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  • 23. To Kill the Pink

    By Ben Greenman

    Of all the things one might write in reviewing a story collection, this is my new favorite:
    “I want everyone I know
    to read this book very soon
    so we can talk about it.”
    So sayeth the delightful
    Roxane Gay, at HTML Giant,
    of Ben Greenman’s long-awaited
    What He’s Poised to Do,
    publishing this week.
    Here is a taste of
    what she’s talking about.

    I’m going to Malawi. I’m writing that down on a single sheet of paper, folding it into thirds, putting it into an envelope, and leaving it on the kitchen table leaning up against the sugar bowl. When I go, I don’t want you to have any outstanding questions about where I’ve gone. Though most of your questions are outstanding. Pause. Get it? Remember when I used to do that, make a joke and then wait a minute before announcing it back to you like you were blind or deaf or dumb? I’ve been doing that to you ever since we were kids, ever since I nicknamed you Tails on account of your pigtails and it stuck. Fifteen years later you are a grown woman with a fine shape, top-shelf and bottom-drawer both, and it’s that bottom drawer that lets the nickname live, even though I had to take off the s. I call you Tail sometimes because it makes you laugh and sometimes also makes you hot, but usually not in public, where you’re Angie.

    Last year I made a mistake in this regard, and I apologize. We were out for a walk, talking, and Lee Johnson who joined the seminary overheard our conversation and told me he thought the name was disrespectful to one of our beautiful sisters. I explained to him that it wasn’t at all, that I was honoring one of the most divine aspects of you or any other sister, the woman’s form, and that he could see how it was intended if he watched me when I bent down in the morning to kiss you good-bye before I went off to the radio station for my shift. You are a beautiful sleeper. You are beautiful awake, too, except when you try to be funny, which is why you shouldn’t try to be. You look good, like I said. You’re morally certain. You notice things about people and comment upon them in a manner that almost always leads to improvement. You’re full of more love than hate. Why bother with funny? Leave that to me. You can come visit me in Malawi.

    Let’s go back twelve days. You go first, and when you get there, take everything off and slip into bed. When I arrive, I’m bound to be disoriented and dispirited from the trip—no one likes going backward—and I want to get a little sugar before I head out into the cruel summer. You can leave the black bra on if you want. It does its job in the way of shaping and holding but is camouflaged against what you always like to call your African complexion. The first time you told me that, you were fourteen, maybe, and I was a year older, like always, and I was running with your brother Larry in that gang he had for a little while before he decided to become an accountant. Tough guy. The gang was called the Tigers, and Larry said we had to snatch a purse for initiation. I didn’t want to, so I went around to all the girls I knew and asked them if they had a spare purse I could borrow. The first two girls I asked looked at me crooked, like maybe I was going to wear it for my own pleasure, but you just said “sure” and ran upstairs and got me one. It was black and you said you preferred bright colors to go with your African complexion. “Complexion?” I said. “But Africa’s so simple. See lion, flee lion.” I paused. “Get it?” I said. “No cars, no bars, no drugs, no hustlers. Just a lion wanting you to be his lunch.”

    You set your mouth in a straight line and sat down on the steps. “Rennie,” you said. “I won’t have you mocking Africa. It’s where we all come from. The Harlem that you see around you wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t been loaded into boats against our will. You’re a light-skinned man, but you can’t pass for white, so don’t go thinking you can turn an eye on the place you came from.” It was the first time I noticed that you got more beautiful when you got mad.

    “Actually,” I said, “I know for a fact that my ancestor wanted to come. He tied himself up and hopped into the boat. He got a little sick of baobab stew and thought he might prefer some soul music and American movies.”

    I thought you’d scoff at me, or at best laugh the way girls always laughed, their eyes bright but their body leaning back. Instead, you leaned forward so I could better see the twinkle in your eyes “Not funny,” you said. “That’s a historical tragedy and you’re getting A-list material from it. If you call that A-list. Please don’t make these jokes around me anymore.”

    I put a hangdog expression on, though my heart was leaping. “I’ll make a note of that,” I said, “and put it in my purse.”

    Here I was sure you’d finally lean back, but you jumped off the steps and threw your arms around my neck. “You heard me,” you said. “No more jokes.” Then you kissed me on the side of the face, but it was like you were kissing my lips. A girl went by behind you on roller skates. A leaf fell off a tree. There were so many other details that I’ll never recover, little things I wish I could have noticed. Instead, I was in the grasp of something broader, thicker, and darker. So were you: that is a joke but it is after the fact.

    That took us back more than twelve days. Sorry. You try keeping your mind from the memory of our first kiss. Let me reset the time machine. Twelve days ago, on Saturday, we were having coffee and toast in my apartment, where you had been living since late spring. “Like a real couple,” I said. This was my move: to state the thing that truly amazed me, with a bend in my tone to make it seem like I was taking it all in stride. In my mind, I called it the Twistback. I was reading the newspaper; you were looking out the window. That’s how breakfasts went. I always brought a book or a paper. You liked to start the day making sense of the world with your eyes. Between us, we had it all covered. Near the bottom of the front page, there was an article about Malawi, newly independent from Britain. “Isn’t that strange?” I said. “That a country can be newborn after it’s been around a while?”

    You tracked a bird across the window, left to right, before you answered. “It didn’t used to be called Malawi,” you said. “What was it again? Hyasaland? Something like that?”

    “Nyasaland,” I said. “If it was high-ass-a-land, they would have elected you president.” I paused. “On account of the ass you have on you,” I said.

    You ignored me, which was a form of accepting the compliment. “I’m all for independence,” you said. “The only problem is that sometimes when these states go that way, they end up like children who need a parent, and the parent is some dictator-for-life who never treats the people like they’re people.” You crunched your toast between your teeth.

    “How a twenty-four-year-old black girl who’s never been out of New York City knows so much about the world never ceases to amaze me,” I said. Again, the Twistback.

    “Well, I always paid attention to where I came from,” you said. “While you were busy studying the human comedy, I was trying to figure out human drama.”

    “You’re the sad mask; I’m the happy mask,” I said. “Takes both of us to put on a play.”

    “I don’t have time to put on a play,” you said. You were studying to be a lawyer, and the fact that you seemed unencumbered in the morning was only the shadow of the way you were at night: walled in by textbooks and mimeographed papers, ballpoint pen in your mouth, glasses pushed high on your head. Many times I’d go to bed by myself, and you’d show up hours later, slipping silently between the sheets. I wasn’t asleep, but I didn’t let on, and you didn’t go to sleep either, but rather stayed up repeating names to yourself: names of cases, names of judges, names of laws. That exercise filled your mind with answers, but overnight the answers turned into more questions, which you liked to ask me in the morning. That morning the questions were about belief, or at least they started that way. You asked me if I could believe that there was a time in our country’s history when there were no penalties for obstructing minority access to a polling place.

    “Black people can vote?” I said. “Heavens to Betsy. No one told me.”

    “I just get tired of this sometimes,” you said.

    I felt a chill race down my spine. “This?” I said, waving my arm around the kitchen like a TV pitchman. “But it has everything.”

    “Not this,” you said. “This, America, now. We’re all working to make it better, except for the ones who are working to make it worse. But it all goes so slow.” You looked out the window for the bird, another form of progress. You crunched your toast again. “Have you ever thought of visiting Africa?” you said.

    “Why?” I said. “I like wearing pants. That way, I can take them off when I want to get with you.”

    “Be straight for a minute,” you said. “It’s where you came from, the place that created both your problems and your promise. Aren’t you curious? You really should go.”

    “You go.”

    “I’m broke as a joke.”

    “I have money, but do you really want me to crack open my Diamond Ring Fund?”

    Usually this got you to stop: it was marriage talk, which sent you off into a speech about how you didn’t believe in marriage, that it was only a ceremony to verify a love that, if truly felt, didn’t need a ceremony for verification, that you were wary of entering an arrangement that made you formally dependent upon another human being, let alone an abstract idea that shared more with slavery than with salvation. This was the only time you seemed as though you were joking, and it was when you were at your most serious. You had been doing it as long as I had known you; Larry used to say you were a secular preacher with the whole world as your congregation. “I’m just saying that even a pea-brained rising radio star might want to reconnect with his own identity now and again.”

    “Not guilty as charged,” I said. It’s true that I worked at a radio station, that I played a little music, made a few jokes on the air, pocketed a bit of dough. It advanced my reputation to some small degree, or, I like to say, at least cemented my reputation as a man who can only be advanced by small degrees. But I was secretly proud of what I did. I leavened moments in people’s days that were otherwise leaden. I offered a balm for the spirit. I encouraged people toward the divine without resorting to anything godly. “But if I see a pea-brain, I’ll let him know,” I said. I got up to put my plate in the sink, and I took yours, too, and you said, “Thank you,” and whatever little bit of tension was rising in the room dissipated. We went to the couch and listened to records and you let me kiss your neck a little bit. “I’m just saying,” I said, “I’m happy here in America. I know there are problems. There’s always going to be problems. I know we were kept down, and we’re rising up too slowly. But I also know other things. Do you hear what we’re hearing? Is there another place you can listen to Marvin Gaye and then the Beatles and then Chuck Berry and then Mary Wells and feel like you really know what they all mean? I love being here in this place and I love being here in this place with you.”

    “It is nice,” you said, nuzzling into my shoulder.

    “I would recognize this country even from the back,” I said. “You think I need to investigate my identity? This is my identity.” Then I headed off to work and proved my point, played “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Thirty Days” and “Your Old Standby,” all as messages to you.

    That was twelve days ago. I didn’t even fold up the paper with the news about Malawi. I left it open on the couch, and that night, when I got home from work, I rolled you into it when we were getting down to business. Then a week passed, and it was five days ago, and it was so hot that we went out for ice cream and ended up talking to some of the kids we knew in the neighborhood. Ken Louis was there, who told everyone he was related to Joe Louis, and his best friend Paul Ordis, who liked to tease Ken by saying he was related to Joe Ordis, and James Powell, who was the worst of the bunch but still a good kid. They all had girls they were sweet on, and they wanted you to give them advice on how to act. “Don’t act like this one,” you said, pointing at me, and all three of them bagged up. Paul Ordis said he hoped one day he’d have a girl as pretty as you, and he meant it so sweetly that you told him you were sure one day he would. Then I told him stories about me and Larry and how we both got it together in time for
    adulthood. “You can call him Larry, CPA,” I said. On our way back we saw two white cops sitting in a car at the corner. One made a gun with his finger and pointed it out the window. He was laughing.

    That night we were closer in bed, though we couldn’t have been any closer, and not for any major reasons. It was as a result of a host of little reasons: seeing the teenagers on the stoop near the ice cream shop and remembering when we were that age, knowing how pretty you were and how smart you were and how clearly you saw the world and wondering if I could do the right things to keep you. There was a slight metallic uneasiness in my head, and I assume there was in yours, too, and that’s why you let me make love to you the way I did. “You know what I mean,” I said afterward. “Competently.” You threw your arms around me and laughed.

    We both knew enough to be uneasy about the kids and the cops, but we never thought the two stories would come together the way they did. The following week it was even hotter, and all the kids in the neighborhood were out in the street, acting foolish. A group of about five of them, including Paul Ordis and James Powell, were play-fighting, mostly to make fun of Ken Louis, though they continued even after he left to go home. The play fight got louder and louder, and finally one of the neighbors called the cops, just as another neighbor came out of his door to stop the boys. James Powell was in bold character now, and he stood up tall to the man who came to stop the fight. “What do you want?” he said. “What the hell do you want, man?” The neighbor sprayed James and Paul with a hose, and James pretended to go wild and ran full-speed after him, shouting that he was going to kill him when he got hold of him. That was when one of the cops who had showed up on the scene emptied his service revolver into James’s back. I wasn’t there, and neither were you, but you were one of the first people Paul Ordis saw when he ran crying home. “Miss Angie,” he said. He couldn’t say any more and he buried his face in your shoulder.

    I was at work, spinning records and making jokes, when the calls started to come in about the shooting. I did what I swore I would never do, and that was to feel ashamed that my job wasn’t serious enough for the world around it. I took the records off the turntable and let people know what was happening, how the CORE meeting later that day was now going to be a protest, how demonstrations were being planned for the next day and the day after that in Harlem and Brooklyn. Already the violence was starting, a few kernels of corn popping. I didn’t come home until late, and when I did, you greeted me at the door like a wife, silently embracing me and whispering into my ear that you were proud of me. “How can you be proud of anyone today?” I said. That night you didn’t stay up late studying. You went to bed when I did, and we were distant from one another, each in our own head, though we couldn’t have been any closer.

    We ate breakfast silently the next morning. The newspaper was unopened on the table next to me. You were looking at the window as if no one would ever be able to see through it again.

    “Angie,” I said.

    “Why not Tail?” you said. “You should call me what you want, and I know you want it.” It was a burlesque only. I could no more have touched you that way than I could have killed you. I kissed you chastely and went off to work, hoping for the best. I didn’t get the best. I didn’t get anywhere near the best. The demonstrations started peaceful but didn’t stay that way for long, and before you knew it there were cars burning and bricks crashing into windows. What would Lee Johnson have said about any of it? I was at work again, imagining I had a new job, which involved keeping the people calm. I was at work again, failing. The calls were pouring in about how the neighborhood had already slipped out of civilization and the city was soon to follow. In the afternoon I took a call from an older white man. “I’ve been listening to your show, and I have a solution,” he said.

    “Sir?” I said.

    “You should go back to Africa.”

    I had heard it before, of course. We all had, and much worse. But this time it sounded different. The man wasn’t angry. He had the appearance, at least on the phone, of a rational being. “Sir?” I said again.

    “You heard me,” he said. “Go back. We don’t need you here.”

    His comment went through my head, brick-through-window-style, and with it went many other things: affronts, confusions, challenges I had to his remark, ways I could respond. I reversed the process, pulled the brick out until the window was intact again, and in the reflection I saw a clear picture in which I had the man down on the ground, my hands around his throat. I was squeezing hard, yet it was eliciting only laughter, flushing his face a healthy pink from his cheeks to the roots of his hair. I tried to kill the pink and instead I intensified it; his face went red, then purple, then darkened until it was like mine, then darkened further until it was like yours. I put the phone to my ear and heard only the dial tone.

    I left work, crisscrossed streets where I shouldn’t have felt safe but did. A store that sold fish tanks was burning. Pause. Get it? I directed myself to believe that fire was a refining force, just as I had once believed that humans are capable of kindness, or that jokes offer an adequate defense against cruelty. You weren’t at the apartment. I went to the library, then I went to a liquor store—both intoxicants, neither lasting—and then I went home and called a travel agent and asked how much it would cost to fly from Kennedy Airport to Blantyre.

    “Blantyre?” the girl on the line said. She wasn’t being rude, just curious.

    “The one in Malawi,” I said, “not in Scotland. Though I can see how my accent may have confused you.” It was possibly the last joke I had in me, and not one I was particularly proud of.

    “Yes, sir,” said the girl, flustered, and got right on it.

    When she told me the arrangements were made, I asked her if I really wanted to do this.

    “Sir?” she said.

    “Nothing,” I said. “Nothing at all.” I looked through the book I had taken from the library. The city of Blantyre, named for the birthplace of the explorer Livingstone, was in the highlands, which may have strengthened the resemblance. It was surrounded by four mountains whose names I committed to memory—Soche, Ndirande, Chiradzulu, Michiru—and which I imagined as a vocal quartet performing on a street corner: first tenor, second tenor, baritone, bass. There was a joke there, but I didn’t reach for it. The book had some pictures, including one of a woman standing out in front of a small bank, facing away from the camera. She looked just like you. I shut the book and put it away so that you wouldn’t see it, and then I did what I had been waiting days to do: I took a nap. I dreamed of you when you were a little girl. You had your pigtails on and you were telling other girls jokes that were labored and earnest. You were trying to be better. You always were. Ten years from now I want to be holding you in my arms and kissing you while we listen to our children playing in the next room, and to do that I have to be newly born so that I am no longer so young. Isn’t it strange that a man can be newborn after he’s been around a while? I hope you don’t misunderstand what I’m doing with this trip. On the plane I will say prayers because I don’t like flying and also because I am trying to find the divinity in many things. On the plane I will cry because I have doubts, and then I will take the s off and have doubt. On the ground I will stay in my hotel the whole time except for quiet walks on the street. On the ground I will spend the nights reading until I understand and spend the mornings looking out the window. Let’s move forward twelve days, to when I will come back to you with my heart recharged and my vision restored. “I will reconnect,” I wrote in the note I will leave for you, and I imagine that when you read that you’ll lean forward, eyes bright. Even if you don’t understand the way I made the decision, understand that I want to be able to be the way I need to be for you, to make you laugh and make you want to laugh some more, and I just don’t see that happening if I stay around here too much longer.


    © by Ben Greenman, from the collection What He’s Poised to Do.

    Read Roxane’s full, marvelous review here!

    And have a look inside here!

    One Comment

    1. Guest on August 14, 2010 :

      i love this story, wonderful!


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