My name doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that I’m a phantom, a figment, a man who was mistaken for waitstaff twice that night—odd, given my outfit. I managed to avoid additional embarrassments by wallflowering in the shadow of the grand staircase. Their cheeks pink from Southern Comfort, the partners—or shareholders, as the firm called them—stood chatting in clusters around the dining room.
I had been invited by my law firm’s leaders to attend their annual party at Octavia Whitmore’s mansion on the Avenue of Streetcars. It was a highlight of my life, an honor for a lowly associate just to be invited, although I was surprised to be told to show up in a costume.
Rough fabric chafed against my collarbone. I was dressed as a Roman centurion. I had rented the mega-deluxe option, no expense spared: full tunic of lamb’s wool, leather sandals, and five—count ’em, five—Hollywood-prop-grade weapons: a sword, a javelin, a bow and arrow, a shield, and a dagger. I never knew that Roman soldiers used daggers. But the costume guy assured me that they did too use daggers, the dagger being the preferred weapon of choice for when shit got real, which apparently it did from time to time.
The first floor of Octavia’s mansion was a series of large rooms. Playful notes of sandalwood and jasmine lingered in the foyer. I spotted my fellow black associate Franklin beyond that entryway. Franklin, who got white-girl drunk at every firm function, karaoked “I Feel Pretty” into a microphone. Franklin had come wearing the perfect icebreaker. He wore a white smock and a black bow tie, the uniform of every black busboy and waiter at every old-line restaurant in the City. Café de Réfugiés, Carnation Room, Pierre’s—no, not Pierre’s; there were no brothers at Pierre’s. I wasn’t sure what must have been more mortifying for Franklin: that he was singing so poorly or that no one paid him any mind. It couldn’t have helped that he was too black to be pretty.
My frenemy, good ol’ back-slapping Riley, was bent over a table giving the managing shareholder, Jack Armbruster, a foot massage. Sweat made Riley’s bald head glow. He looked like a scoop of chocolate ice cream melting under the parlor lights. Riley was dressed as a parish prison inmate, which rankled my sense of propriety. They saw enough of us dressed that way in news reports. However, I had to admit it was an impressive getup. He wore a Day-Glo orange jumpsuit, and even a fake chest tattoo. He carried clinking leg shackles slung over his shoulder, as if ready to reincarcerate himself on request.
Riley was working the old fart’s feet, feet so gnarly they seemed like roots ripped from the field behind the mansion. He dabbed his dome with a handkerchief. Was a promotion and bonus worth the kind of humiliation Franklin and Riley were undergoing? Confetti rained down on the junior shareholders in the adjacent parlor. You betcha.
My son Nigel’s procedure would be expensive. After feeding the snarling, three-headed beast of mortgage, utilities, and private school tuition, I only managed to pocket a few copper coins each month. But if I were promoted, I would earn a fat bonus, and Nigel would finally get a normal face, over his mother’s objections.
I idled on the sidelines, nursing a rum and Coke, which, in turn, nursed my ever-present migraine (thankfully, almost down for the night). I had lost count of how many drinks I’d had over the last few hours, which meant by now my blood was probably 75 percent alcohol by volume. And that was on top of the dissipating effects of the Plum I took that morning. I told myself on each awakening that I didn’t need Plums anymore. I told myself I could quit anytime I chose. But I knew better. Those petite purple pills, which turned my nervous system into a tangle of pleasurably twinkling Christmas lights, had become a constant companion.
Riley ambled over. He exaggeratedly wiped his palms on his jumpsuit pants. Smiling, he jabbed his hand out for a handshake. I shook my head.
“Where is the love?” Riley glanced at his hand and sniffed. “I don’t blame you actually. I think Armbruster’s been on his feet all day.” He grabbed the sleeve of my tunic, tossed his head back, and chuckled. “You don’t think you’re going to win in this, do you?”
“I like my look,” I said, taken aback. “Check out this hand-stitching—wait. Win what?”
“Win this hazing ceremony. Tonight is a competition, after all. There’s three of us, but only one promotion. You knew that.” Riley raised his eyebrow. “You didn’t know that.”
“But this is just a party.”
“And one of us will have something to celebrate.” Riley always seemed to have inside knowledge about the firm’s workings. But he was also the kind of person to say things just to get a reaction from me. Still, he wouldn’t joke about this. The stakes were too high.
“What happens to the losers?”
He leaned in to whisper. “You know how it works. It’s up or out.” Riley adjusted my breastplate. “I didn’t mean to mess with your confidence. You’re right. This is a great look.” He straightened up and nodded. “Really authentic.”
Riley patted my shoulder and trotted off, his manacles clattering against the back of his jumpsuit. He shook the hands of a couple of shareholders and laughed.
I suddenly realized I had made a serious miscalculation. Riley’s costume was a great way to get attention and spread good cheer. Mine, on the other hand, was the sartorial equivalent of a glower. Centurions were badasses who killed anyone who crossed them. The only way I could have made this group any more nervous was if I showed up as Nat Turner, but I knew better. Or I should have. There were many unknowns in my pursuit of happiness, but one thing I understood: law firms like Seasons, Ustis & Malveaux didn’t hire, let alone promote, angry black men. If this was a competition, I needed a new strategy. The shareholders wanted entertainment. They wanted a good time. They also wanted subservience. They did not want to feel threatened. If I was going to win, I would have to demonstrate I was willing to give them exactly what they wanted.
I quickly moved from room to room searching for anything that could help me. In the back den, I spotted Octavia Whitmore in a gingham dress, carrying a terrier in the crook of her elbow and a drink in each of her hands. If anyone could help me find an advantage, she could. After all, she was a senior shareholder, and I her legal footman. I was the associate who did the grunt work that was beneath her valets. She needed me.
“You look just like Judy Garland,” I said. Octavia hadn’t noticed me, so her face momentarily lit up in surprise as I approached. I kissed her cheek.
“Well, aren’t you sweet?” she said.
I liked Octavia. She was one of the good ones, even if, as she once drunkenly admitted to me in a stalled elevator, she sometimes fantasized about wearing blackface and going on a crime spree. After shattering storefront windows and mugging tourists by the Cathedral, she would wash the makeup from her face, content in the knowledge that the authorities would pin her deeds on some thug who actually had it coming.
That was when I realized that the Toto in her arm was a cat— a Ragamuffin cat wearing a wig. I’d never seen a cat wearing a wig. It was a night of wonders.
“Why you off to the side like this, sugar?” Octavia licked her thumb and polished the foot of a gilt bronze cherub.
“Someone has to stand watch over these rabble-rousers.” I puffed my chest out and stamped my javelin on the marble floor.
“But who’s guarding you? Here, this will freshen you right up.” She took the javelin and handed me another glass. I gave my empty rum glass to one of the waiters, an onyx-skinned man who would have otherwise eluded my attention if not for the fact that he’d clearly undergone enthusiastic rhinoplasty, his broad-winged brother’s nose replaced by a narrow, upturned pointer. Such procedures had become much more common among black folk lately. I couldn’t tell if he’d only had his schnoz done because he was too poor to afford the full procedure or because he was afraid. Half measures were such a waste of effort. If you were going to skydive into whiteness, aim for the town square, not the outskirts.
“What’s this?” I said.
“A Sazerac,” Octavia said with a wink. Her hair’s silver streak glinted.
“But you know I don’t drink,” I said, drinking.
“I don’t think I’m a fan favorite in this.” I gestured to my clothing.
Toto growled at me. That cat took its role seriously.
Handling my javelin as if it were a pool cue, Octavia leveled it at the crowd, but I couldn’t tell who she was shooting at. She leaned it against the stairwell banister. I reached for it, but she stopped me.
“Leave it,” she said. “I have something for you upstairs.”
We climbed the stairs until we reached a side gallery that looked down on the atrium. Powder-blue shapes shimmered from the aquarium and formed waves across the checkerboard floor. Riley passed behind the bars of the staircase, dragging his chain. I was glad to be away from the scrum of shareholders with their plastic smiles, the smiles of sharks before a feeding frenzy. You really shouldn’t be able to see a person’s molars when they grin. The whole situation made me jumpy, as if a squid were twitching around in my tunic. I should have worn underwear.
Octavia led me into a long room. Every wall was covered with leather-bound books. Eyes Without a Face. The Hip Hop Ontologist’s View of Leda and the Swan. Blackstone’s Law. I pulled that book from the shelf and opened the cover. Dust motes pirouetted into the air. I sneezed.
“You read all these?” I asked, wiping my nose with the back of my Sazerac hand.
“Shit, no.” She ran a French-tipped nail along the rim of my glass. “Neither did my father. They’re real, but mainly for effect.”
She pointed past me, and I followed her line of sight.
Statues lined the back wall. Just like me to notice books but not creepy wax men lurking in the shadows. One mannequin was Chinese, I guessed. He wore a fulvous robe and had long tufts of hair along his chin. Another looked like a Jack Kirby Thor, square jaw, blond hair, and Mjolnir, the magic hammer. I caught the theme even though there were no placards. Gods of the Human World.
“What do you think of this one?” she said.
It was a black man. He wore a headdress, face paint, and a bone necklace. I had no idea which African deity he was supposed to be, but I’d read enough to know there were more black deities than anyone could possibly keep track of, so many, in fact, that it cheapened the idea of godliness. If everyone was a god, no one was a god.
Whoever made the statue apparently believed the myth that all us black men were hung like Clydesdales, a myth that led to plenty of awkward dating experiences since I was only average in the Joe department. The African god’s loincloth did little to obscure his bulge. It was a safety hazard. Someone could poke their eye out.
As for my overall opinion of the statue, whenever a white person asked me any question just because I was the onliest black guy in the room, the possible responses rattled around my brain like dice in cup: one, answer with anger; two, answer with humor; or three, answer with a question.
The first, I practically never used. Anger, of course, could get you killed.
The second, humor, was fine in most situations, but it was only something I deployed in safe environments. This was not a safe environment. Octavia was up to something. Something dangerous, or brilliant, or both.
“Is this a museum?” I asked.
“My father’s private collection.” She trailed her index finger down my bare arm. She walked behind the African god. From its perch on Octavia’s arm, Toto sniffed the statue’s butt. “These were sculpted by the same man who did the original Madame Tussauds. The hair is real human hair. Even the eyelashes. Even the eyeballs, I think.” She squatted by a low drawer and rummaged through it. She pulled out a gong. “There are accessories all around the room. You can upgrade your look to something more . . . appropriate.”
She struck the gong with her glass, producing a hollow sound.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked.
Copyright © 2019 by Maurice Carlos Ruffin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.