Fall 1990, Volume 7.2
On the day that Mike Quinn flew South for the first and last time he awoke in the grip of such a hunger that at first he thought that he might be sick. But it was pure emptiness in his belly, he decided, as he dressed for his quick trip to the office—he had just become a regional manager for a new software company out on Route 128—gobbling a jelly doughnut left over from a shopping trip he had taken over a week ago, and washing the remains down with day-old coffee. Ever since he had moved out of the apartment he had eaten on the run. Darcy, his wife of three years, had been the cook in the family.
"Just like your mother, remember you telling me that?" she had said to him in one of the last rounds they had fought before splitting up this time. "Well I'm not your mother, you know that, and god- damnit I'm not even related to you so you had better start treating me like a human being or else you're not getting invited back."
He wondered as he dialed her number on a whim just before going out the door—was this treating her like a human being?
"Yeah?" came a deep male voice.
He hung up the telephone.
It rang just as he was picking up his suitcase.
"Don't do that, Mike," came Darcy's voice.
"Don't do what?" he said.
"Call like that and hang up."
"I didn't call you."
"Mike, you can't fool me. I know you."
"Who was that?" he said.
"Is he still there?"
"Let me talk to him."
"Mike, get out of here."
"I'm out," he said. "I'm going to Atlanta."
"You are?" There was a little of the old excitement in her voice this time. "You got the job?"
"Congratulations. Oh, Mike, that'll really help you get a new start."
"A new start?"
"With your new life. Like we talked about."
"I got to go now," he said, his heart sinking like a heavy object in mud. Was this where treating her like a human being got him? He pictured a thick-necked, dark curly-haired repairman, his tools dangling from his belt, standing behind her, making nice with thick fingers on her arms and chest.
"Come on, Michael," she said. "What good's it talking if you don't follow through."
"I'm following, okay?" he said. "I'm following." He hung up the telephone again and followed out the door and into his car and drove to the office where a small mound of paperwork remained to be done and then he followed to the airport where he parked his car and went to catch his airplane. He did not have a lot of time before boarding— the row of telephone booths a few yards down the hall kept his attention. Would it be treating her like a human being to call her back and ask if they might try to see each other again when he returned from his trip? If he suggested that she might try to move South with him when it came time for his relocation? But things moved along and quite soon he found himself sighing ferociously over the noise of the airplane engines at the lost opportunity to call her and ask.
"Are you okay?" said a bony black woman in a navy blue suit who had been working in a lined notebook ever since they had taken off from Logan.
Quinn hadn't known many black people in his life, let alone black women who appeared to be employed by a company like his own. He began to speak, talking of business, and she spoke back, and soon they were going on about the coming election, and it seemed that they could agree on a lot of issues. Lunch was served. Before Quinn knew it they were preparing for their descent into the Atlanta area, as the soothing flight attendant's voice informed them. And he had forgotten a lot of what had been on his mind.
The business in Atlanta kept him away from his troubles for the rest of the week. There was so much to do during the day, although Jack Henshaw, the big-handed, soft-voiced fellow who was his newly designated right hand man, explained that in addition to everything else that he was doing for Quinn he was also in charge of what he called "attitude adjustment."
"Things run a little slower down here," Henshaw said. "Not any worse, don't y'all worry about that. It's going to be as good as Boston, just . . . "—and here Henshaw smiled in a way that Quinn could have described as slyly. "See, Marty, it is Marty, isn't it? See, after your Yankee general Sherman left the city in ruins we took us a while to look around and contemplate the mess. But we're rebuilding now. It's just a little more relaxed . . . than up your way."
By Wednesday, Quinn knew he could use some of that. He suggested that instead of calling it a night after one drink in the hotel bar as he had his first two nights he would suggest to Henshaw that they take a little look at the town.
"Now what'd you have in mind?" Henshaw appeared to be studying him as he might some new form of food or plant life. "I mean, topless? That what y'all thinking? Hell, I could do some of that. I haven't done it in a long time." He paused, as Quinn shook his head. "Well, then what else you got in mind?"
"Huh?" Quinn pursed his lips. "Nothing else. Well, maybe we could try a topless bar. Aw . . . ."
"You're the boss," said Henshaw. "I'll just go give the little woman a call and tell her to watch Johnny Carson without me tonight."
The little woman, Quinn was thinking as he watched his new companion walk slowly toward the telephones in the palm-infested lobby. He had been daring himself to call Darcy again. Maybe after another drink or two he might try it, but not now, was what he decided.
"Well, hell in a ball court," Henshaw said, catching Quinn in that thoughtful pose, upon his return. "Look, I got to take a rain check on this carousing stuff tonight. Don't get started thinking that I'm pussy-whipped or any thing like that, but seems like my older boy just got into a little fender bender out near the interstate and I got to go and fetch him from the garage where they towed him."
"No, no, sure," Quinn said. "I understand that. You got to go. I'm just going to finish this drink and go up, anyway. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Early in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I'll be there," Henshaw said. Quinn watched him leave the bar in the direction of the entrance to the hotel. As soon as the man was gone, Quinn felt a sudden sadness overcome him, the common variety of sorrow that often descends on a traveller alone at night in a strange city. He wanted to get up and run after Henshaw and tell him that he would go with him to find his boy—he and Darcy had no children of their own and lately he found himself with a great curiosity about other peoples' kids—and then perhaps have a drink with him and his wife at home. Instead he sat and drank another drink, listening idly to the murmuring conversations in the bar around him.
At around eleven o'clock he suffered a few yawns, and got up to go to his room. A flashing light from a passing police car caught his eye as he walked through the lobby and he slowed down, then stopped. A large brick plaza lay outside the revolving doors. A taxi lingered there a moment, then pulled away. Quinn, as if drawn by a magnet, inserted himself into the doors and pushed and exited into the unexpected coolness of the evening air.
It's supposed to be warmer here than up there, he thought to himself as he walked across the hotel plaza to the near corner—Peachtree Street, Gone with the Wind, and all that. There actually was a breeze, but he assured himself that he shouldn't be surprised. He had done some reading about the territory. Atlanta was the highest American city east of Denver. Why not then such a breeze when the rest of the South lay sunk in the heart of Indian summer? He found himself walking south on Peachtree Street among high-rises and weedy lots with old wooden buildings falling in on themselves, as if in despair at their own antiquity. At the far corner he saw a slender young thing in mini-skirt and skimpy blouse clinging to a lamp-post as though it were a palm-tree.
"Hi," the idler said, winking at the stroller.
It was a boy's voice, tuned unnaturally high. Quinn pondered this on the short walk back to the hotel alone. It was midnight when he reached his room. Was the message light winking on the telephone? Yes? No. He sat on the corner of the bed, studying the instrument, thinking, yes, I'll call her, no, I won't. He lay back to think about it and the next thing he knew it was three thirty and he felt his exhaustion wrapped around him like a tangled blanket.
Henshaw picked him up at eight-thirty, all too alert and cheerful for Quinn's needs. He wasn't a stupid man and as soon as he saw what he was dealing with he shut up. Quinn was pleased. By noon, though, some of his old energy returned and he suggested that they walk out for lunch. He told Henshaw about his little stroll the night before, mentioned the transvestite.
"Hot-lanta," Henshaw said. "They come from all over the South to this place, doing their things. Though now the AIDS is killing them off."
Quinn reached for something in his mind out of his college days.
"It's like the Black Plague," he said as they stopped before the restaurant of their choice.
Henshaw lay a hand on his shoulder and leaned confidentially toward his ear.
"Oh, we had that for years."
Later in the afternoon Henshaw appeared at his desk, all smile.
"Hey, you know I felt real bad having to leave you by yourself at night . . . ."
"Look . . . ."
"No, no," Henshaw said. "Listen. I just talked to a buddy of mine. . . and we have got a deal going for this weekend. Here it is. He, my pal Bobby has got a little plane . . . and some tickets for the game?"
"You're what?" Darcy said when he finally worked up the courage to call her. "A football game? I thought you hated football. Michael, maybe you're finding a new you down there. I'm happy for you."
"Oh, don't be happy for me," he said.
"Well, why shouldn't I?"
"Because it's condescending," he said, wondering where within himself he had found that word.
"You're the one who treated me like your mother—"
"Oh, shut up," he said.
"Don't tell me to shut up."
"My mother is dead."
"Don't go pulling that number on—"
He touched a heavy finger to the bar on the receiver and her voice went away. Sitting in the dark room he felt the sadness rise, as if he were a little boy once more and his mother had just left him alone in the house while she hurried out to the corner store. It amazed Quinn just how far back in his life he could sink when pushed over into this feeling. Darcy—that woman! She treated him as though he were the one who had stepped out of the marriage. The pillow skidded out from under his head and he leaned down to retrieve it, feeling the sudden rush of blood to his head. He got up and found an aspirin in his toilet kit. An hour later he was still fending off a headache, obsessed once again, in spite of himself, with the recollection of Darcy's infidelity, the look on her face when he surprised her with his question, the telephone calls that he answered that awful week from the caller who clicked off each time he said hello—and her triumphant look, a stay against guilt he understood if he considered it carefully, when she finally admitted she had done it. So it was one of those nights again, he assured himself, when he could stand for hours here at this window, staring out across the city and feeling pleased because he knew that other men in those apartment buildings and ranch houses and hotels and shanty rentals were suffering as he had, and even now some of them were discovering for the first time their capacity for betrayal, or the power of their shame. It was around one o'clock or so—when Quinn turned from the window, went to the television, pondered the possibility of watching an R-rated movie on the closed circuit channel, thought better of it, undressed, climbed in bed, played with himself, fell asleep.
They took off from a small field north of the city, three men, their bags, a case of whiskey.
"Hot damn," Henshaw said, leaning forward to slap his friend the pilot on the shoulder, "You run out of fuel, we got enough of this good drink to fly us to China."
As if in response, the small airplane dipped its wings to the south and went into the wide curve that would aim it toward their destination. Quinn's hope sank—he had never flown in a craft this small, and he found that his fingers were digging into his thighs as the noisy engine jerked them higher and higher through wispy clouds. For over an hour, Quinn's heart seemed tuned to the foul-dreaming engine, fading in and out, as the whine rose and fell, and when they finally went into their descent toward the small orange-brown field below he pressed back against his seat, feeling the sweat pour down his sides as if in release. He had not paid much attention to Henshaw, who now seemed well on the way toward complete incomprehensibility, jibbering odd sounds, only now and then saying words that had to do with football.
"Gol," said the man who had flown the airplane as they came to a stop on the runway. He slapped his hand to his head and let out a rush of air from between his thick lips. "I ain't been that scared since I ever first started flying." He reached under his flight jacket and came up with a flask that he passed to Quinn. "How'd you like it?" Quinn noticed the smoke pouring out of the little panel in front of the wheel.
So he had a few drinks himself on the way to the motel. It seemed in keeping with his retroactive fear for his life—and with the cars filled with fans of the Crimson Tide and of the Bulldogs, too, which flew pennants from their aerials, who waved pennants and pompoms and shot the bird to each other as they passed each other by. Out on the strip where they took their rooms the motel lobby was jammed with revellers from Georgia in anticipation of the game. It was far far different from the way he had imagined such a scene, with some of the women and men dressed as if for a night at the theater and others in red hats and red shirts and red trousers, some even in red makeup. Here and there he saw a black face or two as well, and though he was sure it was an illusion he might have seen the same trim black woman who had been his seat mate on the plane flight south.
"Bobby had this room three months in advance, thank the Lord," Henshaw said, returning suddenly to clarity of speech as they entered the hallway behind the lobby. Two bottles gone—he flipped the next one into the wastebasket soon after they entered their room— and the game was still two hours away.
"Bobby?" Quinn leaned against the wall and stared out the window at a patch of sky nearly white.
"Remember that boy flew us here?"
"That's the dog, bubba," Henshaw said.
"Hey, y'all ready for murder and mayhem? We going to whup their Alabama behinds!"
"Huh?" Quinn saw Henshaw standing in the bathroom door, his penis in hand, spraying urine across the rug. "Hey?"
"Haw! Haw!" Henshaw made a funny laugh, looked down at his mess and then went back into the bathroom.
"Dum-da-dum-dum!" A loud thudding at the door. "Hey y'all let us in!"
It was Bobby who stared at Quinn when he yanked open the door, a man a lot more red-faced than when he was last seen, with two blond women, one on either arm.
"Gol," he said, "what's that stink?"
Quinn looked down and saw that he was standing in a urine-soaked patch of carpet.
"Who's 'at?" Henshaw shouted from the bathroom.
"Santa Claus," said Bobby, motioning with his chin for Quinn to back up into the room so that he and the women could enter.
"It does stink," said one of the women, a short girl with orange-red hair and a sweater that said BULLdogs across her large chest. "Hi," she said, extending a hand toward Quinn, "I'm Tiffany."
"And I'm Brittany," said the other woman, who seemed tall alongside her companion but not in comparison to the men. She was wearing a red dress that seemed of a material much too fragile even for this slender-boned girl who wore it. It was cut way above the knee, and Quinn found himself staring at every available turn.
It was Tiffany or was it Brittany?—getting so drunk, he couldn't tell which girl was which—who pressed close to him in the rental car on the way to the stadium, and said, "Are you a doctor?"
"No," Quinn said, "do you need one?"
"Whoo-ee!" Henshaw kept on shouting out the window on the passenger's side of the wheel—Bobby was their pilot, their driver. "Whoo-eeee!"
"I was going with one," she said.
"Where's he?" Quinn said.
"Dead," she said.
"Sorry," he said.
"Oh, that's all right," she said. "I didn't know him real well."
"Oh," Quinn said, feeling her press harder against him, as though they were rounding a turn though they were pushing straight ahead along the roadway. "How'd he die?"
"His wife shot him," she said. "He was a real hero. She was trying to get me, I just know it, but he stepped in front."
"Dogs!" Henshaw shouted through the open window. "Dogs! you 'Bama slime-bucket! Dogs!" He turned around in his seat and breathed fiery whiskey breath on Quinn and his companions. "Boston, you now an official Dog! You hear? You are an official Dog!"
"Arf," said Quinn. "Arf! Arf!" The two girls giggled. He liked that. He did his bark again.
Tiffany—or was it Brittany?—leaned up and gave him a big wet kiss on the cheek. It went like that all through the afternoon, the roaring smashing cheering game, the drinking, coughing, barking, shrieking Tiffany and Brittany, tens of thousands like them on both sides of the field, an enormously roaring blur of red and white and sky and green field, the ball soaring, clash of helmets and pads, the bottle in hand, empty, smashing the feel of her next to him, singing the songs he never knew.
The ride back grew louder, more drinking, loss made them thirsty, hungry. Tiffany—or was it Brittany?—lay her head in his lap, nibbling at his knee. Henshaw shouted at Bobby, foreign autos honked at them, Bobby honked in return. Next thing Quinn knew he was standing outside the motel waiting for the sun to go down. A car full of bearded men in camouflage pulled up alongside the entrance, the motor ran a while, then it pulled away. The sun settled slowly down behind the restaurants and tire stores across the strip from the motel.
"Let's go, you dirty defeated Dog," said Henshaw from behind him. Bobby came up on the other side with the girls. They hustled him back into the automobile like Mafiosi gathering up a victim for their cruel undertakings of revenge.
"Follow them." Henshaw said, and Quinn discovered that a car was leading them along the strip.
"Can you believe it?" one of the girls said.
A sour tinge of vomit clung to Quinn's nose along with the odor of heavy sweet perfume worn by the women on either side of him.
"Sangwich," said one of them.
"White bread, baloney, white bread," said Tiffany or Brittany, whacking him with her hip.
"Want to call home," Quinn heard himself say.
They were streaming along beneath dark trees, real country all around. Quinn wanted to close his eyes but he had somehow forgotten how to do that. There was a little purring sound in his lap—one of the girls was snoring, breathing with her mouth open on his knee.
Next thing they were thrown forward as Bobby slammed on the brakes. Here they were—out in the woods somewhere, as far as Quinn could tell, with a stucco-brick shack with a sign in neon glowing on it —"Dreamland."
"Heard of this place?" Henshaw said.
"I told them," said one of the girls with a giggle.
"I did," said the other girl.
A few couples mingled outside the door. Inside it was all dim neon and the smell of the wood oven and the door of the roasting meat and pungent sauce. It took what seemed like an hour before they got a table—and they drank beer all that while. When they finally sat down Quinn felt as though he were sinking into a bath of beer. All around them other revellers raised slabs of animal ribs to their jaws, or bottles of beer, or both. Most of the diners were white, all of the people behind the counter, the huge man sitting at the roasting pit, the photographs on the wall—except for a pale-faced old man whom Quinn knew he should know but couldn't figure—all were black. Quinn felt the girl's hip—Tiffany's? Brittany's—bumping against his as she chewed her meat. The sauce stuck to his fingers. His face almost stuck to the bones he gnawed on. More beer. And more beer. He had such a sensation in his mouth from eating the hot sauce, in his chest, in his limbs from all the drinking, that for a moment he looked around, beyond the tables to the counter, and had a fearful insight—that he was biting into directly and chewing upon the old barbecued flesh of the black men behind the barrier.
"Do we know how to party here, sugar?" one of the girls said to him.
"Aw," said Henshaw, "y'all come to Hot-lanta, we'll show you—"
Quinn was feeling a little queasy. Seeing Bobby take a slice of white bread from the plate in the middle of the table and wipe his lips, he did the same. And then stood up. Something was calling him—and it was more than his kidneys and bladder, though God knew these organs were bleating out distress signals after the afternoon he had given them. The call took him toward the door.
Men and girls. More of them milling about outside the entrance. Cars roared up, cars departed. Quinn wandered off toward the woods, heeding the call in his lower parts before the other. He stood there, aiming his stream at the bushes for a long time. A little wind blew up, but not cold. Lights from a van caught him turning back toward the roadhouse. No one seemed to be left in front of it—or the lights blinded him to their presence.
"Hey?" came a yell from the van. "You one of the Thetas?"
Quinn was shaking his head when two young men appeared at either side of him and helped him toward the van.
"Tour is leaving," one of them said. There was an odor about the van, Quinn noticed, when he climbed in and sat on the little jump seat among a number of other travellers. Urine—barbecue sauce—perfume—beer. It was his own smell, the odor of others around him, these young boys and girls, swaying from side to side as the van drove along the narrow country roads.
"Well-fed, well-drunk," someone said at his ear.
"Now the rest," said another.
"Rest is the best," said another.
"Hey, y'all a poet and you don't even know it."
"Off to Moundsville," said a boy at his back. Except that Quinn finally understood that he said it like—"Mo-u-u-u-nds-veeel . . ."
Quinn dozed, awoke to the sound of the Theta boys singing, joking, dozed again. Was it twenty minutes it took them? More? Suddenly the van jolted across railroad tracks, made a sharp turn, then stopped abruptly. Someone got out and left the door open. Cool breeze filtered through the inside of the van. Moans. Groans. Suddenly the door slammed and they were moving again. And then stopped. And then moved again. Then stopped. And someone yanked open the rear door. Quinn piled out with the rest of them, these college boys and a few girls.
Tall mounds surrounded them in the moonlight all around, strange hills in this flat country that seemed, when he noticed it, arranged as if by the hands of some giant's child across the grasslands of this park. Following the group, all of whom seemed to be holding bottles or glasses in their hands except him, he made a telephone call in his head, saying to her, You wouldn't believe it, Dar—and in that same exchange she cut him off with a snarling, You sneaking bastard, sneaking around with the co-eds, huh? Well—
It wasn't like that. No one paid any attention to him, even to the point of when he felt as though he were dying of thirst just sort of passing a bottle over to him without even looking him in the eye. It was as though he were a chaperone, an invisible one at that, or something like a ghost. The drink made him feel real, though—and he drank more and another, tasting the grease on his lips, the still lingering traces of the barbecue from Dreamland where for the moment he had imagined they had been eating the flesh of negroes—and, thinking back to those girls, women, wiping his face with the white skin of young girls.
I'm an adult, a manager, I shouldn't be thinking this, he tried to convince himself as he trekked across the park.
"Talbot has the key," someone said up ahead of him.
"Talbot has the key," the group took up the chant.
"Hey," Quinn said, catching up with the last pair in the line ahead of him.
"Arf, arf," said the boy.
"Y'all coming?" the girl said.
It was a bright night full of moon. From the top of the mound—a broad grassy space large enough, it appeared, to capture that moon high above if it fell to earth right now at the size it appeared to be from their vantage point here—he could see some of the other strange hillocks in this park.
"Who made all these?" he said aloud.
"Arf, arf," said a boy next to him.
"Injins," came an answer in a young girl's voice.
Someone handed him a bottle.
"Black warriors," said another voice.
"Asshole! That's just a river," said another.
"No, no, hey, dey be de black warriors, wid de black faces . . ."
Talbot? He had the key. Quinn took a sharp hot swallow from the bottle and followed the wavery line of students toward the low building on the far side of the mound. A blond-haired fellow—Talbot, he worked at the lock, and then suddenly swung open the door.
"Museum . . . " was all Quinn noticed about the sign in the dark as they passed in a noisy knot through the entrance. Inside, someone found a wall light, and the entire place come up brightly, filled with cases along the wall showing pottery and maps and in one room a little exhibit filled with live-sized models of Indians at their fire.
"Talbot's Daddy's an anthomopolist," said a red-faced girl at his side. "He runs this place," the girl tugged at his shirt sleeve. "Come on and see."
They wandered away from the main room, the sounds of the other party-goers fading, echoing, fading in and out, faintly, bouncing off the walls. Quinn's bowels cried out to him suddenly with a burning and twisting that made him stop a moment, feel the girl alongside him, take a deep breath, then come along.
"I got to . . . "
"What's that?" the girl said.
"What's your name?"
"Tal . . . bot . . . . " came a faint cry from far away.
"Tal . . . . "
". . . bot . . . . "
"Can I have some?" the girl said, breathing close to his chest. Her hair smelled wonderful, some perfumed shampoo or other, but her breath was the foulest thing he had ever breathed. Her eyes lighted up, and then seemed to darken.
"Please," she said.
"Please what?" Quinn said, turning his head away.
"Whatever you brought," she said.
They heard footsteps. Lights in the other room blinked on and off, on and off. Someone was barking like a dog. Quinn backed up against a railing. The girl advanced.
"You got to get something," she said.
He twisted around, fearful that she might breathe again upon him. Her face—either Brittany's or Tiffany's—seemed to emanate a curious glow, as the sea does, or so he had once heard, when tens of hundreds of millions of microscopic animals float on the waves beneath the moon. His mouth hurt, as though by mistake he had bitten into something hard. He could taste blood, mixed with the sour traces of all the alcohol he had swallowed since the early morning. In his mind he found the telephone, picked it up, dialed Darcy's number, misdialed, tried again, heard the ringing at the other end of the line.
A crash of glass distracted him.
"Down there," said the girl, Brittany, Tiffany, pushing him toward the railing.
"There," she said again, pointing into the pit that seemed to have opened up at their elbows, though it must have had to have always been there. It was a burial pit, at the bottom of which lay several carefully arranged skeletons of the Indians who had built the mounds many hundreds—how many teen hundred? Someone was saying out loud even as others in the fraternity revel now gathered at the railing, tossing bottles, some empty, some full, into the abyss.
"Nonononono my Daddy'll—" someone was shouting.
"Help him," the girl was saying, meaning for Quinn to hold a boy's legs while he tottered high above on the railing, another fellow holding his other leg, and began to urinate into the pit.
Quinn held him tight, responding with his grip to the screams of joy and fear around him. A resiny mist settled on his lips. He looked up—the boy's face was a mask of bulging eyes and clenched teeth —he let go.