Black & White

By Pedro Burns,2014-11-04 21:11
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Black & White

black white

    Monday, October 18

    He looked at the angry red 5:05 on his travel alarm and knew he would not get back to sleep. Heswung his legs off the foldout bed and walked five steps to the tiny kitchenette. He was stilldressed in last night’s jeans and gray T-shirt, his mouth stale from recycled hotel air. He

brushed his teeth and washed his face in the sink, combing wet fingers through his hair.

    Go, he thought.

    His suitcase was packed, as it had been for most of the last month.The only hanging space—aswell as the only bathroom and the only exit—was in the bedroom where his mother slept in atranquilized haze.The rest of his belongings lined up next to the suitcase: a small drawingboard, a FedEx box, and two plastic Harris-Teeter grocery sacks.

    He put on his glasses and shoes and added the clock and shaving kit to the suitcase. He wasable to roll the suitcase with his right hand and carry everything else in his left. He stoppedby the door to the hall. His mother’s snoring suspended momentarily as he took his jacket offa hanger and slipped into it. She was in the farther of the twin beds, near the window.Theother would have held his father, except that his father was across the street in the Durham vaMedical Center, dying of lung cancer.

    Michael was 35, too old, he thought, to spend this much time with his parents, no matter whatthe circumstances. From the lobby he called a cab and picked, more or less at random, anotherfaceless suite hotel out of the phone book.The new one was just off I40 at the eastern edge ofDurham, where the city proper blended into Research Triangle Park. During the tech boom rtp hadbeen the Silicon Valley of the East Coast, pumping millions into the North Carolinaeconomy.When the bubble burst with the new century, it left behind inflated housing costs,thousands of overqualified, unemployed tech workers, and an abundance of empty hotel rooms.

    The dispatcher told him it would be half an hour. Michael left his belongings with the deskclerk, a heavyset woman with meticulous cornrows.“If my cab comes, tell him to wait for me,”Michael said.“I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

    “All right now, hon.”

    He crossed the street to the hospital and took the elevator to the sixth floor. The chargenurse was at the station and managed a tired smile.“He had a good night,” she said.“Somecoughing, but he slept.”

    “That’s something, I guess.”

    “He’ll be sleeping more and more,” she said.“It’s like they make the transition kind ofgradual, a little less hold on this world every day.”

    Michael stood in the hallway and watched his father sleep. He had faint wisps of white hairthat had grown back since the initial chemo fallout, and his skin had turned a nicotine-stainyellow from jaundice. His thin forearms protruded from red va pajamas, the left hooked to amorphine infusion pump.An oxygen cannula ran under his nose.As Michael watched, his fathercoughed wetly, cleared his throat, and shifted his head, all without seeming to regainconsciousness.

    After he turned 30, Michael had gone through a period of seeing his father’s face in his ownwhen he looked in the mirror, especially first thing in the morning, when he was still puffywith sleep.That was a different face than his father had now. Now his father’s face wascrumpled like a used towel.When his eyes were open they were bloodshot, restless, and haunted.

    It had all happened with terrifying speed. One day his father had seemed all right; the next hehad coughed up a huge mouthful of blood. In retrospect he’d been tired and had lost someweight, but there’d been nothing to prepare him for what the doctors found. It was“everywhere,” his mother told Michael on the phone, nearly hysterical.This had been back inDallas. Michael had flown up from Austin to do what he could.Tests had revealed small cell lungcancer, already in both lungs and metastasized to the lymph nodes, too far gone for surgery andnot within what the doctors called “one radiation port.”

    He’d had a round of chemotherapy and then, inexplicably, insisted on coming to the va hospitalin Durham for what everyone understood would be his final weeks.

    Logic was clearly not the issue.There was a huge va hospital in San Antonio, and one of theworld’s finest cancer centers, M.D.Anderson, in Houston. But North Carolina was where he and

    Michael’s mother had met and married, where he’d begun his career in the constructionbusiness, where Michael had been born.And it was apparently where he had determined to die.

    “Take care of him,” Michael said to the charge nurse, and went back to the Brookwood Inn.


    His cab driver had a heavy accent and was playing a cassette with jangly guitars and handdrums.“What part of Africa are you from?” Michael asked.

    “Benin,” the driver called over his shoulder.“You know it?”

    “I know the name,” Michael said.

    The driver seemed as grateful for someone to talk to as he was for the fare. In the two monthshe’d been in the US, the dream that had brought him eight thousand miles had already begun tofade. He worked 24-hour days, dozing in the cab between infrequent jobs.“Too many cabbies, notenough work,” he said. It was Saturday morning and the sun was not yet up.They were headingeast on the Durham Freeway, the road Michael’s father had helped to build. As they crested ahill, the lights of downtown Durham spread to the horizon on Michael’s left.The city seemedfrozen in time, low to the ground, built of old-fashioned brick and granite and concrete.Liggett & Myers and the American Tobacco Company, sometime rulers of the city’s economy, hadlong since moved to New York.The red brick shells of their office complexes and warehouses hadbeen reborn as condos and mini-malls.American Tobacco’s signature water tower and smokestack,complete with newly repainted Lucky Strike logo, now overlooked the last stages of a majorrenovation project.

    Michael’s father had smoked Lucky Strike for over 50 years.

    Next door was the swank new Durham Bulls Athletic Park, whose brickwork seamlessly matched itssurroundings. Next to that was an auto dealership, and after that, absences.The parking garagethat took the place of the train station that had given Durham its name.The vacant lots andabandoned buildings that used to be the most prosperous black neighborhood in the South.

    It was called Hayti for the Caribbean island, but pronounced with a long final “i”:hate-eye.Over 500

    black businesses had fallen to the bulldozer when the Durham Freeway went through the middle ofit.All that was left was St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, coming up now on theright.The original building dated to 1891; the modern brick extension that grew out of thesouth side was the Hayti Heritage Center. Further south along Fayetteville Street were thesprawling Victorian homes that had once belonged to the first families of Hayti, and beyondthat the campus of North Carolina Central University, formerly North Carolina College forNegroes.

    These few facts Michael had learned in the last week from a black janitor at the hospital, aman Michael’s age with wild hair and a long, pointed beard. He called Michael “youngbrother,” and asked where he was from. He’d started talking about Durham’s history beforeMichael could tell him about his father’s part in it; by the time he’d finished, Michael nolonger wanted to mention it. The sun was lightening the sky in the southeast, and suddenlyMichael saw something at the top of the St. Joseph’s steeple that he’d missed in the dozen ormore times he’d driven past it in the last month.

    “Turn around, can you?” he said to the driver.

    “Sir?” Michael could see the driver staring at him in the rearview mirror. He realized howunhinged he must look—over six feet tall, not overweight, exactly, but soft and pale, thinningbrown hair, bloodshot eyes, slept-in clothes, possessions in plastic bags.

    “Take the next exit, turn around, and come back to that church.”

    “You don’t want to go to the hotel?”

    “Yes, in a minute. I need to stop at the church first.”

    The driver shrugged, exited, and turned under the freeway. Run-down houses were visible fromthe access road, partly obscured by oaks and sycamores in a riot of autumnal orange and

yellow.They crossed the freeway again and pulled into the asphalt parking lot.

    “Stop here for a second,” Michael said.Along the south retaining wall someone had paintednames and primitive likenesses of famous Hayti residents: Moore, Merrick, and Shepard, who’dfounded North Carolina Mutual Life, along with other names that Michael didn’t know. Steps ledup to the brick and steel of the Heritage Center, and above it all towered the steeple. Michaelreached for the car door.

    “You are getting out here?” the driver asked nervously.

    “Just for a second.”

    From where he stood, resting his hands on the open door, he could see the thing at the top ofthe steeple clearly. It was made of black wrought iron, an intricate design of intersectingcurves, heart shaped, on an axis like a weather vane.

    Michael reached into the cab and dug a sketchbook out of one of the plastic bags.“Keep themeter running,” he told the driver. He got the thing down in a couple of minutes. Roger couldtell him exactly what it was, but Michael didn’t need him to know it had no business on top ofa church. He got in the cab.“You know what that is?” he asked the driver.

    “It’s a church, sir.”

    “The thing on top of the steeple.Where the cross should be.”

    “I never saw that before.”

    vévé ,” Michael said.“It’s the symbol of a voodoo god.”“It’s called a

    Michael was the artist on a comic book named Luna, and issues 17 through 20 had been set in

    New Orleans.The writer, Roger Fornbee, had sent the title character there to battle the Haitiansnake lwa, Damballah. Roger had made a point of saying vodou instead of voodoo, and he’dshipped Michael stacks of books for research. His scripts, detailed as always, called for vévé

     s woven into the background texture of the panels.The heart shape belonged to Erzulie, a sortof vodou love goddess, though potentially a rather prickly and dangerous one.

    When he used his credit card to check in at the hotel it occurred to him that he was leaving anobvious trail. His parents could find him with little effort, if they wanted to.Whether theywould bother was another question.

    He carried his things up to his room and used his cell phone to call Roger. In LA it was barelypast 3 am, meaning Roger would be in full caffeine and nicotine stride, sending out long,rambling emails, flipping through reference books with page crumpling intensity, and, if upagainst the tail end of a deadline, possibly even writing.

    His wife of some years, whom Roger had known since they were kids, kept normal hours, senttheir two daughters off to grade school, cooked, cleaned house, and answered most of Roger’sfan mail in his name. She never traveled and Michael had never met her, never even talked toher on the phone, as Roger always used his “mobile,” as he called it.

    “It’s me,” Michael said.

    “So it is,” Roger said, in what he’d once explained was not a “British accent” but a NorthLondon public school accent.“What’s the latest on the old


    “Well, in our last episode, you may remember, they had to discontinue the chemo because thecancer had moved into his spinal column and they needed to irradiate that. Now they’ve had toknock off the radiation because his lungs are losing function.”

    “Christ. Poor bastard.”

    “Stubborn bastard.This is probably it. I don’t think he’s got more than a couple of weeksleft at most, and he still won’t talk to me.”

    “Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe there’s not some vital secret he’s keeping from you.”

    “No.Yesterday he let something slip.We were talking about hospitals and I mentioned being bornin Watts Hospital, which used to be here in Durham, right? And he looked at me and

    said,‘Watts?’ in that tone he has, like I’ve just said something too stupid to bebelieved.Then he recovered and said,‘Oh yeah,Watts, right.’ ”

    “C’mon, Michael, with all he’s been through...”

    “So I went to Durham Regional, where they still have the old files from Watts, and there’s norecord of my birth.”

    “There’s any number of...”

    “You weren’t there.You didn’t see the look on his face.” Michael felt his throat closing,realized how close he was to tears.

    “Michael.They’ve got social workers there at the hospital.You might want to talk to one ofthem.Things with your father were screwed up enough before this, and trying to put all that inorder under this kind of pressure is more

    than you can ask of yourself.”

    “This isn’t me, it’s him.”

    “Listen to yourself, mate.You need to back off a bit.”

    “That’s what I just did. I moved out of the Brookwood and got my own place.” “What did theysay about that?”

    “They don’t know.”

    “Wow.Are you—”

    The connection was suddenly gone, a not infrequent experience with

    Roger. It was typical of the US in the 21st century, Roger said, that they’d all been willingto trade the quality and dependability of land lines for convenience and free long distance.Michael dialed again. Once, after a similar interruption, he’d waited to see if Roger wouldcall back, and he never did.That was Roger: People only truly existed for him when theyimpinged on one of his senses.

    “Look,” Michael said when Roger picked up again,“I just called to let you know. I’ve gotthe computer and I’ll be checking email and everything.” “And drawing? Will you be drawingany pages? Number 25 is due in—” “A week and a half,” Michael said.“I know.”

    To ease his conscience, he spent a couple of hours working at the kitchen table in his suite.Most commercial comics involved an assembly line process. One artist did penciled breakdownsbased on either a script or a plot outline from the writer. The pencils might be rough ordetailed, depending on the artist, the editor, and the deadline. If the writer had onlyprovided a plot, copies of the pencils went back to the writer for dialogue.Then a letterer putin the word balloons, captions, and borders, and an embellisher “finished” the pencil art inblack ink. Finally yet another artistic team scanned the black and white art into a computer,added color, and made the separations for printing. Michael had made his reputation partlythrough speed. He’d sketched in ink as far back as high school art class, and he did his ownlettering. He blocked out his pages in non-reproducing blue pencil, only going to graphite in afew places where he needed to be sure of detail—the niceties of a facial expression, the exactgesture of a hand. He did the lettering to relax, two or three pages at a time, and then wentback to inking.

    The process gave his art a spontaneity and energy that fans responded to. His editors happilypaid him for all three jobs and still saved money on FedEx charges and missed deadlines. He’dhooked up with Roger in 2000 with a Batman graphic novel called Sand Castles. Roger lagged

    substantially behind the first wave of British writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison,who’d conquered US comics in the late 1980s, and he’d spent a few years proving he could beas weird, surreal, and violent as any of them. Michael had been drawing superheroes at Marvel

     had been the turning point for both ofand waiting for his chance to break out. Sand Castles

    them. Later, when Roger finished his proposal for —aka LunaThe Adventures of Luna Goodwin

    —he offered it to Michael first. ’s title character was a magician who was firstLuna

    coming into her powers, late twenties, smart and cynical.And attractive, of course.The comics

    audience was overwhelmingly male, and adolescent in taste if not always in age. Luna worked inHollywood as a script consultant, where her—which was to say, Roger’s— extensive knowledgeof the occult was much in demand. She’d changed her name to Louann and was more or less indenial of her abilities and history.

    That history included a Wiccan mother who lived in a tiny Northern California town full ofeccentrics just like her.The town was named Lunaville— Looneyville to Louann—and providedcomic relief when the main plots got too intense.

    Louann had grown up without a father, and her mother claimed not to know which of severalpossible candidates was the one.When Michael’s own father got his diagnosis, Roger suddenlydecided it was time to address the paternity issue.

    Roger delivered the news in one of his typical phone calls, with Michael along only for theride. He wouldn’t do it if Michael objected, he said, though his investment was obvious fromthe way the ideas came tumbling out. He was putting off the follow-up he’d planned to thevodou story. Instead, Louann would go to New Mexico, where the Native American shaman shebelieved was her father was dying of cancer. Louann would try to learn his secrets before itwas too late. Michael had gone along, as he always did. Roger had been idolized by so many forso long that he no longer seemed to understand the concept of refusal.

    The first script had arrived via email within a week. For the sake of form it came throughHelen Silberman, their editor at dc’s Vertigo line of mature audience comics.The fewelectronic comments she’d left in the margins were not enough to provoke Roger’s notorioussensitivity to interference. As always, Michael was impressed with Roger’s ability to make thestory visual. It was set in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, among the Anasazi ruins and the alienlandscape of the Four Corners.There were ghosts of Anasazi warriors, Native American gods, andthe giant talking moth that Roger used to symbolize Death.There were high tech hospital scenesand a little gunplay. In other words, a typical Roger Fornbee story, something that Michaelknew how to draw.

    On the road, Michael used a hardwood laminate drawing board that was only slightly larger thanthe 13

    × 20 inch sheets of Bristol board that Vertigo provided him, preprinted with borders and dclogos in non-repro blue. He spent hours at a time with the board in his lap, turning it fromside to side, letting the blacks on the page find their own natural weight and balance, the tvor radio on in the background, his mind wandering as he worked.

    Today, though, was lettering, which meant the board lay flat on the table, T-square against themetal sides,Ames lettering guide sliding across it to pencil the guidelines. He wasn’t awareof the words as he copied them from the script, only the zen of the letterforms: no hitch inthe S or the C, the O just outside the lines, the bars of the E, F, and T tilted fractionallyupward.

    When he looked at the clock it was 10 am. He called a nearby car rental agency and had themdeliver the cheapest thing they had, which happened to be a silver Toyota Echo, tiny, light,with its trunk sticking up in the air. He dropped off the driver, got a North Carolina map, andmerged onto I40 East. Michael had two names on his list.The first belonged to Greg Vaughan, hisonly living relative in North Carolina.Vaughan was some kind of distant cousin on his mother’sside, still living on the Bynum family farm in rural Johnston County. Despite the area beingprime tobacco country, his grandfather had grown little there but government subsidies.

    At least that was the way Michael’s father told it. Michael himself had only seen hisgrandfather on two occasions, when the old man came to Dallas for Christmas while Michael wasstill in high school.Wilmer Bynum had been in his seventies then, unkempt, surly, and recentlywidowed.The tension between him and Michael’s father had been like an electromagnetic fieldthat left everyone’s hair standing on end. Michael’s mother had shown no inclination to goout to the farm since they’d come back to Durham.“Your father needs me here,” she’d said.Over the years she seemed to have taken on the same attitude that Michael’s father had towardher family, as if she too now found them crude, embarrassing, and best ignored. She hadn’t

    even gone to her father’s funeral two years before. Shortly after he passed through Raleigh’sconcrete sprawl, Michael exited the Interstate onto the US 70

    bypass and crossed the Johnston County line. The trees grew more sparsely than in Durham, andcloser to the ground: live oaks and scrub brush between spindly pines. He passed through acouple of small towns and finally stopped at the first likely looking business he came to inWest Smithfield, an antiques store in a freestanding white building.

    A woman in her sixties wandered among the shelves of colored glass bowls, aluminum pots, dolls,cookbooks, and broken lampshades.“Can I help you?” she asked.

    “I’m looking for the old Bynum farm. I know it’s somewhere around here, but I don’t knowthe way. I was hoping you might.”

    She straightened up and gave him a thorough looking over.“What’s your interest, if I mayask?”

    “I’m Wilmer Bynum’s grandson.”

    “Which grandson would that be?” She didn’t sound so much hostile as cautious.“I don’t seea lot of family resemblance.”

    “I’m Michael Cooper, and I’m his only grandson that I know of.” He put out his hand andleft it there until she reluctantly took it.“They tell me I take after my father, RobertCooper. He married Ruth Bynum in 1962.”

    “I was at the wedding. Most of the county was.” She squinted at him.“You hoping to findWilmer there?”

    “Is that a trick question? He died two years ago.And yes, I guess I am hoping to findsomething of him there.And if not him, maybe Greg Vaughan.”

    She nodded.“I’m Martha Wingate. I’ve got a son Tom your age. Sorry to be suspicious. Hasn’tbeen anybody asking after Wilmer in some time, but I guess old habits die hard.”

    “What was it people were asking about?”

    She looked down at the green Depression glass pitcher in her hands. “Wilmer was prettyimportant around here. People always wanted to consult him on things.”

    “What sort of things?”

    “You name it. Crop rotation, politics, domestic disputes.”

    People wanting to discuss crop rotation, Michael thought, would already know where to findWilmer Bynum. He saw nothing to gain by contradicting her.“So how would I get to the farm?”

    Mrs.Wingate drew him a map, complete with landmarks, on the back of a photocopied flyer for aflea market. Michael admired her strong, clear lines. “This is perfect,” he said.“Thanks.”

    “You see old Wilmer hanging around, you tell him hey for me.”

    “You think that’s likely?”

    “Wilmer never did concede anyone dominion over him. Not the state of North Carolina, not thefederal government, not even God Himself. It’s hard to imagine Death fared much better.”

    As the map promised, the mailbox still said “Bynum.” Michael could see the house from theroad. Once it had been a standard Victorian style farmhouse, complete with wraparound porch andgabled second story, until someone with more ambition than skill had begun building on. AsMichael inched the car up the long, rutted dirt driveway, he made out at least three separateadditions, two angling out from the ground floor and a third sprawling across the other two.Thelower walls had been finished with wooden siding at least vaguely similar to that on the restof the house, while the upper was done in decorative exterior plywood. In places the once-whitepaint had blistered away, exposing gray wood underneath; in others the paint looked fresh.Allthe windows were intact, and the roof didn’t show any obvious sag or damage.

    The fields were in a similar holding pattern, mowed and free of trash, yet not growing anythinguseful.The place seemed habitable at the same time that it looked like no one had lived therein years. It was a bright, cool October day. Michael rolled his window down and inhaled the

vivid odors of dust, weeds, and distant water.

    The driveway intersected another dirt road at the house. Michael turned left and finally sawhis first sign of life, a vegetable garden behind a tractor shed, surrounded by chicken wire tokeep out the deer and rabbits.A few late tomatoes made splotches of yellow and orange againstthe green. When he looked back at the road in front of him, a huge German Shepherd was chargingstraight at the car.

    Michael hit the brakes, afraid the dog would go under his wheels. It began to dance around thecar, barking furiously, and lunging at Michael even as he quickly rolled his window up again.Michael hadn’t paid for the damage waiver on the car, so he hit the horn.The dog jumpedbackward, barking with a deeper and more threatening tone, the black hair standing up along itsspine. He took the window down an inch and said, with as much authority as he couldmanage,“Hey! Chill out!”The dog quieted for a second and looked at him almost wistfullybefore going ballistic again.“Okay,”

    Michael said,“fine. I can take a hint.” He put the car in reverse, and as he looked over hisshoulder he saw a man walking toward the rear of the car.

    He wore jeans, a T-shirt, a red plaid flannel shirt, and a John Deere cap pulled low over hiseyes. He had a short beard and dark blond hair hanging to his shoulders.“Henry!” the manshouted, and the dog turned to look at him as if to say, I’m doing my job here, what’s yourproblem?

    “Heel,” the man said, and snapped his fingers twice.The dog looked at Michael to let him knowthis wasn’t his idea, then trotted over to the man’s side and stood with his right shoulderby the man’s knee.The man snapped his fingers once, pointed downward, and said,“Sit,” andthe dog obeyed. Michael rolled his window the rest of the way down again.“You Greg Vaughan?”

    “Last time I checked.”The man hunkered down to stroke the golden fur of the dog’s chest.

    “I’m Michael Cooper. I’m Wilmer Bynum’s grandson.”

    Vaughan, to Michael’s surprise, stood up without making a move toward the car.“I know who youare.”

    “You do?”

    “You and your father and Ruth came back to Durham a month ago.”

    Vaughan’s accent was a more pronounced version of the one Michael’s mother had, like a crossbetween Deep South and Boston.“That’s right,” Michael said.

    “You didn’t call, didn’t write, didn’t let me know. I had to find out about it from myneighbors.”

    “That was my father’s doing. If I get out of the car, is Henry going to take my arm off?”

    “Not unless I tell him to.”

    Michael hadn’t been much at sports, and he’d gotten roughed up in junior high. By high schoolhe’d grown up and filled out and he found he didn’t have to do a lot to get smaller kids toback down. It was more like stubbornness than courage, and the habit had stayed with him. Hegot out of the car, squatted by the dog, and offered the back of his left hand. Henry looked atit, seemed to shrug, and gave it a non-committal lick. Michael stood up and offered the otherone to Vaughan, who took it with reasonable grace.

    “I don’t know what went on between my father and the Bynum side of the family,” Michaelsaid.“That was him and not me. Can we talk?”

    Vaughan took a moment to consider. He was older than Michael had first thought, in his early tomid-fifties.The sun had creased his face like a note that had been folded and refolded and keptin a dirty pocket.“All right,” Vaughan said at last, and as he turned away Michael noticedfor the first time a trailer in a field beyond the tractor shed, a small green single-wide on acinder-block foundation, with a built-on screen porch.A battered half-ton pickup was parkednext to it.

    They walked together toward the trailer.Vaughan’s silence was amiable enough and Michaelrelaxed enough to note the warmth of the sun on his skin, the uncomplicated joy of the dogorbiting around them, the crunch of their shoes in the dry soil.

    Vaughan opened the screen door and gestured for Michael to go in first. The interior surprisedhim; it was as spotless and tightly organized as the galley of a submarine.The living room helda foldout sofa, recliner,tv, vcr, and two painted metal tv trays.The white walls were devoid ofpictures, mirrors, or knickknack shelves. Michael looked through into a small kitchen withgleaming counters.

    “Coffee?” Vaughan offered. He gestured to the couch and Michael sat. “There’s still half apot from this morning if you don’t mind reheated.”

    “That’s fine.”

    “I expect there’s a beer in the fridge if you wanted something stronger.”

    “Coffee would be great. I’m not much of a drinker.”

     paintersumi-eVaughan nodded his approval. He stood at the stove with the air of a Japanese in front of a sheet of rice paper. He took a box of wooden matches out of an overhead cabinetand struck one.As it flared, his face responded with something between fascination and hunger.Michael found the rawness of it uncomfortable. Slowly Vaughan reached for the knob that turnedon the right front burner, and slowly brought the match to the gas. He didn’t react at all tothe whoosh as the gas caught, just watched the flames for another second or two and then shookout the match an instant before it would have burned his fingers.

    He set an old-fashioned aluminum coffee pot on the burner and put the matches away. Reachinginto the same cabinet with both hands, he took out two oversized ceramic cups, turned themright side up, and set them on the counter with perfect economy of motion.“Cream or sugar?”

    “Black is good for me.”

    Vaughan took out a plastic canister of sugar, opened the top with the same crisp precision, andput three spoons of sugar into one of the cups.

    “Did you ever tend bar?” Michael asked.

    “No, why?”

    “The way you move, I don’t know.”

    “I went into the Army out of high school. Did two hitches in Vietnam, right through to theend, and got out in ’74.After that some carpentry, handyman for an apartment complex, securityguard for a while. Been farming the last twenty years.”

    Steam began to waft from the pot.Vaughan cut off the gas and poured two cups, handing the onewithout sugar to Michael.

    Vaughan didn’t ask, so Michael didn’t offer his own history. He tasted the coffee instead. Itwas strong and acidic, but far from the worst he’d ever had. Finally he said,“My father cameback here to die, you know.”

    “Yes. Cancer.” Vaughan pronounced the word the way Michael’s mother did: first syllable like“cane,”

    no “r” in the second.

    “That’s right. End stage lung cancer. I don’t think he has more than a few days left. I cameup here with him thinking he would talk to me, that maybe we could...” His own rising emotionscut him off. Vaughan nodded with something like sympathy.“I never knew who my daddy was. Mymomma died when I was nine and Mr. Bynum took me in to raise. She may have only been aseventeenth cousin or some such, but that was good enough for him. I was family.That was thekind of man he was.”

    “Look, I’m sorry I never knew what kind of man he was.That’s part of the reason I’m here.”

    Vaughan took a long drink and set the cup on a coaster on a tv tray.“So what do you want toknow?”

“Did you know my mother before she was married?”

    “Only to speak to. She was already gone off to college when I came here.”

    “Do you know what started the trouble between Grandpa and my father?”

    “I don’t think Mr. Bynum ever knew.Try as he might to be philosophical about it, you couldsee that it really hurt him. He loved your mama, and he couldn’t understand why your fatherhad to move so far away, and why he got shut out.”

    “What’s the story on the house?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Is nobody living there? What’s with all the weird additions?”

    “Nobody’s lived there since Mr. Bynum died. He was a very old-fashioned kind of man, the kindof man that changed the world to fit him instead of the other way around. Liked to do thingshimself, with his own two hands. He needed a new roof, he’d round up some of the neighbors andput one on. He got to feeling cramped, he’d take out a wall and add on some floor space. Maybenot the best carpenter in the world, but he got the job done.”

    “Who owns the place now?”

    “Well, it got carved up pretty good when Mr. Bynum died.At one point he owned fifteen hundredacres. He was a very big man in these parts. But he had to sell off a parcel here and a parcelthere, and then a lot got sold for taxes after he passed.Your mother and her two sisters gotparcels.This here piece you’re sitting on, including the house and on out to the highway, ismine now. Mr. Bynum left it to me.”

    “The house didn’t go to any of the sisters?”

    “They had no interest in working the land.They’d all gone off—your mother to Texas, Estherto California, Naomi to Minnesota.They all sold off their parcels, the way he knew they would.I was the only one stayed around to take care of him all those last years. None of the sisterseven came for the funeral.‘I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelledagainst me,’ the Lord said to Isaiah.‘They are gone away backward.’ ”

    “I thought Aunt Esther was in Virginia.” Naomi, he knew, had been dead for several years.

    “She moved to Richmond a few years ago. So I hear.”

    “You haven’t seen her.”

    Vaughan shook his head, a movement so small it was almost a tic.

    “So if the house is yours now...”

    “Why don’t I live in it? It’s a reasonable question.The answer is it’s too big for me. I’drattle around in there like a BB in a boxcar.”

    “Can I see the inside?”

    It was like he’d asked to borrow Vaughan’s last fifty dollars.After a pained silence,Vaughansaid,“Mr. Bynum never did like having people inside his house.”

    “I heard people used to come around all the time, looking for advice.”

    “Mr. Bynum liked to chat with folks on the front porch, sometimes in the parlor in the winter,but he was a very private man for all of that.”

    “I’m not folks. I’m family. I’d like to see the inside.”

    They played Mexican standoff for a few seconds more. Michael felt he had the edge: My father

     while we’re sitting here.is dying

    Apparently he got it across.Vaughan finally stood up, took one last drink of coffee, andsaid,“All right. Come on.”

    He took a set of keys off a hook by the front door and then held the door open for Michael.Asthey walked toward the main house, Henry the German Shepherd trotted up and fell into placenext to Vaughan.

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