Like a ray of sun that can warm your skin for a moment but can't be captured, John the Baptist Wright has touched the lives of many women-- heart, body, and soul. Now, in this brilliant new novel by Sandra Jackson-Opoku, award-winning author of The River Where Blood Is Born, we hear from the women who gave Hot Johnny his heat.
Through the discerning eyes of those who have known and loved him, we watch Hot Johnny take a journey into the past, where a deeply guarded family secret lies hidden, waiting to be revealed. Along the way, pivotal moments of Hot Johnny's life begin to surface: his childhood struggles in the ghettos of Chicago, his rites of passage as a young gang member, his tragically short athletic career, his fantasies and obsessions, cruelties and compassion.
Each woman has a distinct voice and her own point of view. Among them is Destiny, the damaged young woman he married, but cannot save; Lola Belle, the white lesbian with something to prove and nothing to lose; Tree, the college soulmate, whose first taste of tenderness came from Hot Johnny's touch; Cinnamon, the thrill seeker who only Johnny can satisfy; Peaches, the prostitute who gave the boy his name and sealed his reputation; Jonavis, the daughter he never knew he had; and Gracita Reina (Queen of Grace), his great-grandmother, who holds the key to Johnny's salvation. Each woman provides a piece of the puzzle that is Hot Johnny--until at last he is brought into dazzling focus.
This deeply felt and emotionally involving tale offers a captivating portrait of a complex man who is both saint and sinner, hero and villain, and all the shadings in between. Sandra Jackson-Opoku has done nothing less than illuminate the shadowy places of a man's soul--and created a powerful novel of destiny and redemption.
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Sandra Jackson-Opoku is an award-winning author, poet, and journalist. The River Where Blood Is Born, her first novel, won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award for Fiction; her work has also earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fiction Fellowship, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazine General Electric Fiction Award for Young Writers, and a Ragdale Foundation U.S.-Africa Writers Fellowship, among other honors.
She lives in Chicago with her two children, Kimathi and Adjoa.
He knew just how to feed them
You see all our hungry faces in the photo album of his life. And you wonder. Who is he and what is he to you? You would never understand unless you know our story. So I'm going to tell you a fairy tale. Maybe you haven't heard this version.
Once upon hard times Little Grandma Gracita planned a potluck picnic. We reached into cupboards and took out what we had. Every woman thought the other might bring something better to the table. Oh, it was sad. No fried chicken, no potato salad, no watermelon. Nothing but scrap bones, carrot tops; a pitiful spread. The mushy potatoes could hardly believe their eyes. I was the last to arrive, the one who brought pearl onions.
Into this all steps a man named John, too good-looking to be good. Or so they say. If you didn't know different, you would cast him as the snake. Don Juan, con man, rogue. He said he knew just how to feed them.
He brought out a pot and made a big fire. Into it went all their offerings, along with something special: a stone from his pocket, glowing with his own warmth. Bubbling in the broth of magic, stone soup was made. It was a miracle, and it was good! Each one ate until she was full. And they all lived happily ever after?
Hardly. Real stories never end like the fairy tales do. Hot Johnny would stay so long as the soup simmered, dishing miracles into everyone's bowl. When the pot boiled over or turned cold, he would leave with his soup stone. Have you ever wondered where he went? He with all his hidden fires. We with all our hungers.
Yes, we have our hungers. Don't be tempted to cast us as the victims. We take him in, hoping to touch his magic, and we ourselves are remade.
I remember Hot Johnny like a ray of sun that touches your skin. It warms you for a moment, but you can't keep it with you. I remember him in tomorrow's dream, the bright one that dashes across your eyes right before you awaken. I remember him like John the Baptist. A chanted blessing and a splash of water, and those he touches are forever changed.
But God's gift to women is not easy to be. He has never been sure of his power, you see. He doubts our intentions, questions our devotion. Those closest to him have even seen his scars.
Cooks don't always get to enjoy what they create. What's the use of having cake unless you eat it, too? What's the sense in making stone soup unless you have a taste? Dishing up miracles for everyone else, what happens to Hot Johnny's own hungers?
The beginning of the story starts at the end.
I could almost be what he saw in me
I didn't inherit much from my natural mother. Not a memory, not a snapshot; not even a surname. Just a sickle-cell blood trait that would blow up like a bomb one day. Just a lacy, tattered pillow with Who art thou, my daughter? Ruth 3:16 stitched in faded thread. A question on a pillow is all she left me. That and a prediction: Destiny. My mother knew I was an accident waiting to happen, destined to wind up with a broken heart.
Mrs. Malveaux was a little coupon-clipping white lady, the last foster mother in a succession of six. What little I learned about men in my life, she's the one who taught me. When she found out I had a crush on the cutest boy at school, Mrs. Malveaux told me to lower my expectations.
"If you're going to love a man that other women want," she warned, "get ready for a broken heart. Better a butt-ugly man who is faithful than a handsome heart-stopper sharing his loving all over town."
Maybe she thought marrying that hairy gorilla of hers would guarantee her a lifetime of fidelity. But it didn't go down like that. I know for a fact that butt-ugly Franklin was not faithful to Vivian Malveaux. A fine man cheated because he could, an ugly one because he had something to prove. What possible hope did that hold out?
I knew I was doomed the moment I laid eyes on him. No, I'm lying. I couldn't have known that, because I never thought a man like Johnny Wright would give me the time of day. Maybe I'm lucky winding up like Mrs. Malveaux predicted—my big nose wide open, my stupid heart broken. At least it was Johnny who broke my heart, which is more than dozens of more attractive women can say.
Any girl on Pope Air Force Base would have given her last dime to get with Hot Johnny. I'm the one he chose over any number with longer hair, lighter skin, slimmer hips. I may be nursing a broken heart now, but at least I had his love to myself for four whole years. At least I'm the one who got to have his baby.
I remember the first time he spoke to me. I was on KP, slinging hash in the NCO mess hall. I would chat with airmen on the chow line: the older white enlisted officers, the women, one or two of the brothers who seemed safe for conversation. But Johnny Wright was one I refused to recognize. I was frightened of him, plain and simple. Afraid he might see the panic in my eyes.
It was hard for me to look a handsome man full in the face. It would be like trying to stare at the sun. The glare of his beauty would almost blind me. My eyes would smart with tears and I'd have to turn away. So I focused on the hands pushing along a military-issue green plastic tray. Knuckles with sparse strands of sandy hair; long fingers with bitten nails. Those chewed-off nails were much easier to look at than the golden perfection of his flawless face.
I would thrust Johnny's plate toward him without looking up at him. If he tried to make small talk, I would mumble a response and turn to the next in line. One day he didn't take the plate from me so quickly. I held it out to the empty air, my face shiny with sweat and shame.
"You got a kind word for everybody but me, airman. How come? Is it because I'm black?"
I didn't answer.
"I'm going to make you look at me tonight, you luscious little chocolate drop." I couldn't see his face because I was looking down. But I could hear the chuckle in his voice. It had to be his idea of a joke, calling attention to my color. Pretending to like my looks, when everyone within earshot could see just how plain I was.
"Look me in the eye when I address you, airman. And that's an order."
"Yes, sir," I muttered, staring down at the steaming pan of hash. I tried to hand him his plate of food once again. "No excuse for my behavior, sir."
"I'm not going to take that slop until you look at me."
"Look at the fool, for Christ's sake," someone down the line muttered. "We're getting hungry down here."
I was so humiliated. He was holding up the chow line and the others were enjoying a joke at my expense. I stole a glance at him, catching gold sparks glinting in olive green eyes.
"Take your food, Sergeant Wright," I whispered. "Please, sir."
He noticed the tears I was blinking back and grabbed the plate, brushing my hand as he did.
"Aw, baby girl." He leaned forward, murmuring in a voice meant for my ears only. "I didn't mean to make you cry."
I was nobody's baby girl, had never really been. It just made me want to cry all the more. I held it in until my duty ended, the steam table cleared and the chow pans scrubbed. I went out behind the mess hall, sat on the steps, and bawled into my hands.
I was like a hot-water bag somebody filled up, put away, and forgot about. People might have called them curves, but I knew it was years of unspilled water that swelled the contours of my skin. Six different foster homes, no family to visit on leave, empty spaces in a photo album where a father and a mother should have been. Not even a safe place to cry. Saltwater tears leaked out, punctured by the random pinprick of a man too blindingly beautiful to behold.
Then there he was. I don't know where he came from or how he got there.
"What did I say to make you cry?" he whispered, sitting down beside me. He reached over, mopping up tears and snot with his clean white handkerchief, chanting some kind of gibberish beneath his breath.
colita de rana
Si no sanas hoy,
"Huh?" My tears dissolved in sheer surprise. "What did you just say?"
"Just a little something my great grandmother used to sing when life had put a hurting on me. I don't even know what it meant, but it always made me smile. I see it still works, that grin struggling beneath all those tears. Don't you know that brown sugar should always be kept dry? You don't want nothing melting marks into that pretty face."
"I . . . am . . . not . . . pretty," I hiccuped. "You're just messing with me, sir."
He had the nerve to look surprised. He tucked a hand under my chin, tilting my head back in consideration. He seemed to reassess my broad, tearstained features.
"Girl, where were you in the seventies?"
"Not even born."
"You're probably, what? Eighteen years old?"
"Nineteen last Tuesday," I told him.
"Almost young enough to be my daughter."
I shook my head.
"You're not old enough to have any grown kids."
"Thirty-seven years old? Hell, it ain't impossible. I did get started awfully young. I cut my teeth on morsels like you. My first true love was a dark little something I called Black Pearl. Churchgoing girl, all straitlaced and buttoned down. But hot as hell and sweet as honey under those high collars and long skirts. She used to sell candy bars for the church. World's finest chocolate. Lord knows, the girl wasn't lying."
I felt a sharp stab of jealousy. My reaction shocked even me.
"Church girls usually are loose like that, sir."
He smiled at my outburst.
"Loose and juicy. Nobody had to tell me—the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. I wish you'd b...
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