Imagine every now and then there is a pristine stillness. The wind simply collapses back into the earth. The waves level back into the ink blue deep. The sun stops climbing or falling, and slides into a big hole in the sky where it could stay conceivably forevermore. Everything has been contained in a snapshot just then; beautiful grandeur in every direction the eye can see; but also faded into sepia, perhaps even warped along the edges, like a photograph veiled by a 6’ X 8’ rectangle of dust upon the stone mantel. There is no virility, no potential for surprise, nothing just then but a lazy memory of a moment in life when the red blood had carried warmth and vigor through the veins.
Of course, this pristine stillness may be observed by anyone. Nature does not play favorites; holding fast to the sheer beauty and reach of a moment only for certain souls who then gaze outward, while billowing, rippling, climbing, or falling for everyone else; like the alluring temptress who reveals what is behind her long coat only for a few select customers. It is just that most of us younger than say eighty-five or ninety do not take the time, nor have that wisdom born and sired of ages, to see what is plainly before us. Eternity happens in the blink of an eye; and then, like an elusive love, it is swept up by events and gone out.
It is the failing eye that sees; the wrinkled brow that relaxes; the curved shoulder that sits upright. We finally learn how to worship about the same time we can no longer push ourselves far in our wheelchairs. This is a blessing, if we are contented to sit there and to behold, simply, quietly. This is a curse, if we still have the fire in the belly to do something with this wisdom.
The blessing and the curse fall away. Impermanence prevails this side of the River Styx, as assuredly as permanence the other. The wind howls up from the earth. The waves burst up from the ink blue deep. The sun slides out from its big hole in the sky and continues to climb or to fall, as the hour may dictate just then. The photograph has been removed from the stone mantel. We either bemoan the thievery, or relish the empty space where once the framed picture had rubbed elbows with others.
Grace Temple is not sure where she sits along the spectrum of those who bemoan on the one side and those who relish on the other. Yes, she is certainly more contemplative now than when her long hair had been fiery red, her lovely eyes had sparkled righteous angel blue, and her high cheekbones had bristled in crimson disapproval of whatever she had determined to be ignorant and wrong. Back then, she had been all fire in the belly; and the years had been like those slower and weaker runners the eventual winner passes along the way.
Today, the racetrack has been reduced to a short and straight path from the hospital bed in a dark and cluttered room to the deck overseeing a brilliant and expansive lake. The racetrack doubles in size on those mornings she stoops into her motorized stair lift, slides into her second wheelchair below, grits just enough strength out from her muscles to push her wheels across the thick living room carpet, and rolls into the vintage kitchen for a bowl of bread pudding and a cup of Earl Grey. She doubles her racetrack on average only twice a week, as she has a stocked kitchenette in her bedroom that works just fine.
Furthermore, even on this reduced racetrack, she is not a winner. Heck, she does not even place in the top ninety percent. About the only runner she is able to pass still is regret, and even that fat and ill-tempered broad is too close for comfort at times. One of these days she suspects that she’ll fall behind that Big Bertha, and when that happens she’ll just stay in bed until it is finally over.
Still, notwithstanding her realization of how her life will end, Grace has enough of the old spitfire in her to put a naughty grin upon her face and to stay hopeful. There are those moments of pristine stillness to which to look forward now and then. There is the vibrant life rustling through the old redwood leaves; slapping across the ink blue lake; climbing, then falling, as the radiated eye on high, when this pristine stillness gives way to the normal hustle of life. Then, of course, there are her own dreams; hidden in the stitchery of the Old Cherokee shawl wrapped about her stooped shoulders; faded most times, and yet, for no reasons that she can fathom, now and then able to burst in her mind in brilliant color and stereo sound. She thinks that sometimes these dreams are memories, or a hybrid of the two; but, in her advanced age, she has decided that it really does not matter. Past is prelude; memories are hopes; and the virile life that is teeming still beneath the old and wrinkled brow makes up for the weak flesh.
When she is not making the long and arduous trip down the staircase and into her vintage kitchen, Grace slips into one of her floral sundresses (whatever one happens to be on the top of the pile within reach of her old paper wrapped hospital pillow), sinks into her wheelchair, grabs the Old Cherokee shawl off of the foot of the bed, and pushes through the billowy curtain and into the warm, inviting sun. Her wheels creak ‘good morning’ on the craggy redwood boards of her deck. Her nose perks up to take in all the smells in the wind. Her blue eyes bloom with just enough of a red rose hue to appear royal purple in the sunlight; and, indeed, how appropriate that her eyes should be queenly vestments, since she then takes her favorite spot beside the deck rail with the regal bearing of a woman her throne. And there she sits, stooped beneath her shawl, but sparkled brilliance in her eyes, smiling over that ink blue lake that meanders shapelessly out in every direction. And when the wind lifts and rustles her stark, white hair just so, she adds song to that smile, and praises the high beauty of her domain.
Over the years, Grace has become a fixture on her throne overseeing her domain. But like most anything that has been around a long time, fewer people each year bother to take note. Of course, part of this has to do with the overall decline in the number of ‘outta towners’ deciding to spend the summer renting the chateaus and cabins along the banks. Since the feds finally completed their new interstate extension in the county, thus connecting the populated cities of Beverly and Manchester to the twenty-first century beyond the county line, the Winnebagos and the station wagons have been heading to the resorts along the coast. There is more to do out there; better facilities; reliable satellite T.V. for the adults and Wi-Fi for the kiddies; even an amusement park built upon a man made island a few miles offshore named ‘Water Max’ and said to rival anything ever dreamt up by Walt Disney or Donald Trump.
There are the ‘year rounders,’ but most of them belong to the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ and so are dying off in droves. The youngest of the ‘year rounders’ are the retired police chief from the Redwood Township, Bill Borden, and his wife, Charlotte; and the two of them are in their early seventies. About ten years ago, on any given day, there would have been about a dozen or so of these ‘year rounders’ rowing their canoes across the deep lake, or casting their baits from the rocky banks, or just biding their time on a rocking chair perched atop a creaky redwood deck much as her own. Now, the ‘year rounders’ can be counted on a single hand that is missing a few fingers; and two of these geezers are even more bedridden than Grace. It seems that Bill Borden is the last man to offer her a friendly wave now and then, while he is fishing for bass on his old rowboat. He is a big man in a ten gallon hat; a heart attack waiting to happen, Grace surmises; and so she imagines that there may be a day soon when she is a queen without a single subject remaining to offer her glad tidings, but for the wind sifting in and out of the redwoods, and an occasional sparrow descending from out of nowhere just before dusk. She likes Bill Borden, though in truth she does not know him more than to exchange ‘hello’ and ‘happy day’ with the big lawman; but she will not shed a tear if someday it turns out that she has all of the lake to herself. The wind, the water, the sun, these are the ‘year rounders’ who really matter in her mind. They are the last of her friends and confidants.
The ‘outta towners’ are departing and the ‘year rounders’ are dying off, because that is what happens to a place that has grown stale with its advanced age. Wild Indian Lake is nestled in the mouth of a long extinct volcano. Some of the old timers (those who smoked too much dope in the sixties, Grace chuckles to herself) insist that there is a ‘living energy field’ in the lake. If and when the ‘living energy field’ is tapped (whatever the heck that means), then a lucky son of a gun (always a country hick with a six-pack dangling from his right hand, or so Grace imagines) just goes to wherever it is he has wanted most always to go (Budweiser Land with Seventy-Two Virgins in tow, Grace goes on to think with a haughty laugh and a disapproving nod). For such old timers, Wild Indian Lake is ‘the Oasis,’ and it is to be revered as much as Stonehenge across the pond. For Grace, steeped as she is in the practical mind of science, and so focused on the beauty that is really there, rather than fancied in mystical delusions (though in truth, are those dream-memories in which she invests so much hope actually all that different?), Wild Indian Lake is ‘Crater Lake.’ After all, it really is a crater of a long extinct volcano; and the word ‘crater’ connotes a heavy deepness, at times even a pristine stillness, that she finds so much more comforting than the thought of rampaging Indians. Still, regardless of its name, it is like any extinct volcano a dormant and remote place in the minds of those who have chosen to live in the twenty-first century. For them, the tired, old lake surrounded by the snow-covered crests of the Redwood Mountains; the century old large chateaus and quaint cabins along the banks; the unpaved road (at times little more than a trail) that goes around the lake and then dips down into that beleaguered and windy Route 11; the bedridden geezers hooked up to those stocky oxygen tanks on account of all those Marlboros they smoked over the years; and, finally, that white haired, stooped, crazy old bat in the wheelchair grinning and singing into the wind, well, taken one at a time, they are just soft whispers from a bygone era, but taken all together, they are the cobwebs and tombstones of a rejected graveyard. No wonder the ‘twenty-first century crowd’ exits stage right, or dies off; and it is just hunky-dory that they do, Grace thinks. Leave ‘Crater Lake’ to the blessed few (or in the end, the one), who really appreciate it for what it is.
* * *
Bill Borden did not row his old boat passed her steady gaze today. For all she knows, he may have had that heart attack waiting to happen. If indeed the big lawman had clutched his exhausted heart, and had fallen into that six-foot deep grave that has been following him about like a shadow for God knows how long, then he is probably gone for good. The doctors down in Beverly every day do a workmanlike job in recharging spent batteries and cleaning out gunk from rotted pistons; but they can do only so much with the patients brought to their attention, when it takes the paramedics the better part of an hour to climb the two-lane Route 11. Usually, when one of the ‘year rounders’ has a nasty fall, or sees that his time drooling all over his hospital bed pillow mercifully has ended, the wife who is about to become a widow dispenses with the 911. Instead, she will call the Cloud 9 Mortuary and Bingo Parlor (‘Free Bingo’ every Tuesday and Friday nights offers the frail and sniveling mortician, Ebenezer Claws, a chance to showcase his merchandise to the ‘seasoned citizens’ who show up to spend a few hours grumbling that they cannot hear the soft-spoken letters and numbers announcer, who seems to have no first name of her own and so answers only to the formal Mrs. Claws). Old Ebenezer will arrive the same day in his deep black hearse, offer his perfunctory condolences, and cart the stiff away as if a bag of goods. Sometimes, the widow will accompany him down the mountain, since so many of the blue-haired ‘year rounders’ never learned how to drive.
Or maybe Bill Borden just decided not to fish for bass this afternoon. He does reserve the right to do something else with his retirement after all. So far as she knows, he may have spent the slow hours, listening to Lawrence Welk on the one radio station that they can get up here, or sleeping on his rocking chair with the latest edition of The Saturday Evening Post as his chest blanket. There is so much to do at ‘Crater Lake’ when the sun takes its time to travel from the easternmost mountain peak to the westernmost. Dying from a heart attack just waiting to happen is one of several options, Grace reminds herself with a shrug.
She turns her attention back to the burgundy red receding swiftly behind the westernmost peak. It is so brilliant in its last stand of virility, but it is dying nonetheless. Everywhere else the sky has taken on that somber purple cast that suggests a corpse about ready to decompose.
A cowering breeze tickles the back of her neck. It is such a dismal touch; really no more than a shivering paw of a scaredy cat; she had not noticed it for a while. Perhaps she never would have noticed it, but for the sudden hoot of an owl that draws her out from her own mind a brief moment.
She looks around but cannot see the owl. No matter, as there is only one owl in these parts, and she has seen its stodgy, professorial eyes and ridiculous, overdone, feather tuxedo so many times since she has been relegated by health and age to a wheelchair, she knows who it is.
The breeze picks up. It is uncomfortably cold now. Time to go inside and to fetch a yogurt from the icebox in her kitchenette. She likes her Trader Joe’s goat yogurt, especially as it means she does not have to try to find her clammy, worn out dentures somewhere in that godless clutter.
She slumps forward, and pushes across the deck. Now, the same wheels creak ‘goodnight’ on the craggy redwood boards, as she escapes behind the tall and heavy curtain. Once pulled aside, the curtain flutters a moment in the cold breeze; but then it is as still as if she never had been there.
As she passes by the foot of her hospital bed, she considers removing her Old Cherokee shawl. It is not cold in here. Indeed, with the tall curtain settling back into place, it is a bit stuffy. But then she rubs against the stitchery. There are so many dreams woven in there; so many memories ripe for the touch; and, with her face relaxing into a hopeful smile, she decides to hang on a bit longer tonight. She readjusts the shawl about her little shoulders, and pushes forward.
She removes a goat yogurt from the icebox. There is a spoon somewhere nearby. It is probably beneath all that unopened mail in the kitchenette sink. It is such a pain in the derriere pushing all that mail aside just to find a spoon, so why not indulge one of the privileges of advanced age and scoop out the vanilla yogurt with her right index and middle fingers? She remembers from her youth; back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, Grace chuckles; she had heard that weak and diminutive man who would become her husband, but who was then a belittled and besieged caregiver for his overbearing grandmother, remark to no one in particular in his typically apologetic voice: Once a lady turns eighty, she can say or do whatever she wants without reproach. That is as it should be…
Ah, with Horace Temple, it had been always as it should be. She cannot remember for sure now. It is so long ago, but she thinks that is why she married the small and unattractive man who had been greyed and stooped prematurely by his gorgon of a grandmother. Yes, he had had money; but she had been born and raised in a good family as well. Yes, he had made his affections quite clear what with the white carnations and love poems (simple nature verses written in his own soft hand) left discreetly on her porch; but she had had many would be suitors pursuing her then. What set Horace apart was his unambiguous sense of right and wrong. He would do what should be done.
And so when a lady turns eighty, she should be able to rip off the plastic lid to her goat yogurt and to eat the happy goo with her right index and middle fingers. Grace passed that milestone a long time ago, so why she should endure even a moment of hesitation is beyond her.
Grace wheels over to the Steinway Grand on the other side of her master bedroom. It is much too large for this space. The keys either are out of tune or missing altogether. The black wood has been covered by so much dust over the years as to be impervious to a duster (not that Grace has even tried to clean up since giving up the cane for the wheelchair). But it makes an ideal platform for her many framed photographs and jewelry pieces; sepia toned whispers from a distant past laid out on a cloud of grey dust; memories kept around on the old, cracked surface of other memories. It has not uttered a sound in years, but the Steinway Grand nonetheless offers a stage for the many ghosts in Grace’s mind.
And one of those ghosts, really, in a way, the first ghost, is the righteous and dull Horace Temple. It takes a while to find his framed 6’ X 8’ photograph. It is somewhere in the midst of a grand military parade of framed photographs; and yet the moment she sees his solemn moon face, weak mustache, and flimsy comb over (always absently falling back over his forehead, so that he appears a bit clueless and disheveled), he is once more pacing nervously at her front door and rehearsing how he is going to say ‘good morning, Miss Hart’ and ‘ah, you’re looking so lovely this fine day.’ These are not difficult lines; but that poor man needs to rehearse them since he stutters when excited; and so Miss Grace Hart, as kind as she is pretty on the eve of her nineteenth year, takes her merry time in coming down from her bedroom. Grace’s mother, Alice, sees through a crack in the drapes just how much of a ‘Nervous Nelson’ he is and so mercifully takes her time in answering the door. Grace’s father, Henry, would not have been as kind; but he is then in Manhattan with his fellow ‘Victory Bond’ profiteers (and, of course, that Southern Belle mistress of his that he has stashed away in a fine pied-a-terre on Fifth Avenue and who will put a bullet through his forehead one year to the day later). It is just as well. Horace always had been a bit womanly (probably ‘one of the boys,’ Alice had reflected once, notwithstanding his clear and persistent attempts to win over Grace’s affections). A heavy dose of Henry Hart’s brusque ‘charm’ (occasioned by the kind of vicious backslaps that would have knocked that mustache off of his upper lip) no doubt would have sent him onto his knees. Grace would have pitied him then; and that in turn would have ended any prospects, since a lady can never really love a man whom she pities.
In the framed photograph, he is posing in his crimson red smoking jacket (vaguely dark in the black and white photograph, but Grace can recall the color well enough), while puffing on his pipe. He is solemn and professorial; a stuffed shirt with penetrating owl eyes (the size of his eyes augmented in contrast with the small and frail pince-nez perched daintily on the tip of his nose); a man not older than forty-five, but greyed and stooped in the manner of a man twenty or so years older. The photograph had been taken on the occasion of his admission into the Manhattan Men of Letters. In truth, he had neither the smarts, nor the discipline, to be an academic, let alone a ‘man of letters.’ But he came from a good family (‘one of the best,’ Alice had gloated, when first informing Henry of their daughter’s suitor); and his great grandfather, Percival, had had something to do with the founding of a university; and so he had not been blackballed. No doubt his greatest personal triumph, apart from surviving his grandmother, and marrying Grace, he would be dead a month later from a ruptured artery. A kind of ‘heart quake,’ the cardiologist had explained to a stunned, and also notably expecting, twenty year old Grace Temple, just a few hours after the poor man had fallen dead onto Park Avenue with the white carnation he had purchased at a flower stand for his bride. Even at the end, he did what he should have done.
But as Grace looks at the framed photograph, she is not remembering his smoking jacket, nor his pipe, nor for that matter his corpse at the morgue (just as frail as he had been in life, except a bit bluer in color, and surprisingly given how he had died, less strained and somber looking in his face). Instead, she has returned to that clear summer day more than a year before his death, when he finally had summoned the courage to visit her in person, rather than to leave a white carnation or a love letter on the doorstep and to run for the hills. He has on his version of ‘casual attire’ (jacket and scarf, even though it is noon in the middle of June 1944); and notwithstanding his valiant attempt at rehearsal, he is stuttering so badly as to be spitting all over the porch before the front door. Grace wonders if she is helping the poor man by deliberately taking her time in her bedroom, or if she is prolonging his agony. She imagines a black scaredy cat whose paw has been caught in a trap. Its owner sees what has happened, and is able to release the trap at any time, but then takes her merry time in doing so.
Good morning, Miss Hart, Horace says with a courtly bow, when Alice at last opens the door. Oh, I mean, Mrs. Hart. Forgive my presumption…
It is noon; Alice corrects him with a charming smile. And there is nothing to forgive. A Madame always loves to be mistaken for a Mademoiselle.
Ah, yes, of course, Horace flutters about for the next sentence. I assume from your fair countenance that that is a common mistake.
Horace definitely hit the jackpot with that comment. Alice beams, urges him inside, and then calls for her daughter to come down at once to meet with this ‘charming gentleman.’
Grace has learned the art and the importance of making an entrance. As the one and only student at Alice’s finishing school for nineteen years, the ever so kind and pretty debutante has been molded into that finest manifestation of womanhood; equally regal and foolish; meant to charm, but never to threaten, the men who make the world go round. Her life tasks are threefold: to find the best husband (someone from a good family who will adore her, maybe even for a while romance her, but hopefully never excite her); to become a socialite (no other employment required, if she has married well enough, and no more than a superficial knowledge of any one of the safe conversation topics that may be entertained at a cocktail party), and to take on a charity that is especially near and dear to her heart (so long as what is near and dear is not also political, let alone controversial, as we would all agree that such matters should be handled by the men who make the world go round). In essence, her mother has molded her to be a First Lady (not like that awful Mrs. Roosevelt, of course, but like all those forgettable Republican First Ladies who had preceded her); and, so far as Grace knows at that time in her life, she neither can nor should endeavor to be anything else. Like her prospective suitor, she too will do what should be done.
Ah, you’re looking so lovely this fine day, Horace remarks from memory.
Grace smiles prettily, but she does not say anything. One of the primary lessons hammered home by nineteen years of Alice’s finishing school is that the proper lady, like a child, is meant to be seen, but not heard. While she realizes that she is playing a role (debutante princess meeting her would be suitor), she does not sense that there is anything inauthentic in hewing so closely to a tried and true script written out for her before she had been born. Truly, are we not all actors and actresses on a vast stage? Is not the sun the spotlight? Are not all the people with whom we interact either cast members or extras, depending of course on how important they feature in our lives?
Yes, Grace is her mother’s creation; molded over the years in Alice’s wry observations, or downcast eyes, or disapproving nods (whichever gesture works best at the moment to get Grace to conform to Alice’s point of view); burnt by the potter’s fire on the very few occasions that Alice has felt the need to close the bedroom door, to draw the bedroom curtain, and to raise holy hell with her daughter. To a lesser extent, Grace is her father’s creation, too. From him, she has learned that everyone else is a pawn to be moved across the chessboard for ones personal advantage. If her mother molds her into an actress (a star actress of course, since it will not do for Alice’s daughter to be a supporting character, let alone an extra), then her father molds her into a director (eyeing the stage, blocking the actors, cueing the lights and the music). It turns out that Grace is not a manipulative bitch; but at this tender age, when most girls and boys tend toward self-absorbed behavior, that probably has more to do with the fact that Henry Hart has not been around enough to be more influential in her life. She is not ‘daddy’s little girl’ (though she plays the part well when he walks her down the aisle what with her blushing cheeks and trembling tears). She is not totally her ‘mother’s daughter,’ though she veers more to that side than elsewhere.
The main reason she does not see anything inauthentic in hewing so near to a script is that all her life she has been a dreamer. In public, she skims style and fashion magazines, pointing and laughing pretentiously at a model adorned in something decidedly passé, offering her voice to the quaint prejudices of her class about this or that film personality; but in private (usually after hours, and by candlelight while hidden in her closet), she reads serious fiction. Hers is the mind that soars and questions. Sometimes, like Daedalus, her questions get too close to the heat of the sun, and she falls to the ground, not seriously wounded on account of her young and resilient age, but wiser than she will admit. Other times, like Dante, her curious mind descends into the darker realms, where the Ouija and Automatic Writing prevail. Again, so far as she can tell, she has never been seriously wounded. Her head never spins, and her body never levitates off of her bed. But she is wise enough to know that there are bigger forces at play out there; the Powers and the Principalities donning their war costumes, taking up their swords, and doing battle at the Armageddon Theater; and that we too, women and men alike, have roles to play, if only they will learn their lines, put on their costumes, and act decisively when they hear their cues.
We do not deceive when we don our masks and hew to our scripts, even when, for the most part, those scripts have been written out for us by someone else. As for authenticity, we are most real when we are acting out our roles. It is the person who never takes the stage who is suspect in her nineteen-year-old mind. What is he trying to hide in refusing to stand before a watchful audience? Or does he presume that real life is so much different than the fantastic stories we read by candlelight? Real life may pale by comparison, that is true. In a real life scenario, a handsome prince is not likely to marry a simple peasant girl just because hers is the foot that fits the slipper. But, fundamentally, it is much the same: We live out our lives like characters in a story. There are some triumphs, some tragedies, even a few Merry Wives of Windsor along the way; and Act V is always going to fade to black after a death scene. The Christian faith then goes on to insist that there is an epilogue. It is called the Resurrection, first of Jesus Christ, then of the sheep and the goats. Even on the eve of her nineteenth year in this world, Grace is not so sure about that epilogue; and, as she grows older (and she presumes wiser), she will give up on that epilogue altogether. But, for a girl who is outwardly little more than a pretty blush and a shy smile, Grace is wise beyond her years in realizing an intrinsic authenticity in performing a role.
Surely, Grace must have said something in that first visit. But, whatever it may have been in substance, no doubt it had come across to her mother and her would be suitor as properly superficial and sparse. Horace finished that call with a promise to return; Alice answered with a promise to receive him with as much joy and comfort as on this occasion; and Grace remained all smiles, while sitting off to the side and nibbling on a cucumber sandwich. Grace would have taken his hand and nodded, when Horace had stood up to leave; and from that very moment, the invisible clock that governs matters of the heart would begin its tick-tock progression to a wedding march at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
The wedding had been a pretty affair. In Alice’s view, it had been happy enough, but not too exciting, and most of the ‘best people’ had attended with little to no coaxing. Thus, by any measure, it had been a success. For Henry, all smiles and hearty bravado as ‘the proud father of the bride,’ it would turn out to be his last happy moment with his wife and daughter, before finishing off his last drunken rage by succumbing to a bullet in his forehead. For Horace, it had been his first real triumph in a life marked by one setback after another. A part of him wished that his grandmother had been there to see him standing before such a beautiful woman. A larger part of him knew that, if she had been there, she would have figured out a way to belittle him even at that poignant moment in his life; and so, on the whole, he was happy that she had travelled on to that grassy knoll in the sky. He hated himself for being happy. It was not how he, or anyone else, should feel about her death then; but he simply could not deny it.
Ironically, even though every wedding is first and foremost a celebration of the bride, the wedding did not figure that much in Grace’s life, neither then nor in her recollection. It had been a pretty affair. That had been it. She had a vague memory of the particulars the next day, and none whatsoever before her husband had fallen face first onto the sidewalk along Park Avenue. If Grace had admitted her lack of memory to anyone, then they would have ascribed it most likely to that strange, and slightly unsettling, ‘bridal fog’ that afflicts nearly all brides to some extent. There are just too many sensations all at once: all those happy faces offering their congratulations and best wishes; all those light bulbs flashing; all those boys lending their voices to the heavenly choir; all those girls prancing about with ribbons and flowers; all that rice flying down from on high; all those champagne flutes, and toasts, and weeping relatives recounting when the bride or the groom had said or done something adorable in the third grade; all that exhausted, drunken, and ultimately underperforming sex in the billowy honeymoon bed sometime after midnight. There is just way too much wedding in a wedding, and so the mind tunes it out as if in reaction to sensory overload.
No doubt, ‘bridal fog’ had played a part in her lack of recollection; but even then, and more so later, Grace sensed that her lack of recollection indeed had a lot more to do with how really unimportant that day had been for her. In a way, from the start, she had known that this would be a temporary marriage, just a first step in the many steps that she would take along the windy path she had chosen. Her mother may have written out her script, but she knew already that she had chosen the path on which she would respond to her cues and read out her lines. And though Horace Temple would be a featured character on the path that she had chosen (important enough to have his headshot and his name printed in the official program), he would exit stage left long before Act V. She would be stunned and saddened by the news of his death; but after the terrible shock had subsided, she would admit to herself that, indeed, this is as it should be. She had been destined to carry his surname, and she would do so with pride the rest of her life. But she had not been destined to be the socialite wife of an earnest, but ultimately unsuccessful, trust fund baby, no matter his kind heart.
* * *
Grace feels the wind whispering upon her right cheek, and for a moment she stirs from her memories. The bedroom is still stuffy; but the breeze outside has strengthened into a wind that moans through the thick curtain and caresses her tired face. At first, it is the stranger in the night; dangerous, but alluring; a cold ghost hand sliding down from her cheek, over her shawl, and onto her lap; but then, somewhere in the distance outside, there is again that familiar hoot. All at once the stranger is a comfortable friend; a frequent guest come over to pass the time before the final night cap; not dangerous, therefore not exciting, the first ghost along a path that promises a long line of them before the finale.
Grace returns to the solemn moon face, the weak mustache, the flimsy comb over. The wind dies off, but not before quivering the flames on the many long burning candles spread over the top of the Steinway Grand. The flickering, whispering lights cast their shadows; and, for a brief moment, that unappealing face of her one and only husband seems to come alive. The poor man had been much too timid to sport a pulse. In many ways, his ‘heart quake’ had not been a premature death, so much as death finally catching up to and acknowledging how he had been living his life. If death had not been so otherwise occupied by all those other souls out there, then it likely would have dropped him unto that sidewalk long before, or maybe even dropped him inside his mother’s womb. It is not a kind thought, but it is true; and on the eve of her eighty-ninth birthday Grace is much more inclined to be honest than nice, even if her mother rolls in her Episcopal grave just now in response to her daughter’s haughty unkindness. Haughtiness, mind you, is always the prerogative of the wellborn, but haughty unkindness, well, no doubt there is a condemnation set aside for that sin inside the creased and thumb marked pages of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
But see how the shadows contort his face. Why, the poor man looks alive just then, like he is setting aside his preposterous pipe, smiling knowingly, and speaking to her from his High Church Lutheran grave. In a morbid way, it would be sexy, or at least debonair, if she did not remember far too well how the real life Horace Temple had eschewed all things sexy and debonair as ‘unromantic.’ For him, sweetly aromatic sunlight, birds chirping in dew, moss singing lullabies to the newborn swan, these were the fancies of a ‘romantic’ soul, not sexiness, or debonair sophistication. He would pose with his pipe and his pomposity to all the gentlemen who would give him the time of day; but for his wife, he figured that any and all such exhibitions of manliness were gross or indecent somehow. For his wife, he was a sweet and loving puppy dog. He never posed around her. He never smoked, if she might be near enough to wander into the sitting room, and to see him with his oversized pipe in hand. It was like, in a way, he wanted everything with her to be innocent, pretty, and kind, like he imagined a proper childhood should be. He certainly had not had a pretty and kind childhood, and his grandmother had stamped out whatever innocence he may have grabbed for himself from the vague and disparate memories he had of his own youth. Grace had been his last stab at goodness. Not that he was not good; indeed, in all his habits and intentions, he was nothing, but good. But even more so than success and acclaim, he wanted goodness, like a sad boy wanting the one gift that even Santa Claus could not provide him. Oh, poor man, so unlike the sexy image that flickered over his solemn moon face just now. Really, not like that man at all…
Grace remembers vividly the first time she had met that man. Horace is back from one of his trips to Manhattan. He had spent the weekend wining and dining the Manhattan Men of Letters, because he had heard from a ‘real friend’ on the inside that they were close to making a final decision on his membership in the esteemed club. Now, Horace never had a ‘real friend.’ Men despise what they sniff out as weak; and, of course, it never even occurred to Horace that a woman could be a friend; a beloved wife, yes, but not a friend. And so, Horace counted the mildest acquaintance, even at times the help, as his ‘real friends,’ and he lavished them with gifts and attention accordingly. Well, one such ‘real friend’ had given him a wink and a nod; and in turn, he had spent thousands on bottles of wine, plates of caviar, and imported cigars for the boorish professors who would be deciding his fate. The swanky dinners must have gone well, since he does not wait to remove his coat before landing a wet one onto Grace’s lips.
She smiles prettily, but of course says nothing. He asks her to pack a bag for a few nights at his chateau on the banks of the Wild Indian Lake. Oh, actual victory is in his grasp, just like it is now in the grasp of Patton’s Boys advancing through Italy. Should not a man celebrate his victory with that woman he loves?
He winds the Bentley up Route 11, never accelerating passed thirty miles an hour, checking his rearview mirror every ten seconds or so, wiping sweat off his brow repeatedly. He really has nothing to fear. Traffic is almost unheard of on the two-lane road that ascends from Beverly to the heights of the Redwood Mountains. Oh, there are a few greasy cars parked alongside Wild Injun Tavern; and once, a Model T put-put-puts down the opposite side of that two-lane road so slowly that the driver has enough time to wave and to shout out a neighborly greeting to Horace as the two cars pass. But otherwise there is nothing to fear, except of course for fear itself. Nonetheless, Horace is so afraid just the same. He lives in his fear. Really, he would be dead already, but for the fear pumping cold blood through his veins, and dripping warm sweat down his chubby cheeks.
Grace is enchanted. She has never been to the chateau. It figures rather significantly in her imagination, because Horace speaks of it often as the place that had inspired the nature verses that he had written for her in his own hand.
Grace has not read much fiction since exchanging vows. She is much too busy tending to the affairs of the Temple home in town; a full time occupation of chatting with the women who show up unannounced for high tea (usually the blue hairs who had known Horace’s grandmother and so carry on the traditional Victorian manner of showing up uninvited and staying much too long); also, the moral responsibility not only of overseeing the help but of inquiring about their wellbeing. By the time Horace returns from whatever activity occupies his days (certainly not work, since a trust fund baby would never be so crass as to work, but nevertheless something industrious and charitable), she is too exhausted to re-read the fantasy and romance novels that had so occupied her youth. So she has atrophied a bit in the reading department, but her imagination remains the same as ever. It soars the heights, descends the depths, and plays the strings of an angel’s harp. It is the wanderlust that excites her heart; and since it is quite easily concealed beneath her dresses and shawls, the heart is the one bit of her body and soul that she allows still to be excited. Everything else must remain in all respects pretty and kind, neither lame nor excited, just pleasantly in limbo.
Route 11 winds up and around Old Chief Snakehead Mountain. The name most likely comes from the fact that the southernmost mountain in the vaunted Redwood Mountains looks like an Indian Chief’s headdress from a distance. Why the ‘snakehead’ reference God only knows. And yet, as they wind about the big redwood trees and grassy knolls along the side of the craggy old slope, does she not sense vaguely that they are climbing slowly but surely back into the mythic Garden of Eden? She is not so sure that God exists, but she knows that that wily snake sure does. It is a dangerous charmer. It does not do what it should do, so it is not husband material. But it dresses so well, looks out into the lush garden through passionate eyes, and melts the heart of those women it meets upon its path. She is not so sure that ‘it’ is a ‘he,’ since she has never met a real man in her twenty years of life who excites her as the snake does. Maybe it is a smiling Don Juan in a dream, or a passing sparkle in a man’s pupils, but a real life, full-blooded human being? She cannot say; and at that moment, she does not care, because ‘It’ is as powerful for her in the gentle sway of the huge redwood trees alongside the road (a gentle sway reminiscent of a snake charmer’s snake doing its dance) as ‘it’ would be if ‘it’ were a real man loving her with his black eyes.
The two-lane road ends abruptly near the crest, but there is an unpaved, unmarked pathway slithering off to the side at that point. A casual driver never would see it. He would turn around at the ‘look out,’ scratch his head, and just go back down from where he came. But those few lucky souls ‘in the know’ just glance into their rearview mirrors to make sure no ‘outta towners’ can observe what they are about to do, slow down their cars to less than ten miles per hour (not hard for Horace to do, since that is his preferred speed anyway), and slide discreetly onto the dirt pathway. It is like knocking on the door of a speakeasy, or sliding into the bed of some other man’s wife. It is a quiet and careful action certainly, but beneath the surface it is a bit naughty (entering a secret path to a secret hideaway nestled in the mouth of a long extinct volcano), and so it is a bit exhilarating. People love exclusivity; and an unpaved, unmarked pathway to a place about which few have heard and fewer still have visited frankly cannot be more exclusive. Just to hit the point home, one of the ‘year rounders’ some years ago added a homemade sign along the side of the pathway that reads in boldface: ‘Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here…Especially Ye Outta Towners!’
At one point, the unpaved, unmarked pathway ascends the slope at such a sharp angle of attack that Grace imagines that they are rocketing (albeit at a snail’s pace with Horace behind the steering wheel) directly into the sun. For a moment, she is blinded; but she also sees more then than she would ever see in the many years to follow. From then onward, the Redwood Mountains would be her home; the wellspring of her creative mind; the nurture of her heart; and in the excess feeling of a particular moment, the wind in her hair, and the sunset in her eyes, that will wound her so. But, of course, she does not know that yet. She sees, but she does not know, notwithstanding how wise she is for her years.
Horace does not see any of this. This is always the most frightening part of the trip for him. How can he know for sure that the Bentley will not just roll back? Who can say that no one will fly over the cliff above and crash into them?
Finally, the pathway levels off. It is now no more than a trail alongside a huge lake that meanders in between the peaks of the Redwood Mountains; but, for the most part, it is even and visible. And yet Horace seems as frightened as before. He tries to shrug it off with a half grin, but the sweat keep poring down his forehead. He has wiped his face so often that his cuffs seem saturated with a kind of rotten smelling oil. There is even sweat in the lenses of his pince-nez, so that he has to look over his glasses to see clearly where he is driving.
He is so grateful that his wife pretends not to notice. But, in fact, Grace does not notice, because she is so truly enamored with the natural beauty that is all around her. Perhaps the memory has a way of cleaning up those especially poignant moments; erasing the unattractive details in the periphery; making all of it seem in retrospect so much brighter and clearer than is possible in reality; but, regardless, that first trip to the chateau stands out as the perfect moment in a life that would be marked by considerable beauty and adventure.
The chateaus and cabins were old even then; and yet every one of them, then and in retrospect, appears to be glistening in the brilliant sun from a fresh coat of paint. The ‘Victory Gardens’ out front; the mailboxes on wooden posts; the tire swings hanging from enormous branches over the cleanest lake any pair of eyes has ever seen; every detail is a blend of Norman Rockwell or Storybook Land. Up here, over the cliff, and in between the peaks, there is no global war, no racial segregation, no wife beatings, no poverty. There is just soft prettiness beneath a deep, blue sky. There is just frail beauty beneath a sun that reigns in the heavens, as well it should, but that also seems so close as to be touched by the smallest exertion of the imagination. Even the fragile birds sound as if they are chirping Wordsworth verses. Oh, the creative inspiration, if only an opened heart lounges on the banks and cups her ear toward those soft singing feathers!
If that had been all, then Grace would have retained her kind smile (not yet so far removed from her mother’s knee); but her heart would have sunk on the side of Wild Indian Lake, as surely as it had arisen when climbing that steep slope. She does not see anything in particular, except for Norman Rockwell and Storybook Land; but when her eyes float dreamily over the ink blue waters, she sees the danger lurking just beneath all that tranquility. It is not evil, just risky and unpredictable, like something that could just happen at any moment.
Sort of like, well, a kind of ‘heart quake,’ the cardiologist will explain to her in the very near future. Something that could just happen at any moment…
Horace turns at his blue mailbox (the same shade of blue as his cold skin when Grace identifies his corpse at the morgue), descends the driveway at such a slow pace that his tires barely creep over the rocks in his path, and stops just before the front porch. He stinks of perspiration. His lips still tremble from fear only a boy hiding beneath his bed sheets can know. And yet as soon as he is out of the car, and opening his wife’s door, he is as giddy as when he had given her a wet one in the foyer. He remembers why they are celebrating; how truly near he is to that victory that has eluded him so very long; and so he has to restrain himself from tossing aside his manners and just running into his lakeside retreat ahead of the woman he loves.
It takes him a while to fumble for the right key in his pocket. He unlocks the front door, and creaks it open. It is desperately dark inside; a pungent odor reminiscent of Ben-Gay and mildew; a brief whisper of stale air that escapes at once through the open doorway, followed by the heavy and mournful silence of a mausoleum late at night. He steps inside like this is normal; and for Horace it is, since the house shoulders still the clawing life of his dead grandmother. She had spent her last years screaming senile vitriol at her sensitive grandson inside these wooden walls. She had given up her ghost (or more likely her demon) just after telling off her weak grandson one more time and climbing onto her soiled and bloodied hospital bed for another night of restless nightmares. Even though he had moved into town after her burial, he had never really departed this old and comfortable shoe; and so in a way, he is celebrating with his grandmother, as much as with his wife. Perhaps both women figure the same in his mind; the one young and kind; the other old and ornery; but both requiring the attention, and respectful affection, of a gentleman caregiver. A man loves who he serves.
Still, while very much aware that he is in his grandmother’s chateau, he is much too excited not to be at least a little naughty. And so he drops the two overnight bags in the foyer, grabs his wife by the hand, and pulls her up the old and creaky staircase. Grace is taken aback by his giddiness. It is so far removed from his normal, steady somberness. But she is happy to be a bit shocked, since the thrill of wondering what her wacky husband is up to has erased the creepy, haunted feeling that had fallen over her like a wet sheet.
Horace leads her into the master bedroom. It is the biggest room in that chateau, and yet it feels the smallest. Grace senses that she is entering a dark, cramped, cobwebby cave. Her imagination is not too far off the mark, because Horace needs to wipe thick cobwebs aside in order to find the tall candle upon the table nearest the door, and when he lights that candle the rest of the thick cobwebs look like ghouls hanging dead from the rafters.
He places the candle on the Steinway Grand, sits before the keys (better tuned then than now, but not by much), offers his wife a shy smile (poor man is not able to look mischievous, even when he is being mischievous), lets out one deep sigh, and slams out his happy-clappy take on Happy Days are Here Again.
Grace cries out in delight. If only her mother could hear him now playing that Roosevelt song. She never knew Horace’s grandmother, but she figures the old witch would have shared in her mother’s shock and indignation.
Grace steps passed the hospital bed (still indented where that old witch had sunk her dead weight into the mattress and had snarled out one last breath for the ages), pulls aside the curtain, and slides open the door. She is blinded a moment by the penetrating sunlight, but she does not hesitate. She moves onto the deck like a captain about to survey her sea crew. She leans on the deck rail (the same spot where she will stoop forward in her wheelchair so many decades and withheld tears later), and lets the wind blow her striking, red hair like it is a proud banner. She is proud then; but even more so, she is near orgasmic with the sense of alluring danger snapping over the tranquil waters like the spirit let free to roam the primordial depths. There is something explosive here. Just the thin veneers of Norman Rockwell tranquility and Storybook Land charm restrain that something (or maybe it is that elusive someone) from bursting out in every direction, like a quake rippling out from a single point deep beneath the earth.
Later, when Horace has finished his ragtime play, and has removed all of the contents from the two overnight bags and folded them neatly into drawers, he mentions offhandedly to his wife that they will be entertaining a doctor and his wife later that same evening. Just a few hotdogs on the grill, like when the Roosevelts entertained the Windsors on the eve of the Second World War. With that FDR reference, the two recall his silly play on the Steinway Grand, and let loose a barrel of laughs. They never had been that giddy with each other prior, and it turns out that they never would be again. Grace suspects that it is not so much because Horace would be dead soon. Even if he had lived to be a hundred and six, the two of them together probably would never have laughed like that again. After all, it is not what a husband should do with the woman he so loves.
As evening approaches, Grace starts to wonder about this doctor. Horace refers to him as one of his ‘real friends,’ though interestingly he never says his name (or if he does then Grace does not now remember that name spoken from her husband’s lips). The mysterious friend is simply ‘the doctor,’ though Horace implies that he is an esteemed professor somewhere in the liberal arts, instead of a medical doctor. The female half is simply ‘the doctor’s wife’ (or very often ‘the wife’). Horace does not seem to know anything about her. He presumes of course that she comes from a ‘good family,’ and so he cannot imagine a reason to think anything more about her. Neither can Grace, for that matter; but ‘the doctor’ starts to figure prominently in her imagination as the sunlight fades off to the west. She imagines a gentleman in his mid-forties with an exquisite taste in clothes and a dapper smile. She even sees the silk handkerchief in his jacket pocket punctuating his presence before her with a touch of crimson red, not on that man the color of a fading blush, but rather of a virile splash of blood. That man is a seasoned man of letters, no doubt one of her husband’s sponsors come up from Manhattan; but Grace surmises he is also a dangerous man, the kind of man who carries secrets in the inside pocket of his jacket alongside his case of imported cigars, maybe even the kind of man who has committed murder once in an especially dark and passionate manner (and not over a disagreement with some other academic about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock). Surely, this is all a flight of whimsy, perhaps inspired by the sheer intensity of the bright sun, the unmeasured expanse of the clear sky, the subtle dalliance of the wind with her red hair and fiery cheeks; and yet, in a way that she cannot then define for herself (and which thus inspires the kind of excited fear that borders every now and then on dread), this flight of whimsy seems so much more real than anyone of her prior escapes into her vivid imagination. It is not a daydream, so much as a revelation; a kind of religious experience for a young woman, who has all but set aside completely the possibility of an actual God behind the curtain; and so she senses vaguely that she has passed already a point of no return in her life.
Grace imagines ‘the doctor’ almost perfectly (even including a blood red handkerchief poking out of his jacket pocket, though the handkerchief does not resemble a virile splash of blood, but a pointed end of a dagger that, whenever thrust, sheds a virile splash of blood out from some other fellow). He is at least a decade older than her husband, but much more handsome, a tall, masculine, beautifully mustached Howard Hughes. Because he is so gorgeous, she imagines that he could pass for forty-five, or even forty. She had not imagined the silky, charcoal grey fedora, nor from where his cigars first hailed (‘a gift from a dear friend in Havana,’ he says with a distant smile), but she had captured the calm and assured ease with which he wears his clothes and smokes his cigars.
Grace had missed completely his eyes. They had not figured at all inside of her imagination. It is as if she had painted his soft and beautiful face just up to his nose, had skipped his eyes and forehead, and then had painted his black, wavy hair (in fact, owing to his older age, his hair is greyer, and therefore even more debonair, than she had imagined) as strands resting on thin air. Since she had not been able to foresee the eyes, they grasp her even more so than would have happened otherwise. They are lusciously ink blue eyes; but, unforeseen as they are, they are dangerous. They are secrets that he reveals to her, and then shuts back into himself. They are sudden bursts of feeling, like the earthquakes that are not forecast and so just seem to happen; and they move her whenever they peer into her. She is not sure how she feels; electrical; jolted; woozy from breathless lust; vaguely sexual, although unlike anything she has experienced in the sheets with her kind and respectable husband; or maybe just violated (rape briefly comes to mind, but she beats down that word as much too vile when the man violating her is as handsome and debonair as ‘the doctor’ smoking his cigar across from her). Yes, ‘violated’ seems to be the right word; ‘violated’ beneath a black sun, then left giddy and naked in the early morning dew; because those eyes of his are so sinfully blessed. His are the eyes of the snake, not as they are physically, but in how they feel, and so she can believe in them. She simply has no room in her soul for a God, but she has faith in that man’s snake eyes.
After the requisite stroll through the chateau (Horace is especially proud to showcase a pipe that he insists had been smoked once by John Adams), they meander out to the deck chairs overlooking the lake. Horace dons his oversized apron and chef’s hat. He playfully pins a button over his heart that reads in Old English script: ‘Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.’ Of course, he neither puffs upon his pipe nor drinks, as he is in mixed company. Nevertheless, he is as giddy as a schoolboy with a report card featuring all As; and, for once, he does not appear to mind that his wife, and one of his ‘real friends,’ observe him as so loosened.
The doctor lights another scented cigar, while Horace fires up the coals.
The doctor’s wife tries to make conversation with Grace. She is a pretty and kind enough woman in her own right, but no more than a faded wallflower in comparison to her striking husband. She endeavors gamely to elicit whatever opinion Grace may have about the latest in kitchenware, but the most that she gets in return is a polite smile now and then. She does not appear to mind that the conversation is so one-sided; and Grace suspects that the poor woman must often carry on conversations with herself, when invariably eyes and ears will be so focused on her husband as to leave her off to the side.
I am mindful of my first trip to the Congo, the doctor says nonchalantly, when there is a pause in his wife’s pots and pans monologue. Twenty years ago I had the occasion to hunt tigers with Ernest Hemingway. Prior, I had conferred with him in Paris on several of my poems; even accompanied him one late night to Miss Stein’s; but I did not know him well enough to anticipate that invitation that his boy slipped under the door to my pied-a-terre on Saint-Germain. ‘Just come with me, man. One of us gets the tigress by noon. The loser fetches wine from the natives on his dime. All things truly wicked start from innocence, your friend when sober, Ernest.’ I spent the rest of the day outfitting myself. There is enough theater in Paris that I could find the perfect costume and accessories to look the part of a gentleman on adventure. Even then, thirty-five years upon this world and no more wise than that afforded any naïve idealist, I understood that it is not the cause, but the passion with which we pursue the cause. I also knew that passion begins with what we wear and smoke and how we straighten up our shoulders. Well, I may have been no more than an expatriate dilettante, but I may tell you that I had the fabric, the hat, the pipe, and the pince-nez of a young Teddy Roosevelt on the wild hunt. I had the passion, and I bettered the tigress before noon. Oh, if you could see the look on Ernest’s face when he saw the triumph in mine. He spent the rest of the afternoon conniving wine from an ugly, old shaman in the bush. Sick drunk was nearly eaten alive by the ravenous fleas he picked up from the Congo Man’s village. Whatever he had caught, he’d turned from drunken boasts to fevered gibberish by night. I left Ernest inside of our tent and set out for the village to steal whatever the Congo Men had stolen from white men in terms of medicines. We all steal from one another, so I said to myself that this was simply my turn at the game. As I approached the village commons, hiding myself the whole time in the bush, I observed that the Congo Men were in the thralls of that demon fire that runs through their dark veins. In most respects, they were just dancing about their fire as they do every night to honor their gods and ancestors. But my eyes opened just then. I saw how much their faces had been disfigured by lust; how much their torsos had been turned to rubber by unbridled courage; how much their very manhood (forgive such an observation mentioned in mixed company, but it is true) had been enlarged and strengthened by mindlessness. They were ravenous beasts; freed from even the smallest scruples of civilization; godless and corrupted fools; and yet, stripped of all that rhetoric that we call sophistication, that restraint that we call moral righteousness, that weakness that we call piety, they were the very essence of a man. They can see still the Garden of Eden; feel the innocence that had been Adam’s before he squandered it; know that man is just a brute animal, but for his unique capacity to worship the God who made him; while we civilized white men have long forgotten the Garden of Eden; have long ravaged our innocence; and yet, despite the obvious calamity of our situation, have had the gall to see ourselves as better than a brute animal. The colored man will be our salvation. He will keep us from becoming too civilized. He will remind us that life is lived, when it is an adventure. He will teach us that there is lust in love.
The doctor had been lost in thought, until that last sentence. Then, he is back on the deck again and looking straight into Grace’s eyes. His eyes sparkle, like ink blue diamonds in hellfire. There is a distant grin again on his face, as if he is thinking of his shadowy friend in Havana and of the sinful deeds they have done together. That is when Grace falls head over heels, though as Alice Hart’s daughter she knows well enough to keep her feelings hidden beneath her smile.
Ernest Hemingway is a communist, Horace says in a jocular manner that fails to hide his bitterness and that makes him seem as his ornery grandmother.
He is no communist, the doctor replies with a playful wink that he sends in Grace’s direction. He is just fashionable, that is all.
Horace looks up from his grill. In the light cast by the flame beneath him just then, he is a seething devil with narrowed eyes and snarling lips. It lasts no more than a moment; so brief that the uncharacteristic anger could have been imagined; but Grace does not think so. She had never seen Horace so cross, and never would again, but the lesson had been imprinted upon her young, and still fertile, mind: Even the kindest soul has a capacity for madness; even the good man has a capacity for evil; even the Lord Jesus turned over the long tables of the moneychangers. Sin is not vanquished, not even on Easter Sunday. It is just veiled for a while beneath the polite words and mores of the beautiful people.
Perhaps it is best not to be so fashionable, Horace reflects with a broad grin that does not fool anyone at all. We press on in virtue of those values that stand the test of time. If we just gave ourselves over to fashion, then we would wipe ourselves bare by our own excess within a generation. After all, you must admit that it costs a pretty penny every time a man sets out to renew himself.
The doctor laughs. He dabs cigar ashes on the wooden deck. He winks at Grace once more and takes another long puff on his cigar. He thinks a moment; then offers his next comment with just a scent of jest in his voice and manners.
You are a man of letters, the doctor offers with a sly grin, which appears at once to set Horace at ease. Surely, you recall why Daedalus and his son had been imprisoned in the tower?
Horace smiles. He is not an academic, of course, but he does dabble now and then in the pursuits of the leisured class. Among these is Greek mythology, as suggested anyway by the books in his study. In truth, he has never read even one of these books from start to finish; but he is considerate enough of the real seriousness of the topic that he prevents his wife from even looking at them. It is just not proper to have a woman’s mind playing with matters intended to be resolved by men of a certain class and virtue, even if the woman is his beloved.
Minos imprisons Daedalus for revealing the mystery of the Labyrinth that he had constructed, Horace comments, while rolling the hotdogs on the grill.
Minos feared his ingeniousness, the doctor elaborates. Daedalus was the great craftsman of his time, a scientist unrivaled, a voice of reason. You recall, indeed you exercise in your personal penchant for self-restraint, what had been most prized in the Greek mind: measure, moderation, and logic. So when Minos had commissioned Daedalus to build the Labyrinth, he would have expected the finished product to be well crafted and impregnable. He even may have sensed that, given the right creative spark, it could be beautiful in a way. But the King never would have conceived a mad thing, a psychotic abandon from reality cast in stone, a monument to the beast inside of us. It was supposed to be a mighty fortress imprisoning the Minotaur; but, in time, Minos came to see that, in fact, it was the very expression of that Minotaur. It was as if the Minotaur had grown to the length and the width of that terrible maze. Unleash the sheer rationality of the German mind; the mind of an engineer; the spirit of a steady bricklayer; and what do you get? Do you get a rocket to the moon? No, you get Adolf Hitler and his V-2 Rockets smashing up the Piccadilly Circus. There is a Hitler inside of every quiet craftsman. Minos came to that realization much too late. Daedalus had built his Labyrinth, and the Minotaur had been allowed to grow, not simply within his chains, but really because of his chains, into a nightmarish creature. And the most that Minos could do then was to shut Daedalus and his son up in a tower. Talk about shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped. But, you see, that is what the civilized man does. He loves what he can control; then, as soon as he realizes that he has never controlled it, he despises it with as much passion as he had loved it. Hitler had been our darling. Then, he murders some Polacks; and suddenly, he is Genghis Khan. Daedalus had been a respected man in the King’s Court. Then, he helps to free the Minotaur; and suddenly, he is an awful scourge. How fickle is the civilized man! Oh, he preserves the values that stand the test of time by putting down those fashionable provocateurs, beating down a Hitler here, imprisoning a Daedalus there; but in so doing, that civilized man shows himself to be a prissy and fickle bore. The Spanish Reds never had a chance; but, oh, how they soar even now in our romantic imaginations. No one, not even the fascists, wax poetic about Franco; but the filthy, bearded, Basque Marxist has swooned many a woman’s heart. The Congo Man has been defeated by history; shown to be no more than a beast in headdress and loincloth; but, I may assure you, Lady Chatterley envisioned the black beast when she lay naked before her servant.
Come now, Horace pleads, while serving every one of them a hotdog in a bun. Mr. Lawrence’s morbid fancies should not be indulged in mixed company…
Do you not see that it is a bit queer when men discuss Lady Chatterley in morbid detail only with one another? The doctor inquires with a chuckle. Just take the little woman out of the picture. You may have Christian propriety, but you also will have a homosexual paradise. Patriarchal civilization has won; and I suspect from the way the bloodbath is headed, it will continue to march for a long time beneath the banners of righteousness and faith. But pull aside the old armor and shield; trample underfoot the plumed helmet; and you will realize in no uncertain terms that the ‘patriarchal civilization’ marching forward actually is an army of grey women and tired hags. It stands the test of time, so that we may rest easy at night; but it smells of Ben-Gay and feels like dentures in green drool. Oh, most people will cling to the tried and the true. They will sit in their pews on Sunday and sing Hallelujah to the triumph of Biblical Morality. But that same night, when the curtains have been drawn, they will dream of the Basque Red and the Ethiopian Princess raping one another as if rabid dogs.
Grace bites into her hotdog. In spite of the time and the care with which Horace had attended to the grill, it is an undercooked, flaccid worm inside of a bun. She sets it in her lap, and prods it now and then, while remaining focused on the doctor’s monologue. She knows that she should not be hearing his words (and even more so the cocky manner in which he delivers his words); but at the same time, she sees that she has passed the point of no return. From hence, no matter her outward politeness, she will be Horace’s titular wife only, as all the dreamy romance in her heart will have been freed to roam the fancied villages of the Congo Men. And as for her relationship with Alice Hart, well, that will be broken irrevocably, as she is ever more disinclined to care a whit about all that perfection she had been taught in finishing school. She has only a vague idea as to what the doctor is saying, notwithstanding that she is so much better read in fact than her husband; but that does not matter when compared to her feeling just then. She feels freed to soar into the sun alongside Daedalus and his son. It is a dreadful feeling, to be sure; but it is ripe also with the possibility of danger and allure. It is as if joy is only the flip side of the coin from violence and pain; the kind of intellectual conundrum that would undermine the sanity of Job; but the kind of irony that makes sense to the mind of an atheist that cannot accept the possibility of God, and yet imagines His Heaven and His Hell as everywhere.
Daedalus fails, Horace remarks before putting his hotdog into his mouth.
The doctor dabs more ashes onto the deck. He puffs his cigar, and blows three smoke circles into the air. They sparkle in the moonlight and then vanish.
Do you really think that a man as smart and as cunning as Daedalus could not foresee his own son soaring too near the sun? The doctor continues. He had dabbled with the divine. Surely, he must have foreseen that his very own flesh and blood would do the same, when given the opportunity to do so. Oh, yes, he shed his tears, when he saw how the sea swallowed up his son. Nonetheless, he could not have been surprised that the very same divinity that had been at first the wellspring of his own ingeniousness should be now the crazed undoing of his son. And so here is the dirty, little secret: Daedalus knew. He knew how his son would end up, and yet he built him his wings, anyway. He knew that in offering up his own son he would be guaranteeing himself a permanent place in the long shadow of history; even more so, a permanent place within our pretty romance dreams and starry-eyed illusions. His ingeniousness beget madness, so his tragic loss beget romance, like William Wallace falling before the Anglo Horde, or Our Lord writhing on a crucifix worn about the neck of a beautiful Spanish Princess. The Congo Man has been defeated; but in his silly dance about the carnal flame at midnight, he is laughing at the civilized man. He is poor and ignorant, but he is chuckling at the prissiness and fickleness of the man who would presume now to rule over him. Oh, I may assure you, dear fellow, history has many examples of niggardly sorts deflowering fair virgins and muddying up manicured men. You may cower in fear from them, remaining steadfast in your Christian propriety in all your pretty manners; or you may embrace them. I choose the latter; all that unbridled passion and moral ambiguity that you may name the devil’s path; but ever since stumbling upon the Congo Men in the bush twenty years ago, making my pact with the devil at that very spot, and returning with the hard medicines that would allow Ernest Hemingway to write another day, I have never felt the slightest regret in the singular choice that I made. Better to live in hell, than to die in heaven, no matter the aftershocks born. Selfish, yes; but, at least, alive!
* * *
The wind once more caresses her face. It is stronger than a whisper now; and there is just the hint of danger rolling up from the surface of the dark lake; but it is still too meek to incite that warm rush of blood and sweat that matters in the end. Grace looks down at the flaccid hotdog in her lap; but, in fact, it is the framed photograph of her dead husband.
She looks up from her lap. The candle flickers gently, and then it dims to about a tenth of its prior size and brightness. It does not snuff out, but it is not able to shine enough light to differentiate any one of the shadows from another inside the master bedroom, so that Grace feels that she has been snatched into a cobweb of greying heirlooms and whispering memories.
No one face stands out from among the others; but that is as it should be in the end. This is a funeral after all. Everyone there has the same somber look on his face. Everyone offers the same perfunctory condolence.
There is no loud and boisterous grieving; the kind of outburst that might stand out from all that old greyness; the beating of breasts and the gnashing of teeth. These are High Lutherans and Episcopalians, not Italians; although Grace is sure that she hears her mother sniffling back a solitary tear beneath her veil. Alice Hart always had liked Horace, ever since he had shown up our their pretty doorstep; and so she could not entirely restrain herself from that rather tawdry and low class affectation that she dismissed as enthusiasm, but that Grace just liked to think of as emotion. Indeed, even Alice Hart could slip once in a while, though she would deny it unto her dying breath before the sun had set.
Reverend Rickets steps forward to offer his parting refrain. Like the man with the bad comb over inside the coffin, the Dear Reverend is also an ugly and frail gentleman with a hair problem. His comb over falls over his eyes whenever he bends forward; and since he bends forward about all the time (either due to his weak shoulders and back, or his propensity for servile bowing, it is certainly impossible to tell), he usually looks into the world through his white strands. In his mind, the world must be a domain of ghosts, because he speaks with all the fear and trembling of a whispering mortician making his late night rounds in his own funeral parlor. Children fear him. Adults simply find him very hard to hear.
Mr. Temple is sleeping in the lap of an angel, Reverend Rickets offers as prettily as he can. He is a baby bathing in mother’s milk. He is a tender infant…
Thank you; Grace interrupts him. Your words are so very kind.
Reverend Rickets recedes into the shadow from which he had come. The other High Lutheran and Episcopal mourners start to file out of the church, like they had been waiting for the Dear Reverend to offer his parting refrain as the cue to leave. They keep their heads down and shuffle their feet; and at once it occurs to Grace that, while she cannot remember much about her fine wedding day, she recalls that the very same people (celebrators on that pretty occasion in an Episcopal Church, rather than mourners today in a High Lutheran Church) also had kept their heads down and had shuffled their feet. Life is pretty even-keeled among those betters who can trace their lineage back to the Mayflower.
Oh, Mr. Temple had been such a gentleman, Alice whispers, while taking a handkerchief out of her small purse and dabbing her eyes behind her veil. Not just a gentleman, but a good man, the kind who never made waves, never gave a lady a reason to blush. You can hold your head high that you had been carried into the society of widowhood on the arms of such a good man.
Alice had never referred to him as ‘Mr. Temple.’ Ever since the queen of good manners and proper reserve had beamed so bright, when he had given her a compliment upon his first visit, Alice had allowed herself the easy familiarity of calling him ‘Horace.’
But now the man in the coffin is ‘Mr. Temple,’ and Grace senses that he will remain as such forevermore. ‘Horace’ is living and breathing (albeit barely so); but ‘Mr. Temple’ is a framed photograph collecting dust on top of that old, out of tune Steinway Grand in the master bedroom. Where once he could slam out a fun rendition of Happy Days are Here Again, offering a bit of lighthearted jest at his grandmother’s prejudice, basking in the glow of his imminent victory over all those years of being told that he was not good enough to stand tall and proud with the men who move the world, now he is just a preposterous pose in homage to what the ‘good people’ like to think of as leisured sophistication. It did not happen much, but ‘Horace’ could smile. But ‘Mr. Temple’ never smiles, never even lifts a skeptical eyebrow. ‘Mr. Temple’ is all serious, all the time, a somber reminder that mourning does not end even when they remove your old, stooped bones from your hospital bed, and bury you beside his in the cemetery.
Grace nods in agreement with her mother; but, inwardly, she despises at once the very notion of widowhood. It sounds so Biblical, so outdated, so white haired and shriveled. She is a soft blush still; a twenty-year-old going on fifteen when she returns to her books (almost entirely forsaken, when preoccupied by the cares and the concerns of being a wife; but indulged like a ship full of long lost lovers come back from a prolonged time at sea, just after she had returned from the morgue); and even the baby bump in her midsection is hardly noticed.
Why is it so impossible for her to turn back the hands of the clock to that moment just before Horace Temple showed up on her doorstep? It is really not so long ago; and, but for the baby to be born, she is not so different, surely not in appearance anyway, and she suspects not in wisdom, either. For, really, how much more wisdom could she have acquired from her times spent at the side of Horace Temple? Had she not imparted much more to him, than he had to her in their brief time together? Had she not given him the inner light and confidence to pursue the Manhattan Men of Letters? Had she not freed him enough from his grandmother’s snares, so that he could play that whimsical FDR tune once upon the Steinway Grand? Yes, like even the briefest human interaction, their pretty marriage had been the occasion of greater wisdom; but much of that had been acquired by Horace Temple (though to what result, it seems not much, because of course wisdom without willpower is stillborn). Grace had acquired little of it along the way. Indeed, if anything, then she was less wise now than when she’d been hiding in her closet with her candlelight and giving her imagination all the freedom it wanted to soar the heights and to descend the depths of fairy tales.
Why is it so impossible to go back, when so little has happened since the day Horace Temple finally had the courage to come knocking on her front door?
Try not to think of it as going backwards, the doctor reminds her with his long and smoldering cigar less than an inch from his lips. Even if you could turn back the hands of the clock, as you say, it would not be to your advantage. Life is fully lived when moving forward. Fixate on the past, as so many sad sacks are inclined to do, and life is just a nostalgic theater show performed by bad actors in a back alley. It is cheap, dirty, amateurish; not worth the price of admission.
Grace is sitting across from the doctor in a busy café in Manhattan. More than a month of time has passed, since she buried her husband. The doctor had sent her a telegram the day after the burial inviting her to visit with him in this same café in Manhattan to discuss ‘her future,’ and it has taken her this long to do so. Yes, she had had a lot to do as the executor of her husband’s estate; and since inheriting the chateau alongside Wild Indian Lake, she had been busy with removing the most hideous reminders of his grandmother’s long sickness within those walls (though, she senses, the grandmother’s ghost will linger, like a scar left behind after the last of the cancerous tumors have been removed once and for all time). But, really, had she been that busy? Had she not been excited and frightened of those sparkling, ink blue eyes of his, so much so that she had held off until finally she could get just enough nerve to take the plunge? Did she not keep this trip into Manhattan hidden from her mother, notwithstanding how her mother wants to know where she is at all times ‘just in case she needs to be of aid for the unborn baby,’ because deep down she had thought of this little visit as more than a bit naughty, even scandalous, what with the good doctor’s clear penchant for flirtatious manners and salty language in mixed company? Did she not think she was doing something wrong in agreeing to meet with him, and yet loving the sin all the while? Oh, her thoughts, as she had pretended to read her book, while she rode the train into Manhattan just in time for the rendezvous…
The doctor puffs on his cigar. He blows out three smoke circles. He grins like the Cheshire cat, as he slowly drops his cigar to the ashtray in front of him.
Let me be plain spoken, the doctor remarks after a while. You really are a remarkable woman, and you deserve no less.
Grace wants so much to look down at her plate. His eyes are just so blue and beautiful, like diamonds in a dark cave radiating brilliantly, not from even a trace of sunlight (since there is none so far inside the earth), but from a light born out from their own magnificence. And yet she does not want to appear as weak and as foolish as most other girls. She cannot prevent the blush inside her cheeks, but she returns his steady gaze with her own. In so doing, she feels like a new woman, empowered, even sexual, though she is not yet assure enough of herself to go that far in her imagination. At most, she will admit to herself that she feels altogether warm and disturbed, as if a dewy flower about to blossom.
I understand that you write poems, the doctor says with a devilish smile.
Now Grace does look down. She is blindsided. She writes poems now and then in the journal she keeps beneath her mattress; but she has never shared a poem with anyone. Not even her husband knew, or so she had assumed all this time. It is not that she is ashamed of these poems, though she does not regard them as good enough for publication, to be sure. It is just that these poems are so personal; her inner life made eternal on paper; that one part of her soul she had not given away when she had exchanged vows and rings. All along, she had presumed that she would burn the journal some day; and yet the very fact that she had written down those poems would make them eternal, even when all of the applicable laws of nature and of magic transfigured those pages into ashes.
Do not be ashamed, the doctor says. They are good poems. But I see you need a bit of explanation. Your husband had neither an advanced degree, nor a tenured position in a reputable university; and as a matter of course, the board of admissions at the Manhattan Men of Letters mandates that there be proof of both even to consider an application. Now, he had made his case as a so-called ‘legacy member,’ owing entirely to the vague oral history of the supposed good works of one of his ancestors. Frankly, the board did not give much credence to whatever his ancestor may have done way back when; but they were willing to consider his application anyway, because of, well, shall we say the superfluous character of his trust. The poor man had much more money sitting inside there than his dependable and unadventurous spirit ever would allow him to spend on himself or even on you. Now, would it not be a shame if the Manhattan Men of Letters never had an opportunity to put some of that money into good use? The old clubhouse always needs renovation. There are disadvantaged boys who will never afford college but for one of the many scholarships we sponsor regularly.
I do not understand, Grace trembles. What does this have to do with me?
The doctor reaches forward. He takes Grace’s hands into his, and stares into her eyes. She stares back at him, though she still trembles like a little girl. She hates herself for being so scared. She hates that even more than she hates the fact that somehow her poems have been revealed unto strangers.
Notwithstanding your husband’s money, the board would not approve his application, unless and until he demonstrated some sort of capacity for letters, the doctor continues. Maybe if he could return with a finished manuscript in his hand? Let us say, a novel, or a short story, or even a few poems? In the end, he submitted a half a dozen beautifully written poems; and the board gave him his approval. But I took those poems home. I re-read them countless times; and, in my professorial mind, as much as my intuitive heart, I came to the conclusion a man as lifeless as your husband could never have written such verses. Of course I know that still water runs deep; but, even then, there still has to be water. In your husband, I discerned nothing but an empty crater; what had been pounded into the earth by his grandmother’s heel; and atheist that I am I refuse to think of the possibility even of life from lifelessness.
Grace smiles a brief moment. She had never heard anyone admit that he is an atheist. She feels like a lonely wanderer stumbling all of a sudden upon an unforeseen friend. There is actually someone else in this desert world with me, she thinks, someone else who sees the fullness of life in the here and now, and who is not waiting around for some sort of eschatological boogeyman finally to descend from on high with an escort of trumpet blaring angels on either side. If this man has read her poems, them she has not been violated at all, because in the deepest way this man is not a stranger. He is her brother along a path that leads not to God, but to a bit of heaven and a bit of hell in this world; a path in no way preparing them for an afterlife, but allowing them to love this lifetime.
I decided that they were yours, the doctor continues. And I can tell from your eyes that I was right. Grace, you have it in you to be a woman of letters. I know that I am speaking heresy. Few of my colleagues really believe that there is such a beast. Oh, they concede that there are women authors, even talented ones once in a blue moon. But a woman of letters? The phrase is such madness, like a witch’s incantation. They pooh-pooh the old black magic, but deep down they fear enough that there might be some truth to it; and so they refuse even to give voice to the words. But I do not fear. I have pulled back the veil of our civilization, and have stared directly into the soul of the Congo Man, as you will recall. A woman of letters will shake things up a bit; perhaps more than we are able to imagine; but our civilization is a dead and decadent corpse ready for no fate but the fire anyway. Shake the old gas tanks, drop the match, and fiddle a tune with Nero while Rome burns. I think you agree. I think you abhor the very idea of being a widow socialite. And if I may be so bold, I think that if the laws were more liberal, then you would no longer be a woman with child…
The doctor stops midsentence. He lets that last thought linger in the air.
Grace looks down. Even before Horace had died, she had considered now and then (actually much more often than ‘now and then,’ the truth be told) of reaching out to the one woman she knows who has had a back alley abortion. In the old rumor mill, she had heard that that woman’s uncle is an abortionist and so did what needed to be done to her in his basement. Since the funeral, Grace has had coffee with that woman. She did not have it in her to broach the topic, though of course that had been her intention. Instead, she just looked into that woman’s eyes to see if she had been sickened morally, irreparably, by the most difficult decision that she had made. Grace could not tell, and so she returned to her home even more confused and distressed than ever about the very same decision still to be made in her mind. And now, as she is sitting across from the doctor, she is teetering still on the edge of oblivion. She senses that, regardless of which choice she makes, she will be falling over the abyss.
Let go of the past, the doctor urges her. Of course, learn from it, and be wiser because of it; but let go just the same. Nostalgia is a ball and chain. Even worse, it is a rope about your midsection pulling you into the grave. Apply to a university. I shall recommend you; and as you develop your craft, I shall mentor you. By all means, write for yourself; but also be a woman of letters. This dead world needs a kick in the britches. And who knows? You may have fun along the way. Stranger things have happened to those who actually embrace their lives…
Again, the doctor stops midsentence. He lets that thought linger a while.
In the meantime, he takes up his cigar again, and puffs out another ring.
* * *
Poor man, Grace mutters, while looking down at the pompous moon face upon her lap. You betrayed me, but I forgive you. You cut a corner to sneak out one personal victory, before your heart failed you, but I forgive you. No, you’re not the one saint that I met in my lifetime; but neither are you one of the mad and sinister snakes that caused me so much turmoil. Frankly, in the end, like in the beginning, you’re in the middle somewhere. A small actor for a small role…
But that is not fair, she thinks. His betrayal had had larger consequences than he ever could have imagined then. She went to the University of California at Berkeley, graduated near the top of her class with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature, and became in short order one of the celebrated poets in the San Francisco Renaissance in the late 1940s. She collaborated with the likes of Kenneth Rexroth and Madeline Gleason; and through them, she wrote poems alongside early Beat Generation writers like Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. All of that creativity in the quaint cafes and industrial warehouses of the post-war City by the Bay; a town still outwardly conservative and military, what with the naval shipyards in Alameda and the submarine base on Mare Island; but, behind the surface, a town ready to blossom into a literary sanctuary for the obscene, the rebellious, and the indefinably avant-garde. For those in the know, it really was a matter of time and circumstances, before the likes of a Jack Kerouac and an Alan Ginsburg would be smoking and drinking their talent into oblivion inside the dingy bars off of Gough Street. Even the first intimations of a Flower Power could be sensed in the breezy air fluttering off of the bay and through the hilly and narrow streets; a cleansing breeze that lifted skirts and raised eyebrows in the afterhours; an airy moan in cheap hotels that titillated with the promise of free love and freer verse, if and when the creative sparks out there finally left their dead end farms and retail shops in Peoria and Omaha, met up with fellow sojourners along Route 66, and puttered into San Francisco or Berkeley in their own VW Buses, or as hobos on the trains up from Los Angeles. The fertile seeds had been planted about the time the Allies celebrated their final victory of the Fascists; and Grace Temple was there to indulge and to contribute as her great talent would allow in the years ahead. And all that visceral life; her verses read in the Gough Street Recitals and later included in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry; her beautifully sordid lovers in the secret ‘love pad’ she and her friends used on Telegraph Hill; her bohemian chic oversized sweaters and slim-fit black pants; her realization that Jazz is not entirely Jazzy until you are stoned out of your mind and prowling about the bed with your lover totally naked, but for an oversized kitty bow in your hair; all of that and so much more likely would not have happened, if her husband had not stolen her poems, and if the doctor had not figured out that she was the original author. Therefore, yes, the poor man had betrayed her; but, truth be told, it was not particularly difficult for her to forgive his transgression when she reflected upon her detour to the West Coast.
Another gust billows through the curtain. She may have heard that stuffy and professorial owl hooting as well, but she is not sure. It does not matter, for the hour is late. Like the framed photograph of her husband, it is time for that pompous, little owl to be lost in the midst of billowy winds and surreal dreams.
Grace returns the photograph. It is soon lost amidst the many others.
She pushes down on her wheels, and rolls her wheelchair across the dust covered, tattered, Old Cherokee rug. She stops beside her hospital bed. It is an unruly mess of sheets and blankets that smells vaguely of Ben-Gay, cold sweat, and urine. It needs to be changed over; and though it takes her the better part of an hour to do this task herself, since she has to pull off the filthy sheets, and put on the clean ones, while sitting on her wheelchair and rolling from one side to the next, she really can and should do so. But not tonight; never tonight; not when the lake wind is picking up outside, and the surreal dreams are starting to float out from backstage and to play themselves out in the real world. Like the previous night, and the night before that one, she makes a mental note to have the nurse change her dirty sheets the next time she arrives with her medicines.
Grace grabs a bar that hangs over the hospital bed. The iron bar reminds her of those devices that hang pretty figurines over infants’ cribs. It is not just a cliché. Life really does go full circle; and as she uses the bar to pull her body weight over the side of the bed and onto the soiled sheets, she views herself as an infant cuddling near and dear with her pillows and lace to fend off that silly, old boogeyman. Way back then, the boogeyman had been in the closet opposite her crib (and later her twin bed); today, it sifts in and out of the curtain that is fluttering not far from her head. For the most part, the boogeyman (sometimes the shadow man, especially when it stands beside her bed and peers down with its blank face and black eyes) just hoots and howls. It is the old dog that simply cannot learn any new tricks; and yet the old standbys still manage to straighten the hairs on her neck, to quicken her breath, and on rare occasions to push her to offer a small prayer to the God she knows damn well is not there. What with the lake wind already picking up, and the memories floating over from all those framed photographs on the Steinway Grand across the bedroom, she thinks that the boogeyman will be pulling out all the stops tonight. She sinks into her warm space in the bed and wraps her arms about the body size pillow beside her, like it is a teddy bear, or when her aged imagination permits one of her past lovers.
But the boogeyman does not interfere. She sleeps soundly all that night.
Still, notwithstanding the relative calm inside the bedroom, there is that unforeseen storm brewing from beyond the horizon. Right now, it is just a wind whipping up a few discordant ripples across the lake surface and rattling brittle redwood tree branches. It is enough to mask the persistent hoots of the old owl perched on a branch in the woods, so that for all intent and purposes the owl is no longer there. Later, the storm will be so much more; but there is a time for everything; and the scary things in the dead of night must also bide their times.
* * *
Grace does not dream that night; or if she does, then she does not recall her dream, when the indomitable clock in her mind awakens her as usual at the cusp of dawn. She turns her head to her right side (not easy to do on account of her early morning arthritis), and sees that the curtain is still. The hooting night winds have subsided for now. No doubt, that owl is fast asleep; and the branch on which it rests is not now rustling its leaves to the earth; and yet she senses that there is something brewing not too far beyond the circle of mountains that constitutes her horizon in every direction. And whatever is out there is coming, like torrential storm clouds that seem intentionally to creep out from nowhere.
Nonsense, she insists. There is no mind behind nature. Shit happens, and then we who are left behind just tidy the deck, until we are almost able to say to ourselves that it never happened in the first place. The only constant in this world (and of course, what other world is there?) is denial; sometimes hard and cold denial; other times inebriated lovemaking denial; but denial, nonetheless. Harder to do when you are approaching Methuselah on your rickety walker or in your rusted wheelchair; just too many memories in framed photographs and old love letters, and not mobile enough to get away from them; but denial remains the means and the ends of the hours spent beneath the sun.
And so to that end, Grace grabs onto the iron bar above her (her swollen fingers clutching the bar, not because they are really strong enough to do so at that moment, but because she is such a creature of habit in how she gets off of her bed every morning that her fingers do their part in that routine regardless), and pulls herself into a sitting position. She takes her time to adjust her bleary eyes to the sunlight bleeding through the curtain. She watches dust mites swim in and out of the diluted light, while the pitch-blackness in the opposite side of the bedroom slowly, but surely, succumbs to the long reach of the morning sun (though even then that side of the bedroom will never be so bright as to escape altogether the long and ghoulish shadows that seem to slither out from beneath her leather books, redwood chests, and faded blouses and skirts). The cramped filthiness, the menacing shadows, the still and damp air, all suggest that she is awakening into a cave, instead of a bedroom, and that she is a bedraggled and stooped cavewoman trying to grab some vague meaning from the wall paintings scattered across the top of her Steinway Grand. She is such a smart and willful woman; but, at the same time, she does not know enough then to shut her silly gaping mouth and to look at what is actually planting the images upon her wall.
More denial, she continues. Imagination denies. Poetry denies. Reality is just outside the curtain, and I write instead about how the dust mites dance on a sheet of fairy light. The Allegory of the Cave is not really about man’s lack of vision. It is about his willful ignorance of what is real in favor of the whimsical shadows upon the old wall, so he can keep on denying what is so damn obvious.
Grace may not have dreamt anything, but no doubt she awakened on the wrong side of the bed. Well, that is enough of that. Best to knock the doldrums out, since this morning she will be getting her mail and her groceries delivered.
And, anyway, she does not really believe that imagination is denial, does she? She devoted much of her life to the art and the craft of the verse, and she took a hold of her share of adventures along the way. Must she look back at all of that in her waning moments and decide that it had been nothing, but denial?
Grace slides off of her bed and onto the wheelchair. There is no denying the pain in her lower back and hips. There is no denying how she must grab out for her Old Cherokee shawl several times, before finally getting a tight enough grip on it, on account of the debilitating arthritis within her fingers. And, most of all, there is no denying how tired and spent she feels now that she is awake.
Grace rolls her wheelchair over the thick rug. She stops alongside the old icebox in the kitchenette. She drinks the last carton of milk. It tastes a bit sour and reminds her of the one time Horace had downed accidentally a glass of old buttermilk. The poor man had had a green face and a wilted mustache the rest of the day. Shit happens, and so we deny that that shit stink makes us nauseas, even to the point of keeping our dumb grin when we truly just want to scream.
She tosses the empty carton aside. She stoops forward, and fetches one of her old lady dresses off of the floor. She slips it over her head, readjusts her shawl over her head so that she looks about as pitifully chaste as Mother Teresa (even drooping her eyes, and crinkling her lips together, so that she has the sad and withdrawn face of a woman who has not eaten in years), sighs, and rolls on toward the staircase. She is not playing a part. She is just letting herself look in her face and her body as she feels in her soul. Yes, it may be best to knock the doldrums out, but since when do we do for ourselves, let alone for anyone else, what we know deep down inside would be best? Isn’t it much more pleasurable to wallow in guilt, to live in our pain, to indulge in our weakness, and to call all that selfish suffering art, or wisdom, or even some sort of end times revelation?
Well, at least, her ears are as fit as ever. As the motorized stair lift jolts down the side of the staircase (must remember to send a note to the repairman down in Beverly, before this tired stair lift dies completely halfway up or down the slope and strands her there), she hears the skipping and squealing motor of an ancient Ford rumbling along the path. It idles in front of her driveway, since it may not start up again if the driver cuts the ignition.
Grace slides into her wheelchair at the bottom of the staircase. She does not feel any better physically, but the fact that the grocer has arrived is surely a mental boost. She even drops the Motor Teresa look in favor of that kind, old lady that warms the hearts of young men who have good memories of their own grandmothers. The man outside is not particularly young. He is almost seventy, wrinkled deeply from too many years smoking his Marlboros, and sporting a sad limp in his left leg. But he still has a twinkle in his Irish eyes; and from her own vantage point of eighty-nine years, he remains a youngin’ deserving a big smile.
She opens her front door, and rolls onto the porch. As usual, the ancient Ford is idling at the top of the driveway facing northward. It is a red claptrap in desperate need of a junkyard crusher to take it out of its misery. On the side of the passenger door, the official business name is printed in blue letters: Apollo Grocery. Good for the Tummy. We Deliver. 555-FOOD.
Apollo is walking down the driveway. Now, ‘Apollo’ is not an Irish name, no matter that the Celtics have scavenged so much (including names that they then swear had been born in the luscious, grassy knolls of their homeland); but, decades ago, the beefy bull with the kind eyes and the jowly face had been an accomplished ring bruiser who went by the name of ‘Apollo.’ He has retained it ever since. Grace suspects that he cannot even remember his former name now that the beatings to the head have started to take their toll. She is happy, if he remembers to bring all of her order, or if he does not drop something upon her driveway on account of his limp. One more bit of evidence that life really goes full circle: Like a baby, the elderly can find real joy in the smallest of victories.
Apollo nods affably, as he passes by her with the many groceries in hand. He steps through her doorway and up her stairs, while she observes his haggard limp from the porch. He is stocking her kitchenette upstairs like usual. As soon as he is done up there, he will deliver a few items to the downstairs kitchen. In these waning days, Grace is making fewer trips all the way down to the kitchen and, sometime soon, will stop making those exhausting trips altogether; but for all that, until Apollo actually finds her dead in her hospital bed, he will be sure to stock the downstairs kitchen as well as the kitchenette in the hope that, one day, the ol’ luck of the Irish falls upon her, and she awakens back to her prime.
Top of the morn and all that blah-blah-blah, Apollo remarks with a wide and hearty grin, when he returns to the creaky porch and hands Grace her mail (two pieces of junk mail and a county tax bill that Grace tosses aside without a glance, and a stuffed envelope from her friend, Mavis, that she keeps in her lap unopened for the time being).
And how’s my favorite Mick Bruiser? Grace inquires with an affable wink.
Still making the old devil skip a beat in the twelfth round, Apollo smiles.
And did you remember to bring everything this time? Grace asks with the sweet voice of a Kindergarten teacher truly hoping to get the right answer from her lovable oaf of a student.
Apollo removes the list from his back pocket. He reads off the items one by one. He looks and sounds like a boy reading his report card to his mother. It would be a bit excruciating, but for the fact that he keeps a playful smile upon his face all the time. He is enjoying his part in the conversation as much as she.
He passes with flying colors. She smiles, and applauds his victory.
Okay, okay, he responds with feigned humility. It’s not like I won my old belt back. Frankly, what really matters is that I managed to cram everything of yours into my bed, what with my delivery out to the Wild Indian Park.
Whatever do you mean? Grace inquires with a raised eyebrow.
Guess you haven’t seen the construction across the pond, Apollo says, as he wipes sweat off of his forehead. Not much has happened yet, but I reckon in the next few days the boys will be putting up the stage and the banners. When that happens, even a blind Limey will see what they’re up to. I don’t know any more than that. I just got a call for a big order; all non-perishables; enough for an army, if that’s what they are.
I tremble at the thought, Grace says with absolute seriousness.
Ah, it’s probably nothing with bombs and brass; Apollo backtracks a bit, when he reads the concern on her face. The Guard Bums tinker their C-4 down at the Beverly Armory. They’re knocking that corrugated iron shithouse back to earth one blast at a time. Probably Pot Heads or Boy Scouts coming up here for a backwoods Pow Wow… Anyway, guess it’ll be something sure to see, won’t it?
Not much happening nowadays, Grace reflects. Guess it’ll be something.
That’s the attitude, Apollo says with his wide and hearty grin once more.
They talk a little longer, but Grace continues to wonder about what may be happening at the park on the other side of the lake. She attempts to veil her concern behind her smile; but she suspects that Apollo can read it in her eyes, since he makes a point of telling her that ‘everything will be alright,’ before he exits for the rest of his deliveries. She watches him limp back up to his ancient Ford. She waves at him, before he sits behind the wheel; and he waves back. It is all affable at the end; but she still can smell that disquieting menace wafting in and out of a morning breeze, as she rolls her wheelchair back into her foyer.
* * *
Grace rolls backward, in order to push the front door closed behind her. Normally, on a clear day like this one, she would keep the door wide open until an hour or two later she had decided to climb back onto the stair lift. There is no crime high in the Redwood Mountains (unless sharing a joint on the banks of the rippling lake remains a misdemeanor on the books), and the only vandalism can be attributed to the occasional, irate bear or coyote tearing down and then trampling underfoot one of those quaint, Norman Rockwell mailboxes alongside the unpaved road. The “outta towners” nowadays spend most of their vacation time and dollars on the coast, so there is not even the occasional scare of some lost stranger in a Budweiser T-shirt and swimming trunks meandering drunkenly down the driveway in search of directions back to his rented chateau (of course the answer is always the same: the unpaved road goes clear round Crater Lake, so just stay on it until your wife pulls you inside to man the hamburger grill). If you do not live this close to heaven, where the sun seems so close you feel like you can reach up and touch it, then you may scoff, but it is nevertheless totally true: There are indeed spots on this earth freed from the fear of violent crime.
But not this morning. Grace does not sense a crime about to happen; but there is something brewing, and it inspires fear bordering on dread. Better just to keep the front door shut, until that something passes in the mountain winds.
Except that it is not just going to pass. Whatever it is, it is setting up its camp across the lake. Apollo tried to backtrack, but he too had sensed that the building project out yonder is not really on the up and up. Apollo has taken the time to speak with his ‘Amazing Grace’ ever since he first made a delivery, and the two of them consider one another friends. But he has never mentioned one of his other deliveries until today. Why did he bring it up? Could it be that deep down inside he too felt that something was wrong? Sometimes that boogeyman goes away just by talking about it; and so maybe he sensed, however vaguely in a dark corner of his mind, that that would do the trick this time around as well.
It may have worked for him, but it did not work for her. She has shut the front door. She has rolled into the kitchen to brew tea. She is flipping through The Joy of Cooking left open on her counter since the last time she had had the mind and the strength to prepare a stew from scratch. She is perusing the black and white pictures of happy housewives from the mid 1950s stirring a large pot on a stove and bending over to insert a cake into an oven, while waiting for her kettle of water to boil. Outwardly, she is as tranquil as can be; but she is a real mess beneath her skin; a disorienting tremble of bones; a rush of blood into her head that now and then makes her feel dizzy. She puts on a brave face. That is her way. But she cannot deny it, when she finally removes the kettle from the wood-burning stove and pours about half a cup of hot water onto the tablecloth rather than into the cup. Nope, that affable chitchat did not do a thing for her. She is as frightened as a little child first sensing the boogeyman across the way.
Grace gives up on the Earl Grey. She is trembling so badly she cannot get the cup to her lips without spilling even more hot water on the tablecloth. She turns instead to the stuffed envelope that is still on her lap. Thankfully, she did not spill any of the hot water on it, as she has been awaiting eagerly this latest missive from her friend in Selma, Miss Mavis Spencer.
She slices the envelope open with a hard edge. As is the norm, Mavis had so stuffed the envelope that the pages practically spit out of the opening. Also, as is the norm, Mavis had outdone herself. Grace does not count them, but she presumes that there are a few dozen computer print outs of commentaries and fundraising pleas from outfits like Amnesty International and Global Justice. No doubt, Mavis has been thoughtful in her selection. She knows that Grace is too much of a Luddite to turn on a personal computer, let alone to surf the net for these same commentaries and fundraising pleas; and yet she also knows that in spite of her advanced age, Grace remains as committed to the cause of justice, and as open to news from about the world, as when the two of them had been marching side by side a dozen or so rows behind Martin Luther King on the Road to Selma. That had been a lifetime ago, in their wrinkled faces and frail bones; but it had been only yesterday, in their hearts. Oh, the spirit is strong, but that old woman flesh is as weak as the barest shell of a barn after the winter storms have left it grey and desolate. And so Mavis has to get her friend in Selma (only a few years younger, but much less worn by the hard miles on the road) to find and to print out those articles, because Mavis is practically blind; and Mavis has to stuff print outs into a business sized envelope because Grace is a Luddite. Of course, Mavis knows that Grace is not a believer; and so she holds her tongue in this regard; but in her heart, Mavis delights in how God Almighty always ordains from among the weak and the lame to carry His fire into the valley of darkness.
Grace finds her friend’s personal note beneath all the printouts. It is the scraggly handwriting of a practically blind woman in her early nineties. She has to take her time in deciphering the chicken scratch and occasional double loops on the personal stationary; but that is fine. The longer it takes her to read that letter, the longer she is communing with her dearest friend. Grace will reread it when she is done, and then read it a third time, just so that Mavis remains as long as possible by her side this morning. Grace will not set Mavis aside, until in due course she is so bushed by the strained readings that she has to take a nap.
Graces keeps these letters much as she did her poems way back when. In recent years, in part because she is exhausted so often, but also because of the depression that is creeping out from the sadness in her heart and spreading out like leaked oil on a blue lake, she seldom has taken the pen to write a poem or to make a journal entry. These letters from her friend in Selma are her secrets now; little treasures she stores in a chest in her bedroom; no more than quaint missives that will mean nothing to the people cleaning out her home, when her corpse has been removed, but that will keep the two of them marching side by side on the Road to Selma until the last one to live has surrendered her breath.
Like all the other letters, Mavis describes in vivid detail her daily routine and observations (the trash compactor keeps clogging up; the post office seems to be out of their ‘forever’ stamps more often than they stock them; Oprah has been looking really tired, since she gave up her daytime show and launched her own television network). Interestingly, for all of their shared commitment to a host of social justice causes around the world, Mavis avoids political statements in her letters. She sticks to the mundane; and for that Grace is thankful, as it is precisely because Mavis is focusing so much on the small and the quiet matters that she seems to be sitting beside Grace as Grace reads and rereads her notes.
But this letter ends differently than the others. Mavis has completed her observation about Oprah when out of the blue she says that she wants to make a trip up to the Redwood Mountains to visit with Grace in person. Mavis cannot say when for sure, but it will be soon. The last winter is coming; she can feel it in her bones; and she yearns to see her friend face to face before that blizzard.
Grace sets the long note aside. She remembers as if yesterday when she and Mavis had been together previously in person. Grace had travelled down to Selma to be part of a ‘Bloody Sunday’ commemoration. It had been seven years ago on the seventh of March. She and Mavis had stood side by side; their hands clutched together, as if deep down they had feared that the mob would return from out of nowhere to throw bottles at them or to strike them with batons; all smiles to the public, but sensing vaguely that that old earthquake can return at any time from beneath the earth. And the next time that earthquake will open the earth, like it rent the temple veil in two on Good Friday, and swallow them whole. Social justice, racial peace, good and righteousness; all these principled stands against evil (and make no mistake, Grace denies God, but she knows evil all too well to be able to lump it alongside the fairy nymphs and the trolls) may seem impregnable in the early twenty-first century; but those who were there, those who saw the vicious beast eyes in the mob, those who heard the ‘niggers, go home’ chant snapping out at them like vipers, those who felt the heavy grip of Bull Connor aggression around their necks or in between their legs, they just know in their hearts that, in fact, those principled stands against evil teeter on spindly legs. It takes only a bullet, or a shove, or a ‘heart quake,’ to topple the ‘impregnable’ wall of good and righteousness and to unearth once more the old but tireless mob. Grace and Mavis had not celebrated a victory on that fine day in March, notwithstanding the platitudes offered from the stage and the smiling faces all about them. Rather, in their unspoken hearts, they had regarded that fine day as a warning to remain that much more vigilant in their waning years.
Grace stuffs the papers back into the envelope. She rolls her wheelchair back to the staircase, climbs onto the stair lift, ascends to the wheelchair that is waiting for her up above, and pushes herself into her bedroom. She wants to return to bed, even though it is not yet noon; but her curiosity is overwhelming her right then. She must see for herself what is happening across the lake, just as she had forced herself to hold her head up high and to stare into the face of that vicious mob that had been accusing her then of being a traitor to her race.
She lays the envelope beside her pillow. She will read the note again, as soon as she returns to her soiled blanket and sheets; but, for now, she searches the clutter for her hand held telescope. Every poet is a stargazer; and although she has not been picking up her pen much of late, she still finds it in her to be an amateur astronomer on especially clear and still nights. And so sure enough, she finds her hand held telescope among the items she has used quite recently.
She shoves the curtain aside, and rolls out to her favorite place upon the creaky deck. There is no one rowing on the lake, and the wind is so soft that no ripple can be seen or heard along the ink blue surface. And yet she cannot feel that sense of pristine stillness that calms her soul and, now and then, inspires a song upon her lips. Even if the sun were to stop along its path, and the air were to quiver as much as a dead man’s pulse, she still would not sense that pristine stillness, because something is coming from beyond the horizon, and setting up shop on the mossy banks of Wild Indian Park. And that something is evil, an old beast raising its ugly snarl from beneath the cracks in the earth, a racist chant sounding off again in a place that has not heard such sentiments in a long time, a haunting dream memory unleashed by the tremors. She has yet to observe or to hear anything that would suggest any such evil; but somewhere beneath her rational mind, where the atheist is weary to tread, she knows what that evil is, even before she raises the telescope to her good eye and stares across the way.
She does not see anything, but a few heavy crates and a stack of lumber.
Apollo had said that the construction crew had not done much there yet. He had been correct on that score. But as she lowers the telescope into her lap and sits back in her chair, she cannot shake that horrible dread clutching at her heart. She tightens the Old Cherokee shawl about her head, as if she is fending off a storm, and then returns to her bed to nap the remainder of the day away.
* * *
Grace had hoped to sleep until the next morning, but she stirs just after sunset from a horrible dream. She grabs a hold of the iron bar and pulls herself into a sitting position. She does not remember her dreams much; and whenever she does, she usually starts to forget those strange trips into the darkness when she sits upright and adjusts her eyes to the flickering candlelight on top of her Steinway Grand. The mental images break apart, losing whatever internal logic had made total sense to her when she was still asleep, and fade back into that ghostly candlelight from which it appears that they had emerged. It is as if that dying dream had not been born in her subconscious mind, so much as borrowed from that long burning candlelight casting shadows on the framed photographs.
But that is not the case now. The dream remains with her even after she has adjusted her eyes to the ghostly candlelight. She can see it still in her mind like she is watching a film projected onto a screen.
Grace is walking through the outskirts of Selma alongside her new friend and walking partner, Mavis Spencer. They are holding hands, like they would so many years later in the ‘Bloody Sunday’ commemoration. Their tiny hands sway in sync with their steps, so that they would seem to be two little girls in floral, hoop skirts and ponytails taking a walk together across a grassy knoll on a clear summer day. They are in their late thirties, as they had been in real life on the day of the march, and indeed there are the first hints of lines upon their faces and grey strands atop their heads. But in their light hearts they are as innocent and gay as if children not yet awakened to the cruelty in their world; and, so as to make that point clear, there is a thin and watery film over both of their eyes that causes them to see their world as if through pinkish rose pedals. There are no other marchers, at least none that they can see, though they both hear that rhythmic crunch of many worn shoes on asphalt. The sound seems to be wafting in and out of the slight breeze. It is an intimation of a march; a potentiality the two little girls can sense just about to come to the fore; a vague intuition that, just around the next bend, these times will be a changing. Otherwise, they just hear the same bird songs, and smell the same intense honeysuckle, as has been the norm this far south of the Mason-Dixon line since about the time that Great Flood receded. Mavis would know. She is a daughter of the South; her mother a housekeeper in one of those antebellum mansions fading away even then under the sweltering heat of centuries (though restored during the Reagan years as an homage to Confederate ‘heritage’ and then offered to the public for tours); her grandmother born a slave and buried beneath the swamps alongside other hard memories. Grace is a Yankee; and though she has spent considerable time, and shed her share of tears, down south and around the bends since embracing this Civil Rights Movement as her own, she still is not used to the strange bird songs and the intense honeysuckle smell. Yes, she tries in earnest to make the plight of the Negro her own, to share in their sorrows, to struggle up from their black ashes, but she cannot shake the sense that she is an Apollo astronaut in a space suit walking across the surface of a distant planet. She can sojourn there; even stay as long as she wants; but she can never really hear the birds and smell the honeysuckle, except as a muffled sensation wafting in and out of her protective mask. And yet, though one is arriving home, and the other is traveling far, they are when together as if two little girls set free to roam the beauty beneath the sun. Times are a changing just around the bend, but theirs is the eternal life of children. They know how it is that only those with the mind and the heart of an innocent child may walk across the knolls and drink from the springs in heaven.
Grace looks into the eyes of her friend, and smiles. Mavis smiles back at her. They exchange giggles, like they are two little girls in on something grand, fun, and mysterious. There is just a hint of naughtiness in this whole affair, like this is all a lark in their respective imaginations and, sooner or later, they both will awaken in their respective beds and recognize that all along this Children’s Crusade into Selma (a Children’s Crusade of two little girls, one white and one Negro, in matching hoop skirts and ponytails) has been nothing but a bit of soft fairy dust. Jim Crow, Bull Connor, the KKK, all of the vitriol will be seen as just unreal snippets in a foggy dream; lost before they are grasped; and then those two little girls, leaving their respective beds, and yet putting on their matching hoop skirts and ponytails, will go out to play in a clear and bright universe that has never been banished from the Garden of Eden. No wonder they are giggling and swaying their hands. Evil is unreal; just a dream within a dream wrapped in colorful paper and bow; and when this Children’s Crusade ends, just around the bend somewhere, they will be greeted with smiling faces and open arms, as the two little girls indeed are greeted every dawn by their respective mothers, one white and one Negro, when they awaken from their silly dreams. And this is the Kingdom of Heaven, hills with innocent children, bliss without lasting darkness.
Grace hears a murmur from the sidewalk to her right. It is not scary, not at first anyway, but it is out of character with the soft giggle that she has been sharing with her friend and walking partner. She turns toward that murmur and smiles. Maybe whatever is out of character over there can be persuaded by her kind face and playful manner to join with their Children’s Crusade. Truly, what is better than two little girls swaying their hands together, and seeing the light world anew with every step, than three little girls? It never crosses her mind at that moment that there may be a boy, or something more hideous than even a freckled and unwashed boy, over there. It is not even a soft quiver in her mind.
But when she looks at the sidewalk to her right, she observes no one just then, but Alice Hart. Strange that she should think of her mother’s actual name rather than think of ‘mom’ or ‘mama.’ Even stranger for a little girl, she knows then that her own last name is different than her mother’s last name, because of course she is not a little girl anymore. She is a lady in her late thirties; a fair lady in a dark land; a widow emancipated by the death of her husband and the higher education a blue eyed friend had arranged for her; a poet and a novelist seeking adventure and the comforts of strange company; a devoted Civil Rights activist; a friend to a black housekeeper’s daughter. And if she is not a girl just swaying her hands in sync with her feet, then all that surly evil intimated along the edges is real. As if to hit home that point, the clear and bright scene about her turns dingy. It is like smog has swept in from beyond the horizons, and sunk in as clumps of heavy and hot air scattered about the town. The silly birds have been silenced; the sweet honeysuckle ripped out of the earth; the colorful and cheery storefronts boarded up. The church up ahead is crackling apart; its tired old walls chipped and wobbly; its front doors shut, but creaking nevertheless in the sulfuric wind that is now gathering up from beneath the earth. There is not even the semblance of eternal life left in that church, but the moody and aged vestrymen have seen fit to make one more scream of defiance before the worn church building finally has been demolished by the passage of time. Their crazy scream is not voiced. Rather, it is printed on a huge banner and hung above the front doors, like the sign just before Dante’s Inferno: Sons of Ham Burn in Hell.
Grace’s eyes widen, when she reads that sign. Her lips tremble, as she is mouthing the words, and coming to terms with their meaning. She looks around frantically. There are now signs everywhere, posted on the storefronts, hanging from fences and light poles: Niggers, Go Home! The Devil Wears Blackface! The White Girl who befriends the Nigger Girl is nothing but a two-bit, bitch whore!
She turns back to her friend, but Mavis is gone. She is alone on the street that leads to downtown Selma, a lone marcher, perhaps the only marcher there ever had been. There is a mob on both sidewalks now. It is an angry eruption of pent up hate barely held back by federal troops. Every one of those faces is the face of Alice Hart; a screaming Medusa with writhing snakes atop her head, and red, hot coals for eyes. Alice is beating her fists into the air and belching at the very top of her lungs: White Whore! White Whore! White Whore! White Whore!
The federal troops are holding back the Alice Harts, but they are looking back at Grace as well. There is a ravenous glint in their eyes. They are sexually starved hounds in Army green uniforms and fascist helmets just waiting for that green light from on high to sic the innumerable Alice Harts onto her floral hoop skirt and ponytail. She feels totally violated and chained by their hungry stares.
She continues to walk forward, but with every step the ground trembles a bit more beneath her feet. At first, she thinks that the mob of identical, mad Alice Harts is shaking the earth with the sheer intensity of its belligerence; but, from somewhere deep within her, she senses that she is actually making all the earth move. She is unleashing a terrible power from within herself. It is a crazy lunatic power that has its source somewhere inside her own innocence, and yet it is also foreign and distant. She does not feel empowered by it, even when all that terrible power rippling out from her steps starts to crack the road straight down the middle and to drop the two sides of the universe in front of her down their respective chasms. The only thing she can sense is raw and quivering fear.
* * *
Grace slides over to the edge of her hospital bed. She moves much more slowly than normal. She is feeling still that earthquake that is rippling out from her feet and tearing the universe into two mirror images. It is not as intense as it had been when she was asleep; more like a sluggish aftershock that could be confused with a hangover, if she had been consuming alcohol before her sleep, rather than a series of violent jolts that rattle her bones and chatter her teeth; but it is enough to make her feel dizzy and weak.
She sits a while on the side of her hospital bed; her shoulders stooped so far forward that she looks like she really could fall head over heels at any time; her hands gripping the side of the bed like she is on a boat bobbing restlessly in a sea storm; her eyes vacant and her mouth open. A casual observer could very well presume that she is having a stroke; and, indeed, from her perspective the world about her is a fog of framed photographs sifting in and out of ghost light, memories captured and lost, history remembered and then shown to be wholly imagined. Maybe she is not remembering a dream. Maybe she is remembering a real incident from her own past. Maybe she and Mavis had been the only people to march in what became known in the history books as ‘Bloody Sunday,’ that is until Mavis just vanished and abandoned her to fend off the mob all by herself. Certainly, that is how she seems to remember it. She can read books about the incident, see photographs, watch documentaries; even go to a commemoration that includes many more survivors than she and Mavis. But, for her, the ‘Bloody Sunday’ attack is a private affair; an incident sifting so seamlessly in and out of her consciousness as to make it impossible for her to discern fact from myth, or reality from dream. And who is to say that there is a firm line between what is real and what is imagined anyway? Who is to say that her reality is any less real than what the historians have documented? After all, the doctor had remarked just on that very same deck beyond the curtain almost seventy years ago that, when all the niceties have been set aside, a life fully lived is a selfish life. Like Daedalus constructing wings for his son, knowing that his son would ascend too near to the divine, knowing that his cry in response to his son’s death would be the stuff of legend centuries after he too had been laid to rest somewhere, the person embracing life is selfish enough to cast down his or her own son, if that is necessary. Surely, in the dark mind of a person so inflamed by his or her own selfishness (the kind of dark mind that is really powerful enough to knock about the universe now and then), what is real and what is imagined turn out in time to be no more than academic distinctions. If we dream, if we embrace life fully and selfishly, then we are false gods, doomed to suffer first in confusion, then in frailty, finally in madness. This is the hell that creeps into heaven over time.
There is no God, but there is heaven and hell, Grace mutters, when she awakens a little from her stupor. And there is my mother. And there is my son…
Grace had been staring at her bare feet. She glances into the candlelight on top of the Steinway Grand. Then, as if pulled down by a power from deep in herself, a power all her own, a power also foreign and distant, her eyes drop at once from the flickering light to a framed photograph hidden in all that clutter.
It is a picture of Alice Hart. She is a fun and flirty redhead flapper. It is a year before she marries Henry Hart; somewhere in the jazz and the champagne bubbles of the summer of 1923; lost happily in a giggle that brightens her face, just as a photographer chronicling all the joyful abandon of the moneyed white youth in an infamous ‘colored’ jazz den (shut down by pinstriped Hoover Boys a year later when there is an allegation of booze sales in a back room) flashes his camera. She is reclining on a lounge sofa; a champagne flute in one tipsy hand; a Lucky Strike in the other; an Indian feather poking out from behind the band of her cloche hat; a wild smirk inside her eyes that robs the blushing cheeks of their innocence. There is nothing pretty about her then. She is beautiful, sexy, and dangerous, what a wandering man wants and a married man tames, all the attitude and the poses encapsulated in a sly wink and a tilt of the cigarette.
Back then she had been Alice Spencer. Grace remembers when she first meets Mavis. She is sitting in the back row of a Negro church somewhere in the Deep South. She is the only white woman there, but she feels more at home on that occasion than she ever had been beneath the stately roofs of her parents and her husband. It is the summer of 1964, and this is one of the first planning sessions in what will become next year the March from Selma to Montgomery. It is a hot and sticky night (Grace never gets used to that part of the South) made a whole lot hotter by the rumor that the Beulah White Knights are in town and looking to burn down any gathering of ‘coon conspirators.’ Nevertheless, Grace is not worried, even though of course her white skin would burn just as much as the black skin there assembled. She is not worried because she is home tonight and about to make a new friend with the kind and beautiful lady sitting by her.
Why you have my mother’s maiden name, Grace says to Mavis after they have made their introductions to one another. Spencer is a royal name, isn’t it?
So is Temple. Seems to me, Mavis reflects with a warm and friendly grin.
And so they had hit it off from the start, and they are still walking hand in hand, and side by side, though nowadays primarily by the notes they write to one another. Alice Hart would have disapproved, but Alice Spencer would have smiled devilishly at the danger of it all. Heck, she would have finagled a match from one of the SCLC guys guarding the front door, lit her cigarette inside that church (raising eyebrows and tensing lips), and turned that brand new twosome into the Three Musketeers. Oh, Alice Spencer would have been a hoot (not the owl kind, but the devil kind) what with her flapper dress and Indian cloche hat.
Grace slides into her wheelchair. She rolls over to the dusty photograph.
She looks closely at the picture. The candle casts light and shadows upon her face in such a way as to make her cheeks seem even brighter and higher in her face. With those abnormally high cheekbones, and of course that feather in her hat, she looks like a Bitchy Indian Princess with a Cause, rather than a sexy and flighty flapper with no more cause on her mind than finding a good man for the next Lindy Hop. She supposes that the Bitchy Indian Princess can be sexy in the mind of a certain type of man, but for her the image inspires nothing, but a vague, yet still exhausting, sense of dread.
She removes the framed photograph from the Steinway Grand. She blows off the dust, but that does not help the image. It remains otherworldly, just so far removed from the Alice Hart who had made Grace her own private finishing school project, and who had gushed over Horace, and who had try to sell Grace on the virtues of widowhood even before Horace had been buried, as to appear unreal. She knows that it is not a staged shot; and yet it seems staged, like her mother had dabbled in acting before getting married and had taken on the role of the ‘lost flapper’ (so much better theater than the melodrama performed by the Perils of Pauline) so as to give the photographer something naughty to flash in that ‘colored’ jazz den in the summer of 1923. It is a strange, but true, trick of the mind: Rather than accept that a person can and often does change his or her outlook, we would rather presume that an earlier incarnation of any person that does not gel with our personal experience must be a phony act on a stage.
Grace looks down at her hands again. She expects to see Alice Hart, the Bitchy Indian Princess with a Cause, or the ‘lost flapper,’ depending upon what prevails in her imagination just then, and how the dim candlelight just happens to flicker upon the image. But instead she sees her naked hands. They are soft, delicate hands, the hands of a writer rather than a worker, the hands of urbane privilege veiled behind a thin veneer of beatnik realism. She prefers to think of herself as a poet for the people, a woman giving voice to the common concerns and aspirations of those who are not traditionally heralded in society, an artist who ‘matters’ because she champions those who do not. Except that the hands give her away. Those are the hands of a person who has never had to shovel old and dried up shit into her wood burning stove in order to make the flame last a little longer than it would with the kindling. She can capture the sentiment in a verse; maybe even, now and then, conjure up something like ‘emotion,’ but no way does she tap into the reality, because if she ever dared to do so then those pretty hands of hers would be a little less pretty.
She looks up from her hands. She is wearing her bohemian chic oversized sweater and slim-fit black pants; perky and cute, but daring in this middle class world of Mamie Eisenhower pink skirts and June Cleaver pearls; still fitted well enough, but a bit tight around the waist now that her thirtieth birthday can be seen in her rearview mirror. She wonders if she is as pretty as she had been at that time that Horace had been standing before this very same door trying with all that he had in him to get control of his anxious stutter. She wonders if ever again she can be that damn pretty, or if it is impossible really to go back home.
It is late autumn in 1955. She has not seen her mother in two years. She has not been invited, so much as summoned. She wonders how her son looks as a ten-year-old boy. Probably as he did when he was eight; and then five before that; freckled, vacant, red hair from her, thin hair from his father, a whiteness bordering on albino from her, a shortness bordering on dwarf from his father, a runt in a litter of one looking into the world through oversized, owl glasses that make him look even punier than he really is. She shuts the image aside. It is an unfortunate image of quiet and somber irrelevance, a reminder that some lives from the start have been ordained for nothing more than just quiet and somber years, a certainty that, for her son at least, the grand adventure will remain at all times elusive. He will never hitchhike out to the West Coast in search of his share of trouble. He will never write the kind of dangerous poems that will get him his very own FBI file. He will never be noticeable enough to be blacklisted. No doubt, he will make a fine legacy member of the Manhattan Men of Letters, and then he too will be found faced down and dead on a Park Avenue sidewalk.
Her mother keeps her waiting. She had kept Horace waiting too. Perhaps she is staring out at her from behind one of those think pink curtains that smell of cigarettes and bourbon. Her mother always has indulged the smokes and the spirits (those parts of her ‘lost flapper’ years had not been discarded, when the dashing Henry Horace had swept her away from the ‘colored’ jazz den a couple of lifetimes ago); but in more recent years, indeed since the evening Grace left her newborn son in her mother’s care ‘for a little while’ and then departed for a life of high purpose and pretty poems out west, Alice Hart has been cigarette smoking and bourbon drinking like she got a tip from God Almighty and realizes that tomorrow will be the Last Day. Even by the standards of the mid-fifties, an era far removed from the more health conscious considerations of a later time, Alice Hart’s slow and steady suicide raises eyebrows among the ‘two packs and two bottles a day’ crowd. Grace also has taken on smokes and spirits. After all, she is a lady beatnik poet; and there is no more ‘common man’ touch, no more indication that you really are ‘on the road,’ than a smoker’s cough after a bout of drunken sex. Still, even Grace shudders at her mother’s extreme indulgence.
Finally, her mother opens the front door. Alice has aged considerably in the last two years. Of course, the smokes and the spirits do not help; but, even more so, hers is a generation that believes that anything over fifty is ‘matronly’ and ‘ready to be put out to pasture.’ That is particularly true is the lady also is a widow. In the popular imagination, the pathetic widow has not changed much since Biblical times. True, unless she is a Sicilian in the midst of one of her long and tortured Novenas, she will not be clothed in the dismal black of perpetual, maudlin mourning. But she will be wrapped in scarves and shawls that give her the appearance of staring out at the world from inside a hood, and she will be stooped (osteoporosis and widowhood seem genetically linked), and she will be sporting yellowed teeth or dentures. But for her striking red hair, held together in a bun, Alice would be the very image of one of those widows limping up from the back of the crowd to see if she can touch the hem of the Good Lord’s robe.
You are late, Alice scolds, while she is exhaling smoke into Grace’s face.
It is so nice to see you as well, Grace says with a plastic smile and a kiss.
Alice sizes her up. She is not impressed; but there is a duty to be done, and this is her daughter, after all. She gestures for Grace to follow her into the sitting room. She takes another puff on her Lucky Strike and turns on her heels.
Grace follows dutifully enough. It is amazing how she settles at once into being her mother’s one and only finishing school student. Like everyone else in her world, she is a chain smoking beatnik poet, emancipated from the ‘squares’ who ‘like Ike’ and cheer on Joseph McCarthy (though it should be said that they are altogether quiet and unnoticed in cheering him on, not because they have a problem with how he is tossing out accusations left and right, but because he is a Roman Catholic in a disheveled jacket who looks like he has consumed his six pack already at the local bowling alley), freed to fuck whatever moves (and, as a side note, showing to be patently untrue the idea that the ‘sexual revolution’ starts with the pill and is wholly owned by the baby boomers); and yet here she is following her mother into the sitting room, like a gawky girl in skirt and lace.
Alice Hart must mean business, Grace thinks (substituting ‘Alice Hart’ in her own mind for ‘mother,’ because frankly she cannot see that that snarly and stooped woman in front of her is or ever had been maternal). She never invites a person into the sitting room unless she means business of one sort or another.
The tiny sitting room is where Alice keeps her antique, Louis XV, rococo monstrosities; garish tables and chairs preserved beneath thin paper from all of the ravages of dust and sunlight; heirlooms she had inherited from Henry Hart’s estate and will be passed down to her grandson, so that his wife also can worry about someone accidentally sitting on one of the chairs or putting an object on one of the tables. Husbands pass on their surnames. Wives pass on their worries and fears. Furniture preserved beneath thin paper, and moved from one family home to the next, is just the legal consideration with which husbands bind men to their surnames, and wives bind women to their worries and fears.
This is a ‘sitting room,’ rather than a museum, only in virtue of two high backed chairs in the far corner. There is a table between the chairs, and there is an ashtray with a half a dozen scrunched cigarettes on the table. And that is all the hospitality that is going to be offered in this dark and tired sitting room.
Grace sits on one of the chairs. She desperately wants a cigarette, but of course gawky girls in skirts and lace do not smoke. She folds her soft fingers on her lap, and she straightens her posture the way that a good girl always should.
Alice sits on the other chair. She takes another puff on her Lucky Strike. She studies her daughter. She is still not impressed. Oh, all those years of good, loving attention to detail on her part thrown out the window by her ungrateful, whorish daughter. One can only wonder what kind of ‘poetry’ she is writing out west what with those randy sailors and Chinamen laborers everywhere you may turn. It is a real wonder she has not mothered a half-breed and abandoned him upon her doorstep like she did her son. For all she knows, maybe she did have a half-breed in the oven, and went to one of those seedy, back alley abortionists they have out there in California. Maybe she has a ghost son hidden away in the heavens above just like she has a living son hidden away at her mother’s home.
Like mother, like daughter, Alice thinks, and then shoves aside that most unwelcomed thought by taking another puff on her cigarette.
Dobner visited with me last month, Alice says. He bemoans your ‘callous inattention,’ as he calls it. Apparently, you have not written back to him in six months, notwithstanding how he continues to write to you every other week on schedule. Surely, he says to me, ‘if Grace insists on thinking of herself as a lady writer, then she should be happy to pen a verse or two for me.’ I agree heartily and presume either that you have given up your hobby, or are indeed callous to the calcified core. I hope the former; but based on how you are dressed, I fear the latter. So explain yourself to me. Tell me in no uncertain terms how you’re going to make this right with Dobner. He is a gentleman with a name within the best circles. He has a seat at the stock exchange. He deserves better from you.
Like Horace, Dobner Diddle is another ‘poor man’ in Grace’s estimation. Dobner Diddle’s father, Lucius, had been her father’s friend and co-conspirator in the war bonds trade; and Dobner Diddle’s mother, Lucy, had been one of her father’s many mistresses. Dobner had been that short, pudgy, and unattractive son of theirs whose manner of coping with his parents’ secrets, and occasional, brutal fights, had been to sink even further into his own neuroses. Among these is a chronic bout of hypochondria that Grace detests. It is not simply that he is a weak man. It is that he seems to revel in his weakness. He seems excited only by those slights that show ‘how much the world is against him;’ and when he is excited, he invariably comes down with an ailment of some sort (usually an itch that will keep him in bed for days on end). Grace wonders if he has taken to his bed permanently now, since indeed she has not written him in a long time. She also wonders how he can be such a fuck up and yet still keep Lucius’ old seat at the stock exchange. Perhaps the Diddle influence is a lot more smoke than fire nowadays, which is not at all uncommon among those ‘better people’ for whom keeping up the appearance of past familial glory in time becomes their one and only concern. It is the only consideration that animates them, lest these landed aristocrats be shown as no more substantial than papier-mâché in a strong gust.
When Grace received the first letter from Dobner (mailed directly to her new flat on Telegraph Hill, which alarmed her, since she had never told anyone back home, including Alice Hart, of her new mailing address), she sensed a trap most likely masterminded by her mother. It had become clear by then that she would not be embracing the morbid widowhood that Alice had been extolling as some sort of paragon of womanly virtue. She had gone out west. She had been out there about a decade now. She had been published in decadent (meaning in her mother’s mind, ‘Commie Red’) journals and magazines. She had had scores of bedroom trysts that would never be mentioned even in impolite company, so long as Grace had anything to do with it. In essence, she had been emancipated even before ‘women’s lib’ had entered into the vocabulary. Biblical widowhood would not be a part of her Bucket List, thank you very much.
When finally Alice had conceded the point, she set out instead to compel her wayward daughter into a new marriage. Horace had been an ideal mate, so far as she was concerned. Dobner was about as close to Horace as she had been able to find; and so once she had convinced Dobner that he really should take a wife, and that her daughter out west would ‘love’ to be romanced by him, she focused in on this objective with as much single minded determination as when Grace had been in her finishing school. She hated the very idea of losing Grace to a life of her own. She had Grace’s son, that was true; but a boy never really belonged to his grandmamma, like a daughter to her mother. Dobner would see to it that Grace returned to her senses; and when married in a proper Episcopal Church, the two of them would live in Alice’s home and under Alice’s close and loving supervision. Furthermore, Grace’s son would have a father of sorts in the well-intentioned, but weak, Dobner Diddle, though to be honest what might be good for Grace’s son truly had not entered into Alice’s meticulous calculations.
Grace had sensed all of this from the start, and yet she had responded to Dobner’s first few letters anyway. They had been childhood friends. She always had looked out for him as a kind of weak sister. In turn, he had accepted her as the stronger and more masculine of the two; and that acquiescence on his part had given Grace the idea that maybe girls also could swing from tree limbs and spit into the earth. Grace had outgrown her tomboy phase before the very first stirrings of puberty; but the seed of her emancipation had been planted, and in his small way, Dobner had been the earnest farmer casting the seed to the soil.
If he had remained the ‘weak sister’ in their letter correspondence, then likely she would have continued responding every other week. But sure enough, he had transitioned from a ‘weak sister’ to a ‘hypochondriac bully,’ as soon as it became clear that she was not going to go further with these note exchanges than to reaffirm an old and platonic friendship. She had warned him on several occasions to tone down his rhetoric, when he started to moan incessantly in his prose about her ‘callous inattention;’ and when he had refused to take the hint she finally had stopped responding altogether.
That had been six months ago. Now, as far as Alice Hart is concerned, it is Grace who needs to make things right with Dobner. Alice is going to see to it that she does. Alice is going to pass on her worries and fears, even if that chain smoking screwball daughter of hers refuses to accept her inheritance. Mothers, since time before time, have been doing the same to their daughters; and Alice will be soaked, hung, and dried on a line if she does not do the same with hers.
Am I my brother’s keeper? Grace asks in such an acerbic manner that she all at once ceases to be the gawky girl in skirt and lace.
What on earth do you mean? Alice inquires coyly.
You know damn well what I mean, Grace responds.
Alice is taken aback by Grace’s salty language. She takes another drag on her cigarette, so that she does not showcase on her face just how startled in fact she is to hear her own daughter speaking like a debauched, drunken sailor.
Dobner is a weak sister, Grace continues. Am I obligated to keep him on a short leash, because he is too weak to find some other woman who will listen to his pathetic cries and clean up after his messes? If I had wanted a little boy…
Then, you would be taking care of your own; Alice interrupts.
Do not start that with me, Grace screams. You looked me straight in the eyes and told me that if I kept him, then you’d take care of him.
Of course, always running from your responsibilities, Alice snarls back.
Giving voice to the common man is my responsibility, Grace snaps, while poking defiantly at her own chest. Living life on my terms is my responsibility…
Oh, living life on your terms, Alice teases her. Seems to me you have the money to be ‘living life on your terms,’ because you had the good sense to say ‘I do’ to a rich man with a poor heart.
That is not fair, Grace responds.
What does fairness have to do with it? Alice takes another puff upon her smoke. Men play their games. We play ours. Take away all the romance; toss to the side all the fine manners and polite talk; and, lo and behold, what then do we see, but men and women prostituting themselves to one another in the sick and selfish hope that, somehow, they will get out from their partner what they most want for themselves. I am not saying that you knew that Horace would die of a heart attack on Park Avenue. But I am saying that you knew that, one way or another, you’d profit from your little ‘I do’ moment and then leave the poor man in your rearview mirror. There is no reason to be ashamed. As I said, all of us play our games, and then we go home with as many marbles as we captured.
You make it sound like life is a game in a schoolyard surrounded on each side by barb wired fence, Grace scoffs in an effort to hide the fear inside of her own eyes. What you don’t understand, what you can never understand, is that a life worth living blasts through that goddamn fence of yours. I am not playing a game. I am living my life; and in my life, I am not my brother’s keeper. I just hope you can get that into your thick head: I am not my brother’s keeper. I am not here to take care of every ‘weak sister’ who tries to romance me by ranting and bellyaching in bad prose. I am not here to wipe the boy’s green snot from…
Talking of your son again, Alice interrupts. Do I hear a guilty conscience?
I am referring to Dobner, Grace interjects.
No, I don’t think so, Alice says with a triumphant grin. I think that poor, little Dobner is merely a substitute for your son. ‘Living life on your terms,’ you say. Well, that means more than just marrying a rich man with a poor heart. It also means abandoning your son on your mother’s doorstep. Oh, sure, you truly love to hear from your son now and then: a Christmas card every few years that has a picture of your son on Santa’s lap; a transcribed copy of your son’s report card sent to you in the mail; a telegram assuring you that your son came out of surgery just fine, when they had to remove his tonsils. Just like you truly loved to hear from that poor, little Dobner. But only for a while; only long enough to satisfy your momentary craving; never so long as to interfere with ‘living life on your terms.’ And if you had this whole world for yourself, then you could live as selfishly as you want. As I said, all of us play our games. But, it bleeds my heart to say it, but it’s true: You don’t have this whole world for yourself. You have a son. He is upstairs in your old bedroom, if case you were wondering. He has his face in a fantasy book. Like you used to read by candlelight inside your closet…
Grace slaps Alice across the face. She never knew that her mother knew. She feels as violated as when she first learned that Horace had read her journal to steal away her private poems. She wonders if there are any secrets possible, or if the sun exposes everything, even inside of tiny sitting rooms with curtains.
Well, if my son is so much like me, then you really should enjoy dragging him through your ‘finishing school,’ Grace snarls. Emasculate him. Turn the boy into a pretty girl. Add him to your collection of pretty things in this little room.
I am taking care of him, Alice insists. I am being responsible, damn you.
And I am being responsible, too, Grace interjects. Yes, I am a selfish and conniving bitch; but I am alive. Goddamn it, I am alive. I had a choice given to me: Either be a widow and a mother, or be alive. Those are the choices offered a woman: the sacrificial, or the selfish. And I chose the selfish. And you choose not to understand what I am saying now, but I’ll say it anyway: There is nothing more responsible than a woman choosing to be alive, really alive, in this world.
What about your son? Alice protests. He needs a mother and a father…
Another broken child in another broken home, Grace remarks. So we all have suffered, in one way or another. Do you think that I had a father when my daddy dearest ‘extended his business trip’ another night so as to dance the old horizontal tango with Lucy Diddle? What about Horace? He turned out just fine, in your estimation, and yet he had nothing more in his life than a conniving, old bitch of a grandmother. The truth is this is not about my son anyway. This is all about you wanting to add a ‘Mr. and Mrs. Dobner Diddle’ to your dead museum.
Alice puffs on her cigarette, and looks down. The truth really stuns her a moment. She just wishes that her wayward daughter would get the heck out of her house, but she has been a fighting bitch in this world much too long not to get in the last word. And so she simply waits until she can collect her thoughts.
‘Live free or die,’ Alice reflects. Not a proper slogan for a woman, but it is clear enough that you have embraced it for yourself, no matter the harm you cause your mother and your son. Well, always remember, when you shake that fence down, and roam free from the schoolyard, you’re going to experience an aftershock somewhere down the line that you never could have anticipated. No doubt, you think you know everything. But I’ve lived more life than you realize, and I know. I know about those aftershocks. I know how disruptive they can be, especially to a little lady who thinks she can hold her head up high, like a man.
And with that the conversation ends, as it should. There really is nothing more that can be said. Grace returns the framed photograph to its place on top of the Steinway Grand. She glances into the flickering candle, and sheds a tear.
* * *
Grace wipes that tear away, but another one immediately follows it. She wants to go back to bed, but she needs to get through this silly crying fit before she reclines. Otherwise, her nose will plug up, and her crybaby tears will be all over her hospital pillow. Oh, she hates how she is carrying on like this. Not only is she keeping herself up, but she had forsworn the kind of behavior she regards as weak and womanish a long time ago. Indeed, she recalls that even when she suffered her greatest loss that hot and dreadful summer night in 1961, she held back these very same tears, like a dam managing to keep the Great Flood from flowing over its top and down the other side. She had not been concerned then with keeping up appearances, since in the immediate aftermath of that terrible event any overflow of tears on her part would not have been noticed amidst all the tears shed by the others. Rather, she did not want to be unequal to the Big Cause that she had embraced, just as she had not wanted to shirk her personal, all or nothing, commitment to giving voice to the ‘common man’ in the beatnik cafes out west. Shout out defiance before your victorious foe, stumble forward, fall face down into the mud and blood soaked battlefield, and at least you will know at the end that you had been a David as big and as strong as your Goliath. Wail pitifully, and you are just another silly girl in a world full of silly girls; just another Horace Temple found dead on a sidewalk alongside Park Avenue with a flower still clutched in his small hand; just another Alice Hart doing a dance on the sitting room floor before the decadent and avaricious stare of her husband.
Grace rolls over to the antique phonograph beside the foot of her bed. It is the very same turn of the century machine that had been preserved beneath a thin sheet of paper inside that sitting room; never to be played, except when Henry Hart returned from Manhattan still red and sweaty and of a mind to have ‘his starlet’ dance for him until dawn; secured from the ravages of sunlight and dust, only to be stained by champagne splashing out of Henry Hart’s silver flute in the wee hours of the morning.
Alice had willed everything else in that sitting room to Grace’s son. That had been Alice’s final bit of charity before giving up her ghost to the ravages of lung cancer, since of course Alice had known better than anyone how much her daughter had not wanted to inherit the worries and the fears of a woman’s life.
But she had willed the phonograph to Grace; and Grace had accepted it, even though Grace had known damn well why her dying mother had seen fit to set aside that particular heirloom for her wayward daughter.
It had to do with one of those nights that Henry Hart had returned from Manhattan still red and sweaty. It had to do with the song that is in the ancient and scratchy turntable even now waiting to be voiced through the tired speaker and into the dust filled bedroom. It had to do with the embarrassed glance that Alice and Grace had shared, before that scene had faded behind a veil of tears.
Grace winds up the phonograph. This is going to be a long night. She may as well wallow in it, until there are no more tears to be shed.
The record turns a while, before the first musical note of The Charleston wails out from the speaker like a warbling ghost. It is a haunting sound; slowed from the normal fast and furious tempo of the dance by the same name; creepy and mildew in texture, as if sound can be felt as a clammy sensation upon skin.
But on that night in 1935, the very same record had turned upon the old turntable as quick and easy as a step and a heel kick on the swanky dance floor of a ‘colored’ jazz den. It was after midnight, and Grace had been awakened at once by all that sensuality clothed in melody and tempo.
She thinks she views a virile man in blackface standing in the dark beside her bed. She pulls her sheet over her chin. She is wearing her pajamas, but she feels naked beneath his bulging eyes and smacking lips.
For a brief moment, she is aroused; but she is not sure what that feeling is; and so she is consumed immediately by cold and hard fear. She tries to look away, but the man in blackface has captured her startled eyes into his own big and luscious ones. She feels like she is being swept into those eyes, those gums and teeth, indeed even into his throat. It is a collared throat; the throat of one of those nig dogs chained by spikes; and as soon as she makes that strange, but also straightforward, mental association, the man in blackface looks like a tall, mangy dog standing on its hind paws and snarling down at her with an oversized muzzle. It is growling ravenously at her, but the mouth ends are also turned up into the semblance of a smile. It is a hungry smile. It is a smile that barks back at her: ‘I’m going to eat you, and there is nothing you can do about it, my girl.’ And so it is the most dangerous, and beautiful, smile that she has ever seen up to that point in her life.
And then it is gone. Grace sits up in her bed. She grabs at her own heart to make sure that it is still beating. She is drenched in hot and cold sweat, as if her body cannot figure out if it has been hot and bothered by the vision, or just scared dead. Perhaps there is no difference between the two extremes. Climax is death. Death is climax. Mild pleasantness is all that grey muck in the middle.
But, of course, Grace does not understand any of that just then. She has no more bearing than a baby awakening from a deep sleep and discovering that she is not inside her normal crib, but rather is hovering near a wild dance floor.
She steps away from her bed. She opens her bedroom door. It creaks just barely; but in her mind it is loud enough to awaken the dead from their graves, so she braces for her parents to reprimand her for eavesdropping.
Neither one of them comes upstairs to scold her. She relaxes after a bit. She determines then that all that music stomping downstairs is The Charleston.
She should go back to bed, and she almost does. But if curiosity kills the cat, then at the very least it can push her away from her commonsense just for a moment of two.
She walks down the staircase. In her mind, every one of her steps sounds like a firecracker explosion, followed by a deep and penetrating thud. She just cannot understand how they do not hear her so flagrantly breaking that ‘proper girl’ rule that mandates that she should never venture out from her bedroom at night, unless she is going to the bathroom. Perhaps they will confront her about it, when she gets down to the foyer. Perhaps they are waiting for her there like a pair of ravenous cats ready to leap on the mouse when it gets to the cheese.
And yet she continues. She has no clear idea why she is disregarding her better judgment and reliable commonsense. She just knows that she must view what is going on down there and that she kind of likes this little adventure. She imagines that she is a character in her jungle book, but then she sets that aside as quaint and unreal in comparison to this moment.
Her parents are not waiting for her in the foyer. Now, that is so contrary to what she had expected that, for a moment, she thinks she may be dreaming still. The foyer is dark; but the door to the sitting room is ajar, and there is the barest hint of a ghostly candlelight seeping through that crack in the doorway. It is not enough light from this far away to touch her eyes. But it is just enough to sift into her mind, and to suggest vaguely that she is inside her own haunted dreamscape. She wonders if this is what it is like to be dead: You fade into that eternal blackness; but you do not lose consciousness, so you remain aware that you are trapped inside of yourself even as your body decomposes back to earth.
She snaps out of that thought, because she is afraid that if she continues down that path she will cry out in fear and trembling. Surely, her parents then will hear her; and the punishment will be more than she ever wants to imagine.
She steps over to the sitting room door, and pokes inside. She views the back of her father. He is always meticulous in dress, and his jacket hangs upon his back like a robe tailored to a king. He is swaying side to side. He is holding an empty champagne flute upside down in his right hand. The flute bumps into his right thigh, whenever his hand sways back in that direction. He reminds her of a snake waving side to side as it ascends from the snake charmer’s basket in time to the music, except that in this instance her father is waving much more slowly than the frenetic melody virtually sparkling off of the turntable. If he is waving in time to the music, then he is so doing to a song in his own head.
Grace allows her eyes to trace down his jacket. She sees his bare ass and has to clamp her mouth to contain her terrified scream. She has never seen any naked man, let alone her meticulous and distant father. She is first amazed and then repulsed. She thinks that something must be horribly wrong for her father to lower his pants and his underwear to his ankles, since he is always to careful about not getting his pants dirtied or creased. Perhaps he is sick. Perhaps he is out of his mind, like she has felt once or twice after reading a fantasy story and sensing that perhaps, just perhaps, that story does not end when she closes the book. Or perhaps that is not her father at all, but rather some sort of intruder…
But he simply cannot be an intruder, because that is her mother kneeling in front of his crotch, and her mother would never be so close to an intruder. It is impossible to see what her mother is doing with her face in his crotch, since her father’s bare ass is in the way. But she is doing something, and she is doing that something, while wearing the same dress that years later Grace will know as the flapper dress in the framed photograph.
Alice Hart does not remove her face from his crotch. It seems as if it will be glued there forevermore. Nevertheless, she manages to turn her eyes away from his crotch just enough to catch a glimpse of the frightened girl in pajamas now watching her. There is a terrified and trapped look in Alice’s eyes. It is the look of a woman whose soul will be stuck inside that sitting room for the rest of her life and the life to come. It is the look of a woman no longer able to plead for mercy, no longer able to hope for salvation, no longer able to feel much of anything, but the sting of despair every time her face bobs into that smelly and unwashed crotch. There is only one message imparted in that awful look: ‘Just get out of her, my girl, and don’t make the mistake of returning anytime soon.’
Because if you stay in a mausoleum, then you may imagine yourself just a guest, or maybe a cemetery worker, but indeed you become one of the dead; a fixture in that place; a woman caught up in the same, old, rhythmic face bob in and out of the same, old, smelly crotch, while The Charleston repeats itself forever. Grace cannot then say this, but she grasps that bit of hell in her heart, as she shuts the door to the sitting room and sneaks to her bed in the darkness.
* * *
Eventually, Grace sheds the last of her tears; and so she switches off the phonograph and removes The Charleston. She looks at the old and warped vinyl in her lap for a while. It is amazing how much can be unleashed by the smallest and the least substantial of items. This vinyl could be a piece of trash inside of a junkyard; but turning slowly on her turntable, and moaning sadly through her speaker, it haunts her with the terrified and trapped look in her mother’s eyes.
She wants to wheel out to the deck and toss the vinyl over the side. The dark and syrupy lake would swallow it whole, before she could observe it again in the moonlight. She would be rid of it; and maybe, just maybe, what she had seen on the eve of her tenth year would be consumed by the blue deep as well.
But she knows that it is not that simple. She had avoided the mausoleum contained in Alice’s sitting room; dropped her son on her doorstep; run off to a lifetime of self-discovery and adventure out west; but, long after the fact, and notwithstanding all that had happened, she had come to realize that she simply had replaced one dead place with another. That is her chief sadness in the cold winter of her years. The sun shines as much on her life as it did her mother’s or her son’s or her husband’s. The sun crosses over graves, and elongates the dark and brooding shadows cast off of tombstones, as much for her as for the others buried in the black valley of death. The sun turns every eye into a terrified and trapped thing; a look that is distant and lost; a glance between a mother and a daughter that will never again be acknowledged, not because of what they had been doing at the time, but because they had glanced at one another just then as strangers. We are strangers, because we are all alone on that road to Selma.
Grace sighs. She drops the vinyl onto the carpet. It will be there on that carpet the next time she needs to cry. It will be coated by dust. It will be hard to find amidst all the other items upon the floor. But it will be there because in the end every woman is a pack rat when it comes to the joys and the sorrows in her life. She hoards it in the clutter on her carpet, or in the photographs on top of her Steinway Grand, or in the dream memories she holds close to her heart, like the body length pillow she embraces while asleep.
And with that thought, she yawns. She had slept most of the day, and so far as she can tell the night is still young; but she feels as tired and emotionally spent as if she had been engaged in some sort of protracted struggle that whole day. And who knows? Perhaps she had been. She thinks that she slept well, but for that strange and disturbing dream; but perhaps she had been haunted prior by some other surreal dream memory. Perhaps even now she is caught inside of a dream; inside this mausoleum she made for herself; always inside and alone…
As soon as she slides back onto her hospital bed, and embraces the body length pillow, she is again on that long walk toward downtown Selma alongside her Negro friend and sister, Mavis Spencer. She thinks ‘Negro,’ because she has stepped back into 1965, where the birds sing and the honeysuckle smells just so (remembered in her dream as visceral as if now experienced in reality, and yet also as different than birds sing and honeysuckle smells today, since of course these are the birds and the honeysuckle from long ago), and where the tranquil and bright town on both sides is about to turn tumultuous and grey. Sudden and dramatic change also suggests long ago, because in retrospect everything about the past seems to have been teetering on the edge and able with little pressure to fall to one side or the other. Seen from the here and now, the past is totally mercurial, while the present seems to drag from one tired eternity in a second of time to another. The past bursts at the seams with life. The present is dead, terrified and trapped in on itself, the whole of the universe a dark mausoleum.
The dream progresses as it did before. She and Mavis are innocents on a two-girl march into the heart of darkness. They hold hands, and whenever they look into each other’s eyes, they giggle as if co-conspirators on a big joke. That sweet and syrupy play would have continued forevermore, except that she sees and hears a disturbance on her right side. It is the mob. It is Alice Hart, first by herself, then accompanied by millions of identical ‘Alice Harts.’ And then there are federal troops holding back the mob, but looking at her with ravenous eyes.
Grace looks toward Mavis. Like the last dream, she expects Mavis then to be gone; and so she is surprised, when she sees that Mavis continues to walk by her side. Mavis remains calm and confident, while Grace is trembling with fears that, if unabated, will mature into a gnawing disillusionment, and then despair.
Alice screams: White Whore! White Whore! White Whore! White Whore!
She is a solitary voice. She is the many voices of the mob. The singular is the plural, and the plural the singular, as the universe is winding backward into its own grave. The only certainty just then is a cry of dereliction: White Whore!
With that scream reverberating in her ears, a terrible earthquake ripples out from her feet. It rents the earth into two like the veil of the Holy of Holies.
Again, Grace looks toward Mavis. She expects Mavis to be gone, as prior, since of course every death is a solitary and lonely endeavor. But Mavis is there by her side, and she is as calm and confident still as if oblivious to that terrible earthquake. There is even a hint of a triumphant smile upon Mavis’s pretty lips.
Interesting that Grace should think of Mavis’s lips as ‘pretty.’ And then, at once, Grace sees that Mavis is her own mirror image, except with black skin, rather than white skin. The earthquake is ripping the universe into two halves, two mirror images of one another, two distinct puzzle pieces that really should be fitted again into one another. The earthquake is showing the universe to be the Kingdom of Mirror Imaged Lives; what happens to one person affecting then his or her mirror image; what whiteness prevails on this side of the great divide is darkness on the other side; what peace is achieved on this side is war on the other side. And so we are never freed, never independent, but rather joined at the hip with our mirror image. What we call now ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ in fact are just illusions not yet torn down by the earthquake coming suddenly, and viciously, out from nowhere. And without ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ in a woman’s life, there is just the mausoleum, the son unable to be discarded on a doorstep, the heirlooms never freed from the thin paper wrapped over them.
Grace looks at the millions of Alice Harts on both sides. She is screaming White Whore! She is spitting up Henry Hart’s slimy semen, as she blurts out the insult. Her chin, neck, and blouse have been drenched already by all that slimy semen, and there is so much more still to be spit out with that insufferable cry.
* * *
Grace wants to scream out, but her throat feels clogged with something thick and slimy. Whatever it is (she knows what it is, indeed always has known, but does not want to admit that she knows what it is, and so refers to it inside her own dream as ‘whatever’), it feels like chunky peanut butter gone bad, and smells like fish left in the sun much too long. It feels like something gurgling up from her own bowels, and yet also planted inside there from outside of herself, so that it is at once intimate and foreign at the same time; a puzzle that is not going to be solved; a clog in her pipe that is never going to be cleared.
Nevertheless, while she cannot scream out, the desire to do so remains; and that desire pushes her up from the pillow and opens her eyes. She grasps at her own throat reflexively, even though ‘whatever’ is lodged in her esophagus, not in her windpipe. She feels a surge of nausea gurgle up from her bowels and push out ‘whatever’ through her dried mouth.
She is spitting up slimy semen. It is her father’s and so smells incestuous and secret. It smells like something that falls onto the floor of the sitting room and is covered over with thin paper, so that no one from the outside world ever would be the wiser. It smells like her own humiliation and despair, because she cannot escape those mausoleums women build for themselves more so than any other woman. It smells like the terrified and trapped look in Alice’s eyes; a sad look that is now as much her own as her mother’s; a putrid moment that lingers like the odor of decomposed flesh, even after the corpse has been taken away.
Grace screams through that slimy semen that is still clinging to her dried mouth: White Whore! White Whore! White Whore! White Whore! White Whore!
She views the curtain fluttering in a breeze, and that breaks the illusion. She is screaming ‘white whore,’ and so that part of the dream indeed has been carried into the real world; but she is not spitting up slimy semen. There is just a bit of morning phlegm in the back of her throat, and she spits that grimy stew into her hospital bed sheet like normal.
Usually, when the curtain flutters in a breeze, it is still again in seconds. But now it is fluttering without cease, like a sail that has caught a brisk wind at its back and is being pushed out to the sea.
At the same time that it feels like a boat being pushed out to sea, it also feels like something sweeping in from far away. The incongruity of pushing out and sweeping in shuts down her conscious mind a moment (easy to do just then because she is not that far removed from her nightmare), and so plays upon her irrational fears. The devil observed face-to-face is not frightening. Often, he is going to be charming, or unassuming, but surely not frightening. The devil that is glimpsed only briefly and partially, like a mysterious form in the shadow that either is there in reality or is a trick of the mind, breaks out the cold sweat and the goose bumps. And that is the case with this fluttering curtain. It is pushing out. It is sweeping in. It is both, when that is impossible; and so, like that devil shadow glimpsed only briefly and partially, it is a mystery that cannot but raise up those mental alarms that we identify as just cold fear. That is what we have when logic and reason break down: cold fear, mind-halting fear, paralyzing ice.
Snap out of it, silly woman, Grace mutters while making herself chuckle.
That bit of self-deprecation helps her to get out of her own head. And so that is why old ladies like herself often spend the day talking to themselves, or their long dead relatives and friends preserved in framed photographs, or even their dogs and cats. Pretending that someone else is there, or even carrying on a two-person mode of conversation inside ones own mind, helps the old lady to get out of her own head. Otherwise, she would be an insufferable narcissist. By talking with herself all day, she just gets a little mad. She is the goofy cat lady, instead of the raving bitch; and is not that a better way to decline into senility?
Maybe, but Grace is not ready for senility, at least not today. Filthy grey sunlight bleeds through the fluttering curtain. It is mid-morning, no doubt; and the tired and drab nature of the sunlight suggests inclement weather coming in waves from beyond the Redwood Mountains and settling as a heavy weight into the crater. She had sensed two days ago that this storm was on its way, so that the relative brightness and calm yesterday morning had been no more than the briefest respite before the clarion call to war. Now, that horn has been blown; and the storm is rushing in to do battle; and although it will take a while longer for the storm to reach its apogee, there will be no more respites beforehand. It is the quake unleashed; the madness unrestrained; and there is no sliding back.
Grace slides into her wheelchair. She wraps the Old Cherokee shawl near and dear to her shriveled face. She is again a stooped and pitiful Mother Teresa clinging to her shawl and muttering gibberish. She is exhausted, as today is the kind of day that would drain the energy out of a woman half her age; but she is also playing a role. She will be confronting soon enough ‘whatever’ is streaming into the crater from the other side of the mountaintops; and when she does so, she wants to be the wise and stoic Mother Grace, rather than a silly woman too enamored with her own tears.
Grace grabs another yogurt from the icebox in the kitchenette. She does not really taste it. She is too focused on that storm that is starting in earnest to flutter through her curtain. She senses that this is going to be her last storm. It is going to tear her apart, so that there is nothing left, but her tired ghost wail.
She grabs the hand held telescope, and rolls out onto the deck. The wind is stronger out here than she had guessed. It tosses her white hairs in every odd direction, so that for a moment she looks like a crazed and jealous Medusa just sneaking out of her cave to keep tabs on her paramour. It hisses more so than it howls, and that too suggests the snakes writhing on top of her wrinkled head.
She stops at her favorite spot. She leans forward, so that her elbows are resting on the deck rail. She holds the telescope up to her tired eye, and moves it through the hissing wind, until finally she sees the old park on the other side.
There are several more large crates, including the packages of food that Apollo had delivered. There is a temporary, wooden stage still in the process of being constructed. It looks like a gallows, and the rope hanging from a redwood branch over the gallows looks like a noose. There is a banner that has yet to be unfurled. It is next to an open box full of what looks like medieval priest robes.
Of course, her rational mind tries to tell her that cannot be a gallows on the mossy banks of Crater Lake. And that cannot be a noose. And those are not medieval priest robes, because ‘whatever’ is setting up shop over there cannot be that weird, now can it? No, it cannot be. She is just a tired, old lady making up images in her head, because she has little else to do so near and dear to the grave herself. She should roll back inside, and take another nap before this just gets out of hand. No doubt, when the storm blows over, she will see this as it is in reality: a Boy Scout Jamboree, maybe a religious nut convention, but nothing evil. No, her rational mind insists, there cannot be anything evil over there.
But there is, and she knows it. Also, she knows what it is, even though it is only half completed, and the banner remains unfurled. She has seen this evil. She has felt its clammy touch. She has smelled its booze breath. She senses it, as clearly as if it had been lodged into her throat from both outside and inside.
I’ll be a white whore, if I let you stay, Grace whispers coldly. Oh, yes, it is true. You took from me. But I took from you. I balanced the scales. And I am not going to give you a chance to take from me a second time.
Grace lowers the telescope to her lap. She turns away from the lake and starts to roll back towards her bedroom. She clenches her face and stops a tear from streaming down her right cheek. It is an act of will that shakes off her sad exhaustion momentarily and makes her feel like she could take on every one of those KKK bastards yet again, even as the last storm hisses through her hair.
No more damned aftershocks, she mutters, while she pulls the curtain to the side and rolls back into the safety of her cave.
* * *
Grace intends to climb back into bed. She is afraid that she may fall into that same nightmare from which she had awakened, but that prospect is better frankly than trying to fight off her exhaustion. She feels like the incoming brew of wind and rain already is pressing down on her stooped shoulders, pushing her back into her hospital bed, sinking her lips into her mouth, dropping her watery eyes into her sockets like stones tossed into a well. This is her last storm; and, as it approaches from afar, she senses that she will have even less energy than now. No doubt, when it rages at its greatest power just beyond her red curtain, slapping the lake onto her deck, beating hailstones against her outer walls, and crackling the sky above with electric fury, she will be bedridden and consumed by her sadness. She can talk tough now, but she will not even toss out a cranky insult then, no matter how much she knows that she has been defeated by life.
But as she approaches the side of her hospital bed, she sees that framed photograph on top of her Steinway Grand that stands apart from all the others. It is in the middle of the pack, like the photograph of her dead husband; but it is the only photograph inside a gold frame that glistens brilliantly in the yellow candlelight. The other 6’ X 8’ frames sift in and out of the shadows cast by the flickering candlelight, but only the golden one shines without cease like eternal sunlight. There is black magic in that golden one; the kind of black magic that is dangerous; the beautiful glow that cannot be buried forever amidst the other frames, even if Grace has forgotten just how unique it is in contrast to the drab clutter everywhere else.
Grace rolls over to the Steinway Grand. She removes the golden one and stares tearfully into the soul of the man pictured in black and white. That stoic resolve not to cry has been broken by the striking ink, blue eyes and solid white hair of the dashing, mustached man staring back at her. He is so debonair in his dark jacket and bowtie. His Mona Lisa lips offer the barest hint of a sinister and playful grin. He is up to something naughty even while posing for an impromptu photograph near where Martin Luther King is giving his ‘I have a dream’ speech; the American Moses just then offering his dream of a nation of men judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character; while the good doctor, no doubt, is contemplating his next adventure in his ongoing pursuit for that universal justice that he contends is the final end of his rebellious resolve.
Grace had not been there that day. She had dropped out of life for some time after that dreadful experience in 1961, and would not reemerge until that wretched call for vengeance inside her own soul had compelled her to return to the Great Crusade on the eve of the March from Selma to Montgomery. She can remember the first time she had stirred from her doldrums, and had heard very clearly the voice in her head telling her that it is time to even the cosmic score (not for justice, but for vengeance, she acknowledged in her own mind even at that time). It had been a month after the ‘I have a dream’ speech, when out of the blue her mailman had delivered a wrapped gift containing this very picture.
Her very first impression upon removing the framed photograph from the package had been what it is still now: The doctor is in the thick of things, as he tends to be; and yet, at the same time, he is not there. He is surrounded on all sides by Negroes, and so the fact that he seems to be the only white man there may set him apart in the mind of an observer. But it is more than that. There is an ineffable quality to the old and distinguished man that suggests that indeed he is not there. He looks ephemeral, even ghostly, like a form that materializes out of thin air for the sake of the photographer (and even more so, for the sake of the woman who is going to receive the photograph) and then vanishes before any one else notices him. A more computer savvy person than Grace would say that he looks like he has been photo shopped into a sea of black faces, but that is not entirely accurate. True, the stark edges of his face, neck, shoulders, and jacket look like they have been cut from some other source; but photo shopped images generally are not so airy that the figures behind them can be seen. Over the years, she has tried to tell herself that that impression is only the result of faulty film development. The central image did not develop entirely, and some of those black faces that appear elsewhere in the picture had been duplicated, somehow, and inserted behind where the central image stands. Now, of course, that is impossible. The chemicals in a dark room cannot duplicate images from elsewhere in a picture and then insert them somewhere, like the software that we use nowadays to photo shop the whole world into what we prefer. And yet, notwithstanding how that explanation rings hollow and false to her rational and keen mind, she nevertheless tries to convince herself of that bedtime story, as the alternative is altogether inconceivable. It is not that Grace cannot conceive of a ghost. After all, while she rejects God, she is fine with heaven and hell on earth; and ‘ghosts’ of one stripe or another fit in with those unicorns and fairy nymphs that have been fixtures in her imagination since she first taught herself to read. No, the problem is not the possibility of a ghost per se, but the notion that it had been a ghost who had inspired her to go to college and, later, to do her part in the Great Crusade. She wants to think that she had had her own two feet solidly planted in this earth, when she had made those decisions that truly and irrevocably marked her life. She wants to believe that, notwithstanding her vibrant imagination, she has been guided in the making of those great decisions by the very same rational mind and stoic resolve that are the marks of wisdom.
Grace sets the golden one in her lap. She wipes away a tear. She glances up in time to see the curtain fluttering inward on account of a hissing wind now streaming across her creaky deck. She shivers, not because the serpentine wind slithers across her floor and snaps at her face (though, indeed, that is her first impression, when she feels the wind against her face), but because she is more afraid now than when she had visited the third time with the doctor on the eve of the 1960 Presidential Election. Back then she had experienced a vague sense of foreboding when first reading the telegram invitation, while reclining on the Caribbean beach where she had made her home since abandoning in frustration the increasingly male chauvinist beatnik scene. She had been stirred even more so by the moral conviction and the sense of adventure implicit in the invitation and so had overcome her initial fears. But today, and in retrospect, that vague sense of foreboding is a stark warning sign not to break free from her peaceful and secure ‘schoolyard’ beside the ocean blue. It is a psychic premonition of all the pain that will be inflicted upon her, since she has dared to tear down all of the walls about her, and to endure whatever aftershocks the fates may bestow in response. It is a last reminder that, when she leaves home this time, she will not be able to return. In hell, the Prodigal Daughter cannot repent, whether or not she is ever inclined to do so, but rather must remain alone and so far away.
And, indeed, as Grace looks up from her lap, and folds her gloved hands on the restaurant table, she feels alone and so far away. That is a very strange feeling. She is sitting across from the doctor in the same fine Manhattan eatery where he had convinced her to go to college fifteen years earlier. There is that hustle everywhere that is so indicative of downtown during lunch. How she can imagine that she is ‘alone’ and ‘so far away’ at that moment, when if anything the opposite is true, well, that is simply beyond her. Maybe she is overawed to be back in the States after two and a half years on a backwards, Caribbean isle not yet marked by telephone lines and automobiles. Maybe she has become so accustomed to ‘the doctor’ as a playful, and slightly flirtatious, author of those charming telegrams she has been receiving every other season for fifteen years that she cannot quite wrap her mind around the notion that he is really in front of her just now. Regardless, she is out of sorts, and so she decides that will be as good an explanation of her strange feeling as anything else she may imagine.
Grace stares into his ink blue eyes. He is as handsome as he had been on the occasion of their first visit. He is smoking one of his phallic cigars, though it is not a Cuban on account of recent political developments there. He insists the smoke is from Central America by way of Mexico; and he says with that devilish grin of his that that is his story, and he is sticking to it. He blows out a pungent smoke circle, dabs ashes into an ashtray in front of his chest, and smiles in that charming way that suggests that she is the only person in his universe just then.
Jonathan Cape sent me an advance of your first novel, the doctor says in a tone that is at once congratulatory and conspiratorial, as if the very fact that she has published a novel is equally good and naughty. It seems the suits across the pond want to market you as a ‘Lady Ian Fleming,’ and to that end they sent out ‘one of the boys’ to photograph you typing on the beach with a tall glass of blood rum beside you. No doubt, you struck a mysterious pose for the lens.
Grace laughs. Really, it had been a ridiculous stunt what with the portly, queer photographer recruiting a half a dozen natives to hold up sun shields just so. The photographer had wanted an ‘action shot’ (a new phrase for Grace that she regarded as vaguely sexual) that would suggest that the camera simply had stumbled upon the authoress in her normal routine. In reality, the late morning shoot had been the most contrived deed with which Grace ever had had a part.
You really have taken a dubious turn in your career, the doctor proceeds with a sly smile and a wink. I am so very proud of you.
Indeed, Grace thinks, her abandonment of that mad beatnik scene in San Francisco had been a dubious turn by all accounts. A rougher crowd had started to merge with the artsy bohemians. For the most part, the newest recruits into the beatnik cause were shaggier than their soft and clean-shaven predecessors. They were derelicts and drinkers from the Midwest; escaped convicts who had written poems discreetly while serving time; perverts with a penchant for hard drugs. They were Jack Kerouac wannabes who eschewed ‘common man’ poems in favor of the gritty realism in On the Road, though there was a hopelessness, and at times a mean vindictiveness, implicit in their anti-social behavior that in fact did not do justice to the novel that they held up as some sort of Gospel. If these newest recruits had been the latest in a long line of hypocrites and glory seekers, then Grace could have forgiven their excesses. But many of them were also misogynists, especially with respect to those ladies who presumed to write essays and poems about the real life struggles of laborers and outcasts.
Still, Grace had earned a prominent spot for herself among the essayists and poets, who recited their missives on Gough Street but partied on Telegraph Hill. She had enough true friends and supporters within the community that she felt that she could keep these ‘Beatnik Goths’ out of her hair indefinitely. And so, under the circumstances, most everyone left behind had presumed that the rich widow (no one knew that she was a mother, as that was the one secret she would not acknowledge, even when as drunk as a skunk) either had suffered an awful case of woman’s irrationality (a phrase uttered with all the sureness of a medical doctor announcing his diagnosis before writing out his prescription), or had beaten every other woman in her generation to menopause.
In truth, Grace had not been frightened of the newest recruits’ behavior so much as underwhelmed by them. For the most part, they were posers; dirty, shaggy men who would rather ape a still living American Icon, than take all the time and the commitment needed to develop their own unique creativity; ugly groundlings more focused on politics than on art. She had shared their simple, reflexive, left wing orientations, of course; but she had refused to believe that wild-eyed strikes occasioned by Molotov cocktails could make a more poignant and lasting mark than a beautifully constructed stanza written on a soft napkin.
She had left for the Caribbean in search of adventure; no, even more so, in search of danger; and had set aside her poems indefinitely to try her hand at a crime novel that would appeal to those well coiffed and decadent gentlemen always derided by the ‘Beatnik Goths.’ Jonathan Cape had compared her to Ian Fleming, but she preferred to think of herself then as a new Patricia Highsmith.
She might have had one or two more ‘Lady Ian Fleming’ novels inside her before the repetitive crash of waves against sand at her feet had turned boring and even slightly distasteful. Then, most likely, she would have packed her one large chest and sent everything off to Paris to try her pretty hand at satire and alcoholism (not necessarily in that order). She was still young and pretty, albeit coarsened by her cigarette and sex habit into an exotic film noir creature just a hair shy of sexy, but she was too wise to believe anymore that life could be one amazing discovery after another. Instead, given her life at the beach when she came to this sad insight, she had started to see that life is much more akin to a white, endless, unbroken shoreline; the same no matter how far someone walks on the sand; receding inevitably into the waves of time, so that the quaint and pathetic monuments we build for ourselves along the way, an acclaimed novel, say, or a collection of poems, sure enough are swept back to sea in due course.
Better to break it all down. Better to unleash the huge earthquake about which Alice had warned, suffer the aftershocks if need be, and make clear that the illusion that any of this matters is just that.
Maybe Adolf Hitler had it right, Grace had thought at her blackest period beside the lovely Caribbean Sea. Maybe if you’re going to commit suicide, then the only way you can do justice to the act is to bring down the world with you. Just crash it all down. There is no judgment to suffer; no rebuke that will sting what is left of your conscience; nothing, then, but debris after an earthquake…
Then, after awakening from a restless dream, and staring sadly into yet another beach sunrise, she had found the telegram that one of the natives had shoved beneath her apartment door. It had been almost word for word the very same telegram that Ernest Hemingway had sent to the doctor, except that the prospect of hunting a tigress had been replaced by the offer of sharing lunch at the same Manhattan eatery where her current life path had started.
Time for a new path, Grace had muttered. Maybe a little bit of danger…
No, not a little bit of danger, but a lot of danger, enough anyway to free her completely from the last vestige of the life in which she is now mired. That old knight in shining armor is a heartless devil with a sly grin. He rips you away from the hapless Prince Charming, the tired ‘common man’ poems, the tranquil beach, and bruises you silly in a back alley somewhere. He is a vicious thug who leaves you for dead beside the squealing rats. And as your last breaths tremble in and out of your open wounds, you never feel more alive; never more there in a particular point in space and in time; never more delivered from that aimless sojourn that you had imagined once to be life. Viciousness at least is real. It is a real open wound. It is a real squirt of blood spreading out from the back of an aching head. It is a real muscle spasm, when the trauma generates one of those heart quakes that leave you totally abandoned on a sidewalk or in a back alley.
And so here is Grace Temple. She is wearing her JFK button, staring back at those ink blue eyes over her gloved hands, and laughing with what she hopes is just the right blend of sophisticated charm and sexual abandon (her own best rendition of a ‘Holly Golightly’ laugh, based upon her reading of the acclaimed Truman Capote novella that had been published a couple of years previous, and that is rumored to be a forthcoming motion picture). She is playing a role. It is the kind of role that can get a good girl into bad trouble. It is a dangerous role.
Even your laugh is dubious, the doctor smiles. Downright decadent, I say.
She tries to stifle her giggles, but cannot. They burst out as yet another round of laughter. This time the ‘Holly Golightly’ sophistication is thrown out a window. She is just a nervous, little girl caught up by a fit of the silly yuk-yuks.
Freeing, isn’t it? The doctor says, after Grace is able to compose herself.
More so than you can imagine, Grace says, while fiddling for a cigarette.
Oh, I don’t know about that, the doctor remarks. I can imagine anything.
She brings the Lucky Strike to her lips. The doctor strikes a match, leans over the table, and lights it for her. She inhales deeply, and blows smoke back into his face. He looks like a blue-eyed devil in all that smoke; and if there had not been about a million souls inside that café, she would have taken him right then and there. Just squirmed out of her slim fit pants, leapt over the table as if a tigress from the Congo, and straddled his cock before the doctor even knew what had happened. The smoke eventually dissipates, but the fantasy lingers a whole lot longer; and in a way, it lingers with her for the remainder of her life.
Have you ever heard of Martin Luther King? The doctor asks.
Grace does not answer. She searches her mind, but she only manages to conjure up an image of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the wooden door. That cannot be it. Surely, the good doctor is not referring to a religious fellow.
The doctor takes another puff on his cigar. The smoke rises to the ceiling like incense offered up to the gods. He leans forward, and opens his eyes wide, like he is about to impart that great and tantalizing secret that will save them all from certain damnation. Indeed he seems now caught up in a religious awe, which is at once mystifying and unsettling to the atheist sitting across from him in her oversized, cashmere sweater and slim fit pants.
He is the American Moses, the doctor whispers. You must remember that Little Rock business before you left. Well, the Negroes have not stopped there. They are demanding that Pharaoh set them free; and if he does not, then they are going to free one another one peaceful march or sit-in at a time. Observing the Negro today is like observing a dead man come to life.
Grace remembers an Island Negro standing naked on the beach very near to where she used to live in the Caribbean. He catches her eye. He smiles. She sees just how enormous and hard his package gets when he is excited by those ocean waves crashing and receding beneath his feet.
There is a revolution afoot, the doctor remarks conspiratorially, as he is sitting back in his chair. Perhaps this one is good and righteous. Depends surely on whom you ask. In any event, it is coming, like an earthquake rattling upward from the molten core. Right now, you barely can feel it on the surface, but the devastation is going to increase in exponential leaps and bounds, until the tired and old world in which we were born is gone.
The doctor leans forward again. He takes Grace by the hands, and stares longingly into her eyes. She snaps out of her memory of that Island Negro all at once as it is much more intense to be here and now inside of the doctor’s gaze.
And when it hits, the earth is going to open up, the doctor whispers. Just split down the middle, like a disemboweled woman. I want to fall into the dark and endless crack. Be swallowed up whole. I know you will want to be with me.
Grace does not answer with words. She just returns his longing gaze with her own; and she smiles, like she has discovered finally what it is to make love.
Who knows? The doctor remarks, as he returns once more to his seat and takes up his smoldering cigar. We may manage to have some fun along the way.
Grace takes another drag on her Lucky Strike. She observes intently that blue-eyed devil sifting in and out of her exhaled smoke. She just loves how she cannot quite capture that naughty grin on his face. It is the elusive verse she is not able to capture in one of her poems but that she treasures inside her heart.
* * *
Grace neither sees nor hears from the doctor again until another one of his telegrams comes out of the blue the First of June 1961. She has taken up an apartment in Manhattan, ostensibly to write a novel that would have absolutely no connection whatsoever with ‘Lady Ian Fleming,’ but in reality to be close by if and when the doctor calls upon her again. She hates to admit this to herself, since of course the very idea of hanging around for any man to determine what to do with her is anathema to her emancipated life. She really loves the doctor (albeit in a way that she has never experienced before, since it has never been consummated in anything more romantic than the way he looks deeply into her eyes when holding her hands across a table); and maybe even more so, she has an admiration for his keen intellect and rebellious spirit bordering on religious awe; but she does not want to have forsaken her mother and her son just to be an appendage to a man. A lady either is controlled or alone, and Grace has had to endure too many long and quiet nights weeping the last of her tears into her pillow by herself to spring like a well behaved puppy at the doctor’s next word.
And yet isn’t that what she is doing, when she glances periodically at her front door to see if the colored boy who works in the mailroom has slipped one of the doctor’s signature telegrams into her foyer? Isn’t that what she is doing, when she stops typing beside her third floor window so as to stare blankly at all the traffic beneath her? In those instances, a casual observer might deduce she is mentally determining the next bit of dialogue or minor plot twist to be typed onto the page; but, in fact, that is almost never the case. Instead, she is eyeing the urban chaos beneath her, while mouthing in silence what she and the good doctor actually had said to one another during their prior conversation. It is the one memory that has taken on an almost mythic stature in her mind, so that at all times she is sure that the memory has not been embellished by her own fine imagination, but is an accurate recall. Everything else seems as fanciful as one of those flying unicorns she had imagined when reading fantasy books way back when. Her conversation with the doctor within that eatery stands alone as real.
Then, on the morning of the First of June, she stirs slowly from the sofa on which she had passed out the prior night. She had been drinking cheap wine and smoking cigarettes by herself as part and parcel of a very selfish resolve to wallow in as much depression as possible. So far as she knew at the time, there had been nothing in particular that had instigated this latest bout of the blues. She simply, and almost imperceptibly, had slumped from a funk to a malaise to a near suicidal despair over the past couple of weeks. She had reached her rock bottom sometime before midnight, when she had spilled some of the wine onto her blouse and had hoped that an ash from her cigarette might ignite a terrible flame over her heart. The fantasy had been macabre, but it had unleashed out of the blue the kind of maniacal laughs usually heard in between padded walls.
She sits up on the sofa. She had slept all night with a dirty ashtray upon her breast. It falls to the floor, and discards cold and lifeless ashes everywhere.
She holds her head until the room stops spinning. She fights back an urge to vomit. She is so sick that she tells herself that she’ll never do this again, not even if and when that old depression again kicks into high gear; but, of course, she knows that she will. A drunk never has her last hangover until she wakes up from her stupor and discovers that she is dead. Who knows? Maybe she is dead; but, then again, most probably she is not, since she cannot imagine awakening into her death and realizing that the godless afterlife offered committed career atheists like herself is this ramshackle loft in Italian Harlem opposite a bronze, life sized statue of Vito Marcantonio. She totally digs the politics of course, but she cannot stand the idea of an atheist afterlife where the vast majority of her neighbors would eye one of her fanciful flying unicorns and think not of its light beauty and pretty walk, but rather of how many salamis it may yield when it is captured and butchered. She may have made her mark out west by penning her share of ‘common man’ poems, but the elitist part of her mind cannot set aside altogether just how common the common man really is.
Therefore, she is alive, she decides. She is not doing too well, but she is going to be able to spend another day typing dutifully (though, she fears in the back of her mind, without much inspiration) and, when the urge arises, staring blankly out at the Marios and the Guidos beneath her open window. She figures that she will need to leave for the neighborhood grocery sometime that day, so as to replenish her stockpile of cheap wine and cigarettes; but otherwise she is going to remain alone with her tired and worn out doldrums.
And it is with that thought in mind that she observes the telegram on the foyer floor. Like a dark and cold fog dispersing at once before the warm rays of the sun, she is elated immediately. Nothing can be more indicative of just how much her mental and emotional life is being controlled by the good doctor; but she is so happy to be feeling happy just then that she does not care a whit that she is responding like one of Pavlov’s Dogs. She lets her silly grin grow upon her face, until she looks downright clownish. She even adds a skip to her fast steps, although admittedly that may have as much to do with her hangover as her joy.
The telegram is straightforward and simple: Look outside your window…
She does what she is told. There is a 1960 Ford Sunliner convertible just beneath her window. It is bright red. The rear fins suggest those wings in flight that have been scorched already by climbing too close to the sun. The rear fins also suggest those sharpened points at the end of a devil’s pitchfork. No doubt, it is a menace on the road; but the black leather seats inside of the open cabin suggest a sexy playfulness that mellows the sheer evil on display. It is the type of automobile that is up to no good, but also of no harm to any man who should not be harmed. As if to hit home that point, the automobile is idling beside the curb and so creating an engine sound that is at once a spitfire roar and a laugh.
The doctor is sitting behind the wheel. He is wearing his immaculate suit and bowtie. He is clenching a lit cigar smack dab in the middle of his teeth. He smiles, winks, and removes the hand held, gold watch from the inner pocket of his jacket in such a way as to indicate that even now they are pressed for time. His ink blue eyes sparkle the whole time that he is smiling up at her, and those strong, yet beautiful, eyes titillate her more so than anything else that he does while idling at the curb. Those blue eyes both control her and free her; and the incongruity of being controlled and being freed is such that it is impossible for Grace to peer into those eyes without feeling some measure of cold dread just beneath the surface. And yet it is a most desirable dread, since it is dangerous.
Grace steps out of her trance long enough to pack her one suitcase. She does not bother with the typewriter. She senses correctly that, wherever she is going with the good doctor, she will not be in a position to work on her novel in the course of that trip. She may toss the uninspired novel anyway whenever she gets back, especially if that trip conjures up a new and better storyline for her.
* * *
When Grace steps outside the lobby of her apartment building, she finds that the good doctor is there already to take her suitcase. He had left his cigar in his car ashtray, and as a result she is able to look at his smile without having her view obscured by ash and smoke. Indeed, as she had determined when they had had lunch together the prior year, the good doctor seems not to aged since the first time she saw him sixteen years ago. If anything, then he appears even younger, though his hair is whiter now than it had been then. Maybe it is simply his enthusiasm, his joie de vivre, his very keen sense that the old world is going to topple soon enough and that he will be a part of the cataclysmic event. That last thought, indeed, seems closest to the truth of the matter. The good doctor appears so young and virile, because everything about him hints that something big is about to occur and that he will be one of the shadowy figures that shake everything off of its foundations. That makes no sense to her rational mind, but it feels right, as she hands him her suitcase and returns his smile with her own.
Pleasant time for a drive, the doctor offers, while he is opening the car passenger door. Wouldn’t have been better, if I had fashioned the morn myself.
And yet, Grace thinks, it is as if he had fashioned the morn himself…
Now, that cannot be true literally, of course; but he has thought of most every detail necessary to make this a fine, little excursion to God knows where. There is a picnic basket in the back seat; and as the doctor puts the suitcase in the trunk, Grace notices the salami, the cheese, the bread, the wine (a Barolo Giovanni Pippione Castagnole Lanze Piemonte Cabernet extracted from Italy at about the time Il Duce had started to make the trains run on time), even a light and charming bouquet interlaced with ribbons. Even the cigar smoldering in an ashtray beside the steering wheel suggests the scent of wild roses in a meadow.
Just as Grace accepts the fact that everything is perfect, she remembers the doctor’s wife from sixteen years ago. She does not recall her name, or even if she had a name apart from ‘the wife,’ and the only word that seems to come close to conveying her look and personality is ‘plastic.’ Grace recalls the forced smile on Pat Nixon’s face, when Tricky Dick announces to his supporters that it looks as if JFK will win the 1960 Election. It had been a painful smile; the very definition of ‘torture’ under the Geneva Conventions; and if it had continued a second longer than it did, then Plastic Pat’s face literally would have shattered into millions of pieces on network television.
Grace glances at the doctor’s left hand. He is not wearing a band; but, if her memory is correct, then he had not worn a band back then either. Perhaps, Grace thinks darkly, the doctor and the wife are in one of those so-called ‘free love marriages.’ Or perhaps just the doctor regards his marriage that way, as it is inconceivable that ‘the wife’ had anything to do with choosing that kind of a marriage over tradition. She almost asks him how his wife is doing, but decides to leave the matter alone.
Grace is wearing a sunhat, a blouse, and a skirt. She had decided on the spur of the moment to eschew her beatnik clothes. She does not have even the foggiest clue of where they are going together, let alone for how long, but she senses that her turtleneck sweaters and slim fit pants would not be appropriate regardless. And so, for the first time since she left for the west coast, she looks and acts like the kind of innocent and demure lady that Alice Hart would favor. She is conscious of playing a role, but that is fine. All of life is a stage, and we who would presume to master it are just actors reciting lines before the unseen director. For the time being, Grace will be the traditional wife. Probably later, as the time and the circumstances warrant, she will be something else entirely.
Nevertheless, though she is not consciously aware of it at that time, she has closed the door to one aspect of her young life. She had left her apartment without remembering to take her cigarettes. Later, when she feels the craving to light up, and realizes what she has done, she will decide to suffer through it, rather than to purchase another pack. Somehow, the image of the sophisticate with the cigarette does not fit in with the homespun, traditional wife role; and so she tells herself that she can indulge again, when this fine, little excursion is over. By the time she returns to Manhattan, she has kicked the habit like an old and distasteful boyfriend, though there will be times that she misses sorely the temporary calm of tobacco in her lungs.
So where are we going? Grace asks after a while.
The doctor has left Manhattan. He is travelling southbound upon a curvy, two lane, coastal highway. The sun is high and warm over the Atlantic Ocean at this time, and so Grace thinks that it is either later morning or early afternoon.
Why we are going for a picnic, the doctor answers, after taking another puff on his penis cigar and blowing a serpentine stream of smoke into the wind.
Grace laughs. She shoves his right shoulder playfully. He is careful not to take his eyes from the road, but he responds to her shove with a wider grin and a tip of his head.
No, seriously, where are we going? Grace asks when she stops laughing.
We are near the park, the doctor offers without directly answering her.
About five minutes later, he pulls into a park along the side of the road. It is little more than a rest area upon a grassy knoll overlooking a rocky beach. It consists of an abandoned lodge, a handful of picnic tables, and a seedy, little restroom beside three parking spaces. The best part is the view of the seagulls, as they soar near to the sun, and then swoop down to the foamy ocean surface.
The doctor carries the picnic basket. Grace carries her bouquet. The two of them make a beautiful couple, as they stroll playfully over to a picnic table.
The doctor does not say much, until midway through the picnic lunch he uncorks the bottle of wine and pours a glass for Grace and himself. He stares at her thoughtfully while swishing the Cabernet back and forth in his crystal glass. He does not remove his eyes from hers, when he takes the smallest sip from his glass so as to make sure that the taste and the texture are up to par. It appears to be so, since he then grins and takes another larger sip from the fine vintage.
Have you ever heard of the White Citizens’ Council? The doctor asks her.
Grace takes a sip from her wine. She nods and shrugs her shoulders.
The doctor studies her intently. There is a devilish allure in his look that may be playful, or may be disreputable, depending upon how the other person observes it. Grace chooses to see it as both playful and disreputable, and again she feels a wave of terror on account of the intrinsic incongruity of her thought about this strange man sitting across from her.
The doctor lowers his glass. He removes a flyer from inside his jacket. As he reads from that flyer, he needs to squint through his Teddy Roosevelt pince-nez. That is the one and only indication that, indeed, he is older than when she had first listened to him upon the deck of her lakeside house sixteen years ago.
Let me quote from the esteemed Senator Eastland, the doctor says with dripping sarcasm. He is delivering an address before the White Citizens’ Council in response to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, when he says: ‘When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary finally to abolish the negro race, proper methods must be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots, and knives. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all whites are created with certain rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of dead niggers.’ It has been my privilege to stare into the eyes of the darkest brutes in Africa, and I may assure you that I have never seen such monsters among the colored races as I have seen among my fellow whites. I suspect that they too are feeling that grand earthquake rumbling up from the molten core of the earth, and they are acting in such a vicious manner as a last ditch effort to forestall the inevitable. Men are most brutal just before the end. Consider the systematic murder of the Jews in the later years of the war, or the brutality of the Southern planter with respect to his slaves just before Sherman arrived to free them. Men know when they are about to lose. It is his ancestral memory of having been banished from the Garden of Eden and forced to wander the desert planes not only as outcasts from God but from one another. I know that that is myth, but there is a greater truth in myth than in historical fact. Anyway, the backward Southern Democrat is about to fall before the march of history; and we are to do our part to make sure that it happens as soon as possible. Give the inevitable earthquake a little nudge. Speed up the process by which the flames overcome the deadwood, and provide fertile soil for new growth. The Negro will stand triumphant when all is said and done. I cannot say what place we shall have in the new order. Perhaps he will hate us as surely as he hates the Ku Klux Klan. But that is no matter, as we shall have done our part to turn the world upside down and to show the fine traditions of our illustrious past to have been morally bankrupt all along. I think that that is our lot in life, is it not? We cannot hope for the Beatific Vision, and so instead we foster one revolution after another for its own sake. Therefore, I say, let the chips fall, and the blood be spilled, as we go about our daily task of throwing a monkey wrench into the normal flow of history and clamoring for all that destructive might that may be unleashed from deep within the dark earth.
There is a powerful gust that pushes the seagulls nearby into flight. That same wind almost blows off Grace’s sunhat. She holds down her sunhat; and, as a result, she breaks free momentarily from her trancelike attention to what the doctor is saying just now. Her first thought at that moment is that the doctor is personally invested in the plight of the Negro. This is not just a social cause for him. This is an old wound that needs to be avenged. Why else would any white man be so concerned about the plight of a race so close and yet also so foreign to his own? It is one thing to be in solidarity with the ‘common man,’ or maybe even the ‘laborer,’ since we are all common, and we are all laborers, in a way; but for Grace then and there, the Negro is as elusive as that well endowed dark native standing naked on the beach. He can be a Muse; maybe the object of an infernal lust never to be acknowledged even among other open minded, artistic types; but his plight really cannot be her own.
Nevertheless, she is drawn at once to the idea of letting all the chips fall where they may. She thinks of how Alice Hart had looked at her that one night in the sitting room in 1935. She thinks of how her son has looked at her the few times she has seen him over the years. There is a trapped and defeated look on both their faces. For them, the chips have fallen into a dark and cold place just beyond the reach of salvation. For her, it may be much the same; but, at least, she will fall a free and emancipated woman.
Really? Free and emancipated? Grace thinks further. Really how free and emancipated are you, when you are letting yourself be the pawn of any man on some sort of private vendetta? Really how free and emancipated are you, when you are letting yourself be caught up in events? Perhaps you have much more in common with the Negro than you would want to admit. The Negro did not have much to say one way or another when Sherman came marching through the Old Plantation on the way to Atlanta. The Negro did not have much to say one way or another when they gave him his forty acres and a mule, and then reclaimed it after Reconstruction. We are all just pawns on a chessboard, until something meaner comes along and knocks the board and the pieces to the floor.
You may have heard of the Freedom Riders, the doctor continues with no acknowledgment of the mental tension that must have appeared on her face at that moment. They are the next phase of the movement. Negroes and whites in college chartering buses to go down south and to register Negroes to vote. The good ol’ boys resent them, as you can imagine. Accuse them of fostering racial integration, cooperation, even miscegenation. The White Citizens’ Councils, for the most part, do not get involved. They are the professionals, after all. Senior and respected men in suits and ties; church elders with clean Bibles; politicians with big hands and broad smiles; not the kind of folks who ambush kids in buses in the dead of night. They leave that nasty business to the Klan. Look the other way when a little, Negro child is found dead in a ditch, or hung from a tree, or even burned on a cross. Look the other way, nod their heads, and lament all of the ‘needless violence’ the Yankee interlopers have instigated. But let us make no mistake. Their soft hands are as bloodied as the Klan’s. The response to the Freedom Riders is so well coordinated we can expect a bloodbath in the future, if there is not someone on the inside giving the Freedom Riders an indication of what their next move is going to be. And that is where you and I come into this picture. We are the Jebediah Smiths from upstate New York; husband and wife leaders of a White Citizens’ Council; both of us descended from a long and pure line of Know Nothing nativists. We have travelled down south to show solidarity with our fellow whites and to attend a meeting of White Citizens and Klansmen in that wretched, old hotspot of Confederate ignorance and viciousness, Beulah County. At that meeting, the good ol’ boys are going to pinpoint just where and when they will ambush the next round of Freedom Riders. We keep our friendly smiles. I backslap. You exchange recipes. Then, when we leave, we telephone my contact in the movement with all the details. We do this one time, because when the next bus slips around their roadblocks, they’re going to suspect those two Yankees. But we only need to do it once to tilt the scales against the white man. Then, we sit back and watch nature and history crack open the old earth.
Grace does not know what to say. She just takes another sip of her wine, and smiles prettily at the good doctor; but inside she is seething in tension and doubt. She just cannot shake how her mother and her son have looked upon her in the past and no doubt would look upon her now, if they knew where she was headed and why she was headed there. Still, notwithstanding her fear, she will not back out. This is her adventure. This is her danger. She is going to relish all that the snarling fates would dish out to any woman who presumes to live free.
The doctor does not notice her awkward silence. He is consumed by this plan. His ink blue eyes appear to sparkle like diamonds. His tense lips relax into the barest hint of a smile. His imported cigar tastes better than ever just then, so that if the fates so allowed, he would remain at that picnic table and in that state of mind into eternity, staring into her eyes, reaching out for her hands.
* * *
Grace has given up her cigarette habit, though she does not know it yet.
Grace has given up the novel that remains unfinished back at her Italian Harlem apartment, though in the back of her mind she still likes to believe that she will continue with the venture when the Muse returns.
Grace has given up her ‘Lady Ian Fleming’ identity, though she has yet to shred the letter from Jonathan Cape urging her to follow up with another novel in the same vein.
Grace has given up her beatnik associations, though she still thinks, now and then, that she really should return to the west coast to do her small part in revitalizing a literary movement that she thinks has become much too political.
But Grace has not given up her wine and spirits. Right now, the bottle in her hand is all that she has left to muddle her memories of how her mother and her son have looked upon her in the past. The memories remain; but they seem on the one hand to be cast in sepia tones, and on the other to be overdone by a barrage of bright and surreal colors, when she is drunk. In either instance, they seem unreal, like the unicorn and fairy nymph fantasies she had indulged when sneaking into the closet to read books as a little girl. They cannot harm her just as the unreal God cannot judge her, or so she insists when her world spins a bit on a tilted axis and her lazy grin seems disconnected from the rest of her face.
Nevertheless, she is not drunk enough, as she raises the bottle to her lips and stares blankly at whatever they pass along the coastal highway. Those eyes may be cast in sepia tones or in bright and surreal colors, but they still speak to her: You are in the sticky muck with the rest of us. Isn’t it a shame you will not acknowledge how you too are trapped and so come home now to abide with us?
The good doctor is kind and patient with her, when he parks in front of a motor lodge along the way, opens the passenger door, and reaches in to escort her out of the automobile. He holds her close to his side, as they walk across a dirt lot to the front desk, so that nobody inside will know just how drunk she is.
* * *
Grace awakens in the middle of the night more tired than ever before.
Welcome back to the Land of the Living, the doctor remarks with a grin.
I am not so sure, Grace says, sitting up in her bed, and holding her head.
The doctor is sitting at an antique writing desk. The only light in the tiny room is the shaded lamp on the top of the desk. It casts its vague, ghostly light in such a way as to hide the doctor’s face behind a shadow. Only his strong, ink blue eyes penetrate the blackness like beacons stabbing through a sheet of fog.
Oh, it is not so bad, the doctor comments. We all have our episodes…
What time is it? Grace says with an unexpected urgency.
The doctor thinks for a while. Then, he smiles, folds his hands in his lap, and shrugs. There is a smoldering cigar in his ashtray behind him. Its smoke is a snake writhing up from behind his head and into the lampshade. It is incense in hell, beautiful in its own way, but also, strangely disorienting in how it wafts in and out of the ghostly light. It is an offering of the dead, for the dead, and by…
Grace shudders that dark thought out of her head. It is much too creepy.
How long until we cross the Mason-Dixon line? Grace asks after a while.
The doctor just shrugs his shoulders again. Grace realizes that whenever he does not immediately know the answer to something he seems older, even a bit menacing, like his gift of gab all along has been some sort of beautiful mask of the pain that is lurking just beneath the surface. She is afraid of him for one moment; then, she sets that fear aside and allows herself to feel sorry for him. She just wants to hold him in her bosom, like she imagines that a mother would do for her son, and the thought makes her feel more amorous than ever before.
You will know when we have crossed the line, the doctor reflects after a brief pause. You practically can smell the bigotry down there. It is in just about everything. The South has been cursed with backwardness. They think that it is their unique, Southern charm. But that is like a corpse imagining that the smell of his own decomposing flesh is the latest flavor from the House of Chanel. Just self-delusion bordering on madness, of course, either the old psychic instability from which creativity springs, or the old ball and chain that keeps us from our creative potential. Either way, it is old, ready to be swept aside in favor of the new, like bones in an abandoned graveyard removed to make space for the new burial plots. And it is about time, too, because whether creative or not, all the backwardness down there has hurt a lot of good people for a long time. I know of which I speak. Not everything for me is a pleasant intellectual consideration.
So you are from the South? Grace asks, while unconsciously touching her bosom. I do not mean to pry, but you seem to be personally involved in all this, like all of this Negro business really matters.
The doctor smiles distantly, like he is seeing something from long ago. It is a sad and painful smile that seems that much more maudlin in the ghost light veiling his face. It is just a momentary spark from the past, and then it is gone.
I suppose it is fitting that an atheist would have a Mother Confessor, the doctor remarks, and then turns back to his desk to pick up his smoldering cigar.
Grace does not respond. She rubs softly on her left nipple, and blushes.
The doctor puffs on his cigar. He blows out his smoke, and dabs his ashes onto his own trousers. The ashes sparkle briefly on his thighs.
The past is pain, the doctor reflects. Even if it had been good for us, it is lost. It is only partially recaptured in a photograph or a memory. To the extent it is not recaptured, it is just blackness, like lost frames in a movie reel, a cold and raw pain that can never be ameliorated, because of course there is nothing there to be ameliorated. Think of the Christian fantasy of the Resurrection. All those trumpets blare. All those angels descend from on high. The Lord of Hosts, God Almighty in a pair of sandals, returns to Jerusalem and screams out for the blessed and the damned to arise from their tombs. Those who have died in the last month or so are able to crawl up from their tombs, decayed and ghoulish in their tattered clothing, no doubt looking like something in a silly Roger Corman flick. But at least there is enough of them still around for God Almighty to work His wonders. But what about those who have died years or centuries ago? Those whose skin and bones, even the fabric of their burial shrouds, have returned to the earth from which they came? There is not enough of them still around even for God Almighty to do His magic trick. They may have gone into the tomb with the hope of being resurrected along with everyone else, but they are too far in the black to receive the light. That is the past. It is the blackness without light.
Grace moans. She cannot help herself. Her sexual release sounds like the cry of a old and worn out ghost; but she knows that it is sexual nevertheless on account of that warm and wet sensation inside her heart and between her legs.
The doctor does not notice. He is lost in his cigar smoke and wanderlust.
It is best to travel from the past, the doctor continues. But, if you are to travel back to the past, then you should do so only to destroy it. Descend like a thief in the night into the darkness. Find those dead souls that are too removed from the light ever to be reborn into something new. Then, annihilate them. In the end, for the past, as for the damned, there is truly nothing else to be done.
You sound like Adolf Hitler, Grace says dreamily.
The Final Solution was a surgically precise eradication of a cancer, when you put aside all the wretched tears and nervous handwringing; the doctor goes on to say with a queer grin. The Jews the past, the Third Reich the future, that surgery a necessary cleaning before the new concrete could be poured. And yet do we not see the face of the Ghetto Jew in the Southern Racist? Are they both not filthy, miserable, ignorant faces, wrinkled from the past, totally backwards in their orientations, the Jew looking to the Golden Age of Israel, the Southern Racist to the Antebellum Plantation? Matzo Balls and Mint Juleps, a strange and foul combination, like clutter tossed together before it is burned in the eternal bonfire. And then we turn our faces from that fire, pretend that it is not there, like the Germans who claim never to have smelled the smoke and the ashes out of the concentration camps next door, and voila, we have a new world awaiting us. It really is that simple to create a world freed from ignorance and darkness. You need only the willingness to flirt with danger along the way, and to do that which is necessary in the end, leaving aside your fears and moral considerations like the illusions that they are. You understand this, Grace. I know that you do.
I want to make love to you, Grace blurts out in a sultry and dreamy voice she is not at all sure is her own.
Now, why would you want to do that? The doctor asks her with a sly grin.
You are a master of words, Grace says, as she slides down from her large pillow, and reclines flat on the mattress. But, please, no more. Just take me…
The doctor stands up. He clenches the fiery cigar smack in the middle of his mouth, grins like the Cheshire cat, and struts confidently over to the side of the bed. He sits on the bed beside her, takes her folded hands into his, strokes her knuckles, and peers into her trapped soul with his ravenous, hot, blue eyes.
What makes you think I haven’t already? The doctor remarks, while cigar ashes float down from his mouth and bristle her bosom.
Grace looks up at him with fluttery, vulnerable eyelashes. She opens her lips in such a way as to look parched. She has thrown out entirely all that freed and emancipated woman crap from her head, as she imagines chains about her neck, wrists, and ankles. She does not want to be anywhere else, but just here.
The doctor removes the cigar from his mouth. He winks at her. It is that same wink he had given her sixteen years prior. It is like he has been keeping it for her all this time.
The doctor places the cigar on the bedside table. He stares down at her, like she is something discovered anew in his Petri dish. He never lowers his face ever so gently to hers, and consumes her with an ashen kiss. There is a hot fire in that embrace. It is the kind that writhes, even when everything else is dead.
* * *
The doctor had talked about ‘travelling back to the past,’ and Grace has that eerie sensation throughout the next several days. Everything is smaller and simpler down there. The coastal highway is narrower; cracked along the edges; small hills running down the middle, so that an automobile with weak absorbers feels like a boat bobbing up and down a river. The gas stations and restaurants (the doctor refers to the latter derisively as ‘old snack shacks’) are dilapidated, if not abandoned, piers along the banks. The homes are hillbilly havens; boards nailed all cockamamie; front yards overgrown cesspools of wasted pickup truck parts protected by a wild dog on a long leash or a geezer on a porch with a long rifle. There are the occasional stately homes, but they are less numerous than a Yankee would have imagined before travelling down that way, and they seem not to have been cleaned or maintained since the slaves wandered off the land to follow General Sherman’s march. The one intersection towns are much more plentiful; invariably a church, a barber shop, a general store, and a snack shack cluttered closely to the four-way stop, like pioneers huddled within a circle of covered wagons for fear of the ‘Injuns’ from ‘out yonder;’ a schoolhouse much farther out (perhaps an indication of the lower priority given to ‘educatin’ the youngins,’ since the lack of a bus service means that the little ones will need to walk miles through a barbarous heat wave every morning just to get a little bit of ‘the Good Book and them numbers’); moonshine stills everywhere, but a bit off the beaten track and hidden behind a gnarly bush or a makeshift screen, so as not to offend the good, Christian folk, who insist that God’s Country is not at all compatible with booze. Occasionally, and usually in unincorporated areas of the country not so easily controlled by the various temperance societies, there are out and out honkytonks; hard whiskey joints apparently unashamed of what they peddle; Rebel flags flapping in the hot furnace winds above a sand parking lot full of pickup trucks and manned by an inbred with a crazy eye and a sawed off shotgun. The honkytonks serve as highway restrooms as well, since no white man in his right mind would squat in one of those ‘queer shacks’ that just reek of sweaty man sex in a mud hole. The price for using the pisser inside of a dark and dusty honkytonk is that sick feeling in your guts when you know all too well that you are walking across a sawdust covered floor stained still by the liquored blood that had been shed in the bar fight the previous night. The price consists also of a round of hard whiskeys before going back to the road, since of course a ‘real man’ would never drive without being three or four sheets to the winds.
The terrain is warm, sticky, and green, like a primordial jungle creeping over the makeshift shacks and hillbilly havens, so as to suck them back into the depths from which they had crawled out in the first place. Decomposition is all the rage down south: the buildings crumbling back into the marsh, the road kill (what Arkansans call ‘supper’) splattering into bite sized, furry chunks beneath greasy tires, and then swirling through the humid air like tumbleweed; the men and women receding back into some sort of retarded mutant status on account of their parents being siblings, or their unfortunate tendency to mix liquor and firearms, or their desire simply to fit in with most everyone else. The doctor is right: You can smell the backwardness, the bigotry, the ignorance. It is a sweet honeysuckle odor so strong and overwhelming that it suggests a garish perfume meant to mask over the stink of decay. It is pleasant at first; but when a casual observer from civilization realizes what it is meant to veil, it is just nauseating.
The sun is an sadistic slave master down there. Everyone feels the stings of the sun whip against his or her back. It stoops them prematurely, casts their blank faces downward (easier to hock a loogie full of grime and tobacco, when you are already facing down that way), and bakes their little brains so much as to dumb down their speech patterns (animal grunts, slow drawls, words that do not pronounce the ‘g’ at the end, ‘cause they use up all their ‘g’ allotments by saying ‘nigger’ about every other sentence). It stirs the gnats out from the soft, morning dew, so that from around 9AM until midnight there are flesh devouring bugs just about everywhere, infecting the wounds first inflicted by the ol’ slave master in the blue sky, and spreading disease and ignorance in equal measures from one family to the next. It inspires that kind of hot and sweaty rape on old, bug infested mattresses that passes for ‘lovemaking.’ It demands that those not raping and romping hide out from the glaring heat on covered porches or under the draping branches of southern magnolias. The sadistic slave master sun then inspires either violence or laziness. In both instances, the result is the same: an erosion of what makes a man fully human, so that he is either a wild beast just egging to be put down by a lynch mob, or a lazy drunk sinking back into the old marsh that had been once his family graveyard. It all leads back to a burial plot somewhere near and dear; a grey and lonely place never too far from the mind of an Old Confederate; a morose doom that smells and sounds like those flames that had taken down Atlanta in the waning days of the war. Indeed, the flames, the furnace winds, the smoldering ashes, these are just other manifestations of that same sadistic slave master sun that reminds them every single day of their defeat before the advancing Yankee Armies. It is a hopeless sun. It is a sun that shines over the charred ruins of what could have been once upon a time.
Death has hooked his scythe around every wall board and tree branch on the sides of the windy and narrow roads down there. He has hooked his scythe around the redneck of every man and woman, and he pulls back just enough so that every one of their forward steps is a beleaguered, and finally futile, effort to escape from the open tomb behind them. The result is a society so obviously breaking down and falling back that it goes out of its way to hold onto what bit of order it has left. In the end, order is the last refuge from death. To be sure, it too breaks down, when the sun finally dips beneath the dark, western sky for the last time; but until then, order allows for those who have bought into it to think that they are farther from the death scythe than what is the case. Order, then, is the illusion that the jungle has been set behind the white picket fence; and for the lost souls down there, order is maintained under the guise of good, old fashioned, Southern tradition and heritage. And the glue for that Southern tradition and heritage is race, as in one race ruling over another, because what is more fundamental to order than that some are masters, and some are slaves?
And so the more that the coastal highway winds its way into the heart of darkness, the more glaring and offensive the many expressions of Jim Crow. Of course, most of the establishments that you would see along the highway are so obviously ‘whites’ only’ that they do not need to post a sign to that effect. The Southern Negro would never even consider stepping into a dirty honkytonk with the Stars and Bars fluttering in the breeze out front, nor would he seek to learn the Good Book in a one-room schoolhouse, nor would he work out his salvation in fear and trembling in a church along one of the four-way intersections. But it is possible that he may want to get a bite to eat in one of the dilapidated, dirty ‘snack shacks,’ or squat inside one of the man sweat ‘queer shacks,’ or drink a mouthful of water from a fountain, or ride on a bus. It is not so clear that these places or activities are ‘whites’ only,’ and so just to make sure that everyone is aware of his place in the order of things those Jim Crow signs are everywhere a wayward eye may glance: ‘Whites Only’ here, ‘Colored Only’ over there (and if possible, way over there, so that the Southern Lady does not need to see out of the corner of her eye a ‘darkie’ taking a sip of water or waiting for a bus under the same sweltering, hot sun as herself). Now, the foundation of order is swift, sure, and brutal punishment; and so the noose hanging from a tree branch is as ubiquitous an expression of Jim Crow as the signs. In the past, they used to be hidden away like the moonshine stills; not too hard to find, but not observable readily from the old highway; but ever since that Little Rock business, and that Rosa Parks insurrection (Why couldn’t that uppity nigger just mind her own and leave the white section of the bus to the white man, as it has been since about the time of Adam and Eve? Could it be because inside every smiling nigger is an untamed, African beast that wants to tear down civilization and replace it with the wild jungle? Or could it be that every smiling nigger is just the ‘useful idiot’ of one of them Roman Cat’licks or Commie Reds?), the nooses have been much more visible. Like the Stars and Bars, they flutter in the breeze as symbols of a Resilient Southern Pride, of Protected Southern Womanhood, of Southern Home Grits, indeed of the much vaunted, constitutional prerogative of States’ Rights.
The doctor had said something about how people pull out all the stops as their last gasp effort to hold back the hands of time. Indeed, there is that hard and bitter air of desperation in how the Southern whites are showcasing readily every last one of their Jim Crow symbols. It is like they have taken every one of their hate signs from the dark basement, even those ‘oldies, but goodies,’ such as KKK posters depicting the ‘colored’ as some sort of a toothy, wild eyed beast chasing every white lady in a hoop skirt they can see, and put them outside for all to see in the hopes that, somehow, the Grim Reaper will be frightened off a while longer. The times are a changing; the primordial jungle is about to break down and to swallow whole the last vestiges of white privilege; the people can feel it in their bones, see it when they turn on the television to watch the news broadcast out of New York, hear if when they turn on the radio to hear an Elvis Presley or a Buddy Holly sing ‘nigger music.’ They know they are losing; and, in their heart of hearts, they suspect that they have lost already; but they are not going to go down without a fight. And so the sleepy and traditional racism that has been embedded into Southern culture since the first white man brought his slave to the banks of Virginia and the Carolinas is increasingly a hostile racism, a cruel and merciless lynch mob racism, an oversized Stars and Bars fluttering in the breeze racism. The past is pain, the doctor had said; and in the horribly hot summer of 1961, as the Southern white looks backwards to try to fend off a Grim Reaper that is hot on his heels, and as the unfortunate Negro caught up in all this drama is swinging dead from a tree, the pain can be felt as acute and as pervasive as when General Sherman marched to Atlanta. The South is that pain riddled, flea infested, deranged, dying dog found beside the open tomb. It just needs to be put out of its misery and nudged into the earth, and that is what a good doctor and his lover want to do as they proceed on their path down there.
* * *
Grace drapes her left arm over the doctor’s bare chest. They are nestled together on a bed in a motor lodge in the Deep South. They had begun to travel inland from the Atlantic shoreline two days prior and thus are far removed now from the cooling effect of the ocean. The air is heavy and damp. It catches the skin like the scratchy fabric of a cheap and undersized suit. It weighs down the soul, so that no matter the slow time and the endless sky the sojourner feels as if she is travelling away from God and further into a hot and cramped tunnel in Hell. There is no release from the claustrophobia, but sex in the morning under a lazy ceiling fan that makes a clink sound with every rotation.
The doctor folds his hands behind his head and puffs hungrily on his cigar while staring into the ceiling fan. In the purplish, dawn light diffracting through the window blinds, his intense, blue eyes seem to glow.
Grace remains silent. She listens to the sound of the doctor puffing upon his cigar and exhaling long streams of smoke into the dust mites in the sunrays. They are falling deeper into the cauldron with every mile on the highway; that heart of darkness beating so near that its rhythm can be heard in the repetitive thud of the tires upon the road, or in the creaks in the rotten wall boards when they settle into a motor lodge for the night, or in the doctor’s breathing. There is no greater intimacy than the moment before the predator mauls its prey, for at that split second between the potential to kill and the actual kill there is no other life in the universe but that predator and that prey. In this case, they are the predators, and the Deep South is the prey, and the death beat is getting so loud now that Grace wonders if she will be conscious of anything else when she and the doctor finally reach the moment of action. She wonders if she will have ever again any other love or even mild interest, but her fixation upon the heart of darkness that has become of late so sexual in its hot and lustful beats.
There is a soft knock on the door. The doctor smiles, arises from the bed without so much as a glance in Grace’s direction, puts on his trousers, and then opens the door. He continues to puff on his cigar the whole time. He exhales a cloud into the face of the stocky man on the other side of the door, before the two of them even can exchange their conspiratorial whispers with one another.
Grace sits up in bed. She does not bother to pull up the sheet in order to cover over her breasts. She actually finds it amusing how the stocky man in the starched, white shirt and black trousers glances in her direction as much as will be possible without making it obvious to the doctor that he is eyeing his girl. Of course, she pretends not to notice by keeping her face pretty and dumb; but in her mind she is giggling like a simple schoolgirl who is aware of a boy’s interest in her. She knows that her childish mind just then is incompatible with the task at hand, but she does not care. There is a perverse joy in being irresponsible in matters of the flesh; and so, once again, she remembers the well-endowed boy who had stood on her Caribbean shoreline attired in nothing but his beastliness.
The stocky man glances at Grace’s exposed breasts one more time, grins at his fellow co-conspirator, shakes his hand, and leaves. The doctor must have noticed that last glance, because there is a perverse glint in his blue eyes when he closes the door and returns to Grace.
Huckabee will return in an hour to drive us into Beulah County, the good doctor says. He says that it would be too conspicuous for us to drive into such a remote place with our New York license plates.
Do you trust him? Grace asks.
Of course not, the doctor says at once. After all, he is my friend.
Grace laughs. She holds out her arms to receive another smoky kiss from her paramour. She squirms upon that bed as if a tartlet that cannot get enough of her man and of this adventure that they have taken upon themselves.
There will be time enough for more of that later, the doctor replies with his devilish grin in tow. Put on your Chanel and clothes like a decent, little girl.
* * *
While he does not appear to be much at first glance, Huckabee turns out to be one of the high rollers in Beulah County. He returns in an hour behind the wheel of a white, finned Cadillac. The Stars and Bars flutter upon both sides of the huge, roaring hood. They look like guidon flags leading that boat on wheels into battle; and just to make sure that the overall effect is not lost upon a shit-for-brains casual observer, Huckabee has added a push button device that then plays the Dixie melody whenever pressed. Huckabee is mighty proud of the Old Rebel song, and so presses the button in the compulsive manner of a boy with a brand new toy. There is a devilish grin upon his fat face that suggests that he is not as far removed from his own childhood as the greys in his thin hair indicate.
Howdy, pretty lady, Huckabee says, when Grace and the doctor arrive at the passenger side of the white Cadillac. A bit early in the day to drink in all of your fine beauty, so I shall satisfy myself with a sip or two as we make our way.
It is interesting how a man can be so much more confident just by being behind the wheel of a big car, Grace thinks. He had been sheepishly glancing at her an hour ago. But now there is nothing at all sheepish in his boorish bravado.
Allow me to introduce Mrs. Jebediah Smith, the doctor remarks.
Huckabee gets out of the Cadillac and waddles over to the two of them. He kisses Grace on the back of her hand, and opens the passenger door for her.
Grace is all smiles, but she has a hard time getting over his armpit stains and body odor. She tries to think of sweet honeysuckle.
You would not mind if I keep the Missus up front, Huckabee says without ever taking his big eyes off of her cleavage.
Ah, that is fine, the doctor remarks happily. Royalty in the back…
Huh? Huckabee grunts, not understanding the ‘royalty’ reference.
The doctor does not bother to explain. He sits in the backseat, and lights another cigar. He grins confidently. His eyes sparkle like blue gems at the floor of a deep well, so that he seems to view everything about him from a distance.
Huckabee takes Grace by the arm and escorts her into the front seat. He is a Southern gentleman in every respect, but his eyes. He just does not have it in him apparently to remove his blubbery eyes from her perky morning nipples.
As he pulls the white Cadillac out of the parking lot, Huckabee shifts his eyes from Grace’s breasts to her legs. He looks like an obese, horny teenager in his father’s oversized automobile. He rubs his sweaty, red neck as if responding to some sort of nervous tick. He also flicks his sweat off of his starched, white collar in such a fastidious manner as to suggest that he may be a bit light in his loafers, notwithstanding how much attention he is providing Grace at this time.
He protesteth his interest in me too much, Grace thinks, while careful to retain her plastic Pat Nixon smile.
Huckabee must have sensed that he went too far, because he practically drags his eyes away from Grace’s legs and instead looks in the rearview mirror. He clears his throat and puts on his serious face. He is now a high roller, again.
Mighty kind of y’all to come down from Old Sodom to show solidary with the white man here, Huckabee comments. That’s what its gonna take to defeat them Yankees, no offense to you and your wife. Earl Warren, Hollywood Kikes, Commie Reds, Republicans, they’re all working with the devil to put silly ideas in the heads of niggers. We don’t have a nigger problem in Beulah County. I can assure you that we hang ‘em high ‘fore they get a chance to stir the stew pot. I wish I could say the same about the rest of the Confederacy, but the God awful truth is that outside of Beulah them niggers are like rats on a rampage. They’re just about everywhere you turn. Talking about their rights, like God gave rights to the apes in the Garden of Eden. It is just blasphemy. It defies commonsense.
Grace tunes out Huckabee’s blather. She looks out the window at all the poverty and ignorance etched into the shacks along the side of the highway.
The highway gets narrower and windier with every mile. Grace imagines a river twisting like a small intestine into the heart of the primordial jungle. As the river nears the end, it is becoming ever more clear that thoughtless bigotry in fact is the foundation of creation. It is separation. It is competition. It is real or imagined drama that leads to the kind of forest fire wars that eviscerate all of the old in favor of the new. An order founded in bigotry thus has no end, but delusions of grandeur, madness toward others, and then total ruin. Whether or not there is a ‘nigger problem’ in Beulah County, clearly the whites down here have gone through their delusions and madness and so are on the verge of ruin.
There is a bullet-riddled sign along the side of the road. Like everything else, it looks like it is on its last legs. It reads: Beulah County. The Land of Milk and Honey. Pastor Porkin’s First Baptist, Salvation Hall, Sunday 9AM.
Further down the highway there is another dilapidated sign: This is a Dry County. Leviticus 10:9. So if you are looking for sin then just keep on trucking. Beulah White Knights.
Just as they pass the ‘Dry County’ sign, Huckabee reaches for a whiskey flask beneath his seat. He offers a sip to his guests. They each decline with the kind of affable nod that suggests the higher breeding and sophistication of men and women from upstate New York. Huckabee does not appear to take offense.
Huckabee finishes off his flask in a single gulp, turns beet red in his face, and drops it onto the floorboard. He restrains himself from burping, since he is in mixed company. Instead, he sweats like a pig that views the butcher’s knife.
Grace eyes the sweat rolling down his forehead and cheeks. Surely, a lot of whiskey in a short amount of time has something to do with that; but Grace senses that that is only a small part of the explanation. She thinks that he truly is the pig viewing the butcher’s knife, or more accurately the Southern Asshole viewing the Grim Reaper’s scythe. His bravado may have something to do with his desire to mask just how light he is in his loafers; but more so, she considers, it has to do with his desire to mask just how fearful he is that the end of ‘white privilege,’ indeed of the Old Southern Way of Life, is so very close at this time.
Huckabee parks at the Texaco Gas and Grill. The gas station consists of two old gas pumps beneath an overhang in front of an A-frame house. There is a burger joint in the first floor of the house. Upstairs, there is an oval window. It looks out from the attic as if a third eye on a forehead. It is draped from the inside by a bordello red curtain, so that from a distance the third eye looks like it is bloodshot from one too many blows to the face. Indeed the fight reference is apt, since the entire place looks old and ramshackle, like a warrior returned from a grueling battle for an uncertain future. Even from a distance, and while approaching on the highway, the Texaco Gas and Grill looks and feels as if it is a haunted affair. Too many men (mostly Negroes, needless to state, but whites also on occasion) have shed their last pint of blood upon the dirty sawdust floor of the burger joint. Too many secrets have been hidden within those walls. Too many sins have been repeated behind closed doors when the moon is very high.
Huckabee escorts Grace up to the front door. The doctor strolls casually a few steps behind them. They pass three worn out pickups and an overturned, blood splattered wheelbarrow. By comparison, Huckabee’s white Cadillac truly is a ‘high roller vehicle.’ For that matter, any vehicle not riddled by bullets and held together by Scotch tape must look like a rich man’s pretentious limousine.
A furnace wind howls through the space beneath the overhang. It rattles the gas tank hoses, so that they both look and sound like snakes trying to break free from their cages. It sways back and forth on creaky hinges a rusty sign that reads: Trust your car…and your gut…to the man who wears the Texaco Star.
The dirty window beside the front door is a glass bulletin board for racist and extremist rightwing posters: Defeat the Rum Runner, Roman Catholic Mick! Rosa Parks’ Next Ride [followed by a drawing of a noose swinging from a tree]. Save Our Land, Join the Klan [including a drawing of a Klansman upon a horse].
Grace barely notices the vitriol. Instead, she is startled momentarily out of her plastic smile by the buxom, voluptuous, red headed Siren leaning against the door like a hooker advertising for johns. The Siren is wearing nothing at all, but her bordello red bathrobe. Her Jayne Mansfield Bubbas are almost popping out from beneath her robe. Her nipples are hard daggers ready to stab at flesh.
The Siren is a woman in her early thirties, but she is so weathered in her sultry sins as to suggest a woman twice that age. There is a hard wisdom in her eyes, a steely sadness not really masked by her preposterous sexuality, a strong sense of having been trapped long ago by something she did, or someone did to her, and so seeing the whole of the universe as just the prison cell in which she has been relegated forevermore. Those eyes resemble Alice Hart’s when Grace had caught Alice on her bended knees in front of her husband’s crotch in 1935. It is as if there is a whole sorority of women with those trapped eyes, and Alice Hart and this voluptuous Siren are just two of the many lifetime members.
Sizzling hot, the Siren teases, as the furnace wind flutters her bathrobe.
Howdy, Lana, Huckabee responds with a sheepish grin.
Sizzling hot in the summertime, the Siren sings, as she massages her left breast, and sways her hips from side to side.
Kinda flirty, don’t ya think? Huckabee reproaches her in a pitiful attempt to hide just how much his cheeks are blushing. I mean we’ve got guests today…
Lana sizes up Grace as the competition. It takes no longer than a second to do so. She then eyes the older, debonair, cigar smoking doctor further back. Apparently, she likes what she sees, because she licks her lips and grins for him as if to say: Well, honey boy, are ya gonna fuck me, or are you one of the boys?
Grace despises Lana all at once, not because she is making a play on her man (since she is totally confident that the doctor will have no interest in such an over the top tease), but because she seems to exalt in the very fact that she is trapped. She has been marked as a caricatured sex toy. Rather than leave all that nonsense behind her, she has made a conscious decision to bathe her body and her soul in that role.
But aren’t we all donning a costume and taking the stage? Grace thinks a moment, before shuddering that thought out of her mind, and reclaiming once more her Pat Nixon smile.
Who’s the old man, Hucky? Lana asks without removing her fluttery eyes from the doctor. He’s kind of cute, though I reckon he’s a Yankee.
These are the Jebediah Smiths from New York, Huckabee responds.
All the way down here from Jew York City, Lana offers playfully.
Actually, they’re from upstate, Huckabee remarks indifferently.
Who’re them nigger lovers out there? A cranky, old voice screams out at them from somewhere inside the old burger joint.
Put down your shotgun, Digger, Lana remarks playfully without bothering to turn her head around to see if indeed the old man behind her is fiddling with his shotgun just then. They’re just visitors from Jew York City.
Actually, they’re from upstate, Huckabee repeats in a defeated whisper.
A rail thin, short, ugly, old pisser staggers out the door. He nearly knocks Lana aside in so doing. He is clad in his white Texaco Star uniform. He leans on a shotgun that he uses apparently in place of a crutch.
Hucky, who’re them nigger lovers? Digger scowls, and then spits up thick and chewy phlegm. You know damn well we don’t cotton to ‘em down here.
They’re Yankees, Huckabee explains. But they’re our kind of Yankees.
Mean they’re dead? Digger jokes in such a mean spirited manner that he looks and sounds like he is dead serious with his question.
They’re from the Citizens’ Council in upstate New York, Huckabee says.
Digger staggers passed Grace without so much as a brief glance out from whatever is left of his peripheral vision. Apparently, since women do not count, he does not need to spend any time or energy then in sizing up the lady half of the Jebediah Smiths. What matters instead is the suit with the cigar standing a few paces behind Huckabee and retaining a Cheshire cat grin upon his old face.
You’re a Yankee, Digger snarls, as if he has just then figured out that the newcomer is a Yankee, rather than been told that fact only a moment before. I can see it in your eyes. Wicked, blue, carpetbagger eyes…
I am a Son of the South; the doctor interrupts him with a Southern drawl that Grace has never heard before. Natchez, Mississippi, to be precise…
Digger is so surprised he always falls backward. He grips tightly upon his shotgun until he regains his equilibrium, though even then he sways wearily like a drunk, old coot on a single crutch.
I moved to New York years ago, the doctor further explains.
But his heart remained on the plantation, Grace cuts in.
Yes, on the plantation, the doctor says, while puffing out a smoke circle.
The commotion had perked up the ears of those already inside the joint, because there is a crowd now of gawkers at the front door. They all have those big eyes and gaping mouths on doughy white faces that imply mild retardation, and Grace wonders if her own IQ will start to slip just by being so near to them.
Another slim cracker steps out from among the gawkers. He has the long nose and narrow cheeks of a bird. His red pompadour resembles a hen’s comb; and he makes a clucking sound, when he is stepping forward to take command of a situation. It must be a nervous tick, as if he is really forcing himself out of character whenever he takes command, or he is recalling all the times that he had been bullied back in school on account of his weak frame and hen features.
Don’t ya hassle ‘em, Digger, the chicken man says. They’re our friends…
A Son of the South movin’ up yonder is a traitor in my book, Digger snarls and spits up more phlegm. Belongs with all them coons buried in Nigger Tombs. Seems he likes mixin’ it all up anyway. Sittin’ in a Jew deli with a Spic waiter…
You tell ‘em, Dig, one of the gawkers spits out.
Miscegenation paradise that there Jew York City, another gawker offers.
Upstate New York, Huckabee moans, but no one pays attention to him.
The chicken man steps forward. He offers his hand to the good doctor in friendship. It takes every ounce of bravery for him to do so; and as a result, his incessant clucking sounds like a car engine about ready to fall onto the asphalt.
Name’s Deek, the chicken man says. I am the coroner, veterinarian, and Justice of the Peace ‘round these parts. Went to a technical school. Have all of the papers to prove it. Want to welcome y’all to Beulah County.
We are charmed by your Southern hospitality, the doctor says graciously.
Grace steps back, and leans into the doctor’s right arm like a good wife.
Yes, charmed and delighted, Grace offers with her plastic smile.
The front door creaks open. The gawkers step out of the way in order to make a hole for a fat, old, sallow faced man trundling forward on a cane. He is the only man there besides the doctor wearing a suit, though his is several sizes too small for his man boobs and his chunky apple waistline. It is hard to see his face, because he is staring down at his shoes to watch his step; but he appears to have an unctuous pig face marred by disfiguring burn scars. He clasps upon a black, leather Bible with his free hand. He sways it side to side, and Grace then remembers how her father had been swaying his champagne flute side to side, when sad eyed Alice Hart had been kneeling in front of his crotch back in 1935.
The fat, old, sallow faced man finally reaches Deek. He struggles then to stand upright; but as the spirit is strong, so the flesh is weak; and so finally, he accepts the fact that he is going to have to address his guests while also staring down at his shoelaces. At least, he still has his booming preacher’s voice, even if it is gravelly on account of all his years rolling in the mud of moral judgment.
Blessed be the Lord Gawd Jeeesus, the preacher man wheezes out while struggling still to regain his breath. He calls the righteous from the sinner. Puts the fire of the Holy Spirit in his heart…
And with that last line, the preacher man breaks into tears. Grace senses at once that the disfiguring burn scars on his face had come from a flame upon his chest. His heart literally had been on fire once upon a time. He must realize that he is as trapped now in that flame as he had been when he was actually on fire. Water douses the flame; but it cannot douse the memory, which is seared into the body and the soul as a sin unpardoned by a God who does not exist.
The faithful standing nearby do not try to comfort him. On the contrary, Deek looks down and shuffles away. Digger appears unaware that that preacher man is even there. He just stares menacingly at the doctor, like he is imagining all the ways he can torture the traitor before dumping his corpse into the large and unmarked common grave with all the ‘darkies’ he has killed over the years.
And calls the holy remnant to make war against the Son of Ham, the old, wheezing, teary eyed preacher man continues after a while. Y’all are here with us, ‘cause the Lord Gawd Jeeesus calls ya home. He wants to take out all them niggers, like He did them Jew moneychangers at the temple. But He ain’t going to do it alone this time, so He’s a fishin’ for his Prodigal Sons, and reelin’ them back to serve among His disciples. Blessed be the last man to join that harvest work crew, the Good Book says. Blessed be his lily white soul, even if he’s been cavortin’ with them Kikes, and Wops, and Spics in Old Sodom. ‘Cause what now matter is that he’s here, ready and willing to take up his spear and to go out on a coon hunt, just happy that the Word of Gawd Almighty Jeeesus is in his heart.
We are here to take our seats at the Lord’s Table, the doctor comments.
Ain’t no traitors breakin’ bread with the Lord, Digger snarls.
Leave ‘em alone, the preacher man snaps back. You’re no prize yourself. Can’t remember the last time you and your wife sat in one of my pews.
Grace catches Digger and Lana glance at each other. So the old coot and the Siren are married to one another? They are entirely mismatched, unless the sin that they share with one another is the plaster that binds them in their hell.
Grace suspects that that is the case. Based upon a subtle look in both of their eyes, she also suspects that they are as much father and daughter as they are husband and wife. Would not be the first time in these parts.
No more time for chitchat, Pastor Porkins, a young and gruff voice snarls from well inside the joint. Bring our guests inside ‘fore the sun gets any higher.
Pastor Porkins obliges at once. He turns slowly on his fat feet, and starts to trundle back toward the front door. Now, Deek helps him along, as if he had been there by his side the whole time. Even Digger follows suit, though first he stares down the doctor one more time, and then spits gooey phlegm before the doctor’s polished shoes. Lana falls in beside her husband, but she looks back as much as she can, and smiles seductively at the doctor before she steps inside.
For a moment, that leaves Huckabee, Grace, and the doctor alone under the overhang. Huckabee shifts nervously upon his feet. He clearly wants to step inside; but as the designated chaperone, he cannot do so without his guests on either side of him. He rubs the back of his neck, while he struggles for his lines.
Lana’s got fresh biscuits inside, Huckabee finally mutters.
She certainly does, the doctor says smartly.
It takes a while for Huckabee to figure out that double entendre; but the moment he does, he breaks out into a hearty laugh that breaks the tension that is in the furnace air all about them. He steps forward and offers them his hand.
Come on now, Huckabee says. The Boss Man does not like to wait.
Always happy to oblige the Boss Man, the doctor responds with a sly grin.
Grace is afraid. She hates that she feels that way, but she simply cannot deny the trepidation in her heart just then.
Still, she had made a commitment to herself to be free and emancipated in her life. The doctor had opened an important door for her, but she had made the decision to take him up on his offer to help her get into a university. And in truth, she had felt the first stirrings of freedom well before meeting the doctor at the mountaintop. She had not been able to define what it was when she was just a little girl sneaking into the closet to read those books of which her strict mother did not approve. Nevertheless, she had been drawn to her own path by a craving in her own soul even then. So as much as she is afraid now, she is not going to retreat. She will remain by the doctor’s side even unto the bitter end, because the alternative is a kind of abject slavery totally anathema to her soul.
Grace squeezes the doctor’s right arm. He does not look at her, but grins like the Cheshire cat before a trapped mouse, and puffs eagerly upon his cigar, as the two of them follow Huckabee inside.
* * *
The ‘Grill’ half of the Texaco Gas and Grill is a dingy room with sawdust covering over blood stains on the floor, cracked and chewed up wooden, round tables with mismatching chairs that look as if they had been rescued sometime after midnight from a junkyard, and large, racist posters and Rebel flags on the walls. There is a rickety cash register beside the front door; though any person who actually dines here must be purchasing his burger and fries through barter, since it does not look like that dirty clunker of a cash register has been used for years. Besides a Confederate Navy pennant hanging from the ceiling, the great attraction is a signed, framed photograph of Nathan Bedford Forrest in military regalia. It is on the wall opposite the big posters and flags, and is flanked on all sides by grainy, black and white, framed photographs of lynched Negroes. Huge Klansmen with thick necks and beefy arms pose around their kills like a pack of hunters parading before their latest conquest in the Congo. As if to hit home an obvious point, the sign above the photographs reads: Coon Buck Trophy Wall.
Towards the back of the room is a counter. It is cracked all over and has been stained over the years by globs of vomit and blood. The stools before that counter look so wobbly that no one dares sit in them, for fear of crashing down to the floor. On the other side of the counter is a greasy, pigsty kitchen with an icebox and a grill that look like a cross-eyed lunatic with arthritic hands in fact had assembled them back in the day. There is a door back there that probably opens into a pantry. Thankfully, it is closed, since there is the vague smell and sound of rats scurrying about the grits and the potatoes in that part of this fine eatery. Thankfully for Digger, the proprietor of this place, the few government inspectors who actually manage now and then to shut down restaurants for one reason or another are all in the North. After all, this is the summer of 1961 and so well before those Nixon era regulations that would start to bring the federal government into just about every man’s home or small business.
Lana heads back toward the grill. There are biscuits lathered in phlegmy fat that she wants to put in the stove; but Digger catches up to her, and swings the butt of his shotgun into her rolling ass. Lana yelps in surprise like a dog that has discovered what a bear trap can do to its paw. The good ol’ boys all chortle like this is the funniest scene since the prior time they neck stretched a Negro.
We’re doin’ man talk now, Digger snarls at her. Go on to your room.
Lana rubs her butt, and eyes him reproachfully; but she does what she is told. She scampers up a staircase near the kitchen and enters into the attic. All the good ol’ boys then cheer, when they hear the door upstairs swing shut, like Digger has scored a sure point for the male team in the Great War of the Sexes.
Digger basks in the applause, but he does not allow his tense mouth even a brief smile. Instead, he turns on his heels, and stares down the only lady left in the burger joint. Grace is surprised, because the old coot had acted all along like he did not even see her there. She is careful not to show that she is afraid, though frankly the way he is staring at her would have scared the bravest man.
That includes you, sweetheart, Digger spits out. You can go on upstairs.
Mrs. Jebediah Smith goes wherever Mr. Jebediah Smith goes, the doctor remarks without ever breaking his confident smile. As a married man yourself, I have no doubt that you will understand.
The good ol’ boys fold their arms and stare down the doctor like he is an ugly piece of shit that the cat just dragged in. Huckabee must realize that he is the ‘cat’ in this scenario. He steps away from the doctor and then loses himself in that crowd. He even folds his arms just like all the other good ol’ boys there.
They teach you to spoil your women up north? Digger asks, as he staggers up to the doctor’s fired up cigar. Or were you just born a limp wristed cuckold?
Interesting your fixation on cuckoldry, the doctor remarks.
Were you about to call me a nigger lover? Digger screams, as he lefts his shotgun to his side, and places his arthritic, index finger upon the loose trigger.
The doctor does not answer with words. He just blows smoke in his face.
Digger does not know what to make of that. He shuffles upon his feet.
That’s enough, the young and gruff voice says from the back.
Everyone straightens up. Even Digger lowers his shotgun, and turns upon his heels to look towards the pantry door.
The pantry door opens slowly and creakily, like an old door in a haunted house, and out walks a smartass, young man no more than twenty years old. He is a tall and lanky spitfire, who seems wired up enough to take down a score of men on the slightest provocation. He is dressed in a black correctional officer’s uniform that includes a thick, phallic baton swinging from his thin hips. But the really scary thing about this dude is his face. He is a snarling, freckled, redhead with a scar on his chin and sparkling, ink, blue eyes beneath a high forehead. In those eyes, the old devil himself kicks up his heels and dances within a bonfire.
Since no one is paying any attention to him, Huckabee walks back to the doctor’s side, and whispers into his ear. The doctor does not acknowledge him, but rather keeps his own ink, blue eyes fastened on those of their team leader.
He’s the Boss Man, Huckabee explains. ‘Cause he watches over the chain gang yonder. Says all them Yankees in Andersonville had been treated too kind.
Boss Man stands on the kitchen side of the counter. He is tall, but there are bigger and stronger men at this meeting. Furthermore, there are a lot more successful men. Surely, he arrived here from God knows where in a vehicle not nearly as stylish as Huckabee’s white, finned Cadillac. He is not even the most vicious. That dubious honor goes to Digger, who has murder in his old coot eyes whenever he looks at anyone. Nevertheless, Boss Man stands apart. He literally demands attention; and though there is not one particular quality than explains why this would be the case, most everyone would agree that he has a charisma not normally found in a man. That ineffable charisma is suggested in his fierce, blue eyes. It is suggested in a tone and a speech pattern that makes everything he says sound to the ear like ‘fuck you, bitch, and the horse you rode in on.’ It is suggested in his keen intelligence. And, most of all, it is suggested in his high confidence; not the cocky bravado that lesser men will use to try to mask their insecurities; but rather, the assured sense that victory is just around a corner, if only his people do exactly what he says. He has no particular position of real authority in society. He is a prison guard; a prison guard with a clear reputation for brutality; but, nevertheless, not a chief prison guard, let alone a warden. In his private life, so far as anyone can tell, he has no stash of gold, no politically connected friends, no great family name; and yet he has his people by his side. He collects his people, like someone else might collect marbles or stamps, not through any great exertion on his part, but simply because he stumbles upon a born and bred follower and gives that guy the look or the voice that says to him right then and there: ‘Okay, Tonto, it’s time to saddle up and follow me to that great gunfight for which you’ve been preparing your whole miserable life.’ Just like that he collects his people. Just like that he offers hope for a people ready for anything or anyone who can save them from the Grim Reaper. In a previous time, when ‘white privilege’ had been unquestioned, no one would have cared a whit about the freckled prison guard; but with ‘white privilege’ on the ropes, the same freckled prison guard emerges from the shadows to provide the white people hope that, like with David and Goliath, the weak and the remote really could arise from their parochialism to defeat the well funded and the powerful.
And so, when Boss Man appears, he does not have to call that meeting to order. Everyone just stops talking and looks back at him with raptured eyes and gaping mouths. Whatever he is about to proclaim to the assembled conspirators before him, heck, even if it is just a sneeze or a slow fart, it will be important.
Let us bow our heads and pray, Boss Man orders them all in a voice that is barely above a soft whisper and so, for that reason, is all the more dramatic.
Pastor Porkins had been lulled into silent acquiescence along with almost every other person there, so the call to prayer comes as a slap to his sallow and scarred pig face. He rubs anxiously at his jowly chin, and waddles out from the crowd and up to the counter. He seems to be gripping his leather Bible so hard that it is only a matter of time before his fat fingers stab through all the pages.
It turns out the only woman in attendance is the one person not lulled by the Boss Man’s charisma into silent acquiescence. Grace keeps her plastic smile of course, but her eyes give her away. Hers are questioning eyes; the eyes of a skeptical atheist; the eyes that saw and rejected the second wave of beatniks, who had wanted to politicize a literary movement, because deep down she had known that, even if she agreed with their politics, their politics (like all politics before and after) would compromise away the truth of the literary movement. The great irony is that the skeptic, the atheist, the outcast, the woman poetess who insists of breaking free from the life imposed upon her, that person will be questioning long after everyone else has chosen silent acquiescence over vocal debate, because without any place in God or in regular society, she relies more on the truth as she finds it than her counterparts. Fortunately, no one pays her the kind of attention that would be necessary to read the doubt in her eyes, or so she believes at the time. After all, women do not count in such fine matters.
What surprises and bothers Grace is that the doctor seems to be as awed of the Boss Man as the others. He just will not rip his eyes away from the young man’s eyes. There is a strange mix of fear and admiration in the doctor’s stare, and Grace wonders if seeing the Boss Man face to face had been in fact the real reason for the doctor’s trip down here. Surely, so far as Grace can tell from his raptured eyes, the task of getting information for the Freedom Riders seems to be as irrelevant now to the doctor’s pursuit as learning when winter will return to the kind and hospitable people in Beulah County. She can only hope that, as Boss Man becomes more familiar, his peculiar hold upon the doctor will die off.
Pastor Porkins stands in front of the blood stained counter with his back to the Boss Man. He clenches his eyes, and tightens his fists about his Bible and his cane. These gestures indicate that he is now in the throes of the Holy Spirit.
Blessed be Lord Gawd Jeeesus, Pastor Porkins intones. Deliver the white remnant, the sons of purity, the daughters of charity, whom you arose out from your Holy Loins to stand undefiled among men and beasts. We are the New and Improved Israel, the bloodline untouched by the Satan Jew, the divine virtue in our hearts undiluted by Niggers, Queers, Tax Collectors, or Republicans. Happy to do your service clothed in nothing, but our blue eyes and golden locks, until you return in glory to raise us from the dead so that, together, we may subdue forever the Satan Jew and his Nigger Horde. The chaff must be burned from the wheat in the eyes of the Lord, and so let us double down in our holy resistance to those who would mongrelize our seed by introducing new and foreign things, like rockabilly, and nigger jazz, and white girls who find pleasure in fornication [shudders his pig face at the thought just then]. Let us double down in our coon hunts. Let us double down in our lynching and crucifixion. Let us wipe out even the smallest signs of the Jew Apostasy and the Nigger Hedonism, like when you commanded Israel of Old to resist then the Satan Jew and the Canaanite Nigger with what you called the ‘sacrificial ban.’ Oh, Father Gawd Jeeesus [beginning to shake all over now], I can feel it. I can feel the Resurrection Power. All that righteousness; all that purity; all that charity; love and forgiveness victorious in eternity, when finally your enemies have been subdued. Oh, bless us, Jeeesus! Oh, coddle us in your cream, Jeeesus! Oh, renew us in your blood, Jeeesus! We stand here ready for your purifying fire in our hearts [winces when he says that phrase], so that them Jews and Niggers who would presume to come down here in one of their so-called Freedom Buses may know what it is really like to be on the receiving end of a good, old fashioned, Southern Whoopin’ [the good pastor and the good ol’ boys snicker]. In your White Man’s Name we all cry out: Amen.
Pastor Porkins steps aside. Boss Man resumes his place at center stage by leaning forward on the counter and glaring ravenously at his audience. His eyes sparkle like fine diamonds. His lips shift into a vague Mona Lisa smile. He is the focus of every man in the room, more visceral than any of them, so much more alive as to make the others seem like grey corpses in comparison; and yet, very disconcertingly, he seems not to be totally there, like a ghost fading in and out of the shadows, or a memory captured and then lost. There is something about this man that is so much greater and so much lesser than human, like he is that divine beast, that omniscient ignorance that defies logic, but at the same time haunts our darkest nightmares. It is impossible not to be fascinated, until yours is the mind of a true skeptic, which is why Grace alone seems able to watch all the fireworks before her without being drawn into the mystery. And yet, while fascinated, even the true believer cannot deny the fact that he is also repulsed in a way, as must be the case when his mind is unable to wrap itself around the beautifully fierce thing. And, in the end, that is what the Boss Man is for every person here, except Grace: a thing, an embrace of hope, and a spasm of fright.
Grace realizes all of this at once, but she also senses something else that is much more personal and terrifying for her. This Boss Man, this divine beast in a black correctional officer’s uniform, this all knowing stupidity with his phallic baton swaying from his waist (that champagne flute tapping her father’s thigh), reminds her of the doctor. Even more so, it is like they are one and the same in their sparkling, ink, blue eyes, their vague Mona Lisa smiles, their penetrating, disruptive presence, alternatively their ghostlike sift in and out of the shadows.
Grace looks back and forth between the Boss Man and the Doctor. There is no denying it. They could be father and son. Even more so, they could be the same person, since is it not true that Grace has been taken by how youthful the doctor seems (hardly aged since the first time she saw him sixteen years prior), and is it not true that this young boy in front of her seems older than his years? In a way that makes no sense to her rational mind, but is captured inside of her irrational fears, it is like the Boss Man and the Doctor now meet one another in the middle, somewhere between old and young, between divine and beast, the one place where man resides with the angels above him and the beasts beneath him, that one place that is intelligence in tension with stupidity, that one place that is moral conviction in tension with amoral advantage, and finally, that one place where Job may cross-examine God, but not understand His answers.
What is all this God business? Grace thinks. I am an atheist, goddamn it! I can acknowledge this conundrum without making recourse to a God, can I not?
Well, apparently, no more than I can say ‘goddamn’ without in actuality saying ‘God’ damn, Grace goes on to think. Oh, sure, I can reference it by some other name. Instead of calling it ‘God,’ I can call it ‘Where My Reason Doth Not Tread,’ or some such poetic license, but it is all the same, is it not? I simply am not able to take my intuited realization, my vague sense that the Boss Man and the Doctor are one and the same, and stash it away for good keeping in any one of the well defined cubbyholes inside of my grey matter. And there is nothing a committed atheist fears more than truths that her rational mind cannot define.
We live in savage times, Boss Man says in his gruff, and yet also strangely intelligent, voice. Niggers running off the white plantation; devil unchaining his Jew Horde; even white folks moving their hips to the music of that greased up, white nigger Elvis Presley. Some might say that these are the ‘end times,’ but I would say that these are the ‘opportunity times,’ as in the ‘opportunity’ to rip out nigger balls and to hammer nigger skulls and to eat nigger flesh [cheers and catcalls that sound more sexual than celebratory]. Pastor Porkins mentions the ‘sacrificial ban.’ In the Good Book, when does God give Israel the green light to kick Canaanite ass? Is it in the good times, or the bad times? When everything is fine, or when their backs are against the walls? We all know the answer. Savage times are when white men can test their courage, be faithful to the truth, and weed out the scumbags from within their number. You heard me right, because the enemy is not just the Jew and the Nigger, holding hands, and sharing kisses on some Freedom Bus. The enemy is also the enemy within. He is that scumbag white man found wanting in smarts, or in moral purity, or in Southern pride. No way we are gonna win out there, if we don’t first clean up our own house [cold and frightened silence among the faithful]. Remember in the Good Book, John, Chapter Six, how it said that most of Our Lord’s disciples abandoned Him ‘fore the big gunfight ‘cause what He had to say was too hard for them to hear. Well I am here to tell you that the number of disciples diminished, not because they left him, but because He took those who did not measure up and smashed their heads in. Brother Peter took the condemned man’s head into his hands, and he held it down on a counter just like this one. Held it down with all his strength, ‘cause the condemned man was squirming like a lubed queer. Our Lord blessed the condemned man, ‘cause He is the forgiving sort, after all; and then He took his Jesus Hammer and smashed it into the back of the man’s skull. Just one sad scumbag after another, until He had His twelve men. Should have skull cracked that Jew, Judas Iscariot, while He was at it. Would have saved Him finally from the cross. But while He messed up, we can do it right this time. Take out every last one of them. And that starts right here and now with the enemy within.
There is a loud pause. The silence is deafening. Every good ol’ boy in the burger joint feels like he is the only one standing before the sparkling blue eyes of the Boss Man. Every good ol’ boy is in his own private dock, while his eternal judge, jury, and executioner, one and the same, appears in the guise of a lanky and freckled prison guard. There is nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide, not even enough floor space inside that cramped hell of theirs to shuffle their tired feet, like the condemned always do when they are on their way to the gallows.
Grace looks at the doctor. He does not seem to be afraid. He is in awe in a way that she cannot define. He is the Boss Man, and the Boss Man is he, in a way that she finds disconcerting precisely because it makes no sense within her rational mind. But, apparently, long ago, the doctor had decided that he would not be judged, let alone condemned, unless he did so to himself. Therefore, as is always the case, he is there, smack dab in the middle of things, but he is not there as well, as a ghost sifting in and out of a reality to which he is not bound.
And what about myself? Grace thinks. What do I think of all this? Well, in the forefront of my mind, I am horrified by what I presume will follow; but in a much deeper and darker crevice of my mind, that part of my mind that allowed me to abandon my son on Alice Hart’s doorstep, and to throw my chance to the wind in my various lust affairs with the beatniks out west, and to look longingly at that huge, black, erect cock naked on the Caribbean shoreline, and to leave my novel behind to accompany the doctor into the heart of darkness, inside the twilight between conscious thought and subconscious impulse, I am actually not horrified at all. I am intrigued, maybe even turned on. No, there are no maybes about it. I am about to explode in a sexual blood lust. This is the aftershock the free and emancipated woman experiences when she has broken out of that old, rusted, chain link fence that others presume to put around her. This is the look and smell and sound of that aftershock: the moment of impact, when the Jesus Hammer lands on the back of a squirming skull; the coppery and warm smell of blood splattering onto Our Lord’s robe; the crackling sound of shattered bones, followed by an audible poof of hair escaping out from inside the exposed brain.
Deek and Dusty, get on up here, Boss Man orders with that vicious drawl he normally uses when issuing orders to his chain gang.
Deek and Dusty step out of the crowd. They are identical chicken bodies with red pompadours that resemble a hen’s comb. Their Adam’s Apples roll up and down their throats at the same pace. They both have the same gaping lips, the same dumb expression of sheep on the way to the slaughter, the same mad blankness in their eyes.
They’re twins, Huckabee whispers to the doctor.
The doctor does not respond. He just puffs on his cigar and watches this with the vague and distant grin of a scientist discovering something interesting beneath his microscopic lens.
Would you agree that there is law and there is order? Boss Man asks Deek in a voice just hovering above a whisper.
Uh, yes, sure, Deek says dreamily.
And that with your degree, your valued service to our community as our coroner, veterinarian, and Justice of the Peace, you represent the ‘law’ side of the scales of justice? Boss Man continues with his intelligent cross-examination.
Uh, uh, Deek clucks nervously and seems not to understand the question.
And that as you represent the ‘law’ side, your brother, Dusty, represents the ‘order’ side what with his frequent participation in Digger’s Coon Hunts and Cross Burnings over the years? Boss Man goes on without waiting for his answer.
Sure, that’s about right, Deek manages to say in spite of all that sticky, cobwebby fog inside of his little brain just then.
Then, what do you make of the fact that just the other night he allowed one of them coons to slip away in the night? Boss Man continues in his soft, and yet compelling, whisper. No doubt, you heard what happened. He had the coon in his crosshairs. He told Digger he’d take him down. He fired a shot he’d made hundreds of times before. But when they went into the old bush to drag out the trophy, there was nothing there, nothing, but an owl hooting on a dead branch. Now, either that was one of them ghost niggers, or your twin brother missed an easy shot. Don’t matter if he missed on purpose, or by mistake. Just missing his shot makes him a scumbag, doesn’t it? So what do you think Our Lord would do?
Skull crack him, Deek offers in a voice that sounds frankly more relieved for himself than sad for his only brother. That’s what the Good Book says to do.
Dusty yelps, but he is too scared to move. The good ol’ boys laugh, since they are relieved not to be in his shoes. And, anyway, Dusty was always a dumb fuck, wasn’t he? Always so cocky ‘cause his brother had a degree? So that poor, sick in the head, nigger lover has had it coming for a long time, isn’t that damn straight? It will be no loss when he is gone. Indeed, those of us who remain will be that much stronger on account of not having to deal with his chicken shit. It is the way of the jungle. It is in the Good Book. The strong shall inherit all that has been robbed from the weak, or something like that. And, anyway, let us be frank, it is better him than me any day of the week.
Hold ‘em down, Boss Man orders.
Deek does not hesitate. This is his chance at freedom, and he is going to take it. He grabs his brother, just as Dusty is breaking out of his sticky mind fog enough to step away. He grabs his brother’s head and smashes it into the blood stained counter face down. His brother squirms in the hot and thick blood that is spreading out nose and mouth like slick oil on a pond. Deek clasps his neck in order to squeeze the air out of him and, hopefully, end the squirming before it gets out of hand; but that only makes his brother thrash about even more.
Boss Man removes the baton from his belt. He taps it into the palm of his left hand, while impassively watching Deek struggle with his squirming brother. He then steps forward and studies the back of the condemned man’s head, like he is looking for the perfect spot to inflict his justice. He seems as if a surgeon about to insert his knife, rather than the twitchy prison guard egging for a fight that he had appeared to be at first glance. It is not that he is different now; so much as the doctor and the prison guard really are two sides of the same brutal force of nature. In that moment, Dr. Mengele and Jack the Ripper are the same person, when they carefully insert that knife, or they splash blood everywhere.
Praised be the Lord Gawd Jeeesus, Pastor Porkins blurts out.
And with that praise lingering in the stale air, Boss Man drops his phallic baton repeatedly upon the back of the condemned man’s skull. He seems to be as impassive as before; except that he pulls back his upper lip while striking at the skull, and that gives him the appearance of a bitch in heat. As for his eyes, they continue to sparkle beautifully like diamonds at the bottom of a dark well.
Boss Man does not stop, until the back of the head is cracked open like a smashed pumpkin, and brain parts are sliding down the side of the counter onto the sawdust floor. So much blood has splattered onto his chest and face that he looks like a ghoul. His baton is a hard penis totally drenched with semen blood.
Grace does not remember much of the meeting after that incident. The men talk about where to ambush the next Freedom Bus, while Deek drags what is left of his twin brother out back, and Digger calls down Lana to clean up that God awful mess. The men speak in hushed tones, as if they are inside a church.
* * *
Grace sits at her desk in front of her typewriter, but she has not typed a word in hours. If she were to be interrogated at this very moment by the FBI as to what novel she is writing just now, and if they were to strike her every time she answered their question with nothing more than a puzzled look in her eyes, then they would manage to tear every limb from her body. It is not that she’d be defiant in that scenario. It is that she’d honestly not have a clue.
In her mind, she is at her lowest possible point. She will fall further into the pit in fact, but she cannot even conceive of that possibility as she is staring blankly out her apartment window and rubbing her hands together.
It had been a hot, August day in the middle of Italian Harlem. Even that unflappable, bronze, Vito Marcantonio statue across the way had appeared sad and defeated beneath the unrelenting sun. Its eyes had seemed hollowed, sunk into the shadows, even drooped into the heavy cheeks. Its tense lips, intended by the sculptor to express dignified and stoic resolve against the world at large, are now curved downward at the edges by maudlin shadows that seem to bleed out from inside the bronze, rather than be cast by the sizzling sun. It seems to be crumbling down from inside itself, so that notwithstanding how the horribly warm the sun has been all day, it can do little damage in comparison to what a good bout of self-loathing can do.
The radio is on. Dion is singing The Wanderer. The alley cat and his many lovers; a playful enough melody; but sad, when you actually listen to the words and think of all those broken hearts left behind.
Grace had been left behind the moment that brutal hick prison guard hit the squirming, red headed man with his baton. She did not have any sympathy for the victim, neither in retrospect, nor when she heard his head crackle open like a rotten pumpkin. Dusty had been a ‘coon hunter,’ after all, a disreputable man who had shed so many other people’s tears along his path, a dumb coward hiding behind ‘white privilege,’ like an abusive boyfriend behind his fist. There would be no tears shed for him in hell, and yet she could not shake the feeling, no, the absolute moral certainty, that she had been left behind when the blood had splattered upon the murderer’s impassive eyes and dark prison guard shirt.
The doctor had had the same eyes. There had been admiration inside of those eyes, not necessarily the admiration that comes from approval of what is happening, but rather from seeing yourself so clearly and totally in some other person. Narcissists admire those men in whom they see themselves. The doctor may have been standing by her side the whole time, but he had been as distant from her as the midnight moon from the noonday sun. He had been alone in his self-love, in his Ernest Hemingway dream of living life in the eye of the perfect storm (a dream shown to be as much bullshit as anything else under the sun, as soon as Grace returned from her road trip in early July and read the newspaper headline about Hemingway’s suicide), and in that great moment when the man and the times are one and the same he had had no room for her woman holding his right arm and smiling like an insane Pat Nixon.
Grace cannot blame him. He had never promised anything else, not even when he held her closely in those candlelit motor lodges along the highway. He is trapped in his own dream, but he is an honest man so far as she can tell; and honesty is rare enough in this world to warrant a measure of gratitude.
No, Grace does not blame him. She blames herself for imagining that she could break away from the world that had been planned for her, the world of a rich widow with a quiet and unassuming son; leave her own past at Alice Hart’s doorstep, where it too could be added to the collection of old things inside the cigarette smoke pungent sitting room; embrace whatever it means to be a free and emancipated woman in the first stirrings of the beatnik scene (being a cool girl before it was cool to be cool); and do all of this by the side of a mysterious and pompous man twice her age. A mysterious and pompous man who would do what? Protect her, when freedom and emancipation turned out to be a horribly nasty business that sounds like a skull smashed into a counter? Be her father, so that the cool girl can be also daddy’s little girl, especially when the world just turns on its heels and gives her a reason to shed a tear? Replace the old life she had left at the doorstep with a new life tailored made for her?
Grace had thrown out her ‘rich widow’ life, like an unwanted leftover in her refrigerator better left to the stray dogs. She had been so happy and smug, patted herself on her back in her deep and sophisticated verses, given only the portion of herself to her mother and her son that she would not even remember (let alone care) had been given away; and yet, in truth, she had thrown out her ‘rich widow’ life in place of her ‘smiling sycophant’ life. Oh, how she really had perfected that cursed smile. How she had smiled, and smiled, and smiled some more to her male counterparts in the male dominated beatnik culture out west (smile, pretty girl, and we’ll share a cigarette on a tattered mattress, while we overlook the San Francisco Bay and talk about all the good we’re doing for that ‘common man’ out there with our poems, and our cigarettes, and our whiskey, and our sex partner swapping); to the several Negroes who had taken her white butt out to Hunter’s Point to teach her what intercourse really means, when all the tender moments and soft innuendos have been set aside in favor of the big, black jungle just beyond the reach of our civilization; even to the preposterous photographer who had come all the way from the Mother County with his lights and his lenses to refashion her ‘Lady Ian Fleming.’ By the time the doctor came back into her life (though he had never really left what with his telegrams), she had so perfected the art of appealing to men that she could imagine herself the free and emancipated woman she insisted she wanted to be, even as she held a man’s arm and smiled dutifully at his side. She could imagine herself some sort of superwoman, while never getting in harm’s way or bloodying her fingernails.
But a baton to a head has a way of shattering illusions. She had been left behind that moment, and so she had been forced to accept the fact that she is as trapped as when she had been a little girl in Alice Hart’s finishing school. Of course, she knows that we are all actors on a stage, and actors put on costumes and faces for this or that role; but when the play is done, the actors remove all the garb and the makeup, open their bottles of wine, light their cigarettes, and go back out into the world. But what about the actor who never leaves the old and worn out stage, even after the spotlight turns cold, and the audience exits for some other entertainment down the road? What about the actor who never gets out of that costume, or removes that makeup, or drops that silly voice for which the critics raved once, but is now just tiresome? Would we not state that that actor is trapped up there, more like a monkey in a cage, than a performer?
Well, what do you want to be when you grow up? Grace asks herself. Not anything; not anything at all; because whether a witch or a wife, I’ll always be inside the cage reserved for witches or wives. Why not just a woman who loves? Why not just a woman who rents an apartment overlooking Vito Marcantonio in all his bronze glory? Why not just a woman who drinks too much (no more mind for cigarettes, but the booze comes in handy when the day feels like it is going to go on and on forever), sleeps in, writes whenever the Muse comes sauntering by like an on again, off again lover (now off again, it seems), and bar hops for a bed partner whenever she feels an itch that she cannot scratch herself?
A life lived for nothing, but itself. Oh, how post-modern! But she cannot really believe that, and not just because of the absurdity of belief in any post-modernist context. The reason she cannot really believe that is because, in the end, when all the philosophical discussions have finished for the night (usually, when the last bottle of wine has been finished, and no one wants to get off the sofa to go out to the twenty-four hour wine store to buy more), and all the silly (but meaningful, let us never forget how meaningful) poems have been recited for the umpteenth time, she knows that a life lived for nothing is a life lived in fear. Why do we not live for something or someone other than ourselves? Not in fact because we are so happy with ourselves all the time. Indeed, if we can be honest with ourselves once in a while, we must admit that, given nothing at all but ourselves to fancy, we would be bored stiff at dawn and dead before noon. No, the reason we do not live for something or someone other than ourselves is because we are afraid of what may be asked of us, if we actually take on some responsibility, on incur some debt, or open up our hearts. Fear is the crux of it.
And there are many opportunities to be afraid in this vast world of ours. Civilization is no more than a baton swing away from looking like a greasy blood splatter, or sounding like a rotten pumpkin cracked open, or smelling like dead flesh baked in the sun a few days. It does not slowly erode back to the jungle in the imperceptible manner of sand sifting back out to the sea from which it first came. It crashes into the jungle, like a hymen before the cock thrust of a rapist or a skull in the path of a baton. There is civilization. There is the intimation, a kind of feeling in the air, that it is on its last stubby legs, like what the Romans must have felt just before the Goths returned to sack the Eternal City, or what the Southern White Democrats must be feeling now that rock ‘n roll is a fixture on the radio, and Freedom Buses are driving down the two-lane highways to the hell waiting for them below the Mason-Dixon line. There is the mad rush to try to stop, or at least to delay, the inevitable, such as the increased ‘coon hunts,’ and the mobs that just come out of the woodwork whenever Negroes sit on the white side of the restaurant counter. And then that civilization, as it had been known and cherished for generations, is gone in the blink of an eye. Of course, it is replaced by a new civilization, something borrowed, something new, but in the meantime, there is just the black jungle, blood splattering out from inside cracked skulls, dead faces hardened into pools of blood, impassive, brutal, blue eyes that sparkle beautifully. That black jungle lurks just beneath the veil. It is glimpsed now and then in a pair of trapped eyes, as when the ten-year-old girl, pretty in her pajamas, sneaks into the sitting room and catches the eyes of her mother bobbing back and forth in front of her father’s crotch. Or in the strange and distant manner that her son looks at her from the top of the staircase, just when the thirty-year-old mother is about to slip back into her own personal life without so much as saying hello to him. Or in the look in the doctor’s eyes, just when (What? His son? His reflection? Himself?) the Boss Man lowers his baton to that singular point on the back of the victim’s head that will be transformed in an instant into a blood geyser. Whether or not a woman assumes a role (witch, or wife, or witchy wife), or dispenses with roles altogether, the black jungle is near; and so, in time, she will be afraid. She may figure out a better or a worse way to deal with that fear, but she will never get rid of it. She will be afraid as she gives up her ghost, just as she had been a Screaming Mimi when she took in her first breath. Fear and pain are her two disciples, as she wanders down (just like wanderer in the song on the radio then) whatever long and windy path that she has chosen or that someone else has chosen for her.
So why confront the fear and the pain, when in the end you cannot drop them alongside the path like unwanted trash? Grace asks herself. Because I am a human being, that is why. Beasts do not confront their fear and pain. Rather, they imbed them into their instincts over millions of years, so that they will be able to run faster when a predator approaches, or to dig deeper into the earth when a storm descends from on high. On the other side of the spectrum, there is God, who presumably experiences neither fear nor pain; but of course, Grace does not believe in God. So with God out of the equation, that just leaves man, alone, imperfect, tired out by the unrelenting sun, to confront fear and pain on the way to the open grave waiting for him at the end of his path.
Boasting is one way to confront fear and pain; scheming another; brutal, impassive violence perhaps the most effective way, at least until the ghosts of those who have been cut short by the baton, or the bullet, or the atomic bomb even manage to haunt the dreams of a psychopath (not at all easy to penetrate the dreams of a man with no conscience, but that much more terrifying for the man with no conscience when finally he too hears the endless death screams at night). But what about love? It is said that love conquers all, but does that then include fear and pain? Surely, lust does not. Grace can bed any man she desires at any time. That is the devil’s blessing afforded any pretty girl, who keeps her weight in check and her complexion at least halfway decent. But whenever she awakens next to a stranger in her bed, she is as afraid and pained as before. So no, lust will not do the trick. But, again, what about love? Grace cannot say, as she stares out her window at the bronze face of Vito Marcantonio, because she has never given love a chance. She has written scores of poems about love (the romanticized love of ‘common men’ for their wine, or their cigarettes, or their back alley women, usually imagined in some sort of industrial, Soviet landscape in keeping with beatnik sensibilities). She has had several white men tell her in flowery words that they love her (the Negroes out in Hunter’s Point never, ever speak of love to her, because at least they get it that sex is sex). But she never has tried out love herself; never smoked it at a late night party; never put it on in front of a tall dressing mirror; never even glanced at it on the magazine rack in the grocery store. Love is too girly girl, she told herself. It is the quaint focus of a princess still living at home with her domineering mother and hiding in the closet at night to read fantasy books. It looks like ribbons and lace, and smells like the perfume June Cleaver wears, when she is scrubbing the hardwood floor and contemplating what she is going to put in the oven for her darling husband before he comes home from work.
But all that is bullshit, too. June Cleaver may wear her perfume, just as she wears her white pearls and her plastic smile; but even the happy housewife sweats like a fat pig when she really gets into the scrubbing. And perfume with sweat smells sour over time, like rancid milk that the happy housewife does not even bother to throw down the drain. As for the ribbons and lace, they are just so pretty on a virginal girl going to her very first dance; but they are not pretty at all, when they are used to strap her down to a locker room bench, and then to gag her mouth, before she is raped by her fine date and his football buddies.
And so it is all a matter of perspective, is it not? Grace sighs, and admits that it is so. She looks down at the telegram beside her typewriter. The doctor has invited her to accompany him on the next Freedom Bus. It is leaving from a college just outside of St. Louis (what a God awful ‘flyover town,’ Grace thinks when she gets to that portion of the telegram). It will head south with a load of smiling, singing, guitar-playing youngsters on board, mostly Negro, a few White Jews, and Grace and the Doctor as chaperones, if she will oblige. Of course, on account of the information gathered from that little meeting at the Texaco Gas and Grill (much like a country church gathering, but for the smashed head, and all that blood everywhere), this is the Freedom Bus that will bypass the KKK on its way to New Orleans. This will be one of the few Freedom Buses that makes it without a hitch; and, because of the doctor’s connections with the media (he is such a well connected man of mystery, is he not?), this particular victory will make headlines and, no doubt, occupy pages in the history books to be written.
That is all fine and good; but Grace cannot care about any of that, not in the aftermath of that brutal head smashing. No, the high drama, the romance, the allure of a moment in history; that may move the doctor (if the impassive, distant man can be moved really by anything at all), but it does not move her, not anymore, perhaps never really did. No, for her, this is going to be a chance to give love a chance. Can she really love these youngsters putting their lives in jeopardy for an ideal? Can she love any one of them as people, whether dark or light skinned, ugly or pretty, smart or dumb? Can she sing their silly road songs, share in their banter, endure the same fear and pain that, no doubt, they each will be experiencing in their own unique way when they first view the highway sign that informs them that they have left freedom and safety behind them? No way to tell, unless she tries. The alternative is sure death, while sitting before a typewriter and staring blankly at the bronze Vito Marcantonio across the way.
* * *
Grace steps out of the cab, pays the cabbie, and walks across the quiet, remote, two-lane highway on the southern edge of St. Louis. She is wearing the kind of shoulder strapped, knee length, floral, white dress and black high heels that would have made Alice Hart proud. She clutches a bag that will serve as a suitcase and toiletries kit for the duration of the road trip. A casual observer of her nice dress and makeup would never presume that once upon a time she had been a sophisticate smoker demon in bohemian chic. Those days out west seem as far from her present day as when she stared at the erect, black cock on that distant shoreline; or blushed and said ‘I do’ to Horace; or walked up and down the staircase with a book on her head, as Alice Hart watched carefully to see if she maintained her poise. The past recedes into inchoate memories, and then a moment comes along when it is gone altogether. No, that is not true. Absent an unfortunate bout of amnesia, the memories are not gone per se; but they seem anyway no longer to matter to the path about to be revealed. As any old, wise, embittered person will tell you, this is illusory. The past continues to clutch at your heels; indeed, its fangs dig in even deeper, when you convince yourself on a clear and bright morning that it is irrelevant; but until that realization, much further down the road usually, the person feels freed and rejuvenated in a way never before experienced. And so Grace manages a sincere smile, in spite of all her trepidation about the road trip, and quickens her walk over to the bus stop.
The doctor is sitting on the bench. As always, he is impeccable in his soft suit, bowtie, and fedora. His pocket square looks like the same bloodied dagger she had seen sixteen years prior. He smokes his cigar (no longer pretending the cigar is from Central America by way of some mysterious friend in Mexico City, but rather acknowledging, if asked, that it has been smuggled out of Havana on a cargo ship that just happens now and then to dock in Miami on its long trip to Murmansk) in the center of his mouth and dabs the ashes into an ashtray on his lap. Apparently, the ashtray serves an aesthetic purpose only, because as soon as it is full of ash (every hour or so at this rate), he dumps the cooling ash onto the surface of wherever he happens to be at that time. On those occasions, the dapper Howard Hughes lookalike takes a small brush out of his inner pocket and sweeps the ash out of his mustache.
You are so beautiful and gay, while on your way to commit mass murder, the doctor remarks playfully and then puffs on his cigar.
Grace remembers the sound of the baton striking the back of the skull. It is a crisp whoosh, followed by cracked pumpkin, then a gurgling spit of blood as earthy as the first indication of a geyser breaking through the soil. Of course, it is brutal; but it is also a rapid progression of concise and simple sounds in a tiny space (smaller than the burger joint, even smaller than the inside of her head, since an infinite number and variety of hells could be contained within the tiny head of a needle) that bring to mind the precognitive grunts and whistles of an aboriginal subhuman. It is just plain dumb; indeed, not even rising to the level of the intuitive capacity of the wild beasts; and the very fact that a man can go down to that level so quickly is much more disconcerting than the skull cracked and the blood splattered.
Grace tries to sweep that memory aside, but she cannot entirely. It must be written on her face, because the doctor removes his cigar and smiles as if to say: Do not worry little girl. I can snap away your fear with a short explanation.
Murdering the past, of course, the doctor explains. Burying Jim Crow in a remote and unmarked grave. That nasty business with the baton may be set off to the side as an aberration. From now onward, everything will be so beautiful and grand. The indication of certain victory is that the warrior can take note of the pretty, red roses along the side of the battlefield.
Feels like I’ve been looking for those pretty, red roses all my life, Grace says. But the fates saw fit to bring me to the Texaco Gas and Grill instead.
Do not speak of the terrible fates; the doctor scoffs. We make our beds, each and every one of us. That Boss Man down there decided to take the life of a man; not an innocent man, by a long shot; but a man, regardless; and a white man to boot. As the Good Book says, he will get his reward…
Oh, I do not think he will suffer much, Grace sighs, while taking her seat beside the doctor, and looking down the highway to see if there is any sign of a chartered bus. Isn’t he just one of those warriors of which you speak with such fondness? Playing out his role in the great struggle of the time? Winning, even if Jim Crow is buried in an unmarked grave, because he had the gumption to fight on the battlefield, when most men are happy enough to find some tiny pleasure in being accepted into the Manhattan Men of Letters?
You have learned well from my knee, the doctor smiles.
Easy enough, Grace looks into his ink, blue eyes. We are peas in a pod; a couple of amoral atheists; the kind who will throw morality out the window, as soon as it is inconvenient for us. From that perspective, how can we judge him right or wrong, or winner or loser, except to say that he is right, and so one of the winners, if he struck while the others hesitated? Isn’t that the crux of it all?
The doctor dabs ashes into his ashtray. He looks at his cigar thoughtfully.
The question is what will be your reward, Mrs. Temple? The doctor asks.
Maybe it is not all about me, Grace responds.
Oh, come now, the doctor grins sardonically. It is always about you. Not that you can help it. After all, you are a card-carrying member of the fairer sex in this the Year of our Nonexistent Lord one thousand, nine hundred, and sixty- one. Whether Florence Nightingale or the Mata Hari, the woman is preoccupied chiefly with her own saintliness or debauchery.
Grace laughs. She playfully pats the doctor on his right knee.
What is so humorous? The doctor asks while puffing again upon his cigar.
I just thought you were going to ask me: Am I now or have I ever been a woman? Grace responds while still trying to get some control over her laughter.
Actually not a bad question, the doctor reflects. Sometimes I wonder…
Grace finally stifles her laugh. There is an uncomfortable pause, as they avoid one another’s eyes and instead look down the highway to see if the bus is near. There is no sign of it. Indeed, there is nothing much to see, but the small and unremarkable St. Louis skyline in the distance; and the only sound is a hoot that reminds Grace of an owl, though it is not dark enough for an owl on a tree branch to be stirring. She remembers seeing her dead husband on the cold slab at the morgue. So much for not being held down by one of her bleak memories.
You were fond of the Boss Man, Grace comments after a while.
He is a beast; the doctor scoffs.
So is every man at his finest moment, Grace continues. Or so you say.
Well, what do you say? The doctor asks, while returning his eyes to hers.
That love is pretty, Grace smiles. And that, foolish girl that I am, I adore what is pretty. Strange then that I should come to that conclusion after leaving poetry behind…
Are you saying that you love me, pretty girl? The doctor teases. I should warn you that, depending upon how you answer, I am of a mind to lay you over my old man knees and to deliver a hard spanking.
You would like that, wouldn’t you? Grace asks, while raising an eyebrow.
When we are on the verge of our great moment, we certainly shall be ill advised to let love get in the way, the doctor remarks and then exhales smoke.
Take love out of the moment, and it is no longer great, Grace comments and then sighs. Some girls gather that kernel of wisdom out from the childhood books they read after dark. Others from the deflated feeling in their heart just after losing their virginity to a man whom they will never love. But as for me, I learned all I needed to learn the moment that Boss Man smacked his sad victim on the back of his head. It was either madness or love, and I chose the latter at that time. When I looked into your eyes, I was sure you had chosen the former.
We all go a little mad sometimes, the doctor says in his best imitation of Norman Bates from Psycho. God forbid we do not, lest we fall dead of a ‘heart quake’ on a Park Avenue sidewalk before turning fifty. Madness opens the valve and lets out the steam. As for that love business, I am not so sure that it is able to do much of anything, except provide steady work for divorce attorneys when love is no longer in the air, but rather up an ass at the end of a frigid pitchfork.
Colorful image, but we both know that love and marriage are unrelated, Grace comments. Anyway, you are not as immune from Cupid’s arrow as you’re suggesting. This Jim Crow business is personal. I do not know why this is so; and frankly I am too preoccupied with my own redemption, if that is even possible, to try to find out what your demons may be. But I know that you’ve got them in that cold heart of yours. And I also know that a man wrestling with his demons, no matter if he is seventeen or seventy, will fall head over heels with whatever or whoever gives him the winning edge in that struggle. This Jim Crow business matters not so much to you as a legend in your own mind, but to you as a man. And that’s why I am here with you. I want to love, and I think that you do, also.
I thought it was because of my charm, the doctor chuckles.
The chartered bus approaches from the distance. It drowns out the hoot of the owl, and then fills the air with the sound and the smell of diesel.
Are you ready for this? The doctor asks while grabbing a hold of her arm.
I could ask the same of you, Grace smiles.
They stare at one another without saying another word, until the bus has stopped in front of their bench. The doctor then escorts Grace onto the bus. He finishes his cigar, throws the stub onto the ground, and steps inside behind her.
* * *
There is a vacant, two-person seat just behind the bus driver. Grace sets her bag beneath the seat and sits near the window. She does not smile back at the obese, white bus driver, even though he has the kind, sleepy eyes and soft, buttery jowls of an affable family man in a Norman Rockwell painting. She can feel his sincerity, but she is much too uncomfortable at that moment to offer a slight smile, or even a confused shrug, in return.
The doctor steps onto the bus. He has the proud bearing of a movie star.
Welcome aboard, sir, the happy bus driver with a Minnesota accent says.
The doctor does not respond. He smiles in the debonair manner of one of the great men, who is charitable enough to acknowledge nonverbally the lowly help in his charge. There is a distant look in the doctor’s eyes, as if he is seeing already the grand and noble end of this road trip now that he is on board.
The doctor sits beside Grace, pulls out another cigar from inside his grey jacket, and lights up, as the charter bus pulls away from the curb. He looks like he is studying the back of the driver’s head; but in fact his thoughts are several hundred miles south of here, where he presumes his victory is awaiting him like a wife her long departed sailor. He is going to her now; and when he embraces her weathered face and shriveled chest, he is going to keep holding on, until at last she has been strangled dead in all of his love and adoration.
Grace and the doctor do not speak much, as the minutes turn into hours. There is no more to be said at that time, and frankly each person rather would be alone with his or her own dreams.
And, indeed, there is ample opportunity to dream, when the scenic view offers few deviations from the miles of grain rustling in the hot furnace breeze, the occasional red barn in the distance, and the rarer one stop sign town. Few automobiles pass in the opposite direction. Even fewer people can be seen hard at work in the fields or asleep in the shade of covered porches. Most everything has been abandoned, or at least that is the impression from inside the Freedom Bus. It is as if the stage has been torn down, so that the actors may reconstruct it inside their own dreams. For the doctor this is a most delightful development indeed since he wants as few distractions as possible from his great moment at the end of the road. For Grace the very same sense that everything beyond the window has been abandoned inspires a vague, but persistent, dread. Is it really possible to find love in such a grey and dreary limbo? Can something come from so much nothing in the end? She searches the terrain in vain for a bright flower amidst the endless expanse of dried, brown stalks. She does not see anything as the hours pass her. Her growing concern is that in fact she cannot see anything.
Late afternoon, the bus stops at a Gulf Gas station. The driver steps out to make small talk with the scrawny, bucktoothed country boy filling up the gas tank. The country boy keeps eyeing the coloreds in the windows, as if they are convicts in a prison bus, but the happy driver does a good job overall in turning the attention of the country boy back to whatever they are discussing. He even gets the greasy country boy at one point to slap his thigh and to laugh out loud.
Still, Grace had seen how the country boy first had looked upon them. In no uncertain terms, she has cast her fate with a busload of pariahs. Even when hanging out with her fellow poets in the cafes on Gough Street, or when losing an hour or two in the strong, black arms of a handsome buck in Hunter’s Point, she had never felt so much an outcast. She had wanted to be outside the norm, beyond the plantation fence, cast out from polite society. She had thought that there would be a kind of romantic allure in her beatnik life, like that sad, dark, incomprehensible joy that a writer must feel when he has been informed that a library committee or a government somewhere has banned his book, or for that matter that hot rush that a political rebel must feel when he first sees his face on a ‘Wanted’ sign. But there had been no such allure, no feeling that she had joined with the 26th of July Movement, most likely, since the dominant culture, whether it be the San Francisco Bay Area, or the Caribbean Isles, or the Italian Harlem neighborhood in Manhattan, had been, more or less, supportive of what life she had wanted to pursue then. It just had not been all that radical to be a radical in those times and places. But the dumb condemnation inside that boy’s eyes had made it all too clear that this was not like any one of her previous life choices. She had crossed a line the moment she had stepped upon this bus; and she sensed already that she would regret the hard sting of being a true pariah, notwithstanding her commitment to go forward, and to learn what it is to love.
The Freedom Bus continues to rumble down the highway. Grace imagines that with so few people out and about this late afternoon the bus must be very loud and obnoxious in the otherwise quiet countryside. They will not be able to slip across the Mason-Dixon line, like Union spies sneaking into the Confederacy on some clandestine search and destroy mission. Every one will see them, even if then they are hiding their faces behind drawn curtains, or peeking out from behind straw hats that had been lowered over their faces so that they would be able to sleep the remainder of the day away. The diesel engine will be screams of defiance in the thick, sultry air; the black faces in the windows will be dark, scabby middle fingers extended for all to see; the white woman with her thick, red hair pulled back will be a mid-twentieth century whore (who else, but that stereotypical woman of ill repute would be in the company of so many of them uppity niggers?) riding down south no doubt to preach her Gospel of Whoredom.
Grace turns away from the window. She looks back at the young Negroes sitting in pairs behind her. She had avoided eye contact with them all until now and so is surprised to see how well dressed and mannered they are.
I feel like we are in a church, Grace whispers to the doctor, while she is gesturing toward the young men and women dressed in their Sunday’s Best.
The doctor turns in his seat to face them. He puffs on his cigar. He blows out a fog of pungent smoke that obscures his face, so that for a moment he is a pair of sparkling, blue eyes floating in the silky air behind the driver’s big head.
Like sheep on the way to the slaughter, the doctor comments.
Did you not say that from now on everything will be beautiful and grand? Grace asks without any of her former playfulness.
For us, yes, the doctor responds. For them, life is a death sentence.
Then, they are fortunate, Grace considers. If every mile is your last mile before the scaffold, then you are going to live your life to the utmost.
Is that so? The doctor asks with his devilish grin. Tell me what you know about the last mile…
Grace turns away from the doctor. She stares out at the great nothing.
Really, I want you to tell me what you know, the doctor insists.
Don’t toy with me, Grace whispers, while shedding a single tear.
You would be Horace Temple’s widow, if not for me, the doctor snaps.
Grace cringes. There is a dreadful ring of truth in his comment. She has never been as free and emancipated as she has imagined herself to be, because much of her path has been carved by the choices or the intercessions of others.
I almost aborted my baby, Grace whispers after a while.
The doctor leans closer to her. He places his left hand on her right knee, while he dabs his cigar ashes onto the bus floor with his other hand. He is very attentive, but not in the manner of a true confidant, so much as an unforgiving judge listening for any slight weakness in her words or voice with which he may condemn her. He looks like a dragon as he blows out smoke through his nostrils.
I made arrangements with a friend’s uncle, Grace recalls. Marked it upon my calendar. Cancelled all other appointments for that day. I made a point not to look at that entry on my calendar. Even though I wrote ‘doctor’ on the line, instead of ‘abortionist’ or ‘baby killer,’ it still looked…I don’t know…dirty. Just like vulgar graffiti in blue ink. I did not have any moral reservations, or so I told myself; but I averted my eyes anyway. It is strange how we think we can avoid the potholes by closing our eyes. Like life is a magic act, a sleight of hand. See the jagged and holey road before you, clench your eyes, tap your toes together three times, then voila, the road is as straight and level as your strongest moral or intellectual conviction. But it does not work that way. I suppose I was lucky, in a way, to come to that realization before my twenty-first birthday. So much wisdom, and still just a blush of a girl. Therefore, as the date approached, and I started to feel the subtle kicks in my womb, I realized that I would have to do much more than just close my tearful eyes. I would need to be as strong and as impenetrable as steel, like Pharaoh’s hardened heart. I would have to will each and every one of my steps from the bus stop to the abortionist’s back room. No doubt about it. The woman who ‘saves the date’ and ‘carries through with it’ is as hard as a man, but she is also as free. Totally free and emancipated, like the murderer feels when standing over his victim with his blood soaked baton in his hand and knowing that, at that critical moment anyway, he is the one and only judge, jury, and executioner over that cold, blue corpse. The murderer retains all that power just then; the power of a god; the might of someone who is free, master of his universe, liberated from quaint moral and ethical restraints. Yes, it is fleeting. The police invariably catch up with him. But, in that moment, he is complete, an island unto himself, untouched by anyone else. All it takes then is a strong will, I told myself, as I got off the bus and walked down the sidewalk toward the abortionist’s back room. But then I started rolling my hands over my womb, like I had the worst stomach ache. And the tears literally flew down my face. I nearly fainted from exhaustion or sorrow. I couldn’t tell which. I leaned against a light pole, and looked up at the afternoon sun. It is so very relentless, that afternoon sun, blinding and hot. I told myself that I must be suffering from a heat stroke. And yet, at the same time, I just knew that there was something more going on, something timeless, not heavenly so much as earthy, primordial tectonic plates rubbing into each other like the unborn baby’s bare feet against the lining of my womb. I gripped the light pole, and then the earth beneath my feet started to shiver. I thought of teeth chattering in a skull. I thought of bone fragments hanging from a tree and rattling in the wind. A cold shiver in the old earth. No one walking passed me seemed to be aware of that earthquake, but I knew that it was not simply in my imagination, just as I knew that indeed there was more going on here than a heat stroke. I held on until the earth tremor had passed; and I was left in the aftermath, alone with my womb, trapped inside of my own uterus, like a girl reeled into herself by her own umbilical cord. I tried to continue down that sidewalk, but I could not. And so I wiped away my tears, returned to the bus stop, and said nothing about that moment, not even to my journal. The walk from the bus stop to the abortionist would have been a mile, my baby’s last mile, and in a way my own last mile. I reckon I only made about a tenth of a mile. I have been trying to complete that last mile ever since. Out west in the Golden State, down in the beautiful Caribbean, deep in the heart of Manhattan, now on a two-lane highway into the heart of darkness, thousands of miles travelled by car, or bus, sometimes on foot; and yet, for all those miles, I reckon I am no more than a quarter of the way down that last mile. It is such a long slog. Kicking against the pricks, the Good Book says. Funny that I should be quoting from the Bible; but, as you said, and in the words of Norman Bates, we all go a little mad sometimes. So what do I know about the last mile? I know all too well how hard it feels against my feet; how hot it is beneath the horrid sun; how it tremors; especially how it tremors, like the earth is breaking open inside my heart, and devouring into itself every last bit of my courage and willfulness. Maybe it is better not to try. Maybe it is better to leave that last mile unknown and untraveled. Just set all that courage and willfulness aside, and allow a cold and hardened heart to love something or someone other than itself.
You said earlier that if you treated every mile as your last mile, then you would be living life to its utmost, the doctor remarks. Now, you say it is best to leave that last mile alone. Which is it?
Leave that last mile alone, stop thinking about it, stop fretting over your courage or willfulness, or lack thereof, and you’ll find that in fact you are on it all the time, Grace comments.
The doctor studies her a moment longer. He then leans back, and takes another puff on his cigar. Apparently, he does not wish to pursue this particular line any further, because he remains silent for some time.
Grace does not press the point any further. She just stares out at the dry grain stalks that seem to stretch out in every direction from here unto eternity.
* * *
There is a collective audible sigh. Someone closer to the back of the bus lets out a nervous yelp. Every pair of eyes on a solemn, black face is downcast; a disconcerting blend of sadness, earnestness, and anxiety; a steady look at the floor that may be prayerful, or just blank, perhaps truly both at the same time.
Grace looks out the window on the other side of the bus. She observes at once that to which everyone is reacting. It is a simple sign along the side of the highway; bullet riddled; warped and faded in the sunset: Welcome to Arkansas.
She had wanted so much to feel what they are feeling at this moment; a solidarity in shared fear and pain; an intimacy surpassing race and class, as it is born in a common experience that will not be replicated once Jim Crow is dead and buried. But she cannot get enough outside of herself. She peers into every one of their black, prayerful, anxious faces; studies them, like she would a wall of ominous cave drawings forecasting the end of the world; tries so hard to feel what they are expressing in their downcast eyes and tense lips; but she is really no more inside that Freedom Bus, let alone sharing the same blood and breath as these young and well dressed Negroes, as the country boy attendant back at the Gulf Gas. The barrier is real. It inspires disquiet, a vague sense of loathing, a small voice in her mind that insists that this is all a dream. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that she is not there any more so than a dead woman can haunt the world of a stranger who has never had any memory or knowledge of her. On occasion, that dead woman can be an odd and disconcerting movement inside a shadow; but, for the most part, she will be recognized as no more important to the stranger’s life than dust in the wind, or light diffracted through blinds. She grasps her heart, as if to make certain that she is there and so not fading away.
And then she blinks her eyes; and all at once, every one of those solemn, black faces is the pale, distant face of her son. It is the same face that she had glimpsed looking down at her from the top of the staircase, when she had made up her mind to leave the sitting room to Alice Hart and her cigarettes. She does not remember exactly when, sometime in the mid-fifties, her son ten years old or just shy of that milestone birthday. She is still bohemian chic, grabbing for a cigarette herself as she hurries toward the front door, muttering something sad and nasty. And all the while, he is staring at her, sucking at his right thumb like a boy half his age, opening his eyes wide, gaping his lips just enough to take in a troubled breath. She sees him, but she does not smile. He removes his thumb from his mouth, and waves apprehensively, as if he is afraid she will strike him.
After all, he is breaking into her tidy, little world with that apprehensive wave of his, and he knows it…
And she is breaking into their world, a place and a time born out of their unique fear and pain, a section of the universe segregated for the young Negro; but at the same time, she is not connecting with them any more so than a wild home invader will connect with the place and the people she has invaded.
On this highway, we are lost, one of the Negroes says in an impassioned, preaching voice to every one on the Freedom Bus. But we shall be found. Lord, Blessed Lord, on the way to Cavalry, we shall be found. Beneath the cross, we shall be found. Beside His tomb, we shall be found. In the attic with the twelve chosen of God, we shall be found. Casting a net, we shall be found. On the way to Emmaus, we shall be found. In breaking bread, we shall be found. Among all the brethren, we shall be found. And Lord, Blessed Lord, on the last day, when love prevails, when the halt walk, when the dumb speak, we shall be found. So let us be of good cheer, for He has defeated the world, and He sits at the right hand of the Father. And we are His people, born in struggle, alive on the cross, dead to slavery and to shame. Lost only for a while, but then found in eternity.
Grace searches the black faces. She cannot tell which one is speaking so eloquently. It is like the entire Freedom Bus, each and every one of those black faces and downcast eyes, each and every woman and man to suffer the lash or the noose on account of the white man’s fantasy that he is a god among beasts, is offering this impassioned prayer for courage in adversity and humility before God. She sheds a tear. She can sit in the church, listen to the sermon, join in a hymn of praise, but cannot participate finally in the communion of the faithful. The black faces would welcome her. They would share their hymnals with her, kiss her in fellowship, and invite her to be baptized into their sufferings. But in the end, she is too trapped inside herself to turn to them, just as she had been too trapped in her pride to walk up that staircase and to embrace her only son.
Apart from Grace and the doctor, the entire Freedom Bus sings Amazing Grace. Theirs is a haunted rendition; a sad and ghostlike take on the traditional melody; sad, not because they doubt that they were once lost, but now found, but because it is in their very sadness, the tears shed, the wounds opened upon their backs, the indignities seared into their minds, that they are found finally; ghostlike, not because they are dead to the hope that they were once lost, but now found, but because they are so very strong in their weakness, victorious in their meekness, and so alive in their certain deaths. They are singing this hymn as free and emancipated people, not in the eyes of the law as of yet, but inside their own hearts. Grace can only wish to know what it is like to be so very free.
Like heathens in the bush, the doctor comments, as he looks off into the distance, and recalls with a smirk his one and only hunt with Ernest Hemingway in the Congo. Imitating a white man’s religion, as if it has been always his own.
Maybe all along the white man has been imitating theirs, Grace mutters.
The doctor breaks out of his reminiscence. He stares at Grace, and grins.
It doesn’t matter who’s imitating whom, the doctor reflects, while he is again puffing on his cigar. Soon enough, all this will be wiped away. The young, well dressed, God fearing Negro will be finished, as much as his white overseer. The sad drama with which those two groups have been occupied, since the first colonial slave owner tied a chain about his colored’s throat and pulled him out from the squalid and diseased passenger ship docked at Plymouth Rock, will be replaced by something modern. For their children, and their children’s children after them, Jim Crow will be about as recognizable as a nondescript person in a crowd, and as feared as the Easter Bunny.
Grace does not respond. Instead, she listens to the hymn, and dreams of what it must be like then to sing in the tone of a free and emancipated woman.
* * *
When the sun sets south of the Mason-Dixon line, it is desperately black, not in the soft, even romantic, manner of nightfall elsewhere, but rather in the manner of a shroud draped over a corpse. Part of it has to do with the fact that the south remains generations behind the rest of the country with regards to its infrastructure and technology. There are few lights along the sides of the windy and narrow highway; fewer telephone lines buzzing with electricity; no blinking stoplights, so that whenever the bus rumbles through an old, mangled cur of an Arkansas township, and approaches its only intersection, the driver has to slow down to a crawl so as to check both ways for any oncoming pickups. Most folks, white and Negro alike, are indoors getting cold drunk, or smacking around their women. The few rambling down the highway shoulder are so hidden inside the shadows as to be indistinguishable from the blackness. But backwardness alone cannot account for the very intensity of the blackness after sunset. Stay a little while, and the darkness veiled over what remains of the Old Confederacy is the blindfold that keeps past secrets alive in the tired mind and future possibilities unimagined. Everything beyond the windows of the Freedom Bus is the past; an ugly past, for the most part, especially with respect to the Negroes; a time and a place forever receding further away, notwithstanding the efforts of Jim Crow to keep it in the here and now. As the past recedes, it gets colder, blacker, like the universe when the last star fizzles out. If there had been enough sunlight to see the world outside, then Grace would not have been surprised to observe so many family graveyards along the side. There is nothing to celebrate down here but death, and even that is a maudlin affair best done behind closed doors, like an illicit sex act, or under a shroud that extends from one horizon to the other.
The Negroes have been singing traditional hymns for some time. It seems to keep the spooks away. Or maybe it is just something to do, because the only alternative is to sit in silence, listening to the diesel engine, and imagining that beast that is even now getting closer to them. Even though the Negroes realize that the driver has been given a route that will bypass any KKK roadblocks that may be out there, they cannot shake their fear of that beast. It is not giving up on the hunt, no matter what intelligence that snooty, white couple at the front had been able to glean from a White Citizens’ Council meeting down in Beulah. It is not going to rest, until it has torn apart and then trampled underfoot what it sees as a cabal of uppity niggers and Yankee carpetbaggers. It is the mindless and merciless force that is unleashed into the night, when enough people really hate and fear the first insinuations of a future world. And although there are no Southern born and bred Negroes on this Freedom Bus, they nonetheless sense it in the sultry air, as if they had been around that same sick beast all their lives.
There is a light flashing up ahead. The Negroes stop their hymn singing, and brace themselves for whatever may be encountered. No one offers a praise sermon about how they will be found. At that moment, they’d rather be totally lost, if that meant being far off from that flashing light on the side of the road.
It is a searchlight on the back of a greasy, old pickup. A cracker in holey overalls and straw hat is opening and closing a blind in front of the white light, no doubt so as to signal any oncoming vehicle to stop. It is impossible to tell if he is a cop or a vigilante (not much difference between the two this side of the line). Regardless, he flashes his light with all the confidence of someone who is cocksure of his constitutional right to do so, and the driver accordingly obliges.
The old pickup with the searchlight is in a dirt lot on the right side of the road. There are no other vehicles parked there, though judging by the swirling and overlapping tire marks in the loose dirt it is a large space usually occupied. If there had been sunlight, then it would have been possible to observe the old and worn bleachers and baseball diamond further out in the distance.
The driver pulls into this lot, and brakes. The cracker turns the spotlight so that it points directly into the bus windshield. The driver raises his right arm over his eyes so as to save himself from being blinded by that penetrating light.
There is a collective moan inside the Freedom Bus. The doctor chuckles.
Yankee, get on out here, the cracker yells in his thick and syrupy drawl.
The driver turns back to the doctor. His jowly face has lost that affable, homespun, Norman Rockwell quality that most everyone finds so endearing. He is rather a blustery, red faced, fat loon in equal measures pissed off and afraid.
The driver manages to blurt out in between grisly sobs: You assured me…
Shhhh! The doctor interrupts him, while arising from his seat.
The driver opens his mouth, like he has been insulted. The doctor raises his left hand to halt him from saying anything further. A few tense seconds pass between them, but then the driver shuts his big mouth and stews in his silence.
Ya ain’t deaf, Yankee, the cracker yells. I know ya hear me. So I say one more time. Get on out, ‘fore I break in my new shotgun on them nigger targets.
He hits home the threat by cocking his shotgun. It snaps viciously in the thick air; and as if a trained response, every Negro in the Freedom Bus at once winces, sheds a haggard, solitary tear, and clutches his fingernails into his seat.
No need for violence, dear boy, the doctor calls out in a cheerful voice.
You just called that cracker a boy, the befuddled driver whispers to him.
The victor wins first in his imagination, the doctor explains. The battle is anticlimactic, when he knows he is going to win, and when the opponent knows he is no better than a ‘nigger clown act,’ no offense the Negroes upon this bus.
Did you just call me a boy? The cracker asks indignantly, after enough of a pause to figure out what in fact the doctor had said to him.
I call it as I see it, the doctor yells back at him, though without giving up on his apparent cheer and goodwill.
Now, come with me, the doctor whispers to the driver. There is business to be done, and our side of the negotiation will benefit by our higher numbers…
Higher numbers? The driver mutters in a confused daze.
Yes, the doctor rolls his eyes. A ‘good cop’ and a ‘bad cop’ playing their shtick always beats out the solitary man with convictions.
I’m not going out there, the driver blubbers.
I ain’t no boy, the cracker snarls, and then screams out like a banshee.
The doctor puts his lit cigar back into his mouth. He now has two strong, but also finely manicured, hands with which to grab the driver’s shirt collar and to yank him out of his seat. The driver looks like he very well weighs a ton; but the doctor is much stronger than his lithe frame would imply, and so does what he had set out to do without breaking into a sweat or disheveling his mustache.
The driver is so surprised to be out of his seat that he acquiesces without any more fuss to whatever it is that the good doctor wants to do. Still, even as he decides to follow the doctor’s lead, he has no more courage than prior. As a result, his face swims in sweat, his breath rattles, and his knees buckle, all the same time. He just looks like he could die from a ‘heart quake’ at any moment.
I coming, too, Grace blurts out.
This is no situation for a woman, the doctor scolds her.
I am not asking you, Grace responds, as she pushes passed the driver and the doctor, and steps onto the lot outside the bus.
The two men follow her. The doctor squeezes her right arm, and forcibly pulls her right ear nearer to his lips. His breath feels like a furnace on her skin.
Follow my lead, the doctor insists. This must be done just right.
Grace does not respond. She is incensed, but she also realizes that this is neither the time nor the place to make a scene. She falls in behind him, as the driver in turn falls in behind her.
The wind is much stronger outside than had been apparent in the bus. It is a hot and dry wind; a howling demon just looking to start a forest fire on the smallest pretext; a viper that stings the skin it touches. It swirls about them as if blown out from the cracks in the earth; and with a ghostly, white searchlight spreading across the surface of the dirt lot like a menacing fog from hell, there is an earthy and sinister feel to the place, apart from the belligerent words and behavior of the cracker standing above them on the bed of his pickup.
As for the cracker, it is impossible to make out his features. He is a man in overalls and straw hat; but his face is veiled in shadows. While he speaks in a local drawl, there is a deranged feel to the voice that seems otherworldly in its origins. Maybe the demons run wild in the south after dark. Maybe they don the overalls and the straw hats of the country bumpkins left for dead on their beds, or hunched in their rocking chairs, or hanging from their rafters, like the pitiful coloreds that they have persecuted over the years. Or maybe the white men on the back of pickup trucks, with their shotguns and their searchlights in tow, do not need to be replaced with demons to do the devil’s work. After all, the folks down here carry secession in their hearts, as men everywhere carry Original Sin in theirs. They are insurrectionists, willing to shed blood for that ignoble cause of slavery, egging for a civil war against all of the ‘uppity niggers’ and ‘Yankee carpetbaggers,’ who presume to drag them kicking and screaming into the mid-twentieth century. Satan is the first Rebel. The Southern Democrat is his vassal in these parts, and so Satan may not need to expend his demons to do his filthy work far beneath the line and just one or two turns in the road away from Hell.
I ain’t no boy, the cracker repeats in a low and menacing voice, when in due time the three of them stop about ten feet or so away from the old pickup.
Good to see there is law and order on this highway, the doctor remarks.
What are ya haulin’ in God’s Country? The cracker asks, and then spits.
Freedom, the doctor smiles. Oh, and just a tad bit of modernity as well.
I think you’re haulin’ niggers, the cracker snarls.
The doctor puffs on his cigar. He glances back at the bus, and chuckles.
You are referring to the dark faces back there, the doctor smiles. Just so you know, for those of us living in the mid-twentieth century, they’re known as Negroes; and so far as we can tell, they sleep, eat, and shit, like the rest of us.
They’re nigger contraband, the cracker corrects him.
I’ve travelled the world, the doctor remarks, as he stares in contempt at the cracker above him. I’ve been in places even more backwards than this one, believe it or not. And so I can inform you from personal experience that even a deranged, aboriginal beast in war paint and loincloth knows that the definition of ‘contraband’ is simply something for which consideration has yet to be paid.
You don’t scare me with your big words, the cracker says.
But, of course, the doctor does. It is patently obvious who has the upper hand at this moment, and it is not the man with the shotgun standing next to a searchlight above them. There is just a hint of exasperation in the voice of the cracker, but it is sufficient to put the three standing before him at ease.
So how much per head? The doctor asks impatiently.
We don’t want Yankee Niggers preachin’ the Devil’s Gospel to our coons, the cracker snarls, and spits something green that lands near the doctor’s toes.
It is a real joy to speak with you, the doctor remarks. But time beckons…
Ten dollars, the cracker shouts.
And we need to go about our business, the doctor continues, as he turns his back to the shotgun, and gestures for Grace and the driver to follow.
Five dollars, the cracker shouts.
The doctor stops. He puffs on his cigar a while, and then turns back.
Two dollars, the doctor offers.
What gives you the right to kike me? The cracker inquires.
A dollar fifty, if you delay me any more, the doctor snaps back.
Okay, okay, the cracker pleads, while setting his shotgun aside, and then stepping down from his pickup. Two dollars for every nigger in your bus…
The doctor turns to Grace, and winks. His eyes are electric diamonds.
He is enjoying this confrontation too much, Grace thinks. He is willing to put all of us in harm’s way just to have his moment. What if the cracker on the pickup had been a little more wired? What if his trigger finger had been a little looser? The doctor’s flippant words could have set him off. Oh, the cracker may not have killed the three of us. We are white; and even in these parts a man is going to have his neck stretched, if he murders white folks in cold blood. But if he had killed scores of ‘uppity niggers,’ and burned their bodies in some sort of common grave out in the woods, then most likely he would get a plaque on the wall of the Texaco Gas and Grill, or the next debutante ball in the town named after him, or a seat in Congress alongside other Dixiecrat criminals. The doctor himself had said of the Negro: His life is a death sentence. Well, he was all too willing to turn that comment into a reality just to score points against the hick.
And so at that moment, Grace despises the doctor. She still loves him in a peculiar, even obsessive, way. She still would go to bed with him, even there on the dirt lot, if he had any desire to take her. Nevertheless, the hatred too is there. It is painful, a dull ache inside her heart, but it is also cleansing. It tears just enough of the invisible tentacles between the two of them that she is able to look away from him.
In her peripheral vision, she sees the doctor meet with the cracker about midway between the bus and the pickup. The doctor pulls a wad of cash out of his deep trouser pocket, and counts out two dollars for every Negro in the bus. The doctor is all smiles, gentlemanly in dress, courtly in manner, like a well-to-do plantation owner who is settling up with an uncouth slave trader. They both are engaged in an unseemly business; one more genteel than the other; one, an enlightened, well mannered man dedicated to a principle; the other, a country hick in a straw hat; but, set aside the surface differences and they are a pair of devils doing a nasty turn inside the path of a hellish wind.
But because some of the invisible tentacles between Grace and the good doctor have been torn, she does not focus on this peripheral scene. She instead sees two exhausted and frightened eyes staring out at her from behind the bus. The eyes are set deep in the round, black face of a girl in a ripped, floral dress.
At first, Grace thinks that one of the Negroes must have wandered out of the bus; and yet, after a moment of reflection, she cannot believe that any one of those young, tense, teary-eyed Negroes would have had the courage to stand up, let alone to step into the glare of the searchlight outside. And then there is the age of the little girl; probably around five or six; much younger than any of the Negroes that Grace saw inside the bus (though, if ever pressed, then Grace would have had to admit that she knew precious little about them, because she avoided them as much as she had turned away from her son when she glimpsed him that one time on the top of the staircase).
No, this little girl is not a Freedom Rider. She is a scared child in a floral dress similar to her own. The hot wind is fluttering that dress over her butt, so that the wounds on her knees and thighs (Cuts? Burn Marks? Impossible to know from this distance) can be seen clearly in the searchlight. The same wind blows soot over her bare feet, which gives the impression she is wearing dark sandals.
Mama, the little girl whispers, not in an aggrieved manner, so much as a blank manner indicative of a person too defeated by her circumstances to shed any more tears. Mama. Mama. Oh, mama, mama, mama…
Grace does not hesitate. She runs to the little girl, looks directly into her blank eyes, and then gathers her into her arms. She holds down the girl’s dress, so that that loud devil wind will no longer flutter it above her butt, and expose her wounds for the world to see.
I’m not your mama, Grace says. But I’ll protect you.
Grace has no idea what commitment she has made. She is jumping head first into the deep end of the pool without any sense of how far down that pool water goes. She does not know it yet, but this is her first step into the dark and painful place that we commonly refer to as love.
* * *
Grace stares out the window next to her seat. She holds the little girl on her lap. She strokes the little girl’s hair. It feels coarse, like a doll’s straw hair, and so it calls to mind when she had been about the same age as this little girl here. In the memory, Grace is cradling a Smiling Mamie doll. There is a song on the phonograph downstairs. She can hear the song all the way upstairs inside of her bedroom, even though her door is closed, and her window is shut tight. She is much too young to know that the song is Eddie Cantor’s Makin’ Whoopee. All she knows then is that her mother plays it over and over again, and her mother plays it as loud as the fire engine she had seen and heard at the carnival, when father is away on one of his extended ‘business trips.’ It is daytime; but she has no doubt that her mother is in her nightgown already, wandering about the tiny sitting room like a trapped animal, slurring words that really should not be said clearly. If that is what Makin’ Whoopee is all about, then she is happy to stay in her bedroom the rest of the afternoon, and to cradle Smiling Mamie by herself.
You’re my girl, Grace sings to Smiling Mamie. Because we are different…
Smiling Mamie looks back at her with big, blank, doll eyes. She has a big, lippy smile on her cherubic face. Father once said that Smiling Mamie has such big lips, because Smiling Mamie just loves her watermelons. Father laughed like a crazy hyena, when he said loves like he is some sort of demented minstrel on stage. Grace had laughed along with him, of course; but deep down she did not think he was funny. And, she thought at the time, he surely did not get it right. Smiling Mamie had big lips, not because she loved watermelons so much (after all, Grace loves watermelons, but her lips are normal), but because she wanted to smile so much for Grace. Smiling Mamie loves Grace. Cannot father see that?
He cannot, Grace answers herself, as she strokes Smiling Mamie’s hair. It is not his fault. It is just that we are different. And grownups do not understand what it means to be different…
Mama, Smiling Mamie says, except that it is not Smiling Mamie speaking.
Grace turns away from her memory. It is still floating out there, beyond her dirty window, somewhere in the darkness along the side of the road; so she will be able to return to it as easily as putting a phonograph needle back on the rotating vinyl. Right now, though, she wants to look at the new ‘Smiling Mamie’ on her lap. She wants to look into her big eyes, and to see how she is different.
It is not that she is black. There are plenty of those on this Freedom Bus.
It is not that she is a girl. The Nervous Nellie Driver is as much a girl as a real life girl chewing on her pink fingernails, or keeping a tiny light on all night.
Rather, it is the blank look on her face; the eyes that are too far gone to be judgmental; the sadness that cannot be alleviated in anything else, but real, unconditional love. She is so very different, because she is way beyond cultural expectations, or social politeness, on even undying principles. For the little girl on her lap, it is good enough to be held and to see a smile now and then. There is no posturing, no profound poetry published in a journal, surely not that pride from which the best can and do fall in the end.
She is a colored girl in a ripped dress far below the Mason-Dixon line. But there is nothing trapping her anywhere. She is different, because she is so free.
What is your name? Grace asks the little girl.
The little girl just looks back at her, except now the blankness has been replaced by a desperate look. She is pleading for something; love, perhaps, or, deeper down, food and water, because at the core love and physical survival in this world are much the same thing. Whatever the little girl may want, what is most striking is just how real she is. A person is so much more real when on the edge, that fine line between life and death, hope and despair, as if everything else fades to grey and then flitters away in comparison.
You must have a name, Grace says playfully.
Mama, the little girl repeats. Oh, mama, mama, mama…
Did you lose your mama? Grace asks with trepidation.
The little girl considers the question carefully. Her eyes narrow and then move in such a way as to indicate that she is debating with herself whether and to what extent she should tell this white stranger what has happened to her. In those eyes, there is considerable longing; but there is also mistrust born out of the kind of brutality that defies the simple and straightforward words of a little girl. She will be crossing a line, if she talks; and she will not be able to go back.
Boss Man, the little girl whispers almost inaudibly.
Grace freezes in horror. She sees him striking his baton against the back of that skull. She hears what sounds like a rotten pumpkin smashing and brittle bones crackling. She views the victim squirming face down in his gooey blood, a spasm in the back of his neck that spreads down his spine, an arm flapping over the side of the counter like a fin of a seal. Superimposed over this sick memory are the impassive eyes of the Boss Man, cold, blue eyes, devil eyes on a statue.
What happened to your mama? Grace asks when finally she breaks out of that terrible memory. Did the Boss Man do something bad to her?
He shook her, the little girl whispers.
He shook her? Grace asks, while she wipes a tear from her own face.
And he broke her, the little girl concludes.
Grace remembers holding onto the light pole, when she had been on her way to the abortionist. The ground is shaking beneath her feet; but, even more so, it is shaking inside her womb, so that all at once she realizes that the quake is centered where her baby’s bare foot rubs against the lining of her uterus. No doubt, there is something breaking inside there, something being released, not so much physically (though she feels the quake as surely as if every muscle and tendon inside her body had been snatched by an electric spasm), but spiritually (strange for an atheist, but undeniable at that moment). There is no God, but a spirit reigns in violence, in pulling down the columns, in tearing out white flesh from wombs, in splattering blood and brains all over a counter. And the spirit is freedom, emancipation, brutal beast in heat; the sick logic in the universe that insists that for every free man there is a slave, for every life a death sentence…
Grace snaps out of her own head. She stares into the little girl’s eyes. At that moment, she is pleading with her eyes as much as the little girl is pleading with hers. In that shared desperation, they know the bond that transcends race and class; the bond of two souls lost everywhere else, but found in one another somewhere down a bleak highway; the bond that turns a moment into eternity.
Did the Boss Man hurt you? Grace asks in a despondent whisper.
He said he’s a man, ‘cause I’m a nigger, the little girl mutters.
Grace had never hated the word ‘nigger’ until that moment. Of course, she had known that it was a pejorative term, and she had avoided it. But she’d never felt its sting, until she heard it spoken by a little girl who should be more occupied with her dolls and coloring books than with the cold, blue-eyed beast.
I’ll save you from him, Grace promises, while she wipes off another tear.
The little girl looks at her as if to say that, no matter her good intention, she can no more save her from the Boss Man than the Man in the Moon.
Really, Grace insists. I’ll save you from him. You have suffered enough…
Grace allows her last sentence to linger a while. She wants to believe it, but deep down she knows that the nigger never suffers enough. For the nigger, Good Friday does not end. It keeps going on, passed Easter Sunday, passed the Last Day, so that when heaven and earth are no more, there will be the nigger, still nailed to that cross, still vilified by that Boss Man with the bloodied baton.
The little girl burrows into Grace’s chest. She desires nothing more then than to break into Grace’s heart, and to sleep off the rest of the night in there.
So what is your name? Grace asks again.
Abigail, the little girl says softly. Abigail Spencer.
* * *
Abigail Spencer stands in front of the dressing mirror. She is a beautiful, athletic, red headed, nineteen year old woman in blue sailor middy blouse and grey knickerbockers. Her hair drapes over her left shoulder. It is thick and wild, and when she narrows her eyes and tenses her lips just so she looks like a mad, vixen lioness on the prowl. Her blue eyes are so steely cold as to appear distant and grey from afar, but get close to her beautifully sculpted face and the eyes sparkle like stolen diamonds kept under wraps and so taken out only for special occasions. She has a striking look on her face; a strong, masculine walk both on and off the field; a quick mind that can go for the jugular whenever she deems necessary with as much spoken wit as silent seduction, so that even when she is speaking there is that vague and disconcerting sense that she is up to some sort of mischief in whatever she is not verbalizing at that time. Whether intentional or not, she gives off the impression that she is a woman who never lets the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Even more so than her alluring beauty, that is the reason why every boy in town wants to be her suitor. Perhaps these tall, handsome, dapper boys, Ivy League bound every one of them (unless, soon enough, President McKinley decides to ‘Remember the Maine,’ in which case all that charming university life will be set aside a while for the grand opportunity of a commission in the United States Army), think that they can tame her, beat her down like an unruly horse, and showcase a softer version of the red headed vixen at the next Summer Ball. After all, it is a rite of passage for a handsome, privileged boy to prove his manhood by taming a shrew. But, more likely, these tall, handsome, dapper boys do not want to tame her, so much as get their odd kicks from being tamed by her. A scandalous thought, to be sure; but a scandal appears always to be in the mix, when Abigail Spencer is involved in the drama.
She reaches for her left nipple. There is not much to rub. She has a flat, tomboyish build. It is not the voluptuous look that is the mark of beauty in this last decade of the nineteenth century, and yet it is seductive sexy for the very reason that it is so out of step. Therefore, even though she rubs her left nipple like a boy rubbing a chest wound, any man who might happen to see her would entertain thoughts best left inside a locked closet in the back room of his mind.
She would not blush, even if she could hear those dark thoughts floating in and out of her conscious mind like a distant ghost howl. She is not frightened by death, and those dark thoughts are the pitiful hopes and aspirations of dead men walking. Nor for that matter is she frightened by those few living souls she has encountered along her nineteen years on the path. On the contrary, Abigail admires those men who go beyond perverse thoughts and actually reach for her nipples, like deranged beasts unable to be satiated by anything but milk from a small, hard, forbidden nipple. And of all those deranged beast men; shadows in her bedroom since about the time she was ten; living shadows as evidenced by the intense feeling in their eyes, when they remove her bed sheets, and slither onto her bed beside her; there is one that stands apart. He is her own, personal prison guard; that one diabolical menace that keeps her in line just by glancing at his baton, whenever she gets out of hand; that boss man that everyone else thinks of as her father but that she thinks of as her mirror image.
Abigail steps away from the dressing mirror. She pulls aside the bordello red curtain and looks out her second floor bedroom window. It is a clear, sunny day outside, just hours before the next Summer Ball. A sleek, black horse trots by her front lawn. It is pulling a carriage full of boys already coiffed and suited for that dance beneath the endless stars.
She will be joining them tonight. Of course, she does not have an official chaperone. She has turned down the boys who had been brave enough to knock on her front door and to ask her hand for the evening. But that is okay. She will make a scene by showing up without a chaperone. The old ladies will snicker to themselves that she is some sort of harlot in training. Their sniveling husbands, thin, whiskered gnomes in long jackets and top hats, will wish that they were a few decades younger and a little less married, so that they could join alongside the university bound boys in showering the ‘harlot in training’ with attention. A commotion will arise, as one boy after another angles in desperation to add her name to their dance card. And then, when the orchestra has resumed its waltz, and the waiting staff has returned to the all important task of wandering about the hall with silver trays of bubbling champagne flutes, she will consent to be a beautiful red head on the dance floor. She will not find her husband that night, but she will get her name into the society pages, which is much the same thing.
But first she must attend to a bit of nasty business. She steps away from the bedroom window, and opens her closet door. From inside an ornate hat box (not at all like her, but she keeps it anyway, as it had belonged to her beautiful mother before her father had seen fit to smash her face repeatedly with his big baton and then to dump what was left of her into the deep, blue lake out back) she retrieves her Colt .45 Peacemaker. She only has one lead bullet, but that is all she will need. She is a perfect shot every time. It is why she is so beautiful.
Abigail holds the pistol down by her right thigh. She leaves the bedroom, walks down the staircase, and opens the door to the sitting room off the foyer.
It is a small and cramped room full of Victorian furnishings. There are all sorts of tall chairs in need of upholstery, each one seemingly less comfortable than the others; a ridiculously ornate chandelier that looks like it will fall when a breeze sifts into that room; an obligatory Oriental screen that is ripped down the middle like the temple veil on Good Friday; and, of course, a massive piano that has never been played, but that showcases more than anything the class of the owner. It is dark and brooding room on account of the drawn drapes. It is a proverbial smoke-filled room, especially on those warm evenings when father’s friends arrive to smoke, to booze, to deal cards, and to rub Abigail’s left nipple for good luck before heading back to the missus. Sometimes, they climb the old staircase one at a time so as to exact their male privilege in her bed. But, most times, they are too drunk to get out of their tall chairs. Whenever that happens father just rings his bell, and Abigail walks downstairs in silence for the honors.
This afternoon, father is in the sitting room by himself. His good friends will be taking their women to the Summer Ball. He too will dance the soft night away, except that he will do so in this same sitting room and his dance partners will be the bottles of aged whiskey he keeps inside a hidden wall compartment.
I love you, Bertrand, Abigail says, when she steps inside the sitting room, and closes the door behind her.
She always calls her father by his first name. He has wanted her to do so ever since he smashed his wife’s face so many times she looked like a pumpkin cobbler. She has obliged, because she truly loves him, and because she admires how he is so much more alive than any other man she knows. He is just so alive in his bushy, walrus mustache, pudgy face, and bulging, blue eyes. He virtually swings from the rafters in his cigar stained, black suits and cowboy boots. He is a gross, coarse, drunk bastard; a sad beast with no finesse, but for the thin and tattered veneer that his considerable inherited fortune is able to purchase now and then; a free and emancipated man never once restrained by a quaint moral consideration. He has been walking his last mile a long time. His bowels quake. His intestines feel like they are ripping apart at seams. He drags anyone he can into the jagged cracks in his soul. Surely, only a free man can be so powerful.
Bertrand looks at her. He clenches hard on his cigar, and grips his hands on his armrests, when he sees the pistol in her right hand. His eyes sparkle one more brilliant time, like they know they are about to be snuffed by that eternal blackness that is always on the edge of things until it is the one last everything.
Abigail raises the pistol. She does not smile. She looks distant and blank.
She fires her one lead bullet. It is such a dumb, brutal sound, a force let loose into the universe and unencumbered by the smallest moral consideration.
A small, black hole erupts in the middle of his forehead. There must be a bigger hole on the other side as evidenced by the splash of gooey blood sliming down the back of his chair. Regardless, his facial expression does not change a whole lot. He still has his walrus mustache and his tense lips, though almost at once those lips take on a purple color that looks like a cheap woman’s makeup.
Abigail drops the smoking pistol. She steps up to her dead father, raises her right foot to his dead chest, and kicks him back. The back of that tall chair smashes into two halves upon the floor. The gooey blood splatters everywhere.
It takes several hours to clean up the mess; but, thankfully, Abigail is an athletic girl, so she is able to drag him into the same blue lake where his wife patiently is waiting for him. She stands on the banks and watches until his dead body sinks beneath the surface, and she is sure he will not be bubbling back up.
As expected, she does not meet her husband that endless night; but she does dance with the handsome boy, who later will sire her one daughter, Alice.
She will give Alice her surname, not the boy’s. Indeed, since the boy has no knowledge of the child he has sired, and so never participates in her life, for all intent and purposes, Alice is the product of a modern day, virgin birth. That will weigh heavily on Alice for the rest of her years. It will be her cross to bear.
Because this is what a free and emancipated woman does. She unleashes earthquakes, and others suffer from her aftershocks. For every living person on this amoral desert, there must be a blue corpse; for every free person, a slave.
* * *
Grace awakens like a drowning woman gasping for air at the surface of a deep, blue lake. For a moment, she imagines that she is her great grandfather, sinking into that lake, staring back at the world through a pair of bulging, dead eyes, observing Abigail Spencer looking back down at her from the banks. Now, of course, she is dead; and the dead do not observe anything; but, nonetheless, there is the beautiful, tomboyish Abigail Spencer just looking back down at her, impassive, steely, vixen bitch that she is, and the only thing she can do then is to feel the cold, slimy lake water rushing into her dead nostrils. She wants now to reach back up from beneath the lake surface and to wrap her fingers around that vixen bitch throat. She wants to squeeze, until the vixen bitch’s eyes pop, and blood trickles down the vixen bitch’s sculpted cheeks. She wants to spit up the cold, slimy lake water, and scream: How dare you stand there, while I sink deeper into the blue muck? How dare you be the free and emancipated woman, while I am just another sad nigger tossed into the lake and forgotten? Goddamn it, I am the free woman here on this Freedom Bus. Therefore, I am not trapped by your legacy, by how you screwed up your only daughter, by how you left her and me and everyone else, when death, that handsome, dapper boy, one night came a knocking on your front door. I am not trapped. Do you fucking hear me?
But she does not scream out anything. She cannot, because there is cold, slimy lake water inside her dead windpipe and dead lungs. Indeed, there is just so much of that lake water inside her corpse all at once that she floats close to the surface for a while, like an inflated balloon, or a stuffed bag with a pair of bulging eyes and a walrus mustache turned purple from all that slime attached.
Abigail waits patiently. There is no one else around then. There is never anyone else around, when a murderer and her victim are so intimate as to give one another one last longing stare. And so Abigail simply can stand there on the banks, and let the wind wisp her red hair every which way so that she looks like a woman with a fire on her head. She can stand there, impassive, steely; a cold wildness is those distant eyes of hers, so that she is both fire and ice, alive and dead. And when her victim finally sinks beneath the surface, she just can stand there alone with no more question in her mind than what to wear that evening.
Just before turning away from the lake, Abigail sings to the corpse she is no longer able to view beneath all that muck. It is On the Good Ship Lollipop, a song popularized by Shirley Temple forty years later, and so not something that she could have sung just before turning away from the lake. But that is okay, as this is not a memory, but a dream, a fantasy that has everything to do with the dreamer and nothing to do with the athletic, red headed girl in knickerbockers.
On the Good Ship Lollipop
It’s a sweet trip to the candy shop
Where bon-bon’s play
On the sunny beach of peppermint bay
Abigail sings with the soft and halting voice of a terrified, little girl. She sings with a Southern Negro accent. With that voice, it sounds like something a child cotton picker would mumble, while cutting her little, black fingers upon a thorn, and writhing in the hot and sticky sweat sliming down her battered spine and off her bare buttocks. On those lips, it is a despondent song meant to steal away the time, until the Boss Man sees fit to strike her with his bloodied baton.
So that is where freedom ends? On the receiving end of a bloodied baton in a cotton field? All that terrible struggle, all those poems, all those lovers, all those nights she was not there to tuck her son into bed, all that just so she can end up in a cotton field below the line and beneath a volcanic sun.
Grace stops gasping for air. She breathes normally, because she is not in a cold, blue lake, and the Abigail Spencer she observes now is that little, black girl she found behind the Freedom Bus. They are sitting together on that bus in the silver moonlight. There is just enough light to see one another in the night.
Abigail repeats the only words she knows from the Shirley Temple song.
That’s a pretty song, Grace says while hugging the little girl in her chest.
Boss Man, Abigail whispers. He says the words to me.
Grace is stunned, but she tries not to show it. She smiles, and kisses the clammy forehead of the little girl in her arms.
You have the same name as my grandmamma, Grace says.
Abigail looks into Grace’s face. She thinks about what Grace has said.
Is your grandmamma a nigger? Abigail asks after a while.
Don’t say that, Grace responds. Don’t ever say that. No one is a nigger in the whole world. There are only living people and dead people, but no niggers, do you understand me?
But Abigail does not. The blank look in her eyes makes that clear.
Do not give her false hope, the doctor advises from within the blackness.
Grace searches the blackness in the seat beside her. She sees the barest outline of a man. Then, the doctor lights a new cigar; and in a momentary flash of embers, she sees his smiling mouth beneath his Howard Hughes mustache. In the past, that combination had had the ability at any time to take a hold of her heart and to pull her into the sway of endless romance. But now his mouth and his mustache look ashen, decrepit, much as his lungs must look after thousands of cigars. He looks as if a sinewy corpse with burns on what little remains of his decomposing flesh. Only his ink, blue eyes sparkle with the gaiety of youth and boundless life, but they are amoral eyes, thinking, brutal, prowling in the bush.
Remember, she will pass away as assuredly as Jim Crow, the doctor says.
Don’t say that, Grace responds, while holding Abigail even closer to her.
History is a scythe, the doctor reflects after puffing on his cigar. Its steel blade is as long as one end of the universe to the other. When the Grim Reaper swings it, do you think it minds any one of the stalks in its path? Do you imagine it even has a mind at all? Surely, by now, you know that it is just mindless steel molded in fire and attached to a handle. And there is no empathy; no womanly restraint; no weakness whatsoever in the mind of the man who sways the blade from side to side. History just mows down for the new seeds. Either we cling to the hand that is gripping the handle, or we stand before the path of that blade.
The Freedom Bus rounds a curve in the highway, and screeches to a halt.
There is a collective moan, as the exhausted Negroes sit up in their seats to try to see what is ahead. One of the Negroes starts to wail. Another one says the Lord’s Prayer under his breath for fear that the devil outside may hear him.
Mama, Abigail whispers. Oh, mama, mama, mama…
Grace continues to hold Abigail, while she sits up in her seat, and stares over the driver’s big head and out the windshield. There are three pickups now blocking the road. There are several white-robed Klansmen standing upon every one of the pickup truck beds. Each of them holds up a flaming torch, like an altar boy would hold up a processional cross; and indeed, the solemn way in which they are standing upon the pickup truck beds suggests some sort of night liturgy. There is a smattering of regular people along each side of the highway; inbred, country bumpkins, as indicated by the deranged look in their eyes, and the vague suggestion of Downs syndrome in their faces; white people of various ages, shapes, and sizes, though unified by the same mad scowl on their mouths and drool sliming down their chins. In lieu of torches, they hold up homemade, tattered signs: We Eat Nigger Burgers! Pick My Cotton, Coon! Only Good Nigger is a Dead Nigger! Coon Nigger Commies ‘n Grits…what we all eat for breakfast!
Isn’t supposed to happen, the driver says under his breath.
Great Moments always sneak up on us, the doctor chuckles.
Grace does not say anything. She sits down. She holds Abigail’s feverish, clammy face against her chest, so that the little girl will not see what is before them just then. But it is no use, because the tension can be felt in the stale air inside the bus. It can be heard in the collective moan lingering over the somber heads of the Negroes like some sort of audible shroud. It can be tasted even as that warm and coppery sensation in the mouth that is there whenever a person vomits blood. It is that tension that immediately turns everyone afflicted into a writhing, sick gnome, feverish in frights, sweaty and unctuous in naked despair.
Abigail sings her Shirley Temple song. She barely can mouth the words as a result of keeping her face so near and dear to Grace’s chest. Nevertheless, in her mind, she can hear the lyrics crystal clear; and she suspects Grace can too.
On the Good Ship Lollipop
It’s a sweet trip to the candy shop
Where bon-bon’s play
On the summer beach of peppermint bay
* * *
While Grace had been unearthing her memories, she somehow hoists her stooped and exhausted body onto her hospital bed. She manages to do this and also to hold her gold framed photograph at the same time. She keeps that gold framed photograph by her heart as her daydream transitions imperceptibly into a nightmare. It is a terrible nightmare from beginning to end, but several times the fear crescendos to such a point as literally to harden her spine and to shake her muscles in the manner of a grand mal seizure.
She opens her eyes. She is in the middle of one of those seizures, though it is not a seizure literally, but rather a paralyzing fear that has taken on such a high intensity as to be a kind of incarnate life. It is like paralyzing fear is laying beside her on the hospital bed and is shaking the last bits of strength and sanity out of her. That level of fear is not a feeling, so much as a violator, a rapist out of view, except for the sparking, blue eyes that the victim manages to observe, now and then, in her peripheral vision.
Eventually, the paralyzing fear subsides just enough that it can be felt as if it is something inside her mind, rather than beside her vulnerable body. Now, it is defined as fear, horrible still, but at least understood for what it is; and as soon as that occurs, she is able to begin the slow and arduous task of getting it under control. The very fact that the fear is a feeling that can be broken down, analyzed for what it is, and then submerged behind some other consideration is all that is needed mentally to take the sting out of it.
But while the fear subsides, it gives way to an overriding sense of doom; a grey melancholy; a despair that says that no matter how many times you may strike down the blue-eyed devil he comes back with his bloodied baton in hand.
Grace lifts her gold frame. She had clenched it so snugly to her chest for God knows how long that there is a rectangular impression from her collarbone to her stomach. She hardly notices the pain, though, as she is focused rather on the distinct possibility that, when she again looks upon the photograph, she will see the Boss Man glowering back at her from behind that counter in the Texaco Gas and Grill, rather than the doctor standing before the Lincoln Memorial. The Boss Man will have a blank, lifeless expression on his face, much like the Greek statues with their smooth eyes and tense lips, and yet he will be glowering just the same. He will be gripping his baton so hard all the tendons in his right hand will resemble spider legs about to break out from beneath his coarse skin. That baton will be smashing the back of a skull a second later. And it will not be the skull of a racist hick. It will be her skull; and that blood splattering everywhere will be her blood; and that spine twitching every which way, before it hardens, will be her spine, since he literally will run out from the photograph to get her.
But it is not the Boss Man. It is the doctor. He is at the Lincoln Memorial, while Martin Luther King is delivering his ‘I have a dream’ speech. Like always, he is at the center of a great moment, and yet he seems so transparent then as not to be there, or anywhere else, for that matter.
Grace wipes a tear from her face. She is not sure why she is crying, since in her dream memory at least she had been growing more disgusted with him in the course of that road trip into the heart of darkness. What had occurred that hot summer night in 1961 had broken irreparably the good feelings that she had had once for the doctor, notwithstanding the photograph that he had mailed to her a few years later, and the occasional telegrams from remote locations until sometime in the early 1980s. But, apparently, it had not broken her love; more so, her longing; and, oh, how the unrequited passions stir, when death is near.
Because, really, that is what this is all about, is it not? Grace Temple is a beaten woman of about ninety years, who has wrapped her Old Cherokee shawl about her neck, and donned her sensible, old lady shoes for one more slow and teary-eyed trip around memory lane. She is preparing herself to be a ghost, the person who lives on in her memories, her discontents, her losses, the tragic cry carried in the bitter night wind, because of all of those misspent years and lost opportunities. For Grace, death is hell; the temple constructed around her own sin; the holy of holies a dark and stale room with cobwebs and rats, but no gold ark of the covenant. And yet, notwithstanding all this bitterness, she still loves that pretentious and amoral doctor; the mysterious man hidden in his nice suits and scented cigars; the serpent in the grass, no doubt, but also the man with a knowing grin who had saved her from a lifetime of widowhood.
But that is not really true. Grace had rejected her mother quite soundly, thank you very much, when her mother had suggested at the end of the funeral service that she embrace without reservation her widowhood. Grace recalls the scene as if it had happened yesterday, and she recalls that that happened prior to her visit with the good doctor at that swank Manhattan eatery. Surely, Grace tells herself, she would have pursued her own path in life, or to paraphrase the Paul Anka song, she would have lived her life her way, if the good doctor never had reached out to her.
But would she have left her son on her mother’s doorstep, travelled out west, written beatnik poems, bedded scores of dreamers and hustlers, lived on a Caribbean isle, licked her lips at the sight of the largest black cock she would ever see while looking out from her beachside apartment window, and taken up the cause of the Negro as if her very own? No, she acknowledges, she would not have done any of those things. Oh, she would have rebelled, no doubt; but she would have done so by being a total bitch to her son, a witchy husband stealer among the society ladies, or perhaps just a hypocrite, like a Republican ‘family values’ advocate who reads dirty books and blossoms little boys. The hypocrite pervert definitely would have been part of her life somehow, since who is freer of the preprogrammed life than a person who figures out how to live in the sad and sordid shadows, where the restraints of church and of state fall aside like a house of cards in a furnace wind? Is not the woman chained in her hell, forever beyond the reach of divine mercy, also therefore beyond the reach of His Laws?
Not that there is a literal God, of course, but the metaphor is helpful. In the end, that inner voice that tells us what we should or should not do is such a demanding bitch, or an abusive ogre of a husband, we may as well follow it, or rebel against it, as if it were an overbearing, cranky God upon a golden, winged throne. Therefore, Grace would have been one of those beautiful, white angels who took up Satan’s cause and fell like a lightning bolt into the nether regions; but the sword she drew, and the shield she carried at her side, would not have been the same, if she had not met with the good doctor, and accepted his offer to be a mentor. Surely, she would not have drawn the sword, and taken up the shield, that had oriented her warpath in the same direction as that little, black girl’s trail of tears. She never would have met Abigail Spencer and learned how to love some person other than herself.
And so there are many reasons to cry. Indeed, life offers infinite reasons to feel brokenhearted and defeated. From her experience anyway, life provides the sojourner little grace, but plenty of judgment; only the vaguest hints of the Easter Resurrection, but glaring examples of Good Friday; and throughout it all, the growing sense that the sins of ones past, and that one inherited, have been repeating themselves, not so much in a circular motion, but as if in the endless reflection of mirrors in a fun house.
Grace remembers that dream (or is it a memory?) where she is marching down the middle of a narrow street into Selma. The mob jeers from both sides. The cops look back at her, and snarl like ravenous dogs ready to pounce. There is a terrible earthquake spreading out from inside her feet. It cracks the entire earth in two; and the two halves of the earth face each other, like mirrors in a fun house; and the man or woman on one side views his or her fun house mirror reflection on the other side, not an exact image, of course, but rather a surreal and vaguely sinister representation of the darker secrets and sordid longings of that person. The earthquake continues forevermore, and so the images on each side of the great divide shake forevermore, like an arm spasm after a skull has been cracked opened with a baton or like an old woman in a grand mal seizure.
God, what a mind fuck. Grace sets the photograph aside, grasps the bar above her face, hoists herself into a sitting position, and slides herself onto the wheelchair beside her bed. She wraps the Old Cherokee shawl about her throat and over her head so that she again looks like Mother Teresa, begging for alms, and pleading with those sad dog eyes of hers that someone just will put her out of her misery. Normally, at this time, she would wheel over to the icebox, and fetch something to eat; but she is not hungry. She suspects she will never again be hungry. There is a throbbing knot in her stomach, but it is not the kind to be alleviated with a cup full of fruit and yogurt. No, food will not do; only war will do. Not the kind of war that profiteers like Donald Rumsfeld wage with surgical strikes and drones, but the kind of Eternal Armageddon that the Biblical Powers and Principalities wage in the howls of ghosts and the tears of mourners. Death is the domain of that Real War; the place and the time where the very blackest and deepest scores are settled; the opportunity to stand outside the Fun House and to tear down the endless expanse of reflecting mirrors in eternity; the will and the gross power to unleash that last earthquake that brings an end to it all.
The red curtain between her bedroom and her deck now flutters parallel to the floor, as the storm winds outside take on the high pitch and the furies of an oncoming train. Rain splatters onto her floor. It sounds like blood splattering out from a cracked head. Thunder crackles, and the entire house shakes briefly like a body trapped in its own death spasm.
Grace grabs her hand held telescope. She keeps it in her lap, while she is wheeling herself through the open door to the deck. It takes every last measure of her strength to do so, because the wind and the rain push her backwards the whole time, and the curtain snaps the back of her stooped neck like a cracker’s whip. This is her last hard push on this side of the great divide between life and death. She knows it in her gut. She feels it in the longing in her heart, a savage pain, a deep ache all too familiar to any person of advanced age, and yet, very strangely, a kind of sexual intensity that makes clear the thin line between sex and death, orgasms and decomposition, spurts of intimacy and one eternal loss.
The howling winds outside are so mighty they very nearly push her off of the wheelchair; but she pushes forward, her head down, her grunts guttural, as if a stubborn, old mare intent on breaking the fence before her to get into that pasture beyond one more time. There is so much rain pouring over her that she feels like she is underwater; and at once the internal image of a mare breaking free of her stable is replaced with a mare drowning while trying to cross a wild, malevolent river. And so the woman who seeks freedom gets swallowed whole, pulled down by the rapids, slapped and shaken by the muck, buried beneath so many pebbles and rocks as to be relegated as no more than a little girl silenced by the overwhelming flow of history. The woman who seeks freedom then turns out to be small, irrelevant, just a footnote among so many footnotes in history.
Nonsense, Grace mutters, when she contemplates being just a footnote. The footnotes are those who give up, and I’m not giving up, no matter the cost.
And so with that defiant thought in mind, Grace pushes upon the wheels with all the strength she has left, and reaches her favorite spot along the deck.
She drops her elbows upon the deck railing, and leans forward. She looks down at the blue lake. She cannot remember ever seeing it this violent. It is an ornery witch’s stew of raindrops, foam, and mud. Fallen redwood branches and litter bob about the lake surface like condemned souls tossed into hell fire that burns but never engulfs them. The big sky above is a black and blue, misshapen wound; the gurgling storm clouds the hemorrhoids on the bottom of an angel’s ass; the noxious lightning and thunder the rip bursts of diarrhea about ready to evacuate the canal. And so, at the very end, Grace cannot avoid the grotesque underside of civilization, which is to say that sick, mindless, excretory brutality in nature that allows a man to smash the thin skull of another man, or a woman to lodge a bullet in her father’s forehead before going to the Summer Ball (not for justice, but for vengeance, a sentiment with which Grace also will be much too familiar in one, critical moment in her life). She is trapped in this senseless cruelty, as enchained as ever while walking the final few steps of her last mile; and all at once the sky above, the mountaintops around her, the trees swaying in the wind, even the owl that she cannot view just then, but that she senses is very near, all seem to be crowding in on her like a shroud veiling over a corpse.
Still, though exhausted almost to the point of fainting, she does not give up. She lifts her face from the railing, puts the telescope to her eye, and looks.
They have done some construction since she fell asleep, notwithstanding the inclement weather. Beyond the makeshift gallows and noose, there is huge backdrop of the façade of the Texaco Gas and Grill. The rickety, wood A-frame has been reproduced in perfect detail, including an attic window that looks too much like the solitary eye of the Cyclops to inspire any reaction except growing dread. Hanging below this oval window is the long banner that before had been rolled up. It screams: Wake Up White Man! Eat that nigger, before he eats you.
Grace is not surprised. She had anticipated some sort of hate convention on the other side of the lake. The pus festers even this close to heaven.
Grace zooms in for a better look. She sees foliage shaking, though not as a result of the wind and the rain. The movement is much too deliberate, as if it is the result of an unseen hand shaking the shrubs in order to get her attention.
She pulls back, and then sees what she had been drawn to see.
Grace opens her mouth. She wants to scream, but she cannot on account of the red, hot pain in the back of her throat, a pain reminiscent of a late stage throat cancer, or a little, chuckling devil torching the inner linings of her dark, gunky, narrow windpipe. In fact, it is neither a cancer nor a little devil (though in fact the little devil is a lot closer to the mark), but instead is that very same paralyzing fear that will turn out to be her final bed partner on this side of the line between life and death.
Boss Man steps out from behind the foliage. He looks exactly the same in age and in dress as when she had first laid eyes on him back in that Texaco Gas and Grill fifty-three years ago. His phallic baton hangs from his belt. It sways in the wind against his thin thigh.
He looks directly into her lens. It is as if he can view her with his naked, sparkling, blue eyes. That is impossible, of course, on account of the enormous distance and the downpour; but it is just as impossible for him to be right there in the very same young and wiry flesh he had had so many decades before.
This must be a vision, a quirk in her exhausted mind, a final scream from that nightmare in which she has been trapped for so long; and yet he looks real in his black prison guard uniform and jackboots. He looks substantial, like he is what matters, and everything else around him is drab and feathery by contrast.
There seems to be a blue aura about his flesh; an electrical charge from deep inside his hellish soul; a power surge that is now contained, but will crack the earth in two with an unimaginable, sudden brutality at the end of it all.
Grace finally manages to scream. She fumbles the telescope over the rail and pushes her wheelchair back, like she had been burnt by a stove. She grasps at her chest. It heaves erratically. It feels like it is going to explode from inside her old heart and splatter her greying flesh and mildewed blood into the storm.
She can no longer see the Boss Man, but she senses him over there. He is standing impassively on the banks, staring blankly into her soul, waiting for his time. Indeed, he is always waiting, surmising, lurking, until he pounces with all the blood fury that is just beneath the surface.
She wheels back into her bedroom. There is a white carnation on the top of the Steinway Grand. She does not remember it laying there before, but who knows? Nothing makes much sense during those final few steps of the last mile.
She takes the white carnation. She remembers then how Horace Temple had been clutching a white carnation (for all she knows, perhaps it is the same white carnation, given what she has seen across the lake), when he had had his ‘heart quake’ on the Park Avenue sidewalk. She remembers the look on his face when she identified him in the morgue. It had been much the same as his living face. Nothing much changes, when a person transitions then from life to death.
She climbs back onto the hospital bed without even bothering to remove her Old Cherokee shawl. It is a long and arduous task for her, as if climbing the steepest slope on Mount Everest during a snowstorm.
But the worst ends. That is one of the small bits of grace still left in this condemned universe of ours; and so, finally, she is able to recline on her sheet, hold the carnation and the gold framed photograph close to her chest, and shut her eyes. She hears nothing, but wind and rain, as she slips into the last dream.
* * *
So, doc, are you gonna talk sense to them? The driver asks the doctor in between his anxious sobs. Worked the last time…
These fine men will not be persuaded with a bribe, the doctor comments after a brief pause. They want justice, law and order, tradition, what remains steadfast, when everything else goes the way of the Reds and Rock ‘n Roll.
The driver stares into the doctor’s eyes. Is the doctor pulling his leg with all that intellectual talk, or is he dead serious? He concludes the latter, since it is inconceivable that that clown act out there would go through all the trouble of recruiting regular folk to stand by the side of the road with their misspelled, handmade signs, if they were going to walk away with no more to show for it in the end but a handful of greenbacks. He sinks more into his seat and whimpers.
There is a searchlight on the back of each of the pickups. They are each switched on at the exact same time. They are swiveled every which way and so create for the Klan torchbearers a backdrop of a surreal white light beam show reminiscent of the Nazi pageantry at Nuremberg.
The Klansmen add their voices to this hellish stage show. They scream an offensive cat-screeching version of the Civil War Era Rebel Yell that turns black skin cold blue and that inspires hot dread in just about everyone else (including those sign waving yahoos who are on their side). In part, it inspires fear, as it is always a precursor to a battle charge; but even more so, it is the sound of sick and perverse devils surfing the night winds. It is the sound of loose, white robes fluttering in the shadows cast by torches and so only half concealing the burnt, blood red, devil scales and horns just beneath the surface. It is a maniac battle cry that also hints of laughter, as if every grand and principled war begins with a drunk, bastard bully mouthing off at an inopportune moment and whooping a besieged inferior. No doubt, they are adding their voices to the confusing white light beam show, so as to instill even more terror; but they are also teasing the besieged inferiors, like a boy who cuts off a cat’s paws is teasing a weak feline.
The sign wavers fear the Rebel Yell, like anyone hearing an approaching tidal wave would shake in trepidation; but rather than fall back, or scatter for the black woods on either side, they scream even louder than that Klan Chorus. Theirs is not a particular group note sung in unison, but a frenzied hodgepodge of screeches, guttural moans, and nervous laughter. It is that unruly groundling cry usually identified with hooliganism. Whatever misguided principles brought them out here are now gone completely. They have been replaced by mindless, cold brutality; viciousness for its own sake; a blood lust never satiated, except when the melee is so fierce as to leave just about everyone dead or injured on the two-lane highway battlefield.
The Negroes inside the Freedom Bus cry out in desperation and fear. It is a loud cry, freed from the need to remain unheard and so undetected upon the route, and yet, incongruously, an intimate cry too, born of a shared experience in racial discrimination and occasional savagery even in those Northern cities in which they had been reared. When mixed into that cacophony of shrill screams and hyena laughs outside, the overall effect is an old insane asylum run amuck.
Mama, Abigail cries out. Get away from him, mama! Get away!
Grace holds Abigail protectively against her chest. She pats her back and urges her to keep her eyes shut, as if that alone will fight back the boogeyman; but, of course, the boogeyman is as much inside Abigail’s memory right now, as he is converging from all sides about the Freedom Bus.
There really is no release for the nigger, Grace thinks. They keep him up on that cross long after he is dead, and everyone else has gone home. They just keep him up there, because they like to see him rot day after day; and when in time he is nothing but a skeleton nailed to a beam, they keep him up there still to remind everyone of the fate reserved for ‘uppity niggers’ wanting to be free and emancipated. That is the end of the road for the nigger; and so that is the end of the road for me as well, since I am Abigail, and she is I, and we are one.
Leave her alone, Abigail cries out. Take me, not mama! Take me!
No one is going to take you, Grace whispers.
There is a stampede of hurried feet outside. It sounds like the hooves of many armored horses clomping through the mud and the blood of a battlefield.
Mother of God, the driver whimpers, and then covers his face.
All at once there are scores of maniacal faces outside every window. The inbred, country hicks look like either grinning imps or snarling gnomes; scraggly faces contorted by hate; eyes bulging out from their sockets in judgment of the black faces on the other side of the bus windows. They pound the windows with their palms or fists, kick the tires, and sway the bus side to side as if it is just a toy, all the while screaming and hissing in the manner of wild beasts trapped in a storm. They are the storm, and yet they also are trapped in that same storm; since as Dante observed in The Inferno, the punishment of a sin is the sin itself.
The Negroes scream. They claw at their own seats, like cats trying to get out of a hot oven. They too have contorted faces and bulging eyes. There is no distinction between attacker and victim in the cauldron of violence; each is the basest expression of fight or flight in a hostile jungle; the reasoning mind taken forcibly from the scene by an unseen hand, so that there is nothing left, but all the madness of a man trying to devour another man, or a man trying to save his flesh from another man’s ravenous teeth, or a man wrestling with his own dark, weak, and sinful heart, the dark night of the soul encapsulated in a thrown fist.
But much of that insight is the mind trying to make sense of the cauldron in retrospect. While it is going on, there is nothing on which the mind may grab to reclaim its former sanity. There is just chaos; loud, breaking noises; sudden, vicious impacts; ghoulish images flashing before the eyes, then replaced with a sight of something else misshapen or bloodied. Mercifully it all happens so fast, as to be dreamlike, or even otherworldly in origin. For the most part, the minds of those caught up in the cauldron regard the brutal violence in every direction as if observers, close observers, to be sure, but not combatants, until suddenly a fast fist to a mouth, or a hard rock to the back of a head, dispels the illusion.
Rocks smash through the windows. The Negroes fall over one another, as they scramble for the floor. Those not able to get onto the floor quickly enough either are grabbed by clutching, white hands, or smashed unconscious by rocks.
The Klan torchbearers climb down from their pickup beds; organize into a phalanx; and move toward the front of the bus with their crackling fires held high. Their white hoods sift in and out of the shadows cast by the flames. Their penetrating eyes glare through the holes in their hoods like sick rats looking up from the bottom of a well. Their beer bellies undulate beneath their robes; and as a result, they call to mind slugs standing upright, and sliming across a marsh.
Leave her alone, Abigail repeats. Take me, not mama! Take me!
Grace continues to hold Abigail by her chest, as she hunkers into a small, protective ball beneath her seat. Grace is delirious in fear, not for herself, but for the little girl in her charge. She wants nothing more in life than to save her.
A tall and leggy man jumps onto the hood. His jackboots glisten in silver moonlight on the other side of the windshield. He crouches down, takes his big baton off of his belt, and swings it into the windshield with all the finesse of an expert swinger taking a fastball thrown straight down the plate.
Glass shards blast inward. They slice through the driver’s thick neck, and he slumps forward without that big head that had once called to mind a smiling bus driver in a Norman Rockwell painting. The decapitated head rolls down the middle of the bus. It is lost a short while among the scrambling Negroes. When it is found later, it is identified as having belonged to the driver because of the whimpering expression forever etched onto the flabby face.
The jackbooted baton swinger slides into the bus. He stands upright next to the driver’s slumped corpse. In the silver moonlight, the big scar on his chin, the freckles on his cheeks, and the spriggy, red hairs atop his boyish face show him to be the Boss Man.
Boss Man lifts his baton up to his face; and with no more light at his own disposal than that offered by the moon, he meticulously pulls out any glass that is stuck in his weapon of choice. He is patient, unhurried, even bored, while all about him Negroes are scrambling and rocks are flying in a maelstrom.
From her vantage point beneath her seat, Grace can only see the leather jackboots; but that is enough for her to know who is inside the bus, and why he is there. In spite of the loud noises everywhere, she can hear Abigail mumbling to herself inside her chest. She pats the back of Abigail’s head in the hope that that gesture will make her quiet down.
She need not have bothered. Boss Man must have sensed her down there beneath the seat, as he squats low and virtually plasters his freckled into hers. He smiles distantly, really no more than an upward twitch of the left side of his mouth, and then he gestures with his right index finger for her to follow him.
Grace does not move. She is frozen in what feels like fear, but in fact is her heightened stubbornness. She is a mama bear unwilling to give up her cub, no matter what harm the bastard may do to her just then.
Willful bitch, Boss Man remarks casually. They spoil you rotten up north, don’t they? Never break you down. Never saddle your ass. It’s a pity, ‘cause an unbroken woman is a hideous creature, even worse than these here niggers.
Grace spits into his face. She braces herself for his baton; but he smiles, even chuckles perhaps (hard to tell, because his chuckle looks and sounds a bit like a man with an upset stomach), and just keeps on staring into her eyes.
Then, with great strength unanticipated by his thin build, Boss Man grabs a hold of her dress collar and pulls her kicking and screaming out from beneath her seat. He observes how Grace is prostrate at his jackboots. He observes that ‘uppity nigger’ cradled in her arms. He caresses his baton, like it is a stiff cock.
A rock screams passed his face, but he does not flinch. He just continues to look down at his bitches as if he is bored already.
Take the nigger; the doctor says to the Boss Man. Leave the lady alone.
Grace is not at all surprised that the doctor is so calm and collected just then. He has shown already a keen ability to keep his considerable wits and his less considerable emotions in check in the midst of a crisis. What surprises her, indeed, distresses her, is how the doctor is standing beside the Boss Man like an old friend or a colleague. They could be two doctors looking down at specimens in a Petri dish; and, at that moment, and notwithstanding the confusion that is everywhere, she has the clarity of mind to imagine the doctor and the Boss Man standing on opposite sides of a crack in the earth. They are mirror images there beside that crack, not in a physical sense (though both have sparkling, ink, blue eyes), but in a deeper, primordial sense. It is as if the two men, one an elderly, respected, urbane intellectual, the other a young, feared, country hick brute in a prison guard uniform, in fact had ascended up from the same sludge at about the time the first of the cockroaches scampered out from inside the earth. She had feared something along such lines, when she had seen how the good doctor stared at the Boss Man back at the Texaco Gas and Grill. Now, there is no more question in her mind, no more ability on her part to pretend that the doctor on whom she has grown so dependent is made from a wholly different cloth than a man who splits open skulls like they are rotten pumpkins.
The Boss Man does not acknowledge the doctor, except that when again he bends down to deal with his bitches he only goes for the coarse hairs on the head of the ‘uppity nigger.’ He reaches into that hair like he is kneading dough and then pulls. Abigail screams holy hell, but that just makes him pull so much harder. Hair strand roots yank out from the black skull whole clumps at a time. Blood streaks down the back of the little girl’s head. He snarls when he sees all that ‘nigger blood’ flowing over his fingers, but he does not relent.
Leave her alone, Grace screams.
Willful bitch, Boss Man remarks. And mouthy, too…
Goddamn you, Grace screams. She is mine! All mine!
Sorry, bitch, Boss Man responds with a smile (but without ever letting up on the intensity of his pulling action). Haven’t you heard the news? That cursed Thirteenth Amendment means this nigger can’t be all yours.
And with that comment still lingering in the air, the Boss Man pulls once more, and frees the little girl from Grace’s arms. He tosses the little girl off to the side, like she is garbage, and again stares knowingly into Grace’s mad eyes.
Ain’t revenge a motherfucker? The Boss Man asks, and then grins.
His comment is obviously directed at her. But why should that be?
Grace thinks of her great grandfather, Bertrand Spencer, staring back at his murderer through his dead, blue eyes. He is a corpse floating face up at the surface of the blue lake. He sees Abigail, standing on the banks, staring back at him in that impassive way of hers. He sees her as the dead see, not visually but eternally, all at once knowing every past and future incarnation of that ‘uppity wench,’ knowing every past and future incarnation of himself, the incarnations mirror opposites stretching away from one another in endless reflections, like a pair of facing mirrors inside of a fun house, the incarnations in an eternal death struggle with one another, each on its side of the great divide as manifest in an enormous crack going down the face of the earth. That is how he sees her; and, he suspects, that is how she sees him, as they stare at one another with no one else around them, until finally his waterlogged corpse sinks into the blue slime.
Grace snaps out of her memory (but how can it be a memory, unless she had been there to see what happened with her own eyes?), and struggles to get to her feet. She sees the Boss Man gathering up an unconscious Abigail; and she wants to stop him, before he can escape from this bus with the girl in his arms.
The doctor presses her onto the floor. She struggles, but cannot rip free.
No, the doctor says. It is too late. He will kill you, if you go after him.
The Boss Man escapes through the smashed windshield with the little girl in his arms, just before the hooligans manage to tip the bus onto its side. There is a moment of chaos, as screaming bodies roll and fall over one another in the hot darkness; and then everything everywhere goes black, but for a faint sound somewhere in this mess reminiscent of a furnace wind howling through a crack.
* * *
The Beulah Times, July 5, 1996, Morning Edition
Hogs Heaven – The Arkansas State Parks Police and the Beulah County Coroner’s Office are investigating the discovery of human remains on the Ol’ Hogs Heaven trail at the Nathan Bedford Forrest Memorial Park yesterday evening.
Hikers John and Sarah Moore discovered a human skull and bone fragments in a ditch off the side of the 24-mile trail at 7:35 PM.
Preliminary report is that it is the remains of a girl between six and eight years of age, who had experienced a blunt trauma to the back of her head. Coroner’s Office says it is too early in the investigation to tell if the trauma had been the result of a fall or an intentional infliction. Police decline comment at this time.
* * *
Happy Days Are Here Again
Grace Temple opens her eyes. Her initial impression is that everything is as clear and as still as a perfect image captured in a framed 6’ X 8’ photograph and put on the top of a Steinway Grand for all to see. Except that unlike a real photograph, this one does not fade over the years, nor does dust collect on the glass cover. Indeed, nothing whatsoever happens that may detract from all that clear and still perfection. It is wrong to say that it is a beautiful image, even if it captures the attention of the most casual observer. It is too bold, too strong, indeed, too real in comparison to everything that had been observed before, to have the subtlety that allows something or someone to be beautiful. It is wrong to say that it is awesome, though that word is closer to the truth, since there is nothing in the quiet and peaceful bedroom to suggest the grand vista from atop a mountain or the infinitesimal smallness of a person on a raft lost at sea. And, while surreal, it is wrong to say that it is dreamlike, because there is nothing in the background or along the edges of the subconscious mind that indicates that the dreamer indeed will awaken back into real life. On the contrary, everything about this image suggests that this is real, that everything prior had been drab, lifeless, and paper-thin phony in contrast, and that there is nowhere else under the sun into which the observer is going to awaken some time. That old mental divide between dream and reality is gone. In its place is seamless eternity.
She reaches for her chest. She expects to find both that white carnation and that framed photograph of the good doctor standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The carnation is there, but the photograph is gone. Perhaps it fell to the floor during her restless sleep. Perhaps the good doctor is face down on the dusty carpet along with the rest of the clutter.
Grace smells the carnation. It is incredibly pungent, a floral perfume not tethered any longer to that airy softness that once had made it pleasant, much like perfume would smell if squirted by a skunk.
Still, she is not repulsed by the odor, so much that she has to get used to it over time. She senses vaguely that if she were to hold the flower to her nose long enough, then she would find the odor bearable, then pretty, then alluring, then orgasmic, then God knows what. Everything seems to be that way. It is as it should be. She is the one who needs to change, and somehow she knows that with every passing second she is fitting in a bit more with this unrestrained real life in which she finds herself.
Really, that is not the truth of the matter, because it makes no sense to speak of a passing second. We approach the truth when we speak of a thousand years in a blink of an eye, but we would approach the truth even more so if we spoke of a trillion times a trillion years in a blink of an eye. Grace thinks of her life now as fitting in a bit more over time; but, in fact, she already fits in there as much as everything fits into its place in the universe. She thinks of herself as in a transitional period, because she has had almost ninety years of experience, sometimes traumatic, usually mundane, living and thinking chronologically with only a fraction of her limited mind. But when finally she acknowledges that she is as she always has been and always will be, she will realize that there had not been a transition, no before and after, no cause and effect. She will have that insight about the time she smells the white carnation and realizes that it is not different from anything else in this eternal reality she calls home.
When philosophers pull their heads out from their own asses, wipe all of that shit out from their eyes, and imagine that they have stepped out from that Oracle cave with the wisdom needed to define the sun and the moon, they will dream up quaint axioms, maybe clothe their insights in the garb of mythologies better left in the realm of mystery, and so inspire the kind of trite observations and silly words of wisdom that make life harder than it ever need be. One such insight is that when the dead cross the River Styx, they leave their memories of their former lives on the banks. Eternity is the past forgotten. Eternity is a life a man lives after he has been rendered happy and dumb by a lobotomy, or so a philosopher mythmaker once devised so as to make his claim upon the heavens.
But that defies everything we know about time. For what is time but the measure by which we forget? Is it not the narrow river passage through which a misfortune is softened first into a regret, then into some sort of life lesson; or a joy is lessened first into a contentment, then into some sort of life trophy; or a person or a place is transfigured in the mind first into a semblance of what he or she or it had been, then into a life experience more imagined than real? Man imagines himself a slave of time, but in fact time serves man. Time allows man to forget. Time allows man to imagine himself anew. And if that is the case, as surely will be made clear even to the most stubborn of fools when he opens his eyes for the last time, then timelessness is man having no more capacity in him to forget. When we speak of a thousand years in a blink of an eye, we speak of the dead caught inside of memories never to be forgotten, of the ghosts seeing what cannot not be seen, and of the condemned experiencing their highest joys and their basest fears forevermore as if for the first time. It is said that we can take nothing with us into the hereafter. On the contrary, we take everything at once, the treasures and the throwaways, the heirlooms and the clutter, and we lose our former capacity to misplace those things we no longer want to observe and to forget those memories we no longer want to remember. Eternal memory is not part of the Disney fantasy version of the afterlife, but it is the truth of it.
Grace has this insight all at once, and then it is gone, not in the sense of being lost, but in the sense of being understood so completely as to be about as insightful as the air she breathes. Everything is new one moment, then as finely incorporated into ones life, as if embedded in the DNA from the very beginning.
She sets the white carnation aside. She looks for that bar above her bed with which she can pull herself into a sitting position. It is not there. She looks about the bed on which she is reclining. It is not her hospital bed. It is that bed she had shared with her husband in this very same room so many decades prior.
She sits up on her elbows, and looks at the Steinway Grand. There are no framed photographs on top of the piano.
She sits upright, and looks at the kitchenette that she had had installed, when she had decided that her years of going up and down that staircase every day for a bite to eat were over. There is no kitchenette there; no icebox full of yogurt and fruit cups; no microwave oven in which she heats her frozen dinners whenever she has an appetite for something more substantial than soft Yoplait.
And then it really hits her. She is sitting upright, and yet she did not pull herself up by gripping a bar above her bed. Her shoulders are not stooped by an arthritic pain that never ends, but just rises and falls like a wave moving across the surface of an endless sea. Indeed, she is not experiencing any pains at all in her joints. It is like that wave moving across the surface of an endless sea is not even a faint ripple on the blue lake beneath her deck.
Could it be? Grace wonders aloud.
She listens to the sound of her own voice. It is so much softer and gayer, even healthier, than she has heard it sound in a long time. It is a voice not yet caressed by cigarettes. It is a voice not yet made hoarse by screaming out in an animalistic, orgasmic fury, when an anonymous Negro from Hunter’s Point cums inside her cunt. It is a voice not yet turned cold and distant by demanding that the Boss Man leave the little girl alone, and then observing him exit with her in his spidery arms anyway. It is a voice not yet ravaged by old age into a whisper.
She looks down at what she is wearing. It is a nightgown she remembers giving away to charity when she had grown much too large in her midsection on account of her pregnancy. She recalls standing beside this very bed, wearing no clothes but a pair of stockings, crying so uncontrollably that tears are streaking down her enormous womb, and folding one outfit after another into a large box that she will drop off at the back door of Alice Hart’s Episcopal parish. She had had no doubt in her mind then that she would never again be as thin as she had been before Horace had had his way with her. She had been certain that, even after the infant had been delivered, her midsection would remain as bulbous as ever, a sad reminder that there is no going back when a girl becomes a mother.
Nonetheless, here once more is the long, svelte, pink nightgown cinched at the waist by an oversized, lace belt. She had seen that belt inside of the box when depositing it at the back door of the church guildhall. She had shed a soft tear, and then had returned to the waiting taxicab without ever glancing back, as if somehow the recent past could be forgotten if only she did not observe it.
Grace slides to the edge of the bed. She moves slowly and carefully. She had become accustomed to moving her body in a measured way, so as to lower the likelihood of incurring some sort of injury, and so that is what she naturally does now. Nonetheless, she does not feel like she has to move at such a careful pace. On the contrary, she feels like she could join a women’s gymnastic team.
There is no wheelchair beside the bed. There is no clutter on the carpet.
Grace is not at all surprised; and yet for the first time since she opened her eyes, she is a little frightened. What if all this is a dream, after all? It does not feel like a dream. It feels more real than anything that she had regarded as real in the past. But, of course, that too could be a part of the dream. If this is a dream, and if as a result she now tries to sleepwalk away from her bed, then she will suffer a most horrible fall the moment her old, weak feet hit the floor.
She dangles her legs over the edge. As this bed is closer to the floor than her hospital bed, her bare feet are only an inch or two about the carpet. Maybe she can just plant her feet onto the carpet, and hold herself up by leaning upon the side of the bed. If she feels wobbly, then she can slide back onto the bed in no time. If it turns out that she is as strong as she feels right now, then she can begin carefully walk about the bedroom unaided for the first time in years.
As soon as she plants her feet onto the carpet, she tosses all the caution aside. She stands up without giving the matter even a second of her mind. It is a blissful moment; and then it is as matter of fact as every other miracle here, as if walking on carpet and walking on water are par for the course about here.
She walks over to the dressing mirror. It is where her icebox had been or will be, depending upon how she thinks about time.
Sure enough, as anticipated, she is a pretty, innocent girl not yet twenty years of age; and yet for all her innocence, her red hair flows dangerously over her left shoulder. She is on the cusp of being a woman a man like Horace could never handle. If he had not died of a ‘heart quake’ when he did, then he would have fallen before the daring smirk in her eyes soon enough. Maybe that is why deep down she always had thought of her marriage as a temporary affair, just a first step on a path that would end up far from matrimonial obligations. Maybe, even while still so pretty in her body and mind, she had seen herself in a mirror much like this one and had sensed just how far afield finally she would wander.
Grace steps away from the mirror. She observes the curtain fluttering in a soft, warm breeze. She is startled a moment, as everything else inside of this master bedroom is so still; but then she walks to the curtain and draws it aside with one bold pull with her right arm. The wind outside picks up just enough to flutter her red hair parallel to the floor, and to make the hem of her nightgown dance wildly over her ankles. She is a redheaded goddess flirting with the wind.
The wind caresses her womb. It tickles her pussy. Grace laughs blissfully.
Whoever would have thought? Grace mutters, when the wind dies down.
She steps onto the deck. The sky is a deep burgundy purple, like a thick, aged wine. Only the top third of the red sun is visible beyond the westernmost Redwood Mountains; its upper rays long streaks of blood thrust into the sky and then lost in the burgundy purple; its descent slow and calm in the manner of an obese, proud king exiting slowly, but surely, from his throne for his ornate love chamber hidden beneath that horizon. The mountaintops stand as if soldiers on watch; stern, granite faces; chiseled, rock chests; blackened by sunset shadows in such a way as to seem even more resolute. And what then are they guarding? Is it not the deep, blue lake that rests inside their collective laps? Even more so is it not the mysteries contained in that still, thick, living graveyard of lives lost and passions drowned? Untold bulging eyes have seen the sky above for the last time, while sinking into its tentacles of rock and slime. Untold tears have been shed from its banks, when a love had been defeated, or a loved one discovered dead. The cemetery calm of that lake suggests that there is more pain than joy in such mysteries, more longing than satisfaction, more heartbreak than mercy.
And yet, notwithstanding the deep, vague sadness in all that blue water now rippling against her deck posts, Grace is drawn to that lake. It is what it is without any pretense to the contrary. There is an unapologetic romance in how the dead sink slowly, gracefully, arms reaching up for the face of the murderer above the surface, clothes fluttering in the sinewy muck, nose and mouth filled with the cold, blue hands of the last loving embrace the dead will ever know in this lifetime. The lake makes love to the dead. She ravishes them, and then she opens her legs and buries them in the crack that leads down to her dark womb.
There is a barbecue grill on the deck. The hotdogs on the flame must be turned over before they burn on one side. Fortunately, there are tongs hanging from the barbecue handle; and though this is certainly a man’s job, Grace does not think that Horace will step forward anytime soon to do the honors. Oh, yes, he is there, not enough to be seen or heard, really no more than a vague sense that she has now in the back of her mind; but forever in his grandmother’s old, lakeside chateau, nonetheless. Where else could he be? What other place, what other time, had been more formative for him than those years he spent being a caregiver inside these very walls? But Horace had never been the kind of person to step forward, apart from when he courted her and stole her secret poems to plead his case before the Manhattan Men of Letters Admissions Committee; and so he will not be stepping forward now. He will remain there; but he will be on the edge, just outside the peripheral vision, no more than the faint hoots of an owl in a redwood tree. He will be the ghost of the ghosts there.
Grace uses the tongs to turn over the hotdogs. Like the white carnation, the hotdogs emit a very strong fragrance. In this case, the fragrance is organic, meaty, and reminiscent of millions of boars slogging through the mud. And yet, as with the white carnation, she is not repulsed by the smell. She senses that in time she can and will get used to it; and when she does, she will see then that, in fact, it smells like everything else in eternity, visceral, demonstrative, alive.
She leans against her favorite spot along the deck rail, and looks into the lake. She inhales deeply the fresh and dank smell of the lake. Somewhere deep in her mind, she knows that if she had inhaled this deeply while still alive, then she would have inhaled all the earth’s atmosphere into her lungs in one breath.
If I was still alive, Grace mutters, not quite believing her own words. Oh, Alice Hart, if only you could know how far I am now from your finishing school…
Of course, Alice Hart had died years ago; but Grace knows that she is not here. She is inside that cursed sitting room of hers, no doubt, listening to those old records, waiting for father to return from one of his ‘business trips,’ getting down on her knees whenever he is in the mood.
She lets the wind flow through her hair. She bathes in the purple sunset.
God knows how long she is there, looking into the lake, smelling the fire and the hotdogs beside her. It could be a minute or a century. Time really does not matter, when everything imaginable is captured inside of a moment.
Then, she looks up from the lake, and sees a rowboat coming toward her from the other side. She stares intently at the distant figure. She makes out an older, distinguished, well-dressed man with a flaming cigar in the middle of his teeth and a blood red pocket square in his jacket. He is smiling widely; indeed, almost maniacally; and he rows with the strength and the speed of an athlete a third his age. Like everything else this side of the great divide, he appears then to be at the very top of his game.
Grace laughs happily. She feels a warm blush on both her cheeks, and so she covers her face with her hands until the moment passes. She had wondered over the years how she would react the next time she saw the good doctor. She had presumed that she would see him, one way or another, as frankly she could not really imagine that that Freedom Bus Incident (or just the ‘Incident,’ as she preferred to call that terror attack) would mark the end of their time together. In fact, apart from the photograph he had sent her a few years later, she would never see his face again in her lifetime; and yet, notwithstanding that fact, she had continued to wonder just the same.
Well, it turns out the next time she sees the good doctor, she swoons as if a love struck schoolgirl. Strange, given what had happened the last time they had been together, but so true. She loves him, and she is in love with him, too.
* * *
Grace almost steps out of the bedroom, when she glimpses herself in the dressing mirror and sees that she is still wearing her nightgown. She anticipates that she will be wearing her nightgown, and then much less than that, with the good doctor before the night is done; but it will not do when greeting him. And so she turns and steps over to a big closet she has had no need to use for years.
There is a tall, lit candle on a table beside the closet door. It is the same candle that Horace had lit when he had taken her into this master bedroom the first time. It flickers a dark shadow upon the closet door that suggests a woman disrobing for her man. Grace sees the image, and grins; as notwithstanding her blushing schoolgirl response to the prospect of once more embracing the doctor there is also a hint of Salome in her imagination. Ever since she had seen Alice Hart on her knees before her father’s crotch, and had concluded that Alice had been simultaneously penitential and wanton while swaying back and forth upon her knees, Grace had determined that, as far as women are concerned anyway, the line between saint and whore is more a contrivance than a reality. Now, as she continues to adapt to her new life on this side of the great divide, she sees that that contrivance can be set aside. She is a blushing schoolgirl, and she is a grinning whore. Apparently, she can have her cake, and she can eat it, too.
She opens the closet door. She expects to be overwhelmed now by every outfit she had owned over the years. She is therefore surprised, and then more than a bit dismayed, when she sees only one outfit hanging inside the closet. It is the dress she had worn the first time she had met the good doctor. It is clean and unwrinkled as new. It is also quintessentially mid-forties in color and style, so unlike the bohemian chic she would wear a decade later, let alone the shawl and the sensible shoes she would wear almost exclusively after returning home from her momentous trip to Selma in 1965. So much had happened in the years after she had worn that dress. She cannot forget any of it; and yet she believes that, in a way, she has returned now to that first evening with the good doctor.
She slips out of her nightgown, takes the dress off the hanger, and drops it over her head. Of course, it fits perfectly. What surprises her is that she had left her nightgown on the floor; and yet as soon as she is wearing the dress, her nightgown is hanging from that same hanger. She had turned into a bit of a slob just before giving up the ghost (okay, more than a bit, as indicated by the huge mounds of clutter on the floor in those final years); but in the mid-forties, she had not been that far removed from Alice Hart’s finishing school even to dream of cluttering up a floor with outfits.
She swishes her long, red hair, so that it is once more hanging lusciously over her left shoulder; pumps up her breasts with the palms of her hands; grabs the lit candle to her side; and then steps out of the bedroom with a loopy grin.
The old staircase creaks beneath her steps. It had creaked when she had walked up the same staircase sixty-nine years ago. She suspects the wood steps had made the same loud noise, and given off the same musty smell, even when the builder first had unveiled this chateau beside the lake.
She opens the front door and steps onto the sagging porch. Her driveway slopes up to the circumference road. The trees and shrubs beyond that road do not seem to be as real as everything inside and near her house. They look like a backdrop of cheap cardboard cutouts that the stagehands have not bothered to take off of the stage. They do not give off any fragrances, even though at that same evening hour almost seven decades prior she had been overwhelmed by a plethora of sweet and musky smells. And there is nothing to be heard, but for a slight owl hoot off in the distance and the rise and fall of a peaceful dusk wind.
She walks around the house and down a trail that leads to the lake. It is a short path in between dark green shrubs that whisper sweet nothings into the ears of any man or woman who may happen to walk by them.
As she approaches the lake, she feels like she is coming up to a wall. She does not see any obstruction. The dark and tranquil lake is as clear as ever; but nevertheless, she cannot shake the feeling that she would not be able to take a dip, even if she were so inclined.
She stands about as close to the lake as she thinks she can be. There are another few feet of rocks in front of her, before her feet would splash into cold mud and water; but already the air seems too thin to remain even where she is for very long. Even more so, she feels as if the space beyond her is sinful; not a bad space, so much as a forbidden space. She looks upon the lake before her as she imagines the mythological Eve would have looked upon the forbidden fruit, longing at first, but then anger at what she cannot have. She imagines that, by the time she got around to plucking that pretty fruit off of the branch, Eve had done so more from spite, than from any sense of what is just or even desirable.
She drives that thought out of her mind, so that she can remain the soft and blushing schoolgirl waiting for her love to return from the beyond. As much as she loves him, she loves even more so the fact that she is being vindicated in his return. She had presumed that whatever they had been for one another just could not be derailed forevermore by terrorists; that that unspoken connection could and would survive what the fates had thrown at them; and that therefore her own sense of being free and emancipated would be vindicated in seeing his face and smelling his cigars one more time. It is not that she had forgotten, let alone forgiven, how he had held her down, when the Boss Man had snatched up the defenseless Abigail Spencer. That scar would remain in the years to follow; and, indeed, it is still there now, in a way; but the very prospect of vindicating her freedom and emancipation conjures up an emotion similar enough to young and innocent love as to sweep aside momentarily the deep pain from that time.
The good doctor rows his boat to shore. He sits in the boat in silence for a while, taking her into his penetrating, sparkling, blue eyes, grinning widely in the manner of a dapper, gentlemanly devil, and puffing out smoke circles from the cigar that he keeps in the center of his mouth. He is as pretty as the day so long ago that she had first seen him; a soft and demure Howard Hughes; even a touch effeminate in the punctilious way he had combed his dark mustache, and had pressed every last wrinkle out of his dark jacket and pocket square, before rowing over from God knows where. And yet, for all his softness, there is a real intensity to his blue eyes, a calculating viciousness in the deliberate manner in which he holds his gaze, that makes it clear he is the man inside a relationship.
Beware the atheist driven by his faith, the doctor says finally. He has no God to steal his gaze to the heavens; and so, pulled by his disquieted heart, he keeps his eyes on the banks before him. He rows every night, back and forth on this very lake, since he had given up his ghost in the Congo bush in the summer of 1982. He does not rest, until he should find his woman waiting for him upon the banks. Then, when he does, he suffers no restraint upon his romantic heart and so poses a danger to the chastity of a girl. Tis the way of nature, when that atheist knows no higher morality, no divine judgment, to keep him in his place.
Grace stares at him a moment in silence. Then she laughs as a giddy girl.
You must have been rehearsing that one a while, Grace remarks.
Only every night for thirty-two years, if we can even speak of years over here, the doctor reflects with a wink and a nod. I knew this night would come. I also knew that a simple ‘hello’ would not do justice the occasion. I dreamt up the words, while bleeding to death inside the cave dwelling of a hungry tigress; a hungry and a vengeful tigress; no doubt, a beast that had seen fit to maul me on account of what I did to her ancestor way back when. Indeed, the scales are balanced. It may take many decades, but what is sown is reaped. What is really surprising is that I had had the mind to dream up such words, while enduring so much slow anguish. It is grand what a man can do, when he has a mind to do it.
You were hunting tigers in your ninth decade, Grace says incredulously.
I was never inclined to mind my own age, the doctor reflects with a grin.
No, no you weren’t, Grace agrees, and then again bursts out in laughter.
The good doctor steps off the boat. He plants his right shoe heel against the side of the boat, and shoves it back onto the lake. He watches as it recedes back into the darkness. He appears lost in his thoughts, as he puffs on his cigar.
But then, the moment passes. He turns on his heels, and offers his hand.
Grace ignores his hand. She steps forward, removes the fiery cigar from his mouth, and kisses him. She steps back, and blushes crimson red sexual fury.
The doctor offers his usual dapper smile, but she can tell that he is a bit off balance. No doubt he had not anticipated that she could be so forward; and if she had been in fact the young woman that he had met in 1945, then, surely, she would not have done what she just did. But she is not that girl. She has had a lot of life since then, and she has taken everything that matters with her over to this side of the great divide. Therefore, while she does not desire to see him even a bit off balance, and will submit to him as her man, she does not feel she has done anything wrong. And yet, at the same time, she blushes, and kicks her shoes into the dirt, as if a schoolgirl who is waiting anxiously for his next move.
He steps forward finally, retrieves his cigar from her right hand, looks at her body up close and personal, and pats her left cheek in a soft, paternal way.
The doctor begins to ascend the short path to the chateau. He walks in a confident manner, even though it is dark beneath the overhanging deck, and he has not been on that path in almost seventy years. Perhaps he had studied that path from his rowboat over the last thirty-two years. But even if he had not, he would have a sure stride regardless. It is his way. It is why Ernest Hemingway in a lucid moment had invited him out to the bush; and it is why he had wandered into the teeth of a tigress, when most others his age either are dead, or senile.
Grace follows him up the short hill, around the chateau, and to the front door. She feels so much better when she is there. The thin air down at the lake had taken more out from her than she had realized at the time.
Supper is ready, the doctor comments, when he is at the front door. You are so very thoughtful.
Grace can smell the food cooking. Of course, she has not started to cook anything, since opening her eyes in this eternal world, so she presumes that the real cooks are the same powers that be that made her chateau to be exactly as it had been when she first saw it (minus the ghoulish cobwebs inside the master bedroom), had provided her the dress she had worn that evening, and had hung up her nightgown in its place. Someone or something else has set the stage, no doubt. She and the doctor are about to take the stage and to recite their lines. She knows why. She presumes that the doctor knows as well. Nevertheless, she decides not to open that door, not now, anyway, because she does not want to be cheated of this moment with the good doctor.
The candle is inside the foyer where she had left it a few minutes ago. It emits a soft and ghostly light, the kind that haunts more than it illuminates, so that everything that they pass in the living room is cast in timeless sepia tones.
There is a stew on the stove; warm bread and an open bottle of wine on the table; and more candles ready to be lit for the occasion. Grace lights them with the match that she finds next to the bottle, as the doctor sits and smokes.
She attends to the stew. It has been a long time since she last navigated her way through the kitchen (except to open her mail or to eat whatever might be immediately accessible to her), and yet she finds the wooden ladle, spoons, bowels, and wine glasses without a moment of hesitation. She does not need to fetch the napkins. The powers that be already had placed two napkins upon the table beside the open bottle of wine.
She scoops out the stew. The doctor pours the wine. He reaches into his jacket, retrieves an ashtray, and sets his cigar on the ashtray. Interestingly, his cigar is as long and robust as when he had rowed his boat to shore, even though he has been puffing upon it almost nonstop the whole time. No ashes fall out of it, and so the ashtray remains as clean as when he had found it way back when.
They sit by each other. The doctor holds up his glass for a toast. Grace is quick to follow suit. For a moment, they just look at each other in that soft and dreamy candlelight; and then the doctor clears his throat, and does the honors.
A toast to eternal life, the doctor remarks with a knowing grin. And may we never grow tired of having all the time in the world.
I suspect we can keep each other occupied, Grace comments.
Yes, of course, the doctor replies as if he knows something she does not.
Grace can see the wheels turning in his mind, but she lets it go. She just wants to cherish this moment. She just wants to feel vindicated in her freedom and emancipation, like she has defeated the fates and kept their ghosts at bay.
Like the wine, the stew does not taste good, so much as intense, hearty, more real than anything they had ever consumed on the other side. Eating it is akin to being at the center of a great moment, a whirlwind that seems at times to be overwhelming; and so, not surprisingly, the doctor enjoys the meal much more so than his hostess.
I presume there is dessert, the doctor says, when he has finished.
Well, let us see, Grace comments, while going to the refrigerator.
There is nothing else in there, but a pound cake. It resembles a brick on a plate. Given how everything else is so much more intense here, Grace figures that it will taste like a brick as well. Still, the doctor wants his dessert; and she is going to oblige, even if that means swallowing mouthfuls of rock and mortar.
It turns out not to be as bad as expected. Perhaps, she is fitting in faster than she had thought, though she declines to find out by having a second piece.
You know the rules of this game, don’t you? The doctor asks after he has finished his pound cake and consumed his second glass of red wine.
What makes you think this is a game? Grace asks after taking a sip of her first glass of wine and deciding that she has had enough for the evening.
The doctor fills his glass a third time. He swishes it inside his glass, while lost in thought, and then gulps half of it like a thirsty dog. He sets it aside, and strains to keep his eyes open.
When you sweep aside the high-minded principles, the lofty rhetoric, the odes sung in praise of spent blood on a battlefield somewhere, everything turns out to be a game. Advantage for one at the expense of another, survival of the fittest, trails of tears paved over by interstate highways, so should we presume that it would be any different over here? The doctor reflects, while he takes up his cigar again. After all, we are atheists; faithful only to what we can observe; believers in nothing, but that to which our reason attests. And we both know in our hearts, notwithstanding how miraculous it is that we are together, that the only consistency in nature is that it is cruel, competitive, a domain of wounded warriors seeking blood vengeance on the person who has done them wrong. Not justice, mind you, but vengeance, even if that vengeance should be meted out many generations after the crime. It is the way of the jungle. It is the tigress in the bush, waiting patiently for the scent of the person who had wronged her so many years before, hiding in the cracks in the earth, until the time ordained to pounce. Vengeance does not spare the dead; and if, indeed, it is true then that we bring everything with us across the great divide, should we not presume we bring the tigress along with us? The tigress with sparkling blue eyes? The tigress that wields a baton? The tigress that absconds from us what we hold most dear?
Grace looks down. She had thought that fear would have no place in this world. She had imagined that the occasion of her final victory would bury, once and for all times, all that had tormented her so. She feels cheated just then, as angered as fearful, and as vulnerable as any girl whose heart has been exposed to and manipulated by an older man.
The doctor places his cigar upon his ashtray. He stares into her sad eyes.
He takes her hands into his. He caresses her knuckles. His eyes glow then like radiated snake eyes. They impart in equal measure both madness and love.
We are both hunters, he remarks after a while. We have spent our lives, together and apart, wandering the bush in search of our prey. Now, ours is not a stuffed tigress in a foyer, or a Southern White Democrat dumped into a murky lake, or anything else that is growling one moment, then dead silent the next. Even if we have committed our share of violence in a violent world, our prey in truth has been something grander than any one life.
I do not know what you are saying, Grace mutters.
Oh, yes you do, the doctor smiles. You know as assuredly as you knew in your heart that we would be together someday. Our prey is not any one animal, nothing that can be reduced into a simple matter of flesh and blood, but rather is experience. It is the great moment. It is the decisive action, when compelled by circumstance to face the devil head on. We search out that experience, like thrill seekers may search the most dangerous path up Mount Everest; and when we make that experience our own, we slay it, bag it, and nail it to that old wall on which we keep our memories. The tigress, the sparkling, blue eyed devil, no matter the species, the shape or the size, it keeps us on our cold toes, gives us a reason to slide back the curtain and to look outside with just a touch of fright in our souls, and so compels us to cherish all the more the good times we have.
The doctor falls silent. He removes his hands, and takes up again his fine cigar; but all the while, he keeps his glowing blue eyes fixed knowingly on hers.
So have you ever wondered why I do not believe in God? The doctor asks.
Grace looks at him. She does not say a word, but her lips tremble.
I refuse to believe that the end of all of history is the Beatific Vision, the doctor says with the cold intensity of a hissing snake. I refuse to believe that in the final reel, when the sheep have been separated from the goats, and heaven and earth have passed away, we shall have everything, all of God, all the truth, all peace, love, and harmony. I refuse to believe that there will be a day, when the tigress no longer waits for us in the shadows, or leaps out from within deep cracks in the earth. Because if that were so, then there would be no reason for our hearts to skip a beat, no reason to take a baton into our own hand when we see a shadow shudder up ahead, no reason to hold the one we love ever so near and dear, as if in the dead of night that special person might be taken from us. But take God out of the equation, and we are left with our sins, our fears, even that despair that we cannot confess even to the person we love. We are forced then to struggle and to endure, like the romantic outlaw, or the colored man in the bush. But on the positive side, and in those few good moments that we may snatch out from the sunset before the devil comes, we may eat, and drink, and smoke, and fuck as assuredly no man in awe of the Beatific Vision is free to do.
Grace is speechless. She is still angered and frightened in equal measure just then, but there is yet another feeling arising from her womb and slithering up her spine like a cold and clammy snake. In a vague way, it is sexual; but the thought of erotic stimulation and orgasmic release does not do it justice really. ‘Primordial’ is closer to the truth. ‘Primordial slush,’ closer still. She senses the thick, sulfuric, chocolaty liquid at the core of the earth, before that Spirit from on high shakes and pushes that poisoned sea through the cracks above. She can see that slush spitting out from the cracks, like the forked tongues of serpents, and hissing sin and death into the dark and turbulent winds of a newborn earth. There is a great release at that moment, an oozing earth orgasm, a rush that is as hideous as it is all consuming. It is murder. It is vengeance without restraint.
The doctor finishes his glass of wine. He stands up. He is a bit wobbly on his black leather shoes, but there is nothing at all shaky in his cold, dead stare. He offers her his left hand; and without a moment of hesitation, Grace takes it.
This time, he leads her through the living room. He grips his woman with his left hand and his candlestick with his right. He puffs on his cigar as if it will be his last smoke, though not one ash has fallen from his flame. There is a blue madness in his eyes; but as they ascend the staircase, there is just a hint of red blood in his pupils that calls to mind the dried stain left after a menstrual flow.
They enter into the master bedroom. The doctor puts the candlestick on the table beside the closet door. He observes the Steinway Grand, smiles in the playful manner of a boy about to commit some mischief, and sits before the old keys with all the confidence of an experienced pianist. He looks back at Grace, winks at her, cracks his knuckles, and places his fingers in the starting position.
I should have played for you that first day, the doctor remarks, while he keeps his teeth clenched on the fiery cigar. This should have been our moment.
I doubt that your wife would have approved, Grace responds with a grin.
Ah, good to see you are breaking free from your fear, the doctor remarks without even acknowledging the playful reference to his wife way back in 1945.
He turns back to his fingers, and plays Happy Days Are Here Again. His is as fun and sweaty as the version played by Horace Temple sixty-nine years ago.
Grace almost falls over with laughter. She stumbles forward at one point and kisses the good doctor on the back of his head. She continues out onto the deck, while he bangs out the rest of the silly refrain with a boyish recklessness.
It is totally black outside, except for the burning charcoals on the hotdog grill. She cannot see the hotdogs, but she assumes that they are no more burnt than the good doctor’s cigar. Still, for the sake of something to do, she reaches for the tongs in the darkness, and turns over the hotdogs, so that they will cook evenly on the other side.
She then catches a flicker of light from the other side of the lake. It is a small campfire near the banks. It emits just enough dancing flame to illuminate the makeshift gallows, the noose hanging from a branch, and the façade of the A-frame at the Texaco Gas and Grill.
There is a man crouching before that fire. He is a wiry and thin red head dressed in a black prison guard’s uniform. He has a thick, phallic baton hanging from his womanly hips. His eyes flash sea blue and menstrual red in that flame.
The doctor steps outside. As Grace does not notice that he has ended his bravura performance, she is startled when he caresses her hair from behind. He chuckles, and takes her in his arms, so that they look across that lake together.
He is going to come for me, isn’t he? Grace whispers in a resigned voice.
The doctor does not answer. He just escorts her inside, and ravishes her.
* * *