“Kingsbury immersed herself in a world few know, and the pages she brought back read like endtimes transcripts from a world already smoldering around the edges. She is a terrific writer, the real deal.” William Gay, author of I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down.
A cult-classic set in the gritty streets of inner-city Atlanta, The Gospel According to Gracey is an Aristotelian legend that takes a harrowing trip into the pathos of addiction. Gracey Fill has been arrested at dawn during a narcotics raid aimed at catching the biggest drug runner in Atlanta: her ex-husband, Sonny “The Rocket” Fill. In the questioning room, Gracey is intent on telling her story to two officers, one naive, the other jaded, who become her de facto audience. The narrative moves back and forth between Deneeka Jones, a cross-dresser who turns tricks and sells heroin for The Rocket; Frazier Sky and Audrey Sullivan, teenaged children of Atlanta’s ultra-rich, who dabble in drugs to soothe the estrangement at home, and Frazier and Audrey’s parents, once extra-marital lovers who can’t be saved by power or privilege. As Gracey’s harrowing story unfolds, the cops close in on The Rocket and a batch of bad heroin circulates through Atlanta, putting the city in danger.
…for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain upon the just and the unjust. -Matthew 5:45
Dawn on a Saturday in May. Officers Cole and Kelly are working out of a makeshift command post in an abandoned office building in Zone 1, Atlanta, a high-density drug area where twenty-five officers from the Red Dog squad dressed in black fatigues did a sweep of the Bluff at dawn. They are specially trained officers from the Narcotics State Academy, adept at undercover techniques, wiretapping, managing confidential informants, making buys, and targeting dealers. Investigators en masse form takedown groups and forty-eight uniformed officers from the field-operations division, usually working all over the city, come early this Saturday to the Bluff to help City Hall East slow the beating heart of Atlanta’s drug-addicted neighborhoods.
The arrested are brought in just before daylight, hollering, spitting, biting, shaking their fists, falling asleep on benches, caught for possession, dealing, transporting, and smuggling. Their bodies are wired or they’re just now coming down, losing their high and raging at the po-po for blindsiding them in the middle of their lives.
The woman they need to talk to is calm. Cole watches her, standing apart from the crowd in a casual way, doing what they tell her to. I’ll get around to it, she says with her eyes, which are clear. Her body is clean. The blue dress looks just laundered.
Gracey Fill is her name. They picked her up in the Bluff, in Vine City, on Jett Street. She has old scabs on her cocoa-colored skin. Her slender form looks breakable. Cole finds her beautiful. He tries to talk to her gently, as one soothes a spooked horse. Hey, can you come with us? We need to get you set up here.
Officer Kelly stands next to him, with his red face, his high forehead, and his sandy-colored crew cut. Get moving! he says to the junkies around them. Get outta here. You think this is your living room? Move! While Kelly shouts, a woman wearing a diaper over her jeans and a bottomless handbag slung over her shoulder spits at him from behind. The mucus drips down his neck. He raises his fist in involuntary reflex and smashes his lips together in a white line. Hanging at his sides are two swollen-red omnipresent threats: his hands.
Cole watches Gracey pass through the door into the long hallway leading to a stairwell. At first, he does not know what he sees in her eyes. Then he recognizes fear, the locked, unblinking terror of a deer in the woods faced with a death-linked steel hole protruding from a hunter’s eye.
Mug shot, searched, she’s told to bend over and cough, flashlight up her anus, in her mouth, in her vagina. She’s given an escort and sent to the questioning room, where Cole and Kelly are waiting.
Cole leans against the far wall. She sits at a table across from him, her wrists looped in handcuffs. The room smells of old coffee and dank, flat air. Boot treads and lopsided black spots mark the floor. To the left is a mirrored square. Someone outside can watch them. No one is.
I just wanna know you checkin on my mamma, Gracey Fill says. She lifts her shackled arms and rubs her nose with two fingers. I don’t want her to lie like that for too long. That house don’t have good memory in it. She needs to be prayed over and blessed on and visited, put in God’s holy church where ain’t no evil gonna enter. Eyeing them sideways, Gracey tosses back her hair. But I guess you the po-po, she says. If I tell you someone gone and passed on, you gotta investigate. She pauses. Don’t you?
Kelly doesn’t answer. Putting a boot on the ledge beneath the window, he shuffles through the papers in his hands, searching for something, not bothering to acknowledge the arrestee’s dead mother. Cole looks around the dingy room. The walls seem to crack while they wait, long fissures of bleeding holes crying down the cement. Ms. Fill, Kelly finally says. Cole knows his partner is well aware of who the woman is, but he acts as though he has just found her name among the documents. You gonna talk? Kelly asks. Or are you gonna make us put you behind bars?
Gracey ignores him. She looks at Cole. Her eyes are chocolate brown. Her neck is thrice-corded and lovely, though muted old sores spot it. The collarbone, even, is scabbed. Cole tries to hold her stare. He finds he isn’t able to. Somewhere a fly buzzes. A roped and jerry-rigged forty-watt bulb hangs above them. Cole looks up, expecting to see the insect there. It occurs to him it may be feasting on the woman’s body.
We’re listenin, says Kelly.
The woman continues to stare at Cole. You look familiar, she says. Do I know you? Cole thinks she is speaking only to him, then she moves her eyes to Kelly. I seen you in the West End or around Fourth Ward. Somewheres.
Kelly reddens and clears his throat. Cole reaches into his own memory. He has no idea if he has seen her before. Faces have blended together for him until now, when Kelly told him this was their out, Gracey Fill. She was married to The Rocket, the biggest drug runner in the city when it all began in the 1970s. Cole doubts the woman has anything for them. She appears done and tired.
Gracey crosses one leg over the other. The dress rides up her thighs. She tries to straighten it, but cannot with her hands bound. I wouldn’t never have got to talk to you, though, she says. We be runnin and hidin when we see your blue ass. She pauses, pulls her arms around her, and says, It’s cold in here.
No one speaks after this admission. The room is eighty degrees, set that way to make the suspects sleepy, worn out, and willing to talk. The other way they do it is to make the room freezing, and the suspects get edgy, their teeth chatter, they can’t wait for the interrogation to be over. Addicts are always cold, their body temperature is lower from years on the drug.
Gracey shivers. You got a cigarette?
Kelly stares out the window. His face is pressed to the boarded slats. Cole, he says, go out and get the woman a cigarette.
Cole walks to the other end of the room. He wonders what Kelly sees out that window. He is probably only looking at the flat edge of another brick building. His partner’s interest in the outside is a ploy to get the lady to want out. When Cole reaches the door, he puts his hand on the doorknob and looks back at her. She brings up the bound wrists and rests her chin on them. Her fingers are slender and long. The nails are unpainted and pearl-colored.
In the hallway, fluorescent lights bounce their glare off the linoleum floor. Radios blare dispatched messages and the sounds of sirens start outside. Ladies in heels rush by. Their bodies lack form. They shift paperwork in their hands. Cole weaves among them to a wooden box full of cigarettes, hands the intern from the local junior college’s justice program four dollars, and fingers a pack of Pall Malls. Then starts back.
Officer Scott Cole, blond, blue-eyed, and six feet tall, on the job just three weeks, a virgin to the diseased streets of Atlanta, wanting in all his twenty-three years to be a cop, a man of justice and order, setting things straight, playing right. He grew up worrying his own father was a put-on, an actor, someone playing the part of a man. By day, his father managed the local grocery and sank the misery of his broken heart into philanthropy for the community, Little League coach and Boy Scout leader. He took it all too seriously, praised Cole when he received Cub Scout badges all the boys wore or when he made an easy home run.
Cole loves him. Is both ashamed of and grateful for him, and the confusion he feels about his father causes him to want to become what his father is not. He is going to be strong, tough, make a difference where it matters.
Where’s Mom? he’d ask his dad’s retreating shadow at night in the suburbs during a cricket-moaning summer, the daylight skulking beyond reach, leaving him with the knowledge that all was not safe, life could spiral out of control, blurring sensible form.
We don’t know that, son.
At times he feels as if he is still that young boy in eastern Georgia, marred by the mother who left him. Now, women remain enigmas, out-of-reach soap bubbles, ruined to the touch. Without realizing it, he wants one he can save, make right, love her sorrow out of her until she is a weak-limbed, struck sparrow in his arms.
But he is in love with no one and so finds solace in his work. He reminds himself his purpose is bigger than quota and radio dispatch, the cosmology of crime in city streets, stop signs and coffee at late-night diners, after-hour ham sandwiches from the corner deli, HBO movies, and dates with hairdressers named Jennifer. He is proud of himself for enduring weeks of training when he learned to admonish fear and depend on quick reflexes while searching squatters’ quarters, sweeping crack houses, cuffing dealers who sell to kids in abandoned basketball courts. He assures himself he is one of the good ones, adamantly saying no to temptations: smooth plastic bags of evidence wrapped in tape, free for cops to rob, use, and sell.
He enters the questioning room with the pack of cigarettes, a Styrofoam cup of coffee, and, slung over one arm, a tweed coat someone left behind. Walking over to the table, he sets the coffee and cigarettes in front of her and drapes the coat over her shoulders.
He can feel Kelly watching him when he goes back to lean against the wall. Out of the side of his vision, his partner’s wide eyes mock him. He does not return the stare.
She manages to rip the plastic off the pack with her teeth and picks a cigarette out in the same manner. She sits holding it between her lips and then spits it out. Looking at Kelly, she says, You want me to light this with my asshole?
Officer Kelly does not move from his place in front of the window. You’re lucky you got a cigarette at all, lady, he says. If you want it lit, you’ll ask nicely.
Gracey stares at the floor in front of her, concentrating on one broken tile. Her jaw shakes. I want it lit, she says quietly.
Well, Prince Charming, says Kelly. Did you think of a lighter?
Cole goes back through the hallway. The intern is out of matches, and he asks everyone he can find for a light until Sandy, secretary for dispatch, gives him a book from the Stand Restaurant and tells him to bring it back to her as soon as he’s through. When he opens it, there are ten left.
The interrogation room is sweltering. Kelly is a boxed dog, sniffing at the only air holes available. Cole lights Gracey’s cigarette and leans against the wall across from her again. She smokes. Putting both cuffed hands to one side of her face, she squints at Cole and tries to find a nametag on his chest, in the wall’s shadow. Can I name you? she asks. I’ll name you Justice, she says. Justice, you young. You not more than twenty-three. My son’s just about that. Yeah? She smiles. You surprised? I got me a son. I got a daughter, too. I’m a mother and a sister and a daughter, and I was a wife. Exhaling smoke, she says, But when you look at me, all’s you see is prison bait and junkie, someone you gonna get for slingin powder, snortin, shootin, and skin poppin. You handcuffin these tattered wrists like I got a breath of energy left in me to fight it. She looks over at Kelly, smokes some more, and says, You doin it all in the name of your people. Ha! Ain’t you just John Q. Citizen?
Kelly sighs. You gonna tell us about Sonny Fill? he asks. Or you gonna make us put you in the holdin bus to jail? ‘Cause the mayor’s on our ass. We got a drug quota from the city of Atlanta to fill and you might as well hurry up and let the cat out of that foul-smellin bag you been keepin it in.
She ashes her cigarette on the tabletop. Now you wanna know, she says. After you got your balls off watchin us. The pressure’s on and the fun’s over. You gettin tired of your lookout places, elbowin your brand-new partner, sayin, Check this out, Justice, she’ll get her quick fix for ten minutes and then she’ll be back on the street in fifteen puttin out for a two-dollar blow job to buy more. Yeah, you settin by smilin, watchin us lose our asses with our minds, satisfied we all goin to hell in a rowboat. Now the sugar’s goin to shit, is that what you’re tellin me? You need some names and numbers. Gracey Fill looks from one to the other. You gonna tell me it’s about obeyin the law, doin the right thing. But no one’s better than anyone else. You boys are workin for some pink-faced cracker politician sittin around chewin his steak bone, talkin about prayer in schools. She leans back in her chair and raises her chin. We lost prayer a long time ago, she says. Lost it with God himself. He run to high heaven from this mess we made. I just heard yesterday them big boys who pay your checks are levelin Herndon Homes. Where they gonna put all them people? Movin ‘em off the street and into jail. They used to complain black men ain’t ever home ’cause they got drug problems. Now the women ain’t home either. Where you think the kids are at? And you gonna point your finger at me and say it’s my fault.
Kelly gets up and goes to where she is sitting. He lifts a cigarette from the pack, taps it on the table, and strikes a match. It doesn’t light. He pulls another one out, and while he is trying to get that lit, Gracey takes the pack from him. Bound-handed, she lights a match with her teeth. She hands it to him. He puts the cigarette to the flame reluctantly.
You gonna talk? he asks her after he exhales, ’cause we don’t got time to stand here listenin to this bullshit. He lets that rest while the smoke withers and dissipates around them, giving them a cloud to abide in together. Or you could just go to jail right now, he says.
She crosses her arms over her chest and looks past Kelly. She smiles at Cole. I ain’t never been to jail before, she tells him. Her voice goes soft. My grandma on my mamma’s side, she used to tell me, Don’t you never be common, doll face. Whatever you be, don’t be common. I guess it’s about come to that. Common. I always talk to her in my prayers at night. I got the whole list of sorries I gotta go through for my grandma. I tried to do right, I always tell her. But it’s hard to come free.
She gets up and goes around Kelly, watching him while she does it. His body goes rigid. He doesn’t look at her. She stands in front of the window; three strips of light mark the left side of her face, one eye goes golden, the other lies flat as a hole.
My IQ was a hundred forty-six, she tells them. They called Daddy that night after the testing to tell him. He said, Her brain might be smart, but she dumb everywhere else. She ain’t never gonna be nothin. Gracey Fill sighs and hangs her head as though the neck just snapped. That’s like the beast under my bed, she says. I went around proving it was true. She looks over at Cole. Really all I want is a chance, she says quietly.
He stops breathing.
Kelly stops smoking.
The room is still, waiting.
They have to strain to hear her. I want a chance to live right, start from scratch. I’m trying for that. If I can’t have it, I just need it to be through. I know you want me to talk. You don’t got nothin on me, but you could shove a pile of cocaine down my dress and tell them I came in with it. Ain’t nobody gonna tell you not to. Let me say this, I got a story if you got time. There are some things I’d like to tell you. It might not do any goddamn good, but I’m gonna show you how long a road I been journeyin on. You need to know what it’s like, ’cause you got it all wrong. You think somebody wakes up and says, Yeehaw, today’s a gorgeous day. Thank you, Lord. Today I’m gonna get hooked on drugs.
Gracey faces each of them in turn. Raising her handcuffed hands, she rubs her eyes like a small child. That’s your mistake, she says. It don’t happen like that at all.