Book Excerpt: Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson
As part of our effort to profile more authors within the LGBT community, we present Tenea D. Johnson.
Tenea was born in Kentucky and fled at the first opportunity. She took with her, the calm of the Ohio River and the swell of honesty (sometimes refreshing, sometimes catastrophic) that afflicts the folks born along its banks. Adoring of ideas, she graduated from the New College of Florida (enroll there now and thank her later) and NYU’s Gallatin School, as well as attending Clarion. Writing sustains her; music saves her. As often as possible, she straddles their borders to create compositions/fusions/hyphenated watchamacallit better heard than described.
So far the Knitting Factory, Dixon Place, The Public Theater, and others have opened their doors to the form.
Tenea’s work has appeared in African Voices, Arise, Humanities in the South, Infinite Matrix, Contemporary American Women Poets, Whispers in the Night: Dark Dreams III and Necrologue, among others. She is the author of a poetry/short prose collection, Starting Friction as well as the novels, Smoketown and R/evolution.
Anna Armour had had her fair share of failed resurrections. There had been the lichen when she was three and the dragonfly at six—the sad twisted platypus that her mother took away before it ruined her tenth birthday. Since the day of her mother's death when Anna was fourteen, she hadn't brought anything to life.
Now, she only wanted to bring someone back to her, but this feat proved the most elusive. Sixteen years of ignoring that part of herself had paid off though: She had traded her secret gift for a well-honed endurance. So no matter how tired Anna became she always carried her determination and her regret. Even now, after working a double shift, she picked up her pace as she crossed the street in a throng of other warehouse workers. The strap of her pack, heavy with Peru's package, dug into her shoulder. Anna hooked one thumb under the strap and lifted it momentarily to ease the strain. But she never slowed her gait. She didn't want to miss the last train to the post office before the long holiday break.
Looking up from the crowded street, she saw the glint of the 16:37 train reflecting sunlight as it rounded the last curve before it reached the station. It was six minutes early. Anna took off running.
A shifting maze of people stood between her and the train station. She tried to pick a path, dodging people as best she could. Her pack bounced against her tailbone. Anna excused herself as she twirled around her supervisor. The entrance to the train station glowed in front of her, the overhead giene lights brighter even than the sunlight shining on the sidewalk. She squinted against the glaring lights as she hit the stairs. Taking them two at a time, she pulled on the banister with each stride, propelling her body forward.
At the top of the stairs, she nearly collided with a young man, knocking his shoulder back so hard that for an awkward second he seemed to be dancing. Anna yelled apologies over her shoulder and focused on the approaching train. The smooth silver of its cylinder turned matte black as it entered the station. The train slid silently to a stop, the door opening as it came to rest. She slowed to a trot and hopped over the lip of the threshold. In two strides she swung the bag around to her front, lowered her weight onto the nearest seat and strapped in.
It was cold inside the train. The air conditioning chilled the sweat on her brow and she suppressed a shiver. Across from her hung a transit map. It showed the circles of Leiodare's rail system as well as the distant outlines of the other city-states that lay beyond the surrounding jungle. She chuckled quietly looking at it. The scale of the maps in Leiodare was always off--as if it were the largest city-state in the southeastern US when it clearly wasn't, perhaps the third largest at best. But inside the city that didn't matter. As the train zipped further down the line, Anna looked above the map to the time glowing blue. Seventeen minutes till close; she should just make it.
At the post office, battalion members stood sentry at a new security gate just outside the entrance. Anna joined the short line, shaking her head imperceptibly. The gate made no sense. Though Leiodaran paranoia dictated that people should be searched as they left the post office, even the city's unstable framework of beliefs couldn't make sense of examining people as they entered the post office. No one smuggled contraband to the outside world; Leiodare was the city surrounded by an invisible fence after all. But in the short time she’d been in Leiodare, Anna had noticed that around the outbreak's anniversary, all manner of new and exotic municipal neuroses took hold. Last year, there had been talk of elevating the all-encompassing barrier further into the city's airspace. Only the cost had quieted that particular fervor. So this year she supposed they'd decided to erect the ominous red gates outside all the post offices and ports of entry.
Anna clenched her jaw as she looked around, waiting for the woman in front of her to enter the security gate. After that woman had passed inspection, the battalion member on the right waved Anna through.
As she stepped across the red threshold, a shrill alarm sounded.
Anna froze, her hands already up to protect herself. The battalion guards pushed past her, running to the bank of post office boxes near the exit, weapons drawn. Their boots sent flowers flying as they crossed the grassy median and joined a circle of other soldiers whose attentions were trained on the ground. Anna could see a man stretched out there, with hands behind his head.
She rushed through the gate and into the post office.
Standing at the counter she wondered what the man had done. Had it been a false alarm or had he been so stupid as to try and smuggle birds through the post? Everyone knew that Leiodare had outlawed birds twenty-five years ago. The city was infamous for it. No birds could be found in the city's beautiful gardens, on its houses, or in its trees. Smugglers, and often even suspected smugglers, served no less than five years of hard labor maintaining the electric avian barrier that surrounded the city, stretching into the sky, and across Leiodare, just below the path of planes. She couldn't imagine what price could tempt someone to risk that sentence. But Anna knew, perhaps better than most, that people did crazy things for paltry rewards.