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If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin (part 3)

Author: James Baldwin

On the Tuesday after the Monday that I saw Hayward, I saw Fonny at the six o’clock visit. I had never seen him so upset before.

“What the fuck we going to do about Mrs. Rogers? Where the fuck did she go?”

“I don’t know. But we’ll find her.”

“How you going to find her?”

“We’re sending people to Puerto Rico. We think that’s where she went.”

“And suppose she went to Argentina? or Chile? or China?”

“Fonny. Please. How’s she going to get that far?”

“They can give her the money, to go anywhere!”

“Who?”

“The D.A.’s office, that’s who!”

“Fonny-“

“You don’t believe me? You don’t think they can do it?”

“I don’t think they have.”

“How you going to get the money to find her?”

“We’re all working, all of us.”

“Yeah. My Daddy’s working in the garment center, you’re working in a department store, your Daddy’s working on the waterfront-!”

“Fonny. Listen-“

“Listen to what? What we going to do about that fucking lawyer? He don’t give a shit about me, he don’t give a shit about nobodyl You want me to die in here? You know what’s going on in here? You know what’s happening to me, to me, to me, in here?”

“Fonny. Fonny. Fonny.”

“I’m sorry, baby. I don’t mean none of that for you. I’m sorry. I love you, Tish. I’m sorry.”

“I love you, Fonny. I love you.”

“How’s the baby coming?”

“It’s growing. It’ll start showing more next month.”

We stared at each other.

“Get me out of here, baby. Get me out of here. Please.”

“I promise. I promise. I promise.”

“Don’t cry. I’m sorry I yelled. I wasn’t yelling at you, Tish.”

“I know.”

“Please don’t cry. Please don’t cry. It’s bad for the baby.”

“AH right.”

“Give us a smile, Tish.”

“Is that all right?”

“You can do better than that.”

“Is this better?”

“Yeah. Give us a kiss.”

I kissed the glass. He kissed the glass.

“You still love me?”

“I’ll always love you, Fonny.”

“I love you. I miss you. I miss everything about you, I miss everything we had together, every­thing we did together, walking and talking and making love – oh, baby, get me out of here.”

“I will. Hold on.”

“I promise. – Later.”

“Later.”

He followed the guard into the unimaginable inferno, and I stood up, my knees and elbows shaking, to cross the Sahara again.

That night I dreamed, I dreamed all night, I had terrible dreams. In one of these dreams, Fonny was driving a truck, a great big truck, very fast, too fast, down the highway, and he was looking for me. But he didn’t see me. I was behind the truck, calling out his name, but the roar of the motor drowned my voice. There were two turnings off this highway, and they both looked exactly alike. The highway was on a cliff, above the sea. One of the turnings led to the driveway of our house; the other led to the cliff’s edge and a drop straight down to the sea. He was driving too fast, too fast! I called his name as loud as I could and, as he began to turn the truck, I screamed again and woke up.

The light was on, and Sharon was standing above me. I cannot describe her face. She had brought in a cold, wet towel and she wiped my brow and my neck. She leaned down and kissed me.

Then, she straightened and looked into my eyes.

“I know I can’t help you very much right now – God knows what I wouldn’t give if I could. But I know about suffering; if that helps. I know that it ends. I ain’t going to tell you no lies, like it al­ways ends for the better.Sometimes it ends for the worse. You can suffer so bad that you can be driven to a place where you can’t ever suffer again: and that’s worse.”

She took both my hands and held them tightly between her own. “Try to remember that. And: the only way anything ever gets done is when you make up your mind to do it. I know a lot of our loved ones, a lot of our men, have died in prison: but not all of them. You remember that. And: you ain’t really alone in that bed, Tish. You got that child beneath your heart and we’re all counting on you, Fonny’s counting on you, to bring that child here safe and well. You the only one who can do it. But you’re strong. Lean on your strength.”

I said, “Yes. Yes, Mama.” I knew I didn’t have any strength. But I was going to have to find some, somewhere.

‘Are you all right now? Can you sleep? ’Yes.”

“I don’t want to sound foolish. But, just remember, love brought you here. If you trusted love this far, don’t panic now.”

And, again, she kissed me and she turned out the light and she left me.

I lay there – wide awake; and very frightened. Get me out of here.

I remembered women I had known, but scarcely looked at, who had frightened me; because they knew how to use their bodies in order to get something that they wanted. I now began to real­ize that my judgment of these women had had very little to do with morals. (And I now began to wonder about the meaning of this word.) My judgment had been due to my sense of how little they appeared to want. I could not conceive of peddling myself for so low a price.

But, for a higher price? for Fonny?

And I fell asleep; for a white; and then I woke up. I had never been so tired in my life. I ached all over. I looked at the clock and I realized that it would soon be time to get up and go to work, un­less I called in sick.But I could not call in sick.

I got dressed and went out to the kitchen, to have tea with Mama. Joseph and Ernestine had al­ready gone. Mama and I sipped our tea in almost total silence. Something was turning over and over and over, in my mind: I could not speak.

I came down into the streets. It was a little past eight o’clock. I walked these morning streets; these streets are never empty. I passed the old blind black man on the corner. Perhaps I had seen him all my life. But I wondered about his life, for the first time, now. There were about four kids, all junkies, standing on the corner, talking. Some women were rushing to work. I tried to read their faces. Some women were finally going to get a little rest, and they headed off the avenue, to their furnished rooms. Every side street was piled high with garbage, and garbage was piled high before every stoop along the avenue. I thought, If I’m going to peddle ass, I better not try it up here. It would take just as long as scrubbing floors, and be a lot more painful. What I was really thinking was, I know I can’t do it before the baby comes, but, if Fonny’s not out by then, maybe I’ll have to try it. Maybe I better get ready. But there was something else turning over, at the bottom of my mind, which I knew I didn’t have the courage to look at yet.

Get ready, how? I walked down the steps and pushed through the turnstile and stood on the subway platform, with the others. When the train came, I pushed in, with the others, and I leaned against a pole, while their breath and smell rolled over me. Cold sweat covered my forehead and began to trickle down my armpits and my back. I hadn’t thought of it before, because I knew I had to keep on working up to just about the last minute; but now I began to wonder just how, as I be­came heavier and sicker, I was going to get to work. If I should pass out, these people, getting on and getting off, would simply trample me and the baby to death. We’re counting on you – Fonny’s counting on you – Fonny’s counting on you, to bring that baby here, safe and well. I held the white bar more firmly. My freezing body shook.

I looked around the subway car. It was a little like the drawings I had seen of slave ships. Of course, they hadn’t had newspapers on the slave ships, hadn’t needed them yet; but, as concerned space (and also, perhaps, as concerned intention) the principle was exactly the same. A heavy man, smelling of hot sauce and toothpaste, breathed heavily into my face. It wasn’t his fault that he had to breathe, or that my face was there. His body pressed against me, too, very hard, but this did not mean that he was thinking of rape, or thinking of me at all. He was probably wondering only – and that, dimly – how he was going to get through another day on his job. And he certainly did not see me.

And, when a subway car is packed – unless it’s full of people who know each other, going on a picnic, say – it is almost always silent. It’s as though everybody is just holding his breath, waiting to get out of there.Each time the train comes into a station, and some of the people push you aside, in order to get out – as happened now, for example, with the man who smelled of hot sauce and toothpaste – a great sigh seems to rise; stifled immediately by the people who get on. Now, a blond girl, carrying a bandbox, was breathing her hangover into my face. My stop came, and I got off, climbed the steps and crossed the street. I went into the service entrance and punched the clock, put my street clothes away and went out to my counter. I was a little late for the floor, but I’d clocked in on time.

The floor manager, a white boy, young, nice enough, gave me a mock scowl as I hurried to my place.

It isn’t only old white ladies who come to that counter to smell the back of my hand. Very rarely does a black cat come anywhere near this counter, and if, or when, he does, his intentions are often more generous and always more precise. Perhaps, for a black cat, I really do, too closely, resemble a helpless baby sister. He doesn’t want to see me turn into a whore. And perhaps some black cats come closer, just to look into my eyes, just to hear my voice, to check out what’s happening. And they never smell the back of my hand: a black cat puts out his hand, and you spray it, and he car­ries the back of his own hand to his own nostrils.And he doesn’t bother to pretend that he’s come to buy perfume. Sometimes, he does – buy some perfume; most often he doesn’t. Sometimes the hand he has brought down from his nostrils clenches itself into a secret fist, and, with that prayer, that salutation, he moves away. But a white man will carry your hand to his nostrils, he will hold it there. I watched everybody, all day long, with something turning over and over and over, in my mind. Ernestine came to pick me up at the end of the day. She said that Mrs. Rogers had been lo­cated, in Santurce, Puerto Rico; and someone of us would, have to go there.

“With Hayward?”

“No. Hayward’s got to deal with Bell, and the D.A. here. Anyway, you can see that, for many, many reasons, Hayward can’t go. He’d be accused of intimidating a witness.”

‘But that’s what they’re doing-!”

“Tish” – we were walking up Eighth Avenue, toward Columbus Circle – “it would take us until your baby is voting age to prove that.”

“Are we going to take the subway, or the bus?”

“We’re going to sit down somewhere until this rush hour’s over. You and me, we’ve got to talk anyway, before we talk to Mama and Daddy. They don’t know yet. I haven’t talked to them yet”

And I realize how much Ernestine loves me, at the same time that I remember that she is, after all, only four years older than I.

Mrs. Victoria Rogers, nee Victoria Maria San Felipe Sanchez, declares that on the evening of March 5, be­tween the hours of eleven and twelve, in the vestibule of her home, she was criminally assaulted by a man she now knows to have been Alonzo Hunt, and was used by the aforesaid Hunt in the most extreme and abomi­nable sexual manner, and forced to undergo the most unimaginable sexual perversions.

I have never seen her. I know only that an American-born Irishman, Gary Rogers, an engineer, went to Puerto Rico about six years ago, and there met Victoria, who was then about eighteen. He married her, and brought her to the mainland. His career did not go up, but down; he seems to have become embittered. In any case, having pumped three children out of her, he left. I know nothing about the man with whom she was living on Orchard Street, with whom, presumably, she had fled to Puerto Rico. The children are, presumably, somewhere on the mainland, with her rela­tives. Her “home” is Orchard Street. She lived on the fourth floor. If the rape took place in the “ves­tibule,” then she was raped on the ground floor, under the staircase. It could have taken place on the fourth floor, but it seems unlikely; there are four apartments on that floor. Orchard Street, if you know New York, is a very long way from Bank Street. Orchard Street is damn near in the East River and Bank Street is practically in the Hudson. It is not possible to run from Orchard to Bank, particularly not with the police behind you. Yet, Bell swears that he saw Fonny “run from the scene of the crime.” This is possible only if Bell were off duty, for his “beat” is on the West Side, not the East. Yet, Bell could arrest Fonny out of the house on Bank Street. It is then up to the accused to prove, and pay for proving, the irregularity and improbability of this sequence of events.

Ernestine and I had sat down in the last booth of a bar off Columbus.

Ernestine’s way with me, and with all her children, is to drop something heavy on you and then lean back, calculating how you’ll take it. She’s got to know that, in order to calculate her own posi­tion: the net’s got to be in place.

Now, maybe because I had spent so much of the day, and the night before, with my terrors – and my calculations – concerning the possible sale of my body, I began to see the reality of rape.

I asked, “Do you think she really was raped?”

“Tish. I don’t know what’s going on in that busy, ingrown mind of yours, but that question has no bearing on anything. As fax as our situation is concerned, baby, she was raped. That’s it.” She paused and sipped her drink. She sounded very calm, but her forehead was tense, intelligent, with terror. “I think, in fact, that she was raped and that she has absolutely no idea who did it, would probably not even recognize him if he passed her on the street. I may sound crazy, but the mind works that way. She’d recognize him if he raped her again. But then it would no longer be rape. If you see what I mean.”

“I see what you mean. But why does she accuse Fonny?”

“Because Fonny was presented to her as the rapist and it was much easier to say yes than to try and relive the whole damn thing again. This way, it’s over, for her. Except for the trial. But, then, it’s really over. For her.”

“And for us, too?”

“No.” She looked at me very steadily. It may seem a funny thing to say, but I found myself ad­miring her guts. “It won’t be over for us.” She spoke very carefully, watching me all the while. “There’s a way in which it may never be over, for us. But we won’t talk about that now. Listen. We have to think about it very seriously, and in another way. That’s why I wanted to have a drink alone with you, before we went home.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” I was suddenly very frightened.

“Listen. I don’t think that we can get her to change her testimony. You’ve got to understand: she’s not lying.”

“What are you trying to tell me? What the fuck do you mean, she’s not lying?”

“Will you listen to me? Please? Of course, she’s lying. We know she’s lying. But – she’s – not – ly­ing. As far as she’s concerned, Fonny raped her and that’s that, and now she hasn’t got to deal with it anymore. It’s over. For her. If she changes her testimony, she’ll go mad. Or become another woman. And you know how often people go mad, and how rarely they change.”

” So – what are we to do?”

“We have to disprove the state’s case. There’s no point in saying that we have to make them prove it, because, as far as they’re concerned, the accusation is the proof and that’s exactly the way those nuts in the jury box will take it, quiet as it’s kept. They’re liars, too – and we know they’re liars. But they don’t.”

I remembered, for some reason, something someone had said to me, a long time ago – it might have been Fonny: A fool never says he’s a fool.

‘We can’t disprove it. Daniel’s in jail.”

“Yes. But Hayward is seeing him tomorrow.”

‘That don’t mean nothing. Daniel is still going to change his testimony, I bet you.”

“He may. He may not. But I have another idea.”

There we sat, in this dirty bar, two sisters, trying to be cool.

“Let’s say the worst comes to the worst. Mrs. Rogers will not change her testimony. Let’s say Da­niel changes his. That leaves only Officer Bell, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. And so what?”

“Well – I have a file on him. A long file. I can prove that he murdered a twelve-year-old black boy, in Brooklyn, two years ago. That’s how come he was transferred to Manhattan. I know the mother of the murdered boy. And I know Bell’s wife, who hates him.”

“She can’t testify against him.”

“She hasn’t got to testify against him. She just has to sit in that courtroom, and watch him-“

“I don’t see how this helps us – at all-‘

“I know you don’t. And you may be right. But, if worse comes to worst, and it’s always better to assume that it will – come to worst – then our tactic has to be to shatter the credibility of the state’s only witness.”

“Ernestine,” I said, “you’re dreaming.”

“I don’t think I am. I’m gambling. If I can get those two women, one white and one black, to sit in that courtroom, and if Hayward does his work right, we ought to be able to shatter the case, on cross-examination.Remember, Tish, that, after all, it isn’t very much of a case. If Fonny were white, it wouldn’t be a case at all.”

Well. I understand what she means. I know where she’s coming from. It’s a long shot. But, in our position, after all, only the long shot counts. We don’t have any other: that’s it. And I realize, too, that if we thought it were feasible, we might very well be sitting here, cool, very cool, discussing ways and means of having Bell’s head blown off. And, when it was done, we’d shrug and have another drink: that’s it. People don’t know.

“Yes. Okay. What about Puerto Rico?”

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you. Before we talk to Mama and Daddy. Look. You can’t go. You’ve got to be here. For one thing, without you, Fonny will panic. I don’t see how I can go. I’ve got to keep lighting firecrackers under Hayward’s ass. Obviously, a man can’t go. Daddy can’t go, and God knows Frank can’t go. That leaves – Mama.”

“Mama-?”

“Yes.”

“She don’t want to go to Puerto Rico.”

“That’s right. And she hates planes. But she wants your baby’s father out of jail. Of course she doesn’t want to go to Puerto Rico. But she’ll go.”

“And what do you think she can do?”

“She can do something no special investigator can do. She may be able to break through to Mrs. Rogers. Maybe not – but if she can, we’re ahead. And if not – well, we haven’t lost anything, and, at least, we’ll know we’ve tried.”

I watch her forehead. Okay.

“And what about Daniel?”

“I told you. Hayward is seeing him tomorrow. He may have been able to see him today. He’s calling us tonight”

I lean back. “Some shit.”

“Yeah. But we in it now.”

Then, we are silent. I realize, for the first time, that the bar is loud. And I look around me. It’s ac­tually a terrible place and I realize that the people here can only suppose that Ernestine and I are tired whores, or a Lesbian couple, or both. Well. We are certainly in it now, and it may get worse. It will, certainly – and now something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart – get worse. But that light tap, that kick, that signal, announces to me that what can get worse can get better. Yes. It will get worse. But the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of wa­ter, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better; and that what can get better can get worse. In the meantime – forever – it is entirely up to me. The baby cannot get here without me. And, while I may have known this, in one way, a little while ago, now the baby knows it, and tells me that while it will certainly be worse, once it leaves the water, what gets worse can also get better. It will be in the water for a while yet: but it is pre­paring itself for a transformation. And so must I.

I said, “It’s all right. I’m not afraid.”

And Ernestine smiled, and said, “Let’s move it then.”

Joseph and Frank, as we learn later, have also been sitting in a bar, and this is what happened between them:

Joseph has a certain advantage over Frank – though it is only now that he begins to realize, or, rather, suspect it – in that he has no sons. He has always wanted a son; this fact cost Ernestine far more than it cost me; for, by the time I came along, he was reconciled. If he had had sons, they might very well be dead, or in jail. And they both know, facing each other in the booth of a bar on Lenox Avenue, that it is a miracle that Joseph’s daughters are not on the block. Both of them know far more than either of them would like to know, and certainly far more than either can say, con­cerning the disasters which have overtaken the women in Frank’s house.

And Frank looks down, holding his drink tightly between both hands: he has a son. And Joseph sips his beer and watches him. That son is also his son now, and that makes Frank his brother.

They are both grown men, approaching fifty, and they are both in terrible trouble.

Neither of them look it. Joseph is much darker than Frank, black, deep-set, hooded eyes, stem, still, a high forehead in which one vein beats, leftward, a forehead so high that it can make you think of cathedrals. His lips are always a little twisted. Only those who know him – only those who love him – know when this twist signals laughter, love, or fury. The key is to be found in the pulsing vein in the forehead. The lips change very little, the eyes change all the time: and when Joseph is happy, and when he laughs, something absolutely miraculous is happening. He then looks, I swear to you, – and his hair is beginning to turn gray, – about thirteen years old. I thought once, I’m certainly glad I didn’t meet him when he was a young man and then I thought, But you’re his daughter, and then I dropped into a paralyzed silence, thinking: Wow.

Frank is light, thinner. I don’t think that you can describe my father as handsome; but you can describe Frank that way. I don’t mean to be putting him down when I say that because that face has paid, and is paying, a dreadful price. People make you pay for the way you look, which is also the way you think you look, and what time writes in a human face is the record of that collision. Frank has survived it, barely. His forehead is lined like the palm of a hand – unreadable; his gray­ing hair is thick and curls violently upward from the widow’s peak. His lips are not as thick as Jo­seph’s and do not dance that way, are pressed tightly together, as though he wished they would disappear. His cheekbones are high, and his large dark eyes slant upward, like Fonny’s – Fonny has his father’s eyes.

Joseph certainly cannot realize this in the way that his daughter knows it. But he stares at Frank in silence, and forces Frank to raise his eyes.

“What we going to do?” Frank asks.

“Well, the first thing we got to do,” says Joseph, resolutely, “is to stop blaming each other, and stop blaming ourselves. If we can’t do that, man, we’ll never get the boy out because we’ll be so fucked up. And we cannot fuck up now, baby, and I know you hear where I’m coming from.”

“Man, what,” asks Frank – with his little smile – “we going to do about the money?”

“You ever have any money?” Joseph asks.

Frank looks up at him and says nothing – merely questions him with his eyes.

Joseph asks again, “You ever have any money?” Frank says, finally, “No.”

“Then, why you worried about it now?”

Frank looks up at him again.

“You raised them somehow, didn’t you? You fed them somehow – didn’t you? If we start to wor­rying about money now, man, we going to be fucked and we going to lose our children. That white man, baby, and may his balls shrivel and his ass-hole rot, he want you to be worried about the money. That’s his whole game. But if we got to where we are without money, we can get fur­ther. I ain’t worried about they money – they ain’t got no right to it anyhow, they stole it from us – they ain’t never met nobody they didn’t lie to and steal from. Well, I can steal, too. And rob. How you think I raised my daughters? Shit.”

But Frank is not Joseph. He stares down again, into his drink.

“What you think is going to happen?”

“What we make happen,” says Joseph – again, with resolution.

“That’s easy to say,” says Frank.

“Not if you mean it,” says Joseph.

There is a long silence into which neither man speaks. Even the jukebox is silent.

“I guess,” Frank says, finally, “I love Fonny more than I love anybody in this world. And it makes me ashamed, man, I swear, because he was a real sweet manly little boy, wasn’t scared of nothing – except maybe his Mama. He didn’t understand his Mama.” Frank stops. “And I don’t know what I should have done. I ain’t a woman. And there’s some things only a woman can do with a child. And I thought she loved him – like I guess I thought, one time, she loved me.” Frank sips his drink, and he tries to smile. “I don’t know if I was ever any kind of father to him – any kind of real father – and now he’s in jail and it ain’t his fault and I don’t even know how I’m going to get him out. I’m sure one hell of a man.”

“Well,” says Joseph, “he sure think you are. He loves you, and he respects you – now, you got to remember that I might know that much better than you. Tell you something else. Your baby son is the father of my baby daughter’s baby. Now, how you going to sit here and act like can’t nothing be done? We got a child on the way here, man. You want me to beat the shit out of you?” He says this with ferocity; but, after a moment, he smiles. “I know,” he says, then, carefully, “I know. But I know some hustles and you know some hustles and these are our children and we got to set them free.” Joseph finishes his beer. “So, let’s drink up, man, and go on in. We got a whole lot of shit to deal with, in a hurry.”

Frank finishes his drink, and straightens his shoulders. “You right, old buddy. Let’s make it.”

The date for Fonny’s trial keeps changing. This fact, paradoxically, forces me to realize that Hayward’s concern is genuine. I don’t think that he very much cared, in the beginning. He had never taken a case like Fonny’s before, and it was Ernestine, acting partly out of experience but mainly out of instinct, who had bludgeoned him into it. But, once into it, the odor of shit rose high; and he had no choice but to keep on stirring it. It became obvious at once, for example, that the degree of his concern for his client – or the fact that he had any genuine concern for his client at all – placed him at odds, at loggerheads, with the keepers of the keys and seals. He had not expected this, and at first it bewildered, then frightened, then angered him. He swiftly understood that he was between the carrot and the stick: he couldn’t avoid the stick but he had to make it clear, final­ly, that he’d be damned if he’d go for the carrot. This had the effect of isolating, indeed of branding him, and, as this increased Fonny’s danger, it also increased Hayward’s responsibility. It did not help that I distrusted him, Ernestine harangued him, Mama was laconic, and, for Joseph, he was just another white boy with a college degree.

Although, naturally, in the beginning, I distrusted him, I am not really what you can call a dis­trustful person: and, anyway, as time wore on, with each of us trying to hide our terror from the other, we began to depend more and more on one another – we had no choice. And I began to see, as time wore on, that, for Hayward, the battle increasingly became a private one, involving neither gratitude nor public honor. It was a sordid, a banal case, this rape by a black boy of an ignorant Puerto Rican woman – what was he getting so excited about? And so his colleagues scorned and avoided him. This fact introduced yet other dangers, not least of them the danger of retreating into the self-pitying and quixotic. But Fonny was too real a presence, and Hayward too proud a man for that.

But the calendars were full – it would take about a thousand years to try all the people in the American prisons, but the Americans are optimistic and still hope for time – and sympathetic or merely intelligent judges are as rare as snowstorms in the tropics. There was the obscene power and the ferocious enmity of the D.A.’s office. Thus, Hayward walked a chalk line, maneuvering very hard to bring Fonny before a judge who would really listen to the case. For this, Hayward needed charm, patience, money, and a backbone of tempered steel.

He managed to see Daniel, who has been beaten. He cannot arrange for his release because Da­niel has been booked on a narcotics charge. Without becoming Daniel’s lawyer, he cannot visit him. He suggests this to Daniel, but Daniel is evasive and afraid. Hayward suspects that Daniel has alio been drugged and he does not know if he dares bring Daniel to the witness stand, or not.

So. There we are. Mama begins letting out my clothes, and I go to work wearing jackets and slacks. But it’s clear that I’m not going to be able to keep working much longer: I’ve got to be able to visit Fonny every instant that I can. Joseph is working overtime, double time, and so is Frank. Ernestine has to spend less time with her children because she has taken a job as part-time private secretary to a very rich and eccentric young actress, whose connections she intends to intimidate, and use. Joseph is coldly, systematically, stealing from the docks, and Frank is stealing from the garment center and they sell the hot goods in Harlem, or in Brooklyn. They don’t tell us this, but we know it. They don’t tell us because, if things go wrong, we can’t be accused of being accomplic­es. We cannot penetrate their silence, we must not try. Each of these men would gladly go to jail, blow away a pig, or blow up a city, to save their progeny from the jaws of this democratic hell.

Now, Sharon must begin preparing for her Puerto Rican journey, and Hayward briefs her:

“She is not actually in Santurce, but a little beyond it, in what might once have been called a suburb, but which is now far worse than what we would call a slum. In Puerto Rico, I believe it is called afavella. I have been to Puerto Rico once, and so I will not try to describe a favella. And I am sure, when you return, that you will not try to describe it, either.”

Hayward looks at her, at once distant and intense, and hands her a typewritten sheet of paper. “This is the address. But I think that you will understand, almost as soon as you get where you are going, that the word ‘address’ has almost no meaning – it would be more honest to say: this is the neighborhood.”

Sharon, wearing her floppy beige beret, looks at it.

“There’s no phone,” says Hayward, “and, anyway, a phone is the very last thing you need. You might as well send up flares. But it isn’t hard to find. Just follow your nose.”

They stare at each other.

“Now,” says Hayward, with his really painful smile, “just to make things easier for you, I must tell you that we are not really certain under which name she is living. Her maiden name is Sanchez – but that’s a little like looking for a Mrs. Jones or a Mr. Smith. Her married name is Rogers; but I am sure that that appears only on her passport. The name of what we must call her common-law husband” – and now he pauses to look down at another sheet of paper, and then at Sharon and then at me – “is Pietro Thomasino Alvarez.”

He hands Sharon this piece of paper; and, again, Sharon studies it.

“And,” says Hayward, “take this with you. I hope it will help. She still looks this way. It was snapped last week.”

And he hands Sharon a photograph, slightly larger than passport size.

I have never seen her. I stand, to peer over Sharon’s shoulder. She is blond – but are Puerto Ri­cans blond? She is smiling up into the camera a constipated smile; yet, there is life in the eyes. The eyes and the eyebrows are dark, and the dark shoulders are bare.

“This from a night club?” Sharon asks; and, ‘Yes,” Hayward answers, she watching him, he watching her: and:

“Does she work there?” Sharon asks.

“No,” says Hayward. “But Pietro does.”

I keep studying, over my mother’s shoulder, the face of my most mortal enemy.

Mama turns the photograph over, and holds it in her lap.

“And how old is this Pietro?”

“About – twenty-two,” says Hayward.

And just exactly like, as the song puts it, God arose! In a windstorm! And he troubled everybody’s mind! silence fell in the office. Mama leans forward, thinking ahead.

“Twenty-two,” she says, slowly.

“Yes,” says Hayward. “I’m afraid that detail may present us with a brand new ball game.”

“What do you want me to do exactly?” Sharon asks.

“Help me,” Hayward says.

“Well,” says Sharon, after a moment, opening her purse, then opening her wallet, carefully plac­ing the bits of paper in her wallet, closing the wallet, burying the wallet in the depths of her purse, and snapping shut the purse, “then I’ll be leaving sometime tomorrow. I’ll call, or have somebody call, before I go. Just so you’ll know where I am.”

And she rises, and Hayward rises, and we walk to the door.

“Do you have a photograph of Fonny with you?” Hayward asks.

“I do,” I say.

And I open my bag and find my wallet. I actually have two photographs, one of Fonny and me leaning against the railing of the house on Bank Street. His shirt is open to the belly button, he has one arm around me, and we are both laughing. The other is of Fonny alone, sitting in the house near the record player, somber and peaceful; and it’s my favorite photograph of him.

Mama takes the photographs, hands them to Hayward, who studies them. Then she takes them back from Hayward.

“These the only ones you got?” she asks me.

“Yes,” I say.

She hands me back the photograph of Fonny alone. She puts the one of Fonny and me into her wallet, which again descends into the bottom of her purse. “This one ought to get it,” she says. “Af­ter all, it is my daughter, and she ain’t been raped.” She shakes hands with Hayward. “Keep your fingers crossed, son, and let’s hope the old lady can bring home the goods.”

She turns toward the door. But Hayward checks her again.

“The fact that you are going to Puerto Rico makes me feel better than I have felt for weeks. But: I must also tell you that the D.A.’s office is in constant touch with the Hunt family – that is, the mother and the two sisters – and their position appears to be that Fonny has always been incorrig­ible and worthless.”

Hayward pauses, and looks steadily at us both. “Now: if the state can get these respectable black women to depose, or to testify, that their son and brother has always been a dangerously antisocial creature, this is a very serious blow for us.”

He pauses again, and he turns toward the window.

“As a matter of fact – for Galileo Santini is not a stupid man – it might be vastly more effective if he does not call them as character witnesses, for then they cannot be cross-examined – he need merely convey to the jury that these respectable churchgoing women are prostrate witte shame and grief. And the father can be dismissed as a hard-drinking good-for-nothing, a dreadful exam­ple to his son – especially as he has publicly threatened to blow Santini’s head off.”

He turns from the window, to watch us very carefully. “I think I will probably call on you, Sha­ron, and on Mr. Rivers, as character witnesses. But you see what we are up against.”

“It’s always better,” says Sharon, “to know than not to know.”

Hayward claps Sharon gently on the shoulder. “So try to bring home the goods.”

I think to myself: and I will take care of those sisters, and that mother. But I don’t say anything, except “Thanks, Hayward. Good-bye.”

And Sharon says, “Okay. Got you. Good-bye.” And we walk down the hall to the elevator.

I remember the night the baby was conceived because it was the night of the day we finally found our loft. And this cat, whose name was Levy, really was going to rent it to us, he wasn’t full of shit. He was an olive-skinned, curly-haired, merry-faced boy from the Bronx, about thirty-three, maybe, with big, kind of electrical black eyes, and he dug us. He dug people who loved each other. The loft was off Canal Street, and it was big and in pretty good condition. It had two big windows on the street, and the two back windows opened onto a roof, with a railing. There was a room for Fonny to work, and, with all the windows open, you wouldn’t die of heat prostration in the sum­mertime. We were very excited about the roof because you could have dinner on it, or serve drinks, or just sit there in the evenings, if you wanted to, with your arms around each other. “Hell,” Levy said, “drag out the blankets and sleep on it.” He smiled at Fonny. “Make babies on it. That’s how I got here.” What I most remember about him is that he didn’t make either of us feel self­conscious.We all laughed together. “You two should have some beautiful babies,” he said, “and, take it from me, kids, the world damn sure needs them.”

He asked us for only one month in advance, and, about a week later, I took the money over to him. And then, when Fonny got into trouble, he did something very strange, and, I think, very beautiful. He called me and he said that I could have the money back, anytime I wanted it But, he said, he wouldn’t rent that loft to anybody but us. “I can’t,” he said. “The bastards. That loft stays empty until your man gets out of jail, and I ain’t just whistling Dixie, honey.” And he gave me his number and asked me please to let him know if there was anything at all he could do. “I want you kids to have your babies. I’m funny that way.”

Levy explained and exhibited the somewhat complicated structure of locks and keys. Our loft was the top, up three or four stories. The stairs were steep. There was a set of keys for our loft, which had double locks.Then, there was the door at the top of the steps, which locked us away from the rest of the building.

“Man,” Fonny asked, “what do we do in case of fire?”

“Oh,” said Levy, “I forgot,” and he unlocked the doors again and we went back into the loft. He took us onto the roof and led us to the edge, where the railing was. On the far right of the roof the railing opened, extending itself into a narrow catwalk. This railing led to the metal steps, by which steps one descended into the courtyard. Once in this courtyard, which seemed to be closed in by walls, one might wonder what on earth to do: it was something of a trap. Still, one would not have had to leap from the burning building. Once on the ground, one had to hope, merely, not to be bu­ried beneath the flaming, crashing walls.

“Well,” said Fonny, carefully holding me by one elbow, and leading me back onto the roof, “I can dig that.” We again went through the ritual of the locking of the doors, and descended into the street. “Don’t worry about the neighbors,” Levy said, “because, after five or six o’clock, you won’t have any. All you got between you and the street are small, failing sweatshops.”

And we got into the street and he showed us how to lock and unlock the street door.

“Got it?” he asked Fonny.

“Got it,” Fonny said.

“Come on. I’ll buy you a milk shake.”

And we had three milk shakes on the corner, and Levy shook hands, and left us, saying that he had to get home to his wife and kids – two boys, one aged two, one aged three and a half. But be­fore he left us, he said, “Look. I told you not to worry about the neighbors. But watch out for the cops. They’re murder.”

One of the most terrible, most mysterious things about a life is that a warning can be heeded on­ly in retrospect: too late.

Levy left us, and Fonny and I walked, hand in hand, up the broad, bright, crowded streets, to­ward the Village, toward our pad. We talked and talked and laughed and laughed. We crossed Houston and started up Sixth Avenue – Avenue of the Americas! – with all those fucking flags on it, which we didn’t see. I wanted to stop at one of the markers on Bleecker Street, to buy some to­matoes. We crossed the Avenue of the Americas and started west, on Bleecker. Fonny had one hand around my waist. We stopped at a vegetable stand. I started looking.

Fonny hates shopping. He said, “Wait one minute. I’m going to buy some cigarettes,” and he went up the street, just around the comer.

I started picking out the tomatoes, and I remember that I was kind of humming to myself. I started looking around for a scale and for the man or the woman who would weigh the tomatoes for me and tell me what I owed.

Fonny is right about me when he says I’m not very bright. When I first felt this hand on my be­hind, I thought it was Fonny: then I realized that Fonny would never, never touch me that way, in public.

I turned, my six tomatoes in both hands, and found myself facing a small, young, greasy Italian punk.

“I can sure dig a tomato who digs tomatoes,” he said, and he licked his lips, and smiled.

Two things happened in me, all at the same time – three. This was a very crowded street. I knew that Fonny would be back at any moment. I wanted to smash my tomatoes in the boy’s face. But no one had really noticed us yet, and I didn’t want Fonny to get into a fight. I saw a white cop coming slowly up the street.

I realized that I was black and that the crowded streets were white and so I turned away and walked into the shop, still with my tomatoes in my hands. I found a scale and I put the tomatoes on the scale and I looked around for someone to weigh them, so that I could pay and get out of this store before Fonny came back from around the comer. The cop was now on the other side of the street; and the boy had followed me into the store. “Hey, sweet tomato. You know I dig tomatoes.”

And now people were watching us. I did not know what to do – the only thing to do was to get out of there before Fonny turned the comer. I tried to move: but the boy blocked my way. I looked around, for someone to help me – people were staring, but no one moved. I decided, in despair, to call the cop. But, when I moved, the boy grabbed my arm. He was, really, probably, just a broken- down junkie – but when he grabbed my arm, I slapped his face and I spat in it: and exactly at that moment, Fonny entered the store.

Fonny grabbed the boy by the hair, knocked him to the ground, picked him up and kicked him in the balls and dragged him to the sidewalk and knocked him down again. I screamed and held on to Fonny with all my might, for I saw that the cop, who had been on the far comer, was now crossing the street, on the run; and the white boy lay bleeding and retching in the gutter. I was sure that the cop intended to kill Fonny; but he could not kill Fonny if I could keep my body be­tween Fonny and this cop; and with all my strength, with all my love, my prayers, and armed with the knowledge that Fonny was not, after all, going to knock me to the ground, I held the back of my head against Fonny’s chest, held both his wrists between my two hands, and looked up into the face of this cop. I said, “That man – there – attacked me. Right in this store. Right now.Every­body saw it.”

No one said a word.

The cop looked at them all. Then, he looked back at me. Then, he looked at Fonny. I could not see Fonny’s face. But I could see the cop’s face: and I knew that I must not move, nor, if I could possibly help it, allow Fonny to move.

“And where were you,” the cop elaborately asked Fonny, “while all this” – his eyes flicked over me in exactly the same way the boy’s eyes had – “while all this was going on between junior, there, and” – his eyes took me in again – “and your girl?”

“He was around the comer,” I said, “buying cigarettes.” For I did not want Fonny to speak.

I hoped that he would forgive me, later.

“Is that so, boy?”

I said, “He’s not a boy. Officer.”

Now, he looked at me, really looked at me for the first time, and, therefore, for the first time, he really looked at Fonny.

Meanwhile, some people had got junior to his feet.

“You live around here?” the cop asked Fonny.

The back of my head was still on Fonny’s chest, but he had released his wrists from my hands.

“Yes,” Fonny said, “on Bank Street,” and he gave the officer the address.

I knew that, in a moment, Fonny would push me away.

“We’re going to take you down, boy,” the cop said, “for assault and battery.”

I do not know what would now have happened if the Italian lady who ran the store had not spoken up. “Oh, no,” she said, “I know both these young people. They shop here very often. What the young lady has told you is the truth. I saw them both, just now, when they came, and I watch­ed her choose her tomatoes and her young man left her and he said he would be right back. I was busy, I could not get to her right away; her tomatoes are still on the scale. And that little good-for- nothing shit over there, he did attack her. And he has got exactly what he deserved. What would you do if a man attacked your wife? if you have one.” The crowd snickered, and the cop flushed. “I saw exactly what happened. I am a witness. And I will swear to it.”

She and the cop stared at each other.

“Funny way to run a business,” he said, and licked his lower lip.

“You will not tell me how to run my business,” she said. “I was on this street before you got here and I will be here when you are gone. Take,” she said, gesturing toward the boy now sitting on the curbstone, with some of his friends around him, “that miserable urchin away with you, to Belle­vue, or to Rikers’ Island – or drop him in the river, he is of no earthly use to anyone. But do not try to frighten me – bastal”

I notice, for the first time, that Bell’s eyes are blue and that what I can see of his hair is red.

He looks again at me and then again at Fonny. He licks his lips again.

The Italian lady reenters the store and takes my tomatoes off the scale and puts them in a bag.

‘Well,” says Bell, staring at Fonny, “be seeing you around.”

“You may,” says Fonny, “and then, again, you may not.”

“Not,” says the Italian lady, coming back into the street, “if they, or I, see you first.” She turns me around and puts the bag of tomatoes into my hands. She is standing between myself and Bell. She stares into my eyes. “You have a good man,” she says. “Take him home. Away from these diseased pigs.” I look at her. She touches my face. “I have been in America a long time,” she says. “I hope I do not die here.”

She goes back into her store. Fonny takes the tomatoes from me, and holds the bag in the crook of one arm; the other arm he entwines through mine, interlocking his fingers through mine. We walk slowly away, toward our pad.

“Tish,” says Fonny – very quietly; with a dreadful quietness.

I almost know what he is going to say.

“Yes?”

“Don’t ever try to protect me again. Don’t do that.”

I know I am saying the wrong thing: “But you were trying to protect me.”

“It’s not,” he says, with the same terrifying quietness, “the same thing, Tish.”

And he suddenly takes the bag of tomatoes and smashes them against the nearest wall. Thank God the wall is blank, thank God it is now beginning to be dark. Thank God tomatoes spatter but do not ring.

I know what he is saying. I know he is right. I know I must not say anything. Thank God, he does not let go my hand. I look down at the sidewalk, which I cannot see. I hope he cannot hear my tears.

But he does.

He stops and turns me to him, and he kisses me. He pulls away and looks at me and kisses me again.

“Don’t think I don’t know you love me. You believe we going to make it?”

Then, I am calm. There are tears on his face, his or mine, I don’t know. I kiss him where our tears fall. I start to say something. He puts one finger on my lips. He smiles his little smile.

“Hush. Don’t say a word. I’m going to take you out to dinner. At our Spanish place, you remem­ber? Only, this time, it’s got to be on credit.”

And he smiles and I smile and we keep on walking.

“We have no money,” Fonny says to Pedrocito, when we enter the restaurant, “but we are very hungry. And I will have some money in a couple of days.”

“In a couple of days,” says Pedrocito, furiously, “that is what they all say! And, furthermore” – striking an incredulous hand to his forehead – “I suppose that you would like to eat sitting down\”

“Why, yes,” says Fonny, grinning, “if you could arrange it, that would be nice.”

“At a table, no doubt?” And he stares at Fonny as though he simply cannot believe his eyes.

“Well -1 would – yeah – like a table-“

“Ah!” But, “Good evening, Senorita,” Pedrocito now says, and smiles at me. “It is for her I do it, you know,” he informs Fonny. “It is clear that you do not feed her properly.” He leads us to a table and sits us down.” And now, no doubt,” he scowls, “you would like two margheritas?”

“Caught me again,” says Fonny, and he and Pedrocito laugh and Pedrocito disappears.

Fonny takes my hand in his.

“Hello,” he says.

I say, “Hello.”

“I don’t want you to feel bad about what I said to you before. You a fine, tough chick and I know, hadn’t been for you, my brains might be being spattered all over that precinct basement by now.”

He pauses, and he lights a cigarette. I watch him. “So, I don’t mean that you did nothing wrong. I guess you did the only thing you could have done. But you got to understand where I’m coming from.”

He takes my hands between his again.

“We live in a nation of pigs and murderers. I’m scared every time you out of my sight. And maybe what happened just now was my fault, because I should never have left you alone at that vegetable stand – but I was just so happy, you know, about the loft -1 wasn’t thinking-“

“Tonny, I’ve been to that vegetable stand a hundred ties, and nothing like that ever happened be­fore. I’ve got to take care of you – of us. You can’t go everywhere I go. How is it your fault? That was just some broken-down junkie-“

“Some broken-down white American,” Fonny says.

“Well. It’s still not your fault”

He smiles at me.

“They got us in a trick bag, baby. It’s hard, but I just want for you to bear in mind that they can make us lose each other by putting me in the shit – or, they can try to make us lose each other by making you try to protect me from it. You see what I mean?”

“Yes,” I say, finally, “I see what you mean. And I know that that’s true.”

Pedrocito returns, with our margheritas.

“We have a specialty tonight,” he announces, “very, very Spanish, and we are trying it out on all those customers who think Franco is a great man.” He looks at Fonny quizzically. “I suppose that you do not exactly qualify – so, for you, I will remove the arsenic. Without the arsenic, it is a little less strong, but it is actually very good, I think you will like it. Do you trust me not to poison you? Anyway, it would be very foolish of me to poison you before you pay your tremendous bill. We would immediately go bankrupt.” He turns to me. “Will you trust me, Senorital I assure you that we will prepare it with love.”

“Now, watch it, Pete,” says Fonny.

“Oh, your mind is like a sewer, you do not deserve so beautiful a girl.” And he disappears again.

“That cop,” Fonny says, “that cop.”

‘What about that cop?” But I am suddenly; and I don’t know why, as still and as dry as a stone: with fear.

“He’s going to try to get me,” Fonny says.

“How? You didn’t do anything wrong. The Italian lady said so, and she said that she would swear to it.”

“That’s why he’s going to try to get me,” Fonny says. “White men don’t like it at all when a white lady tells them, You a boatful of motherfuckers, and the black cat was right, and you can kiss my ass.” He grins.” Because that’s what she told him. In front of a whole lot of people. And he couldn’t do shit. And he ain’t about to forget it.”

“Well,” I say, “we’ll soon be moving downtown, to our loft.”

‘That’s right,” he says, and smiles again. Pedrocito arrives, with our specialties.

When two people love each other, when they really love each other, everything that happens be­tween them has something of a sacramental air. They can sometimes seem to be driven very far from each other: I know of no greater torment, no more resounding void – when your lover has gone!

But tonight, with our vows so mysteriously menaced, and with both of us, though from different angles, placed before this fact, we were more profoundly together than we had ever been before. Take care of each other, Joseph had said. You going to find out it’s more than a notion.

After dinner, and coffee, Pedrocito offered us brandy, and then he left us, in the nearly empty restaurant. Fonny and I just sat there and sipped our brandy, talking a little, holding hands – dig­ging each other. We finished our brandy. Fonny said, “Shall we go?”

“Yes,” I said. For I wanted to be alone with him, in his arms.

He signed the check; the last check he was ever to sign there. I have never been allowed to pay it – it has been, they say, misplaced.

We said good-night, and we walked home, with our arms around each other.

There was a patrol car parked across the street from our house, and, as Fonny opened our gate and unlocked our door, it drove off. Fonny smiled, but said nothing. I said nothing.

The baby was conceived that night. I know it. I know it from the way Fonny touched me, held me, entered me. I had never been so open before. And when he started to pull out, I would not let him, I held on to him as tightly as I could, crying and moaning and shaking with him, and felt life, life, his life, inundating me, entrusting itself to me.

Then, we were still. We did not move, because we could not. We held each other so close that we might indeed have been one body. Fonny caressed me and called my name and he fell asleep. I was very proud. I had crossed my river. Now, we were one.

Sharon gets to Puerto Rico on an evening plane. She knows exactly how much money she has, which means that she knows how rapidly she must move against time – which is inexorably mov­ing against her.

She steps down from the plane, with hundreds of others, and crosses the field, under the blue- black sky; and something in the way the stars hang low, something in the way the air caresses her skin, reminds her of that Birmingham she has not seen in so long.

She has brought with her only a small overnight bag, so she need not wait in line for her lug­gage. Hayward has made a reservation for her in a small hotel in San Juan; and he has written the address on a piece of paper.

He has warned her that it may not be so easy to find a taxi.

But he has not, of course, been able to prepare her for the stunning confusion which reigns at the San Juan airport. So, Sharon stands still for a moment, trying to sort things out.

She is wearing a green summer dress, my mother, and a wide-brimmed, green cloth hat; her handbag over her shoulder, her overnight bag in her hand; she studies the scene.

Her first impression is that everyone appears to be related to each other. This is not because of the way they look, nor is it a matter of language: it is because of the way they relate to each other. There are many colors here, but this does not, at least at the airport, appear to count for very much. Whoever is speaking is shouting – that is the only way to be heard; and everyone is determined to be heard. It is quite impossible to guess who is leaving, who arriving. Entire families appear to have been squatting there for weeks, with all their earthly possessions piled around them – not, Sharon notes, that these possessions towered very high. For the children, the airport appears to be merely a more challenging way of playing house.

Sharon’s problems are real and deep. Since she cannot allow these to become desperate, she must now rely on what she can establish of illusion: and the key to illusion is complicity. The world sees what it wishes to see, or, when the chips are down, what you tell it to see: it does not wish to see who, or what, or why you are. Only Sharon knows that she is my mother, only she knows what she is doing in San Juan, with no one to meet her. Before speculation rises too high, she must make it clear that she is a visitor, from up the road – from North America: who, through no fault of her own, speaks no Spanish.

Sharon walks to the Hertz desk, and stands there, and smiles, somewhat insistently, at one of the young ladies behind the desk.

“Do you speak English?” she asks the young lady.

The young lady, anxious to prove that she does, looks up, determined to be helpful.

Sharon hands her the address of the hotel. The young lady looks at it, looks back at Sharon. Her look makes Sharon realize that Hayward has been very thoughtful, and that he has placed her in a very respected, respectable hotel.

“I am very sorry to bother you,” says Sharon, “but I do not speak any Spanish, and I have had to come here unexpectedly.” She pauses, giving no explanation. “And I do not drive. I wondered if I could rent a car, with a driver, or, if not, if you could tell me exactly how to get a taxi-?” Sharon makes a helpless gesture. “You see-?”

She smiles, and the young lady smiles. She looks again at the paper, looks around the airport, narrowing her eyes.

“One moment, Senora,” she says.

She leaves her phone off the hook, swings open the small gate, closes it behind her, and disap­pears.

She reappears very quickly, with a boy of about eighteen. “This is your taxi driver,” she says. “He will take you where you are going.” She reads the address aloud, and gives the piece of paper back to Sharon. She smiles. “I hope you will enjoy your visit, Senora. If you need anything – allow me?” She gives Sharon her card. “If you need anything, please do not hesitate to call on me.”

“Thank you,” says Sharon. “Thank you very much. You have been beautiful.”

“It was nothing. Jaime,” she says, authoritatively, “take the lady’s bag.”

Jaime does so, and Sharon says good-night, and follows Jaime.

Sharon thinks, One down! and begins to be frightened.

But she has to make her choices very quickly. On the way into town, she decides – because he is there – to make friends with Jaime, and to depend, or to seem to depend, on him. He knows the town, and he can drive. It is true that he is terribly young. But that could turn out to be a plus. Someone older, knowing more, might turn out to be a terrible hassle. Her idea is to case the night­club, to see Pietro, and, possibly, Victoria, without saying anything to them. But it is not a simple matter for a lone woman, black or white, to walk, unescorted, into a nightclub. Furthermore, for all she knows, this nightclub may be a whorehouse. Her only option is to play the American tourist, wide-eyed – but she is black, and this is Puerto Rico.

Only she knows that she’s my mother, and about to become a grandmother; only she knows that she is past forty; only she knows what she is doing here.

She tips Jaime when they arrive at the hotel. Then, as her bag is carried into the hotel, she looks suddenly at her watch. “My God,” she says, “do you think you could wait for me, just for a minute, while I register? I had no idea it was so late. I promised to meet someone. I won’t be a moment. The boy will carry the bag up. Will that be all right?”

Jaime is a somewhat muddy-faced boy, with brilliant eyes, and a sullen smile. He is entirely in­trigued by this improbable North American lady – intrigued because he knows, through unuttera­bly grim experience, that, though she may be in trouble, and certainly has a secret, she is not at­tempting to do him any violence. He understands that she needs him – the taxi – for something; but that is not his affair. He does not know he knows it – the thought has not consciously entered his mind – but he knows she is a mother. He has a mother. He knows one when he sees one. He knows, again without knowing that he knows it, that he can be of service to her tonight. His cour­tesy is as real as her trouble. And so he says, gravely, that, of course, he will take the Senora whe- reever she wishes and wait for her as long as she likes.

Sharon cheats on him, a little. She registers, goes up in the elevator with the bellboy, tips him. She cannot decide whether to wear her hat, or not. Her problem is both trivial and serious, but she has never had to confront it before. Her problem is that she does not look her age. She takes her hat off. She puts it back on. Does the hat make her look younger, or older? At home, she looks her age (whatever that age is) because everybody knows her age. She looks her age because she knows her role. But, now, she is about to enter a nightclub, in a strange town, for the first time in twenty years, alone. She puts the hat on. She takes it off. She realizes that panic is about to overtake her, and so she throws the hat onto the night table, scrubs her face in cold water as harshly as she once scrubbed mine, puts on a high-necked white blouse and a black skin and black high-heeled shoes, pulls her hair cruelly back from her forehead, knots it, and throws a black shawl over her head and shoulders. The intention of all this is to make her look elderly. The effect is to make her look juve­nile. Sharon curses, but the taxi is waiting. She grabs her handbag, runs to the elevator, walks swiftly through the lobby, and gets to the taxi. She, certainly, anyway, Jaime’s brilliant eyes inform her, looks like a Yankee – or a gringo – tourist.

The nightclub is located in what was certainly a backwater, if not, indeed, a swamp, before the immense hotel which houses it was built. It is absolutely hideous, so loud, so blatant, so imper­vious and cruel, that, facing it causes mere vulgarity to seem an irrecoverable state of grace. Sha­ron is now really frightened, her hands are shaking. She lights a cigarette.

“I must find someone,” she says, to Jaime. “I will not be long.”

She has no way of realizing, at that moment, that the entire militia would have trouble driving Jaime away. Sharon has now become his property. This lady, he knows, is in deep trouble. And it is not an ordinary trouble: because this is a lady.

“Certainly, Senora,” says Jaime, with a smile, and gets out of the cab, and comes to open the door for her.

“Thank you,” Sharon says, and walks quickly toward the garish doors, wide open. There is no doorman visible. But there will certainly be a doorman inside.

Now, it must all be played by ear. And all that holds her up, my mother, who once dreamed of being a singer, is her private knowledge of what she is doing in this place.

She enters, in fact, the hotel lobby, keys, registration, mail, cashier, bored clerks (mainly white, and decidedly pale) with no one paying her the slightest attention. She walks as though she knows exactly where she is going. The nightclub is on the left, down a flight of stairs. She turns left, and walks down the stairs.

No one has stopped her yet.

“Senorita-?”

She has never seen a photograph of Pietro. The man before her is bland and swarthy. The light is too dim (and her surroundings too strange) for her to be able to guess his age; he does not seem unfriendly.Sharon smiles.

“Good evening. I hope I’m in the right place. This is-?” and she stammers the name of the night­club.

“Si, Senorita:’

“Well – I’m supposed to meet a friend here, but the flight I meant to take was overbooked, and so I was forced to take an earlier one. So, I’m a little early. Could you hide me at a table, in a cor­ner, somewhere?”

“Certainly. With pleasure.” He leads her through the crowded room. “What is the name of your friend?”

Her mind dries up, she must go for broke. “It’s actually more in the nature of business. I am waiting for a Senor Alvarez. I am Mrs. Rivers. From New York.”

“Thank you.” He seats her at a table, against the wall. “Will you have a drink white waiting?”

“Yes. Thank you. A screwdriver.”

He bows, whoever he is, and walks away.

Two down! thinks Sharon. And she is now very calm. This is a nightclub, and so the music is – “live.” Sharon’s days with the drummer come back to her. Her days as a singer come back to her. They do not, as she is to make very vivid to me, much later, come back with the rind of regret. She and the drummer lost each other – that was that; she was not equipped to be a singer, and that was that. Yet, she remembers what she and the drummer and the band attempted, she knows from whence they came. If I remember “Uncloudy Day” because I remember myself sitting on my moth­er’s knee when I first heard it, she remembers “My Lord and I”: And so, we’ll walk together, my Lord and I. That song is Birmingham, her father and her mother, the kitchens, and the mines. She may never, in fact, ever have particularly liked that particular song, but she knows about it, it is a part of her. She slowly realizes that this is the song, which, to different words, if words indeed there are, the young people on the bandstand are belting, or belting out. And they know nothing at all about the song they are singing: which causes Sharon to wonder if they know anything about themselves at all. This is the first time that Sharon has been alone in a very long time. Even now, she is alone merely physically, in she same way, for example, that she is alone when she goes shopping for her family. Shopping, she must listen, she must look, say yes to this, say no to that, she must choose: she has a family to feed. She cannot poison them, because she loves them. And now she finds herself listening to a sound she has never heard before. If she were shopping, she could not take this home and put it on she family table for it would not nourish them. My gal and I! cries the undernourished rock singer, whipping himself into an electronic orgasm. But no one who had ever had a lover, a mother or father, or a Lord, could sound so despairingly masturbatory. For it is despair that Sharon is hearing, and despair, whether or not it can be taken home and placed on the family table, must always be respected. Despair can make one monstrous, but it can also make one noble: and here these children are, in the arena, up for grabs. Sharon claps for them, because she prays for them. Her screwdriver comes, and she smiles up at a face she cannot see. She sips her drink. She stiffens: the children are about to go into their next number: and she looks up into another face she cannot see.

The children begin their number, loud: “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

“You Mrs. Rivers? You waiting for me?”

“I think so. Won’t you sit down?”

He sits down, facing her. Now, she sees him.

Again – thinking of me, and Fonny, and the baby, cursing herself for being so inept, knowing herself to be encircled, trapped, her back to the wall, his back to the door – she yet must go for broke.

“I was told that a certain Mr. Pietro Alvarez worked here. Are you Pietro Alvarez?”

She sees him. And yet, of course, at the same time, she doesn’t.

“Maybe. What you want to see him about?”

Sharon wants a cigarette, but she is afraid her hand will tremble. She picks up her screwdriver in both hands, and sips it, slowly, rather thanking God, now, for the shawl, which she can maneuver to shadow her face. If she can see him, he can also see her. She is silent for a moment. Then she puts down her drink and she picks up a cigarette.

“May I have a light, please?”

He lights it. She takes off the shawl.

“I do not especially want to see Mr. Alvarez. I want to see Mrs. Victoria Rogers. I am the mother- in-law, to be, of the man she has accused of raping her, and who is now in prison, in New York.”

She watches him. He watches her. Now, she begins to see him.

“Well, lady, you got one hell of a son-in-law, let me tell you that.”

“I also have one hell of a daughter. Let me tell you that.”

The moustache he has grown to make him look older switches. He runs his hands through his thick black hair.

“Look. The kid’s been through enough. More than enough. Leave her alone.”

“A man is about to die, for something he didn’t do. Can we leave him alone?”

“What makes you think he didn’t do it?”

“Look at me\”

The children on the bandstand finish their set, and go off, and, immediately, the jukebox takes over: Ray Charles, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

“What you want me to look at you for?”

The waiter comes.

“What are you drinking? Senor?”

Sharon put out her cigarette, and immediately lights another.

“It’s on me. Give me the usual. And give the lady what she’s drinking.”

The waiter goes.

“Look at me.”

“I’m looking at you.”

“Do you think I love my daughter?”

“Frankly – it’s hard to believe you have a daughter.”

“I’m about to become a grandmother.”

“From-?”

“Yes.”

He is young, very, very young, but also very old; but not old in the way that she had expected him to be. She had expected the age of corruption. She is confronting the age of sorrow. She is con­fronting torment.

“Do you think that I would marry my daughter to a rapist?”

“You might not know.”

“Look at me again.»

And he does. But it does not help him.

“Look. I wasn’t there. But Victoria swears it was him. And she’s been through shit, baby, she’s been through some shit, and I don’t want to put her through no more! I’m sorry, lady, but I don’t care what happens to your daughter-” He stops. “She’s going to have a baby?”

“Yes.”

‘What you want from me? Can’t you leave us alone? We just want to be left alone.”

Sharon says nothing.

“Look. I ain’t no American. You got all them lawyers and folks up there, why you coming to me? Shit – I’m sorry, but I ain’t nothing. I’m an Indian, wop, spit, spade – name it, that’s me. I got my little thing going here, and I got Victoria, and, lady, I don’t want to put her through no more shit; I’m sorry, lady, but I really just can’t help you.”

He starts to rise – he does not want to cry before her. Sharon takes his wrist. He sits down, one hand before his face.

Sharon takes out her wallet.

“Pietro – I can call you that, because I am old enough to be your mother. My son-in-law is your age.”

He leans his head on one hand, and looks at her. Sharon hands him the photograph of Fonny and myself.

“Look at it.”

He does not want to, but he does.

“Are you a rapist?”

He looks up at her.

“Answer me. Are you?”

The dark eyes, in the stolid face, staring, now directly into my mother’s eyes, make the face elec­trical, light a fire in the darkness of a far-off hill: he has heard the question.

“Are you?”

“No.”

“Do you think I have come here to make you suffer?”

“No.”

“Do you think I am a liar?”

“No.”

“Do you think I am crazy? – we are all a little crazy, I know. But really crazy?”

“No.”

“Then, will you take this photograph home, to Victoria, and ask her really to think about it, real­ly to study it? Hold her in your arms. Do that. I am a woman. I know that she was raped, and I know – well – I know what women know. But I also know that Alonzo did not rape her. And I say that, to you, because I know that you know what men know. Hold her in your arms.” She stares at him an instant; he stares at her. “And – will you call me tomorrow?” She gives him the name and the phone number of the hotel. He writes it down. “Will you?”

He looks at her, now very hard and cold. He looks at the phone number. He looks at the photo­graph.

He pushes both toward Sharon. “No,” he says, and rises, and leaves.

Sharon sits there. She listens to the music. She watches the dancers. She forces herself to finish her second, unwanted drink. She cannot believe that what is happening is actually happening. But it is happening.She lights a cigarette. She is acutely aware, not merely of her color, but of the fact that in the sight of so many witnesses, her position, ambiguous upon her entrance, is now abso­lutely clear: the twenty-two-year-old boy she has traveled so far to see has just walked out on her. She wants to cry. She also wants to laugh. She signals for the waiter.

“Si-?”

“What do I owe you?”

The waiter looks bewildered. “But nothing, Senora. Senor Alvarez has made himself responsi­ble.”

She realizes that his eyes hold neither pity, nor scorn. This is a great shock to her, and it brings tears to her eyes. To hide this, she bows her head and arranges her shawl. The waiter moves away. Sharon leaves five dollars on the table. She walks to the door. The bland, swarthy man opens it for her.

“Thank you, Senora. Good-night. Your taxi is waiting for you. Please come again.”

“Thank you,” my mother says, and smiles, and walks up the stairs.

She walks through the lobby. Jaime is leaning against the taxi. His face brightens when he sees her, and he opens the door for her.

“What time will you need me tomorrow?” he asks her.

“Is nine o’clock too early?”

“But, no.” He laughs. “I am always up before six.”

The car begins to move.

“Beautiful,” says Sharon – swinging her foot, thinking ahead.

DMU Timestamp: February 06, 2019 23:03