I remember waking up, trying to catch my breath. If someone had asked my name or address, or even what room I was sleeping in, I wouldn’t have been able to say. All I had on my mind was that elusive inhalation, that solitary lungful of air that had to be somewhere; it had to be or I was going to die.
The apartment was empty — stripped down to the dust-swirled wood floors. The air conditioner was on, and I wasted precious seconds looking around for my pants. I found the phone, but it was dead. Somebody was crying somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t call to them. As I went through the door to the hallway, it came to me that the sobbing was actually the whine of my lungs trying to throw off the congestion.
“Can’t bre—,” I wheezed.
I must have walked out of my building and across the private road to the unit concierge across the way. I never knew his name, even though he’d been working as a nighttime guard in that complex of university housing longer than I had been a professor at New York College.
He was younger than I by fifteen years at least — not a day over sixty. His eyes were both frightened and suspicious. Maybe I had been shot or stabbed. Maybe the assailant was still lurking somewhere in the dark hours of an early Manhattan morning.
As he helped me into a seat, a food of thoughts entered my mind, each fighting for the place of my last mortal thought. There was my son, Eric, who had changed his name to Simba, calling on the phone. Simba never called, and even though I could hear him, I still couldn’t speak or breathe.
“Dad? Dad, are you there?”
Sarah, my wife, who had passed away in ’96, was talking to somebody other than me.
“I know it seems strange,” she was saying, in a matter-of-fact tone, “but we’ve just grown apart.”
I tried to speak up, to interrupt, to tell her to shut up and come on back home — to life. But then I was standing on a golden Caribbean beach where a new home was waiting for somebody.
Gravity shifted and I was no longer in my seat. There were voices thundering and lights and darkness. I was blind as well as breathless, thinking about my daughter and wishing that she was with me. My girl, Anetta, would not let her father die. At least, I remember thinking, at least my memory would not be lost as long as she was alive and little Olive, her baby girl, was there in the world beyond the darkness that enveloped me.
“You bettah git away from me, niggah,” a man declared in a jagged tone that was steely and thin as a dagger.
The angry words dissipated in the air, and everything was dark and silent again. Breath flowed cold and rich through my nostrils. My head was stuffed with cotton wadding, and there were no independent thoughts rising from my mind.
I was in a coffin, under the ocean, watched over by fishes that did not know or care to know my name or species. They fitted, fornicated, and fed in fear when shadows fell upon them. Water leaked in slowly, excruciatingly so. One drop every thirty seconds or so, that’s how I figured it. But what did I know? And what did it matter now that I was dead and interred and forgotten, buffeted by the currents of the deep?
“Hey, brothah. Brothah,” a man was saying. He shook my shoulder, disturbing my eternal rest. “Hey, wake up.”
I made a noise. It was nowhere near a word, but it seemed to be enough for the grave robber. He was a dark shadow upon a screen of slightly lighter darkness, hovering to my right.
“Somebody in that bed across from you?” he asked.
What bed? What cross?
“Somebody in there?”
“Where?” I managed to say. It hurt my throat, way down past the Adam’s apple, to speak.
“I need a bed,” the man said. “Is they anyone in it?”
“Mothahfuckah,” the bodiless knife of a voice from before warned. It came from somewhere farther off to the right. The shadow moved away.
I tried to raise my head but failed. I tried to imagine myself in the world. That didn’t work either. Then I remembered an old trick. I evoked an image of Earth, allowing it to turn slowly. I watched, as I imagined God sometimes did, the passing of terrain, paying no attention to false national borders of fiefdoms. When a place I’d known moved by it would lighten, as if there were a powerful light below the surrounding soil and mountains. Ouagadougou, Cairo, and Accra flashed into my mind. I remembered a sandwich and a young Senegalese woman, an offer and a refusal, and afterward, for years, regret. There was Paris and London and, faintly, Amsterdam . . . New York.
New York. That’s where I was on the globe. The light was strongest there.
The cold, dry oxygen was too much. I started coughing and couldn’t stop. It was a rolling, hacking, wet and yet dry retching from my diaphragm all the way to my eyes. I was old Mr. Hawkins, dying in the apartment across the hall in 1946. I was the car alarm that wouldn’t stop in the middle of the night. I was Cecil Roberts Bentway, PhD, historian and cultural critic. And I would rather have been dead than go through one more minute of coughing.
Hands took hold of my head and jaw. I struggled against them, but most of my strength had been drained by the involuntary exertions. Something thick and wet was forced into my left nostril and down into my throat and then farther, into my lungs.
There was a vibration, a throbbing sensation, and I knew that someone was using a vacuum to suck the mucous from my flooded lung.
The coughing stopped.
For a while I relaxed on the hardtack sheets, sweating and sighing. I realized that the mattress was thin, that I could feel the whorls of the metal springs under my body. I lifted my rump up, let go, and felt the hint of a rebound — proving my surmise. This made me smile. I could still ply my dubious trade even while being
but a hair’s breadth away from finality.
“Where’d this one come from?” a woman’s voice asked.
“I don’t know,” a young man said. “That bed’s s’posed to be empty.”
I raised my head enough to see that they were standing next to the bed across the way from me.
“He got an admittance form?”
“Nuthin’. Not even a clipboard.”
“Let’s go down to the front desk and ask them.”
“Nurse,” Steel Voice said.
“What?” the woman replied.
“My sheets is torn.”
“OK,” she said.
“When you gonna gimme new ones?”
“I’ll make a note at the nurses’ station.”
The young man and the woman that was a nurse talked more. Their voices receded as they left the room and moved down the hallway.
“Bastids,” Steel Voice said after they were gone.
The room slowly did a backward fade into daylight. For a long time I lay there on my back allowing names to flow through my mind, or maybe they were going that way without my consent. C. L. R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, the poet and activist Jayne Cortez, and Amiri Baraka, who, under the name LeRoi Jones, wrote the play Dutchman. I considered their works and many others. Over the years I’d been a tough and, hopefully, loving critic. I’d taught young people of all backgrounds and races about people and ways of thinking that the university rarely emphasized. At seventy-five I’d bought a beach condo on a small island where I could finally finish my life’s work — Pagans in Pinstripes.
My throat, instead of hurting, was numb. I thought about my shoulders and elbows between the esoteric texts, and finally, after quite a while, I managed to rise up on one arm.
The room was larger than I expected. There were four beds with a good deal of space between them; one situated in each corner. The bed to my right, where the steely voice had originated, was being worried over by a thin black man in pale blue pajamas who had stripped the blankets and sheets and was remaking the bed. For some reason this task seemed Sisyphean. He worked methodically and with great care. There was something institutional about his movements.
I tried to think of the odds that four black men near or past retirement age might end up in the same hospital room together in Lower Manhattan.
Across the way, past my feet, a smallish but not thin black man was coiled under the blanket, staring suspiciously around himself. He clutched his woolen cover as if he were afraid that someone might come and yank it away.
At the diagonally opposite corner from me was yet another dark-colored brother. Sitting in a wooden chair next to the bed, he was also clad in pale blue pajamas. This silent sentry brought to mind a lost soul who had returned to the last place where he’d been alive. His morose expression and posture added to this impression. The man appeared to me like the only mourner at his own funeral, seated in the pews and at the same time lying in the coffin. He too looked to be past sixty.
I tried to think of the odds that four black men near or past retirement age might end up in the same hospital room together in Lower Manhattan. Weren’t there any white or yellow, olive-toned or brown-skinned men in their twenties or forties, any young black men who got sick and needed a bed?
“Hey, brothah,” called the paranoid man beyond my feet. I knew then he was the shadow who had first awakened me.
I looked at him but could not speak.
“If they ask you, tell ’em that I was brought in on a stretcher last night. Tell ’em that I was brought in on a stretcher.”
I glanced over at the man making and remaking his bed. He paid no attention to what our undocumented roommate was saying. I let my head fall back on the small pillow and felt the little bounces of jubilant springs. It was as if I were lying upon a huge lily pad; a bloated frog waiting for a passing fly. I closed my eyes and
tried to remember getting to that place — seventy-five and hospitalized in a room occupied only by old black men. Had I really been a professor at a prestigious university? Had I once been present at Nelson Mandela’s eighty-second birthday celebration?
“You OK, man?” someone asked.
I opened my eyes and saw the rail-thin bed-maker. I would have bet that the frown on his face was the closest he ever came to expressing compassion.
“They don’t give a fuck about a niggah ’round here, man,” he said. “Most the time they late bringin’ you your food. An’ forget the bedclothes. It don’t even look like they wash ’em more times than not.”
I wanted to say something, I wanted to echo the roommate’s knowledge, but didn’t have the strength.
“That’s all right, brothah,” he said. “Get you some rest. If you need me to get you sumpin’, just say it or just raise your hand. You know I always got one eye open.”
It felt as if I had only blinked, but the man was gone. I knew then that I had to get out of there. I had to get away before I was swallowed up by that alien room with its condemned souls, devil nurses, and infiltrators.
I tried to remember what I had been wearing before the asthma attack. Most nights I fell asleep wearing a golden, scarlet, and royal blue Ghanaian robe. The first time I’d get up to urinate I’d take it off. Did my attack come before my first trip to the toilet?
“Mr. Holder,” someone said. She was addressing the bed-maker.
There was low light suspended in the air like an illuminated fog.
“Have you used needles in the past five years?” the woman asked. There was a lilt to her voice. Nigerian.
“I ain’t nevah used no needles.”
“It says in your file that you were in prison for drugs,” she countered.
“Yes, I was. Heroin. But I ain’t nevah used no needles. The people I sold to used ’em, but I was always a Johnnie Walker Blue Label man.”
I dozed while the doctor and her assistants wheeled some heavy equipment to the side of the bed-maker, Mr. Holder.
I woke up again when a man all in white rolled an IV unit up next to me and lifted my right arm. As he looked for a vein I tried to pull away. But I was so weak that he didn’t seem to notice. I thought he should at least tell me what he was doing; that he should ask if I wanted the procedure or whether I was allergic to the yellowy fluid in the IV bag.
Seconds after the needle was pressed into the vein, my body passed out. I say it this way because I was in darkness and without physical sensation, but my consciousness seemed to rise above the bed and the body it held. I could hear everything. It wasn’t like normal hearing either. My ears were hypersensitive, like those of an ancient proto-dog at the edge of the Gobi Desert listening for sounds of beloved but feared humanity.
“She, she kicked me out,” the sad man who sat beside his bed whined. “Twenty-eight years, and she just kicked me out like a, like a stray dog. And I ain’t got nuthin’.”
“ . . . brought me in last night,” the man in the bed across from me was saying to somebody. “Last thing I remembah I was walkin’ down 137 and I got dizzy. I grabbed for this lady to keep upright, but she hollered and pushed me away. When I woke up I was in this here bed . . . No. I ain’t got no one to call.”
“The X-ray reveals a dark spot, Mr. Holder,” the Nigerian doctor was saying. “It might be malignant.”
“Dark spot where?” the fastidious bed-maker jabbed, in his hopelessly harsh tone.
“The left side of your chest. Over your lung.”
“That ain’t no tumor. That’s where I got shot one time.”
“So you think that it’s a bullet?”
“Why didn’t the doctor take it out?”
“What doctor? You think I’m gonna go to some doctor when all they gonna do is call the cops? Shit.”
“When I went back to beg her she was gone,” the sad man next to his bed said, and then he let out a low moan that didn’t sound human. “Carol next door told me that she had gone back down to North Carolina to her people. She had everything a’ mines. My Social Security card. My birth certificate. Only shoes I had left was on my feet . . . Yeah, my blood pressure’s high. Wouldn’t yours be?”
“Sugar diabetes, asthma, arthritis, glaucoma, thyroid condition, herpes, shingles, allergies to milk and shellfish . . . ” The man across from me listed what seemed like every disease and condition in the doctor’s medical handbook. “No, I haven’t been takin’ my medicine. I ain’t got the money. So sick that I couldn’t work. No work, no rent. No home, and sooner or later you get dizzy and fall down in the street.”
“Ow!” Mr. Holder, to my right, shouted. “What you doin’?”
“Cutting out the bullet. It’s embedded in fairly shallow scar tissue.”
“Ain’t you gonna knock me out or nuttin’? Shit!”
“That would be more dangerous than the procedure, and a local anesthetic is contraindicated due to the bullet being so close to the heart.”
Mr. Holder moaned, and I could imagine the scalpel slicing into his chest while the male nurses held him down.
The IV forced on me was a powerful narcotic. I heard everything, it seemed. I can’t remember now if they were all speaking at once or if these conversations and other sounds happened over time. In my memory they all flow together. There was a singular endpoint though.
“There it is,” the Nigerian doctor said, and I heard the plink of metal on metal; the corroded bullet, I imagined, hitting a shiny chromium tray. This hard, metallic sound ended my free-floating awareness. I settled back down into the darkness that I feared and craved more than anything.
“Do you have a medical-insurance card, Mr. Bentway?” Dr. Ifadapo asked, her sculpted sub-Saharan features glistening black.
It was the afternoon of that same day, though it felt as if weeks had passed.
“It’s Professor Bentway,” I said, “and I already told your nurse that I’m insured by New York College.”
“We need the card.”
“Call the school.”
“They tell us that Professor Bentway has retired.”
“What do you want from me, then?”
“Is there someone we can call?”
“I don’t have my book with me. I got my one friend, but his phone is off. All I got to do is go home, and I could get the card for you. My apartment is only mine for a few more days. I’m supposed to leave for Saint Lucia. I got my tickets in the apartment too.”
“We can’t release you, Mr. . . . Professor Bentway. You can’t go on your own, and there’s no one to take you.”
“Just get me down to a cab.”
“The law won’t allow us do that, sir.” Her beautiful smile was maddening.
“You can’t keep me here.”
“We believe that you had a heart attack along with the emphysema episode. We will treat that, and then, if there is no other option, we’ll be forced to release you to a state-run nursing facility.”
“A nursing home?”
Smiling, the doctor got up and moved away to the charlatan across from me. The ex-con, Holder, was stripping his bed for the fourth time that day, and Bret Lagnan, the man who had been abandoned by his wife, sat there next to his bed suffering the ailment of a broken heart.
All my phone numbers were keyed into the cell phone that was on the dusty foor in university housing. It was midsummer, so no one was around anyway. And I was weak from the emphysema attack that, I was told by Dr. Ifadapo, was brought on by the air-conditioning, which circulated the dust kicked up by the movers. I could barely sit upright.
At times I was aware of the charlatan, Todd Brightwood, hovering around my bed looking for jewelry or pocket change. Holder told him to get away whenever he drifted to our side of the room. Lovesick Lagnan didn’t seem to know that anyone else was there.
The TV was on all during the day. I watched shows that I’d never heard of before, game shows and sporting events, the shopping channel and daytime soap operas. I didn’t have much concentration. I didn’t know how long I had been in that bed or how long it would be before they committed me to the nursing home.
When I tried to get up, the male nurses would push me back down. Anetta might not call for weeks, and I did not call her number often enough to remember it. Simba had moved to Tanzania and refused to talk to me for reasons that he kept to himself.
Days had passed. The beautiful Nigerian doctor dropped by in the afternoons. She was friendly but would not let me go.
I marked the time, slowly garnering my strength for the moment when I could escape that wing of SaintJude’s Hospital set aside for the poor, hopeless, and black.
Todd Brightwood had been signed in as a patient suffering from various ailments that led to his attack of illness. Gil Holder kept making and remaking his bed, complaining about the hospital staff. Bret Lagnan suffered in silence the abandonment by his wife (whose name I never got.) I marked the time, slowly garnering my strength for the moment when I could escape that wing of Saint Jude’s Hospital set aside for the poor, hopeless, and black.
None of the men in my room had visitors, but I met a man across the hall who agreed to have his son bring me some pants and a T-shirt. The son wasn’t coming back until Friday though, and Dr. Ifadapo hadn’t yet decided which day to have me committed to the nursing home. The attack had exacerbated my emphysema,
and so I couldn’t walk very far without resting. It was going to be a strenuous escape, if I could even make it.
On Tuesday the doctor told me that I’d be leaving on Thursday. I argued with her, but she just smiled and nodded. I called the college human-resources office, but they told me that all medical insurance for retired employees was handled in Albany and that I had to send them a letter if I’d lost my insurance card.
“I haven’t lost my damn card.”
“Then show it to the people at the hospital.”
It seemed impossible that I could have lost control of my life so easily. From full professor with tenure to a homeless ward of the state. I was on the eighth floor of a building that took up two city blocks. I figured that it was nearly a quarter of a mile between me and freedom. But I had to try — blue pajamas and all. I’d carry a
weapon with me. And if anyone tried to stop me, I’d throw down on them.
The only weapon I could find was a serrated plastic knife, but that would have to do.
At two o’clock on that Wednesday I closed my eyes to rest fifteen minutes more, and then I was going to run, regardless of what they did to me.
“Cecil,” came a voice with a francophone, West African infection to it.
“Adegoke?” I said, without opening my eyes.
“I finally found you,” he said.
I mustered enough courage to open one eye, and there he was. Blacker than my doctor and tall and handsome in that gaunt way only Ghanaian men can manage: Adegoke Arapmoi, professor of film and culture, stood there beside my bed. Behind him was Jack Fine, a light brown and beefy teacher of archaeology who hailed from Baltimore.
“Why didn’t you call me?” Adegoke asked.
“I did. Your phone went straight to voice mail.”
“Get me outta here, man. They wanna put me in a nursing home.”
Adegoke wore a lavender jacket, black trousers, and a bright, bright yellow shirt. All this topped off with a Panama hat. His white teeth glistened against black skin.
“I was in Ghana,” he said, “at the ten-year anniversary of the death of my father. When I got back you weren’t home. I had to wait until the night guard was on duty. He told me about your attack, but he didn’t know where the ambulance had taken you. Jack and I have been going from hospital to hospital.”
“Hey, Cecil,” Jack said. He was grinning, and so was I. “You look like shit.”
“You brought me new sheets, but they got stains on ’em,” Gil Holder was telling his nurse.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Jack Fine, who was at least six five, said to the woman.
“Tell the doctor, and whoever, that we’re takin’ Professor Bentway home.”
“He has to be released by a doctor,” the young, pink-skinned woman explained.
“That’s OK,” Jack said. “Just as long as that release coincides with our egress from your institution.”
Jack was thirty-three years old and not that far away from his student days. He still slung big words around as if they made him sound smart. I usually felt embarrassed by the way he spoke, but that day I was filled with glee.
Gil Holder was actually smiling at my big friend.
“I brought you some of my son’s clothes, Cecil,” Adegoke said as the nurse fled the room.
He placed a large brown-paper bag on my bed.
Many years before, Addy had been my student at San Francisco State. He and my son, Eric/Simba, were the same age, forty-eight, but it was Adegoke who searched all the emergency rooms in Manhattan until he’d found me.
With my friends’ help, I got up and dressed. Jack even tied my shoes.
“What’s going on here?” Dr. Ifadapo asked as she came into the room flanked by two black men in security-guard uniforms.
Jack moved toward the little group. Addy got in front of him.
“I am Dr. Arapmoi from New York College,” he said. “Dr. Bentway is one of our professors. We have come to bring him home.”
“I have already signed the papers to release him to Morningside Nursing Home. You can apply for his release there.”
“He’s coming with me to my home now,” Addy said with certainty.
“The forms are filled out.”
Jack Fine snorted. The guards took notice of him. Gil Holder picked up some kind of bludgeon from under his pillow. Brightwood pulled the blanket up to his chin, and lovelorn Lagnan didn’t notice a thing.
The beautiful Nigerian stared into the handsome Ghanaian’s eyes for half a minute at least.
“Are you his guardian?” Ifadapo asked.
“I’m his nephew,” Addy lied. “And he’s coming home with me.”
For the next two hours they filled out forms and made recommendations. We walked down three long halls, took an elevator, and went to the checkout desk to retrieve whatever it was that I had in my pockets when I was brought in.
“This is a blue form,” the big bald brown man said from behind his marble desk. “You need a yellow form to get what we have. A blue form will get your clothes from the emergency room closet.”
Back to the elevator, down the halls, we returned to the nurses’ desk near my room.
“Oh,” the pink-skinned nurse (whose name tag read “Laura”) said. “I’m sorry. I should have given you the yellow form. Give me that one, and I’ll fill out another.”
“But he needs the blue paper to get his clothes,” big Jack Fine bellowed.
“Oh, right,” the nurse said. “You know we’re very understaffed. I’m lucky if I remember to make my rounds.”
The man wanting the yellow form had my wallet, in which I found my medical-insurance card. “You go through that door on your left,” he said, now quite
friendly, “and down the hall until you get to the emergency room. You pass through there and come to a desk behind a Plexiglas barrier. The woman there will help you find your clothes.”
“DP. Deceased Person. The first doctor who saw you declared you dead.”
There were dozens of people sitting in the disheveled maze of blue vinyl-and-chrome chairs that furnished the emergency-room waiting area. A sleeping, or maybe unconscious, child in his mother’s arms, a man with blood seeping from his face and both arms, an old man (my age) staring out a window with his lower eyelids drooping away from the orbs — open and red. One man sat silently crying, his hand swollen to the size of a football. A young woman with haunted eyes had such severe flatulence that no one could sit near her. You could see the pain from her belly in the twist of her mouth and the humiliation of her eyes.
“Where’s the doctor?” an old woman in a wheelchair asked me.
“I don’t know.”
“This is terrible,” Jack Fine said to Addy.
“At least they have a place to go,” the Ghanian said.
Behind the Plexiglas window on the other side of suffering sat an ocher-skinned, almond-eyed woman. I thought she might be Cambodian or Vietnamese.
“Put the form in the slot in front of you,” she said without looking up. I placed the blue form where she asked, and she picked it up. When she noticed what it was, she frowned, then sighed.
“We’re very busy,” she complained.
“It’s my clothes,” I replied, realizing that my breath was coming short again.
“You came in DP-twenty-seven,” the woman replied.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jack asked.
The hospital sentry hesitated. She said, “DP. Deceased Person. The first doctor who saw you declared you dead.”
Ana, the young nurse/receptionist, led us to a door behind her kiosk. It was small and green and opened into a dark room. A light came on automatically when we entered. We realized with awe that we had entered a vast chamber lined with deep bins that were filled with hundreds of bundles of clothes bound in brown paper and secured with tan masking tape.
I could hear the breath singing in my windpipe.
“You OK, Cecil?” Addy asked.
I didn’t answer. While Ana searched through certain piles of bundles I looked around. Most of the brown-paper packages had the name and date of death scrawled on the tape. One read: REYNARD, MILTON 10/11/07; DECEASED. Some of the slips had fallen from their bundles. There was Julia Slatkin, Harris Montoya, and Po Li. The dust and lint gathered in my throat and lungs, and I felt the beginnings of another respiratory attack. I should have run out of there, but running for me was a thing of the past.
That one room led to another, where there were no bins and even more bundles of clothes, piled all the way to the eighteen-foot ceiling. I thought about the concentration-camp films that came out when I was a young man just out of the air force, right after the war. The Nazis took everything that their victims owned: hair and teeth, shoes and clothes. I felt that I was in the presence of some great crime that I would never be able to prove.
“Here it is, Cecil,” Addy said. “Here’s that robe I brought you from Accra.”
In the taxi I opened the window and let my head loll out, the wind forcing its way into my lungs. All I had to do was open my mouth.
Adegoke’s wife is spending the summer with her family in Nice. His daughter has gone to Singapore, and his son is on a film shoot in southern Mexico. My old student gave me a room with a window on the twenty-seventh floor of university housing. Here I’ve been sitting for the past three weeks waiting for breath to return, so that I might escape to a Caribbean island; there I hope to forget what I learned among the bundles of death. ●
Excerpted from The Awkward Black Man copyright © 2020 by Walter Mosley. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Walter Mosley is the author of more than 50 critically acclaimed books, including the major bestselling mystery series featuring Easy Rawlins. His work has been translated into 25 languages and includes literary fiction, science fiction, political monographs, and a young adult novel. In 2013, he was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, and he is the winner of numerous awards, including an O. Henry Award, the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award, a Grammy, PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and an Edgar Award. He lives in New York City.