Sample text for Choke / Darnella Ford.

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Chapter One

I bypassed the good life in exchange for a modest lifestyle. Read between the lines: Bankrupt with bad credit. I also fell madly in love with David Claville, a beautiful man with a birth defect. He was born with the inability to remain in the upright position. He was always falling for a woman, and this would have been perfectly fine with me if he didn’t wear an obligatory little name tag that read: husband.

So now you understand my position in the sun.

My name is Vanessa.

I am thirty-four-years old and my beautiful copper-toned skin is my claim to fame. Truth is, I used to be beautiful when I was young. No, I used to be beautiful when I was free, which only leads me to believe that someday I shall be beautiful again. I recently separated from David, my now name-tagless spouse.

I live in a gloriously neglected complex smack-dab in the middle of the desert.

El Mirage, Arizona. Eleven square miles of nothing, thirty minutes east of Phoenix. A tangible dust bowl, flat as a pancake with a lot of cacti and airborne dirt.

El Mirage is a public housing mecca, which is how most of us found our way down this narrow stretch of dusty highway.

In the summertime, every single day is a 115-degree reminder that you are an inhabitant of one of the hottest places on earth.

It’s nearing the end of spring, on the cusp of what promises to be the hottest summer ever.

I have one kid. When she slid out of the birth canal, credits rolled off her little baby butt: THE END. Sew the hole shut. Ain’t nothing else coming out.

My kid’s name is Kennedy.

She was typical in most ways, awkward and struggling to bloom, stretching to find her own voice---but in one way she was different. She was an old soul, reborn into a young body. At twelve, she was extraordinary.

Influenced by the likes of Count Basie, Keith Jarrett, Fats Waller, Dink Johnson, and Sonny Clark, she heard the calling of the keys while still in the womb.

She was “blood of my blood” and “flesh of my flesh.” I had begun playing at the age of seven, when one of my mother’s drug-addicted friends sold us an electronic keyboard for ten dollars. Self-taught by junior high school, it was a natural calling for me. My fingers were fused with magic, and I could play classic compositions like an angel. Everybody told me so. It was no small wonder that Kennedy “pulled” from the gift, and now it belonged to her.

She started playing piano by ear at the age of four.

By six, her father and I enrolled her in classes, foregoing the rent at times to pay for instruction.

By eight, her teacher said she was “fluent on the keys.”

By nine, she was said to be “gifted.”

By ten, “accomplished.”

At eleven, “highly endowed.”

At twelve, she was “a genius.”

Kennedy breathed piano chords for a living, practicing upward of six hours a day, with her biggest dream to attend the Milligan School, a prestigious performing arts high school located one hour due east in Shadow Mountain, Arizona. Her dream was wide enough to fit two people inside, her and me. At least that’s what I was hoping.

As for me, I followed the odor of La Fondita’s Mexican Restaurant home each night, which led me back to the Block Luxury Apartments.

It’s a funny thing about my luxury apartment. From the leaking roof to the cracked floors there was nothing luxurious about it. As a matter of fact, Kennedy and I are still consulting with the roaches to come up with the legal definition of “luxury.” But I’m not complaining. I’m grateful as hell to have a roof over my head. If it weren’t for the chipped paint on the dining room walls, an irrevocable pee stain on the shag carpet in the bedroom, and a toilet that only flushes every other day, I would swear I was floating through life in a Beverly Hills penthouse. But like I said before, I’m not complaining. Just appreciating the things that keep me humble.

Believe it or not, there were a lot of apartments in El Mirage, but the Block was the most famous. The waiting list was longer than my left leg. Maybe it was the indoor plumbing and endless Section 8 opportunities.

On the day I came to sign my rental agreement at the complex, the old, cockeyed, goat of an apartment manager assured me, “This is the finest place in town.” Caught off guard by the giant gaps in his rotting teeth, I looked away.

“You don’t believe me?” he asked, cutting me with sharp eyes.

“Sure,” I said half heartedly.

“We got a swimming pool,” he said enthusiastically. Translation: A rubber above-ground hazard that collapses on both sides.

“A golf course out back.” Translation: An open field of dead grass and gopher holes.

“Pets allowed,” he said. Translation: An apartment full of roaches that will NOT be exterminated.

“We even allow large pets.” Translation: Rats big enough to go in half on the rent.

“Finest place in town,” he repeated, putting the keys into my palm.

The Block was my new home.

It wasn’t safe or pretty, but it did have one saving grace. It was the last stop between being in here or being out there.

I don’t think anybody in the Block had a lot, but everybody seemed to have just enough push to keep the show from stopping. Most of the Block’s residents were single mothers, and we were all superstars of our own desperate productions. Every decent production needs a costar.

Copyright © 2006 by Darnella Ford

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
African American women -- Fiction.
Single mothers -- Fiction.
Mothers and daughters -- Fiction.
El Mirage (Ariz.) -- Fiction.