Maps in a mirror, p.79

Maps in a Mirror, page 79

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  What could I say to him then? Going into the hospital, where he’d lie there with a tube in his arm and a tube in his nose sometimes. He told me stories when he could talk, and just squoze my hand when he couldn’t. He used to have a belly on him, but I think I could have tossed him in the air like a baby before he died. And I did it to him, not that I meant to, I couldn’t help myself, but that’s the way it was. Even people I purely loved, they’d have mean days, and God help them if I happened to be there, because I was like God with a bad mood, that’s what I was, God with no mercy, because I couldn’t give them nothing, but I sure as hell could take away. Take it all away. They told me I shouldn’t visit Old Peleg so much cause it was sick to keep going to watch him waste away. Mrs. Howard and Mr. Dennis both got tumors from trying to get me to stop going. So many people was dying of cancer in those days they came from the county and tested the water for chemicals. It wasn’t no chemicals, I knew that, but I never did tell them, cause they’d just lock me up in the crazy house and you can bet that crazy house would have a epidemic before I been there a week if that ever happened.

  Truth was I didn’t know, I just didn’t know it was me doing it for the longest time. It’s just people kept dying on me, everybody I ever loved, and it seemed like they always took sick after I’d been real mad at them once, and you know how little kids always feel guilty about yelling at somebody who dies right after. The counselor even told me that those feelings were perfectly natural, and of course it wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t shake it. And finally I began to realize that other people didn’t feel that sparky feeling like I did, and they couldn’t tell how folks was feeling unless they looked or asked. I mean, I knew when my lady teachers was going to be on the rag before they did, and you can bet I stayed away from them the best I could on those crabby days. I could feel it, like they was giving off sparks. And there was other folks who had a way of sucking you to them, without saying a thing, without doing a thing, you just went into a room and couldn’t take your eyes off them, you wanted to be close—I saw that other kids felt the same way, just automatically liked them, you know? But I could feel it like they was on fire, and suddenly I was cold and needed to warm myself. And I’d say something about it and people would look at me like I was crazy enough to lock right up, and I finally caught on that I was the only one that had those feelings.

  Once I knew that, then all those deaths began to fit together. All those cancers, those days they lay in hospital beds turning into mummies before they was rightly dead, all the pain until they drugged them into zombies so they wouldn’t tear their own guts out just trying to get to the place that hurt so bad. Torn up, cut up, drugged up, radiated, bald, skinny, praying for death, and I knew I did it. I began to tell the minute I did it. I began to know what kind of cancer it would be, and where, and how bad. And I was always right.

  Twenty-five people I knew of, and probably more I didn’t.

  And it got even worse when I ran away. I’d hitch rides because how else was I going to get anywheres? But I was always scared of the people who picked me up, and if they got weird or anything I sparked them. And cops who run me out of a place, they got it. Until I figured I was just Death himself, with his bent-up spear and a hood over his head, walking around and whoever came near him bought the farm. That was me. I was the most terrible thing in the world, I was families broke up and children orphaned and mamas crying for their dead babies, I was everything that people hate most in all the world. I jumped off a overpass once to kill myself but I just sprained my ankle. Old Peleg always said I was like a cat, I wouldn’t die lessen somebody skinned me, roasted the meat and ate it, then tanned the hide, made it into slippers, wore them slippers clean out, and then burned them and raked the ashes, that’s when I’d finally die. And I figure he’s right, cause I’m still alive and that’s a plain miracle after the stuff I been through lately.

  Anyway that’s the kind of thing I was thinking, walking along Jefferson, when I noticed that a car had driven by going the other way and saw me and turned around and came back up behind me, pulled ahead of me and stopped. I was so spooked I thought it must be that lady finding me again, or maybe somebody with guns to shoot me all up like on “Miami Vice,” and I was all set to take off up the hill till I saw it was just Mr. Kaiser.

  He says, “I was heading the other way, Mick. Want a ride to work?”

  I couldn’t tell him what I was doing. “Not today, Mr. Kaiser,” I says.

  Well, he knew by my look or something, cause he says, “You quitting on me, Mick?”

  I was just thinking, don’t argue with me or nothing, Mr. Kaiser, just let me go, I don’t want to hurt you, I’m so fired up with guilt and hating myself that I’m just death waiting to bust out and blast somebody, can’t you see sparks falling off me like spray off a wet dog? I just says, “Mr. Kaiser, I don’t want to talk right now, I really don’t.”

  Right then was the moment for him to push. For him to lecture me about how I had to learn responsibility, and if I didn’t talk things through how could anybody ever make things right, and life ain’t a free ride so sometimes you got to do things you don’t want to do, and I been nicer to you than you deserve, you’re just what they warned me you’d be, shiftless and ungrateful and a bum in your soul.

  But he didn’t say none of that. He just says, “You had some bad luck? I can advance you against wages, I know you’ll pay back.”

  “I don’t owe no money,” I says.

  And he says, “Whatever you’re running away from, come home with me and you’ll be safe.”

  What could I say? You’re the one who needs protecting, Mr. Kaiser, and I’m the one who’ll probably kill you. So I didn’t say nothing, until finally he just nodded and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “That’s okay, Mick. If you ever need a place or a job, you just come on back to me. You find a place to settle down for a while, you write to me and I’ll send you your stuff.”

  “You just give it to the next guy,” I says.

  “A son-of-a-bitch stinking mean old Jew like me?” he says. “I don’t give nothing to nobody.”

  Well I couldn’t help but laugh, cause that’s what the foreman always called Mr. Kaiser whenever he thought the old guy couldn’t hear him. And when I laughed, I felt myself cool off, just like as if I had been on fire and somebody poured cold water over my head.

  “Take care of yourself, Mick,” he says. He give me his card and a twenty and tucked it into my pocket when I told him no. Then he got back into his car and made one of his insane U-turns right across traffic and headed back the other way.

  Well if he did nothing else he got my brain back in gear. There I was walking along the highway where anybody at all could see me, just like Mr. Kaiser did. At least till I was out of town I ought to stay out of sight as much as I could. So there I was between those two hills, pretty steep, and all covered with green, and I figured I could climb either one. But the slope on the other side of the road looked somehow better to me, it looked more like I just ought to go there, and I figured that was as good a reason to decide as any I ever heard of, and so I dodged my way across Jefferson Street and went right into the kudzu caves and clawed my way right up. It was dark under the leaves, but it wasn’t much cooler than right out in the sun, particularly cause I was working so hard. It was a long way up, and just when I got to the top the ground started shaking. I thought it was an earthquake I was so edgy, till I heard the train whistle and then I knew it was one of those coal-hauling trains, so heavy it could shake ivy off a wall when it passed. I just stood there and listened to it, the sound coming from every direction all at once, there under the kudzu, I listened till it went on by, and then I stepped out of the leaves into a clearing.

  And there she was, waiting for me, sitting under a tree.

  I was too wore out to run, and too scared, coming on her sudden like that, just when I thought I was out of sight. It was just as if I’d been aiming straight at her, all the way up the hill, just as if she so
mehow tied a string to me and pulled me across the street and up the hill. And if she could do that, how could I run away from her, tell me that? Where could I go? I’d just turn some corner and there she’d be, waiting. So I says to her, “All right, what do you want?”

  She just waved me on over. And I went, too, but not very close, cause I didn’t know what she had in mind. “Sit down, Mick,” says she. “We need to talk.”

  Now I’ll tell you that I didn’t want to sit, and I didn’t want to talk, I just wanted to get out of there. And so I did, or at least I thought I did. I started walking straight away from her, I thought, but in three steps I realized that I wasn’t walking away, I was walking around her. Like that planet thing in science class, the more I moved, the more I got nowhere. It was like she had more say over what my legs did than me.

  So I sat down.

  “You shouldn’t have run off from me,” she says.

  What I mostly thought of now was to wonder if she was wearing anything under that shirt. And then I thought, what a stupid time to be thinking about that. But I still kept thinking about it.

  “Do you promise to stay right there till I’m through talking?” she says.

  When she moved, it was like her clothes got almost transparent for a second, but not quite. Couldn’t take my eyes off her. I promised.

  And then all of a sudden she was just a woman. Not ugly, but not all that pretty, neither. Just looking at me with eyes like fire. I was scared again, and I wanted to leave, especially cause now I began to think she really was doing something to me. But I promised, so I stayed.

  “That’s how it began,” she says.

  “What’s how what began?” says I.

  “What you just felt. What I made you feel. That only works on people like you. Nobody else can feel it.”

  “Feel what?” says I. Now, I knew what she meant, but I didn’t know for sure if she meant what I knew. I mean, it bothered me real bad that she could tell how I felt about her those few minutes there.

  “Feel that,” she says, and there it is again, all I can think about is her body. But it only lasted a few seconds, and then I knew for sure that she was doing it to me.

  “Stop it,” I says, and she says, “I already did.”

  I ask her, “How do you do that?”

  “Everybody can do it, just a little. A woman looks at a man, she’s interested, and so the bio-electrical system heats up, causes some odors to change, and he smells them and notices her and he pays attention.”

  “Does it work the other way?”

  “Men are always giving off those odors, Mick. Makes no difference. It isn’t a man’s stink that gives a woman her ideas. But like I said, Mick, that’s what everybody can do. With some men, though, it isn’t a woman’s smell that draws his eye. It’s the bio-electrical system itself. The smell is nothing. You can feel the heat of the fire. It’s the same thing as when you kill people, Mick. If you couldn’t kill people the way you do, you also couldn’t feel it so strong when I give off magnetic pulses.”

  Of course I didn’t understand all that the first time, and maybe I’m remembering it now with words she didn’t teach me until later. At the time, though, I was scared, yes, because she knew, and because she could do things to me, but I was also excited, because she sounded like she had some answers, like she knew why it was that I killed people without meaning to.

  But when I asked her to explain everything, she couldn’t. “We’re only just beginning to understand it ourselves, Mick. There’s a Swedish scientist who is making some strides that way. We’ve sent some people over to meet with him. We’ve read his book, and maybe even some of us understand it. I’ve got to tell you, Mick, just because we can do this thing doesn’t mean that we’re particularly smart or anything. It doesn’t get us through college any faster or anything. It just means that teachers who flunk us tend to die off a little younger.”

  “You’re like me! You can do it too!”

  She shook her head. “Not likely,” she says. “If I’m really furious at somebody, if I really hate him, if I really try, and if I keep it up for weeks, I can maybe give him an ulcer. You’re in a whole different league from me. You and your people.”

  “I got no people,” I says.

  “I’m here, Mick, because you got people. People who knew just exactly what you could do from the minute you were born. People who knew that if you didn’t get a tit to suck you wouldn’t just cry, you’d kill. Spraying out death from your cradle. So they planned it all from the beginning. Put you in an orphanage. Let other people, all those do-gooders, let them get sick and die, and then when you’re old enough to have control over it, then they look you up, they tell you who you are, they bring you home to live with them.”

  “So you’re my kin?” I ask her.

  “Not so you’d notice,” she says. “I’m here to warn you about your kin. We’ve been watching you for years, and now it’s time to warn you.”

  “Now it’s time? I spent fifteen years in that children’s home killing everybody who ever cared about me, and if they’d just come along—or you, or anybody, if you just said, Mick, you got to control your temper or you’ll hurt people, if somebody just said to me, Mick, we’re your people and we’ll keep you safe, then maybe I wouldn’t be so scared all the time, maybe I wouldn’t go killing people so much, did you ever think of that?” Or maybe I didn’t say all that, but that’s what I was feeling, and so I said a lot, I chewed her up and down.

  And then I saw how scared she was, because I was all sparky, and I realized I was just about to shed a load of death onto her, and so I kind of jumped back and yelled at her to leave me alone, and then she does the craziest thing, she reaches out toward me, and I scream at her, “Don’t you touch me!” cause if she touches me I can’t hold it in, it’ll just go all through her and tear up her guts inside, but she just keeps reaching, leaning toward me, and so I kind of crawled over toward a tree, and I hung onto that tree, I just held on and let the tree kind of soak up all my sparkiness, almost like I was burning up the tree. Maybe I killed it, for all I know. Or maybe it was so big, I couldn’t hurt it, but it took all the fire out of me, and then she did touch me, like nobody ever touched me, her arm across my back, and hand holding my shoulder, her face right up against my ear, and she says to me, “Mick, you didn’t hurt me.”

  “Just leave me alone,” says I.

  “You’re not like them,” she says. “Don’t you see that? They love the killing. They use the killing. Only they’re not as strong as you. They have to be touching, for one thing, or close to it. They have to keep it up longer. They’re stronger than I am, but not as strong as you. So they’ll want you, that’s for sure, Mick, but they’ll also be scared of you, and you know what’ll scare them most? That you didn’t kill me, that you can control it like that.”

  “I can’t always. That bus driver today.”

  “So you’re not perfect. But you’re trying. Trying not to kill people. Don’t you see, Mick? You’re not like them. They may be your blood family, but you don’t belong with them, and they’ll see that, and when they do—”

  All I could think about was what she said, my blood family. “My mama and daddy, you telling me I’m going to meet them?”

  “They’re calling you now, and that’s why I had to warn you.”

  “Calling me?”

  “The way I called you up this hill. Only it wasn’t just me, of course, it was a bunch of us.”

  “I just decided to come up here, to get off the road.”

  “You just decided to cross the highway and climb this hill, instead of the other one? Anyway, that’s how it works. It’s part of the human race for all time, only we never knew it. A bunch of people kind of harmonize their bio-electrical systems, to call for somebody to come home, and they come home, after a while. Or sometimes a whole nation unites to hate somebody. Like Iran and the Shah, or the Philippines and Marcos.”

  “They just kicked them out,” I says.

 
But they were already dying, weren’t they? A whole nation, hating together, they make a constant interference with their enemy’s bio-electrical system. A constant noise. All of them together, millions of people, they are finally able to match what you can do with one flash of anger.”

  I thought about that for a few minutes, and it came back to me all the times I thought how I wasn’t even human. So maybe I was human, after all, but human like a guy with three arms is human, or one of those guys in the horror movies I saw, gigantic and lumpy and going around hacking up teenagers whenever they was about to get laid. And in all those movies they always try to kill the guy only they can’t, he gets stabbed and shot and burned up and he still comes back, and that’s like me, I must have tried to kill myself so many times only it never worked.

  No. Wait a minute.

  I got to get this straight, or you’ll think I’m crazy or a liar. I didn’t jump off that highway overpass like I said. I stood on one for a long time, watching the cars go by. Whenever a big old semi came along I’d say, this one, and I’d count, and at the right second I’d say, now. Only I never did jump. And then afterward I dreamed about jumping, and in all those dreams I’d just bounce off the truck and get up and limp away. Like the time I was a kid and sat in the bathroom with the little gardening shears, the spring-loaded kind that popped open, I sat there thinking about jamming it into my stomach right under the breastbone, and then letting go of the handle, it’d pop right open and make a bad wound and cut open my heart or something. I was there so long I fell asleep on the toilet, and later I dreamed about doing it but no blood ever came out, because I couldn’t die.

 

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