Book Excerpt – Where to Choose: A Novel

Where to Choose: A Novel
by Penny Mickelbury

    Publication Date: Feb 16, 1999
    List Price: $22.00
    Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
    Classification: Fiction
    ISBN13: 9780684837420
    Imprint: Simon & Schuster
    Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
    Parent Company: CBS Corporation

    Read a Description of Where to Choose: A Novel

    Copyright © 1999 Simon & Schuster, Inc./Penny Mickelbury No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.

    Chapter Four

    Late-morning sun shone directly down on the purple and lilac and pink and white bougainvillea; shone easily through the tops of towering royal palms that lined the streets of Jacaranda Estates; shone down like a spotlight on the dense, wild-growing jade and birds of paradise and uncounted species of desert succulents. Shone without shadow, though high noon was still more than an hour in the future, in a perfect and smog-free sky, down on the incongruous corpse of Sadie Osterheim. Incongruous because Sadie Osterheim was the only nonliving thing upon which the perfect Los Angeles morning sun shone.

    Five women created a loose circle around the corpse. From a distance they could have been mistaken for participants in some kind of children’s game where a circle is formed and hands are joined and a little song is sung as a little dance is done. Up close, the lack of mirth was pervasive: the five bodies were tense and tight; five heads bent low as if in prayer; five pairs of lips held firm—not praying. There was no light in the five pairs of eyes as they stared down at the corpse. Four pairs of the eyes were more than three score years old and were seeing memories; the fifth pair youthful, still surprised by death. And it was that pair of eyes, the youthful ones, that first sought other sights—the four other faces in the circle. It was that pair of lips that parted first.

    "I’m Jennifer Johnson from radio station BLAK. Can any of you tell me who she is? Do any of you know anything about her?"

    "We know everything about her. She’s the same as us. We could be her, lying there like that." The words came fast and angry from a mouth still held tight, and t in the gathering crowd drawn and fascinated by the presence of death, and mourned the loss of familiarity. Roberta Lawson looked at all of those things—at her pale-gray-trimmed-in-black triplex, at the royal palms, at the flower beds, at the gathering vultures—and then returned her eyes to the ground and mourned the loss of Sadie Osterheim, who had been her neighbor in the pale-gray-trimmed-in-black triplex for a dozen years. Then she looked at Jennifer Johnson.

    "What do you think you can do? The police said there’s nothing they can do. Our city council lady said there’s nothing she can do. Our liaison in the mayor’s office said there’s nothing he can do. And the preacher told us to pray. So you think you can do what?" Roberta’s words were quick and clipped and angry, but they were not unkind.

    "I’m a reporter and I think I can make the police and the councilwoman and the mayor and maybe even your minister regret their lack of response to your needs." Jennifer had spoken softly. Slowly. And had in no way attempted to disguise the threat inherent in her words.

    Grayce Gibson looked at her for a long moment and a tiny smile lifted the corners of her mouth. "Who does she remind you of?" she asked, and her smile broadened as recognition dawned on Roberta and she picked up the chuckle, as Angelique’s brow wrinkled in concentrated wonderment, as Luisa crossed herself and whispered a prayer and shook her head as if warding off trouble.

    The reporter looked from one to the other, waiting to learn who she reminded them of, but the woman who posed the question had returned her attention to the body on the ground. So had the others. So, too, did Jennifer Johnson, asking one of the questions that ha d chewed at her since her arrival: "How could something like this happen in broad daylight? First thing in the morning?"

    "Go ask them," snapped the one Jennifer had come to think of as "the angry one."

    Jennifer looked where Roberta pointed, toward the edge of Jacaranda Estates, at a playground inhabited by half a dozen young men. Jennifer had noticed them when she drove up, noticed that they looked like gang members, and then had chastised herself for jumping to stereotypical conclusions. She knew better. She was a twenty-six-year-old black woman with three younger brothers—two of them college students, the third still in high school—and she knew what she felt when she saw them stereotyped. But she’d also been a reporter for three years and she’d covered gang activity enough to recognize gang members when she saw them. A second look at the young men completing the destruction of the Jacaranda Estates playground equipment was enough to convince her that these men were gang members.

    "Why is it taking so long for the police to get here?" Jennifer asked instead. She’d been on the scene for at least ten minutes, having heard the call on the police scanner at the radio station, and it had taken her less than twenty minutes to drive here.

    "Ask them yourself," replied the one Jennifer had dubbed "the tough one," with a slight shake of her head, "and let us know what they say," she added dryly as the sound of wailing sirens grew ever closer.

    Then the energy shifted. The police and the paramedics hopped the curbs then sped their vehicles toward the gathered crowd. Bodies repositioned. Doors slammed. Voices queried. The reporter reached into a black canvas shoulder bag and extracted a microphon e. One hand held the microphone while another did something inside the bag and when the first policeman reached the circle of women, she spoke a question into the apparatus and thrust it toward the uniform, a question not heard by the women who had other, more pressing business, and who did not need to observe again the ritual surrounding the removal of the body of a neighbor and friend.

    "Who’s going to call her son?" asked Grayce—the tough one—briskly leading the group away from the death scene, silver head held high and sparkling in the sun. And silver it was, not gray or white; and wearing it closely shorn as she did, her hair seemed a glittering, skull-hugging cap that offset the pecan-brown smoothness of her skin. She was a small woman. Those given to cliché would have described her as birdlike. Those paying closer attention, the Jennifer Johnsons of the world, would not, however, confuse her smallness with frailty. Her hurry to leave the scene merely reflected her decision not to be a ready witness for the police. Not again. Not until she’d had the benefit of counsel.

    "Not me! I called Peggy’s people after she got killed. It’s somebody else’s turn." Angelique was adamant as the memory of being the bearer of bad tidings surfaced, and she wrapped her nutmeg-colored arms around as much of her self as they would encompass as she shivered in the noon heat. Sudden tears made her eyes glisten like black diamonds. There was not a single strand of gray in the wild, burnished mane that blanketed her shoulders, nor a single line to suggest the passing of time in the smooth face. Only the downward pull of her shoulders and the depth of the sigh she released gave hint to the fact that she wa s old enough to have borne a massive burden for a good many years.

    Angelique and Luisa walked in front, Grayce and Roberta followed, letting Jacaranda Estates’ distinctive cobbled pathways lead them home. At its inception forty years earlier, Jacaranda Estates was an island, an oasis. An anomaly. It was a planned community of duplex and triplex clusters, in a culture accustomed to ranch single family homes or stucco-and-tile apartment complexes constructed around kidney-shaped swimming pools. Jacaranda Estates was experimental, developed by a Black man and a Mexican man who believed that Black and Mexican Angelenos should and could learn to share the similarities in their rich heritages instead of continuing to mistrust because of the differences between them. After all, reasoned the pioneers, whether you were Black or Brown didn’t matter; both spelled Colored for the Anglos.

    The four women walking slowly away from the death scene were the last of the original Jacaranda Estates residents. Observing them, a stranger would believe the old experiment a failure, for the two Mexican women walked and talked together and the two Black women walked and talked together. What no external observation could discern were the ties that bound them to one another, ties that were powerful and permanent. For them, that small experiment had not only worked, it had defined their lives. Now they lived in fear, each of them, that something awful would happen to one of them. Not that one of them would have a heart attack or a stroke or develop breast cancer—that kind of thing happened as part of the natural order. After all, they were closer to seventy than any of them cared to admit. No. It was the unnatural that unnerved them.

    Grayce and Roberta followed Luisa and Angelique up the walkway and into the duplex where Grayce lived upstairs and Angie lived downstairs, then the three stood aside while Grayce inserted and turned the three keys required for entry. They always came to Grayce’s around noontime if they weren’t otherwise occupied, for tea and talk and to plan the numerous activities that filled their days and evenings.

    It was dark and cool within, the draperies having been drawn against the heat of the day. Grayce swung them open, brightening the room if not their spirits. Luisa put on water for tea and laid out the big mugs they liked and plates for the fresh fruit that Grayce, their self-appointed health and fitness guru, insisted they eat at least once a day. Roberta stood in the window. She wanted to watch the removal of Sadie Osterheim’s body. Angelique settled into the sofa, punching the television remote control. Grayce studied them, struggling to push from her imagination the sight of one of them sprawled lifeless in the grass. Struggling, as they all were, to push ugliness from their minds and to restore the calm and peaceful order of their lives.

    "There’s nothing worth watching on TV this time of day," Roberta said to Angie, still looking out the window. "One dumb talk show after the other."

    "It’s almost twelve o’clock. We should see if they say anything about what’s happening to us on the noon news."

    "Dammit, Angie!" Roberta exploded but still did not turn her attention from the window. "When are you going to understand that they don’t care about us? Just another old Black woman… just another old Mexican woman…"

    "She was an old white woman!" Luisa interjected with an uncharac teristic raised voice.

    "She’s just as dead," Roberta intoned in a lifeless voice. "And nobody cares. Just look at ’em. And look at her, still lying there. And those little bastards. Those hoodlums. Standing there watching her death."

    Grayce trotted from the kitchen through the dining room and into the living room. "They’re still out there? The police didn’t run ’em off?" She squinted into the distance, able to discern blurry shapes in the vicinity of the playground but needing Roberta’s verification that those shapes were indeed the hoodlums they believed responsible for the reign of terror in Jacaranda Estates.

    "Oh! And look!" Both Angelique and Luisa joined the other two at the window, drawn by the edgy excitement in Roberta’s voice. "That Jennifer what’s-her-name is having a set-to with that police detective. Look at her! She’s all up in his face!"

    "Johnson. And she looks madder than a litter of wet cats." Angelique, clearly impressed with Jennifer’s display, pulled Grayce in closer. "Can you see, Grayce?"

    "No," she sighed, turning from the window and returning to the kitchen. "And I suppose I shouldn’t complain about what I can’t do and focus on all the things I can do." Grayce’s introspection was cut short by a simultaneous whoop from Roberta, a gasp from Angelique, and a whispered prayer from Luisa.

    "I like this girl! Will you look at her?" Roberta was doing a little dance at the window, wiggling her butt and punching the air with her fists as if she were at her aerobics class.

    "Will you look at them," screeched Angelique, punching Roberta’s shoulders. "They’re running away!" She jumped up and down and punched Roberta some more.

    Grayce hurried back to the window, wiping her hands on a dish towel and demanding information, which rushed at her from three fronts.

    "You could tell she said something really ugly to that cop ’cause I think he would have hit her if that other cop hadn’t pulled him back."

    "Then she headed for the playground, holding that microphone like it was a weapon."

    "It is a weapon. People hang themselves with their own words every day."

    "Then they started running, cowardly little bastards!"

    "And she started running after them! Chasing them!"

    "But she couldn’t run as fast as them — "

    "So now she’s walking back this way…."

    "Where are you going, Grayce?"

    "To invite Miss Johnson to lunch," she replied with grim determination, rushing out and slamming the door, being grateful as they all were that they had something to focus on other than the ugly horror of murder; hopeful that perhaps, finally, somebody cared enough to help them understand what had gone so terribly wrong.


    "This is Jennifer Johnson reporting from the Jacaranda Estates community in West L.A., where it appears that after almost forty years, the naysayers can finally say, ’I told you so.’ In the late 1950s, a Black man and a Mexican man had a dream, that Blacks and Mexicans could live together in peace and harmony. In 1959, fifty Black and Mexican families — twenty-five of each — moved into Jacaranda Estates. The first Anglo moved in in the mid-1980s. The first reported crime occurred six months ago and escalated into a pattern of vandalism that has included burglary and automobile theft. And there’s been a crime committed within the boundaries of Jacaranda Estates practically every week since, including, in the last two months, the murder of two lo ngtime residents — an elderly Black woman and an elderly white woman. A third victim, another elderly Black woman, a native of Ethiopia, lies helpless in a coma. First terror gripped the community, and then anger. Why? Because the police so far have identified no suspects, have made no arrests despite the belief by several longterm residents, including four original members of the Jacaranda experiment, that the perpetrators are a group of young men who have taken over what once was a children’s playground within the community boundaries. The police and several of those young men have confirmed that the young men have not been questioned about the crimes, nor are they considered suspects. This report is the beginning of an ongoing investigation. We will keep you informed about events in what is still, forty years later, a unique living environment."

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