"Who is this?" I asked.
"So cold," the voice said again.
"Who is this?"
"... cold and naked. Sleeping in the trees."
He hung up then. It was the fourth evening in a week that he'd called. The first night he only grunted and moaned. Two days later, he spoke in single words. Those words were cold and naked. The voice was definitely masculine but strained and frightened. The next night he used the same two words, but he doubled up on them from time to time, saying, naked, cold, cold, naked. He was pleading, but I didn't know what he wanted. He didn't seem threatening, just desperate and crazed.
When I told Nella about it, she said that I should call the police.
"There's no telling what psychotic notions he might have in his head," the buttercream-colored, dreadlock-wearing ceramicist warned. "He might be working up to coming in there and slaughtering you and everybody in your whole house."
"He doesn't even know my name," I said.
"He knows your number," the lovely young Jamaican reasoned.
"He probably dialed it once, and now it's on his redial or something."
"Better be safe," Nella said, "than dead."
I wasn't worried about a few crank calls. In my head, I had worked out that the poor guy was already in a mental institution. That he was on the honor plan or something like that. At night he got confused and hallucinated that he was naked and cold, living in the woods. That's how it was with my grandmother before she died. During the day she was perfectly lucid, talking about old times in Atlanta before she and my grandfather moved to Los Angeles. She had all kinds of great stories about her wild days as a young girl and then, after she was married, about her friends in the church choir. She was also a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"Back then Martin Luther King stood down the whole Old Boy system-and beat 'em, too," Grandma Angeline used to say.
Those talks were during the day. But after the sun set, she experienced night terrors. Her husband returned from the grave and blamed her for poisoning him. She would run away from the assisted-living home and wander Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles looking for the bus to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. Sometimes she bullied older male patients in the residence, taking their desserts or pushing them down when their backs were turned. For years the administrators were on the verge of moving my grandmother to a facility that offered more restrictive care.
Then I would go in and talk with her about members of our family whom I'd never met, about whom my father never spoke. There was Albert Trellmore, for instance, the bookkeeper and arsonist. Every Fourth of July, he set fire to one of the big corporations or production companies around Georgia. He loved fires and hated what big businesses did to the poor.
"He burnt lumber companies, banks, loadin' dock warehouses, and big department stores for over twenty-seven years," my Grandma Angeline told me one gray June day. We were sitting on the first floor of the residence, near a glass wall that looked out on Pico. "He woulda kept it up for twenty-seven more if it wasn't for that train-yard fire he set."
"What happened then, Grandma?"
"He didn't think that some'a the hoboes might have been sleepin' under the depot. One of them men died, and it broke Albert's heart. He never set another fire, and died just two years later."
"Why'd he set those fires in the first place?" I asked my eighty-eight-year-old gram.
"White people," she said. "Some of 'em used to refuse to hire black. Some would abuse the ones they had workin' for 'em. Now and then there was a Klansman had all his money wrapped up in one'a them places."
"But why do it on the Fourth of July?"
"Called it his patriotic duty," she said, and we both got a big laugh out of it.
After one of my visits, Grandma Angeline would calm down during the evenings. For a few weeks, we wouldn't get any complaints at all from the residence.
I liked visiting my grandmother. My father, when he was still alive, never wanted to talk about the old days down south. He rarely visited his mother, because she insisted in talking about all that old shit, as he used to say.
But I liked her stories, and I didn't care if she went crazy at night and wandered the streets of L.A. looking for Atlanta landmarks.
My mother was from an Orange County WASP family that didn't have many good stories. She cooked the meals and made sure that my sister and I were healthy, but she didn't know how to have fun-at least that's what I thought. And so, when the crazy man who was naked and cold and living in the trees called, I had a soft spot for him like I did for my grandmother and my cousin Albert Trellmore.
That night I dreamed about my father. He was emaciated, as he had been during the last months of his cancer. He had sunken black cheeks and big eyes that seemed to belong to an inquisitive infant rather than a sixty-year-old man. In his last days, he insisted on sitting up and then standing to greet me every morning when I came over to see him. He'd always utter some word that would speak a whole volume in our personal history.
"Kangol," he said on the last morning I saw him.
We both loved those hats. Actually, I didn't care much about them, but I wore one because my father had bought it for me.
I made up my mind to go out and buy him a blue Kangol and to bring it as a surprise the next day. I had to go to three different department stores before I found the right one. But when I brought it to my parents' apartment the next morning, they were gone. Their absence could only have meant that my father had died in the night. I sat at the kitchen table until my mother returned. She told me that everything was better now because at least he was no longer in pain.
In the dream, he was just as skinny and still on his deathbed. But he was flexing his muscles and sitting up against a pile of pillows.
"How are you, Dad?"
"Much better, Errol. I'm doing those exercises the nurse gave me. She said if I keep it up, I'll beat this cancer in three months."
An elation spread through me that was so powerful I woke up rising out of the bed. I paced around the onetime garage that was now my home, hoping to find some clue to the dream in my waking world.
Excerpted from The Wave by Walter Mosley Copyright © 2006 by Walter Mosley. Excerpted by permission.
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