The note, if one word could be referred to as such, was on eggshell-blue stationery, and had come in a neat blank envelope, slipped under his door with sinister stealth while Henry was in school, probably, or down at Fantastic Worlds buying paperbacks, three for a dollar. He’d come home with an armload of Isaac Asimov and found it. Typed. Misspelled.
Later, in another room, downstairs, he stood frowning at the note, and then at the dead baby, and then back to the note again. Was this a joke? ‘Is this a joke?’ he asked the dead baby. There was a fragile doily of moisture around the cold kiss of the kid’s back to the surface of the stainless steel table, like chicken in a refrigerator, and the faucet dripped in the stained sink plip. Henry sniffed. The dead often smelled faintly of shit.
There was the time, years back, during Henry’s first week, when that hit-and-run from North Philly had sighed a long, luxurious, tired-at-the-end-of-a-work-day sigh as Buckler laid him out on the table. This very table, which was edged with a channel groove, a groove sloping down to a hole at the low end, a hole over a splattered bucket, the bucket dangling over the blood-red floor; the floor painted red so the blood wouldn’t show up on it.
Buckler claimed that so-and-so had fucked on this table, but Henry didn’t believe a word of it. Not that the location, per se, was so incredible. But that so-and-so had ever fucked! That owlish freelance embalmer who liked to listen to an eight-track of Roberta Flack while he worked? That creep who center-parted his hair? Then Henry had a horrible thought: had Buckler ever, in re-hashing this tale about so-and-so fucking on the stainless steel table in the embalming room one night, specified about whether the lady in question was actually. You know. Animate?
Henry! bleated the intercom. Hen-RY! in its paper cup voice. Auntie Georgia, on her step-stool at the intercom in her bedroom. Henry, we have a pick-up! This, to Auntie Georgia, was always exciting news.
A minute later, Henry was in a blinding wash of sunlight, and it was a leafy summer day in Philadelphia, him climbing into the wagon, bracing his hand on the dashboard of the converted ’64 Chevy as Gil took a hard left into traffic. As the steering wheel straightened, Gil reached across Henry and popped the glove compartment, palpating tissue boxes and road maps, one eye on the road, in desperate search of a tiny bottle of Smirnoff’s.
The client in West Philly lay tackled in her final bedclothes and far beyond old. Brown and dry and dead as a clattering leaf. A cheap black wig tilted loonily athwart her barren skull; the angel of death had surprised her with a sharp right hook. A dented black cylinder of oxygen stood between the bed and an open window, and a breeze blew in like a rat, skittering, brushing her sun-cooked face with the thin gauze of the stained curtain, and, over the bed, under a portrait of a bored-looking Christ, ruffling and flapping a time-yellowed thumb-tacked note bearing the message that someone was due back any minute.
Henry clicked the release levers in the handles of the stretcher and carefully collapsed it to the level of the bed. Gil pulled the sheet back, after prying the old thing’s claws from where she had fastened them with desperate modesty, and they saw that she wore only that open gown, no panties, the intersection between her rusted legs exposed, her vagina black and hard and deeply wrinkled, bristling with a few white hairs. It looked like an elephant’s eye, squinting. “First one you ever seen?” said Gil with Smirnoff breath as he poked Henry’s ribs, with a wink.
Outside, the sun was still high over the staggering black tenements as the two grunted the stretcher down one concrete step at a time to where the wagon gleamed blackly in front of the building. They then navigated West Philly, slowing here and there for hydrant-flooded streets, or where children interfered with traffic playing stickball. At almost every major intersection they saw the same configuration of black institutions: barbershop, storefront church, tavern. The little churches were like shops with large crosses painted free-hand on the sweat-grimed windows. Gil gestured grandly, enjoying himself.
He said “Boy just look at all these poor folks! Damn! Will you look at em? Nobody even knows they exist! Half these children never been inside a school room, and if you put ’em in one, they’d tear it, and each other, to pieces. Just look at ’em!”
They zoomed by disconsolate dog packs. Tattered rooks of jobless corner-bird coons. The sun picked over the sharp rubies and emeralds of fumbled returnable wine bottles, or winced in diaphanous necklaces on oil-slicked puddles near the curb, busy with the ghetto’s every detail, like a deranged or indiscriminate jeweler. And something was burning. Something, near or far, was always burning. And every big clock hanging in every cracked storefront window showed a different wrong hour. God, thought Henry. You can actually drive to Hell.
Gil said “My my look at that pretty little black gal over there, totin’ that sack of groceries.”
The wagon slowed to a predatory crawl and he said “What would you give for some of that?” and he smacked his lips. Without waiting for an answer he continued “Yessir I knew a few numbers like that before I met your Aunt Georgia. You might say that’s too black but the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice. Or don’t you agree?” Gil laughed. Henry was helpless to divert or even camouflage the erection she precipitated.
It wasn’t long before Gil and Henry and the client were all back home, pulling up into the driveway, where Gil gunned the engine as Henry hopped out and swung the gates. He followed the wagon down the narrow drive, whistling, passing in and out of buttery blocks of sunlight that were cut against the angles of the roof’s shadow.
Maneuvering on the little concrete plaza between the morgue and the garage, Gil nosed the garage with a bumper and backed the wagon at the ramp sloping down from the loading door. Henry swung her open and heaved and hefted the gurney out. The morgue was a full house: a juvenile, the baby, and granny. Plus the finished product on the launching pad in the chapel, a Mr. Halliburton. Ready for take-off.
The chapel was fragrant with freshly delivered flower baskets. For the rest of his life, Henry would associate the pastel odor of certain flowers with death. A trail of water spots dotted the dull green carpet where the guy had run the baskets in from a van idling out front. Henry back-tracked the trail to the front of the chapel and turned up the stairs, then down the short hallway, through the casket room, and knocked. He poked his head into Georgia and Gil’s second floor apartment.
Aunt Georgia was on the edge of her bed. She was on the telephone, but when Henry came in she babied the receiver on her shoulder and whispered Six o’clock, Hanky! Service starts at six! She was his grandmother’s sister. Henry hugged her and left, taking the stairs, two at a time, higher still, up to his muggy-hot apartment on the third floor, his bathroom and kitchen and the bedroom over-looking Coulter Street. High up over black-roofed Coulter Street.
He tightened the faucet in the kitchen sink to stop it dripping. He pulled the bedroom window shade and clicked the air-conditioner to ten, kicking off his shoes as he crossed to his bed, and he laid back on it, lifting his legs to wiggle his pants off. For awhile he just laid there, in the brilliant gloom, the sun saturating the dusty shade with hot yellow squares and a cross-bar shadow of window sash, a crucifix that thinned and warped on the flapping shade. Closing his eyes, he touched himself. That black girl with the groceries. Her lips.
Henry wasn’t even sure what a faggot did, beyond ‘play’ with you. And he couldn’t ask. Who could he ask? The thing was he had a feeling that to not know, to not even have that much sexual knowledge, was to be some kind of a what was the word? A sissy. Which is some specie of faggot, no?
Not knowing what a faggot was was to be one, in other words. He had asked Bill once and Bill had said that he had looked it up and a faggot was a bundle of sticks, making them both laugh so hard that Henry nearly choked on his lunch in the cafeteria. Bill and Henry had a deal: whichever of them had ‘sex’ first would ‘win.’ And was also under oath to describe it in detail immediately afterwards.
Henry’s High School, an all-boy school, was integrated. Henry had overheard a huge black member of the football team, standing in line for second helpings on pizza day in the cafeteria, complain to another huge black friend that the white boys on the team would jack each other off in the shower and make fun of the blacks for not doing it. They called it a circle jerk.
Henry was worried: why does my mind always wander like this when I masturbate?
Two hours later, he was taking the stair steps two at a time down to the front doors of the chapel, and standing breathless at the foot of the stairs he had a straight line of sight through the chapel door, and the propped-open double doors of the porch; and down, outside, the length of the walk between manicured lawns to the curb, marked off by yellow parking cones. It was at that moment, in the electric haze of the twilight, that the first long limousine pulled up, as cold and dark as an eclipse, and his Uncle Gil climbed out, looking suave in sunglasses, followed by the family of the deceased. They gathered into a fat black matriarchy on the sidewalk before mounting the steps towards Henry in the chapel doorway. A thousand pounds of big black tits, he thought.
Henry drew himself straight, feeling smart in his dark suit. Gil came to him, touching his arm and pressing a crisp five dollar bill into his hand, whispering Give this to Mr. Sowell when the family is seated and he winked and shepherded the bereaved into the soft green light of the chapel. Elderly bark-colored people hobbled in, most of them strong with the sugary stink of discount liquor. The family filled the first two rows and their folding metal chairs sang with squeals and groans for the duration. Mr. Farrad, the organist, commenced playing.
Beyond the stained-glass windows of the chapel, night rushed again through Germantown. Along Coulter Street, the gothic dark-stoned row homes were meticulously kept: black roofs topped by weather vanes and chimneys; the narrow lawns crisp. The few sexy signs of decay, such as the empty building with boarded up windows on the corner; or the graffiti on the green stalks of the street lights; were signposts along a frontier of change.
The Rev. arrived shortly after the family had been seated. He parked and sat a few minutes in his little car, patting his hair down in the rear-view mirror. He climbed out and chatted with Mr. Sowell and Mr. Buckler. The three of them leaned together against Mr. Sowell’s limo. Mr. Buckler was telling a joke and illustrating it with his hands on his hips in an effeminate manner and everybody was already laughing before he got to the punch line.
When the Rev. finally stepped in from the warm night, he took Henry’s hand in both of his and peered upstairs with a raised brow, pantomiming a question about Gil’s whereabouts, and Henry nodded to the head of the chapel. The Rev patted Henry on the arm and slipped away into the limelight. His shoes were black mirrors; his posture stiffened as he approached the flower-taunted corpse in the casket.
As the service commenced, the night began kicking up dust, and the anima of the inner city blew across Germantown in a long, sultry breath. Henry stepped outside to unhook and shut the porch doors as the gusts began to rattle them, because the banging might disturb the service and spook the congregation, the banging implying God’s disagreement with the eulogy. When Henry stepped out to unhook the doors he caught Mr. Buckler’s eye.
He tried to imagine Mr. Buckler hunched over the Remington in Georgia’s office, chewing his tongue, hunting and pecking out FAGET.
Henry waved and undid the wire hooks that kept the doors open. He walked down towards the limo. The light from the G and G Funeral Home sign over the front lawn glared on Buckler’s dewy skull. Henry could still remember a time, when he’d first come to live at the Funeral Home, when he’d actually been afraid of old Buckler and Sowell, but now they seemed like boys to him. Looking at them as he crossed the lawn for a chat he felt a mild embarrassment over the cheap victory that Time was handing him.
Buckler was as shiny-brown as a pecan shell; he was the cartoon camel to short, stout Mr. Sowell’s friendly black bear. Buckler had a vein in the middle of his forehead that looked like a welding fissure. Henry reached out and Buckler and Sowell each took a hand and shook it, and then Henry dug in a pocket and produced the five-dollar bill.
“Uncle Gil said to give this to you, Mr. Sowell.”
“All right, Henry. All right. How’s life treating you? Peachy, I hope.”
“I’m doing good,” said Henry, turning to Mr. Sowell. “How’s Mrs. Sowell?”
Sowell looked at Buckler and they shared a mysterious smirk. Then Buckler deftly snatched the five-dollar bill from between Sowell’s fingers, holding it up to the street lamp. He whistled between his teeth and folded the bill into a shirt pocket. He punched Henry’s shoulder playfully.
“Pick a number for us buddy-boy. Pick a number for me and Sowell to run on the Lottery.”
“Got any lucky numbers for us, Henry?”
“Know any yalla gals? Tell me a yalla gal’s birthday. That’s a lucky number. A yalla gal’s birthday.”
“Had me a gal like that once,” said Buckler, and he spat introspectively. “Straight hair and green eyes and all that jazz. Octoroon.”
Buckler punched Henry in the arm and said, “He don’t believe I had a yellow gal! Tell him Sowell. Tell him I had a yellow gal!”
“Ed you old lying nigger,” said Mr. Sowell. They all laughed and Henry used that as his cue to return to the chapel. The organist had finished playing and he was waiting for Henry at the chapel door. He stood there smirking, with his back to the Rev.’s speech, his glasses forming thick little dishes of light.
“You’re looking very smart today, Mr. Dixon,” he said, in his rasped whisper. He shook hands with Henry like they had just signed a treaty. He always had a fancy way about him. In the winter he wore his over-coat like a cape. “Henry I had to come back here, with you. There’s quite a breeze blowing up front. Quite a breeze. I’d catch my death!”
He indicated the women who were fanning themselves furiously, in the air-conditioned room, with cardboard fans. The fans were paddle-shaped and printed with Scripture, donated by Mount Zion Baptist Church. Mr. Farrad, who though larger than Henry seemed somehow small, chuckled. His eyes were minuscule behind his glasses. He smelled like the pink cheap liquid soap they kept in the washroom.
They whispered chitchat while the service meandered on, the Rev pounding the lectern at certain intervals. He might have been in an auditorium before a multitude rather than facing the modest clutch of snufflers and fidgeters he was hired to face that night. Not more than a few feet from the front row of mourners, he caused a family member more than once to discreetly wipe an atomized speck of spit or perspiration from a cheek or forearm that it had arced to from the pulpit.
Farrad excused himself and started up towards Henry’s little apartment, where he could nap for forty minutes until the service began to lose steam. At which point Henry would come to wake Farrad so Farrad could come back down and play a little something to accompany the procession out of the chapel. Henry heard the stair steps straining, in an ever-weakening complaint, as Mr. Farrad ascended towards the nap on Henry’s bed.
Henry was a thousand miles away, lost in the neutral bright field of a bored trance, when Georgia hissed down the stairs. He looked up and saw her little face peeping around the corner. He tiptoed upstairs. Georgia was back behind her desk. “How is everything, Hanky? We haven’t had a chance to talk in ages.’ She smiled over her feline glasses at him. “Your friend. What’s-his-name. The Italian boy. He was here today while you were out.”
Henry reached into the breast pocket of his blazer and said, in a mildly aggrieved tone, “Was anyone else here? Someone left a note under my door today. Was someone upstairs while I was at school?” He pulled out the crumpled note, but Georgia glanced at the clock on the wall behind Henry and gasped, both hands on her bosom. She said, “Henry, the service is about done! Hurry, go wake Mr. Farrad,” and Henry hurried dutifully up the stairs and pushed his apartment door open and tried to rouse Mr. Farrad.
The organist flinched. He always slept hard, the way unhappy people do. Or maybe it was just workaday exhaustion. Three odd jobs and night school. He sat up on the edge of Henry’s bed and his unglassed eyes were slits. “Thank you, Henry. Henry, I wasn’t snoring was I? I’d be mortified!” He grinned a grin with a tongue-tip in it while wiping the heavy lenses of his glasses. He looked blindly Henry’s way, and he slipped on his shoes and Henry followed him back downstairs to the chapel.
Henry re-opened the double doors of the porch. He stood at attention as people straggled back into the night. They spilled out in a steady trickle, spurred by Farrad’s pitiless playing. They congregated in clumps on the sidewalk, lit with unreal vividness by floodlights, and gradually disappeared up the street.
After he helped the last man out of the chapel, a drunk he’d seen at every funeral, he hurried between the folding chairs, palming flower petals. Mr. Farrad found Henry and asked if he might catch another hour’s nap in Henry’s room before night school. Henry said “Sure, Mr. Farrad. I’m going to Bill’s house anyway. My friend Bill.”
“Bill.” Farrad bit a hangnail. “Isn’t he that white lad?”
Mr. Farrad was already in a heap on Henry’s bed, everything on but his shoes and glasses, when Henry came upstairs to change out of his work suit before walking over to Bill’s house. Farrad lay on his side, his knees tucked up, looking defenseless. Henry changed in his kitchen, careful not to wake the poor man, and he could hear him snoring like a torture of slowly torn sheets in the bedroom.
Henry had just finished changing and was about to tiptoe out the door and down the stairs when Mr. Farrad spoke to him. He called to Henry like a man on his deathbed. Henry said, “Yes, Mr. Farrad?” A little lamp was burning on the nightstand next to the bed, depressing the room sweetly with a parchment-yellow light. Farrad gestured for Henry to come closer.
But Henry was about as close as he could comfortably get, on one knee by the bed, when Farrad, whose eyes were still closed, suddenly waved him away with a vague gesture, a weak fluttering of the hand that lay on the heavy thigh of his pant leg. Henry felt a fool kneeling there; what did etiquette prescribe? It was a great relief when Farrad, imperceptibly at first, resumed snoring.
Henry walked through the rich city night. He walked west up Coulter Street until he got to the Franklin Avenue bridge and cut under it, a timid detour through the safest part of a bad neighborhood where dirt-poor blacks had been quarantined for decades. His aunt and uncle had warned him never to walk there.
As he walked he saw how the lives of the people there poured so unselfconsciously into their streets. You could see right into their living rooms. Sixteen-year-old sirens in tight sweaters and laminated hair gossiped in trios on crumbling front porch stoops, and fat old mammies wedged themselves in screenless windows, presiding over the crude pageant. Henry felt drawn to the rich fudge of those implacable black faces, even as they were fascinated by and resentful of him. Simply walking there was a violation of the map of his caste. He knew there were blacks on that street that hated him more than they hated whites. His face had that uncertainty of features, and the creamed-coffee skin, which marked him as some kind of enemy. But the air was a syrup of drunk-making odors and he couldn’t resist being there. The frank crudity of life he smelled stirred a wildness in him as he ventured into the deepening folds of the dark, smelling fried chicken and lilacs and beer.
A shiny little black girl was sashaying down the sidewalk ahead of him. As he overtook her he caught an eyeful of her bra-less breasts, flattened in broad circles against a tight white cotton tee shirt. She wore pink satin hot pants, and a candy-colored comb jutted from a back pocket. She had violently big eyes and a stub nose and raw-steak lips that puckered into a smirk as he turned to her at the moment he passed her. The fragile crinkles of her hair were pulled into a tight, stiff ponytail.
She was certainly no more than fourteen years old, and fated early to reproduce by the shrill authority of her chest. Henry felt the irritable plasma of sex in him energized by her nearness as he passed. She reached and took his hand to slow him down and pull him back to walk beside her. They walked the length of a block that way without once looking at each other, wrapped in the night, two seeds in the night’s pulpy fruit, Henry the color of early dawn and she a midnight. She smelled so sweet, like baby oil, which shined in her hair, and dogs barked from distant yards and music from open cars neared and faded and the two of them stopped suddenly at the mouth of an alley. Behind them shivered the raggy wig of a willow, sizzling in the breeze. Henry was shaking as he lowered his mouth on her, as bad as that time he had almost pocketed that fountain pen at Woolworth’s, and holding her hot face was like having fresh-baked bread in his hands.
She pulled away, and she dropped her shorts, and her bush was invisible, but thick as a humid breath between her legs, a good smell gone nearly bad, and he moved to touch it, but she held up a hand to stop him and she squatted, her hand still up, and she pissed, giggling, right there, without shame, on the asphalt. It fizzed out of her nozzle with a force. It flowed from between her tennis shoes and rushed towards him, where he stood paralyzed, and the curve of the instep of his right shoe dammed the urine into a moon-reflecting pool. He stepped out of it like it was fire. She reached for him and he stepped back again, terrified she might touch him, and he stumbled over a root that had pushed through the asphalt and ran.
Bill’s Mom was fixing the porch light in the dark, up on a stepladder, and called out to Henry as he came walking quickly up the street, breathless. She called out that Bill left a while ago for Henry’s house. She was wearing bib over-alls and a Penn State sweatshirt and self-pitying bedroom slippers, doing this job her husband should have been doing. “It’s funny you two didn’t cross paths on the way,” she said. Her dark hair, streaked with a gray that Henry had once naively believed was decorative, was up in a pony tail.
Bill’s street was a quiet tree-lined street in the white part of Germantown; Bill’s Dad had recently nailed a basketball hoop to an Elm near the curb and then left home for good. The petal-strewn sidewalks were as dark as alleys, shaded from the street lights by the very old and close-knit trees, and Henry lost sight of her for a second as he neared he porch steps, but when she was visible again she asked Henry please, if he had a minute, to hand her up a light bulb. When he did so, lifting the perfect bulb towards her where she stood four steps up on the step ladder, the gesture struck him as almost Catholic so solemn and pure that it soothed him. His heart was still banging so hard that he was afraid she could hear it. She looked at him quizzically.
‘Where does the time go, Henry?’ she asked. ‘Where does it all go?’
Henry wasn’t sure if he followed her. She said, ‘You’re lucky.’ She screwed the bulb in, and gestured for Henry to flick the porch switch to test it. He blinked it a few times for her and she climbed down the ladder, shielding her eyes.
Going from a fourteen year old black girl to a middle-aged white woman in five minutes had a certain charge to it, and Henry had to stand a carefully posed way, with his hands clasped in front to hide his erection, as Bill’s mother looked him over as if seeing him for the first time, full of compassion for his condition. The swinging blare of the fresh bulb in its coolie hat overhead cast sharp shadows, lurching like knives around the porch.
‘What are your plans after graduation, dear? Would you like a job around here, helping me out, until you leave for college? You spend so much time here with Billy, anyway, that you might as well get paid for it. That makes sense, doesn’t it or am I crazy?’
She laughed. “Listen, Henry, promise me something.’
‘If you ever start thinking of me as a crazy old white lady, just tell me, okay?’
She turned off the porch light. She hugged him, and then whispered, ‘What’s this?’
Finally, Henry came back up Coulter Street, rounding the corner with the funeral home in sight. He came back up Coulter Street with something less than a spring in his step, and he could see that the mellow light of the lamp near his bed, a yellow blush in the window at the very top of the massive and very old and many-roomed house, was the only light visible in the building, looking lonely and hopeful and far above the world. He just wanted to sleep now tomorrow, he could start all over again, trying so hard to do whatever it was he was always trying to do.
He had to unlock the porch and the vestibule doors. Flower petals were luminous on the black rubber mats of the dark porch. He unlocked the vestibule doors and stood in the thick gloom at the base of the stairs before his eyes could adjust to the street light bleeding in through the chapel windows, enough for him to navigate the dark steps to the first landing. Then he felt his way along the short hall to the next flight that led up to his place on the third floor.
When he stepped into his own dark kitchen, over the hum of the old refrigerator he was surprised to hear a baritone voice, singing softly, Mr. Farrad. Mr. Farrad had stayed late, later than ever, and he was singing a Negro spiritual. Now what? Thought Henry. At first, he remained hidden in the dark kitchen and just listened. My Jesus is the treasure of my sweet victorious heart, sang the organist.
Henry crossed the threshold into his bedroom and there the two of them were, sitting on Henry’s messed-up bed, not so far apart, Bill looking blondly tousled and stunned. Bill’s face was red in blotches and his lips were swollen. Mr. Farrad didn’t even stop when he looked up and saw Henry standing there, but he winked and kept right on singing, like it was the most natural thing in the world.