The Beckyville Chronicles: Down and out in New Orleans

It’s funny how quickly your life can change.

The second weekend in July, the day after I received a shipment of my debut short story collection Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage, my bestie and I found ourselves in the back of an ambulance on our way to the emergency room. A few hours earlier, we were at my place watching videos, munching on a block of chocolate containing medical marijuana and washing it down with a bottle of Moscato. The Ghetto Guide to Girl’s Night In. When we couldn’t control the ensuing nausea and heart palpitations, I called 911 and told them we had overdosed on cannabis. The paramedics, two bored twenty-something white dudes who looked as if they’d been pulled away from an Xbox marathon, tried to reason with us. They sat us down on the planter in front of my building and tried to convince us that we weren’t dying, that we were merely high, but to no avail. In my psychosis, I believed I was heading to that slush pile in the sky. So they loaded us into the ambulance and took our vitals as we drove toward the ER. The fact that we were cruising along at a brisk 20 miles per hour, no wailing sirens puncturing the night, should have been an indication that our “condition” wasn’t fatal. But as I sat next to my girlfriend — sick, embarrassed and miserable ­— I kept mumbling, “I threw my life away. I can’t believe I ruined my life.”

In my muddled mind, my writing career was over before it started. It seemed that I was always doing something to sabotage any new-found happiness and creativity. I believed the police would be waiting for us at the hospital, would fingerprint me and take away my license. I wouldn’t be able to drive the Beckyville Bookmobile cross-country to spread the word about my latest venture. On the long, torturous ride to the hospital, it felt like I was blacking out — permanently. I feared my mother, Lola, who was flying in from Philly the following Wednesday, would arrive to learn that her daughter was dead. Instead of celebrating my new book, she’d have to bury me.

Such is the life of a dysfunctional diva.

Fast forward one month. It’s the second week of August, and I’m sitting in a hotel room in New Orleans that still reeks of cigarette smoke. Contrary to the neurotic musings of my addled brain, my mother didn’t arrive at my apartment to bury me, but to find me very much alive and in need of a road dog to help navigate 6,000-plus miles of highway. On this day, we have driven nearly twelve hours from Dallas, Texas to downtown New Orleans, and we’re both tired and cranky. Since pulling out of my garage in Los Angeles, we’ve racked up 3,500 miles on the Beckyville Bookmobile trip meter. A kitchenette separates my mother’s side of the suite from mine, and I’m thankful for this temporary gulf. I need time to process the journey so far.

At this point, we’ve been on the road for twelve days, and I’ve done readings in Sacramento, Las Vegas and New Mexico. I’m actually getting the hang of speaking in front of strangers, of sharing the story of how I walked away from a job at a top-rated talk show to self-publish my book. My journey has resonated with readers, and I was interviewed by WYLD radio station in New Orleans ahead of my reading at the Afro-American Book Stop in the same city. We’ve driven through five states and my book is being carried at ten stores. I feel a sense of pride in these accomplishments, of being able to sustain myself as an indie author. And yet, as I change clothes and settle into my bed for the night, I can’t shake a feeling of fear and loss. I wonder if I did indeed ruin my life. My savings have dwindled, and I’m relying more and more on my credit cards for basic purchases. It briefly occurs to me that I have the option of returning to work, but I brush the thought away, reminding myself that I am working. I pull the covers over my head, trying to block the smell of smoke and the sound of noisy revelers in the street celebrating the Saints victory over the 49ers.

I awaken at two in the morning to this thought: At some point, you’re going to have to be a woman of faith. On the heels of that sleep-shattering revelation, I am reminded of a scene in Toni Morrison’s Beloved where Paul D. accuses Sethe of having “too thick” love. “Love is or it isn’t,” the former slavewoman counters. “Thin love ain’t love at all.”

In the shower a few hours later, I mull over what it means to be a woman and writer of faith. Not just from a religious perspective, but from the viewpoint of someone who is so convinced of her success that she can taste it, and feel it and walk in it every day in spite of all outward appearances of failure. As I get dressed for the reading, I rephrase Sethe’s profound proclamation to Paul D.: “Faith is or it isn’t. Thin faith ain’t faith at all.” I have decided that I am a successful author who has defied the odds of surviving a cutthroat publishing industry in an economy that has not yet hoisted itself out of the swamp of a recession. My new-found faith is something that I carry with me across town in the sweltering heat on my way to the book signing.

As I park in front of the Afro-American Book Store, raindrops splash the windshield of the van. In spite of the gray skies, the day is sticky hot, and the back of my purple sleeveless dress is damp. My mother and I are snapping at each other, irritated tones that have become the dominant language of our road trip. My heels clack on the pavement as I make my way to the bookstore. Michele, the owner, greets me warmly and comes outside to get a gander at the Beckyville Bookmobile. As we chat, nervousness and confidence battle it out, and the former seems to be winning. It’s ten minutes before the reading is scheduled to take place, and Michele and her assistant are the only ones in the store. I fear that I have oversold myself. When I cold-called her several weeks prior to schedule the book signing, I told her that my “many Twitter followers” would be in attendance, as well as listeners of the WYLD radio interview. Yet, as my mother and I set up our mounted poster of the Escape from Beckyville book cover, which is trip-worn and fraying at the edges, and place books on the table Michele has designated for us near the back of the room, I fear that the empty chairs across from me will be my only audience.

As it turns out, I’m right.

No one shows up for the reading.

Sensing my panic, my mother takes a stack of postcards and stands outside, trying to drum up attendees. While she’s doing last minute publicity, I stare across the table at my air audience. As I surf the web on my cell phone, I feel embarrassed. Michele has left for an appointment, and I fear that when she returns in a few hours, she’ll discover that the signing was a bust and consider me a fraud. After about an hour of fiddling with my phone, I see a mother and her tween daughter heading my way. Lola has sent them in. They remind me of my mother and I when I was a teen. Growing up, Lola would take me to Walden Books at the mall every other weekend so I could get the latest Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel. I talk to the pair for a few minutes, and then the woman buys a book for her daughter. Shortly, after she leaves, a man approaches, Lola-directed. He tells me that he’s interested in buying Escape from Beckyville for his son as a distraction from his video games.

I’m grateful for the two customers, that young people will be exposed to my work. I try not to dwell on the empty chairs staring back at me. Tormenting me. Lola comes in, a mustache of sweat forming on her upper lip. I know she’s done being a one-woman street team for the day. I hear several women near the cash register laughing with Michele’s assistant, and after a few minutes of hesitation, I go up front to speak to them. They regard me in that civil but wary way people do when they think you’re trying to sell them something. Their tones are pleasant, but they don’t quite make eye contact. I introduce myself and ask them what books they like to read. “I read everything,” says a young woman with a gold tooth and short haircut. She’s standing in front of a display rack of urban lit novels. Her friend murmurs the same. After a few minutes of polite chatter, I head back to my table.

When my mother and I pack up my belongings and return to the van an hour later, I try to shake the feelings of deep disappointment, but I can’t. My feet hurt, as well as my spirit. In the back of my mind, I thought the reading would be a success, not just because of publicity from the radio interview, but because I’m in a city with a large black population, and I believed Escape from Beckyville would resonate with black women. One of the main reasons I left my job was because I felt an urgency to tell these stories, to create funky and futuristic images of black womanhood that I felt was missing or shut out of the literary canon. I didn’t set out to write a book with an agenda. I began experimenting with speculative fiction in grad school, and the stories that grew out of that work took on a social justice edge, a way of critiquing issues that affect us the most. But if New Orleans and my invisible audience at the Afro-American Book Stop was a litmus test for how Escape from Beckyville would be perceived on the rest of the book tour, then the drug-addled prophecy I uttered a month prior had come true. I had thrown my life away.

To be continued …

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