Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Chapter Two: Lions

CeCe’s mother entered the living room full of light and purpose. She greeted CeCe with an unusual boom in her voice, while pulling her hair pack into its usual collar-length ponytail.

“I think there’s extra sunshine out there today,” her mother said. “Let’s go outside to get some!”

CeCe just watched her mother at first. She was typically stupefied, initially, by this random alertness. Ever since the flowers started to push up from the ground, CeCe noticed that the awakened version of her mother was vibrant for shorter and shorter times. Her mother’s magic might only last a few minutes, instead of the whole morning, definitely not the whole week or a whole day anymore. Sometimes, her mother’s light wouldn’t last for a whole game of jacks.

While her mother floated about the apartment --bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, kitchen again-- CeCe was counting to a hundred. Mrs. Castellanos had showed her what to do after the 20s. By the time her mother re-emerged from their shared bedroom wearing jeans and an oversized button-down, CeCe had reached “101.” She allowed herself to get excited then. She stayed smiling as her mother prattled on while snapping two afro puff ponytails on the top of her head.

“I haven’t seen sun like this in a long time, have you CrimsonBaby?”

CeCe’s hadn’t noticed any extra sun, but she nodded anyway. She laughed with her mother, too, as they agreed to drag their two kitchen chairs out onto the back porch slab to eat Cheerios with extra sugar. They watched the sun pull itself above eastern wall of their apartment complex building. CeCe was scooped her cereal, swinging her feet, and listening to her mother coo about fresh starts and bright beginnings and healing wounds and buried shadows and such. CeCe didn’t know precisely what these words would look like, but she knew her mother had been waiting for them to show up for a long time.

CeCe was about to turn up her cereal bowl and drink down the sweetened milk when her mother took the bowl from her hands and declared that they were going to pick some flowers along the courtyard square.

“You walk that way, and I’ll walk this way,” her mother said, standing. Their small apartment complex, like an old motel, and was constructed in a rectangular shape. The backs of their apartments faced an open courtyard with three tall trees, several benches and a sidewalk that ran in front of each door. CeCe had once counted 24 doors on the first floor and 24 doors on the second floor.

CeCe knew a little something about the households behind every door. For some, she could peek past their curtained windows when she walked her imaginary pet dragon around the square or chased a toy. Some, she observed from her porch slab or the window. CeCe was the youngest person in the complex, which had been converted from a senior citizen community to low income housing the year before CeCe was born. Many of the elderly residents remained, like Mrs. Castellenos, the second-floor widow who befriended CeCe. Most of the residents were young veterans, some with wives and preteens, some with screaming girlfriends, and many with only bottles and brown paper bags.

CeCe didn’t know most of their neighbors’ names, but recognized all of their faces. Sometimes, the grownups said hello to her when they passed, but most had learned that she would only reply with a stiff wave. She didn’t know their names, so they were strangers. She would have asked their names, but speaking to them wasn’t allowed. Waving to the neighbor-strangers, on the other hand, was different.

Between watching her mother flit along the other side of the courtyard and searching the sidewalk cracks for flowers Mama called “Danny Lions,” CeCe hadn’t noticed one of the neighbors waving from the window. Mr. Big Mole on his Chin tapped on his window pane to get her attention. CeCe liked Mr. Big Mole. He had thick auburn sideburns, sparkly eye glasses and the coolest bellbottom colors ever. CeCe thought there must be music playing inside his head when he walked, because of the way he bounced and bumped along their walkway. He didn’t have children, but he did have a girlfriend who wore earrings so big, CeCe imagined them as hula hoops. CeCe saw them kissing all the time.

Mr. Big Mole had his thumbs tucked under his armpits and his knees and elbows were unfolding and flapping into a funky chicken dance. Her face exploded with giggles. If he wasn’t talking babytalk to his girlfriend, Hula, Mr. Big Mole always tried to make her laugh.

CeCe looked over to see if her mother was laughing too. She had already rounded her second corner on the square and was moving toward her daughter. Her eyes were cast to the ground, but it didn’t seem like she was looking for flowers anymore. As CeCe got closer, she could see the light in her mother’s face being consumed, once again, by textured shadows. When their eyes met, CeCe saw no trace of the smile that had greeted her just an hour earlier.

The inside of CeCe’s skin began to hurt again and the small clutch of “Danny Lions” seemed woefully misplaced inside her hand.

“Let’s go inside now, CrimsonBaby,” her mother said. As CeCe took her mother’s hand, she looked over her shoulder to wave goodbye to Mr. Big Mole. He waved back, but his smile and funky chicken were gone.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Chapter One: Thumbtacks

2011 is The Year of the Manuscript! I've been courting this character, CeCe, for more than a decade now (I know!) and finally got the momentum, time and headspace to finish her story. I'm five chapters away from finishing, so thought I'd share excerpts along the way as I edit. Here's the first two pages of Chapter One:

CeCe mumbled a tight-lipped thank you to the tall woman who had stooped down to help her from the concrete. CeCe had crashed down on all of them when she tripped and fell through the accordion fold of the transit bus door. Unlike her sneakers, these stiff, black pumps were not familiar with the grip and lurch of a halting city bus. CeCe and her tennis shoes had grown up on these transit buses. The new, grown up heels mocked her stride and her balance, catapulting her into the cluster of strangers waiting to board.

Once on her feet, CeCe pretended to examine her ankle, not making eye contact with the tall woman or the others beginning to board. The bus hydraulics sighed, lifting its new load and pulling away from the curb. CeCe relaxed the faux intensity of her self-examination. She wasn’t physically hurt. No scrapes, no strains, no embedded bits of glass. The inventoried assaults to her ego, however, tallied high: she’d fallen from a city bus; plowed down a small crowd of commuters; earned a smear of someone’s chocolate bar across her white blouse; and her black dress pants had a skid of dirt and debris stretching from her cuff to her hip. She’d have to wash them again already.

CeCe suddenly pulsed with the realization that someone might be watching her, laughing at her fall. She dashed a glance over each shoulder and pointed herself toward Carpenter Street. As her steps carried her away from the bustle of Kennedy Boulevard and into the quiet of this residential nook, she fell into a normal gait. The late summer sun coiled itself around her arms, pulling her along. CeCe allowed her nerves to be lulled by these buoyant neighborhood sounds. There were no blaring horns here, no grumbling buses, no breaking glass, no choirs of cursing teenagers. Just a few passing minivans, skipped jump ropes, an occasional car stereo and barking dog, and plenty of rustling leaves.

Except for the debris of sidewalk and snacks clinging to her clothes, CeCe could’ve fit right in on these blocks of upwardly mobile Blacks. She'd always liked to imagine herself in one of these houses, borrowing video tapes from one of these neighbors, babysitting for these families, carrying a macaroni salad to one of the annual block parties.

CeCe imagined herself having friends here, too. She’d sometimes see girls from her school in front of these addresses, climbing into sedans, peeking into mailboxes, tugging at leashes. CeCe didn’t speak to them as they stood in their driveways, just as she didn’t speak to them standing around in the hallways at school. CeCe was not a beautiful girl, but always felt that she was attractive enough. She had pecan colored skin with occasional acne blemishes, a puckered small mouth that she kept coated with plum colored lip gloss and dark lashes so thick and heavy they curled in on themselves.

Instead wielding her beauty, CeCe had spent her high school years becoming deliberately invisible. She hadn't gone the extreme of becoming the unkempt recluse. CeCe liked to her jeans fitted and her shirts colorful, like them. She kept her sneakers clean and her earrings big and liked to wrestle her thick hair into glistening, neat asymmetrical styles.

Unlike them, however, CeCe questioned the surety of every life step and, unlike them, figured she'd learned her lessons against hoping for happiness.