When the caller finally gets past her
receptionist near the end of the day, Dr.
Louise Banks still has three occupied
examination rooms and four more patients
thumbing magazines in the waiting room.
“I said we were backed up, but he’s called
four times and won’t leave a message. Now
he says it’s urgent,” Monique, the
receptionist, tells her. “Might be Blue Cross.
He sounds white.”
The man does indeed sound white. “I don’t
know if you remember me—Max Conner?”
“Max Conner?” she repeats dumbly.
“I was seventeen the one time we met—must
be thirty years. Abe is my brother. Abe
Conner? He convinced you to let me come for
That name clicks even though it is one long
culled from her life.
“He’s sick. He wants to see you.” Stunned
silent, she lets him drone on. “Well would you
think about it?”
The call lasts barely five minutes, but it is as
if decades have passed. By the time she
hangs up, she feels a breathlessness as if the
room holds little air. Monique’s eyes study
her. “You okay, Doctor?”
Louise nods. “Where’s Selma Jackson’s chart?”
The moment she walks into exam room two,
Louise knows her mistake in seeing the girl
immediately after the call. Fifteen and six
months pregnant, Selma sits on the exam
table cradling her belly in her hands.
Undernourished and anemic but delighted
about a future she can’t really imagine,
Selma always challenges the good doctor’s
compassion. Louise knows she still lives on
potato chips and candy like so many other
impoverished expecting teens despite the
lectures and brochures on prenatal care
Louise dispenses every visit. Selma still
refuses to wear maternity clothes. The sight
of the girl’s dark body squeezed into over-
sized stretch jeans and a pink top that
wouldn’t have contained that belly before the
pregnancy sends an angry tremor through
Louise. The hand clutching the girl’s chart
“You taking those vitamins, Selma?” Louise
hands her yet another brochure.
Even as the girl makes her childish excuses,
Louise exhales slowly in an attempt to stop
the slippage. Time has become her enemy.
She feels its pull. But Louise is a pragmatist.
One thing she learned from her father, a
former refugee from Mississippi Jim Crow, is
always to march forward, head erect, never
compromising or looking back. So she
wrestles back her composure. No one sees
her secret struggle, her resolution that only
charts, symptoms, illnesses will occupy her
By the time she reaches her car, there is only
one illness left. Advanced lung cancer. Two
months or less. Will you come?
Time takes her then. She is behind the wheel
of her Lincoln, backing out of her parking
space, but she is also in a bleak, mustard
yellow bathroom where a spider crouches in a
large, white, claw-footed bathtub—back in a
year when she had been too young to feel
her own youth. The spider rotated suddenly
on the eight fragile legs jutting out from its
abdomen like the rays of a child’s Crayola sun.
At Louise’s yelp Abe came running from his
books, his lean worry melting into laughter
when he looked to where she pointed.
“Babe, it’s just a spider.”
“Look at the size of it.”
“It won’t hurt you.”
“I can’t go near them. Get it out!”
He ran out, then reappeared with the cover
page of his term paper, his pale thin back, as
hard and smooth as the porcelain, bowing
over into the tub. He scooped up the spider;
she backed into the corner away from where
he stood extending the page for her to see.
“Want to kill it?” he asked, grinning his grin.
She burned with shame, knowing his good
heart, his unwillingness to injure or kill any
living thing. “Just get it out of here.”
“You’re funny.” He went out. She heard the
kitchen window open.
She did not feel funny but as if electricity
flowed beneath her skin. The spider had felt
it, had seemed to pulse and grow from it, and
even with the arachnid gone the bathroom
crackled around her. She closed the door and
opened the taps to fill the tub. The room
filled with steam; steam filled her lungs and
hid the heavy webbing in the paint.
Sometimes she imagined she could hear the
paint cracking and flaking away. Lately she
thought she felt an inner pulse just out of
sync with her own.
Her body sank beneath the water, darker
than any house spider against the porcelain
but still unchanged. In bed just mornings ago
Abe had pressed his blonde head to her
brown belly, amazed at how taut and smooth
it remained, and how silent to the new life.
She had marveled at his happiness and
swallowed her own despair.
He opened the bathroom door. She turned
her head to hide the crying. He stripped and
slid into the water behind her without a word.
He soaped her back in a slow rhythm; behind
closed eyes she imagined the white spirals.
She felt him stirring. Between them the soft
drip of water from their bodies might have
been rain, a garden of silence springing from
“I can’t,” she finally said.
He understood her meaning. “You can.” She
felt the change in him, the rising tension. His
chin pressed against the top of her head; he
enveloped her like steam, smelled of new
sweat, his morning cigarette. Tears fell onto
the tangle of her Afro. “Please . . . .”
They trembled sadly together in the cool air
from the distant kitchen window.
When she gets home from the clinic, she goes
straight to her daughter’s room and sits on
Joy’s bed. The Polish maid, recommended to
her by the hospital’s chief of staff, is
thorough. The room, a soft salmon pink,
looks as if it were still the center of Joy’s
world with its dense floral patterned bedding
opposite the polished antique vanity Joy had
had to grow into.
Louise goes to the tall mahogany dresser,
fingers the gleaming glass on the two
photographs. In Joy’s college graduation
portrait, her sleekly straightened black hair
cloaks her shoulders, and her smile parts
enough to show flawless teeth. Louise sees
her own thinner self in an older photograph—
a family portrait—but her husband was as
bald and thick-bodied five years ago as now.
He has pudgy, brown fingers that belie his
skill with a scalpel. In the photograph his
right hand rests on Louise’s shoulder. Louise
thinks of the new wedding photograph out in
her airy living room in which Joy is a dark,
slim stalk in a bloom of white, her tall Scots-
Irish groom beside her.
And she wonders at how the world has
changed. Always a practical child, she had
defused confrontation by turning to steel on
playgrounds when white children tossed racial
slights around like balls. And she had
discovered how quiet resolution in the
classrooms and guidance offices could fool
kindly teachers and counselors into believing
she had taken to heart their sage advice on
where little black girls best fit in the world.
Yes, she knew what a nurse’s aide was. Her
mother spent her days changing bedpans at
Michael Reese Hospital for little enough pay.
“Only you and God know what you can be,”
Benjamin Meeks told his daughters, his
Louise and her baby sister, Gloria. God never
told Louise what he knew, but Louise wanted
to be a doctor and so had marched forward,
earning the grades against most, if not all,
She relives stories told in her father’s deep
rumble. She closes her eyes and sees a
young man hiking roads and riding railways
up to Chicago from Mississippi, intent on
leaving hardship behind him. He is gun-metal
black; his limbs are strong. She hears the
heavy thump of his feet down their stoop and
through the gray morning. At night he
returns, coveralls stained and damp from
hoisting and moving, his earthy musk
preceding him but his back unbowed,
sometimes discarded treasures on his
shoulders: an overstuffed chair, the antique
vanity Louise would pass to her daughter.
Louise is his girl, his oldest, and he holds her
on his lap to tell her tales, good and bad, of
the life he has known. She remembers his
pride at finally passing the civil service exam
and her own giddiness at the loud celebration
dinner in an actual sit-down restaurant. How
she had filled her mouth with sweet, greasy
ribs and hot biscuits and cold, yellow potato
salad. She sees the break in those shoulders
the day Medgar Evers meets the bullet that
has been a long time coming. Louise and her
mother and sister know to stay quiet, to let
her proud father concentrate on Walter
Cronkite’s baritone, on the thousands of
electronic dots transmitting the image of
black men in blacker suits standing wet-eyed
in a Jackson, Mississippi driveway. Her
father’s silence crackles. From where she sits
hugging her knees, Louise focuses on the
strength in his hands and feels his silent
yearning to snap a white neck.
Abe’s pale throat flushed red whenever
trouble stirred his gentle soul. She had
known this from the first words he spoke to
her at one of the campus anti-war rallies. In
those days on the campus in Ann Arbor there
were always rallies where hair length,
clothing, and outrage unified black and white
against the Asian war or for the Chicago
Seven, the SDS. Who had introduced her to
this eager boy who called Soul on Ice his
Bible, chanted to free Huey Newton, and
thought himself grooving whenever he heard
Motown on the radio? She had thought him
safe, someone with whom to debate Nixon’s
policies and the constitutional right of Black
Panthers to bear arms. He was the monster
tamed. A curiosity from the other side. How
had they moved from peace to love?
The fault had been hers. She should have
resisted the lingering brush of his hands on
her body, should not have allowed him to
walk her the long, languid routes home.
Never should have answered his gentle rap
on her heart. She should have stayed loyal,
choosing a man black and strong like her
father, as was the boy she had loved
freshman year, had daydreamed a marriage
with, had received between her legs. And the
others who followed, who told her what a fine
sister she was. Proud of Blackness. True to
the Cause. What had driven her to betrayal?
As the song had warned, love was strange. A
new calm had filled her when she first
accepted Abe’s love, for this man so unlike
any she had yet known was the first to look
at her as if with her father’s eyes. She felt
more than a symbol; Abe knew she could be
anything. And so for a brief respite she had
laid down the fight. But her father’s world
still thrived beyond the university. It peered
at Louise from blanched faces whenever she
stood with Abe in movie lines or awaited
service at the corner burger joint. Faces she
might have walked up to and demanded,
Ain’t I a woman? but for the restraint of his
arm around her waist. Sometimes his
privilege infuriated her—that inalienable right
not to see the thinking behind those stares.
While Abe grooved on life, Louise steeled
herself against the public contempt for the
skinny honky and his soul sister whore. Love
across lines became a love with costs: Abe
banished and his clothes hidden at the back
of the closet the two times her parents could
afford the train to Ann Arbor. Soul brothers
and sisters who ignored her on campus and
no longer called. The life of a child.
Adrift without an anchor, Louise went home
for spring break. Her family met the train,
their faces enflamed with pride. Her father
refused to let her carry the slightest bag and
insisted she ride up front with him as he
drove south along Lake Shore Drive,
peppering her with questions: How were her
studies? Was she getting enough to eat?
Whatever happened to that young man
studying engineering? A real credit; were
they still dating? Crackers couldn’t keep down
a black boy as smart as him!
It had been a year since she had visited
home for any extended period, and at first
she felt at a loss without Abe. Nights lying in
bed, listening to her sister gush about boys
and high school, she felt the absence of her
lover’s arms. But then what she came for
happened: slowly her life took on the family
rhythms that had always sustained her. She
helped her mother clean and cook, laughed
and gossiped with her sister. Watched from
the window as her father left for work each
morning and was often there again evenings
when he returned. She was home.
A party in her honor had been planned at the
church. For once her father made no critique
of her imposing Afro, the magnificent
bushiness radiating from her head. But he
insisted she accompany her mother
downtown for a new dress that would fit the
At the huge, bustling department store she
chose a demure spring floral print, not too
mini—a respectable length of leg above the
knees. Her mother waited to pay while Louise
went off to find nylons (something a radical
in bell-bottoms no longer had in her
wardrobe). When Louise returned, she found
her mother still waiting. The cashier seemed
intent on ringing up every other woman who
approached the counter. All white, Louise
Had she been alone or with Abe, Louise
would have raged forward and demanded
service, and at first she did feel her outrage
working to find its voice. It was her mother’s
attitude that stopped Louise—the dogged,
almost serene patience, dress draped over an
arm of her simple gray cloth coat, purse
clasped before her demurely with both hands.
A lady waited. With all the dignity she could
muster. Her mother had taught this by
example all of Louise’s life. It was as if Louise
were a young child again, absorbed within
the aura of her mother’s familiar and
comfortable acceptance of place. It filled
Louise with a sadness that smothered her
anger like a blanket, this glimpse of a home
to which she could never really return.
“Come, Mama.” She took her mother’s hand,
tugging against the resistance. “My mother
has been waiting,” she said to the cashier in
a strong, calm stage whisper. She took the
dress from her mother and laid it upon the
counter. She stared into woman’s wide blue
eyes and smiled with all her might.
The cashier’s face went crimson. Her hands
flew as she rang up and bagged the dress.
At the party Benjamin Meeks stood before
family and friends and raised his glass. “You
all know my girl. And I am one proud man to
have this daughter,” he told them all. “Most
of you seen her workin’ hard all her life. The
first in this family to finish school and go on
to college—a good college—with a
scholarship. Good thing, because her mama
and me couldn’t have sent her. And when she
finishes her schooling and brings her
doctoring back home . . . .” He looked at
Louise long and hard, emotion watering his
eyes. “This church—this community—will
share in our miracle.”
First a day laborer and now fourteen years a
mail carrier, her father still stood tall in
Louise’s eyes although she now saw the
slump in his shoulders and how his thick,
dense black hair had become a gray fringe.
Beside him, her mother sat with that same
inscrutable patience. They would be her
child’s grandparents. They would help her
teach it to claim a place in the world. Her
sister Gloria would be the doting aunt. Beside
Gloria sat the reverend who would christen
the baby. Throughout the church basement,
smiles brightened faces and hands raised
glasses in her honor. Louise tried to imagine
Abe among them, a part of it all.
“Not now. And not a mixed baby.”
“That baby will be ours! Please . . . .”
In the face of her resolve Abe kicked over
chairs and vanished for hours. He slunk back
with broken daisies behind his back. He
begged her to marry him. In the end he sat
beside her, listening for the nurse to call her
name. His right thumb traced slow circles on
the top of her left hand. She watched it work
into her flesh, deep and steady as the current
buzzing in her head.
“We’ll be okay,” he promised.
“We’ll be okay,” she promised back.
Afterward, through the haze of searing pain,
she felt a loss in every bounce and turn and
screaming halt of the rusted Ford Pinto. Or
she rose from sleep to an empty bed. Or his
eyes skipped past hers; she learned the
sharp edge of his profile. Their silence came
to full bloom.
Even as he nursed her with broth and tea, he
vanished by degrees. When had she last
heard his laughter? How far did he need to
walk for cigarettes? When he finally came to
bed, his arm on her back felt different,
lighter, as if the substance of love had dried
away, leaving a weightless husk. She
wondered if she wanted him back. Finally she
As he stuffed his army surplus duffel with his
clothes, she fought the need to stop him.
“You really want to do this?” he demanded.
He jammed a tangle of T-shirts deep into the
He turned to her clutching a wad of frayed
Jockey briefs. “I love you. We love each
“ I know what I feel—what I’d do for you,
what I’m willing to do. I agreed to the
“You didn’t have a choice.”
“No. I guess I didn’t.” His throat pulsed; it
burned crimson. “What about you, Louise?
Was I ever going to meet Daddy? Did you
ever really consider having my baby?”
“Your love. Your baby. What about school and
a future? Everyone out there expects me to
He spread his arms. “And what’s here doesn’t
count? You really think the enemy is all
around us, but never ever in this room.” He
punched the last of his clothes into the bag
then turned back to her, his face flushed, his
eyes blurry. “Fuck it—you know why, Louise?
Because someday it has to be about us.
About who we are and what we want.”
“That might have been. Someday. You know
someday? I grew up on it.” She was Marion
Anderson singing her challenge to the DAR;
she was Dr. King rattling the gates to the
Promised Land. “‘Someday things will change.
Black people will have their time someday.’
Maybe it was your turn to wait.”
He opened his mouth to answer, but she
stopped him with a raised hand. She picked
up her woven shoulder bag from a chair. At
the door she said, “Leave the key on the
She winced at a shot of pain but worked her
slow way down two flights and across campus
to their favorite used bookstore. Wondering
how long she would have to stay there, she
tried to concentrate on browsing through the
dark, narrow aisles. After more than an hour
she had discovered a hardbound copy of
Grimm’s Fairytales in new condition and a
fiercely highlighted paperback of LeRoi Jones’
The System of Dante’s Hell. The irony of
these choices made her choke back a strange,
iron laughter. She thought of finding a phone
and calling her father so his gruff bark could
tell her she had done right without his
knowing what the wrong had been. She
counted out the five-dollar total for the books
through a cloud. The apartment was empty
when she returned, but Abe had not left his
Days passed and she remembered little about
them beyond the waiting, awake and asleep.
She grew stronger, finally wanted solid food.
She opened her textbooks again.
The wait ended as she awoke to the press of
his body on the bed. At the touch of his
hands she knew she would not fight or
struggle, had always intended to take in his
rage and hope one more time. Destruction
guided their coupling—a coming together, a
breaking apart—and when he left, the key
clicked like a lock on the bedside table. She
did not see him again. By the time a white
face she could not place stopped her to say
that Abe had dropped out of pre-law and
would be switching to sociology at Wayne
State come the fall, she believed she had
stopped missing him.
She has barely slept in days. A second call
from Max has filled in the blanks: Long years
of social work in Detroit. A childless marriage
and bad divorce. These final days of hospice.
Will you come? Louise heard a plea for
resolution filtered through the kid brother’s
She lies to her husband, makes her plans.
She feels hounded by the same dark dread
and sadness that came with her father’s
Benjamin Meeks had reaped an old age full of
blessings: an easy retirement and two
successful daughters whose futures he had
balanced like a trunk on his back. Louise had
weathered his sudden illness and grand
funeral with the prideful dignity that had
always made her Benjamin Meeks’ daughter.
Accepting casseroles, kissing cheeks, or
standing in regal black among the press of
pale lilies with her mother and sister, she
locked herself so tightly against the loss that
her days passed as remotely as the cityscape
winter now frozen in the windshield of her
Lincoln. But as she maneuvers the car along
Stony Island Avenue from Hyde Park to the
Skyway, then across the Indiana void, she
feels the first fine cracks in her will. By the
time she stops in Michigan City to dry her
eyes and refuel, she is wondering what she
could say to him. This is who I became? Sorry
we broke each other’s hearts? She takes her
gold card from the attendant, signs the
receipt, and turns toward home. Max does
not call again.
Time swings by a filament, by a spider’s
After a scalding bath, Louise clears the
condensation from the bathroom mirror,
squinting at the blur of her own face. She
puts on her glasses to study her blunt, brown
features, wonders what was ever in them
that could draw someone from one world into
another. In these seconds of collapse and
surrender that sometimes come, she lets
them return to her: his pale hands on her
dark shoulders. She will always remember
him as young and strong. Their child’s
absence fills her, but that judgment she can
bear. It is the mirror couple who haunt her—a
girl as clear as water, a boy as vacant as
steam. Louise wipes a palm across the mirror
and they are gone.
When I was a kid in the turbulent 50's and 60's, the fiction and poems
I read presented a world where people maintained (or found) a strong
moral compass despite the sometimes insane behavior around them.
Harper Lee's Scout, Jem, and Boo Radley. Tormented John in James
Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain. I knew people like them walking
my streets, needed to write about them, so I earned my MFA from the
Iowa Writer's Workshop. After twenty-plus years as a teaching
vagabond, moving from state to state to teach the craft of writing, I'm
currently settled in Chicago and focused on actually finishing a short
fiction collection and a novel. My story "Philly" was the 2010 Briar Cliff
Review Fiction winner and a Pushcart Prize nominee. "Fledgling" was a
2013 finalist for the Bellingham Review's Tobias Wolff Fiction Award,
and "Blue Notes" was a 2013 finalist for Southwest Review's David
Nathan Meyerson Fiction Prize.
|AS CLEAR AS WATER
by Daryl Murphy
She should have re-
sisted the lingering
brush of his hands on
her body . . . . She
should have stayed
loyal, choosing a
man black and strong
like her father . . . .