There’s this family: a preacher, now dead, but who preached right up till the day before he had his third and final heart attack; his wife, who is wasting away alone in a retirement home, her memories slowly sipped from her brain like the last pockets of fog in the morning sunshine; an older brother, fifty-six, lately an angry agnostic leaning toward atheism who was once the student government president at Liberty Baptist Seminary, was a preacher himself for almost thirty years.
And here is the younger brother, Eli. Eli is fifty. He is a homeless drug addict. Eli has a new overcoat, never mind how he got it. His new coat is stiff, doesn’t move with his body, but shifts around it, gapes and turns like an outer ribcage. It is made of triple-stitched tarp canvas. Just needs breaking in. It has gray fur inside and interior chest pockets that can each hold a bottle of wine, or a pound of hamburger, but not both at the same time. The Food Lion threw away seventy pounds of hamburger two days ago. Eli waited four hours for delivery trucks to get the fuck out of the way so he could get in the dumpster for it.
He carried away thirty pounds of meat, eight pounds of it weighing down his coat pockets. He found two guys with H. One of them was kind of in charge of this derelict building along the tracks because he’d found it. He had a whole gaggle of travelers inside there who more or less went by his rules. They needed food, he said. He was like their Moses.
Eli offered all the meat if he could get one nod for here, and one to take with him. They wanted his coat too, these two guys. He said, “You both going to wear it?” One of them said, “We’ll take turns,” and smiled, and his teeth were rotten junkie teeth. The dirt-filled pores made little black dots all over his blazing red nose. Eli said no, they couldn’t take the coat, but he would give them both a blow job right there at the edge of the tracks, along with the meat, for just one hit. They already had a fire started, and they wanted the meat. They accepted his terms and let him shoot up before he made good on his end of the bargain.
Eli’s body is a spaceship, an inert thing he resides inside of. There is an exit hatch he steps into, and the door of self-awareness closes so that the door to outer space can safely open. Eli takes a walk in space. He sees his body do things as if it were just a mass of material he steers and maneuvers. Someday it will be useless like the Battlestar Galactica in the last episode, when it makes that final jump and can jump no more and someone tells Admiral Adama, “She’s broke her back. This was her last jump.” And what difference does that make?
The outside hip pockets of his new overcoat are even bigger than the inside ones, and they are lined with the same gray fur as the coat itself, but the cut-away corner, where your hands go in, is too low so you can carry three pounds of burger in each one, but can’t really hide much in them. The pocket over his heart is big enough for two packs of smokes and the like. It zips shut. He hasn’t yet found out how this canvas holds up against a heavy rain. Won’t matter. Big and stiff as it is, rain will pour into the neck hole.
A plain white patch is on to the sewn-on left pocket, with the name Carhartt, and the logo, a scooping C with a fat square bottom, like a comic book gangster’s chin. It means I’m tough, don’t fuck with me, that heavy C.
This is the first new thing he’s had in years. He loves the coat: funny, but it makes him feel good, feel like life has hope. It is warm as the Greensboro nights grow colder and he contemplates catching out for the warmer winters of Florida. The zipper is special, made with two pull tabs so you can unzip from top, or if you just need to piss, from the bottom without exposing your chest to the dark morning’s damp chill.
It is too big though, so he rolls up the sleeves. When he sits on the bus, the stiff new canvas keeps its shape, his hands pull into the sleeves like uncircumcised dicks, and the shoulders and collar rise, fossilized shoulders around his ears. His reflection in the bus window is strange to see: his nose and eyes—raw and red from drink and the elements—emerging from this beige overcoat that sits on the seat with someone else’s shape, someone large, a farmer or a railroad worker. The sour funk of his unwashed body rises warm from inside the coat like the ground-in reek of a dog’s bed. It hangs around his face, his stink, puffs out in little hot bursts when he shifts on the bus seat.
He can’t catch out for the warm south yet. His dad has been dead for seven months, but the law just now tracked Eli down. Not to arrest him, just to tell him about his dad. It was a female officer, probably picked for these things because she is non-threatening in the way she carries herself and like that.
He doesn’t have to go see his mom. But he feels good in this new coat, so he’s going.
He catches straight through dirty, ugly-ass Danville into Lynchburg, jumps off the train down by the James River as it slows to cross some streets heading downtown. In another decrepit building down by the James River, he finds some more train hoppers. They are young. One guy has his coat off. His arms are scabby.
“Where can I get some H?” Eli asks.
A girl with a gravelly smoker’s voice says, “How you paying?”
She has half her face tattooed in blue swirls but she can’t be over twenty-one, twenty-two, and she’s petite and has on striped leggings and a black fairy skirt. The growling voice coming out of that little body is like a ventriloquist’s trick.
He says, “I’m going to get some cash. From my mother.”
Eli stands with these kids beside a heavy wooden bay door knocked off its tracks. The reek of piss and shit radiates from inside its dark maw.
The tattooed girl tells him come back at seven tonight and they will have what he wants. “And bring a bottle of bourbon,” she says.
He climbs the steep streets into downtown and hikes it up Rivermont Avenue until he reaches VES Road. He turns out VES Road and catches a ride from this guy in a white GME Medical Supply van. The guy has a ponytail and asks Eli if he has any weed. The van is going right to Westminster Canterbury, turns in at the sign—green letters on a cream background, with dogwood blossoms above it, and the street number 501 beneath. The place is massive like a hospital—sprawling everywhere, but still only six or seven stories above the ground. They lived here. She’s still here.
He finds an old woman he doesn’t recognize until she talks. The voice he remembers. They take a walk around the place. Massive oak and hickory trees. Magnolia trees spire straight at the sky. Leaves are falling all around like heavy snowflakes, blanketing everything like a heavy brown coat. Black men with orange and red leaf blowers move back and forth beneath the sprawling bare limbs, their blowers screaming out like gang torture.
“Sorry about Dad,” he says.
She says, “He’s not suffering anymore. He’s with the Lord.”
“How’s Jeremy?” he asks her.
Eli’s older brother Jeremy is at this moment, while his brother Eli and his mother walk, making cold calls on his cell phone, trying to set up appointments, to sell some supplemental insurance, to earn enough to keep his family fed, his bills paid, now that he is no longer in the ministry. He sits at a desk he shares with two other new agents. He hasn’t sold a single policy in two days.
One of the female agents comes in—she won a plaque last year for selling three million dollars worth, and got to go to Texas and speak at some huge convention, they have told him—and chatters on, so he can’t concentrate on his calls.
She says to him, “Don’t worry. Right now it’s like you’re riding a bicycle uphill, but when you hit that crest, it’s all coasting.”
He nods. He doesn’t have the money to pay his mortgage this month. The grace period is over in three days, and then the penalties start piling up.
“You’ll see,” she says. She goes into the office kitchen and hollers, “Okay, who hates me and wants me fat?” She yells, “Who’s the asshole who brought in the Girl Scout cookies? Oh my god, Thin Mints.”
He can hear her in there ripping into the Thin Mint box. He fights the urge to cry.
At Westminster Canterbury, their mom says, “Oh Jeremy? He’s doing so good.” She says, “His little Jennifer plays clarinet in the band over at E.C. Glass, and she’s in the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra. The one they have for kids her age.”
Eli says, “Wow.” He waits for his mom to voice her worries about Jeremy’s soul.
“Mm hmm,” his mom says.
Still Eli waits for her to say more about his brother’s family. He hasn’t seen his brother for twelve years.
One time Jeremy and Eli were playing in Blackwater Creek, at the culvert under Link Road, or Langhorne—Eli can’t remember; he grew up here and he can’t remember the road—and they found this turtle. It had been run over by a car or something. A triangular shard of its shell was broken out. The edge was sharp like a cracked-apart plate. It was up at the turtle’s front left shoulder, and there was a wound on its shoulder and neck full of squirming maggots. The turtle just sat there. Didn’t seem to care. Didn’t scratch at them or anything. The creek always stank like dead fish, rotting leaves. This turtle smelled different, rotten like it was already dead.
They took it up to the house and their mom picked off all the maggots with tweezers, and cleansed the wound with fizzing peroxide. The turtle still just sat there, its dark eyes staring out from its broken shell into some black ancient place from before Jesus. Before humans even, or any mammals. After she cleaned and disinfected the wound, she let them keep the turtle in a cardboard box of wilted lettuce and shriveled tomato slices till it started to stink up the sun porch so bad she made them turn it loose.
Eli and his mom take a walk around the Canterbury. At a small rise in the road his mom says, “Some people around here can’t even hike up this hill.”
It’s not a hill. It’s barely an incline. Still he is sweating in his new overcoat. It wouldn’t seem this coat would be so warm, being made of canvas and all, but it’s a tight weave, doesn’t let wind in.
“Look,” she says. “I can walk right up it. No problem.”
Her osteoporosis is bad. Her shoulders roll over, collapse inside the loose bag of her skin. She is proud of herself just for walking up a hill. She has become a child.
He says to her, “I was staying in this place out in Portland.”
“You were?” His mom laughs. “Well, isn’t that something.”
“They had the TV on. There was this show about how people are using maggots and flies and bees to treat different illnesses and the like.”
She hoots a short laugh and shakes her head. “Well, isn’t that …” she says. She is breathing heavily from going up the hill. She stops so she can concentrate on a lungful of air.
“They interviewed this one doctor. She was British. She said a man came in with maggots all over a wound. She said she picked them off and cleaned the wound and the man died that night, because maggots only eat rotten flesh, they leave the good healthy flesh. The maggots were what was really fighting his infection.”
“That sure is something,” she says. She reaches out and steadies herself on his arm. Between her old claw and his needled-lacerated arm just his coat sleeve.
The sun is out, and the trees are bare. The sun is warm on his face, and he is an astronaut riding inside the spaceship of his body. He knows there’s a massive black hole deep in his future—or not so deep, around the next corner; what difference does it make?
“All I’m saying,” he says, “is that I bet you killed that turtle.”
“What turtle?” She looks around her feet and her eyebrows crunch together in concern. “I didn’t see a turtle.” She smells like piss.
“Sometimes all that goddamn tampering doesn’t save people,” he says. “Sometimes it kills them.”
They walk in silence.
He says, “Just saying.”
She says, “Jeremy’s doing so good now.” She says, “His Jennifer plays clarinet.”
They stand together and watch the black men blow leaves across the lawn.
The father is dead and gone. The mother remembers him in fleeting dreams, sometimes clear, but often she mistakenly thinks he was her brother, sometimes her husband, sometimes her son. She will be dead within the year. So will Eli: high, he will pitch forward into a coal car and believe he is flying for an instant and land on his head and with a bright flash expire. The man with him will tug the coal-smeared Carhartt coat from his body and flee the scene. The coal car will sit motionless, and the cadaver will not be found by anyone who cares to notify the authorities for three more months. The police will identify him, and they will find his brother Jeremy.
Jeremy will take the news without surprise, but it will be the last straw. He will angrily refuse to waste any more of his life inside the liberal Presbyterian church he’s been attending with his still-devout wife as a compromise. But he will soldier on in his new career selling supplemental insurance, and he will make a boatload of money, still angry at his past for crumbling from under him, still trying to figure out how to go on in a world without God.
Photo by Steven Depolo on Flickr