BOY! Chig! Wake up and move over. Please.”
Sunday: Chig Dunford, Frank, Lane and Wendy shared the small sedan’s backseat; Ira, driving, Marian beside him, and Cleurdia rode in the front. Under hot plastic, Chig felt the steel ribs of the automobile’s side against his left hip; he did not answer.
“Hey, Chig, you deaf? Move over.” Lane laughed. “Wendy’s hips are sharp as needles.”
The car’s passengers squirmed, knowing the story. Lane had slept with Wendy for three months. Then, at the beginning of the summer, she had broken off their affair, but had taken no one new. She and Lane continued to see each other at little Gallery openings, at the Café of One Hand for Sundays of softball. All agreed that she acted decently toward him. But Lane kept snipping at her, especially about the pointed edges of her body; today, her hips.
“Nothing to move over to, Lane. You’ll just have to suffer.” Immediately, he regretted using the word, suffer. He did not know if Wendy found him attractive, but hoped she did, and tried always to say things that pleased her. Now, foolishly, he had agreed with Lane about her hips.
“Hold your shirt; we’re getting there soon.” Ira had never slept with Wendy. He had lived with Marian for two years. Besides, Wendy seemed not to like men who grew mustaches.
“I’ll bleed to death before that.” Lane went cleanshaven.
“That’s not a bad way to die.” Chig could not see Wendy’s face, only her bare legs, two sets of knees away in the cramped backseat and very long, tanned the color of natural beige leather. For the past few weeks, she had been in Spain, had just returned, looking healthy. This Sunday, she wore yellow shortshorts.
Lane had not answered. Perhaps by commenting openly on their bodies, Chig had gone too far.
He had created a silence, and tried to decide whether or not to speak. Usually, when one of his friends created a silence, Chig would break it. This time, he would have to wait until their feelings subsided and one of them spoke.
He turned away, looked out the open window. They travelled up the Beulward dol Touras, one of a kind of long, broad avenue Chig had found in every European city he had visited. But Chig considered Beulward dol Touras, lined with tall oaks, more majestic than most.
Many cafés fronted the beulward under the oak trees. In each café, by use of a bell-bedecked white wire supported at one end by a ring in the outside wall of the café, and at the other by a white standard, the management had divided the sidewalk tables into two sections.
On the right side of the ringing wire, the native men and women of that country wore suits, jackets, pants, dresses, skirts and shirts in hues and mixtures of blue and red. On the left side, the natives wore combinations of yellow and red. Neither side’s colors appeared all bright, or drab, all new or all old; but when Chig squinted, the colors blended that way.
One of that country’s oldest traditions, many foreigners found it difficult to understand. None of the natives on either side of the wire owned wardrobes composed entirely of one side’s colors. In the morning, each native in the country would pick an outfit for that day. He might choose blue-red or yellow-red, making himself, for the day, an Atzuoreurso or a Jualoreurso.
In the street, each native lived the day his morning choice had dictated. The government reserved parts of the subway and autobus for Atzuoreursos, parts for Jualoreursos. Employers divided their offices and factories in this way. No citizen worked at a permanent desk or machine. Each used that section of the room where The Morning Choice, Lua Madjona Cheursa, had led him. Most married couples wore the same colors, to ride public transportation or take coffee together. Some couples did not, leading separate lives until they had returned home, locked their doors, and disrobed.
Four or five of Chig’s twenty or thirty friends had tried to live by the tradition, dividing their closets and making their choice. But soon, each and all found it impossible to continue; some situation always developed which forced them to cross the white wire. Still, they tried their best not to disturb the natives. If, as a body, they attended a movie or a play, they would decide beforehand to dress either Atzuoreurso or Jualoreurso.
Sunday, for softball, they chose Jualoreurso.
Marian turned to look at him, forgave him first. “Are all the windows open, Chig?”
He had rolled down his window at the beginning of the ride; salty exhaust from the cars ahead cooled his face. He nodded.
Marian’s unbuttoned pink shirt did not hide her large, soft breasts, little more than the nipples under a small yellow bikinibra. “You think I’ll get a real tan today?”
“It all depends on the sun, Marian.” He always felt uncomfortable when his friends talked about skin.
“I wish I had an all-year tan.” Her teeth had grown in crookedly. She had told him her braces pained her so much that she tantrumed until her parents ordered the dentist to remove them.
Chig smiled, the only thing to do. “You might not like it, Marian. It’s all right to get a tan at the resort. But it ain’t so good to arrive there with one already.”
They all laughed, especially at his ain’t. Serious people, they had all come to Europe for very much the same reason: home troubled them.
“Anyway, you’re really a beautiful color, Chig.” An artist, Marian used a lot of brown in her work. Several times, he had visited her and Ira at their studio in the Old City.
“I wish more people felt that way.”
All of them nodded, except Cleurdia, a native. Sometimes she seemed not to understand them. When a person talked directly to her, she caught almost everything. But when the conversation did not involve her, English held less meaning for her than the barking of dogs.
Marian rested the tip of her chin on the top of the front seat, hiding her breasts for the moment. “But still, things are getting better, aren’t they, Chig?”
“Sure. Don’t you think so, Chig?” Lane leaned forward, answered for him, then waited for his answer.
They all waited. He wondered what would happen if he did not answer, but dared not risk it. “Well, the President is pushing some strong stuff through Congress.”
“That’s true,” Frank agreed. He sat squeezed between Chig and Lane. “The man is a master-politician.”
“But that’s not what Chig meant when he said things were getting better.” Lane had forgotten that he answered Marian’s question. “But what about the human heart, Chig?”
They studied him, all except Cleurdia.
“I think he understands the human heart. And he knows he can’t change it overnight. He said recently that the future is built on the framework of the past. He’s probably building a legal framework first.” He hoped they would begin to talk about the President, much admired by people their age.
Most times, Chig tried to answer their questions, to help them understand the experience of Africans in the United States, the pain of slavery, the shame of segregation, the frustrations of integration, and all the rest of it. But this Sunday he wanted only to play softball and store up sun. Summer had almost ended and soon, a long European winter would darken the city. He wanted to take in as much sun as possible.
“That’s probably right, Chig.” Lane spoke. “But how do you feel now, today?”
“Today, we just have to throw ourselves open to all human beings.” Marian sighed; she had explained this many times before. “We have to spread our arms wide and embrace everything people have to give.” She addressed Chig. “And then reflect it in our art.”
Lane stared at her for a moment. “Ya, sure, I suppose so.” He hesitated, then suddenly turned moderator. “Let’s hear what Wendy has to say.”
Wendy leaned forward, from behind Frank and Lane, into the window’s frame. The wind rippled her yellow silk blouse, whipped strands of long black hair across her cheeks. “You remember, Lane. We’ve talked about it before. That night you said you didn’t mind if the Coloreds had better jobs and schools and houses, but that, remember Lane? you resented race-mixing. And we talked and talked. We were looking at the sun come up over the rooftops, and finally I made you see that one of a man’s most important rights is to marry anyone he pleases, no matter what color. Remember that night? When your room-mate went to Paris?”
“Ya. Sure.” Lane nodded. “The human heart.”
“But he understands that.”
“Who understands what, Marian?” From somewhere below Ira’s yellow-red plaid shoulder, Chig heard the smack of his hand on Marian’s thigh.
“I mean the President, Ira.” She answered him, then all of them: “The President.” She nodded.
“What about him?”
“He understands, Lane. About the human heart.” She bounced in her seat as she spoke. “He’s not like the rest of them. He’s not a politician.”
“That’s not true. He’s a master-politician. He really is.” Frank sat up straight. Costumed completely in brownish-red, shirt and pants, except for a yellow ascot, he looked almost elegant. “I mean he understands the system. He’s not innocent.”
“Mother says the same thing.” Wendy whispered; smoke rose behind Lane’s head.
Frank turned toward her, the back of his head neatly trimmed. “I didn’t mean it that way, Wendy. I meant he’s not politically innocent. He’s spent thirty years in the service of government. He understands how it works. He has a vision of where he wants the future to go. He’s not just holding the line.” Frank compared governments at that country’s Uneveurseto Netswonal, spoke the language well enough to do so. One night, several months before, his stomach filled with red wine, he had confessed to Chig that at twenty-six, he remained a virgin. “And he’s a master-politician, which I said before.”
Wendy reached across Lane and stroked Frank’s hand with her fingers. She wore a pale gold wedding ring on her right hand. “I believe I haven’t made myself clear, Frank.” She smiled; Chig loved her smile, her dimple. “That was only when he first got to Washington. Later, he settled down. He and his wife often spend the weekend with some of Mother’s friends. I really agree with you, Frank. And you’d like him too.”
“So you know him real well, huh?”
“I honestly didn’t mean to brag, Lane. He’s Mother’s friend’s friend.” Inside the loose silk blouse, she took a breath. “I’ve only spoken to him exactly twice in my life, at some teas my parents and I attended. And he was very pleasant. But perhaps your parents know him better.”
“They never met him.” Lane’s father grew tons of wheat somewhere between Chicago and Cedar City; Chig had never known exactly where. “But they know the Vice President, very well.”
“Now he’s a politician!” Frank commented, beginning to laugh. “I mean in the spirit that Marian meant.”
They did not often laugh at Frank’s jokes.
“I still don’t know how he even got nominated.” Marian stared over the back of the seat, down into Lane’s lap.
“Here we go again!” Lane slid forward to the Vice President’s defense. “You people always talk about how corrupt mid-westerners are. Corruption was invented before there even was a Midwest, right on the old East Coast. So don’t tell me your Mr. President of the Younger Generation is a lily either!”
“Nobody said he was a lily, Lane.” Ira leaned back, shouted at the roof of the car. “He makes deals. But not half as many—”
“That’s not true. He was rich before he was elected to anything.” Frank fingered a pimple on his jaw. Like dragon’s heads, two pimples seemed to erupt for every one he burst. “He didn’t have to make any deals.”
“Don’t be stupid enough to believe everything they tell you in school, Frank.” Lane paused. “Everybody’s a little corrupt. Right, Wendy?”
“Of course, Lane. But I don’t believe I’ve heard as much gossip—”
“That’s only because he covers his tracks better. He’s a smart one.”
“That’s just the point,” Ira and Marian chorused.
Frank picked up the thought. “He’s smart and he’s not interested in just money or power. He’ll change things.”
“Just as long as you agree he’s no lily, like Chig said.”
Most of Chig’s mind had been outside of the car, in a café with an iced-tea cooling his hand. “I didn’t say anything, Lane.”
“Someone did.” He pushed Frank back into the seat, turned bright blue eyes Chig’s way.
Chig shook his head. “No one said he was a lily, Lane.”
“Hey, I know what I heard.” He continued to study Chig. “Are you saying—”
“Oh, shit!” Ira interrupted. “I forgot the demonstration.”
They had stopped. A half-mile ahead, over the shining roofs of several hundred idling automobiles, stood the thirty-storey Touras Netswonals. In the park at its base, a crowd of natives, Jualoreursos and Atzuoreursos both, had gathered to protest the war raging in Asia.
“I’m sorry about this.” Ira turned full around and addressed the four in the backseat. “They can’t even start the game. We have all the balls.” One side of his mustache drooped lower than the other.
“Can’t you get out of it some way, for golly’s sake?”
“Look for yourself, Lane.” He beckoned around them to the shining cars. “It’s not moving. Can I fly over it?”
“It’s all right, Ira.” Marian kissed his ear; Ira jumped.
“What o’clock is it, please?” Cleurdia did not turn her head.
Snatching his cuff halfway up his arm, Frank told her: 12:40.
She thanked him, twisted to smile at Lane. “In the jeurnala it has said that the manofestatson will finish at two hours o’clock.”
Marian sighed. “Over an hour? We’ll bake.”
Chig did not mind that too much, but already a wet halfmoon had appeared under Lane’s arm. Frank’s face shone with grease. Only Wendy seemed unaffected. She started a new cigaret, blew smoke out of her window.
“Well . . .” Marian leaned forward, and, elbows wiggling, took off her shirt. Chig put on his sunglasses. He had never seen any breasts quite like them, even in films.
LUOS ESTOTOS EURNIDOS SORLIT D’ASHA: Parading a huge sign, a group of students moved among the stranded cars, heading toward the Towers. Attracted by the spots of bright-yellow in the front seat, one student turned their way, then stopped, then stared.
The first student grabbed the arm of a friend, pointed; then ten, then twenty boys had gathered around the car’s hood, four feet away, staring through Ira’s windshield. Short like most men in that country, they had to stand on tiptoe to see, a group portrait in the front window, their eyes bright, skin pale, long hair covering their ears, pushing and shoving each other for the best view.
Copyright © 2020 by William Melvin Kelley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.