Authors: Glen Duncan
He feels sorry for his body that's served him so well all his life. You forget the personality of your thumb, kneecap, ankle, until someone has them at his mercy. At the same time rage because what can a thumb or kneecap or ankle do but force on you in exhaustive detail the report of what's happening to them? This is the soul's bargain with the flesh: for kisses and handshakes, the taste of fresh strawberries, hot sand underfoot or a snowflake on the tongue it risks the worst that can be imagined. Does everyone, he wonders, feel the way he does now that this has happened, that he's always known it would? The moment they laid hands on him in Barcelona (it was just that: one hand on his shoulder, one on his wrist, a dark car liquidly materializing alongside) his first thought was that the thing he'd been expecting all his life had finally come around. He'd known it would find him in the way he'd known someone like Selina would find him. Harper even looked familiar. He recognized him as he'd recognized Selina the first time he walked into Harry's and saw her holding a drink and laughing sly-eyed at someone's joke. You had these shadowy certainties from before birth, the dark inhabitants of Wordsworth's clouds of glory. Your body arrived with its strands of DNA, your soul with its strands of myth. Or so he might have put it in the days when he believed in the soul.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere
, Rumi said.
They're in each other all along
. When he'd first embarked on his fake conversion Augustus had looked forward to revisiting Rumi as a friendly face in a dour crowdâ
I am ashamed to
call this love human
and afraid of God
to call it divine.
He did revisit him, but in secret. His Islamist brothers had as much contempt for The Mevlana's poetry as they had for Playboy bunnies and The Rolling Stones. Heretical Sufi delusions of becoming one with God, rampantly erotic language, music, dance, contemplationânothing but insidious distraction from the real job in hand: militant revolution and the establishment of Islamism worldwide. Love (like humor, like art, like sex) fed imagination, induced play, swelled ambiguity. To Husain and the literalist crew it was worse than useless, it was subversive.
What are you thinking? Selina had asked him one night in the small hours. They were at her apartment, in bed. It was winter and the city was under three feet of snow. The building's thermostats were awry; it was too hot to cover even with a sheet. Augustus had got up and opened the window. Now puffs of snow-flavored air came in. Earlier that evening Selina had heard from her mother who'd had a call from Michael. He was in a military hospital with a broken leg. One of his buddies had snatched his helmet and thrown it up into a tree, where it had stuck. They'd tried everything, including shooting, to bring it down. In the end Michael had climbed up. A branch snapped and he fell. Selina was high on relief. On the phone with her mother she'd laughedâoh thank God, Mom, thank
(it was the first time Augustus had ever heard her address her mother with anything other than suppressed contempt)âthen when she'd put the phone down stood with her arms wrapped around herself. When he moved toward her she waved him away. Go and get some champagne. I want to
celebrate. No let's go out. Let's go to Harry's and get wasted. How long does a broken leg last?
They'd gone out, spent the evening in the bar with most of the usuals then sobered up with cheeseburgers, fries and vanilla shakes at the Cooper Square Diner. The snow and cold air had reinvented the city as an innocent thing. Selina bought the early edition of the
New York Times
on the way home. We'll just read the sports and the books. Just for one day we'll pretend everything's okayâokay?
What are you thinking? She was lying on her belly perusing the paper by the light of the bedside lamp. Augustus lay halfway down the bed, propped up on one elbow, caressing her ass, occasionally bending to kiss the sweat in the small of her back. In the eight months they'd been together he'd discovered the insufficiency of the flesh. Love demanded expression and the flesh did everything it could but it wasn't enough. Naturally: the flesh was of this world whereas the current that connected them came from whatever was beyond this world, flowed through them and back to its mysterious source. He'd stopped being surprised that he thought in these terms. They were ludicrous and inevitable. Love turned out to be the thing his life had been waiting for, the place for the
to rage. It had taken them five or six encounters after that first day of the Central Park rally to step forward and accept the intensity. An alternative would have been to step slightly to one side of it, this remarkable phenomenon of being in love, to walk it among their friends like a pet panther in a diamond collar. They were both furnished superficially with enough precocious cynicism. But more compellingly they were cursed with a sense of entitlementânot to wealth or power but to epic experienceâand
the sort of elitism that in the end asked what, if people like
weren't going to wreck themselves on it, was the
of love? So they'd given themselves to it, begun within days to enjoy casual telepathy, exclusively erotic at first but soon serviceable beyond the bedroom. And to both of them even this seemed a preliminary stage. Called alert clairvoyantly he'd turn to see her looking at him across a crowded room and both of them would feel beyond the thrill dread because however much of this they had they'd always want more and love being love would always give them more in strange and dangerous ways.
“What are you thinking?”
He was thinking, as he kissed her buttocks and stroked her thighs, that the world was the kind of place where while one person was doing this another person somewhere else would be having his fingers cut off or his eye gouged out or his daughter raped and mutilated in front of him.
“Muhammad Ali,” he lied. In this they were older than their years. For Christ's sake let's not tell each other the truth the whole time, Selina had said. Beauty trumps truth sometimes, that's just the deal. We've got good enough instincts to know when, and if we haven't we don't deserve each other.
“About the conviction?”
Muhammad Ali had been indicted for draft evasion in May. Augustus was an English and philosophy freshman at NYU and as a student in pursuit of a degree qualified for draft deferral until his studies were over. A feast of guilt for him and Selina. Though she wrapped her arms and legs around him and said they'll have to fucking kill me before I let them take you, he knew his being safe made her fear for her brother more acute. It won't come to
that, Augustus had said. I don't graduate till 'seventy-one for Christ's sake. That's a whole different decade. The war'll be over by then.
“About my mother's take on him, aside from that she'd marry him if he asked her.” He had to ration mentions of his mother when they were intimate like this. Selina knew it served him as a mild blasphemous aphrodisiac (even now he couldn't resist running his tongue gently over her anus) which was fine with her as long as it didn't begin to feel like a fetish. I'll do anything you like in the sack, she'd told him, as long as it's part of everything else. Do you understand? Anything as long as it doesn't become monolithic.
“And her take is? Other than her availability for marriage to him?”
“That his nobility embarrasses him into larger-than-lifeness.”
“You think this is a stunt?”
“No, I think it's for real. But he's jumping with a net. The lawyers know if it goes to the Supreme Court they'll rule in his favor. I think this is the Nation asking its highest-profile son to give whitey the finger on the big stage.”
She thought about it, turned a page of the
“Maybe,” she said. “God bless him anyway. I'd marry him myself, incidentally, so don't get complacent. That air coming in is like an angel.”
Augustus was only half paying attention. The thought of what some other person somewhere else was going though while he was lying here sipping from the cup of bliss not only wouldn't leave him alone but was stirring the blood in his cock. Somewhere back down his sexual line he'd discoveredâwith a feeling of coming deflatedly into his share of species inheritanceâthe link between
cruelty and arousal. God's lousy wiring or the Devil sneaking a hand in during a Divine nap.
“How come you never joined?” Selina asked him.
He laughed. “Oh, man.”
“I'll tell you something. I was there the night they arrested Johnson Hinton.”
“Get out of here.”
“I was maybe nine or ten. You know the story, right?
Selina twisted onto her side and got up on one elbow to look at him. “I know Malcolm X helped the guy sue the city for police brutality. Are you shitting me?”
“I was out on the street with three or four other kids, just mooching around doing nothing useful. Anyway there was a fight between a bunch of guys, God knows how it started, but two white cops broke it up and made a big deal of getting the bystanders to move on. Except some of the bystanders couldn't move on because they
there, right? Which left the cops feeling stupid. So they start getting heavy and this guy Hinton gets whacked over the head with a nightstick and taken away in a squad car. Turns out he's one of the Fruit of Islam. Word gets back to Temple Seven and half an hour later there's fifty of these motherfuckers soldiered up outside the police station.”
“Including Malcolm X.”
“Including Malcolm X. Us kids had followed the crowd that had drifted up to the precinct house. It was amazing. The cops were scared shitless. And Malcolm
to see the prisoner
he gets proper medical care, and lo and fucking behold an ambulance comes and takes brother Hinton away!”
“And you were there?”
“I was there. We traipsed up to Harlem Hospital, too, all the way up Lenox Avenue. People came out of their houses and out of bars and joined the march. I'd never seen anything like it. There was a pretty big crowd by the time we got to the hospital. More police arrived and told Malcolm to break it up, and Malcolm cool as a fucking cucumber says he'll cooperate when he's confident brother Hinton's getting proper medical attention. In the end they had to go and get the fucking
to come out and put his mind at ease.”
“You're amazing. I can't believe you never told me that.”
Augustus lifted her thigh and kissed her cunt, gently. (Each time he did something like this he knew he was taking a coin from their almost inexhaustible hoard of wealth.) In the whole time he'd known her he'd never seen her so at ease. Normally even stoned part of her kept vigil for her brother. But Michael had broken his leg and was not, for a while, going to get shot and killed. God bless the joker who tossed up the helmet.
“So how come it didn't inspire you to become a member?” she asked. “Seeing Black Power in action.”
“Well I was only ten years old. But actually it must have put a seed in there because a few years later I went to hear Elijah Muhammad speak. I was still only in my teens.”
“But you weren't convinced?”
. Not properly. I got some looks from the regularsâ”
“Your beautiful magician's eyes.”
“But in any case they kept talking about The White Man. Separating from the white man. My grandfather's the white man. My grandmother's the white man. My
's the goddamned white man.”
“And now your bitch is the white man. Come here.”
After they'd made love, Selina said: “We
marry him now.”
“Me and your mother. Me
your mother I mean. Could marry Muhammad Ali now. In a storm of publicity.”
because the U.S. Supreme Court had that year ruled that any extant antimiscegenation law contravened the Fourteenth Amendment and thus subverted the Constitution. Harry had framed a newspaper picture of the groundbreaking couple from Virginiaâthe aptly named Perry Loving and his beloved, Mildred Jeter (he was white, she was mixed African and American Indian)âand hung it above the bar. Until the ruling interracial marriage had been illegal in seventeen states, though New York wasn't one of them.
“You think he'd marry a skinny-legged thang like you?” Augustus said.
“Poor Seaborn must be turning in his grave,” Selina said. “Seaborn” was Seaborn Roddenberry, a Georgian Democrat in the House of Representatives in 1913 whose proposed bill against mixed marriage had been dug up and much quoted in the press during
. Selina had learned bits by heart. “âIntermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive,” ' she recited now, in an approximate southern accent, “âand averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant to the very principles of Saxon government.'” Augustus kissed her bare armpits. “âIt is subversive of social peace. It is destructive
of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beastsâ'” Augustus kissed down the length of her, lingered between her legsâ“âwill bringâ¦' umm ââ¦this nation a conflictâ¦a conflict as fatal as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania. Let usâ' slower. Yes, like thatââuproot and exterminate now this debasing, ultra-demoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosyâ¦' Oh that's nice. That's really very nice.”
The door opens and Harper walks in, alone, carrying a plastic bottle of Evian, which he puts on the table. Its condensation says
. He rights the chair next to Augustus then unfastens the cable between the two sets of cuffs. Augustus straightens his legs; jammed blood loosens, hurries into his thighs and calves. He thinks of a crowd pouring through a broken barrier.