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 the map of some alien world, 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 how he had come to be where he was, he couldn't find a suitable place to start and thus kept garbling people and events until finally it was as if his life was deck of cards shuffled by somebody who was indeed truly out to get him.
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This starts in the scene where the first posting of this story stopped.