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Authors: Nichelle D. Tramble

The Dying Ground

BOOK: The Dying Ground
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During the 1920s and 1930s, around the time of the Harlem Renaissance, more than a quarter of a million African-Americans settled in Harlem, creating what was described at the time as “a cosmopolitan Negro capital which exert[ed] an influence over Negroes everywhere.”

Nowhere was this more evident than on West 138th and 139th Streets between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards, two blocks that came to be known as Strivers Row. These blocks attracted many of Harlem’s African-American doctors, lawyers, and entertainers, among them Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, and W. C. Handy, who were themselves striving to achieve America’s middle-class dream.

With its mission of publishing quality African-American literature, Strivers Row emulates those “strivers,” capturing that same spirit of hope, creativity, and promise.


“Friend or foe, everybody’s family in this heartfelt hometown mystery, even the guy at the other end of the gun.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Tramble’s writing is multidimensional, muscular and poetic, capturing the voices of African-Americans of many ages and backgrounds without slipping into pretense or parody.”

Chicago Tribune

The Dying Ground
teems with the tinny bravado of young men too eager to prove themselves. [An] impressive debut [with] a pungent, streetwise sensibility that gives her novel its racing pulse.”

The Boston Globe

“[Tramble’s] characterization of Maceo is often astonishing, the most dazzling facet of a consistently noteworthy debut. The author’s sure sense of structure, keen knowledge of male behavior and exquisite sense of pacing all contribute to this novel’s overall excellence. I read it fast, and I was sorry when the last page appeared.”

The Washington Post

“Many mysteries featuring African American characters and set in the world of the black underclass fail to rise above the level of cheap stereotypes. But Nichelle D. Tramble establishes a new benchmark for such stories with
The Dying Ground.
… Tramble combines a note-perfect ear for the music of street slang with a cold acceptance of the violence that is, sadly, so much a part of some people’s everyday lives.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“A pulse-pounding urban thriller that keeps the mystery intact, refusing to show its hand until the final pages. Tramble proves herself an unpretentious poet whose sense of the inner city, its argot and its inhabitants is almost romantic—and certainly vivid. The story is … infused with immense passion and new, true grit by this remarkable young novelist.”

Philadelphia Weekly

“Mysteries are the
urban fiction;
nothing else so catches up the furies and fantasies of our cities. In
The Dying Ground,
Nichelle Tramble turns out Oakland’s ragged, depleted pockets—and hands us gold. I welcome a strong new writer.”

author of
Eye of the Cricket

“Beautifully written with an incredible eye for decaying urban streets, Nichelle Tramble’s
The Dying Ground
is one of the most accurate portrayals of violence, death and redemption in mystery fiction. This book is smart, mean and funny as hell. Don’t be the last to discover a great new writer.”

author of
Leavin’ Trunk Blues
Crossroad Blues

To Daddy and Blaik,
angels I knew for a while,
Judy Faye Tramble,
my angel here on earth

It was the easiest never to leave home. Ghettos were created to hold their inhabitants inside, but their boundaries were a defense perimeter as well, a secured border within which people felt as if they

—Sylvester Monroe

When you will survive if you fight quickly and perish if you do not, this is called the dying ground.

The Art of War

very time I had a nightmare as a child, my attempts to retell the dream in the midnight hours were always met with the same hushed words: “Wait till morning. If you tell your nightmares before sunup, they might come true.”

These words of my grandmother’s were always whispered to soothe me, but instead they haunted me for years. It scared me to think I could give birth to the images of death I met in the middle of the night.

I was born in death when my father decided to celebrate my arrival with a lethal drug treat for my mother. A suicidal combination of cocaine and heroin. He survived and she didn’t, and I’ve continued to relive her death ever since. In most of my dreams I follow her, not as the infant I was when she died but as a grown man. She doesn’t recognize me when we meet, and that is what frightens me the most.

I’ve been visited by death every four years since my first
days on this earth. I’ve grown so accustomed to mourning that funerals are rituals to me much like Christmas and Easter.

On my fourth birthday my father followed my mother to the grave. He was a man my family hated even beyond and through his rehabilitation, so I never had the chance to meet him while he was living. Since then we’ve become acquainted in the middle of the night. His visits are always followed by another death, and I’ve grown to hate the sight of him.

I dreamt about him just yesterday and I’ve been holding my breath for what’s to come. For the first time in years I tried to tell my grandmother of this fear. All she said was, “Nothing good ever happens at the back of midnight, baby. Don’t give those thoughts a reason to live.”

But they’re already on their way, and this time it’s murder.

A murder two hours on the backside of midnight with a single bullet to the head.

ell, if it ain’t little bitty Maceo Albert Bouchaund Redfield! That name so tall the boy got to walk up under it and say excuse me every day of his natural-born life.”

The crowded barbershop broke into laughter as Cutty greeted me with a variation of the same put-down he’d been using for over sixteen years. The fact is that at five feet five inches I barely reach the first letter of my six-foot-tall name.

“How short are you exactly, Maceo?” This came from a balding contemporary of my Grandfather Albert.

“I’m tall as I need to be,” I answered.

I eased into the shop, taking note of the old and young faces waiting in the unusually relentless heat of October.

“And how tall is ‘need to be’?” Cutty grinned my way.

Cutty had been my barber since my seventh birthday, and habit kept me a customer despite the insulting words. The barbershop
was one place in Oakland that provided shelter if needed and contributed order to an often chaotic life.

More simply, it was home.

Cutty was as invested in me as a blood relative. Alongside his prized Oakland A’s paraphernalia, snapshots of local celebrities, and barber’s license was a photographic history of my baseball career from Pee Wee League through high school. Up until the ninth grade, all my uniforms bore the red-and-white logo of Cutty’s salon, Crowning Glory. The pictures were his way of staking a claim before I hit the majors.

“You didn’t answer my question. How tall is ‘need to be’?”

A waiting customer piped up with his opinion. “I say he’s four ten and a half on a good day.”

The ensuing laughter reminded me that people often see my height as a flaw. It has been a source of ridicule since I was a young boy, but to me my size is a day-to-day reminder—a reminder to keep life compact and close to the vest. The few times I’ve reached for the height of others I’ve been knocked back into place. So I’ve learned to live as a little man with a big name. And I’ve learned to smile at the jokes.

“Five foot.” Another barber.

And Cutty: “Shit, Maceo ain’t seen hide nor hair of five feet.” He raised his natural comb to his mouth to think for a moment. “No, I take that back. Maceo was about seven feet tall when he was winning all those championships.” And just like that the jokes about my height switched to praise for my baseball career.

I was used to that too.

Cutty picked up a portable fan and held it in front of his face. “Damn, feels like Africa outside.”

Oliver, Cutty’s partner, rolled his eyes. “What you know about Africa? You barely left Oakland in thirty years!”

“Shit, I know plenty ’bout Africa. I find out all I need to
know ’bout Africa every time I go to East Oakland.” It was an old joke that never failed to hit its mark.

The bonus October heat had sent everyone out into the streets in pursuit of any company to be had, and the sense of camaraderie and fun among the patrons kept the mood light. Along the curb a few waiting customers sat perched on the hoods of their cars, smoking cigarettes or reading newspapers. A few of the youngstas, unschooled in Cutty’s bullet-ridden history, masked shady business deals behind the steady
of rap music.

BOOK: The Dying Ground
13.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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