(Read the other chapters here.)
“Yes, ma’am, it’s more than crab cakes that brings us here,” she said, laughing, her eyes, the same shade of cobalt blue as the flashing surveillance camera found at the corner of 22nd and Calvert.
“Call me Estella,” I said, lowering my gaze.
“Estella, all right. Well, I’m sorta doing a bit of research –,” here she took the smallest breath, “for my novel.”
Hearing this, I took one, too. “So, you’re a writer?”
The woman straightened her posture. “I can write,” she said. “Now, I haven’t done any formal writing, but I write all the time, and I’ve been told I’m good.”
“Now, Sherilynn, don’t go callin’ muskrat, ermine. You can string words together nice, but I told you about getting puffed up before we’ve even seen if that laptop you’ve been lookin’ at is on sale at Walmart.” We both looked at the man, neither having heard him come down the stairs. But there he stood.
“Evening, Hank.” I said, nodding, quickly turning my attention back to his wife.
“So, what is it you write informally, Sherilynn?”
“Well, I’m the secretary for our sewing circle back home. I send out all the notices of inclement weather cancellations, birth announcements, ‘bout anything that has to do with our activities.”
“Is that it?” I asked, knowing that this could not be the total reason behind this woman thinking that she was capable of writing a book. But I also remembered that it was only weeks ago, when my own American Dream had me purchasing a house in a strange city for the sole purpose of catering to the short term residential needs of strangers.
“All right,” I said, standing convinced that what I really needed, even this late in the evening, was a strong cup of coffee. Of course, as if able to anticipate my every need, Sherilynn sprang into action.
“How ‘bout I make us a pot of coffee?” she said, placing three mugs on the counter before I could reply, but not before Hank said, “Okay, Hon, but mainly milk in mine. I don’t want to be running all night.”
I was about to say I liked mine heavy sugar, light cream, but figured Sherilynn knew this, so I did the one thing I knew she hadn’t a clue about.
“Since we’re getting to know one another,” I said, swinging open the refrigerator door to pull out a box that had been in the back, and, thankfully, didn’t appear to have been touched. “I got these chocolates that should go nicely with our coffee.”
The chocolates were a gift from Taiwo, part of a care package his grandmother had sent from West Africa. The couple looked from one to the other, with Hank speaking first, “I’ll have to take a pass, Miss, chocolates and me don’t agree.” At this, Sherilynn piped in, “You love my brownies, Hon. It’s just you can’t eat only one. But, I’ll give ‘em a try, Estella, I sure will”
I repeated this to myself, “give ‘em a try.” What had I proposed? You’d have thought I asked them if they wanted a hit of coke. “Well, there here. If you care to, please, help yourselves.”
I sat at the kitchen table, sipping my coffee, which was probably the best cup I had had since that very first cup Sherilynn made me. “So, Sherilynn, you’re going to write a novel, but why are you here in Baltimore?” The woman tittered, an awkward, grating sound that didn’t quite match up with her ever present smile.
“Well, ma’am–Estella–it takes place in Baltimore,” she said, letting the words lay there as if this was a sufficient answer to my stupid inquiry, and, hopefully, to any other stupid inquiries I may have had.
“Sure, but why Baltimore? Why not Duluth, where you’re from? Seems strange to come all this way,” I said, reaching for one of the chocolates, my hand hovering above the one I had set my sights on, only to waver, instead picking up my coffee mug, taking another long sip.
“I’m mean, I don’t know anything about writing novels, but don’t they say write what you know?”
“Well, Estella,” Sherilynn began, her bow mouth engorged with chocolates, one being the piece I had been eyeing. “If you know anything about Duluth, you know it’s about as exciting as staring down a neighbor’s dry well. But for fun, Duluth’s a great place. Like I said, I keep our sewing circle on track. That’s the main thing I do. We’re a lively group. And, of course, there’s the Super Wal-Mart. For eating out, there’s P.J.’s Café; that’s Hank’s cousin’s wife’s place–”
“Second cousin, Hon, second – you know that thing with his mother was never confirmed.”
“Right. That’s true. That sure was some mess – anyway. Oh, and there’s the Five Acres Round ‘Em Up Flea Market. That’s our big event. Folks wait all year to clear out stuff and sell at Round Up.”
“Wow, five acres, they must have a lot of good stuff,” I said, really more curious about the second cousin mess. “I love a good flea market. Most of the stuff around here I got at local flea markets or yard sales.”
“Yes, ma’am, it looks like Round Up stuff–real homey.”
“Thanks,” I said, hand tightening around my coffee mug.
“The flea market’s got a lot of good stuff, but mainly everyone goes for the rodeo. It’s fun. Folks dress up and meet with friends from neighboring towns to catch up on local gossip and such.”
“You forgot to tell her about the meat raffle, Hon,” Hank said, pouring more cream into his cup of cream with coffee. “That’s the real fun, Miss.”
Sherilynn nodded. “There you have it, Estella – That’s our life. That’s why we drove all this way to your side of the world.”
“Okay, I get it. Duluth’s a little slow, but why Baltimore?”
“Murder City!” Hank chimed in, taking gulp from his mug.
“Now, Hon. It’s just things happen here that wouldn’t never ever happen in Duluth. Baltimore’s…more interesting.”
I smiled. “True. But things happen everywhere. What things happen here in B’more that wouldn’t happen in any big city?”
“Well,” Sherilynn began, her blue eyes, looking up and to the right, fixed on what I did not want to see, “take when Barksdale—now you know Avon, right?”
I laughed. “Yes, I know of Avon.”
“Al lright. Take Barksdale, that time he gave his nephew D’Angelo his own territory, and D was turning a nice profit, but even so, what does Avon let happen?” she asked, staring at me as though she expected a reply. “He up and let’s D do the time, his time, that’s what. And, D’Angelo is fine with this. He’s in there being a loyal soldier, keeping his mouth shut, and how does Avon go and repay his nephew’s loyalty?”
“He has him shanked; that’s what he does,” Hank, said, his eyes now as wide and bright as I had seen since they arrived. “You have to understand, this Baltimore stuff doesn’t happen in Duluth, Miss.”
I slowly nodded my affirmation. I knew what they were talking about. I had lived in D.C. most of my adult life, and was very familiar with the ever-expanding list of all things dysfunctional with Baltimore: all the trash, all the crime, all the unemployment, the low to no educational standards, and, not to be forgotten, Baltimore’s nationally renowned to and fro subway line. For many, I knew this was the only true Baltimore story.
I looked at the couple, smiling as one would a couple of cherubic preschoolers. “Yeah, but you guys know The Wire is made up? I mean, it’s HBO, not PBS.”
to be continued…
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.