“And it’s all about something that happened a long time ago? Before you were born?”
“You got it! You are a very smart little colored boy. And I am going to tell Oxford University about you.”
“And you wish he’d kept it to himself because it don’t concern you and you can’t do nothin about it anyway.”
“You have just passed the course. Guitar Bains, Ph.D.”
“But it bothers you just the same?”
“Let me think.” Milkman closed his eyes and tried to prop his chin on his hand, but it was too difficult. He was trying to get as drunk as possible as rapidly as possible. “Yes. Well, it did bother me. Before I came in here it did. I don’t know, Guitar.” He became serious and his face had the still and steady look of a grown man trying not to vomit…or cry.
“Forget it, Milk. Whatever it is, forget it. It ain’t nothin. Whatever he told you, forget it.”
“I hope I can. I sure hope I can.”
“Listen, baby, people do funny things. Specially us. The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why. But look here, don’t carry it inside and don’t give it to nobody else. Try to understand it, but if you can’t, just forget it and keep yourself strong, man.”
“I don’t know, Guitar. Things seem to be getting to me, you know?”
“Don’t let ’em. Unless you got a plan. Look at Till. They got to him too. Now he’s just an item on WJR’s evening news.”
“He was crazy.”
“No. Not crazy. Young, but not crazy.”
“Who cares if he fucks a white girl? Anybody can do that. What’s he bragging for? Who cares?”
“Then they’re crazier’n he is.”
“Of course. But they’re alive and crazy.”
“Yeah, well, fuck Till. I’m the one in trouble.”
“Did I hear you right, brother?”
“All right. I didn’t mean that. I…”
“What’s your trouble? You don’t like your name?”
“No.” Milkman let his head fall to the back of the booth. “No, I don’t like my name.”
“Let me tell you somethin, baby. Niggers get their names the way they get everything else—the best way they can. The best way they can.”
Milkman’s eyes were blurred now and so were his words. “Why can’t we get our stuff the right way?”
“The best way is the right way. Come on. I’ll take you home.”
“No, I can’t go back there.”
“No? Where then?”
“Let me stay in your pad.”
“Oh, man, you know my situation. One of us’ll have to sleep on the floor. Besides…”
“I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“Besides, I may have company.”
“No shit. Come on, let’s go.”
“I ain’t going home, Guitar. Hear me?”
“Want me to take you over to Hagar’s?” Guitar motioned to the waitress for the check.
“Hagar’s. Yeah. Sweet Hagar. Wonder what her name is.”
“You just said it.”
“I mean her last name. Her daddy’s name.”
“Ask Reba.” Guitar paid their bar bill and helped Milkman negotiate to the door. The wind had risen and cooled. Guitar flapped his elbows against the cold.
“Ask anybody but Reba,” said Milkman. “Reba don’t know her own last name.”
“Yeah. I’ll ask Pilate. Pilate knows. It’s in that dumb-ass box hanging from her ear. Her own name and everybody else’s. Bet mine’s in there too. I’m gonna ask her what my name is. Say, you know how my old man’s daddy got his name?”
“Uh uh. How?”
“Cracker gave it to him.”
“Yep. And he took it. Like a fuckin sheep. Somebody should have shot him.”
“What for? He was already Dead.”
Once again he did his Christmas shopping in a Rexall drugstore. It was late, the day before Christmas Eve, and he hadn’t had the spirit or energy or presence of mind to do it earlier or thoughtfully. Boredom, which had begun as a mild infection, now took him over completely. No activity seemed worth the doing, no conversation worth having. The fluttery preparations at home seemed fake and dingy. His mother was going on as she did every year about the incredible price of trees and butter. As though their tree would be anything other than it had always been: the huge shadowy thing in a corner burdened with decorations she had had since she was a girl. As if her fruitcakes were edible, or her turkey done all the way to the bone. His father gave them all envelopes of varying amounts of money, never thinking that just once they might like something he actually went into a department store and selected.
The gifts Milkman had to buy were few and easily chosen in a drugstore. Cologne and dusting powder for Magdalene called Lena; a compact for Corinthians; a five-pound box of chocolates for his mother. And some shaving equipment for his father. In fifteen minutes he was done. The only problem gift was Hagar’s. It was hard to select something hurriedly for her since she liked everything but preferred nothing. More important, he wasn’t sure he wanted to keep it up. Keep up the whole business of “going with” Hagar. He seldom took her anywhere except to the movies and he never took her to parties where people of his own set danced and laughed and developed intrigues among themselves. Everybody who knew him knew about Hagar, but she was considered his private honey pot, not a real or legitimate girl friend—not someone he might marry. And only one or two of the various women he dated “seriously” ever put up a fight about her since they believed she was less than a rival.
Now, after more than a dozen years, he was getting tired of her. Her eccentricities were no longer provocative and the stupefying ease with which he had gotten and stayed between her legs had changed from the great good fortune he’d considered it, to annoyance at her refusal to make him hustle for it, work for it, do something difficult for it. He didn’t even have to pay for it. It was so free, so abundant, it had lost its fervor. There was no excitement, no galloping of blood in his neck or his heart at the thought of her.
She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?
Perhaps the end of the year was a good time to call it off. It wasn’t going anywhere and it was keeping him lazy, like a pampered honey bear who had only to stick out his paw for another scoop, and so had lost the agility of the tree-climbers, but not the recollection of how thrilling the search had been.
He would buy her something for Christmas, of course, something nice to remember him by, but nothing that would give her any ideas about marriage. There was some costume jewelry on display. She might like that, but it would pale before the diamond ring Reba had stuck down in her dress. A Timex? She would never look at it. Staring at the glass tube that housed the watches, he found himself getting angry. All this indecision about what to get for Hagar was new. At Christmases past he simply chose (or had his sisters choose) from a long list of things that Hagar had mentioned specifically. Things quite out of place in her household: a navy-blue satin bathrobe (this for a woman who lived in a house that had no bathroom); a chubby; a snood with a velvet bow; a rhinestone bracelet with earrings to match; patent leather pumps; White Shoulders cologne. Milkman used to wonder at her specificity and her acquisitiveness until he reminded himself that Pilate and Reba celebrated no holidays. Yet their generosity was so wholehearted it looked like carelessness, and they did their best to satisfy every whim Hagar had. When he first took her in his arms, Hagar was a vain and somewhat distant creature. He liked to remember it that way—that he took her in his arms—but in truth it was she who called him back into the bedroom and stood there smiling while she unbuttoned her blouse.
From the time he first saw her, when he was twelve and she was seventeen, he was deeply in love with her, alternately awkward and witty in her presence. She babied him, ignored him, teased him—did anything she felt like, and he was grateful just to see her do anything or be any way. A good part of the enthusiasm with which he collected his father’s rents was because of the time it gave him to visit the wine house and, hopefully, find Hagar there. He was free to drop in anytime and after school he tried to make sure he saw her.
Years passed and his puppy breath came as fast as ever in Hagar’s presence. It slowed finally, after Guitar took him to his first Southside party, and after he found himself effortlessly popular with girls of his own age and in his own neighborhood. But while his breath was no longer that of a puppy, Hagar could still whip it into a pant when he was seventeen and she was twenty-two. Which she did on the dullest flattest day he could remember, a throw-away day in March when he drove his father’s two-tone Ford over to her house for two bottles of wine. Milkman was much sought after and depended upon to secure the liquor he and his under-twenty-one friends believed vital to a party. When he got to Pilate’s he walked in on a domestic crisis.
Reba’s new man friend had asked her for a small loan and she had told him that she didn’t have any money at all. The man, who had received two or three nice presents from her unasked, thought she was lying and was trying to tell him to shove off. They were quarreling in the backyard—that is, the man was quarreling. Reba was crying and trying to convince him that what she’d said was true. Just after Milkman opened the door, Hagar came running from the bedroom, where she’d been looking out the back window. She screamed to Pilate, “Mama! He’s hitting her! I saw him! With his fist, Mama!”
Pilate looked up from a fourth-grade geography book she was reading and closed it. Slowly, it seemed to Milkman, she walked over to a shelf that hung over the dry sink, put the geography book on it, and removed a knife. Slowly still, she walked out the front door—there was no back door—and as soon as she did, Milkman could hear Reba’s screams and the man’s curses.
It didn’t occur to him to stop Pilate—her mouth was not moving and her earring flashed fire—but he did follow her, as did Hagar, around to the back of the house, where, approaching the man from the back, she whipped her right arm around his neck and positioned the knife at the edge of his heart. She waited until the man felt the knife point before she jabbed it skillfully, about a quarter of an inch through his shirt into the skin. Still holding his neck, so he couldn’t see but could feel the blood making his shirt sticky, she talked to him.
“Now, I’m not going to kill you, honey. Don’t you worry none. Just be still a minute, the heart’s right here, but I’m not going to stick it in any deeper. Cause if I stick it in any deeper, it’ll go straight through your heart. So you have to be real still, you hear? You can’t move a inch cause I might lose control. It’s just a little hole now, honey, no more’n a pin scratch. You might lose about two tablespoons of blood, but no more. And if you’re real still, honey, I can get it back out without no mistake. But before I do that, I thought we’d have a little talk.”
The man closed his eyes. Sweat ran from his temples down the sides of his face. A few neighbors who had heard Reba’s screams had gathered in Pilate’s backyard. They knew right away that the man was a newcomer to the city. Otherwise he would have known a few things about Reba, one of which was that she gave away everything she had and if there was a case quarter in that house she’d have given it to him; and more important, he would have known not to fool with anything that belonged to Pilate, who never bothered anybody, was helpful to everybody, but who also was believed to have the power to step out of her skin, set a bush afire from fifty yards, and turn a man into a ripe rutabaga—all on account of the fact that she had no navel. So they didn’t have much sympathy for him. They just craned their necks to hear better what Pilate was telling him.
“You see, darlin, that there is the only child I got. The first baby I ever had, and if you could turn around and see my face, which of course you can’t cause my hand might slip, you’d know she’s also the last. Women are foolish, you know, and mamas are the most foolish of all. And you know how mamas are, don’t you? You got a mama, ain’t you? Sure you have, so you know what I’m talking about. Mamas get hurt and nervous when somebody don’t like they children. First real misery I ever had in my life was when I found out somebody—a little teeny tiny boy it was—didn’t like my little girl. Made me so mad, I didn’t know what to do. We do the best we can, but we ain’t got the strength you men got. That’s why it makes us so sad if a grown man start beating up on one of us. You know what I mean? I’d hate to pull this knife out and have you try some other time to act mean to my little girl. Cause one thing I know for sure: whatever she done, she’s been good to you. Still, I’d hate to push it in more and have your mama feel like I do now. I confess, I don’t know what to do. Maybe you can help me. Tell me, what should I do?”
The man struggled for breath and Pilate eased up on his throat but not his heart.
“Lemme go,” he whispered.
“Lemme go. I…won’t never…put a hand on her. I promise.”
“A real promise, sugar?”
“Yeah. I promise. You won’t never see me no more.”
Reba sat on the ground, her arms around her knees, staring through her unswollen eye at the scene as though she were at a picture show. Her lip was split and her cheek was badly bruised, and though her skirt and hands were stained with her effort to stop the blood pouring from her nose, a little still trickled down.
Pilate plucked the knife out of the man’s shirt and took her arm away. He lurched a little, looked down at the blood on his clothes and up at Pilate, and licking his lips, backed all the way to the side of the house under Pilate’s gaze. Her lips didn’t start moving again until he was out of sight and running down the road.
All attention turned to Reba, who was having difficulty trying to stand up. She said she thought something was broken inside in the place where he’d kicked her. Pilate felt her ribs and said nothing was broken. But Reba said she wanted to go to the hospital. (It was her dream to be a patient in a hospital; she was forever trying to get admitted, since in her picture-show imagination, it was a nice hotel. She gave blood there as often as they would let her, and stopped only when the blood bank was moved to an office-type clinic some distance away from Mercy.) She was insistent now, and Pilate surrendered her judgment to Reba’s. A neighbor offered to drive them and off they went, leaving Milkman to buy his wine from Hagar.