Like glittering raindrops falling on a burnished palm frond, the peso coins dance and spin atop the dark wooden casket before dropping into the small net attached to its edges. Tossed by the many people lining the path up the last rise of Mantalongon, a few coins miss their mark and fall to the earth. They are gathered by the children in the long following procession of mourners. On an adjoining hill, a couple of low humped bulls lift their heads from the grass and stare. The Philippine Sea and the Island of Bohol fill the horizon to the east. To the west, the jungle tree tops dip down to the Visayan Sea and the Tanon Strait. The hazy image of Negros rises beyond. Atop the mountainous backbone of Cebu, Joe Benedict will be buried. It was the only final resting place that ever occurred to him. And one he took pains with to title and protect.
Dressed in leather sandals, dark trousers, and white shirts, grey with sweat, the six casket bearers rest the coffin at the lip of the open grave. It is cooler up here where the winds from two seas mix and swirl. Alone and unadorned, except for a little iron grill fence, and a small flat stone, its high polish brightly reflecting the overhead sun, Joe commands the view in all directions. A few metal chairs to one side of the fence serve to rescue the carriers and their tired feet.
As the procession arrives and gathers, and the sun drops a bit to the west, a young priest emerges from the crowd and stands at the head of the grave. On his right side and a step behind, a salt and pepper haired woman in black nods for him to begin.
Swinging an incense burner to and fro, and throwing sprinkles of holy water over the casket, the priest consecrates the site and blesses it with a short prayer. The bearers lower the casket, letting the hemp ropes follow it down. Stepping forward, the woman drops a handful of earth onto the casket and follows the priest outside the fence. Several others who can get close enough add their own handfuls of dirt. This ritual done, the thumping cadence of spaded earth dropping ever more silently on a wooden box ushers the crowd out over the hilltop. Spreading their nipa mats on the same ground that much of their food comes from, they eat and sing until the sun drops close to the rising mountains of Negros. Many, over time, and one in particular, will return to this grave, burn a candle or two in the still of the night, and say a prayer for Joe’s soul. The American was one of them and they loved him.
*** TEN YEARS EARLIER ***
From a hard scrabble patch of land in the foothills of the Virginia Appalachians Joe Benedict watches the sheriff’s small motorcade make its way across the valley. He knows they are coming to deliver the papers that will confiscate his rough cut home for unpaid taxes. And he knows that there is nothing he can do to stop it. At least nothing that he is willing to do. The same country that he almost died serving is going to take the only real home he ever knew.
Coming out of that unnecessary war and inheriting this place from his grandfather had given him time to look at where he had been. He didn’t much like what he saw. Ahead, to where he was supposed to go, he liked even less. Turning his back on both directions, he used this rocky and sparsely timbered land to wall off what he considered a failed society full of broken promises. By hunting, a little gardening, and odd jobs working for the valley elite, he had eked out an existence blessed by a strong back and good health. Now, in his senior years, he is watching those he can no longer put off come to take the only things that have kept him alive.
In one of those unexpected reminisces, Joe recalls the highlands of Pleiku, Vietnam, and the stunned look on the young Viet Cong’s face when he shot him. Joe leans his 30-30 Winchester against the gate post. There will be no more killing like that—ever. He will not argue or refuse the papers. He will let it play out the American way with a heaviness that has its own gravity. He will go....but with grace.
Having gone as far as it can, the black SUV, a large gold colored star on its door, comes to a halt. The deputy follow-up car does likewise. While the deputy remains in his car, the sheriff kicks open the SUV door and hauls himself out.
Sheriff Higgins, overweight but not particularly quarrelsome, has been the sheriff around here for a long time. Just your average kind of sheriff, he keeps getting re-elected because he knows most people, including Joe. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he tries to take an easy manner with the well-to-do, who are well represented throughout the valley. Carrying a clipboard of papers, he approaches Joe and smiles when he sees the 30-30 over against the gate post.
“Glad to not see you holding that iron over there,” Higgins says, nodding toward the 30-30, “I expect you know why I’m here.”
Joe is more relieved than nervous. Relieved to finally start the beginning of the end.
“Uh-huh...I’ve been waiting for you ever since the certified letter came. I guess after a couple of weeks, you won’t have to traipse up here anymore to check on my deer harvesting etiquette.”
“Expect you're right about that. But you know, I never did much care about how you hunted to eat. It was just nice to get up out of that valley some. In respects of that, I’ll be sorry to see you go. This is all the Feds doing you know.”
“Yeah, I know...never have been many places that I didn’t have to go to start with. Maybe I’ll discover something valuable as a result of all this. Who knows, I got a couple of weeks to get going, right?”
The sheriff hands Joe a stack of papers.
“That’s right, Joe. It’s all in there and wherever you go or whatever you do, you can use my name to vouch for your lawfulness, whatever that’s worth.”
“Okay, Sheriff. Two weeks and I’m out of here. Been a long time coming, I guess.”
After shaking hands, the sheriff turns and walks back to his SUV, motioning for his deputy to back out. Once his bulk is loaded behind the wheel and the door is closed, the sheriff sticks his head out the window and yells up at Joe, “Say Joe, can I ask you a question?”
“Fire away,” says Joe.
The sheriff looks in the rear view mirror, watching his deputy depart, and seems to consider the question. After a moment he smiles and says, “Tell me something valuable that you could discover out there where you haven’t been.”
Without thinking twice, Joe replies, “A loyal people.”
Wagging his finger at Joe, the sheriff grins, whips a U-turn in the scrub and drives away.
Thinking about what he had just said and wondering why the sheriff had wanted to know, Joe watches the sheriff go down the hill and out into the valley. Feeling like what will be, will be, he walks over to the gate post and hefts the 30-30. Levering open the empty chamber and magazine, Joe smiles, closes it, and dry snaps the hammer to the sky. All things must pass.
* * *
Looking out the small bulkhead window at the azure waters of the Cebu City Port area, Joe leans into the bank and watches the wing dip and rise as the jet lines up for its final approach to the Cebu International Airport. Once the flaps are lowered, the open sea quickly gives way to mangrove swamps followed by small barangays, or villages, amid scattered coconut palms. Just as lines of laundry get close enough to count the bed sheets, a blur of dark tarmac suddenly fills the earth beneath. A heavy bump followed by the feel and noise of reverse thrusters brings smiles to most of the passengers touching down after many hours in a flying tube. Out on the edges of the tarmac, the lush green tropical growth, under a brilliant sky, lends an air of optimism and high spirit to the immediate environment. Joe Benedict welcomes this feeling and smiles along with the others. He had bet on the tropics and the Filipino spirit when he had closed the book on his American life. Before that he had long contemplated such a switch. Now it was actually happening.
Coming out of customs and immigration, Joe takes the first in a long line of white taxis and heads across the Mactan bridge to Mandaue. Far below the bridge superstructure, looking like toys in a bathtub, ships of many different flags lie at anchor in the Mactan Channel. Off the bridge, small cars, large trucks, jeepneys, and thousands of motorcycles share the roads and side streets. All throwing up a diesel fog that keeps anything with windows and air conditioning closed tight.
With only a backpack to contend with after a half hour ride, Joe pays the taxi driver and hops out at the congested Southern Cebu Bus Terminal. A huge compound enclosed by high cinder block walls, tin roofed stores, and benched waiting areas, the terminal houses the many buses going to all the Southern parts of the island. Sign boards on the front windshield announce to the hundreds of passengers milling about which bus is theirs. Joe locates the bus going to Dalaguete, climbs aboard giving the conductor his fare, and takes one of the last remaining seats next to an attractive woman some years younger than him. Being the only white person aboard, a fact driven home by the many stares he receives, he assumes that what he has heard about getting away from the congestion and tourist traps is true---the further from the city he goes, the more natural and clean it will be. And the more he will stand out.
After traveling along the coastal highway for an hour, making stops, and passing one city associated town after another, the congestion thins out and crowded landscapes are replaced by open rice paddies and fish ponds bordering a sea with white beaches and coconut trees. Banana trees run right up to the highway on one side while, at high tide, the sea splashes among mangrove swamps on the other. Vendors with bulky loads of snacks and drinks hop on the bus to peddle their wares for a few kilometers, then hop off and catch another bus going back.
Buying some ampao, or puffed rice cake, from one of the vendors, the lady next to Joe notices his curiosity as she nibbles on the crunchy treat. Boldly, she unwraps another square, turns deep brown eyes upon his curiosity, and says in very good English, “My name is Alicia, and I will give you part of my tasty ampao if you will tell me where you are from and where you are going.”
Alicia Lamdagan, in her mid-fifties and a native Cebuano, proved to be true to the namesake of her heritage. Lamdagan is the Cebuano word for bright. The youngest of three daughters, she watched her sisters marry and have children of their own before she finished her Catholic elementary school. Of exceptional intelligence and spirit, she was put forward by the Nuns to gain a higher education through the nunnery and took her vows as a nun, with a confidence in God and charity, at the age of twenty. Her work in the rural Catholic orphanage of the Mantalongon Mountains, year after year, gave her a lasting rapport with the people of the area. And her brightness proved fruitful for the children she cared for. However, her good intelligence, balanced with an even stronger spirit, would not let her walk away when the Diocese eliminated the rural orphanage from its sphere of patronage and ordered her to another service in Manila. Instead, she renounced her vows, removed her habit, and with what resources she could scrape together, kept her orphan children and their home from sinking into nonexistence. Now, headed back to her labor of love and spirit, after visiting the city, she has noticed the white man beside her eyeing her snack.
Joe, though surprised by his seatmate’s candor, is completely taken with the humorous sparkle and openness of her wide set eyes. Framed by long, raven black hair and the bone structure of an intelligent Polynesian pedigree, there is a light in her eyes that disengages any need for him to be defensive. In fact, a rarity for Joe, quite the opposite.
“Well, I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know for sure what you are eating, but it is valuable information that you seek.”
“Touche,” Alicia replies with a smile that broadens the handsome light of her face. “These little tidbits of rice and sweets are considered a delicacy here in Southern Cebu. Delicious, or lami as we say, their value, I assure you, is equal to your information.”
Enjoying his newfound social skills with a complete stranger, Joe replies, “In that case, my name is Joe, not like the GI Joe of Filipino fame, but like short for Joseph of the coat of many colors. I am from the United States, and I am going to Dalaguete to start a new life.”
“I am very familiar with the Joseph of the Bible and what he did,” Alicia says, while searching his eyes for any deception. “Tell me Joe, what will you do in this new life?”
Suddenly feeling a little vulnerable with such a broad question, Joe looks to his hands and considers his reply. Alicia, seeming to intuit the situation, pushes a full package of ampao into Joe’s hands and says, “Here Joe, I must not make an unfair bargain with you. Enough, try one of these, they really are lami. And they don’t unfairly squeeze your wallet either.”
Tasting the ampao and finding truth in everything that Alicia has said, Joe shrugs and broadly describes his situation, and the hopes that accompany it, while Alicia seems to listen with a sense that goes beyond just her hearing.
Feeling the benefit of having such a good listener for the first time in recent memory, and having talked about personal things with another, Joe’s long dormant social curiosity starts to peek out from its covers. “What about you,” he asks, “are you from Dalaguete?”
“Not exactly, I’m from Mantalongon, in the mountains above Dalaguete. I could never afford to live along the shore. Besides, I run an orphanage, that is where my work is. And, let me tell you, there is plenty of it there. My helper is getting too old to keep up, but he has no other place to go. And I have no money to hire, so it’s pretty touch and go.”
Having started to share her problems as well, and needing to vent with someone other than God, Alicia goes on to explain how all this came to be.
Joe struggles to hide his astonishment at the gumption and spirit of this woman. Rarely has he met people of such character and charity. Certainly not back where he comes from. Besides, back there, he would never allow such things to be presented to start with. That would require too much trust.
Entering the greater Dalaguete region, Joe and Alicia break conversation and watch the jungle come right up to the highway, broken only every now and then by a house or an ocean vista. Along with their silence, some sort of higher reality seems to come over them. Sensing this, they curiously look at one another, like they are seeing each other for the first time.
“You know I was just thinking,” Joe says.
Alicia solemnly nods.
As if having the same thoughts, Alicia continues to nod as Joe says, “I could save my little bit of money and come to Mantalongon instead of Dalaguete, take a look around, maybe fix up a few things. Give the old guy a break. No pay needed, room and board would be nice. What do you think?”
Like one bright soul supplanting the solemn visage of another, Alicia’s face lights up as she replies in an almost hallowed voice, “Oh merciful God, that would be wonderful.”
After the long stretch of jungle and sea, entering Dalaguete Poblacion is like going from the natural wild to the festive tame in a couple of heartbeats. Multicolored signs asking for business hang everywhere, and both sides of the road are occupied by one structure or another. Banners stretch over the highway signaling that life is good and that this spot is a good place to enjoy it. Pushcart vendors, selling everything from barbequed chicken feet to skewers of shrimp shish kabob, come and go along the market area where fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables, are sold by the kilo. City Hall, with the police station and post office, is located across the street from the market as well. Nothing like the city, but for rural Filipinos, just about all things that are needed for everyday life can be found here.
At the bus stop, just off the first cross street after coming into Dalaguete, eighty-one year old Pedro Abbas sits behind the wheel of an ancient World War Two-era jeep waiting for Alicia’s bus to arrive. There is no transportation between here and Mantalongon other than private motor bike. And that is a dangerous ride with young Filipino bikers carrying multiple passengers in and out of the mountains for whatever fare they can get. Since he can’t find the part to fix the broken water pump at the orphanage, Pedro is happy to wait for his pick-up...as long as the jeep doesn’t conk out. Knowing the bus is due soon from the cell phone texts received by others waiting for the same bus, Pedro uncurls from the driver's seat and attempts to straighten up his old frame. Still slightly bent after pushing his back in as far as possible, he hears the bus coming over the hump bridge into town and stands by to welcome Alicia back to the province.
Amid a cloud of dust and diesel fumes, the bus arrives and the waiting area comes alive with activity. Alicia, in the middle of several others, steps down from the door and waves to Pedro. Starting to lift his hand, Pedro freezes when he sees the white man, a backpack over one shoulder, walk up and join her on the way across the street.
“Pedro, this is my friend, Joseph,” Alicia says. “He is coming with us to have a look around at our repair needs. Isn’t that nice?”
Joe extends his hand and says, “Just call me Joe, Pedro, nice to meet you.”
A study in contrasts presents itself as an aged Pedro, deep brown and slight of build with only a little dark hair left, and a younger Joe, white and tall with graying blonde hair, shake hands. A little stiff in manner, Pedro can’t hide his surprise at having an extra worker aboard.
Glancing frequently in the rear view mirror at Joe in the back seat, Pedro mostly ignores Alicia’s chatter as they travel from the bus stop straight out the cross street to a dusty and curvy road into the mountains. As they gain altitude, it isn’t long before the clutter of the coast gives way to open vistas and a rolling, sparsely inhabited landscape. Halfway up the mountain a huge lizard-like monitor, as long as the jeep, leaps from the jungle, scurries across the road, and back into the jungle. Neither Alicia nor Pedro make any mention of this creature but Joe fervently hopes that his bed will not be one that is on the ground. Never has he seen a lizard so large. Pedro sees Joe’s reaction in the rear view mirror and smiles.
About thirteen kilometers into the hills they top out and pass through the small settlement of Mantalongon to an outlying large structure of bamboo and native materials. Set on a rolling plateau, among one of the few hectares of jungle growth at this location, the orphanage, a few outbuildings, and their immediate courtyards, look pretty run down. But the happy children bouncing up and down and waving in the main hall’s front yard give the place an air of freshness that belies its true condition.
Alicia asks Pedro to show Joe to an empty native house and get him settled while she helps a couple of volunteers prepare their evening meal. Joe finds the nipa hut, with a grass roof and bamboo slatted floor, neat and adequate for his needs. Dumping his pack on the small bed, he follows Pedro out and about on a tour of the grounds.
Stopping at the well and broken water pump, Pedro shows Joe the laid out parts of the pump and explains that he was unable to find the proper part to repair it. Amazingly, Joe looks the layout over, cannibalizes a piece from another broken pump lying in a junk pile, and quickly reassembles all the parts. After reconnecting the pump to the electrical outlet, he opens the line and throws the switch. Hissing and coughing, the line shakes a couple of times, then emits a smooth stream of water. Pedro, thoroughly impressed with Joe’s seemingly miraculous tinkering skill, grabs Joe’s hand and pumps it like it will bring water as well. Truly happy about what he has just witnessed, Pedro lets go of any animosity that may have existed. And with that one small deed Joe gains a loyal assistant instead of a resentful helper. Gladly, Pedro finishes the tour for Joe, pointing out the many things that could use a repair job, then proudly escorts him to the eating area.
Gathered for dinner, happy faces listen to Pedro go on about what he saw done with the broken water pump, and how this glorious act will extend to the many other needful things that are about. For several of the children, Joe is the first actual man who is like the people that they have, on occasion, seen in foreign media.
Alicia, happy to have had such good fortune in meeting Joe, looks down the long picnic table and adds considerable weight to the moment when she says, “Well Joe, it seems that you have made quite an impression around here. We hope you can stay a while.”
With a fork full of food halfway to his mouth, Joe pauses and looks at all the smiling people.
“Really, you all, I just got lucky. Just wait until I break something because I’m stupid.”
Amid the laughter that follows, one boy of about ten stands up, waits for the laughter to die, then says in practiced English, “Stay Joe, please. We will take care of you.”
This small plea brings a subtle seriousness to the table that forces Joe to set his fork aside and clear his throat. Taking a moment to check a rampant emotion that tries to blur his vision, Joe sees all those faces fixed on him. After a moment of inner struggle, he stands and looks at the boy who made the plea, then everyone else at the table. Not really knowing what to say, but at the same time feeling a privilege that he has never known, Joe simply says what he feels, “It would be an honor to be your fixer.”
* * *
Watching the gecko skitter back and forth across the coco wood beam for the grass roof, Joe finds it odd that he hasn’t heard its chirps. The breeze from the oscillating fan makes it comfortable to lie under the cover in the morning and listen to the competing choruses of crowing cocks. Now is his special time to take stock of life in general…...good enough, nothing grandiose. Just plain, simple, and best of all, non-deceptive. Loyal. As the fan swings around the gecko again skitters across the coco brace. Isn’t that a little pearl of wisdom, Joe declares to himself. A gecko that uses a fan. Known for bringing good luck and heralding it with their chirps, geckos are welcome guests. But the mute gecko could be a different story. Joe’s thoughts play with this possibility until he hears a slight rustle near his door.
Alicia’s gentle rap and worried voice ends all his speculation about mute geckos.
“Joe, are you awake? Something terrible has happened and I need your help.”
Knowing that indeed something very serious must have occurred to bring Alicia to his door this early, Joe jumps up and into some shorts. Opening the door, he finds Alicia fully dressed and carrying a small flashlight, as is normal for her early rounds. What is not normal is the look on her face and what she says.
“I just found Pedro dead...sitting on his prayer rug in the door of his hut.”
Thoroughly alarmed, Joe tries to wrap his mind around the incongruity of Alicia’s statement. Pedro seemed fine at dinner last evening.
“A prayer rug?” he says. “What does he do with a prayer rug?”
“Come now,” Alicia replies, “I will show you. Pedro is...was a Muslim.”
Thinking how little we sometimes know about each other, Joe pulls on a shirt and follows Alicia across the grounds to a replica of his own hut. Slumped over against the open door, a Koran in his hands, Pedro looks like he is only asleep. Joe places his fingers along Pedro’s carotid artery but finds no pulse. A closer inspection finds no sign of life.
“His religion was very personal and private to him,” Alicia says. “He only prayed in private, or sometimes, at night, in the doorway, like he is now.”
“All this time I spent with him, and I had no idea,” Joe says.
“That is as it should be,” Alicia says. “Prayer in a closet is sometimes most powerful. We must honor his faith and quickly return him to his maker. I will get a stretcher. Please help me prepare the body for burial.”
Joe and Alicia had finished washing and cleansing Pedro by the time the sun was up two fingers. Word had spread quickly in the orphanage but not much beyond which was also as it should be. Pedro had no known blood family. He had come from the Southern islands more than half his lifetime ago. The orphanage was his only family now and this would be a private, simple funeral, according to his faith.
While the oldest children and a couple of farmers from the immediate area dig a grave in the largest and closest coconut grove, taking care to situate it perpendicular to Mecca, Alicia and Joe shroud Pedro in an unused and newly washed bed sheet. Fragrant white flowers of the Camia plant are spread over Pedro and tucked within the folds of his shroud and scattered on the grave floor.
Gently placing Pedro on his right side, facing Mecca, Joe and Alicia take pains to observe his religious beliefs and honor his passing.
The few adults there, as well as the children, drift away when Joe and Alicia, now becoming a pair more than before, each lift a shovel and start covering their old friend. Perspiration glitters upon their brows by the time they finish.
Having patted down Pedro’s final resting place under the towering coconut trees, they linger a bit, catching the slight fragrance of ginger, Pedro’s favorite tea additive. Weary from their duty, and with feelings too poignant and perhaps too unknown for words, Joe and Alicia reach out. And together, spades shouldered and hands held, they walk back to their home.
Hitching the wagon to the old Jeep, Joe prepares to haul a fresh load of coconuts and corn to the local agricultural cooperative. A cooperative that he and Alicia organized to benefit the growers of the region, giving them better and more stable prices for their crops. Feeling reflective, Joe puts off the bumpy ride into town for a while to count his blessings. There is the bartering connection established under his tutelage that brings together the good crops of the highlands and the protein rich fish of the coastal area, helping all persons high and low. Joe smiles as he acknowledges that it is a rare place in the Dalaguete community that the pair of them, American fixer and Filipina teacher, are not known and respected. Life is good. And it is loyal, dependable.
Further reflecting on the passing of Pedro, Joe can see that, in a natural way, it was the beginning for him and Alicia as each other’s first true partner. And how that partnership and the proximity of their work together accentuated other needs, despite their older years. Needs that simply and lovingly resolved themselves. How the acceptance and understanding of the people around them acquiesced to that resolution naturally. Happily, Joe recalls the smiles that would greet them when they emerged from the same large nipa hut. Smiles and changes as natural as the never ending tropical growth. Fingering his driver’s license and ID card, Joe remembers the good wishes he and Alicia received when they took it one step further with a priest, thus setting him up with his Permanent Philippine Residency. And, like the icing on a lovely cake, giving him the inclusion and belonging that he had missed for most of his life. How nice it was that Alicia, no less, also found natural beginnings, ripe with promise. Even as her raven hair began to show touches of silver.
Realizing that the sun is moving, Joe hurriedly fires up the Jeep and heads across the yard to the jungle road. Seeing the youngest orphan boy feeding the chickens, Joe stops and yells, “Hey Antonio, scatter that feed and get in. We will go to Mantalongon and make some pesos.”
Antonio lights up, all teeth, and in one swoop scatters the feed, throws the bucket in the back, and jumps in. As Joe eases the Jeep and its load along the rutted road, Antonio stands, grips the windshield with one hand, and points out the coconut trees he is one day going to climb with the other.
Uncoupling, but reluctant to further break the so sweet connection, their fingertips toy along each other’s nakedness---little dances of touch up a thigh, or around a nipple. Looking toward the grass thatch roof in the dim light above them, they see only their thoughts drifting in and out of focus, like the breeze from the rotating fan. The pre-dawn sounds of crowing cocks subsides only long enough to pick out a jungle bird call every now and then. And a new resident gecko, adding its chirps to this chorus, tries not to be out done. To Joe and Alicia, in the languid world of after love, these sounds could all be a symphony, or a concert, the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” Woodstock, or even the Vatican Choir. There is no limit to their travel nor to what they can hear during these times. Up in years, they consider this sweetness special to them, a blessing.
Speaking to this special place that is all around them, Joe shares his truth.
“You know, baby, if I die tomorrow there will not be an ounce of regret in me. And there must not be an ounce of regret in you. If I have to go first, know without doubt, that I am not gone. I will be in everything that we ever touched, every memory of every look we shared. And as you go on, so do I. It can be no other way.”
Joe turns his cheek to the pillow as Alicia’s eyes well and birth a tear.
“Because of you,” he continues, “each breath that I take is nothing but gravy---extra life above and beyond. I never thought that I could be somebody. Only, did I want to find a way to know that my life was not useless. And, if God would really bless me, a life that was not a lie. Thanks to you, and the God that is a part of you, that is.”
Joe falls silent, takes an elbow, and looks down at Alicia. Finding an intoxicating depth in her eyes, his head lowers, as if in surrender. And in a choked voice he concludes, “The bounty of your love fills me beyond words.”
Suddenly, as if he just remembered a fire he must fight, Joe sits upright and declares, “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken that many words at once.” Swinging his feet over the edge of the bed, he is about to stand when Alicia grabs both his shoulders from behind and pulls him back down into the bed.
“How dare you! You're not going anywhere until I tell you a thing or two about what a wonderful person you are and all the good and hope you have brought here. And I’ll start by telling you that it's not all gravy. You deserve whatever you have been able to gain. And a lot more.”
Determined to get in a complete say, Alicia sits up, places her hand firmly on Joe’s chest...and starts to cry.
“I love you so much...and we are getting old...nobody lives forever.”
Sniffling and sobbing, Alicia is overcome with emotion and for a moment can’t go on.
Wiping her face with the bedcover and taking deep breaths, while Joe smiles up at her and gently smoothes her tears, she eventually seems to regain her composure.
“I never want you to doubt that you mean the world to me and the people around us. You give of yourself in ways that will grow, sending up shoots that will always, in one way or another, further your brand of goodness.”
Alicia, the image of abundant grace, lowers her eyes and kisses Joe’s breast. And, as if to seal her touch and all their emotional talk, lies her cheek upon the warm mark of her lips.
Gently strumming a path down Alicia’s spine, Joe cherishes the ensuing silence, pregnant with fulfillment. But, as a touch of morning color comes to the light under the grass eves, he wonders how he will tell her what he learned on his last trip to the city.
* * *
Bursting from the smaller bedroom, almost tearing the curtain from its hooks, adopted 11-year-old Antonio, the last of the orphans, grabs a stick of lumpia from the kitchen table and bolts out the door.
“Tony, slow down. Where are you going in such a hurry?” Alicia calls after him.
Yelling back over his shoulder, Antonio replies, “To take Lucy and Big Boy to the hilltop grass. They have to eat too.” Antonio considers the two working carabao, or water buffalo, his personal charge.
Looking across the kitchen table at Joe, Alicia says, “He gets more like you everyday.”
“And his smarts from you get bigger too,” Joe replies.
Alicia nods and decides that it is time to ask the dreadful question. Sliding a prescription leaf from the local medical clinic across the table, she says, “Joe, what is this?”
Joe’s face falls when he sees it.
“I was going to tell you, sweetheart. It’s a referral to a specialist in Cebu City.”
“And did you go?”
“Yeah, I went.”
Having noticed his occasional dizzy spells and shortness of breath, Alicia, her stomach a sudden steely knot, reaches over the table and lifts Joe's chin, “It’s your heart isn’t it?”
“Yeah, baby, they say I need bypass surgery.”
“Then let’s do it. Lots of people get it done.”
Wishing he were anywhere else at this moment, Joe takes Alicia’s hand. “They can’t, Ali. They say that there is something unusual about my aorta and they don’t have the technology here to pull it off.”
“What about Manila?”
“Same thing there. They want to send me to the United States where they have had some success with this thing. Couple of problems with that though.”
Joe pauses and looks to the roof.
“Please listen hard, babe. I don’t want to have to say this again. And never forget that I love you and would do nothing to hurt you. It is what it is. There is no trickery here.”
Feeling numb and strange, he kisses Alicia’s hand as his eyes well up.
“We don’t have the money for such a thing. It is tremendously expensive and if you don’t have the money, or very good insurance, you can’t even get in the door. Since the war, my war, I have given nothing to America. And I have never asked for anything. They have hospitals there for people like me, but they are very poor and wouldn’t even attempt such a thing. I’d be condemned to just sit or lie there and watch people with money get fixed while I die. It was such stuff that drove me from that place to start with. To die with your loved ones near, and the dignity of knowing that all that can be done is being done, is so much better, to me, than feeling like a threadbare throwaway, hung in an auction of life to the highest bidder. For me, that would be suicide. We are better than that. Please, Ali, don’t expect me to leave my home for a chance that is no chance and even worse,”
Having spoken his heart in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago when he met this exceptional woman, Joe gently leads Alicia, weeping and without volition, from the table and says, “Come on, babe, let's take a walk back to the beginning and visit Pedro.”
* * *
Feeling a little punk, Joe decides that half a day is enough. He will visit the hilltop and enjoy a little communion. It gives perspective to his downs and helps with an old man’s moods in general.
The eatery, once the main hall and orphanage dormitory, is overflowing with the lunch crowd when he stops by to tell Alicia where he is going but the crowd doesn’t pick up his mood as it normally would. Taking the new Jeep, Joe drives down the road and takes the grassy track up the slight elevation to his special place. The view of the three islands and the seas that surround them is gorgeous enough to lift even the most forlorn. Sitting in the open Jeep, with the comfortable January sun on the back of his neck, Joe looks out over the vast Philippine Sea. Almost before he can feel his breathing become a touch tight, his utter attention is captured by something different about the distant and slightly vague image of Bohol. Kissed by the connecting waters, Bohol is changing ever so gently into a soothing golden mist that advances toward him. Never before has Joe witnessed such pretty happenings. Thoroughly taken and most interested, he marvels at the sky filled with this miraculous display. As the mist descends upon him, touching his skin, it gradually parts to reveal his greatest love, Alicia. Struck with humble awe as the mist disappears and her image becomes the ALL, Joe’s forehead sinks to the steering wheel and his eyes close.
* * * FIVE YEARS LATER* * *
The heavy beat of drums, mixing with the enchanting soprano voice of a Filipina singer, blasts from speakers throughout the Benedict Cooperative complex. The cleared main floor of the eatery is crowded with young dancers, and a few not so young. Everywhere there is color. From the hanging banners, to the dress of the dancers, to the blooming bougainvillea, to the food and drink-laden tables, color paints the day. Kitchens, both local and catered, are in high gear cranking out the favorite foods of the islands. Scattered roasting pits send up the musky sweet aroma of lechon from the spitted suckling pigs turning over them. And an occasional long bamboo cylinder containing tuba, or coconut wine, shows itself. It is the yearly fiesta in honor of Joseph Benedict, the late patron fixer of Mantalongon.
Like a glacier in the midst of a blossoming rain forest, Alicia’s white, lustrous hair runs to the floral pinks and purples of her sundress as she surveys the activity of her famous kitchen. Noticing someone that she wishes to speak with, she clicks down the lacquered coco wood floor in high heels, her back straight, though carrying the Bible’s threescore and ten years. Stopping next to her pancit specialist, Rose, she takes a bamboo sliver and spreads the pancit to examine it.
“This looks good, Rose. These large prawns are what Joe always said made the difference between good and regular pancit. This tray will not last five minutes once placed outside.”
“Thank you ma’am, I wish he could be here,” Rose replies.
Alicia looks from the pancit to Rose, smiles, and pats her hand.
“So do I Rose, so do I. We’ll just have to let him know how good it is.”
Nodding with a smile to all the help that looks on, Alicia walks out of the kitchen to look for Antonio.
As the night lights come on, Antonio brings the Jeep around and Alicia, holding a small bag, gets in. The fiesta fades to silence as they drive out to Joe’s grave and park. After slipping on sandals, Alicia joins Antonio in front of the Jeep. Taking her arm, Antonio steadies her the last few steps to the small stone marker just inside the iron grill fence. After dusting off the marker with her hand and chipping off the wax of others, Alicia removes three candles from her bag and gives one to Antonio. With a match, she lights Antonio’s candle and nods. Antonio drips wax on the marker and stands his candle in it. Calm is the night as the candle light slightly flickers across their faces. From that candle, Alicia lights the other two and places them beside the first. Cast in grace by the candlelight, they pray, touching the small stone frequently, gathering the spirit that is embedded there. They need only look at each other to affirm and behold that spirit. Joe’s spirit. And, again, that which is inviolate, as he had predicted, nourishes them.
Driving back through the little patch of jungle and the Benedict Cooperative, Alicia and Antonio smile and wave to their friends and workers before parking the Jeep. Following Antonio into the house to rest before the main event and her speech, Alicia turns before shutting the door to admire the large rainbow colored banner strung over the courtyard. WELCOME TO THE JOSEPH BENEDICT FIESTA.
“My heavens,” she thinks, “how he would have loved it. It is all gravy.”
The door closes.
He was known to those few in Carmichael who remembered his father and grandfather as Swede the Third, a name he didn’t care for as it enflamed his most painful memory.
He had not started out as a bartender; but one might be excused for thinking so considering the number of years – thirty in 1986 – that he had worked at Jerry’s Tavern. His daughter, Audrey, was two when he started. When a new owner took over from Jerry O’Malley in 1967, Swede was already a civic institution.
Swede’s grandfather arrived in Carmichael late in the Nineteenth Century and worked as a farm hand until he died at the supper table after a long, hot day’s haying in 1928. An immense, broad-shouldered man with powerful limbs and chopped up hands, he worked like an ox and consumed heaped plates of meat and potatoes smothered in gravy. Everyone assumed he would live forever, but he died just shy of sixty-five.
By that time, Swede the Second had fulfilled his father’s dream of owning a farm, something he accomplished with bank credit in the Twenties. He had returned from the war in France minus two fingers of his left hand, hard of hearing in his right ear and with an eternal disinterest in Fourth of July fireworks. Despite an uncertain pricing environment, he increased the herd of Holsteins and Jerseys, planted an apple orchard and added two new rooms onto the modest farm house. Going ever deeper into debt, he tore down the dilapidated barn and built a spanking new one. He lost the farm in the early years of the Depression as milk prices sank well below his production costs. He left town leaving his family to their own devices.
Swede missed his father terribly. One minute he was there, tossing a ball with him or telling jokes at the dinner table; and the next, he was gone, leaving a void that confused and frightened the seven-year-old. For years, a giant of a man with a vague face appeared in his dreams, hoisted the little boy to his shoulders and galloped around the farm yard like a horse.
The family scraped by. Swede’s mother got permission to move into a cottage on a neighboring farm. She was charged no rent and got paid in kind for milking, shoveling manure, weeding the vegetable garden and haying – Stafford Thorstein having let go his hired hand and having no sons but rather a sickly wife and a married daughter who lived in the Midwest. Swede walked the mile and a half to school with his two older sisters and, before heading home, earned a few nickels doing chores at Fogarty’s Grocery while his sisters washed laundry for still reasonably well-off families like the Beckmans who owned the Ford dealership.
In later years, Swede had difficulty remembering a time when he hadn’t worked at least a part of each day except Sunday.
The family’s situation improved in the Forties. Stafford Thorstein began paying cash to Swede’s mother who, he had long realized, worked as hard as any man. Swede worked part-time for Stafford as well as another farmer, who offered him a full-time job when he graduated from Carmichael High in 1945.
“You work like your grandfather,” the farmer told him. “You get along with everyone including them Negro apple pickers who come up in the fall; my wife thinks the world of you; and you seem to have a good head on your shoulders.”
Meaning, Swede knew, that he wasn’t the kind to cut and run like his father. Swede thanked the man but turned him down and took a job as a truck driver. He liked the idea of being on the road and thought maybe he would run into his father someday. He grew a beard in imitation of the picture his mother kept on her dresser.
It wasn’t clear to Swede how he became such a good listener and likewise a sparse talker – at least when it came to talking about himself. Perhaps it was listening to the radio on the long stretches of highway or sitting at truck stop counters while the man next to him beefed about the wife or the kids or the mortgage. However it happened, by the time he started bartending in 1956, he had a knack for lending an ear. He gave up truck driving not because he didn’t like it but because he missed his family. He had married Dottie Gorman in 1952 when she was twenty-two and he was twenty-five. She was his first girl friend and the only person with whom he had ever talked about his father’s disappearance.
After high school, Dottie studied for a year at a beautician school downstate, returning to Carmichael to take a job at Nell’s House of Beauty. She surprised herself by falling for Swede at a New Year’s dance a couple of years later. Of course, she had known who he was. They had only been three years apart in high school, but she hadn’t paid much attention to him. He looked awkward and a little lost standing off to one side at the dance so she went up to him. They talked a lot, danced a little, had a glass of champagne at midnight and sang Auld Lang Syne. He walked her home to her parents’ house. As she shook his huge hand, she knew she would marry him – just not when. She stopped working at Nell’s House of Beauty when Audrey was born.
Little Audrey seemed to grow by leaps and bounds in the days Swede was on the road; and in spite of the squeals of excitement that greeted him when he walked through the door, he dreaded the look of accusation he read into her eyes when he walked back out. When Dottie told him she was pregnant for the second time, he gave notice the next day. Swede had five months’ experience as a bartender when Jack entered the world at just under eight pounds.
“He didn’t get that weight from me,” Dottie said with a weak smile, propped up against the hospital pillows and holding Jack to her breast.
They didn’t have what one would call a social life. Swede worked on the evenings when most couples went out, and Dottie – a delicate woman whose pack and a half a day of Pall Malls didn’t add to her stamina – had her hands full with the kids and the house. Swede could have taken his dinner at the Tavern; but he preferred to duck home to eat a hurried meal with the family. On Sundays, when the Tavern was closed, he and Dottie spent the afternoon romping with Audrey and Jack. As the kids got older and spent more time out with their friends, the two adults played endless games of checkers and backgammon. Or on cold days, they would build a fire and sit on the sofa - her fragile hand encased in his ham-fisted one - sipping bourbon, talking quietly and half listening to Frank Sinatra on the Magnavox record player Swede had bought Dottie for her thirtieth birthday.
They owned a small house at the foot of the thickly wooded hills that hemmed in the town on the south. Houses on steeply-tilted lots with panoramic views were scattered through the hills. Further south rose craggy Mt. Wheeler, originally Moose Peak but re-named shortly after the Civil War for the family of timber barons who were still a powerful presence in town. Starting at Route 43, the Mt. Wheeler road cut through a gap in the hills and wound upwards past the Carmichael Game Preserve. The odd farm along the narrow road supported only modest herds and small orchards.
The houses in their neighborhood were mostly ranch-style and set close together. Encroaching on the hills, they had tiny fenced-in yards. The ear of all and sundry in the Tavern, Swede had scant interest in leaning on a backyard fence to hear his neighbors’ views and no interest whatsoever in telling them his.
When Jack entered sixth grade, Dottie went back to work at Nell’s in order to put something aside for what she and Swede eagerly expected would be the kids’ college tuitions.
It was April 1986, and spring seemed to be in no hurry. The fields were pockmarked with patches of crusty snow; and the cows turned their backs to the biting wind. Ellis Fogarty slipped on the ice carrying Louise Zimmerman’s groceries to her car and broke his wrist. His son, Brian, insisted that his father either retire or stop helping even the most elderly of customers with their bags.
“We don’t have a parking lot like that infernal One Stop Supermarket out on 43,” retorted Ellis. “How are we going to keep our older customers if we don’t carry their bags?”
“We have a couple of carts. They can take one,” said Brian.
“Fine service that is,” snapped Ellis. “You think Louise Zimmerman, at her age, is going to push a cart along the sidewalk?”
“I guess not, but let me do the carrying.”
“And if you’re busy?”
“I’ll un-busy myself.”
The town chafed under the lingering hand of winter. The exhilarating first snowfalls were a faded memory. The felt-lined boots found under the Christmas tree were now well-used. The snow along the roadsides was caked with grit, and mornings of crystalline sunshine had given way to afternoons of dull skies.
“Winter, get thee behind me,” muttered Irma Mulcahy, Louise Zimmerman’s daughter, as she entered Jerry’s Tavern one Thursday in the middle of the afternoon. The bar was, as she expected, empty. Seated on a stool behind the bar, Swede was staring straight ahead. An open paperback lay face down on the bar. He looked at Irma with surprise but said nothing as she walked towards him, slowly running a hand along the backs of the bar stools as if checking for dust. She glanced up at the painting behind the bar of the reclining nude woman, noting the ample rear end and the inviting smile turned towards the viewer. Irma chuckled.
“What’s funny?” Swede asked in a low, flat voice.
“Just wondering how your customers would react if that were a painting of a man.”
“That would depend on who the man was. Now if it were Floyd...”
“Nah,” Irma grinned. “The football hero’s bod ain’t what it used to be.”
Swede smiled faintly. Irma picked up the book, a cheap detective novel.
“I thought you’d be reading a better class of literature,” she said.
“I thought you’d be frequenting a better class of establishment.”
“Got me there,” she said with a small laugh.
“What are you doing in here at this time of day? We don’t see much of you and Floyd even when the place is hopping.”
“I came for a Johnny Walker on the rocks.”
“The hell you did,” said Swede.
“It’s not for me”
Swede looked around..
“Is it a goblin you’ve brought with you then, Mrs. Mulcahy?”
“Not today,” Irma replied.
He stood up and, leaning his broad shoulders over the bar, checked the space around her.
“If so,” he said, “it’s an invisible one.”
“Not a leprechaun either and you’re forgetting that I’m only married to the Irish.”
“In that case, who pray tell is the Scotch for?”
He sat back down.
“Are you trying to get me fired?”
Irma hoisted her thickening frame onto a bar stool. Her reddish brown hair had started to gray, but she refused to color it the way her best friend, Virginia Wheeler, did. She leaned forward, keeping her eyes on his.
“Furthest thing from my mind.” She gathered her thoughts. “I just felt the Johnny Walker would be something of an ice breaker.”
“Is there ice that needs breaking?”
“Maybe yes, maybe no”
“You’re being awfully mysterious. If there’s something you need to talk about...”
“It’s not me, Swede.” She smiled at him in what she hoped was a gracious and not condescending fashion. “You are everybody’s ear – the town psychiatrist. Not to mention that most folks probably prefer you to young Father Di Lorenzo or Reverend Cairns.”
“Ah the Methodists. I’m a lapsed Lutheran myself.”
“No doubt,” said Irma. She looked down and then back up at him. “I simply thought that right now you might need someone to talk to.”
He was as much a giant as his father and grandfather; but now, however, he seemed to shrink. He rubbed the sty in his left eye.
“Audrey and Jack were here for a week.”
“That was three weeks ago; and anyway, I meant someone closer to your own age.” She patted the back of her head, a habit she had spent a lifetime trying to break. “One’s kids can only do so much.”
She paused. Swede said nothing.
“I hear Audrey is living in Chicago.”
“Works for Sears, Roebuck.”
“Los Angeles – trying to break into the movies.”
“He always was a stunner. How’s he doing?”
“Had a few bit parts. Nothing you would care to see.”
“Both far from home,” Irma mused as Swede fell silent again.
"Dottie was fifty-six, wasn’t she?”
Swede got off his stool. He took a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label from the mirrored shelf and set it on the bar. He put ice in two glasses and filled each with Scotch. He handed one to Irma and sat back down.
“After all this time, I don’t suppose I’ll get fired for one drink.”
They clinked glasses and drank. He set his glass on the bar and ran a hand over his thick, but well-trimmed beard.
“Yes,” he said, “she was fifty-six. You have a good memory.”
“She was a year ahead of me.” Irma patted the back of her head. “She graduated but I...” Irma smiled at the memory. “...got pregnant.” Irma briefly touched Swede’s huge hand with its delicate blond hairs. “She was too young for this to happen.”
“By half,” said Swede looking into his glass.
“She was a sweet person.”
Swede looked up.
“She hated losing her hair, “ he said. “The chemo will do that. She said she looked like her grandmother at ninety. She got so weak she could barely get out of bed. She padded around the house like a ghost. Like she already wasn’t there.”
Swede rapped his knuckles sharply on the bar.
“But she still wouldn’t give up the smokes. She asked for one the day before she died. I had to hold it to her lips.”
“Are you very angry at her?”
A hurt expression came into his eyes.
“You have every right to be angry. I would be. Floyd still smokes much as I carp at him.”
“Gave it up years ago.”
Irma got up.
“Excuse me, but I need the Ladies’ room.’
When she came back, she saw that her half-empty glass had been re-filled.
“Apart from angry, how are you feeling?”
“Maybe you should take over as psychiatrist.”
“Am I sounding too ,,, like a TV character?”
“No,” he said, “but it’s not easy for me to talk.”
“I’m not surprised,” she said, “seeing as you’re mostly on the receiving end.”
“I feel very old.” He started to take a drink but put the glass down. “We were married for thirty-four years. She was my first girlfriend.” He moved the glass around on the bar. “The house is so empty.”
“It will probably seem that way for a while.” Irma shifted her weight. “Look, I’m here to listen, and I doubt my advice would be worth much anyway; but maybe a couple of suggestions,,,” She gave him an inquiring look as if seeking permission to continue.
“Don’t let being alone become routine. See your friends. Go spend time with Audrey and Jack.”
“They’ll be thrilled.”
“I didn’t say move in with either of them.”
“They’ll be glad to hear it.”
He got off his stool and shook his right leg. He massaged his thigh.
“Gets cramped if I sit too long.”
“Walking would be good for it.”
“I must walk a couple of miles every day just going back and forth along the bar.”
They finished their drinks. He removed the bottle and glasses and took out a cloth from underneath the bar. With studied deliberation, he wiped the surface. “I know hardly anyone except the folks who come in here.” He continued along the already-shining wood polishing in broad circles. “I wouldn’t call them friends. Dottie was my friend. She understood me.” He looked back at Irma.
“Do you have a dog?” she asked.
“They make terrific companions.”
“Who would do the talking – the dog?”
“No, you,” Irma said with a small laugh. “Can’t be any worse than talking to yourself – maybe better.”
“We ... I don’t have the yard for a dog. I’d hate to see it cooped up all hours of the day and night.”
“Just a thought”
Irma got off her stool. She put her hands in the small of her back and stretched.
“I see what you mean,” she said, “about sitting too long on one of those things. I rarely sit much. I thought it would be easier when Earle got married and the last of the kids was gone, but Floyd manages to fill up the vacuum. He wants to remodel so we can take in a boarder. Buying up in the hills set us back a pretty penny although I could look at the view forever. Floyd is hoping for a Knicks fan.”
She gave his hand a squeeze.
“You’ll be okay,” she said.
“Got to go. Floyd will be home before long and wondering where supper is.”
She thought for an instant as if trying to focus on something.
“Maybe you’d like to come over for supper sometime.”
She buttoned her coat and turned up the collar.
“If spring doesn’t get here soon,” she said, “we’re moving to Florida.”
She started for the door.
“You know,” he said.
She turned back.
“Both our fathers skipped town.”
“Even after ... what ... a quarter century, I still think he’ll come back someday,” she said.
“I thought that for a long time.”
“You were so young...”
“Get that dog. To hell with the yard. Take him out in the woods.”
“Your father was here the afternoon before he left. I tried to talk to him. He wouldn’t talk.”
“After being an accounting manager, I guess stocking shelves at Fogarty’s was just too humiliating.”
“Damn Majestic Machine Tools,” she said sharply. “Wonder how they did in North Carolina.”
“Is it true he left a note saying: ‘Gone South? Good Riddance’?”
“Yes,” said Irma. “Just like the one that got nailed up at the plant.”
He saw Irma’s expression go blank.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’ve always wondered.”
“That’s all right.”
“It was thoughtful of you to come – to have bothered.”
“It wasn’t a bother.” She smoothed back her hair. “Think about supper. We’d love to see you.”
As she reached for the handle, the door opened; and Bernie Huggins, a retired state trooper, pushed into the room. He gave Irma a surprised look.
“Taken to drinking in the afternoons, Irma?” he asked. “Floyd’ll raise the dickens.”
“Not really,” she said. “Have you?”
“What else can an old ... man do for fun in these parts?”
“See you,” she said.
“Watch the sidewalks. It’s raining ice out there.”
A year later, on a March day of high winds, sparkling sunshine and a night sky full of crisp stars, Swede walked home from the tavern and shot himself in his living room. He was just weeks from his sixtieth birthday. For a very long time, Irma hated herself for not having followed up on the supper invitation. Swede left a note, asking that Irma take care of his German shepherd.
He was my best friend, Rosco Ace Mays III, by name, but everyone in the 'hood except his ole man called him Trey. Because Trey was the third "Ace" in the family, his dad had decided to call him "Lucky." He was a wiry little kid who was antsy and had an unforgettable steel blue gaze, and that might not seem unusual elsewhere, but as far as I know, he was the only kid on the south side without chocolate brown eyes. What I remember most about him was his ability to lie better than any other soul I'd ever encountered, and with a straight face, too. Trey was a true artist.
One particular incident I recall involved a baseball bat I'd left it at his place following a pick-up game in a vacant lot near the projects. The next day when I remembered where I'd left it, I confronted him. He swore that a gang of street toughs had snatched it out of his hands and had told him they intended to use it in a bank heist downtown. If he ratted them out, they said, he could consider himself dead meat. Besides, he added, if he'd complained about the bat publicly, sooner or later the cops would trace it back, to him and then me and we'd both end up behind bars. Think of it: two nine-year-olds shipped off to prison. And I did think about it for about a minute and never breathed another word to anyone.
That is, until I strolled over to the high-rise where Trey stayed and saw his old man hitting line drives and pop-ups to him with my bat. But what could I do? The rules of our turf were clear and inviolate. If I squealed now, his dad would whale the tar out of him for stealing and then me for ratting him out. This was the social order of our society, and it brooked no dissention. I said nothing, but revenge percolated through my mind…until he dropped a bomb.
According to him the heist had been pulled off the afternoon before and the bat, covered with blood, had been dropped on his porch during the night. When Trey discovered it, he cleaned it and left it outside to dry. And he confessed that he'd planned to hide it until the heat blew over and then return it to me, but his old man had seen it outside and Trey was forced to say he'd found the bat in a park. Bull. I just stared at him. And was about to punch him out, not so much for the theft as for his outrageous tales. But then he used a tactic no kid in our sphere of influence could challenge.
'If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'," he avowed with saucer eyes. It was finished. Done. I'd been pinned, and we were best friends again.
We continued to grow as a dynamic duo no other kid on the block would have dared to breach. We ran together, played together, and stole candy together from old Mr. Lee's bodega down the street. And we set traps for humongous wharf rats that prowled the alleys of our city. We never caught one, but the candy and cupcakes we lifted from Lee's grocery to bait the traps somehow always seemed to disappear. I had my ideas about what had happened, but Trey swore on a stack of imaginary holy books that a horde of rats had run off with the bait. Too many for him to intervene and escape with his life. To my knowledge Trey was never confronted with a situation that didn't allow him to weave a vivid, credible story on the spur of the moment, I mean.
The next time our friendship approached a level of violent rupture was about the middle of the eighth grade. And by now the two of us had a thriving business in the cigarette trade; twenty-five cents apiece or a dime if that's all a kid could scrape up. The dividing line of our friendship had been drawn over just the most beautiful angel in our school: Delores.
I gave her candy. I offered her cigarettes. Trey shelled out candy, cookies, lace handkerchiefs, barrettes, or anything else he could lift that he thought she might like. The better gifts, he confessed, had come from his sister, Daphne, who'd received them from a boy she no longer liked. She just didn't want any reminders of him around her room. Never mind that Trey didn't have a sister. Delores didn't know that.
In fairness, Delores was one sly fox, and she could reel us in on a moment's notice, her lashes fluttering like semaphores. She'd play up to one of us until she sensed the other's interest waning. Then she'd shift gears and make eyes at the other. She kept us hustling down to Mr. Lee's on a regular basis. Now, we'd always pony up and pay for some penny candy down here, because we didn't want the old grocer to become suspicious of our daily visits to his place of business. By my calculations, once we'd reached our senior year in high school, Delores had enough stash she'd collected from the two of us to go into competition with Macy's downtown, I mean.
By now our business acumen was so honed we figured it was time to launch ourselves into the big time. After five minutes of serious deliberations we concluded that the best contribution we could make to the vast growth of the economy in our ward would be with automobile hubcaps. Our task was to remove old caps from the marketplace, thus, allowing the original auto parts manufacturers to thrive. And like in most poor areas in the city, we had our choice of fences. The best, we'd heard, was a cat named Willie Joe down near Five Points. And we'd been told he could move anything at any time, no questions asked. Willie Joe had one cardinal rule: Needs could be fulfilled only between ten at night and two in the morning. And sometimes a dude had to wait in line in the alley by Willie Joe's because the trade was so strong. We quickly surmised that the two cops on the late-night beat in our 'hood were also on Willie Joe's payroll, and I've never wavered on this idea because as far as I know, Willie Joe still runs a booming business.
Because of our industrious natures, however, the two of us soon became solely responsible for altering one of Willie Joe's rules. We'd so thoroughly flooded the market with used hubcaps, our fence threw up a roadblock and said, "No more." Not even for a pack of cigarettes in trade. Nyet. Nada. Nothin' doin'.
Thus, once again we were forced to graduate into a more sophisticated venture: auto parts unlimited. To move up to a full array of merchandise, we were sure that two initiatives had to be successfully undertaken. First, someone had to be drafted to sharpen our skills in the efficient art of auto theft, and then we had to secure a chop shop wizard we could trust. We knew those challenges would take time and patience to develop, and they did—one whole week. Once we were in gear, an epiphany was born in my heart and soul and saved my sorry butt from a life of crime and punishment. Enter Momma, stage right.
Now, I'd never say Trey's momma didn't love him, she did. But the unreserved love tinged with iron-fisted determination that was my momma had long been legend in the 'hood. Momma had raised five boys, me the youngest, and nobody, I mean nobody in our family had done hard time. That wasn't unusual in our part of the world, it was unique. And Momma wasn't about to have her record tarnished by a sorry excuse of a son like me.
Trey and I had been caught in the act of hot wiring a new Cadillac when two cops appeared out of nowhere and cuffed us right there in the middle of the street before God and everybody else. And as far as I could tell, those cops had to have been hiding in the trunk of that car.
We ended up before a judge in criminal court, and because of our sterling record of achievement, the idea of being tried as juveniles was never discussed. But Momma had gathered her forces.
She had engaged the services of a high-rent attorney downtown to represent both of us, something she could ill afford to do; but nothing could stop her. This was about her blood kin and that meant war. She even had my four brothers prepped to testify that I'd never been in trouble with the law before. Only Trey and I understood the reasons for this. Old Mr. Lee down at the corner grocery was blind as a bat, and our former fence, Willie Joe, had people downtown on his payroll. We'd also learned to keep our mouths shut.
With grace from above (I found out later) and Momma's resolve, we got off with probation, or I should say, Trey did. Between Momma and my brothers, what ensued in my young life could have been what the Most Reverend Jones down at the Bethel AME Church would have called "a come to Jesus meeting." I got on my knees. I prayed. I swore on a Bible. And testified trembling in church. And if Momma had demanded it, I'd have pledged allegiance to the flag down at Times Square. And why was she so tough on me? Momma had told that judge in no uncertain terms that his eyes would never gaze on my young face in his courtroom ever again. He asked her how she could be so sure.
Without pause Momma declared that if I ever stepped out of line again, she'd deal the final blow herself. Everyone in the courtroom laughed except Momma, my brothers, and me. Momma's decrees were never to be taken lightly. That is, if one wished to continue to breathe the unpredictable air in our borough.
Strange as it may sound, I soon became comfortable within a church setting on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Bible study after dinner on Wednesdays. The cats on the block who weren't privy to what was happening in my young life probably wondered how a teen who'd pined to make the scene with the street smart dudes on the corner could feel this way. In my case, it was easy. Delores and her family also belonged to the Bethel AME Church and, wonder of wonders, she showed up there every time I did. Why? I'm ninety-nine percent sure Momma paid Delores's mom a visit on the sly and painted a picture of what might become of the two of us if those ladies didn't form a coalition and swear to a blood pact then and there. I can just hear Momma's scratchy voice now: "We'll kill two birds with one stone, Vera. You just watch." Momma was nobody's fool, I mean.
My relationship with Trey cooled somewhat after that court appearance. But not because we wanted it that way. His folks had decided I was the bad seed and Momma and my brothers had warned me to keep some space between Trey and me…or else.
The last time I recall rapping with Trey was around the week of our senior prom. I'd weaseled a promise of a borrowed car from one of my brothers to take Delores to the prom. The costs for this transaction amounted to a car wax once a month for six months. The price was high, but I thought it'd be worth it; after all, it was for my beauty queen. But I was a day late. Trey had already asked her to be his date. And besides, he had come into possession of a late model Dodge Charger with flashy mud guards and big daddy mufflers.
I was heartbroken. Trey had bested me yet again. But I was equally curious how he'd gotten the car. There was little doubt in my mind that he was itching to tell me.
"I suppose you're wondering where I got these bad wheels, aren't you?" he said.
"Um, no, it hadn't really crossed my mind," I said.
"Uh huh. Well, it will, so you best listen up now," he said. "It came from a distant uncle of mine for whom I'm named. He died suddenly last week and left the car to me in his will. I gotta tell you, I loved that old man, I really did." His eyes rolled and his hands and arms moved about in theatrical assistance to his newest tale.
"Hadn't seen him in years, but he was always in my prayers. Folks at the funeral said I even looked like him." His eyes widened, and he waited.
My eyes narrowed. I wanted to punch his eyes out. I knew Trey was named for his old man and I was confident that a car from a distant uncle wouldn't appear miraculously a week after the man's sudden demise. But I was also aware of what Momma had told me about getting into trouble again. Besides, if I disputed his facts, he'd just make up new ones out of thin air. I just nodded. End of story.
Following high school graduation I went right into the Marine Corps. Now, nobody in my crowd was anxious to face the discipline and risks entailed in the military, and that included me, but Momma had other ideas.
Most mothers would fret over the physical perils their children might face in a military setting, but Momma was concerned about financing my college education once I survived the Marine Corps. And she had every confidence I would survive it, she just knew. And it'd be useful to mention that Momma also knew just how much money the military provided for vets who wished to attend college. She was one of a kind.
All of my brothers had attended college, but none had finished. I was her last hope. And it'd be proper to note here that I was never consulted on the project. As far as Momma was concerned, it was a done deal. Either I'd complete a college education or I'd die trying. Momma never considered an alternative course of action.
By midsummer I was off to Parris Island, South Carolina, a small piece of land one step from hell. But that didn't faze me. I knew I'd die before I completed basic training, and I wasn't alone. Most of us sensed that our days were numbered. And we suspected that our drill sergeant had already started planning our last rites.
What saved me from utter destruction came from the social aspects within my military unit. A Hispanic from Texas name Chico bunked on one side of me and a redneck from Georgia, who went by the tag L. C., was on the other. The three of us had one thing in common: we instantly hated one another. Unfortunately for us, our D.I. spotted our enmity and had a catharsis in mind for this minor interruption to his program: none of the three of us could do anything without the assistance of the other two. In the mess hall we were forced to spoon feed each other. In the field we had to carry each other's back pack. Hell, we couldn't even go to the can without the other two standing over and guarding the third member of the triad. In short order our hatred coalesced into a single focus: our passionate dislike of our D.I. and, before it was over, Chico, L.C. and I had become one mean fighting machine. And we became friends for life. We still keep in touch. And I could now tell the Most Reverend Jones at the Bethel AME Church I had a clear vision of what the good Samaritan story was all about.
So I survived the Corps and returned to the place where I'd grown up, and signed the college applications Momma had waiting for me. She told me that Trey had found religion and was on a faith healing tour of the Old South. Well, I couldn't believe it. Momma said I had time to visit Trey on the road in rural Alabama before I started to college. And she said it'd be good for both of us. I had to admit I was more than idly curious how my best friend had morphed into a holy roller. Trey had never done anything I could recall that didn't end up with money in his pocket. I caught the bus south the next day.
What a shock. People on crutches and in wheel chairs were slowly making their way down toward the front of the revival tent, while others stood about in the aisles waving their arms, prancing around, and shouting "Amen" and "you tell 'em, brother." It was quite a sight.
Trey stood tall on the stage in a slick red sports coat with the glitter of gold around his neck and hands. He raised his arms to quiet the crowd and I heard a prayerful plea from him that would have brought the devil himself to tears. I couldn't believe it. Trey had found the path to eternal life ahead of me. He must have, I whispered to myself, still realizing a grain of doubt floated about somewhere in my soul.
Yet I saw folks drop their crutches, raise their arms and shout. And people on the stage in wheelchairs rise once Trey had placed his hands on their heads and prayed. Trey had a tongue for mesmerizing phrases, slick as glass he was. I was speechless.
And just before the "Right Reverend" R. A. Mays III pronounced a benediction, he made one last plea for disabled, lost souls.
"In my mind's eye I can see one more sister who needs the holy healing touch. She's shy, I know, but this may be her last chance," he said, his hand raised high, his eyes shut tight. The congregation was still.
"I know you're out there, sister. Have faith, the Holy touch is waiting."
Again stillness. And then I heard a murmur toward the back of the tent. And then louder conversations as one lone wheelchair eased down the aisle. Over the heads of others I could barely see her, but once I did, I realized she had the biggest head of hair I'd ever seen. An usher had rolled her up the ramp onto the stage and the crowd settled down.
"What's your name, sister?" Trey said.
"Eudora Mae Smith."
"And what's your problem?" he said.
"Why, I can't walk, Reverend."
"And why can't you walk, Eudora?" he said.
"I don't know, Reverend. Nobody does."
"And how long have you been like this?"
"Since I was a tiny tot, Reverend."
"Have doctors ever examined you?"
"Yes, Reverend, and they're stumped too."
"Do you believe, Sister Eudora?" His voice rose.
"Why, yes, Reverend, I do believe."
"Couldn't hear that, Sister Eudora!"
"Yes, Reverend, I do believe!"
He placed his hands on her big head of hair and said the longest, most passionate prayer I'd ever heard. Reverend Trey and Sister Eudora had their eyes shut, but no one else in the tent would have dared to miss the unfolding drama.
"Stand," he said. And slowly she attempted to lift herself out of the wheelchair. But then, after great effort and wincing pain, she slipped back down in her seat. An audible sigh echoed through the crowd.
Again, Trey placed his hands on her head, and said a few choice words followed by "Stand." She tried again. And failed. I could feel the tension in the audience laced with fervent whispers.
Reverend Trey looked at her and then at the audience. "This one's in the tight grip of the Devil. It's too much for me to handle alone."
I heard a lone shout of "fake" from the back of the crowd. Then a jeer. Then wholesale booing all across the congregation. The Reverend R. A. Mays III raised both arms with the glitter of gold flashing in the lights. "Silence," he shouted.
"What we need up here are four pure as snow believers to assist me. Can I have four believers down here on stage with me right now." Several people around me hesitated, then stood, but before they could move, two men and two women rushed from the side curtains to Reverend Trey's side.
"Place your hands on Sister Eudora," he said, and they did. Then he added his hands. By now I was wondering how I could get out of there alive if this failed. I had little doubt a riot would soon ensue if that woman failed to stand on her own two feet.
"Come outta there, Satan. You hear me? Come out!" All of the hands on her big hair shook and I wondered if this poor soul would be too dizzy to try to stand. I heard wails and shouts. A lady on the front row fainted. Then Sister Eudora stood. The crowd gasped and went wild with joyful shouts and praises of "God Almighty" and "Bless me, Sweet Jesus." Unfettered applause followed.
After the service I threaded my way through the ebbing crowd, but my friend had ducked out the back of the tent before I could get there. I asked several fellows taking a smoke out back where I could find the good Reverend. They pointed toward a trailer, so I wandered over and knocked on the door.
"Come on in, honey, door's open," I heard from within and opened the door. "I ain't yo' honey, Trey," I said.
We laughed and hugged, but before we could initiate any conversation the woman with big hair stepped up into the trailer, took off her wig, and said, "How big was the take tonight?" It was Delores.
"Why, Darrell, you sorry rascal, when did you get in?" she said.
Before I could reply, three serious-faced uniformed officers stepped in behind her.
Forget about the fact that I'd just arrived and was only a visitor. And ignore the pleas I made that I knew nothing about the eight grand the Reverend Trey had stashed under the table. Nothing seemed to go right after those unannounced men in blue placed the three of us under arrest.
And here I remain watching the sun rise through Alabama county jail bars. Wait till Momma finds out about this and hotfoots it down here, I mused. I don't care if he is my best friend, this fella's days are numbered, I mean.
You and I are at a party somewhere, and first we have to talk about the weather, because we live in Denver, Colorado, where the skyline is unsettled and the temperature swings in wide dramatic swaths—residents take some pride in it, even. I was wearing shorts and sandals yesterday, and today this! they say. (A scarf is tossed dramatically across a fuzzy cap, boots are stomped, snow shaken from a puffy vest, there is laughter.)
You, like nearly everyone who lives here, are an amateur weather person. At the party, when we hear the wind picking up outside, you have a gentle look, a don’t worry look.
“It’s coming from east,” you say. “I don’t think it will snow. And conditions aren’t right for hail, so that’s good news.”
I tell you that I am not concerned about snow; it’s May, so snow is possible, of course, historically there has been snow in May, but mostly I don’t worry about what I cannot control, mostly I do not give these things time.
At this party, we’re both a few steps removed from the host, and whomever we have respectively come with has gone off to hide in the bathroom, or simply never arrived, or is outside smoking cigarettes in rapid succession because it is quiet back by the garbage cans and the recycling, where the only interruptions are the flick of the lighter and an occasional barking dog.
“I don’t smell Greeley, either,” you say. Greeley, sixty miles north, is where the beef slaughterhouses are. Conventional wisdom says that if there is cow dung on the wind from Greeley, snow is coming to Denver. The smell of Commerce City, where the dog food factory is, visible from downtown, means rain.
We move on a bit, and we talk about work—that other, constantly unavoidable thing that surrounds us—and I tell you I work in an office with creaky plumbing and questionable ventilation, and you think this is quaint, and you say, Oh, startups, like you know something about it. You say gig economy. You say maker culture.
I am not participating in any of these tech trends.
At my office job, I am a risk analyst, and I do beautiful things with numbers.
I tell you that we, the staff, try not to mind the accommodations—it is a growing company. I want to help it grow. You nod your head when I tell you this, and you probably think I am a little naive, maybe money-hungry, but you don’t say anything.
I tell you that my work life is very calm. I apply a lot of order there.
You are an accountant, so I think you could get into my numbers talk, that we could find some consensus.
“I just think it’s so much more of a true meritocracy in tech,” you say.
“Maybe,” I say. “I mean, people like to think that. I’m not sure it’s true.”
Now there are other people, whom neither you nor I are either with nor not with—just people, in a loose circle—one originally from the Eastern Plains who says how easy we have all had it in Denver, because the tornadoes never touch the ground. One from the mountains who had lived in a draw of trees savaged by pine beetle, the ground so dry and the forest so brittle her family did not dare to light the barbecue, and her father started smoking inside in case a breeze took even a small ember from his cigarette to the forest floor.
Urbanites now, gardens have been tarped and tomatoes have been bagged.
The people whom you don’t know and I don’t know now work in the credit or energy markets in Denver. They are far from their outhouses and gardens.
And you. You do not understand these country people who have become market people. You do back-office work, so you are not acquainted with the way they talk, uncomfortable with how they do not cease to remind you how they are benefiting your life, by keeping your lights on, by ensuring your mortgage goes through. Yes, you have graduated and maintain your CPA, but you are young enough to still think that these onlookers will be interested in your stories from college. They are not.
These people are making money, and this is why they can afford a second round of red mulch when the first is destroyed in a spate of freezing rain.
You are trying to be polite—I see you trying to be polite—but you are wondering why they care about mulch so much, so much to do it twice. You live in a town house.
“I mean, if I had a yard,” you say, “people would think they could bring their dogs over.”
I can see you at work, your only slightly rumpled suit, your naturally stylish hair—it is tall and full in a way that is unanticipated but also not contrived—I can see you arguing about rev rec, making references to GAAP that no one else understands.
While the market people gab, I am admiring the fizz of my drink. I’m not a scientist, but I know that effervescence is the escape of gas from an aqueous solution, and the foaming or spray that results is from release.
In my numbers work, I am given sheep by these market people and am expected to deliver a sweater—shear the beast, comb the thread, dye the fibers, spin the wool, knit it neatly and quickly and in the right size.
I told you, beautiful things.
* * *
We don’t find the people whom we were supposed to have come with, but we’ve stayed on as the party dwindles. We are on a sofa, now that the bodies have thinned out and there are some places to sit, and I am starting to like something about you, but I don’t know exactly what it is, and this is rocky terrain for me. I want to be enamored of the precise color of your shirt or the exact timbre of your voice or the specific way you hold your glass, but it’s cloudier, more nebulous.
“Wait, so what do you really do, like in the everyday,” you say.
You’re a little drunk, but I don’t mind.
“I work with data,” I say. I’ve moved on to wine, and I take a sip.
“What kind of data?”
I try to give you the sheep analogy, but it’s not making sense because I’m a little drunk as well.
“What kind of data,” I repeat back to you. “Depends,” I say. “What do you want to know?”
* * *
All across the Colorado foothills, clouds boiling or sliced with sun are either obscured by dust or pierced by spires and crags of rock, whether covered with perpetual snow or blazed with light. It’s spring still, so there is a white/orange light in the northwest, a rainbow in the direct east, and a dull eggplant blue to the south. Hail will come or it will not. Like you, I live in a town house without a yard, and I pull my potted plants off the balcony to be prepared. A friend says I should stop doing this, that I should get my begonias and peppers and sunflowers to toughen up.
For my part, I’m tired of toughness—I want some blooms. Pollen and volunteers. I spill a whole packet of New Mexico pepper seeds into dirt thinking only a few will come up, and suddenly I’ve got more seedlings than is reasonable.
I think about texting you to ask if you ever grow vegetables or herbs on your balcony, and I think how this would be an interesting little data point, us eating the same fruit from the same origin, even if we are in two different places.
The flowers self-pollinate, so they’re not hard to take care of, I almost type.
Instead, I send a message to my work group, denveroffice@, and ask who wants some starts. I thin and replant the seedlings into nursery containers. The work doesn’t take long, and it is as tidy as any professional, the little shoots sitting in freshly soaked soil.
My husband, Brent, asks me why I didn’t just put them in the compost, not that he approves of the compost.
“I grew them from seed,” I say, sweeping up a bit of spilled dirt.
“You can’t compost if it came from a seed?”
“That’s not the point,” I say.
He thinks this seems like a lot of work, just to give something away, and I think it’s a lot of work just to let something die.
* * *
I’m a pretty lucky person, for as much as I believe in luck, which is not all that much, but you are probably luckier than I am. I mean luck like I never worked in those places, the slaughterhouse or the dog food factory. I mean luck like I have never broken a bone.
When you went home, after we were out of party conversations, when the drinking and eating had run out of shine, and after I grabbed a taxi and you hitched a ride with a soberish person, you must have fallen back onto your pillow and thought, God, that woman was weird.
You sleep me off. By the time your coffee perks to done in the morning, you barely remember me.
It’s when you’re doing something small, like drying your hair, that you’ll flash a little.
What do you want to know?
You work the gel in. Or a plumping spray (you are contemporary, after all). In the rest of your grooming, you use a whitening toothpaste, an acne serum you have splurged on.
There’s so much to know in the pattern of ritual, so much shape in these little fact points—your cinnamon shampoo and your wheat bagels.
At the party, you gave me your number, even though I could see you trying to decide if you wanted me to call or not. You gave it to me because I asked, but you didn’t ask for mine back. It didn’t bother me.
And I call you. I call you three weeks later and I identify myself, and it will take you a moment to remember who I am, and then I will hear a sound like an office door clicking and you will say,
Sure, yes, of course. And I will invite you for coffee and you will agree, but when we meet after work in the coffee shop, we will see that they also have cocktails, and so instead of java we split a bottle of wine, and it’s not until close to the end that you notice my ring (I never take it off, just a slim silver band) and you say, Wait, are you married?
“I am,” I say.
“Heather,” you say, “okay, that’s fine, I just thought this was something different.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “You weren’t wrong.”
What you don’t know because you don’t know me is that I have already calculated what’s at stake for me here. You are worried but I am not worried.
What do you want to know?
* * *
Once, my boss and I got along, but by the time I meet you, we are not getting along. Once, Kelly and I had been very close, but Kelly was going through a divorce. Kelly was not doing very well.
At home, Brent and I, we are also not doing well. I lack empathy for Kelly at work, but it is because I see how close I am to her. I put my life next to hers on a scatter chart, and I do not like the outcome. Too much correlation.
Kelly asks me one day if she should cut her hair. Bangs, maybe, she says.
“No,” I say. “Bangs can be risky, you know, you don’t like your hair in your face, you’ll be whipping your head around all the time, you’ll hurt your neck.” I’ve made this up entirely, but she seems to believe me. She gets a haircut and some awkward highlights, but no bangs.
In the house where I live with my husband, there is no diagram that can help me make sense.
You haven’t heard any of this yet. I haven’t told you because I don’t want you, or anyone, to know so much about me.
If you asked me what I wanted to know, at the party, or at the coffee shop date, I would have said, Courage. I need to know how to find courage.
My husband is fine, actually, but he was a hedge. He was young, I was very young, and despite knowing the statistics, I donned an ecru dress—you might not know this color, but it is the light beige color of unbleached silk or linen—and stumbled down the aisle, gardenias and lilies and hydrangeas blazing white on the sides. My mother, dressed in café au lait; his mother, draped in eggshell and putty. Our fathers, matching in navy.
A decade and a half later, we have no children, a flagging commitment, and a lot of ice in the freezer. Brent does not like to run out of ice.
There are many things Brent does not like.
Brent does not like seafood.
Brent does not like wrinkled sheets.
Brent does not like coffee, nor the smell of coffee.
Brent does not like me, and Brent would certainly not like you.
There are some things that Brent does like—like me, he likes his job. He slogs long hours, and there was a time I thought it was just to be away from me, but it is simply him, and I don’t fault him.
It is a first marriage for both of us.
You call me at work because I have given you my desk line.
“Are you free today?” you want to know. It has been six days, Thursday to Wednesday.
“I can make something up,” I say.
We meet at the coffee shop that has cocktails, and we get a bottle of wine again, though this time it turns into two, and the barista is mopping up, and I think that we should go. We’re not drunk so much as glowing.
“Come over to my place,” you say. “It’s not far.”
“Not yet,” I say, because there is this swirl that is not working for me, the part of you that I cannot quite parse, where I can’t tell if it’s something real or only something new.
* * *
The office I work in has become very crowded, and the close proximity and the dull whine of so many laptops running, the ticking of keyboards being typed on—a sound like an inconsistent rain—is stressing the staff.
I read that when chickens are crammed too many to one pen, they’ll begin to peck one another’s eyeballs out, and this is happening in the office. There are fights over stolen lunches, there are endless complaints about the temperature, there is general malaise. We decide to expand into an adjoining space, and construction begins, or deconstruction: a wall is being removed. The sound of sawing does not improve the general mood, but I try to remind the people whom I talk to that it will be better.
Kelly, in particular, is unraveling. She says that removing the wall is a very bad idea. It’s not so much that she believes there is something horrible on the other side of it, but more that there is a very delicate balance in the office and that by removing the wall we are upsetting something.
She asks me again if she should cut her hair. I think it is never a good idea to get haircuts in a poor mental state and tell her No again. Your hair is fine, I say, and we already discussed your bangs.
As soon as the construction dust has been cleaned up and we’ve rearranged the desks and gotten people settled into the new space, the markets begin to crash. A free fall.
Management says nothing. Management purchases a new microwave to relieve the bottleneck in the kitchen. Kelly, who has always been an eclectic dresser, begins to show up in outfits that are truly strange. A miniskirt and mud boots. A suit jacket paired with a swimsuit cover-up meant to pass as a dress.
I check my own clothes. I’m feeling like Kelly a little bit, but I think I am hiding it better, so far. Black pants and a white collared blouse. I could work at a grocery store, or a travel agency, or at a broker’s office, or here.
* * *
I am given a project, the kind that is my specialty.
I map the productivity of every worker, their specific impact to revenue, and I start building it into a chart.
There are many factors. Michael in sales brings in revenue, but he also creates discord. He is the source of many lunch thefts, because he likes to jab people. Upset them. There is cost in these actions.
Sabine seems not specifically revenue-facing, but she also interacts with customers. Flirts with them on the phone or over e-mail. She’s likeable, she’s sticky.
I am also building another chart, more like a graph. This one is for survivors, and it was not assigned, so I do it on my own time. This one helps them feel better after the layoffs come. It shows their productivity. It emphasizes efficient use of time. When the layoffs are finalized, I will bring out this chart as a kind of salve. The workers will say, But we could have done better, and my chart will illuminate how they are wrong, even in this.
Mostly, as I am working, I think of you. Our three meetings. Your comments about hail begin to feel like an allegiance. I think of the way you invited me over, and I think of the nitrogen smell of rain.
I think of my husband, my office. I wonder what you want, and I do not know what I want.
In all of my projects, there is a lot of data missing.
* * *
You call me on my desk line again. You have my home number, but you say you can’t call me at home. It’s the middle of the day, and you’re taking lunch, and I try to remember the last time I left the building for lunch.
“I’m right by your office,” you say. “Come down and have a coffee at least.”
I am nervous to see you, maybe because it’s daylight, but I say Yes, and I meet you outside of my building, and then we walk to our coffee shop, where we finally do have coffee, and we split a sandwich.
“But what about your husband,” you whisper.
“You don’t have to whisper,” I whisper.
I try to tell you about the charts, and again about making sweaters for the market people.
“Can I see one of them?” you ask, but I say no, it’s too proprietary. You say that no one knows you in my office, and I say it doesn’t matter.
I do want to show you one of the charts, but they are not ready yet. Right now, there are only numbers in columns and pivot tables. I’m still in the discovery phase. I dig, I organize. It’s like gardening with unmarked seeds, but there are a few little blooms in the numbers here and there. About half of my pepper starts have disappeared from the kitchen—off to good homes, I hope—and the others are wilting hopelessly, unable to feed on the fluorescent light.
“So how come you see me if you are married,” you say.
I think you must know how much I love these kinds of specific questions, and I think I must know how much you love specific answers.
We’ve not touched yet, besides an awkward brush here or there, and so I reach for your hand across the table, and our fingers grip.
You ask me if I remember at the party the energy people, and I say that of course I do, but that I call them market people, Not that the nomenclature matters, I say. You ask me if I remember how proud they were of their success stories.
Outside the weather has shifted from a bright June day to the beginnings of an afternoon thunderstorm. The air has gone gray, and there are bits of trash swirling in the wind.
In two weeks, I will hand in my productivity chart to management, and most of the office will be let go. That afternoon, I will stand where the wall was removed for expansion, and I will present my other chart to the remaining employees.
I will go home that evening, and Brent will make dinner.
I will sit on my patio with a glass of wine and admire the blooms on my peony, the fire of the celosia. I will watch the skyline for some change in the clouds.
For now, our fingers touch. You eye the skyline.
There’s a lot that I want to say to you, about Brent, about work, about trying to answer my question, about answering your question.
“It doesn’t seem that it will hail,” you say, though it is not weather I am worried about.
he lineup at the 109th was my first real gig. I could tell right away it was going to be different from anything I’d done before. For starters, the auditions were held at a police station and not at some university or playhouse or community center. The setting had excellent art design, really got you in the mood. The script only had one line (“Gimme your phone, bitch!”), superbly written and easy to remember. And the audience was concealed behind a two-way mirror, which was great for me, since I’d always felt that having an audience compromised the quality of my craft.
I was discovered three hours earlier on a sidewalk outside the Flushing Jewish Community Council soup kitchen in Queens. Mr. Ed Weston, talent scout for the 109th, spotted me by the bulletin boards, where I stood scanning the postings for audition calls. Like most boards, this one was a bust, nothing but notices for food donations. Not that I wasn’t hungry—I was a starving young artist, after all—but my real hankering wasn’t for canned beans. I craved a meaty role I could sink my acting chops into. Luckily, I lingered long enough to catch Weston’s eye. He looked me over and said those five magic words: “Yeah, you look the part.”
They called five of us in at once, far more efficient than any other audition I’d ever been to. We sat on stools, wore Yankees caps and delivered the line. They had the guy next to me repeat it several times. If he’d asked me for pointers, I would’ve gladly helped him out, but it was probably for the best that I didn’t, because when I got out of the room, Ed grinned and told me that I was picked out of the five.
I think back to that moment whenever I’m feeling down. There’s nothing quite like being the audience favorite—it’s better than sex, better than bacon, better than that dream where you’re flying over green hills and telephone poles. And that was before I learned what the other guys already knew: this wasn’t an audition at all.
It was a real show. I was getting paid to act.
We each got five bucks and all the free coffee we could drink. I didn’t like coffee but I drank five cups anyway, because drinking free coffee was exactly the kind of thing that struggling New York actors did. I gave Ed my number and asked him to call me back if they had more parts I could use to beef up my resume. He told me the cops rarely needed white guys, but I showed him my Hispanic headshot and he agreed that I could pass for Latino with enough special effects makeup and the right attitude.
I called my dad that night with the good news. My dad is my rock, and the lifelong president of my online fan club. My mom left us before I was born, and my dad raised me as an only father. When he got mad at me for normal kid stuff, like leaving the freezer door open or forgetting to fill the waterbed, he never yelled. Instead he would bite down on his fist and growl, and then calmly say, “You better mention me in your Oscar speech, Oscar… that’s all I got to say.” Then he would launch into the story of how, when the doctor handed him the scalpel, pointed to my umbilical cord and said “Cut!” I stopped crying, because there was no point wasting any tears between takes. See, I was born an actor.
My dad paid my rent on a room in a run-down walk-up in the Bronx. The walls were flimsy and painted a depressing mold green, and the floor was scratched-up bathroom tiles, except for the bathroom, which had a hardwood floor warped by the humidity. The place smelled like two-week-old grapefruit juice left out in the sun. It motivated me to get out of there, hit the streets and pursue my dream. I kept my head down and my chin up. I answered every audition call in the city. I heard the words “Thank you for coming, we’ll be in touch” in my sleep. I acted my heart out for those bastards behind their desks and camcorders. Someday my break would come. Ed Weston was just around the corner.
Ed knew I was a star, and he took me on as his pet project. We started with the free coffee, made our way to beer, shared a few tacos, then burritos, then we branched out to foods that came on plates. Finally, he said to me, “Oscar, you telling me you wanna do this shit full time? Be a professional lineup filler?” He was laughing. I was not. Sure, the 109th was way-way-off-Broadway, but it was a chance to practice my art in front of an (invisible) audience, and for a good cause. Weston coughed up some kimchi dog and then turned serious, and maybe a little sad. Complicated fellow, that Ed. I based a few of my characters on him over the years to come, though I never told him that. He had a past he worked hard to bury, and he was touchy about being thought of as a criminal.
“Hey, Oscar, buddy, as long as they keep calling me, I’ll keep calling you, you know that. But come on, man. This ain’t no way to make a living.”
“It’s acting,” I said.
He pushed the kimchi from his lip into his mouth and said, “Whatever you say, buddy. Whatever you say.”
Before long, I was doing up to five shows a week. Most shows were silent. This allowed me to engage in the purest form of acting. I’d even invented a name for it: “body language.” My posture felt different when I was a pickpocket, a purse-snatcher, a convenience store robber or a public urinator. One show had a whopping twelve words in the script. I called my dad back home and ran my line with him until every word was a part of me.
“Get down on the floor and put your wallet in the bag!”
“Get down on the floor and put your wallet in the bag!”
“Get down on the floor and put your wallet in the bag!”
I used my first month’s pay to buy fake facial hair and colored contact lenses so that I could extend my repertoire to include brown-eyed gangbangers and mustachioed molesters. I told Ed that I was fine with nudity as long as it was essential to the story. “Man Accused of Indecent Proposal” was one of the most demanding and gratifying roles I ever played. I was growing as an artist.
Sometimes Ed sent me on the road. I played the 64th, the 88th, and the 141st. I performed some shows on stools, others standing up. My colleagues were dependable actors, for the most part, though I never encountered another leading man like myself, who wasn’t afraid of electrifying the room. Ed bought me a beer every time I got picked. This was our new tradition. It got so he didn’t even have to tell me I’d been picked anymore. All he had to say was, “Come on, Shenker, wipe that dumbass tattoo off your face and let me buy you a beer.” Those were the good times.
I still went on auditions now and then—for bit parts in locally shot crime shows, experimental underground theater companies, wet wipe commercials, or artsy student films about tortured men who took long walks and stared out of bus windows—but I found them tiresome. Their scripts came with way too many words, which got in the way of my acting. I preferred it when they asked me to prepare a monologue of my choosing, and I’d do my “Gimme your phone, bitch!” But too often, the silence that followed my performance was heavy with confusion. How I hated watching everyone in the room shift uncomfortably and exchange glances. How I hated hearing “Go on” or “Is that it?” or “What the hell was that?!”
Ed gave me a raise, seven bucks a show, but even then, I could barely afford to feed myself on days that he didn’t treat me to a cranberry-lamb skewer from the halal cart outside the precinct. I needed money, which meant I had to refine my art and become the best actor the city of New York had ever seen. If I put in the hard work, eventually someone would take notice, and success was sure to follow. It was like my dad always said, “The world keeps turning, so make sure you shine all the times.”
I took my rehearsals to the streets. Like my characters, I stalked defenseless women down dark alleyways. My eyes were peeled and trained to spot an unsupervised cellphone. My stride slowed whenever I passed an occupied ATM. When a subway train roared by, I screamed “Who the fuck you looking at?!” under the cover of its rumble, to exercise my throat.
The method worked. My dad noticed the change right away when he drove up to visit for the first time that summer. “My god, Oscar,” he said. “Tell me you lost all this weight for a part.”
“Yeah,” I smiled. “More than one part.”
“Well, isn’t that something. Come here, give your old man a hug.”
There wasn’t much I could tell my dad about my career that he didn’t already know from reading my acting blog. He filled me in on our hometown. Uncle Regis had finally retired from directing the middle school’s Thanksgiving play, after giving up on finding an actor who could fill my turkey shoes. Everybody was asking about me. Then he sighed and said, “Son, I came here for a reason. I’m so sorry to put you in this position, but I’m going to have to cut back on your provisions.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, apparently there’s a new machine that can do what I do without making any mistakes, so I’ve been out of a job these past few months. And seeing as how I’ve been supporting you out here for coming on eleven years now, well, I don’t have much savings set aside.”
“Oh, Dad… I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “The good news is, nothing like that’s ever going to happen to you. Makes me happy to know you’re an actor. No one’s going to be replacing you with a robot any time soon, am I right?”
“Yeah, there’s no way a robot can act better than me.”
“No way, not my son,” Dad agreed. “That would have to be some robot.”
“I don’t think a robot like that even exists.”
“That would have to be some science fiction robot that could act better than you,” Dad said.
“I bet scientists wish they could build a robot like that,” I said.
“I’m sure they do, but it’s never going to happen,” Dad said. “It’s a fantasy.”
We had a little chuckle at the expense of those silly scientists. Then my dad sighed again and got up. “I hope you can find a way to make it work out here, son. I really do. But worse comes to worst, you can always move back in with me. That wouldn’t be so bad, now, would it?”
I immediately filed my dad’s visit under “sense memory,” to be used if I needed to summon tears in future performances. Losing his job to a robot had changed him. The Dad I knew would never have suggested that I abandon my acting career. The Dad I knew understood that to give up on acting was to die.
But as much as Dad’s breakdown scared me, it also strengthened my resolve. I kissed him goodbye at the train station and then unleashed my craft on New York City like never before. I was no longer rehearsing. I was taking street art to its very limits. I was like one of those human statues who pose perfectly still in public parks, only better, because I could move.
That night, the line between Oscar Shenker the man and Oscar Shenker the character blurred out of existence. You could say I overdosed on my own talent. Or you could say I mugged an old lady.
I was eight blocks away when I realized I had her purse in my hands. I’d jumped her from a dark stoop around the corner from the ATM, a prime mugging spot I knew of from my time at the 109th. She had two hundred and three dollars in her wallet, and five of the most delicious cough drops I ever tasted in my life.
Was I ashamed of my crime? Of course. Was I proud of my fearless performance? You bet I was. Was I happy to eat three times in a single day? The happiest man on earth. Was I terrified when, a few days later, I was called in by Ed and handed a script that read “Hey lady! I am a real-life mugger! I’m here to rob you! Give me your purse!”? I don’t know if “terrified” is the word I’d choose, but I was worried, yes.
Ed was waiting for me in the hallway after the lineup was over, as always. I was sweating so hard, I must’ve left a trail of makeup behind me like a slug. “Everything okay, Ed?” I asked. My teeth were chattering.
“Everything’s great, if you like Mondays,” Ed said. “Come on, I know a good schnitzel place nearby, we can start the week off right.”
“Does that mean… she picked me?”
“Yeah, she picked you, buddy. You did great. Let’s go get our schnitzel on.”
With a mouth full of breaded cutlet, I realized I had nothing to worry about. Naturally, the old lady had remembered me—I was on fire the night of the mugging. But that just made her another in a long line of victims who’d singled me out in a lineup. I imagined the officers on the other side of that two-way mirror nodding to each other. “Guys, we got ourselves another Shenker fan on our hands,” they probably said, annoyed but hardly surprised. She was old, and it was dark, and she had picked their best man, their marquee headliner. She was your classic unreliable eye witness. And thanks to good old Oscar Shenker, lineup filler extraordinaire, the police would not waste another cent of hard-earned taxpayer dollars on her wild accusations.
If I’d had a day job—and I was often on the brink of stooping to normal, non-acting work, such as masseur or assistant florist—–I would’ve tendered my resignation that day. The time had come to make a living off of my talent.
The way I saw it, the only difference between my work and that of a Broadway actor was a matter of time and place. The city was my stage, its citizens (especially the weak and the elderly) my audience. I never charged more than the price of a ticket to a fine Broadway show, and all the seats to see me were front row. I gave the audience a thrill and got their hearts pounding. They were sure to remember my act and speak of it for weeks to come. I knew for a fact that they often did, since they came into the precinct the next day to do just that.
Happiness is the absolute knowledge that you are fulfilling your promise to the world. And for a while there, I knew happiness. I performed nightly to the adoring shrieks of an audience who never knew what hit them, and I returned for encores daily. I even paid for Ed Weston’s lunch one day, a steaming bowl of Tom Yum Koong. Ed caught a glimpse of my plump wallet and whistled into his soup. “Looking good there, Oscar. You finally get yourself a job?”
“Yeah? Where’s it at? Hook a brother up.”
“I’m an actor.”
“Shit, Oscar, I know that. But what’s your job?”
“That is my job. I’m an actor.”
“For real? Where you acting?”
“Around here, actually.”
“So, like, local stuff? Community theater?”
“Sort of, yeah. But more street-based.”
“Damn. If I knew acting paid that much, I would’ve been an actor too. But I’m too old now.”
“It’s never too late to follow your dream, Ed.”
“Oscar, buddy, it’s always too late. From the day you’re born, it’s too late.”
“No,” I said. “That’s not true.”
Ed looked up at me mid-slurp. “Hey, relax,” he said, and reached out and squeezed my shoulder. “I’m just messing with you. I’m happy for you, buddy.”
I loved that man like a second father. Like a first mother. The next time I saw him would be the last.
I was in high spirits. The night before, I’d put on my most elaborate, accomplished show yet. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait, said the great actor Charles Dickens, and I did all three that night. I brought my audience to his knees and, while he was on the ground, tickled him until he howled with laughter. I pinned him down and told him that after this night’s show I was giving up on my acting career (a lie), packing my bags and going home to live with my aging father (more lies). I cried in his face and my sadness hit him like a fifty pound onion, flooding his cheeks with tears. And then I tied him up and forced him to wait until someone found him there, stunned by the magnificence of my show.
I still had his money in my pocket, all seventy-eight dollars of it, when Ed called me down to the precinct. I sat on my stool, ready to deliver my line.
But they never asked me to.
For some odd reason which I could not comprehend, their attention was focused entirely on an uninspired regular from my supporting cast: suspect number five. He was told to step forward and kneel. He was ordered to make a tickling motion in the air. He was asked to grimace and pretend to cry. He complied reluctantly, playing my character as a deflated man, dead on the inside. He was doing it all wrong.
A voice crackled over the loudspeaker, “Thank you, gentlemen, you’re free to go. If we need you again, we’ll be in touch.”
I’d heard those words enough times in my career to know that no one would be in touch with any of us. And yet my fellow actors turned to file out. “Wait a second, excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me, hold on. Hold on. This isn’t right.” Suspect number five shuffled by, and I grabbed his sleeve. He shook me off and skulked away. “I said hold on! Stay here!”
“Clear the room, gentlemen,” the disembodied voice said.
“Wait!” I said. “Cut! Cut! Back to one! Wait!”
Ed popped his head into the room. “Oscar, you okay there, buddy? They told me you were shouting something.”
“Wait!” I cried over Ed’s shoulder. “Don’t let him go! There’s been a mistake! The guy’s remembering it all wrong! Look, I’ve got it all here! I’ve got his money, and his credit cards, and his ID!” I called out to a room full of officers behind Ed’s back. I pulled my wallet out to show them the evidence, but no one seemed to care.
Ed said, “Shit.”
“Officers!” I shouted. “Officers! It wasn’t number five, it was me!”
“Oscar, tone it down,” Ed said. He grabbed me and forced me up against the wall.
“It wasn’t that other guy, Ed. It was me. That guy can’t act. This is bullshit!”
“Oscar, Oscar, listen to me,” Ed said. He pushed my wallet out of sight. He crowded me into the corner and spoke in a strangely hushed tone. “Calm down. Look at me. Oscar. It’s going to be okay, buddy. Nothing bad has to happen. Put the wallet away. Put it away. Put it away. Alright? Now listen to me, Oscar. You and me, we’re going to sit down, we’re gonna clear our heads, we’re gonna figure this out. You’re okay, Oscar. Breathe. I’ll call your dad, I’ll let him know you’re staying with me, and we’ll talk it through. It’s okay. It’s okay. Listen to me, Oscar. Eyes over here. You with me? Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re alright. You’re calm. Are you calm? Are you going to stop shouting? We’re going to walk out of here like it’s a normal day, like it’s any other day. I’ll take you over to my place, we’ll order in, get you a nice bowl of pho and a cold beer, and we’ll talk, okay? We’ll have a nice talk, just you and me. And we’re going to make sure that everything works out. As long as you stop doing what you’re doing, as long as this is the last time, it’s going to be fine. But I’m going to need you to calm down. Can you do that for me, Oscar? What do you say?”
He was making absolutely no sense, and his oddly monotonous tone was insanely grating. I rammed through him like a football player. My last memory of Ed Weston is of him on his back on the floor of the lineup room, the wind knocked out of him.
I scrambled around the bend and into the audience chamber. Thankfully, my audience was still there, sitting with an officer and another man in a suit and filling out paperwork. “It’s me!” I said. All three of them looked up. “From last night! It was me!”
“The fuck is this?” the man in the suit said.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to calm down and take a step back,” the officer said.
I was sick of being told to calm down. Has that ever even worked, in the history of mankind? Has anyone ever been calmed by the words “Calm down?” Has anyone ever given up on their dreams just because someone told them to “Be realistic?” Has anyone ever stopped trying just because they were told “You’re no good?” “You have no talent?” “You stink?”
No. I didn’t think so.
I kneeled before my audience and looked the man in the eye. “This is it,” I said, lip quivering, chin quivering, eyelids quivering, cheeks quivering, nostrils flaring—the works. “After tonight, I don’t think I can afford to do this anymore. My dream is dead. I have to go home.”
My audience stared at me in disbelief.
A tear ran down my cheek. And a tear ran down his.
“Do you remember me?” I asked.
It took him a long while, but at last he swallowed hard and nodded.
“Then tell them,” I said.
He kept on nodding.
I took his hand in mine.
“Tell the world. Tell them how I changed your life.”
The whole town had gathered around the church because Hollace Whitaker was holed up inside and we knew and he knew that he pretty much had to die. It wasn’t anything personal. It was, in fact, the definition of impersonal. A man can’t shoot his wife and expect to continue drinking coffee and plowing fields and shooting deer like all the rest of us who just want sometimes to kill our wives but never do. Everyone knew that, maybe Hollace best of all. But clearly that didn’t mean he had to like it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have bivouacked in the church. He knew no one would open fire and blast apart the new altar or the cross over the pulpit that that miserable old carcass Halston Smith had carved with his own two crippled hands. He shot his wife and trotted directly to the only safe place in town. So we gathered around and kicked at the dust and shouted for him to come out, and when he shouted back that we could all go fuck our own selves, some folks looked genuinely hurt. We all liked Hollace. Couldn’t he see that?
Eventually, Hollace’s brother John showed up. John ran a ranch quite a piece outside of town. His horse was lathered and crazy-eyed from the long, fast ride. John rode up to where we were gathered and got off his horse and held out the reins for anyone to take hold. Then he walked to the church’s backdoor. He didn’t announce himself, but he wasn’t acting sneaky either. He did not take off his boots or spurs. Hollace was still near the front of the church, shouting whatever craziness came into his head. John walked through the backdoor and for a while things got quiet, then there was a shot and John came out the front with two guns in his hands, his and his brother’s. He held the guns in the air like he was surrendering in his brother’s stead, or maybe was showing us the evidence of what he’d just done, and there was a tense and unified silence before finally, everyone raised their hands and cheered. In the back of the crowd, the band struck up a round. We could finally have our goddamn funeral.
There was a little flurry of activity after that. Some folks got a readymade coffin from the coffin maker and carried it to the church. Hollace was lying there with a hole in his chest and one hand flung over his face like he couldn’t bear to see what had happened with the rest of his body. We stuffed a big blanket inside the coffin like a sponge and rolled Hollace on top. We left the box by the altar and a little while after that, his wife’s coffin joined him up there. When the party commenced an hour or so later, all the blood was cleaned up off the church’s floor and women were bringing in hot dishes of food. The band set up behind the pulpit, underneath Halston Smith’s hand-carved crucifix, while some folks dragged the long pews to the side of the room and started to dance.
Even though I was younger than them both, I considered myself something of a friend of the Whitaker brothers. When I was a boy and John was just a young man, I’d go out hunting with him as a sort of helper, although he always made a joke of calling me his squire. He would shoot the deer and I’d dress the carcass while he got the smoking fire going. When I was older and had a trade, I’d sometimes work repairs around his brother Hollace’s place. Hollace paid me well and often invited me to stay for dinner, and his wife always brought me water or coffee, no matter what I was doing or where on his farm I was working. Neither of the Whitaker brothers ever said much, but they were good men and I always enjoyed their company. So this whole affair left me feeling pretty muddled. It struck me as the best possible outcome that John was the one to shoot Hollace, but it also seemed pretty damn unfair. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I tried to dance but couldn’t dance, my legs didn’t want to, not really, so I kept John company. I know you’re not supposed to have whiskey in a church, but there’s a lot of worse things a man can do in church and we’d all seen some of that already today, so John and I drank whiskey and watched the girls dance and when I asked him how he felt, he said fine, and I believed him.
After a while, a group of men gathered around us in the back of the church, passing around jars and talking about whatever. In a corner nearby, Halston Smith the famous crucifix carver was slouched on a three-legged stool, pretending to watch the twirling skirts but just as likely listening in on everyone’s conversations. He had a big floppy black hat laid across his lap, the sort that you’d maybe expect a Quaker to wear, with his face like an empty grain sack all bunched up and forgotten in the dusty corner of some barn. Instead of talking to the other men, I just stood there and stared and felt my guts boiling. Sometimes, honestly, I hate that old man. I couldn’t even tell you why. But I was startled out of my hateful study on account of one of the younger fellows asking John why Hollace would want to up and shoot his wife like that, and everyone all at once hissed at him to shut the hell up. Who knows what rage builds up inside a man as he lies next to the same woman every night, listening to the sound of her breath while she sleeps? It wasn’t anyone’s business why she’d died.
“What’re you going to do with your brother’s place now?” I asked, mostly to change the subject. But John just shrugged.
John wasn’t looking at me. He was watching the fiddle player’s bow slide over the strings. The band was playing the sort of song that everyone knows even though it maybe doesn’t have or need a name. I watched John watch the band and I could tell what he was thinking. A minute later, I said I’d help him clean up the place, and he thanked me, and that was that.
The band played a couple more songs and people danced and then the band took a break and everyone rested and ate and talked. This was when the preacher was supposed to say his bit, but the preacher wasn’t anywhere around. No one knew where he’d gone. Then these younger boys got up on stage—I recognized them as the strange kids who worked at the Upper K, mucking out stalls and talking about books—and the three of them took to playing a song on piano and guitar with one of them just singing. I hadn’t known those boys to play music. I guess it took everyone by surprise. It wasn’t a song you could really dance to, but it was pretty and sad and the one boy sang something about how even the richest man’s knees get dirty when he prays. When the song was over, I looked at John and his eyes were all red and itchy-looking. Even after the boys stepped down, he kept looking up at the pulpit, as if they were still there under Halston Smith’s cross, still playing their sad, strange song.
We buried the bodies soon after that. The sun had just about set and the earth was hard but we all took turns with the shovel and pick until we finished by the light of two lamps. By then, the preacher was back and he said what words he had but his words seemed poor after what the kids had sung, but we said amen anyway and put the dirt back where we found it. Then we all went our separate ways.
And I remember, as everyone slowly headed back toward wherever they thought they were going, I spotted the cross-maker hobbling among the other meandering bodies. He was shaped so much like a question mark and held a cane in the knot of his hand. He looked about a thousand years old. How could someone so sucked-dry by time have possibly carved anything resembling Our Lord in His most painful last moments on this earth? Most of the times I see Halston Smith around town, I just wish the old bag of dust would die already and leave us alone. But that night, standing between those two new graves while everyone I knew walked away into the night, I did not wish death for him. Maybe for the first time in my life, in a way that made me feel scared like a child, I was glad that he was alive.
Afterward, I decided I would keep John company through the night, so we rode out into the desert and built a fire and made a simple sort of camp. Neither one of us wanted to be in anything like a house right yet. There was sage and saguaro and about a million stars up above, and at first it was fun riding and gathering wood and drinking the last of our whiskey, but after a while I wasn’t sure if it was the best place for us to be. The desert that night made me feel old the way Halston Smith looks old. Stooped and vulnerable, hands twisted and spent. I don’t know what it was John felt out there, saying nothing while the fire crackled and snapped. Neither of us slept. That night we saw a fox that was mostly black but for silver veins tracing its sides, then we saw four pronghorn rush past us in the dark. But John insisted they were unicorns. I didn’t know what to make of that. His eyes were shining like silver dollars in the firelight. I waited for him to blink. Then he did. I wanted more than anything to not be spooked out there with my friend. But I was. The moon rose and fell and the fire died but we remained, and in the morning we rode to his brother’s empty house, tired-eyed and silent, to pour water from the well across the kitchen’s worn floorboards, to wash his sister-in-law’s blood gelled still and thick and forgotten in the grains her own bare feet once polished to a sheen.
On one of those unattained, and unattainable pinnacles that are known as the Bleaks of Eerie, an eagle was looking East with a hopeful presage of blood.
For he knew, and rejoiced in the knowledge, that eastward over the dells the dwarfs were risen in Ulk, and gone to war with the demi-gods.
The demi-gods are they that were born of earthly women, but their sires are the elder gods who walked of old among men. Disguised they would go through the villages sometimes in summer evenings, cloaked and unknown of men; but the younger maidens knew them and always ran to them singing, for all that their elders said: in evenings long ago they had danced to the woods of the oak-trees. Their children dwelt out-of-doors beyond the dells of the bracken, in the cool and heathery lands, and were now at war with the dwarfs.
Dour and grim were the demi-gods and had the faults of both parents, and would not mix with men but claimed the right of their fathers, and would not play human games but forever were prophesying, and yet were more frivolous than their mothers were, whom the fairies had long since buried in wild wood gardens with more than human rites.
And being irked at their lack of rights and ill content with the land, and having no power at all over the wind and snow, and caring little for the powers they had, the demi-gods became idle, greasy, and slow; and the contemptuous dwarfs despised them ever.
The dwarfs were contemptuous of all things savouring of heaven, and of everything that was even partly divine. They were, so it has been said, of the seed of man; but, being squat and hairy like to the beasts; they praised all beastly things, and bestiality was shown reverence among them, so far as reverence was theirs to show. So most of all they despised the discontent of the demi-gods, who dreamed of the courts of heaven and power over wind and snow; for what better, said the dwarfs, could demi-gods do than nose in the earth for roots and cover their faces with mire, and run with the cheerful goats and be even as they?
Now in their idleness caused by their discontent, the seed of the gods and the maidens grew more discontented still, and only spake of or cared for heavenly things; until the contempt of the dwarfs, who heard of all these doings, was bridled no longer and it must needs be war. They burned spice, dipped in blood and dried, before the chief of their witches, sharpening their axes, and made war on the demi-gods.
They passed by night over the Oolnar Mountains, each dwarf with his good axe, the old flint war-axe of his fathers, a night when no moon shone, and they went unshod, and swiftly, to come on the demi-gods in the darkness beyond the dells of Ulk, lying fat and idle and contemptible.
And before it was light they found the heathery lands, and the demi-gods lying lazy all over the side of a hill. The dwarfs stole towards them warily in the darkness.
Now the art that the gods love most is the art of war: and when the seed of the gods and those nimble maidens awoke and found it was war it was almost as much to them as the godlike pursuits of heaven, enjoyed in the marble courts; or power over wind and snow. They all drew out at once their swords of tempered bronze, cast down to them centuries since on stormy nights when their fathers, drew them and faced the dwarfs, and casting their idleness from them, fell on them, sword to axe. And the dwarfs fought hard that night, and bruised the demi-gods sorely, hacking with those huge axes that had not spared the oaks. Yet for all the weight of their blows and the cunning of their adventure, one point they had overlooked: the demi-gods were immortal.
As the fight rolled on towards morning the fighters were fewer and fewer, yet for all the blows of the dwarfs men fell upon one side only.
Dawn came and the demi-gods were fighting against no more than six, and the hour that follows dawn, and the last of the dwarfs was gone.
And when the light was clear on that peak of the Bleaks of Eerie the eagle left his crag and flew grimly East, and found it was as he had hoped in the matter of blood.
But the demi-gods lay down in their heathery lands, for once content though so far from the courts of heaven, and even half forgot their heavenly rights, and sighed no more for power over wind and snow.
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