Cyrus hated prejudice in the true sense of the word: pre-judging. That quick assessment everyone does, filing people in mental categories by their dress, hair style, address, occupation, skin tone. He figured that this was a natural way for the brain to process people. It may even go back to survival instinct; identifying friendly and hostile tribes by their hats or hair or scars. Cyrus thought of it as lazy, not making the effort to observe long enough to see who a person really is, and in that way, it was unkind. Cyrus tried to always be kind.
In his effort to eliminate prejudice, Cyrus liked to throw people off, to “code-switch.” He made a point of surprising people with who he was, or who he wasn’t. He often rode the city bus to his office in downtown Milwaukee instead of taking the Bentley. He wore a black turtle neck and khakis to meetings and a white hoodie to national business conferences long before Silicon Valley made it appropriate. His hair was always a bit too long and sometimes natty. In a day when social media determined your make-believe status, Cyrus was not present. Not even in Linked-In, which meant anyone wanting to do business with him had to work to make an appointment.
All his life growing up in Milwaukee, one question came up frequently, “What are you?”
“White, Black, Latino?” the 911 operator asked of callers to identify the guy breaking into their garage. Cyrus wondered how he’d be identified, or maybe people like him never committed crimes.
“Human,” he’d answer when he was going to high school in the southern suburb of Franklin where many kids shared his skin tone. Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian – immigrants who had become the petite bourgeoise by renting storefronts in the inner city and now had kids in law school, or who had themselves become doctors in the US and stayed on. Cyrus wasn’t one of them. In the inner-city elementary school he attended when they were poor, he was bi-racial black/white until parent-teachers conferences.
So, what was he? Underestimated. And he let it be, getting by with Cs then off the charts on standardized tests. “Effort,” his dad said. “You can’t be like the lazy American kids. Effort.”
Cyrus was now a man of means who came by his means with a lot of luck being born in the right family, although at the wrong time. Yes, he had seen the American Dream work growing up, but he’d also seen it not work for most. He was smart, sure, but not as smart as Anthony in 5th grade whose backpack was full of library books he returned weekly for another batch and who did make the effort. Cyrus saw Anthony managing McDonald’s on Capitol Drive when they were about 40. When Cyrus went in to get coffee, he had already noticed the line of cars outside was moving faster than the 20 minutes it usually took to get served and that the windows had been washed and garbage picked up from around the outside. That must be due to Anthony, was Cyrus’s first thought when he saw his dark-skinned schoolmate behind the counter instructing a young staff member on how to take orders.
“Cyrus, that you?” Anthony spotted him in line, wiped his hands on his apron and offered it to Cyrus in greeting, thinking how he’d have to change food safety gloves when Cyrus reached back a paw spotted with red-oak wood stain from a woodworking project he had played with. “How you doin’? How’re your people?” Cyrus gave him a quick run-down on his family – wife and two kids, folks back in the homeland – then listened to Anthony’s update. He knew Anthony was assessing him on the stained work clothes and shabby sneakers; his dark curls, grey woven through, sticking out from the side of an old stocking cap, but that was OK.
Cyrus took his coffee and sat down to drink it, all the while moving his eyes between the view on the street and Anthony working with the staff behind the counter. When he got back in the SUV, Cyrus pulled out his phone and called his assistant, telling him to contact the company’s recruiter to approach Anthony for that HR training position they were having trouble filling. “Better yet, have the recruiter call me. I need to explain.” Cyrus didn’t need to have Anthony know the offer came from him. He knew the recruiter would do all the research, criminal background check, college completion, bullshit, bullshit – all the stuff that didn’t matter. He knew Anthony could do the job. Unless something had gone terribly wrong since Cyrus left the city for the suburbs, Anthony could do the job.
“Cyrus, why do you look so ragged?” Cyrus remembered his mother’s consistent admonition when he saw his face in the rearview mirror as he pulled out of the parking lot. “First impression is important. People judge us. Dress up. Like your father.” Cyrus thought of the pictures he was sent with his bearded father in peasant’s clothes, the dirt of the olive grove fading the colors.
“Momma, you always say I should try to fit in,” he finally argued his case. “Look around. I’m not an old man like Papa. Ride the bus, Momma. Get out a bit. You stay at home and don’t know. We all look ragged.”
“The illusive manager of C&L Enterprises” is how Business Week had described Cyrus after he kept refusing interviews and photos. They dug up as much as they could; a child of refugees, up from poverty, the immigrant story. Half the story. Always half the story. Cyrus, himself, only knew half the story.
Enigma was the word he preferred. The less they know, the quicker they reveal their prejudice. Cyrus knew what came with wealth and wanted to be able to meet folks like Anthony without its trappings. Sit down and have a beer without the waiter expecting a twenty-dollar tip and surprising him when that was what Cyrus left. Cash. Always cash. And only if the service was good and by good, he meant respectful. No putting him at a table between the toilet and kitchen. No ignoring him when the glass was empty. No assuming that we wasn’t going t tip.
Cyrus was a generous donor, but neither he nor his wife attended charity balls, preferring to show up at the homeless shelter, adult literacy center, or meal program as someone in need of services and sending a check anonymously through his bank if they welcomed him. One hand should not know what the other is doing when giving to the poor, he had been taught. It is a privilege to be able to give, not something to brag about.
“What is that song from that movie?” his dad said at dinner one night when he was about ten. “Why can’t the English teach their children to speak? It should be why can’t the Americans. What kind of English is that you are speaking, Cyrus? I must talk to that teacher.”
“No,” Momma waived frantically and shouted. “No, no, don’t do that. He must fit in. Let him. He must get on with the other children. And you will make a problem for him with the teacher.”
“But the girls speak proper English. Maybe not proper. Proper American at least, but not his mismatch,” his dad answered back.
‘The girls will be OK. The girls are different.” Cyrus heard this all his childhood.
“He’s our anchor baby,” his father would tell his workmates. Cyrus never knew what it meant, picturing himself throwing a weight off a yacht. Was it because he was the only son with two older sisters? Years later, watching a PBS segment on immigration reform, he learned. He was born in the US, which automatically made him a citizen, and because of that, his parents could become citizens. He was what anchored them here, although it didn’t work. They still drifted home along with the sisters. He became an anchor without a ship.
“What are you?” Letitia had asked, looking into his green eyes and drawing her index finger over the high bridge of his long nose after they had made love for the first time.
“I am your future husband,” he smiled confidently.
Letitia was another of the underestimated. He first spotted her in court – criminal court. She was a public defender, a large woman, the color of milk chocolate with overly large braids that Cyrus knew to be the cheap version you bought in a bag and sewed in yourself. She code-switched between her client, a young Latino accused of armed robbery, the judge who she addressed in legalese, and the jury she had worked hard to select. It was made up of people who may be sympathetic because they might have a clue as to the life the kid lived. The best she could pull from a pool lacking diversity. Cyrus was on that jury, having shown up in a beat-up winter jacket and torn jeans, giving his occupation as entrepreneur; true in his case and also true of low-level drug dealers. He wanted to see how the system worked, or didn’t.
When the trial was over, and Letitia won the case, he made a point of bumping into her at the courthouse a week later. He had just come from a business meeting, and she didn’t recognize him shaved, in his khakis and turtleneck.
“You’re under-employed,” was his opening line.
“Pardon me?” She stopped short and gave him a quizzical look.
“I said, you are under-employed. I was on the Edward Vargas jury.” Cyrus shook her hand as he introduced himself, then ran down her qualifications, which included under-grad at Marquette University with full academic scholarship, corporate law at University of Chicago and competitive internships in the corporate offices of three Fortune 500 companies. All this he had gathered from the minister down at the Baptist church where he attended on occasion leaving a couple hundred-dollar bills in the collection plate when he did. Over lunch, he discovered she also loved to be underestimated; loved walking into the classroom and having other students think she was there to empty the trash, then blowing them out of the water answering the toughest questions. But she hadn’t realized that game had to end with graduate school. Corporate demanded you blow your horn, and that you look the part, and that you had connections, connections hard to make for a young black woman from Milwaukee. Offers didn’t come and loans had to be paid.
Cyrus needed some legal work done for a company he was buying and asked Letitia to do it. He anticipated she may want to make sure he was on the upside of legal, so gave her access to people who would confirm he had what he said he had.
That was in 2000, and Cyrus was 32. He had learned early that he was good at making money. He was also good at identifying talent, digging it out like he had with Anthony, from places other businesses never looked. The busy café waitress became his office manager. The kid at the shoe store, who up-sold him three pairs of twenty-dollar socks and another sixty bucks worth of shoe-care products, was his business-to-business sales rep. The quiet little girl who grew up working in the same store as Cyrus’s dad managed his warehouse. That Letitia had credentials didn’t impress him as much as how she handled that courtroom, and so he hired her full time as soon as he could. In a year, he knew he had found his partner in business and life. His staff was at the wedding representing a sampling of every neighborhood in the city, and the buffet table stocked with everything from collard greens, to Puerto Rican rice, to curried lamb, to egg rolls.
Cyrus knew his parents would object to Letitia. They wanted someone from home. “But I don’t know anyone from there. You raised me here. Here in this city. In this mix of people,” he shouted into the phone. “And how will you force me? Trick me into going back like you did my sisters? I will not, and you cannot force me. I am a man.” Cyrus had never before mentioned his sisters, how they had left with his mother when they were 18 and 19. How they were told it was a visit, then when they arrived how they whispered into the phone telling him they were captive in their aunt’s home, and that the papers they travelled with did not even have their names, but belonged to someone else.
With Letitia, he became the son who sent them money every month so Papa could rest in the olive grove on the property in their homeland that Cyrus had regained for him.
“You’ll keep your name, if you don’t mind,” he said when he proposed. “Because you are to be a full partner in C&L Enterprises.” Letitia began to get her hair braided for her in the tiniest of braids at a cost of hundreds of dollars, but still bought purses at Target and every now and then took the bus to remind her where she came from and how lucky she was. Business associates didn’t know the two were married and were often taken aback by the bargaining power of that woman attorney. Cyrus was proud to learn she was nick-named the pit bull.
Cyrus had just turned 50 when his dad passed away. Although Cyrus took his family to see his parents every other year, they were short visits seeing only his sisters and the few immediate relatives who lived nearby. Now everyone would come, his mother insisted.
“I’ve reserved hotel rooms nearby. We can accommodate up to 10 here at the house,” his mother ran off the list of names he didn’t recognize. “Your father was an important man, Cyrus. Very important. Before we went to America. You need to know that. You never knew that.”
Cyrus advised Letitia and his two young teenaged sons on what to pack and how the burial process would proceed. They flew the next day.
“You’ve heard the term in the shadows,” Cyrus answered Letitia when she began to ask of his family again, as she had a few times over the nearly 20 years of their marriage. She nodded. “I believe we were a family in the shadows.” He glanced at his sons, headphones on, watching movies in the seats next to them. “I don’t know the whole story. Only bits and pieces.”
“But did you never ask? Weren’t you curious?”
Cyrus thought for a long time before answering. “Letitia, you aren’t curious about your family. I suggested you get one of those DNA tests, and you said no. Why? Are you not curious?”
His wife looked down at her hands folded on her lap. “Because I am afraid of what I would learn. Cyrus, we were slaves. Those tests come back often with some Irish ancestor. Some overseer who raped one of my grandmothers. I don’t think I can handle that. I don’t want to know.”
“And I also am afraid. Why did we end up in Milwaukee? No relatives there. No one we knew. That’s not how it happens with immigrants. They migrate together. Go to places some uncle is or a neighbor. Someone who came before.”
“Your parents had no friends? No one came to the house?”
Cyrus shook his head. “A few people my father worked with, but they weren’t from the homeland. And that’s another thing. My father was an educated man. Yet, he worked in that store. He had no permit. I am sure now, that they had no permit. You know, when they left, they said they would never come back. I don’t think they can. I don’t think even with me as an anchor baby that they would get a visa. I’ve asked them if they wanted to come. I’ve offered to fly them, but they say no. Remember, even when the boys were born, mother didn’t want to come to see them.
“I’ve told you about my sisters,” Cyrus continued speaking softly, “Passports with false names. I have asked them. They don’t know either. They are brushed aside when they ask. Mother was always so nervous about going out. Telling me to fit in with the other kids. She didn’t raise me to go back there. I was raised to be the American. They’ve never pushed me to join them. Not even now, when I don’t have to work anymore.”
“Do you think that is because of me?” Letitia whispered, watching the expression on her husband’s face for any sign of pain.
“Honestly, I don’t know.” he squeezed her hand.
After some time, she said with a sad tone, “But we have lived in the shadows as well, Cyrus.”
“What do you mean?”
“You being an enigma,” she teased. “Us not being recognized as the power couple we are. People not even knowing we are married with two sons who carry your name.”
“Umm, but we have friends. We have family. I love your family. We belong. My parents never belonged. Never trusted. You know that my wanting my life private is not because of you, Letitia.” She smiled and shrugged. “No, no. I have always kept a low profile. As a child it was so I wouldn’t have to pick sides, get dragged into some gang. I hated that question, what are you? Now, I just want people talking to me and not to my money. Then I see who they really are. I don’t need to be recognized. Do you? Because if you want that, I can accommodate it. “
Letitia smiled. “Well, it would be nice once in awhile to be bumped up to the front of the line at the hairdresser.”
Cyrus laughed. “Have the hairdresser come to the house.” He thought a minute.
Seriously, put a little chair in the lower bath. You do spend a lot of time getting your hair done.” He tossed a curl out of her eyes. “I thought you liked getting all the gossip.” They laughed together.
Cyrus thought a few minutes, then turned again to his wife. “I know,” he said softly. “I get it. It’s being underestimated. It’s the prejudice. The subtle slights. The way they look at you when you ask to see the tray of necklaces in the jewelry store. Being watched like they’re waiting for you to stuff something into your pocket. You want to turn around and buy their damn business out from under them.” His voice expressed just what Letitia felt. Then he paused for some time. “What does it matter? Does it matter to you? You are who you are. I am who I am. Our children are who they are. And they have our sense of self-worth.” They both slept, her head on his shoulder. When the lights came on and breakfast was served, Cyrus told her, “Mother said he was a very important man before they went to America. She said there will be lots of people at the funeral.” He chuckled. “Maybe it was her way of warning me to bring a lot of cash.”
The burial was the following day, after which guests came by the house in small groups to give condolences to the family, the women seeking out Cyrus’s mother and sisters, the men he and his sons.
“Where is Mother?” Cyrus asked his sisters at the end of the second day. “She should be here. Why is she not receiving guests?” His sisters told him their mother had insisted guests be told that she was too upset to greet people. She told them to handle the duties, but it was difficult. Few of the people coming were familiar to them. They didn’t know what so say, so sat in silence as tea and cakes were served. Fortunately, the visits didn’t last long.
“Cyrus, we don’t know what is going on. Are Papa’s affairs in order? Who are all these people? Who was Papa to them? They keep saying how Papa helped them, but Papa was not here for so long.” Cyrus had no answers. He too was puzzled by the men he met, and it seemed few of them had seen his father since he had come back from America. Many didn’t even know he had moved home twenty years before. At the end of the week, Cyrus took his family to the airport, staying back himself to ensure everything was in order for his mother who was now his legal ward.
Cyrus met with his father’s accountant and was assured all accounts were in order. He set up an allowance for the household and gave his sister a stamp with his signature on it for when something needed to be authorized. Then, just around sunset, he decided to make a visit to the small houses at the back of the property where the household staff lived. There were two reasons for this; the first was that he wanted to ensure everyone had adequate accommodation, that children were being sent to school, and that they would not take advantage of the situation now that his father was gone. This would involve having tea with the man who supervised them and was his father’s confidant.
“And now, for the tough question,” Cyrus said after the housekeeping conversation had ended. “Who was my father?”
The man was taken aback. “But he was your father. What do you mean?
“You know what I mean.”
The man was not much older than Cyrus. His father had been a close friend of the family from childhood, like a brother, Cyrus had been told. He rebuffed Cyrus now telling him, “That is for your mother to answer.”
“Yes, it is,” Cyrus leaned forward and looked the man in the eyes, “but she has not answered, so I am asking you. Our fathers were close. I believe you know the full story. All those people. Who were they? What are they to this family, and why would my mother not receive them?”
The man sighed deeply. “And your mother would not have known the half of it anyway.”
“I met with Father’s accountant. There are payments. Monthly payments from many businesses. Some small, some substantial. They start when mother moved back here.” Cyrus was watching the man’s face closely, assessing which answers he may have. “They ran to America. What were they running from? The police? The military? Who was he? What did he do? He lived here, in this big house. He had money. What happened? I have a right to know and I, as your employer and patron now, insist you tell me what you know.” It was not like Cyrus to pull rank, but this man was the only source he could trust. He needed to know his family history andn at the same time, steeled himself against what he might learn. The man shook his head slowly. “I insist,” Cyrus said sternly.
It was then that Cyrus learned that his knack for making money came from his father who had owned many small businesses. Unlike Cyrus, his father flaunted his wealth, building the large house on a hill over-looking the sea. It was troubled times with conflicts on the other side of every border. And conflicts are opportunities to make money for those willing to take risk. His father was adept at smuggling anything across borders, either way. This included people. Refugees were camping along the border and being pushed back by the military or confined to UN camps. Like Cyrus, his father also had a skill at identifying talent and used that talent, and the desperation of refugees, to build his businesses.
“Then it all came crashing down,” the man told him. “Although his businesses were legal, the smuggling was not, and the officials began to demand more and more in payment to turn a blind eye.” Cyrus could see the man struggle with betraying confidence. “Yes, your father ran. He was going to be jailed, and he took his family and ran with what he could get out of the bank at the time. Once he was in America, officials took everything left behind and probably divided it among themselves, including this house as you well know. There were business deals incomplete. I heard some of these men were looking for him, even in America. He disappeared. My father was hauled in for questioning. Beaten. Badly beaten. But even he, his best friend, had no idea where your family went. After so many years, things cooled down. Your father took the chance of sending your mother and the girls back to the protection of his brother. It was your mother who went to those businesses and asked for help. Slowly, the debts were satisfied.”
“So, the refugees were the people at the burial?” Cyrus began to piece it together. There was much more money in his father’s estate than he had provided. This explained it.
The man laughed. “Didn’t you look at them? Their green eyes? Skin tone? Hair styles? Didn’t you hear their names? Not from here. They are people your father chose, and they worked hard, many of them keeping the businesses going without him. Machine shops. Small forges. Garment makers They honored your father for what he gave them. They were paying him back.”
Cyrus laughed. He had observed the appearance of the guests, but it meant nothing to him. “And mother? Why did she not want to greet them?”
“She is one of them,” the man said quietly. “Your green eyes, my brother. Her bloodline.” He motioned at Cyrus’s face and smiled. “She crossed the border alone. Imagine the chance she took. She was lucky your father found her and not someone else. A young woman on her own.” He drank from his tea. “Your mother was his business partner. All in secret, of course, as she was a woman. But it was her who secured everything so the girls could come out from hiding and marry openly and your father could come back. She is grieving, let her grieve.”
“And me?” Cyrus was not sure he wanted the truth.
“You?” the man chuckled. “Your father knew things can change overnight here. He needed you to continue to anchor the family to America in case they do.”
Cyrus nodded. And as he thought about it, the many times his father had said just that echoed in his mind. He just hadn’t heard it. He had heard it as rejection instead of an assigned responsibility. It made sense now.
“By the way,” the man continued, “your mother would have preferred a woman from here so she could have more to say about the grandchildren, but your father recognized the woman you married was cut from the same cloth as your mother. He may not have said that to you, but he did tell me that you married well, even though she was a bit too American to his liking.”
Heading to the airport, Cyrus called his wife. “Letitia,” he said. “I think you are right. We need to come out of the shadows. How about we create a legacy for the two of us? After all, you are a role model, even more so than I. How about this, a non-profit executive search agency called The Underestimated?”
Suzanne Zipperer grew up on a farm in north-eastern Wisconsin with a dream of seeing a baobab tree as pictured in her third-grade geography book. Her curiosity about other places and cultures took her from riding a bike past the migrant workers’ camp to ten years overseas living in Europe and Zimbabwe. On her return to Wisconsin, Suzanne did community work in Milwaukee where she continued to learn about the “others.” Her writing is as varied as her life, and she continues to be curious. Suzanne has published short stories in “Moto Magazine,” and “Made of Rust and Glass,” “Ariel Chart,” and poetry in “The Crone’s Nest,” and “American Journal of Nursing.” She was a semi-finalist in Wisconsin People and Ideas Short Fiction Contest. She was a regular contributor to “The Riverwest Currents,” edited “New Faces, Immigration to Wisconsin 1970s to 1990s,” and wrote and published “The Key New Readers Newspaper” for ten years.