Chapter 21

Randall Muxworthy flinched when the pretty Latina waitress approached his booth and smiled. He let his eyes flick past hers and muttered his order. As she turned towards the bar, her glossy hair waved behind her like a black flag.

He scanned the dim, smoky room. The squared-off backs of a row of beefy blue-collars filled the bar stools. Dylan, the potato-faced bartender with receding red hair, made a joke and the line of backs erupted in laughter. When one of the men turned to the side to comment to his neighbor, Randall realized he was a Mexican. Then he spotted three black guys at a table near the juke box. They were loud, arguing amiably over the relative worth of Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. He heard one of the men call the waitress "Mayte" and noticed that the blonde who’d served him the only other time he’d been here, didn’t seem to be around.

He could feel his stomach twisting into knot upon knot. Maybe there was still time to leave Clooney’s. He was half out of his seat when he saw Hallam’s silhouette in the doorway of the narrow room. The older man’s long legs covered the dozen steps to the back booth before Randall could move. He never froze like this on the job. But this wasn’t a perp. Hallam Muxworthy was his father.

"Hey, Pop," Randall said, grabbing his father’s right hand in his own and clasping his shoulder with his left. He was shocked at how thin Hallam’s shoulder felt. But his pale eyes were blazing and his grip was as strong as it had seemed when Randall was a boy being yanked by the scruff of the neck.

Before Randall could head Mayte off at the bar, she’d bounced back to their booth with his bottle of beer and a cardboard coaster. "So how are you doing tonight?" she said, unleashing her wide, white smile on Hallam.

Hallam turned and glared at his son, his mouth twisting when he saw the ghost of anxiety skitter behind Randall’s green eyes. "Bring me a boilermaker," he barked without looking at the waitress. "Chivas and a Pabst."

Determined not to be ignored, Mayte rested her hands on the battered wooden table and leaned down to look in Hallam’s face. "Sorry, papi, we don’t have Pabst. How about a Miller?"

"What did you call me?" Hallam said slowly, turning a look of cold fury on the waitress. Randall watched her grin vanish as she backed away from the table. "Sorry, I didn’t mean anything," she stammered, skittering back to the bar.

In a gesture both affectionate and cautionary, Randall reached across the table and wrapped one of his big hands around Hallam’s forearm.

Again, he was surprised at how thin his father was. He looked in his eyes and saw a glint of something unnamable that gave him a chill.

Randall was surprised that evening when his father called and asked to meet him. He thought this bar on the edge of town would be a safe bet – he’d taken Clooney’s for a white hangout, but he’d been wrong. He’d only seen Hallam a couple times since he’d arrived in Pennsylvania a year ago and he was in no mood to fight his father or keep him from picking a fight with anyone else. A retiree who’d resettled in North Carolina hired Hallam to look after his farmhouse. The last time Randall had seen Hallam was the week he’d moved to Pennsylvania when he’d invited him out to look the place over. "It’s not Carolina but it’s good to be back in the country, no one breathing down my neck," Hallam had said.

Randall could still remember being a boy and fighting his older brother and sister for the privilege of lighting the match for Hallam’s cigarette. He remembered his father taking him in his arms and swinging him up high against the blue Carolina sky, then pulling him close in a laughing embrace that smelled of sweet tobacco, sweat and smoke. He remembered Pop and his mother Lacey laughing on the porch at night, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Cash on the radio and a house that always seemed full of cousins and uncles and grandparents bringing pies and country hams and potato salad and, once, a soft brown puppy. And the long rows of bright green tobacco, so precious the children weren’t allowed to play in that field.

But all of that – the laughter, the good times, the music, even the dog -- fell away when Hallam was forced to auction the farm to pay his debts. The cousins were disgusted with him for failing to hold onto a piece of the Muxworthy legacy, but they helped them pack for the move to Burlington. Suddenly Hallam, who had never had to answer to any boss, was punching a clock and paying rent on a cramped house in a mixed neighborhood. At the hosiery factory Hallam reported to a white man, but he worked side-by-side with blacks and whites and none of them gave a damn about what he had lost. His coworkers were used to each other and more worried about plant closings and an influx of Mexican immigrants than they were about black v. white.

Every day he seemed to grow a little bit angrier and their house seemed a little bit smaller, crowded with Hallam’s rage and disappointment. Randall and little sister Maydonna were happy to find new friends among the black and white kids on their street. But Gary and Lurette were junior high school students and they absorbed the racist poison their father spewed at the dinner table. They saw no reason to mix in and most of the black and white teenagers at their school felt the same.

When they lived in the country, Hallam and his cousins often enjoyed a toot on the weekend, sometimes ending up too hungover to see straight in church on Sunday. But in Burlington he rarely saw the cousins or anyone else from down home and he no longer waited for the weekends to tie one on. Most evenings after work he would sit in his truck next to the rented house, working his way through a packet of cigarettes and a fifth of whiskey until Lacey called him to dinner. After too many nights ending in Hallam screaming at her before dessert was served, she learned to keep quiet around him. But after a while, she didn’t need to say anything before he was in her face, the children trembling around them, afraid he might hit her. The nights of laughing on the porch were long gone.

Mama got thinner and angrier and more anxious by the day. Something about Hallam tonight at Clooney’s made Randall think of her, like an animal about to gnaw off its trapped paw. One afternoon, about three years after they’d moved to town, Mama showed up at his school at lunch time. Fannie Mayhew, a lady from church who sometimes drove Lacey to the supermarket, was driving and Maydonna was in the backseat. Randall heard his mother telling the principal she needed to take him for a dentist appointment. He remembered how cool her hand was in his as she settled him in the backseat and the kiss on the cheek that felt like a "be-good" bribe. Mrs. Mayhew drove fast, but a long time seemed to be passing and Randall fell asleep watching the green trees whizzing by. When he woke up, his mother was talking to a train conductor and Fannie Mayhew was standing by her Plymouth wiping away tears.

Almost four years passed before they saw Hallam again. Lacey, who had never held a paid job, filed for Social Security under Augustina Kinney, the name on her birth certificate, and found work answering the phones in a county clinic just outside of Baltimore. She registered Randall and Maydonna in school as Kinneys and rented a small apartment on a decent bus line. She turned out to be good at her job and when the office manager quit to have a baby, she was promoted. Unlike Hallam, Lacey thrived in town and she enjoyed making friends with the black single mothers in their apartment complex and on her job. Her new friends egged her on when an attractive bachelor doctor from India started to take an interest in her. Dr. Chetty was kind and patient – he really seemed to be listening when she was speaking. Before too long, they were dating and the scents of curry and tuberose mingled in the Kinneys’ little apartment. Maydonna fell for him almost immediately, giggling when he tugged her braids and beaming when he praised her good grades and careful penmanship. As much as he missed Pop, Randall was drawn to this man who made his mother happy and made all of them feel safe. Chetty didn’t think he was soft because he liked to read and he admired the way he seemed to glide through the world with his deep, musical voice and silk shirts the color of fall leaves, so unlike his father’s cracked and snagged trajectory.

When Lacey agreed to marry Chetty, she had to contact Hallam about a divorce. Randall, who had been fourteen at the time, had spent the past fifteen years trying to forget what had happened next. After a painful reunion with Hallam in a North Carolina courthouse, he watched his parents spent the better part of two months fighting over the terms of the divorce and custody of the minor children. He saw Lurette once, one afternoon when Lacey let Hallam’s sisters meet them for dinner at the Sizzler. Lurette, who had graduated from high school the year before, was working at Walmart and engaged to be married. She hugged Randall and Maydonna as if her heart would break, but she recoiled from Lacey’s touch and glared at their mother with hard eyes.

Gary, who’d been in and out of trouble ever since he’d dropped out of high school at fifteen, was always by his father’s side in the courtroom, a younger, handsomer version of Hallam. Gary looked tough but Randall saw him flinch when Hallam slapped him for calling Lacey a bitch.

Dr. Chetty had wanted to go with Lacey and the children when she returned South to face Hallam, but she knew his presence would only make things worse. Still, when Maydonna called him in tears one night, he hopped on the next plane and showed up at their motel. Hallam only agreed to let Lacey go when he saw Dr. Chetty by her side. "Damn! He’s blacker than most niggers," Hallam said to Lacey. "You’ve let that touch you. I wouldn’t touch you with a twenty-foot pole."

The whole Muxworthy clan was in the courthouse the day the judge was set to rule on custody. Only a few of Lacey’s relatives were alive and only a couple of them were still speaking to her. But tall, thin, sandy and black-haired Muxworthys filled the benchs on both sides of the courtroom. It was a hot afternoon and ten-year-old Maydonna was restless. Lacey agreed to let Randall take her outside to get a soda. They were on their way back to the courthouse when Maydonna asked Randall to stop by Chetty’s car so she could get a magazine Lacey had left on the front seat. "Maydonna it’s broiling out here. And you know Mama’s not going to let you sit up in court looking at Cosmo. Come on girl, let’s go."

Those were the last words Randall said for a long time. He saw Maydonna turn her head and stick out her tongue at him, then run ahead to the car. He jerked his head in the other direction as he heard his brother Gary yelling, "No!" and come running towards the car. Then Maydonna disappeared in a flash of steel and glass and flame and flesh. A shard of glass caught Randall in the throat and he fell to the pavement under the weight of Gary’s body.

There wasn’t enough of Maydonna left to bury. Lacey gathered up her favorite dress, her favorite doll, her school photo and a copy of her last report card to put in a box in the ground. Hallam, who hadn’t known what Gary was planning, looked like he wanted to fall into the hole with the box and pull the ground up over him.

Chetty took Lacey and Randall back to Maryland and nursed the two of them until they were ready to return to something like living. They returned to North Carolina to testify, but they left before eighteen-year-old Gary was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for rigging Chetty’s rental car with the pipe bomb that killed Maydonna. Eventually Chetty and Lacey married and had a daughter they called Sharmila.

After high school, Randall moved to Philadelphia and entered the police academy. When the job opened up in Llanview seven years ago, he took it. Not long before Hallam surfaced in Llanview, Randall heard that Gary, who’d become the head of a white supremacist gang in prison, had been killed in a fight with a black prisoner. He’d never shared any of his family history with Dennis Lloyd, the partner who’d watched his back for seven years.

Dylan set Hallam’s beer and shot down on the table. "Everything all right over here?" he said glancing from Randall to Hallam.

"Yeah, fine, thanks," Randall said rising from his reverie.

"Good," Dylan said, slapping him on the back. "We like to keep it that way."

Hallam sneered and tossed back the shot. "So Pop, what’s going on?" Randall said.

"This and that," Hallam said with a thin smile. The quick hit of alcohol warmed the light in his eyes. "I just wanted to see how things were going for my son the po-lice officer."

Like always, Randall was torn. He hated all the hatred and mayhem Hallam brought into his life. But Randall was a gentle soul and growing up around Chetty had made him more forgiving. He truly believed that if it hadn’t been for Chetty his mother would have killed herself in grief and rage. And there was still a small part of him that wanted his father to be proud of him.

"Things are good, Pop. I started training a new partner this week."

"What happened to that nigger you were riding with?" Hallam said, taking a pull on his beer.

Randall sat back in his seat and narrowed his eyes at Hallam. "Dennis Lloyd is a good man. He had my back for seven years. Don’t let that word mix with his name in your mouth."

Hallam stared at Randall, amazed at the heat coming off of his son. "Well listen to you."

"Dennis was promoted to detective last week. Mac Murphy is my new partner, a kid up from Easton."

"Oh, so he’s been promoted and you’re still walking a beat? There’s your affirmative action for you. The natural white man can’t get a break."

Hallam’s crazy talk made Randall so tired. But he couldn’t bring himself to walk away from the old man, not with him looking a foot away from the grave. "Pop, Dennis was on the force two years before I got there. He’s a good cop. My time will come."

"I guess your old friend is all up in this missing person case I heard about on the news. Some n," Hallam caught himself in time. "Some black lawyer supposed to be "Woman of the Year’?"

Randall thought of Evangeline Williamson and the day he’d pulled her over on her way back into town. She had been so beautiful and so angry and the whole situation had been so bizarre he’d barely known how to speak to her. Fortunately, Dennis stepped in and cuffed her when she’d insisted.

"That’s right. Most of the force is trying to run that one down. She was dating our lieutenant. Rumor is she’s carrying his baby."

Hallam jumped back like he’d been hit in the chest, then he started coughing and choking. His face went red and he began to wheeze like he was pulling up an organ. People turned to see what was going on. Before he could hawk on the floor, Randall pressed a handkerchief into his hand.

"Pop! Are you all right? What’s wrong?"

Hallam wiped his mouth and sat back. His eyes were watering and his breathing was labored. "I’m fine, son. I’m fine…. If you could get a break on this case, is that the kind of thing that could get you promoted to detective?"

Randall was confused. Here his father nearly coughed up a lung and he wanted to talk career advancement? "Yeah. I suppose so."

Hallam balled up the handkerchief and passed it back to Randall. "Well, I’m hoping you’re the one who cracks it. I’d be mighty proud." He drained the bottle of beer and stood to go.

"Pop, where are you going?"

Hallam smiled at Randall and for a moment curtain of time and misery lifted between them. "I have a long drive home and some things to tend to in the morning. It was good to see you son."

Randall rose and walked his father to the door. He gave the bony old man an awkward hug. "You take care, Pop."

"I always do," Hallam called as he screeched out of the parking lot.

Randall felt his cell phone vibrate in his pocket. It was Lieutenant McBain calling. "Muxworthy? Can you come down to the station ASAP?"

"Sure, Lieutenant. I’ll be right in."