I notice the solitary figure sitting on a bench in front of a large department store. He is casually watching the people that hurry pass him, pretending to be unaware, rocketing by as they would a panhandler and his fast food, paper cup, held out in a wordless plea for attention.

      This man is no panhandler. The paper cup by his side still contains a swallow or two of coffee. He doesn't appear to want their attention or sympathy.

      He watches as waves of the nameless passersby move swiftly past him, traveling full speed from one unpleasant task or place to another, all carefully redirecting their gaze to avoid looking at him. They need not have bothered because they all look. Some try to steal a glance out of the corner of their eyes, but he is quick and he catches them before they can turn away.

      Others snap their heads around and look directly at him. Challenging him to say something, to do something so their festering anger may have vent. He looks at them and doesn’t say a word. They look away so fast that I fear that one will snap his neck.

      His eyes shine with profound amusement, as if listening to a joke told to him by angels, whispered when no one is watching. His mouth cracks a thin smile and he claps his hands once, noiselessly, when the storyteller reaches the punch line.

      He wears his hair slicked back. Ordinarily an unbecoming hair cut, for a black man, but somehow on him it looks natural. I can sense his strength and pride, blossoming like flowers in the desert, growing out of experiences from a time most won’t speak of. Bitter times of deep hurt and anger and pride and self-reliance and strength and power in powerlessness. For it was a time of boundless joy and great sadness. Success came slowly and at a price greater than many were willing to pay, (but heartache was free and plentiful).  He survived, and with each success those that would destroy him, died a little.

      His people, my people, worked hard and prayed hard and had to fight for everything we got.  The only thing eluding us was respect.  Sons of Ham we were called, skin made dark for disrespecting our father Noah. We know better and it is time to act like it. Give respect to receive respect, look a man in his eye and you can see his soul, judging from the people that I've been meeting lately, The Guff must be nearly empty.

      Back when separateness was the rule in America, we knew that would change, in the long heartbreaking fullness of time, and it did. We were welcomed when it was necessary; to give our lives for a group of states not yet a country; to beat down the Indian; defeat the Axis Powers and postpone the fall of Vietnam, we were welcome. We came to the fight willingly, this, after all, was our country too.  We fought valiantly and still we were denied the respect that was afforded our white compatriots.

      When it came time to go to school we were pointed to the door, and with a smile, told to go out the same way we came in. After a war, when it was time to go back to work, to rebuild America we were told, with a smile, that we weren't welcome; we were again told we didn't belong. When we wanted to play that most American game we were told, with a smile, we weren't good enough -- go play among you.  At the polling place were our government is shaped we were told, with a smile, not to bother -- things were going nicely -- our help wasn't needed. The question was nicely for whom? All of the smiles couldn’t hide the lies. All of the smiles couldn’t ease the hurt. All of the smiles couldn’t erase the anger of seeing the clerk that you just handed your application for a job, throw it into the trash. God, please forgive me, how I have learned to hate that smile.

      With careful study, the lines on a person's face, like the rings of a tree, tell a story. They can reflect times of personal tragedy and great joy, fierce conflicts and deep peace.  The face of the man sitting before me is no different. He has a strong jaw line, which occasionally quivers, as if he is fighting back tears.

      The long scar on his cheek, a memento from a brick thrown in fear outside of an Alabama town, gives his already strong face even more depth and character. The indentation on the third finger of his left hand, where a ring long rested, now barren tells of a marriage recently ended, death the only thing that could separate them.

      His eyes. His laughing eyes sparkle as if he has been in the presence of God. The window to his soul -- through his dark brown eyes -- is wide open. I strain to peer inside. I see a man almost drowning in grief, yet his eyes dance as if it is Christmas morning and he's five years old and there is still a Santa Claus. What did the Angels tell him? What reason could they offer for his suffering, for all the suffering and the powerlessness and death that he and we have become unfairly accustomed too?

      The man is dressed well, in his blue wool blend sport coat and dark slacks.  His black wing tipped loafers shimmering in the harsh sunlight of midday, evidence the importance he places in his appearance. He sees me staring and casually looks me over. He smiles, winks and dies.

      I can see his spirit leave his body, rising up quickly in a hurry to keep an appointment. Impatient to rejoin a soul he promised never to leave. His head slumps forward coming to rest on his chest. His lifeless body suddenly draws the attention of passersby. In life they would have nothing to do with him, in death he has become a 15-minute celebrity.  The police come and then an ambulance and he is taken away. I say a prayer for him and then one for me. 

Leon Jackson Davenport is an Emmy nominated TV Editor, Fine Art Photographer, and Writer.  Embracing the new form of flash fiction, Leon is a prominent member of the 6 Sentences writing community.  Now, he is also, part of the Harbinger *33 group which will be publishing an anthology of short stories this fall.

I wrote the initial piece over a decade or more ago.  I tried to get it published but it wasn't ready.  I had to hone my skills and edit out some stuff that didn't add to the piece. I went to the Hawaii Writer's conference where I looked over my work, reread this story, and had an inspiration.  I edited out a couple of paragraphs, rewrote some areas and it became much tighter prose and overall a better story.
I'm working with a group of Authors on the Harbinger*33 project. Much more than an anthology of short stories. "What would an anthology of short stories by Hemingway, Fitzgerald,Wolff, Bradbury, Lovecraft, Morrison, Vonnegut and 26 other burgeoning giants, published before they were famous, be?  Harbinger*33."



Copyright 2009