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Of Broken Fingernails in Watts : A WAR OF EYES AND OTHER STORIES by Wanda Coleman (Black Sparrow Press: $20, cloth; $10, paper; 200 pp.; 0-87685-736-5, cloth; 0-87685-735-7, paper)

August 14, 1988|Grace Edwards-Yearwood | Edwards-Yearwood's novel, "In the Shadow of the Peacock," was recently published by McGraw-Hill. and

In this extraordinary collection of short stories, Wanda Coleman, a poet who grew up in the Watts area of Los Angeles, turns a baleful eye on lives that "mainstream" America wishes would somehow go away: She chronicles the not-so-quiet desperation of the poor and black urban dweller and gives voice to their unending struggle to keep afloat in a hard-scrabble environment circumscribed by racism and poverty.

With surgical precision, she cuts through the many-layered myths and mysteries that make up the American Dream and lays open the lives of the underclass: the predatory pimp, the struggling welfare mother trapped between checks, and assorted small and big-time hustlers suffering the delusion of success.

She plunges in deeply and plucks from this subterranean stream a record of pain that is seldom relieved by the humor and grace necessary for survival.

Most of her characters, like the Big Little Gang, in the 20th story in this fine collection, prowl in darkness--physical darkness--pausing only to pounce and plunder.

"One of the kids picked up a pipe, the cast out remains of someone's domestic repairs. As the others stepped back, the youngster slammed the top of Reverend Willis' skull. Blood shot out and the kids squealed as it dotted their arms and shirts. 'Get the case!' shouted the oldest. 'Get the case!'

"The Reverend collapsed, releasing his hold. It was heavy, but two of them managed to lug it swiftly off down the alley, synchronizing their steps. The others followed."

And there is the lone, stocking-disguised assailant in "The Dufus Rufus," who prowls a darkened alley and traps Dilly, a girl on her way to a possible connection at a Hollywood party. Discovering that she has no money, he decides to rape her--". . . to get something for (his) trouble." A fierce struggle ensues, but he is foiled by the skin-tight latex panties that are practically glued on to Dilly beneath her red leather miniskirt. The rapist is frightened off, and Dilly stumbles to her car. At a traffic light, she is reduced to spasms of frustration as she assesses her torn dress and shattered shoe heel--cursing her assailant for having spoiled her evening, her chances of connecting with someone on the fast track. These small wounds loom large. Finally, she bursts into tears at what she considers the ultimate indignity--her broken fingernails. The threat of rape, too terrible to contemplate, is shunted from consciousness.

Predators prowl in daylight. In "Without Visible Means," a slick-talking lover explains his getaway. "The things you want I can't give you no matter what. I don't have the power. And knowing that hurts, Baby. It hurts real bad. So that's why I'm leaving. That's why I've got to go. I've got no say-so. And I'm doing this for you. Don't cry, Baby. Wipe those weepy eyes. Put your hands on your hips and let your backbone slip. . . . Smile, Baby. Smile through those tears. Give a taste of those salty lips. Give a little kiss. It'll ease the pain. This is not like 'goodbye forever.' I'll be in the neighborhood from time-to-time. And I'll drop by to check up on you, to see how you've been getting along in this world. There, now. Don't that make you feel better?"

Unspoken pain comes alive in "Reba," the most memorable of these 31 stories. Sam, an old man of 60--hard working, God fearing, and lonely--takes into his home and heart a young homeless, disoriented girl of 22 named Reba. Sam's love for this strange woman knows no bounds. It overflows and overwhelms and silences the skeptics who call him fool to his face. But despite his love and tenderness, Reba slips from his grasp, floats away on a river of pain and grief leaving Sam to nearly drown in the horror of her revelation.

Coleman's prose is dense with detail. Her descriptions, unsparing yet cloaked with poetic nuance, show that the inhabitants of her world are victims three-fold: They are involved in a herculean effort simply To Be; to avoid annihilation by a larger society that regards them as so much surplus humanity. She describes this with chilling accuracy in "Buying Primo Time," in which designated segments of a futuristic population must actually pay a tax for the privilege of remaining alive!

And, finally, Coleman paints a heartbreaking portrait of those who buy into the larger society's definition of them so that their perspective is limited by fear and self-loathing. In "Eyes and Teeth," two very young cousins inadvertently overhear a conversation that is shattering in it's implications:

" 'I've had my last child,' his mamma says. 'This is it.'

" 'He's such a pretty boy.' My mama says.

" 'He's my favorite of the boys. He's so light-skinned and look at this good straight hair. And lookahere at them gray eyes!'

" 'He takes after you.'

" 'I'm so glad the other boys didn't turn out dark. But they could stand to be a shade brighter.'

"My mama made a strange little laugh.

" 'I'm so glad this baby didn't turn out black and ugly like Buzz. I can't stand to look at nothin' that black, and I feel so sorry Buzz is as black as he is--tar black like his granddaddy.'

"Me and Buzz were staring at one another, our mouths and eyes wide as could be. And I saw hurt, pain and hate flood his face all at once."

The victimization is so corrosive that not even super doses of drugs--mind numbing, mood altering--is sufficient to get one through the day. In the end, anger turns inward, and differences are resolved in the flashing arc of a samurai sword, a flick of a switch-blade, or a .357. And chapters close with blood-choked murmurs.

Despite the bleakness, these are extraordinary stories, told in a powerful voice. This is the painful reality of the powerless that is too often shrouded in bureaucratic anonymity--a probation number, a welfare case number. Coleman, with her fine poet's eye and strong, intense language, brings life to these somber existences.

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