Table of Contents

Chapter Seven

Outside the streetlights come on and the ramshackle boarding house flinches, ashamed to be seen. The streets in this neighborhood are narrow as needles, threaded with cars parked in imperfect parallels to the curb, hastily abandoned by drivers and hastily driven away. The silver current-model Jaguar is parked in front of the house next to the blunt red thumb of a fire hydrant, the car alarm howling like high-velocity wind receiving a bad root canal for an implacable toothache.

“Yeah, it’s mine all right,” he determines, scratching blond hair up into broad billow.

Not until we reach the end of the walkway do I see a man leaning against the car with a baseball bat. “The culprit,” is all I can think to say. “Armed, seemingly dangerous.”

The man sees us and attempts to stand upright. He uses the bat as a balancing cane, or a third prosthetic leg. “Goddamn,” he says, looking down at his legs and slumping back against the car.

“The guy is drunk,” I observe.

“Is he? How can you tell?” the Boy of Fleece asks in earnest.

I look at the Boy of Fleece for a length of time that is strategically inadvisable, since the man with the bat could easily have taken advantage of it to approach us, raise the bat, beat me to the pavement, beat the Boy of Fleece to the pavement, light and smoke a cigarette, then return to slump against the car, using the bat as a cane, or third prosthetic leg.

“Yeah. I see what you mean. I guess he is sort of drunk. Now what?”

“Ask him what’s up. And don’t say, ‘homes’.”

“Why would I say homes? Or not say it?”

“Those are good questions, Fleece. But I’ll let you figure it out.”

The man with the bat is African-American. This is the north side of Milwaukee. On the north side of Milwaukee, everyone you’ll meet during the course of your life somehow lives on your block or will come to live there. This is a form of sorcery practiced by the real estate industry here cleverly disguised to resemble something less sinister: a simple miracle of temporal or spatial displacement. Real estate agents in Milwaukee probably go to school and are instructed, “When you’re selling the house, tell your African-American or Puerto Rican customer that everyone you’ll ever know or need to know in the fine city of Milwaukee lives on your block. Tell them that your block’s really a little sectioned off piece of eternity where all the faces you’ll ever need to see in your life are your neighbors and that you’ll come to know them as intimately as you know the air you breathe. But do not, if you’re selling property on the north side, say that none of your neighbors will be Polish or German, because then you will expose yourself as an incompetent and geographically challenged fool who should have sold your customer property on the south side of the city. It gets complicated, but downplay the complications.”

I don’t bother explaining to the Boy of Fleece that I myself would not appreciate being approached by someone with blond hair who, expansive and ostentatiously hip, attempted to demonstrate his hipness by presuming the territorial commonality the appellation “homes” implies.

Gone before I can lay a judicious restraining hand on whatever part of his body I might reach – preferably the neck – he walks right up to the man. “Excuse me, sir?”

“What?” the man answers loudly, batting himself upright again.

“Last night, I was out with some friends,” the Boy of Fleece says, “and I felt, I felt really, it was one of those situations where the circumstances were such that I should have been really in an excellent mood, you know … like this article I read a while ago saying that depression is either endogenous or exogenous, meaning caused by something like you lose your job, from outside you, or just, endogenous, in, from within for no good reason. So the excellent mood I had every reason to be in was just hammered to shit by some endogenous feeling. Music, the melodrama of life all around me, I guess, but there I was, just like incredibly in the pure dumps, man. Dude, I don’t know. You know what I mean?”

The man with the bat sways a little.

“And so I’m at the bar and I think, what’s wrong with me? Why am I not happy? And to tell the truth, right now I’m totally E’ed. See? No reason or likelihood that I should be feeling this way. Then I start figuring out that it’s my father, man. En becomes ex, dude. It just suddenly becomes ex. You look like you’re trying to figure out which is it, too.”

This is a big man, over six feet tall, wearing a too-tight red running suit and lime-green Nikes with no shoelaces. His ankles protrude with the aggressive jut of goiters. “You know what?” the man asks. “I found out my daughter died tonight. So which one is it? En or ex?”

“Oh, man. Oh man,” the Boy of Fleece intones. “If you don’t mind me saying, hopefully maybe you’ve got it fucked up. I mean, your information. Because alcohol truly mixes up the facts. I do know that much, from what is pretty much ample personal experience in the mixology sphere, on my part.”

The man abruptly lets go of the bat and slides like a descending elevator of sighs down the side of the car. He sits on the curb, forlorn, certain. “She was going to a party. She was thirteen years old and she was, was hit by a stray bullet. She was thirteen and just going down the block with her friend Janice and a car drove by.”

This man over six feet tall begins to weep brokenly. His chest heaves and opens up like a Grand Canyon of sorrow.

He is absolutely drunk and absolutely sober.

When I hear it, this masculine version of weeping that incorporates an effort to suppress emotion more grueling and torturous than the precipitating emotion itself, I want to crawl inside the Grand Canyon with him. If he’s in any way typical of the male gender, it has probably been many years since he has wept, and now he reaches down through compressed strata until the bedrock of buried tears is struck and his face becomes archeology, an excavation of deep emotion, each drop dug from his eyes a fossil, cheeks strewn with trilobites of tears.

Fleece is on his knees now. “Wait a minute. Are you sure?”

“She’s dead. It’s some corny shit for me to say that she was everything I had, but she was. And they told me they caught who did it. These boys, do you know what it was about the boys in that car? They were my own people. My own people,” he moans. “You understand?”

The Boy of Fleece crawls forward on his knees. “Please, listen. My younger sister was murdered. When she was fourteen. They caught the murderer. It was an engineer who worked at JPL in California, 47 years old. He had everything and he was white and he was on vacation, supposed to be visiting his family in Milwaukee. He was white and he was either insane, or he was scum, or he was just some form of pure evil hiding out in a white human body. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“Yeah, I know,” the man agrees. “So is it en or ex?”

“It’s ex.”

“It’s ex,” the man repeats numbly.

Gently he begins to pull the man to his feet. The man is lifted as dead weight after a gymnastic tournament of struggle but finally they’re both standing. “It’s ex,” Fleece assures him. He bends down and picks up the bat, dusts it off with one hand, then extends it to the man.

Swaying, the man asks blankly, “What am I supposed to do?”

“Hit it. Just swing it and use it and hit it.” Suddenly kicking the side of his car, hands balled into fists, Fleece begins shouting as though gargling a Listerine of hysteria. “Just swing it and use it and hit the fucking thing!”

The man raises the bat. He swings it. The passenger window collapses like a lung, and a bushel or perhaps a peck of glass like chaff from wheat plows through the air, furrows itself toward me and seems to liquefy, irrigating my hair with glitter as I launch my face away from spangle and spray. The car alarm wails in protest with renewed intensity.

The Boy of Fleece silently points to the rear window and the man staggers, a zombie in a baseball game of the dead, wide-legging to the rear of the car, which shudders and closes its eyes in anticipation of the bat’s blow, the window caving in dully with no glass spraying this time, just an incredible dense web of implosion held together in a spidery fibrous mass, the man releasing a long tribal scream that keeps rising in pitch and blends like a seam running along the soaring white baseball of the screaming alarm. When he throws the bat aside, Fleece walks over and puts his arms around the man, embraces him, and then I hear him whispering, murmuring, for a long time.

Finally Fleece remembers to deactivate the car alarm with the device dangling from his keychain. “It’s pretty much as much as it can be all right,” he calls to me. “It’s all right, Datcher. I’m going to give George here a ride home.”

Though I’ve learned to look with compassion on others, it would only occur to me after the fact to do what the Boy of Fleece had done, walk into a stranger’s coliseum of misfortune to pick up the sword and shield he had dropped under bone-breaking blows, hefting weapons forged and fashioned for other hands in my own to test and temper the blade before swinging on behalf of another, only briefly known, and fallen flat on the fearsome field. If the Boy of Fleece won’t tell me where Sage is, it’s because he doesn’t know, or he’s afraid of losing something he believes can’t be easily replaced.

I watch the car roll slowly to the corner, leaving its battlefield of bat and glass behind as they drive away together.

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