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Also by Walter Mosley
YOUNG ADULT FICTION
EASY RAWLINS BOOKS
Devil in a Blue Dress
A Red Death
A Little Yellow Dog
Bad Boy Brawly Brown
Six Easy Pieces
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
Walkin' the Dog
Workin' on the Chain Gang
What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace
". . . naked, naked . . . I don't have any clothes . . . so so cold . . ."
"Who is this?" I asked.
"So cold," the voice said again.
"Who is this?"
". . . cold and naked. Sleeping in the trees."
He hung up then. It was the fourth evening in a week that he'd called. The first night he only grunted and moaned. Two days later, he spoke in single words. Those words were cold and naked. The voice was definitely masculine but strained and frightened. The next night he used the same two words, but he doubled up on them from time to time, saying, naked, cold, cold, naked. He was pleading, but I didn't know what he wanted. He didn't seem threatening, just desperate and crazed.
When I told Nella about it, she said that I should call the police.
"There's no telling what psychotic notions he might have in his head," the buttercream-colored, dreadlock-wearing ceramicist warned. "He might be working up to coming in there and slaughtering you and everybody in your whole house."
"He doesn't even know my name," I said.
"He knows your number," the lovely young Jamaican reasoned.
"He probably dialed it once, and now it's on his redial or something."
"Better be safe," Nella said, "than dead."
I wasn't worried about a few crank calls. In my head, I had worked out that the poor guy was already in a mental institution. That he was on the honor plan or something like that. At night he got confused and hallucinated that he was naked and cold, living in the woods. That's how it was with my grandmother before she died. During the day she was perfectly lucid, talking about old times in Atlanta before she and my grandfather moved to Los Angeles. She had all kinds of great stories about her wild days as a young girl and then, after she was married, about her friends in the church choir. She was also a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"Back then Martin Luther King stood down the whole Old Boy system—and beat 'em, too," Grandma Angeline used to say.
Those talks were during the day. But after the sun set, she experienced night terrors. Her husband returned from the grave and blamed her for poisoning him. She would run away from the assisted-living home and wander Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles looking for the bus to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. Sometimes she bullied older male patients in the residence, taking their desserts or pushing them down when their backs were turned. For years the administrators were on the verge of moving my grandmother to a facility that offered more restrictive care.
Then I would go in and talk with her about members of our family whom I'd never met, about whom my father never spoke. There was Albert Trellmore, for instance, the bookkeeper and arsonist. Every Fourth of July, he set fire to one of the big corporations or production companies around Georgia. He loved fires and hated what big businesses did to the poor.
"He burnt lumber companies, banks, loadin' dock warehouses, and big department stores for over twenty-seven years," my Grandma Angeline told me one gray June day. We were sitting on the first floor of the residence, near a glass wall that looked out on Pico. "He woulda kept it up for twenty-seven more if it wasn't for that train-yard fire he set."
"What happened then, Grandma?"
"He didn't think that some'a the hoboes might have been sleepin' under the depot. One of them men died, and it broke Albert's heart. He never set another fire, and died just two years later."
"Why'd he set those fires in the first place?" I asked my eighty-eight-year-old gram.
"White people," she said. "Some of 'em used to refuse to hire black. Some would abuse the ones they had workin' for 'em. Now and then there was a Klansman had all his money wrapped up in one'a them places."
"But why do it on the Fourth of July?"
"Called it his patriotic duty," she said, and we both got a big laugh out of it.
After one of my visits, Grandma Angeline would calm down during the evenings. For a few weeks, we wouldn't get any complaints at all from the residence.
I liked visiting my grandmother. My father, when he was still alive, never wanted to talk about the old days down south. He rarely visited his mother, because she insisted in talking about all that old shit, as he used to say.
But I liked her stories, and I didn't care if she went crazy at night and wandered the streets of L.A. looking for Atlanta landmarks.
My mother was from an Orange County WASP family that didn't have many good stories. She cooked the meals and made sure that my sister and I were healthy, but she didn't know how to have fun—at least that's what I thought. And so, when the crazy man who was naked and cold and living in the trees called, I had a soft spot for him like I did for my grandmother and my cousin Albert Trellmore.
That night I dreamed about my father. He was emaciated, as he had been during the last months of his cancer. He had sunken black cheeks and big eyes that seemed to belong to an inquisitive infant rather than a sixty-year-old man. In his last days, he insisted on sitting up and then standing to greet me every morning when I came over to see him. He'd always utter some word that would speak a whole volume in our personal history.
"Kangol," he said on the last morning I saw him.
We both loved those hats. Actually, I didn't care much about them, but I wore one because my father had bought it for me.
I made up my mind to go out and buy him a blue Kangol and to bring it as a surprise the next day. I had to go to three different department stores before I found the right one. But when I brought it to my parents' apartment the next morning, they were gone. Their absence could only have meant that my father had died in the night. I sat at the kitchen table until my mother returned. She told me that everything was better now because at least he was no longer in pain.
In the dream, he was just as skinny and still on his deathbed. But he was flexing his muscles and sitting up against a pile of pillows.
"How are you, Dad?"
"Much better, Errol. I'm doing those exercises the nurse gave me. She said if I keep it up, I'll beat this cancer in three months."
An elation spread through me that was so powerful I woke up rising out of the bed. I paced around the onetime garage that was now my home, hoping to find some clue to the dream in my waking world.
At three-thirty the phone rang.
"So cold, so very very cold."
"Who are you?" I asked slowly, hoping to calm the poor man's distress.
"Papa," he said. "Papa and, and . . ."
"It's me, Airy," he said, suddenly lucid and almost familiar. "It's me, Papa."
My heart skipped, and I slammed the phone down, catching the nail of my baby finger between the receiver and the cradle. I yelled in pain and knocked the phone over. Then a pall of remorse spread through my chest and into my limbs. I fell to my knees and cried. Soon I was on my belly, racked with sobbing as if my father had died that very moment rather than nine years before. I cried until I had no strength left for crying, and then I fell asleep.
I awoke in a fetal position with the morning light on my face. The sun shone in from a window set in the roof. The phone lay next to me, shattered from the force of my anguish. My baby finger was swollen to twice its normal size, and the nail was black and bloody. With every pulse of my heart, my throbbing hand ached, but all I could think about was the man who called me Airy.
No one but my mother and sister knew that nickname, them and my father. And his voice—it had the right timbre. That was why I had been dreaming of him. The psychotic on the phone not only reminded me of my father, he also sounded like him. Not exactly but similar, down to the way he pronounced my nickname.
I tried to push myself upright, but that sent pain shooting into my finger and up my arm. I finally made it to the bathroom, where I washed away the blood and wrapped the whole hand in an Ace bandage.
The phone gave no dial tone, so I had to walk down to Pico in order to call my doctor from a phone booth. Dr. Singh told me that there was probably nothing he could do about the swelling.
"It will go down in a few days," he said. "No need to come in and pay for a visit."
He knew that I hadn't had health insurance since being laid off as the database administrator for Camcono.com, the online camera and electronics company that had gone belly-up along with so many other online businesses.
"Just keep it wrapped, and soak in warm salt water four or five times a day," Singh said. "I'm sorry, but I must go."
"I told you that you should have called the police," Nella told me when I got to our communal pottery studio that noon.
"What for? He didn't threaten me. All he did was call me by a name my father used to use."
"He called you in your home," she said with an odd emphasis on the last word. "That's a violation."
"You sound like he was trying to rape me."
"He's sure enough fucking with your head."
Nella's eyes were a murky brown and green, but they were beautiful. Deep and maybe even a bit primordial. She was the first person I met when I came to Mud Brothers Pottery Studio. She took me under her wing right away, showing me my chores and how to fire the big gas kiln.
"Yeah," I said, "but I feel sorry for him."
"Sorry? You don't even know him."
She was right about that. Still, I did feel a certain closeness with the voice on the phone. It wasn't my father's voice, but it was similar. I didn't know him, but I felt a kinship.
"So will you call the cops now?"
"Maybe. If you'll have dinner with me."
"I told you already," she said, "I don't date married men."
"We're getting a divorce. You know that. She's living in New York. What more do you want from me?"
Nella smiled then. She stuck out her lips, not so much in a kiss but as an indication that she was considering my request.
"I don't know," she said behind a faint smile. "What would we do on this date?"
"Eat dinner. See a play . . ."
"Hold hands?" She crinkled her freckled brown nose and showed me the space between her front teeth.
"I don't know," I said. "If you want."
"Do I have to kiss you good night?"
"That depends on how much I have to spend," I said. "If it's a cut-rate place on the Santa Monica Pier, or maybe hot dogs from a stand somewhere, then a kiss on the cheek will do. But if I have to dig deep for a play at the Mark Taper Forum, then I'll be expecting some tongue."
Nella's eyes opened wide, and I knew I had gone too far. But then she squealed and punched me in the arm.
"You're crazy," she said.
Then we went to work.
I had come to Mud Brothers nine months before, after my wife had left me and my job disappeared. I could have gone to work for some big company doing computers, like I had always done, but I didn't have the heart for it. Shelly and I sold the house to a woman named Felicity Fine. I made a separate deal with Felicity so that I could rent the garage for two hundred a month in exchange for light maintenance.
Shelly took 85 percent of the proceeds and then left for New York with Thomas—a far better friend to her than he ever was to me.
I knew how to make cups and bowls, mugs and pitchers from classes I'd taken at UCLA during my undergraduate years. I received free studio time and firing privileges at Mud Brothers for cleaning up every morning and loading and emptying kilns with Nella Bombury.
That day we unloaded the bisque firing from the electric kiln for the children's evening class, and then a glaze load from the big gas-reduction kiln.
I swept. She mopped. I emptied the trash bins and dusted all the surfaces while she loaded the heavy-duty washing machines in the basement with studio aprons and towels. When I was finished, I went downstairs to help her fold.
At one point we were folding the tarp used by the resident master hand builder. When we came together, Nella grabbed my fingers with hers and brought her face close to mine.
"So where are you going to take me on this date?" she asked in that island-soaked voice.
"A-a-anywhere you want to go."
Later that night she told me it was my stuttering that pinched her heart.
I kissed Nella on the lips. We were sitting in my car in front of her apartment building on Adams. She moved her head but didn't open her mouth. We had been to a Caribbean restaurant in Venice and a movie called The Night Man at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. We had talked and held hands, and now I was kissing her neck. She made a noise, not exactly a moan, and when I moved my head back, she pressed her hand against my neck, saying wordlessly that she wanted another kiss. I touched her neck lightly with my tongue, and she did moan. I kissed her lips again, but that door was still closed.
I kissed her cheeks and forehead, her eyes and behind her left ear. I came back to her lips, but they wouldn't part. I touched her breast for maybe three seconds before she moved my hand away.
I took the forbidding hand and kissed it. She pushed two fingers into my mouth and pressed down on my tongue lightly. That brought a muffled moan from me.
"What did you say?" Nella asked.
I ran my tongue between her fingers.
"Oooo, baby," she said. "I should bring you upstairs."
I kissed her lips again, and they parted for a long moment. Then she moved back.
"Not so fast, married man."
"She's in New York. We're getting a divorce," I begged.
"No," Nella said. She caressed my cheek with a caring hand. "I just don't want to start out so fast. I only wanted to give you one little kiss, but I didn't know your kisses were so sweet."
She could have pulled my heart right out of my chest. I hadn't been with a woman since Shelly and Thomas hooked up. Shelly and I had been a couple since high school, and she had never once called my kisses sweet.
"Can we wait a little while before we go further?" Nella asked, as if it were really up to me.
When I couldn't come up with the right words, she kissed me lightly, with just a little tongue.
"Okay," I said. "All right. But you know I sure don't want to."
"Wait here," Nella said.
She jumped out of the car and ran through the door of the large aqua-colored, plaster-faced apartment building. There was a strip of lawn on either side of the front doors and a squat relative of the palm tree to the right. Through the windshield, I could see white clouds passing over, illuminated by a million city lights. The glare of nighttime L.A. was so strong that only a few potent stars were visible. My heart was pounding. The electric air shocked me with each breath.
Where is she? Am I being tested? Should I just leave, or does she want me to sit out here all night waiting for her fancy and her love? Maybe she wants me to go up to her door. Maybe she's waiting for me in a nightgown and here I am sitting in the car like a fool.
These thoughts went through my head again and again. Then Nella came bounding out with a white box the size of a loaf of bread under her arm.
"I'm sorry it took me so long," she said at my window. "But I had it in the closet somewhere."
She shoved the box at me.
"What is it?"
"A phone left over from my last place. I didn't like the way it looked after I painted, so I bought another one."
"Why you giving it to me?"
"Because you said you broke yours, and I want you to call me the minute you get in."
The kiss she gave me through that window was the most passionate I'd ever known. It stayed with me all the way back to my garage-home.
"Errol?" she asked, answering the phone.
"Uh-huh. Who did you expect?"
"Take off your clothes," she replied.
We made love over the phone line, something I had never done before. She was upset when I didn't have coconut oil, but she finally settled for virgin olive. In the beginning, I hardly knew what to say to her. She made me explain every move and sensation, what things felt like and how they appeared. After a while I got the hang of it. She got very excited when I told her to get down on her knees.
It was three o'clock before we said our good-byes. After that, we'd call back every five minutes or so just to make sure that love was still there.
So when the phone rang at ten to four, I answered, "Hey," with certainty that she'd be there kissing my ear.
"Airy, your line's been busy all night."
I knew everything in that moment. Maybe I wasn't sure of how or why or even who, but I knew that my life as I had known it was somehow over. The man on the line was close to me; very much so. My father had used those same words many times after I'd moved out and he'd tried to call. He was never angry, just frustrated and maybe a little frightened.
"Who is this?"
"It's me, Airy—Papa."
"My father's dead."
"It's so cold here, Airy. So cold," he said, as if my reminding him about death brought back the chill.
"Where are you?"
"There's a hut behind the trees. In the woods beyond the graveyard. You can see my stone from here. They leave in the nighttime. I sleep on the ground with the sun between the leaves so they don't find me and put me back."
"Who are you?"
"My father is dead."
"It's so cold, so cold. I sleep in the trees. No clothes."
"Listen, man," I said, my temper running hot with the hormones in my veins. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Cold," he said. "Papa . . ." His voice trailed off.
Maybe ten seconds passed, and then there was a single rapping note, and I knew that he'd put the receiver down on a table.
I was at the Fox Hills Memorial Park at seven the next morning. Papa was out there somewhere, just a flat cement disk among thousands. The cemetery director's office was open, but no one was there, so I studied the maps out in front of the building, trying to remember where my father was buried. NY-UEP-CT-1598 was his number. That meant the New Yard in Upper Elysian Park, Circle Terrace, at lot number 1598.
I hadn't been to see Papa in six years. And the graveyard was immense. I had never been there alone. I followed the procession from the chapel the first time, behind the minister we hired to provide the service. My only other visits were with my mother and my sister, Angelique. I never paid attention to which way we were going.
I studied the map for a long time, taking notes and trying to get my bearings by scanning the grounds now and then. Finally I set out to find his stone by myself for the first time since his death.
It took over an hour to locate him.
The New Yard was at the far end of a long curving path that went up a hill and through a section of the graveyard that, as far as I could tell, had no name. I came upon a place called Celestial Gardens, which led me to the New Yard. This was the largest and least expensive area of the cemetery. There were more than a dozen different sections whose names had nothing to do with their placement. There was no Elysian Park or Lower Elysian Park. I wandered through Green Pastures, Holy Rest, and Heavenly Pines before coming upon Upper Elysian Park.
There were five thousand cement disks and more spread out before me. I think it was the immensity of death that brought me to tears again. I hadn't slept at all the night before. In my mind's eye, I'd picture my father, emaciated and dying, one moment and then Nella's smile the next. It's a wonder I found the stone at all.
Arthur Bontemps Porter III
September 19, 1935
January 1, 1996
There was no quote or endearing memorial, just the dates and a name. He never believed in God. He didn't think about death at all. There was no will or life insurance policy, not even a provision for his plot.
"We never liked to think about that kind of thing," my mother said in his defense. "I mean . . . life is so short anyway, why think about dying?"
At forty-nine she had to go to work at the neighborhood newspaper, the Olympic Gazette, answering phones, editing articles, interviewing local residents, and even mopping floors for a subsistence salary.
Angelique and I helped her out as much as we could, but now I made very little, and Angie had to watch her money because she was having a baby with her husband, Lon.
The grass around his stone was dirty. I could see the dark soil between the long green blades. I knelt before the grave and pinched the loose soil between my fingers. It was moist and icy cold.
"What you got there?"
I yelped and jumped three paces, spinning around in midair.
I saw the man standing on the concrete path a few feet from my father's grave, but his features didn't register at first. I didn't know if he was white or black, thin or fat.
"What do you want?" I cried.
"Nothing, son," the man said.
He was wearing gray coveralls, not naked.
"Did he die recently?"
"What?" I asked. "What did you say?"
"Sometimes people come up here years after they lost somebody. Maybe for the first time. It makes the loss feel real."
- On Sale
- Jul 31, 2007
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Grand Central Publishing