Black & White preview
Monday, October 18
He looked at the angry red 5:05 on his travel alarm and knew he would not get back to sleep.
He swung his legs off the foldout bed and walked five steps to the tiny kitchenette. He was still dressed in last night's jeans and gray T-shirt, his mouth stale from recycled hotel air. He brushed his teeth and washed his face in the sink, combing wet fingers through his hair.
Go, he thought.
His suitcase was packed, as it had been for most of the last month. The only hanging space--as well as the only bathroom and the only exit--was in the bedroom where his mother slept in a tranquilized haze. The rest of his belongings lined up next to the suitcase: a small drawing board, a FedEx box, and two plastic Harris-Teeter grocery sacks.
He put on his glasses and shoes and added the clock and shaving kit to the suitcase. He was able to roll the suitcase with his right hand and carry everything else in his left.
He stopped by the door to the hall. His mother's snoring suspended momentarily as he took his jacket off a hanger and slipped into it. She was in the farther of the twin beds, near the window. The other would have held his father, except that his father was across the street in the Durham VA Medical Center, dying of lung cancer.
Michael was 35, too old, he thought, to spend this much time with his parents, no matter what the circumstances. From the lobby he called a cab and picked, more or less at random, another faceless suite hotel out of the phone book. The new one was just off I-40 at the eastern edge of Durham, where the city proper blended into Research Triangle Park. During the tech boom RTP had been the Silicon Valley of the east coast, pumping millions into the North Carolina economy. When the bubble burst with the new century, it left behind inflated housing costs, thousands of overqualified, unemployed tech workers, and an abundance of empty hotel rooms.
The dispatcher told him it would be half an hour. Michael left his belongings with the desk clerk, a heavyset woman with meticulous cornrows. "If my cab comes, tell him to wait for me," Michael said. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
"All right now, hon."
He crossed the street to the hospital and took the elevator to the sixth floor. The charge nurse was at the station and managed a tired smile. "He had a good night," she said. "Some coughing, but he slept."
"That's something, I guess."
"He'll be sleeping more and more," she said. "It's like they make the transition kind of gradual, a little less hold on this world every day."
Michael stood in the hallway and watched his father sleep. He had faint wisps of white hair that had grown back since the initial chemo fallout, and his skin had turned a nicotine-stain yellow from jaundice. His thin forearms protruded from red VA pajamas, the left hooked to a morphine infusion pump. An oxygen cannula ran under his nose. As Michael watched, his father coughed wetly, cleared his throat, and shifted his head, all without seeming to regain consciousness.
After he turned thirty, Michael had gone through a period of seeing his father's face in his own when he looked in the mirror, especially first thing in the morning, when he was still puffy with sleep. That was a different face than his father had now. Now his father's face was crumpled like a used towel. When his eyes were open they were bloodshot, restless, and haunted.
It had all happened with terrifying speed. One day his father had seemed all right; the next he had coughed up a huge mouthful of blood. In retrospect he'd been tired and had lost some weight, but there'd been nothing to prepare him for what the doctors found. It was "everywhere," his mother told Michael on the phone, nearly hysterical. This had been back in Dallas. Michael had flown up from Austin to do what he could. Tests had revealed small cell lung cancer, already in both lungs and metastasized to the lymph nodes, too far gone for surgery and not within what the doctors called "one radiation port." He'd had a round of chemotherapy and then, inexplicably, insisted on coming to the VA hospital in Durham for what everyone understood would be his final weeks.
Logic was clearly not the issue. There was a huge VA hospital in San Antonio, and one of the world's finest cancer centers, M.D. Anderson, in Houston. But North Carolina was where he and Michael's mother had met and married, where he'd begun his career in the construction business, where Michael had been born. And it was apparently where he had determined to die.
"Take care of him," Michael said to the charge nurse, and went back to the Brookwood Inn.
His cab driver had a heavy accent and was playing a cassette with jangly guitars and hand drums. "What part of Africa are you from?" Michael asked.
"Benin," the driver called over his shoulder. "You know it?"
"I know the name," Michael said.
The driver seemed as grateful for someone to talk to as he was for the fare. In the two months he'd been in the US, the dream that had brought him eight thousand miles had already begun to fade. He worked 24-hour days, dozing in the cab between infrequent jobs. "Too many cabbies, not enough work," he said.
It was Saturday morning and the sun was not yet up. They were heading east on the Durham Freeway, the road Michael's father had helped to build. As they crested a hill, the lights of downtown Durham spread to the horizon on Michael's left. The city seemed frozen in time, low to the ground, built of old fashioned brick and granite and concrete. Liggett & Myers and the American Tobacco Company, sometime rulers of the city's economy, had long since moved to New York. The red brick shells of their office complexes and warehouses had been reborn as condos and mini-malls. American Tobacco's signature water tower and smokestack, complete with newly repainted Lucky Strike logo, now overlooked the last stages of a major renovation project.
Michael's father had smoked Lucky Strike for over 50 years.
Next door was the swank new Durham Bulls Athletic Park, whose brickwork seamlessly matched its surroundings. Next to that was an auto dealership, and after that, absences. The parking garage that took the place of the train station that had given Durham its name. The vacant lots and abandoned buildings that used to be the most prosperous black neighborhood in the south.
It was called Hayti for the Caribbean island, but pronounced with a long final "i": HATE-eye. Over 500 black businesses had fallen to the bulldozer when the Durham Freeway went through the middle of it. All that was left was St. Joseph's African Methodist Episcopal Church, coming up now on the right. The original building dated to 1891; the modern brick extension that grew out of the south side was the Hayti Heritage Center. Further south along Fayetteville Street were the sprawling Victorian homes that had once belonged to the first families of Hayti, and beyond that the campus of North Carolina Central University, formerly North Carolina College for Negroes.
These few facts Michael had learned in the last week from a black janitor at the hospital, a man Michael's age with wild hair and a long, pointed beard. He called Michael "young brother," and asked where he was from. He'd started talking about Durham's history before Michael could tell him about his father's part in it; by the time he'd finished, Michael no longer wanted to mention it.
The sun was lightening the sky in the southeast and suddenly Michael saw something at the top of the St. Joseph's steeple that he'd missed in the dozen or more times he'd driven past it in the last month.
"Turn around, can you?" he said to the driver.
"Sir?" Michael could see the driver staring at him in the rear view mirror. He realized how unhinged he must look--over six feet tall, not overweight, exactly, but soft and pale, thinning brown hair, bloodshot eyes, slept-in clothes, possessions in plastic bags.
"Take the next exit, turn around, and come back to that church."
"You don't want to go to the hotel?"
"Yes, in a minute. I need to stop at the church first."
The driver shrugged, exited, and turned under the freeway. Run-down houses were visible from the access road, partly obscured by oaks and sycamores in a riot of autumnal orange and yellow. They crossed the freeway again and pulled into the asphalt parking lot.
"Stop here for a second," Michael said. Along the south retaining wall someone had painted names and primitive likenesses of famous Hayti residents: Moore, Merrick, and Shepard, who'd founded North Carolina Mutual Life, along with other names that Michael didn't know. Steps led up to the brick and steel of the Heritage Center, and above it all towered the steeple.
Michael reached for the car door.
"You are getting out here?" the driver asked nervously.
"Just for a second."
From where he stood, resting his hands on the open door, he could see the thing at the top of the steeple clearly. It was made of black wrought iron, an intricate design of intersecting curves, heart shaped, on an axis like a weather vane.
Michael reached into the cab and dug a sketchbook out of one of the plastic bags. "Keep the meter running," he told the driver. He got the thing down in a couple of minutes. Roger could tell him exactly what it was, but Michael didn't need him to know it had no business on top of a church.
He got in the cab. "You know what that is?" he asked the driver.
"It's a church, sir."
"The thing on top of the steeple. Where the cross should be."
"I never saw that before."
"It's called a vévé," Michael said. "It's the symbol of a voodoo god."
Michael was the artist on a comic book named Luna, and issues 17 through 20 had been set in New Orleans. The writer, Roger Fornbee, had sent the title character there to battle the Haitian snake lwa, Damballah. Roger had made a point of saying vodou instead of voodoo, and he'd shipped Michael stacks of books for research. His scripts, detailed as always, called for vévés woven into the background texture of the panels. The heart shape belonged to Erzulie, a sort of vodou love goddess, though potentially a rather prickly and dangerous one.
When he used his credit card to check in at the hotel it occurred to him that he was leaving an obvious trail. His parents could find him with little effort, if they wanted to. Whether they would bother was another question.
He carried his things up to his room and used his cell phone to call Roger. In LA it was barely past 3 AM, meaning Roger would be in full caffeine and nicotine stride, sending out long, rambling emails, flipping through reference books with page crumpling intensity, and, if up against the tail end of a deadline, possibly even writing.
His wife of some years, whom Roger had known since they were kids, kept normal hours, sent their two daughters off to grade school, cooked, cleaned house, and answered most of Roger's fan mail in his name. She never traveled and Michael had never met her, never even talked to her on the phone, as Roger always used his "mobile," as he called it.
"It's me," Michael said.
"So it is," Roger said, in what he'd once explained was not a "British accent" but a North London public school accent. "What's the latest on the old man?"
"Well, in our last episode, you may remember, they had to discontinue the chemo because the cancer had moved into his spinal column and they needed to irradiate that. Now they've had to knock off the radiation because his lungs are losing function."
"Christ. Poor bastard."
"Stubborn bastard. This is probably it. I don't think he's got more than a couple of weeks left at most, and he still won't talk to me."
"Maybe you're wrong. Maybe there's not some vital secret he's keeping from you."
"No. Yesterday he let something slip. We were talking about hospitals and I mentioned being born in Watts Hospital, which used to be here in Durham, right? And he looked at me and said, 'Watts?' in that tone he has, like I've just said something too stupid to be believed. Then he recovered and said, 'Oh yeah, Watts, right.'"
"C'mon, Michael, with all he's been through..."
"So I went to Durham Regional, where they still have the old files from Watts, and there's no record of my birth."
"There's any number of..."
"You weren't there. You didn't see the look on his face." Michael felt his throat closing, realized how close he was to tears.
"Michael. They've got social workers there at the hospital. You might want to talk to one of them. Things with your father were screwed up enough before this, and trying to put all that in order under this kind of pressure is more than you can ask of yourself."
"This isn't me, it's him."
"Listen to yourself, mate. You need to back off a bit."
"That's what I just did. I moved out of the Brookwood and got my own place."
"What did they say about that?"
"They don't know."
"Wow. Are you--"
The connection was suddenly gone, a not infrequent experience with Roger. It was typical of the US in the 21st century, Roger said, that they'd all been willing to trade the quality and dependability of land lines for convenience and free long distance.
Michael dialed again. Once, after a similar interruption, he'd waited to see if Roger would call back, and he never did. That was Roger: People only truly existed for him when they impinged on one of his senses.
"Look," Michael said when Roger picked up again, "I just called to let you know. I've got the computer and I'll be checking email and everything."
"And drawing? Will you be drawing any pages? Number 25 is due in--"
"A week and a half," Michael said. "I know."
To ease his conscience, he spent a couple of hours working at the kitchen table in his suite.
Most commercial comics involved an assembly line process. One artist did penciled breakdowns based on either a script or a plot outline from the writer. The pencils might be rough or detailed, depending on the artist, the editor, and the deadline. If the writer had only provided a plot, copies of the pencils went back to the writer for dialogue. Then a letterer put in the word balloons, captions, and borders, and an embellisher "finished" the pencil art in black ink. Finally yet another artistic team scanned the black and white art into a computer, added color, and made the separations for printing.
Michael had made his reputation partly through speed. He'd sketched in ink as far back as high school art class, and he did his own lettering. He blocked out his pages in non-reproducing blue pencil, only going to graphite in a few places where he needed to be sure of detail--the niceties of a facial expression, the exact gesture of a hand. He did the lettering to relax, two or three pages at a time, and then went back to inking.
The process gave his art a spontaneity and energy that fans responded to. His editors happily paid him for all three jobs, and still saved money on FedEx charges and missed deadlines.
He'd hooked up with Roger in 2000 with a Batman graphic novel called Sand Castles. Roger lagged substantially behind the first wave of British writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, who'd conquered US comics in the late 80s, and he'd spent a few years proving he could be as weird, surreal, and violent as any of them. Michael had been drawing superheroes at Marvel and waiting for his chance to break out. Sand Castles had been the turning point for both of them. Later, when Roger finished his proposal for Luna--aka The Adventures of Luna Goodwin--he offered it to Michael first.
Luna's title character was a magician who was first coming into her powers, late 20s, smart and cynical. And attractive, of course. The comics audience was overwhelmingly male, and adolescent in taste if not always in age. She worked in Hollywood as a script consultant, where her--which was to say, Roger's--extensive knowledge of the occult was much in demand. She'd changed her name to Luann and was more or less in denial of her abilities and history.
That history included a Wiccan mother who lived in a tiny Northern California town full of eccentrics just like her. The town was named Lunaville--Looneyville to Louann--and provided comic relief when the main plots got too intense.
Luann had grown up without a father, and her mother claimed not to know which of several possible candidates was the one. When Michael's own father got his diagnosis, Roger suddenly decided it was time to address the paternity issue.
Roger delivered the news in one of his typical phone calls, with Michael along only for the ride. He wouldn't do it if Michael objected, he said, though his investment was obvious from the way the ideas came tumbling out. He was putting off the follow-up he'd planned to the vodou story. Instead, Louann would go to New Mexico, where the Native American shaman she believed was her father was dying of cancer. Louann would try to learn his secrets before it was too late.
Michael had gone along, as he always did. Roger had been idolized by so many for so long that he no longer seemed to understand the concept of refusal.
The first script had arrived via email within a week. For the sake of form it came through Helen Silberman, their editor at DC's Vertigo line of mature audience comics. The few electronic comments she'd left in the margins were not enough to provoke Roger's notorious sensitivity to interference.
As always, Michael was impressed with Roger's ability to make the story visual. It was set in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, among the Anasazi ruins and the alien landscape of the Four Corners. There were ghosts of Anasazi warriors, Native American gods, and the giant talking moth that Roger used to symbolize Death. There were high tech hospital scenes and a little gunplay. In other words, a typical Roger Fornbee story, something that Michael knew how to draw.
On the road, Michael used a hardwood laminate drawing board that was only slightly larger than the 13 × 20 inch sheets of Bristol board that Vertigo provided him, preprinted with borders and DC logos in non-repro blue. He spent hours at a time with the board in his lap, turning it from side to side, letting the blacks on the page find their own natural weight and balance, the TV or radio on in the background, his mind wandering as he worked.
Today, though, was lettering, which meant the board lay flat on the table, T-square against the metal sides, Ames lettering guide sliding across it to pencil the guidelines. He wasn't aware of the words as he copied them from the script, only the zen of the letterforms: no hitch in the S or the C, the O just outside the lines, the bars of the E, F, and T tilted fractionally upward.
When he looked at the clock it was ten AM. He called a nearby car rental agency and had them deliver the cheapest thing they had, which happened to be a silver Toyota Echo, tiny, light, with its trunk sticking up in the air. He dropped off the driver, got a North Carolina map, and merged onto I-40 East.
Michael had two names on his list. The first belonged to Michael's only living relative in North Carolina, Greg Vaughan. He was some kind of distant cousin on his mother's side, still living on the Bynum family farm in rural Johnston County. Despite the area being prime tobacco country, his grandfather had grown little there but government subsidies.
At least that was the way Michael's father told it. Michael himself had only seen his grandfather on two occasions, when the old man came to Dallas for Christmas while Michael was still in high school. Wilmer Bynum had been in his 70s then, unkempt, surly, and recently widowed. The tension between him and Michael's father had been like an electromagnetic field that left everyone's hair standing on end.
Michael's mother had shown no inclination to go out to the farm since they'd come back to Durham. "Your father needs me here," she'd said. Over the years she seemed to have taken on the same attitude that Michael's father had toward her family, as if she too now found them crude, embarrassing, and best ignored. She hadn't even gone to her father's funeral two years before.
Shortly after he passed through Raleigh's concrete sprawl, Michael exited the Interstate onto the US 70 bypass and crossed the Johnston County line. The trees grew more sparsely than in Durham, and closer to the ground: live oaks and scrub brush between spindly pines. He passed through a couple of small towns and finally stopped at the first likely looking business he came to in West Smithfield, an antique store in a freestanding white building.
A woman in her 60s wandered among the shelves of colored glass bowls, aluminum pots, dolls, cookbooks, and broken lampshades. "Can I help you?" she asked.
"I'm looking for the old Bynum farm. I know it's somewhere around here, but I don't know the way. I was hoping you might."
She straightened up and gave him a thorough looking over. "What's your interest, if I may ask?"
"I'm Wilmer Bynum's grandson."
"Which grandson would that be?" She didn't sound so much hostile as cautious. "I don't see a lot of family resemblance."
"I'm Michael Cooper, and I'm his only grandson that I know of." He put out his hand and left it there until she reluctantly took it. "They tell me I take after my father, Robert Cooper. He married Ruth Bynum in 1962."
"I was at the wedding. Most of the county was." She squinted at him. "You hoping to find Wilmer there?"
"Is that a trick question? He died two years ago. And yes, I guess I am hoping to find something of him there. And if not him, maybe Greg Vaughan."
She nodded. "I'm Martha Wingate. I've got a son Tom your age. Sorry to be suspicious. Hasn't been anybody asking after Wilmer in some time, but I guess old habits die hard."
"What was it people were asking about?"
She looked down at the green Depression glass pitcher in her hands. "Wilmer was pretty important around here. People always wanted to consult him on things."
"What sort of things?"
"You name it. Crop rotation, politics, domestic disputes."
People wanting to discuss crop rotation, Michael thought, would already know where to find Wilmer Bynum. He saw nothing to gain by contradicting her. "So how would I get to the farm?"
Mrs. Wingate drew him a map, complete with landmarks, on the back of a photocopied flyer for a flea market. Michael admired her strong, clear lines. "This is perfect," he said. "Thanks."
"You see old Wilmer hanging around, you tell him hey for me."
"You think that's likely?"
"Wilmer never did concede anyone dominion over him. Not the state of North Carolina, not the federal government, not even God Himself. It's hard to imagine Death fared much better."
As the map promised, the mailbox still said "Bynum." Michael could see the house from the road. Once it had been a standard Victorian style farmhouse, complete with wraparound porch and gabled second story, until someone with more ambition than skill had begun building on.
As Michael inched the car up the long, rutted dirt driveway, he made out at least three separate additions, two angling out for the ground floor and a third sprawling across the other two. The lower walls had been finished with wooden siding at least vaguely similar to that on the rest of the house, while the upper was done in decorative exterior plywood. In places the once-white paint had blistered away, exposing gray wood underneath; in others the paint looked fresh. All the windows were intact, and the roof didn't show any obvious sag or damage.
The fields looked to be in a similar holding pattern, mowed and free of trash, yet not growing anything useful. The place seemed habitable at the same time that it looked like no one had lived there in years.
It was a bright, cool October day. Michael rolled his window down and inhaled the vivid odors of dust, weeds, and distant water.
The driveway intersected another dirt road at the house. Michael turned left and finally saw his first sign of life, a vegetable garden behind a tractor shed, surrounded by chicken wire to keep out the deer and rabbits. A few late tomatoes made splotches of yellow and orange against the green.
When he looked back at the road in front of him, a huge German Shepherd was charging straight at the car.
Michael hit the brakes, afraid the dog would go under his wheels. It began to dance around the car, barking furiously, and lunging at Michael even as he quickly rolled his window up again. Michael hadn't paid for the damage waiver on the car, so he hit the horn. The dog jumped backward, barking with a deeper and more threatening tone, the black hair standing up along its spine.
He took the window down an inch and said, with as much authority as he could manage, "Hey! Chill out!" The dog quieted for a second and looked at him almost wistfully before going ballistic again. "Okay," Michael said, "fine. I can take a hint." He put the car in reverse, and as he looked over his shoulder he saw a man walking toward the rear of the car.
He wore jeans, a T-shirt, a red plaid flannel shirt, and a John Deere cap pulled low over his eyes. He had a short beard and dark blond hair hanging to his shoulders. "Henry!" the man shouted, and the dog turned to look at him as if to say, I'm doing my job here, what's your problem?
"Heel," the man said, and snapped his fingers twice. The dog looked at Michael to let him know this wasn't his idea, then trotted over to the man's side and stood with his right shoulder by the man's knee. The man snapped his fingers once, pointed downward, and said, "Sit," and the dog obeyed.
Michael rolled his window the rest of the way down again. "You Greg Vaughan?"
"Last time I checked." The man hunkered down to stroke the golden fur of the dog's chest.
"I'm Michael Cooper. I'm Wilmer Bynum's grandson."
Vaughan, to Michael's surprise, stood up without making a move toward the car. "I know who you are."
"You and your father and Ruth came back to Durham a month ago."
Vaughan's accent was a more pronounced version of the one Michael's mother had, like a cross between Deep South and Boston. "That's right," Michael said.
"You didn't call, didn't write, didn't let me know. I had to find out about it from my neighbors."
"That was my father's doing. If I get out of the car, is Henry going to take my arm off?"
"Not unless I tell him to."
Michael hadn't been much at sports, and he'd gotten roughed up in junior high. By high school he'd grown up and filled out and he found he didn't have to do a lot to get smaller kids to back down. It was more like stubbornness than courage, and the habit had stayed with him.
He got out of the car, squatted by the dog, and offered the back of his left hand. Henry looked at it, seemed to shrug, and gave it a non-committal lick. Michael stood up and offered the other one to Vaughan, who took it with reasonable grace.
"I don't know what went on between my father and the Bynum side of the family," Michael said. "That was him and not me. Can we talk?"
Vaughan took a moment to consider. He was older than Michael had first thought, in his early to mid-50s. The sun had creased his face like a note that had been folded and refolded and kept in a dirty pocket. "All right," Vaughan said at last, and as he turned away Michael noticed for the first time a trailer in a field beyond the tractor shed, a small green single-wide on a cinder-block foundation, with a built-on screen porch. A battered half-ton pickup was parked next to it.
They walked together toward the trailer. Vaughan's silence was amiable enough and Michael relaxed enough to note the warmth of the sun on his skin, the uncomplicated joy of the dog orbiting around them, the crunch of their shoes in the dry soil.
Vaughan opened the screen door and gestured for Michael to go in first. The interior surprised him; it was as spotless and tightly organized as the galley of a submarine. The living room held a foldout sofa, recliner, TV, VCR, and two painted metal TV trays. The white walls were devoid of pictures, mirrors, or knickknack shelves. Michael looked through into a small kitchen with gleaming counters.
"Coffee?" Vaughan offered. He gestured to the couch and Michael sat. "There's still half a pot from this morning if you don't mind reheated."
"I expect there's a beer in the fridge if you wanted something stronger."
"Coffee would be great. I'm not much of a drinker."
Vaughan nodded his approval. He stood at the stove with the air of a Japanese sumi-e painter in front of a sheet of rice paper. He took a box of wooden matches out of an overhead cabinet and struck one. As it flared, his face responded with something between fascination and hunger. Michael found the rawness of it uncomfortable. Slowly Vaughan reached for the knob that turned on the right front burner, and slowly brought the match to the gas. He didn't react at all to the whoosh as the gas caught, just watched the flames for another second or two and then shook out the match an instant before it would have burned his fingers.
He set an old-fashioned aluminum coffee pot on the burner and put the matches away. Reaching into the same cabinet with both hands, he took out two oversized ceramic cups, turned them right side up, and set them on the counter with perfect economy of motion. "Cream or sugar?"
"Black is good for me."
Vaughan took out a plastic canister of sugar, opened the top with the same crisp precision, and put three spoons of sugar into one of the cups.
"Did you ever tend bar?" Michael asked.
"The way you move, I don't know."
"I went into the Army out of high school. Did two hitches in Vietnam, right through to the end, and got out in '74. After that some carpentry, handyman for an apartment complex, security guard for a while. Been farming the last 20 years."
Steam began to waft from the pot. Vaughan cut off the gas and poured two cups, handing the one without the sugar to Michael.
Vaughan didn't ask, so Michael didn't offer his own history. He tasted the coffee instead. It was strong and acidic, but far from the worst he'd ever had. Finally he said, "My father came back here to die, you know."
"Yes. Cancer." Vaughan pronounced the word the way Michael's mother did: first syllable like "cane," no "r" in the second.
"That's right. End stage lung cancer. I don't think he has more than a few days left. I came up here with him thinking he would talk to me, that maybe we could..." His own rising emotions cut him off.
Vaughan nodded with something like sympathy. "I never knew who my daddy was. My momma died when I was nine and Mr. Bynum took me in to raise. She may have only been a seventeenth cousin or some such, but that was good enough for him. I was family. That was the kind of man he was."
"Look, I'm sorry I never knew what kind of man he was. That's part of the reason I'm here."
Vaughan took a long drink and set the cup on a coaster on a TV tray. "So what do you want to know?"
"Did you know my mother before she was married?"
"Only to speak to. She was already gone off to college when I came here."
"Do you know what started the trouble between Grandpa and my father?"
"I don't think Mr. Bynum ever knew. Try as he might to be philosophical about it, you could see that it really hurt him. He loved your mama, and he couldn't understand why your father had to move so far away, and why he got shut out."
"What's the story on the house?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is nobody living there? What's with all the weird additions?"
"Nobody's lived there since Mr. Bynum died. He was a very old-fashioned kind of man, the kind of man that changed the world to fit him instead of the other way around. Liked to do things himself, with his own two hands. He needed a new roof, he'd round up some of the neighbors and put one on. He got to feeling cramped, he'd take out a wall and add on some floor space. Maybe not the best carpenter in the world, but he got the job done."
"Who owns the place now?"
"Well, it got carved up pretty good when Mr. Bynum died. At one point he owned fifteen hundred acres. He was a very big man in these parts. But he had to sell off a parcel here and a parcel there, and then a lot got sold for taxes after he passed. Your mother and her two sisters got parcels. This here piece you're sitting on, including the house and on out to the highway, is mine now. Mr. Bynum left it to me."
"The house didn't go to any of the sisters?"
"They had no interest in working the land. They'd all gone off--your mother to Texas, Esther to California, Naomi to Minnesota. They all sold off their parcels, the way he knew they would. I was the only one stayed around to take care of him all those last years. None of the sisters even came for the funeral. 'I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me,' the Lord said to Isaiah. 'They are gone away backward.'"
"I thought Aunt Esther was in Virginia." Naomi, he knew, had been dead for several years.
"She moved to Richmond a few years ago. So I hear."
"You haven't seen her."
Vaughan shook his head, a movement so small it was almost a tic.
"So if the house is yours now..."
"Why don't I live in it? It's a reasonable question. The answer is it's too big for me. I'd rattle around in there like a BB in a boxcar."
"Can I see the inside?"
It was like he'd asked to borrow Vaughan's last fifty dollars. After a pained silence, Vaughan said, "Mr. Bynum never did like having people inside his house."
"I heard people used to come around all the time, looking for advice."
"Mr. Bynum liked to chat with folks on the front porch, sometimes in the parlor in the winter, but he was very private man for all of that."
"I'm not folks. I'm family. I'd like to see the inside."
They played Mexican standoff for a few seconds more. Michael felt he had the edge: My father is dying while we're sitting here.
Apparently he got it across. Vaughan finally stood up, took one last drink of coffee, and said, "All right. Come on."
He took a set of keys off a hook by the front door and then held the door open for Michael. As they walked toward the main house, Henry the German Shepherd trotted up and fell into place next to Vaughan.
Michael attempted to make nice. "What do you grow here?"
"This used to be cotton country. Back before the War, of course." He smiled as if he were joking and Michael realized with a chill that it was the Civil War he was talking about. "After the War it was tobacco. Up until the 50s we would ship the cotton and tobacco both over to Durham to get milled or processed. All that's gone now. Tobacco companies moved up to New York, and then the government scared people off cigarettes. Mills are all gone too. People want that Egyptian cotton or Indian cotton or NAFTA cotton. These days I mostly grow produce, sell what I can't eat over to the Farmer's Market in Raleigh. My needs are pretty simple."
"There's worse ways to be."
"You can write that on my tombstone. I seen some of the world when I was in the service, and I lived in Durham for a while, but the older I get the less I want to do with any of it."
They climbed six steps to the porch. There was a wooden swing and painted wicker furniture, all of it clean and in good repair. Michael held the screen door while Vaughan unlocked a deadbolt as well as the lock on the knob. Vaughan went in first, then snapped his fingers again for Henry to follow. Michael brought up the rear.
The house was dark, even after Vaughan flipped a wall switch and two table lamps came on in the parlor. Heavy drapes covered all the windows; it felt like they were holding back time as much as daylight. A yellow pine floor, dark with age, showed around the edges of carpets whose floral patterns had worn away under decades of feet. The furniture was faux Victorian, with intricately curved lines, wooden legs, and threadbare tufted upholstery. Doilies covered the end tables, and the candy dish on the marble-topped coffee table held wrapped Starlite mints of questionable age.
Feigning casualness, Michael approached a wall of framed photographs. Score, he thought. There must have been thirty or forty of them, in all shapes and sizes.
The biggest frame held a matte with four oval cutouts, each holding a black and white photo. Three showed women in their late teens; the fourth, on the far right, was a poor match for the others. Its subject was a girl of no more than six or seven, with dark circles under haunted eyes. To her left was Ruth, Michael's mother, pretty and self-conscious; he vaguely recognized the other two high school girls as his aunts.
He turned to Vaughan. "There were four sisters?"
Vaughan stayed where he was, leaning against the wall by the door. "You're talking about the little one? Orpha died not long after that picture. She was seven. She had TB. They kept treating it and it kept coming back. This was 1953. Your mama never told you?"
That put the sisters' photos in order, oldest to youngest. "No. She only called her sisters when my father wasn't around. It wasn't something we ever talked about. I mean, that was all I knew when I was a kid. My father's parents died before I started school. I guess I was an adolescent before I figured out that other families included aunts and uncles and grandparents."
He found the three surviving sisters in another photo, gathered around their father. Ruth nestled in one shoulder and the other two leaned in, but Wilmer wasn't actually holding them. Ruth must have been in her early teens, and Naomi, the oldest, well into her 20s. Wilmer was not much taller than his daughters, his hair cut close to the scalp and receding from a face with sharp features, narrow eyes, and a smartass grin.
One of Michael's few recollections of Wilmer Bynum was his open leering at women on the few occasions that the family was out in public. Michael immediately saw more photos that confirmed the memory: Wilmer with his arm around one woman or another, all taken at outdoor gatherings at the farm. The women's smiles were embarrassed, as if only the presence of the camera kept them from objecting.
Here was Wilmer again at his own wedding, barely out of his teens, by the look of him. Michael had to struggle to come up with the name of Wilmer's wife: Regina. She was stiff and somber in the photo, wearing a high-necked, long sleeved wedding dress that looked more to the next life than to any pleasure in this one.
The wall held a dozen more family shots: Wilmer on a tractor, looking as if he didn't quite belong there; Regina on the porch in a new Sunday bonnet, old beyond her years; the girls playing with a puppy on the lawn.
Then came the celebrity shots. The first featured Wilmer with US Representative Randy Fogg, drinking iced tea on the porch and laughing. The picture must have been thirty years old; Fogg was still reasonably thin and his hair still black, and Wilmer looked no more than middle aged. The photo was signed, "To the real man of the people--Always at your service--Randy Fogg." Michael would have recognized him without the signature. Fogg was a gift to editorial cartoonists, with popping eyes and big jowls that earned him the nickname Congressman Frog, after the character in the Pogo comic strip. His racist politics, friendship with the gun and tobacco lobbies, and fist pounding harangues against "Commonism" had made him a legend as far away as Texas.
In the next picture Wilmer stood shaking hands with Richard Nixon, again with the farmhouse in the background. This one was signed also, just with Nixon's name. Michael figured the date for late 70s or early 80s, well after Nixon's resignation, but it was clear that neither Vaughan nor Mrs. Wingate had been kidding about Wilmer Bynum's importance.
One large photo showed a barbeque at the house, complete with checkered tablecloths, big pots of food, and an enormous, partly dismembered pig, its flesh cooked white, stretched out next to a blackened pit in the ground. The words "pig picking" came into Michael's head. The voice was his father's, and it held a sneer. Randy Fogg was in this photo too, along with other important-looking men in suits, none of whom Michael recognized. Signs in the background urged Fogg's reelection.
All fascinating, Michael thought, but none of it was what he'd come for. He wanted to see Ruth pregnant, or Ruth with a newborn Michael in her arms, preferably standing in front of a hospital with its name clearly visible.
Double French doors let to what appeared to be a den. Michael glanced at Vaughan. "Okay if I go in?"
"Suit yourself," Vaughan said, meaning "no." He was clearly uneasy and anxious to get Michael out.
Michael went in anyway. There was a big screen television, a leather couch, and a matching recliner. More photos lined these walls, all of them showing Wilmer with Duke football and basketball players.
Vaughan had followed as far as the French doors. "So he did leave the farm," Michael said to him.
"Mr. Bynum loved the Blue Devils. He had season tickets until it got to be too much of a hardship for him to make the trip. I drove him the last few years, but even that was too much in the end. He got the dish so he could watch all the games here."
All the players Wilmer posed with, Michael noted, were white. He doubted it was coincidence.
"What's this?" Michael pointed to a display cabinet next to the TV. Inside hung what seemed a random assortment of objects: headline-sized lead type from a printing press; a rubber roller; a ball peen hammer; a brace and bit; and what Michael thought might be a shoemaker's awl, a wood-handled punch with an eye in the middle of the blade.
"Like I said, Mr. Bynum liked working with his hands. He used to collect old tools. There's a bunch of old rusted whipsaw blades and tillers and post hole diggers and the like out in the shed."
"And the piano?" Michael asked. "I can't feature him as a musician." A black baby grand sat at the far end of the room, topped with the largest doily Michael had ever seen. A single framed photo of Regina as a young woman sat on top.
"Mrs. Bynum played. The piano used to be in the parlor. She would play hymns and old Stephen Foster songs and the like. Christmas carols every Christmas. Mr. Bynum moved it in here as a kind of memorial to her."
Michael trailed one finger over the keyboard cover. It was waxed and buffed to a high polish and completely dust free. Startled, he went to the TV and touched the screen. No dust there either. He tried the top of the glass cabinet. Clean.
He looked at Vaughan. "You keep it like this all the time?"
Vaughan seemed even more uncomfortable. "It's a way for me to show my respect."
This, Michael thought, is getting creepy. He took a cursory look through the rest of the ground floor. The huge, dark dining room had a doily and candles in the center of the massive oak table. The kitchen was spotless and the empty refrigerator was plugged in and running cold. Vaughan, leaning against the door of a broom closet, said, "Is there something particular you're looking for?"
Michael blushed and closed the refrigerator. For future reference he noted the back door, with its six narrow windowpanes and a deadbolt that opened from the inside without a key.
In the formal study Michael was surprised to find a late model Dell desktop connected to an Ethernet cable. "Wilmer was on the Internet?"
"Through the dish. It was hard for him to see people in the later years. He used email to keep in touch with his friends."
The computer still seemed functional. Michael pictured Vaughan coming over late at night for cable sports and Internet porn, and found the thought more lonely and depressing than anything else. He sat in Wilmer's solid oak desk chair, ignoring Vaughan's look of alarm, and said, "When did you go to Vietnam?"
"My 18th birthday was July 23rd of 1969. This was before the lottery, so with my not being in college or anything, the chances of my getting drafted were pretty good. I tried to make the best of it, went to downtown Raleigh and signed up, hoping I'd get some choice about what they did with me. I didn't. They shipped me out for Fort Ord in California at the end of August, and 13 weeks later I was on a C-141 headed for DaNang." The dog decided they would be there for a while and lay down at Vaughan's feet with a heavy sigh.
It was the opening Michael had been aiming for. "So you just missed my being born."
Vaughan looked at him like he'd started talking in Russian. "August of '69, I'm talking about. You weren't born until July of 1970."
Michael felt like the room had tilted sideways and he was rolling away from Vaughan on the wheels of the chair. "My birthday," he said carefully, "is September 19th, 1969."
"That's not possible. Aunt Ruth came to see me off when I left, and she wasn't even pregnant. She was two months gone when they moved to Dallas, and she didn't tell anybody about it till she got there. You were born there the next summer."
That, Michael thought, would certainly explain the missing hospital records. "Why would they lie? Why say I was born here?"
"Some kind of tax dodge, maybe? Why don't you ask your parents?"
"Because I don't know that they would tell me the truth. You're sure about all this?"
"In July of 1970 I was deep in country, blowing up gook tunnels in the central highlands. Every night I would try to imagine I was in North Carolina, and I would memorize every detail of every letter I got from home. It was in July that Mr. Bynum wrote to tell me that Aunt Ruth had had her a baby boy, named Michael."
"I need to go," Michael said. The desire was suddenly overwhelming.
"Sure, I understand," Vaughan said, already moving toward the door. Once outside he locked the deadbolt and hesitated. "I really do know what it's like to have all those questions and not be able to get answers." Though his arms were folded across his chest, Michael sensed he was reaching out to the best of his ability.
"Thanks," Michael said. "I appreciate it."
They walked in silence to the car, where Michael knelt again, ran his hand by Henry for permission, and then scratched the dog's thick chest fur. Henry licked his chops and squirmed with pleasure.
"You like dogs?" Vaughan asked approvingly.
Michael stood up. He considered himself more of a cat person, but in truth he could watch any animal for hours. "Sure. What's not to like?"
"They're God's creatures," Vaughan said, with a smile completely free of irony or condescension. "Give me a dog over a man any day."
Michael drove as far as I-40, then pulled off into the weeds beside the access road.
Until he was 12 and began spending as much time as he could at his friend Jimmy's house, Michael had assumed his parents were the same as anyone else's: his father's long working hours and unpredictable moods, his mother's exaggerated, artificial cheerfulness. The times his father would stare at him with a kind of mournful longing were as bad as his fits of frustration and tightly contained anger. Michael hid from both extremes, as he hid from his mother's intermittent and clumsy attempts to hug him or pet him, as if he were a lapdog or stuffed animal. He spent many hours in the walk-in closet in his bedroom with a reading lamp and his sketchbook and comics. It wasn't enough that his parents never came into his room without permission. He needed to be where there were no windows.
He couldn't remember his father ever throwing a ball with him, but on weekends when he was very young the two of them might visit a construction site. Michael would sit in a silent grader or crane, pretending to work the controls while his father explained the job to him: the tilt wall forms, the crushed gravel for the roadbeds, the grids of reinforcing rods.
It seemed to be more about his father wanting an audience, a witness to what he did, than any expectation that Michael would find a calling there. When Michael showed no interest in drafting, his father let it go; when Michael wanted to draw superheroes and dinosaurs, his father showed him the one thing he could offer, which was the mechanics of perspective--one point, two point, and finally three. Even then Michael felt his father's lack of emotional investment, as if Michael were a pet whose real owner was expected back any minute.
The affection Michael's mother displayed for her husband seemed far more real than the shows she made for Michael. Michael's father put up with it, barring the occasional outburst that drove his mother back and often left her in tears. Michael had grown up thinking him cruel, but by high school he saw all the ways she brought the anger on herself, doing the kinds of things Michael had long ago learned to avoid, like asking him too many questions when he was watching TV, or following him from room to room.
His friend Jimmy's parents were divorced, and Jimmy lived with his mother, brother and sister, and stepfather. They'd converted their garage into a game room with a ping-pong table and stacks of worn records--Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce, the Beatles and the Electric Prunes. When people in Jimmy's family hugged each other, Michael felt envious. He couldn't understand why his own parents stayed together, why his mother wanted to be with someone who didn't want her, why his father would continue to punish her. It was a question he'd never answered, and it was among the reasons he was 35 and still single.
He took out his phone and called information. They gave him the number for RHD Memorial Hospital, only a few blocks from his parents' first house in Dallas. The hospital put him through the same procedure that Durham Regional had--birth date, names of both parents, including mother's maiden name--and the results were the same: no record of his birth.
That left the other name on his list.
His father had worked closely with two men all the years he'd been in Durham: Leon Coleman and his nephew Tommy. Information had a listing for Tommy only.
Michael keyed the number into his phone then, suddenly nervous, hesitated before pushing the call button. He sat there in his rented car, traffic rushing by him in both directions, and suddenly he felt the past receding from him. Catch it, he thought, catch it now.
The voice that answered was deep and wary. "'Lo?"
"Is this Tommy Coleman?"
"Who's calling, please?"
"My name is Michael Cooper. My father is Robert Cooper. He used to work with Mr. Coleman in the 60s."
"Robert Cooper, you said?"
"What's this in regard to?"
The man's reluctance hit Michael physically, draining his resolve. "Look, Mr. Coleman, I'm not trying to make trouble for anybody. My father is dying, and I need to talk to somebody about him."
"He's got cancer, Mr. Coleman. He's at the VA Hospital in Durham."
Now Coleman seemed genuinely alarmed. "Here? Here in Durham? I thought y'all was in Texas."
"He came back here to die."
"I'm very sorry to hear that." In more ways than one, it sounded like. "How did you know my name?"
"My father always talked about you and Leon. He said you two were his right and left hands."
"Yeah, that'd be the Captain all right. My uncle Leon passed last year."
"I'm sorry. Mr. Coleman, can I come talk to you?"
"To my place? You mean now?"
"Yes, sir. That's what I would like."
"What do you want to talk about?"
"About my father. Maybe you were working with him when I was born. I would like to know about that."
"I don't really know anything. I just worked for him, that's all."
"Mr. Coleman, what is it you're so afraid of?"
After a long half minute, Michael said, "Mr. Coleman? Are you still there?"
"Yeah, I'm here." Michael heard surrender in his voice. "There's no getting away from it, is there?"
Coleman's apartment complex was near the western end of the Durham Freeway, where it merged into I-85. The complex formed a long figure 8, the two-story brick buildings facing into roughly landscaped courtyards. Michael saw the Durham Freeway at the top of a rise beyond Coleman's building, lightly masked by pine trees. The fine weather had brought the neighbors outside. They were mostly in their 20s, mostly black and Latino, sitting on steps or on the hoods of cars. Michael smelled grilling ribs.
The second floor apartments opened onto a walkway. There was no bell. Michael knocked on the glass outer door and the inner door opened on a man in his 60s, handsome, a little overweight, running to gray, in need of a shave. He wore a white T-shirt, khaki pants, and fuzzy slippers.
Coleman opened the glass door without saying anything, as if recovering from a shock. Michael walked past him into a wide room with an oak floor, well lit by a long window that faced the walkway. An entertainment center to Michael's right held a TV and stereo; to the left was a couch and coffee table. The room took an L-shaped turn into a dining area, where a newspaper fought for space on the table with dirty dishes and a coffee cup. Coleman began to collect and fold sections of the paper.
Michael gripped the back of one of the sturdy oak chairs. "Mr. Coleman, I--"
"You can call me Tommy," he said. "Sit down."
"The Captain always called me Tommy. You look ungodly like he looked, the last time I saw him. You drink coffee?"
"I'm fine, thanks."
Coleman finished clearing the table and sat with his hands around the coffee cup. "You came here with your daddy?"
"A month ago. He insisted on coming here, and I think there's something he's not telling us. Some kind of secret that he's been keeping."
Coleman didn't answer. His hands stopped turning the cup and his eyes lost their expression.
"Something happened," Michael said. "Something about Hayti. Didn't it?"
"What makes you think it was about Hayti?"
"The way he talked about it. Like he was afraid of something. Afraid and guilty."
"How much do you know about it?"
"I know it was a black neighborhood and they put a freeway through it."
"They didn't just put a freeway through it. They wrecked it. We wrecked it. Tore it down to the ground."
"They called it urban renewal in those days. Black people used to say urban renewal wasn't nothing but 'Negro removal.' White people said Hayti was run down, and they were going to fix it all up for us colored folks. So they had a referendum, and us colored folks voted for it just like the whites did, and then they started to tear everything down. Long before they really had to, just to show they could, I guess. That would have been 1963 that they had the vote, and the Captain and me and Leon, we was part of it from the first."
"And you all worked for Mason and Antree."
"Truth of the matter is, there was two companies. There was Mason and Antree, Architects and Engineers, which the Captain worked for. Then Mr. Antree had his own company, One Tree Construction, which was the name on me and Leon's paychecks. One Tree and Antree, don't you see, though I always thought it was a odd name for a construction business. He needed to keep his name off it so it wasn't so obvious that the two companies was really just one big one.
"Anyways, Mr. Antree was the Engineering side of Mason and Antree, and he would sometimes have your daddy supervise us. That was the way of it back then. Even in Durham, which was fifty percent colored, it went easier if there was a white man there watching while the colored men worked.
"We liked your father well enough. He didn't try to act like he knew what he was doing when he didn't, like when we was doing demolition work. Now, when it came to pouring concrete, the Captain knew about that. The man had almost a religious feeling about concrete."
"I expect you do. For five long years, we didn't pour any concrete in Hayti. All we did was knock things down. There was other work that was construction, but when it came to Hayti it was the wrecking ball and the bulldozer. Homes, businesses, schools. Like a war zone. Wasn't until 1967 that we started building there, and then it was the expressway to take the white folks out of Durham altogether and get them over to RTP."
"And that was barely started when my father left."
"I think it broke his heart, all that destruction. People would be standing there on the streets while we knocked down the drugstore they'd gone to for candy when they was kids, or knocked down the splo house they used to go to on Saturday nights."
"Splo house? What's that?"
"Splo is what we used to call that moonshine liquor. Short for explosion, I guess, which is what it did inside you. A splo house might have a still in the basement and then upstairs they'd sell what they manufactured."
"Do you remember when I was born?"
"What do you mean?" Michael's question sent Coleman back in his chair, his right hand raised across his chest to hold his left shoulder.
"I mean, when I was born, my father must have told you. Didn't they hand out cigars or something in those days?"
"Maybe he gave one to Mr. Antree, but not to us."
"You do remember when it happened, right?"
"We were the hired help, we didn't--"
"You were his right and left hands. He wouldn't have told you when his son was born?"
Coleman withdrew. He didn't move physically, but he was no longer available. He was staring at the table in front of him, his eyes not focused on it.
"You have to help me," Michael said. "All my life I've known something was wrong, but I couldn't put that feeling into words until we came here. I feel like I don't even know who I am anymore."
"Sometimes it's better to leave the past alone," Coleman said.
"Just answer one question. Was I born in Durham?"
Slowly, reluctantly, Coleman nodded.
"That last fall, before the Captain left town."
"Then what is the big secret that everyone is keeping from me? Is it something to do with why we left Durham?"
"You should talk to your father."
"He won't talk to me. He's afraid to tell me himself, but he wants me to find out. That's why we're here. He wants whatever this is to come out before he dies. It's eating him up as surely as the cancer."
"It's eating at us all."
It took Michael a long second to realize what Coleman had said. When he did he had the sense to shut up and sit back in his chair and wait.
Coleman got up slowly, shuffled to the kitchen, and took a long time to refill his coffee cup. He poured in milk from the refrigerator and stirred in a packet of sweetener. "You sure you don't want no coffee."
Michael shook his head.
Coleman sat down again. "I've been waiting thirty-five years to talk about that night. There was four people there that night: Mitch Antree, your father, and me and Uncle Leon. Leon and me, we never once talked about it since that day, though there hasn't been a lot of days I don't think about it. Every time the phone rings and it's a voice I don't know, there's a part of me wants to run and hide. Like when you called today.
"Maybe they put me in prison for my part in it. Don't know that I care anymore. Been in a kind of prison all these years anyhow. However long I may have left, I don't want to spend it living like that."
Michael nodded and kept his silence, afraid Coleman would change his mind.
Coleman sat and looked at his coffee for a bit, and then he said, "It was September, September of 1969. Thirty five years ago last month. It was the 4th, I remember, the month had just started. It was a Thursday. I got the call at two in the morning."
"So Thursday was the day before, or it was two AM Thursday morning?"
"Two AM Thursday. The phone was in Uncle Leon's room. He had a house in Walltown then, Old North Durham. Him and his wife was separated, and I was sleeping on his couch, trying to get the money together to get a place of my own. Well, the phone commenced to ringing. Uncle Leon could sleep through the rapture, and after I got tired of yelling at him to wake up, I answered the damn thing myself. Well, it was Mr. Antree, and he said we was to meet him at a particular part of the job site, which was the overpass at Fayetteville Road, there where St. Joseph's church is. You know what I'm talking about?"
"I was there this morning."
"Every time I drive by there, I still get a chill." He drank from his coffee cup as if he needed the warmth. "Anyway, I asked Mr. Antree what he wanted us for, and he said we were going to pour some concrete. Now he had just woke me up, remember, so I didn't have all my best manners in place, if you understand what I'm saying. I asked him if he knew what time it was and so forth, and his voice got cold like I never heard it before, and he said, real quiet, 'Tommy, you get your uncle and get down to the site like I told you and I don't want to hear anything more out of you tonight but "yes, sir." You got that?' and I said, 'Yes, sir,' and that was that.
"Now, Mr. Antree, he was what we used to call at the time a jive-ass white man, tried to act like he was black, and talk and dress that way too. The way he was talking that night was not his way, and for some reason that made me very afraid.
"I woke Leon up and we got into our work clothes and I made us a thermos of coffee and we drove out to the site.
"Now we was scheduled later that day to pour a retaining wall for that overpass. The form was already put together, the steel was tied inside the form, it had all been ready for a day or two. We had a generator there, and Leon cranked it up and turned the lights on. There wasn't nobody else there yet, just the two of us standing around drinking coffee and not saying anything. Leon was shivering like I was, even though summer was barely gone and it was not cold at all.
"For some reason Leon decides he's going to move this 14-foot aluminum ladder that's leaning against the plywood form. Only the ladder ain't moving, and the lights that are shining down into the form, they're at an angle so you can't see the top of the ladder. Leon, maybe it's his nerves or something, he don't want to let it go, so he climbs up the ladder to see what it is wrong, and two seconds later he's down the ladder again and his face is gray. 'I need you to climb that ladder and tell me what you see.'
"'You know I don't like being up on no ladders,' I told him, but he was looking at me the same way that Mr. Antree was talking to me on the phone, and the next thing I know I'm sure as hell climbing that ladder. And I looked at what I saw, and I came down again."
"'What'd you see?' Leon asks me, and I say, 'There's a man in there.'"
"'What kind of a man?'
"'A dead man. All pushed down into the steel. He got one hand caught on the last rung of the ladder, which is why the ladder don't move.'
"'You know who that man is?'
"And I said, yes, I knew who it was, because it was Barrett Howard. You know who Barrett Howard was?"
It took Michael a second to realize Coleman was talking to him and not to his dead uncle. "No. No, I don't."
"Nobody remembers him now, but he was a thorn in the side of the white man all through the 60s. He was always the one talking about how the black man needed to arm himself for self-defense. When they had that referendum on Hayti, he was the one saying it was all a boondoggle, that the white man would tear Hayti down and pave it over and never build the things they said. In the late 60s he got more militant, like the Panthers and all that, and the talk was he was going to start the Revolution right here in Durham.
"Only he didn't. He disappeared instead. And the word got around that he had taken the white man's money and gone down to Mexico. Flat took the heart out of the movement around here. And I knew that it wasn't true, and I never said a word."
"Go back to that night," Michael said. "What happened after you found the body?"
"Well, Leon, he got in the truck and just sat there, staring. I couldn't sit down. I remember the night was so still and clear it was like you could see every star that ever was. You don't get nights like that no more. I was praying for clouds because I didn't want God to see what we was about to do.
"I kept jumping every time I heard a car, and then finally I hear a cement mixer coming. Mr. Antree is behind the wheel, and the Captain, your daddy, is in the passenger seat. The two of them look about the same as Leon did when he came down that ladder.
"The mixer is turning, got a full load, and Mr. Antree backs it up toward the form. He's so nervous he keeps backing into this cinderblock, and it's too big for the mixer to back over, until finally he gets out the cab and throws the cinderblock off to one side. Throws it so hard it cracks, and that sound, that breaking sound, makes everybody freeze for a minute. Then Mr. Antree gets in the cab again and backs it up to the form, and he gets out and says, 'Let's go to work.'
"So Leon gets the vibrator out of our truck and fires it up--you know what that is? It's like a chainsaw without the chain, this big vibrating paddle you use to get all the air bubbles out of the mud. Mr. Antree is trying to swing that chute out from the back of the mixer, and I'm waiting for somebody to say something, anything, I don't care what, so we don't have to go through with this thing. The thing is, Mr. Antree don't know what he's doing, and if I don't help him he's going to pour that mud all over hisself, so that 400-year-old habit takes hold of me and I drag the end of the chute over the top of the form and give the signal. Mr. Antree opens it up and now it's too late to say anything because the concrete is going in the form.
"Leon goes up the ladder with the vibrator, and I hear the sound of that blade hitting something soft like flesh, and I know Leon has pushed the dead man's arm down inside the form. All this time the concrete is coming down with that thick, wet plopping sound, and you can smell it, you can smell the lime and the dirt in it, and the smell is making me sick to my stomach on top of all that coffee, and there's the diesel smell from the truck and the racket from the vibrator and the generator. When I die, where I'm going, I'm going to hear those sounds and smell those smells for eternity, and serve me right.
"I guess it wasn't but 20 minutes or so, longest 20 minutes of my life, and during that time the Captain never got out of the cab of that cement mixer. When we was done, Mr. Antree got in the driver seat and drove away, didn't say a word, not even a thank you. Leon rinsed down the vibrator and I put the ladder in the back of the truck, and when we got in he started the motor and he looked at me and he said, "Tommy, you ever say one word to me or anybody about this ever again, as long as I live, you are no blood of mine. You understand?'
"I nodded and that was the end of it. We went home and we both of us pretended to sleep. I heard him in there the rest of the night, that old metal bedstead creaking every time he tried to find a comfortable spot. I could have told him not to bother, because there ain't any." He looked up and met Michael's eyes for the first time since he started the story. "There ain't any."
They were silent a long time. "I'd take that cup of coffee now," Michael said at last.
"I imagine so." Coleman got up and poured it. "Anything in it?"
"Just like it is is fine," Michael said. "Who do you think killed that man--Barrett Howard, is it?" Coleman put the cup in front of him and nodded. "Was it Antree?"
"I don't think he had it in him. He liked his jazz, and he liked his wine, and he liked the ladies. Ladies of color, from what I heard. He was not a violent man. I never saw him angry. Everything was 'cool,' you know what I'm saying? I think he admired Barrett Howard. Used to quote things he said in the Carolina Times. That was the black paper back then, published out of Hayti, and Howard would write for it sometimes. Mr. Antree wanted real bad for black people to like him, so he would say a lot of things he thought we might want to hear."
"If it wasn't Antree, who was it?"
"I expect somebody wanted it done, and they got somebody else to do it for them, same way they got Antree to cover it up. Same way Antree got us to pour the concrete. Maybe it was the Durham Select Committee, the same bunch of old white men that got the idea to do RTP, same ones that decided who got the contracts to 'rebuild' Hayti. Same ones that always has run everything and always will."
"And what about my father? How much do you think he knew?"
"You want the truth? I think he knew everything. I think they all did. I think whatever they intentions was, no matter how good, they ended up doing what they was told to do, and nobody heard another word out of their mouths but 'yes, sir.'"
Michael drank some of the coffee. "So," he said. "What happens now?"
"You're asking me?"
"It's your story. You have to make the decision."
"About calling the cops, you mean."
"If this goes to the cops," Coleman said, "it could come back to your daddy."
"Maybe that's what he wants."
"He's dying. How could he want that?"
"The same way you do." Michael pushed back his chair. "Why don't we ask him?"
Order the novel from Subterranean.
Top | Home