The world of Jeffery Renard Allen's stunning short-story collection is a place like no other. A recognizable city, certainly, but one in which a man might sprout wings or copper pennies might fall from the skies onto your head. Yet these are no fairy tales. The hostility, the hurt, is all too human.
The protagonists circle each other with steely determination: a grandson taunts his grandmother, determined to expose her secret past; for years, a sister tries to keep a menacing neighbor away from her brother; and in the local police station, an officer and prisoner try to break each other's resolve.
In all the stories, Allen calibrates the mounting tension with exquisite timing, in mesmerizing prose that has won him comparisons with Joyce and Faulkner. Holding Pattern is a captivating collection by a prodigiously talented writer.
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About the Author
JEFFERY RENARD ALLEN is the author of the novel Rails Under My Back and two collections of poetry. Allen was born and raised in Chicago. He teaches creative writing at Queens College/CUNY, and his awards include a Whiting Award.
Read an Excerpt
By Jeffery Renard Allen
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2008 Jeffery Renard Allen
All rights reserved.
Bread and the Land
I hear my train a comin.
– JIMI HENDRIX
Black flutter, Mamma flashed about the room, workbound, her shiny knee-length black leather boots working against the wood floor like powerful pistons. Up, down, up, down. She stopped and looked at the space around her. I have everything, she said. The hem ends of her long black dress flared like wings.
Yes, you do, Hatch said. He waited patiently on the bed edge, warm, his snowsuit packing him tight in heat and sweat, all of him sausaged inside puffy outer skin.
She put herself before a full-length mirror, flexed a black hat onto her plump head, and slipped inside a black fur coat. The hat was real fur, but the coat, some imitation material.
You look dashing, he said.
He watched her with hot pride. She was heavyset but pretty. Even with her second chin, she was ten times prettier than the mother of any classmate at school.
The phone rang on the faded brass nightstand next to the bed. Uh. Who could that be? People always call you at the wrong time. She lifted the receiver to her ear. Hello. Her eyes widened. It's Blunt, she said.
Oh, he said. My grandmother. He didn't like his grandmother.
You must go to work, he said. Tell her. Be frank.
Words chirped in the earpiece. Mamma brightened. The preacher's dead, she said.
Oh, he said.
The preacher's dead.
That's good, he said.
She gave him a hard look. Placed her hand over the mouthpiece. Don't get smart.
He didn't say anything.
Put those things in Mamma's bag, she said.
A small duffel bag lay unopened on the bed.
Okay, he said. He picked up her rubber gloves, pulled the fingers, and let them snap.
She looked at him. You know not to make noise when I'm on the phone.
Fine. He crammed the gloves, a white smock, white rubber-soled shoes, deodorant, and a bar of soap into the bag, which spread at the sides, stuffed like a holiday turkey.
Yes, Blunt, Mamma said. Okay, Blunt. I understand.
Blunt and the preacher lived in New York City, in Harlem, point of origin for a nationwide chain of funeral homes. Just around the corner from where Hatch lived, a Progressive Funeral Home entombed an entire street, the name spelled out in square orange blocks lit from inside, like supermarket letters. A man-high wrought-iron fence surrounded and secured the parking lot, four redbrick columns for corners, each topped with a white globe at the end of a long stem-slim black metal pole.
Blunt and the preacher own that, Mamma liked to say.
Yes, Blunt. My grandmother.
Snooping, he had found two other Progressive Funeral Homes listed in the local telephone directory.
Name and deed, Blunt traveled through his mind like some inky substance. He had never spied photograph the first — Mamma had burned all existing images many years before he was born — or heard her voice. Once a month, Mamma mailed Blunt a letter with his most recent portrait, and Blunt mailed her a letter — typed, always typed — with a check.
Why doesn't Blunt send us more money?
She sends all she can.
How much is that?
Whatever she sends.
Good-bye, Blunt, Mamma said. She hung up the phone. Turned to Hatch. Smiled. Hatch, come here.
What? he said.
Come over here to Mamma.
Is this something frank?
Blunt's coming to live with us.
Don't use that street language.
Choose your words carefully.
Who's coming to live with us?
Why is she coming to live with us?
Because the preacher's dead.
The preacher's dead, so now she can come live with us.
How come she didn't come live with us when the preacher was alive?
You know why.
No, I don't.
Don't talk back. And don't talk countrified.
How come she never visited us?
You know why.
I don't know why. Tell me. Be frank. Good people are always frank.
I am being frank.
Watch your language and stop talking back.
I ain't talkin back.
Mind your mouth.
How did the preacher die?
You know that the preacher had a bad heart.
Who had a bad heart?
Be a good boy for Mamma.
I am being good.
Then we'll let Blunt stay in your room when she comes.
Nawl. I don't want her around me. He liked his small room, high above the world, a third-story nest to which he flew for refuge.
We're going to move your things into my room so that Blunt can put her things in your room.
It'll only be for a little while. Blunt has lots of money now, and she wants to buy us a house, and we'll all live together, and you'll have a big room.
Watch your mouth. You get worse every day.
I do not.
And stop talking back.
He said nothing.
You can sleep in my room when she comes.
Nawl. I'll sleep in the kitchen if she comes.
What did I tell you about talking back?
I'm not talking back.
She is coming.
You'll be a good boy for Mamma when she comes?
She knows how smart you are.
The train screeched around the curve, the passengers firm and erect in their seats like eggs in a carton. Hatch checked flight conditions. The El was a strong, sprawling nest erected over the city. Safe, Mamma beside him, he looked down on the world far below. Wormlike people wiggled through snow. Habit, they often rode like this, all day on Sundays. Mamma wanted him to memorize every route. He would touch the map like his skin.
Car to car, the train pulled into the station, a flock of magnetic migratory birds. They quit the bright metal insides and, hand in hand, pushed through the rushing crowd. His snowsuited legs rubbed together and made a noise like that of an emery board against fingernails. He kept his eyes low, sighting varied shoes and boots flopping like fish across the wet concrete floor, his blind forehead colliding with belted or fitted waists. His sight lifted to bright lights perched, pigeonlike, in the high conical roof.
Some fabled creature waited near the checkpoint to gate 12. Human, beast, and fowl. Feathery white mink hat and coat, red amphibian jumpsuit (leather? plastic?), and knee-length alligator boots. She was tall and wide like a man, and carried a white suitcase in one hand, a black guitar case in the other.
Mamma swallowed. That's Blunt, she said.
The creature called Blunt spotted Mamma and strode forward without hesitation, strode full of life. She halted two feet shy of them and set down the suitcase and the guitar case with equal care. Extended her hand. It was big. Mamma took the big hand into her own.
Hello, Joy, Blunt said.
Hello, Blunt, Mamma said.
Blunt released Mamma's hand. Seemed to think twice about it and gave Mamma a quick peck on the cheek. Studied Hatch. So this is my little Hatch, she said.
He studied her back. She was butt ugly. A net of wrinkles drew her skin tight. Her dark face masklike, coated with rouge. A flat pug nose some fist had mashed in. And long protruding jaws and lips, like a stork's mouth. Nothing baby about her face. Nothing. Thinking this, he was forced to admit that she had pretty eyes. Green.
Come give your granny a hug, she said. Spread her arms wide. He didn't move. She bent down and hugged him tight, forcing his constricted lungs to breathe in her perfume. Strawberry pop. He didn't like strawberry pop.
She released him and rose back to her full height.
Where's your other suitcases? he asked. Mamma pinched him. She only pinched; she would never strike him. She'd had two stillbirths; he was her only child.
What? Blunt asked.
Where's your other suitcases? Mamma pinched him again. If you're coming to live with us, then where's your other suitcases? You can't put nothing in no one suitcase.
Blunt gave him a fierce cold look, eyelashes so stiff with mascara, they resembled tiny claws. Now, you're a smart little boy, so you know I'm having the rest of my things shipped.
I don't know nothing.
Mamma looked at him, hard. Blunt green-watched him. Such a pity. You look so cute in that snowsuit.
They left the station for the taxi stand. A storm had set in; snow sprayed his face, white, wet, and cold. Blunt walked over to the lead cab, a fat yellow block, and roused the driver, a short man with short thick legs.
How you today, ma'am?
Just fine, Blunt said.
The driver placed her white suitcase inside the yellow trunk.
She opened the passenger door, slid the guitar case on the floor, then held the door wide. Mamma motioned for Hatch to get in. He did. She followed. Blunt held her hat with one hand, ducked inside the cab, and seated herself. Mamma hadn't held her own hat. Blunt shut the door. The motor roared to life. The driver slammed the taxi into gear. Where to?
Mamma told him.
Enjoy your ride.
They rode to the dull hum of the busy engine, the heat full blast, Hatch damp, his body boiling inside the meaty snowsuit. He studied Blunt's reflection in the driver's rearview mirror. She sat very stiff, green eyes staring straight ahead. Glad that he didn't have to sit next to her.
Easy motion and casual heat, they cruised in bubbled metal. No one moved. No one spoke. Three monkeys, deaf, mute, and blind. They rode on past Hatch's school, Andrew Carnegie Elementary. Mamma gestured to Blunt. Blunt nodded and smiled. Traffic started to thicken. The driver took cautionary measures, dodging around the El's pylons, only to get pinned between a pylon and some stalled cars.
Move this thing, sir, Blunt said.
I'm doin all I can, ma'am.
Well, move it.
I'm sure we'll be moving soon, Blunt, Mamma said.
Look, I'm paying you good money! Blunt watched the driver with her green eyes.
This will go much better if we all jus relax, the driver said.
Hatch peered through the frosty cab window. Thickly clothed people hurried by with their heads tucked against slanting wind and snow. Sheltered inside a doorway, a musician vied for attention. He was seated on a footstool, acoustic guitar angled across his body, strumming the strings and tapping an athletic shoed foot, an empty coffee can a few feet in front of him. His voice rose above snarling traffic and honking horns.
If you don't wanna get down wit me
You can't sit under my apple tree
Say, if you don't wanna get —
One passerby tossed him a coin. Hatch felt all twisted inside. He caught Blunt's face in the rearview mirror. She too was watching the musician, effort in her looking. All the anger seemed to have left her. She saw Hatch seeing her and gave him an icy look.
She faced the driver. Driver, get this cab moving, she said.
He did, foot on the accelerator to race down lost time. The Progressive Funeral Home soon blinked by. Against Hatch's expectations, both Mamma and Blunt sat oblivious. He grunted. That Blunt! She ain't look at it cause she don't want me to know she ain't nothin but a phony.
They braked to a quick stop, bodies thrown forward and back. Blunt pulled rolled bills from a jumpsuit pocket, unfolded them, and licked her thumb and forefinger to catch the crispy edges. She paid the driver and tipped him five dollars. You don't deserve a tip, she said.
He smiled. Thanks anyway, ma'am. I'm gon get yo suitcase from the trunk.
Mamma frowned at his vocabulary.
Only if you're capable, Blunt said.
He's using that countrified language, Hatch said. The driver shot Hatch a glance. Mamma pinched him. But he speakin street. Mamma pinched him again. Stung, Hatch's arm was hot and hurt in the snowsuit. Hand on the door handle, he tried to make a quick exit. The door refused to budge. Frozen, perhaps. Blunt leaned across Mamma and opened it. She smiled. Hatch gave her a mean look.
They quit the cab, snow crunching underfoot. The short driver hoisted the suitcase from the trunk while Blunt pulled the guitar case from the floor.
All y'all have a nice day, the driver said. He shot Hatch another glance and grinned.
Mamma shook her head at the diction. Hatch gave the driver his meanest look.
Blunt passed the driver another five-dollar bill. Learn how to drive, she said.
Yes, ma'am. Thank you. He got inside the cab and sped off.
Three flights of stairs spiraled a challenge to the apartment above. Mamma started up, Blunt following — the suitcase in one hand, the guitar case in the other — and Hatch following her. At the top landing, Mamma leaned her tired weight on the banister, sucking for air. Seem like the fourth floor, she said. Blunt said nothing. Chest rising slow and easy. Hatch believed himself an excellent judge of age and had concluded that Blunt was very old — she was so ugly — but, having witnessed her feat on the stairs, he was now uncertain.
You got a nice apartment, Joy. She looked the kitchen over with her green eyes.
Thank you, Blunt. It's small but comfortable.
Well, don't you worry about that.
Would you like some breakfast?
I sure would. Where do you keep your pans?
No. You must be tired from your trip. She lowered her eyes. Do you eat meat?
Blunt looked Mamma full in the face. Yes, Joy.
Well, let me show you to your room.
My room, Hatch thought. He was shaking, either from cold or heat — he couldn't tell — his arm still hot from the pinch.
Mamma looked at him. Go into the bathroom and get out of that snowsuit. She and Blunt started for Hatch's room. He watched them.
Joy, let Hatch keep me company. Blunt stopped her body like a truck and waited for a response.
Mamma didn't say anything for a moment. She turned and looked at Hatch. Hatch, hurry out of that snowsuit and come keep Blunt company.
Hatch watched Blunt, hard. Wind and snow had smeared the makeup around her eyes, the talon streaks of some huge bird.
Mamma came forward and gripped his hand. Be good, she whispered. Don't be mean and selfish like your father. She had been frank about his father. Normally, these words about his bad father would have settled him. He struggled to free his hand.
Be good, Mamma said.
He knew she would not hit him. No matter how angry she became. Mind working, he stared through the distance at Blunt. Formed a plan. He would pretend he liked Blunt. Alone with her, he would give her a piece of his mind. Choice words. All right, he said.
Mamma gave him a hard look that said, Be good. She pushed open one of the French doors that separated her room from his, then headed for the kitchen.
Hello, Hatch, Blunt said.
Blunt removed her coat and hung it in the closet. Her arms were thick inside the sleeves of the red jumpsuit. She removed her hat before the dresser mirror, intent on her reflection. Hair spilled gray and long about her shoulders. With her back to him, she began unpacking the one suitcase, now open on the bed. She turned and smiled. Hummed low deep waters in her throat. You can't fool me, he thought. Puffy in his snowsuit, he watched her unpack and searched for the correct way to phrase what he wanted to say.
I mean, all that happened twenty-five, thirty, years ago. Blunt chased him out of town with her straight razor. Red, they called him, though I never saw him myself. Clay colored. Bowlegged. A midget. A bad man. Like your father.
Blunt kept his ten-dollar Sears Roebuck guitar and taught herself how to play it.
Then Blunt married the preacher-mortician. I was ten by this time. They'd known each other all along. We moved into his funeral home. It was like a castle, enough rooms to sleep fifty people. Plenty places to wander and get lost.
The preacher always spoke his mind. Children make me nervous. This is what he said. I got a bad heart, and people like me, with bad hearts, also have bad nerves, if you see my meaning. I did. So I kept fifteen feet away from him. Fifteen feet. Measured it.
He was the most disliked colored man in the Rains County. He kept a stable full of horses he had never learned to ride. (His bad heart.) And he had dainty ways like white folks. Always wore a suit and tie in the blazing heat, and walked with his head up high, and breathed like a rusty well pump, and sweated like a fountain. He would place his napkin in his lap when he ate and sweat down into it. He had been in a car accident that scarred up his face pretty bad. (You should have seen it. Unbelievable.) And he never ate meat, since it aggravated his scars. This is what he said: God saw to it to give me the accident, and with it, scars and a bad heart.
The accident had given him the calling to be a preacher, but his sermons put people to sleep. (Christ is fire and water insurance!) That was what led him into the mortuary business. Preachers must eat. He was the picture of success. (They often wrote him up in the newspapers.) With the dead in your corner, you can't fail. Not that he didn't have his problems. Rumor had it that he disrespected bodies placed in his care. (I never saw him myself.) He carved tic-tac-toe on skin. He stuffed hollow cavities with marbles. He drained insides with a garden hose. He embalmed with shoe polish. These accusations turned away no customers. He was cheap and allowed payment by installments and gave a free vase of flowers to the family of the deceased and guaranteed his caskets to resist rust and rot for fifty years.
Excerpted from Holding Pattern by Jeffery Renard Allen. Copyright © 2008 Jeffery Renard Allen. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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.
Table of Contents
ContentsBread and the Land,
The Near Remote,
The Green Apocalypse,
It Shall Be Again,