Novel: Signifying Nothing
available on amazon.com:
On a spring evening in 1979, in the house where he had lived all of his nineteen years, Lester Hobbs did what no one had ever heard him do: he spoke. One moment he was galumphing across the living room in his undershirt and jeans, skinny arms swinging, hands trembling slightly as they sometimes did; the next, he stopped, arms going stiff at his sides, neck craning forward, a fierce expression taking over his normally placid, baby-smooth brown face. His words were not spoken in the soft, halting way that a thirteen-month-old says “Momma” for the first time; they were full-throated, even loud, like the words of a man accustomed to speaking authoritatively, a drill sergeant or film director. Even more surprisingly, they not only made sense — they were delivered with rhyme and rhythm. In short, the boy was rapping:
Momma Daddy Sister Brother on the FLOOR next to me
We were sittin’ in a circle looking AT the TV
Momma went into the kitchen when comMERcials came on
Gettin’ drinks for everybody and-a MAKin’ popcorn
The suddenness, the loudness, the seeming impossibility of this outburst had an effect on Lester’s parents that was — under the circumstances — understandable, even predictable. His mother, who was fortunately seated and unfortunately holding a nearly full mug of English Breakfast tea, fainted dead away, the tea making a large stain on the cushion of the not-yet-paid-for sofa that was never to come out completely. Ten feet away, Lester’s father, who had been reading an editorial in the Washington Post, did not so much lose consciousness as enter another form of it; mouth open, he stared unblinkingly at his son, though he was later unable to recall what he had seen. Seconds later, having finished his rap, Lester glanced repeatedly from his mother to his father and back again, the intense facial expression of a few moments earlier replaced by mild curiosity, as if he had not caused this scene but merely walked in on it.
This was what awaited Lester’s older brother, Greg, when he walked in the door that evening.
Greg Hobbs, on a Metrobus on his way home from Howard University, was in a good mood. Walking out of the school library, after a good stretch — for him — of plowing through macroeconomics, he had spotted the short, adorable Gina, a senior, and had called to her, as he’d done several times over the past couple of weeks. The first time he did that, stumbling through his small talk, she seemed confused, as if he must be mixing her up with someone else, since she certainly didn’t know him (ah, but he had noticed her); but he had slowly worked his way past that, so that today, his shtick of flattery and mild teasing drew from her a smile and a “See you later, crazy boy.” Crazy boy! In his experience, that was girl-speak for Just don’t act too stupid, and you can get in my pants.
It hadn’t been easy, but he had gotten her attention. That was how it usually went for him, he thought, settling back into his seat in the middle of the bus; he always traveled the hard road to what he wanted, when it came to girls and everything else in his life. But he felt good about that. He knew he wasn’t quite handsome (he did once overhear someone call him “cute”), but he used what he had — his sense of humor, and brown hair that needed neither straightening comb nor stocking cap to be wavy. In junior high and high school, despite a chubby build and an initial fear of fighting, he had turned into someone who could handle himself. Part of it had been necessity, the need to defend himself in scraps that began with insults about his brother. He had taken karate and boxing lessons, spent time working out, and watched in amazement as his triceps grew into hard, separate entities and his chest transformed from sagging near-breasts to twin expanses of muscle; he had seen the amazement in the eyes of other boys as Greg Hobbs, former punk, wore their asses out. Less because of stupidity than laziness, his grades had been mediocre in high school and downright abysmal in his first freshman year (there were two) of college. (Greg, who should’ve been a junior, was a sophomore.) But now he was applying himself and doing okay.
So it was a contented Greg Hobbs, philosophical about the past, guardedly optimistic about the future, who went home that evening to his parents’ house — where he was knocked silly by the present.
Something was very wrong. The first person he saw was his father, who seemed to have gotten stuck in the act of rising from his chair. His eyes were terrified behind the black frames of his reading glasses; he gripped the armrest with his right hand, while his left held the newspaper, which rattled with the trembling of his body. “Dad! What —?” Getting no answer, Greg looked left, toward his mother, whose head was thrown back on the sofa, eyes showing slits of white, hand clutching a tea mug, its contents all over the sofa. “What’s goin’ on?!” Only now did he notice Lester, the one person doing what he normally did: standing in the middle of the floor, digging in his ear with the pinkie of his right hand, his left hand trembling.
Okay. Think. Whatever happened seemed to have hit his mother the hardest. Throwing Lester a look that contained all he usually felt about his brother — bafflement, tenderness, exasperation — Greg went to his mother. “Ma,” he said, bending over her, gently taking her by her narrow shoulders. “Ma, wake up. It’s me, Greg. Ma, what —”
“Oh. Greg. I’m okay,” she said, opening her eyes, sounding short of breath. “It’s just — your brother —”
That was when he heard it.
Lester’s words made Greg look back over his shoulder, but it was Lester’s appearance that etched itself into his memory. There was his brother’s face, as he never dreamed he would see it. Gone was the expression of one who doesn’t understand what you’re saying and is only vaguely curious about what it might be. No — the drawn-together eyebrows, wrinkled-up nose, and bulging eyes now formed a look that said, What the hell’s wrong with you? Greg was too startled at first to comprehend what was happening, and so the first words he ever heard his brother say are lost to history. In Greg’s memory, they started with:
…Brother Brother fightin’ bullies on my BE-HALF
Hangin’ with me more than others, makin’ ME LAUGH
Sister Sister where my sister? She just LEFT HERE
Left her parents left her brothers left me IN TEARS
Slowly, Greg turned to face his brother, whose rhyming seemed to be over, whose face was returning to normal. “Oh, shit,” Greg whispered. He walked around Lester, giving him a wide berth, not taking his eyes from his brother until he was out of the room. At the wall telephone in the kitchen, he pushed the numbers on the keypad with a trembling hand.
“Ye — Greg?”
“Yeah. Listen. You got to come home. I mean, like, now.”
* * * *
Sheridan Hobbs — Sherrie to her family, and few other people, if any — felt her breathing become shallow. For Greg to call her at all meant that something unusual was going on, and for this brother of hers, who never took anything seriously enough, to tell her she had to come home now … “What’s going on?”
“It’s Lester. He’s — he’s talking. I just heard him. He’s not just talkin’, he’s like rhyming. No joke.”
Sherrie sat on her sofa, leaned forward, closed her eyes, put her fingertips to her forehead. She took a deep, silent breath, and her voice became a study in deliberation. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
She knew from the deep silence at the other end what was coming. It was the story of their relationship: the things Greg said and did caused her to treat him like the younger brother he was, and when she did, he got angry. “I just told you what happened!”
“I mean, start from the beginning.”
Letting out an angry, bewildered sigh, he did as she said. With every word he spoke, Sherrie felt the foundation beneath her becoming less certain — as if she had one foot on a dock and the other on a ship that was heading out to sea. When she had heard the whole story, she said the only thing she could be sure of: “I’d better come home.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“Okay. I’ll be there tonight.”
She hung up the phone, set it next to her on the sofa, and said, “Oh. My. God.” Her thoughts ran in a dozen different directions at once. She had to act; thinking of what she had to do required the concentration of a tightrope walker, but she made herself concentrate. First, she had to cancel her evening plans.
“Oscar, hello, it’s Sheridan.”
“Heyyyy.” She could picture him breaking into the boyish, crooked grin that unsettled his square wire-framed glasses. “I was just on my way to pick you up.”
“Listen, I’m sorry, something just happened. I have to go see my family tonight.”
“Oh. Everybody all right?”
“Well, I think so, but — I can’t go into it right now. I’ll call you when I come back, okay? Tomorrow or Sunday.”
“How you gettin’ there? Train? Your car’s in the shop, right? Let me take you to the station, at least.”
She didn’t know if she wanted this, but there was no gracious way out of it. “Okay, sure. Thanks. I’ll be ready when you get here.” After hanging up she went straight to pack her overnight bag.
Sheridan Hobbs, twenty-three years old, lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a Baltimore neighborhood that had caused her father — when he’d helped her move in, eight months earlier — to look around at the street, at the abandoned house on the corner and the broken glass on the sidewalk, as if looking at an ill-dressed wedding guest whom he wanted to ask, You’re not wearing that, are you? What he had actually said to her, after the last box had been brought in and he was about to go home, was, “Watch yourself around here, okay, honey?” She had assured him that she would, and she had — mostly by being in this neighborhood of working-class-to-poor black folks without really being of it. She went back and forth to Johns Hopkins, where she earned a modest stipend as a graduate student in chemistry; she went to places — museums, restaurants — in other neighborhoods in Baltimore; and when she was in her own neighborhood, aside from buying groceries, she was in her apartment, which felt to her at times like a submarine, so different was its interior from its surroundings. There were books in her apartment, for one thing, on shelves that took up most of the wall that faced you as you walked in — Roots; Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman; Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington; Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King Jr.; all of Jane Austen; and many others, including her undergraduate chemistry textbooks and, of course, the Bible.
The wall that was covered by books divided Sheridan’s living room from her bedroom. On the other side of the wall, she was laying the next two days’ clothes on her bed, while thinking of her car in the shop. She would have admitted to no one that she was glad it was in the shop on the night she had to travel the forty-five miles back home; otherwise, in order to justify to herself the fact that she owned a car, she would’ve had to drive it to D.C. tonight, and she was afraid, absolutely terrified, of driving in the dark. On the other hand, it meant that Oscar was driving her to the train station, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that, mainly because she wasn’t sure how she felt about him. Was it right to let him do these things, or was it just leading him on? Should she simply relax and accept it as a gesture arising from their friendship, though she knew, of course, that he wanted more than that? Did she want more than that?
Focus, she told herself. You’ve got to get home.
* * * *
Meanwhile, her parents had come back to life. Mr. Hobbs — Patrick — had finally made it out of his chair, and Mrs. Hobbs, Madelyn, was off the sofa. Both stood in front of the now vacant-looking Lester in attitudes of gentleness and awe, as if their youngest child were a newly arrived, seemingly benign visitor from another galaxy. Madelyn placed a tentative hand on her son’s upper arm and half-whispered, “My goodness,” while Patrick was saying, just as quietly, “All these years. Lester. All these years. Just listening to people, storing up words. Was that it, son?”
Greg watched the scene from across the room, arms folded, listening to his parents trade mostly incomplete sentences: “I never would’ve believed …” “A miracle. That’s what it is. …” “Like he was touched by God …” “Couldn’t be anything else.” “All these years.” “Just a miracle.” With every one of these hymns of praise, Greg felt something in him getting fuller, until finally, slapping his thighs, he heard himself say, “I’m going out. I’ll be back.”
His parents looked at him as if he had started laughing during a eulogy. “Don’t you care that your brother is talking after nineteen years?” his mother asked.
“Yeah, I care. It’s not much I can do about it, though. He’s the one talking. Sherrie said she’d be here later. I’ll be back then.”
There were two things that led him to walk out of the house. One was the need to get away from the scene he had just witnessed, in order to digest it. The other was jealousy. He knew he was wrong to feel the second thing, but he couldn’t help himself. As far back as he could remember, and no doubt before that, nothing he did — even if it was truly outstanding — received the level of attention that Lester got by managing, however poorly, to perform a normal, everyday act. You got a B+ on your report card? Nice going, son — say, did you know your brother fed himself this morning? Oh yes, you got your blue belt in karate — and, your brother tied his own shoes! Greg loved Lester, but sometimes …
Without thinking about it, he walked three blocks in the fading sunlight, in this black neighborhood of small, well-kept houses, to the home of his friend Clive Tompkins. “Hey, what’s up,” Clive said when he opened the door.
“Hey. Whatchu doing? Can you step out a while?”
Clive’s face clouded over as he watched Greg’s. “Yeah, let’s go. What’s going on?”
“Some strange shit, that’s what.”
Hands in pockets, Greg and his darker, thinner friend took off down the sidewalk. Greg had known Clive well enough to speak to since they were little boys, and they had become friends as high school sophomores, despite what had happened between them as that year began. Greg, who had recently completed his transformation from punching bag to Nobody To Mess With, was sometimes unable to resist having fun with easy targets, of whom the meek, skinny Clive was the easiest. Never really intending to hurt or anger him — never, in truth, thinking about the other boy’s feelings at all — Greg sent the occasional punch Clive’s way, until the day Clive got his fill of them. They were in the school library. Greg was laughing about the punch he had just thrown, but he stopped laughing when Clive came rushing at him like a bull, caught him off balance, and sent him stumbling into a bookcase, where a shower of hardcover novels fell on his head and shoulders. The students who were nearby began to laugh. The librarian, a fiftyish, matronly woman, who had witnessed the episode and knew how things stood between Greg and Clive generally, could not bring herself to discipline Clive — could barely, in fact, suppress a smile. Clive was as surprised as anyone over what he had caused to happen, but he stood his ground, angry-faced, ready for whatever was coming. As for Greg: the instant the first book hit his head, he understood two things — how angry he had made Clive, and how shamefully he, Greg, had behaved, particularly since he had been on the receiving end of bullying himself and should have known better. Bringing himself up to his full height after the last book had fallen, Greg took in the boys and girls doubled over in laughter, Clive standing there ready to scrap, the librarian watching it all with an unreadable expression — and he did the only thing he could think of: he started laughing himself.
Now, as they walked with no discussion of where they were going, Clive said, “Man, what’s up?”
Greg stopped walking and told Clive what had happened. Seeing the astonishment on his friend’s face, he himself felt the events sink in. He became light in the head, almost dizzy.
They started walking again, in silence. Out of long habit — following their feet — they turned a corner, walked a block, then turned again, this time onto 12th Street, the neighborhood commercial strip. Passing the corner food market and the beauty salon, they went into Kim’s.
Kim’s was one of those small stores that seem to have been made from pieces of other stores. It wasn’t a restaurant, though you could order several kinds of sandwiches and even eat at the one table in back; it couldn’t be called a stationery store, though pens and notebooks could be purchased there, nor was it exactly a newsstand, though the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, Jet, Ebony, Sports Illustrated, and a few comic books were sold. It was not a grocery store, candy store, or tobacco shop, even though it functioned partly as each. It was Kim’s. Greg ordered a steak and cheese sandwich from the Korean man who had seen his face a thousand times yet showed no sign of recognizing it; Clive, who had eaten at home, got a Coke to keep Greg company, and they went to the table in back.
For a minute they ate and drank without talking, until Clive began to chuckle.
“What’s up?” Greg asked.
“I was just thinking about — Lester’s kind of like that frog in the cartoon. The one that sings for that one guy but won’t make a sound for anybody else.”
The humor in this observation, and the feeling of relief that there was something funny in the whole thing, hit Greg so hard that he had to work to avoid choking on his sandwich. When he had swallowed what was in his mouth, he began to laugh, and Clive joined in.
As they were howling, Greg was dimly aware of a young man entering the store with one of those new “boom boxes.” Slowly, the song that it played worked its way into his consciousness, until, all at once, he stopped laughing and looked very serious.
Clive said, “What’s wrong?”
Just as suddenly as Greg had gone quiet, a smile broke through the surface of his concerned look. “I don’t know. Maybe nothing,” he said, listening to the words of the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight.
The novel is available on amazon.com: Signifying Nothing/Clifford Thompson
From REVEIWS of Signifying Nothing:
“A terrific novel.”
–Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn
“The novel has universal appeal in terms of family dynamics during crises . . . and a bit of sardonic humor.”
– The Web site A Place of Our Own
“”Through the captivating storyline and the characters you will find yourself relating to more than you’d like. You will walk away satisfied from the literary experience, ready for more.”
–Cyrus A. Webb, Conversations Book Club
READERS’ PRAISE :
“I just finished reading Signifying Nothing and I think it is quite an achievement. . . . The characters feel real, the family seems very distinctive but also somehow like other families, and the situation is engrossing — I really had to keep reading to find out what happened to everyone.”
“Cliff: I read your new book and loved it. I am going to buy several more copies to give as gifts. I care so much for all the members of the family in the book, and I laughed and cried as they struggled . . .”
“I just finished reading your amazing novel — i was so moved by the whole family dynamic, sibling to sibling and parents to kids and husband to wife — you wrote such a beautiful book cliff – congratulations.”
“I wanted to tell you that I finished Signifying Nothing, which moved me to tears at times, and am very impressed.” “I finished reading Signifying Nothing. It is such a wonderful, lyrical book. . . . Truly, every one of the members of the Hobbs family came alive for me as if they were friends of mine.”
“Cliff, I just finished your novel and I liked it VERY much. You made me care deeply about every member of that family, and the last section, where you jump forward twenty years to see what has happened to them, feels just right. Congratulations on a wonderful achievement!!”
Hear my interview with Cyrus Webb on Conversations Live blog/talk radio: