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Authors: Gil Scott-Heron

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BOOK: The Last Holiday
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“Yes, sir, I’m interested.”

He said he would try to arrange a meeting with the committee. This was starting to sound like extra things I didn’t want to do, but that was the whole point. To go somewhere with your hat
in your hand is to go through things you don’t want. If you want the scholarship, you have to reveal this and reveal that, test for this and test for that. Man, there was a lot of shit to go
through. And now, some kind of committee.

But hadn’t I stood in line after crowded line to sign up for classes at Clinton? And stood around registering for the wrong fucking classes at Creston? Waited 150 or 200 years to get into
Tigrett, back in Jackson? At least what I was going through now was supposed to be for something valuable.

The meeting was set up, and then one morning a week or so later, I heard four sharp raps on my door.
Bam, bam, bam, bam
. That was not the way I was used to getting up. I rolled over
groggily onto the book I’d been reading the previous night and my bare feet hit the floor. Not quick enough.

Bam, bam, bam, bam

It was my uncle.

“Scotty! It’s eight o’clock!”

I opened the door. My uncle was moving toward my mother’s room.

“Get yourself some juice,” he said. “And go to your thing.”

He went into her room and closed the door behind him.

I knew my face looked like a question mark as I washed up. I could hear my mother through both doors, moaning, and saying things with a thick voice I did not recognize.

“Tell Skaa-dee go ‘head to the mee-din’, o-kaaay?”

What was wrong? What was going on? Uncle B.B. came out of her room and again closed the door, a tense, uncomfortable expression on his face.

“Go on and get dressed and go to your meeting,” he said with serious eyes. “She’ll be all right. Get moving now. You don’t need to be late for this. She’s
going to the hospital where Sammy was. Call when you get a minute.”

Then he was back in my mother’s room and I was adjusting my jacket collar and quick stepping down the stairs. I could hear my mother slurring loudly to tell me to go to the meeting and
B.B. saying, “Okay, okay.”

I heard the doorbell buzz and click open as I reached the first floor and I recognized my mother’s harried, hurried, horrid doctor as he came in with his shirt sleeves rolled halfway up,
his wrinkled striped tie hanging limp and off-center, and his forehead sweating.

He frowned and sniffed, “Acidosis,” as if answering a question from me. Then he hurried past me and up the stairs.

Soon I was scurrying onto a bus, clattering across the 207th Street Bridge, and switching to the Broadway train in Manhattan. I was heading to a committee meeting and my mother was sick.

I had not been in the administration building during my campus visit. But I had passed by it at the top of the long, curved driveway that led onto Fieldston’s campus. There was only a
sprinkling of youngsters rushing across the quadrangle as I entered the administration building. I went upstairs to the designated floor where the principal’s office door was. A smiling
secretary nodded me through another door. Inside were roughly half a dozen jacketed gentlemen and one lady in a smart business suit, all standing at a long serving table. There were thin cookies on
china plates. There were dainty china cups, a sturdy sterling tray supporting a sweating silver coffee pot, and a slightly smaller pot of hot water. There were tea bags, lemon wedges, sugar,
packets of saccharine, instant creamer, a small bowl with cream, and an unopened pint of half-and-half.

To my right, chairs sat in a half-circle facing a solitary chair that sat isolated, with its back to the wall. I was just about to get disruptive when Professor Heller rushed in from behind me
and clapped me on the back as a greeting. He was wearing the same jacket he’d had on at Howard Johnson’s, with elbow patches, and his glasses had a strip of tape on one hinge. He
hustled past me and began glad-handing the others, all white, all prosperous looking, all obviously executives or administrators.

Soon I was sitting in that center chair facing the folks Professor Heller called the committee, meaning the committee that decided who got in. I was flattered that I got to see them, and
didn’t know enough to be intimidated. I wasn’t disrespectful; that wasn’t in my nature. Besides, I assumed that since I had failed the test, I was only there because: (A)
Professor Heller recommended me; (B) they would like to have a reason other than a poor test score to reject Professor Heller’s choice and this could be it; and (C) I had asked for it.

So no matter things that I might sense

I need to be civil in my own defense.

Sitting in front of these folks seems silly

But I owe it to the Prof to stay chilly

If this is judgment day more’s the pity

That I have to come in here before this committee

I kept wondering about the verdict of this six-person half-jury, and as far as I could figure it, two of them—Professor Heller and the lone woman on the committee—seemed to lean in
my favor; three seemed against my admission; and one seemed neutral—the head of the committee, who was politically savvy enough not to want to take a side. That meant, in my mind, I
wouldn’t make it in.

Some of the questions were meant to reveal how I would feel about being around people with more money than I had. I explained to them that currently almost everyone that I knew had more money
than I did, but that with a good education I might well be able to catch up. My point was that Fieldston students weren’t the only people in a better financial shape than I was.

The questions about how I would feel in the middle of all these kids with money were questions they struggled with. They stood between me and the Fieldston community, Fieldston folks. But they
were closer to my financial status than to that of the members of the Fieldston community. They may have been good at whatever they did, teach or administrate or whatever. But they were more like
tutors with offices.

One asked, “How would you feel if you saw one of your classmates go by in a limousine while you were walking up the hill from the subway?”

 “Same way as you,” I said. “Y’all can’t afford limousines. How do you feel?”

I could hear fear in their voices, and it was really there. They sounded intimidated, not by me but by their surroundings.

And all of their degrees can’t get them on their knees

And their mastery in classes never gets them off their asses

They’re always tiptoeing and elbowing

As loud as ghost whispers and as quick as grass be growing

Their spoiled students must be pampered,

Moving around like snails in amber

Their disciplinary instincts are all the way dead

Smiling at this, patting that one on the head

On fire with midnight sunburns that take root under the collars

But “little lord have mercy” here is worth a million dollars

At a quarter past ten, they decided to break for a few minutes. I confided to the head of the committee that my mother had possibly been hospitalized and that I wanted to make a call. He
directed me to a secretary in an inner office. I called Metropolitan Hospital and asked to speak to Mr. William Scott. After a short wait, B.B. came on the line. He sounded winded.

“It’s okay, sport,” he said quietly. “It looks like we’re going to have to bachelor pad it for a few days. Your mother is in a diabetic coma. She’s going to
have to take insulin like Sammy. We have some things to discuss, so you need to come down here.”

That was all I needed to know. There was somewhere else I needed to be. Now.

The members of the committee were hovering over their chairs when I got back to the main room.

“Excuse me, lady and gentlemen, I have to say something. I have to go. My mother landed at Metropolitan Hospital this morning. She’s in a diabetic coma and I have to be there with
her. I know you folks were having this meeting especially to talk to me, and I appreciate that and want to thank you. But I’m leaving. If you all vote to allow me in here, I’ll
appreciate that. If you vote not to let me come, I’ll understand it. But whatever you do, you’re going to have to do it with the information you’ve got so far. I hope it’s

I turned to Professor Heller.

“Thank you, sir. You did a great deal for me and you stuck with me. I thank you, but I’m about to go see about my mother, okay?”

I didn’t feel like smiling, but the man deserved one. I nodded and acknowledged the other individuals around the room respectfully. Their somewhat stunned faces wore expressions that
didn’t know what to be, caught between words, slapped without malice into another person’s reality far from the insulated isolation of their Riverdale routines.

I shook hands with Professor Heller in case it was the last time I would see him. Then I walked out the door of the well-appointed chamber, away from the silver and the china and the cookies and
committee. Down the stairs to the door that led to the curving driveway. From there to the Broadway local train. I dropped a token in the slot. I had to get downtown.


I suppose I arrived at the hospital before either the doctor or Uncle B.B. expected, because all of a sudden I had walked up to where they were talking outside my
mother’s room and stepped between them to look. There was a nurse standing at the head of my mother’s bed adjusting tubes the size of cigars inserted in her throat. There was a surgical
cap covering her hair. She was on a gurney with her eyes closed and the small room where she was being treated was filled with the sound of her assisted breathing. The nurse was working in
half-light dimness, walking quickly around the gurney, covering my mother carefully with a sheet, and examining every angle and aspect of the connections to a machine the size of a short
refrigerator that expanded her chest and cleared her mouth of saliva. She was the color of cigarette ash. She was lucky she was in a coma and couldn’t see herself, because seeing herself like
this might have scared her to death.

My uncle seemed to feel as though I was in danger of that same fate. He was staring blankly into a space unseen by others, focusing on instructions or recovery processes or excuses the doctor
was giving for missing my mother’s decline into her current condition. She had been in his office just a week before.

When I stepped past them, I broke into my uncle’s attempt to believe whatever this son of a bitch was lying about. B.B. reached out to bar my advance into the room. I understood that he
didn’t want me to see her. He didn’t understand that I already had. I turned away from the two of them and walked a few steps back down the hallway. I could still hear the machine. A
tense two or three minutes later, the doctor scurried past me and B.B. was quickly at my elbow. He was an inch or so taller than me, and thirty pounds heavier, but he looked exhausted and
appreciably smaller than usual today.

“A ninny,” he spat at the doctor’s shrinking form as the nervous little man departed. I told myself I would never forget the doctor standing in the light of that forty-watt
bulb at the bottom of our stairs, sniffing the air like an allergic albatross and hissing “acidosis.”

But we should have known. And I guess the fact that I knew that, was the reason I didn’t chase the little man down the army green hallway and kick his ass like a stuffed toy. I felt too
much like kicking my own. I knew the little bird-beaked doctor should have averted this tragedy, but I should have too. And I saw beneath the shallows of my uncle’s expression that he felt
the same way I did. As though that lady in the hospital bed there had two men at her elbows whose responsibility was to look out for her, and we blew it. We blew an easy one.

Shopping for the family groceries, making that Saturday run, had been one of my jobs since before we moved to New York. Not just for my mother, but for my grandmother before that. It was one of
the ways I legitimately earned the two pennies or a nickel Aunt Sissy gave me when her budget expanded to include a cut of meat or some other extravagance from the A&P or another uptown market.
Uptown was five or six blocks up Cumberland Street, easier and quicker once I got my red truck bike with a wire basket in front.

In the Bronx, I just looked at restocking the refrigerator and cabinet as my job. My Saturdays automatically included an hour or so of carrying a list and rolling a shopping cart. I knew
sometimes as clearly as my mother what we had and what we needed. I not only knew what our regular brands were, but the weekly quantities. In a special week, when something was going on, the
six-pack of soda might clone itself on the list. In recent weeks, though, I had regularly brought back two six-packs of soda on Saturday and another one or two six-packs during the week. I
wasn’t drinking any more soda than usual. My mother was. I knew now that she had been fighting off dehydration and sugar imbalance with direct deposits of syrup and water.

She had been tired, listless, and dehydrated, and couldn’t figure it out. Uncle B.B. had lived with Aunt Sammy, who’d had diabetes for ten years by the time I stayed with them
briefly after my grandmother’s death. I guess it was different being around someone who was controlling the debilitating aspects of diabetes with tablets or injections of insulin. B.B.
hadn’t seen the onset of the illness, what their Tennessee neighbors called “sugar diabetes.”

B.B. and I left the hospital and went for hot dogs at Nathan’s, a late brunch B.B. called it. I liked Nathan’s most of the time, but this hot dog was like a rubber cigar. Not
happening. My uncle went into “normal” mode, treating the outing like one of our haircut trips or once-a-month movie trips. Those were his contributions to normal, since he was supposed
to be a father figure or male role model or some such, to teach me how to cope with things like my mother going into a coma.

“How did your interview go?” he asked halfway through the meal.

It was the first time I’d even thought about what had happened earlier that day.

BOOK: The Last Holiday
13.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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