I bought a red convertible that year, to impress women. It worked, for a while. They liked my car but they didn’t like me much. At least, they didn’t hang around long, after a date or two. At first, having a different date every weekend seemed blue ribbon but after a couple months, it seemed more like the booby prize. In August, my mind whirled around life and what I should do with mine. Washed up? At twenty-two? Am I really a loser?
My old man used to say, “Sit and sulk or git up and do sumpin’ about it — that’s yur choice, kid.”
Do something? Like what? That fall was a wipe out too. The more sumpin’ I tried to do, the less the women were impressed, at least until I met Willy.
Willy was three years younger than me, black, and smooth with women. Not smooth like a slick salesman or a TV evangelist. He was smooth like the medicine Mom used to give me mixed in white corn syrup. It was delicious and went down without a fight. That just about describes Willy and women. Only he couldn’t get rid of them if he tried. The more he took, the more they gave. And I say they, meaning six of them, at the same time, and they knew each other, and they knew he was dating all the others, but they didn’t walk away mad. Heck no. They kept coming back for more of Willy. So I asked him to teach me what he had. He agreed.
He started slow, then talked for hours about the look. It wasn’t the look your folks give you when you are in trouble. It wasn’t the look like “Honey, I want to eat you up.” It was a look that said something like, “I have life by the tail and I know you are itching to come along for the ride.” It was a look of delight, like Willy had a secret with you. He said the women loved it. They loved thinking that they had an ‘in’ with him, a shared delight that wasn’t defined, but that made it mysterious and precious, and they were going to hang with him until they found out what it was. Other women might have his body for a time, but with that look, they had intimacy. And Willy said, “Boy, that is what women really want.”
I couldn’t do it. I tried. Jennifer thought it was a silly grin. She wasn’t impressed. Helen wondered if I had just heard a stupid joke and blew up at me because I wouldn’t share it with her. Jeannie thought I was mocking her. She slammed a door in my face and left.
I went crying back to Willy. Well, I didn’t cry on the outside, but he seemed to know that I was just about that desperate.
“Boy, you just haven’t got it yet. And you know why? It is not something you fake on the outside, man. You have to have life really by the tail, not pretend you do. If women want to go along for the ride, they have to know you are genuine, man. Don’t you get it? You really can’t fake that. The look is an inner thing first, somethin’ that comes from the heart.”
“But Willy, how do I get that in my heart? I always thought that if you acted really hard that you were somebody, you would become somebody. That’s what you did, isn’t it? Don’t you have that look because you have convinced yourself about this whole thing? Nobody really has the world by the tail, at least not guys like you and me.”
“Oh, but that’s where you are wrong, boy. I’m totally sure of me, myself, and I. I know who I am, and I can look at anyone with confidence that comes from right here.” Willy pounded his chest with his fist. My chest just pounded. This was nonsense to me.
I started watching Willy, sometimes when he wasn’t noticing that I was watching. He seemed sure of himself, all the time in fact. Then August came, and Willy started coughing. He wasn’t feeling well either. He tried telling me that he was okay, but he kept coughing and losing weight so I rounded up his friends and we ganged up on him and talked him into going to a doctor. It was not good. Willy had cancer, in his lungs.
The first thing to go, besides some pounds and a lot of oxygen from his chest, was that look. He lost it. His eyes dimmed. No smiling. No jaunty glances at the pretty ones. Willy was like a balloon without air, a rose with no petals (he wouldn’t like that description very much) or a Porsche that had run out of both oil and gas (better, much better). His listlessness turned into blank and horrible staring, punctuated by coughing spasms.
I drove him to the hospital on November 1. He was in pain, his head lolling against the window and his body making little effort to keep from folding into a fetal position. After the paperwork was done, they put him into bed in a double room. The man in the next bed also had lung cancer. He smiled at us. I wondered why he had a shine on his face. Willy’s face was pasty, if a colored person can have a pasty face.
Willy didn’t notice, but I did. This roommate man had a look. It wasn’t the look, not a saucy, come-with-me-baby look that the nurses fell all over themselves for, but nonetheless, it was a look. He coughed like Willy too, but the look didn’t go away.
That first day Willy moaned and mumbled thanks, but I knew he didn’t want me or anyone he knew to watch him like this, so I said goodbye and went for a walk. The halls in a hospital are long and lonely this time of day. I passed many rooms where folks were huddled around a person in a bed, their eyes full of tears or outright sobbing aloud. I felt like blubbering myself. Poor Willy.
I didn’t pay much attention to where I was going until I passed the door of a room and heard a man praying. He prayed in a firm voice, like he knew who he was talking to. He was not praying for himself though, but someone else. He asked, “God, you know the pain and the deepest needs of this fellow’s heart. You know that whatever is going on in his body is not nearly so dangerous as the emptiness of his soul. Lord, I just ask that you have mercy on him, that you reveal to him the source of true peace and joy, that you give to him meaning and fullness of life as only you can. I pray that you will show him that having you in his heart will give him great peace and joy, a confidence and a hope that cannot be robbed, not even by lung cancer.”
My heart started skipping beats. I lifted my lowered eyes and looked in the room, but even before I did, I knew who the man was, and I knew that he was praying for Willy.
Willy died two weeks later. I didn’t go see him very much before it happened. I wanted to, but couldn’t handle the way he looked. Besides, he was drugged up and we couldn’t talk much. I feel guilty. It was pure selfish discomfort on my part.
The funeral was large for someone so young. We all cried, all of his friends, all of the girls who had known him back then. The pastor talked about the hope of eternal life. Afterwards, even though I’m not one to do such a thing, I got up and told all of them about the man in the next bed and about his prayers for Willy. I even said, “Who knows. Maybe God answered that man, and maybe Willy has that confidence and hope that he prayed for. Maybe Willy has life by the tail now, far more than he ever had it while he was alive.”
I still shake my head remembering that I said that, because I didn’t think I was a religious man. I still don’t, but I have to say that after Willy died, I decided to visit that room. Maybe it was the guilt, but I knew someone would be in it, someone who was dying just like Willy, and I felt I needed to pay my respects to someone that was alive.
I was surprised the first time I went. That praying man was still in the next bed. Not only that, he hung on for months. He coughed, and he lost weight until he looked like bones wrapped in skin. He was in pain too, but the shine on his face was like a magnet.
Eventually I told him I overheard him praying for Willy. He smiled, then he said, “Do you want me to pray for you too?”
I did. And he did. Before he went to join Willy in death, he shared with me the secret, his secret. I didn’t ask about that look that he had, nor would have, but he told me anyway.
I was surprised. I still am, because, you see, I have it now, the look. It is not to catch girls even though they find me much more interesting than I was before. Instead, I have this same look that man had, not the one that Willy lost.
My look does for others what his did for me; it makes them stop and wonder. Some even ask why I’m so darn sure of myself. I just smile and tell them, “It’s not me that I’m sure of, but if you are interested, I’d be happy to tell you how to get this look. . . .”
© Elsie Montgomery (remembering Janice W. who told me that before she believed, she knew who did because their faces shone!)