Yesterday night, the night before Martin Luther King Day, I made a list of my black friends. Alex Carter wasn’t on it because we had gotten into a fight over who owed who money for Yankees tickets. Peter White might have made it, only last September he got hit by a taxi on 86th and Lex, right outside the Petco. There was fish food everywhere. I wrote down Jimmy Suarez’s name since we’ve known each other since grade school but Inez, one of the other teachers in the history department, didn’t count because we’re colleagues. Genevieve, the upper school dean, didn’t count because she’s my boss. I thought of other names, too – George, Martin, Deshawn, Wilma – but they were all either friends from college or NAACP people my mom had invited for dinner once. Right before I turned off the light I remembered that Jimmy Suarez’s mother is Nicaraguan, not Nigerian. When I crossed off his name, my elbow jammed into one of Sharon’s ribs.
“Mmmmrph,” Sharon said. She had been sleeping with a pillow folded over her face.
“Sorry honey,” I said. I moved further to my side of the bed. My left hand tugged at the spot where my chin turns into my beard. I had no black friends. I sighed. Sharon poked her mouth out from under the pillow. “Go to sleep, Miles Davis,” she said. I couldn’t see her eyes.
Naming me Miles Davis was entirely Mom’s idea. She pronounces it like it’s hyphenated, like Betty-Lou, or something. She told me my name would serve as a constant reminder. She told me that to be alive is to be responsible. Her lifetime membership to the NAACP, her best friend Gladys, her collection of African-American history books, and a son named Miles Davis Kauffman. Those are the feathers in Mom’s cap. My father didn’t care what I was called. He was an actuary.
When I woke up this morning I could see Sharon drinking a glass of soymilk in the kitchen. She doesn’t like to eat solid breakfast because she doesn’t have the time to exercise. “Sharon,” I yelled from our bed, “I want a kid.” “Why on earth would you want a child, Miles Davis?” “I don’t know,” I told her, “just to bother you, I guess.” “You’re too young to have a child,” she pronounced, and that, as always, was the end of it. “Anyway, I’ll be back at seven.” She got up to put the soymilk glass in the dishwasher. “It’s Martin Luther King Day,” I said, “work should be closed.” “Tell that to Simpson, Thatcher, and Bartlett,” she called back.
Some couples have pet names – for Sharon and me, it’s the kid talk. It all started as a real conversation once, eight years ago, and over time her witty answers, my confusion; they’ve all become our favorite joke. I like how she draws out the “you” when she asks me why I want a child. Youuuu. I like how her upper lip wrinkles when she calls me young and I know she likes it when I tell her I don’t know. And I still like talking about wanting kids, even if I haven’t figured out a reason yet. That part’s the kernel of truth.
There’s another part of our conversation, too – the part that got edited out. The part where Sharon told me that until I could deal with my present I couldn’t be trusted with someone’s future. Where Sharon said she didn’t understand why I thought life was so darn hard. Of course Sharon doesn’t understand –that’s why she’s not the type of person who wakes up on Martin Luther King Day and realizes she has no black friends. I am. It’s like waking up on Valentine’s Day and remembering that you’re single.
Our bed has a down quilt on it, and underneath it is a wonderful place to be if you’re not happy. I lay there for thirty minutes. Then I went to the kitchen. I pressed the locator button on our cordless wall phone. I followed the beeps to the phone. It was under the bed. After three rings, someone at the hospital picked up and said “NYU-Medical-Center-how-may-we-be-of-service.” She sounded like she had nice teeth.
“I’d like to place a call to Mrs. Irene Kauffman in room 316 please,” I said. “This is her son calling.”
“One moment please,” she said. Hospitals are like hotels.
“Hello, dear” said Mom. She sounded a little better.
“How are you feeling?” I said. When I speak to her now I do it loudly and slowly.
“About the same, really,” she said.
“That’s good,” I said. “What time should I come visit?”
“Whenever you want,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. There was a lot of silence.
“Hello?” I said.
“Yes?” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m going.” There was more silence. I hung up.
Before 1983, when President Regan signed Martin Luther King Day into law, Mom didn’t have a favorite holiday. We never went to temple and she thought that Thanksgiving was selfish. “With so many starving people around the world,” she used to say, “just because we’re so thankful, we should eat a big meal?” The more moral Mom gets, the more Jewish she sounds. If you bring up affirmative action around her she starts talking with a Russian accent.
Mom liked to spend her Martin Luther King Days the same way she spent most holidays when Gladys was still alive. Gladys would come to our house, never the other way around, and every time she left Mom would say to me “You know what, Miles Davis? That is my best friend.” Sometimes they’d gossip, sometimes they’d go shopping, sometimes Gladys would teach Mom how to cook, but no matter what they were doing, they always listened to music as they did it. I never much liked what they listened to, but I loved how Gladys could say “heh” and “hah” just like James Brown, and she was the only black woman any of my friends knew who wasn’t a cashier or a maid.
One Saturday afternoon, when I was home from college, we were sitting on the yellow couch in the living room, waiting for Mom to bring us something to eat. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Gladys asked me, so casually that I didn’t realize she was reciting poetry. I was about to say “It stays deferred, I guess” when she added, “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” She tapped her fingers to the rhythm of the words. “Or fester like a sore, and then run. Does it stink, like rotten meat?” Her nostrils flared, offended. “Or crust and sugar over, like a syrupy sweet.” She looked at Mom getting vegetables and dip out of the fridge. “Maybe it just sags, like a heavy load.” Then she raised her head up very straight, curled her tongue against her teeth, and looked at me out of the sides of her eyes, like we were about to share her secret.
Or does it explode?
Thinking about her whisper, I got goose bumps for months afterward.
I found the Betty Crocker cookbook underneath the oven mitts that say “I Have A Dream” on them. When Mom went into the nursing home downtown she needed a way to stay responsible, and she discovered arts and crafts. She made me a scarf that has “I Have A Dream” embroidered on it and she made Sharon a jewelry box that has “I Have A Dream” written in glued on popsicle sticks. Glitter is always flaking off the box and onto Sharon’s side of the bed, but she keeps in on her end table anyway. For me, I think. That’s only the beginning of the I Have A Dream stuff – she’s given us paintings and drawings and bookends and lampshades. One of the nurses at the home, the southern one, called Mom prolific. Then she laughed.
On page twenty-seven of the cookbook there’s the original recipe for pancakes. I wanted to cook pancakes because I felt like I should celebrate the holiday and pancakes are easy to make, if you use Bisquick. So easy, I realized, that it’s sort of pointless, and even though I mixed up the batter and turned on the griddle, I couldn’t pay attention. Instead, I kept reading the watercolors and oil paintings and charcoal drawings covering our walls. I have a dream, I have a dream, I have a dream.
The pancakes got burned. For breakfast I ate chocolate chips out of the bag.
I live two blocks from Cardology, and they open at eleven thirty in the morning, so I left my house at eleven twenty-five. The bell on the door rang when I opened it and again when it closed behind me. I could tell that the man sorting cards in the far corner was a salesperson because he had a Cardology hat on. Incidentally, he was black. I stood next to the cash register and took off my black fleece gloves and hat. He kept sorting cards. I unzipped my ski jacket and, hoping to catch his attention, loudly pulled each arm out of its sleeve. He didn’t look up. I unzipped my fleece. I zipped it again. Finally I gave up.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said.
“Oh.” He turned around. “What’s up?”
“Do you have any, um, Martin Luther King Junior Day cards?”
“What?” he said.
“You know, Martin Luther King Day cards.”
“No, we don’t.”
“Well, do you have any cards with pictures of black people on them?” I asked.
He gave me the look I deserved.
“It’s for my mom,” I said. “She’s in the hospital.” He didn’t say anything, but he brought me a mothers’ day card with a picture of a black family playing checkers. I paid, and when he gave me my change I put all of it into the tip jar, even the quarters.
In the taxi on the way to the hospital I took a pen out of the front pocket of my shirt. I crossed out “Mothers'” and wrote in “Martin Luther King,” and added a note. “To Mom, thanks for leading the way. Love, Miles Davis.” Then I put it back in the envelope. We pulled up outside NYU, and I paid the driver. “Happy Martin Luther King Day” I said to him, even though he looked Pakistani. He drove away. I felt awful.
Inside the hospital lobby I saw that the security guards were black and the woman behind the information desk was black. The doctors were all white or Indian. With my right hand I tugged at my earlobe. In a hospital, elevator doors take forever to close.
Inpatient care was on the third floor, and it smelled like formaldehyde and deodorant. In front of me, just past the waiting room, I heard an old woman groaning. “Awwwngh, urrrrrnggh,” she would say, and every nine or ten seconds, she’d repeat it. As I walked down the right hallway I saw vacant faces and wispy hair, and, just once or twice, someone young. They’re the worst, because they look just like I do, and sometimes even better. There was one guy – thin, musclular – whose mouth had been opened wider than his feeding tube. A thread of drool was leaking onto his chest. The first time I visited, two weeks ago, the doctors told me not to worry, that some of the patients were brain dead.
The door to room 316 was closed, and a janitor tapped me on the shoulder before I could open it. “Excuse me but the doctors all have gone to the lunch.” He sounded Dominican. “I think it is best you wait until their return, and please sit in the waiting room.”
“Is she dead?” I was suddenly alert.
“No, she no is dead, you should not to worry,” he said. “But they tell me you very much should to wait in the room.”
So I did. When I walked by the waiting room, the television was looking back at the March on Washington. “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice” preached Dr. King, on the television. He dropped his voice down deep to when he talked about the valley and then slowly, with Godlike majesty, walked it back up into the sun. When I heard it, I could see the world in my hands. “Now is the time to open the doors of opporawwwngh to all of God’s urrrrrnggh,” Dr. King went on. “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the awwwngh, urrrrrnggh of brotherhood.” The moment had passed. I got in the elevator, and the doors took forever to close.
When I came back a half hour later, there was a fat bald man with glasses standing outside Mom’s door. He was white, not Indian. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Doctor Stern. You must be Miles Davis.” Before he said my name, he paused. “Yes,” I said, “that’s me.” With his head, Doctor Stern told me to follow him.
He sat down at the desk chair in his office. “What’s happened here is that approximately two hours ago the fever experienced a sudden spike in volatility,” he said, “and that’s causing meningitis and swelling which is, in turn, creating a combination of hallucinations and lapses in perception. It’s not an unknown side effect of pneumonia, particularly among the elderly and the infirm, but it is relatively rare, which is why you may not have been previously notified of its possibility. Now there exists a very real potential that we can administer enough antibiotics and fever reducers to bring her temperature down within the day, and if that happens, there’s a good chance she’ll be behaving regularly again.”
“And if that doesn’t happen?”
“Then there’s a high percentage likelihood of some irreparable brain damage occurring. Predicting where the damage would localize is fairly difficult, but we could see permanent inflammation, perhaps stroke, brain death in various areas of the cerebrum and cerebellum.”
“You’re not sure what will happen,” I told him.
He looked uncomfortable. “These things,” he said, “are very hard to quantify.” I think his pants were too tight.
“Can I talk to her?” I asked, when it was clear he was finished. He nodded his head toward the hallway.
From the neck down she looked normal. Asleep, even. But her head was twisted against her left shoulder, and when I came in she didn’t raise it. Instead, she rolled her eyes up at me and said “Who are you?”
“It’s Miles Davis,” I said. I sat down next to her.
She didn’t answer.
“Happy Martin Luther King Day, Mom.”
She didn’t move.
“I bought you a card. See?”
I took the card out of the envelope and put it on her bedside table. She followed it with her eyes.
The wall clock was in the shape of a sun with sunglasses on. It ticked faintly. I got up, closed the door, and sat down again.
“Sharon says hello,” I said.
“Why don’t you use the TV in here, Mom?”
“I like that clock,” I said. “It’s funny.”
“Mom? Are you awake?”
“This morning, I had chocolate chips for breakfast.”
“Have you ever seen the Emeril Lagasse show?”
“Bam!” I tried to laugh. I didn’t. She had worn me down.
“I don’t have any black friends,” I confessed to her. “Not a single one. I’m not a racist. I never use the N-word. Maybe it’s my body language or maybe I’m self-centered, but I need to know,” I said. “I don’t know why I teach about Charlemagne, I don’t know why I want a child, and this is one thing in the world I know is right, that I know I need to do, and I can’t. I can’t be like you,” I said. Silence. “I am trying,” I told her. More silence. She looked disappointed. “I’m sorry,” I told her. “I guess I should go.”
The clock ticked. I got up to leave. I had my hand on the door when I heard her behind me. “Excuse me, but what day is it?” she asked. She sounded younger than I remembered. I put my hand on hers. “It’s Martin Luther King Day, Mom,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “I thought it was Monday.” She licked her top lip. Her tongue was dry. “You see,” she said, “I’ve been sleeping for a very, very long time. And when I awoke I dreamed that I was standing next to Gladys, may she rest in peace, only there are cobwebs between us and try as I might I simply cannot blow them away.” She blew out twice, as hard she could, and thin icicles of her breath struck my hand. “I am asking her if she would like to come over for silver dollars, but she is speaking in nightingale tongues and birdsongs and I cannot understand her at all. Her face is covered with this awful, awful mask and I know that she likes it when I am afraid. She likes it when I am afraid. You like it when I am afraid.” She was talking louder and louder and tears were pooling in the wrinkles of her face. “You like it! You like it! When I am afraid you laugh behind your mask and write letters to your friends!” “Mom,” I yelled, “It’s me. Miles Davis.” “Oh yes, Miles Davis,” she said quietly. “I do adore your music. Thank you for visiting.” She grinned and sang softly to herself – ta ta, tata, ta ta ta, tata.
Doctor Stern opened the door. “Is she screaming?” he asked.
“She was,” I said, “but I think she’s stopped.”
“I think you’d better leave,” he said.
“Excuse me,” I asked Dr. Stern as I was leaving, “what she’s saying right now. It isn’t logical, right? It’s just that she’s sick.” I hoped it was clear to him that I was pleading.
“Well, of course, all hallucination has a certain, sub-conscious rationality to it,” Dr. Stern said, “but …”
It wasn’t clear enough. I didn’t say goodbye to either of them.
It didn’t make sense to take a taxi home. I wasn’t in a hurry. I walked uptown and west, uptown and west, past Korean grocers and Chinese restaurants. Eventually, I hit Times Square, because that’s where you’re going if you aren’t going anywhere. Thousands of people swarmed me. So many different colors. So many heads looking down. At the world’s largest Thank God It’s Fridays, on forty-eighth street, I drank an Ultimate Lynchburg Lemonade – whiskey, vodka, Triplesec, and lemon juice. Four flavors, mixing and mingling. It was bitter. I went to Toys R’ Us.
Inside the Times Square Toys R’ Us there is a Lego empire state building twenty feet high. There is a plastic tyrannosaurus the size of a tyrannosaurus. There is an indoor Ferris wheel, and it cost five dollars per ride. “I don’t understand,” Mom would have said, if she had been with me, “people up in Harlem can’t afford to buy a coat in the winter, and you spend your money so you can ride in a circle? You want to go three flights in the air, you take the stairs like everybody else.” I paid the ride attendant with a twenty. I told him I didn’t want change.
When I was fourteen my father and Mom had a fight. She didn’t want generic peanut butter in our house, and he did. Things escalated. My father went out for a drive. The car spun out on a patch of black ice and jackknifed against an oak tree. The next night Mom and I were sitting on the yellow couch in our living room, looking at his picture. “One of Irving’s co-workers came to the funeral today,” she said. “And I think his wife Gladys and I really hit it off. She likes the Temptations. Her husband Hubert, doesn’t like music, so they don’t own a victrola, but I told her she should come over to the house sometime next week and we can listen to one of my records. Her father apparently was in Birmingham during the bus boycotts. Isn’t that an amazing thing? And on her Mother’s side, her grandfather moved north at just the same time Grandpa came over from Russia.” She took a cookie and chewed on it. “You know, Miles Davis,” she said. “A friendship like this won’t save the world. But I think it might be a start.”
I had looked at Mom differently when she said that. I had admired her through my sadness. But now I knew better. As the wheel turned around and around I imagined her lying like a doll on that hospital bed. True, she had tried. She had tried hard. She had a dream. But she couldn’t get past her self, couldn’t hear anything but the nightingales of her fear, and no amount of Gladys or the NAACP, or of me, could ever change that. Now I knew the secret that Gladys and I had shared that day. Mom’s dream had been deferred, was being deferred, even as she set out dip for her best black friend, and at her end there wasn’t the dignity of an explosion. If Mom couldn’t do it, what hope is there for me?
The wheel stopped. “Excuse me,” said the kid getting on, “are you getting out.” He was white, blond, a teenager with peach fuzz. Like one of the kids in my class.
“No, I’ve got a few more rides left,” I told him. He looked at me funny, but he got in and the attendant closed the safety bar.
We begin swinging up, and the only thing in my was What hope is there for me? “Hey,” I said, because I wanted to think about something else, “What’s your name?”
“Lewis,” he said.
“I’m Miles Davis,” he said.
He waited for me to laugh, but I only smiled. “Sweet,” he said.
I wanted to say thanks, but I couldn’t. What hope is there for me? was making on another loop through my mind. Only this time it sounded a little different, a little brighter, and without meaning to, I said it out loud.
“If Mom couldn’t do it, what hope is there for me?”
“What?” asked Lewis
“If Mom couldn’t do it, what hope is there for me?” I said again, not caring that Lewis would think I was crazy. And like Dr. King, I began walking my voice up toward the promised land – “If Mom couldn’t do it, what hope is there for me?” “If my mom couldn’t do it, what hope is there for me?” “What hope is there for me?” I repeated it to myself, and with each new arrangement I felt new power in my hopelessness, and when the Ferris wheel stopped I apologized to Lewis, thanked him for saying “sweet,” and sprinted uptown until I could barely breathe.
Sharon got home at eight fifteen. I was sitting at our dining room table, facing the door. I had taken an I Have a Dream drawing off the mantelpiece and replaced it with one of our wedding photos. I had set the table with our good china. My hair was combed and I had shaved my beard. I was wearing a blazer. “I want a kid,” I told her.
“Why do youuuu want a child, Miles Davis?” she asked.
“I’m serious,” I said.
She walked from the doorway to the bedroom. “There’s a light blinking on the machine,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
She closed the door. Five minutes later she came out again. She had taken off her jacket. She sat down next to me and put her right hand on my left hand. I hadn’t expected her to do that. I could see her veins.
“Miles Davis, that was Dr. Stern at the hospital,” she said, “your mother had a stroke. Dr. Stern said there’s likely to be brain damage. He said quantifying it may be hard.”
“I figured,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Her hand rubbed mine.
“I want a kid,” I said.
“Why do you want a kid, Miles Davis?” she asked. Nothing was drawn out. Her upper lip didn’t wrinkle.
“I don’t know,” I told her. And then we kissed each other. Because even though it was the same “I don’t know” I’d been saying for years, we both knew that it wasn’t. This time, it was an affirmation.