Favorite Books: Friday Nights at Honeybee’s

The spring semester is finally over, but I still feel like there are more books to read and even more papers to write. Sigh.

Anyway, I’m still trying to figure out what books I’m going to tuck away in my summer luggage, but decided I’ll wait to post on that subject. I’m considering only taking my short story books with me–but I might need more variety than that. I just purchased The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century, so that’s definitely coming along. In the meantime, I’m thinking about finishing Junot Diaz’s Drown and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son before I leave the states. We’ll see. Again, that’s another potential topic for a slow black book news day.

I started and ran a successful book group several years ago in Atlanta. Back then publishers and authors were nice enough to send promo copies of their books. My members would even give me books as gifts from time to time. Among the list of notable texts I received was Andrea Smith’s Friday Night at Honeybees. Unfortunately, I didn’t read the book until years later, but once I turned the final page I was truly sorry that I’d kept the book shelved for so long. Be sure to check it out for yourself. Until then, here’s an excerpt:

Willie and Hattie Bent only had two children. Lilian, “that pretty child with the bright eyes,” and Forestine, “the big, thickset one with the nappy hair.” In 1958, this was how neighbors in the Kings County projects referred to the Bent girls. Lilian, at nineteen, was petite with eyes a shade lighter than her deep-brown face. Church members commented on her grace and beauty. They admired her glossy, paper-bag curls and the way her poofy poodle skirt cinched a waist the size of a large man’s fist. Forestine, on the other hand, was a year younger, three shades darker, and already over six feet tall.

“Sometimes I think a grizzly took me in the night and nine months later Forestine was born,” Hattie would say to friends of her younger daughter.

No matter how much he loved her, Willie couldn’t quite find the courage to come to Forestine’s defense. She was the spitting image of him, and for a woman, that wasn’t a very good thing. But he liked the way she laughed, especially about herself. He enjoyed how she would make up little songs and sing them just for him. Willie had recognized Forestine’s gift for singing at an early age and always encouraged it.

The two were inseparable. At the end of working a full day as a doorman at the St. George Hotel, Willie would hang out with Forestine at old man Nick’s apartment or Lester’s Pub, where she’d stand in the back near the door watching the singers onstage, while Willie sat at the bar and got toasted. At dinnertime they’d climb into his car and she’d drive them both home.

One night, Phyllis Chubbs, a first-floor neighbor, had seen Forestine get out of the driver’s seat and literally carry her father to the front door. Of course she called Hattie. Hattie decided not to raise hell right away. She’d wait until Willie’s head was clear.

The next afternoon Hattie was straightening Lilian’s hair in front of the stove. Forestine, trying to avoid her mother’s glare, sat in the adjoining living room next to the window. Hattie had been unusually quiet most of the morning, and now her face was as hard and blank as a slab of concrete. She slammed the hot comb onto the jet and tiny flames rose up.

“You okay, Mama?” Lilian asked, pulling a fraying blue towel onto her shoulders to protect the collar of her cotton blouse.

“I’m fine,” Hattie snipped.

Forestine could see by the way Hattie waved the smoking comb in the air that she wasn’t fine. She could tell by the way her mother kept glancing at the closed bedroom door that she was waiting for Willie to come out. She yanked a patch of Lilian’s hair and set the comb in it. Forestine could hear the sizzling of pomade.

“You sure you okay?” Lilian repeated as her head jerked back again.

“If folks do what the hell they supposed to be doin’ ’round here,” Hattie argued, “then maybe things be alright.”

“What you do, Forestine?” Lilian asked.

Forestine continued to watch the late afternoon traffic pass through the fourth walk. Their apartment was on the third floor, so she could see straight down the walk in front of her building. Over the years she had witnessed muggings, teenagers feeling each other on the benches, fights, and drug exchanges of all sorts.

Just then, the bedroom door opened and Willie walked out. He was dressed for work in his navy uniform pants, his jacket slung over one shoulder.

“Mornin’,” he mumbled.

“It’s damn near evenin’,” Hattie spat.

He went to the stove and filled a coffee cup. Usually Hattie would start in on him about what errands he had needed to do for her today or what he forgot to do yesterday, but instead, she just went about straightening Lilian’s hair. Willie eyed her suspiciously.

(Read more . . . )

Happy reading, ya’ll.

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