Rion Amilcar Scott's debut collection, Insurrections, is now available from University Press of Kentucky. Order here. "The Party" was first published on Joyland in winter 2015.
Walter caught the sight out the corner of his eye one hot July day and for so long afterward he asked himself what if he had never seen those dangling legs from the balcony above, kicking, kicking, kicking against the open air.
He watched them first with confusion—what an incongruous vision, a man’s legs in baggy black jeans flailing against the open blue of the sky. He next watched with interest, then with terror when he heard the gagging and hacking. A man hanging. A man dying.
Laura! Laura! Walter called. Laura, come! Laura come now! Laura come!
And Laura hesitated just a half second. Her husband’s voice made her nerves twitch. She hadn’t forgiven him their last argument the hour before, even if she couldn’t recall why he had shouted and dismissively waved his hands at her. If he had called her name four times instead of five she might have turned up the television and ignored him as she did when the neighbor’s baby wailed from above.
Those legs. Those kicking legs. Walter was already out on the balcony climbing a step ladder, the biggest, sharpest kitchen knife in hand. Laura saw the legs and her husband playing the do-gooder and she knew she should have quietly closed the door when Walter’s voice sounded.
Laura, he called. Come and help me!
What do you want me to do?
Don’t just stand there, Laura! Grab his legs. Grab his legs. Laura gathered the man’s legs in her arms and pulled his body over the railing. He pulled and jerked her from one side and then the other. Hold still, she said. Stop kicking. It’s going to be all right, she said, but she knew that certainly things wouldn’t be right for quite some time.
There, there, Walter said, projecting a sense of calm for the first time. There, there, buddy. Try to hold still. He sawed frantically at the rope. The man’s neck had turned a bruised purple.
When the rope snapped, the man’s body dropped, heavy and lifeless. Walter and his step ladder tipped over onto the concrete of the balcony floor. The man’s ribs banged against the railing before landing atop Laura’s small frame. There was a moment while the hanging man dropped when it seemed they’d all go falling over the side into oblivion. Laura pulled from beneath the stranger to lean into the corner. She watched the motionless man, no rise in his torso that she could see.
Oh God, she said. Oh God. Oh God.
Walter reached to touch the man, all bunched up there like a pile of dirty laundry. As Walter’s hand hovered over the man’s shoulder, he let out a cough, the first in a series of them. One dry and the rest phlegm-filled. They rattled in his throat, in his chest and his gut. The man coughed and rolled side-to-side clutching his stomach and then his ribs.
He sat up and placed his head against the metal bars of the railing. Laura brought him a glass of water and a wet rag to wipe the spittle and phlegm from his face.
Say, what the hell was that all about? Walter said. You scared my lady nearly to death. We could have all tumbled over the side; you know that, right?
The man hid his face behind the rag, coughing softly, then loudly.
What’s your name? Walter asked.
Rashid, he replied in a strained wheeze, lowering the rag. Walter noticed the man’s eyes were a yellowish red. They nearly glowed against his night-dark skin. Thank you for cutting me down. I owe you, sir.
My name’s Walter and this is my wife Laura.
Thank you, again Walter, I got tangled in the rope. I thought that was it for me—
You got tangled? You telling me you weren’t trying to hang yourself?
Hang myself? Commit suicide? Hell no. I got tangled in the rope while trying to fix the wood up there. I couldn’t kill myself. You probably heard my baby crying every day and every night. I got a lot to live for. We never talked, Walter, but you probably seen me with my wife, Ricca. And you probably seen my little boy smiling and running. Rashid coughed softly. He be giving me hell all the time. I know you seen him. Growing so fast, probably looks different every time you see him probably. That’s all I was thinking about when I was hanging there. That’d they’d have to get on without me. And good luck to Ricca trying to get any insurance money. Nobody would believe a freak accident like that could happen. Nobody. You saved my life and theirs, man.
Rashid, you must take me for—
Before Walter could finish his sentence, Laura cut in, her voice as smooth and as sweet as velvet cake. Now, Rashid, you need to take care of yourself. All these dangers out here, you almost left your—boy or a girl?
Boy, name’s Luce. He’ll be three in September.
You almost left Luce fatherless, baby.
Rashid nodded and took a sip of water, his hand trembling. Walter thought of the things he wanted to say, but let them rest on his tongue. Sometimes, Laura’s wisdom was infinite, he thought, that’s why he had stayed with her for all those years upon years.
Rashid shook Walter’s hand and hugged Laura. He hugged her long and tightly as if she were a great aunt he loved and would likely never see again. Then he walked out the door and Laura and Walter could hear his feet tap up the hallway stairs and then they listened for his door to open and slam. Finally, they heard the thumps of his feet on the ceiling above. They listened to the music of Rashid’s steps until Ricca and Luce came home and his taps blended into hers and even the awkward footfalls of Luce and his frequent screams weren’t an annoyance this night.
All week they waited for a sound, a gunshot and the thump of a falling body; or perhaps, a sight: those legs dangling again from the balcony above. There were only the screams of a child, which now sounded like music. Screams and nothing else. They heard nothing, saw nothing and that nothing was perhaps the most unsettling thing of all.
A week passed and then another week and yet a third went by without some dramatic incident, so Laura and Walter stopped listening for the end of Rashid’s life. A few times Walter mentioned Rashid and the strange afternoon, Why would that young boy with a pretty wife and baby want to do something like that? he’d say and Laura would shake her head and reply, Not our business. Twice, Walter left the house and saw Rashid’s wife, Ricca, struggling with Luce. The toddler rushed from her as soon as she set him down on the sidewalk. She screamed his name while tussling with full grocery bags in her arms. Walter wanted to grab the boy or ask to carry her bags. Anything to lighten the load. Then he’d ask about Rashid. But all that was so forward; not his style with strangers. The other time, she carried Luce in her arms as he slept on her shoulder. Except for that puffy, smooth face he looked like an armful of crumpled shirts. That time, Walter opened the door for her, Howdy, he said and she smiled, but he couldn’t bring himself to say more. What was there to be said, anyway? Say, Ricca, your husband dead? He off himself yet? Not yet, huh? You know it’s gonna happen, right? Right? How you plan to get on as a single mother once your husband’s dead, huh?
No, he let her trek up the stairs unmolested by inane questioning. Life is for the living, he told himself and if Rashid, didn’t want to live, to hell with him. Maybe he’d say that to her the next time he saw her. Just that first part, life is for the living. He’d smile as he said it, maybe gesture toward Luce if he’s there. When Walter had opened the door for her, he noticed that Ricca’s smile sat on her face like a kitten on a windowsill. Then she disappeared and her smile was all that was left, like the Cheshire Cat. Something about Ricca and her grace was so feline-like. Why would Rashid want to take himself away from that? Life is for the living, he thought one afternoon sitting on the couch daydreaming about opening the door for Ricca, Rashid’s dangling legs and probably a hundred other things. Then he turned on and old episode of Good Times and fell asleep laughing.
Walter awoke later that afternoon to a pounding at his door. He jumped and looked toward his balcony, thinking that again he’d see dangling legs kicking through the air. Then a second set of banging. Walter stared at the door for a moment. Yeah, who is it? he called. Then he peered through the peephole. There stood Rashid. Walter opened the door and Rashid strode in with his shoulder thrown back and a smile that showed all his teeth.
Walter, Walter, Walter, did I wake you? he asked, as he peeled a can of beer from a six pack and pressed it into Walter’s hand. We need some light in here.
Rashid flicked a switch and bright white jabbed Walter’s eyes.
Come on, have a drink Walter; it’ll help bring you back into the land of the living.
You know my name, man.
What is this all about, Rashid? Walter looked at his beer and then shrugged and cracked it open and took a sip.
Man, I never thanked you for saving my life. I mean, I said thank you, but let’s face it, if not for you then I’d be dead. Saying the words thank you is not enough in the face of that.
So you bring me a beer?
I brought a whole pack.
That’s funny, Walter said before taking a sip of beer. Really funny.
But you didn’t laugh, Walter.
I’m laughing in my head, believe me.
Rashid laughed so loud that he closed his eyes and his torso shook and he began to cough. It reminded Walter of the deathly cough Rashid released after being cut down, too close to dead, nearly spent.
What I like about you Walter, is how deadpan you are. Funny as shit, man.
We’ve barely interacted, Rashid. It’s too early to tell what you like about me. Besides, there’s nothing funny about me. You should meet my daughter. She’s the funny one.
Yeah, but I can tell what kind of dude you are. Maybe I felt your soul when you saved me.
Come, Rashid, have a seat. I want to talk to you. Me and Laura have been really worried.
Look Rashid, Laura tells me all the time not to say anything. She’s all concerned with your dignity, but I’m concerned with your life. You all right?
Walter watched to see if even a tiny piece of recognition had seeped through. Rashid’s face was a blank hillside freshly covered with sod.
For Christ’s sake, Walter said. When I met you, you were hanging by your neck from a balcony.
That beer is having some effect on you, Walt. You turned from friendly to volatile in a sip or two. I never seen that.
And I never seen a man hanging from a balcony by accident.
You seen one hanging on purpose?
Goddammit Rashid, don’t play with me. On your baby boy’s life, I saw you hanging and it wasn’t no goddamn accident, you were trying to kill yourself. I’m not a fool, don’t try to make me out to be one. You come in here with beer and a smile, but if you can’t admit that to yourself and to me, it will come back to haunt you. You’ll be up there again and I tell you what…
Walter trailed off as he stared at Rashid raising the can of beer to his lips. Rashid looked to the floor as he slurped slowly. Walter stood.
I don’t know if you have admitted it to yourself. Or if you’ve admitted it to your wife. You can just…Rashid…I don’t know you, not really, but I…look, man, just admit it to me. Here. Now. Tell me the truth. First step you have to take.
Rashid sat back, folding into the couch. The blankness returning to his face. Flatness overtaking his eyes. He said nothing. He sipped. He kept saying nothing.
Good goddammit, get out of my house, Walter said. I don’t need this. I tell you what, don’t be hanging from my balcony when you do this again. I don’t appreciate that and I won’t come to save you, I’ll let you swing. I didn’t ask for this and I didn’t need to watch a suicide attem—
Suicide, Rashid said. Man, look Walter. I’m sor— Shit, I was about to bullshit you again. I was— You think it’s just easy to say it like that? Suicide. That shit can just roll off your tongue because— You ever try to tak— Man, this is just like the first time Ricca told me she loved me. It flapped off her tongue like she was saying hello. We was some kids. Babies. We still some kids to you, probably. She laid up right there in my arms. The thing about her is that she fits well. No other woman had fit in my arms that well. Can you imagine basing the rest of your life on something stupid like that?
Love is like that when it’s new and you’re young. Same thing almost with Laura. We been around 40-some years.
Yeah, but I just couldn’t say it. I babbled about something for a while and she was patient. Said I didn’t have to reciprocate. She loved me whether I loved her or not. When she went off to school that day I actually practiced. Practiced saying I love you. All this morning I was practicing what I would say to you just like how I practiced back then.
You gonna tell me you love me?
Wrong time, I know. Laura’s always warning me about that.
Naw, levity’s good. But I was practicing how I was going to tell you I was trying to suicide myself. Yeah, man. I was trying to kill myself that day. Something told me it was time to control my destiny. Beat the reaper to it and that there was no reason to see this life thing through. I tried to kill myself and the moment I went through with it I knew I had made a fucking fatal error. And yeah, I do love you Walter. Weird thing to say to a stranger, but I do because you saved me and you saved Luce and you saved Ricca.
When he spoke of his family, his voice became high-pitched and the cracking was sharp at Walter’s ears and tears shot down Rashid’s face. Rashid covered his eyes and cheeks with his hand. He became stuck between sobs like a CD caught on a scratch. Walter pulled a rag from his pocket and hovered over Rashid.
This the first time you tried taking your own life? Walter asked.
Yes, Rashid nodded through sobs. Yes. I’ve thought about it off and on for 20 years, but— Luce and Ricca. Damn, the same things that make you want to kill yourself also save your life. I swear all I was thinking about when I was hanging was that boy and that woman.
Walter watched Rashid, stone-faced. Rashid’s words seemed to him a comforting lie. He didn’t attempt to take his own life because of Luce or Ricca. Such a selfish and heavy thing to rest upon their backs. And it was Walter and Laura who had cut Rashid from the end of a rope, not a toddler nor a woman who was elsewhere at the time. Rashid suddenly struck him as ungrateful and self-pitying. Walter put the rag back into his pocket.
It’s like, I been preparing Luce to live without his daddy, Rashid said. Now, isn’t that sick? I went out and got a DVD of this old episode of Sesame Street where Mr. Hooper—you know, the guy who runs the store—yeah, on that episode he passes away just like the actor who played him and I showed it to Luce over and over. He be reciting lines from that episode around the house just out the blue, but that first time he was mesmerized. Big Bird’s all distraught and the humans are trying to explain why he’s never going to see Mr. Hooper again. I thought the shit might be too heavy for Luce, but then I remembered why we were watching. I said, Son, you understand what’s happening? He nodded and ain’t take his eyes off the TV and he said, Yeah, Mr. Hooper went to the store. He gets quiet, just staring at the screen and I ask him again. He says, Big Bird is sad because Mr. Hooper is lost. I’m like, Do you think he’s coming back? Luce is like, No. He’s lost. He’s not coming back. I kept thinking of Luce walking around the house, saying, Daddy’s lost. He’s not coming back.
They both finished their cans of beer at the same time. Walter peeled another off the rings and handed it to Rashid. Then he peeled another for himself, cracked it open and began to drink.
Rashid, he said. All that crying got to cease. I’m not going to say that men don’t cry. I cried like a baby over every little damn thing in the first couple years of my daughter’s life. Children do that to you. Make you weak and strong at the same time, but yeah…man up. Look, tell me something. You a Riverbaby?
Guess not. Were you born here? You from Cross River?
Oh, yeah, Riverbaby. Naw, but at Freedman’s University they say I’m an expert in Cross River History. Yeah, I come from D.C. Ricca’s from up north. New York. But she moved to Maryland right outside of D.C. when she was in high school. We met when I was in college in D.C. She was an undergraduate, I was in grad school. Well, she dropped out and I told her to go back and she did. We moved out here because I got a job teaching at the college. But look Walter, shit’s one of those compromises where everyone loses. She wanted to move to the city to be with her mother, I wanted to stay in D.C. so we moved to a neutral spot.
Marriage is compromise.
Compromising yourself. All your principles. Everything. Nobody wins.
I guess Luce wins. He doesn’t even realize some kind of Cold War is going on all around him. Man, I’m talking all this shit—
I get a feeling you never said it to anyone before.
Rashid became quiet. Took a long sip from his can. Swished the beer around in his mouth, fighting the urge to spit it onto the carpet and then the urge to spit it into Walter’s face. Then of course he would have to punch him and throw him to the floor. One doesn’t just spit on someone, great violence must follow. Rashid often got the urge to commit great random acts of violence. Urges he buried deep within himself. Rashid, though, wouldn’t hurt a fly unless that fly had his name and his face. He swallowed and took another sip.
Hey Walter, let me tell you about this party, one we had back when we were living in D.C. It was a surprise. I didn’t know. Ricca didn’t know. Man, no one knew. Sometimes I think the people who surprised me didn’t even know. Shit just happened. Like magic.
Walter settled into the couch and opened another beer, but he didn’t drink. He was feeling lightheaded already and it had been years since he’d been drunk. Many more since he’d been regularly drunk, weekly and before that daily. He imagined that Rashid, with his light frame and weak spirit, was far more gone than he. Who knows how many beers he had self-medicated with before ginning up the spirit to come downstairs.
It was the day after my graduation, Rashid said. Now I’m a historian with a Ph.D and shit. Dr. Rashid, Ricca keeps calling me. She graduated the semester before. And we’re having a lazy Sunday, right. Just thinking about the future. Half-happy I was done. Half anxious about getting a job and getting the fuck on with my life. Ricca’s father was in the hospital. Last time, but we didn’t know that. We had been talking about going to see him, but no firm plans. She says we did, but really we had no firm plans for nothing. I’m half sleep and Ricca is doing something, I don’t remember what. I hear the doorbell ringing and then some pounding at the door and then the door ringing again and I’m all like, what-the-fuck.
I lived in this neighborhood in the northwest part of town off this street called Georgia Avenue where you could look out the window and see crackheads hiding in a shed having sex and shit so I’m kind of wary of people banging on my door and ringing the bell with urgency. I look out the damn window and it’s Floyd and Bradley and this white chick, Becca. They were all in class with me. We were like a clique. A little circle. So tight, like a family. Kept everybody out. Meeting them was like falling in love. Powerful group chemistry, Walter. Sometimes you either feel like that with people or you don’t. And it’s rare. There was one other chick in our group, but I don’t know where she was at that day. She was married even back then, so she didn’t always hang. Was in that, I’m-married-and-marriage-is-the-greatest-shit-ever-and-you-should-be-married-too-so-you-can-be-as-happy-as-me! phase. I think that’s some face-saving desperation shit. Loved her, but I got tired of her telling me I need to marry Ricca or be alone for the rest of my life. Being alone is no crime. When they came in with their beers and chips and shit that’s what we talked about, Sonya and her lame marriage. I didn’t like her husband. None of us did. And they didn’t seem to like Ricca. I knew that’s what they talked about when I wasn’t around. Floyd, he’s gay. We didn’t like none of the dudes he brought around. Anyone on the border of the group was like an enemy. Becca and Brad were kind of a couple, almost. Never called themselves a couple, but always flirting and off alone together. But here’s the thing: Becca wanted to have sex with me. She was on and off real aggressive about it and when she fell back, I missed the attention and tried to get in her light again. I’m fucked up, Walter. We even made out once and promised not to tell Brad. I see how you’re looking at me, Walter, with your lids all low in judgment. You remember being in your 20’s?
I’m not looking at you any kind of way, Rashid. Go ahead.
When they show up with their beer, I’m all dazed, but I’m happy to see them. If I could, I’d see them three or four nights out of seven even now that I don’t see them at all. They pass out beers and we’re laughing and shit and they barely even acknowledge Ricca, outside of offering her a beer they know she’s not going to drink. I could tell she’s pissed and part of me was sad about that, but another part of me was having a great time. Listening to music. Making jokes. Talking about things that happened in class. History shit. They hadn’t graduated yet, so we were talking about the future too. Man, it’s like this was a dream or something. Becca’s flirting with me, but trying to keep it discreet so Bradley and Ricca don’t notice. Making these eyes, you know. Making all these comments only she and I would get. Inside jokes. Double entendres. She’s really smart when it comes to wordplay. Brad’s clueless. Ricca leaves the fucking room. I excuse myself to go after her and she doesn’t talk about Becca, even though I know that’s what bothers her; she’s like, What the hell is this? We’re supposed to go and see my dad.
I tell her that wasn’t confirmed. We can go tomorrow, I say. She’s like, He’s sick. There might not be a tomorrow. Which made me stop and think, but I decide she’s being dramatic. I said, I don’t want to be rude to my friends. She’s like, They’re being rude by showing up unannounced. I wish we weren’t here. Then I said, Come back to the party. Dad will be there tomorrow. Single most insensitive thing I ever said and you know what, I never even apologized for it. She put on some going out clothes and went out the door and I went back to the party and had another beer. My friends didn’t even ask why Ricca left. They didn’t care. I imagine they were relieved.
You put your friends above your girl? Walter asked. That’s a classic young boy mistake. Seems to me you were too old for that.
Or were you just thinking about getting a piece of that white girl?
Maybe. I don’t know. As soon as I sat down she was back at it. I kept looking at Brad like, open your eyes. Brad’s drunk and laughing with Floyd. As soon as Ricca left though, I started feeling haunted. I heard Ricca’s dad in my ear. Dude was good to me. Almost like a father. Had a real gruff voice and sometimes people thought he was mean, but really he was gentle and giving and shit. Then I thought about my own grandmother. Was supposed to spend the whole day with her in the rehabilitation center right before she passed. Stayed home and studied. Said she would want me to do well in school. She had a stroke and died the next morning before I could see her. I was listening to my friends with one ear, but in the other ear Ricca’s father was talking to his daughter, I’m glad you’re here, but where is Rashid? What a shame. Told you the boy ain’t shit.
Becca touched my elbow and was like, You look all dazed. Let’s go downstairs. We can get some fresh air downstairs. Come, let’s go downstairs.
Maybe her ancestors made up codes for the underground railroad or something. Her request to give me head was brilliant. Like poetry, Walter. The repetition of downstairs. The well placed use of the word come. Man, Walter, I’m ashamed to say I was aroused, watching her mouth. She had on this shiny ass lipstick. Looked moist. Ready.
You’re not ashamed to say that, Rashid, Walter said. You don’t have to lie about it to me. Throws your whole story into doubt.
You’re right, Walter, he replied. I mean, Becca has all the things I want. You know, all the things we’re taught is superficial. Surface.
She got good geometry, huh?
Shape, Rashid. You an expert on Cross River, got to know the talk. She got good geometry? She got that shape?
Man, like a playground of curves. Like a ski slope, Walter. And always down for some kind of adventure. First time we made out was when we broke into this park late at night. Me and Ricca share a religion, values, all that, but at that moment, sitting right there next to Becca, that shit seemed like the superficial stuff and Becca’s hips, her neck, her breasts, those shiny, painted-ass lips—all those things skinny Ricca can’t compete with—man, Walter, those were the deepest most meaningful things in creation.
Walter chuckled. Shook his head. Not a man on earth who hasn’t faced that, he said.
I don’t know. Maybe. I guess I’m just saying it to make you feel better. It sounds true, doesn’t it? Anyway, Rashid, what happened? You went ahead and got the blowjob?
That’s the funny thing. You couldn’t tell me at that moment that my deepest desire wasn’t to get head from Becca, but I resisted. Told myself it was the honorable thing to do. Got up and got another beer and we all joked and laughed some more. If this were a movie the audience would clap and smile, Walter. The triumph of love over simpleminded lust. And then you assume the main character is faithful to his wife forever. I don’t think it was that sort of triumph. I don’t know. I kept hearing my grandmother’s voice from when she lay in the rehab spot and I was like, I’ll be there tomorrow, Granny and how disappointed she sounded over the phone. My mother said she visited Granny early in the day and she kept asking, Where’s Rashid? Where’s Rashid? Even worse, Ricca’s dad was at my other ear. Sounding more gruff than ever. Boy, get your ass over here to this hospital!
It was all a bit much, Walter. I excused myself and went to sit down in the bedroom. Granny at one ear. Ricca’s dad at the next. Ricca in front of me. My dick crying out for Becca. I was in a state. Only thing to do at a moment like that is go to sleep, so I did. But here’s the thing. My dad has sleep apnea and he passed it on to me. It’s under control mostly, but especially times of high stress like this one I snore like a monster.
I woke to Floyd and Becca and Bradley standing over me with their faces all looking crumpled up like some trash. Floyd said, If you wanted us to leave, then you should have just said so. Becca and Brad were nodding. Man, I never seen them so pissed off. But how would I have explained the ghosts at my ears? Becca’s ghost lips on my dick? Huh? It’s impossible to explain. They filed out of my place and I tell you they were pissed at me for a while. Even Sonya, who wasn’t there, was all distant after that. I know they got together and talked shit about me. Probably talking shit about me right now. Only got the group chemistry back when I announced I was moving and we had a going away brun—
At that moment, Walter and Rashid turned at the sound of a key tumbling in the lock. Walter began scrambling. These damn cans, he said. The front door swung open and in stepped Laura. Walter had gathered all six empty cans in his arms, but froze beneath his wife’s glare.
Just what is going on in here? she asked as the door slammed shut behind her.
Hello, Ms. Laura, Rashid said. Me and your husband just having a man-to-man talk.
And drinking, huh? You’re both drunk out of your minds. She sucked her teeth. That’s the last thing either of you fools needs.
I just, Rashid said. I just— I mean— You know, thank you for saving my life. I can honestly say that I was trying to kill myself—
No shit, baby
—and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you two fine people. Walter let me pour my heart out—
I wish you both would have poured the beers out. I mean, really. Aren’t you a Muslim?
Rashid hung his head in an exaggerated comical fashion. Well, he said. Yes, I guess. Sort of. Ricca’s more of a Muslim than me.
Rashid, Laura said. I think it’s time for you to go. Go up to your wife and sober up and I’ll sober up my husband so the next time you see each other you’ll be in your right states of mind. You’re free to visit again. Next time, leave the alcohol and come in through the front door, not the balcony.
Yes, Ms. Laura, Rashid said as he made his way to the front door.
Rashid, Walter called. Your friend, what’s his name, Bert…
Yeah, Brad. Brad and Becca, they together now?
Fuck no, he replied. Uh, excuse me Ms. Laura. They hardly talk. I think they only keep in touch by way of the group. Feel like I stood in the way of their happiness together or something.
And your father-in-law, he died that day before you could see him, didn’t he?
Rashid laughed. That would make the story very congruent wouldn’t it? Naw, I saw him the next day. Just me by myself. Ricca had yelled at me about not being there for her or being present in her life when she got home so I went and spent the whole day with him. Saw him a few other times after that. He was all, Marry my daughter or else. Feels like I did the old man a solid.
Rashid waved to Walter and Laura before fumbling with the lock and disappearing into the hallway.
What was that all about? Laura asked as Walter went into the kitchen to dispose of the beer cans.
That boy is all messed up, Walter said. He was just giving me his story.
All messed up?
Well, not all messed up. Young people today just don’t know how to handle the burden they got.
He’s just a baby.
Baby? That guy is at least 30, Laura.
Thirty-year-olds are babies nowadays, Walter.
Whatever. Get this, that boy is some kind of brain. A real egghead.
Got a Ph.D. Teaches over at Freedman’s University. An expert in Cross River history.
He didn’t even know what a Riverbaby was.
Some expertise. And look at you, Walter. You haven’t drank in 30 years. Why in the hell would you let that boy throw you off track?
I’m fine, baby. Walter wrapped his arms around his wife. The burning blast of beer-scented breath brought back memories of the days when they were young and poor and their bodies were the only entertainment they could afford.
The only good thing about when you were a drunk was that you brought out the monster, Laura said. I can’t lie about that. I do miss Sid the Sex Machine. He coming back tonight?
You know it, Walter said with growl as they flopped onto the couch.
Just tonight though, she said as Walter kissed at her neck and chest. Just tonight and then Sid gotta go back where he came from.
The morning of Luce’s third birthday party, Laura baked oatmeal cookies and Walter purchased a dancing Cookie Monster doll which they delivered before the party guests were due to arrive.
That’s very nice of you, Ricca said. Luce, say thank you to these good people.
Luce bounded from his seat on the living room floor and first hugged Laura’s legs and then Walter’s. Tank you, he said and then returned to his coloring book.
It’s no problem at all, Laura replied. He’s such a precious little baby. Rashid told us you’d be having a Cookie Monster party and we’re delighted to help out.
Is Rashid he—
Before Walter could finish his sentence, Rashid trudged from the back wearing a robe, slippers and what appeared to be pajama pants. His eyes were ringed in black and his hair was bushy and uncombed. Laura frowned when she glimpsed at the snot in his eyes. Her expression must have alerted Rashid because at that moment he swept the lump from his face and let it fall to the floor.
He was frowning when he came out, so the smile he feigned upon seeing his neighbors looked particularly false. Ms. Laura, he exclaimed. Walter! Thanks for showing love to my little guy. I know his screaming drives all the neighbors nuts. That’s really nice of you. We’ll talk soon, Walter.
Before either Walter or Laura could respond, Rashid turned and exited the room. That’s when Laura noticed the state of the place. The decorations were half-hung. Stuffed animals, colorful plastic toys and newspapers lay strewn about the living room.
Ricca apologized for Rashid. Laura and Walter pretended not to know what she meant. It’s OK, baby, Laura replied. When they got down to their apartment, Walter settled into his couch and turned on an episode of Good Times. Laura gathered her things to head to work. Just before Laura walked out the door, she asked, Isn’t their party supposed to start in an hour?
It had been a good afternoon for Walter. Three straight episodes of Good Times and a fourth about to begin. He went to the kitchen for a glass of water, but that throbbing on his tongue and in his throat. Yes. His body was crying out for a beer. A beer and another episode of Good Times, that’s how to make a good afternoon divine. He had only driven by the corner store, never giving it a second thought in all the years he lived in the neighborhood. If he left now, he could be back just before JJ could shout his first dyn-o-mite! Besides, how many times had he seen this episode since it first aired in the 1970s. The 1970s. It was in those days he had learned that drink had the power to make all that bothered him fade into a soft and fuzzy haze. When he drank, it didn’t matter that the vague image he had of himself as a big shot never came into focus. He was a nobody like everyone else he knew. A nobody out in the world but a big shot in his house, at least in the eyes of Laura and his daughter, Anna. A beer, he found, helped him accept their admiration. Allowed him to accept the world’s ambivalence. Just a guy behind the counter at a store. One of thousands any given person encounters in a lifetime. That type of human being is designed to be forgotten. A beer. A beer or two when walking in the door after work and then a glass of expensive whiskey over dinner and then cheaper whisky before bed, maybe a glass of wine. Too many of those nights were now a bubbly haze. One day he realized he had no memories, not really, just a continuous blur. At the same time Laura asked him to put up the drink for good. No yelling or badgering. Stop so your daughter can see who you are, she said. And Walter stopped. But he drank with Rashid and the only consequence was a night of youthful lovemaking. Walter put a beat up brown hat onto his head and made his way to the door and before he could open it, he heard loud knocking. First, he thought it was the neighbor’s door, but then it got louder vibrating even the floor beneath his feet. Walter peered through the peephole and all he could see was a fuzzy blue.
Walter, Rashid’s voice called from outside. Walter, let me in. I got to talk. Walter!
When Walter opened the door a smell like twenty pounds of garbage struck his nose and crept down his throat. And what a sight. Rashid, The Cookie Monster, pushed his way in, stepping awkwardly. He wore a fuzzy blue Cookie Monster costume, though his head was bare. He held the googly-eyed headpiece in his hand and promptly tossed it to the floor upon entering.
Damn everything, Walter, he said. Fuck every little thing.
Rashid— Walter stammered. Just what— I mean, what is— What is it this time?
Why is every little thing always so fucked up?
Because it is. And that’s how it— I can’t even talk to you looking like that. And Rashid, that smell…
Close your mouth Walter, this isn’t the strangest entrance I’ve made into your apartment.
And that’s the worst part of all of this.
So after I tried to kill myself, that very night, I figured I needed a project to keep my mind off all the fuckedupedness. Off of Ricca and all the money I didn’t have. I was like, I know: I can make sure my son’s birthday party is the best thing ever. The greatest of all time. Who’s idea was it for a Cookie Monster party? Me. Who spent hours on the internet downloading Sesame Street songs to play? And can you believe Ricca has the nerve to be angry with me, talking about I’m not participating? That she’s the only one putting up decorations and she has to bake the cookies. Un—
Rashid, I’m not following any of this.
Right, so I’m thinking what would be the coupe de grace? A visit from the cookie man himself. I go onto the internet and start looking at prices and shit. These people want an arm and three legs. Like $500 for a professional to show up. And renting wasn’t any better at all. It seemed wasteful to rent a Cookie Monster costume for $100 an hour or $300 for the entire day, especially since I barely had $50 in the bank and my bills were all overdue and shit. Ricca told me not to worry about it. Said we didn’t need no damn Cookie Monster visit. That’s what she said. She said damn. Said Luce would be happy as shit without it. I wasn’t buying that of course. Just her saying that shit annoyed me, but I pretended like I agreed because I was tired of hearing her voice and I didn’t want another fucking argument. Anyway, it was clear renting the thing wasn’t the move. Besides, who would want to rent something like that? Why not own? Hang it there in the closet and break it out on any old day. Take the boy to the park dressed as The Cookie Monster. Drop him off at daycare all furry and blue. I’d be the most popular father who ever existed, showing up shaggy and blue with a tin full snickerdoodles. That was the dream.
You have strange dreams, Walter said returning to the couch. He let out a sigh as he removed his hat and settled himself into it. I’m not sure I want to hear the rest of this. Is this better than an episode of Good Times? Because I’m missing Good Times and you’re missing your son’s birthday party.
My brain was all cloudy and black before this, Rashid said, gesturing about with his furry, blue hands. I was all filled with goddamn anxiety, man. This gave me purpose. Now it’s turned to shit.
I can smell that.
Are you just going to make jokes?
I’m sorry. It feels like the moment calls for some humor. You’re ranting and dressed up like Elmo.
The Cookie Monster.
I spent every free hour rooting through the internet, trying to find a deal on a Cookie Monster outfit. Got fat on sugar cookies and chocolate chips and on the crème-filled ones, clicking from site to site, chasing one dead end to another. Sometimes I’d be fucking red-eyed late at night at that computer then I’d wake and do it all over again. This was all during my summer break when no one was paying me shit and I had to be home with Luce playing babysitter most days. Luce is running about and screaming and smelling like warm piss and shit and I’m searching, not even noticing my son is stinking until the mess starts growing stale. I figured if Luce didn’t care, why should I? Luce, at some point would try to climb onto my lap. And I’d have to say, kid, you stink. But he’d be crying and screaming and pushing his way up there to sit like my lap was a throne and he was king and I’d search until I couldn’t take it anymore and then I’d go change him and search some more.
So…Luce shitted in your costume? Walter asked.
What? No. No. I found this one late, late at night just before school started in August. Did I tell you that I’m broke? I put off getting this costume so many times waiting for some money. Waiting for one pay period when I got a little left over, but it’s mostly check to check for me, bruh. This one was on some auction site. An out the way one most people know nothing about. Bids started at $5 and went up to $15 and I bid $30 to get it going. But $30 from where? Ricca had to cover the entire rent that month. If Ricca knew I was bidding on this costume…fuck. You know, I had to shake my parents down for just enough to cover the cable and internet. Cable was important. I watched Sesame Street three, four times a day on the kiddie channels to study Cookie’s mannerisms and voice—no use being some generic monster; if you’re going to do something, do it right. That’s what my father used to say. He’s probably upstairs now trying to figure what the hell is wrong with me. Trying to figure out why I’m not doing things the right way like he told me. Fuck, you think he’ll recognize that I tried?
Rashid, every father says that bit about doing things right. I said that to my daughter and one day you’ll say it to Luce.
Right. Anyway, to lose the internet would have been tragic. A disruption in the costume search would mean a shitty party for my son. You ever bid in an internet auction? That shit is a white heat. Checking back every few minutes. It’s all about defeating all the other bidders and cheating the auctioneer. There go the bids. $40. $55. Higher. $75. $90. Something was telling me to stop. I wouldn’t have an extra $90 for weeks. $150. All this tension throbbing at my throat, Walter. $155. $175. The other dude topped off at $250 and Walter, I’m at $350 and thought that was it. No one bid for a while. At the last minute someone bid $475 and I hit back with $550. And then someone hit back and I hit back. When all was done and I realized I’d won, everything was silent all around me and I heard my office chair creaking. And I’m sweating and grinning like a dumbass fool. All very exhilarating, right? Then I got the sudden awareness that I was on the hook for one thousand and fifty big ones that I didn’t have.
Walter sat on the couch, leaning forward, his head in his hands. This is reckless, he said. Reckless is what it is. Reckless! You have a wife and a son. If you were married to my daughter— Reckless! Just, reckless.
I’m not that reckless. I thought about the change jars I kept. Sometimes I could get like $150 out of there, but they were empty. Then I remembered that Ricca had just dumped all of that into Luce’s college fund.
Oh, God, Rashid.
God had nothing to do with any of this. Nothing. He’s no help to me. So, yeah, I looted that college fund. Ain’t tell Ricca shit about that. It’s in my name, therefore it’s my money. Went into our shared savings. Shared checking. Cleaned that shit out. I don’t know how we’re paying rent next month. Then there is our retirement fund. Thing is down now to $28 and it’s got a $35 maintenance fee every month. You know what I got for my troubles? A used, holey costume that smells like someone pulled it out the rankest dumpster in America. Costume only arrived this morning. I bit my nails and waited two whole weeks to find out the world is a fucked up place. Ad said it was brand new. Never worn. Look at me now. This look like something that’s never been used? The thing came to the door after the party had started. I took that box to the back room quick, quick, quick.
Rashid’s words became caught on the cracking of his voice, tears poured down his cheeks.
Man, Walter, he said. I screamed and Ricca came in and I screamed again and she was like, There are 12 kids out there. I told her I spent $1,050 on a smelly maggot-covered Cookie Monster corpse. She was pissed, Walter. Ain’t even mention the money; that’s how I know she’s pissed. I’m gonna hear about it later. Gonna have to tell her we have to start all over with Luce’s college fund, with everything. She just looked at me with these dead eyes. Wasn’t no more love in those things. She said, Rashid, get a grip. There are 12 kids out there trying to eat cookies and have a good time. Don’t be selfish. We’ll deal with everything else later. She stormed out and I thought about it and was like, She’s right. So I put on the costume and walked out singing about how C was for Cookie and you know what, all 12 of those kids started crying and the adults started coughing and waving their hands and one little girl grabbed her mother and said, Mommy, The Cookie Monster stinks. That’s when I took off the head and ran out and came down here to you.
Walter breathed deeply taking the garbage smell into his lungs and then he sat silently with his eyes closed, hoping when he opened them there would be no absurdity, no insanity inside his apartment. Where was Laura when he needed a firm, but patient hand? Walter opened his eyes and there was a Cookie Monster with the head of a man and a stench that grated at his throat.
God, Rashid, that’s quite something, he said. I’m not sure— You young people. There are going to be rocks in your way and rocks on your backs. You’re a man, you can’t approach this like a baby would. It won’t get any easier, Rashid. Not a lick easier. It’s gonna be like this forever. Shit, it’s going to get harder.
Forever, huh? I was going to name Luce forever, or rather, Samad, one of the 99 names of Allah—Al-Samad, the eternal. But then I started to think about eternity, what a curse if you’re not God, right? My man God doesn’t have holy rent and holy bills to pay. Eternity means someone always digging into your pocket, forever being distracted from your deepest desires to spend all your time doing something you don’t want to do in order to pay a petty light bill. So in that hospital room while Ricca was screaming and pushing Luce out, I changed my mind about wanting my son to be eternal. His little head looked sort of like a beam of light so I dropped my college Arabic for my high school Spanish. La Luz, the light. But light, it’s beautiful and all, but it generates heat: heat burns. That’s what this family shit does, it burns you. Sets you on fire. Burns you to a fucking crisp. All my sense is burned from me. Everything. I’m gutted like a burnt out building. I’m burned. I can’t stand. One day I’m gonna topple over, a pile of fucking ashes.
And that, Rashid, is the good news. The sun burns and burns and burns and one day it’ll burn out. Massive explosion, taking everything with it, kid. But while it burns, look how much flourishes. Go back to your family, Rashid. Make the day special for Luce. Let Ricca scream at you for the meltdown. You deserve it. And then tomorrow, continue to burn, it’s all you can do.
Rashid stared at the old man and then he turned and slowly walked to the door. Yeah, he said with his hand on the knob. Yeah. You know something, Walter? I regret it all. Every single moment. Not getting head from Becca. Ricca. Luce. This stinking-ass Cookie Monster costume. My job. Cross River. And if I had made any different choices in life, I’d regret those too. Catch you later, Walter.
Later, son. Oh, you might want to take off that smelly costume before you go back in there.
Right, Rashid said from the hallway. As he shimmied from the furry blue outfit, the door slammed itself shut. Walter heard Rashid’s feet moving up the stairs and above him a door opened and slammed.
If there were a time to head to the corner store and get a pack of beer it would be now, he thought. Why would he want to remember all this? This was the type of memory that one wants to fade into a fuzzy haze. Walter noticed the blue Cookie Monster head resting on the floor. From some angles, the smiling open mouth looked like one of abashed joy, from others it resembled horror. He rubbed his eyes and his forehead. He felt drunk, but it was a different drunk from the one the bottle would give him. Walter suddenly was struck by the image of one day coming in to see Rashid’s legs dangling atop his balcony, all dead and furry and Cookie Monster blue.
But right now there was music and children’s laughter from above and when he got close to the balcony, he could even hear Rashid laughing to be sure. Walter placed the smiling, googly-eyed Cookie Monster head atop his bookshelf and he rested himself on the couch. That afternoon he fell asleep watching the grinning puppet head and listening to the joy from above.