The Beckyville Chronicles: Returning Home

I’m typing this at my cousin Ranae’s dining room table in a snow-covered subdivision in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. Ranae bustles around her kitchen preparing Spanish rice, refried beans, cauliflower and broiled pork chops for our dinner. Her daughter Matison finishes her math homework at the table next to me, and her son, Gabe, plays Angry Birds on my iPad. Lola, my mother and road dog, alternates between watching “Family Feud” and checking her email. A newly decorated Christmas tree casts multicolored shadows along the wall in the living room filled with wreaths, red stockings and other holiday ornaments. In the morning, Lola and I will hug and kiss our relatives goodbye before we make the fourteen-hour trek back to Los Angeles. But for now, this is home, a place I’ve missed in the more than four months that I’ve been on the road.

What a difference a season makes. 

It was a brilliant August morning in Southern California when my mother and I pulled out of my garage in L.A., bound for Sacramento. I was so assured of my success as an indie author back then. I believed I would sell out of the 34 cartons of books in my van in a month, so I only packed one suitcase filled with summer clothes for our cross-country trip. Although my wardrobe has been predictable, the journey has been anything but, as ephemeral as the seasons. I’ve sweated in 105 degree heat in Las Vegas, wiped perspiration from my nape in 114 degree weather in Lancaster, Texas. I drove through a relentless late summer storm in Maryland, a harbinger of Hurricane Irene. I made a snow woman (with a purple shawl and natural hair) when winter arrived early in Philadelphia at the end of October.

Seasons fade. Dreams fade also, lose their color, their vibrance, the glory of their newness … if you let them.

Last Wednesday, my mother and I bid Norristown, PA adieu as we pointed the Beckyville Bookmobile south on the last leg of our journey. The sky began spitting as we packed up my dainty purple chariot. By the time I strapped myself in the passenger seat, sheets of rain pelted my windshield, obscuring my view. As I beheld the fury of droplets, I was reminded of the pre-Hurricane Irene rain that washed us into Pennsylvania four months prior. I wondered if the storm symbolized a sodden ending to an unsuccessful trip.

The rain followed us to Baltimore, where I did a reading that evening at More Hair! Studio, my final book signing on the East Coast. I was inspired by the sisterhood and spirited discussion, secretly grateful for the attendees who braved the weather. Since I had kicked off my book tour in L.A. at a salon, I thought it fitting to celebrate my return to the Left Coast at a beauty shop.

By the time Lola and I made it to our cousin Diane’s house in North Carolina the following night, frigid autumn air replaced the wet weather. Sunlight was a welcome traveling companion on our drive through South Carolina, Atlanta, Alabama, Mississippi and New Orleans, where I had another reading at Community Book Center. Less than ten people attended the event. I tried to hide my disappointment at the paltry showing, reminding myself that the tour had given me a chance to travel the country, bond with my mother, reconnect with family and friends and spread the word about my book. I enjoyed taking in the sights and landmarks of new cities, having a margarita with Lola at the hotel bar.

During the discussion after the reading, one attendee named J’ondrea introduced me to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Life”:

A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,
A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,
A pint of joy to a peck of trouble,
And never a laugh but the moans come double;
    And that is life!

Jannie, another attendee, heard about my reading from an interview I did on “Sunday Journal” for the New Orleans radio station WYLD FM. She and Lola hit it right off. Our new friend and her six-year-old granddaughter accompanied us for dinner at the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood company.

The rain returned as we took our leave of N’awlins the next day, heading to Dallas. As we entered the Lone Star State, the drizzle turned into a windshield-obscuring shower that dampened our spirits. It’s been said that Cali folks don’t know how to drive in the rain. Although I was born on the East Coast, I’ve been a Los Angeleno for more than a decade, and I seem to have adopted the worst traits of La La Land drivers – timid and overly cautious at the slightest bit of slickness on the roads. To make matters worse, a tractor trailer overturned on the highway adding two hours to our twelve-hour trip.

While sitting on the lumpy mattress in our Dallas hotel that night, I reflected on the journey thus far and the road ahead. I was irritable, soul-weary and uncertain about my plans when I returned to Los Angeles. I had sold my everyday car to finance my trip and knew I would feel funny about driving the Beckyville Bookmobile to routine places like the grocery store and post office. I wasn’t sure if I would have to remove the wrap on my dainty purple chariot and put her up on the auction block as well.

Gray skies awaited us as we checked out of our hotel the next day and headed to my cousin Ranae’s house in New Mexico. I didn’t have gloves, a heavy jacket or proper boots. I put on tube socks and shoved my feet into black dress shoes, feeling like a hick. The drizzle made my already kinky hair encircle my head llke a frizzy halo. 

By the time we reached Amarillo, Texas, about four hours into our journey, snow dappled our windshield. The dusting soon blanketed fields and barn roofs and began to stick to the asphalt. I hadn’t driven in snow in more than ten years. If a simple shower is a threat to an L.A. driver, how much greater terror does the white stuff  pose. I gripped the steering wheel, praying that our van, and its many boxes of books, wouldn’t drift off the highway.

By the time a sign appeared in the distance announcing that Tucumcari, New Mexico was 72 miles away, the snow was piling up. For twenty to thirty minutes at a time, we were the only car on the highway, with only leaf-starved trees and shivering cattle in nearby pastures to keep us company. The roads hadn’t been salted or plowed, and my confidence in my driving ability melted like a snowflake on a window pane. I could tell my mom was nervous as well, because she grew quiet and sat forward in her seat as if she could steer from the passenger side.

The world was awash in white. At times, we could only see two to three car lengths in front of us, flurries swirling in our headlights. As we turned off Route 10 and traveled down a secondary road, we approached a Swift truck, its slow pace belying its name. I allowed the big rig to lead us, following in its icy tracks. For thirty miles, we followed our chrome-and-metal savior past snow-topped silos, past frozen streams, past rusty mobile homes in the wilderness.

While sitting behind the wheel, I began to feel a heart-heaviness for bringing my mom on this financially disappointing book tour. I had walked away from my cushy job because I wanted to become a full-time writer and support myself with my hands. But I was broke, cold and feeling about as relevant as a busted tire discarded on the shoulder of the highway. And I still had about 1,073 miles to go before pulling up to my garage in L.A.

Finally, our Swift truck turned off on an exit, and Lola and I were left to fend for ourselves on the slick stretch of road. As I took my time maneuvering the Beckyville Bookmobile, I was reminded that I had taken an unconventional route, and I had to prepare my life for unconventional results. We had faced slippery asphalt and road closures along the way, and yet, we were still driving. 

After about an hour of white-knuckling it, I pulled off at a rest stop so we could stretch our legs and gas up. When I powered up my iPad to check my email, I noticed a message from an unfamiliar sender. After reading the note a few times, the enormity of the message hit me. A well-respected university had selected my book Escape from Beckyville to be taught in its course on Blackness and Culture. I hadn’t solicited the school and couldn’t figure out how they learned of my work. Yet, my little book about the ways in which black women are marginalized in a future society would be taught to college kids at a leading university in the spring.

I can’t say that my fears and anxiety about money thawed at that realization, but my hopes surged. All I wanted at the outset of this journey was a sign that I was on the right path, that writing the book and taking my show on the road wasn’t a zany quest. I had glimpses of success along the way, but inclusion in the university’s curriculum was validation of my dreams.

On the horizon, a yellow sign welcomed us to the Land of Enchantment. As we crossed the New Mexico border, the sun struggled to penetrate the clouds. The hazy orb was too feeble to melt the ice on my windshield, but it was a constant guide, leading us down the highway, illuminating our chilly trek home.

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