So, I am back to work on the Great America Novel, which I am now considering turning into a screenplay.
I started it 4 years ago but abandoned work on it as the obligations of life (both personal and professional) interfered. Here’s a short excerpt… or, as Amazon likes to term it, “a look inside…” : )
Copyright © 2014 by Felami Burgess
With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present: it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavors and the tingling of a merited shame.
– George Eliot
Memory is a prison. Retribution is the key relinquishing you from the confinement of your past. Action is the salvation awaiting you on the other side.
Stairs. I remember stairs. Many worn, cracked, splintered steps that had begun to darken from age. And I remember… Black, cold, musty-scented air slapping at my face, crystallizing fresh tears. And dry, broken leaves scratching the bottoms of my already scabbed feet. Each crusty laceration the result of too much horsing around barefoot in our front yard and each foot making acquaintance with many a broken tree branch and shards from broken coca cola bottles. Both were causalities of my older brother’s slingshot. That slingshot would have been confiscated, directed right at his backside and followed by a fierce hand on hip, narrow-eyed, bitter-tongued talking-to if my mother had ever caught him with that fatal makeshift construction. Regrettably, she never would.
Those tired scabs were ripped opened to bleed again that night. New, deeper cuts were formed for which there would be no scab, no protective shield, to aid in healing my wounds. The entirety of my childhood will always be reduced to my fractured memory of one solitary event. My breath catches in my throat as if suddenly a firm hand has gripped my neck. I steady my focus and my fury and, momentarily, collapse all truncated remembrance. The curse of memory, however, creeps up and eases open the door to my subconscious. Yet again, urging me to remember.
- 1 -
East Hampton, New York
December 31, 2007
The moon hangs high, preeminently ruling the night sky. Stars nestle themselves complacently around the crescent orb, bedazzling celestial observers below. Icy creek water ripples, leading a methodical waltz to meet up with the river racing frantically 100 feet ahead. The joyous laughter of the innocent, the absolved, fills the crisp, bitter night air. The quick, labored breath of one who stands guilty, unrepentant, trips along quietly, unnoticed, among the levity. Darkness paces like a convict from one side of the river on the west to the patch of woods on the east and back again, trapped, desperately seeking discharge from the sun. A release of rage. Red droplets. A thud. A red pool. The gentle stroke of satisfaction. A thicket of wiry trees and stale brush. A trail of crimson snow. A watery grave. A new beginning.
I tuck my ruby-laced fingers in the shallow creases that were not quite pockets (the yuppie-inspired consequence of buying a stylishly overpriced designer coat for look over warmth) and push my way through the throng of ancient retirees, New York City migrates, New England-transplanted yuppies on holiday and silver spoon fed snot-heads spinning noisemakers and whooping about being on the cusp of a New Year. As I brush by, I pray the smell of death does not linger as strongly as my Coco Chanel fragrance. Hurriedly, I make my way past the Sag Harbor Cove Marina, where families roll off their private estates to crawl onto their private boats to sip champagne and eat expensive snacks in celebration of the New Year. East Hampton has the musty stink of entitlement and the hopeful anticipation of those who live in constant commemoration of themselves, I think, as I make my way up to my car parked along Main Street.
I am grateful that the chilly, festive climate distracts those I pass from noticing or caring about the dried mud smeared onto my shoes and the knees of my pant legs and that is encrusting the wool fabric of my coat, reshaping its original, delicate design. I am moving swiftly. I have tied things up with requisite skill. I will be back in New York City by late morning. I repeat these mantras to settle the pounding crescendo my heart is waging against my tortured breastbone. I am moving swiftly. I have tied things up with requisite skill. I will be back in New York City by late morning.
Pulling out the car keys, I see the saturation of sanguine-colored stains caked onto my fingernails and tattooing my hands like cheap, dark red hair dye. Quickly, I click the keyless entry to my car, popped open the door to the Lexus and step in. As soon as I shut the door, the world stops. The truth of my action grips my spirit like some preternatural vise. Murder has freed me. My conscience has not. But, exactly 26 years after I died on a dark winter’s morning in a three-story shack house, tonight, I have been born again.
- 2 -
Raleigh, North Carolina
January 1, 1983
I remember voices. Whispering voices. The hazy fog of dream-state hovers, netting my brain as my consciousness creeps free to enter the stark reality that was my 8-year-old world on the other side.
“Shhhh….. Gary, please, you’ll wake them! Don’t wake the kids. It’s New Year’s. They’ve got to get up early in the morning for chu- ”
“So what!” My father snaps angrily. His voice beginning to rise above a whisper, a brutal ocean wave slapping down the gentle tide of my mother’s feeble coaxing.
“This here is MY house! My goddamn house! I pay these bills here! And, yeah, I said GODDAMN, goddamn it – and, I’ll take the Lord’s name in vain whenever I damn well feel like it!”
Upstairs, in my attic bedroom which, at the time, feels as if it were a quarter inch below the heavens, I can smell the perfume of alcohol scenting my father’s breath. Nestled in a dark corner, I lay, half dead to the sounds beginning to bellow from below rousing my spirit that is desperate for peace. The other half of my consciousness is summoned awake. A chain pulled on a Tiffany lamp, abruptly illuminating the darkness that is my father’s drunken pervasion. One floor below, lay my older sister, Clarice, 15, and my brother, Quentin, 12. Each is privileged to have his and her own bedroom on the second floor. Quentin, it was decided after he turned 10 would because he is a boy. Clarice, decided on her own when she turned 14 that she was “too old to be crowded and needed space to mature without being disrupted by a 7-year-old runt” – me. So, a year earlier she’d gotten the bedroom to herself and, I, the small third floor attic. “We’ll make it real nice, Abigail” – was my mother’s consolatory comment to me.
The voices downstairs grow an octave. The sound of glass shattering against the floor causes me to stir and curl my body up tight, protectively, like a startled sea turtle. I wonder about Clarice and Quentin below me. Are they both wound up in a knot like me or does the tender caress of somnolence have them drifting away from our present nightmare? The locked memory of the bitter, musty scent of my daddy’s alcohol and sweat again drifts up toward me like cheap perfume. Three years earlier, when I was 5 years old, I got my first whiff of someone shellacked by the heavy brush of too much economical fragrance. I was in Raleigh’s 1st AME Baptist church, unfortunate enough to be seated beside Mrs. Yvonne Beulow, an 87-year-old bible-waving, scripture-spitting, yellow-toned Mississippi-born, crusty hellfire of a creature who did not believe in sparing the rod or the child and, woefully, refused to accept that her delusions of once having been a model were, in fact, that: delusions.
Back in 1918, when she was just 24, she was told by a malicious Mississippi photographer that if she hadn’t, regrettably, been born black, her attractive face and high yellow skin made her almost suitable enough to model kitchenware for the Biloxi equivalent of a penny saver. However, Mrs. Beulow was, indeed, born black. Therefore, in her time, she would never be afforded that chance. Though, she held out in eager anticipation ever since that she would be blessed to receive another Lana Turner Schwab’s drugstore moment. Channeling Picasso, the woman garishly painted her face daily and drenched her fading pores with dollar store perfume awaiting a recurrence.
I squinted up my tiny nose and looked up at my mother, who sat beautifully poised, back straight beside me starring straight ahead, nodding approval to the pastor’s soliloquy while fanning her face. She was obviously intent on distracting herself and blowing away the rancid, sickly sweet stink that wafted over from where Mrs. Beulow sat.
When we got home later that day, never having said one condemning remark against Ms. Beulow, whom I knew she disliked, my mother called me into her bedroom. Lifting my 5-year-old body onto her bed, she told me to close my eyes. After I had, I heard a soft spritz and soon my nostrils were filled with the delicate, wonderful aroma of hibiscus flowers, rose petals, cherries, and oak like from granddaddy’s rocking chair and soft leather like from my mama’s good shoes. I opened my eyes and my mother was kneeling in front of me smiling broadly and holding a minuscule bottle. “It’s French, which means it’s special because it comes from a far away place. It’s perfume, Abby. This one is named Opium.”
Perfume. This one named Opium. All of that meant nothing to me. All I knew was I wanted to be lost in that smell all day. It made me feel like I was sitting on my granddaddy’s lap holding a palm full of rose petals while my mother, dressed up all pretty and wearing a hibiscus flower in her hair, just pulled a freshly baked cherry pie out of the oven and then bent down to kiss my cheek. For a deliciously precious moment it made me forget we were paper bag brown folks struggling in the south in the Regan ‘80s and that my daddy was a drunk. It made me forget that my mother with all her faith and fortitude would forever stand by him and that fate would have it that she would never leave. I wouldn’t realize until much later that the diminutiveness of the bottle my mother held was because she couldn’t afford a retail size. She, instead, settled on a fragrance sample to acquire the magnificent scent in order to be momentarily, in a spritz, transported out of her circumstance.
Slam! The bouquet of Yves St. Laurent’s Opium fragrance in a flash is transmuted into the stench of Ms. Beulow’s disgusting lacquered-on redolence. My father fell against something or pushed mama into the same invisible something.
“GET OUT!” My mother hollers. “Gary, just get out!” Seconds later a door slams. Then silence. Blessed silence. He’s gone, I think. Thank you, God, Mary, and baby Jesus, thank you. Within minutes, I had crossed back over into the valley of dreams.
Pop, pop. I’m dreaming of firecrackers on the 4th of July and warm cotton candy and a Ferris wheel. My mouth is hung open releasing a gleeful squeal and a laugh at the same time. Round and round I go. Mama, Clarice and Quentin are laughing too. They all watch as I make majestic, circular laps in the air, arms up. My hands are grabbing at the turquoise sky above. Pop. My eyes fly open. The darkness of the attic envelops me. Something smells funny, slightly metallic.
A moment passes. Then another. The smell begins to fade. A door creaks. Heavy footsteps echo through the downstairs hall. Daddy’s come back. Maybe he’s sobered up and calmed down, I pray. Step, step. The floorboards creak and moan. Step, step. No, these footsteps sound heavier. Creeeeeeeak. The stepper has slowed to hush the groaning protestations. Instinctively, I sit up. My 8-year-old mind inquisitive. I fix my small lips to utter, “Daddy?” from my nook below the heavens but immediately I think better of it. He may still be drunk and surly. Let mom send him out again if he is.
We are all supposed to go to church in the morning. A whole, happy family. Better peace in the pittance, then grief in the grand, as mom would say. In other words, better to just be happy with the little that brings you contentment than be unhappy with the abundance you think you should have that causes you grief.
Suddenly, I hear a faint, distant groan. Instantly, the floorboards are silent. I listen. Silence. The stepper is listening, too. For a moment, we are united in our vigilance. The groan becomes steady pleading then a raspy whine. Creeeeeeak, creeeeak. The stepper is moving again. Old, weary screws twist then screech as a distressed door is eased opened and then abruptly closed. Seconds race, as does my fragile child’s mind. I think Quentin’s crying. There’s a tacit, muffled weeping. Quentin’s minute voice beseeches, “Moooommm…”
Is mom asleep? Pop, pop. The groaning ceases. The fist of arctic coldness punches my chest as my bare feet touch the icy wood beneath my bed. I nervously begin my own furtive creep across the attic floor. Carefully, I tip and glide. Don’t step, I implore myself. If I do, I‘m inviting a whipping if daddy hears me. He might be mad at me for spying. As I make my way closer to the attic’s opening, I am touched by a gentle glow from the Disney ‘Annie and Daddy Warbucks’ Guardian night light Mama keeps plugged into the outlet in the attic wall just before one hit the stairs.
“It’s like a tiny cave up here.” She said plugging it in earlier this year. “God moves in the direction of light never darkness. So, there’s a little bit of protection in this itty bitty light for you, baby.” Right now, the light is protecting me from tripping and tumbling down the attic stairs into the downstairs hall. The steps leading upstairs to the attic and downstairs to the floor below belong to the attic ladder that is currently extended and locked in place. After the attic became my second home, daddy just left the ladder open at all times. “Why bother with the hassle of having to open and close it now?” Though, I’d seen him do it several times in the past. The key to the door sealing the attic shut hung on a rusted nail on the wall just beside the opening. /End of excerpt