Some of the city legislators, whose concern for appropriate names and the maintenance of the city’s landmarks was the principal part of their political life, saw to it that “Doctor Street” was never used in any official capacity. And since they knew that only Southside residents kept it up, they had notices posted in the stores, barbershops, and restaurants in that part of the city saying that the avenue running northerly and southerly from Shore Road fronting the lake to the junction of routes 6 and 2 leading to Pennsylvania, and also running parallel to and between Rutherford Avenue and Broadway, had always been and would always be known as Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street.
As she unfolded the white linen and let it billow over the fine mahogany table, she would look once more at the large water mark. She never set the table or passed through the dining room without looking at it. Like a lighthouse keeper drawn to his window to gaze once again at the sea, or a prisoner automatically searching out the sun as he steps into the yard for his hour of exercise, Ruth looked for the water mark several times during the day. She knew it was there, would always be there, but she needed to confirm its presence. Like the keeper of the lighthouse and the prisoner, she regarded it as a mooring, a checkpoint, some stable visual object that assured her that the world was still there; that this was life and not a dream. That she was alive somewhere, inside, which she acknowledged to be true only because a thing she knew intimately was out there, outside herself.
They had picture-taking people and everything waiting for the next person to walk in the door. But they never did put my picture in the paper. Me and Mama looked, too, didn’t we?” She glanced at Pilate for confirmation and went on. “But they put the picture of the man who won second prize in. He won a war bond. He was white.” “Second prize?” Guitar asked. “What kind of ‘second prize’? Either you the half-millionth person or you ain’t. Can’t be no next-to-the-half-millionth.” “Can if the winner is Reba,” Hagar said. “The only reason they got a second was cause she was the first. And the only reason they gave it to her was because of them cameras.”
“Boy, you got better things to do with your time. Besides, it’s time you started learning how to work. You start Monday. After school come to my office; work a couple of hours there and learn what’s real. Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world. Maybe the next, but not this one. Let me tell you right now the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you’ll own yourself and other people too. Starting Monday, I’m going to teach you how.”
“Since I was little. Since my father got sliced up in a sawmill and his boss came by and gave us kids some candy. Divinity. A big sack of divinity. His wife made it special for us. It’s sweet, divinity is. Sweeter than syrup. Real sweet. Sweeter than…” He stopped walking and wiped from his forehead the beads of sweat that were collecting there. His eyes paled and wavered. He spit on the sidewalk. “Ho—hold it,” he whispered, and stepped into a space between a fried-fish restaurant and Lilly’s Beauty Parlor.
“In the bed,” he said, and stopped for so long Milkman was not sure he was going to continue. “In the bed. That’s where she was when I opened the door. Laying next to him. Naked as a yard dog, kissing him. Him dead and white and puffy and skinny, and she had his fingers in her mouth.
She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?
“…because the fact is that I am a small woman. I don’t mean little; I mean small, and I’m small because I was pressed small. I lived in a great big house that pressed me into a small package. I had no friends, only schoolmates who wanted to touch my dresses and my white silk stockings. But I didn’t think I’d ever need a friend because I had him. I was small, but he was big. The only person who ever really cared whether I lived or died. Lots of people were interested in whether I lived or died, but he cared. He was not a good man, Macon. Certainly he was an arrogant man, and often a foolish and destructive one. But he cared whether and he cared how I lived, and there was, and is, no one else in the world who ever did.
“There is a society. It’s made up of a few men who are willing to take some risks. They don’t initiate anything; they don’t even choose. They are as indifferent as rain. But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can. If the Negro was hanged, they hang; if a Negro was burnt, they burn; raped and murdered, they rape and murder.
He’d always believed his childhood was sterile, but the knowledge Macon and Ruth had given him wrapped his memory of it in septic sheets, heavy with the odor of illness, misery, and unforgiving hearts. His rebellions, minor as they were, had all been in the company of, or shared with, Guitar. And this latest Jack and the Beanstalk bid for freedom, even though it had been handed to him by his father—assigned almost—stood some chance of success.
“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?” Milkman asked. “Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” The peacock jumped onto the hood of the Buick and once more spread its tail, sending the flashy Buick into oblivion. “Faggot.” Guitar laughed softly. “White faggot.”
Amanuensis. That was the word she chose, and since it was straight out of the nineteenth century, her mother approved, relishing the blank stares she received when she told her lady guests what position her daughter had acquired with the State Poet Laureate. “She’s Michael-Mary Graham’s amanuensis.” The rickety Latin word made the work her daughter did (she, after all, wasn’t required to work) sound intricate, demanding, and totally in keeping with her education.
She was First Corinthians Dead, daughter of a wealthy property owner and the elegant Ruth Foster, granddaughter of the magnificent and worshipped Dr. Foster, who had been the second man in the city to have a two-horse carriage, and a woman who had turned heads on every deck of the Queen Mary and had Frenchmen salivating all over Paris. Corinthians Dead, who had held herself pure all these years (well, almost all, and almost pure), was now banging on the car-door window of a yardman.
“Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet—which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness.’ Tame, except in bed. They like a little racial loincloth in the bed. But outside the bed they want us to be individuals. You tell them, ‘But they lynched my papa,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.’ And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding.
He loosened his collar and lit another cigarette. Here in this dim room he sat with the woman who had helped deliver his father and Pilate; who had risked her job, her life, maybe, to hide them both after their father was killed, emptied their slop jars, brought them food at night and pans of water to wash. Had even sneaked off to the village to have the girl Pilate’s name and snuffbox made into an earring. Then healed the ear when it got infected. And after all these years was thrilled to see what she believed was one of them. Healer, deliverer, in another world she would have been the head nurse at Mercy. Instead she tended Weimaraners and had just one selfish wish: that when she died somebody would find her before the dogs ate her.
It sounded old. Deserve. Old and tired and beaten to death. Deserve. Now it seemed to him that he was always saying or thinking that he didn’t deserve some bad luck, or some bad treatment from others. He’d told Guitar that he didn’t “deserve” his family’s dependence, hatred, or whatever. That he didn’t even “deserve” to hear all the misery and mutual accusations his parents unloaded on him. Nor did he “deserve” Hagar’s vengeance. But why shouldn’t his parents tell him their personal problems? If not him, then who? And if a stranger could try to kill him, surely Hagar, who knew him and whom he’d thrown away like a wad of chewing gum after the flavor was gone—she had a right to try to kill him too.
Guitar looked at the cookie again, then back into Milkman’s eyes. Nothing changed in his face. Milkman knew it sounded lame. It was the truth, but it sounded like a lie. A weak lie too. He also knew that in all his life, Guitar had never seen Milkman give anybody a hand, especially a stranger; he also knew that they’d even discussed it, starting with Milkman’s not coming to his mother’s rescue in a dream he had. Guitar had accused him of selfishness and indifference; told him he wasn’t serious, and didn’t have any fellow feeling—none whatsoever. Now he was standing there saying that he willingly, spontaneously, had helped an old white man lift a huge, heavy crate. But it was true. It was true. And he’d prove it.
“Look at how I look. I look awful. No wonder he didn’t want me. I look terrible.” Her voice was calm and reasonable, as though the last few days hadn’t been lived through at all. “I need to get up from here and fix myself up. No wonder!” Hagar threw back the bedcover and stood up. “Ohhh. I smell too. Mama, heat me some water. I need a bath. A long one. We got any bath salts left? Oh, Lord, my head. Look at that.” She peered into the compact mirror again. “I look like a ground hog. Where’s the comb?”
The people turned around. Reba had entered and was singing too. Pilate neither acknowledged her entrance nor missed a beat. She simply repeated the word “Mercy,” and Reba replied. The daughter standing at the back of the chapel, the mother up front, they sang.
“Yeah. That tribe. That flyin motherfuckin tribe. Oh, man! He didn’t need no airplane. He just took off; got fed up. All the way up! No more cotton! No more bales! No more orders! No more shit! He flew, baby. Lifted his beautiful black ass up in the sky and flew on home. Can you dig it? Jesus God, that must have been something to see. And you know what else? He tried to take his baby boy with him. My grandfather. Wow! Woooee! Guitar! You hear that? Guitar, my great-granddaddy could flyyyyyy and the whole damn town is named after him. Tell him, Sweet. Tell him my great- granddaddy could fly.”
He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness.
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.