For all those who take a stand against abuse.
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who,
in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
The rain was unrelenting. Heavy sheets fell onto the windshield of the small sedan as the wind whipped it back and forth across the glass in a hypnotic, snake-like dance. The wipers beat out a slow and steady rhythm like ancient tribal drums crying out to their gods. As if in response, thunder rolled menacingly in the distance while flashes of lightning illuminated the urban terrain. The rain poured steadily through the beams of the headlights as the car crept along the narrow street. Loose gravel crunched under the weight of the tires. The sound was familiar and strangely comforting.
The trip had been long and Nalia was exhausted, but the adrenaline surging through her body would not allow her to relax. Her knuckles were white against the steering wheel, and her mind was racing at a full sprint from one unconnected thought to the next. Nalia could not remember most of the drive. She could recall bits and pieces, when she concentrated, but she had, for the most part, been on autopilot since leaving the campus several hours ago. Fragments of moving pictures flashed through her mind like the lightning in the night sky – images for which she had no memory, but were somehow a part of her. Anxiety caused her heart to race while her breathing became shallow and ragged. Tears soaked her cheeks like the rain on the windows, but despite the length of the trip, she was no closer to discovering why she was crying. The events of the evening had been truly terrifying, but they were mere ripples on the surface of a very dark lake. Something much larger lurked beneath the waters. There was so much Nalia did not understand. She had so many questions.
Scenes from earlier in the evening played over again in her mind. What went so wrong? Marcus was always such a good friend, kind and caring. She never expected to see him like she had tonight. They met nearly three months ago in one of the common rooms at the college. He attended Nalia’s theology study group with some mutual friends. His eyes were the first thing that caught her attention. They were bright green with a certain softness that seemed warm and trusting. Growing up, Nalia had been taught that a person’s eyes could tell you everything about them. She never questioned that until tonight.
Over the last few months, Nalia and Marcus often enjoyed each other’s company, but always with friends and in a group. Marcus was witty, quipping clever comments with a regularity that drew others in. He was fun and charming, frequently bringing spirited laughter to the crowd. Over time, Marcus became a good friend, gaining Nalia’s trust. She felt safe with him in the familiar company of their group. Tonight, however, was different. Tonight there were no other companions, no buffers. For the first time since they met, there was no one else present to divert from awkward moments or knowing glances. It was what they were calling their first “official” date, and despite their familiarity, everything felt new.
Nalia scolded herself for being nervous. “There is no reason for it,” she said quietly, re-touching her make-up in the mirror. “You’ve known him for months.” Despite her best efforts, the butterflies in her stomach fluttered on, but there was still a tiny voice in the back of her mind. Apart from the obvious, something had been gnawing at Nalia since the beginning of the evening. There was something unsettling she could not quite put her finger on, like a whisper just beyond clarity.
Marcus picked her up punctually as promised. He wore familiar jeans and a red and navy sports shirt, one step up from his usual V-neck tee. His dark hair was slightly mussed as always, just the way he liked it, and the small tuft of beard under his lip finally looked like more than an oversight. His sunglasses rested on top of his head, and he smelled of Calvin Klein cologne. Marcus was the first white boy Nalia ever dated. She was always drawn to young, African-American men before, not because of their skin tone, but because she seemed to have more culturally in common with them having been raised by a black woman in the heart of New Orleans. Nalia was what folks called a quadroon or three-quarter white. She had light almond skin and dark brown hair. She heard older women say she could pass for white but she had striking facial features that left no doubt to some African heritage. She was slender and athletic, slightly taller than most of her friends and generally high spirited. She and Marcus were very much alike in that respect.
He picked the restaurant. It was a small seafood place on the outskirts of downtown called The Half-Shell. He was decidedly courteous, opening doors and even drawing out Nalia’s chair when they reached their table. She poked fun at his “old-school southern manners”, but deep down it made her feel special and she liked that.
With its abundance of knotty wood and neon light, The Half-Shell’s décor lent itself to popular roadhouse ambiance. It was not exactly what Nalia thought of as a “first date” kind of place, but that mattered little to her. Folks did not come here for the atmosphere; they came for the crabs and the crawfish – all but Nalia who was having the beef. She was not about to order étouffée anywhere but back home. Still, The Half-Shell did have a degree of rustic charm, and besides, she was not expecting anything fancy. Nalia knew Marcus did not come from money and neither did she. While she enjoyed a certain degree of independence afforded her by an adequate college fund, Nalia was leagues away from high society. She came from a family where needs were met, but indulgences were viewed as unnecessary. While her background disqualified her from certain social cliques, Nalia generally had no regrets. She was brought up around plenty of down-to-earth “good people”, and the one sitting across the table suited her just fine.
One of Marcus’ quick-witted comments made Nalia smile, and she found herself blushing, gazing dreamily into his eyes. She could get lost in those sparkling green pools for days on end, she thought. Was this what was so uncomfortable? Was she falling for Marcus? Was she actually falling for her friend?
After dinner, Marcus drove them to a small club not far from the restaurant. It was the closest thing to a New Orleans jazz club the city had to offer. Mojo’s was a dimly lit one room bar with tables in the center and high booths along the walls. At the far end was a small stage where live music, usually jazz, was featured nearly every night. Marcus was acquainted with Mojo’s and knew there was something at the club Nalia would appreciate; it stood in the back corner opposite the stage. It was a vintage jukebox that played vinyl forty-fives. The club used it as filler when bands took breaks, and on nights when no live entertainment was booked. It was the only one of its kind Marcus had ever seen outside of the movies, and he knew Nalia would love it. She was a vinyl collector. “Everything sounds better on vinyl, especially jazz,” he’d heard her say. “It sounds raw and real, the way it should.”
Marcus led Nalia to a booth beside the jukebox so they would be near it when the band left the stage. He was right about Nalia loving the classic piece, but was disappointed by her lack of fascination. “There are a couple of shops down in the Quarter that still have these,” she explained. “But it was a nice surprise.”
“I’ve got a better one.” Marcus said slyly as he slid from the booth and walked to the bar. As Nalia sipped her cocktail, she could see Marcus chatting with the elderly black barkeep. The gentleman was the owner of the club. He bought and sold old, vinyl albums and jazz memorabilia as a hobby. Marcus spoke with him beforehand and made arrangements for something special. He returned to the booth with a thin square package wrapped in brown paper.
“This is for you,” he said, trying to conquer his cocky smirk with an unassuming smile. “The owner has been holding it for me for a couple of weeks. Open it.”
Nalia removed the wrapper to reveal a very old vinyl record. It was an original pressing of Duke Ellington’s Great Times! Her mouth hung open as she looked up at Marcus, leaving her eyes to do the smiling. “Man, this guy is doing everything right,” she thought. “I could get used to this.” When Marcus’ eyes met hers, they were both aware their relationship was on the verge of a new plateau.
Nalia’s beaming smile lasted throughout the evening, and when Marcus drove her home, she invited him inside. Her roommate was gone for the night which, while unplanned, was a welcomed absence. Nalia wasted no time in taking the top off her vintage phonograph and sliding Duke Ellington from his jacket. She felt a tingle of excitement when the needle dropped and she heard the soft pop and crackle of the record’s edge. God, she loved that sound. “You know, ‘In A Blue Summer Garden’ is my absolute favorite,” she said, biting her lip. As the sounds of the piano poured from the speakers Nalia began to sway back and forth, her hands unknowingly caressing the edges of the record player.
The sensuality of the moment was not lost on Marcus who admired her swaying hips from across the room. When Nalia turned to offer him a beer, she nearly caught his jaw dropping. He hoped she did not notice the slight stammer in his voice when he accepted. Together, they sat on the sofa drinking, listening, and apprehensively avoiding what they both knew was coming. Soon, the mood could no longer be denied, and casual contact conquered temptation. As their bottles grew shallow, so did their reservations.
Then it happened. Something in Nalia’s mind turned on like a light switch. It was familiar yet distant, but it was drawing closer and gaining speed. It was dark and unpleasant. Her stomach turned sour in an instant. She began resisting Marcus’ advances, but he persisted. She said no, but he didn’t listen. She pulled herself from him, but his hand found the hair at the nape of her neck, and he gripped it firmly. His other hand slid up her thigh and pushed up her skirt. Fire danced wildly in his eyes. She could smell his arousal thick on the air with the lingering stench of alcohol. She heard a voice telling her to be still, but it wasn’t Marcus’. A vein in the back of her neck seared like a hot ember. As Marcus’ wandering hand reached its destination, a floodgate opened in the back of Nalia’s mind and terror came flowing forth like a raging river. Flashes of light and shadow, over and over again. She tried to scream but the sound caught in her throat like sand. She could not breathe, she could not speak, she could not move. Gripped with fear, Nalia’s vision went dark, and she felt a cold sickening presence wash over her like ice water. Her body went numb, and her mind fell into shadow.
A flash of lightning shattered the night sky as a crack of thunder startled Nalia back to coherence. She was still crying and shaking when she noticed the car was stopped though she could not recall parking it. She didn’t know how long she had been there, but the rain was subsiding. Looking out the window, she could make out the wrought iron fence that bordered the back yard. She looked past the tears and through the remnants of the storm to see the old house. As she relinquished her grip on the steering wheel, she noticed a light burning in the kitchen. Though the clock on the dash told her it was three nineteen a.m., she was not surprised to see the welcoming glow in the window. Mama Lucia always had a way of knowing when Nalia was coming home. She had a way of knowing lots of things. Nalia’s body finally breathed a sheltered sigh of relief, but her mind raced on. She had so many questions.
As she climbed out of the car, the smell of rain and magnolias filled her senses. It was the smell of home, and it calmed her mind. The tension paining her neck and shoulders gradually began to release. As she ambled up the walk she heard the crickets singing. They seemed to be chanting… You is home, you is home. Mama Lu gon’ put it right.
The old familiar boards creaked as she stepped up onto the porch. Nalia still remembered each one’s unique sound. Through the screen, she could see the back door had been left ajar for her. For living only four hours away, Nalia was suddenly very aware of how infrequently she came home to visit. A wave of guilt flushed her face that she knew Mama Lu would scold her for entertaining.
“Come on in chil’, I been waitin’ up fo’ you,” called Mama Lucia from inside the house. Nalia didn’t hesitate.
Mama Lu was sitting at the kitchen table with a cold cup of chicory coffee and a small twisted root which she turned over and over in her right hand. She rose and embraced Nalia with the warmest of hugs as the girl she raised from a small child all but collapsed in her arms and began to sob once again. Nalia did not say a word, nor did she need to. Mama Lu held her tight, stroked her rain-soaked hair and let her cry. When Nalia was finally able to lift her head, she tried to speak but Mama Lu touched a finger to her lips. “Hush chil’. Ain’t no sense speakin’ ‘bout not’in tonight. Yo’ bed is turned down fo’ you. Off you go up dem stairs and take you some rest. We’ll talk tomorrow.” She turned the root over again in her hand and rubbed it with her thumb. “Me an’ ol’ Johnny gon’ be up a bit longer. We gots a lil’ work left to do.”
With that, Nalia nodded silently and climbed the stairs, drying her cheeks as she went. Mama Lu sat back down at the table and resumed turning the twisted root over and over in her hand, rubbing it with her thumb as she sang in an old Creole dialect… Peace gon’ come. Peace gon’ come. Darkness flee and peace gon’ come.
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of The Doll Maker. Purchase the complete work on The Doll Maker tab in the menu bar. Thank you. – L. E. Gay