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THE 2008 NOVEL OF PROMISE AWARD WINNER
On the Train
It was plenty nerve-wracking, without Hi carrying on so biggety, to be sitting in those nice seats on the train like we were white folks. But that wasn't grand enough for my baby, so he bossed me into the parlor car so we could sit with some rich-looking man and his wife. I could tell Hi had pulled all the stops and run his delightful mouth full out to these folks. I could tell it from the way the wife looked bright-eyed and pleased as we came through the door. I saw her nudge her husband. White man had one of those ear horns.
"Oh, she is lovely," the wife told him. "I thought he might have simply been proud of his mother, but young Hi has not exaggerated in the least. She doesn't appear a day over sixteen, as alluring as spring itself. How old did he say he was?"
"Ten years old, dear," the white man said. "Hi told us that he is nearly eleven, remember? And his mother is widowed." He did his damnedest to shush down his voice in the way gentlemen do to encourage a lady to stop getting too worked up or too nibby. But I still heard that deaf ass. Hi King could sure pick them.
"Yes yes." She dragged on her husband's sleeve. "A child bride," she said with a mournful frown. "Married off to gain land for her father's plantation." She gripped the front of her lace collar, pulled it high and tight. "Those southern men are simply beasts, husband. Something should be done."
The white man straightened his sleeve and took his wife's hand, patting it some. "Let us not be rude, dear one. They're to be our guests."
He stood up with a kindly smile and pulled my chair out. Though he had a rakish shock of silvery hair and was smelling like peach brandy, he wasn't doing a bit else for me when it came to looks. Deaf rascal was just old, white and had those bony hands with brown spots sprinkled over them. Hi sat down beside me and followed my eyes like he was trying to make me behave. And behaving to Hi King meant doing like he wanted you to do. Right then, he wanted me to act like I knew what lies he'd been telling about us.
"La, these are the Lockerbees," Hi said. "I told them we were going to Louisiana on account of your daddy passed on and left us his house and all his land."
I let Mr. Lockerbee put his shriveled lips on my hand like the gentleman he was supposed to be and gave his pink-faced wife one of those limp handshakes like I'd seen Madame do. Poor Mrs. Lockerbee looked like a lump of biscuit dough, rolled in a mess of doilies. Madame's bedtime clothes were finer than this mess she was done up in. This white woman likely had some money, but it never took her to Paris for her to learn how to dress.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," I said and took my seat. "Daddy was the biggest landowner in the parish. No neighbors for miles and miles." I gave a flip of my hand like I'd never known anything less. "Where y'all hail from?"
I reached under the table and got a hunk of Hi's thigh, just smiling and nodding the whole time, while this Mrs. Lockerbee started in talking.
"I was reared in Boston, but my husband's family was one of the early settlers of Charleston, South Carolina." She gave her husband a proud look. "My family spent winters in Charleston and the Lockerbees summered in Boston. We've known each other since childhood. I can't recall a time when he wasn't looking after me."
She picked up his hand and held it to her lips. She gazed at him like he was sunshine, coming through on a cloudy day. Mr. Lockerbee didn't have that horn to his ear and sat smiling out the train window. I figure he gave her enough loving through the years to make that good feeling rise up on her now and again and flat take her over. A man didn't need working ears nor eyes to get to that truth, on account of she was making him feel it.
"Do tell." I wanted to keep things moving along, maybe keep those white folks talking and cut down on all the lies I'd need to think up.
"I certainly hope it's not too great a hardship with the two of you traveling alone," Mr. Lockerbee said. "Though young Hi is quite the picture of doting son. A lovely job you've done with him. There is no mistaking good breeding."
"La's daddy was a doctor," Hi blared out before I could fix my mouth to say anything. And especially before I could chastise him for blabbing that we didn't have a male chaperone or thank these folks to not be too loose with spreading it around.
Hi looked away from me in a flash and his eyes trailed across the table top. "And his daddy before him was a doctor and before that and before that, for five generations." He gave me a pitiful look now. "La missed out since she's a girl." Then he shook his head like it was just too unlucky for words that I came out with a quinny.
Mr. Lockerbee overtook Hi's talking from maybe not using his ear horn and now turned his whole body to face me. "Would you care for a libation?"
I shot a look over at Hi, since I couldn't recollect whether this libation business was food or some high-toned sipping whiskey.
"La prefers sherry," Hi busted back in, grabbing my hand. "She doesn't believe it ladylike to even say it, let alone ask for it."
Mr. Lockerbee's eyes got all squinty and pleased. I'm supposing he was just as eaten up with Hi as that wife of his, who kept looking at my child and squealing. All I knew was that a sherry sounded mighty fine because everybody at that table was sawing into my last nerve.
"Thank you, Hippocrates." I watched Hi's face go beet red in a heartbeat. "Did you tell Mr. and Mrs. Lockerbee that was your Christian name, Sweet? Hi-ppocrates?" I said it again, just laying into that hinckety name with all my sass.
They started chattering over how fitting it was that a doctor's daughter gave her boy child such a name. Hi perked up some from the talk being about him. But now that I'd joined in on the fun, he seemed have lost some of his excitement for keeping up his deceitful carrying on. That suited me just fine.
The White Man
I bought Ma Mags a bottle of her own liquor, left Hi inside and went back out to tell the coachman we were going to stay. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a tall, thin man dressed in black in the nearby alley. He was in the shadows but I could make out two things clearly—his hat was a shiny brushed black beaver and he wore white spats. Now he stepped into the light and what became more clear was what he was looking at. With a sweep of his hat from his head, he bowed to me.
I can't explain exactly why, but I turned on my heels and went back inside. Maybe it was because he looked like he didn't belong there, just didn't fit with the alley, being this near a cathouse of the kind I'd just come out of, or maybe just not in the Five Points at all. But a terror came over me. I'd gotten me and Hi into another tight. And yes, I figured just then, it was just as stupid as Hi said it was for us to stay in New York after all the killing and death and misery we'd seen. Oh, I didn't know what I was doing or going to do. A picture sprang up in my mind of calling for Hi and running, just running and leaving every belonging we had in that bordello parlor.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Hi was talking to the piano player, watching him play. I got as close as I could to the doorway and tried to get the coachman's attention. But he was laying atop his rig, enjoying a smoke. I snuck another look at the alley and caught sight of spats, one up against the building behind him and another on the ground. The coachman stirred, lit his lanterns and pulled out a newspaper to pass the time. I hissed and coughed to get him to look in the direction of the doorway. I wanted him to come and get his damned money and would've thrown it into the street if I could do it and still feel decent. I waved my arms again. In the alley, the man moved back into the darkness, away from the light of the coach lanterns. Not with a start, did he move away, but with a leaning slide. I saw him light something, too thin for a cigar, a rolled smoke of tobacco maybe.
I'd still managed to get a good look at him. This man in spats was as pale as anything I'd seen that was still living. His face was made whiter by black hair, like polished granite, that was brushed straight back from his face. The hair on his face was just as dark and looked almost inked on. The neat lines of his moustache trailed down around the corners of his mouth into a close-shaved beard. I leaned away from the doorway even further, into the light of the parlor and found myself right in the heat of his eyes. He made no bones about it, he was staring at me now, his body as still as the air. The color of emeralds came at me from his eyes, like something in the window at Tiffany's, straight on they came and seemed to jump at me from that white face.
Hi came up and smacked me on my back and I almost jumped a foot.
"Whatcha doin, La? You got our rooms yet?"
I shoved him back towards the parlor. "Shush! Watch nobody steals our stuff!"
I felt Hi smoothing the hair down the center of my back. "Come on, La. You tired? Maybe your nerves are just up. You afraid to stay now that we're here?"
"We're staying, Hi." I closed my eyes to take in his sweet attentions. "I'm just getting some air to clear my head."
He came to my side and studied me closely, then he set his chin on my shoulder and tried to see whatever I was looking at. He'd been doing such since he was little and was sharp with his guesses. I dropped my head and rubbed my eyes.
"Hey fella!" He waved to the coachman and I almost peed my bloomers at how loud he was. But at least he didn't go charging out there to him, trying to strike up a conversation. That man in the spats was still in the alley. I could feel him.
"You ain't paid that poor bastard yet, La?" He started fishing in the pockets of my skirts. "Where's some money at? I'll pay him." Like somebody'd just tapped him on the shoulder, he stopped fidgeting. "Whatchou looking at La?"
I swung around at him and he gave a start. "What I tell you, now? Mind our trunk. Scat!"
As my eyes got used to the darkness, I decided to look for something on this man in the alley that would make me feel better about striding out past him. He hadn't said a word to me, hadn't bothered me a bit of his own doing and kept so deathly still. Even with seeing his eyes following me, on the whole, he didn't strike me as a something real. He put me in mind of some manner of painting on the building behind him, most like a haint, not a thing of flesh and warm blood.
Seeing as I wasn't studying any white-faced haints anymore than I was studying Madame's dead tail, I gathered my wits about me. I took as deep a breath as I could without my child hearing it and fretting over me. Soon as I stepped off the porch, the man called to me from the alley.
"Welcome," he said in a voice so deep that I felt like I might've trotted a step or two on hearing it. "Beautiful evening."
Hi liked Dickens' Hole on account of all the bald-faced, country ruckus that was usually going on in there. My child wasn't used to being amidst a crowd of our own kind and he'd taken to it straightaways. His favorite and mine too, were those breakdowns. The breakdown was a dance that was announced so a lady could get herself chosen and partnered up. Now since I'd been going to the Hole, I noticed that the men gave me a wide berth and cut their eyes over at Mr. Williams before coming up to me. Anybody without his shoes shined, having any sort of stink about their person or maybe was eyeballing my person too close, Mr. Williams grunted out, "Nuh unh!" and they backed right off. If pickings were slim that night and Peter was over there grunting and growling at everybody to come my way, he chose me for himself.
Oh, such straight backs, shining teeth and deep bows the men gave us before the music commenced. They put on the dog for the ladies. Some dabbed their faces with their handkerchiefs, like a lady powdering their nose and froze up in profile for us to make over them. Some jokers made a big show of spitting on their hands and hit armpits, cock and crack, like they were freshening up for us. You could hear whoops and titters from one end of the room to the other.
But my partner was the man himself and he didn't have to show out one bit to get every eye in the place on him. Peter just stubbed his smoke out under his boot and brought the one fist up real high to let the musicians know he was ready. We'd all watch that fist and if you were Hi King, you'd climb on a table to see. The second Peter dropped his fist, my unruly son and a horde just like him, would break out dancing while the first sounds of music were still hanging in the air hooting and hopping and cavorting so wild, they might kick the walls, dance right off them.
I'm telling you, when the music in Dickens' Hole got worked up to a fever pitch, there was nothing like it. By that time, I'd already been flat getting after it, damn near dancing my legs down to nubs. But once that bass drum built up to a righteous rhythm, it seemed to jump straight into my shoulders. I felt it roll my neck, heat up my titties from the way I was working my shoulders to that drum. Then it took over my hips and broke me down, had me where I had to gap my legs, get some bend in my back, hitch my skirts and let that music run up through there, have its way with me.
And there was Mr. Peter Williams, spry as a motherfucker. All around me, he'd dance. He could jump high as anything and gave a little kick before coming down on his right foot, then left, then both. His legs fluttered the air as he swooped past me. I'd hear him cussing at how that music was getting to him. I watched him grit his teeth it was in him so strong, saw him wink at me before stealing a kiss as he went on around. That drum beat kept on like a ride that was nearing home a headlong rushing for that thrill of getting there, a hard pushing for that sweet relief. And right at the end, Peter took hold of my hand, set his arm on my shoulder and sent me spinning. Some nights, if I was to spin any faster, Dickens' Hole would've seen me light up off the floor with sparks shooting off my feet. Everybody in there was wild-eyed at the end of one of those breakdowns and I don't recollect any similar feeling, unless I was drunk or at the end of my rope.