Tragedy and Abandon in Fourth and Gill (Part Two)

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

Memorial Day. I rise at 10 a.m. and wander down to the Birdhouse, where a very pretty girl of about 21 is making coffee. A young man lies barefoot on the couch, reading The Grapes of Wrath. They are both students at the University of Tennessee and live in Fort Sanders. Timothy, the young man, tells me he is majoring in English literature and writes poetry.

“What’s your major?” I ask the girl, whose name is Chloe.

She shrugs her shoulders. “I’ve created my own major,” she says, handing me a piece of banana bread. “Human ecology.”

I ask her what that is. She slices the rest of her bread and pours the hot coffee with such care and concentration that the acts are like a meditation. I am mesmerized.

“Human ecology is how people interact with their environment,” she says, looking out a tall, lead-glass window with blue, yellow, and red stripes at the top. A cardinal flies off the branch of an oak tree and seems to hang suspended in the air for seconds before he moves on. 

It is still early enough for the air to be cool. I wander outside. Walkers are walking, bicyclists are bicycling, gardeners are gardening, and families are arriving to break bread with their loved ones—all is right in the world. Just as I go back inside to ask Timothy and Chloe if they want to take a walk with me, we hear a loud thud. 

The sound is horrifying. We rush outside to see a bicycle that has been thrown by a car across the street into the yard of the Birdhouse. A young man lies in the middle of the road with blood streaming out of his ears. He is snoring and unconscious. Within seconds, it seems, the whole world has changed. The driver of the vehicle that hit the man is holding a baby, rocking back and forth on her feet anxiously. Channel 10 arrives, as do EMTs and the police. 

There is an enormous amount of blood in the street. A young girl stands weeping. I myself am pacing back and forth. The police are taking pictures and asking questions as if a crime has taken place. It’s what they are trained to do.

From out of this I see a small boy, about 6 years old, standing next to his mother. He holds her hand and stares intently at the young man in the road.

“He’s going to be all right,” he tells me. “Don’t worry. He’s going to be all right.”

He says it with such authority that I half-expect him to go over and lay hands on the victim.

“How do you know?” I ask, wanting to believe.

He lets his mother’s hand go. He looks me in the eye. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone this, but I have special powers.”

“Do you?” I ask, without doubting, for the words seem to come not from a child at all but from some sort of benevolent presence or divinity.   

Half an hour later, the man has been taken away in an ambulance and the blood cleaned up. Timothy and Chloe and I have gone our separate ways, as if by avoiding each other we can pretend nothing ever happened and go back to our peaceful day.

But something has happened, and it cannot be ignored. A man’s life hangs in the balance. I wander on back home, through the bright sunshine, through the bright flowers of summer that seem almost a mockery now, feeling that there is at least as much chance that the young man will live as that he will not. More will be revealed, but perhaps not to us. Perhaps this accident will be the very thing that propels him to his destiny. Who are we to know?

As I reach home, the birds are singing so loudly and happily that it is hard to imagine that there is anything but beauty, goodness, and joy in the world. Perhaps on some level this is true.

I lie on the couch with Mallory. The ticking of the clock lulls me to sleep.

My schedule has become so different from that of so-called normal people that sometimes, when I wake up, I’m uncertain whether the darkness is night turning into morning or dusk becoming evening. Then I hear Magdalena’s rippling laugh from the porch next door and I figure it’s somewhere between midnight and 5 a.m.

I stand underneath the flow of the shower, letting the hot water beat on my head. Then I dress as carefully as though I am going on a special date, for Magdalena’s porch is like theater, where every day the actors, costumes, and dialogue change. Tonight there are two young men of about 25 sitting on either side of her porch. Magdalena stands at the stove in black fishnet stockings and one of her black garments, deep-frying hush puppies. Tiny pink, red, and purple Christmas lights blink above the stove.

I feel there should be a sign on the door: “For Madmen Only.” We all seem like inventions of our own making in a world apart from the rest, a world both fantastical and out of ordinary time, where not only can everyone choose their role, they can actually become it. At least on Magdalena’s porch they can, for there is no judgment here.

I wonder how long we will be able to meet and laugh together, for Magdalena’s building has just been sold. In any case, young people often move, so perhaps our little group of people will disperse. But surely some fragments of ourselves will remain, some imprint of our laughter and abandon.

For now we will cherish our present time, as the sun rises through the darkness, reminding us of the gift of our knowing one another on the tiny porch of Magdalena’s on the corner of 4th and Gill.

Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”

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