A NEW LEAF
When we arrived in New York City, I took over my old apartment in Harlem and watched Addie settle into her new surroundings. She was a stranger in a strange land. Everything caught her eye. She marveled over everything. I hadn't wanted to go back to my old life, but I'd been afraid to take on anything else.
No sooner had I got back than the phone rang, and it was word about the death of a mentor, Monsignor Edgar Ryan, a man who had advised me when I was accepted into the seminary. He was ninety-one years old, and I had not seen him for several years. The church had shut him away when they learned he had a touch of senility. Still, the monsignor had snuck calls to me in the middle of the night, talking about the pope and the future of the Catholic Church, abortion, perverted priests, the religious right, baseball, the lure of the tainted Internet, and the missionary life in Africa and the Far East.
“Will you be at the funeral service, Reverend?” one of his aides asked after giving me the address of the location on Staten Island where the church would be celebrating his funeral mass.
“Yes, I'll be there,” I said firmly. “Nothing could keep me away.” I remembered how the monsignor had welcomed the working poor and immigrants into his parish, teaching tolerance and compassion.
Monsignor Ryan's service presented several problems for the church, since his spiritual history would have to be rewritten to some degree. I wondered if the powers that be were going to sugarcoat his ministry or if they were going to tell the factual version. Some of the truths he had uncovered in his outreach were shameful and embarrassing to the Vatican. That had made him a target, with a bull's-eye on his back. Warts and all, the monsignor had been a regular guy. Yes, I would be there to honor his name and his spiritual work.
I still had not tidied up part of the spare room. This was possibly because I was afraid that I'd find some painful items that had belonged to my late, departed wife, which was exactly what I found behind a few cardboard crates on a shelf. Nothing had prepared me for the pink shoe bag containing a pair of flashy red high heels and a note written in my late wife's hand. It read:
My lack of communication with you is all me. I don't know what's happening inside me. You are and always will be a part of my life. During my silence, I've been reevaluating my membership in the human race, and I have yet to decide if I want to renew it. I love you and cherish you. Never second guess this! Be patient. Please.
The note brought tears to my eyes, churning up old memories of her and the children. I balled the note up and tossed it against the far wall. Squeezing my eyes shut, I fought down the pain that could overwhelm my heart. I couldn't relive that suffering.
With that settled, I watched Addie befriend one of Dr. Smart's sisters, a hairdresser for the local TV personalities, find a suitable place to live on the West Side of town, talk to area school officials to land a job, and begin her walking tour of Harlem. But she never gave up on me, hoping to persuade me to make a real commitment to her.
“While you're making up your mind, I'm going to occupy my time checking out Harlem,” Addie said, just happy to be here and not down South, where all the trouble was.
Only a week after our exodus, we walked along 125th Street, past the crowd of strollers and tourists; past the vendors selling everything from bootleg videotapes to cheap fruit and vegetables purchased from the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx; past the fast-food joints; past zealous churchgoers passing out handbills filled with fire and brimstone; past the Apollo Theater, the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, the Studio Museum, and a dingy White Castle burger place near the famous Hotel Theresa, where Malcolm X had his office and the Cuban revolutionaries Fidel and Che stayed in the fifties.
“How do you like your first slider?” I asked her when she took her first bite of the mini-burger. We had stopped at the White Castle along the way.
She continued chewing the wafer-thin burger, the meat and bread balled up in her cheek. “Good. They're addictive,” she finally said.
We had bought a half dozen of them, two large Cokes, and a small bag of chocolate chunk cookies. I loved catering to the kid in her. Everything was so new to her. She loved New York City.
Before we flew away, we never talked about what had happened in Alabama: the consequences of the Prophet Wilks tragedy, Reverend Peck's final sellout, the ruthlessness of the white planters, or the deadly showdown in that desolate field. Whenever I brought it up, she ignored me or switched the subject. She hated anything to do with her rural past; instead, she wanted to concentrate fully on the moment, on the future. And she was right.
In her cramped apartment close to 125th Street, I sat drinking a cup of coffee in the living room while a news announcer on TV spoke about how most low-income students who had good test scores and top grades avoided applying to the best colleges and universities. The white man, who looked like an insurance salesman, noted that this pattern contributed to the growing economic inequality and the suffocating low rate of mobility in poorer areas of the country. He said it like a Rodney Dangerfield wisecrack.
“Clint, I saw this when I taught school down South,” Addie said, frowning. “The kids stop believing in themselves. They don't believe they can be successful. When you don't believe in yourself, you stop trying.”
“Or you stop applying to the better schools,” I added. “That's a shame. Do you think you're going to teach up here? You'd be good at it.”
She poured herself a cup of coffee in that tiny space and spoke slowly, as if memorizing a mantra. “Clint, I feel like a fish out of water, but I like it. I like challenges, because you have to go beyond what you are used to. You have to go beyond your comfort zone. I know I'll do all right here.”
“Do you regret leaving your hometown?” I asked.
“No. Sooner or later I had to leave,” she replied.
Addie was fearless, unrepentant, unapologetic, and unbowed. That was the way I liked her. She believed her life was up to her, within her control, and she had no regrets. None at all.
“What do you require of me?” I asked.
“Honesty. That's all.” She sipped the brew.
“What else?” I was fishing.
“Integrity. If you have those things, there is nothing else to ask of a man.” She smiled, flashing her dark eyes at me.
We sat down at the kitchen table, drank our coffee, talked about our wants and needs, our dreams and obstacles. She was so different than Terry, my late wife, in her attitudes, her kindness, her forthrightness. She never minced words.
“Clint, when I met you, I didn't know if I liked you or not.” She giggled. “I guess you grew on me. I saw how you treated everybody around you, and I knew I liked that.”
“Why didn't you like me at first?” I saw how spotless she kept the place. There was not a speck of dust anywhere.
She poured a little cream in her coffee. “You were too quiet. I thought you were hiding something. I like men who talk. You were so closemouthed. I thought you were too darn sure of yourself.”
I was embarrassed. There was nothing like seeing yourself in another person's eyes. It was very humbling.
“But my family loved you right off,” she said, laughing. “They could tell you were a quality man by the way you treated me. You're always a gentleman. They saw how you held the door for me, pulled out my chair, helped me put on my coat. That counts for something. More men should do things like that.”
I looked past her, at the wall that held a photo of her mother, a sepia portrait of the woman in her youth, dressed in a summer dress gently blowing in the wind. It was one of her prized possessions, which she kept dusted and free from the grime emitted by the steady traffic.
“Clint, what are you going to do with yourself?”
I don't know really. “I might go back to my old job.”
“And what was that?”
Thinking about my job prospects, I decided I might take a run downtown and see if they wanted a social worker at the welfare department or somebody at the Social Security office. But jobs were as scarce as hen's teeth, and nobody was hiring. The economy was in a slump. It had been stuck in a very deep funk ever since the Bush administration had ruled the roost.
“Were you fired from your last job?” she asked.
“No. I was counseling at my church, but the man who hired me had a problem with me. I don't think I can ever go back there again. The elders at the church would not want me back, and I wouldn't want to go back. I think I must find something new.”
Addie nodded. “Yes, get a fresh start.”
There was a ray of hope. I'd learned from my mistakes. Dr. Smart made a fool out of me, and the elders were happy to see me gone. They would not forgive me. Nor would they believe in my redemption.
“I was telling my lady friend about you, and she said it's possible to rebuild your name by sheer determination and hard work,” Addie volunteered. “They'll overlook your past problems if you keep your nose to the grindstone and focus on your work.”
“Are you saying I was a hothead?”
“Not at all. You're putting words in my mouth.”
you saying?” I asked her.
Addie folded her arms over her chest and, with an emphasis on each word, said, “I'm saying you need to forget all about the past and build your future. Sometimes it doesn't matter if you have all kinds of achievements and abilities if you're full of pride.”
I protested. “But I'm not like that.”
“You're probably not like that,” she said, grinning. “But I don't know your ways. I don't know when you get a bit of temper or fuss and fight rather than compromise. I wonder if you get surly and aggressive or want to have your way. I'm waiting for you to show your bad side. Everybody has one, and I want to see yours.”
When she finished, I shook my head. “I don't have a bad side. I'm not perfect, but I'm not a monster, either. I'm pretty much an even-keeled person, with no extreme highs or lows.”
She looked at me over the edge of her cup. “Well, we'll see. Nobody's that perfect. Everybody has something they need to work on.” With that remark, she closed her eyes and shut me out of her vision, out of her nimble mind.