A CONVERSATION FOR ANOTHER TIME
That Saturday, Benny left early to meet LaTasha across town. He had two hours to make the forty-five minute trip, but he wanted to avoid the lunchtime traffic. He’d been to her cousin’s place twice before--as a passenger in the car--but he hadn’t paid attention to the route. He couldn’t risk being late. The last time he left her too long with her relatives, she met him in the driveway before he could even kill the engine. “If you were a taxi service, I’d have you fired,” she said, and she fell into the car like she was escaping a roadside accident. “I might just fire you anyway.”
She pulled her dreads up into a sloppy bun without looking over again or checking in the mirror on the visor. She clicked her seat belt and folded her arms over the strap.
“There’s always Uber,” she had added when they were two blocks down the road.
Once he arrived downtown, he stopped for gas. The directions Tasha had scribbled on the napkin were confusing, no zip code, and after the way things had gone yesterday, she might not answer her cell. Both the GPS and Wayz cut out as soon as the projects appeared on the horizon, anyway. There was no telling how many wrong turns he would make before he found Keisha’s place in the bowels of Birmingham. His sense of direction was weak.
But he didn’t want to find the house too early either, since he knew he would be the subject of their conversation before he arrived. He’d need to backtrack if he found Keisha’s place sooner than he planned, or maybe he’d hang out a while at Red Cat or Garage Café on the south side. In his mind’s eye, he could still see how Tasha had looked at him last night before she cooled off. Like the time she asked him to order for her before she had arrived at Anthony’s Steakhouse and he had picked the Cajun spiced scallops.
Her silence could be brutal. As she ranged around the house, she might clean the bathrooms, fold the laundry, dust the furniture, but all without a word. Just Nina Simone on the stereo—the ultimate unhappy sign—followed by pot after pot of spice tea. The silverware clinked on the dishes as they ate reheated lasagna. This last time the barely audible hum of the refrigerator seemed abruptly more audible than ever.
“Just because you love me doesn’t mean you can’t have racist ideas,” she’d said afterwards into the mirror by the kitchen sink. “Where I come from, if a person is acting a fool, then you have to say something, or they just keep doing it. So I’m telling you.”
“I’m just saying I don’t understand, so I gotta keep asking.”
“You’re a romantic,” she said, spinning around and pointing at him like she was accusing him of a crime, or diagnosing a disease. “A person is not an idea or a goal. I’m just me.”
“I love you,” he said, and he gave her back the same finger like a gun. “Aren’t you putting too much on this whole understanding thing? You’re always on my mind. That’s not enough?” He picked up his half-eaten cornbread, broke it into two pieces, put them back on his plate. When he glanced back up, she had her back to him again. “How smart do you expect me to be?” he asked.
In the bedroom before they turned out the lights, he could see her distress had altered into something more like weary relief. She had clearly been working hard to forgive him. He had her permission to be himself. They were still in this together. In the dark, after a long twentyish minutes, he could tell that her whole body had let go, she relaxed into a more familiar, comfortable drowsiness. “As long as we can talk about it . . . .” she mumbled, and trailed off.
The question now was, what the hell was she talking about? He had simply told her as bluntly as he could how much he loved her. How could she possibly not like hearing that? Whenever he looked at her, something foggy and heavy like a humid vapor in his mind evaporated. Like he was forgetting his faults. Like she was his addiction, except she was also the antidote. It was true: her blackness was beautiful to him precisely because he didn’t have to think of himself, not even for an instant.
So what made Tasha turn away after the Kendrik Lamar concert, sweeping into her robe in the Four Seasons Hotel room like she was rehersing a vanashing act? When she came back from the snack machines with the unsalted cornuts, she had clearly been crying.
“If you don’t like yourself, don’t expect me to,” she said, finally. “I’m not medicine for you. And I’m not different from you either. I’m me. Your sympathy needs a little work, Benny. I’m in charge of my own destiny, not yours.”
As Benny pumped the gas, he gazed at the buildings, at the passing cars and the buses, at the litter cluttering the gutters and fluttering up from the concrete median in the street. The cries of downtown traffic lifted from around the buildings like distant, discordant music. Beyond the cris-crossing waves of cars, a row of beat-up, red brick houses sat like barracks behind a high chain-linked fence. The fence topped a concrete wall covered in a mural depicting Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in cartoonish black-and-white: all noses, eyes, mouths, hair. Above them, like an angel or a thought bubble, was an obviously hastily added Obama, blurry impressionistic, rainbow-colored, more teeth and ears than eyes. He looked delighted. In the bottom corner was a pool of something like yellow vomit spraypainted over with the red words Trumped Up Shit.
Each project house had only two small windows with bars on them, the shades drawn even though the day was warm. A series of rusted awnings with numbers on them arched above the windows. The entire row of houses needed to be repainted and seemed to sag as the buildings receded over the hill. They looked like the broken backs of houses rather than front yards. Visible cracks snaked along the sides of the cement porches cluttered with plastic chairs, laundry flapped in the breeze; tiny, unlit Christmas lights hung from several eaves, one rusty satellite dish perched above the center house like a bent and broken metallic bird. In the distance, the steel spires and concrete buildings of downtown Birmingham jutted up thickly like tombs, the sunlight glinting in high windows.
Tasha grew up here, but even she resisted visiting these three city blocks, not even to meet with Mama Moses and Uncle Ellroy, not even to see her favorite cousin, unless they gathered with solicitous relatives at Hot and Hot’s for yellowfin tuna and gazpacho, or at Bottega’s for the Italian orange vodka aperitifs. She would take the by-pass around downtown and come in the back way to Keisha’s house, maneuvering some complicated, serpentine series of alleys and driveways only the locals knew. “Never again will I wander through streets that smell like human pee and call it home,” she said.
Still, it always surprised him to see the housing projects match her description so exactly. In the vacant lot diagonally across from the gas station, a liquor store flashed a neon sign glowing dimly in the daylight reading House of Spirits. Beneath a billboard advertising Southern Skin Divers Scuba Supply, a woman in a short skirt and heels and a tight green shirt with the word PINK in bright letters spelled across her full chest, stood at the corner watching the traffic as if she were doing a survey. A prostitute named Peppermint had staked out a corner near the Aretha Causeway bus stop when Tasha was going to highschool. That woman haunted her dreams. The woman beneath the sign actually resembled Tasha a bit, he thought, tall, rather oddly shaped. Her breasts were heavy, her body otherwise skinny. Her hair a touch nappy and fuzzy along the hairline, her skin like dark honey, the full lips. “I see you looking at all the pretty ladies,” she would say, because she could always read his mind. “You better keep your mind on the business at hand, buddy.”
But what was his business, other than being with Tasha? What was his trajectory? The men in his family weren't known for their longevity. They had a tendency to die as soon as their hair fell out and they’d garnered a nest egg from a life full of diligent work, big houses and expensive cars. Maybe that was why he was feeling restless. Maybe that's why he changed jobs every three or four years, stuck to the temporary type of work. The moving company had been easy enough: Barrett’s construction had been exhausting, but he had liked it at the time; bartending was fun as long as he wasn’t surrounded by incomprehensible drunks and didn’t have to work clean-up; the night-shift janitorial was strange, like living in a post-apocalyptic world, the mere visitation of real people long gone, cluttered with their trash. In the empty hallways, he could hear his own footsteps.
He was pretending at something, but at what? The sad fact was, now that his years matched his waistline, and he was squeezing into those size thirty-fours, the only wisdom he could dig out of himself was, hey, live and let live.
Tasha, on the other hand, had a trajectory anyone could believe in: she had escaped poverty and was forever creating a better future. She could imagine the three promotions she needed to be District Manager at the Be-Strong Wellness Rainbow Housing Directive, and just exactly when those promotions would come. The key to success was in understanding the other man’s perspective, she often said, especially when it was a white man’s mind.
When Tasha met someone, she liked to imagine a whole lifetime. She daydreamed entire lives until she saw at least one happy possibility. She decided Elinor Sherman wouldn’t stop jabbing her finger in people’s faces until her daughter gave her two grandchildren, and that “Stumpy,” the office manager, should consider a sex change operation.
“If you can’t put yourself in another man’s shoes, you can go ahead and call that being straight-up stupid,” she was likely to say in defending any of her friends or self-serving clients. Like Tasha’s sub-manager, Todd: his smudge-coal eyes still managed to glint with resentment, his fat red cheeks forever starved for …what? So why did the whole crew roll their eyes at Tasha--not at Todd--when she got just a little silly drunk at the office parties?
Three drinks in, everybody knew, Tasha’s friendliness could be indiscriminate. She was the opposite of an angry drunk. Drinking made everyone awesome to her. They glanced at one another when she wasn’t looking.
“I see how they do. I’m not blind,” she said, when he told her so. “It’s called a lifetime of practice at being black in America. Seeing through all the bullshit requires an extra dose of sympathy. And besides, people have epiphanies, baby. I know I do.”
“So what’s the next epiphany you imagine for me?” he asked.
She had looked at him as if he had just asked her to walk outside naked.
“That’s a conversation for another time,” she said.
At the gas station’s pump number two, a woman with close cropped fire-engine red hair was leaning against her Volkswagen, doing her nails with an Emery board while her tank filled. She had tattoos from her wrists to her shoulders. A thin man with thick eyebrows and an outdated, box-shaped afro came out of the convenience store, a ridiculously antiquated pipe between his teeth. He walked upright like a soldier to his car: a dented and faded Toyota. Behind him, a brawny, walnut-colored man in a nylon scull cap appeared next to the tow truck parked alongside the snack shop. He wore cut-off jeans and a white dress shirt clotted with faded, brownish stains, sleeves cut off at the shoulders, unbuttoned, untucked, exposing a plump, dimpled midriff. The skin around his belly looked to be covered with burn scars. In one hand, he held a large soda cup steeped above the brim with ice. The man looked over at him, frowning, then, abruptly, he waved. With a mild shock, Benny realized the man was walking straight toward him.
“Mister white man,” he said loudly from twenty feet away. “Let me ask you something.”
They watched each other as he closed the distance. Jet black earrings dangled from his lobes. The sole on one of his sandals was coming loose, softly slapping and popping with every step. His loose jean cut-offs dangled dirty strings. The man grinned with bone white teeth. “I ain’t trying to bother you,” he said, offering up a handshake, his grip was soft and loose. “I’m just looking for a little help.” He pointed to the tattooed woman who Benny could see now was frowning and glaring at them. “Everybody thinks cause I’m big I’m gonna hurt em. I’m just trying to get to my daughter.”
“I don’t have any money to give,” Benny said briskly. The gas nozzle clicked, he pulled it from the car and stuck the hose back into its carriage. “I need my every penny.” Which was true enough. With just twenty dollars extra for gas money, which would only get them back home but not to work, and twenty-seven dollars due for the music box on layaway for Tasha’s birthday. He’d barely have enough for the pizza or tacos he was already thinking about for lunch tomorrow and for the Ramen noodles to eat until he got paid on Monday. He wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t end up having beans and rice for lunch all next month. If they went to a restaurant with Keisha, he might in fact claim a lack of appetite and eat bread sticks with water.
“I don’t need no money,” the man said. “In fact, I’ll give you ten dollars if you’ll give me a ride down the street to Layton Claymore.” He pulled out a crumpled bill from the shallow pocket in his shorts. Two knuckles on his right hand looked scraped raw. “I just need to make change.” He reeled off the directions to the Middle School, talking quickly, loudly, presumably to keep Benny from refusing. His face looked swollen, and he had a diamond stud in one nostril. “My daughter will kill me if I don’t meet her after band practice. I have to be there in a half-hour. She’ll kill me if I’m not there. All these people think that I’m going to hurt em cause all they see a big black man. Who do these people think I am? It ain’t right.”
Benny couldn’t help but notice that two of the other drivers filling up their tanks were black, one obese man in penny loafers and a corduroy jacket and a mother with a bad wig wrestling her sleepy daughter into the baby seat of a shiny SUV. From the way the fat man stared, Benny guessed he’d already been approached. Or maybe the man didn’t dare try him at all. Maybe the fat man already knew about this guy.
He was being solicited because he was white and a stranger, maybe because Tasha’s Volvo made him appear to have money, and perhaps simply because he’d stared back at him. It was a bad habit of his, according to Tasha, but at least it meant he was still curious about the world.
“If you got the time to help a brother out, I’d appreciate it,” the man said. “It won’t take ten minutes. She’ll never forgive me if she has to wait for me in that hot band uniform.”
One thing for sure: there was no way the man could hide a weapon in those tattered cut-offs and an unbuttoned shirt, in broad daylight. He was big, but the way he walked—his balance was off. If he had to, he could take him.
“I’m just looking for a little sympathy, man. A little help. I’ll pay for it,” the man said. He set his twenty on top of the gas pump and smoothed it out with his hand.
“All right,” Benny said, vaguely surprised at his own words.
The man’s face brightened. “Finally, a Christian soul.” He clapped Benny on the shoulder.
Even after Benny told him that he didn’t need to pay the ten dollars, the man insisted on going back inside to get his change. “I’m gonna pay. One good turn deserves another and money was meant to be spent.”
“Are you crazy!” Tasha would say if she were here. “What are you trying to prove? How old are you? You think it’s interesting to be a grown-ass fool?”
Benny saw the woman with red hair and tattoos shaking her head at him as she got into her Volkswagen Beetle, as if she were hearing his thoughts and agreeing with the voice of Tasha in his head. Tsk-tsk, she was saying. She lowered her window as she eased out of the station. “The man’s never heard of a bus?” she asked Benny, pointing to the bus stop on the corner.
Benny got his paper receipt from the gas pump and waited, nevertheless. He could see the man through the store-front window at the counter. He seemed to be having unnecessary conversation with the teller. The big man was laughing, but the teller wasn’t. If Benny drove away right now, the man wouldn’t even see him leave.
But he waited, as if glued to the spot. He sat in his driver’s seat with the door open. By the time the man came out of the store with his change and a new cup of ice, all the previous customers were gone, although several cars were waiting for the light to change so they could turn into the gas station.
“You a good man,” the big man said as he plopped into the car. “Not like all these haters.”
“I try,” Benny said.
Once on the highway, Benny caught his first whiff of unpleasant odor. Once inside the car, the man reeked of something that smelled like the pond scum in the park behind the house where Benny grew up. The man couldn’t sit still in his seat. He kept twisting to the side, pulling down on the edges of his blue jeans as if they were riding too high, and they weren’t, if anything he should have pulled them up. And when he ate the ice in his cup, he was doing it too ravenously, too much at once, as if his mouth were numb or he were dying of thirst. He clearly needed a fix.
“People call me Big Sticks,” the man said, offering his large hand to shake again. He had a horseshoe branded on his shoulder. “Or just Sticks.” Benny reluctantly took his hand again and introduced himself. Sticks smiled broadly and rolled down the window.
“I like the fresh air better, too,” Benny said, rolling his window down too.
“What?” He looked over as if seeing Benny for the first time
“I usually roll my windows down instead of the AC,” he said. “Whenever it’s not too hot. I prefer it. You know?” But he left the AC on. It was hot. The smell was awful.
Sticks nodded and stared ahead as if Benny had just asked him a philosophical question and he was considering his answer. “I guess I done got used to the heat.” He put the cup of ice between his legs and rubbed his hands together before the vents like a man in front of an open fire.
“You were in a fraternity, I see,” Benny tried, pointing at the raised horseshoe on his arm.
“Back in the day.”
They rode for a bit in silence.
“So, you say the school is in Avondale?” Benny asked. “I’ve actually never been down that way before.”
“Hmm? Yeah, Layton Claymore School, you know. Just past the expressway up here. First Avenue North.”
“Actually, I don’t know the streets down this way.”
He gave Benny another steady look. “Where you from?”
“I live across town in Helena.”
“Hmm. Yeah, I know Helena.” They drove a few more moments in silence, stopped at a traffic light. Sticks munched his ice. The light changed to green.
“How old is your daughter?” Benny asked.
“Middle school. It’s up here. Turn at the third light, then keep going straight.”
More silence. The roadside was lined with businesses but seemed half-deserted nevertheless--a Waffle House, a pawn shop, a tattoo parlor, a hardware store, the Sunbeam bakery, the Blue Moon Hotel, it’s neon crecent moon shining dimly. It was a city of empty parking lots. So where was all the traffic headed?
Sticks rocked back and forth, cleared his throat. “I bet you got these wheels on Tate Street, right?” He patted the dash board. “Get the best rides with Mr. Haskins.”
“We bought this car out of state.”
“Cause I know Tate Street. Me and Mr. Haskins.” Sticks grinned and took a huge gulp of ice. He munched and he rocked. “He’s all right for a white man. We done business a time or two. You leasing or buying?” he asked.
“It’s my girlfriend’s car.”
“How much a month?”
“It’s paid for.”
“Hmm. My kind of girlfriend.” He reached over and turned on the stereo already tuned to Benny’s favorite 80’s rock station. Sticks stared straight ahead while Stevie Wonder sang Superstition on the radio, then changed it to a classical station. A cello droned low, mournful notes in two-part harmony, a touch too loud. Sticks seemed to take a deeper breath. He tapped his fingers on knobby knees.
“Classical, huh?” Benny said.
“Old school,” Sticks said. “Old.”
“It doesn’t get any older school than that.”
Sticks didn’t reply. Suddenly, the music burst into a symphonic crescendo.
“What instrument does your daughter play?” Benny asked over the music.
Sticks sat bolt upright in his seat as if his spine had turned to concrete, and turned off the radio. “Slow down.”
“I’m only going forty.”
“Pullover. Slow down.” Sticks lowered the window and called out to a teenage boy walking on the sidewalk in a hooded sweat shirt and baggy pants.
“B!” he called out. “Uh huh … didn’t think I’d be rolling up on you like this, did you?” He leaned out the car window. “What’d I tell you?” He pointed at him, then made a fist. “I’m watching your ass. You better not be shittin me.”
The boy said something back that Benny couldn’t hear, but the teenager was clearly startled. His eyes were wide, and he kept raising his shoulders, palms up. A passing car beeped at them.
“Nigga, you think I’m playing?” Sticks said to the teenager.
Benny could see the traffic in the rear view mirror, backing up, racing around him, new beeps. “There’s traffic,” Benny said. “I’m going.” He sped up.
“I’m watching you,” Sticks called out again to the boy and raised the window. Then he lowered it again.
He turned to Benny and smiled, then shook his head. “You gotta watch em like a hawk,” he said conspiratorially. “Keep going.” He motioned ahead as if Benny had asked permission. “It’s right up this way.” He gulped down another huge mouthful of ice and crunched on it.
“I’m taking you to your daughter.” Benny left the edge in his voice. “I don’t know what that was all about.”
“No you don’t,” Sticks mumbled and filled his cheeks full of ice. To look at him, Benny’s reaction might have been just another beep from outside the car.
“What’d you expect?” Tasha would say. “If you’re gonna help, you better look twice. You better think ahead. You better be prepared to make a difference.”
The school appeared around the next corner. It was a high school, not a middle school. A marching band whose members were dressed in blue jeans and t-shirts was rehearsing in an open field in back, high stepping in long lines. Near the curb, a short row of tuba players, their instruments glinting in the sun, rocked back and forth in front of a man with drums. All of them teenagers or older.
“Which entrance do you need?” Benny asked.
“It’s right up here, a few blocks down.”
He eased the car past first one entry way where the buses arrived, then the next, waiting for the sign from Sticks to turn. “Is there an entrance in back, or do we need to drive out to the practice field where the band is? Where is your daughter waiting?”
Sticks gestured to go ahead. He was squirming again in his seat, moving his legs back and forth. “Thirty-Second Street,” Sticks said and pointed.
The neighborhood six blocks beyond the school appeared around the next bend behind a grove of trees. All the windows on the houses were boarded up. All the houses on both sides on the avenue—crack houses, clearly. Benny turned onto Thirty-Second, but checked in the rear view at the highway behind him. There was still plenty of traffic, plenty of witnesses.
“Take a left,” said Sticks.
On both sides of the street, the front yards were cluttered with trash: rusted-out lawnmower shells, washing machine parts, two standing freezers with the doors gone, plastic ten-gallon buckets piled waist high. In one yard, hidden just behind a heap of folding metal chairs and a mass of rolled up chicken wire, a sleek, gray Mercedes nestled snugly in an alcove of mattress springs and bed boards.
Benny stopped the car.
Sticks looked straight ahead. He rocked. “Just turn on Avondale Lane. We nearly here.”
“I’m not going down that road.”
Sticks turned in his seat. His shiny eyes looked both bleary and hungry.
“This is as far as I go,” Benny said.
Benny turned the wheel and eased over to the curb, but before the car stopped rolling, Sticks had opened the door and stepped out. At the last second, Benny had to hit the brakes hard. Sticks stumbled onto his feet. He turned to face Benny once he found his balance, although he seemed to be looking over the roof of the car at something in the distance. He slammed his fist into the doorframe, as if he were slapping Benny. “I got your number,” Sticks said, but listlessly, as if to himself. “I know a fake ass cracker when I see one. A man like you’ll take the life right out of a body. You can’t feel nothing I’m saying.” He pointed a finger at him. “You’re worse than a hatin man.”
He jogged away from the car with a slow lope toward the row of boarded up houses. As he did, his pants were falling down, showing his underwear and the crack of his ass. He hiked them up as he ran, his loose sandal popping with every other step. He didn’t look back, or yell or flip him off, or angrily throw a wadded up ten-dollar bill at him. He didn’t shut the door behind him. Although the street was right off the main thoroughfare, it seemed especially deserted. Benny watched Sticks run down Thirty-Second Street until he rounded the corner of the third house and disappeared. He imagined he would meet a similarly doped-up someone inside a house with dark rooms and tattered furniture. He pictured them taking a hit together, huddled in a corner, talking in disjointed phrases. In his imagination, their eyes clouded over. They sighed. He imagined a young girl in shiny barrettes, like Tasha in her grade school pictures, in a room off to the side, peering wide-eyed from behind a slowly opening door.
Benny reached over and tugged the passenger side door shut. He turned the car around. He wondered what Tasha would say about all this. He wasn’t sure exactly. He did remember something his grandmother had always said when he misbehaved: “The Lord hates ugly too. You can’t pretend like this didn’t happen.” For a split second, he considered not telling Tasha. In the next moment, he knew he would, that he had done all of this just so he could tell her.
What would she say, though? He knew he had been stupid. He had picked up a fidgety, strung-out stranger, and everyone at the gas station knew what was going on. How could he explain his motives? What had he seen and hoped for?
As he turned onto the last street scribbled on Tasha’s napkin, he imagined her face as he told the story. He wouldn’t try to render all the details until they left Keisha’s, until they were alone, but she would see that he was distracted before that. She would understand, in that way she had, that something new had happened, even after the argument. He could imagine the way it would go as he got out of the car at Keisha’s house, that he would see them sitting at the dining room table in front of the bay windows, spicy wings from Holler and Dash at the center of the table. Tasha would smile and wave, her mad spell at least partially talked away. She and Keisha would motion for him to come on in. “What’s wrong with you?” Tasha would say after giving him a perfunctory hug/pat/kiss, then stepping back to look him in the eye. “You look like you’ve been up to no good.”
Brian Ingram was born and raised in Alabama, and now lives in downtown Los Angeles.