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In the year of our Lord, 1958, we slew an angel.
[The old man repeats the words with the forlorn tones of old phonographs, needle stuck in its groove. There’s even a hiss beneath—between?—his voice, belying the innocuous bonhomie. His skin has grown old, thin, blue-veined and liver-spotted. But his eyes shine the blue of October days when the sky looks like humanity’s best glimpse at heaven. His white hair grows in wisps atop a pink pate; his hands tremble as he lifts his cup.
He seems to look beyond the woman sitting silently across from him. Over her left shoulder lies the past and over her right shoulder, the future. She is a stone amid eddying currents, an island in the sea of change. Crowned in patience, she adorns herself with the Inevitable, although to anyone else, it looks like a pair of yellow galoshes. It has not rained in fourteen days.]
Our second night in Puerto Barrios, we were coming from the house of Senora Alvarez, a great big fat woman you could get lost in, roll around like she was a feather mattress, and who never stopped groaning, “Ay, Papi!” until you were done. She was a well-to-do widow, and she did well entertaining seamen. I see the laughter in your eyes, ma’am, and maybe I did mean that the way it sounded. Begging pardon if I was uncouth, but that was the lady’s job or pleasure, depending on your view.
To hear Danny Newman tell it, she enjoyed his company, but he was one of those larger than life fellows, to whom everything’s an adventure, and if it didn’t start out one, he’d mold it into one, either by word or deed. Which isn’t to say he was a liar, dear lady, but more of a storyteller. If you wanted a straight answer out of one us, you’d ask Doc Calloway because that man could go half a decade, using only one word a year on his own. But he was smart as a whip, that Doc, and never saw a problem he couldn’t solve.
Foss Jenkins and Elwood Kresky, they were more like me. Just average fellas who wanted to see the world, who’d talk if spoken to, keep quiet if it seemed the right thing to do. I guess you’d say Danny was our leader, if we had such a thing, but it was always him that got us into scrapes and Doc that figured out the way to get us out of them. Don’t mind telling you, we’d have all done jail time, if not for Doc. No, ma’am, he wasn’t a medical doctor. We just called him that because he was so smart.
I’ve seen Doc here. He died as a young man, you know. He used to come once a year, hitchhiking home from the Midway. After what happened in Guatemala, he was odd. Changed. He took the Seeing different than the rest of us. I think maybe it was because he was smarter and he Saw more, but he wasn’t ready to Understand. Me, I’ve been biting it off by bits for almost fifty years, digesting it as I can. I’m nowhere near as smart as Doc, but I think maybe in the last few years I’ve got more wise. Not something a man can measure, though, and maybe what I call wisdom is just old age.
As for Danny, well. He was a traveling salesman once he left the sea. After what happened that spring night in 1958, we went our separate ways, only the weight of that terrible secret binding us together. I was the only one who loved the ocean enough to stay with her all these years. What’s that? Yes, ma’am, Danny’s dead and gone, deceased in an outhouse accident. Yes, dear lady, I understand why you’re laughing, although I never heard anyone sound quite like that. He’d got a bit strange, though, like doing certain business was all he thought about anymore. Truly, he lived and breathed excrement, and I trow that’s part of how the Change took him. His mind just filled up with the filth of what we’d done.
Elwood, he had himself a son named Joshua, who found his way back to the Midway. Call the boy The Midway Slasher, they do. Elwood put a revolver in his mouth, one night somewhere in Providence. I’ve got newspaper clippings, want to see? No, I guess I understand why you’d pass. What we did that night in Puerto Barrios, it alters a man, all the way down to his seed. From bad seed comes rotten fruit, at least that’s what they say. And that’s partly why I’ve never planted none, at least not so it took.
As for Foss Jenkins, well, I said I’m the last and I mean that because although his body’s still walking around, it’s not the same man with whom I served on the MV Chimo. He couldn’t take the weight of it and now this is just my theorizing, mind you, because we didn’t talk about it anymore… I believe one night he got down on his knees and begged for something to come and take away the pain.
And, well, dear lady, as I doubtless don’t need to tell you, a body must be careful in making wishes. They have a way of doubling back to bite you if you’re not careful. Something came and it either ate up the Foss Jenkins I used to know or mashed him flat. Something else has been looking out of Old Man Jenkins’ eyes now for about five or six years. What it is, I don’t know.
No, ma’am, I’m telling you this not because I think you can stop what’s coming. Change is sweeping down from the mountains. Jehovah done promised he wouldn’t wash the world clean again, but fire cleanses too. Maybe there’s a burning on the way, and remembering what we done, I’ve earned it.
A beautiful young girl with eyes like tidal pools, sent to ease the suffering of the poor souls in Guatemala. We saw her standing in a ring of yellow light, beneath a guttering torch, and saw just another whore. Drunk with power, with lust, with superiority, we grabbed, and held and took, and she screamed and bled, something dark and red. The sky wept, washed our sin away, but when we rolled her over, we saw the blood-spattered pinfeathers, the vestigial wings with dying flutters. No, ma'am, I didn't take my turn, but I didn't stop them either. Doc sliced away the skin between her shoulders so nobody would know. And I left thirty pieces of silver, just another dead whore down by the docks in Puerto Barrios. Nobody knew.
In the year of our Lord, 1958, we slew an angel.