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Grace
Selected Stories by Robert Moulthrop

 

  Mrs. Mellors
  Grace
  Furniture
  Friends In Need

  Uncle Louis
  Elvis’s Dog, the One Named Moonbeam
  Olden Days

 
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Olden Days

In that Southern city of a certain size, the eight square downtown blocks were always covered with friends. So when they met publicly for dinner or lunch — not often enough, not often at all — they talked Young Sportsmen’s Committee business, words, words in the air above the white linen tablecloth and the beer, above the catsup bottle, red as blood, and the bottle of dark red pepper sauce. And as they talked, they would sometimes allow themselves to look at each other, in the air between the words, a look now and then of love, sometimes even lust, as the committee-organizing-volunteer-charity words filled the air. Sometimes, if no one was nearby, they might, in the lowest tones, talk about each other. But mostly they talked about the committee and its work. They were civic minded, each in his own way, though to have been otherwise would have been impossible, then and there, in that city, for two professional men.

In the evenings when the arrangements stayed, Chuck would leave his car by the station and walk over through St. Louis Street, then cut along the alley. But for Phil, even the evenings were aching, stolen time, unreal time set aside, bruised like the skin of a peach, dark, overtasty, and slightly off. And the aftertaste — alone in the quiet — was strange. Phil hated their time together and loved it and never knew the how or why of Chuck’s side of it, inside that perfect ebony head.

They were standing awkwardly in the small vestibule, getting ready for Chuck to leave, when their eyes met in the mirror.

“I proposed,” said Chuck, and Phil’s body, naked under his robe, lurched into an icy, lonely cavern.

“It’s only been two years,” Phil said, and touched the satin black shoulder through the white linen shirt. “We can,” he began, then stopped. He was sure there was nothing we could do to change what was happening. Like the rest of his life, this announcement had come upon him before he was aware. He found the eyes in the mirror again. They met his own, but at a distance.

“Verleen is ready,” said Chuck.

“You mean Verleen’s family is ready,” Phil shot back.

“Same thing,” said Chuck, shrugging. Phil took the gesture with a shudder and removed his hand.

“It’s more, isn’t it,” said Phil. It was a statement, and he felt it hang deliberately in the air. I don’t want to know, he thought. Outside the door he could hear the moths beat at the screen, soft thuds and scratches.

“It isn’t us, me and Verleen, but . . .” Chuck’s hands moved through the air in front of the mirror, the old quarterback putting order into the chaos of space before him. He was making an active, conscious effort at the truth, wanting to pull it from himself like Excalibur from the rock. “I’m here in this town, my life is here. And what I’m going to do is, I’m going to operate in all the worlds of this town: I’m going to be with my people because I’m Black. I’m going to be with the whites, because they like me; and I’m going to be up and down the classes, too. And that’s what it is. And this, you, us, this . . .”

He stopped. He was still on the grounds of truth, as far as he could go. But he was now in a part that was an untended landscape, ragged, wild, untamed, full of surprising vistas of immeasurable beauty, terrible crags, and dangerous precipices. “I don’t know,” he continued. “This is the part that has to go.”

It has to go and it has to stop, thought Phil with a silent giggle. He was rooted to the tile floor of the vestibule of his house, feet planted squarely on the black and white design, destined, he felt sure, not to move, ever again. He wanted a drink, wanted to be away, wanted the moment, the relationship, his future, his life, to be over. Then he was talking again almost before he knew what he was doing.

“I can’t say anything smart; we’re too much to each other, and besides I can’t think of anything to say except No and Please and I can’t look at you and say that, and I can’t look away from your beautiful eyes.” He couldn’t tell whether his sudden tears were pity for himself or sorrow at the ending.

“We can still have lunch,” said Chuck. His tie was knotted and he held his coat hooked on one finger over his shoulder.

“No, we can’t,” said Phil. He had taken out a handkerchief from the pocket of his robe and was blowing his nose. “I can’t do that. How can I sit and lunch with you at the Flame House and talk about the Sportsmen and look at you and stay sane? Maybe you can, but I can’t. Let’s sit a minute.” He blew his nose again and stuffed the damp linen into the pocket of his robe.

“No. I’ve got to go.”

Oh soft the voice and sweet, oh round and gentle. Phil shivered in the cool, conditioned air.

“I think I’m going to be all right,” Chuck continued. “I think I might even be happy. It may not be what I want, but I think it’s what I need, you know?”

“If we left, left this town, we could make it.” Phil tried to make it a statement, tried to keep the pleading desperation from his voice. “We could, we could go anyplace — Memphis, New Orleans, New York. Things are different now. People don’t care. You can just be. People like us, we can just be, together.”

For an instant they faced each other, and Phil felt the younger man fall into his eyes, into his soul, and he let himself feel a leap of joy, a repetition of the joy from before, from the olden days. But then it was over, and there was only reality, solid, between them.

“I don’t think that works out so well, though,” said Chuck. He was putting on his coat. He always left with his coat on and a public handshake at the door. “You rip us up from here and put us in a city, and I’m just some dumb nigger bastard, just another black fag, another punk. . .” Phil winced as the self-inflicted last re-infected all the wounds. “. . . living with a white man who likes Black meat. You think that football jersey’s going to buy me a place in a real estate agency in Memphis, New York even? They don’t care about that. So I’m just nothing to them but what they see. No. I want to keep the texture of my life. I like it that they know me at The Flame and down at Myrna’s and over to Gaylordsville. And I covet my Daddy’s respect and my Mama’s love. So no.”

“We could make it work. Starting over ain’t, isn’t that hard.”

“Don’t do this. My pride’s too high to stay,” Chuck said. There was anger now, and fear in the voice. Phil was disturbed and excited by the tone, almost unaware of the words. “You know what they’re doing to me — my father, my mother, Verleen’s brothers. Look, honey . . .” The endearment touched and hurt at the same time. “. . . I can be just regular middle class Black man in this town, where I got my comfort. I suppose I’d really like to stay here and be a gay Black man. But I don’t do that. So I can’t.” Phil waited, wanting to see the deep brown eyes look directly at him, willing it to happen. But Chuck looked away. “And this hurts,” he said. “And that’s that.”

He opened the door, stepped into the humid night. Phil felt the outside air attach itself to the hair on his arms.

“I got to go,” said Chuck, and reached back and with the familiar gesture shook Phil’s hand in a public way and let it go with the familiar signal, an extra rub of his thumb across the white man’s palm. Then he turned and left.

Phil watched, listening for the gate, pretending to hear footsteps through the outside hum of air conditioners, the noise of radios, the sound of television. Then he closed the door and went into the living room, to the bar, and poured the vodka straight into a tumbler and tried to drink it straight down. As he choked he felt the tears somewhere away inside. He sat down and picked up the phone.

He listened to the gurgle on the line, electronics strained through moss and bayou water. He knew his mother was upstairs resting with a cool cloth across her eyes while dinner simmered and the phone rang downstairs in the store.

“‘Allo, Blanquette’s.” The voice touched Phil’s childhood joy and pain.

“Hey, Daddy,” said Phil, “how’s it goin’? Ça marche?”

“Ah-oui.” That gentle squeak. Phil could feel the smooth wooden floor of the store beneath his bare feet; he imagined he could hear the building settle with light snaps in the early evening. He closed his eyes and looked with his father past the shelves of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Campbell’s Soups, past the fishing lines and lures and the red gasoline cans in the shady cool, held still by the magic of a slowly turning fan above the cash register. Outside the rain would have settled the dust along the road, and the fireflies would have just begun in the gloom of the woods.

“Daddy? I thought I’d come up for a day or two, help out in the store for a bit. Visit with you and Mama.”

“You been laid off?”

“No, Daddy, they don’t lay off civil service at my level. All that’s fine. I just got some time coming and I thought I’d come up.”

“Ah.” There was a pause. “Well,” the thin voice said, “come then.” There was another space in the conversation as both men listened to each other breathe in the electronic hum.

“Phillipe?”

“Yes, Daddy . . .”

“You bring your mother something. Last time, you don’t bring her something, and she don’t forget. Bring her something this time, maybe she forget.”

“Sure, Daddy, sure, I just forgot, you see, before.” Phil wiped the sweat off his brow with the sleeve of his bathrobe. His mind stopped on a long ago picture of his father leaning over the store’s account books late at night, one hand rubbing the sandpaper stubble on his cheeks, cursing lightly under his breath as a drop of sweat plopped onto an inky column of figures.

“And Catherine Marie? V’a-t’elle?”

“Daddy, it’s two years since the divorce. That’s old news. I don’t see her except through the window of the real estate office.”

There was another pause.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I don’t mean to be sharp.”

Suddenly the line broke somewhere and he heard a woman say “over across and down and through,” then he heard his father say, “Well, I just ask. Your mother and me, we talk, that’s all.”

“I know, Daddy. So I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay. ‘Voir, Phillipe.”

“‘Voir, Daddy.”

He put the vodka over ice this time and took the time to take a long sip before he made the next call. He waited with his eyes closed for the citified buzz to end in a click.

“Hell-oh.”

He savored the soprano sound of that tiny, sweet voice.

“Catherine? It’s me, Phil.”

“Oh, Phil, honey, are you . . .?”

“Don’t hang up, Cath, please. I need, I need . . .”

“Phil, honey, don’t start that. Don’t cry.”

“Oh, Cath, I, I, I . . .”

“Every time you call me, you get like that, like this, it’s no good, honey.”

“I’m not, Cath. I’m not crying. Honest.”

“Well, what is it, then? Are you okay?”

“Yes. Okay. Fine. I guess.”

“What is it then, honey?”

“Do you have company, Cath? Maybe I should call back?”

“Nobody’s here, Phil. Vernon’s still at work.”

“You get the check all right?”

“Yes, of course. You know me. If there was a problem, I’d call.”

There was too much silence.

“What is it, Phil? Are you in trouble?”

“Trouble? No, I don’t think so. It isn’t trouble, Cath.” Phil laughed a little. Then there was too much silence again.

“I’m going up to the store tomorrow for a couple of days.”

“That’s nice, honey. You always liked that, going back home. Maybe you and your Daddy can take some time and go fishing.”

“Cath?”

“Yes, Phil?”

“Do you ever, you know, miss us?”

“Oh, sweetie, of course I do. How can you be married to someone for nine years and not miss them when they’re not there. Trouble was, Phil, you weren’t there for most of the nine years.”

“Oh, Cath.”

“I didn’t say it to . . . I’m sorry, Phil. Really. I am.”

“That’s okay.”

Then there was another silence, this time poised to crack.

“Whatever it is, Phil, you can talk to me or not. But if you’re not going to talk, then I got to go. I’ve got a closing tomorrow and the paperwork is something fierce.”

“Oh, well, good luck then. Bye, I guess.”

“Bye, hon.”

Phil poured another drink and created a reason to call Chuck. But even the thought hurt. So finally, he just stayed in his bathrobe, with the vodka, trying to cry.

The next day Phil pulled off the road at a rise to the west of the crossroads where the store sat, two square wooden buildings holding at bay the roots and the moss and the surging green. In a dark patch of shade away from the road he could see a clump of fluttering white spots, a swarm of butterflies moving at quick random, like the rite of a secret dancer. The white flickers charged and darted.

As Phil watched, they swirled into a pattern. He looked intently across the field, trying to understand the meaning. He stayed, not smoking, hands resting on the wheel, sitting inside the car, long after all the butterflies had disappeared into the grove of quiet cypress.

 
   
  © Robert Moulthrop, 2011

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