Authors: Walter Mosley
Tags: #Literary, #Race Relations, #Psychological Fiction, #Male friendship, #General, #Psychological, #Social Classes, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Suspense Fiction, #Fiction, #Conduct of Life
Copyright © 2006 by Walter Mosley
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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First eBook Edition: April 2006
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
EASY RAWLINS BOOKS
Devil in a Blue Dress
A Red Death
A Little Yellow Dog
Bad Boy Brawly Brown
Six Easy Pieces
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
Walkin’ the Dog
The Man in My Basement
Workin’ on the Chain Gang
What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace
Mark Douglas Neiman
was born with a hole in his lung. Because of this birth defect, he spent the first six months of his life in the intensive care unit at Helmutt-Briggs, a hospital in West Los Angeles. The doctors told his mother, Branwyn, that most likely he would not survive.
“Newborns with this kind of disorder, removed from the physical love of their mothers, often wither,” kind-eyed Dr. Mason Settler told her.
So she came to the hospital every day after work and watched over her son from six to eleven. She couldn’t touch him because he was kept in a glass-enclosed, germ-free environment. But they stared into each other’s eyes for hours every day.
Branwyn would read to the little boy and talk to him through the night after her shift at Ethel’s Florist Shop.
“I know you must wonder why it’s always me here and never your father,” Branwyn said to her son one Thursday evening. “Elton has a lot of good qualities, but bein’ a father is not one of them. He left me for one of my girlfriends less than a month after we found out I was having you. He told me that he’d stay if I decided not to have the baby. But Elton had the choice to be with me or not and you didn’t. I couldn’t ask you if you minded if I didn’t have you and if you didn’t have a life to live. No sunshine or sandy beaches. You don’t even know what a sandy beach is. So I told Elton he could leave if he wanted to but I was havin’ my baby.
“May Fine said that she’d be happy to be childless with a man like Elton. You know, your father is a good-looking man. He’s got big muscles and a nice smile.”
Branwyn smiled at Baby Thomas, who was then four months old. He grinned within his bubble and reached out, touching his mother’s image in the glass.
“But you know,” Branwyn continued, “May is gonna want a baby one day, and when she does, Elton and his good looks will be gone. And then she’ll be worse off than me. It’s like my mother said, ‘That Elton’s a heartbreak waitin’ to happen.’
“So he’s not here, and he probably won’t be comin’ around either. But that doesn’t matter, Tommy, because I will be with you through thick and thin, rain and shine.”
Branwyn brought children’s books and read and sang to Thomas even when he was asleep and didn’t seem to know she was there.
DR. MINAS NOLAN
was a heart surgeon who had temporary offices across the hall from the intensive care unit where Thomas and his mother spent that half year. Nolan was a widower, young and hale. A week after Thomas was delivered, Dr. Nolan’s wife, Joanne, had borne them a son. She died of complications thirty-six hours later. His son, Eric, came out weighing twelve pounds and twelve ounces, with a thick mane of blond hair, and arms and legs flailing. One of the nurses had commented that it was as if Eric had drained all of the life out of his mother from the inside, and by the time he was born, she was all used up.
Dr. Nolan often worked until eleven at night, when the ICU nurse on duty was forced by hospital regulations to ask Miss Beerman to leave. Branwyn always hesitated. She would have happily spent the whole night sleeping in a chair next to her baby. Then in the morning she could be the first thing he saw.
One evening, noticing the new mother linger at the unit door, Minas offered to walk Branwyn to her car.
“Oh, I don’t have a car, Doctor,” she said. “I get the bus down on Olympic.” The dark-skinned Negro woman had a beautiful smile and nearly transparent gray eyes.
“Well, then let me drive you,” the doctor offered.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that. I live very far away.”
“That doesn’t matter,” the doctor said. “I don’t have much to go home for. You see, my wife died in childbirth recently—”
“You poor thing,” Branwyn said, placing a hand on his forearm.
“Anyway, Eric, that’s our boy, is usually asleep when I get home, and there’s a nanny there . . . and I’m not very tired.”
Branwyn was taken by the doctor’s handsome Nordic features. He was blond and blue-eyed, and his smile was kind.
They drove down to Branwyn’s neighborhood near Crenshaw. He parked his silver Mercedes in front of her apartment building, and she said, “Thank you so much, Doctor. You know, it’s a long trip on that bus at night.”
There was a moment when neither of them talked or moved.
“Are you hungry, Miss Beerman?”
“Why . . . yes I am, Dr. Nolan.”
She wasn’t really, but the way the doctor asked the question, she knew that he needed company. A man losing a wife like that would be lost in the world, she knew.
There was an all-night place called the Rib Joint on La Brea, run by a wild character named Fontanot. He was a six-foot-seven Texan who smoked his ribs in the backyard of the restaurant and whose great big laugh could be heard from a block away.
Fontanot had a long face and sad eyes. He was very dark-skinned and powerful, in both his limbs and his will. At that time, the Rib Joint was very popular with the Hollywood set. Movie stars, directors, and big-time producers came there every night. They ordered Fontanot’s ribs for their private functions and often invited him to come along.
“I ain’t got time for no parties,” he’d say, shunning their invitations. “Make hay while the sun shines, that’s what my mama always told me to do.”
Fontanot did not fraternize much with the muckety-mucks from Hollywood. He laughed if they told a good joke, and he put ribs along with his homemade sauce on their tables.
When Minas and Branwyn came into the restaurant, sometime just before midnight, there was a line of at least a dozen parties waiting to be seated. Men and women were laughing and drinking and trying to get their names put ahead on the list. Minas hunted up a stool and put it against the jukebox so that Branwyn could get off her feet.
When Fontanot saw this simple gesture from the tiny window that looked out from his kitchen, he came out and shook hands with the doctor.
“Ira Fontanot,” the restaurateur said.
“My name’s Minas. Minas Nolan. And this is Miss Beerman.”
“You two are in love,” the sad-eyed giant informed them.
“Oh, no,” they both said at the same time.
“You might not know it yet,” Fontanot announced, “but you are in love. There’s no helpin’ that. All I need to know is if you’re hungry or not.”
“Starving,” Minas Nolan said with a deep feeling in his tone that struck Branwyn.
“Then come on back to my special table and I will serve you some barbecue.”
To be seated at the special table was the desire of every powerful customer at the Rib Joint. That table was there for Ira’s mother and for his new girlfriend.
Minda, Ira’s sainted mom, said that her son’s girlfriends were always new.
“The lady he’s seein’ might be with him for one birthday, but she’ll never see two,” Minda would say through her coarse smoker’s rasp.
Other than that, the special table, set in the corner of Ira’s kitchen, usually went empty. When a famous director like Heurick Roberts would ask Ivy, the hostess, to give him that table, she’d grin, showing her gold tooth, and say, “If I was to sit you in there with Fontanot he’d skin ya and clean ya and slather yo’ ribs wit’ sauce.”
But Minas and Branwyn didn’t know anything about the kitchen table and its special status. As a matter of fact, Branwyn thought that it was probably the worst seat in the house, being in the noisy kitchen and all, but she was willing to sit there because of that note of deep need in Minas’s voice when he declared his hunger.
Minas asked for ribs, but Fontanot told him that if he was hungry he wanted the restaurant’s special smoked sausages.
“Sausages stick to your ribs, boy,” the big chef declared. “An’ what will you have, Miss Beerman?”
“I don’t eat much meat,” she admitted with a slight bow of her head.
Minas thought that she was such a kind woman that she was afraid that her appetite would somehow bruise Fontanot’s feelings.
“I got catfish come up ev’ry day from Lake Charles, Louisiana,” Fontanot said. “They’s a farm down there where they introduce wild fish every six weeks. You know, the big catfish farms got they fish so inbred that you might as well call’em sole.”
This made Branwyn laugh.
Minas looked at the young, beautiful woman and wondered where she could have possibly come from. He was about to ask her, when Fontanot put a big oval plate of steaming sausages in front of him. One bite and Minas couldn’t stop eating. The sauce was extremely spicy-hot, and so the doctor ate plenty of bread and downed glass after glass of ice water through the meal. But he didn’t turn away the second plate when Fontanot placed it in front of him. Something about Branwyn’s company and the kitchen and loud, loud Ira Fontanot made the doctor ravenous.
Branwyn picked at her catfish, which was very good, and watched the heart surgeon eat. She imagined that he probably hadn’t had a good meal since the day his wife died.
Rich white doctor or no,
it’s an unlucky star that shone down on this man’s backyard.
“I’m not usually such a pig, Miss Beerman,” Minas said when he noticed her smiling at him.
“Appetite ain’t nuthin’ to be shamed of, Doctor,” she said. “I wish that I could see my son eat like you.”
“You should see my boy, Miss Beerman,” Minas replied. “He sucks down formula by the quart. When he cries it’s almost as loud as Mr. Fontanot here.”
“Maybe he’ll be a singer,” Ira Fontanot said. “That’s what I always wanted to be. But my voice was too strong, and they made me lip-synch in the church choir.”
“That’s awful,” Branwyn said. “A boy or a girl should always be let to sing. When you gonna sing but when you’re a child?”
“And who has more reason?” Minas added.
The three were silent a moment, appreciating how much in line their thinking was.
“More sausages, Minas?” Fontanot asked.
“I wouldn’t be able to get in behind the wheel if I had them, Ira.”
“How’s your fish?” the big cook asked Branwyn.
“The best I’ve ever eaten,” she said. “But don’t tell my mama I said that.”
BACK IN THE CAR,
Minas related a long and convoluted joke about a poor woman who fooled a banker into being the shill for a hoax she was pulling on a fancy-pants lawyer.
The story took so long to tell that he had driven to her apartment building and parked in front of the door again before it was through.
Branwyn liked a good story, and she was happy at the end when the trick made her laugh and laugh.
“That’s really beautiful,” Minas Nolan said.
This caught the young mother up short. She had never in her wildest dreams imagined that she would be sitting in a car in the middle of the night with a rich white doctor calling her beautiful. White people were fine by her, but she never responded to any flirtation that she got from white men. She wasn’t interested in them. She liked men like Elton, with his jet-black skin and deep laugh.
But Minas Nolan wasn’t flirting. He really thought that she was beautiful, and he was honestly happy to be sitting there next to her.
“I should be going,” she said. “It’s very late.”
“Thank you for keeping me company, Miss Beerman,” Minas said.
They shook hands. Branwyn thought that she had had kisses less passionate than the way that surgeon held her fingers.
THE NEXT EVENING,
Minas was waiting outside the ICU at eleven.
“I don’t expect you to have dinner with me or to do anything except to accept a ride home, Miss Beerman,” he said quickly, as if to keep her from protesting.
“You don’t have to do that, Doctor,” she said.
She had been thinking about Minas throughout the day—whenever she wasn’t thinking about her son. Before their night at the Rib Joint, Branwyn would spend her days thinking about what it would be like if Elton came back and Tommy got better and they all moved to a house out toward the desert where they could have a backyard with a garden and a swing.
But that day, she hadn’t thought of Elton at all—not once.
This wasn’t a pleasant realization. If just one impossible night with a man who couldn’t ever really be a friend made her forget the father of her child, then what would two nights bring? She might forget about Tommy next.
Dr. Nolan could see the rejection building in Branwyn’s face, and before it could come out, he said, “Last night was the first time I got to sleep before sunrise. I had a good time just driving you home. It was something I could do. You know what I mean?”
She did know. It was just as if he knew how she understood things. His few words spoke a whole volume to her understanding of the world and loneliness. She couldn’t refuse him the release of that drive. If she went home on the bus now, she would never get to sleep because she’d be up thinking of that poor man lying awake, thinking about his dead wife.
“I can’t go to dinner though,” she said as if in the middle of a much larger conversation.
Dr. Nolan drove Branwyn straight home. They talked about flowers that night. She explained to him how she thought about arranging different kinds of blossoms and leaves. He listened very closely and asked astute questions.
The next night he told her about the first time he cut into a living human body.
“I was so scared that I threw up afterward,” he admitted. “I decided that I wasn’t meant to be a surgeon.”
Branwyn grinned at that.
“What are you laughing about?” the doctor asked.
“Because I was afraid?”
“Because you seem like you’re not afraid of anything,” she said.
“I’m scared plenty.”
“Maybe you think so,” Branwyn replied. “But people really afraid hardly ever know it.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well . . . the way I see it, a man who’s afraid stays away from the things he fears. A man afraid of cutting into another to save his life would never put himself in the position to do that. He’d become an artist or anything else and then talk about surgery like he was some kinda expert. Fear makes men bluster. They do that so you can’t tell how they feel, and after a while, neither can they.”