The ShortRead of 22 April
Author: Attica Locke
What's the story: Did you miss Black Water Rising? In addition to introducing us to the struggling lawyer Jay Porter, it gave us our first taste of the immensely readable Attica Locke. Having scooped up a host of nominations for her 2010 debut, Locke's latest novel sees Porter return for another tense thrill ride.
Set 15 years after the events of Black Water Rising (don't worry, you'll be able to follow things if this is your first encounter with Porter), Pleasantville takes place in 1996, the year that Bill Clinton was re-elected. A mayoral election is looming in Houston, with the campaign focuses on Pleasantville - the African-American neighbourhood of the city that has swung almost every race since it was founded to house a growing black middle class in 1949. As the competition intensifies, a girl goes missing, apparently while canvassing for the lead candidate Axel Hathorne. When her body is found, Axel's nephew is charged with her murder - and it's down to Porter to try and defend him.
Release date: Out now
They partied in Pleasantville that night, from Laurentide to Demaree Lane. They unscrewed bottle tops, set the needle on a few records, left dinner dishes soaking in the sink. They sat on leather sofas in front of color TVs, hovered over kitchen radios, kept the phone lines hot, passing gossip on percentages and precinct returns, on the verge, they knew, of realizing the dream of their lifetime, the ripe fruit of decades of labor and struggle. They were retired Army men, some, grown men who wept openly in front of their TV sets as the numbers started to roll in. They were doctors and lawyers, nurses, schoolteachers and engineers, men and women who had settled here in the years after the second world war, in Pleasantville, a neighborhood that, when it was built in 1949, had been advertised across the city’s airwaves and in the pages of the Defender and the Sun as the first of its kind in the nation – “a planned community of new homes, spacious and modern in design, and built specifically for Negro families of means and class,” a description that belied the rebellious spirit of its first inhabitants, the tenacity of that post-war generation. For, yes, they endured the worst of Jim Crow, back of buses and separate toilets; and, yes, they paid their poll taxes, driving or walking for miles each election day, waiting in lines two and three hours long. Yes, they waited. But they had also marched. In wingtips and patent leather pumps, crisp fedoras and pinstriped suits, belted dresses and silk stockings, they marched on city hall, the school board, even the department of public works, holding out the collective votes of a brand new bloc as a bargaining chip to politicians previously reluctant to consider the needs of the new Negro middle class, and sealing, in the process, the neighborhood’s unexpected political power, which would become legend over the next four decades. And it was hard not to believe it had all been leading to this.
Channels 13 and 11 were already calling the local race, putting Sandy Wolcott and Axel Hathorne, a Pleasantville native, in next month’s runoff for the mayor’s seat, and Houston, Texas, that much closer to getting its first black mayor in its one-hundred-and-sixty-year history. Channel 2 was running a concession speech by Councilman Lewis Acton, who looked to finish a distant third, and word was now spreading down the wide, oak- and elm-lined streets of Pleasantville that the man himself, their one-time neighbor, Axel Hathorne; his father, Sam “Sunny” Hathorne, patriarch of one of Pleasantville’s founding families; as well as key members of the Hathorne campaign staff were all coming home to celebrate. From Gellhorn Drive to Silverdale, folks freshened up coffee pots, pulled the good gin from under the sink. They set out ice, punch and cookies and waited for the doorbell to ring, as they’d been told Axel wanted to knock on doors personally, shake a few hands, just as Fred Hofheinz did the night Pleasantville helped put him the mayor’s office, and Oscar Holcombe before him, celebrations that wouldn’t come close to tonight’s.
The girl, she wasn’t invited.
But she didn’t expect to be.
She had played her small part, put in hours on the ground, knocked on some doors, and now what she wanted, more than anything, was to go home. At the appointed place, the corner of Guinevere and Ledwicke, she waited for her ride, the cotton of her blue t-shirt a thin shell against the damp night air. It was north of seventy degrees when she’d left home this afternoon, and she’d never meant to be gone this long, but she was due a bonus, a little extra cash in her pocket, if she unloaded all the leaflets she’d been given to distribute. She was too smart, or proud, to toss the surplus in a trash can at the neighborhood community center as others before her had tried, only to be fired the second the ploy was discovered by campaign staff. This job meant more to her than to the others, she knew that. She was six months out of high school with no brighter prospect on her horizon than moving up to the cash register at the Wendy’s on OST where she worked part-time, so she’d pushed herself a little harder, made a show of her unmatched fortitude and productivity, pointedly staying past nightfall, a plan she hadn’t thought all the way through, as evidenced by the absence of a decent coat or even a cotton sweater, and the fact that had only a few loose coins in her purse, after spending most of what little money she had at a payphone at the truck stop on Market Street. Once more, she checked to make sure the last leaflet, the one she’d saved and carefully folded into a neat square, was still inside the front pocket of her leather purse. Rooting around inside her purse, she checked the time on the pager, the one Kenny had bought her when he left for college, promising they’d make it work somehow. Had he called? She scrolled through the phone numbers stored in the tiny machine. How long would she have to wait out here? It was already coming on nine o’clock, and she knew her mother would worry. She could picture her right now, smoking a Newport out the kitchen window, still in her pink nurse’s scrubs, and listening to KTSU, All the Blues You Can Use, glancing every few minutes at the yellow sunflower clock above the stove, wondering why her daughter wasn’t home yet. The girl crossed her skinny arms across her chest, a defense against the night air, which seemed cooler here at the southernmost edge of the neighborhood, where the base of Ledwicke ended abruptly, running smack into the lip of a wide, untamed plot of scrub oak and weeds and tall, claw-like trees. This far to the south the streetlamps in Pleasantville gave out, and she was all too aware that she was standing alone on a dim street corner miles from home, with nothing but the low, insistent hum of an idling engine as unwelcome company.
He’d been watching her for a few minutes now, the nose of his vehicle pointed 6ast on Guinevere, the body tucked under the low-hanging branches of a willow tree, so that she could make out no more than a man’s rough silhouette behind the wall of black glass, sharp angles outlined by a faint yellow light coming from a window on the side of a house across Ledwicke from where she was standing. His headlights were dark, which is why she hadn’t seen him at first. But he was facing her direction, his engine running, wearing an expression she couldn’t read in the dark. She couldn’t tell the make or model, only the height and width of the vehicle. It was a van, or a truck of some sort.
Run, she heard, just run.
It was a whisper inside her own skull, her mother’s voice actually, calling her home. But she should wait for her ride, shouldn’t she? She felt a stab of uncertainty, a panic so sharp it made her eyes water. Everything hinged on this one choice. I should wait for my way out, she thought, still wanting to believe a way out was possible, but already knowing, with a creeping certainty, that this night had turned on her, that her disappearing had already begun. She knew she’d made a mistake, knew even before she heard the van’s door open. Just run.
For more excellent reads, check out our previous choices below - just click on the link:
(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)