"Lewis Shiner's latest, Black & White, is killer. Strong characters, suspenseful situations, and tremendous insight. A novel that doesn't flinch from social issues, and is so gracefully written it makes you want to weep. Should not be missed. Lewis Shiner is the real deal, and this is his finest work."
Joe R. Lansdale
Also by Lewis Shiner on obooko: Frontera; Deserted Cities of the Heart; Glimpses; Dark Tangos;
Say Goodbye; SLAM
He looked at the angry red 5:05 on his travel alarm and knew he would not get back to sleep.
He swung his legs off the foldout bed and walked five steps to the tiny kitchenette. He was still dressed in last night's jeans and gray T-shirt, his mouth stale from recycled hotel air. He brushed his teeth and washed his face in the sink, combing wet fingers through his hair.
Go, he thought.
His suitcase was packed, as it had been for most of the last month.The only hanging space--as well as the only bathroom and the only exit--was in the bedroom where his mother slept in a tranquilized haze.The rest of his belong- ings lined up next to the suitcase: a small drawing board, a FedEx box, and two plastic Harris-Teeter grocery sacks.
He put on his glasses and shoes and added the clock and shaving kit to the suitcase. He was able to roll the suitcase with his right hand and carry every- thing else in his left.
He stopped by the door to the hall. His mother's snoring suspended mo- mentarily as he took his jacket off a hanger and slipped into it. She was in the farther of the twin beds, near the window.The other would have held his father, except that his father was across the street in the Durham va Medical Center, dying of lung cancer.
Michael was 35, too old, he thought, to spend this much time with his parents, no matter what the circumstances. From the lobby he called a cab and picked, more or less at random, another faceless suite hotel out of the phone book.The new one was just off I-40 at the eastern edge of Durham, where the city proper blended into Research Triangle Park. During the tech boom
rtp had been the Silicon Valley of the East Coast, pumping millions into the North Carolina economy.When the bubble burst with the new century, it left behind inflated housing costs, thousands of overqualified, unemployed tech workers, and an abundance of empty hotel rooms.
The dispatcher told him it would be half an hour. Michael left his belongings with the desk clerk, a heavyset woman with meticulous cornrows."If my cab comes, tell him to wait for me," Michael said."I'll be back in a few minutes."
"All right now, hon."
He crossed the street to the hospital and took the elevator to the sixth floor.
The charge nurse was at the station and managed a tired smile."He had a good night," she said."Some coughing, but he slept."
"That's something, I guess."
"He'll be sleeping more and more," she said."It's like they make the transi- tion kind of gradual, a little less hold on this world every day."
Michael stood in the hallway and watched his father sleep. He had faint wisps of white hair that had grown back since the initial chemo fallout, and his skin had turned a nicotine-stain yellow from jaundice. His thin forearms protruded from red va pajamas, the left hooked to a morphine infusion pump. An oxygen cannula ran under his nose. As Michael watched, his father coughed wetly, cleared his throat, and shifted his head, all without seeming to regain consciousness.
After he turned 30, Michael had gone through a period of seeing his father's face in his own when he looked in the mirror, especially first thing in the morning, when he was still puffy with sleep.That was a different face than his father had now. Now his father's face was crumpled like a used towel.When his eyes were open they were bloodshot, restless, and haunted.
It had all happened with terrifying speed. One day his father had seemed all right; the next he had coughed up a huge mouthful of blood. In retrospect he'd been tired and had lost some weight, but there'd been nothing to prepare him for what the doctors found. It was "everywhere," his mother told Michael on the phone, nearly hysterical.This had been back in Dallas. Michael had flown up from Austin to do what he could.Tests had revealed small cell lung cancer, already in both lungs and metastasized to the lymph nodes, too far gone for surgery and not within what the doctors called "one radiation port." He'd had a round of chemotherapy and then, inexplicably, insisted on com- ing to the va hospital in Durham for what everyone understood would be his final weeks.
Logic was clearly not the issue.There was a huge va hospital in San Anto- nio, and one of the world's finest cancer centers, M.D. Anderson, in Houston. But North Carolina was where he and Michael's mother had met and married, where he'd begun his career in the construction business, where Michael had been born. And it was apparently where he had determined to die.
"Take care of him," Michael said to the charge nurse, and went back to the Brookwood Inn.
His cab driver had a heavy accent and was playing a cassette with jangly guitars and hand drums."What part of Africa are you from?" Michael asked.
"Benin," the driver called over his shoulder."You know it?" "I know the name," Michael said.
The driver seemed as grateful for someone to talk to as he was for the fare. In the two months he'd been in the US, the dream that had brought him eight thousand miles had already begun to fade. He worked 24-hour days, dozing in
the cab between infrequent jobs."Too many cabbies, not enough work," he said.
It was Saturday morning and the sun was not yet up.They were heading east on the Durham Freeway, the road Michael's father had helped to build. As they crested a hill, the lights of downtown Durham spread to the horizon on Michael's left.The city seemed frozen in time, low to the ground, built
of old-fashioned brick and granite and concrete. Liggett & Myers and the American Tobacco Company, sometime rulers of the city's economy, had long since moved to New York.The red brick shells of their office complexes and warehouses had been reborn as condos and mini-malls. American Tobacco's signature water tower and smokestack, complete with newly repainted Lucky Strike logo, now overlooked the last stages of a major renovation project.
Michael's father had smoked Lucky Strike for over 50 years.
Next door was the swank new Durham Bulls Athletic Park, whose brick- work seamlessly matched its surroundings. Next to that was an auto dealership, and after that, absences.The parking garage that took the place of the train sta- tion that had given Durham its name.The vacant lots and abandoned buildings that used to be the most prosperous black neighborhood in the South.
It was called Hayti for the Caribbean island, but pronounced with a long final "i": hate-eye. Over 500 black businesses had fallen to the bulldozer when the Durham Freeway went through the middle of it. All that was left was St. Joseph's African Methodist Episcopal Church, coming up now on the right.The original building dated to 1891; the modern brick extension that grew out of the south side was the Hayti Heritage Center. Further south along Fayetteville Street were the sprawling Victorian homes that had once belonged to the first families of Hayti, and beyond that the campus of North Carolina Central University, formerly North Carolina College for Negroes.
These few facts Michael had learned in the last week from a black jani- tor at the hospital, a man Michael's age with wild hair and a long, pointed
beard. He called Michael "young brother," and asked where he was from. He'd started talking about Durham's history before Michael could tell him about his father's part in it; by the time he'd finished, Michael no longer wanted to mention it.