Meet Me Halfway is a command. In these Milwaukee stories, Jennifer Morales meets us halfway with her characters, demanding we, too, meet her halfway by laying on the table our own assumptions and fears. What we receive for our efforts is a hopeful glimpse into a community interwoven by grief. (Think Crash the movie, but optimistic instead of sadistic.) “Netania pulled on Bee-Bee’s hand, bending toward her. ‘Meet me halfway, will you?’” Netania, a lesbian, is leaning in for a kiss she’s not sure will be well received by this non-lesbian friend. We never know if she gets the kiss or not. That’s how this book is: each story ends without a clear conclusion, leaving us to finish out the story with our own. It’s as though we’re written in, unable to remain innocent bystanders.
At the center of all the stories is Johnquell. He gets the first line. “Johnquell’s neck is broken and chances are he won’t walk again.” Revolving around him are the neighbor he was helping when he got injured and her grumpy friend. There’s his mom, sister and aunt Bee-Bee. There’s a substitute teacher Johnquell dislikes and a long time teacher/mentor he adores. Lastly is his best friend who is motivated by Johnquell to set his sights on a goal and follow through with a determination he lacked when Johnquell was alive. What I liked about each of these characters is their willingness to change. They proactively face their fears and overcome them with help. I particularly enjoyed an encounter between Johnquell’s mother and a woman with a similar name and address. They meet when Johnquell’s mom receives this woman’s mail and returns it to her home. They end up chatting and crying together, strangers, but companions in sorrow. At first, I was skeptical of the serendipity of the meeting, but realized the gravity of the situation, Johnquell’s mom’s world being turned upside down, made the impossible possible. It opened up narrative possibilities Morales handled with aplomb.
Morales also deftly handled many different voices. Most daring is the last voice, Taquan’s. She adopts his slang and syntax. “He [the counselor at the community college to which he applies] be using words I ain’t never heard and I be trying to not let on that most the time I ain’t got a clue what he saying.” Perhaps it isn’t exactly as a real Taquan would say it, but Morales has obviously spent a lot of time and attention on her characters and the real people who inform them.
This book couldn’t have come out at a better time. Morales said it’s often hard to publish books dealing with race, but “hard” is precisely our current political climate. Meet Me Halfway is a command and an invitation, a promise that there is a reward for compromise. And when one party, the author steps up to the plate with an “argument” in the form of well-developed characters and true-to-life plot and style, it is worth it to listen. Now it’s our turn to add to the stories, from our own towns and our own hearts.