Maps in a Mirror, page 80
So I never tried to kill myself. But I thought about it all the time. I was like those monsters in those movies, just killing people but secretly hoping somebody would catch on to what was going on and kill me first.
And so I says to her, “Why didn’t you just kill me?”
And there she was with her face close to mine and she says, just like it was love talk, she says, “I’ve had you in my rifle sights, Mick, and then I didn’t do it. Because I saw something in you. I saw that maybe you were trying to control it. That maybe you didn’t want to use your power to kill. And so I let you live, thinking that one day I’d be here like this, telling you what you are, and giving you a little hope.”
I thought she meant I’d hope because of knowing my mama and daddy were alive and wanted me.
“I hoped for a long time, but I gave it up. I don’t want to see my mama and daddy, if they could leave me there all those years. I don’t want to see you, neither, if you didn’t so much as warn me not to get mad at Old Peleg. I didn’t want to kill Old Peleg, and I couldn’t even help it! You didn’t help me a bit!”
“We argued about it,” she says. “We knew you were killing people while you tried to sort things out and get control. Puberty’s the worst time, even worse than infancy, and we knew that if we didn’t kill you a lot of people would die—and mostly they’d be the people you loved best. That’s the way it is for most kids your age, they get angriest at the people they love most, only you couldn’t help killing them, and what does that do to your mind? What kind of person do you become? There was some who said we didn’t have the right to leave you alive even to study you, because it would be like having a cure for cancer and then not using it on people just to see how fast they’d die. Like that experiment where the government left syphilis cases untreated just to see what the final stages of the disease were like, even though they could have cured those people at any time. But some of us told them, Mick isn’t a disease, and a bullet isn’t penicillin. I told them, Mick is something special. And they said, yes, he’s special, he kills more than any of those other kids, and we shot them or ran them over with a truck or drowned them, and here we’ve got the worst one of all and you want to keep him alive.”
And I was crying cause I wished they had killed me, but also because it was the first time I ever thought there was people arguing that I ought to be alive, and even though I didn’t rightly understand then or even now why you didn’t kill me, I got to tell you that knowing somebody knew what I was and still chose not to blast my head off, that done me in, I just bawled like a baby.
One thing led to another, there, my crying and her holding me, and pretty soon I figured out that she pretty much wanted to get laid right there. But that just made me sick, when I knew that. “How can you want to do that!” I says to her. “I can’t get married! I can’t have no kids! They’d be like me!”
She didn’t argue with me or say nothing about birth control, and so I figured out later that I was right, she wanted to have a baby, and that told me plain that she was crazy as a loon. I got my pants pulled back up and my shirt on, and I wouldn’t look at her getting dressed again, neither.
“I could make you do it,” she says to me. “I could do that to you. The ability you have that lets you kill also makes you sensitive. I can make you lose your mind with desire for me.”
“Then why don’t you?” I says.
“Why don’t you kill if you can help it?” she says.
“Cause nobody has the right,” says I.
“That’s right,” she says.
“Anyway you’re ten years older than me,” I tell her.
“Fifteen,” she says. “Almost twice your age. But that don’t mean nothing.” Or I guess she actually said, “That doesn’t mean nothing,” or probably, “That doesn’t mean anything.” She talks better than I do but I can’t always remember the fancy way. “That doesn’t mean a thing,” she says. “You’ll go to your folks, and you can bet they’ll have some pretty little girl waiting for you, and she’ll know how to do it much better than me, she’ll turn you on so your pants unzip themselves, cause that’s what they want most from you. They want your babies. As many as they can get, because you’re the strongest they’ve produced in all the years since Grandpa Jake realized that the cursing power went father to son, mother to daughter, and that he could breed for it like you breed dogs or horses. They’ll breed you like a stud, but then when they find out that you don’t like killing people and you don’t want to play along and you aren’t going to take orders from whoever’s in charge there now, they’ll kill you. That’s why I came to warn you. We could feel them just starting to call you. We knew it was time. And I came to warn you.”
Most of this didn’t mean much to me yet. Just the idea of having kinfolk was still so new I couldn’t exactly get worried about whether they’d kill me or put me out for stud or whatever. Mostly what I thought about was her, anyway. “I might have killed you, you know.”
“Maybe I didn’t care,” she says. “And maybe I’m not so easy to kill.”
“And maybe you ought to tell me your name,” says I.
“Can’t,” she says.
“How come?” says I.
“Because if you decide to put in with them, and you know my name, then I am dead.”
“I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you,” says I.
She didn’t answer that. She just says to me, “Mick, you don’t know my name, but you remember this. I have hopes for you, cause I know you’re a good man and you never meant to kill nobody. I could’ve made you love me, and I didn’t, because I want you to do what you do by your own choice. And most important of all, if you come with me, we have a chance to see if maybe your ability doesn’t have a good side.”
You think I hadn’t thought of that before? When I saw Rambo shooting down all those little brown guys, I thought, I could do that, and without no gun, either. And if somebody took me hostage like the Achille Lauro thing, we wouldn’t have to worry about the terrorists going unpunished. They’d all be rotting in a hospital in no time. “Are you with the government?” I ask her.
“No,” she says.
So they didn’t want me to be a soldier. I was kind of disappointed. I kind of thought I might be useful that way. But I couldn’t volunteer or nothing, cause you don’t walk into the recruiting office and say, I’ve killed a couple dozen people by giving sparks off my body, and I could do it to Castro and Qaddafi if you like. Cause if they believe you, then you’re a murderer, and if they don’t believe you, they lock you up in a nuthouse.
“Nobody’s been calling me, anyway,” I says. “If I didn’t see you today, I wouldn’t’ve gone nowhere. I would’ve stayed with Mr. Kaiser.”
“Then why did you take all your money out of the bank?” she says. “And when you ran away from me, why did you run toward the highway where you can hitch a ride at least to Madison and then catch another on in to Eden?”
And I didn’t have no answer for her then, cause I didn’t know rightly why I took my money out of the bank lessen it was like she said, and I was planning to leave town. It was just an impulse, to close that account, I didn’t think nothing of it, just stuffed three hundreds into my wallet and come to think of it I really was heading toward Eden, I just didn’t think of it, I was just doing it. Just the way I climbed up that hill.
“They’re stronger than we are,” she says. “So we can’t hold you here. You have to go anyway, you have to work this thing out. The most we could do was just get you on the bus next to me, and then call you up this hill.”
“Then why don’t you come with me?” I says.
“They’d kill me in two seconds, right in front of your eyes, and none of this cursing stuff, either, Mick. They’d just take my head off with a machete.”
“Do they know you?”
“They know us,” she says. “We’re the only ones that know your people exist, so we’re the only ones working to stop them. I won’t lie to you, Mick. If you join them, y
“Well maybe I don’t want to be on either side in this war,” I says. “And maybe now I won’t go to Eden, neither. Maybe I’ll go up to Washington, D.C. and join the CIA.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“And don’t try to stop me.”
“I wouldn’t try,” she says.
“Damn straight,” I says. And then I just walked on out, and this time I didn’t walk in no circles, I just headed north, past her car, down the railroad right of way. And I caught a ride heading up toward D.C, and that was that.
Except that along about six o’clock in the evening I woke up and the car was stopping and I didn’t know where I was, I must have slept all day, and the guy says to me, “Here you are, Eden, North Carolina.”
And I about messed my pants. “Eden!” I says.
“It wasn’t far out of my way,” he says. “I’m heading for Burlington, and these country roads are nicer than the freeway, anyway. Don’t mind if I never drive I-85 again, to tell the truth.”
But that was the very guy who told me he had business in D.C., he was heading there from Bristol, had to see somebody from a government agency, and here he was in Eden. It made no sense at all, except for what that woman told me. Somebody was calling me, and if I wouldn’t come, they’d just put me to sleep and call whoever was driving. And there I was. Eden, North Carolina. Scared to death, or at least scared a little, but also thinking, if what she said was true, my folks was coming, I was going to meet my folks.
Nothing much changed in the two years since I ran off from the orphanage. Nothing, much ever changes in Eden, which isn’t a real town anyway, just cobbled together from three little villages that combined to save money on city services. People still mostly think of them as three villages. There wasn’t nobody who’d get too excited about seeing me, and there wasn’t nobody I wanted to see. Nobody living, anyway. I had no idea how my folks might find me, or how I might find them, but in the meantime I went to see about the only people I ever much cared about. Hoping that they wouldn’t rise up out of the grave to get even with me for killing them.
It was still full day that time of year, but it was whippy weather, the wind gusting and then holding still, a big row of thunderclouds off to the southwest, the sun sinking down to get behind them. The kind of afternoon that promises to cool you off, which suited me fine. I was still pretty dusty from my climb up the hill that morning, and I could use a little rain. Got a Coke at a fast food place and then walked on over to see Old Peleg.
He was buried in a little cemetery right by an old Baptist Church. Not Southern Baptist, Black Baptist, meaning that it didn’t have no fancy building with classrooms and a rectory, just a stark-white block of a building with a little steeple and a lawn that looked like it’d been clipped by hand. Cemetery was just as neat-kept. Nobody around, and it was dim cause of the thunderclouds moving through, but I wasn’t afraid of the graves there, I just went to Old Peleg’s cross. Never knew his last name was Lindley. Didn’t sound like a black man’s name, but then when I thought about it I realized that no last name sounded like a black man’s name, because Eden is still just old-fashioned enough that an old black man doesn’t get called by his last name much. He grew up in a Jim Crow state, and never got around to insisting on being called Mr. Lindley. Old Peleg. Not that he ever hugged me or took me on long walks or gave me that tender loving care that makes people get all teary-eyed about how wonderful it is to have parents. He never tried to be my dad or nothing. And if I hung around him much, he always gave me work to do and made damn sure I did it right, and mostly we didn’t talk about anything except the work we was doing, which made me wonder, standing there, why I wanted to cry and why I hated myself worse for killing Old Peleg than for any of the other dead people under the ground in that city.
I didn’t see them and I didn’t hear them coming and I didn’t smell my mama’s perfume. But I knew they was coming, because I felt the prickly air between us. I didn’t turn around, but I knew just where they were, and just how far off, because they was lively. Shedding sparks like I never saw on any living soul except myself, just walking along giving off light. It was like seeing myself from the outside for the first time in my life. Even when she was making me get all hot for her, that lady in Roanoke wasn’t as lively as them. They was just like me.
Funny thing was, that wrecked everything. I didn’t want them to be like me. I hated my sparkiness, and there they were, showing it to me, making me see how a killer looks from the outside. It took a few seconds to realize that they was scared of me, too. I recognized how scaredness looks, from remembering how my own bio-electrical system got shaped and changed by fear. Course I didn’t think of it as a bio-electrical system then, or maybe I did cause she’d already told me, but you know what I mean. They was afraid of me. And I knew that was because I was giving off all the sparks I shed when I feel so mad at myself that I could bust. I was standing there at Old Peleg’s grave, hating myself, so naturally they saw me like I was ready to kill half a city. They didn’t know that it was me I was hating. Naturally they figured I might be mad at them for leaving me at that orphanage seventeen, years ago. Serve them right, too, if I gave them a good hard twist in the gut, but I don’t do that, I honestly don’t, not any more, not standing there by Old Peleg who I loved a lot more than these two strangers, I don’t act out being a murderer when my shadow’s falling across his grave.
So I calmed myself down as best I could and I turned around and there they was, my mama and my daddy. And I got to tell you I almost laughed. All those years I watched them TV preachers, and we used to laugh till our guts ached about how Tammy Bakker always wore makeup so thick she could be a nigger underneath (it was okay to say that cause Old Peleg himself said it first) and here was my mama, wearing just as much makeup and her hair sprayed so thick she could work construction without a hardhat. And smiling that same sticky phony smile, and crying the same gooey oozey black tears down her cheeks, and reaching out her hands just the right way so I halfway expected her to say, “Praise to Lord Jesus,” and then she actually says it, “Praise to Lord Jesus, it’s my boy,” and comes up and lays a kiss on my cheek with so much spit in it that it dripped down my face.
I wiped the slobber with my sleeve and felt my daddy have this little flash of anger, and I knew that he thought I was judging my mama and he didn’t like it. Well, I was, I got to admit. Her perfume was enough to knock me over, I swear she must’ve mugged an Avon lady. And there was my daddy in a fine blue suit like a businessman, his hair all blow-dried, so it was plain he knew just as well as I did the way real people are supposed to look. Probably he was plain embarrassed to be seen in public with Mama, so why didn’t he ever just say, Mama, you wear too much makeup? That’s what I thought, and it wasn’t till later that I realized that when your woman is apt to give you cancer if you rile her up, you don’t go telling her that her face looks like she slept in wet sawdust and she smells like a whore. White trash, that’s what my mama was, sure as if she was still wearing the factory label.
“Sure am glad to see you, Son,” says my daddy.
I didn’t know what to say, tell the truth. I wasn’t glad to see them, now that I saw them, because they wasn’t exactly what a orphan boy dreams his folks is like. So I kind of grinned and looked back down at Old Peleg’s grave.
“You don’t seem too surprised to see us,” he says.
I could’ve told him right then about the lady in Roanoke, but I didn’t. Just didn’t feel right to tell him. So I says, “I felt like somebody was calling me back here. And you two are the only people I met who’s as sparky as me. If you all say you’re my folks, then I figure it must be so.”
Mama giggled and she says to him, “Listen, Jesse, he calls it ‘sparky.’ ”
“The word we use is ‘dusty,’ Son,” says Daddy. “We say a body
“You were a very dusty baby,” says Mama. “That’s why we knew we couldn’t keep you. Never seen such a dusty baby before. Papa Lem made us take you to the orphanage before you even sucked one time. You never sucked even once.” And her mascara just flooded down her face.
“Now Deeny,” says Daddy, “no need telling him everything right here.”
Dusty. That was no sense at all. It didn’t look like dust, it was flecks of light, so bright on me that sometimes I had to squint just to see my own hands through the dazzle. “It don’t look like dust,” I says.
And Daddy says, “Well what do you think it looks like?”
And I says, “Sparks. That’s why I call it being sparky.”
“Well that’s what it looks like to us, too,” says Daddy. “But we’ve been calling it ‘dusty’ all our lives, and so I figure it’s easier for one boy to change than for f—for lots of other folks.”
Well, now, I learned a lot of things right then from what he said. First off, I knew he was lying when he said it looked like sparks to them. It didn’t. It looked like what they called it. Dust. And that meant that I was seeing it a whole lot brighter than they could see it, and that was good for me to know, especially because it was plain that Daddy didn’t want me to know it and so he pretended that he saw it the same way. He wanted me to think he was just as good at seeing as I was. Which meant that he sure wasn’t. And I also learned that he didn’t want me to know how many kinfolk I had, cause he started to say a number that started with F, and then caught himself and didn’t say it. Fifty? Five hundred? The number wasn’t half so important as the fact that he didn’t want me to know it. They didn’t trust me. Well, why should they? Like the lady said, I was better at this than they were, and they didn’t know how mad I was about being abandoned, and the last thing they wanted to do was turn me loose killing folks. Especially themselves.
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