How Long A Shadow is out now! Learn how to get your copy below.
How Long A Shadow is out now! Learn how to get your copy below.
I'm a retired educator, a Chicago native, and an author living in Door County, Wisconsin. My family roots in Chicago reach back to the mid-1800s and serve as the background for my debut novel, How Long A Shadow (Outskirts Press, Fall 2020). It's the story of a father, a son, and the legacy of the man neither ever really knew. I hope you'll give it a read and spread the word.
I'm working on a second novel and will occasionally post short drafts on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/danpowerswrites/
In 1918, as Chicago copes with an influenza pandemic, a World War, and the Cubs loss in the World Series, ten-year-old Jimmy Cullerton is surprisingly sent with his oldest brother to the South Side to collect support money from their estranged father. Slighted by his dad, Jimmy vows never to be like him and learns from his brother the need to bury the past.
A century later, Jimmy's retired son Kevin embarks on a quest to discover his grandfather and his own father's past. Along the way he discovers an entire Chicago Irish family about whom he has never heard a word spoken. When a secret from Kevin's own past draws him into a relationship with a woman he hasn't seen since she was an infant, he is forced to reexamine his own life and relationships. As memories and shadows from his personal and family past grow and merge, Kevin must reconcile their meaning and decide who and what he wants to be.
Author Shout is a resource for self-published authors, and I'm honored How Long A Shadow was selected as a 2021 Reader Ready Awards "Recommended Read."
I encourage you to support your local independent bookstore.
How Long A Shadow can be ordered through most bookstores.
Novel Bay Booksellers in Sturgeon Bay has copies
in-store and online. You can also purchase online through the links below.
"At once moving and challenging this story... explore(s) complex and complicated issues within the scope of a single character's experience with her name, her identity and her family. I found more to love each time I read this beautifully written story - Fiction Judge, Joshua Phillip Johnson
The muffled thud when her math book hit the carpeted floor next to the bed felt like a period to the day. She turned off her reading lamp, then slid beneath the white sheet and comforter tugging them up to her chin as she worked her frizzy ponytail across the fluffed pillow until she found the perfect position. To prepare herself, she closed her eyes to help adjust them to the lack of light while she pulled in a slow full deep breath. The darkness funneled in and filled her, freeing her mind to seek the comfort of Lang’s voice. She knew he’d be there. After her parents first told her, she discovered he had always been there – down inside where the air she breathed could reach and touch him – even though she had no actual memory of the brief time they had shared.
When ready, slowly, through pursed lips, she began to release the collected air, letting it carry her cloistered silent conversation and thoughts into the open darkness of the room while she counted to ten.
Lang? It’s me...
She paused to consider her given name – Natalia. Once, out of curiosity she’d looked it up. It meant “birth of the Lord” and used to be given to girls born around Christmas. Her birthday was December 4th. But... she wondered, what if she’d been born a few days earlier in November, would she have been given a different name? Might she have turned out to be somebody else; maybe somebody less confused. More like... like what, like who? No answer came to mind; neither from Lang or herself.
Then again, perhaps her birth mother called her Natalia because she had had a best friend with that name, a Natalia whose grandmother wasn’t forced but willingly emigrated from some east European country. Not likely. But she’d never know because she had no idea if the woman who made and carried her was even alive, or how to find her…wasn’t sure she would even want to know, or what to ask. Maybe Lang would.
Two, three... Which is me?
The critical question. The one that over the last few years had grown from a vague sensation to existential preoccupation. A slight draft to a breaking hurricane. She could no longer separate the rhyming couplet. Her sense of self internally connected with the intangible notion of two-ness or three-ness, what her math teacher called “concept of numbers”.
Lang had raised the question. It took a long time to sink in, but now it was all she could think about now. She accepted her Natalia name as “real”. It was right there on her birth certificate which her adoptive parents had tenaciously jumped through multiple hoops to obtain, knowing she would need it to anchor her existence to her legal self, her nativity, her Natalia-ness. But was that her “real” self? After all, she had heard of something in math called “unreal numbers”. It made her curious. Because for as long as she could remember, she thought of herself as Nala. And for about a year now, ‘Natalia’ – as a name, as a person, as a way-down-deep-inside-sense of self – was shrinking, little by little hardening like a chrysalis, beginning to crack, split, and release her.
The adoption papers also confirmed and certified her name was Natalia. Her new parents kept the name, but naturally changed her last name to Landscap. But they must know she wasn’t just Natalia. She could fondly remember how before she was old enough to read, her dad would hold her on his lap, writing and pointing to each letter. “N-A-T-A-L-I-A. That’s your real name, but you like N-A-L-A, don’t you?”
The documents also said she was born in Chicago, adopted in Minneapolis, and was being taken to rural Northeast Wisconsin to live with her new parents, to grow up and go to school. No one ever asked how that felt, or explained why an infant should pass through so many hands and cover so much ground in her first few months of life.
Her parents never hid the fact she was adopted. Now, she knew it had always been obvious for all the world to see. They also never hid how much they loved her and how special she was to them. They still told her she was the little girl they had always wanted but couldn’t have. And for most of her life that was who she was as she lived and grew up enfolded into their lives and world. It was who she always wanted to be, who she had always thought herself to be – until recently. Until she heard about that black boy with the hoodie sweatshirt who got shot in Florida, until President Obama said if he had a son he would have looked like the dead boy. When she heard that on the news, something inside her shifted, and other things seemed to make more sense.
Now lying here, eyes closed, she felt past high tide. Natalia, the adopted and embraced part of her being was ebbing, giving way. She refocused on the long slow breath leaving her body, wondering if maybe it was Lang exhaling? For in these secret silent moments, it was as if she’d breathe in formless feelings and he’d breathe out these thoughts for her to consider. This was how she first realized the obvious reason “she” could never actually be the “real” daughter her parents had always wanted; and that “Natalia” was someone else, someone she couldn’t be any more, or maybe never was.
Her grade, three years ago. Back where the first confusing experiences seemed to have started. The memories, itching jabbing moments, still vivid and clear as the pale scar near her left eye from when she crashed her bicycle into a tree because her then BFF dared her to ride with her eyes closed. That very night rather than sympathy, Lang breathed out the question: Lessons learned?
That’s when it began, when her Natalia eyes began to see how some classmates seemed to see her differently. And the new volunteer aide in her middle school library seemed not to see her at all. A couple of friends – girls she had known since kindergarten – were acting standoffish. But one memory, one pain, the one that wouldn’t go away and still hurt like she was running into a tree, was when the bicycle friend “accidentally forgot” to invite her to a sleep-over that holiday break. Dad and Mom commiserated; told her it was normal. Kids get older. People change. Groups break into smaller cliques, hang more with others who share their likes and dislikes. It was confusing. She thought she shared those same things too.
After that, perceived slights felt more tangible like when she and mom or girlfriends went shopping for clothes and the clerk would hesitate if she wanted to try something on, or would quickly rearrange a rack she had just browsed. Even just today, a boy – a friend she always liked and felt comfortable with –touched her hair from behind while they were backed up in the hall waiting for other kids to empty out of Algebra class before they could fill it up again. “Do you like it like this? Don’t you think it’s kind of weird. Why don’t you just make it normal?”
One of her friends punched him in the shoulder. Told him to quit being a rude ass. But he wasn’t being rude on purpose; he just didn’t know. No one had ever told him. Still, his words twisted in her gut, in her mind, announcing to her, to the world, she was defective, that the Natalia-piece of her was a fraud, wasn’t actually real. Maybe he was right. It hurt. But she couldn’t share it with anyone. Not her friends or even her parents…only with her dead brother.
Seven... Lang, what’s wrong with me?
She searched for his answer within the controlled breath she was slowly releasing into her darkness. Her twin brother had been named Langston. Her older twin, she had been told – older by nine and a half minutes. A twin brother who would have been like her, played with her and taken care of her; helped her to know what she needed to know, helped her to find and be her real self. But instead, he died sleeping on his stomach before he even knew how to roll over, before he knew his own name.
She was sure he had been named for the famous poet, the one she discovered on a small poster in the back of her English class. She had to look him up because her teacher said she regrettably couldn’t tell her much about him, or his poems, or if he had a younger sibling who called him Lang. That’s how and when she found the black women poets and writers too: Brooks, Walker, Morrison. She wished she’d been named after one of them, someone famous, someone whose words and ideas could help her to understand who she was, who she was supposed to become. That had been just last month, back when it was February, back when all of Black History was crammed into the shortest month of the year, and back when that black boy was shot and killed walking back from a convenience store.
Her own slow breath made her wonder if she had been next to her twin in the same crib when he quit breathing. Maybe it had been a mistake and Natalia was the one who was supposed to sleep forever instead of Lang. Was she a mistake? Did his death make her less convenient, less visible, someone who could be given away? There were no pictures of Lang. She didn’t remember his sounds, his baby laugh, his cry, or the day and the moment it all stopped forever. Yet, on nights like tonight she could hear his voice, a voice now cracking and changing with puberty. She was sure she would recognize it even in a crowd of strangers.
Her exhalation was near its end, yet she was sure she’d make it to ten. Just like she was certain Lang, being older and in heaven, knew everything about her. More than she knew about herself. He surely had been watching during those first few months while temporary foster parents cared for her. He would have heard when their own “real” daughter took to calling her Nala because she so loved The Lion King movie and especially the young lioness named Nala. He certainly would have smiled as the eight-year-old held her like a doll on her lap watching the movie over and over, explaining the story as it unfolded and singing the songs to the transitory baby girl, who enjoyed hearing and feeling the stream of words, enjoyed the melodious breath and sounds flowing over her, making her forget to fuss or cry. The girl would kiss Nala’s head, letting the tiny hands grab hold of her fingers, telling the infant she loved her as much as she loved the lioness, the “real” Nala.
The name took root and transferred. It seemed an appropriate diminutive, a reasonable and loving alternative to Natalia. The foster family saw no harm in it. After all, the baby looked like them. Nala seemed a more fitting name than Natalia for a black child. When they handed her back for adoption, they assumed she was going to a black family so they passed on the story and how the child responded best when called Nala. The agency passed the story on to the Landscaps, a white couple, who adopted the pet-name along with the child without realizing how a name can seep into a brain, into a person, can shape a soul; or how over enough time, like dripping water on a rock, it might dissolve and change a Natalia into a Nala.
Her breath is gone. She opens her eyes. The blackness has thinned to grey which she probes, finally settling on a sliver of reflection glinting off the glass protecting last spring’s eighth-grade graduation photo. The image isn’t visible to her. It doesn’t matter. She knows she isn’t, can’t be, that girl anymore.
Adjacent to the photo is her cork board. On it is another face. One she cut from a magazine and pinned atop the other versions. Ever since she learned about Lang, she celebrates her birthday – their birthday – by clipping an image of a black boy. Never anyone famous, or she might have used a picture of that dead boy from Florida. Just a face that looks to be her age, that feels kind and caring, sure of himself and who shares her “real” features. A face that matches how she imagines Lang would look now. She hangs other pictures too: pop-stars, athletes, classmates. They’re good camouflage.
She knows this boy’s face by heart. If her parents or a friend ask “Who’s this boy?” she dodges, never explains. She can’t bring herself to explain who he really was…is, what he means to her. How would it sound to say he’s my long- dead twin… to say he’s a memory of someone I had never really saw. She doesn’t have words to explain all that has led her to think of Lang so often now, why she talks to him. Besides, even if she did, it would make her parents feel bad, maybe even guilty. They were the ones who told her about him, his name, that he died when they were new born. They explained to her about SIDS, how babies sometimes just stop breathing. Ensured her she was safe.
She no longer tries to rationalize to herself the memory of someone she has no memory of? A someone from before she was conscious of his existence, or even her own. She has figured out, however, that for now Lang is the only one who can understand her confusion and pain, how hard it is to be two people at the same time. Her friends might laugh. Not to be mean, but just because it would sound crazy, not cool. Someone would mention it to someone else who would spread it all over social media, telling everyone that she was talking to a dead boy.
A light tap and a soft voice through her closed door. “Good night, Nala. I love you.” The voice comes every night. Whether she is awake to hear it or not.
“Love you too, Dad. Good night.” The light in the hall goes out and his footsteps fade toward her parents’ room. She stares at her side of the door which separates her two selves. Wonders for how much longer?
“Langston?” She silently whispers. “I feel horrible…like a traitor.”
You mean about Natalia?
“After all that Dad and Mom have done for me, after all this time; I can’t betray them, or tell them about this; about Natalia and about me.”
You think because they love you, they want everyone, even you, to know and see their girl through their eyes?
“Isn’t that the problem?”
They’re not blind, Baby Sis. They know they can’t protect their little Nala from the rest of the world now she ain’t so little no more, can’t just blend in no more.
“Lang? Will they…can they understand?”
Not like me and you.
She wipes her dark eyes with the white blanket then uses it to cover her face. She wishes Lang could really come down from his picture, console her, be there with her, tell her she is going to be all right – because she isn’t at all sure.
“Lang, why did you leave me alone? I’m scared. And more and more I get pissed-off. I was so stupid, thought I could be like everyone else, get it right and just be their daughter. Why is that so hard? Why can’t I just do that?”
Baby sis, you can’t never “get right” if you gonna think like that.
Nala flips the comforter to one side, sees her Lion King tee and her brown calves and feet protruding from her pajama bottoms against the white sheets. She covers and uncovers them again and then twice more. Each time the contrast is more obvious… feels more incompatible. She takes in a breath, takes and twists a handful of the thick course reality of her hair until it hurt. Breathing out, Lang suggests:
You thinking dreadlocks, girl. Damn, that’s what I’d be doing.
She pictures walking into school with stylish locks, trying to feel how that would feel, dreading how it might go. She is tired now, loses track of the thought and just floats in the darkness a while before realizing she’s holding her breath. Langston reaches to her.
Go to sleep now, Nala. You’ve got a math test in the morning.
She breathes, surrenders to a yawn, to her bed, to her need to trust it will all workout… she will work out… Mom and Dad and Lang will all work out. Her heavy eyes and tired mind closes, letting her brother return to the face on the cork board.
In her cartoon dream she sees an un-equivalent equation chasing its tail around the dark room until it dives down and slips within the pages of her algebra book where, she hopes, it belongs and finds its proper place. She turns onto her side. Good night, Lang… and thanks for being here with me.
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