How Smoothly it Came

two stories

Greg Bottoms

Violence, how smoothly it came
And smoothly took you with it
To wanting what you nonetheless did not want
-- "Shadow Train," John Ashbery

My Brother's Education

     Locked away, my brother began his education. He had time now to learn, after years of avoiding it. It was written in the letters I never answered. He was full of knowledge.

     He learned math in a classroom the color of slate, chalk squeaking out numbers and signs on a blackboard. A fat man, an inmate, a man who did something illegal to his own children long ago, sweated and talked about theorems, formulas. Numbers, in the abstract, my brother found difficult. The fat man, he wrote, was smart but a bad teacher, full of water and ideas and terrible secrets, unable to fully share for fear of revealing a dark part of himself. My brother worked hard, though, to prove something. At lunch he counted men like children do apples or spotted cartoon dogs. He learned that two men were most likely able to overpower one, that three men could always overpower one, no matter what you might hear, and that it was better to be one of the three than the only one.

     In wood shop he made a clock, a working clock he was proud of -- tick, tick, tick, I could hear him saying -- that someone smashed when he wasn't looking. Then he made a shiv for when he found out who smashed his clock, which, I believe, had come to symbolize, in some vague way to him, his progress as a human being, his ability to do things people on the outside might consider productive. He needed to kill the fucker who crushed his human progress. He stabbed someone he didn't like, hoping that he was the crusher of human progress. But it was the wrong man. Inside, these things happen. All is flux. The right man and the wrong man are the same man; it's all about intention and revenge, the means not the end. Someone deserves it; someone gets it; if they're not the same someone, who really gives a fuck? For this he slept in a dark room for 45 days, until his eyes were glued shut and his lips were cracked and his skin was the color of the squeaking chalk the fat man used for the theorems he wouldn't share. He counted the days in cold, soupy meals.

     In the letters he misspelled the crucial words. He spelled "niggers" with one g and "spicks" with an x. I fixed his letters and put them away. P.S., he wrote, please write me back, brother. Please. He used the word "please" like a weapon. I hated him the way you can only hate someone you love, hated him so much it burned bright red inside me.

     He learned quickly that blacks hated whites and whites hated blacks. A fact, like natural law. There was no compromise. A compromise would get the white compromiser killed by the rest of the whites. The same was true for the blacks. Hispanics, however, were different; depending on their skin tone they could go, occasionally, either way, if they knew the right people, although mostly they stuck together, too. It was different in the west, he had heard, where there were more Hispanics. But in Virginia, he wrote, the spix are few and can go either way. Inside, he wrote, it would not be bad to be light brown. He longed, I imagine, to be unidentified.

     He also learned, slowly, to read and write. Just a few years ago. In his thirties. Then came the letters, like a killing flood. He wrote all the time, to me, an old girlfriend, our mother, filling up our desk drawers, boxes. He wrote and wrote and wrote, manic with the power of language, roaming back and forth through his whole life, remembering, inventing, reinventing, shaping, trying to articulate, looking...He read the Bible. It was the only book they'd give him; it was the only title he could remember. It took him a long time to read it, but he found it both cryptic and intoxicating. So he read it again -- and again and again...Later, he felt God in his fingertips and was sorry for so many things that he could not stop crying. He lived in a sorrow you can only find in a dark place without freedom, a place where time meant everything and nothing and space was a myth passed around for comfort. He learned that Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins and that on the third day he rose from the dead. He liked that, rising from the dead. He liked the idea of Heaven, he wrote me, of just dropping your body and moving on. He liked that the end of the Bible became dark and cautionary, warning of a preordained end to us all. He said he liked St. John as much as Jesus, maybe more. The Bible made him feel small, though. It was so big, so beyond him. He professed his love for God, which helped, but only some. He had been an empty vessel up to now, he wrote, misspelling the words, and now he was ashamed.

     As a Christian, after learning about the death of the body, of all bodies, he did not so much mind the things he did. He had learned early on that it was best to choose -- as much as one was able to choose -- a group of men that you did not mind having sex with. This way, he learned, sex was paid for by protection from others that might want to have sex with you. He learned to give himself to a few to be saved from the many -- he thought of this in instinctive mathematical terms. He learned that he was probably not a homosexual but was capable, in certain circumstances, of acting convincingly as one. He learned one day that being raped was a terrible, violent, humiliating thing but that fighting it often made it worse; fighting it made it all violence and no sex; pretending was the way to go; pretending was self-preservation. He prayed every night. His asshole bled. He never got an erection again, never, he wrote, even when he fantasized about women, the ones that seemed almost fake, the ones from magazines with giant breasts and white-blonde hair, the ones that used to work for him every time, the ones that now turned into smiling men right there in the middle of his head. He had become, he wrote, a woman, a whore. He cursed God and then apologized. He bit his lip, tasted blood. It wasn't him they wanted to destroy, he reasoned, staring at a ceiling the same cold color as everything else; it was his body, and the body, he had learned from Jesus Christ himself, was temporary.

     He learned, then, to cooperate, sacrifice.

     He learned from a priest, the same man who taught him to read, that having killed another human being (pointlessly and intentionally) considerably lessened his chances of being saved. It doesn't just happen, the priest told him, you have to work. His last letters are about the difficulty of being saved.

     He needed to work harder than he could.

     His body was so tired.

     He learned, when he was exhausted, that drinking cleaning fluid was not good enough, that they could pump your stomach, bring everything up in a blue stream. He learned that it was hard to leave your body in here if they didn't want you to.

     You did not own your body in prison.

     Please, he wrote me, please write me back.

     I own boxes full of pleading.

     He learned that a belt, even if you could get one, was not the best thing; buckles are made of different pieces, and different pieces, as a rule, eventually come apart.

     The last thing my brother learned, after so much trying: A shirt, or a sheet, tied in simple slipknots, was the best thing for the burden.

City-Block Protocol

     A neighbor I never met, Murphy Childress -- 27, black -- was shot in the stomach by a rookie police officer. He had been fleeing the scene of what resembled a robbery. That, the shooting, was why the two guys in front of my apartment -- his former friends and roommates at the same halfway -- were abusing the couch.

     The couch slumped three-legged on the cracked, weed-sprouting sidewalk -- yellow, filthy, full of holes and protruding springs like rusty antennas. Drunks and runaways often slept on it; prostitutes rested on it (and probably all the other things you might imagine, but I never saw any of that).

     It was ten, eleven at night. This happened last week. Wednesday, I guess. I looked out my window, kept my lights off so the two guys couldn't see me. They were making a lot of noise -- yelling, cursing. They were familiar to me, but I didn't know them. The halfway they live in is just down the block. I don't usually talk to any of my neighbors, especially the ones from the halfway. One was a tremendously fat black guy -- probably 300 pounds -- with a fantastic afro that he would sometimes part in the middle, sending it out in two directions. He always wore the same hooded black sweatshirt, baggy jeans that covered most of his bright white sneakers. The other guy was skinny. He wore a leather jacket with the name of a band on the back that I can't remember. Ether or Kepone or Nitrous, something that was just one word, chemical, punk. He was, I think, Filipino. Although I could be wrong. But he was definitely Asian or Malaysian or something.

     A bottle broke, sending shards of glittering glass across the sidewalk and street, some of it hitting the VW bus that had been parked along the curb, inert, for months.

     I didn't know about Murphy Childress yet, about how he'd been shot in the stomach, dropped shivering into a puddle of his own warm blood. But I do now. Because the next day, even though I was so frightened I could taste bile with a sweet hint of the red wine and Wonder Bread I had had the night before, I walked up to the giant black guy as he sat on the porch of the halfway, smoking a cigarette. I looked at his afro, stared, I guess. He had a big blue comb perched atop his head, half-buried in hair.

     --You got a eye problem? he said.

     I didn't know what he meant, exactly, but I said that, yeah, I usually wore glasses. He smiled. I felt instantly better. I asked him about the couch, said, you know, that I was just wondering.

     --Why the fuck you wondering? he said.

     I said I was just curious, that I'd been thinking about calling the city to have them come take it away, that he and the other guy had really done me a favor.

     I said the right thing, evidently, which is not as common as I would like, because he kind of laughed at me. Smiling, he offered me a cigarette. I don't smoke cigarettes, never have. I'm very particular about the whiteness of my teeth, the freshness of my breath. That day, however, I smoked like a black and white movie star, wanting to send the right message. He told me his version of Murphy, who, as I said, had been living in the halfway with him and the Filipino (I think) guy. Later I looked in the paper. Sure enough, there was the Murphy story. The two versions of the story were entirely different, though, not even close really. You have to crack open your skull, let speculation in, imagine -- bend the whole mess into a story -- to understand.

     According to Anthony (that was the black guy's name, Anthony), Murphy was smoking crack. Smoking it all the time. The guy who ran the halfway, a city social worker, found a glass pipe, a few crumbs of a rock, kicked him out. They had a very strict policy about drugs. Murphy, suddenly homeless, went to his ex-wife's apartment down in the tenements (they weren't ex officially because it cost about a thousand dollars to get a divorce and they didn't have that kind of money; so they were still married but they pretended to be divorced). Murphy had two kids. Two boys, fairly young. His not-really-ex-wife was pregnant again, but this one wasn't his, which hurt, in a way, but was also relieving.

     He stood in the doorway of her apartment, smiling, or trying to, but looking more like he was gritting his teeth to stave off some unbearable pain. His lips were blue, or purple. His eyes were yellow, red veins squiggling in every direction like secondary roads on an old map. He had no saliva. His mouth, extending down his throat to his roiling guts, was lined with fur, dust, cobwebs. (I'm using some of my own experiences to describe this because before I lived in this apartment I lived in a rehab for 90 days.) He was jonesing bad, said Anthony. He acted aggressively, said the paper.

     He asked his not-really-ex-wife for money. She said something to the effect of Fuck You. He hit her. Pretty hard. He had to, really. She obviously wanted him to die. Because that's what he was doing, right now, in this dimly-lit, roach- and rat-infested hallway -- dying. He had often beaten his wife during the marriage (or while they lived together and were married). Murphy loved her so much it made him crazy, made him get high and want to kill her so other people couldn't touch her, couldn't learn her thoughts, so she couldn't go around snuffing out the last cooling embers of his heart with those high heels. But Anthony assured me that she could take it, get up swinging. She often, he said, kicked Murphy's ass. Once she stabbed him in the hipbone with a steak knife. Well Murphy knocked her down this time. Then he went into his son's -- the older one's if I have the story right -- room to take stuff, money or just things he might be able to sell, quickly, to somebody on the street. Only his son, who was twelve, said Fuck You, too, you ain't my dad.

     Murphy freaked. Nobody respected him anymore. He'd changed this kid's diapers, sat up all night with him once when he was sick. Eyes closed, swinging wildly, he cracked open his son's face like a rotten cantaloupe. Started breaking stuff. Then he broke the Nintendo Gameboy he had bought for his son two Christmases ago, back when he was working nights at the condom factory, back before the crack and the couple short stints in County and the halfway and more crack and then the getting kicked out of the halfway and then the needing crack and then this sad scene in the government-housing tenements.

     Murphy started crying. Bawling. He didn't want to live like this. He hated violence, really -- it made him physically sick sometimes -- but what else did he have?

     He stopped, stood still. The room, the building, the city, the spinning earth, hummed softly under his feet. His cranium felt lined with wet moss. There was a lot of screaming in the apartment, but he didn't hear it because he was standing in his own closed-off, soundproof capsule of regret, holding a smashed Gameboy. Do crackheads have hearts? you might ask. They do, believe me; they just get stuffed down into their warm, red guts where wanting lives. Murphy got it in his mind -- which was not in a good state right now -- to get his son, who was bleeding badly, who he was really sorry for hitting, who he really loved, deep down, a Nintendo Gameboy. Tonight. A new one. He didn't have any money, of course. He'd spent it all on crack. That's why he was here, why his eyeballs were filled with sand, why his numb teeth wiggled in his head, he remembered, a big part of why he was crying. I bet the circularity, the mind-bending cruelty of the whole episode, made his jaw tighten, the veins in his neck pulse.

     He decided to change the direction of his life, right now, by getting a Gameboy. He'd been high for a long time so he got really paranoid and superstitious and that broken Gameboy became like a voodoo doll in his hand, a palm-sized, cracked symbol of what he'd become. He had to get a new one. He picked up some of the broken stuff, set it on an old foldout card table. His oldest son was on the bed, a blood-soaked pillow over his face. His wife: man, she was wailing. All the neighbors in the tenement had locked their doors, turned up the sound on their rent-to-own TVs.

     Murphy took off, left the tenements, walked and cried and thought it over. People were actually crossing the street to avoid him. Which hurt his feelings. They could sense the broken Gameboy in the front pocket of his army coat, he thought; it was maybe like that glowing fucking alienlike thing in the trunk of that car in Repo Man. Anyway, he started making a lot of noise now, sniffling, groaning, half-talking to the low hum in the concrete he felt in the bottoms of his old, stolen shoes. A new Nintendo Gameboy was really his last chance. He decided to peacefully rob -- very low-key, in and out -- the 7-Eleven a block from my apartment and the couch, two blocks from the halfway where he was no longer welcome.

     He walked in, browsed, played it cool, knocked over a basket of muffins over by the coffee machines. He looked like a zombie in a bad late-night movie-eyes bugging out of his head, skin ashy, the corners of his lips white, pasty. The three clerks' eyes followed him, heads swinging around slowly like surveillance cameras.

     He picked up one of those plastic knives they have by the Slurpee machine, for microwave burritos, spreading mustard on your hotdog. He waved it around.

     --Empty the register, he said, but his throat was raw from smoking. It came out low, like a soft growl.

     --What? said one clerk.

     He repeated himself, which angered him, because he wanted to be the kind of person who only said things once. There were a few customers in the 7-Eleven. They didn't even stop what they were doing.

     --Get out of here, the young clerk said.

     Murphy was fighting to save his own soul, to save his relationship with his son, to save whatever chance he still had at life. He imagined wrapping up the Gameboy in nice paper with a bow, presenting it to his son. He needed just a few tens out of the drawer. And the clerk, this guy with a goatee and nose ring in a green frock, was being condescending. Motherfucker.

     Murphy took a swipe at him, gave him a small cut on his hand. The clerk looked at his hand. There was a red abrasion, but no blood. He called the cops. Murphy grabbed a chocolate-covered cherry, a few packs of baseball cards, ran out.

     The cops pulled up along side him before he'd made it very far (our neighborhood is heavily patrolled). They told him, through an intercom, to stop. I guess the clerk said he had a knife without specifying that it was plastic, would barely cut through a hot burrito. Murphy wouldn't stop. He couldn't. He was on a mission. He just kept running, thinking about how he was going to buy his son a Gameboy, give him a big hug, maybe hang around, play him a game of computer football. He would do that for his son. He was going to change.

     Finally, he stopped, put his hands up, turned around. They had a spotlight on him. Trash tap-danced up the street. He couldn't see anything but white light in that direction. He would just explain himself, he thought. He started walking toward the light.

     He reached into the front pocket of his army jacket to pull out the broken Gameboy, evidence to the truth of his story. His throat, like I said, was scorched, so as he walked quickly toward them to show them the evidence, he was kind of mumbling, saying a lot of stuff that the cops couldn't understand, panicky crackhead shit, excuses that sound great in your head but somehow morph into nonsense while laid over in your mouth.

     A white rookie cop, using a standard-issue .45 caliber pistol, shot him in the stomach. Murphy dropped the baseball cards, the plastic knife, the chocolate-covered cherry, the broken Nintendo Gameboy. He bled a polluted river of memories from his mouth. His eyes stayed open, wobbled momentarily, as if he was staring up into the descending asses of angels. He died right there on the cold sidewalk, in a spreading puddle of his own warm blood, which, if anyone would have checked, had a very high content of cocaine and alcohol.

     --You're lucky to be white, Anthony said to me at the end of his version of the story. --If he was white, they'd've shot Murphy in the leg or shoulder.

     The paper didn't mention Murphy's race, or the cop's. It was two paragraphs in the back of the Metro section. The shooting, the death, seemed clinical.

     But about the couch in front of my apartment. I didn't forget. In fact, it's all I've been thinking about this week, sitting here, drinking hot tea, brushing my teeth, not doing drugs: the story of Murphy and the couch.

     The night of Murphy's death, which I didn't know about yet, I was looking out my window, like I said, at these two guys, Anthony and the skinny Filipino (I think) rocker guy, beating up the couch that lived in front of my apartment. I don't even know where that couch came from. But they seemed to think it deserved a good beating.

     They hit it with a baseball bat. They threw bottles at it, screamed, Motherfuckers! I thought maybe one had crashed his bike into the couch. When they sprayed it with lighter fluid and lit it on fire, I thought I'd better call the cops. Then I decided against it. I was new here, still made of paper after rehab, one of only a few white people in the neighborhood. I didn't want to be known as someone who called the cops. And the cops might have wanted to come into my apartment.

     I figured the couch was surrounded by concrete. What could happen? I watched them burn and curse the couch, as if it were evil, as if it were somehow a whole squadron of the one cop that shot Murphy, as if it had taken everything that had ever meant anything to them, destroyed it without a thought. It was quite a blaze! And the fire department didn't show for a good half-hour. In fact, the couch, that hive of disease, was pretty well gone by the time they got here.

     I sat in the dark, watching, door and windows locked. The couch burned an almost blinding white, sending people's shadows dancing crazy up apartment building walls. Up above, stars peppered the sky like buckshot. Neighbors came out. Some threw bottles at the pyre, stomped around. Kids brought out hot dogs, stuck them on sticks, roasted them, no shit. But most people just stood around, talking emphatically, holding babies, groceries, whatever, under my window, all of their faces glowing brightly.

     I was glad to see the couch go. Too bad about Murphy, definitely, but I'm just thankful I didn't know him, thankful I've decided not to go around talking to neighbors. You watch, man. My luck, now that I've met Anthony, someone is going to go and kill him, drop him shivering on the concrete, and I'll be all bummed out, all like, damn, man, Anthony's dead, too.