The damn kids have no respect, thought Malcolm Moses Worthy as he ladled rice into a bowl the color of a wet sidewalk. His granddaughter Marcy was always lecturing him on the alternatives. “What would you prefer, Grandpa?” she’d ask, chin thrust out, brown eyes protruding, muscled brown arms shooting out of her purple sun dress in frenzied indignation. “They could be out on the street. They could be in gangs. Instead they come and play Foosball and watch TV at the Y. Why you complainin‘?”
“I know, I know,” he always answered, and when she turned to go drag one of the hyperactive punks off a ceiling fixture or something he rolled his eyes. Marcy was his only granddaughter, and when she asked her grandfather to accompany her through the long days managing the Y he couldn’t say no. Those kids though! Nothing like when he was their age. They were loud, vulgar as anything, had no interest in the world past the end of their own noses. He would sit at one of the round tables in the cafeteria, eating and reading his books and occasionally casting a glance of death at boys who got too close. He would catch their eye and watch as their arrogance melted into confusion and then into the slightest glimmer of fear of the old man who they didn’t understand. Then he’d look back down at his plate and they would scamper off. He rarely said a word to any of the boys, though Marcy said they asked her about him constantly. The only time he opened his mouth was when he heard the way the older boys would talk about their girlfriends. Malcolm would shower the teens with invective like Philistine arrows until they’d run for cover into the gym or the pool room, swearing all the way. Marcy said it reminded her of the stories of her great-grandfather the minister rebuking his recalcitrant congregation, and Malcolm would grumble and ask for more chicken. It was tedious, day in, day out, but, though he’d never tell Marcy, it beat the hell out of sitting alone in his apartment.
He returned to his customary booth next to the window that looked in on the pool. He put a spoon full of rice in his mouth and picked up his worn paperback. Murder on the Orient Express. He’d read it dozens of times, and it never got old. The perfect murder, and Poirot right in the thick of the mystery. A battle of wits and logic on a train immobilized by snow. Finger-lickin‘ good. He was nearly at the end, where Poirot proposes two different scenarios for the murder. Malcolm always thought it bordered on impossible that someone from outside of the train did the crime, not just because the author set up the entire story as a closed-room mystery and it would violate the unspoken pact between reader and writer to allow an unforseeable, unmentioned character to be the murderer, but because if it were really an outside job, someone on the train nevertheless could have done it. The truth would be clumsier and less elegant that the possible truth. Reality would fail to live up to the detective’s mind. No, from the moment he ties the clues together, there is only one possible answer, one way it could really go.
It was a quiet afternoon, so it wasn’t hard for Malcolm to hear Marcy’s voice. He looked to the front desk on the other side of the atrium. Normally they sat in silence and simply enjoyed each other’s company, but she’d often call out things she read on the Internet or describe some scheduling issue and ask his thoughts. He would then, to her agitation, take out his cell phone, hit “2” on speed dial, and call her. She thought it was idiotic to speak on the phone to someone in the same room; he thought it was crass to shout across the hall at each other.
She wasn’t speaking to him, however, but to the strangest couple he had ever seen in his tenure at the Bed-Stuy YMCA. They were white, first of all, not so unusual after years of neighborhood gentrification. They didn’t look like the creative twenty-year olds he’d normally see on the sidewalks. The woman was much taller than the man and wore a grey cardigan over a black blouse with a polka-dot skirt that sent Malcolm back to the sunny Tennessee streets of his youth. Despite her unusual height she had a certain grace. Her shoulder-length straight hair was the color of fire. He placed her in her mid-thirties.
The man was her opposite in every way. If he could be called a man, that is. Malcolm estimated him to be about sixteen years old, and short. He wore an honest-to-goodness black trench coat. His face was incredibly pale and the black mop on his head completed the image of an intentional social outcast. Judging by the slender wrists resting next to the sign-in pad and the slim face, he was underweight.
What are they doing here? wondered Malcolm as Marcy’s face slanted from polite office bureaucrat to curious granddaughter as she lifted a pink-nailed finger and pointed it in his direction. The pair turned as one to face him, and he raised a hand in a cautious wave. The woman thanked Marcy and they walked toward Malcolm, pausing to wait for two boys to chase a basketball across their path.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. He flipped it open and read a message from Marcy: “They asked for Moses.” He shook his head at her across the room. The only people he ever met who knew his middle name were family members and private investigators. They weren’t the former, and they couldn’t be the latter. The teenager slouched even shorter and punier when he walked, while the woman floated with learned grace. A dancer, thought Malcolm. Or perhaps a gymnast.
They approached and the woman asked, “May we sit?”
Malcolm nodded and gestured to the opposite bench of the booth. The teen sat first, against the window. He peered through it as he extended his hand to Malcolm. “Roger,” he said. His voice was reedy and his grip was firm. “This is Natalie.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Worthy,” said Natalie as she sat and smoothed her skirt.
“Likewise,” he said. He watched them, full of patience, Roger studying the empty pool with untoward curiosity and Natalie looking at his bowl of rice and his paperback novel, an indecipherable smile on her lips.
“I didn’t actually believe you were eighty until now,” said Roger.
Until now? wondered Malcolm. “What gives it away?” he asked in his friendliest tone.
“Grey dreadlocks. Wrinkly face. Weird voice.” Malcolm suffered a severe bronchial infection a decade earlier that left his voice rough and raspy. “What the hell kind of eighty-year-old wears dreadlocks?”
“The kind you ought to respect, young man,” said Malcolm. He glared at Roger who continued to stare through the window with his brown eyes.
“Mr. Worthy,” said Natalie, “what Roger meant to say is that it’s hard to reconcile what we know of your achievements with your old age. We all imagine our heroes to be young, don’t we?” She spoke slowly, almost dreamily.
Malcolm dropped his friendly façade like a garbage bag. “Who are you? What do you want with me? If you’re private investigators you’re very bad ones.”
Roger began to snicker. Natalie said, “We’re not here to investigate you, Mr. Worthy. We’re here to make you an offer.”
“Since when do octogenarians have to suffer offers?”
“Not all eighty-year-olds have PhDs from Stanford they keep secret, Mr. Worthy; most weren’t professors, or activists, or soldiers. You’ve been all three.” Natalie smiled.
Malcolm took this revelation of knowledge in stride. “You want my advice or something?”
“We want to hire you.”
“To do what?”
“To do what you do best. Help us start a revolution.”
Malcolm burst with surprised laughter. “What are you, communists?” He laughed more.
“No. Materialist dialectics don’t interest us.”
“Well, Ms…What was your last name?”
“Natalie is just fine, Mr. Worthy.”
“Natalie, of course. What is it then? Are you environmentalists? Race warriors? Some kind of charity? Maybe you’re capitalists, lobbying for some big business?”
She shook her head. Roger said, “Do we look like morons to you?”
“Good-cop bad-cop?” Malcolm asked with a grin, as he looked between the two.
“We’re not cops, Mr. Worthy. Roger’s just expressing his adolescence.”
Roger frowned but said nothing.
“Is this going somewhere? I’m in the middle of a good book here.”
She thought for a moment and said, “Say we were communists. We came here to get your advice for fomenting a worker’s revolution here in New York. What would you say?”
“I’d say ‘get lost.'”
“Why would you say that? You were a commie in San Francisco, redder than Stalin if the stories have it right.”
“Who’s telling stories?”
“Apologies, Mr. Worthy, but I can’t say. Not yet. You used to be a communist,” she persisted. “Why wouldn’t you help a revolution now?”
“I don’t know you, Natalie, and I shouldn’t speak to you of personal opinions,” he said. “On the other hand, it has been such a long time since I was asked to lecture.” She leaned on the table and laced her fingers beneath her chin, watching him. He glanced at the front desk, where Marcy was trying to catch his eye. He smiled at her.
He cleared his throat and said, “Revolutions are for young fools, begging your pardon,” he said. “I used to not even care what the cause was, as long as it was revolutionary. Anything was better than the diseased status quo. Then I grew up and realized it’s not so simple. Human problems are resilient. They don’t disappear because a bunch of idealistic children think they should.”
“But you’re an African-American,” said Natalie, full of Socratic innocence. “Don’t you benefit from revolutionaries who came before you in this country? Civil rights activists, at least? We know you met Martin Luther King. And Malcolm X.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “They were special men, Natalie, but their revolution wasn’t a revolution in the truest sense of the word. They changed everything, but they changed nothing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Laws weren’t the problem. People were the problem. Those who were racists, true, unrepentant racists, I mean, of the type uncommon today, remained racist after everything. And my fellow African-Americans…” he trailed off.
“We know exactly what you mean, Mr. Worthy,” Natalie said. “People are the problem, and there is only one way to fix people.”
“Education,” he said instantly, playing his part in an old dialogue. “You’re education reformists?” his bushy eyebrows floated upward.
“Good. I hate education reformists.”
“Our job is to give people choices, Mr. Worthy.”
“What kind of choices?” asked Malcolm.
“Imagine a black boy, a high school student here in Brooklyn, who is considering joining a gang. He should know that he has a choice in the matter.”
“So you offer some kind of after-school programming?” he asked, exasperation tinging his voice.
Roger loosed a tremendous sigh and turned to face him. “No. We show him that he is more than his choice, and set him free.”
“You’re a religious group?”
“G-d, no, I’m an atheist. Listen to what I’m saying,” said Roger. He continued evenly, “I did the same thing you did, you know. When they came for me. I tried to fit it into every box I knew. Eventually I ran out of boxes. This is something different. A real revolution.” For the first time since they’d sat down, Roger seemed to care about the conversation.
“I don’t understand.”
“Our boss can explain it to you better than we can,” said Natalie. “Come with us, and we’ll introduce you.”
“So it’s not just the two of you?”
“No, Mr. Worthy. There are many of us,” said Natalie.
“We are legion,” Roger said, and grinned, though Malcolm didn’t understand what was funny. Natalie rolled her eyes.
“Just come and hear us out. We’ll have you back before Marcy closes up shop.”
“Hmm,” grunted Malcolm. They know a lot about me, he thought. It could be a trap. And even if it’s not, I’m too old for all this. He glanced down at his book. If I don’t go, it might ruin the entire plot, he thought. His own imagination surprised him. Part of him felt that he was part of some grand plan, and that if he declined, it’d be summoning a murderer from outside the train. I’m not being logical, he thought, even as he said, “Alright. I’ll come. But if I miss Law and Order, I’m gonna be one grumpy old SOB.”
“I can’t even imagine what that’d be like,” said Roger, as Natalie stood and offered her hand. Malcolm refused it and grabbed his black cane from where it stood propped against the booth. He texted Marcy, “Be back soon.”
She texted him a question mark. He sent one back, and pocketed his phone.