Sunday, May 21, 2017

Character Profiles ~ Aisha

In life and in fiction, we see what someone is made of when they're under pressure. In Crawdad, all the characters are stressed by something in their lives, usually events outside of their control.

In Aisha's case, she's got a strange insight into people she's learning to understand, but can barely control. Is it voodoo? Aisha doesn't know, but it scares her and the people around her. Who is she? Is she evil? Is she crazy? Is the power real or just her imagination? And when will it go away?

~Meet Aisha from Crawdad~

“Aisha?” I could hear my grandmother calling me from the porch where she’d been shelling peas in a big, red bowl. A vibration, so faint most folks wouldn’t have noticed, had lured me off the porch and out into the woods, wet and green, steaming like a rain forest. I glanced back over my shoulder where I should have seen grandma’s house through the trees. I saw only shrubs. I could still hear her yelling though.
“Aisha, you get back here or I’m a tan your hide!” she was screaming but it sounded like she was a million miles away. She used to scare the crap out of me, but she’d threatened me too many times in my young life. I didn’t believe her anymore. Besides, I had something in me I needed to understand. No one else around me understood, so I kept walking. I wanted to see Naomi.
My head buzzed with electricity. It was just a feeling I got sometimes when I knew stuff. Once, it started on Friday at school. I knew what the answers were on Mrs. Whitnack’s quiz cause she was thinking them. I knew Paul was gonna ask me out, so I hid in the bathroom until most everyone had got on the bus or left for home. I didn’t like that boy and he couldn’t seem to get it through his thick skull. Missing the bus meant walking a long way home, but it was worth it to avoid Mr. Grabby Hands. I took a short cut through the woods, like I was now, and I was overcome by the same feeling both times. Alive with a vibration like no other. Every leaf was sharper, every sound perfectly clear in my ears, like it was right beside me. Something was coming.
I thought I knew the way, but pretty soon there was a creek I didn’t recognize and the trail turned to little more than a pattern of pine needles and dead leaves.
“What you looking for?” I heard a voice say. I looked around me. I was sure there weren’t nobody there before, but now there was a woman, old and wrinkled as the bark of a gum tree, staring at me with eyes blacker than midnight in a rainstorm. She rattled me, but I tried not to let it show. That was the first time I ever met Naomi.
“Nothing. I’m just walking home,” I said.
“Dat’s not what your heart says,” she said in a little know-it-all voice.
“My heart?”
“’Bout to beat right outta your little chest, it’s so loud. I hear it searching.” I gave her my best “you must be crazy” look, which was easy ‘cause she looked kind of crazy. Her hair was covered by a tightly wrapped purple bandana and her eyes darted around like she kept hearing things in the forest I couldn’t hear. She wore a flowered house coat and slippers, like a patient who just wandered away from the old folks’ home.
“What are you?” I asked her.
“My name is Naomi Wentworth. I got a lotta names, but that’s my favorite.”
The name sounded a little familiar, but too normal to be the person I’d heard all the stories about.
“You ain’t Mama Copperhead, are you?” I blurted out.
I always thought Mama Copperhead was a story meant to keep us out of the woods or away from snakes, but his lady made me wonder if it was true. She laughed a raspy sound.
“Well, nice meeting you, Naomi, but I gotta go,” I said, moving my feet away from her.
“But you ain’t told me what your blessed heart is looking for yet,” she said almost pleading.
I paused. What did she expect me to say?
“I know you been misunderstood a time or two,” she offered as she pulled a loop of string out of her pocket and started lacing her fingers through it to make a cat’s cradle.
“That’s the truth,” I muttered.
“So maybe you’re looking for understanding?” I squinted at her, the momentary glare of the sun through the trees blinding me. A rare breeze cooled my face for a second.
“Ain’t everybody?”
“Maybe, but that ain’t exactly what I mean, honey child.”
I never really heard nobody use that expression before, except for in a joke. Naomi made it sound like the most natural thing in the world.
“I won’t hurt you, sweet pea,” she murmured. I felt the humidity dripping down between my shoulder blades now, itching.
“I know,” I said, a little too smart mouthy. I didn’t mean to be rude, but snapping at people had gotten to be a habit with me.
“Sometimes it’s ok to ask folks to help us, especially when we can’t see the path too clearly,” she said shuffling toward me.
“I heard you was some kinda witch,” I said, backing away a few steps.

“Maybe, maybe not. All in how you look at it, I suppose. They don’t call them witches in voodoo.”

You can find Crawdad on AMAZON

Saturday, May 13, 2017


~Happy Mother's Day~ 

Mothers are complicated creatures. Some are mothers by choice, some not. Some are biological mothers. Others are mothers out of necessity. And they aren't perfect by any means. These are the messy, complicated mothers I like to write. Mothers who mean well, but have maybe lost their way, by choice or by accident.

One of my favorite moms is Karla, a new widow trying to care for her depressed daughter, Samantha, in The Color of Water.
Somewhere way down deep, I still love Karla. She’s my mom, but there’s no finding my way back to her.  At least, it doesn’t seem like it to me. For now, I follow her around, sometimes her shadow, other times more distant.  She’s not making me finish my junior year of high school.  There’s no way I could have. I guess she knows that cause she never even brought it up.
But this morning, instead of lying in bed until ten like we have been, Karla’s up packing what little we have into the trunk of her Civic.  She’s been worrying for weeks about money and rent and all, but I really wasn’t paying attention before today.  Just before five in the afternoon, we slid into the seats of her car and she started the engine.
“This will be good for us,” said Karla, staring straight ahead at our now former apartment.  She awakened a curiosity in me that hadn’t been there for awhile.
            “Where are we headed, Karla?” I asked. My voice came out soft from lack of use. She didn’t hear me or she didn’t answer anyway.         
“Good bye, Wilmington.  Beaufort, North Carolina, here we come,” Karla said.  She smiled her “I’m pretending I’m happy about this” smile.  She used it a lot where Dad was concerned.
            At least it’s on the water, I thought, slouching down in my seat as I settled back into sleep.  Cars bore me.  I would rather spend my time sailing with Dad.  Karla always accused us of growing gills and fins.
            “This will be good, right?” she said again. I guess she was trying to convince herself it was a good idea.  With a bittersweet smile, she kissed two fingers and touched them to the picture of me and Dad taped to the dash.  Blowing the blonde strands of hair out of her eyes, she backed the Honda out of the driveway and that was it - our lives changed again.

Others mothers are more difficult to love. They do what they think is best, but sometimes they're wrong because they're human. This is Loretta from Crawdad~

Once, she told me he was living under a rock somewhere. To a little kid like me, I figured that meant he must have magical powers to be able to do that. I looked under rocks in the creek behind our house all the time after that, but all I found were crawdads and snails. The crawdads would raise their little claws up to me like they were saying ‘hey’ if they weren’t too busy scuttling away into the muddy water.
Sometimes I’d catch one and keep it in a bucket or the bed of an old wagon. I’d put in rocks and water, make it like a real terrarium, a home for my crawdad daddy, but mama wouldn’t let me bring them in the house. The raccoons usually got them.
I remember when she found me crying over what was left one morning. I gathered up the little bits of shell the coons didn’t eat. Mama came out of the house with a load of laundry in a blue plastic basket propped up on her hip.
“What’s the matter with you?” she asked.
“My daddy’s gone,” I whimpered.
“You mean your crawdad?”
“My daddy,” I bawled. My seven year old heart was broken. I carefully pet the little fan-shaped crawdad tail in my palm with a fingertip.
“Your daddy ain’t no crawdad, Jamil. He’s just a plain ol’ sorry ass man,” said Mama. She plopped the laundry basket on the soggy Bermuda grass and started hanging up clothes on the line in our backyard.
“But you said he was a crawdad?” Mama snorted.
“I did? Well, I was just messing with you then.” She went on her merry way, hanging clothes like it was nothing. I don’t even think she knew how she just dropped a bomb in my heart. I let the little fan-shaped tail fall from my hand. It was worse than finding out Santa Claus wasn’t real. My daddy wasn’t any enchanted creature trapped in a crawdad body. He wasn’t even special.
Worse than that, he had arms and legs, but he never even come to see me. Didn’t want to hug me. I could understand a person not being able to visit you if they’d been turned into a crustacean, but he was flesh and blood human. Why didn’t he ever come to see me?

And some mothers fail us completely and others have to step in. Thank goodness for grandmothers. Corrine is raised by her grandmother in Hush Puppy~

Almost as soon as it closed, the screen door opened again and in walked a skinny woman with an anxious expression.
“Mama!” I shouted and bounded to the door; she was looking around like she didn’t know anyone. I was in her arms before I knew it.
“Oh, baby,” she called me, wrapping herself around me. “Happy Birthday.”
It didn’t matter how many times she had disappeared without saying goodbye; I caved like a kindergartener when she came back. It wasn’t until she had been around a few days that I would remember her faults. Memaw never forgot. She was probably somewhere silently cursing, but I didn’t care. I was just happy Mama remembered my birthday at all. Most years, she didn’t.
Mama swayed a little, her high heels wobbly on the uneven linoleum, but she leaned on me and I held her tight.
“You looking so fine, Corrine. You done grown up, girl.” She hadn’t seen me in probably a year and a half.
“You too, Mama.”
The music stopped and Uncle Terrance shouted over the chit-chat.
“Look what the cat drug in! It’s Shawna!”
Mama’s eyes lit up as she made a beeline into his arms. I thought I heard a woman’s voice whisper something about a two-dollar hooker. No doubt, Mama was flashy in skin-tight yellow leggings, giant hoop earrings with the gold paint flaking off, and her hair sculpted high on her head, but I thought she was beautiful. A beautiful disaster.

 Happy day to all the moms out there :)

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The more things change, the more they stay the same~

Seems like these days you hear news a of a young black person being shot by the police all too often. A few years ago when we lost Trayvon, it became clear there are a lot of young men living a completely different reality than their white peers in this country.

When I set out to write Crawdad, I was focused on Jamil's dream of becoming a musician against all odds, but as I wrote the story of what might befall a teen hitchhiking across the South, I couldn't ignore the fact that profiling does happen.

At several points in the story, people discriminate against Jamil because of how he looks.

A white guy with a purple feather duster and a bright red vest walked by me and started wiping off some Gulf Coast pelican figurines. He looked like a past president of the high school chess club – uptight and no friends. At least none that I could imagine. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.
“We got security cameras,” he said. “Watching every move you make.”
At first, I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me, so I kind of ignored him. I was looking for maps. I went down the aisles until I finally found them, tucked in a corner on the back wall like nobody would want them. Maybe truckers all have GPS now.
I carefully tucked the water bottle under my arm and squeezed the hot dogs in one hand so I could open one of the atlases with my other hand. It didn’t work too well, but I finally opened to a page with Alabama, Florida and Georgia on it.
Charleston was in South Carolina, I knew that, but which was the best way to get there? Searching the map for Charleston, I started getting this creepy feeling like I was being watched, but not in a scary movie sort of way. Just a “someone’s hanging over your shoulder” sort of way. I looked behind me and sure enough, there was red vest guy, surprised that I’d caught him watching me. He stuck his pointy chin out like that would make him look tougher.
“You gonna buy that?” he snapped.
“I can’t look at stuff?”
“This isn’t a library,” he said like I was an idiot or something.
“I know that. I need to look at something to decide if I’m going to buy it, don’t I?”
“Well, hurry up.”
Truth was, I didn’t want to buy it at all. I just needed a minute to memorize it.
“Is the store closing?” I asked.
“It’s a twenty-four hour store, genius.”

“Then I guess there’s no rush is there?” I pointed out. 

Many people experience the same treatment everyday in real life. It's hard to believe in 2017 it's *still* happening, but it is. It's not difficult to understand why young black men would be angry.

Little kids playing on the curb stared at me like I was some kind of homeless drunk coming to get them. They reminded me just how bad my face looked. I tried to ignore it, but pretty soon a cop car pulled up behind me and turned on the siren. Scared the crap out of me. I jumped left and bumped into an Impala parked on the street.
“You’re supposed to walk on the sidewalk,” the cop barked at me from his open window.
“I was just going around those kids,” I told him, which was the truth. I knew I looked scary so I was avoiding them.
“What happened to your face?”
I shrugged.
“Got beat up,” I said.
“No, sir.”
“Did you report it?”
“No.” That made the cop frown.
“How do you expect me to do my job if you don’t report crimes?”
It was a weird question, like I was personally responsible for giving him stuff to do. I shrugged again. Mama warned me about cops. Do everything you possibly can to stay away from them, she’d said. I just thought she meant to stay out of trouble, which I normally did. I knew my daddy had been in jail and she probably didn’t want me to turn out like him.
The cop took off his sunglasses so he could get a better look at me. His eyes were too small for the size of his face somehow, little black specs almost covered by his giant forehead. You could tell he had to squeeze into his flak jacket. He wasn’t good looking like the cops on TV. There were people on the curb stopping to watch me now, just what I didn’t want.
“Where you going?” he quizzed.
“Charleston,” I said, like a dumb ass. I should have made up something else.
“Isn’t that a little far from home? How old are you?”
I paused a little too long before I lied.
“Nineteen.” It was kind of true. OK, not really, but someone once told me I looked older.
“Got I.D.?”
“No, everything I had got stolen.”
“Where are you from?” His eyes narrowed down to tiny slits, like I was really bugging him now. Just then, another cop car pulled up behind the first and an officer got out. I really didn’t want to tell them I was from Alabama. What if they thought I was a runaway or something?
“Am I under arrest?” I asked.
“Not at the moment,” said the first cop. The other guy smiled big and smacked his gum in his mouth. He had his hands on his hips, like he was ready to give me a lecture too.
“Well, I think I’ll be going then. Nice talking to you.” I tried to smile, but it hurt my face, so I settled for a wave. I turned toward the sidewalk. Maybe if I got on it, he would be satisfied, I thought.
“Woah, woah, there. Not so fast,” said the second officer with the square jaw and square hair. He grabbed me by the shoulder to spin me back around but I had enough experience with fights to be ready for it. If he’d been a kid at school hassling me, I’d have punched him hard, but that definitely would have got me trouble so I just pulled away and got to the curb.
“I’m getting on the sidewalk, see? Walking on the sidewalk. Ain’t no law against that.”
I tried to be nice about it, but it was hard not to be angry. Why should I have to ask permission just to walk down a stupid street anyway? The cop got mad too.
“When I tell you to stop, you stop!” he shouted. He had his hand on his gun, like he meant to pull it on me.
“I ain’t done nothing wrong!”
“We decide if you’ve done something wrong, not you.” They were both out of their cars, coming at me now.
“Don’t you have something better to do?” I snapped. I felt my fear turning to determination, hardening in my brain like concrete. Hadn’t I been through enough already?  I got beat up by bad guys. Now I was getting beat up by cops? What else could possibly go wrong?
“Go find some junkie. Go find a car jacker. Not a black man walking down the street!” I was yelling now and waving my arms.
“Just calm down,” said one of the cops.
“I will not calm down. I have had the night from hell and now I want to take a walk. That’s all I want to do. I thought this was a free country.”

“Not for people like you,” said the shorter cop, pulling out a gun that looked like a plastic toy with a cord attached.

Crawdad has a hopeful ending despite all of this because I can't bear the thought that we can't get through this without tragedy. Maybe its naive of me, but I know it's possible to change the world, even if it's only a little bit at a time. I want there to be more Jamils and fewer Trayvons. For everyone's sake.

~Now available on Amazon~

Monday, May 1, 2017

The cure for any ill is salt water~

What a long winter that was! Whew. As a matter of fact, the entire last year has been a long slog for me. After all that, I really had a yearning to see the Gulf of Mexico one more time. It was one of the bright spots of my childhood back in 1982 and it seemed like the perfect place to get away from it all one more time.

Of course, it was totally different from what I remembered, but it was still a wonderful time. When you're young, you notice different things than when you're older. And a lot has changed in St. Petersburg, Florida, I'm sure. But the important things are still there, the white sand, the shells, and the beautiful water. The wildlife is everywhere, which is a relief after the Gulf oil spill. It's hard to describe the thrill of seeing wild dolphins and pelicans fishing for their breakfast.

I don't know why the ocean seems to call to me sometimes, but I can't go too many years before I need to visit there again. I'll get back to the ocean before too long. Until then, I'll visit in my books~