Wednesday, March 14, 2007

PUT ON SOME MARVIN (for Zora Neale, bell and me) . . . by Lori D. Johnson . . .

"Come and get me," is what the note read. Before I could get the question out of my mouth, my son Terrance pulled his face out of his bowl of cereal and supplied me with a ready answer. "Aunt Gina. She called about an hour ago." He took the note from me and flipped it over. "This is her address on the back here."

While Terrance got up to replenish his bowl, I sat down at the kitchen table with a sigh and kicked off my shoes. The last time I had seen my sister had been nearly four years ago; she had been in a night-club performing a medley of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan tunes, and I had been a member of her listening audience. She'd gotten a standing ovation that night. And even though I had stood and applauded with the rest, it had really hurt me to hear the slur in Gina's voice, to see the sleepy slant of her eyes, the lazy nod of her head, and realize that not only was the girl trying to sing like a jazz and blues diva of old, but she was trying to live like one too.

Yes, she was my sister, my baby sister, and I had always wanted the best in the world for her. But no, I didn't try to stop her, even when word got back to me that she was out on the corner selling dope and her ass to support her habit. I had always known better than to think that I could make Gina do anything. If jumping off on the deep end is what the girl had made up her mind to do, that's all there was to it, and there would be no stopping her. The only thing I could do was sit back and wait for the call. And that's exactly what I had been doing for the past four years.

Yes, I had been expecting a call, but not the one carrying the good news that my sister had finally come to her senses and was ready to straighten up and fly right; and not the one with Gina's happy-go-lucky voice on the other end telling me to put on some Marvin Gaye and a pot of coffee, because she was coming over; and most certainly not the one I actually got, demanding that I come and get her. No, the call I had been expecting was the one that nearly always comes in the early hours of the morning bearing the bad news that somone you love has died.

I looked over at Terrance and thought about scolding him for eating all that cereal before dinner, but instead I asked about the phone call. "She say anything else?"

He let out a loud belch and excused himself before attempting a response. "Who? Aunt Gina? Un-uh. All she said was 'tell Gail to come and get me.' Those were her exact words. Then she gave me the address and hung up."

* * *

I pushed open the door to Gina's apartment and was almost knocked down by what I knew to be the stench of dreams gone bad.

"Whoo-we!" Terrance said as he stepped around me and clamped a hand over his nose and mouth. "Excuse my French y'all, but it smells like shit, damn and hell in here."

My son Terrance, always the comedian. I cuffed him on the back of the head and silently blamed both his tact and tasteless sense of humor on being fifteen and his father's son.

I spotted Gina seated on the bare floor between a couple of battered suitcases, and beneath a cloud of cigarette smoke. Her eyes were closed, but she nodded a greeting at us and stretched her mouth into what I suppose was an attempt at a smile. For a moment all I could do was stand and stare. The girl looked bad. Her lips were cracked and peeling. Her hair was a tangled, matted mess. And the corners of her eyes were so thick with crust, I didn't think she'd be able to open them.

When was the last time your ass saw some water is what I was tempted to scream at her. But instead I voiced a simple and calm observation of the obvious: "You look terrible."

"Yeah," she said as she took a final puff of her cigarette before snubbing it out. "Well, you'll be happy to know, I feel even worse." With a groan and a vile-sounding cough, she rose to her feet and jerked open her eyes. The gaze she shot me was hot and hazy, but the words that subsequently slid off her tongue were cool and unwavering. "So, do me a favor and spare me the lecture this time around Gail. Just take me home. Okay?"

# # #

What you just read ("Put On Some Marvin") is an excerpt from a story of mine that appeared in the Emrys Journal in the Spring of 1994. Yeah, so do I have a fascination with Marvin Gaye or what? (smile)

As always, when I review old material I see things that I would now do differently. Even so, this remains my favorite of all the stories I've written thus far. I think one of the reasons I like it so much is because I can see so much of myself in all of the characters.

I can remember reading this at the workshop I frequented in Memphis and receiving less than stellar reviews from my fellow scribblers and scribes, both the righteous and the wanna-be's. But something in my gut told me to leave the piece as it was and not tweak it too much. Sure enough, less than three weeks after I read the story, the folks from Emrys called and told me they wanted to publish it. Sometimes you've just got to step to the left of the nitpickers and the naysayers and go with what you know . . .

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