Sometimes the best in us is revealed through our worst moments. Such is the take of “Chase the Night” (2015, T&Z Publishing, Roseville, Calif.) in which author Shirley Summers and co-writer Cullen Vane retrace the dark voyage of a “God-fearing” small town woman into the depravation of the crack epidemic.
Within the book’s 199 pages are, in effect, three “mini books” comprised of 47 chapters—no more than five pages each—which unfold into a catharsis of pain and then ultimate redemption for a woman who in the introduction speaks of Hell and in the epilogue laments the razing of a tiny, long-abandoned church.
Summers uses the fictitious name “Francis” in this semi-autobiographical tale that is suspenseful as you wait to see what calamity she faces in the next few pages. But, the structure of the work is that of a novice, albeit Summers appears to be a quick study who is on her way to becoming a more polished novelist. The brevity of the chapters, regrettably, never allow the characters to be “fleshed out” or exposed with some depth of purpose to her story. Vane tries to make up for this shortcoming by dispersing footnotes now and then almost in a stream of consciousness style to allow the reader further introspection into Summers’ thought processes.
Early on, Francis hints that her precipitous fall may have begun as a child with her first taste of wine. Her father, an often drunken, abusive man who divided his time between impregnating women (she had 12 step siblings) and serving as a “bootleg preacher,” gave her a sip one day and that turned into an early foray with intoxication. Her grandparents, one a “fire and brimstone” preacher and the other an ultra-strict woman bordering on “just plain mean” even at age 99, did supply love and guidance to Francis which apparently were methods of kindness that her mother and footloose father were never able to fully supply. Francis said her parents never had the time to say “I love you” because one was too busy working up to three jobs a day, and the other preoccupied with booze and floozies.
Francis got pregnant at 16, and although she expressed some regret at making the same mistake her mother made, she was always a “dreamer.” She wanted a better life by middle age. One day their father struck their mother so hard that Francis and her brother had enough and threatened to kill him. It was then that she promised herself that she’d never marry an abusive alcoholic. Unfortunately, years later, she married a drug addict who gave her first “hit” from a crackpipe, and the rest of the story is similar to the downfall of so many young Black men and women during the 1980s and 1990s who saw their character and self esteem go “up in smoke.” Moments of illumination like this are sprinkled throughout the book, providing the reader with some insight into Summers’ literary motivation as well as to reveal a special kinship of heartache to an audience which may be familiar with her plight.
She tried at first to resist and chastise her husband, but relented as the high became more demanding and happiness more elusive. “If I couldn’t beat him, then I’d join him. Just give me a little puff.” That request to her husband set her off into a downward spiral that eventually saw the budding model and full-time flight attendant become a mere reflection of a woman. She soon forgot about domestic bliss because her addiction led her to the dark, dank streets of not only her hometown of Norristown, Pa., but to the “rock-infested’ community of Inglewood, Calif. which, like much of South Los Angeles during the 1980s and 1990s, was a notorious hellhole for persons whose drug addiction compelled them to “chase the night.”
How low did Francis go? On Christmas Eve one year, she and her husband sold the kid’s presents for rocks.
The short chapters of the book may represent Francis’ somewhat “transitory” state of mind in that nothing at the time seemed permanent nor intriguing…except her addiction. She prayed one day for deliverance, stating profoundly that “I knew the Lord had other plans for me, but He was not revealing those plans.” In and out of rehab several times, Francis at the height of her plight was spending $1,200 a week on crack. She never fully explained how a middle-aged crack addict acquired such sums of money, but she distinctly said she would never sell her body. She was raped one day by a crazed addict who thought she was just another “crack whore” or “strawberry,” and when he regretted his actions and offered her cash to make amends, she “…refused to take his rotten money.”
Before Francis finally got clean, she looked into a mirror at a gaunt, waif-like creature who had survived a four-day crack binge. That was enough. Too many ruined relationships, too few options, and a and a growing list of dead friends convinced her to turn her life around. Misfortune does not abate easily, though, and Francis was kicked out of rehab after she had tested clean. It was an unfortunate mistake that almost caused her to start using again. Instead, she took out her frustration on God. “I was doing everything right and you still let this happen to me!”
While taking a walk one afternoon, Francis heard a voice “clear as day” she recalled, that said: “Here I am. I have never left you.” Looking around, she saw no one. She was alone with God. Francis confides to the reader that getting crack was easy, but “to stay clean was the antithesis.” Now she practices affirmations daily, her favorite being “I am.”
Clean for 15 years before penning “Chase The Night” and a book of poetry called “Grandma’s Poems,” also released last year, Shirley Summers’ story is valuable reading on how the power of redemption can supplant even the weakest periods of our lives.