Walter Bernard’s Great Balancing Act (Excerpt)

 

Lee R. Haven

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 113 in 2007.
 

Walter Bernard flips through a Jet magazine he bought at a mall bookstore while waiting for Kim to examine seemingly every item on seemingly every aisle in a clothing store across from it. He steals a look at the centerfold of a brown, thick-hipped girl in a yellow bikini and tells himself he’ll examine the woman more freely when not around Kim, who, right now, is on the kitchen phone, dying.
“Keith, how could you just misplace the album? It’s the only photos we have of Mom and Dad.” Grimacing, she drops her head and taps the receiver against her ear, her brother’s explanation buzzing in and out. She paces for as long as the white cord will allow— this time not untangling it, a task at which Walt has witnessed her perform with enviable ease— and she throws a shoulder, frustratingly, against the wall. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you borrow it. I just knew it.”
Walt is also finishing a bologna sandwich and orange juice at the kitchen table. He's not that hungry, but it's been close to four hours since they ate, and the thin slices looked manageable if not tantalizing when he opened the refrigerator for juice.
He thought he had turned the page, but she, the woman in the bikini, is still there — smiling, hands on hips. Walt hyperventilates, mildly, at the ass, or when following the expansion of the crossing leg’s thigh into the curve of an apparently daunting butt. He flips several pages, and there’s a photo of Jesse Jackson. He’s with…somebody doing… something. Something his daughter said when she was no older than six, makes him smile. “I see that man everywhere,” Soy had said. He shuts the magazine. “What’s that? You talking to me, Kim?
“Don’t you hear the cat scratching? He’s ready to come in. … Now listen, Keith ... ”
“I’m gonna make a run.”
“Hold on, Keith.” The receiver drops from her ear. “What did you say, Walter?”
“I'm leaving.”
“Look, Keith, I have to go. OK. ‘Bim.’ What? Yeah, I said I’ll tell him. And Keith — look.” Kim follows her husband into the great room, where he drops the Jet near an Esquire that numbers among several magazines fanned out on glass covering the table of walnut wood with curvy legs, behind the sofa. Kim adjusts the Jet so that it aligns properly with the arrangement. She threw him off for a second. He counted a corner of the magazine twice.
He does this thing in his mind sometimes. He counts things, their corners mostly. But also —and exclusively when objects are round —their number. He counts with the same relish and neurosis, if not outward demonstration, of a kid avoiding cracks in a sidewalk. He stops at an even number of whatever he’s counting. Then he starts again.
Kim folds her arms. When she tilts her head, hair on one side of her chin-length bob falls away from her face, her expression a combination of the exasperation that dominated it on the telephone and, seeming to Walt, of trying awfully hard to be happy about something.
“Where are you going?”
“I just want to unwind, Kim. We’ve been out all afternoon, the mall, dinner and checking on that crib.” Yet another one we both know we can’t afford. God.
“Mrs. Baldwin said she might call tonight too about the house.” Kim transitions to another support point when Walt says nothing about the house. “Didn't you say you wanted to be here when Laji gets in, so you could see what he’s doing in that algebra class?”
The cat had stopped scratching the door, or Walt had stopped hearing him, but now there’s more an undeniable sense of urgency.
“He said he passed the last test,” Walt says. “He knows he needs to pass that class if he’s gonna graduate next month. Just try to see if he knows any of it.”
“You always leave it up to me. And remember, we’ve got to get up early in the morning.”
That’s right. For absolute bullshit. But why quibble? “It’s not like I’m driving. I can sleep on the bus. It’s a long ride.” He picks up his derby, the blue one, from a hall table.
“You have to drive to get us to the bus, remember?” “Look, I'm not gonna be gone long.” Walt has occasionally wondered if his wife has ever remotely considered driving with him in the car.
“You how know dangerous it is out there.”
“I’ll be inside. There’s nothing to worry about. Oh, Bim wanted you to tell me something?”
“What was that? Oh, yeah. He said he just counted at least fifty eight blows the police gave that man out in Los Angeles—King—not fifty six like they’re saying. He was saying maybe you could break that news in a column. I want to know where does he find the time to sit around and count how many times that man is being hit when he can’t find his own parents’ pictures. I feel like breaking his head with a nightstick.”
Walt wouldn’t know about anything in the video anyway. He’s avoided watching it. That’s not been easy. It’s been plastered on TV since it happened two months ago. He glimpsed it maybe once, and all he noted was a lot of fury. But they usually build it up before showing it and he has been successful in clicking it away —or walking out the damn room. As he’s trying to leave this one now.
“Well,” Kim says, “if you’ve just got to go out, we need deodorant and toothpaste. We forgot to pick them up for the trip.”
“I’ll get them. And don’t worry. I’m sure Bim will find the album.”
Langston Hughes rushes in, his nemesis Big Cat screeching to a stop and scampering off in another direction, when Walt opens the door.

Raymond’s sits in a cluttered commercial district inside a curve Skidaway makes before hooking up with not-too-far away Victory Drive, site of four strip malls and an intersection at which red lights doom motorists to waiting hell. A 7-11 that is rarely open and an Italian restaurant still catering to whites in a neighborhood gone black are close neighbors.
Raymond’s was a white club under another name before this black guy bought it.
Walt almost never visits the club, but someone told him it had made improvements, and it probably has, yet it remains an old, stale and poorly lighted place, bearing a relationship with just about any Savannah bar where Walt has seen blacks congregate. (For some reason, Wednesday, not the weekend, flushes out the black Savannah party crowd.) Walt thinks that, on its face, the conditions prevail for danger in Raymond's, but he has yet to hear of anyone suffering harm, much less a shooting taking place in the club, even now with all these crazy killings taking place in this city.

No such claim could be registered about haunts like those on West Broad Street— Savannah’s Martin Luther King Jr. Drive—or The Bowery in West Savannah. They were Dodge City before killing people around here was cool.
He started to go to RD’s tonight, the city’s nicest black club although he doesn’t think that’s saying much considering the competition, but it’s roomy and clean, with new-ish booths, tables that don’t wobble, clean big mirrors and a dance floor that actually shines during the early part of the evening. It’s on Bull Street near Victory, located firmly in the ’hood but two blocks south from the beginnings of the very solid and sylvan white middle class neighborhoods. He still can’t get used to the abrupt transition.
RD’s is where he usually goes when he goes out. He knows just about everybody forty or older coming in there and he didn't want his peers to see him in a bar too often. The way they spread rumors in this town, he’d be the Bernard guy who abandoned his family for the bottle. There’d be some truth in that rumor.
The action in Raymond’s this evening takes place in the smaller room, all of four customers and two waitresses. A waitress he ran into last visit, the high yellow girl with freckles, smilingly acknowledges him when she serves him tonight. For a second there, she didn’t remember him, he could tell.
He’s cooled out with his Chablis, a full pack of Mores and good music from the jukebox. It’s “Whip Appeal,” and he bobs his head, sips his wine and smokes his ciggies while glancing at a television above shelves of liquor bottles—some frustratingly close to blocking his reflection in the mirror. The television’s light blinks on the bottles, creating a kaleidoscope but mostly highlighting the red of the bar. Some commercial’s on for a car he can’t afford.
“But you got that whip appeal, come whip it on me,” Babyface sings. Walt would agree it’s corny, too. But it works for him, on some knowing it’s corny level. The video’s actually sexy.
“Man, they didn’t have to beat that brother like that.” The angry perpetrator of the fist pounding the bar sits two seats down from Walt.
Black and white images furiously blink on the bottles and Walt follows the chaotic light to its source, the television. The wine’s bouquet is no longer the sweetness from the glass but a churned, rancid odor up from his belly and out his agape mouth.
It’s that video. And he can’t turn away this time.
It’s as though he’s seeing it for the first time. In a way, he is. The graininess, the night, the distance and lack of color demote it to a home movie’s quality, but this much is clear: a black guy is getting his ass stomped. He’s balled up and squirming on the asphalt under a flurry of police nightsticks. They pound his head, his shoulders, his legs. They beat down a poignantly pleading palm. Other officers stand around. The thing looks to Walt like a training tape on how to beat a brother.
Walt’s seeing if anybody notices he has stopped his glass halfway to his mouth. But they’re too busy staring at the screen themselves.
“This is one big mess…” Freckles voice trails off. It’s audible again. “What did I tell you?” she tells the other bartender. “Those cops are something else out there in L.A. I had to leave that place.”
A new pain hits Walt, this one extremely troublesome in its enlightenment. “LA. Shit.” Is that why he avoided watching this? He puts his glass down, maybe a little harder than he thinks, because now they look at him.

“I should have kept going?” he asks their puzzled faces.
Walter Bernard considers himself a partner with the air. He’d discovered that moving through it lessens, or, in some cases, dissolves whatever problem he’s having into its wide blue expanse of nothingness, and everything.
The car pushes the air and the pneumatic ripples roll miles beyond the space he’s in. The moving air gathers around like a blessing. Walt grunt-laughs when the blessing pushes back hot cigarette ash to his face. His palm still stings some too, from slamming it against the dash before taking off from Raymond’s parking lot.
The distance between each traffic light on Henry Street is the bar lines of a measure. The splintering wood houses on either side are the rundown beats in between.
“Tonight is the night that you make me a woman….” Betty Wright sings. Walt would guess, when in a mood to speculate about these matters, that oldies make up at least forty percent of the radio station’s urban format. Sort of like Savannah itself, he’d thought, unable to entirely release the past.
“Hitchhiking through Mississippi? Boy, have you lost your mind? Ollie and your family agree with this?”
“I left a note, Auntie.” He didn’t. “It’s a long story...”
“Oh, no. Another one?”
“Twenty-six year old Travion Patrice Hadson of the six hundred block of West Fortieth Street was shot near his home,” the radio news broadcaster reports. “Police say Hadson, also known as ‘Shorty Pete,’ is a known drug dealer. They’ve arrested Jamal Johnson of East Walburg. Doctors at Memorial Hospital say Hadson’s injuries are not life threatening.”
Walt grits his teeth so hard a few in back call out in pain. “Lucky-ass Shorty Pete.”
“Police still have no suspects and no leads in the city’s random murders.”
Enough of this shit. Walt shuts the radio off.
I-16, where no traffic lights hang, is dark, and it’s empty. Walt pushes the Spectrum beyond its comfort level of sixty, the smashed pebbles vibrating like crazy under his headlight beams. He passes the exit, Coastal Highway, closest to his home. He knows the expressway connects to a highway leading out of state, going west. Dark trees blur behind guardrails, their boughs like arms of ghouls.
A mile down, two motorists, one behind the other, drive in the opposite direction on the other side of the grassy median. Their slow moving fuzzy headlights look…warm and inviting.
Walt’s entranced by the light. The car rumbles toward the median. Tires thump, the car zigzags….

Kim’s eyes open slowly and her eyeballs look to Walt like little black spinning discs, maybe dizzily angry lollipops, when she brings her head back down.
“Where’s the toothpaste and deodorant?” Kim’s mouth wants to know.
“Oh man.” Walt grabs his forehead in the headache position.
“Wal—ter.”

 
 

She guides the dishwasher door shut and rotates the knob to “light wash.” She misses the setting. The knob sounds like a stripped gear on its hurried way back around, and Walt flinches. The dishwasher slides into a strained hum. Walt anticipates the interior spraying that makes him think of water slinging against an empty tuna can, although he can’t say with any certainty that he’d ever seen an empty tuna can being assaulted by anything. He slides up on a counter near the sink, the back of his shoes hitting against the lower cabinet door.
“You’re making scuff marks.” Kim swipes a cloth off the faucet. He sticks his shoes out some when she wipes marks that he’s certain don’t exist.
Her face slumps as much as the sudden sink in her voice. “Mrs. Baldwin called just after you left. She wants us to look at something on East Bolton.”
“East Bolton? There’s something on East Bolton?” Was I really going to LA?
They’ve renovated a few houses over there.” He smiles, sardonically. “You think you could live deep in the ’hood?”
Pain pushes aside the resignation in Kim’s face and ages her some. At least he doesn’t expect her to cry. He’s never seen her cry. He didn’t really notice that until long ago, some five or six years into their near twenty-one-year marriage; some associates were relating stories of their women crying, and he didn’t have one to tell.
“I was hoping we could find something before our anniversary. Laji, come put your stuff away and get ready to go,” she calls over to the living area. “He’s really been working.” Kim rubs Laji’s head when he enters the kitchen. Where had Walt just seen that expression briefly flash his wife’s visage? Oh yeah. When she was trying to get him not to leave after her struggle of a conversation with Bim. Like she’s trying desperately to be happy about something. “We struggled there for a while, but he finally got it.”
“Way to go, homes.” Walt gives Laji dap.
“I did all right tonight. I’ve got those formulas down pat. Ma only had to show me twice.”
“Cool.”
“The best thing is he came in early.” Kim’s wiping off the door of the microwave. “You need to come straight home after work every night, Laji, dangerous as it is out there.”
“I’m careful, Ma. And Dad, you know I don’t flow with them boys shooting each other.”
“You don’t have to hang with them, Laji,” Kim says before Walt responds. “It looks like they’re just shooting people for no reason. Walter, remember the other day? Wasn’t that boy just riding his bike in front of his house?”
“That’s what Tad says,” Walt says to Laji’s stare. “He’s the police reporter at the paper.”
“Man, the police…” Laji shakes his head. “Ma, Daddy told me what to do if I’m stopped by Five-o.”
“I told him to talk calmly,” Walt says. “You know, be respectful and look them in the eyes…”
“—and keep my hands visible at all times, ’cause ‘I don’t wanna be—’” Laji extends a palm to his father, who hops down from the counter.
“—no accident.” Walt chimes in. They slap palms. “It’s the old Pryor routine, Kim. It applies.”
It’s actually “no mothafuckin’ accident.” Walt rarely curses around his children. Kim shakes her head. “You guys.”
This is what he needs, to be around his family, laughing.
I don’t even know how to get out to LA.
Laji gathers his belongings, an algebra book and paper, some crumpled, spread over the tabletop. He sticks the homework in the book and the book in his book bag, and tosses the crumpled balls into the garbage. “I think we got a chance with Savoo, if Jarvis and the crew get serious. We just need a slamming beat; then we can put out that demo.”
“You can’t depend on that though.”
“I know you want me to go to college and everything, Dad, but that’s Soy’s thing. She was talking about school since way back. I’m just about that paper.”
“That’s the point. Like I’ve been telling you, you’ll have a better chance to make money if you graduate. Especially college. McDonald’s is cool for now, but you don’t wanna stay there.”
“You should go on up, now, Laji,” Kim interjects, “and get the clothes you’re going to wear tomorrow, so you can get over to Jarvis’ house.” Walt thinks she deliberately cut him off. She has told him that he can get a bit, well, emotional with the children in these types of discussions, which have included his rare swearing around them. “And get some rest so you can do well on that test tomorrow and bring your average up. Let me know if you have toothpaste in your bathroom.” Kim’s cutting her eyes at Walt. “And Laji, don’t forget to stop by the house tomorrow and feed Langston.”
“Yeah, Ma. OK. Y’all be safe and have a good trip.”
Who needs to deal with that now? Wait a minute. If they just had to send him out of town, why not for a real story? The Chablis resurfaces. So does that video. Oh, man, what a night.
Walt’s head aches. OK, I should have gone. But what can I do about that now?
“You OK? Walter?
“Huh?”
Kim’s handing him a paper towel. “You want me to turn the air back on? You’re pouring down with sweat.”
I need to calm the fuck down.