Tag Archives: fiction

A Storyteller’s Lazy Susan

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You know what a lazy susan is, right? Aside from this nagging question of why do folks think Susan is so lazy, I find myself coming back to a visual of one when I think about the stories I’m telling. The stories I’m writing. The ones that have space in my head. Some of them.

Years ago I had the pleasure of hearing the brilliant, award-winning playwright, Susan-Lori Parks, speak at a bookstore in St. Paul, MN.  She was so great. I’m just gonna take a second and sigh here.

I was a very new playwright working in theatre administration but filling my days with plays and workshops and soaking up everything I could from the more successful than I.  Which was pretty much everyone in my theatre world!  lol!  But to hear her speak was a thrill.

She told us that her plays, the projects she’s writing at any one time are kept on a lazy susan of sorts in her mind. I am completely paraphrasing this so there is no direct quote from her. She explained, though, how she would spin that lazy susan when she got ready to write and where it stopped, there would be the story she worked on. I think this was the part of her talk where she was sharing process. Some writers take one story and only one at a time, while others, like me and Susan, have multiple ones. (notice how that reads like we’re friends, me and Susan. We’re not but ya know… )

Since then I have learned the value of following the sage advice of having more than one story, one project, one script, one book, at a time because if the question from some producer, agent, publisher, director, investor is “What else you got?” then you have to give them something.  Shrugging and saying “Can I get back to you in a month…” doesn’t fly.

So some mornings, it’s the lazy susan that comes to mind when I sit down at the page. Which story is calling for me to “come on in, the water’s warm” or which character is demanding to be heard, to be seen.  Or which story is a murky fog on the page aching for some light to cut through.

This the curiosity of being storyteller.

Of course, this means there’s a lot of voices in my head and sometimes I look and feel a bit dizzy but it’s a good kind. A writer’s kind.  So, don’t worry about me. I’m really okay.

“Of course, #metoo.” says millions of women. Me, too. Excerpt from Stands Alone.

I had a moment of what must be courage…Holy shit…I posted on Facebook about the sexual attack that happened to me my freshman year of college.  I’ve been thinking a lot about that night that… fuckin awful event…for years. And no, not just when the #metoo movement began…so many of us have been in that movement for decades.

Recently though, what pushed me to go to the page was the attack on Dr. Ford and the slimy mutherfucker Kavanaugh is… an gut observation I made days before information about his drunken wild ways of hurting women came out.  He set off a trigger in me (and in many of my friends, too). He’s THAT GUY. The one at the party to stay away from. And I’m sad that it was true. Sad and angry as fuck that it is true.

So with that in mind I made a small post, “I wasn’t 15 but I was 18…I don’t know my attacker’s name but we know hers…”  And immediately, my post was met with love and support. So much so it left me in tears. I LOVE my FB community. And I value how much they’re a part of my survival.

I’m writing a novel called Stands Alone. It’s about a detective who with the help of her ancestors takes on a white supremacist who starts a race war.  The detective, Tanner Stands Alone, is half Black and half-Native. And yes, of course, I am so working out some ish in this book!   It’s supernatural and dark and gritty.  Not for the faint of heart but let me tell you, if you’re a chick of color surviving in this world, your heart definitely ain’t faint.

In the story, Tanner’s mother, Kate, is Black, a character who has her own story of when she felt the brewing of her ancestors in her blood.  See…this is why art must always be supported and valued. Through my writing I am able to tell what happened to me, changing some details for the sake of this fictional narrative but giving me space to process this.  It was 33 years ago.  33. And thinking about it today still twists my gut and kicks my soul around busting the wounds open again.

That’s what happened when I watched Dr. Ford’s testimony. So much of her assault she survived rang true to mine. The hallway. The bathroom. The shoving into the room. The drunk monster on top of her. Of me.

And last Friday, it took me 48 minutes with my shrink to finally get to the “I didn’t deserve what happened to me.” And then I rushed back into a fog in my head that she helped me find my way out. I was safe. I am safe. But then Saturday another memory rose up and I finally answered ‘yes’ to the question: “If I was even a little bit scared and just let him fuck me quickly so he would pass out, was that rape?”

That will be another chapter in another book.

We’re stepping out of the darkness. As we can. When we can. How we can. There is light. There is healing. And this is how I’m doing  mine.

So, here’s an excerpt  from Stands Alone :  (I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M SHARING MY PROSE…)  Please share.

Kate – excerpt from Stands Alone by Stacey Parshall Jensen

She was late again. Getting across campus always took longer than she planned. She didn’t like to be late. And really hated the feeling of always trying to catch up. Be present. Kate Rogers believed punctuality was necessary for order. And she was trying really hard to get order back. Get more. She knew she had lost her way her first semester at Mankato State University. It was overwhelming when she arrived. Not that she questioned her knowledge. She worked for her high school top grades but she didn’t work too hard. She knew that college would be different and that she might have to put in more time, more focus. But she liked that. She was interested. And curious. And liked being smart. It was a value to her. To her family. Her father, Harold Rogers worked many years in a garage he eventually owned but only found success because of order. He impressed that work ethic into Kate. Ran their home on a clock. On clear expectations and goals so that they could get ahead of surprises. He didn’t see the dark fog rolling into their lives that sucked up his wife, Jerilyn. That dark mist that surrounded her long enough for her to get lost and wander off, leaving him with two little girls to raise. Kate was 6 and Calypso was 4. And then ten years later, Calypso did the same. He wasn’t going to fall to pieces and that was what he told Kate she better not do. And that required order.

But when the fall semester began there were thousands of students on campus who didn’t just ignore Kate, they didn’t even see her. She lost count how many times she was bumped into, when a passing student’s shoulder would bang into hers with no regard. Or when doors would fly open, hitting her in her face. Or when she’d be in line in the student union to order food or a coffee and someone would walk up and step right in front of her. Or on her feet. Sometimes she would make her presence known by saying something or pushing back a bit, but not ever too much. And sometimes she’d get a look of surprise. An occasional apology. But this felt like something permanent was happening. That she was going to fade away and be lost to nothing but the air that lived around other people.

On the other end of the scale, she had girls in her dorm whose open piercing fascination with her left her feeling exposed. All the time. These girls were the ones with long blonde hair and flat asses who reached for Kate’s curls. Stared hard at her dark skin. They would openly look at their own breasts in the community showers comparing the shades of brown on their nipples to her black. They didn’t even try to hide they were doing this. They didn’t say anything to Kate’s face but after she fought the urge to run, she would finish her shower and leave the room with some shred of dignity, their voices would rise up with astonishment and even glee. “Did you see her ass? It’s so round. So high. And her nipples? O my God. How can they be even darker than her skin? But her bush? Wow! That’s a bush!”

To avoid this fantastic show she seemed to be starring in, she eventually got very early and took her shower. Or in the middle of the night when the dorm floor was quiet.

She was the only Black girl on her that floor. And one of only four in the whole building. The other three never spoke to her. Or to each other, as much as she could tell. They kept their heads down. Moving in the shadows.

It was different for the Black guys, though. At least those who were football players. They got celebrity status but Kate knew that was more than how good they were on the field. She knew the fascination was there, too. Riding up close to an angry brewing of twisted envy that could explode into hate very quickly. She didn’t talk to any of them, either. Maybe their status had to include the beautiful homegrown Minnesota white girl on their arm. Maybe they too were just surviving.

Patsy Holman was Kate’s first roommate. A quiet small-town girl who claimed at first that her job would keep her away from their dorm room for most weekends which eventually turned into her coming back to change clothes and belongings until all her shit was gone. In one month. No harsh words. No racist comments or even weird stares. Just a going away. In fact, Kate wasn’t even sure if her being Black was the reason. And she didn’t complain. Her room became hers alone which was good but the flip of the privacy was the sadness of solitary living. And even after Patsy things were all gone, Kate kept her own belongings to her side of the room. She had declared her major in anthropology and had begun to create a work space that fed her curiosity. Her studies. But only on one side of the room.

Kate’s life was class and work-study at the library. She heated soup on her burner in her room. Made popcorn and drank water and tea while she studied the leading minds in Black anthropology. She knew her own mind was expanding. She could feel it actually growing. Pressing up against the inside of her skull.

Sometimes, to her shock, she’d read something that not only ignited a new thought or pushed a low brewing one to a burning height, she’d feel her blood rise up in her body and she’d get a flash of a vision of a life that felt like hers. Before hers. It was odd and scary. It was being awake in a dream. Not floating but existing in that dream. Not just point of view but seeing. Seeing. Feeling. Being in the dream.

The contradiction that made Kate finally run from her dorm room one night was feeling alive with more memory and more story than her tiny body could hold and being invisible in this college campus world. How could her feelings be so profound, so necessary when no one was seeing her?

She threw a sweater on over her long sleeve blouse so worn the cuffs were frayed and the elbows soft. She wore dark corduroy slacks. Big flared legs. Black beaded belt to hold them up. Her boots were tan and like all her clothes, worn. Nearly used up. But she didn’t care what she looked like. She needed to get out of the room.

She left campus, walking away from the tall buildings, the stadium, the students hanging out in rooms sharing their lives, their dreams. The weight of feeling she didn’t belong was crushing her and if she didn’t move fast and far enough away it would kill her.

At the corner behind the gas station was a bar. A club. The Road Runner. She had seen it before from the city bus she sometimes took to go exploring the city. But never paid it much mind. That evening though, walking past it, she heard the music first. And then she saw the people streaming in. Young people. Dressed for the disco. Afros were big, glistening in the neon lights of signs in the window. Some were dancing in their boots before they even went in, bumping and grinding. Laughing. Loving each other. Loving life.

Kate wove her way through the crowd at the door intent on passing by. But the big bouncer in his black leather jacket, his tight flared jeans, one gold ring set high on his knuckles, called out to her.

“Hey, baby girl. Where you going?”

Kate shook her head, smiled and kept going.

“You know you wanna dance. Come on, sweet thing.”

She slowed down and turned to face him. She couldn’t help her smile because his was contagious. “Nah. I have to get back to….my studies.”

“What you study, girl? On a Saturday night?”

She checked his expression to see if he was teasing her but he checked the licenses of the squealing girls and let them in. He looked back up at her.

“Anthropology.” she answered.

“Sweet. What better place for some research, right?” This time he laughed.

Kate had to laugh, too. More young people parked and headed to the door as Sly and the Family Stone started playing inside. She heard the roar of cheering and then the voices joining in to sing along. She realized then that she had just seen more Black people in the last three minutes than she had seen in one month on campus.

 

The DJ spun Sly into Parliament and from there to Earth, Wind and Fire, Wild Cherry and Brick. And she danced. She started slowly, sipping a drink by the bar. Watching but moving slowly. She knew beat. She thought of the dance parties she’d have with her dad. So few but they were the best nights. When he’d be nostalgic for some life he didn’t tell her about but could be convinced to turn the record player up and they’d dance. She missed those nights. She missed him.

The night went on and drinks flowed. Dance partners gladly bought her more. That’s what the men did.

When the lights came up and it was time to go, Kate’s blouse was drenched. Her face glossy with sweat. But so was everyone else as they headed to the door, spilling out into the night. That’s when she felt her buzz. The cool air tickled her body. She shivered and tried to put her sweater back on. At some point she tied it around her waist but untying it proved to be more difficult. That’s whiskey sours.

One of her dance partners, Joe, laughed and helped her. Her knees were shaky. She stepped back with a loud “Whoa!” He caught her arm. He, too, was sweat covered. His Afro cut short and close to his smiling black face. “You okay?”

Kate grounded her feet and forced a deep breath. She wasn’t a drinker. Didn’t much in high school. Had a few beers at her graduation party her dad threw her at the garage but not much after that. Her head felt light. Like it could float away.

Another big guy, this one wearing his MSU Maverick football t-shirt joined them. “We’re rolling at Walkers. Let’s go.”

“Sweet! Come on.” Her dance partner steered her towards the flow of people heading around the corner of the bar down the parking lot. Tucked behind the club was a sprawling apartment complex. Mostly students lived there, packed into well-worn units. They were cheap. Close to campus. And close to the Road Runner. All that any student needed.

“Nah. I should go back to the dorms. But thanks—“ Kate pulled away from the guys.

“No, Come on, girl.”

Kate looked again at the young people. How connected they seemed to be to each other. Hugging. Holding onto another as they walked, sashayed. Danced down the parking lot. Three girls, all Black, all beautiful and like Kate, sweat-covered, came up behind them. “Joe! Joe! Joey!” They singsonged, dancing around Joe. He took them in his arms. “This is my new friend, Kate who needs to keep dancing but won’t admit it.”

The girls expanded their circle drawing Kate in.

 

An hour later, the students packed so tightly in the living room of the tiny apartment, moved like one grooving beast. One grinding monster. Those there to drink only stood guard over the keg in the kitchen. Those there to get higher were against the walls, passing joints. But the dancers met the bass of the funk with abandonment. A freedom that Kate had never known. Walker, Joe and their friends were all football players and partied like this as often as they could. That’s what the girls told her on the way to the apartment. They all worked hard and deserved this. No one wanted to discuss their studies, their classes, which professors were cool and which needed to retire. No one asked where she was from or if she felt she fit in. They just brought her in.

She was still dancing as she made her way down the hallway to the bathroom line. Her buzz was heavy in her body. But dancing kept it moving. Surging around her body, away from her head. She thought water. She should get water. That’s what she actually said out loud when his big chest met her chin. He towered over her. He was white. All muscle. Red face like a boulder, rugged. Jagged. He pushed her backwards into a bedroom across from the bathroom.

Kate stumbled. She tried to get her footing but for all his bulk he was swift. He knocked her back on the bed. She fell hard, eyes on the ceiling. She sat up to see him shove an easy chair in front of the door. It was overstuffed. A knitted afghan over the arm. Torn upholstery on the seat.

“What? What? What are you doing?” She was able to say. She thought she said.

He didn’t answer though. He showed her.

He pushed her back on the bed and crawled on top of her. Pressed his big knees on hers. She struggled against his chest. She hit him. As hard as she could. Like smacking a brick wall, she left no mark. Caused no pain. He grabbed her wrists and pinned them over her head.

Kate was sure she would vomit. She tried to kick. To get some strength. To sober up but he was stronger. Bigger.

She felt the blood in her body surging. Scrambling to race away from her skin. To get to her brain to help her escape. She started to cry. But he had moves. He had skill. He was able to knock her back, pin her down and get his dick out of his pants at the same time. With his height. With his strength. He was a swiftly moving monster.

He kept his knees on hers while shoving his dick on her face. She gritted her teeth. Locked her jaw. He grunted and pushed it harder on her mouth. She couldn’t cry out because if she opened her mouth he would win. He would get what he wanted from her. And what she wanted was…to kill him.

In that moment, in those gut-wrenching moments of terror, the vision of biting his penis off quickly, surgically, with her teeth, sharpened by the weapons of her grandmothers, their force raging through her body, came over her. Came through her. He could bleed to death. She had two seconds of clarity in the fog of the attack to see. To feel the rage. Killing him wouldn’t be just for her, or for the women caught in his way in the future. It would be for every man who used his dick as a weapon because he believed it was his right to do so. For every man who used his power to wrap his hands around the necks, the wrists, the ankles of women before her. Those men who threw punches, broke ribs and faces and then in the bloody mess they created, they raped. She felt the fight rising in her blood. Saw them. Her ancestral grandmothers fighting back. Poor Black and brown woman terrorized in alleys, in warehouses, in factories. She saw them running the long rows of the cotton fields. Digging their way across the dirt floors of sheds and barns. In tenement houses. In alleys behind bars. In schools and churches. There was no place to hide, no place to heal. She felt the skin on their backs being ripped away as their insides were ravaged by the prick of a powerful white man. One who believed they were only animals created for his violent taking.

But she could kill for them. For herself.

A growl rose up on Kate, rushing to escape her with blood and bile from her innards, with the vomit and booze choking her.

The door opened, banging against the back of the easy chair.

A Black guy, another football player, peeked in. “Oh, sorry, man,” he said, pulling the door shut.

That second of him opening the door was the second Kate hollered. “No!” She wanted to shake the walls with the pitch of her scream. Her mouth opened and she tasted the monster’s prick instead. But this was the seconds she had. The seconds she was given. She could bite now. She could gnash his dick off now. She could kill now. Or she could run.

This was also the second he looked back over his shoulder to the door. The second that he let up his grip on Kate, just a little.

She shoved the beast of a man away from her, scrambling to get out from under him. Still screaming. “No! No! No!”

The football player at the door pushed it open wider. He looked surprised. Helpless. He didn’t seem to realize that he didn’t just save Kate but he saved the life of the man crushing over her. The attacker. The monster.

Kate screamed more. And more. Like a feral animal. Wrongly caged. She ran at the easy chair. One foot on the seat of it, the other on the top, she tried to fly over it. She was flying away. She was escaping.

She tumbled into the guy at the door, knocking him into the hallway. The music was loud. Thumping but her heartbeat was louder. She tore at the football player she landed on, not wanting to be touched by anyone. She pushed on him and got up. She didn’t know if the people waiting for the bathroom, smoking weed, making out, hanging in the hallway noticed her. Or knew what had happened. She didn’t see their faces. They were just obstacles in her escape.

She shoved her way through them, bursting back into the living room. Tears ran down her face but no one did anything. No one saw her. They still didn’t see her.

She made it through the dancers, past the flowing cups of beer laced with rum, passed the joints and the pipes. She ran past the booze-laced gazes of the other players, past the women they were grinding on and out the door into the courtyard.

She burst into the night, her soul twisting with pain. Her belly alive and inflamed. Her blood rushing to her ears with the cries of her ancestors. The loudest came from a vision Kate saw in her mind. An African warrior, a woman as dark as the night sky, her eyes bright and fearless. It was Ke. Screaming in Wolof. “Dangi! Dangi!” Run.