"Haven't seen you get like that, boy, since I had you locked up in your teens."


Danny blew a stream of smoke into the cold air, feeling the sweat beginning to dry on his upper chest and neck. "Yeah, it's been a while."

"Would you have honestly hit me?" his father said. "When you had me against the tree?"

Danny shrugged. "Might have. We'll never know."

"Your own father."

Danny chuckled. "You had no problem hitting me when I was a kid."

"That was discipline."

"So was this." Danny looked over at his father.

Thomas shook his head softly and exhaled a blue stream of smoke into the night.

"I didn't know she left a child behind back there, Dad. Had no idea."

His father nodded.

"But you did," Danny said.

His father looked over, the smoke sliding out of the corner of his mouth.

"You brought Quentin here. Left a trail of bread crumbs and he found our door."

Thomas Coughlin said, "You give me too much credit."

Danny rolled his dice and told the lie. "He told me you did, Dad." His father sucked the night air through his nostrils and looked up at the sky. "You'd have never stopped loving her. Connor either." "What about Joe? What about what he just saw in there?" "Everyone has to grow up sometime." His father shrugged. "It's not Joe's maturing I worry about, you infant. It's yours."

Danny nodded and flicked his cigarette into the street.

"You can stop worrying," he said. chapter twenty-three Late Christmas afternoon, before the Coughlins had sat for dinner, Luther took the streetcar back to the South End. The day had started with a bright sky and clear air, but by the time Luther boarded the streetcar, the air had turned indistinct and the sky had folded back and fallen into the ground. Somehow the streets, so gray and quiet, were pretty, a sense that the city had gone privately festive. Soon the snow began to fall, the flakes small and listing like kites at first, riding the sudden wind, but then as the streetcar bucked its way over the hump of the Broadway Bridge, the flakes grew thick as flower heads and shot past the windows in the black wind. Luther, the only person sitting in the colored section, accidentally caught the eye of a white man sitting with his girlfriend two rows up. The man looked weary in a satisfied way, and his cheap wool flat cap was tilted down just so over his right eye, giving a little bit of nothing a little bit of style. He nodded, as if he and Luther shared the same thought, his girlfriend curled against his chest with her eyes closed.

"Looks like Christmas should, don't it?" The man slid his chin over his girl's head and his nostrils widened as he smelled her hair.

"Sure does," Luther said, surprised it didn't come out "Sure do" in an all-white car.

"Heading home?"

"Yeah."

"To family?" The white guy lowered his cigarette to his girl's lips and she opened her mouth to take a drag.

"Wife and child," Luther said.

The man closed his eyes for a second and nodded. "That's good." "Yes, sir, it is." Luther swallowed against the wave of solitude that tried to rise in him.

"Merry Christmas," the man said and took his cigarette from his girl's lips and put it between his own.

"Same to you, sir."

In the Giddreauxs' foyer, he removed his coat and scarf and hung them, wet and steaming, on the radiator. He could hear voices coming from the dining room and he smoothed the snow into his hair with his palms and then wiped his palms on his coat.

When he opened the door into the main house, he heard the overlapping laughter and overlapping chatter of several conversations. Silverware and glasses clinked and he smelled roast turkey and maybe a deep-fried one as well and some kind of cinnamon scent that might have come from hot cider. Four children came running down the stairs toward him, three colored, one white, and they laughed maniacally in his face when they reached the fi rst floor and then ran full-out down the hall toward the kitchen.

He opened the pocket doors to the dining room and the guests turned to look at him, women mostly, a few older men and two about Luther's age whom he took to be the sons of Mrs. Grouse, the Giddreauxs' housekeeper. Just over a dozen people, all told, and half of them white, and Luther recognized the females who helped out at the NAACP and assumed the males were their husbands.

"Franklin Grouse," a younger colored man said and shook Luther's hand. He extended a glass of eggnog. "You must be Luther. My mother told me about you."

"Nice to meet you, Franklin. Merry Christmas." Luther raised his glass of eggnog and took a drink.

It was a wonderful dinner. Isaiah had returned from Washington the night before and promised he wouldn't talk politics until after dessert, so they ate and drank and chided the children when they got a little too boisterous and the talk jumped from the latest picture shows to pop u lar books and songs and then to the rumor that war radios would become a consumer item that would broadcast news and voices and plays and songs from all over the world, and Luther tried to picture how a play could be performed through a box, but Isaiah said it was to be expected. Between phone lines and telegraphs and Sopwith Camels, the future of the world was air. Air travel, air communication, air ideas. Soil was played out, ocean, too; but air was like a train track that never met the sea. Soon we'd be speaking Spanish and they'd be speaking English.

"That a good thing, Mr. Giddreaux?" Franklin Grouse said.

Isaiah tilted his hand from left-to-right, left-to-right. "It's what man makes of it."

"White man or black man?" Luther asked, and the table broke out laughing.

The happier and more comfortable he became, the sadder he felt. This could be his life--should be his life--with Lila, right now, not as a guest at the table but as the head of it and maybe some of those children would have been his, too. He caught Mrs. Giddreaux smiling at him, and when he met her smile with his own, she gave him a wink, and he could see her soul again, the supple grace of it, and it was lit with blue light.

At the end of the evening, after most of the guests had left and Isaiah and Yvette were taking their brandy with the Parthans, two old friends since his days at Morehouse and hers at Atlanta 388 Baptist, Luther excused himself and went up to the roof with his own glass of brandy and let himself out onto the widow's walk. The snow had stopped falling, but all the roofs were thick with it. Horns bayed from the harbor and the lights of the city spread a yellow band across the lowest reaches of the sky. He closed his eyes and sucked in the smell of the night and the snow and cold, the smoke and soot and brick dust. He felt as if he were snorting the sky right off the outermost curve of the earth. He kept his eyes shut tight and blocked out the death of Jessie and the stone-ache in his heart that had only one name: Lila. He asked only for this moment, this air that he held in his lungs, that filled his body and swelled in his head.

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