Read Black Betty Online

Authors: Walter Mosley

Tags: #Los Angeles (Calif.), #Private investigators, #Mystery & Detective, #African American men - California - Los Angeles, #Rawlins; Easy (Fictitious character), #General, #Literary, #American, #Literary Criticism, #Mystery fiction, #African American, #Fiction, #Private investigators - California - Los Angeles, #African American men

Black Betty (6 page)

BOOK: Black Betty
8.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

I had no desire to sit there. Not only did a terrible smell come out from the hole but the commode was fouled with dark black drippings that had flowed both in and out of the bowl.

I noticed that the black dollops were all over the room, dried by the sun beaming down into the roofless toilet. In one corner, behind the funnel, was a thick glop of the stuff festooned with a white boil.

I sank to my knees then. If someone had seen me I would have told them that it was to get a closer look at that white pustule. But the truth was closer to the fact that I had just realized the depth of my troubles.

With my pocketknife and handkerchief I teased the tooth out of its cake of dry blood. A full molar with long, hungry-looking roots. It could have been used for a dentist’s display. It was so perfect that you would have thought it was plastic. But who would put a plastic tooth in a pool of blood under their toilet?



NOBODY WAS WAITING for me at the turnoff. I stopped there long enough to put Dickhead’s auto parts and phone out in the road. I kept the sawed-off along with a few of Marlon’s personal items: his letters, his wallet, and a magazine with the blurred photographs of naked black women.




— 7 —



IT WAS LATE BY THE TIME I’d made it back home. Almost seven. The sun was throwing its last long shadows across the city. I pulled up into the driveway but before I got past the front lawn a man ran out in front of the car. I hit the brake and cursed.

He was a tall white man with long black hair generously streaked in gray. He had a thick black mustache that was a triplet brother to the hair over each of his eyes.

Roger “Lucky” Horn was a retired air force officer. He’d run the PX at Norton Air Force Base for fourteen years. Before that he flew supplies in behind enemy lines to the partisans for most of World War Two.

Lucky was from California originally. His wife, April, and he had been high school sweethearts in Santa Barbara. They married a week before Black Friday and the beginning of the Great Depression.

Lucky had deep-set eyes that were dark and dull; impenetrable, like a religious zealot’s. I never heard him bad-mouth anybody and he held an open invitation for me and the kids to go with them to their church on Olympic Boulevard any Sunday. April baked sweets for Feather and Jesus at least once a week, and her back door was always open for a bruised knee or for lemonade and a few moments’ rest.

When I was away the Horns looked out for the kids. They were real people and so I rarely thought about them being white.

“Don’t go back there, Easy,” he said in my window.

“Why not?”

“Come on over in my backyard and I’ll show you.”

I didn’t want to go anywhere, but we were friends and neighbors. So I followed the stooped ex-pilot down the long driveway to his backyard. Every once in a while he’d turn to me and put his finger to his lips.

Instead of a fence separating our properties there were planted all kinds of trees and shrubbery. Jacaranda, kumquat, magnolia, and trimmed bamboo made our borderline. Ferns and honeysuckle closed up any gaps that might allow you to see from one yard to the other. I kept my side of the yard cut back and trim. I liked the sun shining down on us. But Lucky let the trees hang over the driveway so that you had the feeling that you were entering a jungle path, some dark tunnel into another time.

Mrs. Horn was standing next to the wall of leaves in the backyard. She was very excited, almost jumping up and down, batting a finger against her lips so that I wouldn’t make a mistake and break out into a rendition of “What’d I Say?”

Solemnly Lucky brushed his bony wife aside. Then he carefully parted the wall of ferns and gestured with his head for me to look through the hole.

As tired as I was, I had to smile when I gazed out into my own yard. It was an open plot of grass surrounded by bushes that sported large mottled red-and-yellow roses. It was a picture-perfect yard in my opinion, but that’s not what made me smile. Jesus and Feather were there. They both had on swimming trunks and were reclining on a big cardboard box that they’d flattened for a sun blanket. Near them the green water hose sputtered, the nozzle turned closed with the water still on. Whenever I was late and Feather started to get scared that I’d never come home again, Juice would do something like let her play in the water.

Juice had his hands behind his head with his eyes closed. Feather copied his pose but I couldn’t tell about her eyes, because she wore a pair of Snow White black-lensed glasses we’d brought home from Disneyland.

I made up my mind to be a better father to them. What was I doing way out in the desert dueling with some strange white man? I was all they had, and here I was squandering my time on needless danger when they were so beautiful right there in our own paradise.

I made to turn away. I was going to go home and hug those children, call Mr. L-Y-N-X, send him his money, and go out looking for a regular job that would have me living right.

But before I could turn, Lucky held out a hand for me to keep on watching. And as if he had magic in his hands, it happened.

“How high is the sun up in the sky, Juice?” Feather asked. And when the mute boy didn’t respond she insisted, “Huh?”

“I don’t know. But it’s real high, all right. I bet you wouldn’t want to fall down from way up there.”

“No sir!” Feather shook her head so hard that the little sunglasses went askew on her head. She was so beautiful that I almost forgot that Jesus had talked.

Jesus reached over and tickled Feather under her arm. She squealed and squirmed. “Stop! Stop!”

“I got you!” He laughed with her. “I got you!”

It was the only time I ever cried from being happy. I staggered away from the wall, and Lucky caught me around the chest, afraid that I might fall I guess. And maybe I would have fallen. I could have let go of myself, because I didn’t believe in the laws of nature right then. Gravity might have let me loose, let me soar up over my house.

“He talked,” April whispered in my ear.

And I didn’t feel like she was some kind of fool telling me what I already knew. She could have said it a thousand times.



I WENT INTO THE HOUSE after that and started dinner. I wanted to run right out into the yard and ask Jesus to say something, but I controlled myself. About ten minutes later Feather came in shouting, “Daddy! Daddy home, Juice!”

She came running in the back door and right into my leg, hugging me and grinning with the kind of love only children can feel. I tousled her light walnut hair and thought for a moment about the daughter that I had somewhere down in Mississippi. The daughter I’d lost.

My wife Regina took Edna, our only daughter, and went down to Mississippi. Sometimes I thought of how Edna was calling my onetime friend Dupree Bouchard her daddy. When I thought about it too long I began to understand how some men say that they were driven to murder.

Jesus came in a minute after Feather. He looked at me, and my heart skipped with anticipation. Then he walked over to us and hugged me. He looked up into my eyes and smiled the same silent greeting he’d given me for years.

“Hold on!” I shouted and turned away to the stove as if my oil were burning in the skillet. Maybe I should have let him see me cry—but men didn’t cry where I survived childhood.

I made hamburgers and an avocado salad with tomatoes, onion, and minced garlic for dinner. The kids ate up every bite and sent me back to the kitchen to make more.

Feather told me all about her day at school. How she got mad at some little boy for not liking her and how they saw big hairy elephants in a book and then they made one.

Jesus nodded, smiled, and hunched his shoulders to answer my questions. He’d won the meet that Hamilton High had against Dorsey; was the only runner from Hami to take first place.

I spent many long and tense hours talking to the boy’s vice principal about Juice before he got into running. Other boys would make fun of him because he was Mexican and silent and small. But in spite of his size, Jesus was completely fearless. He’d never stop fighting until his opponent quit. And he wasn’t afraid to bleed or face more than one in a fight.

They wanted to put him in a correctional high school, but I said no. I was prepared to keep him home rather than let them make him into some kind of delinquent.

But then Coach Mark had him run the mile one day—and that was it for correctional school. Hamilton had a star, and they made sure the other boys left him alone.

He was my son. A son of preference. We weren’t blood, but he wanted to live with me and I wanted to have him—how many fathers and sons can say that?

But still I was hurt that he wouldn’t talk to me.




“Huh?” she answered. Jesus had already gone up to bed, tired from his long-distance race.

Feather and I were on the couch in the TV den watching Dobie Gillis. She loved Maynard G. Krebs, and I liked how the father was such a cheapskate about what went on in his store. He knew that no matter how much somebody wants to make something in this world there’s always somebody else who wants to take it away.

“Why won’t Juice talk to me?” I asked.

“He talk to you, Daddy. He just don’t say something.”

“But why won’t he say something?”

“Because,” she said. And then Maynard came on the screen. Somebody said the word “work” and he was having a conniption fit. I had to wait for a commercial until I could ask her again.

“So, Feather?”


“Why won’t Juice talk to me?”

“Because he don’t like you to talk to, Daddy,” she said as simply and easily as you please. “But that’s okay because he love you too.”

“But I’m sad that he won’t say anything to me.” Somewhere I knew that I had crossed a line, that I was asking my little girl to be older than she was. But I wanted so much for Jesus to talk to me. He’d been abused as a child, as a baby, and I didn’t want the evil to have won and taken his words from me.

Feather put her hand over my thumb, causing me to look down at her.

“That’s okay, Daddy,” she said. “But he can’t right now.”

I heard my own words from her lips. Then she stood up and put her arms around my head and held me like I had held her a thousand times when she was crying and sad.

“It’s time for bed,” I told her, just to get some kind of control back in my life.



ON THE COFFEE TABLE in front of me lay an old photograph and a newer one, a bus schedule, a bloody molar tooth, and a check for five thousand dollars written out by Sarah Clarice Cain of Beverly Hills. According to the date on the check she had written it two and a half weeks before.

I didn’t have to do a thing. I didn’t have any contracts with anyone. I hadn’t been convicted of any crime.

That’s when Martin Smith came back to me. His peanut head and his big hands that seemed to have too much flesh around the fingers. If it hadn’t been for Martin and Odell I would have died when I was a boy. They had taken me into their homes and fed me when there was nothing but cold and hunger outside.

I knew that I had to go visit Martin before he died. I
have to do that.

So I decided to go see Martin—right after I took care of the things on my table.




— 8 —



I AWOKE IN A COLD SWEAT. Bruno had been laid up against the butcher’s door with his eyes open. He wanted me to help him but I couldn’t; I couldn’t leave the shelter of the doorway. He was muttering my name under his ragged breath. His dying was more important than any other death I’d known. But I couldn’t go out there and face Mouse though. I couldn’t.



I DROPPED FEATHER OFF at her school on Burnside and then headed south. I was upset about my dream and the job I had to perform in the late morning, so I decided to take care of some business first. I thought that if I could get some money I wouldn’t have to find the owner of that tooth.

Down near Crenshaw and Santa Barbara I came to a little prefabricated building that had a large sign set up on the roof. The sign was twelve feet high and forty feet across, as if designed for a much larger building. It had a big yellow background covered with giant red letters that spelled out ESQUIRE REALTY INC.

The inner office was no more than a room with four tan metal desks on a concrete floor. The desks were arranged in a diamond—one at the center of each wall. Renee Stewart sat at the desk that faced the front door. Her sister, Clovis MacDonald, was seated at the back of the office.

“Can I help you?” Renee asked as if she had never met me before in her life.

Her hair was arranged in bright gold curls and her skin was black as skin could get, but her lips and nose were strangely Caucasian. Renee was skinny and unhappy. Her red nails needed a touch-up and her dark blue dress might have given you the impression that she was naked if you saw her from afar.

“I wanna talk to Clovis.”

Clovis was within earshot, but Renee jumped up and said, “I’ll see if she’s available.”

Renee had no butt to speak of, though she moved like she did. She switched-walked to Clovis’s desk and rested both hands there, indicating that if she had to do one more thing she might just pass out from exhaustion.

“Somebody to see you,” I heard her say. She pointed behind to indicate what she meant.

Then she came back to her own desk, sat down, and looked up at me. “You can go on in,” she said as she picked up the telephone and started to dial.

Clovis didn’t stand to greet me. She didn’t even reach out a hand across the desk in common courtesy.

“Mr. Rawlins,” she said.

“Clo,” I replied. “You plannin’ t’put some walls in here?”


“Well, you got Renee actin’ like she cain’t even see you. I figure you practicin’ for some walls.”

Clovis didn’t have much of a sense of humor. Her life had been too hard for laughs. She was a short, stout woman whose skin was the color of burnished bronze. Her blunt face jutted out from her head, making her appear like a boxer after he’s delivered a chopping blow, expecting his foe to crumple any moment. Her eyebrows were dense and mannish. The thick shelf over her eyes was furrowed as if she were angry down into her bones.

BOOK: Black Betty
8.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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