart. Your father once told me he had a little Cherokee in him, but they all say that.”
“They all who?”
Rebekah squatted to be at eye level with Cheyenne. She grabbed Cheyenne by the shoulders, pulled her closer so that their noses almost touched. “You’re my daughter. That’s all that matters,” she said. “Now come on, let’s buy your costume. You’ll be the cutest little Indian princess on stage.”
They searched unsuccessfully for a Pocahontas costume. Halloween had passed. The ghost and ghouls replaced by turkey balloons, harvest colored placemats, two for one foil pie dishes, and from the back corner of the stores, artificial snow, reindeer lawn decorations, diamond-shaped evergreens, and glass ornaments crept onto the shelves.
Rebekah didn’t want Cheyenne to look like every other dressed-up Indian girl. “We’ll make one instead. Yours should be unique anyway.” They pieced the outfit together from store to store. At the Shoe Department, Rebekah bought kids’ moccasin slippers. Then from across the street at Michael’s Arts and Crafts, she bought needle and thread—super glue if sewing proved to be too difficult—brown, yellow, and orange beads to decorate the moccasins with, and crane feathers for the headband.
At JC Penny, they browsed the racks for brown fringe skirts. “Do they have anything that isn’t short?” Rebekah complained. On the clearance rack, she found a sepia suede skirt that came down just past Cheyenne’s shins. It was two sizes too big. In the fitting room, Cheyenne held her arms out to the side while Rebekah stood behind her and pinched the fabric together at the waistline. If she bought it, she would have to pin it down and hope the skirt would stay up above Cheyenne’s slim hips. “We’ll make it work,” she said. In the women’s department, she picked up a brown leather belt and a leather fringe vest. “Funny how they call all this stuff cowgirl clothes,” Rebekah scoffed as the sales clerk scanned the price tags at the register. “Like the Westerners didn’t steal it from somebody.” Cheyenne drummed her fingers on the counter, anxious to see how all the pieces would look together on her.
They spread old newspaper across Cheyenne’s bedroom floor. Cheyenne lay on her stomach while Rebekah cut the vest in half then snipped the fringe into thinner, shorter strips. Cheyenne, under her mother’s warnings not to glue her fingers together, squeezed droplets of superglue onto the backs of the fringe pieces, flipped them over, and pressed them onto the suede skirt at the waistline so that it fashioned a belt, and just above the hem so that the fringe tickled her legs when she walked. Once she had completely circled the bottom and top edges of the skirt with fringe, she laid it to the side to dry, and then they started on the sewing.
Cheyenne strung the beads onto the laces of the moccasins while Rebekah threaded the needle. Then Rebekah sewed the laces together so that the beads wouldn’t fall off. Next, Rebekah beaded the thread and weaved it into the sides of the moccasins. The beads hung off the slippers like crescents and jangled when she shook them. “It’ll be like you’re a little grass dancer!” Rebekah exclaimed as she sat the moccasins next to the skirt.
Lastly, Rebekah wrapped the leather belt around Cheyenne’s head to measure the circumference needed for the headband then cut off the unnecessary ends. To tie it together, she wrapped the belt into a halo, stuck the needle through the two belt holes on the end and looped the thread around several times until she could not tear it apart. Then Cheyenne poked the stems of the feathers through the holes and pulled them partway down so the fuzz would fill the space and hold the feathers in place.
“Shall we try it on?” Rebekah picked up the headband and carefully slid it down Cheyenne’s head to the top of her ears as if crowning a princess. She tugged at the feathers so they stood erect at the back of Cheyenne’s head. “How does that feel?”
Cheyenne hurriedly nodded her head until she was dizzy.
“We did a banging good job! You’re gonna look awesome in that play.” Rebekah swept Cheyenne up into a tight bear hug and planted a wet kiss on her forehead between the top of her headband and her hairline.
© Nortina Simmons
So I’ve been promising a conclusion to Chapter 3 for the past several weeks now. Promises are made to be broken, but again, I’m promising that it will come next Friday. See you there! 🙂
Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued
Rebekah’s stories of Cheyenne’s father became more spirited as the year progressed. The air cooled in September, and the leaves transitioned from green to bright yellows, rustic reds, and crisp browns in October as Rebekah’s face lit up and a wave of nostalgia swept over her.
By the holidays, the slightest provocation could incite a fond memory. A classic recipe folded down, sticking to the last page of an old scrapbook reminded her of the time she nearly burned the house down baking his grandmother’s infamous coconut cookies in the oven at 500 degrees. When she and Cheyenne raked the leaves in the yard, Cheyenne often dove into a pile, lay in wait for Rebekah to return with a black garbage bag. As she began to stuff the leaves into the bag, Cheyenne popped up like a Jack-in-the-Box, startling Rebekah so that she placed her hand over her heart, exhaled uneasy laugher as memories of his hand reaching from underneath the bed to snatch her foot, his face behind a Jason mask greeting her as she exited the bathroom resurfaced to the front of her mind.
She sat Cheyenne between her legs on the front step, plucked the crunchy, broken-off tips of leaves from Cheyenne’s tangled hair and reminisced on the pranks she and Edmund played on each other in college, from water balloons, to plastic rattlesnakes, to dead stinkbugs in her shoes.
“You’re just like him. Walking around here like a ghost. Waiting to jump out of the corner and scare me.”
Cheyenne leaned back, pressed her head into her mother’s chest, extended her tongue to touch the tip of her nose. “Did he do this a lot?”
“You’re such a silly bean,” Rebekah said, kissing her forehead.
Thanksgiving was quickly approaching and Rebekah had a refrigerator full of food she wasn’t allowed to touch. Gayle was the cook of the family. Her turkeys were always moist, the stuffing never mush, the skin crispy—it snapped like potato chips when she sliced it.
Cheyenne never asked why they always ate Thanksgiving dinner with Gayle and Grandpa Richard; why she never met the fretting aunts who pinched Rebekah’s butt that one Christmas and fed her until she could no longer fit her clothes; why her only memories of her father came from stories Rebekah told her when she was on the verge of sleep. She couldn’t miss what she never had, what she never experienced, and cooking with Grandma Gayle was so much more enjoyable than worrying about why the other half of her family was absent. She would massage the turkey in melted butter, licking her fingers when Gayle wasn’t looking. She’d pry open the turkey’s legs, whistle inside the cavity and wait for an echo while Gayle mixed roasted vegetables into the stuffing. Together, they would fill the cavity with large spoonfuls until the stuffing spilled out into the roasting pan. Then Gayle let Cheyenne, a recent expert a shoelace tying, knot kitchen twine around the legs.
This year, on top of cooking with Gayle, Cheyenne and the rest of her kindergarten class would put on a Thanksgiving production for the entire student body of Pembroke Elementary and their families. A Feast for All, Mrs. Watson had named it; a play that would trump all Thanksgiving plays because they would have real food on stage, would pass out plates to the audience during the final curtain call. The students waited in line to receive their assignments from their teacher— who would be characters and who would be responsible for preparing the meal. Cheyenne was confident that she would be tasked with cooking the turkey. She had three years of practice with Gayle. She’d even told Rebekah to buy an extra bird, one big enough to feed the whole school. They’d browsed the poultry bins at three different grocery stores before they found one at twenty pounds.
“This thing is bigger than you when you were a baby,” Rebekah said, breathing heavy. “Maybe Grandma should baste you and stick you in the oven.”
The bag boy helped them carry it to the car. He and Rebekah held either end of the paper grocery bag while Cheyenne stood between them, hugging the bag as if it were one of her toys. The coolness of the refrigerated turkey inside seeped through the bag and chilled her chest. When they returned home, they stuffed the bird in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator where all the cold air sank and concentrated.
Cheyenne perked up when she heard Mrs. Watson call her name and write it on the blackboard. Mrs. Watson turned around, looked up at the ceiling, deep in thought, and tapped her bottom lip with the chalk, leaving a line of white dust. “You can be the Indian chief’s daughter.”
“But I wanted to do the turkey.” Cheyenne drooped her shoulders and hunched her back.
“That will be Rebecca’s job.” Mrs. Watson pointed the chalk to her left at Rebecca, who looked at Cheyenne over her shoulder and smirked, only the left side of her lips parting to show her white teeth.
“My dad has his own restaurant. It’ll be a piece of cake.”
“But I’ve been helping my grandma cook Thanksgiving turkey since I was two.”
“I think you’ll make a great Indian princess. You’ll be little Pocahontas. You’ve seen the movie, right?” Mrs. Watson said.
Cheyenne turned her back to hide her tears.
“Aren’t you part Indian anyway?”
Cheyenne shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I only thought because of your name. And you look—” Mrs. Watson spun around and wrote ‘little Pocahontas’ on the blackboard next to Cheyenne’s name. “Never mind. You’ll be the Indian princess. Join the rest of the tribe.” She pointed her stick of chalk behind her toward the back left corner of the room, where four other students huddled and whispered. Cheyenne dragged her feet in their direction.
“Welcome, my princess,” Ricky Reynolds said, his voice deep, coming from the back of his throat, bouncing like a steady heartbeat. “I am Chief Candlestick.” He and the other three Indians, Natasha, Susie, and Luis Gomez snickered behind their teeth, then opened their arms and pulled her into the circle.
© Nortina Simmons
Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued
By five, most children knew of the stork that dropped their tiny infant bodies wrapped in cotton blankets off at their parents’ doorsteps, but Rebekah told a different story. She tucked Cheyenne in bed, plugged in her Little Mermaid night light, and as Cheyenne’s droopy eyelids fluttered, fighting off sleep, Rebekah told her tales of beans in ovens at Christmastime, of great aunts swarming around her, squeezing her arms, slapping her thighs, fretting about seeing her bones, why she didn’t eat real food, how she could push out a baby with those narrow hips. They fed her deep fried turkey, honey glazed ham, sweet potato casserole, macaroni with a burnt layer of cheese on top, rice with giblet gravy, collards cooked in neck bones. A dinner that fed the soul.
Rebekah unbuttoned her jeans, put on a Christmas sweater she found folded underneath the tree when her own sweater pulled too tightly across her satisfied stomach. Santa’s face on her chest, but instead of the rosy cheeks she knew as a child, his was a roasted chestnut brown.
The family stood around the piano as the matriarch’s long, thin fingers fluttered over the keys and sang “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child,” the only song she knew how to play. They stomped their feet, clapped their hands to the up-tempo music, sang from deep within their guts, their dinner sitting at the pit of their stomachs creating a bass that projected their voices, filling the room, seeping through the walls, pouring out into the quiet neighborhood. When the song ended, they started again. A reprise growing louder, more animated. The women began to dance, raising their arms, exalting the Father for the birth of His Son. Jumping up and down, shaking their heads, tears streaming down their cheeks, they shouted, “Glory! Glory! Glory!”
During the third reprise, Edmond snuck Rebekah down to the basement where she was greeted by clouds of her breath in the darkness. As they climbed down, they could see the yard decorations through the high rectangular window to the left of the staircase. Rudolf’s hooves blinked, the multicolored net lights grazed the bottom of the bushes, the luminary bags lit up the walkway.
The basement floor was cleared of clutter. He had pushed all the unused furniture—broken end tables, old box springs, worn out couches—against the walls, making space in the center of the floor for an air mattress. He guided her to the bed, and they lay together on the cold floor, cocooned in the ragged quilt, legs entwined. She fell asleep rapt in the flashing Christmas lights reflected on the windowpane, wrapped in his arms.
“You were due in September,” Rebekah told Cheyenne. “You came a month and a half late, the week before Halloween. My little pumpkin pie. You browned a little longer in the oven.” She kissed Cheyenne’s forehead when her breathing became steady, when her stomach rumbled with dreams of a weeklong feast devoured in one night and of a Santa sitting on the extinguished yule log in the fireplace, attempting to wipe the soot from his face with his beard, succeeding only in deepening it into his skin and the fibers of his hair.
© Nortina Simmons
This week’s installment of Chapter 3 is only short because the scene I have planned for next week is going to be pretty long and I didn’t want to break it into parts. So stay tuned for the very long conclusion to Chapter 3! You don’t want to miss it!
Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched
Cheyenne’s mother, Rebekah, had long, blond hair, smooth as silk. Whenever she stepped outside, it turned white as her eyebrows, absorbing the sun’s rays, a natural bleach. When wet, it was yellow and clumped together like sunflower petals. She would comb her fingers through the strands, lifting her roots at the crown, raking her hair over her shoulders, the ends dropping from her French manicured nails, brushing across her elbows and settling at the small of her back. It dried into wind-swept beach waves. She often styled her hair in a French braid down her spine, weaving the sections together until she reached the base of her neck. Then Cheyenne would crawl behind her, rise on her knees and twist her stubby fingers back and forth, in and out down the braid until she couldn’t go any further and swung the end of the tail over her mother’s shoulder, and Rebekah loosely tied it with a rubber band.
Cheyenne was her mother’s twin, just a few shades tanner. Her green eyes matched Rebekah’s, their noses a pair of acute triangles, lips full only when puckered, pink as the distant horizon at sunset. “We are gorgeous women,” Rebekah would say as she tousled her hair in the bathroom mirror, bent down toward Cheyenne, who could barely reach the sink, and pinched her cheek, creating a natural blush. “Save the makeup for the people who need it.”
Cheyenne’s hair was as long as her mother’s, though not as elegant. It was a brownish blond with copper undertones, thick, especially at the crown and the nape of the neck. After she broke four teeth in her comb and snapped that handle on her favorite brush, Rebekah opted to style Cheyenne’s hair only when wet. It shrank into tiny curls when she lathered it with shampoo, suds filling the bottom of the sink. She rinsed it out and scooped a heaping of conditioner into her palm, spread it over Cheyenne’s hair like butter on pancakes, wrapped a plastic grocery bag around her head and had her sit on the edge of the kitchen sink in front of the window—where the sun bared directly through at exactly eleven o’ clock—and played Cat’s Cradle with her for half an hour. “Your hair is beautiful, sweetheart,” she said in her cool voice, breath like mint, “but I gotta soften out those curls. Make them easy to work with.”
When she rinsed out the conditioner, she split the hair down the middle, tied one half in a side ponytail and out of the way so she could blow dry the other half. She stuffed Cheyenne’s ears with cotton balls to muffle the harsh sound of the blow dryer’s motor, and using the pick attachment, combed out the curls. The first half was always easiest, the curls still wet and loose. The pick glided down the length of it as if her hair had been freshly pressed. Dried, Cheyenne’s combed out, wavy tresses extended just past her shoulder blades, and Rebekah French braided it, like her own hair, into a pigtail.
The second half was partially dry when she started on it—the ends were still damp, but the roots had begun to frizz. Flyaway strands had curled around each other into knots, and she plucked them out, yanking Cheyenne’s head back, Cheyenne screaming for her mother to be gentle. Rebekah pressed her hand down on Cheyenne’s crown to stabilize her head and ripped the blow dryer through her hair, clumped shed hairs floating to the floor, Cheyenne lightly whimpering as the pick scraped across her scalp like claws.
Often, Cheyenne’s grandmother, Gayle, would visit while Rebekah was attacking the stubborn second half of Cheyenne’s head. Gayle wasn’t as pretty has her daughter, her hair, a dirtier blond than Rebekah’s, always tied in a low ponytail underneath a visor hat, her face and shoulders rusted red under the sun after playing tennis all morning at the country club.
She brought saltine crackers and peanut butter, sat at the kitchen table where Rebekah styled Cheyenne’s hair, and scooped dollops of peanut butter onto the crackers, pressed them together to make sandwiches. As Rebekah’s yanks became more forceful— Cheyenne’s hair quickly drying into a tight, frizzy puff before Rebekah could smooth it out with the blow dryer—Gayle placed a cracker sandwich into Cheyenne’s mouth, the thick peanut butter gluing her tongue to the roof so that she couldn’t open it wide to yell. She made faces, smacking her lips, to distract Cheyenne from the pain in her head.
While Cheyenne giggled and laughed, tracing the lines around Gayle’s tight, thin lips, Gayle leaned over the plate of saltine crackers and peanut butter on the table, sucking her front teeth and flicking crumbs from her fingers, staring at Rebekah struggle to tame the child’s hair.
“Why don’t you just perm it? Save yourself the trouble,” she said, the tight skin on her forehead pulling into shallow wrinkles as she frowned.
“I can’t, Mom. It’s part of her heritage.”
“A nappy head? I would think there are better things you’d want to cherish.”
“You would, wouldn’t you? You never liked Edmond to begin with,” Rebekah said, tugging Cheyenne’s head back as the pick attachment snagged a knot.
“I’m sorry, honey. Almost done.” She lifted the last section of hair at Cheyenne’s temples and gently racked the dryer through, using her other hand to cover the tender edges.
“Be careful that you don’t call your mother a name you’ll regret,” Gayle said, wagging her finger.
Rebekah switched the dryer off and slammed it on the kitchen table. “After a while, one arm will be buffer than the other!” she said winding her arm and rolling her shoulders. She took the cotton balls from Cheyenne’s ears and kissed both earlobes. “All done, sweetie. Now I’ll just braid it like we always to Mommy’s.”
Cheyenne nodded, sucking the peanut butter from her tongue, crumbs surrounding her mouth.
“Way to change the subject.” Gayle said and pinched the wiggly Cheyenne who was ready to plant her feet firmly in the grass and stretch her body up towards the sky after sitting nearly two hours on her bottom.
© Nortina Simmons