Far Enough from Heaven

The Iowa Review - - THE IOWA REVIEW - Regi­nald Mcknight

Ihad her hold the yel­low crys­tal in her left hand. It wasn’t real, but I didn’t think she knew this. “Topaz,” I said. “It will calm you down.” I of­fered her tea and was glad she re­fused it. Barely enough for the three of us. I could see by her noth­ing frame she had no trou­ble re­fus­ing things. Bony, spacey woman smoth­ered in beads—around her neck, her wrists, dan­gling from her hair. It was as though she were try­ing to make up for her stringi­ness, with all the beads and African wraps. It was easy to tell she had money, that she wasn’t from Bal­ti­more, that she felt her­self su­pe­rior to the typ­i­cal black girl from this town. Th­ese na­tive girls like to wear their hair high, oily bee­hives, shiny minarets, fins, tails, ropes as glossy as the haunch of a well-fed cat. They like pants so tight the zip­pers grin and skirts so short you would think they were wear­ing hal­ter tops over their hips. And they all have chil­dren, it seems to me. Few have hus­bands. No, this one, de­spite her black­ness, seemed al­most the op­po­site of her sis­ters, even the Mus­li­mas. Even the ones of her class, who dressed for 1962. She was no Mus­lima, this skinny girl, for her arms were bare, she dripped with jew­elry, she smoked. When she stepped into my stu­dio, I sent Miriam for the ash­tray and matches. I wanted this woman to stay for a long time, you see. See­ing her, day af­ter day af­ter day hit­ting all the ex­pen­sive stores on The Av­enue—mud and Metal; Oh! Said Rose; Rock, Pa­per, Scis­sors; Mod­ern An­tiques; In Wa­ter­melon Sugar—i felt my­self slighted. Usu­ally, I charge by the hour, twenty, thirty, what­ever I can squeeze from them. But this one, when I learned she was a pro­fes­sor of pop­u­lar cul­ture at Hop­kins, that she was thirty-six and un­mar­ried and child­less, was named Regina, was born and raised in, of all places, Ok­la­homa, well, I de­cided she would pay a dol­lar for ev­ery minute she spent with me. Regina, she was, not Del Monte or Cel­ica, or Phan­tas­mago­ria, or Mol­davia. “You don’t need to squeeze the crys­tal, dear,” I told her. “Just let the stone do its work while I shuf­fle the cards.” “What’s your rate?” Her voice was dead metal. I told her, and she didn’t blink. I knew she wouldn’t; I’d see her at the ATM across the street like a lit­tle bird at a fountain, three or four times a day. She liked cash. “You’re very sad. You fear los­ing your man.”

“Al­ready lost him. Right now, I want you to tell me when would be the best time to kill him.” I have to tell you I was ready to show her the door when she said this, and had she not been reach­ing for her bag, I would have. Be­fore I could say one word, she had her wal­let out and slid out three bills so new I could smell them. I de­cided . . . no, there was no de­ci­sion. Who am I kid­ding? Miriam had lost her job at Red, White and Blue, Mother was show­ing signs of im­mor­tal­ity af­ter the surgery, Miriam’s fa­ther hadn’t sent a check for three months. We needed ev­ery­thing, from tooth­paste to rice to toi­let pa­per to rent. I was sick to my stom­ach of squeez­ing dimes from th­ese poor junkie women with their fried yel­low hair and their acid-washed dun­ga­rees. I am out on the street ev­ery day—prac­ti­cally on my knees with th­ese women: “I have such won­der­ful news for you to­day, Deb­bie. Won’t you come in? Mrs. Cowan, God bless, I dreamed of you last night.” Miss Regina, I thought, You go ahead and kill this man, but not be­fore you give me six hun­dred sixty min­utes and the names and num­bers of all your univer­sity friends. I handed Regina the cards, held out my hand for the crys­tal, and said, “Now, you shuf­fle, and as you do, think about your man.” So while she smoked and shuf­fled, I too thought about him. No prob­lem guess­ing about her trou­bles with him. When they first moved into this neigh­bor­hood, I saw them to­gether all the time. In De­cem­ber they moved down the side­walks as close as three-legged rac­ers. They fre­quented Holy Fri­joles on Fri­days, and on their way, he’d hug her close, whis­per in her beaded ear, and she’d toss back her African­wrapped head, her horse teeth flash­ing. In Jan­uary, they chat­tered and joked from the ATM to the restau­rant, the steam of sex­ual heat ris­ing from their shoul­ders. They held un­gloved hands no mat­ter how cold it was. By spring, I no­ticed the slump in his shoul­ders, and I whis­pered through my win­dow, see you soon, bird-girl. I may be no more psy­chic, th­ese days, than the weath­er­man, but I could see their fu­ture. And sure enough, more and more, March, April, May, she flut­ters to the ATM, and threads The Av­enue, from shop to shop, buy­ing, in the first few weeks, I’m sure, things for him: a paint­ing from Haiti, a Mex­i­can sculp­ture, funny re­frig­er­a­tor mag­nets, four-dol­lar cards on which she writes lit­tle po­ems and in which she presses spring flow­ers. Then later, she buys for her­self. I sat be­hind the glass or on the stoop and watched. At first she’d walk by our place and look no deeper into our win­dow than her thin­ning face and neck. New beads in her locks, new dress, new shoes. Now and then, I’d see the man, usu­ally in his lit­tle red car, trail­ing cig­a­rette smoke. Some­times he’d be with Regina, hands in his

pock­ets, a quar­ter step be­hind or ahead of her. He was thin­ner, too. They spoke, but with­out much laugh­ter of turn­ing of heads. They held hands, but stiffly. Abruptly, Regina stopped shuf­fling, clasped the cards in one hand, and said, “Do you do spir­i­tual cleans­ing?” And I couldn’t con­tain my smile, my joy. With this one woman, I could fill my cab­i­nets, dress my daugh­ter, buy real crys­tals, bet­ter in­cense, can­dles, all those things that would make this place more at­trac­tive to more of her kind. “It’s a spe­cialty of mine,” I told her, and I looked her right in the eye, “but it costs.” “Will you come with me now?” “I’m sorry?” “I’m just on the cor­ner, like I say.” “It would be best if you brought him here.” She folded her arms and looked down at the ta­ble. “I’m not talk­ing about him. I’m talk­ing about her.” I tried not to frown. I said, “You’re telling me his woman lives with you?” “She stays in his room.” What a strange, fool­ish feath­er­head, I thought to my­self. She comes to me to toss out his woman, when all she need do is bran­dish a knife, spat­ter her face with hot grease, call the po­lice, swing a big stick. Of course Miriam’s fa­ther never had the spine to bring any of his bitches into our home, but if he had done so I would have scalded his face and shaved her hair and set her clothes on fire. And his. I would have burned that house down to ashes. But far be it from me to talk sense to a woman who could oc­tu­ple my in­come for two months, six months, what have you. I imag­ined the next card I’d pull would be the Fool. She leaned over, reached for her bag, and as she rose to place it on the card ta­ble, I smelled rot­ting fruit just be­neath the sweet oil she un­doubt­edly wore on her pulse points. It was a large bag, beaded with cowry shells, beau­ti­ful and, I’m sure, over­priced. When she plunged her hand into it, I ex­pected her to scoop out a hand­ful of black­ened ba­nana peels. In­stead, she re­moved a cowhide check­book. “I don’t take checks, my dear,” I said. She pinned me with her large, per­fectly adorned eyes. By de­grees, the whites of her eyes be­came pink and welled with tears. “If you knew what I was deal­ing with, you wouldn’t quib­ble over how I pay you. My checks don’t bounce.” I felt ter­ri­ble. Guilty. A thing I usu­ally don’t feel, do­ing what I do, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to her kind. Where rich peo­ple can of­ten make hon­est money, poor ones must steal, yes? But I

de­cided, Okay, I must put seeds in the ground be­fore I could grow and har­vest. Bet­ter to be led by trust than guilt. But still, I felt for her, see? I’ve washed my own dress, so to speak, for a long time. Since Miriam was ten. I re­mem­ber feel­ing so an­gry and help­less and sick. All the time. I never be­lieved there’d be an end to it. But the funny thing is, in those five or six years, my heart was so open, and my soul so rich with pain, most of my read­ings came true. And I was spe­cific, on the freckle. I’d say, “I see you win­ning a thou­sand if you play any five-dol­lar ticket be­fore the week­end,” and they would win. “I tell you what, sweet­heart,” I said to Regina, “we will meet tomorrow, this time tomorrow, and you will pick me up and bring me to your house. Show me. If I think I can help, I will, and if I can, you will give me a check for three hun­dred dol­lars, which will be a down pay­ment for the cleans­ing, which will be one thou­sand, to­tal, if it works.” She winced, but only a lit­tle.

The first card I drew for her was the Lovers. It fright­ened me. So per­fect I wor­ried she would think the deck was marked. Too bad it didn’t fall in the re­versed po­si­tion be­cause I could have told her all was lost un­less we gave him po­tions to re­store his af­fec­tion. My po­tions are mostly mix­tures of herbal tea and a healthy markup. But in the up­right po­si­tion, all I could say was, “This is the ba­sis of the sit­u­a­tion. You must re­sist the temp­ta­tion to change. Hang onto this man no mat­ter what.” She snorted and shook her head, and this was to be ex­pected. I had seen his eyes, seen his bizarre tod­dler’s gait, his down­ward shoul­ders, his gray­ing tem­ples. But if I give the client hope, we eat bet­ter. It’s that sim­ple. As she shook her head, I could see that her ear­rings were more ex­pen­sive than any­thing I owned, more ex­pen­sive than the wed­ding band I used to wear. I said, “The Lovers are crossed with the Em­peror. It’s in the re­versed po­si­tion. You’re afraid he’s us­ing you, right?” She looked at me with her dead eyes, and said in her dead voice, “You know some­thing? You don’t need to tell me how to keep this ass­hole. I want you to help me get rid of him, okay?” “He is cheating on you, I know, but—” “I know I must seem crazy to you, a to­tal stranger, com­ing into your of­fice, or par­lor or what­ever you call it, and ask­ing you to kill her fi­ancé, and all that, but I’m an­gry, you see. Just pissed off. But I don’t know what to do. We’ve been to­gether four years and ev­ery­thing was fine— not per­fect, you know—we fought, but . . . . We move into this neigh­bor-

hood... that house right around the cor­ner, across from the church? 3600 Chest­nut?” “Is he—” “Some­thing’s wrong with the place. Wrong-wrong. If I were a Catholic, I’d see a priest. If I were an athe­ist, I’d see my shrink and take so many of her pills I’d go numb enough to ig­nore what’s go­ing on. I’m nei­ther re­li­gious, nor athe­is­tic, but there’s some­thing so wrong in that house, you’d have to be dead not to no­tice.” She drew in her breath as if she might say more, but she only in­haled, and we were quiet for what seemed like one whole minute. I lis­tened to the traf­fic on The Av­enue, and the drunken crow­ing of Sylvia and Beth, mother and daugh­ter, best friends, fat friends, drunk friends, who sleep with the same three or four men, and don’t yet know it. They were ap­par­ently sit­ting on my stoop, or the stoop of my neigh­bor, the Va­lerie Gallery. Such a strange neigh­bor­hood, this one. Miriam tells me the news­pa­per says it’s be­ing “gen­tri­fied,” which I take it to mean that it’s get­ting too ex­pen­sive for the poor ones who’ve lived here for four gen­er­a­tions or so. Up the street and around the cor­ner, where Regina lives, I’ve no­ticed there is a grim-look­ing Ja­panese couple. I never see them walk this street. They wear nice clothes and look like stu­dents. There is also an Asian and white couple, both short, both stylish, whom I see in the pricier restau­rants but rarely in the shops. Then there’s the In­dian couple, poor as me, who sell mostly sug­ary and salty snacks to the junkies and over­weight girl-moth­ers. Regina and her man are the only blacks who ac­tu­ally live in this neigh­bor­hood, and if any­one spends in all the bet­ter places with­out fear or reser­va­tion it is she. It seems to me that most of the spenders come from other places.

I sent Miriam out to col­lect plan­tain grass and other weeds af­ter she came home from school next day. She bun­dled them with string and dried them in the oven. They’d do for the cleans­ing herbs I’d use on the man. As long as they had that herby stink that’s so pop­u­lar th­ese days, it didn’t mat­ter what I used. I col­lected my crys­tals, put them in a Crown Royal sack. I wrapped my cards in a silk scarf and dressed my­self in white. I wished for a holy look. While I was fas­ten­ing my ear­rings, Mother, who was sit­ting at the kitchen ta­ble, kept star­ing at me, an­grily, I thought at first, but then her face coiled into the usual thou­sand lines of nasty joy, the same face she used af­ter Miriam’s fa­ther had been gone for three days, then three weeks, and then three whole moons. I fin­ished with my ear­rings be­fore I said to her, “What? What, old woman, you think I can’t feed us?”

She shrugged, grunted. “Fake,” she said. “All fake.” I could feel heat rise from my face, and wet­ness in my eyes. “Maybe you’d like to feed your­self?” She pursed her lips and said, “You know, like I do. . . lit­tle girl. Be­lieve heals. Have be­lieve in a stone, and you are healed, no? You were stupid to take a check. A man be­lieve, and he will pay. He don’t be­lieve, and he walk away.” “She’s the one writ­ing the checks, Mother.” She shrugged, looked from one end of the kitchen to the other. “What do you got, Estelle?” she said, and I re­al­ized she was speak­ing Amer­i­can so that Miriam would over­hear and understand ev­ery­thing. She raised her arm, and slowly waved it from left to right. “You got noooth­ing. See? Noooth­ing. They will see your plas­tics, and your dirty floor, and your sec­ond-hen dress, they will say to their­self, ‘What she can give me?’ The woman, she—” “We eat, don’t we?” I was feel­ing calm, the way I’d feel be­fore go­ing to church. But I could no longer look at her face, par­tic­u­larly the ugly mole on the tip of her nose. I looked at the beaded cur­tain. “You want the Play­boy Man­sion, Mother, go buy a swim­suit.” She slapped her hand on the ta­ble. I winced but still wouldn’t look at her. “What are you, Estelle?” “Mother, you just told me I’m fake. We know this. This is noth­ing new.” “What are you, girl?” I knew what she was get­ting at, but I shrugged and looked at my watch. “Are you Gypsy?” “This again!” “What are you, girl? Eh?” I spun on her and thrust my red face so close to hers I could have kissed her. I could have bit­ten the mole off her nose. I didn’t raise my voice, but I could feel the strings in my neck, and my eyes were hot. “We eat,” I said. “We eat. We eat. We eat. We eat.” A drop of my spit­tle closed her left eye, and I stood up straight. I spoke in our lan­guage, so I’d be clear, and she’d be clear, and there’d be no mis­take. “A coin in an empty can makes a lot of noise, old woman. A lot of noise. I’ve clothed and fed and cared for you ever since Fa­ther died, and you’ve done noth­ing but spit in my palm and rat­tle like a coin in a can. You want to live else­where, go. You want to live with me and my dirty floors, show a lit­tle grat­i­tude.” I col­lected my things and went out. I sat on my stoop and waited for Regina. She wasn’t sup­posed to show up for an­other twenty min­utes, so I watched two fat teenaged girls eat­ing ice cream as they jud­dered

down the side­walk. One of them pushed a stroller in which sat her fat, ugly child. The baby had a big, square head and bright blue eyes that al­ready had that mean and aloof look that ev­ery­one in this neigh­bor­hood wears. The pink ring around his lips showed he’d al­ready de­voured his ice cream, and I was a lit­tle sur­prised he wasn’t squawk­ing, twist­ing around in his seat, reach­ing with his white fin­gers and beg­ging for a taste of his mother’s cone. The chil­dren of this place grow up on bologna and sugar. They quit school at twelve or thir­teen and spend their time trail­ing up and down th­ese streets. They haul stolen ce­ment stat­ues in stolen gro­cery carts down to the post of­fice park­ing lot, for some rea­son, and with ham­mers, they smash the ce­ment to pieces. They hole up in aban­doned build­ings at night, but eat and watch TV at home all day. They buy, sell, trade— drugs, video games, guns. The boys sel­dom get fat, the girls al­most al­ways do. A few go to col­lege, or be­come cops or hair­dressers or re­tail clerks, but few of them ever live more than a stone’s throw from the places they grew up in. Home­bod­ies, they are. They’re in love with this place. They may abuse one an­other, but they rarely break a win­dow or write graf­fiti here. Houses are handed down by gen­er­a­tion and only fall to strangers be­cause of the drugs, or too many jail­ings and deaths. They be­lieve in lit­tle; only this place means any­thing to them. Still, some of them come, but it’s like pulling out a boar’s tusk with your teeth. Day upon day I pace my win­dow like the pent-up, un­happy Gypsy seer I’ve be­come. My brown skin and funny ac­cent are all I have. The idea is to spend as lit­tle time with them as can be man­aged, to take as much money as I can, and give them good news, num­bers, in­ter­pret their dreams, and give them a pinch of bad news. No bad news re­pels them. I ac­tu­ally do wish them well. Nat­u­rally, if good things hap­pen, they come back to me, but I feel for them, too. How can you not when you know them like a priest­ess knows her flock? I know the girl who keeps se­cret her boyfriend’s mur­der. I know ex­actly where his body is hid­den, and who did it and why. I know a woman who dreams ev­ery few nights of stran­gling her chil­dren, and the hus­band who doesn’t know that not one of the chil­dren he’s sup­port­ing is his; the girl who plays the lotto from hush money she gets from her un­cle; the old woman with can­cer who won’t go to a doc­tor. That one lives on black-mar­ket Se­conal and Kools. Per­haps if their aw­ful­ness or nas­ti­ness were to rub off on Miriam, I would hate them, but Miriam hardly no­tices them. But I think they think I have the power to curse them, be­ing a Gypsy and all. Regina showed up only a few min­utes late. She wore blue jeans, bracelets, and a black long-sleeved shirt with the cuffs rolled up. I’d never

seen her dressed like this, and I won­dered whether it had to do with her boyfriend. Was he gone al­ready? It was a short walk to her house, a block or so, so we talked only a lit­tle as we walked. She told me I looked nice, and I asked her if she had faith. She shrugged. I asked her if her man was home, and she said, “No, but she is.” “Is she a friend of yours?” “I don’t think she’s any­one’s friend.” Two skate­board­ers rolled by, as we rounded the cor­ner, and I felt my stom­ach frog-kick me when I could ac­tu­ally see her house at the end of the row. “Let me ask you some­thing. Why do you let her stay in your home? It is your home, isn’t it?” “She doesn’t give me any choice.” I could not stop my mouth, so I said, “Why are you so weak?” I was walk­ing slightly be­hind her at this point and was watch­ing her hair swing. It ex­posed the back of her thin neck, and I imag­ined slam­ming that twig with my fist till it snapped. It was only weeks later that I re­al­ized I hated her for be­ing too much like me. On the nights or morn­ings or mid-af­ter­noons when Miriam’s fa­ther slouched into the house, smelling of liquor and women, pot, quick show­ers, I said noth­ing, nei­ther hello, nor where have you been, nor die, you low mag­got. I be­lieved, at the time, my si­lence would both freeze and burn him, but he must have as­sumed we were co-con­spir­a­tors. He of­ten came in when I had a client up in the store­front, so I didn’t al­ways see him for an hour or so, but I would hear him laugh­ing and talk­ing with Mother, or teas­ing Miriam, who, I sup­pose I must add, loved him then, loves him now. He’d open the fridge, open a beer, open the pa­per, all with a hol­i­day of noise, proud of his ways. Skulk­ing, sidling, creep­ing—not for this man. At the times he came in when I was else­where in the apart­ment, he’d lay it on even more heav­ily, pinch­ing my cheek, hook­ing my chin with his pointer fin­ger, say­ing, “You okay, my flower?” “Sure, sure,” I’d say. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?” No doubt in my mind—if I’d kicked his balls, or spooned out his eyes while he slept, he’d have stayed. He liked women with ugly hearts. He’d have said to me, “Now there’s a woman!” Regina led me up the stoop and into the place with­out a word. But as I turned to close the door, she said, “Well, I hired you be­cause I am weak.” She held her­self at such an an­gle that her head looked par­tic­u­larly large and her neck thin. She looked like a pic­ture of one of those beau­ti­ful starv­ing African women, eyes large and serene, eyes that can al­ready see par­adise and noth­ing of this world. I felt cruel and stupid. I stared at the walls and fur­nish­ings un­til my pulse sub­sided.

The whole first floor was a sin­gle room, di­vided by Ja­panese screens. No an­tique fur­nish­ings, no leather-bound books and chairs, no Greek busts and stat­uettes, none of the things I thought would fill a pro­fes­sor’s house. There were book­cases, but they were filled with toys, mostly col­ored ones: Mr. T, Steve Urkel, the Cosby Kids, even black Simp­sons, black su­per­heroes, black aliens, a black Zorro. There were dolls that looked as though they were mod­eled on some of the peo­ple of Bal­ti­more, com­plete with the fall­ing-down pants, the bot­tles wrapped in pa­per bags, the pe­cu­liar tight-fit­ting scarves. There were more dig­ni­fied and more strange things, too: San­te­ria can­dles; col­ored bot­tles; a black Ken doll in a three-piece suit, nailed to a cross; African rag dolls; and those mammy salt and pep­per shak­ers, which are, in my opin­ion, very strange things for a black per­son to own. The dolls were so nu­mer­ous and color­ful that it took me a lit­tle longer than it or­di­nar­ily would have to no­tice the smell of rot­ting fruit and the flies that clung to the ceil­ing, the walls and win­dows, as well as the door we had just come through. It as­ton­ished me how un­clean this woman was. Of course, she no­ticed how my at­ten­tion had moved from the shelves to the ceil­ing, and she said, “I can’t get rid of them no mat­ter what I do. They only hang out here on the first floor, which is strange, be­cause she never sets foot down here, so far as I know.” I felt un­com­fort­able ask­ing, but I said, “Is this her smell?” Regina’s eyes grew larger than usual, and she drew her head back as though she was go­ing to look up at the ceil­ing. She frowned. “Oh. Oh, that,” she said. “Let me show you.” She walked straight back to the kitch­enette and waited for me. There were flies in the kitch­enette, but none lit on the fruit in a big yel­low bowl on the counter. The fruit was so fresh it glowed. Regina pulled a knife from the rack, lifted a squash from the bowl, set it on the cut­ting board, and sliced it down the mid­dle. I smelled it be­fore I saw it, a gush as strong and sweet as baby shit; the blade was cov­ered with the slimy guts of fruit so far gone that the half­sprouted seeds were semi-melted in de­cay. This, this told me ev­ery­thing. Where she was, where I was, what she had brought me into. I felt the floor of my belly fall to my lap, my palms and face and neck misted with my own mois­ture. I wanted to say, Why didn’t you tell me? Why were you so coy? You brought me into a dead house. Did you know that? What do you want me to do about this? Can’t you see how fake I am? I prac­ti­cally beg you to see it, don’t I, with all my talk of pros­per­ity and good tid­ings, from amid my own dead house? Th­ese peo­ple, all th­ese peo­ple we live among? What can they

see? Can you blame them? But, you, you are a pro­fes­sor, bless God. Can a pro­fes­sor be such a fool? Your type can see me, why can’t you? I said noth­ing, of course. That’s my way. “So many things I could tell you,” she said, “story af­ter story. The only ‘nor­mal’ things in this place are the rats in the walls. This is Bal­ti­more; I understand rats.” She twirled the knife round and round as she said this, and though it was a lit­tle sad, I chuck­led. Then she pointed the knife at me and said, “Like it all started one morn­ing when his sweater and my hair and robe caught on fire.” “Oh my God.” “No, no.. . No one was hurt, but it was just weird how he’s up­stairs in his room, wav­ing a match out, af­ter light­ing his cig­a­rette, then he shuts out the light and sees his whole chest glow­ing. His sweater’s on fire, a quick or­ange flame. Didn’t hurt him a bit. It just floated on the fine hairs of his sweater, and—” “You don’t share a room?” She lifted her chin just a bit and looked me in the eyes. “Do you see what I’m say­ing,” she asked me in a sur­pris­ingly deep voice. “I do, I do,” I said, but I didn’t. “And then he’s not even all the way down the stairs—you know, he’s go­ing to tell me the weird thing that’s just hap­pened, and be­fore he opens his mouth, I yell up at him, ‘I just put my robe out. It was on fire!’” “So he looks at me funny, and I say, ‘I was on fire. You know, the robe . . . while I was wear­ing it!’” “And he said, ‘Me too. Just now.’ And he said, ‘Were you smok­ing?’ and I said, ‘I was making toast.’ I ex­plained to him how I’d been lean­ing over the toaster, and—i don’t know, maybe one of my braids touched the grill thingy, and the braid touched my robe—i don’t know, but next thing I know I’m danc­ing around the kitchen and slap­ping my right sleeve.” She looked me in the eyes again, and I’m pretty cer­tain I made a face, but I didn’t have any idea what it was. I couldn’t feel my own face. Does that even make sense? But you see, the smell was so bad, I must have been winc­ing, and her voice so smooth and her face so beau­ti­ful, I must have been smil­ing, and the story so odd, I must have looked doubt­ful. Regina set the knife on the counter, and a fat fly started and flew slow as syrup across the room and alit next to an­other fat fly, and this one, too, moved so slowly I could al­most count its wing beats. I could have pulled it from the air with my hand. “So many things I could tell you,”

she said. “Like when the neigh­bor kept pound­ing on our wall, com­plain­ing about our noise and so forth—” “What kind of noise?” “Sex, of course. He heard peo­ple hav­ing sex whether there had ac­tu­ally been sex or not.” “Ex­cuse me, but—” “Did we make noise? Nat­u­rally, but not that . . . If we had had that much sex . . . ” In the si­lence, I lit a cig­a­rette. She handed me an ash­tray, folded her arms and leaned against the counter. I cleared my throat and pawed through my bag as though I wanted to check my things. I was go­ing to tell her she had mis­un­der­stood me. I wasn’t go­ing to ask about her sex life. I was go­ing to ask her for some tea. But to a psy­chic, peo­ple will tell any­thing. And as if she were the mind reader, she asked me whether I would like tea or cof­fee. How could I refuse? The wa­ter was al­ready on, and I as­sumed it was for me. There were cook­ies, too, but what with the smell, I could only force one down to be po­lite. They were the ex­pen­sive ones that never taste like much and have too lit­tle but­ter. We stepped into the din­ing area with the tea and things, and we sat. She said, “So af­ter a couple weeks of pound­ing and yelling, my part­ner—” “Ex­cuse me. May I ask his name?” She shook her head sub­tly, quickly, and said more with a moan than with words that she would pre­fer not to. No need to ex­plain, I thought. She looked down at her lap for a mo­ment. Her hands lay in her lap. They looked like two fish. Dead ones, you know? And then her right hand be­gan to fiddle with her left. She crossed and un­crossed her legs, and then she folded her arms over her breasts, looked me in the eye and said, “I want to show you some­thing I’ve never shown any­one. Not a soul, okay?” I nod­ded. She plucked off all the rings on her fin­gers, four on her right, and the en­gage­ment ring on her left, and un­der each one, there was a dark-green stain, as though th­ese rings of sil­ver and gold were made of cop­per or the cheap­est brass. She showed off the green rings like a model, turn­ing her del­i­cate hands this way and that. She scooted her chair closer to me. “Look close,” she said. So I did. I low­ered my face inches from her right hand but did not touch. It was lichen, or fur, or green hair. My mouth tasted of iron and filled with spit­tle. I felt my face color. “Did he call the po­lice?” “What?” “The neigh­bor? Peo­ple al­ways call the po­lice when there is noise.”

“Five times in three days, but on the last time the po­lice threat­ened to cite him for wast­ing their time.” I asked her if there were rats in the walls, and she asked me if I’d been lis­ten­ing, and then I asked her if she ever heard the noises, and she nod­ded and said, “Even­tu­ally.” And as she be­gan to re­place the rings she said, “Ob­vi­ously, I can’t get the stuff off. Bleach, scrub brushes, witch hazel, rub­bing al­co­hol.” We were quiet for a fairly long mo­ment, and then she said, “My fi­ancé’s name is Barry. He used to be the smartest per­son I know, and now he’s just stupid. He used to play jazz on the bag­pipes, read bad science fic­tion, eat a can of palm hearts a day, and he al­ways seemed like the coolest, bad­dest, hippest nerd in the world to me. Last couple months he hasn’t done any of those things, and he now seems in­cred­i­bly strange to me: ar­gu­ing with neigh­bors, act­ing de­pressed. I was with him un­til he started smelling like an­other woman and beat­ing off in bed right next to me.” I told her I didn’t know what that meant, and when she told me, tears came to my eyes. It was only a lit­tle and only be­cause it em­bar­rassed me. It was also be­cause it made me think too much and feel too much. Regina cleared her throat, as if to get my at­ten­tion. “When he’s here, he sleeps with her in the back bed­room, though it’s hardly big­ger than a shoe box. She’s al­ways there, more or less, al­ways spread and ready, I imag­ine.” She sipped her tea, frowned. “I re­al­ize he may never come back. I re­al­ize if she goes, he goes, but I want her gone.” She pointed up at the ceil­ing when she said this. She low­ered her hand and then drummed her plum nails, one, two, three, four on the ta­ble, lifted up her tea, and sipped. “Like me to go up with you?” “I will go alone.” She sat back and nod­ded. “I’ll be do­ing the dishes,” she said.

The stair­well split the mid­dle of a large room. Books every­where, like wall­pa­per. The right half of the room had two red leather chairs and an old couch with an­i­mal legs and crushed red vel­vet cush­ions. There was a cof­fee ta­ble of egg­plant-col­ored wood pol­ished so well it looked heavy as mar­ble. A lit­tle stone wa­ter­fall sat on the ta­ble. The room smelled sweet, like dry roses and gin­ger, and in the light that slanted to the right side of the two large win­dows that faced the street, I saw a string of in­cense smoke ris­ing from the burner on the floor. On the other side of the room were a bed, a closet, a dresser, a short hall­way, and a door. I set my bag on the ta­ble, re­moved the herbs, a blue bot­tle of rose wa­ter, matches, a lit­tle ce­ramic bowl, two half-used can­dles, and my prayer

book. I dried my ner­vous hands on my dress. I burned a bun­dle of herbs and set it in the bowl, took up the bowl and walked to­ward the hall­way, past the foot of the bed on the left, the book­shelf on the right, un­til I stopped at the mouth of the hall­way. Six more steps or so, and I would grasp the door­knob, en­ter the room, and blow on the herbs un­til the room was pale with smoke, and I would stand there in my white dress, call on God and all the mys­te­ri­ous pow­ers, and curse the whore un­til she tore from the room as though on fire. I have done this sort of thing be­fore. Two years ago, I fright­ened a boy enough to get him to stop steal­ing from his mother. And the year Miriam’s fa­ther left me, I saved an­other boy from drugs. I told him his younger sis­ter would be dead in a month and that he would die one year later if he didn’t stop with the pipe. The girl did die, in ex­actly four weeks, and the boy is clean. Six steps or so. But all I could do was stand there as my heart made my body sway like a reed. My tongue was of clay. From where I stood, I could see the bath­room off to the left in the mid­dle of the hall­way, and I thought, Good, I might need you in a minute or two, be­cause then I be­gan to lose the smell of the in­cense and the herbs, and my head filled with the smell of de­cay­ing fruit—acrid, sour, sweet—a horn of melted can­taloupe, hoary ap­ples speck­led with mold, the black blood of plums pud­dling on the rep­til­ian skins of nec­tarines, or­anges so soft and brown a light touch would sink a fin­ger down to the sec­ond knuckle. But back of that hideous smell lay some­thing hot and fleshy and fem­i­nine, of tam­pons bun­dled in toi­let pa­per and stuffed into the bot­tom of a rub­bish bin, of un­washed un­der­arms stroked by de­odor­ant, and of the low, rutty burn of a man’s balls, of waste be­neath the tongue, of an un­probed navel, of filthy un­der­wear, of soil be­hind the ears, of the yel­low pud­ding be­tween the teeth, of waxy pores, of ev­ery un­sanc­ti­fied crease and fold and nook and cor­ner and crypt of the body, of oily, of dark, of wicked, of wa­ter­less, of love­less, of low. Deep in the way an ab­scess is deep, and webby, warm. Then, from be­hind the door, she spoke in­con­gru­ently, sprightly. From be­hind the door, she said, “Hi!” She said, “Hi!” All right, all right, I’ll go in. But the thing was that I hadn’t only heard the voice from be­hind the door, but from be­hind my own ear. And it sounded like the neg­a­tive of sound—empty and sharp as a nee­dle. A metal cricket. A kind of bell that took a long time to fade away. She said it only once, but I heard it three hun­dred times as I stood there. Be­hind the door and be­hind my own ear. I moved all the way into the hall­way and took the door­knob in my hand. Her voice chirped in my head, and I’m hold­ing the knob, and the

veins in my neck I feel thump­ing the col­lar of my dress. I turn the knob. I push open the door. The room smells of some hus­band’s lover, and some hus­band’s un­der­arms, and it is empty of any per­son—small as a walk-in closet, lit by sun, a bed, a desk and com­puter, a pair of run­ning shoes—you know, a room. I smelled her be­fore I saw her. The woman smell, and the smell of flies and fruit, rose like steam, and it warmed my face, and it was such a mix of things that tears filled my eyes. I felt cold in my chest. I low­ered my head. As the tears bled away, there she was, naked be­fore me on the bed. “Oh God,” I said. Her skin was melon white. Her arms were in the front of her, twisted to­gether like roots and plunged be­tween her thighs. She shiv­ered and hunched her thin shoul­ders. Her peach-col­ored hair was short, above the ears. “Hi,” she whis­pered. “This is shame­ful,” I told her. I could barely breathe. “You have to get out.” She shrunk even fur­ther into her­self. Her skin erupted into the threaded tex­ture of can­taloupe peel, and I said to her, “As the melon rots, so should you.” But I was cold and ter­ri­fied. She opened her mouth, as if to speak, but only seed and pulp fell out. A large fly wafted slowly from her nose, and she threw her head back, eyes wide. She must have wanted to scream. She must have been em­bar­rassed and alarmed. “You see?” I said. “Do you see?” My voice was still small, my chest colder, my face hot­ter. My sour mouth. My turn­ing stom­ach. My own alarm. My own shame. “Just go. Just leave us alone,” I said. “Hi,” she whis­pered again. Green seeds slid down her chin. She dropped her head and be­gan to sob. Her skin van­ished and I saw only her bones, then only her veins, then just her mus­cle, and then her yel­low yel­low fat, then the skin grew back to white and smooth, and then green-pink and beaded with nee­dle tracks along her arms and thighs, and then it grew peach sweet and milky, like a lit­tle girl’s skin. Then it was dead, gray and dead. Then it was alive again, and then set­tled into some­thing nei­ther dead nor alive. She said, with­out look­ing at me at all, “He’s gone be­cause of you.” Once again, the sound struck be­hind my ear. My body rip­pled with chicken flesh. And then she pinned me with her eyes, and said again, “He’s gone, gone, gone be­cause of you.” I laid the smok­ing saucer on the floor. Ev­ery­thing in me and on me beat and throbbed and pulsed and shook and thrummed and buzzed, and I threw up at her white feet. Soiled my white dress. I be­gan to weep. Be­tween the time it took me to turn around and trem­ble back to the other side of the room and sit on the an­i­mal-leg couch, the odors faded

a bit, but still I couldn’t smell any­thing but the two of them in a field of rot­ting fruit. Couldn’t even smell the rose oil on my own wrists and throat. And the lemon-yel­low voice also be­gan to fade, though for quite a while it was hard to hear any­thing else. I left all my things on the ta­ble, ex­cept for my bag, which I placed on my lap, my knees clasped to­gether. I sat there open­ing my ears to the sounds of Regina wash­ing her dishes, strain­ing to hear only her. It might as well have been the singing of an­gels. I breathed in, and I breathed out again, and if I fo­cused, I could catch a wisp of in­cense, or a bub­ble of dish soap, but I could not ex­pel, com­pletely, the woman from my nose, and I could not stop her voice, com­pletely. She said hi to me from be­hind the closed door and from be­hind my ear. I sat un­til enough time had passed. I went down­stairs and col­lected my fee. I told Regina I would be back in three days for an­other ses­sion. She looked grate­ful, of course. I left feel­ing all right in a sweaty sort of way, a rat­tling sort of way. My stom­ach was a knot of gris­tle. My heart wasn’t beat­ing at all. Out there on the street, I squinted across The Av­enue at the face of my home. I imag­ined slap­ping cash down on the Formica; I imag­ined say­ing to her hideous face, “Look here, old woman. Look at that. And look at me. Look at my dress, my hands, my face. I am real! Ev­ery­thing I do is real. I am ex­actly what I say I am. Now thank me. You thank me, you old dead thing!”

But life is nei­ther dream nor wish. When I got home, I sat alone in the kitchen, my eyes shut, my bag in my lap. I couldn’t cry any­more; my heart had yet to beat. Af­ter a while Mother limped up be­hind me and placed her old paw on my shoul­der. I opened my bag and handed her the check. Though blind, I could feel her study it, and she ex­haled, through her nose, her ap­proval. She pat­ted me on the shoul­der three quick times, and, I as­sume, folded the check into the pocket of her house­coat.

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