Read an Excerpt
Playing With Destiny
By Phillip Thomas Duck
BETCopyright © 2007 Phillip Thomas Duck
All right reserved.
May 6, 2002
Colin Sheffield tapped out the four words on his computer screen, paused for a moment to take them in, as a wine taster swirling a vintage on his tongue would do, then hit the back-space key to erase them. The flicker of light from his computer monitor shone off his face. The tight expression around his eyes, in his forehead, meant only one thing. The words weren't flowing with the ease he'd become accus-tomed to. Perhaps it was the hour, early morning, when the darkness of the predawn sky covered the sunroof above the loft like a coat of black paint. He could count on one hand the number of times he'd written after the sun slept. He did most of his writing early in the day. Or it was the story itself. Never before had he written a novel so close to his own reality. The characters were all pieces of people he knew; the main protagonist, a skewed replica of himself.
He leaned back in his leather recliner and massaged the soreness from his overworked fingers. That his fingers hurt didn't bother him, that what they'd produced wasn't usable, did. He'd done a thorough sketch of all his characters before he wrote one word on this latest novel--yet here he was, up to his knees in mud.
"Come on sweetheart," he commanded of the woman inside his monitor, talking to her with tenderness, this woman inside his imagination. "What's going on in that head of yours? Think of what he asked you, how are you going torespond? Angry? No, no, no, maybe you brush it aside--he wants you to be angry." He almost pulled the file with his character sketches aside, so he could read over it again to get a tighter feel for how she'd play this scene, but the scattered disorganization of his desk made the task an afterthought.
The sound of slippers scratching across the linoleum flooring on the lower level of the condominium took him from his novel-in-progress. He followed the soft swishing sound, like medium-grade sandpaper chiseling something glorious out of wood. His wife made her way through the pitch black of their home. He listened to her but kept his gaze on the computer monitor.
"Smile that heartbreaking smile of yours and walk away. That'll kill him," Colin said aloud as he decided on his sassy female character's action.
After a few beats the kitchen light came on. The sink turned on, shut off, and then turned on again. Colin could hear paper being torn. He rose from his desk and went to the rail of the loft so he could sneak a look at his wife, Liza. He touched his abdomen as he took in her dark chocolate legs, still feminine despite their muscularity. The teal-colored silk of her pajama top hung off her thin shoulders, opened through the middle so her full stomach could breathe. His jaw muscles tensed as he eyed the round belly. Could he deal with father-hood? Was he ready? Was Liza?
Liza had a deep erotic presence, stronger than at any other time he could remember, her skin glowing like a florescent bulb. She moved about with ease, unaware of his eyes on her. If she had looked up and seen him watching, her ease would have dissipated quicker than the words he had typed and backspaced away a few moments before. He watched her a few moments more. Oh, how badly he wanted them to regain the closeness they once had. Their fight from earlier still hung in the air, unresolved. He looked at Liza's full belly again. It was criminal to bring a child into this mess. He sighed and returned to his chair.
He took the lukewarm cup of coffee from his desk, swal-lowed the concoction, and washed his tongue with the milk and extra sugar that would make a serious coffee drinker cringe with disgust. He was prepared to return to his story when the loud screeching sound, metal on metal, halted him. He glanced at the clock and frowned.
He saved his file and rushed down the steps that led from his loft to the living room and then to the kitchen.
"Mrs. Sheffield, you know what time it is?" he asked his wife as he appeared in the kitchen. Liza released a button on the blender, stopped the machine.
"What?" she asked.
She still seemed peeved from their earlier disagreement, Colin noted, and so he lowered his voice to ask, "It's late, Liza, what are you doing?"
There was a pan on the countertop with little postage-stamp-size blocks of scrap paper submerged in water. The blender looked like it had a batch of the same paper scraps filling the glass container.
"I'm making paper to sketch on," Liza answered.
"Making paper?" Colin's face turned up, bewildered. "Why didn't you get some from the art supply store?" He had many failings as a husband, but not when it came to Liza's creative endeavors. He knew too well about the yearning to create.
"Didn't want to have to ask you for anything," Liza replied. Her tone was embittered. "I used to do this all time when I was studying at FIT," she added. "Broke college student, you know the drill."
"I've never noticed you doing this before."
Liza pursed her lips, said, "A lot you haven't noticed," and then pressed the blender back into action.
Enough was enough. Brave soul that he was, Colin moved closer to his wife and wrapped his arms around her waist. It made his stomach somersault when his hands touched her pregnant belly, but he held firm with his embrace. Liza's skin was warm and giving, a perfect com-plement to his hands, which were cold and taking. Colin moved Liza to a rhythm that played in his head only, a music that only he heard. She swayed with him. Colin's tight grip on her hips made her sway, not some shared melody of love in the air.
"Ask me how my book is coming," he sang in her ear, talking as if the fight earlier that evening had never happened.
"Ask me what I'm sketching," she replied. Liza turned her head to Colin, her eyes bore into him, intense enough to see through steel. "Better yet, ask me about the baby. Ask me if you can feel for a kick."
Colin released the hold on his wife. "Okay, Liza. What are you sketching?"
She shook her head, her eyes held captive by sadness. "Noah's Ark."
"Really? That's cool."
Liza continued looking deeply at Colin. "You remember the significance of that, of what I told you?" It was obvious from his expression he didn't. "The nursery," she answered for him.
"Remember, I told you me and Mama picked out the Noah's Ark theme for the baby's room? The wallpaper, the crib linens, all of it is Noah's Ark."
"Oh, yeah, yeah," Colin replied. He tapped the side of his head with a long finger. "That's right, and you're going to hang the picture in there when you finish it, by the door or something?" He smiled.
"In that special frame," Liza said.
"Jog my memory; what special frame?"
Liza sighed and returned to her papermaking. Why did Colin have to be so detached when it came to their unborn child? A genuine smile every now and then would have sufficed. He was present during this entire nine months, at-tending childbirth classes and the like, but not once did his eyes light up like they did when he talked about his writing. He had talked on countless occasions about children before her pregnancy and then--when nature had done its part with his sperm and her egg--he'd shut down on her. Was this attitude a precursor to what lie ahead? Was he expecting her to raise this child all by herself--that he could be the wallet, and she would be the caregiver, the nurturer, the discipli-narian, the teacher?
Liza poured the pulpy mixture from the blender in an empty milk carton. She placed a piece of felt flat on the coun-tertop, covered the felt with an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch picture frame. She turned up the milk carton and poured the pulp over the felt within the frame.
"Liza, about earlier, " Colin's voice trailed off as he thought of how to explain himself further, how to shorten this gulf that separated them. "Don't begin with your explanations," Liza said, raising her hand to ward him off. "Heard them all before and I'm not into sequels."
"I need your support is all I was going to say," Colin re-sponded. "You know Langston Campbell's new book is coming out soon, and I have to make sure my tour is a home run. I've gotta squelch the love I'm sure he's going to get so that it doesn't automatically doom my book. I've got about a four-week float to make my mark in the marketplace before his shit comes to bludgeon everything in sight. I worked hard on this joint, baby, and it's better than anything he could ever imagine writing. I need my mind clear, my focus tight. I need you in my corner, Boo."
Liza turned to face her husband, the empty milk carton in her slender fingers. "I've always been in your corner, Colin; that's a given. How 'bout if you were in mine, too?"
Colin stood in place, leaning casually against the counter-top next to her, gazing. He perused the contours of her rounded belly, wiry frame, and the sexy hairline that ran up her stomach and looked like the crease of a book. She watched him back, the silence between them deafening. "Okay, I'm in your corner, Liza. I'll do better," he said, after a moment. Even in anger, Liza was hostage to his retreat. His dimpled smile made her smile against her will. That's how it had been between them for some time. He dictated, she followed, sometimes with hesitation, but she always followed.
"So," Liza said, trying to move forward. "What's Langston's new book about?"
That was the last question Colin wanted to hear. He blew out an air of frustration. "Same shit. Boy meets girl. Girl's caramel-colored skin and pearly white smile works boy up in a frenzy. Boy screws girl over somehow--or maybe she screws him over--and then they spend two hundred fifty pages avoiding each other, not returning calls. Just to be--" He paused in contempt. "Just to be united somehow in the end."
"Oh," Liza said. "Another bestseller in other words." A painful half smile appeared on Colin's face. "In other words," he admitted. He was peaceful in surrender to the truth.
"You need to put serious thought into writing something a little, " Liza stopped.
"Less heady? Fluff? You can go ahead and say it, Liza."
"Lighter," she replied.
Colin shook his head. "I gotta feed my black folks, Liza. I can't be giving them Chinese food, knowing they'll be hungry again as soon as they finish. Baldwin didn't do it, Ellison didn't do it. Toni Morrison doesn't do it."
"Look, I'm just the wife of a novelist, and I don't like to read myself," Liza said. "I tried to read The Bluest Eye because of Oprah, and I couldn't finish the damn thing--and don't look at me in judgment. But I know you're an excellent writer, and your books are admirable in the fact that they tackle issues that a lot of the others don't look at, but if you truly want to accomplish what you say you do, then you need a broader audience. To get that audience you need the right mixture of fun and seriousness in your writing."
Colin stood in contemplation. Everyone, from his agent to his publicist, had always nudged at him to make a complete crossover. Never had anyone made the suggestion Liza did. "Balance is what you're saying?"
"That's it," Liza said as she averted her eyes, ran them across the spare countertop. Her hands stopped moving, im-mobilized by her thoughts. Balance.
Colin moved closer, took her chin in his fingers, and looked deep into her eyes. "I like the idea of balance. So simple and yet none of us ever thought of it. Haven't you heard about the yin and yang? Every yin needs a yang. You're my yang."
Liza smiled from the warmth of his fingers. In the midst of all the madness, they could still have these moments, straight off a Hallmark commercial. "You would give me the uglier of the two words. How about I'm your yin and you're my yang?"
Colin shrugged. "Whatever's clever, Boo."
Liza cleared her throat. "Since we're in this sharing mode, " Colin swallowed, forced a half smile. "Go 'head."
Liza looked at him, deep again, deeper than he ever wanted any person to look at him. "You were kicking and flailing earlier. Damn near punched me in the belly. I need you to talk to me about the nightmares."
Colin frowned, shook his head. "Nothing to talk about, Liza," he lied. He'd had another dream about Kim Parker. He didn't talk about Kim Parker with anyone, and had practically convinced himself it didn't happen all those years ago.
Liza rubbed her stomach, shook her head in return. "I think there is."
Colin shook his head, yet again. "Nothing, trust me." He kissed two fingers and placed them gently on her forehead. "I'm going back to write."
Liza watched Colin climb the stairs. She bit back tears as she continued rubbing her belly. Just you and me, little one to be, she thought. Just you and me. As much as I'd like otherwise, it's just you and me.
Excerpted from Playing With Destiny by Phillip Thomas Duck Copyright © 2007 by Phillip Thomas Duck. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.