kim d. hunter
2 Short Stories
A Normal Arrangement for Happiness April 2018
Once there was man who did very little besides go to work, blame others for the world’s problems and inhale the images and sounds that were transmitted to the implants in his brain. Those transmissions consisted of explosions, carnage, biological acts and comedic insults that appeared rounded and in the room with him.
Even after hearing and seeing the explosions, carnage, biological acts and comedic insults that appeared rounded and in the room with him, he could not remember what had happened. He could only remember that there had been explosions, carnage, biological acts and comedic insults that appeared rounded and in the room with him. What he liked about it, as much as he liked anything, was that it made no difference if he “missed” part of what some people referred to as the “story” that was transmitted to the implants in his brain.
In a way, same could be said about his work, that is, as much as anyone could say anything about his work. There were no explosions or obvious carnage and if there was any comedy, it stemmed from absurd nature of the situation and that would have been too subtle for transmission so it effectively did not exist. Or, it was like something that happened on the other side of the world while he was asleep and, since he had agreed to be part of a study for removal of dreams, he literally could not have dreamed of it.
The firm for whom he worked told him that his work was so proprietary that they couldn’t risk him having a clear idea of what he was doing or why he was being paid to do it. He would engage the virtual connections with the others, move his feet and arms as instructed, and say the things the company indicated were in need of being said. At the end of a certain period, his account would have the designated amount of legal tender which he would exchange for other things, primarily premium time in the Stream.
On the whole, he felt peculiar blankness while at work that allowed him to disengage and, like the streamed events, it left him with a peculiar and not unpleasant emptiness.
Now, while all of this seems like a normal arrangement for happiness, there was a problem, his mother. Even though he actually took the public transport to her home so they could be physically present in the same place once, sometimes twice a year, she insisted on inserting requests, messages and family images into his transmissions. The holidays were insufferable. As soon as the summer was officially over and the Christmas transmissions began, she would jump into his stream with subtle and not so subtle requests for him to be physically present. She had the uncanny ability to signal him while he was in the midst of sexual fantasies that had grown to near operatic proportions and, since she was his closest blood relative, he had a great deal of difficulty locking her out.
She would even try to send pictures of his other parent. Of course, this substantially reduced the overall effectiveness of the transmissions he ordered and had every expectation of experiencing to fulfillment or clearing.
His trouble began, as it frequently does, at birth preceded by his mother’s upbringing and troubles with her father.
The mother’s father had been typical in some ways. He actually had a job title so, naturally, the family did okay financially. Unusual, but not unique. His job duties, on the other hand, were another story. He wanted to be a writer. But it was much easier to make more money vetting writers. So, that is what he did.
His job was to vet the implants of writers, or transmitters, to make sure certain categories of criminals were weeded out of the applicant pool of those who wanted to stream to his company’s implant subscribers. Those to be utterly excluded included pirate media channellers, pirate implant programmers (or “artists”), political types, certain affiliated types and certain unaffiliated types. Animal abusers, child abusers or others convicted of violent assault had to go through rehabilitation before being considered.
Assuming the physical likeness of the writers was part of the vetting process. The father would, at times, take this aspect of his work a bit too far and come home in the skin of rejects. Unlike sloppier, goofier, Halloween modifications, these were not loosely glued, but seamless and unnerving.
The full weight of the experience can only be known if you are one of the handful of folks who have been in a room with someone who looks and sometimes sounds like a total stranger, but is actually your spouse or parent or even your co-worker of many years, and can only truly be scanned and verified by the most expensive devices.
These days, after research and the infamous incidents that sparked landmark legislation of which you are no doubt aware, we’ve come to realize that some deal with the shock of recognizing intimate strangers better than others.
This was before we knew all of that and the mother of our subject was one of the many children traumatized by familiar people in unfamiliar skin. She was a toddler when her father began unbecoming himself on a regular basis.
Toddlers like routine. Being parented, handled every day by a someone that appears to be a stranger and suddenly realizing the person is your parent with someone else’s face is disconcerting. For the mother of our subject, it was like waking up in a familiar room to find that huge chunks of the floor were not just missing, but open to vast chasms. Years later, she would take some odd and ironic comfort in the fact that her son enjoyed immersing himself in similar situations that could drive her to tears in the mere remembering.
Among the memories that spiked out from the grim fog of her early childhood was one where her father came home in a sculptured but enhanced face with a noticeably ill-fitted mouth. The smile, clearly imported, slithered open mostly at inappropriate times. The lips were too thin and the mouth too wide for the rest of the face. The eyes tried to look happy, but betrayed a note of panic, as if they knew there was a small alien creature at work only inches below them.
Her mother pulled away when her father came home that evening and moved toward her for his reflexive greeting kiss. His voice cracked and stumbled between his own and that of the rejected writer so that he had to repeat things in dual, dissonant tones that sometimes squeaked out together.
The rejected writer whose physical likeness the father had appropriated was not a child abuser, but had been abused as a child and had made cheap modifications to avoid seeing his own father’s likeness in self-streams or mirrors. The father, who had come home in the rejected writer’s likeness, had no way of knowing this since the writer had been rejected by a coworker.
The father also could not help how loosely his implants began to play while he was completely inside the writer. He could not fully control random transmissions from the rejected writer’s memory, which seeped in from skin just below the face.
While the parents were old enough not to fall prey to the public slippage and transmissions of the rejected writer’s memories of abuse, their daughter was not. The loose transmissions made their way through the walls of her bedroom. Her parents awoke near dawn to the sound of their child in complete panic, running back and forth between the front and back doors, away from an unseen predator, tripping, falling and gasping for breath when she was not screaming.
Her mother stepped in after that and demanded the father relent, but he refused to completely stop the practice of coming home as other people. He cited his coworkers, others who vetted writers but who worked at home and thus exposed their families to all sorts of untoward transmissions or streams when family members had inadvertently stumbled into homework.
“Isn’t that worse?” he would ask rhetorically. “Besides, every hole is the same; the asses around them are just window dressing.”
Her mother and father split up. The girl who would become the mother of our subject and her mother were able to live for some years with vacated implants giving indications of use that were faint but strong enough to avoid attention. The signal strength came from her mother reading to her from hand devices and singing songs that she swore people had used years ago to put children to sleep, though neither of them could imagine how that had worked.
Among the other things the mother and daughter couldn’t fathom were some of the jokes in the old text. One that seemed particularly oblique was about the awful smell of a dog with no nose. What was it, exactly, that made the dog smell like anything? Could the dog not have had the most basic modification? They wrestled with this question. They gave up trying to figure it out after some time, but, after that, whenever they read something else they couldn’t understand, one of them would blurt out “my dog has no nose,” and they would both laugh.
In the process of reading and singing aloud to her daughter, the mother discovered that she had a great talent. She began selling her voice to audio only streams, that is to say, pirate streams. People who wrote on external devices became regular and much welcomed visitors to the house, discussing things the daughter would only come to understand much later. The years of reading and singing aloud were among the happiest times the mother ever knew and the daughter would ever know and, for better or worse, they both sensed that at the time.
Given her upbringing, it will be of no surprise that the woman who was to birth the subject of this story wanted to make love, to be physically present with her lover. She discussed the pitfalls of such relationships with her mother who had lived long enough to remember that particular transition from the physical. They looked at video on other related TFP before tackling the physiological cost/benefit analysis of conjugal cohabitation.
Those who have had unenhanced sexual encounters may be able to relate to the utter rush of emotion that can result from physical intimacy. The woman who would become the mother of our subject had the added advantage of being someone who could recall similar physical and psychological sensations not connected to the Stream or the workplace. She had been read to and had memorized songs and stories and had read entire volumes on hand devices, one page after the other, sometimes taking months to finish. She swore she could imagine things of her own accord, things like sleeping outside when there were no storms for hours.
All of this made the woman who would birth our subject prime candidate for natural intercourse. But, for all of the woman’s proclivity towards and psychological preparation for physical intimacy, she had not anticipated what it would be like to be close to someone besides her mother. In the transition to what would be her home, the woman missed the flow of her mother’s voice. How could she explain to another person the true meaning of the phrase “my dog has no nose”?
In terms of a mate, she and her mother thought it best that they find the offspring of one of the writers who frequented their home. One of the writers had an ambi-gendered offspring that wanted to study voice with the woman who would become the grandmother of our subject. The offspring could do a whole range of voices from baritone to soprano, was good-natured and deeply read.
The writer’s offspring and the woman who was to become the mother of our subject were seen together holding hands, hugging and otherwise being close in public. This public displays even garnered the couple a mild following in the streams, mostly from older folks. There was scrutiny and negative reaction from the companies fighting for shares of public streams, but nothing exploded until the pregnancy which was listed: full-term, in body.
Naturally, the unenhanced baby was wet, bloody and disoriented. The family was streamed relentlessly. Even infrequent streamers had a gruesome fascination with the baby’s crying. Money began to come in from anonymous and not so anonymous donors, the latter with all types of advice on how to cure the child’s crying.
Authorities actually worked to counter accusations of abuse by assuring people that unenhanced children could not stop themselves from crying. People knew this intellectually, but to actually witness it was as incredible as it was irresistible.
Most respected the family’s need to sleep, but it only takes a few million to ruin a good night’s rest. Technically speaking, the parents of the unenhanced child had perfect grounds to remove their implants. But you can only imagine the uproar that would have caused.
Having had even less Stream time than the woman who was now a mother, her spouse was particularly unsuited to the onslaught of public attention. There were the famed headaches that come to those who are somewhat unenhanced and who attempt normal lives. There was also the neck pain as the Stream readjusted the rest of the body through the brainstem. The couple discussed the pain and argued about the physical pain versus the potential pain of their separation.
After a great deal of grim and gut wrenching debate, the spouse slipped underground, had hir implants removed illegally, and found a therapist to try to recover. There was a bit of a dust-up on Stream about the spouse leaving. But attention, official and otherwise, was soon re-focused on the baby that consistently needed to be comforted before it could stop crying.
The mother of our subject felt abandoned even in the company of her child. What is more, she felt pressured to normalize the child with implants. Though she ached for her mother’s voice and support, she feared returning to her mother or the community of writers and making them collateral damage of the constant streams that invaded her consciousness and sleep.
The saddest thing was knowing her mother, who had rescued her from a life with the father was distraught and she had not seen her mother except through news Streams for some time. Her mother had never been in the room with her grandchild.
The mother of our subject became so desperate for some sort of emotional balance that she decided to stream a virtual reworking of part of her life. She tried to rework life with her father only to see layers of other people’s flesh fall from his face as he ran after her, pleading for help. She recalled that it was his work that cause him to come home with other people’s faces.
When all of his false faces had melted away and the face she thought she recognized as her father appeared, it too was replaced not with a face, but with a hollow gray shadow with watery eyes. The voice of a small, trapped animal jumped from his mouth. She could hear her mother outside of the house frantically calling. She tried to get outside, but the house that was and was not her home seemed to go on forever, growing bright white rooms with floors that made running difficult.
That dreadful, failed reworking experience along with her child’s increased crying and spitting up made her decide to visit one of the more natural clinics to at least investigate fitting the child with implants. The facility was made to look like a house though only the wealthiest could afford a home of that size.
There were many people ahead of her and to help pass the time the workers offered her reading material on what appeared to be paper, but which was just a high-end device.
Some of the text was about children before the time of implants, how they laughed and cried more often. She found the article dull. What did capture her attention was an article that seemed like a relic. It was static, non-adjusting print, old text that referenced older text.
“How appropriate it is that one of the earliest moving representations has a mythologized public reaction. People did not, as it is falsely reported in the article above, run, frightened to the back of the theatre when the flat, soundless, colorless train pulled into the station on the life size screen back in 1895.”
As she calculated how many generations had passed since the film of the train had been made, the article pushed icons onto the page to entice her to screen the video, which she did and was assured that no one could have been frightened by the old film of the train.
What she couldn’t stop staring at was the movement and the clothing of the people who had actually been waiting for the train at the time it was filmed. So many, many years ago, and yet there they were going about their routine, completely human in what might as well have been another universe, deader than petrified wood.
The slight relief that had come to her upon giving in to the pressure to normalize her child gave way. She felt herself sinking.
When it came her turn to be seen, the workers informed her that the clinic, while more natural than most had no one who had worked with unenhanced children. The last worker that really knew natural children was a midwife so old she’d been allowed off-Stream with bonuses and had long ago retired. No one even knew if she was still alive, to say nothing of her whereabouts.
Upon discovering this, the mother was seized with hopelessness. She clutched her child and began to rock back and forth with a blank, despondent look. The clinicians had never seen anyone in such a state. They conferred with one another, which helped them overcome their fear. Each took up different external devices they thought were appropriate to the task. They slowly approached the mother and child, encircling them and staring in awe.
Later, when the mother awoke, her child appeared to be hovering above her, utterly content with a face so changed and placid that all she could think of was the frighteningly featureless face she’d seen in the reworking of her father.
It was so dark in the pool hall that the sunlit scene outside, the sidewalk and traffic framed by the open door, seemed like a movie. Rick moved in what he hoped was a casual manner toward the exit because his cousin Andre had missed in his previous two shots and was now calling for a bank shot of such exquisite difficulty that you could almost hear eyes rolling in folks’ heads. Rick, on the other hand, knew the shot was a cinch for Andre, and his fear of the reaction once the ball sank into the pocket gave the already 90-degree air more charge as well as a tightness. He hoped his legs would not betray all that he was feeling as he inched toward the door.
Andre’s right hand held the thick end of the cue. As he slid it back and forth preparing the shot, it came tantalizingly close to a wad of rubber-banded bills that sat on the thick polished wooden edge of the pool table. The money was the wager Andre was about to snap up, a big sucker bet that contained the better part of some poor sap’s weekly check.
Said sap sat smiling, sipping suds under one of the many plastic cone shaped lamps that hung from the ceiling. Andre, in his twenties, was in pretty good shape, but he still wondered if he could make the shot, pick up the money and move to the door before things got ugly, prohibitively ugly.
It had been easier than he thought to recruit his teenaged cousin, Rick, to the scam. Rick had always come across to him as a bookworm and a do-gooder. He’d introduced Andre to movies you had to read because the actors didn’t speak English. Even if they weren’t speaking French or Russian or whatever, things they did made no sense and couldn’t hold Andre’s attention for very long.
“Why would anyone want to go to a movie where you watch somebody read?” he’d asked Rick in an almost too loud voice during a Godard film. “We took two buses to a movie where people go on vacation to read books.”
On the way back from the film it was late and the bus was nearly empty. They commandeered the back bench seats and propped up their feet.
“You know you owe me,” Andre chided Rick, “for forcing me to see that shitty movie, no action, no sex, no nothing.”
“What do you mean no action? What about how they treated one another; doesn’t that count?”
Andre looked skyward, palmed the top of Rick’s head, raised his other hand and pleaded, “God, help this boy see the light. Let him understand the difference between talk and action.” They both laughed.
“If you want action, come with me to the demonstration against the war,” Rick retorted.
“You know JB was on Ed Sullivan tonight,” Andre said before breaking into
“I Got the Feeling!”
“So you don’t want to go to the march?”
“That’s just a bunch of white folks making noise,” Andre dismissed and turned toward the back window.
But even as he spoke, Andre thought of how he dreaded seeing the mail truck parked on his street. He tried not to think about the draft, fearing he would jinx the whole deal. Somehow, at least so far, he’d escaped. No Army notice had appeared in his mailbox calling him to a jungle battlefield in a country he’d never heard of before the war. Others he knew had not been so lucky.
He recalled Wilson’s homecoming party. Wilson had terrorized Andre and many others elementary well into high school where he made sure everyone knew he carried a knife. Those who had seen him use it talked about it, but never on the witness stand.
Wilson’s welcome-back party had featured the typical loud music that greeted you at the doorstep. Streamers and balloons were taped to the porch. Andre knew something was up when he opened the door and saw no one dancing. There was a knot of people around the bathroom, which wouldn’t have been unusual except that, even over the music, he could hear what he thought was the guest of honor cursing on the other side of the door. “It’s that bag they attached to him,” complained a girl he didn’t recognize. “It doesn’t work sometimes. It’s that damn bag.”
“I’ll go to the demonstration if you come with me to the pool hall and keep an eye out,” Andre had offered.
“An eye out for what?”
“Better yet, shoot a game with me.”
“You’ve got to be joking.”
“You will win, guaranteed,” Andre smiled.
That’s what Rick had been afraid of, but something in Andre’s easy manner enticed him to be part of the plan, to stay connected. He also didn’t want to imagine Andre in the pool hall without backup, trying to work a hustle. Though his experience with such things was limited, Rick had tried to push his fear down somewhere he couldn’t feel it. It made his throat tight and dry.
Minutes before they had entered the pool hall, Andre had dropped more details about the escape plan they might need after the trap had been sprung. Rick was now in the early phase of that loose plan, close to the door, making sure, as much as anyone could, that no one blocked it. He didn’t understand how he was supposed to do that and remain inconspicuous.
As Rick had feared, the man sitting under the cone lamp had become a bit upset after Andre made the nearly impossible bank shot and summarily stuffed the wad of cash into his pocket. The man rose from his seat slowly, his jaw tighter than a submarine hatch. Worse yet, he was looking back and forth between Rick and Andre. During one of his glances over at Andre, Rick took the opportunity to bolt. When the man turned to see Rick fleeing into the sunlight, Andre jumped over the bar and shot out the back.
Rounding the corner to meet Rick, Andre smiled as they trotted until they heard footsteps and saw not one, but three men racing toward them. One of them brandishing what looked like a metal pipe with ragged edges.
“You take the alley. I’ll take the street,” Andre panted.
This was a change in the plan that left Rick cold. Andre was supposed to run down the alley if they had to split up. Rick was from Detroit and didn’t know DC well enough not to get lost once he left familiar streets. But the men chasing them were closer and even though there was a rock in one of his shoes that were not made for running (why didn’t he wear his sneakers?), this was no time for questions. He did not even look back to see the source of the pounding feet and curses that followed him to the alley.
He managed to put distance between him and his pursuers, turn left back on the sidewalk and duck into a street level apartment with an unlocked screen door. There was a closet in the room to his right. He jumped in and shut the door seconds after he heard someone else open the screen door.
Rick was trying so hard to quiet his breathing he thought he’d pass out. Someone came down a flight of stairs, close to the closet. A woman spoke nervously to the man who’d just chased Rick to the apartment.
“Wow, you just walked into my pad?” She said sounding white to Rick’s ears.
“I’m looking for somebody,” the man panted, “just robbed me.”
“What are you talking about?”
Another set of footsteps fast and heavy could be heard on the stairs.
“At the pool hall, guy just cheated me out of ---”
“Whoever it is, ain’t here so just split,” a man’s voice interrupted him.
There was silence, then footsteps going away.
“What the hell was that about?” the man who’d just come downstairs asked.
“Some crap at the pool hall. I’m glad you woke up.”
“Just glad it wasn’t serious. Things are just beginning to ---”
The sudden silence took Rick’s breath away. Oddly, he noticed that he’d been smelling expensive marijuana and cheap incense. Before he could notice anything else, the closet doorknob rattled and the door swung open.
Rick didn’t even look up. He put his head down and pushed off the back wall with one foot. The man was knocked to the ground. The woman jumped back. Was she reaching for something in the drawer?
Rick was in the doorway but the man leapt from the floor and was on him, two sinuous arms around Rick’s waist, wrestling. The man dropped one arm only to throw a punch that missed and grazed Rick’s ear with a nasty sting.
“Tyrone, don’t. He’s just a boy,” the woman shouted.
He had Rick against the wall.
“I was just hiding. I swear to God. I had to hide.”
“You came damn close to hiding in a hole in the ground.”
The woman sat and exhaled. She was pregnant. She and the man could have been brother and sister. He was a shade darker but with long straight hair.
“You scared the crap out of me. I thought I was going to have it right then.”
“Please, I haven’t done anything. I just want to go home.”
“Come and sit down and tell us what the hell is going on,” the woman pushed a kitchen chair toward him with her foot. “I think you owe us that much.”
Rick sat feeling the unsteadiness in his legs just as he made contact with the chair.
“You look pretty young to be cheating someone out of their money.”
“How do you know he was cheated?” Rick asked. “Sometimes, you just lose.”
Tyrone smiled despite himself.
“They charge a lot of money for these papers?” Andre asked trying to seem nonchalant.
“It depends,” Rick replied. “If Tyrone has to write the paper, they charge more than if they just buy it already written from another student.”
“But how does the student that’s buying the paper know? He should charge everybody based on how many pages are in the paper.”
“You can be his business manager.”
“Sounds like somebody needs to.”
“The folks from the pool hall can’t be still looking for us,” Rick said, changing the subject. “I didn’t come here to spend my summer inside.”
“You want to spend it in the hospital? The Smithsonian is safe and it ain’t going nowhere. Tell me about this Tyrone and the Schwartz guy too. “
“Schwartz is actually a woman, pregnant as a matter of fact.”
“OK, but what about the operation?”
“What difference does it make? You don’t even like to read subtitles. How are you going to help crank out papers to sell?”
“You pay to read subtitles. He gets paid for the papers. That’s a whole other world.”
On his second visit to Tyrone and Schwartz’s, Rick got high and had sex, both for the first time. He had seen people when they were drunk and/or high and read about the affect of psychoactives: cannabis leaf, hashish, LSD, mushrooms and the like. He had noted the similarities between the more intense psychedelic experiences and meditation. But this was the thing itself.
Time puzzled him. It suddenly seemed like he’d always been high and had simply failed to realize it until now. The moments when Tyrone had gone up stairs to write and Schwartz had turned to Rick smiling and lit a joint and asked him if he’d ever felt a baby moving all collapsed into the moment his ear was on her stomach and then, thoughtless and clear, he turned his lips to brush against the gentle swell of belly.
When had she actually handed him the cigarette? It was warm. Why had it surprised him that something lit on one end and that she had been holding on the other end was warm? He inhaled, choked, drank some water and tried again. The upright chair in the kitchenette that had been utterly comfortable a moment ago now seemed to urge him to sit on the softer, tiny couch near the stairs.
There, the title of a book --- “Black No More”--- caught his attention. It looked old and, as he began to read it, he was amazed that it had been published in the 1930s. It began with a black man, the apparent protagonist, who paid to turned himself white using a method developed by a black scientist whose aim was to get rid of racism in the US. The man who paid to become white made the change in no small part to pursue a white woman who wouldn’t go out with black men. Racial identities leap-frogged over and over in Rick’s head and then exchanged themselves in some sort of mirror and took him back to Schwartz.
She turned on the radio. Strange rock music smeared itself into the smell of the smoke in the room. He chuckled hearing the obviously white singer say “Lord have mercy.” He didn’t know white people even knew the phrase existed. Then there was the curious refrain that turned out to be the title “White Light, White Heat.”
It seemed to her like he’d been reading forever though he was flipping pages faster than even she could have done. She tried to use her fascination with watching him read to replace the other thoughts that rose in her like a swift current. He was underage, right? If she asked him how old he was and he lied or confirmed what she feared, what then?
She saw his eyes when she closed her eyes as he had moaned against her stomach and the vibration made her wet. She did not want to admit that being pregnant had made her want sex in a way she never had before. She also had not wanted to admit that she missed her lover nor that the only thing that dampened her anger at what her brother had done to him was the memory of making love in a space cleared in the woods. She told herself smoking marijuana would calm her disruptions and urges but suspected that was close to being a lie.
How old was he, really, this boy plowing through the novel? It seemed like he’d been reading forever.
Whatever happened would be alright, she thought. The apartment was temporary. Everything in that place was just for a time.
When he looked up from the book to ask her the question that reading had given him the courage to ask---why was her name Schwartz?---she was unbuttoning her blouse and walking towards him.
It took every ounce of self-restraint for Rick not to try to go back the very next day very early in the morning. She was wall-to-wall in his dreams but had told him it was best if they remained “discreet.”
As far as Rick was concerned, “discretion” also meant going back to alone, without Andre. Though, it took a lot to convince Andre not to accompany him on his third visit to Tyrone and Schwartz’s place.
“It’s still new. I am working things out. It’s delicate because of the way I rushed in there and everything,” Rick worked to persuade his cousin. He had to promise over and over to mention Andre’s idea about charging per page and to tell whose idea it had been.
Even before he’d made love with Schwartz, Rick wanted the visits to by himself to talk books. He couldn’t imagine Andre talking anything but business. He wondered why Andre was adamant about being part of the academic paper scheme. Before having sex with Schwartz, he had questioned his own motivation.
He had never been part of anything illegal or even unseemly until that summer. Was it the money? Certainly, he had never had as much money as the pool hall split with Andre. The paper mill hustle was different from the pool hustle but it was still a hustle, albeit one that was now conflated in Rick’s mind with seduction. Rick was unsure of where the college paper scheme was in terms of legality and didn’t feel up to asking. The prospect of another hustle ending in fiasco did not encourage him. He could still feel where the sharp pebbles from the alley had dug into his feet while he ran desperately from the pool hall pursuers. His shoes had taken a beating and he remembered how his hands shook even after he’d been sitting for a while.
Hustle or no, he glowed at the idea of spending time with Schwartz and Tyrone. He’d never talked about Ann Petry or William Faulkner with anyone outside of class. The couple seemed to live with books the way his family and friends lived with music. He’d also never before considered a pregnant woman attractive and then there was her voice.
He remembered how, during his accidental first visit, she sang a Marvelettes’ song as Tyrone poured their tea. In the song, tables are turned, reality shifts and the world becomes a new place as it had become with his escape into their small, jerry-rigged apartment.
Tyrone had smiled as if he had just closed his mouth over the last sweet crust of peach cobbler.
“That’s one of those songs,” he’d said.
Rick look at him expectantly.
“He means,” Schwartz spoke up, “it’s code, not really a love song.”
“Robert Johnson was the master of that, baby!” Tyrone said beaming. “All those songs about the Devil and stuff like “Hellhound on my Trail.” If you told the straight truth back then, you didn’t shame the Devil, you called him out of his lair followed by the lynch mob.”
“Oh yes,” Schwartz said, rolling her eyes, “I’m sure the Marvelettes were really singing about turning the tables on the White Citizens Council.”
Rick had gone to the bathroom after several cups of tea and walked out with a copy of Native Son he found on the shelf with stacks of toilet paper, anti-war protest flyers and paperback copies of Hamlet and Ellison’s Invisible Man.
“You like the bleak stuff?” Tyrone said nodding at the Wright novel.
“Hamlet is bleak too, no conflict, no motivation,” Rick replied.
“No motivation! You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Tyrone smirked.
“I know it’s only people who’ve got their behinds on pillows with nothing better to do who sit around wondering whether life is worth living. Everyone else is too busy trying to survive.”
A mocking laugh almost caused Schwartz to spit out her tea. “Tyrone used to say the same thing,” she said looking directly at him, “until I showed him all the father figures in the play.”
“Yeah,” Tyrone agreed grudgingly, “It’s not ‘to be or not to be.’ It’s about who’s your daddy, the dead father, the usurper king…”
“Laertes,” Rick added suddenly coming to a realization.
Essentially, there was no third visit to Tyrone and Schwartz’s even though Rick came prepared with a list of books and literary questions to discuss. He’d put that in his pocket. In his wallet, he’d folded the start of a love letter. He’d dreamt he was home with Schwartz on Belle Isle on a blanket beneath a tree eating fruit as she sang.
The reality check came when he was a block away from their place. Two black “unmarked” police cars were parked in front. He crossed the street and decided to observe discreetly. Closer, he saw Schwartz at the door talking to two beefy white uniformed cops and two more in plain clothes. He walked by the place fighting the urge to look directly at them. Resisting that urge fell in line with everything Rick had learned about how to act when the police stop you, what to watch for, down to whether or not the small strip of leather over the butt of the holstered gun was snapped or unsnapped, readied.
“Never, ever look at the gun until the cop is looking at your ID,” he heard Andre’s voice in his head.
He turned to see what was happening when he thought he heard Schwartz’s voice catch and release in what sounded like a sob.
It was near night when the police finally tired of Schwartz’s silence and decided to let her leave the precinct. Besides, they felt they had her brother cold and he was their target. She left the police station but was not free. She felt tied to the jail as if she was evacuating a disaster leaving her brother behind. She would have to call her mother, after all this time, with bad news. She wished it was later, that sleep would come sooner, that the city night would deliver stars as intoxicating as the ones she’d seen in Virginia. At the same time, she wished she’d never set foot in the woods near the cabin.
Schwartz had never thought of paradise as having night until she’d spent a few evenings with her new lover out in the open staring at the sky. She hadn’t known or cared about the constellations as he did, but she loved to hear him talk about what he called “signs of heaven,” his voice cool and colorless as the stream. He was plain spoken and smiled at the slightest provocation, red bow lips on pale skin. The stars they shared were static fireworks, a painting of white Christmas bulbs flung out on endless black. He was happy to show her what he kept calling “the real sky,” away from the city.
He had first seen her walking in and out of sunlight by a nameless creek beneath a stand of trees in unnaturally straight rows, river birches who’s ever peeling, cinnamon-red barks with dull orange undersides reminded him of sunburn flaked skin. Her walk was aimless. He couldn’t tell if she was bored or amused. She wasn’t local. She may not have been from Virginia at all. That made her beauty all the more exotic. He had once seen a Swedish actress on the cover a magazine with lips as thick as hers. She was not quite as pale as the actress but her amazingly curly hair was just as gold.
Her mother had rented an isolated cabin for the week. Her brother was supposed to join them for the long weekend when he could get off work. They had all planned to do nothing but read during the day and talk about what they read when it got dark. The cabin had no electricity. The brother was late.
When Schwartz finally introduced the young man she had met in the woods to her mother, she looked at him with a curious smile. Schwartz recognized the expression from when she was young and had presented her mother with a drawing or homemade gift that her mother couldn’t quite make out. The mother wondered if Schwartz and the young man were lovers or would become lovers. Though the lovers knew the answer, they didn’t know a child was coming.
Tyrone had been in a panic because he’d delayed his reading assignment and subsequent paper due the Wednesday after the long weekend. He’d gotten off work early and thought he would just scan the book to get a feel for it but, to his surprise, Paradise Lost was a page turner, from the psychedelic fire of creation to the unexpectedly nuanced and tortured Satan, a sort of cosmic film noir protagonist. Eve had just arrived on the scene when Tyrone noticed the sun was low and realized he was supposed to have been on the road to the cabin some time ago.
He had to stop reading. It felt unnatural for him to leave the world he’d entered, as if something had been pulled out of socket, dislocated. The purple clouds on the horizon, magnificent as they were, loomed as sudden threats. He hadn’t finished packing. He was supposed to have asked the man down the street about the rattling noise in the car’s gearbox.
The last thing he’d wanted was to try to find the cabin in the dark, but it was almost 2:00 a.m. when he arrived. He slept in while Schwartz and his mother fixed breakfast and read. He awoke groggily, ate cold eggs and eventually learned that Schwartz had a new boyfriend. He laughed sardonically at the discovery.
“There’s another black family out here?” he asked half rhetorically.
The mother sighed. Earlier, she’d almost been happy that Tyrone was late, that he hadn’t been there when Schwartz had brought the young man to the cabin. It had allowed her another day to avoid the issue or think there might be a time when she could bring it up with Schwartz before Tyrone’s arrival. Would things have been more difficult but somehow simpler if her darker child had been present when Schwartz’ young man was introduced? Would the young white man have filled in the gaps?
“Honey, your brother’s got a point. Did you tell the young man? You know what he probably thinks. Seeing me didn’t help any.”
“How do you know he even cares about it, that it even matters?”
“A white boy, in Virginia no less, who doesn’t care about race,” Tyrone said incredulously. “Be for real.”
Schwartz dropped her book and walked swiftly out of the cabin into the woods.
“You’ve got to go easier with her Tyrone. She doesn’t see things as…clearly as you, sometimes.”
He reached for his mother’s hand, looked to the woods where Schwartz had disappeared and reluctantly realized he needed to talk with her.
“How do you know he doesn’t know?” Schwartz asked defensively.
“How many black people have blond hair and pale skin?”
“My lips are thick as yours and you can’t even have a ‘fro.”
“There are white people with ‘fros these days in case you haven’t noticed.” He had not wanted to become agitated. He knew they were on the one subject that could take his sister over the edge. But he couldn’t stop himself and began talking emphatically with his hands.
“Most white people are not like ---”
“Don’t give me that ‘mom is the exception to the rule’ crap for the umpteenth time!” she said angrily, mocking his hand movement.
“Be for real!” he shouted. “Look at the world. I didn’t make it. Did I drag people over here in chains?”
Sitting outside the cabin, she hoped no one could hear her children shouting. She was about to go inside when she heard gunfire echoing from the woods. The shots opened a chasm of fear and regret from an unclosed wound, the death of her husband.
She had met her husband, a wiry, tan-skinned handsome man with thick glasses, at the University of Michigan bookstore a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She was a cashier and he held court with a handful (were there more than that on campus? why had she not noticed them before?) of other Negroes in a lounge just beyond the checkout counter. He had tales of a bohemian weekend in New York and the politics of the new be-bop jazz movement. But it was his knowledge of opera that fascinated her. That was an art of both magic and privilege, a harbor. They spent their rare leisure hours in the library’s listening room, worlds away from where they sat.
People stared, but just as many remarked that they made a beautiful couple. They managed to find a justice of the peace willing to conduct a small civil ceremony and then embarked on a visit to astonished, apprehensive, but mostly cordial relatives. Reluctantly, he agreed they would go South to visit his oldest relative.
“I’ll get to meet your great-grandmother, finally.”
“Let’s hope that’s not the operative term,” he had replied.
His great grandmother was bedridden in rural Alabama where marriages such as his were tantamount to attacking the local Ku Klux Klan. The now obvious pregnancy (with what turned out to be twins) did not mitigate the situation. The image she would always hold of the great-grandmother was of her eyes. When the elderly woman saw the two of them together for the first time, her eyes widened, then narrowed. There was no malice. It was as if the old woman was trying to read something barely fathomable.
On his way to the closest grocery store, miles from the house, her husband had called from a gas station to say he was having car trouble. She never heard from him again. The car was found torched. Diplomatic but insistent inquiries from the University newspaper and her husband’s doctoral committee prompted authorities to conduct a nominal investigation. Services were held without the body.
Tyrone had pushed Schwartz to the ground after the first shot. After the second blast, he was overcome and ran toward where the shots rang out. She looked up and shouted his name just as she saw someone with a rifle turn and dart through the trees. The flash of the face she saw stabbed at her heart.
He was almost out of ammo and the colored boy was coming for him, moving with the legendary swiftness he thought those people had. Would his fleeing make him seem less of a hero to her? He knew the woods. Surely, a few twist and turns would leave the black bastard in the dust. He miscalculated.
Catching a glint of sun on the gun barrel edging through the knot of a tree, Tyrone crouched and, despite his anger, almost laughed to himself. He could hear his mother telling him the story of a changeling being left in a tree, traded for a human baby.
“I got your changeling,” he thought and gritted his teeth. The ground was soft with moss. Only the occasional faint snap of a twig betrayed his movement and he left plenty of time between those sounds.
When he’d seen it was a white boy shooting, he knew it was his sister’s lover and that she would be torn by the assault. But that somehow made him all the more furious. It took him back to the process of slowly learning why his father was not around.
Their mother had carefully fed them age appropriate bits of information until one afternoon, when it all collapsed into the ugly truth of a body burned beyond recognition. It had left the three of them with an unspeakable bond.
Tyrone managed to surprise him from behind but not before the white man in the hollow tree pulled the gun from where it had been pointing. He tried to re-aim, but Tyrone was on him. They were bloodied in the struggle before the gun went off.
Later, Tyrone lied to his mother and sister and said he’d been outrun. They would be leaving the next morning anyway.
Months later, when the police came to their mother’s door, she told them she didn’t know where her son or daughter were. The circles beneath her eyes caused the police to pity her and suspect she was lying. She didn’t tell what little she knew, that something terrible must have happened to cause her son to leave with no explanation and for her daughter, denying pregnancy, to insist on going with him. As much as anything, their false cheerfulness had disturbed their mother’s sleep.
Schwartz and her brother were looking for a fresh start, albeit in the city of their birth, where their mother had moved in with in-laws after her husband’s murder. Though she had eventually moved them all back to Detroit because the factories paid more than the universities, Tyrone and Schwartz knew enough about DC to pretend they’d always lived there, that they had not arrived from a distance with a story.
On the long bus trip to the nation’s capital, they had argued over the question of making a living. Details eluded them. It always ended in the same place -- something menial until something better came along.
The apartment they rented had once clearly been some sort of store. The door opened directly onto the sidewalk, no steps, lawn or porch. The bathroom was tiny and the shower jerry-rigged into place. She found it functional but, though he tried to hide it, it depressed Tyrone, deeply, not so much the physical place but that it had come to this, that he would be lucky to stay out of prison to say nothing of fulfilling his dreams. Despite her misgivings about spending money they didn’t have, she agreed to go to the bar with him after they’d stored their meager belongings.
The place, a few blocks from the university, was crowded, but they managed to find a table. He went to stand in one of the lines at the bar to order. He returned to find his sister talking with a white couple at the next table. They tried to hide their surprise seeing Tyrone sit down with what they had assumed was a white woman. They were equally surprised and a bit relieved to notice the incredible resemblance between the two.
“I know how you feel,” the young man was saying to Schwartz as Tyrone sat down. “We should both be back at the dorm working on the same doggone paper.”
The woman with him, close to being drunk, almost sputtered, “It’s so stupid, though, I mean I can’t even tell my mom. She would be so pissed-off to know that I have to write about a brother and sister having sex, even if it is in an opera.”
“Sigmund und Sieglinde,” Schwartz piped up, “Actually, their incest is supposed to be an outrage, it’s the result of, well, it’s a long story, as I’m sure you know, but it’s not glorified or anything.”
“Wow, are you opera fans or something?” the man asked.
“It was our dad’s dissertation,” Tyrone said with a sad smile.
“Can we call your dad?” the woman said with a look that was half joke and half desperation.
“Sorry to hear that. We uh…”
“He died before we were born.”
“Oh, God,” the woman frowned.
“We’re gonna stop bugging you now,” the man said looking slightly embarrassed.
“Wait,” the woman interrupted. She placed both hands on the table and mustered as serious an expression as she could under the circumstances. “You’ve obviously read the dissertation. How fast can you write? We can pay.”
Rick saw Schwartz walking towards the house from the bus stop. The closer she got, the sadder she looked.
“What’s the matter?” He was afraid to ask about Tyrone. He felt a low gray ceiling descending over the summer. Without Tyrone and Schwartz, Rick would be constrained to the pool halls where Andre had not run scams and the sections of the Smithsonian where Andre’s status as a guard allowed Rick free access, all of which Rick had already thoroughly perused.
Even though he had refused Tyrone’s pleas to help churn out papers, he had actually begun writing a paper for a business student taking a philosophy course, to compare Hamlet and Bigger Thomas: Choosing a course of action even when there seems to be no choice. He had wanted to return to Schwartz and Tyrone’s because he wanted to talk books. He told himself writing the paper was the price of admission.
“Did they tear the place up?”
“You know they did! And he didn’t even try to hide. He gave himself up because…”
She looked down, her hands on either side of her face, “He didn’t want them to harm me.”
“Did they find the stuff he wrote, I mean the memoirs and the play, The Report?”
“Who the hell cares? They weren’t there because of what he wrote.”
Rick only had the slightest clue as to why the police would be after Tyrone, things Tyrone had muttered when he was really high.
Andre had been assigned to the new part of the museum, a theatre where they reenacted the trial of John Brown. He was looking forward to it, a much welcomed break in the monotony. He was standing near the turnstiles waiting for more detailed instructions from his supervisor when he noticed a group of men approaching. Some were in wheelchairs; some were in military uniform. A young, black, nearly bald GI ran to catch up with them and approached Andre, smiling.
“Got a bunch of vets here on field day.” He handed Andre about a dozen tickets.
“The ticket taker isn’t here yet, she’s---”
He recognized Wilson in a wheelchair and walked over to him. The man in the chair looked up, unsmiling but not unfriendly.
“Hey, man. How’s it going?”
Wilson looked down at the wheelchair,“How the hell does it look like it’s going?”
“I didn’t mean anything like that I---”
Wilson dropped his head. “I know you didn’t.”
He reached into his breast pocket, unfolded a piece of paper, looked at it and handed it to Andre. It had the time, date and place for the anti-war march.
Andre didn’t get home until long after dark and Rick could tell he had been drinking. He wasn’t as funny as usual. After Rick introduced him to Schwartz, Andre joked in his best Butterfly McQueen voice that he “didn’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies,” then remarked that white folks wouldn’t understand the joke about the joke, how the seemingly simple minded slave had left her white mistress in the lurch when the baby was coming after claiming to know how to deliver a baby. His explanation was met with silence
“Humor explained is humor denied,” Rick quipped.
Andre ignored him and stared at Schwartz.
“You’re not, are you…”
“My mother is!” she snapped.
“Don’t get mad at me. It’s dark, I’ve had a couple of shots and it’s been a long day, all right? I assume a lot’s been happening ‘cause you’re here without your husband.”
“He’s her brother, not her husband. There’s stuff I need to tell you.”
“Tell me in the morning. I’m going to bed. You and me are going to the anti-war march and they start gathering early. You can come too if you want,” he said to Schwartz.
Andre woke up before everyone else and fixed breakfast. Rick came down and Andre began talking about Wilson. They were about to walk out of the door when Schwartz came down. She seemed somehow more pregnant than the night before and had to convince the two guys that walking was good for a pregnant woman.
They walked over to the stadium and got on the bus that would take them to the National Mall. The bus was already packed with young white people. It seemed all the men had long hair. Some of them stared at the trio of Andre, Rick and Schwartz as they paid their fares. A woman got up to let Schwartz take a seat. One young man thought she looked familiar, but when he realized where he knew her from the paper mill, he decided to stay silent.
None of them had ever been to a protest march before, to say nothing of one that large. Schwartz first learned about it because Tyrone paid to have some of the flyers printed. Rick had first read about it in an underground paper he found on a table in the Museum cafeteria while he waited for Andre’s shift to end. They saw dozens, then hundreds of people walking to the National Mall. They arrived overwhelmed by what seemed like millions.
The crowd was overwhelmingly white, as Andre had expected. The few black men he saw made him think of Wilson handing him the flyer from a wheel chair. The image wore on him. He zoned out during the speeches. After buying a Black Panther paper from a woman he knew, he was besieged by white people trying to sell him other papers. He was very ready to leave.
Schwartz was the one who noticed Rick was missing. She began looking for him as Andre tried to convince her they needed a plan find his cousin. She made it to the edge of the crowd where the police presence was evident. Andre was beginning to feel the effects of the previous night’s drinking and to question why the hell he was there with this white looking black woman he barely knew. Suddenly, he couldn’t even remember her name.
“Hey, hey wait,” he shouted.
But she couldn’t hear as she approached a police officer to ask if there were somewhere lost minors were gathered. Another cop who had seen them emerging from the crowd assumed Andre was an unwanted pursuer, approached and shoved him to the ground. Andre hopped to his feet as the crowd around him gave way and two other cops rushed in for back up.