This month's excerpt is another from Spencer's Spirit, a new novel, which will be available from Anubis in trade-paper and Kindle editions in March of this year.
“Are we still in Oakland?” asked Spencer, gazing out at a forested landscape where tall redwood trees shaded other species whose names he didn’t know, along with lush carpets of emerald ivy and secluded nooks of glossy green ferns all sort of roller-coastering over ruggedly corrugated terrain as the narrow road twisted and switch-backed, more often than not becoming a tunnel beneath low overhanging branches, but always, and sometimes steeply, climbing.
“The Oakland most people don’t know,” Spencer’s father, Nathan, replied, at the wheel of the GMC, a 1966 Suburban three-quarter-ton 4X4 he’d bought at an Air Force surplus sale around the time Spencer was born. In contrast to most of today’s SUVs, the vehicle seemed as big as a bus, especially towering high off the ground on aggressively mud-tired sixteen-inch wheels. It was well-maintained but not restored – Nathan was an aircraft mechanic -- drably painted primer gray; and a lot of people in Spencer’s ‘hood had always seemed mystified or amused as to why a black man would drive such a thing instead of rolling a cool city ride. For most of his thirteen years on earth Spencer had heard snarky remarks of, “When y’all movin’ up to the hills?”
Those jibes had been laid to rest this morning as, roof rack loaded with boxed possessions, along with the truck’s roomy rear section and a U-Haul trailer tagging behind, Spencer and his mom and dad pulled out of their West Oakland bungalow’s driveway, stopped at a McDonald’s for breakfast, then drove up Broadway Avenue north and headed for those hills.
It was the middle of October, a time often called Indian Summer, when spirits of autumn were stirring to haunt the slowly ever-shortening days with scents of dry grass and falling leaves, which always reminded Spencer of Trick-Or-Treating on Halloween – his favorite holiday next to Christmas despite requiring a lot of walking -- and the mid-morning air was growing hot, though fresher up here beneath the trees without the taints of street tar and exhaust than down in the flatlands they’d left behind after turning onto Moranga Avenue and ascending ever since, and all the truck’s windows were open. It didn’t have air-conditioning, nor did it have power windows, or power steering, power brakes, or actually power anything except its gruff-growling engine, a 292 six-cylinder; and Spencer wore only jeans and sneaks, his usual warm weather attire -- though at home he went barefoot -- and it felt good to be shirtless with the woodsy-scented breeze blowing in.
Spencer was one of those rolly-fat boys who looked like he weighed a million times more than the number of pounds he actually packed, his upper arms bulked into plump oval shapes, a torus of blubber encircling his waist, and his chest like a pair of bobby balloons inflated to the edge of exploding, their nipples inverted like soft little slits. His belly hung almost halfway to his knees when he was in an upright position, his back also featuring pendulous rolls, his navel like a nighted cavern tunneling into mysterious depths and roomy enough to swallow an orange, though now all that fat overwhelmed his lap and cascaded over enormous thighs, while his bottom, mostly bare on the seat, suggested a pair of planets colliding. Even his feet were super-size, and his Nikes looked like astronaut boots. His skin was a dusky midnight shade, his face pear-shaped and spherically-cheeked above a chubby second chin that melded into a collar of fat since he possessed no discernible neck, and his lips were full and expressive, perpetually resting partly open displaying a pair of ferocious front teeth in a generally amiable beaver-like smile. His nose was pertly puggy and wide, and his ebony eyes were anime large beneath a cap of soot-colored curls that only nature had ever styled.
The winding road was rough and pot-holed, and Spencer’s boy-breasts bobbled about as if possessing life of their own to every jolt and jounce of the truck, while rolls of him rolled upon other rolls and most of the rest of him quivered and quaked upon the Suburban’s rear bench seat.
For sound, the truck had an AM-FM his dad had installed years ago. It was tuned to KSAN, a classic-rock station, which Spencer usually listened to – thug-rap not being his thing -- and now playing Don’t Fear The Reaper, though the signal had started to fade after they’d crossed over Highway 13 and taken this narrower, tree-over-shadowed, and steeply ever-ascending road. He’d been reading an ancient junk-shop book – reading was one of his things – a battered and musty-smelling hardcover titled The Jovial Ghosts and published in 1926, but had lain it aside to observe the surroundings as they continued to serpentine climb seemingly out of the urban present into a wilder rural past. He still saw occasional houses, but usually set far back from the road and mostly hidden by foliage and trees. Some were obviously rich people’s cribs, but others weren’t much more than rustic cabins like pioneer dwellings he’d read of in books.
He loosened his seat belt a little, its buckle buried way under his belly and not easy to reach. His voice was husky like a kid with a cold… although he seldom got them. “Never knew there was all this to Oakland.”
His father shifted the four-speed to third as the road snaked up yet another steep grade. “Just a ‘grimy industrial city across the bay from San Francisco.’ That’s what it used to be called when I was around your age.”
In contrast to Spencer’s flubbery fat, his father was a muscular man in a leanly cheetah-like way, though he was deep dusky black like his son. Today he was clad in jeans and sneaks with a Ford Trimotor T-shirt clinging tight to his torso, and drove with an arm on the window sill, piloting the truck one-handed, an American Spirit “blue” cigarette ghosting smoke between his fingers.
“That was old-school,” said Spencer’s mom, Jenny, an opulently full-figured woman with skin-tone of dark chocolate-brown, her face chubby-cheeked and usually cheerful, her hair worn proudly natural, and also dressed in T-shirt and jeans. “It’s becoming gentrified today.”
“Guess we are, too,” said Spencer. “’Movin’ on up,’ like that old TV show.”
“It’s not a mansion,” said his dad. “But it’s all ours and no more rent.” He smiled at his son in the rearview mirror. “Now we can start saving up for your college.”
“Maybe you won’t have to,” said Spencer. “Got an email from Stanford last night about a scholarship. That’s three collages who might want me ‘cause I’m supposedly smart.”
“I’m sure that monograph you wrote on The Baker Street Irregulars impressed their literary professors.”
“No big thing,” said Spencer. “I simply proposed that Sherlock Holmes may have employed them to help solve crimes in many more cases than Watson recorded. It also seems evident Holmes liked kids by his mention of screams of a tortured child in The Adventure Of The Copper Beeches, and his expressing hope for the future with new boarding schools in The Adventure Of The Naval Treaty. I theorized he might have provided a home for the boys so they didn’t have to live on the streets, and may have had a Watsonesque relationship with Wiggins.”
His mother said, “Wonder why Doctor Watson didn’t write more about them.”
“Maybe professional jealousy. Kids could help Holmes in ways Watson couldn’t… ‘go everywhere, see everything, and overhear everyone,’ as Holmes said.”
“You’ll still need money for expenses. Not to mention meals,” said Nathan.
“Are you hungry?” asked Jenny, who was master chef in a restaurant that specialized in Italian food. “Prosciutto sandwiches in the cooler. Those so-called ‘big breakfasts’ with hotcakes weren’t much.”
“Yeah,” agreed Spencer. “I had to have two. But I can survive until lunch.”
Nathan smothered his cigarette in the dashboard ashtray. “That might be late today, Spence; we have to move in and unpack.”
“That’s gonna take energy.” Spencer opened a cooler beside him and took out a big juicy sandwich, along with a bottle of Coke. He chomped a huge crescent of bread and meat with lettuce, tomato and succulent sauce, and suggested while messily masticating, “We could move in the kitchen stuff first.”
Spencer’s mom turned to her mate. “What about the gas?”
“The agent said she’d handle that,” Spencer’s dad replied, guiding the truck around a sharp curve. “Along with the electricity, but the stove also burns wood.”
“We had a wood stove in Mississippi when I was a little girl,” said Jenny, “and it cooked better than gas. Might be a blast from the past using one again.”
“What about cable?” asked Spencer, around another meaty mouthful and dribbling crimson sauce on his chest. “I need my computer for home school.”
His father shifted to second as the grade grew steeper, the engine grumbling low in its throat propelling the heavily-loaded truck and equally burdened trailer. “The company wants a thousand dollars to run a wire up our lane. I checked with a satellite service and that’s a lot cheaper with monthly payments, but they can’t set it up for about two weeks so it looks like you’ll be on vacation.”
“Works for me,” said Spencer, after taking a gulp of Coke and politely muting a burp. “There’s a bunch of books I wanna read… got The Steam Boys series from the 1920s… but that’s a long time without Internet access.”
His father slowed the truck to a crawl as they approached a narrow dirt lane branching off the road, hardly more than faint twin trails carpeted with leaves and pine needles fallen from overshadowing trees. It tunneled even more steeply up through what looked like a little canyon, and hugged the bank of a stone-jumbled brook – if that was the proper name for a stream barely more than six feet wide -- that bubbled and splashed playing watery music, sparkling brightly here and there in occasional golden shafts of sun, between greenly glistening ranks of ferns. Spencer wondered where the brook went; though obviously on its way the sea – or more likely the Bay out of sight far below – would it be channeled through grim concrete, consigned to a subterranean crypt, to flow unseen in silent darkness under the asphalt of city streets and beneath the feet of thousands of people who didn’t even know it existed and had once been free and alive up here?
Nathan switched off the radio and double-clutch shifted to first as he turned the truck up the overgrown lane, bushes and branches stroking its flanks and likewise caressing the trailer as it rocked and pitched along behind. “There’s always the great outdoors to explore,” he suggested while waving a hand out the window, “and now we have plenty of that.”
Though Spencer wasn’t an “outdoor boy” for many more reasons than just being fat -- including drive-bys and other unpleasantries generally involving guns -- and his idea of taking a hike was making a ponderous perambulation to the neighborhood corner market for snacks, he wasn’t adverse to trying new things; and having a “great outdoors” to explore was an intriguing concept… as long as it didn’t require much walking.
The lane continued tunneling up between the ferny right bank of the brook and the canyon side of foliage and trees, though the can-yon – or maybe the right word was gully – seemed to be getting shallower, and there was an eight-foot mossy stone wall, the stones square-cut as if from a quarry, paralleling the way, but nothing visible behind it except more wild-looking forest.
“What’s that?” asked Spencer, swallowing the last of his sandwich and licking sauce from his fingers as they crept past a heavily-rusted and ivy-shrouded iron-barred gateway that looked like an old graveyard entrance. The two massive gates were shut and secured by a huge rusty padlock and chain. An ancient and mostly illegible sign hung askew on one of the gates, readable only as:
Above was a vine-laced iron arch, and under its tangled veil of leaves he could just make out
in solemn forged letters.
“The entrance to the old Shade mansion,” Spencer’s dad replied, guiding the truck through a narrower place where the brook had cut into the lane. “A real mansion, so I’ve been told.”
“We have rich neighbors?” asked Spencer, casually hoisting the spheres of his chest to lick off spatters of sauce. “Including Piglet’s grandfather.”
“If we do, they’re all ghosts,” laughed Nathan. “According to the agent, the family died out in the 1920s and the place has been empty ever since. Belongs to somebody in England now… a Shade relation named Darkmoor. The agent said she’d written to him several times about selling it… the land is worth a lot these days… but he was never interested. But then, about a month ago, he wrote her to say he’d sell the cottage… used to be for the grounds-keeper… and the half-acre of land it’s on to ‘suitable residents.’”
Jenny added, “A lucky coincidence for us, because that was when we’d saved enough to buy a home of our own.”
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