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If she'd loved me, she wouldn't have named me Abel."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that nobody in their right mind needs to be named after a sheep boy."
"I kinda like it. Reminds me of Honest Abe."
"Naw, man. That comes from Abraham. Abel is that nobody with nothing to think about except cutting up dumb animals to please that invisible white man in the sky. 'Please, Mister Lordplease accept my humble offering.' Then crack! He gets beat down by his own brother. Jeesus. I might as well be named Clark Kent. Or Moby-Dick. Or Pinocchio."
"No way, buddy. Abel is a guy who gets things done. Like, he's cap-able. He's got abil-ity. He's able-minded."
"Or maybe he's just disabled!"
"Look, man, you need to cut yourself a little slack."
"Why is that, Serge? Nobody else ever did"
Sweet Jesus! I hate planes. Can't smoke. Can't stand the food. Can't sleep. So there's nothing to do but think. Think about conversations that lead to nothing, to questions that'll never be answered. Or about things that need to be buried deep down beneath the earth.
Buried with my not-soon-enough forgotten past.
Buried with my loving father.
And with my Thirst.
My seat above the wing was too damn noisy to let me get any shut-eye. Every time I tried to let myself go, a crash from the galley or a lurch of turbulence would slap me back to reality. Who knew what was going on back there? Could be some asshole with a box cutter or a bomb in his shoe.
Stomach turning over, I stared up the aisle at the passengers' drooping heads until my eyes fastened on the flight attendant's ass, appearing and disappearing behind the first-class curtain. Well, at least that was a nice little show.
I was aching for one of those palm-sized gin bottles and a Newport.
"No shit," I thought, continuing my imaginary conversation with Serge. "If she hadn't given me this stupid name I wouldn't even be on this goddamn plane. Wouldn't have spent that couple of bricks left over from the funeral to buy a ticket to a place where I know I don't need to go. Wouldn't be using up my hard-earned vacation looking for a woman who doesn't even care if I'm alive."
"You got something better to do?"
"You damn straight! I should be in Vegas this very minute sitting by a roulette wheel."
"Come on, Abe. You don't know a goddamn thing about gambling!"
"I might have a hidden talent. Might turn out to be a crack at the tables."
"A crackhead, more likely."
"Might even strike it rich!"
"And then what?"
"No more stinking tunnels, man. No more busted cables at four a.m. NoI'd just take my ass to a bamboo hut in the Bahamas and never be seen again."
"The Bahamas? Oh, please! You hate fishing, you can't swim and you sure as hell don't need a tan."
"So I'd write my book, Serge. Write from sunrise to sunset, live off mangoes and papayas and let the paper make some sense out of my goddamn life."
"That's crazy, Abe. How're you gonna live without your daily dose of Miles?"
"I'd just get me some steel drums and teach the natives how to play them Harlem-style."
I tried to imagine myself, naked and dreadlocked, surrounded by West Indian beauties in my thatched hut by the sea, but the plane's engines forced me back to my New York reality: night after night of dragging cables through the tunnels beneath the city, my bones aching from the constant grind of the generators. The only difference between my shifts in the tunnels and this long damn flight was that now I was strapped into a plane seat, so I couldn't get up and piss a hot stream into a dark alley. No, on a plane you were trapped in a space even smaller than a coffin.
Smaller than my own father's coffin.
"Planes is cool, boy," he used to say every time he spotted a silver bird rising into the sky from La Guardia. "Planes take you away to some other life. Get you out of the ghetto. Take you somewhere where it don't matter if you Black. Ain't no Jim Crow on a plane. Seats all the same size. Tinfoil food same for every damn body. Liquor, too."
Liquor. My hands began to tremble at the thought of a whisky sour at thirty-three thousand feet. Lick. Er. Sweat slicked my forehead and my finger inched toward the little orange silhouette of a woman on the armrest. All I'd have to do was press the button. Press the button. A lovely, melodic blink would sound and that blonde with the nice ass would pad over to my seat. She'd bend over, her breasts near my cheek, and smile.
"Can I get you something, sir?"
I would look up into her eyes and ask for just one teeny-tiny little something to hold me over the Atlantic.
"Chivas? Tanqueray? Or Beefeater, sir?"
"Make it a Chivas."
Yessir. She'd nod and vanish up the aisle, then reappear with a small white tray and a plastic tumbler filled with rock-hard ice and a blue cocktail napkin. I'd thank her and lean back, gently twisting the cap off the little palm-size bottle. Smiling secretly, I'd play a little roulette with my choice of poison, pouring a perfect arc of golden liquid into that plastic glass. Then I'd take a sip, feeling my tongue go numb under the smooth assault of the scotch. With stunning slowness I would drink my medicine, letting the icy lava roll down like a slow-motion orgasm from my scalp to my toes. Might even put me to sleep like the businessman on my left, who began to snore, his breath smelling like booze, even before the vulture took off.
"Easy does it, man," I heard Serge's warning voice: "You got to fight to control it. When it tickles your balls, ignore it. When it aches in your heart, speak to it. But when it starts screaming in your brain, that's when you got to call on your Higher Power"
"I don't need a Higher Power!"
"Come on, Abe. You been dealing with this long enough to know you can't do it alone."
"But I am alone. And I got to deal with it alone."
"Look: Your sobriety is too damned important to get fucked up by your pride."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"Just because you hate your father doesn't mean you have to hate God. . . ."
"Sheeit," I muttered, stroking the tiny orange button, but not hard enough to illuminate it. Once again I caught a glimpse of the flight attendant's blue uniform, and my thoughts leapt to another uniformed womanthe nurse in the intensive care unit, called by the blinking buttons on my father's life-support system.
Green, blue, yellow flashing buttons. How could anyone stand the thought that one touch on the wrong button might literally end somebody's life? I thought about that Black woman's vibe. She looked mighty comfortable as she checked monitors and adjusted gauges.
"Does he feel anything?" I asked her, trying to replace the low moan of those machines with a human voice. The nurse glanced over at me, shook her head without speaking, and left the room.
I only realized when the door swished shut behind her that my father, Louis Franklin Croftonone of the biggest motherfuckers of all timewas finally going to die.
They'd wanted to put him into hospice, but his condition went down so fast that they'd ended up just letting him fade out in the same three-by-six space where the ambulance spat him out two days earlier. An emergency call had found its way through the network of public service offices and switchboards of assistants and managers until my shift captain heard a crackling voice on the radio. The cap walked through the November night and climbed down the steel ladder to the tunnel below Seventh Avenue.
"Crofton!" His voice echoed down to where we were rewiring the city's electric grid in a floodlit manhole. Thinking that Nee Cee had found some new way to drive me crazy, I climbed up, cursing under my breath while the other guys muttered, "Shit, she's at it again!" and "Can't Abe muzzle that bitch?"
But instead of the hysterical ranting of my once-upon-a-sometime woman, I heard a cold voice on the line, telling me about Louis Crofton's collapse at some run-down nightclub. He needed surgery immediately.
I traveled to the hospital by subway, still wearing my work clothes, my boots crusty with mud. I hardened my heart against the painful memories as the train rocketed up to Harlem. And finally I stood in the center of a ring of doctors who told me that my father's liver was shot and he had nothing left to do but die.
Reluctantly I called Nee Cee and asked her to go to my place and bring me some fresh clothes. I tried not to think about the fact that she would ransack every inch of my apartment for any sign of a female presence. I knew she'd find the condoms and the number of the girl from the building next door who came up for a recreational fuck every once in a while. Nee Cee would also discover that stash of videocassettes and the couple of worn-out magazines I couldn't bring myself to throw out.
But Nee Cee's jealousy was the price I'd have to pay. I wanted to stay by Louis's side in case he said something. Standing in the antiseptic hall while nurses walked by, I figured that this was my last chance to know.
And my wish was grantedat least in part. Sometime in the middle of the second day my father asked for water. I scrambled across the room from the window where I'd been watching the gray buildings and the gray sky and the gray traffic below. I crouched beside him, taking what I could of his swollen fingers into my hand and leaning in close.
"This is some shit," Louis declared through all the medications.
"You're doing good, Dad," I muttered, almost ashamed of myself for such an outright lie.
"Don't waste your breath," he hissed. He tried to shift, but the straps and tubes held him tight. "Listen, boy, I want you to give Vanelle my mama's Bible," he said clearly. I felt his thick flesh shake in my hand. "Go and get my horn from the club. That's for your Uncle Buddy." There was a long pause. "Everything else is for you."
Silence followed. I didn't know what to say because I knew damn well there wasn't much else. I had never in my life gotten a goddamn thing from my fatherexcept maybe my addiction to alcohol and my love of jazz.
Now he grunted heavily and closed his eyes. I brought my face down to his lips.
"Pop?" I whispered, daring myself to do what forty-five years on earth hadn't given me the guts to do. "Popdo you know where she is?"
For a minute I thought he hadn't heard me. Or that he just wasn't going to answer. Then his eyes opened to slits and I caught a glimpse of the sly man I'd known for all of my life.
"I don't give a shit where she's at."
"II need to find her."
"She don't want you."
"Pop, if you know, please tell me," I said, strangling on the respect I was giving him.
"Far as I know . . ." Louis managed to turn his head"she long since gone."
"At leastat least tell me her name."
The yellow eyes fixed on my face. "She don't have no name."
Those words hit me like a slap in the face. I dropped his hand and sat back on the chair beside the bed. I knew I should say something more to him. Something about God. But I couldn't.
Finally I stood up. My anger felt like lead in the soles of my shoes. I stood looking down on the mummified figure until I realized he was no longer breathing.
Suddenly I was jolted awake by the voice of the captain notifying the passengers that we were beginning our descent into Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport. I glanced around, realizing that I had managed to fall asleepin fact, I'd slept right through my breakfast. The flight attendants were coming up the aisles, throwing the plastic trays into dark garbage bags. I felt like spitting to clear the airplane taste from my mouth. I felt like pissing, but the line to the bathrooms stretched nearly to the front of the plane.
Well, I made it. All the way to the Netherlands. And I managed to do it without pushing that orange button.
You're right, Serge, I thought as the seat-belt light flashed on. Easy does it.
I followed the groggy line of passengers down a corridor toward Passport Control.
"What is the purpose of your trip?" The immigration officer looked at my passport.
I'm looking for a woman without a name, I thought. "Vacation," I said.
The man looked up. "How long do you plan to be here, Mr. Crofton?"
Not a moment longer than necessary. "Ten days."
For a long, cool moment he looked into my eyes and I wondered what this white man saw: A drunk? A tunnel worker? A Black man who had no right to be here?
"Enjoy your stay," he said, snapping my passport shut and nodding me through the gate.
Shouldering my bag, I crossed the glass and steel terminal. This was it: my first view in memory of the world outside the United States. Hellthis was my first view of life beyond New York.
Soon the taxi was winding through Amsterdam's needle-thin streets, which were crowded with bicycles and parked cars. Every street seemed to border a canal, and the canals were full of houseboats and barges.
"The Netherlands was once only marshland," the taxi driver explained. I was surprised by how good his English was. "That is, of course, the reason our nation is called the 'Netherlands'or 'low countries.' Our forefathers created our nation by building these waterways and constructing dikes against the sea."
Dikes? An image of the little blond boy in wooden shoes with his finger stuck in the wall flashed through my mind, but it was instantly replaced by the sight of a series of bridges rising in parallel arches over yet another canal. I'd secretly collected pictures of Amsterdam when I was a kid, tearing them out of magazines in the school library and hiding them under my mattress at home. But now I was surprised at how much more beautiful Amsterdam was than the photoseven in December. The taxi turned onto a narrow waterfront street.
"We are now entering the oldest part of the city," the driver continued. "Many of these buildings date back to the sixteenth century. They were constructed by wealthy merchants. You can see thehow do you say it?the pulleys on the top floor of the buildings. They were once used to unload goods from boats docked below."