|Fear of Crows||Aja Couchois Duncan|
says Ed pointing to the sky, the street, everything beyond the perimeter of our
fenced lot. "Look," he says, pointing up, "the pink people."|
So it must be the sky he is meaning, the darkening sky strewn with a few white dots like some kind of skin irritation, like a whale, white crusted barnacles clumped on dark flesh. Before I met Ed, I didn't know about the pink people, about the Jamaicans who bought themselves white on the English census roll despite their dark skin, creating a new race -- legally white. That was some time ago, but Ed says that no one ever forgets such a betrayal. He tells me that in the day the pink people hide, but at night you can see their reflection, their shame, cast on the burnished hides of the stars.
Ed says the sky is a kitchen strainer and the stars are holes in the bottom where every night all the filth drains out. Just before dawn the world is clean and by sunset a whole lot of shit has filled the bowl and needs to be strained out again.
We are in the yard, which is really an asphalt lot surrounded by a chain link fence, sitting on the blue and white plastic beach chairs, our eyes on San Pablo. Behind us is the warehouse, or the store as we call it, and the shed, which is our home. It is in between day and dark, the dusk of Oakland, a noisy dusk when cars fill the drive-thru of the hip-hop music store across the street. A Lexus, a Range Rover, two BMW's roll past the cashier. Three crows have staked this corner as their own; they perch on separate telephone poles, squawking at the cars below. Ed sits next to me, our chairs touching, but we do not. Out here it is only the absence of his hands that I feel, his fingers curving around the edge of the metal arm of the beach chairs he found next to a dumpster on Adeline. Ed has a knack for street collection. Almost everything on the lot and in the warehouse came from someone else's toss aways. "People are always throwing away god's gifts," Ed says. "Just look at the pink people."
The pink people aren't always the night sky. Sometimes they are the asphalt and the yellow lines stretched along its belly. Sometimes the pink people shout at each other on the street. "Bitch, you best get back here." Sometimes the pink people toss their fists at each other, or worse.
In the morning, Ed gets the ropes and the plastic bags and we climb in the old Dodge truck in search of treasures, evidence of a disposable world. The truck and the lot are the two things left of Ed's parents. They lived on this corner, 61st and San Pablo, their house a point where two lines meet. Ed talks about the house so much I can almost see it sometimes, painted white with green trim around the windows, his father touching up the trim each year with a sort of religious fervor as if the fresh paint alone would protect them. The house is gone but the story of the house is its own shelter. Perfect geometry, I can feel it.
Ed claims to remember his own birth and his memory is something awful to reckon with so who am I to say he can't. I can't claim such reverence for memory. I try not to remember mama between visits. I never knew my daddy. When I was young there was a picture of a man, his face soft angles and faint eggplant skin, his head covered in dark wiry curls. My mother kept his photograph by her bed. "Is he black," I asked her not recognizing his skin the color of muscle, hair strung like sinew to bone. She looked at me, almost curious, "are you."
This man, something outside me, before me, lighter than me, but the same as me. This was who I spoke to when I hid under the covers at night and asked for all the things I did not have: a father, a bicycle, a left arm the same as the right. Later the picture disappeared and my mother filled the house with images of Jesus, the first white North African. At least that is what Ed calls him. Sometimes a customer will want to buy one of the Jesus prints in the warehouse and Ed will say "Sure the first white North African. A very important historical figure." I'm the only one who laughs. Ed says it isn't a joke; it is ironic, that's why other people don't laugh. I don't know about them, but I think you have to laugh, all the jokes being played on us, sometimes we are the ones playing a joke on ourselves, like my umbilical cord playing a joke on my own arm, twisting around, suffocating it so it couldn't grow.
Mama sometimes tries to blame her own body, suffering so much that I can't stand to be near her. The last time I visited her was two months ago, standing on the concrete rise just outside her door, calling her, "Mama, you there?" even though I knew she was, knew she never went anywhere but work, a house in the hills too large for the old woman who lived inside to care for. Too large for only one woman to own. "Mama."
"That you, boy?" she asked from the darkness of the doorway. Years ago, when I still lived with her, Mama had the bottom floor of an old Victorian house. Since I left, she has rented out the front of the house to two white girls, college students, and lives in the back. She says it's easier to clean, but I think she is holing up like a wounded animal, curling around herself. The back is just a closed in porch, a storage closet, with one window for light. But Mama's eyes have gotten so bad she covers them when she opens the doors, as if the light itself was what hurt her. "Yeah Mama, it's me."
She opened the screen and I was surprised how she slumped, her back bent as if she was her own gravity. I know I mimic her sloped back in my sleep. The perfect C of her body is the shape that holds us together, the exact pitch of our bond. When I lived with her, I would watch her from the doorstep, her love like the hook of her back pulling at me; she was a block away and I would know by the slow progress of her unmistakable arch that she was almost home.
I followed her to the back of the room, along the narrow opening in the floor, the rest of the ground disappeared beneath the cover of shopping bags filled to the brim with food. Even the chairs were filled with boxes of dried goods. When she had first begun storing food for The End, she had sorted the cans according to the time of year that each of the vegetables grew: broccoli and artichokes, tomatoes and zucchini. Over the years, this proved to require too many boxes, too much space, too much attention to the sun and its habits of season. The boxes filled with disorder and fear and I grew to hate their sprawling presence and eventually to hate her for all the accusations their presence directed at me.
It was frightening, the hiding away, the storing of food for emergencies, the way she believed in the apocalypse and still she tried to steal herself against it. Her gay son was the most recent revelation, but there had been other signs as well. "How are you," I asked once she had lain back down, her swollen feet elevated at the end of the bed. "Fine, son. And you, you's fine." I was her last child, her only living child, the one who wrecked her body and aged her ten years just from the birth. I know that she had counted on me to take care of her. Her eyes closed against the sight of me, the knowledge that this is something I never will be able to do.
The night I first met Ed, I heard her crying from her bedroom. "He's gone now too Elias, abandoned the Lord as you abandoned me. There's nothing can be done to save him. It's the wrath of God he's wrought."
So that is how I learned my father's name. Learned that he had left as I would. Perhaps that is when I learned it was possible to leave.
Ed has a lucky route, a lucky time of departure, a lucky man by his side. We start up 62nd and turn right on Market. In just a few miles we've found a refrigerator, a car stereo, two pairs of boots. One house has a pair of brand new tennis shoes in the driveway, an old bike turned upside down. Ed gets out of the truck, turns the peddles and checks the links of the chain. "Her name is Lucy and she is far from home," he says.
I get out of the truck use my right arm to help him lift the bike into the back. Ed pretends he needs my help and I pretend that one arm is as good as two.
Ed introduces Lucy to the other orphans: a ceiling fan, an orange suitcase, a bathroom sink. By the afternoon, the truck can barely shift our weight home.
It is Monday, the day our shop is closed, the day we lock the fence and put away the American Treasures sign. Monday is the day we gather, the day we salvage everything we have lost, the day we collect the remnants of ghosts, their spit. We drive home without speaking, listening to the murmuring of the artifacts in back.
When I met Ed, he was hauling ten foot 4 x 4's back and forth across the lot, trying to decide which side, north or south of his quarters, he should build the storage space, the warehouse, the American Treasures store. Sausage was chasing his heels, barking at the resistant wood.
"Hey, you chasing a chicken or something," I asked him from the sidewalk, not sure if I was talking to Ed or the dog. Both of them looked up, the dog with his tongue hanging out one side of his mouth and Ed with something nasty held behind his teeth. Later he tells me he would have swung the 4 x 4 in the direction of my head if I hadn't of been no more than seventeen. "Already a man with a muscular right arm and a cherry black chest that made me hungry just to look at it."
But I knew what he was thinking; I saw his eyes travel down my stomach, past the T-shirt tied to the loop of my pants, past the rise in my crotch, resting there a minute before looking up. He never once looked at the stump of an arm, that part of me I never could complete. "I might be chasing something, but it sure aint no chicken."
"You need some help with that wood?" I asked, already putting my shoe into one of the holes in the metal fence and raising my good arm up to the top rail, pulling myself over. The dog didn't bark; Ed did not answer.
I had finished high school the week before we met, taking the GED on the day of my seventeenth birthday. But Ed still teased me about dropping out. "Aint they going to miss you today at school?" he asked when I showed up again the next day, one hand on the fence, my chest pressed up against the twisted metal, my body engraved by the diamond braids of wire.
"No one's going to miss me no where," I lied, hauling himself up over the fence.
"There's a gate on the other side," Ed told him me a week later, holding off long enough to savor my climbs. "You sure your Mama's not going to wonder where you at?" Ed asked after I filled up half his dresser with my football jerseys and jeans. But I did not answer and in this way both Ed and I began to think of me as an orphan, another discard, like everything else on the lot, like Ed. I never told him my Mama lives just a few blocks away.
When we get back to the lot, Sausage has a baby raccoon in his mouth. He holds his mouth still, as if trying to rest the raccoon gently on his tongue, but we can tell by the way the raccoon's head falls to the side that it is dead. When Ed unlocks the door of the shed, Sausage lays the baby raccoon on the sill and goes inside. I want to wrap the raccoon in a cloth and toss him in the dumpster next door, but Ed grabs a shovel, slips his other arm beneath the empty weight of the raccoon, and heads to the brief patch of grass on the other side of the sidewalk. The grass is tough but the ground below yields to swallow its young.
When he comes back his shoulders are hunched from shoveling dirt, from all the day's lifting, from all the years lifting, 20 years more than I. So I tell him to lie down. I pour peppermint oil in my palm and warm the oil on the lip of my half arm. This arm that ends in an elbow, this elbow that is my hand, my fingers, the cup of my love. I begin rubbing Ed's neck, his trapezius, his latissimus, the crack of his ass. It is here that Ed takes over, asserts the unspoken arrangement of positions, me on my belly, Ed pressing his full weight against my back. Ed shows me how love can slither between us, how flesh is porous and always waiting to be filled.
The shed is odd angles and irregular shapes. The afternoon light cuts through the triangular glass window, illuminating intersecting quadrants, wood boards stacked to unexpected apexes. In the back corner is the metal tub we use for our bath. The only running water is from the utility sink behind the shed, but Ed fed a hose through the window and within a few minutes the tub is humming with hot water. When it is full, Ed sits in the middle of the basin like a statue in a fountain. All of the small metal figures and ceramic knickknacks that Ed has kept for himself are displayed on the six foot high shelf encircling the room. Each shape reflects a shadow on the surface of the sloped metal roof. So many figures it fills the room. A light bulb hangs inches below the ceiling lamp and the yellow bulb gives a umber glow to his wet and naked skin, his lean torso. His two elegant arms rise like a promise above the water line.
Tuesday we wake up late. Already, someone is waiting on the sidewalk, a woman pacing in front of the locked gate. Sausage takes his post at the back of the warehouse and since I am not much for early morning, I station the cash register and let Ed lead her through the warehouse in search of a desk. Ed likes to keep things according to their arrival, so it takes her nearly a half an hour to go through the entire warehouse, through dozens of rows of discoveries, as Ed describes each artifact, gives their name and origin. "This desk comes from the Malone family. Originally Addie worked up in Chicago, in a meat packing plant, even though she had a high school diploma. A nasty business, beef casing. But she was smart and got out of that plant and into a civil service job in Boston. She got herself some fine pieces of furniture and when her two sons moved to California they brought everything with them. This here desk is the only thing they let go."
Addie Malone and Doris Walker played the biggest role in Ed's histories. Usually Addie started off poor, but made her way. Doris was gifted with an entrepreneurial drive and succeeded in an every changing array of black industry. Sometimes, I think the customers come because of the stories and not because of the cheap goods, worn wood and metal furniture, obsolete mechanical parts, torn mattresses, ratty couches and lazy-boy chairs, the wreckage of entire families redrawn into historic relics, proof of the endurance of the American dream. But this customer is young and white and I don't think she knows that Ed is telling tales. It isn't until Ed comes back to the register that I recognize her as one of the girls who rents from Mama. I think` all black men look alike'. I think `maybe she won't remember'. I think `keep your head down'. But it is my arm, the incomplete part of me that marks me unmistakably.
"Hi, Jamal," she says. "I'm Jolene. Do you remember me? I rent the front house from your mother." I know her eyes, the sharp blue, like metal, like an iris bit in half. I keep my head down and say nothing.
"I haven't seen your mother in a while. It seems like she hardly ever leaves the house anymore. Is she all right?" The eyes, so dumb, so bright.
I look up, don't smile. "She's the same."
"Her arthritis must be bothering her," Jolene insists, like I don't know my own Mama aches. Like my body don't ache too. I look at the awful violet of my cuticles, the nub of flesh on the end of my right elbow. I concentrate on this shrunken pinkie until it moves back and forth. "Poof, be gone," it says. "Arthritis, diabetes, old age," it says.
"That will be twenty-six dollars even, miss" Ed says.
I thank him. My nub of interrupted growth thanks him. Jolene thanks him. The bells strung above the door ring and shout her departure.
I don't look at him, but I can tell Ed's eyes are on me. Not the torn blue of Jolene, but dark eyes, warm eyes, now cool and wet as mud.
"My mother came to California after the gold rush, after the depression, after World War II. She came without a husband, without any family and worked in a beauty shop in San Francisco until she met my father a few years later. My father was a quiet man, so quiet that we didn't know he had suffered a heart attack until too late to do anything but call the paramedics and watch them drive off with my father dead and buckled to the stretcher as if they were afraid he might rise up on the ride to the hospital and argue with them about the speed they were driving or the last joke they had told. Hey do you know why women wear underwear? So they don't leave snail tracks. My dad told me that one -- just boys talk he said -- so he probably wouldn't have argued with the paramedics about that.
They say when one spouse dies the other soon follows out of heartbreak or loneliness. My mother must have been suffering from both 'cause she had taken to shouting at the neighbors or homeless folks as they past by the front porch. I had moved Dad's recliner onto the porch so Mom had something to look at during the day when I was off working at the Dairy plant. The plant was filled with mice and dirt and things you don't want to know about milk, but it was near Mom and I could go home during lunch. I found her perched on the recliner, her hair all wild. `Go back where you came from,' she shouted to a white man with a beard crossing from the opposite side of the street. `Mom you are going to get yourself arrested,' I told her. `Mom why don't you eat some lunch with me.' But she wouldn't be distracted from her guard. As I was leaving, I heard her hiss `slut' at Cheri, the next door neighbor, a ten year girl riding her bike up and down the sidewalk."
I don't know this story. This is not one of the stories Ed normally tells.
This is the history that Ed gives the customers. This is Ed's origin of place. In the forties Oakland had the shipping yards and Emeryville had gambling and a brothel; the Emeryville mayor held council meetings in the local bar. The town was corrupt and full of possibility. His parents had come separately in their twenties seeking an unknowable future which like the magnificent bay stretched out before them. They were god loving people, but that did not make them shy in the face of human nature. They bought their first home a few blocks from the houses of gambling and prostitution. Later they would tell Ed that the sin had spread into every one of their neighbor's houses, but in the beginning they thought its territory was much smaller. Before they died, his parents had taken to mouthing daily curses at the neighbors from the livingroom window. Here is where Ed pauses, keeps the customers in suspense. Then he turns and looks them straight in the eye and says, "I haven't spoke to any of the neighbors since my parent's house burned to the ground, both my parents trapped inside."
Business is slow. Around three in the afternoon we bring in the American Treasures sign from the street and lock the gate. Ed walks past me into the shed and turns on the TV. Cable is one of our luxuries, the nature channel, the history channel, science while chopping vegetables, spicing flour, drinking ice tea. Ed can speak with authority about Arctic expeditions and Paleolithic digs. He tries often to explain the central tenants of plate tectonics and tidal shifts. I should tell him that I care nothing of the earth's central metallic core, the mantles of dense and light rock. I should tell him that magnetism is the tendency of my body to slip beneath his. "How do you explain water flowing upstream," I ask him. "How can you make sense of a body stunting its own growth."
The afternoon passes like a long walk we each take separately. It isn't until evening that we return again. We sit outside in the beach chairs, our feet thrown out in front of us, our toes circling their lair. The moon is new and the night clear enough for stars to make their own sense of the sky. I have my own names for the bright points outlining heavenly bodies: Mama is Cassiopeia, a woman drawn in on herself, her arms crossed and her legs huddled on the seat of a chair. Elias is Orion, a man permanently distanced from his prey. Ed is the Big Dipper, the cup from which I drink.
Tonight Ed's lesson's centers on Polaris, the north star. "It lies almost exactly on the Earth's rotational axis, about one degree from the north celestial pole. The Chinese called it the `Great Imperial Ruler of Heaven', its court the other circumpolar stars. In India it was known as Grahadhära or `Pivot of the Planets,' and represented the god Dhruva. In the west, it is known as a Cepheid pulsating variable, three stars orbiting around a common center of mass. We use it to measure the distance of spiral nebula, star clusters, god."
Ed remembers every word verbatim from the astronomy program we watched earlier. He could render the entire galaxy with chalk on the tarmac at our feet. It is his most treasured gift.
I remember the dull intonations of the astronomer, as if the information, the words themselves disappointed him. As if the stars were best left to their own devices. I know that some nights the stars won't come out. Some nights the pink people are afraid to leave their houses. There are nights even the crows fear for their lives.
Buy books at Blithe House, in association with Amazon.com
About The Authors