Night has come, and so have the shadows that once pulled me in against my will. I believed the promises made by those exaggerated figures that followed me, but I am no longer fooled by illusions. Their lies must stay outside. Up these darkened steps, and past that door, is the truth.
My flashlight leads me to the file cabinet. It isn’t locked. There are many files inside, but one in particular intrigues me. It’s labeled JEST in bold letters followed by a sequence of numbers. I open it to reveal a series of black-and-white photos. They show a man leaving a building, crossing a street, and alone inside a telephone booth. At first, I assume they are random individuals of no importance. But then I look closer. They are pictures of me.
I turn to cast my light on the doorway and then back to the photos. I scan them, imagining the clicking of a camera’s shutter as I view each one. I try to make sense of them by placing them in order. The booth, the street, the building. It’s the last one that’s the most telling—it was taken as I left the bank. They were watching me from the beginning.
Atlanta: Summer 1964
I sit at my desk at the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, mulling over accounting records and figures. A few years ago, Martin was accused of tax evasion—which is comical, since most of what he earns goes back into the movement. The man lives like a pauper. But we are trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Gant has me sifting through the financial records to ensure that Martin hasn’t received any compensation that cannot be accounted for.
I work with a particular column of numbers and notice the sum: fifty thousand dollars. A flash of warmth surges up my neck. This figure is an anomaly, but I don’t suspect any wrongdoing—at least not immediately. Though it troubles me to do so, I feel compelled to bring this to Gant’s attention.
I’ll have to persuade him to see things as I see them, and that is a difficult task. His judgment of me is ruthless and immediate. Anything I question results in a questioning of me. I am exhausted by our exchange before it even begins.
He walks past my open office door in a well-scented hurry. He is one of those handsome men who know they are handsome. Tall, with a face sculpted out of Georgia clay, he has a strange way of using his looks to make you feel inferior. It does not help matters that, as I approach his perfect image, I am slowed by a permanent hobble—my reward for surviving a childhood bout with polio.
I watch Gant and his secretary walk swiftly down the hallway, but before I approach them, I go through my usual ritual of checking that my pant leg has not ridden up to reveal the stirrup of my brace; it creates an unattractive bulkiness under my trousers that annoys me to no end. I adjust my pants and smooth out the fabric so that it falls properly. I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable in my presence. Even FDR went through strained efforts to appear unaffected by polio. My coworkers shouldn’t feel guilty about their ability to take gallant, even strides as they march alongside Dr. King, while I lurch through the corridors of the SCLC.
I struggle to catch up, asking the back of Gant’s head for a moment of his time, but he insists that he’s in a hurry.
“Mr. Gant. Please . . .” I say, “just five minutes.”
They pause briefly; he asks Susan to grab him some coffee and then turns to me. “Five minutes, Estem. If this is about your Chicago proposal, I haven’t looked over it or discussed it with Martin.”
“No, it isn’t about that. It’s—well, sir, I was going over the figures for the donations . . . and while I’m sure this is probably minor—”
“A large sum of money, Mr. Gant. And I can’t trace it to any source.”
“Perhaps an old friend of King’s who wants to remain anonymous?”
“There would still be a receipt of some sort.”
“John, the problem? I don’t see it.”
“Mr. Gant, it can’t appear that we—”
“I don’t have time to chase numerical phantoms. Estem, you should remember that we are looking for Martin’s personal transactions that might warrant attention.”
“Sir, it is my responsibility to—”
“I know exactly what your responsibilities are. I made them very clear when I hired you.”
“Yes, Mr. Gant. Yes, and I’m very grateful—”
Susan returns with his coffee. “Mr. Gant, Dr. King is waiting for you in the conference room,” she says.
“Tell Martin I’ll be there shortly. Are we finished here, Estem?”
“Maybe Dr. King could shed some light . . .”
“I’ll try to mention it to him.”
He enters the conference room, and I briefly peer in after him. Martin gives me a knowing nod before Gant quickly closes the door behind him. Muffled sounds soon follow—greetings, laughter, and friendly banter.
It’s fine. This is the way I’m used to being treated. I float around the SCLC like inconsequential vapor, only a vague innocuous presence, giving nothing and taking nothing. I crunch numbers. I stack paper. Occasionally, I move the stack from one end of my desk to the other. If it were not for the creak of my brace, I doubt anybody would know that I’m here. When the secretaries and volunteers gather to form huddled islands of gossip and chatter, I foolishly linger at the edges, hoping to be invited ashore.
My conversation with Gant has left me desperate for a drink, but I need to see her just as much as I need the liquor. After work, I head to my usual nightspot, a bar called Count’s.
The place is a red velvet Ferris wheel of any vice imaginable. Drink. Drugs. Sex. All of them unifying lures for this mixed bunch of seedy characters and squares searching for the cool. I have to hand it to Count: for a place run by a Negro, it does have a certain cosmopolitan feel. Mirrors, tinted Byzantium gold, surround the stone tables and leather booths that are better suited for sipping absinthe than bourbon. Count’s is also marked by integration—but it’s inchoate, one-sided, and gender-specific. You’ll find colored girls with white men, most of whom are policemen. Their presence is meant to keep us safe, but the only things safe in this place are the secrets.
I used to wonder how a man working for the saintly organization of the saintly Dr. King could find himself in such a sinful place. But I’m no saint although I’m a good Christian, and even the best Christians are more familiar with sinners than saints.
The floor vibrates from the dancing patrons and the rolling beat coming from the band on the small stage. I walk along the bar, hoping that my limp appears to be more swagger than stagger. The woman singing with the band is Miss Candy, also known as Candice. She looks just like what her name implies—bad for you, but oh so good. Her singing is awful, but she’s not up there for her voice. She’s like a sepia-tinted dream with fiery red lips flickering in the darkness. Her tight, knee-length dress covered with glittering amber sequins reminds me of a freshly poured glass of champagne. Her hair is pulled back into a tight chignon on the top of her head, à la Josephine Baker. I like it that way.
I watch her hips sway to the final notes of the song, and the crowd applauds as she finishes. They clap for the band, for her hairstyle, and even for that dress—for everything except her singing. However, as she descends from the stage and makes her way through the crowd, some of their cynicism fades. She carries a good portion of her talent behind her, and the men nod appreciatively.
I raise my drink, a signal to her above the noisy gathering. She sees me at the bar and comes over.
“John?” She looks me over with the careful eyes of a fawn. Beads of sweat still linger on her flawless skin.
“Great set tonight,” I say.
“Right. Thanks.” She averts her eyes, looking away from my lie.
“No, really. The crowd seemed to dig it.”
“John, I got the flowers you sent. You’ve got to stop doing things like that. We’ve already talked about this.”
“You didn’t like them?” I’m not looking at her anymore. I stare down into the shadows by her ankles.
“They were fine, but that’s not the point . . .”
Suddenly, white tapered pants and the shine of black patent leather interrupts the darkness. They belong to Count, the owner of the club.
“Candy,” he says.
I don’t look up; his shoes are pointing at me in provocation. Count has warned me before about talking to Candy, and I don’t want to press my luck. I can feel him hover over me, holding his cigarette as if it were a weapon.
“How’s your job going?” she asks.
“Fine . . . making the world better for colored folks everywhere.” I peer up at Count, but I miss his eyes and meet three circular scars on the side of his bald head. He’s proud of them. He must be. At least three times he has made a fool of death.
“It must be exciting working so close to Dr. King.”
“True. I do work closely with Martin. Martin and I are close. I’m the liaison to the financial assistant—”
“Like a bookkeeper or something?”
“Right. A bookkeeper.”
“C’mon, Mama . . . my sugar’s gettin’ low,” Count says, sending a cloud of smoke toward my face.
She gives him an unpleasant look. “I’ve got to run,” she says to me. “It was good seeing you.” After placing a kiss on my forehead, she turns away, and Count guides her by the back of her neck through the crowd.
I turn back to the bar and order a martini, but the bartender gives me a shot of bourbon. It takes six more before I feel man enough to face the room and leave.
I return home that night, drunk and alone. I stand in front of the mirror talking to myself, practicing, awaiting my transition into a superman. It’s a tough feat because of the brace—a strange hybrid of leather and metal, a network of buckles and straps, like stirrup meets straitjacket. I notice, between the open spaces of leather, that the skin of my leg has taken on an ashen hue from the day’s wear, but I do not feel like going through the trouble of removing it just yet.
I go through this ritual after every defeat she serves my ego, analyzing and thinking of ways to improve myself, or at least my appearance. What is Candy’s attraction to Count? It can’t be physical. His expensive clothes can only help him so much. I’m no matinee idol, but with that pockmarked skin, he must shave with broken glass. A vain fellow like Count must have a roomful of mirrors. Someone as ugly as Count should only have bare walls. The torture she must endure, being mounted by that animal.
I go over to my nightstand and pick up evidence of Candy’s ill-fated attempt at a recording career: a dance single called “Do the Gumdrop.” She smiles from the record sleeve holding a large gumdrop the size of a melon above her left shoulder. Count had indulged her by starting a label where she was the only act. I place it on my phonograph, the needle hits the groove and, in a weak tinny voice, Candy instructs me to “Do the Gumdrop, baby. Do it . . . Do it . . . Do the Gumdrop.” I love her and have played her song many times, but I still find it hard to listen to.
Count has created an amusement park full of funhouse mirrors, a place where she can indulge in make-believe and see limitlessly different versions of herself. Trying to decipher what is real must make her dizzy and any attempt to escape futile.
The allure of money and its hold are undeniable. I would love to strut for her and let her have a glimpse of the man I’ve been hiding away. I have tried persistence, but never money. I’ve never tried it because I’ve never had any. This is tragic considering that every day I track its movements. I know money’s habits, I know where it breeds, where it rests, and where it feeds, but it remains elusive. Like a frustrated hunter, I lose its scent somewhere. I look around my meager surroundings. No sign of it here. My apartment is almost unbearable. A simple one-room box. I’ve made no attempt to decorate it. Part of me still senses that there are better things in store for me, and this is not where I want to leave my mark.
Money—no; but power, or something like it, may be within my reach. My idea for a march in Chicago makes sense. Martin, Abernathy, and Young would bring me into the hierarchy once they saw that I was thinking about the long-term advantages for the movement and not just the colorless duties required of my job. I’m just a hopeful pledge, but it could be my opportunity to join their exclusive fraternity. But obviously, I’m being foolish to harbor such aspirations and optimism; Gant would never allow that to happen.
It’ll be morning in a few hours, but I’m not quite drunk enough to sleep so I go to work on my own supply.
I walk my scotch over to the window and light a cigarette. Looking out into the Atlanta night, black with heat, I take a drag and notice that the smoke has taken on a new characteristic. Behind the charcoal and stale tobacco mingled with the bite of menthol is a fourth note: the earthy smell of hand-worn bills.
© 2011 Rashad Harrison