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The Marianna Theory
Sometime in the night, Vera’s daughter snuck into her mother’s bedroom to sleep. By dawn, Vera’s bed was sopped with piss. At the same hour, a voice shouted from the basement, “I ain’t playing no more games, Vera. This is the end, now.”
Vera was dreamt of the rapture. No sweeter a sign of the paradise of heaven, she dreamed, than the apocalypse. Her husband’s voice wormed into that dream through her sleeping ears. It must be Sunday. She woke, but did not open her eyes. “Thank you Jesus, God for another day.”
“If you go to that church,” he said, “I ain’t gonna be here, Vera.”
By here, Vera understood her husband, William, didn’t mean his basement office desk or here, as in, the vowed and indebted torture of his marriage. By here he meant, plainly, that he would kill himself.
“Thank you Jesus for another day.” Vera whispered. And then she whispered the same words four more times. Regardless of what the day might hold, she wanted her lord to know her gratitude.
She opened her eyes. A puddle of cool liquid pooled under her face; liquid she thought to be sleep-drool, but a curdled smell and gritty texture said otherwise. Kira, Vera’s eight-year-old daughter lay in bed with her. She hadn’t we the bed since she was too young to know such a thing wrong.
Vera slapped the exposed skin of Kira’s stomach to wake her, then spanked the child out of her dreams with her flat hand until Kira ran screaming out of the bedroom. Vera prayed afterwards, with the same flat hand.
“I know you hear me, Vera.” Her husband shouted up from the basement. “Go’on and try then watch what happens. You’ll see the truth even if I have to make you see it.”
Vera rolled her eyes, sighed and went to the window on the other side of the room to shut it. There were no screens to filter the flies and June bugs from following the dazzling scent of urine. And although it was a hot day, hotter than usual even for Florida, she wanted to keep the flies out more than she wanted comfort. She looked out the window before she shut it. From there she could see all of Marianna; the “Welcome to Marianna, Florida – God’s Jewel” sign provided by the church and the “Come Back and See Us” sign at the city’s limits. She could see the yellow lantana springing up on the roadside and the way the sun made the street look like dusted silver. Besides Johnson’s store and the famous caverns that was all there was to the city. Below her, weeds were strangling her favorite sago palm.
“We live in a world too comfortable.” He shouted, tagged of course, with his weekly ultimatum. Every Sunday morning he gave her the same choice; go to church and I kill myself. His declaration started just after Chicago. Two years and malaise every since. Two years worth of shoddy Sundays and within the first two weeks, Vera already had enough. Time eroded his daft ultimatum from shocking, to serious, to sad, and eventually to quaintly absurd. After every ultimatum Vera went on to church anyway—no sense in offending God—and he never did what he said he would do. After a while, Vera no longer thought he would, but for rankling’s sake sometimes hoped he might. That Sunday, William emphasized in his threat the words suicide and martyrdom together as though collectively they had merit outside irreverence. Vera smiled blithely in the back of her throat and went on to wash the drying piss from her back .
After the short shower, she put a hot comb on the gas stove and straightened her hair. She re-stitched the cuff of her pants, then dressed herself and Kira in their Sunday fabrics. She made Kira cereal. There were no eggs left or bacon, so Vera did not have any breakfast. All this through the continuing threats from the basement.
William spent most of his time down in that basement writing and repairing things not necessarily in need of repair. Two years back, the basement used to be his study, a place where he could connect with God before each sermon. It was one of the only basements in all of North Florida’s soft interior earth, one William built himself. He dug it out before they added to the house in ‘87, reinforced his dark pit with cement walls and two-by-fours left over from a cluster of water spouts that tore up houses on the southern coastline earlier that same year. William was proud of that basement not just because it was one of few, but it reminded him of helping all those families who’d lost everything. To him, at the time, the basement proved that something could come from nothing so long as God was allowed in. That was William’s reasoning then, when he was still Bishop Reverend William Charles; when he was still more than just a man, but divinely chosen to lead. Vera didn’t think he much considered the basement God’s proof anymore.
“If you go, I won’t be here, Vera!”
In a fleeting trice, Vera felt a prick between her legs that ran up to her throat. She stopped where she stood. What if William did what he said he would? What then? A chill straightened her posture at the thought of her husband in a coffin surrounded by flowers. The last thought she had before walking out the door was, I hate him. I hate him so much. But I don’t know what I would do without him. William. My Husband. Through the threats, she and Kira went on to Marianna Church of Praise, like they always did.
The Holy Ghost was with Vera when she returned home from service. Dripping faintly from the corners of her mouth, hallelujah curled in soft hymn. She called out to her husband William, but he did not answer. “William?” reverberated through the patched house. Kira rushed in front of her mother to greet her father in Sunday dress. Vera wanted to stop her but noticed an apple on the floor that was not there when she left for church. Kira ran to the hallway door and down the wooden steps to a basement filled with the echoes of a whispered jeremiad. Down and down until a faint burst of smoke filled Kira’s tiny nose. And she smelled then a scent she didn’t recognize; a scent that reminded her of rose petals. Her Mary-Jane heels stopped at the edge of the stair. The stains of red on the basement wall glistened behind the sunlight’s blonde coating. Red apples were sprawled all over the floor. Kira saw her father’s chin drooped over his chest, the colorful innards of his exploded skull streaking the dusted shelves in thrilling red. A gun dangled by its trigger ring on a languid index finger and the basement’s one window was locked from the inside.
Kira was the first to see.
“This is it. Holy-granola, David, snap out of it! He’s here.”
David was thinking how wonderfully certain sequences of numbers looked together in an unassociative bunch. Side by side. Three. Zero. Two. Nine. Six. One. He was thinking how similar in euphony paired numbers could be to poetry when Arnie tapped him on the forehead with a pencil’s eraser. David hadn’t heard a single word Arnie said, only the warble of babbling.
“…David? Would’ya get your head out of the clouds for a second and look at this. I think this is it.” Gripped in his right hand, Arnie held a memo. That memo, David saw, was what he’d been waiting to see for over five years. It was the prelude to a promotion David dreamed his since he ever thought to become a physicist; a truthchaser, he often called his profession. His eyes flickered a bit looking at it, unsure if it was real. He sat up. It’s here, he thought, finally it’s here.
“Look.” Arnie slammed the small piece of paper onto David’s desk.
David folded his arms and tried not to hoist his hopes. That memo meant he could go from an observer of science to a discoverer; a learner to a teacher. He’d wanted the promotion to Chief Operations Officer since he could remember. The appetite for that promotion animalized after his wife, Mary Anne, left him. In fact, the appetite was, as he once read in a force-fed consumption of Moby Dick, his substitute for pistol and ball. Once Mary Anne shut the door, the promotion was all he had. It meant everything. Science became his pulse; kept him vital enough in depression not to walk barefoot and blindfolded into southbound traffic.
“Is this it, Arnie?”
“I hope.” He answered. “Go ahead, read it.” Arnie, jittery with excitement, motioned towards the paper with his pencil.
David leaned forward to read the memo. He descried the Albert Einstein stationary and knew the memo came from Lab 40. His lab, Lab 26, would never be so corny as to use Albert Einstein stationary. Not because they were any less corny, only, they knew the real scientists weren’t as natural as Einstein. The real scientists actually had to work. Hard. But, Lab 40 was where the big boys played. It was the real deal.
David moved his glasses up the slope of his nose with his thumb and index finger and focused on the memo he had to peel off his desk. It was a full page. David took from it, All Labs 11 – 30 mandatory announcement meeting with Senior Theoretical Physicist Doctor Andreas Martius. Meet at the gazebo in the center of the complex. Please bring pencil and paper.
“It’s not gonna be me. It can’t be.” David spoke more out of need for response than genuine skepticism. Someone was going to be named Chief Operations Officer over the entire theoretical physics department. David was the leading candidate. He was more determined to find the truth than he was brilliant and worked harder than anyone. The memo meant that all his work had paid off—he would be closer to the truth than he’d ever been. Still, he couldn’t believe it was time. “This can’t be real.”
“Martius is here, David—at Fermilab! He’s in the complex right now.” Arnie then held his pencil like a sword up to the fluorescent light and faked a fencing match with air. He was as excited as he was capable of being. “The big man’s called a meeting. It’s mandatory. Don’t you feel it David? Something is happening, something bigger than big, something phenomenal. I mean, how often does a memo say ‘mandatory’? Never. Ever. I’m rarely wrong and I say you’re about to be crowned chief operations officer, a.k.a lord of the super geeks. You’ll be running this place. Let the matriculation effect begin.” Arnie’s voice had a universally nerdy pitch to it. Every word in its final syllable spiked in volume which increased until the sentence was complete. For some time that verbal trait David thought funny, then it became annoying, and in the last year or so David found it a characteristic that reminded him of rural Chicago’s near bothersome hopefulness. Still, David understood Arnie’s excitement, because it was, of all the great minds left in the world, Doctor Martius.
Doctor Martius was the world’s leading thinker in the field of theoretical physics. Many of the studies and tests the physicist at Fermilab hypothesized and several of the equations they calculated, Doctor Martius invented. Some called him the culmination of Newton, Einstein and Babbage. Some called him prophetically enlightened. Others called him crackers. Either way, when he came to speak, David would listen. David met Doctor Martius in his third year at Berkeley and found that there was much more to the man than science. He found that the Doctor was a man of life, a man of poetry, a man of innumerable questions and yet more answers than anyone else. David found an image of a man that he aspired to be. And with that memo David’s chance had come.
Pale white men in white lab coats poured out the building’s glass door into the August Chicago afternoon like drops of ivory paint on green grass. Half the men shielded their neglected eyes from the sun, while others hacked coughs as the scent of sun-warmed green entertained sensitive sinuses. David’s eyes burned and flared red when he closed his eyes to blink. The surrounding courtyard sparkled under the sunlight as it usually did; a peacockish gazebo, picnic tables and a curious mix of colorful flowers all atop green, no matter the season. It was certainly no place for mandatory physics meetings. Though cordial, and obviously charming in appeal, the courtyard gazebo, as far as David was concerned, was a place for bohemians, not physicists.
The picnic tables were seated in the grass, squaring off a section of bulky sycamore tree shade next to the gazebo. Under that tree was the senior physicist, Doctor Martius, in a white lab coat and eating a large red apple that broke into three apples in the reflection of his glasses. His hair was wild and stringy; a perfect blend of classic Einstein and Raggedy Andy. Behind Doctor Martius were two stiff men dressed in bright orange NASA uniforms and, standing adjacent, Doctor Leland Bancroft, a world-renowned physicist, one probably more well-known than Doctor Martius, wearing the usual Armani suit and tie. Truth be told, David did not know Dr. Bancroft well, but knew of him enough to understand the respect the name carried. Dr. Bancroft was the leading physicist in the world in the field of particle physics; his paper on quantum field theory alone, which he wrote at age nineteen, proved as important to the field as the world by Enrico Fermi; the very man for whom the lab was named. Whole semesters were taught on Bancroft’s work. If Martius was the best physicist in the world, Bancroft was the most noted. The grouping of individuals, as well as the dogface stiffness of the two NASA uni’s, made David’s walk uneasy.
It’s not my time. It’s not gonna be me. He thought. He sat, nonetheless, at the bohemian picnic tables under the shade of a sycamore, with the others.
“Your attention please.” One of the men in orange said, his voice as precise and impeccable as a well-trained soldier. “Attention. Doctor Andreas Martius is ready to speak.”
The NASA uni moved aside and a soft grumble of applause received the Doctor. The Doctor quite calmly stepped forward and leaned, casually, against the oak tree; a white coat against the muted-gold timber.
“A neutron walks into a bar…” He said with an almost eerie seriousness in his sermonic voice. “…‘I’d like a beer,’ he says. The bartender goes back and gets his beer. ‘How much will it be?’ Asks the neutron. ‘For you…’ The bartender says. ‘No Charge.’”
A limp drum of laughter, laughter more obligatory than provoked, fluttered across the courtyard. Doctor Martius beamed at his own joke. There was again, an odd seriousness to his demeanor.
“I brought you all here not to be a comedic interlude to your day. I brought you here because you are the brightest, the best young minds and much you will discover in your days to come.” He smiled taking another bite of his apple. “Surely your day has been full with discoveries already—finding evidence of tau neutrinos, top and bottom quarks…perhaps, even gravitons.” A low murmur of chatter rose and fell at the word graviton. “But, let us not speak in the theoretical jargon that we know and puzzle even ourselves with. I brought you here to speak of greater things. Let us, together, speak of life. The question—the ultimate question, what is the meaning or purpose of life—can the answer be found in science? Can it be calculated in numbers? Is that not your job?—to find an answer? Could you, even with the best tools technology could afford, find an answer?
“Consider this; the larger the more sublime, the smaller the more chaotic. We study from the rigid indoctrination of reductionism, so let us do so now.
“The galaxy is a delicately complex mathematical paragon. It is perfect; moving at optimum efficiency and alignment to benefit its smaller self. The Earth as it is, however, is a very different story. On a perfectly circular exterior, there is precisely enough oxygen, light, land mass, distance, and sufficient vegetation to sustain life. But, there are fierce storms, ice ages, volcanoes, and incredible indifference. The world can become chaos. Look smaller, at the city; the microcosm of our universe. Towering buildings, organized roadways, streetlights, coffee shops, malls, motels, restaurants—all mixed into coordinated pandemonium. Look even smaller at mankind. We, supposed beings of order and divine righteousness, we kill, we pillage, and we destroy our environment, our future, and our lives. Man has become a cancer to himself, spreading his anarchistic and deranged perspective to anyone and everything. But things get smaller still. Look at an atom or a quark or even third generation quarks; completely erratic and thoughtless measurements of energy. Even the consummate strings of which we base all our research vibrate without sense or reason. The smaller the more chaotic.
“So what of that which is so small it does not have a measure? Something so small in essence it does not actually exist? What of thought—the mind’s realizing of intentions. Your unconventional and easily forgettable thoughts. How chaotic are they?—How frustratingly inconsistent! You’re thoughts can even betray you. But, when focused, oh, when you hone a splintered thought to a fine point you become something bigger, brighter, divine!
“What is my point? Thought is at the end of all things. The ability one has to be creative, the ability to solve equations, to write, or to paint, or play the piano, or dream is something to be marveled. Essentially when we are creative individuals we are defying law. We penetrate the great universe with our ideas—with our thoughts we are the scientists of life. All things considered, when one can be affected and inspired, he or she is the closest to God one can ever be.” Doctor Martius dropped his half-eaten apple in the grass. His eyes looked straight up to the sky, eyes that looked to be listening for something. The NASA uni’s moved closer and Martius snapped free of his trance. “This will be the last speech I give for reasons I cannot say. Write this down because I will tell you this and this only; truth and myth, dreams and reality, numbers and words are inalienable contrivances interwoven by the quintessence of thought. When you truly think, you’ll realize that there are no anomalies and there are no coincidences. In the dark, vagueness of questions…let your mind lead the way.”
The two NASA guys, arms folded at parade rest behind their backs, stepped in front of Doctor Martius. “Dismissed.”
It wasn’t David’s time. At least not for what he hoped.
Within twenty-four hours of that speech, Doctor Andreas Martius was dead.
Chicago Sun Times’ Thursday obituary read; the beloved Doctor Andreas Martius passed in his home on September 8th.
David stood nervously behind the podium as the single eulogist in Martius’ funeral. A sadly apropos fog, hovering over gravestones, smelled to David of pine needles and chopped loose bits of trees. Morningtide sun lit Chicago’s fogged suburbs a gentle patina, like a world reflected in bronze.
Arnie and the others chose David as the eulogist because he was the favorite among the Fermilab scientists and the most graceful with words, which by other social standards wasn’t that exceptional. David had always a natural talent for reducing, shrinking the cosmos into subatomic particles, a talent for somehow making a world of problems small enough to view completely. From behind a podium, David would reduce their grief down to an inherent fear of death, and unravel that fear to their own misunderstanding of dying and its spiritual insignificance. They chose David because, of all of them, he admired and respected Martius the most and he would eulogize the doctor with strong words praising his contributions to the world. They chose David, and he agreed.
Andreas Martius’ burial was held at Rose Hill cemetery, in the old section mere yards away from the resting place of Oscar Meyer. Martius’ burial at Rose Hill was meant to authenticate his esteem, but lying science’s greatest mind permanently next to the king of wieners hardly did the justice. The scene, save a nearby gravestone dotted with ketchup and mustard packets, was nonetheless depressing. There were no roses and no one wore black. White chairs in the grass made a semicircle around a half-submerged coffin and the podium separating David from an assembly of onlookers.
Amongst the funeral attendants few were mourners. Even fewer attended to prove that the brilliant man in the closed, ocean-colored coffin had someone, anyone, who cared about him beyond his work. Most the attendants were young lab-techs, Fermilab’s brightest, attending out of respect and hoping that wisdom might, in death, move with the fog, absorbing into the skin a soggy osmosis. There was only one who wore mourning on her expression. Nestled in the front row of white chairs sat a woman wearing a navy-colored blazer and skirt. David guessed the woman was Dr. Martius’ one daughter, Lilana. Her legs were long, so long that the prime meat of her thighs edged out from under her skirt. The woman’s hair was pulled back into a ponytail forcing her sullen poise to expression’s front-stage. And by no means was she beautiful, not noticeably beautiful. She did have attractiveness, a sort of charm that waited, like roadside wildflowers, to be noticed and idolized. David acknowledged her with some discomfiture because with her slicked brown hair she reminded him, for the first time in a long time, of Mary Anne. Looking at that woman, Lee felt a hot swell inside his chest. He fought back overdue tears.
The bagpipes playing into the fog ceased and silence began its act.
Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night was the poem he decided was appropriate for the occasion. Even at Berkeley he’d never read Dylan Thomas, but heard the English majors in the college campus coffeeshop speak of Thomas as if he were Einstein. David thought Thomas boring back then, but an appropriate poet for a funeral. And up until seeing the doctor’s one daughter, dressed in navy, veiling grief’s visage with painted courage, David had every intention to use the poem.
“I knew Doctor Andreas Martius…” David allowed himself a slow, collecting moment to sigh and glanced over at the woman in navy. Her sunglasses reflected a slice of daylight that made her lipstick a startling red, a shade that turned genteel memories tasteless, all that was remembered in gold recalled in green. “Mr. Martius was a brilliant man who we all loved immensely. He was my mentor and my friend…”
Somewhere in his thoughts, David was reminded of the one night. It was the one night that he’d locked inside a lock, and inside a lock. It was the one memory he wanted to never recall. At a fresh-morning funeral, the vault that trapped his hurting for over three years was opened and the one night roused confess itself to a grieving audience. It was the one night. The night he should have said something different.
David gripped the edges of the podium as she stared at the woman in navy who so much reminded him of her. “Frankly…” He sighed, trying to find an order for the words rushing to the surface. The swelling that heaved in his chest turned into words he did not intend to speak, angry words that he did not mean, but said anyway. The grief that he’d held back for three years slipped free. “…Doctor Martius was a hypocrite and a stubborn old man who wasted his life…”
And his son was sleeping just next door.
Sleeping just next door.
“…And for what? For science?”
David recalled it quickly in his mind, catching his wife with another, the barbaric fight that ensued and somehow, in all the anger, the death of his infant son.
I wasn’t late. 9:00 pm. Not at all late enough for such secrets to be revealed. But there she was. David stood in the doorway–high school and college sweetheart, the girl who once sported bangs and listened to Siouxsie and The Banshees, the girl in glasses who wore goose bumps when he said intelligent words like codimensional, orthogonal, and subspace, straddled over another man’s body. How the years had passed. She looked so much older; older meaning suddenly and provocatively dark. Mascara and far-too-pink lipstick smeared across her cheek. Her eyes were more intense than sad, more excited than shameful. And his son was just next door.
“And yet here, now, it’s not science that we mourn, but life.” The woman in navy looked at David, her brow folding curiously behind her sunglasses. “As scientists, do you honestly believe that when you die there will gold streets or rooms kept by God’s hand—or if there is even a God at all? Well, believe it or not, there is no God, no more than there will be a jolly fat man in your chimney come December. When you die there will be an absolute, unflinching nothingness and you will no longer exist. Period. Doctor Martius spent his one chance at life stuck in a white box with one eye in a microscope. He had a wife and a family and he lost them.”
David. She said his name, but did not move—did not dismount. David. There was shock in her voice, but his name was different on her tongue, acerbic, stinging drops in his ear. Mary Anne was a different woman than the bang-cut intellectualist he knew, one who would never stare blankly as all that love and life built unfurled and fizzled away. Never would the Mary Anne he knew do this with their son, baby Noah…
“Look at us. There are fifty scientists among us and not one of you enjoys life outside the lab. You scurry back like mice everyday. Even now, at this very funeral you’re talking already about the lesson Doctor Martius didn’t live long enough to teach. Well, there is a still a lesson here to learn. Heaven and hell are not real and the brilliant man we’re here to bury into oblivion was too stupid to see the truth.”
How badly he wished he had said something different that night.
David pushed the microphone away from his face. The fog was lifting but the morning sun washed color from the world. Everything looked still drowned in a watered-down glass of scotch. The pallbearers mumbled amongst themselves, arguing whether they should take the microphone away from David, and the attending audience exchanged a bustle of disbelieving looks.
Something else happened that night. David, as best he could explain, stood in the doorway of his fears and, inexplicably, disappeared. He felt his body fade, the skin restraining his psyche giving way to sovereignty. The suffering brought on by sweeping change, for a short while, caused David to evaporate into nothingness. In his return from that undeniable void he brought back one statement; one statement he said only to his adulterous wife.
“Let the death of the beloved Doctor Martius not begin a scramble to be the first to prove theory. Go home, see your wives—your kids if you have them. Don’t be anything like the bastard in this coffin.”
David’s speech was complete. There was no applause. He stood at the podium recalling the last three years that he had not talked to his wife or watched his son grow up. Three years alone. Three years since the night he said to his beautiful, adulterous wife, in the end there are no dreams…
And he wished he had said something different.
David felt a rigid hand grip him at his bicep. He looked up. The entire audience stared back at him, a twisted melding of anger and sadness in their faces, as they bore into him. “I’m sor—”
The spiny hand gripping his arm jerked him around. It was Doctor Leland Bancroft. He gleamed at David and his well-groomed salt and pepper beard looked more ruffled than David had ever seen it. When he spoke, his breath smelling of pipe-smoked tobacco, his whisper cut the air with its ferocity.
“You’re fired, you ungrateful son-of-a-bitch. Never again will you see the inside of a laboratory if I have anything to do with it. Get off this podium, leave this ceremony—now, Mr. Stedmann.”
David snatched his arm from Bancroft’s grip, then stepped away from the podium and the audience that pitied and hated him simultaneously. He glanced once more at the woman in navy. Her emotions were hidden behind looping sunglasses. The hot ringing of “you’re fired” lamed David’s legs. He walked on embarrassment alone, both hands in his pockets, past the cemetery mossy gravestones thinking, what did I just do?
Two blocks from the corner lot of the Charles’ family home and one block before the Marianna Church of praise was Johnson’s, a crude dimestore known for selling the best collards in all of northwest Florida. Five thousand and sixty six people lived Marianna, including the adjacent town Malone, and most everyone spent their free time at the church praising god or at Johnson’s store loitering and soliciting things that the lord wouldn’t approve. Suppose all there was to life in Marianna was obeying or defying God. Either were Godly or you weren’t and disdain for opposition was the only unifying dynamic.
Every Monday morning it was at Johnson’s Vera bought her greens for dinner with a ham or a chicken depending on the season. And on the morning after her husband killed himself, her routine had no intention on losing its method. She and Kira made the two block trek, past blackberry patches, pear trees, and a parade of curious glances, to Johnson’s store.
Vera snatched Kira back from picking blackberries and wiped the purple stains from her fingertips. “Stay outta that before you spoil your dinner.”
She held Kira’s hand the rest of the way. From the distance, Johnson’s store looked crowded. It wasn’t crowded, but outside a loitering herd of graceless men sauntered back and forth, talking and laughing with the heavy arrogance of street emperors. “Don’t stop walking ‘til you get inside.” Vera made her grip on Kira tighter as they walked into the thin cloud of cigarette smoke bulwarking Johnson’s door. Those men, dangerously unattached, always took up Johnson’s porch on warm days, drinking and talking jive. No woman within god’s grace ever stopped to scold or to save them. With bulges in their pockets, they were too far gone, and in the residuum of her husband’s death, Vera was in no mood to deal with them. Nearing, she could hear them say things like, “When I was in high school I wouldda had dem ankles by her ears!” and “I’ll bet a dollar to a doughnut it tastes like crawfish!” Vera felt their eyes and most carnal thoughts chaffing against her skin. Still, with Kira in hand she pushed through their ribald barricade and into Johnson’s store.
It was quiet inside Johnson’s. The refrigerator holding bags of ice hummed and a grandfather clock ticked and tocked against the wall. Vera gave a nod to Johnson playing dominoes behind the counter with his son and ambled toward the back after a bushel of collards. Past the candy aisles, with the Chico sticks, jaw breakers, and lemon heads, they walked. Past the cereal aisle and cigarette aisle, deep in the back next to heating lamps that warmed stale fried chicken and potato logs. There was a small vegetable section in the back of the store and in the middle of the shelf were the collards. Those broad, green, leafy plants wrapped in yesterday’s paper and bound by a red rubber band. Vera picked her bushel quickly and turned back to find Stella and Juanita Wright waddling towards her, anxious to get their hands on a bushel or two. Vera stopped when she saw the two women, the wife and sister of the new Pastor, one much too skinny and the other much too fat; dingier female versions of Abbot and Costello. Vera could see them, already, feigning sycophantic smiles, gossip moving back and forth between them in the form of fungus gnats.
The fat one, Juanita, saw Vera first. “Praise Jesus! It’s Vera Charles.”
“Vera Charles?” Stella shouted turning to Vera and hiding her smile behind her high cheekbones.
“Hello, Stella. Hello, Juanita.”
“Vera,” Stella recited. “Can we be the first to give our condolences to the loss of your husband; he was a good man.”
Vera smiled knowing that neither of them had as much as been introduced to her husband. They came to Marianna months after William’s spiritual gangrene kept him hidden in the basement. Wrapped so tightly in their own slandering world, the two women had no idea if William was a good man or not. And, undoubtedly, neither of them cared. Vera did everything she could to hold her tongue and replied simply. “Thank you.”
“You will be attending the special service being held after your husband’s ceremony, I presume?”
“I haven’t missed a Sunday service since I can remember.” Vera said. “No sense in missing the next one.”
“Guess you’re right.” Juanita tossed a bundle of collards back into the batch. “We tryin’ to get one of the Winans to come and sing. It’ll be nice for sure. Just ‘cause our community lost someone doesn’t mean we can’t exalt the lord.”
“The community didn’t lose someone. I did.”
“We sorry Vera. We ain’t mean no offense to you. We just saying that if we can get a famous singer to come to our small town…well, it can be a blessing.”
A blessing that my husband died? Vera thought to herself. She didn’t realize she’d let go of Kira’s hand until she heard her daughter speak, saying to Juanita firmly, “You a bitch.” Vera grabbed Kira by her arms but did not chastise her for her choice of words.
Stella and Juanita smacked their lips simultaneously and all the greens in Johnson’s began to smell. “We understand ya’ll both need time. Our condolences go with you.” Stella pushed ahead to leave Johnson’s. Juanita, the chubby Costello, kept a hard eye on Vera and her daughter.
“I wouldn’t suggest buying any of those greens. They ain’t worth the paper they put in.” The plump woman smirked casually and the weight of her body jostled under her shirt. “We didn’t really know your husband, but for what it’s worth, we prayed for him.”
Vera put her arm around Kira. “No sense in praying for my husband. Ain’t no ladders in hell.”
Johnson’s store suddenly narrowed. Vera watched the two women leave, she and Kira standing alone, and no longer did she have a taste for collards or for any condolences Marianna could provide.
Speckles of brittle black littered the linoleum tile in David’s loft apartment. Books burned to crumbs. Evolutionary Theory, Thesaurus, Theories of Quantum Physics, and paperback Ursula K. Le Guin novels, burned. Pages ripped from artistic spine and turned char of what was once muse-kissed.
The alarm clock did not sound at seven.
Silence woke David at a time it desired. Silence had randomly chosen it’s time for the past six weeks without snooze. A requiem for a day passed, the droning silence would hold David in his bed until well past noon. It had been six weeks since Martius’ death and burial and David had not left the cradle of his bedroom. Each morning the telephone would ring once, and it would be Arnie Rickles from the lab to check on him saying, “You still breathing?” Each time, David would reply “Just barely.”
Six weeks spent burning books, eating cold toast, and watching Chicago through his window. At the funeral he’d lost the symmetry in his life and had not the ambition to find it again.
He stood from his bed. A slight bend of sunlight ran across the floor. David took an old high school calculus book from his depleted bookshelf. The book felt fat and bulky in his hand and on its cover was a cartoon box bursting with mathematical symbols. Junior year of high school, David used the calculus book instead of an actual yearbook to acquire signatures and “have a great summer” quotes. For a moment he wanted to open it; to read in it the memory of his youth. But there he would find familiar handwriting. He would find the handwriting that dotted I’s with hearts and crossed T’s with shooting stars—he would see a name he never wanted to see again. The hard cover was torn off in one yank and the pages doused with Jack Daniels. With a swipe and a quick drop of a match, the pages lit ablaze. Hissing and mumbling, the memories of High School along with calculus equations rose into black swirls that looked of tiny galaxies. A fire burning in the center of his white room, David understood his sadness was embryonic—he was losing and gaining something at the same time; two things that could never fit or fill the void of each other.
The telephone rang.
“Our product will make your life easier!”
“No thank you.”
“Does anyone in here know another word for black?” A woman wearing a hot-pink wig yelled, in a voice just barely adult, across the little eatery from her booth. David glanced up. He had another word for black, only it was dug so deep inside him he couldn’t get to it without uncovering the meaning. Meaning, in any capacity, was the last thing he needed so close to midnight. “Anyone? Black. I mean like dark black, like char black. Oh wait, char is a good word. Nevermind people, I’ll use char.” Just below her voice bacon sizzled on the open grill. David glanced up again. She was a pretty woman. The distance and David’s mediocre eyesight didn’t give her the appropriate justice. She was really pretty, gorgeous even, with a symmetrical face and lips full enough to speak without speaking. Her cheeks sat high and looked warmer to the touch than their salmon hue implied. David tried not to stare. It had been some time since he saw a woman and was attracted, in fact it had been exactly three years. Virile Masculinity, it seemed, was not and could not be entirely depleted, no matter how intense depression’s vacuum. His palms began to sweat.
Only the woman wearing a hot pink wig and David occupied the diner besides the cook and the two waitresses. He sat in a booth near the door, the woman in pink nearer the window by the restroom.
Rudely, the colorful woman, stood from her seat, walked across the diner and sat down in David’s booth. “Okay, you’re the only person in here so I have to ask you.” She said. “I just wrote a poem, and it isn’t for anyone, I mean it is…but I wasn’t thinking of anyone when it came to me it just did—and then it sort of reminded me of someone, but it just came out y’know? So will you critique?” The woman spoke so fast David didn’t hear a full word she’d said.
“Will you listen to my poem and critique?”
Out of sheer disbelief as to why any one person in the world could be so animated at nearly midnight, he entertained her. That and, like an O’Keefe original, she was even more beautiful up close. “Sure, yeah, whatever.”
“Okay, you ready?” He nodded and she read from the napkin scribbled useless. “Another day gone, another moment lost, we are waiting for our lives to happen, while our enjoyment is the cost, I look into your soul, It is mush and char, I hate you like I hate bad sex, I should hit you with my car.” She smiled as she looked up from her napkin. “So what do you think?”
“I think…” Her company lightened him. “…I think it’s great.”
“Really? Because I just wrote it. The meter is a little childish but I like the simplicity. And I don’t even own a car. Do you really think it’s great? I mean great is a very broad word. Is there another word or phrase that’s more specific?”
“You know…I’m not really the poetic type. I’m only here for the pancakes.”
“So, I’m not what you’re looking for. Maybe you should ask one of the waitresses to listen and ‘critique’.”
“But you were doing so good with ‘great’. All you have to do is elaborate. C’mon, I know it’s in you. Go ahead, flatter me.”
“Am I being annoying? You were trying to be alone weren’t you? I’m sorry—guy alone at a greasy diner at midnight—knowing me and my luck I probably found you right after your wife left you.” She rose from the table, crumbling her napkin as she darted back to her booth. Her absence scented the air with bubble gum and fruit.
In the booth, alone, the dry taste of amber filmed around David’s teeth. And for the first time in six weeks he smiled.
The sun rises.
The telephone rings.
“David, you still breathing?”
“It’s been six weeks and a day and we miss you here at the lab. Nothing’s getting done without you. I swear the lab is starting to grow webs.” Arnie said, then laughed through his nose at his own joke.
“Webs don’t grow, Arnie.”
“Oh, yeah, right…so, when are you at least gonna talk to Dr. Bancroft? You could probably get the job back if you just…I don’t know….apologize or something.”
David pictured Arnie at the phone in the lab—his eyes, coffee bean-colored in a garish room, never focusing on anything as they careened about, viewing chimerical equations and solutions. Arnie rarely talked on the phone much—a geek thing, so the short conversations with David were surely highlighted in his day. Soup bowl haircut, piano-key tie, and pencil in ear, Arnie was the typical physicist, David humored; bumbling.
“I don’t know when I’m coming back…” David said, “…Call it a malaise.”
“Malaise… A vague feeling of bodily discomfort, as at the beginning of an illness.” Arnie recited the definition as though he were Roget.
“Yeah…that’s right I guess. Can I ask you something Arnie?”
“Sure David, challenge me.”
“Martius’ meeting…in the gazebo. He wanted to know the meaning of life—”
“David…” Arnie swallowed hard. “There is no meaning. It’s just part of a structured conscious development.”
“Tomorrow, Arnie.” David hung up the phone adding nothing more to what Arnie said.
There were no more books to burn. No more perfect texts or novels of which David could release himself into flame. There was only the box.
Dusty black box.
In the box were pictures, memories, baby shoes, dreams, and more than anything a scent David hid from himself—a scent made with the color of August. David gazed at it momentarily wondering if it too should be burned, if it too should be sent to the heavens in antiquarian smoke.
That morning, with few books left to burn, David walked to Robichaux Park, a green mirage of trees nestled unexpectedly in the city. After a short breakfast of toast he casually ambled the half-mile and found a bench all to himself. The grass was greener than he remembered it ever being in October. Even the high-sitting fall sun gleamed wide and bright enough to encourage day outings. Tastefully polluted air spiced with distant pumpkins filled his lungs. Trees, still clinging mightily to Summer’s browning relationship, found a daft mistress in October who could replace summer for a while, but would soon grow cold. Robichaux was alive; joggers, dogs, swaying willows, Anne Marrow Lindbergh books, chess matches, conversations, loving hands held, daydreamers, all these things under a mosaic of shade and sunlight.
David sat at his bench contemplating how physics could explain such things as Robichaux and its fall affects. He wondered if there was a mathematical equation for friendship, a theorized pattern for love, and how, if at all, subatomic particles explained the beauty of autumn and the elegant eye that beholds. People passed him in his time to himself. Business men strolled by in suits, others in boot-cut jeans and casual shoes. Women in springtime dresses, chatted in groups, catching breezes in fleshy areas that October was not accustom to knowing. There were even bare-chested kids on skateboards; an unusual sighting for the season. David stayed on his bench and re-discovered the world, eavesdropping on conversations about politics and diets and watching grass-lovers indulge in the break from melancholy.
David recalled a moment with Dr. Martius months back. The doctor had said something, advice David did not digest, fitting for his seasonal contemplations. It was a Wednesday in April, he remembered. Hump Day. The lab was emptied for the special Wednesday pasta lunch. White lab coats flushed through glass doors like ghouls. David and Arnie walked together, not in the least thinking of food. Their mouths tasted only the silvery twang of scientific analysis as their conversation confirmed. That day, they had a bit of a breakthrough in understanding the basics of supercollider technology, the first step in a marathon of work to find the gateway particle; a graviton. Doctor Martius strolled the cement path through the courtyard as David approached him, excited to tell of the things they’d found.
“Doctor…Doctor! We made a breakthrough.” David clamored. “Today we found that…” His words trailed off as he saw that Doctor Martius was not listening.
Nonchalantly, the Doctor reached down and picked a yellow fuchsia from the group of flowers along the path. “It’s nearly April. Already the fuchsia is blooming. You see David?”
“Yes, Doctor, but I have something more important to—”
“More important than the delicacy of flowers? Suppose everything that you are doing in the lab is to find out why this particular flower blooms the way it does and suspends my mind in the moments in passing? What then is more important? The work? Or the purpose of the work?”
“I don’t understand.” He’d never heard Dr. Martius speak so strangely—so epically.
Dr. Martius leaned into David for emphasis. Two wrinkles dropped from the circles of his nose down to his jaw, boxing in his mouth. His glasses slid forward and his eyes bobbed to the top of the black frames. Whispering, he said, “Science, David, owes a debt to creativity and creativity to the delightful hue of something as simple as a blossoming fuchsia trimming a sidewalk.” He pushed his glasses back and again marveled at the flower. From his satchel he took two things and gave them to David. One, a fresh red apple and, the other, an unraveling copy of John Keats’ Hyperion. “You spend your days breaking down the vast universe to its smallest particles of matter and even anti-matter. God is not without irony. What you’re looking for is all around you, David, all the time. You are the brightest physicist I’ve seen, you have all the potential and the true scientific constitution at your young age than the Babbages and Newtons and even an old fart like me. But, at some point David, you have to let your eyes see.”
Dr. Martius’ words were unusual to David then, but suitable as he sat at the park. A sudden feeling of regret splashed him as he recalled burning the book Dr. Martius gave him with the others. Surely, somewhere within the iambic pentameters and free verse, a startling paradox could have been found. Too late now, David thought, for both poetry and Doctor Martius’ didactic advice.
After the park, David walked the street near his house to the diner. Pancakes, he figured, would make him feel better. Through the soft spot of awakening streetlights he reached 7th street. The diner’s neon lights lit the black pavement electric blue. A taxi stopped in front, screeching to a halt within the indigo beam. The woman who stepped from the cab hastily, David noticed, wore a purple wig. Below that wig she stood oddly dressed in a lilac sarong and a bulky brown jacket obviously owned by a man. She reached into her purse and threw bills at the driver. Bastard, she said, “chauvinist asshole” followed as the driver drove away. David recognized the woman. The day before she wore a pink wig. She was the woman who wrote poetry on paper napkins—the woman who spoke faster than anyone was capable of listening.
“Are you okay?” David asked approaching.
She looked up at him, rummaging, still, through her purse. Her eyes squinted and smirked as she recognized him. “I’m…great.” She said with a hint of sarcasm. “Listen…” The woman asserted, somewhat disgusted she didn’t find her soul in her purse. “You got a few bucks I can bum—I really need some pancakes.”
“Sure. How about I just buy you dinner?”
“In exchange for what? Because I can pay you back some money, but an act of kindness might not come so easily.”
“You? Conversation? Skip the foreplay,” She joked, opening the door for him. “I’d like to see that.”
He ordered plain pancakes. She ordered raspberry topping with whipped cream.
“Um…” David began conversation still chewing through the syrup and sweet bread. “…What do you do for a living?”
Randomly, she caught a glimpse of his blue-green eyes and muffled the sudden volt that ran through her. She turned away from those eyes and, lingering, was an image of a sunflower floating somewhere in the Atlantic. “I’m a poet and a novelist when I have time. And an independent psychiatric psychic. I also consider myself a professional underachiever. You know, I do a little bit of everything. I can’t keep my mind from touching things.”
David laughed along. “Interesting. My name is David by the way. David Stedmann.”
“David Stedmann. I’dda pegged you for a David. You look like a David; all cordial and shit. Stedmann? I like that name too. It’s an appropriate name for someone as prosaic you. I like it. I think I’ll call you Steady. It sounds good. I, however…” She flung him a patented grin, one crafted in slyness. “I am mostly known by adjectives…beautiful, spectacular, awe-inspiring. But my name, if it matters, is Juliet.”
“You mean like Romeo and—”
“Well, not unlike the star-cross’d lover…if that’s what you mean. And please, none of that ‘Tis the east and Juliet the sun’ shit. I hate that. I’ve heard that phrase too many times in my life and nothing good ever came of it. You can call me Jules. Everyone else does.”
“Okay, then. Jules.” David answered, catching a fascinating whiff of appeal. There was a great sensation of intellect bouncing around in Juliet’s aura, a wisdom that blended into her lilac sarong. David saw it and felt it in her from his short distance. She was a woman who’d endured, saw and done things people with symmetry didn’t. Those trials polished her, even though she seemed unrefined. Endurance made her brilliant, and David noticed the sagacity that fell from her mispronounced words and somehow turned stuttering chatter ingeniously ironic. She was mysterious and dry, yet terrifically irresistible, and still impossible to clarify.
“So, Steady…what do you do for a living?”
“I am—was a theoretical physicist.”
“Wow. That sounds…hard. I hate science.”
“It just seems so bland and tasteless. It takes away the guess—the dream. Why live in science’s white world when you can live in wonderland?”
“It’s the only thing I’m good at.”
“I’m good at a few things. Poetry…witty retorts…fellatio.” She smiled and he did not know if she was serious or joking.
David stumbled through his sudden timidity by talking through her comment. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I got fired.”
“Good for you. I got fired from my job too.”
“Which one is that?”
“The one that required the use of a purple wig.”
David laughed to himself as the waitress poured him a glass of milk. There was a short but meaningful silence. He tilted his head as he soaked into her. Consciously, he’d wrapped her in numbers, a little quirk of his to better help him understand people, and with her she got 3’s and 7’s. Sitting across from her, he imagined that she was wrapping him, just as wistfully, in words with plus three syllables.
“You know Steady, I’ve developed my own theory on life. I think it should earn at least a Nobel or something. It could change science and the world. As a scientist, I know you’ll appreciate it. You want to hear it?”
“God and the eternal cosmos have tried everything in their availably infinite power to destroy us. Earthquakes, meteors, ice ages, aids, Country Music Television—everything. And yet, we still are. Surely, analogies concur, we are cosmic roaches.”
David laughed out louder than he had in a very long time. He felt, with his laughter, pieces of his former self breaking free, the old oak wind-rattled. “That is the most intelligent thing I’ve heard all week.”
“Maybe a scientist should be my next job.”
“Now what was it you said you did? A theo…theo—something?”
“I worked at Fermilab. I was a theoretical physicist.”
“Physicist? You mean like a comedian?”
“I’m kidding. So what is that? I mean what do you do?”
“Have you ever heard of superstring theory?”
“Superstring? Isn’t it like a new improved version of silly string?”
“This is going to be difficult.” He said, sighing and contemplating a way to relay it simply. “Okay…” He shook a few grains of salt from the salt shaker on the table. Then separated one grain from the rest, holding the near invisible crystal up on the tip of his finger. “I’m sure you’ve been taught in class or at least heard of quantum physics and the theory of relativity—quantum physics, being the study of all things small; subatomic particles and such, and theory of relativity being all things big; space, time, and light. If this grain of salt is quantum physics than this entire room is Albert Einstein’s relative theory. Before superstring theory there was no mathematical representation that fit them both—an interchangeable scale, if you will. Unifying the two would be the equivalent to trying to open a can of beans with the rings of Saturn.” She looked on, intrigued. “You couldn’t fit this entire room into this grain of salt no more than you could expand this grain of salt to engulf this entire room. They are too different measurements of matter. I guess it’s like poetry. A meter and a metaphor are different but are both elements of poetry. My job is to attempt to make harmony out of what previously didn’t exist. Through string theory I unify the language of mathematics so you can understand the universe and the origin of life. It’d be like finding the link between the crazy movements of subatomic particles and an entire galaxy’s quiet spin.”
“Wow.” Juliet smiled, astonished. “You make nerdy math and quantum-something-er-other sound like Whitman or Thomas.”
“And what you just said is exactly why I quit my job. It isn’t that. Not anymore. It used to be trying to find harmony between metaphors and molecules. Now it’s something else. They’ve made science and mathematics into American narcissism. If they hadn’t of fired me—I would have probably quit.” He lifted his chin up. “They didn’t fire me. I quit. I was in it to change the world and they lost me. Not the other way around.”
She abruptly checked her watch, and then glanced up to David as though a small miracle had unwrapped behind his eyes. “Pay the lady. I want to show you something.” She stood to her feet, rushing out of the restaurant, throwing back a quick, “make sure you tip her well,” just before running out the door and out of sight.
Outside, David just caught the tail of Juliet’s sarong as she turned the corner. Down 7th street to Clarion Avenue. She stopped in the middle of two lanes. Cars passed quickly, their gusts lifting her purple wig like wings. She turned back to him, her head sagging contemplatively, and smiled. As David stopped at the edge of the street timing the passing cars, he watched Juliet take from her coat a long screwdriver, the metal flat-tipped rod being the long part and the handle short enough for small hands.
“C’mon Steady. Hurry up, we’ve only got a few minutes.”
“For what? And where’d you get that screwdriver?”
Below her feet was a manhole. In pressed-metal letters it read: Clarion. She stuck the flat end of the screwdriver into the manhole’s lift slot. Surprisingly, David saw, she popped the forty pound cover as though she’d done it before.
“Let’s go.” She said dropping into the annular mouth. Apprehensively, David followed.
He climbed down the manhole after Juliet until the shaky steps became wet ground. He’d never been in a sewer. No reason to be. Briefly, David mused how easily a woman could lead a man to a place he would never go in his own right. His pondering was broken by the sounds and smells of the sewer—the realization of being below life. All around them a soft drip splashed against concrete floors. Water flowed in the clandestine distance. Dead, used and regurgitated things gave off a rancid, powerful stench as thick as steam.
“It’s another world down here.” David said. “It smells like old eggs.”
“That’s because there are old eggs down here.”
When their eyes focused, the sewer seemed a city of wet cement. A river streamed of orange liquid banked by germ filmed sidewalks creamy with slime. Creatures lived in that liquid, David decided; mutated organisms alive and bathing in the macabre stream. The rotten smell was so substantial it tingled as mist around their noses.
“What are we doing in the sewer?”
“It’s not a sewer, it’s a sanctuary.”
“A sanctuary from what?”
“You’d be surprised. Just because it’s underneath doesn’t make it hell. There’s a world up there with a lot more evils hiding under its slip. Trust me.”
“It smells spoiled down here.”
“Give it a minute, you’ll get used to it.”
They ran down the sewer sidewalk, slime dripping around them as honeyed rain. Each footstep echoed, waking the ghosts that slept to stir. David couldn’t distinguish the drips and the footsteps from whispers—from chattering murmurs in an alien world.
“It’s almost time—hurry!” She said running two steps faster than David.
“Almost time for what?”
There was nothing ahead of them. A hallway of darkness split by thin beams of light from the manhole lifts. That darkness was infinite; halls and halls of emptiness and stench, mazing off into more halls, and more darkness, and more unfathomable chasms. It was a womb—hell’s sleeping catacombs. They ran through the sharp needles of light. Ran until the light from the manhole David and Juliet entered became little more than an unconcerned star.
Abruptly, Juliet stopped. “What time is it now?” She asked.
“Eleven forty…uh…eight.” David replied, checking the glow-in-the-dark arms on his watch.
“Good. One more minute.”
“One more minute for what? Why did you bring me to this ungodly place?”
She looked at him interpretively, as though the puzzle to the man had already its edges placed, then took his hand and looked at his watch, timing the seconds with a soft hand pat on her thigh. “Here we go. Three…two…and…one.”
A blast of colorful light erupted through the manhole’s lift slot. The area they stood switched aglow turning damp blackness into the vibrant insides of a kaleidoscope. From the inch and a half lift, the prismatic light lit an eight foot square of clammy darkness. The colors descended over David’s face, his eyes wrapped over in rainbow, and he felt a warming on his flesh like a sudden rush of sunlight.
“What is this? Where is it coming from?”
“Let your eyes adjust first and then you’ll see. It comes from that neon sign outside that big club on Clarion. You know the sign with the fishnetted leg dancing up and down. I don’t know why it comes but every night at exactly 11:49 the club above here turns on that light and for some reason this hole catches it at the perfect angle.”
David climbed the short ladder and looked into the slot. The brilliant colors soaked into his eyes. “It’s spectacular. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s like looking directly into a rainbow. ”
“I know, isn’t it amazing?”
“How something so beautiful come from such a shitty sign is beyond me. How did you find this place?”
“When I was young, this was one of my secret places. Underground. Something I’ve learned in my short but illustrious years is that one can find, even in the most horrible place, something more beautiful than anything imaginable. They say that at the bottom of a scar is where to find heaven. I apply that to my life. Honestly, who would have guessed a little bit of heaven could fit into hell’s manhole?”
David climbed down and found himself face to face with Juliet. He saw the woman past the purple wig; the woman hiding behind the veil of wit. There was an ambiguity to her face, a subtle balance in her features, equal parts dispassion and analytical impulse, toughness, sadness and wanting. And her green eyes, aglow like some magical oceanic gem, imbibed quietly the souls of those who gazed. There was more in the depth of those eyes. It was evident, by the angle of curiosity, that Juliet lived in a temporary universe where love and hope and ambition were transient. In her universe, everything lived by temporary’s code, save inspiration which had always abundance for inspiration entertained itself by her unstableness. All of those things, the ambiguity swirling in the aura of the colorful woman, her imperfections made her remarkable. David couldn’t keep his eyes from crowding her. She was special, and for reasons he could not yet name, she was important.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” She asked, noticing that David was slowly slipping into her eyes.
“Like you asked me a question and you’re waiting for the answer.”
He stared at her a moment longer as the colors from the manhole made her skin look psychedelic. A voice lost in his psyche did ask her a question; a question of which he didn’t want an answer.
“Sorry…uh…didn’t you say you were a psychic?” David asked.
“Yeah, a psychiatric psychic.”
“How much is a reading?”
“You mean like a palm reading?”
“Give me your hand.”
David placed his hand in hers as the dazzling light and the stench found a balance yielding to their moment. She smiled as she took his hand, humored by the daintiness of his fingers—the lack of labor on his fingernails.
“Okay Steady, I don’t want you to expect too much.”
“Let’s see…You’re very pale and are in serious need of summer.” She said. He laughed along. “You have led a meaningless life—one filled with boredom and you are delighted you met someone as wonderful as myself. What else? It says…” Her smile grew contemplative. “…You will do something amazing in your life. You will change people, and the world. It says…” She stopped suddenly and dropped his hand. The once agreeable mood changed as seriousness bled into her expression.
“What? Did you see something bad?” David continued the playful mood.
She did see something. Something she felt she had no business knowing. She saw the moss-color of his sadness. “No Steady. I…have to go.”
“Wait. What do you mean?”
“Listen…I’m sorry, I don’t like doing palm readings. And I don’t like having to see parts of other people’s lives.”
“Are you trying to scare me? I’m enjoying it. Please, keep reading.”
“No Steady. I have to leave.”
“C’mon, I know you’re just joking. I know it isn’t real. Go ahead, tell me what you saw.”
She climbed up the sewer ladder to the manhole, her joyful mood folded away under a sudden melancholy.
“Something hangs over you; something dark and horrible.” She swallowed hard. “Steady, he’s coming for you.”
“What? Who is coming?” He tried his best not to fall for the joke. “I know you’re not serious.”
She lifted the manhole and streetlight filled the halls with the whisking sound of night. Crawling out and into traffic she turned to David. He was still smiling, still contemplating the question he asked her in his head. “Steady…Your wife. Your son. That night…I’m so sorry.”
He died a pagan.
Juanita Wright said Vera’s doorways were marked by Satan himself.
William Charles died a pagan.
Black folks don’t commit suicide, people said, the devil probably came in there hoofed feet and all to kill Bishop Reverend Charles. William Charles ain’t a reverend—not anymore, Vera would reply, politely and partially dying as well. Let the congregation of Marianna Church of Praise tell it, the devil owned Vera’s family. Such was the rumor because William Charles died the way he did. Well, that a slight misunderstanding of young Kira calling Stella Wright a “bitch.” How an eight-year-old girl gonna call somebody a bitch? They said. To give rumor wings, Vera didn’t attend her husband’s funeral and did not allow her daughter Kira to attend. God was not with him as he passed, of this Vera was sure. No savior was there to meet him at the gates—no sense in seeing a man off to hell. Twenty-four years of preaching the word, blessing lost souls with the promise of everlasting life, teaching the lessons of Jesus Christ with his eyes on God, and, at the end of his life, William’s back was turned, his eyes cut away.
At only eight years old, Kira didn’t quite understand what not attending her father’s funeral meant. In a way, it was a blessing. Somewhere in her thoughts she believed he would return. Though she saw his chin drooped over his chest and saw the magnificent vermillion splashed onto the walls, she also saw her father carted out of the basement, charioted up to the light like Jesus in Sunday stories. Daddy had to come back—had to be resurrected. That was the last she saw of her father. No coffin. No black dirt. No Ecclesiastics 7:2. For Kira, there was no finality. She’d been to funerals before. The blacks and grays, the tears, the melodramatic hands on foreheads, the flowers she couldn’t pronounce, like chrysanthemums, covering big gaudy coffins. She’d heard the funeral sermons, heard people talk of the dead poetically at the wake and then spleenful at the post funeral gathering. So, as far as Kira’s young mind could discern, her dead father was only out for a while. She expected him back, as she always did, sooner or later.