The following is the opening to a novel I intended to complete this year. I don’t believe I will continue, so I thought I’d share the prologue here. I hope that you enjoy.
July 2016 –
Blowing up dust as she drove down the desolate dirt roads, Sullivan Parker tapped her fingers against the steering wheel as she hummed along to the sounds playing over her radio. Annoyed, upset that she was running behind schedule, she prayed that she was finally heading in the right direction.
Small, far from the overpopulated cities surrounding it, she looked for the landmarks that had been designated as identifying markers for Laurel, Louisiana. It was unincorporated, so tiny it could be considered a village; boasting of only about five hundred residents, if that.
Thus far, there had been miles and miles of fields filled with gigantic stalks of sugar cane, followed by barren fields. A desert, with not a piece of a swamp, bayou, or land of water to be found.
Then came the homes built by the hands of men long gone, small, placed few and far in between as she drove further and further. Their porches filled with chairs or looking too run down to even stand on, with fragile steps that would snap at the tiniest bit of movement. The air was hot, leaving beads of sweat that became sticky to the touch. It smelled of exhaustion, and for brief moments Sullivan could imagine mahogany brown and chocolate bodies barely covered as they searched for relief from the devastating summer. Fanning themselves or hiding within the shade of the few trees spaced out among the land. She could see children running with no shoes, no doubt hoping or praying for drops of rain to fall and touch them. Though, she was certain that any bit of water would touch the ground and dry right up.
She exhaled. “It’s a scorcher today, and I advise everyone to stay inside where there’s good air conditioning and ice-cold bottles of water or soda. And if you’re missing an air conditioner, I don’t know what to tell you. To offer a bit of melodic relief, here’s one of the summer’s smoothest jams.”
What started as the intro of Summer Madness turned into a cleverly sampled variation that quickly introduced a voice Sullivan was unfamiliar with. Not the strongest, but easy on the ears. She knew instantly the vibe of the song could be attributed to a fast-growing sub-genre, R&Bass, as it was being coined by the artists who incorporated it into their sounds and albums. It was nice, catchy with a chorus she knew would be stuck in her head for days to come.
As she looked around again, she spotted the first of the landmarks she was seeking. An old and rundown general store with a plank featuring its name hanging by its hinges across a boarded door. Gray, though she was told that it had once been snow white in its earlier lifetime. Then came the second and final landmark; an old and worn sign. All letters faded, apart from the ‘LAU’ in Laurel, and the “SIANA” in Louisiana. She’d done it. She’d found and reached her destination, and her hopes soon turned to finding exactly what she’d come for.
A few additional miles of driving led to a sign pointing in the direction of a side street. Taking a chance, she turned and found herself driving down a strip of buildings. There were people walking about, here and there. Some walking, some talking to others. Children swarming a broken fire hydrant as they danced around in their swimsuits; the only ones catching a real break from the heat.
She instantly fell in love with the site of black men, women and children; enjoying life as if they hadn’t had a care in the world. And perhaps, in little Laurel, they didn’t.
Focusing on the road ahead of her, she drove slowly until she came upon what appeared to be a hotel. BOARDING HOME, as it read on the sign propped in the front yard.
It looked like those main houses she often saw in period films. The ones belonging to well to do families. Grand in size, well-kept, and hauntingly beautiful in it’s design and décor.
Sullivan parked at what she considered a good distance from the driveway. Stepping out of her car, she grabbed one of her smaller travel bags from her backseat. Locking her car, she waved to a few of the locals who looked on before she made her way up to the front door of the boarding home.
Sighing, she took a few moments to knock before she began to search her bag for a towel. As she searched, she heard the door creek open, followed by a gentle voice accompanying a typical southern accent. “Can I help you?”
Sullivan looked up quickly, nodding her head as she threw on a warm smile. “Yes, hello. My name is Sullivan Parker, and I’m a journalist and author. I’m currently taking a leap, looking to write and publish something new and fresh for my audience. The book, I’m hoping, will be an autobiography.” She paused, catching her breath. The heat, something she wasn’t used to, was wearing her down even though she wasn’t doing much more than moving her lips. “My subject; Dru Davenport. She was a semi-major star in Black Hollywood, during the period of the great MGM musicals and golden era. Specifically, she was a participant in what are now known as ‘Race Films’. One of the few black stars that managed to avoid being typecast as Mammy or a maid or any negative portrayals of us as African-Americans.”
The young lady who answered nodded, leaning against her door. “That’s interesting Ms. Parker, but I’m not certain how I can be of any help.”
“Oh, well, I was told that Ms. Davenport has been living in Louisiana for some years now. That she moved here once she retired. First assumption was Baton Rouge, then New Orleans, and I’ve finally tracked her down to Laurel.”
“My family has sort of kept tabs on everyone that’s ever lived here, something started by my great-grandfather when he was mayor. I’ve read the little directory of our history that he’s kept numerous times and I can assure you that I’ve never seen the name Davenport anywhere in the listings that have been written and kept. I’m sorry.”
Sullivan quickly calmed herself, reminding herself not to become impetuous or abrasive, as she sometimes had the tendency to do when her plans seemed to unravel as quickly as they seemed to come together. She thought quickly, calling to mind a tactic that was used all throughout Hollywood, by it’s black and white stars. “Well, perhaps that was her stage name. In my research, I recall reading she had a family member with the last name Hodges. Is Hodges a name that’s familiar around here? Any family around?”
The young woman stood up straight, folding her arms across her chest as she stared at Sullivan. “As far as I know, the only family I’ve been around are the Wilkes, the family Nana married into. My father’s family go by an Eritrean name I never bothered to learn.”
“And I can guess he wasn’t one of their kids?” Avery shook her head. Sullivan felt she was getting nowhere. She tapped at her forehead gently with her red painted nails. “I can’t have come all this way to be wrong. I’m starting to think this might not even be her real name, but perhaps she was born Drucilla Hodges. Does either of those names ring a bell?” She was grasping at straws, praying she pulled out a long one.
Avery exhaled sharply, looking behind her back for a second before turning back to Sullivan. “My grandmother’s name is Drucilla Wilkes. But again, I’m certain she’s not who you are looking for.”
Sullivan thought fast, digging into her bag. Thankfully, she kept a few of her writings and collected information on hand always, especially in her smaller travel bags. Pulling out a glossy and well-preserved photo, she quickly turned it to Avery. It was a stunning portrait, in black and white like most photos of the era. The woman it featured was a beauty, jet black hair styled in flowy waves and accentuated by a flower. Her lips were full, her eyes showcasing a sense of passion. Absolutely stunning, and it took Avery by complete surprise.
Taking the picture, she stared at it closely, recognizing features she’d seen and ran her own fingers across day in and day out for over ten years. Her grandmother. “I am so confused.”
“I’m sorry, is something wrong, Ms. Wilkes?”
Avery chuckled, nodding her head as she returned the photo. “Yeah, this lady lived a whole life I’ve never known about.” And then it dawned on her. “That’s my grandmother alright, but I’m afraid you’re too late for what you may be searching for, Ms. Parker.”
“Why is that?”
Avery frowned, tucking her hair behind her ears as she spoke lowly. “For years she’s been suffering from Alzheimer’s. It’s taken years to progress as badly as it does for others, but most days she remembers nothing at all. She barely remembers me and I’m here every day, so I can guarantee that she won’t be able to recall anything from over seventy years ago.”
“There aren’t things that can jog her memory a bit? I don’t mean to come off rude or pushy about the matter; I was going to write the book from things I’ve learned and researched as a fan of film noir and Black Hollywood. But when I learned that she was still living, I just knew I had to come and see her, meet her and speak with her.”
“I honestly believe you’ve made a blank trip, but if you wish to see her just to say you’ve met her, I don’t see issue with that. She just doesn’t go by or respond to Dru or whatever other names she may have gone by at that time. She most often doesn’t even respond to Nana or all of the family names she has.”
Sullivan sighed, resigning herself to the fact that for once in her career she’d have to accept a bit of defeat, a setback. “I’d like that very much. Are you her caregiver as well?”
Avery finally invited Sullivan in out of the heat. “Sorry for taking so long to let you in. And yes, I’m her caregiver. Have been for quite some time.” She closed and locked the door, asking Sullivan to follower her into the living area.
“Did that come about only because of the Alzheimer’s?”
“Mostly. See, I’m in the theater, which this information now makes me understand why she may have always held a bad opinion of the profession when she was of sound mind. My dad was never in my life because he cared more about his theater career, and then he passed. Mama was obsessed with being a movie star, that obsession led her down the wrong path. Losing her was the final straw, and Nana wanted to hear no more about the arts. My other grandparents weren’t too fond of the fact that I was even born, so my best bet was to come to Nana. That’s all I’ve ever known her as, and she never mentioned her past.” Avery stopped walking, facing Sullivan. “Listen, I don’t mean to doubt you or what you’re trying to do; I don’t see why anyone should find issue with you still writing your book, but are you certain the woman in that picture’s name is Drucilla?” It was insane, and if she led an extraordinary life, why would she never speak on it was the only thought that ran through the confused woman’s mind as she began to imagine what else her grandmother might have kept from her.
“Yes Ma’am. I wouldn’t have come all this way just to get over on you, her, or anyone else. It’s too damn hot in this state, and I’m a cold weather type of girl. Though I will have one hell of a tan by the time I get back home.” The young women chuckled briefly. “I admire the woman in that photo and her work a great deal. And because so few of their stories have been told, her and other actors and actresses of her time and era, I figure what better way to start off the stories than with the most underrated of them all.”
“And you think that’s my grandmother?”
Sullivan nodded. “She’s one, and one of the few still living. Considering who was chosen for mainstream stardom, compared to their contemporaries and peers, I say she held her own quite well in the films she did. It’s even been said that, though Dorothy is more beloved and well-known, Dru Davenport could have given her a run for her money if she wasn’t only relegated to ‘Race Films’.”
“And what exactly were those?”
“Films made with all black casts during the time when blacks were allowed in film, but often played stereotyped roles or their parts were filmed separate from white stars so that they could be cut out in southern theaters. There were about five hundred made, not many remain to this day.”
Avery looked at Sullivan, curious. “Any of hers?”
“Yes. Her one and only album as well. Ms. Wilkes, how could you have not known any of this?”
“Easy. I was born years after my grandmother left that life. She never spoke on the past, never spoke on her life before she became a family woman. Though, I’m now guessing she may have already had my mother and uncles while she led this life. I’m also not a movie buff, certainly not a fan of older films apart from a few films that derived from stage shows. I’ve never even seen my own mother’s films, but that’s for a different reason. Broadway was always my thing, and I know cast albums from front to back. The names Drucilla Hodges and Dru Davenport have never appeared on any. Oddly, my mother never spoke on things either, or how her love for acting even came about. I figure it was out of respect, and not to upset my grandmother even more.” Placing her hands at her hips, she took a moment to let the new information sink in. “When my mother passed, my grandmother shut down completely. Talked about nothing at all, said nothing at all aside from a quick good morning or asking questions here and there. Of course, she kept herself together to take care of me, but I know she spent many nights crying to herself. For a while she even blamed herself I believe.”
“Not sure. I suppose it was her apparent disdain for acting and the lifestyle and how my mother chased it. It was all my mother wanted. And for a while, she found a bit of success in film and TV, but I think that lack of support is part of what drove her to worse stuff. It kept them apart, kept them saying terrible things to one another. And both being headstrong, neither had ever spoken or apologized past their final argument.”
“I wanted to be on Broadway. She wasn’t thrilled with that either. I did it without telling her, pretended I was doing other things until she began to change.”
“Alzheimer’s. It creeps up on you over time, for a while you believe it could just be old age if you don’t see about making it to a doctor. At any rate, she raised me. I felt it only right to come back and take care of her. Have a look around, there’s photos everywhere. Typical ones we all see when looking back at our family’s past, though I hope to learn more about certain ones now. If you have any information that you can share. Also, if you can get one, I’d like a copy of that photo you showed me. It’s one I’d never seen before.”
Sullivan nodded, walking over to the fireplace where a row of old photographs rested as Avery announced she was going to check on and bring her grandmother in for a few minutes. One photo stuck out immediately to the young journalist. Her subject, standing next to one of the greatest tap dancers in American history. Another seemed to be a framed promotional photo from one of Sullivan’s favorite films. It was amazing to see as she walked about the room, entranced by the images she saw, a lifetime in pictures. A lifetime she might never get to hear about from the woman who lived it. Sullivan hoped like hell the meeting would offer her something more than a brief hello that would be forgotten in a matter of seconds.