Tell me whyyyyy
“What the hell was Cosmo doing?” Cathy watched DC prepare jambalaya. The incense of his bedroom seasoned the onions, ham, chili of the kitchen.
“Ask him, poor cog in the drug machine.”
“Now he's back in Napa, no phone. On what, a fungus farm.”
“Sounds to me like a druggie cutting a deal. I got no truck with the brain chemical trade.”
“You had to be there. He wins over the judge by saying it cures migraines, makes up a confession out of the 17th century, turns her off, lies about Herb Caen.”
“I thought you said that was the good part.”
“It was. Who knew she’d take a newspaper column for evidentiary fact?”
“You shocked by the rantings of a man puts up bail using his drug lab for collateral?” DC clattered a pot out from under the sink. He lived on the second floor of a once-painted North Oakland Victorian on 32nd Street off the freeway, an activist’s functional apartment, kitchen by Woolworth, furnishings by friends.
“Unless he was growing what he said he was growing.” She squeezed her eyes. “A headache cure.”
“And thought the rubes in Napa could distinguish between the two? Forget Cosmo.” He dropped onions in the pot. “Besides, consider the suspicious timing.”
“Tet happens, LBJ quits, the King assassination. Cosmo disappears, but when the ruling class needs him they find him and drag him into court and use him against you.”
“And at the end of the whole goddam shitstorm,” said Cathy, kicking at nothing in particular, “Cosmo’s free and they take away, take away”
“Jimmy,” said DC, “his name’s Jimmy. And unwrap your arms. You’ve been cinched up since you walked in.”
He popped a beer, held it out. She shivered at the cold-sweating bottle, leaned against the doorframe.
“You don’t think Cosmo’s an agent.” She wiped the sweat of bottle and arm off on her dress.
“I think he’s a drug dealer. There’s no money, no bail-type money, in homebrew migraine cures.”
“It’s just soft drugs.”
“I got a sister in Frontera,” then on Cathy’s look, “The women’s correctional institution.”
“I know about Frontera. I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“Inside. On the softest, nothingest of recreational drugs.”
“You never told me.”
“Charlene. Twenty-two. Way over her head.”
He turned to the stove, hooked off the pot lid with a wooden spoon. “Anyway, about Cosmo, we don’t know what he did, but they got what they used him for.”
“Charlene,” said Cathy. “What happened to her?”
“Held five ounces of weed for the love of a pissant lumpen scum named Leroy, got three years to indefinite.”
“Cut a deal. She was part of the deal.”
“He’s out on the street.”
“Not these streets. I informed the Party he was a renegade runningdog jackanape traitorous swine. They ran him back to Pensacola or wherever the fuck he crawled out.”
She drifted to the bay window past the sepia poster of Malcolm X (“instructing us from heaven”) over the couch. She had once mimed Malcolm’s gesture — finger aimed heavenward — while sitting below it; the double vision put DC on the floor (“you should see the two of you!”). On the street a convertible with a ripped top, torn clean as by a knife. She heard the pot slide on the rack, the oven door clunk.
“Leroy was a Panther?” she said.
“That surprises you?”
“Hon, at their best they’re workingclass warriors. At their worst, they’re Leroy. Jailbirds, pickpockets, brothel-keepers, vagabonds, ragpickers, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the lower middle class.”
“What, you shocked I can say that about them or that I can quote The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte?”
He stepped behind her, close as a breath. She felt him resist putting his arms around her. They listened to the neighborhood argue, cook, laugh, clatter.
“You ever look in Eldridge Cleaver’s eyes?” he said.
“Oily pewter ballbearings. But that’s not what you came to talk about.”
She did not deny or confirm, thereby confirming.
“You got Jimmy O’Shea written all over you and I’m the only one in this room who can speak his name. We’ll eat and then you’ll tell me what you came to tell me.” He pressed her shoulders from behind, kissed her neck, returned to the kitchen.
“Where would you look for The Girl?” she asked.
“If she was black? Beauty parlors. Clubs on weekends. Stoops. Staring out windows. Men.”
“I don’t think White girls hang out. Not this one anyway.”
He ladled jambalaya, set the bowls on the kitchen table. They ate and were silent. Cathy watched the goldflecked formica top, the chrome border dim in the twilight, wanted to run, scream, cry, touch, fuck, drive. Instead, she rehearsed phrases. They all started, “DC....” When they finished, she stood to clear the table.
“Leave it,” he said, “Talk to me.”
“DC,” she said and started to cry.
“Which one of us you crying for?”
Her tears thickened, stuck to her skin.
“I wanted to ask you to agree not to be together, not as lovers, while he’s in jail.”
“And you still want.” He rapped his fingers on the formica.
“Well, that gives me some Praise God motivation to raise bail money.”
“Let me visualize the happy scene, Cath. He gets bail, leaves jail, you hug, you kiss, you tell him you’re overjoyed he’s free, then you run back here. How's that work out?”
“You think I’m using this to.”
“Break up. May be. Beer?” He yanked open the fridge.
“DC.” She said his name like Deep Sea, a wave, ebb and flow, “It’s not against you.”
“Woman. Jimmy doesn’t feel different, I don’t feel different. You feel different. He’s in trouble. He’s in jail trouble. Other times he’s in other trouble but that doesn’t bring you running to call things off. He’s going to be in trouble a long time, has been, so are we all. Or, are you saying what crossed my mind, like now he’s in jail you realize how much you feel for him as opposed to.” He searched for a hard phrase. “Yrs truly.”
“I don’t feel different.”
“There appear to be two kinds of love here, cause my feelings for you I take it are now asked to back off in event of emergency.”
“No. Nothing’s changed.”
“What then? Not enough to go around?” He rolled the bottle between his palms. “I thought we were rich and fulsome with our affections, Cath.”
“The way I love you. And how I love Jimmy.”
“Green and yellow. Day and night. Real and unreal, that it?”
“Stop putting words.”
“Then say some I understand.”
A car honk, irate yell outside.
“Waiting—” said DC.
“I can’t say anything clear and clever and sharp that’ll make you—“
“— do what you want me to do. That’s what comes from acting the fool. I slide into a comfortable place, BAM comes a shock to the system, and I’m supposed to be the noble one.”
“You are the.”
“Not in this case.”
“Only while he’s in jail, DC.”
“We spend a lot of energy protecting Jimmy, don’t we?” DC drumrolled his fingers on the table, as at a too-long meeting. “How much energy you think he spends protecting us?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a lot. I don’t know.”
“Ok. When does our moratorial virginity begin? Now or in the morning? ”
“If not now, I won’t ever.”
“You been looking all night like you’re waiting for a train to leave. Best take it.”
She picked her raincoat off the couch, did him what she thought was the favor of not looking back. Down the block she passed two men, legs across the hood and trunk of two parked cars, facing each other. They gave her the up, down, sideways and What are You doing here? Who am I to them? Social worker, drug buyer, lady cop, whitegirl-slumming, thing-on-the-side, someone who doesn’t belong here, but I do, I belong though they don’t know it. We can force ourselves to belong in places we aren’t expected. I am not a tourist, I’m not buying or selling. I’m here on love and business. Some day there won’t be a border to cross.
She turned on the ignition, saw 1% Free, the two Chinese smokers, tacked to a pole. Enigmatically clever in the Haight, the poster looked misplaced in Oakland, as if it blew across the Bay and stuck, a marker of the distance between.
On the bridge, she turned up the radio. KSAN was showcasing the new Big Brother album. “Tell me whyyyyy,” screamed Janis Joplin at the top of her breath,
Why’s it all so hard,
Breathing in the aaaaaair?
in the ayayayair?
“So tell me,” said Cathy.
Janis didn’t know; she could but masterfully lament.