It was night, late. Sometime around midnight, or. Maybe later than that. The clouds, plum-dark and florid, were. Billowing gently across the sky. With myotis bats flying along the ridge. Swooping as they do. Back-and-forth-and-up-and-down-and-around-and-around-and. Hunting. With nighthawks and owls. The birds of the day, the thrashers and wrens and verdins and flickers and quails and roadrunners, were all sound asleep until morning.
The night was quiet. Or. It was supposed to be. It is thought to be by those who fall asleep. I stayed awake to watch the lights of the city down below – the small, round lights of cars in cavalcades, the neon sign of the motel blinking on-and-off-and-on-and… the party at the saloon. And – because we can see for miles-and-miles from our side of the mountain – I could see the faint, soft glow of the sun hovering just-over-the-horizon as well. Just a hint of color and light. Far in the distance. From places still living in daylight, the sun still shining and bright. Because: No matter the darkness overhead, the sun is never truly gone.
And this: That distant horizon, that faraway place where the line of the land meets the line of the sky, this is where Ima says the dead go when they die.
He wasn’t dead. He was just gone.
It was late when I saw him. With the bag in his hand and the hat on his head. I saw his back. And his shoulders straight as he walked away. But not his face. I couldn’t see his face. His face, coming home every night from a long day’s work, was what raised me. But that night – only his back. And I realized, like lightning, like a match just struck and a fire starting to burn from the pits in the northeast crag, that this was written. Meant-to-be. And. Was always going to happen this way.
As many times as he had shown me his face – his eyes, his nose, his beard, his mouth to teach me the things he believed were important, the things he thought I should know, one day his back would have the final say. Take the last word. And. Complete-the-lesson. And I shouldn’t think too much about it. I should just keep living as I was. Continue to grow and change. Look after Ima and the mountain.
This is what he wanted to teach me all along.
Because we all have to leave someday. The place where people are familiar. The place where sights and sounds and smells and tastes (and touches) are familiar. Leave this place we call home. Go somewhere new where they’ll call you a stranger. You’ll know for certain then what you really have. You’ll know then, when all you have is your body and nothing-else-but-that, who you really are inside. And this is an important lesson. I thank him for it every-day.
Spotted: Joaquim Taylor at the jewelry shop on 12th Street buying a wedding ring for the beautiful Ms. Beula B. (soon-to-be) Taylor. Twelve-year-old Gray Gomes painting a swastika on the wall behind Hyman’s Bookstore, having just failed a pop quiz in history class. Subject – the Holocaust. A rabbit so thin its ribs can be seen through its fur running seriatim between cars parked along the curb, pleading innocence with the small pat-pat of its paws on asphalt, its mother recently runover.
Heard: The honk-honking of cars stuck in rush hour traffic. The wind rustling through trees in Washington Park. Mr. Callas selling fruit from his 14th Street grocery, calling, Bananas cheap! Mangoes cheap! Strawberries cheap! Kumquats costly, but fresh just for you… as two dogs, Pits, blue, hungry, fight for a piece of meat in the alley behind, and the danzón plays from El Mejillón, the Cuban restaurant next door.
Heard: Cora Coleman from the passenger’s seat of a ‘97 Cutlass on the street saying to her man Rufus, You know what, Rufus? Your mom was right about you.
Saying, You don’t have any get-up-and-go. You don’t have any drive. You don’t have any, oh, how-do-you-say-it? Motivation. You hear me? No motivation, no stimulation, no inspiration…
And Rufus frowns as he looks to the street, I’m driving you around, ain’t I? he says. Talking about drive. Saying I don’t have any drive. We’re driving now, ain’t we? Whose car you think this is?
Cora opens the door and steps out onto the street. Stopped at a red light glowing overhead. She slams the door behind her. And. Rattles the frame. You know what Rufus? She says, pointing back at him with a painted finger. That’s it! She says, And I don’t want to hear another word out of you.
Heard: Cars honking louder now as the light turns to green. Drivers yelling, Go, go, go! with a tangible weight to their words, time stopped in traffic now measured through sound in quarter-inches.
Rufus looks at Cora through the open window. His amber eyes aflame in the light of the sun. Reflecting on panes of glass in long windows facing the street. Covered in fingerprints and dust. Cora looks down at him. She pauses for a moment. It’s over Rufus, she says then. You hear me? Over. We’re through. And I mean it this time.
She flips her hair over her shoulder and turns the other way. Down 14th Street to the small apartment she keeps over the corner store there. But not walking, no – she floats along the sidewalk, as is thought by those who watch her. They know a goddess leads, she is never led by the glow of the sun.
Rufus watches her go. Sitting alone and empty in his car. He holds the steering wheel so tight his knuckles turn white from the pressure. He takes a breath. He releases his grip and then drives on, Cora now disappeared into the hubbub of the city, and traffic begins its forward march again.
At the corner store. The old man everyone knows from the block sits on his chair by the door. With white hair, shoulders bent, gnarled hands on his cane. And his face a spiderweb as he smiles, watching his neighbors through the window. So-many-people, the old man thinks. They cross the street in lines. Drunk, hungry, happy, and unhappy. In groups and alone. Holding dogs on leashes, jogging in new shirts and shoes, carrying leather kitbags and shopper’s plastic, wiping the sweat from their foreheads and faces. Rushing in such a hurry to wherever it is they need to go. They stumble, occasionally, along the uneven slabs of sidewalk.
5pm. The sun is still shining through the window, hot to touch on the glass. The neon sign overhead blinks OPEN blinks OPEN blinks OPEN blinks… The old man keeps his eyes open under heavy eyelids. His cataracts look like insects crawling against the sky.
His name was Charles once, in a different life. People call him Pops now – Hey Pops! and How you doing, Pops? – and he likes the sound of this just fine. Like a pillar of the community perhaps. Or an important piece of the neighborhood. Like someone they will miss when he’s gone.
He leans his head back against the wall, resting his eyes for a moment. He takes a deep breath in through his nose. It is the smell of pork tacos sold at the counter, yes, and the smell of candy and soda and sneakers with rubber soles. The smell of perfume. The smell of mildew from the old mop sitting in gray water in the back. And the sweet smell – oh-so-sweet, my darling! – of vanilla ice cream from the machine to his right.
He holds his breath in his lungs. He exhales and everything he has ever known flows from his lungs and into the air as well. It floats through the open door. To the city. And to all of the people moving along the street, into the mountains beyond.
In the apartment upstairs. Cora Coleman lies on her back with her legs spread, knees bent, fingers through the sheets. Jimmy from-down-the-block moves with a slow and steady pulse inside her. His breath in her ear, his shorts around his ankles, their bodies slick with sweat from the humidity and the heat outside. Bet you never had it like this before, he says. Mm-hm. Bet you never had it like this –
And Cora says, Shut up I’m going to come.
Rufus sits on the front stoop outside, crying with his face in his hands. A bottle falls and shatters on the pavement nearby. He doesn’t lift his head. The old man Pops bobs his head by the door, falling in-and-out of sleep. Though he doesn’t think of death any more than Rufus does. We all live forever – he thinks – with the pain of love in our hearts.
As Mr. Callas from the doorway calls, Bananas cheap! Mangoes cheap! Strawberries cheap! Special sale on kumquats, come-inside-and-see…
On the bridge. Ms. Beula B. stands at the edge of the 10th Street Bridge. She throws her lipstick into the river and watches the river take it away. How far will it go… She watches it bob and dip at the surface for a moment, catch in the branch of a fallen tree, then drift on with the current.
A small voice from behind her says, You shouldn’t do that you know.
Beula turns. The voice of a child. She straightens her shirt. Excuse me?
You shouldn’t throw things in the river.
Because a duck will choke on it for dinner, the child says. That’s why. Because frogs don’t look good in makeup. And that should be enough. Haven’t you ever seen a beaver?
Yes. Beula sighs. I’ve seen a beaver.
Well, the child crosses hir arms. Your-lipstick-could-poke-its-eye-out.
What’s your name? Beula asks.
The child shakes hir head. I don’t have one.
Beula frowns. Excuse me. Everyone has a name.
Not me. The child says. Not yet. I haven’t decided yet. And my mom says that’s okay – she said I can take whatever name I want, and I can be whatever I want to be. There’s no need to rush. So I’m taking my time to get it right.
The child shrugs hir shoulders. Or maybe I can be everything all at once.
The slow crawl of traffic on the street. Beula looks to the sky. The sun just starting to set. She looks to the gold watch on her wrist. 6pm or so it says. Fake but no one knows. She forgets the pit in her stomach, the irregularity of her heartbeat, the nervous shake of her fingers. No one will ever know. Breathe. If she smoked cigarettes, she would smoke one now. Gross. The smell of her mother smoking cigarettes in the bathroom. Beula looks down at the river and takes a breath, fills her chest with city air, calm, she breathes out. Like smoke.
Well what do people call you? She asks.
They don’t really. The child shakes hir head from side-to-side and looks to the ground. To the paint on the sidewalk leftover from bridge construction last year, the broken glass in green pieces, finger heart and handprints left by children when the cement was still fresh…
At school? Beula asks.
No. The child shakes hir head again. I’m homeschooled.
Homeschooled? Beula frowns. What does your mother say?
Well she just calls me you.
Yeah, right. The child grins. Hey, you! Come down for dinner! Just like that.
Beula turns back to the water. A plastic cup floats with the current and disappears around the bend ahead with her lipstick. It will go on forever, she thinks. To become the lyrics to some sentimental song they’ll play at my wedding.
She looks again to the sky. Light from the red sun setting catches in her hair. The child stands still for a moment longer, holding hir left arm with hir right hand and digging the toe of hir shoe into the sidewalk.
In the bedroom. Cora lies with her arms behind her head, white sheets wrapped around her thighs, her hands around the back of her head. Careful to protect her hair from the pillows soaked with sweat from their bodies in heat. Jimmy stands in the bathroom, flexing his arms in the mirror. He wears nothing but his boxer shorts and long white socks pulled halfway to his knees.
7pm. The street now quiet outside. Jimmy hums quietly to himself.
Cora calls, Hey Jimmy.
Yeah I said.
Do you love me?
Jimmy stands in the doorway to the bathroom. Do I what? Sweat runs down his chest. He rests his hands against the doorframe and leans forward, his elbows out like wings from his back.
Serious Jimmy, Cora says. Do you love me?
You know I do.
Yeah? Why do you?
Jimmy leans over and kisses her in the space between her eyebrows. He tastes the salt and sweat from her forehead. His mouth rough and dry like burlap. Because you’re so sweet, he says. Because you drive me crazy, and I can’t stop thinking about you, can’t stop thinking about you…
Cora frowns. What was that you said?
I said you drive me crazy baby. What you think?
Cora shakes her head and points to the door. No, Jimmy, she says. Get out.
I was giving you a compliment.
Get out Jimmy. I mean it.
Come on Cora.
Don’t you talk to me about drive. Don’t use that word. You know better. It’s too soon. You know it’s too soon. Rufus and me were in love earlier today and we broke up because of that word drive. Because I talked to him about drive. Get out, Jimmy. I don’t want to see you right now.
Jimmy frowns and shakes his head. His clothes on the back of the wicker chair in the corner. He pulls his slacks to his waist and buckles his belt. He pulls his shirt down halfway across his chest and looks back at Cora, You sure about this?
She crosses her arms. Jimmy sighs and shakes his head again. He turns and walks downstairs, cursing beneath his breath, where the old man is sitting alone by the door.
Hey, Pops, Jimmy says. How you doing?
Hey there Jimmy, the old man says. I’m doing just fine today, thanks for asking. How about you?
Been better, Pops, Jimmy says. Been better.
He walks out onto the street. He sees Rufus wiping his nose on the front stoop and says to him, She’s crazy as Christmas, you know that don’t you?
Rufus lifts his head and says, Don’t you talk about her that way.
Oh fuck you Rufus.
Yeah fuck you too Jimmy.
Jimmy walks on down the street, kicking at rocks and broken glass. Cora leans out through the window to watch him go. Naked above the waist. Her skin glows in the fading light of sunset. Shines with the sheen of a sunset queen… Rufus thinks. In the warm summer air. The evening breeze picks up again through the trees and blows Cora’s braids across her forehead. Rufus waves at her from the street below and she sighs, smiles and waves back down at him. She pulls her body back in through the window, pulls the window closed, and falls face-first to the bed.
Felt: Hunger. Heartache. Heat.
Felt: A lazy lassitude, heavy as it draws the day to a close.
It is a familiar ennui, the result of endless summer heat, staid in its apathy and indecision, that spreads throughout the neighborhood.
Mr. Callas steps back inside his store. His voice hoarse from yelling. He stops and winks at the old man sitting by the door, Tomorrow will be a better day, he says, yessir! and sinks into the swivel chair behind the register. He puts his feet up on the counter and crosses his arms behind his head. The old man gives him a wrinkled smile from his seat by the door and says, Yes indeed. He says, We are all tall and happy tomorrow.
What was said: Tomorrow will be a better day.
What is known: Tomorrow is unknown, but will come as it always does.
There is dust in the food. Grit between my teeth. As always there is. And grime between our toes. The water in the mountain is the last we have. Our homes are at risk. The sun comes closer every day and it will burn us where we sleep. The face of the mountain no longer on our side. All humans will perish, it tells us. We who for so long have lived in the mountain and worshipped its light. But no one is innocent anymore. And the world must heal without us.
The grit between my teeth is familiar. Ima stands at the window watching the sky. Blue skies turn to dusk. Lilac clouds, golden sun, black shadows cast from ascetic trees like ghosts haunt the dirt. The sound of cars passing on the road. She watches the clouds as they bring the night and then pulls back inside like a shadow to look at me. She doesn’t say anything yet. She doesn’t need to. And she doesn’t eat – she hasn’t been eating. I tell her she needs to eat, but she doesn’t listen to me. I tell her there’s no reason to starve. Maybe she knows something I don’t.
The land is the color of sand, the color of grass, the color of cacti, ghost plants, red pancakes, fox tails, and the flowers that do not yet have names. The color of the sky reflected on the water that used to flow here. But the earth is color as it was meant to be. We failed the earth when we added colors of our own. When we forgot to honor the colors that were here already. So now there is no water to reflect the sky and the flowers are dying as well. Soon there will be no flowers, no cacti, no grass at all. Only sand. And we cannot live on sand alone.
The first time I died, Ima tells me, the sun flared its great, fiery disc and swallowed the whole world in a moment. And everything that had been was then no more. The second time I died, it was at the hands of a grand, dark army, their bayonets through my stomach and heart. And when I fell their boots marched over my corpse as though a body that falls was never standing to begin with. Then came the pandemic – the disease that ravages a body from the inside out and leaves it unrecognizable in blue-green and harlequin hues. And then I starved – that endless space beneath my ribcage hollowed out and empty, my arms and legs turned to thin and brittle matchsticks and used to light a fire, my ashes carried away by the wind. And finally, there came a loneliness and despair; the deep depression that leads to an end by my own hand.
The last time I died, there was nothing left of me: I could not move my fingers, blink my eyes or think any final thoughts at all. And everything then was peaceful, calm, still, and black.
The last time I died, she says, I went to heaven, because this is where I believed I would go...
While I will soon follow my father down to the city below.