Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: No One Is Coming to Save Us

JJ Ferguson has made his fortune and is living his dream to build a fine, large house looking over the North Carolina town where he grew up. But he has come home to a place that’s different from the one he left: The local furniture industry has been shipped off to China, stripping the area of jobs and its inhabitants of dreams. In this debut novel, by Stephanie Powell Watts, The Great Gatsby is re-imagined in a once-thriving African American community, where the return of JJ makes his former schoolmates and friends re-examine their own dreams. No One Is Coming to Save Us can be purchased at local booksellers or online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

THE HOUSE he’s building is done mostly. All that’s missing now is the prettying, stain on the sprawling deck, final finishing inside. At least that’s what they say. This house has been the talk around our small town. Not much happens here but the same, same: a thirteen-year-old girl waiting for the baby her mother’s sorry boyfriend gave her; the husband we wanted to believe was one of the good ones found out to be the worst kind of cheater with a whole other family two towns over. The same stupid surprises, the usual sadnesses. But this thing is strange. The boy we all saw grow up came back to us slim and hungry-gaunt like a coal miner. With money. JJ Ferguson made it. The poor child who lived with his grandmother, dead for years now, the ordinary boy we all fed when he wouldn’t leave at dinnertime, looking like he was waiting for somebody to ask him to play. We had no idea.

JJ was the newest resident on Brushy Mountain Road. The car they say is his was parked on the long driveway most mornings until evening while JJ worked alongside the Mexican men he hired. Every town has a section where the people are rich and their lives so far from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue. Brushy Mountain Road is that place for us. You can’t help but get quiet driving on that road, like even your noisy breathing might disturb the beauty or rupture the holy calm that order and clean create. When we were young we used to love to see the houses, all lit up with their curtains and blinds open, glowing yellow like sails of ships in the black faraway on the ocean. If we went slow enough we could see the brilliant colors of their decorated rooms, their floor-to-ceiling bookcases and fine furniture, the floral designs with wallpaper you couldn’t get at the regular hardware store festooning the entryways. We might even get a glimpse of one of them sipping from a mug or snuggled into a chair staring out into the darkness. Though we knew they lived among us, bought white bread and radial tires like the rest of us, we loved the proof of them. I see him. I see him with my own

Author Stephanie Powell Watts. / Photo by Bob Watts.

eyes. We breathed in the houses, dreamed about the ones that would have been ours if our lives had run in different directions, if we’d had different faces, if we’d made all the right choices.

When they were young Sylvia and her husband, Don, would drive the road that curled like a potato peel all the way up to the almost top to experience some of what those people had. Don pretended he didn’t want to do it, who gives a shit how them people live, he’d say, but he was as interested as Sylvia. He was careful not to be staring if a body stood in the yard or looked out at him from the window. You can’t let people know what you dream—especially if you can’t get it. You knowing that they know opens a wound in you, an embarrassing naked space that you can’t let just anybody witness. If the rich see a woman looking, fine. A woman can want. But nobody alive could claim to have seen longing on Don’s face. You got to be immune, Mr. Antibiotic or else you hurt all the time.

Why they looked at those places, neither of them could exactly say, since when they came down from the mountain to their own dark little house that they’d fought hard to have and harder to keep, their space felt smaller, meeker, and as tear-filled as a broken promise. Habit is one explanation. Sundays, when they were apt to get lazy and the last thing you need is boredom, a slowed mind, the leisure to think about the man you love-hate, the face that won’t stop looking tired no matter how much you sleep, that thing you do, whatever it is—the driving, the crying, the sinning—calls to you, begs to you to keep getting it done, keep at it, don’t think, keep at it.

But habit is only part of it. The sting of not having or not having enough bores a pain black hole that sucks all the other of life’s injuries into one sharp stinging gap that you don’t need a scientist to remind you may be bottomless. Returning to their house means returning from those mountain drives to their sagging furniture that was old when they got it twenty years before and to a yard that looked even smaller than they remembered. That beautiful house is just a street away, but as out of reach as the moon. But that house-pain is just one lack, and everybody knows one pain is far better than a hundred. That is the mercy. That is the relief—the ache of one singular pain. It was hard not to believe that we, the black people in town in dog trots and shotgun houses at the bottom of the mountain, houses stuck in the sides of hills scattered like chicken feed, weren’t the ugly children. What a relief that in our hearts we knew that no coloreds, no Negroes, no blacks, were welcome, even if they could afford to buy there. At least we didn’t have to believe that we’d done everything wrong and were not the ones that God had chosen.

So much has changed since we were just starting out. The furniture plants that built the town are all but empty. The jobs on the line turning yellow pinewood into the tables and beds for the world are mostly gone. Without the factories there is little work to do. What a difference a few years can make. The jobs that everybody knew as the last resort or the safety net are the jobs nobody can get anymore. Used to be at 3:30 p.m. the roads from Bernhardt, Hammary, Broyhill, and Bassett were hot with cars, bumper to bumper, the convenience stores full of mostly men, but women too with cold ones (Coke or stronger) in one hand, Nabs or Little Debbie cakes in the other for the ride home. These days, go anywhere you please at 3:30 with no trouble. Here’s a math problem for you. How many casinos does it take to make a town? Are you calculating? Got it? No, sorry that’s a trick question. No number of casinos make a town. But if you want a stopover, a place to throw your balled-up trash out the window as you float by in your car, you just need one good casino. Don’t get me wrong, we love a casino and wish for one like the last vial of antidote. We believe despite all experience to the contrary in easy money and our own fortunes changing in an instant like the magician’s card from the sleeve. If one quarter came miraculously from behind the ear, we would milk that ear for days for the rent money. We believe. We hope for the town to morph into an all-resort slick tourist trap, looking like no real person had ever lived here. We are full of the fevered hope of the newly come to Jesus. We can reinvent. We can survive. At least some of us think so. What choice do we have?

—Stephanie Powell Watts

From No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts. Copyright © 2017 Stephanie Powell Watts. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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