Stun Gun, Nomads, Flies

Chili has to use her stun gun Wednesday evening two weeks ago, after she’s left the yoga class that’s held in the basement of St. Gall’s, a dilapidated Catholic church about four blocks away from her apartment. No, it’s not a basement, generally in California homes and smaller buildings don’t house basements do they, so maybe it’s just a big utility room. Whatever it’s called, there’s always the ferment of sweaty socks lingering in the air after the class, that and armpits trumpeting their mustiness everywhere, can’t stand that smell. And the thing about it is, there are no men in the class. Men would be expected to give off that odor, sure, stronger hormones, metabolisms like cauldrons releasing some sour-smelling concoction in the heat of exertion, but not a class full of women. Her husband Marcus is always pleased to point out that women are actually nastier – his word exactly – than men, despite the myth to the contrary that women themselves have cunningly promoted. Then he goes on to cite stories of how the janitors at the school board where he works compare women’s and men’s bathrooms, how women leave the toilets full of their business and don’t have the decency to flush it down. Or worse, mindlessly toss sanitary napkins with the coppery reek of stale blood on the floor in the corner of the stalls, and so on. And these are the teachers’ lounges, off-limits to students. Or maybe nastier isn’t Marcus’ word, and he’s only quoting the janitors. Anyway, Chili’s thinking less about that and wondering more why the church is called St. Gall’s, whether saint Gall is an actual saint – well, must be, or the church wouldn’t be called that. Then wonders why she’s never seen any black saints, what’s the story behind that one, because there must have been a few walking around doing whatever it is that saints do, did. Well, don’t be so naive, that’s to be expected, this is America, always that shroud of invisibility woven of misinformation, historical neglect, whatever, and thrown over the accomplishments of black folks. Chili was twenty-one and a student at the University of Wisconsin before she found through her own reading that there are black inventors who came up with everything from the traffic signal to blood plasma. Think of it, twenty-one. Pathetic.

Suddenly she’s got a sense there’s someone behind her and turns, no, doesn’t turn, just tilts her head a bit, barely manages to glimpse a guy sandwiched somewhere between her vision’s blind spot and its periphery, hears him asking her for either the time or a dime, now turns fully to hear what he’s saying and looks into his eyes. Nova-red eyes liquid with malice, she’ll never forget them, can actually see the pupils contracting into evil pinpoints. And she’s right because “Bitch,” he says in a voice that gurgles its words up through a throat clotted, it seems, with phlegm, then reaches for her face. But she’s faster than he is, snatches from her aerobics bag the stun gun Marcus gets from a friend of his who’s a cop, some particularly damaging variety of stun gun that can’t be bought by civilians, severs the nerve-endings or explodes them or something. Anyway, jabs the guy in the neck with it, inoculates him with electricity. For a yellow strobe-lit moment she thinks it’s not going to work but then he’s seized by the hand of the current, yanked backward convulsively. As he falls to the ground his head crushes a Pepsi can. This takes place in front of the church on the narrow strip of parking with its tattered lawn, while cars drive by and slow down, drivers roll down their windows fully to get a good long look, eyes stare with blank, clinical interest. But no one stops to help.

Chili and Marcus don’t talk much about the incident in the car on the way home after she calls him from the church and the man, the assailant, her assailant, is arrested by the police, who inform Chili that “This individual has a history of instability and nervous breakdowns, whatever the hell a nervous breakdown is. I wouldn’t personally know because I couldn’t afford that luxury, but I imagine it must be one, a luxury I mean, to escape everything and all. Guy’s homeless as well, but usually harmless. Well, semi-homeless to be more exact, since he sometimes stays in the Rutherford halfway house over on Keen Ave. And that’s also to say, harmless in the past. But he’s worse lately, wanders around with no idea where he is, where he’s going, like he’s some sort of nomad with an amnesia problem. This time he must have snapped.” She wants to know what’ll happen to him, guy looks so young, twenty-two, three at the most, maple-dark complexion like her sister Shanda, thin mustache of down that looks like a paste-on clinging precariously to his upper lip, hands that look like they’ve only touched and held sad things and people, can’t explain that one but that’s what comes to mind, and now the eyes merely frightened, no longer thermal with rage. Wants to know what’ll happen to him but doesn’t ask when the police usher him to the patrol car and install him in the back seat.

Haunts Chili: One of the officers placing his hand lightly on the top of the handcuffed man’s head so that he won’t hit it on the top of the door frame while stooping to get in the back seat. A gesture that’s oddly solicitous, or no, more than that. Almost a benediction.

  • .

Chili knows that Marcus can’t believe she’s taking eight weeks off from work on a medical leave the week after she paralyzes her assailant with the stun gun. Not to say he’s angry or upset, why should he be, he knows she’ll collect disability from the state – and that’s what, eighty percent of her pay check? No, Chili knows he’s actually delighted because he assumes she’s pulling a fast one, beating the system. Anything that has to do with black people getting back at the system, striking out against the institution of suppression – or would it be oppression ?– and winning even a temporary victory, Marcus approves of wholeheartedly. She knows that what he can’t believe is that he’s always thought she was incapable of lying, malfeasance, “urban guerilla tactics,” as he calls it. He’s joked affectionately over the course of their four year marriage that she’s sadly deficient in Malcolm’s X’s by any means necessary mentality. Chili plays along, sure, let him think she’s using feeble schemes and pathetic, underhanded stratagems to outwit her “opponents”: employer, state of California, United States of America, the world, a pale God on his throne in heaven. Sorry to say that as usual he just doesn’t have a clue, doesn’t realize that she’s home because there are some things she needs to figure out. Doesn’t have a clue that in the middle of the night after she wakes up in a sweat, she sits in the reassuring cold womb of the empty bathtub and doesn’t turn the lights on. No clue whatsoever that in the middle of the night she’s a bubble weighed down by the unbearable pressure of an ocean atop an ocean atop an ocean, rising sluggishly up through the heavy water of her dreams. Up through fish that are just fish until she sees one that has her favorite Aunt Loretta’s face, how’d Lo-Lo get here under all this water, oh right, it’s a dream, follows Aunt Loretta’s fins and finally breaks the surface of the water which is a sliding glass patio door. Because her sweet Aunt Loretta has Alzheimer’s, see, doesn’t know what she’s doing at times. Walks through a sliding glass door she and her perpetually exasperated husband Buba have in the rear of the house where the patio is, keeps walking, doesn’t know where she is or where she’s going, doesn’t even know she’s covered with blood. So the poor thing’s out there somewhere, roaming through the streets with that expression of dazed dignity that’s always on her face when the authorities bring her home, she’s out there exposed to anything, anyone. Out there where anything can happen and finally, of course, does happen. When the sorry-ass police – if she’s senile can’t you keep her from wandering around, keep her in the house? – when the police finally find her on the other side of town after the glass door incident, she’s dead, not from the cuts but because she’s an older woman and she’s been brutally raped. Nobody there to protect her, save her, she’s defenseless, somehow more vulnerable than the most defenseless victim. An assailant, crawling all over her body with a hungerless hunger, engulfing her body, forcing himself atop her, pounding death into her.

Do they drive by her aunt too, just gape at the poor woman, same way they gaped at Chili and her assailant? Just watch Lo-Lo sprawled there in the bushes at the side of the Pacific Bell building?

”Were you up last night, in the middle of the night?” Marcus says in the morning, sitting at the kitchen table, finishing his coffee with a satisfied smack. Doesn’t wait for her to answer the question, just starts talking about something else. Chili’s accustomed to his communication style, if it can be called that. But no, can’t really call it communication because there’s no two-way to it. Well then, maybe it’s more self-expression than communication. No, not even that, it’s just an oblivious joy in listening to his own bullshit, must go back to his childhood when survival in the streets depended not on who was strongest or toughest, but who was loudest, who talked the best game. “Damn, I wish I was in your position, home all day, kicked back. Got a surprise for you today,” he says mysteriously. “You don’t want no part of the big bad world for awhile so I’m gonna bring it to you, right up in your face.” Then he’s gone, out the door. Doesn’t kiss her and that’s fine, she doesn’t want to be kissed, she’d rudely turn her face to the side, push him away, and if he persisted, well, she’d fight him with a supernatural strength that would shock them both, leave them both in a catharsis of exhaustion.

  • .

So the surprise happens in the middle of the day. She’s drinking valerian tea, read somewhere it’s supposed to have a soothing effect on the nerves, but then again she buys and takes all these herbs, vitamins, substances, and never feels any different: takes gingko for memory, garlic for ”blood purity,” ginseng for stamina, hawthorn berries for the heart, bee pollen for whatever, and more. But when all’s said and done, vitality, energy level, are always the same – low, if truth is told. Why does she have so little vitality for being so young? Marcus doesn’t help her situation, condition, whatever it would be called. He’s much more – what would the word be? – rawly ethnic than she thought he was, and she finds this somehow exhausting. Wait, tell the truth, that’s exactly the quality she’s attracted to in the beginning. The “opposites attract” theory in full effect: he’s raised not by his mom but by a hustling, unscrupulous big brother, while Chili’s got a father who’s a stockbroker and a mom who certainly put many of her best years and all her ample powers of concentration into raising Chili (in fact, that’s her mom’s single instance of that concentration lapsing, the name “Chili”). A mom, in fact, who makes $80,000 a year selling – believe it or not – selling Amway products. Right, attracted to Marcus’ street-wise resiliency, his thick-skinnedness, if that’s a word. Oh yes, so attracted to it that in the beginning she couldn’t see straight. Couldn’t see it for what it really was: not a thick skin, just selfishness. His litany to Chili: doesn’t she know that she’s supposed to only squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom up, not the middle, that she has to “rotate” the mattresses once a week, that she has to put the mail into the little in and out boxes in the office and not mix everything up? Chili knows these aren’t big things, but they add up.

And this “surprise” he tells her about this morning is another example of things adding up.

Home Electronics Depot or whatever it’s called delivers a 35-inch Zenith television and a VCR. They briskly set everything up in the living room, they turn it on, they leave.

What the hell?

For a long time she sits on the couch and stares stuporously at this … this cyclops of technology, without turning it on.

Marcus comes home a few hours later, must have left work early, and he’s very pleased with himself. “How you like that TV and VCR, baby? Ain’t that some kind of kick-ass hook-up? huh? You happy now? What you been watching on it all afternoon?”

“This show here on flies. Not flies, a National Geographic show on famine in some African country. A tribe of people who wander from place to place in the desert – nomads I guess, they don’t know where they’re going or what’ll happen when they get there. Look.”

Marcus moves over to the couch with tentative and puzzled steps, sits down next to her. Watches her for a few moments blankly, as though he can’t comprehend, then turns his attention almost unwillingly to the TV.

A baby’s being held in the arms of a grandmotherly white woman wearing a soiled doctor’s or nurse’s uniform. The woman has a stricken look on her face. Camera zooms in to the pink cavern of the baby’s mouth stretched open in a frozen yawn of silent agony, then pulls back out artfully.

“See?” Chili says, pointing at the screen with the remote in her hand.

“What?” Marcus says in irritation, squinting out at the huge screen. “See what?”

Now her voice gets louder, she can hear it herself but can’t stop the voice from spiraling toward the ceiling. “Those flies crawling all over the baby’s face. If they care about it so much, why don’t they ever brush the flies away? Have you ever noticed that in these African documentaries when they show people, sick people who can’t move their own arms to do it themselves, they just let the flies crawl all over their damned bodies and faces?”

Marcus reaches for the remote, tries to pry it from the clench of paralysis her fingers are locked in, and at some point as she resists with all her might, she realizes that it’s not the remote after all that she’s gripping, it’s the handle of the nerve-severing stun gun. And as it’s going off, discharging its damage in a stream of long crackling hisses, she’s at a loss to say exactly how long she’s known what the thing vibrating in her hand was, at a loss to say whether she’d have been capable of stopping it had she known.

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