(Intern at A Word with You Press setting a new wreckord)
Now that we have successfully funded publication for Fred Rivera’s Raw Man, we can get back to business as unusual; in this case, posting our final entries to our contest: Once Upon a Time.
Each entry is the prologue to the novel you have been threatening to write; once you write the prologue, you can no longer say you intend to write a book–you have already started.
Kenneth Weene’s prologue reminds us that the author is under no obligation to have you like his protagonist; you only have to be interested in him/her, or annoyed by him/her so much that you continue reading to see if he/she will change or get his come-uppence.
(A disclaimer: we are editors here at The Word, not censors. Fowl language is always permitted, but foul language only if it is germane to the story or character development)
We have a few more prologue/entries back-logged, which we will post this week, and I will then announce five semi-finalists to submit chapter one of their work-in-progress.
Here is the prologue to
Times To Try the Soul of Man
by Kenneth Weene
If the sex had been better, I wouldn’t have noticed the shaking of my bed. But, Marcie and I had been living together for three months, which had been two months too long; and sex had already become a casualty.
We were sharing my one room hovel on the fourth floor – walk-up obviously – of a decrepit Lower Eastside dumpsite, which my landlord’s ad had called “well-located” and “charming.” The location, right in the middle of what New Yorkers call Alphabet City, was convenient, as long as you didn’t need to get to the subways or anywhere else. The charm, well, that was as much a figment of his imagination as my commitment was of Marcie’s.
One good thing had been the fact that it was a place of my own: no more living with my father, sharing a dorm room, or living in a pension like the one that had been my home in Santiago for a year – a year during which I studied Spanish, traveled around South America, met Marcie, met Mo, and Estella – Estella, green-eyed Estella, I wish …
I’d come back to the States – to the Big Apple – looking forward to new women. After many phone calls, which must have set her old man back a bundle, and even more emails in which Marcie had asked, no, begged to come to New York to be with me: “I can’t live without you,” she had crooned in her lilting Spanish. I had given in. I wasn’t sure I could live with her, but sometimes the balls take over and the brain gets decommissioned.
She came. I met her at Kennedy, took a cab back to my place, and fucked her before she could unpack. That had been good. In fact, sex the first couple of weeks had been good – maybe even sensational. The next three or four had been all right. By the third month the music had stopped, the dance was over, and she was still hanging on. After only three months of playing house, I could understand why my old man had been so willing to give up on my mother. Worse, I had come to realize that I wasn’t any better.
So, that morning, eleven o’clock, my heart wasn’t really into it. Better than jerking off? Sure. Better than a peep show? Maybe. Better than finding someone else? No way.
Marcie, meanwhile, didn’t have a clue. She was on top, practically jumping up and down in her excitement and moaning in Spanish. For a girl raised in middle-class Chilean society and educated exclusively in Catholic schools, she sure was ready to screw. Who was it that said, “Repression breeds desire?” Whoever it was, they certainly knew about Marcie.
My head was a million miles away. For one thing, I was depressed as hell. It wasn’t just Marcie – it was everything. I was out of money. My car, which was barely running, had been towed once again. I hadn’t been to any of my classes in weeks. My job as a reporter at a weekly newspaper in East Elmhurst at the far end of Queens was paid crap. My mother was back in the nut factory—third time since she walked out, each time after another relationship that was going to be “wonderful.” And I was just about out of friends. All of which would have been tolerable if the sex had still been good, but it wasn’t.
When the bed started shaking – left and right and front and back like it was some kind of Coney Island fun ride – it gave me something to focus on.
In terror-driven slow motion, I watched cockroaches scurry in purposeless circles on the brown-tinged walls.
“What the hell,” I thought. “When the roaches are frightened, you know you have trouble.”
I must have said it aloud because Marcie paused in her pumping and asked if she had hurt me. Before I could think of an answer, the whole building seemed to twitch. “Get off,” I bellowed. “I think the fucking building is coming down. Grab your clothes and come on!”
I wasn’t exactly gallant about it. Hell, I was shitting bricks. By the time Marcie had pulled the door closed, I was halfway down the stairs buttoning my shirt, and thanking God that there weren’t many other people still in the building. By eleven they had mostly dispersed except for Jack, who drove a nightshift cab and who was also charging toward the narrow front door onto Avenue B.
Outside, I stood for a moment and watched people streaming north toward the corner of Fourth Street, where they turned east and headed for the river. I caught my breath while Marcie caught up with me. Then, pulling her by the arm, I followed the crowd. Two conflicting thoughts clanged in my head: “When did I become a lemming?” and “Is there a story here?”
As we tried to keep up with the crowd, I heard a periodic booming coming from the direction towards which we were all streaming. It wasn’t the sharp retort of a gun; it was more of a deep-throated growling boom – a sound that made me think of an old-time cannon, something from the nineteenth century.
We rounded the corner onto Avenue A along with the hundreds of other people who had materialized. Marcie was holding my hand and trailing behind. I felt the pull of her slowness on my shoulder. “Hurry,” I urged but didn’t know why.
Just north of the intersection was one of the community gardens the city had been trying to close down. Beautiful mixtures of flowers and produce, these bits of artificially created country added charm to the Lower East Side; but they did shit for the all-important tax base.
There was an enormous gap in the fence that had been replaced by loose hanging, chain link, which was held closed by lengths of wire. Inside the garden were a crane with a wrecking ball and a dump truck: both with engines running; both with a jagged mountain logo and the name Mannlich Construction in dark red letters.
The booms were the result of the heavy steel ball bashing into the shattered building which the night before had been the homes of students, couples, families. Those people, now suddenly dispossessed, homeless and helpless, were gathered on the sidewalk grumbling in a polyglot of languages and accents.
“They gave us less than an hour’s notice,” a black woman holding the hand of a terrified toddler was telling no one in particular.
“They were banging on the doors and yelling the building was coming down. I grabbed… Where…?” The dazed elderly man sat rocking on the curb. He clutched his possessions wrapped in an old blanket, rocked back and forth, and cried. Next to him stood a small, framed photograph of a young woman. The glass was cracked. “Delores,” he sobbed as he picked it up. “Oh, oh, ohhh.”
Two police officers, a young man who looked disturbed by the events around him and a somewhat older woman who looked as if she couldn’t care less, stood on the sidewalk between the hapless survivors and the boss of the demolition team. He wore a cheap suit of polyester blue—bagged around his knees and shoulders—and held a bullhorn in one hand. Through it, he tried to tell the workmen what to do. They ignored him with the same studied indifference that New York workers, safe in their union seniority, generally use to let bosses know just how unimportant they really are.
The garden had been almost totally uprooted. Whatever remained of the salvage which had been used to decorate it was being broken into bits by two men with sledgehammers and pry bars. In one corner plastic garbage bags had been filled with plants, which as recently as that morning had been carefully tended. One, lone, defiant tomato plant and its stake had somehow been overlooked. I wished that I had a camera to take what I thought might be a good front-page photo.
The crowd had grown increasingly restive and ugly. The policewoman, hearing the changing tone, called for backup. I wondered if that wouldn’t make things worse. Again, I wished that I had taken my camera. I even considered running back to the apartment and braving its uncertain footing. I might have done so if Marcie were not clinging to me with the terror and strength of the drowning.
Clouds of dust emanated from each stroke of the giant ball. Some of the workmen wore respirators; others had bandanas over their mouths and noses. The crowd hacked and coughed. Gray dust settled everywhere. Faces had taken on a ghoulish appearance as angry and frightened eyes peered out from the ash-gray of skin.
Obviously, a good story was breaking. It was heralded by the whine of more police cars. Then a new sound came into focus. It was singing, singing in Spanish. It was a song about comrades: comrades willing to face death, willing to face death for the sake of the cause – the cause of freedom, the cause of justice.
The singers came around the corner. They numbered in the thirties, but the energy of their singing made them seem more like a mob. The man who led them was short, middle-aged, dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt, and work boots. He was clean-shaven except for a small mustache, and he wore raccoon glasses. I had never seen him in the neighborhood, but he was obviously well known.
The crowd parted before him. As he approached the garden, more and more people fell into line behind him and joined the song.
This was my introduction to Jose Figurés, president of the Lower East Side Latino Community Center, a man whose life and death were to change me.
Figurés stood opposite the man with the bullhorn. The singing stopped. All conversation stopped. The crane’s motor stopped. The dump truck’s motor stopped. The workers stood still. The two original police officers, now joined by half-a-dozen of their peers, surrounded the two men. There was silence.
Finally, when my nerves were ready to pop, Figurés spoke. First in Spanish and then again in English, he demanded that the work be stopped. “This is a community garden that you have desecrated,” he said with force. “We are the community.” When he said this, he waved his left arm to include all of us standing there and watching.
The crowd bellowed its support, “Somos la comunidad,” and pushed inward toward the confrontation.
“We want you to leave.”
“Quisiéramos que usted se fuera,” the crowd echoed.
The man with the bullhorn tried to respond. I caught something about city permits and work orders through the hail of catcalls, jeers, and the growing chant, “Somos la comunidad. Somos la comunidad.” As he spoke, the workers seemed to become increasingly uneasy. Apparently, it was one thing for them to ignore him, but it was another for the increasingly angry mob to show so little concern for the authority that he represented and under which they were working. A few of them whispered to one another, and I noticed some of them picking up tools and lengths of rebar.
The project director turned his frustration and his bullhorn on the police. “Do something,” he demanded. “We have permits. Get them out of here.” The booming, crackling, tinny words elicited a roar of anger and more chanting from the crowd. By that point, I was screaming along with my neighbors.
As the mob moved and shifted, those neighbors alternately spoke English, Spanish, and sometimes other languages. I heard my own voice yelling in Spanish and then in English – my choice of languages apparently dictated by the language closest to my ears. What I yelled, I can’t remember; I just know that I yelled along with hundreds of others. In the moment of emotion we had become one.
The police looked around and shook their heads as if to say that heroism did not require them to be fools. The original young male cop reached down and fingered his gun. His partner reached over and pulled his hand away. The job manager again demanded action. A newly arrived sergeant, who seemed to be the ranking police officer, put his hand on the man’s wrist and held it so that he could no longer use the bullhorn.
I watched the sergeant, who was speaking with great animation first to the manager and then to Figurés. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but it was clear that the sergeant had no intention of taking on the growing crowd. It was also clear that there was no love lost between him and Figurés. Still, there was an obvious respect that he didn’t show to the manager.
The three men yammered for a few minutes. I wondered how they could concentrate. The tension of the moment was palpable in the mumbling discontent of the crowd. The occasional catcall of derision and anger followed by shouted approvals in English and Spanish seemed to punctuate not only the three-way conversation but also the very life of the city.
Eventually, the manager gestured for the workers to open the makeshift gate. They followed his instructions all the while keeping their weapons in hand and a wary eye on the growing motley crowd. Clearly, if we had charged into the garden, the workers would be overwhelmed and the police would have had to take action. That would have precipitated a riot – a riot that seemed so imminent.
Some of the people closest to the fence did start to move forward. Figurés moved into the center of the opening, faced us, and held his hands in the air. Everyone stopped. The pushing stopped. The talking stopped. It seemed as if the city was holding her breath.
Figurés, now in complete control, waited until the silence was complete. He spoke: first in Spanish and then again in English. “We have won a minor skirmish,” he told us. “The workers are leaving. Let them go in peace. Tomorrow a judge will decide if they have the right to tear down this building. For today, we have won.”
As I looked at his face, I could see a great weariness in Figurés. Also, I could see the iron resolve of a leader – of a shepherd who would never desert his flock. At that moment, although I had never met him, I truly liked the man – liked and respected him.
“There are people, our friends, our neighbors, who have lost their homes today,” he continued. “We must help them. We must save our community! Please, bring whatever you can to the community center.”
He turned to the dispossessed. “We will create a shelter for you and help you find a new place. We will not abandon you. No le abandonaremos.”
The dispossessed cheered. We all cheered. It was clear that this was a man who commanded respect – the voice of the people with a soft New York – Puerto Rican accent. “No le abandonaremos.”
Gently Figurés reached down to the old man, who -silent but still rocking – now clutched his precious photograph to his breast. “Viene, mi amigo,” Figurés almost whispered. He helped the old man to his feet, and shouldered the blanket holding the man’s meager ration of salvaged possession. “Viene, mi amigo,” he repeated. They walked arm-in-arm, and much of the crowd followed.
Sometimes a good story just comes up and bites you in the ass. I resolved to learn more about this leader, to interview him, to write about him, and to write about this new urban warfare – an urban warfare that had literally shaken me out of bed.
This may get me a Pulitzer, I thought. There was a community in turmoil, a building full of the newly homeless, a group of terrified workers, nervous cops, and a charismatic stranger who seemed to truly care; and I was thinking about getting a prize. The selfishness of my thoughts almost embarrassed me. I took Marcie’s arm and pulled her through the crowd and back toward my apartment.
“Let’s get a coffee,” she suggested as we passed a café, “or, perhaps go home – back to our bed. Podríamos hacer amor.” There was bait in her voice.
“Let’s not,” I responded. “I’ve got to get to the paper.” This was the greater temptation to which I would rise. Whatever else, I was going to get my story.