August 1, 2020: “Heavy Lifting” by Jennifer Morales

Happy Saturday, Story366!

A nice change of pace from grading and algebra and reading this morning: a car wash. This morning, one of the Scouts in my older boy’s troop held a charity car wash in the parking lot of the church where we meet. After tying up a lot of those loose ends yesterday, it was nice to get up early, get outside, and even get a little wet. Not a whole lot of cars came through, so the kid only raised about three hundred bucks, but that’s actually great for this kind of thing . Still, what I liked about it was that it didn’t involve me being inside, hunched over my computer, reading things or typing things or figuring quadratic equations. I also talked to humans who weren’t my immediate family. It was just the kick in the pants I needed to realized that today is August 1, I start my semester on August 17, and I’d best get going lest I run out of fresh air and sunlight. So, my suggestion to you is, if you’re in the doldrums over COVID-19 quarantine, throw together a car wash. Good for what ails you.

For today’s post, I read from Jennifer Morales‘ collection, Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories, out in 2015 from Terrace Books (an imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press). I’d never read anything by Morales before today, so as alway, I was more than happy to take a look, learn about this new author, and enjoy some short stories.

“Heavy Lifting” is the first story in the book and is told from the third-person point of view of Margaret Czarnecki, an old widow living in Milwaukee. The first line of the story announces, “Johnquell’s neck is broken and chances are he won’t walk again.” It’s a little frame, this line, as we immediately go backward and find out who’s telling this story, who Johnquell is, and how his neck got broken. Turns out Johnquell breaks his neck moving a heavy bookcase for our protagonist, his neighbor, Mrs. Czarnecki, or Margie. He tries carrying the thing up her stairs, with the books still on it, and falls backwards. Within seconds, Johnquell is on the bottom of the stairs with the bookcase on his neck, bleeding from several places.

Margie calls 911 and the ambulance comes—the EMT even says, “Oh, geez,” when he spies the scene—and soon Johnquell is on his way to the hospital. This is when his little sister sees what’s going on outside, tells everyone inside, and soon, other sisters and Mom are outside, watching this all unfold, scattering to follow Johnquell.

Margie doesn’t know what’s really happened for a while, but generally believes Johnquell is okay—the EMT said as much as they wheeled him out, that they’d take care of him and not to worry. She doesn’t find out what really happened until Gloria Tibbetts, Johnquell’s mom, comes to visit her a couple of days later. She informs Margie of the broken neck (we’re caught up with that first line at this point), and walks around Margie’s house, looking at the stairs, the bookshelf (off to the side, where the EMT left it), the puddle of blood in the carpet. Margie is panicking, not knowing what Gloria wants, and keeps asking her that, what she can do for her. At one point, so anxious, Margie blurts out that what happened to Johnquell wasn’t her fault. Gloria agees, eerily calm, and says it was no one’s fault. She asks Margie to pray for her son and leaves.

Not even a day later, however, Gloria calls Margie and says she’s at the hospital, asks her to look in on her girls. Margie, who really never leaves the house except to go to bingo on Tuesdays and church on Sundays, doesn’t know what she means; Gloria has hung up before she can refuse. She gets dressed, heads over, and checks on the girls, teens and tweens. One of the girls asks what day it is, and when she discovers it’s Tuesday, she wants fried chicken because Tuesday is Chicken Day. The oldest sister tells Margie she doesn’t have to make chicken, that their aunt is coming to take them to dinner, but Margie insists, says she’ll make chicken.

Margie employs the help of her best friend, Frances, telling her they have to make fried chicken for the neighbor kids. Frances is fine with it as long as they are done by four to get to early-bird bingo. The two shop, then go to the neighbors’ house to cook. Right as they finish, the aunt comes and doesn’t really understand why she’s there—it’s kind of tense—and Margie and Frances leave despite the youngest girl, Johnelle, begging them to stay. The ladies have to get to bingo, though, so off they go (my mom played bingo for years, and, well, you can’t keep an old lady from her bingo).

When Margie gets home that night, she finds a bag on her porch, a bag filled with a portion of the dinner she made the girls, poundcake, potatoes, chicken, everything. There’s a note from the girls, thanking her, and Margie is genuinely moved.

Okay, I should probably mention a few things about this book before going any further. For one, there’s a lot of racial tension here. Margie is an old Polish lady in a neighborhood that used to be all white, but has been well integrated for years. Johnquell and his family is black, and sometimes, Margie says things like, “He’s a black,” because she feels she needs to clarify this to people like Frances. There’s more subtle differences, for sure, but the whole time, we get the idea that it’s quite uncomfortable for Margie to be in her neighbors’ house—though not uncomfortable for her to ask that Johnquell come over and help her move heavy shit. I wouldn’t say Margie’s racist, but she’s certainly not in her element talking to people who are different from her (okay, that’s at least a little racist in and of itself).

On top of that, I soon found out that this is a book of interrelated stories, that what happens in this story sets off a domino effect, is referred to throughout the entire book as its inciting incident. What happens? I wouldn’t normally reveal that, but since this is the first story and I can’t really talk about the rest of what I’ve read otherwise, here goes: Johnquell dies. After Margie opens the bag of food, is touched by the gesture, she gets a call from the aunt, asking her to look after the girls again, that it will be a few hours before she can drive Gloria home. That’s how this collection starts off, how the rest of it is formed, Johnquell’s death as a result of the accident in Margie’s house.

To note, Johnquell was an honors student at his high school, a mostly white school out in the suburbs, where he went as part of a volunteer integration program. He was not only a top student, but was a star football player, earning a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, the big time. Does any of this make the story more tragic, that Johnquell’s future was so bright? No, of course not. But it’s who he was, not just some kid under a bookshelf, in a coffin.

I jumped ahead a bit and found a story from Johnelle’s point of view, “Got the Ball” (which is actually how I realized that these stories were connects, when I discovered her name here). Here, Johnelle, or Nelly, is in kindergarten and gets into a fight with Misty, a white girl who’s got the ball and won’t give it to her. Things escalate over a couple of days, and soon Nelly has sand in her hair and Gloria is calling the white girl’s mom. Morales shows us the one side of that conversation—what Nelly can hear—and at conversation’s end, it doesn’t appear as if Gloria is all that happy. The two families come in close contact at the term-ending Christmas party, where Nelly navigates the girl and her mom, Gloria behind her, watching their every move.

“Revision” is about Stu, a retired high school history teacher who came back to sub for a while when the regular teacher got cancer. There he met Johnquell and this story is set on the day of Johnquell’s funeral. Stu feels he needs to go, but on the way, we find out he’s a pretty big conservative and a way more obvious racist than Margie. He listens to a Rush Limbaugh-like talkshow and makes inner-dialogue comments about all the black people he passes on the way to the church. He also gets into a car accident with a man he finds out is Johnquell’s uncle, and the two exchange info and pleasantries. All the while, Stu is thinking about a paper Johnquell turned in about the Vietnam war, about an incident that Stu just happened to be an actual part of as an MP, an issue of racial injustice. Stu did not see eye to eye on the incident with Johnquell, and because he’s a primary source, takes offense to Johnquell revising the situation. When he meets up with Gloria to give his condolences, he finds that she knows very much who he is, is aware of the debate he’d had with her son before his death.

I grew up in an old white Polish town, Calumet City, Illinois, one that became more and more integrated as I got older, one that’s pretty much split into thirds between whites, blacks, and Latinos now. I completely see the setting that Jennifer Morales is going for here, depicting how some people don’t really like change, how they react when they face it, and how everyone still needs to be human to each other, grow and adapt. What a collection Meet Me Halfway is to read now, a timely reminder of how these problems aren’t new. Too bad in this book, like in 2020 with George Floyd’s death, that it takes a tragedy to bring people together, to get some people thinking about their priorities, for change to really happen. I’m grateful for this book, for the time I spent with it today.

Black Lives Matter.

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