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At the crest of a small hill, a hill that has not always been regarded in its long history, sits an heirloom building made of wood, two-storey, long, low, with a front porch that spans the length of it. The building hovers over a commercial street, a busy street that leads in one direction to the outer suburbs, and in the other to more seasoned neighbourhoods of the city. Most of the other buildings, in either direction, are of brick.
[private]From this viewpoint, this hovering porch, patrons of the bar it holds may wander about in heated discussion, or laughter, or solitary despair. There is nothing this porch hasn’t heard or seen, no conversation that doesn’t echo another, no ghost that is unwelcome, though some of its ghosts go unnoticed – timid ghosts, like those who first travelled there from fear and longing long ago.
These were the slaves who hid in the building’s cavernous basement, aided by a few local souls, who stole by night to points further north along the route of freedom. They wrapped themselves in fading quilts and slept by quiet streams in the heart of the Appalachians at the break of dawn, dreaming of Big Dippers and the dotted lights of northern towns. They traded their quilts with every conductor, and read the secret route that was handed to them in each new pattern. They brought a lifetime’s store of memories with them as they lay in the basement of the solitary wooden house, some only in their teens, others not much older but broken into an early, deep maturity.
They roam, wrapped in their quilts, along the porch after midnight, after the house’s newest guests have left, drunken, near-sighted, and oblivious to the past.
At two A.M., then, a boy walks by, a boy of fifteen on his way home from a soul-searching evening he has spent with his love, an evening of storm and calm set against the inescapable hum and life of a party. His heart has been opened, and everything he sees and feels pours in and out of it as he walks home in the cool, early-morning air.
She has started not to look at him when she speaks to him; her eyes, once two deep brown wells of mystery, are now tense and withdrawn, as if belonging to someone he has never known. He doesn’t know what to make of it, or her, or his fifteen-year-old world. Everything has become for him uncertain, unclear, unpredictable.
In this limbo-like state he looks up at the house, its empty, wide porch, and notes that it is not empty. A lonely figure stands there, wrapped in an old blanket, looking either at him or past him – he couldn’t tell which. Then another figure walks out of a shadow, looking in the same direction, and then another. Though it is night the boy can tell they are black men, all three of them; he has never seen a black man in this part of town before. He looks down, then, and keeps walking. But he cannot forget them.
The next day our tavern’s owner, Bill Steeps, comes out at noon to sweep the porch of its first fall leaves. The broom, tattered and discoloured, loses more of itself each time it is used. Bill wonders what he is sweeping more of: leaves or stray broom. The last few nights’ revellers have left beer stains on the porch’s dusty floor. Bill stops and regards the floor, feeling its ancient weight and history, wondering if he will ever get it clean. He unexpectedly feels that he has never been able to keep it clean.
“Bill!” his wife calls through the open door. “Someone on the phone wants to talk to you. Get in here!”
Bill drops the broom to take the phone call. He knows he has been late paying his draught beer company, and has already rehearsed his excuse. Rita holds the phone up with her left hand, and uses the right to flip through a little notebook.
“No, no. I already know what they want,” Bill says. “Here.” He reaches out for the phone.
For the next ten minutes Rita moves about the bar, straightening chairs and re-organizing the counter, while Bill reassures the beer company. Then she steps outside for a breath of autumn air, and notices two cops making their way up to the porch.
“Hey guys. What’s up?”
“Hey Rita,” the thick-boned, sandy-haired one says. “Seen any suspicious activity on the street?”
“Like a couple a black guys in a stolen Lexus – dark red – with a lot of cash to burn?”
He appears on the porch.
“They’re looking for a stolen car. Blacks.”
“Never,” Bill says.
“What’s that?” says the cop.
“I said you’d never find them here. It’s not usual, not since I’ve been alive anyway. I got nothing against them, but you know as well as I do –”
“We just got a report from Russ Kramer. They were in his store, bought two of his best audio systems with cash.”
“Oh? When was that?”
“About two hours ago.”
“Well, we haven’t seen them. Rita – right?”
She shakes her head and frowns. The cops nod, unfold their arms, and say they’ll be by on Saturday night for a beer. Bill and Rita go back to their work.
It’s a warm Saturday night for October, a freak of fall weather, bringing summer up again from the south, and sending more than the season’s share of revellers to the tavern. They spill from the body-warmed room out to the porch, where the air is also still, but less used. Their voices carry evenly far into the night, up and down the busy street – commingling with the sounds of big engines, footsteps, and distant laughter – as if breaking through time.
Rita and Bill step outside too, leaving the night-work to hired help. There’s not much that can go wrong on a night like this, with the lingering warm weather, the loyal clientèle, and money in the drawer. Even that morning’s argument has evaporated, leaving them both free to enjoy their accomplishments, their people, and each other.
“Bill –” Rita puts an arm around his thick waist. He tenses, then turns to her and feels relaxed.
“Len and Cookie want us to go to Las Vegas with them next summer.”
“That’s a long way off. But why not? Sure. We’ve never been to Vegas. Hell, we deserve to go to Las Vegas!”
“Do you think we can afford it?”
“We can make sure we can afford it. This is America.”
Bill feels a hand on his back. It belongs to his buddy, Ray, who speaks low into Bill’s ear.
“I didn’t know you were expanding the business to include other neighbourhoods of the city.”
Bill looks inquisitively at Ray, who nods in the direction of the bar. A small group of black Americans has just been served a round of drinks. They laugh and toast one another, unaware that they have been noted.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Bill says. “I can’t refuse business, can I?”
Ray’s eyebrows rise, but he doesn’t respond. A brief chill passes between them.
Our adolescent friend is walking with his love, walking again along the road that has been lonely for him more than once in his past. They are deeply involved in one another, the warm autumn breeze defining nothing but themselves, their worries, their situation, their love. It is approaching midnight, and they are nearing the tavern house. He has forgotten everything for the moment – all he can smell is her cherry-scented perfume; all he can see is the balance of pain and contentment in her eyes; all he can hear is her words:
“So what do you think we should do?”
He can almost feel her breath, though he is not looking at her.
“I don’t know. What’s wrong with the way things are?”
He takes her hand; she squeezes once and lets go. Then he looks up and sees them again, wrapped in their quilts, standing in the shadows at the far ends of the porch. They do not move, or speak, but he knows they are looking past the few remaining patrons, at him.
“Did you hear it?”
“What –” She freezes.
“They must be gun shots,” he says.
“Oh my God. Where?”
He looks around, trying to locate where the sirens are coming from, to let himself slip back into the world. But before he can answer her, before he can let go of their insular life, he sees lights flashing far ahead. Sirens ring in all directions. Car doors slam; quick footsteps staccato the air.
They killed a black man, someone in the community said. And then another said it, and another. They all repeated these words: They killed a black man. The phrase went to sleep with everyone that night, and woke up with them in the morning. The phrase would not go away. It made the twelve o’clock news, and then the next morning’s news, and the national news.
Bill and Rita started the day in each other’s arms, something they had not done in a long time. Usually they started the day in confidence, already preparing their mental lists of things to be done. But this day brought an unfamiliar sense of caution to them: plans escaped them, and they ended up dreaming. It was the phone ringing that finally coaxed Bill out of bed. Rita allowed her empty embrace to linger, as she closed her eyes again and reascended to her dream-cloud, though Bill’s words on the phone burned through:
“Yeah, Len. I don’t know what – it happened so fast. Everything was gone from the drawer. Everything.”
“It had to be – I guess – who else could it have been? I know just about everyone who comes in that place, you know.”
“You’re right, Len. What can we do?”
There was little left to say. Bill listened another minute to Len’s tirade, then hung up, shaking his head.
“Well?” asked Rita, by now very awake.
“Was it them?”
“No one knows.”
“Len seems to know.”
“Len is being Len about this.”
“He might be right.”
“Look – what difference does it make? They were speeding and went through a red light.”
“And they were carrying a lot of cash.”
“All right, all right,” he said.
She grew quiet.
“Sorry, honey. Come back to bed.”
“No, I can’t. I’m up now.”
“Why should I be upset?” he shot back.
“I don’t know. It’s not your fault,” she said.
“It’s nobody’s fault. Things happen. And we’re out eight hundred bucks.”
“Yes. Eight hundred thirty-five.” He stopped. “But how –”
“How did they do it? Right under our noses.”
“I don’t know, Len. It was pretty crowded that night. Talk to Doug.”
“He doesn’t remember anything. He says he just turned around and it was gone.”
“Sounds like Doug. Are you sure he’s not drinking back there again?”
“No. I’m not sure of anything with him.”
Bill heard on the evening news that the man had died instantly. The police reported that he and the others had run the red light, appeared drunken, drove recklessly, and disregarded their pursuit, which ended in a car chase and warning shots. After coming to a halt in somebody’s yard the driver stumbled out yelling vulgarities and reaching for something inside his coat. That was when they fired on him.
The reporter said that he had been reaching for a cell phone. The others in the car came out when called, cowering and whimpering. Together they were three young men and one woman. They said that they were not familiar with the neighbourhood. They had been drinking, yes, but not locally. They had been invited to a late-night party in the area but had taken a few wrong turns.
This version of the story was new to Bill, who had relied on Len and a couple of other friends in the neighbourhood to provide details of the incident. Ray was certain that they had been the ones in Bill’s bar that night; he said he recognized the coat on the ground when he saw it on the news. He said Bill should call the police right now and let them know where they got the cash. Bill was mostly quiet; he felt as if he had been appointed judge against his will. After hanging up the phone Bill sat in his armchair watching television, whatever was on, whatever might draw his attention away from the incident.
On Monday night the bar was nearly empty. Bill kept the door open until eleven, then he told Doug to clean up and lock the drawer. Rita had already gone upstairs to bed; Bill spent the next hour rocking on the wide, empty porch. Monday nights on the porch were so still, it seemed, as if there had been no history but the history of stillness. The street was even quiet, offering only sporadic movement, the quick anonymity of occasional moving cars. No one was out walking that night; there was no wind.
Bill had been sitting on that porch for twenty years, and for twenty years that porch view had felt the same, withstanding renovations and alterations in the commercial scenery. Bill had come to feel, on late Monday nights, that he and that porch had a secret, a chunk of dedicated time that no one else knew. During this time he could step outside of Bill and see him at another angle. It was an important time for Bill, and an important time for the ghosts.
Until now they had no reason for getting to know him – they saw him only as the latest occupant in their spiritual home, no less a product of contemporary culture than the others. What could they do with him? What difference could they possibly make? Their presence was sometimes noted, yes, but only by those who were willing and able to see beyond the limitations of their own narrow world and time. Until now, Bill did not belong to that small group.
As he sat rocking, making the only sound, a steady pattern of footsteps reached his ears. He looked up and saw a boy coming toward him.
“Hi Mister Steeps,” the boy said.
“Hey. Aren’t you Jake’s boy?”
“Yeah. I walk by here a lot.”
“My girlfriend lives down the road.”
“What can I do for you, son?”
“Nothing. I was just wondering – I wanted to ask you – if it’s true what they said on the news.”
Bill stopped rocking. He looked the boy cold in the eye. “They were here, yes. And just after they left, the money was gone. Now I don’t know if those officers were justified in what they did. But one thing I’ll tell you: those blacks were criminals, pure and simple.”
The boy looked puzzled.
“But they’re regulars here, aren’t they?”
“No, no, no. Never. At least not that I know of. And I know who comes to this place. I live here – ” He pointed to the second storey. “Everyone who comes to this bar is a guest in my house. My father lived here too, you know. This house has been in the family for generations. My honour and reputation are tied to this house –” He stopped, because the boy was looking off in another direction, not listening to him any more.
“What?” said Bill.
“Who are they then?” The boy turned his head toward the far end of the porch, where the ex-slaves stood under shadow, as still as the night, wearing quilts that were as translucent as October clouds over the moon.
“Hey now!” Bill shouted. He looked around and thought they had gone. Was he seeing things? Had they been there all along with him, his private time violated, trespassers on his thoughts?
What if they were criminals too, avengers of those that had been caught? He jumped out of his seat and headed to the door. Once inside the bar, he flicked on the overhead lights. The money drawer was not fully closed! He had caught them this time. Should he call for help, yell, run after them? He made his way to the drawer, pulled it open and lost his breath. All of the stolen bills had been returned. Not one was even out of place.
The boy, left alone on the porch, backed down the steps. While heading home, carrying the weight of his full heart, he turned and saw them standing there again, this time waving, under a shimmering moonlight, until he waved back.[/private]
Mark Saba is the author of two short novels,The Landscapes of Pater (The Vineyard Press, New York, 2004) and Thaddeus Olsen (in the volume Desperate Remedies, Apis Books, London, 2008), as well as other stories, poems, and essays which have appeared in literary magazines. He is also a painter. See: marksabawriter.com