THE2NDHAND installment 25 sees the fruition of THE2NDHAND's expansion to Birmingham, AL, in late 2006. The fiction featured herein is both of Chicago and of Alabama. Nadria Tucker is of the latter, an Atmore native currently living in Birmingham and whose story "318" won the contest THE2NDHAND sponsored in conjunction with Birmingham Art Walk. See the events page for details on the 7 Sept 2007 reading held during the festival at Birmingham's Omni Garage. "318" is the story of a stripper's daughter preparing for her high school's beauty pageant. 318 is the street number of the trailer where she lives, overgrown with Alabama wisteria and festooned with snakes of more than one stripe. Also featured here in a short from Chicago powerhouse Jonathan Messinger's brand-new collection, Hiding Out. It can be ordered here or here. See below for Tucker's story, and to read the full pdf of the issue click here.
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318 is a single-wide -- green with white stripes, overgrown with wisteria vines that act as shade in summer but rarely bloom. Under the too-small porch, there's a collection of household discards: an Easy-Bake Oven, a Black Barbie. Under the trailer, in the dark, there are snakes.
When Ebony was three or four, TV was her favorite toy. She'd sit for hours, nose pressed to the screen. Beauty pageants. Sometimes, a mass of makeup and blond curls would cover the screen, and Ebony would say beautiful -- one of the first words she learned.
TV is still her favorite toy at 16. She watches shows about travel and celebrities. It's how she learned to speak with an American accent, instead of a Southern one. That's why sometimes people tell her she doesn't sound black.
Friday afternoon. She runs home after school. The books and gym bag strapped to her back weigh her down -- it makes the workout harder. It's what they do in the army.
When she gets home, she stands on the too-small porch for a while. She stretches and shivers. Her velour tracksuit doesn't keep out the cold.
Inside, she eats a salad and reads an old-looking book called How to Win at Everything. She's alone. Mom's probably at work, or out with a guy or wherever she goes at night to get away from this place.
318's next to a field full of cows and the bones of old or burnt-out mobile homes. In the morning, the air smells like shit.
In the morning, Ebony drinks a protein shake. Mom eats pancakes, bacon, and eggs with too much cheese on top. This is the first time they've seen each other in almost a week.
How's the beauty pageant thing going?
You think you could win?
What about the other girls? How are they?
Just don't be disappointed if you don't win.
It'll be a miracle if you win.
Just don't be surprised if a white girl wins. You still keeping up with your studies?
The pageant has an academic award.
Oh, good, maybe you'll win that.
You're so supportive.
Don't get an attitude. Remember who's paying for you.
How could I forget?
Ebony brushes her teeth in front of a mirror. After she spits, she smiles, sincerely, and rehearses holding that smile while she speaks.
What's the biggest problem facing teenagers today?
What's your town or state known for?
Why did you enter this pageant?
Ebony sits alone onstage at a piano. She plays. This is her talent. She cries. Nothing sounds like a piano in an empty auditorium.
Halfway through rehearsal, the girls break for water and refreshments, but almost no one eats. Ebony talks to the choreographer, a white woman about Mom's age.
I just don't think I'm getting it, Ebony says. You've got me up front in this routine, and I'm not the best dancer here. I'd feel better in the back.
You'll be fine, the woman says. From the moment I saw you I knew you had a natural talent for dance. She smiles. Just keep at it.
Ebony does, for the rest of the day, and for the rest of the day, in every run-through, she makes a huge mistake.
It's after nine. Ebony knows that if she's home alone this time of night, there's a good chance she'll be alone for the rest of the night. Now is the perfect time to practice the dramatic monologue. She'll be in California, at an audition, before anyone knows she's gone.
Unless, of course, she wins the pageant. Then, she'll cancel the trip, and go to State. She thinks there's a good chance she'll win. Her grades are good enough; she's come up with a great low-carb sweet-potato-pie recipe; her essay on being black in the South is sure to be a hit.
The L.A. thing and acting are Plan B. Mom says, Have something to fall back on. Mom says she wishes she had.
Ebony wrote the dramatic monologue herself. It's about a woman who realizes her dreams will never come true.
Ebony's face glows in TV light. She's on a yoga mat on the floor in her room -- upward-facing dog. Her back pops and the sound reminds her of being six years old -- of her father cracking his knuckles. To this day, she hates the sound. She remembers telling him that, and him doing it more to annoy her.
She's glad he left. Ebony felt sorry for him. Mom was the main reason-she only married him because she was pregnant and didn't want her family to stop giving her money. The day before he left, they had a fight. He wanted her to stop taking her clothes off; she said that stripping made her feel sexy and powerful. He called her a whore; she told him he was right. He said he was going to leave if she didn't stop. She said go ahead, and he wasn't Ebony's real father, anyway. He left. Ebony would've done the same thing. She might.
Ebony dreams. In a red ball gown, she runs through a field of black arums, crushing them underfoot. She's chased by a purple cobra with a sword. As she runs, her dress rips and her legs grow tired, but she doesn't stop. No matter how fast she runs, she can't get away from the thing behind her.
Voices coming from the too-small porch wake her -- Mom and some guy. Ebony waits about ten minutes after she hears them come inside. Then, she checks to make sure the front door is locked. It's not, so she turns the deadbolt. Then, she turns around and sees Mom having sex on the couch. Ebony locks eyes with the guy. This must be the guy that's paying their rent now.
She turns out the light in this room and goes back to bed.
Sunday. Ebony skips church to get some pageant stuff done. In less than two hours she runs an extra mile, does one hundred extra crunches, and bakes a sweet-potato pie. God helps those who help themselves.
Mom's home. She skips church, too. She says she's tired. She says she's always tired.
She says, He found a snake in the yard yesterday.
Why are you telling me this?
You're afraid of snakes.
No, Mom. You're afraid of snakes. What did he do with it?
He killed it.
Where were you?
Hiding in the house.
It's not a house, Mom. It's a trailer.
Not really. That's like you saying you're a dancer.
I'm an exotic dancer.
You're a stripper.
And what are you? You're nothing.
Sasha's here for a joint practice session. She helps Ebony with the choreography, and Ebony helps her with everything else. They come up with a good (but not as good as Ebony's) recipe for Sasha to use.
Sasha says, I think your chances are as good as anybody else's. If anything, you being the only black girl helps. You stand out automatically. That's what the rest of us are struggling to do.
Mom says, How's the pageant stuff coming?
You know, Sasha, I did pageants.
Sasha says, Yeah?
Miss Smith Station. 1984. I was seventeen years old.
It was a huge deal. It said in the papers, "Local Girl Goes Places," and it had a picture of me in a red ball gown. That dress was amazing.
Did you go to State?
No, Ebony says. She got pregnant. Now, she's paying for me.
The pageant finale is two days away. Ebony's already won the academic award. She lost the recipe contest to some wannabe Martha Stewart.
Mom says, Don't get too excited.
Mom says, Have something to fall back on.
Mom says, Apply for scholarships.
Mom says, Start with the junior college across town.
It's dusk and Ebony smokes a joint out back. There's a small porch out here -- even smaller than the one up front. From here, she can see well into the cow pasture. She spots a figure moving between the old trailers. It's too dark to see much, but she knows she's seen something.
She walks to the fence that separates the pasture from the rest of the trailer park. There's not much to it -- two boards a couple feet apart. She can't figure out how it keeps anything in. She climbs right through.
Ebony walks directly to where she spotted the figure from the porch. She goes between two charred-black trailers. She sees a figure standing there, in the dark. It's a life-sized Black Barbie, in a full-length gown. Ebony steps closer, and the figure becomes clear. It's a charred-black dress form melted to some curtains -- an aspiring designer must've lived here before the trailer park burned. But now, in the silence and the dark, Ebony's all alone.
She runs back to 318.
Day before the pageant:
at-home chemical peel,
one hundred extra crunches,
two extra miles,
Ebony can't sleep tonight. If she stays up much longer she might as well quit trying and stay up the rest of the night. She's got a hair appointment at 5 AM.
She gets up and walks through the trailer. TV's still on in the living room, so she turns it off. Some guy's in the kitchen, in his underwear, pouring a drink.
Ebony says, I thought you both were in bed.
We were, says the guy. It's the same guy from the couch.
Night, Ebony says.
Wait, says the guy. Come here. How old are you?
Sixteen's a good age. And you're a pretty girl.
You guess. You wouldn't enter a beauty pageant if you didn't think you were. Your mom told me about it. She's real proud of you. Not just the pageant stuff, but school and piano and everything. So, you think you're gonna win?
Maybe, Ebony says.
Well, says the guy. Good luck.
Did your mom tell you I found a snake?
Doesn't that freak you out? There are snakes under here -- under your room.
It's the vines, Ebony says. They're beautiful in the spring, so we let them grow. But they attract snakes and bugs, and without enough trimming, they'll take over. It's a shame they hardly ever bloom.
Yeah, says the guy. It is. Don't be too hard on her. She loves you.
Today's the day. She's made-up, costumed, and in place for the opening dance number. She's still got the spot up front. Mom's in the audience, probably with that guy.
Ebony runs her tongue across her teeth -- a last-minute guarantee there's no lipstick there. Mom says, Say a prayer before the start.
Curtain up, lights...
Smile. God helps those who help themselves.
Ebony doesn't win.
She doesn't even place.
Hours after the pageant's end, she goes out behind the trailer and stares up at the stars. What happened? The dance routines went all right. Her dress was amazing. She did everything right.
Mom says, Don't be upset. We knew this would probably happen. God knows, around here, black women are only beauty queens when we take our clothes off.
Ebony recites the monologue in her head to keep from thinking about the turbulence. She's not used to rough skies. She's not used to the sky at all. This is her first time. They've got the A/C cranked up high. Her velour tracksuit doesn't cut the chill. The monologue doesn't stop her thoughts.
What if things don't work out in L.A.?
A strip club.
The resumé of a 35-year-old woman living with her 16-year-old daughter in a trailer with a too-small porch.
At least it'll be beautiful, Ebony thinks. Wisteria blooms year-round in California.