Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Raymond Ellis Jr.

by Andrea McDonald

Raymond Ellis Jr. clutched his hat in his hands as he sat down in front of the man in charge of hiring.  Mr. Hudson was that man’s name, and he was a big man: his one chin sat on the one below and when he reached for the papers on his desk, he couldn’t bring his hands together without squeezing his chest.  When he did that, his too-short tie popped out from beneath his jacket like a poker stick.  Raymond Ellis Jr.’s eyes were riveted on that tie.

“You’re black,” said Mr. Hudson.


Raymond pulled his eyes down to the desk calendar.  October 5, 1964.  He would always remember the date.

“Says here you got yourself a degree in business. That right?”


“You sure?  You sure this ain’t someone else’s information?”

“No sir.  I mean yessir.  I’m sure sir.”

“How’d you do that?”

“I went to university sir, as you’ll see on my resume.”

“We don’t often hire black men.”

“No sir.” Raymond gulped, but noted with some relief that Mr. Hudson had said black men, not black boys.

Mr. Hudson buzzed his secretary on the intercom.  “You got the background report, Miss Wilson?”

The door opened and Miss Wilson, a middle-aged woman in sturdy shoes and a stiff grey dress came in, placed a file folder on the desk, glanced at the young man sitting opposite, and smirked before thrusting her chin in the air and turning to go.

“Something funny, Miss Wilson?”

“Nothing, nothing at all, Mr. Hudson,” she said as she closed the door.

Raymond Ellis Jr. turned his hat in circles and his foot tapped the floor. He stared at the shoes he’d bought at the charity shop and spent an hour polishing the night before.  They protruded out from his skinny ankles where his pants stopped.

“Hmmm,” Mr. Hudson said, pushing back in his chair, “seems we got ourselves a problem.”


“Says here you were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, 4th of July, some years back.  You go to jail?”

“Yessir.  Juvenile Hall.”

“Charged with disturbing the peace, and aggravated assault.“  Mr. Hudson threw the file on the desk.  “You in some kind of gang fight?”

“No sir. I was defending-   someone.”

Mr. Hudson tapped his pen on the desk and stared at Raymond.  He didn’t ask for clarification. He just sat there, staring, as if he had a huge scale on his desk, and it was tipping back and forth in a wind storm.  Raymond felt his whole future was sitting on one side of that scale, and he felt it sinking.

Then Mr. Hudson sat forward.

“Best tell me about it, son,” he said.

And so Raymond did, and though his words were brief and correct on account of the university education, his mind played it out just as it happened those many years ago when he was fourteen.

“Raymond baby, help your poor mamma get outta this chair, that’s it.  Law, it’s hot, and I got to get me to the bus fore I’s too late.”

“Why Mamma, where’s you going? It’s Saturday. You don’t got to work today.”

His mother heaved herself out of her chair with his help and shuffled across the room, turning sideways to squeeze out the door.  She was an enormous woman, with ankles each as wide as an elephant’s foot and arms that fell in folds.  She was so fat she’d had to stop working as a maid and instead had taken a job as a short order cook, where she only had to move a few feet from the grill and could rest on a stool throughout the workday.  But work she did, and hard.  She had five mouths to feed and no husband in sight.

Raymond leaned forward.  “My mamma is a big woman, sir.”

“You got something to say about big people?” Mr. Hudson said, squeezing his gut in.

“No sir.  But it done-  does factor in.”

“Go on.”

“Never you mind where I’s going,” Mamma had said. “Got me something to do.  Gonna bring home twenty-five extra dollars. Now, I see you sometime round supper.  Have yourself a good day, today.  You been workin’ extra hard and you should get out an have some fun. Bye now, son.”

When she left, Raymond washed the breakfast dishes and put them in the cupboard, swept the floor and put the trash in the can in the shed out back. Then he rounded up his three little brothers.

“Hey.  I got me three dollars and man, they’s burning a hole in my pocket,” he said.  He fanned his pant leg.  “Why, looky.  See the smoke?”  His little brothers giggled. “I got to get rid of them, sure nough, and fast, before they burn the pants clear off me.  What say we go spend them down to the State Fair?”

His little brothers cheered.  He swooped the youngest up and hurried the others out the door and onto the street.  They waited at the corner for the downtown bus, and boarded by the rear door.

“I took my little brothers to the State Fair.”

“Uh huh.”

Raymond smiled as his young brothers squealed on the midway rides and stuffed pink cotton candy that smelled like bubblegum into their mouths, and then made silly hats with the empty paper cones.  They were marching along pretending to be wizards when Raymond pulled them together.  “I got a quarter left for each one a us,” he yelled over the carnival music.  “What should we spend em on?”

Their eyes darted past the clown juggling bowling pins and the yellow tin ducks clacking side to side in the shooting gallery;  they landed on a picture of a sword swallower painted on the side of a canvas tent.  “The side show!” they yelled back.

Raymond had really wanted to ride the roller coaster one more time, but when he saw his little brothers’ faces shining and felt them tugging at his shirt, he led them into the first of the tents.  It smelled of mildew and was dark except for a light shining on stage. They watched a little man dressed as a lady pull his beard and speak gibberish that was supposed to be Russian.

The boys pouted.  “That ain’t nothing much,” Raymond said. “Lets us see what’s in the next tent.”  They moved with the crowd into the next area, where a man in purple pantaloons and a sparkly vest ran his sword across his bare chest.  Blood appeared to gush from his wounds.  The boys stood open-mouthed.  He moaned woefully and then ran his dagger over a burning fire.  Flames leaped from its edge.  The boys gasped as he slid the dagger down his throat with a flourish.  “Man,” Raymond said, ”don’t that just beat all!”

Mr. Hudson cleared his throat. Raymond sat silently staring at his shoes.

“Go on,” Mr.Hudson said.  “What happened at the State Fair?”

The crowd pressed them into the adjoining tent as the fire-eater pulled out the dagger, wiped his chest, and dropped onto a stool to await the next group.  Once inside the last tent Raymond and his brothers looked up at the stage.  “The Amazing Dora!” a banner read.  “See the Fattest Woman on Earth!”  They saw a portrait of a woman with mountains of snow white flesh billowing over her skimpy costume.

A curtain opened, and out shuffled a black woman, clad only in a bikini.  As she plopped onto the stool the effect was like a water balloon landing from a great height without breaking.

“Well, speak up son,” Mr. Hudson said, and shifted in his seat. “What happened?”

Raymond sat up straight. “I saw my mamma there.  She had replaced-  she was in a freak show, sir.”

Mr. Hudson stifled a smile.  “Well,” he said, ”don’t that just beat all. Tell me more, go on. “

Raymond gathered his brothers and tried to cover their eyes as he pushed them out the door.  “Hey, what you doing, Raymond?” they yelled in unison, unaware that the woman they strained to see was their mother.  At the sound of their voices, she shielded her eyes from the glaring spotlight and stared into the crowd.

“Is those my babies?” she asked. “Raymond, is that you out there?”  As she saw him, it was as if that water balloon had burst.  “I’s sorry, baby, but we need the money.”

Raymond was about to speak when a rough looking man in a cowboy hat yelled out, “I want my money back!  I came to see Dora, not some fat Nigra.” Then another man joined in and the crowd began to grumble.

Raymond could feel the shock and his temper surging together in his stomach. “You shut your mouth,” he yelled at the first man.

“You come on over and make me,” the man shot back.

“You need the money?” another man yelled out, and laughed. “What, so you can eat more? Ain’t you fat enough, Nigra?”

“Yah,” chided another, “you’re so fat you could sink the Titanic!”

“Well sir, some men started insulting my mamma, and I-  and I-“

Mr. Hudson leaned well forward in his chair.  His tie lay on his desk.  “What d’you do, son?”

“I’m afraid I hauled off an’ hit one or two of them, sir.”

Mr. Hudson leaned back.  He leaned so far back in his chair it looked like it might topple. He dragged one knee up and perched it on the other one, until it slid off.  But he said nothing.  At length he put both feet down, leaned forward, and grasping the job file with two hands, tapped it on the desk.  Still he was silent.

Raymond dropped his head and stared at his feet.  The bizarre image of him sitting in the bottomed out pan of the scale kept flitting through his head.  I’m done for, he thought, and with that his mouth opened and words tumbled out without his consent.

“They dragged me outside and got the sheriff.  I served two years.  And all the time I was in there I kept thinking how I’d let my mamma down.  She couldn’t help being fat, no sir. The doctors, they all said so.  And there she was, humbling herself to all the world, and I was spending a whole dollar for the four of us to see it.  Money I should a put toward food so she didn’t have to do such a thing as that.”  He stood up.  “Thank you Mr. Hudson.  I’ll be going.”

Mr. Hudson cleared his throat. “Not so dawg-gone fast, son.  I know a good man when I see one.  Don’t matter what colour.  Seems to me you got some papers to sign before you come to work on Monday.  Now don’t you be late.  I got no patience for lateness.”

“Yessir.  No sir!” said Raymond Ellis Jr. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

Something a little different for all you red-necks.

Mike Watson and the Hall of the Lesser Fates
By Andrea McDonald

Getting around in Heaven takes a little getting used to.  The Greater Angels can fly of course.  But Lesser Angels, like me, well, we have to walk.  It’s easy really.  I guess. You put your foot out and the path appears under it.  Look back and there’s just empty sky.  But it can make you a little dizzy.

Running, now that was really scary at first, what with the speed your feet fly.  There’s always that worry that the mechanics of Heaven just won’t be fast enough to get that path down before your foot lands, and dropping through space is not my idea of fun.  Especially as it was a failed parachute that put me here. But I had to learn to run early on.  Due to the fact that I was always late.  Punctuality was the last lesson I was to master before coming here, but the last time I died, one of the Angels let me sneak on up. Figured I’d never get it, and what the hell, being late is not really a mortal sin, now is it.  That’s what he said, but I think he just had to make his quota.

Anyway, I’m running because I’m due at The Hall of the Lesser Fates.  I’m to monitor the final hour of a fellow named Mike Watson.

The Lesser Fates is code for The Little Guys.  You know, the ordinary people.  Not the Ghandis or the Dalai Lamas of the world; they belong in the Hall of the Greater Fates where the Greater Angels look out for them.  Because their lives matter to tons of people, and maybe, just maybe, they might have the power to change the world down there.  The Joe Silvermans, the Mary Dillons and the Ram Ramkumars just don’t rank up there, because their lives are ordinary.  Sure, they might get their fifteen minutes of fame, but that’s it.  And so they get angels like me assigned to them. 

Now, I like Mike.  Others might not, but I do.  He was born to be a skinny dude, with a tiny head full of red-neck ideas, and I’ve got to say, some of the things his brain comes up with are pretty radical.  He dreamed up camouflaged toilet paper.  You know, so the stuff that comes out of a human wouldn’t be as obvious as it is on white toilet paper.  Pretty smart.  And he developed a toilet bowl plunger that is shaped like a gun and fires air with a bang when you pull the trigger.  Unblocks those plugged up toilets like the dickens.  And fun.  I’ve never seen so many men line up to do the dirty deed.  Or undo the dirty deed, to be more precise.

But Mike just doesn’t seem to get the lessons we set out for him this go-round.  I mean, his one big lesson was to learn to think of others before himself.  Seems simple.  But so far he hasn’t got it.  The other things, like patience, tolerance- well, we gave up on his getting those a long time ago.  It would be a miracle if he learned them in his last hour, but hey, I’m an optimist.

I’m here now at the Hall of the Lesser Fates. I pushed aside the mist.  The chairs that floated in the room were empty.  Hmmm.  Maybe I’m so late the other angels left.  Or maybe no one is coming because Mike is just not worth the effort.  I have to admit the thought of determining his fate without opposition is kind of thrilling.  We don’t often get to be headstrong up here.  Cooperation is the name of the game.

But then the mist divided.  Meseo entered.  In this realm of love, he’s the one I love the least, if you get my drift. I swear the powers-that-be named him Meseo because he’s a total mess-up, but they say otherwise. 

He went straight to business.  “I hope this won’t take long. I’ve got a hot new angel waiting for me on Cloud Nine. Who’ve we got?” he asked.

“Fellow named Mike Watson.  I’ve been keeping an eye on him.  Here’s his bio.”  I threw the information to him mentally.  Saves time.

“Hmmm.” Meseo said.  “Seems like a loser.”

“Well,” I said, “he’s had some interesting ideas over the years. He’s not all bad.”

“Shot his dog because it got in his way.”

“To be fair, the dog chased the sheep rather than herding them.”

“Did he ever try to teach the dog to herd?”

“Well, no.  He’s not very patient.”

“Okay, well he failed that test.  I see he was prejudiced, and we manipulated things so those he couldn’t tolerate became his neighbours. Next door, in fact.  How’d that go?  Never mind.  I just read your thoughts.  He threatened to kill them if they so much as stepped on his land.”

“Like I said, Mike’s not very tolerant.”

“How many chances did he have to learn his lessons?” Meseo asked, frowning.

“Let’s see, there was the time his only son came out of the closet.  Hasn’t talked to him since.  And his wife became ill and couldn’t manage to keep the house going anymore.”

“Did he offer to hire help?”

“No, he divorced her.”

“He’s a lost cause.”

“Well, hang on.  He has an hour left.  Let’s see what he’s up to,” I said.  “Maybe we can throw something at him that’ll challenge him.  Maybe he’ll come through after all.”

Meseo and I used our super angel vision to find Mike down there on earth.  “Got him,” I said.  Can you see him? He’s in his pickup truck at the corner of Eldridge Avenue and Main Street.”

“Where’s he heading in such a hurry?”

“Hang on- zeroing in on his thoughts- really excited- going out to the range to shoot with a couple of buddies.”

Meseo frowned again.  “I’m surprised he has buddies.”

I concentrated- got the picture from his brain.  “Antonio Vandez. . . imprisoned for drug dealing.  And ‘Dead Dog Douggie’. . . local drunk, but harmless enough.”

“He’s really keen,” Meseo said, “judging by the speed he’s going.  Who have we got in the area who’s reached the end of their time?  We can throw that somebody in his way.  He’ll plough into them.  Bammo!  Kill two with one stone.  Our work will be done and I can get back to my- pleasures.”

“Hang on, hang on,” I said.  “Surely he deserves one more chance.  He doesn’t know it’s his last chance, so it’ll be a true test.”

“What have you got in mind?”

“His father, Gerald Watson- how old is he now?”

Meseo scanned for the data.  “Seventy six.”

“In poor health?”

“No.  Quite healthy in fact, but we can change that-“

“How long before his term is up?”

“Three years, four weeks, five days and two hundred minutes, but we can shorten it-“

I felt his vibrations- Gerald Watson’s- and they were pure and bright.  It wouldn’t be fair to sacrifice him to save his son.  He’d done his best to raise him well.  “No,” I said.  “But we can use him anyway.”

“What are you thinking?”

I smiled.  “Let’s give him a heart attack.  Does Mike have his cell-phone with him?”

Meseo concentrated.  “Yeah.”

“Good.  Here goes.”  I put my fist to my heart and squeezed hard while concentrating on Gerald’s energy.  I felt it go from strong and white to tight and a queer shade of burgundy.  The man fell on the sidewalk about four kilometers from his son’s position en route to the shooting range.

We watched.  A crowd gathered.  One man stooped to help.

“Bonus points for that one.  Remind me to advise his angel,” I said.

Another man rummaged in his pocket, but pulling them out empty, he gazed imploringly around the crowd.  “He’s asking if anyone has aspirin,” Meseo pointed out.  “He’s got some from the woman in the blue suit.  He’s telling Gerald to chew them.”

“Good,” I said.  “I wouldn’t want Gerald to die.  The Man Upstairs would hear about it, wouldn’t he Meseo, and have something to say about that. You almost cost me my wings.”

“You misjudge me.  Hey, if I was a rat, I wouldn’t be up here, now would I? In fact I’m making notes of the good deeds…”

I let it go.  Heaven and all that. 

“That one-“ I concentrated hard to locate her energy signature and her assigned name- “Ellen Fraubaum- she’s phoning 911.”

It wasn’t long before the paramedics arrived with their sirens screaming.  They strapped Gerald onto a gurney and lifted him into the ambulance.

“But, it’s not working,” Meseo said.  “No one has asked him for an emergency contact.  No one has called the son.”

I concentrated hard.  I wrote the words In case of emergency, call my son, Mike Watson @ 725-3611, on a slip of paper and made it fall out of Gerald’s pocket.  No one noticed.  

“Sh-t, I mean, golly,” I said, “help me get someone to notice.  That woman, Ellen Fraubaum, concentrate on her with me!”

We watched as she turned to leave, then stopped, and looking down, scooped up the scrap of paper.  She pulled out her cell phone and dialed.

“Whew, that was a close one.”

“Yeah well, I don’t know why I bothered to do that,” Meseo said.  “That Mike character isn’t going to change.  He’s a lost cause.”

Which is another reason why Meseo is the one angel I love the least.  “Come on,” I said, “everybody deserves another chance.”

Down below us Mike’s phone rang.  His radio was thumping out tunes so loud his windows were shaking and he was singing like a has-been country star.  Just before I conspired to shut down the radio signal, he looked at the phone laying there on the seat.  Hung his hands on the wheel and ignored it. 

“See? Told you.  Lost cause.  Let’s see who can crash into him.”

“No, wait.  He has ten more minutes.”

I took over the phone signal.  Turned up the volume and just let it ring and ring.  Finally Mike swore and took the call.

“Is this Mike Watson?” Ellen asked.

“Yeah.  Who wants to know?”

“My name is Ellen Fraubaum.  I’m sorry to tell you this, but your father has just had a heart attack.”

We watched Mike curse and slap the steering wheel.  He looked over at his rifle case.

“Mr. Watson? Did you hear what I said? Your father has had a heart attack.  He’s being taken to Ellesmere Memorial Hospital.”

“Yeah, yeah.  I heard you the first time.”  He hung up.  Kept driving.  In fact he sped up.

Meseo rolled his eyes.  “Told you.  His buddy Antonio is just as bad.  He’s driving to the range from the opposite direction.  I’ll just make him speed up too.  They can meet at the corner of Main and Eldon.  They’ll take each other out.  Boxed and bowed.”

I sighed.  I hated to lose a soul.  Worse, I hated to lose to Meseo.  Just because I’m up here doesn’t make me a saint.

I was about to close the clouds on the scene below when I got a curious buzz from Mike’s energy flow.  I looked down.  He was squealing the tires of his truck in a U-turn.  Laying rubber down Main Street.  Then I heard his voice through his cell phone.

“Antonio? Yeah.  Look.  I can’t make it to the range today. Yeah.  My old man.  He’s had a heart attack.  I got to go to the hospital.  Yeah.  Call Dead Dog for me, will ya?  Let him know.  Yeah.  Hope so. Thanks man.  I’ll call you later and let you know.”

I grinned as Meseo stood up, shrugged, and walked out into the mist. 

Boxed and bowed?  Nah. 

Betted and bested.