What a waste of time, thought Thomas, as he walked down the alley looking for Ms. Missy. The kitten had been lost for a couple of days and Leila wouldn’t let go. Many things, so many things to do and see, Tom would think while looking down and around the garbage cans. And yet, he was in a city alley looking for a cat. The alley smelled of rotten flowers and onions.
There were times when the smell of rotten onions wasn’t disgusting, or even something you would mention. But this was back there and then; it was a summer afternoon in his native Crystal Springs home. The sun was setting on the nearby gulf waters, but he wouldn’t see that. He was focusing on the people coming and going from his home: old ladies sitting on the porch, men in white shirts smoking and talking in whispers, glancing at him from time to time. And he would be there, sitting on the rusty iron wheel of the tractor, which had become one with the vegetation and the soil.
The afternoon smelled of onions: soup-like whiffs coming from the nearby fields, intruding upon his small shattered world. One or other of the ladies came for him, grabbed his hand as if she were afraid he would break and took him to the house. The men smelled of cigarette smoke and sweat. Inside the house, in the living room, the casket boasted a body that did not belong to anybody anymore.
“Some day,” a man that he knew from somewhere but couldn’t identify told him, “you’ll be older than her. What do you make of that?” He had never made anything of that. What was he supposed to make of that? Nobody had ever told him how to mold that strange piece of information into something useful.
The alley smelled of rotten flowers and Ms. Missy wasn’t there. Should he go back to Leila and tell her to tell her daughter that “one day she would be older than the kitten”? But she already was, or wasn’t she? He couldn’t tell how many cat years per human year needed to be counted. Was it seven? Seven made sense. It was a number that for some reason gave him nondescript satisfaction. More than you can ask for most of the time.
There was a time when he dreamt that his dreams would come true. Love was easy and perhaps it was always summertime. Crystal Springs was still a sleepy North Florida country city. Not much of a city, even: a main street where most decent shops crammed, a jail, a fire station and a gas station.
They would go to the soda fountain after the movies, which involved exactly 22 steps. Right by step nine was the main and worst danger of the journey: a gray tile where a black one should have been. If you stepped on that gray tile, you died within a week. Or so they said. “They” were his friends, Ed and Ed. They were brothers; one was called Edward Alfred Daugherty II and the other one Alfred Edward Daugherty Jr. The thing is, the Daughertys were people who honored their past and honored their ancestors. They would know were they were buried, and they set great store by all those little mementos and rituals. Mr. Alfred Edward Daugherty Sr. was himself the son of Edward Alfred who was, in turn, the son of Edward Frederic, which wasn’t much of a rarity if you consider that his father had been Mr. Frederic Alfred Daugherty, and so on. That Alfred Edward Daugherty Sr. was one of the most influential people in the city will not come as a surprise: unimaginative and conventional people tend to rule. Anyway, Tom wasn’t friends with Alfred Edward Daugherty by any accounts, but with his sons; the identical twins Ed and Ed.
Could he explain this to Leila? Would she understand? For some reason Tom felt that the number seven, the lost cat and the Ed brothers were all connected. He wouldn’t have been able to explain how, though.
The Eds had a dog, not a cat. They had this dog they had received for Christmas and Tom, Ed and Ed would spend hours speculating how Santa could have managed to bring a dog in his bag. Granted it was a puppy, but still there was plenty of mystery surrounding the it. The main problem was that the dog was not one that would withstand the hardships of the North Pole; it was just your ordinary Beagle, not a Husky or a Saint Bernard or any other cold-worthy dog. Still, as Ed explained, Santa was able to do that and much more because he had these superpowers that weren’t at all as Superman’s, which were for fighting, but his were rather for doing good. In the end they took Ed’s word on it, because he always seemed to be right, and because the argumnet about the difference between the superpowers proved inconclusive.
Ms. Missy was missing, was it something in her name that had made her go missing? Was it something in his name that made Tom look for her, even though he thought it was a waste of time? Leila had been adamant in her request. Women, Tom had found out, had this way of requesting things that left no room for the slightest shadow of a doubt: if you didn’t comply, it would be your last day on earth; at least in their world.
Did he want to stay? At least he didn’t want to walk away over a cat. He had grown older now and he had learnt some things about life. He had, finally, grown older than his mother. She had been pretty, and she laughed and she would have clean white shirts for him. But when she was lying in her coffin she wasn’t pretty anymore. She had make-up on her, and that should have made her prettier. Somebody had made a comment about that back then. But she was pretty with a less than human quality to it. Like a doll or a piece of furniture or a corpse with make-up. The face in the coffin was, Tom knew now, aesthetically beautiful, like most pieces of art, but not beautiful like his mother had been. Not anymore.
Tom started opening cans of garbage. The kitten might have fallen in, she might be there sleeping, oblivious to the crisis her disappearance had caused. But then, most of us who die or disappear do so in the same way, that’s why we disappear in the first place, or at least that’s why we want to disappear. Take some road, real or otherwise and let go of our past. Become a picture on the mantelpiece or a piece of furniture that goes through the motions: amazing automaton and yet unrecognized miracle.
His mother wouldn’t wake up; she wouldn’t sit up in the coffin and give him a goodbye hug. She was good at staying there, lying quiet and still, letting his tears wet her dress. The Eds dog was good at playing dead too. An amazing dog when he was older, he would do every trick. Ed, for all his ability to understand and explain the world, was unable to train the dog. This job fell to his brother, who was amazingly patient and incredibly tough, yet full of compassion and always ready with a treat at the right moment. By then Tom was living with his aunt, or rather, his aunt was living with him, as she had moved into the house. She would cook and do the chores around the house and generally take care of him. And yet, for all the similarities, both in terms of activities and genetics, nothing was the same. His mother’s dresses seemed to be made of some other substance when his aunt was wearing them. He remembered the fabrics would float around his mother’s hips and the light would glow on the flowered prints and yet, when his aunt wore those dresses they became lifeless, and not even pretty. The dog, which was called Fuller, would come from time to time to pick him up, preceding his owners. He would see Fuller and leave the house walking down the path where he would meet, eventually, Ed and Ed.
Tom opened one can to finally find Ms. Missy. Her eyes were missing and something of indescribable decrepitude leaked through the sockets and every other open hole in the small body. He replaced the lid with the same care a large man whose name he never knew closed the casket where his mother would hide forever. It was dark, and the walk back to the house seemed as pointless as it was fruitless. What a waste of time, thought Tom. Somehow, even the knowledge that he had been right all along could not make him feel any better.
Tom had never been good at facing death, let alone breaking the news to others. The tricky question seemed to be to gauge the degree of detail people needed or were expecting. If he went back to Leila saying that he hadn’t found the cat, she would not accept it, she would send him back to the alley; and yet, if he came back and told her that Ms. Missy seemed to have been attacked by the rats of the alley, that her nose was gone together with her eyes, that most of her internal organs most probably were gone too, she would scream in pain, and cry and blame him, just a messenger, for the hideous deeds of the alley rats.
It was he that had found Fuller, too. Back when they were repaving the highway. Tom was walking by the highway to the school that morning when he saw that most incredible sight. Fuller was lying by the road and, at first, Tom thought his head was missing. It was only when he got closer that he saw the head was not missing but embedded in the asphalt. Fuller had become part of the road and would be there forever. He broke the news to the Edwards, and they didn’t like it. Their father took it in his hands to make a full investigation on the matter and he wanted to get to the bottom of it. He blamed the State government and claimed restitution. The thing was that it seemed impossible for the workers not to have seen the dog. Most probably, Mr. Daugherty found out, they had done that purposefully, and the implications, he declared, were preposterous. The Eds learnt the intimate details of what his father, and others in the town, had imagined had happened between the workers and the dog and they learnt a dislike for black people. He had never seen the Eds again.
Tom walked back to the apartment. There is no way to tell the truth and be loved, he thought. Leila was there cooking pasta and Tisha was finishing her homework. The smell of the sauce was delicious and Tom told Leila so. Would he like to try a little of it as he walked though the kitchen? Leila didn’t ask about the cat, and Tom was glad she didn’t. Somehow she knew, and he was just happy not have to deliver the news.
We should move, he whispered as she walked towards the living room. No sense, she answered in a swift whisper like a sword drawn to kill at once all the nonsense in the world. Tom saw Leila walk to the bedroom and come back with a box a little bigger than a shoebox, ready to learn the subtle art of giving bad news. Leila carried the box as if it were an offering to the great god Tantrum walking slowly towards the grand priestess of the god of Wrath. Slowly and deliberately she bent over with her offering before Tisha and opened the chest of secrets. A bunny rabbit, shrieked Tisha. You got me a bunny rabbit!!!
© 2004-2008 Thepoliticsofdebt.com
Franklin @ September 5, 2008