Bread, Fish, Serpent, Stone
When Ezra Cato was released from the state mental hospital, he wasn’t quite the person he had been ten months before. He was still twenty-five years old, six foot four, and given to a loping, slightly slew-footed means of locomotion, and the kind and trusting nature that had gotten him in trouble in the first place had survived intact. But the drugs used to treat his “agitation” had made him slower than slow. As he was leaving the day room for the last time, a fellow inmate sidled up and confided, “Don’t ever forget your meds, man. I thought that God was talking to me, but now I know that it was just my own thoughts. Imagine that.” Ezra wasn’t sure what the man meant, but he considered it a resounding endorsement of medication. He made a mental note and immediately lost it in the foggy forest of his mind.
As if by magic, his car was waiting for him in front of the hospital. Someone must have retrieved it for him, but he didn’t have the energy just now to wonder who or from where. As he drove off down the bright green tunnel of a long tree-lined boulevard, he reflected on the fact that he had no place of his own to go to because his last unfortunate friendships had divested him pretty much entirely of place and property. But he had close to a hundred dollars in his pocket and a bank account somewhere (he couldn’t think where just now). And he recollected that his mother had an extra bedroom. Why, he could ask to stay with her until he got a job and could rent his own place.
The gas tank was almost empty, so he stopped to fill it up at the first station he came to in Arcady. Afterwards, he pulled the car around to a telephone booth on the side. Consulting a tattered piece of paper in his wallet, he dialed his mother’s number only to hear a familiar phone company message: she had changed her number yet again to a new unlisted one. Heaving with sighs that he finally banished by counting and losing count of the telephone poles he passed, he drove to her house on Rialto Vitale. As he parked, he noticed–with a befuddlement that quickly became a nagging but far-off alarm–that all her windows and doors had been covered with heavy black security bars.
She came to the door, but she didn’t open it all the way, and she pushed herself into the space she did open as if she were guarding something behind her. She whispered indifferently, “Hey, Ezra. How are you?” When Ezra said he was fine but needed a place to stay till he got on his feet again, she practically hissed, “You can’t stay here! He’s here.” And when Ezra said “He who?” she said, “My husband” in that tone of exasperation that she deployed on the numerous occasions when someone had failed to read her mind or divine one of her many obscure secrets.
“I didn’t know you’d married again, Mama. Congratulations. When? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Didn’t tell nobody. Nobody’s business.” A muffled roar emanated from somewhere in the darkness behind her. As she closed the door she loudly whispered, “I got to go, let’s talk later.” Then Ezra was just talking to the door when he said, as he had often said, “Mama, I can’t get in touch with you if you don’t give me your number.”
Ezra stood there for a few minutes trying to think in a straight line about his mother. Although he had lived primarily with his father after his parents divorced when he was six, he had always felt somehow close to her. She had insisted on depositing a hundred dollars a month in his bank account while he was in the hospital, but she had come to see him only once, and even then she wouldn’t look him in the eye when she talked to him. She kept looking around as if she thought someone might grab her and keep her there too. She had sent him notes from time to time, but never any mention of a new husband. In his mind he drew a balloon around his mother’s unfathomable being and let it fly up high in the air above his head where he couldn’t see it.
No one was at home at his father’s house in Oak Point, so he sat in his car listening to the radio until it got dark and his father arrived, followed shortly after by his stepmother, Barbara. Unlike his mother, they seemed genuinely glad to see him and wanted to know why he hadn’t mentioned his release when they had visited him, as they routinely did, last week. Well, he hadn’t really known then, but when he said that, he saw one of their looks pass between them. Ezra said, “If it’s too much trouble, I can look for someplace else to stay. I just thought . . . .” But Barbara quickly interjected, “No, of course you’ll stay here till you get a job. We’ll be glad to have you!”
Dad and Barbara must have been really tired, because they looked pretty glum at dinner. Ezra tried to muster up some cheer by telling them a joke he had heard in the hospital but didn’t really understand. Barbara reached across the table and squeezed his father’s hand. Later, his father hugged him good night and held him tight for a moment, said, “I’m glad you’re home, son.”
As Ezra settled into his old bed in his old room, he felt that he could actually count up his new store of faith and hope if he wanted to, and he quickly went to sleep. However, as he slept he went down into that bad place. Just about everyone he knew was standing on a platform in a tunnel and he was sailing by and shouting through the widening distance to his father: “Do you love me or don’t you?” His father leaned forward to hear but something like a screen shot up between them. On the screen a school of dancing technicolor fish were winking and waggling and singing “don’t’youdon’tyoudon’tyoudon’tyou.” Ezra was trying to push his way to the back of the boat through a crowd of towering chameleons in evening dress when the whole scene started to crack apart with a terrifying din that soon transformed into the angry alarm he had set so he could get an early start on his new day, his new life.
To make sure that the world would not fly apart, Ezra put his socks on and took them off (right, left, left, right) a few times before he emerged from his room to find the ever bright and busy Barbara swooping about with a furious sponge, wiping things up and down. She offered him the want ad section of the paper, saying, “You know, shiftless people go on and on about how there are no jobs, but there are plenty of jobs in the paper. I bet you’ll find something there.” When his father came down for breakfast and retreated behind the newspaper, Barbara sat down and asked Ezra where he would start looking for a job. He mentioned a few restaurants where he had cooked or bussed or waited on tables before. But for every place he had on his list, Barbara had some drawback to go on and on about (the food was greasy, the decor was cheap) or some warning (robberies, drug-dealing) about which she elicited vague un-hunh’s from behind the paper where his father sat. By the time he was ready to leave the house on the first day, he felt like a hapless fly trying to evade a swatter.
The first place he went was the last place he had worked–a hash house called Chez Cheese for no other reason than the country pleasure of making fun of the citified. Mary Parker, the manager there, had taken a special interest in Ezra and was glad to see him‑‑she knew all about his troubles but was far too polite to mention them outright. Although his job had long been filled and she didn’t expect any openings in the near future, she told him she would be glad to give him a reference, and she helped him expand his list of other restaurants and fast food joints. He spent the rest of the day driving by these establishments, preparing himself to enter them and ask for work, and, as a social worker had instructed him, “picturing success.”
His imagined success quickly evaporated in the glare of Barbara’s good intentions. As soon as he returned to his father’s house, Barbara began to question him relentlessly about where he had been and what he had done and what he planned to do the following day. She even followed him into his room after dinner and made suggestions about his job hunt while she checked his room for tidiness just as she had done when he was ten years old. Before she finally left him alone for the evening, she smiled and said, “But I’m sure you’ll find something soon, dear. These things take a little time. Don’t you think it might help if you trimmed your fingernails? Ezra, why are you pacing?” At that moment, despite his mind-numbing medication, Ezra felt as if he might jump out of his skin or get into his car and drive into a tree.
The next morning, Ezra neglected the want ads and studied and restudied the for-rent section of the paper. He called a woman who had a room to rent in a mobile home at Lake Nadahana, packed his few things, thanked Barbara and his father, said he had found a place to live, and managed to drive away while they were still struggling to speak.
Now, saying that he had a place to live was not a precise truth, for he had merely set up an afternoon appointment to meet a woman named Jonelle at a trailer park. He felt he couldn’t keep this meeting on his mind and look for a job, so he drove to the zoo to see the chimpanzee, who had a circular cage all to himself, large, but not large enough for much variation in movement. However, the chimp made good use, in Ezra’s opinion, of the space he did have: pacing the periphery of the cage, hanging from one of the bars, flipping back and forth from bar to bar, or sitting in or hanging on a tire hung from a chain in the ceiling. Ezra found such repetition comforting, and he had always enjoyed what he took to be the chimpanzee’s look of absolute concentration and self-assurance. But today a lot of children with their parents were all crowded close and taunting the chimpanzee, who screamed and raced frantically around the cage. Wild-eyed and flailing his arms, he rushed toward the people around the cage, retreated, and then rushed toward them again. Finally, he went to the back of the cage and grabbed handfuls of some gooey substance‑‑Ezra couldn’t tell if it was excrement or food‑‑and in a frenzy threw it at the crowd, howling all the while. Most of the children as well as their parents hissed and snarled and whooped at this, their lips drawn back, their faces masks of hateful glee.
Unwelcome thoughts nailed Ezra to the spot. Had the people with whom he thought he had been intimate‑‑the series of girlfriends and friends who had moved in with him and proceeded to wreck his life‑‑felt the awful feelings he saw on these people’s faces, though they had been smiling all the while? And he remembered the long howling scene of his own that had led to the arrival of the paramedics and the trip to the hospital. Was the chimpanzee feeling now what he had felt then‑‑that everything was lost, that he was stripped of any kind of control, that people had been out to get him? And if the chimpanzee had to talk to Dr. Falconer, would the good doc tell him what he had told Ezra: that it was all in his mind?
As Ezra loped back to his car, he tried to banish dejection by reviewing the mantra-like advice he’d always been given by everybody who had ever professed to care about him: think beyond the present moment, plan for the future, consider consequences, learn from the past. Ezra had always tried to follow this advice, tried hard to manage his life on his own, and never asked anyone for anything until he had absolutely exhausted every possible plan for doing for himself. Nonetheless, he seemed repeatedly to find himself in intractable and overwhelming situations, and he was determined not to let that happen again. As he drove the twenty miles to Lake Nadahana, he reminded himself that he wasn’t in a cage just now and he wasn’t renting a tiny apartment in a complex or a high rise. No, even if he had only a room in a mobile home, he would be in wide-open nature. Perhaps on his days off he would go fishing or merely stroll along the shore or lie on a grassy bank beneath a great oak and listen to the wind rustling the trees in the forest behind him. Open space‑‑with a comforting green boundary, of course‑‑appealed to him no end.
However, the El Dorado Mobile Home Park was jarringly at odds with the pastoral vision he had concocted. It was located on the shabby side of the lake between two other trailer parks‑‑the Bide-a-Wee and the Nada-Lot‑‑and there was not a tree in sight for what seemed like a mile in each direction. Ezra suddenly saw all this from the point of view of a tornado above, but he stopped it by forcing himself to look up at the sky, which was reassuringly cloudless. Looking on the bright side of things, as was his irresistible wont, he thought that at least there were no trees to fall down on things in a strong wind. Suddenly he was filled with an old familiar sense of adventure that excited him so much that he had to force himself to keep his hands on the wheel. He drove up and down several lanes lined with dusty trailers till he came to 131B. Just to make sure it was really there, he retraced his route three times before he stopped.
Jonelle was standing at the screen door of the trailer. She opened it, beamed at him, said, “Why, hi, hon. You must be Ezra Cato. Come on in.”
The den/kitchen area was all done in an orange color that would have been alarming had it not been dulled a bit by the kind of dinginess that looks sticky and usually is. There were two bathrooms–a fairly large one for Jonelle and a rather tiny one for tenants. The bedroom she showed him had a small closet with a narrow full-length mirror on the door. Backing up to see if he could make his whole frame fit in the mirror, he tripped and fell backwards onto the double bed that practically filled the room. The bedspread was red, a small high window above it was covered with a purple gingham curtain, and the walls were covered with plastic imitation mahogany panelling. “It’s real nice,” Jonelle chirped. “I already rented th’other room to ‘nother feller, but he won’t move in till Monday or Tuesday.”
As they headed back to the den, Jonelle kept gesturing as if she were pointing to the spectacular features of this year’s model, and she went on non-stop: “I let my tenants be. Long as you respect the property and don’t make too much noise, why, I mind my business and ‘spect you to mind yours. We take turns cleanin’ the den and clean up after ourselves in the kitchen. No radios after 10:00 P.M. or before 10:00 A.M.–I have to get my beauty sleep. You can watch the TV in the den or have company over–no more’n one or two, mind–on Wednesday nights. Rent’s two hundred a month. You want it?”
“Yes!” Ezra almost shouted. The idea of a room of his own where no one was constantly checking on him or following him around or just making comments was rather like the idea of paradise at the moment. And Jonelle seemed like such a nice, practical person. He liked it that she had everything all worked out and predictable-like. Schedules and clear responsibilities usually brought him a feeling of accomplishment if he didn’t get side-tracked.
“You got a job I s’pose,” she said.
Ezra looked at his feet for a moment, then at her. “Not yet, I’m looking now, and,” he said, “I just got out . . .”
“Now, hon, I don’t care to know what you just got outta–you look nice and reliable enough to me. I always trust my instincts about a person, and I sure got instincts about you. But if you ain’t got no job, I need the first month’s rent in advance and, oh, a four-hundred dollar deposit. You got that kind of money?” Jonelle languidly picked up a pack of cigarettes from the counter, tapped one out, lit it, closed her eyes as she drew on it, and squinted at him as she exhaled.
Ezra’s mind wandered to the wallet in his pocket and then flew out, out, where? Bank. That was it. Bank. He had a thousand dollars or more, he was sure of it–his last paycheck and the hundred a month his mother had said she was putting there for him. His mind flew back to Jonelle’s trailer. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, “I got it. It’s in the bank, so I can’t get all of it to you today, but I can go to a machine and get you two hundred right now.”
Jonelle smiled–Lord, she had great teeth–and said, “Why that’s just dandy, hon. You go head on an’ bring your stuff in and then you go to the bank.” As he got his duffle bag from the car, he exulted in his good fortune. Jonelle sure was generous, giving him the room and all even though he didn’t have a job yet.
“You want a cold beer ‘fore you go, Ezra?”
“No thank you. I don’t drink.”
“I knew you’s a good man, Ezra. Now I’ll be right here when you get back, and I’ll give you a key and all then.”
Ezra was exhilarated as he drove away, so much so, in fact, that he had to pull over to the side of the road to calm down. Pulling everything out of his wallet did the trick. He counted all his money and put like bills together, just as his father had shown him to long ago. Then he laid everything else out on the seat: his license, a four-leaf clover folded up in a post-it, an old I.D. from the local junior college, a business card from his car insurance agent, a piece of paper bearing his parents’ names and addresses, and his plastic bank card. He hadn’t had a credit card since over a year ago when Sophie Cisco–if that had been her real name–had burrowed deep into his life and had, among other things that led to his bankruptcy, run up astronomical charges for psychic hotlines on his cards. Before Sophie, there had been Lou Ellen and the bad car deal and Rita and the trip to Mexico. And after Sophie, after he swore off women, there had been his friends, Jeff and his wife, Marie, and their friends Bob and Estelle who had moved in too. Their specialty had been selling his furniture as soon as he could buy it and writing checks on his account as fast as he could deposit his pay–even though he asked them not to over and over again. Finally, he had had nothing left but his old car and the few clothes he had just left at Jonelle’s. But, hey, he didn’t need to think about the past now: he was on his way to get some money for a nice, private room in Jonelle’s mobile home!
Highway construction had been going on like crazy since Ezra had been in the hospital, and he got rather lost in what suddenly seemed like unfamiliar terrain. So it wasn’t until two hours later that Ezra, eager as a puppy with a stick, presented Jonelle with ten crisp twenty-dollar bills. He sat drinking a soda across the table from her while she lifted, snapped, and sniffed each bill. “Lordamercy,” she said, “I love the way money smells fresh from the bank!”
Caught up in her rapture, Ezra boomed, “There’s more where that came from!” And when she gave him an odd sidelong look, he said, “At the bank, I mean. I mean, they must have lots of money at the bank. Those machines just spit it right out.”
Jonelle laughed until she started snorting, and Ezra laughed too, proud of himself for accidentally having made a joke, though he wasn’t sure what it was. Jonelle seemed to like him, and that pleased him immensely. Right now, he really didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world but sitting at Jonelle’s kitchen table. So he sat there and sat there, musing and watching her while she went about her business. She made a long, long telephone call to someone named Tom–she stretched the cord from the kitchen phone around the corner and into her bedroom next door, so he didn’t hear the whole conversation. He just heard the beginning and then the end when she came back in laughing and saying, “Hell, yeah. Come see for yourself.”
Jonelle washed and dried a load of laundry, repolished her nails, and swatted several flies with remarkable accuracy. She was all over the place. She seemed, what was it they said about him sometimes? She seemed agitated. Ezra had never understood why other people seemed to become agitated precisely when he himself was calm and perfectly content. When Ezra felt that he was really an integral presence in a situation–as he felt now–and when he felt no pull from the past or the future, he settled into a passive, rock-like, two-hundred and forty pound stillness that was next to bliss for him but that seemed, inexplicably, to drive other people crazy.
“Look,” Jonelle finally said. “You can’t sit there hour after hour just watching me. I like you, but it makes me nervous. Don’t you have something to do, some place to go?”
Ezra grinned. “Why, I’m happy just sitting right here. Right here.”
“Don’t you need to put your things away or go out and buy yourself some groceries or something?”
“Naw. I don’t have much. I reckon I might could go to the store sometime.”
Seeing that he truly had no inclination whatsoever to move, Jonelle got up and put a radio in the kitchen on a country station. Then she disappeared and Ezra could hear the sound of the shower in her bathroom. The sun went down. He was sitting in the dark when, as if from nowhere, a big man with sandy blond hair and an enormous grin switched on the light and came in the door with a bagful of groceries. “Why, Mr. Cato!” he said. “I done heard all ’bout you! Pleased to meet you, I’m Tom!” He shook hands with Ezra and put the bag down at the same time. “You wanta join us for supper? I got some meat for some burgers here.”
“Sure, I’d love to!” Ezra said just as Jonelle appeared, towel-headed, in the doorway, glaring at Tom as if he’d done something wrong. Suddenly her whole face changed, she smiled, and her voice dropped low. “Tom. Sugar. Would you come here with me a minute, sweetie?”
“Scuse us, Ezra,” Tom said. Then from Jonelle’s bedroom, Ezra heard the kind of loud hissing and low murmuring that he had heard for years whenever Barbara pulled his father into another room to tell him what to think and say. Ezra knew that that was what was going on because Dad always reappeared looking like a dog caught digging a hole in the flower bed. And within an hour or a day or two, Dad would contradict himself or say he’d changed his mind about something, or Barbara would make some stunning pronouncement about new plans or rules while Dad just stared at his plate or shuffled away.
Sure enough, Tom had that same hangdog look on his face when he came back in, but he brightened quickly, walked over to Ezra, and put a hand on his shoulder as if he had known him forever. “Friend Cato, I’m firing up them coals outside in a little while, but I forgot a couple things. Could you run out to the store on Lake Shore and pick up some steak sauce and some beers?”
“Sure I will, ” Ezra said.
Jonelle had a blow dryer going full blast now and was shouting something. “What, hon?” Tom shouted.
Brandishing the blow dryer, Jonelle appeared in the doorway and shouted, “I don’t want none of that Henry the Eighth stuff or that A-Won–it’s no good, tastes like it got too many spices or somethin’. It has to be Mrs. Cauldwell’s Special Steak Sauce or I won’t eat it and I don’t eat no burger without steak sauce. If they ain’t got it at Lick-n-Split, you’ll have to drive out to the shoppin’ center near the Interstate.”
She disappeared in a roar of electric wind. Tom grinned. “I’ll give you some money for that stuff when you get back, buddy.”
When Ezra returned an hour later, after going from store to store searching for the sauce Jonelle wanted, the trailer was dark and there was no sign of Jonelle or Tom. When he called out “Jonelle? Tom?” he heard an eruption of laughter from the bedroom and reckoned they’d been burning the spread a little, something he himself would do again only with the greatest caution. “Be with ya’n’minute,” Tom roared.
It was cheerful around the barbecue pit–the sharp smell of lighter fluid and charcoal, the occasional bursts of merry flame, Jonelle and Tom’s slurry laughter. Ezra hadn’t been so content, so happy, in a very long time.
On Monday, after a series of unsuccessful work enquiries at several restaurants and a rather more successful trip to the bank, Ezra happily delivered four hundred dollars to Jonelle, who skipped the snapping and sniffing he had anticipated and immediately got on the phone. Feeling that Jonelle hadn’t been as pleased as she should at receiving more than half the money he had in the world, Ezra went for a stroll along the dismal shore nearby where the smells of muck gasoline competed for his attention as if they were conscious entities. He walked out to the end of a pier so long that being there was rather like being adrift on the lake. He lay down and let the sky come down into his body and obliterate everything in his mind.
When he got back to the trailer, it was almost dark. Jonelle’s car wasn’t there, and a cloud of dust seemed to hang in the air all around. She had left a note for Ezra on the kitchen table. After a good half hour of working hard to build fragile bridges between the words and images that he could see in his mind, Ezra divined that Jonelle was saying that she was away on vacation‑‑why hadn’t she mentioned that before?‑‑and that he should be on the lookout for the other tenant‑‑Mark? Mack? Mick?
The other tenant followed Jonelle’s note several hours later at about 1:00 A.M. Ezra was dreaming of a monstrous ratcheting machine and awoke abruptly to find to his alarm that he could still hear the machine–the sound was coming from the den. He tiptoed through the dark hall to investigate. Something, someone was trying to get in the door. Ezra heard a furious jangling of keys followed by a regular river of curses. As the next assault on the lock started, Ezra jerked the door open and a mass of something lunged into the trailer, collapsed on the floor, and proceeded to guffaw. “Whoa!” it exclaimed.
Ezra groped for the light switch. “Who are you?” he said.
“Why, I’m Mike. Mike the Magician!”
Ezra contemplated the figure on the floor–a little man, red-haired and freckled, with a high voice like a toy flute. He was wearing a red-edged black cape over his t-shirt and jeans. When he sprang up from the tattered bags he’d fallen onto, he had, despite his dishevelment and his small frame, the incredible presence of some stunning fact of nature. “What’s your name, dude?” he said, reaching to shake Ezra’s hand. “Ez-ra. Ra! I’m gon’ call you ‘Ra,’ man! Yeah! Sun god! King! Ez-Ra!” He fanned his fingers, cupped and uncupped his hands and magically produced a gold coin on his right palm. Ezra’s mind swam for a moment in a deep indigo pool of enchantment. “Do it again,” he murmured.
“Later, Ra, my man,” Mike the Magician said. “Right now I got to stow my bag-o-tricks and get me some shut eye. You got any beer here?”
Feeling the kind of excitement he hadn’t felt since he last attended the Church of the Righteous Jesus and shouted with the Saints, Ezra kind of lobbed himself toward the refrigerator and felt as if he had done a magic trick of his own when he opened it to reveal a gleaming six pack of beer. Mike the Magician held his hand out as if he expected a scepter or a card bearing a winning lottery number. After a little struggle with the plastic holder, Ezra handed him a beer and watched in sheer wonder as Mike drank the whole thing in what seemed like one long swallow. He wiped his mouth with the corner of his cape and said, “That’s the magic. It makes you awful thirsty. Takes it outa you. Dries you up.”
“Do another trick,” Ezra said, trying not to sound too eager.
“Not now,” Mike said, morosely pulling a long chain of once-bright chiffon scarves from his sleeve. “I’m all magicked out, Ra, old buddy.” Seeing the raw look of disappointment on Ezra’s face, he added, “Tomorrow I’ll really show you something. Bring these bags along to my room, will ya?”
Ezra picked up Mike the Magician’s bags and followed him as he bounced from wall to wall down the hallway to his room where he pulled the spread back–his was deep purple–got in, shoes and all, and promptly went to sleep. Ezra turned the light out and closed the door. He thoughtfully brushed his teeth then got in bed himself, but he got up a few minutes later. He had to look outside to see what sort of chariot Mike the Magician had arrived in. It was a small red pickup with a rather maniacal-looking rabbit popping out of a lop-sided top hat painted on the door beneath the name of Mike the Magician. Ezra slept the deep sleep that night.
The next morning, Ezra found Mike the Magician fixing breakfast while the most exotic woman he had ever seen in person sat studying her nails at the table. “How you like your eggs, Ra? That’s Lolly.”
“Hi,” Lolly said.
“Scrambled,” Ezra said and sat down at the table to gaze in total fascination at the stunning pink streak in Lolly’s long blond hair. She giggled and ducked her head. As they ate, Mike said, “Hey, Ra, dude, the groceries I got just about wiped me out. Can you spot me some bread?”
Ezra put his fork down and pulled his wallet out. “I don’t have much,” he said.
“How much you got?” Mike asked.
Ezra counted slowly, then said, “All I have left here is forty dollars. And I gave Jonelle almost all I got in the bank.”
“Forty’ll do, Ra-dude.” As Ezra handed him all his money, he said, “What did Jonelle get off you for rent, man?”
Ezra calculated. “Two hundred a month. Four hundred deposit.”
“Shit, man, no wonder she’s gone. She’s probably all the way to Mexico now. Why’d you let her take you like that?”
Ezra pondered this question as he drove off to look for work. Had Jonelle “taken” him? Surely not, she seemed like such a nice person. But then why was she charging Mike the Magician a hundred dollars a month with no deposit? Just because Mike had what he called “gigs”? His room looked the same size. And Lolly had moved her bag in too. It was one of those things that just didn’t make sense. Ezra concentrated on spending his morning driving from food place to food place all over the east side of town. He hit the jackpot at Our Man Friday’s. One of the cooks was moving to Chattanooga in a week and Ezra could start then. Feeling that this was major cause for celebration, Ezra stopped by a convenience store on the way home and bought a six pack of root beer for himself and some beers for Mike and Lolly.
For the next two days, Mike and Lolly spent most of their time in Mike’s room with the door closed. Ezra watched TV, walked out to the pier, lay in his room and read his Bible. When he heard Mike and Lolly in the den, he always joined them. Sometimes Mike did tricks for him–guessing what card Ezra had picked from a deck, pulling a rather worn stuffed penguin from a top hat (“lost my rabbit, dude”), making Lolly disappear in a big trunk he had brought in from his truck. Lolly seemed bored by all this, but Ezra was wholly entranced.
“Hey, Mike, hey, Mike. I can do a trick!” Ezra shouted flinging his great arms about. “Really! Find some toothpicks or jelly beans or a couple decks of cards! Really!”
“Jelly beans,” Lolly drawled. “For Christ’s sake!”
“Calm down, Ra, dude,” Mike said. “Lolly, look in trunk numero uno and get those cards.”
Adopting the bossy, pontificating pose and tone that he lapsed into whenever he felt he knew what he was talking about, and jabbing the air with the forefinger of his great right paw, Ezra instructed Lolly and Mike to go into Mike’s room, count out a number of cards–whatever pleased them–and write the number down on a piece of paper. Lolly and Mike hooted as they headed off down the hall. Ezra paced until they returned rather a long time later. “OK, Ra,” Mike said gleefully, plopping down on the couch and pulling Lolly onto his lap. “What now, dude?” Lolly shrieked with laughter and waved her little hands in front of her face.
Mike dropped the cards into a messy pile on the table, just as Ezra instructed him. No sooner were they down than Ezra solemnly said, “Ninety-seven.”
“Damn, dude!” Mike said. “How’d you do that?”
“Oh, double-M, he just guessed right,” Lolly whined. “Can’t nobody just look at a heap of cards and tell you how many.”
“You can do this with toothpicks?”
“Anything you can count. I did it all the time in the hospital. With cards. They wouldn’t let us have toothpicks.”
“Lolly, go round us up some toothpicks.”
“Oh, honey, don’t make me do no foolishness. It’s just some ol’ trick.”
Mike suddenly leapt up from the couch and jerked Lolly up with him. “Nothing’s ever justa ol’ trick, bitch! Don’t you ever forget that! Nothing’s justa trick! Jesus, who you think you are?” Mike pushed her away from him and she went to the kitchen and started looking through drawers and cabinets.
“I’m sorry, man,” Mike said. “Sometimes she just disrespects me and it drives me wild. If I’da been Jesus with the loaves she’d say it was justa ol’ trick. Now, how’d you do that?”
“I don’t know. I’ve always been able to,” Ezra said. “I just forget everything else and look and the number comes into my head. Won fifty dollars with a jar full of jelly beans one time.”
Pouting, Lolly came back in with a couple of toothpick boxes in her hand. Mike grabbed some toothpicks and threw them on the table. “Fifty-six,” Ezra said.
“I’m gonna count these damn things now,” Mike said. It took a while. “Fifty-six,” he finally said.
“Maybe he read your mind,” Lolly offered.
“Lolly, now how could he read my damn mind? I didn’t count these things ‘fore I threw ’em out. There wasn’t no number in my mind. Jeez, Ra, you oughta work with me.”
A shimmering vision of himself wearing a tuxedo, sharing a blinding spotlight with Mike the Magician filled Ezra’s head and then dissipated in a poof of sparkling smoke when there was a sudden racket at the door. Three men came in, saying “Mighty Mike, Mighty Mike, Mighty Mike. Hey, Lolly-Lu.”
“Pardners!” Mike shouted, thus inaugurating what turned out to be a three-day binge. One minute Ezra was there alone with Mike and Lolly having a fine old time, showing them something he could do, why, not just that–amazing them. The next minute, the trailer was full of all kinds of people drinking and smoking and snorting all kinds of stuff and doing all kinds of other things the likes of which Ezra had never seen in his life. He was afraid to stay there, but he was afraid to leave. So he was there for the duration of a reality that exceeded by far his worst nightmares because it seemed to never end. He couldn’t remember the last time he had taken his medication, so he took several pills to make up for it. Then he retreated to his room and did what he often did–he read his Bible.
Reading, in general, was slow and painful for Ezra, but he had worked his way through his favorite parts of the Bible so often that reading them was a comfort beyond words. His favorite parts of the book of his namesake were the chapters containing lengthy genealogies. He could read them repeatedly, hour after hour, never tiring of them, sometimes mouthing the names and numbers aloud: The children of Parosh, two thousand an hundred seventy and two. The children of Shephatiah, three hundred seventy and two. The children of Arah, seven hundred seventy and five. The children of Pahathmoab, of the children of Jeshua and Joab, two thousand eight hundred and twelve. The children of Elam, a thousand two hundred fifty and four . . . .
He found this extremely soothing, better than the deep breathing he had learned and quickly forgotten in the hospital. He couldn’t really follow the rest of the book–the events it recounted seemed confusing, even contradictory. In the New Testament, he loved the book of Matthew, particularly the sixth and seventh chapters. Here, too, there was a lot that just didn’t make sense–for example, the stuff about casting pearls before swine–why, who would think about even showing a pearl to a pig? But he understood knocking and asking–in his times of utmost need, he had done quite a lot of that. And he understood what it meant to do for others.
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.
The center of Ezra’s moral universe was this golden rule, and while it might serve him well someday in the eyes of the Lord, it usually served him ill down here on earth simply because he assumed that everyone else had the same attitude. This assumption was often so wide of berth that evidence to the contrary would grow to overwhelming proportions before it ever began to dawn on him that it might sometimes be incorrect. Thus, whenever Ezra timidly emerged from his room into the hellish cacophony of Mike’s ongoing party–at one point Ezra even thought he heard gunshots‑‑and Mike asked to borrow some more money, Ezra charitably drove to the bank and acquired it from his account until there was nothing else to acquire.
Mike the Magician and his friends magically disappeared Sunday afternoon, leaving bottles, cans, and overflowing ashtrays on every available surface, not to mention the filthy jumble of food and dishes in the sink, the unsavory smears and smudges on the walls, a pair of bright pink panties on the bathroom floor, and several bullet holes in the ceiling of the den. As Ezra was surveying this vast damage, the phone rang. It was Jonelle, announcing that she was returning the next day, asking to speak also to Mike. Ezra tried to get some words together to say more about Mike than that he wasn’t there, but he couldn’t get past some un’s and ah’s, and finally just observed brightly that Mike had left five–he counted them twice–phone numbers scrawled on the wall next to the phone. Jonelle abruptly said goodbye.
Ezra cleared a space off on the couch and sat there waiting for Mike to return. Finally, he set about cleaning up as best he could. As the sun was rising, he was stuffing spit-softened tissues in the holes in the ceiling. The pastel blue tufts gave the room a vaguely festive air that he hoped would lessen the shock of what they concealed.
“What the hell is that shit?” Jonelle said later that morning.
“Mike the Magician . . .” Ezra started, but Jonelle had already climbed up on a chair and was inspecting one of the holes in the ceiling.
“Where is that little sonabitch?” she demanded of the ceiling. Then, as if she had flown there, she was at the doorway of Mike’s room, the only place that Ezra had despaired of cleaning. Even now, he could hardly bear looking at it over Jonelle’s shoulder. Why, it looked exactly the way he imagined a room in a trailer in hell would look.
“I got a job starts Thursday,” Ezra said consolingly, but Jonelle just stalked off to her cigarettes and the phone. She dialed every number that Mike or somebody had scrawled on the wall and left the same message for Mike with everyone or every answering machine she talked to: “You tell that little fucker his ass is grass and he better call me right away if he don’t want me to come after him with a gun.” Alarmed, Ezra sat at the table and watched her, waiting for what would happen next.
What happened next was like an unexpected and generous blessing that Ezra felt was probably related somehow to the pious Bible-reading he had done while Mike and the others sinned and sinned. After a couple of hours on the phone under the solemn, attentive eyes of Ezra, Jonelle turned to him and smiled. “I gotta go to Blufftown to get a part for my car,” she said. “You wanta come along?”
Of course he did.
When they arrived at Jesse’s Auto Parts, Jonelle handed Ezra a folded note. “Hon, take this here in to the man in there, and he’ll give you what I want,” she said.
Eager to be of service, Ezra took the note into the store. When he stepped inside, he was momentarily undone by the heat–he had expected the usual air-conditioned chill–and the clutter of boxes and cans that climbed every wall of the small room. Focusing on his mission and the narrow clear path to the desk, he managed to walk up to a human face and felt the anchoring relief that the faces of others usually gave him. He smiled, but it was wasted at first because the man was concentrating on the telephone: “No, Wednesday . . . now that, that’ll take two weeks . . . I’m tellin’ you, it’s just as good.” Ezra’s attention wandered behind the desk to a fan that was furiously and futilely working against the stultifying heat. His mind went into the fan and exploded into a soft glossy mass that made his head feel like the mushroom cloud he had seen photos of in the school library. “Hey, buddy . . . buddy! What can I do for you? Hey?”
Ezra had to shut things down fast and backtrack: library, photo, head, fan, man. He mutely stuck his arm out, the note clamped between his damp thumb and forefinger. The man looked at him quizzically, then slowly opened the note and stared at it while the sound of the fan escalated to locust pitch in Ezra’s head. “Well, I just can’t make head nor tail of this,” the man said.
“She wants a part,” Ezra muttered.
“Part? This don’t say nothing about no part, buddy. Look at it.”
Ezra made the words out phonetically, trying very hard not to move his lips and struggling mightily to keep at bay all the other words that tried to leap into his mind. Finally he solemnly pronounced the words: “Stay away?”
“That’s what it says, bud: ‘stay away.’ Now you want to tell me what that means?”
“I don’t know. She told me to give it you, said you’d give me what she needs.”
“Why, Jonelle. Didn’t she already call you ’bout the car?”
“I don’t know no Jonelle, son. You sure you’re in the right place?”
A picture of Jonelle sitting in the car erupted into Ezra’s mind. He said, “Just a minute, I’ll go outside and ask her.”
He stood staring at the empty parking lot for a long time, mystified. Then he went and sat on a rickety chair that had been set in the shade in front of the shop. He watched the road that led up to the parking lot. Occasionally he stared at the nearby off ramp of the Interstate. He tried to look at just one spot so he could register the shape and color of each car that swooped down to the frontage road, but irresistibly his eye would get caught on a car and he had to follow it till it turned and passed by or went off in the opposite direction. By then he would have missed other cars, one of which might have been the car he was waiting for. Maybe she had gone away for a minute and got lost. Maybe she got thirsty and had driven to a bar‑‑he knew she liked to drink in bars. For a moment, he was irritated‑‑why, he was hot and thirsty too.
But irritation rapidly turned into an anxiety that planted itself in his chest and then shot snaky tendrils of alarm throughout his body till it jerked him up from the chair and made him pace back and forth, clenching and unclenching his hands and sometimes holding them out and shaking them furiously. He tried to calm himself down. He counted his steps and concentrated on not going further than seven in each direction.
Almost everything in his experience told him that when people went away they usually did not come back. To find them again, he would have to search for them, but even if he did they would often be nowhere to be found although he was certain they must be somewhere. Bound up with his infinite store of kindness, generosity, and gullibility was an infinite, irrepressible belief in the goodness of other people and the belief that what went away or what was taken would return. Gradually he forced his linear transit into a circle and stabilized his arms by crossing them and placing his hands on his shoulders. He stopped in his tracks and lowered his arms when a pickup truck roared into the parking lot trailing a cloud of red dust that seemed to come from the truck itself rather than from the road. On squeaky wheels of hope, the word “messenger” rolled across Ezra’s mind, but the man who slammed the door of the truck behind him–a wiry young man of about Ezra’s own age–simply touched the brim of his cap as he passed and went into the shop. Anxiety and hope gave way to the onset of desolation: Ezra sat in the chair again and stared at the man’s truck.
“Hey buddy. Hey! Ain’t you got no place to go to?”
Ezra looked up at the two men. They were smiling smiles that instantly called up two possible scenes of the immediate future in his head. In one scene, the men would say things that he didn’t understand and laugh at what he said and talk about him as if he wasn’t there. Sometimes in this scene he would laugh too to make them think he understood, to make himself part of them, but that just made them laugh harder, and this scene invariably unfolded into some state of incomprehensible difficulty. In the second scene, the men would talk to him and listen to what he said. This scene always had an unpredictable outcome, sometimes significant, sometimes not, but always comforting somehow.
He thought with dread that he must be in the first scene when the young man looked at the auto man and said, “I can take him where he needs to go,” but he realized it might be the second sort of scene when the man looked at him and said, “Where you need to go, man?”
“I don’t know . . . man. Do you know Jonelle? She sent me in for a part.”
The auto man said, “Show Jimmy here that note.”
Ezra pulled the note from his pocket and showed it to the young man, who read it, took his cap off, and ran his hand over his hair before putting it on again. “This Jonelle your woman?”
“No. She’s my landlady. I rent a room in her trailer out to Lake Nadahana.”
“Man, I hate to tell you this, but this note ain’t for Jesse here. It’s for you. You got some place to go besides this Jonelle’s?”
Ezra tried to work his way through a frustrating thicket of thoughts. How could the note be for him if Jonelle told him to give it to the auto man? It didn’t make any sense. Did he have someplace else to go? Finally, he blurted out: “I used to work at Chez Cheese.”
“Down on County Line?”
“Yeah.” Ezra was so confused now that he had forgotten exactly where it was, but it must be there where the man said.
“You know people there?”
A kind face–Mary? Marian? Marsha?–appeared in Ezra’s mind. “Yeah.”
It was dark when they pulled up to a yellow neon sign that said Chez Cheese Tu. Something about the sign seemed different. And then he knew it was the wrong place, but how could he say that to this man who was trying to help him?
“You sure your friend is here?”
“Yeah, should be.”
“Do you have any money?”
Ezra thought for a minute. “No. My wallet, my car and keys, my medicine—everything’s at Jonelle’s trailer.”
The man reached in his hip pocket and pulled out a money clip from which he extracted a ten-dollar bill. “Here, man. No. Go on, please take it. Plenty people have helped me out in my life. You take it. Get something to eat, find your friend.” He was smiling. Everything would be all right. Ezra thanked him and climbed out. “You take care, hear?” Ezra nodded. He thoughtfully watched the man drive off before he went into Chez Cheese Tu, where, in a fit of hopefulness that this might be the right place after all, he sat down at a booth and asked the waitress about Mary Parker.
“Child, Mary Parker don’t work here. She works at the first one over off the interstate, always has‑‑I trained over there.” When Ezra didn’t respond, the waitress bustled off with his order. He thought about what she said. Since he had been in the hospital–how long had he been there?–a second Chez Cheese must have come into being. This baffled him no end until his mind settled on the fact that there were other fast food kinds of places that had more than one establishment in town. Why not two Chez Cheeses? Why not a hundred? But there were only two, he thought with relief, and because Mary Parker was at the other one, all must be right with the world. Things seemed even righter when the waitress returned with his hamburger and a slip of paper on which she had written Mary’s work number. “I’m goin’ off shift now,” she said. “No, you don’t need to pay me now. You just take your time and pay Lou over there when you’re ready to go.”
Later, Ezra stood at the pay phone outside Chez Cheese Tu and dialed the number of the other Chez Cheese. Four rings were followed by a loud static that made him jump and hold the receiver away from his ear. Then a booming, hyper-excited male voice shouted, “Welcome to the Dixie Theaters, home of pleasure viewing! Come join our roomy seats and air-conditioning! Enjoy yourself of mellifluous popcorn and sparkling drinks! Six spacious screening halls! Showing tonight on screen number one is . . . ” Ezra hung up and looked at the number. Had he dialed it wrong? Was it the wrong number? Was it a sign that he shouldn’t get in touch with Mary or that Mary wasn’t there and he wouldn’t get in touch with her or that maybe Mary, like Jonelle, wanted him to stay away? Was it a trick of some kind? That hadn’t been Mary’s voice, but he had seen sometimes how people who seemed to care for him suddenly seemed not to. It wouldn’t have been the first time in his life that he had tried to call someone for help and someone had pretended to be someone else or had pretended not to know him.
Truly agitated at last, Ezra walked out of the parking lot and toward the lights of downtown Blufftown. Well after midnight, he found himself near some defunct railroad tracks in one of the worst parts of town. He knew this part of town. Two years before, he had given a friend (former friend), a fellow cook named Arthur who lived here, a ride home. As they were cruising down Peachtree Street, his friend had said, “Hey, there’s my friend Dodie! Let’s give him a ride.” The next thing Ezra knew, police sirens were screaming behind him, he was stopping, Arthur and Dodie were running away hell to beat high water, and he was spread-eagled up against his car. It was a long ride to the police station, a long night in a stinking jail with a cell-mate who just wouldn’t stop punching him in the arm. And then the intervention of his father, the long talks with the judge, the fine it had taken him a year to pay. It hadn’t made any difference that he had told them that the bag of marijuana on the back seat wasn’t his, must’ve been left there by Dodie, didn’t even have his fingerprints on it. It was in his car.
He had said something to Arthur at work. And Arthur said, “Hey, man, you white. What you think they stop you for in the first place, yo’ shiny face cruising along with two black ones?”
“But all I was doing was giving you a ride home–what’s wrong with that? And it wasn’t my pot,” Ezra exclaimed. “I don’t even smoke pot. You know that.”
“Hey, man, like I say, you white. Better you than me or Dodie. They take you in, they slap your white hand. They take me in, they beat my black ass. You the one got busted. Consider it your contribution to civil rights, man.”
Ezra hadn’t understood, but he let it go. And Arthur worked alongside him for another nine months, barely acknowledging his presence, rarely addressing him directly, as if they had never been friends at all.
Not having exactly good associations with this part of town, Ezra tried to determine which direction to take to head back toward the lake, but he was all turned around, and he was concerned with avoiding any of the directions from which he heard the frightening sounds of shouting and what sounded an awful lot like gunfire. He knew that drive-by shootings frequently took place here. He walked softly as he could down the quietest, and sometimes the darkest, streets he could find. Finally he came to what had once been a small park. There was a worn bench there beneath a flickering bright yellow street light, but the place looked unused except as a trash dump. Exhausted, he sat on the bench thinking to rest a bit, but he fell asleep sitting up.
Suddenly he was awake. “Look at that big muh fuh,” a high, piping voice was shouting, laughing. “Hey, you fat cracker! Where fuck you think you are?” Standing in front of him was a group of about five children–the tallest couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, the eldest couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen. One of them had bright orange hair that seemed to glow. Two of them were girls. The looks on their faces reminded him of something, he couldn’t remember what. “We talkin’ to you, fucker!” the smallest one shouted. Ezra thought he must be dreaming when the child shouted, “Look at my big dick here!” and pulled a rather large handgun from his pants.
“Shoot him!” one of them shouted. “Yeah, shoot him!” the others chorused.
Ezra tried to open his mouth to speak, but he was paralyzed.
“Look at him. Ain’t got no money or wouldn’t be here now. Think he worth killin’?”
“Kill him!” one shouted. “Kill him now!”
Suddenly a giant shadow loomed up between Ezra and the children. “Ain’t nobody killin’ nobody,” it said. “Y’all all get yo’ ass on home.”
“Fuck you! Nobotehmewhado!” the child with the gun shouted, but the others were saying, “Come on, lesoutta here. Don’t mess with Boo-man.” Finally they started to straggle away. One of them turned just where the street faded into darkness and shouted, “Fuck you! We gon’ kill somebody. Ain’t nothin’ you can do about it!”
When the man turned to Ezra, he could see why they called him Boo-man. He had dark, dark skin blotched with pink patches in intricate shapes that made his face look like some spooky map, and he seemed to be covered from head to toe in ashes. Boo-man said, “You stupid shit. What you sittin’ in the damn light for? Those kids soon’s shoot your ass as look at you.”
Ezra sat still as a statue and started to weep. Boo-man said, “You are one big dumb cracker.” But he sat down next to Ezra and started patting him on the shoulder, saying, “Come on, man. Pull yourself together. You got to get your ass outta here. They’s people out on the streets here make them kids look like your guardian angel.”
Ezra caught his breath and in a moment of desperate hope said, “Do you know Arthur?”
Boo-man sighed, said, “No, I don’t know no Arthur and I don’t think no Arthur round here give a shit about your ass. Looks like nobody do nowhere. Come on, I’ll show you where you can sleep.” Ezra got up and followed Boo-man, who walked as if he were making his way through a mine field. Finally they arrived at a particularly obscure and filthy alley where Boo-man abandoned him and he spent the night and the next day in the company of two men and a woman who seemed to know each other. They cursed him and even spat at him. When he wasn’t sleeping, he had to pace, and if his pacing took him too close to some invisible boundary in the maze of cardboard, they hissed at him to stay away. And that of course made him think about Jonelle’s note and all the times in his life when people had meant “stay away” even though they seemed to be saying something else. But the people in the alley did give him something that passed for food. When night fell, he regained his courage and set out again. Through sheer luck, he traveled unharassed and unharmed until he found a road that seemed familiar.
Skirting along roads at the edge of woodlands and fields and sometimes cutting through populated areas under cover of night, Ezra made his unsteady way toward Lake Nadahana. Hungry and exhausted, he often had to stop to rest. Even his fear that things would disintegrate even further if he wasn’t constantly vigilant couldn’t keep him awake at such times. Waking or sleeping, he was plagued by very real creatures–red bugs, flies, midges, mosquitos–and once he almost stepped on a snake. The last night of his trek, he slept for a long time on a makeshift bed of large leaves he had pulled from a prehistoric-looking tree at the edge of a pond. Deep in the hush of a pine forest, he awoke once in the night to see a bright full moon directly overhead. He imagined that it was watching over him as he returned to a dreamless sleep. The next afternoon, he walked up to Jonelle’s trailer. It had been four days since she had sent him into the auto parts store with the note.
“You got a lot of nerve comin’ back here,” she said as well as she could say anything with a cigarette in her mouth. She finished drying her hands on a dish towel and then swatted it hard at the doorway. “Yeah, you got a lot of nerve. Wreck my trailer. Steal my stuff. And then come round here with your sorry face. Where you been? You look like you been sleepin’ in a pig sty. And I can smell you from here”
“I didn’t wreck your trailer. I didn’t steal your stuff!” Ezra cried. “The magician did it! I didn’t do nothin’!”
Jonelle eyed him coolly.
“Where is my car?” he said.
“I had that piece of shit towed yesterday.”
“You heard me.”
“Look,” he said. “Just let me get my things, give me my deposit back, and I’ll leave. I’ll let you keep the month’s rent.”
“I throwed your damn things away yesterday too, and I’m not giving you any damn money back. What you give me’ll barely cover the repairs I got to do.”
“Je-sus, Je-sus, Je-sus,” Ezra said. “Help me!” He started to pace back and forth in front of the trailer steps.
“Yeah, you need help all right,” Jonelle said. “If you don’t get the fuck off my property, I’ll call the cops.”
“Call them!” Ezra wailed. “Call them! Let me tell them what you’ve done!”
The screen door slammed sloppily behind her. Ezra lay down on the ground, studied the sky. Once again, it came down to him, calmed him. He got up when the police came. Their open faces and calm manner gave Ezra hope. He tried very slowly to explain what had happened, but Jonelle interrupted every other word with her screeching. When he finally shouted, “The magician did it! Mike the Magician! The magician did it!” they handcuffed him and drove him away.
At the station, he had no idea who he could call for help. While he waited in jail for a public defender to arrive to discuss his case, a minister came by to discuss the state of his soul. The minister had chosen what he considered an appropriately instructive scripture. After he read to Ezra of asking and receiving, of bread and fish and serpents and stones, the faith and hope that seemed to have abandoned Ezra put tentative arms around him, and he felt someone was before him who would understand. But when he tried to explain, he couldn’t find a suitable place to start and thus kept garbling people and events until finally it was as if his life were a deck of cards shuffled by somebody who was indeed truly out to get him.