Will You Be Mine?
Price: $26.95, 312 pp., hardcover
Barry Beckham?s first novel in 20 years takes on an old theme with a new
approach. Will You Be Mine? is the distinguished novelist?s stab at
presenting a different kind of love story. ?I wanted a black male narrator
who is tender and passionate,? says Beckham. ?At the same time,? he adds,
?my main character encounters the usual absurdities that come with being
a black male in twentieth century America.?
His narrator is a 50-year-old African-American whose third wife, Chinita?twenty years younger?has just died after a painful bout with ?the disease that keeps growing.? Caught in Washington, DC traffic and listening to talk radio as he drives toward his beach house, the narrator has the perfect audience?a sympathetic Teddy bear.
His rumination is really a description of his long search for his soul mate, his earth angel. It has taken more than half of his life to find her. His search takes on surreal, comic and tragic tones as he negotiates his way through a society that seems obsessed with stifling and subjugating his manhood. For the African-American male in the last half of the twentieth century, says Beckham, it is a painfully difficult challenge trying to foster a loving, tender relationship filled with passion and joy.
I was eight when I first discovered love?s pain. Now understand me: love itself is an exhilarating bath that can cover your being in continuous, undulating waves of bliss. I have always believed that. But the pain comes from the separation, from the resulting chill that sweeps over you in love?s absence. You stand shivering alone in this new circumstance of need, your knees knocking, teeth chattering as if stranded naked on a beach in winter. Where is the towel of comfort that will keep you warm in this new circumstance of painful need?
Maybe that is why I wouldn?t stop laughing on that last ride with Yo-Yo. I could, but I wouldn?t. I wouldn?t stop laughing because I was afraid that the pain would catch up with both me and Yo-Yo. He might think that I wasn?t having fun. So every time he turned around to look back at me, I sent forth another burst of deliriously loud squeals, throwing back my head. Yo-Yo pulled me down the pot-holed road, and I held on to the wagon's sides as if I were steering. Teddy hopped along the side, his head bobbing up and down as if he had only three legs. Yes, Booby he was before you; a playful Airedale who loved to lick my face.
I threw back my head to look at the darkening summer sky. Yo-Yo grabbed at his cap while pulling the handle of the wagon and looking back at me with those bushy eyebrows. I laughed: ha ha ha ha ha. I laughed some more. Ha ha ha ha ha. How I wanted Yo-Yo to know that I so treasured these moments when he pulled me down bumpy Hudson Street in my wagon. I could hear the screeching of my voice in front of me, could feel my cheeks pushing up into my eyes as I just laughed...just laughed. No matter that I couldn?t possibly keep laughing nonstop all the way to the end of the road and back?that didn?t matter. No, I wouldn't stop laughing. I had been injected with nerve gas, and it had intoxicated me, lifting me into absolute rapture. I would never stop laughing.
There was too much pain, too much sadness within that exquisite moment of Yo-Yo?s pulling me down the rocky red road, the tall columns of dark trees swaying on either side, faithful Teddy trotting at my side. I was so afraid that he might be disappointed. No thought was more frightening to me. Not my Yo-Yo. How could I disappoint him? And so I laughed...and laughed.
We zoomed down the road, over the red rocky plastic that I never really understood. It wasn't exactly rock, it wasn't exactly plastic, it wasn?t exactly dirt. Somehow Yo-Yo had packed the material into the road until it had taken on the coloration of the plastic. And the plastic had taken on the constitution of rock. The mixture was a rocky red road, sometimes with rocky projections the size of a fist jutting out of the ground and sending the wagon rocking precariously side to side or leaping up and forward, coming down with a crash that burned my backside. I laughed at that too.
And the plastic had come from the plant where Yo-Yo worked. He took me there on some Saturdays. Everything in the long building?the walls, the floor, the ceiling?had a red, pinkish tint that glowed. The men standing with shovels would be coughing into handkerchiefs and looking up with wild eyes as if they were in a cold coal mine. Red dust covered their heavy pants and boots.
Then another room had jagged stalactites of plastic sticking down from the walls like huge icicles. This room, large as an indoor sports arena, was where the huge yellow trucks moved their metallic arms like insect tentacles over the floor to lift and throw the mounds of plastic balls and blocks that were set up by the workers.
I think Yo-Yo was in charge of something. Men in plastic cubed hats would come up to him with deference, then stand attentively while Yo-Yo talked to them with his hands on his hips. Sometimes he would drop his arms and shake his hands which hung from his wrists as if rubber. They nodded their chins up and down, then raised an open palm upward in a salute, and then turned to march away snappily, resolutely.
Now thunder roared through the darkening skies and we were rushing back up the road in an attempt to beat the rain. And I was laughing, and Yo-Yo was pulling and running, and saying, AWe don?t want to be caught in the rain, do we?@ and Teddy was prancing in a zig zag and I kept laughing, accelerating the frequency of my squeals as Teddy barked and a team of blue jays shrilled over our heads. Every time Yo-Yo looked back at me?he was turned sideways and pulling?I laughed.
Suddenly, I started coughing. Out of breath, I could not laugh any more. My throat tightened and a snake of air, more than I could swallow, rushed down to my stomach so fast that I gasped. What was the sound I was now making, I thought? It wasn?t a laugh. It was a combination of a cough and gargle. I became afraid of myself as I reversed my position and looked at myself from Yo-Yo?s eyes. I looked terrible: face red, eyes wildly bright, lips trembling. He stopped, and picked me up.
?What?s the matter? Get down Teddy, you know better,? he said as he held me up and looked in my eyes. I started crying. Now we were walking back and I was in his arm, looking over his shoulder at the road and its column of trees, his stubble face scratching my cheeks, he pulling the wagon.
?Get away from my feet, Teddy,? I tried to yell, but my voice tumbled down the road.
When we got to the front gate, I got down from his arms and parked my wagon under the porch. Aunt Iceland stood at the door as I held Yo-Yo?s hand going up the steps. The drizzling started.
Toothpick hopping from shiny red lips, ?I thought I was going to have to come out there with an umbrella,? she said. ?How you like your last wagon ride?? she looked down at me, rubbing my head as I squeezed past her to get inside. ?I know you gon? miss him,? she said, to Yo-Yo as I headed for the bathroom. I closed the door.
?That boy like a son to me,? I heard him say as I looked in the mirror at my hands washing my face. I was transported back to that earlier day in the week when, in the midst of the handful of white envelopes in Yo-Yo?s hand was a small pink rectangle from which he had pulled a little sheet. In the center of the living room, Aunt Iceland and I waited in front of him to receive our designated portions of the newly delivered mail while Yo-Yo stood balancing the envelope stack and reading the pink letter. He scratched his head, frowned, and then sat down as if he had been knocked over the head.
?Is it the electric?? Aunt Iceland had asked, standing over him now and pulling the other letters from his hands. ?I thought we sent that money order.?
?No, worse than that?it?s the bus.?
?Bus? What are you talking about??
?They sending his fare next week. Clara got a job in the World?s Playground. She ready for him.?
?Oh...oh Jesus,? she had said, sitting down with a heavy sigh, the other envelopes scattered in her lap.
I looked now in the mirror at my puffed-up eyes and listened to the drumbeat of rain on the roof. I could see him holding me as if the mirror framed a photograph of us, was a screen of the past, of rapidly changing scenes featuring Yo-Yo and me. I was tempted to reach out and touch Yo-Yo?s beard in the glass. Like a collage, his bushy eyebrows stared back at me from different moments, one setting after another collapsing into each other?one moment after another where he was a warm cloak of affection around my shoulders. The collage began to rotate until the scenes went back into themselves and got smaller. Yo-Yo?s beard, his bushy eyebrows, his suspenders melted down to the size of an apple, and then a coin, and then he disappeared out of the mirror and I was looking at my puffy eyes again. Yo-Yo was gone from the screen.
My knees felt weak, so I sat down on the toilet seat with my shoulders heaving. I didn?t want to leave Yo-Yo. I didn?t want to leave. They came in and pulled me by my arms, dragging me out of the bathroom as I screamed that I would not go.