Original Fiction: Excerpt from “Sitting On The Knees of Gods”
Preface and Part 1 can be found here.
“The guy you all are doing this party for is a writer.” Freddie opened the door of the stairwell of the apartment building for me. “Sterling Johnson’s his name. He’s set to have a novel come out this spring.” We entered the hallway from the stairwell. It was dark and narrow. Freddie walked in front of me. “Till then, he needs us to help make ends meet.” We stopped at a door. Freddie knocked. The door cracked.
“Th-th-that, that you Freddie?”
Freddie pushed the door open. “Come on, LeRoi!” We walked inside. A shorter man stood behind the door in a navy blue pinstripe suit with a matching fedora.
“Hey, man. I-I-I-I’m, I’m just doing my job.”
Freddie looked around the room. “Where’s Barry at?”
LeRoi pointed at a closed door. “Th-th-ey, they in the bedroom.”
The apartment was smaller then I expected. In the far corner of the room, some cats were setting a piece of plywood across some wooden apple crates. They had blocks of ice set up behind it, dark bottles lined up on a mantle behind them. One of them draped a white sheet over the table and began to set glasses up in rows along one side. Others were moving a rectangular beige couch up against the wall on the side of the room. They waved at us. “These guys over there get in free cause they help set up,” Freddie said as he leaned towards me. He motioned towards the closed door. “You better get in there. Barry’s been here since seven.”
I slung my bag over my shoulder and made my way through the moving and the lifting. I knocked on the door.
“That better be you, Rueben Special.”
I opened it. Barry cracked his fingers. “Bout time you got here. They done clearing the room, yet?”
I looked over my shoulder. “Just about.”
Barry motioned towards Fat Nuts. “Get out there and make sure your kit’s set up. Tell LeRoi to make sure my box-n-keys is where I like it.”
Fat Nuts nodded, and I moved to the side to let him pass. He squeezed through the door and I closed it behind him. Barry was sitting on the edge of the bed and motioned towards the chair Fat Nuts had been sitting in. Pete was leaning up against the wall by the window. Barry clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “You doing alright?”
I nodded. “Got some sleep. Feeling better.”
Pete smiled. “These night owl hours are rough.”
Barry nodded. “You’ll get used to being nocturnal. Freddie tell you what this party’s all about?”
“Yeah. Something about raising money.”
Pete laughed. “This ain’t about raising money for nobody.”
Barry shook his head. “This is about getting our name out there. We don’t get a dime tonight.” He motioned towards the living room. “All those folks out there got two things: Mouths and friends. If we do a good enough job tonight, they’ll use those mouths to tell those friends about our group. That’ll get more people to the Emerald Lounge and put us in a better position to squeeze a few more dollars out of Mr. O’dell.”
This was not how we had done it in Birmingham. Most of us had come from areas outside of the city and knew what it was like to be dirt poor. We shared flats. We cooked grits over wood fire stoves. We watched out for each other. “What I just say, Rube?”
I nodded. “You were saying something about our set tonight.”
He nodded. “We’re gonna play the same opening piece we did last night.” Barry looked up at the ceiling and started to count on his fingers. “After that, we’ll go ahead and do ‘Mable’s Blues’. Folks tend to like that one. What else did we say, Pete?”
“‘Lover’s Bayou’, ‘She Loves Me So’, and ‘Bedbug Boogie’.”
Barry looked over at me. “You know all those?”
“I think so. How does ‘She Loves Me So’ go?” Pete hummed the melody. I smiled. “I had a buddy down in Birmingham that used to tear that piece up.”
Pete laughed. “Birmingham’s all you talk about, Rube. ”
Barry stood up. “This ain’t your grandmother’s knitting circle. Let’s go see how the preparations are going.” He walked towards the door. Pete peeled himself off the wall and followed him. I sat for a moment before picking up my bag and making my way into the now cleared living room.
My mouth was parched. The apartment was full of Harlemites and we had just finshed another set. I walked over to the bar and got the bartender’s attention. “Can I get an ice water?”
“And a glass of Red Label on the rocks, please.”
I turned around. A slender white woman in an expensive looking cream dress stood behind me. She had a black feather in her hair that changed colors in the light. The woman smiled at the bartender. “It’s on me.” He nodded and went about getting the drinks. He chipped some ice off the blocks with a small ice pick. The woman pushed her way to the edge of the bar. She looked around. The bartender came back with the drinks. The woman smiled. “Thanks Rico.” She tasted her drink. “If anyone asks, it’s a noodle drink.”
I sipped my ice water. She had a beautiful smile. “My name’s Clarence Laurent,” I announced. The introduction had sounded better in my head.
She smiled and raised her drink in my direction. “Luminous Laurel Bearer. French and English, no?” She lowered the glass from her lips and scowled. “A contentious union of names if you ask me.”
“You from Europe or something?”
“No.” She sighed. “I’ve heard such wonderful things about Paris, though. La ville de l’amour. L’arc du triomphe.”
I looked around. No one seemed to notice that I was standing this close to a white woman. Barry had said we might play one more set. He was on the couch in the corner talking to a midnight colored dame. I looked back at the woman. She smiled and pointed at me with her glass. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“I just got in.”
Her laugh sounded like champagne glasses clinking together. “Why, you’re just a baby!” My face grew hot. I took a gulp of water. Concern rushed into her eyes. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
I cleared my throat. “You from around here?”
She nodded. “Born and raised.” We both turned towards the dance floor and she pointed out at the mass of people. “I’m guessing this is your first rent party.” I nodded. She smiled. “They’re quite the phenomenon.” Her eyes got big. “Have you met Sterling, yet?” I shook my head. She grabbed my arm. “You must meet him.” We pushed our way through the throng of people surrounding the dance floor. She flagged a tall, lanky cocoa skinned man. “Sterling, darling! I’ve got someone I want you to meet!”
The man leaned down to kiss her on both cheeks. “Evelyn, dear. I’m so glad you could make it.” He looked over at me, hands on his hips. “And who might this be?”
She presented me with a flourish of her hand. “Clarence Laurent, meet Mr. Sterling Johnson, author extraordinaire.”
Sterling smiled as we shook hands. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Laurent.”
I nodded. “Nice to meet you, too.”
He raised an eyebrow. “New to Harlem?”
Evelyn smiled. “Just got in yesterday.”
Sterling lowered his voice as he leaned towards me. “Evelyn seems to always find herself in the company of newborns.”
She slapped his arm. “It is far too early in the night for you to be ruining my reputation, Sterling!”
He laughed. “My apologies, Evelyn.” Sterling extended a hand to me. “It was very nice meeting you. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
I grabbed his hand. Sterling winked and pushed his way towards the bar.
She set her drink down on an end table. “Would you like to air out, Clarence? I could use the walk.” She patted her hips. “Been meaning to reduce as of late.” She smiled at me. “I’ve also got to be at the playhouse early tomorrow morning.”
I finished off my water, setting the glass on the bar. “Let me grab my things.”
She smiled. “I’ll be in the hall.”
I walked over to the couch where Barry was sitting. He looked up at me. “What’s happening?”
I looked over my shoulder. “This dame wants me to walk her home.”
Barry smiled. “Heading out before day creep, are we?”
Barry waved it off. “Be at the club on Monday at 3 o’clock.”
“We don’t work tomorrow?”
Barry shook his head. “Sleep in. Go to church. Bake a pie, for all I care.”
I picked up my gear and made my way through the crowd. Outside, Evelyn was leaning against the dark gray wall of the hallway. She smiled.
“Thought you’d forgotten about me.”
I shook my head. “I had to work some things out with my boss.”
We walked towards the stairwell. She paused and pulled an ebony case out of her purse. She extended it towards me. I shook my head. She pulled out a white, slender cigarette and looked up at me. “Light?” I rummaged around in my bag. The unlit cigarette hung between her lips as she watched me. Another couple squeezed past us in the narrow hallway. I found the matches and struck the red sulfur head against the side of the box. The stick broke. Sweat broke out on my forehead.
I pulled out another match. This one lit. I held it up to her cigarette. She puffed, and the tip of the cigarette glowed. She blew wisps of blue smoke out the side of her mouth, and smiled. “Better late than never.”
I slung my bag over my shoulder. “So, you’re an actress?”
She pushed open the door to the stairwell and nodded. “At the House Beautiful. You’ve heard of it, I’m sure.” I shook my head. She looked up at me. “We’re currently preparing for a production of ‘Madame X’. I’ll be playing the role of Jacqueline Floriot.”
We walked out into the warm summer night and made a right onto 7th. I shook my head. “I’ve never really been into plays.”
Her eyes got big. “I would have thought you to be more cultivated than these hooligans.”
I looked up at the moonless sky. “I’ve never really had the chance to go.”
“You’ll be happy to know that the House Beautiful is fully and completely integrated.” She smiled up at me. “You can sit in the orchestra seats instead of just the balcony.”
“That’s awful kind of you.”
She scowled. “It’s one of the only playhouses of its kind. That’s why I wanted to work there.”
A blue looked us up and down as he walked past, swinging his billy club. I put some space between myself and Evelyn. “You hang out with black folks a lot?”
Her face flushed. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
I started walking again. “Where do you live?”
“Off 135th. Down the street from the YMCA.”
“Great. I’m staying at the Y.”
She grinned. “Well that’s just perfect then, isn’t it?”
We made a left on to 135th. She walked with an ease I’d never seen before. We stopped at the steps of her brownstone. She began to walk up the stairs and stopped. “The dress rehearsal tomorrow is open. You’re welcome to come, if you’d like.”
I looked around. “What time does it start?”
She dug around in her purse. “Nine. But it goes till noon. You could come anytime between that. Just tell the doorman you’re there to see Evelyn O’dell.” She pulled out her key and smiled. “I’m glad we decided to get drinks tonight, Clarence.” She turned around, unlocked the door and walked inside.
I crossed the street and went into the Y. Once I got to my room, I sat down on the chair and rummaged through my bag. I pulled out the alarm clock I’d bought in Birmingham. I set it for 8:15, turned off the light, and climbed into bed.
©2013 Justin Campbell. All rights reserved.
Campbell, Justin. “Excerpt from “Sitting On The Knees of Gods.” Weblog post. The Two Cities. The Two Cities, 8 Nov. 2013. Web.
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