Damon and Coriolanus were two middle-aged white men with busy schedules, but they tried to set up a lunch date once a month. They took turns buying.
About once every five or six outings, Damon would arrive to find Coriolanus already sitting there with a third man, a man younger and more imposing than Damon and Coriolanus, a famous photojournalist with whom Damon and Coriolanus were acquainted.
“I forgot to tell you, I ran into this guy and invited him,” Coriolanus would say. The photojournalist was always on the verge of leaving for somewhere dangerous and exciting early the next morning. His life was urgent.
Damon didn’t mind. He liked how brash the photojournalist was, though the man’s manner made him nervous. Confidence and talent and worldliness unsettled Damon. Plus, he usually had some big, unimportant thing he’d planned to discuss with Coriolanus, always shunted aside by the photojournalist’s seismic appearance. But variety is nice.
This time the photojournalist said, referring to his own presence, “You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, it’s great!” said Damon. “I had a big breakup speech planned for Coriolanus, but we can do that later.”
“You have a secret undercover homosexual relationship,” said the photojournalist.
Well, now he had made Damon’s mild joke sound crass, laced with smirking homophobia. Damon, of course, had not intended this, nor did he tolerate such in his daily dealings. Or maybe the photojournalist had tapped into and revealed the inherent ugliness of Damon’s unconscious attitudes about everything in the universe. Either way, Damon didn’t like it. He supposed he had been passive-aggressively expressing disappointment over not getting to hang out with Coriolanus alone, but yes, within the first few moments this wily photojournalist had managed to prod at something painful and unseemly, an undiscovered abscess of intolerance, no doubt.
“You were kissing me on the cheek a lot at the bar last night,” said Coriolanus.
“I was?” said Damon. It was true that when he got drunk he liked to kiss everybody on the cheek.
“No, it was okay,” said Coriolanus.
Damon was sitting on the same side of the table as the photojournalist. The photojournalist was fat, but he was a tall man—he carried his weight boldly. Damon was short and fat, so their fat legs kept touching accidentally. Damon scooted away as best he could.
Coriolanus showed them a big cyst on his neck—at least he hoped it was a cyst.
“That’s all right, if you die, I’ll comfort Millicent,” said Damon. “I’ll be like, ‘There, there. Hey, no, wait, Millicent, what are you doing? I didn’t mean it that way. Control yourself! Coriolanus was my friend. Well, okay, if you think it will bring you closure.’ ”
“So you’re implying you would screw his wife if he died,” said the photojournalist. “That’s fucked up.”
The photojournalist always talked so loud! Innocent families could hear him saying “screw” and “fucked up.” Damon looked around, but he couldn’t see any families jumping or twitching or flinching or anything.
Damon thought the joke was fine. It was a little scenario he was painting with words. He and Coriolanus should have been alone. They had known each other for 30 years. They got it. Coriolanus would have understood Damon’s impulse to make up a diverting fairy tale that was neither plausible nor desirable to Damon. Damon was happily married to Violetta! Coriolanus knew that. Once again, though, hearing his fancies translated into the bluntest possible terms by the photojournalist made Damon realize that he was no better at heart than a so-called locker-room talker on the level of a Donald Trump. Finesse and impish, twinkling creativity called down no absolution! In fact, they made matters worse!
“When I die I’m going to try as hard as I can to come back as a ghost,” said Damon. “I want to check up on Violetta and see what she’s doing.” Here he was trying to get back in the good graces of the table by unforgivably implying misbehavior on the part of his wife. Of course, it wouldn’t be misbehavior. It is perfectly natural to move on at some point after the death of a loved one. Still, Damon felt he was descending deeper and deeper into a slough of masculinity.
“You’ll be sad when you show up as a ghost and everybody’s already in line for the gangbang,” said the photojournalist.
Gangbang! The word boomed out. The photojournalist should have made his living on the other side of the camera, in broadcasting. His voice was so clear and commanding and emphatic and loud. Gangbang! The waitress was coming over to pour more water. What must she think of them?
As far as Damon could recall, the word gangbang implied nonconsensual intercourse, among other horrors. Was that correct? From his jovial tone, however, the photojournalist obviously had an alternate definition in mind. His implication was that Violetta would immediately, upon Damon’s death, willingly open the doors of their home to an endless line of suitors. No—lovers! Lovers who, in the photojournalist’s estimation, would take their pleasure with Violetta in a steady stream, like factory workers punching a clock in constant shifts. His wife was being grossly insulted, not that there was anything sinful about enjoying the company of numerous attentive men. Damon weighed the pros and cons of defending his wife’s honor. Or was assuming that her honor had been insulted a dishonor in itself? Plus he had ordered a steak, and he knew if Violetta asked, he might lie and say he got the roast chicken. In the best case scenario, she wouldn’t ask. He usually couldn’t stop himself from saying he got the steak, but he had eaten one just the other day. Violetta was right to be concerned!
Coriolanus offered that if he came back as a ghost, he would watch everybody having sex.
“You know that’s what all the ghosts are doing,” said the photojournalist.
“I was so drunk last night,” Damon said, truly disturbed that he could not remember kissing Coriolanus on the cheek. “You know, when I was walking home, the cops got me! They stopped me in the parking lot of the Abner’s chicken place.”
“No!” said Coriolanus.
“They said, ‘Did you just come out of the Wine Bar?’ And I was actually insulted! I was thinking, ‘That’s where idiots go.’ But I didn’t say it. I said, ‘No! I was at the Green Bear!’ They said, ‘Well you fit the description of a guy who’s urinating in public.’ You know me. I would never urinate in public. But I can imagine somebody who looks like me doing it.”
“What did they do?”
“They thought I was the notorious public urine sprayer! The self exposer! They thought I was a man lacking in basic discipline. But I was like, ‘I live a block away. I live right over there! You can just about see my house from here. Why would I pee in the street?’ ”
“You could pee at home,” said the photojournalist.
“They conferred about it, and I guess they thought I had a point, because they let me go.”
“I wish I could’ve heard what they were saying about you while they were talking,” said the photojournalist.
“I think they checked up and saw I don’t have a record. They said, ‘How long have you lived here?’ I was like, ‘Ten years!’ You know what I was thinking? I was thinking, ‘If I was a black man, I’d be in jail right now.’”
Everyone agreed it was true.
“Do you know why?” said the photojournalist.
Damon was nervous about what the photojournalist was going to say.
“In a town this small, you don’t want to cuff the wrong person. Somebody important could be your daddy.”
Nobody could be Damon’s daddy. Look at Damon’s mostly white beard.
“But if you’re a black guy around here, nobody important is going to be your daddy, that’s the assumption.”
Damon glanced around for the nearest party containing black people, and for the nearest black member of the wait staff. Not that the photojournalist was saying anything definitively bad—he wasn’t endorsing the racist practices of law enforcement—but his voice was so loud and brimming with glee, he might sound to someone who didn’t know him as if he were taking some pleasure from the lucky cards that Damon had been dealt from the bottom of the deck as a white person under this terrible regime, not to mention all the regimes around here that had preceded it. No one was paying attention to the photojournalist. Maybe this was all Damon’s problem.
“I don’t understand public drunkenness,” said Damon. “I mean, why is it bad? It’s legal to get drunk, but then you can’t walk home? It’s legal to get drunk, but it’s not legal to be drunk. I mean, they really had me on public drunkenness. I thought they were taking me in, I tell you.”
“Did I tell y’all about my confrontation?” said Coriolanus.
“No!” said Damon and the photojournalist.
“I have this little toolshed where I go to get away from my kids. And Millie called back there to say a cop was coming in because people had been spotted running around in the drainage ditch behind our house. You know I’m smoking a bowl, so I stick it in my pocket just as he’s coming in the door. Nobody can fit in this place! His hulking silhouette is filling the door, and then he just comes in. He’s in his uniform, and his shoulders are filling the doorway. I don’t know how he fit. The shed is no bigger than this table. And I’m crouching there and he’s looming over me and he says, ‘Smokin’ weed?’ And I say, ‘No, that must be my cigar.’ Because I had a lit cigar lying there for cover.”
“Cover!” said the photojournalist. “Smart! I never would’ve thought of that.”
“And he sniffs the air and says, ‘Yeah, that could be it.’ But he didn’t believe me.”
“How could he come in?” said the photojournalist.
“I don’t know, it’s such a small space,” said Coriolanus.
“No, I mean how could he just come into your shed without permission?”
“Oh, uh, he had plenty of probable cause. People running around in a drainage ditch back there, and then he smells weed coming out of this structure. He said, ‘Have you seen people running through this ditch before?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s a neighborhood tradition—you run through the tunnels, and that ditch is considered part of the network of tunnels.’ And that was it.”
“I just sit on my front porch and smoke weed,” the photojournalist gloated.
The photojournalist’s wife was about to have their first child, and he said his only demand for the baby’s room was a huge map of the world, the hugest one that was available anywhere. “The trick is, you only ever demand one thing, and you don’t have an opinion about anything else. When we were designing the house, I said, ‘I just want the hugest bathtub they make and the hugest television in the world to go on my deck. Anything else I have no opinion whatsoever. Do whatever you want.’ Then they’re happy. You only demand one thing, you’ll get it.”
Damon was considering that a bathtub and a TV were two things, but he didn’t say it.
“You wanted the William Howard Taft bathtub,” he said.
“That’s what I got!” said the photojournalist.
Damon was momentarily confused. He knew in his heart that the photojournalist could not literally mean to say that he bought the bathtub legendarily installed in the White House after William Howard Taft had gotten stuck in a smaller one. The photojournalist did, however, enjoy an extravagant life style filled with hair-raising adventures and luxurious perquisites that Damon could not possibly imagine.
“William Howard Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub, so they had to make him a bigger one,” said Damon, in case anyone at the table hadn’t heard that probably fictitious story.
“My bathtub is six feet long!” said the photojournalist, laughing. For some reason it made Damon think of a grave.
“How big is your TV?” said Coriolanus.
“It’s probably six feet on a diagonal,” said the photojournalist.
“You could put it in your bathtub!” said Damon. “That’s the dream.”
Now everybody was laughing and happy.
“Hey,” said Damon. “Hey, are you gonna get your kid some of those giant stuffed animals, like a life-size baby elephant or something?”
“No, I thought I’d just have you come over instead,” said the photojournalist.
Damon felt proud of himself for laughing it off, but the look he gave Coriolanus said, “What the hell did I do to deserve that?” For unless he was mistaken, the photojournalist had just compared him physically to an elephant.
Let’s look at the photojournalist. Here was a guy who would definitely need a dedicated gang of workmen with two-by-fours to pry him out of a regulation bathtub. Yes, Damon had a weight problem. But nothing requiring levers and pulleys. Was it the privilege of the tall fat man, in general, to mock the roly-poly short fat man?
Damon had to wonder whether he had unknowingly insulted the photojournalist by mentioning big stuffed animals. He couldn’t see how. Damon’s intention had been to build on the humorous listing of large objects to which everyone seemed to be contributing.
Damon walked home thinking about all the ways he had failed, both on this day and overall throughout his life, his pervasive moral cowardice. He was also kicking himself for springing for the photojournalist’s lunch. But it was his turn to pay, and that’s the way it was, unexpected guest or no. That was the established system. It would seem strange to work the photojournalist into the system, as he showed up so rarely. It would be unsportsmanlike not to pay the full tab.
Damon walked past the Abner’s chicken place where the police had stopped him the night before. He looked at the short brick ledge on which he had settled while they had figured out what to do with him. Funny. He had walked by it thousands of times and never noticed its particulars. In his imagination, the stack of bricks on which he had sat had been taller, like that brick wall where Charlie Brown and Linus used to lean on their arms to talk. That had to be a short wall, didn’t it? He couldn’t imagine that Charlie Brown and Linus climbed up on some scaffolding to reach it. But these bricks didn’t even come up to Damon’s knees, as he could see in the cold light of day. It was an enclosure, strangely shaped, almost a triangle, but with a weird curve to one of the sides. There was nothing inside the three-sided brick wall but some black soil that looked rich and full of nutrients, though nothing was growing in it. The only thing rising up was the fat black metal pole that bore the Abner’s sign on top. They should plant a little garden in there or something. What was it for? Damon guessed it was to keep cars from knocking over the Abner’s sign. And for drunks to rest on while police officers shined flashlights on them.
You know, what should he have done? Should he have demanded to be taken to jail because this wasn’t the way they’d treat a black man in the same situation? He couldn’t imagine any gesture on his part, in that flash of time, that would have helped expose the plight of systematic racial inequity in America.
He was glad he had not been obliged to spend the night in a cell. That had happened to two friends of his, and neither had described it in pleasant or desirable terms. He was glad Violetta had not suffered the inconvenience and humiliation of bailing him out. He was happy about not incurring court costs. Did that mean he was satisfied to reap the undeserved benefits of being a white man? He couldn’t figure it out, or maybe he didn’t want to.
When Violetta got home from work, she asked whether he had had a nice lunch. He said yes. That was an easy question and didn’t require admitting that he had consumed a 14-ounce New York strip. Later, much later, by which time he certainly thought he was in the clear, Damon stood before a bookcase, scanning it for something he couldn’t find. Violetta walked up behind him.
“What did you have for lunch?” she said.
“The roast chicken,” he replied, without turning around and looking her in the eyes.
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