by Cyrus Cassells
Novel excerpt, from Fall 2017
Brother, hear me, no warning sign or bothersome stop light will do the trick, when your heedless, feet-first self is faced with real, fascinating love or full-tilt talent; I bet a sage advice columnist or a wise Lenox Avenue palm-reader must have stated it plain (as a spoon of castor oil!) at some key point. “Watch out, Countée, here comes competition,” I teased Mr. Cullen, our amiable Negro Poet Laureate. “This Maceo kid might just give you a pretty decent run for your Harlem money. Man, have you read ‘My Mother is a Musical Instrument’ yet? Talent with a capital T.”
I remember receiving a silly as Sally invite to a social whist party on West 129th, proclaiming “some wear pajamas, some wear pants, what does it matter, just so you can dance. If Sweet Mama is running wild, and you’re looking for a do-right child . . .” Well, at the time, I had no notion I was in a Don Quixote like jazz quest for anything at all (save for a well-deserved vacation from watchful gossips), much less “a do-right child,” but I sure as hell nabbed the Real McCoy in Mr. Maceo, my sweet genius to go, who, as you’re maybe aware, graced me with two choice, undeniably Grade A roles. Looking back on that rather frenetic summer of 1929, I can see, my children, I was definitely at a funky crossroads. Quiet as it’s kept, I’d gotten a little bored and irritated with Keris, my flawless, indispensable wife of seven, going on eight years, whom I actually loved (we were hearts and flowers sweethearts at Howard), and our not so flawless arrangement, which allowed her to pursue, sub rosa, her tan and yellow gal pals (with an occasional look-see or join-in, on hubby’s part) while I, in keeping with my highly sexed nature and “Tan Valentino” reputation, roamed the vast playing field, as needed, keeping my fantasy-wrapped fans, both goose and gander, panting for more of my ardent loverman in a fedora act. But my “terribly unwise” affair with a Inverness-born actress (a delicate, alluring but still soulful Desdemona to my salt-of-the-earth Othello) had scandalized both my uptown and downtown followers, enough so, that even permissive Keris put her usually laissez-faire foot down, making it de rigeur that I dump tender, attentive Penelope, “my sweeting”—whom I admit, I had naïve, sugar-and-spice dreams of maybe marrying. Since only a very select few show biz types were hip to my “eclectic tastes,” Maceo’s fortuitous appearance in my life was the longed-for antidote to the whole flagrant Scotswoman scandal, which had raged, hot as a burning building, until the deluded Moor of Venice breathed his histrionic last, and my leading lady quietly headed back to the Highlands.
Right on the tail of the show’s closing, I managed a prest0-chango getaway to Paris, hoping for a tearful but nevertheless downright lusty reunion with my very own dimpled Mary Queen of Scots, when a clipped telegram informed me that our Eiffel Tower tryst was a deflating “no dice.” Putting a hasty bottle cap on my fast-mounting despair, I accepted a last minute invite to some fancy colored soiree, not in “Negro Montmartre” but close to swank Rue de Bac, and that’s where I first laid eyes on my sunny Maceo, in all his glory. Following a few musical numbers, he recited a couple of his megawatt poems, including the famous crowd-pleaser about Mom. After sampling a few too many flutes of champagne and a dollop of cocaine to dispel suddenly turncoat Penelope’s stinging rejection, without thinking, I trailed the evening’s luminous poet-emcee, as if he were a scintillating Harlem version of The Pied Piper, ostensibly to “iron my shoelaces” in the ornately tiled bathroom of Madame Redbone So-and-So. Maceo was discreetly adjusting himself in the mirror, while I shamelessly stood nearby, admiring the view, and blurted out: “Bravo, Mr. Poet, count me among your newfound fans!” I promptly launched into a sonorous, semi-blotto rendition of “The Negro Speaks of the Rivers,” to highlight, god help me, my genuine appreciation of verse.
“I see you’ve read Mr. Hughes. I’m touched, D.T Sweetie, really I am. Having just finished a pretty solid run of Othello, I’m sure you’ve got an ‘every boy does fine’ feeling for verse, but somehow, given your current state, I doubt your soul’s really grown deep as a river. . .”
I winced a little to hear my earliest stage nickname, wielded like the Musketeer d’Artagnan’s brisk barb, in a swift move to disarm “pickled,” foolhardy me.
“Applause for your clear enthusiasm for poetry, most illustrious sir, but I need to head back to Madame de Thuiliers’ salon. I’ve got a job to do: I’m introducing another promising singer, one of my Cousin Latt’s new discoveries.”
“Yes, I’ll let you hurry back to your ‘New Negroes’ and ultra aristo-cats’. Here’s my card, Mr. Poet, in case . . .”
Maceo encounter #2 was in his Cousin Lattimore Hartnell’s tiny club:
“Mr. Mitchell, we meet again. It seems you never made use of my card. Please excuse my previous actions, as I confess, I was quite tight and obviously dazzled by your exceptional verse and charm. Please excuse, also, my impromptu recitation on the rue du Bac. Silly, I know, but how else can an actor impress an accomplished homme des lettres? By the way, I count Mr. Hughes and Mr. Cullen among my circle of friends. I’m serious, Mr. Mitchell. Please accept my apology and say you’ll dine with me at my hotel.”
The poet accepted politely, with an easygoing smile, and so began, our discreet dinners and pleasurable promenades around Paree. It took a fortnight or two before, like a nimble quick-change artist, I let the cat out of the bag that my snowballing interest in Mr. Harlem Boy Wonder was a heck of lot more than just brotherly. Then joy, joy, joy: declaring my true yen for Mr. Maceo was like taking a captivating but cumbersome mask off at heady Carnival time.
“Well, you took me by surprise, Dunc. I guess this explains, Romeo in a fedora, why you followed me into ‘the powder room.”
“Uh huh, I was magnetized, Mr. Poet.”
Ah, Paris (spread before us like a bright damask) and the little bell-peal of Mace’s tickling laugh, his dapper profile on a twilit stroll: yes, siree, you bet I’ll take all that to my grave. Hard to believe, I know, but oh-so-brainy yet still tantalizing Maceo didn’t have much of a clue about his own considerable charms (which I guess, was “lucky as fuck” for me), but let’s just say he was in an eye-catching league with Countée’s longtime buddy, that social butterfly and come-hither boulevardier Harold Jackman, the one a whole bunch of fascinated, ogling colored folks referred to as “The Handsomest Man in Harlem.”
That humid summer I loved to open the casement and coax my sleepyhead poet wide awake in the laggard morning, which in infamous, legendary CPT, might be translated as a low-key Parisian afternoon—just to watch Mace’s long, curly lashes come apart; ah, once upon a whirligig summer, we harmonized, sang old-timey spirituals, jazz, and whatnot. Peculiar to recall, in 20/20 hindsight, our private realm of Gallic hotels and stairwells, our hushed-up love and happiness blossoming, in that breakneck season of sighs and optimism, just one step ahead of The Big Crash, the horror of ruined businessmen leaping from Manhattan’s bright heights.
As it’s widely, not so subtly broadcast, “Dark Gable” is a gentleman, a seigneur of quicksilver moods, yes indeed, a spot-lit chameleon apt to take on his surroundings, but something about Mace invariably calmed me down. You see, Mace was my still-point, my come-home call. A majority of my paramours (quite able partners in crime!) like refined but lusty Penelope, lit a fire in my loins and made me restless as a racehorse. In my own cockamamie way, I vowed to protect my gorgeous, shining, quite principled poet, to make damn sure our very own colored Keats didn’t succumb to killer T.B., or any other of life’s funky or truly dire maladies, but, I tell you, my secret pledge, my angel on the poet’s dreamy shoulder plan sailed right out the window, when Romeo Junior headed first to Commie Russia to make a flick that went bust, then to a remote isle in Canada, and finally, worst of all, got his delectable, do-gooding poet self mixed up in the “toil and trouble” of Republican Spain.
To tell the truth, I wish I’d hauled my dog-and-pony routine to Madrid and environs a hell of a lot more out of airtight conviction and less out of some shaky urge to compete, to keep a big eagle eye on my globetrotting guy, like a hard-bitten gumshoe bent on fingering his footloose lover. I guess you could peg me as that familiar fool, not spun-around Othello exactly (one of my favorite roles), but still a man bedeviled by that gadfly, jealousy. Vain ole me, I figured Mace’s war reporting for the Negro papers was his dramatic, Technicolor way of finally leaving Dark Gable’s fickle, philandering ass. He knew whenever I found his deep, mighty complicated way of feeling and seeing things to be a “stretch,” there was always plenty of eager “tail” waiting in the wings.
I told myself, in my salad days, that battling it out in the political arena just “tweren’t” my bailiwick, so it took time to catch on that my pipe-dreaming poet then surprisingly ballsy war reporter truly did set store in all that hardcore, anti-Fascist stuff. My heart just about burst when Mace and I reunited over there in embattled Spain. “Fancy you being here, Dunc. Now who would have thought, after all your tough daddy jive, you’d turn out to be just as staunch as Dudley Do-Right?” We had all of about twenty-four hours together in a not shabby Valencia hotel, punctuated by predictable air-raid sirens. I don’t think I ever loved my idealistic Harlem bard more. And when he dragged his beautiful ass back stateside from defeated Catalonia, yup, we were full-on together again, and I said a giant-sized yes to starring in his first play (out of a gadabout lover’s guilt, I teased him), a remarkable show inspired by Bizet’s outsized heroine Carmen, and her famous Habanera, with its “l’amour est une oiseaux rebelle.” Later, I got on board for “Harlem Noel,” that Negro holiday staple, the show that proved to be such a happy moneymaker for Maceo.
“My Insufficient Sweetie, I suppose asking you to hold off on all the hot pursuit stuff is like asking the mountaintop to stop loving thin air.”
“Or like insisting a certain poet I have a hankering for to stop hop-footing it around the globe and keep within a certain radius of Harlem.”
Long before there was more “dukes-up” between Dark Gable and his footloose poet than spooning and making up (maybe Hitler and the world-wide War made just about anybody and everybody ornery), on a whim, I took Maceo back with me to my Raleigh homeplace. My father, the Reverend R. A. Metcalfe, had at first been a tall, drying-and-toting tobacco plantation slave then a colossal but still humble Presbyterian minister, and, quite naturally, I grew up being the Sunday prodigy and upstaging star singer in his devoted congregation. Because Daddy Reeve loved freedom and clear skies above most things, as a pastime, he became an offhand, almost sly lover of carefree kites and kite-flying. I was seven when my doting mother Raynelle and my closest brother, Stoddard, suddenly passed away in a Chesapeake ferry disaster, and my grieving sire, in the hope of keeping both our sorrowing blues at bay, gifted little Duncan with a small cloud-bound kite. Well, past the cistern, in an old shed (where Stoddard and I sometimes hid), rummaging around near some stovewood, I found a larger, multi-colored kite I’d patched together in middle school, and Mace and I proceeded to resurrect it. On a fairly warm Ides of March morning, I let Maceo handle the dusted-off kite for a stretch; when he accidentally stumbled on an unseen branch in the meadow grass, to keep the runaway cloth from escaping scot-free and sailing off into old man Maldonado’s woods, I quickly reached my arms around Mr. Poet to catch the wayward tail, and the sudden, no fuss about it joining of our bodies felt so damn good, I kept my long arms, just-so, sweet as pie, around his slender waist for awhile, not caring at all who saw us, as we merged in Jenson’s Meadow and became, oh boy, like joined-at-the-hip Siamese twins—one kite-flying, happy-go-lucky unit. For me, that “taint nobody’s business” embrace (thank you, Bessie, thank you, Fats!) brings to mind the kite-high, up in the air feel of D.T. and Romeo Junior’s best days: cloistered from meddling eyes or pointing fingers, on that clement meadow morning, we were soaring on the clandestine Aladdin’s carpet of our deep-down love for each other.
Some rather jaundiced souls, mostly movie colony cynics and back door johnnies, might have labeled my last and final separation from my handsome Harlem bard as cruel and opportune, since Mace’s troubles with McCarthy and HUAC came fairly fast on the heels of our break-up. First sensitive, frustrated Maceo, my “rebellious bird,” quit me (word has it, for some “Guinea” film director who was wowing folks all over Europe), then indulgent Keris (weary to the bone, I’m sure, after two decades, by all my misadventures) did the same; my darling better half opted for a “Boston marriage” with her longtime girlfriend, Janai, a still slim, bookish beauty from Martha’s Vineyard, that island bastion of the Negro “bluebloods.” So I went back to garish and never-dull Hollywood, to my role as reliable pasha to an adoring harem of women and invert fans, and, holy Moses in a moving basket, broke the trusty heart of one of the best men I’ve ever known.