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Freedomland (Richard Price)


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  As Lorenzo rolled down late-night Jessup Avenue, Brenda softly sang to herself in the shotgun seat, Chuck Jackson's "Any Day Now." Her right temple was pressed to the passenger window, the headphone wires hanging jagged and kinked to the Discman in her lap. Lorenzo smiled nervously as he worked his way down the finger of land that was the city of Gannon, heading toward Gannon Bay. As he turned off Jessup onto F.X. Kiely Avenue, four blocks from the water, Brenda suddenly came to life, sitting up and slipping off her headphones. "Where are you taking me?"

"I'm taking you someplace peaceful," Lorenzo said, parking in front of a chain-link fence that was foaming with weeds and brush. "You need some serenity."

"Are you taking me to my son?" she asked, her voice hollow and stiff.

Lorenzo got out of the car, walked around to her side. "I wish I could, Brenda," he said, opening her door. "I truly wish I could." The gate was unlocked, so that Lorenzo had only to raise the hinged clasp. He offered Brenda his hand.

"Why are you taking me here." Brenda took a step back, her face chalky in the moonlight.

"Brenda," he said softly, holding the gate ajar with his foot.

"What's in there." She took another step back.

"History," he answered, carefully taking her by the hand.

Inside the gate, Lorenzo walked her along a quarter-mile curve of shattered macadam jutting out into the bay. A thin crescent of derelict pavement, it was flanked on one side by water the color of steel and, on the other, as far back as anyone could see, by abandoned acreage upon which--in no discernible pattern of plantings--humped, erratic manmade shapes cloaked in moonlit vegetation, rose from the ground like the overgrown ruins of some lost jungle civilization.

"You know about this place?" Lorenzo walked clumsily, dragging his heels in order to keep pace with her dazed, halting step.

"No," she said, looking out over the water, the black, lapping bay.

"It was called Freedomtown. It was like an American-history theme park--had all these rides and activities around American history, you know, like the Civil War, riverboats, old Model A Fords, like a Wild West street, a blacksmith shop. You sure you don't know this place?"

"I don't know. I heard of it."

"Yeah, OK. Well, they opened this up in like 1962, because a year or so before, over in New York? They had a place called Freedomland. And that was big-time. It was two hundred acres and it was in the shape of America, and everybody went to that. I remember, they had this jingle? For like a whole year, anytime I turned on the radio, the TV, I heard that jingle, some kid singing to his parents to take him to Freedomland.

"Anyways, it was real popular, so these guys over here? I think they were called the Hartoonian brothers, they said, Let's do it, so this was like only ten acres, but they figured all the people around Gannon, Jersey City, Bayonne, Dempsy, they might want to go to a place closer, so..."

They walked past the overgrown hummocks, Lorenzo speculating to himself about what lay at the heart of each one--a short-spouted Civil War mortar emplacement, an abandoned paddle wheel, the rotted hull of a Jean Laffite pirate ship, an overturned ticket booth, or maybe a pile of floorboards from a nineteenth-century beer garden--all of them transformed from cheap historical facsimiles to objects with archaeological validity of their own now, at rest under blankets of green.

One pile had a jagged wooden shingle thrust into its side, like the shaft of a shovel, the word Information still legible in ornate nineteenth century-style lettering. Brenda kept her eyes toward the water and raised the volume on her Discman, which she carried like a plate or an offering across her two bandaged palms.

"See, the original Freedomland? Over in New York? That went up after a few years because the '64 World's Fair opened out in Queens and took away all their business, and this joint here didn't last too much longer either. I think the brothers shut this down in like 1966 or something. The Hartoonians, they just disappeared, just walked away and left this like a carcass. People took all the stuff, it was like a free-for-all, everybody walking off with carousel horses, antique cars, pirate stuff, butter churns, cowboy hats, you name it. Me and my friends? I remember we took out a bar mirror they had in, like, this Tombstone saloon. We got it out, walked all the way back to Armstrong, gonna give it to my moms for Mother's Day? I dropped it in the hallway outside our apartment. Lorenzo hissed in disgust.

Brenda crooned the lyrics to "What's Your Name," a ballad Lorenzo hadn't heard, or thought about, in decades.

"Anyways," he forged on, his feet killing him from walking at her tippy-toe pace. "The city? They came in here and just up and seized it for unpaid taxes, and, you know, over the years they were gonna make it into a park, sell it to private developers, make it a marina, condos, but, like, here you are."

Lorenzo couldn't tell if she was listening. He took her by the elbow, steering her onto a second walkway, deeper into the ruins, her back now to the water. She dug in, freeing her arm from his grip.

"What are you doing?" she wailed. "Please just say what you want."

"I just want to show you something," he said gently.

"Show me what."

Twenty yards off that second path, they stopped before a thirty-foot high grayish plywood facade of a nineteenth-century urban boarding house. It stood in the nighttime weeds like the forlorn, derelict screen of an abandoned drive-in theater. The front door, the cornices, pediments, lintels, flower boxes, and other detailing were simply painted on, and the windows, three stories high, three across, were rectangular cutouts without glass. But in one of the third-floor windows stood a wooden woman in turn-of-the-century dress, her torso and throat lazily ensnared by vines, her arms thrust high in a V, her eyebrows arched in terror, her mouth a pink-rimmed black hole, as if she had been frozen in the midst of screaming for help, the green creepers a host of snakes pulling her down into hell.

"This here is the Chicago Fire," Lorenzo said affectionately, noting how Brenda seemed transfixed by the moonlit dummy on the top floor. "See all these windows?" There used to be gas jets behind the wall that would send out flames, you know, like turning on a burner? And you'd hear, like, a fire alarm go out over the whole park, and this old-time hand pumper would come out with these guys dressed like firemen. And one guy would have a megaphone, start yellin' for all the kids to come help. Kids came runnin', and, you know, they'd shoot water up to the windows, and about ten, fifteen minutes later? They'd turn off the gas, and it would be like the kids had put out the fire."

Lorenzo looked at the windows, trying to remember the crackle and smoke. The belching flames had been replaced by that conquering green, all nine windows spewing forth creepers, tendrils, and arms to heaven, thick-stemmed, treelike weed whose uptipped double-leafed foliage seemed to mimic the gesture of the mannequin on the top floor.

Lorenzo followed Brenda's gaze upward, noticing now that the woman's left hand was gone and that the head and torso were chipped and riddled with bullet holes. "That's Dusty Springfield." He muscled down a nervous yawn. "I don't know why, but we always called that lady Dusty Springfield, even when we were kids."

Brenda, seemingly transfixed by the mannequin, appeared to be on the verge of saying something but finally looked off without comment.

Taking her by the elbow again, Lorenzo escorted her farther on, until they came to a low, moss-covered concrete ledge, a border of some kind. They sat there overlooking a ruptured, grass-veined field of cement, maybe a hundred feet square. At the far end of this seasick floor were the ruins of a hooded bandshell and the remains of a stage.

"See, now this is what I call American history. This isn't no re-creation like the rest. This is where history itself, was made."

"What history."

"My history." He waited until she turned to him. "See, when they opened up here? They had music, live music, and the people would dance out here on the floor, right? And the first year they had whatever was left of the big bands, or, or polka bands, or jumpin' jive, or whatever they called it--you know, stuff for your parents. But then later, when this place started to get in trouble? The Hartoonians aimed, like, a little younger, and they hooked up with Motown, started having Saturday afternoon concerts with Motown singers, because back in those days? Like the early sixties? Motown wasn't real established yet, and they were probably sending their people out for next to nothing, you know, just to get the exposure. So, like, here comes the Miracles, the Four Tops, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, and that was fly, except that what happened was, you start bookin' those kind of entertainers? Your amusement park is gonna start changing color on you. You're gonna start drawing a good deal of the public-housing kids from over in Dempsy, over in Darktown, see what I'm saying?

"Now, they closed this place up anyways, even though I personally don't feel they had to, financially, because they really started to pack the people in with the Motown shows. See, my theory was the city itself made them close down, you know, the councilmen, the retailers, the chamber of commerce, because they just didn't want all these D-Town niggers in here bustin' up the chifforobe."

Brenda lay back on the grass and, as if pulling the night up around her like a blanket, curled up on her side, facing away from him. But her eyes remained open and her Discman off.

Now, see, me, I was part of the problem back then. Me and my boys, we would come over from Armstrong every Saturday afternoon and start kickin'it with, damn...Little Stevie Wonder, you know, "Fingertips" Stevie Wonder? The Contours, the Supremes--it was really something else Man, I remember when Little Stevie Wonder came on? I was stranding so close to the stage I could've just reached out and tied his shoelaces together, and, hey, we were no angels. We'd get in fights all the time, all the time, and, like, we'd get chased by some of the local white boys, you know, the Irish, the Italian, the Polish, but let me tell you, we'd do some of the chasing too. I mean, that was definitely a two way street. But I got to say, the good memories here way outweigh the bad, way outweigh." Lorenzo nodded to himself, then turned to her. She was lying there moon-curled, a sack of pain.

"Brenda." He touched her shoulder. "You want to hear the best thing that ever happened to me out here? The, the highlight of my teenage years?" He waited. She seemed to shrivel before his tired eyes "Brenda..." He touched her elbow.

"Don't stop," she said, her words muffled. Lorenzo was confused by that command, until she added, "Talk more."

"Yeah." Lorenzo rolled his head, hearing popping sounds and sliding gristle from the nape of his neck. "My greatest...I was here one Saturday with these three friends from Armstrong? And Mary, Wells was up on that stage, you remember her? "The One Who Really Loves You," "You Beat Me to the Punch," "Two Lovers"...Yeah, well anyways, we were way up front by that stage there and she was beautiful. To me, she was, oh man...And I was up there in front, like, not even hearin' her, just lookin'...And she sees me, she's smilin', singin', I go off in a daydream, you know, like when you're kind of drivin' on a highway you just, like, go off? And next thing I know somebody's pullin' on my wrist, and I thought someone was messin' with me. I wasn't all there, but I look up and it's her...Mary. And she's pullin' on me, trying to get me up on the goddamn stage and I'm, like, Oh my God. She gets me up on the goddamn stage, me and my fourteen-year-old ass, and like, I'm dreamin' this, I'm dreamin' this. And she has me do a duet with her on 'Two Lovers,' you remember that?" Lorenzo, smiling at her back, sang haltingly,

I got two lovers and I ain't ashamed...

"I can't remember the rest, but, see, both lovers were the same guy split into two, kind and loving, and the other person, when he was treating her bad, messin' around on her, like, a split personality. But, you know, I swear, the older I get the more I think that song is about everybody, you know what I'm saying? How...I mean we're all two people. Damn, some people I can think of are at least two people. I think my wife she's, like, seven people, different one for each day of the week.

Smiling, eyeing her--nothing.

He had no real idea what he was doing telling her all this out here in the midnight ruins of his youngest heart, but he felt it was important to keep talking, to keep offering himself up. At some point it would be her turn.

"Anyways, I'm up there singing, and I got a voice back then? Fourteen years old, sound like someone's strangling a goose. I mean, people were falling down laughing, but I didn't care 'cause it was just a dream. And at the end of the song she kissed me. Kissed me. And I guess she meant to kiss me on the cheek, but she got me in the ear. You ever get kissed in the ear? It's loud, feels like someone stuck a bomb in your head, and it's got suction, a kiss like that. Feels like a toilet plunger or something, pull your eye right out through the ear hole."

Lorenzo paused, smiling. He had never used that one before, "feels like a toilet plunger." Everybody was always telling him he could have been a stand-up comic, but he liked the idea more of being a stand-up motivator, a stand-up interrogator.

"But, Brenda, as she did it? She put a hand on my neck, you know to draw me closer? And, I swear to God, what's this, like thirty-odd years later? I can still feel exactly where each of her five cool, cool fingers lay on me. And I can still smell her hairspray, her perfume. God almighty, that had to be the greatest day of my life. The greatest day of my life!" Lorenzo nodded, staring off at the stage, the nocturnal bandshell, the creeping green taking possession there, too, converting it into the world's largest planter.

The story, despite the number of the times he had told it, still had a powerfully sweet pull on him, especially here, in this place, and he was momentarily adrift, so much so that when he came back he was surprised to see Brenda sitting up again, tear-blind. Cry me a river, Lorenzo thought, marvelling, moved, having never encountered a human being capable of shedding such an unrelenting stream of tears, day after day. But that's the thing, he thought--all she does is cry, Lorenzo praying, Please don't let me lose patience here.

"I have so much love in me," Brenda sobbed, shivering with the strain of her words. "So much love, you just can't know.

"Well, no," Lorenzo said. "You're wrong, 'cause I do know. And that's why I brought you here."

"Why."

He tapped her Discman with a fingernail. "Gets you through the fire, don't it?" She wiped away the tears, using the bandage as a sponge. "I hear what you listen to, Brenda, and I see how you live your life. I mean, who would ever work in the Armstrong Houses if they had any other option...Me," he said, touching his chest. "You...Why? Because we have the love to do it. We have the commitment. But me, I'm home-grown." He shrugged, clasped his hands across his belly. "You? Whoa, white girl from Gannon? And now your heart's breakin', your own family won't step up...Shunned in your hour of, of tribulation. So what do you do, where do you go." He nodded to the Discman. "You go to the music, you go to the music, and you go to the kids, talking about Kenya Taylor like she had been your own child, talking about Reginald Hackett talking about all the kids in that shithole of a projects...Much love. Much love." Lorenzo paused, watching her rocking, a gentle bobbing back and forth now.

"The irony, the irony of it is, I can't think of one outsider--white, brown, black--who would be more, pained about what that projects is going through with this thing than you."

"I had no idea," she said brokenly. "I swear to God." The rocking became more pronounced, her hand pressed against her forehead.

"Let me ask you." Lorenzo kicked it into second gear. "George Howard, you know him from the Study Club?"

"Yeah."

"It wasn't George that jacked you, was it? I mean, you'd've recognized him if it was, right?"

"Sure. No. It wasn't him."

"Yeah, well, they got him all locked up."

"Why." She bolted upright, the flush of her cheeks visible in the moonlight.

Lorenzo shrugged. "I guess he looked like the description you gave."

"Oh God no."

"Busted him up bad too. I mean, it was half his own fault--boy should know how to dance by now--but--"

"It wasn't him, I swear."

"Yeah, I think they most likely know that by now, but things are kind of spinning out of people's hands. It's crazy mad over there. Bad, real bad; TV all over the place, people getting hotter and hotter, cops going off."

"Well, maybe this is good in a way," she said, not looking at him. Lorenzo waited. "You know, with the TV, people are kind of getting an audience for all their grievances finally. It's like sometimes things have to get worse before they get better."

Lorenzo kept his mouth shut, watching her close her eyes, shake her head, reject her own, desperate construction.

"Anyways, given the music that's getting you through this? I thought you could draw some strength from this place." Lorenzo extended a hand toward the buckled field. "You know, the people who've performed here. It's kind of like, sacred ground for me, you know what I'm saying? And I kind of wanted to share this with you, you know, being who you are.

"It's not even mine, " she muttered dejectedly, rocking again, her forehead on her knees.

"What isn't."

"The music."

"Naw, you can't think like that, Brenda," he said easily. "Music belongs to whoever needs it."

She shrugged off his generosity. They sat without words for a moment, the trees hissing softly above their heads.

"What's this." Lorenzo took the glass from her kitchen out of its Ziploc bag and held it up for her perusal. She stared blankly. "What's this," he said again, passing it under her nose, watching her rear back from the residual fumes. "What..." She wouldn't answer. "You weren't thinking of doing anything stupid, were you?"

"No," she said, her voice tiny and hoarse.

"You sure?" She didn't answer. "Please, Brenda." And then he forced himself to add, "When Cody comes back, he's gonna need you more than ever."

"No." She dragged the word out, crushing her eyes, rocking, almost spinning, Lorenzo's instincts telling him, Go, just go.

"You know that therapy group you told me about? You spent a lot of time looking back over your childhood, finding out how your parents messed you up, right?" No answer, Brenda undulating, rotating from the hips up. "Now I'm sure you know that most people in the world subscribe to the notion that, there comes a time in your life where you have to stop looking back at what was done to you all the time, you have to stop blaming your parents, your childhood, or whatnot, and you have to start taking responsibility for your own actions. And that's, like, the definition of manhood, or, or, womanhood. And this is not necessarily an unintelligent point of view, you know what I'm saying?" He could tell she wasn't listening yet. "My wife said that there was an article about me in the newspaper today. They picked up that my son is in the joint."

Brenda squinted at him. "What?"

My youngest, Jason, he's in the state wing of County doing three to five for armed robbery. Used my gun too. Now, my friends, they all say to me, "Yo, Lorenzo, that boy is his own independent self. Whatever he did to land where he landed, he's got to accept the mantle of responsibility. He din't have no pacifier in his mouth last ten years that I saw. And I say, 'I know, I know.' But between you and me? It is my fault. I blame myself, because I wasn't there for him, I wasn't around to show him how to be, or, you know, I did show him how to be, which was"--he Counted off on his fingers--"irresponsible, high most of the time, selfish, no self control, out of the picture on a day-to-day basis, fighting with his moms when I was around.

"See, you ask anybody, I have this reputation of being like a father figure around this city, Dempsy. You know, help all the kids, do antidrug work, put on picnics in the summer, make sure everybody stays in school. People always asking me, people who didn't know me back in the day, sayin' to me, 'Lorenzo, of all the fathers in this city, how come your boy of all...'

"And I got like this stock response. You know, I say something like 'Well, I was so busy being everybody else's daddy I forgot to be a father to my own blood sons.' It sounds good, but it's a lie. Back then I just didn't care, and now Jason's in jail and all I can do is be there for him, but it's kind of late in the game. He'll most likely be in and out of jail for the rest of his life. Funny thing is, him I get along with. It's his brother, straight-A student, never in trouble, teaches junior high math down in Camden. It's Reggie that won't talk to me, that cut me off dead...You know why?" Lorenzo intended to answer his own question, then realized that he didn't really know why.

"Man, I remember one night when Reggie was about eight, Jayce about six...I'm out of the house like a year, working over for UPS, drunk more often than not. I get this call--Reggie's in the hospital, got appendicitis--so I go over to Dempsy Medical Center, and I'm chewing gum, you know, thinking that's gonna fool everybody. I go up and he's out of surgery a few hours, laying there, he's got his moms on one side of the bed holding his right hand, and his moms's boyfriend, Mark, this guy Mark Bosket, on the left, holding his other hand. This guy's like, looking all concerned, but it's for real. I see he's holding Reggie's hand, and his thumb is, like, rubbing the boy's knuckles--like how you kind of, unconciously touch someone to comfort him? Mark was for real, and I felt so bad, I felt so angry and bad that I just turned on my heel, marched right out the room. So, like, I'm in the hallway now, and there's little Jason with his grandmother, my mother-in-law, and Jason sees me and, he like...reaches for me...just a little." Lorenzo stopped, his throat tight.

"Oh," Brenda whispered.

"Just a little gesture, but I was so mad that this other guy was holding Reggie's hand that I just blew past Jason, down the hallway, out the building. And now, I think back...Reggie, he was covered. His moms there, Mark is there. He's covered. But Jason--his big brother's had surgery, his moms is behind the door in there, everybody all freakin' out--little Jason, he was scared. He needed me right then."

"Oh."

"He needed me, and I just..." Lorenzo looked off, blinking rapidly, gritting his teeth. But let me tell you something," he plowed on. "With kids? No matter what you did, how badly you messed up, God will find some way of letting you get up to bat again. Might not be with that same child, but...

"Now, like I told you, these days people think of me out there like some kind of, of socially responsible Santa Claus or some damn thing. Big Daddy, that's what they call me. Even some of the hard-core young bloods call me that, you know, some of the jugglers. Hell, I know guys in the joint still call me that from when they was little, because I embrace all kids, I try to help 'em all. And I love both my sons now, one in jail, one not talking to me? I love them with more love, now that they're kind of out of reach, than I ever did when I could've picked them both up at the same time and held them in my arms all day long."

Lorenzo heard his voice starting to go flutey on him again and he quickly turned away, thinking, You just got all of it, thinking, You owe me.

"You see, Brenda, God's grace? It's, like, retroactive. And every little kid out there is Jason for me, and every little kid out there is Reggie. See, we can always make amends, as long as we're honest, as long as we look in the mirror and say truly what we see. I failed him, I hurt him. I wasn't there for him, I didn't mean to, but I came up short. I admit it--I came up short. Right then and there you get your second wind, like God's breath right in your face, and as long as there's blood pumping in your veins there's a way to make it right, there's a way to make it more than right, because you did the hardest thing in the world, you looked in that mirror and you gave what you saw its rightful name. Hardest thing in the world. Took me years and years to do it, but I got more love in me now than I ever thought possible." Lorenzo looked at her full on. "Do you hear what I'm saying?"

She looked straight across the buckled dance floor to the shattered bandshell, gleaming in the moonlight like a crèche of bones, some of the adorning vine leaves fluttering in a sudden gust coming off the bay.

Brenda's eyes were blurred stars, her lips forming half words, the beginnings of thoughts. Lorenzo watched her, waiting, waiting until he got the sense that she had floated off like an untethered balloon, sailing up and out of his grip in this sudden buffet of wind.

He tracked her gaze. She was looking beyond the bandshell to the upper windows of the Chicago Fire tenement facade, suddenly visible now through the wind-wafted upper branches of the trees. From where they were sitting, the mannequin in the third-story window seemed to sway with the foliage that alternately revealed and obscured her.

"Brenda, I got that...I got your handbag back from the forensics lab today?" She looked at him, attentive. "They couldn't really get any kind of prints off it. Not even yours. It was pretty smashed up."

"Huh."

"But they did find something, unusual about it." Lorenzo dug in, making her ask.

"What," she said, the word sounding like "Huh."

"Well, there's this hidden compartment, like this zippered...Well, you know what I'm talking about."

"What." Breathless.

"I don't know how we missed this, and I don't know who to blame, myself or Crime Scenes...I mean, it was right there."

"What."

Lorenzo took a breath. "Who's..." He looked at the name scrawled on the cover of his notebook. "Who's Magda Bello?"

"What?" she said yet again, ignoring the question, demanding the punch line.

"You know anybody named Magda Bello? See, because they found a Social Security card and a driver's license for her in that zippered compartment."

"What are you saying?" She cocked her head, eyes startled. Lorenzo kept silent. "What are you saying?" she asked again, this time a small catch in the back of her throat, a chirrup of tears.

"I'm just wondering how that could be."

"That's my bag," she said, sounding both hysterical and numb. "Its mine."

"Yeah, OK, well then, just tell me how those IDs got in there," he persisted, asking her almost tenderly.

"I don't know. How should I know."

She began to look around her immediate area, with jerky intensity, as if she had just lost an earring, looking everywhere but at him.

"Brenda..." He laid a light hand on her arm. "This is kind of like our last, quiet talk...Do you understand what I'm saying to you?"

"I didn't do it," she said so flatly that at first Lorenzo thought he had misheard her.

"What?" he said. "I never said you did." Then, with the sound of his
own heartbeat drumming in his ears, he added, almost as an afterthought, "Didn't do what?"
 
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Excerpted from Freedomland by Richard Price. Copyright © 1998 by Richard Price. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.