Author Writes About Black Fatherhood

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Father's Day is drawing near and, especially in minority communities, the commemorative day means different things to different people, particularly men of color. We talk to Leonard Pitts, a renowned journalist, author and father, talks about his layered journey into fatherhood. The Pulitzer prize winning journalist has authored two books, Becoming Dad and Before I Forget.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, a few of our favorite men share intimate stories about their fathers. Father's Day, of course, is this Sunday, and it's a time to celebrate dads. But for those who grew up without a father, it can be an awkward occasion. Even absent fathers cast long shadows, and absent fathers have become the norm in the African-American community.

Leonard Pitts, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, has written extensively and thought deeply about fatherhood, especially about what it means to be a black father. In 1999, he wrote "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood." He now has a new book out, a novel, his first. It's called "Before I Forget," and it, too, is about fatherhood. Leonard Pitts, Jr., joins us now in our Washington, D.C., studio. Thank you so much for coming.

Mr. LEONARD PITTS, JR. (Author, "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood," "Before I Forget"): Oh, it's my pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: How did you get so interested in what it means to be a father?

Mr. PITTS: Well, probably almost by accident. I'm sure it had been lurking somewhere in the back of my mind all along, but I actually wrote "Becoming Dad" at the invitation of a publishing house that wanted to, you know, see me write on the subject. And as I did, I, you know, started to see all of these things that the absence of father produces in the African-American community.

MARTIN: I want to talk about "Becoming Dad" for just a minute, before we get to the novel, because it's a book that I know a lot of men have mentioned to me as being important to them in thinking about - and surfacing a lot of these issues in a way that isn't always talked about. So you write: It's become so commonplace as to be unremarkable, this phenomenon of children and mother on their own and dad as an infrequent, drop-in visitor. What's your take on how we got to this point?

Mr. PITTS: Well, my personal theory is that it is an unintended and negative by-product of the feminist revolution and the sexual revolution. I think that one of the things that happened out of the feminist revolution was that we were taught that men and women are equal, which of course they are, but I think a lot of us took from that the other message, which is that men and women are the same. And I think that we have really bought into this myth in terms of the family, that if dad is not there, well mom is just the same, and there's nothing that kids will miss if dad's not in the household.

And the fact of the matter is, what we're finding out in statistics, what we're finding out through just reams of anecdotal evidence, is that when dad's not in the household, there are things that kids miss.

MARTIN: You also write: In families characterized by strong, black women and absent black men, it has given support to the disastrous notion that maybe fathers aren't really that necessary after all. And obviously, you've spent a very great deal of time writing about why you think fathers are necessary, but why do you think that they are?

Mr. PITTS: Well, the material answer to that would be that with father in the household, the family is less likely to live in poverty. It's a fact that we live in an economy where two incomes are definitely desirable over one. But I think above and beyond that, there are just all these intangibles that men bring to the household that have yet to be quantified.

You know, the examples that I like to use from my own childhood, of my own experience raising my kids, is that when my daughter, who is now 18, brought her first boyfriend home, it was not my wife's job to take that boy up to the office and have a quiet, man-to-man talk with him, to ask for his driver's license and let him see me scanning it into the computer and to explain to him, you know, all the stuff that he's not going to do with my daughter if he wants to live to see voting age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PITTS: That's not - you know, and it sounds like silly stuff, but it's important stuff. Because in doing that, one, I put him on notice, but two, I tell my daughter that she is valued, and that's a dad function.

MARTIN: But there are those who would say that there are men who play a destructive role in relationships and that families are better off if women have the ability to function without them.

Mr. PITTS: If the man is a clear and present physical or emotional danger to the family, obviously, get out. But those aren't the households that I'm talking about. I'm talking about the relationships where we have consciously devalued the presence of the man or just decided that the man is not necessarily necessary. And it doesn't mean that the woman and the man have to be together. What it means is that, assuming the father is of reasonably sound mind and character, should have access to his children because they need him, and they need him for more than just the financial benefit.

MARTIN: Do you think that the issue is that - you talked about the feminist movement - as an unintended consequence of feminist movement sort of pushing men out of the picture, causing them to believe that they're not as significant. But is it your view that women have pushed men out or that society has pushed men out or that men have not figured out a role other than being the provider that is satisfying for them?

Mr. PITTS: All of the above, I think. I think that one of the biggest problems, and one that's not necessarily discussed a lot, is that there is no social stigma or social sanction for the man who is not involved with his family. But a woman who does that, a woman who abandons her children we hold in - we hold as something shameful, we hold as scorn. So I think that's sort of the trick that the sexual revolution played on women.

You know, we - the sexual revolution was all about, you know, you don't have to be hung up on these roles and you don't have a ring. And, you know, if it feels good, do it. And that's lovely. I - you know, except that when you do that thing that feels good, occasionally, there are consequences to it. And what happened what we found when those consequences came was that women were stuck holding the bag and men were still out enjoying the fruits of the revolution, you know, which was inherently unfair.

And I think that one of the things that I'm waiting for is for women to stand up and say, hey, wait a minute. We celebrate, rightfully so, the strong -particularly in the African-American community, but in all communities, really - the strong women without whom a lot of these families would be in worse shape than they are. But at some point, you've got to say okay, thank you for celebrating me, but enough celebrating me. How about some help so I don't always have to be the strong, you know, woman?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with, Leonard Pitts, Jr. about fatherhood. We're talking about his first book, "Becoming Dad." And we're also talking about his latest work, his first novel. It's called, "Before I Forget." The novel's protagonist is a aging R&B crooner, Mo Johnson. He's struggling with early onset of Alzheimer's, a dying father, a son who just participated in an armed robbery that goes very wrong. And Mo decides to take his son to see his own father with whom he has a very difficult relationship. How did this story come to you?

Mr. PITTS: I knew that thematically - and the theme was probably the first thing that came - thematically I wanted to deal with fatherhood. But with that said, you can't write a novel. You can't make a novel a theme. A novel has to be about people going through things. So I came up with this idea of Mo Johnson and put him in. You know, Stephen King said somewhere that what you ought to do as a writer is put your character in absolutely the last place, the last situation they want to be. For me, I think if I have to die, and I only reluctantly and grudgingly accept that as a reality, if I have to die, the scariest way that I can think of to die is with Alzheimer's, because Alzheimer's takes your life before it kills you. You have years where it just, you know, it's taken away everything that you are. So I gave that to Mo to deal with.

MARTIN: His sense of self is so strong…

Mr. PITTS: Exactly.

MARTIN: …that the idea of losing that self…

Mr. PITTS: He loses who he…

MARTIN: …is devastating.

Mr. PITTS: He's facing the idea of losing who he is. And also, frankly the fact when you get that sort of death sentence of a medical diagnosis, I think that it causes you to really reshape your priorities and look at what you've done in your life. And Mo looks at what he's done in his life and realizes that, you know, he has failed in all the most important relationships. He's been a big star. He's got a lot of money. You know, he walks the street and people recognize him and want to shake his hand.

But he's been a very poor father to his son. He's got this estranged relationship with his own father. The woman that he loves, he has never really - he was never really able to commit himself to her because there were always all these other women and there was his drugs, and there's, you know, I got a concert here and a concert there. So he's really beginning to look at himself in a new light. And the book, and particularly the title, "Before I Forget," you know, deals with obviously the Alzheimer's, but also the fact that he wants to fix some of the broken places in his life, you know, literally, before he forgets, before his time runs out.

MARTIN: In many ways, the themes of this book are ones of the characters - the situations that they find themselves in will be familiar to some people. Like, for example, there's a storyline that I was particularly interested in where some of the other characters who participated in the robbery with Mo's son and their lives…

Mr. PITTS: Right.

MARTIN: …and what brought them to where they are. One of the things that I was attracted to about that and one of the reasons that was very meaningful to me is that you got a family where one of the sons is trying to get out of his situation. They don't have a lot of money, and one of the kids, very attracted to crime and kind of the thug life, and one of the other brothers wants out. You know, and there's a question about whether the mother really wants him out.

And I wondered a couple of things. Did you worry that some people will just find this all too operatic and will not think that this is the real stuff? Did you ever, you know, worry that people will think, gee, that doesn't really happen? And did you ever think about the whole airing dirty laundry piece? I know I ask a number of artists that who are of color, but it does come up where people say, I don't want to hear about all that. Why is that, you know, the foot that we have to place forward? So…

Mr. PITTS: Right. Neither of those first two concerned me. And in terms of airing dirty laundry, there's a couple of things I'd probably say. The first off is that I have decided as an African-American that to the degree that our fear of quote-unquote "airing dirty laundry" keeps us as African-Americans from having necessary discussions in our community, things that we need to do to save ourselves, to that degree, then that fear is insupportable. Like every community, you know, we have issues, except that we are the community that has decided because we are held to this standard where if we are not perfect, then we are garbage.

You're either Sidney Poitier or you're, I don't know, Snoop Dogg or whomever. You know, and because we bought into that standard, we tend not to have the discussions that we need to have. That's the first thing. The second thing is that the character that you're talking about, Mary Willis and her son's - Dog, which is Raeford's nickname, and Fury, which is Cedric's nickname, these aren't representatives of the African-American community. I'm sure you could find them in the African-American community, but you can also find a million other different kinds of people in the African-American community.

So I really was determined and intentional and purposeful about the idea that none of these characters would be anybody's types, and that I would be fearful or hold back in my writing because I thought that somebody was going take them as a type. They're not types. They're people.

MARTIN: That is so. But there are those who question whether, you know, middleclass writers…

Mr. PITTS: Right.

MARTIN: …such as yourself, which you are now…

Mr. PITTS: Yes.

MARTIN: …can, you know, write about characters who are living this hard-edged existence. And some people just say, well, it's, you know, it's just inherently patronizing.

Mr. PITTS: That's why it's called writing. I'm pretty sure Gene Roddenberry was never on a spaceship and Tom Clancy had never been on a submarine when he wrote "The Hunt For Red October." And, you know, I've been a woman and there are women characters in the book that I fancy that I render at least, you know, reasonably well. So, you know, I can imagine myself into that. So if I can imagine myself into those things, I think that I have the ability and the right to imagine myself into, you know, African-Americans from, you know, the rougher side of the street, let's say, especially given that that's where I was raised.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PITTS: You know, frankly, there's less imagining involved in that than in some of the other things that take place in the book.

MARTIN: You said you started out with the idea, but you can't write a novel about ideas. It has to be about people…

Mr. PITTS: Right.

MARTIN: …and the things that happen to them. But there are ideas in the book…

Mr. PITTS: Oh, yes. Yes.

MARTIN: …very much so, about what happens to boys, particularly when the men in their lives who are supposed to be important to them aren't around. And I do have to say that there are do-right men in this book, men who are trying to do right and women who are trying to do right. But is there something overall that you like people to get from "Before I Forget"?

Mr. PITTS: I would like from - not just "Before I Forget," but also from "Becoming Dad," I would be grateful if people would go away from that rethinking their assumptions about how important it is that dads are there. I think a lot of times as dads, as fathers, as men, we don't realize our own importance, or we believe that our importance stops when we write the check for the rent. And I think that it would be a great compliment to me if a lot of us would begin to, as men and women, would begin to reevaluate and would begin to say, you know what? No. There's more to it than that, that when that man is not present in the life of that family, something invaluable and irreplaceable is lost.

MARTIN: Before I forget, what do you want for Father's Day?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Any hints that you want me to drop?

Mr. PITTS: I don't know. I'm probably the hardest person in the world to buy for. A DVD would be lovely. Or a tie, but, you know, not the socks. Let's avoid the socks this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No socks.

Mr. PITTS: No socks.

MARTIN: Okay. Leonard Pitts, Jr.: columnist, novelist and father. His latest book is "Before I Forget." Happy Father's Day.

Mr. PITTS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: To hear Leonard Pitts, Jr. read am excerpt from his book "Before I Forget," please go to our website at Click on the TELL ME MORE tab.

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Excerpt: 'Before I Forget'

By Leonard Pitts, Jr.

'Before I Forget' book cover
Agate Publishing

The sound drew Mo up from the darkness. For a moment he was nowhere, suspended in that place between places, unable even to form the thought to ask himself where he was. Then he heard it again, a thin wheedling. And now Mo was lurching about in his bed, covers tangling about his thighs. His hand flung itself out toward the sound. It landed on something on something cold.

Eyes closed, mind still swimming against sleep, he felt the unknown object. Felt the barrel, felt the trigger guard, felt the grip. When he finally knew what it was his laugh was a short bark, sour as old milk. For all his intentions of suicide, wouldn't it be funny if he accidentally blew his brains out trying to answer the phone?


It wheedled again and Mo lifted his face out of the pillow to search out the clock. Ten-thirty in the morning. Who could be calling him at this hour? He was no longer active in the music business, but he still kept musician's hours, up all night, asleep till mid-afternoon. Anyone who knew him knew that. He lifted the receiver.

"Yeah," he said.

Mr. Johnson?" She was young and her voice was brutal in its perkiness.

"Yeah," he said again.

"This is Dr. Ruelas' office. I was calling to remind you of the support group meeting. Today at noon?"

"I remember," said Moses.

This was a lie, though one so smooth and guiltless that it went right past her.

"Good then," she said. "So I'll tell them to expect you at noon."

Moses made his voice a sunny smile. "I'll be there."

"Great!" she said enthusiastically. She was immune to parody.

Moses hung up the receiver and rolled out of bed. He lit the first cigarette of the day. It tasted like dry grass. He found the remote control and aimed it at the television in the corner. Regis Philbin was interviewing some blonde starlet about a hit movie Mo had never heard of. Or maybe he had known the title once and forgotten. The thought made Mo flip channels a few times more. He stopped when he found Marshall Dillon confronting some bad guy outside the Long Branch saloon.

Mo smoked and watched. Once, but only once, he glanced at the gun on his nightstand and allowed himself a fleeting thought of putting it to his temple right then and there and blowing a hole through his malfunctioning mind. But that would be an act of pique, he knew. Just a way of getting out of an engagement he didn't want to keep. When he finally killed himself, it had to be about more than that.

Still, Mo could not imagine a less appealing prospect than sitting in a room with a group of strangers talking about his impending demise. The doctor had said it would help him to talk it out, enable him to "come to terms" with the fact that he was dying. Like the pain, the fury of being fucked in the ass by life and knowing he could do nothing about it, was something he could just wrap up neatly in a gift box of psychobabble and put to the side, never to worry about again.

If only.

Why should he care about coming to terms with his demise? At the end of the day, his demise was still coming, whether he came to terms with it or nor.

Mo glanced around for an ashtray. It was out of reach, so he stubbed out the cigarette on his nightstand, a cherry-stained antique littered now with old cigarette butts and assorted papers. Lately, something in him enjoyed ruining the furniture. He had always been a neat man before, had always taken pride in owning and maintaining beautiful and expensive things. But really, what did it matter? What did anything matter?

Scratching himself, Mo padded into the bathroom and turned on the shower. His bedroom was palatial, the bathroom larger than some apartments. Mo's home was a McMansion sitting on three acres, a two-story brick house with a columned portico, woods in the back, an expansive lawn in the front, six large bedrooms, one converted to a theater, another to a small recording studio where, mostly for his own amusement because no one else seemed interested, he sometimes worked on new material. Marble staircases descended to marble floors.

He lived there alone. His last serious girlfriend had moved out a year ago and he had fired Rosalie, his live-in cook and housekeeper, a week ago, right after he got the diagnosis. Of the two, he missed Rosalie more.

Mo paused to regard his image in the bathroom mirror and decided, as he did every morning, that he was still looking good. True, he had thickened some and his moustache contained nearly as much salt as pepper these days. But he was still tall and powerfully built, still had the same thick shock of curly hair that had once made girls write his name alongside theirs inside valentine hearts, still had the sea-foam colored eyes that, as a woman writer once put it, you could get lost in and never care about finding your way back. He tested out his smile and it was still roguish and blinding. How many times had it gotten him laid? Hell, it would get him laid tonight, if he wanted it. Yes, to all outward appearances, he was still Mo Johnson, still the Prophet, still a star.

Just to look at him, he thought, you'd have considered him the picture of health. You'd have figured this guy was going to live forever. You'd never have thought he was dying of a disease old people get.

It was as he was thinking this that a bank of steam rolled out of the shower and attached itself to the mirror, obscuring the image of the handsome man. He gave God props for the metaphor. Not subtle in the slightest. To lose your memory is not just to lose everything you have. It's to lose everything you are. It's to lose your very self. What are you without the things you remember?

Mo showered and patted himself dry. He stepped inside a very large closet where his clothes hung in orderly rows on motorized racks. He pressed a button, watched his wardrobe parade past him, then selected a pair of olive brown slacks with a shirt the color of Merlot. He chose a Cartier watch, tucked the designer sunglasses into his breast pocket, and hung a diamond-encrusted cross from a gold chain just below his sternum. The need to look good in public was his last remaining vanity. Lately, it had come to feel more like an obligation.

You could never tell when someone's eyes might narrow in recognition.

Aren't you...?

Didn't you?

Do I know you from somewhere?

It was their one chance at meeting you, a chance some had dreamt of for 30 years. You owed it to them to validate their imaginings, to look like a star, no matter what you really felt like inside. That was part of the job. Al Green had taken him aside one day and explained that to him. Or maybe it was Teddy Pendergrass.

When he was finished dressing, Mo trotted down to the kitchen and plucked a breakfast bar from a box on top of the stainless steel refrigerator. He leaned against the sink and unwrapped it, knowing Rosalie would have thrown a fit at the sight. She was a big believer in solid breakfasts.

She'd have been appalled at the kitchen, too. Every plate and fork he owned was piled in the sink, the microwave had generations of gluey crud baked into the glass tray, and a week's worth of take-out containers bulged from the garbage pail and stacked up on the floor. The room reeked of decay. Whatever it was in him that enjoyed ruining the furniture was quickly turning the house ramshackle. The place was a mess, just like its owner.

Mr. Clean Freak has left the building, he thought. It gave him a rueful smile.

The phone rang. He scrutinized the Caller ID, which said the call originated in the 213 area code: Los Angeles. Home. Curious, Mo picked up the receiver.


"Is this James Johnson?" The voice was familiar. He knew this person, but no name leapt to mind.

Mo hardened his voice. "Who is this?"

"Hello, Mosey."

Only one man had ever called him that. "Cooley?" he said.

At the other end of the connection, Arthur Cooley laughed. It sounded like rocks laughing. Mo did some quick math. Cooley had to be—what?— in his 70s by now? Mo had not heard his voice in almost 30 years. Hearing it now swept him back through memory to places he had not been for decades. Not all of them were places he wanted to go.

"How you doing, Mosey?" said the voice on the other end.

Something about it made Mo wary. "I'm doing fine," he said. "How are you?"

"Okay for an old man," he said. "I can't complain."

A silence followed. Mo didn't rush to fill it.

"You still singing?" asked Cooley, after a moment.

"To my toothbrush every morning."

Cooley laughed more heartily than the joke required. "Well," he said, "with the stuff they call music these days, that's probably just as well. Kids don't know what real talent is."

"How you get this number?" asked Mo.

"Wasn't easy. Finally found somebody who knew Tash. She gave it to me. You and her still together? What about the baby? I imagine he's all grown up now."

"He's 19."

Cooley made the appropriate sounds of amazement. "Whoa. Ain't no baby no more. They grow up fast, don't they?"

"Been a long time, Cooley. What's up?" Mo was tired of pleasantries.

There was another silence. Mo waited this one out as well. Finally, Cooley said, "It's Jack."

Mo had known it would be. "What about him?"

"He's got the cancer, Mosey. Prostate."

"Sorry to hear that," said Mo, not sure if he was or not.

"It's bad, Mosey."

"Maybe not," said Mo. "I hear doctors can cure that pretty good if they catch it early."

Cooley's laugh was harsh. "When you ever known Jack Johnson to run to a doctor 'early,' Mosey? He went when he couldn't control his bladder anymore, started pissing himself like a baby. Told me he'd had blood in his urine for weeks."

"How long ago was this?"

"Six months. The doctor says the cancer has spread since then. It's in his bones. Your father is dying, Mosey."

It had been a long time—a lifetime, almost—since Mo had thought of the first James Moses Johnson as his father. They had not spoken in years, not since that day in a rain-swept cemetery when they had faced one another over Ruth Johnson's fresh grave.

"He killed my mother, Cooley."

"Mosey, you know that's not true."

"Isn't it?" Mo stepped to the window and looked out at the woods that cradled the back of the house. A flock of birds bolted from the trees, a scrawny squirrel darted across the lawn. Mo's hands trembled.

"He's your father, Mosey," said the voice in his ear.

"Jack put you up to this?" asked Mo.

"You know better. Sick as he is, he'd kick my ass if he knew I was calling you."

"Send me the bill for the funeral, Cooley. Send it to my accountant."

"That's not why I'm calling, Mo."

"I know. It's the best I can do."

"I don't believe you, Mosey. He's your father and he's dying. Maybe you should get it straight between the two of you. You don't have much time."

"It is straight," said Mo. "Straight as it's ever going to be."

"Mosey, please. Come see him. He'd never say it—you know how he is—but it would mean so much to him."

"Can't do that, Cooley."

"You mean you won't."

"That too."

"Mosey, I'm begging you. For your own sake. You won't have another chance."

I've got to go, Cooley. Good to hear from you."

"Think about it, Mosey," said the voice on the other end. "Just promise me you'll do that."

Mo said, "Yeah," and put the phone back in its cradle. He held his hands up in front of him. They were fluttering like leaves in a breeze. Amazing that Jack Johnson could still affect him that way, even now.

Jack Johnson. His father had grown up being called "James" or sometimes, "Jimmy." But as a young man, he had begun to insist that people call him "Jack" after the black boxer whose brashness inflamed white folks to the point of street riots back in the early 1900s.

The real Jack Johnson had been the most frightening man in America back in the era when the motorcar was still a novelty. Bad enough he beat up white men and taunted them about it, but he'd also had the temerity to screw white women at a time when white men were stringing black men up in trees for a whole lot less. Johnson hadn't even had the sense to hide it, had gone about with white women on his arm and jewelry glittering on his fingers and hadn't cared much who saw or what they had to say about it.

"He was a man who plowed his own row," his father had told him once in a rare reflective mood. Mo's father, a plowman's son from the Mississippi Delta, had done everything he could to live up to the name he had chosen for himself.

Now he was dying. Standing alone in his kitchen, Mo shrugged. So what? It happened to everybody, didn't it?

Abruptly, he needed to be out of there. He put on the sunglasses, plucked his brown leather bomber's jacket from the coat rack and went out to his truck. He cranked the ignition and the engine grumbled to life, the radio playing an old Kool & the Gang song. He stomped the accelerator and the SUV leapt forward, chewing up a long driveway that took its time getting to the street.

Half an hour later, Mo pulled up in the hospital parking lot. He didn't shut off the ignition, just sat there listening to the radio. The voice coming out of the speakers was his— unbearably earnest, startlingly pure.

I see a world where children live on emptiness

And empty men live on war

And lies go by with alibis

Till nobody knows what the lies were lying for

But for all the pain that ever was

I see a world that never was

And I believe, I surely do believe, one day that world we'll see

This is my prophecy

He could see himself in the studio singing those words. A teenager with a Fu Manchu moustache, orange dashiki, headphones clamped down over a Big Apple cap that barely contained his sprawling Afro. Mo remembered every detail of that recording session. It had required 11 takes. Tom Ramsey was on bass, Mario on piano. Johnny Tarr on the drums. It was Johnny's last session before Mo fired him for being an unreliable drunk. There was a bad splice on the lead vocal. You would never catch it unless you knew it was there and were listening closely. Mo had wanted to fix it, but the band was way over budget and the company wouldn't pay for another session.

Prophecy had gone to number one in 1974 when he was 19 years old, and stayed there for six weeks. It catapulted Moses Johnson and Momentum to stardom. He had been "The Prophet of Love" ever since.

"WMFJ," the deejay was saying, "playing a better mix of the timely and the timeless. That's Moses Johnson and Momentum giving a little Prophecy from 1974. Before that, we heard the Jackson 5..." Mo shut off the car.

Minutes later, he walked down a featureless white hall somewhere deep in the hospital. He found the right door and pushed it open on a room where a dozen people, most of them older couples, were sitting on orange plastic chairs. He took a seat in the back.

A young blonde woman was addressing the group. She was all smiling teeth and megawatt eyes. "So," she said, "did anyone else want to talk about how it's been this week?"

There was a moment of hesitation. Then, a man raised his hand. He had ruddy skin and a shock of white hair tucked under a Korean War vets cap. "It wasn't a good one," he said, patting the hand of a stick-thin woman perched next to him. "Gladys got it in her mind to take a walk. We searched the neighborhood for hours before we found her in some guy's backyard. Like to scared me to death. I thought we had lost her."

"I got a little mixed-up," said the stick woman sharply. "I would have found my way. You always make such a big deal out of every little thing."

The man didn't look at her. "So anyway," he told the blonde, "we're thinking maybe it's time we looked into one of those places you were telling us about."

"Don't say 'we,'" snapped the woman. "'We' didn't come up with that. You did. Apparently, what I think doesn't matter anymore."

The old man lowered his eyes, his lips pursed. "Yeah, I guess maybe I did," he said, his voice a pebbly whisper. "But I don't know what else to do, honey."

The blonde woman said, "Well, Mr. Morris, remember what we talked about? Sometimes, wandering is caused by anxiety or restlessness. Exercise can be an effective way to deal with that. Mrs. Morris, what do you think? Would you like maybe to start some kind of exercise program? Maybe you and George could take a walk in the afternoon, make it part of your regular routine."

"What I would like," she said, "is to be treated like an adult for a change." She folded her arms across her chest and twisted in her seat until her bony knees were pointing away from her husband. He raised his eyes to the ceiling in a pose of long suffering.

The blonde was still mercilessly chipper. "You absolutely have that right, Gladys," she said. "We apologize if anything we've done gives you the impression we don't understand that. We're just trying to figure out ways to make you more comfortable and help keep you safe. Can you help us think of some?"

It was a ploy so transparent Mo wanted to laugh. It was probably in a book somewhere: validate the subject's feelings, give the subject a chance to contribute to solving the problem. He found it hard to believe anybody would fall for it.

But Gladys shifted in her seat and unpinned her arms. "Well," she said, "I can try. As long as I'm not treated like a child. That's all I object to." A man sitting across the aisle with his own wife shot George a look of commiseration.

"So," said the blonde, "does anybody else want to talk about their week?"

And so it went as the second hand of the wall clock swept slowly around. A husband no longer allowed to drive. A wife who almost set the house on fire. A daughter consigning her mother to hospice care. Bickering. Petty. Resentful. Resigned. Dangling at the end of sanity, two inches above can't take it anymore.

Was this what he had to look forward to? Becoming an argumentative child, dangerous to himself and everyone around? Watching blankly while other people decided his life? Waiting for death without even the comfort of someone to lean on? Mo's life had never seemed so empty. Without meaning to, he stood up.

The blonde said, "Please don't go," interrupting a twinkle-eyed grandmother who had been saying how she couldn't watch television anymore because she couldn't follow the storylines. The woman looked back with malice for the source of the interruption.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Lottsford," the blonde consoled her. "It's just that I saw the gentleman leaving and I had to get him before he went. You remember how it was the first time you came to group, don't you?"

Mollified, Mrs. Lottsford nodded. "I didn't want to be here," she said softly.

To Moses, the blonde said, "You're Mr. Johnson, aren't you? Your doctor's office said you'd be joining us today." She added, for the benefit of the group, "Mr. Johnson is a singer."

Mo braced himself and prayed at the same time. Please, no Fans. Not right now.

But he could see in the eyes that swung toward him that he need not have worried. Most of these people were too old to have bought his music. The blonde was too young. He didn't see adulation in their eyes. Just mild curiosity wanting a glimpse of the latest sap unlucky enough to join their miserable ranks.

"He looks awfully young," Mrs. Lottsford said.

"I have early-onset Alzheimer's," said Mo. "It gets you young." And then, to the blonde woman in the front: "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt. It's just...I can't be here. I'm not ready for..." His hand swept across the faces all looking up at him

"I understand," said the woman.

"No, you don't," said Mo, surprising himself with his own vehemence. "I'm sorry, but unless you've got it, you do not understand." He saw people in the group nod.

The blonde said, "What I meant was, being in group the first time can be an overwhelming experience. But if you stick with it, it can also be a helpful experience."

"How? You going to let me talk it out, make me feel better about dying?"

The words hung in the air like a bad smell. People lowered their eyes. Maybe they were embarrassed for him. Mo didn't care.

The woman looked straight at him. "Nothing will ever make you feel better about that," she said. "We try to make the time you have left a little easier. And we try to help you deal with the unfinished business, the things you need to put in order."

"My stuff is in order. I updated my will right after I got the diagnosis."

A tolerant smile. "That's good," she said, "but I'm not just talking about paperwork. I also mean this." She was touching her chest. "The emotional part," she said. "We try to help you put that in order. Do you have family, Mr. Johnson?"

Mo's voice was a whisper. "Not really. A son. We're not close."

"How old?"


"Have you told him?"

Mo didn't answer.

"You should talk to him, Mr. Johnson. Besides, you're not going to be able to live by yourself after awhile. You need to make some arrangements. You should tell him what your wishes are."

"Yeah," said Mo. He didn't trust himself to say more.

"Dying sucks, Mr. Johnson." The words surprised him. He looked up and saw the blonde smiling, Mrs. Lottsford nodding. "I may not have Alzheimer's," continued the blonde, "but I understand that much. There's one thing about knowing you're going to die. I mean, if you drop dead of a heart attack, it's sudden, it's unexpected, and you leave unfinished business. But if you know the end is coming, it gives you time to put things in order, time to say the things you need to say, time to fix what's broken in your life. You should use that time."

"Before I forget," said Mo.

Another smile. "Yes, Mr. Johnson. Before you forget."

"I've got to go," said Mo. "I can't be here."

"You'll come back?"

"Sure. Yeah." Mo was edging toward the door.

"And you'll think about what I said?"

"Sure," said Mo.

He opened the door and passed down a hallway he didn't see. Got in his car and drove in silence, drove by instinct, the cars and signs and construction workers not even there. He got home without knowing how he had done it, opened his front door, cool darkness enveloping him like a hug. He was exhausted, every step a chore. It felt like he was slogging through mud, ankle deep.

He wanted nothing so much as just to be...gone.

Mo undressed on the way up the white marble staircase, peeling off his shirt, then his pants, leaving them on the stairs. He dropped the Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. They shattered without his noticing. He took off the Cartier watch, let it fall. By the time he reached the top of the stairs, Mo was clad only in his briefs, walking toward his bedroom with single-minded purpose.

The smell of rot wafted up the stairs behind him, the odor of unwashed dishes and untended garbage and neglect. He didn't care. Caring required energy he no longer had. Mo's bedroom welcomed him. He walked in gratefully, closed the blinds to shut out the offending light of day. Then he sank to his bed. After a moment, he reached to the nightstand and picked up the pistol. Its weight felt good in his hands. The gun was solid, definite, proof that there were still things he could control.

This is why I don't care about putting things in order. This is why I don't worry about coming to terms. I'm not going to be here long enough for it to matter. The disease thinks it's going to kill me? I'll kill us both.

He put the gun to his temple, his finger on the trigger, and made a sound—a child's imitation of a gunshot. For a moment, Mo didn't move. He sat there, suspended on the precipice of finality, on the line between here and gone.

Then he took the gun away. He contemplated it a full minute. Then, feeling as if he were watching himself in a dream, he opened his mouth and shoved the barrel in. It scraped against the flesh at the roof of his mouth. The bullet would travel straight up through his brain. He wouldn't even hear the explosion.

A voice somewhere inside reminded him that he hadn't finished his suicide note. Had not figured out what he wanted to say.

I don't care.

He was tired. So damned tired. Life sat on him like a mountain. Escape was just a millisecond away. Finality would be a blessing. From far away came the sound of a school bus rumbling down the street, children disembarking into the cold. Mo's finger tightened on the trigger. He looked for courage on the ceiling.

The phone rang.

He closed his eyes. So tired.

The phone rang again, that wheedling electronic tone.

The children squealed. The barrel of the gun was painful against the palate of his mouth.

Again the phone rang.

Mo drew the weapon from his mouth and sat with it in his lap. He lowered his head and allowed the tears to fall. Twice more the phone rang. Finally, he lifted the receiver. "Hello."

Tash was frantic. "Moses? Did you know about this? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Slow down, Tash. What are you talking about?"

"What am I talking about? I'm talking about Trey.'

"What about Trey?" Mo felt as if here were underwater, swimming toward a surface that kept receding.

"Did you know about this?"

"Know about what?"

"Philip..." She sounded like she was out of breath. Sounded like she was crying.

"Yeah? Go on."

"Philip, he has a friend who's a cop. Mo, it's not just armed robbery, bad as that is. Somebody was killed."

"I know," said Mo.

"You know?"


"And you didn't tell me?"

"I thought...I thought Trey would..."

But he hadn't, had he? All the words back and forth at the breakfast table yesterday morning and somehow, that hadn't been said. He had not remembered to say.

"I'm sorry," said Mo. "Trey told me. I thought you knew."

"How would I know, Moses? You didn't tell me. Trey doesn't tell me anything. How would I know? Mo, they're investigating this child for murder."

"He'll be all right, Tash."

"How can you know that?"

"He didn't do it. He wouldn't do anything like that."

This time, she screamed it. "How can you know that?"

There was a silence. A vast, dead silence. Then he said, "I guess you're right. I guess I don't." Another pause. "Hell of a thing," he said, "to have to say that about your own son."

"I hit him," said Tash. Her voice was small. "When I found out, I hit him with my fists. I called him all sorts of names. God, I was so angry. It hurt so much."

"I know," said Mo.

"I don't know what to do, Moses. I swear, I don't know what to do."

"We'll get it straight," he promised. "I still don't believe my son could do something like that."

"But you can't know for sure, can you?"

"You think this is my fault," said Mo. It wasn't a question.

"Mo, I'm not saying..."

"That's okay." Mo glanced down, mildly surprised to find the gun still in his lap. He transferred it to the nightstand. "Maybe you're right," he said. "Maybe it is. I was never there. Yesterday, he said how I trusted him and I believed in him. And I wanted to say, 'Son, I don't even know you.' How fucked up is that, Tash?"

"I wanted to say the same thing," she said. She gave a little laugh that scraped his heart.

"You're the one who was there," said Mo. "You didn't deserve for him to say that to you."

Another quiet interceded. And then Mo said, "I got a call from Cooley today."

"Arthur Cooley? Yeah, I gave him your number. What's that got to do with—"

"No, listen to me. I got a call from Cooley. He told me Jack is dying. Cancer. Cooley wanted me to go out there and, I don't know, stand by the deathbed, let bygones be bygones. And you know something, Tash? When he told me, I didn't feel anything. Not a thing. That's my father. I'm supposed to feel something, right? I mean, when your father died, even though y'all didn't get along, you felt something. But me, I felt nothing. That's been on my mind all day. I mean, if somebody came to Trey and told him I was dying, would he feel anything?"

"Trey loves you, Moses. You know that."

He spoke right through the consoling words. "What's wrong with us, Tash? Jack was a fucked-up excuse for a father, I became a fucked-up excuse for a father and now Trey..." He didn't finish. Couldn't.


"They think he's out there robbing people. Killing people. And I can't even get indignant and say, 'My son would never do something like that.' Because I don't know. I don't even know my son."

"It's not too late," said Tash.

The words stabbed him. He almost said, "Yes, it is." Instead, he wept.

Tash said, "Moses, are you all right?"

"No," he said, "I'm not."

"What's the matter, Moses? Tell me what's wrong."

He shook his head, then realized she couldn't see. "Hard times," he mumbled.

"Moses," she said.

"I'm going to see my father, Tash. I think Cooley was right. I think I need to do that."

"Well, if that's what you think you have to do..."

"I'm taking Trey with me."


"The court didn't put restrictions on his travel."

"But why?"

"I've got to ..." He pawed at the words a moment. "I've got to save my son," he said finally. "I've got save him while I still can."

She didn't answer right away. Mo sniffed at tears, waited. Then Tash said, "I'll pack his things."

Copyright © 2009 Agate Publishing. All rights reserved.



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