Wednesday I went into New York City to attend the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Week Symposium. The high point of the event was Oline Cogdill’s interview with Walter Mosley, who was made a Grand Master last night at the Edgar banquet. In the course of the interview he told one of his best stories, which I’ve heard him tell before. It never gets old.
The story is about Mosley’s father’s family, which is the African-American side. Many years ago a number of them were at a night club in Los Angeles, where they lived, when some guy made an insulting remark or an unwelcome advance to one of the young women.
“Ima kill him,” Mosley’s father said, pulling out a knife.
“Let me,” Aunt Betty said. She was the biggest and strongest one in the family. The reality of life in Los Angeles in those days, Mosley explained, was that the police wouldn’t bother a black woman who killed a black man, but a black man who did that could get in a whole lot of trouble. So she took the knife away from him and went for the offender.
But Aunt Betty was not skilled at knife fighting. She made a pass with the knife, missed the guy, and stabbed Mosley’s father in the leg. When they saw the blood, everyone in the place rushed out.
Walter Mosley’s tale reminds me of the story a friend of mine tells about his father and his uncle, Irishmen both. The uncle came visiting and complained that he hadn’t had a good Donnybrook in a while, and the father said, “Let’s go down to the bar and we’ll see what we can do. We’ll take Sally.”
Now, Aunt Sally was a ravishing creature with a movie star-quality bottom. Inevitably, one of the men at the bar admired her bottom in such terms as to give offense. So the uncle swung on him. Soon the whole place was embroiled in a good old-fashioned Donnybrook, the likes of which can hardly be found outside of a John Wayne movie. Big fun, the uncle thought. What Aunt Sally thought is not recorded.
Fortunately Dad was a policeman, so that when the cops came to break up the riot he had only to flash his badge and lead his party to safety.
Which brings me to my bar story.
I was ten years old. My sister was seven. We lived in a small town in Illinois. The four of us were driving home from dinner somewhere, dark night, kind of chilly, when the parents had a sudden urge to stop in at Matt’s Tavern for a quick one. They parked out front. Liz and I curled up in the back seat and waited uncomfortably.
After what seemed like an excessively long time it occurred to me that our house was only a mile or so from Matt’s. My sister and I could easily walk home to our warm beds. We didn’t have to shiver in the back seat all night. But we would need the house key.
So I went into the bar. “We’re going to walk home,” I said. A shocked silence fell over the revelers inside.
Mommy and Daddy had completely forgotten that they had left us out there.
But that was fine. They said, “No, we’re going, let’s go,” and they came out and drove us home. Not until the following day did I realize what a scandal I had caused (I guess I caused it, though it would have been worse for my poor parents if the two of us had died of hypothermia while they were drinking in Matt’s). Katherine Curtis’s mother asked me in her kitchen whether my parents had really left us in the car outside the bar in the middle of the night. I forget what I said to her, but I tried to make it sound as if it weren’t as bad as she seemed to think. Then I started to think, well, maybe it was.
There’s a point to all these stories, and it’s this: none of us grew up to do the kind of thing our parents did. Walter Mosley loves and reveres his father, but he doesn’t live the way he did. He lives by his wits. If he wants to kill somebody he can do it in a book, the same as I can. I can’t imagine him pulling a knife on anybody. Dennis, as far as I know, has never started a bar fight in his life. As for me, I don’t even drink.