by Suki Wessling
"Laeticia Lincoln-Wu, that's a funny name," the man across the table says to her.
"Mr. Johnson, if we could get down to business," Tish starts, holding her face calm and blank.
"Sorta like you're walking down the street and some dude calls out, 'Laeticia Lincoln, whoo-oo!'" the man continues. His eyes drift over the wall behind her. His body sways with his eyes' drift as if he is aboard a boat.
Laeticia looks down at her papers and sees his hands, which rest lightly on the table. His fingers twitch as if in memory of playing a guitar long ago. His skin is coarse, and his fingernails are yellowish claws. She almost jumps when the hands are pulled from her view and the man lays his ear to the table.
"I can hear you," he tells her. She doesn't know what he means, and reminds herself that it's not her job to find out.
"Now, Mr. Johnson. Why don't you relate the entire incident to me as you remember it."
Surprisingly, he sits up obediently and starts into a narration Tish is sure he's told before. An "it's not my fault," "it musta been some other tall, skinny black man, you know how they think we all look alike," "even if I did stole the car, I didn't shoot the lady" narration that followed the path of his guilt, bravado, and regret rather than straight chronology.
Tish found herself listening "with half an ear," as Benji called it when he was a small boy, and with the other half she imagined herself standing and addressing the judge.
"We know this man's guilty, we know he's no good. Let's just lock him up and find someone we can help," she hears herself saying.
Then she hears a chorus of voices, the ones she carries around with her like her father carries a Walkman and a tape of "Favorite Gospel Tunes" in his pocket.
"Lay-ticia Lincoln, you must love your brother," she hears.
And "even the guilty deserve a fair trial."
And "it's the man that's keeping me down."
But no, that is her client Johnson, who has drifted from narration into philosophical meandering, his eyes rolling toward the ceiling and his hands once again twitching on the table. Laeticia, true to her professional training, even takes copious notes when her mind is elsewhere, and she looks down to see that she has written, "Check on the liquor store" with emphatic black underlines as if this were more important than the alibi he gave or the small note in the right-hand corner of her page that says, "persecution."
"How long you been doing this?" the man asks, as Tish shuffles through her papers, trying not to look at the twitching hands in front of her.
"Four years," Tish answers, looking up into his eyes. "I was in private practice before."
She likes to be straightforward with her clients, as long as she doesn't reveal anything too personal or vital. She has been told that this is "getting involved" and should be avoided, but she finds them more willing to open up to her when she does. Her last client asked her if she liked to take hot baths. "Yes," she said, and he admitted that there was nothing more that he wished in this world than to sit in a Jacuzzi "and float far, far away."
"So you gave it all up to help the black man," Johnson says. The tone is flat, denying the anger and curiosity that must lie beneath.
Tish nods and smiles. She wonders if some of her clients would be happier with a white man than a black woman. She senses sometimes that they fear her, a mother or sister figure, someone who could bark out their name and call them to judgment.
"You good?" the man asks.
"I do my best," Tish answers, so as not to give false hope. Johnson looks her up and down once before his eyes drift back toward the ceiling. He wipes his face with the back of his hand.
"Miss Laeticia Lincoln-Wu you think they gonna send me to the chair?" Johnson says. It's not really a question that he wants answered, now or ever.
* * * *
Laeticia has distinguished herself at her job; a dispassionate advocate for her clients, they often assign her the hardest cases. They don't get so many murders here (she thanks God she didn't get the job in Oakland), but she gets a large portion of the ones that come through. She also gets rapists, though many women in her position avoid them, and other sex offenders. Unlike other women lawyers she has known, who dress dowdy or mannish as a shield against their clients, Laeticia dresses to feminine perfection. It is this perfection that is her armor. A red suit, skirt cut above the knees, matching red pumps, red fingernails, perfect eye make-up that never smears (she swears by one brand), hair swept into a relaxed but somehow solid French twist, a small diamond and her wedding band, a small gold watch, and earrings--the earrings make the outfit, honey, her mother used to say--hard buttons that make sure her ears stay firmly attached to her head.
Nothing can fly off, run, tear, fall to pieces, crack or peel. No one could say whether what they see is makeup or perfect warm-complected skin. No one could guess where she comes from or what kind of food she might like or what she might look like in a bathing suit with her hair down. She speaks in the soft, firm tones she learned in college and only once in a while, when talking to a client who reminds her of her brother or the house where she grew up, does she say "aks" instead of "ask." She does not wince when she does it. Unless there were a tape recorder running, no one would believe what they had heard, and the consonants would be transposed to their correct order.
Laeticia to work-associates and acquaintances, Ms. Lincoln-Wu to judges and other officials, Tish to her husband, and Super-Mom or Lawyer-Mom-at-Large to her son, Tish is almost always wearing a mask of some sort, a brace to keep her back straight and blinders to stop her gaze from wandering. There are only a few people she feels completely at ease with: Her father, Sam, her son, and a fellow defender she knows from law school, Morton Mikkelhof. She has friends that she talks to more than this list of men; she spends more time in her office or with clients than with any of them; they may not all know they are on the list, so discreet is she about how she shows it. Her father, who calls her Sunflower, is shy around her, his big-time lawyer daughter. Long retired from his occupation as a janitor, her father and mother still live in Los Angeles, and he refuses all offers from his daughter to "set them up someplace nice." She knows, though (from her mother), that he boasts about her to his friends and won't let any of them tell him what might be wrong with going off to college, marrying a Chinese, and ending up a lawyer.
Sam, of course, knows that he's on the list, though he might be surprised to know that he shares it with others. Sam allows himself his only vanity for having caught and kept her, Laeticia thinks, like some sort of rare bird. But this doesn't bother her because like a collector who knows his bird intimately, Sam is Laeticia's greatest confidante. She knows that he can see her flaws and love her still, unlike her father who believes there are no flaws.
And Mort--how does one describe Mort except to say that he is everything a Jewish lawyer from the Bronx should be? Kind-hearted but possessed of a sense of humor that has reduced at least one judge to tears, chaotic in dress and manner but always aware of the location of anything (even papers buried in the mountain that is his desk), spiritual in a sense that Laeticia never was exposed to in her Baptist upbringing. In one breath he will curse his religion and thank God for being a Jew and Laeticia, try as she might, can never get used to his contradictions. Maybe that was why they never became lovers, as anyone might have expected them to; Laeticia needs solidity in her life and every time she reaches out to touch Mort, he hops behind her with a giggle and leaves her reaching for air.
And finally there was Benji; finally because she waited for him for so long. Contrary to the theory of feminists whose articles she has read, her longing (from the age of fifteen) to have a child was not instilled by any cultural construct to "keep her in her place." Her parents always said that their pretty, shy, intelligent daughter would "go somewhere," as if anywhere was better than where they were. She had not been brought up fatherless and without the model of a "proper" family. No--Laeticia just knew that she wanted to have a child, someone who would be close to her and bound to her as she was to her parents. She'd do it with a husband, or she'd do it without. Luckily, Laeticia tells herself now, with the benefit of hindsight, Sam had come along and offered an umbrella instead of running back to the physics lab in fright.
But once her thoughts are led onto Benji they are hard to pry away. She sits in her office after her interview with Johnson and gazes at a photo. It is Benji, grinning and hamming it up for the camera. He is pulling something toward him on his left, but that side of the picture has been cut off to fit it into the small frame.
That's why I cut it off, Laeticia thinks.
It is not because on the other side of the picture was the figure of Cynthia, who was reluctantly being pulled into the camera's view and whose shining eyes are focused on Benji, Tish's Benji, rather than on the camera that is poised to catch her.
* * * *
"Mistah Sam call and say he be late and I tell him is OK, you late as well," stammers Chi breathlessly as Tish enters the house. Chi always talks to Tish as if she has just come up a flight of stairs to find something awesome and wholly unexpected at the top. Sam explains to Tish, who finds Chi's manner a bit unnerving, that she looks up to Tish and hopes one day to have her poise and elegance. This knowledge Sam has culled in bits and pieces as he tries to converse with Chi in his rudimentary, childish Chinese. Tish likes to hear him speak Chinese, with all his American "um's" and "OK's," but she can't quite believe him about Chi. Chi was a motherly type when they hired her when Benji was two, now she is fast on her way to becoming grandmotherly without any of the other accomplishments she professed interest in at her interview. Tish is exasperated at her English--which has not improved in spite of the classes they send her to--and her general lack of initiative. She'd only wanted to hire an immigrant if she could feel that she was helping, not hindering, the person's future. Sam tries to comfort Tish by telling her that Chi "would be a maid in any language" but Tish worries that if they ever let her go, she'd be no better off than she was fifteen years ago.
"She'd be better-fed than when we hired her," Sam jokes, but Tish can't be that dismissive about it. She admits that it may in part be based on her own prejudices--the Chinese do seem smarter than other people, she insists--and she finds it hard to give in as Sam does and assume that his "distant cousin" (as Sam calls her; her name is Wu as well) is "a bit dim in the lightbulb department."
"Thank you, Chi," Tish says, hesitating before deciding not to ask where Benji is. "When did he say he'd be home?"
"He say seven clock but is seven thirty already," Chi answers like a worried mother.
"It's OK, Chi, I'm sure he'll be home soon," Tish says.
She turns to go into the living room and she knows that Chi is hesitating, wanting to offer her a drink or a massage. But Tish has forbidden any such treatment, always hearing her chorus breaking into refrains of "yassuh, Massa" when Chi performs any chore more personal than doing the laundry.
She drops her briefcase, falls onto the couch, kicks off her shoes, and unbuttons the top of her jacket. Underneath she wears a sheer blouse and lace camisole that no one at work ever sees, but they feel pleasantly scratchy and remind her that she does have skin, however thick it may have to be in her line of work.
As she sighs and relaxes into the cushions, she realizes how tired she is, how she has been holding her shoulders tense and upright and how just scrunching her face moves muscles that have been as still as death since that morning.
She closes her eyes and sees--not Benji, who she is trying to conjure, but--Johnson: his quivering hands, his yellow hooked nails with the stain of poverty under them. Despite appearances, Tish was surprised to read his age on the arrest report: Twenty-seven. Ten years older than Benji. Ten short years, Tish reminds herself, because lately she sees how years, once a great measure of time, become almost meaningless. She tries to imagine Benji at twenty-seven, tries to think where she'd like him to be.
This used to be a simple game, a relaxing one.
"What are you going to grow up to be?" she'd ask Benji.
"I'm not going to grow up!" he might answer.
Or, "I'll be a scientist like Daddy."
Or, "I'm going to be Superman and save the world."
Depending on the answer she'd quiz him.
"What kind of science will you do?" she might ask.
"Time science," he'd giggle.
"That's where you try to find time!"
Or one time she said, "So you're going to be Peter Pan?"
"Peter?" he asked with wide eyes.
"Peter," she reminded him. "You remember."
"Oh, yes," he'd answered seriously. He pulled out the elastic front of his pants and leaned over to show her. "Peter," he announced.
She collapsed in laughter and he was so pleased with himself he went off to show Chi, who learned some new vocabulary. Sam must have taught him that word, Tish explained to Chi, who made a big deal of it and said to Benji, "Wish I could have one, too."
"One too," Benji went around saying for the rest of the day. "Peter one two."
Tish sighs into the couch and wishes it were so easy now to imagine Benji at twenty-seven and to talk of "Peter" as what it was then, a rather amusing part of his anatomy. Now, Tish wishes for the days when mothering was so much simpler, now he has withdrawn from her and sinks into his newly-developed shoulders if she so much as mentions how he's grown or asks him about his schoolwork. She feels as if she must have done something to deserve this treatment, but all common sense tells her to consider it just a part of growing up.
What common sense was never formed to deal with is Cynthia, for whom there is no title in the common language of society: neighbor, though they seldom see each other, famous person, though few people Tish knows know of her (besides Mort, who calls Cynthia "a minor talent" to soothe Tish's ire), friend to Benji, lover.
This is where Tish's grasp of the situation collapses, where she cannot reach when she tries to talk of the problem to the men on her list. With Sam, she circles around the problem. With her father, she avoids it altogether. With Mort, she speaks in cloaked terms of "their odd friendship," and Mort has either never noticed that there was more, or has refrained from asking.
And with Benji, with Benji she doesn't speak of it at all except in mother terms: When are you going to be home? Who are you going with? Don't you think you ought to make friends your own age? If you're not going to make a career of the piano obsession, why do you still take lessons? If you're not going over for a lesson, why are you going? Why?
Tish senses that she is falling into an uneasy sleep and she does nothing to stop herself.
"Mom, total Zen relaxation!" Tish hears Benji exclaim through the darkness of her sleep. She claws her way back to consciousness: Johnson's claws, she thinks.
"Ben," she says, hoping he will stop and not crash his way up to his room as usual.
"Yeah?" He stops in front of her. She opens her eyes and he is so tall above her, his jeans too tight.
"Peter!" she remembers him saying to Chi. Does he remember that? Will there ever be a time when they will be able to laugh about it together?
"Where have you been?" She tries to muster a pleasant smile, but she feels cased in hardening concrete.
"Out." Benji turns to go.
"Yes." He has the intonation of an exasperated schoolboy. He is a schoolboy, Tish reminds herself.
"Come talk to me for a while." She props herself up on her elbows and looks up at him. He shifts in his tennis shoes uncomfortably.
He pulls a chair over close to the couch as Tish sits up and smooths her hair.
"What's up?" he asks her.
"I just haven't talked to you lately."
"You've been busy."
Tish is pleased that he has noticed. "Yes," she explains. "With this Johnson case."
"Is he gonna fry?" he asks lightly, the way a schoolboy would.
"Ben!" Tish exclaims.
"Well. . ."
"This is a human being we're talking about."
"Yeah." His eyes wander away from her. Like most people, Tish thinks, he doesn't want to think about that. He doesn't have to face it the way she does. "But he's hardly Mr. Wonderful," Benji adds.
"Is that any reason to talk about him like he's a chicken?" Tish demands.
He hangs his head to hide a little grin. "No," he says, looking up again with the proper grave look appropriated from his warehouse. This is the last thing Tish wants; she tries to echo his little grin.
"No," she says. "He's not Mr. Wonderful. But he has a mother. He has at least two children."
"Well, that he knows about." The little grin appears again. The last thing Tish wanted to talk to him about was sexual exploits. "Benjamin?"
"Mom?" He's being rather patient with her, Tish thinks.
"I wish you could understand what it's like for him, for. . . people."
Benji sits back and crosses his arms against the onslaught. She has brought him up to be a middle-class white boy, Tish thinks, and that's what he is. Everything from his dress to his speech to his manners belies the heritage of his parents. He could be white if not for his warm skin and tilted eyes. He could be Cynthia.
But no, why did she think that? Tish is well aware that Cynthia, like herself, is something quite different from what she makes available to the world. Benji has told her about Cynthia's working class upbringing, about the husband and "the sleazy side of the classical music scene," as Benji called it. Tish also knows that people she sees around her every day, these people of four-bedroom homes and manicured lawns, hide what other people display for viewing. She will never forget the awkward scene when a neighbor spoke to her in circular riddles. "If a nice woman wants to get away, I mean if she doesn't want any publicity but you know, it's necessary that she get away. I mean, because if she needs to seek. . . asylum, and she doesn't want her husband to know. . ." A woman of Tish's background would be more likely to say, "The bastard's beating me and I wanna see him dead."
Though she knows all this Tish sees a lack of connection in her son, a passivity that scares her.
"I don't need a lecture about your humble roots, Mom," Benji says impatiently. "I've seen them."
Of course he has, and worse. She took him on a tour of the L.A. neighborhood where she grew up and was shocked to see everything had deteriorated, grown inward, smaller. It was not just her imagination, her father told her. Things had changed in recent times. Her parents had moved into a different neighborhood. Benji got to see what they were moving away from.
But he only saw, Tish thinks, he didn't understand. He thinks of the stories like the horror movies boys his age seem to like: You watch them, and then you go home to your warm bed and only suffer in your dreams.
"It's not my. . . humble roots I care about," Tish tries to explain. "I just want you to know who you are."
"And who am I?" he might have said defiantly if he were older, if he were not prone to sink away from her rather than facing up and fighting with her.
He merely protests weakly. "Mom!"
And then, as if to save his son from further squirming on the inquisition chair, Sam slams in the front door and brings cheer back to the household.
They eat dinner. Benji has a chopstick-fight with Sam and Sam tells a story about a famous scientist he had lunch with and who turned out to be a less than stellar personality.
"I didn't know anyone who could write such elegant theory could be a pig," Sam says, and Benji demonstrates by stuffing his mouth full of duck and chewing loudly.
Chi comes in and addresses Benji in Chinese, as she was instructed long ago to do. Benji feigns misunderstanding (though Tish thinks that he understands more than he lets on), and teases Chi about asking him if he was "done torturing dinner." The entire family (Chi as well) laughs because it is an old reference, the sort of thing, Tish muses, that keep families together. Sam remembers out loud, though none of them need their memories refreshed, how Benji read his favorite book to Chi and explained all of the puns.
"You see here?" he tried patiently to explain. "She told the maid to draw the drapes so she drew the drapes!"
Chi, as if practicing her verb declensions, went away muttering, "draw, drew, draw, drew" and it took an explanation from Sam to finally (days later) elicit a tittering laugh. "I get it, Mistah Ben! I get it!" she giggled.
And then it was years again (when Chi remembers anything she remembers it well) before the whole family could convince her that "draw" was a specific verb for drapes and that one could not draw a drawer (as right as that sounds), draw a door, or really much of anything else.
By the end of the meal, as often happens, Tish feels her mood lightening. "Breaking bread," such an integral part of her Christian upbringing, is no less important in her family now. But now (as she has tried to explain to her parents and failed; they live in a world of rules and boundaries with which they are comfortable), their traditions are formed more organically; they spring from the family itself. Tish is even comfortable with the presence of Chi, whose back bent over a difficult task no longer reminds Tish of her father having spent his life wiping out toilets. Indeed, with age that shame she'd felt has melted into a sort of pride. She finds herself echoing her father when countering Mort's assumptions that such services are humiliating.
"Someone got to do it," her father likes to say.
But as Chi clears their plates it turns out to be a fragile sort of happiness, for, once released from his familial duties Benji clumps up the stairs and disappears into his room with a slamming door, and Tish loses all the reinforcement the pleasant dinner gave her.
Sam, whose custom is to retire to his study until bedtime, instead follows Tish into the living room with several pieces of her favorite candy and a hesitant smile.
"Johnson?" he asks, probing her somber thoughts, and she considers, who? before answering, "Oh, no. . . well, maybe."
Sam sits close next to her like an infatuated schoolboy and dangles a piece of candy in front of her nose. "A bit of chocolate to keep up your lovely complexion, my lady?" he says, and she finds a smile, again at the shared tradition that carries her past difficult spots.
She chews the candy thoughtfully and then finally gives voice to her true worry (which is not Cynthia, though that is a subject that will have to be broached; which is not Johnson, as much as she cares for his life, any life, and her career). "I'm worried about Benjamin," she says, and she knows Sam will not reply until she has explained her frame of mind.
"I'm worried that he will be a black man--that he is a black man--and that he doesn't have the equipment necessary to know what that means. I know we made the right choice out of all of the less-than-perfect options we had, but when I see someone like Johnson, I remember how imperfect all those options were.
"We considered living in an urban area, where he wouldn't be so different from the other kids, from the outside at least. But then we thought of the flip side of that, which was that he would be different, and at some point he would have to face it. We thought, how much better it would be to bring him up somewhere where from day one he was different, and he learned that. Where he would also be free, relatively, of the problems that black boys have in urban areas, the politics, the confusion."
"But I'm not so sure now." Tish hesitates. Is she saying what she wants to say? "I wonder if he needs Johnson, if he needs to identify with that part of the African-American experience. Does this make sense?"
Sam is lost in his thoughtful scientist pose, one finger on his chin, lower lip grasped between his teeth.
"I mean," Tish breaks in as he is about to speak, "have we given him enough, what he needs?"
"How can we?" Sam answers slowly. "How can we know?"
His questions, which would not satisfy someone seeking a definitive answer, comfort Tish. Often what she needs to know is quite simply that someone else doesn't know, that there is no answer. Her Christian upbringing tried to instill in her the belief that there is right and wrong, her training as a lawyer told her that things can be true and false. But Tish's own experience tells her that everything is shades of grey. Like Benji's skin, neither brown nor yellow. For that matter the very presence of words that do not describe what she sees: Sam with his black hair, she with hers, his brown eyes and hers, his brown skin and hers (nearly the same color after a week in the sun).
"Maybe it was the right choice," she says, thinking, Where else would we belong?
And Sam echoes her. "We don't fit into the slots people make and so we'll just have to carve out our own."
And then he strokes her forehead, kisses her ear, and says, "And I think Benji is doing just fine."
Tish thinks of Cynthia, thinks, Yes, maybe he is, and buries herself in the clean smell of Sam's clothing.
* * * *
Tish likes to go to bed before Sam; she likes the coolness of the sheets on her legs and the sound of her own breathing. It is often this way; he goes to bed very late, sleeps a few hours, and sometimes wakes her up with little bites on the neck a good amount of time before her clock is set to go off. She loves to wake up to him, the incredible warmth of his body and the way he smells like newborn kittens when she wraps her body around his.
The phone rings as soon as she is in bed and she picks it up, knowing that Sam in his office will ignore it, and having heard Benji talking on his line (to Cynthia, no doubt) as she passed his room on the way to hers.
"Hello?" she says, and the answer comes very quickly.
"Tish, I just got some information I thought you should know." Mort's voice is devoid of laughter.
"Tell me," Tish says impatiently. She likes to hear bad news quickly. She sits up in bed and loses the joy of the cool sheets on her legs.
"Your client, Johnson," Mort starts. He stops. He knows she has been wrapped up in the case, but does he know what else has been going on? Tish would not put it past him. "I just got word that he's dead. His cellmate strangled him."
Tish thinks of Johnson's perpetually dancing fingers, still.
"He said Johnson was laughing. He said, "I just wanted him to shut up."
"Laughing?" In spite of herself, Tish feels a smile coming to her face.
"Yeah. . ." Mort clears his throat. "Tish?"
"Johnson died laughing."
Tish feels a laugh of her own bubbling up in her throat. Why? Why laugh at this man's death? She thinks of his bravado, his guilt, his past, all the things they didn't have time to talk about. She thinks about Benji pulling Cynthia into the picture. He wanted her there. She wanted to be there, it was clear from her eyes, but knew she shouldn't be.
"I'm glad for him," Tish says quietly. That's all she can think to say. That's all she can think.
She assures him that she's fine, sets a lunch date for tomorrow, and then sinks back into the sheets. Benji's life, she wonders, what will it be?
"I'm going to be Superman and save the world," he said.
"Save the world?" she answered with big eyes.
"I'm gonna save all the animals what comes extinct," he promised her. "And I'm gonna save you if you fall in a car over the cliff."
"I'm going to fall off a cliff?" Tish laughed and wondered where he'd seen this.
"Not if I'm there," he bragged. "I'm gonna be there and I'm gonna catch your car and I'm gonna fly up way high and we'll end in Disneyland."
Tish looks around the room where she has slept for ten years. Their closet doors are polished cherry; big French doors lead out to a balcony. There is a faint smell of the incense Chi burns when they are not at home. She feels small and safe in their king-size bed.
"Right back where you started," she whispers to herself as she puts out the light.