February 24, 2024 would have been Carolyn Saulson’s 75 birthday. This is an excerpt from her novella “Living A Lie,” which also appeared in Wickedly Abled. In the introduction to Wickedly Abled, Seruus Ualerium Tristissima Liber (Emily Flummox) says of the piece:
“Carolyn Saulson’s ‘The Secret Life of Randolph James’ shows the problem with the idea of ‘high-functioning’ even more clearly, even as it shows more resonances between sanism and racism, adding classism to the mix as well. Randolph’s life is consumed by his efforts to pass, as white, as sane, as upper-class. There is a subtle horror here, one that resembles that in “Secundum” the way a trickle of liquid down the back resembles a catastrophic tidal wave. Carolyn shows here how we must harm ourselves to be treated as people by a society that refuses to think of us as such. The horror of how we must turn our own agency upon ourselves as a weapon, cutting off love, putting ourselves into the social equivalent of a pile of razors, lurks throughout this tale.”
“The Secret Life of Randolph James” by Carolyn Saulson
(An Excerpt from Living a Lie)
His hair was short-cropped and brown; he managed to look like an upwardly mobile thirty-to-thirty-five-year-old Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but who was he really? Not who he was pretending to be. He had been in jail and he’d come from the wrong side of the tracks in a town in Northern California so small and of such ill repute that it seemed ridiculous to have a bad side of town.
What did she say?
Let’s meet at which restaurant tonight?
Things were getting too serious.
“Oh well,” he thought, “It’s another Monday. I need to be at work on time.”
So he uncurled his long, thin, pale body from around a pillow and sat up abruptly. He looked over at his old-fashioned alarm clock, noticed that it was about to go off, and sighed. Time to get into gear.
He went to his closet, and took out a very conservative gray three-piece suit, after which he selected an also-conservative tie to match. After gathering his necessities for faking the image he was trying to perpetrate, he took a bath.
His eyesight was nearly perfect, but he preferred the way he looked in glasses, and he wore some sharp, expensive brand that he thought made him look more subtle or intelligent.
Lately, he’d been going by the name Randolph James, of course this wasn’t his real name, but he made it work. Looking into the full-length mirror in his bedroom, he forced his body to stand erect, checked his stance.
He wasn’t who he was pretending to be.
He was neither white, upwardly mobile, nor Randolph James.
Why had he allowed himself to be seduced into this emotion that threatened to unravel his whole world? Love. If that’s what one should call it.
Long ago, he had decided that love was a delusional state necessitated by the overwhelming reality that death was the only outcome to existence. The joke was death. No measures could be taken to prepare for it; after all, who could predict the accident, or murder, even. Too much randomity to process.
So in the back of everyone’s mind, he imagined, was the fact that any moment on any day could be their last. How could a self-aware being stay sane? He imagined this all-encompassing simple solution to dark thoughts was the distraction of love and romance—to keep these thoughts at bay, and to continue the human race through families and procreation.
As he daydreamed the improbable, he put in a little discipline and effort and it all made sense; not a bad life, either, unless you had so badly run awry of morality and the law that your fantasy or distraction could never quite be realized. A pinprick to his euphoric bubble.
Oh God, his mind was slipping away again, toward her, even toward marriage. He knew better. What was wrong with him?
Maybe it was because he was almost thirty now. Yes, his age. His body was betraying him, making him give way and yearn for what was dangerous to even think.
“Well, how dangerous,” he thought. “I’m not a felon, petty crimes; embarrassment, if I tell the truth. If I must, what is the worst I’d be facing? Rejection?”
Somehow he’d lost track of his beliefs and what was once a convenience had become intrinsic. What was two individuals coming together for fun and sex became a fusion of weakness and incompleteness, and some symbiotic wholeness.
False, thought it may be, his need and his hunger for this illusion of completeness was getting out of control. He could no longer tell reality from illusion. How could he live without her?
He told himself that he was a survivor, and somehow he’d break it off. He’d make an excuse for a fight. She was getting too close. It was that. Or tell her everything.
Impossible! His whole life was a lie! It seemed every lie necessitated another, even more elaborate lie. So far, so good.
But once more, maybe?
No…not even he could manage it.
Or could he?
When he was thirteen, living in his seventh foster-care situation because of his “moods” or “fits”, as his foster parents liked to call them, things weren’t going well. In those times he often thought about his mother, Amelia. He wondered where she was and what she might be thinking at any given moment.
At this moment, things weren’t going well for her either. His mother was having a more intense version of the same problem. She was having trouble focusing on her daily tasks because she heard voices and was hallucinating. His mother believed that she inherited these genetic “gifts” from her father Jimmy Dee. Being homeless did not help; she often was unable to get a good night’s sleep and sometimes her medication got stolen along with her other belongings. She had tried sleeping in local shelters, but she got hassled for being unruly; the men working there seemed to expect deference and sexual favors; it wasn’t safe; and nobody seemed to believe her when she complained to social workers, or homeless clinics. Their favorite response was to ask her if she drank or used drugs; she was regularly drug tested then ignored.
Her only sanctuary was found in an alcoholic friend or perhaps boyfriend who sometimes slept in People’s Park. He brought her cigarettes and coffee, and watched over her physically at night—when he wasn’t too drunk—so that other men didn’t bother her or her things. She called him Ben; she knew that wasn’t his name, but it was better than calling him has-been, as others tend to do. Ben wasn’t always around—he was a party animal and drank profusely. When he ran into some good old boys with enough spirits to get him good and drunk, he would spend the night and part of the next day in a gutter sleeping it off. His drunken unruliness often led to incarceration.
Randolph’s mother’s life was never without challenge of one type or another, it seemed no matter what measures she took. Could she get off the street and find a way to get him back?
Today she was meeting Ben at a free food program near People’s Park, at 8:30 if he remembered. He had promised several days ago, but he hadn’t showed up for 2 nights; today they were going to the free clinic to see a doctor.
Amelia watched and waited for Ben. She got into line with the rest of the homeless people thirsty enough and hungry enough to drink bitter coffee without milk or sugar and eat oatmeal overcooked with no margarine, butter, sugar, or milk, and cold to top it off. In walked Ben, and her heart leapt with relief.
Randolph could remember the days he dreamt of being included in a meal such as the one he would have with his “girlfriend” and her family. Back then, he was busing tables, always aware of his status, his clothing, his assumed political affiliations, his haircut, and what they insinuated about him and his past or current life. He already had the feeling that there was no way out. The pretentious friends that he had were always looking for weaknesses and had placed him at the bottom of their pecking order; he was already feeling trapped.
Life was not as simple as he had thought. Nothing like “they” said it would be…if you were a “good nigger,” you could always work hard, get a decent job and place to live, find acceptance, and work your way up.
He wondered who really believed all that, or was it just a societal justification—like keeping his mom, or anyone else who ever got overwhelmed in life, on psych drugs and “stable” (under control) for the rest of their lives. When he thought of the effects of drugs like lithium, and the patients he’d seen on dialysis as a result, or dying from kidney failure at an early age after being over-medicated…
He put two and two together and decided it was best to hide his so-called condition the best way he could. From his point of view, he was too intense and maybe a bit too imaginative, kindly put: creative…and on the downside, when he was manic, his inventiveness took on some interesting attributes. He was a few steps in front of himself, and others too if he wanted to be and had the resolve to use enough discipline. But back to the problem at hand.
Did he even want a family? Could he take such a step now, or later? Maybe he could placate them? After all, he was a busy man. Needing to take a trip or travel wasn’t inconsistent or unreasonable. That would buy him some time to think about the future he might be getting into, or make it easier to get out of it without too many hurt feelings if that is what he decided to do.
The smell of the homeless man on the side of the street brought back a memory, but what was it? Somehow he thought of his mother, Amelia, and, as always, he wondered where she was and how she was doing.
In that moment, his mother was in her office. He didn’t know that she had managed to graduate school and to finish a partially-accredited law school; he was completely unaware that her heart had been broken because, no matter how she approached it, as a single parent she was unable to get him back.
Things had always been difficult for his mom.
The harshness of homelessness gave no quarter for a young, pregnant girl who couldn’t go home.
She had been beaten up more than once. She tried getting involved with teenage runaway organizations but they inevitably asked about her background or tried to get her to put her child up for adoption.
As bad as it was, it was better than what she had run away from: the repeated beatings and sexual assaults from her mother’s boyfriend with the threat of death hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles if she told anyone what was going on.
The guys in the park were no better; it is true that they always started off being friendly enough, but when it got cold or food was scarce, the façade ended; they took what they wanted or needed and left her to deal with the pain and fear she felt on her own.
Randolph wasn’t his name, but he’d been using it for so long now that it made little sense to tell his fiancée, Marjorie, that his real name was James. Named after his grandfather, Jimmy Dee. It didn’t make much sense, but that was what he was going to have to do, and soon.
He’d been writing to his birth mother once again, and there had been a lot of talk about reconciliation as of late. How ironic—two things he wanted, seemingly in conflict with one another. How he had yearned for an ordinary life all of these years…and now, two opportunities. An outwardly-normal relationship with Marjorie, or the biological family that had been stolen from him when he was less than a year old?
Perhaps he could have both? Maybe he could start a new family with Marjorie, even have children? But if he did, and also renewed his relationship with his mother, Amelia, he’d have to come clean about a number of things.
Although Randolph himself was white passing, he knew damned well that the man he was named after was a black man. James Rodney Daniels, or Jimmy D. And while he had been given Amelia’s last name, Ferguson, at birth, he knew his middle name was Daniel. James Daniel Ferguson. Jimmy Dee Ferguson. Jimmy D Junior.
That’s what Amelia and her grandmother, Jimmy Dee’s mother, Sally Mae Daniels, used to call him as an infant. Jimmy Dee Junior.
Maybe if Sally Mae had lived to see his first birthday, Amelia could have stayed in housing and Randolph wouldn’t have ended up in foster care. Maybe if she had severed her parental rights voluntarily instead of trying to get him back for a few years, some nice couple who wanted a white baby would have adopted him as a toddler, pretended he was white—the way the Johnson family did when he was in their foster care as a teenager and they didn’t want to get any shit from their neighbors.
Then, he’d still be Jimmy Dee Junior.
Not Randolph James, the latest in a long series of pseudonyms he used for convincing nice young ladies and sometimes not-so-young ladies like Marjorie Brentwood that he was an up and coming lawyer with a high-heeled lifestyle at an obscure law firm and larger pay grade than they. These ladies were free with the spending, and their wallets might dry up if they knew he was a thirty-year-old former waiter whose closest relationship to law school was performing as a lawyer in a Berkeley Repertory Theater production of Merchant of Venice.
A quarter blood quantum of African genetic heritage, a.k.a. quadroon, wasn’t the only birthright Randolph inherited from his maternal grandfather. Neither was his name. Like his mother, Amelia, he’d inherited Jimmy’s bipolar disorder and his mood swings.
He’d also inherited his psychic powers.
Not everyone understood properly his mental abilities. Like his mother, he had a smooth way with people, an ability to talk them into almost anything. One might easily conflate these with the simple manipulations any con man was capable of, but it was more.
A form of telepathy he could use to influence minds.
Jedi mind tricks.
But his doctor assured him this was untrue. He was basically insane.
As for Marjorie Anderson—she could never know who he really was. Poor. Uneducated. A quarter black. Out of foster care. While not exactly a person who swindled women, Randolph was known for befriending those who were economically generous and more than often a bit lonely—older women, widows looking for a second chance with open pocket books they used to fuel his playboy lifestyle.
Her parents would surely never allow the marriage if they found out.
Marjorie’s parents were never openly bigoted against black people—no one in the Bay Area ever really was—but they made little snide comments whenever they ate fancy meals out at the Ethiopian place that let Randolph know how they really felt. Ethiopians, Indians, and Thai people were great, as long as they stayed in their place, which was usually in the kitchen, or behind the desk at some fancy spa white folks attended, or in a dress or spice store offering things that the upper crust and the upwardly mobile needed to perpetrate an image of superficial liberality.
Although Marjorie herself claimed to be an independent, having lobbied with equal vigor for Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders, both of her parents were Reagan Republicans. Horrified by the nude model First Lady Melania Trump, disgusted by Barrack Obama’s progressive reforms such as support of gay marriage, and horrified by his public identification with Travyon Martin.
The Andersons were well to do—a real estate mogul with a chain of local hotels to his name and his charming wife, an optometrist he met while she was working. He babbled on at parties over his usual one-drink-over-the-line champagne glass about how he met her when she fitted him for glasses. Sherry Anderson was UC-educated, charming, and professional. Joe Anderson was self-made, one of those guys who listened to a ton of self-actualization tapes by various inspirational speakers and attended real estate seminars until he flipped property after property and jetted his way out of his boring office job into a stellar career, first as a real estate developer, then a professional rent collector with a string of rental properties and hotels.
In a way, Randolph and Joe were a lot alike: likeable, outgoing, and able to sell swamp water to crocodiles. But Joe had a B.A. in English and had been working as a professional administrative assistant, considering following in his parent’s footsteps as an English professor, when he started flipping houses and forging his own path instead.
He hated homeless people even more than he hated Melania Trump. Not that he hadn’t voted for her husband while crying into his morning coffee about how great the Bushes had been and how the mighty Republican Party had fallen. He’d been a proud, gun-owning, country-club-joining, deer-shooting member of the GOP for three decades now.
Randolph was beginning to develop a headache.
How much telepathic energy would it take to convince Mr. Anderson that he was a lawyer? Would he have to keep up his Jedi mind tricks indefinitely in order to get past the engagement?
His future father-in-law was insufferable. Randolph began to wonder if he had enough mind-power to change the man’s politics. Bored and pensive, he began to quietly fantasize about exerting enough mind control to turn Joe Anderson into the Manchurian Candidate, while the good old boy bragged about shaking hands with Ronald Reagan and playing cards with Tricky Dick Nixon.
Carolyn Saulson (February 24, 1948 – January 14, 2019) The author of Living A Lie: Tales of Intrigue, Homelessness and Telepathic Power; the comic book Living A Lie; and the plays The Strange Case of Dr. Henriette Jekyll and Song of Solomon: A Love Story. Her works have appeared in Writer’s Muse Magazine and Tale of an Iconoclast: The Carolyn Saulson Story. Co-Author of Profiles in Black published by the Congress of Racial Equality in 1978, one of the first Black Who’s Who guides in America. She was the lead singer of the Afrocentric gothic band Stagefright, and co-founder of the media arts non-profit Iconoclast Productions, the San Francisco Black Independent Film Festival and the African American Multimedia Conference.
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