Sea of Tranquility

by Rick Beck

Chapter 7

Supper Time

The easy conversation at the Brown table was different than the all-business at the Cordoba table. There were things to discuss and dinner was the only time Levi came together with his parents during the week. They were gone all day and he left for school before they came downstairs.

Levi's father had his own firm. He'd taken the business over from his father when his parents retired to Florida. His father didn't make it home for dinner every night. His mother circulated in Chicago and the Northside, attending to the outside interests that kept her busy.

His mother would bring in dinner, if her schedule got her home by seven, which was the Cordoba family's dinner time. If her schedule didn't get her home by seven, she ordered in, once she was home. If no one was home by the time Levi got home from practice, he ordered pizza from one of the local restaurants where the Cordobas ate, when they ate out.

After Mr. Brown arrived home, he came to Terry's room.

"Terry, how are you feeling today," he said from the door.

"Fine, Dad. This is Levi Cordoba. Levi, this is my father. Levi runs track for Amalgamated. He came to see how I was," Terry said.

Mr. Brown's right eyebrow raised distinctively when he turned his attention to Terry's company.

"Levi," Mr. Brown said, reaching for Levi's hand.

Levi stood and shook the big paw that had been offered to him.

"Nice to meet you, sir."

"I have a feeling your mama is putting food on the table. Why don't you help Terry into his chair and join us at the table. I trust you're staying for dinner. If you are, it'll be one of your better decisions today. It's fried chicken night. Emily's fried chicken is to die for."

Mr. Brown closed his eyes and had a heavenly look on his face, while talking about his wife's cooking. Mr. Brown went back out of the room.

"You want to get into your chair?" Levi asked.

"I do. I sit in a regular chair at the table,"

Levi moved over to where Terry was sitting. He had him scooped up in his arms, pivoting to sit him in the wheelchair. Levi pushed the chair into the dining room. He moved Terry to the chair he indicated at the table, moving the wheelchair out of the way.

"You're a strong young man," Mr. Brown said. "I have difficulty moving him."

"Sit across from me," Terry said and Levi sat down.

Mrs. Brown brought a big fluffy bowl of mashed potatoes, before bringing a bowl of greens, chicken and a bowl with a dish towel covering her biscuits.

After the food was on the table, she brought glasses of ice tea for each of them, before taking her place at the table. She nodded to her husband.

"Heavenly father, thank you for another beautiful day, the bounty you provide us with and for healing Terry, as I know you will. In the Lord's name we pray, Amen."

Blessing the food caught Levi by surprise. His family wasn't religious and he remembered Mr. Brown was from a family of preachers. Naturally there would be a blessing. It was short and appropriate. Levi knew to say Amen when the blessing ended.

"He's not that light," Mr. Brown said to Levi.

"I've been doing weight training this season," Levi said, accepting the mashed potatoes and putting some on his plate.

"Thank you," he said, passing the bowl back to Mrs. Brown and she filled Terry's plate, as the food was passed around.

"It's a strain when I pick him up," Mr. Brown said. "You make it look easy."

Levi ate, using his best manners, pausing to speak.

"He's not that heavy," Levi said.

"He's a hundred and fifty-three pounds at the last doctor's visit. He's down nearly twenty pounds," Mrs. Brown said.

"He's actually sitting right here at the table with you and he can actually tell his friend those things if he wants him to know all the details."

"Yes, you are and please don't use that tone, Terrance," Mr. Brown said. "Levi doesn't know what we know and I was impressed by his strength."

"I'm at a hundred and sixty-five pounds, give or take a pound or two. It's the first year I've maintained the same weight throughout track season. In previous seasons, before I did weight training, I'd lose five to ten pounds during track season," Levi said, wanting to give that information for Terry's benefit.

"What is that private school like. I hear Amalgamated's GPA and its rating among local public schools is through the roof," Mr. Brown said.

Putting his fork down, Levi directed his words toward Terry's father.

"I was in public school, until ninth grade. My parents decided to send me to Amalgamated. A few of our neighbors go there. It was certainly different from public school - smaller classes, better teachers. Their athletics are first class. It's a different world from public school," Levi said, picking up his fork to eat some greens, potatoes and he went to work on a piece of chicken.

"How are your grades?" Mr. Brown asked. "You're a good student?"

"Private school is a different atmosphere from public school," Levi said. "We aren't rushed, like in public school. We have plenty of time between classes. There are fewer kids in a class, but when you get to class, you need to apply yourself, if you want to keep up. If you don't keep up, you'll hear about it. Each teacher knows exactly what you are doing in their class. In public school, I was a face in the crowd. My grades sucked. Excuse me. I wasn't a good student."

"How did you become a good student?" Mr. Brown asked, working on a chicken breast as he spoke.

"I got my makeup call, halfway through the school year, when I went out for track. My coach took me aside after the first week of practice. He said, 'Mr. Cordoba, if you want to stay on the track team, you'll kindly get no grade worse than a B. I don't tolerate slackers. If a grade in one of your classes falls below a B, you'll be riding the bench for the rest of the season."

"Harsh," Mr. Brown said. "What do you need in the way of grades to stay on the track team, Terry."

"Pass. As long as you pass, you're on the team. I think we're supposed to maintain a C average, but some of the guys on our team don't read well."

"What kind of grades do you get now?" Mr. Brown asked.

"I carry a 4.0. I love all my classes and the teachers are good. Teachers in some of my lower grades weren't as sharp as my teachers this year, but most of them know their stuff. I don't have much trouble with my classes. There is a lot of flexibility for seniors, after you take English and mathematics."

"I'm impressed. Terry's a good student. He doesn't attend school, because of what happened, but they bring his work to him. He'll graduate on time because he is a good student," he said. "After that, we just don't know."

"Don't be bashful, son. Take a couple of pieces," Mr. Brown said. "It's good chicken. No one stops after two pieces. It's unnatural."

Mr. Brown held the platter of chicken out and Levi took two more pieces, adding bones to the pile of bones he was creating.

"It's great chicken," Levi said, taking another thigh, before the platter moved. "It's tender and juicy."

Levi bit into the flavorful chicken.

"It's how my mother did hers. The secret is to dip it in buttermilk, then you roll it in seasoned breadcrumbs. Then you let it set up for a few minutes, before you put it your oil," Mrs. Brown said.

"It's the best chicken I've ever had," Levi said. "It's so juicy."

"More tea, Levi?" Mrs. Brown asked.

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you," Levi said. "It's all quite good. Your biscuits are so fluffy. I don't want to make a pig of myself."

"Why not?" Mr. Brown said. "We do every night. Emily's meals are difficult to resist, so I don't even try."

"Don't be bashful," Terry said. "Eat home cooking while you can, man. Mama is the best cook around."

"Your mother was from Shreveport, Terry?" Levi asked, knowing the answer.

"Why yes, she was," Mrs. Brown said. "I was born in Shreveport."

"I met her at college," Mr. Brown said. "If she hadn't been the most beautiful girl in school, I'd have married her for her fried chicken recipe."

"Don't be telling the boy that stuff," Mrs. Brown said.

"It's true," Mr. Brown said. "Would I lie?"

"Does your mother fry her chicken using buttermilk?" she asked.

"No, ma'am. She doesn't use buttermilk," Levi said.

"I can write down the recipe, if you like," Mrs Brown offered.

"No, ma'am. It would be a waste of your time. When we have fried chicken, the Colonel fries it for us. My mother brings it home in a bucket," Levi said.

Terry spit out the biscuit he was just then biting into. He coughed, nearly choking.

"Don't gobble your food, Terrance. We don't want Mr. Levi to go away thinking we aren't civilized," Mr. Brown said. "We aren't timing you."

Mrs. Brown's mouth opened. She wasn't sure she heard him right

"No, sir, we wouldn't want that," Terry said, laughing so hard he had trouble staying in his chair.

"You white folks sure know how to live, Levi," Terry said, shaking his head.

"I don't know what time the last bus leaves that'll take me to Northside. I don't want to miss it," Levi said. "It would be a long walk."

"Don't worry about the bus. I'll drive you," Mr. Brown said. "I'm going up that way, after dinner. You may not know where you are, son, but I know and you don't want to be taking the bus down here. We belong here. You are a stranger. Some folks don't like strangers coming into our neighborhood. I won't tell you that you can't come. It's plain to see that Terry enjoys your company, but it isn't safe for you to take the bus and walk these streets."

"Because I'm white?" Levi asked, before he considered the question.

"Well, yes. There's a long history and white folks haven't always treated black folks fairly. Some hold a grudge. Nine times out of ten, you can come down here and we'll all be polite, but that tenth time, some angry young man might object to you being on his turf and that's when you could be in trouble. There are some bad people in Southside and I don't want you meeting one of those. So, I'm asking you, don't take the bus down here again. We'll work something out."

Levi processed what Mr. Brown was telling him. He intended to come back. He liked Terry. He liked the Browns and when he got off the bus, he had no idea what was going to happen, but he'd bonded with Terry and Terry seemed happy that he came. He would find a way to come back to visit him.

"I think I understand," Levi said, as they all looked at him.

"Because you're white," Mrs. Brown said, mincing no words. "Because of the history. I deal with everyone fairly. I know most white folks are harmless, but there is still bad blood between some blacks and some whites. Some people down here don't want white folks coming down here. We don't feel that way, but there are people who do and you've got to be mindful of that. Like Alvin said, nine times out of ten, you'll be received politely, but there is always that little bit of risk."

"I told you about my Mama's biscuits, didn't I. Aren't they the best things you've ever put in your mouth," Terry said.

"They are, Terry. I could eat a dozen of them. Our biscuits come in a can from the supermarket," Levi said.

"I'll put a couple in a bag for you. You'll have some tomorrow," Mrs. Brown said.

"I'd love that," Levi said. "Thank you. I don't get much home cooking. You don't know how good this all tastes."

"I want you to know, I am glad you came by. I haven't seen Terry this happy in quite a spell, as you can imagine. We can make it work if you decide to come back and I hope you will. You seem like a nice young man."

"Thank you. I plan to come back. I didn't know what I'd say to Terry, but we've had no trouble communicating and I've enjoyed myself too," Levi said.

"Don't I get no say in this?" Terry asked. "What will the neighbors think?"

Levi began to laugh first, then Mrs. Brown began laughing, before Mr. Brown joined in, as Terry looked at them with a straight face.

"I can see I'm stuck with the white boy," Terry said with a smile.

"Food is getting cold. We'll talk about it after dinner," Mrs. Brown said and everyone's focus was back on the most excellent meal, the talk subsided.

After two more pieces of chicken and two more biscuits, Levi began to feel full. The food was so good, he could keep eating, but he did have some manners. Levi listened to the frankness of the table talk. He realized he gave no thought to his race. It didn't cross his mind, He never thought about being white. The Browns seemed quite aware of their race and his. Levi would need to give it more thought before he returned to the Brown's house.

Levi never considered Terry's race. He saw only what they had in common. That was about it. Until he showed up at Terry's house, he had few thoughts about what Terry's life was like. Sadly, the only thing they shared was taken from Terry and skin color had nothing to do with any of that.

"I've never given much thought to being white," Levi said.

"I think about being black every time I walk out the door," Terry said, realizing his mistake, when everyone looked at him.

He realized his mistake, but he wasn't going to correct it. He did have those thoughts, when he left his house, even if he rarely left these days.

Levi broke the silence, wanting to lighten the heavy air in the room.

"You want to study psychology?" Levi asked Terry.

"That's my doing," Mr. Brown said.

Levi's eyes left Terry and were on Mr. Brown.

"Did you study psychology, Mr. Brown?"

"I did. It's long story," Mr. Brown said. "You really don't want to hear it."

"You are an interesting man. Terry told me you were a cop. He told me that you were from a family of preachers and you studied psychology. That's quite a fistful of credits," Levi said. "How'd you come to study psychology?"

"I'll give you the short version, son. After my father was murdered, two kids who believed all the stories they heard about Rev. Brown having a big stash of cash up in his church, went to get it," Brown said, sipping ice tea.

"There was no money, but those boys, believing that there was money, decided they'd beat it out of Daddy. They beat him to death. After Daddy was dead, they figured they weren't going to find the stash of cash and they walked through his blood and walked past the only money in the church, $11.13 in the poor box."

"Daddy was an institution in Batesville. The only money he ever had was through donations. He managed to feed the poor. He paid rents of people who weren't making it. There was a good kitchen that fed the elderly. One year someone donated enough money to buy the school band new uniforms, but Daddy spent every dime. There was always a need of some kind and Daddy did his best to take care of his flock. Those two boys cast the future of Daddy's flock on troubled waters. They stole more than anyone knew at the time. So much left undone."

"That's awful," Levi said. "A preacher, a cop and a psychologist. That is quite a background for anyone. They do all seem to be related."

"I'm a Board-certified psychologist. I went to school in Louisiana. That's where I met my wife. Louisiana." Mr. Brown said. "Daddy's church was a few miles outside Southside. There were a few hundred residents of Batesville, when the superhighway came through. It's an eight lane Interstate these days. Right on top of Daddy's church. Everyone had me pegged to take the church, once I finished school, but it wasn't to be. They knocked down Daddy's church and the town around it. That put an end to that."

"They caught the boys?" Levi asked.

"Yes, they left fingerprints all over the place. They walked in daddy's blood. Still had blood on their shoes when the cops rounded them up. It was a pretty big deal at the time. There were few folks Daddy hadn't helped at one time or another. I was curious about why those boys did what they'd did. I decided to take up psychology. Try to make sense of it. What I learned is you can't make sense of senseless violence. No matter how hard you try, there is no possible reason for doing what those two boys did. Terrible waste of three lives," Mr. Brown said. "But people make a habit of wasting their lives on a regular basis these days."

"Yes," Levi said. "Were they black kids."

"No. Two white boys from Northside. They had a friend, who had an aunt, who went to Daddy's church. She talked about how much money Daddy spent. All donations from people who supported the church. My father preached the brotherhood of man and that evil forces get rich by keeping us divided. No time to keep an eye on the folks who are taking all the money."

"You believe that?" Levi asked, unable to stop what he started.

"I do. I visit those boys. At first, I wanted to find out why they did what they did. They laughed at me on the first visit. Some black man coming to see them. They had as much trouble figuring me out as I had figuring them out but even their own people gave up on them. Neither of them had visits, except for when I showed up. They finally told me the story. They admitted what they'd done and what gave them the idea to do it. They are sorry, mostly because they've been behind bars for a lot longer than when they were free. They don't even mind talking to a black man, because no one else will talk to them."

"How can you stand looking at the boys who killed your father?" Levi asked.

"Which of us hasn't sinned. Jesus taught us to forgive one another. Jesus would have gone to see those boys if they'd killed his father. Besides, they're middle aged. They've been locked up for over twenty years. They come up for parole next year. I plan to go to their hearing."

"You want them to stay in prison," Levi said.

"No. They've been caged for way longer than they'd been alive, at the time they killed my Daddy. Every man deserves a second chance. Kids shouldn't be locked up forever. It's a terrible waste. They might want to make up for what they did. They might get out and become perfect citizens," Mr. Brown said.

"You really believe that?" Levi asked. "I don't think I could ever be that forgiving."

Mr. Brown smiled at Levi's reaction to him wanting the boys out of jail.

"Man specializes in throwing away a lot of humanity. This one is too short. That one is too tall. One is too gay and another is too straight. One is ugly and she is just too pretty for her own good. Which one would be a novelist, a nurse?" Mr. Brown asked. "Who is to say, one of those boys might get out of prison, go to school, become a doctor and find a cure for cancer? Who's to say who has unlimited potential, but ends up begging on the street, because he's gay and his good Christian parents threw him out of their house? Who's to say which addled minded kid, isn't an Einstein, unable to learn the way most people learn, because he's a genius and so smart that no one is smart enough to understand him?" Mr. Brown asked. "There is a cost to throwing away so many people. We'll never know the cost because we throw away so much unlimited potential. That was not the way Jesus saw the world, or the people in it. We need to forgive one another."

"You make a lot of sense," Levi said. "I've never heard it put that way. We do keep a lot of people on the outside, looking in. Wisdom might be in allowing people to find their own way. Give them a structure of education, but allowing them to pick and choose their interests, incorporating that into a career. No one has asked me what I would really like to do. If they really wanted to educate me properly, shouldn't someone want to know what interests me?"

"More fits in with being a preacher. Who runs across the most people who need to consider the words of Jesus? By treating people with dignity and acknowledging their humanity, you are giving them an opportunity to excel."

"You two can talk in the car, when you take Levi home," Mrs. Brown said. "I have an apple pie cooling in the kitchen. My men take their slice with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a glass of milk. How would you like yours?"

"Sounds perfect," Levi said, mouth watering. "Mrs. Smith makes our apple pies for us."

Terry laughed.

"You haven't lived, until you've had a slice of Mama's," Terry said.

"I do have one question, Mr. Brown. Your philosophy, the things you were saying about everyone having undeveloped potential, did that come from taking psychology, or from the teachings of Jesus?"

"It's psychology and from the words of Jesus Christ. He was a man who could harness untapped potential in the people he surrounded himself with. Common sense helps. You've got to put the pieces together and you see a larger picture, once you do that."

"You are a smart man," Levi said. "You've seen a lot."

"Being a police officer, I think I've seen most conditions the human species can endure and inflict upon one another. You learn from the people who endure incredible horrors and somehow, they manage to pull it together and go on with their lives. Others go to pieces. That's what I find most amazing. People can fool you," he said. "It's never a good idea to count anyone out. People can do some remarkable things."

Conversation gave way to apple pie and ice cream. The sound of forks against dishware the only sound, except for smacking lips and satisfied noises happy eaters make.

'Time to get moving," Mr. Brown said. "They're expecting me before dark and we need to get going if I want to drop you off before I drive there. Your parents will feel better if you're home before dark."

"What do you do in the evening," Levi asked Terry, standing and sliding his chair back against the table.

"I'll listen to a little music, jazz, sometimes I listen to the blues. I have schoolwork they drop by a couple of times a week. I read a lot. I graduate soon. I need to do something to deserve my diploma. I could ride on my grades and still graduate, but I'd be cheating myself if I did that."

"Are you going back to the room where you were, when I came?" Levi asked.

"Yeah, I stay in there most of the time," Terry said. "I like eating at the table with my parents at dinner. Makes things feel a little more normal."

"I need to get my jacket. I'll be ready in five minutes, Levi. Meet me at the front door. Wonderful meal, Emily. Wonderful," Mr. Brown said, kissing his wife.

"Put your arm around my neck. I'll get you back into your room," Levi said, slipping his arms under Terry's legs.

Terry looked down. The side of his head was resting against Levi's cheek. Levi didn't seem to struggle with the weight he was carrying. Terry was remembering the times he'd seen Levi looking at him across several lanes of the track. He didn't see any other competitor in the same way. Once they made eye contact, the hesitation and a quick Levi nod back before they went back to the business at hand. Terry asked who Levi was. He knew he was a threat, but the real threat Terry felt had little to do with sprinting.

"It was psychology, Cordoba. I was psyching you out," Terry said.

"When was this?" Levi asked.

"When I waited to shake your hand, the time you won the hundred. I wanted you to look at my back once I walked away. That was all you were going to see of me after that handshake. I was getting inside your head, Cordoba," Terry said, looking up at Levi's face, which put one boy's smooth cheek against the other boy smooth cheek.

"That psychology stuff sure works. You're inside my head, big time, Terry Brown. "I figured I'd be here ten, maybe fifteen minutes, but once we got past the awkward stuff, I didn't want to leave. I like you, Terry. I enjoy your company."

Terry allowed his body to melt into Levi's body, as they went into Terry's room. Levi put Terry down in the chair behind the desk, where he'd been sitting, during their visit. He stood up, putting distance between them. Levi didn't take his eyes off Terry.

"You will walk again, Terry," Levi said.

Mrs. Brown pushed the wheelchair into the room, going back out.

"You're just saying that because you need to believe it. You're saying that, because if you were in my place, it's how you'd see it. It's how I see it, Cordoba."

"You will walk again," Levi said. "I've watched you sprint. You might say, I have a bird's eye view of you running the hundred. That kind of guts and determination is still inside you. You'll get out of that chair, one day."

"Could you put me in my chair?" Terry asked.

Levi started picking Terry up again, when Terry put his arms around Levi's neck and their cheeks came together, Terry was holding on tight. It was more of a hug than it was anything else and Levi froze there, in that position, until Terry spoke again.

"I think I'll stay here. Nix the wheelchair deal. Can't make up my mind, with you around. You have that effect on me."

"Sure," Levi said, easing himself away from Terry's arms.

They looked at each other in an ill-defined way. Each was seeing something different, but they were sharing the same feeling.

"I got to go. Your father will be ready by now. I'll be back, Terry."

"We don't feed every white boy that wanders into our house, you know,"

Levi laughed, before turning to leave. He stopped at the door to look back.

"You take care of yourself, Moony Brown."

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