By the time my mother, Lola, and I were a few hundred miles south of Sacramento on our way to Las Vegas, we were snapping at each other. I was mad because I had driven for nearly four hours straight and needed to use the restroom and get gas. Even though my mom offered to navigate the Beckyville Bookmobile part of the eight-hour journey, it was mainly because she hated my driving. She would mash her foot into the floor as if she had brakes on her side of the car, or shoot her arm out as if to prevent an inevitable collision. I put Lola on GPS duty but soon regretted it. As we neared Bakersfield, she told me to stay on Highway 58, thinking an exit for fuel would come up shortly. We soon found out all the gas stations were in our rearview. I grew nervous and irritable watching my gauge hover slightly above a quarter of a tank.
There’s nothing like driving through the desert in a van with 800 pounds of books, worrying if you’ll have enough petro to get beyond the mountains of scorched yellow grass and slow moving trucks to the next filling station. Luckily, after twenty minutes of driving in stony silence, we saw a sign from above: Fuel next exit. I pulled into the gas station, only too happy to stretch my legs and get some air. Even at 4:00 in the afternoon, it was at least 100 degrees. When I returned to the Beckyville Bookmobile, Lola offered me an olive branch in the form of organic cherries. I accepted, inserted one of our mixtapes and we hit the highway again, headed for Vegas.
When I think of cities with a thriving literary scene, Las Vegas isn’t on my short list. Truth be told, our stop in gambler’s paradise was partly for pleasure, although I did have a reading scheduled at the West Las Vegas library the following day. My mother and I had traveled to Vegas several times in the past – to see Chris Rock in concert, or to get our spa and gamble on. I wanted to recreate the fun we used to have sipping strawberry daiquiris with whipped cream as we roamed the casinos, secretly hoping we would hit the jackpot. This time, I would stay far away from the slot machines. I would use the time that I would have otherwise spent pulling on the one-armed bandit, writing in our hotel room and digesting the events of the past several days.
I’d had an excellent reading at Underground Books the previous evening and was still riding a high of sisterhood and a successful launch for the Escape from Beckyville book tour. Even though the event at Underground wasn’t heavily promoted, we still had a good turnout, and I met some wonderful women who encouraged me on my journey. I didn’t expect the same camaraderie in Sin City – a place known for its drunken frat boys, gamblers with grimy fingertips, and club chicks in stilettos and skintight dresses. For one, I couldn’t find any black bookstores. One listing for a store that sold books exclusively by black women authors turned out to be a private residence. We discovered this as we sat in the Bookmobile across from the person’s subdivision, calling the number listed online. Several other indie book dealers that we phoned or visited didn’t accept books on consignment. I wasn’t naïve enough to think my trip cross country would be a success-only journey. I knew we’d hit some snags along the way. Maybe it was the heat, cramps and exhaustion, but I was beginning to think we should have bypassed this high-priced utopia.
I approached my reading at the West Las Vegas Library with the same apprehension. It was scheduled for 2:00 p.m., and I doubted anyone would show up. The temperatures soared past 105 degrees, and we got lost trying to find the place. We arrived by 1:30, wrinkled and irritable, and there were only about ten cars in the parking lot. I approached an older couple heading back to their car and handed them a post card, explaining that I’d be reading in a half hour and would appreciate if they could stay. The woman fanned herself with the card, and said, “Baby, it’s hot out here. We got to get home.”
Lola and I lugged our belongings to the information counter. A young woman with long nails checked us in, and a security guard showed us to the conference room where the reading was taking place. It wasn’t set up, and I stared at the mound of chairs stacked in the corner. If my mother was my only audience, it didn’t make sense to unstack them and arrange them around the dais as if we were expecting a crowd. It was tempting to just sit in the air conditioned room for the hour that I’d reserved it and rest. But Lola and I grabbed 10 chairs and hauled them to the front of the room. I unfolded the purple table cloth I brought, spread it on the work table in the corner and arranged my books and post cards in a semi circle. When my mother took my mounted Beckyville poster up to the front of the library to advertise the event, I went to the bathroom to pray. I didn’t ask for a flood of people to miraculously appear in the conference room when I walked back in. I simply asked for the courage to tell my story, even if I was only going to stand before my mother and recite it. I asked for wisdom on this journey and the strength to keep going when it seems like I’ve made a major mistake that would ruin me financially. Then I stepped out of my stall and headed back to the conference room.
When I 0pened the door, Lola was chatting with a man named Cornell. He’d been out front commenting on the Beckyville poster and she brought him back to meet me. He was a doctor in private practice, and couldn’t stay, but he said he loved supporting black authors. As he reached in his wallet to purchase a copy of the book, the young woman with long nails came in. She knew the doctor and asked him to buy her a copy of the book, which he did. By this time, Mr. Cornelius, a photographer for the library, entered the room, and a young woman named Shawntay came in and took a seat. She bought a book as well.
After Cornell left, I decided that it seemed silly to stand on the dais and address an audience of three, one of whom was my mother. So I sat on the stage and told Shawntay and Mr. Cornelius my story. I told them that I began writing speculative fiction in grad school because it was a subversive way to tackle issues of social justice without being preachy. I told them I was creating the images I want to see, presenting a complex slice of black womanhood from a funky and futuristic perspective, and I believed in the stories so much that I walked away from a career at a top-rated talk show to pursue my dreams full time.
After the reading, Shawntay and Mr. Cornelius walked outside to take pictures by the Beckyville Bookmobile. When he was finished snapping pics of me inside the van, Mr. Cornelius gestured to the theater adjacent to the library. He told me that when author and motivational speaker Michael Baisden spoke at the West Las Vegas library years ago, there were only a handful of people in the audience. When Baisden returned recently, “so many people showed up,” Mr. Cornelius said, “they couldn’t fit them inside the theater.”
Mr. Cornelius is a nice older gentleman, and I knew he was simply trying to encourage me. Not that I think I’ll have a Michael Baisden experience, but I do believe my stories will resonate with many readers. I just have to find them. I just have to keep driving … by faith.
As Lola and I waved goodbye to our new friends and headed out of the library parking lot, I felt tired, but triumphant. In spite of the heat and my failure to have Escape from Beckyville placed in any stores, my stop in Sin City wasn’t so bad. It was actually pretty heavenly. I’d taken a gamble on something much larger, and won.