Excerpt

Quiver of the Pure Heart

PART I

We are like the little branch that quivers during a storm,doubting our strength and forgetting we are the tree—deeply rootedto withstand all life’s upheavals. 

— Dodinsky

ONE

January, 1989

THEY TRIED TO eliminate the Fillmore District’s poverty by leveling the neighborhood, the same way earthquakes release the earth’s tectonic strain, arguably with good intention, but in the most devastating and tragic way. I was born and raised in the proud, yet beleaguered, Fillmore. A small subset of San Francisco’s Western Addition. Blis Dumas was my name, and my neighborhood was full of blessed realities and powerful forces that could leave a scar on your soul. Unwritten rules dictated its place in society, and bureaucrats said it encouraged a culture of deficiency, creating a need for renewal.

Streets in the Fillmore were lined with mom-and-pop grocery stores, shoulder-to-shoulder stucco duplexes, meat markets, multi-level apartment buildings, washhouses, projects, and old, iconic, single-family Victorians like mine.

Late one day when I was tired to the bone, the setting sun was cloaked in a gloomy haze as a kaleidoscope of Jolly Rancher candies flirted with me from the crystal bowl on the marble tabletop. I sucked on my favorite green apple flavor and stood on the staircase, stroking the deep golden luster of the oak railing. My fingertips lingered on the gooseneck fitting where the staircase curved up and to the left, where the Rococo-style chandelier floated, suspended from its medallion of flowers and fluttering cherubic angels. I wondered how much longer they would be there to quietly watch over me.

“Blis Dumas?” a portly gentleman bellowed, tapping on one of the tinted lead glass panels that centered each of the double doors.

“I don’t want any,” I shouted. No one was expected, so I wasn’t going to answer, but the man was bending over and peering through the window, looking right at me.

“Miss, it is about your home. May I have a word with you?”

Trust is not my strong suit, and a personal visit about my house made me a bit nervous, but I slowly opened the door. “May I help you?”

He observed me over the top of his black-and-silver eyeglasses. They were conventional, full rimmed and bookish, but with a bit of character on the arm’s gold accent, which glistened a little under the porch light.

“Miss, my name is George Maynard, and I’m extending a courtesy call to you today regarding correspondence you should have received about your house.” He spoke with a genial accent that I could not place. I’d never been very good at differentiating between English, Irish, and Scottish accents, but his inflection would have been appropriate for Shakespeare’s stage. In fact, he had an Old World Savile Row appearance, with his bow tie and an unmistakably sophisticated hand-tailored suit; he even sported what looked like a pocket watch. It was a very strange affect for an African-American man.

“It seems that you have not responded. Might I ascertain—?”

“If you’re referring to the letters about stealing my house, then yes, I received them, and I’ve responded. It isn’t for sale.”

He leaned against the balustrade and sighed, as if fatigued. The stripes on his shirt stretched and compressed with each heavy breath. Behind him, the rush-hour traffic raced down Bush Street. Now that I knew why he had come, I was even more annoyed. A police siren blared in the background, expressing my feelings.

“Miss Dumas, I assure you, no one is trying to steal your house. This is 1989, not the Old West,” he said in a patronizing tone.

I had neither the time nor the inclination to utter another word to him. He sounded like he’d gone to my father’s school of law: If you take something from someone and you do it in front of them, it isn’t stealing; it’s more like a moral mugging.

“Perhaps you will allow me to inform you properly—”

“I am excruciatingly well informed about what is going on here.”

“Then surely you realize that this is a matter of securing the necessary right of way to attract new business customers and to diversify the residents and visitors to this area. Actually, this project is intended to extend Pacific Heights further into the Fillmore District. We like to call it the Lower Pacific Heights,” he said with a cunning smile.

“Well, your little Manifest Destiny passion play sounds like a real Mardi Gras, Maynard, but you can’t have my house to do it.” As I started to close the door, his outstretched hand pressed against it just enough to keep me from shutting it completely. His long fingers were covered in strange dry patches, just like his face. His knuckles seemed to have disappeared under the leathery skin.

“I understand your concern, but we are prepared to offer a fair market value for the property.”

“There is one thing you should know about me, Mr. Maynard. I will not give up this house for any price.”

“Everyone has their price, miss, I assure you.” His lips curled slightly at the edge in a black-hearted smile, and his tone was unhurried and taunting.

The idea of him suggesting I could be bought infuriated me. “Your Redevelopment Bureau had its chance to change this neighborhood and you failed. I can’t believe how easily you people are willing to sell out this neighborhood’s history and culture to the highest bidder.”

“I know this is a difficult and unfortunate situation, but maybe you should consider that redevelopment ventures are for the public good,” he said. “It’s for your benefit. Perhaps you’re feeling somehow . . .” he looked at me for the first time with what seemed sympathy and understanding, “. . . that somehow this is in part your fault.”

“Are you insane?” I screamed. “The fault belongs to you greedy people. The fault belongs to the public and private interests that want to change the demographics of the Fillmore. This is not my fault; it’s my community’s misfortune.”

As if he didn’t hear me, he continued, “Indeed, I know leaving in such an untimely fashion will be difficult at first, relocation and such, but let me assure you . . .”

Through clenched teeth, I seethed, “You listen to me. I could give a cat’s hat about your version of public good. My grandfather saved his money and bought this house. Having it is my birthright. Now, it’s been a long day and I’m exhausted, so if you don’t mind.” Mama Rose’s words popped into my head, “Show your raising.However, my lips were pursed, ready with profanity. Even my stomach growled.

I thought the fat man might soften and begin to understand how precious this home was to me, or at the very least, recognize the conversation was not going his way and leave; but he stayed, his discomposure growing with each rebuff.

“Yes, I am aware of the legacy here.”

I couldn’t hide the surprise in my eyes. “You are?”

Maynard’s posture stiffened and his smile faded. He stared at me—his eyes void of emotion—and took a step closer. He put his hand on the glass doorknob and actually stood on the threshold. I instinctively closed the door a little further, refusing to allow him in. His dark eyes narrowed, and he bit his thin lower lip, baring the top row of his large stained teeth.

“Tell me, how much do you really know about your grandfather?” he asked.