Deacon King Kong (20. Plant Man)
Sportcoat lay on a battered couch in Rufus’s basement. He had been there by his count for three days, drinking, sleeping, drinking, eating a little, sleeping, and mostly, Rufus acknowledged curtly to him, drinking. Rufus came and went, delivering news that was not so good, not so bad. Sausage and Deems were alive and in the hospital in Borough Park. The cops were looking for him. So was everyone at his various jobs: Mr. Itkin; the ladies from Five Ends, including Sister Gee; Miss Four Pie; and assorted customers he did odd work for. So were some unusual-looking white men who had come over to the Cause before.
Sportcoat didn’t care. He was consumed with the events around fishing Deems out the water, the feel of being in the harbor water at night. He had never done that. Once many years ago when he first came to New York, when he and Hettie were young, they’d agreed they would try that one day—just jump into the harbor at night to see the shore from the water, to feel the water and what New York felt like from there. It was one of the many promises they’d made to each other when they were young. There were others. See the giant redwood trees in Northern California. Visit Hettie’s brother in Oklahoma. Visit the Bronx botanical garden to see the hundreds of plants there. So many resolutions, none of them ever fulfilled—except that one. In the end, though, she had done it alone. She had felt that water at night.
That day, the third day, in the afternoon, he fell asleep and dreamed of her.
For the first time since her death, she appeared young. Her brown skin was shiny, moist, and clear. Her eyes were wide and sparkled with enthusiasm. Her hair was braided and parted neatly. She wore the brown dress that he remembered. She’d made it herself with her mother’s sewing machine. It was adorned with a yellow flower stitched onto the left side, just above her breast.
She appeared in Rufus’s basement boiler room looking as if she’d just breezed in from a Sunday church picnic back home in Possum Point. She sat on an old kitchen sink that lay on its side. She perched on it lightly, easily, the picture of grace, as if she were seated on an armchair and could float away from it if it fell over. Her pretty legs were crossed. Her brown arms rested on her lap. Sportcoat stared at her. With her brown dress and its yellow flower and her hair parted, her brown skin shimmering from some secret source of light in the dank, dark basement, she looked achingly beautiful.
“I remember that dress,” he said.
She offered a sad, bashful smile. “Oh hush,” she said.
“I do recollects it,” he said. It was his awkward way of making up for previous arguments they’d had, tossing off a compliment at once.
She looked at him sadly. “You look like you been living rough and wrong, Cuffy. What’s the matter?”
Cuffy. She hadn’t called him that in years. Not since they were young. She called him “daddy,” or “honey,” or “fool,” or sometimes even “Sportcoat,” a name she despised. But rarely Cuffy. That was something from long ago. A different time.
“Everything’s right as rain,” he said cheerfully.
“Yet so much has gone wrong,” she said.
“Not a bit,” he said. “Everything is skippy now. It’s all fixed. ’Cept that Christmas Club money. You can fix that.”
She smiled and gave him the look. He’d forgotten Hettie’s “look”: her smile of understanding and acceptance that said, “All intangibles are forgiven, I accept them and more—your faults, your dips and turns, everything, because our love is a hammer forged at the anvil of God and not even your most foolish, irrational act can break it.” That look. Sportcoat found it unsettling.
“I been thinking about back home,” she said.
“Oh, that’s old-time stuff,” he said, waving his hand.
She ignored that. “I was thinking about them moonflowers. Remember how I used to go through the woods and gather up moonflowers? The ones that blossom at night? I was crazy about them things. I loved the way they smell! I’ve forgotten those things!”
“Oh, that ain’t nothing,” he said.
“Oh, c’mon! The way them things smell. How could you forget?”
She stood, clasping her hands near her chest, emboldened with the enthusiasm of love and youth, a way of being he’d long forgotten. That attachment was so long ago it seemed like it had never happened. The newness of love, the absolute freshness of youth. He was startled but tried to hide it by making a “pfffft” noise with his lips. He wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t. She was so pretty. So young.
She sat back down onto the sink and, noticing his expression, leaned forward and touched his forearm playfully. He didn’t move, but frowned: he was afraid to give in to the moment.
She sat up straight again, serious now, all playfulness gone. “Back home when I was little, I used to walk through the woods gathering up moonflowers,” she said. “My daddy warned me off it. You know how he was. A colored girl’s life wasn’t worth two cents. And he wanted me to go to college and all. But I liked adventure. I was about seven or eight years old, jumping around the woods like a rabbit, having my fun, doing what I was told not to do. I had to search out quite a distance to find them flowers. I was deep out there one day and heard some yelling and hollering and jumped out of sight. The yelling was so loud and I got curious, so I crept up on it and who do I see but you and your daddy lumbering. Y’all was sawing a big old maple tree with a crosscut saw.”
She paused, remembering. “Well, he was sawing it. He was drunk and you was a little bitty thing. And he was swinging you back and forth like a rag doll, working that crosscut saw to death, sawing at that tree.”
She chuckled at the memory.
“You done your best, but you got tired. Back and forth you went and finally you dropped off. And your daddy was so drunk he loosed his end of the saw and stepped to you hard. He picked you up with one hand and hollered at you in a way that I never forgot. He didn’t say but two words.”
“‘Saw on,’” Sportcoat said sadly.
Hettie sat thoughtfully a moment.
“Saw on,” she said. “Imagine that. Talking to a child that way. There is nothing on this earth so low as a mother or father who treats their child cruel.”
She scratched her jaw thoughtfully. “The world was just becoming clear to me then. Seeing how we lived under the white folks, how they treated us, how they treated each other, their cruelty and their phoniness, the lies they told each other, and the lies we learned to tell. The South was hard.”
She sat and pondered a minute, and scratched her long, lovely shin. “‘Saw on,’ he said. Hollering at a little bitty boy. A boy doing a man’s job. And he was a drunk his own self.”
Staring at him, she said softly, “And despite all that, you had so much talent.”
“Oh, them old-time days is good and gone,” he said.
She sighed and gave him that look again, one of patience and understanding, one he’d known since they were both children. For a moment, the smell of fresh red earth seemed to float into his nostrils, and the aroma of spring flowers, evergreen pine, cucumber tree, sweetgum, spicebush, goldenrod, foamflowers, cinnamon ferns, asters, and then the overwhelming smell of moonflower drifted into the air. He shook his head, thinking he was drunk, because at that moment, lying amidst the junk of a basement boiler room of the battered Watch Houses in South Brooklyn, he felt as if he had drifted back to South Carolina, and he saw Hettie sitting atop her father’s pony in her backyard, patting its neck, the pony standing near her daddy’s garden, the tomatoes, the squash and collard greens. Hettie looking so tall and young and pretty, gazing out over her daddy’s beautiful yard full of plants.
Hettie closed her eyes and raised her head, sniffing the air. She said, “Now you can smell it, can’t you?”
Sportcoat remained silent, afraid to admit that he could.
“You used to love the smell of plants,” she said. “Any plant. You could tell every plant, one from the other, just by its smells. I loved that about you. My Plant Man.”
Sportcoat waved his hand in the air. “Oh, you talk of old things, woman.”
“Yes I do,” she said wistfully, staring out over his head. She seemed to be looking at something far away. “Remember Mrs. Ellard? The old white lady I used to work for? I ever tell you about why I left her?”
“’Cause you gone to New York.”
She smiled sadly. “You’re just like the white man. You change every story to suit your purpose. Listen to me for a change.”
She rubbed her knee as she began her story.
“I was fourteen years old when I started looking after Mrs. Ellard. I cared for her for three years. There wasn’t nobody she trusted more than me. I made her food, did her little exercises and things with her, gave her all her medicines the doctor gived her. She was very sick when I come on, but I had nursed white folks since I was twelve, so I knowed my business. Mrs. Ellard wouldn’t go to the doctor unless I went with her. She wouldn’t move till I come in the house in the morning. She wouldn’t go to bed at night unless I tucked her in. I knew all her little ins and outs. She had a good heart. But her daughter was something. And her daughter’s husband, he was the devil.
“That husband come to me one day saying some things was missing from the house. I asked what these things was and he got mad and said I was backtalking him and owed him eleven dollars. He had a fit about that eleven dollars. He said, ‘I’m gonna take it out your next pay.’
“Well, I knew what that meant. The old woman was dying, see, and they wanted me out. I had just got paid when he accused me of stealing that eleven dollars and I only made fourteen dollars a week, so I gave two weeks’ notice. But the daughter said, ‘Don’t tell my mother. She’ll be upset about you leaving and she’s dying and it’ll make her feel worse.’ She promised me my pay and a little extra to keep quiet on it. So I agreed.
“Well, I seen what they was doing. They didn’t know more about caring for poor Mrs. Ellard than a dog knows a holiday. They complained about her, throwed things into her food which she wasn’t supposed to eat, let her lay in her own filth, and forgot to give her medicine and all them things. I was just a teenager, but I knowed it was trouble. However the knife fell, I knew where the sharp end was gonna land, so I made ready to leave.
“About three days before my time was up, I come into the room to feed Mrs. Ellard and she started crying. She said, ‘Hettie, why you leaving me?’ I knew then that the daughter had spit out a lie. The doorknob hadn’t bumped me in the back when that worthless daughter was up in my face pretending to be mad with me for telling her mother I was leaving. I knew that meant I had just worked two weeks for nothing. I knew right then whatever little pay I was supposed to get, well . . . that was gone, see.”
She shrugged. “I reckon the daughter’s husband put her up to all the devilment. He was as smart as his wife was simple. I could have never thought up such a rotten business myself. I would be ashamed to even think of it. Firing me over eleven dollars. The truth is, he could’ve said I stole one dollar or a thousand dollars. It didn’t matter. He was white, so his word was the gospel. Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. The lies they tell each other sound better to them than the truth does when it comes out of our mouths.
“That’s why I come to New York,” she said. “And if you recall, you didn’t want me to go. You was so drunk in them times you didn’t know whether you was coming or going. Nor what I gone through from day to day. We had to leave the South or I was gonna kill somebody. So I come here. I worked day’s work up here three years, waiting for you to get the courage to come. And you finally did.”
“I did keep my promise,” he said feebly. “I did come.”
Her smile disappeared, and a familiar misery climbed into her face.
“Back home you gived life to things nobody paid the slightest attention to: flowers and trees and bushes and plants. These was things that most men stepped out on. But you . . . all the plants and flowers and miracles of God’s heart—you had a touch for them things, even when you was drinking. That’s who you was back home. But here . . .”
“The man who come here to New York wasn’t the man I knowed in South Carolina. In all the years we been here, ain’t been a plant in that house of ours. Not a green thing hung from the ceiling nor the wall, other than what I brung in from time to time.”
“I got sick when I first come here,” Sportcoat said. “My body broke down.”
“Course it did.”
“That’s right. I had operations and all, don’t you remember?”
“Course I do,” she said.
“And my stepmomma—”
“I know all about your stepmother. I know everything: how she showed out to Jesus every Sunday and lived like a devil the rest of the week . . . doing improper things to you when you was but a wee child. Everything she ever done to you was wrong. The habits you acquired was put on you by the very folks who should have helped you be a better person. That’s why you like Deems so much. He come down that same road. That boy was beat up bad, grinded down from the day he was slapped to life.”
Sportcoat listened in stunned silence. There was a hammering sound in his ears and he glanced around the room but saw nothing move. Could that hammering be his own insides? The sound of his own heart beating? He felt as if part of him were splitting apart, and within his old self, the person he once was, the young man of physical strength with a wide-eyed thirst for wisdom and knowledge, had suddenly sat up, opened his eyes, and gazed around the room.
His head ached. He reached down toward the side of the couch, groping for the jug bottle, but it wasn’t there.
“Isn’t it something,” Hettie said softly, “what ol’ New York really is? We come here to be free and find life’s worse here than back home. The white folks here just color it different. They don’t mind you sitting next to ’em on the subway, or riding the bus in the front seat, but if you asks for the same pay, or wants to live next door, or get so beat down you don’t wanna stand up and sing about how great America is, they’ll bust down on you so hard pus’ll come out your ears.”
She thought a moment.
“‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” she scoffed. “I never did like that old lying, lollygagging, hypocritical, warring-ass drinking song. With the bombs bursting in air and so forth.”
“My Hettie wouldn’t talk this way,” Sportcoat sputtered. “You ain’t my Hettie. You’s a ghost.”
“Stop wasting what’s left of your sorry-ass life with your shameful fear of the dead!” she snapped. “I ain’t no ghost. I’m you. And stop goin’ ’round telling people I would have loved my funeral. I hated it!”
“It was a beautiful funeral!”
“Our cheap death shows make me sick,” she said calmly. “Why don’t folks in church talk about life? They hardly ever talk about the birth of Jesus Christ in church. But they never get tired of singing and reveling in Jesus’s death. Death is just one part of life. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, all day long, the death of Jesus.”
“You the one that’s always hollering about Jesus! And how he gave you his cheese!”
“I holler about Jesus’s cheese because Jesus could baptize shit into sugar! Because if I didn’t have Jesus and his cheese, I’d kill somebody. That’s what Jesus did for me for sixty-seven years. He kept me sane, and on the right side of the law. But he run out of gas, sweetheart. He got tired of me. I don’t blame Him, for the hate in my heart done me in. I couldn’t see the man I loved so much, my Plant Man, stand by the window in our apartment sucking on crab legs and looking at the Statue of Liberty outside our window chatting about nothing, when I knowed all he wanted was for me to go back to bed so he could let a liquor bottle suck his guts out the minute I gone to sleep again. The evil I felt at that moment was enough to kill us both. So instead, I walked into the harbor. And I left myself in God’s hands.”
For the first time in his life, Sportcoat felt something inside him breaking up.
“Is you happy now? Where you live now, Hettie? Is you happy there?”
“Oh, stop whimpering like a dog and be a man.”
“You ain’t got to insult me. I know who I am.”
“Just ’cause you dragged Deems outta the water don’t mean nothing. He was led to ruination by them that raised him, not you.”
“I ain’t frettin’ about him. I’m worried about that Christmas Club money. The church wants their money. I can’t pay them back. I ain’t got nothing to live on myself.”
“There you go again. Blaming somebody else for your troubles. The police wouldn’t be circling around the church now if you hadn’t got drunk!”
“It wasn’t my fault Deems started selling poison!”
“At least he ain’t destroying hisself by drinking hisself to death!”
“G’wan, woman! Leave me be. G’wan. Get along now!”
“I can’t,” she said softly. “I’d like to. That’s the thing. You got to let me.”
“Tell me how.”
“I don’t know how. I ain’t that smart. All’s I know is, you got to be right. To let me go, you got to be right.”
A half hour later, Rufus walked into the room carrying a bologna sandwich, a can of Coke, and two aspirins. He found Sportcoat sitting up on the battered basement couch, the quart of King Kong moonshine in his lap.
“You ought to eat some food before you hit that Kong, Sport.”
Sportcoat glanced at him, looked down at the quart bottle, then back at Rufus.
“I ain’t hungry.”
“Eat some, Sport. You’ll feel better. You can’t lay around and talk to yourself like you is two-headed for the rest of your life. Never seen a man lay on a couch and go back and forth like you done. You drunk already?”
“Rufus, can I ask you something?” Sportcoat asked, ignoring the question.
“Back home, where did your folks live?”
“Back home in Possum Point?”
“We lived where you lived. Down the road.”
“And what did your people do?”
“Worked shares. Same as yours. Working for the Calder family.”
“And Hettie’s people?”
“Well, you know more than me.”
“I can’t remember.”
“Well, they was working shares with the Calders, too, for a while. Then Hettie’s daddy moved off from working shares and he bought that little piece of land back there near Thomson Creek. Hettie’s family was forward-thinking folks.”
“Are they still living?”
“I don’t know, Sport. She was your wife. You wasn’t in touch with them?”
“Not after we moved up here. They never liked me much.”
“They’re long gone, Sport. Forget ’em. Hettie was the youngest, to my recollection. The parents died out long ago. Most of the rest likely left out Possum Point. Gone to Chicago or Detroit maybe. They didn’t come here, I know that. Hettie might have some kin left down there someplace. Some cousins, maybe.”
Sportcoat sat in silence a moment. Finally he said, “I miss the old country.”
“Me too, Sport. You wanna eat? You don’t want that Kong in your tummy without no food.”
Sportcoat unscrewed the top of the quart bottle of liquor, raised it, then paused, the bottle poised in the air, and asked, “Tell me, Rufus. When you come up here, how old was you?”
“What’s this, Sport? Sixty-four questions? I was forty-six.”
“I was fifty-one,” Sportcoat said thoughtfully.
“I come up three years before you,” Rufus said. “In fact, I was the third member of Five Ends to come up here from down south. The first was my brother Irving. Then Sister Paul, her daughter Edie, and her husband. Then me and my late wife, Clemy. Then Hettie come up. Sister Paul was already here when me and Clemy and Hettie come. You was last.”
“Lemme ask you. When y’all started building Five Ends, what did Hettie do?”
“Other than setting around pining for you? Well, she did day’s work for white folks during the week. On weekends, she dug out the church’s foundation. It was mostly me and Hettie and Edie, them two women at first. Sister Paul and her husband, they done a little. Sister Paul did. Reverend Chicksaw, her husband, he weren’t too fond of digging. Then the Eye-talian came with his men. And some other folks showed up later. Sister Gee’s folks. And the Cousins’ parents. But it was the Eye-talian that got it going good. After he come, that freed us up. That’s when Hettie made that big yard out behind the church that’s all weeds now. She wanted a big garden back there. She said you was gonna come up and fill it with all sorts of collards and yams and even some special kind of flower, something you can see in the dark, I forget what’s it called now . . .”
Sportcoat felt shame climb into his face. “Moonflowers,” he said.
“That’s right. Moonflowers. Course you didn’t come up for three years. And you was sick when you come up. Plus who got time to make a garden? You can’t grow nothing in New York.”
Rufus stood above Sportcoat, still holding the sandwich. “This thing’s gonna grow ears, Sport. You want it or not?”
Sportcoat shook his head. The sound of hammers banging in his brain had returned. He wished it would stop. With a sigh, he stared at the jug of King Kong in his lap. Booze, he thought. I chose booze over my Moonflower.
He reached over the armrest and picked up the bottle cap. He gently put it on the bottle, screwed it closed slowly, then lifted the bottle off his lap and placed it carefully on the floor.
“Where’d you say Sister Paul was?” he asked.
“Out in Bensonhurst. Near the hospital where Sausage and Deems is.”
Rufus eyed the bottle of King Kong. “If you ain’t sipping, I’ll do the dipping,” he said. He reached down and picked up the bottle, took a deep sip, then turned to hand the bottle to Sportcoat.
But the old man was already out the door and gone.