Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stars and Fire

By Claudia Ricci
It was just about a year ago when you vacated your old farmhouse, to live temporarily in DC. And now it’s time to move home, and it’s a little scary because that old farmhouse you left behind is in the middle of nowhere and it is so cold and so old and drafty and so empty of your children, who are grown up, and your husband, who will not be able to move back from DC until health care reform ACTUALLY PASSES, (please God, soon!)

Anyway, you drive up from JFK on a night that is so cold and clear that the stars seem to shine brighter. It’s after ten o’clock when you pull into the driveway and get out of the car and stare up at the splatter of stars overhead and think “ah, yes, this is why I live here.” Then you make your way in the dark around to the back door with three heavy bags and you fumble around until the key fits. When you’re inside you can still practically see your breath it’s so cold.

Suddenly, though, you remember what your friend Liza said in an email a few weeks back, after you wrote to say you were nervous about returning home. “You’ll get back there and light a fire in the wood stove and immediately you’ll feel at home.”

So before you take your coat or boots or gloves off, you hurry out the back door to the wood shed and under a crisp crescent moon in the western sky, you collect some twigs and small sticks and a couple of logs. Back indoors you’ve got a fire going in the stove more quickly than you have ever started one before.

You pull the rocking chair right up there to the arched window of the stove and you sit and stare inside the window of the stove. Your knees are inches from the fire. The wood crackles and sparks. The log sitting in the stove suddenly has a snout, like a dog. Your mind jumps back in time. There beside you is Bearsie, the big black Chow/Lab (Chowbrador) you had for more than ten years.

The rest of the house is dark. But no longer is it so scary. There are flames roaring inside, and outside the back window there are all those pinpoints of fire blinking in the black sky.

Such an old thing. Making a fire. Cozying up beside roaring flames.

Such an old thing. Sitting under stars.

After a while you unpack your digital camera and play with the shutter so that that flash doesn’t go on. You take some wild photos of the flames roaring up in the woodstove and you smile because one of the photos could be a close-up of one of those stars.

You smile.

Because you are home, and warm, because you feel just fine.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

So are we evil? Or just...human?

By Stephen Lewis

I believe that all people are capable of good, but they don’t always show it.

Recently I visited a friend for a weekend at his fraternity house at the University of Michigan, and my backpack was stolen. I later found it emptied on an upstairs balcony. My clothes were scattered, and my iPod was missing. I never found it nor did I find my culprit’s identity.

The students in Ann Arbor, like most University communities, come from affluent families, not unlike my own Jewish family. Their rooms are filled with electronics and expensive gadgets so I suspect most of them already own an iPod. Mine wasn’t taken because of desperation or need – probably more for the thrill (of course it could have been someone off campus who needed it).

Whoever it was, he --or she-- made me pretty angry. I felt helpless, violated and betrayed. And then I got to wondering about this individual who had ripped me off.

I like to think that I am a good person, but I am not perfect by any stretch. In the fourth grade, I hid another student’s drumsticks in the bushes hoping I wouldn’t have to sit next to him in band class anymore. A pair of detentions validated that I had done something wrong. I was in the fourth grade. The thief listening to my Beirut tracks is in college. Of course he knew what he was doing was wrong, but apparently he never had a Principal Jacobs to slap him on the wrist when he deserved it. Is this person also inherently good?

Even Bernie Madoff did some good. After all, he managed The Madoff Family Foundation, which supported many educational facilities, cultural programs, and health research funds – although I imagine many of those closed down without his financing.

Madoff's critics abound. One of them, the magazine City File: New York, labeled Madoff the “new face of evil.”

But is he?

Evil is the intrinsic absence of good; it is something absolutely immoral, and willfully malevolent. To me, the faces of evil through history are tyrants. They include Ivan the Terrible, Hirohito, Leopold II, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler. I understand this magazine is fighting for readers in an industry hanging by its last thread, but they are wrong to call Madoff evil – Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe, and Omar Al-Bashir still walk freely on this Earth. They are in a category, clearly separate from Bernie Madoff.

Madoff shows me that people are not just capable of doing good, but also capable of doing wrong. I am capable of doing wrong as well. I have from time to time imagined what would happen if I released a box of hornets into my brother’s bedroom after a fight, but I’m glad I’ve never resorted to such measures

I wonder if my offender is listening to my iPod right now, enjoying the smooth rhythms of Thievery Corporation or the soothing beats of Bedouin Soundclash. While I may have demonized him when I discovered my backpack minus my stuff, I highly doubt that this person is evil. Maybe all he needs is some quality music to guide his intentions.

Writer Stephen Lewis is from Los Angeles. He is a sophomore at Georgetown University.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Carried By Six, a novel

By Allen Ballard

Chapter 1

OBIE BULLOCK PULLED HIS BATTERED OLD CHEVY SEDAN in front of the Joseph E. Hill projects, checked the sign, and double-parked. He got out of the car and mopped the sweat from his brow with a big red handkerchief. It was only eight in the morning, but the pavements in North Philly were already warming up, just like every other day this week. He began the short walk to his building, past the graffitied concrete tables. The old men were already out playing cards.

One looked up. "Just getting in from the job?"

"You know it. Any of you see Dora Lee yet this morning?"

"Heading towards the bus about fifteen minutes ago,” another player said. “Looking good, too, man. Go figure. Prettiest woman in the place and married to somebody ugly as you."

Obie laughed and aimed an air punch at him.

The older man stood and threw up his arms. "Come on if you dare. These the fists `destroyed Bucky Jackson."

"Man, I know I can't stand against the mighty Tyrone Waters."

With that, Obie took off at a run towards the building entrance. The entire table collapsed in laughter, the other men clapping their hands and encouraging Tyrone, a bent-over senior citizen.

"Go get him. You know Obie ain't nothing for you."

"Show him, Tyrone. Do your bad thing on him."

Tyrone stood and shouted after his disappearing foe. "Don't mess with me, man, thunderbolts in these fists."

Still laughing, something he hadn’t done a lot of lately, Obie entered the lobby. He looked up and down the corridor for Roy, who was away from his desk. Damn, the house committee had met with the police just three nights ago and agreed that two officers would be assigned to the building--and that one would always be on duty at the front desk, no matter what.

You’d think the rape and murder of little Shakeisha a month ago would be enough to make them keep their promise. And it wasn’t like Roy to leave the desk unattended. When he had to take a break, he'd go ask one of the men outside to take over for a few minutes. Obie sighed. This was no way to help make this place safe for the kids and the old folks, much less stop Son Teagle’s gang from taking over the building.

He walked to the desk. A copy of Ebony lay half opened on it, like Roy had been interrupted while he was reading. He pulled out the chair and sat down, ready to stay there until he came back. Probably had just gone into the recreation room to take a leak.

“Morning to you, Miss Taylor, that dress fits you just right, ought to knock them out in the office today.” Obie smiled up at a tall, graceful woman whose body was snugly wrapped in a yellow dress speckled with Yoruba symbols. “Yes, ma’am, you’ll surely be the queen of Chestnut Street this beautiful day the Lord has sent.”

She grinned and blew him a kiss on the way out the door. “Oughta be ’shamed of yourself, Obie, way you be sweet-talking us all the time.”

He had a snappy comeback ready, but just then four kids, followed by their twenty-six-year-old mother, burst out of the elevator and were all over him before he could even say hello.

“Where’s the candy?”

“When you going to ride me piggy-back again?”

“He promised me first, didn’t you, Obie?”

Their mother, Serena, quickly reined them in. “Obie, you spoil them rotten, one day I’m going to leave them with you for good.”

Obie laughed. “I wouldn’t mind, one bit.” He looked at the kids. “We’d have us a ball, wouldn’t we?” They nodded unanimously, thinking perhaps of the homemade oatmeal raisin cookies and fruit punch that always awaited them when they stopped in at the Bullocks’ apartment. Then they were off, propelled through the door by Serena.
Obie turned back to Ebony, where Roy had apparently been reading an article about the 50 leading eligible bachelors of the year. Maybe his good buddy, stationed in the Hill project for the past four years, had been hoping he’d make the list some day. Obie didn’t get a chance to look at much of the article, what with the elevator banks constantly disgorging folks. All of them had something to say to Obie, who by this point was hurting for sleep.

Around eight-thirty, the elevator traffic slowed down. The building had just about emptied itself out, leaving only the old, the unemployed, and three or four of Son’s gang members, embedded in the apartments of decent folk. They’d come back from prison—most of them—settled in with their mothers or grandmothers, and proceeded to sell drugs. That’s what the meeting the other night had been all about.

ROY STILL HADN’T COME BACK, and Obie was worried. Given all the problems with security lately, he hadn’t wanted to leave the desk unoccupied and go off looking for him. But freed now of the distraction caused by the comings and goings of the residents, he took a careful look at the recreation room door and saw that it was slightly ajar. And wait a minute--Roy's key ring was still in the lock. Yet the room was dark.
Something wrong here.

Writer Allen Ballard, who lives in Albany, New York, grew up in Philadelphia. His first novel, Where I’m Bound, won the First Novelist Prize of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was named a Notable Book of the Year by the Washington Post. Dr. Ballard, a professor of History and Africana Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, has a website at

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Downsized, Downtown

By Camincha

She had become so lonely
in her self-imposed exile since
she lost her job to “down sizing.”

Imagined herself walking among
many, unleashing her desires,
wrapping them around the legs
of unsuspecting pedestrians.
She would do like a puppy
and give them little love bites.
She would do like a kitten
and give them little love scratches.

She thought of frolicking among
the crowds downtown.
Relished the idea of lunch in a
crowded restaurant.
She knew just where, The Royal Exchange,
at Front and Sacramento:
She licked her lips thinking not of food
but of the crowds there at lunch time.

The place was crowded.
Just what she had hoped for,
three hunks led by the hostess went by.
She readied her best smile.
Brushed them with knowing eyes.
Selected the best looking for
her company––eternal––of course.
He returned her smile, studied
her intensely.

A second later he was at her side.
As he leaned over, she watched his
chest hairs through the opened shirt,
smelled his cologne. Fantasized over
their impending date. She waited.

He said: May I take the catsup?

Camincha is a pen name for a writer living in the Bay Area.