The Seven Days
“The country is all abuzz with the upcoming elections!” the female reporter spoke with emotional excitement. “In this historical time in American history, and no doubt world history, we are looking at the possible installation of the first African-American President of the United States!”
The newscast had been repeating every ten minutes or so, and Nathan had the scene memorized. The multicolored crowd jumped up and down in anticipation, while a large black bus pulled up and into the open park area, stopping far enough away from the cameras to give it an air of mysteriousness as it waited idly in the parking lot. The flashing of cameras provided a staccato beat for the masses.
“You can feel the electricity in the air! The Senator has just pulled up, and this crowd can barely contain itself! After his meteoric rise up through the political ranks, the Senator now is nothing short of a superstar! These people may as well be at a concert!”
Slowly, deliberately, the large door of the black bus swung open, and a walnut-colored man emerged, wearing a bright smile and waving at the people gathered. The noise level of the crowd doubled as it tried to push forward, but was held at bay by security guards.
“Here he is! Here he is, ladies and gentlemen, the man many hope to be the next President of the United States!”
The man walked forward and attempted to shake the hands that were groping at him. One younger-looking white lady held her baby out and over the barricade that had been set up.
Nathan grabbed the remote as the Senator grabbed the child and began to kiss it on the cheek. Shaking his head at the television screen, he held up the remote to change the channel, but realized that there would be nothing better on. He would much rather watch a black man on television being applauded than being arrested, but he’d seen so much of the latter that the former no longer made him smile. Defeated, he dropped the remote back into his lap and laid his head on the sofa.
His depression poured into the room like a high tide.
The television screen was the only source of light in the room. If the shades had not been drawn so closely together, he would not have been able to tell by the fresh light of the sun that a new day was beginning. Instead, he relied on the fact that he’d woken up at 6:30 a.m. every day since college.
He fit well within the dark mood of the room. The shadows from the pictures on the wall, the large table, and the plant by the window seemed to silently complement his pain. His disposition would scream to all who observed him that he was the loneliest man this side of the city line, despite the fact that there were two others in the house.
Standing, Nathan made his way over to the refrigerator. He was healthy-looking, with nice muscle tone, a lean build, and had salt-and-pepper hair and a moustache. People who saw him without a coat on tended to be surprised, and an attractive lady at the gym had once told him that his face added a decade onto his body. He walked tall and proud, despite his perpetually long face.
“A person may never meet you, may never say a word to you, but will automatically respect you because of the way you walk.”
Nathan remembered his father, Thomas Freeman, speaking as he, a seven-year-old boy, sat on his father’s lap beside a colored-only water fountain in rural South Carolina. Nathan had only recently learned to write 1960 on the headings of his school assignments without turning the six into a nine.
“No matter how you’re feeling, never walk around like you’re anything less than royalty. Besides, we got power in our blood . . .”
Now, even at fifty-five, Nathan had never forgotten. The sudden thought of his father struck a nerve in Nathan’s chest.
A half-hour or so passed, with the solitary man sitting by himself in front of the television, trying to place himself in an alternate reality. The sounds emerging from the smaller bedroom brought him back from his daydreams, and Nathan wished he could fall into the floor.
The man that emerged from the smaller bedroom was tired. Like every trial and tribulation he was meant to endure in life had struck him the night before. Although he knew exactly where he was, he was lost. His face was sunken in and his eyes were the same color as the fresh rose petals that hopeless romantics threw onto their beds before making love. It was apparent, looking at his size and his height, he should have weighed much more than he actually did. His clothes were shabby and torn, and although there was a refurbished bathroom right next door to his room, his stench hollered that he hadn’t showered in days.
For a while, Clarence tried to hide it from his parents, but two years ago it had proved useless. The constant rocking back and forth, the jitters and the incoherent stares couldn’t be ignored. For two years, Nathan had watched his son fade away like the final scene of an overly dramatic movie. And for two years, Nathan had tried to maintain the hope of seeing his son with a light in his eyes and a smile on his face one more time.
That hope was gone now, though, and the remnants of it burned like salt on an open wound.
“Uh, Dad, you mind lettin’ me hold onto a couple bucks?”
Nathan didn’t even turn his head. He looked into the television screen, trying to ignore the stench and the reflection in the television screen.
“C’mon, Dad, I ain’t gonna get messed up today, I promise. I’m gonna take the money, and go and get me a nice shirt, and find me a job. I jus’ need a lil bit a money to eat with; that’s all. I’m gonna go down and get me a burger, then I’m gonna go find that job. I jus’ need a lil bit a money, Dad.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Huh? Call you what?”
“Dad. Don’t call me Dad. My son is dead.”
“Awww, c’mon, Dad. Don’t be like that. I jus’ need a few dollars . . .”
“MY SON IS DEAD! YOU HEAR ME? DEAD!”
Clarence stumbled back in surprise, feeling the kick in his father’s words, and retaliated in kind. “It’s a few dollars. Give me the goddamn money.”
Nathan focused back on the television screen. Right before he managed to zone out again, both he and Clarence heard movement in the larger bedroom. The one he and his wife shared.
“Aw hell . . .” Nathan whispered to himself. And before he got up and attempted to stop the inevitable, his wife found her way to the doorway.
“What’s going on out here? I heard someone shouting.”
Clarence quickly put on his most innocent smile. “Mama, can I have a few dollars, to get somethin’ to eat?”
Nathan could feel his wife’s heart drop.
“What happened to the job you were supposed to be getting, sweetheart?”
“It ain’t come through yet, Mama. But don’t worry ’cause I got another one I applied for. I’m waitin’ for the man to call me back. So I need a few dollars to get somethin’ to eat and get me a nice shirt for when I start the job, Mama.”
“Baby, why don’t you take a shower? Then you could put on some nice clothes, and I could even go with you down to get a new shirt. How’s that sound?”
“Naw, Mama, I can get everything myself. I just need a few dollars for it.”
“Come on, baby, let your mama take you to the store. Maybe we could even go and see a movie, like we used to do. Remember when you were—”
“Naw, Mama, I don’t remember. Now can I please get the money?”
The reminiscent smile on Sonya’s face slowly disappeared, and she looked down at the floor. “How long are you going to keep doing this to yourself, baby? How long?”
“Mama, can I please get the goddamn money?”
Sonya slowly shook her head. “Alright, baby, bring me my purse. It’s on the table by the door.”
Clarence found his mother’s purse and rummaged through it, taking every piece of money he could find. He tried to make up for this theft by lying to his mother, telling her sweet nothings that she would partially believe, throwing logic out of the window.
“Thanks, Mama. Thank you, thank you. And I really am about to go and get this job. Watch! Next time you see me, I’ma be a workin’ man. And I’ma give you all this money back, I promise. I just needed a lil bit for today.”
After he got what he needed, he quickly ran over to a coat lying in a heap by the door and threw it on. Then he opened the door and darted out, leaving it swaying behind him.
The disgust of Nathan and the sorrow of Sonya combined to create an air thick enough to choke on.
“Lord, bless our child,” Sonya said out loud as she closed the front door, as if God had entered as Clarence was leaving.
“You’re kidding, right?” Nathan turned his head and stared at her.
“Now, why would I be kidding about something like that, Nathan?”
“Assuming there is a God, why would He take the time to bless Clarence when you keep giving him money to shoot up with?”
“First off, Nathan Freeman, there is a God. You know there is. Now we may be on hard times right now, but don’t you go giving up on the Lord. The Lord hasn’t given up on you yet.”
“Spoken like a true holy roller.”
“Second, that boy has to eat. I will not have my baby starving on the streets.”
“He belongs to the streets now, Sonya. At some point you’ll have to admit it to yourself. He’s not ours anymore.”
“He belongs to the Lord, that’s who he belongs to.”
“Okay, look, Sonya. You begged me night and day to let him move back in with us and, eventually, I gave in. That was my fault. You begged me to help him out with clothes, with food, with everything, and I gave in. And my reason for doing it even went beyond you. I did it because, like you’re doing now, I hung onto this little ray of hope that Clarence would one day throw his needle in the river and go get a job at the bank. But it’s time to step into reality, sweetheart. Clarence is a crackhead. He won’t go to rehab, he won’t go get counseling, all he wants to do is sit in that crackhouse down the street and shoot up all damn day.”
“It’s the truth! And it’s time you accept it. The only way that boy is going to turn around is if he realizes that he has nothing.
He has to realize on his own what he’s done to himself. And you make it impossible for that to happen. I can’t kick him out ’cause you’ll cry around the clock until I go out and find him and tell him to come back in. I can’t deny him any money because you give in and hand over your purse to him every time he asks. You are his crutch, Sonya. And as long as he has you, he’ll remain a crackhead forever.”
Sonya turned quiet and her eyes started to well. After she grabbed hold of her emotions, she shook her head, wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and straightened her back, standing as tall as she possibly could. “I will not turn my back on my son.”
“Well, then say goodbye to him now. It’ll be easier than doing it when they find him overdosed in a gutter.” Nathan got up and started to walk toward the door.
Sonya’s eyes started to well again, and this time she let one tear fall from each eye. “It’s like you don’t even care,” she said with a voice that stopped Nathan in the doorway.
He paused for a few seconds, then turned around and faced her. “I do care. I care more than you know.”
He walked out the door and sat on the front porch. In an attempt to clear his head, he started watching the various cars go by, but ended up wishing he was in one of them.
Outside the air was crisp, and the sudden drop in temperature kept Nathan alert. He blew into his hands and then rubbed them together to keep them warm. He remembered that his father used to do the same thing during the winter. His father, Thomas Freeman, the man who would never let his chin drop lower than his Adam’s apple.
Beginning to lose himself in his memories, Nathan continued to reflect about his father, and then about his childhood, all the way back to the one-room schoolhouse down South with no windowpanes . . .
By age seven, Nathan had learned just about everything they had to teach him at the colored schoolhouse, and spent most days helping the teachers with the older students.
Thomas Freeman realized that his son was gifted. Though he had never gone to school himself, he made it a point to associate regularly with people who had, and Nathan impressed him more than his friends ever could. So when he found out that the schools up North were actually doing what the court said, letting white kids and black kids go to school together, he identified where his son needed to be.
“I’m sellin’ the land,” he declared to his wife, Martha Freeman, and his son on Nathan’s eighth birthday. It was a humid evening, and they were all gathered around the birthday cake that Martha had made earlier.
“We movin’ up North. I hear a black man got a chance to be somethin’ up North, and ain’t no better gift I can give my son than the chance to be somethin’.”
Martha and her son stared at each other with wide eyes. They had often talked at night, while Martha was preparing Nathan for bed, about what it would be like to go to the big city, telling make believe tales of dancing and stardom instead of bedtime stories. But they also understood how long their land had been in the Freeman family, how it had belonged to the Freemans even before slavery ended, and how promises were made from one generation to the next to keep it that way.
“We never had no genius in the family before,” Thomas responded, reading his family’s mind. He was made a father in his twenties, and took over the farmland after his poppa’s body was found face down in Chestnut Creek, courtesy of the local Klan chapter. The patch over Billy Johnson’s left eye was the gift Thomas’ father left for his son. They shared the same penchant
of never letting their eyes touch the ground, and putting their pride over their safety. Until he realized his son’s potential, Thomas had accepted, and even anticipated, following in his father’s footsteps.
“My father would understand,” Thomas reassured himself and his family before directing his son to blow out his birthday candles.
Four months later, Nathan was an alien. He didn’t talk like the other students, he didn’t walk like the other students and, for the majority of the school year, he barely said a word. Neither he nor his parents had anticipated the level of depravity that it took to survive in the city, and they all began to yearn for the days of unobtrusive farm work. Those days were gone, however, and they all unearthed their ways to survive. Nathan’s was only speaking while in the confines of their tiny, one-room apartment, where things made sense. Outside of that, he refused to open his mouth.
The white teachers and students began referring to him as “that slow little Negro boy,” and the Negro students came to his aid more out of obligation than relevance. During a teacher conference that had taken months to get scheduled, Thomas and Martha Freeman stood dumbstruck while Mrs. Landey, Nathan’s homeroom teacher, told them that their son was probably retarded.
“I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Freeman, I’m sure this is hard for parents to hear, but I don’t think your son belongs in this type of educational setting. There are exceptional schools designed to fit his specific academic needs.”
“And what are his academic needs, Mrs. Landey?” Martha Freeman had grown hard during her time in the city, though she tried her best not to let her family know. “You said it yourself, he does all the work! His grades may not be perfect, but they’re decent, right?”
“Yes, but . . . well, Mrs. Freeman, I have a class full of students, both Negro and white. I may not like it, but that’s the way it is,
and I have to deal with that. It’s all I can do to stop my classroom from turning into a jungle, and the last thing I need is some mute little Negro boy twiddling his thumbs while I’m trying to teach . . .”
Thomas sat quiet, with his jaw set tight and his eyes narrowed. If the city had made Martha hard, it had turned Thomas Freeman into a creature. He’d realized very quickly that, in the city, pride could either get you murdered or make you infamous, and he hadn’t traveled hundreds of miles away from the Klan to get taken out by crooked cops or overzealous hustlers. Though it wasn’t his plan, he ended up making himself invaluable to Jimmy Jinx, the most infamous colored gangster in the city. His eyes would always focus on the blood on his hands whenever he tried to wash them, but he and his family were safe.
“You wait a goddamn—” Martha began, but Thomas put a hand on her shoulder while he stared at the teacher. She glanced at her husband, and then sat back in her seat, satisfied.
“When my son comes back to school, he’ll be talking. He’ll be talking enough for all the white boys you got, and then some. And believe me, he gon’ have some stuff to say . . .” Thomas leaned forward into Mrs. Landey’s face. “. . . but let me find out that he ain’t bein’ treated fair, or that you ain’t giving him the grades he deserve, and we gon’ meet outside this school building, you understand? Teacher or no teacher, I moved up here so my son could make somethin’ of himself. He got a problem, and we gon’ fix it. But if you get to be the problem, Mrs. Landey, then I’ma have to fix you. We understand each other?”
The tone of Thomas’ voice stopped Mrs. Landey’s voice from escaping. She nodded her head vigorously as she sat frozen in her seat. Thomas motioned to Martha, who gathered her things, cut her eyes at Mrs. Landey, and walked out with her husband behind her.
It was that night that Thomas Freeman sat his son down at the only table in their apartment, and shook his world.
“I’m gonna tell you a story ’bout one of the men in our family. If I’m countin’ right, he’s your great-great-great-great-grandfather. His name was Toby.” His father spoke as if it was common knowledge. Nathan wanted to laugh, but his father’s face showed seriousness that Nathan had never witnessed. Thomas took a sip of whiskey and reflected on the words that had been passed down through his family before he continued.
“They say all the men folk in our family get our pride from him. Toby was a slave, but he wasn’t no ordinary one. They say his granddaddy was royalty over in Africa. Brought that royalty over from Africa wid ’em, and passed it on down his bloodline.”
“What’s royalty, Daddy?”
“It means he was a king back where he come from. That made him royalty. Made Toby royalty, and make us royalty, too.”
“You mean we kings, Dad? Like, with crowns and everything?”
Thomas took another sip of whiskey. “Yeah, we kings, but this ain’t our kingdom.”
“I . . . I don’t get it . . .”
“It’s the reason your granddaddy got himself killed, and your great-granddaddy, and the one before that, too. Somethin’ ’bout having king’s blood in yo’ veins that don’t allow you to bow down, even to white folks. I’d probably be dead by now, too, if we hadn’t moved up North. ’Stead I, well, I turnin’ into something I don’t really want to turn into, but I got to in order to survive. You understand?”
“Yo’ grandmamma, she always used to tell me don’t never get too angry. She say that royalty we got in us, it comes with some-thin’ else. Comes with a rage, a blood lust that we can’t control sometimes. That’s when she tell me the story of Toby.”
“So what happened to Toby, Dad?”
“They say that royalty in his blood come with something he
ain’t know was there. One day the white folks come and try and take away his wife and little girls, and whatever was inside him come out. They say he killed those white folks as easy as you breathin’ right now, and even when they shot ’im in the head he still ain’t die. Couple days later the mob tried to lynch him, and yo’ great-great-great-great-granddaddy left every man in that mob wid a closed casket.”
“He killed them?”
“They say killin’ ain’t the word for what he done to those folks.” The father refilled his whiskey glass. “She told me that story when I was ’bout your age. She told me, and I ain’t believe her . . . ’til I moved up here, and realized the things I was capable of. Now I ain’t so sure she was making it up.”
Thomas’ voice trailed off as he reacted to the scenes that played back in his mind.
Snapping out of his trance, Thomas turned back to his son.
“They say whatever Toby had in ’im, we got in us ’cause we from the same bloodline. The women in our family always used to tell me and my brothers never ever get too angry, or Toby might come for us, and we’ll get the night eyes. At least that’s what your grandmamma called it. Don’t never get too angry, she always told me, cause if you do, Toby’ll come for you. And if he get you, it ain’t no comin’ back. You destroy everything and everyone in your path, until finally you destroy yourself.”
“Dad, I . . . I don’t know what you’re talking about . . .”
Thomas Freeman slammed his hand down on the table. Nathan nearly jumped from his seat.
“You don’t have to know what I’m talking about! You got power in your blood that you ain’t ready to understand yet! So I don’t wanna hear about you being too scared to talk in school no more,
you understand? You a king, goddammit! These people should be bowing at yo’ feet, worshipping the ground you walk on! You go into school tomorrow, you open up your mouth, and you let ’em know that!”
“But, Dad, I can’t . . .”
“I ain’t askin’ you, boy, I’m telling you! I’ll be in the school with you tomorrow, and I’ma stay long as it takes until I hear you speakin’! Starting tomorrow, you make yourself known!”
Dropping his eyes, Nathan stared down at the table. “Yes, sir.”
It wasn’t long before he felt his father’s index finger on his chin, raising his face back up. His eyes apologized for yelling, and Nathan forgave him.
“You never put your head down, and you never get too angry. You never lose control. Every man in my family lived by those rules, and you’ll be no different. You drop your head, and you disrespect your blood. You get too angry, and Toby might come for you.”
Nathan nodded his head at his father, and the room fell silent as both father and son contemplated the new information. Nathan began to stand up from his seat, feeling the heaviness of tomorrow’s task weighing down on him, but after a few steps he stopped himself, paused, and made his way back to the table.
“Can you tell me the story of Toby again?”
Thomas Freeman smiled, recalling and reciting the story that his grandmother had told him, and that her grandmother had told her. Nathan’s stomach jumped with his father’s intonations, and though he was too young to realize that this was the story he’d been waiting for, he was old enough to comprehend that something was different when he went to sleep that night.
The next morning, Nathan told his father that he didn’t need
to come with him to school anymore. It was the first time he had seen his father smile in months, and Nathan took that grin with him into the classroom and up to Ms. Landey’s desk.
“Good morning, Ms. Landey.”
“Oh my God! The mute speaks! Hey, everyone, look!”
The class stopped talking and Ms. Landey stood and motioned at Nathan. “The little black boy speaks! I guess you aren’t retarded after all.”
Nathan began to draw back into himself, lowering his head as laughter from the children began to fill the class. But he remembered his father, and he remembered Toby, and kept his head up.
“I’m not retarded, Ms. Landey. I just didn’t want to talk. I’ll be talking from now on, though, and I want you to know that I realize you haven’t been grading my papers. You’ve been marking them with Cs and giving them right back to me, the same way you’ve been doing with all the other Negro kids. I’ve got every paper you’ve ever given me, and I’ve checked each one with Courtney’s. We always get the same answers, but she always gets As, and I always get Cs. That’s not fair, Ms. Landey.”
The classroom was silent now. The black students began to nod to each other, while the white students stared at Ms. Landey, eager to hear her response.
The teacher’s indignation picked her up from her seat and she scowled as she glared down her whistleblower. “How dare you accuse me of such a thing, you dirty little upstart!”
“I’m not trying to be disrespectful, Ms. Landey; I want things to be fair. So does my dad. He told me to tell you that he’s willing to meet with you outside of school to discuss it.”
Nathan didn’t know he had reiterated a threat, but Ms. Landey’s pale face let him know he had struck a nerve. Her fear of Thomas Freeman quickly won over her outrage. She pointed for Nathan
to sit down at his seat, took a deep breath, and began with her morning lesson.
Nathan brought home straight As from that day forward.
• • •
“Why don’t we go to breakfast?” Sonya peeked out the screen door at Nathan. “It’s been a rough morning. We should get out of the house.”
Nathan was jerked away from his memories, and hated his wife for a few moments before he turned and saw the sincerity in her eyes. “Why can’t you cook?”
“I don’t feel like cooking. We should go out. It might lift our spirits.”
Without excitement, Nathan stood up slowly and made his way back inside the house. He put on a pair of pants and a shirt, and looked at his long face and salt-and-pepper hair in the mirror. He still loved his wife, although it had become harder and harder to show it. He hoped that instances like these reminded her that she still had whatever heart he may have had left.
Sonya waited by the door as Nathan grabbed his keys. They walked out, one after the other, and he locked the door. After getting in the car, Nathan started the ignition, and just before he put the car into drive, Sonya turned toward him.
Nathan nodded slightly, shifted the gears of the car, and they drove off in silence.