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Authors: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Magic City (7 page)

BOOK: Magic City
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Gabe said, “I don't recollect.”

Nate smiled sweetly. “Tell 'em, Gabe, about the pussy you had. Tell 'em how good Francine was.”

Gabe charged out of his seat.

The checkerboard overturned, cards fluttered to the floor. Herb, Ernie, and the others cleared the shop. The fighting was brutal, fierce. Gabe swung his fist. Nate dodged, battering Gabe's puffed eye.

“Stop!” hollered Lying Man. “You're ruining my shop.”

Gabe double punched and Nate stumbled back, gasping. Nate seized Lying Man's razor and sliced Gabe's coat. The second slice nicked Gabe's arm.

“Francine was good, wasn't she?” murmured Nate.

Gabe cursed, “I'll kill you, Nate.”

Joe readied his handcuffs, looking for a chance.

Nate's fist reared and Joe rushed forward, grabbing his wrist, clicking on the metal cuff. Startled, Nate paused, and in that second, Gabe hit him full in the face while Joe snapped the free cuff to the barber's chair. The razor clanged to the floor, glinting, reflecting sun on the chairs.

Blood draining from his nose and mouth, Nate howled, “Let go. Let go my hand.”

“Do it your own self,” said Joe. “You're the brave man who fought in the war.”

“Give me the key.” Nate sputtered blood. “The fucking key.”

“I don't have one.”

Nate lunged, the cuff snapped him back.

Joe laughed. The sound rumbled bitter and deep inside him.

Gabe thumped Joe on his back. “You would've been a good soldier, Joe. Henry would've been proud of you.”

Joe shoved Gabe, snarling, “How'd Henry really die? Hand-to-hand
or blown to bits? You were supposed to look after him, Gabe. What happened to him? What happened to you?”

“Tell 'em,” said Nate.

Gabe clenched his jaw, but held his silence.

“I want to know how my brother died.”

Nate looked away. “Died in the war, Joe. That's all.”

Joe picked up the bloody razor and held it to the light. The ceiling fan whirled. He was panting, feeling like he'd been running forever. “I wish I'd never woken up this morning.”

Joe stared at Lying Man's palm, the pink crisscrossing lines, the callused thumb.

“What's wrong, Joe?” Lying Man asked softly. “What's wrong?”

Joe walked to the window, pressed against it, trying to soak up the sun's heat and merge with the glass. He looked up and down Greenwood Avenue at faces and landmarks he'd known forever. Mrs. Regan, with her mustached chin, was carrying a bolt of red cloth. Ed, long faced, with eyes like a pup's, was climbing into his wagon, hauling feed from Reye's General Store. Ramona was across the street pinching plums at the grocer's. The Dream Time Cinema had a new picture; Bill Johnson was pasting up a billboard of a starry-eyed woman facing the horizon.

The war in France had changed Greenwood. The men were different. Gabe. Nate. Chalmers. Even Lying Man. And Joe knew he was different too.

Looking through the glass, he saw Greenwood as a withering photograph. Behind the brightly painted buildings and brightly dressed people were shadows of frustration, pain. Deep Greenwood. The black city within the white. He should've left yesterday, been far away, riding the rails.

“Everything's wrong,” Joe answered Lying Man. He tossed the razor at the mirror, reached for the door knob.

“Joe. Get these damn cuffs off.”

Joe pulled a lock pick from his pocket. It should've been easy. But it took three tries before the cuffs released from Nate's wrist and the chair's leather arm. Joe plunked the cuffs into his pocket.

“You've got a nice touch,” said Nate, blood sluggishly draining over his lips. “We could've used you to defuse mines.”

“Yeah,” said Joe, dazed, hands shaking. The copper bell rang as he opened the door. Joe looked back. “You were wrong, Gabe. Dead do come back.”

Joe reeled down the street, feeling the ground trembling beneath him. Feeling oil trapped in the soil, ready to gush and burn. Knowing Lying Man was at the window, watching, Joe lifted his hand and waved. He glanced left and right, paying attention to shadows, the darkness behind the brightly lit town.

Nate slumped in the barber's chair. “Don't be telling folks this story, Lying Man. If folks knew Joe locked me to a chair, I couldn't show my face. Hear?”

“I hear.” Lying Man craned his head, watching Joe weave like a drunkard down the sidewalk. He murmured, “That boy needs watching over.”

“That's what I'm doing,” said Gabe, digging his nails in the window frame.

“Then you better high tail it.” Lying Man patted the pocket holding Gabe's revolver. “Keep it handy.”

Gabe nodded. The copper bell shook.

“Gabe, don't you let any harm come to that boy,” he yelled.

Gabe strode quickly, his trench coat flapping as he set off after Joe.

A
llen Thornton didn't know what to do about Mary. He knew she was troubled, but he hadn't the slightest idea of what was wrong or how to fix her heartache. He spent his days and nights repairing timepieces. He pried open the most delicate mechanisms, miraculously taming minute and second hands. Yet, with people, he felt awkward. He preferred actors—dancing, singing men and women—whose problems were solved by act three. Then, too, his lack of pigment never assured his social welcome. It was easier to retreat to his bench, magnifier pressed to his eye, peering at clutters of wire and springs.

Mary had brought a new sense of urgency into his shop. He'd thrown open his shutters, made strong coffee, and watched her tug her hem repeatedly and fold her dirty, work-scarred hands. The bruises on her wrists made him ache.

He'd handed her his best cup; it'd slipped through her fingers. Porcelain slivers had showered her feet. She'd cried and when he finished sweeping up the pieces, he'd asked, “Are you afraid of me, Mary?”

She'd shaken her head no and he'd left it at that. But he'd felt a release, a lightening of tension and he'd stared dumbly at his prized clocks, smiling at the thought of her in his back room, straightening her hair, washing her hands and face.

Now Allen supported Mary as they walked toward the Ambrose Building.

“I think you should rest, Mary. Tell them you're sick.” She was limping sadly because a shoe was broken. He admired her: brown eyes fixed straight ahead, her lips firmly pressed. She was terrified but bent on not showing it.

“Watch out, Mary,” Allen urged as she almost tripped over a box of goods set out for the post. “I don't think you should be working today. Let me tell your manager—Mr. Bates, is it?—you're sick. You don't look well.”

“I need to take care of myself, Mr. Thornton.”

“Allen.” He supported her elbow.

“Al's better.” She smiled. “I do thank you, Al.”

They were in front of the gray-stoned Ambrose Building. It was the most impressive structure in Tulsa, with gold-caged elevators and elevator girls with their names stitched on their breast pocket. Like
Mary
. Allen didn't want to let her go.

“Excuse me.” A Negro boy brushed past him, pushing through the revolving glass doors.

“Sorry.” Allen stepped aside, thinking it peculiar that handcuffs swung, like a pendulum, from the Negro's back pocket. Through the spinning glass, Allen could see flashes of the slim, dark figure striding confidently into the marble lobby. The doors slowed their rotation. The young Negro was lost from sight.

Allen shrugged. “I'm in the way here, I guess.” He drew Mary aside, studying her face. When he'd carried her in his arms, he realized how lonely he'd been. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been alone with a woman.

“My hand,” Mary murmured.

“What?”

“Please, let go my hand.”

“Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't hurt you, did I?”

“No.”

Her lower lip was trembling and Allen, embarrassed, withdrew. “I enjoyed your company. Good day to you, Miss—” He didn't know her last name. “Miss Mary.”

He turned abruptly, walking quickly, cursing himself for losing time when he had Bailey's pocket watch to repair. He shouldn't waste his mornings caring for frightened girls.

Mary
.

His steps slowed. He should've invited her to dinner. Or perhaps to the cinema. A show with lots of dancing. She hadn't been afraid of him—a slightly thick-headed, white-haired man. Maybe she'd felt sorry for him? He was beyond pale, stoop-shouldered from bending, squinting at wires and springs. He saw himself reflected in a hotel window. At forty-two, he'd had years of women lowering their eyes, angling their bodies away from him. No, he wasn't handsome. Nor rich enough to overcome his oddness.

The only time he really lived was during his yearly visit to New York to see hoofers, vaudevillians, and magicians. The train carried him away to a few weeks respite from being Allen Thornton, repairer of timepieces. Albino.

When he'd seen Mary through his shop window, he'd recognized her at once as the elevator operator. She'd never flinched from him like other women. Twice he'd ridden the elevator just to see her. Sometimes he'd glance sidelong at her legs, the curve of her neck, her short brown hair. Seeing her limping peg-legged, retracing the same block, he'd felt an urge to rescue her. And he had. Like the hero in
No, No, Nanette
. He'd felt infused with life.
Mary
. He didn't know where she lived. He'd taken a hold of life. Him, Allen Thornton.

Mary
. Allen stopped, seeing the town anew. Office buildings, hotels, and emporiums rose against the blue skyline. The Grecian-columned courthouse was flanked by a square of lush lawn and elegant oaks. Sophisticated, bowler-hatted gentlemen and elaborately clothed ladies departed the Henly. For the first time, it occurred to him that Tulsa was a stage set ready to come to life. Mary had removed the scrim; experience was now fresh, heartfelt.

He turned back around, almost running. He wouldn't lose her. Tulsa was awash in sunshine; it would stay that way, if Mary were beside him. He rushed through the Ambrose door, spinning full circle
twice. Breathless, almost slipping, he stepped into the cool, dignified lobby. He didn't see her.

“Mary.” He called as loudly as he dared. “Mary.” His heart was racing; he thought how unjust it would be if she disappeared.

He saw Mary in the elevator waiting for passengers.

“Mary!” She didn't look up. He started running between the finely dressed gentlemen, the oil men, the lawyers, the gentrified farmers. He passed the shoeshine stand. A Negro was tapping his foot against a box of paste and dye.

A small crowd of men, arguing heatedly, blocked the path to Mary's elevator.

For a second, Allen saw Mary, her hand on the release bar, ready to shut the interior gilded doors. “Wait.” She had a passenger. The Negro boy who'd brushed past him earlier was in the elevator. Odd, Allen thought. Negroes took the stairs.

“Mary, wait.” How glorious it would be—a splendid finale, the two of them ascending in the elevator. He was almost there.

Mary released the lever: The exterior doors, heavy and impenetrable, started to close. “Mary!”

Men behind Allen started buzzing, “Look at that. Did you see that?”

“A nigger. Riding the elevator.”

“I'll be damned.”

Allen couldn't see Mary. It was as though she were off-stage and the Negro, smiling, impressive, had moved center stage as the outer doors, like heavy velvet, squeezed shut.

The pulleys lurched into motion.

The lobby seemed suddenly crowded as men, heads uplifted, stood before the elevator doors, watching the arrow move from
L
to
2
to
3
. The tenor of the lobby changed. Like a timepiece wound too tight, like the darkening of lights before the villain's arrival.
4, 5, 6
.

Allen surveyed the uplifted faces: jowled, angular faces. Some had broad cheekbones, others barely had chins. Eyes, blue and brown. Thick-haired men, balding men, some with sandy-colored curls. Lips stretched thin, some puffed, lips gleaming with saliva from their tongues. All of their faces, white as the moon—all of them marking the slow course of the elevator rising.
8, 9
.

Aside, to the far right, the shoeshine was muttering, “He could've
peed in the alley, Gabe. Damn fool.” A Negro in a battered army coat said something Allen didn't catch.

10, 11
. Washrooms for whites were on every floor; “coloreds only” was on the fourteenth.
12
. No
13
. Allen exhaled. He'd been holding his breath. The Negro boy would get off. Mary would come down. He'd convince her to quit work for the day and have dinner. He smiled. A small tempest—Tulsans getting riled because a Negro took an elevator to relieve himself.

14
. The arrow hadn't moved.
14
.

“What's she doing? Waiting for the nigger to piss?” Several men laughed.

Allen wanted to curse at them. He pressed the call button. “Come on down, Mary,” he whispered. “Come on down.” He pressed his ear against the metal doors; he heard nothing. Then he heard the clang of the gilded gates shutting. “She's coming down,” he shouted to no one. “She's coming down.” The pulleys whined into action again.
12
. He smiled.
11, 10
. He pressed the call button repeatedly, hoping to hurry the descent.
9, 8, 7.
The elevator stopped.
6
.

A woman screamed.

“Mary,” Allen shouted. Fear gripped him. He pounded on the doors. “Mary.”

A horrifying wail spiraled down the shaft. He remembered once making such a sound when he'd seen Reubens' charred remains. “Mary.” He slammed his fist on the elevator doors, repeatedly pressing the call button, shouting, “Mary, Mary,” counterpointing the keening above.

“Stairs. Somebody take the stairs.”

Yes, thought Allen, but before he turned, the elevator groaned into motion. The wail had ceased and the lobby was quiet, all heads upturned, listening anxiously for sounds.

A man whispered, “She ain't dead, is she?”

4, 3, 2, L
. The engine and pulleys stilled.

Allen was clawing, trying to open the elevator doors. Fingertips bruised and pinched, he cracked the door. The boy's back was to him. He was leaning over Mary, who lay sprawled on the floor. Grunting, Allen shoved the door wide.

“What have you done, nigger?” Outraged, Allen grabbed him. “What the hell have you done?”

“Sir, she—”

Allen saw the change: the split second in which the boy registered terror.

The crowd surged forward. “Nigger, you're supposed to take the stairs.”

“Get away from that white woman.”

Allen almost toppled from the press of bodies, the hands clawing at the Negro. He couldn't see faces. Only legs and feet jostling forward and, in the far corner, a pair of handcuffs which had fallen from the Negro's pocket.

Then he heard a great roar followed by a powerful thrusting of hands, feet. Maddened, emboldened, the Negro boy fought his way outside the elevator. Startled, the crowd in the lobby parted before the fury. “Joe,” he heard someone shout. “Joe!”

The Negro ran, dodging hands, veering left, right, heading for the revolving doors.

“He's escaping. Get him,” someone bellowed, mobilizing the well-dressed men. They were after him, sliding across the wide marble lobby, a raucous crowd tracking down a single man.

Allen didn't think the boy would make it. At the last minute, the Negro in the army coat came from nowhere and threw himself into the oncoming crowd. Seconds. He slowed the crowd by seconds. Some kicked and punched him. Others tripped over him. It was enough. The escaping Negro was out the door. The glass was spinning. The crowd's bulk didn't fit through the revolving door. More delay. A few precious seconds.

Allen felt like cheering, thinking the Negro just might make it—just might escape. Immediately, he felt guilty. He bent his mouth to Mary's ear.

“Mary. It's Al,” he whispered. She stirred and Allen forgot about the drama outside the Ambrose Building, on the streets of Tulsa.

He concentrated on awakening his beauty with a kiss.

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