Inspired by Real Events
A strange man hovered immense and black in the shadows opposite her kitchen table. Raggedy overalls reached only to his shins, and one strap dangled down his back, long ago torn free by massive muscles borne from field work and the constant wear that comes with poverty. His bare, calloused feet shone almost white.
The puppy on the woman’s lap squeaked out a thin yap, then hopped up onto the table and inched toward him, her tail working itself into a vibrating blur.
“I come to help wit’ your book, Ma’am.”
The woman’s hands trembled as she reached for the puppy.
“You been prayin’ for some help wit’ that, right? Book ‘bout the plantation where I stayed? If you want, I give you my story.” The front corner of those tattered overalls flapped with every exuberant nod.
Pain shot across her forehead. She winced, and reached up to gingerly finger the mound of gauze wrapped around her head, fat as a watermelon.
Had she survived that car wreck? Was she hallucinating? Or maybe even dead? But if she were dead, wouldn’t freedom from life unveil an existence where chocolate cupcake aromas swirled under cloudless skies that sprinkled pastel daisies upon lawn parties, not a huge black man who thought like so many others that his was a life the whole world wanted to read about.
Brain injury, she remembered, closing her eyes to the confusion.
Long moments passed. She reopened her eyes. Yes, a big black man really stood in her kitchen.
Was it the morphine? She clutched the puppy to her chest. “Who are you?” Her voice shook.
“George, that be my name, Ma’am.”
“But who are you?” She stomped a foot. “And where’s my sister?”
“You know,” he told her, nodding again as though she really did. “I’m George… from The Houmas.” His eyebrows rose into question marks and his mouth cracked open, as if his feelings were hurt by her not knowing.
“I don’t know any... The Houmas?” Her thoughts trailed off to the book she had been writing about Houmas House Plantation. The Houmas was its name during Civil War days.
She called out, “Stacy! Where are you?” When her sister didn’t answer, she slammed a palm on the table and demanded, “Tell me where my sister is!”
“She ain’ here now, Ma’am. But George here come to help you.”
“What do you mean, help me?” She closed her eyes, figuring she was still alive. If she were free from life, wouldn’t she be free from that damned stagnated writing career?
Quite a miscalculation. Alabaster-winged angels weren’t strumming harps, Puccini didn’t blare from a nearby cloud, and no one reached out a guiding hand to usher her into a new world. Damnit, where was that blasted light she should be reaching for?
But...what if... The alluring prospect of liberation from humanity’s disappointments and delusions enticed her to step into the bright future of Everafter, but the reality of the pain in Ma’am’s head belied the offering, tugging her back toward the comfort of the known—yet, what was so comfortable about the known? To still be alive might mean all she had to look forward to was one more disappointing novel on the horizon, dozens more rejections from agents and publishers, friends and family who read drafts and offered toothy smiles and shallow compliments while their gazes jutted around everywhere except into her eyes. She couldn’t help but wonder if she had squandered her life with the notion of someday becoming a bestselling author. Maybe it wasn’t such a good time to get dead. Might be better to leave on a high note.
Ma’am had heard stories about people who saw that Light but chose to return to life to experience renewed joy and a greater appreciation for simple pleasures, but she figured those were the exceptions; otherwise, she would have heard of a lot more people going back. There were too many souls more like hers, people who didn’t want to return only to again face their tragedies and regrets, how they got nowhere in life because they were constantly trudging through one obstacle after another, straddling ladders burning with the familiar fires of grief in one direction, unknown in the opposite. Sometimes it’s mighty hard to believe in the existence of a supreme light at the end of a tunnel when only a fleeting happiness has dotted an entire lifetime.
The idea of facing freedom from life without seeing heaven on the horizon was scary, while living life with sustainable happiness was inconceivable as a sunrise to the blind. Up or down, right or left, when the next step led either back into a known hell or forward to meet a new Lucifer, what was there to expect other than a different series of hells? Maybe Dante had it right. Is that where George lived as a slave, in an existence devoid of heaven. Did he live in one of Dante’s hells, that world of his with no freedom? Was Ma’am with him, there, in an in-between place of hopeless despair?
She’d be happy not to be alive and face more disappointment, but that’s not the same as wanting to be dead. It was too difficult to think about, so she tried to still her mind and succumb to the honeyed offerings of sleep. But then the far-off voice of her sister pulled her back toward consciousness, only to fade out a moment later, more akin to the memory of a voice once heard, pulsating crumbly and tentative like those of the desperate, kneeling bedside and begging their god to bless them in the face of tragedy. Her sister was her rock, her mentor. She was bold and self-assured, yet called so desperately as to pierce the woman’s heart with searing tines of guilt for not answering. I want my sister.
The woman tried to occupy her mind with something other than the seriousness of her condition. Was it a flight of fancy to think she could go back to face her demons and draw upon this surreal experience for a new book that might make her a worldwide literary success? It really didn’t matter whether she was imagining or truly experiencing what she now saw and heard. She often found her powers of creativity so keen that it confused her brain as to whether her thoughts were memories or imagination. Maybe that’s all this was—imagination, or perhaps an elaborate hallucination. She had hit the steering wheel hard. Or was it the windshield?
Real or not, this could all make for good writing, and if it were really possible that she could choose between life and death, this opportunity might entice her to will herself to stay alive… just maybe. Then again, such a carrot might not be powerful enough to override the dread of again facing the ongoing anguish of her life, which would likely not subside for the foreseeable future. Her previous book, an expose’ of a mixed-race couple who tried to further the work of the controversial Harvey Milk, had drawn out the kind of bigots that made her skin crawl—pigs and politicians in need of target practice; learned scholars in need of controversial subjects worthy of papers that would impress their peers; and paparazzi looking to make a buck and a reputation with a fat photo like the Kirsty Alley picture that covered tabloid magazines. A chubby white blonde writing the story of an old black slave would invite the harshest of criticism. If George was real, she’d want to help him, truly, but this was not the book for which she had asked for help all those many days when she found her fingers unable to type a single word. And the question of her literary competency, or lack thereof, had long been settled. Then again, what if this, this, this situation was all she was left with?
She opened her eyes to the black man who still stood in front of her. “I wouldn’t have a clue where to start,” she whimpered in her Daddy-please-put-my-training-wheels-back-on voice.
“Don’ worry ‘bout that none, Ma’am, I just tell you what I know.” George’s forehead scrunched up, his gaze in some faraway place. “We had a good slave life. Massa give us ‘nough for a mule of our own—but not all those men did kindness like Massa did—we had our own garden, corn for feedin’ a few chickens, oats for the mule.”
“But you were a slave! How would I know how to tell a slave’s story?” Her breathing was coming hard. “Please… just… go away.”
“Tell it from my eyes, Ma’am,” he offered in a soft, easy voice. “Lookin’ out my front door.”
Ahh, what a different view.
“Ma’am, you got your family,” he continued, “and ‘xcuse me for speakin’ like this, but your family got wit’ child from a man a different color. Y’understand what I say?”
“How do you know about my nephew?” She hated it when people talked behind her back.
“It’s alright, Ma’am.” George’s voice softened even more. “That there, that happened to your people all the time, just like mine. Now, the view out my front door and the people that happened to is pretty different in a lot of ways, and pretty much same in a lot of ways. See, we ain’ so much different in a lot of ways, y’understand?”
Ma’am was nowhere near understanding. All she knew was that a big black guy she’d never met or heard about had no business standing in her kitchen telling her things he had no business knowing about. Her brain was more than foggy, and here she was trying to make sense of something that made no sense in a normal world.
“How possibly could I understand?” This was crazy! “Please leave me alone.”
But he wore her down. Every few hours he’d reappear, each time wanting to know, “Y’understand?”
“Just explain this one thing,” she finally conceded. “You tell me how in the world this could work.”
“Ma’am, you just think on your writin’, and George’ll come take you by the hand. If you be ‘greeable.” He kept nodding, as though to will the same from Ma’am.
“Well…” She could only stare into her lap.
“That be your permission then?”
“What choice do I have?” She didn’t have the strength to argue any more, but wasn’t sure she had the backbone to face this crazy, perverted version of life—what if she failed George, too?
“Ol’ George here, he goin’ make sure you get the story down right.” He gave her an ear-to-ear smile, then left. She would come to learn that was his way. No salutations, no well wishes, no see ya tomorrow. He came, he spoke, and he left.
* * * * *
The following morning, she read about the accident.
Baton Rouge Advocate
Baton Rouge woman in coma following single-car accident. At 5:15 AM yesterday, Jan Berry-Wisdom drove her Gran Torino through the stop sign where Delgado Boulevard ends at Tulane Street in the quiet LSU neighborhood of University Hills. “It appears Ms. Berry-Wisdom fell asleep at the wheel on her way home after her shift at a campus guardhouse,” reported Baton Rouge City Police investigator Fella Franklin. “The vehicle subsequently travelled across the lawn of the residence at that intersection, impacting the structure and coming to rest approximately five feet inside the kitchen where the resident was located.”
Berry-Wisdom suffered a gash to her forehead and was transported to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Health Center. The resident of the home, Tooda Hebert, was also rushed to The Lake, where she remains in a comatose state.
Best known as the author of a novel about South Louisiana’s Houmas House Plantation, Ms. Hebert recently isolated herself in Baton Rouge in order to retreat from hordes of New Orleans paparazzi, the Ku Klux Klan, and radical Christian demonstrators affronted by reports that the author based her novel on a diary of the plantation owner, in which he described unabashed mutual love and respect between his family and George, a slave who served them during the Civil War.
The report seemed to be inaccurate, but there was nothing she could do about it at this point, so she sat at her computer, index fingers hovering above the knobby protrusions on keys f and j, and did the only thing she could. Ma’am waited for George.