Two More Chapters Of Umberto Tosi’s Novel, “Our Own Kind.”

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October 1, 2014 · Posted in Our Own Kind - Umberto Tosi 

 

Our Own Kind cover Kindle edition

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The Open Road–Route 66, in New Mexico

by Umberto Tosi

 

 

3. MAKEDA

We’re friends, Benny, that’s all. I made that clear. I said it for myself, much as him. I’m on a diet – no more men. Not till I learn better, not till Keesha grows up, or both.

“Sure thing, Makeda.,” he says. Cheerful, but I can see his disappointment.

Now he lays back just enough to make it safe for us to flirt. “I know you love me,” he say, teasing, offhand, grinning.

“As a friend,” I add, too quickly.

Benny is one of those kind who gets away with all kinds of shit by being odd. He doesn’t have to try very hard, with that albino look – not creepy. More like marble come to life, but no Greek god – too skinny. Skinnier. The shades help. Then he dresses cool – not hip, not trying too hard. I won’t say he’s handsome, but those crystal blue eyes hold me.

Right off, I noticed that Benny never oob-eyed my tits like a lot of men, no sneaky peaks. I would catch him if he did, like the those jerk-off white boys since fifth grade back home who I could tell thought black girls easy.

Later, the cool ones eyes were harder to read. The musicians. Zeke. Fine looks, played his horn with finesse. But in the end, good for nothing but getting high, high, higher all the time. Should have known better than to let him slow-dance me onto his DayGlo van to nowhere.

But I can’t complain. Being with Zeke gave me my beautiful baby Keesha. A flaky father, though. Time to move on. So ended my hipster phase, followed by my black-power-get-militant phase.

Went to meetings. marched with in the black student union at UCLA, even met Angela Davis. Then I took up with Alonzo Abbake and ran with Black Nation before J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO took us down with it agents provocateur and frame ups.

I took the name of Makeda back then – the mighty Ethiopian queen the bible calls Queen of Sheba. I stopped using hair relaxer, and went short, proud and nappy. Deal with it.

Brothers did good things, proud things, fed the poor, started schools, cleaned up neighborhoods. Too bad revolutions eat their young. Too much swagger and blood. Alonzo liked when Stokely said women have a role in the movement – “on their backs.” He was trying to be funny. But I didn’t laugh. Go ask Harriet Tubman. When we’d argue, Alonzo drank and said I wasn’t black enough. I suppose Alonzo just expected me to polish his spear and keep quiet, I don’t know. The world looked different with a baby sleeping my sling. Time to move on.

Six months after we split, they gunned him down front of Black Nation headquarters on South Crenshaw. By that time I’m working for the paper. The story only made page six, a squib below the fold. I could barely read it for the tears.

The header read: “Black Militant Dead in Gang Shootout”

We all knew better.

Now, here I am in white land and in a new phase – whatever you want to call it – survive, scrap, stay sharp, keep-low-but-take-no-shit, eyes open, play the game, remember I got a baby to raise. Maybe more than a phase.

Tell me. How do I raise Keesha in such a world as this? Forget about help from her daddy, or anybody. I went back to school. Bless Nanna for her checks, just enough – after the grief I gave her. I know she worked hard. She knows about my routine too.

“Wait ’til that child grows up and acts just like you.” teases me on the phone. We talk once a week now, with her Kilkenny brogue making me homesick for back East – not that I would move back ever.

Grandma McGiven – who is my daddy’s mother – raised me. Maureen, with the silky red hair I loved to play with. Shot with silver now, even prettier, like my father’s would be, had he come back alive from the war. My Nanna says I have daddy’s eyes – that is, her eyes too. She means how we see things, not just the wolfish gray-green color. Practical. Women have to be the ones with sense because the men mostly don’t.

Grandma came to Boston after grandpa died fighting the Black and Tans back in Ireland after the Easter Uprising. She bootlegged Irish whiskey smuggled in by her dead husband’s old Sinn Féin pals during Prohibition. She stashed money and bought a small apartment in Back Bay when it was still cheap. Brought in money right through the Depression and the war. She gave me wisdom and street-smarts.

I remember my father through the memories of Nanna and my mother, not as somebody real. Kevin – mama called him Kenny. I have a snapshot I carry in my wallet – black-and-white. It’s the same one shown on the back cover of his one published novel about South Boston. Nanna keeps the clips – rave reviews – yellowed now, and all but forgotten like the book.

Daddy stays young forever in that picture – younger than I am now. Cute in that sailor suit, a Camel dangling from sensuous lips, half-smiling. You could tell why the women swooned over him, like mama said. He’s leaning against a Buick convertible– red, I’m told. He wears his sailor’s hat cocked like Sinatra in On the Town.

What a pair mama and daddy must have made, she with those wicked, Creole gray eyes and he with his thick, wavy red hair that I got along with the eyes and mama’s Louisiana redbone skin.

Mama says I nearly was born in that red Buick, out in the desert on Route 66 outside nowhere, New Mexico. Daddy was driving with her to San Diego where he was supposed to report for duty. I couldn’t wait that long. Daddy raced for miles to find a hospital that would take a black women. Finally they pulled into a Navajo township just outside of Gallup where my mother had me in a dentist’s office, or so the story goes.

They named me Annie, after my mother’s favorite aunt back in New Orleans.

I don’t remember must of my early childhood in San Diego. Mama was pregnant again when they shipped daddy out. They said war was nearly over by then. Didn’t matter for daddy. A Kamikaze sank his ship. We took a train back to Boston where mama had Leon.

Grandma McGiven took care of Leon and me while mama toured, singing with this and that band. She came home less and less often, more and more fucked up. Everybody in the jazz scene drank too much and did smack in those days. Mama couldn’t handle life, but she sure could make music out of it. And sweet Jesus, could she sing – and swing, and break your heart with that voice.

I listen to mama’s old Blue Note records once in a while. I want Keesha to hear them as she grows up. Lotte Loraine. They called her Lady Blue. Jazz stations still play her. Never sold much beyond hard core jazz fans. Neither did daddy’s novel, good as it was.

Mama finally pulled herself together five years ago after one last go at rehab. You don’t get gold records for that, but it’s tougher. She teaches music now, married again, to a nice man Millard. Alonzo would have called him “black bourgeois” – a contractor with a big heart. He take care of her, adores her. I’m glad she’s happy, but she and I aren’t done with our healing.

Same goes for my brother Leon. He doesn’t know mama like I do. Thank God our Nanna was there for us – and never mind the dirty looks she got walking proudly around that white neighborhood with Leon and me back then.

I suppose that taking care of us helped grandma fill the hole left by her son’s death. I knew Grandma would holler at him, then cry when Leon joined the Army. Hell. He would have been drafted anyway – with those grades, then dropping out of school. God help him. He’s in ‘Nam now, three months, and every time I see the news I hold my breath. No college deferments for him. He wrote that they put him on supply detail, as if that is out of harm’s way. But nobody is safe over there.

I sang in church choir growing up. But I was not given mama’s gift. I got something else that I haven’t unwrapped yet. I filled journals with poetry and ramblings I would not show anyone. I don’t remember when I went from dreaming to writing about the people in my head – those close by and from far away.

Viet_WarMontage_Public DomainI try to write about what’s real, not my fantasy world where the weather is more sultry, and I’m not in it alone. The dream world I keep mostly packed away these days. Once I a while I dream that I go deep with that man whose face I cannot see yet. He is present to me, knows my mind as well as my body – a fantasy that single mothers shouldn’t indulge too much. Mister Right usually turns out wrong.

Nanna helped me go to college – and I got into Boston U – majored in English lit – not a great career move, but it helped me get this job at the Times. Beats waitressing. When I got to L.A., I took a writing course taught by Roy’s wife Mirabel over at UCLA. She got me to think of my writing. Her Roy’s is the only black reporter at the paper. He put in a word with the editor, who was looking “to integrate more” – but you know, not too much. And here I sit integrating the Sunday features desk – part-time.

Better than that, Mirabel and Roy gave me hope that it’s actually possible to have a good life with a man you love, a great kid, and be have my professional writer cake too.

I’m not going for the whole package right now, just the writing part. I like Benny’s company, I’m not falling into anything – especially not with a man who so much to handle himself.

Okay. I’ll admit Benny turns me on with that sly warmth. He counts his failings, not what makes him special – maybe because they aren’t the usual things. He takes care of those little girls, without making a fuss over doing it like some men.

But his life is a too messy. We’re getting too cozy. As if Benny and I didn’t see enough of each other at the paper, now we’re sharing daycare for our kids. The other day he asked me if I wanted to go in on the canyon cottage he rents. It would give me more room than I have now in the single I’m renting now. I told him, “maybe, but as strictly roommates.” Then I thought, I must be crazy for even saying that.

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The L.A. Times, scene of the crime

 

4. PONY RIDE FOR NICOLE

 

Benny sits in Sid Malik’s high rise office on Wilshire in Santa Monica about a mile from the beach. Sid is on the phone. Benny doesn’t mind not being important enough for Sid to have calls held, nor that Sid regards this case a pain in the ass. Just so dad foots the fees, grudgingly – family pride and to demonstrate how wrong Benny can get in his life choices, that he should have listened to his father.

Benny sinks into one of Malik’s mellow chianti leather chairs, positioned so that the client has to gaze upward at his diminutive lawyer swiveling behind a raised walnut desk with its heavy brass lamp and marble ash trays.

Silently, Ben tries out his mantra. He got it from a maharishi at a self-realization temple off Sunset near Malibu. He and Lori were dating then, and into that sort of thing, sorting through half-understood readings of Krishnamurti, Paramahansa Yogananda, Alan Watts and Huxley.

The yogi’s accent was thick as yellow dal soup. For a fee, each visitor got a brief, private, up close audience and would receive a “personal mantra.” Ben strained forward to listen. The yogi’s lips moved. It sounded something like: “Soom manipami.

Ben puzzled “So-many panties?” If he got it wrong he could be chanting up somebody else’s karma or screwing up his own. Perfect, he reasoned. For me, it wouldn’t be a spiritual experience without ambiguity and guilt.

Sid hung up. The lawyer jotted something on his yellow legal pad and lit an illegal Havana – contraband of the gilded class. “I checked with the family court. Go ahead and pick up your kids and keep them with you.”

“Until Lori gets back?”

“Until we have a court hearing. I’ve got you temporary order. We’re filing for full custody.”

Lori has had another meltdown. She’s drying out in a Reno psychiatric hospital, disposition unknown. Benny found out when the hospital phoned the Times to verify her still being on Benny’s insurance.

“I’ve been trying to call Lori’s mother Gwen, to pick up the kids just for a visit. But she keeps avoiding me. …”

“Just go! Fucking go there and get your girls, Benny. I’ll give you a copy of the order to take with you. Take the kids back to your place, Benny.”

“What if Gwen tries to stop me.”

“Don’t do anything by force. But tell Gwen I’ll get her cited for contempt of court if she interferes. We’ll have her fined or put in the slammer.”

The next day, Benny drives up Laurel Canyon to Gwen’s hilltop estate. It’s late afternoon on a Saturday, and hot for early March.

The two girls are down at the pool with Gwen when Benny wheels up the winding hillside driveway. Gwen rises from a chaise-lounge, a still-striking Venus in sunglasses, zincked nose, a tall frosted glass in hand – probably a vodka-something. Ben nods her a grin from afar. She stares, tight lipped. His feet feel leaden. I like Gwen, and she used to like me. Act friendly. But no getting past that I’m about to be the heavy now in this drama.

The girls run out the patio gate waving. They race around to the driver’s side of his dusty, green-and-white Citroen DS.

Little Nicole’s yellow water wings flap as she gives him a wet hug looking like a cartoon bug in her purple swimming cap and green goggles. Linda, more reserved, towels off before her hug.

“Let’s go kids!” Benny tries to sound cheery as a kid-show host. Get in the car. We’re off on an adventure.”

Nicole squeals. “Daddy! Daddy! Pony rides? Please, pony rides?”

“Pony rides, train ride, a movie, cartoons, candy. Jump in.” He had planned to talk with Gwen, and do the pick up in some orderly fashion, but it’s not happening that way. He doesn’t want any more dragging out, having to send Malik back to court and all that. He lifts Nicole into the back seat buckles her in.

Linda puts hands on hips. “We’re still wet. I want to change.”

“No need. I got all the clothes you need at home. In you go. We’ll go shopping for more, anything you want.” Shameless bribery. Linda slides in next to Nicole and snaps her own belt in place.

Gwen catches on and races towards them, but too late. “Sonuvabitch bastard! Motherfucker! I’m going to kill you!” She hurls her frosted glass at him. It bounced off the hood of his car, vodka and orange juice spattering the windshield as it shatters. Nicole screams, then laughs. Linda gasps.

Without missing a beat, Benny is behind the wheel backing down the winding driveway, scraping against hedges and nearly flattening the mailbox as he lurches onto Mulholland Drive. He slams it into drive and speeds down the curving road towards Hollywood.

Nicole throws up her arms in the rear view mirror and yells, “Whee!”

Linda is biting her nails.

Benny hasn’t bothered with his seat belt.

————-

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