Fire and Wanda, Chapter 1, Scene 1

 

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Fire and Wanda was my very first novel, and one of which I am very proud. Although my primary genre is science fiction/fantasy, F&W is a semi-autobiographical tale that I began writing more than 20 years ago about a young African American kid raised middle class in a predominately white neighborhood who struggles to find where he fits in. I stopped working on it  before I was halfway through. Then I picked it up again about five years ago and wrapped it up. The actual idea of the novel began about 35 years ago with an unfinished manuscript entitled “To Save an Iron Man.”

Come back each Friday as I blog Fire and Wanda one scene at a time. I hope you enjoy it.

This one will always be special. 

 

Scene 1

What did it feel like, I wonder? And what was she thinking?

God, she was so beautiful. Wanda. Eyes like cat’s eyes; large, dark, and so erotically unsettling. So many times I hear echoes of the way she laughed, the gentle caress embroidered with a touch of the razor and scent of warm blood, her eyes lovingly peeling the skin from my heart. Too often I welcomed the inconvenience of pain simply to feel her heat raging inside me.

“What is it about me?”

“I don’t understand, Alton.”

“Please.”

“And I’m telling you I don’t understand. I told you before I think you’re sweet. You’re fine. What more…”

“I need to know. It’s OK. You can say it! But please, I need to know.”

“Alton…”

 

*********

 

“We didn’t know where you were. Honest to God, child, we would have told you. But no one knew where you were. You’ve been gone so long.”

“Not so long.”

“Ten years?”

“…Well…”

Ten years.”

Looking back on that day (can this really be yet another decade later?), remembering the way Berve’s face cocked to one side as she spoke, I realize I had no reason to remember or keep track of the passage of time, at least not accurately. Not even for Berve. I had many more reasons to shed my skin and walk away. To run away. Yet and still what I remember is the softness of Berve’s voice, even as her eyes cradled an accusation. I understood it, perhaps even felt it was justified, but I knew there was no answer I could offer that wouldn’t bring about uncomfortable consequences. I smiled.

“Right. OK.”

Sitting there on the couch in Berve’s cramped South Side living room, Berve looked not that much older since the last time I had seen her when we were working in the burn unit at the University of Chicago Hospital. Back then her age was beginning to make unwelcome advances, but she never seemed to mind. Or if she did, she never let it show. Wearing a body that preferred the heavier side of the scale, Berve was a woman who had no sharp angles, inside or out. Everything Berve was soft and round and pleasant to touch – or to be touched by.

Wanda was another sensation altogether. Wanda was illusion and broken glass.

“So does anybody know, you know, why she…? I mean Jesus, Berve.”

Berve smiled, then patted the open space next to her on the couch, a worn-out piece of ragamuffin furniture covered in faded wine red upholstery. Before accepting the invitation a memory flashed in my head picturing the last time I’d seen that couch, seen Wanda seated on that couch, her legs folded under her like a little girl. She was looking up at me through those big cat eyes with a somber expression, one of the few times she was taking me seriously. I stood there waving my arms about, trying to get her to understand something. I was always trying to get Wanda to understand something.

Berve’s hand patted me on the knee as she sidled closer. Looking over at her, it struck me that her smile looked like it had been scribbled in place by someone who didn’t take the time to care whether or not the smile fit the face.

“Now you tell me, baby, can you think of any sane reason anybody could give for why a woman would set herself on fire in her own car and then speed that car into the side of a city bus? A beautiful woman with two young beautiful babies, a husband, and a good job? You tell me if you think there really is an answer for such a thing.”

I didn’t say anything for aimless, ticking seconds masquerading as hours. It was like one of those scenes in a movie where someone is focused so hard on a singular point that everything and everyone else fades out except for that single point of focus. And then, just that quick, the sights and sounds flow back in, like a video slowly easing its way out of pause.

“There’s an answer for everything, Berve. You just need to know where to look.”

“That’s youth talking, child. Sho ‘nuff youth talking.”

“Not after ten years it’s not.”

This time it was Berve’s turn to let the silence do its work.

**********

 

Two weeks earlier I had called Wanda on a whim. I don’t know what it was that made me think of her when I did, only that she crossed my mind with a little more fanfare that day than the other ghosts stumbling around in my past. We hadn’t spoken in at least a couple years, but I still had her number and I hoped it was good. Plus I was working late at the paper on a story that I still couldn’t figure out how to put to bed, nobody else was around, and I needed a break.

The voice answering on the other end of the line sounded familiar, dosed heavy with that syrupy Memphis accent that still made my pulse speed up just enough to feel embarrassed. I covered up for it the only way I knew how.

“Hey girl,” I said. “What you got cookin’ good for me in that kitchen?”

There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and that’s when I thought maybe it had been too long. Knowing Wanda’s past like I did and who-knows-who-she-might-mistake-me-for, I figured I’d better clean up my act quick before I lost her.

“Hey! It’s me. Don’t hang up, all right? It’s me. Alton. Just tryin’ to be funny, that’s all. Sorry. But anyway, listen, I…”

“Who is this?”

“I said it’s…wait…Wanda…?”

Another pause.

“I said who is this?”

The voice was angry, but I could also hear the fear hiding beneath the surface. She sounded just like her mother…

“Corinne…?”

“Wha…how you know my name? Look, whoever this is I’m hanging up this phone..”

“Corinne this is Alton. Remember me? Alton. Your mother’s friend from the hospital. I used to come by your house a lot after work. I even used to give you and your sister piggy back rides and rough house with you on Wanda’s bed? I know it’s been a really long time but please don’t hang up, OK? I’m sorry, it’s just that you sound so much like your mother, I mean just like her, it’s almost…”

“Momma’s dead, sir.”

A violent rush of air flooded my nostrils as my eyes snapped shut. I began rocking slowly back and forth. Suddenly I felt just how alone I was in that office so late at night.

“When.”

“She died a year ago, Mr. Alton.”

“Alton.”

“Huh?”

“It’s just Alton. No Mister in front. I’m sorry, go ahead.”

“Oh…”

There was another uncomfortable pause, and I was starting to think I shouldn’t have interrupted her.

“Do you remember me, Corinne? At all?”

“I think maybe a little. That’s why I didn’t hang up. Good thing you spoke up like you did.”

“Yeah, I guess maybe it was. So…I mean how…”

“Car accident. She died sudden though. Guess that’s good.”

“Maybe so. Yeah. Damn.”

“Yeah. So you knew my mother pretty good? You all worked together at the hospital?”

“That’s right. I was there for about a year.”

“Were you the one with those big wire-frame glasses?”

I laughed. The release of tension felt good.

“So now you really do remember. Yeah, big funny glasses. That would be me.”

I heard a small giggle, something like her mother but far more innocent.

“You were fun.”

“Well I guess that’s good to hear.”

“No, really. You were. I mean a lot of Momma’s boyfriends …were you …?”

I shook my head, even though I knew she couldn’t see me. She didn’t need to know that I would have just about killed to have heard her mother call me that just once.

“Naw. We were just good friends. I loved your mother very much, but we were just friends.”

“That’s sweet.”

“Thanks. I guess.”

“Not a lot of folks really loved my mother. I mean not for real. You know she was real pretty so a lotta guys always told her things, told her they loved her, but they never did. She thought I didn’t know ‘cause I’m supposed to be so young, but I kinda had to grow up quick.”

“How old are you now, Corinne?”

“Me? I’m 17. Be 18 next month.”

“Wow. Guess I really have been gone a long time. So how are you gettin’ along? Must be somebody there looking out for you or something, right? Your father, he’s still…?”

“My father’s dead. Momma’s husband left after she died. I don’t know where he is and that’s good. Me and Soraya got what we need.”

“Soraya?”

“My little sister. You don’t remember Soraya? Bad as she was?”

“Damn. I hate to admit it but I did almost forget. Soraya…”

Who knew how Corinne was paying the rent and taking care of whatever else needed taking care of, but I wasn’t going to ask. She’d already opened up to me way more than she probably should have, even though I’d identified myself as an ‘old friend’. You had to wonder how many times that line got used, especially to a girl as pretty as I knew Corinne had to be.

“Whatever. Anyway, I think Momma left something for you.”

“Left…Why would Wanda…your mother…why would she leave anything for me? I mean we were friends, but I haven’t even seen her in 10 years. We rarely talked more than once or twice a year since I’ve been gone.”

I could practically hear the shrugged shoulders in her voice, which had become encrusted with an icy hard edge. Now she was showing clear signs of being her mother’s child.

“Why would I know anything about that, Mr. Alton? Alton. Whatever your name is supposed to be. I just remember finding the package in her closet. Had your name on it. Looked to me like she was probably planning on mailing it but I guess she never got around to it. Who knows how long she had it up there. Anyway.”

“Look, Corinne, I’m not the enemy all right? I’m really not. And I’m sorry if I pushed some kind of button when I asked how you were getting along. I guess I figured it was an innocent enough question.”

“I ain’t said nothin’ about you soundin’ like you were any kinda enemy.”

“OK. Fine. Listen, I know you weren’t planning on talking to me this long anyway, and I need to be getting back to work on this story. So look, would you mind sending me that package in the mail? I’d really appreciate it, and besides I’m really curious what it is she could have wanted me to have.”

“Story? What story?”

“Huh? Oh, that’s right. Guess I didn’t tell you. Sorry. I’m a newspaper reporter. I’m down here in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.”

“You close to Miami?”

“Pretty close, yeah. Lot closer than you, that’s for sure. About 45 minutes and I’m pretty much there.”

“Always wanted to go to Florida. Momma did too.”

From a chilly fall, to an early spring, then dead into winter, then right back to spring all over again. Wanda spit this child out, no question. But my warm fascination was beginning to wear a little thin.

“Yeah, well maybe one of these days you can come down for a visit. You’re always welcome, and you’ll always have a place to stay. Now about that package, if you could just drop it in the mail…”

“She said you’re supposed to come and pick it up.”

What? Corinne what the…? I thought you said you didn’t even find this package until after your mother passed. How is it you figure she told you I was supposed to fly all the way up to Chicago from down here in southern Florida to pick this thing up?”

“Because that’s what it says. There’s this note taped across the top saying she was supposed to hold onto it until you got here, but now she’s dead. Knowing Momma the way I do…did…she’d want me to do the same thing.”

“But Corinne…”

“It’s what she wants, Alton. And if you were as good a friend of my mother’s as you say you were, then you know she always got what she wanted.”

I had to smile, because there was no doubt about it. When it came to something Wanda wanted, she’d use whatever means she had at her disposal to get it, and that woman had plenty of means if she didn’t have anything else.

“So how big is this package? Is it ticking?”

“You think I’d be keeping a ticking package up here in this house with me and my baby sister?”

“Your point. So how big?”

“Not so big.”

I rubbed my eyes and sighed. This was getting crazy.

“Not so big…? Not so big like a loaf of bread or not so big like a small car? What’s ‘not so big’, Corinne?”

That made her laugh. I relaxed a little, but was still feeling frustrated.

“Told you you were fun,” she said in a husky whisper, now sounding almost seductive.

“Yeah. Fun. So I guess there’s nothing I could say to convince you to mail me that package? Even though it’s probably not worth anything to anybody but me?”

“How do I know that? Might be money in there.”

“After all this time you’re just now thinking about that? Curiosity’s never gonna kill you, is it? So why don’t you open it up and find out if I’m a millionaire? I’ll wait.”

“Because Momma said it’s for you. Make her mad if I opened up somebody else’s things.”

“Oh, so you think she might be coming back to protest?”

“I think you ought to come get your package, Mr. Alton.”

Just like that, huh? I thought to myself. Just take a vacation from the job and fly halfway across the country to pick up a mystery package that’s ‘not so big’.

“My mother wasn’t the giving type, and I think you know that. If she left something for you, well, I’ll tell you this; she didn’t leave anything for anybody else except for me and my sister.”

I nodded slowly, looking out the window at how dark it had become. My little beat-up red Honda Prelude was one of only a handful of cars left in the parking lot. I hadn’t graduated to working out of the Big House yet, which is what we called the main office downtown, so I was still filing my stories from the suburban bureau in Lauderhill. The Lauderhill bureau was tucked away in a nondescript strip mall that looked pretty much like every other nondescript strip mall in Fort Lauderdale, which was pretty much home to the nondescript strip malls of the world. I sometimes wondered if Fort Lauderdale was where strip malls went to die.

“You still there, Alton?”

I cleared my throat.

“Yeah. Look, if I decide to come down then I’ll give you a call to make sure you’re around, OK? Fair enough?”

“I guess so. I’m not goin’ anywhere, so if you’re comin’ you might as well just come on ‘cause chances are I’m not gonna have anyplace else to be except right here. Like I know anything about anyplace else.”

“Yeah, well, OK. Just trying to be considerate is all. Look, I gotta go, all right? Once again I’m really sorry about your mother, even though I know this is coming so late. And I’m glad we had a chance to talk. And whatever I decide to do, I meant what I said about my door always being open to you down here. If you ever decide you want a break from Chi-town, wanna see some sun and waves? Feel free to come on down anytime. And bring Soraya along with you. I mean it.”

“You don’t even know me!”

“I knew your mother, and your mother knew me. She even said she liked me once. That ought to count for something, but do what you want. It’s just a friendly invitation, not a command. Anyway, gotta go. Take care, Corinne.”

“You comin. You know you are.”

She didn’t sound like she was necessarily happy about the prospect, but then she didn’t sound sad or angry either. More than anything she sounded tired.

“Gotta go, Corinne.”

Soon as I hung up, I dialed Berve, and that’s when I got the details. It turned out that not even Corinne knew the real story about how her mother had died, and I never bothered to ask Berve how she had managed to find out or how the info had been kept hidden from her own daughter. Then again, maybe Corinne wasn’t much interested in digging much deeper than what she’d been told. People could be funny like that sometimes; if they sensed that the truth about something was ugly, they’d opt for clinging to the lie like a drowning man to a life raft. Lies could be so much more comfortable.

By the time Berve and I had finished our conversation it was close to 10 p.m. and I wasn’t anywhere near close to being done with the story I’d been working on. Yeah, well. Wouldn’t be the first time I’d blown a deadline, and I didn’t much care for the story or the editor whose bright idea it had been to assign it to me. Some poor guy from South America, a big time soccer player, gets in an accident and winds up a quadriplegic. No more soccer for Jose. My editor, Fred, tells me he wants me to deliver a real weeper. Folks love that stuff, he says. It’s crap is what I told him. I mean, I’m sorry for the guy and all that. Terrible thing. But you can’t tell me with a straight face this is worth more than a few column inches. But no, Fred wants it for the lead on the Neighbors zone section front. He tells me to make it sing, but how can you turn a tone deaf mute into a Pavarotti?

“You comin’. You know you are.”

 

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kaoblues
Writer and musician.

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