Authors: Gar Anthony Haywood
Fear of the Dark
Gar Anthony Haywood
Open Road Integrated Media Ebook
For My Father
JACK W. HAYWOOD
Whose wisdom I often mistook
for raving lunacy.
Ideally, in fact, he was hoping to play before a full house, one great writhing sea of black humanity that could stand witness to his power for years to come, but what he received for an audience instead was a handful of weary regulars who quite obviously had nowhere else to go. The Lions were hosting the Packers and combinations like that had a way of keeping people with any respect for the game away from giant-screen TVs.
September was in its waning days, but fall had not yet turned up until tonight, however temporarily. If only to break the monotony of an unseasonal heat wave that was treating the good citizens of the city to a few more weeks of hell they didn’t need, a cutting wind equal to anything Chicago had to offer forced its way through the rubble of what passed for a slum in south-central Los Angeles, bore down at the corner of 109th and Vermont, and nudged the white boy into the Deuce’s stale warmth, wailing as it kicked the club’s front door closed behind him.
While he waited for his pale, untenable eye to make friends with the darkness, standing motionless in the foyer like a cigar store Indian someone had kindly brought in from the cold, the Deuce’s modest offering of black clientele and staff gazed in the stranger’s direction and forgot their individual preoccupations. In the dim light of three wall-mounted beer signs and a few flickering candles, Buddy Dorris and Howard Gaines shoved aside a pile of dominoes at the bar; Mean Sheila and her latest meal ticket, a rail-thin youngblood from Detroit in town for a cousin’s funeral, snuggled in a distant booth by the stereo and gave up trying to bring in a station they were too drunk to realize was broadcasting out of Irvine, almost sixty-five miles to the south; and J.T., the balding, bearded chunk of stout muscle who was both the club’s owner and chief bartender, stood at a sink on the other side of the counter and poured a drink he had made for himself down the drain. J.T.’s wife Lilly was in attendance, as well, but the only indication of this was some muffled snoring the mistuned stereo was drowning out; she was asleep on a cot in the back storeroom, cases of Thunderbird surrounding her body like broken castle walls.
When he was comfortable in the Deuce’s muted light, the white boy struck a pose for his hosts and grinned. This was not the crowd he had planned to entertain but the surprise, the uncertainty he had meant to arouse, was here, and it felt good to see it, to sense it, to taste it in the air. With open bravado he sauntered out of the shadows to the bar, grinding the ragged cuffs of his Levis together with each step, and claimed a seat only two stools down from Dorris, moving as if by rote. The temptation to laugh out loud was strong—the faces turned his way were too much—but he held his tongue and let the barflies squirm in an uncomfortable silence instead, knowing they would break it soon enough.
And of course, someone finally did, because a white man’s intrusion into such segregated quarters as these was, on this night, at least, nothing if not a direct invitation to violence. Back in August, not so very long ago, this minor indiscretion, perhaps only an innocent mistake, could have easily been dismissed, forgiven like a child’s first try at bold disobedience. But this was September, the dawn of a new and ugly season in the free world called America, and today leniency, for even the least of territorial crimes, was a difficult thing to come by, as the specter of a race war many thought inevitable was finally showing some teeth.
It was hoped by many that Black America was only making the noises of a people bracing for war—the disturbances that had so far broken out in New York, Miami, Houston, and some parts of the South had been riots in name alone—but given the respect the political machine presently in place in Washington seemed to have for its nonwhite constituency, maybe that was wishful thinking. The hand of ultraconservatism was turning back the clock on whatever progress American minorities had made in the last thirty years, striving to regain for those who held the power of the nation their long-lost freedom to close the doors of education and employment on whomever they damn well pleased, and it was becoming increasingly doubtful that this latest generation of black men and women with a good deal to lose was going to sit idly by and let it happen.
So if there had ever been a “good” time for a white man to crash the party at an all-black watering hole like the Acey Deuce (and there never had been, really) that time had most certainly passed, and no one had to draw J.T. a picture to make him see the jeopardy his beloved bar, and the livelihood that went with it, was suddenly in.
“What can I do for you?” the huge black man demanded of the white boy, in the voice his friends all knew meant his tolerance was on the wane.
He was edging his way over to the stranger’s end of the bar as he spoke, making no pretense of stealth; there was a sawed-off ten-gauge mounted under the lip of the counter there, and that seemed like a smart place to be.
“You can help me find somebody,” his new customer replied, and J.T. stopped moving, his worst suspicions confirmed all at once.
The white boy liked that—the bartender stopping on a dime, as if struck by something he hadn’t seen coming—and smiled again to show his appreciation, not merely for J.T. but for the others as well. He seemed proud of his teeth but had no reason to be: his upper left incisor was missing and everything else was chipped and yellow, soon to follow.
Unlike the white boy, Buddy Dorris wasn’t smiling. Once considered a misfit consumed by outdated politics, now looked upon as a sage for his dedication to those same, but newly fashionable, politics, he was a vocal advocate of revolutionary solutions to the oppression of his people, a hatemonger who worked diligently within the system to undermine it. He was only twenty-two, barely old enough to vote, but his rage was much older, a hand-me-down from generations past.
He turned to the white boy and asked, “Find who?”
And reciprocating, the white boy swiveled on his stool and said, “You.”
His right hand was inside the shiny leather folds of his jacket before anyone could move, and out again by the time someone did. He caught Dorris lurching across the void between them and pointed the business end of an old Army Colt at the black man’s face, pulling the trigger. The interior of the bar lit up with an angry red flare and Dorris’s head became a spray of wet debris; his heavy frame caromed off Howard Gaines and fell to the floor, fragmented, lifeless. Gaines himself held his ground, reviewing the forty-three years of his life as a mop handle attachment in hurried flashbacks, but J.T. snatched the hidden shotgun free and managed to aim its muzzle in the white boy’s general direction before the Army Colt spat twice more to drop him at the foot of the cash register, where his body lay under a rain of mixed liquor and splinters from the bar.
Mean Sheila was screaming like a banshee in the sudden descent of a relative silence. Gaines pressed his back against the wall behind him and tried to remember how to run, the acrid odor of wasted sulfur burning his nostrils, keeping him conscious. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Sheila’s friend from Detroit cringing beneath the table of their booth, clinging to its one chrome leg the way a Kansas farmer, caught in the open, might have latched onto a tree to watch the black funnel of a tornado descend upon his homestead.
“Goddamn,” he mumbled over and over, working to get the word out, whispering it at best. “Oh,
The white boy slipped down from his stool and began to take careful, backward steps toward the door. Mean Sheila stopped screaming to watch him hold his weapon high before him, swinging its flat nose from one remaining target to the next, lingering here, lingering there, making them guess his intentions. It was a game he was just beginning to enjoy when someone dropped something heavy in the back storeroom, beyond the door marked Employees Only. Sheila and Gaines knew it was only Lilly, coming around in her customary, graceless fashion, but the assassin did not, and now it was the others’ turn to see fear in action. The white boy considered his options, his mad eye rolling in its socket like some runaway gyroscope, and hastily reverted to his retreat.
“The Brothers of Volition can go
themselves,” he said when he reached the door, suddenly impassive, as if making but a casual observation. Shoving the pistol into the waistband of his pants he turned to run off, the beat of his boot heels on concrete fading slowly in his wake.
Not surprisingly, no one left alive at the Acey Deuce felt particularly inclined to follow.
t was an explosion that finally brought Aaron Gunner around.
An explosion of the doorbell, one or the other, the black man couldn’t say for sure which. Perhaps it had been both.
He was recuperating from a losing bout with two bottles of Chivas Regal—not his brand of booze, why the hell had he bothered?—but Gunner found a working nerve ending and peeled one eye open. His bedroom window was open and a wave of glaring white sunlight, unimpeded by a pane of dusty glass, quickly rendered him blind.
He opened his other eye, blinking, and glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand beside his head. It was well past two in the afternoon. While he waited for more explosions he gave the day of the week some thought, decided it was Monday, reconsidered and settled for Tuesday, then rolled his 208 pounds out of bed, yawning.
He stood there in his bare feet, scratching himself, and concluded that the doorbell was not going to ring again, if it ever had in the first place. He then limped to the bathroom and ran his hand over the barren landscape of his scalp, out of habit combing hair that had been gone for years. He thought of himself as an old man getting older, and to prove it he appraised himself in the mirror on the medicine cabinet door while urinating and suffered the usual disappointments. The tired lines beneath his sharp brown eyes were still there, and the stubble that grew overnight along the soft angles of his chin was getting harder to see every day—because it was white, as in gray, as in dying a slow death. Gunner was not an old man, but his was a face of charm worn down by thirty-four years of exhaustion, a handsome parchment of flesh he carried like a ledger filled with dreams that had died hard and hopes he had never coaxed off the ground. He smiled at it and watched a new wrinkle appear across his left cheekbone, yet another channel carved from his youth that he would have to learn to get used to.
He brushed his teeth at the sink, scrubbing the flavor of low-grade rocket fuel from the walls of his mouth, and headed for the kitchen, pausing to toss on a blue terry cloth robe that was draped over a chair in the hall. His home was like an oven but the robe was part of a ritual he couldn’t find the energy to break; his elbow peeked out of a hole in the left sleeve.
The front of the little duplex was almost completely without light: all the shades were drawn, defending its inanimate tenants—a few pieces of fire-sale furniture and a refurbished hotel television—from the glare of the day outside. Dust particles danced silently in the rare strands of sunlight that broke through the cracks at windows and doors.