Maps in a mirror, p.78

Maps in a Mirror, page 78


Maps in a Mirror

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  It played real well on the religious station. Bucky Fay’s repentance—oh, how the crowds in the studio audience gasped at his confession. How the people wept at the moment when Billy reached out his hand. It was a fine show. And at the end, Bucky Fay wept again. “Oh, my friends who have trusted me, you have seen the mighty change in my heart. From now on I will wear the one suit that you see me wearing now. I have forsaken my diamond cuff links and my Lear jet and my golf course in Louisiana. I am so ashamed of what I was before God healed me with the hands of that little crippled boy. I tell all of you—send me no more money! Don’t send me a single dime to post office box eight three nine, Christian City, Louisiana 70539. I am not fit to have your money. Contribute your tithes and offerings to worthier men than I. Send me nothing!—”

  Then he knelt and bowed his head for a moment, and then looked up again, out into the audience, into the cameras, tears flowing down his face. “Unless. Unless you forgive me. Unless you believe that Jesus has changed me before your very eyes.”

  Mother switched off the TV savagely.

  “After seeing all those other people get better,” Billy whispered. “I thought he might’ve gotten better, too.”

  Mother shook her head and looked away. “What he got isn’t a disease.” Then she bent over the wheelchair and hugged him. “I feel so bad, Billy!”

  “I don’t feel bad,” Billy said. “Jesus cured the blind people and the deaf people and the crippled people and the lepers. But as far as I remember, the Bible don’t say he ever cured even one son-of-a-bitch.”

  She was still hugging him, which he didn’t mind even though he near smothered in her bosom. Now she chuckled. It was all right, if Mother chuckled about it. “Guess you’re right about that,” Mother said. “Even Jesus did no better.”

  For a while they had a rest, because the people who believed went to Bucky Fay and the doubters figured that Billy was no better. The newspaper and TV people stopped coming around, too, because Billy never put on a show for them and never said anything that people would pay money to read. Then, after a while, the sick people started coming back, just a few a week at first, and then more and more. They were uncertain, skeptical. They hadn’t heard of Billy on TV lately, hadn’t read about him either, and he lived in such a poor neighborhood, with no signs or anything. More than once a car with out-of-state plates drove back and forth in front of the house before it stopped and someone came in. The ones who came were those who had lost all other hope, who were willing to try anything, even something as unlikely as this. They had heard a rumor, someone had a cousin whose best friend was healed. They always felt like such damn fools visiting this crippled kid, but it was better than sitting home waiting for death.

  So they came, more and more of them. Mother had to quit her job again. All day Billy waited in his bedroom for them to come in. They always looked so distant, guarding themselves against another disillusionment. Billy, too, was afraid, waiting for the day when someone would place a baby in his arms and the child would die, the healing power gone out of him. But it didn’t happen, day after day it didn’t happen, and the people kept coming fearful and departing in joy.

  Mother and Billy lived pretty poorly, since they only took money that came from gratitude instead of money meant to buy. But Billy had a decent life, if you don’t mind being paralyzed and stuck home all the time, and Mother didn’t mind too much either, since there was always the sight of the blind seeing and the crippled walking and those withered-up children coming out whole and strong.

  Then one day after quite a few years there came a young woman who wasn’t sick. She was healthy and tall and nice-looking, in a kitcheny kind of way. She had rolled-up sleeves and hands that looked like they’d met dishwater before, and she walked right into the house and said, “Make room, I’m moving in.”

  “Now, girl,” said Mother, “we got a small house and no room to put you up. I think you got the wrong idea of what kind of Christian charity we offer here.”

  “Yes, Ma’am. I know just what you do. Because I am the little girl who touched Billy that day by the riverside and started all your misery.”

  “Now, girl, you know that didn’t start our misery.”

  “I’ve never forgotten. I grew up and went through two husbands and had no children and no memory of real love except for what I saw in the face of a crippled boy at the riverside, and I thought, ‘He needs me, and I need him.’ So here I am, I’m here to help, tell me what to do and step aside.”

  Her name was Madeleine and she stayed from then on. She wasn’t noisy and she wasn’t bossy, she just worked her share and got along. It was hard to know for sure why it was so, but with Madeleine there, even with no money and no legs, Billy’s life was good. They sang a lot of songs, Mother and Billy and Madeleine, sang and played games and talked about a lot of things, when the visitors gave them time. And only once in all those years did Madeleine ever talk to Billy about religion. And then it was just a question.

  “Billy,” asked Madeleine, “are you God?”

  Billy shook his head. “God ain’t no cripple.”


  Just talk, Mick. Tell us everything. We’ll listen.

  Well to start with I know I was doing terrible things. If you’re a halfway decent person, you don’t go looking to kill people. Even if you can do it without touching them. Even if you can do it so as nobody even guesses they was murdered, you still got to try not to do it.

  Who taught you that?

  Nobody. I mean it wasn’t in the books in the Baptist Sunday School—they spent all their time telling us not to lie or break the sabbath or drink liquor. Never did mention killing. Near as I can figure, the Lord thought killing was pretty smart sometimes, like when Samson done it with a donkey’s jaw. A thousand guys dead, but that was okay cause they was Philistines. And lighting foxes’ tails on fire. Samson was a sicko, but he still got his pages in the Bible.

  I figure Jesus was about the only guy got much space in the Bible telling people not to kill. And even then, there’s that story about how the Lord struck down a guy and his wife cause they held back on their offerings to the Christian church. Oh, Lord, the TV preachers did go on about that. No, it wasn’t cause I got religion that I figured out not to kill people.

  You know what I think it was? I think it was Vondel Cone’s elbow. At the Baptist Children’s Home in Eden, North Carolina, we played basketball all the time. On a bumpy dirt court, but we figured it was part of the game, never knowing which way the ball would bounce. Those boys in the NBA, they play a sissy game on that flat smooth floor.

  We played basketball because there wasn’t a lot else to do. Only thing they ever had on TV was the preachers. We got it all cabled in—Falwell from up in Lynchburg, Jim and Tammy from Charlotte, Jimmy Swaggart looking hot, Ernest Ainglee looking carpeted, Billy Graham looking like God’s executive vice-president—that was all our TV ever showed, so no wonder we lived on the basketball court all year.

  Anyway, Vondel Cone wasn’t particularly tall and he wasn’t particularly good at shooting and on the court nobody was even halfway good at dribbling. But he had elbows. Other guys, when they hit you it was an accident. But when Vondel’s elbow met up with your face, he like to pushed your nose out your ear. You can bet we all learned real quick to give him room. He got to take all the shots and get all the rebounds he wanted.

  But we got even. We just didn’t count his points. We’d call out the score, and any basket he made it was like it never happened. He’d scream and he’d argue and we’d all stand there and nod and agree so he wouldn’t punch us out, and then as soon as the next basket was made, we’d call out the score—still not counting Vondel’s points. Drove that boy crazy. He screamed till his eyes bugged out, but nobody ever counted his cheating points.

  Vondel died of leukemia at the age of fourteen. You see, I never did like that boy.

  But I learned something from him. I learned how unfair it was for somebody to get his way just bec
ause he didn’t care how much he hurt other people. And when I finally realized that I was just about the most hurtful person in the whole world, I knew then and there that it just wasn’t right. I mean, even in the Old Testament, Moses said the punishment should fit the crime. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Even Steven, that’s what Old Peleg said before I killed him of prostate cancer. It was when Peleg got took to the hospital that I left the Eden Baptist Children’s Home. Cause I wasn’t Vondel. I did care how much I hurt folks.

  But that doesn’t have nothing to do with anything. I don’t know what all you want me to talk about.

  Just talk, Mick. Tell us whatever you want.

  Well I don’t aim to tell you my whole life story. I mean I didn’t really start to figure out anything till I got on that bus in Roanoke, and so I can pretty much start there I guess. I remember being careful not to get annoyed when the lady in front of me didn’t have the right change for the bus. And I didn’t get angry when the bus driver got all snotty and told the lady to get off. It just wasn’t worth killing for. That’s what I always tell myself when I get mad. It isn’t worth killing for, and it helps me calm myself down. So anyway I reached past her and pushed a dollar bill through the slot.

  “This is for both of us,” I says.

  “I don’t make change,” says he.

  I could’ve just said “Fine” and left it at that, but he was being such a prick that I had to do something to make him see how ignorant he was. So I put another nickel in the slot and said, “That’s thirty-five for me, thirty-five for her, and thirty-five for the next guy gets on without no change.”

  So maybe I provoked him. I’m sorry for that, but I’m human, too, I figure. Anyway he was mad. “Don’t you smart off with me, boy. I don’t have to let you ride, fare or no fare.”

  Well, fact was he did, that’s the law, and anyway I was white and my hair was short so his boss would probably do something if I complained. I could have told him what for and shut his mouth up tight. Except that if I did, I would have gotten too mad, and no man deserves to die just for being a prick. So I looked down at the floor and said, “Sorry, sir.” I didn’t say “Sorry sir” or anything snotty like that. I said it all quiet and sincere.

  If he just dropped it, everything would have been fine, you know? I was mad, yes, but I’d gotten okay at bottling it in, just kind of holding it tight and then waiting for it to ooze away where it wouldn’t hurt nobody. But just as I turned to head back toward a seat, he lurched that bus forward so hard that it flung me down and I only caught myself from hitting the floor by catching the handhold on a seatback and half-smashing the poor lady sitting there.

  Some other people said, “Hey!” kind of mad, and I realize now that they was saying it to the driver, cause they was on my side. But at the time I thought they was mad at me, and that plus the scare of nearly falling and how mad I already was, well, I lost control of myself. I could just feel it in me, like sparklers in my blood veins, spinning around my whole body and then throwing off this pulse that went and hit that bus driver. He was behind me, so I didn’t see it with my eyes. But I could feel that sparkiness connect up with him, and twist him around inside, and then finally it came loose from me, I didn’t feel it no more. I wasn’t mad no more. But I knew I’d done him already.

  I even knew where. It was in his liver. I was a real expert on cancer by now. Hadn’t I seen everybody I ever knew die of it? Hadn’t I read every book in the Eden Public Library on cancer? You can live without kidneys, you can cut out a lung, you can take out a colon and live with a bag in your pants, but you can’t live without a liver and they can’t transplant it either. That man was dead. Two years at the most, I gave him. Two years, all because he was in a bad mood and lurched his bus to trip up a smartmouth kid.

  I felt like piss on a flat rock. On that day I had gone nearly eight months, since before Christmas, the whole year so far without hurting anybody. It was the best I’d ever done, and I thought I’d licked it. I stepped across the lady I smashed into and sat by the window, looking out, not seeing anything. All I could think was I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. Did he have a wife and kids? Well, they’d be a widow and orphans soon enough, because of me. I could feel him from clear over here. The sparkiness of his belly, making the cancer grow and keeping his body’s own natural fire from burning it out. I wanted with all my heart to take it back, but I couldn’t. And like so many times before, I thought to myself that if I had any guts I’d kill myself. I couldn’t figure why I hadn’t died of my own cancer already. I sure enough hated myself a lot worse than I ever hated anybody else.

  The lady beside me starts to talk. “People like that are so annoying, aren’t they?”

  I didn’t want to talk to anybody, so I just grunted and turned away.

  “That was very kind of you to help me,” she says.

  That’s when I realized she was the same lady who didn’t have the right fare. “Nothing,” I says.

  “No, you didn’t have to do that.” She touched my jeans.

  I turned to look at her. She was older, about twenty-five maybe, and her face looked kind of sweet. She was dressed nice enough that I could tell it wasn’t cause she was poor that she didn’t have bus fare. She also didn’t take her hand off my knee, which made me nervous, because the bad thing I do is a lot stronger when I’m actually touching a person, and so I mostly don’t touch folks and I don’t feel safe when they touch me. The fastest I ever killed a man was when he felt me up in a bathroom at a rest stop on I-85. He was coughing blood when I left that place, I really tore him up that time, I still have nightmares about him gasping for breath there with his hand on me.

  So anyway that’s why I felt real nervous her touching me there on the bus, even though there was no harm in it. Or anyway that’s half why I was nervous, and the other half was that her hand was real light on my leg and out of the corner of my eye I could see how her chest moved when she breathed, and after all I’m seventeen and normal most ways. So when I wished she’d move her hand, I only half wished she’d move it back to her own lap.

  That was up till she smiles at me and says, “Mick, I want to help you.”

  It took me a second to realize she spoke my name. I didn’t know many people in Roanoke, and she sure wasn’t one of them. Maybe she was one of Mr. Kaiser’s customers, I thought. But they hardly ever knew my name. I kind of thought, for a second, that maybe she had seen me working in the warehouse and asked Mr. Kaiser all about me or something. So I says, “Are you one of Mr. Kaiser’s customers?”

  “Mick Winger,” she says. “You got your first name from a note pinned to your blanket when you were left at the door of the sewage plant in Eden. You chose your last name when you ran away from the Eden Baptist Children’s Home, and you probably chose it because the first movie you ever saw was An Officer and a Gentleman. You were fifteen then, and now you’re seventeen, and you’ve killed more people in your life than Al Capone.”

  I got nervous when she knew my whole name and how I got it, cause the only way she could know that stuff was if she’d been following me for years. But when she let on she knew I killed people, I forgot all about feeling mad or guilty or horny. I pulled the cord on the bus, practically crawled over her to get out, and in about three seconds I was off that bus and hit the ground running. I’d been afraid of it for years, somebody finding out about me. But it was all the more scary seeing how she must have known about me for so long. It made me feel like somebody’d been peeking in the bathroom window all my life and I only just now found out about it.

  I ran for a long time, which isn’t easy because of all the hills in Roanoke. I ran mostly downhill, though, into town, where I could dodge into buildings and out their back doors. I didn’t know if she was following me, but she’d been following me for a long time, or someone had, and I never even guessed it, so how did I know if they was following me now or not?

  And while I ran, I tried to figure where I could go now. I had to leave town, that was sure.
I couldn’t go back to the warehouse, not even to say good-bye, and that made me feel real bad, cause Mr. Kaiser would think I just ran off for no reason, like some kid who didn’t care nothing about people counting on him. He might even worry about me, never coming to pick up my spare clothes from the room he let me sleep in.

  Thinking about what Mr. Kaiser might think about me going was pretty strange. Leaving Roanoke wasn’t going to be like leaving the orphanage, and then leaving Eden, and finally leaving North Carolina. I never had much to let go of in those places. But Mr. Kaiser had always been real straight with me, a nice steady old guy, never bossed me, never tried to take me down, even stuck up for me in a quiet kind of way by letting it be known that he didn’t want nobody teasing me. Hired me a year and a half ago, even though I was lying about being sixteen and he must’ve known it. And in all that time, I never once got mad at work, or at least not so mad I couldn’t stop myself from hurting people. I worked hard, built up muscles I never thought I’d have, and I also must’ve grown five inches, my pants kept getting so short. I sweated and I ached most days after work, but I earned my pay and kept up with the older guys, and Mr. Kaiser never once made me feel like he took me on for charity, the way the orphanage people always did, like I should thank them for not letting me starve. Kaiser’s Furniture Warehouse was the first peaceful place I ever spent time, the first place where nobody died who was my fault.

  I knew all that before, but right till I started running I never realized how bad I’d feel about leaving Roanoke. Like somebody dying. It got so bad that for a while I couldn’t hardly see which way I was going, not that I out-and-out cried or nothing.

  Pretty soon I found myself walking down Jefferson Street, where it cuts through a woody hill before it widens out for car dealers and Burger Kings. There was cars passing me both ways, but I was thinking about other things now. Trying to figure why I never got mad at Mr. Kaiser. Other people treated me nice before, it wasn’t like I got beat up every night or nobody ever gave me seconds or I had to eat dogfood or nothing. I remembered all those people at the orphanage, they was just trying to make me grow up Christian and educated. They just never learned how to be nice without also being nasty. Like Old Peleg, the black caretaker, he was a nice old coot and told us stories, and I never let nobody call him nigger even behind his back. But he was a racist himself, and I knew it on account of the time he caught me and Jody Capel practicing who could stop pissing the most times in a single go. We both done the same thing, didn’t we? But he just sent me off and then started whaling on Jody, and Jody was yelling like he was dying, and I kept saying, “It ain’t fair! I done it too! You’re only beating on him cause he’s black!” but he paid no mind, it was so crazy, I mean it wasn’t like I wanted him to beat me too, but it made me so mad and before I knew it, I felt so sparky that I couldn’t hold it in and I was hanging on him, trying to pull him away from Jody, so it hit him hard.

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