Wednesday night they went and saw an arty Italian horror movie at the TLA and after the lights went up and they were climbing the gentle grade of the worn aisle-carpet to the EXIT, Bill said, with his teasing voice, “Did you see how that foxy girl was looking at you?”
“What foxy girl?”
“The foxy girl sitting in front of us. The curly-haired girl in front of us in the checkered Furstenberg wrap.”
“The checkered what? How could the foxy girl in front of us be looking at me if she was sitting in front of us? Did she have eyes in the back of her head?”
“Suspiria,” said Bill, in a softly sibilant voice, imitating the ad campaign.
“Suspiria,” said Henry.
That was Wednesday night. Friday afternoon, shortly after two, he found a typed note on eggshell-blue stationery in a blank envelope, slipped under the door to his little apartment. It had materialized while Henry was at school. There were only so many people who could have walked up those creaking old stairs, in front of the office door, to his third-floor apartment in the middle of the day. He could rule out his 68-year-old Aunt and her husband. That left Mr. Buckler and Mr. Sowell and who else? Henry put down the borrowed albums he’d brought home and picked up the envelope.
Henry opened the envelope and frowned at the note.
He frowned at the dead baby.
Maybe it’s a joke? he said to the dead baby and he wanted the dead baby to shrug. A doily of moisture circled the cold kiss of the dead baby’s back to the surface of the stainless steel table like chicken in a refrigerator and the faucet in the stained sink went plip. Plip. Henry was more intrigued by the dead baby’s unambiguous smile than the note. What had the baby seen? Jerusalem? Bozo? The 2001 special effects light show? Perhaps its paltry six months of life had flashed before its eyes, nothing but milk and Dumbo and blankets. A good life.
Henry stuffed the dumb note in the morgue’s bloody trash basket and stepped out the back door. He shucked and pocketed a gum wrapper while someone from down the alley carried a radio singing Rich Girl along behind the security fence. What Henry could see was the floating crown of a pimp hat. A kind of enchantment. He envied the person under the pimp hat, just walking down the alley on a summer day in a pimp hat singing hits. However: a Ms. Undine Huff in North Philadelphia had been nothing but an object for more than five hours now and they had to get over there. Henry and his Aunt’s husband, Gil. Henry’s great Aunt Georgia’s husband Gil, and Henry, had to get over there.
He turned and walked up the driveway, squinting into the sun’s huge voice, an operatic tenor of light, a high strong summer sun in dauntless, dirty Philly. Henry climbed through curdled veils of smoke into the deadwagon, which had been idling in the mouth of the driveway, on the lip of the street, the whole time. Humming Rich Girl and chewing on cinnamon gum and so desperately eighteen, he braced his hands on the dashboard as Gil took a hard left into traffic and the music started. The steering wheel of the converted ’64 station wagon straightened as Gil reached across Henry’s lap and popped the glove compartment and palpated tissue boxes and road maps and folded People magazines and the complicated debris and evidence of a businessman’s hollow reality until he found the little bottle he was looking for. Only Henry and the four-eyed organist and Gil knew about Gil’s little bottles.
Henry drummed on his knees. Gil cared so little for music that he didn’t care if any was played in his presence so Henry rode the FM dial. What they heard was Teddy Pendergrass and some good TSOP Roosevelt Expressway music then suddenly eerily apropos Emerson, Lake and Palmer as the deadwagon crossed the hydrant-flooded border into the primordial reaches of Lower North Philly. The deadwagon as time machine.
The sidewalks were shining with girls who got blacker and blacker as they neared the address they’d been given, a beautiful film about slavery, a slo-mo poem about Sex, projected on the deadwagon windshield. Gil was unconcerned or immune to it, of course, because he was out of the game. Life was Sex and the only opposite of both was Death and Gil was crossing over to that other side, thought Henry, falling a little further, slipping a bit closer, each day. Who knows. Maybe it’s a relief. But it’s all clear, as the man sang. We were meant to be here…
The client in North Philly hardened into her final bedclothes as they arrived. They brought the gurney in among the echoes and smells of the narrow staircase below. Three flights up, a middle-aged woman holding the door for them did not seem bereaved though a synthetic wig bearing a striking resemblance to the wig on the middle-aged daughter or niece holding the door tilted athwart the client’s skull like a clue in a slapstick whodunit. A dented cylinder of oxygen stood between the bed and an open window as an opportunistic breeze blew in because the door was open, the impertinent ghost of a rat, the pages on the Jesus calendar flapping with deranged urgency as they wheeled the gurney in. Diaphanously greasy curtains veiled and unveiled and veiled the official final facial expression of Ms. Undine Huff.
Henry pictured himself and the four-eyed organist and the four-eyed organist’s daughter in silver suits and detached demeanors standing in historic Ms. Undine Huff’s death-room as observers from the distant future, cataloging quotidiana regarding civilization’s humble beginnings.
Henry clicked the release levers in the handles of the stretcher and carefully collapsed it to the level of the bed. Gil pulled the sheet back and revealed with a soused magician’s flourish how Undine wore only an open gown, no panties, the intersection between her rusted legs exposed, her kootchie black and hard and deeply wrinkled, bristling with a few white hairs. It looked like an elephant’s eye. The middle-aged niece or daughter sucked her teeth.
Henry was thinking: when I was a little boy, horror films were about monsters who menaced the world; now they’re about women being stabbed to death. When the creature from the black lagoon attempted to carry off the heroine, it certainly wasn’t with the goal of stabbing her to death in mind. But what did the creature from the black lagoon want with her?
Henry was thinking: Anne Francis in Forbidden Planet. In some of the promotional posters, Robbie the Robot appears to be carrying her off. To where?
Henry was thinking: The Day the Earth Stood Still. The promotional poster. Who is Gort carrying? Where?
Uncircumcised kids playing stickball across the hydrant-flooded streets.
Taverns and storefront churches as far as the eye could see.
It wasn’t long before Gil and Henry were on Coulter Street again, pulling up into the driveway, where Gil gunned the engine as Henry hopped out and swung the gates. The driveway had been measured out in the 19th century when only horses were meant to pull carts of coal or wood down it and Gil had not more than a few inches plus change of leeway either side of the schisty walls but he did it every time, drunk every time, Zen every time, straight between the old stone rowhomes to the four-car garage behind the morgue. That dignified drive down the driveway’s eighty feet of 19th century.
Henry followed the deadwagon down the driveway, whistling, passing in and out of irregular blocks of sunlight cut precisely against the angles of the roof’s shadow and Henry put his hand there and there as he walked, his hand on the pattern of shadow on the gray wall of the rowhome to the right, the touch-mad impulse of a child. He watched his reflection in the angled glass of the deadwagon’s rearmost window and the scrolling clouds and bending tree-tops that appeared to unfurl in his wake as he followed. The barely discernible profile of Undine’s feet in the zippered bag strapped to the gurney. If Ms. Undine had ever watched horror movies as a young lady it would have to have been Murnau’s silent Nosferatu in a segregated tent at some fair.
Maneuvering on the concrete plaza between the morgue and the garage, Gil nosed the garage with a bumper and backed the wagon at the ramp sloping from the morgue’s loading door. Henry swung her open and heaved and hefted the gurney on its spring-locked wheels. The morgue was a packed house: a juvenile member of The Ogontz Lords, the succulent baby and now Ms. Huff. Not to mention the finished product on the launching pad in the chapel, a sideburned Mr. Halliburton.
The chapel boomed with freshly delivered flower baskets. A trail of water spots dotted the dull green carpet where the guy had run the baskets in through the porch from a van and Henry back-tracked this trail to the front of the chapel and turned right up the stairs, then down the short hallway on the second floor, through the casket room into the building next door. He poked his head into Georgia and Gil’s second floor apartment.
Georgia was on the edge of her bed in a pink satin pantsuit and a bobbed wig of human hair that made her look forty. She had an enchanted look on her face. She didn’t even look forty; she looked eighteen, in a way, curling the curly phone cord around a finger as she softly spoke. Jimmy Carter was on the bedroom Television, sound off, looking puffy-lipped and harried. Henry couldn’t remember if Jimmy was a nuclear physicist or a peanut farmer. Georgia was on the telephone with the four-eyed organist when Henry came in so he went right to the TV and stared at Jimmy’s lips then turned to Georgia who mouthed Service starts at seven! so he saluted and left, after one last look at orange Jimmy on that large hot screen. Right back through the casket room and then the stairs, two at a time, to his garret on the third floor, his bathroom and kitchen and the bedroom overlooking Coulter Street. He wondered if he should have told Georgia to tell the four-eyed organist to say hello to his daughter from Henry. Yvette. The four-eyed organist who had studied Wagner in Germany and his half-caste daughter Yvette. The four-eyed organist had studied the organ in Germany.
Henry tightened the faucet in the kitchen sink. Water could be so insistent. He yanked the bedroom shade and clicked the air-conditioner to ten and it roared as he kicked off his shoes and crossed to his bed and he laid back on it, lifting his legs to wiggle his pants off; he was all ready and so he said Shit when the private phone line rang.
“Suspiria,” said the softly sibilant voice, in imitation of the ad campaign.
“Faggot!” laughed Henry, after a long pause and he laughed again and hung up. But what if it wasn’t Bill? What if the spirits of the dead were authentically manifest in a local phone call and doing some advertizing?
He lay upon the bed for awhile and he lay very still, the air conditioner a-judder, his greased dick wagging stridently upright, all on its own, as the sun saturated the shade and animated a cross-bar shadow of window sash, a crucifix thinned and warping on the flapping shade.
Henry would say, to Yvette, he would say: I feel that I am at somewhat of a disadvantage. That would be the perfect thing to say. You could say anything after you’d said that. But you would have to say it right. You almost needed to use a British accent to get away with it and you had to get it right. If Yvette had to ask you to repeat yourself you had failed and were doomed and your failure would dog your days until you fled the city for a distant college. The four-eyed organist had encouraged him. You are a very good looking boy. Henry knew in his heart of hearts that as pretty as Yvette was, nobody had ever used the word somewhat on her and using it correctly (perfectly) would make her (Henry tensed and saw stars) his.
Bill had told Henry about the time an auto mechanic had told his little sister he wanted to lick her heart and how she took it the wrong way.
Teddy Pendergrass was the Black Elvis.
Henry kept forgetting the interesting thing he knew about the comet Kohoutek. Was it supposed to crash into Philly that summer?
When twilight came he was dressed in his ushering suit and down the steps two at a time to the front doors of the chapel and as he stood breathless at the foot of the stairs he had a line of sight through the chapel door and the latched-open double doors of the porch and down, outside, the length of the walk between manicured lawns to the curb, marked off by scuffed yellow parking cones. It was at that moment that the limousine pulled up and Uncle Gil climbed out in sunglasses while the limo still rolled, followed by the loved ones of Mr. Halliburton when the limo had come to a complete halt. The Halliburtons gathered into a fat black matriarchy on the sidewalk before mounting the steps towards Henry in the chapel doorway and all Henry could think of was a thousand pounds of tits.
He drew himself straight in his ushering suit.
Gil came, touched an arm, pressed a fresh five to Henry’s palm and said Give this to Mr. Sowell when the family is seated and Gil winked and shepherded the Halliburtons through the laving green light of the chapel. The organist commenced playing. Henry didn’t have time to thank the organist for all the free movie tickets he’d been giving him lately but he would catch him after the service. It wasn’t the tickets Henry was after, of course. It was Yvette. Tickets for Henry and bottles for Uncle Gil. Yvette’s sweet tongue.
The Rev. eased up in front of the Funeral Home shortly in his very nice car. He sat a few minutes, patting his hair in the rearview. Climbed out and chatted with Mr. Sowell and Mr. Buckler, the three of them leaning together against Mr. Sowell’s limo, old friends on a summer night after supper. When the Rev. finally broke away and quickened to porch and into the chapel he took Henry’s hand and peered upstairs to mime a question regarding Gil. Where?
Drifting across the center-divider to the Other Side, thought Henry.
The service. It dug deep through everyone’s sorrow and boredom until the night began to roll cans and kick up grit and worry the latched-open double doors of the porch. Things soon became too loud. Henry had to step outside to fasten the porch doors. When Henry stepped out to fasten the porch doors he caught Mr. Buckler’s eye down there where Butler leaned against Sowell’s limo, cutting up. Henry could picture Mr. Buckler hunched over the Remington in Georgia’s office, chewing his tongue, hunting and pecking FAGET but why? It just didn’t fit with Buckler’s preferred method of joke.
He walked towards the limo feeling Buckler and Sowell aging as he approached but could picture them singing sweet doo-wop on the corner, high and low, Black and young, immortal, though the years had wasted them like a plague; it had burned Sowell’s hair white and burned Buckler’s clean off while pulling and hanging the skin on their frames like a horror show. Henry imagined them screaming with unremitting terror. The plague had wasted Henry’s Aunt and her husband, too, but not as badly. It had wasted just about everyone in the chapel in those folding chairs set up as an audience to the plague’s local carrier, Mr. Halliburton, the former postal worker, dolled up under the recessed spotlights in the acoustical foam of the chapel ceiling. Henry, eighteen, was the plague’s only local survivor.
Only Henry could gaze upon Mr. Halliburton’s clasped brown hands or Ms. Undine Huff’s elephant eye of a spinster kootchie or the dead baby’s cold plump limbs with no fear of harm to himself. Henry knew he was immune to that plague. When he was old enough to succumb to it he simply wouldn’t be Henry anymore.
He had worked it all out.
“Uncle Gil said to give this to you, Mr. Sowell.”
“All right, Henry. All right. How’s life treating you? Peachy, I hope.”
“I’m doing good,” said Henry, turning to Mr. Sowell. “How’s Mrs. Sowell?”
Sowell looked at Buckler and they shared a mysterious smirk. Then Buckler snatched the five-dollar bill from between Sowell’s fingers, holding it up to the street lamp. He whistled between his teeth and folded the bill into a shirt pocket. He punched Henry’s shoulder.
“Pick a number for us buddy-boy. Pick a number for me and Sowell to run on the Lottery.”
“Got any lucky numbers for us, Henry?”
“Know any yalla gals? Tell me a yalla gal’s birthday. That’s a lucky number. A yalla gal’s birthday.”
“Had me a gal like that once,” said Buckler and he spat. “Straight hair and green eyes and all that jazz. Octoroon.”
Buckler punched Henry in the arm again and said, “He don’t believe I had a yellow gal! Tell him Sowell. Tell him I had a yellow gal!”
“Ed you old lying nigger,” said Mr. Sowell.
They all laughed and Buckler did a dance like a man being hung and not caring.
Henry used that as his cue to run back up to the chapel where the organist had finished playing and was now waiting for Henry at the chapel door. Henry’s heart quickened. The organist smirked, his back to the Rev.’s meaningless speech, wiping and re-wiping and blowing warm sibilance on those lenses of clogged light.
—Hamburg Xmas 1996/ Berlin November 2017