CHAPTER FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY-ONE
Friday evening — 4:10 p.m.
New York City, New York
“Bud called me,” Bernie said. He bent over to pick up his dress shoes from his suitcase “Ugh, I am feeling that yoga class.”
Maresol smiled at his back. They were getting dressed early to help Claire with the dinner party.
“Living with Seth requires a certain lifestyle,” Maresol said.
“You’re telling me,” Bernie said with a laugh.
He grinned at her.
“I am not a lifestyle option,” Maresol said with a smile.
“You were telling me about Seth and Big Daddy,” Maresol said.
“That’s right,” Bernie said.
He started to put on his dress shoe.
“Pants first,” Maresol said, evenly, knowing that he’d been a little off since they found out about Big Daddy.
“I am distracted,” Bernie said. He untied the shoe and took it off. “Talking about good people who are long gone, I guess.”
Maresol touched his shoulder. She pointed to his suit, which was lying on their hotel bed. He started by pulling on the suit pants.
“I met Bud when I was … Oh, I don’t know …” Bernie said. “Before the war but after meeting Seth’s mom. Bud was …”
Bernie stopped talking and sat down on the bed. Maresol sat down next to him.
“Bud was a force of nature,” Bernie said. “You should have seen him. He’d play until his breath was ragged, his fingers burning, and he was wet through and through with sweat. And then he’d play some more. He’d have the entire floor of the Savoy Ballroom rocking from people dancing. He was fearless — musically and in life. He’d been in World War I; he was the son of a slave; he …”
Bernie fell silent thinking about the man.
“Anyway, I was trying to track down my wife and children when I got a call from Bud,” Bernie said. “‘Bernie,’ he says, ‘do you have a son?’ I say, ‘Sure’ — thinking of Saul, you know. ‘Why?’ ‘There’s a boy here who wants me to teach him how to play jazz piano,’ he says. ‘Looks just like you.’ Well, I was floored. I knew that it couldn’t be Saul.”
“Why not Saul?” Maresol asked.
“Oh, Saul,” Bernie said. “He was always rushing out to live life. We could never get him to sit down anywhere, let alone at a piano. Saul was brave and wild — all at the same time.”
Bernie turned to look at Maresol.
“Did you know him?” Bernie asked.
“When he was a teenager,” Maresol said. “He was angry and … As you said, there was a fire that burned in him. I … I know that Seth still misses Saul. Silas, too.”
“Silas…” Bernie said with a sigh.
Maresol turned to look at him.
“Saul… He was the first of a long string of losses for me,” Maresol said. “I’d never known anyone who died like that. Then, it seemed like one loss after another — my husband, Seth’s mother, O’Malley, Seth into drugs, Silas, … my daughter and her babies. It’s like losing Saul was the start of … growing old, I guess.”
Maresol gave a quick nod.
“Then you know why I knew it wasn’t Saul,” Bernie said.
“I couldn’t figure out why a son of mine would be in New York City,” Bernie said. “When I left them, my beloved and Saul were living in this cute little house in North Carolina. I hadn’t seen Jimmy — you know, Seth and Jammy call him …”
“Ivy,” Maresol said, about Schmidty I-V.
Bernie nodded and laughed.
“I always knew him as ‘Jimmy,’” Bernie said. “I hadn’t talked to him in … years. I got his number from Bud and called him. You couldn’t believe my shock. I knew that O’Malley had married. I even knew that he had children — boys. I had no idea he had married my wife! That his boys were actually my children! I learned all of that from Jimmy.”
“You mean, you gave that horrible man the down payment to the house …”
“For his wife and kids,” Bernie said with a nod. “I had no idea that he was referring to my beloved and my children.”
Maresol shook her head.
“Please,” Bernie said, “not a word to Seth.”
“I can just hear the rant,” Maresol grinned.
“Exactly,” Bernie said. “Anyway, it was kind of dumb not to know because I had money through Jimmy from Seth’s sales. I just never put it all together. Or didn’t until Bud called. Back then, phone calls were very expensive. Bud and Di felt strongly that I should know … Well, Di was furious that the boy was on his own. I couldn’t blame her. I was pretty shocked myself.”
“I scrambled to New York,” Bernie said with a shrug. “Got a job cleaning floors at Eastman.”
“Couldn’t you have taught classes?” Maresol asked.
“Sure,” Bernie said. “But I’d have had to admit to who I actually was. By that time, there was a grave stone with my name on it at Arlington National Cemetery. The entire family, my entire family, was living off my death benefits.”
“Did you ever try to contact your family?” Maresol asked. “Your parents?”
“Of course,” Bernie said. “But as far as my parents were concerned, their son was dead.”
“Cleaning floors was a lot simpler than dealing with all of that,” Bernie said. “Plus, it gave me access to Seth. I was able to interact with him in ways I never would have if I was a teacher there. Between me and Bud, we helped him get through being abandoned and that horrible aloneness. I thought we’d been successful until …”
“The drugs,” Maresol said with a nod. “Some of that was my daughter and, of course, Mitch. Seth could never say no to Mitch.”
Bernie watched Maresol’s face as she spoke.
“He says it’s the only way to keep the pressure of music at bay,” Maresol said. She glanced at him. “He’s either drinking and drugging or playing. It’s a curse.”
Maresol looked at Bernie for a moment.
“I believe him,” Maresol said.
“Yes,” Bernie said with a nod. He sighed. “I see Bud in him sometimes. Those pushups he does and …”
“I see you in Seth,” Maresol said softly. “Creeps me out.”
Bernie gave her a sad smile.
“Did you know Big Daddy?” Maresol asked.
“I did,” Bernie said. “Did you?”
“Only on the periphery,” Marisol said. “He or Bernice called regularly. I saw them when Seth and I came to New York.”
“They were people Seth knew,” Maresol said.
“Seth knows a lot of people,” Bernie said, mildly.
“What did Big Daddy do?” Maresol asked.
“What do you mean?” Bernie asked.
“I know that he was a gangster or a kind of a gangster,” Maresol said. “What I don’t know is what kind of a gangster was he and … I guess … If Di and Bud were so wonderful, how did he get into it?”
“That’s complicated,” Bernie said. “How he got into it? Big Daddy inherited a stable of women from his mother.”
“Di was a madam?” Maresol asked with a laugh.
“Does Seth know?” Maresol asked.
“If he doesn’t, it’s only because he doesn’t want to,” Bernie said. “That’s what Di did at the Savoy Ballroom. She helped lonely men meet beautiful women. Or that’s what she said. Her women knew how to dance and behave. They were expensive. Very high end. But if you were visiting for a night or a weekend, they were the women you wanted on your arm.”
“Did you …?” Maresol asked.
Bernie shook his head.
“If I was there, I was playing, working … or …,” Bernie said.
“Or?” Maresol asked.
“Jimmy and I, we were in Guadal with one of their older boys,” Bernie said. “I knew Bud before we were drafted and then spent time with their older son. Di and Bud asked for us when they were told he’d died. Jimmy, I, and O’Malley went to see them when we got back. It’s part of what broke me. They were heartbroken that their son had died and my parents …”
Bernie shrugged. He took a breath and continued on with his explanation of Big Daddy.
“Big Daddy kept the same business as Di — mothers who need to make a few extra bucks; young women who were looking for adventure; even boys for the men who liked that kind of thing.”
Maresol fell silent for a moment.
“What happens to them now?” Maresol asked.
“They have 401k plans and investments,” Bernie said. “Seth set it up when he was a kid.”
“Seth?” Maresol shook her head at the idea.
“Seth and Jimmy,” Bernie said. “Black people couldn’t have bank accounts or investments in the 1960s. I mean, they could go to black establishments, but you can imagine that they weren’t anything like what white people had. And women weren’t allowed to have their own accounts. Seth made it so that Big Daddy and Bernice had bank accounts in white banks long before it was possible. Just the fact that they would get their own bank account at a white bank made more women want to work with Big Daddy.”
“When Bud and Di died, Big Daddy got ‘tempted by the devil’,” Bernie said. “Or that’s what he called it.”
“What does that mean?” Maresol asked.
“Drugs, guns,” Bernie shrugged. “Betting. Big Daddy hated drugs. He believed that drugs were pushed into the getto to keep ‘his people’ — that’s what he called African Americans — down. But bookmaking, that stuck. Bookmaking was fun and interesting. Big Daddy loved fantasy sports, too. Quite the modern man.”
“How long did he sell drugs?” Maresol asked.
“Ten, twenty years,” Bernie said. “‘Better Big Daddy than anyone else. At least you won’t get stuff cut with something deadly’ — that’s what he’d say. Then … well, he changed his mind. For the last thirty years or so, he’s only sold women and book.”
“Why did he stop selling drugs?” Maresol asked.
“He almost lost his son to heroin,” Bernie said. “You’ll meet him tonight. He’s a state congressman now.”
“I won’t say a word,” Maresol said.
“I like that about you,” Bernie said with a smile.
Maresol nodded. As if the words had simply ended, Bernie fell silent and got dressed. Maresol found Bernie’s profound silences unnerving. She knew that he wasn’t really used to being around people. When she’d confronted him about them, he’d apologized profusely, said he’d change, only to fall back into silence again.
“Are you okay?” Maresol asked what they’d agreed on her asking during a silence.
“Sad,” Bernie said. “Big Daddy — they don’t make people like him anymore. Like me, I guess.”
Maresol smiled. She went into the hotel bathroom to put on her makeup. When she came out, Bernie was setting the headset of the phone into the cradle.
“What is it?” Maresol asked.
“My sister,” Bernie said. “They are coming to Seth’s big dinner.”
Maresol stood for a moment staring at him.
“Did I screw up again?” Bernie asked. His hand went to his heart in concern. “Should I have asked you?”
“No,” Maresol said. “I was just … nervous, I guess.”
“Don’t be,” Bernie said. “They can be real bitches, my sisters. Seth has never really spent any time with them because they hated his mother.”
Maresol laughed at his tone.
“If they are awful, we’ll grab one of those sexy kids — Ivan or Sissy or that lovely Nadia or even Sandy — and find some mischief,” Bernie said. “We’ll make them insane with jealousy. Deal?”
“Deal,” Maresol said.
“Just so you know,” Bernie said, “they are coming because they don’t want to miss out on a Big Daddy party. They’re not coming to see me or meet you or even meet my great-grandchildren. They just don’t want to miss out of the biggest part in Harlem.”
“They didn’t know him?” Maresol asked.
“Only through me,” Bernie said.
Maresol laughed. Bernie stood up and held out his arm. He hugged Maresol and they went to the door.
“This is going to be wild,” Bernie said.
“It better be,” Maresol said.
Laughing, they left their room.
Friday evening — 5:03 p.m.
New York City, New York
Nash laughed at something Teddy had said. They’d just finished moving the last of Bernice’s furniture. The task was made easy by the arrival of Bernice’s grandchildren, the youngest twins were Nash and Teddy’s age.
The truth was that Nash had never spent a lot of time around black people. He knew Auntie Tanesha through his mom, Sandy, and he knew all of Tanesha’s family. Certainly, the fairies didn’t count. He’d never spent any time with black people of his age. He, Teddy, and Noelle had been anxious about meeting all of these black kids. They’d pent a good part of the plane ride strategizing about what to do if they had trouble the kids.
Of course, none of that was necessary.
Bernice’s grandchildren were just like Teddy, Nash, and Noelle. They teased Teddy about his movie star looks. They were amazed by Noelle’s artist talent as she and Mike worked on a huge mural of Big Daddy on the side of Seth’s building. Dale and Charlie were instant best friends with the older grandchildren. They had laughed and joked about everything. They all had had a great time.
At this moment, Nash couldn’t imagine what he’d been so concerned about.
Nash stood with his arms full of linens on a rise, just up the street from Seth’s apartment building. The U-Haul truck with Bernice’s belonging was empty the moment Teddy grabbed the last of the towels. From where Nash was standing, he watched Noelle came out of the entrance to the apartments. Even from this distance, he could see that she had paint flecks in her hair and her overalls were streaked with paint. The summer sun lit up Noelle’s face and Nash smiled.
His sister was becoming a beautiful young woman. Mike came out behind her. They talked for a moment before heading back inside.
Then Nash saw her — Nadia.
Nadia stepped off the bus at the corner. Nash felt his insides light up and melt at the very same moment. She hadn’t seen him yet. In fact, Nadia looked like she’d come straight from the hospital without even showering. She wore her hospital scrubs and clogs. Not sure of where she was, Nadia looked around. She saw Noelle’s back and called her name. Noelle ran to hug Nadia. Nash smiled. He was just about to shout to Nadia when his eyes caught another woman stepping off the bus.
Nash’s warmth and joy congealed into a frozen mass. The woman’s eyes locked with Nash’s. His mouth dropped open and his entire body began to sweat.
“What is it?” Teddy asked.
“I … I …” Nash started.
From the apartment building, he heard Malik, a drummer friend of Seth’s, say something. The crowd of Bernice’s grandchildren moved in his direction. The older, taller kids covered blocked Noelle and Nadia from his sight. They moved like fish or birds schooling up the street. In the way of crowds, the grandchildren jovially pushed and prodded Nash and Teddy until they were around the block and behind Seth’s apartment building.
“In here!” Malik yelled.
Nash and Teddy slipped through the back door into a dark hallway on the bottom floor of the building. Bernice’s grandchildren followed close behind.
“What is it?” Malik asked. “What happened? I saw you freak out and figured you’d seen something. I sent the kids to get you.”
“Noelle,” Nash said.
“I grabbed her and Nadia,” Malik said. “Is that your girlfriend?”
“Sister,” Nash said. “Noelle.”
“Nadia,” Malik grinned. “Girlfriend. The one you were waiting for?”
Embarrassed, Nash nodded.
“She’s … wow,” Malik said.
Nash could only nod.
“Did you see the other woman?” Nash asked.
“What other woman?” Malik asked.
Nash let out a breath to explain, but one of Bernice’s children called to the kids around Nash. They streamed up the stairs. One of the older grandchildren grabbed Nash’s load of linens and started up the stairs. Another grandchild took Teddy’s towels and followed close behind. With Teddy nearby, Malik stood with Nash until he caught his breath.
“What happened?” Malik asked again.
“My mother is here,” Nash said.
“And that means?” Malik asked.
“Nothing good,” Teddy said.
Nodding, Malik turned to a group of boys milling around the hallway. Nash hadn’t yet met.
“Go, clog up the sidewalk,” Malik said. “You know, like we usually do.”
The boys nodded. Malik went out onto the sidewalk. Nash moved into the shadow on the edge of the door and sidewalk.
“I’m looking for my son,” Nash’s mother’s voice drifted through the door.
“Do any of these boys look like your son?” Malik asked.
“Nash Norsen,” Nash’s mother’s voice rose an octave. “He’s my son and not any of these … children. My son is white.”
His mother’s demand and her sheer loathing for the boys on the sidewalk made Nash start forward. He wanted to give her a piece of his mind. Teddy grabbed Nash around the waist to keep him in place. Nadia slipped around them to stand next to Malik.
“Do you see any white people around here?” Malik asked, not noticing Nadia.
“She’s white,” Nash’s mother said.
Nadia said a string of unintelligible Russian. When Malik nor Nash’s mother responded, Nadia added: “Cleaner.”
“She cleans the floors,” Malik said.
“Floor cleaner,” Nadia said in a thick Russian accent. Nash struggled against Teddy, but Teddy held him tight. “Need to finish for party. Came for smoke. You have?”
“Nah,” Malik said. “But Janet might.”
Malik gave a vague gesture inside. His boys started inside.
“You need to look elsewhere,” Malik said to Nash’s mother.
Without saying another word, Malik came in, slammed, and locked the door. They stood on the other side of the door for a tense moment. When there wasn’t a knock, Malik pointed them upstairs in the direction of Seth’s apartment. He followed close behind. They were upstairs and in the living room in a moment.
When they came in, Nadia was talking to Aden and Sandy. She hugged Nash tight. She smelled of hospital disinfectant and felt like pure love.
“I saw your face …” Noelle started. “You looked horrified. Nadia says that mom’s here.”
“Mom’s here,” Nash said. “Got off the bus behind Nadia.”
Nash nodded. Aden scowled.
“I took care of it,” Malik said. “But I’d sure like to know what all of this is about.”
“She broke Noelle’s cheekbone,” Nash stated.
He was so angry that he ran out of words. He just blew out breath.
“She’s lost custody of the children,” Sandy said evenly. “She’s been in prison …”
“After she tried to sell our virginity for drugs!” Noelle said, indignantly.
“You’re sure she’s gone?” Aden asked.
“I’ve had to do that a few times,” Malik said. “My drum team, too.”
Malik gestured to the boys who’d helped get rid of Nash’s mother. The boys gave Nash understanding looks. Nash felt a burst of gratitude for these boys.
“If it eases your mind, why don’t we check?” Malik asked.
Aden nodded to Malik and the men left the apartment.
“There’s nothing we can do about her now,” Sandy said. She pointed to Noelle. “You — go shower before you lose your turn. You’re covered in paint. Remember to scrub.”
Noelle nodded to Sandy and headed toward the bathroom.
“But what …?” Nash asked. His face a mask of desperation.
“We’ll take it one step at a time,” Sandy said.
“Hey, man,” one of Bernice’s grandkids said to Nash. “Some lady is yelling at your dad.”
Nash started toward the window to watch, but he caught Nadia’s face.
“Why bother?” she said. “You know what she’ll say.”
“Nadia, why don’t you go shower?” Sandy asked. “We have an opening in Claire’s apartment and these gentlemen can wait.”
“You’re sure?” Nadia asked.
“Of course they can wait,” Sandy said.
She tapped Nash and Teddy with the back of her heads. They both nodded. Nadia left with Sandy for Claire’s apartment. Nash looked up to see Teddy watching him closely.
“Nash? Teddy? You boys?” Claire asked from the kitchen. She gestured to Malik’s drum team. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your names.”
“What can we do?” Teddy asked.
“I need help getting all of this …” Claire started.
Grateful for something to do, Nash and Teddy jumped into action. Within a few minutes, they knew the entire drum corps names. These boys were joined by Bernice’s grandchildren. They laughed and talked until Nash had forgotten all about his mother.
It wasn’t until he was standing under the jet of warm water that his mother’s face returned to him. He knew in his heart that she was somewhere nearby. Closing his eyes, he wished that he could just disappear.
“Darling,” Nadia said opening the bathroom door. “Hurry, please, I need help with my dress.”
“I’ll be right there,” Nash said.
Smiling to himself, he let every thought of his mother float down the drain. Tonight, he would have the time of his life.
Denver Cereal continues next week…
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