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A Mountain of a Man
She was up in his face like she seldom does, pleading, arguing, demanding, out of her mind with love.
“Baby, this is bout us.”
“Don’t yell at me, woman.”
He grabbed her by the hand, and she yelled, as much from pain as frustration.
The little, yellow room they were in, painted for the arrival of the new baby but dingy still, like all of their surroundings in Harlem of 2008, was all they could afford.
They were broke and broker still by the news.
“He says our pension is gone,” was how Hal opened the conversation.
His wife, Lil, looked at the floor, then up again.
“We…that was all we had to move on. The loan for the house. What happens now?”
“I’m getting our money back.”
“Don’t do nothing foolish, Hal. We been here six years.”
“And we don’t have another,” Hal said, flopping on the bed, the only one in their two bedroom apartment that cost $789 plus utilities and was a friend’s gift because Hal
helped him out in a street fight once when they were young.
Hal sat on the bed, lay down, sat some more, rolled over and thought.
Lil looked out the window, pensive kind she was. She didn’t want Hal to do anything foolish. She was from Vermont, met Hal on the railroad where they had worked.
Hal brought her home, here, to his home, Harlem.
She knew there was more in Vermont.
She also knew there was more in Harlem and six years, a lot of love making, screaming when necessary and pleading if she had to had kept Hal off those streets she was now looking down on.
She hadn’t had to grab his ankles and beg yet. As she looked for a good spot, a clean spot on the rug that wouldn’t dirty her ankles and knees too much, Hal spoke.
“I’m going to get our money.”
That’s when she got up in his face.
“Baby, don’t you do this. You’ve got to protect us. You’ve got to protect me. Us is three now, baby. Hal, don’t do this.”
Hal brushed her aside off the bed. His torso rolled as Hal’s massive arm dug into the mattress, his hand digging into his wife’s robe and suspending her midair before the fall.
He pulled her back onto the bed.
She came up talking.
“See, Hal? See, baby? It’s starting already. You ain’t never hit me before.”
Her Southern drawl had started in Harlem, six years ago when they moved into the only apartment complex in the city filled with Southern Blacks, mostly Georgia and North Carolina. Many worked at the physical plant of the office building downtown, the one the mayor worked out of. Lil never went downtown, but loved the Harlem atmosphere and especially the congenial Black souls she’d come to call family.
Lil’s light skin and Northern speech betrayed her upper-income roots. She covered that and covered it well. Everyone she knew in Harlem loved her.
It was time to go.
“Mortgage Meltdown? Is that what they’re talking about on TV, why our money dried up?”
“Yeah, Lil. It ain’t there no more. The house-“
Lil took Hal by the hand and led him to the window. When they walked the streets, Hal’s big form, 6’4″ and 285 pounds, often blotted out the sight of Lil when he held her in front of himself. Sometimes, when they were playful, he’d have Lil walk on his feet. Even the criminals smiled.
Lil smelled the seasonings as they opened their window. They were over a Jamaican market and someone was always cooking, if not downstairs, then on her floor.
“Smell that, baby.”
Hal leaned out and smelled, but there was still anger on his face.
He nudged Lil.
“You were going to tell me something, yesterday, this morning, and just now.”
Lil kept smelling, then grabbed Hal’s hand. She knew his volcanic anger and Lil knew the only thing that could quell that beast was his devotion to protecting her. She was the maiden to his King Kong at times. That beastly anger was a hot commodity on the streets below. Hal had given up a lifestyle of fast cars, loose women and money to spare to live her kind of life in their safe, little space.
He would go back to being “Unholy Hal,” the bouncer and bodyguard to drug deals and other things she couldn’t believe when he revealed his former life. Now she had to tell him to play fair in an unfair life.
“There is no mortgage, Hal,” she said, slipping her arms under his and massaging his back. “They said we missed the deadline to have our money in for the down payment.”
Hal started to pull away but, with the gentlest pressure, Lil kept his arms locked behind her neck and the massage dug deep into his back. She wanted him to take her right there so she could receive all his anger and hate built listening to small men tell Hal how to dream, what he could be if he stayed under them and worked thirty years for things he had earned in a day. Lil had taken into her small frame that anger and frustration and she knew how to love it away. She just hoped that at six months, the baby didn’t get in the way of the love she planned to make. Pregnancy can be awkward.
“They pulled the program, baby. No low-income mortgages. No more.”
Hal’s anger rose and ebbed as Lil’s deft hands guided him slowly, step by step, to the bed, their clothes off before he said, “Not now, baby. I’ve got to go get our money back.”
“Where?” Lil jumped to the headboard, leaned, legs gathered in front of her grown baby bump and smile trying to hide the grimace from the muscle she felt she’d torn in her side when the new weight had just pulled against her old habit of jumping about when she felt like doing so. “Where are you going, Hal? What about our baby?
What about me?” Lil started to let Hal see her pain, but decided against. “What about us, Hal?”
“Exactly,” Hal said, drawing his clothes in a bunch and heading for the door. “All them got theirs. What about us?”
Lil started to scream from frustration and pain and because she didn’t have it in herself to keep him from going out that door again. There was money on that street below, but no man to love her like Hal did, like Hal would. No man like Hal.
He stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder.
“I gotta do this, baby.”
Lil pulled the covers over. She had one last play. She pointed towards the closet.
“The Black one.”
Hal’s nature rose visibly at the mention of his favorite French maid outfit.
“It’s going to be—haven’t seen that one in a while, have you? I was saving it—here on your wife at 2 a.m. Whatever you don’t get done by 1, don’t do. Promise?”
“I promise, babe,” Hal said and almost shook to his core as he dressed to leave their door, as he never had before, shaken by the shriek from the little woman he adored.
“Promise!” Lil screamed and held, clutched the headboard of the bed where they’d dreamed of a Long Island home, yard, maybe three little ones: a Hal, a Lil, and one of his parents would make three.
“This isn’t the way, baby,” he said, and clung to the clothes he would wear, his shining armor to go out there and take back what the junkies and the whores and the Johns from across the shore didn’t care about anyway.
Just one day.