Read Chapter One of Bedrock Faith!
To celebrate the release of Bedrock Faith, Eric Charles May’s debut novel, we’re thrilled to share this excerpt from the novel: Chapter One in all its entirety.
Bedrock Faith has earned rave reviews and features from publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine; Library Journal; Publishers Weekly; Kirkus Reviews; Booklist, Bookforum; Ebony Magazine; Chicago Social Magazine; and more! Read what people are saying about Bedrock Faith here.
1993: A Homegrown Miscreant Returns
By seven that evening, every resident on the 1800 block of 129th Street knew that Stew Pot Reeves was out of prison and back home; home being his mom’s redbrick two-flat located at the very east end of the block where the road came to a halt before the high stone wall of a railroad embankment.
As a chilly wind waggled naked tree branches beneath an overcast sky and sent bits of debris pinwheeling across bare, damp ground, word of his return traveled from house to house. Some called neighbors on the phone, while others threw a wrap over their shoulders (it was early March) to trot next door or across the street with the bad news, each messenger beginning their bulletin with: “Did you hear? Stew Pot’s back!”
Those receiving the news widened their eyes in surprise or winced in anguish. “Stew Pot’s back? The judge gave him thirty years. It hasn’t been half that long. Who was it said they saw him? Was it Mrs. Motley?”
Yes, it was Mrs. Motley. Tallish with a body that kinder neighborhood souls called slender and harder hearts labeled as bony, she had a skin tone the color of butterscotch and a head of silvery white hair combed back in a tight bun. A former school librarian, by then five years retired, she lived next door to the two-flat in a large wooden four-square with a teal paint job and black stationary shutters. That afternoon around four she’d been sitting on her blue living room couch sipping tea from a china cup, the saucer held chest high, when a yellow taxi stopped in front of the two-flat. (Although she had not left the house that day and expected no visitors, as usual she was dressed as if important company was coming or she had somewhere important to go: beige silk blouse, black ankle-length pencil skirt, stockings, and black low-heel shoes.) There was a row of lace-curtained windows across the front of the room with the couch backed against the sills. Mrs. Motley set the cup and saucer on the nearby in-laid coffee table, lifted a white lace panel aside, and looked past the railing of her roofed porch. Her round wire-rim glasses were set low on her long nose and she had to tilt her head to see over her bifocals.
The house’s high first floor gave Mrs. Motley a commanding view of the street, and she was able to make out the forms of two people within the shadows of the cab’s backseat. Folks in Parkland seldom took taxis, so she was surprised when the cab’s rear door opened and her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Reeves, stepped out.
Normally a Nervous Nelly sort of person, that afternoon the petite Mrs. Reeves looked unusually at ease in a green headscarf and a worn gray coat. A tall man, much darker than she, followed her out. He had a shaved head and a goatee, and wore an open peacoat and denim overalls. A bit of white T-shirt was visible above the bib and the pants hung loose on him, the front hems bunched over the insteps of black brogans.
There was a turning circle at the base of the embankment wall and after the tall guy closed the cab door, the driver made a slow turnaround and headed back west. Leaning closer to the window, Mrs. Motley saw that the tall guy was also broad across the shoulders, his thick goatee a furry frame around his wide mouth, and his shaved head was shiny, even under the overcast sky; the noggin reminding her of the smooth side of a greased coconut.
Standing alongside him at the curb, Mrs. Reeves’s brownie face barely reached his chest. The man said something to her which Mrs. Motley could not make out, and for the first time in ages Mrs. Motley saw Mrs. Reeves smile: a spread of tiny teeth in her small, almost chinless face. It caused Mrs. Motley to wonder if the two were lovers, and if so, how much cash Mrs. Reeves was forking over to him; money being the only reason Mrs. Motley could think of for why such a strapping fellow, who appeared to be in his early thirties, would be with a woman old as Mrs. Reeves, who was sixty if she was a day.
The idea that her east-door neighbor was keeping a honey pie in walking-around money bothered Mrs. Motley more than a little bit. The two-flat’s parkway and front yard were neighborhood anomalies: weedy and trash ridden. The windows were hung with dingy sheets, the white paint on the window frames and doorways were flaked and faded, and the downstairs apartment had been vacant for years. Like other immediate neighbors, Mrs. Motley felt the two-flat’s condition brought the whole block down; a situation made all the more maddening for the neighbors by the fact that money was not the issue, for Mrs. Reeves had a perfectly good job Downtown clerking in the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The couple strolled up the walkway to the two-flat’s front door, where they paused so Mrs. Reeves could insert her key. While turning the lock she said something over her shoulder. It was then that the young man smiled, revealing a white wall of large teeth within the frame of the goatee. And when Mrs. Motley saw that, a chill swept over her.
After the young man merrily followed Mrs. Reeves inside, Mrs. Motley dropped her hand and the lace curtain fell back into place. Sliding to the front of the couch and with her arms crossed, she leaned forward and slowly massaged her goose-bumped biceps.
When Stew Pot Reeves had gone to prison fourteen years before at age eighteen, he’d been a tall, skinny boy without enough hair on his face to weave a sweater for a fly. That’s why she hadn’t recognized him at first. But there was no mistaking that big-tooth smile; she’d seen it too many times to ever forget it. Mrs. Motley had always assumed he would remain in prison till the end of his sentence, by which time she figured she would be in either Heaven or the old folks’ home. But here it was, 1993, and he was back. The maker of so many Parkland mayhems—arson and pet murder, just to name two—was back. Her first impulse was that she could not take the stress of living next door to him again, that she would have to move. But could she do that? Could she actually leave this house that her grandfather had built, and where she’d been raised, and where she’d raised her own child, and where her parents and husband had taken their last breaths?
To her left, glistening like a hearse, was an upright piano where she and her mother had once played side by side. To her right was the redbrick fireplace, its innards charcoaled from years of use where as a youngster she had done her first reading, lying on her stomach as the flames cast wavering light across the pages, an image that was repeated years later when she sat on the floor with her toddler son, reading aloud to him from storybooks. She now gazed beyond the sky-blue living room, with its white moldings and ceiling, through the wide passageway to the apple-green dining room where the furniture—an aircraft carrier of a table, a dreadnaught of a sideboard—were like most of the house’s furniture, heavy, dark, ornate wooden pieces she polished to a high sheen. (The same went for the hardwood floors which were like honey glaze in color and gleam; the varicolored rugs spread across them presents her now grown son had purchased overseas.) The house and everything in it had come to her, she the only child of sibling-less parents. She saw it as her legacy, and though she’d been raised to believe vanity a terrible thing, she couldn’t deny the immense pride her legacy gave her, even though she knew it set her apart from many of her neighbors, the majority of whom lived in homes far less elaborate. (A few of these folks, and she knew this for a fact, considered her pride nothing more than snob arrogance.) She loved her house, despite it being drafty in winter and hard to cool in summer, despite having to haul laundry up and down the basement steps, despite all the rooms that were becoming more and more of a problem for her to keep clean. But, could she stand living next to Stew Pot? Just the thought of it brought a sour expression to her face.
For twenty minutes or so, Mrs. Motley sat there on the couch fretting over her dilemma. Coming to no conclusion she rose slowly, for her knees gave her a bit of trouble, and exited the room carrying the china saucer and cup of now cooled tea. With perfect posture, she walked to the back of the house through a wainscoted hallway, moving past a grandfather clock and the thick posts of a stairway balustrade.
At the end of the hallway was a big yellow kitchen—yellow walls, yellow fridge, yellow stove—where the air was thick with the fumes of lemon-scented cleaner. As Mrs. Motley poured the tea down the drain of the stand-alone sink, she heard the two-flat’s screen door bang shut. Setting the cup down, she went to her own back door and peered through the window’s parted yellow polka-dot curtains. Next door Stew Pot was headed toward the alley with an armload of phonograph albums. He wasn’t wearing the peacoat, and his white T-shirt showed off his robust arms. When he reached the chain-link gate, he kicked it open and dropped the records into the black garbage can.
Afraid he might catch her watching, Mrs. Motley yanked down her door’s window shade before Stew Pot could turn around; but after only a few seconds her desire to see became overpowering and she pulled gently at the edge of the shade to take a peek. She saw Stew Pot heading back toward the two-flat and let the shade go as if it were hot. His black brogans thumped loudly on his porch steps and when the screen door bang wasn’t followed by the slam of the inside door, she knew he wasn’t finished.
Scared to look but too curious not to, she waited behind the safety of the shade. Before long the screen door banged again and Mrs. Motley peeked once more. Stew Pot had another tall armload of albums that he also dumped in the garbage can. When he turned around that time, she saw that his jaw was fixed in a grimace and his eyes in a furious squint; however, he didn’t so much as glance over the chain-link fence separating the yards. Feeling safe from discovery, she kept on peeking.
Stew Pot took one more trip carrying albums, two trips carrying stacks of magazines, one trip carrying a stereo and speakers, and one carrying a clock radio and a portable TV. The magazines he dropped atop the records, the electronic equipment he stacked behind the fence. He then made two trips with women’s clothes—dresses, blouses, skirts—that he piled on the records. When the screen door bang after the second clothes trip was followed by the inside door slamming, Mrs. Motley knew he was finally done.
She sat at her broad kitchen table which was covered with a yellow oil cloth. Have Stew Pot and Mrs. Reeves gotten into an argument already? she wondered. Should I call the police? Though she held Mrs. Reeves primarily responsible for the way Stew Pot had turned out, at the same time Mrs. Motley had never wished the woman ill.
She decided not to call the police, since it wasn’t likely that 911 would send a car simply because she’d seen Stew Pot throwing stuff away. Using her yellow wall phone, she instead called first one, then another nearby neighbor, who were also retirees. (She spoke in her usual unhurried way, her mellow pronunciation as precise as her handwriting or posture.) Later on these folks contacted other neighbors on the block, which got the word-of-mouth rolling, and by seven thirty, as they sat down to their suppers, neighbors on the block knew not only that Stew Pot had returned, but that he was already acting the fool.
ERIC CHARLES MAY is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. A Chicago native and former reporter for the Washington Post, his fiction has appeared in the magazines Fish Stories, F, and Criminal Class. In addition to his Post reporting, his nonfiction has appeared in Sport Literate, the Chicago Tribune, and the personal essay anthology Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck. Bedrock Faith is his first novel.
Posted: Mar 20, 2014
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