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Oct/Nov 2014 Fiction

North and South

by Kevin Louis McFadden

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff


My mother died face down on a loose-leaf pad. The following summer I tried to get lost. It started with a series of train rides into the Bronx, over to Brooklyn, and back on the Pascack Valley line from Secaucus. I rode trains into neighborhoods I had never been to, journeyed through blocks that spoke New York City Spanish and Chinese. But after a short time, I couldn't get lost that way. Strangers bought me lunch and showed me around, schooled me on corners and street signs. Soon I was recognized all over, invited in for dinner as the white kid with no mom, welcomed with an air mattress and a washcloth. But I got so sick of talking about myself and meeting people who wanted to help. I wanted to fade away into whatever vortex people disappear into in New York, but I didn't know the way. I wanted to wipe away the memory that I had known anyone in the world at all or that they had known me.

A train from Penn Station brought me first through Virginia. I cut off completely from my other life on the Amtrak, sat cross-legged and cross-armed while different people attempted conversation. I walked around somewhat southern towns at night no longer than a few hours, stopped in bars that sold beer cars by the tracks. I ran into a man in Prince William County who told me he hadn't used a real bathroom since grade school. Just stop and go, he said, and caught his falling porkpie hat before it hit the dirt of his piss puddle. That's how it went for the first third of the trip, mostly engaging people briefly when they insisted. Anonymous again in the world, my only relative now settling into the dirt like the rest of them in St. Anthony's Cemetery. I tried not to think of my mother that way, tried to let those still-frame memories of summertime dissipate and dissolve into the air. Sometimes it worked, and I felt unknown and strong, like I had some sort of power over myself and everyone else. Other times it didn't, and those sun-stained memories of ordinary afternoons hammered away at me as if I were stuck in the ocean with the waves breaking.

Roanoke I remember for the rats. More there than in the Bronx or Brooklyn. Fleets of infested foot soldiers digging through garbage bins. I could not figure out how the rats grew to such a size. The streets were pristine. City hands manicured sidewalks nobody walked on. The garbage bins didn't stink or overflow, in fact often were empty. Also I remember Roanoke for all the red. The street signs, Montgomery and Avis and Blue Bird, were red, not green, with white lettering. Fluorescent lamps sat at crosswalk intersections with red bulbs shading the vehicles. I walked around the city circle twice before heading back to the train at night. I wanted to stop in a particular coffee shop both times I passed it. The lights inside had still been on, but there was only one man there cleaning up behind the counter. The Brew-U sign was neon green and orange, and I liked how it was different than the rest of the shops. I circled the place a few times on my last lap of the city, sort of smelled the coffee beans and heard the music, but decided it was closed, or almost closed, and no one had invited me in.

Halfway down the coast I spoke to a woman on the train. Her blonde hair was in a crazy high wave of humidity. There was sweat on the front of her pink Virginia Beach tank top that was a few sizes small on her. Three full, black garbage bags rested at her feet and jiggled with the movement of the train. I noticed her first for the hair and the bags, then this large upturned nose and yellow teeth. A waiter in the food car took the order of two old men smoking cigarettes. They were ashing always at the same time, drinking identical drinks made with Blue Curacao.

"What do you think they ordered?" I asked the woman in the VA Beach tank.

"Grilled cheese," she said like she'd been waiting for me to speak up.

"I bet they ordered Monte Cristos," I said. "With powdered sugar and jam. In triangles."

"Don't be like that," she said.

"Never mind," I said.

"They ordered grilled cheese. The fat one's with tomato and mozzarella."

"How can you be sure of things?" I asked.

"I just make it up," she said and searched through one of her garbage bags for something to show me.

Virginia turned into the Carolinas while the woman searched the rest of her bags. Outside the windows of a train, the country looked like a slideshow on fast-forward. Green shades and brown rock formations slid into one another. The destinations don't sneak up on you if you're paying attention. You watch the next stop coming from miles away so that it just sort of forms out of the grass and trees and hills and mountains you've been looking out at for days. But the stops in North Carolina surprised me. The train stopped in cities like Raleigh and Charlotte, and I was surprised that there weren't only beach towns and backwoods. But as the train settled back into speed and crushed for South Carolina, the landscape was lush with greens and mountains, and it looked like a good place to get lost in. So when the train finally stopped somewhere and sighed, let all the moving parts take a breath, I did the same.

"I'm getting off," I said to the woman, who was still searching her bag for something special.

"Wait," she said and pulled out something like a snow globe from the middle garbage bag. "Can you kiss the monkey skull first?"

She handed me a glass case with the dehydrated, brown skull resting on some sand. The base of the skull was the size of a racquetball, the teeth large like they could still bite. The whole thing was the size of my palm.

"It's good luck if you kiss it," she said.

"I'm not so sure about luck," I said, thinking about how it had done me thus far. Where might I rank on the luck scale? People don't think of orphans as good luck charms, necessarily, but fortune hadn't killed me young, either. Hadn't taken me and left my mother crushed. Just took her when her boy was 25, and isn't that a good time in one's life to move past things quickly? Mostly I was fine with the money from insurance, and I was moving now, and it was getting warmer outside the widows of the train. So I kissed the monkey skull with open lips.

"Thanks," I said. "Now I've got somewhere to be."

"Are you lost?" she asked.

"Sort of."

"Can you do me this?" the woman asked. "Let me off here, too."

We got off together. I even carried one of her garbage bags out to the platform and then set it down. It was lighter than I expected, mostly full of what felt like clothes. But every few steps, I felt something with an edge poke my backside, and I wondered what she kept in there. When we got to the platform's edge, she told me to yell the town's name aloud. That was another form of good luck.

"Spartanburg!" I yelled out off the open platform.

"Spartanburg!" she yelled and kissed the skull once more. "Want one more kiss?"

"Sure," I said and kissed the glass around the skull again with heavy, open lips. Then I kissed her on the cheek in the same dramatic way I had kissed the skull, sort of caressing her head while I did so.

"Follow me," she said right after she pulled away from my kiss.

She took me through neighborhoods like I had never seen. I guessed that they were neighborhoods, but there weren't many houses. The yards were vast and bright in places unshaded by the spreading laurel oaks. Some were ten-stories high, and under groups of those trees, the shade went out many acres and surrounded us. Spanish moss hung off the grand trees, creating a somewhat eerie and Halloween-like decoration, like there were some gothic spiders webbing all over. In those shaded places under the oaks, the grass was soft and the soil loose and easy, and in certain spots the grass was as damp and dark as moss. We walked straight through these grand yards, or ownerless fields, with the woman leading. She sort of cruised like a pontoon over the rolling grass acres of front yards / open fields. The garbage bags gave her balance on both sides. The sweat on her shirt had grown to form large engulfing ovals over both her sides and under her arms. Still, her pace was steady and without complaint. She walked as if she knew where she was going.

"Do you feel it?" she asked as we settled into one of those extended shade-havens.

"Yeah," I said. "I'm beat." I tossed her the bag I had been carrying since the train platform.

"So are you lost yet?" she asked.

"Sort of," I said. "What do you think?"

She started unpacking her things from the garbage bags. "Could you get back to the train alone?"

"I don't think so," I said and made myself comfortable in the grass.

She shuffled through her garbage bags, pulling out tank tops and sweatshirts. Some things she hid from me. Her delicate valuables like the monkey skull were wrapped tightly in newspaper or dirty cotton shirts. It reminded me of how my mother unpacked Christmas ornaments for the tree. Every year it was the same thing. My mother had me struggle the boxes out of the attic, and she would delicately unwrap the ornaments like they were the Christmas gifts themselves. My mother always loved delicate things, loved the manner in which one had to handle them. You have to be delicate to love delicate things. The difference between my mother and this woman was this woman's delicates were fossils and dead things, random bones to common animals like dogs and cats, an encased exotic skull, a dried out white rose, and other maudlin things. She had the same precision with which my mother unwrapped, slowly laying the items flat, then unfolding them one at a time.

"You into Root Magic?" I asked.

Her smile sobered as she continued to unpack her things in a giant circle, until bones and dark mementos surrounded her. She took off her pink Virginia Beach tank top and traded it for a green Key West pullover. In between shirts, she wiped the sweat from under her breasts with a rag from her garbage bag. We made eyes. Then she sat with them out for some time before she put on the pullover.

"Tell me something about yourself," she said.

I relaxed under the biggest oak.

"Come on," she insisted. "I don't get much like this."

"Let me kiss the skull again," I said. "I need some luck."

"Don't play up."

"Spartanburg!" I yelled out over hundreds of flat acres.

"Stop it."

"Spartanburg," I said again, but softer.

"Tell me something," she insisted.

"I'm an orphan," I finally said.

"Aren't we all?"

"My mom just died," I said.

"Mine, too. But a while ago. Keep going."

"What do I say?" I asked.

"Tell me something about you."

I stopped for a moment as she unwrapped the last of her collectables.

"I can bend all my fingers back," I said thinking back to grade school and how I used to make friends. She howled for me show her, even got on her tiptoes in excitement. So I bent my pinky finger first, all the way to the back of my hand, then my middle finger all the way up to my wrist.

"Wow," she said. "You're special. May I?"

I nodded. She pressed my little finger like I had just done, pushing gently to see how far she could bend it before the thing snapped. She smelled earthy when she came close, as if she had slept several nights outside or on the train. But it wasn't uninviting or grotesque; really her smell was of dirt and flower petals, freshly cut grass and damp, dirty clothes. Everything about this woman was straightforward.

"I love it," she said. "You're so bent."

She continued with all the fingers of my left hand, pressing them gently back, then measuring her own hand against mine. Half the size. Her touch was soft and tender and deliberate. She admired all the muscles and tendons that outlined my hands. She traced her nails along those sharp tendons under my knuckles, the big thick one coming off my thumb.

"Good to meet you," she said and shook both my hands with both of hers.

I walked around her memento circle after that, gently moving the individual pieces so I could fully understand what they were. I picked up what I figured to be a dog's leg bone and did some baton moves with it, flipped it in the air like a juggler might do with a bowling pin. She tensed for a while on top of her garbage bags and winced when I handled the items. When I flipped the bone in the air, she looked away, focused her stare out over the grand lawns as the sun went down. She was lighting single matches every few minutes just to watch them burn and go out.

"Do you know how to make a fire?" she asked.

"We're not going back to the train?"

"No," she said.

It got dark slowly in South Carolina, with a great rusty sunset that went blue in the final moments before it went black. Everything before the blue, before the sun went down, sort of glowed. Everything was golden for a long moment until I continued to inspect her delicates and then blundered. I could hardly see the details of what I was looking at, save for the inch or so of compressed light a single match provided. As I walked around her voodoo circle with a matchbook, I felt a tension in my neck and shoulders. After my mother died, whenever I began to feel that sort of tension, there was no way to settle it down. It would boil over and consume me. By then the bones in my hands were rigid, the muscles convulsing. Whatever it was in this woman's eyes, or in the moon alone behind the giant oaks, or how far I had come now, all of it amounted to exactly what I was looking for. This wasn't Roanoke or Rehrehsburg. And feeling the crush of a glass-encased monkey skull under my foot was as large a feeling as I can remember. It was like knocking over a china cabinet with a bulldozer. All I did was step back loosely, and it crumpled under my heel into immediate jigsaw pieces. I completely crushed the thing, flattened all the ancient rigid pieces under my sneaker. She shrieked at the first crunch, which startled me, and that's when I crushed the rest into dust.

The sound alone, like plates on tile floor, like brick through bay window, was enough to make everything else around us go silent. It paralyzed me for a long moment, the sound, and then the idea of what I had done. To ruin something that meant so much to someone you hardly knew. To ruin something vastly strange and delicate. The woman screamed again, and it howled over all the acres we had walked that day, and so I could not even really tell where she was anymore. She screamed as I backed over it, panicked, howled like a wind current as I smashed it good. I wanted to sprint across the grand yards, under the laurel oaks, serpentine, then hide out all night. I could outrun her, but I didn't know if I could make it back to the train. Perhaps I understood briefly in my paralysis, watching her scramble, that when one is truly lost, he is at the mercy of his surroundings. Without her, I would be completely alone. So instead of running, I fell to the ground with shards of glass and cranium digging into the fatty tissue of my kneecaps.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"Watch the glass," she said and scurried over to inspect the remains.

"It's so dark."

She picked up the big broken pieces of skull first and wrapped them in a bandana. Then she soaked my knee with a rag she wet with a water bottle to loosen the bits. She plucked out the glass with her fingernails. It reminded me of how my mother tweezed gravel out of my knees when I fell from my bike in the summertime. The way a mother can be angry and scared all at once, but not show any of that. It was gentle but deliberate, just as my mother had been, concentrating on cleaning her baby up so he could go back outside. But as soon as she was through, she slapped me. I felt her heavy rings rattle against my jaw.

"That was my favorite piece," she said. "That was my good luck."

"I know it was."

"Now we have to bury it." She picked up the bandana with the shards of skull and teeth. "Start digging."

She sat back under the biggest oak and continued to strike matches out of a paper matchbook. When she caught one, her face was the only thing I could see for acres. Her upturned nose and yellow teeth and humid hair. I wasn't so much in control anymore. My body moved without my head's direction, sleepwalking. I'm not sure if I was going along with this because I was interested, or if I was afraid I couldn't make it back to the train alone. Sometimes we get caught in certain situations where you have no choice. And when you have no choice, things are easy. Plug on. Hold your breath and hammer away. And wasn't this what I was looking for? So I dug in the dark with my hands while she watched me until she thought the hole was deep enough. Then we buried it together, her placing the pieces, me tossing the dirt back on. At my mother's funeral all my cousins were pallbearers, but I wasn't. Nobody even asked me to be. They assumed it was too much. And when they walked the casket outside and placed it in the hole, secured it on the lowering platform, I wished I had been. Or at least been one of the guys who shoveled the first few dirt heaps in there. During the ceremony I didn't go anywhere near the grave site. And I still hadn't.

"Say a prayer," she said.

I started in on a confessional, apologizing to her and then to the monkey, letting out a stew of tears and apologies for everyone I had encountered on the trip and not connected to. The man in Prince William County with the porkpie hat, the man behind the counter at the Brew-U in Roanoke, countless older women on the Amtrak South who had just wanted conversation. Then I started in on my mother, spewing sorrys and I'll come back soons, closing my eyes hard so I could picture her as someone my age. Someone I could encounter on the Amtrak and have gentle parting words with.

"Don't say it out loud," she said and knelt beside me by the hole.

For a long time we knelt by the monkey parts in the darkness under laurel oaks. I continued my confessional, but to myself, about how sorry I was that I had broken this thing that was so valuable to her. I knew she loved it viciously. And I had gotten hung up on it, too, kissing it and all, and staring at it under the light of a single match in the grand no-man's-land of Spartanburg. Also I was sorry because I hated the idea of bad luck. Especially because I was starting new. I wanted to get lost on this trip and then find something to stay for. And then I broke a good luck charm. From then on, when bad things fell on me, I would blame it on the skull. I would be forever forced into this introspection and superstition, grow into someone like that, someone with keepsakes and voodoo dolls. Someone with mantras and parables. Someone more like this woman than anyone I had ever known in New York.

After the kneeling and the prayers, she went to sleep in a pile of her clothes. She didn't make a sound all night. I sat under an oak tree for some time, making little balls out of the fallen pieces of Spanish moss, then flicking them. Sometime before the sun came up, I fell asleep. I dreamt she had taken all her things, and my things, and my wallet, and left me on somebody's lawn. Then the father of the household came out screaming and waving his hands. He chased me off the lawn with some horses and a sheepdog. I ran from the animals all night, under the oaks, through the wet and dry spots of the lawn, then back to the train. I found it when the horses were gaining on me.

When I awoke for real, sometime after noon, her things were still laid out as they were the night before. The mound where we had buried the skull was there with a handkerchief draped over it. The garbage bags, the bed of clothes, the white rose and other bones in a circle were untouched, but the woman was gone.

I waited hours for her return, played more with Spanish moss, then decided she left me for good. Perhaps she had forgotten we even did this, or that her things and I existed. I packed up some of the things I liked of hers in the shirts that were the least damp or dirty and rolled them up as she had, like Christmas ornaments. I walked all day with a garbage bag over my shoulder, sweating under the red sun of late afternoon. In my dream, the train station had been much closer. Eventually I made it to a road, and somebody stopped for me. I asked them for the train, and they said I had nearly made it; it was only a pitch through the trees. So I declined the ride, walked the last leg, and made it to the train platform but was unable to shout the town's name aloud because I was so out of breath. I bought a ticket south on the Amtrak and waited.

I watched Georgia roll into northern Florida without much of a change. It was still the South as I knew it, with postcard grass and ancient trees and so much space between stops. We passed some towns with names I had to say out loud, but I didn't want to get off until the train made its final stop in the Keys.

Before I left Spartanburg, I had dug up the pieces of the monkey skull. I opened the bandana of broken glass and skull shards on my lap as the train hitched and kept on towards the bottom of the country. Between my fingers the dirt filtered through and fell to the floor as I discarded the pieces of broken glass. I wrapped up just the monkey pieces and stashed the bandana. By that time, the surrounding land was shrinking into waterways, and the trees grew into ones more exotic and thin that swayed in the humid breeze. I was making progress.

The train made its final stop in Ft. Lauderdale. To arrive in The Keys, I learned from the man next to me, I needed to take a bus, and then if it was my first time, I should take a boat. I hauled the garbage bag and my personals off the train and walked to the nearest bus terminal. When you travel, you sort of begin to notice the ones like you. Others with similar goals and destinations. I followed other travelers to the bus terminal, mostly those in pairs or trios, dressed in open Bahamas shirts and flip-flops. We all got onto a small white mini-bus with open windows. Some lone travelers were already seated, mostly at the front and in window seats. At the very back of the bus, I saw this swell of blonde humid hair peaking up past the seat in front of it. As I walked towards the mess of hair, I wanted desperately for it to be her.

"You left me," I said as I pitched into the seat across the aisle from this woman, who was sitting in a similarly sweaty tank top, looking out the window. The hot air settled around the passengers and the engine rattled idly.

"Do I know you?" she asked.

"You left me."

"Left you where?" she asked and removed a small bottle of hair oil from a tiny leather purse slung over her shoulder. She began applying the greasy oil into her hair with her fingers spread wide. The oil smelled like baby lotion. That soft, attractive smell.

"I think I got this wrong," I said.

"Happens," the woman said and stuck her nose to the open portion of the tiny window like a dog might.

I sifted through the garbage bag now, watching this woman's hair in the breeze. The oil really did make it voluminous and shiny. The baby-oil smell soothed the otherwise overwhelming smell of sweat and suntan lotion in the bus.

"Can I show you something?" I asked her.

Her hair ran wild in the breeze out the back window.

"It's a good luck charm," I said. "It's a monkey skull."

I pulled out the red bandana with the broken pieces of skull and some whole teeth I had dug up. "It's a broken one," I said and handed her the flat bandana with the pieces.

She took the sheet gently and placed it on her lap as the bus hammered on and the windows let in more hot air. There was less and less land outside and even less grass. Everything was sand and rock and water, and the sky seemed to hang so low, the sun nearly crushed me through the window. The streets outside were doing the fizzle move like they used to on my cul-de-sac in August. The wavy edges of the asphalt shook with refracted light when the cool air from the sea mixed with the warm air of the highway. I could see little images in the refracted light: an intact monkey skull, a crazy haired woman, a porkpie hat, my mother's face, all dancing mirages that would appear and then vanish over the blacktop. The woman on the bus looked at the individual pieces, made her palm into a loose fist and shook some of the teeth. Then she slowly laid the broken pieces in the bandana on the seat next to her and kissed me gently on my sunburned forehead.

"I'm sorry that it's broken," she said as the bus slowed, then sighed with the brakes, and finally stopped. She smiled.

I took out more of the voodoo woman's things wrapped in her T-shirts from the garbage bag. I handed this other woman on the bus the dried white rose, the dog femur, and another piece of bone I didn't really understand.

"Thank you," she said and inspected them, felt their weight, kissed some of the more gruesome things.

"If you like them, they're yours," I said and handed her the rest of the garbage bags.

"Really?"

"Sure," I said.

She kissed me once more on my forehead as the bus sighed and changed gears.

The bus finally stopped outside some station. The couples and trios schlepped off the bus, flip-flopping down the aisle with their shoulder bags, until we were the only ones left on. The woman collected the pieces of skull in the bandana and wrapped them tightly, then dropped the ball into one of the garbage bags.

"Are you coming?" she asked, making her way down the aisle.

The wind off the water spread a heavy breeze through the bus that teased her crazy hair and soothed the sweat on my brow. I watched the shallow waves break easy in all directions by the boat that was to take us to the Keys. Exotic red birds hung silently from the dock's pillars; some fish jumped in the wake. The boat's engine started humming, signaling its departure. We leapt on the back and rode towards the sun. When we passed the point of breaking waves, the woman removed the bandana with the monkey pieces from the garbage bag and emptied the contents over the edge. The teeth and granules of skull disappeared under the surface like ashes.

 

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