Every time I tell this story I cry. Someone puts me in a chokehold or they eject me from their house when it is cold and blustery and my eyes have no choice. I freely admit it—like a messy old tree I’ve gone sappy.
At the time I lived in Cleveland, attending graduate school. I thought I’d enjoy a life publishing articles on Freud and Jung. Ah-a-ha-ha. No—I’ve often been wrong about what I thought I’d enjoy.
I roomed with a couple of undergraduates who played poker and touch football in the alley next to our second floor hovel creeping with carpenter ants. Ted and Mario were nice and polite when I had a woman over, but afterward they rode me to the kilt, asking how she was in bed, how experienced and if she had any friends. I trained every date who visited to not parrot hello upon meeting my mates but to just robotically pronounce, I have no friends, I have no friends.
Aside from their drunken spats, it was a quiet existence. I spent most days in the carrels of the university library, dreaming of a better life. Why not fly to Turkey and help with the relief effort following that awful earthquake? Why not hitchhike to California and get in trouble? Why not dip into the heroin Ted’s friend Marcy dangled in front of my eyes at parties? Why not live? There’d be time for that, right? Freud and Jung couldn’t fuck me out of my will but I was lost and in six months I’d leave the program and leave the state.
But a few months before jetting out of Cleveland, something happened. I often went to the public library to distract myself from a dissertation top heavy with grandiloquent language like ergo, ineluctable, and owing to Wettlaufer’s jejune idea… I took out movies to drown my sorrows. Walking through the isles one day a small black man with a broken front tooth held up the DVD Femme Fatale and said, “Is this any good, man?”
The cover had a sultry tall blond in a skimpy black jumper who in the film is an American at first, but she morphs into a French brunette as she runs from one man to another while two bad guys from Africa chase her. This Brian De Palma gloss on Vertigo ends with the American woman committing suicide to save the French woman and ultimately help her elude her pursuers, as they die of impalement because of the sun hitting Antonio Bandaras’s camera lens in a twist beyond reason. Don’t ask.
I’d seen it when it first came out. Aside from the ending, I thought it a pretty smart action movie with tense sequences and fluid, elaborate steadicam shots. I pointed at the cover. “Oh yeah, good one. Real fun. Real brain twister.” The man jerked his head in grudging surprise and cradled it to his side.
A few weeks later, as I walked out of the rain and into the library, I saw this same man. I hardly remembered what our connection was until he began haranguing a check out attendant. He shouted something I couldn’t understand and bent his head in anticipation as my squeaky shoes echoed in the hall. “Hey man, get over here.”
I stood about five feet from him, stock still. “What’s with that movie, dog, huh? Mr. Femme Fucking Fatale.”
“What, you didn’t like it?”
“You know how it end?”
“Yeah. She gets away. They are killed.”
“Yeah, dog. Who gets killed?”
With wide eyes, I said, “The guys who are after her.”
“And what are they?”
I looked at him and tightened my face. He pointed at me. “Oh yeah. Tell a black man to watch a movie where black guys get killed in the end and everybody clap. Marvelous. Yeah.” He crossed his arms.
“I didn’t recall that part,” I said, scratching my head.
“You didn’t recall those big forks cutting into their bellies?”
“Well, there’s so much violence in movies. It just kind of blends together, but even if I remembered I still would have vouched for it.”
He waved his hand dismissively.
“A movie’s a movie. Look at all the films where white guys die.”
“That’s not a movie, dog.”
“Yeah it is. There’s been like eighteen versions of it.”
The man wiped his mouth. “You’re in a sorry state, man. I don’t — I don’t even want to smell you in this library again.”
“But it’s a free country.”
He left disgusted, a pernicious drool of words spilling out as he crept away in his oversized Lakers jacket.
I went to the librarian, a dapper man in brown slacks with wire-rimmed glasses and a quiet disdain that began in his green eyes and ended at his neck.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Why do you want to know that, sir?”
“I want,” I stammered. “I want to do something for him.”
He wasn’t impressed.
“You know.” I handed over my library card, and he twirled it in his fingers.
“What, do I have to pay you off? I’m genuine. I’ve never been arrested. How much do you want?”
He snapped his gum like he was immovable. “Willie Lee Baxton.”
“Willie Lee Baxton?”
“You got it.”
He was in the phone book. The questionable side of town. I first went to the grocery store, but then I sped north to the outlet mall. Even though it was fifty-five in November, I bought him a reduced price winter coat. A gray London Fog. It was sleek but well insulated. A coat for the Northeast. And long, as I thought was the best fashion for Willie Lee.
I stood on his porch at dusk. Ringing and ringing. Finally, a small boy with no shirt on answered. He sneezed often, but did not take his eyes off the package in my hand.
“Is Willie Lee here?”
“No. He left.”
“Will he be back soon?”
“I don’t know. He’s not my daddy. Willie Lee’s going to Florida,” he said, rubbing a scar on his cheek.
“He’s mad.” The boy reached forward to the package and poked it. “What’s in that?”
“It’s a coat. It’s for him.” I took it from the bag and shook it out. “It’s warm. Try it.”
After he put it on, half of it lay on the floor like an extra wrap of skin. “Shut that goddamn door,” a woman called from within. “We don’t want any.”
I smiled. “You’ll give it to him when he comes back?”
He nodded and flapped one of the sleeves before sneezing.
“What’s in Florida?” I said.
“It’s not cold.”
I first did heroin in Albuquerque with Tabitha. We kissed each other’s necks for three hours, pretending we were snakes. She had her own mantra — Make me stop, make me real. I didn’t do either, but I lived a freewheeling and incautious lifestyle while still wearing a mask of respectability by coupling some copy-editing experience into parsing national news for the local paper.
When Tabitha ran off to Mexico with a lover named Daniel who had eleven fingers, I threw myself into the local underbelly. I drank, did more drugs and found myself waking up in strange, broken down warehouses on the outskirts of town with crows digging through large piles of trash piles inside. A reporter from the paper trying to break a story on the city’s heavy drug trade found me one Saturday morning, and I was immediately let go. I slept on my friend Tim’s couch as I started a course of anti-depressants. On the phone I told my eighty-one year old mother I was improving when an hour before I had slipped and shot up with ice-water, just to get the sensation of a surging, numbing liquid through my veins.
Two weeks later, I sat in a detox center watching flies and drinking ten cups of kool-aid a day. It was a perfect August day in Albuquerque. Eighty degrees, a slight mesquite-scented wind. Perfect on the surface. The Albuquerque sky in summer is a merciless shade of blue. It’s a banner over everything and it’s grinning at you, waiting for the wrong move, so your dreams will bleed further from reality.
A jazz festival would be starting on Labor Day, and I strove to earn the right to go under supervision. We often fought over the computer and luckily in the afternoon I finally was able to go online. I had begged Yahoo to let me into my account because I’d forgotten the user name and password, and they finally capitulated. Think of the publicity, I told them. Being nice to a recovering addict would help their image. The one oddly titled email I opened right away. Willie Lee had found me.
Hi, this is Sheryl, Willie Lee’s niece. We are sitting here at the library and I’m writing this email for him. I’ll let him talk now.
The clerk here gave me your mail. He said he’s never forget your moody ass. I love the coat man. You don’t know. It’s great. I’ve been in Florida for a while but I had to move back cause my sister is sick. Might even die. You shouldn’t worry about me. I get mad some times. I’m all bark and no bite. How is your life? You are a smart guy — I remember. You must be happy, but I think you should loosen up.
Thanks Willie Lee Baxton and his niece Sheryl