When Sligo and I got there, Mr. Albert was out in front of his place, painting the trim on an antique cash register. He drew characters, too: yellow giraffes spotted with orange, motorized cows, and chariots with little black boys drawn along by giant brown horses. He painted everything eventually, using high-gloss exterior latex from little cans. His work was lousy with redemption. You couldn’t look at it for very long without wanting to forgive someone.
It was 11 A.M., and we hadn’t had breakfast. The sun pressed down on us like a thumb. Everything recommended a lemonade stand, water and ice cubes in a pitcher, bobbing rind, sugar swamped along the bottom. But the streets were barren and striped with tar. Occasionally, a car chuffed past. The warehouse across the way was coming apart, shedding crinkled sheets of tin, or something cheaper than tin. The police substation shone like a penny on Fifth Avenue.
“All right, then,” Mr. Albert said, licking his teeth. Flecks of paint had settled in the thin riverbeds around his eyes, making him look ancient and tribal. He had the most beautiful hands I’d ever seen, with knuckles like gardenia bulbs. Sligo punched a button on the cash register — ten cents — and the drawer popped open with a hopeful chime.
Mr. Albert tapped him on the forehead with two fingers. “Somebody tell you to touch my things?” His voice rasped like a torn reed. We followed him into the house, past the dead jukebox, the mirrored chifforobe, and the small pink-and-blue bedroom where, presumably, he retired with lady friends on those nights given over to “fleshly libations,” as he called them.
We were here to help clear out Mr. Albert’s basement, a project that smacked of honest labor and the chance to put things in order. He asked why we were late (we were always late), and I could see Sligo battling the urge to eulogize his Renault, which had been impounded for a variety of reasons, all sound.
The cellar light was busted. Sligo put his foot through one of the steps at the bottom and something went bang and a dog came bounding out of the wood-rotten darkness. I call it a dog, but it looked to be auditioning for some other genus. Sligo let out a girlish yelp.
“There’s a dog down here!” I yelled up the stairs.
“Yeah?” Mr. Albert called down. “I been looking for that dog.”
Sligo flicked his boot at the beast. “Fucking parasite.”
“They can smell fear,” I said.
“I could fart,” Sligo said. “Would that help?”
We waited for our pupils to adjust. The dog gazed at us peevishly. It saw no challenge here. We were like Laurel and Hardy, only without the gags. “Settle down there, Maggie,” Sligo said. He called all dogs Maggie.
We were going through a tense time, the two of us. Summer had lowered the boom, and we couldn’t afford air conditioning. We were graduates now, with degrees in philosophy, and the unemployment we had talked about eagerly for years was upon us. The shock was not that failure should bring with it depression — which, stupidly, we took as a measure of depth — but that it should prove so deathly uninteresting.
There were other factors contributing to the tension. Sligo’s girlfriend, a white-throated Virginian with plantations of money and erratic personal hygiene, had announced her impregnation some weeks before. A Catholic of broad and indefinite beliefs, Sligo was not accustomed to concrete dilemmas. But he was convinced now that he wanted this child — his child — though it seemed plain to the rest of us that all he wanted was a duty large enough to satisfy his vanity. He’d spent the last few weeks of school rampaging through the theology of the Middle Ages in search of an irrefutable argument for God’s existence.
My own girl, Lil, had recently turned on me with a vicious alacrity. Rather on a dime, my flesh had become a mortification to her. This wasn’t so bad. My flesh pretty much was a mortification. It was her great calm, so eerily like truth, that frightened me.
The basement rolled out before us like the damp hold of a vast ark: Bureaus and rocking chairs and ottomans and hope chests stacked one on the other in leggy strata of cedar, maple, mahogany, and beech. Everything on top of everything else, chipped, water stained, peeling and scrolling in the dankness.
“Very come-as-you-are,” Sligo observed. “Very Guernica.”
Mr. Albert had been stockpiling furniture for years. On garbage days, he cruised his low-assed Buick through Sunset Heights, Groom Place, Facultytown — all the upper-crust Winston-Salem neighborhoods — plucking crippled chairs and dressers from the curbs. The drug dealers and their gummy-eyed clients also brought him offerings, which Mr. Albert never refused and sometimes even paid for. His vocation as a furniture repairman had left him vulnerable to old junk. He ran his lovely, knotted fingers along the dusty surfaces with absent-minded devotion. Mr. Albert had been many things: sharecropper, private first class, factory worker, chauffeur. These days, he mostly painted — “drawing,” he called it — selling his creations to peach-skinned matrons from across town, who fluttered over him as if he were some sensationally trained monkey, all the while failing to recognize that they were buying back their own bookshelves and porch swings.
We’d first met Mr. Albert inside the Po’ Folks on Lee, where Sligo used to go for the all-you-can-eat pork-barbecue buffet. Later, during one of his restless walks about the city, Sligo wandered by Mr. Albert’s house and was drawn to it by the colors on everything — colors so bright, he said, he could taste them. Mr. Albert invited him in, and Sligo began outlining his grudge against the Neoplatonists. Mr. Albert heated him up a frozen potpie and told him to quiet down.
Now we were faced with this enormous inventory project — more of an untangling, really — at five bucks an hour plus dinner. Mr. Albert couldn’t have found a worse pair of day laborers. We were soft from years of academic endeavor. We couldn’t quite get the knack of moving actual weight against actual gravity. The concepts of balance and angles eluded us. Our sole drawing card was our availability.
“Can’t we chop away some of these steps?” Sligo said. We were banging around with some kind of art deco cupboard. Mr. Albert stood at the top of the stairs. He looked disappointed in the entire species.
“Maybe if we turn it around.”
“The other way?”
And so on.
We moved through the dark in heaves, struggling toward the lit doorway above. Sweat ran down our forearms and stung our blistered hands. My blood sugar had hit zero. I felt ready to chew on my arm. Outside, where we set our loads, sunlight fretted the lawn. Mr. Albert called out instructions in his teakettle tremolo. He was painting an antique crib, lining the headboard with flowers and girls. I could see Sligo’s eyes pooling up.
“I can see myself as a father,” he said. “I’m not frightened of that.” Sligo gazed at the crib. “Look at it, Mikey. It’s unflawed. It’s perfect.”
I could smell an outburst of sentimentality in the offing, like a coming rain. “We’re getting paid by the hour,” I said. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Mr. Albert looked up. “Bring that dog up here,” he said. “I got to have a talk with that dog.”
The fourth piece we tackled was a roll-top desk. I practically got my head stuck inside a drawer.
“You know, Thomas Aquinas worked at a desk like this,” Sligo said. We were only a couple of steps from the doorway, but I felt my foot sliding. Momentarily, the desk would come crashing down on me.
“Lift your side,” I pleaded.
“Do your fingers hurt, Mikey?” Sligo asked. “Man, my fingers hurt.”
I could imagine a child dying in his care. Easily.
“I’m falling. Jesus, please!”
And my foot did give way, and I did stumble, but Sligo somehow managed to keep the desk levered on the top step.
“What’s the big idea?” Sligo’s arms were laced with swollen veins.
When we got outside with the desk, Mr. Albert told us to stop, just stop. “Like watching a duck fly ass up,” he said.
“We were just getting the hang of it,” Sligo said. He sidled over to the crib and touched the unpainted panel. It was a strange grain, spiked like the line on a heart monitor. “What kind of wood is this?”
“Hope wood,” Mr. Albert said.
“What my daddy called it. Don’t come across it too much anymore. Some kind of old cedar, maybe. Smells like licorice.”
Sligo bent his nose to the wood, but Mr. Albert waved him off. “Don’t get into all that,” he said. “We got to go someplace in the car.”
He wanted us both in the back. He was used to that from his years as a chauffeur, I guess. He drove as if the roadways hadn’t changed in thirty years. We glided past the Hanes complex, where smocked workers bent over machines to assemble undergarments; past the lumberyards, which smelled of sap and sawdust; past where they put the lumber together into furniture. Farther down Lee, they made cigarettes, soda pop, pacifiers. There were factories for all the important addictions.
The streets were speckled with boys six feet tall and lost. “Look at all this trash,” Mr. Albert said. “I got six children and not one of them on the street. Problem with these boys is they don’t want the work. They got drugs and pussy and rap music all up in their heads.”
It was like listening to Pat Buchanan.
“Mr. Joe Kleinberg,” Mr. Albert continued, “that was the man I drove for. Now, that man was a genius. He was practically the secretary of the United States Treasury under Richard M. Nixon. I know what people say about Nixon, but he didn’t do nothing them other ones don’t do; he just sweated more. He was raised up poor, too. Down there in the Mojave Desert. You can’t blame a man raised up poor.”
He could have been driving us anywhere.
“A cripple, too. Polio got him the month before they found that vaccine. If he’d had him some money, he might have been able to use his legs.”
“Nixon had trouble walking,” Sligo said, “but I don’t recall that he had polio.”
Mr. Albert clucked. He had gone back to talking about his former employer. “He needed help with near everything. Making water and such. I used to drive him to his speeches, and afterwards he’d say to me, ‘Bert —’ he called me Bert; that was his nickname for me — ‘Bert, you got more sense than that whole room put together. If you wasn’t a Negro, I believe you’d be right on top.’ He came to Mrs. Albert’s funeral, too. He was in pretty bad shape by then, with his pancreas. But there he was, in a fresh suit. Set some roses right on the bier. Real nice roses.”
We’d seen Mr. Albert work his shuck and jive with his patrons. He could be a polite old Negro when he wanted to be, humble and eccentric. But now, alone with two penniless dolts, his mind circled less decorous truths: Arthritis kicked at his joints, and his feet swelled up unreasonably. The fellow who’d managed his last gallery show, in Atlanta, was a “slippery-assed coon.” The women who chased him were “bilky floozies.” I wondered what had happened to all his children, why there was so little talk of them.
Mr. Albert turned onto a private road and cruised past a ruined guardhouse. I half expected something opulent beyond it, an emerald city or a coastal vista, but what rose before us was a puckered, white, treeless ridge. Gulls wheeled over the summit, and a complicated stink clung to the place. Huge, slumbering machines the color of number-two pencils dotted the terrain. The Buick bounced up a dirt path.
“What is this place?” Sligo asked.
“Dump,” Mr. Albert said.
“Why are we here?”
Mr. Albert stopped and got out of the car. A black tarp flapped in the wind, making a sound like a thousand distant vacuums. About a hundred feet away stood a shed. We followed him over to it. The ground was spongy. Inside the shed was a hot plate and a dresser painted in Mr. Albert fashion and someone sleeping on a cot. “Get up now,” Mr. Albert said, poking. The sleeper whimpered and flopped. He looked like a huge baby floating in flannel pajamas, damp from burrowed warmth. His features were puffed and beige. He rose to his feet in an unhappy torpor and rubbed his eyes with balled-up fists. “What time is it?”
“Time for your lazy butt to get up,” Mr. Albert said.
The baby looked at us shyly. In a soft lisp, he asked, “Who they?”
“Them boys from the university.” To us, he said, “This is Terrence.”
Sligo went to shake hands, but Terrence shrank back.
The motion called Lil to mind. I didn’t know what we were anymore. She told me I disgusted her. It was out of her control, she said. My shoulders — perhaps my only redeeming feature — had become like hunks of rotten meat to her. And my penis, cock, what have you, that which she had taken into her body with such misty exhalation . . .
“It may have to do with your spirit,” she said. “I just keep thinking: Leper.”
I didn’t know about that. I thought it probably had something to do with Sligo and his girl. They boffed away like antelopes, and now this knocking up had occurred, and what’s more, Sligo was howling that he wanted to keep the baby, and I’m certain Lil thought about this. Our own relations had grown extravagantly unprotected of late — even though, according to her religion, she wasn’t supposed to allow anyone in besides God.
Sligo and I had discussed the situation. It seemed to us miraculous and not a little cruel that we’d been vested with the power to create life. And yet, he insisted his unborn child was “an unchangeable good, a perfect being.” Sligo had stolen these words from Aquinas, and they struck me as dubiously applied. But Sligo was long past listening to reason. It wasn’t that he mistook the industry of his sperm for God’s work. He simply wanted to believe in a sign from above.
“So far, I realize,” Sligo admitted, “our track record . . . I mean, OK, there have been more successful relationships. Granted.”
“There have been more successful wars,” I said.
“That’s my kid!” he insisted, frisking my T-shirt for lapels to yank. “There is a first cause in the long chain of causes, Mikey. A rational design. God doesn’t play dice.”
“It’s not your body,” I said.
“She can’t just throw my kid away!”
How happily he bellowed. What else do we seek on earth if not a drama worthy of our bellowing?
Terrence was yanking off his pajamas. Mr. Albert turned away. “We’ll wait outside,” he said. “Hurry up now.”
The R.J. Reynolds building lorded over the distant downtown skyline, a glass shaft crowned by a bony radio tower.
“I’ve seen this place,” I said, “but I always thought it was a foothill.”
“I smell cigs,” Sligo said.
“Look down, fool,” Mr. Albert said.
The ground beneath our feet was an ocean of mangled packs, shiny red Winstons mostly, razored in half, spilling tobacco like brown guts. There must have been billions. Sligo looked stricken. He had bummed enough cigarettes in his lifetime to fill a small dump. “Why?”
“Defectives,” Mr. Albert said.
“How can a cigarette be defective?” Sligo asked.
“Sprayed with too much treater or rolled wrong. Sometimes the filter gets cut too long.”
“Why not sell them at a discount,” Sligo said, “like day-old bread at the bakery? They could make a fortune.”
“Federal regs. The FDA man’s got regs.”
Terrence emerged in overalls, his sideburns combed out. He wore the same cologne as Mr. Albert, a sweet, peppery scent that made me think of mariachi music.
We followed him down a back trail to a small clearing where discarded appliances and fixtures lay, like a sea of broken teeth — sinks and toilets and washers and ovens, torn from homes and cast onto the reddish dirt. Not even the gulls had any use for this stuff.
Terrence led us to a small warren in back where he had stashed a few objects under a tarp. These he displayed for Mr. Albert, making little expectant noises: an antique breadbox with a built-in cutting board and a nifty latch; a tabletop radio shaped like cathedral doors; an immaculate white, three-quarter-size fridge with a chrome handle. Mr. Albert twitched his mustache in a noncommittal way, but you could tell he was pleased. He picked up the radio and the breadbox. Terrence started to hoist the refrigerator by himself.
“That’s all right, son,” Mr. Albert said. “Let these boys help you.”
We hauled the fridge up to the car and spent a long time securing it in the trunk with bungee cords. Meanwhile, Mr. Albert hummed “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” and licked his teeth. I could tell he was already composing an image for the front of the fridge — a ring of children serenading a giant frog, perhaps, or a red cow leaping over the moon. Sligo and I got in the car, and he walked Terrence back to the shed. They moved along with a certain sweet reluctance, as if strolling in the Tuileries. At the door, they paused, and Mr. Albert slipped Terrence a bill and held the younger man’s hand in his own for a minute, speaking softly.
“That’s his fucking kid,” Sligo said. He was all torn up at the scene.
“Nonsense,” I said. “They don’t look anything alike.”
“It’s his illegitimate son.”
“He’s just looking out for the poor guy. That’s his thing.”
And yet, I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t say there wasn’t something of the father — or our wishes about fathers — in the tender way Mr. Albert held Terrence’s hand.
The ride back down rocked us considerably, the Buick’s rear end dragging with the weight of our haul. Mr. Albert rolled past the Reynolds House and told us about the lobby, where tobacco money had funded an indoor rain forest. Joe Kleinberg, his former employer, had come here to lick his wounds after Watergate, his hopes of greater glory petered out. Mr. Albert had spent most of his time in the underground parking lot — “a real fancy garage,” he wanted us to know. “Top notch.”
Back at his place, we set the fridge on the porch, and he started in to paint it — long strokes of blue softened with cream.
Sligo and I descended into the cellar. “What if we just burn the whole place down?” Sligo said. “What about that?” He was starving. We were both starving. Food had become a somewhat less reliable variable in our lives. We marched up the stairs with a divan cutting welts in our arms. “We could eat the dog,” Sligo said.
I thought of how Lil and I, ravenous and flushed from copulation, would imagine gourmet feasts. We couldn’t cook, but we could imagine: roast duck in a blackberry glaze, scallops sautéed in scallions and butter, pork chops broiled under goat cheese, garlic potatoes, Maryland crab cakes, braised shrimp in black-bean sauce. The great, stupid hopes of imaginers.
And what of the reality? We ate spoons of peanut butter, saltines, canned soup, cheapie pasta. That I can’t deny. But we were under the spell of a deeper hunger. And it wasn’t sex, though at the time I dearly wanted to believe it was.
It would have been easier if we’d just been after a good meal, a good lay — the desires of the body. But, like Sligo, we were actually caught up in the desires of the spirit, a tangle of feelings we could barely articulate, let alone agree upon.
Up and down the cellar stairs we went. The sun drooped in the sky. Mr. Albert kept at his task. For a few hours there, panting and muscle-sore, we achieved the nirvana of all concerted labor, which is forgetting.
Then a string of firecrackers went off, and dusk snapped like a flamenco dancer. The smell of barbecue — molasses, vinegar, smoke — came up against the stench of tar. Sligo dropped his end of a wardrobe on the lawn and asked Mr. Albert, “Who was that guy Terrence?”
Mr. Albert kept his eyes on the fridge, where a goose now swooped over a landscape of elephants and jellied watch faces. “Terrence a good old boy,” he said dreamily.
“Yeah,” Sligo said. “Yeah. I was just wondering if he’s a relative, or what.”
“He got an eye, don’t he?” Mr. Albert said to me slyly.
Sligo started to say something more, but Mr. Albert tapped the water jar with his brush, like a conductor calling for silence. “Leave that be.”
There was one of those lousy pauses that just hang there. Then Mr. Albert took up his brush and kissed his work with the tip and went into another monologue. We lay on the edge of the lawn and let him talk. He needed some disinterested listeners. He’d set himself apart from his own people for sad, unspoken reasons and found genius late in life, and now he had a little money and too many new friends. His bones ached with mistrust.
I yearned for sleep, a sleep populated by Mr. Albert’s bright, rescuing figures. But I was too hungry to dream. “We’ve got to eat,” I moaned. “It’s like knives in my stomach.”
Sligo closed his eyes. “Don’t say that, Mikey, please. You should know better.” He pushed himself up off the grass. “What about that crib?” he said to Mr. Albert. “Are you going to finish that?”
Mr. Albert blinked. “Crib?”
“The one you were working on this morning.”
“It’s on the porch.”
Sligo climbed the porch steps and bent over the crib. I could see him watching a kid sleep, a little girl, around Christmastime, that sort of red, tinselly light. The image was more than speculation — something between a dream and clairvoyance.
Mr. Albert glanced over. “Ain’t done yet.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Sligo said. “What’s going in the middle?”
Mr. Albert shrugged his shoulders.
“You don’t know?”
“If I knew,” Mr. Albert said calmly, “I’d have done it already.”
Sligo looked positively distressed. “When will you know?”
I could see where this was going. I leapt up and nearly swooned from hunger. “I think I need to eat something. Like, now.”
The two of them watched me wobble on my feet. “Sorry, son,” Mr. Albert said. “When you get to be my age, sometimes you forget. Everything happens just the same, only slower. We can see Mr. Gabriel.”
Mr. Gabriel had a place on Ninth, next to the Braxton Funeral Home. The sign on the funeral-home marquee said, SPECIAL THIS WEEK: HEADSTONES! REAL MARBLE! AFFORDABLE ON LAYAWAY! Across the street, little girls chanted to the thwack of a jump-rope, their legs scissoring with the ridiculous grace of youth. Not far away, the captives of a kennel called Pit Bull City made noises of joy and murder.
The smell of barbecue perfumed the air. Mr. Gabriel presided over a smoking barrel in the parking lot of his restaurant. The end of his nose looked like it might have melted a little in the flames. We had to wait fifteen minutes before he would allow us at his ribs. (There was a six-hour minimum cooking time on each batch.) When we got our food, the meat fell from the bone in hunks. We stood in the lot, gasping at the succulence, scraping our teeth across the bones. Our paper plates came to look like archaeological digs.
Through the front window of Mr. Gabriel’s place, we could see photos of him playing baritone sax in some tasseled Harlem nightclub. A few regulars were sitting at the counter, sipping away like buzzards. The rest of the place was a wreck of stools and frying equipment and dead TVs. The restaurant had degenerated to a drink house. All Mr. Gabriel cared about was ribs. One of his grandchildren brought us spiced beans with turkey tails and a lemon Bundt cake that dissolved on my tongue like cotton candy. All I could say was “God” this and “God” that. Sligo stopped eating, but I kept going.
On the way back, Sligo told Mr. Albert, “I want to buy that crib.”
“That crib on the porch.”
Mr. Albert cocked his head.
“I’m having a baby,” Sligo announced. “My girlfriend is.” To hear the conviction in his voice, you would have thought he was Saint Augustine under the fig tree, reciting Paul’s Epistles to his brethren.
Mr. Albert scratched at his painter’s cap. “You going to have a baby?”
“Yessir,” Sligo said. He hiked his pants.
I thought about Augustine — a young lout not unlike Sligo — settling down beneath the fig tree and reading the words that redeemed him: Let us walk honestly as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness. This was the kind of transformation Sligo was after. He wanted Mr. Albert to find him worthy, to help him rescue that perfect baby of his. But Mr. Albert was just a lonely old guy who painted junk. Judgment wasn’t his deal.
“Can’t give you that crib,” he said. “It’s spoke for. I can make you another one.”
“No,” Sligo said. “That’s the one I want. The one on the porch.” His voice was pinching up again. “I’ve got a plan.”
Mr. Albert clucked. “You want to make God laugh, son? Make a plan.”
Back at his place, Mr. Albert peeled off two ragged twenties for each of us. Sligo wouldn’t take his — I had to take it for him. He stared at the unfinished crib like a cow. “Please,” he said. “This is something I need.” He was talking now about what might have been, though he couldn’t see it.
“He just likes your work,” I said.
I tried to steer Sligo away from the crib, but he threw me off like tissue and wheeled on Mr. Albert, staggering toward him. “You’re the one who preaches, ‘Never throw anything away.’ ”
Mr. Albert sighed. He looked inconvenienced and sorrowful and not the least bit scared. He took Sligo’s shoulder in his hand and spoke very slowly. “I thrown plenty away, son.” I remembered, then, that he was a father, that he understood children, their tantrums, their scorn, their stubborn imperfection.
Night had come now, and all our illusions had stolen off like thieves. Lil had cast me out, sensibly enough, and begun elaborate ablutions to reclaim her soiled parts. Sligo looked broken in half. We left Mr. Albert alone with his wood and his paint, though he chose, this night, to go inside and watch TV.
Sligo grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “If I’d bought her that crib . . .”
“He’ll make you another one.”
“It’ll be too late, Mikey.”
He was right. He was right.
I wanted to believe there was something besides denial in Sligo’s grief, some true need to extend himself beyond the gratification of his own wishes. But I didn’t know. It was one of those situations. Maybe some great philosopher like Augustine would have known what to do. But we could only read him. We couldn’t be him.
The dark slid by, and the lamentation of dogs faded into the hum of air conditioners. We had turned a corner from the world of black people into the world of white people. I thought about all those appliances scattered on the ground, looking so damn abandoned. Only a few would be reborn under Mr. Albert’s brush.
A yuppie from the Mill condos jogged past, shoving one of those sinister-looking three-wheeled racing strollers. The kid’s head lay still in its bedding, pink and blank. Sligo didn’t seem to notice.
“She’s got my kid in there,” he said. It took me a second to realize that he was talking about his girlfriend.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry, Slig.”
Later that night, he would spend every penny of our earned money on cognac and failed tomcatting. And, later still, he’d tear up the shingles on his girl’s roof trying to bust into her empty apartment, until the police arrived. But at that moment all he did was let his head fall on my shoulder.
“She’s really going to do this, Mikey.”
“It’s OK,” I said, though it wasn’t, really. I was just trying to console him. It was what anyone would have done, with him standing there, weeping.