Preview of “Too Blue to Fly”

Wally had always known who he was and where he belonged. In the spring of 1947, he was a fifth grade student at the Atlanta Montessori School. He was
eleven years old, the son of Kathryn McManus, and his place was with her.

Then everything changed.

When Mama discovered her illness, she told Wally in the same quiet way she always revealed bad news. The cancer was ovarian, she said, and it had spread
throughout her body. With her usual straightforward bluntness, she said there was no chance she would recover and they hadn’t much time. What would he most
like to do in the weeks they had left?

“You’re going to die, Mama?”

“Yes, I’m dying.”

He remembered the way the air smelled, too rich to breathe, and how it burned his nostrils. She had taken him to the old quarry near Stone Mountain for a
picnic. It was one of their favorite places. “Who will look after me, Mama?”

“I wrote your father and told him you’ll be coming.”

“I don’t even know him. Does he want me?”

“Anthony is a man who rarely knows what he wants until he has lost it. But in you he’ll see himself, Wally, so yes, he’ll want you.”

Sunlight reflected on the dead green lake of the rock quarry and birds flitted to and from their nests in the granite walls. Crows beckoned from afar.
Everything lovely had turned ugly. “My father never came to visit me,” Wally said.

“We’ve never been to see him, Wally.”

“Mama, please, I don’t want you to die.”

“And I don’t want to, Wally, but it’s going to happen. Now then, how shall we spend our time together?”

At first he punished her for being ill. He pulled away from hugs and turned aside kisses. He sulked and pouted and poisoned the moment as though dying were
a selfish choice she’d made. She seemed to understand. “When you think back on this later,” she’d said, “don’t feel guilty. I acted the same way with God.”

She took him out of school and cashed in her war bonds. She wanted to go back to towns where she’d lived and live her life again, she said. “It will be
like playing a movie backwards. We’ll pretend we don’t know the ending and visit all the places that ever meant anything to me.”

Over the next two months they searched the landmarks, most of which were gone: the restaurant overlooking the Hudson River where Anthony Edward McManus
proposed marriage, the cold-water flat where they lived in Greenwich Village. None of the visits were happy. Mama spoke of marital disputes, “like sparks
of flint – sharp, quick, and gone – but each spark left smoldering resentment.”

During the trip Wally changed because she changed. Slow death stole her life in pieces. First it took Mama’s weight, the soft places where she held Wally’s
head when he needed cuddling. Then impending death extinguished the twinkle in her eyes and left them deeply set above hollow cheeks. It hurt her to be
hugged, so he was limited to holding her hand.

They went back to Atlanta and she bought him a one-way bus ticket to Belle Glade, Florida. “Use this when you have to,” she said, and tucked it into one of
the bags packed for his trip. Every day thereafter she grew weaker.

“Are you going to be a big boy about this?” his mother had asked.

“Yes, Mama.”

“Going to live with your father?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Good,” she’d sighed. “He’s expecting you.”

It was their last conversation. She died that night.

*****

Wally was jarred back to the moment by the bus driver’s announcement, “Belle Glade!”

The noonday sun was so bright that Wally peered from beneath cupped hands. The hot concrete sidewalk burned his feet through the soles of his shoes. Every
inhalation was as though from an oven. Unlike Atlanta, south Florida humidity soaked his clothes and plastered sandy hair to his forehead. Sweat traced his
spine and crawled down the backs of his legs.

The bus driver put Wally’s luggage on the ground. “Three bags, right?”

“Yessir.”

Air brakes sighed, the diesel engine rumbled, exhaust fumes enveloped Wally and the bus pulled away.

The street was deserted. Stores were closed. Mama had warned that Anthony was seldom on time. He thought of his father as “Anthony” because that’s how she
spoke of him. “Anthony was late to our wedding,” she’d said. Undisciplined, she’d said.

Wally dragged his bags toward the shade of a palm tree but halted abruptly when he realized the shadow was filled with thousands of droning bees. The
insects swirled around a droop of dates hanging from the palm, and below them sat a shirtless and barefoot black boy on a wooden bench. Slowly, the boy
reached up to pluck a date and bees dripped from the swarm like living liquid, down his arm and off his elbow.

“For a nickel,” he said, “I’ll weave a spell so they won’t sting you.”

“I don’t have a nickel.”

“Yes you do.” Again, slowly, he shoved his hand into the mass of bees and plucked another date.

“If you eat a green one,” he said, “it makes your tongue curl. For a nickel I’ll get you some ripe ones.”

“No, thank you. I won’t be staying long.”

The black boy surveyed the empty street in one direction, then the other. “I don’t see nobody rushing to fetch you. Give me a dime and I’ll buy us an
orange soda.”

“I’m going soon,” Wally said.

“Where you going, white boy?”

“To live with my father.”

“Your father a white man?”

“Of course he’s white.”

“You say of course like I’m stupid to wonder,” the black boy said. “Look at me. You wonder if my daddy is black?”

He was the color of dark honey, his body powdered with dust made gray by the tone of his complexion. His eyes were pale green.

“Is your daddy a tall white man, or a short one?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” Wally said.

“For a nickel, I’ll help you watch for him.”

“I’m not giving you a nickel,” Wally replied evenly.

“I ain’t asking you give me anything. I’m willing to earn it. You being a city boy from Atlanta, you going to need somebody to get you from here
to someplace without getting gator ate. I’m willing, but I ain’t begging.”

“How did you know I’m from Atlanta?”

“By the tags on your bags. Besides, I was sent to get you. I’m your brother, Jeremiah.”

“My brother! You – you don’t look like me.”

“My mama don’t look like your mama,” Jeremiah said, “but your daddy is my daddy. I know all about you. You’re here because your mama died and you got no
place else to go. My mama said you’d be sitting on the curb, knees together, hands in your lap like a whipped sissy.”

“She doesn’t know me. Why would she say that?”

“Guessing what you’d be, most likely. Shiny shoes and iron pants.”

“Iron pants?”

“Starch and iron. You’re what I expected too. Won’t even share a nickel with your own brother.”

“I don’t believe you’re my brother.”

The boy peered at Wally with eyes the green of new grass. “You ever see a colored boy with eyes like mine? Or hair so silky it drive womens crazy? I’m your
brother all right, and you can praise God I am too. Else you’d be standing here day after tomorrow waiting for somebody who ain’t coming. Give me a quarter
and I’ll help tote the bags.”

Defeated, Wally dug change from his pocket and relinquished twenty-five cents. Jeremiah was taller, more muscular, at least a year older that Wally.

“My mama sent me to fetch you, knowing Mr. McManus wouldn’t do what he ought to.”

“Where is he?” Wally asked.

“Getting some libation. That’s what he calls anything he doesn’t chew. On the Sabbath in Belle Glade, the only place to get a drink is at a shot house in
colored town. I’ll carry the little bags, you bring the big one.”

“Does Anthony say you’re my brother?”

“Is that what you call him, Anthony? He gives money to my mama, and she tends his manly needs. You know what I mean?”

Before Wally could summon an answer, Jeremiah said, “She cooks the meals and sleeps with him. Around the house you’d think he was her husband. But no, Mr.
McManus don’t admit nothing.”

Wally followed him down an alley. Ebony men threw dice at a wall. Women in colorful skirts and low-cut blouses loitered nearby. When they saw Jeremiah, the
women hooted.

“What you got with you, Jeremiah? Look like a puppy to me.”

The smell of food cooking tantalized Wally. He hadn’t eaten since his mother’s funeral.

“Say what he be, Jeremiah?”

“Ignore them niggers,” Jeremiah said loudly. “They won’t touch us. The Klan would skin them alive and burn this place to the ground.”

His threat didn’t intimidate them. A woman stepped forward to stroke Wally’s head and tweak his earlobe. “Got no color, like the belly of a suckling pig,”
she said.

“Pay no mind,” Jeremiah said. “They ain’t nothing to be scared of.”

Wally fought an urge to hurl aside his luggage and flee. Run! But where would he go? Back to Atlanta? Mama wasn’t there. She was buried under a mound of
red clay. Suppressed anger erupted and Wally knocked aside the colored woman’s hand. Why hadn’t Anthony come to the funeral? Damn him for leaving Mama to
die alone. Damn him for letting years pass without a visit. And now, trembling with rage, Wally was going to meet him at last. Jeremiah stepped into a
doorway so dark it swallowed him. The interior pulsed with music that throbbed in Wally’s bones.

Jeremiah reappeared. “You coming or not?”

“How do I know he’s in there?”

“You look and see, that’s how. Come on.”

After bright sunlight, Wally was blinded. He stumbled into tables and chairs. The smell of rancid beer and musky bodies was a stench.

A man on a bar stool grabbed Jeremiah by the arm. “What you doing with that white boy, Jeremiah?”

“Looking for his daddy.”

“I don’t want no white children in here. Get his daddy and go.”

“We’re going.”

At the very back, in a wooden booth with high walls that made it private, was Anthony Edward McManus. A flickering candle stuck in a whisky bottle provided
the only light. From an overturned bottle, beer flowed across the table and trickled off the opposite side. A dozen times Wally had rehearsed what he’d
say, but his preparation was useless. Anthony lay with his head in spilled beer, eyes open but unseeing.

“Is he dead?” Wally asked.

“He’s not dead, he’s drunk. Didn’t your mama tell you he’s a drunk?”

Maybe she didn’t know. Maybe she hoped Anthony would change with a son coming – or, she forgot. More likely, she hadn’t wanted to alarm Wally. Had Wally
known, it would not have changed a thing. She must have hoped for the best and expected Wally to cope with the worst.

The thunderous music created ripples in puddles of spilled beer. Wally watched Jeremiah shake the man, yelling, “Mr. McManus! Wake up, Mr. McManus. It’s
time to go home!”

Anthony’s eyes closed slowly and opened again.

“I got Precious with me, Mr. McManus!”

Before his mother died, when Wally realized there was no way out of coming here, he’d made it a point to read Anthony’s books. He wanted a topic they’d
have in common. He’d been struck by the simplicity of writing and wisdom of the author. Wally had told his mother, “He knows so much about people.”

“Everybody but himself,” she’d replied.

Now here was his father, face down in a colored town bar where illegal drinks were sold one shot at a time, and beer was dispensed at double the regular
price on Sunday. Here was Anthony, too drunk to acknowledge the arrival of his latest obligation – his son, the sissy white boy – “Precious,” Jeremiah had
called him.

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