My mother hated the rumors, not for the heartache, she said, but for the humiliation--there were standards, after all. But not in the rumor mill. Waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket, just before my son Bentley was born, I was astonished to read on the cover of one of the more imaginative tabloids, just beneath the weekly Whitney Houston story (TALKS CANDIDLY ABOUT HER HEARTBREAK) and just above the latest way to lose as much weight as you want without diet or exercise (A MIRACLE DOCTORS WON'T TELL YOU), the gladsome tidings that the Mafia had put out a contract on my father, because of his cooperation with federal prosecutors--although, when Kimmer made me go back to the store and buy it and I read the whole thing, all one hundred fifty words, I noticed a pointed lack of detail as to what my father could possibly have to cooperate with prosecutors about, or what he might know about the Mafia that would be so dangerous. I called Mrs. Rose, the Judge's long-suffering assistant, and finally caught up with him on the road in Seattle. He took the opportunity to warn me yet again on the insidiousness of his enemies.
"They will do anything, Talcott, anything to destroy me," he announced in the oracular tone he tended to adopt when discussing those who disliked him. He repeated the word a third time, in case my hearing was off: "Anything."
Including, I noted while leafing through the pessimistic pages of The Nation a few years back, accuse him of paranoia. Or was it megalomania? Anyway, my father was sure they were out to get him, and my sister was sure they were right. When the Judge skipped Bentley's christening three years ago, worried the press might be there, Mariah defended him, pointing out that he had missed half the baptisms of her children--no difficult feat, given the numbers--but by then she and I were barely speaking anyway.
Once a false story of my father's demise made the real papers--not the supermarket tabloids, but the Washington Post, which killed him on a wintry morning in a commuter plane crash in Virginia, one among a dozen victims, his apparent presence on board noted poignantly, but also coyly: CONTROVERSIAL FORMER JUDGE FEARED DEAD IN CRASH is what the headline said. The irony was plain to the most casual follower of current events, because what people feared was not my father dead but my father alive; and because of the unhappy turning his career took, which was also, my father liked to say, the fault of the Post and "its ilk." Left-wing muckrakers, my father called them in his well-remunerated speeches to the Rightpacs, who were pleased to hear this angry, articulate black lawyer blaming the media for his resignation from the federal bench not long after the collapse of his anticipated elevation to the Supreme Court, where, his conservative fans loved to remind his liberal critics, he had argued and won two key desegregation cases in the sixties.
Oh, but he could be confounding! Which is why Mariah was certain that there were smiles of relief all along the Cambridge-Washington axis (where she picked up that hackneyed phrase I will never know, but I suspect it was from Addison, who could always stand her) when the early editions of the Post carried the crash story and a couple of the more careless news-radio stations repeated it. The plague, it seemed for a glorious instant, was at an end. But my wily father was not on board. Although his name was on the manifest and he had checked in, he had prudently chosen that occasion to argue via long distance with my mother, then busily dying at the Vineyard house, over the cost of some repairs to the gutters, and the discussion grew sufficiently extended that he missed the flight. The airline got its passenger list wrong, this being back in the days when it was still possible to do such a thing. "That's how much she loved me," the Judge told us in a drunken ramble the night of Claire Garland's funeral. He cried, too, which none of us had seen before--only Addison even claimed to have seen him take a drink since the bad period just after Abby died--and Mariah slapped my face when, the very next day, I pointed out to her that, in the six years of my mother's illness, my father spent as much time on the road as he did at her bedside. "So what?" my sister demanded as I groped for a suitable riposte to a palm across the cheek--a question, once I thought about it, that I was ill-prepared to answer.
Excerpted from The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter Copyright 2002 by Stephen L. Carter. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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