Audio book just released:
An excerpt from “Upside Down Independence Day”
Book three of the “Holidazed” series of satires
No direct route connected Golden Springs, home of Antaeus College, to Coon Creek, home of the empty, rusting Atlas Steel Plant. Dean Meredith Butler would never have cause to go there, except to get pies for their artist in residence, Roscoe Alolo. He loved his pies.
To get from one town to the other, you had to drive around the nature preserve and cross the river on a steel bridge south of the Clifton Gorge. While Meredith drove, she pointed out landmarks and points of interest along the way, although Roscoe seemed only to care about how long it was taking to get there. Since he wasn’t listening to her, she turned on the radio to NPR. Terry Gross was interviewing a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Meredith said, “It makes my blood boil to hear such racist bullshit,” expecting that Roscoe would have something contemptuous to say. Instead, she heard snoring. He had nodded off.
The Hungry Coon Diner was at the only stoplight in town. Meredith parked in a far corner of the lot, away from the motorcycles, pickup trucks, and assorted candidates for the junkyard that occupied spaces nearer the entrance. The door squeaked as if in pain when they entered. Meredith positioned herself between Roscoe and the seating area so he would not see the turning heads, and led him to the case where the pies were displayed. Roscoe placed both hands on the top of the case and sniffed in deep spurts, as if chewing with his nose.
“What can I get yah for?” the woman behind the counter asked. Her name tag read “Howdy, my name is Edith.”
Roscoe asked, “Are you the pie maker?”
“Sure as shootin’ I am. And I got blue ribbons from the county fair to prove it.” Edith pointed at the regally decorated wall behind her. “What can I get yah for?”
Unable to settle upon any single pie, Roscoe bought four to take home: a dutch apple pie with a lattice top, fresh out of the oven; a rhubarb pie, because he’d never had one before; a key lime pie, because it reminded him of summer; and of course a pecan pie, because in his informed opinion there was no finer dessert made in America.
Meredith was relieved when they left the café. She could ignore the stares, but worried that Roscoe might blow his top if he noticed them. They each carried two boxed pies, which fit tight in the space beneath her car’s hatchback. When she walked around to the driver’s side, Roscoe took a step back, onto the sidewalk.
“I feel like taking a walk,” he said.
Oh shit, Meredith thought. “Sure,” she said.
Meredith was reluctant to spend any more time than necessary in Coon Creek. Traversing the downtown area gave her the heebie-jeebies. It wasn’t just that people stopped in their tracks to look at her, but they held their gaze, as if they’d never seen a black woman before. On the surface, most were polite. Folks passing by wished her good afternoon, or sometimes even attempted superficial small talk, but their conviviality seemed contrived. She imagined them sticking out their tongues as soon as she turned her back.
The feeling was nothing like walking the streets of Golden Springs. There, the citizens and shopkeepers had welcomed her with such ardor that it made her feel self-conscious. When she’d started at Antaeus College, she couldn’t so much as go to the grocery store without somebody accosting her to proclaim how much they cherished inclusion and thanked her for making Golden Springs a more diverse community. It made her feel as if she checked off some imaginary box labeled “black lesbian.” Vanessa had warned her she might feel that way, so, of course, she had to deny it when they talked on the phone.
Downtown Cook Creek encompassed both sides of Main Street for five blocks, up one side and down the other. Roscoe and Meredith started walking at the town square, which had a small park, a gazebo, a couple of benches, a fountain that never worked, and the statue of the town’s founding father, Philander Fink. From there, they walked past the Drink Here Tavern, the Sleeping In mattress shop, a Goodwill store, 7-Eleven, the Fair Deal pawn shop, the Second Chance used-tire store, the Stay in Your Lane bowling alley, the Cut Above barbershop, Henshaw’s IGA grocery story, a US Army recruiting office, a nonspecific repairs shop, and several shuttered storefronts.
Roscoe paused to tear down a flyer stapled to a telephone pole. He read aloud from it: “Come one and all. Patriotic Fourth of July fireworks Boom-a-Thon, Coon Creek High School stadium, sponsored by the city of Coon Creek and Life Eternal Funeral Services.” He then observed, “Sounds pretty white to me.”
“That’s safe to say,” Meredith confirmed.
Meredith and Roscoe crossed the street and walked back in the direction from whence they’d come. They passed Joe’s Sunoco, where four men stood looking under the hood of a Subaru, baffled. They paused to allow a pale woman pushing a double stroller with two fussy infants to cross in front of them and enter the Dream On beauty salon.
“Are there any brothers or sisters in this town?” Roscoe asked.
“Not many,” Meredith replied. “But, once I was here on a Sunday morning, and I heard some soul singing at the Hallelujah Church of God in Christ.”
They continued. Two teenagers standing in a narrow niche between a drug store and a vacant florist shop vaped huge cumulus clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Roscoe sneezed in their direction. A tattered flag flew in front of the US Post Office. A man wearing a Chief Wahoo baseball cap sat in a parked car and drank from a brown paper bag. Roscoe looked in the window of Boog’s Tattoo Parlor, where a burly man wearing dog tags was sitting in the client’s chair, reading Guns ’n’ Ammo magazine, with a sidearm pistol strapped to his hip. Roscoe stopped and stared; the man looked up from his magazine and stared back. Meredith, who’d kept walking, doubled back to fetch Roscoe and diverted his attention by saying, “Look at that.”
Roscoe’s eyes ping-ponged back and forth. “Look at what?” he asked.
Meredith pointed at the nearest storefront, which was the campaign headquarters for “Reverend Belvedere for mayor: have faith in government, for a change.”
“Outrageous,” Roscoe declared. “Whatever happened to the separation of church and state? Only atheists are fit for political office.”
At length they completed their circuit of Coon Creek’s core by returning to the town square. There, Roscoe stepped in front of the life-sized bronze statue of Philander Fink and stared it in the eye. Fink had his knees slightly bent but his back straight, held a musket in one hand, and had the other shielding his brow, as if gazing toward the horizon. He wore a coonskin cap, which was home to a nest of starlings. Bird droppings splattered his shoulders.
“Who is this fool?”
Meredith had never really paid any attention to the statue. She read from a plaque embedded in a stone behind it:
Philander Fink, 1772–1812, an early explorer of the untamed lands north of the Ohio River, built a cabin at the confluence of Coon Creek and the Little Miami River. This monument is dedicated to him and the spirit of discovery that his memory still inspires in the citizens of Coon Creek.
“Revisionist history,” Roscoe said. “Such deplorables.”
Meredith wondered what he meant by that but wasn’t about to ask. “Are you ready to drive back to Golden Springs?” she asked.
“Let’s get out of this place,” he said. “I don’t want to be here after dark.”