Gumbo: A Celebration of African American Writing - novelonlinefull.com
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"Malik," said one of the guys on the stoop. I glanced over at the guy, happy for the interruption. "Give the brother a break."
"Brother? This n.i.g.g.a ain't no brother. You ain't from up here, are you?" asked Malik. I wanted to just walk away but I didn't want to turn my back on him.
"No," I said. "But I'm checking out a place, though."
" 'I'm checking . . .' n.i.g.g.a, you better head on back downtown. Harlem ain't for you. You too soft." He pushed me hard in the chest and I stumbled back. I couldn't smile anymore. At the end of the street I could see a cop car turning the corner and rolling our way.
"Malik," said one of his friends. "Chill, man. d.a.m.n."
"I'm just f.u.c.king with this li'l n.i.g.g.a." Malik looked me up and down, then starting laughing. He reached out his hand and I shook it, feeling the calluses on his palm as he slid his hand from mine and headed back to the stoop.
The cop car stopped but the policemen didn't get out, fully aware that their presence was more than enough. "How's it going, fellas?"
"It's all good," said Malik. "Just keeping it real, ain't that right, Theo?"
He changed my name so easily; he saw me as Theo, and as far as he was concerned, that's who I was: a black TV character from the eighties, living in a brownstone, successful parents, beautiful sisters, no troubles in the world. Theo Huxtable, easy as that. "Fine, Officer," I said, using this as an excuse to start walking away. I felt Malik's eyes on me, but I just walked on, hands jammed in my pockets, a slight ache in my chest.
I thought of going back to the ads, back downtown, back to something familiar, but I wasn't going to let one incident stop me. Still a man, in Harlem, I marched on.
My steps weren't as strong as they were before running into Malik and they became even more strained when I turned the corner off of Fifth Avenue onto 120th Street. Standing outside of the town house was a mostly white crowd, all looking attentive, ready to claim the s.p.a.ce. I stopped for a moment, nervously twisting my hair; dreading rejection.
Black hair is hard work.
As I stood there it was like Malik had left his friends on the stoop and was standing in front of me, forty in hand, then spitting in my face, "Black boy blending." I crossed the street and went into Marcus Garvey Park. I took off the sweater I'd gotten in Ireland and stuffed it in my backpack. I pulled out my shirt and T-shirt and let the tails hang. There was no way to hide my loafers so I took off my belt and pushed my khakis down as far as they could go without falling off.
The park was hardly a telephone booth and Superman I wasn't, but with a slow swagger I walked toward the group standing outside of the town house like I belonged in the neighborhood and they were mere loiterers. "Wa.s.sup?" A few people nodded their heads but didn't say anything. I made my way to the back of the crowd, hoping that being set off from the rest would draw attention to me, praying that on this trip a whale in the distance is more alluring than those circling the boat.
We didn't have to wait long. At four o'clock the front doors of the town house opened. A woman stepped out and my body straightened and I shifted my weight from foot to foot to try to get a better look.
She closed the door and walked down the steps, leisurely as though an aria was ending, the cadenza on its way. She had on a fitted black sweater, a gray ankle-length skirt with a slit up the side, and tied around her shoulders was a light blue cardigan. Her hair was high on her head, as though pulling up her neck, where a strand of pearls pulled it all together.
"Women," she said, looking over our heads. She said it like it was the only word worth saying. "You may leave."
My p.e.n.i.s had helped me survive the first cut of the apartment hunt bris and I was thankful for it.
"I gather you boys are here to see me," said the woman, a gleam in her eyes. Her voice was intimate and soothing. Chocolate mocha ice cream. A few men started to leave. I guess it wasn't their cup of black oolong, but I felt like honey ready to melt into the mix. Stir it up.
"You and you," then pointing with eyes only, way in the back toward me, "and you. The rest of you, thank you." She did this with ease, no exuberance, no explanation. It was like I'd called on G.o.d and he'd put me on hold, but at least Mahalia Jackson was singing while I waited. I pulled up my sagging pants as I made my way up to the front, stoked to be one of the Yous. I could feel the eyes on me and I loved it. Who da man? Who da man? How ya like me now?
"h.e.l.lo," she said as we stood in the entryway. "I'm Carmen England."
"Richard Downing," said one of the guys, wearing a designer pin-striped suit and spit-shined shoes. He'd gone all out and I started to worry.
"Nice to meet you," said Carmen, then looking at the other guy.
"Scott Franklin," he said. His dark hair was cut short in the back and the sides, but he'd left it full on top. He had huge dimples and couldn't seem to stop smiling.
"A pleasure," said Carmen, then she looked at me. "And you?"
"Ma-Malik," I said, tugging on my pants, slightly slouching, giving aloof. "Malik Randolph."
I instantly felt alive. I didn't care that it wasn't my name, but just saying it made me feel powerful. a.s.sertive. a.s.sured. Just the name alone made me feel as though I could walk down the streets of Harlem without scorn or ridicule; bubble coat on my back, forty-ounce in my hand. If I wasn't going to get the place, it wasn't going to be because I was blending.
"Wa.s.sup?" I said, extending my hand to her.
Carmen arched her eyebrow, then said, "Never extend your hand to a lady unless she offers hers first."
I dropped my hand back to my side and started rubbing it against my pant leg, hoping that would salve the sting before it began to swell.
"Don't be. It's nice to meet you, Mamalik."
"What? Uh, oh," I said, "It's just Malik."
"That's very seventies. Power to the people."
"You know," I said, trying to compete with Scott's smile. "Gotta keep it real."
My twists and the way I was wearing my clothes would have made my mother have a fit and it would have even made those at Johnny's Barbershop, an inst.i.tution in Layton, Louisiana, pause. Though appointments weren't taken at Johnny's, people would line up for hours before the shop opened to be one of the first to take a number.
Clovis was the most skilled barber and always cut my hair. If you wanted any style, Clovis was your man. But he never got to try them fully on my nonthreatening fade.
There was always lively conversation going on, but once the soap operas started, all attention went to the television on top of the "pop" machine. These men were as avid about their "stories" as any woman and were loyal to the CBS lineup. They would talk about when Nikki was a stripper before marrying Victor or when Mrs. Chancler had her first facelift, long before she met Rex, or they'd talk about Billy and his drinking problem. They'd shake their heads at the woes of the television rich.
But whenever I'd walk into the shop they'd want to know what was up with the "Randolph boy." I don't think many of them knew my first name, but they knew, or knew of, my father and I was his son.
One day I was getting a haircut because I was going to Baton Rouge to represent Layton in the Louisiana State Spelling Bee. I'd told Clovis and he made a point to share the news. As usual, the old men sitting in the chairs that lined the wall, beneath the coat hooks and old posters of old hairdos sure to come back, were encouraging.
Clovis finished my cut, put the stinging green rubbing alcohol around the hairline and brushed me down with talc powder. He removed the barber's cloth and I stepped down from the chair, but before I could start to leave, Joe motioned me over.
Blue-eyed Joe was a fixture in the shop. He'd take the lunch orders and phone them in to Marianne's, the soul food joint a few doors down. He also swept up the different textures of hair that had fallen around the base of the chairs, all becoming one.
Black hair is hard work.
The bluish haze coating his left eye was how he got his name. No one knew if he could see out of it and no one ever asked. Mr. Joe never said more than he had to.
He patted the fold-out chair next to him. I sat, but he didn't look at me. He kept looking at the action in the pool hall in the back of the shop.
"Don't ever smile too big when thangs going good for you," said Joe. "We's proud of you here, hear?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Joe."
"Just know, ever'body in that world out there ain't gonna be like that. Some people, Colored or other, ain't never gonna want to see no black man looking too happy. G.o.dspeed."
Joe turned away from the pool hall and looked up to the television set. As I opened my mouth he put his hand up to stop me.
As the World Turns was starting.
Carmen showed us the room available for rent. It was small, right across from the kitchen and under the stairs, but a window looked onto the garden. I knew I could work with it.
We followed her back down the hall and into "the parlor." I looked around, taking it all in. The gilt mirror over the mahogany fireplace, the wainscoting, the decanters on the drinks cabinet, the ceiling cornices, the Oriental rugs and the pocket doors that closed off another room. The smell of the old didn't bother me.
She eased down onto the edge of a chair and motioned for us to take a seat. Richard headed for the chair to her right.
"Not in that chair, dear heart," she said. "It may not appear so, but the arm is loose and I can't be bothered to have it mended. I broke it when I was a child. When fine things begin to fall apart, only then do they reveal their true essence. Trust." Richard made his way over and joined us on the sofa.
"So. What is it that you boys do," she said, and after a brief pause, "for a living?"
I listened, getting nervous, as they spoke. Scott was a model, Richard a lawyer. Carmen focused on them with debutante attention and it took everything I had not to start twisting my hair. When they finished she looked at me.
"I don't have a job." I found myself thinking, Oh, now you wanna tell the truth. I could feel the sweat huddling in my armpits, ready to fall like rain from a dark cloud on a New Orleans afternoon. "Yet."
Carmen laughed and the other two guys relaxed in their seats, all of us certain that I'd blown my chance.
"I just got to the city a couple of weeks ago," I said, forgetting that I was trying to be cool, trying to be down, trying to turn this dead end into a cul-de-sac. "But you know, I have some leads and I do have enough for the deposit and the first month's rent. As soon as I find a crib I'll focus on the job, but you need shelter." Then against my better judgment I mumbled, "It's hard on a brother out there."
Carmen looked at me for a moment like she was a doctor examing an X ray, trying to see if there was something she missed, seeing if I'd break. "Well then, it's evident to me that you're in need of the place more than these two gentlemen."
"Yes," I said. Victory mine.
"And an excellent winner to boot," said Carmen. I sunk into the sofa. I knew this outburst would make her change her mind. But she smiled and said, "I like that. Modesty is a learned affectation, wouldn't you say?"
Carmen got up from her chair and the two guys stood, knowing they had to keep looking.
"It was nice of you to come," she said, like a host at the end of a party. She touched each of them on the back and walked them to the entryway. "You're both fine young men and I'm certain neither of you will have any difficulty finding a place."
I heard the front door close. The sound of the lock made me wonder what I'd gotten myself into. I sat waiting for her to come back into the room, but she didn't. She walked down the hall like she'd forgotten I was there. I wasn't sure what I should do, but I got up and quietly walked to the door and looked down the hall. I didn't see her.
"Ms. England," I said, like being alone in a dark empty house and asking if anyone is there. "Ms. England."
I heard a noise behind me and I jumped. "Please. Call me Carmen," she said, sliding open the pocket doors that separated the parlor from the dining room. She had a bottle of champagne and two flutes. "I suppose we're housemates, which is cause for champers."
"Sounds good," I said, walking back to the sofa. I sat then stood, trying to figure out which was best. I decided to stand. She opened the bottle and when the cork flew off she screamed like it was New Year's Eve, then poured for two. She walked toward me until she was just a few inches away and handed me a flute. "Cheers."
"Cheers," I said, focusing on the flute like it held a magic potion.
She took her finger and placed it under my chin, then lifted my head. "You should always look in the eyes of the person you're toasting. If you can't have a connection with the person with whom you're toasting, then you really shouldn't toast."
"Oh, I'm sorry." I was nervous, certain I was doing everything wrong and would soon be back on the hunt.
"Don't be." She moved in a little closer. "Let's try it again. To us," she said.
She took her first sip and this time I held her gaze for as long as I could. The champagne had warmed in my mouth before I was able to swallow. I moved away and walked back over to the sofa and sat down. She walked around the room as though looking at everything for the first time. Her champagne flute swung in her hand like a pendulum and I was ready to be hypnotized. I watched every move: the gleam of leg peeping out of the slit of her skirt; the red of her painted toes peeking out of her shoes; the way her tennis bracelet slid down her forearm when she raised the flute to her mouth; the lipstick kiss on the rim. I watched and she didn't seem to mind.
She picked up the champagne bottle from the mantel, refilled her gla.s.s, then walked over to me and topped off mine. I watched as the bubbles reached the top of the gla.s.s but refused to fall over. She put the bottle on the coffee table. I could see my mother coming over and picking it up. That's why we have coasters. I took a swallow of the champagne, trying to shake the image of my mother out of my mind. Carmen walked back to her chair and finally sat. She leaned back and crossed her legs, letting her arms rest on the chair's. I sat back on the sofa, more for support than comfort. I was trying to think of something to say, but I didn't have to.
"I don't have staff here, but you should know that I do have a cleaning lady, Rosita, who comes in once a week. The way she acts, one would think she owns the place. I make every effort to see that I'm not home when she arrives." Carmen took a deep breath, and when she released it, she said, "This maison de ville has been in my family since Harlem was chic, lost its chic, then became chic again, and that's a d.a.m.n long time. Uptown real estate is becoming popular and people are starting to pay cute money for properties. 'Gentrification.' Such a nice-sounding word. Much better than 'Take your s.h.i.t and get.' "
I started to relax; the champagne didn't hurt. "You know," I said, "I didn't think I had a shot at the place."
"Really. You were my favorite from the beginning."
I perked up a bit. "Why's that?" I asked, reeling out the line for an ego pat.
"Just a hunch. I can't quite put a finger on it, but I saw something familiar in you."
"Gotta keep it real."
"Yes. I believe you mentioned that."
"And one hand does wash the other," I said, pulling out the race card.
"Indeed. But two hands wash the face." That almost knocked me through the sofa, but I took it and slowly eased back. "But if you must know-" She stopped then said, "What's your name again?"
There it was. I'd forgotten that little detail. My grip tightened around the champagne flute. I thought of coming clean, telling her the truth. But I was in and I wanted to savor it. Wanted to live in Harlem. Wanted to experience her. I ran my hand over my twists and those words came back to me: Black boy blending.
"Malik. Malik Randolph."
"Yes, Malik. Right. You see, the model was definitely eye candy and would have been a nice bauble on my arm, yet white boys that age can be gorgeous one day and a.s.s-ugly the next. So a proper five-to-ten-year scan is always necessary. Trust."
I felt drunk, but not just from the "champers." She downed the rest of her flute, then held it out toward me. I picked up the bottle, walked over and refilled her gla.s.s.
"You're too kind," she said, touching my forearm. I felt the hairs rise under my shirt. I walked back to the sofa and put the bottle on the coaster, then I moved it, trying to stay in the moment, remain cool, appear at ease. If she didn't mind a water stain, why should I?
"As for the lawyer," she said. "He's probably just out of school. Columbia, perhaps, which means he's nothing more than a well-dressed gofer. He's definitely from a good Northeastern family because the firm he mentioned rarely lets outsiders roast marshmallows at their fire.
"In a few years he will have moved up in the firm, and as this is a rather small town, I will more than likely run across him again, socially. He'll pretend to forget his experience here today, but will be a good little soldier and play nice, realizing that I may prove helpful in the future. And even if he's engaged to some poor girl who will have done more than just put in her time for his grandmother's ring, he'll still want to f.u.c.k me.
I laughed. I had to. I'd always found something s.e.xy about a woman who could say "f.u.c.k" without hesitation, claiming it, owning it.
"You are a sweetie," she said, getting up and walking over to the sofa. She sat down. I was about to move over, but I caught myself and eased back into the cushions, opening my legs wide and placing my arm along its top like I imagined Malik would do. Just chilling.
"You're a Southerner, aren't you?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'm from-"
"Wait. Let me guess." She placed her index finger behind her ear as if trying to pick up the radio waves of my accent. "Mississippi!" Her answer wasn't presented as a question so I was more than happy to let her be right. Why not? If I could be Malik, I could be from Mississippi. It was a sister state.
"Never question a woman's skills," she said with a self-a.s.sured glow. "Southerners are so respectful and well behaved. Everyone knows their place. Lovely."
My mood suddenly turned and I began to feel uncomfortable. I felt defensive, but I forced a smile. My life had been built on staying in my place, not rocking the boat. But I wasn't in the South. I was in New York, in Harlem, in a house with Carmen, trying to change the subject, trying to change.