MORSELS, TASTES, and TIDBITS
(Featuring Excerpts from Unfinished Business…)
Tell me, finally, what is a man. What is a woman. Aren’t we lovers first, spirits sharing an uncharted space, a space our stories tell, a space chanted, written upon again and again, yet one story never quite erased by the next, each story saving the space, saving itself, saving us. If someone is listening.
“The Cattle Killing” , pt.2
John Edgar Wideman
Characters are crucial elements of prose. Perhaps you studied English, womanist, African-American, Chicano, or classical literature either in high school or college. There you learned to identify the protagonist, the key figure in literary writing, and the antagonist, the principal person in opposition to the hero. The belletristic world is replete with memorable personalities. My favorites include:
- Sula, the sassy sister and heroine of Toni Morrison’s classic novel of the same name.
• Jo, the feisty March sister in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
• Kay Scarpetta, Patricia Cornwell’s brilliant pathologist and lawyer who painstakingly solves the grisliest of murders.
• Rhett Butler, the dashing, reckless heartthrob Scarlett O’Hara couldn’t keep in Gone with the Wind.
• Miss Celie, the sister who found her dignity and reclaimed her in life, in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Color Purple.
• Dracula, Bram Stoker’s all-too-frighteningly real creature of the night, and day, in his eponymously titled novel.
• Anna Karenina, the central figure in Tolstoy’s tragic love story.
• Jean Valjean, the tortured hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
• Janie, the sister who defied social conventions to be with the man she loved in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s daring novel.
• Walter Mosley’s unconventional private detective, Easy Rawlins, made famous by Denzel Washington’s stellar performance in the movie version of Devil in a Blue Dress.
• David Copperfield, Charles Dickens’s autobiographical alter ego.
Fully realized portrayals appeal to readers and relationships develop. Think about the fictional characters you genuinely like or even love. Why and how do they inspire affection, after all, they are fictive? The answer lies somewhere between the depth of their personalities and our perceptions of them as credible, be it a he, she, or an it. Characters bring storylines to life; plots revolve around them. How they react to the circumstances affecting their existence, whether factual or fictional, must engender a sense of believability reading audiences can embrace.
Margo Reade-Fraser, the mulish, hyper-sensitive antagonist of Unfinished Business: A Celebration of Black Life, Love, and Institutional Memory, unleashed a world of characters who populate the novel. Among them:
- • Jonathan Reade-Fraser, ex-husband number two.
• Reginald Frederick Coates Senior, ex-husband number one.
• Reginald Frederick Coates Junior, the son she abandoned in his infancy.
• Stephen Andrew Reade-Fraser, the son she subsequently kicked to the curb in favor of her elder child.
• Edree Althea Watson Coates, Fred’s second wife, the love of his life, his soul mate, and the woman who adopted and reared Reggie.
• Obie Coates, Fred’s larger-than-life father, a fun-loving philanderer whose influence is widely felt throughout the saga.
• Margaret Coates, Obie’s devoted wife and the woman who reared Fred, her husband’s love-child, with their two sons.
• The doctors, Theron and Julia Watson, Althea’s parents.
• Nicholas Mason, Theron’s son from a long-running extra-marital relationship.
• Edwina Aretha Watson, ‘Thea’s identical twin sister who brought her baggage with her.
• Lesley, Lynnice, Leylah, Leah, and Lauryn, Reggie’s younger sisters.
We like, love, or hate fictive characters based on how we connect with them and interpret the roles they play. When they succeed in touching our hearts and capturing our attention, they become memorable; the chronicle takes on added meaning.
Unfinished Business opens with an unflattering portrait of Margo and entices the reader with the essence of a mission she chooses to undertake. Her pursuit ultimately defines the scope of the novel by taking an intimate look at three Black families whose lives become intertwined through her. Margo’s role in bringing them together is unintentional and she doesn’t benefit. However, as backstories unfold, we see the beauty, strength, and sanctity of Black life told from the characters’ perspectives; and her struggles are but one aspect. They confront the challenges of daily life, critical decision-making, public and private humiliation, death, racism, jealousy, estrangement, bad blood between siblings, and the stresses and strains of unhappy marriages. Margo’s quest is a metaphor for exploring interpersonal relationships in their most familiar constructs and contexts.
After meeting Margo, we learn she has a child with whom she wants to reconnect. On the surface the idea doesn’t seem unusual, except she hasn’t seen him since he was eleven months old and the circumstances surrounding their separation are entirely due to choices she made. He’s fifteen when she decides it’s time for them to reunite, on her terms. Her approach to breaking the news to husband number two, from whom she is gradually becoming estranged, triggers the beginning of the end of their marriage while offering a background redux of the dissolution of her first one. Her reemergence is an unwelcome, and painful shock for ex-husband number one…
“…”Margo! Again!” Fred fumed as he drove ‘Thea home. He pounded on the steering wheel. “I can’t believe I dreamt about her last night. I should have known this would happen; you said it would; my parents told me she would come back; Hubert Hunsaker warned me! I just couldn’t see it. It’s not like I didn’t believe you… any of you. I really could not see it! I mean, the woman left; she left Reggie and me, and didn’t even leave a note; didn’t say one single, solitary thing! She booked and told her parents she didn’t want to see me, ever again, I might add! Didn’t want anything to do with me!”
“She made me out to be a monster,” he moaned, tears streaming down his face. “Her father called me and… and… interrogated me! Do you hear me? He questioned me! He wanted to know what happened between Margo and me, what did I do to her? What did I do to make her so unhappy? He accused me of having an affair! Me! I cheated on her? Margo, according to her father, said she couldn’t live with me anymore. She abandoned her own son…”
“Okay, so she didn’t want to live with me, but how could she walk out on her own son? This was the child she said she wanted! The child she just had to have. I thought we were moving too fast, but no, she was adamant. We didn’t have much of a marriage, oh, you know the story! You’ve heard it all before. Then she splits… You told me she would be back, why didn’t I listen? Why didn’t I believe you? Margaret told me she’d be back! Obie couldn’t abide her! He warned me about her, and he said she’d be back. Hubert Hunsaker said she would come back. You all said the same thing, the same thing! Why didn’t I listen?”
“How, what?” He abruptly stopped talking.
“Fred, honey, where are you going? We missed our turn,” ‘Thea gently inquired. She felt awful for her beloved husband. He was the most patient man she knew; reserved, a good listener, unfailingly polite, easy going, but no pushover. It pained her to witness his outpouring of grief, anger, and frustration.
“Where am I going? I’m going out of my mind,” he muttered. Slowing down, he made a U-turn and began retracing his route. “What is your schedule today? Do I need to pick anyone up? I can’t even remember what day it is.”
“I work until we close tonight. Reggie has track practice, he has a meet tomorrow, which I think is on our calendar. Gina, Niecy, and Lalah will come home on the activity busses at the usual time. Let Gussie know if you can’t meet them. She’ll get dinner for you and the kids,” ‘Thea recited the day’s activities for his benefit.
“Uh huh, okay,” he shook his head.
“Sweetheart, quit beating up on yourself. I… I can, Margaret, and Obie, if he was here, and Mr. Hunsaker, if he was still with us, we all understand why you feel the way you do… I want you to have a good day, the best possible day. We will get through this,” She reached over to kiss him. He held her as tightly as he could.
“We have to get through this, for Reggie’s sake and for ours,” he stated crossly. “Margo isn’t going to destroy what we built together. Those demands of hers are ludicrous. Are you okay?”
“She won’t, Fred. She can’t do anything to us unless we let her. Now get going, and yes, I’m fine. I’ve been pregnant before,” She kissed him one more time before scrambling out of the car. She needed to prepare herself for work…”¹
1980 is the pivotal year in Unfinished Business:
- • Margo resurfaces and demands to see Reggie, but is merely seeing him what she really wants?
• Althea learns about her father’s son and the reason for his reappearance while pre-eclampsia forces her to spend the last three months of an unplanned pregnancy on bedrest.
• Fred’s beloved older brother, Ralph, dies unexpectedly, as their mother watches helplessly.
• Reggie turns sixteen.
Fred and ‘Thea, recognizing Margo is operating on a hidden agenda, grant her a two-hour meeting with their son.
“… ”Well, let’s get on with it, shall we? I came to get my son,” she snapped, revealing an even uglier aspect of her personality.
“You’re here to meet Reggie Coates, Margo, nothing more. He isn’t going anywhere with you, and you’re not to suggest otherwise,” Gordy commented dryly. He eyed her closely. She didn’t respond. Instead she cursed herself silently; she’d already said too much. He exited a door at the far end of the conference room. A few moments later it reopened and she beheld the handsomest child she’d ever laid eyes on. She immediately noticed how well-groomed and nattily attired he was. Someone knew a little something about clothing.
“Reggie? Reggie? It’s really you?” Margo bared her teeth in an attempted smile, hurriedly moving toward him. ‘My God,’ she thought, ‘he is absolutely the most handsome child. He is… he’s beautiful!’ She wanted to hug him, however, she restrained herself. “Hello Reggie,” she reached out to him. He instinctively recoiled at the sight of her unusually large hands. She wanted to stroke his face and comment on the little peach fuzz moustache. He maintained a safe distance which Margo seemed not to notice, she was so caught up in the moment. They were finally, finally together, in the same room. Her dream was coming true. She immediately regretted having nothing to give him; no trinket for him to remember her by. And she wondered how to initiate a conversation with him. She had so much to say, or at least she thought she did. “Hello, Reggie, has the cat got your tongue? It’s okay, you can say hello to your mother, can’t you? Oh, you are a sight, my… my you are handsome. Your father has done well. I must thank him later. Yes, I must thank him,” she yakked on in a grating tone.
“Hello,” He tersely replied. Who was this tall, ugly woman with really big hands… a hoarse, harsh-sounding voice, and seriously bad attitude?
“Tell me about yourself,” Margo’s garrulousness belied her anxiety. “We have so much catching up to do, don’t we? Have you always lived in Oakland? It’s so small compared to Manhattan. Oh, yes, I live in Manhattan. You’ve heard of it, haven’t you? Oh, by the way, I brought this for you, I want you to have it. This is what binds us together, you and me.” She thrust the envelope toward him, forcing him to come closer. “Please open it,” she insisted, flashing a grin he thought was positively creepy. He carefully, albeit reluctantly unsealed the wrapper, which didn’t escape her attention. He was such a polite young man, and she wondered if he was quiet? He was obviously well-reared, something which pleased her. He extracted the document, skimming its contents before laying both pieces of paper on the conference table. “Well?” She was still grinning eagerly.
“Well what?” He flatly inquired.
“Aren’t you going to thank me? I brought you proof… proof that I’m your mother. This is our starting point, son… it’s what binds us together,” Margo declared, triumphantly, having regained her supreme self-confidence.
“It’s an out-of-date birth certificate and I’m not your son,” Reggie replied evenly.
Stunned into silence, Margo struggled to comprehend his response. She needed to get her wits about her and decided to change the subject. “I want you to come and live with me… you’ll have your own room, of course. I’ll bet you don’t have a nice big room now. I’ve found a really good school nearby, but we can always find another one if you… if you don’t… if you don’t like it. Oh, I am so happy to see you again. I’ll talk to your father about visitation. I’m sure we can work something out… something we’re all happy with, right? Of course we can. Can I take you to dinner? You and your father, just the three of us. We have so much catching up to do. Oh, did I tell you? We’re leaving tomorrow morning at ten. Give me your address and telephone number. I’ll have a limo pick you about seven. Your father can come to see us off if he wants to, I don’t mind. Oh, we have so much to talk about but I’m the one doing… I’m doing all the talking, oh goodness, I am so sorry. My manners… this isn’t very… very motherly of me, is it?” Margo cackled, unnerving Reggie. “Now, please talk to me, I’ve barely heard your voice. Do you have any questions of me? Don’t be shy, ask away…”
“What makes you think I’m going anywhere with you?” He stared at her, unsmiling.
“I’m here to take you back to New York, Reggie,” she replied in a mocking tone. “You’re my son and I’ve come to bring you home. I… I know it’s been a very long time. You probably have lots of questions for me. But really, now, you don’t think I made this trip just to meet you? I came to get you, I’m your mother and you… well you’re my son. We’re supposed to be together, to be family,” Margo wasn’t smiling anymore, either. “Why do you think I gave you a copy of your birth certificate?”
“I was told I was meeting you and nothing else. I’m not going to Manhattan with you. I don’t want to go anywhere with you and I already have dinner plans,” he replied, firmly. “And the birth certificate is out of date.”
“Well of course we aren’t meeting. We met when you were born. Surely your father told you all about me… about us?” She attempted to quiz him.
“Technically, yes, we met when I was born,” Reggie agreed, remembering ‘Thea’s explanation. “You abandoned my Dad and me when I was eleven months old. You’re the woman who gave birth to me. My mother is Althea Coates. I don’t know you and I don’t want to live with you. Thank you for asking, though.”
At the mention of ‘Thea’s name, Margo drew herself up to her full height, inhaled slowly, her nostrils flaring, and lit into Reggie, her unsightly features grotesquely contorted in anger…”²
I am completing the second read-through of Unfinished Business. During the previous review I had the privilege of reading the narrative from beginning to end. I saw, heard, felt and experienced the saga while consciously transforming it into an initial final draft. As part of the current phase, I am also editing and proofreading. I am making revisions where needed; correcting errors; and inserting material in places where more detail is appropriate. I’ve done all of the foregoing in long hand, completing a word-for-word, sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, and page-by-page analysis, making notes in red ink on updated hardcopies. I upload each completed chapter to a flash drive containing the original manuscript. The same material is incorporated with a back-up copy on my desktop.
The read-through process is immeasurably pleasurable and fundamentally necessary. My intent is to produce a literary work worth getting caught up in. I owe them the time and effort required to realize this goal. Once the second read-through is done, I’ll upload a final draft to the US Copyright Office website; apply for a Library of Congress Card Catalog number, and purchase an ISBN designation, or barcode, to facilitate retail purchase. An abstract version of the cover exists and after the next steps are taken, I’ll initiate the formal process of producing the MS in hard copy and digital formats. I’ve chosen to devote my attention to each component of the development of this chronicle separately. Consequently I’ve gained an intimate knowledge of my creation and I love it!
Unfinished Business… is a proud, potent consciousness-raising salute to Black life, love, institutional memory, and our never-ending quest for dignity, positive recognition, and a broader appreciation of who we, children of the African Diaspora really are…Political discourse… overlooks our collective cultural identity as people who live, love, laugh, cry, marry, rear families, build communities, worship, procreate, slip, slide, survive, and thrive….
As Theron elaborates on the crux of Nick’s demands…
“… “The transplant isn’t entirely what this is about, my darling,” he added, thoughtfully. “I never publicly owned Nick as my son… getting this transplant, for him anyway… it was about our relationship. It was… it was about having me asking my colleagues to help him… it was about hearing me refer to him as my son… something I couldn’t do.” Fred instinctively put an arm around ‘Thea and gently drew her closer to him. “Nick and I don’t have an adult relationship,” he continued. “Julia and I supported him until he finished college, it’s true, but… he was never my son in the intimate sense. I had nothing to do with raising him, nothing. And I had no intention of leaving my family for his mother.”
“I knew about Nick,” Julia revealed… Theron lovingly embraced her. She smiled at him, tenderly. “Oh yes, I knew all about him. I was so deeply hurt… for a very long time I was bitter. Aretha, darling, I knew you knew about Daddy and Flora, Nick’s mother. I could tell by the change in your attitude toward him, and Daddy knew, too…” ‘Thea shivered and snuggled up against Fred. Neither she nor Aretha had ever heard their mother speak openly about Nick or their father’s affair. “I didn’t know what to say to you, my darling child. My own pain was too great to deal with yours, too. All I could really do at the time was be a buffer between the two of you. After you girls left home for college I… I realized I needed to do something. We were about to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and I realized I’d carried my grief and anger far too long. Your brother’s death was not Daddy’s fault. He probably lived as long as he did because Daddy did everything he could… we couldn’t get the medical help our precious little boy needed; we couldn’t do anything helpful for our son… our segregated society was an obstacle we couldn’t overcome…
We brought him back here for his funeral and burial. Afterward well-meaning friends and acquaintances descended on us like a horde,” she continued, memories pouring forth like a streaming spigot. “We never took the time to grieve together, to mourn, to… talk to each other… I wasn’t sensitive to Theron’s pain… he’s a physician and he couldn’t save his own flesh and blood. I didn’t reach out to my own husband, to assure him I didn’t hold him responsible. And I… I didn’t realize how deeply wounded I really was until…” despite her tears, Julia smiled, “… until I held Reggie in my arms for the first time. He sensed my woundedness and gave me his love, my sweet little boy and… when he did, I felt the pain leave my spirit. I felt Theron Junior leave me. I heard my son saying, ‘Let me go, Mommy, you have a little boy to love now, let me go…’ And I released him… oh my…” she laughed and took the handkerchief her husband offered. “Oh my… I… never thought I would ever talk about this, our loss. And we never talked about Theron Junior with you girls, which was a mistake. It would have helped us to heal. You know so little about him and he was your brother. Your father and I made our peace so long ago, but Reggie… he helped me make peace with myself. My darling little man… I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for me to… to open up about… about this. Althea, sweetheart, when you brought Fred and Reggie into our lives, you gave us a second chance at life…”
…”Nick wants Daddy to be more than just his biological father… he can’t accept there’s nothing more,” Aretha wiped her eyes… “He doesn’t seem to understand… relationships have to be nurtured and valued by… by everyone involved. He… had an expectation, an unarticulated expectation, you know? He’s dying… slowly… but he is dying. And, even as his life is ending, he’s still battling with himself about what he feels Daddy owes him…”³
Margo’s unrelenting pursuit of Reggie runs its course bringing her face-to-face with a young man able to speak for himself…
“…”I decided one day I had to see you again, and those feelings really surprised me. I don’t know what I expected from you… but now… Reggie, thank you for dinner; it wasn’t what I expected… but it was what I deserved,” Margo spoke barely above a whisper.
He didn’t respond, and her heart broke into pieces. His words echoed in her head. ‘I want you out of my life.’ She never expected to hear him utter anything so fundamentally negative, and so forcefully. She convinced herself he would accept her… and her apologies, and they’d ride off into the sunset, reunited, and reconciled. It never dawned on her he had any thoughts about her hackneyed efforts to get him back into her life. She struggled not to break down in his presence. The outcomes she’d worked so hard to achieve were beyond her reach. He was her last hope, her one chance at humanity. Once again, she fumbled the ball and missed the goal. When he was hers, she didn’t want him. She couldn’t be bothered to assume her role as his mother. Now she couldn’t get him back, even if her life depended on it…
She let herself out of his car, unaware he had gotten out also. She could hardly breathe and didn’t say goodnight, the words stuck in her throat. There wouldn’t be a nightcap. She didn’t notice he removed her gift from the back seat and set it on the sidewalk. She left it behind. He drove off as she walked into her hotel. For eleven years Margo Fraser was an unhappy woman on a mission. It wasn’t clearly defined, even though Reginald Frederick Coates Junior was her goal. Her objectives wreaked havoc everywhere. They destroyed her second marriage, cost her the love and affection of the one son she could still claim and further alienated her former husband and the son she abandoned. She screwed up… and left indelible memories filled with hatred, pain, and psychic wounds. Riding the elevator up to her room, she was still a lonely and unhappy woman. Once again, she would return home empty-handed. THE END.”⁴
©March 5, 2018 by Theresa W. Bennett-Wilkes, author, Unfinished Business: A Celebration of Black Life, Love, and Institutional Memory. Excerpts 1-4 are taken from the novel. All rights reserved.