At 7:00 AM the doorbell woke her. She pulled on her worn bathrobe and ran down the narrow stairs to the apartment entrance. A vague shape silhouetted against early light solidified into someone she knew—Charles.
“Carolyn,” he said, and then “Carolyn Weintraub. I’m in trouble. I don’t know where else to go.”
The words came out in a rush, yet after that he just stood there, a morning paper and a shopping bag full of clothes tucked under his arm.
Now she was awake. Carolyn ran her fingers through her tangled curls, hoping she looked all right, and opened the door wide.
“What in the world are you talking about?” she said.
“You don’t know what went down at Freeman? This could be dangerous for you, Carolyn.”
“So?” she said. “A friend needs you and you turn him into the street? For God’s sake, Charles Brown, too long since I’ve seen you, no matter what. Come on in.”
Charles stepped into the building, followed her up the stairs two at a time, and the second they got into her apartment, shut the door. He sank onto her soft brown Salvation Army couch, so far down that his knees almost hid his ears, just the way he used to look in her parents’ living room so long ago.
Handsome, always handsome, Carolyn thought. Tall and slender, skin the color of coffee and cream. His soft mobile lips quivered, and his dark brown eyes held onto a blank spot on her wall. Even his clenched fingers trembled. She sat down beside him.
“Turn on KPFA,” he told her. “Yesterday they were doin’ that wall-to-wall coverage of theirs, and that way you won’t just get the pigs’ version.”
Elbows braced on his thighs, he buried his face in his hands while she tuned in the radio:
Prison authorities at Freeman Penitentiary are still investigating the cause of yesterday afternoon’s explosion, which resulted in the deaths of four prison guards and two prisoners. The blast came while Nyame Jones, political prisoner known throughout the world, was being transferred from the visiting area back to his solitary cell in the Adjustment Center. Authorities have alleged that Jones, after taking the dead guards’ keys and releasing others from their cells, made a break for his own freedom across the middle of the heavily-guarded yard, where he was shot in the torso and the back of the head, from two towers at once. We received word some time ago, and we do not know if this is still the case, that the entire prison is on lockdown, with all inmates stripped naked and lying face-down while officials search for weapons.
Here the announcer cut off to read a new notice, his voice somber:
Nyame Jones, a leader of his people, has just been pronounced dead from gunshot wounds sustained yesterday in the disturbance at Freeman Penitentiary. Nyame Jones is dead.
Charles lifted a ravaged face and emitted a harsh sob.
“Add him to the list,” he said. His voice rasped like it was being drawn across sandpaper. “Malcolm, Martin, George Jackson. Fred Hampton and Li’l Bobby Hutton. So many black men dead and gone.” He got up to switch the radio off and sat back down on the sofa, elbows at his knees again, head hung down even further.
“God, Carolyn,” he mumbled. “I must have been about the last one to see the man alive.”
“You were in there?” she asked.
He spread the morning paper out on the low coffee table before them. She took in the headline: “Brown Sought for Freeman Murders—Warrant Says He Brought in Bomb.” She gazed at the picture underneath, a police mug shot of Charles with a huge head of hair, a patchy beard and an angry stare.
She swallowed hard and willed herself to stay composed. She read the whole article while his head rested on the sofa back, eyes closed, lids fluttering. The last time she had seen him was October, three months ago, right after her summer in the San Joaquin Valley with the United Farm Workers union. She ran into him, looking good as usual, at a party. A striking black woman hung on his arm, one of many companions he had over the years, all of whom, starting with Gwen Washington—especially Gwen Washington—made Carolyn feel plain.
Two days after that encounter, October 5, 1973, Carolyn had found out her mother had pancreatic cancer. By the end of November her mother was dead, just like that. Carolyn hadn’t regained her news habit yet. Otherwise she would have known, she told herself; otherwise this wouldn’t catch her so much by surprise.
She touched his knee. He didn’t wince or draw away, but he sucked in air like a man who was afraid he would drown. A violent breeze rattled the room’s wooden window frames.
What happened in Freeman? And what did Charles have to do with it? She wanted to ask him up front, but she stopped herself. Ever since the townhouse explosion and the bomb at the University of Wisconsin, the word among those who alluded to these things was always operate on a need-to-know basis. And for good reason: folks had died. First, three members of the Weather underground and then that innocent guy, who was working late at his lab. Stupid. Awful. Yet push the people around enough, and sooner or later they’ll get angry.
But Charles was a good person, and whatever he had done during that visit with Jones must have made sense. Probably nothing happened at all; probably he was being framed. She couldn’t find out now. When he wanted her to know, he would tell her.
“Have you eaten?” she asked instead. Charles shrugged his shoulders as though he could care less.
“Let’s talk it through,” she said in a quiet voice. “What are your choices?”
He opened his eyes and looked right at her, so upset that she expected tears. None came.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” he whispered. “I’ve got to run.”
“Oh God, Charles, this is too hard.” She wanted to take him in her arms like she would a child, but one look at his closed face told her that was impossible.
“Are you sure you have to leave?” she asked. “What if you turned yourself in?”
“Four pigs died in there, Carolyn. I’ll be their revenge.” He was still for a long moment. “I’ll join the black underground. But it’s gonna take time.”
If there was a black underground on the West Coast, she thought to herself, and if they didn’t hold Charles responsible for Nyame’s death. Would they trust him? Would he trust them?
“So we’ve got to figure out another place for right now,” she said in her best practical tone.
For the first time since her mother’s death, the crushing depression lifted. She had a reason to be here. She was needed. The trees outside the window, bare branches shifting, rattling in the winter wind, glittering in the chilly morning sun, seemed to have come alive.
“You don’t have a single idea of where to go?” she asked.
He was clutching his arms, shivering. The frigid air came right through the cheap window pane. They didn’t know how to build for the cold out here in California, she told herself. She had realized this after she got to Chicago for college. After Charles had cut her loose. She got up to turn on the heat.
“My cousin Stanley,” he murmured. “In Fresno. I think he’s my only choice.”
“Family though,” she said as she settled back onto the couch next to him, and drew her knees and feet up to the side. He didn’t move, but maybe he felt warmer with her close by. “Won’t the cops question him?” she asked.
“Pigs won’t find this guy. No one in the family but me even knows where Stanley lives.”
Carolyn had no idea whether Fresno was the best place. But if he couldn’t rely on political allies because the police would head right to them, and he couldn’t count on family or known friends for the same reason, where would he go? Where would she go if she had to disappear?
“Should you call Stanley first?” she asked.
“Can’t use the telephone here,” he told her. “You’re political. Might be tapped.”
“You could do it from a pay phone.”
“I don’t want to be out on the street in daylight,” he said.
The newspaper lay on the table between them, his picture staring up at them both.
“I could call, then,” she said.
“He’ll never trust all this coming from someone he doesn’t know. I can’t think of one single other person or place, Curly.” Charles pulled out the nickname he had given her when he was a Pepperdine man who knew how to tease a girl still stuck in high school.
Now, over a decade later, two years shy of thirty, a wave of old associations washed over her. Seventeen, and could not stop thinking about him. Fascination with the contrast in skin color, hair, facial features, anything and everything that had to do with race. Endless musings, all internal, never uttered, about what was similar—the skin not that much darker, the hair in tighter curls, that was all. And what was not—his nose and lips, so broad, so thick.
Obsession with a certain spot behind his collar bone, traced over and over with her finger whenever they made out, which was whenever they could. First in her mother’s living room as soon as the folks were safely upstairs; later in the family’s old Plymouth when she disobeyed orders not to see Charles. And in public, too. On the beach, in the park, anywhere he thought was safe enough. When they were alone, she felt unbelievably sexy. Nothing but awkward, though, whenever they were with his brother or friends. And agony if he ever asked her to dance, though it was all she wanted in the world. She was utterly clumsy, while he was unbearably cool.
The hurt when he stopped calling, more hurt when he showed up at the next party with Gwen Washington—white but tanned, tall, slender and sleek, with bangles on her arms. She would never forget how Gwen looked when she danced. Like all of them back then, long boots and short skirts, but no black tights to cover what lay between. Just snowy white underpants that flashed when Gwen gyrated, with her little up-and-down hop that meant no one could look at anyone else but her. And not just her, but that particular part of her. Carolyn had never seen anything so provocative in public, before or since. One glance at Charles’ face as he danced by Gwen’s side, slow and subtle, told Carolyn that if she had ever had him at all she had lost him now. After that she suffered for hours, spread across her childhood bed. She emerged into long solitary walks through her parents’ Baldwin Hills neighborhood, suffused with a vague excitement for what was to come. Charles had hurt her, yes, but he had also freed her to leave all that high school bullshit behind and get herself to the University of Chicago.
What about your elegant date at that party last fall, she suddenly wanted to hurl at Charles Brown? Not worth much if you can’t count on her in a pinch, is she? Face it, though, she told herself. This man she cared for was in her living room, on her couch, in despair.
She got up from the sofa and stood where Charles would have to look up at her, then took a deep breath.
“I’ll drive you to Fresno.”
For a second she thought he hadn’t heard, so she cleared her throat, prepared to say it again.
“You’d do that for me?” He gave out the soft exclamation and lifted his face. Next he was on his feet and hugging her, his lankiness awkward over her compact form. They stepped back from one another at once.
“But don’t use the phone, okay?” Carolyn said. “And let me cut your hair.”
“Hey girl, don’t you be takin’ no scissor to me. This is black folks’ hair.”
He bounded down the hall to the bathroom, and her heart soared in an absurd excitement.
“I’m gonna shave, that’s for sure,” he called back at her. “Quincy brought me a razor, but how about scissors and a hand mirror? I think I can clip this bush myself.” His voice was muffled; he must have found the shaving cream and lathered up already.
“The drawer to the right of the sink. You sure you don’t want help?”
“Naw, I can do it. Get your stuff together, Curly, let’s get on the road.”
She looked at her watch. Eight-fifteen. By ten they should leave, eleven at the latest, during that lull after the commute when the mothers and toddlers were on the streets. A glance in her bedroom mirror revealed adrenalin-pumped blue eyes staring out from under the loose mat of wild dark curls that had inspired the nickname. Fresno may only be a hundred miles from the Bay Area, but it hadn’t changed one bit since the fifties. Her friend at the UFW had told her that, so she would understand how to dress when they went to court to get the strikers out of jail. Now she would have to put on something more conservative than her usual flannel shirt and faded jeans.
She stripped off her clothes, while a list formed in her mind.
“Do we need more money?” she yelled down the hall.
“Always,” he replied, and she smiled. This exchange was familiar.
Go to the bank, squeeze in a load at the Laundromat. Better not stop for gas with Charles in the car. She could fill the tank while the clothes dried. God, though, all this would take time.
She pulled on stockings and shifted her body into a hardly-worn gray wool skirt, white jersey, black jacket, and black low-heeled shoes. She stepped in front of her full-length mirror, smoothing the jacket that ought to be ironed and crisp. Thinner than usual: the one benefit of being miserable about her mother. Her office clothes, which she hadn’t worn for two years, fit better than before.
If she hadn’t done anything illegal yet by having him in her house, she would the minute they walked out the door. Motherless child, with a fugitive on board.
She brushed at her hair to tame it, stuffed laundry into her duffel bag, called down the hall to tell Charles where she was going and headed out.
When she returned two hours later, he was at the door. He looked so different from the wild man who stared out from every news stand that relief swept over her.
“You’ve done it, Charles, truly.” She gave a soft whistle. “Straight as a ruler. Ready for that other world.”
Clean-shaven and close-clipped, dressed in creased tan slacks, white starched shirt, sports jacket of a chestnut and ocher weave, dark brown polished shoes, he appeared as respectable as he had seemed eleven years ago, when she first met him.
“You too, girl. Lookin’ good, lookin’ fine.” He waved a brown and yellow striped tie at her and lifted a wiry eyebrow to inquire whether he needed it. She shook her head, so he rolled it up and put it in a pocket.
“But what if we go into a restaurant, or you have to talk to your cousin in a public place?” she asked. “You don’t want someone who’s seen the mug shot to hear your first name.”
“Good point, Curly. I’ve always been partial to James myself.”
She was amazed at how quick he was, how eager to slip out of his identity. But then again, Charles had never been easy to pin down.
“Okay, so James it is. How about James Sweet?”
Sweet now, and he had always been sweet to her, even as he moved on. She had told her college roommate that Charles was the first boy she ever loved. Had he loved her back? Over the years, off and on, he kept in touch, so he must have cared for her in some way.
“James Sweet, not so bad,” he mused. “Not bad at all. I found me a satchel in the hall closet. Okay to take it?” She nodded. “Then let’s move, girl, before the police charge in your door.”
She ran to her bedroom, smoothed down her striped afghan as though it mattered to make her bed, grabbed some last things, and wrapped a small silver-framed picture of her mother in a sweater. She zipped the duffel bag tight and scribbled a note for her neighbor: “Rick, out of town for a while. Do you mind taking in my paper and the mail?”
That ought to do it; she didn’t owe him an explanation. When she left town, whatever friends she still had after dropping out of sight since her mother’s death would assume she had disappeared to continue grieving.
She bade a silent farewell to her room, shouldered her bag and met James in the front hall. Small suitcase in hand, bathed in sun from the high window that faced south, he still looked as though he would never get warm again.
The point of no return. Yet you had to help a friend in trouble, didn’t you? It wouldn’t be right to stop now. They started to tape the paper on Rick’s door, decided it ought to be in an envelope which Carolyn ran back to get, then clattered down the narrow staircase at last.
Keys in hand, Carolyn pretended to be confident while James blinked in the bright light. As she strode forward to unlock the back of her Volvo station wagon, a woman walked toward them. If the lady recognized him from the picture, Carolyn told herself, she would get him in the car and still speed straight out of town. But the stranger went by with a friendly nod. Her knees weak, she watched James put their luggage into the back.
A cloud bank massed in the west. She had her raincoat over her arm, but what about James? Not safe to chase one down now, they could buy things later if they had to.
She got in, reached over to open James’s door and started the engine. She knew her ’67 automobile needed warming up in the winter, but now that they were out here she couldn’t stand to wait. The motor coughed and the car jerked forward as she pulled away from the curb and headed for the freeway.