A Storyby Jacqueline Jones LaMon
This is what is expected of me. I come to work and arrive before anyone else. And by anyone else, I mean my boss, Mr. Lewis, a jazzy black man with a raggedy goatee and a receding hairline, who insists that I call him Frank. This is Benton Advertising and we are in creative, so I call him Frank to his face and Mr. Lewis when sharing my day with the other girls in the break room. You know how we do. Mr. Lewis has two children, a boy who’s a sophomore at Yale and struggling to keep it together, and a daughter who’s in the Peace Corps, after a few semesters at Hunter. Mr. Lewis says that she’s building huts somewhere, wasting her time in the wilderness when she could be in Jersey, living with him and his second wife, his younger, light-skinned wife, while looking for a husband and living off the fat of the land. This is a joke to him—it’s all a joke to him. And there’s a lot of fat on his land, a country he insists I visit and become fluent in its language. I’ve come to realize that there’s a certain freedom that comes with failing to understand his slang, then walking away with eyes squinted and one’s head tilted to the left. I am a single mother and supposed to feel ashamed. I am a black woman with a nail-polished run in my left stocking, with a child who wants to be a musician so he can pick up girls. I wonder where I went wrong with that boy. My apartment is decent—it’s pretty decent—and I have tokens in my change purse. The next time Mr. Lewis chases me around his office and my impulse to run wins out, I’ll have somewhere tidy to go. I’m paid up until the first. After that, I’ll figure it out. I’m sure I’ll figure it out.
When Mr. Lewis gets off the elevator, he asks me to come into his office and take a letter. Can you imagine that? I’ve been in this front office now for going on two years, and this is the way it unravels. I don’t know a thing about shorthand. And by now, he should know that I don’t take dictation well. He closes the door at 8:37 a.m. and asks how long I expect to keep this job. I refuse to look away from his gaze, refuse to do anything to give him an advantage. It is 8:37 in the morning and he pulls out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black from his bottom desk drawer and takes a good, long swig. He tells me there are a lot of girls who would do anything for a chance at my job. I try to say something, try to find the language to say that yes, I like my job, and yes, I’m grateful to be here—but everything just seems to give him a reason to ask me to do the tiny, quiet tasks that aren’t listed in my job description. Would I please lock the door? Would I kindly unbutton the top three buttons of my blouse so as not to appear so stuffy in such a creative office? Would I please come stand next to him so he can point out the differences between the two incompatible versions of my last weekly report? We’re all team players, he says, and everybody who plays on his team wins. Beyond his window are other windows, opened eyes, and breathing walls, but it is 8:37 a.m. and all I can see is the glare of the winter sun from the east.
There are three photographs on the wall next to my desk.
In the first one, the largest one, I am standing with my son in front of the doors to family court. Charles and I are beaming—so happy to be a family, a completed unit. He is six and wearing a bow tie, a red one that he picked out special for the day. It isn’t his first bow tie, not the navy one that he wore to his father’s funeral and tossed onto the casket, along with a tiny fistful of soil. Not the striped one that he wore to visit his mother on his one and only trip to the state hospital. In this picture the two of us are holding hands, this cousin-turned-mother and that cousin-turned-son, about to cross a wide, busy street and make our way home.
Then there is another photograph of us, taken twelve years later. Charles towers over me in this one, one of his arms draped over my shoulders like a stole, the other steadying his mortarboard, scrolled fake diploma gripped in his hand. I am wearing my beige linen suit and three-inch heels, and still he bends at the waist to kiss me on the cheek. His cap and gown such a brilliant blue and billowing, captured in a gust of wind and ready to fly above the tethers to this life, then soar.
There is a third photograph of Charles, but this time I am the photographer, standing witness to the first time Charles holds his daughter, Cheyanne. This was the last time I saw her—Yolanda’s tight-lipped mother packing them up and disappearing from our lives as soon as they were strong enough to travel. There’s so much heartache to locate in that black-and-white. That sweet pea would be four by now. I wonder if she dreams of us—of her father and his mother, of other layers beneath her life.