CARLYLE TRIES POLYGAMY
By William Melvin Kelley

[Copyright © by William Melvin Kelley. First appeared in The New Yorker.
Reprinted by permission.]


For a while anyway an Africamerican man named Carlyle Bedlow lived in one large, sunny room in a brownstone on lower Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem, U.S.A. Like many men he had a polygamous nature, which did not make his promiscuous. And neither had he married. But over the years he usually seemed to have two or three steady lady friends.

Often they overlapped, and sometimes they repeated. First he would have one woman, for example Glora Glamus. Then he would meet another one, like Senegale Miller. Then he would shuttle back and forth between the two. On the way he might meet a third. Then he would shuttle around among the three, travelling from the Bronx to Manhattan to Brooklyn. Then the first woman would get tired of his intermittency and break it off. Then he would meet another woman shuttling back and forth between the second two. Occasionally he would disappear to his room in Harlem, where he lived alone and never let anyone visit except his brother and his widowed mother, who rarely came because she did not like climbing the three flights of steps to his room.

Carlyle Bedlow kept his room neat and clean. Since he never entertained any women there, he had a firm narrow bed, which he made up into a couch each morning. His clothes he kept in a large closet and three black footlockers. A high-grade Navajo rug (handmade by the Etcitty sisters) covered the polished-wood floor. In the corner near the window sat an EzeeGuy chair, where by sunlight or lamp he would relax and read science-fiction novels, a pile of which he stacked beside the chair.

Sometimes he would look up from his reading and think about the two more or less steady lady friends he had kept for the past ten years. Actually Glora had occupied a place in his heart for about thirty years. In the beginning he loved her madly but could not win her because she loved Carlyleís mentor in the hustling life, the society baker and contract killer C. C. (Cooley) Johnson. Eventually, when she realized that Cooley Johnson would never love anybody, she and Carlyle began a relationship that produced a daughter, Carlotta, now twelve years old. Carlyle and Glora had broken if off fifty times, but had made up fifty-one times. Besides, they both adored Carlotta. So did Carlyleís mother, though she did not like professional barmaid Glora, considering her barky and brassy and boastful.

The second lady friend in Carlyleís life had a child for him as well, an eight-year-old daughter names Mali. He had met Maliís mama, Senegale Miller, at a jump-up given by the Rastafarian bredda who supplied high-quality society clientele, affluent former Woodstockians who had returned to the lap of luxury but secretly still smoked the blessed herb and did not want the world to know it.

Senegale Miller possessed luxuriant glistening black dreadlocks reaching to the small of her back which had never known scissors or comb. Raised in the cockpit country of Arawaka and descended from Maroons (who fought their way out of slavery in the seventeen-thirties), she had not worn shoes until coming to America. She stood six feet tall in her smooth cocoa-buttered chocolate-colored skin and had the grace of a seal in water. Carlyleís mother did not like Senegale either, mostly because she could not understand her thick accent, but, as she did with Carlotta, she showered Mali with gifts.

Carlotta and Mali got along very well, better than most big and little sisters. Sometimes Carlyle borrowed his brotherís RoadStar sedan and without telling their mothers took the two girls anywhere they wanted to go, the beach or zoo or circus or rodeo or amusement park. He walked behind them, an unobtrusive shepherd, enjoying the sight of them whispering, cavorting, holding hands.

Recently their mothers had become jealous of each other. They had known of each other for the past three years, when Senegale had tracked him down to Gloraís house in the Bronx, demanding money for Maliís school uniforms. Before that, he had kept them separated in different parts of the city, Senegale in Brooklyn and Glora in the Bronx. Once they learned about each other, they did not stop talking and asking about each other.

In the Bronx, Glora might inquire, "When you getting your monkey woman to cut off that bush of hair and get a regular look, baby?"

In Brooklyn, Senegale would comment, "Is only a foolfool woulda make him babymudda to work into said wicked atmosphere, man no see it."

In the Bronx, Glora might wonder, "Why you donít go to court for custody of that cute little Mali, then report that bitch to immigration?"

In Brooklyn, Senegale would ponder, "Why you must keep on with the old woman when you kyan find rest and fulfillment in I-arm of this daughter of King Solomon?"

At times the verbal struggle they waged in his ears became so intense that Carlyle would retreat to his sunny Harlem room and rest in his EzeeGuy until his ears repaired themselves. He would not see either woman for a week. His brother, who knew something of his dilemma, told him that the blessed Koran gave a man permission to maintain four women, which did not help. Carlyle could barely manage two.

"Then you must cut one loose, my brother. Keep the relationship with your offspring, but call if off with one of the mothers." His brother had decided to wait till the Provider sent him a woman, abstaining from sex for several years, though Carlyle suspected he had a woman stashed somewhere. "You must choose!"

But Carlyle loved both women, Glora for her mocha beauty and her fast mouth, Senegal for her chocolate beauty and her independent spirit, and could not choose between them. Reclining in his EzeeGuy, he would puff a spliff and try to envision life without one or the other of them. He had always loved Glora; Senegale had stomped into his life with her goofy believe in the divinity of Ethiopia just when he started to get sour, making him aware of some motivating force in the world besides money. Until Senegale came along he had not known how much he loved Glora, because falling in love with Senegale reminded him that he had love inside himself to give. So suddenly he also found himself in love with Glora again.

Carlyle could not decide between them. But something had to change. Then one day he encountered Brother Ben selling juice and astrology books at the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass, and the brother launched into his tired polygamy rap, which goes:

Vietnam + Homosexuality + Prison + Heroin + AIDS + Crack had so reduced the male Africamerican population as to make polygamy the only way for Africamerican culture to sustain itself. Each man had to accept his responsibility. Each woman had to realize that only by accepting the other woman in her manís life could she get a man to call her own. Then of course once a man had gathered his women together he might organize them to make dried-flower arrangements or some such productó

"But Brother Ben," Carlyle interrupted. "You have a nuclear family under your own roof, a wife youíve loved for years and two beautiful daughters like mine. And besides, no other woman would have you!"

Brother Ben blinked but continued his rap undeterred as Carlyle ambled away. But Brother Ben had made one usable point: perhaps Carlyle should bring together his two warring lady friends for a sitdown. Given them the opportunity to say bad things to each other face to face without making Carlyleís brain the battleground. Perhaps they could work out what he could not. At least they might blow off some bad gas.

Carlyle arranged to have both meet him on a Tuesday evening at one of Harlemís few surviving gems, the Golden Grouse Bar & Restaurant. He liked breakfast better than dinner at the Grouse but did not expect anybody to eat very much. However, red-clad Glora tipped in first and quick ordered an immense fried-chicken dinner with scalloped potatoes and tossed salad and peach cobbler and the Grouseís special punch. Before he food had arrived, Senegale appeared in olive drab, her dreadlocks wrapped (out and back like a praying mantis) in the Nationalists colors. She carried various tubs of her own I-tall delicacies because she did not trust the cook at the Grouse to keep the bacon grease out of the peanut oil.

The two women sat silently glaring across the table at each other and consumed all that the waitress and Senegal had carried to the table, near the end of the thirty-minute meal Senegale sampling the peach cobbler and Glora quenching her thirst with the homemade ginger beer. Together they covered their belches and tittered.

Then they both put fire under his sorry brown butt! "Thought the sight of this simple country cow pie would do what? But make I tell all the world that I-woman never fear no old higgler till yet, no see it! Sure donít see what jive hustle he think he pulling with this tired B.S. but this sister came a long way to tell eívrybody that this just wonít hardly go down! Because I-love that I-woman keeping for said man spring from the most high mountain of New Zion! Besides this brother have deluded himself into thinking that because I love him that mean I need him when he be too dim to see I got my own house on Barnes Avenue in the Bronx all bought and paid for with mops and tips, and also got by far the best of his never-do-nothing buttocks in his daughter Carlotta. Which I-sister kyan strenuously affirm and illustrate as him give I-woman nothing of value but sweet likkle Mali, and she quite valu-able." They glowered at him.

So now what, bumbasukka?

"I just wanted to see if we all couldnít maybe find a way to get along," Carlyle said simple. "I canít help myself but I love you both. And I been mainly true to you two for the past ten years." He heard and despised the quite desperation in his voice. "I mean, the kids donít seem to defend each other."

The women agreed. Dem two pickney hitch up like sea and sand, no see it. Looking so cute and fly in they little matching outfits, hooking it up on the phone when this fool think he sneaking them out on the sly to take them someplace like my child donít come tell her mama evíry ting that be goiní on, turkey! All the while dem aburn up phone wire, no see it, talkiní bout my sister dis and my sister dat, Carlotta why and Carlotta what for. And many times Carlotta have said, "Mama, why canít Mali spend the night?"

Well they could certainly agree to arrange that. Senegal expressed her gratitude that Mali would spend time on safer Bronx streets than those in the part of Brooklyn in which she presently resided where posses marauded in broad daylight and as soon as she found suitable accommodations, perhaps with members of her extended family in New Jersey, she would willingly offer similar hospitality to Carlotta. Strangely enough, Gloraís aforementioned two-family semi-detached featured a smaller second-floor space, which she had recently listed with Sister Edwardís Realty, seeking tenants, five hundred dollars a month for two-bedrooms-kitchen-living-room-bath, use of washer-dryer, easy walking distance to the I.R.T.óbut Senegale knew the way because she had already visited there at least once. They shook on it, bracelets and bangles jangling.

On the first of the following month, two jaunty I-dren driving a yellow van, puffing spliffs and blasting St. Donald Drummond and the Skatalites on their trunk-size cassette player, delivered Senegal and Mali Miller, along with two mahogany beds, a sofa and an overstuffed chair, a dish cabinet, a kitchen table and chairs, large cartons of clothes, books, utensils, dishes and pots, a cast-iron Dutchie, tools, raffia, leather hides for belts and sandals, and one calico puss cat named Kiki, to chez Glora Glamus, Bronx, N.Y. Soon the house filled with incessant female activity. Carlotta and Mali and their girlfriends (neighborhood pre-teens quickly forming a crew) seemed to make no distinction upstairs and downstairs, roaming freely throughout every room under the roof, as likely to sleep in one as in the other of their two bedrooms, eating wherever hunger and opportunity struck them, though both avoided Gloraís rhubarb pie as well as Senegaleís steamed okra. And the two women began to take the step-aerobics class and do weights at the local NUBODi exercise salon on White Plains Road, working off their stress and excess energy with the rest of the sisters. Around the corner on Paulding Avenue, Carlyleís mother loved living near to both of her two darlings, though she still barely tolerated their mothers.

After completing his hustling chores, Carlyle Bedlow spends more time in his one large room in the brownstone on lower Edgecombe Avenue, Harlem, U.S.A. Since he no longer travels to Brooklyn except on business to the Promenade or Park Slope, and can visit his two daughters at one address, he gets to see them both more often than in the days before polygamy, a definite improvement in his life. But now that his two lady friends live within whispering distance of each other Carlyle finds his sexual style stunted. Whenever he hopes to bed down with one woman, he knows the other woman knows his exact whereabouts and keeps expecting one or the other of the kids to burst through the door. Occasionally he gets over. But more often than not cool winds sweep his loins. The women load him with lists of things to do and buy. He completes his errands for them, then returns to the solitude and quiet of his room. His brother visits, assuring him that Carlyle has done the honest, manly thing, brought out everything into the open, creating a healthier environment for his children, that with each woman knowing where she fits into the Grand Scheme, they will all live happily ever after. For a while anyway.


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