Terry White was born, raised, and still lives in Northeastern Ohio. He has published hardboiled novels (as Robert or Robb White), a pair of noir novels, and 3 collections of short stories. White has been nominated for a Derringer award and his story "Inside Man” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2019.
Every Sparrow That Falls
Jonas Markham’s obsession with dying began after his colorectal surgery. Nothing bad happened. He remembered faces in surgical masks staring down at him. The surgeon’s name was Pathek and his deep-set eyes framed by the white rectangle of mask made his countenance stunning against the blinding white light above his head. Jonas was told by the anesthesiologist to count backward from one hundred; then he remembered Alice sitting across from him reading a recipe magazine. Three benign polyps were found, excised, he was told—everything went OK. She drove because the anesthetic was still working in him, making him feel sluggish. The day after, he took his usual two cups of coffee on the porch overlooking a blue slice of Lake Erie. When Alice joined him with her bowl of cereal and blueberries, he was talking to himself. “Make what go away?” Alice asked him. “Nothing,” Jonas said. “I didn’t say anything.” “You said something about ‘making it go away,’” she replied. “Maybe you were talking about me.” “Why should I say something like that?” “Why are you acting like an idiot?” “I’m sitting here trying to enjoy my coffee and you’re fucking up my peace with your gibberish!” Alice could match his heat any day and one-up it, but she wasn’t in a mood to argue. She was looking forward to spending the day with their newest grandchild. Tranquility restored itself despite that gnawing in Jonas, but he couldn’t articulate what it was. That evening during the six o’clock news, he annoyed her by ranting at the senseless antics, carelessness, or outright criminal behavior of local Clevelanders. The Black Lives Matter movement was up in arms again over yet another unarmed black man being shot. Jonas’ ire was provoked worse than usual because of the number of mixed-race couples on television—in commercials advertising stock trading, insurance, car sales, whatever. The only mixed-race couples in Northtown weren’t the happy couples on TV, either. They tended to be white-trash females pushing brown babies in strollers or yanking their biracial toddlers by the arm into and out of the Dollar General stores in the plaza. Jonas stood in line at the Sav-A-Lot looking through the plate glass as three young mothers, all white, all with babies in strollers got into a screaming match over the father of all three babies. “Hollywood Jews jam it down our throats,” he complained. Alice responded in expected fashion: “I’m sick of hearing you talk like that.” More often than not, the specter of Death wasn’t the Grim Reaper figure with its tattered medieval cloak and scythe lurking just out of sight behind the couch. It was a cavalcade of notions trooping into his consciousness, all involving death-from-above, death-from-a-thousand-cuts, or death-by-design. For days he worried a Mount Everest-sized asteroid invisible behind the sun was on a planet-destroying trajectory aimed right for Earth. Thinking of it, he spilled his coffee on the new tile floor Alice had ordered and had installed before his operation. He apologized for his clumsiness while his heart thudded in his chest. The rock that did in the dinosaurs was a good sixty-five million years ago, but the knowledge it could happen any day was depressing. “What makes you so jumpy?” Alice, annoyed, handed him a couple Handi-wipes. He bent down to clean the mess. “I was thinking of a meteorite hitting the Earth,” he said. “You’re getting senile, old man,” she replied. “Better watch out.” Stupidly, he rose to the bait. “You should watch out, Alice. You and everybody else on the planet. Apophis has a three percent chance of smashing in to the planet in Twenty-Twenty-Nine.” “Who’s an Apophis?” “If you watched something besides Bachelorette and America’s Got Singers you’d know.” “It’s America’s Got Talent, dummy.” “I mean the one where the three judges swing around in their little cars, like those Scrambler carts at the fair and slap a buzzer.” “Jesus, are you out of touch,” she mocked. “That’s American Idol.” “OK, I give up. Your shows—you know what I mean!” He was weary, defeated, unable to explain. How could he draw for her that grotesque image that appeared laser-etched into his memory while he was looked out over the canopy of ash, oak, willow, and locust for the bald eagles that had appeared magically one day and built their eyrie in the tallest locust trees by the breakwall? Jonas loved spying them from his wicker chair, thrilled when they beat the warm air high up with their massive dark wings and then plunged to the water’s surface for the fish near the breakwall. Red-winged blackbirds buzzed the eagles’ tails like tandem jet fighters harassing a lumbering bomber. Only the gulls remained aloof from the law that pitted every bird against every other bird; they flew highest, soaring and dipping, making cree-craw noises aloft over the harbor. That ugly grey, peanut-shaped asteroid hurtling at thousands of miles-per-hour aimed for—God alone knew. He read there was a 2.7 chance (not the 3 percent he’d exaggerated to Alice) that Apophis would hit that “keyhole” near the Earth’s gravitational field and get pulled into a life-ending collision. “Maybe you should go see a doctor,” Alice said quietly. The lack of sarcasm in her voice was oddly galling, worse. She complained constantly of his increasing weight gain. The boy who’d courted her as a teenager had a thirty-two inch waist. The aging man who lay next to her in bed weighed 230 pounds and couldn’t get into his pants now. “You think I’m crazy.” “I didn’t say that,” she replied, a little edge creeping into her tone. “I think you’ve been obsessing about things lately. Since you retired, I mean.” That button was getting pushed more often. Although he wouldn’t concede anything, he fired a salvo of facts and figures—Jonas was at ease with numbers—to distract her, an often-used gambit in their years of marital strife. “Shows what you know, Alice,” he said. “If Apophis had hit that opening in Earth’s orbit back in Oh-Four, it would have set up a collision for Twenty-Thirty-Six. A Level Four, Miss Smarty-Pants, the highest rating for a near-impact on the Torino Scale ever--Adiós, Earth!” He laid down a barrage of facts, confident the gist was correct. He knew the keyhole the asteroid had to make was a mere half-mile wide, and the asteroid was a mere tenth of a mile wide, not the massive rock of his claims. Still, a little exaggeration for effect didn’t hurt. She headed back to the kitchen. He didn’t know if she was impressed or indifferent. She seemed to be on her own trajectory since she had retired last year. A frenzy of activities compared to his indolence and hammock-time. She took yoga Pilates, did tai chi twice a week, and went to the senior center for crafts. Only the fact they both harmonized in joint pain on their nightly trip up the stairs to bed did they seem locked in a familiar orbit. That night, Jonas bolted upright in bed. He was aware his lips were moving, but he had no recollection of his dream or to whom he had been speaking, if to anyone. Alice stirred beside him, groaned. “Go back to sleep.” Try as hard as he could, he couldn’t recover the dream, not even the shreds he could recall from past dreams where a kaleidoscope of colors dissolved as soon as his consciousness took over. The red LED lights of the alarm on the night table on Alice’s side proclaimed 4:20, an hour before dawn’s first light. He had stumbled into bed while the credits to Body Heat were still rolling against a powder-blue tropical sky. Jonas suspected it was a matte painting of Hawaii’s jagged-edged Big Island. He watched that film whenever the summer heat matched the film’s. He got out of bed and gathered his tee-shirt and grey cotton shorts in the dark. He knew where his clothes were left out of some habit engraved into his paleocortex. Jonas worried he was becoming robotic, like the father on one of his crime shows who was bludgeoned by his son in his sleep and woke brain-damaged yet able to perform his usual morning chores; he made coffee and fetched the newspaper on the porch before collapsing. Neighbors found him like that, the tops of his pajamas soaked and a bloody halo surrounding his head. Jonas wondered at what point exactly that man’s soul left his body while the machine was still functioning in its task. Alice found him in his chair on the porch at seven. She grumbled something about his getting up too early and headed for the bathroom for her shower. Jonas didn’t reply. He wondered if all marriages ripened like rotted fruit on the vine. Alice had one old sepia photo of her Italian grandparents; their bleak, razor-slitted smiles and stiff clothing made him wince. His stomach was upset, an everyday thing since the surgery. Coffee not only failed to work its resuscitative magic, but it sloshed from one end of his stomach to the other, making risible or embarrassing noises when company stopped by. His father had died of a bleeding duodenal ulcer when Jonas was 25 and the image that always occurred first was the rusty trail of blood stains on the carpeting as his father was carried downstairs by the ambulance men, bleeding from the rectum. By associational logic, his mind swung to those wretches in Africa dying of Ebola while bleeding from every orifice. They ate bats dipped in hot grease, he thought. What did you expect? Only his view from the porch soothed, dampened his growing irritation at a world he didn’t understand anymore. When he and Alice had moved into the old house shortly before his retirement—its white columns out front mashing Colonial into Victorian—he knew from the moment he stepped into the foyer and beheld the high ceilings, the walnut-stained woodwork in the dining room, and spied that Norwegian maple through the window did he know he was finally at home. The ancient maple had seen Iroquois hunting near the lake (its sinewy, wind-twisted limbs reminded him of a Greek discus thrower sculpture at the moment of greatest torque). After so many lesser jobs, moves out-of-state—and, yes, years of alcoholism, always the shadow on his life’s X-ray—he had returned to Northtown after the wars, eager for calm. Now this ugly obsession with dying like the thirteenth guest at the dinner party. Their first Christmas in the place was a blessing: a herd of deer came up from the wetlands near the breakwall and lingered in his backyard for a half-hour. Jonas never took his eyes off them. Two does settled on their haunches in a pose of complete ease while the bucks stood guard and held their position like sentries on post. Fat flakes dropped from a pewter sky. Jonas experienced a joy he yearned for again but never found. Death clung to him like a smell. He went outside to weed his garden in the intense heat, happy despite the awful humidity. His Amish straw hat irritated him over his brow. When he came inside to shower, he discovered a welt where he’d rubbed it. The following day it had opened and bled, two days later, it was a weeping, crimson zigzag over his left eyebrow. By evening, he had a black eye beneath it and the wound was suppurating. He went to the local emergency room for an antibiotic and waited in the lobby along with a dozen white trash, all bickering and smelling faintly of chicken soup or onions. Death here, especially, he thought. Hospitals were factories working for Death. The intern on duty applied Bactrim unguent and gave him a shot, which cured it, although the leprous-white scar above his eye faced him in the mirror and would go with him into his casket unless the mortician decided to cover it with make-up. That experience led to phantasms and more fears in his daydreams and at night: human beings devoured by flesh-eating bacteria, brain-eating amoebas—all sorts of vicious viruses waiting to devour him in hideous ways. His eyes and ears picked out stories on the news and television of children infected while playing in drainage ditches after a thunderstorm, a girl who fell from a zip line and cut herself—losing a hand and both legs in mere weeks—people using unsanitized navage devices from the pharmacy to irrigate their sinuses—death via bacteria straight into the meat of the brain like a myriad of tiny Trojan horses. He told Alice about a middle-aged man forced off a plane after vacationing on some beach resort where he’d contracted a necrotic tissue disease that consumed him from the inside out. “The passengers were vomiting in the aisles from the smell he gave off,” Jonas reported. “The plane was forced to land and they kicked him off.” “That’s terrible,” Alice said. “I’m going to tai chi at the library tonight.” “The doorway to hell,” he muttered. “Stop mumbling, old man,” Alice said. “If it rains, shut the window in my sewing room.” They kissed goodbye. It was a fervent habit of hers now. She knows, Jonas thought with sadness; she sees meheading toward that cliff alone. But the image that came most often to mind wasn’t a cliff where the ranks of the soon-to-be dead stepped off into oblivion but rows of people marching, footsore and terrified, while security police in black overcoats hefting submachine guns prodded them in a foreign tongue toward a pit where they would be executed. He’d read of the atrocities in the Baltic States during the Second World War. A Latvian Einsatzgruppen commander named Jeckeln popularized his own efficient method for disposing of masses of victims in short order: they were stripped nude and ordered to run through a double cordon of armed guards to the killing pits. To save themselves the trouble of burying the dead, they forced the living victims to lay on top of the dead bodies in the pits. Each one murdered with a single shot to the back of the neck to save ammunition; anyone not dead was buried alive. They called it “sardine packing.” He imagined the pits heaving with the movement of the undead trying to work their way to the top. “We’re just rats in a maze of sewers,” he said to Alice. The week after his operation, their male cat died. The day before he died, Jonas held him in his arms while the cat mustered a weak purr, unable or un willing to eat the food they had set out for him. The cat’s death on the bathroom tile in a corner by the tub scalded Jonas and brought forth hot tears he tried to hide from Alice. Anger scorched a path up his esophagus—why Death? Why all this dying? What is the point? Jonas had held a deep anger toward God ever since his father’s sudden death while he was out of state in graduate school. This wobbly speck of planet in a black, cold universe was more like Satan’s creation than God’s. He turned on the television hoping for some mindless distraction and found it. A variety channel was interviewing one of the Kardashian women. He didn’t know one from the other but he knew they all had black boyfriends or husbands. This one looked younger, although that perfect oval face expressed the same features in the dark eyes from an Armenian heritage. The male interviewer’s hair was lacquered up in the latest Hollywood style no working-class man would ever adopts; it fell like a combing wave at the center of his forehead and reminded Jonas of a cartoon character from the Depression era. “Things come round again, buddy-boy,” he said to the interviewer, who was gushing over the newest article from this Kardashian’s clothing line—or was it her perfume line? It didn’t matter. The language of hyperbole would have worked for either product. The black boyfriend with his mahogany complexion and glistening dreadlocks suddenly walked on stage to the oohs and ahs of the tame audience. He looked cocky, barely acknowledging the applause or the emcee’s embarrassing homage—a prince receiving his due. The glib banter passing back and forth among the three on the screen was hard to follow because they used slang, left out words, and made casual references and assumptions that didn’t require explaining—if you were a fan or a simple-minded teenager. The black man spoke well without the phony blaccent of his peers and those rap celebrities (all of whom, Jonas suspected, went to privileged schools) He despised Samuel L. Jackson, who if he popped up on the TV in a film or commercial, would set Jonas’ teeth on edge and propel him to grab the remote to hit the mute button. He wondered if the Kardashian knew her family in the old country was lucky not to have been slaughtered like sheep by the Turks. With nine hundred million in the bank, he thought, what does she care? He didn’t understand how the pendulum could swing so far one way and then back. He found it incomprehensible other people—the blacks, browns, and yellows of the world—could hate him for being born white. He heard Alice’s SUV pull into the driveway. Athena perked up her ears and ran to the window ledge. He had taken her in when she was a kitten, although he didn’t know until later on she was already a mother and nearly full grown. So hungry then, he remembered. He had been feeding a big stray tom every morning with leftovers. She had appeared out of nowhere—starved, assertive, bold, black, so filthy from her wanderings over the hill chasing chipmunks and mice that she pushed the big tom aside so to get at the food he placed on top of a foundation stone between his property and the neighbors’. One day Athena showed up with a handwritten note tucked inside the collar he’d decided to put on her stating they “could keep her, her name was Athena.” “There’s a dead bird in the yard, a big one,” Alice said walking in the door. “So what?” Jonas replied. “Birds die all the time. Nobody gives a shit.” “It looks like a hawk.” It was a beautiful, mature Cooper’s Hawk. It lay with wings outspread as if in flight but in the yard beside the cement steps; its head was half-obscured by the morning glories Jonas planted to twine around the metal rails of the porch. It didn’t look dead. The butter-yellow legs, speckled chest, and outstretched wings made it look as though the bird had fallen asleep. The bird was tagged. He lifted it gently from the grass, half-afraid it was asleep and would thrust that curved beak into his hand once it awoke. But the limp head slipped down, and bounced against his wrist on the walk to the garage; he set the bird on his work table. The thought of having to cut off the bird’s limb to free the metal clip nauseated him. He went inside for Alice’s magnifying glass on her night table. He called the phone number on the band and repeated the sequence of numbers stamped into the metal. A woman’s voice, definitely a black woman, asked him how he had found the bird, so he gave her a brief narrative. When she asked him how the bird died, he said he thought it might have struck the house while diving for prey. Pigeons landed in the maple tree together, descended together, drew themselves into their rigid hierarchies, and flew off when spooked together. Any noise at all would do: the back door shutting, the garage door opening, a motorcycle’s backfire, a child crying across the street. Silence and speed were the tools of death, for once a month at least, he’d come across a tiny circle of feathers in the lawn, evidence of a hawk strike. He’d seen it happen—a buffeting in air, the hawk’s ruthless explosion of talons, the victim inert after a short struggle beneath the big bird. Then the hawk would lift the pigeon a few feet off the ground and fly serenely over the canopy to feast. The burnished secretary in the house Jonas was raised held scores of Reader’s Digests but only two books: The Caine Mutiny, a book his mother said belonged to his father even though Jonas had never seen his dad read anything but the daily newspaper. The other was a white, leather-bound Douay-Rheims bible Jonas used to take down and read whenever he was bored. The nuns at school were never good with bible verses. They believed in metaphors of hell—time languishing in the pit of hell longer than grains of sand on all the beaches in the world if every grain of sand was a thousand years, a clock that ticked You’ll never getout, you’ll never get out. Dinned into the tiny heads of children to make them behave. Horribili visu—one of the senile nuns used to proclaim before they put her out to pasture. Jonas loved numbers more than words, and feared a God who had the time to count the hairs of every human head but was unable or unwilling to intervene in the slaughter of his creatures. Large mammal or insect, monkey or lizard, it didn’t matter. The nuns were so sure. . . . and not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father, they said. Jonas often thought they winked at one another over dinner in the convent. You should have seen their faces when I told them that, he could imagine one of them saying to the others. A Möbius loop inside a circle turning infinitely like an old hard drive with no terminating instructions in the never-ending circle of life and death. That, for him, was the inconsolable mystery of life. Yet it must end, Jonas thought. The universe was doomed to darkness, programmed from the instant of the Big Bang. Every star in the universe destined to implode, blast the smoldering contents of its inner furnace into blackest space until every molecule decays. The sun, a middling star, will nova, become a red giant and consume all the planets except the outer gas giants. Unless human beings can invent a device to tow Earth to a safety zone, it’ll be eaten by the sun, Jonas knew. Seventh-grade astronomy: Everything is falling into the sun, he thought: me, that maple tree, Lake Erie, the coyotes in their burrows near his neighbor John’s bee houses over the hill. A family of deer lay on the hillside soaking up the sun’s rays at sunset. The buck swiveled his massive head to look at him-- Alice astounded him by never giving a moment’s thought to any of what worried him profoundly. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know it was coming. Somehow the notion of dying on her back with a tube down her throat didn’t phase her. She never wondered: Is this all there is? She lived without the fear that oozed from his pores, and he didn’t know what to make of that. It was as if she held a deep secret from him. It was like discovering the familiar plain wooden hutch in his bathroom disguised a secret panel behind the towels. Two weeks later, in the afternoon mail, besides the utility bills, he found a certificate of appreciation from the Canadian Wildlife Service with his name on it. It said the Cooper Hawk was hatched in 2014 from a reserve on Pelee Island on the Canada/U.S. border near Sandusky. The bander’s name and address was also included. It seemed odd. Part death certificate, part Good Samaritan award. Jonas decided to frame it and removed a family photo of his parents taken at a club in the harbor where they drank. It was a reprint, possibly from an older sister keen on genealogy. His parents and another couple were smiling for the photo. Cocktails scattered around the table. It had a noirish look to it, very Tom Brenneman’s restaurant in Los Angeles, circa 1950’s. His father in a serge suit with tie and his mother—not the beauty of her family of women, certainly—looking modestly attractive, coy, like a film ingenue. He didn’t know the other couple. All of them long dead. Jonas kept a table of actuarial statistics in his head for death. His M.B.A. in economics diploma was missing. His mother, he remembered, flaunted it on the kitchen table for his aunts and uncles who used to drop by for coffee in the morning and Stroh’s beer in the afternoons. But even that was a faded recollection, too many years ago, long after his father’s death, and he had no idea where it was today. One week after his surgery, he told Alice he was going to McDonald’s for a fish sandwich. She told him to skip the fries because his cholesterol numbers had come back high again. He sat at the light at the corner of Lake and Ninth—the third traffic light within a hundred yards—mentally figuring out how many weeks he had spent sitting at traffic lights. A battered silver Datsun pulled beside him with the radio blasting rap music. The woofers in the stereo system were so shot that the bass rattled the chassis of the car out of sync with the rapper’s booming monologue, a braggadocio of women, expensive cars, and sex, all of it a grotesque mashup of slang-ridden violence and double entendre. The driver was a white male, very young, probably a teenager, whose countenance held a look Jonas had seen often on the faces of youth in his town: brash, indolent, indifferent. One tanned, muscular arm hung outside, a cigarette between his fingers. Jonas grit his teeth at the verbal assault of profanity-laced talk-singing—whatever it was—that thudded all around the intersection, ricocheting off the hoods and roofs of cars on a day already uncomfortable with humidity and heat. The filth poured into Jonas’ ears by this so-called artist and of course into anyone else’s at the light was an affront to civility and middle-class decency. Inside his reverberating bubble, Jonas was forced to endure it. It mattered not whether his or the other drivers’ windows were up for the a/c or down. You had to listen. You had no choice. By God, Jonas thought, I do have a choice. Turn that mindless shit down, you imbecile! The teenager swiveled his head in Jonas’ direction. Jonas beheld the shaved head—a popular menacing look sported by trendy youth, noted the silver earrings, the baleful stare. The boy stared at him, his private rapture with the music broken by the irate senior citizen beside him. Just as the light changed, the boy flicked his cigarette against Jonas’ car and shouted: “Fuck you, old man!” Jonas, wild with rage, stepped out of his car just as the herd of traffic began to move forward. He even took a few steps toward the Datsun, now speeding off, before he realized what he was doing. He scrambled back into his Jeep, looked at the Datsun disappear down Lake Avenue, and watched the driver stick an arm out the window and jab his middle finger up and down until he was out of sight. The nape of his neck tingled as he felt the probing eyes of a half-dozen drivers probe him as they passed on the left, some no doubt wondering what had just occurred but unsure if the din of rap music had been the cause or the result. The woman in the car behind him tapped her horn three times for him to get going. He forgot about the fish sandwich and kept driving down Lake Avenue, intending to turn but seemingly unable to do anything but follow in the direction of that oafish teenager who had offended him first with the loud music and then with the personal attack. Black rage took over Jonas’ mind, preventing him from making the turn left, homeward. West 11th, 12th, 13th whizzed past his passenger window, but he would not make the turn. He knew what he would do if he found that driver again. His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. “I want to smash that motherfucking punk’s skull into his shoulder blades,” he said between gritted teeth. He caught his own reflection in the rearview mirror, and almost didn’t recognize himself. The fox face and black hair, five-o’clock shadow were long gone, but it was as if the white-haired, pudgy faced middle-aged man staring back at him was a stranger. “Kill that sonofabitch,” he said to the mirror’s image. “Kill him.” He was too agitated to go home. He swung into the right lane and took West Avenue at the light. West was where many of the town’s blacks and Hispanics lived. Those old houses were once owned by Italian families. Some were deserted, abandoned. Some had been boarded up by police in drug raids. A large stone Baptist church with a message board that offered jovial or punning statements about God dominated the block where Alice’s family had once lived. One of their first dates was to attend the annual feast of the Madonna, eat pasta e faglioli in the church basement and watch the fireworks on the Sunday night in summer when the three-day feast ended. Alice asked him to take West to the Giant Eagle instead of his normal route last weekend when they did their grocery shopping. She wanted to see her old neighborhood. He’d counted as many as thirty-nine young black men hanging out on the street, some with their pants down so low their skivvies were exposed. “Time’s change,” she said so softly he barely heard her. “Yeah, for the worse,” he’d replied. He’d worked as a mold-puller in the fiberglass plant around the corner from the church when they were first married. By noon, he was so exhausted he’d snooze in his hot car eating the tasteless bologna and cheese sandwiches Alice packed in the morning. He recalled the rubbery taste even now. The faded, gray cement-block plant was covered with graffiti, gang signs, and creeper vines now. Sumac sprouted inside from broken windows. “Check that out, Alice.” A mother and her children were pushing a baby in a stroller. “What?” “There’s a man with them, maybe her husband—and he’s white,” Jonas said, nodding toward the tall, bearded male tagging along behind them. “So what?” “Two of the kids are black. Look. The boy and the girl.” He knew without using his peripheral vision she was curling her lip, formulating a sarcastic response to his simple observation. “You can’t let it go, can you?” “Hey, all I’m saying is she’s white, the mother. Hubbie’s white and he doesn’t look like the usual tattooed freak white trash you see in this part of town.” “You’re assuming he’s her husband,” she said. “He obviously wasn’t the sperm donor for half the family,” Jonas replied. “Maybe he was in the service and comes home, you know, sees he’s got a pair of halfies to take care of.” “You make me sick sometimes, Jonas. You really do.” Jonas took in the woman’s features as they passed. She was petite, a bottle blonde, shapely in tight jeans, tanned. An ankle tattoo revealed the triquetra, a triple moon. “These skanks, they spread their legs for every black who comes around, get knocked up, shit them out, go on welfare and taxpayers like me—” “Shut up, please.” Alice, like most of the women in his family, wasn’t the proper sounding board for his vexation at what he deemed the mulattoeing of America. But there it was. In plain sight, too. No shame anymore. Why others couldn’t see the obvious amazed him sometimes. He and Alice didn’t have to worry, after all. Their grandchildren would be doing the backstroke in this cesspool of miscegenation, the unabated tsunamis of immigrants pouring across the border from Central America. America was a basket case, he argued, pointlessly, to her. “You know, English won’t even be spoken in most states in the Southwest in a couple decades,” he fumed. Just like that skank and her big dupe of a husband. Breeding machines. Somewhere a statistic rolled out unbidden: the human race had once been down to a lowly 5,000 breeding females at some point not long after our human ancestors clambered down from the trees and began walking upright. “ . . . bonobos,” he mumbled. “What?” “Those other monkeys who stayed in the trees,” he replied to her. “The chimpanzees came down instead. That’s why the human race is in the shape it’s in. Aggressive, vicious, cannibalistic, war-mongering simians instead of those long-haired, black bonobos who wanted to lie around all day and have sex.” “Sometimes I think galloping senility has got you by the brain,” Alice said. He could tell from her tone she had tuned him out, bored with his conversation. Today, there were only a couple dozen males loitering around on West Avenue. Someone had a barbecue going on his lawn with a sign selling ribs and chicken. He wished Alice were with him. She could calm him when he was like this. Even grocery stores were not safe places for him. Jonas had worked in a family grocery store all through high school. It was a bittersweet memory. He’d made money but lost out on the social activities of his peers. Fridays in summer were the worst: 12-hour days with a lunch break standing at the cash register. One time, his degenerate manager, a fat slob, had fondled his genitals while he was on break in the kitchen, and he’d casually picked up the butcher knife from the counter and held it up, silently, still eating his sandwich. That manager fired him because he took off time to stay after school to work on the yearbook; then, his classmate, the editor, fired him for going to work when he was supposed to be at the meetings. By the time he reached the Giant Eagle parking lot, he’d calmed down even though the teenager’s obscene gesture and his failure to confront him in the street still rankled. When he left the store, the robin’s-egg blue sky had turned dark; the thick cumulous clouds were swollen with gray bellies. A storm was moving in from the southwest. He was putting the last one-use bag in the back of the Jeep when it ripped open and two cans of sweet corn fell through the bottom followed by the carton of eggs. The young girl at the register had packed that one while he was busy paying with his credit card. The word fuck was out of his mouth as soon as he saw the damage on the asphalt. In a rage, he kicked the carton of eggs under the Jeep and slammed the tailgate shut. “Imbecile, idiot, dumb little cunt—” At that moment, a silver Datsun driven by the teenager with his buzzcut drove past. Jonas stared, mouth agape. What are you gonna do about it, chickenshit? The words flashed across his neocortex like a computerized message on the LED sign over the nearby gas station. “I’ll fucking show you what I’m going to do,” Jonas replied to no one, his eyes never leaving the license plate of the Datsun. In a second, he was grinding gears and in pursuit. His heart thumped in his chest, a jackrabbit’s leg. He kept pace, a difficult thing to do with the teenager’s erratic driving—lane-changing without signals, speeding through caution lights, and weaving too close to the curb. On his cell phone now, Jonas guessed. Down West, flooring it across the overpass above the railroad yard, his overtaxed Datsun engine fighting the steep angle of climb while the kid tromped the gas pedal. Jonas barked a laugh. Above the din of the rattling muffler, he could clearly hear the ear-bleed decibel level of the rap song playing from the boy’s stereo. “Scumbag motherfucker, here I come,” Jonas said. He thought of that hawk that patrolled his backyard ever alert for the gathering of pigeons below. The Datsun turned left at the intersection of Lake and Carpenter Road. Jonas slipped behind him, three cars back. He’d make the turn with the rest at the light change. His mind tugged restlessly at him: What are you going to do, old fool? Nothing—yet, Jonas said to it. Be quiet, watch and wait. You’ll know when I know. In truth, he didn’t know, not yet. He was magnetized by the Datsun. He’d follow it if the boy did a sudden U-turn and bolted for Cleveland. One way or the other, he was going to confront him up close, make him pay. He remembered the loose tire iron in the back of the Jeep under the umbrella. One of his tires had dry rot and he changed it and remembered too late he still had a lever lying behind the bad tire. He was too exhausted by then to put it back in its sleeve with the jack and the two rods that comprised the set, so he tossed it into the trunk and forgot about it. Old Sister Regis, whose wrinkled face looked as if the tiny fissures were filled with talcum, told his class the Devil never sleeps: He whispers in your ear when you are at your weakest. . . The Datsun made the turn into the parking lot of Sandalwood estates, Northtown’s most notorious housing project, just as the rain began falling. Cops routinely made 500 calls here a year, according to the Herald-Tribune.Welfare moms, hordes of black and biracial children, ex-cons, black gangsters, mental defectives, and criminals on the lam from Cleveland and Erie, PA were its regular denizens. “It figures,” Jonas said. He turned in without hesitation, eyes focused on the Datsun’s brake lights. He passed a small group of young boys beside a dumpster oblivious of the falling rain. One boy between ten and twelve wearing a LeBron James jersey that hung over his skinny torso like a shroud called out something to him as he drove past but the rain pattering against his windshield beat away the sound. At the far end, the Datsun swung into a lined parking slot; the driver jumped out, slammed the door behind him as the thumping caterwaul of the CD player’s song died in mid-bellow. Jonas pulled in beside him. Grabbing the bar from the trunk was a moment’s work. His back was soaked. With an act of will, he shut down the voice in his head building to a tremolo scream. Tunnel vision began to take over as he headed for the glass rectangle where the insolent kid had disappeared a moment before. He tucked the tire iron into his pants, careful not to let the beveled end slide down toward his genitalia. The hallway was dark in patches because of the missing fluorescent lights overhead. The gray-brown carpeting had a staggered fleurs-de-lis design and exuded a sour smell. He walked down the corridor, hoping no security guard was on duty in the lobby. The stifled voice in his head burst free like a trapped bird: What are you doing, you fool-- A figure loomed out of the darkness ahead. The punk in profile. Jonas picked up his pace, a trot became a lope, but just as he approached the driver—him, no doubt about it now—he heard the pneumatic hiss of elevator doors closing. God damn it to hell, Jonas cursed. The car moved up the floors inside the shaft. An old-fashioned elevator with a cable and pulley wheel, not a modern hydraulic. He looked around--Good, no one. He listened intently with the side of his face pressed against the greasy metal doors as the car and the counterweight rode the guide rails upward. Jonas timed the syncopation of floors being passed in the hollowed shaft and waited for the tell-tale sound of the braking system engaging. Doors opening up above. He had one chance at this. Second, third, fourth—Got it, got you, boy . . . Jonas resisted the urge to thumb the button repeatedly like nervous people in films. He waited for the car to descend in its agonizing slow return to the first floor. He stood a few feet back from the doors when he felt a presence behind him. A man had come from the same darkened hallway and stood over his left shoulder. “Takes all motherfuckin’ day,” he said sotto voce, more to himself than to Jonas. Jonas was in a full sweat, a yard-mowing kind of sweat that caused salty perspiration to drip into his eyes and burn. He recovered enough composure to mumble an agreement. The man was tall, bearded but he couldn’t see his face. Two strangers waiting at an elevator, one white, one black. The doors clacked open. Three young women, two black, one white, giggled, and stepped off. None gave Jonas more than a quick cut of the eyes. Their perfume was citrusy, and his nose tickled. “Well, lookee, lookee here! Lookit you’all! Sharisse, hey baby. What’s happenin’?” The black man gushed at them and they ceased giggling over their elevator conversation to greet him back. Jonas thought his name sounded like “Tarvarius” or “Torris-something,” unfamiliar to Jonas, non-Caucasian as were most black names. A rapid-fire conversation him and the three women ensued. The two black girls talked over each other as Tarvarius unleashed a formulaic patter of compliments, which produced more giggles. Their names, like his, seemed onomatopoetically foreign—Shakina, Tanika, Sharisse. Enquiries were made about acquaintances or his with street names like “Oz” and “Bones.” “You seen Oz around, Tee?” the white girl asked; she had purple streaks in her hair, rings on most of her fingers but hollows under her eyes and some scratches across her cheeks. “Oz, he out ridin’ with ‘Crime Wave’ now, Cass,” Tarvarius told the white girl. “They on a mission. He be back in time for the party, don’t you worry.” Jonas breathed deeply, stepped inside the elevator and moved diffidently to the back. Any attempt to push a floor button would be an act of aggression, but he didn’t know how long the insipid, maddening gibberish of these young people would last; every second mattered. His guts churned as if he’d swallowed a chunk of ice. Thunder boomed outside. Without another word spoken, the girls stepped around Tarvarius like a bow wave splitting and he entered the elevator. “What floor, man?” the black man said, glancing at Jonas over his shoulder. “Four.” The doors clacked shut and the platform jolted once, then settled into its steady rhythmic rise. The man got off at three and didn’t look back. Jonas released a huge exhalation of air he’d unconsciously trapped in his lungs. Stepping off the elevator, he took in the odds of finding the driver. His brain computed the L-shaped hallway and number of floors instantly. He had no more than a 32-to-1 chance of locating the right apartment. He couldn’t knock on doors and he couldn’t prowl long before he’d be noticed. He decided to make one pass down the hallway, keeping close to the doors in case he heard that voice again. He kept one hand on the handle of the tire iron. Voices. The last apartment on the left. He couldn’t tell ages but none of the others had sounds coming from them. One chance, he thought. Maybe the gods would favor himfor once. He knocked twice, hard. His gag reflex kicked in, stoked by the adrenalin flooding his system. The door opened on its own, as if by some invisible mechanical hand. Scented air warmed by cooking hit him in both nostrils. He heard a scratchy voice beckoning him to enter. In the corner of a tidy apartment cluttered with bric-a-brac everywhere, he saw a wheelchair-bound woman with a shawl over her shoulders. She was old, very dark-skinned, almost coal-black like the people in the Congo he’d seen on the cover of a National Geographic. God Almighty, Jonas thought, Strega Nona herself. Except that this old grannie wore dark glasses in her dark apartment. Then it clicked: she’s blind. “Who’s there?” the old woman called out in a chirpy voice. “It’s me,” Jonas said stupidly. “I mean, I’m lost. I was looking. I thought—” “I thought you was the Meals-on-Wheels woman,” she chirped again, more bird-like than ever. “Come in, come in, sir. You’re welcome here.” “Oh no,” Jonas replied, face reddening at the terrible error, and overwhelmed by a sudden clarity of vision, a horror and a repugnance that brought up his gag reflex again. “Please come in,” the old woman repeated. “You are early but you are welcome here.” As clear as his vision had been a moment ago, it clouded over, like a ragged black curtain about to fall over his eyes, and he stumbled against the door jamb, his legs wobbly, disobedient. He reached behind him, swiping for the door knob. “Do you believe in the living Christ, sir?” the old woman said. “There’s nothing to believe in,” Jonas said, nauseated. On the verge of escape, he thought he might salvage one crumb from the disaster. “God forgot about me a long time ago.” “Nossir, you’re wrong,” she said and nodded her head so vigorously that Jonas was afraid she’d strain herself. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Heavenly Father knowing.” “Ma’am, do you know a young man who lives on this floor? He’s about nineteen, has a shaved head and earrings.” “She cackled that laugh again. “My godson,” she said. “What’s that boy done now?” Before he could formulate a false answer, she asked him why he didn’t believe. “I used to,” Jonas said. The need to confess, unburden himself, was overpowering. “When I was a boy.” “Why did you stop?” “I fell—away,” he said timidly. A granddaughter with light skin and missing teeth exposing her incisors entered from the darkened hallway. “Grammie, will you tell me a story? “Not now, sugar pie,” the old lady replied without turning her head. “My granddaughter Tanisha. She five and smart as a whip. See, I got company, baby. Grammie tell you a story later.” “OK, Grammie.” “Go bring that man some cookies.” The child skipped off down the hallway. If she’d told the child to bring him a pig’s head on a flaming stick, he couldn’t have been more revolted. “No, ma’am, thank you, but I really have to go,” Jonas said. Jonas turned the knob but the door wouldn’t open. She must have it mechanically rigged to the chair somehow, he thought. Spooky old goat . . . “Days of tribulation,” she crooned, her voice deeper, assured. “Yessssir”—hissing it at him like a basket of snakes-- the Rapture, it’s comin’ sure as I’m sittin’ here lookin’ at you.” Jonas slowly turned, a prisoner of this ancient crone with a face creased by a thousand wrinkles and fissures that dispersed light and shadow like a full moon through a telescope. Her motorized wheelchair purred. “What?” “Seven years of tribulation, uh-huh, yessir. People risin’ from their graves, some leavin’ here to meet the Lord in the air.” “Tribulation, seven years,” Jonas repeated dully, his tongue thick. “Fear the Lord,” she said. “You know the Preacher’s words?” Jonas thought she was speaking of some black celebrity reverend like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. “No, Ma’am, I don’t.” Revelations, she means. The four horses of the Apocalypse—God, it figures. Before Jonas could reply, a half-dozen people of all ages entered the apartment, and he had to step back to avoid the rush. The young white girl from downstairs holding a baby in her arms acknowledged him with a glance. The baby was chubby-cheeked, with ash-blonde curls and blue eyes. Her mocha-dusted facial features carried unmistakable Negroid features. More people entered: black, white, Hispanic—young and old. Some looked at Jonas but none stopped to ask him his business in the apartment. “We havin’ a christening today, Mister, for Cassie’s little girl,” the old lady chortled. She was soon surrounded by the people who entered. Jonas watched them nervously feeling as if he were having an out-of-body experience. A knitted cross-stitch sampler was framed on another wall in blue and gold thread: My yoke is easy & My burden is light. A theater-poster-sized print of the angel Michael with a flaming sword descending from the skies with a wrathful look on his face seized Jonas by the throat. If she had sprung from that wheelchair swinging a sword at his head, he would not have been surprised. By ones and twos and small groups they kept coming—all in high spirits, many bearing gifts. The old lady’s chair became a cynosure where homage was proffered. She gave her blessing to all and accepted the homage of her status. The apartment was thronged with people. Most of the women brought food on plates and in covered dishes. The aromas filled the stuffy apartment with exotic, heady scents. Jonas was mesmerized by the scene and couldn’t leave, although he had no story to tell anyone who asked who he was and why he was here. No one did. Time dissolved like sugar in water. Jonas’ mind withdrew into a blank. He felt himself become invisible, a watcher. He gazed at the room’s religious artifacts. The bronzed crucifix on one wall near the tiny kitchen. Even as a boy, crucifixes made Jonas nervous. How could the God of the entire universe allow Himself to feel pain? From the very creatures He Himself had made? His reverie left him feeling drugged, but he decided to leave while he was still unharmed in the midst of this bizarre situation. He fumbled for the door knob, which refused to open. His grip on the tire iron slipped and it fell with a clang to the floor. Mindlessly, he reached down for it, and the door swung open suddenly and several more people came in at once, among them the teenager he had come to brain. The boy reached down to pick up the tire iron. He looked at Jonas, no recognition in his eyes, just the casual insouciance of youth and indifference to anyone in Jonas’ age bracket. He handed Jonas the metal rod, handle edge first, without a word and walked into the apartment. Several people greeted him by name. The kid doesn’t know me, doesn’t remember a thing. I came up here to smash his head in and he doesn’t even remember who I am. He watched the boy lean over the wheelchair and kiss the old lady on a withered cheek. She pulled his head to her and spoke into his ear. Jonas stared as the boy came toward him, weaving through the knots of chatting, laughing people. “Grammie told me to take you around, like, introduce you. What’s your name, man?” “M-Matthew.” “Whatever.” Jonas meekly followed her godson as he took him around to be introduced to the invited guests for the baby’s christening. Some men looked askance, unsure, but others nodded or acknowledged him. The boy sped up the pace of his intros, eager to get the task accomplished. Jonas cowered like a homunculus behind his chosen name: he was, he said, a retired C.P.A, he grew up close to Sandalwood, yes, he still lived in town, no, he didn’t know the baby’s mother—banalities that rendered him harmless. No one challenged his presence at the party. Jonas wondered if she had divined his true purpose, knew somehow he had come to harm her godson. St. Michael’s fierce image and fiery sword were her totem to ward off evil, him. He grew dizzy and felt emptiness opening up beneath his feet like an elevator shaft straight into the bowels of the earth, plunging him into his own pocket of hell. Jonas didn’t remember leaving, or the walk to the elevator, descending, but he was outside stumbling toward his car. The same group of boys near the dumpster buzzed with shrieks and stamped their feet in puddles. It seemed he had been gone for days, not hours. His car was unlocked, still hot to the touch despite the rain pelting down. The rank smell of rotting garbage drifted over, but he recalled the sweet scents of the apartment upstairs where people were still celebrating a baby’s naming in the mysteries of Christ and her initiation into the journey of faith that lay ahead. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these . . . The verse from Mark climbed out of the depths from some long-ago catechism lesson at Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. Jonas shielded his eyes from the sun that bore through the gray clouds. He wouldn’t have been shocked to see the bulging disk of new sun in its place. The apartment windows, now opaque from the golden light bursting through the remains of the thunderstorm, pierced him with sadness. He thought of the old woman inside one of those cramped spaces, a shriveled black angel. He drove home, back to Alice and his view, his pigeons, while shafts of light strobed the clouds. Coming to the same intersection where he had encountered the silver Datsun that morning, he saw the sky above the lake speckled with gulls—or were they souls? Jonas thought of the floating forms of people in the Rapture and envied them those seven years of tribulation they would not have to endure. THE END