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Diana Veiga

Go On Girl! Book Club, Unpublished Writer Award 2013 Winner

Diana Veiga photo

Diana Veiga was the 2013 winner of Go On Girl! Book Club’s coveted Unpublished Writer  award.  Ms. Veiga was honored at the organization’s 21st Annual Author Awards celebration on July 1st, 2013 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.    

Go On Girl! Book Club is now accepting entries for our 2014 Unpublished Writer and Scholarship winners.  The dealine to participate is March 15th, 2014.  For more information visit www.GoOnGirl.org

 

“I am from Silver Spring, Maryland and live in Northeast Washington, D.C. I graduated from Spelman College with a BA in French and earned a Master’s in Public Communication from American University. I am currently employed as Program Manager for African American Religious Affairs (AARA) department of People For the American Way. AARA is an alliance of progressive ministers who encourage African American churches and communities to actively promote social justice programs and policies.

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I absolutely love my 9-5 job and being active in improving the world, but I’m realizing a little more each day that my heart belongs to writing. I have been writing for as long as I can remember, but I was always afraid to call myself a writer. I refused the label even as I minored in creative writing, took classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, currently participate in writers’ groups, and in 2010 I applied, was accepted and attended the Hurston/Wright Summer Workshop where the awesome Marita Golden was my teacher. Oh. And I write all the time. I’m currently working on a collection of short stories tentatively titled, How I Got Over, about the lives and journeys of various Black women.

This is the year I am accepting my call as a writer. While I am unpublished, I am becoming more purposeful about the process. Determined that I write and then share. And so I am sharing my story, Neighborhood Watch with Go On Girl! Book Club. I do hope you enjoy.

Neighborhood Watch

by Diana Veiga

On Mondays and Wednesdays, Ms. Pauline sits on the front porch of her D.C. row house and counts the number of white people who speak to her. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she sits right on that porch and counts the number of white people who don’t speak at all, don’t even acknowledge her wave. On Fridays she counts the number of big-ass dogs she sees, being walked or jogged by their owners to that new dog park, which had its official ribbon cutting three months ago.

Today is Tuesday. She’s already at three people who haven’t said a mumbling word.

Ms. Pauline sits on her glider until her husband, Johnny, gets home from work. It is then that she goes inside, takes out whatever is cooking from the oven and recaps her day. She puts plates on the table and details all the white people who passed without answering her hello. Pours sweet tea and acknowledges those who at least smiled as they pushed strollers. Sits down, waits until her husband has finished grace, then continues, questioning this time – And those dogs? Why are they so big? What the hell’s a dog park?

“Leave those people alone,” Johnny says every time like he can’t understand.

Because he doesn’t.

Johnny’s people are from North Carolina. Well, Ms. Pauline’s are too. But her people got to Washington, D.C. in the early 1900’s, when they were segregated and relegated to certain neighborhoods and schools, until they finally received the entire city by default. She was there when they couldn’t go into certain stores. And when U Street, their Black Broadway, jumped and jazzed. Johnny, however, was the first in his family to arrive to the city as a freshman at Howard in 1964.

Ms. Pauline doesn’t know about the country, just what comes from it: the collards and hammocks, healing remedies that call for heavy doses of vinegar, the work ethic that propelled families to middle class life. Her hands know nothing about the dirt that not only gets under your fingernails, but into your blood.

Her hands are accustomed to the hardness of metal and steel. Her feet only know concrete. Her ears recognize sirens before they do birds. Her heart is all over this city: in its secret spots, the Uptown streets, Georgetown shops, the closed nightclubs, the theatres that have shuttered, and the trolley tracks that have been paved over – she has left a sliver of herself in every quadrant. Because this is her city, her chocolate city.

Or, at least, it was.

Today, she sits on her porch, rocking back and forth on the glider. The air is thinning from its summer heat as the September breeze tries to push through. But no one is outside, which Ms. Pauline finds strange. Not even her friend, Mildred, who usually tends her front garden around this time.

Ms. Pauline looks from her corner house down the block. Eight houses. All still owned by black people. But for how long? It seems that people don’t want to stay in one place anymore. It was 1969, when she and Johnny bought their row house with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, grand sitting and dining rooms, plus space for a playground in the backyard. Right after the city had burned, from riots and with Black rage. The white people who had hung on moved out of the neighborhood so fast it blurred into a haze of for sale signs and tail lights. Until her block, damn near all the blocks, would soon become Black enclaves that would host despair and destruction, while nurturing hope and community.

Left alone and together, there had been neighborhood block parties. Children had jumped rope and hopscotched on the pavement. Boys threw footballs in the middle of the street until a car turned the corner. Fireworks in the summer. Snow angels in the winter. Walks to the church up the street or around the corner. Men would come home from a hard day of work to women with open arms and children with extended hands.

But, Ms. Pauline was no fool - it had not all been Leave it to Beaver. Some men had come home with alcohol on their breath and in their gait. Some had fathered the neighbors’ children. Others had walked down the front steps and never returned, like soldiers who leave women, children, tears and bills behind, but without the noble cause of war.

But even still, it had been home.

Ms. Pauline taps her right foot, still swollen as if she had walked the hospital halls in her nurse’s uniform last night, and not three years ago. She looks across the street now. All those homes, except for one, have white people in them. Who keep wanting things. Like wider sidewalks, fancier wine in the liquor stores, and patrol cars on watch to nudge along those few boys who still hold down corners, to get off the block, out the city. They wanted a grocery store within walking - or biking - distance. And a damned dog park.

If Ms. Pauline had been honest with herself, she had wanted those things as well. But she had just wished them into the atmosphere. Not gone around with petitions and protests. She had desired rapid police response, consistent conveniences, signs of greenery, and bursts of life in the midst of the cold concrete and the crack rock that almost destroyed them, their neighborhood. But none of it had ever come. Instead, she and her neighbors had patch worked together a semblance of stability and middle class life, even though they knew they deserved more.

But these white people had gotten everything they wanted. And it hadn’t even taken them that long.

Ms. Pauline leans back into the glider and closes her eyes. It is rounding five o’clock, when the majority of people pass her house and she does the most counting. She positions her body so it can feel some of the sun. And then she hears the shout before seeing who has emitted it. Even with her bad right ear, she hears it clearly - sharp and frazzled around the edges with fear.

When she opens her eyes and sees red hair bouncing off the sunlight, Ms. Pauline knows at once it’s Neal Turner. He is one of those who never speak. No, that is not true. He spoke to her once before. Once, he climbed her steps, knocked on her door, and asked her if she wanted to sign a petition for the city to approve that damned dog park.

The storm door had been closed and Ms. Pauline had opened it wide, as if it were to hear him better, but it was more to make sure that he did in fact exist, was really standing on her porch, and his question was in fact, real.

“You want me to do what?” She had put on the same voice she would use with patients who refused to take medicine – certain, leaving no room for foolishness.

“Well there’s this piece of grass, I don’t know if you know it. It’s right up the street.”

“I’ve been here since 1969. I know what you’re talking about. Our kids played up there.”

“Oh. Ok. Well. We want to turn it into a dog park.”

“A what?” She had to ask one more time.

“A dog park.”

“Why?”

“Well, so owners can take their dogs to play and get exercise and…” His voice trailed off and Ms. Pauline wondered if it was because he knew how he sounded, a 20- something year old, a child practically, asking this middle aged black lady to support this cause.

“Neal - or should I call you Mr. Turner, seeing as how you didn’t introduce yourself?”

“Oh. Sorry. You can just call me Neal. And I’m sorry, not sure if I know your name.” Of course Ms. Pauline knew his name. She knew all their names while remaining a stranger to them.

“Ms. Thornton. Ms. Pauline Thornton is my name. And if you think I’m about to sign a petition for a dog park, you have lost your mind. You don’t even know who I am.” Her voice and her blood pressure were rising and just then there was Johnny, right behind her, his hands grabbing hold of her wide middle.

“What’s happening? Hello there! You selling cookies?” Ms. Pauline had rolled her eyes at her husband’s usual disarming demeanor. He and the boy shared a laugh as Neal explained the park’s potential usage.

“What if you put a little swing set there? Something for the kids?”

“Good idea, Mr. Thornton.”

“I like it. This neighborhood needs something for the next generation. Where should we sign?”

“Ain’t no we,” Ms. Pauline had said as she turned from the door and headed into the kitchen.

And now Neal is running down her block, not for exercise as he usually does, but forced by fright. His face is the same color as his crimson hair. Ms. Pauline lifts off the glider just enough to peer over the railing and see two youngins, two of the boys who have managed to remain and keep the evil pumping on the corners and in the alleyways. The “element,” that brings down property values and thwarts the idea of progress - it has not yet been driven all away. They still hole up in big mama’s house to cut school and cut up.

The boys chase Neal, taunting him with epithets. They are fast. But Neal is just slightly faster. Ms. Pauline has seen Neal run plenty of times. Running in the rain, the heat, the snow. Yes, he is fast. But he can’t make it at this speed. He won’t make it to his house before the boys attack.

Neal must know this as he calls out to neighbors for help. But he is on the black side of the block. And even though Ms. Pauline knows that just about everybody is home, shades have been drawn. She imagines folks are at their front windows, peering through heavy blinds, wondering if the white boy will make it. And here is Ms. Pauline, outside on this fall day, as the sun begins to drop behind the clouds, watching this boy, these boys, run – one trying to save his life, the others trying to prove theirs have meaning.

Neal is mid-block now, his footsteps barely hitting the pavement as if willing himself to fly. He throws his book bag into Mildred’s yard. The boys are gaining ground. Ms. Pauline pushes off the glider, hoping to disappear into the house without being seen.

But she is not fast enough, her swollen ankles and crunched knees get her just to the door when Neal catches her eye, and says, not in a shout but above a whisper, so that what he wants is clear:

“Please.”

A breath.

And then, “let me in.”

Ms. Pauline wants to. Knows she should. Pastor just preached on the Good Samaritan, about rising above our ego to help those who don’t look like us. Her cocoa colored hand with its double folds from age sits on the door knob as one foot points towards the street. The other towards the house. She can pivot one way or the other. There isn’t much time.

Neal is just at her house now, at the base of her steps. Right there. So close. And there are the boys. Almost at Mildred’s. One stops to pick up the book bag. The other keeps going. Even if Neal made it home, would they follow him up the steps and through the door? Can he outrun the realities of the neighborhood? Could she, if she had to?

She shields her eyes from Neal’s gaze, pushes the door open, steps inside, closes the door behind her, and limps to the kitchen phone to call the police, figuring they will get there faster if she tells them it’s a white man getting chased.

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Printed: December 14, 2017, 9:51 am
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