The Big Guy
by Denis Clifford ©2004
"Slick!" Al enthused, rising from the bar stool. "Man itÕs good to see you! You are looking lean."
"Trying to stay with it," Kelly smiled, and hugged Al.
"Ah ... Rachael," Al called to a blond cocktail waitress, dressed in a mock-Elizabethan blouse revealing substantial cleavage. She turned, smiling to Al as if he were an old lover. "May I present my friend Kelly," Al bowed decorously. "Rachael plans to go to law school," Al mock-whispered. "I've sworn never to reveal that she had to wear such an outrageous costume."
Rachael laughed, picked up her tray and set off. "Still doesn't take you more than fifteen minutes," Kelly complimented. "Not bad for a guy with gray hair."
"Ah," Al muttered, "to make love to her would be a violation of the Pure Foods Act."
As they'd done for years, the two men settled into their bar-talk: rambling, laughing, quick-moving exchanges of person news, political observations, life philosophy. Suddenly Al became quiet and pensive.
"You OK?" Kelly asked.
"Ah, same old shit," Al muttered. "Going nowhere. I might buy another house," he growled, as if it were a crucifixion. Yanking out a pen, he grabbed a cocktail napkin and wrote on it. "See these numbers," he pointed at the 45 appearing on the napkin. "That's how old I am. By the time they're reversed..." he scribbled a 54, "I better have done it."
Knowing that ÒitÓ meant Al living all his dreams, KellyÕs Irish-American training in reticence held him from offering advice. The two had spoken to each other often of their demon of despair, but not, as Al seemed to be now, while fighting the demon.
"Let's go for a walk," Al announced.
On a cool fogless night, they strolled silently on the Berkeley pier jutting far out into the Bay towards San Francisco, glimmering beyond the blue-black, rolling water.
For years Kelly was always the initiator of their nights out. But this time Al had called him. Kelly knew that Al must have some new trouble, but confidences between them were always volunteered, not probed for.
"Fucking bullshit hassles," Al suddenly exclaimed. "Doctors on me to stop this, start that. Always something. Now É I got a call from Evelyn. The DA's suddenly after her. Wants $76,000 for back welfare. Jesus. Robert's twenty-seven and now the Man wants big money. She's terrified her husband will find out. When they press her, she'll give them me."
As Kelly knew, Al and Evelyn got together in Oakland when Al was seventeen and she nineteen and married to a guy in the navy. While her husband was at sea for months, she got pregnant. Robert was born days before her husband arrived home. Al, a high school dropout, enlisted in the Marines a few weeks later. Evelyn's husband refused to have anything to do with Robert. He'd been raised in the ghetto of West Oakland by Joyce, Al's Grandmother, who'd received welfare payments for Robert until he turned eighteen. Now, nine years after the last payment, the D.A. had suddenly demanded seventy-six thousand dollars from Evelyn for back welfare payments.
"I told her I'll handle it," Al concluded. "I can pay a few grand. But 76 K. That'd more than wipe me out."
"O.K., let me handle it. " Kelly declared; again, being a lawyer would prove useful. ÒI'll work something out."
"I gotta keep Robert out of it."
"Agreed." Kelly knew Robert was a vulnerable spirit. Though bright, athletic and movie-star handsome, he lacked Al's brass. As a teenager, Robert's favorite book was Catcher in the Rye. His form of rebellion had included abstaining from all drugs, and dressing as preppy as he could afford.
"One thing," Al announced. "I gotta pay you,"
"Man, I have to!"
"Did I pay you for listening to all my grief with ladies? For all those rides to the airport? Let's not do this."
Al sighed, pondering, then smiled. "All right ... Thank you, man." Impulsively, he hugged Kelly. They meandered out to the end of the pier, chatting and laughing, then slowly returned. As they reached their cars, Al raised his right arm, clenched a fist, shook it, and called out "BE YOURSELF!"
"I wish I had a friend like Kelly," Robert had told Al. "I've never had a friend I can talk to like you talk to him." Al had keys to Kelly's apartment and stayed there often when Kelly was away. Once Al left Kelly a poem:
Sometimes in this place, the real questions
form as the faint - but clear - sounds
of silver striking crystal...
... the answers amplify the silence
in increasing crescendo.
This much I learned here:
The difference between
solitude and loneliness,
and the need for both.
Robert had once asked Kelly how he and Al got to be good friends. "I'm not really sure," Kelly answered. "How did we, Al?"
"We played a lot of pinball together," Al laughed. They had. In l968, Kelly, age twenty-eight, was appointed attorney-in-charge of a neighborhood law office in East Oakland. From his arrival, Kelly was charmed by Al, a dashing six-foot four-inch adventurer, ebullient story-teller and fountain of vitality. Al was similarly drawn to Kelly, a kindred dreamer, seeker and athlete, and in some ways wilder than Al. Kelly's report of his acid trips—demons, ecstasies, truths—intrigued Al but didn't persuade him to follow. Blasting his soul apart with acid, Al sensed, could leave him devastated.
Often at lunch, or for an afternoon break, Kelly and Al went to the candy store a block away and played pinball. Al was an expert, skillfully jiggling and wiggling the machine, keeping the ball alive, an art Kelly never mastered, despite Al's tutoring.
A steady stream of clients, many with unsolvable problems, flowed into their office. Within a few months of his arrival, Kelly sometimes felt overwhelmed; worse, he felt himself growing detached from clients' miseries. But his energies were revitalized when working with Al, the chief office administrator, who seemed to have a bottomless capacity to cope and care without letting his own light be dimmed. "Yeah, I want do something to change all the shit black folks gotta take," he declared. Two years older than Kelly, Al dealt deftly with workday realities. Kelly turned to him for advice about staff problems, or handling angry clients. Kelly whoÕd clerked for a federal judge, knew how to prepare a case and function in a courtroom, but Al knew how the local court system actually functioned—which clerks to avoid, which judges were trouble. Also, Al could deal with life on the streets.
The office had to serve a domestic restraining order on a guy named Mike, described by his ex-wife as big and mean. He was definitely hard to locate. Two process-serving companies gave up trying before Al volunteered to find him. Within days, Al had tracked Mike down to a rowdy bar in the depths of East Oakland. Al strode up to Mike, slapped him on the shoulder while reaching out his other hand and beaming "Hey, man, it's Mike!"
"Yeah," Mike responded, extending his hand.
"Hate to do it to you Mike," Al announced, laying the legal papers in Mike's open palm.
Al worked with Kelly developing major class-action cases they hoped would improve poor peopleÕs lives. They won lawsuits against arbitrary procedures of public housing and knocked down some of Governor Reagan's illegal welfare "reform." The two met with community groups from the Black Panthers to welfare rights activists. During work time, pinball games and then occasionally in bars during evenings, the two talked about reform, revolution, Black Power, the Vietnam War. Their conversations soared where neither could reach alone, and increasingly became more personal, nudging towards intimacy. They laughed together easily. "It's almost three," Kelly had teased. "Time for Al's women to start checking in. 'If Louise calls, I'm in. If Belinda calls, I'm out. If Margot calls, tell her ...'"
"Still jealous," Al had retorted. He'd first had sex when he was twelve. He'd been amused, though not surprised, at Kelly's tale of his terminal horniness growing up in a white suburb in the 50s. "Didn't get laid until your were twenty," Al laughed. "No wonder white boys are uptight!"
After they'd worked together for a couple of years, Al moved on, becoming the chief administrator of Boston Legal Services. Though he and Kelly parted casually, months later Al sent Kelly a letter. Kelly, surprised and delighted, responded quickly, and a heartfelt, if sporadic, correspondence ensued.
Driving with Al to a Warriors' basketball game, Kelly described his initial effort to resolve the DA's demand for money. "DA named Maureen Anderson. Wants to prove she can be as big an asshole as a guy. I told her I was an old Legal Services attorney, been contacted by some welfare rights women I used to work with. She said she won't make any deal. I kept telling her I was sure we could work something out ... I'll wear her down."
"Thanks. Man, I'd love to get it wrapped up. Once it's done, I'm ready to roll. Back to the Philippines ... Now let's go watch those black millionaires play ghetto polo."
During his fifth year in Boston, Al had a heart attack. Open=heart surgery. Weeks in the hospital. Thinking about his father, who died of a heart attack in his forties. As had Al's older brother. And, Al thought, I almost literally worked myself to death; yeah, yeah, all the women and partying didn't help, but it was work that did it. When he'd arrived in Boston, the Legal Services program was weak. At last, he'd known, churning with enthusiasm, I can do it. HeÕd helped recruit good black lawyers and staff; improved relations with neighborhood militants and city hall; got the budget under control; regularized office procedures; lead staff to working together without serious acrimony. Air-conditioners were installed in all the offices. Al never revealing whether the rumor that he'd bought them cheap because they were hot was true.
Pulling himself up in the hospital bed, Al touched the plastic tubes attached to his body. The Big Bureaucrat, he sneered. Sure wasn't worth this. As if anything's really different out there now. Ping-pong fast, belief surged back: Hey, I did do something. Now I'm weak. Give myself a break. A break, his demon volleyed back, what break? Your big fucking ego got you into this.
Well, I've always had a fine ego, Al chuckled. Born poor in Louisiana, his mother died when he was eight. After that, he'd been belted around by his father even more than he had been before. When Al was fourteen and already six feet, he swung back, catching his father off guard and knocking him down. Al ran off and hid until the next morning. After his father left for work, Al grabbed some clothes, took what little money he could find and set off for his grandmother's in Oakland. Passing for eighteen, he arrived already streetwise. Joyce did her best, but he didn't want much raising. He hustled up money, took care of himself.
He'd loved the Marines, young wild buddies. When he shouted out in the barracks "Hey—who wants to shoot pool?" some guys always did. HeÕd really loved being stationed in Japan. Many women there were fascinated by this immense black man who'd learned passable Japanese. After eight years in the service, Al wound up in Washington, D.C., and soon became the first black office manager of the local chapter of B'Nai Brith. Then into Legal Services, moving to Boston, and the surprise heart attack.
Every day Mil had come to visit him in the hospital. Stolid Mil. Just days before his attack, he'd again promised himself that he'd never allow her to move in with him. But when he left the hospital for dreary weeks of recovery, she took a leave of absence from her accounting work, moved in and cared for him daily. She doesn't have to say a word, Al had fretted, lying in bed, waiting for her to bring him dinner. I owe her.
"I set up a great disability plan in Boston," Al quipped some months after returning to Oakland. "Never thought I'd be the first to use it. So now what?" He'd been hanging out, living with Mil aimless and discontent.
"I don't know," Kelly laughed ruefully. With two Legal Services friends, he was experimenting with private law practice. "Don't follow me—conflict, courts, paper. A stone drag ... Well, lawyering for The People sure wasn't it."
"Always the Celtic moderate," Al chuckled. "Hey, we did some good. And we had fun. You always did worry too much about results. It's all process."
"Maybe—but that process died."
"I NEED A NEW DREAM!" Al erupted.
"You've always been in some kind of public service."
"Well, it's fucked out there now," Al growled, simmering with fury. "This fucking society. White folks know what President Reagan is doing to blacks. But as long as they got a few bucks in their pocket, they just don't care."
"I am gonna write that novel," Al declared, raising again his unformed tale of black rage and revenge, bombs and destruction. He believed the U.S government conspired against blacks, deliberately imported drugs into the ghettos. "They do it, man! They Do! You watch. There'll be concentration camps in America." He waved his hand flashing a massive gold and diamond ring. "That's what this ring is for. I can get out fast if they try to exterminate us."
Kelly, secretly troubled as always when Al spoke like this, said nothing.
"You think you have any racism in you?" Al abruptly sprung.
"Yeah ... yeah, I'm sure I do. I just don't know what it is." He didn't reveal that he almost never found a black woman sexually appealing.
"Glad you know that you do," Al smiled, his rage suddenly contained like a window shade that had been snapped up.
Ms. Anderson's cold telephone voice threatened to take Evelyn's deposition, subpoena Robert, scrutinize wage records, tax returns.
"Ms. Anderson," Kelly tried to sound as if he were restraining rage, "Evelyn Watson has been married to the same man for over thirty years. She's held the same job as a bus driver for fourteen years. She's raising three children. Her family has barely enough to get by. I'm sure you consider yourself sympathetic to women's rights. How can you justify harassing this mother, oppressing her now, for what's years and years past?"
"It was her fault ..."
"What fault? She never lied to the Welfare Department."
"The Welfare Department never knew where to find her."
Over four months and still a stalemate. Ms. Anderson refused to settle for less than $40,000. I must do this right, Kelly belatedly realized. He went to the DA's office, searching through the case file, then the welfare department, rummaging through the bulky remains of Robert's ancient AFDC file.
All afternoon, Al sat on the Oakland pier, conjuring his dream woman while chatting with guys fishing in the Bay. Blurred images of Her, long held down by lust and variety, now lured and haunted. I gotta find her, he ached, and a pain that felt like a physical wound throbbed in his chest. He shook his head. Man, he thought, you are a clichŽ. The memory arose of the young, later to be famous, jazz singer who'd been his lover in Washington. He'd cried when she said it was over, but didn't yield to her desire to get married "You are a rambling man," she'd told him tearfully their last night together.
By the time he got home, Mil was asleep. She was gone for work when he woke the next morning. He lit a cigarette, but smoke didn't soothe the gnawing feelings assailing him. Yanking himself up, he wandered through the apartment. When he'd returned to Oakland, he'd settled for this bland place in a motel-style building because he'd been sure he wouldn't stay there long. Now, four years later, he glared at the big TV set and the glass lamp on a heavy gold-painted chain that dominated the dining room. I loathe this, he muttered.
Mil. I've gotta leave. Eating dinners in silence, and I don't look at her face. I don't owe her anymore. Why the fuck can't I get out?
Two paintings of jazz musicians Al had done years before in Washington hung in a hallway. Kelly, who loved painting, had called them "powerful, focused" works and suggested Al to try again. A couple of times recently he'd brought out his old box of oils, but never opened it. He stared at the paintings, feeling drained as if steel bands were being tightened inside his chest. Aw, fuck it. It was over.
The phone rang. He hesitated, then picked it up. Could be from Darlene, his troubled daughter. "Al, Rick Sermic." The real estate agent, a small man with a goatee and beguiling manner. "That house on West Street. It really is a great one!"
Al sighed. Another damn renovation project in West Oakland? He owned two already. More work, months more hassles. "I'll think about it," he told Rick. "Think!" Rick protested. "Hey, this one will go fast. You gotta move!" Al hung up the phone, and some serpentine voice assuaged him—hey, you can rent it out as section 8, help out some poor black folks. You'll be doing something. Yeah, what he'd labeled his "sun voice" answered, something that traps you more. Get out.
Not to the Philippines. He'd just gotten a letter from Meena, his favorite from his Mindanao trip several years before, saying it was bad there now: Marcos, soldiers, guerrillas, bombs. Hell, he'd known that from the news, but still Meena's letter had jolted him. He hadn't been old in Mindanao—the last dream heÕd lived.
Robert came over in the afternoon. Months before, he'd taught Al computer basics and Al was now up to him. Together, they'd worked at creating programs, from a new method of listing house for sale to a system for winning at the racetrack. Al grabbed a floppy disk, feeling excitement course through him, "OK, let's take a look at this stuff I worked up. I may only have an hour. I'm hoping Darlene calls." He saw a disappointment flick through Robert's eyes. "OK, I promised. You got the afternoon,"
The phone rang. Don't answer, a voice told Al. Ignore it. He picked up the phone. "Rick here. Looks like there's going to be another offer soon on that West Street property. They'll take twenty-two, I'm sure." A steal, Al knew. "There's money to be made here. Don't let it slip away."
"I don't think so."
"Hey, you're a good man with a hammer."
That was true, Al knew. "I'll think about it. Gotta go."
"Another house?" Robert asked. Al nodded yes. "Going to do it?" Robert queried, impressed. He respected his dad for being a man-of-the-world, even if Al had often acted the Marine sergeant with him.
"I don't know. Maybe."
Al smiled. Robert the practical. Well, he could have done worse than a son finishing up his degree in computers. Had done worse, with Darlene, out with those street bums.
"Playing any ball?" Al couldn't resist asking. Their old issue: surely Robert could still play basketball while studying at Hayward State. He was a star in high school.
"No time," Robert shrugged, refusing to say again what he'd told Al many times—I just don't have the lateral movement.
Al sensed Robert pulling back. Al felt the familiar stab—I can never make up for all those years Robert had lived alone with Joyce. He'd tried, sending money to Joyce since becoming a Marine, taking Robert in when he could, helping to pay for Robert's school, and, most of all, trying to show him how to find his fire.
After three hours of computer work, Robert left. Within minutes, Al moved from energized to deflated. Darlene had not called. Worse, the West St. house clawed at him. That's crazy, his sun voice accused. You're an artist. You've got to do something from your soul.
"Let me show you something," Kelly handed Ms. Anderson a paper. "I found the original in Robert's welfare file. It's a note from Evelyn Watson, giving the Department her address. You can see the Department date-stamp on it. Twenty-three years ago. Mrs. Watson, is being exceedingly generous to offer to settle this case for three thousand."
Ms. Anderson silently examined the note, tapping her pencil, murmuring, ÒO.K., O.K. É O.K., she did tell usÉÓ Suddenly, she raised her head, her eyes alert and cunning. "Wait a minute! What about the father of this boy! This ... Al somebody ... Where is he?"
"Huh," Kelly shrugged, "Try finding some black guy named Al Jones who had a kid in West Oakland over twenty years ago? Forget about it."
"Yeah." Ms. Anderson nodded her head in agreement. "That's right. No chance."
"I'll buy the victory lunch tomorrow." Al boomed over the phone. The next day, as they finished up their second glasses of wine, Al 's celebratory mood dimmed. "I gotta move on—real soon," he announced, taking another drag on his cigarette. "Yesterday I ran into Willie, a guy I know from way back. He gives me the soul shake, high fives. I ask him how it's going. 'Oh baby,' he's all hip, 'Saturday night I had me some choice action you would not believe.' Hey, I grew up in Oakland. I know these dudes. I know he's been sitting home, TV on, up to nothing." Kelly heard pain and, more surprising, uncertainty in Al's voice. "Man, I feel like I don't belong anywhere. I'm ... killing myself staying here."
"What're you thinking about?"
"I think it's Mexico," Al tried to force excitement in his voice.
"Maybe. But I think we should take little steps. You're the one who says it's all process."
"I may buy that West Street house."
"No!" Kelly cried. "You need to get healthy and free, not sucked in." Al remained silent, and Kelly sensed he'd pushed too hard, recalling once preaching to Al about cutting out smoking and working out and Al pulling back as if Kelly were a missionary badgering a native. "Sorry man ... ah ... just trying to help."
"Yeah, I know."
More waves of frustration poured from Al, but Kelly felt there was some glass between them now. Only later did he ponder if he'd always maintained at least a bit of that glass. "I'm here if you want to talk more," Kelly urged as they parted. "Anytime. Really. Please."
Ah, what was the point of talking, Al thought, driving home. He was alone. The ache in his chest wasn't going to go away. He could never going back to the Philippines. Mexico? Sure, a huge decrepit black guy with all those honkies in Puerto Villarta. Or bumbling around Oaxaca, stumbling over Spanish and seeking authenticity. Or authentic whores. Fuck it.
His dreams were over, gone. When? "Years ago," he heard a nasty voice snarl from deep within him. He thought of that line of Fitzgerald's, "No second act in American lives." Oh yeah, Al the poet, the voice sneered. Never read a book of Fitzgerald, but you got the lines. How about one of your Omar Khyyam quotes?
"Fuck off!" he screamed. "Just mother-fucking off!" He smashed his cigarette out in the overflowing car ashtray. I'll start with stopping this this, he vowed. I'll do it.
Then I'll go find her.
Big chance, the voice sneered. All you can get is damaged goods. As if you're a fresh peach, the voice bore down. A heart that don't work right. A Johnson that can't even get it up all the time. Hey, the voice ranted—you always knew it was fucked. Yeah, yeah, you tried to outrun it, the big hero, but now you're old and fat and I'm here like I always was. What are you gonna do—sit and smoke and talk about going to Tahiti?
By the time he got home he was weary. Man, IÕm bad, he agonized. Maybe I gotta try a shrink? Yeah, right, some dude asking me how I feel. I'd have a better chance if I took up skiing ... I gotta DO something. He crushed his cigarette pack.
Two days later, when Rick called, Al said he'd buy the place. He lit a cigarette and his whole body felt hot, like he'd stepped into a fire.