It seemed as though he’d been preparing for this large, looming animal his entire life, yet it had actually only been two years out of a tedious forty‑five. He was tempted to think it might change his life. He’d certainly been teased with the hype of it all: Michel Dugnac! June Steele! A book! If this all went well, then, according to his teasers, New York, London, and Marseille were virtually guaranteed.
He paced and chain-smoked through most of the day, declining brunch at the Four Seasons with Nona, Harper, and Kai, and instead awaited the eleventh-hour delivery of the art books to the gallery. There were handlers hired to take care of all that, but Daniel wouldn’t have been Daniel if he couldn’t butt his nose in everyone’s business, and he couldn’t wait until tonight, besides, to see the book.
As he ripped open one of the boxes, he lifted the handsome coffee table book out, with the piece merely labeled Untitled as its cover. It was a photographic tableau, camouflaging a nude Arthur and Nona into a portrait of his chaos of a workspace. Harper thought it would be the perfect piece for the cover, since it not only portrayed Daniel’s subjects but his studio, as well, which had always been a virtually untouchable lair, except for intimates.
“The viewer feels as though he gets the chance to be inside Daniel Cross’s private life just a bit,” had been her rationale. Daniel didn’t care. He liked this piece.
The predominant hue was cobalt, but then avalanched into a deluge of furious color and junk that seemed to swell upon Arthur and Nona, as if they were stained, bled upon, by the junk of this world; yet also, in a sense, cocooned by it. And in being cocooned, were gestated and transformed. He stared at it now, realizing just how much his thoughts on rape and loss and redemption had become a driving force in all of his recent work. Behind every expression lurked the nocturnal phenomenon of the breach. It leapt off the very cover. The two figures in this portrait weren’t even his friend and his wife any longer; they had transcended those roles. He stared at two strangers. Two abstracts. To be interpreted, and debated, and reckoned with. Naked. Literally, of course. But, as well, in a symbolic way to which he was the only one wise. In all of the thousands of works he’d created in his nearly thirty years of painting, it counted as the first that he’d been unable to title, and only now did he realize why.
When the evening finally did arrive, and as Benton’s lights shined brightly onto Rodeo Drive with their three names, everyone was in attendance. Artists, critics, philanthropists, movie stars, curators, press, intending to snack on Beluga from L’Orangerie, sip champagne from the Krug Vineyards, hobnob with their Prada-appareled brethren, and render their verdict on his life.
And none of this brouhaha, however ephemeral, was because of any weight he could claim but because Harper Levy knew how to get things done. She was in her greatest element, giving the firmest handshake in the room and feeling deservedly proud. She’d worked harder than anyone to make sure this evening would be significant.
Before Daniel had met Harper, he’d never known what it felt like to have someone believe in him. She was there for him during the co-op days, and during the days of no showings at all. She was there during the era of Chelsea, and had been on hand in the hospital when he’d tried to end his life. She’d found him living on the street as a young twenty-something, hustling people to buy his wallet-sized sketches, and she’d taken him in and encouraged him to further develop his talents. She was the one who had turned him on to Champion, and was the first person he’d excitedly told about meeting the author of that book. And tonight he watched her oversee a splendid effort.
And then there were Nona and Arthur. He was so humbled to be a part of this venture with two such remarkable individuals as his wife and his brother of the spirit. Their essence was everywhere this evening, larger than their own lives, seeping from the cracks in the walls, lurking about every room, haunting every canvas. Their prose was unequaled.
Daniel had tried hard to be worthy of them, and the effort had almost succeeded in besting him. And for just one instant he reflected on the reputation of artists: All nuts, or so it is said. Or did they merely wish to be? Were they truly incapable of connecting the dots of their sanity because they were too overloaded with resplendent fancy? Or was it just irresistibly fashionable to be so left of the middle? He was beginning to wonder if they weren’t all cons and swindlers, himself included, staging lunacies not because of any higher calling, but because of the hunger for attention. What was, after all, so alluring about being wrinkle‑browed? Besides the women he could bed?
In the past, he would approach these openings either indifferently or with his brooding cap on, wondering if that was all there was, always suspecting someone’s compliment of his work as ulterior, always doubting that there was any inherent good or beauty in anything. Always suffering. Always Hamlet.
Tonight, as he began to suspect his own breed, and which almost had a wink to it, he actually worked the room, and shook hands, and greeted, and periodically glanced up to see some labor that had begun its life in his flat, and felt unbeaten. No, it was better than that. He felt valid.
Having Nona and Arthur by his side was surely the best of it, but it was also that some of the drummers from the night before had agreed to come down, a last minute inspiration, to begin a circle right in the center of the Benton Gallery. Red Carpet meets Haight-Ashbury. Just the kind of peculiar marriage that had always fed Daniel’s temperament. All of the people he loved were here, and they were genuinely making him feel that there might actually be something inherently good or beautiful in this world.
He spun around to find Christianne Tensmith standing before him with a glass of champagne raised.
“Chris,” he practically fumbled. It had been a good two years since he’d unceremoniously exited her life.
“It’s wonderful work,” she said. “All of it. Better than ever. You’re really coming into your voice, aren’t you? There’s no pretension in it. I mean, not that there ever was, but–”
“Em–I–I–thank you. What a surprise. I–I–”
“ ‘Course, still no portrait of me anywhere,” she joked sweetly.
He laughed nervously.
“I can’t wait to show Daddy the review in tomorrow morning’s paper, which I know is going to be killer. And which might actually kill HIM.”
They both chuckled.
“So–how’ve you been?” Daniel asked. “I mean–”
“I don’t want to keep you. I just wanted to let you know that I would not have missed this for the world. Congrats, Daniel.”
She leaned up to kiss his cheek, and walked away.
He stood stunned, chest thumping. He hadn’t expected the ghosts of Daniel Past to come haunting. If Chelsea Carrier showed up, he’d have to scrounge himself up another bottle of shoe dye.
He watched Christianne walk away and wondered if he hadn’t misjudged her all of these years, chalking her up to vapidity, like the snob he could be. Tonight she was quite refined. And apparently not hating him any longer for the way he’d spinelessly cowered out of their relationship. She never even made trouble for him about staying in his flat. Wonders would never cease.
Should he run after her and apologize once more for the prick he’d been?
He decided to meet and greet instead.
Alas, cowards, as well, never cease.
After enough handshaking and photos taken to qualify him for election, which lasted a solid two hours, he finally took a moment alone to regard his canvases, to assess his life in this body of work, and to wonder if anywhere in any canvas he’d ever painted might there not be traces of his estranged mother and father. For the first time in years he wondered where they were and if they were still alive. He came frightfully close to wishing that they could see what he’d tried to do with his life.
As he pondered thoughts he hadn’t in some time, a creeping sensation began to take over him. Tonight he felt uncharacteristically sentimental. Probably just too exhausted any longer to be so perpetually and fashionably in a huff.
He couldn’t help but feel that the spirit the old man had spoken of last night had indeed entered the room and somehow blessed his work. Because for the first time in his life he didn’t despise himself, as he usually did, and he didn’t get drunk, as he usually did. Tonight he soberly relished in his burgeoning success and was just thankful no mirrors were around, as he would surely not have recognized his own face. He had Nona to thank for that one, as he watched her in the distance, shaking hands, wowing the paparazzi, loving life, eating this evening up, and apparently teaching him a few life lessons.
His wife found joy easily within every crevice that held an enticement. For a time he’d been worried. But tonight she was truly happy, he noted, as he watched her float through the space with a peaceful confidence. It was important that this night be a good one for her, too, since there’d been a history of her doubting her own worth with what he knew was a frustrating writer’s block. On this night her luminous smile lit the place up, brighter than the marquee lights of Rodeo Drive. She even threatened to sweep him up with her in that joyful tide.
With his new gleam, he geared himself for the firing squad of critics, and felt invincible. He already had a history with some of them, the ones who had traditionally found his work too bleak for their tastes, too self-indulgent, too something. Of course, they were all in attendance and were the first in line to tell him what they thought. But most, tonight, seemed to laud his portrayals of the already acclaimed Nona Childe and the soon‑to‑be acclaimed Arthur Hughes Dufresne. Not to mention, both possessed such stunning visages that could be molded and shaped into practically any perversion and still remain stunning.
Aside from the New York, Paris, and London art media, the literary world was also in attendance. They gobbled Nona up with their accolades, reminding her that she was special, a task at which he’d lately failed.
They asked her a deluge of questions on why she would indulge in such a risky art house venture, after having taken the mainstream by storm. Mainstream? They considered The Assassination of Gabriel Champion mainstream, did they?
She was exquisitely playful in her replies. When one queried, “Why this involvement with such an unstable, albeit titillating, avant‑garde, after nestling comfortably in the commercial book market?” she responded with a smile, “Why, to fix that very problem.”
When they questioned her involvement in this vanguard project, Nona was perplexed with all the allusions that her alliance with this show might’ve been ill-advised, until she realized it was the critics’ job to court agitation. Made good copy. They were actually eating the exhibit up, so she decided to just have fun by playing feisty.
But it was a face. A mask to wear for the headlines. In truth, she felt a part of something profound. One hundred years from now, or a thousand, in some bookstore or library, someone might dust off the ancient art book entitled Murmuration (the fleeting phenomenon of a collection of starlings was the actual definition of the word, and was how each of them reverently thought of the other) and string together the names of Daniel Cross, Nona Childe, and Arthur Hughes Dufresne. They would be immortal.
As the sun set, and she finally stopped for one moment to take a swig of champagne and a deep breath, she and Kai watched Arthur in the distance. With his signature dreadlocks an unusually majestic, lawless crown of tentacles, Arthur wore a threadbare suit jacket, a pair of pants that did not belong to the jacket, and a wrinkled, out-of-date necktie. Nothing of the ensemble was sharp, but neither was it exactly awful. It existed just somewhere in the intoxicated vicinity of romantic struggle. Nona couldn’t help but attach a trendy sartorial statement to Arthur’s utter lack of it. After tonight, all the young poets would soon start sporting their fringe-existence duds, all because the new bard of South Central had set a tone, and a new hobo chic would be born.
Arthur had started the evening off happy. This would be the night that would give him the chance to show his son what he’d accomplished. If this night was for anyone, on Arthur’s own personal agenda, it was for Lorca.
What he’d created to show his son, to show the world, was extraordinary. Nona had always felt that there was something feral and hallucinatory in Arthur’s words. She’d earlier overheard a reporter dictating into a tiny machine: “Arthur Hughes Dufresne writes poetry for a cataclysmic world, as though he is perpetually on the verge of hysteria or some quiet, warring mania, all toward a violent resuscitation of heart and lungs.” And all Nona could think at that eavesdropping was, amen.
Then there were the cloying ones.
“Mister Dufresne,” offered one reporter, with a mic stuck in Arthur’s face, “you seem to write in a manner that is at once a kind of stream‑ of‑consciousness, urban speak, while at the same time a cunning philological wordplay. A bit reminiscent of Stoppard–”
“A kind of homeboy‑from‑the‑hood Stoppard, if you will–” interrupted another, feeling droll.
No one actually gave Arthur the chance to respond, as they were much more interested in the sound of their own voices. The ingratiating nature of these admirers made Nona cringe, especially in offering their patronizations with accents on the words homeboy and hood, as if to assure that they could hang with the Blackest and street-smartest of them. She and Kai had been rolling their eyes and giggling together at the ridiculousness, and were on top of the world to be able to watch their friend being lauded and cooed over, even if it was by idiots.
Arthur could care less that he was even the topic of conversation, as he had one eye and ear cocked obligatorily to the cooing and the other searching eagerly around the room for his son’s arrival.
That the drum circle, which they’d all discovered the night before, would recreate itself on this opening was truly the ring on the finger of a long, difficult, and thrilling romance.
At various junctures in the evening, between contemplating a piece and the whispered chatter that always accompanied such, people would come and go from the circle. Some would join in, retreat. It would grow and shrink. It was a thriving animal that kept itself alive the entire evening, and was becoming as much the thing to do as the partaking of champagne and aged Brie.
The night was working, and it was all thanks to her husband. Arthur’s brilliance notwithstanding, the work that Daniel had created for this exhibit was the most powerful body of work that she could remember seeing from any contemporary artist since…well, she always instinctively went back to her beloved Basquiat. Her scope as an art lover wasn’t nearly that singular, but her affinity was directly proportional to her collectorship. There was no other “important” artist that she’d ever owned, and this work before her tonight was genuinely reminiscent of artists past who had blown onto the art scene and changed the game. Tonight people were gasping at and dissecting the colors and the textures and the breadth and the swirls and the bold flashes that were leaping off the canvases.
Daniel was being compared to the new wave of New York modernists, for attempting to turn medium on its ear. That was the very least of it, she thought. Daniel was reinventing art. On this unforgettable evening, Daniel was as close to God as any mortal force that had ever breezed past her heart.
While most of the critics tonight were jumping through hoops to claim Daniel as their own personal discovery, and to drool over his severe, exaggerated, almost tormented depictions of humanity, some found his work unappetizing. One critic observed rather coolly: “As subjects, Dufresne and Childe are being turned inside out in these pieces. The viewer isn’t being shown their souls, as much as their symbolic bowel movements.”
Wow! Did she and Arthur really seem just that naked and blemished to this uncomfortable critic? Did they make him just that fidgety in his seat? And if the answer was yes, then as far as she was concerned Daniel had done his job superbly.
“What irony, if any, are you offering with all of this darkness?” this particular critic had earlier asked Daniel, displaying quotation signs with his fingers around the word darkness.
What were the quote signs for, Nona wondered? Did he mean that Daniel played at darkness without actually achieving it? Did he mean that Daniel achieved it, and he wondered the importance of that? Was he saying that Daniel was finding trendy vogue in the darkness label?
She was annoyed, and wanted Daniel to fight back with something pithy and effortlessly smart-assed, as she’d been doing, but Daniel never answered questions like that. You were either moved by his work or you weren’t. And if you weren’t, he didn’t bother spinning his wheels trying to defend or bring you around. He would gracefully, if he could, accept your distaste for it and still agree to be your friend.
She was more in love with him and his Fuck-The-World creed tonight than ever before. It was the F-T-W of a man who cared about stimulating the world, about egging on the mind, and the heart, and the soul. And he was her husband.
For the life of her, she couldn’t get the smile off her face.
They were all buzzing, Daniel took notice. About him. About Nona and Arthur. Even the ones who showed their distaste seemed ecstatic to be a witness to this happening. And if they gobbled Nona up, they resolutely turned cartwheels over the undiscovered, disheveled genius, Arthur Hughes Dufresne, who could care less about them.
Arthur had become nervous and fidgety. He had started out feeling proud of this evening, even buoyant, though Daniel knew he was much more at home swilling a 40-ounce and deconstructing literary criticism or playing a hand of Bid Whist. Still, this night had been as important to Arthur as to himself. And all Daniel could see at this point in the evening was Arthur doing his best to put on a polite front, but beginning to seethe because Sonja had yet to show up with his son.
Sonja was on a fairly new jag these days of discrediting Arthur in the courts with regard to his parental rights. They had always co-parented without much incident, but she had recently made the announcement that she wanted to move back home to D.C. to get help from her family. Arthur knew he would never see his son again if that move happened, and after imploring her not to, and his pleas ignored, he decided to take her to court. And though she had promised to bring Lorca to the opening tonight, he also knew she was on a sudden warpath after the summons, maligning his name to the courts and their son, calling him a worthless father and drug addict. Drug addict, yes, unfortunately, but worthless father? There was no more dedicated or conscientious a father in the world than Arthur.
At twelve years old, Lorca was already an avid reader and a hungry learner, who would regularly challenge Arthur to some philosophical match on whether or not the ghost of Hamlet’s father really symbolized the Devil. Or whether rap was any less significant a music form than jazz. Or whether Martin and Malcolm really took opposite approaches to the Civil Rights Movement. The kid was inquisitive and wide‑eyed and amazing.
And this itchy wonder in Lorca’s head was all Arthur’s doing. Sonja barely picked up a book that wasn’t either the Bible or some Hollywood tell‑all. She was a paradoxical woman who’d gotten pregnant with Arthur’s child, though she’d been married to someone else at the time, and when asked by her sister‑ in‑law why she hadn’t used birth control, if not discretion, had answered, indignantly: “It’s against my religion!”
Daniel didn’t much like Sonja.
But tonight she’d promised to put the weapons down and bring Lorca to the opening, so that the boy could read his father’s works, and see his father respected, and take home his own copy of Murmuration with his father’s name boldly stamped on the cover. And so far this evening, she and Lorca were nowhere to be found.
Arthur never drummed once tonight, and this really should’ve been Daniel’s first clue that he was in trouble. Art was the one, above any of them, who had been the most connected to the drum circle experience. Tonight he was as disconnected from it as by any gulf Daniel had ever seen.
By the time the night was nearing its end, there still was no sign of Lorca and Sonja. The event was being considered a success – indeed they’d all felt it – yet all that could be mustered from Arthur was thinly disguised despair.
“I can’t believe she didn’t bring him,” Arthur muttered at one passing, fury low and simmering, but quickly rising. The quickly rising part worried Daniel.
A few minutes later Nona came running over, quietly panicked.
“Arthur just bolted outta here,” she whispered confused, amidst the mingling crowd. “What is going on?”
“Shit!” was all Daniel could utter.
He knew Arthur was on a hostile course, but he never imagined Arthur would choose this moment to take care of business. And knowing Arthur’s dark place as he did, Daniel felt a chill claw at his neck.
“He’s on his way to Sonja’s,” Daniel warned. “We can’t let there be a scene in front of Lorca.”
“What do we do?” Nona asked, alarmed.
“We have to go after him.”
All three artists suddenly exiting their own opening, especially one as high profile as this, was not a concept Nona was digesting well. But Daniel could give two shits about causing a scene. Arthur was in trouble, and Sonja was about to be. And he loathed his instinct –– that perhaps for all these years he actually did still see the murderer in Arthur. He suddenly felt unworthy of Arthur’s friendship.
He and Nona whispered to Harper that there was an emergency and to please buffer any possible questions of their whereabouts to the remaining guests, which, fortunately at this hour, weren’t that many. And they bolted, as Arthur had bolted.
When they arrived forty-five minutes later at Sonja’s front door in South Central, Arthur was fairly banging it down. He’d been pounding for some minutes, yelling for her to “open up, or else!” His rage was in full gear now. And there really is nothing quite so powerful and awe‑spurring as the rage of a Black man; his voice is somehow deeper, his sense of doom intrinsic, even poetic.
Before Daniel and Nona had even approached the front steps, Arthur had managed to break a window, reach in, and unlock the door, but not before bloodying his hand. They were quickly on his heels, as he stumbled into the living room to find it empty of all furniture. The sight of the naked room slapped them all in the face, as Arthur stopped dead in a stunned dawning.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he whispered in a swelling frenzy. He ran to the kitchen, the bedrooms, he flung open closet doors. Empty, all empty. Nona’s hands came up to her aghast mouth, and Daniel held her, as each knew what was unfolding before their eyes.
“GODDAMN IT!” Arthur roared, as neighbors began to spill out of their homes, in gossipy wonder.
“Noooo!!! You fucking cunt! You goddamn fucking cunt!” He put his fist through the bathroom door. Daniel tried to stop his ravings, but Arthur could only look his way in terrified disbelief.
“She took him! She took him from me!”
Arthur’s hands came up to his temples, as he squeezed his eyes shut to bear the weight of what he knew he had to face: #1) Sonja had gone. #2) She had taken his son with her. #3) They had no intentions of being found.
His breathing grew labored, and the sweat of his head poured profusely. He grabbed the wall phone, almost pulling it off the wall, and furiously punched numbers on it, not even entertaining the possibility that the service might’ve already been disconnected. Or refusing to entertain it, as that would mean the cruel reality of a plan in action for some time.
Daniel watched him cautiously to make sure he didn’t injure himself further. Nona was too afraid to advance. Instead Daniel had her walk back out to calm the approaching neighbors and to see if she could find out any information on Sonja’s and Lorca’s whereabouts.
Over his shoulder, Daniel could hear a neighbor explaining to Nona that Sonja had made her hasty escape with Lorca sometime that afternoon with the help of eight or nine muscular cousins who’d moved furniture and boxes quickly into several cars and pickups.
“She did not come here, Arthur, I swear!” pled a female voice through the receiver. Turns out, there was little consolation in there still being phone service. Everything seemed to be a symbol that carried with it the promise of great meaning, only to deliver no meaning at all.
“Then where the fuck is she!” Arthur yelled, as much to the phone itself as to Sonja’s distraught mother on the other end. “Listen, Etta, I will come there myself and END YOU, if you don’t tell me where she went with my son!”
Arthur was a dragon. Daniel was grateful Nona was outside and away from this witness, because he saw the Devil form in Arthur this night, as on one unspeakable night of twenty-eight years ago. This night, as on that one, Arthur was absolutely capable of murder. He was fully prepared to give this old woman heart failure with his threats if she didn’t cooperate, and if that failed he was just as prepared to hop a plane to D.C. to put an end to her in person.
Suddenly, amidst all the riotous confusion, there emerged a kind of defeated collapse that curtly peered out from the frenzy. It was so brief that if Daniel had blinked he’d surely have missed it. He saw Arthur’s heart fold up and begin to die. Arthur begged the old woman to tell him where they’d gone. But there was no more cock-strutting. Only desperate pleas. At this moment, Arthur must’ve felt less than a man. And only another man, Daniel thought as he watched his friend, could truly know that hollowness so intimately.
Then, in a second instant, the frantic pandemonium was back in full force. Arthur slammed the receiver onto its base, splintering the chrome and plastic. He pounded it again and again until there was nothing left of it and spurts of blood shot from his hand. His fingers would not unhinge themselves from the mangled receiver. Daniel tried to grab him and hold him still.
“Look! We can find them. We just have to put our heads together. We just have to calm down and not be rash. We can use this against her. This is kidnapping! I mean, taking a child from his father when there are still custodial rights? There’s got to be something that protects you. We’ll just…we’ll just look into it. We’ll find out what we need to.”
Arthur just kept repeating “I can’t believe she did this!” as he madly paced the empty house. He could barely focus in to listen to Daniel.
Daniel knew Arthur needed to fix, and even as much as he loathed the idea, and knew his wife would never approve, he would personally take Arthur to the deed, so that the mad dog could be tempered.
Why did Sonja’s have to be the only house on this block that didn’t have security bars on the windows and doors, Nona wondered, so that Arthur could’ve been dissuaded from this destructive course? Instead, here they were. Burglars officially.
As she attempted to gather information from a neighbor, another interrupted the conversation loudly.
“Who the Hell y’all think y’all is, comin’ up in’is neighborhood like some mu-fuckin’ caped crusaders, thinkin’ y’all gon’ save somebody? That niggah ain’t nut’n but a loser crackhead, and it’s ‘bout time Sonja finally got up off her ass and got the Hell outta here with that boy. Ain’t nobody cooperatin’ wit’chall! Like, y’all got a badge or sump’n. Shit, y’all better git the fuck on outta here, befo’ the REAL badges show up, cuz the police have been called!”
Nona winced to have this woman screaming in her ear, but absolutely lost it to hear sirens in the distance.
“You actually called the police?” Nona cried out, the two of them facing each other off on the wet lawn of Sonja’s abandoned house. As the Santa Ana winds started up, Nona closed Daniel’s coat even tighter around her, which he’d given her to wear when they’d made their great escape. Now she and this woman were nose to nose, surrounded by curious neighbors parked on their steps, the sidewalks, the driveway. Daniel had his battles inside with Arthur, and she had to deal with the neighborhood loudmouth.
“You have no idea what’s going on here,” said Nona.
“Oh, I don’t?” the woman spat back indignantly, as she waved her overly long fingernails in Nona’s face, reminding Nona of the Hey Babys that she and Kai used to know in high school. If you lived in Santa Monica in the early eighties, fourteen blocks inland from the Pacific, off Pico, chances are you knew the girls who pasted their hair down the side of their faces with Dippity‑Do to effect the “good hair” look, and sported a single gold tooth and ridiculous press-on nails, who hung out idly on their front porches in hot pants, midriffs, and furry slippers, smacking their gum loudly and slinging their babies on their hips at age thirteen, whom their own mamas supported. They had names like Pooky and Dimples, but Nona and Kai called them Hey Babys because “hey, baby!” is what these freaks of nature loved to yell to the guys who drove by in their low riders.
As Nona revisited that image, she realized that these were also the girls who could fight, when she never could, so that thought lodged nervously in the back of her head as this woman screamed in her face.
“Who the fuck you think you is, tellin’ me I don’t know what’s goin’ on?”
“Why are you involving yourself in this?” Nona yelled, on the verge of tears she fought to resist, lest she show her fear. But she was afraid, and that quiver in the voice was giving her away.
“I live here, bitch!”
“Don’t you have anything better to do than to get in everyone else’s business?”
“I see this shit every day!”
They screamed at each other until they had no voices left, and they roused the rest of the neighbors, who only got more excitable as the sirens got louder. The woman continued her rant, even as Nona tried to walk away, and aggressively followed behind as Nona pled for more information from others in the crowd.
“Whenever that motha‑fucka comes over here, there’s a fight,” the woman screamed from behind Nona. “Time’a day don’t matter. He would pick a fight with Sonja every fuckin’ time. And I told her, over and over again, she oughta have that niggah arrested! Cuz I will kill the motha-fucka that ever comes up in my face the way that crackhead would act with her! Lorca don’t need to be around all’at shit!”
Nona couldn’t make any sense of why she was so annoyed by this woman’s “crackhead” remarks just because Arthur’s drug of choice was not crack. Who cared about a ridiculous technicality here? Yet she found herself wincing with every utterance of it, as if one over the other was better.
When the woman started to shove at Nona, Nona gave her fear full away, and started to plead in a flight of tears, “please stop it! Stop it!” just as the police car was driving up. Two officers immediately separated them and warned them to behave, as the crowd egged them on, yelling, “It’s a fight! It’s a fight!” while others shouted that the real problem was not the catfight out here but the Hulk inside who was bashing windows and phones.
Nona couldn’t think straight in this deranging melee. She only knew that these two officers were now on their way up the front steps of Sonja’s house. Arthur’s very life had been snatched away this evening, and now he was about to be taken away in handcuffs because of nosy‑body neighbors.
“That’s right! Arrest that motha-fucka!” screamed the woman Nona loathed. “He broke into this house!”
“He did not!” Nona lied. “His son lives here,” was all she could offer to qualify it.
“Not no more!” the woman said, laughing. “And praise Jesus for that! Who knows what sick thing he mighta did with that child whenever he took him away from here.”
The rage suddenly mushroomed in Nona so phenomenally at the notion that this gossipy shrew would insinuate what she did about a man she’d only ever observed from her snoopy window, and make such an unfounded accusation, especially considering Arthur’s own childhood, about which this woman knew nothing, that before Nona knew her next thought, or better judgment, she had whirled around and cuffed the lights out of the woman. Unlike the huffy soap-opera slaps of most women, Nona’s whole raging body went into this one, as the entire left side of the woman’s head was suddenly slammed against Nona’s red palm.
The lumbering body crashed to the ground, only to bounce back with an equal furor. Frighteningly sooner than Nona was ready for, her own face felt the prickly white explosion of a fist in retaliation. The sting was so profound that it blinded her for a flash and jarred her inner ear, careening her to her knees, in a disorienting stupor. The world was sideways and rumbling. The crowd became bedlam.
She worried about her reconstructed jaw, which had never been fully strong again after the rape. Yet in an instant, that worry was gone and was replaced instead with the impenetrable hunger to make pulp out of this loud, classless, clueless, detestable BITCH!
Dumbed by rage, which obliterated her earlier fear, Nona sucked in a gulp of air, held it in her lungs, closed her eyes, and dove back in. The absurdity of the sight of these two was not lost on her: The Hey Baby in signature furry slippers, hair curlers, shorts, and overly long acrylic nails; and Nona in her splendidly wild Galliano gown, and her Louboutin shoes that she’d spent a solid week shopping for, on Rodeo Drive, just for the occasion. (Not this occasion.)
As the two wildcats tore each other to fleshy shreds, and Nona worried about her return receipt, the officers were intercepting Arthur from Daniel’s clutches. There was such a flurry of chaos that Nona could barely know where to direct her temper. At the Hey Baby? At the uniformed men who were cuffing Arthur? At Sonja? Or at God?
“What is going on here!” Daniel demanded.
“Sir, I’ll ask the questions,” remarked one officer, in that quintessentially arrogant manner of policemen. “And I’m asking you to step back. But I’m only asking once.”
Nona heard this all in the distance, but was otherwise engaged. Suddenly Daniel looked up to see her dilemma and went madly awry, running out to pry the women apart. The two officers followed on his heels with Arthur’s arms held tightly by each.
Nona was all the more confused when two arms swiftly grabbed her that were neither Daniel’s, nor the Hey Baby’s, nor the two cops. A second squad car had arrived on the scene, she realized, with many more officers in tow, and she was now being brusquely clutched at her arms, as Arthur had been, by a second pair of uniforms, and promptly handcuffed for assaulting the Madwoman of South Central.
A smug impulse leapt out of Nona suddenly as she calmed herself with the assurance that people like this woman probably never read a book in their lives, so that her anonymity in this mortifying scandal could remain intact. And she wasn’t even allowed to turn around to see if they’d cuffed the madwoman too. How many cops were even here?
“This is an outrage!” Daniel spat at the gathering of law enforcement, before Nona could beg him to shut up.
“Say one more word, asshole, and you’ll be hauled in too.”
And he was. Daniel could never shut up when shutting up was needed.
Nona could only muse to herself the ridiculous irony of this evening. Here they were, the three celebrated artists, who had, only hours ago, clinked glasses with the country’s royalty, now somewhere off Manchester being arrested as common thugs for disturbing the peace.
As this horrifying scene grew larger and uglier, one of the officers placed a hand on her head and guided it into a squad car, as her wrists burned from being bound behind her. She watched them handcuff Daniel and shove Arthur to the ground. Her mind reeled, this is not happening! Beyond the greasy glass of the squad car window – her first – she watched Arthur lying on the ground, his own hands manacled behind him, quaking and sweating from the need for a fix that would not come this night. She saw him resign from life and become passive, his will resolutely leaving his sick body and abandoning him. As they all had. Arthur’s mother and father. God. Now Sonja.
She and Daniel caught a glimpse of each other, he in one car, she in the second. Both their hearts were clearly broken, and not for their own trivial plights, but for the put-upon man who’d been fraught with so much despair already, and now lay like an animal against the asphalt, once more afflicted.
She had always thought of Arthur as one who slithered through life like so many lizards who got trampled by the boots of big men. Like a man with no Christian name, he was too low to the ground to be considered worthy of not being trampled. No one caught lizards the way they caught butterflies – to admire their beauty. Arthur only blended into the foliage like the many lizards who prayed that one more day might be theirs without being stomped or stalked for their hides. She’d often thought that perhaps that was why Arthur desecrated his own hide with so many needles. To insure that no one would want his. To insure that he might be left alone in this life.
Tonight that image became realized with the most brilliant clarity, because she watched Arthur’s colors change before her eyes to blend into the cement so that they would not find him. And though his body was theirs for the time being, his soul had dissolved from their sights. His eyes were empty. He looked Nona’s and Daniel’s way, and she clearly saw all volition gone, vaporized by the great heist of his only son.
How had the night – a night they’d all anticipated with jubilation – gone so wrong?
From The Assassination of Gabriel Champion
A Man With No Christian Name
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.