Eric Charles May

Joyce and Roger (Novel Excerpt )

Part 1

Joyce Johnson and Roger Pratt were both raised in the same neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side; however, he was five years her senior and they did not run in the same circles of classmates and friends. They did not actually meet until the first year of Bush 43’s second term, when they were both living in Washington DC, he a student at Georgetown Law School, she a low-level clerk for women’s health organization.

That first meeting occurred in an old, red stone townhouse in a tony section of the city. A loud party, a mob of mostly-White, mostly twenty-something types crowding the place tight as a rush hour bus. It was early September, still hot and humid after dark, and after a couple of hours some folks escaped the close air inside by moving to the wide front steps with plastic cups of keg beer.

That’s how Roger—wearing a white, un-tucked, button-down shirt over beige chinos—came to be standing out there when Joyce came through the open doorway, she waving back to someone inside and saying: “Have a good night.” She tallish and dark in a loose white dress, the hem just past the knees of her long dark legs, her short hair pinned close to her head, her feet in sandals revealing a gold ring on the toe of the left foot. She was the only other Black person Roger had seen at the party and he called to her: “You’re not leaving already are you?”

She turned, fixed him with an expression that was puzzled but not dismissive. He was the only other Black person she’d seen at the party, this fellow a cinnamon shade, a tad shorter than she actually, with a pug nose and round, wire rim glasses sitting slightly lopsided on his wide face.

There followed a brief conversation: an exchange of names, how each had wound up at the party (friend-of-a-friend invites), then she saying she really had to go, that she had to catch the Metro home (Capitol Hill) before the trains quit running for the night. In a spur-of-the-moment act of beer-fueled boldness, he asked if he might call her sometime. Caught off guard unable to improvise an immediate excuse, she said sure.

Their first date was a week later in another tony part of town, at a Mexican restaurant where the food was inexpensive, gringo bland, and served in an atmosphere of all-too-common kitsch—nonstop mariachi music, piñatas dangling from the ceiling.

It was during the perfunctory first date exchange of life stories: “So how’d you wind up in DC?” that they discovered they were both from Parkland, that African-American enclave whereas kids, they’d ridden bicycles down neat, tree-lined streets and past equally neat houses and lawns. And as they laughed and talked, both now free of any first date jitters, they also discovered they were both only-children, the first time either had ever been on a date with another solo offspring, and Roger decided he liked Joyce’s little beak of a nose and the way, at times, she threw a glance upwards while making a sarcastic point, which she did a number of times: “Roger, I told that woman, ‘Pu-leeze. I do not have time for drama.’” Meanwhile, she decided his moony face was kindly if not handsome, and though she thought him a little old (he was thirty-two!), he didn’t smell of either b.o. or an overdose of cologne. His outfit, while unimaginative (a blue button down shirt this time, more beige chino slacks) was at least tidy, and he spoke Standard English, and when the waitress had come to their table with her olive skin and long brown hair and angular nose and v neck top offering a tantalizing glimpse of upper cleavage, Roger hadn’t let his eyes fixate on any of that, causing Joyce to think that maybe he might be different, not like so many of the other brothers she’d been involved with (her last boyfriend in particular), who apparently viewed dating her as no more than a stop-gap situation, something to tide them over until the woman of their dreams came along.

These factors, along with two pitchers of Margaritas and her own emotional and physical needs, were why Joyce decided, as she and Roger walked away from the restaurant hand-in-hand beneath a gloaming sky, to throw caution to the winds and accept his offer to spend the night at his place instead of Capitol Hill where she shared a one-bathroom flat with two other young women, neither of whom she particularly liked.

Roger’s home was not far from the restaurant; a townhouse similar in size and style to the one where they’d met. Another red stone, three-story building with a turret in front that overlooked a busy intersection. On the way there, Roger told her he shared the place with three women and two men, all of whom were also doing post graduate study in DC.

Roger’s room was on the third floor, a garret chamber with two dormer windows and just enough floor space for a small desk, a club chair, and a futon. Undressing in the dark, Joyce wondered if maybe she had made a mistake (a common occurrence after one of her caution-to-the-wind decisions), maybe this would wind up being yet another misadventure where, after the horizontal hootenanny was over, she’d find herself lying next to a snoring and satiated man whose clumsy doings had left her in the lurch so to speak, aroused-as-all-get-out, but nowhere near the thrilling pleasures of what she privately referred to as, “Happy Valley”.

The futon mattress, it will come as no surprise, was less-than-comfortable, but the bedding, like the room itself, smelled freshly clean, which she took as a good sign. And when she slid her naked body beside Roger’s naked warmth, instead of him going at her like a jungle cat hopping a wildebeest, he gently brushed three fingertips across her shoulder and said softly, like he truly wanted to know, like he’d never asked anyone this ever before: “Where do you like to be touched first?”

They were married two years later.

The wedding took place in a large, Parkland church on a hot and cloudless Saturday afternoon, two weeks after Roger’s graduation from law school. In air-conditioned comfort, a crowd of mostly-Black people looked on approvingly from the two sections of blonde wood pews. Someone’s cute, little, chocolate brown daughter walked down the white-papered aisle in a pink tulle dress flinging purple flower petals before her in haphazard fashion, then someone else’s little boy, looking like a parody of a businessman in a dark three-piece suit, carried the wedding rings forward on a red velvet cushion. The bride, gowned in white, of course, with a politely long train and lace veil, was escorted arm-in-arm by one of her father’s brothers past all the turned and smiling heads to the altar. Waiting there, also smiling, were her two maids of honor in blue blousy dresses they’d never wear again, and Roger with his pair of groomsmen (both cousins), all three fellows feeling slightly uncomfortable at the neck and wrists with the confines of rented black tuxedos. The wrinkly minister, in keeping with tradition, maintained a serious demeanor throughout the ceremony, which he conducted in the typically concise Methodist fashion.

The reception was at a nearby VFW hall, which featured a meal of nearly flavorless meat and mushy vegetables. Joyce and Roger fed each other pieces of white cake, a DJ provided music, and Joyce tossed the bouquet over her shoulder to a group of whooping young women. (To many of the men’s dismay, she refused to subject herself to the rolling-down-the-garter ritual). And later on during the dancing, someone made a fool of himself by getting sloppy drunk and floundering about the dance floor like his back didn’t have no bones, and someone else wound up retching in the women’s washroom toilet while a friend held her hair out of the way, and someone else stormed out of the hall in a huff after caching their significant other flirting with a third party. Folks said later it was a wonderful affair.

After a Hawaii honeymoon, Joyce and Roger settled into their married Chicago life, Roger having earlier that year obtained a secure, or so it seemed at the time, position as an associate with a big Downtown firm, one of those brawny outfits where the partners pose all-smiles for color photos used in the display ads of slick-page magazines. (He had to drop a load of money on a new wardrobe, for at his firm it was considered bad form for an attorney to appear at work wearing the same suit or tie twice in the same week.) He was a transactional attorney, merger and acquisitions, long hours and many a six-day work week, but he never had to appear before a judge or jury, which suited him just fine.

Joyce got a Downtown job as well, at a newspaper where along with several other clerks in a windowless room, she did research for reporters and filed digital photographs into an achieve system. The research was at times interesting, the photo filing she found tedious and a strain on the eyes.

As for their living quarters, they chose a rented and not very large apartment in an old building on the North Side, in Lincoln Park, which was far from Parkland and their parents and as tony a bailiwick as any they’d lived while in DC. Here again were the sorts of amenities you never saw in the old neighborhood: saloons with majestic bar backs and draft beers from hither and yon, numerous eateries that offered “authentic” cuisines from just as many far-flung places, shops and boutiques selling all manner of expensive clothes and non-essential do-dads. (Soon after moving into their flat with the claw foot tub and tiny closets, they discovered Lincoln Park also had a sizable vermin population, which gave Joyce the willies, the population something else that Parkland didn’t have.)

Joyce’s widowed mother—one look and it was easy to see where Joyce got her face and height—was disappointed over the Lincoln Park choice, especially since she had offered the newlyweds the rent-free use of the basement apartment of her bungalow. (She was also disappointed over her daughter’s choice in a husband, but decided to make the best of the situation.)

Roger’s parents (his dad had the wide cinnamon face, his mom the pug nose), had also hoped the newly married couple would settle on the South Side, Beverly or Hyde Park at the very least; however, just as with Roger’s undergraduate years at the University of Virginia (paid for by their taking out a second mortgage), just as with his later work for several years at a Washington nonprofit, and then Georgetown Law School (which they’d partially financed), they saw the Lincoln Park move as yet another step in their family’s long, hard march from the poverty of their ancestors. They never mentioned their disappointment to Roger and Joyce, though Mrs. P did make the prediction to her close friends that what with her son and daughter-in-law paying Lincoln Park prices, it was going to be a while before they saved enough for the down-payment on a house.

And on that note, our story shifts to a Downtown bank office with floor-to-ceiling windows. Just the other side of the glass (it’s a ground-floor office) there was foot traffic aplenty on the sidewalk, causing Roger and Joyce, in the office’s customer seating, to feel a bit exposed, a bit vulnerable, like zoo animals on display as they conferred with the finance officer on the other side of the Spartan desk.

That evening the two were in proper, come-to-ask-for-money attire: he in a blue blazer and yet another button-down shirt and beige chinos combo, she in a green, open-collar dress with a thin white sweater over the shoulders. Taking into account Roger’s student loan debt, they had come asking for what they thought was a reasonable amount under the circumstances. (His salary was close enough to six-figures to hopefully see the first rung of six figures in the not-too-distant future, while Joyce ’s take-home pay was firmly set in the mid-five figures with scant chance of ever getting much higher.)

The finance officer, a brown woman with hair au naturale, a round-nosed face, and a plump figure decked out in a royal blue suit and red silk blouse, listened to their proposal carefully and then explained the home loan facts of life as it applied to them. “With what you two are making together,” she said, “you qualify for a lot more.”

Roger asked how much more and when the finance woman told him, both he and Joyce broke into smiles and surprised looks and said in unison: “Really?” The couple then laughing at the coincidence while the finance woman smiled a toothy smile and nodded her head just like she always did when giving people such unexpected and happy news.

To make sure, Joyce again cited Roger’s student loan debt, to which the finance woman made an amused face and shook her head once as if to say: “Girl, what are you talking about?” She then explained that with Roger’s expected future earnings as lawyer at a major law firm and Joyce’s working at one of the oldest newspapers in the country, there was no worry about their ability to make good on the loan. Yes, there would be a monthly payment increase that would kick in a few years down the road, but by then Roger would surely be earning more money in base salary, not to mention the yearly bonuses that lawyers at large firms were known to receive. Why one of her cousins worked at a large firm in Atlanta, she said. He got sizable bonuses every year regular as rain.

“So,” she said, like she was inviting them over for drinks: “Do we have a deal?”

Oh yes indeed they did.

Even before Roger and Joyce got home, while walking hand-in-hand amongst Downtown foot traffic, they excitedly began revamping their previous plan, which had been to buy a modest starter home, most likely a condo, and build up some equity while they paid down Roger’s loans, eventually selling the starter and qualifying for a loan large enough to allow them to buy the kind of house they really wanted. A house large enough to raise a family in comfortably—three, perhaps four children (they were still negotiating that issue)—which meant four bedrooms at least, in a neighborhood which was safe and, a place where kids could enjoy the advantages of what Joyce liked to call, “a diverse life-experience.”

But now, with the unexpectedly large promissory letter coming, they wouldn’t have to wait a bunch of years to get their dreamboat home, they could look for such a residence right now, and in neighborhoods they hadn’t even bothered considering before because they had assumed such areas were beyond their means.

That evening they celebrated by dining out at their favorite Lincoln Park restaurant—a cuddly, softly-lighted, wood and brick room; mellow jazz on the sound-system, roasted quail with figs on their plates. Afterwards, they returned home with a bottle of chilled champagne from the cute little wine shop down the street from their apartment. With their shoes off they settled on the living room floor, their backs against the sofa and perused the previous Sunday’s paper with its pages, upon pages, upon pages of home sale ads, this time checking out communities like Lincoln Park, and Oak Park, and Evanston.

Parkland was of course, now completely out of the running, for while it was safe as could be, it was in no way diverse. “Less diversity than at a Howard University class reunion,” was how Roger sometimes referred to it. Not as a criticism (least ways not in his own mind) but simply a statement of fact. He did not want his future children to live as he had lived, viewing people of other races as odd and unusual other-persons who were to be approached cautiously; the caution coming from a lack of familiarity that at the very worst bred contempt, and at the very least bred timidity and apprehension, which, Roger said, did a Black person no good in the long run.

Joyce and Roger did not share their future-home strategy changes with their respective families, their thinking being that there was no use opening up that can of angry worms before they had too. Their plan was to wait until they’d settled on a house, and by that they meant with the closing done and house keys in hand, before telling their families. That would make complaints a moot point and hopefully, lessen whatever objections they did receive.

It was four months after the finance woman’s delightful revelation (Roger and Joyce spending weekend after weekend at open houses) that they broke the news about their purchase of a five bedroom-three bath house on the corner of Isiwisin and Patoa streets in Harmony Park. The village was smaller and less elegant than the adjacent suburban towns of Evanston and Wilmette, but far fancier, in many people’s opinion, than the Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park directly south and on the other side of Howard Street.

When Joyce called her mom on the phone to tell her all about it, Mrs. Johnson thought she must have misheard when her daughter told her the price. (If you added up the costs of all the homes that both sides of Joyce’s family had owned going all the way back to just-freed-from-slavery time, the accumulated monies would not have added to even half of what she and Roger had agreed to pay for this Harmony joint.)

“The place has so much potential,” Joyce said, to which her mom dryly replied that the Titanic had had potential too.

“Mother—pu-leeze,” said Joyce. She then explained how she and Roger had of course thought about doing the starter home thing, “but we when we saw the house we realized that this could be it, our house forever. That’s why we decided to go all-in.”

“All what?”

“All-in. It’s a term that poker players use.”

“Gambling. Hmmm. That sounds about right.”

“Mother the house has enough room to raise a proper family.” Mrs. Johnson had no comeback for that, which Joyce knew was the royal flush she could pay, for how could her mother object to anything that might hasten the arrival of grandchildren.

And so, even though Mrs. Johnson had secretly desired that maybe one day Joyce and Roger would buy the house in Parkland that had been she and Mr. Johnson’s dream house, she voiced no further skepticisms. To Joyce that is. To neighborhood friends, many of whom she’d known all her life, she was more open with her concerns: “So much money,” she said. “I know Roger is doing well, but still…”

These friends listened politely and offered the usual boilerplate responses for such situations: “Children. What could you do? They get wild ideas in their heads and off they go.” Of course, when Mrs. Johnson wasn’t around and the subject of Joyce and Roger Pratt’s new home came up in Parkland beauty salons and barber shops, across backyard fences and such as that, Mrs. Johnson’s friends said that it was now clear that Joyce and Roger had, “Gone to White Folks.” Which was Parkland palaver for community residents who not only chose to not live in the neighborhood, but chose to live in a place not even remotely like the neighborhood. Places like Lincoln Park, or Lake View or Evanston, or Oak Park, or Harmony Park; places where they would never, ever, have to worry about living amongst too many other Black people.

Any number of these friends had a child, or a niece, or a nephew, or grandchild or two, who’d Gone to White Folks (often after exposure to the atmosphere of some predominately White college), so they didn’t hold Mrs. Johnson in any less regard for her daughter’s decision; however, they did feel, as they did with their own Gone To White Folks relatives, a sting of rejection, a sense of having been thrown over, as if Parkland, its people, weren’t good enough. They also knew that Mrs. Johnson felt that way too, though she never said so to any of them. She didn’t have to. They could hear it at the edges of her voice whenever she spoke about it.

As for Mr. and Mrs. Pratt, they also kept their disappointments under wraps as they anticipated the long drives that would soon be necessary—the entire length of the city—if they were to visit their son and daughter-in-law, and hopefully before not too long, some grandbabies. One thing they were most glad about was that if Roger and Joyce hadn’t wound up buying Mrs. Johnson’s place. For them, such a thing would have been an even greater rebuke than Roger and Joyce living in Lincoln Park or Harmony. (It should be noted that Mrs. Pratt was only slightly less disappointed than Mrs. Johnson in her child’s choice of a spouse.)

Where the three parents were in alignment, was in concern over the house’s price and what it would cost to realize the “potential” Roger and Joyce were always gassing about; rehab projects of demolition and rebuilding the three parents viewed as just dollars flying out the window, and that Roger and Joyce viewed, or so their parents feared, as some sort of grand adventure, like those cable TV shows that were forever romanticizing the rehabbing of houses; the complicated processes completed on some shows in less than half-an-hour’s running time.

And that wasn’t all. For Mr. Pratt, the idea of his son, who’d never been handy with tools, operating a power saw or tearing down a wall, was truly frightening. He didn’t share that fear with his wife because he didn’t want to worry her any more worried than she already was. However, the older Mr. Pratt did think about this often in his wood paneled den, smoking a pipe and sitting in an easy chair with some sporting event on the nearby TV.  Mr. Pratt thinking how he had told Roger, in private conversation, that if Roger got himself into a financial jam over that house, he and Joyce were on their own. After the tuition for the University of Virginia and Georgetown, there would be no momma and poppa funding this time around. Roger had shrugged and said he understood, and Mr. Pratt had nodded and said, “Good,” while at the same time not revealing how he was still sore about having to refinance the house just so Roger could have the honor and glory of being educated at UVA when there were plenty of perfectly good colleges to choose from that were way less expensive. But Roger had been hot to go to Charlottesville and that had been all Mrs. Pratt had needed to hear.

Roger and Joyce moved into Harmony House, as Joyce named it, on a Labor Day weekend. They got perfect weather, dry and clear and not too humid. By late afternoon, the first floor Craftsman interior was in its glory. There was resplendent sunlight through the home’s uncovered west windows: two stained glass panes either side and above the bricked living room fireplace, and the high square bay windows of the adjacent dining room. The gold light brought out the full flavor of the varnished wood patois of the inlaid bookshelves, and wainscoting, and the hardwood floors. Joyce and Roger that day in jeans and tee shirts and sneakers amidst a maze of boxes and yet-to-be-placed furniture, both tired from the hauling and unpacking they’d already done—the kitchen, the upstairs bathroom, the master bedroom—but nonetheless happy beyond belief, Joyce at one point leaping into Roger’s arms, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist, he almost losing his balance before regaining his equilibrium, whereupon he began twirling he and she around and around, their voices careening: “Wheeeeeeeeeee did it!”

 

Part 2

Things went wrong for Roger and Joyce the same way things went wrong for a lot of folks during what one social critic called, “The Great Unraveling of Heartfelt Dreams”. At first, the couple’s combined salaries provided them with check-to-check funding to disperse among their financial obligations, the pair sitting side-by-side at a roll top desk in the bedroom turned Roger’s den just off the front entrance area and across from the living room; their fountain pens scratching out signatures in blue ink on beige checks, the sight of which gave them both a sense of accomplishment despite the number of  accounts they were monthly signing off on: the mortgage along with collateral payments for utilities and insurance, Roger’s student loan, the notes for their two cars, provisions and household supplies. In addition, because their old habits died hard, there was the cable TV bill and money spent on brunches and suppers at eateries that had tickled the fancy of this or that persnickety restaurant critic; evenings perched in darkened seating watching live theater, or jazz recitals, or moving pictures; and last but certainly not least, on the weekends, happy-happy, joy-joy time amidst the canyon-like aisles of hardware emporiums selecting just the right paint color for this or that room, just the right floor tiles, just the right light sconces, just the right whatever and what-have you; their selections informed by notes they’d scribbled during delightful hours spent perusing over magazines (American Bungalow, House Beautiful, etc.), resplendent with enticing, come-hither photographs of yummy-yum home designs.

Not surprisingly, Roger and Joyce were in their glory when they invited their parents and a few other relatives and friends to a house warming supper eight weeks after they moved in. It was Halloween weekend with the tree leaves in their last colorful hurrah. Dinner in the dining room, that late afternoon sunlight casting a delicious glow across everything, Roger in dark suit and tie at the end of the long, white clothed table nearest the kitchen doorway; the table resplendent with china, crystal glasses, sterling silverware; the room’s air a collage of teasing food aromas from the piled-high platters and serving bowls. Roger with his parents on side seats to his immediate left and his mother-in-law across from them to his immediate right; and at the other end of the table nearest the passageway to the living room, Joyce looking as lovely as he could ever remember: her hair pinned up, a pendant necklace at her throat revealed by her white, open neck blouse.

As he watched his parents and other guests eat and drink from his table, Roger felt for the first time like a real adult, a settled man like his father and grandfather and uncles; like he had always imagined he’d one day be. As for Joyce, she was more relieved than anything else that it had all come off so well, what with the planning, and cooking all the food, and making sure the house was spotless. From her end of the table, seeing Roger so happy elevated her own happiness, and she hoped, now that her mother had seen the house, and the life she and Roger had made for themselves, that her mom would finally give him a chance, appreciate him for what he was—sane, sober, and solvent—and not critical of him for the things he’d never be—a self-made, gregarious, take-charge man—like Joyce’s maternal grandfather, like her dad. God rest their souls.

Joyce lost her job first. After she and Roger had been in the house about a year. She clerked at The Chicago Record, the newspaper by that time, like other such operations, in its tenth straight year of plummeting subscriptions and advertisers shifting their money to the internet.

There was a round of layoffs, then another; after which the guys running the place gave themselves lucrative getaway deals and sold the paper to another group of suits who saw mouthwatering possibilities in the art deco skyscraper that had been the paper’s longtime home—luxury condos anyone? These new owners promptly initiated their own layoffs.

Joyce and several others in her office were let go in that third round. Her boss gave her the bad news on a Friday. The boss, a middle-aged White woman with a ski nose set on a wrinkly-faced head that was topped by a shag of gray hair, leaned back in her chair the other side of a messy desk and gave Joyce the usual blather about how none of this was a reflection on Joyce’s work and that she herself would be happy to write a letter of recommendation in support of Joyce’s efforts to find employment elsewhere.

Wearing a sheer white sweater over her sleeveless black dress (the AC in the building was intense), Joyce took all this like the lady she’d been raised to be, politely sitting with her hands folded in her lap and nodding at various points. Joyce imagining that all this having to tell folks they were being let go had to have taken a toll on the older woman. (Later that day, Joyce made the mistake of conveying that last sentiment to her mom, who blew up. “What are worrying about that White woman for? She still has a job. You don’t!”)

After that, for Roger and Joyce there was no more going out to eat or attending theater events of any kind, they canceled the cable TV service and sold one of their cars. They thanked their lucky stars for their decision to put off trying to have a child until they’d been in their house at least two years.

They still had their heads above water, but just barely. Roger worked as many hours as he could manage and tried to be as unobtrusive a presence as could amidst the wood-paneled offices and hallways of the law firm. He had always made a point of keeping his political views to himself amongst such a hotbed of Republicans. For instance, all during the year-long run up to that history-making presidential election, he’d kept his nose down and his eyes on his work. This had been particularly hard the day after that history was made, Roger having to keep the glee off his face, no easy thing when he was so frequently confronted by the sad faces of colleagues who as late as the day before had been assuring each other that there was no way, “That Guy,” –for many could not bring themselves to utter his name—”was going to win the election,” No way.”

He and Joyce’s new-found frugality went on for another six months. Then on a late Friday afternoon, Roger, with his tie loosened, his white sleeves rolled up to the elbows and a file folder under his arm, was called into the office of the partner to whom he was assigned. This fellow was sixty-plus, gangly, mostly bald, with thin-lips and big ears; a vocal enthusiast for the previous Republican president but not a jerk about it.

Sitting back in a chair behind a very neat desk, he sighed and said: “Roger, I’m afraid you and the firm are going to have to part ways.”

A couple of seconds for that to register before Roger asked why. The partner, who’d been a good mentor, explained that business was down. “Surely you’ve noticed?”

Roger had of course noticed, but with his doing so much work and doing it well, that’s what his yearly reviews said, he had assumed he’d proven himself a valuable member of the team. Also, and this must be said, as one of the few minority members among the associates (there were no minorities of any stripe among the partners) he felt the firm might want to keep him around to present at the very least, an appearance of diversity.

Unfortunately, as Roger’s bad luck would have it, the firm had hired another African-American associate the year before, a Choate and Harvard man with real from-the-cradle polish as opposed to Roger’s college-acquired manners. (This other guy’s family vacationed in the Hamptons.) The morning after the aforementioned history-making election, this guy said to colleagues: “Well fellas, I guess all we can do now is keep our fingers crossed and pray for the nation,” which all the White guys thought was quite witty of him.

Roger had no more luck than Joyce in getting other work. When he applied to other law firms, with a strong letter of recommendation from his former mentor, those interviewing him, on the few occasions when he actually got an interview, treated him as if he had somehow done something terribly wrong, as if his having been let go from his previous job was somehow his fault and not the result of the economy tanking.  The fact was, it was a simple case of supply and demand, the whole freaking country was full of let-go lawyers with letters of recommendations from past employers in their hot little hands.

Other sorts of office jobs he applied for didn’t want him either, the thinking being that a highly talented lawyer such as he (according to that letter of recommendation) would jump at the first attorney opportunity that came along.

While he could see how being one of many lawyer minnows swimming in the sea of unemployment greatly reduced his chances, emotionally he became increasingly angry with every passing, unsuccessful job search month.

During this time, on many a weekday morning, red-eyed and still in his pajamas, with a rash of stubble across his lower face, Roger watched, from behind a slightly parted curtain in the living room, his immediate neighbors driving off in cars, or walking to catch the bus or the train, all of them headed to work—to work. After the agony of that, he’d often flop onto the living room couch and watch the local morning TV news shows, flicking from one to the other with the remote. While the news reports varied, and the weather reports varied, there was always one constant; on every freaking show, a forever perky traffic reporter, always a woman, went on and on about how car-jammed the local expressways were, going both in and out of the city. Obviously, there were lots of people still employed to produce all that traffic, so how in the Hell, Roger wanted to know, could it be that there was no work for him and his wife?

And speaking of Joyce, a week after he lost his job, Roger awoke in the middle of the night to find no one beside him. He went in search of Joyce and at the end of the upstairs hall he found the door to the back bedroom closed with light glow showing from under the door. He was a few steps from reaching for the knob when he heard the sobbing and sniffling. For him that was too much to bear, this clear evidence of how badly he had failed her, so he went back to their bed. When she finally returned, he acted as if he’d been asleep. As time progressed, and he awakened on other nights to find her gone, he lay there and did his own weeping.

Not surprisingly, this state of affairs did nothing for their sex life, she having no enthusiasm for such activity and he feeling he had no right to such privileges, seeing as how he had so royally screwed things up.

The unemployment checks prevented them from starving. They now drove into Chicago to shop at bare bones, no frills, discount supermarkets. They were able to keep the landline telephone service, electricity, and water going; but after that there wasn’t much left; certainly not enough for a mortgage and school loans and such.

The recorded calls from folks with polite reminders about monies owed became so frequent that Joyce shuddered every time the phone rang. At first, they screened their calls to see who was messaging. But eventually the calls switched from friendly reminders to snide collection people, who to Robert’s ears always sounded African-American: “This problem isn’t going to go away, Mister and Missus Pratt!”

Soon, they let the landline service go and bought inexpensive, pay-as-you-go cell phones.

As for their immediate neighbors, Joyce and Roger avoided them as much as possible.

After all, how many times can you go to a party or a barbeque before you wanted to blow your head off because you’re not working, or blow off the heads of your neighbors because they still were? It wasn’t that the neighbors were not sympathetic to Joyce and Roger’s plight; however, there was nothing they could do to alleviate the situation.

So, what do you do when you have insufficient money to pay what you owe on so many things and your parents don’t have the cash to help out, and you can’t sell the house because ain’t nobody buying, least-ways not anywhere near what you paid for it? What do you do?

What you do is, as the date nears when the bank will come and reclaim the house, you walk away. Now some couples walk away in complete despair, leaving all manner of personal items—photo albums, vacation knick-knacks, clothes, furniture, children’s toys, food in the fridge. They get in their car like it’s no big deal, looking to their immediate neighbors like they’re just headed off to run some errands, and they never come back. Other couples take everything that can be unfastened, unscrewed, or pried free. A parent rents them a moving truck, let’s say, and they take the kitchen appliances, the washer and dryer, the period doors and the granite counter tops, the cabinets, the light sconces, the sinks, the medicine cabinets, even stuff like pretty, stained glass windows from above and either side of the fireplace; not because they have any place to put them save the garage behind the house where the wife grew up, but out of rage, the husband’s primarily, which fuels his determination to deny any newcomer the joy of the beloved items; the items beloved as if the items were life itself.

Roger would have burned Harmony House down if he could have figured out a way to pull it off that wouldn’t have landed him in prison. Joyce didn’t see the point of hauling away all that stuff. But after all they’d been through, (she hardly ever smiled these days, noticeable bags under her eyes) she wasn’t up to fighting Roger about it. The day they moved back to Parkland, she pleaded privately with her mom to not make a stink about all the things being put in the garage, to which her mom responded: “He loses your house and now he decides to finally demonstrate some grit and determination.”

They moved into the basement apartment, Roger’s parents most unhappy that Mrs. Johnson had finally gotten her wish, Roger and Joyce under her roof, in the basement to be exact, in the two-bedroom apartment they’d turned their noses up at when Mrs. Johnson had first offered it—the heating pipes running beneath the ceiling, the industrial carpeting across the sometimes uneven floor, the glass brick windows that made everything outside a white blur, and a clammy aroma.

Meals were always taken in the dining room, Mrs. Johnson at one end of the table and Joyce and Roger to her immediate left and right. More often times than not, for Joyce, these were nerve-racking affairs, the tension between her mother and husband so taut you could reach in the air and pluck it like the bass string of a cello.

Roger mostly kept his eyes on his (actually his mother-in-law’s) plate, and only spoke when spoken to, responding with terse answers of only a few words: “Yes. No. I have no idea. That’s fine with me.”

Joyce tried to alleviate things by engaging her mother in gossip about this or that neighbor. Roger took no part, just chewed and swallowed in sullen silence.

The event that brought about Roger’s leaving happened after he and Joyce had been back in Parkland about a month, just before Thanksgiving. It was an evening supper, Joyce and Roger both having experienced yet another set of unsuccessful job interviews.

Joyce and Mrs. Johnson were talking about some neighborhood woman who, at age forty, was, as Mrs. Johnson put it, “Finally able to get herself a husband.”

While slicing away at a piece of baked pork chop, Mrs. Johnson went on to say to Joyce that the reason it had taken this woman so long to get married was because she was dark.

“You know how Black men are. They all want a light Black woman—or a White woman. Don’t want a dark woman. Dark women always have to wait.”

Joyce just shrugged and resisted the strong temptation to point out to her mother that their respective marriages were strong evidence that that last statement was hardly true.

Across the table, she saw Roger’s head snap up. He fixed her mother with a glare. Through gritted teeth he snarled: “What am I? A meal ticket? Is that what I am?”

Mrs. Johnson was so startled she dropped her fork, the flatware hitting her plate with a clank. With a sweep of his right arm, Roger sent his plate flying off the table and past Joyce’s left shoulder—the almost eaten pork chop, going one way, the mashed potatoes sailing like a cloud at high speed, the peas spraying like grapeshot, the plate continuing in flight until it hit the papered wall—a pattern of wildflowers—and shattered.

Joyce and Mrs. Johnson were still looking in that direction when Roger thrashed himself up from the table, sending his chair falling backwards behind him to bang on the floor. Cursing loudly at no one in particular, he stomped from the room and down the basement steps.

That evening Roger packed a couple of bags, Joyce sitting on the side of the bed with her back to him and making no attempt to stop his leaving, Mrs. Johnson was meanwhile upstairs on the phone loud talking to a neighbor friend. “You’re not going to believe what that piece of wasted space my daughter married has gone and done this evening.”

By the time Roger left, the sky was dark and the air very cold. With a suitcase in either hand, with the collar of his gray wool coat turned up, he headed to his parents’ house which was six blocks due east and couple of blocks south. He took alleyways instead of the sidewalks in the hope he wouldn’t encounter anyone he knew and have to stop and explain why he was walking through the neighborhood carrying suitcases.

When he reached the home where he’d grown up, a two-story, red brick house that some folks call a Cape Cod and other a raised ranch, he knocked at the back door. Although he had a key, at that time night he knew the house’s door chains would be in place. His folks, though of course surprised, welcomed him warmly.

At their dining room table, with cups of coffee and slices of apple pie, his folks sat either side of him, listening without questions or comments. Roger with hands clasped tightly on the table in front of him, his coffee and pie untouched, his eyes fixed on those hands as he explained in a hoarse voice that he couldn’t take living with that woman anymore, that he’d had enough of her.

At first his parents weren’t sure if he was talking about Joyce or Mrs. Johnson. When he finally said, “that old crank,” they were relieved, but only slightly so, because Roger looked awful. He spoke with his mouth in a wrenched frown and the stare of his bloodshot eyes matched the tone of his hoarse voice—a hardened, mean, unforgiving malevolence. They had never seen him this way before, and it scared them.

That night in their bedroom, after Roger had retreated to his old room across the hall, they discussed this latest surprise situation across their four-poster bed as they got out of their day clothes. Mrs. Pratt had to wipe away a tear here and there. She saying, “I knew things were bad between Roger and Joyce, but this…”

Mr. Pratt, an expressionless arrangement on his face, said that whatever the case, “leaving his wife isn’t going to help.”

“You’re not saying we should send him back to Mrs. Johnson’s house?”

“No, but this thing is something Roger and Joyce will have to work through together.”

“Will you talk to him?” she said.

“If he’ll let me. You know how he is with me. Ever since he got grown, it’s like he throws up this wall around himself. He sits there going, ‘uh-huh, okay,’ nodding his head every now and then like he understands, but I can tell none of what I say is really getting through. He’s just counting the minutes until he can leave.”

Over the next week, as Mr. Pratt predicted, his attempts at advising Roger did not work. His son took to sleeping late and holing up in his room for good parts of the day.

When they did talk, Roger made it clear he wasn’t moving back into the basement apartment. Roger also didn’t push for Joyce to join him at his parents’. Although he didn’t convey this to her, it was frankly easier for him to not see her every day, she the constant reminder of his fall from grace. What she did not tell him was that their being apart was easier for her too. She of course had the highest sympathy and understanding for his plight; however, at the same time she felt—no, she knew—that a man like her father, or her uncles, or Roger’s own dad, would have handled a reversal of fortune with more resolve. She did not want to think this way. But she could not help feeling this way. Finally, and this was the real punch in the emotional gut for her. Finally, there was the undeniable fact that Roger had turned out to be just the sort of man her mother had early on assessed him to be. For Joyce that was the worst of all.

After a week of separation, she and Roger’s emptions had cooled enough for a meeting. They had lunch at Logan’s Diner, one of the neighborhood’s few sit-down eateries. On that cloudy afternoon, ignoring the curious sideways glances from nearby onlookers (who of course by then knew all about their split), the couple sat in a high back booth adjacent to a floor to ceiling window, looking across the table into each other’s baggy and blood shot eyes. They had agreed beforehand over the phone that there would be no discussion as to if or when Roger would move back to Mrs. Johnson’s, or if Joyce would join him at the Pratt residence. They kept to the safe topics of politics—the city’s new mayor, the president’s chances for reelection the following year. This talk punctuated by stretches of silence, the stretches made all the more agonizing by the realization, on both their parts, that certain things—hard truths—had happened. Things that that might be forgiven but could never be forgotten. Things they now saw with harsh clarity about each other, and about themselves. Both realizing, amid the clatter and chat of the diner, that even if they were to eventually get back together (and there was no guarantee of that, not by a long shot), that whatever they might have together in the future, under the best of circumstances it would be some lower vibration, some weakened flavor, some less perfect union of what they’d had before. And could they live with that? Could that ever be enough?

 

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