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Read This! Excerpt from American Gospel by Miah Jeffra

Read This! Excerpt from American Gospel by Miah Jeffra

Author: Suzi Garcia

February 28, 2023

Prelude: February

These men will not matter in the end, but the story begins with them, in a boardroom, in a hush. They all knew itwas a hush because they could hear it, the audible pause in wait, the music rest, the preparation for the pounding notes of new decision. A photograph would pick up no hesitation, no anxiety, only the smooth wide smiles of people who know business, the khaki casualness of it, the whiteness of it, the teeth of it. The men knew this was a skill to their profession, something taught and drilled with the diligence and precision of Japanese Noh. This performance, of course, was confidence, an unquestioning belief in what is being sold.

Between them all, on the 16th floor of a glass building towering over Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, white pages gleamed from the table.

MacAllister, the developer, relished in the cleanliness of the contract, the crisp bold serif font, the fine paper, the flush lines of black to white. He knew the men saw his good side, all of them slightly tilted sideways to fit tightly in the circle around the table. They were standing, the discussion done, negotiation sealed by the readiness of straight legs, the standing over of something, yes, the final glance of predators standing over prey. MacAllister had made the kill, 126 pages of gleaming white.

The rest were admiring the catch, aware they looked like idiots in their hovering. But they didn’t want to missthis moment either, wanted to take a photograph with their mind’s eye, document the time when they participated in something out of the ordinary, part of something that would fill their names into ledgers to be read, newspapers, legacy. They would Google themselves and this moment would be the first item listed on the pulsing screen, the keywords deal, real estate, revitalization, urban renaissance, and, perhaps, Baltimore.

Beyond the meeting room on the 16th floor—dark wood table, gray and burgundy accents—the city was well in movement. Buses screeched their wheels, cars blared with impatience, harbor taxis clanged their bells, lipped against the loading dock. Heels clicked cold asphalt, volume determinant of ambition. Names called out across streets, into the wind. All the sound colluded in its rise high above the Inner Harbor, until it could be mistaken for the ocean, a shore of concrete, brick and glass, one edge of the world. Steam hissed out of potholes, synchronized white plumes dynamizing Charles Street, Light Street, Pratt Street, Gay Street, the pillowy display above revealing nothing of the seething below, in the gray and brown belly of Baltimore.

The men in the boardroom, however, heard none of these sounds, or perhaps heard selected sounds—the ding ofelevator doors closing to rise, the snap of briefcases when emptied, the ka-ching! of cash registers—all very resolute sounds that signify the endings of things for most, and the beginnings of things for them.

None of these men really knew each other. They knew of each other, knew what each other worked for, signified, represented, pretended to be. They had done various one-on-ones in coffee shops, donut shops, barber shops.Some worked in the same building, none worked in this one. Two of them had their sons baptized at St. Paul’s Cathedral, not at the same time, without either attending the other’s. Some were childless. One knew that another was from Butcher’s Hill, that his son went to St. Mary’s, but he didn’t know that his son’s history teacher, Brother Thomas Manilli, would be in this very same building days later, receiving the deed to his dead mother’s house, the house that stood across the street from one of the men’s favorite restaurants in Little Italy, which was co-owned by another of thesemen. No one knew MacAllister had gone to Archbishop Curley High School, but if he told them he would have discovered that one of the

others went there at the same time, that they had Biology together forty-one years ago. The oldest one there had slept with the youngest one’s fiancée years before they’d met.

There were some less impressed with the deal. They were the smaller politicians, the neighborhood councilmen,the ones who were less visible but more connected to Highlandtown. And the farther one was removed from the neighborhood, the more triumphant they parted the circle. This is where the neighborhood councilmen gave themselves away; they were the only ones left staring at the document, the finality of it. The others had already begun the resounding handshakes, the clap of the palms, the slip and grip.

MacAllister remained close to the contract as he shook the hands, slapped the shoulders, slicked the grin that allmen envied. After all, it was his kill, and anyone desperate enough would evade protocol, maybe try and take a bite. Hewould guard the bounty until all had left the circle. He prided himself on his thoroughness.

MacAllister held little reservation with the deal. His wife wasn’t too pleased, but that’s because she didn’t knowwhat it took to make things happen. She was full of what-ifs and might- its—What if the people who live there can’t find a new place to live?—but he knew that nothing is ever accomplished with doubt, nothing that can be carved into legacy, anyway. How could anything progress with that kind of questioning? He knew the Crabtown deal was good for his family and for the city. How often does one get to contribute to both?

Over the years, he’d watched Baltimore fall into ruin. He’d watched whole areas become impossible to live in, to even drive through. The drug-addled streets, the lurking black eyes of vacant rowhouses, the rabid air of whole districts. He had stopped attending Orioles games, never venturing close to Memorial Park, until they built CamdenYards, of course. What he had loved as a child—the streets lined with vendors, the crowded sidewalks, families havingpicnics

in Druid Hill Park and snacking on their stoops—was gone. He despised the city now, how it allowed itself to get so tarnished, a beautiful young woman going the way of a whore. How could his wife be opposed to bringing back the city they loved? Yes, there would be people affected—and his intent was never to push those folks out—but no move towards progress is perfect. There will always be externalities, as they say in business. MacAllister learned long ago to keep focus on the big picture.

They broke from the circle. Some were grabbing iced tea, chips and crab dip at the refreshment table by thewindow, looking out over the street to the harbor, smiles lingering. They turned to one another and began the small talk, the human part, the return to self, that ritual of transformation after catharsis. This is where the glimpses of their lives colored in the black and white singularity of the business deal, the where-are-they-froms and are-they-marrieds. Many of them had already asked those questions before, at city meet-and-greets, campaign dinners, charity events. It was acceptable to forget. So many people. You know how it is.

MacAllister wondered which of them would be the first to question the project once the afterglow faded. He wished he had an instrument that could bore into the solid knot of their gut, examine how tight it really was, where there was chance for fray. He didn’t worry about the investors, or the park designer; this was sure-fire for them. But the politicians. They didn’t have any goal as fixed as profit. Their goals were not as predictable. And the means were a little questionable if not aligned with the outcome. Oh, the means of things. Isn’t that where suffering resides? But there must be suffering to usher positive change. These men knew this, had read their Marx and Machiavelli, had learned tolook away when it was important. But the politicians. They knew they’d have to answer to the means, not these men with the higher thread counts and silver belt buckles. The means have faces that can yell and spit and cry, can seethe, even erupt.

For now, though, the men were solid, pumped, the swell of impending success anchoring their movements.

This is big!

That neighborhood will clean up! It’s going to be like Six Flags!

Like Disneyland! Only in the city!

A Baltimore-themed park! A better version of itself! So clever!

New jobs!

At that moment, in Highlandtown, where the theme park’s grand entrance would be, a gaggle of squirmy seventh graders were learning fractions in their King Middle School classroom. At that moment, in Highlandtown, the spot designated for the Star Spangled Music Hall was a plague of seagulls tearing apart a grease-soaked paper bag in a Roy Rogers parking lot. At that moment, in Highlandtown, Peter Cryer was emptying buckets of mayonnaise into a condiment bin, inside the same Roy Rogers, one that MacAllister had already bought and where the Old Bay ResortHotel would stand within the year. At that moment, in Highlandtown, on the future site of Hush Puppies, the kiddie section of the park, Peter’s mother, Ruth Anne, stood in the corner of her small living room in her small rowhouse, one scheduled to be demolished by the end of the year, her fingers clenched around an official Orioles baseball bat, fearing the shadows outside the front door, fearing the shadows would be the strong arms of her estranged husband, ones that could wrap around her torso and drag her across a room, that could squeeze her skull like a water balloon. At that moment, in Highlandtown, on the same block that Crabtown’s signature roller coaster would be erected, a small youngwoman was being beaten to

death by her tweaked-out boyfriend, her baby-daddy, twenty-eight blows, four of them to the head. She had hid his glass pipe under the sink as a loving suggestion. The screams that emanated from the dilapidated rowhouse could havebeen the sounds of a thrill ride, long and looping, sharp and falling, the low moans of the finish.

MacAllister’s shirt fluttered, as if he could sense the crime, could sense the life exhale from that woman’s body. But change does that—a fluttering. He continued to smile and shake. He knew there was good in what he was doing, felt it in his fingers. He was cleaning up the city. Crabtown would help bring people back to the Baltimore he loved, theonly way that was certain. Look at what South Street Seaport did for Manhattan, and didn’t the West Edmonton Mallrevive an entire part of Canada? And Disneyworld? It made a whole city from scratch.

So why did he feel like he was falling, as if the window glass he leaned against suddenly dissolved in the salty air?

He put his hands in his pockets, rocked on his heels, and smiled. His gaze fixed back on the conference table, the contract, neatly wrapped in Velobinder, something that made sense to these men. They caught his gaze, and they allfollowed it, and nodded almost imperceptibly, like a secret had passed among them.

That ended the meeting. Moving forward. They grabbed for their coats, started to bundle up against the city outside, even smaller talk now, the weather kind, all of them stealing quick glances at MacAllister, to make sure of something, all looking for the same word.

“Gentlemen,” he said, and they all felt better.

Their story ends here, at the beginning. This is common: the rich begin the story, and the poor bring up the rear.

American Gospel

Miah Jeffra

Black Lawerence Press

March 2023

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