I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve been working on other writing projects. But today, serendipitously, as we honor the all-too-short life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I began revising this passage, about a young, Black, LA Uber driver. His SUV in the shop, he decides to do something he’s never done before but needs his grandmother’s—and Dr. King’s benevolent spirit’s—help. So thought I’d like to post it:
The Sequoia’s still not ready—but today he’s almost glad. Like what’s he’s been wondering about all weekend can happen now.
But first he needs a ride. Can’t keep using Uber.
Pulling out of the Enterprise on Washington in a white Kia Soul, the only thing left on the lot, Darrell’s gravely disappointed to be driving this shitbox. Literally. It’s a box. A small and and white and weird box, ugly as sin.
But maybe that’s okay, he speculates at the light. Because none of this is him. But if in fact he does discover his father’s name, an address, remaining incognito is smart.
And, besides, this whole search thing isn’t real. It isn’t him searching. He’s playing a role: he’s the man who would actually drive this piece of crap.
(Like many, attractive young men in LA, Darrell’s had a handful of on-camera day jobs. He’s been an extra. He’s been a Storm Trooper.)
He’s happy to be behind the wheel, the sport of it, the block by block one-upmanship, the freeways’ ins and outs. To celebrate, he briefly reroutes and maybe for good luck or maybe to make amends or to change up the Universe, give it something different to chew over, he stops at the Whole Foods on Lincoln for a half-gallon of Newman’s Own.
And even though Ghost Town isn’t what it once was, even though the gentra-fuckers—his word not Gran’s—have driven out most of the families he’d grown up with, still, even though it doesn’t register, not even to this young man so thoroughly inhabiting his beautiful body, when he turns onto Sixth Avenue every muscle tenses: Will I be stopped, frisked, harassed? Will an LAPD squad car follow behind? Just to remind me: Hey, boy. I’m here. And I’ve chosen to give you a hard time. Because I can.
Relieved to get to Gran’s without incident; without thinking he pulls into her driveway, which lies between her shabby, faded-peach bungalow and the looming, steel and glass cube next door. His arrival sets off the never-seen neighbors’ bichon frises who howl and madly pace back and forth from behind the floor-to-ceiling third floor window facing Gran’s bougainvillea-graced house.
In two seconds, strawberry-aproned, clutching a heavy, silver candlestick, his grandmother huffs out the kitchen door. One look at her furious, lined, regal face, her haunted eyes behind her smudged, gold-framed glasses, her usually perfect ‘do all crazy-whichways, and for a second he’s Pharaoh again.
But in head-drooped despair he catches sight of his elongated, gym-sculpted shadow on the driveway; his massive shoulders. And snickers.
You planning to throw that at me, Gran? Or just smash it on my head?
Whose car’s that?
The dogs quiet but stand, wet noses to the glass, as if waiting for his answer.
But Darrell will only ever answer every third or fourth of his grandmother’s questions— or whenever she says Darrell Marc Wiggins, that added middle name the unmistakable tip-off she’s super-pissed.
Tight-lipped, he follows her through the back door and into her kitchen. Her spotless and lonely and no-baking-smells-anymore kitchen.
As he hands her the paper sack he inventories, half-hoping he’ll discover something new yet knowing he won’t. Same, same. Same pale lime walls and glass-fronted cabinets, same chrome, black-handled electric percolator next to the strawberry cookie jar—Gran does love her strawberries—same scrawny cactuses in the same Mexican flower pots in the always-sunny window over the double, enamel sink, same strawberry trimmed valance over it, same strawberry-garnished ceramic napkin holder on the same grey-marbled formica and metal-legged table.
(He’d thought that table-top looked like clouds when he was a kid. One time he’d outlined some of those clouds with blue Magic Marker. And got swatted. Darrell remembers this. Gran does not.)
Covering that clouded relic are newspapers and a jar of Wright’s silver polish and the mate to that briefly weaponized candelabra—which belongs to Living Waters. (Gran’s got to be doing something.)
What’s this about? she frowns when she opens the sack.
It could have been okay, he realizes. Showing up like this, unexpected but family and tolerated, the expiating lemonade; he could have eased into why he’d come. What he wants. But that driveway mistake startled her. Even though this neighborhood is no longer “Ghetto by the Sea,” she’s still got bars on the windows, double-locks on the front door. She still remembers the Bad Old Days. He’d scared her.
Because she’s his Gran and obliged to and because she’s used to him evading her questions, she offers the lemonade. When he’s turned it down and she’s put it away in the same damned, round-cornered fridge he’d snuck popsicles out of when he was six, Gran slams its mint-green door to let him know she’s still not pleased and, as if deflated, as if exhausted, as if every one of her seventy-four years weighs on her, she plops herself down on a chrome and silver kitchen chair like an old, old lady and resumes polishing.
(So she won’t be looking at him. Perfect.)
What’s this about?
He sits beside her.
I should have thought, Gran. It’s a rental ‘til my car’s out of the shop. Sorry I scared you.
Nodding, lips pursed, she sighs as if to ask, Why, why do I expect anything different from you?
He remembers why he’d come.
And the right words come. And the right tone comes, too, so she can hear those right words. And since she’s always known this day was coming, she takes a moment to be surprised and to be grateful for the contrition she hears. That’s unexpected.
I know this is hard for you, he tells her in so many words. I know you don’t want to go there. But it’s time.
Truth is, I don’t know.
But you had your suspicions.
You’re right about that.
And she heaves herself off her chair, she washes her hands at the kitchen sink and, her back to him, she opens the top drawer next to the sink and pulls out the vintage, strawberry-embroidered dishtowel he’d given her for Christmas last year. The one she’d told him was much too nice, that she’d never use. Staring out the window, Gran slowly dries her hands.
He watches her shoulder blades rise and fall, rise and fall.
So when she turns, when she looks at him, although he cannot read her imperious face, never could, he knows to keep quiet; to follow her into her drapes-shut bedroom and to so acutely anticipate what will happen next that when she gestures under her pillows-strewn double bed he’s already on his knees.
Because he’s always known this Bullocks hatbox has been under here. At ten, he’d peeked under Poppa and Gran’s bed looking for Christmas presents, but got queasy thinking about them in bed, so never opened it.
He also knows that this Uncovering must happen, not in this darkened, cramped, sweet Annie smelling bedroom. It must happen seated side by side in Gran’s living room, on Gran’s davenport, the hatbox arranged on her coffee table next to her white Bible, opened to Psalm 27, and blessed by the framed photo of Dr. King.
As if they were nothing, she rummages through her capable daughter’s elementary school artwork, Shayla’s awards and citations, her spelling bee trophies, her hand-written essays with oversized, exultant As on top; with her long, knowing fingers Gran delves through all these treasures to clasp a Venice High School, 1991 Yearbook at the very bottom of the box.
Darrell, who got his GED in juvie, wants to read every name, study every picture; every extravagantly-penned, i-hearted inscription, but Gran impatiently thumbs through the thick, glossy pages like she’d always had a hunch but today, buttressed by him and Dr. King and Psalm 27 and that gift of lemonade, is acting on it.
And there, unmistakably, in the Faculty section, there he is, about the same age as Darrell is now. Even with most of his Roland Gift-look-alike face obliterated by his “Best Wishes, Shayla,” Darrell recognizes himself.
And for a moment, he thinks, This is it. Here’s the end of the line. This is all I need. His face. His name. I’m done.
But he’d made a plan. So no, no sudden U Turns, now.
Mark Braithwaite, he reads aloud, silently marveling at that Mark; at his spelling-bee winner mom’s little joke. That name mean anything to you?
But it’s her turn to ignore a question. I need to lie down.