The Gettin' Place


By Susan Straight

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In the third novel by the author of Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, the Thompson clan tries to deal with the chaos after their family patriarch finds the burning bodies of two white women on his property and is then accidentally gunned down by police.


September 1991


When the scent of the flowering apricot tree brushing against her bedroom window mixed with the milk-pearled breath of her new grandbaby, Alma would lie half-awake before dawn and dream that Sofelia whispered into her dampened neck.

Her baby girl. Sofelia murmured about the boy she'd fallen in love with, the one who'd taken her away, a boy who buried his long fingers in the thick, wavy hair at her nape that Alma had combed each night and who cradled her head on his chest now.

Her last baby, her only girl, and Alma had always slept beside her, half-dreaming and half-vigilant for the chills or mosquitoes or dreams that might harm her. And when Sofelia had finally asked to sleep in her own bed, it seemed it was only months later that she'd disappeared.

When Alma heard the faint, hoarse cry somewhere outside, distant and short, she nearly wept at the silence trailing behind.

Alma knew her new grandbaby Jalima's breath was regular and warm near her elbow, but every morning when her ears turned empty and her eyes sifted out the dark, the loss she felt made her breastbone into a brittle chalk stripe.

She waited for the stinging to rise into the base of her throat, as it always did, and to distract herself, she whispered, "What you gon cook today?" Was she asking herself? Or Sofelia? Then she heard the metallic reports pinging through the lessening dark, and she thought her own grandmother must have already gotten to the kitchen, settling full, cast-iron pots onto the burners to ring sharp like hammer beats. Alma sat up on the edge of the bed, tracing the line of ache in the long bone over her heart.

The three loud pops sounded like backfires from the old trucks Hosea's friends drove, and she patted the pillows around the bed's edges so the baby couldn't fall, thinking she'd better make extra sausage. She opened her bedroom door, pulling one of Hosea's old shirts around her. He hadn't slept in this room for a long time, since Sofelia, but she liked the smell of his cigarillos and coffee and skin. Then she noticed that Abuela's door was still closed; if her grandmother was up and about, the door was always propped open with a basket of dried rose petals.

Alma started down the white-plastered hallway, trailing her hand along the cool walls even though she knew this glowing tunnel by heart, and at the last bedroom door, her oldest grandson, Kendrick, stood. "Somebody shootin, Gramma," he said, his hands clenched to fists near his sides.

Alma frowned. "You think so?" she asked, peering past him to see his younger brother Jawan, who was only three, still wrapped in blankets. Then she heard an echoing, louder report that seemed closer.

"Shot," Kendrick insisted, following her into the long living room, dark and shadowed. Alma stood looking through the lace panels over the big window, but she saw no one in the gravel yard that sloped down to the fence and front gate and Pepper Avenue. The living room's formal back faced the avenue, and its glass-paned doors led out to the courtyard.

"Go get your papa," Alma told Kendrick. She wondered if Hosea was awake. Kendrick's fingers were long and ginger gold on the lace curtains, all of him longer and taller since he'd turned ten, and she saw him bite his lips. He think his daddy's in trouble again, Alma thought. Julius made plenty of men angry at how easily women followed him home, and sometimes the women were enraged that they couldn't stay in the silver trailer forever.

When Kendrick came back, Alma was still standing there clutching the shirt around her, somehow remembering pot lids clanging roundly onto bubbling and laughter. "He ain't in his house," Kendrick said, and Alma heard shouting, faint through the trees.

She opened the front door, standing on the damp gravel in her bare feet, hearing the distant whine of a helicopter racing toward her. The faint outline in the lightened eastern sky looked like a tiny electric mixer, its handlelike tail stiff, sparks flashing from silver beaters.

An accident on Pepper Avenue, she told herself, seeing the beam knife down onto the riverbottom road and the helicopter begin to circle as if rotating in the grip of a giant hand. She and Kendrick began to run.

When they reached the corner of Pepper and the riverbottom road, she saw skeins of red twirling among the pepper branches: three sirens, sitting atop carelessly parked sheriff's cars, the pulsing lights looking festive and toylike. When she saw Hosea, his boots pointing to the branches, his arm lying outstretched in the sandy edge of the road, his head hidden in the weeds, she began to scream, tearing off the shirt as she ran so that she could hold it over the spongy bloom of blood.

Two of the men whirled around with guns drawn, but she kept running, even when she heard Kendrick cry out and drop to the ground, the light thud of his chest on the roadside like a moth against glass.

When the stiff palm rested against her collarbone, stopping her forward movement, she closed her eyes so she wouldn't see the official face at arm's length from hers. Alma waited, hearing the harsh voices mingle with the spitting radios. An officer moved his shoes on the asphalt: "I thought it was a fuckin gang banger, baggy-ass khakis and big jacket. Shit, it's a fuckin old guy."

"That's his wife," she heard a softer voice call, and she recognized it, the voice she'd been praying for, Salcido's boy, who was a policeman.

"It's okay, son, get up," Tony Salcido said to Kendrick, and then his hands were on her back, helping her forward to Hosea.

His neck was ashen. She crouched in the tall weeds. His mouth was carved tight, and the sound of sirens trailed down Pepper Avenue while she tried to wad the shirt over his bloody shoulder. Another policeman squatted beside her. "He can't be moved, now; you shouldn't do anything till the EMTs get here, ma'am."

The ambulance men kneeled then and lifted Hosea on a stiff board. Alma gasped, and the Salcido boy's hand was at her back again. "He's just injured, Mrs. Thompson; that's how they transport someone injured."

Alma saw the burning car now, the jack-o'-lantern glow of fire through the windows and the fire engine pushing near. Men trained hoses onto the car, which faded to black.

Alma told them she'd heard only the shots. Yes, she and the injured man were married. No, he hadn't been asleep in the house. He had his own place. No, they hadn't argued. He hadn't argued with anyone. No, she didn't know anything about his gun. Or the fire. Alma looked up from the distant jimsonweed where she'd fixed her eyes. She saw smoke lingering over the storage lot, men walking along the fence line, and one figure bent near the smoldering car. He stood and shouted, "Hey, we got two bodies here! Goddamnit, Salcido, call EMT back. This looks like coroner's OT."

Alma's knees loosened like a doll's when she heard him, and she thought, Julius, Finis, somebody done got em from the trailers. God, what them boys did? She felt Kendrick pull away from her, and she knew he was thinking the same thing.

The deputy walked toward Salcido, holding his hand over his mouth, then rubbing his bent-back wrist around his forehead. "Looks like women," he said. "Two women burnt all to hell."

The stairways were dim and steep, the night smell of cement still trapped by shadow, but when Marcus reached the courtyard of his apartment building and glanced back at his window, knowing he'd forgotten something, the wind had begun to clear the mist from the huge arched panes.

He hesitated near the curved wrought-iron railing that lined all the stairways. He'd already been to the gym when it opened at six A.M., walking the two blocks in the darkness. When he'd come back, his red message light flashed, and he'd known it could only be one of his brothers calling that early. Damn sure wasn't a woman. He was fresh out of females since Colette had moved back to Chicago. When he'd pressed the button, his mother's voice was, as always, uncomfortable on the machine. "Marcus? Marcus," she said. That was all she ever said to the empty space before she hung up.

Then he heard his oldest brother, Demetrius, after another beep. "Marcus. Marcus! Shit." His voice was ragged and impatient, as always, and he hung up, too.

Marcus didn't want to call either of them back. He was heading over there now anyway. And walking, goddamnit—he couldn't believe it.

He leaned against the railing for a moment. He'd left Demetrius's navy work shirt on the bed, the one he'd borrowed last week when he'd changed the oil on the Lexus at his father's place, more for show than anything else. "Hell," Marcus said softly, turning toward the courtyard. "I had that bad boy dry-cleaned just so Demetrius wouldn't talk shit, but I'm not carryin it all the way to Treetown."

He smiled at the thought of chemical creases and plastic wrap on the Dickies work shirt. Now Demetrius couldn't say, "Why you bring me back a dirty shirt and make more work for my wife, man?" Demetrius still loved to call Enchantee "my wife" in front of Marcus, even after eight years, because Marcus had loved her first. Marcus rubbed the razored line of his fresh-cut fade, remembering Demetrius dressing to go out, back when Marcus was in junior high and Demetrius was grown. The silky, long-pointed collars lay on the bed like bent wings, and Demetrius would spit from the doorway, "Don't let them grubby fingers touch nothin, boy. Only lady fingers touch them shirts." Marcus would watch the shimmering Qiana patterns stretch across the wide shoulders, feeling his own bony elbows hang from the plain white T-shirts all five boys usually wore. Marcus was the baby boy. That was what their lips popped scornfully all day: "Ba-by boy. Sissyfly. Go head on and bawl."

But when you thirty and he's almost forty, ten years ain't hardly nothin, Marcus thought, smiling again. Three negatives. Our favorite way to use em; that's what Brother Lobo used to say. Africans always emphasize.

He walked along the curving cement wall. Brother Lobo's black history class at Rio Seco High had changed his life, altered the way he saw everything from his father's chicken coop to his friends' insults. Lobo had been his idol for years, even after Marcus had come back from college to see him nearly blind at forty-five from glaucoma, barely able to play dominoes at Jackson Park. If Marcus didn't get any class assignments next week at Rio Seco High, where he'd only been teaching for a year, which of his flat-eyed freshmen would even remember him?

It could have been one of his students who stole the Lexus, for all he knew. He crossed the darkened courtyard, where the slow dawn hadn't reached through the three giant palms growing from circles cut in the cement. Las Palmas was the best apartment building in this historic downtown district. Marcus looked at the facade, the arches and gargoyles and hand-painted tile apartment numbers. It was taking him long green, longer than those palm fronds, to pay the rent on number 24 and the lease note on the Lexus, and now here he was walking, just like any wandering Treetown brother. Like his own brother Finis. The rest of them would bust up laughing when they found out about his car.

Leaving the arched entry, he moved his eyes casually up and down the street for patrol cars. A brother strolling this district at dawn was always an intriguing sight for law enforcement, even if he was wearing a J. Crew pullover and chinos, not sagging-to-the-sidewalk khakis. He stopped at the corner, thinking again of Demetrius's shirt. Demetrius talked big yang about Marcus's clothes, his apartment, his car. "My baby bro got him a sherbert car—a damn Lexus," Demetrius would laugh, and the men in the barn, working on engines and rims, would laugh, too.

"The ride's maroon," Marcus would say easily, knowing that the mangled pastel word didn't have a damn thing to do with the paint job.

As of yesterday, the ride was history, he thought, just like all this. He passed the museum, the newly renovated opera house, and the new coffee bars and bakeries catering to the crowds growing every month since downtown was no longer "redeveloping" but had become "The Historic Moorish District." The garden district had flowery yards, the Victorian district three-story gingerbread mansions; now the Moorish district had all its buildings and facades restored or newly faked with creamy plaster, red-tiled roofs, grillwork scrolling, and fountains.

The Lexus was history as of last weekend. Somebody else's story now, a quick tale to tell. Yo, man, we plucked this Casper's Lexus, from downtown, and you know that dude in San Bernardino needed him some Lexus parts? He got em now….

The only brother in the building, Marcus thought, and they gotta steal my hooptie. The insurance adjustor sure thought the thieves were brothers. In his halting-hard accent, maybe Boston, the man had said, "Mr. ah, Thompson?"

"Yes," Marcus had said carefully.

"Your Lexus was stolen from outside your residence on Las Palmas Drive?"


The voice shifted, emanating conspiratorial sympathy. "Well, the police found your vehicle stripped, in a lot off Olive Street. Do you know where that is?"

Treetown. Marcus played along with the clucking pity in the voice. "Way down there, huh?" he said, biting off his consonants.

"Not hard to guess some nice young riverbottom gentlemen have, ah, distributed the parts by now. Well, I'll send you the forms, and you'll get them back to me, right?"

"Sure," Marcus said, rounding that r hard. "Did they tow the car yet?"

"I'm not sure." The voice turned cautious.

"I'll take care of it. My father runs Arrow Towing. Off Pepper Avenue. Way down there by the riverbottom, about as way as it gets."

Marcus turned on California Boulevard, which ran the length of downtown and went all the way north past the university and the airport. He passed mouth after mouth of gated, dark parking caves. The brothers took my hooptie and didn't even check the glove compartment fulla tapes, he thought. Robin Harris. Richard Pryor. What white dude's gon have Bicentennial Nigger and some old BarKays and Cameo? No solidarity, man.

He was hoping his brothers wouldn't be at the yard when he asked his father to lend him a car. He needed transportation by Monday. Coming out of the chilled, ghostly corridor of banks and office buildings, Marcus blinked in the glare from the sliver of sun reflecting off the mirrored towers gathered at the corner of California and Pepper Avenue. The city was trying to attract companies to the newly built Los Arbolitos business park, with its spindly, just planted jacarandas and orange trees. Marcus listened to the fountain splashing around the huge concrete sign. A flapping banner advertised office space from one of the towers. The problem with vacancies, according to what Marcus read in the newspaper and heard in downtown conversations, was that although Los Arbolitos was attractive, it was at the edge of "a transitional area." In other words, this section of Pepper Avenue was too damn close to the Westside, and, even worse, to Treetown.

Down there. No, Treetown wasn't south, he thought. Due west. But it felt like down to them. He'd heard newscasters say the same thing about South-Central L.A. "Down in the south-central part of the city today, robbery claimed a life…" And in Rio Seco, people in restaurants said, "You're heading down there through Treetown? Yeah, it's a shortcut to the freeway, but…"

Marcus waited at a stoplight on Pepper, looking at the blurred territorial edges. A long stretch of vacant lot, barely needled with winter grass among the broken glass and snowy Styrofoam bits, led to the slope of the arroyo that meandered through the city, spilling into the riverbottom not far from his father's place. Marcus and his brothers used to travel up the arroyo every day to find aluminum cans and other boys and fights in the Westside, sometimes even clambering up the banks and venturing downtown. Back then, downtown was half-deserted, but the cops still knew within a few minutes if a knot of Treetown boys walked up Pepper Avenue past a certain point.

He was near that certain point right now, he thought, smiling. It was a small, bare street marked with nothing but a scatter of green foxtails growing around the silver-edged hole where the sign pole had been knocked out by a car. The city had conveniently neglected to replace the sign, which used to read Gray Lane and lead down a long slant to the collection of houses called Gray Hollow, old shacks, really, that used to house citrus workers like his parents. Adjacent to the old houses, the last of which had just been bulldozed last year, was Jackson Park. The city had razed the houses and flattened all the tree-covered lots nearby, then fenced in the park with chain link and only one gate after a shooting that had wounded Brother Lobo and killed a young brother named Louis Wiley. Now some of the men that used to congregate under the pepper trees in the lot, playing dominoes and drinking, gathered in his uncle's barbecue joint.

Marcus crossed the street. The city was just as happy to leave this little lane to natives only, who had to want to get to the Westside this way. Commuters could stay on the avenue and go to work. They didn't need to venture down that slope. He grinned at the thought of his father and brothers watching the steady stream of cars passing their lot, remembering one day when traffic backed up and they sat in the yard laughing at the stoic, panicked faces briefly robbed of motion, almost out of Treetown.

The blue strip mall, a collection of tiny stores segmented like a long caterpillar crawling beside the avenue, was the uneasy outpost in this no-man's land. Marcus knew the businesses, a dry cleaner, a video store, a liquor store, nail salon, and doughnut shop, all depended on the commuters and downtown, and the owners were probably holding their breaths waiting for more commercial development between them and Los Arbolitos.

Marcus always stopped at the Donut Place, where the Cambodian owner, Som, made the best pillowy-soft glazed doughnuts in the city. But not today, he thought. Last week, Som had pushed forward a thin, sullen boy he said was his nephew. "Remember him, Teacha? He come last year from the camp. He go to the school, take your class now, okay? He need to learn so much." The boy had looked away. "He don't want get up one o'clock to make doughnut, he have to go to school, right, Teacha?"

I'm not a teacher today. I'm a walkin brother, Marcus thought. From here to the overpass, the sidewalk along Pepper was edged in another vacant lot. Everything in a long corridor had been torn down back when the city built the freeway, in 1960, the year he was born. His father and uncle said that Westside and Treetown used to merge together in one black neighborhood, and this was where the stores and barbershop and a bar had been. "Used to couldn't tell," his uncle Oscar would always say. "Niggas was niggas. But the Westside was city cats, lot of em worked for the aircraft plants. And Treetown was country. That's what they called us. But they came over here to drink, I'ma tell you that."

The overpass was a block away, as gray and curved as a huge rattler dusty from the hills. The pastel-pink bungalows of the Kozy Komfort Inn were like dollhouses from this distance, all in a straight line among short palms with fanned fronds. You'd expect to see the shimmering blue pool and girls in bikinis, way back in the fifties.

But the pool was filled in, the motel grounds defined by chain link topped with barbed wire. Usher Price sat on a folding chair outside the bungalow at the end that used to be the motel office.

When he saw Marcus, he slid through the propped-open sliding gate, squinting in the faint light under a palm. Marcus slowed his pace; he passed here driving every now and then, but never walking. He didn't know what to expect, what Usher might say or do, since it had been years since he'd seen him. Maybe since a few years out of high school, and Usher had smoked way too many Super Kools, cigarettes dipped in liquid PCP: same thing as his brother Finis.

"Say, man, Marcus? Hella long time," Usher said, close now, his eyes watery with what looked like weak tea, his thick hair combed straight back from his scarred forehead and patted down to a spongy flare at his ears.

"Usher," Marcus said, touching his palm to Usher's hard calluses. "What up?"

"You, man," Usher said, looking past Marcus to the street. "Seen you drivin to your Daddy's place in that Lexus sometimes."

"You see me walkin now," Marcus said, shrugging. "Midnight Auto Supply got my ride."

They both laughed, knowing that the young guys who stole cars now had nothing to do with the old Proudfoot brothers, the ones who'd stolen every vehicle in Treetown back in the seventies. But saying the three words to someone his age from Treetown made Marcus's heart unclench a bit.

"Where you stay now?" Usher fixed his eyes on Marcus's face, and Marcus heard the word float through his forehead. Stay. White people, downtown people, always asked, "Where do you live?" But growing up, he'd always heard the softer word. Where he stay now? She stay with her sister in Olive Gardens. Marcus smiled, knowing that Brother Lobo would love to talk about the origins of the word. Back after slavery, all those brothers drifting from place to place, until "Where you live?" became "Where you stay?" Temporary, fleeting. Where do you rest your head, for this moment?

"I'm stayin downtown, on Las Palmas," he said, and Usher nodded. He knew that for anyone in Treetown, no matter how long he'd been living elsewhere, his home was his father's place. Marcus pulled out a five-dollar bill from his front pocket, the money he'd put there because he'd known that walking would bring him Usher, or someone else from way back. He wondered who else he knew sleeping behind the dusty windows. The Kozy Komfort had gone from a seedy motel to a way station for the men so close to mental deterioration that they got government checks. In a few hours, figures would weave among the palm trunks or sit in the squares of shade cast by each tiny, peaked porch over the rooms.

Behind him, Marcus heard the short blip of a siren, like radar locating his spine, and he held himself perfectly still, the familiar prickle coating his forehead and spreading across his shoulders. That twirl of sound, lassoing him in one circle… the patrol cars stopping him and his brothers and friends whenever they'd walked where they weren't welcome with arroyo mud sculpting their shoes. "See some ID? You fit the description…"

He and Usher stared at the dirt between them. But the sound was swallowed by the powerful engine moving fast down Pepper. "Big shit goin on in the jungle," Usher finally said. "I seen lights goin past my window in the dark. Fire engines." His eyes were dreamy, sliding about in remembrance. "Like red rockets."

Marcus looked toward the overpass. The wind was picking up now, and he could feel it much stronger here than in the protected slots between buildings downtown. "You seen Finis?" he asked, the same question that rang in his ears each time he heard a siren.

Usher shook his head. "He come up here to hang, but he don't sleep here. Ain't he stayin at y'all place?" Marcus nodded, and Usher went on nervously. "Some dudes from L.A. here now. They always sayin they hate this country-ass place. Judge sent em out."

Touching Usher's palm again lightly, Marcus said, "All right, man, I'll check."

Walking toward the tunnel, he thought that no one in Treetown ever said good-bye. People he knew from the high school or downtown called out "Bye!" or even "Bye-bye!" But once, when he was about ten, he'd turned and said, "Good-bye, Aintielila," to his uncle's wife at the barbecue place, and she'd frowned deeply, her high forehead rippling with lines.

"Don't never say good-bye like that," she told him, "unless you really goin someplace. For good."

In Treetown, people said, "Next time, man," or "Later," or "I'll see you." They said, "All right-then, brothaman," to finish their business. Or, "I'll check, man," drawing the thread already that would lead them to cross each other's paths again.

Marcus breathed lightly in the dank, chill air under the freeway and didn't look at the markings of Treetown and Westside and Agua Dulce and Terracina boys. When he came back out into the stronger light, he felt the wind gusting in steady currents, like it had all day yesterday. A fall wind rushing down from the nearby desert, shredding the remnants of mist that clung to the trees. Everything was stronger in Treetown: the fog rose from the riverbottom and held tight to the many branches. In summer, it felt cooler here, in the dusty shade. And the wind came straight down the desert pass, slicing through the hills and down the corridor of riverbed.

Downtown, the wind was silent, only a vision of dancing litter or struggling pigeons outside your glass. But Treetown was constant rustling and snapping of dead palm fronds from the tall trunks that lined Pepper Avenue, like all the old streets. Marcus looked down the avenue now and saw the pencil-thin trunks swaying together, fronds all blown west like a row of toothbrushes.

Marcus paused, watching the whole landscape shifting, swaying, as if he were underwater. The pepper branches moved like seaweed, and yesterday's vicious gusts had torn new, green leaves and twigs from pecan and carob and ash, piling them with bark and wood in drifts along the roadside like beach debris. While he stood, a plastic bag flew from the freeway overpass down toward him like a jellyfish.

The bag puffed onto the small sign and slithered off again. Marcus faced the back of the sign. He knew the front read CITY LIMITS—RIO SECO—POP. 342,000. But there was nothing facing this way to tell a stranger where he was headed. He better know, Marcus thought. Tree-town. An unincorporated, poverty-stricken, high-crime, semirural area west of downtown. Those were all the descriptions the newspaper applied when rare stories about drug arrests or killings in Treetown went longer than a paragraph.

Even though the city had finally annexed Treetown several months before, noting that the several-mile-square area was completely surrounded by districts receiving city services, no one had gotten around to moving the sign. Marcus walked past the breathing, pale bag at his feet. His father and uncle had complained bitterly about the annexation, saying that code workers and all the other "government men" would come around to find everything wrong.

He could see in a long, unbroken line now, walking down the slight slope. The Pepper Avenue bridge used to span the river just past his father's place, and people had crossed the old bridge daily to the citrus groves where they worked. Marcus saw the wisps of mist pushing away from the riverbed and the two large piles of rubble along the treeline. The big flood in 1969, when rain had fallen for two weeks and washed boulders and sand and trees toward the ocean, forty miles away, had torn away the old bridge. No one crossed the river to work now, and most of the groves were gone, with rows of precision housing instead of trees.

Marcus walked along the long block wall built by the city to hide the flattened land and scattered rubble left near the freeway, after the county had razed buildings considered too close to the construction. Millard's Barber Shop, Good Time Liquors, Lonzo's butcher shop. Marcus stared at the webbed graffiti on the pale cinder block. His uncle always said, "Too many men. Too many black faces hangin out right there, that bothered them cops, them government people. They redeveloped that shit best way they knew. Clear it out."


On Sale
Jun 18, 2013
Page Count
496 pages
Hachette Books