A telegram on crisp, new paper the color of snow. The date says 6 September 1929, the point of origin says South Africa, that’s the same place my mother’s letters come from, but the hard lettering says:
Your mother has malaria. She’s struggling. Study hard. John Headrake Simmons.
A timeless week of concern and silence passes, then ends in a second telegram:
Semira is dead. Sending her typewriter. Study hard. J.H. Simmons.
My father never called her “Semira,” only “your mother.”
The paper is a wall, a door, and a trap open beneath me. Freefall feels like the fear of forgetting her name, or how she laughed. The typewriter is an anchor in a white paper sea that moves, but allows no movement. In whirling stillness, I see red smoke, an open door guarded by two black eyes, and her guarding hands, the day she sent me away.
A shovel-full of dirt slaps wet over my face, jolting me out of strange and distant dreams and suddenly my body demands oxygen. Have I forgotten to breathe? Lips soldered shut by unknowable brine tear open with a peeling pain and my lungs fill with two parts air, one part dirt.
“Fuck! Ed! It’s moving!” Says someone above me.
“Jesus, holy Jesus,” intones a second voice whose owner might gargle tar, “Give me the shovel.”
Coughing erupts. Each acid hack forces dirt out of my throat and mouth. On my side, I puke and it strikes a surface only inches away, filling the air with stench and wet. I command my eyes to open. One obliges, the other sticks shut. The open eye warns me a fat man is swinging a shovel at my head. This is not a good way for things to be. This is a problem.
I twitch to my right. The shovel head smacks broadside into my shoulder, feeling no heavier than a hefty clap from an overfriendly acquaintance. The fat man thinks my twitching is a problem which can be rectified by a shovel assisted beating. His plan has a critical flaw though, because the unwieldy shovel isn’t balanced for swinging, and the flat head spreads out the impact.
Loose, sticky dirt froths around me, tumbling from my skin as I sit up. The shovel slaps my ear and makes it ring before I’m standing. I’m in a pit about as deep as my ribs, which are bare. The shovel hits me twice more on the shoulder and back, then I turn and catch its handle. The fat man drops the tool and flees without preamble or complaint. His rumpled shirt flows as the flesh beneath bounces from stride to stride.
Intricately grained wood in the shovel handle seems too wimple like the surface of a river. Vibrant red stains the wood, inside it like dye in water, and also hangs in the air around me, thinning to a washing trail of yellow like a comet tail behind the fat man’s comically slow escape. Those colors shimmer and fade, but there are others. Cropped grass makes a web of luminous shades of green. My hands vibrate with similar verdant light, a shell around veins of emerald and viridian, and rose ruby and blush, muscles and tendons, throbbing constructs of vibrancy. Every hair stands out.
Images flow through my veins – a smoking pistol, lines of ink and paper, a pen, keys of a typewriter under each fingernail, a black truncheon trembling, translucent, dripping blood, there’s opium gunk under my fingernails, gunk I gave up. I gave that up. I try to wipe it off but it clings, like the blood. It won’t let go. I don’t do that anymore. I stopped.
I’ve fallen to my knees. The opium isn’t there. I can’t feel it under my fingers as they rake bare flesh. It’s a figment. Fingernails leave stinging gashes in my skin.
The gun gloats in my hand. Jenny’s gun. I can’t drop it. Revulsion sudders me. The gun still smokes. It smells of gunpowder, concrete and stagnant water. In the barrel Hilda’s surprised eye disappears in a spray of liquid. My guts heave and the world spins. I cling to cold dirt.
The dirt ripples with beings squirming and worming, consuming and being consumed. The cramp of my stomach seems all that separates my corpse from the ground.
I close my eyes and the dark welcomes me. Cacophony diminishes.
I am cold, in a hole, which smells of sick.
My stomach aches and my ribs are a tender lattice, but I’m alive. The dirt under my fingers feels like dirt ought to: squishy and cloying. My breath enters and leaves my body carrying scents of loam, rain, and bile.
Cold. It’s very cold.
Better smells beckon me, and I feel with my hands for the edge of the pit. Fat man and his accomplice weren’t very thorough. I’m only about four feet down, and something might have dug me up. There’s a bag down here, a poorly stitched sack barely big enough for me to lie in. I must have stood up out of it without noticing.
Climbing out of a four-foot mud hole, in the rain, with a broken rib, isn’t a challenge I’d wish on anyone. There’s no way to turn that doesn’t put my whole body weight on the rib. Wet grass slips under my clawing hands, mud fills my fingernails and pain fills my chest making my toes tingle and arch. I manage it on my third yell.
Fat raindrops touch my prostrate body. Damp grass makes a bed of brushing fingers that itch. After a deep breath and a moment’s bracing, I open my eyes to the sky.
Clouds. Heavy, grey, Chicago clouds.
Green grass and living things hold off the smell of city smoke. An airplane buzzes high overhead, hidden amid the grey. In every direction, traffic horns compete for attention like a flock of geese.
I run my hands over my bare chest. I’m clothed only in mud, but the gaping wound I recall drilling through me is gone. The left side of my ribs still hurts, but the wound there has healed over and only a crater-like scar remains.
Surprised laughter bubbles up like water from a deep and hidden spring. The movement hurts, but I can’t help it. Wheezing and cackling I cling to myself, trying to make sense but it doesn’t. Alone, naked in the grass beside my own grave in a great big city and a great big world full of people, rain, bugs and airplanes, it’s all so goddamn funny.
The endless laughter feeds itself. Eventually a detached part of me puts its foot down. Alright. There’s no end in sight. It’s time to stop laughing now.
So I stand, wrap myself in the body bag I woke up in, and stagger out the churchyard gate.
Passing that stone arched portal is like stepping from one world into another: on the other side is a Hooverville.
Hoovervilles are where the displaced resign to make their stand. Lean-to shanties built of lumber and pipes scavenged from junk-yards and rail-roads make unused alleys or industrial lots into mazes of one-room homes full of the homeless. People come from all parts looking for work in the city, looking for food, looking for company, and looking for hope.
Theirs is a world where I feel at home.
A few of them find jobs pushing thread, nails or newspapers. Many more find work pushing drugs, guns, and flesh. Sometimes the cops come and tear it all down, but it’s reborn in a day or a week, different and the same.
It’s no wonder the goons thought to bury me here. I wonder who else they’ve dumped in that churchyard, where no one but the unknown knows to find them.
This Hooverville is bigger than normal. It looks like it grew up in a city park then graduated to as far as the eye can see. There’s a road running past the church and through the mess like a scar. Fires line the road, sheltered from the wind by the leaning shadows of rough wood walls. Near the fires lounge those out of work, watching the time go by, which at the moment means watching me.
The row of eyes blink at me in tired fascination; dirty faces, bored, hungry, and silent. It reminds me of traveling in east Asia, where villagers had never seen anyone of either of my parent’s skin tones. In a way, it’s almost reassuring to be stared at.
The sweet smell of opium floats on the morning breeze, mingling with mud, unwashed bodies and the ever-present stink of bad meat. Habit drives me across the narrow road toward the smoke, but I stop my feet before I start down the one meter wide alley the smell drifts from.
At the mouth of the alley lays a man with no face.
I look around. The wall-flowers on the street don’t seem to care about his missing face. They stare at me. Nobody talks.
Faceless wears black woolen pants with suspenders, fancily made but worn thin and torn at the knees. His unbuttoned shirt shows clammy skin to his waist. A transparent pipe hangs from his fingers, but raindrops don’t wet it. His face isn’t a scar; it’s a blur that seems to shift as I move. He looks hollow, like something pulled him out of himself.
I shake my head. The illusion persists.
To see a man in the opium sleep on a corner in Hooverville isn’t exactly a surprise. In this land of the desperate, death lurks in every empty pot, at the back of every narrow ally, and at the bottom of every pipe bowl. But they really know how to party. The parties don’t come often, and don’t send invites. You have to know how to listen. It’ll be at night, and somewhere in the warren, music will play. Follow it to the dance. It’s no sock hop. The dance makes corpses and babies and everything in between. Fun isn’t the right word; the word is ‘alive.’ Because when death shares where you sleep, you do whatever you can to feel your heart beat.
My father used to go dancing at every opportunity, and I picked the habit up from him, but I got too tight with the drugs and too loose with the steps and the dance tried to make me a corpse. That was in New York. I’ve put a lot of cities between me and then, and more than one Hooverville. But maybe the dance got me anyway.
I wonder if I look myself in the mirror, will I have lost my face?
I touch the faceless void, feel a nose, and breathe a sigh of relief.
“Hey! Hey fella!” The shout comes from behind me.
The row of strangers continues staring. A woman in a sack-cloth dress with bare feet blinks and tilts her head. None of them shouted.
I raise my arms, ready to defend myself. A dark skinned okie in a denim coverall and no shirt hobbles out an open doorway across the street. Finger width lines mark his face, cold pales his lips, but his brown eyes shine clear. He holds a pair of patched slacks rolled in his right hand and he brandishes the bundle at me.
“Hey fella, take this,” he says. “Go on. Take it!”
As he speaks, a pulse of some intangible light seems to dance behind his eyes and in his hands. Captivated, I stare, but he turns his gaze away.
“Thank you,” I tell him earnestly, and take the clothes.
“Yeah,” he says, then waves his hand at me and backs away. “Crazy bastard. Mics or mobs or those new Siamese I don’t care. Don’t want to know. Stay alive, fella. Stay alive.”
The woman by the barrel watches sideways as I pull the pants on. Once the buttons close, the street breathes an almost audible sigh, and a few of them start talking exactly like there had been no interruption. Nobody will meet my gaze. With one last look at Faceless, I leave that scene behind.
He hasn’t moved, but he’s breathing.
The fabric is so thin the garment might not make it home, but between it and the sack I’m almost warm, even though the cold mud of the street splashes up my calves, and the wind keeps blowing.
Help is a pair of unexpected pants.
By the time I round the corner by my grocer and see the brick face of the place I sleep it’s after noon, my feet are raw, my lips blue and I’m shivering like my rusty T. The hobos beneath the overpass watch me approach. The fellow with the jagged beard nods. I look like one of them now. Worse than most. My hands won’t stop shaking.
The colors still shine too sharp, like every shape is a stained-glass window over the sun. The world has a tangible hereness – immediacy, both harshly present and watery, overlapping itself. Like a Van Gogh painting, if Van Gogh did Chicago slums.
I’m locked out of my room but the landlord lives on the bottom floor. Not for the first time, I say a little prayer of thanks to the me in the past who had the uncharacteristic foresight to pay my two-year lease in cash up front. If I hadn’t done that, I’d have spent the same money on food or wandering, and now I’d be rooming in hooverville.
A hot shower, the first in days, wars on my skin with the dirt and cold. My body is a lost ruin with the mud of eons reluctantly peeling off it.
Clean, and smelling faintly of pipe rust, I turn to my spotted mirror and my straight razor. The long blade scratches my face; too dull, it cuts more skin than hair, yet still feels like a baptism and a sacrament. To my relief, my blood oozes red. I wasn’t sure what color it would be, or if it would emerge at all. Red blood means I’m not a ghost, right? I’m making that up.
Reflected in my own eyes I can see the German’s face as the bullet hits him.
Why did I do that?
I don’t know this woman named Wren or Sylvia or whatever. I don’t want to. I’m done. I died. Worse, I shot someone. Worse, I came back. Maybe I didn’t die. That makes more sense. Maybe it was some kind of coma.
Nah. That was no coma. I know what happened.
Well that’s an exaggeration. I’ve got no idea what happened to me except Hilda’s bullet, Sylvia’s needle, and Jenny owes me eight dollars.
If I ever take another bullet related job, I’m gonna ask for more than ten dollars a day.
But first, I’m going to get my hands on some whisky and see how much of this I can forget.
Straightening, I frame the phantom wound in my chest with my fingers. The bullet hole sits squarely in the middle of the scattering of white scars left by my father’s shotgun assisted rock salt baptism. This is the same constellation of scars that I thought I saw on Sylvia’s face, and now I’m staring at it again, the similarity is uncanny but not complete. Mine has a great big new bullet hole.
To my fingers the new wound feels completely healed over, but to my eyes a fresh, bleeding version floats like flotsam in water just under the scar. Fortunately, my health seems to be agreeing with my fingers, not my eyes. The visible wound is a hallucination. I can tell because if the hole my eyes see were really cutting right through my chest, I’d be a whole lot less alive.
I’ve been high on a wide variety of things. Nothing like this. The hallucinations are too specific, too clear, too precisely defined and seemingly relevant. I’m too awake, not fuzzy at all. There’s no rush, no relaxation, no buzz, no pleasure or pain, no sense of joy or profound peace. I’m just me, standing in my room, seeing things that aren’t there, and alive even though I know I died.
Death was blank. I’ve heard people talking about out of body experiences when they come near death, but I didn’t see that. I remember nothing of it.
I consider the narrow sharpness of my face in the mirror. It almost seems my eyes have fallen more deep set than before. Running a finger through the hair of one thick eyebrow, I trace the line of my jaw. Narrow face, angled jaw, small nose, I’m somewhat fox-like. In the depths my own eyes, storm clouds churn. I could believe there’s a flicker of lightning.
That’s not a metaphor. I’m seeing things.
There are storms in my eyes, a gunshot wound on my chest, and my hands overflow with the afterimages of guns and drugs and people I’ve hurt.
But none of these things are real.
I will say this about coming back from the dead: I don’t want to do it again.