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Table of Contents

Go Down With The Sun

  • Fiction by D.V. Glenn

Just the thought or the sight of her face, with its complexion like clear mountain water in cool repose on a smooth mahogany sand bed, or her eyes, deep with mahogany dimension and reverberating with liquid light, is enough to spawn the small spike of envy and reluctant admiration that pierces the voices of her friends, the other exotic dancers, when they say her name, calling her “Mahogany, that wild Mahogany.”

And the men who wander in from the streets – because they long for some dawn to break above the dark horizon in their hearts, they posture and strategize to learn her name and then, the discovery made, they fondle the pronunciation with moistened lips. First they linger in the doorway of Littlejohn’s with aggressive nonchalance before making an entrance. Their lips hold jaded cigarettes. Their ice-pick eyes stab into the corners of the room and make corpses of the walls. Then they lean into slow stride, negligent masculine rhythm arrested in the drawling hesitation between each step, paced swagger to the bar, and they ask, with carefully calibrated voices, “What’s your name, sugar?”

She says to this particular man, her eyes settling into a seductive feline droop, “I believe you just said it.” And though they are strangers they wear knowing smiles and knowing masks, this man at the bar with eyes eclipsed by the clean quick angle of his hat, and Mahogany, cradling an empty glass, perched on her barstool coyly. She feels the scorch of his invisible eyes. She feels herself becoming a mirage, shimmering in air heated by the man’s desire.

“Sugar ain’t sweet enough,” he goes on with an air of bantering improvisation, and in the nicotine jungle of shadow and smoky half-light, his laughter broadens into crescent white, a smiling slice of moon shines in his mouth. “Uh-un, sugar not near good enough for you. That must be your nickname, and I know honey got to be your last name ….”

“Buy me a drink and I might tell you. And I said might. I don’t make promises no more. Not even to myself.”

The bartender brings the drink the man orders for Mahogany. His eyelids, as he slaps the glass down on the countertop, appear sluggish and heavy, as though his eyelashes have been dipped in lead.

“Look at Littlejohn,” observes the man with the slashing hat. “Damn, you one tired black man, iddnit?”

“Yeah. Tired,” answers Littlejohn, moving with imperious indifference down the bar and flinging over the shrug of his shoulder the scrap of an afterthought – “of your chump ass.”

So Mahogany considers, sipping her drink with lips sheathed in frosty pink sheen, how some seem destined to drink from the fountain of grief that springs from the weeping heart of life, drink deep, and while the poison steals like sugared sleep through the veins and whispers, lay down, Mahogany, lay down, go down with the sun, girl, go down into the storm of the sun and never, never come up into the ice of that cold light again – while the wooing whisper swells and seething, says, nevermore, nevermore, another voice breathes a murmur of that eternity and chants, there is no music in that place, there is no music in nothingness. Hear the strong song of nothingness, there is no music in it. Hear the violin of nothingness, sobbing because no music plays. Because without the music, there is no dance for her to cling to. Because when Mahogany dances, the voice of grief dies down.

Of course, Littlejohn is tired. Poor Littlejohn, with his bad heart and his bad wife who runs the streets thirsting for the sweet sap of her lost youth, those days of young ripe hollow glory now laid to rest beneath the tombstone of the past, down, trampled into the gray history of city pavements, down, days anonymous as fading footsteps. O, down. And poor Jerry D., who loves Mahogany with an intensity that is like a deathless dying, sweet, helpless Jerry D. who would do anything for her. When she came home last night, aloft no longer, shoulders slumped beneath a fallen sky of dancing, he held the broken wings of her feet in worshipful hands and in the manner of one meditating drew the sponge over the delicate bones of her toes and … and yes, he bathed them in a prayer of gentle warm water. And someone held the feet of Jesus once too and bathed them in a silver blessing of warm water and intoned softly, adrift on a trembling sea-dream of peace, Jesus, my sweet Lord, my precious Lord … but most of all poor Maurice, her little boy, his eyes full of frozen focus and desolation, the thin white twig of saliva sprouting crookedly from the corner of his mouth … yes, poor Jerry D. and little Maurice, she is going to hurt them both very soon, before this night is over.

“Mahogany. Come on back, baby. Come on back to me,” urges the man with the hat that slices his face with a shark’s fin of sharpness. “You done been gone from me too long, and I don't like that. It's unacceptable, iddnit?”

But wait, she doesn’t remember telling him her name. Who told that man her name? Who told that man her name! “Who told you my name?” she demands, leaping up from the stool, which snaps backward to the floor, as a hooded woman with a noose around her neck drops and is snapped backward. Hands clamped The palms of her hands are rooted firmly in the narrow hourglass between waist and hips.

“Hell, I been here before. I knew it already. I just wanted to hear you say it,” he says, voice lilting into jazz, voice up and down through intonations, scaling, running, weaving the note of sultry appreciation into a sensuous adagio of ulterior motive, pure and dangerous, like an instrument that solos over an abyss of mocking silence. Then he smiles in anticipation of Mahogany, wild beautiful Mahogany, sweetening her name with her lips.

“Who told you?” she shrills, her venom spraying into the angled shadows of his face. The music in the bar is now, for Mahogany, in inverse proportion to the man’s voice as it lowers, thickens with menacing baritone resonance.

“Now look, girl, I done already told you I knew it already, didn’t I? You act like you don’t want nobody to know your damn name.”

A savage sweep of her arm and she slaps away the hat. Then her long fingernails dive toward his startled eyes.

The antennae of the streets twitch and rumors of blood pooling warm on thirsty pavement or floors somehow spread instantaneously up and down the sidewalks, and men who loiter mysteriously in doorways or seek the easy fellowship of inebriation in small clusters before liquor stores come running to Littlejohn’s, filling the open door with facets of faces and ardent gaping. But they are too late and disperse in disappointment, a taffy of faces disentwining, the flaring flame of the altercation extinguished too soon by Littlejohn himself, who came between Mahogany and the hatless man’s hot rage like a rush of cooling water. One man enters the bar and asks another sitting at a table, “Say man, what happened?”

The other says, “One of them girls that dances jumped on somebody and liked to claw the dude to death. She got on his back and tried to dig her nails in his eyes.”

“Yeah? How come?”

“Some business about her name.”

“Where’s the blood?” challenges the first. “I don’t see no blood on no floor.”

The second turns his head fully toward the other with slow, composed, expressionless menace. “What, you want to see some?”

The first man leaves quickly and once outside, over his shoulder, disdainfully tattoos the sidewalk with saliva.

In the back room, the room the dancers, with resentful amusement, refer to with their fingers hooked in quotes as “the dressing room,” Mahogany sits weeping on a battered sofa with much of its cushioning jutting out through feral rips and tears, the upholstery graffited here and there with suspicious and mysterious stains. Coco, a woman with thin ankles and wrists, with yawning somnolent eyes, bends over Mahogany, talking to her with stern sympathy, gently, then roughly, kneading Mahogany’s shoulders.

“Girl, get up off that nasty-ass couch and sit like you got some sense on this stool so I can fix your hair for your show. What’s wrong with you?”

“Just leave me alone.” But she rises with weary effort and sits on the stool anyway.

“You keep that up, you’ll lose the best friend you got in this dive. Now sit quiet and let me comb out that hair.”

Mahogany feels the comb go rafting through the lazy river of willowy curls ….

“I wish I had hair like you,” Coco marvels. “So soft …”

So soft, so soft … and the sound, ssshhh, ssshhh, of dusky hair drawn in long sips through the thirsty sibilance of the comb might be water, slow water, day-dreaming trance of dusky water running through humming reeds, like an effusion of heaven issuing in song through vocal cords of angels. And in the pause between each oaring stroke, the room glides down shadowed banks of silence. And out of the rhythmic eternal heaven-song of hair through comb, as if tresses of time flowed eternally on and Coco, dark goddess of the sculpting-comb, shaped the shapeless – out of the soft and the slow drift down current, an understanding grows between them (for Coco’s mother had recently died, and Coco did not have the money to pay for the medical insurance or the treatment that might have saved her), a linking of invisible hands. So they disembark and stand on this island of intimacy afloat amid the hopeless web of here and now that is Littlejohn’s, with its spider’s nest of men who seem content to weave away the strands of the hours in a web of alcohol only torn, now and again, by violence. These men dreaming with their loveless eyes that crawl all over the dancers like spider legs! Mahogany imagines that she and Coco stand on the island of this eroding moment and together give shape to the clay of suffering, bring suffering to its knees as it has brought them to theirs, slay suffering with a common sword, proving that understanding can exist, the strength born of shared sorrows can exist, even though the monster will only rise up time and again to be slain. Now she can refuse to think, I can’t go on, was I meant to be only who I am, is this the will of the Lord that I am always doomed to become what I was? She doesn’t think of the money, money, money she needs that this life requires, how she never can make enough of it and how it trickles, pathetically, through her fingers. And she doesn’t think of her child who will be cast adrift in the world, sad broken child of her loins. They say his progress is good and attribute this to her love, though in the same breath they acknowledge that he will never be normal … fragile flower with the delicate roots of his life implanted in her blood, breathing in the unfailing oxygen of her love … and Jerry D., who can’t even find a job, what will become of him, this man who lives only to take her feet in his hands, like dusky evening swans with crippled wings, sprinkling upon them a soothing consecration of melodious water? Don’t think of how tonight you must run away, leaving them both behind, if you want to escape the despair of Littlejohn’s, a lifetime of Littlejohn’s, and do something with the beating wings caged inside you. New York, the chance to dance on Broadway awaits you, and the plane must be taken at midnight.

Coco stops combing and holds Mahogany’s hand. “You all right now?”

“I’m so tired of everything,” Mahogany says, voice sinking on the anchor of her sigh. “I’m so tired of all this, Coco. This ain’t no life. You know what? When I get up in the morning I think to myself, just hurry up and get it over with, just get this day over with and that’s all I want. And then at the end of the day I think, here’s one more day less – and I don’t know if I’m happy or sad.”

“At least you wake up and you ain’t alone. Jerry D. there, and little Maurice. Ain’t nothing worse than being alone. When I wake up I think, damn, what I got to live for? Nothing. Can’t keep a man that’s worth a solid nickel. I hear you when you say this ain’t no life. Where we going? There’s a whole big world out there, but we can’t get to it. Trapped in the ugly part of the city, with the rest of the poor black folks. What I got to live for? It ain’t fair.

Mahogany wonders how to explain, what words to use. “But if you got yourself, you don’t have to live just for a man. Can’t nobody help you find your way through this life anyway. You got to live for yourself.”

“Now you talking crazy,” Coco says with a wave of her hand, laughing doubtfully.

“No it’s not, Coco, don’t say that,” she pleads. “How come it’s crazy? You can take what you got and turn it into something good and beautiful, and a man can’t do that for you. A child can’t do it for you. Only you can do that.”

“It’s different for you. You talking about dancing, ain’t you? Honey, I don’t do no dancing. All I do is shake my tail on the weekends for a few pennies extra. But you were born with it. Sometimes I look at you up on that little stage and wonder why you put so much into it. Them boys out there don’t know how good you are, they too busy drinking, thinking about what they would do to you if you gave them half a chance. Littlejohn’s don’t pay us to dance. We paid to shake a lot and get his customers to spend money on more drinks.”

A knock on the door, heavy knuckles rapping, and the small room seems riddled with the threat of collapse. Coco and Mahogany turn to the door with a start and a hammering voice penetrates the walls. “Tell Mahogany’s her number’s up next. You hear, Mahogany? It’s nine-thirty, your shift.”

“We know what the hell time it is,” Coco yells.

“Good,” retorts Littlejohn. “Because my daddy raised me to be a man, not a clock.”

“Evil black bastard,” Coco mutters.

Mahogany surges into her costume, the flurry of her own arms and legs is a quickening intoxication of speed racing to her head, she grabs her purse and tears it open and her voice is a fuse sizzling down in her throat. “Look, Coco, see this? It’s a ticket out of here. One ticket. I got a real job waiting for me in New York.” A staggering tide of delirium and sorrow rises and falls within her, lifting her up, knocking her down. “You know that man you saw asking me questions last month after the show? The one dressed up real nice with the Benz in the parking lot? Well, he wants to give me a chance. He wants me to try and dance in a show, with real professional dancers, he knows I’m that good. I’m talking about an audition, which he told me I would get through with no problem … how many chances does somebody like me get to get out of the ghetto, Coco? He’s a talent scout and travels around to all kinds of places, even places like Littlejohn’s, because you can find real talent in all kinds of places. I know what’s going through your head. But I made some calls, I checked it out, it’s on the level.”

Lifting her up …

“But he wanted to know if I had obligations and attachments, because girls with attachments ain’t serious enough.”

Knocking her down …

“So I told him I didn’t have nobody in the whole wide world but myself. I’m twenty-five years old and I won’t get another chance like this. My mama and papa struggled in these streets all their lives for me, doing the best they could. And mama always told me, Mahogany, get out if you can. I’m glad they’re dead! I’m glad they don’t know about Maurice, and I’m glad they don’t know how I made the same mistake twice, and found another man that couldn’t do nothing for me, Jerry D. talking about how much he love me all the time, and crying like a woman … see this plane ticket? In two hours I’ll be on that bird, bound for New York.”

And before Coco can say anything about Maurice and Jerry D. or fix Mahogany with the floodlight-bright beacons of her hot stern interrogating eyes (how can you if you love them?), Mahogany is running out the door and through a slow vacuous thunder of surprised faces belatedly turning to follow the lithe lightning streak of her limbs as she bolts to the tiny stage. And though she is no longer running, now standing still, the sheer silken gown she wears is yet trailing behind her, billowing, and before it can settle into airy repose on her shoulders, is gone, tossed on the floor behind her. She wears a G-string and a narrow halter-top, both pieces seeming to be on the verge of vanishing voluptuously into flesh. The flood of hot neon, red, green and blue, sweeps the platform in overlapping circles as she stands, waiting for the music to begin. Glaring neon interrogative lights like Coco’s eyes, asking, don’t you love them? (yes, yes, and they love me, they would want me to do it, if loving weren’t needing. And if loving means needing, then where is the freedom? What is love, and what is freedom?).“What’s your hurry, Mahogany?” Littlejohn’s voice reaches her from the back of the room like a bridge through the fog of drunken babbling.

“Just play the damn music!” she shouts back, urgently demanding.

“Yeah, what’s your hurry? You got somewhere more important to be?” A different voice, anonymous, insistent, risible, reeling.

The music begins. She thinks of Jerry D. and little Maurice, and maybe she does, after all, understand how freedom can inhere in love. Because now she looks out from the interior of the dance, which is caged inside the heartbeat of the music, loving the dance, abandoning herself completely within the trembling walls of the rhythm. Tonight is unlike other nights, because for once she actually focuses on the faces of the men in the audience, their expressions static, unfathomable, hard, and her spirit struggles to burst forth from the flesh and cast its feathery petals of light upon them, to make them feel, to make them see how she is drawing from their lives the dead, stagnant and heavy waters ever rising slowly above their heads, drawing that shapeless suffering into her own life and giving it form and substance, freezing it in her dance. All their hidden tears and the treacherous streets they wander through, all the travail of deep homelessness transformed in the alchemy of her dance. Mahogany makes the fast heated music slow and she feels herself fading into an incomprehensible poetry:

A dewdrop, cocooned in luminous sighing hues Falling in languorous long emotions On a crystal sheet stretched exquisitely sheer Spanning a taut transparency

Mahogany dances, she dances and the voice of grief dies down.

Then the music stops, a single saxophone sustaining a single note and drawing it out thinner and thinner in a desperate wail of enervation before dying into silence. She stands motionless on the stage. Littlejohn stares at her, thinking and feeling. And Coco, standing near the front of the stage, turns away, her attitude one of stillness of contemplation. And the men, the men are staring at her strangely, as though embarrassed. Embarrassed because they are not accustomed to feeling in public. Mahogany sees the man with the slashing hat in the back of the room, standing by the pool table. Carefully he props his cue stick against the wall and then gravely, slowly, reluctantly brings his hands together. Three, four, five times. His face expressionless. His applause is awkwardly deferential but determined. The others, eleven or twelve men with eyes that dart about for a moment in confusion, join in and bring their hands together. Their applause is tentative, brief, and sparse, since the men never applaud at Littlejohn’s.

And then, a siren sounding in the near distance breaks the spell, and for a moment the pavement outside trembles with rolling boulders of footsteps, and curses in a loud free-verse of panic tumble across the black riffling pages of the night. Once again the men in Littlejohn’s are laughing, shouting, cursing and smoking, and the grinding wheel of their lives resumes circling, turning.

Then Mahogany remembers she has no time to lose, she must call a cab and get dressed and be at the airport before midnight, and the clock behind the bar in the shape of a guitar reads ten-thirty.

When Coco comes into the dressing room, Mahogany is already dressed and is checking her purse for the last time.

“You serious about leaving, ain’t you?”

“If I don’t leave now, Coco, and I miss the only chance I’ll ever get, what’s going to happen to me?”

“What’s going to happen to jerry D. and your baby?” Her tone is matter-of-factly inquisitive, mild, almost benign, without the edge of hostile accusation that Mahogany mysteriously hoped for, expected.

“Jerry D. should be able to take care of himself, like any grown man. And Maurice .…” She falters, picking up a small suitcase with exaggerated haste and glancing about the room distractedly. “I love Maurice,” she says, taking a step toward Coco, dropping the suitcase and holding Coco and feeling the hammer of grief strike over and over again, chiseling tears from her eyes. And then, the hammer still striking with furious precision within her breast, but there being no more tears to shed, she wipes her face with the back of her hand quickly and retrieves the suitcase, stepping out of Coco’s arms and opening the door without looking back. “I love Maurice. I told him how much I love him and I whispered goodbye to him today, but he didn’t understand …Maurice don’t need me. He just need what I give him. It don’t matter who give it to him. I don’t expect no man, not even Jerry D., to take care of a little boy alone, and Maurice not even his own blood. But one of them agencies will take good care of Maurice and maybe even help Jerry D. too when I leave. I got a cousin works at the child welfare place downtown. I stopped at her place on the way to work tonight and slipped a letter in her mailbox. I asked her in the letter could she see to it that Jerry D. get proper care and stuff. I won’t worry about my baby, honest. Them agencies will do more for him than I ever could.”

And Coco is still standing where Mahogany stepped out of the warm circle of her arms, and her arms are still suspended and outstretched while Mahogany stands facing the door with her hand on the knob, her back to Coco.

“When Jerry D. call tonight to see about picking me up, will you tell him, Coco? Please? Just tell him I left because I had to, and I’ll call and explain when I get to where I’m going. Otherwise he’ll worry himself sick. Jerry D. like that. Crying and carrying on worse than a woman. Will you, Coco? I couldn’t find the heart to do it.”

“All right.” And then Mahogany is gone. Outside, gripping the suitcase tightly, she begins to breathe quickly and unevenly and something threatens to break through the shivering walls of her skin. She tells herself that everything will be all right once she is on the plane, it will all subside, falling away with the rising of the plane: agony of long nights when she wanted to tell Jerry D. that she was going away but that she also wanted him to wait for her, then deciding that she would never completely escape that way. On the plane everything will subside, falling into the labyrinth of brightly lit molecules the city will become as the plane carries her above the clouds.

She opens the door and scrambles into cab, even though it has not yet come to a full stop.

  • .

Coco leaves the dressing room and goes to the phone behind the bar when it is time for Jerry D. to call. She dials the number.

“Hello?” Jerry D. says, his voice seeming to flinch as though in dread.

“Jerry D.? This is Coco.” A mountain of music in the bar, an avalanche of jukebox guitars and drums, Coco’s voice climbing to surmount it. “This is Coco, from Littlejohn’s. Mahogany want me to tell you – “

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Is Mahogany all right?”

“Jerry D., listen. I’m just going to say it straight out, I guess. Mahogany say to tell you … she couldn’t stay here no more. She say to tell you that it’s not your fault, but that she wanted to dance so bad and got a chance to do it in New York so she had to leave. She say – “

“New York? Where in New York? When is she coming back home? Coco!”

“Jerry D., she gonna call you real soon, like maybe tomorrow.”

She hears the phone fall out of his hand and his voice is pulled into the awful vortex of his moaning, like water circling down the drain. “Jerry D.? Look, I’m coming over there to tell you everything she said. You hear?” She hangs the phone up and runs through the door.

  • .

Once again the antennae of the streets twitch and rumors of blood pooling warm on thirsty pavements or floors somehow spread instantaneously up and down the sidewalks, and from nearby corners men with mouths that twist and radiate excitement come running to the small frame house at the end of the alley, not far from Littlejohn’s.

“What happened?” asks a gaunt, addicted-looking man who is late in arriving, panting and standing on tiptoe, trying to peer above and beyond the close and murmurous clotting of men and women on the sidewalk who are being herded away from the house by police.

“Something about some dude who’s already half crazy going off the deep end with a gun. Said he was holding some woman from Littlejohn’s and a kid in there hostage. Cops talked him into lettin’ the kid and the woman go, but the dude’s still sitting up in there with a gun to his head. I guess they in there with him now, tryin’ to talk him out of wastin’ hisself.

“Oh yeah? All that happened already? Night just getting started, but I can tell it fixin’ to be a long one.”

  • .

Mahogany whirls from the cab though she has almost thirty minutes to spare. The terminal’s great revolving doors are webs of whirling glass, trapping the ceaseless coming and going of men and women inside a circling blur and releasing them inside, where they rush toward certain fixed destinations, arrows of flesh and blood catapaulted knowingly toward some shining bullseye of the future. Those twirling doors fling Mahogany into the lobby where she joins the tapestry of haste, bodies shifting, converging, scattering precisely as if by premeditated design. She dashes up the stairs to the second floor, then down a crowded corridor. Breathing hard, she takes her place at the end of the line, behind ten or 11 people. In her hand is the ticket, tightly clutched. And in her heart is clutched that one desire more vast than all the skies of the earth. One by one the passengers hand their tickets to the smiling stewardess and disappear down the boarding ramp.

“Yours is seat 22, toward the middle,” the stewardess says, smiling brightly, encouraging Mahogany to cross the threshold, cross it now, leave behind the carcasses of dead and dying dreams that make a desert of her dancing. Go, just go. To a destination, a future, like everyone else in line. “Miss?” the stewardess says, reaching for the ticket.

Through the sweep of glass overlooking the airfield, Mahogany can see the sky, where the stars seem to be grazing through serene and magnanimous pastures of heaven, where her plane will soar across the pale, beckoning face of the moon, leaving Jerry D. and little Maurice behind.

“You’re not boarding?” the stewardess asks in a concerned voice.

Mahogany turns away, dropping the ticket.

Minutes later, Mahogany presses her face against the generous expanse of glass overlooking the runway. She peers up into the sky, and yes, there it is. She thinks, with a feather of elation brushing over her so fleeting that she doubts she was touched by it at all, soar, bird, oh soar. Far above everything bleak and despairing, far above Littlejohn’s and the cunning streets. The clock on the wall above the departure and destination schedule reads twelve-twenty. Soon it will be one-thirty. She will dance the last shift at Littlejohn’s at one-thirty. Mahogany dances, she dances and the voice of grief dies down.

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