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Harlem on a winter night was a dismal place to be. Remnants from the last snowfall clung to curbs in mottled clumps of gray. Litter gathered in frozen heaps around trash cans and against metal sewer grates. Buildings once grand, now stripped of their cornices, crowns, and molding, loomed like dead colossi above the sidewalks.
Street lamps painted the streets in surreal strokes. Metal cans full of furnace ash looked like forgotten soldiers from some proletarian war. People moved about quick and urgent like lost souls in the darkness. There was no joy, no beauty, just disdain and hopelessness. It clung to Max like a body bag.
It was not a night for walking, but Max walked. His tall body bent, his strong shoulders withered. Despite the cashmere coat, fur-lined gloves, and wool scarf tucked around his neck, Max was cold.
The wind rushed him like a hurricane, stinging his face, nipping his ears. The bitter cold invaded his bones to the marrow. Max's regality was gone, his sense of self and purpose vanished. Everything he was had abandoned him.
Who am I? For a few minutes Max didn't know. He couldn't remember his corner office on the fifteenth floor of the Regor Building. Could not recall his titledirector of mortgage, who he wastall, handsome, and single. The color of his skinchocolate-brown, nor where he lived, West 158th Street.
For a few minutes Max didn't know anything but pain. It washed over him like a rough tide. He looked up, seeking answers. The universe blinked cold stars in hisdirection. Why? his heart shouted, but Max knew. His unwillingness to ask had bought him this grief and as a result four years of love had been annihilated.
Max hadn't been certain of anything. The only tangible he had was Samone's withdrawal and her announcement that she would be busy Saturday.
She had spoken of wanting to go shopping and do some real house cleaning. The stores were having a wonderful after-the-holiday sale and with New Year's Eve just around the corner, she needed to give her apartment a good cleaning.
"You know how much you hate tagging behind when I'm shopping, and when's the last time you helped me clean? I need Saturday for myself. We can get together Sunday," she'd insisted.
Not once during Samone's barrage had Max pressed her for the truth. He allowed her lies to eat at him most of the night till morning came and his conscience demanded that he stop her. That he call her and tell her not to do it. Don't kill our baby.
Max had suspected weeks ago. Samone's body had felt different, she was tired all the time and her pack-a-day cigarette habit had vanished overnight, He told himself that Samone was too smart to get caught. Still, a part of him braced himself for her announcement and her need to "run down to City Hall before the baby comes." A part of him had hoped Samone would do just what she'd done, but here in the cold darkness of the night, Max wanted to take it all back. Wanted the baby he could no longer have.
An hour ago Samone had stepped out of the cab, her face drawn and gray, the abortion draining her of life and color. Max had rushed to her, his tears coming quick. They had hugged outside her building. Her sorrow"Oh, Max"breaking his heart. Together they rode the elevator to her apartment. Samone went to take a shower and Max made her tea. Their conversation grew hostile quickly, accusations flying fast and furious around the room.
"Christmas morning," Samone had yelled at him, "that's when I decided. Hell of a day to choose, isn't it? I opened my gift and saw a bracelet. Knew you still didn't want to marry me and a baby would have made it worse."
Max swallowed. Another tear fell. He wiped his eye, studied the city night sky. A gust of wind rushed his backmove on. Max wiped his eyes one last time and quickened his pace; the cold winter night, no place to be.
The mules had been tossed so far back into the closet Max had to get down on his hands and knees and crawl to get to them. Behind him a black garbage bag sat filled with shoes, sneakers, perfume, and makeup. There were ankle socks, little lace panties, tampons, and nail polish. T-shirts, sweatpants, nightshirts, and a toothbrush. There was deodorant and body powders and glass vials of bath oils from the Body Shop; a black knit jersey dress, pantyhose, and a half-empty jar of Taster's Choice. These were Samone's possessions and Max had held on to them for too long.
It had been six months since they'd broken up and the memory of their last meeting still made Max's heart tremble. His mother had actually wept when she heard the news. She'd had such hopes for her son and Samone. Had envisioned half a dozen children with Samone's toasty brown skin and Max's Asiatic eyes. They would have been beautiful, Max's mother had muttered. I would have had the prettiest little granbabies anybody ever saw. It had been so close, Momma, he had wanted to say. But his mother would not have understood and an explanation would have been too painful.
Max knew he needed a change and the first step was cleaning Samone's things out of his apartment. He tied the bag up tight and headed for the incinerator. Held the trapdoor open until he heard the garbage bag thump a final time. He left the tiny hot room and headed for his apartment.
The warmth of the day eased into his living room, brilliant sunlight dusting the floor like liquid gold. Max stood at the window gazing down into the world he had withdrawn from. Envy, profound and abrupt, rushed through him. Suddenly he wanted to be down there, out there, with people, going places and doing things. Samone was not coming back and Max would not ask her to return. That part of his life was over. It was time to start anew.
It was a good thing the world didn't revolve around Max because it would have stopped a long time ago. He was glad to see the pristine summer day was as potent as God could create. Was glad to see that the outside world had carried on fine without him.
He couldn't remember the last time he had ventured out with no destination in mind and pleasure on the brain. As he took in the sights of Amsterdam Avenue near 158th Street, his mind swirled with all the activity and the people.
Little children clutched mothers' hands, store owners stood outside their shops chatting in the warm breeze. Cyclists looked futuristic in shiny black spandex as they pedaled down the avenue, dodging buses and cars and pedestrians in their path. Music was in the air, a celebration of life in the making. Max lifted his face and inhaled; a warm breeze filled his lungs and gave life back into his soul. Son, things gonna get better, his father had told him. There's gonna be a new day. Max could only hope it would be soon.
Nadia McClementine, age eight, decided that the big dark man eating a rum raisin ice-cream cone in the Baskin Robbins store needed further investigation. Nadia had watched the man the whole time it took her mother to order two cones to go. A hot day, the wait was long.
Ice cream in hand, Mommy getting her change, what finally prompted Nadia to go up to him was the way he looked: kind of lost, kind of bewildered. It was a look Nadia had seen often enough.
Nadia, all of eight, had discovered Maxwell Scutter all alone on a hot Saturday afternoon. And in her discovery, Max met Carol-Anne McClementine.
"Hi, I'm Nadia, I'm eight years old."
"Is that rum raisin you eating?"
Max stared into the dark brown face, the liquid black eyes. Two pigtails pinned to the sides drew her eyebrows upward, giving her a quizzical look. He smiled cautiously, unnerved by the curious child before him. "Yes, in fact it is."
"My mom won't let me eat that. Says I'll get drunk and start acting silly."
"Nadia, leave that man alone." Neither Nadia nor Max had seen her come up. Suddenly she was there, one hand resting on her hip. Her gaze shot toward Max. She was clearly embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she said apologetically, corralling her daughter by the shoulder.
"No," Max offered, revealing much, "don't be."
They stared at each other. Mysteries unfolded in the seconds it took for Nadia to look up at her mother and back to Mr. Max.
Max extended his hand. Carol-Anne McClementine lifted her own.
"Carol-Anne," she replied, the mystery half solved.
The sun was high in the sky as they exited the ice-cream store. Amsterdam Avenue was full of activity as they strolled. The traffic island overflowed with pumpkin-yellow marigolds. It was a startling bit of beauty in otherwise dreary surroundings; a bit of brightness in a world dulled away by stone and concrete.
Despite knowing better, Max could not stop staring. Carol-Anne was not a striking woman, but there was a beauty to her. Five seven, her short hair auburn, with skin more sienna than beige, down South she'd have been called Red. Carol-Anne had wide hips and medium breasts. Max knew she'd never see size ten again but she was wearing her size twelve very well.
Carol-Anne, aware of Max's stare, looked straight ahead.
"She's your only child?" he inquired as casually as he could manage.
"Yes. Just one."
"I see ... she's a beauty," Max went on to say, a wistfulness in his voice.
Carol-Anne risked a look at him, a quick drift of soft eyes his way. "Thanks." A small laugh escaped. "Motor mouth is what we call her."
"We?" Max asked, prepared for the worst.
"No, not like husband family. Y'know, aunts, uncles. Grandmother."
"How about you. Children?"
"No. No children. Single."
Carol-Anne's mouth went dry. "I see."
As far as dates went, it wasn't a date. He walked them to a bookstore near 151st and gave Carol-Anne his number. She took it, letting him know that she wasn't really looking for anything or anybody. Max said he understood but that didn't mean they had to end things. He truly enjoyed talking to her and Nadia. If ever she wanted to talk again, at least she'd have his number.
In the bookstore Nadia eagerly checked books, flipping happily through the illustrated pages. She found two that she really liked even though her mother said she could only get one. Nadia was ready to argue for getting both books when her mother spoke.
"Nadia. You were out of place today. You know that, don't you?"
"Well, if you know that, why'd you carry on so?"
"I just saw him sitting there, eating ice cream and he had this look that reminded me of something."
Carol-Anne frowned. "Reminded you of something? What, honey?"
"You," Nadia answered, those luminous eyes piercing Carol-Anne's soul.
Sometimes, in the evening, with Nadia bathed and tucked in for the night, Carol-Anne would draw her feet up in her old wing chair and read. The view from her window only offered the building across the street, but if she craned her neck she could see the sky holding on to the peach and royal-blue colors that always arrived right before nightfall.
Sometimes she'd just sit, no book in her lap, and gaze out the window, enjoying the solitude of being alone. Enjoyed no noise, no children's questions, demanding adult answers. No need to praise every single scrap of childish artwork as if it were a Picasso, no need to tend to a scraped knee or mend a zipper. Sometimes, late at night, Carol-Anne would put on her jazz station and have Loud Thoughts in her quiet time.
Loud Thoughts were old friends. Loud Thoughts had started nine years ago when she decided that she wanted a child, and wanting a child did not necessarily mean wanting a husband. Wanting a child simply meant: my seed is gonna bear fruit.
Wanting a child had meant saying goodbye to her married lover of five years. Wanting a child meant going off the pill and telling her married lover that she was leaving him but not that he was going to be a father.
These were Carol-Anne's Loud Thoughts. The kind that would pop up at the most inopportune moments. But Carol-Anne had put up with Loud Thoughts and her daughter never knowing her father because she wanted a child more than she wanted anything. Carol-Anne had been thirty and a day when Nadia was born.
There hadn't been anyone to tell her the flip side of this particular want: financial woes, change of lifestyle, and those uneasy questions: Who's my daddy? What's a period? Why do you have breasts and I don't? Loss of friends: Can't you get a baby-sitter? Loss of possible mates: You have a daughter how old? Not being able to just run out and buy a pair of eighty-dollar shoes, Have to pay the baby-sitter this week.
Rubbing pennies: Sorry, baby. Mommy can't afford that Speak and Spell right now. At the supermarket: Seventy-three dollars? Oh, no. Well, take off that can of ravioli. And that pack of spareribs, too. Rubbing pennies till they turned to gold: Here's the twenty-five dollars for your school pictures ... you like your new winter coat?
Carol-Anne's fingers almost seemed green from rubbing so many pennies, and it was hard not being able to give Nadia all those things she wanted. It wasn't any fun eating that can of salmon that had been hidden behind three rows of food four weeks ago and now was the only protein in the house. Carol-Anne would take a trip to International House of Pancakes over pancakes from scratch any day of the week. But just buying a box of Aunt Jemima when her rent and utilities were due was difficult.
Carol-Anne did not enjoy washing panties and undershirts by hand night after night because she didn't have enough money for the Laundromat. There was no joy in turning the cushions over on her couch because they had holes in them and she couldn't afford a new sofa right now. Nor did she like finding two pair of matching hose, cutting off the legs with runs, and wearing the good ones together. Or getting her next-door neighbor Tina to "touch up" her perm because Carol-Anne didn't have the extra forty dollars for the beauty parlor.
She did not enjoy having men tiptoe around her place so as to not wake her daughter. Or having to rustle them awake at ungodly hours, such as four-thirty in the morning when they did stay over, before Nadia got up. There was no joy in sleeping on the old pull-out couch because she could only afford one bedroom and that was for Nadia.
The rewards? Hearing Nadia say Momma without ever saying Da-Da. The first tooth. Nadia's excellent grades and hearing her teachers rave. There were a lot of things Carol-Anne wanted, and possibly needed. But she had gotten wise when it came to needing. And by the grace of God, she was making it. Not in the style she wanted, but it was definitely a style all her own.
Carol-Anne did not believe in love at first sight, the luck of the lottery, or Guardian Angels. Carol-Anne did not believe in fate, destiny, or hope. You would never catch her tossing salt over her shoulder, avoiding the underbelly of a ladder, or fussing at anyone who opened an umbrella in her house.
Carol-Anne McClementine did not believe in miracles, fairy tales, or tall, dark, handsome men who would love her. Yet as she fingered the piece of paper with Max's number scribbled in haste, she couldn't help but consider the possibility.