Monday, February 23, 2009

A Legendary House in Harlem

Nessa could not avoid walking through The Projects to get to the more affluent Striver’s Row neighborhood. She was heading home after an evening of rogue jazz mixed with oddball stand-up comedy at a local underground club. She didn’t fear getting mugged because she wasn’t carrying a purse. She was carrying, however—a baby. Already forty weeks along in the pregnancy, Nessa’s belly could crowd up a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Now, as she walked past unremarkable buildings on Frederick Douglas Boulevard, Nessa feared any kind of assault less than she feared giving birth right there upon the mucky concrete. She already was feeling the early stages of labor and had laughed enough that evening to know that the child must be on its way, for she had read somewhere that laughter helps to speed child labor along.

At the corner of 134th Street she spotted Tony, the premier chef from Londel’s Soul Food Restaurant. He’s known for making soul food that could save any doggone soul; he was also known as a funny street poet. Nessa was ever grateful that early in her pregnancy Tony had shared his recipes for fried chicken and okra with her because her gravings could get pretty severe. About twenty weeks along, she ate one evening at Londel’s and ordered practically every dish on the menu. Then she had bared her teeth, ripped meat off bones; sniveled, shoveled, salivated, and snarled while she masticated. She was a starved jungle beast. Though it was difficult to embarrass Tony Jackson, Neesa’s manners were too much for Tony’s dining room, and when he knew she was pregnant and planned to dine at Londel’s often, as she lived only four blocks away, Tony decided to reveal his secret recipes so she could make them, and more importantly eat them, in her own home.

On this Spring evening, Tony was walking a pink dog. Pink! Why…how? A pink miniature poodle, or some cute and cuddly breed like that. Tony explained to Nessa that his dog was going to star in a YouTube clip about a day in the life of a True Style Dog. Nessa apologized that she could not bend to pet the wagging celebrity. Tony nodded at her bump and said he understood. Before Tony and his pink poodle let Nessa on her way, Tony thrust a book into Nessa’s hands. A book?

Tony said, “If you’re going to be white and live in Harlem, you had better read this…” She studied the cover of the book. It was by Wallace Thurman, entitled Infants of the Spring. Nessa looked at Tony, quizzical. She cocked a brow. She shrugged. Tony also added that if she knew her Black History, Nessa must know that she lived at an address that was famous during the Harlem Renaissance.

“Sure, I’ve seen tourists taking pictures of our place. The landlord lords it over everyone…the history of the address, I mean. And my neighbors throw parties these days that wake the dead. We’re talking NEO-renaissance, pal. We’re talking Zora Neal Hurston’s ghost doing the Charleston inside our plumbing.” Nessa boasted.

Then she rubbed her belly. “I’ll probably give birth tonight in the very place where Langston Hughes composed all that poetry. I’ll read the book, thanks, Tony.”

The two started in opposite directions then Nessa turned and was walking backwards. “Hey Tony, I couldn’t help but notice that your dog is pink. How does he feel about fitting into the Harlem color scheme?”

Without turning around, Tony shouted, “His bark is worse than his dark, lady. Ha! His bark is worse than his dark!”

Nessa returned home to 267 West 136th Street. To get her mind off labor pains, she read Thurman’s novel. She read about a Danish guy who moved into Niggeratti Manor during the early part of the Harlem Renaissance. She met bizarre personalities, such as Raymond and Paul, who all seemed to represent some element of cultural life: the singer, the writer, the poet, the painter: erotica enthusiasts, all. She enjoyed the part about the wild donation party they threw. She got to the part about the salon gathering when they all discussed Negro art and their plans to make black contributions to American culture. After that, Nessa had to put the book down because the labot pains were too intense and she felt the need to push.

She called her husband who was working late, again, at The Firm. He said he’d be home as soon as he finished just this one last 1100-page brief.

Next, Nessa called her midwife who said she was on her way. She had to travel from Brooklyn all the way to Harlem. Nessa clenched her teeth and hoped she’d arrive in time.

Nessa mixed herself a drink—a highball—gin and ginger ale in memory of the poison preferred by the bohemian personalities of Thurman’s Niggeratti Manor. The laboring mommy-to-be climbed into a warm tub and raised the glass to her Belly. “To nativity!” She knocked back her drink.

While gin worked its magic, Nessa surrendered her body to The Supreme Ache. Soon her mind started tripping on love hormones.

Nessa thought back to her former African doctor friend, a guy whom her husband always complained had only wanted to get into Nessa’s pants. Well, as usual, her husband had been right and Nessa’s friend had managed to do precisely that around the same time Nessa and her husband were working to get pregnant. Bam! Nessa got knocked up and suffered through an entire pregnancy accompanied by the nagging pain of paternal ambiguity. Humiliated, she shared this trouble with no one.

Soon after the third highball and a lot of otherworldly groaning, Nessa delivered a healthy girl in her bathtub. She cleaned the child, chewed off the umbilical chord and threw the afterbirth out the window to the starved stray that was always prowling around the trash.

“That wasn’t so bad.” She said to soothe herself and the nursing newborn as she hobbled to the king-size nest she prepared on the bed. The baby suckled while Nessa waited for the midwife and her husband. So, she opened Thurman’s novel and read to the end. The book has everything in it: gin, rape, laughter, suicide, abortion, poetry, all shades of carousing. It’s not recommended reading for new mothers, but then Nessa is not your typical new mother. Just as she closed the book and put it on the night table, The Mister and the midwife arrived.

Alfie’s face glowed with pride and relief when he saw his wife and daughter safe and cozy in bed. He didn’t notice anything untoward about the child until months later. He casually asked, “Does her skin look sort of dark to you?” Nessa, examined the child with feigned surprise; then she shrugged and pouted in that way that Alfie found so sexy. Nessa said, “Well, Alfred, we do live in Harlem, after all...must be something in the water."


kathleenmaher said...

Nessa certainly is not a typical new mother! Her bold and blithe nature will benefit everyone. And think how good it would be, if everyone read this.
It made me happy.

Vinod Narayan said...

excellent narration