Going Home

by Jan Fisher

I knew Corky pretty near all his life, but I never knew he was a celebrity until he died.

It was this past summer I heard the news that Corky had checked out; a heart attack is what they said. It got me real sad and I knew it was hard on Tommy who was still my best friend after a lifetime. There was no way I would have missed the homegoing to pay my respects. They held it at that big memorial church in Greenwich Village, right across the street from Washington Square Park where Corky had worked. Ol’ Corky packed the place out. I figured it was lots of those people he knew from the park and I was sure enough right.

When he got clean the last time, they gave him a job he loved—park attendant. With his personality, it worked out just right and changed his life. I always knew Corky loved talking with folks, but now, I found out, he listened and he knew how to relate. Ended up, people came to the park to find him and pour their hearts out. Tommy told me one time that he went to the park to see Corky and there was a line. A line! I could hardly believe it, my old pal Corky, in and out of trouble with the drugs, half the time homeless, and these Wall Street people and other hot shots on their way home from work waiting in line to see him. And today, plenty of those same people in their fancy suits and silk dresses here to tell him goodbye.

At one point in the service, a gospel choir from Harlem filled the front of the church and led in a few old favorites, got the place rocking. Well, after all, it was a homegoing. Black folks celebrate a life in that way, rather than say “funeral.” I always guessed it was a way to get through, that idea of envisioning someone in heaven. I saw a couple cats I knew head up front with instruments. I’d brought along my sax at Tommy’s suggestion and right then he grabbed his guitar he’d stashed under the pew and motioned for me to go up with him. We got into “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and jammed real smooth and jazzy. We ended up with “Amazing Grace,” and I can’t even tell you how good it felt, when it came my turn to solo, to play that song for Corky. Louie Rivera, who I knew from some of the clubs, was leading the band and they were all backing me up. As I got into playing, I noticed Rivera signaling the other musicians; they quietly left the group, one by one, until it was just me, playing all by myself for my old friend. The sax echoed sweetly in that fine space. I know it was the first time I ever played my horn with tears streaming down my face.

Once I sat down, a bunch of people took turns telling about how they knew Corky, and sure enough, most told how he helped them with something, gave them advice, consoled them, that sort of thing. Tommy and I never had it like that with Corky. But I’ll admit, if he would have tried to give us advice, it probably wouldn’t have taken because, well to us, he was just Corky. Like what I heard it says in the Good Book, something like a prophet is without honor to his own, bet? As the stories washed over me with a gentle rhythm, I thought about how, except for Tommy and a couple other family members, I’d known him longer than anybody in that room—ever since we were kids, over fifty years ago.

The first day of fourth grade, everybody excited to see each other, and here comes my best friend Tommy with this little kid in tow. His new brother, he says. Brother? Tommy’s supposed to tell me everything first since that day we made the blood pact with Ma’s darning needle. How’s this kid going to fit into that? I don’t like the feeling I have, like I’m losing something, or I’m an extra wheel. I cross my skinny arms over my chest, puff out my lips, and squint at the runt, giving him the once over. He’s wearing Tommy’s favorite shirt with the orange and white stripes. It hangs nearly to his knees. I know the deal. He’s a foster kid. There were lots of kids in Tommy’s family and each one pretty much raised the one younger than them. That made this kid Tommy’s.

The kid pipes up, “Who’re you?”

Huh, I’m supposed to ask him that. But I answer, “Calvin Jones. Who’re you?” I catch a look from Tommy like I better mind my Ps and Qs, the way Ma tells me.

The kid looks up at me and crosses his arms, too. “You can call me Corky. My real name is Corinthos after a famous Greek city ’cause my dad’s Greek. But it’s Corky to you, get it?”

I get it, mostly. He’s a black kid, like us, but different in a way I never see, lighter in color and sure enough tougher, especially for a small fry. Then he looks me up and down and says, “Calvin Jones, I’m call you Jonesy. That’s your name from now on.”

Funny, I don’t want to like it, but I do. I give him our secret code word for “yes,” which is “A-OK,” and I know I’m doing right ’cause I see a big grin spread across Tommy’s face.

The three of us were tight all through school, but when Tommy and I started playing instruments in the fifth-grade music program, Corky took something else instead. By the time we got a band together in our sophomore year, Corky wasn’t part of that, either. Tommy offered to teach him bass, but he brushed it off, wasn’t his thing he told us. As I look back, I believe it’s what kept me and Tommy alive, our passion for the music. Music was more important than anything, than giving in to a needle, to a bottle, to a fight. Tommy said once it could’ve saved Corky, but what can you do?

I was jerked back into the church by everybody standing up for some closing words. The finality of Corky being gone hit me and I could no longer hold the sobs that had coagulated in my chest. They burst out loud and ugly. Tommy put his arm around my shoulders. I felt his sadness, deeper than my own, and needed to say something. “I know it was hard but I always thought you did a good job raising him, man,” I managed to choke out. “A real good job.” We hugged and slapped each other on the back, then went out into the sunshine, dragging our sorrow on home.

A day or so later, I’m walking past this newsstand and there’s the neighborhood Villager newspaper hanging up with Corky’s picture on the front page. Stopped me in my tracks, a real nice picture of him in the park with a big smile on his face. I bought a copy to look at later. If that wasn’t enough, at the CVS I ran into this woman we all knew and she said to me, “Wasn’t that a beautiful story in yesterday’s Times?” The Times? I mean, I’m a local boy and I’m doing pretty well. I been playing music all my life, here in N-Y-C and all around the world, but I never got a story in the Times. I looked up the piece later at the library and she was right. You think you know somebody and some stuff, but you never know it all.

Tommy called me one evening and was rambling on and on about nothing and I was getting a little restless on the phone with him since I had some things to do. Then he said, “Corky was here last night.” That stopped me cold. We’d both attended his homegoing not six months ago.

“What do you mean?” I asked, but of course I immediately knew. My roots burrowed deep in a pocket of Western North Carolina and “visitations,” as my Aunt Judina used to call them, were pretty common down there. Everybody was always coming back. To all my kin it was like there really was no such thing as dying; you just changed locations, almost like you moved up North or something. Like I said, they banked on that homegoing thing. But they sure didn’t stay home or gone.

Tommy went on and you could not have paid me to hang up. “He was wearing a white suit, bro. I never saw him look so good, man. I mean, you’d think I’d be freaked out about him coming around, but instead, I’m mesmerized by that white suit and how good he looked. Remember before he started doing the drugs? That’s how he looked, all fresh and healthy, but even better, sort of robust. So, of all the questions I could have asked, like an idiot I say to him, ‘What’s with the white suit, man?’

“Without him talking he sort of shrugs and I get the impression he’s saying, ‘Oh, you know. You do what you gotta do,’ and I feel like he’s laughing. Then, Jonesy, here’s the best part. He’s carrying a guitar. You know how he was. We were the ones that played, bet? And he never acted jealous or that he wanted to play something, too. But now he’s carrying this guitar. And he’s nodding his head at it and looking at me like what do I think. So naturally I have to open my big mouth and say, ‘What’s with the guitar, bro?’

“At this he just grins real big and winks at me and then he disappears. Gone. Like he was never there, but I know he was and I saw him. And I was wide-awake and not drinking neither. And I’m not telling nobody but you about this, man. You hear me? Nobody else. But I saw him. And talked to him like I’m talking to you right now. ’Cept in person, not on the phone.”

“I believe you, man, I believe you,” I told him.

“You do? You don’t think I’m crazy, man?”

“Naw, the old folks down South are always seeing everybody. To hear them talk, seems like they have as many visits from the ones gone on as the ones still living, maybe more.”

“That right, man? All the time? I don’t think we had that in our family.” I heard him exhale. He sounded more relaxed than when he first called me.

“They get it more down South, I think. Anyway, I’m glad he came back to see you.”

“Yeah, man. I am, too. Especially now that you’re telling me this. I’m cool with it. I wouldn’t mind seeing him again, now that I’m used to it. You know I always felt responsible for him, right from the start. Gave him my best shirt to wear that first day of school. My best shirt. I remember how his eyes lit up when he put it on.”

Then Tommy did something he never did in my presence, not once, not even at the church. He broke down and sobbed like a baby.

When he got a hold of himself, he said, “I couldn’t help him the way I wanted, but it looks like it’s turned out all right now, hasn’t it, Jonesy?”

“Yes, it has, man.” I know I was convinced. “It surely has.”

Jan Fisher, formerly an editor for Patuxent Publishing in Maryland, continued her career as a freelance writer after a move to New York City. She still marvels over ending up in a ministry position for a hip, progressive church in Manhattan’s East Village, and twenty-three years later, landing in Weaverville, North Carolina. For the first time since college, she has time to have fun with fiction.

About Going Home—This piece is from a work in progress, Mrs. Vargo’s Honeymoon, A Novel of Interwoven Stories, that begins in the 1960s and spans four decades between the Vietnam era and post 9/11. Four people who find each other, and much later meet again in unexpected ways, learn that often what is unbelievable becomes extraordinary.