What is taking her so long? Mavis mutters into the dirty bus window.
It is very dark outside, except for a flashlight jiggling up and down a long perimeter about two or three hundred yards away. The night sky is overcast, so there is not even a twinkling star cluster to break the monotony of blackness in the heavens. Everything outside is calm and quiet. Normally, she would think of this as the respite before the storm, and be on edge, accordingly; but after the horrors of that day, she cannot imagine that God will allow anything else to fall upon her head before the night is done.
Actually, she is more concerned with her left eye than her head, though the back of her head still throbs from a dull and senseless ache. She got a real, old fashioned shiner on her left eye; the kind that she used to get every month or so from her husband, George; but this time from a white man she never saw and probably will never see again.
At least, she will never see him again in this lifetime. She imagines that the next time, when she has crossed the river, and pushed her rowboat away so that she can never return, she will have her chance to stand along the sidewalk with the mob and throw a rock. The next time, the white man will be marching down the middle of the street. He will have that scared, colorless look, as if all of a sudden the community that he has known all his life is a totally foreign and inhospitable place, a place where he cannot even seem to breathe, because he wants to be able to vote, or to sit at a restaurant counter, or even just to take a shit in something that does not look like an outhouse in Hiroshima the minute after they dropped the bomb.
This will be her time. True, if she is a good Christian, then she will never throw that rock. She will hold it in her hand a moment, look at it like it is some sort of malignant tumor, and then drop it to the sidewalk unceremoniously.
Right now, she is not so sure she will be such a good Christian. They say time heals old wounds, but what happens when the bastards keep on reopening those old wounds? It is hard to imagine a time they will not be bruising her eye, or splitting her head open, or just hurling a ‘nigger’ or a ‘spook’ into her face. The attacker may be different each time, but the impact always feels the same when she holds the bag of ice to her shiner, or pretends not to hear the insults.
Then again, maybe the impact always feels the same, because really the attacker is always the same. Maybe the very moment the rock is thrown, or the racial slur is voiced, the person has been replaced momentarily by the same old white devil she has seen in her nightmares ever since the night she learned that her precious Abigail had been kidnapped from one of those Freedom Buses, and presumably murdered. She tries to forget his face, but it is so common looking, so much like every white, skinny hayseed with a crew cut she sees smoking and cussing in front of the pool hall all the time, that she is constantly reminded of his appearance and disposition. It is like everywhere she darts her eyes there is that white devil, blowing a kiss at her, telling her with his mad glare that she is the next nigger on his list. Sometimes, she wishes that one of these shiners will make her blind, so she can stop seeing the glare in his eyes, the ugly scar on his chin, and that baton he is always fondling like it is the closest he can get to an actual girlfriend. She would give up the sunsets, if she could get rid of him.
Not much to see outside, but it is better than what is inside the bus. This dilapidated yellow school bus is intended to be a makeshift emergency room on wheels; but with only a couple of volunteer nurses, and just a half of a First Aid Kit between them, there is not much healing going on. Instead, there is a bit of moaning, a lot of whispering, and a busload of blank eyes staring out into black nothingness. By rights, they should all be at the hospital now, since it had been legally desegregated just last year. But the law is one thing, and the number of ‘available beds’ when a bunch of Selma marchers show up is another. So sorry, there is nothing to be done about it, but if you step out the back way right now we have got an ‘emergency room on wheels’ for your service.
Of course, before anyone even takes a look at their injuries, the old man in charge of this ‘emergency room on wheels’ orders the driver to take them all out to the boondocks somewhere ‘for their own safety.’ He cannot send along a doctor, since none of them happen to be ‘available;’ but these two nurses here should be good enough. After all, it is a documented fact that niggers really do not bleed all that much. It has something to do with the tightness of their skin, probably why they are so well adapted to working out in the sun all day, so the two nurses and this half of a First Aid Kit should suffice to give them good care.
Mavis does not want to look around the bus, but even more so she wants to know what is taking her so long. Thus, with a cranky shove, she removes her face from the dirty bus window. Her left eye is all but useless, so she thinks her shiner must be swollen. Her right eye works, though, so she scoots her bruised, tired hips (another stone must have hit her down there, or she may have hurt it when falling from the blow to her face, she cannot remember) over to the aisle and peers down to the front of the bus.
There is no light down there, but the red ember from a cigarette. One of the nurses is taking yet another smoking break. Mavis cannot tell, but she feels it is likely the fat and unattractive one. That sour bitch could not smile without cracking her big stone face in two, so it is probably just as well that she scowls, barks commands to her young assistant, and addresses the black patients inside the bus as ‘nigger this’ or ‘nigger that.’ If she tried to be affable, then her old, ornery heart very well could stop; and they would all have a dead, white nurse on their hands. Oftentimes, it is better if people stay who they are, and do not try to improve themselves.
If the fat nurse is down there, then where is the Florence Nightingale? It is impossible to tell, as the whites and the Negroes all look alike when it is dark enough. Wherever she is, she is likely doing some good, Mavis thinks. She has a good heart, though little idea what to do when the fat bitch is not giving her an order; and in the hours following the horrors of this day, a white woman with a good heart means something.
Actually, apart from the kind nurse, there have been a number of whites with good hearts involved with the movement. Mavis came late to this struggle, so she cannot say much about what whites did or did not do early on; but from her experience, the marches and the sit-ins have been multi-racial events with national news coverage. This is now an American Movement, not only unrest of, by, and for Negroes, though sitting on this damned bus right now one would be hard pressed to believe that there is any wider support out there for what they are trying to accomplish.
Still, for all the goodhearted whites, the two races seldom interact with each other, except for the actual march or sit-in. When the event is over, most of the whites go back to respectable, white neighborhoods, pack their children off to respectable, white schools, and watch respectable, white Uncle Cronkite tell them the news each night. For the most part, the Negroes still live and go to school where the boogeymen congregate on the wrong side of the tracks.
A rare exception is Mavis’ good friend. She had come out of nowhere like a lightning strike on a clear day. She had sat down beside her at an undisclosed SCLC meeting. That meant that she had been a part of their movement already and so trusted with the date, time, and location. She had struck up a pleasant, but direct, conversation, where in she had informed Mavis that in fact they are related. The white Spencers and the Negro Spencers have hopped the old fence several times, apparently; and Mavis’ new friend suspects that her mother may have been abandoned precisely because she had had a Negro father.
There is more to tell, her new friend had whispered. But we should talk in private. Would you mind coming with me to my room at the Hotel Carlisle as soon as this meeting is done?
Mavis had balked. The Carlisle is defying a court desegregation order, as we speak. She will not get passed the front desk, let alone into her hotel room. But her new friend had insisted, and she had said that she knew a way to do it, if she would just trust her. Mavis had decided to trust her, and she has gone on to trust her on pretty much everything else since then.
She trusts even now that she is retrieving an ice pack for her. Her friend could have stayed at the hospital. Apparently, a hospital bed had been ‘found’ for her, even though she had suffered only minor injuries; but she had elected the ‘good care’ offered on the ‘emergency room on wheels’ instead.
Grace, what is taking you so long? Mavis mutters with some trepidation.
Just then the bus door opens, and Grace steps inside with a bag in hand.
Mavis can tell it is Grace, since Grace is carrying a flashlight in her other hand. Grace is headstrong, and sometimes so blunt as to be insulting, but she is resourceful. Mavis cannot imagine a better friend in a foxhole.
Grace whispers something to the cigarette-smoking nurse sitting up front like the queen hen in the chicken coup. There is a throaty cackling sound, what passes for a laugh by the fat bitch, and then Grace walks down the aisle.
Don’t you go shining that light in my one good eye, Mavis snaps at Grace with fake indignation.
Okay, Grace says with a grin. I’ll shine it into your bad one.
Is it really that bad? Mavis asks, when Grace sits beside her.
Grace studies her face a moment. She has the dispassionate look of a lab technician on her face. Obviously, Grace has seen much worse, probably in the immediate aftermath of that KKK attack against the Freedom Riders. What she does not know is that Mavis has seen and experienced much worse as well. The two have been like sisters since they met at that SCLC meeting; but Mavis does not share everything, and she suspects neither does Grace.
We’ll need to get you to a real doctor, Grace says after a while.
I suspect none of them will be ‘available’ until the seventies, Mavis drips with sarcasm. You know how backlogged the doctors get in a hodunk, one-road-apple town like Selma what with all them yahoos shooting their white cocks off in hunting season. It is a wonder any white women are with child around here…
They imagine a sleepy town full of white housewives who have preserved their husbands’ blown off cocks in formaldehyde jars. The housewives glance at their husbands’ blown off cocks wistfully while doing their chores. Those relics are as close as they ever are going to get to having children. The only good side to this dream is that the doll maker in town has enough business to retire early.
They break out into laughter. A couple of the other patients look back to find out what is so funny, but most everyone remains as blank as before. This is going to be a long night indeed inside the gloomy ‘emergency room on wheels.’
I’ve got a doctor friend in Manhattan who owes me; Grace says when she manages to get a hold of herself.
Not that strange bird that took you on the Freedom Bus, Mavis comments doubtfully. From what you’ve said about him, I’d rather have Dr. Mengele.
Oh, God, no, Grace says with a flash of embarrassment in her cheeks. He is not a part of my life anymore.
But that is not true, and Grace knows it. She had closed the heavy wood door on the Civil Rights Movement after the terrible night in 1961 and probably would not have reopened it, but for the photograph he had sent her a couple of years later. He had attended the ‘I have a dream’ speech, and had posed in his typically debonair, but distant, manner upon the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, while Martin Luther King was giving his speech. The picture had touched her in a way that she still did not understand. It had prompted her to find out all that she could about that little, black girl named Abigail with whom she had bonded on the Freedom Bus; and her research had led her to a Mavis Spencer in Selma, Alabama, the little, black girl’s only surviving aunt. So indeed, he still played a critical part in her life, like he had all those years when she was a beatnik poet in California. She never saw him once in those years, but his telegrams seemed to slide under her apartment door just when she most needed a special word of encouragement or a bit of advice on what to do next.
Still, she cannot forget his odd eyes, how he just stared at that Boss Man back at the Texaco Gas and Grill, and how dispassionate he had remained when the mob attacked the Freedom Bus. It was like he was in his element just when everything went wrong. Yes, he was on the right side of history, and she figures he still is today; but what if he is there for the wrong reasons? Grace thinks of a passage out of the Bible: ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?’ Insightful words, to be sure; but in this case, it is like the doctor wants to lose his own soul. He appears to be embracing the loss of his own humanity. Indeed, he embraces nothing else so far as Grace can tell.
Therefore, it is best to pretend that he is out of my life, Grace thinks. If he reappears someday, then I can embrace him or reject him then.
Mavis senses that she has touched a raw wound. Some wounds never heal because they are reopened over and over again. Others never heal even though they are opened only that one time. Why is this the case? Heck if she knows the answer. She senses it is probably better not to figure out an answer to a loaded question like that one, just like Job would have been happier if he had kept his big questions unvoiced in his head, rather than letting them slip off his tongue. Some things we do not know, because we are too chicken shit to ask; but some things we do not know, because we are wise enough not to ask. Sounds a whole lot like an old lady’s wisdom; but even though Mavis is only forty years old, she has had enough shiners on her eyes and bruises on the back of her head to be a woman twice that age.
So you’re taking me to the Big Apple, huh? Mavis asks in a light way that is meant to distract Grace from that raw wound.
Grace smiles. She applies the ice pack to Mavis’ left eye. Mavis winces a moment, but then the numbness takes over. Grace privately fears that that left eye will remain numb forevermore, notwithstanding the high priced Manhattan doctor that she is going to call tomorrow morning.
Of course, Grace answers. We’ll paint the town red. Perhaps raise a few eyebrows…
Mavis chuckles. She has had little exposure to the country above the old Mason-Dixon line; but she knows that, though the Yankees had never seen fit to pass a bunch of Jim Crow laws, the white man’s opinion of the Negro up yonder is about as enlightened as it is down here. She imagines Grace’s friends will be all a twitter in seeing her enjoy the Big Apple alongside a simple nigger woman.
So what else have you got in that bag? Mavis asks.
Grace removes her hand from the ice pack. Mavis instead presses the ice pack against her left eye. Grace sits back and lets the bag sway in between her legs. She switches off the flashlight, and stares blankly toward the front of the bus, as if she is lost in thought, or not certain how to respond to Mavis’ inquiry.
I’m thinking about the night we first met, Grace says after a while.
I am too, Mavis says glumly. Nights like this one wake up the ghosts.
Indeed, as Grace had promised, there had been a surefire way of getting Mavis into the Hotel Carlisle that night. Of course, it had involved a back door. Negroes always seem to go in and out through the back doors, even when white people are going out of their way to do the right thing. In this case, it had been the staff entrance. While the guests were exclusively white, the janitorial staff was exclusively colored. It is like no one wanted to see a white man bend over to pick up a martini olive dropped on the carpet. That would have been totally unseemly, if not altogether immoral.
Grace had paid off the persnickety, white chief of staff to meet them at the door at a designated time. Mavis remembers that the husky man had a red, swollen face that looked ready to explode at the slightest pretext. He kept his hair short, which meant that the splotches on her head were easily observable; and he kept a thin mustache on his upper lip that seemed to her at any rate to be vaguely homosexual. The man never once laid eyes on Mavis. Even when he handed her a maid’s uniform, and pointed towards the dressing room down the hall, he kept his sleepy eyes firmly on Grace’s. Maybe he thought that if he did not really take a look at the nigger woman, then he was not breaking the rules.
Grace had given Mavis her room number beforehand, and she had figured that Mavis would be knocking on her hotel room door within minutes. But Mavis had decided to take her sweet time. She had never been inside such a fine, old hotel; and for all she knew, she would never get the chance again. Thus, Mavis made the rounds in an outfit that looked like something in Gone with the Wind. She pretended to dust the antebellum furnishings; and when necessary, she did a decent enough rendition of a Smiling Mamie to get a polite smile in return. A few of the girls sneered at her, since they knew she was not for real; but Mavis did not mind. She actually had some fun with the act, until the chief of staff in due time tapped her on her right shoulder and reminded her that she had been called to Room 202. His belligerent, huge face sucked all the fun out of the act at once, and so she hurried over to Grace’s opulent room without looking back.
Grace had offered her a drink and a cigarette. Grace apparently did not smoke anymore, but she kept a cigarette case in her purse for social occasions. That fact alone reminded Mavis that, notwithstanding her apparent friendliness and insistence that they are relatives, Grace is from a totally different world in the end. Negroes do not carry around cigarette cases in designer purses for any occasions, let alone to maintain social niceties.
Mavis was thankful, but said no. She actually would have enjoyed a drink and a smoke just then, if only to relax her nerves after getting so up close and personal with the chief of staff; but for the first time, she felt more than a bit uneasy with her new friend. She pretended to be the kind of Christian lady who would never let alcohol or tobacco cross her pristine lips.
Grace sensed her uneasiness, but she let the awkward moment pass with no pressing on her part. She invited her new friend to sit down, while she went to the bar and mixed herself a cocktail. She poured in an extra slap of whiskey in order to steel herself for what she had to say to this kind Negress in the silly Gone with the Wind uniform.
As soon as the whiskey hit her in the head, Grace turned around and said what she had to say. She had found Abigail along the side of the road that night and had protected her as if she were her very own. She had been cradling her, when the attacker broke through the windshield and snatched her out from her arms. She knew that son of a bitch who kidnapped and probably murdered her. She did not know his name, but she would recognize that face if she saw it in a crowd. If she ever saw him again, then she would kill him without flinching and let God decide what to do with her soul.
Grace had been so caught up in her monologue that she had not noticed Mavis’ silent tears. She finally saw how Mavis appeared to collapse into her own lap. She rushed forward without thinking that she might scare the poor woman; but as it turned out, Mavis welcomed her embrace.
They cried together for the longest time; and now, months later, sitting silently side by side within this ‘emergency room on wheels,’ they seem still to be crying in each other’s arms. Theirs is a sister bond formed from suffering. So long as there is a reason to cry in this world, they will find one another; and in a world like ours, that may be the very strongest foundation for any friendship.
I told you if I saw him again, then I’d kill him, Grace whispers.
Yes, you said that, Mavis whispers back. I didn’t say anything.
You didn’t say yes, that’s true, Grace remarks. You didn’t say no, either.
Killings not going to bring Abby back, Mavis responds. An eye for an eye…
Just makes the world blind, Grace finishes Mavis’ sentence, while staring down at the bag in between her thighs. Maybe what you are saying is true. But I cannot get your niece’s face out of my mind, and I know you cannot, either. He hurt her, and he hurt us, that bastard; and even if nothing good comes of it we have got to put him away.
So you’re saying you saw him today, Mavis comments.
In the mob, Grace responds. One of the rock throwers. I’m pretty certain the one who hit you in the face.
And you want to kill him, Mavis concludes.
We have got to put him away, Grace repeats herself.
God takes care, Mavis mutters, though halfheartedly.
Grace ignores the ‘God’ reference. She does not believe in Him, and she thinks that deep down Mavis actually is doubtful. ‘God’ is an excuse not to act. ‘God’ is an excuse to stay on the plantation. ‘God’ is an excuse to live the grey life of a widow, rather than to go off to California and to pursue the bohemian existence of a sexual philanderer and a beatnik poet. Grace has put that selfish life behind her now, but she does not regret having taken the plunge. At least, she is alive. If she had lived the life Alice intended for her, then she would be a dead woman by now, perhaps not physically but surely mentally and spiritually.
Today, they struck us down, like we were innocent sheep on the way to the slaughter, Grace whispers with equal parts despair and anger in her voice. I am tired of the same old story told over and over. How the good have no option but to gather up their crosses, and to suffer the slings and the arrows. How the good have to shed their blood, generation after generation of martyrs, while all the while the bastards keep on snickering, and tossing their stones, and hurling their insults. When are the tables turned? When do we get to dish out what we have been getting? Even Jesus had had his fill of the moneychangers; and if He is the example we are supposed to follow, then I think it is time to upset one of those tables ourselves. Oh, sure, an eye for an eye makes the world blind. I am willing to concede that point; but don’t tell me there’s no justice in it. Even if the whole world turns blind, then we can sleep at night in knowing that justice has prevailed at least. The alternative is that we are niggers. White niggers, or black niggers, the race does not matter. We’ll be niggers, because we let them trample over us time and time again. Either we live, or they live; nothing else…
There is love, Mavis whispers defiantly. Love is something else.
So are you prepared to love the man who killed your niece? Grace asks.
Mavis looks down. She lets the ice pack fall into her lap. She remembers the last time she saw her Abby. She had done enough tricks to purchase a train ticket out to Beulah. She found her twin sister, Linda, and her daughter, Abby, waiting for her in the ‘coloreds only’ lobby of the station. There were no other Negroes in the lobby at that time, so it felt like they were the three last people remaining upon the earth. Mavis never felt more at peace than at this moment.
For some reason, Mavis felt compelled just then to kneel down, to stare squarely into Abby’s eyes, and to inform her that in fact she was her biological mother, not her ‘favorite aunt.’ She did not want to take her away from Linda, who was doing a great job at raising her; but she wanted her to know the truth.
But Grace said no such thing; and since Abby’s kidnapping, she has had a recurring nightmare where that white devil with the baton snatches her girl for no other reason than that she had withheld the truth from her. After snatching Abby, the white devil always looks back at her, blows a kiss, and snarls with his old eyes: ‘You’re the next nigger on my list, because you did not say the truth.’
Mavis looks up from her lap. She cannot see Grace’s face, since it is way too dark inside that bus; but she can feel Grace staring into her soul. She needs to answer that question. Yes, it is one of those Job questions, the kind that she knows deep down should not be asked. Yes, knowing the answer is worse in the end than not knowing. But now that it has been asked, she does not feel that it is possible anymore to disregard it. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
I don’t know if I can love anyone after what I’ve done, Mavis whispers so softly in her tears as to be almost unheard. I reckon I’m lost like everyone else.
What have you done, except be one of life’s victims? Grace asks bluntly.
I’m not so sure it’s that easy, Mavis reasons. Oftentimes, I think what we call a ‘victim’ is just a person on the reaping end of what they’ve sowed.
Abigail never sowed anything, Grace counters.
That is true, Mavis thinks. Maybe she reaped what I had sowed. Does not the Bible speak of the sins of the fathers falling upon the children? If that is so, then how much more the sins of the mother?
* * *
Mavis Spencer met her Grandpa Seth only once that she can remember.
It had been a hot and humid June afternoon in 1930. Mavis was a smart, but shy, five-year-old girl in a hand-me-down her mother, Margaret, had worn a long time ago. Margaret is now an overweight, ornery, Bible thumper who sees her whole life, and in particular the twin girls born from her womb, as a divine chastisement for the morbid sins of her fathers, her siblings, her neighbors, her race, whatever else pisses off the temperamental Man Upstairs. She is not only physically far removed from the dress she had worn as a little, Creole girl down Louisiana way. More so, she is emotionally and spiritually about as far removed as two stars hovering over opposite horizons in the night sky. The five-year-old Margaret had been a fun spitfire in love with laughter and song. She looked out at the world through big eyes that appeared on the verge of swimming out from their sockets. The thirty-year-old Margaret is a dried up snot rag deadly fearful of whatever seems ‘outside the pages of the Good Book,’ such as loud laughter, secular music, and children, including her own twins, Mavis and Linda. Perhaps she is so preoccupied with the apocalyptic verses that something as simple and straightforward as the ‘suffer the little children’ verse passes unnoticed. There is no way to tell what makes Margaret tick. What matters to Mavis and Linda is how their own mother acts towards them: Curt, temperamental, put upon, as if every bit of interaction she has with them is a chore ordered by that angry, old Jehovah God in the pages of the Good Book she clutches all day long. Mavis and Linda mostly just stay out of her way, since they have learned already how very capable she is in swatting their bare butts or their knees with her leather Bible.
Still, even if she feels obligated, Margaret does nice things with her twin daughters every now and then. One of the nicest is taking them to the slide and swings at the Nathan Bedford Forrest Park just outside of Beulah. The slide and swings near the parking lot are ‘whites only,’ of course; but rather than tearing down the older slide and swings further in the park and behind the overhanging oak trees, the town fathers have seen fit to keep them up for the niggers. They only stipulate that the niggers cannot pass the ‘whites only’ slide and swings on their way to the older ones, thus forcing the nigger mothers and children to go in and out of the park through a forested path out back.
Mavis loves the walks through the forest. The trees and bushes appear so overwhelmed with life as to be on the verge of bursting at the seams. She feels like she is walking hand in hand with her twin sister through a different time, a vaguely medieval world where every little girl is a princess, every little boy is a knight in shining armor, and no one has to clean up after them when finally the girls and boys are done playing that day. It is like everyone is equally noble and beautiful; creatures of radiant light soaring and diving through a joy so intense as to be an incarnate reality in its own right; happy people having no more fear in their blood, except perhaps that light and rejuvenating fear that they will be tagged before they have been able to kick the can.
Even Margaret’s sourpuss demeanor; the way she mutters Biblical verses under her breath as if they are obscenities; the way her plodding fat lady steps over the uneven path make her look like she is carrying her cross on the path to Golgotha; none of these morbid eccentricities on her part can put a damper on the simple joy that Mavis feels while strolling through the forest. Maybe that is what Mavis loves the most about being here. It is the one place on earth where she can be close to her mother and not feel that her life is leaking out from her soul like air from a punctured tire. If only the three of them could stay here for all time, then Mavis anyway would never again shed a silent tear. That is not at all possible, though, because the white man with the badge who pushes all the niggers around will be sure to kick them out of the park when the sun sets. For that reason, Mavis cherishes all the more the limited time she can be here. She is only five, but she already has enough wisdom to know that we value most the things that can and will be taken from us.
So it is a hot and humid June afternoon, and Mavis has whispered a fairy tale secret into Linda’s right ear, when Mavis looks up to see a beautiful, naked man emerge from behind a bush. He is black, but there is not even an ounce of nigger in him. He is like a man born out of nature, a demigod with a long, thin, chiseled torso, a forest wind incarnated in black flesh a while, before no doubt returning to the bird chirps and the rustling branches. His manhood looks like a sack of potatoes about to burst. Mavis thinks it must be a curse to have to carry that around all the time, and yet the man appears totally unburdened. Mavis is drawn from his cock to his eyes. There is a playful madness in his eyes. His eyes seem to say that there is no end to playtime, if only we decide to disregard the call to supper. All fine and good, except that the longer Mavis stares into those eyes, the more she senses the pain just beneath the surface.
Mavis stops in her tracks. She does not know what to make of that vague idea. Thus far she has seen pain and happiness as completely separate feelings, like punishment and reward, or night and day. She is afraid, because the notion of being at once happy and sad is so new to her rational mind (not at all new of course to her irrational mind); and anything new is always dark and shadowy at first. Nevertheless, because she is shy, her inner fear comes across as a demure beauty, as if a rose barely opening and closing beneath an unforgiving, hot sun.
Margaret points with her leather Bible at the naked, dark man up ahead.
That’s your Grandpa Seth, Margaret snarls. Damn fool.
Mavis and Linda are speechless. They had never seen their father. From the bits and pieces they had heard, the Klan had hunted down Toby a month or so before they had been born. Margaret only said that Toby liked white women. He liked them so much the damn fool snuck into their bedroom windows, when their husbands were out of town or sick in the stomach from moonshine. Damn fool had played his hand once too often, so the town fathers swung him from a tree out on Harlow’s land. Toby had been too fast to pose for a photograph, so the best Mavis and Linda could do was to pull their minds together and come up with an agreed upon composite of what he must have looked like. They started to draw this composite face about as soon as they could bring crayons to paper.
Now, Grandpa Seth is not their father; but he is a father figure. To that extent, he seems to have been born out of their shared dream of what it would be like to have a man tucking them into bed at night and then protecting them from the nightmares in the shadows. They feel empowered, like they have now created him; but more so, they are afraid, because they cannot control how he is or what he does. If they had been older, then they might have understood at that moment that they were experiencing that same complex mix of power and fear that Dr. Frankenstein must have felt upon first viewing his monster coming to life; but of course they have no such frame of reference. They simply realize that this is scary and awesome and that they can only stand in place, and stare.
Grandpa Seth walks up to Margaret. He seems not even to notice his two little granddaughters. The closer he gets the less his eyes are playful. They are instead hungry, wild, like a man on the edge who is looking to score. Of course, the little girls are not wise enough to make any such interpretation; but surely Margaret is keen to his game, and pissed accordingly (not that it takes much to upset her). The little girls only sense that there is a very real tension in the air.
Margaret holds up her Bible like she is about to cry out, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’ Grandpa Seth is totally caught up in his own predicament, so he is a little slow in reading her body language. Nonetheless, before she really slams that Bible into his chest, he stops in his tracks. He looks at her, confused, hurt, as if somehow she has betrayed him.
Nigger thief stole my clothes, Grandpa Seth says haltingly.
Ain’t no nigger thief not hanging from a tree, Margaret berates him. You just romping with a whore that tired of your lip and ran off with your trousers…
No bitch running from me, Grandpa Seth says defensively.
Mind your tongue, Margaret snaps back. These are your granddaughters.
Grandpa Seth glances at them. There is a confused look on his face, like he is trying to figure out if indeed he has seen these granddaughters before. He has enough of them scattered around the state that he can never be sure which is which. He decides now is not the time to try to figure these two out. He grins awkwardly at them, and returns his gaze to his angry widowed daughter-in-law.
Please, Margie, help me, Grandpa Seth pleads.
What you want me to do? Margaret asks angrily.
Fetch me trousers, Grandpa Seth answers. Nigger can’t be walking about town with his black dick hanging out. Not unless he wants to hang from a tree…
Serves you right if you did, Margaret snarls.
Grandpa Seth starts to rub his chin, like he is thinking hard about what a man in his predicament should do next. He must have decided to change totally his strategy, because the next thing he does is to remove his hand from his chin and to slap the Bible out of Margaret’s hand.
Mavis gasps. She had never seen her mother not carrying around that old and smelly Bible. Her mother now looks completely weak and naked without it.
Mind your tongue, bitch, Grandpa Seth scolds her.
Margaret is shocked. She seems beside herself that the heavens have not opened and struck him down. Has God abandoned His most loyal disciple? What has she done to deserve what had been dished out to Job? Moreover, if God has no interest in saving her, then how is she going to save herself and her children from this bastard? He may be naked, but he can overpower them, if he decides.
Time you use your tongue the right way, Grandpa Seth says with an evil, perverse glint in his eyes.
He grabs a hold of her, and pulls her into the bushes. Margaret does not resist. She realizes that she does not have the physical wherewithal to stop him from doing whatever he has a mind to do. If she resists, then she may make the situation worse for herself and her daughters.
Mavis and Linda grip each other harder. They can see Grandpa Seth and Margaret through the bushes. He takes Margaret into a clearing. He pushes her shoulders down, so that she practically falls to her knees. He stands strong and tall with his legs apart. He sways his butt side to side, while her nauseated face bobs in and out of his crotch. Every now and then, he pats the back of her head like she is a good puppy; but for the most part, he lets his hands hang lazily by his side. He keeps his chin up, like he is a pompous general overseeing his men; but his men consist of a couple of stunned squirrels watching them from a safe distance. He never makes a sound, except for a grunt at the very end.
Margaret shuffles away when she is done. She totally avoids eye contact with her daughters, though she is careful to pick up her Bible. She seems to be clutching it now with contempt, as if she is powerless to do otherwise, and yet no longer has the faith she once had that it would protect her from the various monsters in the world.
Mavis and Linda cannot move from their spot. God could unleash all the fire and brimstone in His arsenal, and they would not have it in them right then even to try to seek refuge. They are afraid still; but even more so they sense a terrible wrong has been committed, though they do not realize what. Moreover they are feeling for the first time in their young lives the cold sensation of self-hatred, because of course they must be at fault for the terrible wrong. There is no other explanation. After all, did they not wish Grandpa Seth into existence? Have they not been wishing a father figure into existence since the initial time they drew together their composite of what their actual father had looked like?
Their composite had been a secret between them. They never had let on who they were drawing when together and separately they had drawn the face. And yet has not mother reminded them time and time again never to keep any secrets from her? Have they not been willfully disobedient in this regard? Surely they have, and so they are at fault for the terrible wrong that has been done. If only they had not kept their father figure fixation to themselves, then certainly none of this would have happened.
Grandpa Seth steps out from behind the bushes. He is rubbing some sort of slime off his cock. It is hard still, but it is deflating like a punctured balloon.
I’m sorry for keeping secrets, Mavis blurts out.
I am too, Linda chips in. I’ll never do it again.
Grandpa Seth is surprised to find them there. Did he believe they would simply wander off once he had pulled Margaret away? Or did he actually forget them? He cannot answer these questions for himself. All he knows for sure is he wishes they were not there now. The fact that they are there makes this whole situation feel dirty, and he turns his face aside to avoid eye contact with them.
Nigger thief stole my clothes, Grandpa Seth repeats unconvincingly.
We’ll never do it again, Mavis screams out, and sobs uncontrollably.
Grandpa Seth tunes them out as best he can. He wanders over to a fallen tree. Notwithstanding his beautiful, muscular body, he walks in a stiff way that suggests an old injury. There is a circular scar upon his left leg just beneath his butt. It is a scar from an old gunshot wound. The way that he rubs on that scar suggests that the gunshot wound may have been inflicted long ago, but it is still a dull ache that flames up whenever the weather changes or he walks too long.
He sits on that fallen tree. He hangs his head low. He looks like he is all at once fascinated with his own toes, though in fact he is staring into the black void that is waiting for him there at the end of his life.
Then, out of the blue, he looks up. He stares intently into the little girls’ faces. Now, it is their turn to look away from him. They are ashamed; and it is right that they are ashamed, as they have been bad girls.
Never try to tame the beast, Grandpa Seth advises the girls cryptically. I seen bitches try to tame me, and I slap them down. I hurt them, ‘cause bitches need to be hurt. Just ride the beast, go where he takes ya, and smile pretty. If you do what I say, ya won’t get beat too hard.
Neither Mavis nor Linda can respond. They shift on their feet, as if all of a sudden they are trying to keep their balance in spite of an earthquake that is localized to where they are standing. Mavis in particular imagines a deep crack in the earth spreading out from beneath her shoes.
Grandpa Seth is not sure the girls understand him. They probably do not, because his experience is that girls do not understand much of anything really, until they have been beaten a few times on the back of the head and the face.
Grandpa Seth just looks away. He remains silent until Margaret returns.
By the time Margaret returns to them with a Bible in one hand and a pair of blood and shit stained trousers in the other, Grandpa Seth has fallen asleep. He awakens with a jerk, even though Margaret approaches him in total silence. It is as if he could feel her defeated and angry heart beating against his cheeks.
Mavis recognizes the trousers at once. They had belonged to her father. For as long as she has been alive, they have been folded unwashed with a lot of other items in a crawl space beneath her mother’s bedroom floor.
Grandpa Seth snaps them out of her hand. He sniffs the death smell that must be all over them still. If they smell bad to him, then he does not let on at all. He just stands up, and drives his legs one by one into the trousers. He pulls the strings at the waist and ties them tight because he is much thinner than his own son had been. His cock is flaccid, but there is a noticeable bulge there, so that in Mavis’ imagination he is a black beast bursting at the very seams of life.
What took ya so long, woman? Grandpa Seth teases Margaret. Out there blowing a white devil cock, were ya? Walking on your fat knees before the Man?
Grandpa Seth chuckles. Margaret just looks away. She is ashamed, tired, and disillusioned. Her shoulders seem permanently stooped; her head hung low and sloppy; and while she clutches still her Bible, her fingers rub the leather in a lazy and indifferent manner. It is not a treasured keepsake. It is a bit of trash she picked up along the way. She looks like she would toss it, if only she had an idea how to do so without incurring even more heartbreak and ruin.
Grandpa Seth looks at the twin girls. They are sniffling away the last few tears on their faces, but they are not totally identical. Linda looks more pissed, her eyes narrowed, her month tense, like she knows this is bad and wants it all just to go away. She still has her guilt, because of course all this is her fault for keeping a secret; but it is obscured to some extent by her growing anger. As for Mavis, there is no anger at all, at least not outwardly. There is just sadness and fear expressed through the distance in her eyes and the withdrawal in her face.
Your girls are pretty, Grandpa Seth comments. Good for a man someday.
Best on our way, Margaret mutters.
Grandpa Seth glances back at her. He lifts his right backhand, as if he is going to swat her sore for giving him lip; but then he restrains himself. He grins instead, like she had told him a joke and he has just figured out the punch line.
Take care of my girls, he says to her. Shoot the first son of a bitch that is going to get inside their pants. Shoot him dead cold like the nigger’s a sick dog.
And with that comment hanging heavy in the sultry air, Grandpa Seth at once steps back into the woods from which he came. Mavis eyes him wandering across the clearing where he had forced Margaret onto her knees. He had done something bad right there; something that still makes the air thick and pungent at that very spot; but he does not seem to flinch at all. Maybe being a grownup means that you do not flinch any more…
Mavis thinks that may be the case, as Grandpa Seth escapes behind a tall oak tree and is gone from view forevermore. She senses that he has vanished at once back into the wind.
Come on, girls, Margaret snarls at her twins. Let’s get to the slide before the white man takes that from us, too.
As it turns out, the white man never bothers to remove the slide and the swings. Mother Nature does that for him. A couple of years later, there is a big tornado that just rips the rusted bars and nails out from the mud and tosses the junk into a ditch several hundred yards away. The white man never removes all that junk from the ditch, because only niggers go down there to drink whatever whiskey they have stolen from the hobos, and to conceive little niggers. For all that Mavis knows, the junk is down there even now, along with the soft dreams she and her sister had indulged during their treks through the medieval magical forest before Grandpa Seth had stepped in and out of their lives.
Margaret does not really change as a result of that encounter in the dark forest so much as she becomes more of what she had been already. She is more irritable, more despondent, more prone to thinking that her mean Jehovah God has tipped the whole world against her, and as a result of all these fears, more inclined than ever to think that her twins are really little demon girls born from her womb for no other reason than to torment her to an early grave. She snarls verses out from the Good Book, not because she believes anymore (if really she ever did) that the God revealed in those pages will help her, but because she is of a mind that reciting verses under her breath is part and parcel of the private hell reserved for the likes of her.
By the time the twins are about ten, Margaret is unfit for anything at all, but madness. She surely cannot work to put food on the table. She has put too much weight on her hips to do much more than wander about the putrid clutter in her small house. Moreover, her eyes are too blank, and her lips are too prone to mutter offhand Bible verses that seem totally out of place to the situation at hand, for her to be able to carry on a conversation with anyone except her twin girls. So she farms out her girls to the white families wanting domestic services on the other side of the railroad tracks. She makes sure their ridiculous ‘Nigger Mamie’ outfits are on just right, before shoving them out the front door before sunrise. She is asleep on the sofa by the time they return around midnight with heavy sacks under their eyes.
On one of those nights, the girls return home to discover their mother in rigor mortis on the sofa. They spend the rest of that night crying for her wasted soul. Even though they had learned over the years how to hate her, they shed a lot of tears between them, before the first hint of sunrise forces them back to their employers. They could not do anything about mother until their shifts had been completed, so it is well after midnight when they return home with an old and kooky nigger named Charles who had been born into slavery and had spent all his life wandering around the Nigger Tombs. Charles removes nigger corpses and buries them in the common grave out there for whatever the survivors are able to pay him. Usually, that amounts to a couple of whiskey bottles and a hot plate. He has a good gig, because no nigger in his right mind will call that white mortician, Pepper, who is known to be one of the higher ups in the KKK. Beside the KKK affiliation, Pepper also on occasion returns to the home of the grieving widow to rob her of whatever valuables he had seen while removing the corpse from the scene. Charles may be a small time conman, but at least he is honest about his cons, whereas Pepper hides behind the supposed decency of his race.
Mavis and Linda are fifteen, when they are freed suddenly from the long sentence in Margaret’s Purgatory. They could continue to be ‘domestic niggers’ in a handful of upscale homes, but they know already that the real money is in selling their bodies to hungry white men. They realize that they are good in the art of lovemaking. Each has been raped numerous times by the husbands within the homes they have worked. Apparently, white ladies want ‘domestic niggers’ so as to avoid the nastiest parts of housecleaning and childrearing, while their white husbands want ‘domestic niggers’ so as to do the filthy things they never could do with ‘the godly mother of their children.’ So for the wives, these girls are virginal, hardworking, dedicated servants; and for the husbands, these girls are jungle sluts who know just what to do with their tongues.
Just outside of town there is what the whites call a ‘race brothel.’ It is a WPA building that serves as the local Democrat Party headquarters by day. The local Democrat Party chairman is a fat man with a cigar who keeps his pants up with a pair of suspenders imprinted with red, white, and blue donkeys. His real name is Porky, but most people call him Pork. He doles out political favors with a Cheshire cat smile on his fat face and a hand stuffed into his shirt in the style of Napoleon Bonaparte. He also doles out ‘party gifts’ for his ‘very best friends’ in the business, and perhaps the most cherished of these gifts is an hour or two with one of the nigger whores Porky pimps out after hours.
Sometime later, Porky will become a Preacher Man. He will dole out the salvation promised in the Good Book in much the same way as he now doles out Democrat Party patronage. There is an inkling already of his future occupation. Though he is involved now in a decidedly secular pursuit, he can be heard often humming: What a friend we have in Jesus.
Every white john will swear that there is something special about nigger whores. They are just more uninhibited, like undomesticated jungle critters in heat. Their faces contort into all sorts of wild expressions, when they let loose on a white cock. Their bodies writhe like serpents trapped inside of a basket all day long and just now given a chance to move freely. Just to make sure that his johns do not forget who has provided this brief escape into Jungle Fever, Porky hangs the official portrait of FDR in every one of the small offices that serve as ‘love dungeons’ after hours. Porky himself seldom plays with the nigger whores under his care; but when he does, he always dons his KKK robe, and ties up his designated whore’s wrists, before sliding his little pecker into the sweaty bush.
Porky pays his nigger whores well and on time. Of course, he knows that his girls are just animals, but he wants them to be top notch animals who go all out to make his johns happy. Therefore, few of his girls ever leave, unless they are asked to do so for one reason or another; and those girls who want to break into the fold sometimes wait for years before given a chance to show what they have to offer. His girls have forged a sisterhood with one another born out from their shared experiences with the johns. This sisterhood is stronger than family over the long term. It is the bond that gives them a tenuous grasp on love in an otherwise dark and seedy life.
Mavis and Linda blend into this sisterhood seamlessly. At fifteen, they’re a little old to be starting out in the business. Porky prefers his whores to be no older than twelve or thirteen when they start. He wants quite literally to break them in, and some of his johns will give him big tips afterwards if they observe their whores bleeding during sex. On the other hand, he likes that they’ve had a lot of experience already in catering to the finest folks in town; and he hopes that one of these days their former employers will drop by to get some of that jungle action they used to get from these same girls back when they were their ‘domestic niggers.’ He desires to expand his clientele from the Democrat Party and KKK goons to the well bred grandsons of the old plantation aristocracy. It is not about the bottom line, because the income flow is fine already, so much as it is about being able to say that he is on a first name basis with so and so from such and such family. That counts for a lot anywhere, but in the South more so.
Even though they are full fledged whores, Mavis and Linda never think of themselves as seedy outcasts. They are just girls trying to make their way in an ugly world full of mad wolves in sheep’s clothing. Most everyone in one way or another wants to devour everyone else in a winner takes all race to the bottom of the hell pit. The medieval magical forest that had so excited Mavis and Linda when they were little girls in hand me downs no longer exists, if indeed it truly ever had. This does not mean that the twins are especially jaded or glum. They had seen firsthand how that way of thinking had ruined totally their mother, so they go out of their way to see the goodness in things. The passing away of that medieval magical forest simply means that they intend to ground their laughter and their optimism in what is real and tangible. They no longer want to soar or to dive through incarnate joy. They just want to earn enough money over time to hop onto a train chugging north and to relocate to either Chicago or Harlem.
And what can these girls possibly know about these exotic places? Really quite a bit, it turns out. The local library is for ‘whites only,’ naturally enough; but during the day, Mavis works in the back room with the books not out on the shelves. She is supposed to be categorizing them; but, in fact, she spends a lot of her time sitting in a corner and reading about the great and mysterious lands beyond the township line. For the most part, her supervisor in this back room, a bespectacled, stooped, retired schoolmarm named Mrs. Hardy, lets her read, when she should be working. Mrs. Hardy apparently has a soft spot in her heart for ‘educating niggers,’ since she says to her friends on the library board, ‘it is not as if we can force them all back to Africa anytime soon.’ Mavis’ reading is a kind of self-education, though Mrs. Hardy presumes that the girl comprehends a small portion of the words she actually reads. After all, even the brightest and best trained dogs are still dogs, when all has been said and done.
Mavis reads all she can about Chicago and Harlem. There is actually little to read about either of these locales, since the library board saw fit a long time ago to remove ‘insurrectionist literature.’ Anything that casts a Northern State or Municipality in a positive light presumably is ‘insurrectionist literature’ that should be ripped from the shelves and turned into kindling for a bonfire. Mavis, nonetheless, learns quite a bit from the limited resources available, and shares what she learns with her twin sister. Together, they compile whatever they are able to learn into a composite daydream of what it would be like to live among the Yankees. This fixation lightens the mental and spiritual load on their backs.
Mavis and Linda figure that together they will have saved enough money within a few years. Their plan is simple enough. On their twenty-first birthday, after finishing with their shifts at the ‘race brothel,’ they will act like they are returning home for the night. Instead of going home, though, they will make an unexpected detour that leads them along the side of the railroad tracks. These tracks will lead them to the station. They will each buy a ticket at the ‘colored only’ ticket booth, enter into that last train car before the caboose (the rest of the train cars being ‘whites only,’ of course), and sleep like they’ve never slept before. When they awaken, they will see the country north of the Mason-Dixon; and, oh, how their hearts will beat, when they behold what freedom looks like.
That is the plan. It is a good one. The problem with the plan is that it is never put into effect, because Mavis falls in love with the wrong man when she is nineteen. She runs away with this man, and she does not look back until it is really much too late for her to avoid the dark and bloody path before her eyes.
* * *
Mavis stops suddenly. She almost had stepped into a pond of blood in the center aisle of the ‘emergency room on wheels.’ Or at least the slippery goo at her toe appears suspiciously like a pond of blood in Grace’s bobbing flashlight…
Where do you think you are going? An ornery cackle of a voice berates at them from the darkness up ahead.
Mavis realizes it is the fat nurse. She forgets all about the blood beneath her. She wants to give the fat bitch a piece of her mind, but holds herself back.
It is okay, Grace assures her. We are just going outside for some air.
It is not safe for a spook outside, the nurse snarls. I am the senior nurse, so I am responsible if something happens.
Nothing is going to happen, Grace responds. I am going to stay with her.
The nurse considers this a while. Mavis cannot see her, but she can hear her slow and heavy steps returning to the front of the bus. Presumably, she has cleared the way in the aisle for them to continue.
As Mavis is about to step out the side door at the front of the bus, there is an ugly whisper into her left ear. It is the cackling fat bitch for sure, but she has dropped her commanding, older voice so as to sound instead like a taunting schoolyard bully. Her breath smells like cigarettes and onions baked in the sun.
Betcha feel so special stepping out the front of the bus, the bully teases.
Mavis pretends not to hear the whispered voice. She just drops her head, folds her arms in front of her chest, and follows closely upon Grace’s heels. No doubt Mavis will have the option of throwing a rock at this fat bitch somewhere on the other side. She thinks she will forget what the Good Book says, when she sees this one plodding down the street in front of her. She thinks she will throw that rock and enjoy hearing how it sounds when it smashes her mouth.
Who do you think you are? The bully continues. Another Rosa Parks? Oh, I know. You’re Rosa Parks’ cunt nibbler…
The bus door slams shut behind her. Mavis does not hear whatever else is said. Instead, she looks up and sees that that sky is completely overcast. It is as if there never has been a moon or a star cluster watching over this night world, nothing whatsoever that breaks the smooth blackness stretching from one dark horizon to another. Her memory of the moon, of the constellations, even of the first lonely star at dusk is not really a memory at all, but rather a hope inspired by her own flights of fancy. The reality is a dark and brooding universe that has neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. That is the reality that makes Mavis shiver when she follows the bobbing flashlight several steps ahead of her…
And it is a reality that she knocks out of her mind at once. Yes, she is all too aware of the cruel indifference that seems to be everywhere she turns. The downcast eyes pretending that she is invisible, the nervous feet shuffling out of earshot of whatever she may have to say, the common grave way out yonder at the Nigger Tombs that is unmarked and unvisited because of the terrible stench and the ghost cries, all these examples of cruel indifference indeed prevail in a world tipped decidedly toward Hell. And yet she has cried too many tears since she gave up her Abby, and since she learned that her Abby had been kidnapped from a Freedom Bus, for there not to be love pulsing like a distant beacon seen by the person on the crow’s nest of a listlessly bobbing ship. The ocean surface beneath the hull of that ship is as black as tar. It smells like rotting dead flesh, and when it splashes over the side it looks like spent blood on the deck. But the beacon is out there, regardless. It is offering a sanctuary, a warm place to take a meal and to sleep, because the source of that pulsing beacon is a love that is impervious to the howling winds and the crashing waves. She can love, because that love is out there, calling her home, reminding her that the real end of this nightmare is not death, but peace and fellowship.
Still she cannot avoid the questions better left unstated: Must peace and fellowship then include the likes of the fat bitch nurse and the white devil man who took her daughter? Of course, she knows all about forgiveness; and she will need to forgive them before she takes that last boat ride across the lake. But if she forgives them, then why must she be forced to view them sitting across the table from her, when finally she has been seated to her heavenly feast with the Good Lord Jesus to her left and her precious Abby to her right?
Because love and forgiveness are always on his terms, that is why. When He states that vengeance is His, He means that love and forgiveness is His also, since in the end what is divine vengeance truly? It is divine love and forgiveness as experienced by those who want neither to be loved nor forgiven. What really are the flames of Hell? They are God’s loving caresses. They feel warm and soft to those who love God in return, but they burn those who hate Him. He is going to do as He chooses. The only question is how we choose to experience what in His time and manner He decides to dish out to us. His burden may be as light as a feather, or it may be as heavy as a boulder, depending upon what we choose.
Mavis knows all this. She knows better than to be following Grace on this crazy ass revenge mission of hers. She should be back on the yellow school bus, holding the ice pack to her eye, and listening to the others moan.
But Mavis does not say anything. She just keeps her head down, folds her arms in front of her chest, and stares at her feet in the soft glare spread out by the flashlight ahead of her. She thinks about the blind leading the blind into an abyss, but she keeps making one step after another without comment. Perhaps, deep down, she wants to fall over the edge of that abyss. Perhaps, she desires her soul to be as blind as her swollen eye is now. Then, she will not need to be burdened by the same questions that had thrown Job for a loop. Love is a hard, taxing ordeal; and as her hold on Abby grows ever more tenuous with every day that passes since Abby’s kidnapping, she wants to be able to set aside love as a bad memory or as a juvenile indulgence. She cannot imagine love having much, if anything, to do with the wise and steady version of herself she sees emerging in the second half of her life.
But does she want to set aside love? In theory, yes, but what about deep down in her gut? She must admit that she does not, not tonight anyway, or else she would not be feeling so queasy about following Grace out into this dark and brooding night. If down in her gut she wanted nothing to do with love, then she would embrace this revenge mission. Indeed, she would have instigated it since after all it is her only daughter who had been kidnapped and presumably killed.
So what in the heck does that mean? Are you saying that revenge then is incompatible with love? Well, yes, it is. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; and, while I am spouting out my divine prerogatives, pass the butter, will you Mavis?
And anyway, this is not a revenge mission. This is about coldblooded and premeditated murder. Yes, that is what he did to Abby; but since when do two sins balance each other out? Do they not actually compound one another and in a way that is unimaginable at that time set into motion a much worse outcome?
And while we are at it, how can we be so sure that this is the very same man who snatched Abby from the Freedom Bus four years ago? From how Grace has described the scene, the Freedom Bus had been in a state of pandemonium at that moment. There had been no lights inside the bus. The man had been in a black uniform. He must have been a shadow among shadows, sweeping in like the wind, and sweeping out like the foul exhaust from a blast. Not much there, really nothing at all, onto which the rational mind can grab a hold. No, Grace is working on intuition on this one; ravaged nerves and mad delusions on account of how we had been attacked by the mob earlier today; pent up rage now given some release, for no other reason than that this night demands a violent finale.
Who is there? A loud and obnoxious man’s voice calls out from up ahead.
Mavis looks up to see another flashlight approaching Grace’s. They must have reached the perimeter. The sentry is supposed to protect them from kook racists out there, and yet he seems much more vexed by the prospect that one of the bus passengers might leave. In truth, who is being protected from whom?
I’m taking my nigger out for a walk; Grace answers the sentry in a more or less credible Southern accent.
The sentry steps into Grace’s light. He is a blubbery good ol’ boy with an ugly, square head topped by a crew cut. He hitches up his trousers all the time with the hand that is not holding onto a flashlight. He is the kind that looks out into the world always in a state of befuddlement, until on the smallest pretext his face contorts into a vicious snarl, and he prepares to pummel holy hell into whoever had distracted him from his benign cluelessness. No doubt, he is a low level KKK goon sent out to keep his eye on the uppity niggers in the school bus.
Gonna catch fleas if ya walk too close to your mutt, the sentry chuckles.
Grace does not respond to him. She turns back to Mavis, and gestures for her to follow. She then continues out into the darkness with her nose held high.
Mavis passes by the sentry. She keeps her head down. She imagines that she must resemble a tired, old mutt following her mistress around what with all the spunk seeped out of her soul. She tries not to listen, as the sentry chuckles a sick obscenity into her left ear, hitches his pants, and waddles down the line.
* * *
Where are you going, pretty girl? The sonorous male voice belts out from inside the idling black Studebaker truck along the side of the road.
Mavis had seen the clean and polished vehicle from a mile away. Seldom does she see a vehicle that does not look like a jerry-rigged beast hauled out of retirement for one more season of sputtering and coughing down the dirt paths and overgrown fields known as ‘highways’ in these parts. Most of these gurgling fume farts on wheels either are a sick grey or a rusted copper in color, and not one of them has all its windshield and side windows intact. There are also quite a few tractors and horse drawn carriages chugging or trotting down the country ‘highways’ to or from the general store downtown, not necessarily because the farmers cannot afford a car or a pickup truck, but because of a persistent view that says that cars and pickup trucks are just ‘toys’ for rich people. Just having one in the garage invites lazy ‘Sunday drives,’ or teenagers making out inside a vehicle idling in a kissing bridge, or any number of other leisurely pursuits that suggest a world falling away from ‘the old time religion.’ Of course, Bank Jews in pinstripe suits drive cars around Manhattan, and pretty boy actors out there in Hollywood do the same; and so, for these very reasons, ‘good Christian folks’ living within ‘God’s Country’ should eschew the car, as they had turned against Al Smith in 1928 and still keep demon rum out of their retail stores. It is about standing up for Jesus; and a man cannot very well stand up for Jesus when he is sitting behind the wheel of a car and accelerating towards his hell, now can he?
So the Studebaker grabs her attention; but imagine her total amazement when she turns toward that sonorous male voice and behold a handsome Negro man sitting behind the wheel like he actually owns it. From what she is able to observe while passing on the other side of the road, the man is not wearing any kind of cap or uniform, nor is he sitting in the upright and officious manner of a professional driver. On the contrary, he is wearing a white shirt with an opened collar and rolled up sleeves, and his left elbow is hanging lazily over the rim of his driver side door. If he is not the owner, then indeed he is the most cavalier chauffeur she has ever seen; and that alone warrants her rapt attention.
He leans out of his window. The hot summer wind flutters his wavy hairs every which way, but he appears unfazed. Indeed, his style is unkempt, like he is a grown up bad boy up to some sort of mischief, or a bohemian coming down a moment from his latest binge. There is a slight mustache on his upper lip that suggests a child trying to look like a man, except in his case he does not desire in actuality to do away with his own childhood, but rather to indulge the queer pleasures that only a boy feels when he first tries on adult clothing or attempts to grow a mustache. Indeed, everything about this man implies playacting in an attic; and though Mavis cannot see what is in the backseat, she images a large, wood chest that had been hauled down from the attic and is now open to allow the man behind the wheel to change his attire and his manners at any time.
Mavis glances into the man’s eyes. They are smiling eyes within a strong, but handsome, face. There is a con swimming in there somewhere; and if Mavis had been a little older and a lot wiser, then she would have kept on walking to the small town library. But for all that she has experienced already, she is still a nineteen-year-old girl not yet jaded to the idea that true love can and will be falling into her lap someday.
I said where are you going, pretty girl? The man repeats himself with the same charming voice as before.
Mavis stops at once. His voice may be charming, but even more so it is a compelling call to action. If he had been born on the white side of the railroad tracks, then he could have been a great politician. Instead, his voice is able to take him only so far. He can charm the skirts off of girls like Mavis. He can pull off his cons. He even can wield some power among his fellow Negroes. But he is not going to have the wherewithal to veil his corruption behind a soft veneer of statesmanship. Therefore, intuiting this very fact about his lot in life, he really regales in his moral corruption and intellectual dishonesty, like everything is an obscene joke and his life is the punch line.
Mavis tries to look away; but she can feel his danger; and that danger is exciting her in a way she had not known to be possible. For the first time Mavis is confronting the fact that love and lust really can mix together to form a hard and toxic knot in her heart. This knot is called ‘obsession.’ It is a hard pressure in one part of her body, and yet incongruently it is a wild confusion zigzagging its way through her soul. She is frightened and enchanted by her emotions, and as a result she is in no capacity to turn down the man’s invite to come on over.
Mavis walks over to the driver side window. She is speechless, but she is able to control her emotions enough to keep her eyes fastened on his. Although she is happy to be his ‘pretty girl,’ she does not want to be regarded as a ‘little girl.’ She is transitioning still into adulthood and so is a bit weary that somehow she could slide back into adolescence, if she does not exhibit the sophistication of a mature woman at this moment. She is playacting, of course, but she senses that playacting is an integral part of interacting with this cool dude.
So answer me, the man says with a mischievous grin.
I work at the library, Mavis responds in her best rendition of a seductive femme fatale voice. I tear out all the dirty pages from books, so that the white children don’t have any reason to blush.
You’re the guardian angel, the man chuckles. Is that what you’re saying?
I’m nobody’s angel, Mavis responds, really getting into the film noir role.
The man stares at her in silence. He allows the barest hint of a smirk on his lips, but otherwise he keeps a steady poker face. He may be reading her on one level; but Mavis senses that, more so, he is beginning to break her down. It is exhilarating for Mavis to think that love is the act of taming a wild horse into a soft and compliant pony. She will not think that it is so exhilarating down the road, but just then she likes how it feels to be broken down by a much stronger and older man. Rather than feeling small, she feels taken in a way that none of those johns at the ‘race brothel’ could even dream of doing to her.
Oh, you’re somebody’s angel, the man says after a while. It’s up there in the stars. Every ‘pretty girl’ is somebody’s angel, even when she ain’t seeing it yet. So why don’t ya get into my truck and be my angel ‘till I’m done with ya? I don’t bite. So don’t shake out a turd ‘bout that. I just sort of nuzzle, that’s all.
For just a moment, Mavis senses that she should turn her face away, and run like hell down the road. Her next thought is that this man is not from here. He is not from anywhere in particular. He is the kind of heart stealer who is ‘on his way’ from point A to point B. Catch him now, since there is not going to be a second chance. With that thought in mind, her momentary anxiety passes out of her love struck mind, as if it actually had never been there in the first place.
Mavis walks around to the passenger door. She works very hard to wipe a goofy grin off her face. She wants to keep her film noir character, even though she cannot even imagine a Negress Marlene Dietrich.
The man reaches over to the passenger door with his right foot. He uses the tip of his boot to pull on the handle. Then, he kicks the door with his heel. All the while he remains distant and cool, a James Dean before there really is a James Dean, as that angel has got to learn up front who’ll be pulling her wings.
He removes his leg, and she slides onto the passenger seat.
He continues down the road, and again she feels anxious. What on earth is she doing in this man’s truck? Is she out of her mind? Yes, she is; but then she grins, and tells herself that she would not have it any other way. After all, isn’t life about being swept off of ones steady feet and then catapulted into the sun?
Good to meet you, Mavis smiles while holding out her hand. My name is…
Angel, the man interrupts her. You’re name is Angel.
Mavis is taken aback, but she tries not to show it. She simply lowers her hand to her lap, once it is clear that the heart stealer will not shake it.
What’s your, Mavis begins…
George, the man interrupts her again. My name is George. Don’t bother with no last name; but if ya want one, then call me ‘Studebaker.’ I’m a George Studebaker. Nigger with a Studebaker truck driving his colored ass in the South.
You’re brave, George Studebaker, Mavis teases.
Damn right, George responds with a frown that suggests he is not all that happy with being teased.
Mavis catches the hint, and drops her smile. She looks down at her hands in her lap. She is still nervous, but even more so she is excited at how George is able to control her with just a slight change in his voice or expression.
Even if George is as blind as a bat, I’ll let him lead me into the abyss, no doubt about it, Mavis thinks.
George must be able to read her mind on some level, because his spoiled frown curves up into a grin at once. He keeps his eyes on the road, not because there is much traffic to see, but because that is what a cool dude does when he has got his angel by his side. He takes her, but he very seldom looks at her; and when he looks at her, he does so in a detached and condescending manner that suggests vaguely that he is bored. The cool cat keeps his face hidden within the shadows, until he pounces with his claws extended. The cool cat is bored, until he licks the blood out of the deep scratch wounds, and lifts his tail into the air.
They drive for hours back and forth across the county. Mavis notices that George avoids the actual town of Beulah. He is headstrong, but he is not dumb, since of course a nigger in a Studebaker will not get very far driving right down the middle of Main Street. Mavis also notices that he seems to be killing time in going nowhere in particular. He does not say much, though he is never as snarly as when Mavis had teased him a while back. He just allows Mavis to do most of the talking, as he sits low in his seat, and bops his head to a loose string of jazz in his mind. It is like they are old, comfortable friends on a lazy drive together.
The sun sets, and Mavis starts to think that maybe she should be heading out to the brothel. She is about to say something, when she perceives a lantern ahead bobbing up and down. Obviously, there is a guy standing on the highway, though it is so dark outside it is impossible now to see anything but the lantern.
George, see that man up ahead? Mavis asks with some alarm.
George just smiles mischievously. He leans his head back, and floors the accelerator. The Studebaker kicks back a cloud of soot, and presses forward as if a launched rocket.
George! Mavis screams, and braces herself.
Just in the nick of time, George screeches to a halt. The dark man ahead never moves, even though the front of the Studebaker stops only inches before his oversized belly. When the smoke clears the dark man can be seen and heard laughing up a vicious storm. His belly rolls up and down the inside of his shirt as if an accordion. His thick neck quivers like it is about to burst. His black, moon face lifts back to howl at the dark and starless sky above them. He would be an invisible man even this close but for the lantern he dangles by his sweaty chest.
Get out of the road, nigger, George yells playfully.
The dark man leans on the hood to collect himself. George pumps on the horn, and the dark man staggers backward. The dark man laughs all over again, and this time George snickers as well.
You’re a crazy coon, boy, the dark man states at the driver side window.
Like father like son, George remarks, as they are ‘slapping skin’ with one another. Mama let you out when the old white sheets are on the hunt all night?
Which mama ya talking ‘bout? The dark man laughs. I’s a new mama just ‘bout every night. This here coon county’s all full o’ whores with Beulah rabies.
Mavis studies the dark man. He looks too young to be George’s father for real. That must be an old, inside joke between two friends. She stares down at her hands in her lap. As much as she tries to act sophisticated, she cannot help but feel awkward. She also experiences again that nagging fear that now she is in something way over her head. She senses that it is too stuffy all of a sudden.
Watch your mouth, nigger, George says playfully. My angel here ain’t got no rabies. Why don’t ya be a gentleman and give my angel your big black hand?
What ya doing with a girl? The dark man asks suspiciously.
She ain’t a girl, George responds with a hint of displeasure. I told ya she is my angel, like in one of them Walt Disney fairy tales.
What ya doing with an angel? The dark man asks without skipping a beat.
I’m taking my angel out for a drive, George snaps.
The dark man shrugs as if to state: ‘Different strokes for different folks.’
So where is your big black hand? George seethes. Or do I need to find it?
The dark man reaches into the Studebaker. Mavis shakes his sweaty hand and smiles gamely. In fact, it is the most disgusting thing she ever has touched, but she thinks she does a good job in masking her displeasure.
Name’s Orville, the dark man says. Orville Wright ‘cause I fly like a kite.
And he bites, too, George says to Mavis as an aside. He don’t nuzzle like I do, so you best stay close to me tonight.
Mavis almost blurts out that she needs to go to her night job; but looking into George’s eyes, she thinks that that is probably not the wisest move on her part. Better to go with the flow and see where the stream takes her.
Do ya have good weed tonight? George asks Orville after a brief silence.
Is a nigger cunt full o’ fleas? Orville chuckles. ‘Course I got good weed.
George smiles. His prior displeasure seems to have passed as quickly as it had come. Mavis takes note that his mood alters for better or worse on a dime.
I ain’t kidding when I say them old, white sheets are out tonight, George says to Orville with an odd glint in his eyes. We’ll need to go back to your hole.
My hole? What am I? A goddamn coon coming out of the dirt? Orville says playfully and then chuckles. Maybe I’m a gopher. I go for this, and I go for that.
Or maybe you’re just another dead nigger, George says, before joining in the laugh. ‘Course they can’t hang ya ‘cause you’re so fat you’d snap the rope. But they could torch ya. I bet your burning flesh would give ‘em a contact high.
Orville staggers backward with his insane laughter. His lantern swings so wildly it almost bangs into his chest. Mavis imagines his chest in flames.
It takes a while, but finally Orville gets control over himself. He starts to walk down a trail that meanders through the woods off to the side. Although he is invisible in the darkness, his lantern could be seen from miles away in all the overgrown trees and bushes up yonder, so there is no possibility of losing him in the shadows. Still, just to be on the safe side, George keeps his Studebaker just a short stone’s throw behind the wobbling sentry the whole time they are going out to Orville’s ‘hole’ deep in the backwoods.
Orville’s ‘hole’ turns out to be a large chateau built of redwood logs and sporting a second story deck that enables a fine view of the meandering Beulah River many miles away. It has been jerry-rigged to connect into both the sewer and the electric lines, so Orville’s ‘mamas’ can enjoy the domestic luxuries of a typical, white housewife. There is no car out front, so apparently Orville has to get around on foot; or maybe he does most of his ‘business’ inside of his ‘hole.’
Mavis is surprised the White Knights have not torched this place already.
Once again, George seems able to read her mind, because he speaks up.
Orville’s got friends in the highest and the lowest places, George says in a tone that suggests both admiration and envy. He’s just a very friendly nigger, that’s all, the kind that everyone likes.
Mavis does not say anything. She looks out the window. There are simply dark shadows out there. They look like gangly giants with many arms poking out of their torsos; a whole army of them standing at attention; a brutal horde just waiting to stomp down on any young woman who tries to rush in between them to the freedom on the other side. Of course, in her rational mind she knows the gangly giants are just trees; but she also knows that escape is impossible so far out in the woods.
Then, as soon as she comes to that realization, she tells herself that she really does not want to escape after all. Has George done anything that should make her fear for her life? His mood changes on a dime, that is true; but that is true of a lot of men. Frankly, she has seen far worse assholes among the johns; and they do not even tip her afterwards. Maybe, the real reason she is being so critical of George is that she is afraid to grow up. If that is the case, then she is going to stop being so critical of George right this instant. She is a real woman, not a girl, goddamn it; and she is not going to let unfounded fear slide her back into that weak and stupid adolescence she so desires to eliminate from her life.
George parks his Studebaker. He reaches over with his left foot, unhooks the door handle with the tip of his boot, and kicks the door open. He looks over at Mavis that entire time as if to state: ‘Look how suave I am, angel. Just look.’
George must have loved Mavis’ reaction, since he winks at her before he opens his own door and steps out of the vehicle.
Orville is already at the front door. He has turned on the lights inside his ‘hole.’ He seems to be particularly proud of the fact that he has electrical light in there, as he proceeds to show by flipping his switch on and off several times.
Even most white folks in this county don’t have lights yet, Orville boasts.
You’re the nigger with the trigger, George responds playfully.
Damn right, sister, Orville says with a chuckle.
The décor inside could use a woman’s touch. Orville may have his share of ‘mamas,’ but none of them are housewives. There is clutter everywhere but the coffee table in the living room. Apparently, everything else in this hole can go to hell in a hand basket, since only what is on the coffee table really counts.
And what is on the coffee table? Marijuana bricks neatly piled into a tall pyramid. Beside the pyramid, there is a bucket full of cash, coins, and bullions. There is also an Egyptian hookah with a pipe that is coiled around the base like a multi-colored snake. The thin snake looks like it is breathing fumes in and out its pores. It is asleep, but it could very well snap at the next person to attempt a hookah hit. It is like all the evil charms of the Nile encapsulated in one piece.
Orville walks over to the phonograph. He plays a Cab Calloway record. It is a song named ‘Reefer Man.’ Orville has played it so often the vinyl scratches.
Mavis sits with George on the floor at the coffee table. Orville sags all of his considerable weight into a couch on the other side of the coffee table. He is the Grand Poobah on his throne. He lights his hookah, takes a hit, and passes it to George, who in turn takes a hit and passes it back to Orville. Apparently, the two will not be sharing with the third. This is ‘their thing,’ what ‘a father and a son’ do together when it is so late even the grandfather clock forgets to chime, and so the woman must be content the rest of the night with her contact highs.
This is just as well, Mavis thinks. She has never smoked a joint; and deep down, she will be just fine if she never does. She is happy enough to be next to her man; and at some point in the unending haze of steaming pot smoke, she is happy enough to be asleep next to her man. Let the men do ‘their thing,’ while for the first time in her life she actually dreams the dreams of an adult woman.
When Mavis awakens from those dreams, it is still dark outside, although the first hints of sunrise are only minutes away. George is standing over her. He has a distant look in his eyes. He has a hatchet in his right hand. There is blood on the hatchet, and it is dripping from the bottom tip of the blade to the floor.
Mavis sits up on her elbows. She is not sure where she is or who this man with the hatchet is. Everything is so dreamy; and a soft voice in the back of her head whispers that she is back home with her twin sister in the bed they shared together back when Margaret had been alive. Margaret is cooking biscuits upon a pan caked with bacon grease. She feels obligated in doing so; but regardless, she does a great job anyway. Her bacon grease biscuits are the best anywhere…
Except Mavis does not smell bacon grease biscuits. She smells blood, lots of it, and she also smells the marijuana that clings to everything inside the hole like dandruff on an unwashed scalp. The blend is so noxious she wants to vomit everything in her gut; and though that sensation passes, it is enough to open up her searching eyes to the facts of where she is and with whom she is partnered.
What is going on here? Mavis inquires in a voice that is barely a whisper.
Orville is gone, George says in the slow and careful manner of a man just awakening from his binge and trying in vain to mask the extent of his hangover.
And what is all that blood? Mavis asks.
He said we could have the money, George says.
Mavis gets to her feet. She realizes that Linda must be worried sick since she did not show up to work that night. She hates herself for worrying her twin sister and wants nothing more than to hug her and to tell her that everything is going to be just fine. There is really nothing going on that Mavis cannot handle.
I want to go home, Mavis whispers through her tears.
George looks at her, like he cannot figure out why she is crying. Isn’t the turn of events a good thing? Isn’t it good that Orville said that they could have the money? Shouldn’t this simple nigger girl be thankful that he has figured out how to make everything now turn in his favor? Goddamn, ungrateful, whore girl cannot understand a gift is a gift even when it smacks her upside her silly head.
Maybe I should go back to the whore boys, George thinks. At least, those slimy cocksuckers get it. They know that a bucket full of money is a good thing.
There’s no time for that; George snarls. Get the bucket, and follow me.
Mavis steps over to the coffee table. There is blood splatter everywhere she looks. There is a pool of blood on the saggy couch cushion where the Grand Poobah had been holding court. Over there looks like the shredded remains of a bloodied shirt. Over here looks like…Oh, no, it can’t be. Is that a severed head?
Mavis clenches her eyes shut. She is tense all over, as if she has been hit by lightning. She hears her heartbeat in her ear. It sounds like a specific phrase voiced to the rhythm of her heart: severed head, severed head, severed head…
She hears George’s plodding footsteps receding behind her. Soon, he will be outside, back in the Studebaker, and then gone. She will be inside this black hole and next to a severed head. Inside this black hole, and stepping on blood…
She grabs the bucket. It is heavier than anticipated. It also makes a sick swishing sound. There must be blood inside this bucket. Maybe body parts too…
She does not look down. She just holds the bucket by her side, and exits.
George starts the ignition, when Mavis steps outside the front door. He is looking straight at her through the windshield, but he seems not to see her. His blank eyes do not seem to see anything at all, except maybe a hatchet wielding nightmare from which he has yet to awaken. If she does not get into that truck right this moment, then he is going to leave her behind without even giving her a second thought. That does not say much for what he thinks of her, but this is not the time for Mavis to be giving any serious thought to this new relationship.
Mavis slides into the passenger seat just in time. She eyes the hatchet on the seat beside George’s right thigh. It is full of blood. It smells like rotted, sun baked meat. Its blade curves in such a way that it looks like it is smiling at her; the blood drenched grin of a mad ghoul; the grin that sings, ‘I’m gonna get ya.’
Mavis cradles the bucket in her lap. She wants to keep whatever is inside from spilling all over the place. She does not want any blood, or maybe a gooey earlobe, or maybe a slithering eye, to splash out from underneath all that cash.
She looks at George. He is staring straight ahead, while steering his truck along the meandering path and back out to the highway.
She realizes that she is as much his captive as his girlfriend. Maybe, they are one and the same when it comes to love, not that innocent, puppy dog love she had known as a child, but that hardened, matured love she senses is around the corner. So this is what it means to be an adult woman in love, Mavis thinks, while the Studebaker rumbles over the rocks and then screeches back onto that long and lonely highway. Scared shitless, but so alive, finally and totally alive…
* * *
Notwithstanding everything she experienced with George, Mavis does not recall ever being as frightened as she is now. ‘Scared shitless’ is a good phrase, since she feels like the dried up skin and bones still remaining when the last of the cold sweats have been shed. She is the dried up skin and bones that cannot bleed, or piss, or shit. There is not even enough saliva to wet her chapped lips, so that her lips feel like they are going to crackle into tiny pieces and fall away whenever her teeth chatter. Her eyes are not swimming in her sockets. Rather, they feel like chiseled stone pieces about to crack. Even the swelling about her left eye does not feel mushy, so much as hard and heavy, like a big rock pasted onto her face and calcified by the dry air outside the bus.
And yet she still takes one step after another into the thick blackness of an unrelenting night. She hears Grace a few steps ahead of her. She senses the light coming out of her flashlight, or perhaps she just tells herself that so as to fight the voice that says that this really is a case of the blind leading the blind. There has to be something on which she can grasp; something that offers her a reason to hope; otherwise, this is just a suicide march into her grave. Thus, she senses the light coming out of her flashlight, because if there is light, even the dimmest suggestion of light, then there is a path that can be seen and followed away from this dark time and place. She cannot see; but there is a reason to be hopeful, if Grace can see just then.
But what can Grace see? Mavis asks herself. Isn’t she blinded by her own passion for revenge? Isn’t she lost, because she refuses to believe that love will triumph in the end? Isn’t she an atheist really, because she willfully hogties and blindfolds herself to whatever vexes her heart, and then claims there is no God on account of the fact that she cannot see Him?
But who am I to judge? Mavis thinks further. If I had had an ounce of the faith I castigate others for not having, then I would not have done what I did to my daughter. Heck, I would not have done what I did to George, even if indeed he had it coming. So who am I, but just another in a long line of hypocrites? No doubt, God has set aside a special pit in hell for the likes of hypocrites like me. Maybe that is why I am following Grace now. It is not enough that I am a cursed hypocrite. I want to be a murderess as well. I want to be marked for damnation clearly and unambiguously, so that there is absolutely no question where I have to stand when the trumpets blare. Absolutely no question I am among the goats standing next to the burning flesh and the poisonous fumes out of Armageddon.
And this is a reason to be hopeful? Mavis asks herself. Why should a lady bother reaching out to the beacon, if the ocean currents invariably are going to pull her into the mouth of the dragon? Why is there hope in a flashlight if when all is said and done the path leads to an unredeemable death?
Just keep moving, Mavis whispers under her breath. Just remember that somewhere else at least is not here. No real consolation, when somewhere else is a hell pit; but until I give up my last sick breath, I’ll just keep on moving as if there is a reason to do so. I don’t know if this is insanity, or one last attempt at faith; but I’ll let God make the distinction. It is enough for me just to take one step after another through this dark and scary world.
Grace stops up ahead. Mavis catches up to her. They have emerged from a forest and are standing now on a sidewalk. There is a single red light swaying in the breeze over an intersection. It is an eye blinking open and shut for those phantom vehicles that pass through here this late at night. There are no actual vehicles, because the people who have the wherewithal to own vehicles do not venture into this sad part of town at this hour or are spooning their housewives behind closed doors.
The only traffic is a white bum swimming inside of a tattered jacket and tie. He is wearing a homburg hat that is tilted so precariously to one side of his wobbly head that it will take no more than a breeze to push it onto the ground. He is so drunk he does not even realize he dropped his bottle of whiskey a few blocks back. He cannot focus his mind on anything, except a verse from a hymn he no doubt learned in Sunday school decades ago. He sings it off key and teary eyed, as if he is vaguely aware that the hymn has no real meaning in this place.
Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war,
with the Cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the Royal Master, leads against the foe,
forward into battle, see his banners go.
Grace watches the pathetic man staggering down the opposite sidewalk. There is contempt etched on her face. She squeezes the bag in her hand. For a moment, she thinks that she could balance the scales just as much by putting a bullet into this man’s forehead. He is weak; and weakness is evil, when there is nothing else but the righteous few on the one hand and the horde on the other.
Mavis stands by her side. She shifts anxiously upon her feet. She feels as if a little girl walking into her closet at night to come face to face with that old boogeyman. She is not going in there to defeat him, but to be defeated by him. This is all wrong, a kind of moral suicide before the physical death that is going to come in its own time; and so she shifts her feet anxiously, and rubs her hard hands over her folded arms, like that same little girl anticipating what that old boogeyman’s clammy death touch will feel like when she is alone with him. For a moment, she wishes that she could be as cold and murderous as her friend by her side, if only so as to be freed from that horrible death sensation that is now chewing through her skin and into her bones. Contempt truly works in blocking out old fears and squeamish nightmares. It hardens hearts to the timeless pains that gnaw at our spiritual innards as if famished rats released from their cages.
But contempt also defeats the possibility of love. It snuffs it out, like an infant held underwater. It hardens the smirk on the murderer’s lips, just as she is holding down that infant; and then when the deed is done, it relaxes the sick smirk into an impervious and distant expression. There is no love possible when pain has been replaced by blank indifference. There is nothing, but calculation, secrets hidden inside vaults, and lies upon more lies.
And so the moment passes, and Mavis reaffirms in her own mind that, no matter the severity of the pain in her soul just then, she will not permit herself to feel that same contempt she sees in Grace’s eyes. Mavis will love. No doubt, she is a fool; but she would rather forsake the wisdom of this cursed world than to give up on love. Will this foolishness save her from the hell pit? No, it will do no such thing. Indeed, if anything, then it will speed up her trip into the devil’s clutches. Still she will fall down as a fool for love when the last light fades out.
Grace turns off her flashlight. Besides the flashing red intersection light, there are no other lights on in this part of town. She is afraid that her light will be noticed by the insomniacs in the shabby tenements down the road. There is also the possibility of a police car rumbling this way, and the last thing that she wants to do is to try to explain to a good ol’ boy police officer why she happens to be strolling alongside a nigger woman.
There is another reason to be a black form sifting in and out of the night world. The truth is, for all her outward contempt, Grace is not so certain she is up to the task of putting a bullet into that man’s head. Is it her conscience now percolating up from her bowels like a bit of verse remembered in the course of a nasty hangover? Or it is womanly weakness, plain and simple, that very same feebleness that Alice had noticed so long ago and that had inspired Alice to try to persuade her into embracing widowhood? Is there really a difference? All the years she had left her son to be raised by her mother, did she not feel the pang of guilt surface now and then? And did not that very same guilt weaken her, so that when she needed every bit of her strength to keep Abigail in her arms that terrible night, she failed to save her from that vicious Boss Man? Perhaps, if she is a hideous, black form roaming the streets ahead, she will lose that last trace of humanity that so weakens her resolve when it really matters. Perhaps, if she is a beast, then she will get one taste of what it is like to wield the power of an aggrieved goddess.
Yes, revenge is damnation, Grace thinks. No matter the legal and moral justifications I offer, I know deep down that this is wrong. But I am going to do it anyway, since the one time I actually allowed myself to feel the wicked jabs of love inside my heart, that bastard took her away from me. He just took her, like I was not even there. Well, tonight he is going to know that I am here; and so, if I am going to do it anyway, then why not do it with the surefire temper of a beast? Why not be hideous to the core when I pull the trigger without even an ounce of mercy in my soul? Why not be a devil, if I have decided to be damned?
Grace leads Mavis through a maze of cheap tenements and beer joints. It is a seedy neighborhood in a seedy world. Apart from several drunks snoring the hours away in a gutter, they do not run into anyone. It is as if the neighborhood has been cleared, so that the whole world may be reduced to the murder about to be committed.
Finally, Grace stops in front of a specific address. There is a light inside.
It’s like the devil knows we’re coming, and he’s staying up for us, Grace whispers without once removing her stare from that drab tenement before her.
How and when did Grace discover that this is the man’s residence? Mavis thinks. Even if I concede that Grace had recognized him in the crowd, Grace all along has been with me since the march came to a sudden and violent end. She came with me to the hospital. She elected to stay with me on the bus. She took a while in getting the icepack, but surely not long enough to have wandered all the way back into town and figured out where the man lives. So does this mean that Grace had hunted this man down before the march, thus joining the march for no other reason than to get close to the man before killing him off? Surely, she could have foreseen that he would be in the mob. Apparently, the Boss Man is not one to pass up an opportunity to commit violence against small and weak people. She would see the viciousness on that man’s face and then be resolved that much more to follow through with her intentions.
If all that is true, then what does it say about Grace’s participation with the march? Is she a Civil Rights proponent, or is she simply using the Movement as a venue for realizing her own peculiar needs and wants? No one is altogether selfless, but what am I to make of someone who seems to be altogether selfish?
And I was not selfish when I gave up my child? Mavis thinks. Did I want to protect her, or did I want to protect myself?
Mavis hears a baby crying. It could be an infant inside one of the nearby tenements, or it could be Abby reaching out to her now from somewhere within her soul. Regardless, the cry haunts her; and she feels rooted into the sidewalk on which she is standing alongside Grace.
Can you hear her? Mavis whispers.
It’s like the devil knows we’re coming, Grace repeats.
And so they stand silently together; each woman lost in her own peculiar dream; each woman waiting for a black sign that they can and should go ahead.
* * *
Mavis pulls the curtain aside just enough to glance out the front window. She is careful not to be noticed by the people walking down the sidewalk. They should not be able to see her because of the overgrown bushes and trees in the front yard, but she can never be too careful. She knows the consequence if she screws up: a punch to her left eye, a broken lower lip, maybe even a quick kick to her abdomen when she is down.
George is especially fond of kicking her there when he thinks she may be with child. She has had two miscarriages already, though she does not think her husband had anything to do with those. Mavis is always a dark ghost in her own house, but she makes a special effort to blend into the wallpaper whenever she observes that she has missed a period. There does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the beatings, beyond the fact that George clearly has no desire to be a father anytime soon. Nevertheless, on the whole, the beatings really seem to subside in proportion to her ability to fade into the simple décor of their house.
Maybe the main reason George does not want to be a father is that he is afraid his wife will never be able to fade into the simple décor, if she needs to breastfeed a crying baby or to change a shitty diaper. A man can usually forget he has a wife, but can he forget the mother of his own child? Yes, but harder to do; and George is not about taking on harder problems than the ones he has on his plate already. Easier if his ‘angel’ is never a ‘mama cunt’ in the first place…
If a child’s place is to be seen, but not heard, then a wife’s place here is to be neither. This is especially the case whenever George gets the thirsty look in his eyes and goes out at night to find a nigger boy under the bridge. There is always a good looking, shirtless, nigger boy smoking weed or passing the bottle. Sometimes, he brings the nigger boy back home; usually, he does not. In either case, Mavis knows that it is best to stay clear until the thirsty look fades as if a forgotten dream. Life with George is all about staying clear and waiting for the storm to pass. At best, it is a holding pattern; at worst, it is an absolute horror.
In the past few months, it has been an absolute horror. Mavis had begun to take precautions the moment she missed her period. A dark part of her mind had hoped that she would have a third miscarriage before too much showed. So awful to think that way, but can she blame herself? If God does not finally flush the little baby out, then George will do the honors as soon as he glances across his plate of pork chops and mashed potatoes and sees the bump in her womb. It will be over in seconds; the table pushed over to the side; the chair legs kicked out from under her; the tip of his boot punched into her stomach hard and fast; a sound not unlike a baton smashing into a rotten pumpkin; a smell that brings to mind blood and piss gurgling out from a pumpkin shell. Best, God, if my baby is just a stain in the toilet bowl; and best if it happens before too long. Really, a reversal of the Virgin Birth, but in this house anyway, that reversal is not any misfortune over which to shed a tear. It is a blessing. It is a chance to survive a while longer with a husband who has murder in his eyes just about all the time.
The thirsty look is not the same as the murderous look. The thirty look is something that needs to be satisfied right now, while the murderous look is the slow and brooding contemplation of when, where, and how will be best. There is no question of who is to be murdered. After all, when we shed all the ribbons and lace, is not marriage just a license to kill? Wives kill their husbands over all the time they are married by nagging them about this or that failure. Husbands just snap one night, roll over in their beds, and wring their necks until they can hear something snap. The one is inclined to prolonged torture, the other to fast and conclusive violence. In a way, George is both the wife and the husband. He tortures Mavis in his own calculating manner, usually passive, but with spurts of violence thrown into the mix; but Mavis knows that when the end comes, it will be quick, painful, and bloody. It will be a smelly, gooey mess. He will not clean it up. Even then, when he is staring down at her lifeless body, he will presume that she is going to get up off the dirty floor and scrub everything. And if she is not getting up fast enough, then he will kick her lazy ass corpse until she minds her man and gets to work. That is how it will end. Just one kick after another…
But there is no third miscarriage. Mavis thinks that God must have pulled her number. It is her turn to be put through the wringer. Every night about the fifth month she braces herself for the beating she will receive when he glances away from his pork chops and mashed potatoes long enough to observe that his Angel has put on some weight. She even toys with the idea of telling him she is suffering from a tumor. Unwed mothers to be often will tell the world a version of the ‘tumor story’ when they start to show. After all, ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ and ‘Leave it to Beaver’ are all the rage for those few who own television sets; and for everybody else, it is presumed that they will live the Wonder Bread lives all the ‘good people’ in T.V. Land seem to live. This is as true of colored people at this time, even though most whites presume that they are living it up without a care in the world. Regardless, Mavis decides that the ‘tumor story’ just will not work for her. George can smell a liar. He will not be gentle with a wife who has the audacity to try to pull the wool over his eyes.
But he does not look up from his pork chops and mashed potatoes during that time. Indeed, he is seldom there to enjoy the food she labors to put on the supper table. He has found a nigger boy named Lucas, and he wants to spend as much time as he can with Lucas. They go out riding together in his Studebaker. They swim naked together in the river. They get shitfaced together on pot and whiskey, while sitting on the front porch and staring absently at the overgrown bushes and trees. Neither one of them works, so far as Mavis can tell; but they always seem to have enough pot and whiskey to keep themselves grinning like a couple of fools well into the night.
Mavis starts to sleep on the couch. She explains that the couch is better for her ailing back. In fact, she is afraid George may discover her baby bump, if he should happen to roll close to her in the middle of the night. George pays no attention to her explanation. He is just happy that he can provide a bed for his new friend. After all, it would not be right to send Lucas back to his cardboard box beneath the bridge, now would it? So George and Lucas take the bed, while Mavis hides her baby bump beneath a moth eaten blanket upon the dirty couch.
During the day, Mavis wears a muumuu she had found at the thrift store. George hardly looks at her, but she is careful anyway not to make her situation obvious. Perhaps if she is having a very small baby, then he will never catch on.
But what is she going to do when the baby is born? She cannot very well hide a hungry and irritable infant. She can tell him that she is watching Linda’s baby for a while. George does not approve of the fact that Mavis and Linda now and then write letters to one another. He considers Linda to be a bad influence what with her philandering ways. But even George will understand that his wife has to watch her sister’s baby for a while. It is the kind of thing women will do for one another when times are tough, and George figures that times are tough for Linda pretty much always because she is a filthy whore.
Not just a filthy whore, George will think, when Mavis broaches the topic of watching over Linda’s baby for a short while. But a filthy whore still living in Beulah of all places. At least, I had the good mind to put my Angel into a home just outside of Selma. But so be it. I’ll let my Angel watch Linda’s cunt squirt if only the twins agree to stop writing to one another like a bunch of old lesbians.
Mavis has it all figured out, but then one night Lucas leaves in a huff and never comes back. George puts a nasty bruise on both her eyes, so that for the next few weeks she looks like a raccoon. He laughs at her all that time. He says that she is his ‘coon angel.’ At least, when he laughs at her, he loses whatever inclination he may have had then to beat the hell out of her. Thus, while she is suffering a lot of verbal abuse all that time, she never gets the vicious smack in the face or kick to the stomach that could have killed her unborn baby. Earlier, she had wanted a third miscarriage; but as the pregnancy comes to an end, she actually counts it a blessing that George does not strike her down. She actually wants this infant. She is not sure how or why, but she actually loves him or her.
It is less than a week before her due date. Mavis cannot fathom how it is that George remains so oblivious. She is so bloated now even her muumuu feels snug around her midsection. She also smells like an expectant mother. It is not easy to describe the smell; but it is there; and at times it is downright pungent. George can smell a liar. He can smell a con. How is it then that he cannot smell his own wife about to give birth to his own child? How can he not know already?
She is peeling potatoes at the sink, and pondering these questions, when George stumbles in out of the rain. She is about to turn her face to say hello to him when she practically smells the anger in his whiskey breath.
So he knows my deepest secret, Mavis thinks. He is going to kill my baby.
Mavis drops her knife and potato into the sink. She braces herself for the inevitable attack. She can hear her heart beating as if a baby rattle in her ears.
Goddamn bastard is going to kill my baby, Mavis thinks. He is really going to do it. I’m just going to let it happen, as I let everything happen, goddamn it.
George pays no attention to her. He opens the kitchen drawer beside her and removes his hatchet. In her peripheral vision, Mavis can observe the curve of the blade. It is grinning at her, just like it had been grinning at her the time they left Orville Wright’s fine chateau with a bucket of cash drenched in blood.
Perhaps not right now, but one of these days I’m coming for you, the old hatchet blade snarls in her mind. Slice, and chop-chop, and off goes your head.
The old hatchet blade chuckles, and Mavis restrains a solitary tear that is about to fall from her left eye. She grips the edge of the sink, and stares down.
Normally, when George grabs for the hatchet, he lets out his frustrations on the stray dogs and cats around the neighborhood. He stomps out with his big shoulders stooped and his head dragging, so that he looks like an ogre released from a cage. He does not care who views him plodding his heavy boots through the muddy fields behind the houses. He is a drooling beast without the smallest pretense of sophistication. It is as if he has never observed a Studebaker truck, let alone driven one. There is no saving his mad soul, until he satisfies his blood passion by driving his hatchet through the throat of an innocent yelping animal.
George always returns with a few canine or feline heads in a bag. He will drop the contents onto the supper table, return the hatchet, and then go off to bed like nothing happened. Mavis always gets rid of the heads before he wakes up the next morning. He never inquires about them, so perhaps he forgets what he has done. Except that that is not really true, because as much as Mavis truly wants to think that he forgets these hunts she can read the memory in his eyes.
This time it is different. Mavis senses that George is not going out into a rainstorm to catch stray dogs and cats. No, the appetizers will not be sufficient for the ache in his soul. He will need human blood. He will need to hear the cry of a nigger boy, first in his ears as he lifts his blade, then forever in his dreams.
Mavis desires to tell him no, but she stays silent and still before the sink.
She hears George leave. She remains at the sink until she is certain that he is not going to have second thoughts about his hunt. Then, putting the food and cooking instruments away, she retreats to her couch and pulls the tattered blanket over her head. There are no sounds, but the rain beating upon her roof and the baby rattle heartbeat inside her head. The sounds are distinct initially; but then, imperceptibly, they coalesce into one another, so that that storm out there waxes and wanes in rhythm with her growing dread. She feels as if she is the queen of that storm out there; and yet, incongruously, she feels powerless, convicted already before the heavenly throne, just waiting for the blade to fall on her neck. Her throat stiffens in anticipation of this imagined chopping block.
And yet what does she have to fear, but more of the same? Yes, her time will come; but is it not more likely that the blade will go for her child before it goes for her? Has she not been kidding herself all along in thinking that George, the same madman now plodding through the torrential rain with his head hung low and his hatchet scraping against his own thigh, is going to be totally peachy keen with her child just because he thinks Linda is the mother? That nigger boy he butchers tonight has a mother. Maybe she is an imbecile. Maybe she is poor. Maybe she is dead. But she loves her son, and she is going to lose her son for no reason that ever could make sense to anyone. So if George does not care a whit about her, then why will he care a whit about a woman that he considers to be a two-bit whore? Why not slice the baby’s neck, and add the baby’s head to his collection, when the baby wakes him up in the middle of the night? Why simply flirt with the devil, when you can take him to your bed and pull the old drapes?
So as she hears the storm waxing and waning everywhere out there, and also in one, dark, little corner inside her own imagination, she decides that she is going to give up her baby. Save the baby from the grinning hatchet blade, so that at least he or she has a chance at living a life that is not cut short by a hot fit of madness. Let the baby grow up in the steamy shadows of a ‘race brothel,’ because when all has been said and done the pimps and the johns may degrade an innocent child’s soul, but they leave the head attached to the neck and the arms and the legs attached to the torso.
Mavis is awake still beneath her tattered blanket when she hears George return. The storm outside is no more than a weak smattering of raindrops and a hoarse wail of a wind. The storm outside is an old man ready to give up his sick ghost for whatever damp fields may be waiting for him beyond the horizon line.
George sounds just as old and feeble. He does not walk but rather slides his heavy feet over the kitchen floor. His breaths are so loud and haggard that he sounds like he is snoring while still awake. There is no sense of triumph, just resignation, and a stone cold heart crackling into small pieces and falling bit by bit into his bowels. He is not even a monster anymore. He is a dead man who is able to roam the earth still because of a perversion in nature. Everything about him reeks of nature molested by thick and dirty hands and set loose to commit the kind of evils usually relegated to the realm of nightmares.
Mavis hears George drop a bundle on the supper table. She waits until he passes her. She waits until she can hear him snoring from their bedroom. Then, just to be careful, she waits a while longer.
She pulls her blanket aside. She rubs her hands over her large belly. Only a matter of days before she sees her child. She does not care truly if it is a boy or a girl, though deep down she already senses that it is a girl. She will give her the name of Abigail. She will give her her maiden name for a surname; because of course Abigail is going to be Linda’s bastard daughter.
There is another reason she will be Abigail Spencer. Although Mavis is so embarrassed to admit it even to herself, she does not know George’s last name still. He is still ‘George Studebaker,’ and she is his ‘Angel.’ To the world that is out there beyond the overgrown bushes and trees, he is simply ‘George,’ while she is ‘George’s wife.’ The white folks do not think about it. After all, for most white folks, niggers are just laborers addressed when told to do something that white folks would prefer not to do themselves. In those instances, they call the niggers ‘spook’ or ‘ace,’ as in ‘hey, spook, bring over the nails,’ or ‘ace, serve me another beer.’ As for the colored folks, they know that this is very odd that ‘George’ and ‘George’s wife’ do not seem to have a surname, but they are very careful not to pry. Maybe, they have seen George with his hatchet in the fields.
Mavis will give the newborn a first and a last name. She will shed a large bucket full of tears, as she hands her over to the midwife with instructions that the midwife keep the child until her twin sister claims her. She will stare a long time into her newborn’s face. Try to etch that tiny face into her memory. Then when the midwife makes it clear that she must be on her way, she will turn her face, because she will not want to see the midwife actually stepping out of her house with her baby cradled in her arms. She will sit in her house all alone the rest of that day. She will be careful to get supper ready in time, but no matter what George says or does her heart will remain broken. Part of her actually will hope that he decides for no reason to beat the hell out of her that evening. He will be God’s agent if he does, because she will deserve judgment for what she has done in handing over her girl. She will deserve all that he dishes out to her, or so she will tell herself when she feels the sweaty fist smashing into her face.
But that is in the future, Mavis reminds herself. Right now, there is work to be done; and it must be completed before the first hint of sunrise in the sky.
Mavis walks into the kitchen. She sees the bag on the supper table. It is unreal in the darkness, like a vague form caught in the twilight between dream and real vision. It could vanish, once she awakens completely. Or it could stay right where it is, thus making it all too clear that nightmares do not necessarily end when the dreamer is awake. She hopes for the former, but fears the latter, since everything about her life with George tells her that nightmares very often breathe, and shit, and move about in the real world.
And anyway, she has not been sleeping. She is as awake now as she had been the moment George removed the hatchet from the kitchen drawer. There is no way she can relegate any of this horror into her dreamscape, no matter if the sheer reality of it all gnaws at her heart and whispers insanity into her soul.
She lights the lantern by the sink and carries it over to the bag. She sees that it is full and wet. ‘Saturated’ is a better word. It is so packed with sloshy blood and slippery innards as to resemble an overripe piece of fruit bleeding a bucket of juice from the inside. She figures that if she lifts the bag, then it will fall apart in her hands, thus releasing onto her feet a macabre waterfall of sick blood, gooey innards, sliced limbs, and severed bones. Somewhere in that mess there is going to be a decapitated head, probably with a gruesome face, maybe even with the victim’s tongue sticking out of his mouth. She certainly does not want to clean up that mess, but even more so she does not want to observe the death face staring blankly up at her in the ghostly light cast by her lantern. She does not want her lovely baby and that dead face to occupy the same memory, even if deep down she senses that birth and death actually are much the same.
So she steps outside and finds a large, wooden, garden box. Once upon a time, it had stored gardening tools; but when George decided that smoking pot and drinking whiskey could be a better use of his time than caring over his tiny patch of Eden, the tools had been traded away. The box is rotten on account of the rain and the snow over the years, but it is intact enough to do the job now.
Mavis returns to her supper table. She places the box upon the floor and pushes the sloshy blood and guts bag over the edge. It drops into the box with a sound that calls to mind a sick fart. Indeed, as anticipated, the bag falls apart; and so the box fills with innards and limbs swimming in a blood stew. Actually, a lot of the body parts are not included. Probably, George had stuffed as much as he could into his bag and then left the rest for the scavengers. Nevertheless, as feared, George had been careful to bring back the head.
Mavis gasps audibly when she glimpses the head staring up at her. It is a face that had been handsome once; but at the very end, it had been contorted into a mask of fear. There is no tongue sticking out. Apparently, George cut the tongue out and threw it in with the innards. Without a tongue, the open mouth looks like a black hole that had been in the process of swallowing a huge penis, when it had been cut down. The bulging eyes are strangely inquisitive, as if the eyes had been asking: ‘Why the hell are you going to do with that old hatchet?’
Poor Lucas, Mavis mutters when she recognizes the face. Poor, poor boy.
There is no way she can carry the box. She puts the lantern on the table, bends down, and drags the box across the floor and out the door. The huge box makes a terrible scratching sound as she drags it across the floor, and so she is afraid the whole time that it will wake up George; but in the end, he continues to snore away the remainder of this night. She is relieved when finally she exits her place, since the goopy mud outside will obstruct whatever noise she makes.
She drags the box across the yard. A few raindrops fall upon her head. It is just enough to give her a bad case of the shivers. As if to add insult to injury, the winds laughs at her, when it rattles through the low hanging dead branches and thorny bushes off to her side. There is not enough of a storm to shove back against her resolve; indeed, not even enough to make her knees buckle; so the most this old man weather can do is to snicker at her predicament a brief time.
She backs into a dead tree that had been felled by lightning years before she and George came to this place. She leans upon the tree just long enough to catch her breath. There is a rooster crowing somewhere in the distance, so the first hints of dawn must be only moments away.
She turns to face the tree. For a dead thing, this monster retains a lot of putrid and heavy rainwater in its rotten bark. It seems impossible to move; but Mavis knows from experience that, when she crouches down, and clenches her eyes shut, she has just enough raw power in her heart to slide that waterlogged monster across the mud a few feet.
That is what she does. Once finished, she collapses onto her weak knees, and leans over the tree, like she is praying at a prie-dieu. Perhaps on a deeper, subconscious level, she is offering a prayer; but consciously, she has no more in her than to try to recover physically from the great exertion.
Several roosters crow, and she sees a break in the total blackness in the eastern horizon. There is no sun yet, just a vague greying of the night that very soon will turn into a hazy purple, and a stillness in the air that calls to mind an orchestra the split second before it breaks the silence.
There is no time to waste. With the dead tree out of the way, she looks into the mouth of a well that had been abandoned years ago. There is not light enough to see the bottom, which is just as well. She has seen before the canine and feline skulls she has thrown down there over the years. They always look at her with the same snarling expressions on their faces; the same dagger teeth in grimacing mouths still threatening to bite whoever happens to fall into the well with them; the mildewed fur floating on the surface of the stagnant water as if a maggoty, threadbare sheet thrown over the bony faces.
Mavis returns to the box. She drags it to the well. She is about to push it into the hole, when she again glimpses Lucas’s contorted face. No doubt, he is giving an unseen penis fellatio. It must be a pretty big penis, because he seems to be choking on the goddamn thing. What a way to go; and yet Mavis senses at least he had been in his element, so to speak, when George had sliced him with his hatchet. If only we are doing what we most desire when the devil takes us…
Mavis snaps out of that thought. She turns away from Lucas’s face, gives the box one more shove, and hears it smash into those canine and feline heads already down there. The well water bubbles from all that blood slithering down to the bottom. It is a choking, gurgling sound, like a death rattle caught within a suffocating throat at the very end of an old man’s life. It is impossible to hear that sound without wanting to vomit.
Pushing herself away from the well, Mavis waits until there are no more sounds down there. Then, she returns to the dead tree, pushes it over the hole, and staggers back toward her house. She barely crosses the threshold when she feels her knees buckle and then apparently vanish altogether. She lands on her face, smashes her lower lip, and slides her pregnant belly over the dirty, blood smeared kitchen floor. God, how she hopes that nothing happens to the baby in there; but she is too tired to shed any tears for what may have happened inside her womb when she fell down.
Need to scrub before he wakes up, Mavis mutters. God, how I wish I had kept on walking when I saw his truck along the side of the road. Just kept on a walking and never looking back…
But she did stop, and so she has to pay the piper. That’s just the way our world works, Mavis thinks. We get to plant whatever seeds we want; but when the harvest comes around, we have to reap what we have sowed. Every cursed day we have to bend down low and pull up the weeds we planted for ourselves.
She is too tired to stand, but she manages in time to walk upon her beat up knees over to the water bucket and sponge. She scrubs until the sponge just dematerializes in her hand. Then, she scrubs with the palm of her hand. There is just so much blood and gunk that did not make it into the box; but she thinks she gets all of it, while George is still sawing rotten wood inside their bedroom.
What she does not notice is that the whole time her smashed lower lip is bleeding. Blood drips down her chin and onto the floor. She gets most of it with her hard scrubbing, but not all. There is just enough to get George’s attention, when finally he staggers out to discover what his Angel has made for breakfast.
George does not look at her when he sits at the table. He folds his hands and stares downward like he is deep in prayer. Mavis knows that this is what he does when he is fighting off a nasty hangover. With all the drinking he has done over the years, it is amazing that he still gets hangovers. Maybe he succumbs to them because deep down he desires them. Rationally, this makes no sense, but consider that the nausea in the bowels, the shiver in the spine, the warm sweat on the forehead, all of these flu like symptoms remind him that he is still alive. A real part of him died in that field yesterday. It squirted out from his soul with every one of the blood squirts coming out of his victim. Nevertheless, in a way that is as undeniable as the pain in his skin, he remains a man like anyone else.
George looks up. There is a glassy look in his eyes that indicates that he is not really there. Maybe, he is back there in the field, cutting and slicing that nigger boy Lucas, stuffing what he can into his bag, and telling himself that the nigger boy had it coming for being such a goddamned faggot. Or maybe he is in Orville Wright’s chateau and hearing the obese dope dealer tell him how he can have all the money if only he will let him go. For that matter, maybe he is back at home, staring at the bloody hatchet he planted in his father’s forehead, and remembering where his father hid the keys to the Studebaker. All the good and funny memories, the barrels of laughs, and not one of them involves this stupid Angel bitch, nor her whore of a twin sister, nor this marital love nest that they have called ‘home’ for the better part of a decade. Thank God he can still slip away now and then with his hatchet for a few shits and giggles. Otherwise, this stupid Angel would have turned him into a henpecked husband a long time ago.
And what’s that on her lower lip? George thinks. Must have fallen during one of her stupors. Damn Angel’s got a dry cunt, but do not think for a moment she is dry anywhere else. I can smell the whiskey on her breath, even when she is doing her woman’s business in the kitchen. She thinks she can hide it. Stupid, stupid, Angel, what else is she trying to hide? Does she think I do not recognize how she’s put on weight? Does she think I do not recognize why she’s a fat slob?
George sways gently side to side. He lets his thoughts move him. Yes, he is as sick as a dog; but he feels kind of good now that he is directing his venom towards the fat bitch in the apron cooking up his biscuits.
He looks down. Something catches his eye down there. He is not certain what it is; so he bends down to take a closer look, even though that makes him feel like vomiting up what little bile is left in his stomach. Probably something the fat bitch forgot to clean up, since she is so drunk and lazy all the time.
Well, look here, George thinks, while twitching his lips into a mad smile. Blood spots on my floor. Fat bitch cuts her stupid lip; then messes up my floor…
In that moment, the hangover vanishes altogether. He knows of course it will be back with a vengeance soon enough; but right now at least, he is strong and clearheaded. Indeed, he could take on any army, or at least this fat bitch…
George knocks the table over. Dishes and utensils crash to the floor.
He shoots up and points down to the floor with his left index finger.
Mavis shrieks. Hot biscuit grease splatters onto his arms and hands.
Angel, clean up this mess you made, George screams.
Mavis looks, but cannot see what is on the floor. No doubt, she missed a bit of the blood and guts she scrubbed away earlier that same morning. She has to get the bucket of water right now. That is what she has to do. She has to get it before George really gets pissed. It is not just about her. It is about her baby too; the baby just days from being born; the baby who will never know this evil and sadistic madness. Oh, God, she has to get the bucket of water this instant…
But Mavis does not move. She is frozen in her fright beside the hot stove.
So that fat bitch lazy turd will clean up her mess in her own sweet time, George thinks, as his maniacal smile widens. Is that why she is not moving now?
Of course, it is, George answers his own question in his head. ‘Cause she is a whore, like her cursed, twin sister, and whores do not mind their husbands.
George then rushes forward. He grabs Mavis by the back of her neck and pushes her face into the hot skillet. Mavis screams like a cat in heat. This sound repulses George so instantly he pulls her out of the skillet and shoves her to the floor. He would have kept her face in the skillet longer if she had not cried out.
Goddamn fat bitch whore could not take her punishment like a real man, George thinks. She just had to sound like some sort of bitch beast crying at the top of her lungs for a man’s spunk. Same kind of black cat scream a bitch beast will use to trick a baby out from a man’s loins…
Mavis flails wildly at her face. It feels like it is exploding anew with each passing second. She wants to scrape her face off of her skull and bleed to death that very moment. She wants to die, so that this unbearable pain then will end.
But even more so, she wants at all costs to save her baby. How on earth can she think about anything beside the burn on her face? That is a question for which she will never have an answer. All she knows is that the very second that she thinks of her baby she stops feeling the burn on her face and simply focuses on crouching her body into a small ball so that George cannot attack her womb.
He goes for the hatchet. It is in the drawer. He did not clean it when he returned last night, and Mavis had not thought of it when she was scrubbing the blood and the guts off of the floor. Thus, the blade is still caked in dried blood, like the grin of a fiend after it has dined on the blood and guts of the innocent.
George stands over Mavis. He sways the hatchet side to side. It slices his thigh slightly every time it sways back, but he does not seem to notice that he is cutting into his own flesh. Instead, he just stares maniacally at his Angel, and offers her a wide and inebriated grin.
Mavis looks into his eyes. The bastard knows, she thinks. He knows that I am with child. He is waiting for me to deliver, so he can slice my baby into tiny pieces and force me to bury it along with the rest of his victims.
Angel, clean up this mess you made, George commands her in a soft, but firm, tone. Then, finish my morning biscuits ‘fore the rest of my food gets cold.
Of course, the rest of his food is a mess on the kitchen floor; but that is a small detail. George really could care less about breakfast. What he desires is to see his Angel respond to his voice like her heels are on fire. What she does is less important than how fast she does it, ‘cause if she’s fast then she’s minding her man. That is the way it will be. Either she is a fat bitch, or she is his Angel, and as far as George is concerned she has been a fat bitch way too long already to permit any patience on his part. It will be the letter of the law from now on.
Mavis jumps whenever George speaks; and as a result, there are no more beatings over the next few days. Indeed, George puts on the charm to a degree that he had not bothered in years; hugging her from behind when she is peeling potatoes at the sink; complimenting her strong arms when he sees her churning butter; even kneeling beside her when she is resting on the couch and caressing her left nipple. Mavis smiles every time, but she is terrified that he knows. The only reason he is so happy is that he knows the child is coming. No doubt, he is thinking about how he will snatch the child one night, carry her out to the field in the back, and chop her into little baby bits. Yes, he smiles; but his eyes give it away; and so she must dig deep to manage a smile whenever he touches her. She must be convincing, because he would hit her if he sensed even a white lie.
The contractions had started early this afternoon. Mavis had been afraid that she might go into labor when George was there. She can wear her muumuu and pretend not to be pregnant. He can pretend not to notice. But there is not going to be any way to deny what is happening when finally she goes into labor.
Fortunately, George had left earlier. He had muttered something to her about looking for a job; but as he had not been inclined to work at anything for God knows how long, Mavis had assumed that he was going to go out to that old bridge to find himself another nigger boy. She noticed the thirsty look inside his eyes; but she managed still her affable smile, as he stepped out the front door.
Now that George is gone he is as far from her mind as the noon sun from the midnight moon. Her one and only preoccupation is her baby. Abigail will be here any time now; and she is not sure she can squeeze her out just right if she gets no aid from Magda, the midwife from the Negro church down the highway.
She had waddled down to the church when she felt her first contraction. She had stayed in the gutter the whole time, lest she forget to step down when she passed a white person on the sidewalk. Her bare feet splashed mud even up to her muumuu. Her hair flew every which way in the wind. She looked like the beast that had staggered out from a tornado, when finally she knocked the old, rotted, barn door at the Negro church.
Given her appearance, the deacon had denied her entry, but he had said that he would pass on the word to the elderly woman who acts as a midwife for the colored women in the area. He then slammed the door shut in her sad face; and she leaned forward, and gave out a dejected cry that could have awakened the dead. Mavis did not cry long, though. She knew she had to save her tears in order to squeeze her baby girl into the world in the next few hours.
She has done all she can, so she simply stands by the window, and hopes that Magda gets there before George does. She does not even want to consider what she will do, if George returns before Magda.
Where is she? Mavis mutters, when there is another sharp stab of pain in her womb. I know she is up there in years, but this is ridiculous.
There is yet another sharp pain. Mavis grabs her womb, and slowly bends forward. She stares down at her bare feet, and counts her toes, so that in time she is able to distract her mind from the excruciating pain.
She steps away from the front door, across the kitchen floor, and over to her couch. She stops a few times along the way to steady herself.
All this pain just to give up my baby girl, Mavis whispers despondently to herself, before wiping a long tear from her left cheek.
No sooner does she lie down than she hears the front door creaking open ever so slightly. It must be Magda. George is never so careful with the door. As every man is the king of his own castle, George exhibits his divine right to reign over his wife and his property by stomping about his house with as much grace and subtlety as a mad bull in a china shop. If George had arrived, then likely he would have rocketed into the house with a splash of raw whiskey on his breath. He would have a deviant grin on his face, if he had found a new nigger boy. He would have a much bigger and cheerier grin on his face, if he had failed in that quest, since then he would be thinking about the pain he is going to inflict soon enough on his Angel. She would know her fate just by glancing at his sick smile.
But this is not George, and so Mavis lets out a sigh of relief. She wants to sit up on her elbows to face her visitor and to offer a greeting, but she is in too much pain to do anything, but clutch at her womb and moan.
A sweet, elderly, colored woman in an old fashioned floral dress hobbles up to the couch. She is carrying an oversized purse in both hands. It is feminine and antique in appearance, but Mavis knows that inside there are those tools of the trade that a colored woman is not supposed to have. This is her version of a doctor’s bag, and what is inside has helped many poor, Negro women give birth over the years. Mavis just hopes that whatever she does, she does it very quick, because frankly the pain is unbearable.
Magda smiles more with her eyes than her lips; but it is genuine and puts Mavis at ease. She can see that Mavis is trying to say something, but she raises her right hand from her purse as if to state, ‘do not speak, save your energy for what is about to happen.’
Mavis complies. She is in too much pain for pleasantries anyway. She just rolls her head away, as if she is embarrassed to be in such a situation when she has a guest in her house. The fact that Magda is there only to provide a service is beside the point.
Magda places her purse on the floor. She bends down, rummages through the purse a while, and retrieves a long stick of incense and a match. She lights the incense, places it on a table beside the couch, and waits for a sweet, bluish cloud to spread about the room.
For a moment, Mavis is afraid that the neighbors may smell this strange, disorienting blend of sweet and sour smoke. Maybe George will catch a whiff as he approaches his house. Forget the newborn baby. George will be really pissed that a pungent incense cloud is billowing out through the cracks in the windows and walls. It is okay if he dabbles with his weed, but God forbid his wife should indulge in anything more potent than the occasional contact high she gets from him. Now, that would be downright scandalous; and he would be in his rights to smack her in the face. Indeed, he might even beat up Magda for good measure.
But then her pain and her worries just float away. It is not that she stops feeling anything. Rather, her physical and mental sensations seem unreal, like a bit of gossip whispered to her about what some other woman is feeling at this moment. She cannot be sure that whisperer is telling her the truth, and so it is easy enough to relegate the pain and the worry to the realm of spooky stories a couple of gals might tell one another over a cup of spiked tea. Yes, that is what is happening now. Magda and Mavis are sitting together on the couch, drinking the most potent cups of Earl Grey ever to be concocted, and trading lurid tales about some other old woman giving birth to Abigail and worrying about George.
Magda speaks to Mavis over the next hour or so. She tells Mavis when to push. She reminds Mavis to breathe. She holds Mavis’ hand, and tells Mavis that Jesus loves her as much now as He did the day He died for her sins.
But Mavis hardly hears her words. Instead, she reads her words in her old and gentle eyes. Those eyes have seen about everything there is to see under a cruel sun. They also have seen wonders that cannot be seen by the rational and sober mind. Magda is a Christian woman, but her eyes are pagan. They are way too kind to be the eyes of a witch, but they have eyed the bubbling cauldron in a dark and craggy dungeon somewhere. They have seen evil, and have survived.
At one point, Mavis is floating in Magda’s eyes. She is a baby herself just rocking on a soft cloud in rhythm with the ebb and the flow of the ocean waves beneath her. It is like she has given birth to herself, and her first apprehension of the world is that it is good. The world is a baby on a cloud above the eternal ocean, and it will not be anything more unless she decides.
Unless she decides, Mavis thinks. Because she will not be moved, not by an abusive husband, not by a good ol’ boy pimp, not even by her mother. If she moves, then she will move by her own power and in pursuit of her own passion.
Imperceptibly, Mavis falls out from those old and gentle eyes. She is not a baby anymore. She is a woman who has just transitioned into motherhood, as evidence by the little, naked, colored infant that Magda is cradling in her arms.
Magda sits beside Mavis on the couch. She rocks the newborn to sleep, as Mavis returns to consciousness.
Mavis tries to sit up on her elbows, but Magda urges her to stay down on the couch by simply raising her right hand.
You know your baby’s a girl, Magda says with a kind sparkle in her eyes. I ain’t yet seen a mother who did not know the sex of her child before I told her.
Yes. I know, Mavis whispers, while she wipes away tears of both joy and sorrow. I’ve been calling her Abigail for months.
Abigail’s a pretty name, Magda says with just a hint of sadness.
What’s wrong? Mavis asks.
Oh, nothing, child, Magda responds. Just thinking how hard life can be to girls with pretty names.
Mavis sits up on her elbows, notwithstanding how weak she is right then. Magda does not try to stop her this time.
Now, looking at her Abigail straight on for the first time, Mavis sees how truly beautiful she is. There is a great and immediate surge of maternal love in Mavis’s bosom; and for a moment, she wants nothing more than to take Abigail into her own arms and to hold her forevermore. This is her child, after all. It is as if this child had been conceived with no man involved; and the two of them, together and forever, are the only two persons remaining on earth.
You should hold her, Magda urges gently.
Mavis is about to open her arms, when she thinks of George. She sees his thirsty eyes, his distant grin, his nose twittering, as if he can smell the scent of his next victim. Mostly, she feels his conniving intelligence. He knows, and he is pretending not to know simply to lull her into making a wrongheaded move. He will pretend that this is Linda’s child, go along with Mavis’s ruse, but behind his thirsty eyes he will be playing out the scenario. He will have snatched the baby and carried her out to the field a million times, before he actually does it. And then, when he drops the baby parts onto the supper table, he will be certain in his own mind that Mavis will do what needs to be done with what little remains of ‘Linda’s baby.’ That is the truth of the matter. Because of the maternal urge now sparkling her nerves, Mavis wants to hold Abigail; but even more so, Mavis wants to protect Abigail. And she realizes just what she must do to protect her.
Mavis drops her arms by her side. She starts to sob uncontrollably. She so much wants to hold that child, but she will not do so. Goddamn it, she will not.
You still want to give up the child, Magda says.
I must, Mavis whispers through a veil of tears.
Magda thinks a while. She looks down at the sleeping infant in her arms.
Listen, girl, what if I told you I could take you and your child to a place, where your husband would never find you? Magda asks without looking up from the baby. You’d have to start again. Life would be damn hard, maybe just for a while, maybe for the rest of your life. But you’d have each other…
Mavis cannot really wrap her mind around what Magda has said. It seems so unreal, like something suggested in a dream. Mavis wonders if she has fallen into a temporary bout of madness.
When Mavis does not respond, Magda looks up from the baby, and stares at Mavis in a kind, but frank, manner. Her eyes seem to say, ‘I’ll support you to the end, no matter what you choose to do; but you do not need to give her up.’
My mother was born a slave, Magda remarks. Mamie called her ‘Love’ on account of her good heart. Her mother had been killed by the whip not too long after she was born, so every slave was her brother or sister, and Mamie was her Mama. When Sherman came to town, the soldiers tortured and killed Massa and burned down his house. There was nothing left, but burning tobacco behind the slaves and an open gate in front of them. Now, my mother was just a little girl; but she knew that she had to choose. ‘Freedom’ out there where she has never been, or ‘more of the same’ back with the burning tobacco. Turns out it wasn’t much of a choice. A few of the colored folks got their forty acres and a mule at the end of the war, but most ended up back in the kitchen or in the field. Only difference was that they ain’t ‘slaves’ no more, but are now ‘free laborers.’ No difference at all, when you have to draw your drinking water from the same old shit marsh you have to bathe in. My mother chose to stay back. She knew later on that her life probably wouldn’t have been any different if she’d chosen then to be free, but she was haunted anyway by her choice the rest of her life. That is the point, she’d say. Not about what life throws at you. About how you think of yourself. Are you a free woman, or are you a nigger? My mother chose to be a nigger, and she regretted it forever. Oh, yes, she was still full of love, but in truth there was no light in her eyes. Her brothers and sisters were no longer all the colored folks on the plantation. Her brothers and sisters were niggers, just like she was a nigger, and just like she’d die a nigger. At the end, all she could say was this: ‘Life’s hard everywhere, so best to choose freedom, when you’ve got the chance. Let no man move you. Move yourself, or be a nigger like me.’ I told her to take her words back, but then she died in my arms. Look, it ain’t at all right that I’m speaking this way just after you’ve given birth to Abigail; but, you know it, and I know it, there just ain’t much time before George returns. If you’re going to be free, then you have to choose ‘freedom’ right now. I’ll help you either way, but I hope and pray that you choose ‘freedom’ over the sad life that you have with George. Life can be better, not just for Abigail, but for you.
Mavis envisions the open gate in front of her. She can feel the tobacco at her back. It is burning so ravenously as to devour everything in its path; and by all means, she can and should run forward, if only to get away from sure death.
Then, she looks down, and sees Abigail in her arms. She will not be able to run for freedom without taking Abigail. She will not be able to face all of the uncertainty of a life beyond the open gate without Abigail also facing the same uncertainty. Her failures out there will be Abigail’s failures. The hell that she is going to make for herself out there will be Abigail’s hell. Is it not better to give Abigail a better chance by placing her into Linda’s care? Is that not actually the only way Abigail may be spared whatever the dark fates have in store for Mavis?
What nonsense! Mavis thinks. Be honest. You would not run through that open gate, even if you did not have Abigail. You feel safe with George in a way that you could never feel out there. Sure, George is going to cut you to pieces; but at least with him you know what you’re getting. Out there, you don’t have a clue. So be honest with yourself, girl. You’re not leaving your home for a flip of the dice out there. Your dreams of going out to Chicago or Harlem are dead.
Take her, Mavis whispers. Spare her from what is left of my life.
Grief is selfish, Magda remarks coldly. So is weakness…
Get out, Mavis pleads. Take my girl, and leave.
Magda does not respond. She looks down at Abigail, and sheds a tear.
So pretty, Magda remarks. Life’s going to be hard for you. Maybe, you’ll make it. Probably, you won’t; but for as long as you’re alive, you’ll be free. No one will ever look at your grave and say that you were a nigger, that’s for sure.
Mavis turns her head, so that she no longer sees Magda and Abigail. She’s so ashamed. Part of her wants George to come home and to beat the living hell out of her soul. Beat her senseless, so she views the world through dumb eyes…
A few minutes later, Mavis hears her front door creaking open. Mavis has one more chance to call Magda back. One more chance to choose freedom over slavery; one more chance to have a life with her Abigail, whatever that may be in the long run, rather than a life consumed by her own loneliness and torment.
But she does not say anything. She keeps her face turned the other way. She hears her front door creaking shut; and then she hears nothing, but her sad sniffles and exhausted heartbeats, as she thinks about what to cook for supper.
* * *
Mavis touches her heart. She opens her mouth to ask Grace once more if she can hear the baby. In her mind anyway, the crying seems simultaneously as loud as a railroad train chugging towards her and as distant as an echo in a soft breeze. It has the immediacy of being right here and now, but it is also just the faintest whisper from a long dead memory.
Then the crying stops midstream, like the baby had vanished into thin air at once, or had been smothered by a pillow.
There is total silence, except for the sound of her heartbeat, which does not sound like a baby rattle anymore, but instead calls to mind a fast beat on a pair of bongo drums. Her heart is a vicious, raging beast inside her chest, which seems intent upon burrowing through her skin and escaping into the night world all about her. She cannot calm it, let alone keep it inside her flesh; and so, her only recourse is to shed a tear and to lean upon her friend by her side.
Grace startles out from her own mind, when she feels Mavis leaning into her. She holds up Mavis, and looks questioningly into her face.
I’ll be okay, Mavis responds to the look in Grace’s eyes.
Are you sure? Grace asks with genuine concern.
Yes, Mavis answers after a moment of reflection. I don’t think we should go through with this, though. I understand everything you said, but I have a bad feeling. It’s not nerves, though I admit I’m scared. It’s just…well…I don’t know how to say it exactly…but it’s as if we’re opening a door we’ll never shut again.
That man in there opened the door, Grace snarls.
I know that, Mavis counters…
And if we don’t stop him, he’ll kill again, Grace interrupts. Maybe kill us one of these days. Maybe kill another innocent girl.
It’s just that there are decisions that are irrevocable, Mavis argues. Even when we try to undo what we’ve set into motion, we find out we can’t flip that switch a second time.
Do you want that on your conscience? Grace asks, obviously not hearing what Mavis has said. How are you going to feel when you read someday about a second little girl dying at his hands?
Mavis does not say anything. She looks down at her own hands, as if they are dripping with blood already.
Grace takes her hands into hers. Grace recalls how the doctor had taken her hands into his in much the same way. She shutters at the thought but holds onto her hands regardless.
We need to do this, Grace whispers solemnly. There really is no choice.
Mavis stares into Grace’s eyes. There is death in those eyes, clammy and cold death, the same blankness she had seen last in George’s eyes. Mavis wants to scream, because she knows that Grace is so much better than her George. Is it possible that the darkest evil can be found even in the people we know to be good and loving souls? Must there be a trace of hell in every person? Of course, Mavis knows well enough that Grace is not an innocent. But what about the real innocents in this world? What about her Abby? Had there been a trace of hell in her Abby as well when the man kidnapped her and presumably murdered her? Is it possible that even her Abby had made an irrevocable decision along her path and that, in a very real sense, she was as responsible for her own doom as that man inside that tenement over there?
Nonsense, Mavis thinks. My Abby had been a little girl…
But my midwife’s mother had been a little girl, too, when she made that fateful decision not to embrace the freedom beyond that open gate, Mavis goes on to think. That decision had been irrevocable. It had haunted her the rest of her years. It had been on her mind when she let out her last breath. Perhaps in the end what we think of as ‘fate’ is just the result of the decisions we make at critical times in our lives. Whether we are nineteen or eighty-nine, God is going to hold us to them. And why? ‘Cause we shall not be moved, unless we let them move us; and we shall not be dead, unless we let them kill us.
Mavis, are you with me? Grace asks. Because I am going in…
Mavis hears Grace’s words, but she cannot quite decipher them. She still is in her own stream of consciousness, flowing with the current, bouncing upon the mossy rocks along the way, managing barely to keep her head above water.
Mavis, are you with me? Grace asks more adamantly.
Am I going to let Grace move me? Mavis thinks.
I am going in, Grace whispers, while turning away from her.
Yes, Mavis says. Yes, I am going with you.
Grace turns back to her. There is a surprised look upon Grace’s face. She thought that she had lost her friend just now.
Then, before Grace says anything, she feels a tinge of disappointment. It is as if deep down she had hoped that Mavis would stand firm against this deed. Perhaps then Mavis could have remained in her mind an absolute and consistent measure of what is moral in this world. True, it is hard to maintain a friendship with a saint; but she needs a saint in her life, even if over time that saint must grow remote and unlikeable.
Are you sure? Grace asks.
No, I’m not sure, Mavis answers. But I’m going with you.
They look into each other’s eyes one more time. This is really a make or break moment, and what happens next will be irrevocable for both of them. No doubt, they will be changed forever whether they go through with this, or not. The question is will they be changed for the better if they act, or if they do not act. There is no way to tell beforehand, and that more than anything scares the breath out of each of them. They do not fear being caught for murder and hung on the scaffold. They fear who they will be when they leave the corpse behind.
It is done, Grace mutters, and then steps away.
Mavis follows her friend up to the front door of the tenement apartment.
They both look anxiously from side to side. The neighborhood appears as abandoned as before, but it is not silent anymore.
What is that? Mavis whispers.
They both listen. It is the sound of studio audience laughter, followed at once by the familiar voice of Johnny Carson delivering another joke. His tone is comforting, but his words are unintelligible. Whatever he said must really have been a knee slapper, because the audience erupts again.
Someone turned on the television. It is not the man inside, since it is not near enough for them to make out the actual words spoken. But it is so close by they cannot help but realize that, when they go ahead and fire that bullet into the man, plenty of people will hear and respond to it almost immediately. That sense that the stage had been cleared away for them had been an illusion. Yes, they have a stage; but it is cluttered by lots of other actors and props, any one of which could get in the way of their escape, or observe something they would rather not have seen. All of a sudden the path before them is not at all straight and clear. Rather it is curvy, full of potholes, and lined by beasts on both sides.
Grace removes the pistol from her bag. She stuffs it into the waistline of her skirt. She then removes an old screwdriver from her bag.
Break the lock, Grace whispers, while handing Mavis the old screwdriver.
The plan is simple enough. Mavis will break the lock, while Grace readies herself with the pistol. Then, the moment the door swings open, Grace is going to step inside, fire a single round, and leave. The man will never know what hit him, but he will be dead. The scales will be balanced, and the man never again will be able to inflict harm on either of them or on another innocent, little girl.
There is just enough white light bleeding through the man’s front curtain that Mavis can see the screwdriver in her hand. It looks like a blunt instrument with a bloody handle. She recalls George’s hatchet, and she almost screams out in pain and in fear. It is a wonder she does not blow their cover just then.
Grace sees the fear in her eyes. She braces her left shoulder to calm her down. She does not dare whisper anything more so close to the door, but she is able to communicate her confidence in how she looks at Mavis at that moment.
Mavis hears Johnny Carson say something or other. Ed McMahon chuckles like it is the funniest joke ever. The rest of the studio audience takes that cue, and very soon everyone is carrying on as if tonight is the final night for comedy.
That diversion is enough to knock George out of her mind. With no more hesitation, Mavis slams the pointed end of the screwdriver into the lock just so. She had no way of knowing ahead of time that that would work. After all, she’s not a professional burglar. But she follows her instinct, and that lock is a cheap piece of shit anyway; so with just one hard stab, the lock falls onto the ground.
The door swings open with a loud creak. Somewhere, Ed McMahon laughs like the hearty, fat man that he is, and then he follows up with a cherry ‘Hiyo!’
Grace grabs the pistol from her waistline. She steps into the tenement.
Mavis braces herself for the deafening blast, as Grace pulls the trigger.
Nothing happens. Grace grimaces, but pulls that trigger a second time.
There is nothing again, but a soft and sterile click in the heavy silence.
* * *
Break the lock, George screams. I told ya to break the lock.
Mavis is not moving fast enough, so he kicks her again in her right thigh.
Mavis winces from the shot of pain. She is kneeling before an icebox that George had dragged out to the kitchen floor. She had tried to insert the old key into the padlock, but the key and the lock are too rusted, so instead she is now stabbing the damn thing with the pointed end of an old screwdriver. Christ, she hopes this work, because the throbbing pain in her right leg will be unbearable soon if George keeps kicking at it.
She is bleary eyed from the sweat streaming down her face. George put a terrible shiner on her left eye about five minutes ago, so she probably would not be able to see much anyway. But that sweat makes it a heck of a lot worse. It is like her face is dripping off of her skull, and she is trying to see what she is hitting now through the empty eye sockets of her skeleton face. She must miss the target most of the time, as it sounds like she is scraping her screwdriver on the side of the icebox. At this rate, she is more likely to scrape into the icebox, before she actually manages to break the rusted padlock.
She hits the target finally, and the padlock falls to the kitchen floor. She opens the icebox. There is nothing inside there, but sloshy, filmy, stinky water.
Nope, George snarls. My baby ain’t in there.
George grabs Mavis by the hair, and yanks her back from the icebox. She lands against the stove and nearly blacks out. She is hyperventilating now. If he does not let up soon, then she is going to die from breathlessness, before those sharp punches and kicks succeed in actually knocking her into an early grave. It would serve him right, if she dies from breathlessness before he manages to do the evil deed himself. He would be cheated, and she would be somewhere else.
A couple of days after Mavis had given birth to Abigail, George had seen that she was no longer pregnant. It had taken him a while to realize the change in her appearance, but he had been preoccupied in his sick mind with whatever he had found under the bridge. Once he had figured out what had happened in his absence, he forgot all about his latest excursion to the bridge. He informed her that he had known she was ‘with child,’ only a blind coon could not realize how she was getting chunky in the middle, and so he demanded to know where she had hidden his boy. It never seemed to occur to George that he could have fathered a girl. It had been a boy without a doubt, and George had decided his boy was going to be named ‘Boy George.’ Probably since she was ‘jealous,’ she had hidden ‘Boy George’ somewhere in the house when he was out there trying to earn an honest buck. Well, the beatings were just going to continue, one big punch or kick at a time, until she found the baby and handed him over.
George would make her crawl around the house, opening up drawers, or pulling up floorboards, while he stood beside her with his fists curled tight and his feet stomping in place. He would berate her about ‘Boy George,’ and punch and kick her a few times, before losing interest in this sick and twisted game of ‘find the baby.’ Then, for a while, he’d act like nothing happened, until he just decided for God knows what reason to play another round of ‘find the baby.’ It became clear to Mavis that George really did not expect to find his baby inside a box or under a floor somewhere. George is no expert when it comes to caring for a baby, but even he knows that a baby cannot long survive hidden in a dark place without food or water. So, no, this is not about finding ‘Boy George.’ This is all about punishing Mavis for having the audacity to give up that baby behind his back. Mavis had done something he had neither expected nor approved, and there is no greater sin in this marriage.
George grabs her by her hair again. He pulls her up, so that she is sitting upright with her back to the stove. The hair pull actually breaks Mavis out from her hyperventilation. Her whole body is one, big, throbbing sore, and she is not sure if she ever will see again, but at least she breathes properly. This is hardly a consolation, because a deep part of her soul wishes she had died on the floor.
George bends down, so that he is staring straight into her bruised eyes.
Damn thief plucked what I planted, George says coldly. Plucked my boy out from my soil, and just sold him at the farmer’s market. Reckon ya sold him to a white family, so he could be their silly house nigger. Serving drinks, like an ape in a suit. Or maybe ya sold him to a whorehouse, so he could be their damn faggot whore. Either way, ya owe me a boy. Ya get what I’m a saying, Angel? Is this plain enough for ya, or do I need to beat it into ya some more, damn bitch?
I get it, Mavis whispers.
I bet ya do, Angel, George says with a wide grin. Ya ain’t a stupid nigger. Willful, at times. Silly, mouthy, cunt, too many times. But ain’t a stupid nigger.
Mavis barely can sit upright. She feels a wave of nausea surging from her bowels. She wants so much to vomit, but she knows the beatings will continue, if she does. George hates to see his kitchen floor dirtied with his wife’s stinky, gooey vomit. He says it is like a whore letting her period flow all over his floor. Damn straight disgusting, he scowls. Like she’s begging for a beating that hurts.
So Mavis uses every bit of her willpower to keep that vomit from surging up her throat. As a result, she feels a terrible bout of dizziness that very nearly drops her to the floor. But again, that too then would incite another round with George, so he steadies herself by recalling how Abigail looked in Magda’s arms. The image makes her sad, but grief can focus the mind like few other emotions of which Mavis is aware anyway. Her nausea settles back into her sore stomach.
In the meantime, George has unbuckled his shitty trousers. He has pulled out his cock and is now rubbing it hard and fast just inches from Mavis’s bruised face. She either does not see it, or does not care, since she does not appear to react to his stiffening manhood.
Angel the cunt nibbler, George snarls, when he looks down and observes how she seems totally nonplussed by his cock. Don’t matter to me. This ain’t a bit about love. This is about seeding the soil for the next harvest. Planting ‘Boy George,’ and watering him and seeing him grow until he’s ripe for the plucking.
Mavis sobs. She can hear George, and thinks that he is going to rape her.
Open your mouth, Angel, George whispers.
Open my mouth? Mavis thinks. What is he going to do?
I said open your mouth, Angel, George repeats angrily.
She still does not react, so he pinches her mouth, digs in his fingers, and pulls her jaw down. He hates how her saliva feels on his fingers, and he almost smacks her face for this. He restrains himself as he has something else in mind.
You better keep your mouth open, George snarls. I ain’t kidding.
Mavis does what she is told. George slides in his stiff cock, and fucks the back of her raw throat. He grabs her hair to keep her head still. He grins softly.
Mavis gags several times, but she is careful not to try to move her face. She cannot see much of anything through her swollen eye and her gooey tears, but she imagines the mad glint in his eyes, as he is having his way with her raw and tender throat. She is in too much pain to feel humiliated. She is no more to this world than a living wound, and her only dim prayer is that she will die very soon, maybe by choking on his cock, maybe when he leaves her alone. How her death happens does not really matter to her. All that matters is that it happens as soon as possible. Oh, God, the pain has got to end. Please, God, end it now…
But even as she makes that plea in her mind, she is in too much pain and turmoil to believe that God really hears her. No matter, she thinks. She is going to offer up her prayer anyway. She will not let her faithlessness in this moment of crisis get in the way of a prayer. She’d rather pray to nothing than not pray. What else can she do, when this crazed beast beats his cock against her throat?
George does not ejaculate inside her mouth. He simply gets bored after a while, pulls it out, pulls up his trousers, and exits from the kitchen. He snarls under his breath that she’d better clean up this mess and get supper going, but even those parting words are no more than an afterthought. He never ends his beatings with a bang. He just skulks away in a whimper and wonders if any of it had been worth it, since of course Angel is that same lazy whore the next time.
Mavis crawls out the front door when he is gone. She vomits until there’s nothing left. She does not feel much better, but she tells herself that if she can slowly stand upright in ten minutes or so she can cook George’s supper on time.
* * *
Mavis glances down the street. She cannot see anyone. The coast seems to be clear. If she runs away from here, then probably no one will notice, even though the town is on edge with regard to any Negroes who may be loose in the night. But of course she is not going to leave her friend behind, even if this is a doomed revenge mission.
She steps out from the side, and walks slowly through the open doorway.
For a moment, the dim lamplight inside blinds her. She should be back in the bus, sleeping against the dirty window, and keeping her eyes shut when she is awake. In this way, she might be able to restore some of the eyesight lost as a result of that hard stone thrown into her face. She had been okay in following Grace’s flashlight through the forest, since for the most part the world through which she had moved had been a dark and formless sea. There had been little, if anything, on which to focus her eyes; and as a result, she had had that queer sensation of walking through her own dream. The flickering red light above the intersection had bothered her a moment, but then that pain and disorientation had passed soon enough. But this lamplight is a whole other matter. It does not emit much light; and what little it does seems to linger like a sad ghost close to the dusty and battered lampshade; but even that is too much for Mavis then. It is like she has walked into a hot wall of light and is trapped inside the masonry.
Mavis hears her creaking footstep. She forgets that she is blind. Instead, she is focused on the fact that the unseen man in front of her will hear her step and beat her down to the floor. This is not rational. After all, surprise had been taken off the table once Grace stepped through the open doorway and failed to fire her pistol. Nevertheless, in her own mind, she has the distinct sense now of having been caught in some sort of illicit act. She reverts back to being a little, shy girl who has been discovered by her ornery mother in the act. Of course, in this context, ‘the act’ would be attempted murder; but just then, Mavis senses that she is doing something sexual, something altogether naughty, and that her mother’s angry reaction will have more to do with fire and brimstone than with whatever that unseen man will do to his would be killers. In her mind, what her creaking footstep now means is that she is a bad girl unable to hide who she is.
She feels her way to Grace’s side. All this seems to be happening so very slowly. Surely, that unseen man has had ample opportunity to respond. Maybe, he is not inside the tenement apartment. Or maybe, he is dead already. There does seem to be a faint smell of death in and about this place, not the pungent decomposition smell associated with corpses that will be skeletons within a few days or weeks, but a tepid and brooding insinuation, as if decomposition indeed is underway but will take an eternity to complete. Mavis imagines briefly a man in an expensive suit. He is an older, white man with a handsome mustache, like something out of the movies. The man has sparkling, blue eyes. He smokes on a cigar that burns so slowly eternity will pass aside before a solitary ash falls out from his flame. That imaginary man is like the unseen man, who very well may be dead inside this tenement apartment. Both are burning away, but so slowly, so imperceptibly, as to appear godlike to simple flash in the pan human beings.
This isn’t going to work, Mavis mutters.
Smart for a nigger woman, the man says.
Mavis then can see through the wall of light. Her eyesight remains poor, strained, like looking through a telescope with a cracked and dirty lens. But, so far as she can tell, she is not dreaming, when she sees the tall, thin, redheaded cracker with the ugly scar on his chin. He is sitting upright in an old fashioned, high backed chair; his mutilated chin tilted upward in a kind of prissy, officious manner; his arms resting on the arms of the chair in the rigid manner of an old statue; his booted feet planted firmly in the floor. He is dressed in his seamless black uniform from head to toe, so that he looks like a boyish, petulant face on top of a dark shadow. The only life in this man is in his eyes. One moment they are beautiful, sparkling, blue diamonds poking out from the very bottom of the deepest well. They are mercurial, intelligent, conniving. Then they are greyish, blank slates in his sockets. They are dead, but also timeless, penetrating, as if eyes that can peer into the depths of hell in whatever they may observe in this world. The eyes flicker back and forth so seamlessly as to be living and dead all at once, like he is a man lost and confused in his everlasting life. He is just shy of tragic, except that the rage always seething beneath the surface keeps away from his soul that grace that might allow some good in his wretchedness. Since he cannot be tragic, he is just a small and squalid thing, unremarkable, like the faceless bum seen momentarily along the side of the endless highway and then forgotten. The only impact he can make is when he wields his baton into a soft head; and even then, the survivors bemoan the loss of the victim much more so than they remember him. That man made his pack with the devil sometime ago and is now reaping what he has sowed. And what he is reaping? Nothing at all in the end, but weeds and chaff as far as the eye can see. Now, he may try to fool himself into thinking that he is in the service of an important ideal, such as the ‘white man’s burden,’ or ‘retributive justice,’ or ‘balancing the scales.’ But he cannot fool himself for very long, and never convincingly, because he knows he has to return to his little field in due time and reap more weeds and chaff from the soil. He knows it; and for that reason more than anything, he is pissed all of the time, never more than a flinch from doing something brutal with that damn stick of his, always waiting for the word or the sign that simply will set him off.
How can Mavis know all this in an instant? Mavis recognizes her George is a kindred soul. They are both wounded animals on the prowl for blood, looking for a momentary respite from their own demons in the torture and the death of the prey beneath their steely gaze, striking out at weakness in order to hold off the cold despair always creeping a little deeper into their souls. Also, while her George had diminished her physical eyes by punching her in the face so often in those years, his beatings had opened her ‘third eye’ wide and given it much on which to ponder. Mavis had had to intuit in order to live another day. Mavis had had to see in order to pick herself up from the ashes and to remind herself over and over again that there really is love in this world. Indeed, precisely because of her ‘third eye,’ Mavis sees that love is most apparent in contrast to brutality and senseless hatred. Love is most real in contrast to the sheer banality of evil.
Don’t shoot him, Mavis says. That’s what he wants.
That nigger girl’s head sounded like a smashed watermelon when I struck her hard, the man remarks coldly. Her brains came out all mushy. They smelled rotten, like ape shit in a swamp. Nigger brains always smell rotten soon as they splatter all over my hands. It is as if they’ve been baked already in their skulls, overcooked to make ‘em silly and subservient, greased to make ‘em oversexed. That nigger girl had ‘dumb whore’ written on her face, when I knocked her out.
He wants you to be a murderer like him, Mavis says. He’s begging you to pull the trigger. Angering you, so that you’ll give up your good soul for revenge.
What do niggers know about souls? The man asks with a hint of a sly grin.
I’ve made this mistake, Mavis pleads. An eye for an eye doesn’t work. It just keeps the blood flowing down the generations. It just keeps this man alive.
And what do niggers know about being alive? The man jumps on her line.
Please, listen to what I’m saying, Mavis cries.
Grace is holding out her pistol still, but the tremble in her hand suggests that she is having second thoughts. She sighs audibly. Her eyes look up as if she is speaking with herself inside her head, but then they zero back on her target. She may be reconsidering, but she is not going to let this creep out of her sight.
There is a baton leaning against the wall beside the chair. The man eyes it, like he is thinking that he may go for it.
He’s faking, Mavis whispers. He wants you to think he is going to attack…
The man moves before Mavis can finish her sentence.
Grace fires a bullet into his forehead. The gunshot is a bloodless circle in his forehead just above his nose. It is a ‘third eye,’ staring coldly back at them, and penetrating the darkest pit in their souls. The man does not make a sound, but nevertheless there is a vague sense that he is chuckling at the two of them.
Grace walks forward. She lifts her left foot, presses her heel against his chest, and shoves him. The chair falls back, and smashes into pieces on the old and dingy floor. A trickle of blood escapes his wound, but it is gone in a second or two. Perhaps, it had never been there. His death appears entirely bloodless; almost like it did not even happen; and that, more than anything, frightens the two of them in such a way that they cannot run from the scene. They recognize that someone will be there soon, but they are too debilitated to do anything at all but to listen to Johnny Carson cracking corny jokes on the nearby television.
We’ve got to go, Mavis finally whispers.
Grace does not seem to hear her. Mavis steps aimlessly to the side so as to break free from that temporary paralysis. She accidentally knocks down that lamp that had provided the only light inside there.
The sudden darkness seems to do the trick. Grace stirs enough to wander away from the bloodless corpse. She steps into Mavis, and then takes her hand. The two women stand in the darkness hand in hand a moment longer, and then they turn and rush out the door. Grace stumbles over the flashlight, which she had left outside before storming in. She picks it up, but is careful not to turn it on until they are far from this seedy neighborhood. Instead, she allows the dark and brooding night to guide them along the roads and back into the lush forest.
Just as they are getting close to the bus, they can hear that the Negroes inside ‘the emergency room on wheels’ have stirred a bit. It is still dark outside now, but maybe they sense that they have passed that midway point to sunrise.
Regardless, they are singing an old labor union song that has been put on the map again by the Civil Rights Movement. It is called We shall not be moved.
We shall not, we shall not be moved.
We shall not, we shall not be moved.
Just like a tree that’s standing by the water,
we shall not be moved.
* * *
Mavis never thought she would be doing tricks again. Notwithstanding all the time and dedication she gave to the Negro church down the highway, she’d never had any moral quibbles about her prior work in the oldest profession; but still, she saw it as a part of her past and certainly as incompatible with married life. She may have had a bruised lip or a swollen eye most Sundays she went to church with a Bible and a Hymnal in each hand, but she always wore her ring in a conspicuous manner. Since neither she nor anyone else knew her married last name, she was ‘Mrs. George’ in the congregation; and she always made a point of smiling broadly when someone addressed her that way. God have handed her a terrible marriage; but at least she was Mrs. Something, and that meant that a life of hooking and hustling for a little more cash under the table would not be a part of her future. Better to be an unfortunate wife than a cheap harlot, yes?
Well, maybe life is not that black and white, even in the color conscious South. The rest of the fifties had been a blur of insults and beatings, every now and then along the lines of ‘let’s find the baby,’ but usually for no clear reason at all. George did not go out to the bridge as much, except rain or shine on the Sunday mornings he was not passed out from a previous night of hardcore drugs and booze. George worshipped God his own way on Sundays, and so Mavis had a window of opportunity to worship God as well. Most of the time, though, he did not bother with the topless nigger boys under the bridge. He had Mavis’s mouth and raw throat, which he seeded whenever he got that thirsty look in his eyes. Mavis had become his ‘nigger boy’ of choice, it seemed; and over time, she had learned how to take it without gagging or vomiting.
But learning to take it is not the same as learning to like it. Mavis never could shake the thought that ‘mouth seeding,’ as George called it, was as filthy as whatever George had been doing under the bridge. In a way, it was a bad as when George went out to the field with his bloody hatchet. Every time he stuck it inside she felt sliced and cut up, like meat hanging from a butcher’s hook for display. She feared that everyone outside could see, not that they saw inside of their house, but that they could read it in her eyes when she went down to the farmer’s market with her food basket or carried their dirty clothes down to the stream. She kept her face down and limited her conversation with others, but a score of discerning eyes out there no doubt saw what she tried in vain to mask. She was not a woman. She was sliced and diced meat, and everyone knew that.
She knew that she would never like that ‘mouth seeding’ business, but in the back of her mind she assumed that she had learned how to grin and bear it. All that came tumbling down in the summer of 1959, when a handsome and glib Bible salesman came into town. Mavis did not need to purchase one of his ‘fine, leather bound, love letters from Jesus,’ but she had accepted his offer of a cup of coffee down at the only coffee shop in town that served Negroes (albeit in a back room cut off from the main room by a thick curtain, so that no white man would be scandalized while sitting for his coffee and biscuit). George had left a while earlier for a ‘job prospect’ (smoking weed with a nigger dope dealer who went by the name of ‘Big Bomb’ and would be hung by the Klan just around the time the first Freedom Bus rolled through town). Of course, Mavis could not be sure when he would return; and if he came back while she was out still then he would remold her face with his fist later that night; but she took the risk. They had coffee, shared a few laughs, and then went back to his cramped room at a ‘colored friendly’ motel to fuck. The sex had been great; but even more so, all that transpired between Mavis and the Bible salesman from Atlanta had been so effortless, so matter of fact, as to tell Mavis that indeed this is what she should have been doing all along. She deserved to smile, even if it was not the kind of activity proper to a married lady. Moreover, she deserved to smile effortlessly, as if smiling had been all along a natural part of her character. Therefore, even though she never again saw that Bible salesman from Atlanta, she set out to do the kind of activity that could bring a broad smile to her face and a bit of extra into the cookie jar she kept hidden under one of the kitchen floorboards.
Whenever she made enough money from the brothel in town, she would purchase a train ticket out to Beulah. She told George that Linda had taken ill, no doubt as a result of her loose living, and she had a moral obligation a couple of times a year to do some chores for her that she could not do for herself. The story worked, probably because George liked to think that Linda was ill, and so he never objected when she left for a few days. Of course, the fact that he had the house to himself all that time probably added another inch to his big, dumb smile whenever she told him she had to go back to Beulah. All he demanded for his blessing was that she work that much harder at her ‘woman’s duties,’ when she came back from ‘that skanky, whore sister.’ Mavis realized that, no matter how hard she worked when she returned home, George would go overboard still with his beatings, like he had to make up for lost time. It was a heavy price, to be sure, but one she would be willing to pay every single time just to share two or three days with Linda and Abby under the witchy glare of an Arkansas moon.
So, yes, she was still ‘Mrs. George;’ and on Sunday mornings, she almost believed the role she assumed in front of the other churchgoers. But she was as well a woman with deep down secrets, and that tormented and exhilarated her in equal parts. The conflict in her soul might very well tear her apart; but in its own peculiar way, it also reminded her that she had a lot of life left in her. The dead, after all, endure divine judgment, but they do not endure moral conflict. They are either with the sheep or the goats, in the big choir singing at the foot of God’s throne or in the cramped hell pit snarling back at the devils, and so all that moral angst gnawing at her soul put a sly grin upon her face now and then.
It is a summer afternoon in 1961. Grace is sitting beside the doctor on an ill-fated Freedom Bus. Linda is holding up her hands and starting to scream, for a baton wielding maniac has smashed through her front window and is swinging his weapon towards her forehead. Abigail is sneaking out the front door, just as that tall man with the scarred chin slams his baton into Linda’s skull. Everyone feels it. There is either blood spilled now, or the vague sense that blood will be spilled soon enough, and so sheer terror seems just around every seamy corner.
Mavis is churning butter in the kitchen. She is sweaty and tired. She does not really see what she is doing, because George had swollen both her eyes just last night. Because of her blindness (hopefully temporary, but she is never sure until the swelling goes away in about a week), she relies on habit and intuition. She knows her way around her kitchen so well she could churn butter with little concern, even if she had the sense deprivations of a Helen Keller.
She hears George stagger in from the outside. He is drunk. She can smell the whiskey on his breath.
Damn Angel, ya look like a raccoon; George teases her.
Mavis looks in his general direction, and smiles. In her eyes, he is just an ugly, dark smudge wobbling beside the icebox. She cannot see him well enough to figure out if he smiles back at her. She really hopes that he does, because at this late hour of the afternoon, and with her eyes already so swollen, she does not think frankly that she can withstand another one of his tirades. She is liable to fall onto the floor and to die of sheer exhaustion, if his fists or his feet come after all. She knows that someday he will finish her off. But must it be now, oh, Lord Jesus? Must it be this very place and time that judgment falls on my head?
George just stands there a while. Maybe, he is figuring out what to do to her next. It takes him a while to think when he is drunk; but when finally he is able to make a decision, he holds to it, no matter how much she pleads for him to do otherwise. Drink slows the senses, but it also stiffens the spine. George is of the mind that drink and murder are the two things that keep men masculine.
Mavis pretends not to notice him. She knows from experience that, even if he had decided against beating her, he will go off the handle anyway, if he is of the opinion that she is trying to figure him out. ‘Figuring out’ is what a man does. ‘Being figured out’ is what happens to a woman. Nature is as simple, as it is straightforward. George, therefore, thinks everything should be just natural.
George passes by Mavis. His steps are slow and steady, like a drunk man trying to pass a sobriety test. Nevertheless, in spite of his great concentration, he is not able to walk by the supper table without banging his left hip against it and reeling back in a spasm of pain.
That sets him off. He bangs both his fists into the supper table. He cries out in pain again, so he storms over to the drawer and removes his old hatchet.
He turns on his heels, and stares at his Angel. He grimaces from a quirky brew of anger, fear, and pain. The conflicting emotions appear to tilt the earth into an unnatural position, like perhaps how a whore or a faggot would observe the world. Definitely, this needs to be corrected. No, it is more accurate to say that she needs to be corrected, because everything would be humming along as fine as can be if he did not have to contend with a lazy ass cunt-nibbling Angel.
How did he ever get saddled with her anyway? He cannot remember. It is like she has been with him from the start, a ball and a chain tied to his ankle at the moment he squirmed out from his old mama’s cunt. He has indulged her for way too long. He has given her so much, even allowed her to visit that diseased sister of hers, and what does she do in return? She lies on her damn couch, and sneaks booze and pot, and grins, like he is too dumb to sniff out her deception.
You’re a raccoon with rabies, George screams as he holds up his hatchet.
Mavis sees the hatchet. She wants to keep churning butter in the hope a moment will pass and George will think of something else to do, but she is way too frightened to do anything. All she can do is to stand still and to fidget like a little nigger girl with her apron. Hot tears well up. Her swollen coon eyes sting.
Mouth seeding time, George says after a while. Kill off them sick rabies…
George is mad, Mavis thinks. He finally has stepped across that line.
Indeed, though she cannot see him all that well, Mavis can sense a sick, perverted glint in his eyes. The madness has been there all along. In a strange way, that had been part of his allure from the beginning; but now it is bubbling over, like a pot of boiling water left on the stove too long. He may not get back to his old self this time. He may be left stranded with the beasts and the loons; his descent into hell completed; the last trace of humanity shed as if dead skin.
My seed strangles rabies, George mutters. Slices and dices rabies…
He unbuckles his trousers with one hand, while chopping the air with his hatchet with his other hand. His trousers fall to his ankles. He almost falls over as he staggers up to his Angel for another exhausted round of mouth seeding. It takes every bit of his will to stand upright, yet his cock is as stiff as an iron rod.
Mavis falls to her knees. She has done this so many times now she hardly needs to think. She just closes her eyes, opens her mouth, and takes in his sick manhood. She lets him do all his thrusting. She just prays that this is it for now.
But, really, is that a good enough prayer? How about praying to the Good Lord, or to whomever listens to these desolate prayers, that this is it forever? Is it wrong to ask for the whole enchilada? Does she not deserve to grin like a sly, conniving bitch that has had enough of his shit and is bringing an end to it now?
I really can end this, Mavis thinks. More than that, I can enjoy the sweet tastes of revenge. A revenge that tastes like his blood flowing over my tongue…
Mavis opens her eyes. She looks up. She cannot see much, but she senses the madness in his face. She catches in her peripheral vision the hatchet going up and down, up and down, just inches above her head. If she does not end this now, then he is going to smash that smiling blade into her skull when he is done with his mouth seeding. It is now or never, and she is a bitch enough to make it now, goddamn it, even if she must pay the price for her sad transgression later.
Mavis smiles. She then clamps down hard on his cock with her teeth. She grips like a dog on a bone. Her smile contorts into a crazed bloodcurdling snarl.
George screams like a banshee. He flips his sharp hatchet over his head. He writhes like a snake and stomps up and down simultaneously. His head bobs back and forth, like he is being electrocuted. His eyes bulge out in terror and in pain, like invisible hands have dug into his sockets and are yanking them out of his skull. Indeed his whole face seems to be stretching away from his grimacing skeleton just beneath the surface. Soon, he will be bones, rattling into a death dance, shredding skins onto the kitchen floor, and squishing out blood and guts.
Mavis feels her teeth sinking through the skin and into his penis. Blood is spitting out from his manhood and sliding down her throat. George never came inside her mouth, so this is her first experience of ‘swallowing.’ She very nearly chokes on all this warm blood, but she does not lessen her grip even a moment.
George flails backward. Mavis hears what sounds like a big rip inside her mouth. The blood flows a lot more freely now. The cock is not stiff anymore. It is the writhing snake snapping every which way against the inside of her mouth.
And yet she still does not lessen her grip. She moves forward, so that her teeth continue to be at the base of his cock as he is falling backwards. There is a geyser of blood that spits up and into her nose. She shoots out breath in order to clear her nostrils. His blood is now a stream flowing down her clenched chin, but at least her nose is clear so she can keep on gnawing with her bloody teeth.
George knocks over the churn, when he falls to the kitchen floor. He hits his head hard on one of the legs of the supper table. Blood gushes out the back of his head. His eyes roll back. His lips puff out, like he is trying to draw in that last bit of air before everything turns to eternal darkness.
But he does not lose consciously. His right hand slides over the handle of his hatchet. He manages to grip it, and to swing it down towards that sick bitch eating away at his manhood. He strikes her several times hard, but he does not hit her with the sharp side of his blade. Therefore, the sick bitch just keeps on chewing and swallowing like some sort of crazed cock cannibal.
He realizes that he needs to turn the blade around, but he is in too much pain and delirium to do that. All he can do is to flip it up and down like a fin of a seal. Sometimes, he hits her. Most often, he misses. Still, she keeps on eating what is left of him.
There is another blood geyser, and this time Mavis chokes on the stream.
She recoils. She coughs out blood. She wheezes new air into her lungs.
She braces herself for another blow from that damned hatchet. She just senses it is going to knock her out cold the next time; and then, he will kill her.
But there is not another blow. George is out cold. Half of his penis is cut away from his waist. She presumably swallowed a lot of it along with his blood.
There is a pond of blood spreading out from between his legs. George is breathing deeply. He is gurgling and spitting up slime. His arms and legs twitch.
Mavis wants to see the bastard die.
I deserve that much, Mavis thinks.
But she does not. The sharp end of the blade never struck her. Still, she suffered serious head and face wounds from the other end. She has lost a lot of warm blood already. She loses consciousness, before George spasms into death.
* * *
Mavis opens her eyes. Grace sees Abigail hiding behind the Freedom Bus, while the doctor speaks still with the man who had pulled over the bus minutes ago with his spotlight. Linda is dead in a pool of blood. Her skin is considerably bluer than even a half hour ago. The first stage of rigor mortis is now apparent.
Mavis cannot see anything through her left eye. It is swollen shut, but an incandescent blur bleeds into her right eye. It is not much, but she realizes the more she focuses on that blur the more an actual picture emerges.
There is an old-fashioned coil heater on a table across the room. It glows on and off, like there is a recurring power surge. It is a very hot summer night, so the coil heater serves no other purpose than to turn this dimly lit place into a virtual sweat room. There is an irritating buzz sound whenever the glow is on that reminds Mavis of a trapped fly.
Mavis wants to turn the damn thing off, but she next realizes that she is handcuffed to the rail of a hospital bed. There are three hospital beds on both sides of hers. All seven of them face the coil heater and a crucifix on a wall. On her right side there is a door that opens into a hallway. Sad light shines through a square window in the door, so that the hospital room has the feel of a prison cell tucked somewhere within an elaborate maze.
None of the other hospital beds are occupied, and yet Mavis senses she is not alone. Is that the back of a police officer’s cap she views on the other side of the door window? That would make sense given that she is in handcuffs, and yet the guard outside her door is not the reason why she senses that someone is near. She tries to move her neck, so that she can look around the room, but all she does is aggravate a deep and throbbing pain in her neck. She had not felt it earlier, probably on account of pain medicine dripping through an IV, but just a little bit of movement awakens the nerves.
She sinks back into her pillow. There is no point in making this worse. No one else is in the room anyway. That is obvious enough even from what little of the room she can see.
No, that is not true. There is definitely a presence in this room. Perhaps, not someone, but surely something, like a dark energy in the shadows; and yet, incongruously, she senses a mind in this energy, a sentience, an intention to do her harm, a pair of cold and blank eyes staring at her.
Mavis looks at the crucifix. She is not a Catholic, but now is not the time to quibble over denominational differences. It really is true that God is nearest when he is farthest. Just as she feels overwhelmed by that menacing presence, that something that wants to kill her, she needs only to look at the crucifix and to say a little prayer to feel better.
The door creaks open. A habited nun walks passed the police officer and into the room. She is old, overweight, and unattractive, but there is a kindness in her eyes that sets her at ease. The nun is white, but seems perfectly at ease herself in such close proximity with a Negress.
So they took me to the Sisters of Mercy Hospital for Colored Persons and Indians, Mavis thinks. Why didn’t they just take me to the nigger clinic in town?
I see that you’re awake, the nun says, while sitting on a stool beside the hospital bed, and checking Mavis’s pulse.
How long have I been asleep? Mavis whispers hoarsely.
Oh, I reckon a few hours, the nun responds. Time does not mean a whole lot inside these walls.
How did I get here? Mavis asks with a little more power in her voice.
I suppose you would not remember, the nun says. One of your neighbors, a colored woman named Doris, found you and George on the kitchen floor. She said she had borrowed a dish from you the other day. If she had not thought to return it then, you probably would have died.
And George? Mavis asks, though knowing in her heart the answer already.
He is with the angels, the nun answers curtly. Or wherever…
Wherever is more like it, Mavis thinks.
The nun removes a thermometer from a pocket hidden inside her habit. She shakes it three times, one for each Person in the Blessed Trinity, like she is driving out the devil along with the germs from the previous user. She inserts it into Mavis’s mouth and stares down at a handheld watch.
The nun removes the thermometer and makes a note on a clipboard that is hanging from the side of the old hospital bed. She looks at Mavis, and smiles.
You are in bad shape, but you are going to survive, the nun remarks.
Tell me about the cop outside the door, Mavis says.
The nun rolls her eyes with apparent disdain. She does not care a whole lot for cops, or at least for how cops in this part of the world treat Negroes and other minorities. Still, she saw the blood when they wheeled Mavis through the emergency room doors. She saw how Mavis coughed up slimy chunks of a man’s you know what. The nun has seen a lot in her years, but that is a first for her in this business. Even so, there is something about Mavis she likes, and so her old, trusted intuition tells her that the cops are trying to railroad this good Negress.
They have arrested you on suspicion of murder, the nun says. There is no doubt in my mind that your husband murdered his soul over many years. I have seen the type, believe me. What happened today was that his physical life just caught up with his spiritual life. If you had not been there, then he would have died by some other means. Try telling that one to the bullheaded cops, though.
Not much of a defense in one of their courts, Mavis remarks.
No, it isn’t, the nun agrees. I have a nephew. He is an attorney who will work pro bono for colored women in your situation. I’ll call on him, if you want me to do so.
Mavis feels that negative energy again. She almost observes a pair of evil eyes glaring at her from the corner closest to the door. She tries to tell herself that this is her overactive imagination, but she cannot do so. Whatever is there is real. She had married evil. She knows evil when it is near enough.
I think I need a priest, Mavis whispers. Maybe more so than an attorney…
The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Man, the nun reflects with a smile.
Mavis looks at the nun. She tries to smile, but the slightest movement of her face hurts her far too much. The nun notices this and urges her to stay still.
I’ll call on Father to pay you a visit, the nun says, while folding her aged hands over Mavis’s in a show of solidarity. And my nephew will be in tomorrow. His name is Martin Groom. He is a good, young man, and so he will do you well.
The priest comes about a half hour later. He does not possess the nun’s friendly eyes, but at least he is not Irish. So far as Mavis knows, the Irish priests are incapable of hiding their disdain of the colored folks in their care. This one looks like he may be a Polack, perhaps the only Polack in the Old Confederacy; and Mavis wonders if he made a wrong turn somewhere in Pennsylvania one day and so ended up in Alabama.
The priest does not speak much with Mavis. He sits beside her, takes out his prayer book, and mumbles several prayers in Latin. He seems vaguely bored with this duty, but for a while at least the negative energy appears to go away.
Martin Groom does not arrive until next evening. He is a kind man with a baby face. On first blush, he seems incapable of standing up to the ruffians and bull necks with badges, who maintain the law in these parts; but after speaking with him a few minutes, Mavis senses just how smart he is. He is the polite and soft spoken man at the party, who is nevertheless always thinking about how to be two or three steps ahead of the other guests.
The first time they meet he only asks her questions about the day all this happened. He also inquires about her married life. Mavis is not all that desirous to take a stroll down memory lane, but she realizes how important it is for him to construct her defense. In telling him her life story, she is amazed to be alive still. God is good that she is even here now to be able to tell him her sad story.
He returns the next day with bad news. Her sister, Linda, is dead. She is a murder victim. Her niece, Abigail, is missing. She had been kidnapped during an ‘incident’ involving a Freedom Bus and a local welcoming committee. How a Freedom Bus could end up on its side when it is ‘welcomed’ by Beulah’s ‘finest citizens’ is a mystery to the white world at large, but not very perplexing at all to Martin Groom and his new client, Mavis. These are rough times, and they are going to get a whole lot rougher until the old ways have been replaced with the new. It is hard to tell what the new ways will turn out to be. Martin Groom has confidence that Jim Crow will not survive in the new world. Mavis is not so sure that Jim Crow is on the way out. Oh, sure, the ‘whites only’ signs may be taken down, but the attitudes do not change overnight. Often, they never change all that much even when years have passed; and years pass very slowly down here.
Mavis waits until Martin leaves before crying aloud for her sister and her daughter. She would revive George from the grave, give him free reign to beat her hard, scrub his floors, and cook his supper, if only Linda and Abby could be brought back from wherever God sends His colored children. If only she had run away with Abby, when the midwife opened the gate for her to do so; but Mavis had chosen the plantation over freedom. She has no idea how, but she thinks in the darkest corner of her tired mind that this decision led to Linda’s and Abby’s demise. Moreover, all this happened about the same time she had had her final struggle with George. She remembers her sly smile just before she bit into that stiff rod. She remembers telling herself that she deserved to see him die. Thus, is it any wonder that God should slap her down, just as He had done to Job way back when? Is it any wonder that He should kill the innocent, just as she took it upon herself to kill the guilty? And who are you to judge? God had said. Where were you when I created the firmament of the earth, uppity bitch that you are?
You choose the plantation, God had said. But then you presume to judge your husband. So which is it? Are you a slave, or are you a cracker? Maybe, you are both at the same time, and maybe that’s why you unleashed that old devil, that Boss Man with the baton, to balance those scales that you had unbalanced. Has it ever occurred to you that when you defile nature, someone else then has got to restore it? Or when you play God, others then have got to be driven into their graves, like when the multitude died in the flood, or when those nameless niggers fell to their deaths in the tobacco fields from the sting of a whip or the kiss of the sun? You are responsible for this. You are responsible for everything.
Mavis screams, as she awakens from a terrible nightmare wherein God is blaming her for all that has happened. She looks at the crucifix, but now it is a cruel hoax, rather than a source of comfort. She feels the heat emanating from the coil heater beneath the crucifix, but now it is the fires of hell beating down her resolve, so that the devil finally may claim her body and soul for that little, segregated hell pit he reserves for uppity niggers. She is utterly alone, but this time she does not sense that God is nearest when everything seems bleakest. In this crisis, He is just gone, and she tells herself that perhaps He never had been there all along. Perhaps, there never had been anything, but her own dark life, and the direct consequences of her own dark decisions. Perhaps, that is all that there is; and if she wants to figure out how to survive, and to do no more harm to anyone else, then she had better come to terms with this existential finality.
With this bleak thought in her mind, Mavis slides back into a despair that masquerades as sleep. She dreams that she is biting down on the cock inside of her mouth. She looks up. She offers that sly smile. She thinks she is really going to enjoy this round of ‘mouth seeding.’
Then, strangely, she notices that George is smiling. She bites down even harder. His smile gets bigger. His eyes sparkle, like fireworks in pupils, and this suggests the ecstatic release a devil would feel as he is about to climax. His big nose flares like a bull about to charge a cow in heat. There is a complete union of pain and sex in George. He is at once a sadist and a masochist. He is bloody, squeamish brutality incarnate in the life of a cruel man with a hatchet, all that physical and mental vitriol that suggests the bombast of a false god, so that all the pain and sorrow he both inflicts and receives expresses right then and there the fullness of what it means to be a pretender to the heavenly throne. He will fall like a flash of lightning from heaven, but until that moment he will exult in the tension, the drama, the raw, senseless pain that he has inspired by his mad life. So go on and bite even harder, this exultant George seems to say. Bite me down to the bone. Sever the veins. Drink in my blood. Writhe in my life poured into your mouth and down your throat. My death will be yours, mine physical at this time, yours spiritual over what is left of your life. And so who will have the last laugh? So who will be smiling, when we are face to face at the end of time?
Mavis continues to bite down, but she no longer senses that she is doing so by her own volition. This George Demon is coaxing her. His fists and his kicks have been caressing her to this very point; and now, with that big smile of his, he is coaxing her to cross the line into the depravity he knows so well. Perhaps, you too will want to take my handle and to wander through the overgrown field in search of dogs and cats, this George Demon seems to say. Perhaps, since you are now as depraved as any one of the demons, you will go down to the bridge, show a little leg, entice a nigger boy like you used to do back at the brothel, so that you can cut him into bloody pieces and shove him down our well. Perhaps, since your depravity knows no end now, you will offer your sister to the violent retribution that really should be inflicted upon your head for what you are now doing to me. Perhaps you will offer our baby as a substitution for your sins. You could be a modern day Caiaphas. You remember him, surely. He is that uppity, hook-nosed Jew who said that the one should die for the many. Well, since you are so damned depraved, you cock biter, you cunt nibbler, you can send up our baby, not to save the many, but to save your lazy ass.
Mavis tries not to listen to the George Demon, but the words are daggers puncturing her skin and twisting the lining of her heart. She can no more evade his words, than she could the baton of a maniac, if she were tied to an old post in front of his steely gaze.
This calls to mind what the God Voice had proclaimed in her prior dream that night. He had made reference to a ‘Boss Man.’ She had not known what to make of the reference, except in the generic sense of some correctional officer overseeing a chain gang. But now, when the George Demon references a baton-wielding maniac, Mavis looks up and sees that George’s face has changed. It is now the face of a tall, thin, redheaded, scarred, white man, a man probably in his early twenties, a law enforcement ruffian by day and a pool hustler with an ugly, violent streak by night. His eyes are totally blank, unfeeling, distant, and yet totally focused on her as if the two of them are the last people alive within the universe. So this is the ‘Boss Man,’ Mavis thinks, while moved by some alien force to bite down on that snaky cock inside her mouth. But this is also my own private George Demon, like that mysterious, unknowable, blank face is one and the same as the man with whom I have been so intimate and so estranged since God knows when. How can that be? How can a total stranger be the man I know so well, and vice versa? Does this mean there are no real strangers? Or does this mean there are no real intimates? Do we know everyone, or are we truly alone?
Mavis cannot begin to entertain these questions, when the Boss Man now speaks to her in the George Demon voice she knows so well. That voice feels as if it is flowing into her mouth and down her throat along with the blood stream from this half eaten cock in her mouth. She is literally swallowing what he says.
You were right to be afraid, the man says. I’d have taken my baby in the middle of the night and cut it to pieces. Just cut it until my hatchet’s dulled by all them baby bones. I’d have done it quicker, once I saw it was a girl. Anyway, I got her. Didn’t have my hatchet, but my baton did just fine. They’ll find what is left of her in a ditch one of these days. Now that she’s gone all I got to say is this: You’re next, nigger woman. I’m coming for you, and the next time you are not going to surprise me with a little cock bite. Oh, no, I’ll be surprising you at that time, just like I did to your sister, and to our baby, and to all my bitches. I just want to be clear. You’re next, and I’m coming. You hear me, lazy ass cunt?
Killing him does no good, Mavis thinks, while the blood continues to flow down her throat. ‘Cause you can’t kill sin in a world abandoned by God. That’s the sad and twisted truth they don’t preach at church. God is dead. We are all alone, tied to a post, just waiting for that Boss Man to finish us off in one strike of his baton. Perhaps, we can love in the meantime, but he’ll get us in the end.
Mavis looks up again. The Boss Man has his baton in his right hand. He is tapping his left palm with it, not harsh enough to break his skin, but consistent enough to be a kind of psychological torture. At the very least, the tap-tap-tap casts a hypnotic spell. His blank eyes seem to grow larger. They seem to be the whole universe, and she is just a microscopic speck floating in one of his pupils.
You’ll be seeing me in your dreams, nigger woman, the man says. Not all the time, just once in a while, enough to keep me gnawing at the back of your mind. I’ve got to balance the scales for the sins of your fathers, give your long-standing creditor the satisfaction he so richly deserves, and that will happen at the very end, when we meet, and when you die the kind of death even God will not be able to undo. Until then, I’ll be toying with you, creeping you out, giving you a reason to fear the nights, snatching out of your hand what little you take.
There is the barest hint of a grin on the man’s terse lips. His blank eyes, so grey and unremarkable, now glow a brilliant blue. He is a beautiful fiend, an example for all the white devils out there; and then, in an instant, he vanishes.
Mavis awakens. She is coughing, and for a moment she thinks she is now coughing up the man’s cock and blood.
As promised, the Boss Man appears in her dreamscape now and then. He always reiterates that she is next, that he is coming for her, that uppity niggers who presume to bite off their husband’s cocks tilt the scales too far, so that he has to balance them again with what he will do at the very end. If only women knew their place; if only they lived with nature, rather than try to contort it to satisfy their own wanton pursuits; but since they do not, the Boss Man must go down that endless highway, one plodding step after another on the shoulder of a road with neither traffic nor curves to divert his attention, his pace very slow but persistent. Eventually, he catches up with them. After all, he has all of the time ever envisioned in the mind of God. And when he does he gets his justice.
All of this comes in bits and pieces over many nightmares. Mavis actually could spend a lifetime unveiling the layers of fact and fiction about her creepy phantom tormentor. Sadly, she realizes that she will, since he will not go away.
Mercifully, what does go away is the murder charge. Martin Groom works his magic, and he gets the cagey, old prosecutor to agree to a plea bargain and a reduced sentence. Mavis will plead guilty to spousal abuse and sodomy. There must be a devil somewhere chuckling at this plea, as Mavis would be the poster child victim of both crimes, if they had colored poster children, that is. But she accepts this as just one more irony.
Mavis serves a year and a half sentence in a segregated woman’s prison. The imprisonment actually turns out to be a blessing for her. She gets a chance to heal, though as expected her left eyesight never returns to normal. She finds a few friends, who will remain close over the years. Most importantly, she finds that she can believe in God again. She no longer has a child’s adoration for Him and suspects she never will again. There are scars that will not heal within this lifetime anyway, and she certainly does not presume that He will save her ‘lazy ass’ from the eternal frying pan at the very end. She can hope, but she cannot presume. If that is faithlessness on her part, then so be it. It is the best she can do with a God who truly did abandon her the night she learned of those deaths.
But while her feelings toward God remain ambiguous, there is one facet of life she embraces without reservation, while she is counting off the days and the nights to her release from prison. And that is her openness for love. She has no more insight into the mystery of love than anyone else. She cannot master it any better than a cowboy can remain on a bucking bull in the rodeo ring. It is a subtle breeze and a howling wind all at once, so she will never be able to wrap her rational mind around it. But intuitively, spiritually, she senses the power of love; and she knows that in the finale love alone will be her shield and buckler.
* * *
Mavis awakens as the first hint of sunrise penetrates the greasy windows on the eastern side of the chugging train. She had slipped into a restless, tiring sleep an hour or so earlier with the right side of her face pressed firmly against her window. Now, her right cheek and her nose hurt as a result, and she wishes she had had the youth and the vigor to remain awake the whole time. Sure, the pain will pass; but at eighty-nine years old, she believes that she has earned an unalienable right not even to be inconvenienced.
She is self-introspective enough to know that at times she can be a feisty old bag. Even when she is feeling good enough to be a little nice, she is never a diplomat per se. Someone had told her long ago that, once you are eighty-five, you will be forgiven for whatever outrageous comments you may spit out along with your dentures and a mouthful of drool. She had hoped at the time that the forgiveness indicated a certain amount of respect for the elderly; but since she passed that milestone four years back, she has come to see that indeed respect has nothing to do with it. Younger people forgive her ornery comments because younger people do not take her seriously. Even when she is honored every year on account of her participation in the Selma March, she senses that the smiling, pretty, blond news reporter-ette really is not listening to a damn thing she says in the two or three minute interview. Or maybe she listens for a phrase or two that will sound good on the evening news, but she does not let any of the truth penetrate. After all, what truth can a smiling, pretty, blond news reporter-ette learn from someone who thinks that a Blackberry is fruit picked from a bush? If Mavis makes it to a hundred, then she plans to tell Willard Scott that she really owes her longevity to smoking crack cocaine and fucking Mongol queers daily. Is any of that true? Of course not, but she just wants to see if Willard Scott (or his audience at the break of dawn) is paying enough attention to flinch at what she spits into the microphone. She suspects no one will flinch. They will just toss it off to dementia and ask her to talk about eating vegetables and loving her dog.
Right now, she wants to wring the neck of the African American steward, who did not bring her the pillow she had requested. She thinks about that silly, politically correct phrase. In her mind, ‘African American’ indeed makes about as much sense as calling a white person whose ancestor had crossed to America on the Mayflower a ‘European American.’ After four hundred some odd years is it not fair to say that the ‘European’ part is pretty damned remote? Well, Mavis would say the same about her ancestors. They did not arrive on the Mayflower actually, but they arrived in chains within a generation. Just because the white devils subjugated them for centuries does not mean that they are any less truly and distinctively American as anyone else. Mavis cannot separate in her mind a Kenyan from a Congolese. She has never even heard of Swahili. As such, for any man to call her an ‘African’ anything strikes her as patronizing, or as just plain, old stupid. She feels that there is quite a bit of patronizing behavior and plain, old stupidity nowadays, so ‘African American’ surely will be around for a while.
Mavis rubs her right cheek and nose. The pain is going away; slower than when she had been half her present age; but clearly enough so that she is able to relax a bit. She folds her fingers in the lap of her skirt. Boy, if this is not one of the patented ‘grandmother’ poses, then she does not know what is. Still, she is old enough to be somebody’s grandma. Heck, given how kids are ‘hooking up’ nowadays, she could be somebody’s great-great-grandma. In fact, regardless of her pose, she is nobody’s grandma. Losing Abby had been enough heartbreak in one lifetime; and truth be told, after all that ‘mouth seeding,’ Mavis did not at all find it difficult to embrace chastity, after sending George to an early grave.
Still, chastity never has been the same as naiveté. Mavis knows all about ‘hooking up’ on account of watching Maury Povitch and Jerry Springer more or less regularly. She chuckles when the old folks wring their hands and lament all that Sodom and Gomorrah stuff. She had done a lot more than these kids when she was fifteen; and though the world did fall on her head, she never believed, then or now, that her romps in the hay had had anything to do with it. She fell to a pretty low spot, because she had been alternately weak and presumptuous at critical moments in her life. She had not loved enough; or perhaps, it is best to say that she had not trusted enough in love; and for those reasons, she lost a lot more than she ever gained in this life. But romps with fools and scoundrels, and one lovely Bible salesman from Atlanta, let us never forget him, well, none of that stuff has anything to do with anything. It’s all much ado about nothing, like with that Shakespeare play she has read too many times to count in braille.
Mavis is clinically blind. Her swollen left eye never came back after that Selma March; but, dismayingly, her right eye also started to fail afterwards. No one could figure out what was wrong with her right eye. Even that hot shot doc in Manhattan, that man who had been so obviously smitten with Grace, gave it his best; but in the end, he had to hold up his hands and to acknowledge he did not have an answer. The sight just steadily deteriorated, until she had to wear a pair of Coke bottle glasses to do much of anything. Reading was really out of the question, even with those huge lenses, so she learned braille over time at a community college. Now, she keeps the glasses in her purse for emergencies of one sort or another, and reads whatever braille books she checks out from the public library. She says that she watches Maury Povitch and Jerry Springer, but in fact she mostly listens to them. In a way, they are like FDRs ‘fireside chats,’ except from Hell. She gets a kick out of them, though she knows that the shows are modern day gladiator games. The two-timing whores fighting to the cheers of the audience are not that far removed from gladiators fighting to the death. Sure, the security guards pull them aside, so there is no bloodshed on the boob tube. But there is plenty of blood lust on display, and her soul is just a bit more degraded every time she chuckles at the mayhem.
As for the Internet, Mavis has one of those ‘visiting angels’ come in three times a week. She is a sweet ‘African American’ girl named Norma. She has the same natural affinity for personal computers that pretty much every soul under forty seems to have. Norma reads aloud from Mavis’s favorite websites. Mostly, Mavis just sits beside her, and listens in silence; but when Mavis thinks that an article would be of particular interest to Grace, she will tap Norma on the right shoulder. Norma knows the gesture means ‘print that one.’ Norma mails off the letters to Grace regularly. For Norma, this is a small act on her part; but Mavis regards this as one of her more important duties. The letters and the printouts keep Mavis and Grace tethered over hundreds of miles. Mavis has friends still in Selma, but her relationship with Grace is unique, to say the least. Theirs is the special bond forged in love and in crime. It is a bond worth keeping to the end.
So Mavis has accustomed herself to blindness. People accommodate her, in part out of compassion but mostly because of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Often, the same people also slight her, sometimes unconsciously, but a lot more so out of spite. Able bodied people dread noticeable disabilities in others for various reasons, but Mavis suspects the main reason is that disabilities tend to remind people of the frailty, and ultimate mortality, of the body. After all, even if for some lucky souls life is good, it is always short. Doctors may extend the average lifespan to a thousand years; but even then, it will be too short for most people. This makes sense, in a way. The soul is eternal. Therefore, bodies that invariably die are short-term rentals from the perspective of eternal souls.
Nevertheless, while Mavis has learned to live with her blindness, like the ‘African Americans’ in the past had learned to live with Jim Crow, she is bitter and sad that she should be so afflicted. Bitterness appears to be a family trait. She only needs to recall how ornery her mother had been to prove as much. On the whole, though, her bitterness comes from the fact that she knows very well why her right eye slid into clinical blindness.
She had killed a man outright and had played a critical role in the taking of another man’s life. No one would characterize either of these men as good, let alone innocent; but they were among God’s children. Can she be surprised a vengeful God would blind a woman who had presumed to see and to judge as if divinity herself? Furthermore, the Boss Man had said that he would toy with her until the finale. For the Boss Man no doubt clinical blindness is a practical joke.
My price to be paid, Mavis thinks. Balancing scales from now to forever…
Mavis is despondent, but only for a moment. She is too damned feisty to wallow in the blues. She remembers a recovering alcoholic once joked that God gives every guy so many drinks in a lifetime. He never overdrank. He just drank up his lifetime allotment before he was thirty-five. Well, if ever asked, she will say the same thing about the blues. True, her blindness hit her hard, especially in those first few years when she was trying to find a doctor who might reverse the deterioration in her right eye. For the most part, though, she stopped all of her crying after being released from prison; and remarkably, she did not get all teary-eyed more than four or five times even in there.
It is not that she no longer feels such emotions. It is that she had learned how to turn off the faucet sooner rather than later. Mavis thinks that her initial step into old age had been the moment she had mastered this mental restraint. She knows that many would regard this as a loss, a denial of her own humanity; but any war refugee or holocaust survivor will tell you that it is just fine if they never again see a dead body or hear an agonizing scream. Anyway, it all comes down to this stark question: Is it better to be an old bag, or a sad mental case? For Mavis, the answer is obvious. She has made her choice and will stick to it so long as God gives her the mind strength to rein in her own emotional reactions.
It is going to be a beautiful morning, Mavis’s seatmate proclaims with an annoyingly cheerful voice. Just wait a little longer. I’ve travelled this route two or three times before, and every time the sunrises have been hunky-dory. It has something to do with the clean air up here. My grandson is a meteorologist, the first African American meteorologist on Beverly Channel 7, and he always says…
So how long ‘till we get to Beverly, do you think? Mavis interrupts.
Oh, I don’t know, her seatmate says without skipping a beat. Sometime after sunrise that much I know. It could be twenty minutes. It could be an hour and a half. At my age, the only time that counts is when my grandson is on air…
Do you know how long a trip it is from Beverly to the top of the Redwood Mountains? Mavis interrupts again.
No train goes up there, her seatmate responds amiably. You will need to get a ride. I remember when they did not let African Americans up there…
You mean ‘colored folks,’ Mavis snaps. Way back when we were ‘colored folks’ is about the time we could not go up there.
Well, come to think of it, I don’t think I ever was a ‘colored woman,’ the seatmate says quite cheerfully. ‘Course I spent my whole life in New York. Sure there was racism up here, but probably of a different kind than what you got in the South. Am I right to presume you’re from the South? I hear it in your pretty accent. Oh, my grandson is an authority on accents. He says to me one day…
Reckon a taxi all the way to the top will be a pretty penny, Mavis snarls.
The last time Mavis had written to Grace she had indicated that she was going to make the trip up to the Redwood Mountains to see her. It had been too long already. Grace had taken to her bed, according to her rare responses; and so Mavis knew that Grace was not about to hop onto a train down to Selma. So, if they were going to say their goodbyes to one another, then Mavis would need to make the trip north. Go figure. Even at the end it is the colored one who has to accommodate the white one, though in this case Mavis is happy to do it. She loves Grace; and since Linda died, she has regarded Grace as her new twin. She knows that Grace loves her, though perhaps in a more selfish way that has a lot to do with Grace’s childhood. Anyway, they are ‘sisters’ to the end; and so this is a trip Mavis would make even if her diabetes had taken her arms and her legs from her torso. In that case, she could have asked the steward to stuff her into a suitcase. At least then she would not have had this damn seatmate in her ear.
Mavis had not figured on making the trip now, but soon after she mailed that last letter she had another round of those nasty dreams. It had been some years, but when the dreams resumed it felt like she last saw him yesterday. His blank, white, Boss Man face is the same as always. He just looks down at her in that vague, but slightly patronizing, way of his, while she is biting down so hard on his stiff rod her top teeth almost manage to touch her bottom teeth. His lips curl upward in the slightest hint of a smile. This is the way he looks when he is about to speak with her. He never actually mouths his words, since naturally no nigger is worthy of the exertion on his part. He just imparts them into her mind like graffiti spit out of a can and onto a work of art. The night before that work of art is as clean as ever. The next morning it is all marked up by a slew of sick words and a drawing of an erect penis. Some poor, colored woman has to scrub it off; and she does a damn fine job of it, notwithstanding how that white devil in charge of the museum tilts up his nose and mutters something about how she is a lazy welfare queen just hobbling around until Obama gives her a brand new pink Cadillac. Still, for all her elbow grease, it turns out to be impossible to get rid of it entirely. A little bit of the graffiti bleeds out from beneath the work of art every once in a while, and she has to go back and fetch her wet sponge and soap yet again. Well, this is what it is like getting a message from the Boss Man who shows up uninvited in her nightmares. She can scrub all she wants, but the words he had imparted will remain in some way deep in her subconscious mind.
I’m really close, the Boss Man says to her in these most recent dreams. If you come on up to Grace’s lakeside home, then you’ll see for yourself that I’ve snatched three white generations and three nigger generations. Oh, that’s right you can’t see much of anything, can you? Well, so much the better, because of course this means your other senses will be that much more acute. You’ll sense their predicament, know their hopelessness, and finally come to terms with the fact that my justice trumps your freedom. So come on up on the train. The law does not require you to sit in the back car anymore. That’s what happens when the inmates start running the asylum. No matter, though, ‘cause you’re still an ape nigger just like when you were back doing tricks alongside your sister. They all know it, even if they have to let you sit wherever you want.
The Boss Man sounds like he may have chuckled. Mavis cannot tell, since any kind of laughter seems so out of place coming from the blank and cold SOB.
I’d have my three nigger generations already; the Boss Man goes on. The only glitch is that you and Linda are twins. I have the diseased whore, but what good is that if I do not have her twin swinging on a rope beside her? I came very close a few times to snatching your nigger ass, but ol’ George never could hold down a job long enough to see it through to the end. Then, when you got out of prison, and clicked on your chastity belt, what could I do, but wait for time and disease to ravage your old flesh? I know the Bible. ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ It is only a matter of time before you simply cannot hold out any longer; and, in my line of work, I have all the time necessary to get my justice.
What do you mean your justice? Mavis asks telepathically, while she still munches away at that bleeding, stiff rod. Don’t you mean justice for your boss?
The Mavis inside the dream seems to know exactly what she is saying. As much as she is frightened, she is also testy. After all, he may be enjoying all of this in his own reserved way, but it is his damn cock inside her mouth, is it not?
The Mavis dreaming this dream does not have a clue. It is like an ancient memory is playing itself out in her subconscious mind. Her conscious mind tries to prod, but then it recoils the moment it gets even a vague impression of what in fact is going on here. She wants to remain ignorant. She wants to run back to the plantation, close the gate behind her, and let the larger struggle play itself out somewhere far removed from what she can know.
But that is not entirely true, is it? After all, if the Mavis inside the dream is testy enough to push the envelope with the very worst of those white devils, then that is only because the Mavis dreaming the dream is testy herself. She is a sourpuss pushing ninety tired of being pushed around in a recurring nightmare by a twenty-something, pool hall boy with a crew cut and a scarred chin who is acting like some sort of belligerent bounty hunter or correctional officer. What is the worse he can do to her? Kill her with that baton of his. So what? She is an eighty-nine year old, clinically blind, diabetic woman, and the high point of her weekday afternoons is listening to back-to-back episodes of Maury Povitch and Jerry Springer. Perhaps, he would be doing her a favor, if he smashed her front door window, like Grace said that he did to the Freedom Bus windshield before kidnapping her daughter, and just hit her once with that penis substitute of his.
Damn mouthy for a nigger, the Boss Man snarls ever so briefly, before he is careful to restore his blank and inscrutable expression. Appears George never beat you hard enough. Listen carefully, now, because I am not going to answer you again. What I collect for my creditor I collect for myself. I am the real boss of my own fate. That’s my reward for walking the long highway in search of the uppity white cunts and niggers, who need to be brought down a couple of pegs.
Mavis should feel triumphant. She has broken through his veil and struck a nerve. Nevertheless, both Mavises, the Mavis inside the dream, and the Mavis dreaming the dream, remember that this is much more than a game of chicken. Somehow, this Boss Man inside her head is responsible for the actual deaths of Linda and Abby. He is not just a phantom in a recurring nightmare. He is a real, flesh and blood, maniacal man whose baton smashes into real skulls and spills a lot of real blood. Rationally, she understands that this cannot be. After all, did not Grace fire a bullet into his forehead? Did she not see him dead on the floor? But the irrational mind feels much closer to the truth on this point. Nightmares turn out to be real, when you actually turn the corner and walk down that dark and mysterious alleyway. They remain fake only when you avoid the corner and dart your eyes away from the alleyway. So much of what we observe as fact or as fantasy depends upon where we choose to look and how fast we walk from a scary something or other we catch in our peripheral vision. Escape fast enough, and we relegate all that to fantasy. Stay around, maybe cook and clean for the scary something for almost twenty years, and we observe in time that it is fact.
Moreover, the Boss Man crowed about snatching three white generations and three nigger generations. Surely, that means that Grace has been snatched in some manner. Maybe, he has trapped her. Maybe, she is dying. In either case she is in trouble; and Mavis suspects that, notwithstanding her initiative on the night the two of them murdered this SOB in Selma, Grace has never really been the strong one between the two of them. Grace can put up a vicious front, play the role of the bitch when needed; but has Grace been scalded and beaten by a mad husband? Does she have a year and a half of prison under her belt? Talking about ‘prison,’ does she have eighty-nine years of being a nigger woman in the Deep South under her belt? Most importantly, does Grace have God at her side? Well, God may be at her side; but since she denies Him she is not likely to take that weapon and put it to use, now is she? How can you grab the sword when it is most needed, when first you deny there even is a sword? Sure, Mavis had had her issues with God; and even now, when she is an old lady getting close to her grave, she is not totally convinced that God cares enough about her to back her up when the going gets tough. Still, on some deep level, Mavis realizes that, in the end, the real struggle is between God and His angels on the one side and an irate Beelzebub and his minions on the other. This takes a lot of the weight off of Mavis’s back, and gives her then the breathing space to love as best she can.
But poor Grace thinks everything’s on her shoulders, Mavis thinks. That’s so paralyzing, like she’s bound and gagged, when really she’s not tied up at all.
Oh, she’s tied up; the Boss Man corrects her with just a hint of a smirk. I can assure you that she’s not going anywhere. Neither are any of the others. So this means it comes down to you and me. I’m really close, and I’m going to get you. Your rusty chastity belt will not save you anymore. Neither will your God…
That last sentence lingers, as the Boss Man vanishes, and Mavis awakens.
It lingers as she pours her Grape Nuts, brown sugar, and buttermilk into a bowl. It lingers as she walks around the residential block, tapping her cane in front of her, and listening for the familiar footsteps coming and going along the same path. It lingers as she sits on a neighbor’s porch to share a pitcher of iced tea. It lingers as she returns home to read her braille, to listen to her television set, and to ponder which T.V. dinner she will microwave from among the dozen or so Norma had stacked in her freezer. It lingers into her afternoon nap, which is thankfully not marred by a return of the Boss Man. It lingers as she talks upon the telephone at night with her several local friends. It lingers as she drinks the shot of whiskey that puts her to sleep just as Jay Leno is interviewing morons in his popular ‘Jaywalking’ segments. ‘Neither will your God’ is just four words in her mind; words she should be able to discount because of who uttered them in the first place; but nevertheless, words that haunt her to a degree nothing else has since she said ‘I do’ to that maniac wife beater with a polished Studebaker.
She tries to shake it off. She bitches and moans in the expectation that a petulant disposition alone will convince that unwanted sentiment in her noggin to take a hike. It is as if thoughts have a mind of their own; so if indeed they’re shown the door, then they will take the hints, grab their topcoat and scarf, and just leave. Alas, when that does not work, she tries to reason the thought away from her conscious mind. Who cares what a nightmare phantom says? Mavis will ask herself more than once. Why should I give any credence at all to a pathetic caricature of a man that I saw dead on the filthy floor just a few feet from me?
Nothing works. Mavis cannot shake the thought that God has abandoned her and that Grace in particular is in real danger. If she thought that God would intervene, then she might say a prayer and leave it to Him. But if God truly has taken Himself out of the picture, then what choice does Mavis have now but to intervene? Of course, the Boss Man may have said what he said just to coax her into making the trip. Mavis knows that this may be a trap; but even if it is, then that does not change the fact that Grace needs her. Mavis had failed Linda and Abby. She is not going to fail her friend. She would rather die than remain idle.
So Mavis locked up her house, bought a ticket, and set out for the finale.
Thus, here she is now, sitting upon a rumbling train, half listening to her seatmate ramble on and on about her grandson the meteorologist, and thinking about how she is going to make the trip up to the mountaintop without paying an arm and a leg to a taxi driver. She had not thought about this last leg of the trip, when she had decided to go. So if it turns out she cannot afford the costly taxicab ride, then what is she going to do? Pull up her skirt, and then hitchhike?
So what am I going to do? Mavis asks aloud in reply to her inner dialogue.
Her seatmate hears the lament in that question. She had been on a roll, relaying how her grandson won the coveted spot on the Beverly Channel 7 News Team, explaining how her grandson could do anything because he had a vibrant faith in the Lord; but now she is stunned into silence. Mavis really is in trouble. She requires someone to help her. Surely there is something she can do for her.
For starters, you’ll put your faith in the Lord, her seatmate says amiably enough. If Jesus can find His way to heaven, then surely He can help you get to the top of the Redwood Mountains. Then, you’ll get yourself a decent breakfast at the Denny’s beside the Beverly train station. I recommend their ‘Red, White, and Blue’ pancakes. Seeing how thin you are the a la carte order should be just fine. Finally, you’ll call this man here, and ask him for a lift up to the very top.
The seatmate hands Mavis a business card she had fetched from her tiny purse. It reads: Apollo Grocery. Good for the Tummy. We Deliver. 555-FOOD. It seems to be a ‘low rent’ operation, but oftentimes ‘low rent’ means ‘low cost.’
He’s an Irishman named Apollo, the seatmate explains. A former bruiser, but a good man all around. He goes on up to the mountain all the time with his food deliveries. Just tell him Wanda sent you, and he’ll do you right.
Mavis switches on the light above her seat. Fortunately, the print is large block lettering; so after she reaches into her purse, and puts on her goofy Coke bottle glasses, she manages to read the phone number. She will call this Apollo from the pay phone at the Denny’s beside the Beverly train station.
She looks up from the business card. There is just enough light outside to radiate the beautiful trees aligning a creek on the eastern side of the tracks. If Mavis had not been so rattled by the Boss Man, then she might actually find joy in that majestic scene just outside her window. Instead, the beauty inspires an old and tired sadness, a sense of innocence lost and squandered by a handful of bad decisions long ago. She tries to fight off this despondency with her old lady feistiness, but this time it does not really work. The blues have taken hold, and they are not going to let go until she has seen this situation through to the end.
* * *
Top of the morn, my lady; the smiling, wrinkled, old man in overalls says to Mavis in front of Denny’s. I’m the ‘Mick Bruiser’ with the Ford heading up to the pearly, pink gates. On the way, I’d be happy to drop you off at Crater Lake.
The man speaks in jest, of course. He is a laugh a minute, that one; and so Mavis is tired of him already. Still, he is kind to meet her on short notice and to drive her all the way up Route 11. Mavis can be pretty cantankerous, but she knows when a man is ‘passing it forward,’ and so she shakes his hand and grins.
Crater Lake? Mavis inquires with some trepidation, since the phrase then calls to mind a hell pit consumed by damning flames.
Water near the top of the Redwood Mountains, the elderly man explains, as he drops the handshake and retrieves a Marlboro from his breast pocket. The Injuns call it a ‘holy site,’ an underwater graveyard, and a transport of sorts to the ‘firewater gods’ up in the sky. I can almost understand where the Injuns of old got their ideas. The sun seems closer up there, like you can really reach up and touch it; and sometimes the air is so still you can almost feel time stopping in its tracks. Surely, heaven can’t be too much further up the highway.
Mavis considers this wordy and cheerful man through her old Coke bottle glasses. He is a beefy man with a limp left leg and a face wrinkled by too many cigarettes over the decades; and yet there is a spritely, almost effortless, shine to him. He plays the fool, but his eyes have seen a lot; and yet notwithstanding his wisdom, he has learned how to find gather joy in the little flowers along the way. Mavis is tired of his happiness; but also she is feeling a bit envious of him, like he is in on something that thus far has been withheld from her.
You have the Lumberjack Slam this morning? The man asks, while eyeing the Denny’s sign beside the front door.
Mavis is at a loss for words. She has never heard of a ‘Lumberjack Slam.’ The phrase sounds vaguely like something George would do to her when he got really nasty. Presumably, it is a breakfast dish at Denny’s. She had used the old payphone inside the front door but had decided against eating there. She really has no appetite and cannot imagine eating until she catches up with her Grace.
You are Apollo, Mavis says.
Delivering the groceries to your front door since 1972, the man responds.
How’d you get that name? Mavis asks, as Apollo escorts her to his truck.
Oh, killed a man in the ring once with my uppercut, Apollo answers that question so nonchalantly as to momentarily disarm her. The law exonerated me in the end, but I swore I’d never hit another man. Still, the oldsters insist that a bruiser who’s killed a man in the ring be nicknamed after one of the gods, so Apollo kind of stuck with me over time.
Mavis notes the parallel with her own life. She killed George in a ring, so to speak; and she guesses her punch would be classified among the ‘cuts.’ The law did not exactly exonerate her, but it did let her go after a while; and then, maybe as a way of atoning, but more so as a way of protecting herself, she did turn her back on her old life as much as possible. Finally, her sad past did stick with her; and indeed, even now, she is here primarily because of what she and Grace had done so many years ago. The past is never done; and if the Boss Man is real in some way, and not just a phantom in her nightmares, then the past is not even done when we pass from this lifetime. So, yes, this old man here talks way too much, and inspires a kind of envy she’d thought impossible at her ripe, old age; but he is also a ‘brother’ travelling along the same highway in the end.
Apollo opens the passenger door. It practically screams for WD-40. Mavis is surprised that the DMV allows this rusted, red jalopy to putter up and down a residential street, let alone one of the turnpikes. There is only one box of food in the truck bed. Presumably, this gas guzzling smog factory on wheels will cost Apollo more in gas money than he earns from delivering that one box of food to the top of the mountain. Mavis wonders how he keeps his business afloat. Then upon further reflection, she thinks that some people are just natural survivors. They manage to keep on trucking, no matter the odds; and they always end the route with a smile on their face and a good word for their neighbors. That is an awesome power, that love for what you do, that love for just being alive. Mavis figures that she will need a whole lot of love to deal with whatever is up there; so perhaps by bringing love back into her mind, Apollo has done her a favor way beyond opening the passenger door, helping her into her seat, and transporting her to Grace’s lakeside chateau. Maybe, Apollo has coached her into the game, given her the little pat she needed before helmeting; and if so he is a godsend.
Mavis almost shrieks, when she feels something small and furry sliding up against her legs inside the truck. She cannot see what it is because there is not enough light at the foot of her passenger seat.
Apollo sees her reaction, as he pulls the truck out of the parking lot and towards the two-lane highway. There is little traffic in Beverly this early in the morning. Otherwise, Apollo’s distraction might have put them all in danger of a serious car accident. Instead, Apollo just swerves back into his lane and smiles.
Shansi won’t hurt you, Apollo remarks amiably. He’s a show dog Shih Tzu without a mean bone in his body. The trainer sold him to me when one morning his tail dropped. Terrible way to start a new day, but at least, I got to buy him.
Shansi is a longhaired, blond Shih Tzu with the traditional Manchu queue on top of his head. He is a love muffin. As soon as he jumps onto the dusty, old bench seat, and takes his normal position in the middle, he turns at once to the newcomer and licks her left hand.
Mavis remembers recuperating in that hospital for Negroes and Indians so many years ago. Her favorite nun would bring in a friendly lap dog from time to time just to keep her company. The lap dog seemed to sense where Mavis hurt, because it would walk right up to that part of her body and lick her there. If it had been given the chance, then it would have kept on licking until it licked all the pain and the misfortune right out of her body. Dogs know. Cats do, too; but rather than try to heal you, the cat is a lot more likely to stare at you until you are about to give up your ghost and then to snatch your soul right out from your last breath. There is a reason no one refers to ‘dog burglars’ hiding in shadows.
So what does this Shansi know? That she is a sick, old lady? That she is on her last legs? That she is being driven up to her grave? Frankly, there is no need for a four-legged psychic to answer ‘yes’ to all three of those questions. Even a dim bulb with two legs could see what is patently obvious. Mavis has come here to help Grace, but also Mavis has come here to die. Most likely, there is a deep and mysterious connection between helping Grace and giving up her own ghost. Mavis does not yet know what that connection is. Maybe, Shansi knows; indeed, likely he does; but whatever he knows, he ain’t talking. He’ll only lick instead, heal her up as best as he can, and prepare her soul for the battle still to come.
That’s enough, you kissing fool, Apollo says to Shansi after a while.
Don’t mind, Mavis remarks without even a hint of her cantankerous self. Just nursing a blind, old fool. One of God’s creatures is all he is.
Mind if I ask where on the lake you’re headed? Apollo asks, while taking a drag off his half finished Marlboro, and blowing smoke into his old windshield.
Ever heard of Grace Temple? Mavis asks him.
I feared as much, Apollo says in a sad and distant voice. It’s been weeks since I last got an order from her. Never been that long in between orders in all the years I’ve known her. Is she dying? Are you a friend come out to help her? If there’s anything I can do, then just let me know ‘cause she’s a real sweet lady.
I’m her sister, Mavis says.
Apollo raises his eyebrow.
Her black half, just like she’s my white half, Mavis explains. I don’t know if she’s dying; but, yes, I’ve come out to help her as best I can. The past creeps into the present sometimes; and when it does, it takes some muscle to wrestle it back into its grave. I know I’m talking strange, but surely you understand me.
I understand that Grace has been alone with her memories a long time, Apollo remarks. I’ve seen those memories in her eyes, when I stop by to deliver her groceries. She doesn’t talk about them, and I don’t pry; but she knows that I know. I don’t think you can wrestle them back into the grave; but just maybe the nights get shorter, and the shadows seem less menacing, when two friends are sharing the same memories together. If that’s what you’re here to do, then you’re not a blind, old fool, no matter what they say. You’re doing God’s work, and He protects His own.
I wish I could believe that, Mavis mutters sadly.
If you don’t believe that now, then I suspect you will when you’re facing the devil head on, Apollo comments. Just call it an old Irishman’s intuition. But enough of the heavy stuff for now. Roll down your window, and take in the tree smell. We’re on the base of the mountain now, and the trees really come alive just about here. You’ll probably smell the river too. It’s sweet and dewy from a lot of years flowing down the mountainside. It’s carried so many lovely dreams, so many first kisses on the mossy riverbanks, so many old loves rekindled just in the act of holding hands on the edge of a pier. Inspires poetry even in a bruiser brain like mine. Imagine it inspires a whole lot more in a gifted soul like yours…
Mavis hears Apollo’s words, but she does not let them penetrate into her heart. He is inviting her to love the world, and she knows that he is right to do so; but at the same time, she just does not feel that it is time. First, she needs to visit Grace. See she is alive and well. Everything else must come afterwards.
And so Mavis does not roll down her window. She just stares out at trees she cannot see, and lets that rising sun flash on and off her Coke bottle glasses.
* * *
Mavis remains in the truck, while Apollo stands in the driveway with the pretty, blondish, seventy-something lady in blouse and jeans. The ‘driveway’ is actually a dirt patch under several low-hanging branches and in front of a nice, quaint, lakeside cabin. The place is ‘faux rustic,’ meaning that the owners very obviously have the financial means to afford whatever luxuries they may want, but have decided to forsake some of the modern conveniences. These folks are ‘dressing down’ their home, not out of necessity, but in order to embrace what may be called a ‘retirement lifestyle.’ Apollo had explained to Mavis during the long drive up Route 11 that the owners are a retired Redwood Township Police Chief and his wife. They’re what the locals call ‘good people.’ Bill Borden very often can be seen out on the lake in his rowboat. Charlotte bakes the best chili cheese enchiladas. There is not an ounce of Mexican blood in the woman, but a person invited to dine on one of her enchiladas would think she crossed the Rio Grande last week. Apparently, Apollo spends considerable time hunting down a number of rare and exotic spices, so that Charlotte can tweak her performance inside the kitchen. Bill must like her cooking, because he fills the doorway, and then some, with his oversized face and flesh. He tops it off with his ridiculously big cowboy hat and boots, as if he is some sort of a cartoon caricature lawman.
Apollo finishes checking everything off his list. He has a proud look upon his old and weathered face, like he is a boy who has recited the grades off of a stellar report card. He puts the list into his breast pocket, and removes another Marlboro. He does not ask if it is okay to smoke, as Charlotte bends at the large box and checks all the items herself. Whether or not he is actually one of their ‘old friends,’ he acts that way with pretty much everyone that he meets; and a mark of an ‘old friend’ is that he never has to ask if it is really okay to light up.
You did well, Apollo, Charlotte says when she stands back up.
Of course he did, honey, Bill remarks casually from the open doorway. It is his job, and you can count on a white man to do his job.
Mavis hears Bill’s booming voice loud and clear, but she does not bristle. She is used to hearing white people indirectly make disparaging remarks about her race. She suspects that these are good people, but racism simply goes with the territory, especially with lawmen of a certain generation. After all, Big Bill practically looks like Bull Connor.
Charlotte does not react to her husband. She holds her right hand above her eyes, so as to block out the sun, and places her order for the next delivery.
After the business is done, Apollo gestures toward his truck.
I’ve got a lady I want you to meet, Apollo says with a smile. Says she’s a friend of Grace Temple.
Charlotte follows Apollo to the passenger door. He opens the door. Only then does Charlotte see the old, thin, black granny wearing Coke bottle glasses and looking just a tad cantankerous. Mavis had been hidden from view by shade cast by an overgrown tree, so that must account in part anyway for why neither Bill nor Charlotte noticed her earlier. Mavis suspects there is more at play here though. From her experience, whites do not notice colored folk until they have to do so. Plenty of times Mavis has felt like a ghost inside of a crowded grocery store, as the white housewives and store clerks passed her without so much as twitching their noses. Mavis will say this much about the Klan. At least, when a Klansman is on the scene, he notices the colored folks who happen to be there.
Apollo makes the introductions, and steps back to drag on his cigarette.
Nice to meet you, Miss Spencer, Charlotte says, while offering her hand.
Mavis accepts Charlotte’s hand, but makes it obvious that she is doing so begrudgingly. There is no reason why she should have anything against this nice lady, but Mavis feels tired and put out anyway. Mostly, Mavis just wants to get on over to Grace’s chateau to see how Grace is doing. This formal introduction to a white woman she will never view again feels like a waste of precious time.
So how is Grace doing? Charlotte asks.
Don’t know, Mavis answers curtly. That’s why I’ve come up here.
Do you have any reason to suspect, Charlotte begins to ask…
I said I don’t know; Mavis interrupts and squirms in her seat impatiently.
Charlotte frowns. She looks like she is trying to remember something.
Honey, when was it you said you saw that workman over at Grace’s? Was it two days ago now, or three? Charlotte calls back to her husband.
Three days, Bill says without reservation. I hadn’t been out on the lake a week or so, remember? That was the first day I felt well enough to do just a bit of bass fishing. I expected to see Grace as usual sitting out on her deck, but she was not there. Instead, I saw what looked like a workman. Young feller, maybe about twenty, tall, thin, hair cut short.
We thought it was strange, Charlotte continues.
Apparently not strange enough to check out further, Mavis thinks testily.
Did the workman have a baton? Mavis asks.
Big Bill must have great ears, because he can hear her soft voice all the way from the open doorway on the other side of the driveway. He answers just before Charlotte can do so for him.
Funny you should say that, Bill reflects. That was my first impression, as soon as I saw him on her deck. It looked like a policeman’s black baton hanging from his belt, and he sort of stood and walked like a lawman. But then I said to myself that he couldn’t be. I would’ve heard the call over my HAM radio before I launched my rowboat. It must be a hammer. Grace must have hired the boy to replace some of the rotted deck boards. A good answer, but I just could not get myself to believe it. Anyway I’d be happy if you’d let us know how she’s doing.
Couldn’t take the time to check her yourself, Mavis thinks again angrily.
Would you come back and let us know? Charlotte asks.
Apollo, let’s go, Mavis snarls. Time’s a ticking.
Charlotte ignores the rudeness. Impulsively, she leans forward and grabs Mavis’s thin right arm. Mavis is startled, and Shansi jumps down to Mavis’s feet.
Be safe, Charlotte says in the kind of detached way that implies that she is not speaking so much as spoken through. Keep your eyes open…
Lot of good they’re going to do me, Mavis snarls, and pulls back her arm.
Charlotte comes back to herself. She seems slightly embarrassed.
Apollo, right now, Mavis orders.
Apollo takes one more long drag off his Marlboro, and smashes the butt under the heel of his right shoe. He smiles still, but there is a dawning concern in his eyes. He shuts the passenger door, says goodbye to Big Bill and Charlotte, returns to his steering wheel, and starts up his motor. He does all this a bit too quickly. Mavis can tell that he too is worried about what may have happened to Grace when the strange ‘workman’ showed up suddenly at her remote chateau.
* * *
Apollo and Mavis do not speak to one another, while Apollo drives his old truck around the perimeter road. Shansi senses the thick tension in the air, and winces. Apollo gives him a stern look, which stops Shansi from crying out more.
It takes a while, since the road that goes around Crater Lake turns into a track of potholes at a certain point. Nevertheless, Apollo knows the road like it is the back of his hand; and even though his mind is not really there, he is able to handle to obstacles deftly enough.
Apollo drives up to the dirty mailbox with the ‘Temple’ sign. From there, the driveway to the chateau slopes downward at a steep angle. There is no way Mavis is going to be able to walk down there herself.
Apollo leaves the truck running, since he is worried that the engine may not start up again. If the engine stalls just about anywhere ‘down mountain,’ it is no big deal to call AAA to get it restarted. If it stalls up here, it will be hours, or tomorrow, before he is able to resume his drive. He leaves both of the truck windows rolled all the way down, so that there is plenty of air for the Shih Tzu.
He walks around to the passenger door, and opens it for Mavis. She does not bolt out of the truck, as he had anticipated. She seems exhausted, like one of the surviving soldiers on the losing side of a great battle. She folds her small fingers in her lap and looks down. She could be a penitent woman offering up a last prayer at that moment, and so Apollo politely steps back to give her space.
Indeed, Mavis is offering a prayer. There are no words to this prayer, no petition, no request for intercession. It is just a deep moment of silence to find out if indeed God can be felt at this terrible time. Will she have to go it totally alone? Will she have to enter that house and find Grace’s corpse without being able to sense somehow that God is standing beside her? Must she drop her tears and beat her breast before a heavenly throne emptied of that Father God, who truly should be sitting there in all His glory to hear the likes of a Mavis Spencer?
This is not a theoretical concern. This is a very pressing problem for her, because indeed Grace is dead. Mavis sensed that when she saw Grace’s chateau beside the lake. There had been a sad and brooding stillness about the place as soon as she saw it. The chateau had all the trappings of a dead and dark abode, a place of shadows beneath overhanging branches, a time stood still to capture the ghost of that woman who had spent so many years living inside those walls. As Apollo had gotten closer to the chateau, the deadness of the place became that much more obvious to Mavis, so that she had no choice but to shed one sad tear for her white sister and to drop her face into silent prayer. Now, while the truck idles beside the mailbox, and Apollo steps back to give her a bit of space, there is only one remaining issue: Will Mavis be spared the cry of dereliction? Is she going to be compelled to follow the Lord’s footsteps even to the anguish of knowing indeed that Father God has abandoned her, as He had abandoned Him?
God exists, but He does not exist for her, not then anyway. She falls now to the depths of her own heart, and she senses nothing at all, but her own sick, brooding despair. God is not here. He will not stand beside her. She is going to be alone, like when she is the only colored woman in a grocery store, or all the times George had been beating her, or all the times Porky raped her young ass from behind while donning his KKK robe, or all the times her own mother called her ‘a naughty girl born of the devil’s seed.’ Oh, yes, Mavis truly knows what it means to be alone; and now at the very end she will know loneliness yet again.
God has no faith in me, Mavis mutters, while slowly stirring from her last prayer. But I’m going to have faith in Him. He does not love me. In His old eyes I’m just another nigger, another daughter of Cain, one more reason to bury the earth in water and in fire. Even so, I’m going to love Him, ‘cause love is all I’ve got right now. There ain’t nothing more given to a nigger in this world but love.
You want to go down there? Apollo asks with a misty sadness in his eyes.
No, Mavis answers. But I have no choice.
Apollo steps forward. He holds out his hand, and she takes it. Together, slowly, carefully, they walk down the deep slope to the front door of the dead, quiet chateau. They do not speak a word the whole time. They both sense that they are about to enter the mausoleum of a damned soul.
They rest a moment in front of the door.
There is an awful odor bleeding out from behind that door. It smells like rotting meat sprinkled with cheap, floral perfume and undergirded by stale, old farts. The smell is immediately repulsive. It dries the tongue into sand and then turns over the bowels. It is a wonder neither Apollo nor Mavis vomits up what is left in their stomachs, as that putrid assault gnaws at them in every other way.
Apollo removes a screwdriver from his overalls. Mavis is near enough she can see the blunt instrument through her Coke bottle glasses. She recalls taking a screwdriver herself to break through the lock at the Boss Man’s apartment so many years ago. She even recalls hearing Johnny Carson in the background. She does not hear anything here, not even a bird chirping in the distance, but there is an undeniable parallel with what Mavis and Grace did that moonless night. So much she wishes she could take back that moment. Maybe Grace would be still alive now. Maybe she would not be clinically blind. Maybe she would feel that a loving and mighty God is standing beside her in her moment of undying despair.
But what is the point of all those maybes? Nothing is going to remove the cup before her. What is done is done. We cannot go back. Therefore, we do not have the wherewithal to keep tweaking the path, so that it just manages to go through the narrow gates. Our path will go down the wrong way, and as we are sloping away from the narrow gates we shall have no other recourse but to love what God has set before us. Love Him in His abandonment of us. Love Him even as we are walking down that path into the Hell of our own creation.
Apollo removes two handkerchiefs from his overalls. He presses one upon his nose, and urges Mavis to do the same. She complies, even though the fabric does not offer much relief from the odor.
Apollo then breaks the lock with his screwdriver. It is so easily broken by his blunt instrument. He remembers advising Grace to get a better lock so as to prevent a would be burglar from doing what he has just done. Grace never got the better lock, and he will never mention it again to her. With the real finality of her death now front and center Apollo starts to sob inside her open doorway.
Mavis steps into the foyer, but it looks and feels like a graveyard of black shadows. The living room off to the side seems to shudder as she steps onto the creaky floorboard in the foyer. There is something in there. Mavis cannot see it of course, but she can feel its piercing, dead eyes. Whatever it is wants her out of this house at once. Whatever it is practically screams: ‘Nigger, get out now!’
It does not feel at all like the Boss Man. She has seen the Boss Man many times in her nightmares. She will feel him when he is near. Whatever this other personality is, it is much more obviously driven by madness, whereas for all his spurts of violence the Boss Man is typically reserved to the point of blankness in his interactions with her. In a way, precisely because this other odd personality is so evidently unhinged, Mavis fears it much less than the calculating and quiet white devil, who is waiting in the shadows with his baton at the end of her life.
Is there something wrong? Apollo asks through his handkerchief.
Mavis hesitates a moment more, as she stares into the shadows and feels the belligerent personality trying to drive her away.
No, Mavis whispers after a while. Nothing that I can’t handle.
Apollo takes a hold of her hand, and leads her upstairs. Every single step creaks. The sound seems to reverberate off of the walls, and this reinforces the idea that they are walking through a mausoleum.
There is an automated chair at the top of the steps. It is very cold to the touch, like it has not been ridden in years. Of course, logically, Apollo realizes that Grace would have ridden this chair down to the foyer the last time he was here. Still, everything in this house seems timelessly dormant, since of course a person or a thing that has been dead only a minute is as truly dead as a person or a thing that has been dead a millennium. Time stops, and everything is cold.
The smell is overwhelming at the top of the staircase. Mavis wobbles on her weak knees. Apollo braces her. He looks into her eyes as if to say: ‘Are you sure you want to continue?’ Mavis nods ‘yes.’ She has no other choice just now.
The master bedroom door is ajar. Apollo figures that Grace probably had not latched it sufficiently well the last time she came up here. The breeze that flows in from the lake would have opened and shut it repeatedly. Grace would have hated that persistent creaking sound, if she had been alive still to hear it.
He pushes the door open. There are flies everywhere, though probably a lot fewer than when Grace first started to decompose. Once the bluish skin had started to peel, the flies would have swept in from that rocky shoreline outside to lay their eggs in her mouth, nostrils, ears, and vagina. As more of her waxen flesh ripped open they would have filled in the holes with even more tiny eggs, thus turning her corpse into a mound of buzzing flies.
Now, her corpse is much less hospitable to the flies. Her decaying small intestine has released flatulence. As a result, her body is bloated, especially in the abdomen and face. She looks like a discolored, wax model blown up by gas, so that it is about to explode. Thankfully, her eyes are closed; but her lips had contorted at the last moment, so that she looks like she is suffering from a bad case of indigestion. Given the bloated skin, and the farts seeping out from new cracks in her body, it is sadly appropriate that she looks like she needs to chew an entire bottle of Tums. What else can relieve a bloated body now trapped in a never ending grimace of pain? What else, but a release of gas, and a breaking down of flesh, until there is nothing left but brittle bones beneath a thin sheet?
I’ve seen enough, Mavis sighs, after standing beside Apollo at the side of the hospital bed, and staring at Grace’s bloated, blue corpse a while.
Apollo nods in agreement. He takes her by the hand, and leads her down the staircase.
As they reach the foyer, Mavis feels a sudden wave of dizziness overtake her. She leans into Apollo. He has to hold her up, and practically drag her to an antique, high backed chair within the living room.
Are you going to be alright? Apollo asks.
Mavis does not answer. She slowly lowers her sad face into her lap. Her breaths sound more haggard and intermittent.
My God, what is happening? Apollo asks with real trepidation.
Slowly, Mavis lifts her face. She looks confused; then, she sinks the back of her head into the chair back and closes her eyes for a while. Apollo kneels at her side. He holds her hands. Her offers a little prayer of his own for her health to recover at this most trying of moments.
The prayer seems to work, at least for a while. Mavis gradually opens her eyes. She looks at Apollo and seems to recognize him.
I need to get you into the truck, Apollo says.
No, Mavis whispers. No strength. Need to rest.
But you have to see a doctor, Apollo protests.
Need to rest, Mavis repeats, while again closing her eyes.
Then, I’ll leave you here, and go to Big Bill’s house, Apollo says slowly so that Mavis can understand him. They have a working telephone. I’ll call 911 for an ambulance. You just hold tight. You’ll be fine.
But Apollo does not really believe that. Mavis looks and breathes like she is dying. He has seen death up close and personal. He knows the signs. He fears that there will be two corpses inside this old lakeside chateau when he returns.
Mavis is not dead yet, but she too feels that the end is near. Her breaths sound and feel like a dying beast wheezing beside her. Her mind seems to float in and out of her head. There are disparate memories that may truly belong to her, but may be just as easily the memories of some other person. Nearly all of her sensations seem out of sorts, confused, unreal. The only constant under all her sensations is exhaustion and a vague sense that everything is slowing down. Actually, ‘winding down’ is a better phrase. Everything is ‘winding down,’ as if stale, smelly water flowing languidly down an old bathtub drain in a dark room.
Before she gives up the ghost, she is frightened back into a semblance of life, though not enough to open her eyes. Apollo has left already. He will never see her last momentary revival.
What scares her is a voice; a maniacal voice that had been once refined, even scholarly, but that is now simply crazed; a vicious passion unleashed in an ugly and morose twilight between life and death. ‘Nigger, get out now,’ it says from somewhere within the same old living room where Mavis has taken a seat.
Mavis is scared only a moment. Then, remarkably, her cantankerous, old lady self comes back from somewhere deep inside her soul. Her fright instantly transforms into anger. Who the hell is this phantom to call me a nigger anyway?