Eisa Nefertari Ulen's 'Crystelle Mourning' Forgiveness is good for the soul, but it's often difficult. Eisa Nefertari Ulen tackles this issue in her debut novel, Crystelle Mourning.
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Eisa Nefertari Ulen's 'Crystelle Mourning'

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Eisa Nefertari Ulen's 'Crystelle Mourning'

Eisa Nefertari Ulen's 'Crystelle Mourning'

Eisa Nefertari Ulen's 'Crystelle Mourning'

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Eisa Nefertari Ulen teaches English at Hunter College in New York City. Courtesy Cati Gonzalez hide caption

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Courtesy Cati Gonzalez

From the Book

In this passage, the novel's protagonist remembers the moment her boyfriend was shot.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen's 'Crystelle Mourning'

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Forgiveness is good for the soul, but it's often difficult. Eisa Ulen tackles this issue in her debut novel, Crystelle Mourning.

The novel's protagonist, who has left West Philadelphia for a life in New York City, thinks she has transcended the ghetto. But she is haunted by memories of her youth and her first love.

Crystelle returns to her birth city to renegotiate a psychic "Middle Passage" that speaks to many blacks who have achieved middle- and upper-middle class security.

Book Excerpt: 'Crystelle Mourning'

'Crystelle Mourning'

Darkness resonated in an upward spiral, pushing away the past. She could hear the silence. Then she heard the schoolyard across the street, the traffic, her alarm. She reached out to press down, to quiet the nearest noise, and turned over in her bed, slept soundly for a few moments. And then sudden blare reverberated, reached a certain consciousness, hovering like a bone chilling fog where spirals stemmed. Crystelle opened her eyes, saw nothing, then closed her eyes again. Mist clearing. She threw her hands over her face, listened to the music, and the laughter, and the time.

Timelessness shifted places with now as soon as Crystelle opened her eyes. So when her lids drifted down, all she could see was the office where she sat and tried to sell hot chemicals for Black women to pour over their hair. Relaxers. She needed to get ready to go to work. She pulled the covers over her head. She had to go to work. Now she could see the pile of old ad copy on her drafting table. That campaign was over, but a new one would be starting soon. She would have to meet with clients early next week. She would have to do some research, come up with new ideas. What should the model say while she rolls her neck to sell the stuff that straightened hair like hers?

'Post that question in your mind,' she whispered into the crushed fold of white sheets. Shadows against light rose walls flickered to the rhythm of wind. Lace lifted and hard wood floors creaked and Crystelle's sigh echoed.

She rose and dressed and left her building, but she had gathered only enough strength to get to the roar of trains charging toward her underground. With the rush of old air, Crystelle raised her head and looked down into the dark subway tunnel. As a train approached, she backed up, feeling the grime she couldn't see as it landed on her face, stuck to her lipstick. She wanted to lick. She wanted to use her tongue to get the dirt off her lips but she reached for a tissue instead. Against the dash of bodies moving off and on, the dirt and rogue-stained tissue in her hand, Crystelle stood still. Grime against waxy red against white, and the crush of flesh annoyed her. Too much. Too much like what had been. She backed away from the closing doors and turned. Turned away from the pile of ads and the check each pile brought. Away from the stacks of Black women in two-dimensional gloss selling products, away from the money she earned so she could buy them. Turned toward home. As the train lurched forward, Crystelle was already heading toward the stairwell. She could see herself: 'Climb back to the street. Call in sick. Lie in bed, and be sick.' She knew she could get past the noisy schoolyard, through the late-rushing traffic, and climb the brownstone steps. She could climb the carpeted stairs, too, unlock her own door, walk the hard wood, maybe even sleep.

So Crystelle walked across the street with her head held high but her spirit low. So low it gathered bits and flecks of earth as she walked. Against the weaving traffic she saw patterns of steel and exhaust shift. Clouds of smoke and shifting hulks of metal whirred. A man was selling incense on a folding table. Past that, another man was selling videotapes and winter hats. Beyond them all, a man was selling God through a portable microphone. She walked across the street and back into her apartment and there she could lock the door. Her spirit sat down beside her and her head hung low now. It hung so low she could see the flecks and bits caught in the hems of her spirit's skirt. She picked them out. Scooping with her nails like a rake, she gathered the dirt her spirit gathered and she tasted it. So much soil clinging to her disconnected self. Now on her own fingers. Now in her own self. She pressed the gathered earth against her tongue and swallowed the metallic smack of no longer living, of so much decomposed flesh and leaf fertilizing soil. Even in New York City, she could taste death feeding land everywhere. Suddenly she knew the very reason why people pray before putting food into their mouths, the primal instinct to somehow bless this plate of everyday sacrifice.

'Remember this,' her disconnected self said out loud in her head. 'Life feasts on death.'

It would stay inside her forever that taste — of so many slaughtered for sustenance — and she flicked the earth out of her nails and into the Ziploc bag. It held so much. Flowers that were really weeds that were no longer dried but really curled and withered. Stiff and hard, too. She spied the wallet-size photo, yellowed and torn on the edges, that she had stashed so many years ago. Dirt fell out of her own nails and along the treated paper. His image peered out at her, smiling wide, mouth open like the smiler was singing a promise song she couldn't hear because his sounds were muted by the clear plastic.

Crystelle's life began when she was born. But it began again when he died. He was Jimmie, and for all the love she had inside herself to give, much of it poured in from him. She had carried around the weight of his life, the heavy weight of his death.

Everything that had ever been on Frazier Street was a dream. The place where he grew to die. Home. The memories fell like rainwater — sometimes just a drop, clear, but small. Sometimes, the dream fell so hard, so fast, the wind so strong, it hurt. Crystelle was dreaming whenever she closed her eyes. She shifted from the now to the then. There was no bridge from where she had loved to where she lived. Nothing existed between the two.

She closed the drawer holding the Ziploc bag. Everything her life had been in the beginning and everything it would be in the end was right there.

With him gone, she'd surrounded herself with someone else. It was time to think about what had been and what would be. The truth was sometimes hard to believe: that after everything that had happened in her life, there was still more to be. When Hamp came into her life, she thought nothing much. But that he was still around, poking and probing her spirit, was something to consider. It worked in his favor even if nothing else did — but much more did, even though it still felt like too little. And that meant she would have to consider. What would be enough?

She stood and stripped and collapsed on her bed, and her spirit fell down inside her. In and out of sleep, back and forth in time, she lay still and hot. In the place between wake and sleep she tried to move, tried to simply open her eyes, but her spirit was too low now, and she was, of course, alone.

Hamp would be at work, thinking of her (he said he did), but probably not calling (too busy, too busy till afternoon — sometimes evening, sometimes night). Everyone except her colleagues at the agency would think she was working, too.

She whispered, "I want to wake up now," so out of sleep cycled ahead of her slumber. She lifted both eyelids. Lashes parted and, for a moment, Crystelle started counting the tiny hairs. Then she remembered that was impossible. "I can't do that," she whispered, and she couldn't. Her brown knuckles turned almost white in the next space of time — almost seven minutes. She knew because she counted each tick against her wall as she gripped air in her hands. "That's six minutes and thirty-two seconds," and she turned her neck, blinked, focused, and eyed the rhythmic hand, the one counting each second against the face of the deep-wood clock. "Brown," whooshed out of her cracked lips, and the second-hand bureau, the smoky glass mirror, the four posts in each corner of the white bed, all the possessions that she'd gathered in Brooklyn loomed into view. She blinked at the nightstand she found on the sidewalk right outside her home one morning. She had been gazing out her six-foot living room window, sipping tea. 'Why would anyone throw it away?' she thought again, reaching out to follow rough patterns, the grain in the wood, with her fingers. She held her hand against a circle, a knot someone had smoothed into a ring. She traced the edges with her thumb. "I can't count anymore," going around.

Clear beads formed everywhere, her skin spit bubbles. The "City of Brotherly Love" shirt, damp, exposed her left breast, where she was burning. She remembered paying a South Street vendor for the T-shirt. He was the guy, he'd said, who crossed out "Love," silk-screened "Shove." It really read "The City of Brotherly Shove." Crystelle had laughed at that. She remembered laughing and the man's eyes slanting into hers, crinkled and blue.

A cloud of mist rose out of the wet ring near her heart. Breezes blew, pushing the mist back. Crystelle closed her eyes because she was so tired, but she opened them again when she heard a little boy laughing. Then she fell asleep, and in the sleep she saw more, heard herself wheeze. Jimmie danced from far away, danced up to her and stood, laughing, so close she could touch him. But she couldn't touch him. They never touched.

"Hey, now."

Talk to me.

"What you want me to say?" She smelled cocoa butter and sweat, and his skin glowed through the dim haze and she knew she was asleep again. It was a dream she knew was a dream just as it was happening. But Crystelle had never smelled Jimmie before — after. Ever since the terrible night and his passing, ever since the dreams began, she could hear him, see him, but never touch. And never smell — until now. Crystelle breathed in deep, even in her dream, and inhaled the cloud of Old Spice poised above her own quiet face. She opened her mouth to ask him about the new sense he was sending her, but Jimmie's words rushed in first.

Talk about you. I wanna hear all about you. "What about me?"

He grinned.

Silly, start from the beginning. You gotta start from before. "I gotta start from when?"

Start with Aunt Opal. "Ma — ?"

Yeah.

Crystelle thought about her family while the curtains lifted and fell, lifted and fell, lifted and fell nine times. She could smile, thinking about home, and she licked her lips. A water glass rattled against the hard wood under her bed. For a moment that was all she could see. The water glass and a slip of white paper loomed into view, and then, Jimmie's brown face flashed red.

Now.

"My mamma met my daddy, fell in love, and sneaked him in the house whenever my Granddaddy would leave for more than a minute. As a consequence, I was born, and Mom was forced to marry what Granddaddy would call a three-legged monster. Of course the marriage didn't last, and although my parents never did get a formal divorce, Daddy moved out before I was old enough to make a memory of him living there. He kind of tripped into my life whenever Mamma needed money for me, and then he would stumble out again, waving as he turned the corner on Frazier and Twenty-sixth Streets. All this sneakin' and leavin' and lovin' went on right there on the same West Philly street I grew up on and moved out of, and — "

— You moved out of —

"Yes."

And it's all going on down there right now.

"As a child I was a part of what made Frazier Street alive."

We.

"We. We made it alive."

You. You made it out alive. We were part of making Frazier Street alive. You made it out alive.

"Yes."

Go on.

"The long, narrow houses were lined up along the kind of pavements only conscious neglect could produce. Both sidewalk and street carried the cracked scars of ice and sun."

I remember.

"Yes."

Go on.

"Nappy-headed boys shot pebbles and chunks of broken asphalt at the feet of us girls as we played our game: double dutch. The few that could aim and hit our dancing feet with more than a lucky shot should have become major league pitchers."

Yes!

"Yes."

Go on.

"We were good and fast. If someone had tied fans to our feet while we jumped, the wind we would have stirred would have been enough to blow all the autumn leaves off of Frazier Street."

That is, if Frazier Street ever had trees.

"Yes."

Go on.

"Stop interrupting."

You're not remembering right. You're forgetting.

"Stop interrupting."

Go on.

"The hawk came early in West Philly back in the day anyway, so double dutch was mostly a summer sport. The sidewalks couldn't hold a crew of wild sisters like us. So we took over the street itself, moving only for the occasional car. I'd bend forward, ready to slip beneath the moving ropes, and I'd grab hold of the key tied around my neck by one of Granddaddy's old shoestrings. It was especially important to hold tight to that clanky thing once puberty hit and what Granddaddy called my raisin brans started to get in the way. Blurred arms swish-swished the rope, and we'd dive in singin' and doin' our thing:

Mamma in the kitchen, cookin' rice. Daddy in the alley, Shootin' dice. Baby in the cradle, Fast asleep. Now here comes sister with the H-O-T!

And I was hot. I mean, I could work it like no other. When I jumped, people stopped what they were doing and watched. Neighborhood grandmothers stepped out on their porches now and then, when they got tired of cookin' and cleanin' for three floors worth of family. The sages called out to me like they were in church: 'Go on, girl! Do it!' Instead of Sunday hats, their heads were covered with scarves and head rags. And instead of shaking hymnals and Bibles, they moved brooms, mops, and cooking spoons through the air to the rhythm of my feet on the steaming sidewalk. Flab hung down and also wobbled to the beat from arms fattened by the same tradition of genius that turned the feet of a pig into a culinary classic.

Your granddaddy always said that.

"Mmm."

He always said we could take pig guts and turn it into a culinary classic. Turn around a few generations later and charge folk to eat 'em. Always said that was genius.

"Yes. I got that from him."

Humph. Go on.

The smell of pork filtered out of most of the screen doors on Frazier Street. It wrapped itself around the fried chicken and greens that the summertime air carried each evening, calling us off the street and home for dinner faster than any mamma with promises of a good whipping.

I'd make plans for tomorrow with my friends, throw a pebble or two back at one of the nappy-heads, and jump the stairs by twos up to the front door, cracking paint chips snapping under my sandals.

You hit me once.

"Huh?"

With a rock — you hit me on the side of my head.

"Good for you, then." Crystelle tried to laugh.

Ain't funny.

She licked her lips.

Go on.

"The front porch was screened in. Grandpop usually sat there smokin' and talkin' a lot of stuff to no one in particular.

How's he doing?

"Fine. Better. Stronger."

I should visit him too.

"Mmm."

Go on.

"If he felt the notion, he could lay out full length on the faded green sofa Mamma had set for him each summer. His skinny body would leave enough room for three nice-sized people to sit comfortably, if they sat on the edge down by his legs, and he could still enjoy full view of the little black-and-white TV Mamma had also set up for him."

"'Come here, girl.' I'd go reach down to give my granddaddy a hug. He'd prop himself up a bit on his pillow, maybe cough a little from the cigarettes."

"'Crystelle, was that you? Come on now to dinner.' Mamma'd come walking from the back of the house, wiping her hands on her apron."

"'Can't a man talk to his granddaughter before he sits down to eat his meal? Don't you start no stuff with me now, girl. Go on back in that ol' kitchen of yours and I'll call you when I'm ready.'"

"'Daddy, you couldn't call me from the next room much as you been smokin' all your life. Now how you gonna call me from the kitchen?' "

"'You just go on back in there. And don't worry, you'll hear me when I want you to.'"

"Mamma'd turn to go but would give me a look that said: 'Get up and wash that filth off your face and arms before you dirty up my clean house, young lady. We're about to eat.'"

"'Well, Granddaddy, I'll be right back. Lemme go pee.'"

"'Yeah, you go on and pee and then get back down here and talk before a man eats his meal.' I'd be running upstairs by now to wash for supper."

"Music and laughter from the older kids — "

Manny and them.

"Yes."

Go on.

"Mmm."

You still vexed by him, girl?

"Mmm."

It's okay. I got somethin' for him still. Go on.

"I — "

I said go on.

"Music and laughter from the older kids who could still stay on the street drifted through the bathroom window, as I watched the yellowed sink slowly slurp up the dirty water. I was obsessed with myself and the bathroom mirror, with how I looked."

You were beautiful. Bright, round eyes. Full lips. Full nose. Full — phat.

"Huh."

Go on, baby.

"A thick plait stuck out of an oversized barrette behind the puffy hair on my head. My lips still stung from the salt of sunflower seeds I ate earlier that day. My skin glowed from the heat that kept Granddaddy on the front porch and the fans turned on all day. The bathroom and my bedroom had windows, which should have meant we had a sunnier house than most of our neighbors. We had to keep the shades down most of the time, though. They worked with the fans to keep us cooler in the summer heat, but more importantly, they shielded us from any roaming eyes in the alley outside. So the shades flapped against the windowsills, as the fans turned from side to side, moving the thick air and the dust. We left the curtains in the front room open, though. Granddaddy was from down south, and he said he would never live like a man with a past and hide in his own home. In his special room, the sun always streamed in, the neighbors checked in and out as they pleased, helping Mamma take care of him with their company."

"Once I'd finished looking at myself and eavesdropping on the high school kids, I'd walk across the hardwood floors and down the stairs. Mamma and Granddaddy usually would have started grubbing by then. I'd have to say my own grace and try to catch up. We'd lean on the rusty colored tin and chrome TV trays, the glow from the black-and-white set slowly becoming the only light in the room. It blinked and waved at Granddaddy and me babble on, me talking about all the exciting things I did that day, and Granddaddy about all the exciting things he saw me do. Night crept onto the end tables, and the keen features of a few generations of Southerners and Southerners-moved-North by the boll weevil and a lynch mob or two melted into the growing dark. 'Bless this House' and 'The Lord's Prayer' offered their last chance for a quick reading before also going to sleep on the wood-paneled walls. Mamma would lean back on the pine-green armchair that everyone who walked to the second door of the house had to maneuver around.

Granddaddy wanted his visitors right where he could see them when he was lying down enjoying their company and where they wouldn't have to go too far when he was ready for them to leave. Mamma'd prop her feet up on the heavy wood table, tuck her cotton skirt between her legs, and sip her beer. Granddaddy would lay back to burp, and I'd put my head down at the other end of the couch, closer to Mom, sometimes hoisting my feet up on top of the back of the couch against the wall. We'd watch a few sitcoms whose jokes weren't that funny about people whose lives weren't anything like ours. After the news, Mamma would take Granddaddy upstairs to bed, and I'd go to the kitchen with a handful of plates to wrap leftovers and wash dishes."

"By the time I'd finish and Mamma would have put Granddaddy and herself to bed, even the older kids had gone in for the night. The dark, brick homes, all tight and cozy along Frazier Street, would close their eyes. Street lamps glowed brighter than the moon. I'd fall asleep under the artificial haze that managed to mesh through my window shade, the whir of the fans and Granddaddy's snoring lulling me away. My room was my place in the world, which was movin' right out there on Frazier Street the next morning with the cockle-doodle-doo of a garbage truck. 'Till then, Frazier Street was still sleeping, snoring even — after all, it was alive."

Back in the day.

Crystelle looked up at Jimmie smiling down at her.

Baby, that was so nice.

Her eyes gleamed, and she was silent for a while.

You changin' your voice and telling a real story like that. Using real story words. That was so nice.

Crystelle thought she saw his teeth. "Oh, Jimmie," she heard, long and high and fading now, as mist rolled, blowing him away.

* * * *

Frustrating herself, she tried to move, to sit up, but the sleep became too deep, too consistently deep, and her spirit was too low. She gave up and just lay. The silence settled down on top of her, on top of the dispirited image that followed her everywhere. For the first time in a long time she slept hard and long. The sleep lasted until a moon started rising just outside her window, the sun still streaking last light through sky.

Crystelle rose in the near dark of a side street in Brooklyn, to a car alarm on the street. She splashed her face, looked in her refrigerator, and lay herself down again. She thought about reading, and then she thought about watching TV. She sighed and turned over and sighed and turned over again. She thought about Hamp thinking about her, and slowly she started to touch herself. She could see him rocking to the lurch and throw of the express to Brooklyn. The feeling of him rocking could enter her, if she touched and thought hard enough. But only the stillness of rose-colored quiet settled and shifted and settled again as she stroked herself slightly. She sighed and turned over and sighed and turned over again, thinking about not seeing him that night. The telephone was so close she could reach with her hand and touch it, make her way through the wires twisted into tangles. The cordless Hamp bought her once a long time ago was still wrapped and packed in the original box somewhere in her hall closet. She'd never activated voice mail, even though he gave her cash to pay for one full year. In the near dark of the empty night she reached and clicked the jack with her finger and thumb. But that didn't work.

Time gathered onto itself, but Crystelle heard Hamp turn his key in her door before time could shift. She heard it as she moved from the lightest sleep to awake, before she journeyed anywhere in time. She shook away the haze, and the thinnest beginnings of white fog and mist disappeared. So she sat up and then lay back not thinking. Then she turned on the light next to her bed.

Hamp walked in without speaking and smiled. He just stood and smiled and looked at her lying in the bed, nearly naked, not thinking. He smiled and showed his teeth, and Crystelle remembered how much she loved his teeth. They were strong and even and white against his brown face. She wondered if his mother had breast-fed him. She was about to ask when he lay down on the sheet on top of her, so she closed her mouth and decided to wait and ask him later. Maybe she wouldn't ask him at all. She would ask the dentist if breast milk gave a baby healthier teeth later on. Or she could ask her doctor once she became pregnant some day. Right now he was moving on top of her and rubbing his face against the sheet on top of her in the bed. That was something. She would have to do something.

She pulled off his jacket and then his shirt and tie, and she wondered if he had thought to take his shoes off before he came in. He got up on his knees, and as she reached for his pants, she peeked to see. He had. That was something. He liked it when she bent down to take off his shoes for him, but she didn't feel like it. Not tonight. Tonight she just wanted to lie back and feel him on top of her and not really have to do too much. She would make it up to him later. He knew to take off his shoes, and that night he moved like he knew she just wanted to kind of lie still and feel him on top of her and inside her, and for her, that was something, too.

She reached up for his hair, remembering how much she had once loved his hair, but all she felt was the close cut of his corporate look. She missed the soft feel of his almost locks when they first met in college. His high top fade grew out into something substantive by the time they were graduating, something she could reach out and hold onto. She would lay back with his head in her lap, pulling each lock, counting his locks, losing herself in the pulling and counting, never quite counting them all. But now his hair, close-cut corporate, almost cut her if she rubbed her face against his head. She missed his round eyes following her from underneath high-top locks. She missed having something to hold onto, when she slid her hands from his face to his ears and along the back of his neck to his hair.

She could lie there and close her eyes and not think now that he was in and on top of her. She could be there feeling him but not really be there too, and that felt good enough that night. She didn't have to make much noise; she could just enjoy the still quiet and his slow rhythm. She didn't know why this was what she wanted, why this was all she wanted that night. Maybe the moon was almost full. She opened her eyes to look through the lace blowing against her window. She looked past his suit, stripped and formless now against her red, velvet chair, past his keys tossed on her nightstand.

She looked out for the moon, not thinking about anything but the moon and if it was full that night. Light cast down and up through the shade on her lamp. The trick of light made her blink. A crackle and pop glittered just above a whisper in the corner of her room, and she blinked again. The sound of wind streaming through still air tickled her eyelashes, raised the hair in the nape of her neck. Unseen movement circled under her chin, snaked her whole head. Crystelle wrapped her arms around Hamp, stretched one arm down the rise and fall of his back to pull him close. He groaned and pulled and pushed against the air above them both, so Crystelle knew he didn't hear the whispering light. She closed her eyes and heard a snap that nearly blinded her — even in the darkness of her own shut face — and a sound with no shape came out of her own body. Her sound with no meaning echoed for three beats against the walls of her bedroom. For three beats of sound, her furniture, his keys, everything disappeared but Hamp, the echo, and her own flailing arms. She tried to look up again but beads of heat bubbled and rolled down the great width of Hamp's shoulder, along the deep cut of muscle, and splashed into her right eye. First one, then another, then again. She blinked and squinted and slowly felt herself focus past her lover. In the angle of light and dark against the ceiling she saw shade. Another groan came out of her own body, another sound with no form that didn't mean anything. The shade reverberated to the rhythm of her meaningless cry. That made her neck roll, and she looked to the right on her bed because she wanted to make sure no one was sitting cross-legged beside her and Hamp. Light fell in against almost darkness, and she looked up again to see what shadows stood. When Crystelle lay with her lover that night, she looked up and counted three outlines against the plaster, hovering above her bed.

"But he only comes when I fall asleep," she tried to say as Hamp thrust deeper, and all she could do was groan. Crystelle's sobs and shakes were for both of them that night, the one who was alive, and the other, the one who had left and then had somehow come back to her.

When she shivered, Hamp thought it was because of him, so he made himself finish, lay against her for a minute, kissed her face, said love you in her ear, then rolled over to sleep. He never felt her quiet scream against his own. He felt so tired. He never noticed Crystelle lay awake most of the night, staring without thinking above her bed. He was so tired.

Excerpted from Crystelle Mourning, copyright © 2006 by Eisa Ulen.

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