Read After Online

Authors: Marita Golden

Tags: #Fiction

After (10 page)

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Carson works in the basement in the mornings, and has gotten interest from a specialty furniture shop in Annapolis about carrying some of his smaller pieces, this after he decided he could begin parting with some of the tables and chests he’d made, which have begun to inhabit the basement like lost strangers waiting to find their way home. He’s taking Juwan with him this day to discuss a commission for an armoire that one of Bunny’s coworkers wants him to make.

Bunny has been promoted to creative director of design at Image, Inc., where she still designs but is charged mostly with overseeing design projects. And the small firm was written up in
Business Week
for landing the contract for the redesign of a major cell phone company’s products and promotion. She is absorbed in her work, and content. They don’t talk anymore about the shooting or the night in the garage. That’s how they survive. That’s how they get along.

They are on 495, cars speeding past, the quiet between father and son feeling ancient and so like a strange healing. Carson aches for closeness with the boy, for the sound of his voice, and tells him, “I’m seeing someone about what happened, the shooting.”

“A psychiatrist?” The bluntness of the question surprises him, but Juwan instinctively rejects euphemisms or anything he suspects is a lie.

“She’s not a psychiatrist. She’s a therapist.”

“How often do you see her?”

“Once a week.”

“Oh.” Juwan looks out the window at the four-lane highway, the interstate, the cars whizzing past. Although Carson is driving the speed limit, the implications of what he has told his son propel him faster, he feels, than the speed of sound.

“I hear you sometimes at night when you dream.”

His son, his boy, has heard him sobbing, the guttural, brutal sound of him retching over the stool in the bathroom.
Which dreams has he heard?
Carson wonders, staring straight ahead, not daring to look at Juwan. Straight ahead at the highway, just like his son.

In the dream there is only Paul Houston’s face, frozen, framed forever in the moment when he knows the bullet whirling toward him will call his body home. When he knows he cannot outrun the bullet or stop it. A face
gone gray and ghostly, filled with the essence of its own demise, a still-life, dire mask.

“That’s why I’m seeing her. Because of the dreams. Because of everything I feel about shooting that man.”

“How long will you have to see her?”

“I don’t know.”

Carson hopes nothing in his voice hints at how he resents the sessions, how they gnaw at his image of the man, the father, the husband, the police officer he worked so hard to create—in control, master of his own private universe. That hallucination shot to hell in ten seconds. But he continues to see Carrie Petersen, to find the respite he fears will ultimately elude him, and he sees her to save his marriage and family. Every session begins with the recollection of what has brought him there. He killed an innocent man, and he thought of killing himself. He measures progress by how easily he can, on any given day, banish thoughts of self-destruction. But why go on? Is life worth living, even with Bunny, if the price of the ticket is the dreams?

Carson allowed himself to see in his son’s silence a reprieve from judgment. How would he feel, Carson wonders now, if he knew
his
father had killed a man? The knowledge would surely alter everything between them. He’d know what his father was ultimately capable of. He’d know more than any son should know about his father or ever have to forgive.

“Do you have to take any drugs?” Juwan asks, shifting in his seat to look at Carson.

“Drugs?”

“You know, like they advertise on TV for when you’re depressed.”

“Sometimes. To help me sleep. To calm my nerves.”

“You won’t get addicted, will you?”

It’s a risk, no doubt about it
, he thinks, and then tells Juwan, “I wouldn’t let that happen.”

“Do you miss going to work?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Some of the kids at school teased me when it first happened, said you were a killer. I didn’t know what to say back to them.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It would worry you and I didn’t want to make things worse. Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“If you can’t sleep at night, you could ask me and I’d sit with you and we could watch TV.”

“I couldn’t wake you up for that, Juwan.”

“When you have bad dreams I can’t sleep. I have bad dreams of my own.”

“About what?”

Juwan looks out the window, his face impassive, mute.

“Juwan, tell me—you don’t have to protect me. I’m supposed to protect you.”

“Dreams about you going to jail for what you did.”

The admission occupies the car, heavy and stifling.

“Juwan, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I only know I love you and your mother and your sisters. That’s not everything, but it’s a lot. Try to make it enough to let go of
your
bad dreams.”

“Okay. Dad?”

“What?”

“Maybe you could use it to let go of yours too.”

“I’ll try, Juwan. I promise, I’ll try.”

7

 

Jimmy Blake,
the man he thought for most of his childhood was his father, was a swaggering, blustering force who inhabited the house he grew up in like a shadowy, dark, rumbling threat of disaster. A meat cutter for Safeway, he spent his days in the cold room, lifting heavy sides of beef and pork and turning the fleshy tonnage into chops and sirloins and roasts. The job had given him arthritis in his hands, and the top of his right index finger was cut off one day while he was slicing a side of beef on a heavy-bladed machine. The deformed nub fascinated Carson, and what enthralled him even more was Jimmy Blake’s indifference to that finger, how he used it to deftly pluck a card from the deck during games of tonk, or pointed it at him, hollering, “You better watch it, boy,” the finger thrust like a malevolent, curse-filled wand.

Carson knew something was wrong from the way he looked. How different he was from his brother, Richard, who was a full shade darker than him. Carson was a “dirty yellow,” with a raw, reddish cast beneath his skin, like the remnants of a hidden, unhealed wound. Richard was the same color as Jimmy Blake, the color they call “pretty brown,” the tone of expensive furniture and elegant picture frames. His mother, Alma, was
almost
as light as Carson, but his color marked him, set him apart. He knew it was his color that Jimmy Blake hated. Because it was not like his. Why else would his eyes always skim the surface of Carson’s face, looking at him furtively, as though to look at the boy closely risked turning Jimmy into stone? Jimmy looked at Carson as though when doing so there was nothing to see, as though his glance had passed over a vacant space. When Carson looked at himself in the mirror, which he did throughout his childhood, obsessively, holed up in the bathroom for hours, earning Richard’s wrath, he wished for a cream that could make him darker. A cream would be so much faster and more permanent than the sun.

He was five when he asked his mother for the first time why he was light and Richard was brown. When she caressed Carson with her eyes, she took refuge in his face, and in his skin, as she stared at him and hugged him in response. The embrace, Carson learned over the years as he asked the question repeatedly, was meant to stifle his stubborn, famished curiosity. When Alma did answer, she said, “God gives families a rainbow of ways to be. We’ve got all the colors in us.” But it wasn’t just Carson’s color. Richard was taller than he was, long-limbed like Jimmy Blake. Carson was built thick and compact, like the squat remains of a once-majestic oak. With Richard he shared his mother’s wide, heart-shaped face. He resembled his mother but looked nothing at all like Jimmy Blake.

That was why, Carson was sure, Jimmy never touched him. Why he denied Carson even the brusque, roughhousing, affectionate wrestling matches he clearly relished with Richard. Richard pummeled and punched Jimmy Blake as Jimmy squealed in fake agony, begged breathlessly for a time-out, then surprised Richard with a slam onto the carpeted floor that he cushioned with his own body, on Sundays when he and Richard and Jimmy watched football in the living room and Alma was in the kitchen frying chicken, baking biscuits, and cooking greens. Richard climbed onto Jimmy’s lap and settled there. Carson would climb into that space too, but Jimmy Blake barked, “Git offa me, boy. I can’t hold both of you at the same time.” Carson’s tears only hardened Jimmy’s gaze (he did not think that possible), and so he wordlessly slid back onto the carpeted floor to play with Roscoe, the family cocker spaniel, grateful for the musty, slathering wetness of his tongue on his cheek, his back turned in self-defense against his father and brother.

On Saturday nights when Jimmy Blake came home late from evenings spent without Alma, he noisily entered the bedroom Carson and Richard shared. His entrance always woke Carson, but he pretended to be asleep. There was Jimmy Blake’s shadow on the wall, his weary grunting as he sat on the edge of Richard’s bed and straightened the rumpled blankets. Peeking over his shoulder, stealthily holding his breath, Carson watched Jimmy lift Richard from the edge of the mattress and gently place him in the middle of the bed and tuck him beneath the comforter. He saw Jimmy Blake kiss Richard on the cheek. Carson quickly turned his face to the wall as his father stepped away from Richard’s bed. With just a few steps he stood over Carson, the smell of the liquor a stink in the small room, watching Carson sleep for what were some of the longest minutes of the boy’s life. In the darkness Jimmy Blake’s gaze was a scalpel slicing into unanesthetized flesh.

Cousins at family picnics, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, when no adults were around, teased Carson, telling him he was adopted. Richard took his brother’s side, attacked the offenders, twisting their arms behind them, forcing them to recant. As Carson grew older he stopped asking his mother to tell him who his father was. His parents’ arguments about him, about the absent touch, the lingering awful gaze, seeped under his bedroom door at night. Alma asking Jimmy to let Carson know he cared, Jimmy in his blustery, hostile, defensive voice yelling, “I ain’t got to do nuthin’, woman, but die and pay taxes.” Arguments that earned Carson no reprieve from his exclusion. Yet, unwittingly, over the years he became Jimmy Blake’s son, matching his hardness with a steely indifference. He had lived so long without the man’s touch that if he were to find himself within its confines, Carson was sure that he would break.

By high school, Carson figured school was just a place to kill time while waiting to be old enough to actually have a
life
. He didn’t drop out, because he’d seen what happened to friends who did—congregating like homesteaders on the neighborhood basketball court all day, sipping forties, talking trash, scaring the little kids for no reason, holing up in their mama’s house sleeping till two in the afternoon, watching game shows and soaps till they hit the streets after dark, cruising with their boys, looking for easy money, a high, a little trouble, a girl for the night, a quick fix to erase how stupid they felt for dropping out. Black
and
no diploma. No, he wasn’t a genius, but he wasn’t that dumb. Because Jimmy Blake had so convinced him that he was nothing, Carson desperately wanted to be somebody one day. But he wasn’t smart like straight-A honor roll Richard, for whom everything,
everything
, seemed so easy. Their father’s love. Good grades. Getting accepted at Stanford.

One evening at dinner, Jimmy told Richard, “Boy, if I’d had your opportunities back in the day, you better believe I wouldna been no meat cutter. Your generation, y’all got the breaks. And I want you to take advantage. Take advantage of everything. The world done split wide open for y’all.”

Richard was talking about being a doctor, a goal that Jimmy had adopted as his own, vicariously, bragging to friends as if Richard had already opened his practice.

“So what
you
got planned?” Jimmy asked, throwing the question at Carson the way he haphazardly tossed Roscoe the bones he brought home from work.

“I don’t know.” Carson shrugged. He was sixteen but felt in the rumbling onerous wake of the question like a three-year-old asked to explain the theory of relativity.

“Don’t know,” Jimmy grunted. “That’s just the kind a niggah the White man likes, one that
don’t know
.”

“Jimmy, come on, please don’t use that kind of language,” Alma said, coming to Carson’s defense.

“Naw, Alma, you always saying I don’t give him enough attention. Well, I’m giving him attention. That’s the problem. Y’all Black women don’t want a Black man to tell it like it is. To tell a Black boy, or anybody for that matter, what he needs to hear.” He turned back to Carson. “So you ain’t thought about nothing you wanna be, nothing you wanna do?”

Carson had thought about lots of things,
astronaut
,
engineer
,
fireman
,
policeman
, but he would never tell Jimmy Blake what he had dreamed. Alma’s hand gently rubbed Carson’s back. He wanted to push her hand away. Richard sat slowly chewing his roast beef behind a smirk as he looked from Carson to Jimmy.

“No,
Dad
.” Carson emphasized the word with a bitter, ruthless sarcasm. “I ain’t figured out yet what I want to do.”

Jimmy Blake’s eyes traveled, slow and thoughtful, around the table, the disgusted twist of his lips confirming Carson’s exquisite isolation.

“Well, you better think of something fast. Or else you gonna be playing catch-up all your life.”

The house became a place for him to sleep and eat. If school weighed on him like prison, the house repelled Carson. He actually preferred school, and hanging out at the mall, or on the court, or at the rec center (places where he had come to spend most of his waking hours), anywhere but in that house. One night he came home late. It was a school night, and he had gone straight from school to the rec center with his boys Damion and Keith, and they played pool and then Carson hung out at Keith’s, listening to tapes and shooting the breeze and talking to girls on the phone. He didn’t call home to let anyone know where he was; he didn’t want anyone to know.

On the streets, that was where Carson felt like
himself
. Although he was dreadfully unsure who that was, at least on the streets he escaped the wanton disregard of Jimmy and what he felt was the nagging incompetence of his mother’s love, the inability of that love to neutralize what Jimmy Blake inflicted. Jimmy Blake had once threatened to throw him out of the house if he kept breaking curfew. Carson just laughed at the threat. What difference would it make?

When Keith dropped him off at home, the light was on in the kitchen. Jimmy Blake was up waiting for him, he knew. Keith, skinny, so dark-skinned that he was almost blue-black, sat in the car with Carson outside the house for several minutes and asked skeptically, “You sure you wanna go inside?”

“Hell, that’s my house too. I live there.”

Jimmy was waiting to argue, to badger. That in fact was the only time that they talked. The only reason that they talked was to initiate warfare, to skirmish, to confirm the distance between them. Getting out of the car, Carson whispered, “Fuck it,” his all-purpose curse, the phrase that was mantra and talisman. He entered the house through the back door, which would mean he would have to pass Jimmy. Carson wanted to fuck with him, to walk right past him. To let him know that he didn’t care.

Carson casually strode into the house like it was six o’clock instead of almost midnight. The medicinal, bracing smell of liquor hung like humidity in the kitchen. When Carson closed the door, he turned and looked at Jimmy sitting at the kitchen table. Clutching the doorknob, his body was braced for battle. A slight adrenaline surge tingled in his muscles. The arguments had become almost intimate, almost a show of affection. They were the way the man and the boy loved each other, for the conflicts were regular, passionate, and deeply felt.

Jimmy sat at the kitchen table, staring at a bottle of scotch and a shot glass. His alcoholism was the family secret. No binges or falling out for Jimmy Blake. He could sleep it off and get to work on time. But the house was filled with his liquor bottles underneath the sink, in the unofficial liquor cabinet.

“Sit down,” he said, extending his arm, pointing with his missing fingertip to a chair across from him. Carson didn’t move, wondering,
What kind of trick is this
?
I don’t have to do what you say. I can just walk past you. Go to the fridge and get the plate I know Mom has left for me
, he thought.

Jimmy Blake’s face was ravaged. Mostly Carson looked at him in passing, on the sly, rarely face-to-face, afraid Jimmy could read his mind, intuit his despair and mistrust and resentment. The broad nose and cheeks and small eyes had contracted and sat in the middle of his face like a fist. Wrinkles as thick as veins huddled around the brown eyes staring at Carson.

“Since you so much of a grown-up, staying out all hours, maybe I ought to offer you a drink.” Jimmy saluted Carson with the bottle.

In response to his silence Jimmy filled his glass and then leaned over the kitchen counter and reached for a juice glass, set it on the table, filled it halfway, and pushed it toward Carson.

One night Carson and Keith had gotten older dudes to buy scotch and Boone’s Farm and forties for them. He had tasted Keith’s dad’s Wild Turkey when the old man wasn’t around, and he and Keith and Damion had Keith’s house to themselves. Carson had been drunk. Pissing-sick-throwing-up drunk. Head-tight-hangover drunk. And he couldn’t see what the big deal was. He didn’t feel braver, just stupid. Out of control. And growing up in that house taught Carson that if he could help it, he never wanted to feel out of control. But because he’d been drunk, he knew that much at least about Jimmy Blake. And what he knew gave him no comfort at all.

Carson pushed the glass back toward Jimmy, saying, “No thanks.”

“Oh, go on,” he said, sliding it back across the Formica tabletop. Jimmy Blake had never offered Carson anything this insistently before. Carson sat staring at the glass of scotch, the clear brownish tint, which he knew had a bitter, almost astringent taste. Like some liquid designed to scourge or heal. He’d heard alcohol called liquid courage. But Jimmy battered him emotionally even when he was sober. Drunk, he was bitter, morose, mostly silent. Surprising himself, Carson reached for the glass and swallowed the liquid in a gulp. Slamming the glass on the table and pushing it back toward Jimmy Blake, he asked:

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