When Khalid al-Mahound is finished speaking, Will Adamson stands with the rest of the congregation, swept up by their waves of applause. The Prophet’s speech ends with them shouting to a deep roll from the organ and the rattle of tambourines; his vow of wrath and days of rage brings down the house. Behind him, the First Zion Baptist Choir launches into an old worship hymn of praise. Their pastor, eyes shining, rises from her velvet seat and falls into his embrace. Other preachers and politicians press forward to shake his hand. Adamson can’t help but wonder at the moment, when the community’s chief priests all hail the lord and savior of the New World Nation of Islam. They gather round his bully pulpit, men of Caesar and men of God, the men of the proverbial cloth.
The rally’s over, and the people stream out of the church, into the afternoon air. An exhalation of high mid-September heat greets them as they leave. Adamson, already marinated in sweat, now roasts miserably in his skin. A low wind blows like the bellows from a furnace, but the believers pay no mind. They float light as lambs into the dragon’s consuming breath. The Prophet’s fiery tongue has touched their souls. “He said some things that needed to be said,” exclaims a thin grim woman in a glittering gold dress. A man in a T-shirt marked with a scarlet X swears that the truth he’s heard this day was “righteous.”
“You see,” says D’Angelo Cole, as he walks along with Adamson. “The Messenger lifted up his voice, and the people heard.”
The people herd across the parking lot, and into their cars. Somber, black-suited, bow-legged, bow-tied, D’Angelo could pass for a Muslim man himself, a soul-trolling brother out fishing on the street, casting his hooks, and lures, and lines. In turn, he jokes that Adamson’s a dead ringer for Malcolm X, with his reddish skin, horn-rimmed glasses, and copper goatee. But Adamson knows he’s not nearly that tall, and of course he lacks the spirit and the fire. He listens patiently while D’Angelo prattles on about The Prophet: “I like what he said about the rising tide of racism. How we have to dam it at the source.”
“Sure,” Adamson says, but his heart’s not in it. So far as he can see, the tide’s already receding. Like Brother Otis singing in the evening light, his last serenade to the sea…. He tries to whistle the end of the tune, but ends up sucking air. D’Angelo counters with a killer smile, flashing his bright white canines. “You’re right,” he says. “The tide rolls out. And then, in comes the tsunami.” Forebodingly he points to signs of the coming times: voter suppression, the ghosts of Ferguson and Charleston, the rumblings on the far right of secession and civil war. He chides Adamson for his inscience, the blissful guile of a child. That he should still have faith in this fairy dust: our better angels, can’t we all get along, a change is gonna come. “We’re coming to a crossroads,” he says. “Whose side will you be on?”
“The right side,” Adamson whispers. Distracted, because in this infernal heat, he can hardly think or breathe. Another smothering wave makes him feel a little faint. Yet, even as he fries, he feels a breath of cold disquiet. A single soft flutter, silent as a feather. The shudder of dead veined wings … He shakes it off. The black man in the White House wasn’t just some harlequin fantasy. But was the Tea Party gathering steam? Or just spouting a lot of hot air—?
His thoughts perish like crystals of snow before the glory of D’Angelo’s Escalade. The machine shines as if its coat was struck from white lightning, beckoning to them brightly from the edge of the lot, beneath a withered tree. Holy smokes, he thinks, helplessly glamoured by its odylic, ensorcelling power: the sleek, slick curves and lines; the Forgiato Inferno custom wheels, laced with a wicked gold; the fine mesh grille, and polished chrome trim. That dazzling, ice-hot finish. Not for his immortal soul could he ever afford such a ride. His job as a reporter for The Circle City Reformer, a black newsweekly, pays a minimal wage, and allows for just the bare necessities, like food or shelter. The paper’s survived for a hundred years on the strength of its starving writers. One or two of its ace reporters have moved on to better things. But Adamson’s cards have always fallen from bad, to worse, to cursed. He figures it’s just the luck of the draw, though your boy says the dealer’s a cheat. At least his underemployment keeps him connected to his beat: he lives on food stamps, in Section 8 housing. Next door a dope man does brisk business, and the comings and goings of his customers keep Adamson up at all hours of the night. The drunk downstairs beats his common-law wife, and his curses and blows echo from below like thunder.
Compared to this, D’Angelo’s got it made. He’s a real professional man, an assistant federal prosecutor. His wife, Gabrielle, teaches a class in world religion at one of the city’s small colleges. They’re blessed with a pair of twin seven-year-old boys (Adamson’s met them). The family lives expansively in a charming brick bungalow in the trendy village district of Broad Ripple. But he’s a double agent, the inside man, the spook who sat by the door. D’Angelo fronts like your typical Oreo, but in truth he’s black through his bones. He could’ve been a corporate lawyer, but he burns white-collar criminals instead. And he’s more at home down on the corner than at some fabulous golf course or spa. He first met Adamson seven years ago at a popular pea shake house. Since then, their paths have often crossed in odd places, like the Double 8 food mart the next block over, the free jazz shows at the neighborhood park, or the old barbershop around the way. His appearance at the church today was typical pure happenstance. “Like it was fate,” he whispered as he slid into their pew. He sensed that Adamson’s old Pontiac was in the shop again, and asked if he needed a ride. And smiled, and smiled, the devil may care. And made an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The Escalade burns now like a diamond on fire. D’Angelo beams in all his pride. “The wife said we couldn’t afford it,” he says. “But I said, ‘What the hell.’ ” Right now he’s rocking at the top of his game, preternaturally cool in this suffocating heat, and basking in the glow of his candescent SUV—a luminary dressed for conquest in a Prada suit spun from pure black wool, razor-sharp in his crisp starched bone-ivory shirt, fine as wine in his burgundy bow tie. Some ministers stop by to check him out, maybe thinking he’s one of their own. One of them stares hard at Adamson, who looks self-consciously away. His own black suit is pretty old—vintage Salvation Army—but it’s always clean and neatly pressed, so you can hardly tell.
It’s times like these he clearly sees the immateriality of dreams. He’s caught between two worlds of sleep, the nightmare and the dream. In the nightmare he lives on bread and soup, wears thrift store clothes, rattles around in a raggedy old Firebird. In the dream he eats steak if he wants to, and buys the best suits from Penny’s, and drives a brand-new Accord.
But he never perceived that there might be a third world of slumber, a real-life magic kingdom, a place where dreams came true. He never would’ve conceived of love at first light. Until, for a second, he saw it—or, at least, the glint of it, a hint of what might be—and he couldn’t believe his own eyes. Then, when he awoke, it vanished, like the vapors of a mirage. The afterglow that remained left him blinded by the sight. This happened after D’Angelo drove him from church and dropped him off at home. They made arrangements to meet later for dinner at an old bar and grille in The Village. Before Adamson could ask, D’Angelo smiled, and offered to pick up the tab.
And so now the men sit in expectant silence, waiting for her to come. Adamson stares out the large window where they’re sitting. D’Angelo keeps checking his watch. The waitress takes her time getting to them; maybe she’s been on break. But when, at last, she steps to their table, all heaven and earth stand still. Her form shines forth like some ambrosial delight, strawberry blonde, blueberry eyes, lips of dark wet cherry. The mutual attraction’s immediate as she gravitates into his orbit. Her eyes meet Adamson’s, and a delicious frisson crackles in the timeless space between them, a moment of eternity that envelopes their engagement. In this rare air, they speak with more than words. She leans towards him, a little too forward; he feels her warmth as well as her heat. He makes a small joke, and her Southern laughter splashes through the empty dining room in sparkling waves. She’s way too young—half his age, plus seven—but the years don’t seem to matter. He dreams of sweeping her away to a distant rainbow, an arc of companionship, friendship, love, sex. The miracle is that she seems to want this, too. When she asks, blushing, how she might serve him, he removes his thick glasses to give her a better look. “I’ll have the fish dinner. The whole meal. And some tea.”
Her voice falls to a sensual hum. “The fish comes with sauce on the side.” She describes it in some detail—the organic ingredients, and rich creamy flavor—but all he can hear is white noise. For every word she speaks, the whole universe seems to sing. A golden Star of David scintillates from her neck with the light of every sun that’s ever shone. He’s shocked by this sudden turn of events, and by the immanence and force of its flowering. The bud of it blooms and blossoms and grows into a vast and vernal garden. He’d like this to last, at least for a while, but he knows, in the end, that it won’t. She sings pleasingly to herself—she’lo yigamer l’olam—but then the song sticks in her throat. The last blue note hangs quavering in the air when she turns, lips parted, to D’Angelo.
Whose eye on her burns so coldly that it freezes the look on her face. “Ribs platter,” he snaps. “And a pitcher of beer.”
Paradise lost: A fairy tale ending. Their story’s done before it’s begun. She takes their menus, frowning, and softly slips away. A fragrance of citrus remains where she stood. The exact name of this fruit eludes Adamson, though it’s right on the tip of his tongue. He savors her scent with a sweet, sacred pleasure, the thrill of his lingering desire. Another flutter beats behind him, more insistently; he grimaces with sudden distaste. To be color-struck for this little Dixie trick seems wrong on so many levels. And sure enough, comes her voice, in the shadow of a song, to lead him into temptation. For if the love he seeks is forbidden, it sings, then he should eat whatever falls from that tree. He can’t walk upright like D’Angelo. He’s a weak and wanton man. A man whose taboos are made to be broken, whose heart is bent on sin.
The picture window where they’re sitting frames a grainy snapshot of the nearly deserted Village streets. The Open Pit blinks a blue neon invitation into the fading afternoon beyond. Several pedestrians pass by, but none stops in. Right now Adamson and D’Angelo are the only customers in the house, although the dark man tending the bar swore there’d be more. Adamson’s sure he’s right. The place is a dive, but it has some nice touches: the earth-toned walls smoked with shadows cast by the low glow of the candle lanterns fixed there; the black walnut bar, glossy as dark glass, set off to the side; the white pine tables in the dining area, gleaming with their own rich timbre; Robert Johnson singing the blues on the juke. He feels more at home now that he’s out of his old suit, and into his short sleeves and jeans. D’Angelo, having shed his own rich rags for Raiders and Lakers gear, now seems a shade more subdued. “How’s the food here, again?” Adamson asks, to shake him out of his funk.
“Five-star,” D’Angelo answers. But his eyes stay fixed on the TV above the bar tuned silently to CNN. A slideshow of the Middle East flashes by in bright bursts. The holy wars in Syria and Iraq grind on amid rumors of war in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the toll keeps climbing, even though the crusaders are gone. From a cleft in the desert, a caliphate is born, and its minions burn beneath the tattered burned flag of their god. In Gaza, they plot the bloody end of their oppressors; on the West Bank, they keep the murdering terrorists in their sights. The shroud of Osama, swathed in white, appears on an Al-Jazeera feed, with green Arabic script flowing beneath him. Then he fades to black, then there’s a happy bleach commercial, and then fifteen minutes of Britney Spears.
The waitress returns with their order. By some mysterious conjury, her charm’s entirely vanished. Without his glasses and in the bad light Adamson seems to see her more plainly, the cake of her makeup, the fake red of her lips. She sets down their platters, and Adamson’s tea, and D’Angelo’s weird foreign beer. “Put it on my tab,” D’Angelo orders. Then he hands her a two-dollar tip. She can’t mistake his meaning; his leer says more than enough. She couldn’t be more shamed if he had slapped her. But she doesn’t refuse the money. She folds the bills into her apron and retreats in silence again.
“Painted whore.” D’Angelo spits as if he’s swallowed a bottle of lye. Adamson feels a pang of pity for his girl, but he figures he’d best keep his mouth shut, since D’Angelo’s paying for his meal. The prosecutor pauses for a moment of grace, but Adamson digs right in. The food’s even better than advertised, the dinner rolls hot, the coleslaw sweet, the fish steaks battered and fried just right. Although he’s mighty hungry, he chews slowly, relishing every bite. But as he licks his fingers, he feels suddenly ill at ease; he looks up then to find D’Angelo watching him, taking him all in, and giving nothing away—his round face fuliginous, opaque, an unreflective disc, a new moon shedding a night shade of light, fixed over the pointed steeple of his folded hands. There’s a depth to his flat scrutiny that Adamson can’t immediately fathom. Behind that poker face, the dark unknown. “If I had your cards,” D’Angelo finally says, “I’d throw all of mine away.”
At first the words seem sarcastic, but D’Angelo never smiles. So Adamson laughs at his own expense. His car repair bill will come to four hundred dollars. He wonders, not idly, if he’ll make next month’s rent. Last month his old girl walked out on him because they never went anywhere. And one of The Reformer’s fringe benefits is that it doesn’t provide insurance. He falls between the cracks of the health care act; God forbid he should ever get sick. In a heartbeat, he’d trade this twilight existence for D’Angelo’s sun-kissed life. He sees himself in right ascension, a black star radiant in its bright white firmament—the poster boy for Obama’s new day, Martin Luther King’s dream come true.
But D’Angelo mocks that scheme as lemon pie-in-the-sky, a figment of bitter sweetness and light. The underworld where he dwells is harder and harsher. Each day he suffers through another trial by fire. Among his peers he’s not a prosecutor, but a prisoner in the dock. Their court comes to order in a hall of smoke and mirrors. He faces no accuser, that he might defend himself; a verdict’s never rendered, only quietly understood. Judgment is handed down from a seat of silent conviction, an unexpressed opinion, a consensual finding of contempt. The final sentence too is passed upon him wordlessly, by bright and shining faces so convivial and friendly, killing him with kindness, smiling with their teeth. He answers their abhorrence with his own resounding silence, sure that in the end he’ll have the final say. In the meantime, he’s consigned to a burning, boiling lake. His eyes seethe in their sockets, his tongue melts in his mouth. The blackened skin falls, peeling, from his bones…
“You feel me,” D’Angelo says. He believes that we’re living in the promised Last Days, when the children of light fly, enraptured, up to heaven, while the children of darkness stand judged upon the earth. And he has no doubt about who’ll be left behind: They’re heartless, bloodless, the color of death, marked from cradle to grave. On the surface they seem innocuous enough, but D’Angelo’s in no wise fooled. He sees the smallest evil eye, hears the slightest feigned inflection. He knows the truth that lies beneath the white man’s human face. “The pale face speaks with a fork in its tongue. It lies like a snake in the grass.”
He plays this role with subliminal delight, the infidel as grand inquisitor, boiling white bastards in their own fat oil, burning white bitches at the stake. D’Angelo’s not even fifty years old, but his neo-militancy echoes the seminal moment before his birth, the big bang of Watts, the background radiation of The Nation. He teaches an older testament against the heart of Western culture, its principles and mores; he makes black light of the Judeo-Christian ethic, searing it as stark as any teaching in the Qur’an. His voice turns sepulchral, almost theatrical, in the gloom. “An I for an I,” he solemnly intones. “A truth for a truth.”
His words would blister the virgin ears of his law colleagues, who condescend to think that he’s their boy. From the underground he speaks in tones so low that they could never hear. They wouldn’t understand him if they could. What his so-called friends in the office would say, if they could see him now:
“The white man is the original sinner—a bad seed—a rotten egg.” His mouth curls at this last remark, as if at the stink of sulfur. The corrupt smell from the rotten shell of the so-called master race: master criminal, master villain, master rogue. “The master plan: a thousand years of the white man’s burden, the egg man’s yoke.” He perfectly pitches the old imperialist line, hamming it up like a bad actor: “ ‘The only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that—
“ ‘They are the focus of evil in the modern world.’ ”
Putting The Gipper, finally, in his place is such a satisfying irony, such sweet poetic justice, that Adamson finds himself nodding along, feeding on the force of his sweeping indictments. D’Angelo keeps talking, soft and low, but with a deceptive power. His voice has a pleasing cadence that captivates the ear, rising to a pitch that almost rivals music. The effect is spellbinding. Adamson might not agree with all that he says, but he’d defend to the death the way he says it. The bitter words flow slow like butter, sweet as honey, smooth as milk:
“The monster race: the white man always finishes first, and everyone else comes last.” He opens the rolling scroll that names the capital offenses against them, which spire to such a scale and scope as to make you stop and wonder: the agony of Africa; the forcible rape of Asia; the aggravated assaults against the aborigines of Australia; the first degrees of murder against America’s First Nations….
Adamson then is taken up to the top of a high mountain—no, not a mountain, but a massive, smoldering volcano—and when he’s set down on the edge of its smoking rim, he looks over, and sees the Abyss. Its cauldron seethes with the torrefying heat of D’Angelo’s vision—enough to char the earth, and boil away the water and air—a bottomless bowl that churns with all their multitudes of mortal sins, a galloping horde headed by famine and war, plague and mass extinction, the four horsemen of the Western apocalypse. The promised land of a new post-racial society is exploded by this blast from the past. A trumpet cries from the jukebox, and the earth seems smitten with evil, fascism and slavery, communism and colonialism, genocide and apartheid. It’s a reign of terror unmatched since the end of Eden, with millions upon millions lost over the millennia, from the most humble island nations to the greatest kingdoms and continents, and yes, even half the planet, the whole New World from Alaska to Argentina, from sea to shining sea. He sees a flood of blood that drowns even their own land, the state of war between the states of Europe since before Europe even was born, from the time Cro-Magnon first appeared in France and wiped Neanderthal out of existence, to the modern-day butchers of Belgrade, with their ethnic cleansing campaigns. The most murderous tyrants in history germinate from the white rose of Civilization, for the pistil in this flower is the power of the gun. From Kashmir to Palestine, from Rwanda to Iraq, his killing fields bear the seeds of his strange designs, the false borders dividing the nations, and a bitter harvest of bloodshed and strife. And as ye sow, so shall ye reap, and the tree is known by its fruit.
“In all of this he’s practiced the subtlest cunning, the softest art.” D’Angelo recites from Genesis, which tells the tale about the serpent; he quotes from Revelations, which knows the nature of the beast. He thinks he has the egg man’s number, that is, dominion over the earth, the rule of divide and conquer, veni, vidi, vici; but first to hide his purpose behind a charming, disarming smile—
Like a villain with a smiling cheek—
An evil soul, producing holy witness,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. D’Angelo grins, and pauses for dramatic effect.
Adamson smiles back stupidly, though he knows what’s coming next.
“The white man is the devil.”
Adamson keeps smiling. He never knows what to say. For a moment, he thinks D’Angelo might be right. This epiphany comes, not as a bolt from the blue, but as a pentecostal tongue of light, an ember inflamed by many such talks, held over many nights. His mind has turned from certain denial, to now, a certain doubt. He’s moved by the evidence of his own hard experience, and D’Angelo’s compelling logic. The night wings unfurling behind him now would be enough to lift him to flight. But, though the case on its face seems appealing, for some reason still he resists it. At the moment of truth he’s unable to make that final leap of faith. He chalks this up, again, to his spineless spirit, his inveterate failure of will.
Suddenly he’s aware of how hot it is in here. Their voices blend into a rising babble; the Pit is filling up. D’Angelo falls silent and stares, nodding, into his drink. His drained pitcher casts a translucent shadow on the table; the bones on his plate are picked clean. Adamson excuses himself and escapes to the men’s room towards the back of the bar. As he crosses the floor, he spies their waitress at a table near the bathroom door. Across from her sits the dark barkeep, flashing his bit of money, flicking a cigarette. The sight of her there is like seeing the ghost of something; Adamson stops and catches his breath. She turns towards him then and smiles sweetly, and watches him waver through a veil of smoke and light, and will not speak.
The sun begins its last long descent into night. A thin fog of pollution fractures its rays into streams of lavender and fire. As the day disappears, just over the homes on the horizon, dark clouds are rising; storm warnings already are posted in several neighboring counties. It’s almost certain that the city, too, will see some heavy weather later on. Already there’s been a steady drop in temperature. The thunderheads roll in slowly from the west, like ink seeping across the pastels of the sky. The wind that drives them carries their scent of rain.
In the face of that wind, on a dim, lonely corner, Adamson stands, head bowed, shivering slightly. Earlier, at dinner, D’Angelo had hinted that they might take a tour of the town, maybe check out a show, take in a few sights. Adamson said he was all in. He was still luxuriating in the ride home from church: Rollin’ like a gangsta, the lord of the earth, in a chariot of frosted pearl, the diamond light from a fallen star that would grant his every wish, sinking him shamefully, gratefully, into the deepest seat of decadence, the very lap of guilty indulgence. But when they stepped outside, he was surprised and disappointed. The Escalade was nowhere in sight. “Man, where’s your ride?” he asked in a high voice, but D’Angelo just kept walking. They’d gone on for some blocks before he figured it out. The wind laughed at him through some trees. By then, they’d already reached the point of no return, and to go back would’ve seemed impolitic. So, against the threat of rain, they pressed on south along the avenue, up to, and then beyond, the Village limits. The whole world seemed to darken as they walked along the way; as if by the slight of some invisible hand, the houses turned duller, bleaker, poorer, right before their eyes. It was some time before Adamson saw that they’d strayed far from the main road into a labyrinth of side streets and blind alleys. They walked a while longer through the failing half-light before stopping at this anonymous curb. Now D’Angelo—glimmering in his gold Magic Johnson jersey, his Raiders ball cap cocked sideways—laments the desolation all about them, the blocks of run-down houses, and lots with empty shops. He grieves the downward spiral of despair and drugs and death. “All my people suffering,” he says beneath his breath.
Adamson hopes that they don’t get jacked. Past sunset on the corner in this west side hood is not where he wants to be. He braces against a rising breeze, a chilling taste of the fall. The low pressure heightens the inner city’s urban beat. Some boys with their box hip-hop in an abandoned church yard on the opposite corner. Alone across the street stands the old Goldman’s Market, a relic of the neighborhood’s past. The windows are all broken out and boarded up, and the black artists have been at work. The storefront’s been defaced by graffiti and glyphs, pitchforks, hexagrams, and warning signs:
FIGHT THE POWER
NO JUSTICE NO PEACE
DO THE RIGHT THING
Through the heart of one six-pointed star, someone’s sprayed a thick black line. The shopkeeper, no dummy, could read the writing on the wall. He’s long gone, disappeared like smoke, as if he were never here. Adamson feels how sad it is that Mr. Goldman had to leave. D’Angelo says that it’s not so bad, as if reading Adamson’s mind. “Don’t be deceived, they’re in league with the devil. The Jew is just an egg in a yarmulke.”
Adamson starts to ask, What about the Falasha, the African Jews, the long-lost tribe of Israel? But his thick tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth. The night tide swells instead with D’Angelo’s blackest humor, a caustic, pyritic sendup of Old Judah’s golden rule: “Do unto others, as you would have them due unto you.” He blasts them to ashes with a host of horrible names, mite, parasite, bagel-snatcher, thief; hook-nose, hookworm, bloodsucker, leech. “Old Jew-das,” he jokes. “He’d sell your soul for a pittance of silver pieces.”
Adamson thinks that’s funny. That’s not what he remembers at all. All he recalls are fragments of scenes from some other time and space: deli cases stocked with meat and cheese, baskets packed with peaches and pears; the banter and gossip of customers come to market on a Saturday morning; the bald, bearded grocer who attended to them, and seemed to know them all by name. In his mind’s eye he smiles weakly at Mr. Goldman, standing behind his counter, adding up the cost. The shopkeeper seems to see him too, and returns his sorry glance with a warm lucid stare. In his deadpan glare, Adamson reflects on King’s admonition against the silence of good people. But he doesn’t speak up.
And so D’Angelo raises up, unfettered, unhindered, and rains his curses upon them with a venomous, incendiary anger, spewing fire and brimstone down around all the house of Israel, and the whole Caucasian nation, from here to Timbuktu. Adamson nods as if in silent assent, but all the while he’s thinking, Lord have mercy. He fears the specters raised by these grave apparitions, the devil white man, the vampire Jew. Their howling comes to haunt him from the center of the earth. A siren wails mournfully in the distance, then softly dies; in its wake arrives a lull in the rush of nighttime traffic. The hush before the storm mutes even the music across the street. From within the well of silence rises a harsh and deadly scratching, a hard incessant rattle, a slow and steady bump. The boys in the yard all stop and stare, as if they can sense what’s coming. D’Angelo turns too, craning his neck, straining to see what’s the matter.
The answer comes in the slow turning of a wheel, the excruciating scrape of a broken rim on pavement. The bad wheel that bumps and grinds is fixed to an old shopping cart. The rusted cart, filled with bottles and cans, clangs and clatters as it limps along. The appearance of the man who’s pushing it raises even more noise from the boys across the street:
Dr. Yo, Dr. Yo, the god-dam body snatcher
chased a young girl up the street
to see if he could catch her
One boy, pointing, saw him last night, and again this morning, and now again this evening:
That old mother fucker must never sleep.
Now Adamson shudders, not from the chilling night air, but from the sudden visitation of this strange, familiar angel—Dr. Yo, a modern-day haint, making his rounds in the night. D’Angelo frowns, a bit confused by all the fuss. “What’s all that about?” he asks.
Adamson can’t believe that he really doesn’t know. In the midst of the coming rain, and the black storm immediately about to break, he gathers himself, like a camper around his fire telling a tale of consummate horror, and he gives your boy the scoop, tells him the whole story.
Let him sleep on this.
Is there atonement for crimes against humanity?
That is the question which ultimately haunts Josef Auslander. Adamson saw him yesterday, an old gray man in a soiled lab coat, pushing his cart up the street. He was picking through trash for old bottles and cans; these days a pound of cans might bring fifty cents, and if he found one Dr. Josef seemed unable to believe his good fortune. He giggled into his dirty beard and bounced his cart more rapidly along. He’s lived in the neighborhood forever, from the time it was a community of Jews, ages ago; he stayed here long after the masses of blacks, seeking sanctuary, made their exodus from the South, and the Jews all moved to the suburbs. To Adamson, he looked withered and wasted, but somehow still frightfully alive—a dead man walking, a resurrected corpse, preserved by some awful necromancy. Even the kids across the street know why he’s called Dr. Yo. It’s because of the medicine he malpracticed across the waters, way back when. He says that he performed castration experiments on children then.
Yesterday he said, I have burnt more bodies in the earth than there are stars in heaven.
And went bumping his cart up the street. Decent folk in the neighborhood avoid Dr. Josef, and the hard-hearted ones mock him and laugh. Dr. Josef sometimes joins in their laughter. He recalls a time when the first escapees from the camps, who sought to warn their people of the inferno to come, also were ignored, or treated like fools. A big lie is easily swallowed as the truth, but the enormity of a truth can be unpalatable. So Dr. Josef doesn’t mind it if they laugh. Adamson doesn’t laugh. He sees the clarity in his silver eyes, hears the metal in his voice. The absence of what is there reflects the presence of what is missing.
The doctor swears that at the small camp in Eastern Galicia where he served perhaps a quarter of a million souls perished, but he is more impressed that any one survived at all. This is the Jeopardy answer to his question of atonement: he fears what is the source of the miracle of the remnant. For all this time he’s kept discreet about such matters, lest he finally be discovered, and the Mossad come and execute its vengeance. For decades now his life has been banal. He’s long since retired from the trauma center where he served as a simple orderly, an ordinary man (perfectly ordinary, extra-ordinary) who willingly did the dirty work, day shift in the psychiatric ward, night shift in the morgue. But lately he’s begun to purge himself of all his crimes, and bear witness to what he’s seen, vomiting out confessions of hideous slaughter on a mass industrial scale, and of infinitely fiendish tortures to rival them. He tells of burning corpses that fueled a deep ravine of fire, and black smoke that blotted out the skies. He speaks of his little clinic, and within it, the unspeakable cries, his razor poised above the pleading lamb.
Now does the monster beg forgiveness? How dare he, and how dare he not? Adamson cannot say. That hole in his soul the doctor will not unseal. He imagines him sitting, head in hands, alone in his forsaken belfry. Moonlight shines on skeletal beams and crumbling walls and floating particles of dust. He’s wished so terribly to follow him there, up to the shuttered bell tower where he lives, to seek him, and find him out—to see if there’s any survival of the man, or if the beast has won completely. It’s the high price of the Whole Cost, a penny for his thoughts.
Of this the doctor once offered a rare gleaning. One evening last winter Adamson was waiting for a bus when the doctor appeared beside him soundlessly, without his cart, as if he’d materialized out of the snow. He muttered into his beard for a minute or two, and then spoke clearly:
At war’s end I escape out of Janowska, a step ahead of the Red Army, and then escape from Berlin, a step ahead of Nuremberg. I spend some time in South America before escaping into the North, a step ahead of the Mossad. And I live here, among the jew, undetected, unsuspected. When the jew leave and the negro come I stay on, for the ghetto suited me.
Can you spare a dollar? I don’t even have a dime for the bus ride to the mission for my supper. It’s not that I’m a beggar. I have more than enough to eat. These days I live on the memories of when I was a boy. My mother prepared the most mouth-watering meals. (He salivated, licking his chops.) My father was a butcher. We always had fresh meat.
Do you believe that I could be domestic? In my basement there is an old gas oven, that is dormant; the pilot light no longer burns, the line is disconnected. Yet some nights still I awaken and rise to clean my stove. I scour the range and coils until they shine like copper. Until they burn like brass. To savor a last supper from my father’s shop, of tender roasted lamb—it is a dream that I have even in my latter days, to turn the power on.
It’s ten o’clock.
Adamson stops, checks his watch, and listens for the tolling of the bell. Right on time, here it comes, ten funereal tones from the Scottish Rite Cathedral, the great gray church on Meridian Street. He likes to walk downtown at night, to hear the sounding silence, to see the shades of black and white, so different from the day. Tonight a new rain glistens on the pavement and the streets. He strolls whistling past the cathedral and the War Memorial Museum, a columned limestone tower raised to the State’s unconquered dead. The museum at night gleams like a mausoleum, cool and clean and white.
Here lies the final solution to all human ruminations, the fine line between infinity, and zero. Adamson trails through a vale of shadows, stroking his reddish goatee. His sainted grandmother used to say the one truth about Lucifer was that he never could see his own face. At the time, he thought she was just blowing smoke. Now he’s finally seen the light. Earlier tonight, in the bar restroom, he was washing his hands in the soap-stained sink when he caught a glimpse in the mirror. From beyond the glass stared a copper-toned man sporting a Van Dyke beard and mustache. “Black like me,” the white man said. It was a twilight zone moment far stranger than any dream. Adamson splashed some cold water on his face for several seconds. Then he opened his eyes (carefully), and came to himself again.
He wondered what D’Angelo would say about that. A trick of the mind’s glass eye, perhaps, or A matter of light and depth. That would be the Gudeløs talking; the beer twisted his tongue, and turned his phrases, and made him too clever by half. Adamson, not even half as clever, would never try to keep up. He just watched with fascination as the fire water formed negatives of words, strobe globes backlit by a blinding black light, and the shades of an umbrageous brilliance.
Or maybe he’d say nothing at all. For when Adamson had finished his account of Dr. Josef, he stood there and waited in a breach of numinous silence, like Moses on his mount, like Daniel in his den, like Elijah in the night, in the mouth of his cave, waiting for a divine intervention: a tornado, an earthquake, the fire next time—with the patience of Job, he waited. He stood there, waiting, for quite a long time, but the answer never came. D’Angelo just studied to him soberly, without comment. For a moment, his eyes seemed to glisten with reflection. He steadied himself, and checked his watch. Then he said it was time to go.
They’d gone so far that they couldn’t walk back, and so Adamson called a cab. Luckily, their ride arrived just before the storm. The rain was like a second Great Flood, the drumming on the car top loud enough to wake the dead. D’Angelo managed, somehow, to sleep the whole way home, while Adamson kept rhythm with the rain. By the time they reached Broad Ripple, the downpour had stopped. When the taxi came to rest, Adamson was ready to go his way, but D’Angelo snapped awake and invited him in. “Come on here and back me up,” he said as they walked to the porch.
Before he could find his keys, his wife opened the door. She said nothing, but simply stood in the way, a bridling avatar of fury and scorn. “What up, baby?” he said, but she refused his embrace. “I been to church,” he added, and nodded over to Adamson. “And after?” she asked, before Adamson could even answer. D’Angelo hesitated, and then was lost. “Just one cup of tea,” he mumbled. But he’d always warned about his wife’s sixth sense. She could smell the beer cleansed from his breath: “Liar.” He didn’t even try to cop a plea; guilty, found out, he slinked into the house. She allowed him to pass, but her eyes followed him through the foyer until he disappeared around the corner. The honey-toned light of their porch lamp enveloped her, burnishing her dark lustrous hair and enriching the glow of her olive skin. Adamson was abashed by her beauty and her anger. She started back into her house, but then, as if for the first time, noticed him standing there, like some poor supplicant on her porch. He shuffled a bit, unnerved and stirred by her attention; hurriedly he searched for some witty, relevant remark. But what happened to y’all’s Escalade? was all he could think to say.
Gabrielle stared at him, her eyes twin points of night.
“Repossessed,” she said, and closed the door.
In the space of an hour, in the matter of a day. So karmic, and comic, that D’Angelo, too, had debts that he couldn’t pay. From the looks of his wife, he was in for a long night. Still, Adamson imagines him safe at home, awaiting his love’s absolution, kissing his two angel boys goodnight, and sleeping it off on the couch. Somehow the picture comforts him.
And helps him enjoy his walk. He wonders how to spend the rest of the night. The cab ride from Broad Ripple cost him his last dollar, and so he’ll have to find some other way home. In the meantime, he decides to head out to the Canal Overlook, a riverwalk ornamented with sparkling fountains, and lined with fine apartments and shops. The canal attracts joggers, skateboarders, and strollers, and is especially beautiful at night, lit then by graceful, arching streetlamps, their haloes gently troubling the dark waters. A paddle boat can be rented there for about seven dollars, and Adamson some evenings likes to come and watch all the families, friends and lovers splashing about in the man-made stream, bathing in the human lights.
But tonight it seems he’s out of luck. Due to the late hour and the passage of the storm, the canal is nearly deserted; there’s just one boat on the water, a couple, silhouetted, quietly adrift. Adamson is disappointed. He was hoping there’d be more. He settles on the edge of a wet park bench and stares off into the middle distance.
And so he misses all the intimacies of this one pair—how close they sit, how soft they touch, how sweet and long they kiss. How the water casts a pool of gold, and the fine lines of its ripples upon them; how their faces reflect this play of light and shadow, of which they seem entirely innocent.