Cover of the book Psychopomp by Amanda Sledz

A chapter from the novel Psychopomp Volume One: Cracked Plate

Buy the book from the author here, from Powells Books or from Amazon here.

Lola, get out of bed.
It’s time to measure your standards.

The Official SAT Guide For Absolutely Everyone was pocked with portraits of thumbs-up enthusiastic sweater-decked white people. Endorsements from Ivy League colleges in bold-faced type offered assurances that somewhere in the page flipping Lola’s brain would flush electric. SCORE BIG TODAY! It demanded with caps lock ferocity. The antagonism of the fiery font left her terrified to perform otherwise.

Lola decided to ignore the taunts of the front cover adorned with individuals unfamiliar to her, and turned to the back cover to hunt for the token black or Asian or multi-racial friend positioned on the manicured lawn beside people in Polo shirts, laughing about their collective conquer of the universe. There. Perfect teeth, hand jammed into the pocket of pants likely called trousers, navy blue sweater knotted at his muscular shoulders, charmed and chuckling alongside the descendents of his former masters.

Oh, fuck this.

Lola’s attention shifted to the book’s contents, for the secrets her public school education denied her. Lola turned pages and let her finger find her fate, and she pressed down and the turning stopped and she opened one eye to spy her finger’s verbal-section divination. The word was davenport.

“Fuck this.”

Lola said it aloud this time as she returned the book to the library shelf. She decided to take her chances on the outskirts of Ivy League Utopia; the tucked away temples of non-aristocratic orphans and otherwise-inclined refugees from academentia, born far away from the privileged promises of ivory gates and teeth.

In other words, Lola figured she’d think about state schools.

She thought of her Granny, with a face that seemed locked at exactly ancient, every picture revealing the same blacker-than-black skin and well-worn roads of wrinkles traveling forever north. Her smile was the fierce grin of a black woman who didn’t take any shit. One day she asked Lola: “Alright, girl. What do you want? Not the little want, but the big one. Tell me girl. Tell me!”

Lola didn’t really want green pastures and gothic buildings and well-groomed friends who strum guitars and laugh about obscure philosophical references and the people who don’t get them. She didn’t want to surround herself with individuals who seemingly skip over adolescence in favor of immediate adulthood and ambitions to obtain millionaire status prior to legal drinking age – or for that matter, anyone who observed material prosperity in and of itself as the ultimate objective, as the dividing line between success and failure, making it and just waiting for death.

Not what you don’t want, girl. What do you want?

She wanted unexpected physical arrangements reflecting all the colors of her original 64 pack of crayons, and backpacks loaded with buttons like bumper stickers, declaring allegiances and outrage for a cacophony of causes and crimes, faces fixed with the gaze to melt the uninitiated. People who read by compulsion not requirement, who coax forward portraits spun from naked elation, each scene framed by stark experience. She wanted friends who wouldn’t perceive visiting her house as missionary work, friends who doubled as muses and observed the uncharted nuances of others with appreciate eyes, friends who laughed too loud and got pulled over too often and had the habit of getting things done anyway.

Girl, you’re just coloring the circle around you. What do you want?

That is what Lola wanted.

Ms. Clark, the guidance counselor, was not interested in what Lola wanted. She wore a daily safari-type uniform of khaki pants and khaki shirt to match her khaki hair, and a wristwatch with a plain black strap that squeezed her wrist like a tourniquet. The calendar tacked to a bulletin board directly behind her head offered a generic nature scene, was one month and two years behind, and revealed nothing about her daily activities. Every pencil in the jammed pencil holder on her desk was nibbled right down to the graphite. She was held in place by a protective triangle of empty paper coffee cups that left her whole office smelling of sour syrup.

Ms. Clark sat Lola down and told her in measured tones that not wanting the prestige and pedigree of the Ivy League was all fine and good, but there was no choice when it came to this test and being tested. None. She drew a zero in the air for emphasis, and her glasses slid a notch down her nose. Ms. Clark assured Lola that an excellent score would increase her chances of getting into college, (“Any college”) and so long as Lola remembered to study something that doesn’t interest her, there might even be employment afterwards.

“These grades, they just won’t work. This is just not good enough. You need to focus and get your act together so that you’re ready for a Real College Experience,” Ms. Clark emphasized, pressing a finger into a stack of papers. Lola’s confusion about the mediocrity of a 4.0 grade point average followed the tip of Ms. Clark’s finger right to the name typed on the side of the manila folder.
It wasn’t Lola’s.

Lola realized exactly then that she didn’t consider Ms. Clark to be a woman who reeked of life expertise. She seemed more like a woman who wanted to disappear.

Still: Detroit was a broken town where unemployed factory workers and overworked guidance counselors occupied porches, nursing cool glasses of little to hope for. It was a place where her mother sat similarly, sipping her own glass.

Lola squinted to look beyond the glare of Ms. Clark’s glasses to spy the crow pecking time along her eyes. She was a woman rarely asked how she was doing, and whom Lola wanted to hug. To Ms. Clark’s surprise, she did.

Then Lola signed up and arrived 30 minutes early with two #2 pencils sharpened to perfect points.

The monitor said good morning and didn’t mean it, and Lola took a booklet and a scantron worksheet and her seat. In three turns of the page the test placed Lola in a train heading west at 80 miles per hour while a rival train traveled east at 60, and the 20 mph face-off ended with mutual shrugging and one train saying, Go ahead while the other countered, Nah, after you. Then they met grills and shouted: BORED! and then they laughed and agreed to sit and wait it out until the scenery and story got a bit more interesting.

Lola whispered, “Where the hell are you two going?” and the first train huffed, and the other rolled his passenger car.

Then both started arguing about the logic of weighing mind-meat with a test that neglects the metric system, while never daring the test-taker to join the debate about whether the USA has snubbed it for nationalism purposes, or because the powers that be just thought the majority of chaw-chewing ‘mericans would be threatened by a challenge to their measuring sticks.

“There is no circle to mark for that!” Lola hissed at the trains, and the monitor shushed her and another student looked up, doe-eyed hopeful that six hours of circle-slog boredom would be interrupted by some soul violently ejected for the ruler-whack sin of cheating.

Then the end of the pencil blinked alive and said: Shaman, what are you circling?

Lola squeezed the pencil to see if it would say ouch. It didn’t.

So she asked her newly minted totem or guide or holy guardian angel or higher self: “What did you say?”

And the scantron worksheet, eager to chime in on this pivotal conversation, said: Shaman. What are you circling?

Having had it up to here, Lola spat, “I’m trying to take a test!”

Pencil sighed. This is the test.

Through it all, the other pencil was silent.

Lola felt a twinge, a familiar tweak of her cheek and so she got up to leave. The monitor barely looked up when she returned her booklet and threw the scantron in the trash. Lola thought about Detroit, how the bodies of her Irish and African ancestors were stacked like concrete blocks, their curved backs reinforcing the steel of this city. She waved when she felt them watching her, and sometimes they returned the favor, but mostly they just watched her retreat.

Lola, are you listening?
Your brother needs you.

Lola stopped in the bathroom to collect herself and wipe the diagramed sentences from her eyes. She inhaled a puff from the useless inhaler with a propellant that had supposedly been altered for environmental reasons, and frowned at its failure to open her asthmatic airways. A second inhale further confused the formula as her lungs expanded with stagnant lavatory fumes and the remnants of someone’s aerosol hairspray. Still, she had to linger just a bit longer because sometimes she knows and that time, she knew: her phone would ring any second.

Lola met her own eyes in the mirror and shipped thoughts to the something that lies beyond the first layer of screen: I know you’re there. I can feel you coming. Then her cell phone sang the lost notes of rotary phones and Lola kept exchanging information pools with whatever set of eyes resides on the other side, and she didn’t break the eye-lock when she held the electronic device to her face and said, “Hello?”

First she heard laughter, and then shut up yawl, and then the laughter was louder and she was on speakerphone so she didn’t say anything. She waited. Finally a voice barked: “Yo, your brother’s whacked out over at Jimmy’s house. Come collect his ass.”

Laughter, shrill and ripe all over again.

“Alright then,” she said, hanging up before their sickness infected her trance. She twisted at a few stray strands of reddish-brown hair escaping her thick braid and returned phone to pocket. Lola connected the dots of her freckles with invisible lines, wondering if dots could be beautiful. If she connected them to the north they looked like a sparrow; to the west, a pair of hummingbirds. She checked her back pocket for the pencil as the gap between her two front teeth winked her awake and away. Pea had the same gap. She called it the door their souls snuck through, the one that also swung the other way to facilitate their escape. She wondered if anything else could sneak in.

Pea preferred to call it evidence they were missing something .

Pea. Her brother. Right.

She ran.

Published October 2012 by One Eye Two Crows Press
Copyright 2012 by Amanda Sledz