Mr Butler grunted and said, “You pick a woman, you pay a little attention to her, you figure out what she thinks she likes and what she really likes and if you do it right, pretty soon she’s yours, man, your very own honey. That plus a part-time job and some barbecue pork three times a month and you’re all set. Fuck college. You see what I’m saying? You drinking yet?”
Butler walked around the table, flexing his gardening gloves.
He grunted again and got the legs off the rickety gurney and on to the slightly tilted stainless steel, after which he straightened her the way you’d straighten any articulated five-foot, four-inch object that was both a little rubbery and rather stiff and not super-easy to manage. Normally, Henry would have helped with all this and they’d have moved her in one smooth swinging lift and drop, grunting together, Henry with the legs and Butler with the shoulders. But Butler figured that Henry was troubled at the sight of a naked girl his age with her hazel eyes half-shut, no warmer than the tilted steel table they had to leave her on, and Henry was a little embarrassed but not so much that he couldn’t note that it was wholly characteristic of Butler to spare him the one indecency while assaulting him with the other. Did Mr Butler really think this was the best time for unsolicited advice to a virgin on the matters of love?
First a broken hand, thought Henry, wiggling the fingers on his un-broken hand, now this.
Henry noted that rubber-faced Butler with his hanging lower lip and the girl were the same general medium-brown. Henry was more light-brown and ruddy and the girl was a little more yellow-struck and Butler was ash. The lightest region of Henry’s light-brown body was busy producing the wood which was entirely willing to enter and seed a dead medium-brown girl’s vagina, apparently, if so directed. Butler had wood or his version of wood, slumped inside his pant-leg, a fat black slug of a soft-on, a drooping bulge high up like a knot in his dirty work pants. Henry’s school books, in a stack by the sink, looked very much like books that wanted to be anywhere else in the world at that moment; Advanced Physics did not want to be there and World History was mortified and Romantic Poets wanted to kill itself by jumping off the dock at Penn’s landing. There were old flecks of blood on some of his text books. Still-sticky flecks of Black skin. The American History book he used to lug around would’ve loved it.
Henry jumped when Butler punched his shoulder and said
“You thinking the same thing I’m thinking?”
The only intellectual Blacks Henry knew were on Television. They were in the Television. Henry could see what to Butler was invisible because Butler didn’t know what he was seeing when he was seeing it because Butler hadn’t done the reading. Henry had never fucked but he knew the etymology of “cervix”. Henry recalled being in the passenger seat of the deadwagon with Butler tailgating a White lady in South Philly for a hundred blocks because she’d cut him off, just tailgating the White lady to scare her with a corpse on the stretcher in the back saying watch this, Henry, we’re gonna give this old Jew gal a little excitement in her life.
But how could Butler tell?
Henry rubbed an eye and Butler patted him on the back and commented with a limerick about the dead girl’s ashen legs being so hard to spread. Henry turned and fresh air seeped like a color between the glass slats in the little window through which Henry could see the four-car garage and shifting green prisms of leaves and the slow-living breeze momentarily amplified the odor of the formaldehyde by contrast. He rubbed his eye and it stung of formaldehyde and he closed his eyes and reflected on the damning painlessness of the girl behind him.
What a perfect Thursday evening in June, early evening in June, sun finally mild behind the rooftops, the black Germantown rooftops, with traffic now thin to a dented trickle after the sunny rush. That long, slow-living breeze comes back again and cools his neck behind the collar of his shirt and his suit jacket. It is the 16th day of the month.
Someone that someone called a nigger once is grilling fish. The grilled fish and a dozen bouquets of hydrangea and cheaper blooms like balled-up Kleenex and the ghost of the reek of the dogshit he hosed from the curb before changing out of his school clothes. See the silver toenail moon there sneaking up over Wayne Avenue in its sky of late-day blue, the avenue named after a Brit-beating, Indian-killing brigadier general named Wayne, while directly opposite Henry on Coulter Street a shirtless Mr Djamc is doing the lawn with his push-mower, the ropes of his white chest popping out. Henry waves to Mr Djamc, the guy with the sandy-blonde moustache and the skinny Black wife who looks like Diana Ross with a much bigger Afro and Mr. Djamc stops pushing the mower for long enough to rub his face with a rag from his pocket and wave back.
Mr. Djamc must be about twenty-five, seven or eight years older than Henry and dick-deep in the mysteries. Mr. Djamc knows and feels and still remembers feeling what Henry can only guess at and read about and see through his telescope at night from the window of his blacked-out third-storey bedroom across the street from the third-storey bedroom of Mr. Djamc’s house, the FM radio dial showing a corner of the room in ghostly green while Henry squints over the eyepiece like it’s a keyhole on the bedroom door of their ghost-filled neighborhood where The Sound of Philadelphia’s soaring disco orchestration is the perfect overlay for scenes of 18th century musket battle. Oh just studying the weepy White male face in ecstasy every night at roughly 11pm. Moon-tinted George Djamc convulsing gently over his out-of-frame-bride’s bobbing Afro while Henry listens to Emerson, Lake and Palmer performing From the Beginning via his stereo FM receiver tuned to WMMR in the pelagic murk of his bedroom observatory while
The Hessians are rolling in their graves. Or maybe they’re beating off. Whichever it is, they never stop doing it. Night or day. Twilight. In which the liquefied body itself becomes come.
The number 26 clatter-bangs up Wayne avenue showering sparks and it stops like a knife-grinder pouring Black kids out. The kids thread through traffic and hit the corner of Henry’s part of Coulter Street running. They bust into a madder panic up the sidewalk with Burger King crowns on their peppercorned heads then halt mid-block and cast looks of cartoon dread upon Henry Dixon as he stands in the open double-doors of the funeral home porch in his suit and they give off happy screams disappearing in bursts of speed up the street toward the poorer parts of Germantown.
Time travel or Astral Projection? Sometimes, when Henry closed his eyes, he felt himself doing either one or the other. He closed his eyes as the kids flew like tattered time in their boisterous murder up the depreciating street toward each his respective supper and heard muskets firing.
Astral projection is a reality…
…was the name of the book Henry was trying to find, a few hours later, repeating the title of the book to himself like an address in a foreign city as he wandered the uncharted lower parts of the book store. Tall thin brown Henry hunched. Upstairs, they were listening to classical radio, the radio station for college-educated Whites. The Brandenburg Concertos. The just-so music of Goldilocks.
Sarah Gold was helping him look but that didn’t make it any less creepy there in the basement, where the ceiling was so low that he had to hunch and watch out to keep from burning himself blind on one of four dangling light bulbs spaced too far apart. A labyrinth of dusty books. The floor creaked and groaned where the fat blind owner and his daughter waddled around the shop overhead listening to the radio station for college-educated Whites. He’d heard it after supper at Sarah Gold’s Goldilocks house, too.
Sarah Gold was the one who had thrilled Henry with the story of “Mad” Anthony Wayne, who died in the Motor City from gout at the height of his Indian-killing a few years shy of the turn of the 19th century, a few years after Mozart died from eating bad pork, a while after his bloodletting triumphs against the Crown vis-à-vis the lost cause of the Crown’s muddy war on terror. Wayne’s son fetched his papa’s boot-wearing body out of the ground about 13 years after he died and boiled what was left of the terrorist meat off his bones and puzzle-fit as many major bones as he could in two saddle bags and clattered his father back to Pennsylvania. Sarah Gold was the one who told Henry about anthropomorphic bibliopegy, too. Henry still wasn’t sure where she stood on it.
“The thing I want to know ,” Sarah had said as she followed him down steep stairs into the creepy bookshop basement, “is why perfectly intelligent prep-school boys should be so wrapped up in an adolescent Bruce Lee fetish,” but she’d said it through a smile and Henry knew it turned her on, the handsome Black boys, the really fit Black boys, shirtless, in Chinese pyjamas, jousting after school in the locker room, the crypto-West African and Caribbean blends striking exotic poses with violent athleticism that would have looked great at a torch-lit insurrection or a Revolutionary battle.
“What do you get out of it?”
Some of the boys fought with wood. It was part of the etiquette of the thing not to call attention to the wood despite the fact that, on any other occasion, to produce the big lump in one’s gabardine pants was to deserve ridicule. You there were only for the Jeet Kune Do, the stylized Chinese grace of it, this new method of fighting, not the laughs. Henry’s best friend Keith had been there in his batter-colored magnificence and Henry had accidentally broken Keith’s hand with some kind of stupid kick he’d made up, twirling through the air like a comic book. But what was the connection between Henry’s twirling through the air and Keith’s broken hand and Commander Nathaniel Greene’s participation in the Battle of Germantown plus the dead girl? Was it Butler’s coal-black wood? Greene Street wasn’t even a seven-minute walk away.
What does anyone get out of anything?
Henry looked at Sarah Gold and then closed his eyes and saw her as though projected with ethereal poignancy on a creased bed-sheet as a makeshift movie screen on which she aged into the future like a pancake firming fast on time’s black nonstick griddle becoming first a college professor and next an Orthodox Jewess with weird accessories and finally marrying a particularly heinous neocon Ambassador of great station before dying with a smirk at the age of ninety-two in a hospice bed in Virginia, surrounded by Butleresque strangers thinking little of her.
Where do the dead go when released from the obligations of living? Do they go anywhere other than the grave? Is the soul detachable? Is consciousness modular? Do parts of us transcend the temporal sequence?
Sara Gold stage-whispered, “Oh my, there’s even a whole shelf of old books about frottage down here.”
Sarah Gold was lighting matches and blowing them out. There were smells of old cloth and damp walls and burnt matches that put him in mind of the library he’d spent most of the middle of his childhood in, the burned and rebuilt library, the ghetto library with the White librarian, the bloom of mildew in a bouquet of ashes, of barbecued books, the place he usually had to himself, the other kids steering clear of it to live the wildest good way of living. Some were already fucking, years before the bloody periods of their generation arrived to meet magazine ads about hygiene with glossy blondes on the cover. Even the periods were segregated.
Henry had expected to do nothing and then die hitting middle age of a stray bullet in that stinking limbo between Chicago and Indiana with its burned-down and rebuilt library and its dog fights and sexually-knowing grade-schoolers and here he was, a few years later, never to return but out East in Philly, a Quaker-toned part of Philly, a semi-genteel part of Philly where battles between the occupying army and terrorists had determined so much, where so many old terrorist bones were buried not so deep and revered and that’s where Henry found himself, the beneficiary of the loveless largesse of his mother’s great aunt the Undertaker, putting Henry to work with the dead to earn the privilege, the privilege of living near Whites in all his embarrassing copper-hard-on’d Negro teen stupidity.
Or so it felt.
“This is hysterical.”
Sara Gold was around the corner in the low-ceilinged basement and her news came to him in a disembodied gorgeous voice that seemed to emanate from the blank space beside him. Henry knew that just about the time his imagination conspired with his memory to pretend that gorgeous-voiced Sarah Gold was even a little bit pretty, she’d come around the corner into the glare of that low-hung light bulb with that amazing Jewish nose of hers and slit of a mouth and ruin things, which she promptly did. She held a paperback with a funny old cover at arm’s length for Henry’s enjoyment. Henry said,
“Do you want to come with me to visit Keith in the hospital?”
“I wish I could but I can’t. What are you doing later? Mother says ‘hi’, by the way. Pretty racy stuff, huh?”
Sarah Gold waggled the paperback a little more, then put it away and said, “Where did you hear about this book we’re looking for, anyway? Gypsies?”
She showed him a book about Coltrane.
“Who is the Coltrane of the Lubavitchers? The Tatum of the Lev Tahors? I’d be happy to hear them,” said Henry. He could tell that Sarah was toying with the idea of kissing him right there in public. The subterranean public. Her mocking gaze was weirdly unfocused. Nineteen and thin as her lips.
Henry wanted to bring the book about Astral Projection to Keith in the hospital.
So in his dream the dead girl was up in his room wearing sunglasses. He was feeling contemptuous of this pathetic effort at hiding the fact she was dead, in his dream. She smelled.
“And then,” he told Keith, “wait, she goes, hey, why won’t you go with me? Is it because I’m Black?”
Keith laughed. His second day in the hospital was going much better than his first. It was shaping up to be a fine day-after-the-15th.
Henry had bought him an Esquire magazine with a President-who-caught-a-stray-bullet on the cover yesterday and Keith hadn’t touched it, had only been wincing and bitching a lot, but maybe that was because his mother had been there to weird things up. Henry had never met Keith’s reputedly-White mother before and his immediate thought upon shaking her hand had been that she was obviously not White, there were plenty of straight-haired, sharp-nosed women of that color in Henry’s family and some, distant cousins who lived in New York, were, in fact, passing for White. But Henry had never heard of a woman who was passing for White marrying a Black guy like Keith’s father. Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?
“The right-on nightmare,” said Keith. “That’s a freaky subconscious ya got there, D. Is that why you gave me this ponderous tome about astral projection? Are you trying to tell me you’re going out with a dead Sister now? You want my blessing?”
“E nomine something,” said Henry. He half-crossed himself. He closed one eye. “How does it go again?”
Then: BOOM: the story’s climax: Henry sees quite vividly Butler walking around the back of a limo and opening the curb-side door and helping black-clad matrons out. One in particular, the stiletto-heeled stature and veiled crepe dignity of the high-chinned widow of a head of state although she lives deep in Dogtown where no Revolutionary battles of any importance were fought and where she will never end up paying even half of her bill for the funeral. Henry sees her vivid in makeup so thick it’s caramel frosting and Butler’s task in the laborious extractions continues until three such cake-faced ladies are a heavyweight collection of triplets on the curb in fine hats and, from where she is packed deep behind the fourth veiled matron, Mr. Butler eventually pulls out Sarah Gold, naked white and skinny dripping-wet, being born.
Henry got Keith a glass of water.
Keith was a scheming half-caste prince in his hospital bed, holding his bandaged hand upright in a sort of heraldic gesture common to paintings by da Vinci. He had a pointy aggressive fox face spattered with freckles and an angular Afro. Or, no, picture him in Nathaniel Greene’s commanding Revolutionary garb and an Afro-crushing tricorn hat. Saluting with his wooden sabre.
There were coded requests for a doctor blue on the hospital PA. The sound on the ceiling-bolted television was low. The Mike Douglas show with very low sound with an Afro’d and side-burned guest in the horn-rimmed glasses of an intellectual.
The German (Hessian! Make it Hessian) doctor came in with a clipboard and joked with Henry and Keith.
He mentioned his own black belt and fancy certification with several ancient weapons and called Henry “Doctor Karate” with one raised eyebrow and a pleasant German sarcasm to it. He sounded like Henry Kissinger in a taxi on the way to the airport, not a care in the world but the world itself and he probably drove a silver Mercedes with an immigrant’s what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it smile and Henry felt the doctor was some kind of side-burned assless swinger in flares who specialized in impressing Black pussy. Keith was heavily side-burned too. Henry and Keith were both sure the doctor would relish a karate match against two glistening Black boys in front of all the prettiest Black nurses in the hospital. They exchanged a look as the doctor hummed We Are Family while studying something about Keith’s hand on his clipboard. Without looking up from his delphic clipboard the doktor admonished his cocky patient not to forget that ( ____ ) never ( ____ ) and the intro of the admonition croaked out as a bored don’t fuggit.
Keith mouthed something Henry pretended to understand with a wink and Keith started laughing.
Later, Henry is seated at a hand-made table near the back of the Maplewood Jazz Club with Sarah Gold. The day is done. A grown woman in sunglasses from Merion, Pennsylvania is singing the blues onstage with a fourteen-year-old guitarist under a red light that makes them look like good old timeless history. The owner of the Jazz Club is both an octoroon and a recovering alcoholic with a Germanic surname who only allows soft drinks in his jazz club, so neither Sarah’s parents nor Henry’s great aunt and uncle mind if Sarah Gold and Henry conduct their incredibly fuckless dating business in the jazz club. The day is sweetly done.
Time travel or Astral Projection? Sometimes, when Henry closed his eyes, he felt himself doing either one or the other.
There aren’t any pictures of Billie Holiday or Miles Davis or any jazz greats on the walls of the jazz club but there are framed sky maps and angry mug shots of the noseless moon and made-up constellations are painted in gold on the blue ceiling plus a reproduction of an etching of Johannes Kepler and a cartoon of an ageing Pan and a youngish ewe clipped from Esquire Magazine with the humorous caption Tempus Fuggit tacked over the dirty sink behind the counter where the celibate owner serves his cheesecakes and room-temp Fantas. The Maplewood Jazz Club is the place for interracial couples in Philly, it’s where interracial couples can sit and half-listen to amateur jazz and not necessarily be confronted or stared at and Sarah Gold calls it The Zoo. There are atoms dislodged from Revolutionary corpses flowing down the nearby Wissahickon to this very day and long-gone Henry remembers.