Monday, May 23, 2011


Lois Mailou Jones' "The Lovers" (1950)

“Picture perfect poem
Is just fragmented soul
And knowing eyes

I’m just a flawed resemblance
Of someone you once loved.”

-Lola’s Poem, First Writing Meeting

She had tongues for heels. The men along her path said her walk clung to them like unrequited speech. It was love at first switch.

It was a musky summer, 1927 was drenched with sticky and sweat. Thin linens clung to the bodies of unaware targets. They’d sashay down 125th as the brows of hats and beady eyes of men followed them. Vendors licked the salt from their lips, annoyed customers wouldn’t make the short treks for purchases because of the blaring sun. A man-boy with an angry tongue barked at a blue dress and brown legs nearby, “It’s too hot for you to be so damn cold!”

Lola smiled. The young man was right, she was cool. A smug look cascaded down her brown face and landed across her pouty and perfect lips.

Nothing could get to her on Thursdays.

It was “Gather Night” at James’ house on Fifth Avenue, the weekly circle of writers and gossip. She was the only female in the group, but that didn’t bother her. The brownstone basement reeked of testosterone and musk, beer dancing down eager throats and attraction lingering in every room. Attraction had a name, Bert.

For the first few weeks of their group, Lola prayed for a miracle. She gnawed at the visuals of Edgar, Develin, and James; two of whom liked one another and the last old enough to be her father. She figured joining an all male writing group would land her a wedding ring with common interest. On a cold Tuesday, sometime during February, James walked in with a tall, chocolate-in-a-suit, intellectual blessing.

Bert was a factory worker turned sponsored poet a year ago. He and James met while he was writing prose in a neighborhood park. Chiseled and darkened by the toil he was once subjected to everyday, he exfoliated his surface on any and every blank space. Lola called men like him “napkin poets.”
For the next five months Lola leaned in every direction imaginable, trying to catch his gaze. The most she’d get from him was a nod or smile, but never anything else. She was fascinated by the first man to ever ignore her.
The meeting just before this one was the first time he’d spoke.

“Who are you sponsored by?”

Lola flung her body around from the fridge she was knee deep in, trying to find a beverage that wasn’t alcoholic.

“You talking to me?”

He laughed, “Who else would I be talking to? Ain’t no one else in this here kitchen.”

She sashayed her best walk to the counter and pulled herself up on it, opening her soda with just her teeth.

“You haven’t said but a word to me since I’ve been here. But no I’m not sponsored.”

“Oh really? Why does a pretty thing like you want to write? You could be…”

“Home having someone’s babies? I’ll pass. This is what I’m good at. Any man that wants me is going to have to accept that.”

“You saying I’d have to accept that?”

“You saying you want me?”

He laughed, took her drink from her hand and stared into it. “Nah, it doesn’t look like you can handle anything strong anyway.”

Lola was in love.

Bert was the first man who hadn’t flinched at her aspirations. He was also the first man whose tongue didn’t hang from his mouth upon introduction. Most women writers she knew, kept their crafts secret for this reason. The one’s that didn’t, had sponsors who demanded love poems and fluff that she refused to write. Or sponsors who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves—men and women alike.

Lola wrote stories--shards of broken memory--of her south:

the mother who’d fled her hometown,
abandoned her with a next door neighbor
here in this half-hell/sunshine of a city.

The old hag from downstairs—who once lived below she and her mother—died and left her nothing. Her stories were how she survived. She cleaned and cooked in her surrogate mother’s home until her death, secretly compensating herself with the priceless literature scattered about the house. Until age 21, she slept in the backroom of a bookstore she worked in and devoured its contents in three years. She spent the quiet, less-customer evenings in a quiet nook writing--memoir-like tales--in a three-of-her-paychecks leather journal.

Written. Writing. Writer.

James, her kind-of-mentor, met her there amongst the shelves. He was a winter gray gentleman, with the strongest Yankee accent she'd ever heard, who'd taken up the task of raising young black writers to their fullest potential. It was here he discovered she could string words together in a perfect harmony. He put her up with some friends of his, while she continued her work at the store, and she promised she would cultivate her craft with his group every Tuesday.
Now here she was; in her best bright blue dress, heart beating a mile a minute and three footsteps from James’ basement door. She could hear the raspy voices of three small men and one big one bouncing through the windows. After she’d been knocking for some time, Bert came to the door. He looked her up and down and finally surrendered his eyes on her own, “Somebody looks good.”

She chuckled, pushed past him and walked into the living room taking her favorite seat on the sofa.

For the next hour, the group gossiped about other pen lovers, fiddled with their journals and finally began to read the projects they were working on. Somewhere between getting up for snacks and sharing, Bert found himself a seat next to Lola. She moved uncomfortably in her space, trying to ignore the brush of his leg on her own. The electricity resonated through her fingertips even as she shared her new splinter of a poem. Bert smiled at her uneasiness.
When she couldn’t control her nervousness, she flipped open her journal praying it would help her focus. She wrote:

I am no longer afraid
Of whom I am
Hope you don’t fear me either

A strong hand with a pencil contrasted the white of her notebook and invaded her writing space. She watched him scrawl next her neat writing:

I don’t fear you.

Lola smacked her book close and rolled her eyes at Bert’s audacity.

After the meeting was over, they all lingered outside and threw around talk with those on neighboring stoops. Lola sat at the bottom of the step, trying to decide when she’d be tired enough to go home. She heard a familiar voice brush her ear,

“You still angry?” Bert asked.

“You still here?”

“As long as you’re here.”

Lola snickered, “You didn’t even know I existed till last week.”

Bert jumped down from the top step and positioned himself right behind her. He placed his hand on the back of her neck and traced the words with his pointer finger as he said them,

“Picture perfect poem
Is just fragmented soul
And knowing eyes

I’m just a flawed resemblance
Of someone you once loved.”

Lola was all melt and tremble and shake. She stuttered, “My f-f-f-f-first poem.”

Bert smiled, “You’re fragmented and flawed, but I know you exist. Every piece of you. Every piece.”



Anonymous said...

Amazing story. Love!

T. Odis said...

AHHH!!!! The WORLD NEEDS TO HEAR YOU!!!! You channeled Zora, Richard Wright with this one. you are DAMN TALENTED, Ms. Riva. If there's anyway i can support you getting out to the masses, let me know. And I like how you spelled Harlem backwards.

riva. said...

Terrryyyyy! The craziest part is, I channeled the characters from those exact people. Of course a little Langston and Baldwin too. :)

Focused said...

you never fail to amaze me with your writing. please release the book already. it could be vignettes. i'd definitely buy it!

in the meantime, update more! lol. i need my hit of this crack writing you're pushing!

seriously, i know i've said this b/f, but you have a gift for storytelling that is rare & profound.

Unknown said...

I have been looking for this kind of story.Really find interesting and insightful.I loved this story for the beauty of the writing.
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