A masterful story collection—thirteen years in the making—from National Book Award winner Charles Johnson, showcasing the incredible range and resonant voice of this American treasure.
This new collection of stories from National Book Award winner Charles Johnson offers an eclectic, engaging range of narratives, tied together by Buddhist themes and displaying all the grace, heart, and insight for which he has long been known.
In “The Weave,” Ieesha and her boyfriend carry out a heist at the salon from which she has just been fired—coming away with thousands of dollars of merchandise in the form of hair extensions. “Night Hawks,” the titular story, draws on Johnson’s friendship with the late playwright August Wilson to construct a narrative about two writers who meet at night to talk. In “Kamadhatu,” a lonely Japanese abbot has his quiet world upended by a visit from a black American Buddhist whose presence pushes him toward the awakening he has long found elusive. “Occupying Arthur Whitfield,” about a cab driver who decides to rob the home of a wealthy passenger, reminds readers to be grateful for what they have. And “The Night Belongs to Phoenix Jones” combines the real-life story of a “superhero” in the city of Seattle with an invented narrative about an aging English professor who decides to join him.
Spanning genres from science fiction to realism, these stories convey messages of tolerance, hope, and gratitude. With precise, elegant, and moving language, Johnson creates memorable characters and real, human struggles that have the power to enlighten and change us as we read.
Night Hawks The Weave Three thieves battered through a wall, crawled close to the floor to dodge motion detectors and stole six duffel bags filled with human hair extensions from a Chicago beauty supply store. The Chicago Tribune reported Saturday that the hair extensions were worth $230,000.
—Associated Press news item, July 12, 2012
So what feeds this hair machine?
—Chris Rock, Good Hair
Ieesha is nervous and trying not to sneeze when she steps at four in the morning to the front door of Sassy Hair Salon and Beauty Supplies in the Central District. After all, it was a sneeze that got her fired from this salon two days ago. She has a sore throat and red eyes, but that’s all you can see because a ski mask covers the rest of her face. As she twists the key in the lock, her eyes are darting in every direction, up and down the empty street, because we’ve never done anything like this before. When she worked here, the owner, Frances, gave her a key so she could open and straighten up the shop before the other hairdressers arrived. I told her to make a copy of the key in case one day she might need it. That was two days ago, on September first, the start of hay fever season and the second anniversary of the day we started dating.
Once inside the door, she has exactly forty seconds to remember and punch in the four-digit code before the alarm’s security system goes off. Then, to stay clear of the motion detectors, she gets down on the floor of the waiting room in her cut-knee jeans, and crawls on all fours past the leather reception chairs and modules stacked with copies of Spin, Upscale, and Jet magazines for the salon’s customers to read and just perhaps find on their glossy, Photoshopped pages the coiffure that is perfect for their mood at the moment. Within a few seconds, Ieesha is beyond the reception area and into a space, long and wide, that is a site for unexpected mystery and wonder that will test the limits of what we think we know.
Moving deeper into this room, where the elusive experience called beauty is manufactured every day from hot combs and crème relaxers, she passes workstations, four on each side of her, all of them equipped with swiveling styling chairs and carts covered with appliance holders, spray bottles, and Sulfur8 shampoo. Holding a tiny flashlight attached to her key ring, she works her way around manicure tables, dryer chairs, and a display case where sexy, silky, eiderdown-soft wigs, some as thick as a show pony’s tail, hang in rows like scalps taken as trophies after a war. Every day the customers at Sassy Hair Salon and the wigs lovingly check each other out, and then after long and careful deliberation, the wigs always buy the women. Unstated, but permeating every particle in that exchange of desire, is a profound, historical pain, a hurt based on the lie that the hair one was unlucky enough to be born with can never in this culture be good enough, never beautiful as it is, and must be scorched by scalp-scalding chemicals into temporary straightness, because if that torment is not endured often from the tender age of even four months old, how can one ever satisfy the unquenchable thirst to be desired or worthy of love?
The storage room containing the unusual treasure she seeks is now just a few feet away, but Ieesha stops at the station where she worked just two days ago, her red eyes glazing over with tears caused not by ragweed pollen but by a memory suspended in the darkness.
She sees it all again. There she is, wearing her vinyl salon vest, its pockets filled with the tools of her trade. In her chair is an older customer, a heavy, high-strung Seattle city councilwoman. The salon was packed that afternoon, steamed by peopled humidity. A ceiling fan shirred air perfumed with the odor of burnt hair. The councilwoman wanted her hair straightened, not a perm, for a political fund-raiser she was hosting that week. But she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—sit quietly. She kept gossiping nonstop about everybody in city government as well as the do Gabby Douglas wore during the Olympics, blethering away in the kind of voice that carried right through you, that went inside like your ears didn’t have any choice at all and had to soak up the words the way a sponge did water. All of a sudden, Ieesha sneezed. Her fingers slipped. She burned the old lady’s left earlobe. The councilwoman flew from her seat, so enraged they had to peel her off the ceiling, shouting about how Ieesha didn’t know the first thing about doing hair. She demanded that Frances fire her. And even took things a step farther, saying in a stroke of scorn that anyone working in a beauty salon should be looking damned good herself, and that Ieesha didn’t.
Frances was not a bad person to work for, far from it, and she knew my girlfriend was a first-rate cosmetologist. Even so, the owner of Sassy Hair Salon didn’t want to lose a city councilwoman who was a twice-a-month, high-spending customer able to buy and sell her business twice over. That night, as I was fixing our dinner of Top Ramen, Ieesha quietly came through the door of our apartment, still wearing her salon vest, her eyes burning with tears. She wears her hair in the neat, tight black halo she was born with, unadorned, simple, honest, uncontrived, as genuinely individual as her lips and nose. To some people she might seem as plain as characters in those old-timey plays, Clara in Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, or Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. But Ieesha has the warm, dark, and rich complexion of Michelle Obama or Angela Bassett, which is, so help me, as gorgeous as gorgeous gets. Nevertheless, sometimes in the morning, as she was getting ready for work, I’d catch her struggling to pull a pick through the burls and kinks of her hair with tears in her eyes as she looked in the mirror, tugging hardest at the nape of her neck, that spot called the kitchen. I tell her she’s beautiful as she is, but when she peers at television, movies, or popular magazines, where generic blue-eyed Barbie dolls with orthodontically perfect teeth, Botox, and breast implants prance, pose, and promenade through the media, she says with a sense of fatality and resignation, “I can’t look like that.” She knows that whenever she steps out our door, it’s guaranteed that a wound awaits her, that someone or something will let her know that her hair and dark skin are not good enough, or tell Ieesha her presence is not wanted. All she has to do is walk into a store and be watched with suspicion, or have a cashier slap her change on the counter rather than place it on the palm of her outstretched hand. Or maybe read about the rodeo clown named Mike Hayhurst at the Creston Classic Rodeo in California, who joked that “Playboy is offering Ann Romney $250,000 to pose in that magazine and the White House is upset about it because National Geographic only offered Michelle Obama $50 to pose for them.”
Between bouts of blowing her nose loudly into a Kleenex in our tiny studio apartment, she cried that whole day she got fired, saying with a hopeless, plaintive hitch in her voice, “What’s wrong with me?” Rightly or wrongly, she was convinced that she would never find another job during the Great Recession. That put everything we wanted to do on hold. Both of us were broke, with bills piling up on the kitchen counter after I got laid off from my part-time job as a substitute English teacher at Garfield High School. We were on food stamps and got our clothes from Goodwill. I tried to console her, first with kisses, then caresses, and before the night was over we made roof-raising whoopee. Afterwards, and for the thousandth time, I came close to proposing that we get married. But I had a failure of nerve, afraid she’d temporize or say no, or that because we were so poor we needed to wait. To be honest, I was never sure if she saw me as Mr. Right or just as Mr. Right Now.
So what I said to her that night, as we lay awake in each other’s arms, our fingers intertwined, was getting fired might just be the change in luck we were looking for. Frances was so busy with customers, she didn’t have time to change the locks. Or the code for the ADT alarm system. Naturally, Ieesha, who’d never stolen anything in her life, was reluctant, but I kept after her until she agreed.
Finally, after a few minutes, she enters the density of the storeroom’s sooty darkness, her arms outstretched and feeling her way cat-footed. Among cardboard boxes of skin crèmes, conditioners, balms, and oils, she locates the holy grail of hair in three pea-green duffel bags stacked against the wall, like rugs rolled up for storage. She drags a chair beneath the storeroom window, then starts tossing the bags into the alley. As planned, I’m waiting outside, her old Toyota Corolla dappled with rust idling behind me. I catch each bag as it comes through the window, and throw them onto the backseat. The bags, I discover, weigh next to nothing. Yet for some reason, these sacks of something as common and plentiful as old hair are worth a lot of bank, why I don’t know. Or why women struggling to pay their rent, poor women forced to choose between food and their winter fuel bill, go into debt shelling out between $1,000 and $3,000, and sometimes as much as $5,000, for a weave with real human hair. It baffled me until I read how some people must feel used things possess special properties. For example, someone on eBay bought Britney Spears’s used gum for $14,000; someone else paid $115,000 for a handful of hair from Elvis Presley’s pompadour, and his soiled, jockey-style shorts went on sale in September 2012 for $16,000 at an auction in England. (No one, by the way, bought his unwashed skivvies.) Another person spent $3,000 for Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten French toast. So I guess some of those eBay buyers feel closer to the person they admire, maybe even with something of their essence magically clinging to the part they purchased.
As soon as Ieesha slides onto the passenger seat, pulling off her ski mask and drawing short, hard breaths as if she’s been running up stairs, my foot lightly applies pressure to the gas pedal and I head for the freeway, my elbow out the window, my fingers curled on the roof of the car. Within fifteen minutes, we’re back at our place. I park the car, we sling the bags over our shoulders, carry them inside to our first-floor unit, and stack them on the floor between the kitchenette and the sofa bed we sleep on. Ieesha sits down on a bedsheet still twisted from the night before, when we were joined at the groin, knocking off her shoes run down at the heels and rubbing her ankles. She pulls a couple of wigs and a handful of hair extensions from one of the bags. She spreads them on our coffee table, frowning, then sits with her shoulders pulled in as if waiting for the ceiling to cave in.
“We’re gonna be okay,” I say.
“I don’t know.” Her voice is soft, sinus-clogged. “Tyrone, I don’t feel good about this. I can’t stop shaking. We’re not burglars.”
“We are now.” I open a bottle of Bordeaux we’ve been saving to celebrate, filling up our only wineglass for her, and a large jam jar for myself. I sit down beside her and pick up one of the wigs. Its texture between my fingertips is fluffy. I say, “You can blame Frances. She should have stood up for you. She owes you. What we need to do now is think about our next step. Where we can sell this stuff.” Her head twitches back in reflex when I reach for one of the wigs and put it on her, just out of curiosity, you know. Reluctantly, she lets me place it there, and I ask, “What’s that feel like? A stocking cap? Is it hot?”
“I don’t know. It feels . . .”
She never tells me how it feels.
So I ask another question. “What makes this hair so special? Where does it come from?”
Hands folded in her lap, she sits quietly, and, for an instant, the wig that pools her face with obsidian tresses makes her look like someone I don’t know. All of a sudden, I’m not sure what she might do next, but what she does do, after clearing her throat, is give me the hair-raising history and odyssey behind the property we’ve stolen. The bags, she says, come from a Buddhist temple near New Delhi, where young women shave their heads in an ancient ceremony of sacrifice called taking pabbajja. They give it up in order to renounce all vanity, and this letting go of things cosmetic and the chimera called the ego is their first step as nuns on a path to realizing that the essence of everything is emptiness. The hair ceremony is one of 84,000 Dharma gates. On the day their heads were shaved, they kneeled in their plain saris, there in the temple naos, and took 240 vows, the first five of which were no killing, no lying, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, and no drinking of alcohol. They didn’t care what happened to their hair after the ceremony. Didn’t know it would be sewn, stitched, and stapled onto the scalps of other people. But Korean merchants were there. They paid the temple’s abbot ten dollars for each head of fibrous protein. After that, the merchants, who controlled this commerce as tightly as the mafia did gambling, washed the hair clean of lice. From India, where these women cultivated an outward life of simplicity and an inward life free from illusion, the merchants transported their discarded dead hair halfway around the planet, where it was cannibalized as commerce in a $9 billion industry for hair extensions devoted precisely to keeping women forever enslaved to the eyes of others.
As she explains all this, Ieesha leaves her wine untasted, and I don’t say anything because my brain is stuttering, stalling on the unsyllabled thought that if you tug on a single thin strand of hair, which has a life span of five and half years, you find it raddled to the rest of the world. I didn’t see any of that coming until it arrived. I lift the jar of wine straight to my lips, empty it, and set it down with a click on the coffee table. When I look back at Ieesha, I realize she’s smiling into one cheek as if remembering a delicious secret she can’t share with me. That makes me down a second jar of Bordeaux. Then a third. I wonder, does the wig she’s wearing itch or tingle? Does it feel like touching Justin Timberlake’s unfinished French toast? Now the wine bottle is empty. We’ve got nothing on the empty racks of the refrigerator but a six-pack of beer, so I rise from the sofa to get that, a little woozy on my feet, careening sideways toward the kitchenette, but my full bladder redirects me toward the cubicle that houses our shower and toilet. I click on the light, close the door, and brace myself with one hand pressed against the wall. Standing there for a few minutes, my eyes closed, I feel rather than hear a police siren. My stomach clenches.
Coming out of the bathroom, I find the wig she was wearing and the weaves that were on the coffee table burning in a wastebasket. Ieesha stands in the middle of the room, her cell phone pressed against her ear.
“What are you doing?” Smoke is stinging my eyes. “Who are you talking to?”
Her eyes are quiet. Everything about her seems quiet when she says, “Nine-one-one.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
I stare at her in wonder. She’s offered us up, the way the women did their hair at the temple in New Delhi. I rush to draw water from the kitchen sink to put out the fire. I start throwing open the windows as there comes a loud knock, then pounding at the door behind me, but I can’t take my eyes off her. She looks vulnerable but not weak, free, and more than enough for herself. I hear the wood of the door breaking, but as if from a great distance because suddenly I know, and she knows, that I understand. She’s letting go all of it—the inheritance of hurt, the artificial and the inauthentic, the absurdities of color and caste stained at their roots by vanity and bondage to the body—and in this evanescent moment, when even I suddenly feel as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, she has never looked more beautiful and spiritually centered to me. There’s shouting in the room now. Rough hands throw me facedown on the floor. My wrists are cuffed behind my back. Someone is reciting my Miranda rights. Then I feel myself being lifted to my feet. But I stop midway, resting on my right knee, my voice shaky as I look up at Ieesha.
“Will you marry me?”
Two policemen lead her toward the shattered door, our first steps toward that American monastery called prison. She half turns, smiling, looking back at me, and her head nods: yes, yes, yes.
This reading group guide for Night Hawks includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this new collection, his first in many years, master storyteller Charles Johnson interweaves Buddhist themes and ancient Greek philosophy with immediate, striking narratives about moments of transformation and realization. From “Prince of the Ascetics,” in which an ascetic with a difficult master suddenly understands the middle way; to “Occupying Arthur Whitfield,” about a robbery that triggers unexpected compassion; to “Welcome to Wedgwood,” following a disgruntled professor who develops a new appreciation for his neighbor, these stories hinge on the capacity of characters to grow and change—in an instant or a lifetime. Night Hawks is a polished, profound gem of a collection, as subtly thrilling with its range and control as it is ultimately inspiring with its message.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In “The Weave,” Ieesha, seemingly regretting the robbery, both calls 911 and sets the stolen hair on fire. Why does she take this second step?
2. At the end of “Prince of the Ascetics,” Mahanama asks his master, who claims to be neither a god nor an angel, “Then what are you?” The master answers, “Awake.” In the context of the story, what do you think this means?
3. “The Cynic” is narrated by Plato, one of Socrates’ students. Contrast his understanding of reality with Diogenes’. What does Diogenes help Plato recognize?
4. Describe Toshiro and Tucker’s relationship in “Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra.” What effect does her visit have on Toshiro’s life?
5. In “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” why does Fowler sacrifice himself for Ida and her child? What do you make of this thoughts about infanticide, and why does he choose a different route?
6. “Idols of the Cave” follows a tense relationship between a Muslim American soldier and his bigoted commanding officer. Can you understand Major Tyler’s actions, at the end of the story? Khan’s?
7. In “Occupying Arthur Whitfield,” a young, poor, black cab driver takes it upon himself to “redistribute” some of a wealthy fare’s belongings—until he discovers that his passenger recently faced a terrible tragedy. Yet he decides to take a single diamond bracelet anyway. How does he justify the theft?
8. The professor at the center of “Welcome to Wedgwood” spends much of the story vastly irritated by his new neighbor’s loud music. What changes his attitude?
9. In “Guinea Pig,” one of the most playful stories in the collection, the young narrator is given sudden insight into the workings of a dog’s mind. How does he change? How does he stay the same?
10. The story “4189” takes place in a futuristic world in which death has been eradicated. Why, then, does Shane, the narrator, want to die?
11. In “The Night Belongs to Phoenix Jones,” the narrator reflects that “maybe [he] was already wearing a mask” (page 154). Compared to the superhero, the professor presents himself fairly straightforwardly—so what do you think he means by this comment? Are we all wearing “masks” of some kind?
12. The recurring question in “Night Hawks,” based on the friendship between the author and playwright August Wilson, is “How did you happen?” What are the implications of the question? Does the story begin to answer it, either for the narrator or for Wilson?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Look back to one of Charles Johnson’s earlier works, like the National Book Award–winning Middle Passage. Do that book and these stories touch on the same themes?
2. Research the theoretical viewpoints of the philosophers mentioned in “The Cynic”: Plato, Socrates, and Diogenes.
3. Read—or, if possible, watch!—one of the plays in August Wilson’s famed Pittsburgh Cycle. Consider Fences or The Piano Lesson.
Charles Johnson is a novelist, essayist, literary scholar, philosopher, cartoonist, screenwriter, and professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle. A MacArthur fellow, his fiction includes Night Hawks, Dr. King’s Refrigerator, Dreamer, Faith and the Good Thing, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.
"Johnson, the celebrate novelist, short story writer, screenwriter and essayist, here combines a finely tuned sense of humor with a desire to probe questions that lie at the heart of a reflective existence ... His book is a small treasure, one to be read and considered and reread." —New York Times Book Review
"Johnson’s writing, filled with the sort of long, layered sentences you can get happily lost in, conveys a kindness; a sense that all of us (particularly in “Occupying Arthur Whitfield” and “Welcome to Wedgwood”) have our own stories." —Seattle Times
"Best known for his masterful novels and essays, Johnson wrote this rare story collection over a period of 13 years—resulting in a masterpiece ... Unflinching in his observations, Johnson ultimately offers a message of empowerment and hope." —Oprah.com
"A treasure box." —Newsday
"Charles Johnson deftly weaves the funny with the philosophical." —Lion's Roar
"A modern master’s latest array of glittering tales offers the pleasures and solace of storytelling." —Kirkus, starred
"Arresting .. these are indelible moments that show Johnson to be a master of the short form. Highly recommended." —Library Journal, starred
"These striking stories from National Book Award–winner Johnson (Middle Passage) span a wide range of time periods and cultures but are woven together with a subtle thread of compassion." —Publishers Weekly
"This illuminating collection draws on Johnson's Buddhist faith, African American perspective, and aesthetic sensibilities." —Booklist