The Visitor

by | May 25, 2009 | Stories | 0 comments

The town was dead. Like the air-con in my old Buick. In that Alabama heat it seemed my brain might swell and burst out of my hot skull, so I pulled up at a MacDonald’s near the edge of the small town and got me an iced Coke to put out the fire in my brain. An old black guy, seated at the next table, must have noticed the sweat glistening my brow and soaking through my tee-shirt. He grinned and winked at me.
“Could jus’ ’bout melt out there, huh? Melt an’ hope you’d ’vaporate, ’cos ain’t nobody in this Godforsaken place would sweep up the mess if you didn’t.”
Holding the glass of iced Coke against my cheek I grinned back but said nothing.
“You a visitor, or you jus’ happens to be passin’ through?”
“Passing through,” I echoed.
“Ya know, we had ourselves a visitor once.”
I put the glass down. He wanted to talk and I was in no hurry.
“No-one really knew exactly when he moved into that run-down ole shack other end of town. Jus’ that people kinda noticed him around. Ain’t no-one knew his name, either. ‘Him’, he gotten called.”
“An’ a funny ole town this was ‘cos she didn’t have no soul. See, she kinda lost her soul after it happened. ’Course, I was jus’ another black boy back then. A black boy in a town split in two like all them other Alabama towns was back then. See, we blacks was doin’ all right ’cos we’d gotten our own soul back after that Dr Martin Luther King gave us our dignity. When he done that we finds we can do jus’ ’bout anythin’ them whites can an’ sometimes better. We’d gotten ourselves teachers an’ lawyers an’ doctors, but we kept ourselves to ourselves back then. Didn’t go mixin’ any. Yeah, before it happened, she was split right down the middle. Black an’ white.”
“Then it happened, an’ when he arrived afterwards not only was she split down the middle, but she’d lost her soul too. ’Course, ya could be forgiven for wonderin’ why they ever gone an’ built this dang town anyways, for after it happened it was like she was jus’ hangin’ there in that heat on them crossroads’ like she’d been crucified … only there weren’t no Jesus in her!”
“The visitor knew nothin’ of what’d happened when he arrived. Ain’t many folks aroun’ now that remembers it either. Even them white folks, an’ they was the cause of it all. Me, I was only a kid back then, but ain’t nothin’ happens in this town an’ not everyone knows about it. Now some, they blamed everythin’ on that war in the Nam, but me, I knows different. It was folks, not jus’ the war, that done that thing.”
“’Course, first it looked like that war might finally make one community out of us, for black boys an’ white boys, they was sent to the Nam to fight together side by side. Whites saved blacks, blacks saved whites. An’ the letters that came back from the Nam, they was all mixed up together, those from the black boys an’ the white boys. An’ the bags the bodies came back in, they looked the same till you opened ’em up; then ya’d find some was white inside an’ some was black, an’ some was neither white nor black for ya’d find ya was jus’ starin’ at charcoal an’ wonderin’. Yeah, if anythin’ that goddamn war nearly brought our two communities together. Until it happened.”
“His name was Chuck. Chuck’s daddy, he was kinda rich. Owned a real estate business an’ a Cadillac convertible. Now Chuck, his daddy allowed him to drive that Cadillac, an’ that boy sure was proud to be seen drivin’ his sweetheart, Mary-Lou, to them drive-in movies. They would sit there an’ kiss an’ cuddle like there weren’t no-one else in the whole goddamn world.”
“Chuck an’ Mary-Lou, they’d been sweet on each other ever since junior high school,
an’ seemed weren’t nothin’ could separate ’em. Not even that war in Vietnam. When Chuck gotten signed up he must have been all of nineteen years of age. Thought he was a man, he did, but I knows now he was only a kid. His an’Mary-Lou’s partin’ brought tears to everyone’s eyes. Us blacks, too. They all said their love was like that white man’s book, Romeo an’ Juliet.”
“Mary-Lou, she was the prettiest girl y’ever did see, an’ some folks said the sadness in her blue eyes after Chuck gotten sent to the Nam made her even prettier. At first the girls an’ the mommas, they would say no news was good news if the mail-man put nothin’ in their mail-boxes, but us boys an’ the ole men knew that was a cover up for fear. The fear of every woman. That the man they kissed goodbye to, the man who looked so strong in that fine uniform, that same man was lyin’ dead an’ dirtied in a paddy field with nothin’ to cover his bullet-ridden body other than the rain an’ the mud. That was what they feared when they said those brave words over an’ over, an’ that fear it ate into their souls, an’ it changed ’em like the fightin’ changed the men.”
“An’ so it was with Mary-Lou. She’d gotten one letter from Chuck after two weeks sayin’ he swore his undyin’ love, an’ they said she went around with the letter hidden under her blouse. Close to her heart, they said. Then there was no more letters. They kept saying to the girl ‘no news is good news’, but Mary-Lou, she knows different, an’ after three months even they stopped pretendin’. Chuck’s Daddy, he tried gettin’ info’ from the military, but they jus’ told him it was kinda messy out there, an’ all he could do was to wait. They said the boy might have gone MIA. MIA? Sounded kinda important, to go MIA, but that was jus’ military talk for ‘he ain’t never gonna come back … not even in a body bag’.”
“Next month Mary-Lou’s momma, she told the girl to find another boy. ‘Besides,’ she said, ‘you an’ Chuck, ya weren’t even engaged.’”
“Mary-Lou, she cried for two weeks. Shut herself in her bedroom an’ cried an’ wouldn’t come out. Then one day she stopped cryin’, like somethin’ inside of her had died. ’Course, she was still as pretty as ever, an’ the boys in town that hadn’t gone to the Nam, they was delighted, but it was like the girl no longer cared. Every evenin’ she drank downtown. That’s how she met Jason.”
“Jason, he looked like a normal boy, strong an’ handsome, an’ he worked in the gas-station where my daddy worked, but he never gotten sent to the Nam have himself shot at by the Cong on account of his asthma. On medications for it, he was. We blacks thought Jason was a good boy, but after it happened the white folks jus’ couldn’t decide. Them that lived at the south end of town, where folks is poor, thought he was good too, but them other folks, the land owners an’ white lawyers at the north end, they said he was real bad.”
“Whether he seduced her or she seduced him, whether the girl loved Jason or her MIA childhood sweetheart, that all seemed of little importance when it gotten out that she was three months’ pregnant. Didn’t show at first, but already the whole town knew it. Like I said, ain’t nothin’ ever happens here an’ not everyone knows ’bout it. We was all expectin’ Jason to propose to the girl, even though he was only a gas-station attendant an’ she was a high school graduate hopin’ to go on to college.”
“One day Chuck returned. Came back with only one an’ a half legs. He’d been away for
eleven months, an’ Mar-Lou was five months pregnant an’ now it did show. Mary-Lou, she still looked beautiful, but her ole sweetheart had grown ugly-lookin’. The boy whose charm an’ smile could have once turned a ravin’ slayer into a saint, he now had a real mean look about him. They said his eyes had gone funny. Kinda hard, an’ if ya looked into ’em long enough ya’d see them black clouds all heavy with rain, an’ the water in the paddy fields, jus’ water everywhere, an’ the shells explodin’ an’ ya’d smell the stench of them shells an’ feel the touch of death. Folks said if ya looked even harder into them eyes ya could see the eyes of the Cong, keen an’ cold an’ starin’ at ya from the undergrowth, from the gutted buildin’s, all the time starin’. Said ya’d see the fire of hell itself in them eyes. An’ the eyes that showed these things, they saw that hump on Mary-Lou’s belly. They saw her tears, too. But the small boy behind those eyes, he jus’ didn’t know what to do when he saw his sweetheart with child by another man. Mary-Lou, she pleaded with him. Near drowned her childhood sweetheart with her tears when she told Chuck she still loved him, she did, an’ she begged him to forgive her. Said she’d died inside herself when they told her he must be dead. Said she no longer had any use for her body, bein’ dead inside, when she lent it to that gas-station attendant. But Chuck he only saw a beautiful girl, his girl, an’ that girl had given herself to another man. Called her a cheap hooker an’ a bitch an’ a whore. She ran from him. She ran cryin’ as the small boy watched her through those cold, hard eyes. He couldn’t run after her on account of only havin’ one an’ a half legs, but the small boy wouldn’t have known what he was runnin’ to, even if he could have, ’cos he never knew how much that girl really loved him.”
“They found Mary-Lou swingin’ from the rafters of an ole barn her Daddy was hopin’ to sell. It was her Daddy who cut her body down. A broken man, he was.”
“Now Chuck, never understood nothin’ ’cos inside he was jus’ a small kid, like I said, but that small kid inside of that crippled demon they sent back from the Nam, he knew only hate an’ anger an’ revenge. No-one will ever know what went on in the mind of that kid as he watched himself, the demon soldier with one an’ a half legs, shoot that Jason boy in the head. No-one will know ’cause the demon jus’ turned the gun on himself an’ shot the small kid in the head.”
“Already, before the shootin’, whites was split between them that saw for Jason an’ them that saw for Chuck. It was like the girl was the prize that never really mattered but them whites was still fightin’ over it. After the slayin’s, the split in them whites was as deep an’ wide as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Them whites in the south end, they sided with the dead gas-station attendant’s family. To them Jason was a good boy who’d been unlucky enough to fall in love with another boy’s sweetheart, an’ they saw only the demon in Chuck. White folks at the other end, the north, the rich ones with the big houses, they was all with the realtor. They saw only Chuck the small boy who gotten sent to the Nam to fight for his country an’ came back missin’ half a leg. Wouldn’t have happened, they said, if the gas-station attendant hadn’t stole the girl from him, an’ they blamed Jason’s family. ‘Should’ve controlled the dog’ as they called him! An’ his family, they blamed Mary-Lou’s folks for encouragin’ her to lead him on. So one war led to another.”
“The whites of the north would drive in their posh Lincolns an’ their Plymouths all the way to the next town to fill up with gas. Kept on doin’ that even when they’d forgotten why. The kids from the south end never sat with the kids from the north end in school, an’ in church the two lots of whites, they kinda separated like oil from water.”
“Until the visitor came. Now that was aroun’ the time of the relocation of them South Vietnamese who’d fled from the Cong that’d made monkeys of our troops. An’ they came with their families, an’ spoke no English, so they kinda stuck together. So the visitor, he found a goddamn town split into four like a Thanksgivin’ turkey.”
“He wasn’t much to look at that guy whose name no-one knew. Kinda shabby. But he spoke to people. Gentle voice, too. Spoke to anyone an’ everyone, an’ our four way split it meant nothin’ to him. They said the look in his eyes seemed to say, ‘hey, I sure would like to listen to ya, hear what ya have to say’, an’ people kinda like folks that listen, shabby or not. He listened to darned near everyone in our little town, but the funny thing was, never once did he ask them to listen to him. Folks only told him things … never asked him. That’s how no-one ever knew his name.”
“After he came, things began to change. Blacks spoke to whites, an’ whites from the north spoke to whites from the south, an’ Vietnamese, when they learned English, they spoke to darn near everyone. White doctors an’ lawyers, they showed up at the gas-station, an’ boys from the north would even hang out with girls from the south.”
“An’ another thing happened. Money came available at the public library for kids’ activities. Activities that helped to bring all four communities together, an’ soon the children here played as one. There were dances, too, an’ no one asked who sponsored these, but whites from the north end was dancing an’ laughin’ with whites from the south end.”
“An’ so our town she gotten her soul back. For a time, the war, Mary-Lou an’ the whole goddamn sadness of the slayin’s, was all forgotten.”
“Then he left. Never mentioned he was leavin’, an’, ’course, no-one thought to ask him
how long he was stayin’.”
“ ‘Ya seen him today, Earl?’ ”
“ ‘Funny thing, that, Warren. No, I ain’t. Not for two days.’ ”
“ ‘Me neither, Earl.’ ”
“No-one ever saw him again. The ole shack at the edge of town stayed empty, an’ soon it seemed like nobody had lived in it for years. ’Course, many stories went around. Stories about what had happened to him. Some said he’d gotten sick, an’ not wantin’ to bother folks here he kinda jus’ walked away. Others said he’d gotten called on urgent business. There was even a story that he’d gotten kidnapped. Folks said he had money an’ they took him for his money which he’d hidden away. Enough money to fill a bank vault twice over, they said. Now there was a few who kinda implied he’d never really existed at all. Not me, I should add, for I sure knows what I sees, an’ I sees him all right, but that’s what them folks was sayin’. Never could figure out why they said that.”
“For some time our town she stayed alive. Kept her soul an’ stayed alive. Them dances an’ kids’ activities, they carried on. An’ soon they forgot how it came about, that bringing together of our four communities. They forgot about him as they forgot about the happenin’. Until …”
The old guy gave a sigh.
“ ’Course, it was a white boy an’ a white girl again. He was a rich kid jus’ back from college who took a fancy to a girl who was a waitress downtown. Trouble was she was already married. Her husband used to fix them broken telephone lines, an’ they had a cozy little house at the south end of town. Too cozy for jus’ one person, she thought, an’ when her husband was away for long periods, fixin’ them phone lines, she’d phone her lover-boy. Husband went ape-shit when he found out his cute, little wife was lendin’ her body to one of them rich boys on the side. Slapped her around, he did, an’ next day she an’ her lover-boy vanished. That day it started up all over again. The blame an’ the takin’ of sides … an’ the warrin’.”
“Like I says, it’s down to people, all that warrin’. An’ the visitor? Man, ya’s lucky if ya meets a guy like that jus’ once in a life-time. Our town, she was lucky that once.”
The old black guy grinned again, showing only fleshy gums. I’d stopped sweating, but my tee-shirt was still damp. I raised my glass to my lips for the first time. The ice had melted, and the Coke had gotten warm, but my brain, reeling from the old man’s story, was no longer melting. I smiled at him and, without saying another word, left.
“Darn it!” I muttered as I opened the door of the Buick. I’d forgotten to ask the old fellow about getting the air-con fixed. The heat was already extracting beads of sweat from my forehead. I retraced my steps into MacDonald’s. It was empty of


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