Bellport, Massachusetts, 1971
Bellport Gazette, Final Edition
“Investigation into Rooming House Fire Continues”
October 16, 1971. Bellport fire officials continue to investigate the cause of a four-alarm blaze that destroyed a three-story rooming house on Pleasant Avenue in the South End of Bellport, an area informally known as “Petite Africa.” Six people suffered minor injuries. Seventeen residents of the house were displaced.
The early morning blaze sent fire officials scrambling for backup. Boston was among the fire departments that provided mutual aid. Crews worked for nearly five hours to get the fire under control. Flames could be seen for miles around coming out of the roof. Clouds of thick, grey smoke filled the sky.
Bellport Fire Chief Patrick O’Connell says the blaze appears to have started at the back of the building, where fire climbed the walls. When asked if the fire could be related to two others that have occurred in the past six months in the largely immigrant community, officials would not comment.
The city has plans to redevelop the area, taking most of the neighborhood and some surrounding blocks by eminent domain to build a sixty-four million, twelve thousand-seat civic center complex, luxury high-rise apartments, restaurants, marina, and off ramp from the North/South Expressway along the seaboard.
The project is scheduled for completion in February 1974. Anyone with information on the fires is asked to contact the Bellport Police Detective Division.
Before Sydney Stallworth could reach for the handle, her husband, Malachi, was out of the car and opening the door for her. She stepped down, stumbled, regained her balance, and then spotted the nip bottle she had just stepped on. It skidded across the driveway like a hockey puck. She shuddered as she looked around, scanning the asphalt. Several others littered the driveway.
“What’re these doing here?” Malachi growled as he scooped up the bottles and tossed them in the metal trash can leaning against the house.
“Sorry, man,” his best friend Kwamé said as he slammed shut the driver’s side door. “I had some of the fellas clean up around here. They must’ve had a little taste after they were done.” Sydney doubted that it was just a little taste. She pictured men loitering around the driveway, guzzling booze from bottles in brown paper bags.
“Smells like someone’s having a barbecue,” Kwamé said a little more loudly than necessary.
“Must be the neighbors,” Malachi replied, relieved at the change of topic.
Sydney sniffed the air and caught the aroma of brown sugar, ketchup, and a couple of other ingredients mixed with a trace of sea water from the harbor.
“People barbecue all the time around here,” Kwamé said and popped open the trunk. “They’re good people. Friendly. They’ll invite you over, feed you.”
Sydney reached into her camera bag for her 35-millimeter Konica, her favorite, and aimed it at the Victorian house. Their house, 133 Liberty Hill Boulevard, she had to remind herself. She wanted a record of her and Malachi’s first moments in their new home, which would also be the location of their business. The pictures would go into a photo album she’d put together after she had assembled their wedding album and honeymoon pictures. She focused her shots tight on their dusty blue Queen Anne with its banana custard-color latticework, shutters, and railings.
Kwamé pulled the couple’s luggage out of the trunk, and plopped the suitcases onto the pavement. “What the two of you do down there in Jamaica? Pack up half the island?”
Malachi laughed and squeezed Sydney’s shoulders. “The Missus got a little carried away with the souvenirs, but that’s all right.”
“I’d never seen soapstone before,” Sydney added.
“Hey! I feel you,” Kwamé said. “My Aunt Marie used to go to Nassau a couple of times a year with a church group. Couldn’t get enough of those soapstone sculptures. She got one in the shape of a turtle with two heads. She used to scare the mess out of us kids with that thing. After a while, she started using it as a doorstop.” He slammed the trunk shut and looked up at the house.
“You’ve got fourteen rooms here: three floors, the basement, and the attic. I don’t think the Greensteins used the attic except for storage. The basement is finished. You could always do something with that.”
Malachi had told her stories about Greenstein’s Furniture Store, which had operated on the first floor of the Victorian. Malachi and Kwamé, childhood friends, grew up in the apartment building across the street.
They looked odd side-by-side, the slightly built Kwamé, in his dashiki, bell-bottoms, and platform shoes, and the taller
Malachi, in his tweed jacket, khakis, and loafers. Kwamé never stopped talking, but he seemed insecure underneath the bravado. Sydney sensed that he was hiding something. She felt wary of him, but decided to reserve judgment.
She focused her lens on the two men and took a couple of frames as they laughed and talked. A moment later, Malachi took her hand and guided her through the side gate. Its rusted hinges squealed.
A bird house built like a gazebo hung from a maple tree in the front yard. Its colors matched the Victorian.
To their right, Sydney admired the flower garden, brilliant with color. She crouched down to take close-ups of the crocuses with their cup-shaped blooms of yellow, white, and lavender.
“Della planted those,” Kwamé said, “to welcome you to the neighborhood.” He gestured with an unlit cigarette he held between two fingers.
“Tell Della we say ‘thank you’,” Sydney said thinking back on the woman she’d met the day of the wedding. Della Tolliver, Kwamé’s girlfriend, was an assistant librarian at the Liberty Hill Branch Library. She had a trim Afro a little shorter than Sydney’s and an athletic build, with a tiny waist and curvy hips that Sydney envied.
Malachi led Sydney up the porch steps. Kwamé handed him a slip of paper with the code to the alarm system typed on it. “Be back after you two check the place out. I think you’ll dig what we’ve done to clean it up.”
Kwamé waved and then crossed the street to the apartment building where he lived with Della and her daughter, Jasmine. He unlocked the door to the record shop that he operated on the first floor and slipped inside.
Malachi turned the key in the wrought iron security door of the Victorian and opened it, unlocked the heavy wooden door behind it, and then twisted the large knob. Then he turned off the alarm system and went back onto the porch for the luggage. Sydney took a deep breath and stepped inside.
As she stood in the vestibule, a stream of light came through the stained-glass window. It cast a rich, warm glow on the sweeping, cherrywood staircase.
Sydney led the way into the front parlor. She pressed a button on the wall near the doorway. Nothing happened. Malachi flipped the switch next to it and a brass candelabra chandelier with glass bulbs brightened the room with a burst of light. They walked the perimeter of the room, Sydney running her hands along the cream-colored wainscoting, Malachi fiddling with the knobs on the cast iron radiators.
The focal point of the dining room was the cherrywood fireplace. Sydney moved closer to study the detail work in the wood. The heels of her platform shoes echoed on the hardwood floor. Over the mantle hung a large, silver framed rectangular mirror the width of the fireplace. She looked at Malachi’s reflection smiling at her. At six foot four inches, he was a full seven inches taller than she was, but he appeared even taller because of his Afro, a massive crown of dark, tightly curled hair. She thought the thin lines forming at the corners of his eyes and the traces of grey in his sideburns made him look sexy.
As they climbed the stairs to the second floor, Sydney slid her hand up the freshly polished wood of the thick, curving banister. The wail of sirens pierced the air as they ventured into the old-fashioned kitchen. The tin ceiling was embossed with silver metal. The walk-in pantry had two white paneled doors that could be pushed apart to provide for a wide en-try. Sydney spread her arms the length of the pantry and still had room left over. Just outside the pantry she came across a dumbwaiter, large enough to fit a small child.
When they got to the bathroom, Sydney’s eyes were drawn to the claw-foot bathtub on a platform in the middle of the room. Malachi leaned over it and turned on the hot and cold faucets. As he ran his fingers under the water, he looked up at Sydney and winked. Her cheeks began to feel warm.
On their way down the stairs the sirens sounded closer.
When they got to the front porch, Kwamé was waiting there, along with Della. Jasmine, who looked to be about five years old, held tightly onto her mother’s hand. They all turned to the sound of more sirens and watched a Bellport Fire Department truck roar down Liberty Hill Boulevard followed by another. Jasmine covered her ears.
Once the trucks were gone, Della leaned down to Jasmine. “Can you say ‘hello’ to Miss Sydney and Mr. Malachi?” Sydney had never been referred to that way, but she thought it was sweet, probably a Southern custom.
“No!” The child shouted. Sydney flinched. Jasmine frowned and buried her face in her mother’s hip.
“She’s been acting up today,” Kwamé explained as Jasmine whimpered. Everyone focused on the child.
“The flowers are lovely and so is the bird house,” Sydney said finally. “I can tell you put a lot of care into what you do.” “It wasn’t much of nothing,” Della replied, glancing down at her daughter, her hand resting on the little girl’s head. “I see something I like and figure out how to do it. I like to lose myself in things. Come by sometime, and I’ll show you my little workshop.”
Della’s accent was charming, relaxed and different from the New England accents Sydney heard all the time. She felt she could listen to the woman speak all day long. Jasmine pouted, tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “I want to go home, now, Mommy.”
“No, Jazzy,” Della admonished, gripping her daughter’s shoulders. “Please be nice to our friends.”
Jasmine looked from Sydney to Malachi and scowled. She had the curly eyelashes and thick eyebrows of her mother. She let loose a scream as piercing as the sirens. “I don’t like them, Mommy. I want to go home.” Jasmine then punched her mother in the stomach with her little fist.
Kwamé grabbed the child by the hand and growled, “You listen to your mama.”
The child pulled away from him and clung to Della. “She needs a little nap, that’s all,” Della explained, as she stepped off the porch. She smiled weakly and waved before tugging the child through the yard and back across the street.
Kwamé watched them until they got through the front door and then turned to Sydney and Malachi, his smile wide. “We still on for tomorrow?”
Malachi’s face went blank. “What’s tomorrow?”
Kwamé leaned against the porch railing. “Man, don’t tell me you forgot. Lunch. I’m taking you and the Missus to The Stewed Oxtail.”
Malachi ran his hand over the top of his thick hair. “Man, I’ve got so much on my mind. It must’ve gotten past me. I really don’t remember. I have to go back on campus, clean out my office, pick up my last paycheck. I need to put up some notices that we’re looking for a student intern.”
Kwamé stroked his goatee. “Intern? What you need one of them for?”
“We want to hire an intern to work in the store for college credit.”
“Man, I was looking forward to taking you out. Lunch was gonna be on me.”
“I’m sorry, but you and Della will have to give us a rain check,” Malachi said.
Kwamé shook his head and frowned with disappointment. “Della can’t go. She found out she has to fill in at the library tomorrow.”
They said nothing for a while. Then Malachi turned to Sydney, his gaze hopeful.
“What is it?” she asked.
“You can go.”
Sydney thought he was joking. But Malachi’s facial expres-sion didn’t change. “I can’t go,” she entreated in a low voice. “Not without you.”
He put an arm around her shoulder. “Baby, of course you can. Go and have a nice lunch with Kwamé. The man’s an encyclopedia when it comes to Bellport. It’ll be good for you to learn more about the city.”
But she didn’t know Kwamé that well and Sydney didn’t care to be around him more than she had to. She looked at Kwamé willing him to say they should postpone lunch until all four of them were available, but he just stood there grinning, waiting for her response. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad, she thought. It was only lunch. “Okay,” she said in a voice that was barely audible.
Kwamé gave Malachi the soul brother’s handshake. They angled their hands up as they clasped and then went palm to palm, interlocking with their fingers tight together. “See you tomorrow,” he said as he hugged Sydney a little too tightly. Then he got to the front of the yard and pimp-strolled across the street.
“Thank you for doing this, Syd,” Malachi said. “He’s a good brother. Let him school you on the neighborhood. It’ll mean a lot to him.”
“But I have no idea what I’ll talk to him about.”
Malachi laughed. “Don’t worry, Kwamé knows how to keep a conversation going. He’ll do all the talking. He’ll talk you to death if you let him.”
Seagulls circled overhead, cackling as Malachi plunked him-self down on the top step of the porch and then pulled Sydney down onto the second step between his knees. “I’ve thought up a name for the business. You can veto it if you don’t like it. I want to call it The Talking Drum Bookstore and Cultural Center.”
She leaned back, resting her head on his chest and smiled. The name had a melodious feel. “I wouldn’t think of vetoing it. I love it.”
“Every time people see the name they’ll think of our African ancestors pounding on the drums to celebrate births, marriages, a call to war,” he said. “Our Talking Drum is going to break it down for people, teach them about politics, economics, the Black Arts Movement. Then after we’ve been around for a while, I’d like to move into the next phase. We’ll expand on the cultural aspect. It’ll be a research center with collections from famous black poets, writers, philosophers, and artists. Scholars will come from all over to do research. We’ll be quoted in research papers. Who needs Whittington University? I’ll start my own academy.”
Malachi sounded like he was lecturing a room full of college students. But she remembered reading somewhere that most businesses failed within the first year. What had her mother said before the wedding? He’s an academic. What does he know about retail?
“And you think it’ll make money?” she asked.
He massaged her shoulders. “I wouldn’t have bought the building if I didn’t think it would. We’ll corner the market. Where else in the area are black people going to find books written by black people, about black issues? Where else can black people meet to discuss what’s going on?”
He shifted around to face her. “You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”
She rarely saw Malachi look so serious. The last time was when his application for a full professor’s position was denied. She squeezed his hand. “No. We’re offering something that’s hard to find in this area. The neighborhood’s not that bad, and the house is lovely. I don’t see why we wouldn’t get a lot of customers.”
She pushed her mother’s words to the back of her mind. This was Malachi’s dream. She would give him her full support.
Malachi folded his arms around Sydney. “What would you say is your favorite part of the house?”
“The bathtub,” she answered without hesitation. “You know how much I like a good soak.”
He chuckled. “You looked a little flustered when I started running the water.”
She loved it when he teased her. “I was thinking that the tub was a nice size, that’s all.”
He nibbled at her earlobe. “A nice size for what?”
She laughed. “A nice size for us both to fit.”
He stood up. “Then we should try it out.”
“What do you mean?”
He got up and walked to the front door. When she didn’t follow, he turned around. “Are you going to join me?”
Sydney loved his spontaneity. He held the door open for her. As she crossed the threshold, he gave her a playful smack on the rear end.
Excerpted from The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton © 2020, used with permission by Inanna Press.