Verdad Magazine Volume 21
Fall 2016, Volume 21
Fiction by Jonah Smith-Bartlett
The aspiration for fame brought me to Harlem, and its achievement drove me right back out. I became a writer…and I make no qualms about this…because of a deep and abiding dislike for manual labor. A deep and abiding distrust for laborers—construction workers, sanitation workers, day-lates and dollar-shorts. These were my sullen brothers, always by class and often by race, but I hoped, God willing, that the furious taps of the typewriter would keep them at bay. This distrust, and the guilt it caused, demanded deep introspection and through this process I projected the flaws of the writer’s self into a thesis of the human condition that inevitably trapped, broke, and conquered every disillusioned protagonist of my imagination.
But then I dared to appease my ego and composed, always after midnight and always under the influence of strong whiskey, the autobiography called Jungle Alley, named both for the famous Harlem strip of indulgence and my internal topography—dark, deep, thick, under the pale white hands of nameless white men. It wasn’t the first novel that I wrote. I had a story about wild-boar skinners who, of course, like all those puffed-chested masculine fools who decreed themselves greater than nature, soon became the game. I had a story about men lost at sea, longing for land, longing for love. But these hardly captured any attention outside of dutiful friends. Then I wrote about the black boy’s liaisons—true and personal words from cover to cover—and they ate it up. Spoonful by spoonful the critics slurped me down.
A particular rich man, on the advice of one of these hungry critics, sent a car to pick me up and bring me to his Upper West Side mansion. In the last few months, since Jungle Alley made some sort of waves, I found myself at many Manhattan dining room tables. White men always sat at the head of these tables. White men who inherited a fortune—the lucky ones—or made their own fortune in sugar, guns, and newspapers turned toward a liberal bent. A young woman opened the door. I would learn that it was his daughter. Her hair was pulled back in so tight a bun that I expected it to snap any moment and release then some primitive lioness, trapped between these marble walls. She wore diamonds around her neck. She took my hat and coat. She asked me to follow her to find her father, and I stayed three steps behind. Not a roar from her lips and not a peep from mine.
This particular rich man had a double chin and the last vestige of a Scottish brogue. He spoke of the martyrdom of Bobby Kennedy. Yet, he said with deep conflict in his voice, he couldn’t help but feel a profound sympathy for Sirhan Sirhan or, if not for the killer, then at least for the Palestinian people for whom that man claimed to destroy the senator’s life. I found myself wishing that the rich man’s daughter were seated near me, but she sat at the other end of the table next to James Baldwin, who wore a brown velvet jacket and was graciously, if not hesitantly, accepting her praise. Baldwin caught my eye. He smiled. I smiled back at him. The rich man made a toast to the objects of his sorrow, who he hoped, he said holding back tears, would find their peace in this life or the next.
“So, you’re the dangerous young man of Jungle Alley?” Baldwin put his hand on my elbow. Baldwin made no qualms about whom he was and about whom he looked to drag to his bedroom. I defied my natural inclination to squirm. We were both on the sidewalk waiting for our transport away from here.
“Yes,” I said. “Although I hope to outgrow that particular distinction.”
“Of course,” Baldwin replied. “That man in there. He wants to be your patron as he is mine. He wanted me to tell you that. Perhaps persuade you, as he supposes we speak the same language. He wants to be your financier.”
“Why is that?”
“Your talent, of course, and his self-pity,” Baldwin replied. He released my elbow and took a cigarette from the pocket of his jacket. He lit it. He placed it between his lips. He inhaled and exhaled. The tarred breath of James Baldwin floated up into the air.
“What should I do?” I realized, after I asked, that Baldwin likely had no desire to advise me on my art any more than he sought my advice on his. But he acquiesced.
“He sees himself raw on the inside, and you might be his balm. Let him be your patron if he needs it with such desperation,” Baldwin said. “But never let him be your protagonist.”
My car pulled up before Baldwin’s. Strange, I thought, that my car should arrive first. I always assumed that the world naturally catered first to the greater of minds.
“His daughter told me that he invited the prophet Elijah Muhammad for dinner,” Baldwin called out as I opened the car door and slid in. “Needless to say the invitation was declined. It hurt her that it hurt him. They all have amazing empathy at convenient moments.”
I couldn’t sleep for months, at least not more than three or four hours at a time. I was on a constant chase for a new plot, one that would exorcise the author from the work. Complete and inarguable fiction. At times I worked on a story that I knew would never see the light of day. A teenage boy awakens one day to find that from his back have sprung, painlessly, two great wings. Long and firm, like those of an eagle. There was no such boy in Harlem. There was no such boy in the world. If only they would take this down their gullet. My patrons. My adoring and unrelenting parasites. But no, they ranted and raved…they desperately desired the boy who lost his innocence, who found his passion, who became a man in some way foreign to them, through the vices hidden in the shadows of Jungle Alley.
They were hounds at my heels, indicative of the hunters just behind them. Threats made their way through the mail slot in my apartment. Violence promised against me and my kin, though there were no kin left except a brother somewhere down south. We had not spoken in seven years. They tied a noose to my doorknob and left it there for me to find in the morning. They banged their fists against my door during the night. I didn’t move from my bed. I imagined the worst. Open up, jungle boy! Open up, you hear? You’re gonna die tonight, boy! Someone taught these men, or perhaps this was a sad and natural belief, that the world played a zero-sum game. Somehow the success of this Harlem boy meant that every one of them was a bastard and a failure.
So I left with no regrets. I left the manuscript of the winged boy to the rich man who called James Baldwin his friend. Let him do with that what he will. If he is wise, I figured, he would find himself quickly disenchanted with his little genius. It would never see the light of day.
The bus passed Philadelphia. Passed Baltimore, D.C., Memphis, Chicago.
The small city called Lansford, Illinois, seemed like as good a place to hide as any, to be born again as one more stranger of little significance, passing slowly through the Midwestern doldrums. No longer the object of reverence. No longer the object of any more spite than any other black man, which was, of course, more than enough spite for a lifetime. I took up a back room in a motel across the street from a gas station and a bar where a farmer’s daughters expressed rebellion with layers of clothing that vanished throughout an evening. I hung my shirts and slacks in the closet. I untied my shoes and ran my bare feet across the carpet. I took my typewriter from its case and placed it atop the small table. There it would collect a thick layer of dust.
It became my routine to begin each day at a diner where, after I ordered my runny eggs and watery coffee, no one paid me any mind at all. Alone in that booth I thought often of Harlem. The hounds and the hunters. The life left behind. I was never weighed down with regret at my decision to abandon that place, though I did find myself strangely discomforted, or perhaps this was not strange to any writer, that the stories of that city carried on without me. Perhaps best left to Baldwin now.
A woman was making a commotion at the cash register. A pale-skinned bear. She roared. She shook her hands and swayed her wide waist from left to right. Called out jumbled words. It was a strange sight in this place, but it resembled a familiar and inane tradition of the women of my old home. Women in the Pentecostal church. The ones who believed that those makeshift storefront places of worship were, in fact, gateways to a place far better than this one. The woman continued to yell. Two boys were at her side, the one that I assumed to be younger holding on to the flesh of her hip. The older son stood by the window, looking out and pretending, as kids are prone to do, that he was a character not in this scene. At age seven, or so I guessed, he already knew well the sense of humiliation.
“Read your own goddamn sign!”
Of course I moved closer. The mystery of the human condition, especially human anger and human agony, was the nastiest of drugs, the unconquerable addiction. The old man who worked the counter looked over her shoulder to catch my eye. He looked into the eyes of his regular customer. And he knew right away that I wouldn’t give him the slightest bit of help. He saw me for the fiend that I was. And he sighed deeply.
“Well, you hear me, don’t you? You gotta read your goddamn sign!”
“I don’t need to read it, ma’am. I wrote it.”
He pointed to a chalkboard that sat outside, leaning up against one window of the building. She pointed to it as well. He with resignation and she with fury.
“It says, ‘Kids Eat Free on Sundays.’ Right there, it says it and you know it.” As the volume of her protestation increased, the seven-year-old son moved closer and closer to the front door. Maybe he would make good use out of those little blue sneakers and make a break for it.
“Yes,” he said. “It does, you’re right. But it says that kids eat free when a parent buys a meal. You need to buy a meal, you see?”
She didn’t see. She continued to yell and flail, the small rolls of fat shaking beneath her arms. Other patrons shifted uncomfortably in their seats. When the man asked her to quiet down, she only bellowed louder. If for no other purpose than to momentarily remove this eruption of a human being from his establishment, he followed her outside and they looked at the sign together. The boys stayed inside near me, and none of us could hear the words being spoken. Presently the storm opened the door and returned to the counter.
“Knuckleheads,” the man said. “A whole lot of them. Running up and down this street all the time. Don’t know where their parents are. It was one of them, I don’t doubt it, that just spit in their hand and erased what I wrote. Just to cause this kind of a scene right here. Just to cause this kind of a scene.”
“Not my fault, is it? I’m walking by with my two boys and all it says is ‘Kids Eat Free on Sundays’ and here it is, a Sunday afternoon. So we came on in and these boys should eat free.”
Again the man looked at me. For some reason I offered no defense. Promptly the two boys had hamburgers and french fries while the woman sat there gulping from a glass of water. Just a few minutes after they sat down, the older son stood and moved to an adjacent booth. He stared away from his mother and took in all the details of a drawing on the wall. The Lansford City Hall. He chewed and chewed until his free lunch was gone.
A long affair began that afternoon. Two years and four months. As poor as she was, she had a small house that was left to her when her mother passed. The day after the funeral, she told me, her husband told her that he couldn’t stand the wallpaper in the kitchen. Why all the flowers? Pink and yellow with green stems and the background color a sort of bland tan. Nauseating was the word he used to describe it. She wasn’t going to change it. Her mother loved it, after all, and this was still the home of that ghost as much as the living, breathing beings within. And with that he left the wife, two boys, the wallpaper, the familiar life, never to return.
I promptly took my clothes and the dusty typewriter from the motel and moved into her basement. It would be cold in the winter, but I made do with extra blankets. I struck a deal with the mice, longtime tenants who claimed the territory with their excrement, that if I left them well alone, then they would grant me the same courtesy. I watched those boys grow up. Their bodies sprouted early leaves of manhood, voices grew deeper, muscles formed tightly on their arms and stomachs. They wrestled me to the ground when I upset them. There was a natural aggression toward me, the dark man who feigned fatherhood. Yet on many evenings I found that they fell asleep on the sofa, resting their sweaty heads in my lap, a gratitude unspoken. I read Hemingway softly aloud.
With the boys asleep, I felt her comfortable atop me. The moans, hers and mine alike, were both pain and joy. I was pinned to this moment. I couldn’t move beneath her, and I had no desire to do so. We collided, this woman and I, unable to change our course, like two large planets finding their imminent end of days. Two planets. One of her body and the other of my mind. Neither one knocked from their orbit but both still tossed asunder. When the weight was lifted, she spoke in the alien tongue. Tales of her atmosphere, she said, that I could never quite understand. A thick air of poverty. Beloved and defeated offspring. Tell me about you, she said. And I told her that I didn’t matter.
I had to rely on Jungle Alley once more. I wrote weekly letters to Baldwin. I asked him to perpetuate what was in actuality a lie. Tell those rich, white men that I am exactly the deviant they so desperately desired. I was a fool to try and escape. Of course the truth was vigilant. It would catch me no matter where I ran. Tell them that in some dank room that smelled of sin, I wrote again of my composition. Once more I tread into that jungle. Once more I exposed who I was, and as they certainly hoped, exposed the acrimony and indignation that stained the marrow of my people. Tell them that what flowed from my pen was visceral, angry, substantive, perverse, frightful, triumphant. And impossible to finish, of course, without their funding.
I gave her a half of each payment and kept the rest in the suitcase that was buried beneath her dead mother’s linens in the corner of the basement.
Finally the persistent urge to write returned. Maybe I was inspired by the lies that I kept telling. I wanted to keep true to at least some of those promises offered to the men with the deep pockets. Just as likely, perhaps more likely, it was the sound of Hemingway’s words and how I whispered them to those children and how I wished that it were my prose, not his, that they last heard before they drifted into sleep. Therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for the black boy of Harlem.
But I could no longer write about Harlem. I felt the disconnect. The distance. The canyon too wide to leap. I felt a cold truth grip me, clench and shake me. The faces of my true neighbors were distorted. Their mouths, noses, broad foreheads, eyes, disturbingly morphed in my mind until there was no face left to be distinguished. Their flesh—chocolate, almond, chalky tan—all became one color. The palette had fallen to the floor. It all became mixed. It all became lost. They were strangers now—the ones I hated, the ones I loved, the ones who passed me on the street rushing toward a bleakness over which they had no control. If I were to write at all now, it would be Illinois. The new Americana. The picket fence. The friendly dog. The pleasant life. The quiet death. They were all quiet deaths here. And mine would come soon enough.
Her younger son demanded, as much as an eight-year-old child can demand, macaroni and cheese made straight from a box. Big red letters on the small yellow package. “Easy for mothers to make! Easier for children to eat!” He would pound his fists on the table until she, with plans for chicken and rice or a pot roast with onions, surrendered. For all the demands, for all his volume, she would sigh each time. She filled the bowl with that orange slop. He ate half and scraped the rest into the garbage can.
It was my duty to take the garbage to the curb twice a week, to be picked up by a truck upon which dangled two men in overalls and white gloves turned brown, who laughed so loudly at their vulgar jokes that I always awoke to the vibrato of the punch line.
At the end of the driveway, I took the lid from the top of the garbage can. It was covered in gifts left by the birds. It made a loud din when I dropped it to the ground. The weight of the bag was extraordinary. Bogged down by some expired canned goods. I couldn’t lift it above the lip of the can. I shifted my weight and moved my hands, embracing it like an old friend. My fingers tore into the side. It ripped down the middle. A heap of filth fell at my feet—those expired cans, paper towels, old magazines, apple cores, an empty toothpaste tube. On top of it all the macaroni and cheese, splattering onto my shoes, speckling the laces with drips of orange.
On my knees I tried to put it back together again. I reached my hand down, scooping the gunk of the boy’s dinner into my hands. The artificial all of it. It stained my hands. It made puddles beneath my fingernails. As I moved, the thick sauce picked up dirt. My palms were covered. It smelled like the jungle alleyways of the city. Like the urine that marked the walls. Like the discarded homeless. Like the abandoned home.
When I had walked a half block toward the bus station, I heard her yelling for me from the porch. My name from her lips now sounding like a word I could not comprehend. But there was no chase. There was no plea. Before I could abandon her, like the last man before me, she just let me go.
I know that I am wicked. I know that I am cruel. I know that I am again lonely. But I am also home. Men yell from taxis. Boys beat paint cans like drums on the street corners. The rhythm of the city dictates the movement of my bones. Here I will certainly suffocate. The clanging from the old cathedrals signals that it is Sunday morning and that the lost must march toward the found. For whom these bells toll. They toll for me.
BIO: I am an ordained American Baptist minister and received my master of arts and theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary. I also received my master of divinity from Yale Divinity School. I love to write about small-city America and examine how deceptively simple moments in the nation's history can shatter lives, embolden relationships, and transform the face of a community forever. In my spare time, I play the tin whistle and sing in an Irish band. My work was recently published in The Delmarva Review, Forge, Gemini Magazine, pamplemousse, Sliver of Stone, The Westchester Review, Whistling Shade, and 10,000 Tons of Black Ink.