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Friday Feature: Felicia A. Rivers

Felicia A. Rivers lives in the Greene Townes west of Philadelphia, PA, USA where she escaped the corporate majority and joined the artistic minority. She earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, has showcased plays in Philly and New York, and her work has appeared in various publications, including Menagerie Magazine, The Ampersand, and a tiny Philadelphian street sheet that had a short, but happy life. Also, she daydreams. A lot.


Back in the day, they called him Maestro. They meant it as a crack, but he didn’t pay them no mind. His drawings, his paintings, his “artistic promise,” as Mrs. Peabody called it, those things were something he was good at. Most days at Reynolds Elementary rolled out in a chain of boring, grey blocks of time, but Mrs. Peabody’s Tuesday morning art class, with its bright light streaming through the tall windows, its collage of primary colors, its pungent, earthy scents of paint and clay, was the highlight of his week. There were so many possibilities in that room just waiting to be brought to life, and he knew how. Somehow, he just knew. He had a talent. So, they cracked on him. Because he was good at art. Because Mrs. Peabody complimented his work, and even gave him a sketchbook.  There goes Maestro with that damned sketchbook again. Well, let ‘em crack. Life was weird. But it made a little more sense when you were good at something. 


Drowning. He swings his arms wide, pushing the water beneath him, kicking with strong legs, but the warm, dark river waters of the Mekong Delta hold on. His lungs burn and he fights, reaching, searching with his fingertips for that telltale coolness that will signal a return to the surface—to air. Soon? Now? Somebody help me! But the sound of the USS Benewah’s motor recedes. The river swallows him.


RJ jerked awake, not to the sound of a naval ship engine, but early morning traffic on Girard Avenue. Sunlight slanted through his bedroom windows, casting the latticed shadow of the El track girders onto the crisp, white curtains. Tara’s curtains. Despite the coolness of the room, sweat coated his chest and dampened his sheets. He tossed aside the bedding, sat up, and reached for the pack of Marlboros on the bedside table. Three cigarettes left. He needed to quit. He could hear Tara’s voice nagging him to quit. The air vibrated with her Jamaican lilt. But Tara was gone—long gone. He lit a cigarette with the hot pink lighter the girl—girl? She was almost as old as he—woman had left behind the other night. The smoke rose from the end, a curling grey suddenly brightened in a slant of light. He inhaled, and the smoky air filled his lungs like water. He needed to quit. His daughter Roberta’s voice now. He needed to quit a lot of things. If not for yourself, then for your grandchildren, right Dad? He knew he wasn’t going to quit. 

The clock radio startled him, suddenly bursting forth with the local college jazz station. 7:00AM. Force of habit, leaving the alarm on. Muscle memory. Training. He had nowhere special to be, but he showered, dressed, and left the narrow brick rowhouse anyway. Habits die such lengthy deaths.

Outside, the neighborhood greeted him with a dissonance of motor engines, slamming doors, and voices, all floating over the basso profundo of the El as it shuttled back and forth over the neighborhood. He crossed Girard and saw Doris Chambers pulling her trashcan from around the back of the house and lumbered over to help her.

“RJ, you leave my trash alone. You’re older than I am,” she said, laughing and playing tug of war with the can. He won. She let him.

“Doris, you know you’re much too pretty to be manhandlin’ trash.”

The woman smiled at him, and the Doris of fifty years ago flashed across her fading brown eyes. “Tell my husband that.”

“Willie down at Frank’s?”

“Where else?”

“I’m headed there now. And I’m gonna tell him about himself. Lettin’ his woman take out the trash.”

“You do that, RJ. And thank you,” she said over her shoulder as she pulled herself up the front steps.

RJ continued down the street, returning the nods and greetings of the neighbors. He knew them and they knew him. We all know each other. The past 60 years had brought significant changes to the streets of North Philadelphia, but in some ways, nothing had changed at all. Flo’s Millinery with its window display of candy-colored Sunday hats had been replaced by a vegan café, but Montrose’s still sold small electronics under stark fluorescent lights. The brick rowhouses on 22nd Street had been torn down and replaced with new brick rowhouses that sold for five times the price of their ancestors, but kids still played basketball on the cracked courts of the old Jr. High School. And the two corner grocery stores that had always faced off against each other at the end of the block (one either patronized Albert’s or Simpson’s, but never both) had been converted into competing coffee shops that elicited loyalty from no one. But Frank’s, passed down from Francis, Sr. to Francis, Jr. to Frances, remained ever the stalwart bar and game room of the neighborhood. The more things change, the more they change into the same.

He passed by the vegan café (Green River Café, a name he found as unappetizing as its menu) and entered Frank’s. This time of morning, Frances served deliciously unhealthy breakfasts. And beer. RJ ignored the chastising voices of both deceased wife and living daughter as he sidled up to the bar next to Doris’ husband Willie. 

“Helped your wife take out the trash just now,” he said, elbowing his friend.

“Aww man, I told that woman I would take care of it when I got back.” Willie, at 76, was three years older than RJ, five years older than his wife, and brimming with both good health and humor.

“How long you been married to Doris? 60 years?”

“Now, I didn’t rob no cradle,” Willie said. “Fifty-two years I’ve been battling that woman.”

“Seems to me you would have waved the white flag by now.” RJ waved a cocktail napkin in the air. “Surrender, Willie!”

“And what fun would that be? What’s life worth if you can’t mess with the love of your life?” Willie snatched the napkin from RJ’s fingers and loudly blew his nose. “Speaking of messes, you hear about Brynne’s mural?”

RJ pulled a menu he knew by heart from the rack on the bar and studied it for a moment. “The one Barry’s working on the side wall?” He returned the menu to its rack, signaled to Barney, the morning bartender, looked at his friend, frowning, then said, “Heard it’s coming along.”

“You haven’t seen it yet?” 

“They just started. I’ll check it out when it’s finished.”

“That may be a while, now. Somebody vandalized it.”

“Vandalized it?”

“Well, changed, really. Altered. Somebody added something to it.”

RJ cocked an eyebrow at his friend. “Added what?”

“Added a bunch of men to it.”

“A bunch of men?”

“Shadow men.”

“As usual, Willie. You’re not making a bit of sense. What the hell are shadow men?”

“They added a bunch of dark, shadowy men. Along the bottom. Right where Brynne is gonna be standing. They look a little creepy. Sad. Not exactly the vibe Barry’s going for. I can’t believe you haven’t peeped it yet. You used to be into that art and stuff.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Well, Barry’s design is great. Brynne all the way. Bigger than life. Even though she’s transitioned. She’s standing legs wide, arms wide. Takes up the whole wall from roof to sidewalk. Dreads flowing. Tats and all. Barry finished the sketch yesterday, and Minty and a few others stopped by this morning to see if they could help with anything—for Brynne, you know. That’s when they saw. Somebody added a bunch of shadow men all along the bottom.”

“Really.” Barney approached, and RJ said, “Mornin’ Barney. Uh, give me steak and eggs and a couple of biscuits. Coffee and a Coors.”

“So, the usual,” answered Barney, a tall dark-skinned man who had tended bar in the mornings for the last twenty-five years. “Already put the order in.”

Willie shook his head and chuckled. “Make it Coors Light. He needs to watch his figure.” Then turning to RJ, he said, “Come on here, while that’s cooking.” Willie led the way out of the door and around the corner to the mural.

Barry sat on a folding chair, staring at the wall. The sketch of the daughter of the neighborhood stood two-story tall and stretched the entire width of the bar’s side wall. It was a fitting tribute, this mural. Brynne’s untimely death had shocked the community. From the extended family that went back generations, to the bar denizens at Frank’s, to her patrons at Skin Odyssey Tattoo Parlor, to the artistic community at large, everyone loved Brynne. In the days since the tragedy, the neighborhood had been commiserating in whispered tones, or fighting back tears, or just wanting to do something. Or all three. For Brynne. Of course, they couldn’t do anything with the investigation—Philly PD had that on lock. But someone mentioned a tribute of some kind and someone else suggested a mural and the idea spread until more than a few somebodies hit up Barry Blues, the local muralist, because it ought to be handled local, you know?

Now, Barry sat on an orange and white lawn chair, staring at the wall, at the nascent mural emerging like something rising to the surface. Right now, it was just black strokes against stark white, but in his mind’s eye, Barry saw the rich brown of her skin, vermillion lips, the texture of her hair spread like a halo, as if lifted by a breeze, and the vibrant, clashing magnificence of her tattoos. A stack of photos of those tats—presented to him by her boss at the tattoo parlor with all the reverence of an ofrenda—were safely stored in his pack. He planned to consult them faithfully for color and line. It was important to get her tattoos right. But at the moment, Barry had something else to deal with.  

Someone had painted a collection of rogue figures along the bottom of the sketch. Last night, his painstakingly prepped wall had held only the massive outline of Brynne. Now, several figures—people, men—stood, lounged, leaned, and sauntered at her feet. Fully formed. Painted in dark shades ranging from forest-green to black, they resembled a platoon of realistic, emotionally fraught toy soldiers. 

“Hey Barry,” Willie said as he and RJ approached, “I was just telling RJ about your mural. You figure out what’s going on?”

Barry stood to greet the older men. “Mr. Wilson. Mr. Miller. No.” He returned to his study of the wall for a moment, then shook his head. “I just don’t get it.”

“Well, you can just paint over them, can’t ya?” Willie said. “It’s your wall.”

“Well, Frankie’s wall,” offered RJ.

“She gave it up for Brynne, so it’s Barry’s gig. Barry’s wall.”

“The community’s wall, right Barry?” RJ smiled at the young artist.

“Yes, sir. That’s the idea.”

“Point is,” said Willie, “It’s your thing. So just paint it over and keep moving.”

RJ studied his friend for a moment. “You want him to just paint it over?”

“That’s what I’d do. Man has a vision. Look at it.” He raised and arm, gesturing to encompass the breadth and height of Brynne.

“What then, Willie?” RJ pressed. “Whoever then comes and paints those dudes again? A Battle of the Paints?”

“Battle of the Paints! I like that!” said Willie, and lowered his voice, impersonating an announcer. “Who will prevail in the Battle of the Paints?” The old man laughed, punching the air in a mock fight.

“You like to fight too much. Don’t remember you ever being in one though.”

“Awww, come on now, RJ. I’m just playing. Anyway, it’s up to Barry whether to paint ‘em over or not.”

“Problem is,” Barry said, looking at the wall as if attempting to divine the meaning of an inexplicable puzzle, “they’re good.”

“Pretty good,” RJ said, shrugging.

“Yeah. There’s something, well, almost radiant and yet, at the same time, damaged and broken about them.”

Willy turned to Barry. “Yeah. When Minty told me about it this morning, that’s just what he called them. Broken. Broken men.” 

“And mysterious,” continued Barry. “There’s this quality of pain that’s so present, makes you wonder what brought them to this place. I don’t know what their story is, but I’m into it.” The muralist stood in silence for a moment, then shook his head. “Man, I really wish the artist had just come and talked to me. This here is for Brynne. It’s meant to represent her joy. I could’ve found them their own space for this. Because whatever they are, these men are not joy.”

“Maybe,” RJ said, gazing at the figures of the men, “they are meant to echo the same kind of pain we feel about Brynne. The same sense of loss.”

“What do you mean?” Barry’s eyes shifted from the mural to the elderly man.

“Well.” RJ folded his arms over his chest. “The men are dark. Dark in color and sensibility. And shadowed—your shadow men, Willie—as if they’re here, but not completely in the here and now.”

Barry walked toward the mural. “Yeah. That’s what I’m feeling. A separateness that is about more than time and place. And see? They’re in shadow, but you can still see every detail of their features. The expressions. There’s an emotional weight here. Man, that’s some talent right there. They look lost. But—this is interesting—there’s no weakness here. Their bodies are strong.” The painter turned back to the two older men. “Physically fit, but emotionally broken. What does that say?”

“Tough guys? Fighters? Soldiers? They’re soldiers, right?” Willie turned to RJ, but his friend said nothing, watching Barry.

“Yeah,” Barry answered, nodding. “I could see that. So, you think someone wanted to remember some lost soldiers? Added this as a memorial to fallen brothers?” He stood lost in thought for a moment, then shook his head. “That doesn’t fit in Brynne’s world at all. So why here?” Then to RJ he said, “But, like you said, that would fit in with the general theme of pain and loss, right?”

RJ shrugged and said nothing.

Willie looked at his friend. “RJ’s an artist too, Barry. You know that?”

“Was,” RJ said, frowning at his friend. “Was. A long time ago.”

“Didn’t know that, Mr. Miller.” Then: “Afghanistan? The Gulf, you think? The soldiers, I mean.” 

“Does it matter?” RJ asked.

“Hard to say,” added Willie, then turned to his friend. “RJ, you were in Vietnam.”

“Yeah, in the Navy.”

“Are these Army or Navy—or Marines?” asked Barry.

“Hard to tell,” RJ answered and looked down the street as an ambulance rounded a corner, lights flashing, no sirens. It turned the next corner and was gone. The more things stay the same.

“You lost some good friends over there, right?” Willie watched his friend’s familiar, still features. 

“You saw combat?” asked Barry.

RJ sighed and gestured to Barry’s lawn chair. The young man nodded his assent. He sat.

“See, people think the Navy’s safer. When I was drafted, my Momma was happy that I wasn’t going into the Army. Some guys from the neighborhood did, humping packs through the Delta. On the coast. Too many didn’t come back.” He paused for a moment as if to catch his breath. Then he pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

“Those things are gonna kill you, man,” Willie said, shaking his head.

“Something will. That’s for damned sure.”

“But you were safe serving in the Navy?” Barry was interested.

“No,” RJ answered, his voice flat and distant. “Not at all.” He took another drag and politely blew the smoke away from his companions. “See, they could hear us coming. It was the ship engines. We had to run without lights at night to make it harder, but they could still hear us. It was a mean war. I guess they all are.” He looked at the wall, frowning, and the years seemed to weigh on him. “One night, we got back late from patrol. It was raining. All that lush green on the Delta, all that thick, green darkness, needed a hell of a lot of water and God gave it to ‘em. Man, when it rained on the rivers, it didn’t pour. It pounded. We were beat. Beat up by the rains.” He looked down for a moment as if at scattered thoughts on the pavement. “We were transferring from the patrol to the Benewah when the bullets started flying, we couldn’t tell where they were coming from. Darts from the darkness. Fire coming from out of nowhere. And everywhere. When it paused, I was first up the ladder. My Momma didn’t raise no fool. Then another followed. And another. Brothers flying up the ladder. Ten of us made it up. We were something.” A hint of a smile crossed the old man’s face, and then was gone. “Five didn’t. Went into the water. But see, we couldn’t turn on the lights to search for them. Turn on the lights, lose more, see? Couldn’t do it. Even for our brothers. Found the five downriver the next day.”

Barry turned and looked at the five figures on the wall at Brynne’s feet. “What were their names?” 


He drew them. He drew them on the barrack ship and on the PCBs. He drew them lounging on the riverbanks. He drew them to pass the time. And after, when the drowning dreams began to wake him in the middle of those humid Vietnam nights, he drew them as he imagined them. If they had made it home. And when imagination failed him, he drew them as they were: figments of boys, lost forever in a foreign land. He drew them to honor them. He drew them to remember them. He drew them to come to terms with reality: that the life force of these brothers of his could be drained away so quickly, so violently, so senselessly, so far from home.


Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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