Ava pulled up in her navy blue pick-up truck with her 13-year-old niece, Nora, in the passenger seat.
“It looks haunted,” Nora said, taking out her phone and wiping off the camera lens.
The car cranked to a stop, as Ava tossed a tuft of her gray and black dreadlocks out of her eyes and put the car in park.
Nora jumped out and took a picture of the tall Victorian home, its white paint almost completely chipped away and only two of its red shudders remaining.
“Is that for your Instagram?” Ava smirked playfully.
“No, Auntie. It’s for TikTok. You probably haven’t heard of—” Nora teased.
“I’ve heard of TikTok, thank you. But look at this,” Ava replied, bending down, lifting her sleeves, and running her fingertips along the ground, speckles of gold dust shining against her dark brown skin.
“This right here,” Ava said, closing her eyes as she crushed pebbles of red dirt in a slow meditation.
“Why does it look like that?” Nora said, lowering herself to the ground, careful not to dirty her white jeans.
“It shouldn’t,” Ava said, turning to her. “It’s only like this in places where it’s warm all the time, like where Grandma grew up.”
“Great Grandma?” Nora asked, placing one finger on the ground, then lifting it back up to analyze the remnants.
Ava nodded back, lost in thought for a moment.
“She loved to play in the dirt, even when she was a teenager. It meant something to her,” Ava said, lifting herself back up and wiping her hands on her dark green army jacket.
“Alright, let’s go,” Ava sighed, walking straight to the place that’s remained the most unchanged after all this time: the front porch with four rocking chairs, two on either side. Two red, two white.
Nora trailed behind, dragging along a large, black matte guitar case in one hand.
“This is where we used to play. Where I learned to play,” Nora said, sitting back in one of the chairs and kicking her feet up. A large open field outstretched before them, now overrun with tall, wild grass. “We’d put on parties and concerts out here, just like her family did.”
“Before she moved up here,” Nora said, excited to show she remembered some of the stories.
Ava looked at her and smiled, mentally noting Nora’s striking resemblance to Grandma June.
“You ready?” Ava asked.
“One minute,” Nora said, sitting down and unlocking the case.
Ava swayed back and forth, and for a moment, turned back to catch a glimpse of the inside of the house. The screen door was cracked a little, letting some light in. Through it, you could see hints of a past life: a cast iron skillet on the stove, a broom perched against the peeling yellow wallpaper, etches of sunflowers still visible.
Ava turned back to look at her niece, who now had the guitar perched across her thigh, the fingers of her left hand pressed hard against the strings.
“I’m ready!” Nora said, enthusiastically.
“Good, you remembered the first chord,” Ava said. “Let’s begin.”
June was always playing in the dirt. As a child, she’d go outside and lie down on her back, move her arms up and down, her legs in and out, and close her eyes as she soaked in the high, beating sun—warm and bright as it ever was, just like the month she was born. And slowly, she’d let herself sink into a daydream.
That dream was usually interrupted by her father, calling out for her from the front porch. “That’s what we call a Texas snow angel! ” he mused. June propped her head up and looked at him as he waved over from the front door. “Is it time for lunch yet?” she yelled over.
“You always have one thing on your mind,” he chuckled back, tipping his wide-brimmed hat over his face and walking inside.
A hat tip was all she needed, so June sprang up and hurried inside. Her father was mostly right about his daughter. But, she always had two things on her mind: Cornbread, specifically, and the sound of someone’s hands on a six-string.
On the weekends, she’d go to shows with her family. Through their songs, the performers painted portraits of a land not too distinct from her own: of horses and cowboys like her father and brother, and of women, like her mother, who ran successful businesses downtown. Of self-determination on the open land for Black folk like her and for the natives who’d always been here.
“What’s this called, mama? June said, looking up at her mother as they both rocked back and forth in the front of the crowd.
“I’m not sure,” her mother said, looking down at her, her hands on June’s little shoulders. “Some say it’s the music of country-folk, like us. Whatever it is, it’s our story.”
June’s family had people over all the time. Musicians would stand on the wrap-around porch, commanding an audience of neighbors and friends with their songs.
It was mostly just for fun, at first. But when times at her mother’s business got tough, June had an idea: “Why not charge people to come in here? A few times a month.”
Her parents were resistant. The idea of charging their community, even for just a small fee, seemed out of the question. But June kept persisting, with the help of her brother’s nudges, too.
And one day, finally, their mother said, “You know, I think that’s a fine idea.”
At first, it was the usual crowd, the same folks who came over to play before. But slowly, it grew as the word spread around town. And soon enough, the family went in search of new talent to bring in the door, going all over to scope out the next big thing, big for their small town, anyway. “But just as good as anywhere else!” June said, defiantly, whenever kids at school told her that her dreams were too big for someone like her. June dreamed that one day, they could build something legendary, something people all over the country would know them for. “Good things take time,” her father reminded her when she got ahead of herself. “And you have to know when to act.”
When June was a teenager, she’d go to bars with her older brother, slipping the doorman a few bills to watch act after act perform. If they saw someone they liked, her brother would write their name down in a small notebook he carried. Then June would get up, march right up to the artist, extend her hand, and say “That was one heck of a performance up there. Are you keen on expanding your audience?”
And when June turned 21, she heard the distant sound of something she’d never heard before. A sound that carried the taste of a freedom she’d never felt.
So she packed up, and got going. Off to build something of her own.
James and Jordan had their mother’s penchant for mischief and like her, they wanted to be in management. “Twin boys,” she said, exhausted, as she propped herself up on the hospital bed. “They’re gonna be a handful, I just know it,” her husband said back, patting away the sweat on her brow as she sucked in air through each forceful contraction. “I know,” she said, looking up at him, smiling. “And thank God.”
The twins thought they ran the whole household, bossing around their younger sister and older brother after supper each night. “We have a deal, remember?” they’d taunt their older brother, Adam. “It’s not my turn! I did the dishes last night,” he protested back. “And I don’t remember making no deal.”
“You said that if we didn’t tell mama about you sneaking off to see….what’s her name?” Jordan said, squinting his eyes trying to recall the latest in a line of their older brother’s pursuits.
“Caroline,” James filled in.
“Ah, yes. Caroline. You said you’d owe us any favor, yet to be determined.”
Adam sunk in recognition. It was true. “This is what you want?” their brother asked.
“Dishes, for a month.”
“A month!?” Adam replied, incredulous. James and Jordan just looked at him, standing firm and unfettered.
James and Jordan always had a plan, a hustle, and an angle, and never strayed from it, even in the most benign of childhood endeavors: selling baseball cards before school, cracker jacks at lunch, and on the weekends, selling discounted records at their parents’ business: The Majestic.
Over the years, June took her family’s dream, watered it, and built something new in a land up north. The Majestic didn’t look like much on the outside, but inside those doors, and it was a real heaven-on-earth. Golden framed photographs of all the local greats on the walls, platinum records hung on the mahogany wood panels, floor to ceiling. And in the back of the hall, dead-center, was the star of the show: a red, blue, gold, and white stain-glass window of an angel, a remnant from the hall’s former life, whose glimmering, technicolor light colored the floor when the sun shone through.
Here, five nights a week, locals and out-of-towners alike poured in, dancing to country, swaying to blues, toe-tapping to jazz, and stomping to the sound of soul.
As they got older, James and Jordan took their act on the road, going on scouting trips with their mother, developing their instinctual sense of knowing who would be the next big thing.
Their sister Ashley, the youngest of the crew (but the oldest at heart), shadowed their father, learning the ins-and-outs of the business side: keeping the books, drafting and finalizing contracts, and making deals with local vendors. Their brother, Adam, was an artist by nature, and apprenticed with the local print shop that created advertisements for their weekly shows, showcasing the names of artists in giant, flowing calligraphy, adorned in gold accents and floral imagery.
Business was booming. Long gone were the days when, on a Friday night, they’d all sit by the doors and watch two dozen or so people trickle in. Now, Friday was just the beginning of a packed weekend, with any given night ranging from 200 to 300 patrons, a steady flow of first-time revelers and loyal customers.
The Majestic was situated on Main Street, in a part of town that was a hub of Black culture, experiencing a Harlem Renaissance of its own miles away from the bright lights of New York City. And this attracted attention, the good kind that kept the bills paid with plenty of cash leftover, and the bad, from people who thought that June and her family didn’t fit in with the town’s white elite, even if their lives were separate and unequal.
June taught her children to silently protest. She didn’t want to directly invite any trouble into their lives, but she wanted to find small ways to push back, to challenge what was accepted.
The family had its own rather large circle of friends and acquaintances—they didn’t need a fancy social club to feel like they belonged. But June and her husband, together, gathered their children around the kitchen table, took out their special fountain pen, and signed their application for the segregated country club.
“Why are we making some big ceremony out of this?” Jordan asked. “If we know they don’t take,” he continued, pointing to the deep brown skin on the back of his hand.
“Exactly the point,” June said, signing on the dotted line.
She knew, of course, that they wouldn’t be accepted. But they weren’t the only Black family who kept pushing, without saying a word, for the right to be included, even though they already created a world for themselves in their homes, in their churches, in restaurants, barbershops, hair salons, grocery stores, repair shops, and in places like The Majestic. Their own world—but one with danger quietly watching, and waiting, on the outside.
As the years wore on, June and her husband knew they’d successfully handed the reigns to their children, now grown, teaching them not only how to run their establishment, but how to build a family and start a good life.
It was time for the two of them, they both thought, to finally get some real rest.
“It couldn’t be in better hands,” June said to her husband, one mid-summer evening out on the porch, as they both watched the sun go down.
The children didn’t live in the house anymore, but they were all close-by, coming ‘round for Sunday supper and dropping off their young kids for cousin playdates each week.
One night after dinner, it was just Ashley and Jordan at their parents’ place, which was fine, because she wanted his opinion.
Earlier, Ashley approached a vendor in town with an offer: the chance for The Majestic to be an exclusive seller of a new whiskey that just got to market, for a limited time. “I said, ‘We’ll pay you $3 dollars extra per case, to start.’ $3 dollars over what they were selling to other venues,” Ashley explained.
“And you want to sell it at a discount?” Jordan asked, leaning back and cutting up another corner of pumpkin pie. “I know you run the numbers, but that doesn’t add up.”
“It’s about the relationship,” she said back. Their mom and dad were at the dinner table behind them, amusing the grandkids with a Jack-and-the-Beanstock picture book as Ashely and Jordan sat in the living room, warming by the fire. “For the first month, we’ll pay 3 dollars extra for each case, making it exclusive. We’ll have Adam advertise it. The Majestic will be known, for a little while, as one of the few places that sells it and among those places, the place that sells it cheaper.”
Jordan took a moment to think about it. There had to be something more. “So this ain’t about whiskey.” Jordan concluded.
Ashley shook her head. “It never is. After we’ve got plenty of new feet in the door to watch our new acts, we’ll slowly raise the price as we introduce other options,” Ashley ended on a triumphant sip of her peppermint tea.
“Well, alright. You’re in charge,” Jordan said, with a laugh, a hint of skepticism, but with an underlying tone of trust.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something,” Jordan said, changing the topic as he put his plate down on the wooden side table. “When mom and dad started The Majestic, the mix of sounds was damn-near revolutionary. They weren’t afraid to go against the playbook that other people told them they’d need to succeed in this town. But I think we’ve gotten stagnant.”
Ashley’s eyebrows shot up, “Stagnant?”
“Complacent. Stagnant. Whatever word you wanna use,” Jordan replied. “There’s a pulse out there, I can feel it. There’s something in the water. Like what mom chased when she moved up here, but different.”
“Not sure I know exactly what you’re talking about, but keep going,” Ashley said, shifting in her chair.
“I don’t have details yet, but there’s something I’m working on,” Jordan said, trying to force down the growing smile on his face.
“So you want to be all mysterious about it?” Ashley said, chuckling.
“No, no. I’ll share when I know more. Promise.” Jordan replied, leaning back into his chair.
“Does James know about this? I know he handles a lot of the artist paperwork when you’re on the road.” Ashely said.
“Not yet,” Jordan replied. “I’ll tell him.”
“Okay. I trust you,” Ashley said back, as they both looked back at the crackling fire.
James was usually the first one at work in the morning, driving in around 10am to unlock the doors, unstack the chairs, and open the curtains. It was usually a routine affair. He’d put his car in park, take out his keys, and unlock the big, steel black doors. But one morning, someone beat him to it.
The lock was broken, the doors were slightly open. And on the ground, there was a white envelope. James bent down and saw that inside it, there was a piece of paper with nothing written on it.
James stepped inside the hall and looked around. Nothing seemed off or out of place. He checked the bar and inventory in the back. “All’s here,” he said as he walked around, on guard in case he wasn’t alone, and turning on the lights as he rounded each corner.
All was quiet, the still air only punctuated by birds chirping. Whoever was here, if anyone at all, didn’t leave a trace.
Later that day, he told his brother Jordan about it.
“Just a blank envelope and a blank note,” he said.
“And nothing was missing inside?” Jordan pressed, putting his cigar down right by his red playing cards on the round kitchen table. Jordan asked his brother every week to come over and play cards, like they used to, and every week, James rushed home straight after work to see his babies. Tonight was rare, different.
“Absolutely nothing. I circled the place three times before I started working,” James replied.
For a moment, Jordan didn’t say anything, just looked blankly, squinted his eyes, and then slyly smiled.
“James, are you sure it wasn’t you?” he said with a chuckle.
“Me? Are you serious?” James shot back, half-joking, half-not, fearing his brother didn’t understand that while nothing happened that morning, the absence of something—a note or some sort of real damage— left him shaken. Like the feeling that something’s about to jump out at you in the dark, but it never does, and your stomach stays twisted in knots of dreaded anticipation.
“You’ve been under a lot of stress lately,” Jordan replied, putting his hands up in defense.
“That’s true,” James conceded. His wife just had a baby girl three months back, and overnight, they went from a family of three to a family of four. Jordan had a sense of this chaos, but couldn’t fully relate. He wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids, a freedom James (although he’d never admit it) sometimes envied, and a burden that sat at the pit of Jordan’s stomach. The brothers were still quite close, but not the dynamic duo of their youth; James increasingly stayed behind in the office, going back home to his family every night, while Jordan went off on the road in search of new sound, spreading his sphere of musical influence wider and wider.
“I haven’t been sleeping much,” James continued, unguarded.
“You might’ve forgotten to lock up the night before,” Jordan said.
“That’s true, I guess,” James said, putting his hand over his mouth to conceal a yawn. He was getting tired, and didn’t feel like pushing it any further. So he stood up, pushed his chair in, and slung his jacket on. And with that, Jordan shot up.
“Wait, I’ve been meaning to tell you something,” he said, his eyes lit up with excitement.
“Man, I gotta get home. But we’ve got our meeting soon,” James said, halfway to the front door.
“You’re right,” Jordan said. “I’ll tell everyone then.”
Saturday night was the biggest night at The Majestic, and tonight, a mix of artists played, including a few highlights. Caroline Matthews was up first, kicking off her blues set with the song “Wonder”. Three songs, 15 minutes.
Dalila McPherson was next. She was the best banjo player in all of Forsyth County, North Carolina, where she came from, and was known for time changes mid-measure that could give you whiplash. People said she was bluegrass, but if you asked her, she said, “I can’t be put in no box.” So she just called herself Dalila. Four songs, 20 minutes.
Liam Anderson was another highlight, a regular with the most ordinary, unpolished six-string in the world. By the looks of him, you wouldn’t know that he came from a family of legends around these parts. Wearing a deep brown cowboy hat and tall boots, he sang of lost love in country lullabies and happy-seeming romps. Five songs, 25 minutes.
James, Jordan, Ashley, and Adam lock down Saturday night performers at least a week in advance. Ashley’s got a mind for strategy, and knows that in a city with over 30 Black-owned venues, it’s not enough to have a fancy roster. She asks, what drinks and specials will they have on tap? Are ticket prices competitive enough, without underselling? And how to reign in costs without cutting back on The Majestic’s signature ambiance?
Then James and Jordan go back and forth, hashing out who they think this week’s lineup should be, which local artists James had nurtured relationships with and which new performers Jordan found out on the road, with Ashely interjecting at every turn.
Once the acts are decided, Adam grabs his notebook and a pencil, and sketches out the calligraphy of each name in big, elegant, swooping curves. In the evening, he picks up the musician’s record and at home, long after the kids are in bed, he plays their music in the back den, where his wife knows to find him, and they dance quietly in slow-motion two-step.
The next morning, he sketches again, this time on poster paper. Then he takes out his paints and creates 2D engravings that look 3D, real enough to touch. The finished product is a royal proclamation of music, each adorned with gold, blue, and green flowers.
That night at the meeting, ahead of the show with Caroline Matthews, Dalila McPherson, and Liam Anderson, Jordan had something to say.
“I’ve got something really different, something y’all never heard before,” Jordan said to the group, and nudging James in the elbow. “This must be what he wanted to tell me about,” James thought to himself. He smiled at his brother, trying to feel excited, but there was something weighing on him.
“You alright, James?” Ashley asked from across the table.
“You’ve been awfully quiet, more than usual these days,” Adam chimed in, turning toward James in concern.
“I’m fine. Baby’s had trouble sleeping through the night,” James said, trying his best to sound relatable and reassuring in equal measure.
Truth is, the baby was sleeping just fine, so were all his kids. But as he closed his eyes to sleep last night, taking deep breaths to slow his racing thoughts, a replay of what he saw that morning circled on loop in his mind.
He shifted in his bed back and forth, and then remembered the numbers. “Count backwards from 100,” his mother June told him when he was just a boy, on nights when he’d crawl out of his bed and sit in a rocking chair on the front porch, guitar in-hand, and quietly play along to the sound of crickets in the tall grass.
“Can’t sleep again?” she’d ask, pushing open the screen door.
He’d shake his head “no”, in silence, and kept playing.
“Me neither,” she’d say back.
“But you never sleep,” James replied, a laugh breaking through his muffled voice.
“Lucky me. That means I get to be with you on beautiful nights like this,” June said, sitting down next to him.
James put his guitar down and the two sat in silence for a moment. He felt so much but he didn’t know how to express himself. He could never write lyrics, like his mother and father, because words, sometimes, just seemed to fail him. Or he failed them. Whatever it was, he knew he could always pick up a guitar and the strings, with each pluck, could speak for him.
“Do you wanna talk about it,” June said, leaning in closer.
James shook his head “no”.
They sat together for a little while longer, and then June said, “Did you try counting down from 100?”
“Mom…” James whined. He’d tried that before, and it only made him ruminate on the impossibility of infinity.
“Try it again, sweetheart,” she said back.
They went back inside, and in his bed, James counted down. “100, 99, 98, 97, 96, 95, 94, 93, 92, 91. 90…91…92……93, no….89, 88, 87……..” And a few moments later, he was asleep.
More than two decades later, James couldn’t get past “54” without thinking about what happened when he came into work 12 hours ago.
He pulled to The Majestic in his car, walked over to the big black doors and immediately, his stomach dropped down to his feet. The doors were already open and there was another envelope. Blank, like the before. James opened it and inside was another blank, white piece of paper— just like last time.
He stepped inside and everything looked just fine, with that same eerie quiet. All the chairs still in place, windows unbroken, and the piano still on the stage with its dark blue drapery hung over it.
James then pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen. “Good God…..,” he said, at first gasping, then hushing himself in case somebody was still there.
Three rows of glass jars were strewn all over the black and white tile floor. He tip-toed around the shards ’till he reached the closet, pulled out a broom, and started sweeping.
As he cleaned up the final pieces, the back door, which he could have sworn was locked from the night before, swung open. “Hello?”James said, standing up, alert.
Nothing. The door no longer swung back and forth, but James could feel the remnants of cold air, like someone, or something, had quickly run out.
“Anybody there?” he said, louder this time. Still silence.
James closed the door and inspected the kitchen. It was spotless now. James picked up the handle of the rotary phone, about to call his sister who might still be at home, getting ready to come in. “She’ll be here any minute now,” James said, checking his watch. And as he put the phone down, he felt a tight, furry curl wrap around his left leg. “How did you get in here?” James purred at the stray brown alley cat. It came around the back sometimes for scraps of food and scratches on its soft, round belly. The cat jumped up on the counter, eager for affection.
“Someone’s been feeding you extra, my friend,” James said, petting it, as the cat curved its tail around the edges of the remaining glass jars on the shelves.
“It couldn’t have been him,” James thought. No. But maybe it was. “Are you gonna pay for the damage?” James said to the cat, giving it one last pet before it jumped off and walked back outside.
Somewhat relieved, James leaned back on the counter’s edge, letting out a deep breath.
James scanned the room one more time. Everything looked fine. James put his hand to his heart and to his surprise, it was still beating fast. Perhaps just it was just the aftershock, he thought.
He got up to put the broom away, opened the closet door and even with the lights off, he could see some sort of liquid in a messy puddle. He turned the lights on bent down, and stared at the bright red pool on the floor.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Jordan said to his brother, jolting James back to the present.
Was now the right time to tell them with everyone here, altogether? Maybe it’d be best to tell Ashley first, before asking their employees if they’d seen anything happen, or if they’d gotten hurt. Or maybe he should get everyone’s advice all at once. Was it a mistake that he cleaned it up? That he didn’t call the authorities?
“I’m fine,” James choked out. “Just tired.” He decided it’d be best to wait.
“Well, I’ve got big news,” Jordan added in, smiling wide.
“Oh yeah, we interrupted you. What is it?” Adam said, leaning in with the rest of his siblings. Jordan was usually excited about new artists, but not like this.
“Guess who I was introduced to?” Jordan said, his voice tingling.
“Cut the song and dance, Jordan,” Ashley said. “Who is it?”
The words hung in the air, hovering, with no place to land as the siblings looked at Jordan, waiting for him to say more.
Then, finally breaking the silence, “Are we supposed to know who that is?” Ashley asked.
“Maybe not, but you will,” said Jordan.
James didn’t know who this person was, either. But at least maybe this would buy him more time.
THE END OF PART ONE.
Hey, everyone! Thanks for reading the first part of my story. I am experimenting with a format of breaking up the stories, like a series. Think it should be interesting! So look out for Part II.
Let me know in the comments how you like this story.
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Till next time,
Cynthia Betubiza. April 20, 2022.