“Sometimes you get what you want, and
sometimes you get what you don’t want.
But one thing’s sure, Reed, you always
get what you get.”—Sandy Killingworth
(how it turned out this way)
When it was all over, back in the autumn of 1969, when Newman brought Sandy back to an empty Igloo Factory, she and Reed nestled like bright blue eggs in their bed for the last time. They were so happy and sad that they stayed up all night talking in a darkness as complete as the darkness deep inside of us, as complete as the darkness inside our hearts, throbbing with black blood. The throbbing of their hearts was matched by the throbbing of the blinking light on the top of the Prudential Center far across the River Charles in Boston. The bed was situated so that they could see the Pru out in the darkness.
“The Pru is like a heartbeat in the darkness,” Reed said. They had talked so long, so much, he was down to thoughts like that.
Sandy laughed and hugged him. “The heart of darkness,” she said. They laughed and hugged a lot. It started in the afternoon after Newman went back to Rockport and lasted all night, all alone in the skeleton that was once the Igloo Factory.
“You’re like that for me,” Reed said, practicing being romantic, “you’re my light of a heartbeat deep inside where it’s dark.”
Sandy smiled and kissed him. He couldn’t see her smile, it was too dark. But he felt the smile in her kiss. “That’s nice,” she said, “being literate makes you romantic.”
“No,” he said, “you make me romantic.”
Smiles and kisses all around.
In the darkness, Reed started thinking about the new high school anatomy book he’d cataloged at Byerly Library the week before Sandy came home. It was printed on thick, glossy pages—like Vogue or National Geographic. It had that wondrous scent of unturned pages and was full of bright drawings of the things inside people. In the middle of the book there was a human body consisting of a series of transparencies. The first sheet showed the circulatory system—fire-engine red arteries, bishop-purple veins and evening-sky pink capillaries. Another page showed the nerves in green—June grass green, green apple green, the green of Sugar’s eyes. Then all the major organs in a rainbow of reds and blues and the bluish white of the brain.
Reed turned the pages back and forth, transfixed by the brightness of the body until it occurred to him that our insides are brightly colored at all. Inside, covered by skin and muscle and fat, it is as dark as a thousand midnights. Ten thousand. That dark. He remembered someone telling him when he was small and worried about bleeding that blood isn’t red inside us—it’s black. He didn’t even know if that were true and didn’t remember who told him, but he remembered telling his sister, Caroline one night before he went to Massanuttin, that her blood was black. She was young and it frightened her to think of black blood. Reed’s mother warned him sternly not to scare ‘the baby’. Their mother called Caroline ‘the baby’ until she went away to college. Reed imagines that she tells the ladies in her bridge club about her children—Reed and ‘the baby’.
Percy came over and asked Reed what he was looking at. Reed showed him the overlays and told him they were lies. “We’re dark inside, Percy. There’s no light down there.”
Percy looked at him as if he had suggested the mass slaughter of baby ducks and robbing old ladies’ of their food stamps. “That, Reed,” is a bizarre thought.” The rest of the day, Reed would catch Percy staring at him from behind the stacks.
When Reed got home that day, Jerry was there. Jerry and Reed were the last two people living at the Igloo Factory and Jerry was packing. He had good news and bad news.
“Newman just called,” he said, “Sandy’s coming back in a few days. So I can go now.”
Reed told him about the book and the overlays and how we’re all dark inside. Jerry stopped packing and stared at him with his metallic eyes. He stared so long Reed was afraid he might get a head-ache. At long last he spoke.
“Jesus, Reed,” he said, “Sandy better hurry back, you’re on the edge.”
Reed hadn’t told anyone else about the book until he was in the darkness with Sandy, her arm across his chest, her breath warm on his face, smelling inexplicably of garlic and wildflowers. Reed decided to tell her about the book.
“You know we’re all dark inside, don’t you?”
“You mean like our inner longings and fears?”
“No, I mean like our kidneys and spleen. There’s no light inside us.”
She snuggled closer. Her body—for a dark thing—was warm and soft. “I know,” she said, “all those pictures in biology books are fabrications.” Reed smiled and kissed her.
The next day they locked up the house and dropped the keys by Brigham’s. It was a Sunday—the bells of Cambridge and Boston had been announcing it all morning—so none of the children were at OZ. The only naked people there were Brigham, Monique, Leslie and Charity. Reed and Sandy stayed long enough to have orange juice and bagels and Monique’s dark, sweet coffee, but not long enough to need to undress. Reed still had reservations about being nude.
“You could stay if you wanted to,” Brigham said, chewing a raisin bagel. He had too much cream cheese on it and it spilled on his hairy chest.
“You mean here? Stay here?” Reed asked, dreading a life of nakedness.
“No, at the Factory,” he said. “The lawyers finally forced the Commonwealth to release Meyer’s assets—with interest at that. Beer and Coke could flow again. I have his Power of Attorney.
Sandy and Reed looked at each other. She pursed her lips and shook her head slightly. He agreed.
“It’s not the Factory any more,” Reed told Brigham. “Meyer was the Factory. Without him it’s just a big old house with two many rooms.”
He nodded. Some of the cream cheese fell off his chest onto his lap. He reached down and scooped it off his genitals and licked it of his fingers. Leslie and Monique exploded into laughter. Charity rolled her eyes and said, “O Papa!”
Brigham blushed. You could see the red rising around his eyes though his beard covered most of it. “It wasn’t so bad,” he said, joining the laughter.
They said goodbye inside the front door. None of them followed Reed and Sandy outside to wave. People who are nude a lot learn where to make their farewells. They all hugged the travelers and wished them well. Reed held Charity in his arms and she laid her cheek against his for a long time. She even tried to whisper something to him in English, but she got the pronunciations all wrong and he didn’t understand her.
“Where are you going?” Leslie asked.
“Buckhannon, West Virginia, to see a grave and a buffalo,” Sandy told him, “then to Cleveland.”
“To see my mother and sister,” Reed added. “Then Idaho—the Bitter Range, Salmon, I think.”
“I hope you beat the snows,” Brigham said. Then he handed Sandy a thick manila envelope with their names on it. They thanked him and Sandy opened it somewhere on the Mass Pike. It had 50 new $100 bills and a note from Brigham in it. The note said, “Happy Trails to you!” Charity had drawn and horse and rider on the note.
“Roy Rogers,” Sandy said. Reed nodded.hey drove the Factory’s VW bus—signed over by Brigham with Meyer’s Power of Attorney—to West Virginia and found Buckhannon with little trouble. They also found Lysander’s grave without problems, though Reed didn’t want to stay there as long as he thought he would. Finding the buffalo proved harder since most of the people in Buckhannon tended to take the buffalo for granted. After the third set of wrong directions, Reed realized that if anyone had pulled up in front of the Igloo Factory and asked how to find Harvard he would have offered to lead them there, but it would have been hard to tell them how to do it on their own.
Finally, after asking several friendly people how to get there, they found the buffalo’s field. It was a chilly day, damp and cloudy. The buffalo was far off at the other end of the field, standing absolutely still and thinking buffalo thoughts. Sandy stared through the gloom for a long time, then, ignoring all the signs, climbed the wooden gate and started walking toward the huge creature. As soon as she was in his field, the buffalo looked up and started to lumber toward her. Reed shouted after her and started to climb the fence, but she turned around and told him not to come.
She waited in the middle of the field and the buffalo stopped about five yards from her. They stood staring at each other for several minutes. Then Sandy held out her hand and he started toward her. After a step or two, the enormous beast paused and backed away. They stared again, stock still, until Sandy turned and started back toward the fence and Reed. The buffalo followed, but every time Sandy stopped, he stopped. Only after Sandy was back on the outside of the fence did he come over and let her touch him.
“So big and powerful,” she said, “but he needs his fence to feel safe.”
Reed touched the buffalo tentatively. He didn’t like Reed as much as Sandy, but let him rub his side. His outer hair was coarse and think, like a thin rope, but underneath, near the skin, it was fleecy, like down, like a child’s hair.
Cleveland was even easier to find than Buckhannon and Reed knew exactly where his mother’s house was. Sandy came to life and filled their week there with light and laughter. Mrs. Daley gave them separate rooms, as Reed knew she would, but never mentioned that the guest room where Sandy was supposed to sleep was never used.
Caroline and Sandy were magic from the beginning. Caroline had obviously been longing for a sibling her whole life, and since Reed had been a bad brother even on his occasional visits to Cleveland, she adopted Sandy. They would walk around the neighborhood for hours while Reed and Mrs. Daley drank coffee and she smoked Kent cigarettes. Whenever Sandy and Caroline were out, the two of them spoke in code—single words of sad syllables. But when Sandy was there, they all laughed, stayed up late, played Scrabble.
Reed always won at Scrabble, even when he tried not to. Once, as he was playing “ZYGOTE” with double letter for the Z and triple word and about a million points, Mrs. Daley turned to Sandy and asked, exasperated since he’d taken the lead from her, “He never really forgot how to read, did he?”
“Not for a moment,” Sandy said, studying her tiles, “but he pretended well. You would have been proud of him.” The two of them laughed like banshees howling at the moon.
Reed's mother and Caroline followed them to the VW when they were leaving. Since they normally wore clothes, they could come outside to say good-bye.
“Idaho seems so far away,” my mother said, “we’ll never see you….”
“Oh, we’re not going to Idaho,” Sandy told her, touching her hand, something Reed didn’t often do. “We’re going back to Buckhannon to get married and settle down.”
Mrs. Daley beamed and kissed her on the cheek. “West Virginia isn’t far at all,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me, Reed?”
“He didn’t know,” Sandy said quickly. “He just found out.”
Caroline was on Reed’s side of the car. She giggled and jumped up and down. “Oh Sandy,” she squealed, “you’re marrying my brother! Can I come?”
“You bet you can,” Sandy said, “maid of honor.”
“Promise?” Caroline yelled, her nails digging into Reed’s arm.
“Scout’s honor,” Sandy said, holding up three fingers of her right hand. They had to hang around for another half-hour being hugged and fussed over. Mrs. Daley was wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand when they finally pulled away.
They drove in silence until Reed saw an intersection ahead with lots of road signs. One of them said “to I-80-W Sandusky/Toledo” and another said “to I-77-S Akron”. Reed was so upset, he didn’t even notice the name of the birthplace of Krista Saulstein on the sign. There were several other signs saying different things, but those were the only two that mattered. West on I-80 would take them across Ohio toward Chicago, hell-bent on Idaho. South on I-77 would lead them back the way they’d come.
“Which way are we going?” Reed asked Sandy. His voice was harsh. It was the first time he’d been angry with her since she’d come back from Rockport.
“Which way do you think?” she said, practically cooing, her voice soft and loving.
“I want to go to Idaho,” he said.
She grew grave and touched his hand, which was gripping the gear shift tightly.
“Sometimes you get what you want,” she said, rubbing his knuckles with her finger-tips, “and sometimes you get what you don’t want. But always, Reed, you get what you get.”
“And what do I ‘get’?” he asked, petulant as a child.
“You get a buffalo and a wife,” she said, “and a baby boy I think we should name Meyer. That’s what.”
A shiver ran through him. He couldn’t have named it if he tried. “A baby boy?”
“Maybe a girl,” she said, matter-of-factly, “but I don’t think so.”
“But already…I mean…in two weeks…can you…how do you…you know…?”
She laughed and shook her head. Her hair fell across her face and she pushed it back to look at him. “I love you literate,” she said.
Reed took a deep breath, suppressing tears, and drove south. Twenty miles later she said, “I don’t know how I know, but I know.”
He reached across and touched her stomach. He didn’t know how he knew, but he knew she was right.
They bought a little three-bedroom log house in Buckhannon from Reed’s trust fund and he found a job at the Buckhannon Public Library solely on the word of a phone call and letter from Percy. Within a week, Sandy had started throwing up every morning like clockwork. A month later, according to the waiting period required by Canon Law, Fr. Jose Hernandez, an Episcopal priest, married them. Caroline was the Maid of Honor, looking so grown up in her pale blue silk dress. Sandy wore a white cotton Indian dress and left her hair loose. Jerry drove down without major accidents to give Sandy away. Sandy’s mother’s phone was disconnected and mail to her last address came back undeliverable. Even Sandy’s Uncle Joseph in Tacoma, who was hard enough to track down, had no idea where her mother was. Reed imagined that was why Sandy cried all through the Episcopal ritual, though at the time he told himself it was because she was so happy.
Jerry and Fr. Hernandez got roaring drunk back at the couples’ house, shocking Reed’s mother’s sensibilities about priests. Just before dark, Sandy and Reed took Caroline to see the buffalo. It was chill and sleeting and he wouldn’t come near the fence.
“I want to pet him,” Caroline said.
“Sometimes, Caroline,” Reed said, “you get what you want and sometimes….”
Sandy interrupted him with a soft kiss. “She knows all that,” she whispered, ‘trust me on this.”
Just over seven months later, Meyer Tee Killingworth-Daley was born. Then time passed.
(Palm Sunday 1969)
The Saturday night after Sandy and Reed walked down to the Charles, she came home from Boston and didn’t sleep at all. She sat by the window like a picture of a sleepless woman smoking cigarettes. There were no tears left in her. Reed watched her for hours, resisting sleep until his eyes filled with cobwebs and he fell into darkness. He dreamed that he and Sandy were two swans in brown water. Even in the dream, as a swan, he knew swans mate for life.
When Reed woke up, it was Sunday and Sandy was gone. He went downstairs and ate cold grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches with Sugar. There were piles of grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches Marvin Gardens had cooked in the wee hours. Sugar told Reed about Krista’s vibrations.
“Krista’s been getting heavy vibrations about Sandy. She didn’t want to frighten you, but she told me. Heavy vibrations—you know what I mean?”
Reed said he knew, he’d felt them too.
“Where’s Sandy now?” he asked. “Do you know?”
“She left early,” Sugar said, her tongue trying to free a tomato seed from between her front teeth. “She had Pajamas and the kittens in a big cardboard soup box.”’
Reed realized he hadn’t even missed the cats when he woke up. He was sleepy and having a hard time noticing things.
After breakfast, he sat on the curb like a wine bottle and waited. He made some sounds to pass the time—subways, passing buses, pigeons cooing, church bells, sirens. John Henry wandered by and sat for a while listening to Reed’s noises. He didn’t say anything. He just sat and listened to the sounds.
Sandy came back as all the Cambridge bells were sounding noon. Though it was a warm, last-day-of-March spring day, she was wrapped like a cabbage in her winter coat.
“Hi,” Reed said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Where you been?”
Sandy stopped beside him but turned her head so she didn’t look at him. “Walking.”
“Where are the kittens?” Reed asked, trying hard to sound disinterested.
“I gave them away.”
“What?” It was hard to sound disinterested.
“I gave the god-damn things away.”
He stood up and tried to touch her. She pulled away, as somber as cancer.
“Sandy,” he said, his throat burning with pain, “Why?”
“I didn’t want them anymore,” she said. Then she walked down the sidewalk, up the porch steps and into the Factory.
John Henry had disappeared while Reed and Sandy were talking, so Reed walked down to the Charles to watch sailboats. He couldn’t think of anything else to do.
When he came back, Sandy was gone again. He had come back many times in the last couple of weeks and found her not there. But that day—the day she gave the kittens away—it was different. Their room rang with silence. Reed tried to sit on the bed and wait, but he grew frightened. Sandy had become to him like the quarter he knew was in his pocket. And now, when he reached in his pocket, the quarter was gone. Reed felt as empty as that pocket.
He convinced himself that Sandy was somewhere in the Factory. He wandered from room to room looking for her. It gave Reed something to do.
He went to Marvin Gardens’ attic, imagining Sandy might have wanted to watch TV.
Marvin was watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Then he switched the channel and watched a few moments of a church service were people were carrying tree branches. Then he switched to a baseball game. Reed thought it was the Red Sox. Marvin was making notes in a spiral notebook. The attic smelled of spiral notebooks.
“Has Sandy been up here?” Reed asked.
Marvin finished what he was writing and looked up. “No,” he said, “just me and the tube.”
Coming down the stairs, Reed realized Marvin had the sound off.
He could find only two more people in the Factory. Pierce was sitting on the beer cooler looking mean and Yodel was baking bread.
“This is oatmeal bread,” Yodel told Reed when he asked about Sandy. “It will be very good for you.” The kitchen was covered with pans and bowls and Yodel’s wooden spoons. “Always,” he said, filling a bread pan with dough the color of pennies, “use a wooden spoon when making bread.”
He smiled after he put the pan in the oven and shook his head like Howdy Doody. “No, I haven’t seen Sandy,” he said.
When Reed asked Pierce if he had seen Sandy, Pierce shook his head and squinted. He seemed more unhappy and anxious than usual. Around the back of the house, Reed found both cars gone. He began to believe if he found Meyer, the two of them could find Sandy. Reed wasn’t thinking well and started running down Broadway toward Harvard Square. Even though it had been over a year since he’s trained, he ran effortlessly, tirelessly.
He had run two blocks past a man leaning against a Buick Electra, throwing up. It took two blocks for Reed to realize there had been a puddle of blood at the man’s feet. He turned and ran back.
The man smelled as sour and stale as a room full of World War I veterans. His eyes were swollen, puffed almost closed. Reed took his arm and asked if he could help. The man stared at him, god-eyed and sweaty with a trickle of blood coming out of the corner of his mouth.
“Can I help you?” Reed asked again.
The man stared some more before his body started convulsing and Reed knew he was going to vomit some more. Reed stepped back and the man fell to his knees. He gagged and his head jerked up and down, bumping against the side of the Buick. A sticky red mucus came out of his mouth and nose.
“O Christ, Jesus God, can I take you to the hospital?” Reed said.
The man looked up and calmly wiped his mouth and nose with his forearm. “Fuck you,” he said.
Reed ran through Harvard Yard to the Square. As he ran, he passed dozen of Harvard students smiling, laughing, talking, tossing Frisbees around. As he crossed Mass Ave to the newsstand, the memory of the man by the Buick caught up with him. Reed’s head began to throb and he felt the beginnings of nausea and nothing was making sense.
Reed stopped running and gasped for air in front of the Harvard Coop. Saul, the Harpo Marx Freak, was there asking people for spare change. “Hey, Reed,” Saul said, “got any spare change?” Reed walked right passed him without speaking and Saul looked hurt and confused.
At the corner of Church Street, when Reed’s panic was turning to despair, he saw Meyer and Jerry leading a parade of Freaks toward him. Meyer had on the Union Army Cape and Jerry was wearing a clerical collar and khaki shorts. They were both inexplicably bare-footed and were giving money to the Freaks—mostly dimes, but handfuls of them out of two plastic Jordan Marsh bags. The parade of Freaks was crowding around them, stopping to pocket the change then running back for more. There were long-faced girls with circles beneath their eyes and tangled hair. There were boys with adolescent beards, earrings and vests. There were even two Hari Krishnas in saffron robes with diamonds painted on their foreheads. They all held out their eager hands to Meyer and Jerry.
“Here, brother,” Jerry said, pushing a handful of dimes toward Reed. Jerry was too caught up in the parade to recognize Reed. Reed pushed through the Freaks to get to Meyer. Meyer threw his arms around him. The cape billowed about them.
“We’ve been to Radcliff,” Meyer said. “Jesus, Reed, all the ‘Cliffies look alike. It’s incredible.”
He swept Reed off down the street. “After this,” he said, “Sandy and Jerry and I have to go to Holy Ghost and see Mr. Crews. He has brain cancer. Sandy’s going to be his grand-daughter and Jerry is his nephew who’s a Jesuit. But if Jerry doesn’t calm down, I won’t let him go. Want to be priest for a day, Reed?”
“Meyer, listen!” Reed was shouting, trying to stem the tide of Freaks around them and stop walking. “I can’t find Sandy. She’s gone this time, you know, really gone.”
Meyer stopped dead in his tracks. The Freaks almost fell over each other. He stared at Reed, growing dark and serious like his cape. His good eye was pinched almost shut. “Gone?” he asked, “Like gone.”
“Just like that,” Reed heard himself saying, snapping his fingers as he said it. His throat was dry and tight. “And she gave the kittens away.”
“Jesus,” Meyer whispered. It was like a sigh and a prayer. Jesus.
“Where is she, Meyer?” Reed croaked. “Do you know?”
“The kittens, she gave them away? Just like that?”
“Yes, just like that. She said she didn’t want them anymore.”
“Listen to me,” Meyer said, as calmly and as seriously as Reed remembered him saying anything, “go back to the Factory. I’ll go look for her. We’ll be there soon. Have a beer, wait in my room….” He started off, but turned back. “And for God’s sake, take Jerry with you. Make him take a nap….And make sure he finds our shoes….”
“I want to go with you,” Reed yelled.
“No!” Meyer yelled back, already half-way down the block. “Go home!”
Meyer ran onto Mass Ave, right in front of a taxi and down the middle of the little stretch where Mass Ave in two ways, his cape billowing out like wings behind him. He ran onto the newsstand kiosk and disappeared into Harvard Square station. The Freaks he had gathered stood around amazed, watching Meyer go. When they realized Reed had no coins, they dispersed, fog into sunlight.
Jerry was talking to a Hari Krishna and Saul. He was back to normal and greeted Reed. Jerry said the VW bus was just around the corner and they should meet there as soon as he collected shoes.
Reed trudged toward the corner, suddenly exhausted. A young girl with waist-length hair dyed light blue was crying on the steps of the Unitarian Church. Reed sat beside her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
She looked up. Her salmon-pink eyes showed she’d been crying for a long time. She was 14 or 15 and her shirt was unbuttoned far enough to reveal her breasts. Her breasts were small with tiny, dark nipples. Either she did not mind if people looked at her breasts or she was too sad to care. There was a softness to her face—something Mediterranean that gave her skin an olive hue. She didn’t answer Reed. She simply buried her head in her hands and started crying again.
A short, muscular black kid wearing a white Panama hat and a strip of rawhide tight around his neck came over and squatted in front of her. He touched her long, blue hair as if it were something incredible from the sea.
“It’ll be fine,” he kept telling the girl, over and over.
“It’ll be fine,” over and over and over again.
When Jerry and Reed got back to the Factory, Sandy wasn’t missing anymore. In fact, she was in the kitchen cooking scrambled eggs and laughing with Pierce and Danny, a tiny Black Wanderer on the Earth who had arrived at the Factory from Wisconsin the day before. Danny had been drafted and decided not to die in the rice paddies. He drifted east and met Jerry at the Counseling Center.
When Jerry and Reed came in, Danny was in the middle of explaining why he hadn’t crossed into Canada from Wisconsin.
“You know how many Black people enter Canada from Wisconsin?” he was saying. “The boarder guards would have held me on suspicion of not being White.”
Sandy started laughing harder.
“Sandy,” Reed said, shocked at how happy she seemed, in spite of her pallor and the bags under her eyes, “are you all right?”
“Right as rain,” she said, still laughing, “but I’m famished. I’m going to eat all these eggs and a half-loaf of bread.”
“Meyer’s looking for you,” Reed said.
“Aren’t you too short for the draft?” Pierce asked.
“We were very worried,” Jerry said.
“No,” Danny said, “not short enough.”
“You shouldn’t have worried,” Sandy said, “I’m just fine.”
“You look too short,” Pierce said.
“Who wants eggs?” Sandy asked.
“Five-four and ½ and every inch a man,” said Danny.
“You look shorter,” Pierce said.
“You still don’t look well,” Reed said.
“Looks are deceiving,” both Danny and Sandy said at once. Then they both said, “Bread and Butter!” Sandy broke into gales of laughter and almost dropped the frying pan.
“I’d like some eggs,” Pierce said.
They ate eggs and oat-meal bread. Sandy ate quickly, moving faster than Reed had ever seen her move. Jerry agreed to drive Danny to Vermont in the morning, to a Roman Catholic nun who could get him into Canada. Pierce finished and left. Only Reed seemed uneasy: he worried and tried to believe Sandy was as right as rain.
Sandy and Reed made love that night for the first time in weeks. Sandy was like the current at Nahant, pulling Reed down, gently but inexorably. Reed felt guilty as they sunk into the waves because part of him was watching. Part of him was watching as they rolled in the surf—watching for the sadness, the pain, the hurt.
In the wee hours, Meyer knocked loudly at their door and came striding into the room. He ignored their nakedness and the clear scent of lovemaking. He sat on the bed and drew Sandy up by her arms. The only light in the room was the faint glow of streetlights and the distant pulsing of the Pru. The sheet fell away from Sandy, exposing her, but Meyer stared only into her eyes. He had raised his eye patch, as if he could see her better that way.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Meyer demanded. His voice was as tight as a violin string, as cold as an ice storm.
Sandy blinked her sleepy eyes. She took a deep breath and smiled. “Just walking,” she said, “just walking around.” Her voice was thick with sleep.
“Don’t lie to me!” Meyer said. He drug out the last word until it sounded like this: “meeeee….”
Sandy fell asleep sitting up, supported by Meyer’s hands. She slumped and her breathing deepened. Meyer lowered her back on the bed with a little sob and covered her breasts with the sheet. “Oh, shit,” he said, “shit!”
“What is it?” Reed asked, finally finding his voice. He was tangled in the sheet like a fish in a net.
“Shit, Reed,” Meyer said, “we’re talking about ‘shit’ here…and how incredibly stupid I am.”
Meyer pulled himself from the bed and struggled toward the door, as if he were moving through deep snow.
“But she’s alright, isn’t she, Meyer? She said she was…isn’t she?”
“She’s alright like I’m not stupid,” Meyer said from the doorway. A hall light was on and he was framed like a crucifix, his arms reaching out to the door jam. “What’d you think, Reed,” he said sadly, quietly, turning around, “Do you think she’s alright?”
Reed lied, “she seems alright now.”
Meyer’s back was toward Reed. His arms were still against the doorway. He shrugged and pushed against the jams—Samson bringing down the Temple. “Sure, Reed,” he said, “Sandy’s fine and I’m a fucking genius….”
Reed fell asleep after a while, but his sleep was disturbed by the lie he had told. He dreamed that he could read again. Meyer was holding a huge, leather-bound book in Reed’s dream. Reed discovered words on the pages that actually made sense. But Meyer was tired and sad in the dream.
Early the next morning, Reed went to Holy Ghost to visit Mr. Crews. He borrowed one of Jerry’s clergy shirts for the visit. All the nurses and orderlies and aides recognized him and were not troubled that he didn’t return their greetings. Sometimes, they knew, the visits were like that. A young Asian resident noticed Reed and asked a nurse if ‘that hippie priest’ had a I.D. card like other clergy.
The nurse’s name was Bonnie. She had grown up in Vermont, in the very town where Jerry was driving Danny that morning. Reed realized that as he walked past her because she had told him her hometown and Jerry had mentioned the name of the place where he was going. Reed wondered momentarily, given the sizes of towns in Vermont, if Bonny knew the nun who would get Danny out of the country. Bonnie’s father was a doctor in that town, so she knew doctors were always paranoid—especially about patients they couldn’t save.
Reed was already in the room when Bonnie said, “Yeah, Dr. Chan, he’s on the list.”
Dr. Chan nodded and returned to the chart he’d been reading. Bonnie chuckled to herself for about five minutes.
Reed had been to Holy Ghost enough to not be shocked by the lengths of tubes and number of electrodes attached to Mr. Crews.
“Hello, Uncle Leonard,” Reed said, though Mr. Crews seemed oblivious to him, to anything. Florence had taught them all to talk to the patients, no matter how out of it they seemed. No matter what. “It’s your nephew, Francis, the priest.”
As he spoke, Reed felt a hand grip his elbow from behind. He turned and looked at the man in the next bed. The man wore huge, thick glasses. Looking at him, Reed thought the lenses distorted his face horribly.
“What’s wrong with that man?” Mr. Crews’ roommate asked. His was an ancient voice, raspy and distant.
“He’s got brain cancer,” Reed said, having learned not to lie at Holy Ghost.
“Is he dying?” The man’s voice sounded like a badly tuned cello played inexpertly.
“Soon? Is he dying soon?
“Yes. Soon.” The man’s hand was still gripping Reed’s elbow the way a child holds onto their mother’s hand in a crowd.
“He’ll be the fourth.”
“The fourth one who’s died in this room since I got here.” The man let go of Reed and crossed himself in an exaggerated motion—forehead, belly, shoulder, shoulder. “We’re all dying here. Are you his son?”
“No,” Reed said, amazed at how much the glasses distorted the man’s face. It looked as if the man had no right eye. “I’m his nephew. My name is Francis. I’m a Jesuit.” Some untruths were not lies at Holy Ghost. “Father Francis,” the man said, his voice rising an octave. He was a broken cello. Reed thought he was going to cross himself again, but he merely pulled his glasses from his face. “My name’s Norman, Norman Cox. I grew up Congregational, but I’m a Catholic now. My wife was Catholic. I converted. That’s the way it worked back then.”
Reed was nodding, acknowledging the way it worked back then, when he noticed that the glasses hadn’t distorted Norman Cox’s face at all. He had only half a face. On the right side there was no forehead, no cheekbone, no eye. The right side of Norman’s face was solid skin, from hairline to lips, as if his face had been scooped away with an ice-cream scoop, enough ice-cream for a good sized cone. In the middle of all that skin, even with Norman’s right nostril, was an eyebrow.
“What happened to your eye?” Reed said, a wave of nausea washing over him.
“Now that’s a good question,” Norman squeaked, “that deserves a story. I can tell it fast….Twelve years ago, back in Waterbury, Connecticut, I got this awful nosebleed….” Norman’s voice was like a beat up fiddle playing ‘Turkey in the Straw’. He told Reed how he had worked in a factory in Waterbury, working with chrome. His job was to spoon the chrome from a vat of boiling liquid. For 23 years he did that, over and over, breathing in the steam from the liquid, carrying chrome steam into his nose. Reed was half-listening, staring at Norman’s face. Just below the right eyebrow, where his cheekbone should have been, there was a slight pulse. Norman told Reed about the doctors he had seen, of the conversations he had had with them, until finally a Pakistani doctor had stared up his nose three days before Christmas 1956 and told him he saw cancer there.
“So I asked him,” Norman told Reed, “Doc, I have two questions. How long do I have if you don’t operate? That’s my first question. And he said, ‘maybe two months, no more’. I liked a Doc who was honest. God knows I’d been to some liars before that. So I asked him my second question.”
The second question was what were his chances of surviving the surgery? The doctor was honest again: only one in ten, he told Norman. “Well, that shook me up, I’ll have you know,” Norman told Reed, “made me feel real cold inside, you know what I mean?”
Reed wasn’t sure he knew exactly what Mr. Cox meant, but he knew he’d felt cold inside when Lysander died, when he read his father’s death letter, when he looked at Sandy and knew she was gone….So, he said, “I think so.”
“So the Doc says to me, ‘Mr. Cox, as good as I am, and I am very good, you will be horribly disfigured. I won’t leave enough for the plastic surgeons to work with.’.” Reed noticed that with his squeaky voice, Mr. Cox did a decent Pakistani accent.
“So, I says to him, ‘Doc, I ain’t nobody’s pretty boy now!’” The old man laughed in a rasping way.
Norman rubbed the place where his face wasn’t and scratched at the eyebrow near the end of his nose. “So I says to him, ‘well, Doc, let’s get goin’ on this’. ‘Oh, no, Mr. Cox,’ he says to me in that way those people talk, real fast like, ‘you must go home for your Christmas first’. Imagine that, Father, a Pakistani worrin’ about my havin’ a Christmas. Those people aren’t heathens, not at all….” He looked up at Reed with his one eye and his eyebrow. Reed thought he seemed embarrassed. “At least I don’t think so…. Do you, Father?”
It took a moment for Reed to remember the old man thought he was a priest. “No, I don’t think so either,” he said.
Mr. Cox smiled, seemed relieved. “I’m glad you say that, Father, because the church is sometimes harsh on those people. And when I finish tellin’ you this story, I think you’ll agree that Doc was as good a Christian as they come.”
Reed realized this was going to take a while. He pulled up a chair and sat down, making sure he had a good view of the pulse in Norman’s face, just below his misplaced eyebrow. For almost an hour, Reed sat there, staring at the old man, growing accustomed to how he looked, wondering how Norman had dealt with the way people look at him with horror, thinking about Sandy and Mr. Cox’s eye. He thought Meyer would have been delighted with another one-eyed man. He listened to the whole story, every word of it.
Near the end of his tale, when Mr. Cox was talking about how his family had accepted it all and how grateful to ‘the Doc’ he was for over 12 years of life after his face was cut away, Reed noticed the old man was crying. It seemed to Reed that tears were running out of the pulse where he eye used to be. But he was tired and the light was bad and it couldn’t be.
The story was finally over and Reed got up to leave.
“Will you give me your blessing, Father?” Norman asked.
Reed wasn’t quite sure what to do, but the old man shut his eye so he just waved his hand around and mumbled something about God and Jesus and blessings. Norman crossed himself broadly and smiled. The side of his mouth where he face was missing didn’t turn up as much as the other side.
Reed was waiting for the elevator when Bonnie came running up to him. “Did you see it?” she asked.
Her face was broad and friendly and she wore her hair in a bun beneath her nurses’ cap.
“Did you?” she asked again, biting her lower lip the way a child does waiting to know if she can have a friend sleep over.
“Did I what?” Reed asked. He was very tired and realized he hadn’t eaten anything but a few scrambled eggs in a day and a half.
“Did you see it?”
“How his eye cries…the one that isn’t there…his no-eye. It cries sometimes.” Bonnie was thin and plain and pale—all dressed in white. But her eyes gleamed, looking as deeply into Reed as Jerry could.
“I thought it was because the light was funny, some reflection or something,” Reed said.
Bonnie threw back her head and laughed. She clapped her hands and hugged Reed. “Yes!” she said. Then she said it louder, “YES!” Then after a deep breath, she composed herself, glancing over her shoulder at Dr. Chan, standing at the nurses’ station staring at her. She pinched her face up and whispered to Reed.
“He doesn’t know it happens, Mr. Cox doesn’t. But it does. The first time I hurt him drawing blood, a single tear somehow came out of that little pulse and ran down his face. I thought I was crazy. But it really happens, you saw it.”
“Isn’t that something?” Bonnie said as the elevator door opened, “Like one of those bleeding icons or crying statues. It’s a miracle.”
Reed got on the elevator. He felt all cold inside, but it wasn’t a bad feeling this time.
“I guess so,” he said, as the door was closing between them. He hoped Bonnie heard him.
Meyer came home in the late afternoon. Reed was in the kitchen eating his second can of Campbell’s Tomato Bisque and his second bologna and mayonnaise and sweet pickle sandwich on Yodel’s healthy Oatmeal bread. Sandy had been gone when he got back from Holy Ghost, so Reed went to bed and slept for a couple of hours, waking up so hungry he couldn’t even worry.
Meyer was wearing one of those little nurses’ hats like Bonnie wore. His clothes and hair were damp.
“Where you been?” Reed asked him. Reed’s mouth was full of sandwich so it came out ‘weryabin’, but Meyer understood.
“Florence and I went to Nahant. I made her go in the water and change clothes with me.” Meyer rolled his eye and grinned. “Lot’s more fun than with Jerry.”
“She’s off duty, I hope?”
Meyer stared. “Why?”
Reed pointed at his head with the last part of a sandwich. Meyer looked up with his eye and felt his head. He laughed and took the hat off. “Nearly drowned trying to get the bobby pins in my hair,” he said.
Reed wanted to tell Meyer about Norman Cox, but Meyer started talking about the Major League baseball season which was only a day or two away. He told Reed what had always confused him about spring training.
“It’s about how the pitchers and catchers and rookies always report several days before everyone else,” Meyer said, getting a huge trash bag out from under the sink and started cleaning out the refrigerator.
The Igloo Factory had a huge, double door, shiny silver refrigerator—the kind you would find in high school cafeterias or large restaurants. Christmas the Thanksgiving and Meyer’s birthdays—February 8 and May 15, he had two and never said which was the real one—were the only times everyone at the Factory ate together. Otherwise, except for Marvin Gardens’ eclectic breakfasts, people were on their own regarding food. Some people would cook and eat together. Reed usually ate dinner with Jerry and Sugar and sometimes Sandy. Yodel and Krista, since both were vegetarians, often shared meals. Everyone had a shelf in the monstrous refrigerator. There was a quart jar in one of the cabinets that always had money in it for people to use to shop. Whenever anyone went to Star Market or Legal Seafood or one of the small ethnic food stores within walking distance of the Factory, they were free to take money. And the money, like the Schlitz and Coke, never ran low.
But the refrigerator was a mess. If something smelled offensive, the rule was that you could throw it away. Otherwise, no one was to mess with anyone else’s shelf. It was a matter of privacy to Meyer. One’s food was their own business. So Reed was startled when Meyer started cleaning things out. It was a form of Factory heresy, blasphemy, high treason.
“The pitchers and catchers—that I can understand,” Meyer said, tossing out moldy cheese and mushy tomatoes. “They pitch and catch, tossing the ball around. But what do the rookies do? Laps? Sit-ups? Decorate their lockers?”
Meyer pulled an uncovered bowl from one of the shelves and smelled it. “Prehistoric tuna salad,” he said, dumping it, bowl and all, into his bag. He continued his monologue about spring training while he disposed of four half-eaten heads of iceberg lettuce, each in their own wrapper, all of them oozing rusty brown liquid.
The refrigerator seemed to have no end of spoiled or unrecognizable or useless things. Moldy black olives in a dish, three empty French’s mustard jars, an uncut cantaloupe that Meyer’s fingers disappeared into when he tried to pick it up—“look a cantaloupe bowling ball,” he said—two cartons of extremely suspect milk, a plate of what once might have been spaghetti and meatballs that was covered with a thick crust of bright green mold—“Madame Curie, where are you?”—a rock-hard, half-eaten corn muffin with a growth on it that reminded Reed of the eerily lit caverns near Massanuttin where he and Lysander had often gone with cheerleaders on Saturdays, capers so old they made a sound like bee-bees when Meyer shook the jar…. More and more appeared from the recesses of the refrigerator. Meyer filled one bag, deftly wrapped a twist tie around the top and snapped open another bag. Meyer grinned like a maniacal archeologist with a nurse’s cap on. “King Solomon’s mines held not treasures such as these,” he said returning to his job.
Krista and Jerry had come into the kitchen. They stood beside Reed.
“What’s Meyer doing?” Jerry asked to no one in particular.
Krista smiled and shook her lovely head. The tiny bell above the sink gave a sudden, short ring. Meyer turned to stare at the bell and then at Krista. “That’s creepy,” he said.
Yodel came in with a Campbell’s soup box full of ropes and pulleys. He was always cleaning and sorting his mountain climbing gear though he never used it. “Whatja doin’?” he asked Meyer.
Meyer emerged from the back of the refrigerator, holding up something long and round on the end, wrapped in aluminum foil. His eye was shining and his face was alight with excitement. “The Christmas drum stick,” he announced, swinging the aluminum baton as if directing very rapid music—“The Flight of the Bumblebee”, something like that. The others huddled around the table and watched.
“Spring training and spring cleaning,” he said from deep in the refrigerator. His voice echoed into the room. “The two great rituals of spring. The green, green grass of Florida and the multi-colored fungi of putrid food.”
Meyer cleaned for another twenty minutes, rattling on about the Red Sox and the hopeless condition of the Factory food supply. In the freezer, he found a sandwich bag half full of leaves. He started to toss it in with the freezer burned hot dogs and half-a-dozen empty Brigham’s ice cream containers.
“Not that,” Jerry said, “that’s mine.”
Meyer sniffed the baggie. “Frozen grass?”
In it went with the hard as wood cheeses and rancid pork chops. “No more drugs at the Igloo Factory—new rule,” Meyer said, turning back to the freezer.
“What about wine and beer?” Yodel said, innocently, as if he were taking a survey. “Are they out too?”
Meyer took his head out of the freezer and stared at Yodel. His moustache had little ice crystals on it. It looked more than ever like a walrus’ tusks.
“Are you nuts?” he asked.
So far as anyone knew, Yodel, for all his best-selling knowledge of the vices of San Francisco, had never done drugs or consumed alcohol. He didn’t smoke cigarettes and avoided caffeine. He was, for all the world, Howdy Doody.
“Alcohol is a drug,” Yodel said, “the Surgeon General’s reports….”
“Beer is a carbohydrate and wine is a fruit,” Meyer interrupted, as if lecturing a dog about not wetting on the rug. “They’re god-damn food groups, Yodel, everyone knows that.”
Yodel nodded and smiled. He nodded because he knew he knew when to quit. He smiled because he always did.
Before long, Meyer had lost interest in cleaning the refrigerator. He’d filled three trash bags and left them on the floor for the others to put outside.
“I’m going to bed,” he said. And he did.
Reed went to bed not long after Meyer though it was still afternoon. Something in him was urging him to store up sleep. Something in him, down where the marrow flows sluggishly, was swimming in the deep, sticky fluid. Something in him, large and cumbersome—and unnamed bulbous creature was swimming and calling him to sleep. Something in him wanted him to sleep and to dream.
Some of his dreams were dark and foreboding, full of vast, interminable empty spaces—the Mohave desert, the Salisbury Plain, the middle of the North Atlantic—open, threatening spaces. In some of his dreams he was in tight, confining spaces—trapped in pink sand or covered with wet, heavy blankets or in some giant’s pocket. In some dreams, he was talking to people though he didn’t remember any of the conversations. He talked with Meyer for a while until Meyer turned into a little man in a cobbler’s apron with white wooly hair who seemed to be a rabbi. But the rabbi turned into a tall, gaunt man in a white coat and he turned into a huge rabbit who turned into a giant cat who turned into Sandy with cat’s whiskers. All of them showed him antique books, but whenever they (Meyer, the rabbi, the young man, the rabbit, the cat, Sandy) would open one of the books there was the smell of cinnamon and coriander and some other spice that, in his dream, Reed knew also began with a ‘c’.
There was one last dream about falling from some great height, falling out into a seemingly endless expanse of space, surrounded, not so much by wind or air as by some amber fluid, barely thicker than air, but rich in odor and clinging to his skin in drops. He fell through light—from amber to yellow to a greenish saffron to lush green to purple to blackness. He landed on what felt like pine needles though it was too dark to see anymore in his dream. Even in his dream he was confounded because he didn’t think you should hit bottom when you dream of falling.
He laid there in darkness absolute until Meyer woke him up.
“Big Reed,” Meyer was saying, shaking him gently, “wake up, Sandy’s home.”
He helped Reed out of bed and wrapped him in the Union Army Cape. There were no lights on but a dim dawn was coming through the windows. Meyer looked remarkably worried to Reed. Reed wasn’t used to seeing Meyer worried. He looked like he was in pain.
“Does something hurt?” Reed said, still swimming upstream toward consciousness.
“Most everything,” Meyer told him. “Jesus, Reed, you’re so clammy. You’ve been asleep for 14 hours. We have to go see Sandy now.”
Meyer half-carried him down the steps and through the kitchen. All the lights were on and Reed blinked against the brightness. People were sitting like statues around the kitchen table. Krista and Sugar and Jerry and Yodel were there and I couple of people near the walls Reed couldn’t recognize because of the light. They were all still as rocks.
“This is going to be hard, Big Reed,” Meyer was telling him as he opened his bedroom door. “But Newman’s on the way. He’ll be here in no time. You’ll see. Newman is a magician. He’ll get it right this time with Sandy, I know he will. You’ll see.”
Someone was curled up on Meyer’s bed. Reed knew it was Sandy because Meyer told him so, but her face was ashen and old looking. Her breath was so shallow Reed momentarily thought she was dead. Then she convulsed, like she’d suddenly been plugged into a wall socket. Her whole body shook and quivered and she gave a bottomless moan that echoed like liquid pain.
“Jesus,” Reed said, growing numb and cold. “Sandy….Sandy….”
Sandy vomited on Meyer’s bed. She shuttered like a sick dog and vomited. She looked so small to Reed. Meyer let him go and went to get a wet towel to clean up the mess. Reed thought he might start falling again, like in his dream, through realms of light. He staggered a little and Florence, who he hadn’t noticed in the dimness of the room, took him in her arms.
“This is pretty normal, darlin’,” Florence said gently. “I’ve given her all I can to help the nausea and Newman will have stuff to make her sleep.” She held him tightly as they watched Meyer gather Sandy in his arms and rock her like a baby. “This is what an overdose looks like….”
Meyer kept rocking Sandy, humming some tune Reed knew but couldn’t place. About then, Newman arrived. He whispered with Florence and then gave Sandy a shot of something that soothed her into a deep sleep. Blonde hair fell across Newman’s face and he kept brushing it back. Even after Sandy drifted away, Meyer kept rocking her and humming.
Florence introduced Reed to Newman as “Sandy’s boyfriend”, though it was the first time Reed had thought of it that way.
“I’ll send her back to you,” Newman told him. “It’ll be a while because she has some heavy work to do. She has to find her ‘bliss’. Last time she piggy-backed on what I thought was Carlton’s ‘bliss’, but it wasn’t ‘bliss’ at all, it was just ‘strong’. ‘Strong’ is never enough when you’re fighting with the Devil. Only ‘bliss’ will do. Then…well, Sandy’s ‘strong’ died with him.” He took a long, sad breath. He wore Levis and a sweat shirt that said “P-town” on the front. His sneakers were black and untied. He carried his doctor things in a green book bag. “But I’ll get her to ‘bliss’ this time, I promise.”
Reed tried to believe him.
Jerry helped Newman carry Sandy to his van. After he left everyone was quiet for a long time. Finally, Meyer said he was going for a walk. That was Tuesday morning. He didn’t come back until Thursday afternoon.
Just then, Reed remembered two things. The first thing was that Newman had been the gaunt young man in his dream. He did believe him then. He knew Sandy would come back to him.
Jerry said, “Did Meyer take his hockey stick with him or am I just imagining?” Nobody remembered.
But Reed remembered a second thing—the tune Meyer had been humming to Sandy.
“Rock a-bye baby, in the tree top…,” he said.
“When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,” Krista added.
“When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,” Jerry tried to sing, off key.
“And down will come baby, cradle and all,” Sugar finished in her painfully clear soprano.
Then someone made coffee and someone else found the ham and Swiss sandwiches on rye with brown mustard that Marvin Gardens had made for them before Sandy came home.
For most of Tuesday and Wednesday, Reed slept. Sandy was in Rockport with Newman, probably tied down to a bed in a white room by the sea. Meyer was God-knew where, wandering the streets with his hockey stick in hand. Everyone else found places to be and things to do. Reed slept.
There were no more dreams, just the damp, darkness of sleep, just unconsciousness, just what Reed wanted.
On Wednesday night, Jerry and Krista convinced Reed to go with them to eat pizza and then go down to the River Charles and get stoned. Getting stoned wasn’t something Reed ever did much and it seemed like a totally inappropriate reaction to what was going on. But Jerry and Krista insisted and it seemed to be the only reaction Reed had available.
“Getting a little stoned,” Jerry told him kindly, “will help you think better.”
“I don’t need to think better, Jerry,” Reed argued, “ I need not to think.”
Jerry nodded and smiled. “Then you need to get a lot stoned.”
The three of them ate three large pizzas at a little place off Harvard Square with only four tables. Reed ate one and a half of them since he hadn’t eaten since Tuesday afternoon. Then they walked down to the Anderson Bridge and sat in the grass and smoked marijuana and looked at the stars. Jerry wanted to learn astrology and Krista was trying to teach him constellations. They talked a little about Sandy and smoked a lot and by midnight Reed was a lot stoned.
The river started to look like a piece of deep purple velvet to Reed. He imagined swimming on the velvet river—‘on’ it, not in it, gliding like a swan. He listened to the cars passing like animals moving in unfamiliar forest—slowly. Everything had slowed down. The sirens from Boston sounded like the mating calls of large night-birds, scaly night-birds that would mate and then the male would die, his whole mayfly life consumed in mournful reproduction. The passing walkers whispered, explorers in Reed’s velvet jungle.
Jerry helped Reed up when it was time to go. He walked behind Jerry and Krista, listening to them talking about the stars, about Sandy, imagining they were foreigners speaking in a strange language. Their language was the language of the land Reed was passing through—a voyager, a seeker, meant to wander, looking for home.
His bed was liquid and warm, satiny, as if someone had been there, someone as soft as velvet rivers and as fragrant as unfamiliar lands. He imagined there would be fresh buttermilk by the bed for breakfast, with hard, dark bread and cheese so sharp it would burn his tongue. Then he slept for a while, dreaming a dream of small, sleek animals with feathery bodies and warm-as-the-night tulip breath. They were breathing on his face—their breath fragrant and moist. They were lemurs or lemmings or lorises, something beginning with an ‘l’.
Sugar was leaning over him when Reed woke up. Her face was near his. Her breath was on his face. Her hair fell onto his chest like a golden cascade.
“Reed,” she said, in a velvet voice, “are you alright?”
He sat up in bed. “I’m still a little stoned,” he said, “which helps some. And I’m mixed up, confused. I can’t figure out what happened with Sandy.”
Sugar edged onto his bed. The room was light from moon. Her hair covered her like a cardboard-colored shirt.
“I thought you would be,” she said, “confused, I mean. And sad and lonely.”
Thinking about Sandy, thinking about the poison she’d started putting in her veins again, Reed realized how sad and lonely he was. He tried to tell Sugar what that was like. He told her that if he were very still, he could hear the blood coursing through his arms—that lonely and that sad.
“I can stay for a while if you’d like,” she said.
“I’d like that,” Reed responded.
“Would you like me to hold you for a while?” Sugar asked.
He told her he would like that a great deal.
Sugar leaned over him and held him like an egg, something special and fragile. Reed felt like crying, and since it seemed alright, he cried a while.
After he cried, they talked. Sugar sat on the edge of his bed and he talked about Sandy. Sugar smiled and smiled and finally touched his face, much as a butterfly would land on your cheek.
“Did you know,” she said, “how much you loved her—you know, before now?”
“No, but I really, really love her.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that….”
She laughed and put the butterfly on Reed’s face again. “Scoot,” she said and he moved over. After taking off her shoes, Sugar climbed in bed with him, pulling the sheet around her. “Keep talking,” she said.
So, Reed talked. He talked about how much he loved Sandy, just like that. He talked about how bad it had been in the last few weeks, how nothing he could say or do mattered, how it must have been his fault.
“No,” Sugar said. “You didn’t cause it. That’s what Meyer would call an ‘allusion of grandeur’.” Reed knew she meant ‘illusion’, but didn’t correct her.
“But I didn’t stop it either,” he said, suddenly almost asleep. “I couldn’t find the right words….”
“Words are bullshit—excuse my French,” Sugar’s tone ended the conversation.
Reed closed his eyes and saw white—white on white, white like the sail on a boat, white like a sheet on a clothes line, white like milky poison in someone’s vein, white like the snows of Cambridge, white like the comforting clouds of spring. Then his mouth thickened and he slept.
When Reed woke up, the room was full of morning and Sugar’s back was against his back. He was still, feeling how warm and feathery she was until he realized she was weeping. He turned over and touched her face. His fingers came away strangely wet, when he touched them with his tongue he tasted the unmistakable metallic stickiness of blood.
“It’s nothing, Reed,” she said when she sensed his reaction. “Nothing.”
He tried to roll her over but she resisted. “Just hold me for a while,” she said. So Reed returned her favor of the night before. He held her like myrrh in a bottle while she cried in little cat sneezes and then went to sleep. Her sleeping face didn’t look as bad as he had feared—a busted lip, some bruising around her left eye and dried blood on her face. Reed thought of Pierce and had an opinion: Pierce should be dead.
When she woke up, Reed bathed Sugar’s face as well as he could with a wet wash cloth and patted it gently dry with a towel. She didn’t wince.
“After you went to sleep,” she finally told him, “I found Pierce on the porch and tried to tell him about you and Sandy and he hit me, just once. He was so angry, so hurt for some reason. You know, he was afraid. So I came back here. I didn’t know where to go. I have no home.”
“Listen,” Reed said, “you have a home now. You’re going to stay here with me, in this room. This is your home now.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Reed,” she said, “it’ll be good.”
He got milk and apples and some of Marvin Gardens’ hot dogs from the kitchen. They ate sitting on his bed.
“You know,” she said, wiping the milk that hugged the down above her swollen lip away with the back of her hand, “when I look okay again, so I won’t threaten Pierce with what he did, I’d like to try…you know…to work something out with him.” She smiled, but something really hurt. “Am I being crazy or what?”
She waited for a while, finishing off a hot dog. Reed imagined she wanted him to say something positive about her thought. But he only thought she was crazy. Where Reed came from, a man hit a woman once and once only. Then she was protected from him. All he could see was her face, so lovely, even swollen and blue.
He went to get them coffee. He sat in one of the straight backed chairs in the kitchen and cursed. If Meyer had been back, Meyer would have known what to do. He wiped his face with a dishtowel and threw it toward the sink before taking coffee to Sugar. The towel hit Krista’s bell.
“Ting, tingle, ting,” it said.
Sugar moved into Reed’s room and Pierce never hit her again during his short stay on this earth. Pierce most likely never saw her again before he died and after that, Reed hoped he died with the guilt of hitting her in his heart. He hoped the guilt was cosmic.
Sugar and Reed stayed in the same room together until she left to go back to Kenilworth and Vachel and her father in newspapers. Often they would talk late into the soft, humming nights. They talked until dawn sometimes. They talked, holding each other against the world, naked and warm and never once kissed or made love. Sugar was simply good to hold—like sleeping close to the ground in the forest with tender leaves and satin moss and shrill sounds all around.
They grew close, Sugar and Reed.
Thursday, mid-afternoon, Meyer came back. He was cross and restless, pacing back and forth in his room.
Jerry and Sugar and Reed sat on Meyer’s bed and watched him pace. Sugar kept asking what was wrong—and whatever it was, Meyer never seemed to notice Sugar’s lip and eye. Jerry kept asking if there was anything they could do. Reed kept quiet. He was composing a love letter to Sandy in his mind. He intended to ask Sugar to write it for him.
Around twilight, Meyer decided he needed to talk to the ocean. He piled the three of them and Vincent Price into the VW bus and they headed for Cape Cod. Jerry drove. Meyer sat in front with him, staring moodily out at the shadows along the highway. The night drew itself around them like you pull up your collar against the chill.
Sugar and Reed and Vincent Price were in the back. Vincent Price was asleep and snoring. The only sounds were the snow tires on the highway and Vincent Price’s snoring.
The snow tires went: “hummmmmmmm, hummmmmmm, hummmmmm.”
Vincent Price snored like a punctured foot ball: “Psst, psssst, stiii, pssst, stiii, pssssssst….”
The headlights coming toward them stretched out and merged into long threads of light, tying the approaching cars together. Reed grew drowsy. Sugar lit a joint and handed it to Meyer. Without saying anything, he threw it out the window. Reed, sleep in his eyes, looked back and saw a red drop of light disappearing.
Jerry drove fast, and well for him. No one spoke for mile after mile.
Deep in darkness, Meyer pointed off the highway. “Turn here,” he said.
“Craigsville/Centerville?” Jerry asked. Meyer grunted and Jerry turned. A little later, Meyer pointed to a narrow road that led down to the beach. Jerry turned.
They parked in a deserted lot and Meyer ran down to the beach. It was cool, so Jerry brought a blanket from the bus and the three of them huddled together on the beach. The ocean wheezed like a cat and in a while Meyer woke them up.
“Denmark’s over there,” he said. There was enough moon for Reed to see him pointing to the ocean. “Right over there.”
Meyer sat on the beach about ten yards in front of them. They could make out his silhouette against the night. The ocean wheezed and Meyer’s outline disappeared.
Meyer was soaking when he woke them up again. “The ocean…,” he said. His hair was hanging down like tentacles around his face. “The Ocean….That was like being born.”
That’s all he said before going back toward the water.
Reed fished a rumpled cigarette out of his shirt pocket and smoked it while he walked down to the surf. He imagined he could see a light off toward Denmark. The light didn’t blink or throb. He wondered if it could be Copenhagen. Before he knew it, he was knee deep in the cat-wheezing water. Back up the beach, he covered his wet legs with sand and snuggled against Jerry and Sugar under the blanket.
Meyer woke them up in a weird purple pre-dawn light. He drove back toward Cambridge, stopping at the Sagamore Bridge to watch the sun lift its head above a patch of twisted pine. They all got out to see it. Vincent Price relieved himself on the tires of the bus. As they were standing there, a car with Illinois license plates slowed down enough for someone in the back seat to throw a McDonald’s bag at Meyer. There was a half-eaten cheeseburger and 12 stale French fries in it. He made them all eat it, feeding them the fries and cheeseburger bite by bite. They were all so hungry it actually tasted wonderful.
Somewhere down the road, Jerry said, “It’s Good Friday.”
No one disagreed. Reed drove and Meyer talked all the way home.
Two days later, Easter arrived. No one seemed particularly surprised, but nobody colored eggs and there was no chocolate.
Over the months, Reed would sometimes walk past Jerry’s closed door and hear him talking. Whoever he was talking to seemed to simply listen. Even when Jerry would pause and then say “uh-huh” or “I see” or “imagine that” Reed couldn’t hear anyone else talking. That was Jerry praying, talking to Jesus, seemingly able to hear Jesus back.
On Easter morning, Reed woke up and heard Jerry in the hall. Reed was alone in bed. Sugar was gone. She woke him up at dawn, when she left. “I’m going for a walk,” she said, “I think it’s Easter.” Reed went back to sleep and didn’t wake up until Jerry was talking with Jesus outside his door.
“Reed and Sandy concern me,” Jerry was saying. “I worry about them. They aren’t meant to wander their whole stay on this earth, are they?” He was quiet for a while before saying, “Oh, I’m so glad. Wandering gets so tiresome.”
After another silence, Jerry said, “Are you sure? West Virginia? I was thinking Idaho for some reason. At any rate, that sounds good for them….”
Jesus must have said something good about Reed and Sandy and West Virginia. Reed decided if he ever spoke with Jesus he’d thank him for that. Saying good things about people is a fine way to spend your time.
Marvin Gardens had left a box of corn flakes, a bunch of bananas, a gallon of milk and some hot cross buns on the kitchen table. There was also a note written on a torn out page of a spiral notebook with a note on it. Reed couldn’t read it, but if he could have, it would have said, “The Jew is Risen! Have some cereal.” While Reed was eating breakfast, puzzling over the note, Sugar came back. They seemed to be the only people around. Easter and sadness had driven most everyone away, except for Jerry, who was moving from room to room, talking with Jesus about the people who lived in each one.
Sugar yawned and stretched while watching Reed eat cornflakes and banana. She nibbled at a hot cross bun. “Jerry’s doing his ‘esta doody’, Sugar said, looking confused. “What do you think that means?”
“I think he means ‘Easter Duty’,” Reed said, drinking the remaining milk from his bowl. “You got confused by his accent. It’s like his ‘obligation’, like a responsibility to pray for all of us.”
Sugar brightened. Her face was already much better. She was young and healed quickly. “How sweet,” she said. “Isn’t that the sweetest thing?”
Reed wasn’t sure Jerry would call talking to Jesus “sweet”, but he agreed.
Sugar yawned and stretched again. When she yawned, she looked like she was going to swallow a hot cross bun whole and her eyes closed tight, like a little kid pretending to go to sleep.
“I’m going back to bed,” she said.
“I think I’ll go to church,” Reed answered.
“Go to the big one down in Copley Square,” she said, “the one with the statue of a fat preacher in front of it. It’s your cult.” From the door, she turned around, “What a sweet idea, going to church on Easter. If I weren’t so sleepy I’d go with you.”
Reed went to church to try to pray for Sandy and in return for the nice things Jesus told Jerry about them. He wasn’t sure that was a good reason, but it was his reason. As he was walking down toward Harvard Square, Reed remembered how his father would stop smoking and walk around the block before dinner each night for a month or so after someone he knew died. Reed thought his going to church on Easter was roughly akin to that.
Reed had always gone to church. His parents took him when he was small. They were Presbyterians, which is about as good a thing to be as any. Reed remembered that most every Presbyterian Church he ever visited has basketball hoops in the room where people had coffee afterwards. But when he was 10, his parents became Episcopalians. His mother said it was out of “a need for ritual” in their lives. Reed suspected it had to do with social status since all his father’s clients were either Episcopalian or Jewish. He was confirmed by the Bishop of Virginia in the chapel of Massanuttin when he was 15. So was Lysander. The two of them ‘got religion’ together. That’s how Lysander put it, “well, we ‘got religion’ now,” he whispered to Reed after the bishop had squeezed their heads. All their parents were there. Everyone went to dinner together and Lysander and Reed were served champagne to celebrate their new found faith.
Reed took the subway to Copley Square. There were lots of churches around there and lots of people going to them. Reed followed the biggest crowd there. Since all the pews were filled, he stood in the back beside a young woman with a face like an orange who kept handing him prayer books and hymnals. He balanced them, as any practiced Episcopalian could, holding them all open at the same time. He didn’t tell the girl he couldn’t read and she kept glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.
Sugar was right—it was an Episcopal Church. And there was a statue of a fat man preaching in front of it. At one time, back when Reed was legend at the Great Midwestern University, he knew who the statue was, but he couldn’t remember that day because there was a full orchestra playing “Hail Thee, Festival Day” so loud you could have heard it back in Cambridge. Reed knew all the words to “Hail Thee, Festival Day” because he and Angela had been very large in the Canterbury Club at Iowa University. The chaplain there had been a great reader. Angela and Reed and the chaplain had shared his sherry many times and talked about T. S. Elliot. Episcopalians tend to be partial to good sherry and modern British poets.
Episcopalians also nod a lot. They nod at crosses and priests and at the mention of Jesus much as someone might nod to people who smile at them on the street. Easter Sunday there was an immense amount of nodding down in Copley Square, like 900 people all agreeing.
The altar at Trinity Church—which was the name of the big church in Copley Square—was round. On Easter, there seemed to be a couple of dozen priests there. And a thousand Easter lilies, at least. And a choir as big as an army battalion, and orange faced young women handing out prayer books and hymnals to everyone, and everyone nodding in agreement about five times a minute.
But things were going well. Reed was feeling like praying for Sandy. The music was all remarkable—very professional. Reed was about to start enjoying himself when the head priest got up to give his sermon. Before he started, he said a little prayer. At the end of his prayer, three terrible things happened.
The first terrible thing was that the lights dimmed all over that huge church when he said ‘Amen’, right on cue.
The second terrible thing was the spotlight that came up on the head priest as the lights dimmed, perfectly timed.
The third terrible thing was the little gasp of wonder from the orange-faced girl when the other things happened. She turned to Reed with tears in her eyes. “Oh,” she said. Just that—just “Oh”.
Reed decided he was almost well, almost ready to start reading again because the lighting cues seemed so contrived. He was experiencing cynicism. “Cynicism”, Meyer had told him several times, “will be the harbinger of your recovery, Big Reed. Quite a price to pay.”
Back outside, where Reed went without hearing the sermon, the sun was shining like a huge yellow spotlight. A Black man was in the middle of Copley Square talking through a megaphone about how hypocritical all the people in all the churches were. He said what they were doing made the Holy Trinity want to vomit.
Three people were listening to the Black man. One was a hunchbacked paper man with about 300 papers waiting for the people to come out of the churches and buy Sunday Globes. The second was a Black woman with a Brillo-pad Afro and a short leather skirt that showed off her shapely legs. She seemed to be the megaphone man’s girlfriend since she was listening to him ‘rapt attention and awe the orange faced woman had when the lights went down. The third person was Reed.
They were all there for a while. Since no crowd was gathering, the Black man and his girlfriend started hugging each other and kissing passionately. The paper man talked to Reed about the Red Sox while Reed tried to pray for Sandy. Some pigeons wandered around them, pecking and complaining, fluttering ‘good Easter’ to each other.
Reed walked back to Park Street Station, stopping along the way to buy one of those huge, salty pretzels from a vendor who looked faintly like some minor rock star and was obviously stoned though it wasn’t yet noon. People were out on the Common, dressed for Easter. Reed watched an Easter egg hunt for a while. All the children were Chinese though they were dressed like British school children on a school day—little blazers for the boys and pleated skirts for the girls.
It was early afternoon before Reed took the subway back to Cambridge and walked through Harvard Yard. The grass was spotty and Harvard was in the process of trying to drown the earth with sprinklers. Reed dodged the spray all the way through the Yard. Each sprinkler made a rainbow in the early afternoon sun. Harvard was closed for Easter vacation so some Freaks had taken over the area, playing Frisbee in the sprinklers, their bare feet muddy from the wet ground. The bells of Cambridge were ringing overtime. It was Easter, after all.
By the time he got to Broadway, he knew something was seriously wrong. From the Broadway Market he could see a crowd at the Factory—several police cars, an ambulance, a TV remote truck and lots of people. He ran as fast as he could though his legs turned elastic and bent like sprinkler rainbows.
When he got to the Factory, he had to force his way through the crowd—neighbors, little kids, strangers behind yellow police tape. “I live here,” he kept saying, “I live here, let me in…this is my house.”
Most everyone was just inside the door. Krista was on the stairs in what seemed like a trance. Jerry was trying to comfort and calm Lane and Trotter by the Coke Machine. Yodel was sitting on the beer cooler smoking a cigarette, something Reed had never seen him do. Sugar was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, weeping into the door jam. She wasn’t making a sound, but she had her hands over her face and her whole body was pulsing like some awesome, uneven heart beat.
“Meyer!” Reed yelled, “Meyer…!”
Two policemen just inside the kitchen wouldn’t let him in until Sgt Quinn came out and told them it was alright. They didn’t look pleased but Reed crowded past them and moved quickly toward Meyer’s room. Someone was lying on the floor near the window under a sheet and Meyer was drinking a Schlitz and talking on the phone. There were two men dressed in suits who Reed imagined were detectives. One was taking flash pictures of everything and the other was standing by the window peeking through the Venetian blinds.
There was a metallic tang in the air, something that smelled familiar and yet feral. Reed made it to Meyer’s bed and was standing beneath Sandy’s mobile when something dripped off a can onto his forehead. When he wiped it away he saw it was red and sticky, like blood.
It looked like someone had gone crazy with red spray paint in Meyer’s room. There was red stuff everywhere—on the walls, staining the air conditioner, striping the Venetian blinds, soaking on the floor and bed, dripping from the ceiling, caked in Meyer’s hair and on his hands and face as he leaned into the phone.
“Mack, what happened?” Reed heard himself asking.
“Just stand still,” he said, “don’t touch anything. Take it easy.”
Meyer finished his call and said to Mack, “Five minutes?”
Mack shrugged. “Why not, my ass is in a sling either way….”
Meyer looked at Reed. “Big Reed,” he said softly, “how was church?”
“What happened, Meyer?” someone said. It must have been Reed since he was talking, but it sounded far away. “What?”
“Foul play,” he said. “It got a little too heavy for me to handle well.”
Meyer started thanking Mack for all he was doing and one of the policemen from the door led Sugar over to kneel beside the sheet-covered person. It was then that Reed realized it must be Pierce and he wasn’t sleeping.
Mack was drinking a Coke and talking with Meyer about ‘forensic evidence’ while the young policeman was holding Sugar so she didn’t touch the sheet. Pierce was obviously dead and the detectives were obviously really upset. They kept looking at Mack and the people in the room and murmuring to each other angrily. The whole thing seemed too unreal.
Reed helped the policeman hold Sugar for a while until Meyer came over and put his arms around the three of them and told them to stay calm, that Brigham was on his way, that it was all going to be all right. The blood from Meyer’s hair rubbed off on Sugar and Reed and even the policeman. He led Sugar and Reed away from the policeman to a spot near the kitchen door.
“Meyer,” Reed said, “what happened?”
“Oh, shit, Reed, who’s to say.” His voice trembled like a brown bird as he spoke. “Pierce happened. Heroine happened. He was dealing to the kids at the high school and keeping Sandy strung out. And that fucking curse of Annabaal kicked in. I don’t know what happened, Reed, but it happened.”
Meyer left them to go stand by Pierce’s body for a moment. Mack came and took Sugar out to Krista in the kitchen. Reed was thinking about how Meyer often said the only REAL RULE of the Factory was not to hurt people. So Pierce had hurt people and Meyer cut his throat with the yataghan for hurting people. He was trying to make that make sense when, over in the corner of the room, near Pierce’s body, there was a sudden flutter of wings. Jerry and John Henry were standing by the door, looking in, their eyes as wide as brook trout’s eyes. One of the detectives has his pistol out and was yelling about “a fucking seagull”. Then a big, white, blood stained bird hopped on to Meyer’s bed. The gull seemed stunned but tried to fly and crashed into Sandy’s mobile, setting off a cacophony of tin-can noise, squawking and yelling by everyone in the room.
Before anything else could happen, an enormous bear of a man, squeezed into a too small dark brown suit, picked up the bird and calmed it in his arms.
Clucking to the gull, the man looked at Reed and nodded, “Yo, Pilgrim,” he said. Then he looked at the policeman with his gun out and at the draped body of Pierce and at the blood almost everywhere and at Mack. Finally, he turned to Meyer.
“By process of elimination,” he said, “you must be Meyer.”
“You must be Brigham,” Meyer said.
They both nodded and looked at each other, not saying anything for a long time. Brigham’s presence had frozen everyone else into statues. It was just a blood-stained, skinny, one-eyed walrus and a buffalo of a koala bear poured uncomfortably into undersized clothes staring at each other across the eddies that had always been between them, at a murder scene.
“Will you take care of all this,” Meyer said softly, “and…you them…them?”
Brigham surveyed the chaos of the room and then looked over to the door where all the residences of the Factory stood huddled, frozen into statues of themselves and back at Pierce’s body. “No worry about that,” he said. “Is this your bird?”
Meyer laughed. “Hell no,” he said.
“Then I’ll let him go,” Brigham said. He looked at Mack and said softly, so only Mack and Reed heard him, “Thank you. You’re going to need a new job….” Then he turned to Reed and said, “Tell everyone I’ll be in touch.” He walked out the room as well as he could fully clothed and put the gull out the kitchen door. Then he was gone.
“I never dreamed he’d look like that,” Meyer said to Mack, holding out his hands. Mack shook his head.
“Better do it,” Meyer said, “I might run and you’d have to shoot me.”
One of the detectives came over and hand-cuffed Meyer roughly, growling something at Mack. Then all the police left, telling the people of the Factory not to leave the building and to stay out of Meyer’s room. Reed could hear the crowd outside yelling but he couldn’t understand what they were saying.
The ambulance people came like albino bees to take Pierce away. Everyone was dressed in white. White on white on white.
During a spare moment amid all the blood and flashbulbs and confusion, before Brigham came and the gull appeared, Meyer asked Reed to do one thing for him, just one. Reed would have done more, anything.
“Listen, Reed,” he whispered, “there’s one thing I need you to do. Will you do it?” Reed nodded. “Don’t nod, asshole,” Meyer hissed, trying to talk without moving his lips. “The yataghan is in the trunk of the VW bug wrapped up in Jerry’s cape. John Henry parked the car a block away if you go outside through the back. Get rid of it. OK? Soon….”
Reed didn’t nod but blinked his eyes real fast. “Good,” Meyer said, “it’s the only way to break the curse.”
“The only way,” Reed thought. That’s what he believed. He thought anyone would believe it.
As they were taking Meyer away and before the real homicide squad arrived, mad as hell, Reed slipped out the kitchen door, found the VW and drove down to Longfellow Bridge. All the way he thought of the knife, wrapped like an egg roll in the Union Army cape. He thought about Turkish curses and the Civil War, thinking about anything he could to keep from thinking about what he was doing and about the place they were taking Meyer. He stopped half-way across the bridge, jumped out, opened the front hood and threw the wool wrapped egg roll of a murder weapon over the railing. After what seemed like half-an-hour, he heard a dull splash, like a seagull wearing a Union Army cape missing his landing.
Before he could get back in the car, a man with a thin tie showed him something in his wallet and pushed him roughly against the side of the VW. He realized it was one of the detectives from the Factory. He searched Reed with his fists and then asked him questions.
“Why did you throw the knife in the river?”
“What knife?” Reed asked.
“The murder weapon. Did the suspect instruct you to dispose of it?”
“Who? Dispose of what?”
“Don’t play dumb, you bastard. I watched you throw it in. I’ll have divers here in ten minutes. You better fucking talk….”
“It was an old cape, something I’ve been meaning to get rid of….” That’s what Reed was saying when the detective raised his knee into Reed’s groin as hard as he could. Reed saw yellow and orange sparks and stopped breathing.
“Leave him the fuck alone!” Reed heard someone yelling and running steps on the bridge just as he collapsed to the pavement. Reed knew it was Mack. Mack stepped between them and shoved the detective away. “I saw you hurt him, Spinelli, I’ll have you up on charges.”
“Charges, my ass!” the detective yelled back. “You’re Irish ass is going to be suspended and I’m not going with you. You have fucked this up so bad you’ll be in a cell with your murdering hippie friend!”
They went on like that for a long time while Reed lay with his face of the Longfellow Bridge and tried to remember how to breathe. Finally, Mack picked him up and helped him into the VW.
“Can you drive, Reed?” he asked.
“That’s a fucking material witness you stupid Mick,” the detective was shouting.
“Go home, Ill handle this,” Mack told Reed.
It took Reed a while to find first gear and edge away from the curb. He drove over to Boston and wound his way back down Memorial Drive and across a different bridge. All he remembered later about the trip was that when he was stopped at a red light, he heard a noise and realized that big, dumb Vincent Price was in the back seat. He’d slept through it all.
After all the interrogations at the Factory, Reed didn’t sleep much that night. There were too many dreams on the other side of his eyelids—red and brutal dreams. Dreams about Meyer and Pierce and a seagull with it’s head cut off, spouting blood from his mangled, geyser neck.
After the homicide detectives left, Brigham took Sugar to Homer Square. She couldn’t stop crying. He told the others that his French wife would take care of Sugar. So Reed had a whole bed to roll around I and not sleep instead of half-a-bed. And he had no one to hold him against the world. By five-thirty, he gave up and went downstairs.
MONDAY OF EASTER WEEK
“Right on the front page and not a word of
truth in it.” –Marvin Gardens
A tall, pale man was in the kitchen. He was sitting in one of the straight backed chairs drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. He had a moustache that was thin and well cared for—like David Niven. His hair was curly and receding. He was wearing a yarmulke that had been lovingly crocheted, like a doily on my grandmother’s end tables.
“Hey, Reed,” he said, “would you like some coffee?”
Reed told him he’d like some coffee very much. He got a cup from a big 40-cup coffee maker you would see at church socials.
Reed nodded, it seemed the appropriate response.
The man was extremely thin. His hands were bony and pale and shook a bit as he turned the pages of the paper.
“Page one,” he said, much as if it were the title of a children’s story he intended to read to a child. “Right on the front page and not a word of truth in it.”
There was a picture of Meyer at the bottom of the front page of the Globe. Two men in dark suits were holding his arms. Meyer’s hands were locked behind him with steel. He looked tired and sick. His eye patch was off-center.
“I didn’t know what was going on until the Eleven O’clock News,” he said. Same garbage. Lies. All lies. I couldn’t sleep at all after that. Imagine, I was in the house and didn’t know about it until I saw it on TV.”
Reed was standing beside the man, drinking his coffee. It was thick and strong, like melted licorice. Quietly, Reed realized he was talking with Marvin Gardens and must be in shock since he hadn’t recognized him. He looked up at Reed sadly.
“Something out of kilter about that, wouldn’t you say? Something akimbo. Imagine that—here all the time and had to see it on TV for it to be real for me….”
Reed tried to imagine, but all he could think of was how tired and sick Marvin looked, just like Meyer in the paper.
“Here,” he said, handing me the Globe, “see for yourself.”
He got up and paced the room. He seemed like a clay man.
Reed sat in his chair and fingered the newsprint. It is a feeling you never forget—even if you can’t read—that feeling of holding a paper, what it says to your fingertips.
On the back page of the first section there was an ad for Jordan Marsh. There was a clearance on furs.
Reed was half-way through the story about Meyer killing Pierce when he realized he was reading, that the words were marching along, hippity-hop, right into his mind in perfect sequence.
Marvin Gardens was leaning against the sink. His eyes were dark, almost black, beneath well-trimmed, David Nevin eyebrows. A tiny tear, no bigger than a greenbug, was crawling down his cheek.
“How the shit,” he said, “can they print lies like that?”
Here is what the newspaper story said.
There was a big headline at the top.
BRUTAL SLAYING IN CAMBRIDGE
Then a smaller headline under that.
Cult Leader Murders Undercover Officer
Then the story began.
CAMBRIDGE: David Pierce, 31, was the victim of a ritualistic murder in Cambridge on Easter Sunday. Police are holding Mayer Meyer, the leader of a Broadway Ave. commune, in connection with the slaying of the former Marine, winner of two purple hearts and a silver star in Viet Nam.
Cambridge Police Chief Herman Pissoff was quoted as saying, “this is the most horrible kind of homicide--a brutal, inhumane ritual, perhaps the sacrificial rite of some twisted cult.”
A spokesman for the District Attorney said, off the record, that the imposing wood-frame house and its occupants had been the subject of an ongoing investigation. “Neighbors,” the unnamed official said, “alerted us regarding possible illegal activities at the cult. Some minors, mostly female, may have been held there against their will.” The continuing investigation of the “Isloo Factory”, as the house is known to it’s every changing retinue, is underway. A linguist from Harvard confided to this reporter that “Isloo” may refer to a Mesopotamian god of fertility and death.
Mystery shrouds Mayer Meyer’s life. The former George Washington University law-student and part time librarian, 40, lived with no visible means of support. Yet he supplied his disciples needs and paid the enormous bills of his cult members, affording them the comforts of the middle-class lifestyle he openly crusaded against.
A self-styled spiritualist and guru, Mayer….
Reed stopped reading before they told what a hero Pierce had been and before they called Meyer “demonic” and “a madman”. But he knew they did that. The story was a parched flower leaning toward that light.
He put the newspaper down and got up.
“Where are you going?” Marvin asked.
“Upstairs to read a candle,” Reed said.
He smiled, confused. “Do you think they misspelled his first name on purpose or because they’re stupid?”
“Yes,” Reed answered.
“When you come back,” he said, “I’ll have some eggs and ham and toast and more coffee.”
“You eat ham?” Reed asked, pointing at the top of his head. He reached up and touched his skull cap.
“Of course,” he said, “it’s a by-product of lox.”
“We’ll have breakfast then,” Reed said. “That will be good.”
“It’s what we need to do, I think,” Marvin said, opening the refrigerator.
Reed went to his room and dug the Christmas candle out of the closet. He sat it lovingly on the bed and read the messages from Christmas past. They said:
god is Love
And, These are the days when birds come back
A very few,
a bird or two,
to take a backward look.
And, of course: We’re all in this thing together
SECOND LETTER FROM THE GRAVE
“Well, there you go….” –The Rev. Jerry Mann
(July 19, 1989)
Just past dawn, I was pulled from my blood-drenched dreams. Somewhere in the dream there was a huge rat, as big as me, feeding on the blood that was all over the room of my dream, chasing the sea gull around. Lots of squawking and squeaking. Then the gull was pecking at my side and the man-sized rat was eating at my throat and I was near terror. Then something pulled me back and woke me up.
“Reed, Reed, you’re having a nightmare,” Sandy said, shaking me awake. She had a quizzical look on her face, “You were flopping around like a rat was eating you,” she said.
“And a gull,” I answered, so glad to be awake.
She shook her head and smiled. “I’ve got something for you,” she said, holding up a manila envelope sealed with a clasp.
When I had finished writing about Easter and the morning after, when I became suddenly literate again, I had finished off 8 Coors, smoked half-a-pack of Marlboros, took four Bayer aspirins and gone to sleep. Little wonder I fell into a rat-infested dream. I had only been asleep an hour or two when Sandy shook me awake into the early morning of Buckhannon.
“What are you doing here?” I asked her, still thankful for her shaking me.
“I came up to spy and noticed you’ve finished writing about Pierce’s death,” she said. “Don’t worry, I didn’t read much…I’m not sure I ever want to read that part. But when I read what I read, I knew you’d need this.” She held up the envelope again.
“Jerry sent me this a couple of months ago,” she said, pulling my writing chair over to the bed like she was visiting me at Holy Ghost. “He said to give it to you now….”
At first I was sleepy and hung over and, for a brief moment, didn’t remember who ‘Jerry’ was and thought the envelope was something sinister, something that might turn into a bloody sea-gull or a man-sized rat. But then the waking reality came back and I said, “Now? What’s ‘now’?”
Sandy smiled at my confusion and when Sandy smiles, even if I am hung over and confused…when Sandy smiles, it’s all alright. Her eyes almost close from the smile wrinkles around them, giving her a faintly Asian look. Her mouth gathers itself into a shape roughly like a quarter moon on its rounded side. When Sandy smiles, her chin becomes strong, assertive, a chin that matters. When Sandy smiles, nothing else makes much of a difference. When Sandy smiles, I know how much I love her.
I was trying to open the clasp of the envelope when she spoke again. “Sometimes, late at night, when I know you’re asleep, I sneak in here and read what you’ve written.”
She held up the yellow legal pad where I’d been writing about Holy Week twenty years ago. I was having trouble opening the tab.
“I didn’t have to read much of this to know it was time to give you the letter. I haven’t read it, but Jerry says you’ll need it to close the blinds.”
Sandy took the envelope from me, opened the clasp effortlessly and handed me some more pieces of yellow legal pads. But these were obviously old and the ink on them was fading.
“Jerry says this will tell you what really happened.”
I was about to say, “what really happened when,” but I realized the words on the pages were written in Meyer’s crude handwriting. It was another letter from the grave. I wondered when people will stop doing this to me. Two post-grave letters in a life-time makes you an expert.
Wednesday in Easter Week, 1969
Jerry told me it was Wednesday in Eater Week. It seemed to matter to him so I dated it that way. It also seemed to matter to him that I write you this letter now, before my feeble mind forgets what happened on Sunday. Since my writing this letter matters to Jerry, I will write it.
No one but me knows what happened, so how can you tell the world if I don’t tell you? Jerry convinced me to write it all down for you—the Absolutely, Positively, no-shit way it happened. Which is what I’m prepared to do though it is a monumental pain in the ass. Since Jerry is going to pick it up in a day or two and sneak it past the guards, I’d guess I’d better get cracking.
I don’t write much. In the past, I signed checks Brigham’s lawyers wrote and filled out customer surveys that came in the mail and signed petitions for whatever Glorious Cause the Freaks down in Harvard Square shoved in my face. But besides a Christmas card to my Aunt Ursa back in Idaho, there’s not much writing from this white boy.
I’ve always had shit to do, you know? No time for writing.
And if I liked to write why would I have entrusted writing the history of the Factory to an illiterate like you? I rest my case.
But since it matters to Jerry and he says you’ll need to know what happened one day and since I was the only one there at the time (except for Pierce and he ain’t in a proper mood to write) I’m ‘The Source’.
That’s what our Friend of Jesus, Jerry says—‘you’re the Source, Meyer’. Then he just stares at me with that crazy gray stare that makes my head hurt. Jesus, who can stand Jerry’s stare for long? So here it is “from The Source’ (you need to hear that with echoes around it or like Walter Cronkite said it) This the absolutely, positively, no-shit Truth about Pierce’s death.
It starts a while ago. Ever since Carlton got killed, Sandy’s been chipping heroin. I’ve known it all along. Not much gets by me, Big Reed. You, on the other hand, are such a romantic, simple Midwestern asshole that you didn’t have a clue. You thought your relationship was going through a bad patch, didn’t you? Sandy could have said to you, “Oh, Reed, would you help me with this needle?” and you would have thought it was a flu shot.
Goddamn, Reed, you are the real article. Genu-fuckin’-ine, as John Henry would say. The first months you were at the Factory, I kept waiting for reality to break in, for some sign, some potent, that you knew how transparent this illiteracy scam was. I thought you were playing a ‘con’ on me, like most of the Wanderers on the Earth. But you don’t have a ‘con’, do you, Reed? You’ve been conned….
Death conned you. Your Daddy and old Lysol—Lysander, whoever—their dying fucked you up royally. And Death’s the only con you know. I’ll probably have to die to get your attention.
Death’s what it’s all about—every bit of it. The old ‘what makes us different from other animals’ quandary….It’s about Death and knowing it’s coming, unavoidable, ordained—like the Red Sox blowing a big lead in September. Just like that and no other way. Get over it.
Now that I’m writing, I’m writing to keep from writing about Pierce. Wouldn’t you know it?
At some point, I think I’ll go mute for a while—the way you went illiterate.
So: where was Sandy getting the shit, that’s what I needed to know.
But I did know, knew all along. It was Pierce. I knew it but I wouldn’t let myself ‘know’ it because I didn’t want to cut Pierce’s throat. Or any throat, for that matter. But that fucking Yataghan was under my bed with a big honkin’ Curse on it. And whoever was giving Sandy heroin needed their throat cut. So, I avoided the obvious.
I went down to Boston a lot and walked around, waiting for people to try to sell me drugs. I cruised all the right places and got offered lots of heroin. But I knew the truth all along. Every time I asked so skinny pusher, “You ever sell shit to this girl named Sandy—long, black hair, eyes to die for, weak chin. Ever sell to her?” They’d all shake their heads and say, “No way, man”—“no way, man”—over and over.
I hate to admit this, but I roughed some of them up—pushed them up against walls, twisted their arms, smacked them in the face. Pushers are usually skinny and fragile and on a lot of drugs themselves—easy to push around. I’m ashamed of it, but I pushed them around, hoping they would lie to me and tell me they sold to Sandy so I wouldn’t have to cut Pierce’s throat.
But they never did that. They never lied. May Jerry’s Jesus bless them, they never lied.
I lied. I was the Liar, lying to myself. I knew all along.
Then I met up with Jorge Martinez, a Wanderer on the Earth, who I beat within an inch of his life. It was the day Newman took Sandy away. I walked up and down Washington Street, surrounded by hookers and dealers and Freaks and Sailors. I had my hockey stick with me, don’t ask me why. But I had it with me, walking around Washington Street accosting pushers with a hockey stick. Jesus! When I met this little P.R. kid with acne who wouldn’t lie to me, I beat him with my stick. I heard a couple of ribs break and a hockey stick can do massive damage to someone’s nose and face, which I did. I was angry and crazy, wanting him to lie to me, unable to admit I was the only one lying.
I beat him so bad it made the papers--the tabloids and even the back pages of the Globe the day before Easter.. The cops interviewed him in the hospital, nearly toothless and all beat up. Jorge told the cops and the reporters that some, “huge guy, man” beat him with a stick. I’m sure he said “steek”. He told them I looked like a walrus. Can you imagine that? “This big one-eyed, white walrus, man, he beat me with a crooked ‘steek’.”
I knew they’d never trace me down. I threw the hockey stick in the pool where the swan boats glide and I stared in the mirror for hours. I don’t look anything like a walrus. Can you imagine that, Reed, someone thinking I looked like a walrus? I knew I was safe. But it made me real sick inside, what I did. I was disgusted with myself.
It took that little imp, John Henry Davidson to straighten me out. He told the Truth to damn my Lie.
“Look here, Meyer,” he told me a few days before Pierce’s death, “it’s fuckin’ Pierce. Fuckin’ Pierce is supplying Sandy.”
“Don’t say ‘fuck’,” I said. “Besides, Pierce only does grass and hash. He promised me.”
John Henry rolled those great, huge eyes and cursed something fierce under his breath. “I’ll goddamn fuckin’ show you, you mutherfuckin’ walrus.” That’s what I heard him say except the walrus part is crazy.
On Easter morning I went to Holy Ghost to visit Mrs. Merriman and Dan Counts. But they both died in the night. May Jerry’s Jesus bless them. I had about a gallon of coffee in the cafeteria with Florence before I went down to Boston, intending to beat up some junkie who wouldn’t lie to me. This was still very early. But I didn’t have the stomach for it. I hung around Park Street Station for a while. I didn’t even go upstairs. I helped a Hari Krishna sell some flowers for a while. His name was Lionel—can you imagine that, a Hari Krishna named Lionel from Duluth? Then I took the train back to Harvard Square and walked home.
The Factory was deserted. I didn’t even go to my room, just wandered around looking for people. No one home. Easter drove them all mad and into the streets, I suppose. Finally, I found Sugar, asleep in your bed.
“So where is everybody?” I asked her after I woke her up.
“Reed went to church,” she said, real sleepy-like. I noticed her face was healing well. I had this dark feeling in me, like some horrible sludge around my heart, gathering. It was gathering even though I was looking at Sugar’s healing face, happy that you’d taken her in, trusting you would keep her safe. (Oh, I know all about the punch that bastard, Pierce, gave her and about you taking her in. I know everything about the Factory, Reed. I am Asmus of the Factory—I see all and know all and just don’t say much. And the thing I saw most clearly I denied most vehemently. Just my job, I imagine.
Anyway, sitting on your bed with that little sparrow, Sugar, I knew—don’t ask me how—that the Curse of Annabaal had kicked in. Rivers crossed. Bridges burned. Nothing to be done. No turning back. Fated and cursed. Cursed.
“Reed went to church?” I asked, though saying it was weird and strange, like watching myself say it. The Curse had kicked in.
“That’s what he said,” Sugar told me, falling off into sleep. “I told him it was Easter.”
“What kind of church?” I asked her, rousing her from slumber, not caring, but knowing it mattered.
She shifted and turned, on the edge of sleep, “Jerry’s kind…their…cult.” Then she said, “the temple…in…Copley…Square….”
Oh Jesus, I thought, Anglicans!
Then I watched her sleep for a while. There’s not much better in this world than looking at Sugar, whenever possible. But watching her sleep….I swear, Reed, is like being born. You know?
Finally, when I got up to leave, she roused for a moment and said, “John Henry’s looking for your. He’s in your room. He said he was hiding...there….”
That was the snap. I snapped. John Henry-my Truth Bearer—hiding in my room. I was down the steps in three jumps, through the kitchen and into my room. Pierce was there, banging on my bathroom door. The blinds were closed but I knew he had something in his hands, I just didn’t know what.
“Yo, Pilgrim,” I said, crossing the room toward him. Then I tripped over something and was asshole over elbow on the floor. I hit my left arm when I feel—hit the ‘crazy bone’—and my whole arm was numb and stingy at the same time, you know how that feels?
Next thing I know, Pierce was standing over me and I knew in a flash he had that cursed yataghan in his hands. And I knew I must have tripped over Annabaal’s velvet lined box.
Pierce had this look on his face—terrified and humble—something I’d never seen in him before.
“Meyer,” he said, bending toward me, his eyes wide and wondering, his face like a mask of pain and fear. It was like one of those Greek masks, from the dramas. You know, except it was his face in a mask of Pain and Fear.
“Meyer,” he said again, in a whisper, like a prayer. “What’s this knife? That little fucker had it when I found him. I caught him going through my drawers. He ran down here and tried to hide. When I came in he was opening that box. I took this damn knife out of it—I was just going to scare him shitless—that’s all, I swear. But then I knew I had to cut a throat….What’s going on with this knife?”
“It’s cursed,” I told him, but I was so scared he couldn’t hear me and moved toward me.
“What did you say?” Pierce asked.
This big Marine’s standing over me with a paper-cut sharp yataghan in his hands. And he’s in the throes of a Curse. I’m scared to death.
“There’s a Curse,” I told him, trying to be audible. “It’s got a Curse on it that’s got hold of you….”
He nodded, like he understood. Then he said to me, real scared like, “I understand. You’ve got to help me here….”
“Can you drop it? Can you just let the knife go?” I asked.
His face turned red and screwed itself up like a fist. Then he relaxed and tried again. Finally, he said, “No, I can’t drop it….Help me….”
I don’t know how long we were like that—Pierce with his living Greek mask of Fear and Pain and me, my aching, throbbing, numb arm. However long it was, it was long enough for John Henry to crawl out of the bathroom and circle the room by the walls and crawl into the kitchen. His eyes were enormous—like Buckwheat—though I know that’s racist…like Eddie Cantor’s eyes, though that’s probably anti-Semitic…you can’t win. But his eyes were bursting out of their sockets and I knew in that moment that those eyes would see a lot of death, but not this one.
And I knew, Reed, I knew like it was true and had already happened, that I could have been free of Annabaal’s curse. I could have crawled away with John Henry and not looked back and the curse would have been null and void for me. The yataghan was in Pierce’s hands—it was his curse now.
I shifted on the floor from my stomach to my back, preparing to crawl like hell for the door, leaving that awful curse behind. But just then, Pierce opened his mouth and some voice came out of him I’d never heard before, not anywhere…or had always heard—excuse me for being so dramatic—but he spoke with a voice of loneliness and pain like nothing else. It was like the Voice of the only Wanderer on the Earth who ever wandered there. Like that.
“Meyer,” he said, “Help me….Oh, Jesus….Oh, God….Help me!”
I looked up at him, Reed, and it was like looking into the eyes of some dumb or domesticated animal—like a puppy or an ox. His eyes were all soft and longing. And I knew there was nothing to be done—a throat had to be cut. So I told him so.
“There is nothing left to be done,” I said, “but to cut a throat. It’s a strange curse, but a real one.”
So I leaned back and exposed my throat to him, like a wild animal who knows they have lost the fight and wills to die. I didn’t want to die, but someone had to and I was simply there. This is the last piece of advice I’ll give you, Reed: ‘don’t get too attached to things and don’t show up when a throat needs cutting.’
For a long time, we were like this .
I fully expected to feel the blade, burning cold and then hot against my neck, pushing down. I closed my eye and waited, scared shitless—literally. One of the things Mack did when he came was let me clean up. I had shit myself but didn’t know it until Mack came. By that time there was blood everywhere and Pierce was dead and John Henry, who’d been hiding in the kitchen, and I had handled the yataghan and the candle and Jerry’s Union Army cape.
Mack said, “Jesus, Meyer, you’ve got a pant load!”
I sniffed and felt and looked and knew it was true.
“I can’t face what happens next like this,” I told him. “Can I clean up first?”
“Sure,” Mack told me. “No problem. But I’ve got to call some people now. I’ll only call people I can boss around, okay?”
I didn’t understand that part but I nodded and went to clean myself. I must have already shit myself when I finally opened my eyes and saw Pierce standing stone still, pressing the yataghan into his own throat. He was standing there, like some department store dummy, like some mannequin, with a two foot knife a half-inch into his throat.
Little streams of blood were running down his neck, like tributaries of the Nile in the dry season. I got up, my arm aching, and walked over to him. He was frozen, petrified. He couldn’t move.
I took his hands in mine and tried to pull the yataghan away from his throat. He opened his mouth to speak, but blood and saliva ran out of his mouth and down his chin. His mouth kept moving and there was a gurgling noise, more like a mountain stream than a voice. I leaned real near, not even thinking of the blood and fluids that sprayed my face when Pierce tried to speak.
I can’t say for sure because it was so crazy, but I’d swear he said, gurgling and spraying me: “Meyer, help me—push the other way….” I still tried to pull the knife away from him, tried to pry his hands from the hilt and the blade, but I couldn’t. So, slowly at first, after taking a big breath, I started pushing the knife inward. Something in his eyes convinced me to push as hard as I could. And his head fell back off his body and the blood spurted out in two fountains, like ocean waves, like an artesian well, like that.
Blood everywhere—on the walls, on Sandy’s mobile, on the floor and ceiling, in my eyes—Jesus, so much blood and some of it in my eyes!
I stepped away. Pierce stood there for a few moments, his head flopping back like a hood, until the blood stopped. When the blood stopped, all gone, Pierce just crumpled and fell.
I sat beside him for a while and then John Henry crept back in. “It was him,” he said, pointing to Pierce’s crumpled, blood-soaked, half-decapitated body, but meaning the live Pierce, the bad ass one. “It was him all along. Look….”
He handed me some small plastic bags full of a white powder.
“I found them in his room, in his underwear drawer—the boy had some yellow jockey shorts….”
“I know,” I said, sick to death of death. “I’ve known all along.”
After a while, I locked my bedroom door and, in spite of the smell of all that blood and the shit in my britches that I didn’t know about, John Henry and I cleaned up. I should have sent him away since I made him an accomplice to whatever you would call what happened, but I didn’t. He told me not to worry, that no Cambridge cop would believe he was strong enough to cut Pierce’s throat. “They might think I was trying to steal his fuckin’ body,” he said.
We took one of Krista’s big candles, rolled it in some of Pierce’s blood and wrapped it in Jerry’s Union Army cape and hid it in the VW bug’s trunk. Then John Henry drove the car a block away for you to find. When he came back, I had the yataghan back in its box and tied it up with string. I made him promise that he’d never open it and he would give it to you one day. I don’t know when that will be.
Here’s the important part, the real part, the True part: when Pierce’s head snapped back the sound of severing the flesh and sinew and cartilage sounded to me just like the sound Jorge’s ribs made when I beat him with my hockey stick. Sorry to say, I regretted that more than I regretted helping Annabaal and Pierce cut his own throat. I just did. I hope Pierce’s dying fulfilled Annabaal’s Curse. And I learned this—the human throat is a fragile mix of flesh and cartilage and blood vessels and bone. The throat is meant to be the place of swallowing and talking and singing and moaning, but it won’t stand up to a knife as big and sharp as Annabaal’s was.
No one besides you—such a Midwestern innocent—could understand or appreciate that what I did for Pierce, half-dead before I touched the knife, could be construed as an act of mercy and completion. To everyone else—even Jerry, who swears on the baby Jesus he won’t read this letter, though I know he will—I am a murderer. So when the time comes, I will plead guilty. Then I’ll shut up…and ‘be’ shut up for a long time—like the rest of my stay on this planet.
But that’s okay. I deserve it. Not for helping Pierce end his life and not for fulfilling that goddamn wretched Curse. I will take my medicine for you and Sandy and John Henry and Krista and that crazy Jew in the attic and for Yodel and for Sugar and for the Wanderers on the Earth and for Jorge. Mostly for Jorge.
I think what I did to Jorge, looking for a comfortable lie, was much worse than what I did helping Pierce cut his throat. Beating up Jorge was the worst thing I’ve ever done. I have only two things to do now—atone for Jorge and make sure the Curse is finally broken. The first I can handle for myself. The second might require your help. We’ll see.
Brigham brought me some books today. One is about Morse Code. He didn’t remember buying it. “Must have gotten mixed in with the others,” he said. That book gives me an idea.
I’ll stop writing now. I was through anyway.
My only regret besides Jorge is that I didn’t cut that bastard Pierce’s throat all on my own. MEYER
That day, after I read the letter several times, I called Jerry in Boston. I called from the library but charged it to my home phone. I’m very strict on use of the library phone ever since I realized Peaches had been calling Grafton, which is long distance, and talking for over an hour three times a week. Some boyfriend, I imagined, knowing Peaches.
On the second ring, someone answered.
“Blood Ties,” he said.
“Fr. Mann, please.”
“Let me see if Fr. Mann’s available,” he said. Then, not too effectively covering the phone with his hand, I heard him say, “Jerry, it’s for you. I bet you $5 it’s Reed….” I didn’t hear if Jerry responded, but in a few moments he was on the line.
“Jerry Mann here. Blood ties is our mission.”
When he heard my voice he said he was delighted that I had called. Then he asked me to hold on for a moment—about as long as it would take to find a $5 bill in your wallet and hand it to someone who was snickering. “I’m not surprised you called,” he said. I’ve noticed that people are seldom surprised by me.
Jerry and I did Midwestern/Southern small talk for a while, like two people circling a porch looking for two rocking chairs.
“It’s about Meyer’s letter,” he said, ending chit-chat.
“Yes,” I said. “Did you read it?”
He laughed. “Of course I did, just like he knew I would, several hundred times over the years.”
“I need to know…well…you know…is it true?”
Jerry chuckled. “What is truth, Reed? The question’s been asked before. Is truth like the air under your fingernails, the gaps between your teeth? The woof and warp? The ebb and flow? What?”
“If it’s true,” I said, “he could have gotten off. He could be alive today and running the Igloo Factory.”
There was a long pause over the phone. Finally I said, “Jerry, are you there?”
“Here’s what you forget, Reed,” Jerry said, slowly and sadly, “who the fuck besides you believes a scimitar could be cursed? Let me answer that….”
“It was a yataghan, scimitars are different. A scimitar has one curve and….”
“Whatever,” Jerry said, suddenly sounding tired. “But here’s the point—this was 1969 and Meyer was already a blood-thirsty cult leader in the press, some demented guru. So how could he have convinced a ‘jury of his peers’….My God, can you even begin to imagine a jury of Meyer’s peers!...that a yataghan was ‘cursed’?
“Can you imagine any lawyer convincing anyone that it was the knife that did it? And oh, by the way, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the knife had been laying around for centuries for a throat worthy of cutting….My client was only obeying Annabaal’s orders, your honor, because she—whoever the fuck she was—decided Mr. Pierce’s throat was the next throat that needed sliced. Can you truly imagine that Brigham’s lawyers, and they were the best, would have started down that road in a court of the Commonwealth in 1969?”
I had to admit I couldn’t imagine all that, not any of it.
“If it please the court,” Jerry continued in his summation voice, “the real murderers here are a crooked, Turkish knife and Annabaal, some demon last seen on earth in 1600.”
“But if the Curse were true…,” I began.
“That’s why he decided to go mute.”
“Because he couldn’t take it?”
Jerry snorted over the phone. Snorting is what Meyer always did to alert those around him that he was ready to move on, reach resolution, end discussion. Jerry’s snort wasn’t lost on me.
“Of course he could, as you put it, ‘take it’. Meyer could ‘take’ anything,” he said. “And he did. Twenty years of prison for Christ’s sake. During which time, by the way, he was a model prisoner and turned down every opportunity for a parole hearing. He could have been out in seven years. Brigham’s lawyers finally threw up their well manicured hands over him. Whenever they told him he could get out, he told them he had ‘shit to do’. That’s how he put it: ‘shit to do’. Mostly his ‘shit’ was visiting inmates in the infirmary. He never stopped that. The last time I talked to him, a year or so ago, he said there were so many prisoners with AIDs he couldn’t keep up with them. Brigham even told me that he’d heard the governor was going to outright pardon him this year because of his service to other prisoners—though that might have been an apocryphal story.”
Jerry stopped talking but I kept listening. Phones are like that, they commandeer your ears. In the background I couldn’t hear anything but the silence of fiber optics. One a real phone line…an ‘analog’ phone line…I could have eavesdropped in on the phantom conversations of a grandmother in Pittsburgh, a salesman in Iowa, two lovers in Fort Worth. With the new technology there was noting to listen to—not even static. Meyer would have hated such progress.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what ‘apocryphal’ means?”
“No, I know what it means.”
Jerry laughed. “Meyer always told me you knew what every word in the world meant. Some things are always true.”
“Which is what I want to know about the letter,” I took a deep breath. “is it True or just apocryphal?”
“How should I know,” he said, suddenly somber. “How could anyone know but Meyer—even if he could—and he’s not talking now.”
We sat in comfortable silence for a while, like we had done so many times so long before. The fiber optics silence hummed like a cat, an Air-temp, something that hardly hums at all.
“Alright,” Jerry said, “how much of the stuff you’ve written down so far about the Factory and Meyer, how much of it is True, like you mean ‘true’ and how much is…I don’t know what to call it exactly…’filtered’, ‘altered by memory’, made poetry from prose? How much?”
I had to think, but not long. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, there your go,” Jerry said, all the way from Boston.
Then I remembered something else. “The seagull, Jerry, did I make that up?”
“The seagull in Meyer’s room on Easter, walking around in all the blood, that one?”
“No, you didn’t make that up. We all saw it—you, me, Sugar, Krista, Brigham, Mack, John Henry….”
In the background I heard someone say, “Watch whose name you take in vain.” I realized it was John Henry, all grown up. He had answered the phone. Jerry had kept his promise to Meyer.
Jerry was laughing. “Out of all this,” he said, “that’s the one I have the most difficulty understanding. I can believe a knife had a life of its own, but Christ knows what that damn seagull was about.”
“So why don’t you ask Him?” I said, too fast, too tired and irritable from lack of sleep.
Jerry didn’t say anything. I could almost picture the sad little smile on his face.
“Jerry, I didn’t mean…I was just….”
“I know. Your cynicism is just showing. Perfectly natural under the circumstances.
“I just, well….”
“Jesus did tell me you were drinking too much Coors,” he told me.
I felt like a kid in third grade who hadn’t studied for the quiz. “Ah…I know I drink a bit too much….I….”
“No, that’s not it,” Jerry said. “He objects to that Nazi who brews Coors and thinks you ought to try some Miller from time to time, or some foreign brews….”
“Jesus told you this?” I said.
“Kinda,” he said. “It’s kinda true…like the letter…like, oh, most everything.”
After that we talked about our jobs—about Blood Ties and the Buckhannon Public Library, about Sandy and Meyer Tee up in Morgantown and about John Henry, the assistant director of Blood Ties.
When it was time to stop talking, Jerry said, “See you in September…or August…whenever it is.”
As so often in my life, I didn’t read the signs correctly. I thought Jerry was just quoting an old song and couldn’t remember the words. Instead, he was telling the truth.
Truth is like that, all this has taught me in a way I’ll never forget. If it isn’t misunderstood or ignored, it’s not heard because you aren’t paying attention.