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This dashing debut novel opens with Julia Moran at the height of the publishing world and at the center of New York culture. As editor of the country's most prominent African-American writers, Julia is the white queen of black literature—she's also sleeping with its reigning king, Samuel Reid. His bestselling book—which she coauthored—has made his support essential for any candidate's appeal to black voters in the current mayoral race. While candidates squabble over the issues, one issue takes top priority: ...
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This dashing debut novel opens with Julia Moran at the height of the publishing world and at the center of New York culture. As editor of the country's most prominent African-American writers, Julia is the white queen of black literature—she's also sleeping with its reigning king, Samuel Reid. His bestselling book—which she coauthored—has made his support essential for any candidate's appeal to black voters in the current mayoral race. While candidates squabble over the issues, one issue takes top priority: improving the city's education. When a friend of Julia's turns up murdered and Samuel Reid mysteriously disappears, Julia leaves her day job in a quest for the truth. Ultimately, Julia emerges as a woman ready to tackle whatever may lie in her path.
Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth Maguire.
All rights reserved.
Sam always had a thing for white women. Ever since Annette Funicello had twinkled at him from the television screen, ears and breasts alert. But I was the first white woman he had ever truly loved, he said. His safe haven.
No one wants to hear what draws you to a married man. That never stopped me. Once I even tried to explain it to my brother Corky and his friend Fitz. We were sitting in the night auditor's office at the hotel where Corky worked, waiting for a wedding party to wind down. Back when I could still slake my thirst for scotch without throwing up blood. Back when Fitz's gentle presence could hold my brother on this side of the line between sanity and oblivion.
"So, tell me, Julia, is it true that black men won't go down on their women?" asked Corky, grabbing the bottle of Johnny Walker Black he'd lifted from one of the bar stations. He filled our plastic cups and threw the empty bottle in the metal bin beneath the desk. The clang of glass told me that it hit another bottle when it landed.
"Jeez, Christopher Moran, watch what you say to your sister, will you?" warned Fitz.
"I just want to know what it's like to ride the Soul Train," said Corky, rotating his hips so that the unsteady seat of his swivel chair spun around in a circle. "Tell us the truth, Jule. Is it really as big as they say?"
Fitz spit out his diet ginger ale. "What, are you drunk already?"
I let the smoky burn of the scotch warm my belly. I thought of Sam. The curved whites of his eyes, the indignant flare of his nostrils. The pale vein of a stretch mark etched into his honey skin just above the hip. Why did I think my brother could understand?
"I'm not even going to dignify that question with an answer," I said. "Though the answer would be: yes."
"That's my Julia!" laughed Corky, sliding wet lips across my cheek. "I have to go check on the desserts. I'll be right back. Make yourself at home."
The labored beat of a wedding band thumped from another floor. Fitz left to give himself an insulin shot. I placed my plastic cup, now almost empty, on the desk and closed my eyes.
Naked, I was straddling Sam's lap, tracing the contours of his face with my sticky fingers, trying to see through him, into him, inside him. Licking the salt off his damp skin, tasting the oil that clung to the tight stubble of his beard. With a sigh he stroked my hair and lowered his mouth to meet my white flesh. "I've never seen such a pale shade of pink," he said, and then he swallowed me, a whole breast disappearing between his full lips. I moved in rhythm to our breathing, straining to get closer than skin and muscle would allow. "Without you, there would have been no book," he murmured, holding himself still inside me. When I cried out, he put his good hand over my mouth. "You'll never know," he whispered as he nuzzled the nape of my neck, "you can never ever know."
When my brother returned he found me asleep, my cheek pressed into a deep dent in the metal filing cabinet that was wedged between the wall and my chair. He shook my shoulder.
"Julia, you must be having some bad dreams. You were moaning in your sleep. Wait right here." He returned with a styrofoam cup of black coffee and a paper plate that sagged beneath the weight of a yellow square crusting with pink and purple rosettes. I looked at him, confused. "Wedding cake. Only the middle section left." He shrugged.
I poked the frosting and sucked the sugar off my finger. The margarined sweetness hurt my teeth. "Ouch, Corky. Time to look for a new baker," I said, gulping a large swallow of the coffee.
Fitz tipped two aspirins out of a plastic pillbox that he dug from the frayed pocket of his khakis. He handed them to me with a small bottle of water. "Come on," he said, taking my hand in his, "I'll walk you out." He led me through the lobby to the deserted taxi stand.
"I should know better than to try to talk to my brother about anything real," I said. The late-night traffic rushed by, ignoring us. "And you don't have to wait."
The light of an empty cab appeared at the corner, nearly hidden between a bus and a stretch limousine. Fitz jumped into the street and waved his arm at it, talking to me over his shoulder. "Don't get so bent out of shape, Jule. He just worries about you." The taxi slid into the hotel's small circular driveway. Fitz ran behind it to open the door for me. "Besides, your brother's curious. Who isn't?" he asked.
I grazed his freckled ear with a kiss. "He should worry about his own love life. Curiosity killed the cat."
"I'll keep that in mind," he said, with a tight laugh that sounded like a puppy sneezing.
William Fitzgerald, called Fitz by all who loved him, stood smiling on the steps of the hotel as my driver slipped into the stream of cars on Seventh Avenue. When I turned around to wave he was still shaking his head, his long red curls dancing above the heads of the two Colombian bellhops stuck with the night shift. He wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his blue shirt and patted the shoulder of the short man to his left as if they were cousins. It was the last time I ever saw him.
Death announced by answering machine should stop the tape. Erase the beeps with a screech of pain. But it doesn't. Instead, it lingers in the air while the machine moves on to credit card collectors and friends who wonder why they haven't seen you in a while.
So I found out about Fitz's death while I stood naked in the living room of my railroad apartment. I was drying myself in front of the fan, twisting around to see if power funk aerobics was having any effect on the round backside reflected in the mirror behind the sofa. The news deserved a more dignified hearing. As it was, I had to rewind the tape and play it again to be sure I'd heard my brother correctly.
His voice was small and tight, the way someone sounds after swallowing helium. "Julia, it's Corky. You won't believe what happened. Fitz is dead. I'm the one who found him. Here at the hotel. They just took him away. I don't know what to do. Call me. Please."
With the second hearing I lost my balance. The old wing chair caught me and I rested on its arm, trying to imagine my small universe of family and friends without Fitz. The terse patter of his Bronx Irish accent echoed in my ears. But I would never hear it again.
The fan caught me in the hum of its breeze and then turned its head away.
I dialed my brother's number at work, but a busy signal brayed back at me. Each time I pressed redial I met the same shrill sound. Finally, I pulled on jeans and a white T-shirt, slipped on sandals, and hurried down the stairs to search for a taxi in the swelter of the New York evening.
The Seventh Avenue entrance to the Pan American Hotel presented a steel and glass front that looked like it belonged in a suburban strip mall of an early and tired vintage. Tonight the lobby was crowded with busloads of women wearing tightly waved hair and crinkly warm-up suits. I pushed my way through the cloud of their berry-scented cologne, and marched down a hallway to an unmarked panel of buttons and a sliding door that warned "Employees Only." This was the elevator to the second floor bar and service kitchen, where my brother ruled as the Director of Food and Beverage for one of midtown's biggest convention hotels.
The secret life of the hotel took place in a netherworld that looked like the wings of an opera house. Tables on their sides. Gilt chairs with red plush seats folded against the wall. Tall stacked shelves on wheels huddled by the steel-topped wait stations. The smell of steamed food on the burners. Brown men speaking Spanish, running around in white coats.
And in a steel cage that doubled as a short-term liquor supply closet sat my brother, commander of all he could see. Above his head hung a crowded fly strip and a laminated three-month calendar thick with streaks, the new events marked in purple felt pen: "Rotary Club," "Brooklyn Democratic Club," "B'nai B'rith-Kosher." Boxes of scotch and vodka teetered in chin-high stacks. My brother was hunched over his gray metal desk chopping lines of cocaine with a credit card. Tino the headwaiter stood by his side. He handed Corky a rolled twenty-dollar bill. My brother leaned over and snorted a line.
"Corky." I rattled the door of the cage. "I'm here."
He finished sliding the bill along the second line of white powder, and stared at the track he'd left behind. I shook the cage door again and called his name. He lifted his head and turned his swollen neck. The pretty face that had tormented my teens had disappeared. Now he looked as if someone had hooked a bicycle pump to his mouth and inflated him with air. Slowly, his eyes sought me out, as if in darkness.
"Julia?" he asked, his brow pinched tight. "At last." He pushed his chair into Tino's thigh and opened the door. "Julia. Fitz is dead," he whispered. His face collapsed like the brown paper lunch bags he used to fill with air and punch to scare me when we were kids.
"I came as soon as I got your message." I threw my arms around him and waved at Tino to leave us. Corky sank into his chair and let his head fall against my stomach.
I hugged my brother as I had hugged him a hundred times before, rocking him gently with my hands resting on his shoulders, while the sounds of the kitchen clattered behind us and the slightly sickening smell of overcooked chicken filled the air. Looking down at the top of his head, I realized with a pang that his hair was thinning. When we pulled apart, Corky grabbed a paper napkin from the desk and blew his nose. A spot of blood spread through the cheap paper.
"Is it really a good idea to be doing that right now?" I asked, looking at the desk.
"I need to pull it together for the Queens Baptist Fellowship. The Ne-gro reverends have a big dinner scheduled tonight." He took a gulp from a glass filled with brandy and pulled his lips back from his gums, just like the talking TV horse Mr. Ed used to do. He rolled the twenty tight again and held it out toward me. I shook my head no. With a finger pressed tight on one nostril he vacuumed up what was left on his desktop.
I grabbed the bill out of my brother's hand. "So what happened to Fitz? Was it the diabetes? Did he go into some kind of sugar shock?" I asked.
Corky blinked at me, confused. "Diabetes? What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about: how did Fitz die?"
"I thought I said on your machine. He was murdered, Julia. I found him in the freezer. Lying on top of the ice."
"Murdered?" I reached for his glass and lifted it to my lips. I gulped too much and coughed most of it back through my nose. Corky handed me one of the paper napkins. "Where are the police? What did they say?" I asked, through the burn of the brandy.
"They were here all day. An army of them. The last two left just before you got here." He took the glass from me and wrapped his own trembling hand around it. "I didn't even call you until the ME gave the okay to take him away. They couldn't tell how long he'd been dead
Excerpted from THINNER, BLONDER, WHITER by Elizabeth Maguire. Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth Maguire. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.