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Harlem, August 1972
Marin eased off the bar stool and walked over to the jukebox, dropped a quarter, and randomly pressed five selections. The music was older than the box and held no surprises but most of the patrons who hung out in the Fat Man Bar rarely complained.
Even the brothers who attended the lodge meetings a few doors away felt a certain comfort in the familiar sounds of Hadda Brooks and Ella Johnson. Marin had once toyed with the idea of joining the lodge so that when the regular Thursday night meetings ended and the members crowded into the Fat Man, he wouldn't feel so left out. Not that their conversations were exclusive, but at those times he'd been the only one in the place, other than the bartender, not wearing a business suit.
Tonight the place was empty. Without the press of bodies to absorb it, the music echoed off the dim-lit mocha-tinted walls and hung heavy in the air, blending with the faintly stale smell of cigarettes and wet glasses draining on damp towels. The dark oak of the bar was polished to a sheen that appeared almost wet, like a stream of water had flowed down its length and had never dried.
If Marin leaned over, as he sometimes did when he had a lot on his mind, he could catch his reflection perfectly in the low spark of the frosted lamplight. His hair was cut close against an unremarkable face and he rarely smiled. When he did, the shadow in his eyes dissipated and a deep brown patina complemented his smooth skin.
He wheeled slowly on the stool again, pushed away from the railing, and strolled to the wall phone near the entrance to the men's room. He checked his watch as he dialed, listened to the distant buzz, then toMargaret's low voice.
"Margaret? How you doin'?"
"Marin? Honey, where are you? I was about to put dinner on the table . . ."
Marin stared at the wall in front of him. Up close, he could make out the dull beige streaks mixed in with the brown. He did not want to tell Margaret that he had stopped by the Fat Man; that something had happened to make him detour for a beer and a chance to get his thoughts together before facing her. Besides, the Fat Man was where Chancey, loud and belligerent Chancey, hung out. He'd brought him home to meet Margaret. Once. And Chancey'd found fault with nearly everything. Not in so many words, but in his hard, nervous stare.
He had invited him to dinner, and after, they had stepped out into the dim hallway--because Margaret didn't like the smell of cigarettes in the apartment.
Chance inhaled, held it for a second, then allowed the smoke to drift in a spiral toward the courtyard window. He leaned near the bannister and Marin sat on the marble steps, watching him, listening to the faint noise of James Brown drifting from a radio on the floor below. He wanted to smoke but, mindful of his three-a-day limit, decided to wait. He could always come back out later.
Chance took another drag, long and slow so that the tip glowed like a dot of coal in the hall. "You lucky, man. You real lucky."
Marin leaned back against the step, waiting.
"I mean your wife. This the first time I seen her, 'cept for them pictures you showed me in 'Nam. She's beautiful. Like somethin' out of the movies, man."
The cigarette had burned down and he flicked the stub through the window into the backyard. "Thanks for dinner, my man. I got to get goin'."
"She made dessert."
"Nah. Can't stay. Thanks anyway . . ."
Marin had known Chance from his army days and understood what Vietnam had done to both of them. When they returned home, he understood what it was like for a man to work, and on bad days, challenge anyone including his supervisor to approach him.
They had finally given Chance a street route delivering mail in the toughest blocks in Harlem, and he took the assignment as if he had been waiting for it all his life.
Still, Marin wondered what it must be like to have a sizable bank balance yet live in a small room with only the noise of television to keep him company; to not have his own stove, or someone to eat and sleep with and help soften the edge of memory. The main reason why, Marin thought, Chance spent so much time at the lodge and in the bar.
Marin held the phone to his ear, his attention divided as Margaret spoke. He knew that once he told her where he was, she usually softened and he was able to hang out longer. Telling her made her relax, and he didn't have to worry about rushing home.
But tonight was different. Why was he hanging out? He should have gotten off the subway at 145th Street, moved on down the hill past all the music and mayhem in the Brown Bomber Bar, and gone straight home.
But he had allowed the doors of the A train to close in his face and open again one stop farther, where he stepped off at 155th Street and strolled into the Fat Man.
He tried not to think about why he did it and concentrated instead on Margaret. Something in her voice, low and serene, calmed him, made him ask, "What's on the menu?"
"Pot roast. And I think I got it right this time . . . "
Marin's heart sank. Margaret was a good cook but when she failed at something, she was determined to keep at it until she got it right. Pot roast was one of those things. She could spend a hundred dollars on eye round, and somewhere between the meat market and his dinner plate, it would transform itself into the toughest slice of leather he'd ever seen.
"Uh, sounds good. What else we havin' with it?" Maybe he could fill up on the rice and gravy, a heavy salad, and a beer.
"Potatoes and green peas and . . . Listen Marin, I know what you're thinkin' but this time it came out right. The only thing is, I don't want to overcook it . . . I--"
"Okay. Okay, baby. Be right there."
Maybe after dinner he'd be able to tell her what had happened.
He hung up the phone. Jimmy, the bartender, was stacking glasses on the shelves, his back to the bar. Marin was not sure if he had overheard the conversation and was glad he hadn't mentioned anything to Margaret. Time enough to tell her face-to-face.
"Listen, Jimmy. Tell Chance I'll catch 'im later. I just remembered I'm supposed to pick up some ice cream for Margaret. Catch the store before it close . . ."
Jimmy turned around and rang up fifty cents for Marin's beer.
"How's Margaret doin'? Still enjoyin' that butter pecan?"
"Every day, practically. Lately she been mixin' it with a little strawberry though . . . gotta pick up some now . . ."
Jimmy wanted to say that there was nothing like variety but he knew how touchy some guys felt about their queens, especially when they were expecting their first baby. He wanted to tell him that she looked even prettier with those few extra pounds but decided to keep his mouth closed.
Instead, he glanced at the large clock on the wall. It was shaped like an octagon with Rheingold Beer scripted in neon letters around the numbers.
"Some kind of special committee meetin' tonight. Probably be over in another ten, fifteen minutes," he noted.
Marin wanted to tell him about the pot roast but shook his head and remained silent. He knew from Jimmy's size and conversation that he was a chittlin snacker from way back and would only laugh at his predicament. He could hear him now. "Naw. Margaret sure ain't no Carolina gal. Carolina gal cook anything under the sun ain't breathin' and can fit in a pot . . . And cook it right!"
It was easier, Marin felt, to talk about ice cream. Even the other problem had faded momentarily.
"Gotta pick up some before the store closes," he said again. "Tell Chance I catch him later, tomorrow, maybe, before the last figure."
He headed for the door as the sounds of the Cats and The Fiddle slid from the mesh-covered grill of the jukebox, the voices calling like young boys, high and earnest against the background of metallic chords:
. . . Now you're so fine . . . And I love you so . . .
The sound was almost enough to make Marin change his mind, stay, and see what else was coming up on the box.
"Ain't that something, Jimmy? They cut that way, way before I was born and it still sound good. I remember my folks movin' to the groove."
"Yeah, that's the real thing. They ain't makin' 'em like they used to. But them new kids, the Jackson Five? They got stuff goin' on. Come on the scene and took it over. Big time."
A minute later, Marin closed the door on the heavy guitar sounds. The night heat hit him in the face and he unbuttoned his shirt collar as he strolled across St. Nicholas Avenue. He thought of Chance, who worked overtime, and how he had urged Marin to try for the job.
"Pay's good. And ain't nobody bother you. That's what I like. Nobody bother me." But no, I liked where I was. The print shop was small but folks didn't bother you there either. Boss was all right. Bonus every Christmas the last couple years. Didn't need nothing like the post office where you only a name, maybe a number. Like the army. Had enough of that shit. Besides, I probably couldn't lift no mail bags anyway. 'Nam seen to that. Back ain't worth nuthin' . . .
But maybe I shoulda listened. Took a gamble. Now I'm out. Boss had a second heart attack. Damn kids don't want no part of the business so he packed it in. Movin' to Florida and I'm movin' to unemployment. Place close up tight right after lunch and I'm out of a job. Better enjoy this pot roast. Long time before we see another one.
The light changed as he crossed the street but he did not rush. Tonight his back was acting up and his steps were small and deliberate and lent a fluid movement to his tall, thin frame. He walked toward the viaduct, a decaying gray steel-and-stone structure that rose ten stories above Eighth Avenue and stretched from St. Nicholas to Seventh Avenue.
Marin strolled down the walkway, leaving the tall, elegant buildings of Sugar Hill behind.
Now he glanced over the railing at the patched and tarred rooftops of the five-story tenements that lined the street below. On a good day in winter, he could see all the way over to the Harlem River but now the view was obscured by the hundred-year-old Norway maples that lined Seventh Avenue. They stood like ancient sentries with gnarled arms, impotent in the face of the creeping neglect that defined the neighborhood.
. . . Lindsay tryin' hard but that urban renewal stuff just ain't happenin' fast enough.
He lit a cigarette and continued down the slight incline.
. . . Still warm but no rain, thank God. Last coupla nights was hell. No matter how hot it gets, Margaret gotta wrap up like a mummy. Blanket head to toe like she keepin' the baby warm. And it ain't even here yet.
He thought of her and the baby, the pot roast, the prospect of finding another job, and he slowed down. The half-light lingering from the day's scorching sun had disappeared quick and quiet, as if a shade had come down to bathe the path in a blue darkness.
There was no one in sight and the echo of his footfalls was loud in the silence.
Used to run down this thing in three seconds flat when I was a kid. Wasn't smokin' then. Feet didn't touch the ground. That was then. Gotta give these smokes up. Still in shape for thirty, even with my back out sometimes.
He walked leisurely, surprised that he was alone but enjoying the solitude. He gazed beyond the junction where the viaduct ended and the bridge began. Beyond the bridge, over the Harlem River, Yankee Stadium loomed large, silent, and empty.
Playin' Boston . . . If things was different, I coulda stayed in the bar and caught what's left of it on the box.
He remembered that the television was broken, hanging over the long bar in mid-ceiling for weeks now, big, abstract, and empty while the owner debated whether to have it repaired or replaced.
Better make up his mind. Series be here before he know it. That's another thing I wanted to get. Promised Margaret she'd have a TV before the baby comes. Flip Wilson's on for a whole hour. First black show since they took Nat Cole off. I guess that's what the Man calls progress. And Margaret could've--
"Say, my man, you got a match?"
Marin stopped. Two strangers--one squat, bold, with arms roped with muscles; the other tall, thin, and nervous--had sidled up to him. They wore white straw wide-brim hats, the lids broken low under the crowns. He had not even heard them until they approached. They had come up the stairs from Eighth Avenue. That exit had been closed for years because some steps had collapsed. Two rough boards nailed in the shape of a wide X had been in place for so long that people passed by without thinking of it.
He had not thought of it either and now here they were, on a Friday, somebody's payday, when everyone knew that match was another word for money.
Quickly he said, "Can't help you 'cause I ain't got it!"
He made a move and they crowded him, easing on either side, pretending to join him in his stroll.
The muscular one spoke and his voice floated like a whisper on the night air, but underneath Marin caught the shade of violence.
"Since you ain't got no match, you got to have somethin' . . ."
"Nuthin' you want," Marin said. He turned to the thin one, then glanced back to see if anyone else might be on the walkway. It was empty. A bus sped by noisily, its bright-lit windows catching the three men in a brief moving spotlight.
Marin held his breath, hoping that it would stop at the end of the viaduct and discharge at least one passenger. Instead, it slowed, then made a sharp right turn onto Seventh Avenue and was gone.
Then the thin one spoke. "Les' see what this sucka got . . ." His words spilled out, hissing like air suddenly blown out of a tire.
Posted September 12, 2004
I found this to be a very engrossing book. Ms. Edwards demonstrated diversity with this subject and telling of the story. I would encourage anyone who is a fan, to read it and appreciate her great writing skills.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.