I was sitting at the dining room table surrounded by stacks of books and old newspapers, dirty dishes, bills, and first, second, and third drafts of handwritten letters to editors of various literary reviews. My laptop computer screen was open to a staff-page photograph from the Black Rook Review’s website. The BRR was a small literary quarterly out of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was looking at the picture of young, milk-soppy Clark Heinemann, holding in my hand his rejection of my one-thousandth story, “Shootout on the Wild Westside.” Mira, my girlfriend of the last sixteen years, was leaving to sleep at her mother’s house in Hoboken because, she said, and I quote, “your continual vituperation is too much for me to bear.”
“Call me when you’re human again, Paul,” she said, before rolling her black-and-pink-polka-dotted roller bag out the door of our fifth-floor walk-up apartment.
I remember it all so clearly: Heinemann’s rejection letter was in my hand, and his smug, slack face was on the screen; I could hear the thump and slide, thump and slide, thump and slide of Mira’s bag as she lowered it step-by-step.
. . . while the concept is interesting the execution leaves me with more questions than answers. I think you might have greater success sending this story to a genre magazine where the readers have more sympathy for the ambiance and tone . . .
Heinemann’s words were in my head while his doughy face smirked at me. Mira’s bag’s bump and slide down the stairs was fading when my hand, seemingly of its own volition, crushed the letter. This minor act of anger was exacerbated by a pain in my middle finger. It felt as if a bone had broken. Before I could react, the sharp ache jumped from my hand to my shoulder, and my breath got short. I was convinced that these were psychosomatic manifestations of the rage I felt about Heinemann and his condescending, typewritten, type-signed letter.
Here he used a typewriter on watermarked paper not as a sign of respect but because of his supercilious conceit.
There was no personal intention to that letter; I was sure of this even as I tumbled from the dining room chair to the bare oak floor. My left ankle got tangled in the power cord, and the laptop fell with me. It didn’t break. Lying there sideways on the floor, Clark Heinemann sneered at my diminution, my impotence.
I hated him so much.
As I reached over to pick up the computer, intent on smashing his image, I realized that it was not my spiritual heart but the physical one that was causing the numbness in my left forearm and the fire in my chest.
I managed to take in half the breath I needed, exhaled with a very audible wheeze, and then inhaled with half the capacity of the breath before.
Clark Heinemann sneered. My breathing became mere puffs. Mira was right about me, but Mira was gone. I had stormed around the apartment for three days cursing the editor and drinking expensive red wine that we could not afford.
My thousandth story, and I was dying, and Clark Heinemann would probably make some snide remark when he heard I was gone. Just like they used to say in the old movies, everything was going dark. I was dying, and the only witness, the only light left to me, was Clark Heinemann and his sidelong smug indifference. After a short while that nevertheless felt interminable, darkness overwhelmed the light. I had died hating a man twenty years my junior, a man I had never met or spoken to. I was, for all intents and purposes, dead and gone, but somehow my hatred cohered. The details of my final humiliation floated on a deep well of spite that did not, would not drain away.
Even as my body rotted and festered under the unblinking eyes of Clark Heinemann, the thoughts I had at death survived. One thousand unpublished stories, 26,473 rejection letters, and all those editorial twits that never gave me a break. The only thing left of me was a raging emotion at every publisher of every insignificant quarterly—but most of all, Clark Heinemann.
“Paul Henry is dead,” a young woman’s voice said from somewhere in the void.
I was suddenly back in proximity to the living; aware, seeing the world from a set of eyes that were a bit stronger than mine had been.
“Who?” The man’s voice seemed to reverberate.
“That guy who has sent us a story every six weeks for the past twenty years.”
“You mean Mr. Again and Again?”
“What happened? Did some editor finally shoot him?”
“Sixty-eight and overweight. He only lived three blocks from here. He had this younger girlfriend who left him, and so they didn’t find his body for five weeks.”
I was floating over the head of a man in his late forties who looked somewhat like Clark Heinemann. He wore a herringbone jacket, a dark blue shirt, and a yellow and blue bow tie.
“The poor fuck,” Clark said. “I must have rejected hundreds of his bad stories.”
A thousand, I thought.
“What did you say, Carrie-Anne?”
“Did you say something?”
“Oh well,” said the human stalk to which my hateful consciousness clung. “He wrote all that genre stuff and tried to pretend it was literary. At least I won’t have to make our interns read any more of his ghastly prose.”
You didn’t even read it yourself?
“What?” Clark said.
“Are you hearing things?” the copper-haired young woman asked. She wore horn-rimmed glasses and grass-green lipstick.
“Too much to drink at the PEN Gala last night, I guess,” he said. “Did I tell you? I sat three tables away from Rushdie and Paul Auster. My head’s been buzzing all morning.”
After that Carrie-Anne left the small office. Clark gazed at her posterior as she went, and so I did too. Clark had a desk and a bookshelf, an old IBM Selectric typewriter, and an almost as old Apple Macintosh computer. His windows were open, and there was a breeze; you could see it wafting in the partially drawn window shade.
Alone Clark Heinemann studied the computer screen, perusing a story submission to the magazine. I tried to read the words, but they didn’t make sense. The world was fading again as it had when I died weeks before.
Finally I was once more merely the memory of hatred for anyone having to do with publishing.Even as my body rotted and festered under the unblinking eyes of Clark Heinemann, the thoughts I had at death survived.
The acrid smell of urine, dead skin, and sour breath assailed a nose close to me. I came to consciousness, again attached to Clark Heinemann. This time we were in an old folks’ home sitting before an ancient woman in a wheelchair. She was listing to the side, and her eyes darted around aimlessly, as if searching for something worth seeing. Looking at her, I perceived a memory that must have belonged to Heinemann. It was his mother when she was younger and he was a child. She’d been a handsome woman. Now her once fair skin had darkened and was creased with a thousand wrinkles. Her white hair stood away from her tiny head like dead grass rising up from the weight of the first snow at the onset of winter. The only glimmer of life, even beauty, was in her blue eyes, which looked out from under a creased brow. She peered closely at the space above Clark’s head.
“How are you, Mom?” he asked, and I wondered what I was
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Clark, Ma, your son.”
“Who’s that on your head?”
“My . . . my head?”
“Yeah. That fat Negro on top a’ your head. Isn’t he heavy?”
Heinemann waved his hand over his head; it passed right through me.
“Nothing there, Mom. See?”
“I see a Negro on top a’ your head.”
Clark turned away from his mother and looked into a mirror above a sink anchored into the wall of the nursing-home cell. I saw what he saw—him, as pasty-faced and weak-jawed as ever, and my dark countenance hovering just above for only a second and then fading. I was still there, but Clark soon lost sight of me.
“What was that?” he said.
“He’s gone,” Mrs. Heinemann said. “Now, who are you?”
For the next hour or so, Clark sat with his mother, fed her, and told her over and over again that he was her son and that he loved her. “Will you take me with you to your house?” she asked, emotional craft combined with the eternal despair of an orphaned child.
“You’re happier here,” he said.
“I hate it here. They don’t feed me.”
“I’ll talk to the nursing staff.”
“Will the Negro take me home with him?”
The smell was horrible; the feeling of mortality unbearable. I could sense death descending all around. This reminded me of my own expiration, and I moaned.
“Did you hear something, Mom?”
“It was him,” she said, gesturing at me with an arthritic claw. It was then that I understood what was happening. I existed only through my hatred of Clark, and then I was called into existence through my name being mentioned or when someone like that old dying woman could see me.
I wanted to get away from Clark and his mother and that building full of people whose souls were crying out as mine was.
Six or seven times during the torture, Clark turned to look in the mirror, but I wasn’t there—or at least he could no longer see me.
When he left the nursing home, I faded again, hoping that this would be the last conjuring, that I would pass over into oblivion.
For a long time I floated in hateful darkness. My feelings about Clark Heinemann had become a physical thing, or maybe metaphysical; they, those angry emotions, had turned into instincts that I could not eschew.
“Miss Stern to see you, Mr. Heinemann,” a voice through an inter-com announced.
“Send her in.”
I was aware again, sharing the eyes, ears, and nostrils of Clark Heinemann.
He looked up, and I did too. Mira walked in, wearing her job-hunting medium-gray dress suit.
She was thirty years younger than I. We met when I was teaching a class on fiction at the uptown Y. She still had a great figure. And that outfit really showed it off.
Clark noticed what I did, and I wondered if somehow my awareness informed his.
He stood up and said, “Nice to meet you, Miss Stern. I was so sorry to hear about your husband.”
“We weren’t married. Paul didn’t believe in marriage.” It sounded like an indictment.
“Oh, I see,” he said. “Um, please have a seat.”
Mira took the chair and crossed her legs, showing her lovely knees.
“How can I help?” Clark asked, looking at her legs with me. “I wanted to ask you if there was some way that you might publish something of Paul’s. He left me the stories in his will. And it’s the only thing I can imagine that would be a fitting remembrance. His body was cremated. He was an only child, and his parents are both dead. The only things he left in the world were one thousand stories and seven suitcases filled with rejection letters.”
I caught a whiff of rose oil, the perfume I preferred on her. “You don’t have children?” Clark asked.
“I was with Paul most of my adult life,” she said. “But he didn’t want kids. He said he needed the time to write.”
Clark gazed at Mira’s café au lait complexion. Her father was Jewish of Russian descent and her mother a rare Christian from Mali. She was a beautiful woman. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d told her so.
I’m so sorry, honey, I said reflexively.
“Did you hear something?” Clark asked. “Just the traffic from the street,” she said.
She uncrossed her legs and then recrossed them in the opposite direction. Then she tilted forward in a movement both innocent and suggestive.
I was happy that she was trying so hard to get me into that magazine.
“You know, Miss Stern, Paul’s work was not the kind of fiction we publish. The writing was passable, but he always threw in some genre aspect that made the work, um, what can I say . . . neither here nor there.”
“But,” she said. “I don’t know . . . I was thinking that maybe you could publish it with an introduction. You know, an article saying that the story was an example of how Paul took his own path in spite of expectations.”
That’s my girl, I said.
“I like that,” Clark agreed.
“I know Paul was stubborn, but he worked so hard at it that it would be a shame if he was never published.”
Mira stared directly into my nemesis’s eyes, and I was aware of a quickening in his pulse.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t we have dinner tonight, and you can tell me what stories best fit your idea. I mean, I can’t make any promises but . . . I don’t know; we’ll see.”
“Thank you so much,” she said, with real happiness in her voice.
They made plans to meet at an Italian restaurant that night.
He gave her the name, D’Oro. She said that she knew the place.
She stood, and he did too. He walked her to the door and then kissed her cheek. I could smell the rose attar rising from her breast and feel the touch of her fingers on the back of Clark Heinemann’s hand.
After she left, Clark sat there for a while looking at the door she’d gone through. Then he picked up a manuscript, and my mind slipped back into the brackish bile pond where it festered and throve. In that vile darkness my mind was only partially aware. I realized that even though I was a ghost, I was the one being haunted by the animosity I’d worn like a badge through my life. I never made anything of myself, and I held Mira back. I wrote stories that I knew would never be published, and I hated freely.
I was my own private hell.
Knowing this, I tried to let go of my feelings, hoping that this release would let me find oblivion, if not actual peace.
There in the darkness I strained to let my hatred of the arrogant editor fade. For a moment there I felt that I had succeeded, and then . . .
“To Paul Henry,” Clark Heinemann saluted.
He and Mira clinked wine goblets over two plates of half-eaten pasta. They drained their glasses, and a waiter came up to refill them.I could smell the rose attar rising from her breast and feel the touch of her fingers on the back of Clark Heinemann’s hand.
“The wine is kind of going to my head,” she said. He reached over and took her hand.
“Come home with me,” he said, and I tried to remember the last time Mira and I had made love.
The sex went on and on, all night long. Riding on Clark’s undulating body, I cried out in the pain of loss and betrayal. He experienced my cries as some kind of inner ecstasy, while Mira urged him on, whispering that she had not felt this much and this good in many years. She told him how beautiful he was and how caring and gentle. In the early morning they went into the hallway outside of his apartment after a series of half-drunken dares. There they giggled and fucked until someone opened a door down the hall, forcing them to laugh and run for the refuge of his apartment again.
After that they fell asleep, and I eased back into my grotto of spite. But before I could sink into blissful unconsciousness . . . “What are you thinking?” Clark asked my girlfriend of sixteen years. He was nuzzling her nipple with his pudgy nose. “About Paul,” she said wistfully.
“Are you feeling bad?”
“No,” she said, and I felt like I was a balloon filled past capacity, about to burst with rage instead of helium. “The reason he was left in the apartment for so long was because I had decided never to come back. I couldn’t. I’m thirty-seven, and nothing had changed between us since the day we met. We were in the same apartment, sleeping on the same mattress on the floor. He made scrambled eggs with lox and onions in the same skillet five thousand mornings in a row. And he kept writing stories that I knew would never be published. I think he knew it too.”
“I’m sorry,” Clark said. “I guess sometimes we just find ourselves in a rut.”
And as if the word had poetic power, they began rutting all over again.
I was hoping that Mira had seduced Clark so that he would publish my work. But the following morning I was stirred back to reality by a phone call.
“Hello?” Mira said.
“Hi, Mira, it’s Clark . . . Heinemann.”
“Hi,” she said, with an élan I’d never heard in her voice before.
“I’ve decided to go ahead with our plan and publish an original Paul Henry story.”
“Oh my God, that’s so wonderful. It’s perfect.”
They discussed the details for a while, and then he said, “I had a great time last night.”
“We should get together again soon,” she agreed.
“How about tonight?” he asked.
“I’m supposed to see my mother,” Mira said.
Yes! I thought. Lead him on until I’m published and then tell him you did it all for me.
“OK,” Clark said rather sadly. I could feel his disappointment through our connection.
“But I could call her,” Mira offered. “I could change it to sometime next week.”
“I’ll get the wine, and we can eat in my apartment.”
“We don’t even have to eat,” Mira promised, and I cried out.
“Is there some interference on the line?” Clark asked.
“Not on my end.”
Every night for the next three months Mira was at Paul’s apartment doing things we had never done.
When she told him that she was pregnant, I hoped that the smug editor would see his error and kick her out. But instead he kissed her and asked her to marry him. He didn’t think about it for one moment. What kind of fool does something like that?
But I was relieved anyway. They would have a life where my name would never be mentioned. I would slowly fade from consciousness and then finally follow my body into death.
I hadn’t considered what would happen with the publication of my story “Shootout on the Wild Westside” in the fall edition of Black Rook Review. Clark wrote a moving testimonial to me, “ . . . a writer who never gave up; who died working on his next story.”
I was dragged through a series of interviews, to a dozen public readings, and finally to a publishing house that wanted to put out a collection of my multi-genre tales.
Clark and Mira didn’t stop having sex until the seventh month of her pregnancy, and then, and then . . . they decided to name their son Paul Henry Heinemann.
Clark became an expert on my work and often gave talks about me.
. . . Paul Henry was a complex man who was ahead of his time. He wrote fiction that was destined to outlive him. He selfishly used his time for the one thousand stories he crafted over thirty years.
He wasn’t a happy man. He wasn’t nice or good or caring or even very friendly.
He hated editors like me because we couldn’t see his value . . .
And after talks in Cincinnati, Seattle, Boston, LA, and twenty other towns and cities, he’d meet some young woman writer and make love to her the way he would to Mira when he got home.
I hated him then, because I had never cheated on her. Maybe I didn’t treat her as well as she deserved, but at least I was faithful in my mediocrity.
When Clark came home I never rested, because he’d made a career out of me and so talked about me and my work almost every day.
And when he wasn’t dealing with me directly he was calling out to his son, “Paul Henry,” and I was forced into the life I never had, paying for my small-minded, selfish ways.
And then one day Mira found a letter in a pocket of the brown corduroy jacket that Clark wore when on the road. It was some love letter that a young woman secreted for him to find, so he would think of her when he was far away.
The fight went on for hours. Mira cried, and Clark tried to explain, then to apologize, and then to say he had no excuse. She told him to get out, and instead of being happy about his misery, I felt, for the first time since the heart attack, real pain. Their pain was mine. I couldn’t escape it. My consciousness was melding with their emotions.
At one point Clark and I saw Paul Henry standing in a doorway that led down a hall to the boy’s bedroom.
Clark told his son to go to bed.
“What’s that man doing on your head, Daddy?” the four-year-old asked.
After putting his son to bed, Clark returned to the living room, and Mira kissed him.
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“Seeing you with our son,” she said. “I’m still mad but I forgive you.”
Later that night, Mira and Clark came in to say good night to my namesake, kissing him and promising strawberry pancakes in the morning to make up for all that yelling.
I wasn’t looking forward to what was going to happen next. When they had even the tiniest spat they made up for it with marathon sex sessions. I was going to experience Clark’s rolling doughy body making Mira cry out for him as she’d never done for me. But that didn’t happen. Clark and Mira turned on Paul Henry’s night-light and departed, somehow leaving me in the room with their son.
Alone, the boy dutifully picked his teddy bear off the short chest of drawers next to his bed and squeezed it tightly.
He had golden skin and similarly colored curly hair.
He seemed to be thinking about something when he said, “You look so sad.”
He seemed to be talking to me.
This was a surprise. Even those people who rarely saw me, usually senile and near death themselves, never addressed me directly. They would ask Clark who I was and why I was there.
“You,” Paul Henry said.
He nodded. “Why you look so sad?”
“Because your mother used to be my girlfriend, but then I, I died, and now she loves your father.” I didn’t want to say all that, but somehow his questions demanded answers.
“And so you’re sad because you love my mommy?”
“You don’t love her?”
“No, I don’t,” I said, surprised at my own answer.
“Then why are you so mad at my daddy?”
“Why do you say I’m mad?”
“Because when I see you and you say things, it makes him upset. I don’t think he can see you, but he knows you’re there. He knows it, and he gets mixed up.”
I felt something give, like a tether pulling out of the soil.
“I guess I was mad at your father because he never published my stories when I was alive.”
“Oh,” my young namesake said, and I felt another tether give. “Maybe you could forgive him if I said I was sorry he didn’t do that. I could tell my daddy that you were mad, and then he would be sorry too.”
There was a breeze suddenly blowing through the room, and another tether pulled out of the firmament of my hatred. There was a light shining somewhere, and I realized that most of my existence after death had been swathed in darkness.
Everything was becoming light.
Paul Henry was talking, and I might have responded, but I was only aware of the light shining and the darkness that was dissipating, the strong breeze, and the weightlessness I felt from the tethers loosening.
“Will you come back?” Paul Henry asked. It was part of a longer conversation that another part of my mind had been having with him.
Before I could answer, the wind picked up, drowning out all other sound, and the light became excruciatingly bright. I was still there in the room with Paul Henry, as the world turned and Mira called out Clark’s name in ecstasy.
I would, I realized, always be there, and that was a relief so profound that time ceased and my antipathies turned into silver-scaled fish that darted away somewhere, leaving me once again breathless.
Excerpted from The Awkward Black Man © 2020 by Walter Mosley. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.