In Leonard Pitts Jr.’s ‘Grant Park,’ an old love and pain return

‘Grant Park.’ Leonard Pitts Jr. Agate Bolden. 400 pages. $24.95.
‘Grant Park.’ Leonard Pitts Jr. Agate Bolden. 400 pages. $24.95.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.’s third novel, Grant Park, was published Tuesday. This time, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist digs ever deeper into the past four decades of race relations in America, where two veteran journalists, a superstar black columnist and his unheralded white editor, must come to terms with the choices each made as young men during the Civil Rights Movement. This is the second of three excerpts that the Miami Herald is publishing this week.

His telephone chirped again, this time the tone alerting him to the arrival of an email. Bob resented the slightly Pavlovian way the little device had trained him to pick it up at the ringing of a bell to see some ad for erectile dysfunction or plea for help from a distressed Nigerian. For a brief moment, he thought of allowing the chirp to go unanswered — Didn’t he have more important concerns? — but in the end, he surrendered as he had known he would, picked up the phone and clicked open his email.

“A name from your past,” read the subject line. Bob opened it. What he saw put him back in the chair.

“Old friend, you cannot imagine my delight at running across your name while doing some research on the Post website. Well, not just your name … there are a million ‘Bob Carsons’ in the world, after all … but also, your picture. That’s what sealed it for me. Even after all these years, I’d have known you anywhere.

“I have always regretted the way it was left between us, the things I said to you so long ago in all my youthful self-righteousness and ideological purity. I’ve thought of you often and wondered what became of you.

“These past few months, I have been working in minority outreach for Senator Obama. I am on a plane right now and will land in Chicago at 10:30. I will be homeless for a few hours, unable to check into my room until this afternoon. I know this is criminally short notice and I will understand if you can’t do it, but if at all possible, might we have lunch today?

“I’ve missed you, Bob. I’d love to catch up with you. More than that, I’d simply love to see you again.

“Let me know.”

It was signed, “Janeka Lattimore.”

Janeka Lattimore.

He said it in a whisper just to hear it being said, just to have the words on his tongue and the sound in his ear. All at once, Bob realized he had stopped breathing.

He breathed.

He was a trim and orderly man in wire frame glasses, pink scalp peeking through the thin canopy of hair at the crown of his head. Once upon a time, back when his hair had fallen to below his shoulder blades, back when he was another man in another life, he had loved Janeka Lattimore.

Helplessly, that was how he had loved her. Completely.

And she had broken his heart.

No, that wasn’t quite right. She had not broken his heart. She had broken him. She had left him lying in pieces on a dirt road in Mississippi, and for the longest time, he had not known if — or even cared if — he could put himself together again. And even when he finally decided to get on with it, even when he did manage to put the pieces back together into something that vaguely resembled Robert Matthew Carson, it had never quite been the same. He felt like a piece of china glued back together by a sixth grader. The pieces didn’t quite fit. The break still was visible.

Bob had never loved again — never allowed himself to. There had been relationships, yes. He had even lived for a couple of years with a free-spirited painter in a crummy little apartment in Soho, and she had borne him a son he adored. But he had never married, much less immersed himself in a woman that way again.

Now he was 59 years old, and after all this time, here she was, blowing through town, blowing back into his life and wanting to get together … for lunch?

Bob felt anger kindling in him at the nerve of her, to show up 40 years later as an email in his inbox, blithely inviting him to catch up on old times. As if what had happened had never happened, as if she had not told him they had no future because he was white and she was not. As if he, with an icepack to his head and blood dripping off his chin, sitting in the back of that ambulance, had not begged her to stay. As if she had not turned away from him — literally turned away from him — to be with “her people.”

That’s how she had put it in that self-consciously melodramatic way of college radicals of the 1960s for whom the revolution was a foregone conclusion. Her people.

“I thought I was your people, too,” he had said, his voice wounded and confused, as the ambulance door closed on him. He had always wondered if she heard him and, if she did, if she had answered. He didn’t know. The door had closed like finality, and he had never seen nor heard from her again.

Then his phone had chirped and there she was, inviting him to lunch. There was an absurdity to it that almost wrung a bitter laugh out of him. Almost.

Bob glanced at his watch. It was a few minutes after six. He needed to hurry if he was going to make the meeting. He pressed a button, and the screen on his cellphone went dark. But it was an effort just to get up out of the chair.