“Why must I feel like that? Why must I chase the cat? Nothing but the dog in me.”
“A Story of Hunger”
by RaShell R. Smith-Spears
Sam was hungry. His stomach snarled like a Rottweiler baring his teeth at a stranger. He rolled over on his stomach, less to quiet the rumbling than to stop the painful gnawing the Rottweiler was doing to his body. He knew what would come next. He waited for the bitter saliva to flood his mouth and for the pounding headache to return. He had not eaten since yesterday morning and since then the hunger had come in intervals. Each time it came, it came stronger, angrier. He drank the last of his Crown Royal for lunch, allowing the alcohol to make him a little buzzed. For dinner and then breakfast, he had tried eating sleep. It worked during the night, aided by the buzz, but through the morning the hunger kept waking him up. Now, afternoon, he was still in the bed and still hungry.
He sat up on his bed; it was actually a single mattress on the floor covered in a dingy blue fitted sheet and an even dingier ivory flat sheet crumpled in one corner. Trying to stand up, he lost his balance and fell back down. Dizziness had set in. Once he felt steady, he stood back up and walked out of his bedroom, empty except the mattress and a small unpainted nightstand next to it, into the kitchen next door. He opened the refrigerator and sighed when he only saw a bottle of mayonnaise, several ketchup packets, a mason jar full of water and a box of baking soda. Nothing! The dog growled louder. He walked over to his cabinet, opened it and looked sadly at the salt, pepper, cayenne, rosemary, and garlic powder on the bottom shelf. Used right, those spices would make a steak so good his own grandmother would cry. If only he had the steak…
He walked out of the kitchen and into his small living room. It was actually the bedroom, but he had wanted the larger room as his bedroom for entertaining women. That’s what he said when he first rented the duplex. He had not done much entertaining, however, in the three years that he lived there. The only downside to having his bedroom as the actual living room was that his closet was not in his bedroom; rather it was in the living room.
He opened the closet door and looked through his jeans pockets for a few stray bills or even coins. Both were empty. He looked through his black dress pants, the only pair he owned, but found them to be empty, too. He sat on the bare wood floor and felt around at the bottom of the closet. His hand picked up dust, but not much else.
These discoveries, or lack thereof, were not surprising to him. This pilgrimage through his house had in fact become a ritual in the night. Each time he had awakened, which had to be at least five times, he had gotten up to see if there were any food in the house or money to buy some. He knew that he would find nothing-he knew what he had-but he kept hoping for miracles.
On his second trip, he did find two slices of bread hidden in the corner of the cabinet. He was so excited that he bumped his head on the cabinet door. Almost giddy at the idea of a piece of toast, he deflated when he pulled the package out and saw that both pieces were so molded that they were green. He searched each piece twice over to see if there was some salvageable part. He even tried scrapping the mold off, but the bread just crumbled in his sink. So he walked barefoot back to bed and fell asleep until the next time he woke up and made the pilgrimage.
This time on his way back to bed, he noticed two loose cigarettes that had fallen behind his nightstand. His eyes lit up.
Inhaling the smoke of the cigarette, he walked to the box fan in his window and turned it on. He then brought the oscillating fan his sister Constantina had given him a month ago from the living room into his bedroom and turned it on high. It had gotten hot since the sun had risen.
Sam sat on the edge of the mattress in a pair of shorts and a white t-shirt and smoked his cigarette. For the moment, the Rottweiler in his stomach was lulled back to sleep, and Sam could think a little straighter. He had to get something to eat.
He thought of his sister. Tina would certainly fix him a plate or give him some money, but she had seven children and just enough to feed them. He hated taking food out of their mouths, even if he was starving. Even more, he hated asking anything of that man Tina had married.
When Tina first started seeing Aldo five years ago, Sam thought he was a good guy. He was especially happy that his baby sister had found a man that would be good to her; she had been with a lot of busters in the past. But Aldo was different. He took care of her and, at the time, her five children. He asked no questions and made no complaints. Their mom liked him, too. He started showing up at family functions, helping out when he could with money or time. As a truck driver, he had a steady income even if he didn’t have an abundance of money. Sam liked to joke with him, share a beer, and shoot pool.
But after he and Tina got married, he changed. He actually changed when Tina got pregnant with their first boy. Whenever he was home from the road, he was at the pool hall or at some club. Sam had seen him out several times in the company of one of two women. One was his ex-woman, Terri. When rumors started going around that she was pregnant, he noticed that Aldo was out with a skanky woman named Evelyn. She didn’t look clean, and Sam knew that several of his boys had been with her. Sam had tried to tell Tina, especially when Terri had a baby two months after her that looked just like Aldo; it had his beige-colored skin and hook nose and everything. Tina wouldn’t listen, however, and she fell out with Sam. They didn’t speak until three months later when Terri showed up at their house demanding child support for that ugly kid of hers. Tina had coming crying to Sam’s door. He let her in, of course-she was his baby sister-and they talked about how she would leave Aldo. But she went home that night and obviously let Aldo back in because she was pregnant with their second boy soon after.
Sam had decided to wash his hands of the whole matter. Tina was good-hearted, but she just had absolutely no sense when it came to men. He could not forgive Aldo for taking advantage of his sister, even though Aldo had apologized to Tina for months with flowers, candy, and a second honeymoon trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas. They never played pool together again. Sam just didn’t think he would be able to resist the urge to jam the pool cue up Aldo’s butt. That would not have been good for his relationship with Tina or his own health since Aldo stood a full foot taller than him at 6’9” and weighed at least 75 lbs. more than his160 lbs. He would just avoid the man.
Sam smoked the last of the cigarette, enjoying its calming effect and the cooling breeze of the fan.
Nibbling on the cigarette’s filter, he wondered, where could he get some money?
He looked around his house for something to pawn. There was nothing. He decided to get dressed and go out. He couldn’t sit around the house all day doing nothing. Laid off from his job at the distribution warehouse (he, like 400 of his other co-workers had shown up to work one morning to find a padlock on the front doors and a sign that read “Out of Business”), he was denied the distracting activity of work. He would not have it again until at least two weeks later when the paper factory said they would be hiring. It was inevitable; the dog would be back and soon.
After putting out his cigarette in an already overflowing ashtray, he picked up from the floor the pair of camouflage cargo pants that he had worn last night and put them on. He also pulled on a black X shirt that had been draped across the couch in the living room. Although it was old and faded, it was his favorite shirt.
Sam washed his face, brushed his teeth, then left his house and walked out into the bright sunshine.
As he walked, he passed rows of duplexes that he knew were decorated with lawn chairs, rocking chairs, or easy chairs on the porches, chipping red, white, or sage paint on the doors and their jambs and year round strings of Christmas lights. He passed abandoned houses with wooden eyes that starred blankly at the ones across the street and somehow seemed isolated in the midst of all the other homes with sunken porches, fading paint, and falling cornices. All of these buildings, however, blurred into a white and yellow haze for Sam. He could not clearly see his way, but by instinct he walked in the direction of his friend Nate’s place. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck.
Arriving at Nate’s, he knocked on the door. A short girl opened it.
“Can I come in?”
She stepped aside and let him in. Sam openly looked her over, unashamed because she was doing the same to him. He squinted his eyes, thinking the girl looked
famous. If he didn’t know that TLC’s Left Eye was dead, he would have sworn she stood here in Nate’s living room.
“You want something?” she asked a little too aggressively. She sounded like Left Eye, too.
“Anybody ever tell you you look like Left Eye?”
“Shhhh. I am her. I faked my death so I could get out the celebrity life. See.” She bent over, bounced, and rolled her arms over each other, dancing like the women in the “Waterfalls” video. She started singing. “Don’t go chasing waterfalls. Please stick to the. . . .mmmmm, mmm, mmm, you, mmmm. Oh! I guess you caught me.” She laughed. “That’s not me.”
Sam was not amused and did not laugh. “Where’s Nate?”
“In the back. He’s with that skank, Evelyn. You can wait for him. They shouldn’t be long,” she smirked.
Both sat down on the couch. After a moment of awkward silence, Sam asked who she was.
“Felecia, Nate’s cousin. I’m crashin’ with him for a while. Who are you?”
“Well, Sam, what do you want with Nate?”
“Nothin’. Just stopped by to see what he was up to.” Sam could feel a slight rumbling in his stomach, so he ventured forward, trying to sound casual. “What he got in there to eat?”
“Nothing. I told that man he need to buy some grocery. I think he got some Pop Tarts in there.”
Sam’s eyes widened; he loved Pop Tarts. Not only was he going to get something to eat, he was going to eat something he liked. He didn’t want to appear too anxious, but he thought he jumped up off the couch too fast. He could almost taste the flaky dough of the pastry, the smooth sweetness of the white frosting melting on his tongue. This would just be the first bite. The second bite would reveal the gooey fruit filling. Maybe it would be strawberry, which he really loved, or blueberry, or grape. Chocolate would not be as good, but he could deal with it.
He opened the cabinet and saw the box sitting there amid a shelf of nothing else, except a half filled sleeve of saltines. He pulled it out of the cabinet-it was strawberry! Looking in the box, he saw only one packet. At least there were two in a packet.
“Hey, could you bring me one?” Felecia yelled into the kitchen.
The Rottweiler in Sam’s stomach growled his disapproval. He thought about telling her that there were no more and hiding the packet in his pants.
“I ain’t ate all day!” she yelled out again.
Sam slumped in his shoulders. He’d have to share.
“Here,” he said begrudgingly. “There’s only one packet.” He handed her one of the pastries that he has taken out of the silver foil.
“Thanks,” she said to him while simultaneously biting into the Pop Tart.
They ate in silence, Sam savoring every minute of the delicious treat. He knew that it would not be enough-he could eat four in one setting-but he hoped if he ate it slowly, it would tie him over until he could borrow some money from Nate.
While they ate, they heard low talking coming from the closed door of the bedroom.
“What’s taking him so long in there?” he asked after licking the foil of any straggling crumbs.
“I said he was in there with the skank! What you think? Hey, you wanna smoke?”
“Sure.” He remembered his last cigarette and counted it lucky that he could save that for later tonight.
Felecia reached into her pocket and pulled out a joint. Sam was surprised, but not altogether disappointed. He watched Felecia light it and take a hit. She passed it to him. He pulled on the joint and passed it back. They did this as they talked.
“This is some good stuff, huh? I got it from my boy. It’s good, ain’t it?”
“Who you say you was?”
“Sam?” She laughed like he had said something funny.
“Naw, my real name Sheffield. They call me Sam ‘cause that’s what my initials spell out: Sheffield Abraham Mason.”
“Sheffield?” She laughed again.
“Yeah,” he responded, not offended by her laughter. He almost laughed. “My mom said she wanted me to have an important name so I could do important things.”
“And look at you. Ain’t nothin’ more important than this herb.” She drew on it.
“That’s right, Left Eye.”
They smoked without speaking, but it was far from silent. Loud high-pitched yelps were coming from the bedroom.
Felecia pulled her knees up under her on the couch. She leaned in close to Sam’s face and blew smoke into it. He closed his eyes, parted his lips and deeply inhaled the smoke. More than the warmth of the smoke, he could feel the heat from her face so close to his. He opened his eyes and looked at her closed, almond-shaped eyes, her smooth oatmeal-colored skin and her pink strawberry-stained lips. He wanted to kiss her; he didn’t know why. He didn’t know her. He wasn’t sure if he liked her. He leaned in, but stopped before he kissed her.
“I guess I should go. It don’t look like Nate is coming out any time soon.”
“Nope,” Felecia responded leaning against the back of the couch, never opening her eyes.
Sam stood up and walked to the door. “Tell him I might be back by later tonight.”
Back outside, Sam walked without a plan. He knew that the Pop Tart wouldn’t last much longer. He knew that he had no money. He knew that he needed to get somewhere cool. He knew that sleep was coming down on him-fast. In the park just one block up there was a nice stone bench and table surrounded by the richest green shrubbery. The bench would be cool and he could lay his head on the table for just a few minutes. Maybe some of his boys would be shooting hoops on the court next to the bench and could spot him a couple of bucks.
He saw the park and kept on walking. Sam couldn’t sleep in the park. People might mistake him for a bum. They might try to rob him and finding he had nothing, they might try him and he didn’t want to get into it with anybody. They might even try to kill him. Or he would kill them. He didn’t want Tina and her kids finding him dead in the park. Best they find him dead in his own house.
He had reached his home and fallen down on the mattress. He would feast on another meal of sleep.
When Sam woke up, it was dark. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but he quickly began to regret the joint he shared with Felecia. It was good while it lasted, but coming down from his high, his stomach was angrier than ever. He thought about going back to Nate’s-Evelyn had to be gone by now-but he didn’t want to run into Felecia again. He thought about going to Tina’s, but it was late. Plus, he couldn’t remember when she said Aldo would be getting back in from the road. He decided he would walk to the all-night grocery store on the corner and hope he ran into someone he knew on the way there.
Sid’s Eat & Go stood on the dingy corner littered with broken bottles, cigarette butts, and hamburger wrappers that was flanked by Larry’s Tires on its left facing one street and Victory Pawn on the right facing the cross street. The door to Sid’s stood at the tip of the meeting point of the intersection. The white light from the store gleamed into the darkness of the night. It seemed even brighter next to the darkened stores. The woodsy scent of barbecue floated toward him from the café he knew was further down the street.
“Hmmmmm,” he inhaled, closing his eyes.
A blast of cold air immediately washed over his body when he opened the door to Sid’s. He looked around, noticing only a few other night owls in the store and Sid behind the counter. He nodded toward Sid and smiled; Sid nodded back slightly without smiling.
Sam passed a couple as he entered the cookie and crackers aisle. They were laughing and did not even look up at Sam.
Walking toward the end of the aisle, a poster on the wall caught his attention. It had an orange background and in the center sat a white plate of bright breakfast foods: two sausage links, a flaky biscuit, two ruby strawberries, and a creamy sunny-side up egg. All of a sudden the urge to eat scrambled eggs seized him. He walked to the open refrigerated area where the butter and eggs were placed. Yes, eggs would be so good. He had not had a hot plate of scrambled eggs, perfectly seasoned with just the right amount of salt and pepper, in months. He closed his eyes and saw the golden sunshiney yellow eggs, fluffy with clouds of white peeking here and there. Mounds and mounds of delicious eggs. He bit his bottom lip thinking about it. Sam looked back toward the counter. Because the counter did not extend the length of the store and the refrigerated area was at the far end of the store, he was shielded from the sight of Sid by the shelves of soda and water.
The laughing couple, still living up to their name, came down the aisle. Sam looked away from them when the woman looked at him questioningly and stopped laughing. She picked up a box of margarine and placed it in the handheld basket the man was carrying. They walked on by Sam without as much as a nod in his direction.
He looked around, knowing he would have to hurry before any of the other midnight shoppers came his way. He glanced up and saw the large silver mirror, a single eyeglass lens that could possibly reveal to Sid just what he had in mind. He knew Sid could see him if he looked; he could see himself, standing with a large head and a much smaller body that seemed to flow away from his head. He could see the pained look on his face, the desperate way his eyes shifted around. Could Sid see it? Could he see the dog baring his fangs, saliva dripping from his mouth? The dog was making him do it. Or maybe it was the way hunger crawled up from his stomach to his throat, exploding in a million acrid juices all over the inside of his mouth. It made him wince. Could Sid see that? He saw it all right there in that lens that watched him.
Facing the mirror head on and keeping his eyes on it, Sam reached out slowly to his side. When he felt the cool Styrofoam carton under his thin dark fingers, he pulled the carton in front of his body. He could smell the coolness of the refrigerator on the egg carton and opening it, he could smell the freshness of the eggs. He inhaled, hoping to savor the moment. Instead, however, he realized that his head was hurting. It was pounding. So was his heart.
He palmed one of the white eggs, afraid to look at it, but taking a mental picture based on what he felt. It was smooth, white; there was a slight bump near the tip. Never taking his eye off the lens and Sid in the distance, he gently placed the egg in the loose pocket of his pants. His heart pounding harder, more from excitement than fear, he palmed a second egg and placed it in his pocket also. He did this two more times, always keeping his eyes on the mirror.
During the placement of the last egg, growing surer of himself, he looked down at it after feeling a small but jagged line moving from the base of the egg. There was a small crack and he exchanged it for another. He looked back up at the mirror. Sid was busy checking out the laughing couple. Sam felt like laughing himself. He had successfully taken four eggs and he was going to eat good tonight!
He was almost there. He just needed to get out of the store without Sid seeing him. He turned slowly and walked closely to the soda shelf. His body, slightly shaking, brushed against a grape soda bottle, almost knocking it off the shelf. Sam reached out and grabbed it. His breathing hard, he let the pounding in his chest slow down. He decided it would be a better idea to walk normally instead of slinking down the aisles. He took the back way through the store and walked up the very last aisle closest to the door. He would have to come in full sight of Sid at the counter to get out of the door. Sweating in spite of the almost cold air-conditioned store, he walked slowly and-he hoped-casually to the front door. Pushing the door open by leaning slightly forward with his body, he breathed a sigh of relief when he realized he was going to get away with it. He was going to leave Sid’s Eat and Go with his eggs, and he was going to soothe his troublesome stomach.
The heat outside the door, strong even in the night, wrapped him in a warm blanket, protecting him from the cold of Sid’s store and the judging eye of Sid. Sam smiled and walked toward the street that would take him home.
“Hey!” He heard a gravelly male voice yell out behind him. “I saw you! You didn’t pay!”
Sam turned around without stopping. It was Sid!
“Give them back! You did not pay!” Sid was walking toward Sam.
Sam walked faster. He was going to get home with those eggs.
Sid walked faster, too.
Sam started to run, his breathing growing faster, shallower again.
Sid started running, too.
“Come back you thief. Give me back my eggs!”
Sam picked up speed and determination. He was coming to the turn street. He figured Sid would not follow him that far from the store. He was right; when he turned he looked back and no Sid was in sight. Sam laughed as he leaned against someone’s wooden fence. He was careful to lean on his left side so as not to crush the eggs.
He did not hear the footsteps, heavy though only slightly sounding on the pavement. So lost in his relief, he did not feel the heat emanating from the figure that invaded his personal space as it snuck up behind him. He certainly did not know that Sid had been willing to venture further from the store and was actually standing quietly behind him.
What he did know was the stinging that radiated through the heavy material of his pants as a large hand slammed against his leg. What he did hear was the crunch of white eggshells breaking apart as they scratched against each other. What he did feel was the despair of knowing that there would be no eggs tonight.
“If you don’t pay, you don’t eat,” Sid said with a grunt. Over his shoulder, Sam saw a self-satisfied grin spread across Sid’s face.
Sam turned around and looked Sid in the face. He felt angry, hurt, horrified, and dejected at the same time. He was sure it was all over his face.
Without saying a word, he turned around and began walking back home. Running yolk soaked through his pants and felt cool against his leg.
“A Cultured Pearl”
by Monic Ductan
So today I roll up on a car that looks just like mine in the parking lot of the old country store in Almsville. I’ve lived in this county my whole life, and I know everybody in it. So of course I should know the owner, but I don’t remember seeing any other gold Cutlass in Almsville but mine. The only difference between mine and the one I see in the parking lot is that mine has larger rims. I wonder if there is someone new in town or if they’re just passing through. A look at the plates tells me they’re from right here in Maddox County. It’s probably some new man in town, a man who knows cars.
Inside the store, it smells like coffee, wet dog hair, and nacho cheese sauce from the machine by the door. I say what’s up to Jim Klein, who stands behind the counter talking to a black girl. The girl is wearing one of those sweaters with the diamond-shapes all over it. Whaddya call it? Argule? Argentine? Argyle? Right. Argyle.
Jim nods at me and keeps right on punching numbers into the register. I glance around the store, looking for the owner of the Cutlass, but there’s nobody in the store but the three of us. The girl looks to be about twenty, but you know how it is with black girls. Sometimes they’re thirty-five and still look nineteen or twenty. The girl has on a pair of loafers that look expensive. Now, I couldn’t tell you what brand they are or even give an estimate of how much they cost, but they just look expensive. They look like the kind of shoes you might be upset over if someone steps on them, or the kind of shoes you don’t wear on rainy days ‘cause you’re afraid you might have to walk through the mud or a puddle or some shit. I wonder where this girl comes from. Most of the people in Maddox County are real damn ‘bama, but not this girl.
The girl’s back is ramrod straight, and she looks like maybe a dancer or an athlete. Her body is sturdy and toned, but not in a butch sorta way. She just looks like she takes care of herself. For a second I slip into a daydream. In my fantasy, she is standing in the middle of Rainwater Creek, with the muddy brown water lapping up at her dark thighs. I want more than anything to join her in the middle of that creek, to touch the places where the water dampens her legs, to wipe the muddy silt from the bottoms of her long, slender feet.
I notice her fingers as she begins to count out the change to Jim-they are the color of Hershey’s kisses, and they are lithe and slender and damp, like sunflower stems after a heavy rain. I realize that she’s spilled the liquid from her fountain soda on her hands. She wipes it off with the napkin Jim hands her.
Most of the time, black girls don’t seem to pay any attention to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a white guy born and raised in Alabama, and so they think I’m a racist or that I won’t be attracted to them or something. Sometimes when I smile at them, they smile back politely, but only sometimes. Occasionally, they just look through me as though I’m invisible.
The black girl catches me staring and looks me dead in the face, no blinking or anything. I hold the stare until she blinks first, then I ask about her car.
“That your Cutlass out front?” I ask as I jerk my head toward the door.
She looks at me like I have no business talking to her. Her forehead is all chewed up in a frown.
Oh Lord. I hate it when I try to start a conversation with someone, and they don’t take the bait. She should have said yes, and then gave me some sorta info about what a nice car it is or how well it drives or some shit, right?
“I got one just like it, see?” I point out the window, but she’s so busy looking me up and down that she’s doesn’t seem to hear me. When her eyes come back inside, they focus on my suit jacket. I hate wearing a suit, but unfortunately, that’s what lawyers wear.
She nods and turns her attention back to the counter. She gathers her bags, but just when she’s walking past me, the plastic bag holding some canned goods busts wide open, and the cans roll in different directions. Even though I’m pretty sure she’s a stuck-up bitch, I bend over to help her. While I’m gathering her canned milk, I can’t help but notice that she stops one of the cans from rolling under a display of Little Debbies by sticking out her foot, expensive shoe and all.
I hand her the three cans of milk that I’ve collected. She thanks me.
“My name’s Peter,” I tell her.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Pearl.”
Her eyes wander back to my suit jacket. It’s perfectly tailored, but I’m uncomfortable in it. I’ve already loosened my tie, but I keep pulling at the collar. As soon as I get home, I’ll change into plaid boxers and a T-shirt.
She asks me where I’m from.
“Wrightsville. It’s about three miles that way,” I point.
There’s a look of confusion on her face. Wrightsville is country and slow-moving. My suit is not standard Wrightsvillian attire. I don’t even have the Southern accent that most of my friends and family have.
Pearl gives me a half smile and a goodbye sort of nod. She steps outside the store, and I follow empty-handed. I figure I can buy my soda later. I hope she doesn’t think I’m following her, which of course, is exactly what I’m doing.
The sun, the time, and the season have prepared the loveliest picture imaginable. I’m facing the sun, and it’s slipping behind an oak tree in the distance. The light is still bright enough to catch the tops of the maples, but in a skewed way that leaves some of them in shadow while the others are brilliantly bright. The foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains are in the distance, and they bleed into the outline of the sky so well that I can scarcely discern between the two.
Wordlessly, we walk out into the parking lot and stop to watch the landscape until the sun has disappeared behind the oak. Minutes later, the weight of the items in her bags seems to remind her that she’s suddenly in a hurry, as if the pause to admire everything has caused her to miss something.
“You like classical music?” I ask, gesturing at the CD in the backseat of the car.
“Yep, I used to dance.”
“I can tell. I mean, you look like a dancer.”
She finally smiles. “You like ballet?”
“Some of it’s pretty cool. I like The Nutcracker. I remember watching it for the first time back in the fourth grade,” I say, smiling at her.
“Really? I danced in a production of it once.”
Jackpot. From my experience, all it takes is a little mutual interest to get the ball rolling with someone, and I’m glad to see that Pearl is no different. We talk for a minute longer about ballet, but then she says, “Thanks for helping me with the bags. I better go now.” She turns as if to walk around to the driver’s side of her car, but I reach out and lightly take hold of her wrist.
“Where you headed?” I ask her.
She smiles nervously. “I can’t tell you that, sir.”
“Why not? I’m a good guy. I’m wearing a suit. Serial killers don’t wear suits.”
“What about Ted Bundy?”
“What about him? Last I heard he was dead.”
She rolls her eyes. “I’m not gonna have sex with you, sir.”
I burst out laughing. “What makes you think I wanna have sex with you?”
She raises that graceful neck haughtily. “You don’t?” she asks.
I don’t answer for a few seconds. We grin at each other.
“Stay awhile.” I offer, gesturing toward the bench in front of the store. She politely declines, gets into her car, and drives away.
The next day at work, Pearl walks toward me in an empty hallway. I can feel my heart pounding in my throat.
“Hey, you,” I say. “I didn’t know you worked here.”
“It’s my first day. How long have you worked here, Peter?”
I’m thrilled that she remembers my name. We make small talk for a bit. She’s carrying a lunch bag. I must remember to eat lunch in the break room that day.
Pearl is obviously impressed when she finds out that I’m a lawyer. We have lunch together several times that week, and she spends most of our time asking me about the profession. She is a paralegal who’s applying to law schools, so she wants advice about the application process. I guide her as best I can, and we begin to develop a friendship.
After two weeks of cafeteria lunches with Pearl, I ask her to have dinner with me at my house. She walks through the front door wearing a trench coat, and I offer to hang it in the closet. She pulls off the jacket, and underneath it she’s wearing a white sheath dress. Very chic. It fits a bit snug. I can’t help but notice the outline of her breasts, the way the two hand-sized orbs are wrapped so delicately in the white fabric.
“They’re real,” she says, taking me by surprise. Were my thoughts that obvious?
“I like them.” I tease.
“You like what?” she asks, suddenly pretending she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. She grins in what I think is anticipation.
Silently, I answer her. In my head, I tell her what I love about her body. I love that she’s tall and lean in the right places, and firm and well-rounded in other places. I keep thinking about what our relationship will be like once she trusts me more. How long before we get through this phase? Fantasy takes over, and I can’t shake the image of her in a neon thong and brassiere combination. There’s nothing like bright-colored lingerie clinging to dark brown skin.
I want to reach out and cup her breasts in my hands. They look weighty and supple.
“How old are you?” I ask her, ignoring her previous question.
“Twenty-two. And you?”
“Older than twenty-two,” I say.
She wanders over to my CD case and pulls out Me Against the World, a Tupac album.
“You like this?” she asks, astonishment in her raised eyebrows and slack-jawed expression.
“I don’t like much hip hop, but this guy was a genius. It’s like he was speaking for a whole generation of people. He was saying things that everyone knew but wouldn’t admit, and he was talking about human suffering. You know, that us-versus-them mentality?”
She looks at me objectively for a moment, as though she’s analyzing me. “I didn’t expect to like you as much as I do.”
“Thanks,” I say sarcastically.
She stands there for a second, smiling into my eyes. When she finally speaks again, her voice is full of wonder. “That first day I thought you were just some guy who was attracted to me. I liked the look of you too, but I didn’t think we’d have anything in common. At first I thought you’d be the stuffy office type, and in some ways you are, but here I am talking to you about Tupac, and you get it.”
I pour two glasses of wine, and we go out on my tiny balcony to talk law. Pearl wants to be a public defender.
“You won’t make much money, not as much as you’d make as a corporate lawyer anyway.” I warn.
“I know. I just want to be able to help people who really need it-minorities and underserved populations,” she says looking thoughtfully off into the distance.
After a few seconds, Pearl turns to me and smiles. I get the feeling that she sees me as some sort of hero because of the job I do. Looking into her adoring dark eyes, I know that all it would take is a few kind words to have her in bed with me. A sexual relationship was definitely what I wanted that day I met her, but now I’ve gotten to know her a little better, and it’s not just about pursuing her sexually anymore. I love that she’s so young and passionate, just like I used to be before I learned that enthusiasm and honesty don’t win many cases.
Here I am, the king of short, casual relationships, and I’m considering something more with this girl. I realize that I-like Pearl-didn’t think we’d have much in common in the beginning either. But unlike Pearl, I didn’t care if we had much in common at first. On that first day, all I could think of was the sex, and all she seemed to think was, ‘but what will we talk about?’
Pearl stands and walks over to the deck railing. I watch as she delicately touches the long, thin railing, like a ballet dancer positioning herself at the barre-back straight, toes pointed. The sun is setting in front of her, and both the light and the shadows are moving over her skin, lightening and darkening it sporadically.
Later, as I’m brushing my hands over that skin, she slowly sits up and speaks.
“Hmm?” I say, trying to pull her closer. I let my hand slide down to the back of her firm thigh.
“You know what I like about you?”
“What?” I ask, ears perking up in anticipation of a compliment.
“You’re so open-minded. How did you get to be that way?”
“You mean, you thought I’d be a racist hick who wouldn’t touch a black girl with a ten-foot pole?”
She smiles. “Pretty much.”
“Everybody’s different.” I say knowing how simple it sounds. I wish I could think of something more mature to say.
But she nods and smiles as though I’ve said something complex and original.
“You’re absolutely right. Everyone is.”
She is a very affectionate woman, which I love. As soon as we arrive back at my place, she wraps her arms around me and squeezes me a bit. She has a habit of holding on to me in bed. Normally I don’t want a woman to be so clingy, but she is so damned cute that I crave that behavior from her. Our hugs consist of several minutes of us rubbing and holding one another as she buries her face in my neck, and I smell her melon-scented hair. I never ask her what shampoo or conditioner she uses, though an olive-flavored brand turns up in my shower before long. Neither of us comment on the fact that we are practically living together. I have taken to picking her up for work in the mornings so that she can simply ride home with me instead of driving her own car. We sit and talk about what case I’m working on. I know that she never would’ve given me the time of day if I wasn’t a lawyer. Her desire to learn more about the law is the thing that first brought her to me.
No one commented about our relationship at work, at least not to our faces. I suspect that they were just as curious about our age difference as they were about our race difference. While I’m forty-one and seasoned, Pearl is fresh out of undergrad school and still bright-eyed and shiny as polished brass.
One Saturday, I go to Cottontown to pick her up for a symphony that we are driving into the city to see. Cottontown is a working-class black neighborhood. Pearl lives there with her brother in a shotgun house. As a criminal defense attorney, I’ve actually had dealings with several of the people who live in that area. The Cottontown residents I’ve defended in court are mostly young black guys who get into trouble for burglary and other low-class crimes.
When I pull up to her house, I’m surprised that she isn’t waiting for me on the porch. Normally, whenever I pick her up, she’s sitting there in a metal folding chair. She never invites me in, and I don’t ask questions about her brother or their living arrangement.
That day, I sit in the car for a few seconds, trying to decide what to do. Should I honk the horn and wait for her, or should I walk up to the door and knock? I’m a bit curious about her living space. I want to see inside the house and meet her brother. As I make my way up to the house, a little boy runs toward me from the neighbor’s yard.
“Hey, man,” he addresses me. “You lookin’ fo Pearl?”
I nod and say ‘hey’ back to him. Now, I’m not a racist or anything, but I must admit that I am sometimes uncomfortable around black people who speak like the little boy. He isn’t hard to understand; it’s just that his diction and mannerisms are so different from mine that I find them foreign and undesirable.
The little boy looks curiously up at me. I can’t think of anything to say. We’re still standing there speechless when Pearl pushes out of the door and comes down the three steps toward me. The little boy waves at her and runs back in the direction that he approached me from.
I kiss Pearl on the cheek and take her overnight bag from her. Once we’ve settled into the car, I mention the awkward moment I had with the little boy.
“I don’t know, Pearl, I just feel so different when I come to this neighborhood, especially when I hear people who speak like that little boy.”
“You mean you’re scared.”
“No, not scared, just a little uncomfortable,” I say as I start the car and put it in reverse.
“Why?” she asks, slanting her head and narrowing her eyes at me.
We pull out onto the roadway.
“People just seem different around here.” I say, and then I add, “I’m glad you don’t talk like that.”
As soon as I’ve said it, I want to take it back. I want to reach out into the air, remove the words from her ears, shove them back into my mouth, even choke on them if need be.
“You mean, you wouldn’t want a low rent black chick on your arm? I can be black and have these big titties you like to suck on, as long as I don’t dress or sound too black, right?”
“Honey, that’s not what I meant,” I pause, trying to think of an accurate and tactful way to make my next point. “Look at it this way, you wouldn’t want me if I was some skinhead with two sleeves full of tattoos, would you?”
“That is not the same thing. Being an Aryan brother is a choice. That little boy has no control over how he talks and dresses. He speaks and dresses the way those around him speak and dress. Can’t you see that?”
“Aryan brothers don’t always have a choice either, Pearl. They get into these low-life gangs looking for a family and seeking some sort of protection...” I trail off, realizing how absurd it sounds to compare an innocent child to a skinhead. “I’m sorry. Okay?”
I put one hand on her thigh and rub it.
“I’m not mad at you,” she says after a moment. “I just don’t think you understand how bad you sound sometimes.”
“Oh. Come on, darling. Other than just now, when have I ever made a clumsy, stupid comment about race?” Her answer came much more quickly than I’d anticipated.
“The other night when you said that lady on the TV wasn’t pretty. Remember? I said she was pretty, and then you said she looked ‘too white.’”
I roll my eyes and chuckle as I recall what she’s referring to. “All I meant was that I like dark-featured women. You should have taken that as a compliment.”
“What you said isn’t cool, and I definitely didn’t take it as a compliment. You can like dark-featured women without putting down other women.”
I sigh. “You’re right,” I admit.
As we drive along, I wonder what I can do to make it up to her. I’ve spent two months earning her trust and trying to get closer to her. She’s my girlfriend now, and I don’t like feeling as if I’ve just shot myself in the foot and limped back a gigantic step.
We drive to the theatre in silence, except for the radio. I switch it on about halfway through the ride. The music helps to mask the silence a bit, but it does nothing to mask the thoughts in my head. I’ve never considered myself a racist, but during the car ride, I begin to think that maybe there was truth in what Pearl said.
I remember all of the times I never said anything when someone made a racist joke. I wonder if I would be as uncomfortable around Pearl’s neighbor if he were a white boy instead of a black one. Yes, I tell myself, I would still be uncomfortable even if he was white, but would I be quite as uncomfortable? I think about the poor whites I went to grade school with, and I remember feeling out of place with them.
I drive us to the theater without really seeing the road in front of me. In the darkened auditorium, the symphony plays out around us. When the violins begin to take over, Pearl speaks to me for the first time since our argument.
“I love this. It’s my favorite part,” she confides.
The violinist punches the air with the bow as he draws the bold notes from the instrument. The sound is loud and staccato at first, but then the bow moves slower, and the result is a lilting, hesitant sound, much less confident than the previous notes. The violin rises in pitch, and my heart starts to race. The higher it climbs the more it reminds me of a screaming girl climbing a mountain. Finally the noise softens, and I can see the girl descending the mountain; she’s singing in her normal speaking-voice now, clear and controlled. As I turn to look at Pearl, I’m overloaded with beauty. I hear the calm, elegant notes in my ear, and they remind me of Pearl’s calm confidence, the elegant lines of her face and body. I have heard this arrangement before, but I have never thought of it as a love song until now. It must be a love song. What else-if anything-could cause a person to run up a mountain screaming in agony, and then slip into perfect peace in the next instant? I don’t want to stop hearing that song in my ears, and I can’t take my eyes off of Pearl’s face. She is barely visible to me in the darkness, but for the streak of stage light that plays on her cheekbone. In that moment, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anything. It’s not just about beauty anymore; it’s about the passion I see in her eyes. If the ceiling were to spontaneously combust right over her head, she wouldn’t be able to tear her eyes from that stage. She is leaning toward the sound, and I count the seconds until she finally blinks. She is every bit as stimulated by the sound as I am. She loves it in the way that I do.
When the violin finally softens and fades into the background, letting the woodwinds part their delicate lips to sing, Pearl finally lets out her breath, like a lover after an anticipated kiss. She’s startled when she realizes I’ve been staring at her. I have a feeling that everything I’m thinking is spilling out of my eyes. We stare unblinking at each other for a moment, and then she turns her attention back to the stage, but not before giving me a smile. I think about how different things are with us now. That day when I first met her, she never would have smiled at me the way she did just then.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
I don’t know if she heard me, but she nods as if she did. On the stage, the symphony continues.
This page contains three stories published by Black Magnolias Literary Journal
"A Story of Hunger" by RaShell R. Smith-Spears
"A Cultured Pearl" by Monic Ductan
"Bras Coupe" by Kalamu ya Salaam
by Kalamu ya Salaam
“Kristin, I love you,” I blurted, sounding like I was trying to convince myself more than Kristin, even though I was sincere. I both wanted her and wanted her to know I wanted her. Nevertheless, like rotely instructing a client on how to fill out a 941, at the moment, I felt emotionally disengaged.
I snuggled closer. “Kristin...”
“David, you don’t have to say that to get me to do it. I know you love me.”
As I pressed close to her, all down my chest I felt her body stiffen. There was no smile on her face as my fingers traced the outline of her lips. She was distancing herself from me like I was the manager of a department where thirty grand was missing. I reached across her head and turned off the lamp on the night table. Almost as soon as the room was dark she spoke, “I’m not staying tonight. I’ve got an early meeting, and I want to be prepared.”
I had been caressing the side of her face, down her neck, and moving toward her breast when I stopped. Suddenly, I had the strangest sensation we were being watched. The light was out and we were alone, but it felt like Kristin’s conscience was standing by the side of the bed auditing us. I imagined an unemotional spectre with PDA in hand intently and efficiently noting the details of every movement of two overeager people who were groping in the dark searching for the right words to say to each other, determinedly trying to discover the right touches to unlock passion in each other.
I wanted to say, Kristin, what’s the real reason you’re not staying? I wanted to say, Kristin, are you tired of sleeping with me? Maybe you want out of this relationship. Maybe you don’t know where this relationship is headed. God knows I don’t know.
She placed my hand over her breast, “Come on, hurry up. I want to leave before ten.”
I didn’t want to hurry up. I wanted to take it slow, like they say women prefer in those self-help, sex manuals Kristin furtively reads. I don’t know why people even read those books, the procedures never work like they say. Even the ones with pictures don’t work. It’s a case study of diminishing returns. You try all that stuff and afterwards, all you’ve managed to accomplish is you’ve “tried stuff.” The profit margin’s too thin when you only accrue an extra penny’s worth of pleasure for every dollar of time you invest in reaching the ultimate climax.
She reached down and touched my dick. “You're not hard.” She gently tugged at it. “Oh, David...” An exasperated exclamation, and then suddenly she scooted beneath the thin sheet covering us, and I felt her take me in her mouth.
Please hurry up and get hard, I vainly instructed my dick.
After a minute or so, she gave up, pulled the covers back and sat up in bed. So instead of me asking her what’s wrong, she was checking on me, “Honey, what’s wrong?”
I could feel my dick limp against my thigh. “Nothing.”
“Nothing,” she softly repeated my lie like a proctor giving you a second chance to admit you cheated on a test. Then, with the adroitness of a prosecution lawyer waving a key piece of evidence before the jury, she reached under the covers and fingered my dick. “Yes, there is.”
I felt like I had been caught with a signed, blank company check in my wallet. Kristin had the uncanny ability to make me feel guilty about wanting to enjoy sex with her.
“Maybe, I’m just trying too hard.” Upon hearing my words, she immediately moved her hand.
“Oh David,” she said as she leaned over and kissed me. I didn’t respond to her kiss.
I wasn’t looking for pity, and besides it wasn’t me taking the perfunctory approach. “I’m alright.”
I loved Kristin, but I wasn’t fully comfortable in bed with her yet. She would do whatever I asked her to, but I always had to ask. I could never get a sense of what, if anything, she really wanted. Our relationship was humming along like a chain of hardware stores, efficient, neat, well stocked, well managed, and totally without excitement.
The lamp light blazed on. I turned my head into the pillow. The light physically hurt my eyes. After the metallic click of the lamp, there was a long silence.
“Did you hear about the shooting?”
So that’s what it was that was bothering her. God, somebody was always getting shot.
“They,” she paused briefly to let the weight of the loaded, one syllable sink in, “shot this lady's baby. My god, they shot a baby. None of us are safe.”
“What color was the baby?”
“What difference does it make?” She misunderstood me. That was precisely my point, color shouldn’t make a difference, but I knew that color was what she was really concerned about and not murder. “It was an innocent baby. Somebody has got to do something.”
“What color, Kristin?”
“They didn’t show the baby on television...”
“What was the child's name?”
I turned my head away and looked at the wall. I knew what was coming next, the same old white/black issue. I didn’t feel like arguing about the color of a dead baby and whether color made a difference.
“David, why did you turn away while I was talking? You make me feel everything I say is so wrong.”
The words I didn’t dare let out of my mouth, played loud and clear in my head: Because if I turn around and tell you how racist you’re acting, we’ll end up arguing with each other, and I don’t feel like fighting. The truth is you’re upset because the baby was white. If the baby had been black you might or might not have said anything, but you certainly wouldn’t have felt threatened. You...
“I know you think I don’t like blacks, but that’s not it. David, I’m scared.”
“I know. I’m scared too,” I agreed, except my fear wasn’t for my personal safety. My fear was that blacks and whites would never get beyond being black and white, separate, unequal, and distrustful of each other.
“If you’re scared, why did you move into this neighborhood? Something like fighting fire with fire?” I didn’t answer, and Kristin chattered on barely pausing for a response to her rhetorical question. “Soon as the sun goes down the only people walking around outside are...”
I turned over slowly, lay on my back, and covered my eyes with my forearm. “Are what? Murderers? Muggers? Rapists? Thieves?"
“You said yourself that some of these people don’t even like the idea of you living in their neighborhood.”
“I’m really sorry to hear about that baby.” I uncovered my eyes and reached out my hand to touch her knee. She covered my hand with a firm grip.
“My brother says I should get a gun if I’m going to keep spending time with you.”
“I bet your brother Mike owns every Charles Bronson video ever made and carries a long barreled forty-four like he’s Dirty Harry, or is it David Duke?” my accusation hung in the air like a fart.
I could see her wanting to recoil, but, like being trapped in one of those small interrogation rooms that IRS agents use for audits, there was no where to run, and she had run out of documentation to prove her innocence. “Kristin, you don’t have to come here unless you want to.”
“I want to be with you.” Our eyes locked and searched each other until I turned my head and flung my forearm back across my face. Kristin started her well rehearsed sales pitch, “Besides, it’s senseless for me to come pick you up, take you to my place, then bring you back to your place, and then drive back to my place.”
“And you refuse to buy a car.”
“That’s right. My bike and the buses do me just fine.”
“So obviously if we’re going to be together I have to come see...”
“At least until y’all get bus service out their in civilized Metairie.”
“David, I’m not complaining about coming to see you. I was just talking about the safety issue.”
“Has anything ever happened to you around here, or to me? Has anybody even so much as said something out of line?”
“David, it only has to happen once... and then... then you’re ruined for life.”
“You only die once.” Why did I say that? I have to learn to control my mouth.
“Why did you say that? Mike says you have a death wish.”
“So your brother Mike has given up the family construction business to become a psychologist, huh?” She flinched at my parry but continued her offensive.
“I told you about Ann Sheridan didn’t I?”
“She’ll never be right again.”
We were about to get into a bad scene. This was one of those classic dilemmas: you’re callous if you don’t sympathize with the victim, and you’re a bleeding heart if you criticize the routine stereotyping. I felt like I was trying to talk to a client who was also a good friend and who was trying to get me to help them cheat on their taxes. I guess I could say, let’s not go there; it’s not healthy. Or, I could sympathize, being raped is a terrible, terrible thing.
“She’s seeing a psychiatrist. She stays pumped full of drugs. And she can’t even stand to be in a room with a black man.” Clearly this was going to be one of those evenings when all of our time in bed would be spent talking about the major issues of the day rather than more productive and more pleasurable pursuits.
“Hey, you want a beer?” I bounded out of bed. Two hops and I was in the doorway, “Abita Amber.” I looked back, Kristin shook her head no.
When I got back from the kitchen, Kristin was laying still with the covers pulled tightly around her. I stood looking down at the trim form shrouded in my ice blue sheet. I had been so smitten by her from the first time I saw her jogging in the 5K corporate run.
“Hi, my name is David, and I just got to tell you, I think you’re beautiful.”
“David, I’m Kristin. Your flattery is appreciated, but you said it so easily, I’m sure I’m not the only girl who’s heard that today.”
“Look, I’m not from here. How does one get to talk to a girl like you?”
“Do you want to talk to a girl like me, or do you want to talk to me?”
“Touché.” We walked in silence for a moment, catching our breath. Then we started talking, and we talked and talked, and talked some more. And now here we are several months later.
As the immediate past of our getting together jetted through my mind, I concentrated on Kristin’s hairline and on the upper half of her face which was the only part of her visible. Her eyes were closed, but I knew she was awake.
“Suppose it happened to me?” she said, picking up the conversation where we had left off when I tried the let’s drink a beer evasion. Her voice was partially muffled by the sheet, but the import of her question came through unimpeded.
I put the beer bottle down on top of Ed McMahon’s smiling face on the Publisher’s Clearinghouse envelope announcing that I had won $30 million dollars. At least the worthless envelope made a convenient temporary coaster. Usually that junk went straight from the mailbox into the front room trash can, but Kristin insisted that I ought to reply because “who knows, you can win a lot of money”-as soon as she leaves it’s trashville for that scam.
“Don’t think like that,” was my reply to her question as I leaned over and pulled the sheet down so that I could see her whole face.
“I can’t help it. I’m a woman. You’re a man. You just don’t know.”
I sat down facing the foot of the bed, one foot on the floor, my left leg drawn up next to Kristin.
“Every time I leave here after dark, it’s traumatic.” Ignoring the strain in her voice, I turned, leaned over, brushed back her auburn hair from the side of her face, and lovingly surveyed her facial features. She was ravishing.
The subtle scent of an Italian perfume intoxicatingly wafted upward from the nape of her neck. The milk white orb of a perfect, polished pearl, stud earring highlighted her porcelain smooth, golden colored facial skin, which was cosmetized with a deft finesse that made it almost impossible to tell what was flesh and what was foundation.
New Orleans women, the mixture of French, Italian, English, Indian, Black, and god knows what else gave a new meaning to feminine pulchritude. She had a classic Romanesque nose and a pert mouth whose tips ended in a slight upturn, which almost made it impossible for her to frown. The attractiveness of Kristin’s almond shaped, light brown eyes nearly hypnotized me and made it hard to respond to what was clearly some serious issues that she wanted to talk about.
“Sometimes, when I get home, I have nightmares thinking about whether somebody has broke in and...”
“And what, shot and robbed me or something?"
“Is that why you always call in the morning.”
“I’ll be sure to phone you if something happens to me,” I tried to joke.
“David, what are we going to do?”
“Try to keep on living. Try to love each other. Try to make this city a better place.”
“That all sounds so noble, but I keep thinking about that baby and about Ann.”
“Don’t think about it.”
“That baby wasn’t thinking about it, and now he’s dead. Before it happened to Ann, she never thought about it. I’m not an ostrich. I can’t just stick my head in the sand and forget about it.” I had to smile at that and hold my sarcasm in check. I had started to say that’s exactly what you're doing by living in Metairie.
After a short pause, Kristin continued, “Why do they act like that? They have to live here too? Can’t they see that...”
“Kristin, sweetheart, we’re all in this together” I whispered while running the back of my fingers up and down her forearm.
“No, we’re not. We’re the ones who have everything to l....,” her vehemence indicated a real feeling of being wronged.
It never seems to occur to many of us that black people suffer more from crime than we do. “You know the overwhelming majority of murder victims are black. You know most of the rape victims are blac...”
“I know about Etienne. I know Ann.”
“I bet Ann was crazy long before that guy raped her,” I said under my breath. Before she could ask me to repeat what I never should have uttered aloud in the first place, I tried to change the subject. “Come here,” I said as I slid beneath the covers and pulled her toward me. Outside somebody was passing with some bounce music turned up to 15. Bounce was that infectious, New Orleans variation on rap that featured chanted choruses over modern syncopated beats. I felt Kristin stiffen in my arms as the music invaded the atmosphere of my bedroom.
“I don’t know how you stand it,” she said into my chest.
“It’s just music,” I responded while rubbing my face into her hair.
“I’m not talking about the music.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, pulling back slightly so I could read her physical expressions.
“Not knowing when one of them...”
“Them. Them! Who is them? You mean a black person?” I questioned while disassembling our embrace and stretching my arms upward.
She propped up on one elbow and spoke down to me. “No, I mean one of those crazy young black guys, the kind who would shoot you for a swatch watch.”
I looked her directly in the eyes, “You mean the kind who listens to that music we just heard?”
Kristin didn’t answer. After a few seconds, I turned away briefly at the same time that Kristin reclined and twisted her head to stare up at the ceiling. I watched her and waited for her reply for about forty-five seconds. Although she didn’t say anything, something was clearly going through her mind. Her eyes were darting quickly back and forth like she was checking figures in a set of books against figures on an adding machine tape. I finally broke the silence with a dare, “Penny for your thoughts.”
She responded while still looking up at the ceiling, “Honest injun?” That was our playful code to inaugurate a series of questions and answers with no holds barred.
Now we were both looking at the plaster ceiling with the swirl design-I wish I could have seen how those plasterers did that. “Shoot your best shot,” I said, my eyes still following the interlocking set of circular patterns as I reached out to hold Kristin’s hand.
“Mike says you probably moved to Tremé because you’ve got a black girl on the side,” she paused as the gravity of her words tugged at a question I knew was coming sooner or later. Her grip on my hand involuntarily tightened slightly, “Have you ever done it with a black girl?”
Her hand went limp, and I heard her exhale sharply. I turned to look at her. She frowned, closed her eyes, and spoke softly, barely moving her quivering lips. I wouldn’t let her hand go even though she was obviously a bit uncomfortable interrogating me and touching me at the same time.
“Five years ago, in college.”
She turned now and focused intently on my eyes, “That was the last time?”
“Do you... do you... I mean Mike says...”
“I’ll answer any questions you have Kristin, but I won’t answer Mike’s questions. I’m not in love with Mike.”
“You want me to compare doing it with you to doing it with a black girl, don’t you?” Her face tensed. She pulled her hand away.
There, it was out in the open. “If you want to know you have to ask.”
Silence. She rolled onto her side, faced me, and used her cherry red, lacquered, finger tips to outline my short, manicured, strawberry blond beard. She started at my ear lobe, and when she got to my chin, she hesitated, sighed, lay back squarely on her back, and tried to sound as casual as she could, “Did you ever have trouble getting it up with her?”
“No,” I replied quickly, almost as if I didn’t have to think about it, but, of course, I had already thought about it when I discerned the direction her questions were headed.
A terrifying hurt escaped Kristin’s throat, it sounded like she couldn’t breath and was fighting to keep from being crushed. “I can’t...” Kristin’s words peeled off into a grating whine. “David, why...”
“Why, what? Why did I do it with a black girl? Why did I have trouble getting it up a few minutes ago? Why did somebody shoot Etienne? All of the above? None of the above? What?”
“I’m going home.” She threw the covers back and started to climb cross me to get out of bed. I grabbed her waist and pulled her down on top of me. She tried to resist, but she only weighted 112 pounds and was no match for my upper body strength.
“No, don’t run from it. Let’s face this. We can do this.” I held her in a bear hug. She vainly tried to push away.
“David, stop. Let me go!” she hissed, struggling to break free as I determinedly tightened my grip. “Let me go.”
Her small fists were pummeling my chest while I forcibly retained her in my embrace. She had been momentarily kneeling over me, trying to scamper out of bed when I caught her in midmotion.
“David, you’re hurting me.” I used my left hand to grab her right wrist and yanked her right arm. As she lost her balance, I rolled over, pinning her to the mattress. “Stop! Stop!” She started pleading, “please stop. Let me go.”
“Kristin, listen to me.”
“No, let me go. Stop.” She was tossing her head back and forth, trying to avoid looking at me.
“Kristin, that was five years ago. Five damn years. If you didn’t want to know, why did you ask me?” We stared at each other. “Five years ago doesn’t have anything to do with us to...”
“It has everything to do with us. That’s why you can’t get it up with me, because I’m not black.”
I pushed her away, swung my legs over the side of the bed, and sat up.
“Did Mike tell you to say that?” I spat out the accusation over my shoulder.
After she didn’t answer, I pushed my fists into the mattress and started to get up. I heard Kristin crying.
“Why... how do you think it makes me feel? I come out here to be with you and... oh shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.”
I stopped midway in pushing myself up and allowed my full weight to sink back onto the bed. Now she was really bawling. I looked over at the Abita, grabbed the bottle, and drained it. I sat focusing on the beer label and asking myself how did I let a couple of hours in bed degenerate into this mess.
I had drunk the remaining third of the beer too quickly. A gigantic belch was coming, and I couldn’t stop it. For some strange reason I just felt it would be disrespectful to belch while Kristin was laying there sobbing, but I couldn’t help it.
The belch came out long and loud. “Excuse me,” I apologized. Afterwards, I looked over my shoulder at a heaving mass of flesh and hair-even after our tussle, her long luxurious hair flowed beautifully across her shoulders as though sculpted by an artist.
Her back was to me as she faced the wall silently crying and sniffling. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. “Kristin, it’s not...”
“Give me a cigarette, please,” she said without turning around while making a strenuous effort to stifle the tears.
I had an unopened pack of cigarettes sitting on the night table. Neither one of us smoked that much anymore except after we made love, we liked to share a cigarette. I ripped the cellophane with my teeth, peeled the thin plastic from the box, and nosily crumpled the crinklely protective covering. I started to ask, why do you want a cigarette and we hadn’t made love, but realized that would be a silly and insensitive question at this moment. I flipped the boxtop open and took out one cigarette. I pushed it back and forth between my fingers. As I lit the cigarette, I felt a sudden urge to urinate, but it seemed inappropriate for me to step away now. I didn’t want Kristin to think I was running from her, or didn’t want to talk, or whatever.
“Here.” As I reached the cigarette to her, she sat up and took it without really looking at me and without saying thanks or saying anything. She must have really been pissed because she seldom became so nonplussed that she forgot her etiquette training.
I picked up the empty beer bottle and, at a loss for what to do next, I began reading the fine print on the beer label.
I felt movement in the bed. When I turned to see what she was doing, Kristin stepped to the floor, cigarette smoke trailing from the cigarette she held in her left hand behind her.
I felt like I was sitting for the CPA exam. Neither of us was saying anything, but I knew I had better come up with the right answers or this deal was off. I looked up as she stepped into the bathroom and partially closed the door behind her.
I saw the light go on in the bathroom. I heard her lower the toilet seat and then the loud splash in the bowl as she relieved herself. After she stopped urinating, I heard the flush of the toilet and then nothing. Maybe she was sitting there still crying.
I sat on the bed with an empty beer bottle in my hand. Damn, five years was a long time ago. Linda. I don’t think either one of us was really in love. We thought we were. I rubbed the cool beer bottle across my forehead as I remembered those crazy days in Boston. I think what was the most surprising was how unremarkable the sex was. I mean it was good, but it just was. It was no big thing. No ceiling falling on us, the earth didn’t move. And there was no scene about it. We did it and enjoyed it, and that was it. Not like... I didn’t want to go there. I looked at the vertical shaft of light paralleling the edge of the partially open bathroom door.
I think Linda caught more grief than I did. A lot of her friends stopped speaking to her. All my friends wanted to know was what it was like. Sex really doesn’t have to be all this. I remember how nervous I was the first time and how she just said, “look, I don’t know what you expect, and I don’t care what you’ve heard. We’re just people. I’m not into anything kinky. You will use a condom, and if I ever hear you talking any jungle fever shit, you’ll be swinging through the jungle all by your damn self.”
The thing I most remember is that she said thank you the first time I ate her out, and she reached a climax. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but this seems like the only way I can get a climax.”
I had tried to cautiously ask her what she meant without being crude or rude.
“Head. Straight sex is ok, but I can only reach a climax when I get some head.”
“Is that why you're with me.”
“David, don’t believe that shit about brothers got dick, and only white boys give head. And, for sure, don’t believe that you’re the only one willing to lick this pot.”
“No, I didn’t mean...ah, I didn’t mean to im...”
“Shut up! You talk too muc...”
“David, I’m sorry. I’m kinda stressed out because...” As I snapped back to the present, Kristin was standing over me. I hadn’t heard her return from the bathroom. I realized I had been sitting with my eyes closed, rolling the beer bottle over my face, thinking about Linda. “...well because I was afraid of losing you. I know you love me. And I think you know how much I love you.”
Yeah, enough to come over to the black side of town at night, is what I thought, but, of course, I didn’t say anything.
“You don’t feel like talking do you?”
“No, I feel like it. I want to talk. Let’s talk,” I answered quickly. I opened my eyes and focused on her petite, immaculately pedicured feet. Her toenails were polished the same brilliant red as her fingernails. Her feet were close together, and her toes were twitching nervously in the shag of my Persian blue carpet. Kristin was standing so close to me that when I looked up, I was looking right at her muff.
I quickly placed the empty beer bottle on the nightstand. I pulled her close to me, embraced her waist, and kissed her navel. I felt her slender hands caressing my head. Where was the cigarette?
“I know I’m not very sexy...”
“Kri...” I tried to turn my head upward but she hugged my head hard to her stomach.
“No. Just listen. I’ve got to say this. I know sex is important to you, and I’m willing to try whatever you want to make you happy. Anything. OK? Anything.”
“Hey babe, we’re going to be alright. You’ll see. We’re going to make it just fine.”
“Be careful who you love because love is mad,” was all my father ever told me about love. Nothing about sex. Nothing about understanding women. Just love is mad. We were sitting in the front room listening to his Ellington records. He played that Ivie Anderson song where she sings about love being like a cigarette. And he played a couple of other songs. And a concert recording of Ellington, employing his trademark suavity, telling the audience, ‘We love you madly.’ I don’t know how many other Ellington fans there were in Normal, Illinois, but early in my life my father recruited me simply by playing records for hours as he sat in the twilight on those evenings when he wasn’t running up and down the road selling farm equipment.
I guess I just wanted to be around him. He was so seldom there for any length of time, when he was there I did what he did. I listened to jazz. Mostly Ellington, Basie, and Charlie Barnet playing ‘Cherokee.’ I remember once Dad played Charlie Parker’s ‘KoKo.’ Dad said Koko was based on ‘Cherokee,’ but I couldn’t hear any ‘Cherokee’ anywhere. He laughed. ‘Yes, sometimes life can be complicated.’ And then it was back to Ellington and all those gorgeous melodies. I still have the record Ellington signed for us backstage at the Elks dance many years ago. Well, not really signed because his signature wasn’t on there. Just a scrawled ‘love you madly.’
“I believe you when you say that,” Kristin intoned without missing a beat.
“That’s because I love you madly and mean it with all my heart.” It had become easier and easier to reveal that truth to Kristin.
“David, I just heard on the news that the casino is closing. What are we going to do?”
“Well, you’re going to hold on to your job with the tourist commission, and I’m going to draw unemployment.”
“I guess now would be a good time for us to live together. I could move in with you-I mean if you want me to-and we could split the rent.”
“A couple of months ago you were scared to spend the night, now you’re talking about moving in with me.”
“Only if you want me to.” I detected a note of anxiety in her voice. Both of us were probably recalling that angry exchange we had when we first discussed living arrangements over dinner at Semolina’s: “David, all I pay is utilities and a yearly maintenance contract, it would be a lot cheaper for you to move in with me even if you took a cab to work everyday.”
That’s when I had unloaded, “I didn’t move down here to live in a white suburb twenty miles away from the center of town. I know your family finds it a lot more practical, i.e. safer, to enjoy New Orleans from a distance, but if I’m going to live in New Orleans, I want to live in New Orleans. Besides, that’s one of the main reasons the city’s so crazy now.”
And then Kristin had exploded with a prepared litany of rationalizations: “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be safe. I love New Orleans. I didn’t move to the suburbs to run away. I live in Metairie because it’s family property and..."
“Because you can't live uptown anymore because your family sold their lovely, hundred year-old, historic Victorian house,” I had replied drily.
“David Squire, you’re just a starry-eyed idealist. You have no idea of how neat New Orleans used to be, and how messed up it is now...”
“Now that Blacks run and overrun the city. Right? Now that they have messed it up and made it impossible for us nice white folks to have a really neat time?”
Kristen drew up sharply as if the bright faced college student who was our waitress had put a plate of warm shit in front of Kristin instead of the shrimp fettuccini, which she hardly touched.
“David, let’s just change the subject, please,” Kristin had said in the icy tone she used when her mind was made up and, right or wrong, she was going to stick to her guns.
“Well, just think about it, David. I’m not trying to push you or anything; it’s just that my half would help with the rent.” Hearing Kristin’s languid voice flow warmly through the receiver made me realize that I hadn’t responded to her question and that there had been several long seconds of dead air while she waited for my tardy reply.
“OK, I’ll think about it, Kristin. You know this whole job thing has happened so suddenly, I'm not sure what I want to do. So I’m going to just cool it for awhile and see how the chips fall.”
“God, David, you sound so cool to say you just lost your job.”
“Yeah, well, getting excited isn’t going to change anything. Besides, I can get another job. Good accountants are always in demand.”
“David, I’ve got to go, but I just wanted to call as soon as I heard on the news...”
“I love ya.”
“And I love you.” The worry vanished instantly when I reassured her that our relationship was not in jeopardy. Her tone brightened. “I’m on my way to the gym. I could swing by when I finish.”
“No, I’m alright,” I heard the disappointed silence like she was holding her breath and biting her bottom lip. Why was I being so difficult when all she was trying to do was reach out and touch? Besides, I had come to really enjoy her perky company. “But, on second thought, babe, it would be great to be with you. Call me when you get back in.”
“I can come now. Skipping one day of gym won't be the end of the world.”
“No, no, no, no, noooo. Go to the gym. Call me when you get back home.”
“I’ll call you from the gym.”
“S’cool.” I said slurring my signature sign off of “it’s cool.”
“It’ll be around 8:30.”
“S’cool. I think I'm going to walk down to Port Of Call and get a beer or something. Later gator.”
It was a near perfect November evening in New Orleans, what little breeze there was caressed your face with the fleeting sensation of a mischievous lover enticingly blowing cool breaths into your ear. It would have been a waste of seductive twilight to stay indoors. I grabbed my lightweight, green nylon windbreaker and ventured forth as though this evening had been created solely for my enjoyment. I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow. I would hook up with Kristin a little later. My rent was paid. I had twenty dollars in my pocket and a healthy stash in my savings account. I didn’t have a care in the world.
As I neared Rampart Street, just before crossing into the French Quarter, indistinct sounds of music mingled from many sources: car radios, bars, homes. No night in the old parts of New Orleans was complete without music.
This is where jazz began. My father the jazz fan had never been to New Orleans. Satchmo and Jellyroll walked these very streets. I looked up at the thin slice of moon that hung in the sky, “Dad, I’m here.”
I knew he’d understand what I meant. He had been a farm boy who never really cared much about the land. What he liked was meeting different people. All kinds of people, but mostly people who weren’t living where we lived. Dad would have loved New Orleans and the plethora of street denizens of amazing variety who seemed to thrive in the moral hothouse of licentious and sensual living, which was the trademark of Big Easy existence.
Before I reached the corner, a police car slow cruising down the street passed me. I looked over at the cops, one blond the other dark skinned, and waved. Their visibility was reassuring.
When I got back from Port Of Call it was fully dark. I should have taken my bike. Cycling was safer than walking. Moreover, walking through the quarter was more dangerous than walking through Tremé, which was flooded with police once the casino had opened in Armstrong Park…Hummppp, I wondered if they would keep up the policing now that the casino was closed.
It was about twenty minutes to eight. I had casually checked my watch as I turned off Esplanade after crossing Rampart. When I got close to my place, I saw somebody had left a 40 oz. beer bottle on my stoop. I picked it up and routinely checked all around me to make sure nobody was trying to slip up on me as I unlocked my front door. The alarm beeped until I punched in the disarming code-that was my one concession to Kristin. No, I wasn’t going to buy a car, but yes I would get a security alarm system put in.
I locked the deadbolt and flipped on the front room lamp. I felt like some Dr. John. I put the empty bottle down, twirled my cd rack, pulled out Dr. John’s Gumbo, slid it in the cd player, turned the volume up to six, and sang “Iko Iko” along with the good Dr. as I danced to the kitchen after turning off the floor lamp. I was using the empty forty oz. as a microphone and moving with a pigeon-toed shuffle step. I ended with a pirouette and a slam dunk of the forty into the thirty gallon kitchen trash can.
While pulling off my windbreaker and hanging it in the closet, I heard a faint knocking, but I thought it was one of the neighborhood kids beating out a rhythm on the side of the house. The knocking persisted, only louder. Who could that be, nobody besides Kristin ever visits me. I jogged into the front room.
“Yeah, who is it?” I shouted out as I detoured to turn the music down.
“I’m Brother Cooper, man.”
“Who?” I shouted through the locked door.
“Bras Coupe,” came back the indistinct reply.
“I don’t want none.”
“I ain’t selling nothing. I just wanna ask you something.”
“Open the door, please, mister?” There was an urgency in his voice which I couldn’t decipher. I peered out the window next to the door, but the streetlights were to his back, and most of his face was in shadows. I turned on my front flood light. I still didn’t recognize him. His left hand was empty; I couldn’t see his right hand.
“I ain’t goin’ do you nothing, man. I just want to ask you something.”
“I can hear you,” I shouted back through the solid wood, dead-lock-bolted door. I continued watching him through the window.
“Look, I’m just as scared as you, standing out here, knocking on a stranger’s door, enough for to get shot. I know you don’t know me, but I used to live here twenty-two years ago. I left town, and I'm just passing through. My people done all gone, and I just wanted to see the house I grew up in.”
This sounded like a first class line to me. He stepped back so that he was fully illuminated by the flood light. “Look, I couldn’t do you nothing even if I wanted to-I’m cripple.” He twirled around to show me the empty dangling right sleeve of his sweatshirt. He was probably too poor to procure prosthesis. “If you got a gun why don’t you get it and hold it on me; I just want to see the house.”
I was in a quandary. Suppose the gun thing was a trick to find out if I had a gun. Suppose he was planning to come back later and rob me. He didn’t look like anybody I had seen in the neighborhood before. And there was this tone in his voice-it wasn’t fear; it was something else. He pleaded with me, “I wouldn't blame you for not letting me in, but it sure would mean a lot to me to see the house.”
“The house has been completely remolded; you wouldn’t recognize it now.”
“If you don’t want to let me in, just tell me to get lost. That’s your right. It’s your property now...” Renters don’t have property rights I thought as I weighed his appeal. “But, you ain’t got to handle me like I’m stupid. I know the house don’t look nothing like when I lived in it.”
I said nothing else. He backed down the steps and stood on the sidewalk. A car passed, and he flinched like he thought the car was coming up on the sidewalk or like he feared somebody was after him.
“You white, ain’t you? And you afraid to let a one armed, black man in your house after dark. I understand your feelings. Can you understand mine?”
It pained me to realize I didn’t and, worse yet, possibly couldn’t understand his feelings. I had all kinds of black acquaintances that I knew and spoke to on a daily basis, but not one whom I was really close to. I had been here over a year and still didn’t have one real friend who was black and not middle class.
My mind ping ponged from point to point searching for an answer to his softly stated albeit deadly question. Could someone like me-someone white and economically secure-ever really understand the feelings of a poor, black man? Especially since I wanted honesty and refused to settle for the facade of sharing cultural positions simply because I exercised my option to live in the same physical space with those who had little choice in the matter.
My pride would not let me fake at being poor, walk around with artificially ripped jeans and headrags pretending I was down. Besides when you get really close to poverty, you understand that poverty sucks big time. You see how being poor wears people out physically, emotionally and mentally.
These neighborhoods are like a prison without bars, and a lot of these people are doing nothing but serving time until they can figure a way to get out, which most of them seldom do. Especially, the men. They just become more hardened, callous, and emotionally distant. My stay was temporary. I was not sentenced by birth, but visiting, one step removed from sightseeing. Regardless of what I like to tell myself about commitment and sincerity, it was my choice to come here, and I always have a choice to leave-a real choice backed up by marketable skills that would be accepted anywhere I may go. I know that most of the people in this neighborhood have no such choice.
As if to distract myself from the meaning of this moment of conflict, I looked at the disheveled man on my sidewalk and wondered had his father ever played him music and told him that “love was mad”? Obviously his father had not sent him to college. Could not have. But the conundrum for me had nothing to do with poverty in the abstract, or even with letting this man into the apartment. For me the deep issue was stark and cold: was I mad for trying to love the people who created jazz? If this man had appeared at my father’s door, would dad have let him in?
I overcame my fear and my better judgment, pulled out my key, and unlocked the deadbolt. I started to throw the door open, but realized that there were no lights on in the front room, and the hall door was wide open exposing the rest of the house. “Wait a minute,” I said firmly through the door.
I turned around, flicked on my black lacquered, floor lamp, turned the cd player off in the middle of Dr. John singing “Somebody Changed The Lock,” and then closed the hall door. I quickly surveyed the room to make sure there was nothing lying round that...wait a minute, why was I worried about the possibility of a one armed man being a thief?
I returned to the door, peeked out the window-he was still standing there-and then released the lock on the doorknob. I cautiously opened the door. “I guess you can come in for a minute.” I felt my pulse pounding and struggled to remain calm.
He started up the steps slowly. His hair was the first thing I noticed as he stepped into the doorway. It was untrimmed, it wasn’t long, but it was uncombed. As I surveyed him, I instinctively stepped back from him, and then I reached out my hand to shake, “My name is David Squire”-suddenly I was assaulted by a distinct but unidentifiable pungent odor that I had never smelled before. He reached out his left hand and covered my hand. I realized immediately that it was a faux pas to offer my right hand to a man without a right arm. He seemed to sense my embarrassment.
“I’m Bras Coupe. Lots of people call me Brother Cooper.” His hand was rough and calloused. His skin felt leathery and unyielding. I looked down at his hand. His claw like fingernails were discolored and jagged. When I withdrew my hand and looked up at his face, he was examining the room. He said nothing more and just stood there looking around.
Finally, I stepped around him to close the door. The scent that I had caught a whiff of in the doorway, engulfed me now, and wrestled with the oxygen in my nose. I had to open my mouth to breath. I was certain I had made a mistake letting him in, now the question was how to get him out.
“You want to sit down,” I asked in a weak voice?
He slowly sank to one knee right where he was. After swiveling around so that he was facing me, he locked into what was obviously for him a comfortable posture. He leaned his weight on his left arm which was braced against his upraised left leg. It was almost as if he was ready to jump up and run at a moment’s notice.
“You do not use the fireplace.” He raised his head slightly and audibly sniffed twice, his nostrils flaring with each intake of air. “No windows open.” He sniffed again. “You don’t cook.” He rose in a surprisingly swift motion. And then for the first time he stood up to his full height. He was huge.
I backed up.
“I’m not going to hurt you. If I wanted to, I could have killed you by now.”
As I measured him from head to foot, I couldn’t hide my shock when I saw that he was barefoot.
“You wear your fear like a flag.” He nonchalantly watched me inspect him and laughed again when my eyes riveted on his bare feet. “Show me the rest of my house, David Squire.”
I was glued where I stood. I couldn’t move. I had never felt so helpless before. “Do you understand what you feel? You should see yourself. Tell me about yourself,” he commanded.
I stammered, “What wha... wha-what do you want to-to know?”
“I already know everything I want to know. It’s what you need to know about yourself that matters. Why are you here? What do you think is so cool about all of this mess?”
I couldn’t answer. Somehow to say “I came to New Orleans because I wanted to get to know the people who created jazz” seemed totally the wrong thing to do. He turned his back to me and looked at my stereo system. “Do you have any of my music?”
He stomped on the floor three times in rapid succession with his right foot, shouting “Dansez Badoum, Dansez Badoum, Dansez Dansez.” Then he spun in slow circles on his left foot while using his one hand to beat a complicated cross-rhythm on his chest and on his upraised left leg. Somehow, simultaneously with turning clockwise in a circle, he carved a counterclockwise circle in the air with his head. His agility was breathtaking. He dipped suddenly in a squat, slapped the floor, and froze with his piercing eyes popped out in a transfixing stare. I felt a physical pressure push me backward.
“I thought you liked my music.” He looked away briefly and then returned his full and terrible attention to me. I was quaking in my Rockport walking boots. Neither of us said anything and a terrible silence followed.
“Talk to me, David Squire.”
“It’s, it’s about life.” I stammered quietly.
“Eh? What say you?”
“Black music. Your music. It’s about life. The beauty of life regardless of all the ugliness that surrounds... usss....” Instantly I wished I hadn’t said that. It was true, but it sounded so much like a liberal line. Just like when Dad had introduced me to Mr. Ellington, I couldn’t think of anything right to say. So, I said the only truth on the tip of my tongue, “I love your music.”
“Am I supposed to feel good because you love my music? Why don’t you love your own music? Why don’t you make your own music?”
I had never thought about that. It didn’t seem right. There was no white man I could think of who could come close. Even Dr. John was at his best when he sounded like he was black. When I looked up, Brother Cooper had his eyes steeled onto me like an auditor who has found the place where the books had been doctored. My mouth hung open, but I had no intentions of trying to answer that question.
“After you take our music, what’s left in this city?”
“I’m not from here.” Words came out of my mouth without thinking.
“You’re from the north.”
“"I’m from Normal, Illinois.”
“Where did you go to school?”
“Where in Boston.”
“Sit down David Squire.” Still in a squatting position, he motioned toward my reading chair with his hand. “You look a bit peaked.”
In a swift crablike motion, he scurried quickly over to me without rising. He touched my knee. There was nothing soft in his touch. It was like I had bumped into a tree. “Harvard eh, your people must have a little money.”
“Most people think going to Harvard means you’re smart.” I blurted out without thinking. Putting my mouth in motion before engaging my brain was a bad habit I needed to loose.
“Smart doesn’t run this country. Does it?” He looked away.
I began sweating.
“Go relieve yourself,” Cooper said without looking at me.
As soon as he said that, I felt my bladder throbbing. I almost ran to the bathroom, locking the door behind me. I turned on the light, the heat lamp, the vent. I unzipped my pants, started to urinate, and felt my bowels stir with an urgency that threatened to soil my drawers. I dropped my pants, hurriedly pulled down the toilet seat, plopped down and unloaded.
I wiped myself quickly. I washed my hands, quickly. I threw water on my face, quickly. And then I looked into the mirror. My face was pale with terror.
“David Squire, come, I must tell you something before I go.” At the sound of Cooper’s voice, my legs gave way momentarily, and I fell against the wash basin. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. I couldn’t go back out there, and I couldn’t not go.
“David Squire,” the powerful voice boomed again. “Open the door.”
My hand trembled as I flicked the latch and turned the knob. I pulled the door open, and there he stood directly in front of the door. “Every future has it’s past. What starts in madness will end in the same again. My name is Bras Coupe. Find out who I am and understand what made me be what I became. Know the beginning well and the end will not trouble you.” He looked through me as if I were a window pane. I couldn’t bear his stare; I closed my eyes.
“Look at me.”
When I opened my eyes, I was in total darkness. I shivered. I felt cold and broke out sweating profusely again when I realized I was laying on my back on my bed. Now I was past scared. I was sure I was dead.
Then that voice sounded again, “You fainted.”
His words wrapped around me like a snake. I felt the mattress sag as if, as if he was climbing into my bed. All I could think of was that he was going to fuck me. All the muscles in my ass tightened as taut as the strings on my tennis racket. From somewhere I remembered the pain and humiliation of a rectal exam when I was young.
My mother was sitting on the other side of the room, and the doctor made me lay on my stomach. The last thing I saw him do was put on rubber gloves. T hey squeaked when he put his hands in them. And they snapped loudly as he pulled them snugly on his wrist, tugged at the tops, and let the upper ends pop with an ominous clack on his wrist. “This might hurt a little, but it will be over in a minute.” And then he stuck his finger up my rectum.
It felt like his whole hand was going up in there. I looked over at my mother. She didn’t say anything; she just had this incredibly pained look on her plain face which always honestly reflected her emotions. “It will be alright, David. Yah, it will be alright,” she said, sounding the “y” of yes as though it were a soft “j”-her second generation Swedish background was generally all but gone from her speech except for the stubborn nub that stuck to her tongue when ever she was under duress.
What had I done? What did I have? T he pain shot up from my anus and exited my mouth as a low pitched moan. I was watching my mother watch me. I resolved that I was going to be strong, and I was going to withstand whatever this man was going to do to me.
The man with his whole hand up my butt wasn’t saying anything. He just kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing. I don’t remember him stopping. I don’t remember anything else except that despite my best efforts, I cried.
And now, here I lay in the dark awaiting another thrust up my ass. The anticipation was excruciating. My resolve to remain stoic completely crumbled, and I started crying-but not loudly or anything. In fact there was no sound except the imperceptible splash of my huge tears flowing slowly down the sides of my face and falling shamelessly onto my purple comforter.
Suddenly the bright light from the table lamp illuminated my predicament. He was standing next to the bed. I recoiled, rolling back from the sight of him. “Are you Ok?” he questioned me. “You look...” he stopped abruptly and cocked his head as if he heard something. After a few brief seconds, he returned his attention to me. “They’re coming.” Without saying anything else, he turned and walked away toward the kitchen. A moment later, I too could hear a police siren.
And then it seemed like nothing happened. Just hours and hours of nothing. No sound from the kitchen. Nothing at all. My heart was pounding.
I tried to make myself sit up. It was like a dream. I couldn’t move. I told myself to get up. But, I couldn’t move. I wanted to move. I wanted to run. But I couldn’t move.
Eventually, I made myself stop crying. It took so much effort, I was almost exhausted. Suddenly there was a loud knocking at my front door. The rapping startled me. I involuntarily let out a brief whelp of fear, “Ah.”
Cooper appeared soundlessly at the foot of the bed. “Go.”
I jumped up.
I was in shock.
The knock was louder. I don’t know how I got to the front door, but when I got there, I didn’t say a word as the insistent tapping started again. It sounded like somebody beating on my door with a club. Suppose this was one of Cooper’s friends come to do me in.
I glanced over my shoulder at the back of the house. Cooper had turned the bedroom lamp off.
I glanced out the front window. Two policemen were outside. One on the stoop, one on the sidewalk. I hadn’t done anything wrong. Why were they knocking on my door?
“Yes,” I said meekly without opening the door.
“It’s the police, sir.”
I cracked the door-I had forgotten to lock it when I let Cooper in-“Is anything wrong, officer?”
“Yeah, I hate to tell you this, but there was a double homicide a couple blocks away, and we have reason to believe the murderer is still in the neighborhood.” The officer spoke of two people murdered with the casualness only a New Orleans policeman could evidence when discussing the carnage that had now become some common. “Have you seen or heard anything?”
I could have stood there for ten hours and not been able to honestly answer that question. I didn’t really know what I had seen or not seen. At that moment I doubted my own sanity. Just then my phone rang.
“One minute, officer, that’s my phone.” The phone stopped in the middle of the second ring before I could answer the extension in the front room. It was too soon for the answering machine to pick up. No, couldn’t be-I instantly rejected the notion that Cooper had answered the phone.
I had left the door open, and the policeman stuck his head in and made a quick announcement. “Sir, we’re just advising everyone in the area to be careful and please call us immediately if you see or hear anything.”
I dashed back to the door as the officer was talking. He was a young, black guy, medium build, clean cut, and he spoke with an air of authority. I was about to say something to him when I heard Cooper call out to me from the bedroom, “that was Kristin, I told her you would call her right back.”
“Ok.” I said, responding to both Cooper and the policeman. Before I could say anything else the policeman was backing away from my door. I turned quickly looking for Cooper, but it was completely dark in the back, and I couldn’t see anything. When I turned back to the front door, the police cruiser was pulling off from the curb. I closed the door, pulled out my key, and made sure that I locked the deadbolt this time.
As I started toward the bedroom, I realized that I had locked myself in the house with Cooper. I froze in the hallway next to the bathroom.
I turned the hall light on. I started feeling afraid again. The bathroom door was partially open. I stood away from the bathroom door and pushed it fully open. Nothing.
I turned on the bathroom light. Nothing.
The front room light was on. The hall light was on. The bathroom light was on. There were only two more rooms: my bedroom and the kitchen just beyond it.
The bedroom was completely dark, as was the kitchen. “Cooper,” I called out in a subdued and shaky voice. Nothing.
I repeated the call a little louder, “Cooper.” Nothing.
I put my back to the wall and inched into the bedroom. Just inside the door way, I stood perfectly still, opened my mouth to balance the pressure in my ears, and listened as keenly as I could. Nothing.
The table lamp was only about three feet away, but every time I went to reach for it, something kept me pinned to the wall. Was he in the dark waiting to waylay me?
I took a deep breath, pushed away from the wall, and jumped on the bed. I was safe. I hit the lamp switch. Light filled the room. Nothing.
All that was left was the kitchen.
Now that most of the lights were o, it was less frightening. I stepped into the hallway and reached my hand around the doorway to turn on the light in the little combination kitchen-dining room. This apartment was shaped funny because it was really a large double carved up into three apartments.
There was nothing in the kitchen. I ran to the kitchen door, which opened to the side alley. It was still locked with the deadbolt, and I had the key in my trouser pocket.
Every room was lit. There was nobody in here.
I walked through every room growing bolder by the minute. I searched through each room three times. Nothing.
Opened closet doors. Nothing.
Pulled the shower curtain back and looked in the stall. Nothing.
Looked under the bed. Nothing.
I must have been hallucinating.
I turned off the kitchen light and haltingly inched my way back into the front room.
I turned off the front room lamp.
I turned off the hall light.
I turned off the bathroom light.
I sat down on the bed and turned off the lamp.
As soon as I felt the darkness envelop me, I flicked the switch back on. What was I doing? Where was Cooper? Was Cooper ever here? What the hell was going on?
Then I remembered Kristin.
I picked up the phone and dialed her. Her phone rang, and rang, and rang until the recorder came on. “Hi, I’m out at the moment, but I’ll be right back. Please leave your name and number at the tone, and I’ll get right back to you. Thanks. Ciao.”
“David, get a hold of yourself. T his is crazy,” I mumbled to myself as I sat on the side of the bed staring into space.
I got up again, went from room to room turning on all the lights. Tested the kitchen door. It was locked. Walked to the front of the house. Tested the front door. It was locked. Started at the front room and searched each room in the house again. Nothing.
I turned the lights off in every room except the bedroom. I sat down on the bed.
I got up and walked around.
I turned off the table lamp.
As soon as it was off, I switched the lamp back on.
I called Kristin again. No answer.
I went to the bathroom, splashed water on my face. Dried my face on the green towel hanging from the towel ring, turned off the bathroom light and went back in the bedroom.
I kicked off my shoes. Lay down on the bed. Turned off the light. Heard something in the room. Turned the light back on. Nothing.
I couldn’t go on like this. Afraid of my own apartment.
I called Kristin again. “I clearly remember Cooper saying that Kristin called,” I said out loud to myself. She still wasn’t home.
I turned the radio on. I turned the radio off.
I slipped back into my shoes and walked from the bedroom to the front room, turning on lights as I went.
I walked from the front room to the bedroom, turning off lights as I went.
When I got back in the bedroom, I reached out to switch the lamp off, but I couldn’t. So I stood there and looked at my hand on the switch. Finally, my hand moved to the phone, and I called Kristin one more time. No answer.
I lay down. I got up.
I got tired of standing.
I sat on the bed.
I stood up.
Then I thought I heard a knocking on the side of the house-Cooper was coming back. I walked through the house and turned all the other lights back on.
I was exhausted. I didn’t have the strength to leave the front room.
I looked out the front window reconnoitering the area in front my house. I couldn’t see anything.
I left the window and stood in the middle of the front room.
For the first time since I had come back from the Port Of Call, I thought to check the time. I looked at my watch. It was 9:05.
I started to walk to the back of the house, instead I turned around. I had to go outside. I pulled out my key, unlocked the deadbolt, and threw the door wide open. I didn’t think about setting the alarm, getting a jacket, or anything. I just stood in my open doorway and felt relatively safe now that I was halfway out the house. After a few minutes of deep breathing, I stepped completely out of the doorway and closed the door behind me.
I looked up and down the street. A young guy was walking down the street with his hands in his pocket. Miss Sukky was pacing back and forth, plying her wares at her usual spot down the corner at Esplanade Avenue. A dog came sauntering toward me sniffing at the ground between the street and the sidewalk. The street mutt paused when he saw me, snorted gruffly, backed up briefly, turned and trotted away. A couple of blocks down, a police car’s blue lights were flashing. It looked like every other night.
Pow. Pow. I heard two shots in the distance, and I jumped as each one went off. This was just like any other night. I had gotten used to the gunfire. Or so I thought. Pow. A third shot.
I slumped down on the top step, and before I knew better, I felt uncontrollable waves welling up inside me.
For the first time since I arrived over a year ago, I began to question whether living here was worth playing Russian roulette, betting your life that the next murder wouldn’t be your own.
The economy, such as it was, was disastrously close to imploding. The gaming industry was a bust. Crime was spiraling out of control. Everywhere you looked the neighborhoods were disintegrating. Abandoned buildings, vacant property, and housing for sale dominated the landscape-even on exclusive, posh St. Charles Avenue. The whole city was up for grabs.
New Orleans wasn’t fun like I had expected it to be, like I had wanted it to be. I couldn’t go on pretending everything was cool. It wasn’t.
Madness again. That’s what Cooper had said: Madness. Again. What did he mean by again? Was it ever this mad? Was New Orleans ever like this before?
Kristin was always saying she admired my integrity. What would she think if she could see me now? I almost started crying again. I had to keep screwing up my face and rapidly blinking my eyes to fight back the tears-a crying man sitting on a stoop wouldn’t last long in this neighborhood-but I wasn’t totally successful and, every time I wiped one away, another small tear droplet would form and sit at the edge of each of my eyes.
Why was I crying? I wasn’t hurt.
But I was in pain.
I wasn’t robbed.
But an essential part of my sanity was gone.
“Kristin, I’m sorry.” I had been so condescending toward her. I threw my head back and bumped it repeatedly against the front door. Harvard educated. Bump. Physically fit. Bump. And emotionally traumatized. Bump-bump. I head-knocked the door a couple of more times, partially dried my face with my shirt sleeve, reached into my pocket, pulled out my handkerchief and, in an almost pro forma attempt to clear my nasal passages, blew gobs of mucus into the white cotton. I sniffed once more, gave the tip of my nose another cursory brush, and then dabbed hard at my moustache and down the sides of my mouth and over my beard. I folded the handkerchief and stuffed it back in my pocket. As I did so, my fingers touched my keys, and I recoiled with a reflex action. I couldn’t go back in there. Not now. Not tonight.
I resigned myself to sitting on my steps all night. Or maybe I would walk over to the Exxon on Rampart and Esplanade and call for Kristin, and ask her... ask her what? To come get me. Ask her... somebody was standing in front of me.
I was almost afraid to look the youngster in the eye; he might interpret my gaze as a challenge or a putdown. I had seen him around a couple of times. He unblinkingly looked at me like he was trying to decide what to do with me. I just looked at him.
I could have gotten up and gone inside. I could have spoken to him. He could have spoken to me. But I just sat there and looked at him. He just stood there and looked at me. Neither one of us said anything.
Finally, he nonchalantly turned, walked to the corner, and stood there with his back to me. He pulled out a cigarette, lit up, blew smoke up in the air, turned around, and started walking away. When he reached the far corner, he turned and disappeared. I finally exhaled.
Leaning forward, my forearms resting heavily on my knees, I clasped my hands and dropped my head. “I don’t want to die. Please, God. I want to live. I’m trying God. I’m trying my best.” I couldn’t remember the last time I had prayed to God. Whenever it was, for sure, I had never uttered a more sincere prayer in my life.
My hands were shaking. Literally shaking. I tried to keep them still. I could feel them shaking uncontrollably. I pushed them under my thighs momentarily, trying to sit on my hands to keep them still. It didn’t help.
I passed my hands through my hair, interlaced them behind my head, and leaned back against the door. It didn’t help.
I leaned forward again, clenching and unclenching my fists. My hands were still shaking. I entwined my fingers and tightly clasped my hands. I had my eyes closed. I was afraid to look at my hands. Afraid to look at myself.
I took a deep breath.
“It’s not worth it. It’s not worth it,” I heard myself muttering a bottom line assessment I never thought I would be thinking, not to mention saying it out loud.
“David, what’s wrong? Why are you sitting out here?”
I looked up, and there was Kristin, dashing out of her car and racing breathlessly toward me. I hadn’t even heard her drive up. Her trembling voice was full of anxiety as she sprinted across the sidewalk.
“Are you OK? I got here as fast as I could. Who was that on the phone?” her words gushed out in a torrent of concern and consternation.
At that moment all I could do was drop my head and tender my resignation. This business was a bust; it was time to move on while I still could, “Kristin, I’m scared. Please, take me to your place.”