MOTHER AND SON
At the top of the hill was a Bohemian-style café. Paul sat down at a table with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. Before long, a tall white woman with a hard face and short black hair stood above him
"You got a problem with the menu?" she asked.
Paul looked up into the woman's dark eyes, "I'm sorry," he said, "I'm not used to it."
"I'd appreciate it if you'd make up your mind!"
Paul was too embarrassed to get up and walk out. "Miss, it's my first time in your place," he said "If I've offended you, I'm sorry."
"Are you staring at me?" the woman shouted. She turned her head and yelled across the room, "Marian, this man is staring at me!"
A nice-looking woman with short reddish curly hair came over and put an arm around the tall woman.
"I apologize for April," she said with a smile. "She's been rather cranky today - it must be the full moon. People in San Francisco start acting weird when there's a full moon."
The nice-looking woman whispered something to the tall woman, and the tall woman left.
"Don't be too angry with April," said the nice-looking woman, smiling some more. "Take your time - and your meal is on me. May I treat you to a glass of wine? Red or white?"
"I'll have a small glass of red wine, please. And I'll have the soup and sandwich." Paul pointed to a number on the menu.
"Our soup is white bean with carrots. And the hot chicken sandwich on sourdough is delicious. What's your name?"
"Paul Underwood," said Paul, now with a big smile.
"I hope you'll come to see us again, Paul."
She touched his shoulder and disappeared through the swinging doors to the kitchen.
"Hello, come dance with me," she said. "I bet you are a good dancer."
"Mary, sit down!" the tall woman shouted. Then she hollered to her boss. "Marian, make Mary sit down!"
Mary twirled round and round on her toes and with out-stretched arms. "I love dancing," she said and stopped and sat down in the other chair at Paul's table. She slid it closer to him. "I like you," she said.
Her foul breath somewhat bothered Paul. But that was okay - he was practically ready to take her home to meet his mother and me.
"I'm Paul," he said.
I first met Paul at Howard University. I'd wandered onto campus to take a break. I spied this slender, ashy-dark-skinned dude waving his hands in the air like he was explaining something to this other dude in a tweed coat. The dude in the coat looked suddenly bored, and turned and walked off. Paul stood staring at the dude's retreating figure, then headed towards the bench where I was sitting, watching him.
"You okay?" I said.
He nodded and sat, then was quiet. After a while, he said, "I've known that man since grade school, but he didn't remember me at all - he's a college man now, too good for my likes."
Paul finally looked at me.
"Sorry. I think it's time for me to leave D.C."
I asked him, "How long you been here?"
"All my life,"
* * *
When Paul left D.C., I took his room in his mother's boarding house. Her beauty shop was in the basement of the house. My job was cleaning the house and shop, and grocery-shopping. It was a great deal: I had food and a bed to lay my head.
This particular afternoon, I'd been to the grocery store and was in the kitchen putting food in the icebox. I heard footsteps coming down the hall, and I'd heard those footsteps before, but not upstairs - Paul's mother simply did not ever come up. But in this I was wrong: it was she, coming into the kitchen with fire in her small eyes.
"I think you should read this," she said, handing me a letter. "You explain to me why my son think I will accept a white woman for a daughter-in-law?" She turned and left the kitchen.
Paul with a white woman, I said to myself. I took the letter up to my room where I sat on the bed and read Paul's letter.
Mary was her name. She was Jewish. They rented an apartment together in Oakland. She was still married to someone else, and Paul slept in the living-room of the one-bedroom apartment. Paul loved her, but was careful not do anything to jeopardize his love. Mary finally got her divorce and now Paul was bringing her home.
The news flushed out a couple of ladies he'd dated over the years. They were at the house early Saturday morning, their arms folded over their breasts and purses on their laps, waiting patiently for Paul's mother, who, when she returned wasted no time in leading the ladies to my room.
"You're looking at the man responsible for my headaches." She said, pointing her finger. "My Paul was a good boy until he met this man. He poisoned my boy's mind." She threw a mean look at me, "You didn't think I knew about the filth you keep in you room, did you?"
"Mrs Underwood," said the Number One Lady, " I don't mean to hurt anybody's feelings, but you were way too protective of Paul."
"And you kept him so busy," said Lady Number Two. "He was too tired for anything - for any woman."
Paul's mother was a short woman. I literally saw the smoke blow out her nose and ears.
"Paul's my baby," she said, hands on her hips, "And I am an only child! And my husband was an only child! We worked so hard to build up our business. We wanted him to have the best of everything." She flashed her eyes at Number One Lady, "Audrey, Paul liked you. Mabel, he liked you, too. But me and my husband felt y'all weren't right for him."
"And how is that?" asked Audrey.
Mabel spoke up, "Sally, if you thought Paul was too good for us, maybe deep down you wanted a white woman for Paul. Maybe you sent Paul to California to get you a white daughter-in-law."
Paul's mother damn near stepped outside her mind, "That is a lie!" she shouted. "Paul was happy with me until he brought this man into the house. Blame him! He's the one! I begged Paul to stay, but Mister Big Shot here filled his head with the idea that he should leave me."
Paul's mother started crying, big old tears rolling down her black face. She came over to the bed and dropped to her knees. I certainly didn't know what to do.
"Trebor," she said, looking up at me, her face wet with tears and snot, "I love Paul. Please help me get my son back. I'll pay you."
The ladies tip-toe out the room.
At 1:45, she rolled her big white Lincoln into a space in the airport parking-lot. Her jaws were tight. I didn't open my mouth.
"Lets get this mess over with," she said, gathering her purse. She looked at me, "She'll sleep at the house, but Paul is coming home with me"
I said, "Paul might want to sleep with her." Goddamn, what did I say that for? Paul's mother looked at me with razor-blade eyes.
"You tend to your business, Trebor!" she shouted. "Paul is my son. He do what I tell him to do - you hear?"
It was nothing for me to say. I just nodded.
Paul's mother locked the car door and threw her fox fur around her short neck, and as we were making our way through the cars, the head of the fox was flopping up and down on the shoulder of her one-buttoned black coat. Once we were on the crowded concrete front porch to the terminal, where people everywhere were moving about, I hung back and watched her elbowing her way through, like a mole rooting through the underbrush. Then I heard her voice call out from just inside the terminal.
"I found him!" she yelled, waving her hand. "Trebor, I found Paul!"
It was a beautiful scene, Paul and his mother standing together sharing big smiles, but I was still looking for this white lady. I was looking so hard I gave no thought to the woman standing right behind Paul and Sally. Just some ugly white woman. Naw, that ain't his woman, I thought, but after some moments, I guessed she was the one: now she was smiling as she watched Paul and his mother do their sniffing snort thing. I wished Mabel and Audrey could see this woman. But I was taking my time. I did not want to be very near when he introduced her. I heard Sally's voice again.
"Trebor Lynn. Will you get over here. What's the matter with you?"
Paul's eyes were radiant, like the afternoon sun. He threw his arms around me and gave me a long hug. Then turned and waved his hand to the woman, who stepped right up, in her long black dress with sunflowers, and threw her arms around my neck. I quickly knew why Paul liked this white woman.
"Paul warned me about you," she said, reaching for Paul's hand.
"He's a mess," said Paul's mother, giving me the mean eye. Then to her, "Honey, I think you better stay at my house. I plain don't trust you in the house with him."
Paul's mother took his hand and the white woman's too. Maybe Mabel was right. I followed the three happy people out into the light.
OVERTIME IN BOOGIETOWN
When I was a boy the whole black community exist with a center line, and all the people on the other side of the line just constantly boogied, starting soon as the men rolled in Saturday afternoon after their overtime shifts, and keeping on to dawn Sunday morning. At which point they went to church to boogie some more. Clapping hands, singing, dancing. It was tradition - and why the place was called Boogietown.
There was, one time, a horrifying thing that happened - I thought it must be the end of the world - Mister Basketball James Gunn and Rosemary his exemplary wife moved over the line.The people left behind were sure they'd never survive. With the Boogie People.
Labor Day afternoon, a police car parks at the end of the block, directly in front of the Gunns' house, and it throws the people straight out of their barbecue rhythm. A police car at Mister Basketball's door - big news - now is definitely the time to stick their noses in. So they leave their smelling-good back yards, march down to the Gunns' cute three-room house, and huddle in the front yard, just off the sidewalk.
On the porch is a lanky blond policeman in white tee-shirt, shorts, sneakers. Bare-headed, he looks like a law-enforcement tennis player. The officer acts surprised to see the crowd of them suddenly appear. He studies their faces, then says right out, "Let me guess. One of you made the call. Correct me if I'm wrong. The cat that swallowed the canary, Somebody? May I remind you, Folks, I'm an officer of the law - someone called me to this address. And for the record, I'll need to see everybody's driver's license!"
They all stare at him like he is a fool.
Sitting in her front yard in a rocking chair by the windows over to the right, is Mrs. Gunn, a pleasant sleepy-looking brown-skin woman in a nurse's uniform, her right hand inside her knit hand-bag. She is thinking to herself:
I knew this day would come. I guess I'm surprised we made it a year without them bothering us.Wonder why I was called to a double shift last night? Is this why I had to forget my damn door-keys?
She closes her purse and rests it on her lap.
"Oh Miss Goody-Two-Shoes! Your man locked you out. You been a naughty girl?" a hoarse-voiced woman calls out to her.
"Excuse me," Mrs. Gunn shoots right back, "My husband did not lock me out. He is very tired. He's worked three straight weeks of overtime, and doesn't need me to wake him up."
"Yeah, yeah! Excuses, excuses - you educated women from Smart Avenue all the time making excuses for those little boys you call husbands. My husband worked ten years overtime. Clarence wouldn't dream of locking the door in my face. Your old man locked you out - face the facts, Lady!"
"Miss Whatever-Your-Name-Is, why is it your business? My James isn't used to all this overtime like the men over here. I'm sorry." Mrs. Gunn is so sleepy, she sounds a little drunk, even to herself.
"The name is Cora Bell, Miss Goody-Goody. Face it. You think your man too good to work overtime. Mister Basketball! Do you really think we fall for that? Big deal! College stuff don't mean nothin over here. You snotty bitches over on Smart Street, walking around with a stick up your butt. With your college men. Your men are weak! They wouldn't stand a chance with the women over here. We're used to real men - they work hard. Overtime. And they do it hard, too. Overtime!"
Mrs. Gunn has heard enough. Cora Bell's gravelly voice is grating her nerves. It is so quiet from inside the house, she can hear the stillness roaring in her ears. If the police officer leaves, I am sure they will, too. Then I can take my nap.
She speaks to the policeman's back, "Officer. I am terribly sorry my nosy neighbor is spoiling your holiday. My husband's fine. He's tired, and very sleepy. I'm okay. I'm satisfied in my rocker until he wakes up."
The officer's mind has evidently been occupied with something else: he has somehow lost his law-enforcement persona. You can see it dawn on him that he should say something to the crowd. Since he is the policeman. '"Miss. You seem to be the voice in the group. And your voice is very distinctive, a little like a man's, even. Wasn't that you who phoned? You said a man threw his wife out of the house, and locked all the doors and windows, right?"
Cora Bell stares at Mrs. Gunn with a quaint smile on her slick red lips. "No, I did not call. What happen to Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, none of my business."
A big healthy-looking woman with a laugh in her voice has words to share. "One of these days, Cora Bell, God gonna freeze your tongue," she says.
"Glady, if I were you, I would keep quiet. God's watching you too!"
"And I'm watching you - remember that. I guess you don't want me to start talking; Clarence will lock you out your house."
"Oh yeah!" Cora Bell ups the ante: "Your boy Larry - I suppose there some reason he don't exactly favor your husband? Why don't you explain that to Blue, now?" She throws her head back to the sky and laughs.
"Cora Bell, why you loud-talk Glady? She is your best friend," says Clarence, a large man puffing on a fresh cigar.
"Sugar-cakes, I been knowing Glady since kindergarten. And she know me. That's why."
Glady's husband Blue, a thin dark man, speaks up as Cora Bell turns away, "Clarence, I just don't understand those two - laughing one minute - next minute stabbing each other in the heart."
"Only God know why women act that way," says Clarence. But he is shifting his attention to the policeman. "You find this funny, just one cop - a cop don't look like a cop?"
Blue answers, his eyes evasive, "What can you say? Mister Basketball address, it only takes one cop to get the glory."
"Yeah, guess you're right. They sure made a fuss over him in his day."
The cop has noticed Clarence' and Blue's conversation, and now he catches their eye. He considers leaving - he obviously isn't going to get answers from this crowd and Mrs. Gunn seems perfectly in control. But something tells him to stick around. I'll give it another try - I can succeed here - I have to! His mind shouts, as he slides into his tough-cop character:
"Folks, I happen to be the law here. I have the authority to arrest any of you." He feels power in the words. This cop business ain't so bad. Now he slips straight into district attorney mode, imagining his law professor on the scene taking notes on his performance. He turns majestically around, and raps out, "Madam, what is your name please?"
Mrs. Gunn has been sinking into a delicious nap, but being a nurse, with fine-tuned ears, she doesn't miss a beat. With closed eyes, she says, "It's Rosemary Gunn. I am a registered nurse. I work nights from eleven to seven at the Veteran Hospital -"
"Mrs. Gunn, that's enough now. Please tell us who is the man of the house?"
"My husband James is inside, sleeping. He is a hard worker. Some people think because he has a college degree, he's not like them -"
"Mrs. Gunn, please! Answer only the questions I'm asking. Simply tell me your husband's full name."
"James Elmo Gunn. I think you might know him as Mister Basketball." Her eyes pop open. "You're Bernard Tuttle, aren't you? You played ball with James at State."
I thought he looked familiar - guess I was too tired to recognize him at first. She chuckles to herself. My James works at a cemetery and Bernard is a policeman! That says something about a college education nowadays. I'd a thought Bernard would be a lawyer like his father. My James just wasted his time there. He is happy working at the cemetery, though I'd rather he be funeral director, like his father. She shifts her position in the rocker and crosses her legs. But he's mine - and I surely do love him.
The cop's prosecuting act has vanished, and as if touching ground at the foot of a shaky ladder, he exhales his pent-up breath, says, "Yes. I am Bernard. I mostly warmed the end of the bench for four years. Your husband, on the other hand, was the Man." He smiles to himself and turns again to the group gathered on the Gunns' lawn.
"Folks, sometimes we just aren't responsible for what happens to us. It's getting late. I'm sure you're all anxious to get back to your homes. Go on - enjoy yourselves. I'll do my job here." He has decided to try to get Mr. Gunn to open the door.
But exactly at this moment is unearthed all the resentment he has ever carried in his heart toward Mister Basketball. He gazes into the crowd and it is as if they are reading his mind. They want me to kill him. It's in their eyes. Oh Lord, I have the authority to take a man's life. To think that minutes ago I was home with my precious wife and daughter, a phone-call away from the precinct, enjoying my day off.
With his back to Mrs. Gunn, he calls to her over his shoulder, and in his own voice now, "I'm afraid there's not much else I can do here. This is a domestic matter. I'm sorry, I hope everything turns out for you."
And as he steps onto the ground, he looks over at her. "I hope James remembers me - remind him. I'll stop by some time to talk over old times."
When the police car is out of sight, Clarence relights his cigar. "We sure messed up our Labor Day for nothing."
Cora Bell reaches for her husband's hand. "Sugar-cakes, we are going to party! Hey everybody, you-all are welcome at our house!" Now she looks to Mrs Gunn. "You are welcome too, Rosemary - you know - no hard feelings."
An unexpected smile on Cora Bell's lips and the fierce affection in her brown eyes touch Mrs. Gunn. The invitation is actually tempting. But she is following her heart just now. "I am too tired. Maybe next time,' she says with her own quiet smile.
"We will be knocking at your door, Rosemary - I think you like to boogie." Cora Bell runs up the road to be with her friends.
Now they are in their good-smelling back-yard Labor Day groove, talking their talk. The Labor Day sun is gradually going when Glady gets around to the question: "I'm curious, who called the cops?"
"Guilty!" Blue calls out, meanwhile getting down with a very juicy rib.
"You!" goes Clarence.
"James get on my nerves, Clarence. He is too quiet. I can never tell what he is thinking, and he is all the time reading something. You just can't talk to the man!"
"What do you expect, Blue?" Cora Bell asks, bringing Clarence a plate of hot steaming food, "From the college-educated?"
They all shrug their shoulders. They laugh. They move back into their rhythm.
* * * * *
Spread out by design.
Middle class on the way to their movie-houses
Stroll past book-stores, coffee shops, boutiques, fine restaurants,
The poor with a notion to take in a picture show
Ride a bus past McDonalds and Kentucky Fried clear to the horizon:
across barren land.