7:10 a.m., Tuesday morning
Black crows always flew in Henry Applewhite’s dreams. Maybe it was a Poe thing…redemption or atonement, he thought, as he raised the knife and then slit his buttery toast down the middle. He was like a lame duck; most of his drug dealers were dead. His seas were always red, black or green and filled with the crows of death, always around him like the Poe raven, remaining in his dreams, as the fair scavenger crow of death mystified, holding out the door of sleep to his casket.
He used most of his money to buy dope. He was on crack too now, the secret that was slipped in his brain by some big-tit girlfriend, Tyra. Thanks for the memories, because weekend after weekend he was dropping off the moon. Sweet Honduran coffee nectars awoke him to smells of jealous women. He bit the toast and chewed down time as he stepped on a filthy cockroach, just like him. He checked his watch, seven twenty-five, cool. Marijuana smoke and Yves St. Laurent cologne floated off his cheeks and neck. He straightened his red, silk tie in the mirror in the bitter cloud. High flier, he started early to read some of that Poe shit. Man, that writer was crazy-obsessed with death, like him, so many loved ones already dead. Smoke and drown man, fly with that black crow.
He looked for his keys and briefcase to catch a ride on a black crow underground. He hung on subway straps to fly, reading his Washington Post and not looking at you. What you want, a rock song…maybe that girl you had last night in the Moon Bar, with her amazing smell like some sweet Mexican taco sandwich? Was she the enemy? He could still taste her like the bottle of tequila as he pretended she was his Latina dream.
He was clean and fresh as he scanned the dog faces of people like a hot line qualified for credit debt…all colors, all second class. He was in paradise and traveled to his job trembling between the Asian girl and Arab, standing on the shelves of misery in the great America. You welcome mama. Grin, and photograph a sleepy black man hanging on a strap with a fancy tie, a modern-day lynch rope.
Life is hard, and the newspaper tells you half-truths about death, violence and destruction of the soul. All rose and got off at K Street, no sense being worried, clueless. He shrugged and went to his office, with women taking control. He was still glad being a man today. He stared up…chance of a thunderstorm. Women held hands with their lovers, sending him over the edge. He was lonely and needed twenty bucks to get another hit of that coke-straight. He wanted to stay home nursing a comic book, but he had to get to his research gig, military dog that he was. Love letters he wanted in this real life, as he went in and died till five.
He was trying to work things out writing poetry under the Colonel Faulkner galloping statue, getting in trouble in front of the pigeons. He wanted to forgive everybody for having to go to some fucked-up J.O.B. world. Pocahontas-fine women from various Gargoyle-wrapped office buildings strolled to catch their trains. The dying, yellow sun became a dropped ball behind helium-green, oak trees up and over Pennsylvania Avenue. Open your nose and smell three feet away perfume of loaded women descending with briefcases down stairs of justice, bureaus of evidence. With no trace evidence of man or husband, on pain killers, and on a search for law-suit husbands, redheads, blondes, brunettes, and afros went to mulish drinking holes. One more chance, as he closed his notebook on his not-yet-finished poem, his great, great, unpublished poem dangled out his ass. He couldn’t wait to get home to smoke an el primo.
On the corner, he huddled with other shoulders under the frigid red light. He noticed to his right a picture of an old woman with a shopping cart, a bag lady like many sad bag ladies. Nobody greeted her; they just held their noses, nothing to smile about. In his heart, she was somebody’s mother. He reflected on the yellow light, until he heard a screeching horn, and he saw a truck pile frown coming to date her with the sword of death.
He lunged through the crowd and snatched her collar back, feeling dry winds of her body, as the truck crashed through her cart, throwing it at least twenty feet in the air.
She gazed in large, brown, hound-dog eyes. This neatly-dressed guy with a nervous grin grabbed her and let her drop in his arms before she hit concrete and the grill of the truck. Her heart choked her; she flailed out, afraid. Henry didn’t want to be part of the street screech of American pie. He awkwardly let her go and slipped out through the crowd who had watched him save a not-there type woman on the street.
As he rushed away, an ambulance came to the circle of people around the woman by the White House. He wound through horses of statuesque war heroes and blended back into the world. He felt good, disturbed, but good, as he hugged the spring day. He rushed to catch the Red Line home, missing the applause of people behind him. He went down the escalator into the subway with gentle tones of the day and chestnut oak leaves over his head, leaving behind the spicy smell of chicken and shrimp from Indian restaurants, and woodshed-jazz piped from swinging bar doors, like good things he always wanted. Mostly what he wanted was a job, a woman and peace between his father and him. Today, the world answered all his questions with breaths of spring days as he got that one thing right.
Metallic, screeching, Pennsylvanian trains shot like silver arrows over cereal-box rooftops, the same kind that killed his mother one drunken night inside this fist-raised world, uptown D.C. People and buses, landed by like a Charlie Parker theme song with strings.
A football sailed in the blue skies as he walked by Howard University, past the rhapsody of students on bikes, walking, talking, with books under their arms. Henry was finished with all that. Henry was finished. He just wanted to smoke his el primo and chill out in his fish bowl of an apartment. Man! This was great to be alive, not in jail. He stopped in the bar-b-que joint on the corner of Sixth and Lessing Streets. Sharp, butt-knocking women walked by the window, as his corner buddies sold good dope from South America. Bobby’s joint smelled saucy, with aromatic herbs and peppers. Hot, spicy, southern tones of men and women eating their dinners filled his ears…corn cob, collards, rib sandwiches, chicken, grits, black eye peas, with chitterlings on the side…and don’t forget the pork chops. People knew him and nodded. At the counter Martha said, “Henry, barbeque sandwich…two?”
“Thanks, two.” He watched television over the counter. It was April, like Paris, but he watched the uproar over a story: “She talked about her life being saved today.” His attention shifted, as he watched a woman come in. She was shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola, long-legged and radiant as the day, his April, in his Paris.
She waked to the counter, “I’ll have a fried chicken dinner, to go.”
“Hi!” he moved aside.
She looked at him, “Hi!” His demeanor was studious, professor? He was cute, with a gold-button, blue sport coat and white shirt, “just getting off work?”
“Yeah, that’s all of us. My name’s Henry,” he extended his hand.
She shook it. “Winnie,” she looked around, “I’m hungry.”
“Hi, Winnie,” he grinned, “me too.”
“Henry,” she nodded to some tables, “I’m going to sit down.”
“Okay,” he followed her to the large front window behind the logo ‘BOBBY’S RIB HOUSE’. Brown sparrows sounded like Ray Charles songs outside the door. She looked nice in her blue suit and short-bang hair, all business. Window people shopped at stores, kids ran, police cruised around the block and strangers like them met for the first time.
“Henry,” she pointed up at the T.V., “I wonder, who is that hero they’re talking about?”
He shrugged, “what hero?”
“Silly,” Winnie smiled at him, smiling at her, checking her out in this place of good smells, “the guy who saved the old lady.”
“Leave it alone,” he said, “I need you to save me.”
“Oh yeah, Henry,” she rolled her eyes.
“You have pretty eyes,” he touched her hand.
“Is that line going to get me in your bed?”
“No, but it might get you to come have your dinner at my place,” he pulled his ear. “I live ‘round the corner.” Winnie stared into his soft brown eyes, with a nice mustache. He didn’t threaten her. Past problems with men, she had it under control. She smiled; it could only lead to something good with this guy who needed her to live, to fly, with those Ray Charles birds singing some kind of Georgia on my mind song. He didn’t pay attention to the T.V., only her…nice. He lived around the corner, and around the corner she went, with him and their food.
She liked his apartment, with green plants in the window, a large fichus tree in the corner, a zebra pattern on a seven-foot sofa and a small bamboo dining table. African statues sat on the coffee table, with a giant painting of a farmhouse and fields of people behind the couch. He was broader than an average bachelor. Winnie liked the full bookcases too. He turned on some music, and a golden sun helped its way into the room of blue walls.
She settled in, kicked her heels off, and they talked about families and jobs, a government, cookie-cutter, technocrat and a high-class secretary at N.I.H. As they licked their fingers over their bar-b-que, they discussed black poverty, black hunger and improving the prosperity of a complex, slave world that they couldn’t fix. She appreciated his humor, even in the midst of such heavy topics. He poured her more wine, “We all slaves.”
“I would like to take you out sometime,” he said.
“We’ll talk about it,” she slipped her shoes on, “but…take me home now.”
“Let me get my keys,” he stared in her eyes, “kiss?”
“Okay, be gentle.”
Henry kissed her, his heart happy. He revealed tenderness, slightly rubbing the back of her hands. She gave him a little tongue.
He stopped, “Okay?”
She opened her eyes, “Okay.”
He nodded and got his car keys from the kitchen hook, “let’s go.”
Henry wanted to show her a strong brother. He wasn’t physically big, but he wasn’t a drug dealer and had never been to jail. He drove fast, but carefully. He checked the rearview as crawling darkness seeped oven them in his black Volkswagen. Winnie touched his hand on the clutch. She was tired and yawned, smiling at him at the red light. She didn’t want to make him over; he was just right. He wasn’t dangerous, but still a mystery, still a man who had secrets, and it would take a while before he opened up to her. Until then, she would keep her legs closed.
She quietly watched the dark, shrub-filled streets trail off, as if they were falling from the earth. She met a nice guy. He carried himself like a man. Maybe he’d been a soldier…a man left alone in this world with an interesting and attractive personality.
“MISS FAIRCHILD OF FAIRCHILD INDUSTRIES WAS SAVED TODAY BY A STRANGER. WHOEVER THIS STRANGER IS, THERE IS A HEFTY REWARD FOR HIM.”
“I wonder who he is?” Winnie asked.
She shrugged and directed him to the third apartment on Longfellow Street. He walked her to the door, where she hugged him.
“You going to call?”
“Yes,” he kissed her, “I’m going to call.”
“Okay,” she unlocked the door, “goodnight.”
“Night.” Henry watched her go inside and headed home. He scratched his head as he drove, excited, but worried, thinking about Winnie and his family and the old woman earlier in the day. He passed well-lighted, ma and pop stores, showing trails of moon dust towards urban nativity street scenes of little junkie shepherd boys. His father was still alive, with a young wife and new family. Some aunts and cousins were left around. He shrugged at the quarter moon over Beacon Hill Apartments.
Henry’s family on his daddy’s side was from Natchez, Mississippi. It was time for his forty acres and a mule, if he collected his reward. And would his quiet world be shattered if he showed his face? He liked living under the radar and going about his business quietly waving his American flag. He turned on his car radio to Mr. Marley singing his redemption song.
Thursday evening after work Henry stood in his kitchen drinking a beer. He thought about his heroism as he listened to John Coltrane, playing like it was going to be a blood bath and no boxing gloves. The phone rang. His cousin Mike lived in the same building, two floors down. He came up with a sweet potato gal in a long brown jacket, black miniskirt, and raised big tits that burned through a white, V-neck sweater. She had sleepy, brown, cat eyes, but she was hot like an Arizona wind. He hugged Mike, his favorite cousin, taller, wise and like a tattoo on his life. They grew up together, drinking and dancing around the Jeffersonian town. But it was Thursday night, and Henry couldn’t go out to forget about a reward and worrying about people with a lot of guts asking him for attention, money or his blood.
“Henry, this is Kelly.” .
“Hey, Kelly,” Henry nodded, “getting ready to smoke an el primo and hit the sack.”
Mike pulled a joint from his shirt pocket.
“Okay…” Henry got the matches. Kelly was on the couch, watching his tiny T.V.
“Hey man, who was that girl I saw you with?” Mike crossed his arms, leaning on the refrigerator. He glared at him like he had caught something tasty.
“Winnie,” smoke was slowing down his thinking, like mellowed jazz in the apartment. He passed the joint. “Nice.”
“Minnie?” he handed it back.
Henry shook his head, “Winnie.”
“How you like it?’”
“Good.” he passed it and watched him inhale as if he was going to suck up the whole goddamn planet in his lungs.
“Yeah, like us!”
He slapped him five.
Henry held the power of the weed down his throat. The room spun, and he wanted to cry and sing about all the shit in his life.
“You okay Henry?” Mike took the joint.
“Just tired,” he moved to the living room where the girl was, “I see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow,” Mike handed him the joint.
“Mike, thanks,” he opened the door.
“Come on baby, my cousin got to get up in the morning.”
“We all do,” Henry scratched his head.
“Okay! Bye Henry!” Mike asked his girl, “Hungry baby?”
“What you want?”
“I got a taste for some chicken,” she snuggled against him, “I think Mister Wings is still open.”
“Night cuz! Okay Baby!” Mike winked and closed the door.
Friday morning a diamond sun opened his eyes. Henry stretched from his six o’clock dreams, his yawn mixed with thoughts of cream and sugar in his coffee. He liked his peace, his silence with his thoughts. He did his morning routine on automatic. As he wrapped his red and gold tie through his button-downed collar in the mirror, his face looked like his father’s. He didn’t want to be like him. Although they weren’t on speaking terms, there was never a day he didn’t think about him. They were close when he was little. Big Bill used to take them to McDonald’s every Saturday evening, him, his sister and his mother.
His mama, Sweet Betty Applewhite, died of bad judgment and a taste for bad men and pneumonia, and Henry died with her. Probably his father did too. But Big Bill went to jail for seven years for killing her old boyfriend. It killed his mother. Nigger already had two wives. What he want with his mama? After that, he kind of lost him, especially after Henry and his sister went off to college.
He turned the television on in time for the tanned, Nordic newscaster to give his update…
“There was a shooting at Mister Wings Restaurant last night. Police apprehended the suspect, but sadly three people died in the shoot-out before it was all over…”
“Damn! Welcome to the real world.” He shook his head and flipped through his Time magazine. He read an article on the mysteries of the Supreme Court. He smiled at the fart-face, old men scratching themselves under their robes. “These old guys are full of shit.” His phone rang.
“Henry this is your Aunt Beth. Did you see the news?” She was sitting in her cushy rocking chair; her round upright body shook as she scrunched tissue in her fist.
“Mike was killed at that restaurant.”
“Killed!” his chest became heavy as the phone got hot in his hands. He fell against the wall, to his knees, “Nooo! Noooo! Nooooo!” he screamed.
“Yes, baby, yes! Henry, he was killed in that chicken restaurant robbery.” Her right leg shook, “Henry, come over to grandma’s house.”
“Okay, Aunt Beth, okay,” he swiped his eyes, “bye!” The sorrow in him was terrible. He wanted to die too, to die with all the sorrows of the world. He didn’t want to be on this earth anymore.
He called his job, “Good morning, Mrs. Bent. This is Mister Applewhite. Tell Mrs. Carlton I won’t be at work today. I got a death in my…in my family.” Henry ached like an enemy tore him apart. He felt robbed, lost. His cousin was gone. He tried to concentrate on her voice, “I am sorry Henry, I’ll tell her.” He hung up, wiped his eyes, looked around and fell on his bed. He felt so weak and tired. Then he rolled up and rushed to the cookie jar on the refrigerator as he wiped his eyes. He examined the moon smiling, porcelain face of the jar, where he hid money and memories of his life. He opened it at the table and pulled papers, money, drug paraphernalia and photos, of him, Mike and their friends. One had them sitting under a giant honeysuckle tree; they had a summer picnic in Rock Creek Park. Another one showed them hugging up on midnight women at a New Year’s Eve party. “Why Mike?” He smiled and filtered his fingers over the photos of Mike and him tussling in the snow, leaning on a hilly lawn at a barbeque, footloose. They owned the sun, the whole fuckin’ world. Two cousins grew up together like a Kenny Loggins song.
They were black crows pecking the flesh of the earth with respect and smart afros sitting with their grandma, two bookends in the business of growing up together, not knowing, not knowing, before they moved on to their own worlds. They went into the world and played with it like a ball of yarn. Play right, play hard. They were heavy into everything from 1966 to 1968, especially jazz man, jazz. He remembered Mike falling drunk asleep in a hot club, how he had to get him out before some pretty woman picked his pocket. Mike saved him one time when he was stuck in the snow in Detroit with some voodoo woman, got him the money to get him out of the icy fingers of her love. “Why Mike?” Damn, he wished he was there to save him one more time…one more time. Henry started to write a poem on a piece of paper to Mike. He wanted him to know that he understood him, he walked with him as they were like tight roots from God’s earth.
Henry folded the poem and stuck it in the cookie jar. He was hurt and mad. He ripped off his tie like it was all the possessions he had, and he didn’t give a shit anymore.
Ivy vines branched around his grandmother’s house on a street of dwarf chestnut oak trees. It was a quiet street of proud black folks, a street he grew up on. Now he was back for a funeral.
Henry kissed his little cousins playing tag. He smiled and went inside the house that tackled his heart Go deep as he looked to his left into the living room, through white French doors. He reached down and squeezed his Aunt Beth like a ball of love.
“Hi, baby,” she said, “you okay?”
“I’m fine, Aunt Beth,” he hugged her, “he’s still with us, he’s with us.” Tears fell; he didn’t want them to. He hugged his sister tight, then six other cousins and a dozen friends. They were all there with his Uncle Joe, who was gray like the clouds in the house. A tragedy like this made everybody older, physically hurt. Mike had been a handsome, nice guy, with always a twinkle in his eye and a smile for you, or anyone. He was like an older brother. This was too much. His sister gave him a glass of wine.
“Henry, how you holding up?”
“I’m okay, Sis,” he sat down on the gold sofa under a fleur de leis, gold-framed mirror. The room was full of nice perfume from well-dressed folks bringing in food amongst the house plants. Henry looked out the big picture window on the cobbled streets where they all grew up and lost and found each other. He sighed and hugged and rocked his sister like they were kids again. Friends and neighbors kept bringing flowers and condolences. No party music today, as friends talked quietly to Aunt Beth, who kept her feet up on a stool. Cakes, chicken and salads spread across the table in the dining room of family pictures. The sun drowned them in the living room on such a terrible day.
Henry watched his old girlfriend, Barbara Rainey, his first love, come into the house, gracing the room. She came over to him with a hug. Friends, we could never love enough. And sadly, they could never be together. She was afraid of his power over her.
“Barbara, how you been?”
“Okay, you?” It was difficult for her to see him, but no regrets about the young man she left when they were sixteen. She would have had to give him everything. Barbara missed him and wanted Henry to hold her, and was too afraid, because his love would drown her, and she couldn’t swim.
“Let’s go outside.”
“Okay,” she hugged a few more people.
They went out front by the fence, where his little cousins were playing. Sparrows plucked crumbs, and the garden flowers made her look even more beautiful, with her dark eyes, her African-Indian hair, her yellow skin in her blue dress. She was still a wonder to behold, and he could never look her in the eyes, because he would simply become lost.
“We always meet at funerals.”
She swung on the gate, “Remember this fence?”
“I remember us talking here at night…we had fun.” He moved the gate with his knee, “Yeah fun…you married yet?”
“Do you see my husband idiot?”
“When are we going to get serious?”
“You,” Henry got closer, held her, “You not ready yet.”
“I’m not?” she laughed and swung away from him and the gate. “More like you, not ready yet.” He kissed her. She hugged him like good medicine, as tears flowed.
“I’m glad you came,” he said.
“Me too,” she stepped back, sniffled over this mess with Mike and meeting him over their life that they could never decide.
“You okay?” he thumbed tears from her big brown eyes.
“Take a walk around the block with me,” he took her hand, “I miss the place.”
Barbara wiped her eyes, “I do too.” She hugged him and laughed as they took a little walk to clear the air and their own imperfect lives. They both knew they wouldn’t see each other again for a while. It was how it was, and how it was meant to be, as they listened to cars, busses and birds sound off in a blue and pink morning.
Brick-colored houses were slapped tight together, with short step-stoops and small gardens in a small-big city that exploded worlds. You could see the dome of the D.C. capitol from backyards. Angel shaped clouds drifted over children playing in front of their houses. Henry held Barbara’s hand as if they were children and filled up with the sadness and a good place in their hearts for a friend. Handcuffed to the past when they all chased each other around the big old oak tree, they played cowboys and Indians on small corners that swallowed them and spit them out to become strong tree trunks…except for some like his cousin, and we keep dying too young.
When they entered the house, he saw his father, Big Bill, by the chimney mantle beside his aunt Rose. With a short scotch in his hand, he had on denim overalls, smudged red mud across his chest and canvas work boots, a dusty, hard-working man with arms the size of cedars and the gloss of the1-95 highway construction site in his concrete face.
Henry hugged him. “Hey, Pop!”
“How you doing son?”
“Okay. I see you’re on the job.” He could smell the drunk coming up in his father’s skin.
Aunt Beth fanned herself in Uncle Joe’s arms. He rocked her steady to Mahalia songs in the angels’ flapping wings.
“I came after I heard the news,” he winked at Miss Rolle who still lived across the street.
“Where’s Miss T?” Henry asked, out of respect.
“My wife had to go to work tonight at the hospital, Henry. She wanted me to tell you hello.” Bill went around and greeted old friends. “Son, you need some money?”
“Pop, I’m okay. Give Pat some money. I’m working for the Energy Department.”
Pat kissed her father and her brother. “Hi Dad.”
“Hi Honey, how is law school?”
“Fine dad. Make sure you make it to my graduation.”
“I will baby.”
“I’ll tell Miss T,” she winked over at Henry, “and what my brother been doing?” She noticed him entranced with his old girlfriend, “same thing.”
Henry watched Barbara standing with her sister Diane in the vestibule. Time would never be right for them. Memories of talking on the fence together would die. He watched his aunts and cousins crying, hugging each other as the church nurse got smelling salts out.
Henry felt alone. He reflected on the death of his mother when he was a little boy. Nobody could help him. He had to pull himself through it alone…alone.
Henry watched his father kiss and hug all the sad, beautiful women. Henry’s mother was a woman who was too sweet and loved too much. Love can kill. She was a woman who had a touch for the drink, and now her son barely touched the stuff. He looked like him with a wide-spread buffalo nose and deep brown eyes that said, give me the world, give me the world now. Henry was strong and would never give up, never quit through all the shit coming his way. “Have a drink with me.”
“Okay Pop,” he got a beer and stood with him. “How you been Dad?”
“Great…You held up well, since…”
“Okay Dad! Cut! I know what you mean.”
Henry smiled through tears, hugged friends and laughed at Mike’s yesterday’s jokes with them.
Reverend Peters came to give prayer, solace to the family, and calm things down, as they each must go towards the light alone. He wiped his face with a handkerchief, waved his hand like a poster child for God, then in a booming voice,
uOh Lord, help this family to get through this trial of losing a good man, a good son, because these times will always be rough, will always be rocky…we just have to stand together with you Lord! And see it through! Ride it! Swim it! Through better times with you oh Lord, here on this earth. Amen!”
His father left after this, slipping Henry some money. Big Bill drove off in his black Ford pick-up, as if he won the battle of love between the both of them. Henry filled his belly with the healing funeral foods in the house of the black crow. Then he saw a familiar face and long, wild, white hair of a woman who approached his Aunt Beth. They hugged and cried.
It didn’t make any sense? She wore a long, blue dress with white lace collars and pearls. She had big, beautiful, watery, blue eyes, in her eighties. She glanced up and stared at him through the crowd, “You!” Henry couldn’t believe it wasn’t some crazy dream. His aunt had been a maid in many white folks’ homes. Miss Fairchild’s was one of them. The room of family and friends stared at the old woman’s gold-tipped cane pointed at his chest.
“Miss Fairchild, this is my nephew Henry,” Aunt Beth said.
“Henry, please come here,” Miss Fairchild smiled.
“Yes, m’am.” She hugged him. Henry thought she smelled like summer flowers as he hugged her gently, frozen in time.
“Thank you Henry Applewhite,” she felt so good that she had found him.
Henry felt many pats on his back in the middle of a black and white sea.