The Official Report on Human Activity
kim d. hunter
Part 1: A Tale of Two Stories
I. The Official Report on Human Activity or Long for an Elephant, An Essay - 2
II. The Whistling Dragon or Every Boy’s First Murder, A Story in Two or More Voices - 33
Part 2: Other People’s Stories
I. Outside Chance - 55
II. Blackened by Fire - 69
The Official Report on Human Activity or Long for an Elephant: An Essay
When Ipso gave birth to what most agreed was an elephant, there were those who tried to act as though it was normal. Well, yes, he was a man, they said, and no one had known he was pregnant but, it was, after all, a small elephant.
Prior to the birth, he had been eating strangely and spending an inordinate amount of time alone. But none around him had taken these things as signs that anything unusual was about to occur because he had said that he was a writer or that he wanted to be a writer. He had trouble deciding which of these things to tell people because writing happens so much in the mind that he thought it would be difficult to know when or if he had crossed the threshold. First, he would have to find something to write about.
He could write about the factory where he worked and things he and his coworkers made in the factory. He would have to start at the beginning and that would mean light in the morning. So he tried to begin with the light in his windows on the mornings he had to go to work versus the light in his windows on the mornings he did not have to go work. The difference between daylight and worklight was much like the difference between sleep on the nights that were not followed by workdays (Friday sleep and Saturday sleep) and regular sleep.
The problem was, once he began writing about the light and how he slept, it felt like he was trying to walk on slippery rocks that sloped down toward quicksand or how he imagined a slope of slippery rocks would be, as he was not much for the outdoors and made sure to stay in when it rained. The fact that he could imagine these things made him lean toward saying that he was a writer as opposed to wanting to be a writer. But the fact that he had gotten his knowledge of quicksand from TV lessened his idea of himself as a writer.
If you’ve worked in a more modern factory than the one where Ipso worked, one built in the 21st Century for example, or if you’ve never worked in a factory at all, count yourself relatively lucky, especially if you have found another way to get food that is less humbling and absurd than working in a plant. Second, you may not recognize the sort of factory that Ipso worked in as it was built earlier in the 20th Century. It was noisier and dirtier than more modern factories. It was much harder to find a place where you could be alone with whatever thoughts hadn’t been purged by the noise and dirt. Perhaps, the lack of time alone with thoughts made the contemplation of light and sleep seem like a grim, endlessly narrowing spiral. He didn’t want to describe it as dark because he was dark and he associated the dark with warmth, standing by the oven when the sun went down in late winter with lights dimmed and the bed waiting for him to deliver the heat his body had absorbed from the small kitchen.
He was torn between trying to describe the narrowing spiral and trying to find out where it led. He thought he should describe it because that is what writers do. He wanted to find out where it led because he was frightened and fear made him curious as though he were in a lucid, recurring nightmare. Where would a narrowing path draped in factory light lead, certainly not to a screened-in summer porch with cold beer on hand and Miles Davis playing.
He thought about Miles Davis a lot. Miles was dark like Ipso, but, having lived and died in the 20th Century was obviously older. Miles produced a tone on the trumpet of unerring beauty and played, in his second great band, with younger writers whose noise was as fitted and sculpted to jagged music as Miles’ was to a clean Jean Toomer narrative. What held Miles and those wilder, younger players together was that Miles’ melody led to the same inside dark with hidden sources of illumination.
In short, they dreamt together awake, practiced hour after hour the climb on raggedy surfaces toward the edge of a cliff whose beauty would be a fantasy if not for the climb, whose beauty could only be grasped in the moments over the white ocean of clouds rolling below the sun, the moments before the plunge where the purity and cold of the air and then the cloud overcame thought and vision respectively, a fall as blind as the stasis of the womb.
Miles didn’t give many interviews. Essentially, he thought it was all there in the music, no reason to talk about what everyone could hear. For Ipso, it was very strange for a writer to eschew words, even for an interview. But Ipso could still identify with Miles because he knew Miles had had difficulty getting along. He could hear it in the alone sound of Miles’ trumpet and the heat beneath the loneliness, the Harmon mute at the bell of the horn honing every breath and note through a tunnel of black light to the inner ear, a path as lean and solitary as it was immutable and unforgiving and he thought that loneliness may be the only thing he had in common with another great writer.
Ipso couldn’t find a comfortable place to sit with his birth family. They were, for the most part, good, normal people of African descent who spent Sundays in church and work days working. They reveled in purchasing things with the money they earned; he was trying to make his way on slopes of wet rocks. There was one brother of his with whom Ipso could discuss the work of Miles Davis. But as soon as the conversation strayed, even to something as mild as how his brother’s daughter was doing in school, the exchange became contentious.
Ipso’s regular days, to say nothing of his work days, were fraught. Words would rush to the front of his brain in the factory and the work seemed two or three times more difficult than it should have been or than it was or than it was for the other people he worked with or all three, which seemed a forth possibility.
There were, to his mind, very few people who could do factory work and something else and do either thing well. There was a person back in the 20th Century who had made it to the Detroit City Council after attaining a law degree while working in the factory and, based on the interviews Ipso read, this person, Ken Cockrel Sr., had two brains. One brain coped with the factory while the other consumed law books. Ipso, on the other hand, was only able to string together a very few words and he left them in his mind as they seemed to need to germinate.
Monkeys with torches and hand grenades riding pigs into hell seeking the enemy among them
Monkeys with the reins between their teeth and the torches and grenades in either hand,
Some with saddles some without,
Some with letters from home attesting to bloodlines,
Records that may be lost forever in the battle to come,
And who will know which among them is the writer, the enemy, or one in the same?
These words came to Ipso one stormy Monday night and festered in him deep into Saturday sleep. He tossed and turned, rolled and tumbled wondering how to make things fit, how to get those pigs into the narrowing space. How could the monkeys be the riders as pigs were probably smarter than monkeys and therefore would have to be the riders even though the idea of pigs riding monkeys was laden with logistical challenges? The riders would have to be chimpanzees or at least carnivorous humans. Ipso was a carnivore himself and admired vegetarians. There were a few vegetarians in the factory and they seemed calmer and listened to the news on stations where everyone seemed calm and smart. He thought vegetarians were smarter than he was and he so wanted to be smarter than he was.
All the great writers from Harriet Tubman to Katherine Dunham, from Charles Burnett to Fannie Lou Hamer had all been smarter than he was or seemed so at very least. Their work rose to the high stage where it could work the brain stems, spinal cords, respiratory and nervous systems of large numbers of people, came down like invisible rain to be carried by media irrigation systems to the dry places until there were few towns where their work hadn’t bloom, fewer still where some derivation of their plants had not sprung up. People ate them without knowing where they came from and their bodies didn’t care and the children they birthed with the nourishment that fused the egg and seed didn’t care. Some reached back to find the source of what they had eaten and drew richness from the journey even if they had died before finding the root of the root. Others just grew.
One Tuesday (which seemed just as bad as any Monday, though Wednesdays were worse and Thursdays were sad until they became Fridays when he walked, somewhat compensated, out of the factory with headed toward Saturday) he was wrestling with the monkey versus pig, round swine into narrowing orifice conundrums and noticed a stirring in him. He seemed slightly heavier than normal and a bowel movement was no relief on that score. Then a shape poked out of his abdomen. It didn’t really hurt but he didn’t like it. It was a dream injury. In the plain light of day, the thing stretched his skin so much it should have hurt and so he anticipated pain which was recorded somewhere but mostly in the places where he knew fear. The more he struggled with primates and swine, the more the pokes disturbed him and his sleep.
One afternoon in the plant, he was too drowsy to notice the Optical Touch Card Ancillary Firsthand (or OTCAF) Scrapper was in the descent mode pre-widgetization. His hand was still holding the Meid on lock. He would have lost that hand to the two ton scrapper except that a fellow worker (not surprisingly, a vegetarian) noticed the green and pink skull and cross bones warning signs flashing on the floor beneath the machinery and pulled Ipso’s hand away just in time.
The incident shook him awake and, more than that, it shook him. After that, he did all he could to ignore the shape of the thing that he now somehow realized was going to emerge from him. He took time off from the job. He tried to screen in his back porch. He loaded his cooler with beer and tried to purchase more Miles Davis from the 1964 to 1968 period only to discover he already had every single recording from that era.
He tried to spend more time with his family and friends. But the shape(s) kept protruding from him. When asked about this by startled friends and family, Ipso would begin talking about the weather or ask about the other person’s work or he would ask if the person had been out of town recently, if so, how had the weather been there, if the people in the city that had been visited spoke of unusual cloud patterns or noticed any prints in mud. If the person who had noticed the protrusions had not been away, Ipso would ask about the color of the houses or buildings on the street the person had taken to get to where the two of them currently sat or stood. Occasionally, the person would actually answer the questions. Some ignored the questions and asked Ipso what the hell was going on. Others would simply walk away quickly, traumatized. A few actually tried to talk Ipso through understanding was going on inside of him. If these conversations didn’t end with puzzled looks all around, they ended with Ipso frightened nearly to tears after probing the possibilities of what the thing might be. “Do you honestly expect me to figure this out while I’m on vacation?” he would scream, pound his fist on his knees and then apologize for his outburst.
One Sunday night, the last day before he was to return to work, it dawned on him that the thing was about to emerge. Weeks ago, he had given up the idea of resisting figuring out who was riding whom and dealing with the size of the pigs versus the size of the hole. He had slept with the questions and awoke with the questions; a low grade fever; his pillow wet and his days spent staring at the trees in his backyard and listening to Tony Williams, Miles Davis’ drummer bang and fall silent on a recording called Circle in the Round. The drummer came and went, cymbals crashed like china to the rhythm then silence that felt less than an echo but more than an absence.
Ipso went to the Main Library on Woodward Avenue across from the Detroit Institute of Art. He was torn when he arrived as he learned the Detroit Film Theatre inside the museum across the street had a Charles Burnett retrospective that he desperately wanted to see. But the fear of the thing in him emerging in the dark on an unsuspecting filmgoer (perhaps even a Miles Davis fan) gripped him and he walked dutifully to the Library’s main information desk.
“I am about to birth something,” he announced to the woman behind the desk. This was not the standard response to her standard inquiry of “Can I help you?” especially from a male.
“The thing that is about to come out of me is somehow connected to words that have been in my head for a few days now. I am about to answer the question,” Ipso continued.
The main library in Detroit is a rather august and classically stylish white marble building in the early Italian Renaissance style with windows almost a story tall on the second level recessed into magnificent arches. Like many of the august things in Detroit, it was built near the early end of the twentieth century. August or no, the librarians were used to homeless people and or mentally ill people coming through the doors with inexhaustible queries. The woman behind the desk was somewhat new to her position, but assumed this was one such query, that is, until she noticed the shapes poking out of Ipso. She insisted he needed medical help. Ipso protested this vehemently. “It’s the question coming to a head, can’t you see,” he said and pounded his knees with his fists. He was about to pound his head when a long cylindrical thing poked out of him, formed an “S,” a backward “S,” a question mark and fell back into him as quickly as it had emerged. He thought the woman’s eye couldn’t have gotten any wider and that’s when she called the ambulance.
The Emergency Medical Service was on the way and Ipso realized that he needed to talk his way into having this thing in the library. It had to be in the library or bringing it into the open would be even more difficult and dangerous. That was clear. He knew it as surely as he knew the question was nearly answered. He knew it the way Miles Davis and Miles’ father (Miles Dewey Davis II) knew Miles had to be locked up on the family farm in East St. Louis to kick the heroin habit he had attained in New York searching for Charlie Parker before he discovered he could not write in the gregarious, Neo African, Jackson Pollock baroque voice of Charlie Parker even as he realized that Parker’s polyphony arose from a deep and harrowing silence that was Africans talking openly amongst themselves about all they had seen since the Middle Passage, a well Miles would have to tap in the dead black night. It was then Miles realized he had to work with more sculpted silence, that he was working with a heat so intense it needed to be shielded from the outside and vice versa.
Days after Ipso had come to her, the librarian began to have second thoughts about having sent him to the hospital rather than allowing what was in him to emerge in the library. It all started when she was contacted by a reporter who just happened to have been in the emergency room of Receiving Hospital when they brought Ipso in strapped to the gurney flailing and straining against his restraints almost as much as the shape, now clearly an elephant, was flailing and straining to get out.
While medical personnel were scrambling, it occurred to Ipso that he had to make a decision about exactly how this thing was going to get out of his body. The options seemed as limited as they were unappealing. One option made him think that he would never again complain about digital rectal exams. The other was through the mouth. This was, in some ways, even less appealing than the option he had ruled out, though, practically speaking, it seemed the less dangerous of the two.
Even in the microseconds it took Ipso to choose an orifice, another deeper part of him had moved the elephant toward his throat and tried to calm whatever muscles needed preparation to get the thing out. His rib cage began to expand, painfully at first then relaxed to the point of unfeeling like a tooth disconnected from nerves in the flesh. The relaxation was in part a response to the awe he felt at seeing every story he’d ever read or heard pass before him like a bullet train. If Ipso had believed in ghosts, he would have seen one leaving. The train slowed and words came to him that seemed to have nothing to do with the answer to the primate, swine equations:
When the clouds fall to the ground
You will know where I can be found
Trackin crimes bigger than the sea
Can’t see the forest strung up in a tree
Stalkin’ the fog
I’m just a stalkin’ the fog
Emmett said ain’t nothing to it
He’ll show you how to stalk the fog
Ipso saw Rufus Thomas with a James Brown cape open wide like wings. Did it matter that Rufus wasn’t a vegetarian or that he had never so much as entertained the idea? Not now, because the trunk of the elephant was out, smaller than Ipso would have thought and so shiny black it seemed silver in certain turns of the light.
The reporter told the librarian that when the elephant had fully emerged, Ipso’s blood drained from its skin as if washed by invisible rain. Besides being smaller than any other elephant, its tail was curlier and the distance between its front and hind legs was greater. The elongation clearly facilitated what everyone assumed to be a message on its hide. If it was a message it was not delivered with words. The markings may have been hybrid hieroglyphs. Someone suggested calling the Egyptologist who had helped to curate the exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Art. Just before the call was made, a security guard walked over to ask Ipso about the meaning of the markings on the elephant’s hide. Of course, it was too late.
No one ever confessed to posting the security camera video of Ipso pleading with the Librarian as the seemingly random shapes emerged from his body. She had stumbled upon the video online herself searching for a long out of print book called the Suburban Bitch about an African American woman working as a domestic servant in the mid- late 20th Century which of course meant the people she worked for were white. It seems the Librarian’s grandmother had known the woman who wrote the book. It was written in prison as a part of the author’s therapy, a way to work out the anger so clearly manifest in her crime. The story, virtually forgotten now had made very serious headlines at the time the same way the civil disturbances in Detroit in the 1967 had made headlines and then been all but forgotten except as a touchstone for the city’s decline.
What had really struck the nearly all white jury, including the white foreman of the jury---elected foreman by the whites in the room because he had worked at Ford Motor Company as foreman and was thought to have the most experience with African Americans---was that the killing spree began and ended with the family pets.
The prosecutor had ended his opening and closing statements with references to the pets, how the former maid could have left them alone as they were unlikely to be called as witnesses, how the autopsy on the cat showed it had been slain first, before the people were killed and the how the dog’s autopsy had shown it was the last victim. “This woman, who the family had trusted for years, effectively created a pet sandwich of death with the family as the mainstay and the corpses of the dogs and cats acting as the bread,” as he had been quoted in the paper.
Among the things left out of most media stories was that the animals had been ritualistically slaughtered, while the people had been poisoned and slept into death, that the family had been tied to chairs and sat waiting for the police at the dining room table, plates of exquisitely prepared food before them with a centerpiece of flowers on the table.
Later, in his blog, a graduate student, a playwright (was the name familiar to her?) in the combined disciplines of Art and American Studies referred to the murders as oddly paralleling and presaging some of the more extreme performance art. That reference had a link to the video of Ipso standing before the Librarian with a giant question mark popping out of his body.
The video surprised her on two accounts. First and foremost, she didn’t realize the library had security cameras. Why had she never seen video of any of the other strange goings on at the library, like one of the library’s large benefactors who every at every holiday festival would bring in her talking bird that recited the names of the US Presidents in backwards order of their election or the homeless guy who only read two books: the dictionary and the city’s ordinances and would always have to be dragged from the building laughing hysterically? There were other odd recurring events in the building that had never been subject to an internet posting. Second, who had posted the video? The security guards who monitored the cameras were the most obvious and therefore the least likely suspects. Why risks your job to post video on the web? Then there was the site upon which it was shown, the site formerly known as I-Fuel which had been bought by Unicorp and had been renamed U-Fuel. Being posted on such a well-known site would surely help it go viral.
The Librarian’s mother called and asked if she had seen the video and was it the Librarian on the video. When the Librarian admitted yes to both questions, her mother became frantic. She wanted to know how the Librarian was going to cash in on the video. Why hadn’t the Librarian called her to let her know what had been going? And, finally, if Ipso seemed in pain when the shapes emerged? The Librarian did not have answers to these questions when her mother asked them. Nor did she have answers when her boss asked virtually the same questions, substituting himself for the mother.
The Librarian’s boss did not want to continue to be the Librarian’s boss. He wanted to be the Mayor or someone who made more money, got on TV more often, ate at good restaurants. He was unsure how he would become mayor or someone like her. He had been casting about for a campaign color for his yet to be created yard signs, a bumper sticker slogan, a light or even a tunnel from which a light might emerge. The black shiny elephant on the shadowy video came to him like a bolt of illumination, a tailor made antidote for the semi-shadow he barely admitted even to himself that he was floundering in.
When the Librarian’s boss called her into his office and interrogated her, there was a woman in the room who seemed to her strikingly out of place. The Librarian could not tell if it was the woman’s flowing clothes with browns, blues and oh so cautiously muted reds and oranges, or the white brief case like container that sat next to the woman. The Librarian could not recall ever having seen a white briefcase, nor was she sure it was a briefcase as it seemed soft, but in fact was standing up like a briefcase and not like a cloth item which would have collapsed. The Librarian also thought about how the advent of portable computers had make briefcases all but obsolete. About half way through the conversation, the woman put her hand on the white briefcase as one would put a hand on a dog that needed calming. The hand all but floated down toward the metallic latches, undid them and placed the case in the woman’s lap. So the case must have been harder and lighter than it appeared. It wasn’t until the Librarian’s boss repeated himself that the Librarian realized the woman was moving slowly because she was focused on what the Librarian’s boss was saying as the Librarian should have or could have been doing.
“Yes,” the Librarian finally answered, “It was after the question marked emerged that I called the ambulance.” The consultant wondered to herself how the Librarian or indeed anyone could tell the difference between the backward “S” and the question mark.
The audio on the surveillance video was always low, but the segment with Ipso was distorted as well. As the video was passed from viewer to viewer on the internet, people began to speculate in the comments sections of various sites as to what Ipso was saying or if he was saying anything. Some began to supply their own words, some with music and some without. One person turned the grainy black and white video to sepia tone, slowed down the movement and added the music from an old song:
Glory glory, hallelujah, when I lay my burdens down
Glory glory, hallelujah, when I lay my burdens down
All of my troubles will be over, when I lay my burdens down
All of my troubles will be over, when I lay my burdens down
One person added her own lyrics to be sung with voice alone
it is deaf to color
blind to music
and holds them both
like atlas holds the world
only as he would be
wishing for death
to lay his burden down
Inevitably, someone added dialogue from an antacid commercial:
Feel like you swallowed something big enough to swallow you? Get rid of that beached whale feeling with…
“This video belongs to the Detroit Public Library, its patrons and the Main Branch in particular. As Director, it is my duty to see to it that the video either becomes part of the Library’s collection or that we put our own stamp on it by putting our stamp on the situation that created it, you with me on this one?” The boss nodded to the other two people in the room as if he were speaking to children or as if there were invisible rods connecting the other two heads to his own and the others would nod in unison with him if he moved just right.
The woman with the white briefcase nodded. The Librarian was perplexed. “How do we put a stamp on events that have transpired before so many eyes,” she asked somewhat rhetorically
“That’s why I’m here,” said the woman with the white briefcase.
“To birth another elephant?” asked the Librarian.
“I’m a consultant,” the woman smiled as something in the briefcase on her lap began to whirr softly.
The girl was watching television because it had distracted her from her struggles with school work. She had done as much of her math homework as she could tolerate and had gone over to the reading assignment. As best she could determine, the story was about a woman who had to tell stories or something bad would happen to her. It reminded her of the storyteller who used to come to her school. She thought about the long flowing clothing the woman wore and how she had all the stories memorized so she could look directly at her audience the whole time she was telling the story. The girl sat in her favorite chair, closed her eyes and tried to tell herself one of the storyteller’s stories. She got as far as the part where two little girls had opened their door to a cold bear so that he could warm himself by the fire. That’s when she was distracted by the noise from a television news story.
The girl’s father, per the instructions of the newscaster, had turned up the volume of the TV to hear the barely audible shriek of a woman who stood before a man whose body undulated in very strange ways. Then there was video of an elephant, though it was indeed rather long for an elephant, its tail curlier and its skin blacker than black. Indeed, it was so black no one had anything to which it could be compared. Nor could anyone determine the meaning of the writing on the side of the elephant, except for the girl. The messages she saw were so clear to her that she assumed everyone else could decipher them as well. She was though, so mesmerized by the sight of the elephant that she didn’t hear the newscaster say that linguistic experts and code breakers from around the world had gathered to study what appeared to be a message on the elephants hide because no one had any idea what the markings meant. She also didn’t get the hints between the lines the animal’s health was in a slow but noticeable decline.
The Librarian’s boss had given her an assignment. She was to work with the media consultant, to bring the elephant to the library. The goal was to turn public opinion towards demanding the elephant be brought to the place that Ipso had tried to have it. The Librarian was supposed to speak publicly, with firsthand knowledge, about Ipso’s demands to have birthed the elephant at the library. They would run the audio of her “testimony” under the video of the Ipso and his various body shapes. The Librarian’s boss would then speak and intimate that the code on the elephant’s hide might be broken and the message revealed if the animal were to come back to the place its “author” had wanted it to be in the first place.
The media consultant was brought in anticipation of at least two obvious questions likely to arise once the scheme was made public. First, if the library thought it was such a great idea for the elephant to be there, why had they called the Emergency Medical Service to take Ipso away to the to the hospital? Second, if the library had some way of deciphering the code, why couldn’t they just bring it to the hospital?
“Aren’t you glad they don’t have you trying to figure it all out the elephant thing?” the girl’s father said to her as they drove to school. “You have a hard enough time with the school work they give you.”
“I like the elephant,” the girl replied.
“Of course you do,” her father snorted back. “That’s probably why it’s going to die.”
At times like these, the thought of joining her mother would cross her mind. But that was as frightening as anything.
“I liked mama too,” the little girl replied, turned her face to the window and thought without speaking, “and I still like the elephant.”
Rides to school used to be among the best times in her life. That was when her mother was still alive. The girl and father drove to school and listened to music her father had chosen just for her. If there were long instrumental passages, he would tell the girl how her mother had found him working in the factory, how he thought he’d be there his whole life doing the things outside of the factory that made coming to the factory inevitable. Then one day, a man who worked at the factory who was neither a good hunter nor a good factory worker came to the factory to hunt.
The worker who could not hunt worked in a spot with a window just above his head and behind him. Birds nested there. He could hear them rustling and flapping against the window. Even when he resisted turning around, he was distracted. His distraction caused problems. Once another man further up the line almost lost a hand because the man who was not a good hunter or worker became distracted, forgot which button gets pushed before which lever. He was often suspended without pay. So he would go hunting to get more food.
Of course, when he reached the woods, he was overtaken by the sun in the trees, the birds in the trees, the sun on the grass, which trees grew near which rivers, the sound and sight of running water. One day in the woods, he was trying to remember if the gun he’d brought was for shooting birds or deer. Both were within range. He got a phone call from his wife with good and bad news. The factory people had mailed him a letter. He would never have to worry about being distracted in the factory again. He thought for a moment about staying in the woods. Then he decided that whatever gun he had brought would work fine on humans. He jumped into his car, drove to the factory and began shooting.
Many people died and the shooter made himself the last among them. The man who was not yet the girl’s father was shifted to a different part of the factory while police gathered evidence in the area where he normally worked. That didn’t take as long as removing the blood stains.
In the meantime, he refused to speak to anyone about it except those who had witnessed it with him. Then he noticed some of those folks drinking and taking other drugs more and more. Two of them became unable to leave their houses. Some couldn’t walk through the gate. One person committed suicide. The people who owned the factory were besieged by reporters and referred the media to the people hired to help the workers cope with the killings.
One of those people was a dark woman with dark red hair. The man, who was not yet the girl’s father, was scheduled to talk to this woman about what had happened, about the fire from the gun that came through the night into his sleep. Whenever he came to a flight of stairs with other people around, he had to fight himself not to push them out of the way and run. He heard screaming when there was no screaming. He was losing weight, showing less and less interest in food even though, now, the factory owners had made sure there was food laid out all over the factory.
On their first visit, the dark red woman brought tea which he did not drink. This was always where he would end the story when he told it to his daughter. He didn’t tell the girl that, though at first, he wouldn’t drink the tea, he was comforted by the fruity smell, jasmine. The woman always reminded him of it. His talks with her were the first and only times he ever took a dispassionate look at his family, the first time he was able to empathize with his brother.
“So, did you get a good look at his hands?” the woman asked him. Then she would wait. No one had ever really waited for him to answer. He began to take comfort from silence.
She liked him from the start and had to check herself that she didn’t cross the boundary from professional therapist to romantic interest. But this was futile. He was the most honest person she had ever met, the most transparent patient. Her mind drifted to what he would be like in the throes of passion. She had never imagined that the patient that presented the least challenge she had ever had would be one with whom she would fall in love. She let their sessions run over time. She began bringing recordings of Miles Davis’ first great band with Coltrane, Adderley, Evans, Garland and Jones. It helped him open up about his relationship with his brother. She would touch his knee when she reflected something significant he had said.
“So you actually liked the unsliced bread. It was the blood in it that didn’t play so well,” she had said during one of the breakthrough sessions. During the last of their scheduled meetings, she brought him flowers and held his hand, clearly steps over the line. He was stunned. He had been trying to figure out a good way to meet her outside of the factory-authorized therapy sessions. This seemed like a good opportunity to ask about that and so it was.
As it happened, he was an amazing and intuitive cook. Before marriage he had always gone out to eat (remnants of the bloody bread episodes, perhaps). But their new house seemed like a new world and he began exploring cookbooks, only to leave them behind after a few months creating his own concoctions that were at least as good as what he had found in the books. When their daughter was born, he learned to prepare food for infants, toddlers then pre-teens. The lunches the girl took to school were the envy of all her classmates. She began asking her father for larger and larger quantities as it gave her joy to share what she had.
She had firm memories of her father joyously puttering around the kitchen, especially on Saturdays, while her mother sang along with opera on the radio, making fun of the bass parts she could never hope to reach. If there was an opera being broadcast that they didn’t especially like, her mother would put on La Traviata. She wouldn’t start the recording at the beginning. “The overture is wonderful, but too sad to start,” she would say. “Let’s go to the drinking song.” And so, the father would have to take a break from cooking and waltz around the house with the mother to Libiamo ne’ lieti calici.
His wife, like many of African descent that lived in her country, loved barbecued ribs, one of the hand-me-downs from their ancestors’ southern slavery experience. The husband developed an astonishing rib sauce. People came from miles around to try it. He was on the verge of starting a business (Astonishing Rib Sauce or ARS as it came be known) with it when she became ill.
The doctor told her, no more greasy barbecued ribs with the Astonishing Rib Sauce, no more red meat, but especially, no more pork. Baked chicken and broiled fish were okay on the odd occasion. She didn’t heed the warnings and insisted that her husband continue cooking pork ribs. He did so reluctantly but reveled in the joy she took from eating pork.
Though, one day, he found himself at her bedside surrounded by weeping relatives. She had been allowed to come home because there was nothing doctors could do for her. The girl recalled the scene with a double sadness: the change in her father and the loss of her mother, the inspiration for Saturday waltzes, the singer of songs.
For his part, it was as if all the intervening years of recovery and happiness had suddenly collapsed beneath him like a broken chair. He was back to the day of the killing spree. Nightmares crept forward and sleep waned. He felt as if he’d had no right to normalcy, to say nothing of joy. The murders and suicide became his sun and moon.
He posted the ARS recipe online along with his business plan. Opera was banned from the house. He did not consciously stop eating meat. It just happened. He never spoke openly about becoming a vegetarian, even to those who had witnessed the murders with him, though; they were the only people with whom he exchanged anything but pleasantries. He took no joy in it, but his cooking was as good as ever. He lost weight and spoke to his relatives less often, especially his brother.
As his relatives abandoned him, only his daughter, the girl, was left to witness his decline. He tolerated her for a time, even comforted her as they grieved together. But, as she began to take solace in memories of her mother, he resented her recovery and resented that he could not dismiss her as he dismissed those who had not been traumatized and therefore, in his mind, could not understand. She had sunk to the bottom and managed to rise again seemingly on her own and that was as far beyond his understanding as the markings on the elephant.
The Egyptologist who worked at the Art Institute began to notice a shift in the calls he was getting. When the elephant first emerged, reporters took him to lunch in restaurants he could not afford. Indeed, in a couple of cases, he was unaware of their very existence even though he had been in Detroit for years. But now, people were sending him notes that questioned his expertise and professionalism. Many of these letters came with copies of Ishmael Reed’s “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra.” Sometimes, they would send the poem alone. Soon, he stopped opening letters, especially those with no return address.
One reporter who wrote for a weekly media outlet addressed directly to people of African descent had seen an ancient aunt of his that hardly ever spoke perk up when the elephant hit the media. In fact, when she saw the elephant on TV she became downright agitated. After a few days, she stopped wearing her wig, and spent more time outside asking young people in particular questions that, in their minds, confirmed her as mentally ill, questions like: “What do you wear in the dark when you wear the dark?” “When was the last time you read something you wrote and heard another voice that was also your own?”
Year ago, she’d been buoyed but not overjoyed by the election of the first Black US President. Though she did have tears over a slow smile when she heard him speak at his inauguration and say: “I know all this isn’t for me.” But the arrival of the elephant was different. She did not smile. She could not take her rest.
Her grandson, the reporter, had noticed the change in her. He sat down with her on different occasions to find out why she was so agitated. She would only repeat the questions she asked people from her front porch. While other members of the family thought she was becoming senile, the reporter saw something in her eyes and face that belied senility: the way she turned her head and nodded as she cut her eyes and smirked. There was the very slight but sardonic chuckle that made her body rock very slightly. Then one day, his persistent questioning seemed to have paid off. Though the smirk and chuckle were still there, she said something out of the ordinary.
“Your friend doesn’t know his trip,” she said.
The reporter was so startled it took him a moment to ask what friend and what trip was she talking about.
“He can’t read the elephant, can he?” she replied.
Now he guessed she was talking about the Egyptologist.
“Why do you call him my friend,” the nephew replied.
“He thinks he should know how to read it and he doesn’t know why he doesn’t know,” she said.
“About the elephant, you mean?”
“No, about the whale hiding in the toilet. Yes, the elephant!”
“But he’s not my friend. I don’t know…”
“You want to know. You think you should know. You don’t know why you don’t know. That makes you and him friends. Only, he can mess things up and you can only tell people how he messed up after the mess, which is amazing considering that’s what you get paid to do. ”
This is when the reporter decided to contact the Egyptologist.
The Librarian and the media consultant sat together in a room with the white device that looked like a briefcase. It whirred.
“The sample please,” said the consultant. The Librarian handed her a small electronic storage device on which the Librarian had placed her dissertation. The consultant began to transfer the dissertation from the device to the machine and to read it during the transfer. She was surprised in part because she had expected a smaller sample and also because of the content.
“I thought you were a librarian.”
“I obviously am a librarian or we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we?”
“Usually people’s graduate work has some semblance of relevance to their chosen profession.”
“I was hired to run the Media and Public Relations Department. Then I was the Department. Then the department was eliminated. Things happen like that. You get backed down or into something you never imagined and then you’re stuck.”
“Or, you get what you deserve.”
The Librarian chuckled and said “I know it’s our fault we were tossed from the garden we never made.” Then she stopped laughing abruptly and said, “Let’s get on with it.”
The consultant continued feeding the dissertation into the device. She could not help but read it even though much of it seemed incomprehensible. As best the consultant could make out, the Librarian proposed a link between the US cultural take on original sin and the growing fascination with and diversity of fried foods, drawing a parallel between how Carnival and Lent necessitated one another and provided the basic fuel for cable television.
People had come to batter and fry all manner of sweet and savory foods from candy bars to beer. But the big breakthrough had come when a scientist in a lab funded by a very large and relatively new church discovered a way to soften metal and other inorganic materials with a chemical that bonded particularly well with a patented mixture of sugar, salt and genetically modified lard. Now segments of the population were frying and eating whatever was not poisonous. This included nails, bits of used tires, cassette tapes, coins, old toys, keys, the tops to coffee mugs that no longer fit, mismatched socks, earphones, the name tags and leashes of dead pets, floppy discs, bobble headed Elvis statues and pre-digital identification cards. Certain congregants of the church that funded the new chemical for frying were reenacting their wedding ceremonies and chemically treating, frying and eating their wedding rings as a way to internalize their commitment to one another. They did this with little or no consideration of the ultimate fate of consumed objects that couldn’t be absorbed by the body, unlike those who fried and ate their mortgages and reveled in the items’ transformation.
“Why did you bring a dissertation and not letters or something smaller for the machine to read?”
“My boss insisted upon the dissertation. He’s friends with folks who were on my committee at school.”
With that, the consultant rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, of course, the committee.” After a few moments, the machine produced a sample script. The consultant handed it to the Librarian, who examined it.
“This is pretty simplistic,” said the Librarian without looking up from the paper.
“It’s designed to sound like you,” the consultant said with a sugary smile that she let fall immediately.
“Then I could have written this by myself.”
The consultant smiled again and said, “Well then, you should be able to record this in one take and we can both be on our respective ways.”
15. Keep Hope Alive
There were many things the little girl liked about the elephant. Its color was amazing. She had never seen anything so black. At one point, she wished the pages of her books were that black so that she might be able to read everything as easily as she read the symbols on the elephant’s skin. Then she realized the reason the symbols on the animal were easy to read was not so much because of the blackness but because of the lustrous sheen that contrasted the blackness and was made possible by the blackness, the silver that gave the symbols their knife’s edge clarity. Then there was the message itself, how it seemed to speak directly to her even though she was sure everyone could read it, had read it and was as comforted by it as she. The very simple message was so powerful because it came from an unknown source but spoke directly to her needs. Someone, something she had never encountered, had by the purest of chance made a place for her where before there had been no place or virtually no place.
She was perhaps most comforted by the thought that things could have gone the other way. It was as if she could see to the bottom of the ocean, the ocean that cared for her not one whit but could not help to reveal glowing fish of indescribable hues, plants that shimmered and waved and wrecks made anonymous by new life all of which the sea had made possible.
There could have been another message or no message at all. The man could have died instead of divulging the elephant. The elephant could have come with illegible markings or no markings. There could have been nothing there for her and she could have still found comfort because the message had changed nothing but her attitude. It was as if she had just discovered that the sun shines when there are clouds, shines when your part of the world that has turned for relief to night and shines when you die. Her mother was gone and the star that held the earth in orbit still burned.
It was the guards who began to notice the elephant was dying or at least the first to take the situation seriously. They had all won lotteries to take the job of guarding the elephant in the hospital. Everyone thought their jobs would be more glamorous than they were if not easier than they seemed. When they had won their positions, most of their coworkers at the agency slapped them on the back, hugged them and wished them well.
The real trouble started when reporters began to swarm around the hospital until administrators had to call editors and publishers and, ironically, threaten the media outlets with bad publicity if the reporters kept crowding the Emergency Room and parking areas where ambulances should have been. Every janitor and surgeon was recorded giving his or her take on the meaning of the markings on the elephant. For a moment, each interviewee seemed to take on some of the silvery blackness of the puzzling symbols on the hide.
Of course, the guards spent a great deal of time simply staring at the elephant. They began to notice how the wrinkles in its skin were becoming slightly deeper, day by day. They only spoke of it amongst themselves, at first because they assumed others would notice it and they didn’t feel it was up to them to go beyond their job description. They were hired to keep the elephant from harm from the outside. They couldn’t tell what brought on the changes. They also assumed other people were paying such close attention that surely someone would note the changes in the elephant’s skin.
In the meantime, it gave them what seemed like secret knowledge because they spoke openly, at least amongst themselves, about something no one else mentioned. It seemed that it took others longer to realize the change in the elephant’s skin and even when those outside of their circle noticed it, they refused to acknowledge it openly.
At the height of the media attention, the deepening of the skin folds was evident even to the casual observer. But it took the obscuring of the symbols to spark public acknowledgement that something was very wrong, though that acknowledgement was not nearly as intense as the drive to understand the symbols. The shiny blackness became less black and less shiny and, for the first time, the elephant began to make noise.
The sound was surprisingly deep for a creature that was no more than four feet tall. It was voluminous. It could have come from a creature as big as the building. You could hear nothing but the sound when the elephant raised its trunk into an “S” shape and bellowed. The PA system near her in the emergency could not be heard when she let loose. But as large and overwhelming as it was, it was clearly a sound of distress and despair. Some thought they could discern finer, more nuanced emotions and messages from the sound. Those who dreamt about it were afraid to speak of it in the light. Just as the questions from the media previously had seemed to bathe the interviewees in glory, discussion of the sound brought something no one wanted to mention. “What do you think it means?” someone would ask. The response was often a shake of the head and a look towards the floor.
Veterinarians and zoologists that specialized in pachyderms were flown in and they asked that the elephant be kept quiet, that the reporters and cameras be moved away. They were moved for a few days. The animal began to perk up. Though it stopped bellowing, the folds didn’t reverse.
But after about a week of no media coverage, people began to call reporters and media outlets to ask what was going on. The hospital legal team got an injunction to keep reporters, videographers and other photographers away. Soon people began to show up at the hospital. Cars circled the parking lot like vultures. People fought over the spaces. Patients and their families were being outnumbered in the lobbies and other waiting areas. Everyone wanted to glimpse the elephant. Everyone wanted to caste off the pall that came when the animal’s true condition arose in conversation. Everyone talked about deciphering the symbols. But the few who managed to struggle into the inner sanctum to actually see the animal, just stared, surprised at how small it was, how the black they saw was not the black they had seen on television and other video, but was still blacker than anything they had seen or imagined. When spectators remarked on the color, the guards would close their eyes to recall the elephant’s color when they had first been brought in to guard it. Every once and while a guard would bend down to talk to a curious child and say “I wish you could have seen it.”
Cameras had been banned but, eventually, someone snuck one into the viewing area, recorded video of the elephant and posted it online. It was too much for the rest of the media, especially the TV stations. A judge granted a court order that prohibited the hospital from keeping the media out. The cameras returned and the elephant’s health began failing again. The “S” shaped trunk was raised and the deafening sound returned, this time with enough force to show up as visual noise in the live video transmissions. People covered their ears. Some wore the same protective ear-coverings as airport ground crews. Nothing worked.
The last thing on most folk’s minds was moving the elephant from the hospital as the Librarian’s boss was planning, but he still pressed ahead. The Librarian and the media consultant completed their respective tasks of recording and packaging a message that said the best thing for the elephant was to have it moved to where its “author” had wanted it to be in the first place. The Librarian’s boss held a news conference with the consultant and the Librarian. He showcased the recording of the Librarian even though she was there. He spoke about “the need to fulfill the wishes of the creator of the symbols that only perhaps then scholars would be able to discern their meaning.”
This was the first time anyone had publically referred to Ipso as the “author.” It set off a bit of a debate. Clearly, the elephant had emerged from him. But now that it was out, he was dead and no one (except the girl) could make heads or tails of the message. Was there a message? If no one could read the message, was Ipso an author? If there was a message, was Ipso the author?
The little girl’s father was shouting so at the TV, she ran into the room. “They don’t know what he was really like!”
“He who?” she asked.
“My brother, your sniveling uncle,” the little girl’s father replied. “His genes must have passed right through to you. You deserved him more than I ever did.”
“Do you know what it was like? He was always distracted. He concentrated so hard when he cut the unsliced loaves of bread that he cut himself and I always got the bloody piece. Our parents insisted on buying uncut loaves. I ate bloody bread every day until I moved out.”
“His hands must have been all scarred up.”
“That’s why the funeral had to be closed casket.”
“Because of his hands?”
He father rounded on her, teeth bared as he all but spat, “You don’t know what it was like.”
She didn’t reply. She had suddenly recognized one of the people on TV, the woman in the flowing dress.
Besides the elephant, the blackness of the elephant and the clarity of the silver, seeing the storyteller was the best thing about her life at the moment. It was also unbelievably wonderful that the storyteller was somehow involved with the elephant. The red faced man with the perpetually moving lips spoke a comprehensible word or phrase, now and again. He wanted to move the elephant and every time he mentioned the idea, the storyteller would nod. The woman next to the storyteller didn’t seem as connected to the event that was taking place, to the storyteller who was brimming like the man who couldn’t stop moving his lips and whose tongue occasionally came into view. This other woman was looking around as though she wanted to keep the looking around a secret. The girl could feel her making notes.
The storyteller seemed a bit like the elephant because there were two parts to her color, at least two parts. Clearly she was dark and light, not as dark as the woman making notes, not as light as the red faced man. But the real joy was that the storyteller and the elephant were somehow connected, that the storyteller, at least according to the red faced man with lips in constant motion, was helping to save the elephant.
“It is so good that I am awake and not dreaming,” the girl thought without speaking.
The Librarian’s boss’ campaign to move the elephant to the library hit some snags. None of the people with veterinary experience supported the animal being moved. He needed an ally and while he tried to finagle connections and support on the medical front, he sent the Librarian over to talk to the Egyptologist. It just so happened that the reporter was also there. Juggling these two requests for his time reminded the Egyptologist of the days just after the elephant had emerged, days with more kineticism and exquisite meals than he’d ever known. It was the reporter, hoping to make the interview a twofer, who insisted the Librarian, who had identified herself as such to the administrative assistant, be allowed to be present during the interview. The Egyptologist being hungry for what he assumed would be good publicity, agreed.
“If you felt that you were close to discerning the meaning of the symbols, why did you quit?”
“We didn’t really quit---“
“My colleagues and I---“
“Oh yes, your colleagues, I thought you said they were no help.”
“Well, you need help on a project of this scale.”
“Would you mind,’ the Librarian interrupted, “if I take a look at this book.”
She had been casting her eyes about, noting all of the unusual titles on Egypt and the Middle East when she stumbled upon “The Suburban Bitch.” The Egyptologist was silent. The Librarian had opened the book and read a few sentences before she realized the he hadn’t answered. She looked up to see him staring at the book with a look of embarrassment and fear.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I can put it back.”
“Did your brother write it,” the reporter asked?
“My brother’s murderer wrote it and then she killed herself. I can’t bring myself to throw it away.”
“You realize,” the teacher replied to the girl “that ours is not the only class to ask to visit the elephant and that there are many adults, parents and school staff that have concerns about such a visit?”
“What if we just write letters that ask about moving the elephant? We could just say we want the elephant moved for all the reasons the people in the library say they wanted it moved.”
“What are those reasons?”
The girl had to think for a moment. She had not discerned the reasons put forward because she had been so enraptured by the sight of the storyteller. She also assumed that the teacher had seen the library people on television and actually knew what the man’s lips were saying, assuming they had stopped long enough to create a sentence. The girl’s silence brought a sad smile to the teacher’s lips. The girl closed her eyes and said the first thing that came to her.
“I feel like this is the right thing to do.”
She opened her eyes and saw the teacher‘s smile wasn’t quite so filled with pity and it gave her confidence to press the issue.
“What if we just do it as a writing lesson, to practice how to write a good essay? We could make it an essay instead of a letter. We don’t have to show it to anybody. It will still be good writing.”
“Why does that make me dark and what does it matter?” snapped the media consultant.
“Well you’re right of course. You can say you are lighter or darker that’s your choice or be between the two,” the Librarian tried to be as nonjudgmental as she could. She spoke in her best “can I help you voice” mustering the kind of sincerity she reserved for children, the elderly or those who came to library to practice their English. She waited a moment before sitting next to the consultant. She waited even longer before she spoke again.
“I didn’t know your mother was an author and I was sad to learn how she died.”
Now the consultant felt a mixture of relief and fear, relief that the Librarian probably knew the whole story and would not probe her for details, fear that, despite her calm tone, the other woman might somehow use the information against her. So she tried to head her off at the pass and jumped to the facts that, for the consultant, brought the most shame.
“I can’t help where I was born.”
“None of us can. I wouldn’t hold anything like that against you. I think you have overcome tremendous odds.”
“A credit to whichever race I claim at any given moment.”
“I am curious though as to how---“
“How I ended up as a media consultant? I dealt with everything pretty well until after the suicide. She had everything to live for. It was the book. They were talking about changing her sentence to time served. I thought, ‘This is it. The long funky dream is coming to an end.’
Then one day, about a year ago, I was visiting a school, doing my gig with a bunch of 5th graders. They had all heard the stories I had to tell before I arrived. I didn’t care. I was good and I had my stories here and here,” she pointed to her head and heart as she spoke. “I looked straight into their eyes. It works every time. You can stop a snake in mid-strike or a charging bull if you catch the eyes the right way. I learned that from the storyteller that used to visit the prison. She looked like she was a thousand years old, clearly dark, had a way of laughing to herself and the cutest, impish smirk. Anyway, I had done Snow White and Rose Red and I was pretty far into Scheherazade when someone called the teacher to the door. Then the teacher called me. It took her a while to get it out, that my mother had hung herself with a sheet. I haven’t told a story since that day.”
It took a few days for the girl’s class to write the essays in support of the elephant being moved to the library. Most of the essays weren’t very good. Most of the student’s thought the elephant was strange and they didn’t really understand what the fuss was about. The girl was one of the few that took the writing assignment seriously.
I believe the people I saw on television talking about moving the elephant to the library had the right idea. I believe the man that gave birth to the elephant would have been thanked by all of us if he had stayed alive. He would have been thanked for putting such a joyous message into the world. Now that he has said all there is to say about color, about how we see the two colors, black and silver, we can all solve many, many problems. We should thank him even though he is dead and will never know what happened with his work. We should thank him by letting his work live the way he wanted it to live.
I am sure, when we stop to think about it, we will all agree that the library is the place where people go when they want a better way to see the world, not the hospital.
The teacher had to point out to the girl that her first draft didn’t actually explain the message.
Upon their arrival, the Librarian’s boss couldn’t focus on anything except the students’ essays. The Librarian was overcome by what she had learned about the media consultant.
“It’s a mind boggling story, really. Her mother was in denial about the pregnancy, the assault, everything but the murder.”
“We could sponsor a contest: ‘Give us your best elephant story.’ What would be an appropriate prize though?”
“They wouldn’t even let her out to have the baby. Then, years later, when they might have let her out, she kills herself. “
“This is the essay we’ll use. Let’s call it a letter. Listen to this ‘the library is the place to go when you want a better world.’ I wished I’d had this at the news conference, but, no matter. I have it now and the world will have it soon and they won’t be able to resist it.”
“She had told the Snow White, Rose Red story hundreds of times and never focused on the lines ‘Snow White, Rose Red, will you beat your lover dead?’ It had just washed over her without sinking in.”
“I won’t need the consultant this time. We’ll get the student to read on camera.”
“And then there’s the switch from storytelling to media consultant after memorizing virtually the whole fairytale canon so she could recite them without text.”
“But we may need her to help guide the children.”
“I don’t think she really needs to probe the whole career switch thing, the trauma behind it.”
“I need you to get the consultant on the phone.”
“She and your pal the Egyptologist, who, as it turns out, is her uncle, they just split, went off. I don’t know where. You could call the Art Institute and ask them where Egyptologists go when they go.”
Days before of the news conference, the teacher went to the Library with more than a suspicion that no one had really read the girl’s essay. There wasn’t even a hint of news about the message on the elephant’s hide. That gave her some hope for success.
Once contacted by the Librarian’s boss, the girl’s father had kept her out of school and given in to the plans to put the girl on camera despite pleas from the teacher who tried to dissuade him from both actions. She thought putting children in front of cameras was an especially bad idea. Among other things, she insisted children need privacy. But most of her ideas about how to treat children were ignored, even in the school where she worked. She thought perhaps if she could contact the Librarian, she might be able to persuade her to persuade her boss to read the essay himself, take the glory and accomplish his goal to boot, though she feared the elephant might not make the trip from the hospital to the library.
When she finally arrived at the help desk, the teacher almost didn’t recognize the Librarian as the person from the online video of the news conference. Her bright copper skin was nearly ashen. The eyes that had darted around at the news conference were still and aimed low.
“Can I help you?”
“Actually, I am not in search of a book.”
“Then this is strange place to be, isn’t it?”
“I’m the teacher of the little girl who wrote about the elephant being moved.”
“You and everyone else in driving distance.”
“I was hoping to persuade the gentleman I saw on TV not to…she’s very young to be in front of so many people.”
“But you would be the perfect messenger, right?”
“Actually, no, I think the gentleman---“
“That’s no gentleman, that’s my boss.”
“---would be the best person to---“
“You got something against humor?”
With that the Librarian turned to face another patron walking toward the help desk. The teacher felt desperate.
“Have you actually read the essay?”
The Librarian turned away from the patron and back to the teacher. Many had come claiming to be the girl’s teacher, mother, former dentist or cousin who just happened to be in town for the taxidermists’ convention. But none had asked that question.
Before the Girl’s teacher came to the Library, The Librarian’s Boss and the Girl’s father had come to an agreement. As a result, the Girl had been spending more and more time with the Librarian in preparation for the news conference where the Girl would read her essay about why the elephant should be moved to the Library. The Librarian was very nice, but the girl couldn’t help but wish the story teller was there to help instead of the Librarian.
“She ran away?”
“Does her mother know?”
“Her mother’s dead.”
“Does her father know?”
“He’s dead too.”
“I know how she feels. How did her mother die?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I would love a long story like the storyteller used to tell.”
The Librarian would have also have loved a long story and she wanted to speak with the “storyteller” as well. She had come to see the storyteller in a new light. She could imagine them having coffee and conversation about feeling forced to change the ways they had earned their living. The girl wanted to talk with the storyteller about how she had felt when her mother died.
The girl had been thinking about her mother more often. She drifted off while she and the Librarian were practicing answering questions about why the elephant should be moved or if he should be moved. Sometimes, she would hear a voice telling her the storyteller’s stories. Sometimes it was the voice of the storyteller, but more and more often it was her mother’s voice. Then her mother would stop telling the story and begin talking about what a wonderful time they had all had in the kitchen on Saturdays listening to the opera, smelling the food her father prepared and dancing. Sometimes, the girl would smile for what seemed like no reason to the Librarian. Sometimes, the girl would be on the verge of tears. The only thing the Librarian knew for sure was that on those occasions of joy, distance and sorrow, the girl had left the room the way readers leave a place for the book they are reading. The Librarian thought this was a bit curious because she had noticed the girl actually had trouble reading, so much trouble that she had begun harboring doubts that the girl had written the essay.
Strangely, her boss had not let the Librarian see the essay. She had taken his word that it supported the idea of the elephant being moved to the library. The girl confirmed that much. But there was something unsettled about the girl and the elephant or something unsettled in the Librarian’s mind.
The elephant’s guards had become very weary of reporters. They were pursued and interviewed on the job, in the parking lot, at the bus stop and at their homes. They were profiled to within inches of their very existence. At first, they consented because it was a chance to talk about the elephant. But their talk didn’t help revive the elephant. It seems the drama of the elephant’s prolonged agony made a better story than any potential recovery. They began quitting in small groups and reconvening at a bar several blocks north of the hospital where they didn’t think most reporters would tread because reporters didn’t know the place existed and, they thought, it was not the sort of place reporters were used to frequenting.
The place was called the Deep Seven. The regulars were unsure who owned it. Some thought it might be the cook, a white looking blond woman with a thick, phony German accent. Others assumed it was the bartender who seemed like a darker version of the woman and said he was born around the corner though no one from the neighborhood ever recalled seeing him or his family in the area during the time he claimed to have been raised there.
It was a place with a lot of things that didn’t exist in many other places anymore: payphones with rotary dials, ashtrays, bathroom stalls with small round windows, transoms and a jukebox with vinyl records. That juke box was the attraction for some of the more adventurous students from the university several blocks away and for the reporter whose grandmother had inspired him to visit the Egyptologist.
Friends of the reporter had told him about a strange dive of a bar with Ellington and Brahms on the juke box. When he finally got around to visiting, he discovered Mingus, T-Bone Walker and Copeland on the on the box as well. He put many coins in the machine and began playing Monk and Satie tunes back to back. The combination of music struck the bartender who offered the reporter a free drink. This was noted positively by those who thought the bartender was also the owner.
“We’re always glad to get students in here. We need fresh faces and blood, livens up the place, breaks the monotony.”
“Actually I’m a reporter.”
The bartender laughed. “My folks have had enough of the media for a while. This is one place they could escape. Reporters even followed some of them home. But they don’t show up here for some reason. We began to think of this as an embassy.”
“Who’s being protected from what?”
The bartender took a moment to breathe deeply. On the one hand, the young reporter seemed like a square business, trustworthy sort. On the other hand, how could he not have recognized the patrons?
“So, Mr. Reporter,” he said with a smile, “what’s the latest on the pachyderm?”
Now the reporter felt like he was talking with his grandmother and he needed to fish for the right answer. With her, questions that seemed to come out of the blue were often connected to something bigger that was directly at hand but not always visible. The reporter’s silence gave the bartender pause. I’ve let them down he thought. This guy is going to give a signal and the place will be crawling with cameras and mics in no time.
“It depends,” the reporter replied “on whether you’re concerned with the message on its hide or its health.”
“Is that an either or proposition?”
“Am I unwelcome here because I have the wrong take on the elephant?”
“Who says you’re not welcome?”
“Who’s being protected from what?”
“There’s a woman came in here days, weeks or months ago with a machine. I thought I recognized her. She looked like a younger, lighter version of a woman who used to come in here all the time but years ago. The younger, lighter woman looked around the place like a…a surveyor, like somebody that had come back to a house they used to live in to see what the new folks had done to it. She had a machine with her, a white box. She was drinking heavy, depressed I could tell. I cut her off. She was pissed but didn’t leave. She noticed the juke box, walked over to it looking real sad. She waited for the songs on it play out, asked for change and started feeding it coins. She put about 20 quarters in it and played Dinah Washington till I thought I was going to die, two songs over and over: “Where Are You?” and “This Bitter Earth.” I told her Dinah had lots of other tracks on there. Eventually, she pulls out her machine, starts fiddling with it and chuckling. I just thought she was drunk. The next day, I open the place up, go over to the box to put something on and I start to fell strange, like I knew the machine or it knew me.”
With that, the bartender handed him the drink.
The Librarian’s Boss had been fiddling with the white machine the media consultant had left behind. At first, he loathed the machine because it reminded him of all the money he’d spent on the consultant that was now probably being spent with his erstwhile friend, the Egyptologist. Then he realized the consultant may have left notes or other materials that could prove useful and so opened the machine and began to try and figure out how it work. It wasn’t very intuitive. He screwed around with it for over an hour forgetting that he had a meeting with the newly hired political consultant who left increasing angry voice mail messages. But the Librarian’s Boss had become entranced.
At one point, he touched a pad on the machine that glowed. A fingerprint image, presumably his, appeared on the screen. Immediately after that, he discovered a program the consultant had never used. He knew it had gone unused because it triggered an initial set up screen. Even that was fascinating. The screen was accompanied by voices, velvety voices that reminded him of a girl from high school and a teacher that he’d had a crush on. Stranger than that, the voices reminded him of the time he’d gone skydiving, the exhilaration and liberation he’d felt as he sailed through the air just before the chute opened, how he’d felt that he could do anything having had death more than flash through his mind. It was at that moment the machine asked how it could help.
A vision came to him all but welded to his remembrance of the brush with death. It was hardly grand. But the flood of emotion and release was strong enough to make it grandiose. Suddenly, he had the crux of his mayoral campaign and it was all in his hands. He didn’t have to rely on a school girl’s shallow plea to support the wishes of a man who, even when he was alive, wouldn’t have been able to afford a good night out. The new plan would endear him to the people who could pay for his campaign and keep him in a manner to which he would love to become accustomed. Most beautifully, the pilot project could begin right there in the library.
After the Girl’s teacher had visited the library, the Librarian felt the same wave of doubt that had come over her she had learned of Ipso’s fate at the hospital. She went home and began drinking. When the phone rang she answered with “Can I help you?” broke into tears and hung up. Seconds later, the phone rang again and before she could say anything, the media consultant said, “Don’t hang up!”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. I don’t feel well. I’m surprised you---”
“I had to get out of there and it seems like it might do you good to get out as well.”
“There’s the little issue of my needing work and then there’s the girl. I can’t leave her there alone.”
“What the hell! Is she locked in a tower or something? You’re not her mother. You got to learn to ----“
“Walk away from the problem like---“
“Actually the reason I called is that I need your help and you can only do it there. Hello, are you still there? Look, I am sorry. I know this may not be a good time to call but I stupidly left before I…you remember that machine?”
24. Dog Bytes Paycheck Part 2
The Librarian’s Boss was putting the machine through its paces, helping it find its voice, his voice, the voice that would propel him to nights out in the finer establishments:
“Can I help you?”
“If pandering means following the will of people even when it leads to tough decisions, then I pander.”
“It appears you were three days late returning a book within the last six months. What were the circumstances of your lapse?”
“Do you deny the source of your campaign contributions make you beholding to a certain constituency with views outside of the mainstream?”
“The restrooms are currently at capacity. Your toddler must simple be patient until after our janitorial staff can make the area more hygienic.”
“I believe the voters are too angry to be misled.”
“Based on our conversation, I suggest that you may need to take on an intermediate volume before you read the one you’re requesting, a stepping stone as it were.”
“While these services were offered in the past, I suggest you may want to find alternatives. Begin to build community with neighbors of like mind.”
He pushed the “reframe” button.
“While these services were offered in the past, now is an excellent time to assert your personal responsibility and move these issues from the public to a more personalized sphere.”
The next step would be to get it to write layoff notices. How hard could that be?
25. And Your Mama Too!
“I didn’t call to talk about her!”
“So you just keep running away, this time with your uncle.”
“We just discovered we were related and have a whole lot to talk about ----you don’t seem to realize we got much more serious problem here.”
“You don’t seem to realize how her death affected you?”
“So do you want your bosses print on the machine? Do you really want to see his mind manifest even in digital form?”
“I saw his mind manifest every day at work. Why didn’t you take the machine to the elephant?”
“Because, it’s an elephant! It’s not like it missed a step on the ladder, it’s a whole other species, no prints, very little in the way of social memories and no language we can discern, huge feet instead of hands and an olfactory sense that probably overwhelms most of its cognitive ability. In short, it’s an elephant!”
“She really misses you.”
“All the time we’ve been talking and you’re still drunk. Listen, you need to make an appointment to see him as soon as possible. Pretend you’re interested in him; tell him you’ll help him pimp out the mayor’s campaign---“
“He’s working for the mayor?”
“He wants to run for mayor and the machine might help him.”
“Don’t you feel a void without her?”
“No, your mother.”
The consultant was about to hang up. But then she had visions of the Librarian’s boss ascending to ever higher office, his lips pausing only long enough to kiss the machine in private rooms. As she searched desperately for the right words, the Librarian broke the silence.
“If you knew what the machine was capable of, why didn’t you use it for something good?”
“I’m not sure what it can do. I just have a bad feeling about programs I didn’t open.”
“You don’t know the programs on your own machine?”
“Technically speaking, it isn’t mine.”
26. Waiting in the Sitting Room and Vice Versa
The Librarian and the Girl had come to see the Librarian’s boss to confirm preparation for the news conference which was schedule for the next day. They had been waiting outside of his office for twenty minutes. The administrative assistant, who usually waved the Librarian through to the boss had asked them to have a seat and notified the boss that the Girl and the Librarian were waiting. After that, the clock on her desk had her full attention.
Since the video with her and Ipso had been posted on the web, The Librarian had become used to not waiting so long to see the boss. In fact, she had often been ushered into his office with but a moment’s notice and given overwhelming tasks. Now she was worried. The waiting time had her worried and her agreement with the consultant had her worried. She had promised to retrieve the white machine in exchange for the consultant promising to see a therapist about how the loss of her mother had influenced her career change. The Librarian did not know if the consultant could be trusted to actually see a therapist and she had no idea what she was going to say to retrieve the machine.
The Girl was not worried. She had come to realize that what she knew about the elephant was not common knowledge, that the message that was so plain to her was indecipherable to everyone else. She had been overwhelmed when the Librarian had revealed that fact to her, but not overcome. She felt as if she had something of extreme value, that she had only to bide her time and reveal it at the right moment. She had though composed an introduction to the message.
“Could you please read this?”
The Girl handed the Librarian a small piece of paper with handwriting:
I remember an old picture. Was I asleep? A woman clipped clean wet sheets to a thin line in the sun. People did not expect things to come so quickly. Did people dream of the wind that took the water from their cloths pinned to the line or did the scent of the sun in the sheets turn their sleep over and over? Black and silver one after the other, is this how the sun spoke at night, through the smell its heat in a dream? Was I asleep?
“You wrote this?”
“I just handed it to you. It introduces the message. When are we going to be on television?”
“Who knows? Who cares? You wrote this? Your family didn’t have a dryer?”
The Librarian began to feel a strange guilt that she had thought the girl was barely literate. Then the Librarian became distracted. The Administrative Assistant’s eyes lit up as the clock hit 5:00. She stood to leave.
“I hope you have a good time on television,” she said.
“When are we going to be on television?” the girl said.
The Librarian had no reply. What’s more, to her mind, there was no good answer except never. She hated being on television, in front of the media, especially with her boss. He never said anything she could support and he never stopped talking. She didn’t especially like the more powerful, aggressive reporters either.
She had only become a media relations person because of an incident at college where she had been studying library science, a major into which she had also drifted. She had not declared a major, but, a professor from Religious Studies whom she found both physically attractive and intimidating confided in her that he had once had once fallen in love with a librarian.
“Did you get to the library often?” she asked then blushed at her own question.
“I think you’d do well behind the help desk,” he replied and she blushed again.
After that, she officially declared her major as Library Science, landing a work-study position in the Psychology section. Ironically, just as she was hired, the school fell on hard financial times and, with more students finding materials online, library staff was in serious danger of being cut.
That began to change when a graduate student of whom she was vaguely aware outside of class, wrote a play, The Official Report on Human Activity. The text of the play got mixed reviews in the local media, but the fact that a play that was yet to be performed got any notice was a testament to the media relations skills of the author. He made five by five foot posters with oversized text of quotes from the reviews, good, bad and unintelligible and plastered them illegally in strategic areas around town. Smaller text on the posters alluded to some of the more salacious parts of the play. The author granted the university library sole proprietorship over the text, effectively setting it loose in the public domain. The play was scheduled to be performed off campus 30 days after the posters went up.
The professor of religious studies had come to the library during the hours the Librarian was there ostensibly to find his way through some lost books of the Bible. He approached the Librarian at her desk oblivious to the line of students seeking her help. He was soon ushered to the rear where he waited a half hour to see her. He noticed all the computer terminals also had waiting lines. When his turn to speak to her finally arrived, the Librarian was frustrated and tired.
“The library has become quite the place. Are they serving beer somewhere?”
“If they are, I’ll take two.”
A group of three students virtually rushed the desk.
“Excuse me, but we’re looking for a copy of The Report,” said their designated spokeswoman.
The Librarian looked up exasperated and handed her a form and a slip of paper with the number 244 on it.
“Take this number, complete this form and return it to the next desk. Be sure to put your contact information next to the number from the slip. Any perceived alterations to the number will result in forfeiture of your osition in the cue and you will have to begin the process from the start. Thank you and good luck. ”
With that the students walked away staring at the information and forms.
“Is this play going to be performed---“
Before the professor could finish his question, another student approached the desk looking for a copy of “The Report”. The Librarian repeated the routine with the number and forms. The professor’s curiosity was piqued. He lied to a security guard who parted a line of students to allow him access to the text online.
The more he read it, the more upset he became. The play was about a young woman of indeterminate ethnicity who leaves her family to go fight in the brown hemisphere’s water wars sparked by global warming, though it was unclear who she supports. Her grandfather was an old man who struggled with his career choice and only became disciplined enough to choose on his death bed. Her father was a banker who forced his most attractive clients to have sex with him but was plagued by nightmares.
In one recurring dream, he is a white woman in the 19th century Southern US who, when it is discovered she is having sex with a half-dark house slave is forced to escape with Harriet Tubman. Of course, the house slave also has to vacate the premises.
The only thing that makes the trip even slightly bearable is that the woman and her lover are together. Though once, when they slip off to have sex, Tubman nearly leaves them behind to fend for themselves without map or weapon in the wilderness.
Right after that episode, the sky to the north darkens. That afternoon, it begins to rain. The party comes to a mountain that’s rocky as it is steep. Hounds bay in the distance behind them. The woman turns around to find Tubman and the escaped house slave arguing. His eyes, that had always seemed soft to her, are wild and tired looking. Tubman on the other hand is firm and fearsome. She flails her arms and points behind them, the direction from where they’d come. Then she stops. Her voice is low and calm.
“You trained the dogs, right?”
He shakes his head and looks around as if there was a path of escape just beyond his sight.
“Then it’s settled. You go talk to the dogs before they get back to the slave catchers. Put em’ off our trail. Otherwise, we die trying to climb this mountain.”
“What if the dogs don’t act like they recognize me? What if they’re too close to their masters right now?”
“Then we all die tryin to climb the mountain. I got one rifle and six shots left. I’d have to kill all of them with a couple shots. You think they gonna stand there, let me shoot ‘em and reload?”
“Tell the truth, you want me to die. You hate me. Tell the truth.”
“The problem with the truth is that there are all kinds of truth. There’s the truth you can see, you know, dropped-rocks-fall sort of truth. There’s the truth little children tell before grown folks get to ‘em and teach ‘em how to lie to get along. Then there’s the unwelcomed, unclean, uglier than a mule’s butt truth, and that’s what’s waiting on us right now.”
The former house slave turns to his lover, his mouth open to shout but with no sound. He runs toward her, then past her.
The banker wakes up. It takes a moment for him to realize whose bed he’s in. The sheets smell like the ones his mother used to pull off the line when he was younger, that she continued to pull off the line even after he’d bought her a state of the art clothes dryer. (She had in fact refused to use many of the things he had given her even though she praised him sincerely for each and every gift. She wondered but could never ask what he remembered.) The sheets on the bed where he awoke smell like sun because the glass windows allow sun onto the bed. It is the home of one his clients. He can hear the ocean. He knows he is in California, but should not be close enough to the ocean to hear it. People are arguing, running up the stairs toward him. He hears a shotgun being cocked.
The religion professor did not read any further and remained perplexed as to the popularity of the text among the students. He missed the wilder hallucinations of the banker as he ran wounded from the client’s home only to drown in the ocean that had made its way miles inland. He never saw the links to recipes for birth control and aphrodisiacs made from common clover and a particular circuit found in wide screen televisions. He was completely focused on the slight relativity of truth to which Tubman had alluded assessing the situations in the rain with the dogs behind and the mountain ahead. He decided not attempt to ban the text but to expose it to the world (meaning the students’ parents) so that they might ban it.
Though they tried to hide it with business like questions, the librarians were thoroughly upset when the professor threatened a campaign against the play if they didn’t remove the text from the library (something they couldn’t have done if they’d wanted). The play had made the library the place to. The librarians had a gateway drug and they were using it to hook students to other writers from Merce Cunningham and John Cage to the more traditional writers like James Joyce and Jimi Hendrix. It was a dream-come-true. What’s more, the increased traffic had at least delayed impending budget cuts and lay-offs.
Even so, the Religion Professor informed the librarians that he believed that students were sent to the university to learn the truth, not to learn that the truth can shift based on circumstance, context or perspective.
“Bringing pressure and light onto this work will give you a point of reference, an anchor from which you make better judgments when you are assisting the young minds that come to you for help,” he told them.
The other librarians who noticed the religion professor’s fondness for their younger colleague, urged her to try and dissuade him from his campaign. One day she decided to try to engage him in a group discussion.
“Would you be willing to discuss this, perhaps with my colleagues and me?”
“Perhaps you and I should get together and lay the groundwork for the meeting. I know of an excellent restaurant. They know me there and would set aside a room for us.”
She didn’t blush as he expected. She had approached him with a rock in her gut. Before the arrival of the Report, mortgages, car payments and college tuitions had been in the balance. The religion professor may have known that or he may have been as oblivious to it as he was to the line of students that preceded his turn in front of the Librarian. In either case, he appeared to her now in a strange unflattering light. She refused his offer with a lack of emotion that caused him to squint at her as if she had suddenly become difficult to see.
She managed to create a media campaign to inoculate the library and the Report against the religion professor’s attack. The university hierarchy noticed a serious increase in inquiries and applications that seemed to coincide with the mailing of the Ban Barriers, Not Books brochure (though in truth, the increased interests was based on the play, which the Librarian, had not read) and decided to promote the Librarian to Media and Public Relations.
Now, here she was, walking back to her office with a strange grade-schooler in tow after having been kept waiting for no apparent reason, effectively refused a meeting with her boss on the eve of a crucial news conference. On top of everything else, her distress over her demotions of the past few months began to feel like garbage she’d forgotten to take out. Back in her office, she tried to distract herself with a casual check of her e-mail and found a layoff notice from her boss, sent while she had been waiting outside his office. She called the girl’s father, told her to wait there in the office and marched back up to the administrative area.
The Librarian’s Boss was about to send out his news release announcing that he would soon have an announcement (he intended to run for mayor and cut labor costs dramatically with “an ingenious new computer program to help and direct citizens that need help and direction without all the fussy human inconsistencies, moods, meal breaks or pay scales”), the consultant was just about to call a therapist, the girl’s father had finally arrived at the library to pick her up, the girl had just added the last word to her revised essay (complete with her new treatise on the relationship of silver and black being more symbiotic than that of black and white, later to be sited as her first serious art theory text) prepared for the next news conference (whenever that might be scheduled) and the Librarian had surprised herself by hefting a fairly heavy chair over her head in preparation for bashing down her erstwhile boss’ door, when the news hit the media.
The Teacher, who didn’t own a computer, had dusted off her television and was struggling with a distorted picture and no audio when she recognized the elephant’s hide. There was video of the elephant’s guards hugging each other and weeping along with some seemingly unrelated footage of a place called the Deep Seven. Someone placed a hand over the camera lens and it all went black.
The Whistling Dragon or Every Boy’s First Murder: a Story in Two or More Voices
There's something hypnotizing 'bout the way he walks.
There's something supernatural 'bout the way he talks.
Coming from another world I know he doesn't find it easy.
“The Secret” - Slap Happy
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never starved or been without shelter. I haven’t done physical labor for pay since I stopped waiting tables. But you’re reading this mostly because I’ve had desperate jobs; every one of them has turned into something that would never be on any job description unless you worked for the mafia or the CIA. In each case, the real description was unwritten and what was written described only a fraction of what was real or was an outright lie. Now, I know there are folks out there thinking that sounds cool. It’s about as cool as going to a nice hotel and finding out you’ve checked into a prison. It got to the point where I had to look up the history of the phrase “pig in a poke” because it was on a loop in my skull.
You would not think a degree in library science, even one coupled with media, would lead to a desperate job. The thing is, I was better at media relations than library science and ended up with what I thought was a media job at a library. As many twists as there are to that story, it’s fairy-tale simple compared to what happened afterward: assault charges, being sued for property damage, a bit of jail time and then things got interesting.
When it comes to jobs, I have always admired Marx, Freud and Einstein. Don’t get me wrong. I am not really a Marxist and Marx had it pretty rough actually. Freud was a sexist pig and I am sketchy on the details of the general and specialized theories of relativity. I am not male, Jewish, German or Austrian. What strikes me about what I call “The Big Three” is their unparalleled influence on the last century (the 20th) and how that influence came strictly and utterly from what they wrote. It wasn’t their money. They commanded no armies, held no public office. They published what they thought and set one whole century on its ear. I’ve decided that’s the job for me. I am seriously revamping my resume.
So far, whenever someone’s taken notice of me because of what I’ve written, I’ve ended up holding the bag, the poke with the above mentioned pig. Even friends, people seriously in my corner, wound up leading me to what turned out to be a dark alley. It wasn’t their fault. They weren’t in control and it’s about control, trust me. This latest job I’ve lost sort of started with me trying to reduce my jail time. My only tools were my words and my library science. All things considered, I was relieved to be in an institution with virtually no physical violence and fairly professional staff. (I heard stories from inmates transferred from other facilities, tales that would put hair on your teeth, believe me.) But a relatively nice lock-up is still a lock-up.
The first thing I did was whip the library into shape. Staff told me the Dewey was too complicated for most inmates to follow. I actually used that to my advantage. I told folks the C.O.s didn’t think inmates were smart enough to check books out of the library like everyone else. Many didn’t care, but, those that did raised enough of a stink to get the Dewey in place. Next, I needed people to work the desks. I decided to train folks with relatively little time to do. I pleaded with them to send news releases to the media when they got out. I wrote the releases. All they had to do was send them and answer the inquiries about the library with the training and verbiage I gave them: how they’d been “inspired to pursue library science as a career after incarceration” (whether they intended to or not). A couple of folks actually contacted the media. It worked. News crews were at the prison gates a few weeks after the first release went out.
I should explain something here. I don’t like being on camera, in front of the mic or even talking to print folks (in that order of most to least egregious). Ideally, I come up with the ideas that get other people publicity and stay out of the spot. But I had to bite the bullet on that one. PR for other people was not going to get me out. The only good thing about my reticence was that I didn’t have to pretend to not to want be out front. You can check the YouTube clips (Books Behind Bars). I was not ready for prime time. My shaky, pale, deer-in-the-path-of-a-freight-train look belied the months of hard work I had put into getting my story out, but seriously added cache in terms of sincerity, not creating the library strictly for publicity, blah, blah, blah.
Even so, that wasn’t enough to get me released. In fact, one inmate told me I would be inside at least six months for every day my victim spent in the hospital. I don’t know where that formula came from but it didn’t bode well. My erstwhile boss had spent four days in the hospital after the door fell on him. I asked the woman with the formula if follow-up doctor visits counted and she said she’d have to get back to me on that.
What the library story got me were privileges. The warden allowed me to create a library newsletter both print and online. The online version could be seen by people on the outside. That’s how my friends, a former co-worker (of sorts) and her uncle, found me and that’s what they used to eventually get me the gig that helped reduce my time.
Ironically, I despised my ex-coworker when I first met her. Things were rocky even after we became friends. But when she stepped through the door of that visiting room, when I saw light on a face I knew from the outside and I realized no one else had come to see me, my tears streamed. I was so focused on what I had lost; I didn’t even realize my cheeks were wet until she told me. You just don’t know.
I thought had given my unfortunate, would-be biographer, the “slip” as they used to say, and the Deep Seven seemed like a chance to put the last nail in a coffin I was only too glad to see closed. I could now give up on my “story” to the extent that it was mine. It had collapsed from under me (something I had in common with the former owners of the DS), turned on me, become public and out of control.
I could have tried to invest the money I had left from my salary and along with my options had enough to live anonymously, that is to say alone. But that seemed a bleak fate and the Seven offered me a chance to keep my distance and to acquire friends as guests. The place would have to remain closed for a while and reopen with a new name and feel, but no “under new management signs” no markers of the transition. One day it would simply be what it is now, “The Whistling Swan,” and everyone would have to accept that or create his, her or its own answers to the questions about how or why it had changed.
I don’t know how much you know about so called “real estate” transactions, but they can be nefarious deals, especially if you want to avoid being part of the public record and there is little I wanted more than to avoid the public record. You must hire a lawyer. Is there anything stranger than having a stranger handle private details and information in order to guide you through a system that is anything but private? I have had to do that twice now, once to buy the building that became the Whistling Dragon and the second time in a vain attempt to avoid Texas’ rather active death row. In a way, I was lucky to be on the American continent and in the US, as the legal system here works fairly well. But, even in the US, it works better in some places than it does in others and better for some than it does for others. Had I not virtually run out of money (what I didn’t pour into the Dragon went to bribes, leaving relatively little for legal) and my first crime had not been in a state with, as my biographer put it, “an ironic and noxious blend of the Puritanical and the reptilian,” things may have been different.
Even so, as time goes on and the effects and affects of the experiment fade, I have become less and less bothered by the notion of death, that is to say, the human sense of legacy. The strange interplay of memory, nostalgia and hope is leaving me. Once this is over, it is over. How a species that has been able to determine the age of the Earth, extend its lifespan and send objects to the edges of the galaxy could fear death or regret the past to say nothing of believe in things for which there is little or no evidence, God and the afterlife for example, will be a mystery long after I am dead, reverted or both.
Of course, in terms of the afterlife, there was also the speculation of the Veiled Woman, yes, the very one that virtually closed the place with her arias and Bible burning song. She’d walked into the venue a “true believer” in the aforementioned peculiarly strict form of Christianity that hails from the south. After some time though, she imagined that the “afterlife” may be as mysterious to “us” as this life is to a creature in the womb, that just as there is no way to convey to even the brightest fetus the complexity and enormity of the natural world or human society, that what awaits humans at the other edge of life may be equally beyond their grasp.
Speculation has become one of my principle pastimes here on death row. I have tried to imagine what would have happened if my desire to be with people, albeit at a certain distance, had faded from me before the Deep Seven went up for sale. I probably would have invested my money and lived until I disappeared. My appetites would have changed. I may have avoided the light (I am writing this now with lights out, surely a residual of the old form) and probably would have been discovered one day by a surprised accountant or servant (would I have hired people to “keep” the house?) only to be summarily squashed. News of my disappearance would’ve made the headlines. My death would be nothing more than a strong assumption, a conclusion as unavoidable is it would have been without evidence. One moment, I was present and accounted for, the next, inexplicably gone, when; in fact, I’d have become both invisible and unwelcomed.
The prison chaplain is a slightly pudgy, kindly man. I overheard the guards say he looked like he probably used to have his lunch money taken from him as a child. For all their chiding, he is a man of great and subtle gifts. Including my trial lawyer, he is the first person that truly understood my confession. Not that he believed how I killed. That seemed incredible even to him. What he reflected and what I began to understand for the first time was what was happening to me, how I was focused when I took their lives.
Perhaps you have had a compulsion, a desire that shreds what appeared to be the good steel net of your will, an instinct that collapses time and creates a vacuum that begs to be filled and can only be filled with a certain act, which is to say a certain reality lived through that act, the end sublimated to its means. The prison chaplain understood this, though I doubt he’d ever had such desire. It is an odd, vicious creature he knows not from experience, but from its bloody wake. When we spoke, his eyes never left mine, his expression was a combination of familiarity and loathing as he nodded slowly and patiently absorbed my quasi coherent ramblings, my struggle to describe being moved by fire, by a combustion of tangled emotions and rationales that nonetheless left me focused as the edge of a scalpel.
The chaplain’s attentiveness to me never kept him from his ultimate goal of changing me. Indeed, the more he delved into me, the more he tried to “let God reclaim” my “soul.” Every discussion we had, regardless of where it began wound up in the same place. He could have been a politician. The media relations person at the company I ran would have kissed the chaplain’s feet for staying so “on message.” Once, I asked him if prison or at least a place like prison, wasn’t the perfect place for someone who didn’t want to engage the world and its vices. I posited to him that it was not just the controlling atmosphere, but how the lack of activities and freedom forced one to focus on the self. The chief effect of all of this was to slow time to a crawl. He asked if I’d ever heard of monasteries, that these places had all the good and none of the bad aspects of incarceration. But then the chaplain used the subject of time to pivot onto the curious concept of eternity. From there, it was easy to speak of what he believed would happen after we die. He was sincere and oddly nonjudgmental, as if conveying the benefits of exercise or a healthy diet. When I told him I’d had all the transformation one creature could stand, he smiled and almost laughed. It was the happiest I’d ever seen him look.
As I mentioned previous, the Whistling Dragon began life as the Deep Seven. The only remnant from the old days was a music machine I never learned to operate. The first time I saw the place was on a screen. I was sitting with my biographer trying to steer the subject away from me. The program featured what I had to imagine were scenes recorded in the 20th Century. The images didn’t have the full range of colors or the crisp presence of most images. The sound was different as well. You could actually tell it was coming from the screen. Moreover, the content was fascinating. If the biographer said anything during the first ten minutes or so, I certainly didn’t hear her. On screen was a man with an oversized but not life-sized doll sitting on his knee. The figure moved and spoke and, at first, I had no idea that it did so at the man’s behest. It took me a moment to notice how very close they sat to one another. Then it struck me how oddly the man held his mouth while the doll spoke. When it all dawned on me, I felt stupid, almost duped. The irony of my confusion struck me like a thunderbolt. I almost doubled over with laughter. The biographer smiled, curiously.
“I thought you were old enough to have heard that joke before,” she said.
In fact, I’d been so fascinated with the scene, I didn’t even know the man and dummy were telling jokes. Though, indeed, what else could they have been doing? I was able to refocus when the biographer changed the image or the channel. That is when I saw a man identified as Tyrone, the “owner” of the Deep Seven, being interviewed, reluctantly, on the street. He looked nervously between the interviewer, the camera and the place in the background. He moved away several times causing the reporter to finally drop all of her questions. Then, there were scenes inside a place I could only assume was the Deep Seven. There were no people but, somehow, it did not seem empty. Some chairs were strewn helter-skelter and some sat around square and round tables, as if waiting for patrons. It was dim and cozy with a great deal of dark brown wood.
“There’s a place with some history,” my biographer said, “And speaking of history…,” she went on trying to revive our conversation.
It would be a while before I would see the place again. I was tempted to write, “I was a different person then.” But “different” and “person,” are inadequate and incorrect respectively. The change in that time, deep as it was, was dwarfed by the change to my current form and I am unsure if that change makes the term “person” apply to me. It is a term of convenience, whose use has been programmed rather than “naturally” learned.
The Deep Seven, more than intrigued me. Upon seeing the bar on TV, the house in which I lived seemed suddenly less inviting. Intellectually, I had known what people meant when they used the word “sterile” to describe a living space as undesirable. But, I had never felt that way about where I was living until that moment we switched the channel. Perhaps, it may have been the first inkling of the experiment fading, but the dark seemed tantalizing, warm. The space I was in seemed over lit. Even on the screen, (or was it because of the screen) I could see a more human mark on that place and was I not, at least then, (and perhaps now) a human?
As much as I was attracted to it, the idea of transforming the place into something that was mine gnawed at me for months. I had looked up the location and directions but never seemed to have time to drive there and see it. Then, one impulsive night, l got up from a half-eaten meal, jumped into the car and drove. I vaguely recalled the route and got lost, drove past the Main Library, naturally thought of my biographer and rambled on through neighborhoods east of Woodward Avenue. I made the mistake of stopping near the Heidelberg project to ask directions. One group of young people with oddly colored hair at first ignored me. Some spoke amongst themselves while others gaped open-mouthed at the collection of objects, shoes, dolls, car parts, stuffed animals, etcetera fixed onto trees, polka dotted wooden houses and arranged in rows on vacant lots between. When I finally got their attention, they told me they were not from the area and couldn’t help me.
I turned to see a young woman getting out of a car she’d just parked. She went to the rear passenger door to remove a toddler in a car seat. Surely, I thought, this woman was from the area and would know the Deep Seven. Her face tightened as I approached. She was silent for a few seconds after I asked directions. Then she looked up and asked if I was “with them,” nodding to the young people. When I said no, expecting her manner to lighten, she was silent for a few more seconds before virtually spitting her words at me.
“Every time I come down to see my mother, there’s somebody here for the freak show that needs directions.” With that, she extricated her sleeping daughter from the car seat and carried her into the house.
After some time, I stumbled onto my destination. I don’t know what I thought I would accomplish. It was locked. There street was deserted. Someone had taped a note, handwritten on cardboard next to the padlock.
To Tyrone and Schwartz: We are so sorry to see this place closed. But we understand. We thank you for all you have done and tried to do for us over the years and for the jukebox. We will miss you more than you know. – Your Friends, “Order of the Black Elephant”
In a flash of perhaps the purest emotion I ever felt, rivaled only by what overtook me when I was alone with my victims, I was transported back to the images of the worn dark wood I knew to be inside, the chairs I imagined as waiting. What had kept these patrons from saying goodbye in person? The cardboard note was talismanic. I had it matted and would later keep it in the safe with the deed. Even so, it passed through my hands like the place itself.
Like me, my former co-worker from the Main Branch had taken on media work as a second career. She began life as a storyteller and I could feel the sales pitch when we met to discuss the gig that would eventually get me out of prison.
“I know you’re not crazy about corporations to say nothing of working for one,” she began, “but these folks have the means and to bend anything to their will and history of doing just that.”
“You mean they’re fascist,” I replied. “Don’t get me wrong. I’d almost go to work for Stalin to get out of here and I imagine their body count is lower than his.”
“That’s the spirit!” she encouraged.
I commenced the story with what may have been a false impression. I wanted to escape my biographer not because she is a bad person but because of the nature of my biography. That also relates, in part, to why I referred to her as being unfortunate. The other part of her misfortune was her incarceration. Her previous supervisor was, I gather from her and from news reports, a bad actor: absorbed in his own ambition to the point of being comical. Nonetheless, the poor fellow did not deserve to have a solid oak door crash against his cranium however cathartic it may have been for my biographer to have her boss truly and finally come to grips with something outside of him. In fact, despite her innermost desires, she’d had no intentions of harming him. Had he not refused her entry after summarily firing by e-mail for no apparent reason, the door might well have stayed on its hinges. But that is more speculation on my part. I met her after what I knew was going to be long conversation with Media Relations. Whenever they mentioned my “origins,” I knew to put in an ear piece so that my hands could be free to continue work while I mostly listened.
It’s been an amazing fall for everyone (though, indeed, my “fall” was inevitable and since they rose with me…) including those members of Media Relations in the inner circle. Before things fell, their normal duties were suspended to safeguard my identity. Their salaries had been increased heftily. Their offices were plush, well lit, and airy. The doors opened to but a chosen few. They don’t answer their doors now either, but for very different reasons. The first day I met the VP for Media Relations, I could tell he didn’t believe that I had not been human before the transformation. I told him I could offer no proof. Even the friends of the man I replaced were fooled and that had been the acid test. I did have to end one of his relationships that had become physical. He’d been involved with a woman who’d just gotten a graduate degree in business. She was veritable fount of innovative practices, most of which I was only too happy to introduce to the firm and take credit for.
As for the man I “replaced,” perhaps my first victim, how or why should I tell you about him? I could give intimate details: hair color, scent, nail rigidity, spinal curvature, organ decline, and so on. You can find the pictures online. You can find his quotes in the annual reports and see his pre-transformational interviews in company blogs. Download them, if you wish. But none of it will reveal as much as the fact that when the graduate student realized the affair was over, I saw anguished relief on her face. I can also tell you that he abandoned childhood as though it were a burning building.
You will take just about any job to get out of prison. The job I was offered was not just any job. It gave me a direct connection with a CEO, a rising star in the corporate world, not my first choice. But, you may know, life isn’t a series of “first choices.” I assumed there would be a camera crew there for the interviews I was to conduct for the bio pic of this guy. That was before I found out how reluctant the CEO was to be interviewed. I could relate. That’s what helped us bond, if that’s what you want to call hours of nonverbal communication. Don’t get me wrong. He was never hostile or anything. In fact, he always apologized for not having a more interesting life. Those of you who haven’t been under a rock for the last little while will find that apology more than ironic.
Which brings me to one of the many questions that would never have occurred to me outside of this job: is there an effective difference between discovering someone you know has been murdered and finding the body of that person? Will the nightmares be fewer or less intense? Well, of course, you say, the complete shock of an unexpected dead body has got to be greater than being told or concluding that someone has been killed. I say it depends. Maybe the nightmares cause me to say that, nightmares caused by people I came to know being found dead, executives from rival firms, people I would have never met were it not for this job, people I would have never wanted to meet were it not for this job, people whose kids and cats I played with while I waited to interview them for the bio pic, people that took me to breakfast, lunch and dinner and told me bad jokes before they got comfortable and worse jokes after they got comfortable. Maybe I want to rid myself of any smidgen guilt for having been close, however unwittingly, to the murderer. It may be all of that combined with the sheer surprise of the whole thing, the layers of surprise. I still can’t wrap my brain around what the “original” CEO and the scientists did (and this is from someone who was almost present to witness a guy birth a small elephant. They started with an assassin bug. Is that clumsy scientist poetry or what?
My programming, training, infusion or whatever you’d label it, is, to me, at least as interesting as anything that happened afterward. Not only do I have access to the human memories but my own and they’ve been fused and supplemented. In my new form, I saw an old film that was supposed to be about the future. Much of it takes place in a year that has already passed but with none of the predicted incidents. At one point, near the end, a protagonist, on his way to the next stage in evolution, travels through what I can only describe as a traumatic array of color, a corridor of traveling hues. Part of the trauma is the relative length of time it takes the viewer to witness or shall I say endure this sequence. It does go on.
Now, imagine each sheet of passing color as a novel someone has read, a lecture, a formula that person has learned, a piece of information about someone he or she knows. Imagine any and all memories plying themselves into your brain with the speed of those passing colors. As you know, these are not discreet packets of knowledge. They build and interconnect and interact and not in orderly or even logical or predictable ways. For instance, you may develop the habit of eating breakfast quickly even though you like breakfast. The person that prepares it, almost certainly your mother, takes care. Whether it’s savory: eggs whipped by hand for fifteen minutes, delicately fried in butter with bits of aged cheddar, then chopped garlic and, thrown in just in time to barely wilt, shreds of spinach or the meal is sweet: oatmeal cooked in milk with honey, cinnamon and allspice, bananas and raisins, fried, sliced pears on a small side plate with a glass bowl over them to keep them warm until you are ready, the glass bowl steams up and makes a mystery of the pears, you want all the flavors at once.
But the other reason you may learn to eat quickly is that breakfast is the time your father discovers your older sister has been out all night, has come to breakfast from the outside. Young as you are, you surmise this was not like the “sleepovers” she used to attend. Your sister and father exchange what you can only discern as code, keyless as it is grim. The light in the room falls. You suddenly realize how amazingly ugly and nominal the bare bulb over the gray kitchen is, how what was supposed to be illumination conspires with the gray walls. In a moment, the room is closed off. You, your brothers and mother are listening to clutched wire coat hangers swing through the air, almost whistling. Somehow, that ghost of a sound is clear as your sister’s cries, her pleading for your father not to beat her anymore, not to kill her. The fear he has planted along with the suddenness of the beating keeps everyone in place. None of you can take your eyes from his arm slicing the air, her useless contortions to avoid the wire, the welts that rise on her hands and exposed legs and arms.
Later, as you prepare for school, you feel as though your brain has been wiped clean with fire. You happen to look toward a spot on the wall and notice a nail in the otherwise blank space where one of your school projects, a dragon made from wire, had hung. Now the tears can roll. You take the long way to school, slow and alone.
The beatings happen more than once, yet seem to happen only once. The days meld and fall over the edge. You learn to eat quickly. But, eventually the violence spills out of the morning. There is only so much the brain can hold and precious little of that is available to the conscious mind. Most of what humans encounter goes into a reservoir, a primordial soup that slops to the surface now and again or whose incredible aromas cause what seem like unmotivated acts.
There is nothing like getting out of jail, especially if you have never been there before and didn’t expect to go there in the first place. I barely remember walking up to my boss’ office. I have no recollection of smashing the door off the hinges with a chair that should have been too heavy for me to lift. All of that made the trial even more surreal. That all seemed behind me when I walked with my co-worker and her uncle to their car. I was so happy; I even considered visiting my boss but realized that would be pushing it.
I had lots of questions about what had been happening while I was inside. When she visited me in prison, my former coworker always talked about the gig on the outs that eventually persuaded the parole board to let me go. It was high enough profile and they didn’t consider me a flight risk. During those visits, my coworker promised that once I got out, she would layout the whole story of what had happened with Ipso, the guy that birthed the little elephant with the message on its hide. I kept asking about the little girl whose school essay about the message had brought her to the attention of my boss (really, the beginning of the end, now that I look back on it). The more I asked, the more my coworker kept telling me about the gig with the CEO and promising the other stories when I got out.
But, do I have to tell you what happened when I got out? You guessed it; the “storyteller” had no story. No fucking story, nothing about the CEO’s company “acquiring” a bio-tech firm or the scientists that were about to lose their jobs, the bizarre presentation/proposal they gave to the Board to keep their jobs, that all came out later. Even so, when you’re hired to do a bio for a guy that barely speaks, the clue phone should be ringing. But that’s what incarceration will do for you. Don’t get me wrong. It does have a tendency to put things in focus, but at the same time, ironically, it’s a sharp focus with a skewed view. It’s like a fetus trying to become a human. All you want is out. If I just get out, it’ll be okay. The only problem is, you get out.
I didn’t know I was going to work for a murderer. How was I supposed to know that? The guy had a corner office and a driver that made more than I did as a librarian. I know many of those folks are ruthless but outright murder? I’m getting ahead. Before I get to the murders, which you can read about in detail in my book, “I Have Eaten Nothing but the Fire in my Heart,” (go to the independent bookseller’s site www.indiebound.org) I want to tell you about the stuff my editor insisted I leave out. We argued about this, let me tell you. I have been trying to work this up into a screenplay of some sort.
He disappeared for a time. This was when things got pretty hot. People were missing and folks were slowly beginning to connect the dots. People in the company assumed they guy had fled to some unmapped island just west of nowhere. But, I remembered once how he’d let slip that he was fascinated with this dive bar called the Deep Seven (also chronicled in my book). I was getting nowhere with his story and hadn’t had much luck following up with the whole Ipso thing beyond what I already knew. So I decided to drive by the Deep Seven. I actually drove past the place a couple of times because the front of it had changed so much, that is to say expanded. The places on either side had been subsumed by what was now the Whistling Dragon. Among the myriad strange things about this place (and trust me, I know from strange) was that, despite the modern, clean exterior, it was still a dive inside. Did I tell you the Deep Seven was a dive? The Deep Seven was a dive, let me tell you. I never understand how anyone walked in there without a hazmat. In the old days, when the exterior reflected the interior, you drove past quickly just make sure nothing got on your car. It was a dive, did I mention that?
Okay, so I did go inside a few days before it was rumored to close. I did not wear a hazmat and I even had a drink. I came to check out the juke box because my coworker had some tales about that, vinyl records of classical and jazz on it, everything from Arnold Schoenberg to Julius Hemphill. But the machine wasn’t even plugged in when I got there.
Anyway, getting back to the Dragon, it’s strange how certain experiences shift when you try to relive them. I would have never guessed there was any significance to the CEO’s reaction to a clip of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, ventriloquist and dummy respectively. But that was one of the CEO’s turning points, one of his better ones I might add.
You all know by now that he was programmed. But there was slippage. You couldn’t have programmed the way he came up with the name for the place or how he thought of the place as an escape, literal or otherwise. At the same time, it seems it would take a person whose brain and guts had been merged with an insect to start karaoke night for ventriloquists, an idea so stupid it had to explode.
It just so happened that my first night at the Dragon I walked in on the woman with the veil holding what has come to be known as LJ or Little Jesus. I laughed till my stomach hurt and I wasn’t alone, believe me. How could you not be convulsed in waves of ironic laughter when Jesus is a puppet singing like a dolphin with a cross duct taped to his back, when the woman making him sing is in white including a veil but with red gloves, a red waist band and red high-tops, when there are band-aids in the palms of his hands where the spikes went in? And what was “He” singing? It was an old hillbilly spiritual:
Glory, glory hallelujah
When I lay my burden down
All my troubles will be over
When I lay my burden down
Some of the trendily dressed young folks there stared in rapt wonder, creeped out and fascinated. Acts waiting to go on or who had been on before her sat poker faced though I sensed a grim enviousness. Some had writing pads, others had computers and seemed to literally note her every move. It was all too funny and naturally, alcohol didn’t remove the comic element for me. Half way through a Long Island Ice Tea, I realized I was going to have to walk out right then or have someone call EMS. My stomach still hurt the next morning.
The next morning was also when the true sadness of that song she sang hit me. How many times had I heard my grandmother sing it and let the words wash over me, meaningless as stained glass, never realizing the singer’s only joy comes with death, or so she hopes. It wasn’t until then that I remembered I had come to the bar to find the CEO. I had to admit the Veiled Woman had power.
I booked other ventriloquists at the Dragon besides the Veiled Woman, just as one could say there are other classical composers besides Beethoven. It was her video on the web that brought the place notoriety of every shade. Certain religious types were on her side though her songs were often cryptic. Many came to see her because her work was cryptic. Cryptic or not, I noticed a shift in the crowd. It was the day she arrived with two cases. LJ was in one. She pulled him out and began singing a spiritual about sin, but stopped half way through. She laid LJ down and called for help from the audience. A young man with a shaved head walked to the stage area, opened the other case and pulled out a female puppet that was naked except for paper leaves over its breasts and crotch. He helped her get both puppets ready, propping them her knees. There was much expectation. What would the new puppet sing? Would the voice that spoke through it be even higher than LJ’s?
LJ and the Veiled Woman looked at Eve silently for a few too many seconds. Then the VW nodded and very somber music engulfed the room like fog. Eve rose slowly from her chair into a hotter part of the stage light as LJ began the aria even though the VW sang with her own female voice. I would later learn it was “Casta Diva” from “Norma,” an opera by Bellini. The aria was a plea, a supplication to a goddess.
As she sang in Italian, it took a few days for the controversy to surface. But when it was out that “Little Jesus” was pleading with “Eve,” certain religious types stopped coming. Others took the VW to task. They interrogated and shouted. She would wait until they were quiet and end with the same question. “Where would Jesus be without sin?”
What happened to me in Texas, specifically, Galveston was an off and on mystery, but it was the first clue that my own transformation was flawed, temporary. My original form is far more prevalent in Texas, in the southwest United States in general. There are a few of us (them?) in Michigan but not in the urban areas. As for the company, geography was immaterial. We sold value we suspected would exist to people we never met. Such an operation is unfettered by location.
One of the other important items to note about my firm is the acquisition. My scientists were originally employed by a biotech firm, whose purchase was financed through leverage. The company was about to be sold again to another biotech firm. That transaction would have made my scientists redundant. They had however, great confidence and held great store in the process that eventually facilitated my transformation. It had not initially occurred to them that the process might have no practical use. Only in the midst of creating their presentation to the Board did they begin to ask themselves how or why anyone could or would make use of the merging humans with insects, to say nothing of who would be the transferee. It almost took them longer to answer those questions than it did to create the process in the first place. But, after watching a cartoon about a singing frog that refuses to sing when his ostensible owner would be paid for the performance, they stumbled upon the idea of reverse engineering the process to create an insect with human consciousness and using the creature as an industrial spy. Of course, the Board thought US intelligence agencies would pay just as much if not more than the private sector and would be at much lower risk of scandal. There was but one puzzle piece missing. Then, they found me.
Before the CEO was a CEO, he was a factory worker. Records, mostly police records show he arrived from Texas and wandered around Detroit like a blind dog in a meat house as my grandmother used to say, didn’t know if he wanted to shit or go fishing. All night poker, tours of topless bars and dope houses, blind pigs, you name it. How he managed only short stints in the joint is beyond me.
One day, somehow, he winds up on the eastside of Detroit. One thing you have to know about Detroit, there is ghetto and there is slum. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one these white folks who’s unaware of racism, the Detroit metro being the most segregated in the US. But one of the first questions two Detroiters meeting for the first time will ask one another is “you from the east side or the west side?” There are good pockets on the east side. But most of the lower east side that wasn’t destroyed by I-75 or “urban renewal” is slum. That is where our hero found himself one Sunday morning, in an abandoned car near the door of a store front church on Cadillac Street (if a filtered, somewhat secondhand memory is to be believed). Did I mention that he was a white guy in a black neighborhood a few weeks after the city’s riot that left 42 dead? He was discovered by a middle-aged black woman who had left church early to go to a union meeting. He was sleeping with his back against the door of the car. She stepped outside just as the hinges gave way and he fell out onto the sidewalk bloody and gagging on his own spit. She went back inside and called an ambulance. Have you ever waited for an ambulance in a large urban, mostly African American area after a riot? She eventually got some folks to take him inside. She went to her meeting and didn’t think she would see him again.
The storefront church pastor tried to sober him up and decided to send his family home while he watched over the drunk that had landed at the church doorstep. It would be the pastor’s contribution to healing the racial rift that had managed to grab folks’ attention. The woman that found him, the union rep, was not happy about her pastor staying behind. She had convinced the preacher to come with her to the meeting directly after church. She’d been hounding him day in, day out, trying to get him to meet with black union members, a militant offshoot who’d gathered to fight racism in the union. Some folks were reluctant to join. But she knew if she got even one preacher to back them, doors would open. His church was small, but the pastor’s influence on the east side in particular was phenomenal. There were folks in the surrounding block clubs who claimed to be church members but rarely showed up. Maybe it was guilt, but these folks voted based on his recommendations and went to the PTA meetings at his urging, did everything but go to church. There were others who felt beholding to him who had no pretense of going to that church or any other. But their relatives had been snatched from heroin addiction by his street ministry. The guy had pull.
She’d shown up at the church that morning totally excited about the preacher meeting with her and her friends after the service. But now, the preacher was watching over this guy from nowhere. The idea of closing the loop on all the things she cared about seemed lost. And it was the fault, of all things, of a drunken white man falling out of an abandoned car. Why the hell did he have to come all the way over to the east side to show his ass? Didn’t they have bars in Melvindale?
I mentioned the graduate student earlier, how I (and the CEO as well) stole ideas from her. But she was not the first woman that moved him; there was a black woman, a socialist, (though she never admitted to such). He was not long arrived in Detroit and was about to exhaust his meager savings when he stumbled upon her. Actually, she stumbled upon him as he all but fell into her lap.
He was found in a quite foul state near the church she attended. The pastor of the church took him in and eventually tried help the CEO-to-be to find his home. He even enlisted the aid of the Women’s Auxiliary to supply the man with decent meals. This somehow enraged the woman who’d found the CEO. Her rage blossomed into an altercation that caused her to leave the church. Certainly, she thought she’d seen the last of that particular drunken white man. But, with the help of the pastor, the man was hired by the factory where the woman worked.
One day, in the cafeteria, she was surreptitiously handing out leftist literature. The man was sitting next to another white worker who asked the woman what she was handing out. The inquiring man didn’t wait for an answer but grabbed a flyer. The woman was infuriated but wanted to maintain a low profile. She scowled but said nothing. Our hero suddenly recognized her and was about to speak as she turned to walk away. Then the man who’d snatched her flyer spoke up.
“This seems like some communist stuff to me,” he said with a lilting, melodious southern accent while smirking at the flyer. “They wouldn’t ‘llow this where I come from.”
“Then why don’t you go back to where you come from? the woman spat out. I’ll tell you why,” she retorted before he could answer, “because you wouldn’t have a pot to piss in or a window throw it out of. That mammy-made Mississippi crap is backwards as the day is long and they got the poverty to prove it. You wanna bring sharecropping and outhouses up here and we ain’t going for it.”
In mere moments, she had removed whatever vestiges of homesickness he’d had. But her seriousness also made his northern days of drinking, gambling and sex seem all the more wasteful. It was no longer a sin against a God he’d never known but somehow still seemed a betrayal. Over and above what she said, the passion of her delivery, the shape of the words that left her mouth, merged with her glorious soft eyes. She was beautiful in a way he could not imagine another woman being beautiful at that moment. Even the color of her skin, which he knew to be an obstacle to his wish fulfillment, was at once unique and immaterial. She was who she was. There could be no one like her and he had to find a way to be with her.
I gave the woman’s diary to my biographer. I don’t know if she read it or remembers reading it. I did not see her for a few days afterward. It was a particularly bad moment for the biographer. The father of a child she knew had killed himself. It was unclear how the child discovered her father was dead. It was, as you may have surmised, the girl who said she deciphered the so-called message on the hide of the small, long elephant birthed by that other truly unfortunate creature. It seemed nothing but tragedy came in his wake. I vaguely recall some shooting incident perpetrated by a factory worker fired because he unable to focus on his job. He’d become wholly obsessed with deciphering the “message” on the elephant. In any event, after the girl’s father died, my biographer returned to her task a changed woman. She was at once more relaxed and, to my great but short-lived relief, less focused on me. If only her state of mind had lasted.
Coming out of prison, I thought I had a good grip on my perspective. The fact is, I pretty quickly fell back into normal mode except for doing whatever it took not to go back in. Then I found myself holding the Girl, a 13-year-old orphan, at her father’s funeral. It was a short affair. The longest part was the drive to the cemetery. A bunch of us got lost. We couldn’t have a car procession, some new ordinance based on cuts to the police budget. I passed the Heidelberg Project, slowed down, wanted to stop, wanted to get lost in the colors and rows and rows of discarded things people once thought were going to make them happy. I got to the gravesite just as they were lowering the casket. The girl sat in a row of folding chairs in front of the grave, her head buried in someone’s lap.
Later, the woman I recognized as her teacher came up to me with a conspiratorial look. She had arranged for the girl to visit her and even spend some overnights. The girl has also requested to visit me. (She had tried to visit me in prison but couldn’t get a ride.) Sadly, the Girl’s family was only too glad to make the arrangement. I couldn’t figure out why they seemed to want nothing to do with her. But it left me hollow inside.
As you know, I got to spend quite a bit of time with her during the Black Elephant debacle. She told me the whole fairy-tale story of her mother passing away and how much she missed her. The ugly story got an ugly coda when I met her father and discovered he was a true and unique asshole. But she was always anxious to see him at the end of the day. And now, even he was gone.
Having her over was a serious adjustment. As you might guess, I’m not in a palace. What’s more, I have never had kids and now, here I am with one going through trauma and puberty (who can tell the difference?) at the same time. It was a good thing school was almost out. At first, all she did was cry and sleep. Now she just writes ream and reams in notebooks. On second thought, school may be better.
Days passed before the girl talked to me unsolicited. Mostly, she left notes. So I began to leave her notes too, at first about simple stuff. Finally, I took the plunge and asked what she was writing about. That killed the “conversation” for a few more days. Then, out of the blue, one Saturday afternoon during a late lunch, I turned on the radio. It happened to be the CBC and the opera was on. “Traviata!,” she shouted, pushed back her chair and began twirling around the room. She grabbed me out of my chair. I tried to waltz with her, barely remembered the moves and ended up with a sort of polka hybrid. But it worked. We danced around the room until what she later told me was “the drinking song” ended.
“It was my mother’s favorite,” she told me as she plopped back into her chair. Then she was up again, into the bedroom for a few moments and emerged with two notebooks. They were full, front and back pages, notes in the margins, dog-eared, food stained and, I suspect, tear stained as well. Every word and paragraph was her mother, what she wore, what she liked to eat, driving habits, education, how she talked when she was excited, the way she held her mouth when something puzzled her, it was all there. I was going to make a joke about seeking out dental records when she asked if doctors gave out information about their patients. The notebooks reminded me of the list in Moby Dick. But the intro was good.
My Mother in Words
I wanted resurrect my mother with words and silence, words and what’s never spoken. You and I will work together. I will make her present, but you must draw your own pictures with the music in your head. I will take you into the rooms where we all danced, but you must bring your own buckets of light for the walls and windows.
The CEO’s father stumbled back into, what he thought was his son’s life like a dazed beast onto a firing range. I, we, recognized him in the hotel vaguely before the air around him pulsed red. I saw him while riding down in a glass elevator from the hotel suite where the event was held, then again from an interior balcony of the hotel. Strange, they would dress janitors in white shirts and pants, but there he was with his red and blue cap, a broom, long handled dust pan and the hotel’s circular logo on his back.
I was about to discover the instrument and a memory. The former was a cylindrical organ that felt as though it was attached to the base of my spine. That was anatomically impossible, of course. The instrument slept in my throat, efficiently stored and dormant until the proper moment. The memory also slept, but in a far deeper recess.
Years ago, as a child, the CEO we were to become was returning home from school. It was towards the end of winter, a surprisingly warm day even for Texas. He removed his jacket and almost skipped home past his friends. While he didn’t smile, his buoyancy was evident. He arrived at his small wood shingle house to discover the shades drawn and the windows closed. This, he thought, required correction. The sun and sky were too inviting and brilliant to be stopped by such gloomy, trivial barriers. As soon as he let himself in, he called out, got no reply, dumped his coat on the living couch and began going through the house making sure there was light and air in all the rooms downstairs. He didn’t dare ascend to his father and mother’s attic bedroom. Satisfied that the small grayish house had released most of its shadows and stale air, he began rummaging the bread box and refrigerator taking care not to disturb food designated exclusively for his father. Though he thought no one would miss a spoonful of the half gallon of ice cream that had already been scooped.
He heard feet half stumbling down the stairs and fumbled to replace the lid on the ice cream, get it all back into the freezer and clean and replace the eating utensils before the door to the attic swung open. He was still rinsing the spoon when his father appeared bleary eyed in the kitchen doorframe.
“What you been eating?”
“I just found this spoon in the sink and rinsed it.”
“Don’t let me catch you in something you ain’t supposed to be.”
The father turned his head toward the living room and his eyes suddenly popped open.
“What did I tell you about the couch?”
Stones fell into the boy’s stomach as he struggled to recall which rule he may have violated.
“Where are you supposed to put your coat when you come in?”
The boy dropped the spoon he realized he was still holding when he saw his father begin to loosen his belt. Just as suddenly, the man stopped and dove with surprising agility to grab something on the floor under one of the kitchen chairs. As he bent down, he passed close enough for the boy to catch the smell of beer. The father got to his feet clutching the tangle of wire coat hangers that was the remnants of the boy’s school project.
My scientists were supposed to have transferred every memory. Every detail was to have been at my immediate disposal. It was the only way I could convincingly take on the life of the CEO. I had dates, times, where he and others stood at various moments, details he could never have pulled to the surface. As I relived the memory of the beating the CEO took as a boy, I realized there are memories and there are memories. Seeing his father popped the lid on a charred crusty pot that had been quietly boiling for decades.
As you know, the juiciest parts of the CEO’s life never made it to the script for the bio pic I was assigned to write. For example, it was until the trial that we found out that CEO’s father had not been randomly assigned to clean the hotel where his son was being honored. The father asked for the assignment to clean that building. He hadn’t been in contact with his son for years but saw him in the newspaper, one of those local-kid-is-rich-so-now-we-love-him stories. The father starts bragging to his coworkers about his son, the big shot. Naturally, they felt even sorrier for him. Only occasionally was he truly sober and even then, he had a story to tell.
He managed to trade building assignments with a guy that owed him a favor. He wanted to be there when his son spoke and made all those big-wigs bow down. What he somehow hadn’t counted on was being too busy to get to the ballroom where the event was. But, no matter, he and his “son” were indeed reunited.
He did not see my face until it was too late. I had watched him wheel a pail of soapy water into the men’s room. He’d put a barrier at the door to indicate it was closed for cleaning. I went in and latched the door behind me. His smile lasted perhaps a second before he stumbled backward over the toilet, voiceless in his horror as I tried to speak. But the instrument held my tongue and I realized he could see it protruding from my mouth.
I had wanted to tell him the exact time of day that he’d beaten me, what we were both wearing, the rooms where I’d left blood on the walls, how I’d all almost knocked myself out as I ran from him looking backwards and rammed my head into the edge of an open door. I wanted to ask him why he’d dropped the coat hangers he had been using to beat me. But, in the oddest moment, I suddenly thought the wires would leave cuts that would be visible in the short sleeves I would soon be wearing, whereas his fists had struck me mostly beneath my clothes, or maybe the wire had begun to cut his hand. Did he remember how many days it would take me to get out of bed afterward, to say nothing of being able to walk to school?
Those thoughts and inquiries spun and raced inside me but I could utter nothing. Our mouths were joined. I heard small, rhythmic, involuntary sounds that may have come from him, from me or the two of us grinding together. The instrument had parted his lips, broken his front teeth and probed his insides searching for internal organs to disconnect them like reluctant, unripe fruit being snapped from a tree.
Another thing revealed at the CEO’s trial was the original, (all) human CEO only consented to the transformation because he thought certain memories would be wiped from his head.
I took his key and discreetly locked the restroom door behind me. It was the next day before anyone tried to open the room and later still before his body was discovered. It was in a stall far from the door, face down in the toilet. The person who’d come to clean thought he may have drowned, somehow, until he saw the skin shrunken around the skull.
The son had rarely spoken of his father or any family. All printed biographic material began with his rise in Detroit. The father’s years of desperate drinking had obscured much of his physical resemblance to his son, so no one made that connection. Their worlds had come apart.
The death became news only after I was back in Detroit and even then was only local. That gave me much relief at that time. Identifying the body or acting bereaved would have required more resources than I have. The mere sight of even his corpse may well have caused the instrument to swell. This was the only murder to which I wanted to confess and found myself somehow unable to do so. It was as if there was another instrument, an instrument of the psyche that refused to own the act as a crime, refused to let me to speak the truth of it, even as the words darted within me and clawed for release.
While the Librarian was busy with the trial, I wondered the apartment and found some diaries, dozens of notebooks. At first, I thought they were hers and then I realized how old they were, referencing the ’67 riot and the Renaissance Center being built. Actually, there were lots of things in them that didn’t exist anymore. It was not that long ago, but it felt so old. I almost wanted to go through them and add notes in the margins about what had changed or had not happened as she thought it would.
It was clear who ever had written them worked in the factory and was deep in the union. It seemed like she had two jobs. She was busy and the entries were sporadic.
She found a man passed out drunk who fell out of an abandoned car. She says some pretty mean things about him even though she was on drugs at one time herself. She did help save him from being drunk all the time. She’d had no one to find her and take her into a safe place like she did for him. She dropped drugs Miles Davis style, cold turkey, locked away in a room in the house a of true friend, used what was left of her will to close off any escape routes or tunnels, and, unlike Miles, she never went back. The room was bigger than the walls.
There is a diary entry about Belle Isle, a picnic, a family reunion. I could not tell from the words how old she was, but not very. But she was swinging on a playground close to twilight. Did she know how dark it was getting? Who knows? But, on her way back to everyone else, she lost her way or ran into a man she thought she knew or both. He told her family her was looking for her. She thought he was taking her back to her family. But once there was no one else around, he slowed down, began walking too close and was on her with a suddenness that snatch her breath away. He asked her strange questions like why had she walked with him in the dark? The question and the pain of the rocks at her back finally made her cry out, though he’d threatened to kill her if she did. A group of men, not long off work, still in their security guard uniforms, playing cards by headlights on the other side of some bushes came around and through the bushes. He didn’t run. They had to pull him off of her and fought over whether or not to beat him bloody.
The diaries reminded me of my father. I don’t think he ever spoke a complete sentence. The words commas and periods were usually in the right places. But there was always a silent part that needed to be filled in. It was not the gaps between the times that he spoke or the days between diary entries. It was the words he spoke and the entries themselves that hold the spaces. Before they were married, my mother’s job was to help him. She was not there so much to fill in the spaces but to help him realize they were there, where he’d left something out and had continued on as if everything was in place. My father never really got over the death of his brother or the death of his friends in the factory during a shooting incident. It was my mother that showed him how empty space connected those things and the space behind the sadness that never seemed to leave after my uncle died. The gaps in the union lady’s diary have that sadness. She’s raped. Then she spends a lot of time in church. Then she gets a job in the factory and discovers beer and other drugs that become her new church. Finally, she locks herself away for days. Food and water are placed in the room when she’s asleep. Only the tiny bathroom window remains unsealed.
While I was away, locked in the room, shaking like an old car on a bad road and throwing up everything I ever ate, they fired me. At first, I begged for my job. I agreed to meet one of the foremen at a bar to talk it over. Big mistake, not only did I almost accept his offer for a drink, but, even after I refused, he tried to snuggle up close to me in the booth. I stared dead into his face, pulled out the stiletto my daddy gave me and snapped the blade out. Then I used the knife to cut the meat on my plate. The foreman slid away and called for the check.
I went to the union hall today, like Justine told me to do a while ago. I met with this old Polish guy whose last name I couldn’t pronounce if they put a gun to my head. He kept calling me honey, but he calls everybody honey or sister. Anyway, he had me fill out a bunch of papers while he was on the phone. Every call stared with, “I got this colored girl over here they fired and I need to get her back.”
I almost end up near 12th and Clairmount the other night, about two blocks from where everything jumped off. The news is driving me crazy. Not even the one black reporter (working serious overtime) knows anything about the places he’s talking about. Passing judgment and dodging bullets and that’s the ones who got the short straw and ended up on the street. Let’s not even talk about the ones at their desks. But I can’t stop watching or listening to it because I have to know what’s happening besides folks calling to tell me what’s going on. I thought this mess would be over after a couple of days. Damn fools burning their own damn places. Where the hell we gonna shop? My father called and said he was going to come get me but called back about 15 minutes later and said he kept getting stopped by the police and turned back to the house. Just as well. I’m as safe here as I am there. Though I would love to sit down and let them fix me something. Some honey baked chicken with some macaroni and cheese and cornbread from the pan and I wouldn’t care about nothing for a minute.
Stan, the old Polish guy, got put in a bit of a trick bag today. His white friends were teasing him about me in front of his wife, man old enough to be my damn granddaddy. But he speaks up for folks on the floor and in the union hall and they can’t stand it, especially since the riot. He’s pushing for Bernard and Calvin who should have been in skilled trades long ass time ago and everybody knows it, just don’t want to let black men move up even when they do right. People have started saying shit right out in the open, acting like every black person is a sniper and these supposed to be our union brothers.
Another bad day, near miss at the plant handing out literature. I had to lay into one of those crackers trying to talk shit like it was the good old days in the south. I thought I was going to have to slap him but his friend or somebody I thought was his friend, jumped between us. He kept staring at me and trying to smile but seemed like he was afraid, young and looked like Paul Newman but skinny as hell. Then I realized who it really was.
Stan finally gave it up today. His oldest called me to the hospital. The sun was out for the first time in days and when I opened the door to the hospital room it blinded me for second. Everybody was there, even the new foreman. I was so glad all the tubes and wires and machines were gone, even if he didn’t look like himself. His grandson and wife couldn’t stop crying and that was really sad.
I drifted back to the time me and him played cards in a vacant lot over on the east side. He went with me to talk with some of the DIA security guards I knew from the attack on Belle Isle, trying to get them start a real union. Stan must have been the only white man in miles that wasn’t a store owner.
I touched his hand before I walked out of the room. I would have give my arm to hear him call me honey.
I almost don’t believe it, but they voted me into Stan’s slot today. And guess who it was working with Justine to get the Mexicans and the Arabs to vote with the black folks? I may have misjudged the guy, even after the lunchroom incident. I still can’t feature me and a white guy going out together. I don’t like folks staring. He was surprised to find out I’m in recovery. I can tell he’s new to stuff because I show all the classic signs, flaring and working too much. It’s hard to let go.
I had to get on Justine today about all her teasing. I told her she just wanted to make an Oreo. It was a joke and she laughed but it was hard, sharp laugh and then she said I was sick. I laughed that off but it hurt me. I hurt me deep. I drove over there after work and we talked about stuff that hadn’t come up for years. I finally told her everything was really good but that he still seems young. Justine just smiled and asked, since when is that a problem?
Everything’s changed now, more real. It happened. That’s all I know. It was one day but it was more than a day. Everything really turned when we kissed. Nothing meant anything anymore. I know that sounds bad. The problem is I want to write about this thing but I can’t, not really.
It started with us both deciding to skip church even though neither of us said it out loud. Looking back, I know it was just me. Lately, going to church meant driving fifteen minutes trying to find somewhere to park. The people were nice, but there were too many of them to know who they really were.
Anyway, it was the kiss. He always had nice lips, especially for a white boy. But that morning, after we had suddenly stopped getting dressed, I felt his hand stroke my cheek. His skin was rough but his hand was gentle and cool to the touch. When I looked into his eyes I couldn’t help but close mine. They were closed when we moved together, when I our lips touched. It felt like we were having sex right at that moment. When we did, everything rushed together. It was bright even with my eyes closed. Even the sheets on the bed felt different. I could smell the sun in them like when mama used to take them off the line in the summer. I stopped thinking. All the words disappeared from my head. I was only making love at that moment in that room and even that was fine because the room didn’t really hold me anymore. Nothing was outside of me. I didn’t have to look at the sun or sky or river or know what the birds sang. I was there.
It’s almost like when I was using, only instead of being blurred, everything is clear. Even so, I almost ran into a moving hi-lo the other day. I used to feel like I was dying waiting for the weekend. But the names of weekdays are just names now. The sun comes and goes like it always has. I know when I’m supposed to be at the plant, but time is one long river.
Is it my fault? I have given up trying to explain to him why I don’t have to go to church, why no one has to go. It’s all inside (and outside for that matter.) I thought he’d be happy since he doesn’t really know God he just fears God. Like work, he only goes because he’s afraid not to. These days, he’s either at work or church. He’s taking every bit of overtime he can get and doesn’t have any time for us. He tracks every penny. Making money takes time and you’ve only got so much time. I remember when my father started working like that. It wasn’t long before he had a heart attack and even if he hadn’t, he and my mother had started fussing. You need time, not just to talk, but to sit and say nothing.
I finally convinced Justine that we had to make that move, go to the newspapers with the story to force them to hire more black men into skilled trades. Even if we only get in the Chronicle, we can’t wait on the union another second. It’s so in our face. My folks think I am not as concerned because I don’t yell anymore but I got everything uptight. I can see where the cracks are. I know what lies management’s going to tell before they tell them. I feel like I am around the corner before they know it’s time to turn.
He may be coming around to his old self. I would be in heaven then. He brought me proof that management lied about not getting Jimmy’s doctor notice before they disciplined him. Justine asked how he got that info. I don’t want to think about it.
I finally learned how to do the honey baked chicken he likes. So I cooked a whole bird even though he’s MIA and it just made me think about him all the more. It’s the closest I’ve been to being truly sad since that day I woke up in bed. I’m afraid of what’s going to him happen once work and church can’t pass the days for him anymore. It’s good and bad that he’s not on the shop floor. Even before everything became clear, I knew people weren’t made to be in the factory. But at least there you make something besides money.
The last time we were really together, he tried to pretend the problem was me not going to church or not being my old self. I got mad all of a sudden. A question jump to the front of my brain and, before I knew it, I almost shouted: “What the hell is an ‘old self’?”
Part 2 – Other People’s Stories
It was so dark in the pool hall that the sunlit scene outside framed by the open door seemed like a movie of the sidewalk, the strip of grass and the traffic rather than the real thing. Rick moved in what he hoped was a casual manner toward the exit because his cousin Andre had missed in his previous two turns and was now calling for a bank shot of such exquisite difficulty that you could almost hear eyes rolling in folks’ heads. Rick knew the shot was a cinch and his fear of the reaction once the ball sank into the pocket gave the already 90 degree air a charge, a tightness he hoped his legs would not betray as he moved toward the exit.
Andre’s right held the thick end of the cue. As he slid it back and forth preparing the shot, it came tantalizingly close to the wager that sat on the thick polished wooden edge of the table, a wad of rubber-banded bills, a big sucker bet that contained the better part of some poor sap’s weekly check. Said sap sat smiling sipping suds under one of the many plastic cone shaped lamps that hung from the ceiling. Andre, in his twenties was in pretty good shape, but still wondered if he could make the shot, pick up the money and move to the door before things got ugly, prohibitively ugly.
It had been easier than he thought to recruit his younger cousin Rick to the scam. Rick had always come across to him as a bookworm and a do-gooder. He’d introduced Andre to movies you had to read because the actors didn’t speak English. Even if they had, things they did made no sense and couldn’t hold Andre’s attention for very long.
“Why would anyone want to watch somebody read?” he’d asked Rick in an almost too loud voice during a Godard film. “We took two buses to watch people go on vacation and read.”
On the way back from the film, it was late and the bus was nearly empty. They commandeered the back bench seats and propped their feet.
“You know you owe me,” Andre chided Rick, “for forcing me to see that shitty movie, no action, no sex, no nothing.”
“What do you mean no action? What about how they treated one another; doesn’t that count?”
Andre looked skyward, palmed the top of Rick’s head, raised his other hand and pleaded.
“God, help this boy see the light. Let him understand the difference between talk and action.” They both laughed.
“If you want action, come with me to the demonstration against the war,” Rick retorted.
“You know JB was on Ed Sullivan tonight,” Andre said before breaking into song “Baby, baby, baby, I got the feeling!”
“So you don’t want to go to the March?”
“That’s just a bunch of white folks making noise,” Andre dismissed turning toward the back window.
But even as he spoke, Andre thought of how he dreaded seeing the mail truck parked on his street. He tried not to think about the draft, fearing he would jinx the whole deal. Somehow, at least so far, he’d escaped. No Army notice had appeared in his mailbox calling him to a jungle battlefield in a country he’d never heard of before the war. Others he knew had not been so lucky.
He recalled the homecoming party of the Wilson boy, a guy that had terrorized Andre and many others well into high school. Wilson made sure everyone knew he carried a knife. Those that had seen him use talked about it, but not on the witness stand.
Wilson’s welcome-back party had featured the typical loud music that greeted you at the doorstep. Streamers and balloons were taped to the porch. Andre knew something was up when he opened the door and saw no one dancing. There was a knot of people around the bathroom which wouldn’t have been unusual except that, even over the music, he could hear what he thought was the guest of honor cursing on the other side of the door. “It’s that bag they attached to him,” said a girl he didn’t recognize. “It doesn’t work sometimes. It’s that damn bag.”
“I’ll go to the demonstration if you come with me to the pool hall and keep an eye out,” Andre had offered.
“An eye out for what?”
“Better yet, shoot a game with me.”
“You’ve got to be joking.”
“You will win, guaranteed,” Andre smiled.
That’s what Rick was afraid of, but something in Andre’s easy manner enticed him to be part of the plan, to stay connected. He also didn’t want to imagine Andre in the pool hall without backup trying to work a hustle. Though his experience with such things were limited, Rick had tried to push his fear down somewhere he couldn’t feel it. He’d felt his throat dry and tighten.
Minutes before they had entered the pool hall, Andre had dropped more details about the escape plan they might need after the trap had been sprung. Rick was now in the early phase of that loose plan, close to the door, making sure, as much as anyone could, that no one blocked it. He didn’t understand how he was supposed to do that and remain inconspicuous.
As Rick had feared, the man sitting under the cone lamp had become a bit upset after Andre made the nearly impossible bank shot and summarily stuffed the wad of cash into his pocket. The man rose from his seat slowly, his jaw tighter than a submarine hatch. Worse yet, he was looking back and forth between Rick and Andre. During one of his glances over at Andre, Rick took the opportunity to bolt. When the man turned to see Rick fleeing into the sunlight, Andre jumped over the bar and shot out the back.
Rounding the corner to meet Rick, Andre smiled as they trotted until they heard footsteps and saw, not one, but, three men racing toward them. One of them had what looked like a metal pipe.
“You take the alley. I’ll take the street,” Andre panted. This was a change in the plan that left Rick cold. Andre was supposed to run down the alley if they had to split up. Rick was from Detroit and didn’t know DC well enough not to get lost once he left familiar streets. But the men were closer and even though there was a rock in one of his shoes that were not made for running (why didn’t he wear his sneakers?), this was no time for questions. He did not even look back to see the source of the pounding feet and curses that followed him to the alley.
He managed to put distance between him and his pursuer, turn left back on the sidewalk and duck into a street level apartment with an unlocked screen door. There was a closet in the room to his right. He jumped in and shut the door seconds after he heard one of his pursuers open the screen door.
Rick was trying so hard to quiet his breathing he thought he’d pass out. Someone came down a flight of stairs, close to the closet. A woman spoke nervously to the man who’d just chased Rick to the apartment.
“Wow, you just walked into my pad.”
She sounded white.
“I’m looking for somebody,” the man panted, “just robbed me.”
“What are you talking about?”
Another set of footsteps fast and heavy could be heard on the stairs.
“At the pool hall, guy just cheated me out of ---”
“Whoever it is, ain’t here so just split,” a man’s voice interrupted him
There was silence, then footsteps going away.
“What the hell was that about?”
“Some crap at the pool hall. I’m glad you woke up.”
“Just glad it wasn’t serious. Things are just beginning to ---”
The sudden silence took Rick’s breath away. Oddly, he noticed that he’d been smelling expensive marijuana and cheap incense. Before he could notice anything else, the closet doorknob rattled and the door swung open.
Rick didn’t even look up. He put his head down and pushed off the back wall with one foot. The man was knocked to the ground. The woman jumped back. Was she reaching for something in the drawer? Rick was in the doorway but the man leapt from the floor and was on him, two sinuous arms around Rick’s waist, wrestling. The man dropped one arm only to throw a punch that missed and grazed Rick’s ear with a nasty sting.
“Tyrone, don’t. He’s just a boy,” the woman shouted.
He had Rick against the wall.
“I was just hiding. I swear to God. I had to hide.”
“You’re came damn close to hiding in a hole in the ground.”
The woman sat and exhaled. She was pregnant. She and man could have been brother and sister. He was a shade darker but with long straight hair.
“You scared the crap out of me. I thought I was going to have it right then.”
“Please, I haven’t done anything. I just want to go home.”
“Come and sit down for a moment,” the woman pushed a kitchen chair toward him with her foot. “I think you owe us that much.”
Rick sat feeling the unsteadiness in his legs just as he made contact with the chair.
“You look pretty young to be cheating someone out of their money.”
“How do you know he was cheated?” Rick asked. “Sometimes, you just lose.”
Tyrone smiled despite himself.
“They charge a lot of money for these papers?” Andre tried to ask in a nonchalant way.
“It depends. If Tyrone has to write the paper he’s going to charge more than if he just buys it already written from another student.”
“But how does the student that’s buying the paper know? He should charge everybody based on how many pages are in the paper.”
“You can be his business manager.”
“Sounds like somebody needs to.”
“Those people can’t be still looking for us. I didn’t come here to spend my summer inside.”
“You want to spend it in the hospital? Besides, the Smithsonian ain’t going nowhere. Tell me about this Tyrone and the Schwartz guy too. “
“Schwartz is actually a woman, pregnant as a matter of fact.”
“OK, but what about the operation?”
“What difference does it make? You don’t even like to read subtitles. How are you going to help crank out papers to sell?”
“You pay to read subtitles. He gets paid for the papers. That’s a whole other world.”
It took a lot of convincing for Andre not to accompany Rick back to Tyrone and Schwartz’s place. Rick had to promise over and over to mention Andre’s idea about charging per page and to tell whose idea it was. Rick wondered why Andre was adamant about being part of the academic paper scheme. For that matter, he began to question himself. He had never been part of anything illegal or even unseemly until that summer. Was it the money? Certainly, he had never had as much money as the pool hall split with Andre.
The prospect of working the paper mill was shadowed but differently from the pool hustle. Rick was unsure of where it lay in terms of legality and didn’t feel up to asking, but the prospect of another hustle ending in fiasco did not encourage him. He could still feel where the sharp pebbles from the alley had dug into his feet while he ran desperately from his pool hall pursuers. His shoes had taken a beating and he remembered how his hands shook even after he’d been sitting for a while.
Still, he glowed at the idea of spending time with Schwartz and Tyrone. He’d never talked about Petry or Faulkner with anyone outside of class. The couple seemed to live with books the way his family and friends lived with music. He’d never before considered a pregnant woman attractive. But Schwartz was and then there was her voice. He would always remember how she sang the Marvelettes’ song as Tyrone poured their tea.
Everyday things change
And the world puts on a new face
Certain things rearrange
And this old world seems like a new place
Tyrone had smiled as if he had just closed his mouth over the last sweet crust of peach cobbler.
“That’s one of those songs,” he’d said.
Rick look at him expectantly.
“He means,” Schwartz spoke up, “it’s code, not really a love song.”
“Robert Johnson was the master of that, baby!” Tyrone said beaming. “All those songs about the Devil and stuff like Hellhound on my Trail. If you told the straight truth back then, you didn’t shame the Devil you called him out of his lair.”
“Oh yes,” Schwartz said, rolling her eyes, “I’m sure the Marvelettes were really singing about turning the tables on the White Citizens Council.”
Rick had gone to the bathroom after several cups of tea and walked out with a copy of Native Son he found on the shelf with stacks of toilet paper, anti-war protest flyers and paperback copies of Hamlet and the Ellison’s Invisible Man.
“You like the bleak stuff?” Tyrone posited.
“Hamlet is bleak too, no conflict, no motivation,” Rick replied.
“No motivation! You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“I know only people who’ve got their behinds on pillows and nothing better to do sit around wondering whether life is worth living. Everyone else is too busy trying to live.”
A mocking laugh almost caused Schwartz to spit out her tea. “Tyrone used to say the same thing,” she said looking directly at him, “until I showed him all the father figures in the play.”
“Yeah,” Tyrone agreed grudgingly, “It’s not ‘to be or not to be.’ It’s about who’s your daddy, the dead father, the usurper king…”
“Laertes,” Rick added.
He didn’t want to show it to Andre, but Rick could barely contain himself anticipating going back to visit Tyrone and Schwartz. He’d actually made a list of books and literary questions to discuss and folded it neatly into his wallet. What he held even closer was the crush he had on Schwartz. He’d dreamt he was home and on Belle Isle on a blanket beneath a tree eating fruit as she sang.
The reality check came when he was a block away from their place. Two black “unmarked” police cars were parked in front. He crossed the street and decided to observe discreetly. Closer, he saw Schwartz at the door talking to two beefy uniformed cops and two in plain clothes. He walked by fighting the urge to look directly at them. Resisting that urge fell in line with everything Rick had learned about how to act when the police stop you, what to watch for down to the small strip of leather on the holster that fits over gun butt being snapped or unsnapped, readied. “Don’t look at the gun until the cop looks at your ID,” he heard Andre’s voice in his head. He turned to see what was happening when he thought he heard Schwartz’s voice catch and release in what sounded like a sob.
It was near night when the police finally tired of Schwartz’s silence and decided to let her go. Besides, they felt they had her brother cold and he was their target. She left the police station but was not free. She felt tied to the jail as if she was evacuating a disaster leaving her brother behind. She would have to call her mother, after all this time, with bad news. She wished it was later, that sleep would come sooner, that the city night would deliver stars as intoxicating as the ones she’d seen in Virginia and at the same time wished she’d never set foot in the woods near the cabin.
Schwartz had never thought of paradise as having night until she’d spent a few evenings with her new lover out in the open staring at the sky. She didn’t know or care about the constellations like he did, but she loved to hear him talk about what he called “signs of heaven,” his voice cool and colorless as the stream. He was plain spoken and smiled at the slightest provocation, red bow lips on pale skin. The stars they shared were discreet, static fireworks, a painting of white Christmas bulbs flung out on endless black. He was happy to show her what he kept calling “the real sky,” away from the city.
He had first seen her walking in and out of sunlight by a nameless creek beneath a stand of trees in unnaturally straight rows, river birches whose ever peeling, white barks with dull orange undersides reminded him of sunburn flaked skin. Her walk was aimless. He couldn’t tell if she was bored or amused. She wasn’t local. She may not have been from Virginia at all. That made her beauty all the more exotic. He had once seen a Swedish actress with lips as thick as hers. She was not as pale as the actress but her amazingly curly hair was just as gold.
Her mother had rented an isolated cabin for the week. Her brother was supposed to join them for the long weekend when he could get off work. They had all planned to do nothing but read during the day and talk about what they read when it got dark. The cabin had no electricity. The brother was late.
When Schwartz finally introduced the young man she had met in the woods to her mother, she looked at him with a curious smile. Schwartz recognized the expression from when she was young and had presented her mother with a drawing or homemade gift that her mother couldn’t quite make out. The mother wondered if Schwartz and the young man were lovers or would become lovers. Though the lovers knew the answer, they didn’t know a child was coming.
Tyrone had been in a panic because he’d delayed his reading assignment and subsequent paper due the Wednesday after the long weekend. He’d gotten off work early and thought he would just scan the book to get a feel for it but, to his surprise, Paradise Lost was a page turner, from the psychedelic fire of creation to the unexpectedly nuanced and tortured Satan, a sort of cosmic film noir protagonist. Eve had just arrived on the scene when Tyrone noticed the sun was low and realized he was supposed to have been on the road to the cabin some time ago.
He had to stop reading though it seemed unnatural for him to leave the world he’d entered. He felt as if something had been pulled out of socket, dislocated. The purple clouds on the horizon, magnificent as they were, loomed as sudden threats. He hadn’t finished packing. He was supposed to have asked the man down the street about the rattling noise in the car’s gear box. The last thing he’d wanted was to try to find the cabin in the dark. It was almost 2:00 AM when he arrived. He slept-in while Schwartz and his mother fixed breakfast and read. He awoke groggily, ate cold eggs and, eventually, learned that Schwartz had a new boyfriend. He laughed sardonically at the discovery.
“There’s another black family down here?” he asked half rhetorically.
The mother sighed. Earlier, she’d almost been happy that Tyrone was late, that hadn’t been there when Schwartz had brought the young man to the cabin. It had allowed another day to avoid the issue or think there might be time when she could bring it up with Schwartz before Tyrone’s arrival. Would things have been more difficult but somehow simpler if her darker child had been present when Schwartz’ young man was introduced? Would the young white man have filled in the gaps?
“Honey, your brother’s got a point. Did you tell the young man? You know what he probably thinks. Seeing me didn’t help any.”
“How do you know he even cares about it, that it even matters?”
“A white boy, in Virginia no less, who doesn’t care about race? Be for real.”
Schwartz dropped her book and walked swiftly out of the cabin into the woods.
“You’ve got to go easier with her Tyrone. She doesn’t see things as…clearly as you, sometimes.”
He reached for his mother’s hand, looked to the woods where Schwartz had disappeared and reluctantly realized he needed to talk with her.
“How do you know he doesn’t know?” Schwartz asked defensively.
“How many black people have blond hair and pale skin?
“My lips are thick as yours and you can’t even have a ‘fro.”
“There are white people with ‘fros these days in case you haven’t noticed.” He had not wanted to become agitated. He knew they were on the one subject that could take his sister over the edge. But he couldn’t stop himself and began talking emphatically with his hands.
“Most white people are not like ---”
“Don’t give me that ‘mom is the exception to the rule’ crap for the umpteenth time!” she said angrily mocking his hand movement.
“Be for real!” he shouted, “Look at the world. I didn’t make. It’s here. Did I drag people over here in chains?”
Sitting outside the cabin, she hoped no one could hear her children shouting. She was about to go inside when she heard gun fire echoing from the woods. The shots opened a chasm of fear and regret from an unclosed wound, the death of her husband.
She had met her husband, a wiry, tan-skinned handsome man with thick glasses, at the University of Michigan bookstore a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She was a cashier and he held court with a handful (were there more than that on campus, why had she not noticed them before?) of other Negroes in a lounge just beyond the checkout counter. He had tales of a bohemian weekend in New York and the politics of the new be-bop jazz movement. But it was his knowledge of opera that fascinated her. That was an art of both magic and privilege, a harbor. They spent their rare leisure hours in the library’s listening room, worlds away from where they sat.
People stared, but just as many remarked that they made a beautiful couple. They managed to find a justice of the peace willing to conduct a small civil ceremony and then embarked to visit astonished, apprehensive but mostly cordial relatives. Reluctantly, he agreed they would go south to visit his oldest relative.
“I’ll get to meet your great-grandmother, finally.”
“Let’s hope that’s not the operative term.” He had replied.
His great grandmother was bedridden in rural Alabama where marriages such as his were tantamount to attacking the local Ku Klux Klan. The now obvious pregnancy (with what turned out to be twins) did not mitigate the situation. The image she would always hold of the great-grandmother was of her eyes. When the elderly woman saw the two of them together for the first time, her eyes widened then narrowed. There was no malice. It was as if she was trying to read something barely fathomable.
On his way to the closest grocery store, miles from the house, her husband had called from a gas station to say he was having car trouble. She never heard from him again. The car was found torched. Diplomatic but insistent inquiries from the University newspaper and her husband’s doctoral committee prompted authorities to conduct a nominal investigation. Services were held without the body.
Tyrone had pushed Schwartz to the ground after the first shot. After the second blast, he ran toward where the shots rang out. She looked up and shouted his name just as she saw someone with a rifle turn and dart through the trees. The flash of the face she saw stabbed at her heart.
He was almost out of ammo and the colored boy was coming for him, moving with the legendary swiftness he thought those people had. Would his fleeing make him seem less of a hero to her? He knew the woods. Surely, a few twist and turns would leave the black bastard in the dust. He miscalculated.
Catching a glint of sun on the gun barrel edging through the knot of a tree, Tyrone crouched and, despite his anger, almost laughed to himself. He could hear his mother telling him the story of a changeling being left in a tree, traded for a human baby.
“I got your changeling,” he thought and gritted his teeth. The ground was soft with moss. Only the occasional faint snap of a twig betrayed his movement and he left plenty of time between those sounds.
When he’d seen it was a white boy shooting, he knew it was his sister’s lover and that she would be torn by the assault. But that somehow made him all the more furious. It took him back to the process of slowly learning why his father was not around. Their mother had carefully fed them age appropriate bits of information until one afternoon, when it all collapsed into the ugly truth of a body burned beyond recognition. It had left the three of them with an unspeakable bond.
Tyrone managed to surprise him from behind but not before the white man in the hollow tree pulled the gun from where it had been pointing. He tried to re-aim, but Tyrone was on him. They were bloodied in the struggle before the gun went off.
Later, Tyrone lied to his mother and sister, said he’d been out run. They would be leaving the next morning anyway.
Months later, when the police came to their mother’s door, she told them she didn’t know where her son or daughter was. The circles beneath her eyes caused the police to pity her and suspect she was lying. She didn’t tell what little she knew, that something terrible must have happened to cause her son to leave with no explanation and for her daughter, denying pregnancy, to insist on going with him. As much as anything, their false cheerfulness had disturbed their mother’s sleep.
Schwartz and her brother were looking for a fresh start, albeit in the city of their birth, where their mother had moved in with in-laws after her husband’s murder. Though she had eventually moved them all back to Detroit because the factories paid more than the universities, Tyrone and Schwartz knew enough about DC to pretend they’d always lived there, that they had not arrived from a distance with a story.
On the long bus trip to the nation’s capital, they had argued over the question of making a living. Details eluded them. It always ended in the same place: something menial until something better came along.
The apartment they rented had once clearly been some sort of store. The door opened directly onto the sidewalk, no steps, lawn or porch. The bathroom was tiny and the shower jerry-rigged into place. She found it functional but, though he tried to hide it, it depressed him, deeply, not so much the physical place but that it had come to this, that he would be lucky to stay out of prison to say nothing of fulfill his dreams. Despite her misgivings about spending money they didn’t have, she agreed to go to the bar with him after they’d stored their meager belongings.
The place, a few blocks from the university, was crowded, but they managed to find a table. He went to stand in one of the lines at the bar to order. He returned to find his sister talking with a white couple at the next table. They tried to hide their surprise seeing Tyrone sit down with what they had assumed was a white woman. They were equally surprised and, a bit relieved, to notice the incredible resemblance between the two.
“I know how you feel,” the young man was saying to Schwartz as Tyrone sat down. “We should both be back at the dorm working on the same doggone paper.”
The woman with him, close to being drunk, almost sputtered, “It’s so stupid, though, I mean I can’t even tell my mom. She would be so pissed-off to know that I have to write about a brother and sister having sex even if it is in an opera.”
“Sigmund und Sieglinde,” Schwartz piped up, “Actually, their incest is supposed to be an outrage, it’s the result of, well, it’s a long story, as I’m sure you know, but it’s not glorified or anything.”
“Wow, are you opera fans or something?” the man asked.
“It was our dad’s dissertation,” Tyrone said with a sad smile.
“Can we call your dad?” the woman said with a look that was half joke and half desperation.
“Sorry to hear that. We uh…”
“He died before we were born.”
“Oh, God,” the woman frowned.
“We’re gonna stop bugging you now,” the man said looking slightly embarrassed.
“Wait,” the woman interrupted. She placed both hands on the table and mustered as serious an expression as she could under the circumstances.
“You’ve obviously read the dissertation. How fast can you write?”
Rick saw Schwartz walking towards the house from the bus stop. The closer she got, the sadder she looked.
“What’s the matter?” He was afraid to ask about Tyrone. He felt a low gray ceiling descending over the summer. Without Tyrone and Schwartz, Rick would be constrained to the pool halls where Andre had not run scams and the sections of the Smithsonian where Andre’s status as a guard allowed Rick free access, all of which Rick had already thoroughly perused.
Even though he had refused Tyrone’s pleas to help churn out papers, he had actually begun writing a paper for a business student taking a philosophy course, to compare Hamlet and Bigger Thomas: choosing a course of action even when there seems to be no choice. He had wanted return to Schwartz and Tyrone’s because he wanted to talk books. He’d told himself writing the paper was the price of admission
Did they tear the place up?”
“You know they did! And he didn’t even try to hide. He gave himself up because…” She looked down, her hands on either side of her face, “He didn’t want them to harm me.”
“Did they find the stuff he wrote, I mean the memoirs and the play, The Report?”
“Who the hell cares? They weren’t there because of what he wrote.”
Andre had been assigned to the new part of the museum, a theatre where they reenacted the trial of John Brown. He was looking forward to it, a much welcomed break in the monotony. He was standing near the turnstiles waiting for more detailed instructions from his supervisor, when he noticed a group of men approaching. Some were in wheelchairs, some were in military uniform. A young black nearly bald marine ran to catch up with them and approached Tyrone smiling.
“Got a bunch of vets here on field day.”
He handed Tyrone about a dozen tickets.
“The ticket taker isn’t here yet, she’s---”
He recognized Wilson in a wheelchair and walked over to him. The man in the chair looked up unsmiling but not unfriendly.
“Hey, man. How’s it going?”
“How the hell does it look like it’s going?”
“I didn’t mean anything like that I---”
Wilson dropped his head. “I know you didn’t.” he reached into his breast pocket, unfolded a piece of paper, looked at it and handed it to Andre. It had the time, date and place for the anti-war march.
Andre didn’t get home until long after dark and Rick could tell he had been drinking. He wasn’t as funny as usual. After Rick introduced him to Schwartz, Andre joked in his best Butterfly McQueen voice, that he “didn’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies,” then remarked that white folks wouldn’t understand the joke about the joke. When that was met with silence he stared at Schwartz for a moment.
“My mother is!” she snapped.
“Don’t get mad at me. It’s dark, I’ve had a couple of shots and it’s been a long day, alright? I assume a lot’s been happening ‘cause you’re here without your husband.”
“He’s her brother, not her husband. There’s stuff I need to tell you.”
“Tell me in the morning. I’m going to bed. You and me are going to the anti-war march and the they start gathering early. You can come too if you want,” he said to Schwartz.
Andre woke up before everyone else and fixed breakfast. Rick came down and Andre began talking about Wilson. They were about to walk out of the door when Schwartz came down. She seemed even more pregnant than the night before and had to convince the two guys that walking was good for pregnant people.
They walked over to the stadium and got on the bus that would take them to the National Mall. The bus was already packed with young white people. It seemed all the men had long hair. Some of them stared at the trio of Andre, Rick and Schwartz as they paid their fares. A woman got up to let Schwartz take a seat. One young man thought she looked familiar, but when he realized where he knew her from, decided to stay silent.
None of them had ever been to a protest march before to say nothing of one that large. Schwartz only knew about it because Tyrone paid to have some of the flyers printed. Rick had first read about it in an underground paper he found on a table at the Museum cafeteria while he waited for Andre’s shift to end. They saw dozens, then hundreds of people walking to the Mall. They arrived overwhelmed by what seemed like millions.
The crowd was overwhelming white as Andre had expected. The few black men he saw brought him back to Wilson handing him the flyer from a wheel chair. The image wore on him. He zoned out on the speeches. After buying a Black Panther paper from a woman he knew, he was besieged by white people trying to sell him other papers. He was very ready to go.
Schwartz was the one who noticed Rick was missing. She began looking for him as Andre tried to convince her they needed a plan find his cousin. She made it to the edge of the crowd where the police presence was evident. Andre was beginning to feel the effects of the previous night’s drinking and to question why the hell he was there with this white looking black woman he barely knew. Suddenly, he couldn’t even remember her name.
“Hey, hey wait,” he shouted.
But she couldn’t hear as she approached a police officer to ask if there was some where lost minors were gathered. Another cop who had seen them emerging from the crowd, assumed Andre was an unwanted pursuer, approached and shoved him to the ground. Andre hopped to his feet as the crowd around him gave way and two other cops rushed in for back up.
Blackened by Fire
After the Tiger Stadium “incident”---a particularly dismal game where a group of frat boys in the upper deck bleachers stripped, peed over the railing, and got the crowd to chant “rain delay”---the only people allowed in the bleacher section for some time were the security guards and the TV camera operator. Today the fans would be readmitted to the bleachers with added security. The camera operator was looking forward to it. Baseball without the crowd was even more boring.
With the crowd absent, the camera operator had actually focused on the pitcher-batter-catcher shot his camera was supposed to cover. He’d finally begun to learn the different pitches being thrown and he began to notice the nervous chattiness of the female guard assigned to the camera cage area. She was a small “mulatta” with an oval face and wide eyes. Her bright red lipstick brought out a full set of lips and contrasted her smooth light skin, a shade he’d always heard described as “high yellow” though he was but half a shade darker. What could this woman do, he wondered, if there were any trouble? She didn’t have the same presence as some of the other female guards in the park. Her long delicate fingers did not look capable of wielding a baton or a gun. He could see her handling a glass of chardonnay on grassy slope under tree mottled sunlight.
The period without fans was the time she had been working up the courage to talk with him about something, anything more meaningful than the weather or the game. She found that hard. She found him attractive but odd. She was much more used to fending off unwanted advances than soliciting attention. He didn’t seem gay, but what did that even mean she thought. In any event, the crowd would be returning today so getting his attention would be even harder. He seemed more attentive to the magazines he brought to work. They had mostly white folks on their covers with amazingly ugly haircuts and facial expression she’d only seen on people who were about to go to jail. Only, she suspected that, unlike some of the young black folks she saw on the covers of the hip-hop magazines, none of these white people had ever seen the inside of a jail.
When he’d seen her staring at the magazines in the camera cage, he’d felt twinges of discomfort. First, because of the wry, puzzled smile that came to her silently asking ‘what the hell are you reading?’ Second, and perhaps more deeply, it reminded him of an upcoming deadline. He had promised one of the magazines an article about a summer he’d spent during his teen years with his cousin Andre in Washington DC. He hadn’t gotten past the title --- “From Pool Hall to Protest”--- of what was supposed to be a fifteen hundred word memoir-cum-essay. Every time he sat down to write, he remembered getting lost at the anti-war march, arriving back at the house in DC ahead of his cousin and picking up the phone. It was his aunt saying Andre was in the hospital. She paused overwhelmed.
He would soon be reunited with his beloved crowd, but was now in the doorway of one the rooms of the semi-truck trailer that had been fitted as a mobile studio parked outside the stadium. He was preoccupied with one of the many video monitors in the tape room the source of “instant replay.” What played on the monitors now would not be broadcast. It must have been shot in California. The people in the stands were tan and in swimsuits. After waving drunkenly to the vigilant technicians that had put them on camera, the men in the shot pulled down the women’s elastic bikini tops and bottoms and flashed their own body parts as well. It was unclear which gave them more pleasure.
“Pretty interesting work there,” said the tape operator who stood on the metal steps that led from the sidewalk to the tape compartment.
“I can get out of your way if you need me to,” said the camera operator, I can’t imagine why I am stuck here in this dark little room on such a beautiful day.”
“I can imagine,” said the tape operator with a knowing smile. “This is really the mild part of the resume reel. There’s a part where this couple’s gettin’ off right in the open.”
“I think I’ll miss that part.”
“Yeah, young guy like you, single, good job, healthy, probably got stuff like that scheduled every night.”
“To be honest, I’m not seeing any one right now.”
“I ain’t talking about seeing; I’m talking what makes the world go round. Look at the hooters on that bimbo will ya? What’s that you’re smearin’ on?”
“Sunscreen, I need some protection out there.”
“The sun ain’t the half of it. They’re letting the creatures back in today. It’s gonna be a scorcher too so they’ll be suckin down the suds and gettin’ crazy. Maybe you can whip the camera around and get somethin’ for the resume reel.”
By the 7th inning stretch, the grateful crowd celebrating their return to the bleachers had plied the camera operator with almost enough cannabis and whiskey to make the game interesting. Hell, under these conditions he could tolerate NASCAR. Though, at the moment, little seemed more interesting than the guard, the woman with the thick red lips.
“My name is Rick,” he offered up during one of the commercial breaks taking her completely by surprise.
Why hadn’t she thought to ask his name or offer hers? She could kick herself.
“So you must do something besides watch drunks get sunburned,” he continued even before she could tell him her name.
“You mean like…?”
“What do you do when you’re not doing this?”
“I’m in school.”
“Oh, great, where?”
The question almost startled her. Normally, she would have no problem admitting she was trying to get her GED. But he was clearly the college type. It suddenly became important that she had not seen another black person on the TV crew and only the occasional woman. The slightly too cool cut of his jacket and pants, the colored rim glasses, the magazines, it all fell into place at what seemed the wrong moment, the moment she wanted to speak. If she told him she didn’t have a high school diploma, something she assumed he’d attained with ease, she feared he would either ignore her or wait until after he shuddered between her legs and then ignore her. But when she looked up again, he was smiling. He already knew she was a security guard. Could he be any worse than the father of her children? He didn’t seem like the type of person that would make fun of her notebooks to say nothing of try to burn them.
“I’m in night school at Cass Tech,” the cheerfulness in her voice surprised her.
“Oh yeah? I graduated from Cass in 1973”
“You don’t look that old.”
“Pushing those dinosaur bones out of my path kept me looking young.”
“Then you’re trying to dress too young for your age,” She chuckled.
“So you’re going for your diploma. What comes after that?”
She realized her supervisor was waving his arms to get her attention. Why hadn’t he used the radio? There was a knot of people standing and jostling on the right field side of the bleachers. Guards were escorting people away. A woman with a sunburned face yanked her arm away from a guard and turned to slap the obviously drunken man in the custody of a guard behind her. She began shouting that the drunken man’s mother was the real bitch as he fell down and threw up.
“You’re slacking Rick. I know you been up there alone for a while but you gotta snap back into form, my friend.”
“Paul, we got to order, eat and get back for the pregame.”
“This is more important than your order, more important than work---“
“Man, to you everything’s more important than work. I don’t think I have ever had a work related discussion with you,” Peter smirked.
“How can he discuss something he knows nothing about?” Rick asked mockingly.
“Be for real. You could put a corpse behind that centerfield camera.”
“He wasn’t acting like no corpse when that cute little thing with the handcuffs was up there yesterday,” Peter jumped in. “Yeah, that’s right buddy I got a zoom lens too and I don’t read lips but I know you were talking shit.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be covering the batter?” Rick chuckled despite himself.
“I cover whatever needs to be covered.”
“So you’re too busy going to the hole to help us get shots for the resume reel? What happened to all that commie share-the-wealth stuff? Think about us sometime.”
“Do I have to?”
It was bright hazy day with heavy clouds in the distance and the scent of rain in the wind. On such days, he prayed for a downpour. A rained out game was a full day’s pay and no baseball. The darkening skies lifted his spirits. He fantasized about which book and music stores he would hit, even as he despaired how West African import vinyl weighed down his credit card.
Then he recalled the deadline for the article, that he’d written virtually nothing and his heart sank. The editor at the magazine had been encouraging enough. “Even the working title shows that we are going to get authentic work,” she’d written. He’d thought about trying to write the experience from his Cousin Andre’s point of view. He’d thought about interviewing Andre for the article. But the answers he most wanted had nothing to do with what he’d pledged to write. Logically, it made no sense for Rick feel responsible for the police attack that left Andre permanently injured. Even Andre’s parents had told Rick not to blame himself. Rick wanted those words of absolution from Andre. But, the fear that he might hear otherwise along with the length of his cousin’s recovery had made it hard for him to find just the right time to call. These days, the low, steady hum of guilt and doubt was assuaged with high quality marijuana and single malt scotch.
He grabbed his army rain poncho and mounted the stairs to the upper deck. It was already drizzling when he entered the centerfield camera cage, flipped back the lens cover and waited for the weather to kill the game. She didn’t see him at first when she came into the open and sat down heavily on one of the bleachers. Though she had rain gear over her guard uniform, strands of her hair were limp and wet on her face. She had no makeup and her lips were pale. She stared into the distance at the heavy sky.
“Are you okay?”
She looked at him and then away. Her eyes were red. Her breathing was uneven.
“I need to get away from here, for a while,” she said still not looking at him.
“The game will probably be cancelled. I guess the storm is obvious.”
“Do you know how much it cost to get to Canada?”
“A couple of bucks for Windsor, just the other side of the bridge. You got relatives there?
“I hope not. How long can you stay there? Do they check your ID? They must check it, right?”
“Sometimes, they ask to see your license. Just don’t act too suspicious.
“You got a car, right? I know you got a car.”
There were four or five cars ahead of them in the toll line when he decided to pull out some change for the booth. He smiled at her, the polite type of smile people exchange when they bump accidently.
Once he had given a family of strangers a ride to Cleveland. It had been near dusk when he had seen the couple and their two young boys standing near the freeway entrance ramp. He thought they’d been in a car accident. They asked for a ride to an interstate highway exchange. He had to interrogate them before they admitted Cleveland was there real destination. He’d felt safe with the children present and it was getting dark. He couldn’t just leave them at the junction of the interstates.
They passed the toll booth and drove into the tunnel. She seemed to relax. She grabbed a cassette tape from the holder between the seats and put it in the player.
“It’s Sun Ra.”
“Ra – Ra? That is like no Ra-Ra I’ve ever heard.”
“Sun Ra. ‘Strange Celestial Roads.’
“To endless what?”
“Traveling strange celestial roads to endless heaven is what they’re singing.”
“If you know heaven is endless, why do you have to say it? You got any reggae?”
“We’re coming up to the booth so get your ID ready.”
Her jaw went a bit slack and her eyes widened.
“What was that booth we went through on the other side?”
“That was just the toll. Now we go through customs. You have your ID, right?
“I have a passport, but…”
“Which one should I---?”
The car behind them gave a polite tap on the horn. He looked up to see an empty space in the both ahead and the customs officer waving him forward. He was glad to see it was a female officer. Still, his hand shook and sweated on the stick shift as he put the car into gear. He thought his lip might tremble so he tried to smile.
“You are citizens of what country?
“U.S.,” he managed to utter past the frog that leapt into his throat.
“And you ma’am?”
“America, I mean the U.S. too.”
“May I please see your identification?”
He handed over his license. She looked straight ahead for a moment. She had the same expression she’d had at the stadium before she knew he was there. She fished around in her shirt pocket shifting what he could see plainly were three passports. He prayed the customs agent couldn’t see them. She finally settled on one and handed it to him to pass to the agent in the booth.
“What’s your business in Canada?”
“Can’t we just visit?”
He seriously regretted not coordinating his standard going-to-dinner-or-lunch answer with her before they’d set out.
“There ain’t no use in arguing about it. We’re here now.
“You’re here. I got a game tomorrow.”
She looked down, nodded and looked across the river to Detroit. The sun was about to emerge from a break in some magnificent clouds.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she said trying to sound positive.
“I’m heading back.”
“Okay, can you drop me at that hotel? It’s in that direction.”
At the front door of the hotel, she paused with her hand on the car door handle.
“You could just drive back so you’ll be on time for the game ‘cause I know how you love baseball,” she said and smiled without looking at him. “Or you could come up and make sure the room’s alright.”
He began to tell her about how he’d picked up the stranded family and taken them to Cleveland for purely altruistic reasons. Before he could finish, she sighed loudly, rolled her eyes and turned to put a hand on his knee.
“Are you always like this?” she questioned.
He stared out of the hotel window back across the river at Detroit, taken with the view: the low sun on sail boats and freighters, the rotund Cobo Center like a fat gray gear of glass and steel laid on its side, post storm clouds glided behind the dark towers of the Renaissance Center. It was a post card view he wished he could have while he was in the city, paradise from afar.
In his quasi-reverie, he didn’t notice her agitation. She had covered herself for the first time since they’d undressed. She cast about the room looking for something and suddenly knelt by the bed. Darting her arm beneath it, she pulled out the backpack, the only thing she’d brought with her besides the clothes she wore, and tossed it on the bed.
“Hey!” she almost shouted.
“Yeah, I’m right here.”
“Could you look at this?”
One part of the pack was jammed with notebook, at least a dozen. She flipped through them. Every page, front and back, was filled with writing. All the spiral bound sets of writing were worn or damaged. The one she decided to hand him had been blackened by fire.
They took the baby out of her
They took the knife out of her
They took her from the side of the road
They took her to jail
They took her from the crib
They took her over and over
When they got to zero
They started teaching her
About negative numbers
He stared at her in a way that made her a little frightened.
“You wrote this?”
Baseball season was ending but had begun to overlap basketball and hockey seasons. The sports remote crew was collecting tremendous overtime but at the expense of sleep and sanity, often working well past midnight with 6:00 AM calls the next morning. The crew was on just such a grinder, wrapping up after a late Pistons basketball game with an early call at Tiger Stadium the next morning and a solid hour drive in the crew van back to the station to pick up their cars to boot. Rick, Peter and Paul were working a thick 1000 foot cable back onto a portable reel. Paul was supposed to be reeling as Rick and Peter held the cable at various points to keep it flowing smoothly around corners.
“Goddamn, Rick shouted to Peter about a couple of hundred feet away, “Radio Paul and tell him to reel faster than an inch an hour. We can’t be here all night!”
Peter pulled out his walkie-talkie even though he thought the effort would be useless. Sure enough, he couldn’t raise Paul on the radio and so he walked back to the truck. After making his way outside, he saw Paul slowly reeling the cable while trying to hold a conversation with a woman Peter recognized as a worker from the luxury suites high above the stadium floor.
“Paul, you know we got an early call for a double header tomorrow? They’ll be singing the national anthem before you’re done with this reel.”
“My friend,” Paul began speaking with the ease of rich man on vacation, “you should stop and smell the flowers and speaking of flowers allow me to introduce ---”
“Get off the reel asshole and let me crank it,” Peter cut him short.
“You’ll have to make allowances for my friend Peter,” Paul addressed the woman as he moved away from the reel. “The crew hasn’t had a day off for a while and the boys get testy.”
“I’d better be going. You think about that Paul.”
“Baby, the straw is on the mirror.”
On his way through the arena, Paul saw Rick who had abandoned the cable and was helping another man wheel a utility cart loaded with equipment toward an elevator.
“Yo, Mister Camera man! Is that Rick Burns, the operator with most replays on the most sports networks around the country?”
“Look out Rick,” the other man wheeling the cart warned.
“What have you fucked up now, Paul?”
“Hooked up, not fucked up as in hooked us up for an evening of fun and games.”
“I don’t need games I need sleep,” Rick grunted as the overloaded cart thudded into the elevator.
“You only think you need sleep,” Paul said. “When’s the last time you seen that little gal with the hand cuffs?”
Rick suddenly stopped the elevator doors from closing, much to the dismay of his coworker waiting inside.
“Now that I have your attention, I can tell you it’s been a while because tonight I found out she’s got employment at certain entertainment venue in Windsor. Want to hear about her new…career?”
“Unlike you, I have an imagination, so I don’t need the details.”
“You didn’t talk me like that when I had those Thai-sticks dipped in hash oil.”
The elevator doors closed.
Rick managed to get the back seat of the van to himself for the ride back to the station. Dozing off and on, he was startled by something he saw flying in the wind behind the van, a very large piece of paper with what may have been a photo on one side. Was it a woman’s face? Just as suddenly, he flashed on the picture of Andre in the hospital from the newspaper article, eyes swollen and both legs in casts. He lost focus. Then a hand smacking his chest brought him suddenly awake.
“How am I supposed to sleep with you snoring louder than the engine?” Peter’s voice came from the other side of the bench seat.”
“How am I supposed to sleep with you smacking me like a man who wants to die?” Rick retorted.
“Gentleman, gentlemen,” Paul, who was driving, intervened with his best used car salesman voice. “All of his conflict over a mere hour’s worth of sleep.”
Rick rose from his reclining position in the back. There were five other men in the van, all variously slumped over and semi-conscious. But Paul was more than awake, downright chipper in fact, almost singing and exceeding the speed limit by a good twenty miles per hour.
“You should consult your friendly workplace pharmacist after we get back to the station. The night could entail more possibilities than sleep.”
The three of them piled into Peter’s car and, after stopping at an ATM, proceeded to Windsor. In a few minutes, they pulled into the valet parking for a stripper bar called Milhous’. They got inside just in time for last call.
“Damn,” Paul protested. “I forgot these Canucks cut you off early.”
“Do you really need another drug in your system?” Peter asked.
“Don’t talk to me about needs when you give up precious sleep to get what you want,” Paul smiled sardonically, “Meet me by the runway in ten minutes.”
He pointed and disappeared into the crowd.
The runway was not wide enough for the four nude women undulating in the night’s finale. The lights were dim. The crowd was in a mild frenzy. No one touched any of the women on stage. But the vocal praise for body parts served as surrogate hands. A waitress in a string bikini was about to take Rick and Peter’s drink orders when a roar rose from the crowd close to the stage. A bleached blond with big hair and blue body paint was missing the extremely slow beat. Her steps were erratic as she tried to push her hair from her face and steady herself on the arm of the nearest dancer. She got no support there. But one enthusiastic customer wiped the beer foam from his face and proceeded to “steady” her buttocks. The crowd noise increased. The dancers tried to smile as they moved from the edges of the runway bumping one another.
“Throw some steak tartar out there to distract them so the girls can make a run for it.” Peter quipped.
Rick only reaction was, “Where the hell is Paul?”
The house lights came up and the crowd quieted. A small, dark wiry man with shoulder length dreadlocks grabbed the stumbling dancer and lifted her offstage. Upon seeing the man, Rick realized he was one of only two black people in the room.
“That’s Reagan,” Paul said startling both Rick and Peter as he came up behind them. “You guys didn’t order yet?”
The small man that had led the shaky dancer off stage now led Rick and company down a long dim flight of stairs. The smells of perfume and steam showers began to fill the air. The tropical humidity and heavy scent pulled the brick walls closer. Paul lit a joint and passed it up front. After hitting it once, Rick tried to pass it to Reagan who refused it, narrowed his eyes contemptuously and said “Every dread not a Rasta.”
The man opened a door to a brightly lit room full of over plush furniture that looked about twenty years old. Rick sat down right away to make himself appear at ease. The couch sank so low, he found himself looking at the underside of one of the end tables in the room. Something metallic there caught his eye, but he looked away.
Paul’s initial contact on the drug deal sat in a tight white dress that managed to appear both gaudy and expensive against the wine red couch. There were mirrors and oil on velvet paintings of nude women on the wall.
“Where’s Elvis?” Peter asked looking around.
The woman on the couch gave a hoarse laugh and moved her eyelids as slowly as any human could.
“He’s dead honey,” the woman on the couch almost slurred. “And, yes, I know, I’m not looking too good either. I’ll save you the trouble and be my own straight-man. I’m good at that, ain’t I pookey?” she said to the man with locks.
“Shut the fuck up,” Reagan spat at her without looking and sat down in an oval shaped swivel chair. “I got something worth five K, U.S. You could move it tonight or somebody else will.”
“My man,” Rick spoke up, nervous to even be in the presence of so much cocaine, “this was just supposed to a bit of after-the-game recreation. We weren’t looking to buy in on the Medallin Cartel.”
“You work for NBC, right? That’s the national network out of New York, if I’m not mis--”
“Sometimes,” Peter interrupted, “the local station rents us out to NBC to shoot a game and sometimes we shoot minor league hockey in fucking Toledo for the same money.”
“Be calmer,” Paul admonished through a tight smile.
“We get rented out,” Peter continued, “to whoever meets the price, an arrangement I am sure you’re familiar with from another angle.”
“Jesus,” Paul hung his head.
“Listen to this stupid, stupid white boy come to insult me with no ideas of the weapons at my disposal,” Reagan sat back and smiled but showed no teeth.
“Yes,” he said reaching into a drawer, “I sell what you and your daddy howl at the moon for.”
Reagan pulled out a Polaroid photo. It was the guard from the ballpark Rick had dropped off in Windsor weeks ago. She had on great deal of makeup and was nude.
“Lost track of her for a while. She just about to start turning tricks for rocks when I found her, shaking like a leaf. She eats a meal a day now whether she wants to or not.”
Paul feared this would be the end of the deal, that Rick would back off and leave him and Peter without enough money to do anything significant, something to get them through a few games. Peter’s eyes were also on Rick hoping he’d be ready to leave. Rick couldn’t take his eyes from the photo or think of anything but the days spent with the woman. Had this all taken place a few weeks earlier or if he’d been assigned to a different camera, they would have never shared a room. He would not have known her voice, the one now in his head talking about her minimum wage job and all that she had known, witnessed and crammed into the reams of notebooks she’d asked him to read. Had it been weeks earlier, the photo would have elicited only a brief shudder of pity and that twinge of emotion would have done no more to help the woman in the photo than what he was feeling now.
“She’s light to the black men and exotic to the whites. Big money. I cut a deal with the owner. He didn’t think she would get back up to weight. So I’m going to split her dancing tips and she’ll still have time for private action in the evenings.”
“How long will she be able to hold that schedule?” Rick asked now staring at the photo on the mirror table.
“She’s a first degree fiend,” Reagan assured him. “Sleep is just a word for her.”
“Can I see her?” Rick asked.
Paul put his head in his hands. The small man smiled again and extended his hand palm up.
“I just want to talk her, that’s all, just talk.”
“Pay me or play with yourself and pretend it’s her.”
The woman on the couch snickered. When Rick’s offer of $25 was refused he jumped to fifty.
“You get fifteen minutes, one second more and I’ll tell her to bite it off.”
She was thinner than in the photo. She had on what struck Rick as a short almost child’s version of the white dress the woman on the couch wore. She recognized the same puzzled, pitying look on his face he’d had when she’d invited him up to the motel room, trying to deny what no one had any business denying. It was so clear to her now or maybe it was the drugs.
“So all that college shit comes down to this, huh?”
“I just came to talk.”
“They all want to talk. The owner, Mr. Milhous, he can only get-off over the phone.”
“Why don’t you come with---,”
She put a finger to his lips to silence him, leaned over the table next to the bed and began writing a note. It was almost illegible. He could make out the words “stupid” and “rescue.” She tried to write slower. She turned to him and realized she was of two minds. One the one hand, he was the first man to read and respect what she’d written. Sex with him had been good and slow. But then, there was his anger once they had gotten through customs though they’d not been stopped. He had avoided details of why she felt the need to get to Canada and never followed up with her about the notebooks he’d praised. She decided not try to explain anything else to him. Addled as she was, when the door opened again she would lunge for the gun she knew to be taped to the underside of one of the tables. She stopped writing.