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[4 of 5] If Beale Street Could Talk - Part Four - James Baldwin (1974)

Author: James Baldwin

“Part 4 of 5.” If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin, 1974.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“What we going to do?” Frank asks.

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“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.”

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

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“You ever have any money?” Joseph asks.

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

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

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“Then, why you worried about it now?”

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Frank looks up at him again.

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“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.”

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

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“What you think is going to happen?”

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

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“That’s easy to say,” says Frank.

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“Not if you mean it,” says Joseph.

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

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“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.”

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“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.”

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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“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.”

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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.”

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

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“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.”

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They stare at each other.

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“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.”

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

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

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

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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.

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

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“Does she work there?” Sharon asks.

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

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

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

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“And how old is this Pietro?”

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“About – twenty-two,” says Hayward.

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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.

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“Twenty-two,” she says, slowly.

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

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

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“Help me,” Hayward says.

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“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.”

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

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

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“I do,” I say.

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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.

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

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

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“Yes,” I say.

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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.”

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

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“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.”

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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.”

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He pauses again, and he turns toward the window.

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“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.”

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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.”

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

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

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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.”

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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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

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“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.

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“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.”

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

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“Got it?” he asked Fonny.

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“Got it,” Fonny said.

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“Come on. I’ll buy you a milk shake.”

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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.”

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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No one said a word.

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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.

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“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?”

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

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I hoped that he would forgive me, later.

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“Is that so, boy?”

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I said, “He’s not a boy. Officer.”

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

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Meanwhile, some people had got junior to his feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

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She and the cop stared at each other.

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

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“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”

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.”

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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.

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

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I almost know what he is going to say.

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“Yes?”

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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But he does.

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

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

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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.

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“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.”

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

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“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.”

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“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\”

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

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

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

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“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?”

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

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Fonny takes my hand in his.

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“Hello,” he says.

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I say, “Hello.”

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“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.”

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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.”

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He takes my hands between his again.

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“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-“

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“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-“

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

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“Well. It’s still not your fault”

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He smiles at me.

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“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?”

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

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Pedrocito returns, with our margheritas.

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“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.”

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“Now, watch it, Pete,” says Fonny.

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

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“That cop,” Fonny says, “that cop.”

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

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

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

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“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.”

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

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

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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!

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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.

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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?”

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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“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-?”

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

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“One moment, Senora,” she says.

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

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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.”

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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