In today’s edition of featured fiction, curated by our own Carolyn Quimby, we present an excerpt—a portion of the short story “Lake No Negro”—from Chris Stuck’s debut story collection, Give My Love to the Savages.
The book earned praise from the likes of Victor LaValle, who described the collection as “Black satire with bite,” and Publishers Weekly, which said, “Stuck brings uncompromising humor and judicious characterizations, offering piercing insights on the complexity of his characters’ experiences. The author’s perfect balance of absurdism and realism makes these stories shine.”
LAKE NO NEGRO
Andre had never been with a white woman, an older woman, a conventionally beautiful woman, much less one he’d just met. But here he was. Her name was Farrah, and they’d stumbled onto each other in the beginner class at the Rock and Rope, a large indoor rock-climbing gym in the southeast part of town. Their instructor randomly paired them up, and for an hour, they scaled a three-story modular wall called the Slab. It was a good partnership. Andre and Farrah picked their way up the climbing holds like spiders up a web. But every time they reached the top, Andre found her giving him a high five or a hug, holding on to him, he noticed, a little longer than she needed to.
She was in her early forties, Andre guessed, and not hurting in the cash department. She possessed the grooming and physique of someone with a salon and trainer at her beck and call. In Portland, so many people were scribbled with tattoos, looking so eccentric and pasty, that Farrah’s mainstream glow made her unusual. She didn’t look at all like the lead singer of some shaggy folk band. Quite the contrary. She looked like a perky blond aerobics instructor.
As she showered, he lay in bed, sex drunk. He reclined against his wad of pillows and fell into a parade of dreams he never used to have back east. In one, he was an ironclad warrior atop a powerful white steed. In another, he was the commander of an army of soldiers. When he opened his eyes after a fourth little dream, he found she was gone. On the pillow next to him was a note, though. It said, “Dinner. My place. Saturday. 6pm.” Underneath she’d written the address, some town in the suburbs called Lake Oswego.
* * *
Andre was twenty-six and from DC. He’d journeyed west to spice up his life. Farrah was from Northern California, but she hadn’t said why she’d relocated or what she did for a living. Andre didn’t push. Over his six months in Portland, he’d learned that this city lacked the irony or speed found in most American cities. The place was so strange and carefree that he incorrectly assumed no one there was employed or even aspired to be. He figured Farrah was, in all likelihood, one of “those Californians” vilified by Portland’s liberals, those wealthy Californians who bought up the cheap real estate and spit it back on the market at a profit, something Andre wasn’t that invested in.
That Saturday, he prepared for his dinner date by renting an electric car and whizzing down to the Pearl District to buy some dress clothes at a shop called the Social Ladder. He checked himself out in the store’s three-way mirror and suddenly thought of his old life. Just a year before, he’d been the definition of metrosexual. He was an up-and-coming yet
bored financial analyst who’d amassed a pretty decent savings. He got his hair cut weekly. He clipped his fingernails every Sunday night and often tended to his closet of expensive suits and coats.
Since he’d come to Portland, however, he’d let himself go. His hair was in naps. He shaved infrequently. And what clothes he had, he lugged down to a Laundromat in a trash bag once
every two weeks, washing them without separating the colors from the whites, something his ex, Nina, used to do that drove him nuts. “You’re so uptight,” she used to always say. “Why do you have to be so weird?”
He missed the tidiness of his old life as well as those designer clothes he’d given to the Goodwill like a dope before he’d moved. Andre imagined a homeless person living on the DC streets, looking like Denzel Washington with all his nice threads, while he was across the country looking like a bohemian. He ran his fingers over his naps, took out his phone, and found one of the few Black barbershops in Portland. He had his head shaved to the scalp, his goatee cut off like a tumor. At home, he dressed and doused himself in cologne, and since he’d recently started smoking weed again, he took a quick bong hit to ease his mind.
* * *
As he traversed the city, fairly zooted, he got introspective. He didn’t know why, but memories of Nina had been clamping down on him from out of nowhere. She was partly why he’d moved west, to forget about her even if she’d already forgotten about him. As he neared Lake Oswego, he had a vision of his last night in DC, when he’d made the Titanic-size boo-boo of calling her one last time.
When she answered, the endeavor showed promise. Her voice was bubbly, happy, like how it used to be. When she realized it was him, though, she sounded like a bored customer-service rep. He waded through the awkward salutations, which yielded some info: She was well. She was active. And she was living with her parents, a fact he was pleased to hear since it made her sound a little pitiful.
“Are you working?” he said.
“Sure. My writing and pottery are going really well.”
“No. I mean actual employment. Something that, you know, makes money.”
She simply said yes. She was a barista.
He laughed when she flamboyantly rolled the “r” in “barista.” “Isn’t that just a pretentious way of saying you pour coffee?”
“If you think Italian is pretentious, then yes,” she said. “My boyfriend owns the shop.”
That was the first blow. Boyfriend. And it was just like her to throw it in when he wasn’t expecting it. He didn’t say anything for what seemed like minutes and tried to recover by asking the guy’s name.
That was the second blow. The name was so blue blood, so Caucasian, that he didn’t know whether to die laughing or curl up in a ball and weep. Andre imagined a towheaded cricket player, someone with an accent, someone related to the British royal family. Instantly, he wanted to murder him, but he thought he did a good job hiding that. “Well, great. I’m glad for you. I guess you’ve finally made it.”
“Why?” she said. “Because he’s white?”
“That’s not what I meant.” He should’ve stopped there, purely out of embarrassment. This conversation was going to get around to everyone they knew. But he was a little drunk at the time. What honest-to-goodness whiskey drinker would quit now? Forge on, the liquor told him. Break new ground. “Let me ask you this. Does he call you ‘Lovie’ when you fuck? Do you guys have cucumber sandwiches afterward?”
She just sighed.
“Tell the truth. When you guys get married, he’ll want you to wear a tiara, won’t he?” He heard himself squeal in delight.
“You know what? Unlike your weird ass, he’s extremely sensitive and caring and loving and brilliant. He’s a poet.”
“Oh, well, of course he is. Only a poet deserves so many adjectives bestowed upon him.” Andre stopped to laugh again. He was astounded she hadn’t hung up on him yet. He would’ve hung up on himself by then. Of course, that was exactly when she did.
* * *
As Andre entered Lake Oswego, he was drenched in that jealousy again. He thought his feelings for Nina had faded. He thought he’d forgotten all about Alastair and his great poetry. He hadn’t even had the chance to tell her he was leaving town. Just the idea of them and the snooty kids they’d have made Andre want to go back to his apartment and sulk.
But according to his GPS, he was almost to Farrah’s, close enough that it would’ve been stupid to turn back. Perhaps getting blackout drunk in front of total strangers would take his mind off things. Then he could pack his crap and move to LA or Seattle, or to DC to get his job back.
Remarkably, though, as he escaped the throughways and drove deeper into the woods, Andre found his fog burning off. The avenues turned twisty and lush. Just driving them made his high come back. He’d heard Lake Oswego had been nicknamed Lake No Negro, but no one ever told him if it was because the town, like the rest of Portland, was just really white or if it was really white and anti-Black. Every section of town had a strange nickname anyway. So, who knew? There was no one on the street, white or otherwise. Andre expected to see mansions and topiaries and wrought iron gates everywhere. Instead, the houses were vague structures shrouded in overgrown vegetation, the homes of wealthy people who didn’t trim their hedges.
Andre wound over to South Shore Boulevard, gliding until his GPS said he’d arrived. His electric car sat silent as he assessed the residence from the street. It was ultramodern and white, more a structure than a house. It sat below street level on a lakefront property, looking like those Frank Lloyd Wright homes Nina talked about. Andre coasted down the gravel drive and passed a cedar-clad carport with a Jaguar, an SUV, and Farrah’s Mercedes parked inside.
He walked up to the door with some carnations and a bottle of Champagne, the real kind, from the Champagne region of France. It was a piece of knowledge Nina had pounded into his brain after he’d once brought home a case of Korbel thinking it was the good shit. He’d picked this bottle, a blanc de noir that set him back a chilly one-fifty, simply to impress but also because he liked the name. The French guy in the wine shop said it meant “white from black grapes,” which had a sense of transformation about it, like “water into wine” and “lemons into lemonade.”
Andre rang the doorbell, and it produced a classical tune that lasted a minute. Just as it reached its final note, the door was snatched open by a young Asian woman who stood there in a gray sweatshirt with the neck cut out. Andre introduced himself and said he was there for dinner, but she just sized him up, after which she crossed her arms and screamed, “Farrah, your stupid friend’s here!”
Andre thought of cracking a joke, but the way she thinned her eyes at him made him decide against it.
The interior of the house was a collection of marble and concrete, stainless steel and wood. Andre felt like he was walking into an issue of Architectural Digest. The foyer’s ceiling was a huge sheet of glass, a window to the sky. As he stood there, a large chandelier exploded with light, and there was Farrah, gliding down the wooden staircase in a kimono. She greeted him with outstretched arms, the way rich people did on TV.
She said she was glad he’d arrived, surveying him with a smile and evidently approving. “You clean up good.” She petted his shaved head and face. “I’m glad you got rid of the goatee. It didn’t suit you. You look like a little boy now.”
Andre didn’t know how to take that. And he was still a little high. “Thanks.” He looked at the Asian woman, who was looking back at him like a repulsed teenager.
Farrah then startled him by rubbing her nose against his, and the Asian woman said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” under her breath.
That was when an older white guy emerged atop the staircase, tucking his dress shirt into his slacks. He looked to be in his midsixties, the distinguished air of a politician radiating from every pore. He jogged down the steps obligingly, his knees cracking. “Tanya,” he said to the Asian woman. “Shouldn’t you be getting dressed?”
Like a chastened child, she said, “All right,” stomping down the hallway to the back of the house and blowing through the patio doors.
When Andre turned back to Farrah, he found her and the old guy studying him. The guy was as tan as Farrah. His silver hair swooped back from his forehead in a perfect wave. “I’m Dennis.” He reached out his meaty hand. “You must be Andre.”
It was at that moment that everything aligned. He looked from Farrah to Dennis, who now stood behind her with his hand on her shoulder, his lips pinched in a half smile, as if to say, “You got it, buddy. I’m the father.” Andre thought he could even see a resemblance.
“I didn’t know this was a family dinner.” Farrah looked at Dennis and smiled. “Well, that’s what we are. One big happy family.”
“Come on in.” Dennis guided him down the hallway, which dropped them into a recessed great room. To the left was a stainless steel kitchen that looked like a small factory. To the right was a living room, sunken even lower, with numerous African masks on the wall. When Andre first moved to town, some drunk guy in a bar told him, “Tip numero uno, bro. Don’t ever go to the suburbs. People are weird out there.”
Standing in that sparkling room now, though, Andre couldn’t quite believe that.
Excerpt from Give My Love to the Savages: Stories by Chris Stuck. Published by Amistad. Copyright © 2021 HarperCollins.