Los Angeles, 1988
The beeping smoke detector wakes me. No, wait. The smoke detector buzzes. When I sit up, the room is wavy, an image in a funhouse mirror. The alarm clock? I turn my head too quickly. It's the old Apache torture. Strips of wet rawhide, tied tight, left to dry.
I swing my legs over the edge of the bed, blink my swollen eyes. My mouth feels like the lint trap in the clothes dryer. I'm wearing a half-slip and the ivory silk blouse I had on last night. My watch has slid up, cutting a deep groove into my arm: 6:45 A.M. An empty bottle of Puligny Montrachet on the night table. I thought only cheap wine gave you a headache. What did I do with the glass?
I stand up, unsteady. Walk downstairs. Carefully. Holding the railing. Into the kitchen. The bread machine. How can such a small machine make such a big noise? The beeps are synchronized to the throbbing in my temples. I hit the button. The beeping stops and the lid swings open, releasing a cloud of scent. I wheel around and vomit into the sink. I turn on the water, rinse out my mouth, stand panting, gripping the cold edge of the slate countertop. Then I remember. David.
I lift out the still warm loaf, set it on the maple butcher block, a perfect brown cube of bread.
The employment agency is a busy office in a glass and steel building near LAX. The windows offer breathtaking views of Interstate 405, still bumper-to-bumper at ten-thirty. Applicants crowd the waiting areamostly women who appear to be ten years younger than me, probably all named Heather or Fawn or Tiffany. The place has a sense of purpose worthy of the war rooms you see in World War II movies. All that's missing is Winston Churchill. No one lingers by the water fountain to chat. Everyone's on the phone or tapping a keyboard or striding resolutely down the hall, eyes averted to avoid distractions. Like me.
The only exception is the young woman at the front desk. When she finishes filing that stubborn broken nail, she looks up with a smile. "Can I help you?"
I try for amused detachment from the whole process. "I have an appointment with Lauren at eleven o'clock. I know I'm early, but..."
"That's okay." She hands me a clipboard with several forms attached to it. "if you'll just fill these Out, we can go ahead and get started with your tests." She gives me a pencil and points to some chrome and leather chairs against one wall.
Tests? Oh shit. I sink down onto a chair, my head still twanging in spite of two aspirins and a double espresso. One thing at a time. Name: "Justine Wynter Franklin." Maybe I shouldn't use my married name. I try to erase Franklin" but the eraser is old and brittle and just makes smudges as it crumbles. I scratch a line through it, print "Morrison." Now it looks like I'm not sure.
Address. Telephone. I nail those two. Date of birth, Social Security number. Type of work desired. "Don't know" probably wouldn't look good. I put down "Office." Too vague? Skills. I stare at the blank space and it seems to grow larger, defying me to fill it.
Well, I can still recite François Villon's "Ballade des pendus." Or discuss the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the English novel. Let's see ... I can make perfect rice with no water left in the bottom of the pot and every grain separate and distinct. I know how to perk up peppercorns and juniper berries that are beyond their shelf life, repair curdled crème anglaise. And if you want to tenderize meat using wine corks or get candle wax out of a tablecloth, I'm your woman. I can tell a genuine Hermès scarf from a Korean knockoff at fifty paces. I have a strong crosscourt backhand. A long time ago, I knew how to type, but even then my speed was nothing to brag about. Someone told me once that I had a nice telephone voice. "Give good phone?"
Copyright Judi Hendricks. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, William Morrow & Co.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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