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I rested my arms on the window and glanced out at a late afternoon sky that resembled rusted steel. Threatening clouds had been hanging low for three days now and so far the weatherman had not earned his keep.
The Saturday crowd moving along 125th Street probably had as little faith in the forecast as I and went about business as usual, ignoring the heat and the haze.
I sneaked another glance at my watch and wondered how long Elizabeth was going to wait. It was nearly 6:30.
"Claudine should've been here by now," I said, trying but failing to hide my impatience. "As long as we've known her, she's always been late, but this is something special."
I was annoyed because we three had arranged a week ago to go out to dinner to celebrate her impending liberation. I knew James Thomas, her soon-to-be ex, and I had detested him from the day we confronted each other three years ago at their wedding reception.
Now I pictured his smooth face and silky soft voice and felt a fleeting panic, imagining that he might have talked Claudine into changing her mind about the divorce, that he would get a job again, stop drinking, stop blaming and beating her for what he imagined the world was doing to him.
I turned from the window and faced into the office to watch Elizabeth lean back in her chair, an old swivel model of glossy dark walnut and vintage leather upholstery. The chair had belonged to her father when he'd had his own law practice uptown over the old Smalls Paradise next door to the Poro School of Beauty Culture. That was years ago. Elizabeth's office was smaller, and probably a lot more expensive. Space on 125th Street near the Apollo didn't come cheap.
The coil beneath the chair squeaked as she leaned forward. She pushed her cascade of brown dreadlocks away from her face and folded her arms on the desk.
"Calm down, Mali. I don't know if you're annoyed because Claudine's late or because of the advice I just offered you. We can discuss this another time if you'd like. I only want you to understand that if you have to attend another hearing, you may very well lose the case. There's a new police commissioner on the job; the city claims it's trying to save money, and the copthe principal in your lawsuitis now dead. The department's offering you reinstatement and a possible promotion for helping break that drug ring."
I listened and allowed her voice to trail into a familiar silence before I answered. As an attorney, Elizabeth Jackson had a very good reputation and a practice lucrative enough to afford a four-story brownstone near Marcus Garvey Park. My dad knew her father and she and I had gone to school together. She went into law and I opted for social workexcept I'd taken a short detour into the NYPD and gotten fired for punching out a racist cop.
When I answered, it was the same reply she'd heard since taking the case.
"Possible promotion? Possible? Sounds like a word game to me. That's not the best they can do and they know it. I'm not backing down and I'm not compromising. You know as well as I that I have no intention of rejoining the department."
I watched her shrug. "I can understand that. Why you joined in the first place will always be a mystery to me."
She caught my stare and quickly said, "Okay, I'm just letting you know what the situation is; what you stand to lose."
"I'll take the chance," I said, and turned to look out of the window again.
I'd planned to enter the social work doctoral program at NYU. To hell with rejoining NYPD. Just show me Mr. Benjamin Franklin and all of his brothers. They'll help with my tuition.
I gazed at the Apollo's marquee, which hung like a dark outcropping over the crowd moving below. The theater was once known as Hurtig and Seaman's Music Hall, a vaudeville house catering to white audiences. It reopened in 1934 as a showcase for black entertainment, and the new owners renamed it the Apollo. Benny Carter's band played the opening, Ralph Cooper was the M.C., and there were sixteen dancers called the Hot Steppers.
My father, a self-named Harlem historian as well as a jazz musician, tells me this stuff. He remembers a lot and spends his free time entertaining me with information he says I should have if I'm to be an authentic Harlemite. I thought I was authentic enough, having been born thirty-two years ago in Harlem Hospital and raised on Strivers' Row.
In addition to the big bands that played the Apollo, Dad also loved the comedy of Moms Mabley, Pigmeat ("Here Comes the Judge") Markham, and early Redd Foxx, who later sanitized his act for TV. Ella Fitzgerald got her start here, winning the Amateur Hour with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," a song someone advised her not to sing because "it didn't have enough rhythm for black folks."
I turned away from the marquee and stared down the street, looking for Claudine in the crowd. The thoroughfare was clogged with the end-of-day confusion of buses and cars. I did not spot her familiar face and I glanced at my watch again. Nearly seven o'clock. Two hours overdue. Elizabeth had left three messages on Claudine's machine.
"When did you last speak to her?" I asked.
"Few days ago. To confirm dinner."
"I think we should head on up to her place," I sighed. "See what's going on."