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The Condor Passes
By Shirley Ann Grau
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Shirley Ann Grau
All rights reserved.
Me? What am I? Nothing. The legs on which dinner comes to the table, the arms by which cocktails enter the living room, the hands that drive cars. I am the eyes that see nothing, the ears that don't hear.
I'm invisible too. They look and don't see me. When they move, I have to guess their direction and get myself out the way. If they were to walk into me—all six feet of black skin and white bone—they'd never again be able to pretend that I wasn't there. And I'd be looking for another job.
I'd just as soon not do that. Because there isn't another job like this one. Not in my part of the country anyway. Right now I make more than any white man in Gulf Springs. That's the town where I was born and raised, as they say, though I don't remember my mother doing very much about us. Most times she didn't even seem to notice when we were around; sometimes I used to wonder how we got fed when we were babies. Maybe her mother's instinct was stronger then—must have been or I wouldn't be here. But anyhow, this job. And the money. Especially the money. Like I said, four thousand people in town and I make more than any of them. Except maybe the doctor but he's got to collect his bills, and that's not always the easiest thing. My money just comes to me, first of every month. Three hundred dollars a week, plus extras. How's that for a nigger's salary? For that I'll stay invisible and jump out their way.
Anyway, I'd sure hate to get out now and go to work. Real work. Hardest thing I do here is drive to New Orleans, two hundred miles. And of course every day I have to drive to Port Bella, the closest little town, an hour away, or to Collinsville, where the airport is. These people are restless, always going and coming, and I'm always driving them back and forth. But soon as they finish the landing strip on the north corner of their place, their planes will come there and I won't be doing half so much driving. It's that sort of job, if you see what I mean.
Matter of fact, Mr. Robert (he's the one hired me, standing on a street corner) looked at me the other day, chewing on his tongue, the way he does when he's thinking: "Stanley, I bet you could learn to fly a plane; you got good eyes, every damn fool is flying a plane. How do you feel about it?"
Seems I felt fine about it. So now I get two afternoons off a week for flying lessons with some clown at the Collinsville field; Mr. Robert found him. When I qualify, Mr. Robert'll get me a plane. "A small plane, like a Comanche." And I go right on nodding at him. So I'm off to the air. I can learn, I'm good at things like that. This family collects planes. Mr. Robert has two, including an Aero Commander he just got last week; Miss Margaret has her own and a pilot too, she doesn't like to fly. And the reason that strip back in the woods is so big is to accommodate the Old Man's jet; what do you call it, Jetstar or some such thing? I'd like to get my hands on that, but I won't and I know it. They got two white pilots for that.
Anyhow it looks like I'm going to do something the army wouldn't let me do when they drafted me out of high school; no black pilots in those days, boy. I'm going to get my wild blue yonder when I'm forty-four.
That's one of the things keeps me on the job. Among others. Like—I wonder if I could get Mr. Robert to let me use his helicopter. When he first got it, three years ago, he'd land just below the rose garden, on the edge of the golf course. He'd come and go four, five times a week like that. Until his wife said that the wind was destroying roses and azaleas she'd spent years cultivating. I went with him a couple of times and I liked it, felt just like an elevator. I bet he'll let me use it when I qualify. By that time he'll be bored with it; he doesn't seem to use it so much any more. He keeps it over at the airport in Collinsville to amuse his girl friends, I guess. Like Mrs. Lorimer. He used to land on the beach in front of her house. I don't know what he did about the tides. He had to figure them out someway.
I'm really looking forward to that, wonder how long it'll take. Me, the black birdman.
You see what I mean about this job. Unusual, you could call it.
It was plain luck I got here, but it's plain sense that keeps me here. Luck made Mr. Robert walk up to me when I'm standing on the corner in Collinsville watching Joe's Taxi pick up a fare from the New Orleans train. "You want a job?" he says. And luck made me say, "Yes, sir," instead of all the other things I was thinking. Like: "Man, I just got out the army with enough to live on for a couple of months and I got a nice little wife and I don't figure to work yet." But "Yes, sir," I said, just like I was still in the army. And here I am today.
It has, you might say, been worth my while.
They hired my wife, Vera, almost fifteen years ago. Assistant housekeeper it says on her tax forms. Whatever the hell that is. She comes every morning at nine and straightens out the linen closets, gives the sachets a shake to be sure they're putting out enough scent. Then she stops and talks to the Old Man's nurse; for the past five years that's been Miss Hollisher. After that Vera walks around the house looking at the walls and the woodwork, seeing if they need touching up; if they do, she calls the painter. Then she walks around the outside of the house and does the same thing, searching for paint that is chipping, boards that need replacing. The Old Man's house is always in perfect shape, not a speck, of rust, not a crack, not a dent, not a heel mark on the polished floor. The Old Man is dying beautifully. At least that's what Vera says. After she's finished checking the house, she goes on home; she's always there by one o'clock. They pay her ninety a week for that.
Vera never worked before; it was Miss Margaret's idea. I didn't think she'd do it, and I said so; but Miss Margaret insisted: "Let me call her up," and she came back from the phone all grinning and smug. Vera never did repeat what she said, but these people, they could talk you into anything, when they wanted you. And they would give you anything. They bought us two houses, one in New Orleans (for when the family happened to be there) and one in Collinsville where we really live. Christmas presents, both of them. But you see, they wanted us, Vera and me. And what they want, they'll pay for.
Too bad I don't have a kid, they could hire him too. We could make it a complete family thing.
I say I'm going to leave sometimes. Twenty years on any job is long enough. But I don't go.
I can still remember how impressed I was at first; for months I just stared as I worked in their houses, the one in New Orleans and the one here in Port Bella. Could it be me, a little old colored boy from Gulf Springs, Mississippi, walking around in all this glory?
And then there's the Old Man, Mr. Oliver. He's about ninety-five, had his first heart attack nearly thirty years ago, I hear. He was in pretty good shape when I first came, then he had a stroke and he's been more or less paralyzed ever since. But don't let that fool you, there's nothing wrong inside his head. He made all this money himself, starting from nothing. Sometimes I think I can see it, like the house was built of stacks of dollar bills, or the gravel paths were made of gold pebbles. Sometimes I think I can catch a gleam or a shimmer, like when an edge sticks out.... But that don't matter.... The Old Man made it all, and he's still making it. Even when he's so weak and tired I have to hold the phone for him, he's thinking and planning and pulling in money like a magnet. A thin, dried-up man, sitting day after day in his special chair in his special greenhouse—he breathes better in the warm wet air—watching his special birds in their gigantic cage.
So there we are. I think they're crazy and they don't think about me at all.CHAPTER 2
The Secret Thief
Every morning it was Stanley's job to open the greenhouse. To march formally along the corridor that led from the west corner of the entrance hall, and throw open the double doors that led into the greenhouse itself. Once inside, he was supposed to forget his formal dignity while he scurried through the welter of pots and trees, with the cool tips of climbing orchids and the furry tips of chain trees brushing his neck. Straight to the bird cage. Check the birds ... remove any dead ones quickly. Before the Old Man comes. Next check the live birds—more quickly now, with the Old Man approaching. If any living bird looked sick or weak, Stanley was supposed to grab it at once, snapping the neck in his fingers and stuffing the carcass out of sight. The Old Man must never never in the course of a day see a bird die or flop about injured or unhealthy.
Sometimes Stanley thought that they had arranged it this way just to make his job difficult. Why, for example, didn't they let him open the greenhouse doors a little earlier? Then there wouldn't be any last-minute problem disposing of the dead birds....
But it wasn't that way at all. Everything in the house had a fixed and ordered pattern. Unchangeable.
Stanley glared at the bird cage. It was a huge flattened watermelon-shaped affair made of reeds and straw, reaching from the high ceiling to the flagstone floor. It was an adaptation of a primitive Brazilian fish trap, Miss Margaret said.
Maybe it caught fish, Stanley thought, but it sure was hell on birds. They'd died by twos and threes, every day since it had been installed six years ago. That made hundreds of birds in my hands, Stanley thought.
Only instead of taking the cage down, Miss Margaret kept restocking it. A new batch of birds arrived regularly every Wednesday afternoon. If the Old Man noticed any difference in numbers according to the day of the week, he never said anything.
Finally, even Miss Margaret was convinced. She found a specialist from the state university who knew about things like that. A short bald man with thick glasses who emptied the cage, gave it a spray with some kind of powder, and put in all new birds. Of a more resistant species, he said.
Resistant to what, Stanley wondered. Except maybe the Old Man....
He looked on the floor of the cage. Nothing dead. He studied the birds fluttering on their perches. Some were actually singing—he hadn't heard anything like that for quite a while. And even the silent ones looked all right. Great day, Stanley thought. He was so tired picking up those stiff bony bodies. Sometimes he didn't even have time to toss the small things out the side door; he'd have to slip them into his pocket. And once, one bad day when four or five of them had died, he'd had to tuck one up under his sleeve. A smelly swollen one at that. They swole up quick in the damp heat of the greenhouse, much quicker than outside.
This morning there was nothing, absolutely nothing.
Stanley straightened up and stood properly, hands behind back, while the Old Man came in. He was dressed for the outdoors this morning—white flannels and navy blazer, the ascot around his skinny neck tied with absolute precision. Elizabeth, the upstairs maid, was pushing him, as she did every morning.
Stanley avoided her eyes, those yellow eyes, always staring at him. He didn't intend to get mixed up with that broad. Not her. He wasn't young any more, and with a wife of his own at home ... he just wasn't up to things like that.
Elizabeth wheeled the Old Man to his accustomed place in the very center of the greenhouse, a wall-less room completely surrounded by ceiling-high greenery, completely hidden from everything except the low whine of the ventilating fan and the nervous trickle of an occasional sprinkler.
The Old Man held up his hand, and nodded, head trembling on his thin neck. "Thank you, Elizabeth."
As she left, she deliberately and slowly crossed Stanley's vision. He kept his face straight—he'd had lots of practice—as he stood waiting in a version of what they would have called parade rest in the army. Almost, but not quite.
The Old Man sat in his wheelchair, not moving, not saying anything. Just breathing.
Which was quite an effort for him, Stanley thought. Quite an effort.
He whistled and rattled, the phlegm in the back of his throat fluttered, the sinews on the side of his thin neck, like small snarled cords, moved slightly, tightening and then loosening. His eyes were closed, those old bright eyes, hooded like a bird's—quick as a bird's too, flashing open to catch you watching.
Stanley did not look at the Old Man. He began wiggling his toes inside his black shoes to amuse himself. And thinking about Elizabeth. She had a cute ass, round and high....
The Old Man gargled the steamy air through his lungs, the wet air, thick as a cloth, greasy as oil with all the flower and leaf scents on it.
Stanley no longer sweated profusely in the damp heat. Once, when the greenhouses were first built, he'd got so drenched with sweat that he'd walk around the kitchen with his coat off and his arms waving in the air like a clipped chicken. He would even stand directly in front of an air-conditioning vent, letting the cold dry air run over him until he had a fit of shivers and had to step away.
The greenhouse heat had bothered him once, and so had its heavy sweet flower smells, its dripping perfumes and musks. Reminded him of funerals. But he'd gotten used to it.
The Old Man was snoring loudly now, his square bony chin resting on the carefully knotted tie.
Soft rubber-soled steps and a faint starchy rustle—Miss Hollisher, the day nurse, had arrived; her round white cap nodded to Stanley over a low green distance. He nodded back, politely smiling. She disappeared, her reddish-blond hair fading against some reddish-blond orchids. She would wait in the hallway, reading the morning paper.
Stanley went back to wiggling his toes. Big toe, second toe, third toe, fourth, fifth. Now, big toe alone, others flat and quiet. Now the little toe alone.... No, no luck. Still couldn't do it.
Abruptly the Old Man woke up. His thin head lifted, his chin left the scarf which now had a small wet saliva spot on its smooth silk surface. His hand reached out.
Stanley opened the cigar box, selected a cigar, the Old Man watching. He cut, slowly so the Old Man could see, tucked it between the Old Man's thin blue-tinged lips, and lit it.
At eight-fifteen, the Old Man's limousine pulled up to the side door. Stanley heard nothing in the insulated silence of the greenhouse, but he knew that the tires had come to a smooth silent stop on the gravel under the porte-cochère—in this house everything worked on schedule.
At eight-twenty Miss Margaret swung open the door and clattered across the flagstones. "Papa, you feel like going to Port Bella? You still feel like it?"
The Old Man accepted her kiss, without seeming to notice it. "I was waiting."
She laughed. "I know, I'm five minutes late. I was changing, Papa. I put on some weight and those pants looked like hell." With a small motion of the head she started Stanley pushing the wheelchair toward the door, keeping up a running chatter. "I am absolutely going to have to go on a diet."
Stanley put the Old Man into the limousine gently, like a great bag of eggs. When he straightened up again, Miss Margaret was standing beside him. "It's nice here early in the morning." She glanced back through the wide-open door into the polished interior and then across the lawn to the neighboring houses, discreetly hidden by trees. "It's nice before the damn staff arrives and starts rattling around." She rubbed her finger automatically across the top of the car, testing for dust. There was none. The Old Man kept two shifts of chauffeurs waiting for him, and since he rarely went out any more, they polished and repolished the cars between their crap games.
The garage was hidden from view—nothing to spoil the proportions of the main house—behind a forest of blooming magnolias. You called for a car if you wanted one.
Complicated, Stanley thought: to get things the way they wanted, they made life so complicated. But they had to have it their way....
"Stanley," Miss Margaret asked abruptly, "do you know what's going on at the garage? Is Michael running a nigger hotel down there?"
Why does she do that, Stanley thought; trying to see if she can annoy me? She can't. "No ma'am."
Excerpted from The Condor Passes by Shirley Ann Grau. Copyright © 1971 Shirley Ann Grau. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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