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.”