Slow Down Heart
Story by Michael A. Gonzales
In the fall of
1965, when Dawn Rodgers was fifteen years old, the sleek
boogie of Motown music had been as vital to her
existence as blood and water. Living in a regal Harlem
building on a 116th Street and 8th Avenue, Dawn had
converted her bedroom into a soulful shrine of her
favorite singers: countless seven-inch 45s were sprawled
on the carpeted floor, and Ebony magazine pictures of
Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Little Stevie Wonder and
The Supremes hung on the white wall.
Across the room, on
top of an antique dresser, was the blue record player
that had been a Christmas gift from Dawn’s father before
his sudden death from a heart attack two years ago.
When she first
unwrapped the present, it reminded her of a magical,
aqua hued jewel box. With its mono-speaker and hard
cover, the record player was her most prized possession.
On the weekend,
Dawn and her lanky girlfriend Barbara Jean played the
records repeatedly, dancing like American Bandstand
regulars as their wavy press combed hair flipped.
As Barbara Jean
belted “ooohhs and aaahhs” in the background, Dawn
grabbed a broomstick from the closet and strained her
vocal chords singing lead on “Baby Love,” “Tracks of My
Tears,” “Where Did Our Love Go” and other soon to be
Yet, since buying
the sweet swoon of “My Girl” from Shadow’s Record
Store-the first record Dawn had bought-the sweet song
held a special place in her heart. As Barbara’s charm
bracelets jiggled, Dawn perfectly pantomimed those silky
On those school
days when Dawn was finished with her homework, she
scoped the smooth skinned older boy singers who
sloughed on the stoop and sang beneath the dim
street lamp outside the living-room window.
With their conked
hair and starched slacks, those slick boys slurped sodas
and sang about roaming Romeos until dusk.
“Girl, you better
get your face out of that window and into those books,”
Dawn’s mother Amy scolded one autumn afternoon. Styling
a sky-high beehive and lush lashes, Amy puffed on a
With wide-hips and
thin waist, she stood in front of the curtained French
doors; when the doors were closed, it was damn near
impossible to hear another sound. Dawn wasn’t aware of
her mother had been observing her for a few minutes
Dawn and her mom
had once shared a special bond that had faded with each
birthday. Many years had passed since they had played in
the playground sandbox or dressed identically on Easter
morning. Though the death of her father should have
brought them closer, it seemed to make her mother that
much more neurotic.
“Girl, don’t make
me come in there and snatch you up,” Amy yelled. Her mom
made a pretty penny as the proprietor of the Smart Set
However, since it
was a Monday, the shop was closed.
mumbled. She had hoped to see the singing man of her
fantasies, a conked head boy named Miles Fontaine.
Everyday, she anticipated the moment that slick heart
breaker would slink around the corner and connect with
his rhythmic street-corner crew.
A sharp dressed
dude whose shoes were never snuffed, Miles had a smoky
voice that was smoother than her panties. Even though he
and Dawn didn’t know one another, Miles often glanced-up
at Dawn’s third floor window and grinned.
At nineteen, his
gleaming smile was perfect, as was the square jaw that
was the foundation of a clean-shaved, light-skinned
face. Whenever Miles wore his stylish black-framed
glasses, Dawn thought he looked exactly like “a lighter
version of David Ruffin from The Temptations.”
In Dawn’s mind, she
believed Miles possessed a princely charm that only she
With her curvy
figure and shoulder length ponytail, Dawn was too old
for children’s games and too young for grown folks
business. In her teenage mind, it didn’t matter that
Miles was much too old for a girl who wouldn’t be able
to date for another year. Feeling Amy’s penetrating eyes
on her back, Dawn slid out of the window and flopped on
the plastic slip covered couch.
While the weekdays
were devoted to schoolwork and household chores, come
Saturday morning Dawn was down at the Smart Set helping
“That girl just
keep getting so big,” observed Millard Jones, one of
Amy’s oldest customers. “Seems like yesterday I was
giving the child lollipops from my purse.”
“As long as she
keeps her head up, her eyes in a book and her legs
closed, I’ll be happy,” Amy replied. Pretending not to
listen, Dawn swept up hair, set the dryers and ordered
lunch for the gossiping flock.
As was Amy’s habit,
at four o’clock she handed Dawn three crisp dollar bills
for her allowance. Tossing the stained smock on top of a
shelf, Dawn said, “I’ll be back. I’m going down to
Shadow’s.” Not that it was news, because Dawn went to
Shadow’s Record Emporium every Saturday afternoon.
“Can’t keep them
young folks away from their music,” Millard said.
be down there all day,” Amy said. “I have other things
for you to do around here.”
“Alright, ma,” Dawn
answered, carefully watching her tone of voice; a slip
of the lip was all Dawn needed for her mother to snatch
back the money or pop her in the mouth.
Dressed in a her
blue fall sweater, white button down shirt, jeans and
matching Pro-Keds sneakers, Dawn ran the five blocks
past rooming houses and number holes, liquor shops and
soul food shacks. As visions of shiny discs spun in her
head, Dawn barely paid attention to the roar of the
world around her.
she sped around the corner at St. Nicholas Avenue and
slammed into a hard body exiting a men’s shoe store.
Crashing to the
ground, Dawn’s head banged on the sidewalk. Lying still,
she groaned and tried to regain her bearings. Rubbing
her skull, blood trickled from the wound.
“Are you alright?”
a soothing voice asked. With her eyes still closed, Dawn
struggled to stand until she felt a reassuring touch on
her shoulder. “You really shouldn't move until the
ambulance gets here.”
barbecue smoke simmering from a nearby restaurant, it
took awhile for Dawn to see clearly. The moment her
blurry vision finally focused, she saw Miles’ face
hovering in front of her.
Yet, before Dawn
was able to utter a word, a thundercloud exploded in her
head. Seconds later, the slight concession caused
her to faint completely.
hardness of the concrete and the softness of the
hospital bed, Dawn’s mind be-bopped through a dreamscape
where she and Miles sailed on a chocolate-flavored sea.
With a tender voice, Miles serenaded her with a sweet
Moments later, the
dream lover gently touched her bare shoulder and kissed
her quivering lips.
recovering from the accident, Dawn noticed a slight
change in her mother’s behavior. It began the morning
when the usually stern faced Amy strolled past the stove
smiling and melodically humming ‘My Girl.’ Startled by
Amy’s blissful demeanor, Dawn stared longingly as her
mom fluttered through the kitchen like a nightingale.
Sitting down at the
formica table, Amy smiled at her bemused daughter.
Pouring orange juice into a blue glass, Amy asked, “Are
you sure you’re well enough to go to school? Maybe you
should stay home another day or so.”
Dawn noticed a
musical lilt to Amy’s voice. Not since Dawn’s daddy had
died, had her mom sound so happy.
strange,” Dawn explained to her girlfriend Barbara Jean
as the two trooped towards their small Catholic school
building. Both girls were dressed in white blouses, gray
plaid skirts and black shoes. If they were even a minute
late, sadistic Sister Regis would make them do
Bending down to
buckle her shoe in front of Jesse’s Candy Shop, a cool
breeze caressed Dawn’s face.
“Maybe she thought
when you got the concussion you were going to die or
something. You know how mothers are when something bad
happens to their babies.”
Dawn pushed open
the steel and glass door. Swathed in the store’s Hershey
chocolate warmth and fumes of fresh brewed coffee, they
greeted the overweight owner. Overcome by a yearning for
chocolate, Dawn stood in front of the glass counter and
stared at the gleaming silver wrapped Kisses.
agreed, sliding ten-cents across the counter. “You’re
right. I’m just being goofy. It’s just weird to hear
Miss Mean Jeans suddenly being so nice. And, to top it
off, honey is humming Motown songs.”
giggled, and glanced at her Timex wristwatch. “Just wait
for a couple more days, I bet she’ll be right back to
her regular self,” she said. “Now hurry-up before Sister
Regis has us standing on our tiptoes for an hour or
didn’t bring up the subject again, Amy’s slight change
had developed into a full-blown transformation. With a
wiggle in her walk, Amy bought a few tight skirts that
enhanced her shapely behind.
In the past, while
Amy had always come straight home after closing the
beauty shop, she was now “stopping for cocktails at the
O’Neal’s” or “going to the movies at Loews's Paramount
Theater.” Coming home slightly intoxicated, Amy sang
sweet soul songs under her peppermint-scented breath.
afternoon, Dawn sat in the classroom staring at the
dusty blackboard when she a developed an aching
headache. “Is your mother home today?” Sister Regis
asked. Knowing the details of her slight concussion, the
nun thought it would be best to send Dawn home.
“Yes, Sister,” Dawn
answered, rubbing her forehead. After a year at St.
Catherine’s you would think these nuns would remember
that her mother owned a beauty shop, Dawn thought.
Everybody in Harlem knows that beauty shops are closed
“I’ll call and tell
her you don’t feel well. Barbara Jean can bring your
Sister,” Dawn replied, gathering her books.
Nearing her block
at one o’clock, Dawn wondered what had happened to Miles
and the rest of his singing buddies. “I suppose it’s
been a little chilly,” she reasoned, but I still haven’t
seen him since the accident. Of course, that hadn’t
stopped her from scribbling Miles’ name in her
three-ring binder or in the margins of her textbooks.
climbed the tarnished marble steps to her apartment.
From behind the closed doors of her neighbor’s flats,
she heard crying babies and the theatrical voices of
soap opera stars. Yet, standing in front of her doorway,
Dawn didn’t hear a sound.
Maybe ma went to
laundry or something, she thought. Pushing open the
metal door, Dawn dropped her coat and school bag on the
foyer floor. Walking quietly across the carpet, Dawn
headed towards the living room.
Standing in front
of the French doors, she was surprised to hear the
dreamy voices of The Temptation’s “My Girl” streaming
from the blue portable hi-fi her dead father had given
slowly pulled back the multicolored curtains and peered
through the door’s small window.
stared, stunned and paralyzed by the wicked image of her
mother and Miles lustfully entwined on the sticky couch.
Oblivious to the world, their naked bodies rhythmically
moved to the music.
A few feet away,
Dawn’s record player rested on top of the wooden coffee
Dawn’s eyes jumped
frantically from the blue record player to the couch.
Dawn’s fragile emotions cracked, and wanted to shatter
the French door’s windows with her bare fist.
wiped tears from her eyes as a thousand blue record
players blared in her head. Crying, Dawn watched with
disgusted fascination as the sweaty bodies of Miles and
her mother slithered to the hardwood floor. Eyes closed,
they swam in the sea of love while The Temptations
continued to sing.
Before Dawn was
even aware of her own movements, she had run down the
stairs. Standing in front of the same street lamp where
she had first seen Miles sing, a cold wind caused her to
Either her mom or
Miles had snapped on the end-table lamp. Still crying,
Dawn stared at her curtained living-room window and
silently vowed never to touch that blue record player
michael a. gonzales--Harlem native
-- has written cover stories for
Essence, Giant, Latina, XXL and
Stop Smiling. A former writer-at-large for Vibe
magazine, Gonzales has also been a staff writer for
The Source, columnist for New York Press and
a frequent contributor to the New York Daily News,
the New York Post and NY Metro. He has
also contributed articles to Spin, the Village
Voice, Ego Trip, Trace and
Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and
Hip-Hop Culture (Random House, 1991).
writer/director Nelson George as “evidencing the mastery
of detail required of a subject that is all about
mastery of detail,” the book was a groundbreaking text
in hip-hop literature.
A. Gonzales writes a regular music column called “On the
Popmatters.com and has written liner-notes for
reissue collections including The Hip-Hop Box Set,
the O’Jays, the Gap Band, the Crusaders and Al Green.
Having written for MTV and BET, he also served as a
consultant to the Experience Music Project’s (Seattle)
inaugural Hip-Hop/Rap exhibit. He also contributed the
essay “From Rockin’ the House to Planet Rock” to their
catalogue Crossroads (2000).
Gonzales’ essays have appeared in
Best Sex Writing 2005 edited by Violet Blue (Cleis
Beats, Rhymes & Life edited by Kenji Jasper
(Harlem Moon, 2007) and
Best Sex Writing 2006 edited Felice Neaman and
Frederique Delacoste (Cleis Press). A 1999 Code magazine
feature on Prince was reprinted the following year in
the landmark music criticism collection
Rock and Roll is Here to Stay edited by William
McKeen (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000). “My Father Named
Me Prince” appeared alongside pop culture pieces by Tom
Wolfe, Joan Didion and Lester Bangs.
published fiction in
Brown Sugar 2: A Collection of Erotic Black Fiction
edited by Carol Taylor (Simon & Shuster, 2001),
Bronx Biannual 2 edited by Miles Marshall
Lewis (Akashic Books, 2007), Uptown magazine,
Brown Sugar 3: When Opposites Attract edited by
Carol Taylor (Simon & Shuster, 2003) and the upcoming
superheroes collection Darker Mask edited by Gary
Phillips and Christopher Chambers (Tor, 2008).
stories have also been published in France and England.
Like Gypsy Rose Lee, Norman Mailer and Spike Lee before
him, he lives in Brooklyn.
posted 29th May 2007
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