39 comments

American Contemporary Inspirational

“Cleopatra?” the barista shouted as he put the cup of coffee on the bar, turning to work on the next order. 

“It’s Cleotha, Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty . . .” the elderly woman replied, who had been waiting patiently for her much too expensive beverage. 


If she hadn’t been in a hurry, she would have preferred a cup of coffee from a 7-11 or Dunkin’ Donuts; however, necessity forced Cleotha to the self-important coffee shop situated on the corner of the block where she had lived most of her adult life. She had a plane to catch and a granddaughter to meet, so she held her tongue, grabbed the cup, and hurried out the door. 

Cleotha Jackson had been born in New Orleans, spending the first twenty-five years of her life in poverty on Cleveland Street. Her home, if you could call it that, had been a classic shotgun styled house, narrow and rectangular, no more than 12 feet wide. The rooms were arranged directly behind one another. A person could literally stand at the front door and shoot a shotgun right out the backdoor if they had a mind to. Cleotha had no idea when the house was built, but on Cleveland Street, every home looked as if it had been built run down.  

Her father had been a soldier. That was the beginning and ending of the knowledge of her dad. Her mother was drug addict before it was fashionable and had really only given Cleotha three things of value: her name that meant glory; a pearl necklace that her mom said represented Cleotha’s great worth; and the finest Cajun recipes in all of New Orleans.

“Will you be checking any bags?” asked the airline agent. The question made Cleotha chuckle out loud. She had made a promise to herself 52 years earlier when her Greyhound bus crossed the state line taking her out of Louisiana and into Mississippi that she would never return to New Orleans. Circumstances had forced her to break that promise, but she wasn’t about to stay longer than necessary.  

“No, I just have my carry on and my purse,” she responded politely. “A few days in New Orleans is all I can take.”

“Enjoy your flight,” came the sincere reply, although She was pretty sure it also came with a quizzical expression as Cleotha looked distraught.

She had never been claustrophobic, not in her tiny room as a child and not on the crowded streets of her adopted home, New York City. Most native New Yorkers scurried from place to place as if the sidewalks were made of hot coals. They very rarely made eye contact unless it was to show off their longest finger. But not Cleotha. She would meander from place to place saying hello to as many people as she could. The tightness of the city became a swaddling comfort to her. Knowing this, she couldn’t understand why the cabin of the 747 was making her chest tight and her breathing labored. It made no sense until she realized it wasn’t the plane that caused her distress—it was her destination.  


Cleotha’s relationship with her daughter was a lot like her relationship with New Orleans. She loved them both, against her better judgement, and yet she was also repulsed by both equally. New Orleans was her birthplace, but it was also the source of visceral pain caused by her troubled mother. Similarly, her daughter Hanniel was her blood, but she was also the source of the same kind of pain and for the same reason. 


Hanniel, meaning gift of God, was a surprise to say the least. Cleotha had given up hope of having a child, but just like Sarah in the Old Testament, well beyond the normal age, Cleotha at 50 gave birth to a baby girl. She couldn’t have been happier. She had escaped the slums of New Orleans and made a good life for herself in New York. A cook by trade, she brought her tastes of the south to The Big Apple. In less than five years, she was running her own kitchen. The restaurant was her companion and the diners her children, but there was a loneliness that comes from doubting everyone, a cruel side effect of being the offspring of a drug-addicted liar.


Hanniel’s father never knew he was to become a dad. He wasn’t very important to Cleotha, and she didn’t want to share her new gift. It wasn’t easy being a single parent and running a bustling eatery. Even as a small child, Hanniel would spend her evenings in her mother’s kitchen. Before she was old enough to read, she knew Cleotha’s recipes by heart. By age thirteen, she was helping prepare meals and had become a genuine asset to her mother. Their mother-daughter relationship was unusually perfect until Marty came into their lives. 


Marty was the friend of one of the busboys, and he never worked an honest day in his 25 years. He was rough, uneducated, drug-addicted and had an eye for the sixteen-year-old daughter of the head chef. 


Hanniel wanted to be responsible, she wanted to make her mom proud, but she also had a weakness for Marty. Before she turned seventeen, she was practically living on the streets. Cleotha did everything she could to try to save her daughter until one day when she was getting ready for work, she noticed her pearl necklace was missing. 


It didn’t take long to find it. 


Hanniel had pawned it at the shop two blocks from home. Cleotha bought her own necklace back from the pawn shop, turned off Hanniel’s phone, and changed the locks on the doors. The first part of her life had been ruined by her good-for-nothing mother. She wasn’t going to let the last part be ruined by her equally useless daughter, even though the thought of estrangement made her physically sick.


The last time she saw Hanniel was through the peephole on her door as the obviously strung out wretch pounded ceaselessly and cried to be let in. When a police officer arrived, Hanniel ran down the stairs, onto the street, and out of her mother’s life.

 

As if to give her mother the finger, Hanniel moved to New Orleans. Cleotha knew this because of the postmark on the letters from her daughter. The first batch asked for money, the second for forgiveness, and the third went unopened. A hard life had made Cleotha a hard woman, and if it hadn’t been for the picture postcard, she might have never seen Hanniel again.


The postcard was not a mass produced scenic view of New Orleans. It was a picture of a baby, no more than a few months old. The address was in Hanniel’s distinctive handwriting and had just two pieces of information. The note read: This is your granddaughter, and the return address was written in red. Cleotha instinctively knew it was an invitation, one she would not refuse. The next day she purchased a plane ticket to New Orleans with the intent of going just long enough to bring her new favorite little person back to New York.


New Orleans is the kind of city you can recognize without seeing. Walking through the French Quarter, one’s olfactory glands are inundated with the wonderful smells of crawfish etouffee and jambalaya and the unique and wonderful dialect is a cross between southern drawl, Cajun twang, with just enough French to make it sing.


There was nothing Cleotha wanted more than to hate walking down Bourbon Street as she followed the GPS on her phone, but just like so many bad parts of the past, when one is forced to go back, all that is remembered are the good times.


She wasn’t thinking about her mother; she was thinking about old friends, warm summer nights on the bayou, and the heartbeat of the city she instinctively felt was her home. She was also thinking about her new granddaughter, and for the first time, she felt a degree of anticipation for seeing Hanniel again.  


The sights and sounds and memories were so loud Cleotha almost walked past the place she had been looking for since she received the postcard. 


“Arrived,” announced an automated voice from the phone in her left hand, breaking her trance. Cleotha stood in front of a beautiful restaurant, ironically called “Cleotha’s Place.”  

Flustered and foggy, she walked into the establishment, unsure what she would find, but with a sense of excitement she thought impossible 24 hours earlier. 


The restaurant, apparently known for its delicious take out fare, was packed with customers waiting on their orders. Cleotha recognized the smells instantly. It was as if someone had moved her own restaurant 1300 miles south. 


As she scanned the room trying to take it all in, a server burst through the kitchen door with a plate full of delicious crawfish, but more importantly it revealed a view of the kitchen where for a split second Cleotha could see Hanniel busily preparing the dishes that were being served to her patrons. The sight was too much and Cleotha burst into tears. In all the commotion, Cleotha didn’t see Hanniel sprint out of the kitchen and to her mothers rescue.


Through tear-stained eyes, she looked at her daughter, really looked at her for the first time in almost ten years. Although wanting to speak, when her mouth opened, no words came out. The next few minutes were a blur, and truth be told, Cleotha couldn’t really remember how she got into the small room in the back of the restaurant. Once there, she sat and sobbed while Hanniel made a phone call. 


“Honey, my mom is here. She’s really…” Hanniel’s voice trailed off as tears started to flow freely. Composing herself, she finished: “Can you bring her here? Please come quickly.” She ended the call and turned to her mother. “Mama, I am so sorry I hurt you. I want you to know I tried to go buy back your pearl.” Stopping her sentence in its tracks, she saw the pearl hanging from her mother’s neck. 


Hanniel rose from her chair, intent on giving her mother a hug, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. she reversed course immediately and opened the door where a handsome young man stood with a child Cleotha instantly recognized as her new baby granddaughter. 

 

“Mama, this is my husband Jackson. We decided he shouldn’t take my last name because then he would be Jackson Jackson.” The three of them broke out into spontaneous laughter at the musing. “And this is your grandbaby. Her name is Grace. Grace means undeserved favor.” In an instant Cleotha was on her feet and taking the baby from Jackson.


“Hanniel, she is the most precious thing I’ve ever seen,” Cleotha said, turning her gaze towards her own daughter. “She’s as precious as you are. I am so proud of the woman you’ve become.”


Cleotha’s visit lasted just two days but it was two days that changed three lives and was the first of many. At the airport as Hanniel waived goodbye to her mother she reached up and held the pearl necklace which now adorned her neck. Her mother had passed on her most precious possession and to Hanniel it meant she had truly been forgiven.


March 19, 2021 23:13

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

39 comments

Zilla Babbitt
15:13 Mar 20, 2021

Okay, I love this. I love the names and I love the ending and I love the beginning too. I love that Hanniel falling for a no-good guy is so realistic. And I love that Hanniel named her own daughter Grace. My one critique is the telling section, where you talk about Hanniel's background. I think it would be better and more interesting if Cleotha told all this to another passenger on the plane. It might be difficult justifying the ease with which she opens up, but maybe the other passenger is an estranged daughter going to beg forgiveness fr...

Reply

Thom Brodkin
19:29 Mar 20, 2021

You know I have a special place in my heart for your feedback. You have been encouraging me and helping me and being a friend since the beginning. I'm so glad you liked this one. I think your idea about the conversation on the plane is brilliant. I may try to re-work it before the story is locked. It's a lot of dialogue which isn't my strong suit but I just love the concept. If I don't make the change it's logistics not disagreement.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Valerie June
03:28 Mar 20, 2021

Thom, you did it again. You wrote a beautiful and emotional story that went straight to my heart. I agree with Claire in the aspect that you described New Orleans perfectly, almost if you had lived there yourself. Everything felt very natural in this story and the bits of dialogue you incorporated every now and then really helped readers to resurface back to the present. Using the pearl necklace really helped drive the mother and daughter to connect again. What used to be a symbol of separation is now a symbol of togetherness.

Reply

Thom Brodkin
21:28 Mar 22, 2021

Jose, you are one of my favorite Reedsy people. You always have the most encouraging things to say. I’m always excited to have you read my stories. I’ll check yours out soon.

Reply

Valerie June
21:59 Mar 22, 2021

This comment brought a smile to my face. It’s people like you Thom who encourage me to write.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Claire Lewis
00:54 Mar 20, 2021

Thom this is amazing!! You write as if you’ve been to New Orleans a dozen times, if not lived there. I absolutely love Cleotha’s character, the redemption storyline, and the heartbreaking backstory of loneliness. The pearl necklace touch at the end was beautiful. A couple little edits to consider: Maybe instead of: “As you walk through the French Quarter, one’s olfactory glands were inundated with the wonderful smells of shrimp etouffee and jambalaya.” Consider: Walking through the French Quarter, your olfactory senses are inundated wi...

Reply

Thom Brodkin
01:12 Mar 20, 2021

Your words are so kind and your suggestions perfect. I made them instantly. I have a new motivation to write. I want to be able to always be able to trade stories with you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Reply

Claire Lewis
01:59 Mar 20, 2021

Yes, let’s please always trade stories :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Jonathan Blaauw
11:09 Jul 26, 2021

Hey Thom! I'd have immediately recognized your distinctive style even if I hadn't known this was one of your stories because it's as effective as it is unique. I think a writer's style is like their fingerprint, everyone's is different, and when you get to the point that yours is so clearly defined as to be instantly recognizable, it means you've reached a level of consistency and competency that casual writers can only hope to achieve. Having not read one of your stories in a while, this immediately struck me! As for the story itself, we'v...

Reply

Thom Brodkin
18:40 Jul 27, 2021

Jonathan Blaauw, as I live and breath. Would it surprise you to know that you were a driving force behind my writing in my early days on Reedsy. You were always so encouraging while still giving advice on how to get better that I wrote sometimes just for more feedback. I am so glad to hear from you again and you have once again done me a great service. You have encouraged me like you always do and you have cautioned me against becoming too predictable. There are a few stories to come that will go against my pattern but I need to do more...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Beth Connor
21:00 Jun 04, 2021

This was such a beautiful story. I love the descriptions of the cities interweaved with the narrative. I loved how things turned out okay in the end.

Reply

Thom Brodkin
21:57 Jun 04, 2021

Thank you. This was a challenge to write because I ceded control of the name and age of the main character and the city to a friend. I had to write the story based on the suggestion. It was a fun exercise.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Kyler Mattoon
21:14 Apr 08, 2021

Oh my....the glimpse of her daughter through the kitchen instantly brought me to tears. I love redemption stories - so very well done, thank you.

Reply

Thom Brodkin
23:19 Apr 08, 2021

Thanks so much for your feedback. I love a good redemptions story too. The ones with the happy endings are my favorite. Thank you for taking the time to read and even more so for taking the time to comment.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Madalyn Meyers
02:53 Apr 08, 2021

I thought this was really really good. It was a very enjoyable read. I loved getting to understand the protagonists complicated relationship toward New Orleans and then seeing the connection that the mother and daughter had through their restaurants, even though they didn't talk. I would say that the feelings Cleotha had towards her daughter made it a little hard to connect with her. I'm my experience, mother's fight for the love of their daughters through extraordinary circumstances. I also would have loved to have spent more time on Cleoth...

Reply

Thom Brodkin
10:55 Apr 08, 2021

Thank you!!! I think I should have softened Cleotha a bit and I’m a lazy writer. I had plenty of words available to really dive into the reunion and didn’t. Your analysis is spot on. I hope you’ll read more of my stories. I certainly plan to rad more of yours.

Reply

Madalyn Meyers
00:58 Apr 09, 2021

I definitely plan on it!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Karen Kinley
02:32 Mar 23, 2021

First of all, LOVE the Janet Jackson reference! And also LOVE the fact that you never mentioned the name of the "self-important" coffee place! 🤣 Next, I agree with all the other commenters about your descriptions. Spectacular! Really puts you in the space. I've been to both NYC and NO and you definitely dropped me right there on the street right with Cleotha. As for my fave descriptions, most of them were already mentioned by other commenters! Another commenter said something about the "telling" sections but I don't mind them because you f...

Reply

Thom Brodkin
03:04 Mar 23, 2021

I am so glad you read this and cared enough to give me the hard feedback with the positive. Everything you said is spot on. I wanted to change repulsed and just couldn’t find the word I wanted. I should have tried harder because you are so right. In my minds eye it was a single pearl on the necklace but you really pointed out my blind spot there. Most pearl necklaces are a strand of pearls. I dropped the ball there. I also need to be a little less lazy as a writer. I had plenty of words available to be more descriptive and give more back...

Reply

Karen Kinley
15:02 Mar 23, 2021

Thom, You are a critic's DREAM! To have my very well-intentioned feedback received so positively is refreshing! You truly want to improve your craft and to be so open to critiques is half the battle! I so enjoy reading stories and helping you see it from the reader's point-of-view. All of us, as writers, struggle with how our pieces are received. Feedback is critical to the process. As for the specifics, no need to apologize for how you originally wrote the story. This weekly contest is not set up for polished writing, but it's the hope t...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Karen Kinley
19:12 Mar 23, 2021

How about this: "She loved them both, against her better judgement, and yet she also regarded each one with a similar disdain." Or... "...yet she found them equally intolerable." Having fun with my thesaurus...

Reply

Thom Brodkin
19:39 Mar 23, 2021

Intolerable. I like it. It actually says more exactly what I think she feels. When this goes into my greatest hits anthology, I'll make the change. Also, YAY!!!!! I'm not sure how I stopped short of reading your last story. I was spreading them out to let the fun last and somehow convinced myself I was done. I will be sitting down and blissfully reading your story tonight. I'll send you feedback as soon as I am done. :-)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 2 replies
Show 1 reply
19:33 Mar 22, 2021

Hello, Thom! This was just lovely. I'm always impressed by your ability to create complex, well-rounded characters - and never the same one twice! I feel like I've got a rotating set of character templates and attitudes, but yours are consistently fresh. I love how the city is both a setting, a character, and a metaphor for the mother-daughter relationship.

Reply

Thom Brodkin
21:25 Mar 22, 2021

Natalie, I was going to head to your page tonight but you beat me to it. 😀 Thank you so much for reading and your positive feedback. I love how you write and that makes your feedback so much more meaningful. I will give you a read tonight. I’m really looking forward to your story. I saw it under the recommended section so I know it’s going to a great one.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Anna Mosqueda
15:08 Mar 22, 2021

This. Was. Adorable!! I loved it Thom! All of your stories never fail to make me feel so happy! I loved the names of the characters and the fact that Hanniel and her mother reconnected was the best part. I also love that Hanniel found a better guy to fall for ;) Keep Writing and keep letting me know when you have a new story out because I look forward to reading your amazing stories every week!

Reply

Thom Brodkin
21:31 Mar 22, 2021

Thanks so much. I love being able to trade stories with you and I’m excited to see a sequel if I understand you correctly. There is so many directions you can go.

Reply

Anna Mosqueda
11:52 Mar 24, 2021

I love being able to trade stories as well! I'm going to start working on a new story when I get the chance. Life is a little crazy right now, but I cannot wait to write again!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Jane Andrews
22:16 Mar 21, 2021

Dear Thom, Being a Brit, I don’t know much about American cities, but I could still appreciate your description of New York - “Most native New Yorkers scurried from place to place as if the sidewalks were made of hot coals. They very rarely made eye contact unless it was to show off their longest finger.” - and how the humour of that is contrasted with the more lyrical, sensory description of New Orleans - “Walking through the French Quarter, one’s olfactory glands are inundated with the wonderful smells of crawfish etouffee and jambalaya an...

Reply

Thom Brodkin
21:33 Mar 22, 2021

Jane, I’m so glad you are active on Reedsy again. I really look forward to reading you and getting your feedback. Part of the reason I write is for feedback like yours. It means that much to me. Thank you!!!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Kristin Neubauer
19:51 Mar 21, 2021

What a lovely story! Like everyone else, I was swept into New Orleans with the names and the descriptions. I could even smell it! This one unfolded with such ease. It felt like a slightly different tone from your others. With most of your other stories, the tone feels very intimate - as though you, as the author, have some kind of deep connection to some aspect of the story. This one, though, feels like the narrator has taken a step back and is telling us what is unfolding. I may be reading too much into it. But both tones work beaut...

Reply

Thom Brodkin
21:37 Mar 22, 2021

I have a confession. My wife is from Louisiana so I’ve spent quite a bit of time in New Orleans and my dad was born and raised in New York so I had good intel. Your feedback makes me smile for my wife and dad. 😀😀😀 Thanks so much for your time and feedback.

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
23:57 Mar 22, 2021

I guess I read too much into it..... but all analysis aside, it was another winner from you. So rich and full of energy!

Reply

Thom Brodkin
23:59 Mar 22, 2021

No your feedback was perfect. I must have said it wrong. Thank you and ignore me.

Reply

Kristin Neubauer
21:35 Mar 25, 2021

I finally posted a new story! I'd love to hear what you think if you have a chance to read it. No pressure though. Looking forward to your next one!

Reply

Thom Brodkin
23:22 Mar 25, 2021

Yay!!!! I’ll try to head o ET tonight or tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to it!!!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
H L Mc Quaid
17:51 Mar 20, 2021

Thom, This was a really good one. Great descriptions, and really good fit with the prompt (2 cities for the price of 1). An engaging story and sympathetic characters. You made the story even stronger, based on the feedback I've read, so I can't really add anything else, except to say, well done!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Julie Ward
16:00 Mar 20, 2021

I got lost in this one, Thom. Your descriptions of the cities - both New York and New Orleans are wonderful. I especially like "Most New Yorkers scurried from place to place as if the sidewalks were made of hot coals." The mother-daughter story is so real and so well balanced. You really drew out Cleotha's hurt and Hanniel's journey to redemption. (Love the names, by the way.) Fantastic, vivid storytelling with, as always, a nice, satisfying emotional core.

Reply

Thom Brodkin
16:55 Mar 20, 2021

Julie!!!! I was on your page this morning. I was going to read both stories I've missed and beg you to come read mine and here you are. Thank you as always for your kind words. I know we should write just because we love to but I do crave feedback and you have always been there for me. I will be reading both of your stories today after work. They are my reward for having to work on a Saturday. 😊

Reply

Julie Ward
17:31 Mar 20, 2021

Well, you just made my day! I always check to see if you have a new story up-but you usually beat me to it and get to my page first. I'm right there with you...I love to write for myself, but I've been doing that long enough. I want to know what others think, and you have always been there for me too! I can't thank you enough for that. My past two stories are very very different - dark and light. I hope you like them! I tackled historical fiction this week - which is not my strong suit - but I enjoyed the writing process. Have a fantast...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply