Some Feet Not Meant for Shoes - Novel Excerpt
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Intro by Don Hazen
I often find it awe-inspiring when people are willing to make large personal sacrifices for their art. And I am thankful for the soul and determination of the artist. Yes, sometimes the artist can be annoying in their quest, but in the end I understand. The artist often feels like they have little choice in their often uncompromising direction, that carries them even as they try to guide it.
This is no small thing, this power of art. It is a power of clarity of purpose, where, while other things may matter, they tend to be shoved to the sidelines in the quest. Some people feel this in love. That other person is all they can think of. They must complete the gestalt to seek the relationship, to see if it is true. Nothing can stand in its way. But the artist's quest is often a solitary one. It is about what you are feeling inside. Somehow it has to come out, get expressed. And Pam Klein does this in her powerful novel Some Feet Not Meant For Shoes.
Over AlterNet.org's long history ( something like 15 years now) we have always been primarily a political website -- issues, change, justice, outrage, vision, despair, hope are part of our message. Of course, these are often important elements of fiction and novels too, and art is so often so very political. So in a unique departure from the norm, I'm honored to present a chapter of a work of fiction on AlterNet.
I have known Pam Klein for many years. She was a long-time editor and staff at the LA Weekly--which, for the period she was there, was the premier alternative newspaper in America. She is one of those people of uncompromising passion, which comes through so clearly in Some Feet Not Meant for Shoes. There is no doubt that Pam is a fine writer, even exquisite in spots. But what I was drawn to in her book is the risk-taking -- the capacity to throw fear aside and dive deeply to experience feelings, people, and events in a way where there is no mistaking their authenticity -- and their danger. As Pam says: "In art there is room for things that in life are forbidden. That is why I wrote fiction, for the space to dream. I disrupted everything in my life for something that I feel is so important."
In a somewhat autobiographical journey from the hip early '90s in LA where she can't quite uncover her true self, to the exotic islands of the West Indies, the protagonist Norah has the strength to follow her calling in go deeply into questions of race, colonialism, science, culture, sexuality and myth. In the book, Norah explores the culture and mysteries of St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica, places visited by Klein, who eventually, in real life, settled down and rehabbed a house with her family and lives in St. Thomas, while she toiled on the book for five years. (She now lives in Puerto Rico.)
As one of her reviewers, Jocelyne Costa writes, the book, "tells of people's journey through life and is about the meeting of souls. . . More broadly, it reminded me that the psychological inheritance of a nation's or of a group of people's past deeds affects future generations, how the wound is not only personal but also collective. How we, as individuals, can atone for past hurts and contribute to the healing process for ourselves and of course for others since, eventually, we are one nation, one soul."
Another reviewer added: "Pam Klein seems like an extraordinary writer, style-wise, and really imaginative and courageous. However, I can see why traditional publishing was hesitant; it's very outside the box and very long and obviously deals with political and social stuff in a direct, perhaps discomfiting way. And publishing is one of the most conservative arts industries out there. But I'm glad it found a home--the packaging is fantastic."
As a narrative, Some Feet Not Meant for Shoes is intricate and powerful, it is sexy with a heavy dose of the spiritual. As described, the book is "told from multiple characters’ points of view and in the first person, Norah’s unconventional tale progresses toward the awakening of her past life as an African slave, through which racism, intolerance and greed echo still. Split between cultures, colors, beliefs and even lifetimes, Norah’s perspective on race and the history of hate is the ultimate catalyst for her transformation. Hers is a magical journey of loss, discovery and love that meanders naturally like a river across space and time."
So yes, this is the first time in memory AlterNet has featured fiction. I'm proud that we are offering a taste of this unique and challenging work. But I have a feeling this won't the last piece of fiction for the AlterNet reader. For storytelling is far too important to keep separate from the social and political forces that we normally cover.
The book can be purchased at Amazon and other online sites.
Malaise Norah, 1997, St. Lucia
I am walking down a wide dirt road toward the marina in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, a charming island known for some of the sweetest bananas in all the Caribbean. Figs, they call them here. Falcon and Fabian walk beside me, smoking weed that’s rolled in a dried banana leaf. My husband is pushing our 2-year-old daughter in the stroller and the both of them have fallen behind. The sun has already set, and the evening sky is a deep inky blue. We are meeting travelers from England at a restaurant on the water, a printer, his wife and two teenage girls, both of whom are natural blondes, which Falcon and Fabian confess to adore. Falcon is a Rastafarian who lives on the beach in Rodney Bay, makes his living off tourists as a pirate of sorts, recording dub and dancehall onto cheap cassettes, $10 a tape. Yes, he’s a Rastafarian with a boombox. Some of them even have got cars. You might know they are Rasta by the Lion of Judah bumper stickers.
Falcon hangs out around the Candyo Inn, a small, St. Lucian-owned hotel in the style of a traditional island home, just a short walk from the beach. It is white, the hotel, with emerald awnings and lots of lattice, fits in well with the local neighborhood. “The tourists here are friendly,” he tells me, “like you,” and so are the hotel employees. Fabian is Falcon’s oldest friend, a woodcarver who uses fine mahogany from the lush forest to craft plaques, statutes, bowls and bird feeders that he sells at the marketplace in Castries, the island’s capital city. “People off the cruise ships like Bob Marley,” Fabian tells me. “It’s the dreads,” says Falcon, rather proudly, flicking back his own dreads as if they were something quite special, something way better than, say, a Porsche. Well they are quite substantial and mane-like, as dreadlocks seem to go.
Fabian offers me a hit, blows some smoke my way. “It good,” he says. “Real good.” I take it, glancing over my shoulder to be certain my husband cannot see. He wouldn’t approve. No, he would disapprove. It is illegal, he would say, and you could get yourself thrown into a St. Lucian jail. Then what would you do? He has a point. Vincent always has a point. He can suck the life out of everything with his points.
The first time that I saw Falcon was in the doorway of the Candyo on the night of my arrival. He was standing half inside the hotel and halfway outside, in the light of a near-full moon. Having just come from a swim, his 25-year- old half-naked body was covered with beads of salt water. His long, heavy dreads were dripping and his thick black eyelashes were stuck together in clumps. He extended a wet hand. “Welcome to St. Lucia,” he said, squeezing my fingers, closing the small distance between us. The accent hinted at British, the rhythm was clearly West Indian. “Would you care for some chocolate tea?” He smiled, a wink perhaps. The way he said chocolate, it was as though he could taste it on his tongue. If only I were a decade younger, I tell myself. Even half a decade would do. That was a little more than a week ago.
The restaurant is on a spit of land just beside an ocean canal, a half mile or so from the Royal Saint Lucian, a five-star luxury resort behind electric gates with nightly room rates higher than what a St. Lucian typically earns in a month. Across the water is Gros Islet, the town where Fabian lives with his father. There’s a wooden bar, with locals drinking shandies–lemonade and beer. Our table is covered with a white cloth, set with silver and simple white china. Small candles flicker in the night breeze. The menu is pricey, Créole fusion fare for tourists, with most of the fish being offered boneless. Tourists are unused to bony fish, the waitress explains with both hands on hips. Falcon and Fabian are guests of the Brits, otherwise they’d certainly not be here. Neither would I.
Fabian’s eyes are small, red over white, from the weed and the anger. He has had a row earlier with one of the blondes, and when she arrives with her family she will not sit next to him. She is young but already knows the games. He stares across the water toward his home. I ask about his father. A womanizer, he tells me. Like father like son, I want to say from the feeling I get about him, but don’t. “He never home. He mother raise me up.”
“Will you carve a mermaid for me?” I ask. “Smallish, a plaque really, to hang on my wall?” He looks up at me, a curious stare, like a bridge that beckons down a strange, foggy path. I don’t go down those paths often enough, it seems. The strangeness I could handle, if it weren’t for the fog...
“Where do you buy your Nike clothing?” I ask him.
“In town, from a local guy, $125,” Fabian tells me, preening like some kind of rare bird.
“St. Lucians love the hip-hop,” says Falcon. “We too poisoned by white man capitalism,” he says rather loudly, moving his chair so that he can give me more Rasta rhetoric and protest without having to scream it. The black man’s lot, the white man’s plot and all that. When I look again at Fabian’s pale gray sweat suit, heavy and well-fitting and of very high quality, I am reminded of a book by a South American Marxist, How to Read Donald Duck, I believe it’s called. “Isn’t it really too hot and humid in St. Lucia to wear such a sweat suit?” I ask Fabian, thinking about the half-slip I have taken to putting beneath my dresses. Drop dead, he tells me, with his eyes.
I turn back to Falcon, ask him question after question. “So is it true that you swam all the way to Martinique? What was it like to be so far out in the sea without a boat, without something to hold onto for a rest? I have a friend in Martinique, a doctor. I met him just last summer. We went to a wedding together, a big family marriage. The old church in Martinique, the Catholic one downtown, it was so very beautiful. Have you ever seen it? Can you teach my child to swim?”
A kind of steaming conch bisque is served round the table and all of us pick up our spoons and begin to eat. Conch is a chewy sea snail that’s cooked various ways–tonight it’s in a tomato base with lots of cream, almost like a thick Manhattan chowder. Fabian only rarely eats conch, Falcon never. So much then for the real St. Lucia.
“Pass around the rolls, would you please?” my husband asks, snapping his fingers to get my attention. He and the printer are telling shark stories. Each, it seems, has quite a few in his repertoire, but my husband hasn’t seen a shark in years. It’s the same way with musicals and jazz singers. Rack ‘em up, he does. “When I was a young scientist...”
When it seems as though we are all finished, the waitress, she collects our emptied bowls and used silver, stacks it all up neatly on a big tray placed on a stand. She sets clean, shiny spoons beside the plates–mine, Vincent’s, the printer’s, his wife’s, the two blondes’. I watch as she skips over Fabian and Falcon, as she ignores them completely like they are not even seated at the table. It is a stunning move, and I whisper to Fabian: “Doesn’t that bother you?”
“It happens all the time,” he answers. “Locals are unwelcome here, or at almost any other tourist place along Reduit Beach,” he says soberly. “Hotel security guard throw us off the sand right over there,” he says, pointing. “We talking. That all we do, we talking.”
Falcon closes his reddish eyes, shakes his head yes, yes it’s true. “Some black better than other black.” He crosses his arms, sits up rigidly in the chair.
That there is little humanity in L.A. doesn’t surprise me. To find it lacking here, though, it does. I expected something better but I don’t know why. Whites show contempt for other whites, so why should blacks behave any differently. Well they should behave differently, but why I assume this I don’t really know. I suppose it has got something to do with the suffering.
“We like aliens in we own land,” says Fabian, pulling at his Nike cap. “We have calypso about it.”
“Yeah man, we do we do,” says Falcon, sipping bottled water from a short glass with ice. “Calypso was written by a teacher from St. Mary’s College. That is Derek Walcott’s old school. Do you know the Lucian poet Derek Walcott?”
“I have read him, yes,” I say. “Didn’t he not so long ago win the Nobel Prize?” I remember reading about that in The New Republic. I may even have clipped the article. If I didn’t, well then I will. I have access to past clippings on my computer at work, through Lexis-Nexis. I will do it, I tell myself.
“He did,” says Falcon proudly, “five years back.” He raises five fingers, “for literature. Woman, you should listen to speech,” he tells me enthusiastically. “You might never say again you love the Caribbean.” He stresses the word love as though to mock me.
“Did I say I love it?” “You did,” Falcon tells me, shaking his head up and down. “More than one time. Many more than one time.” It will take a couple of years for me to have a read of that “Felicity” speech, which I will come upon one day at work quite by chance, well not by chance, but anyway when I read it closely, all of it, I will be ashamed of myself. Oh yes, I will be most ashamed. Oh well, fragment by fragment, as they say.
A plate of mango chicken and rice with boiled cucumber is set down in front of me. The rich smells of curry and fruit in the heavy air relax the knots inside me. Fabian samples his fresh white fish, stops for a second to pull tiny bones off his lips and then proceeds to eat as a man who is starving. The Brits begin to tear apart baked lobster that was still in the sea three hours ago. “Caribbean lobster’s special,” the printer says, dipping a piece of meat into a cup of salted butter that a few minutes before he asked to be served on the side. “It is sweet and rich and doesn’t have any claws.”
Falcon pushes aside his rice and peas and stuffed breadfruit and turns to face Gros Islet. I sit back and look across the restaurant, motion to the waitress to come within earshot. I ask her to please bring clean silverware to Falcon and Fabian. She quickly responds, apologizing, but only just to me. Vincent, who has been gabbing with the Brits, looks concerned, asks me to tell him what happened. Later, I say, wondering how he could have possibly missed it, something so obvious.
I wasn’t the only one bothered, I was sure of that. Just the only one to speak up. I have started doing that lately, speaking up a lot more than before. I don’t know why, really, just that I feel compelled to speak up. Funny how one day nothing seems to make a difference, and you are drifting right along, and the very next day everything tears you up inside. Well, not really funny.
The blonde who matters puts a forkful of her chicken with brown rice into Fabian’s mouth, and all is forgiven it seems, for now. There has been a spat between them every few days. I tried to remember those light little fights between Vincent and me, the playful ones that seemed only to make us closer. I couldn’t remember one, not a one.
“The lobster’s great,” says the printer, spitting out reddish shell into his fingers and putting it into a white ceramic bowl beside the plate. He takes the napkin from his lap, wipes his greasy fingers, his shiny face, the dripped butter on the tablecloth. “Falcon, care for a bite?”
The Rasta, blank-faced, declines. Even if he ate shellfish, which he certainly does not, something about the moment is so unclean. “No I&I,” he says to me softly, holding his hand to his mouth as if he were telling me a secret. The blonde to whom Falcon is attached doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the whispering, as if I am perhaps too close to her mother’s age to be jealous of. I wonder if that is how Falcon sees me. It would be good, I suppose, to be just a little threatening. After all, I tell myself, I am closer to her age than I am to her mother’s.
After dinner, which Falcon barely touches, he and I take a stroll along the canal. Vincent, drinking the last of the bottle of red wine with the printer, he doesn’t say a thing about it, just moves the baby’s stroller in closer and throws me a shady glance. If the girl wakes, he will give her the night bottle.
He does that all the time. Takes it out of the cold pack in the diaper bag and asks somebody to heat it up. He is good like that, with the baby.
“I make some tapes for you,” Falcon says, lighting up the spliff from before, inhaling deep, then passing it over to me. “Music, you will like it. It speak to you. It touch you. Peace soon come, Norah,” he says, the way English- speaking West Indians often do. He exhales toward the sky. It is full of stars, the sky, and clear, with only a few clouds and a brand new moon. I turn back around, see if my husband is watching. If he is, well I can’t see him, but I can sense him. Perhaps if I am farther away. I speed up the pace, move myself farther and further away from his grasp of me. For both of us in different ways it will become an obsession, this grasp, if it hasn’t become one already.
“And how do you know it will speak to me?” I ask Falcon, staring at his dark face, lit only by the night sky. He doesn’t answer, just takes the spliff from my hands and hits it again. When he exhales, I can feel his breath on my shoulders, behind my ears, down my neck. It goes between my legs, and this stuns me.
“How old you are, Norah?” he asks. I can nearly touch his curiosity. It is thick, like a rain cloud near ready to burst.
I am 35, I answer honestly, proudly in fact. First time. My sister would’ve given anything to see 35. The day will come again when I won’t be quite so proud, but I will fight it. With awareness one can fight anything, it seems.
“Are you very wild?” he asks me, “cause you seem like you belong in bush. I&I belong in bush. When Falcon was in England to visit girlfriend,” he says, turning his body around and pointing his finger back toward the restaurant, “she didn’t much like I&I cause I&I not really Falcon. I&I have to wear shoe in England,” he says, lifting up his feet, showing me the calluses on the sole of first one, then the other. He takes my hand and rubs it along his foot bottom. There are spots on it that seem hard and rough and chalky like weathered old brick.
“Some foot not meant for shoe,” he says, hitting the weed, holding his breath and a cough with it, passing me the spliff. He blows the smoke out fast and hard, as if to clear it all from his lungs, as if to clean it all out. “Rastaman couldn’t stay very long in England. Nothing was alive in England. Not the houses, not the sea, not the streets, not even the people. Everything cold and damp and quiet quiet. Is America very much like England?” He takes his T-shirt off, sticks it in his back pocket where it hangs down as though it were a gang symbol. He looks real cool like this, real familiar like this. It is almost as though I have seen him this way before with his shirt hanging from his pocket, but how could that be?
I am very high, so high, dizzy and light and I can answer, but I don’t want to talk, don’t want to hear my own voice. I just want to touch him, his dreadlocks, his muscular legs, the hardness of his upper arms, his intense face. He smells of coconut and marijuana. And desire, he smells of that too in all its rankness. His body is a rock, and I want to hide beneath it, to bury myself beneath it. My sister died of cancer not even half a dozen years ago, while I was still very much in mourning over the death of my brother. And my life with Vincent has become suddenly muted since the baby came. He hardly ever reads a book, and watches so much television that he knows the characters there better than he knows me or even wants to know me. The dead are gone to dust, he says, no use crying over it anymore. You have got your own family now, he says. You are a wife and a mother yourself, he says. Get on with it, get on with it, he says.
If it weren’t for these trips to the West Indies that will become more frequent and longer every year, there’d be very little to grow me. And everything needs growing. If it doesn’t grow it becomes routine, like a habit. Even the company that makes Fig Newtons has got to grow. If it doesn’t offer strawberry, or apricot, the thing goes stale. You get enough figs after awhile. It doesn’t take any thought after awhile. You hardly even notice the yellow- striped packaging. You remember the flavor so well you don’t even have to eat them anymore. Fig Newtons with figs, that is. Mango, now that is something Nabisco might try. Tropical fruit, I imagine, watching Falcon’s back as I drag myself in closer behind him. I stumble and fall forward against him, feeling the hot of the skin on his bare back. It is almost like a dance the way we keep ourselves standing, the way I push, the way he holds himself steady against all of my falling weight. It is innocent, the fig leaf and all that, but for the mango.
I want to follow Falcon into the sea and I tell him so, to swim far far away, to some lonely green place where I can let myself go, a place without figs and their leaves, you know. “It is a fantasy,” I say to him, “the white North American woman who wants to go native with the black beach boy, only I am not the stereotypical sort, and neither are you.”
“Falcon know this,” he says, but he keeps his distance regardless. “Falcon know you are positive.” He tells me stories of white women not much older than me, from New York City and from French Canada, sad ladies with lots of money who come to St. Lucia and to Dominica looking for dark-skinned men with locks who will love them until they are black and blue. “They call I&I the Foreign Service, the Big Bamboo.” He laughs hard and loud, and when he does, it seems as though he might cry. “Rastas wicked in the bed. Wicked men,” he says, seductively. In return, some they might want the hotel food, the gold chains, the Nikes. “It fair trade,” he says, inhaling from the spliff, “for some, but not all. Not all, Norah.”
“Were you born wise?” I ask him. He has the kind of real-world smarts that Jean-Michel has got, the primal kind that shows me something honest that I only rarely see. A truth around truth that I almost never see.
“Were you?” he answers, passing me the joint. I push his hand away and the marijuana in it. It is coarse, his hand, like sandpaper, and very very strong. “I cannot smoke anymore dope.”
“We don’t say it dope. Never call it dope. It sacrament, Norah. It holy herb.”
He pushes the spliff to my mouth. I close my lips tight. Maybe to Falcon no means yes. Maybe to me too. I can say it: No no no. I can say it all I want.
“I'm poor compared to you. I'm uneducated compared to you,” he says, sucking in the smoke, “but I'm not desperate.” He drops what is left of the still-lit spliff, grounds it into the dirt with his bare foot, the same foot I had just stroked a few minutes earlier. I would put myself beneath that foot, let it ground me into the earth. It is where I want to be, where I have not been for some time. Vincent and all of city life’s little details have seen to that.
I move back from him, closer to the canal, and I brush the sweat into my hair. I don’t want him to suppose that I am wishing to be black and blue or that I would exploit him in any way or that I am a white tourist with my eyes closed and my legs open. But he has said something that has weakened me inside, something that makes me dream about risking all that I have got, something worth more to me than a husband and a child and a house in L.A., all $750,000 of it. If desperation is not about money and it is not about suffering and it is not about unfulfilled expectations, which for me it most certainly is not about, then it must be about something else. But what is it about? I wonder, looking down at my painted toes shining beneath the glow of the stars. Copper they are, and the color of Falcon’s skin. I got it at Macy’s, the polish, from the makeup counter for women with black skin. Trinket, by Iman, it is. And I bought the lipstick to match it.
Now I had never thought for one moment about desperation, not when my brother was missing, not when my sister was dying, not as long as I can remember. Maybe it had come once or twice as a mood or an intense kind of desire, but it would pass as suddenly as it came about, and leave me with nothing really to show for it. It was always passive in a sense and not active. What would make me twist my hair and twitch my knees, and grind my teeth all through the night? And what would make me follow a strange young man with dreadlocks away from my safety, away from the stability of everything that I knew? I had followed men before, doctors, accountants, men with a bit of ambition and little imagination, most all of them white and middle class. Where I had gone with them had not been uncomfortable or disorienting or painful really, not in any earth-shaking way, except for the drunk. One place was pretty much the same as the other, except for the drunk. Like eating Fig Newtons all your life.
No I had never, quite honestly, never thought myself desperate before, except when I was with the drunk and out of control, but I was thinking it now. Oh yes, I was thinking it now, again. The metaphysician will be very pleased about this. In fact, he will be elated about this. Desperation leads to change, he will tell me. And change is very good, especially when it’s transformative. There must have been some valid reason then why I married the drunk. Some first-rate reason then too for all of that running in the very opposite direction. Restlessness didn’t have to be a lifelong affliction, I vowed once. With Vincent I would cure it. Cure it, I would, and not look back.
Closed my eyes, I did, to looking back. Threw most all of those stiletto heels away. Oh I kept the Charles Jordan suede ones though.
“Tomorrow,” Falcon says, “I&I teach baby daughter to swim in the sea, like St. Lucian babies, and tonight,” he says, coming nearer to me than I am suddenly comfortable with. “Tonight, Falcon make Norah music tapes for free.” He puts his shirt on and pulls his dreadlocks out from the back of it. They cover his shoulders like fraying ribbons.
I can feel my feet take every step, one in front of another, as I walk back toward the restaurant with Falcon close at my side. Our silence is lyrical–just the night breeze on the high tide to mark it. Neither of us has been missed, not really. Nothing lost and everything gained. If everything is what you are after, which I was, but which I didn’t know.
When you are desperate you are struggling, tossing things about, turning them over and rethinking them at least. And when you are desperate you are passionate at least. And you would do just about anything and you would do it frantically too. I would take desperation over emptiness any day. If that is what I am. If that is what I am. Did I say emptiness? Well I didn’t feel empty, not then, not just yet anyway.
“Did you have a nice walk?” my husband asks me from the center of a lively group of full and oh-so-happy tourists. He seems tipsy and bit loud but not altogether drunk. “Yes, I did,” I tell him, eyeing my baby asleep in the stroller and covered up to her neck with a thin blanket. “Yes, very nice.” He hands me a small bowl of sliced-up papaya and a fork. I take a piece with my fingers and let it slide into my mouth. “It’s good,” I say to my husband as the fruit melts into a burst of nectar on my tongue. He offers some to Falcon. The Rasta holds his hand on his heart and then takes one piece of bright yellow fruit and puts it into his mouth, sucks on it for a moment or two before he chews, swallows.
“Paw-paw, we call it here,” he says, licking the juice from his fingers, then pulling a chair up and sitting down on the edge of it. “It like candy only it natural. Grow everywhere. Mummy make paw-paw gratin, but she use the paw-paw when it green. Falcon find some for Norah to taste.”
“I want to taste it too,” says Vincent quickly and a bit sarcastically.
The waitress brings around some clean forks and she takes away the old ones, all the old ones. Falcon thanks her and then me, again with a hand to his heart. Sometimes it is open and laying out flat, sometimes it is closed up tight into a fist, but it is on his chest often, that hand. It is close to his heart. And his face is bowed. It is the way Falcon lives, how he relates to others, how he shows himself when respect is in the air. From across a table of piled-up dishes, cracked lobster shells and chicken bones, glasses near empty of red wine and cups full of steaming lemongrass tea, I feel it beating, his heart. Boom boom boda boom. Strange, I am thinking, it sounds just like a Burru drum. I hear the call, West African licks that talk in rhythms and all, oh yes I believe that I do. It speaks directly to my spirit in a language I don’t even yet know. And so begins my response.