Kings

Edward often searched for himself in Houraye’s hands.  Soft, nut brown hands he marveled at, unfolding their palms in quiet moments to trace the life lines running through them.

I here or there? he wondered silently, allowing the broadside of his fingers to follow the lines as they curved upward and away from the centers of her palm, splintering into the dark streams that flowed to the sea of rich, warm color.  He never spoke his query out loud, instead swallowing it, letting it move with lightening speed to the base of his belly where he would restrain the urge to push himself into her, looking at her hands, feeling them already cupped against the small in his back.

In these hands now, Houraye held a chipped plate, her face turned downward in a frown, her nose flared in distaste.  Edward stopped his typing, carefully leaning back in his chair to watch her.

The alleyway that the kitchen window opened onto offered a small, but trapped light that cast indeterminable shadows on her face. September already, autumn barreling into their newlywed lives with all the precision of a blunt knife. The plate in her hand like the many she had pulled down from the cabinets now littering the floor between the half bedroom where he had set up office and the kitchen where she stood, hands akimbo on hips still slight. Me life work to watch them fill out, he thought lightly, stretching his arms into the air and across his head where they could only hold each other patiently.

It had been the phone call from her father; the one she had answered and for the first time not thrust the phone at him with a nervous laugh, forcing him to bridge the crackle of language, place, culture; reach out to speak to family in Africa, greet them in his best and politest French – speak to she mother and father and make nice. Nah, this time, see, she had held the phone clenched in her hand, nodding and answering in a false gaiety, like she swallow a bowl of hysteria. Nodded again and again, snapping at him with hands suddenly brought to life, indicating pen and paper (always close by, he had thought cheerily), and then writing down a date in September, and underlining 5 days in furious slash strokes. Edward never taking his eyes off her, until the phone call over, the phone hung up and she absentmindedly biting the nails she just started to grow.

All this because Father coming, he think now from his space in his office. Father as in capital F, as in proper pronoun. Father as in:

He is coming to visit. He will be here in two weeks. He is staying for five days.”  She had parroted the information to him like straight translation.

He staying with us?”  Edward had asked, unsure of how these type things went.

Houraye had frowned, and the movement seemed to bring her back from the stupor of the phone call. She looked at him, then, as if just seeing him for the first time.

“My father always stays at the Inter-Continental. Always,” she said flatly.

Edward whistled. The whistle of an ignoramus, he know now. A low-class never been nowhere man. Inter-Continental mean class, man. Mean he a sure Some-Body. Inter-Continental big bucks, mid Manhattan’s finest hotel. What Edward know? Certainly not a thing at all about this visiting Father thing. He know nothing then, still don’t know much now.

For weeks, as the days come closer, Houraye start unfolding, unraveling, biting her nails further and further into the safety of ragged cuticles. Edward wrapped up in getting the play finished, getting it done in the eight hours of discipline he promised himself. What he know? Couldn’t have known that their lives, their joyous coming together in this apartment now under a looking glass, Houraye hell bent on finding the broken and weak. Laying it before him in both a triumph and despair. So now, where once was kitchen floor – uneven, yes, missing tiles, perhaps — now a sea of ruin grown between them. Chipped dishes, cracked glasses, bent and unwieldy silverware.

Edward shook his head slightly.

“You know I could tell you the story behind each one of them faults,” he said, raising from his chair and moving toward her. Houraye was not listening, instead inspecting plates and saucers.

“Three matching.  Just three matching and one to serve with,” she muttered to herself with some force.

Edward kneeled and picked up a lone glass encircled by coffee mugs with peeling letters and amputated arms.  The glass — part of a once upon a time set cut down in its prime from six to a lonesome two — bore a crack that threatened to widen with time, time he had once thought of happily.

“That glass? From Denis’ visit.”

The memory was still warm in his mind.  Their first real visit, Denis christening their home with his ancient bottles of rum. They had talked long into the night, their bellies filled with a curry she had prepared, each trading boyhood tales of a Caribbean that no longer existed.  Houraye had left the dishes in the sink to come and join them, taking a seat at his feet. That night, as he reached to massage her shoulders, the thought of he and she, the two of them afterwards cleaning the kitchen together –she washing, he drying — the thought of all that domesticity gave his stomach a pond of quiet in which to see Denis through. Two people he loved most in the world, fans and family both, he had thought, pushing back her heavy hair, as she had leaned against the inside of his legs.

Denis had left late after the midnight hour, and Edward had walked him down the three story walk-up, onto the broad avenue to help him to a cab. When he had returned from assuring Denis’ safe passage in an illegal taxi downtown — what else would stop for two black men, husky with night — walking firm legs upward, upward to his top floor heaven where a woman waited for him; not just any woman, but a wife now, a permanent place of comfort behind a heavy door bearing the name Joseph.

Houraye’s cheeks had become flushed from the rum she had sipped with them.  Graceful still, but the clumsy beauty only liquor painted her with. She had reached out for the glasses, reaching through her drunkenness, missing the glasses but still smiling sweetly even as they shattered at her feet.

“Diamonds,” he had teased her, inspecting her feet gently, carefully, for razor thin marks of where the glass might have cut her.  “The Queen stands in diamonds.”

Drunk, she had not even rolled her eyes, the way she did most times at his off the cuff poetry.  A good sign, and she, unhurt in the end, had ended up drying, as he washed and told stories about the once upon days back in his island home. Then, after they made love and she had curled up to his side, her eyes closed, her breath still scented with the spicy scent of rum, one hand spread wide over his heart, Edward had reached for the bedside pad and pen and there composed a poem about she as queen standing in midnight glass.

Now, Houraye snatched the glass from him and threw it into a garbage can where it landed with a thud. “Nothing. Nothing good,” she said decisively.

“Ain’t it all right though, woman?” Edward waved his hand over the dishes on the floor. “Some good and decent somewhere in here?”

His turn to handle the plates and saucers, but no harm warned him in their chipped roundness or faded color.

“Nothing good,” she insisted, turning from him and viciously stacking orphaned Tupperware tops, the remains of a wedding gift. Hasty ceremony at City Hall, dinner in Chinatown, they had since taken to using aluminum wrap for their leftovers instead, but Edward had promised himself they would do it all again. Better. A real ceremony some place overlooking the sea. Tante Vee sitting proud, the Father guiding Houraye down an aisle edged by hibiscus and flavored by jasmine, holding out a firm but warm hand toward Edward standing waiting at its edge.

“It won’t work,” she repeated. “None of this I can present, much less serve,” she insisted, her eyes not meeting his. Edward shrugged and returned to his typewriter, preferring to sit before the window in memory.

 

Houraye had moved from the kitchen to the living room. At least her inquiry thorough, he mused. Though still none of it up to standard.

Man, where you move her to? he asked himself. His eyes followed the wind outside of the window of his writing room, whipping dance steps from newspapers and already dried, fallen leaves on the corner.

They had made love in all the corners of the house, he recalled, something in Houraye finally made safe in this place. They can’t find her here, he had thought once, madly, as she had spread her legs for him on the kitchen counter. His marriage to her — he shook his head — it had saved her from some terrible, he knew, something she had never spoken of, but he had always sensed shadowing their company.  At first he had thought it was her brothers; their departure now more than two months gone meant she was here in America alone, with no safety, no catches, only me. The thought had filled him with such a tremendous pride; she need me, man, a woman like she need me to keep her safe.  He had awoken first each and every day to watch her face turn and slant toward daylight in dreaming.

“I here,” he would whisper, putting fingers to her face. “I got you.”

Even now, in her disarray and unease, she beautiful too. And all the luck in the world he needed. Pushing he to his room each day, pushing he to the typewriter to write, nose open, ears wide. Hearing the call of the saints, as Tante Vee claimed.

“Listen for them when they call you. Listen when they whisper.” Tante Vee had nodded at him as a young, wide-eyed boy.

Surely the saints had been whispering the day Houraye walked his way. Surely they had whispered and he had stopped and been changed forever by this one true African woman.  She beside him and the play unfolding in good time, as she went about her day, still going to classes up the hill.  Edward knew all her sounds, knew her key upon the kitchen table, the sound of her footfall in the kitchen, as she stood and sorted the junk mail and bills addressed to them jointly –Mr. and Mrs. Joseph, Edward and Houraye Joseph, Houraye K. Joseph.  He a part of she and she made his.

And always, the African in her accounting for his well being, the stomach he imagined Aunt Vee would poke to with mock alarm.  Never would Houraye eat alone. Everything split and shared, even half eaten sandwiches from her lunch at school, she lovingly wrapped and brought home for him, placing it on those imperfect plates she now so ready to spit upon — placing them on plates she left wordlessly beside his typewriter. He not even have to look up, but find she offerings there, beside him.

Now suddenly them same plates found deficient. Them plates, this apartment, had held all Edward had wanted:  a woman loving and looking out for him, a woman who fed and looked out for he and his things and then in the night held tight onto him and his dreams.

“Edward, you listening?”

Her voice aimed at him, pitch perfect but broken around some idea.

“You speaking, course I listening,” he said automatically, turning toward the place she had resumed again in the doorway.  Her face was torn by the worry, the fret. She Father coming, she Father coming to decide upon she and she choices. But she had made them, she had lived through them, where the worry then? Some plates chipped, some cups uneven? He tried to understand. Give she his patience.

“I can’t serve,” her arms flew out by her side, grasping, “like this.”  And then falling.

What all this about serve and service? Yeah, yeah, she Father a Prime Minister, suppose they don’t eat like we.

Different from a President, Houraye had explained, second in command, almost ruler of the whole damn country, hear she tell it.

“I can’t serve,” she stated again.

And me thinking all this time words like service belong to whites and their kind, not no Africans.

“What about the hand eating and common bowl?” he asked innocently enough.

The teeth suck. Long and hard. Worthy of a Tante Vee.  A long, good, hard laugh scratched at his throat, but Edward bit his lips to keep it in.

Mais tu penses quoi, finalement? Nous sommes des sauvages ou quoi?” She had begun, her body ramrod straight, jackknifed backward, away from Edward’s.

“I just asking,” he muttered, secretly pleased with her anger, and the color it brought out in her. At least something more recognizable than all this fear fading her away.

“Do you not know who my father is?” she asked.

A better question, he thought suddenly: You know who my father is?

The answer had long ago echoed emptily in Edward. Who his father was, what a father was…It no longer mattered. No, he had decided long ago from the safety of Tante Vee’s, no it could not matter.

Mais nous mangeons de la même façon que tout le monde,” she continued, enraged.

My Father no blue blood prime minister. That much he knew. And he certainly wasn’t walking in off the street, looking for Edward, hunting for the faults and fall-aways of a make do life.

Houraye stayed with the insult to Africa, stayed on the offense, like that he intent.  He shook his head, returning to the view from the window. What the wrong with what we are, where we is? And anyway, ain’t a father supposed to be a soft space, a forgiving space, a place where you come to and he reach out his hands and say, Son, I been waiting for you?

Je n’ai même pas le temps de tes bêtises! I need knives. I can do something with everything else,” here, Houraye rolled her eyes, “but knives, good cutting knives I need. There is a sale at Woolworth’s.”

Edward saw her then, her anger retreating, giving him another chance to make do. Asking him to bring them to the place where the Father could come in and find them in some kind of respectable.

He turned his chair around and faced the window with a heavy sigh.

“Knives,” he sighed. “Yeah. I can do knives.”

 

Her instructions so specific. Aisle and row, color and kind. How long she thinking these type of thoughts then? Edward wondered.  Already looking at replacements and they married only since August.  Edward turned up his collar against the wind as it hurled the debris of the street at him. Still he marched resolutely downhill. Houraye had turned her back on him before he had left even, her instructions for color and type specific enough for her to return to the cabinets and drawers and fill them with the roach colored boxes that trapped the unwanted guests that lived and bred in the midst of their imperfections.

Father must do these type of inspections, he figured. Go through the drawers and private spaces, check what ruined, what not.

“But what about fixed?” he wondered out loud. “What Father do with worked over, salvaged and saved? Do Father turn it over in His hands and look at the tape and glue and smile at the effort? Or do He frown and wonder why it broke in the first place?”

The corner of their block was the cross place of winds, and Edward braced himself as he turned onto the avenue. Broadway, at the other end of the street, held a warmer breeze, but the way into Harlem was as hard as Harlem itself.  But I kept you daughter on the edge, he thought, you see that?  She ain’t living just nowhere, but the best place I could find.  One day soon, this neighborhood be something and she and I might be owners of that space there. Maybe build it up, rent it out even, move to a brownstone in Brooklyn.

On the next block, a Korean couple had opened a grocery. Houraye had taken a quick tour, but had declared “too expensive,” her African nose turned up. And Edward had felt proud at her economizing in both their names. Proud of the bags of groceries she carried in like trophies from the supermarket four blocks down to make their evening meal.

He supposed Father had raised a princess. She an African queen and all, used to fine things, he supposed. His footsteps quickened as he walk toward Woolworth’s.  Fine things, Edward Joseph, not them cheap things on layaway of you and your kind. Fine things.

An enterprising pair of Dominicans had opened up a laundromat in the middle of the block next to the Italian pizzeria, and the smell of soap powder suddenly filling the air always made him think of an old woman, her hands wrinkled from taking in so much clothing, stiff from the blue and starch for pressing.  The thought troubled him, as it did always.  Back home, his thoughts begin, wanting him to swing back to the village and his Nana washing by the stream. He thought of Houraye suddenly, thought, what she know about washerwomen and work? And then wanted to know badly, what she know about work and stiff hands? Arthritic hands?

He directed his thoughts away from those choppy waters, away from the village and a Nana who had pushed the wide-eyed boy onto the plane to meet a mother he never knew. A mother who despite a life in New York, despite living in New York almost a whole lifetime and a half, still didn’t know anything at all about fineness. For all her fair coloring, Bearnice ran cheap and the life she had thrown him into was cheap as well.  Supposed saving from an island life raised and loved by a woman who did washing for a living. Who did washing as grace.  Edward, seven years old and discovering America polluted by the cheapness of Bearnice. He shook his head. Crossed Amsterdam to walk down One Twenty Fifth, his stride lengthening as he crossed first Eighth Avenue and then St. Nicholas.

You could have done better. He wondered if Father will know it, will see the knives, see Woolworth’s, see him on this stretch of rough street, see him seven and coming to America the first time and sniff out the cheapness of Bearnice.

The wind fought him for his melancholy and won, carrying it down the block with all the others in a low, triumphant whistle. Shame she pick Woolworth’s.  Some finer stores on Broadway, further downtown. They should be in the car going there together now, covered in laughter and play, picking out the newlywed stuff of plates and wine glasses and all that good old shit he never knew meant anything at all.

Edward, his mind returned to safer places, thought of the knives instead and not the cutting thoughts liable to leave him in pieces. Knives. What Houraye doing so far over here anyway, he wondered. How she see these knives? What happened to those they had in the house?  They work for him. What she making for Father that they won’t do?

“S’posin’ fathers can’t use no regular knives neither,” he said aloud.  One Hundred Twenty-Fifth swallowed his voice in the din of cars and street noise, the new sound they called rap. Nothing but rap and braids and gold chains, he thought to himself as the husky young men filed past like panthers, the radios carried on their shoulders like a palanquin of language and sound.

Hey, Asante Kings, Edward wanted to yell at them. Come and see the real life King coming to eat with me. Going to get his silverware right now.

The boys walked past him, he of little interest to them at all.

I am a bridge, he thought suddenly. Africa and here. The Father and Sons. Between these modern day Asante warriors in their gold chains and thick leather coats, and the King, coming to visit. Walking between worlds, he thought again, willing the thought to stay – Black worlds colliding upon themselves, kings and rappers – old world and new world…A poem, he thought eagerly, an image to use in the play.

The lines powered him and he moved through the streets forgetting Houraye and her worry, he and his permanent loss.  In front of Woolworth’s, Edward held the door open for an old woman pushing a cart.

“Thank you, sonny,” she said, and then stopped in the entry to pick up the circular. She reached back to hand him one.

“Get you one of these,” she said, waving the circular in front of him like a benediction.

The Father and the Son, The Old World and the New… The Warriors of One Hundred Twenty Fifth and the Prime Minister. And somewhere in between all of that, a boy, a nobody son of Dessalines and Toussaint, Christophe, and Anacoana…

The poem unfolded in his head, replacing the specific instructions for aisle and row, color and cost.

“Thank you, ma’am.” he said, and patiently opened the second door for her.  He tapped the store’s circular against his palm distractedly.

Son of Africa, son of glory, now on new world streets, Harlem colored.

He walked past nylon cotton underwear and sock blends, greeting cards in Spanish and out-of-season stationary.

Your King coming for a visit, for an inspection, coming to gather the lost tribes and reunite them,

Fold the long lost prodigal son into his arms.

If the play sells, and the groups downtown interested, he will take her beyond Broadway, he thinks cockily, sauntering past rubber palm trees glued to their pots, plastic tablecloths and woven placemats. Take her down to Macy’s where a salesgirl would sniff at them, but then sniff again when he lay down a card – gold– and buy his Queen her heart full: her gold, her diamonds put together for service of the all right kind.

Fold the son into his arms, gather him and anoint him.  All this is yours…

Before him lay the packets of silverware. Eight to a set. Individual packets of knives, forks, and spoons all wrapped in thick plastic bags, sat in boxes alongside.

Just patience is all. Just a little patience, she see me working every day at it. Not a day I not before the machine, doing the work of the Gods…

Edward picked up a pack of spoons, absentmindedly checking the price.

What? How he don’t think I good enough? If what I offer is good enough for me, is good enough for she. I she husband, after all.  I she choice.

The curved cast of the spoon reflected back his distorted face, broke it into a million pieces in their highly polished but fake silver shine.

Aww hell, he thought suddenly. Who coming anyway and why what I got, don’t work for you, Father!

He clutched at the spoons, walking toward the register.

Where you been all my life anyway, hunh Father? Maybe you be around, I never leave Nana come to this place? My Nana and the quiet place in the stream and all those warm hands handling me, massaging me, making me close to you even if you was never around?

The cashier pointed to the register, and Edward pulled the appropriate bills out of his wallet.

Back home folks coming up to me knowing I was yours because I favor you –  Ti’ Joseph they call me, you big Joseph, even if you never around. But still, you never call, never come for me, instead let Bearnice come and take me away from everything I know is true and good. Bring me here to this place.

“Thank you for shopping Woolworth’s, next customer on line, please.” The girl’s voice was a drone.

What it matter anyway? I set up house with all I had. Give she my best. Father don’t appreciate honesty, what a Father for anyway?

Edward pushed the box and the bag under his arm, no longer thinking of color, or costs or specification. He had no credit card, no inheritance, no piece of anything but cheapness anyway –  it Woolworth’s after all.

This do, Father?

The plastic Woolworth’s bag tucked under his arm, Edward rejoined the din and the quiet anger of the street.

What I know about fathers or Africa anyway, Edward thought bitterly. Not a damn thing, he knew, not a damn thing.

 

The stairs of the walk-up carried the aroma of fried onions, first step in the preparation of all good things, he liked to say. Opening the door to the apartment, the mess of the kitchen floor was gone. In its place incense burned.  Long time since she light that, he thought, wondering where she got the incense from. Somewhere on the route back, he had lost his anger, disappearing into the same dark hole it had flashed from.

Houraye was busy, her body in motion even as she stood still, slicing carrots, yam, and manioc with a knife. A quick glance into the living room and he saw that she had strung curtains hurriedly made from fabric. Curtains that covered where even in her best cleaning moments, the grey residue of the city’s grime could not be reached and so effaced, blocking afternoon sun from reaching and brutally exposing their second hand couch.  On this too, she had put a fanciful slip cover, he noticed.

This her Africa side, he thought proudly. The cleaning, the preparing, a pot on the stove already sizzling and humming.

“Knives,” he announced happily, placing the plastic bag beside her cutting board.  His heart was filled then with a returned happiness. Not only to come home to a house rich with the sights and smells of everything he had ever wanted, but to be part of it, to play some small role in it all. He leaned against the counter, wanting to see her eyes look at him gratefully and all the old feeling come back.  Maybe even a kiss and a beer to send him back to his machine, to get them lines down.

Asante kings on 125th street.

Houraye’s shoulders sagged.

“Spoons, Edward? Spoons? What will we do with spoons?”

He looked at the package she held despairingly in her hands, trying to remember how the knives had turned to spoons somewhere in the heart of Woolworth’s.

“Eat,” he suggested, lightly, wanting to make her laugh and like that name him hers, claim him still before all fell apart.

Houraye placed the pack of spoons onto the counter with a bang and strode past him to the bedroom.

Edward was silent as he heard the door slam. Reaching for a spoon, he dipped it into the frying onions. The taste hot and bitter, soured his tongue.  He tossed the spoon into the sink.

The line, the poem. Worth more than a thousand knives suddenly.

“Worlds collide. Asantehene kings on 125th.  Knives cutting hands draw blood but we still and always one people,” he said out loud.

The pot sizzled.

Edward retired into his writing room, turning on the typewriter. Its hum reassurance.

And I got me a princess, a Queen on One Twenty-Third and Amsterdam, reigning from the top apartment in a three-story walk-up, he typed. So come along and see about me, Father. Come along and see about me.

One Response to “Kings”

  1. Mike Miner

    Strong dialogue, characters brought fully to life; a nicely weaved tale. Looking forward to the novel.

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