Because I was going to Texas to see my mother, I felt like I was going home until I got there. AUS was full of Texans. The poor people were fat, really fat, the rich were over-dressed and it looked like everyone was engaged in an elaborate square dance to make sure somebody of one race didn’t accidentally bump up against a person of another color. In the men’s room, the stocky redhead who came in after me made sure there were two urinals between us and I couldn’t see his little pink dick. It was, in other words, the South. By the time I got to Baggage Claim, every nerve in my body remembered why I left.
And then, I saw my mother.
It had been, what? Four years, maybe more. Enough time for me to see the changes clearly, the way you can’t when you live in the same town and get together every now and then. Even movie stars get thicker past sixty, and she had. I read her as shorter, too, but that might have been a trick that memory played on me. The biggest shocker was the jeggings, the Ugg boots, the big purse, the smooth chin length bob that had to be a wig. I take that back. The biggest shocker was the 40 year old brother beside her, the one she introduced coyly as “my friend Tyne.”
As accessories go, I preferred the purse. Tyne’s handshake was too hearty and too wet. He was a little shorter and a little less ripped than me, deep caramel skin and eyes made almond by some distant Asian kin, big enough of nose and foot to promise mom good times and way too young for a widowed schoolteacher of almost 61. Besides, he was not my dad. At first I figured he meant to drop us off at the house and disappear, thanks for the ride, dude, but it turned out he lived there now, kept his clothes in my father’s side of the closet, slept on my father’s side of the bed. My mother flitted between us like a butterfly whose wings were being tugged in opposite directions, seeming to dread dismemberment. I had never known my monumental mother to flit before.
Back at the house where I grew up, the dining room table was swamped with junk, his and hers, so we ate our frozen pepperoni pizza in the breakfast nook and talked at cross purposes as we gnawed the cardboard crust.
The flight was uneventful. I slept.
Three nights a week, Tyne tends bar at the Elixir. Four days a week, he manages my mother’s dojo.
My mother’s dojo?
“I decided I needed a physical practice of my own. More for health than self defense, but look how good karate was for you.” She smiles at me and touches the back of his hand.
Tyne invites me to use the facilities while I’m visiting. Mi dojo es su dojo.
I want to gag.
“How is your health by now?” My mother sounds less like a mother than like the not too bright well-meaning receptionist at the county hospital I’ve lately been known to visit.
“I’m still paying off my medical bills, if that’s what you mean.”
My mother’s acknowledgment is not the deep hug, not the cleansing tears I expected and—be honest, Archer—felt were my due, but a simple life is tough all over sigh. I could see she was not comfortable talking about my father with Tyne around. I could see that my grown up son’s neediness embarrassed her, and that embarrassed me. I claimed to be worn out by travelling the 1500 air miles between SFX and Austin, managed to avoid being prematurely embraced by my mother’s lover, kissed her smooth cheek and was temporarily unmanned by the familiar scent of Chanel No. 5 that rose from her warm skin.
After I went to bed, I could hear the rise and fall of their voices without making out the words. It was familiar and wrong. My father had a deep voice. Tyne talked tenor and had a donkey’s laugh. My childhood bed was too short for me and the time I’d allotted for my visit was too long.
Put another way, I was too long coming. My mother no longer needed to forgive me, even if I still craved absolution. In my ever-widening absence, she had moved on. My mental inventory of my parents’ ranch house now showed not a single photo of my father and only one of a generic adorable infant I assume used to be me. That baby grew up gay. His lover died. With no malice and little forethought, he’d recently killed an old friend and even though the world would not much miss his victim, still, the fact that he’d taken the life of a fellow human being chilled his soul. His mommy declined to occupy the center of his universe anymore, or to give him that place in hers. Her fancy man smelled of Old Spice and we all had five more days of Texas Two-Step to endure.
Specks of luminescence danced across the dark side of my eyelids and I courted sleep by muttering guilty prayers to my other mother, Yemaya.
You could fairly say that me joining the club called Santeria, acquiring a spiritual mother in the process, was to blame for the estrangement between me and the woman who’d conceived, raised and put up with me from birth until I moved to California, got myself initiated and became a bead wearing, orisha worshipping, disdainful-of-outsiders cult member with all the attendant blind spots and bad behaviors that implies. A long story, that, and I was tired of telling it to myself, even more tired of wondering if it was really over. Every man wants a mother, no matter how old he gets, and I’d expected mine to be frozen like a mosquito in an ice cube, ready to thaw out and take care of me whenever I decided to come in mothering range.
On the long slide into sleep those nights in Texas, I saw that I was triply orphaned– Michaela dead, Yemaya on time out and my mother doing Tyne.
* * *
I’d only been away a scant week but in my absence Doc Sam’s house had got turned inside out. The bookshelves were empty and half the furniture had gone missing. The kilim rug was rolled up and the rooms whose open space I loved were filled with boxes. Outside, in the planter boxes on the deck, the herbs were shriveling. Sam herself was wearing her oldest sweats, the red ones that time and wear had sucked on till they turned a muddy pink.
“Archer,” she said when she saw me.
“Hey, Sam. You moving, or what?”
“I’m putting my stuff in storage.” She spoke to an imaginary somebody standing behind me so she wouldn’t have to look me in the eyes. “The renters move in on the 1st of the month.” She raised her eyes to the ceiling. “I didn’t want to tell you before you went to Austin. I didn’t want you to worry.”
Since I didn’t know what to say, I kept my mouth shut. Sam drew a noisy breath. “Seven months ago I applied for a job with Partners in Health. Two weeks ago, they offered it to me.”
I did some mental arithmetic. I’d lived with Sam for six and half months. Good months. She wasn’t abandoning me, she was getting on with her life.
“Congratulations.” My voice sounded as if somebody was strangling me. I coughed. I would not goddamn it would not cry. Instead, I opened my arms up wide and Sam stepped into them. We held each other and rocked back and forth for awhile. Sam was not a fag hag, she was a fellow traveller, the saint who healed and consoled me, she was Darla’s best girlfriend and Elizabeth’s companion on Girl’s Night Out. Boss Lady at the community clinic where I volunteered. Roommate and land lady, even though I never paid rent. White skin and green eyes notwithstanding, my sister, the kind of kinship forged by life and not the accidents of birth.
“Where are you going?” I asked her. “When do you leave?”
“The job’s in Haiti. I’ll run the reproductive health clinic there. From here I go to Boston to get oriented first.”
“Boston,” I said. “That’s why you…..”
She nods. “My last interview.” Smiles. “There were dozens and dozens of applicants for the job.”
“Congratulations,” I said again, almost meaning it this time.
Doc Sam plunged her fingers into her thick hair and raked it off her forehead. “I leave next week. I told the new tenants you’d be around to help them settle in.”
“Fuck.” I finally spoke it out loud, the one eloquent word that had been saying itself over and over inside my brain ever since I walked in the door and saw the boxes. Babies can’t talk, but I’ve always imagined that’s their first thought on popping out of the birth canal into the world.
Fuck fuck fuck.
* * *
On Tuesday, I went to visit Oscar. He was my first lover since Lance died.
We’d been on and off for, what? Seven, eight months, maybe. Long, slow months.
Oscar was wearing his horn rims and his favorite Armani Emporium thong in mint green when I arrived. That and his flip flops. His mother had him convinced that going barefoot was a fast track to foot trouble. By way of greeting, he stood on tiptoe, wrapped his arms around my neck and kissed me on the mouth. My taste buds told me he’d been kicking back the Tic Tacs again. The first half dozen or so times we played this scene, I was all in, nerves humming and genitals at full alert, so physically present that the voices inside my head stopped talking for awhile. But they were back now, saying things like, What’s for dinner? and How long is this gonna take? and in a very low voice, Damn, I wish this boy would have a new idea once in a while.
The thing about Oscar. His head was smart, brilliant even, full of complicated ideas that came so fast I sometimes thought I could hear them rushing, like traffic on the freeway or a river full of rain. Erotically, though, he was unimaginative, only one page in the playbook and he was happy to read it over and over again, same words, same order. I know it sounds ungrateful, but my more adventurous body was bored out of its dumb shit mind. That’s what I was more or less thinking as he took my hand and pulled me toward the bedroom with its wall-to-wall California King size bed, his sheets the color of lichen, assumed the position he liked best and waited for me to make his dreams come true. I was supposed to be gentle but not too gentle, tease him just a little and not talk at all.
His ass was plump and shapely, but it was the color of library paste, strewn with coarse black hairs.
When minutes passed and nothing happened, Oscar looked over his shoulder at me. Even without his glasses he could see my grief.
“Archer, what’s wrong?”
How could I tell him I was missing Lance so bad it took my breath away? That I was homeless. Unemployed. Afraid. That all my gods were on holiday, huddled under a white sheet and might never come back again.
Oscar rolled over onto his back. I watched his penis shrink. He put on his glasses and sat up on the edge of the bed. He patted the empty space beside him. Archer, sit. “You know, I’ve been thinking. Maybe it’s time we moved in together. See how it goes.”
Oscar. A brilliant man with a tin ear.
I sat beside him and we did the sad dance, the no dance, the How I Wish It Were Not So dance.
“We’ll always be friends,” I told him. And we both cried.
On Sunday, one week short of Doc Sam leaving Santa Cruz, I did not want to be Archer. Archer was a mess. I turned down Sam’s invitation to hang out with the couple that was taking over the clinic and took care of Elizabeth instead—bye bye eye bags, farewell hairy legs and pits, adieu blunt-cut plain butch nails, beard stubble and cracked guy lips. Can you defoliate depression? I was hoping to scrub away what ailed me, smooth the jagged edges, cover up the scars.
Elizabeth is not a drag queen. She is an uptown bitch, all elegance and no irony. On the street she turns heads, not just because she’s taller than 99% of the people passing by. Understatement is her art form, a muted palette, fine fabrics, the African in her American barely but tantalizingly perceptible, like the base note in a complicated French perfume, what makes it smell sexy and a little dangerous. Her hair is a sleek blonde bob. Darla wants attention, always, but Elizabeth is the place where Archer hides. She (I, we) were going to town that Sunday, going to window shop the high end boutiques, check out the big sizes in the good consignment stores before she kept an appointment with an old associate. Because it took us a while to find a pair of pantyhose without rips and ladders, Elizabeth was just heading out when Doc Sam got home with her guests.
They were a Midwestern matched set, doctor & nurse, with twin boys in a double wide stroller, all as naturally blonde as Elizabeth is by artifice. Sam stood aside to let them enter, widening her eyes and elevating her eyebrows at me. I sent her a slick Elizabeth smile.
“This is my housemate,” she told them. “Elizabeth, Donna and Matthew Olson.”
We shook hands all around. ”Archer was sorry to miss you,” Elizabeth purred, “but he had another engagement.” After we traded a few more snippets of nice, Elizabeth said, “Must run or I’ll be late. I have an appointment in the East Bay. So good to meet you.” The parting handshakes were 15% firmer than the ones we shared in greeting.
“What did Sam say your last name was again?” the female half of Olsen duo asked.
“You’d never remember it,” I told them. “I can hardly pronounce it myself.” This said with an arm sweep both bold and vague.
The fact is, if Elizabeth has a last name, I still don’t know what it is.
* * *
Fourth Street is Berkeley’s Rich Bitch promenade, a street lined with spendy shops and idle wives toting designer bags, lured down from the hills or tantalized through the tunnel to the east. Even though they have their own mall in Walnut Creek, even though the stores there are spacious and full of expensive stuff, they are still chain stores. With a few exceptions, Fourth Street is one offs. The sidewalks are narrow enough that on busy Sundays you brush and bump, you watch your step and sometimes accidentally lock eyes with strangers, caught in the act of studying what they wear.
Those idle wives, their eyes are hollow. They are not Lake Merritt eyes or East 14th Street eyes, not eyes from the Castro or the Mission. They are not even airport eyes. I walk among these women, I think, not just to pass but feel superior. In Café Rouge, aware that her entrance has been noted, Elizabeth mounts a barstool. Ostentatious but graceful, we cross our legs. With the last of the money my mother tucked in my pocket as I left Austin, I order three oysters and a glass of Pinot Grigio. Archer is a bad drinker, prone to night terrors in the backwash of boozing, but Elizabeth can dare a cocktail or two glasses of wine and still walk steady in her high heels, still sleep at night and dream of Abyssinian cats.
Aware that I’m performing, I slide one briny slimy oyster across my tongue and down my throat. In that moment of ingestion, a man climbs onto the bar stool beside me. He’s squarely built, mahogany skin, close cropped hair, his face as well worn as a favorite pair of shoes. It’s a likeable face. In the moment before he speaks, I want him to not be an asshole, even though my expectations are never high. Pick up lines are the hardest part of speech.
“That’s quite the Adam’s apple you’ve got there, pretty lady,” is what he says.
I consider the possibilities.
He’s laughing at me.
He knows but doesn’t care.
Elizabeth is exactly whom he wanted to meet today.
“What are you drinking?” he wants to know.
I let him buy Elizabeth—me– a drink, and for its duration we flirt wittily, lobbing double entendres at each other across an imaginary net. I learn that he studied semiotics at Cal, that he works for a software company and has just moved to Oakland from San Francisco to shorten the commute to the startup he’s working for now. The chevrons fanning out from the corners of his eyes testify to an appetite for laughter. I stay in character as we talk, all Elizabeth all the time, but we are both aware of the something else concealed inside her like a nested Russian doll.
After two glasses of Pinot Grigio, his tab, he asks Elizabeth if she wants to see his new apartment.
“I’d love to,” she tells him, “but I have another appointment.” I slide off the bar stool and lean forward to brush my lips against his cheek. “Thanks for the wine.”
Standing, we are almost the same height until Elizabeth slips on her shoes. Then he has to look up to me. “Will I see you again?” he says, and then, “My name is Ben.”
Before she leaves, Elizabeth finds a fine point Sharpie in the bottom of her handbag and scrawls Archer’s number on a cocktail napkin. Magically, the numbers grow fat as soon as soon as I write them down.
* * *
My vision of the day did not include meeting a stranger in a bar. Hidden deep inside Elizabeth, Archer was still leery of sex. Coming then killing was a deadly memory. In the time before my meeting with Jerry Dixon, I’d planned to scan the racks at Crossroads Trading Company, see what the rich white ladies had put on consignment there. Invited to pick the meeting place, I’d chosen Rockridge, an upscale neighborhood where the consigned cocktail dresses and evening gowns have designer ready-to-wear labels. In the one on University, it’s all recycled prom dresses, but here the evening gowns are sophisticated and still smell faintly of good perfumes. The clatter of coat hangers, the rustle of soft fabrics soothed me. They whispered of another, better world. The silks and taffetas were cool and smooth to the touch. For a while, I was transported.
And then I looked up. I wasn’t looking at or for anything, just raising my eyes in a kind of fashion meditation, imagining how Darla would look in a full skirted moss green gown with a sequined bodice that winked and gleamed even in the low light of a second hand store. Across the room, Leslie Dixon was rifling through the sweater rack. I hadn’t expected Jerry to bring her along on what I imagined was going to be a business meeting. My response to seeing her was visceral—pleasure, because I genuinely liked her, dread, because seeing her evoked hard memories. I hadn’t seen her since she visited me in the hospital. Impulse drove my hand up in a wave. Leslie saw it and me, frowned slightly and looked down at a chunky blue cable knit cardigan I hoped she wouldn’t buy.
Although she knew and liked Archer, Leslie had never met Elizabeth.
I teetered over to the sweater rack and before she could retreat, put a hand on her arm. “Leslie, so good to see you.” I spoke in Archer’s voice. Watched her register the aural memory without understanding quite how or why. “Archer Barron,” I whispered. “You could say I’m sort of undercover right now.”
Her reaction was like a string of caps exploding. Archer. Oh my god. And then a big and heart felt hug. For a moment we rocked in one another’s arms. Then she said, “I was just killing time until Jerry was supposed to meet you.” Leslie hooked her arm through mine. “ He’s just across the street. Come on, let’s surprise him.”
Jerry Dixon had met Elizabeth once and seemed to recognize her. His puzzlement arose from context. “Barron, what the fuck are you up to?” he said by way of greeting.
“I thought I’d do some shopping before I met up with you.”
He gave Elizabeth the once over, down then up. He fished a Camel Filter out of the pack in his pocket and lit up.
“Still haven’t quit,” I said.
“I’ll quit when I retire.”
“Unless he dies first,” Leslie said.
He took a deep drag and exhaled purposefully, enveloping his wife and me in a stinking cloud.
“Still passive aggressive,” I said.
“Still a bitch,” he shot back.
“Thanks. I try.”
Passersby offended by the smell of smoke pantomime their disgust, veering as far from us as they can get without stepping into the street. Dixon takes two more desperately deep drags, then drops the half smoked cigarette and stamps it out. I put my hand on his arm to stop him before him he obliterates the butt. “Hey, careful. That’s gonna make somebody very happy.”
With the toe of his tennis shoe, he eases it out of the stream of traffic, rolls it close to the nearest storefront where it should survive until the street people come out at night.
“Hope a dog doesn’t piss on it,” he mutters.
“So why did you want to see me?”
Dixon looks Elizabeth up and down once more. His lips twist the way lips do when you’ve eaten something that tastes strange. Then his eyebrows shrug in resignation. “You ready for your next job?” he says.
Elizabeth stands tall. She speaks in Archer’s voice. “Just about. The doctor just cleared me for part time. But first I have to figure out where I’m going to live.”
Dixon gave me a manly backslap, the kind that Archer would have welcomed. Aimed at Elizabeth, though, it looked like an assault. Passing white people gave us disapproving looks as they skittered by. I could see one buzz cut ex-marine clenching the phone in his pocket like he wished it was a gun.
“Welcome to Oakland, “ Dixon told me. “You’re gonna love it here.”
“So you see,” Dixon told me, “it’s gotta be somebody they’d never suspect.”
We were at his house by that time, a seventies split-level high in the far East Oakland hills, sitting at an umbrella table in his backyard and drinking beer. Leslie had traded her going-out clothes for gardening togs, old jeans, tennis shoes, canvas gloves and a big-brimmed hat to make shade for her face. She knelt in a nearby flowerbed, digging little holes and cozying young plants into them—marigolds, impatiens, pansies, all flowers that my mother used to grow in our yard in Austin. It was almost embarrassing how much I liked being there, in a real house with a real husband and wife doing ordinary things. I suppose it helped that we were not related. The sun was low enough by then that our shadows stretched out long across the lawn.
I took a lady-like sip of the Pale Ale, an Elizabeth gesture, and spoke in Archer’s voice. Recognized, busted, pumps kicked off, I was sliding between selves. “Sounds dangerous,” Archer said though it probably did not require saying. We had some history, Jerry Dixon and me. The last time I helped him with a case, I nearly died.
“It is,” he said. “If you get caught….”
“You might wish you were.”
Put the pansy in the hole, smooth dirt around the root wad. I used to help my mother. I used to think the flowers looked like faces. Even though my fortunes looked to be in free fall, I wasn’t eager to be dead. “What are you paying?”
“Better than what you were making as a night watchman. I have a real budget this time.”
“You want me to fill out a W2?”
“I’m working for the Mayor. Undercover. If anybody in the department finds out, I’m dead, too.”
“I thought you were all about getting ready to retire.” When I met him, less than a year before, Dixon’s hair was silver at the temples. Now the silver traced the outline of his haircut, around the ears, across his forehead and the back of his neck. On top, too, his close cropped afro was dusted white and he clearly didn’t take care of his skin, not the way I take care of mine.
Leslie put down her trowel, knelt motionless in the dirt, as if she was curious to hear what he’d say. Dixon picked up a bottle cap between his thumb and middle finger and set it spinning. When it fell over, he said, “Those motherfuckers have been getting away with too much for too long.” He picked up the bottle cap again, set it flat on his palm and studied it, as if the message written around the fluted rim was a whole lot deeper than Fuller’s IPA. “It’s like they’re back.”
“The Rangers.” And then he flicked the bottle cap away, like a coin or a miniature Frisbee, so it landed on the far side of the flower bed. “Like the fucking Ku Klux Klan, only with police badges.” After a moment’s silence, “Maybe they never really went away.”
“I think I remember hearing something about that,” I said. It was vague and lame, true, but lacking the facts, it was the best I could do.
“White cops. Black city. It’s a race thing, Barron.” Dixon was an anomaly, the highest ranking black man among the Oakland cops.
Leslie stood up and brushed the loose dirt off the knees of her jeans. “Jerry wants to leave Oakland better than he found it,” she said. Pride and exasperation were braided so tight into that sentence it was impossible to pick them apart.
“From what I’ve read lately, the Mayor’s not exactly a civil libertarian,” I said. This I did know, thank you, Facebook.
Leslie pulled off her garden gloves and sat down with us at the table. She took a pull from Jerry’s beer. Then she said, “The mayor’s concerned about her legacy.” The irony dripped off her words like melted butter from a cob of corn.
Inside my head, I had two come-backs: Fuck. And Bitch. That was how Archer and Elizabeth respectively felt about Oakland’s cautious let’s-all-get-along executive, a Vietnamese grandma who’d spent a couple decades conciliating among constituencies before she made her play for the top spot. What we (royal or not) really had against Mayor Chau was the recent (tardy) revelation that she and her council had sold out the (initially peaceful) Occupy Oakland protesters to a fascist coalition of Homeland Security, the FBI, local police and assorted big banks—the whole proto-military law enforcement machine. It took a British newspaper to break the story. Until they did, Chau was dangling her legs on both sides of the political fence—progressive mayor, DHS team player.
“She was under a lot of pressure,” Dixon said.
“Do you trust her?” we asked him.
“I sure as hell don’t trust them,” Dixon said.
Just to stand on the side of clarity, I asked him who they were. He sighed. “If you were black….”
“I am black.”
“Oakland black,” he said. “Live in the flats, drop out of school, smoke reefer on the corner, dump your baby mama black,” he said. “Food stamps black. On your way to the state penitentiary black.”
“There’s all kinds of black,” I said.
“If you were Oakland black, you’d know who they are.” Dixon said. “Oakland po-leece. You’d hate the motherfuckers as much as I do.”
Leslie cocked her head and addressed Elizabeth, woman to woman. “Jerry hasn’t felt safe going to work for 25 years. I haven’t sent him off a day without praying he’d come home.” More beer, a big swallow. She sighed.
Dixon reached across the table and took hold of his wife’s hand. Loving or controlling? I suppose like most things in life, it was a little bit of this, a little that. Leslie looked touched and pained. He said, “It hasn’t been that bad, has it?” She took her hand back.
“I think that’s a yes,” Elizabeth said in a wise ass Mae West register, just to stir things up.
“Twelve, thirteen years ago, five rogue white cops owned Oakland. They called themselves the Rangers. They planted evidence. They broke into people’s houses without warrants and shot em dead. They collected protection money from everybody they could squeeze it out of. Anybody who didn’t pay up, they got arrested or they got shot. For people, read black people,” Dixon said. “And god forbid you were political.”
The more Dixon went on, the more leaving the country entirely sounded like a good idea. Rio de Janiero has always called out to me, not least because if I wanted to go to a bembe, I’d pretty much know all the songs. And the beaches. If I lived there long enough, I’d pick up Portuguese. How hard could it be? Maybe it was Doc Sam and her Haiti surprise that put travel in my head, but sitting there in East Oakland, I was ready to board the next outbound plane. The only trouble was, I had no money.
“The old Rangers were bullies and hoods,” Dixon said. “But the new generation makes them look like Sunday school teachers.”
“What new generation?”
And Dixon shook his head. “They’re smart. They’re organized. And they’re pretty much invisible.”
“Then how do you know they exist?” It was somewhere between a good question and a smart ass effort to be annoying. I am capable of both.
He surprised me by quoting a shard of scripture I remembered from my Jesus days. “By their works shall ye know them,” he said. “We just can’t fucking see them.”
In that moment, I was done with disguises. Besides, my head was itching something fierce. I pulled off Elizabeth’s honey blonde page boy wig and set it on the table next to my beer. It looked like a headless longhair cat. I could feel Leslie looking from it to me, sock headed Archer, boy-hair and made up face. Her look was full of curiosity but no judgment I could feel. “So what do you have in mind?” I said.
Dixon smiled at me, his head cocked to one side.. “You want another beer?”
I shook my head. “I want to use what light is left for driving.”
“Join us for dinner,” Leslie said. “You’re welcome to stay the night.”
I stood, wig under my arm, and knelt to collect my high heels from under the table. They weren’t comfortable to drive in, and my feet had spread while we’d been sitting. “I need to get back,” I said.
“Suit yourself,” Dixon said. “Here’s the thing. I think they’re using the Food Bank for their front. What I want is you inside. There’s an office job open there you’d be perfect for.”
“Which me?” I asked him and he shrugged.