The Dead Zone: A Search for Momentary Escape, a Life Lost

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

At the door that leads out of the basement entrance of Isabella Towers sits a fat red candle whose flame has burned steadily all night. It rests beside a small bouquet of pink, yellow, and lavender plastic flowers. A metal folding chair with a white, satin cushion waits for people to sit and pay tribute to the resident of Isabella who has recently died.

Isabella Towers, a housing project in East Knoxville, is called “The Dead Zone” because no one will deliver food here after dark. It has a reputation for housing dangerous criminals, with all sorts of drug deals going on. This is not totally untrue, for there are drug deals: people selling the prescriptions they get for free from their doctors for $8 a pill, so that they can purchase stronger, more potent drugs for themselves to get high (or die on). But, for the most part, there is no large-scale drug dealing going on here, just minor deals intended to help the person get to a level where life is bearable again. If the buyer is lucky, he might, for a short time (very short), feel something close to hope before dropping back to his normal state of apathy or disrepair. If a drug deal is shady it might end in violence or death, though this is rare even at Isabella Towers.

On this particular evening in early summer, several years ago, a drug deal did go bad and the recipient of the shady deal was thrown through the double-plate glass window to his death four floors below, while the perpetrator was left to slink off to perpetrate further, sleazy deals.

“I can’t believe he’s gone,” says a voluptuous girl with blonde hair to her waist, wearing a ragged pink dress and white cowboy boots with fringe.

“I know,” says a friend. “Lamont was always so friendly, with a smile for everyone. And they don’t even know who did it!”

“Well, would you tell?” her friend says. “You know what they say—snitches end up in ditches.” Her friend nods vehemently and they both light cigarettes and leave the building.

Outside it is a gray dusk, with a silver mist settling over the Tennessee River. It is peaceful and lovely, in stark contrast to the violence that occurred earlier.

Police have already taken the body away and done a hasty investigation, presumably not the sort that would have been conducted in a rich West Knoxville neighborhood—as if the inhabitants of Isabella Towers are not quite as important. There will only be a short paragraph in the News Sentinel, such as “so and so lived, died, and was buried, the end.” But he was still a person who had a family, was the son of a grieving mother, and was possibly the father of children who will never grow up to know their dad.

I had met Lamont only once, two weeks prior to the day of his demise. I had gone to visit my friend, Vincent, and to see the feral kittens playing at the edge of the river. There on the ground where the kittens frolicked was a small, black cell phone. I called the most frequently dialed number and that person informed me that the phone belonged to a man named Lamont.

“That’s him over by the elevator,” an elderly woman told me when I returned to the building.

“Is this your phone?” I called out to him and he rushed toward me and took the phone. “Thank you, thank you,” he repeated over and over and over, while embracing me.

Whenever someone dies, ordinary things suddenly seem to take on significance, and after I learned of Lamont’s violent death I wondered if there was some higher, spiritual meaning in my finding Lamont’s phone and returning it.

I wondered if Lamont had any premonition that this was to be his last day on the planet. Did he look at his reflection in the mirror that morning and think to himself, Quite possibly I will not be alive after today, so I’m going to call everyone I know on my newly found phone and tell them how much they mean to me. And then I had the radical thought: What if we did that from time to time with the ones we love even if it wasn’t our last day? What a concept!

But more than likely Lamont thought none of these things. Most likely he stumbled out of bed, threw some water on his face, brushed his teeth, or not, and made his way into the hall to find some sort of sustenance of the chemical kind to make his day more than bearable for a few minutes or hours.

And there he probably ran into Tyrone, who offered him a few hydrocodone for the price of only $60. “Thanks, man,” Lamont said, handing over the money, only to realize when he looked at the pills that they were only ibuprofen, from which you would not get even the tiniest buzz.

“What do you take me for?” Lamont asked as Tyrone began walking away with his $60. “I asked you a question,” Lamont continued, likely running up to Tyrone and pulling at his sleeve.

No one saw who did what, only heard the crash as Lamont was thrown through the plate glass window—and then found his thin body in its white shirt and black trousers on the pavement below.

Many people went to Lamont’s funeral. He was well-loved by family and friends alike. Beautiful girls wearing white lace dresses and white gloves that went up past the elbow, boys fidgeting in white shirts, black pants, and black ties—they stood ready to be lifted up and told to say farewell to Uncle Lamont in his bed of white satin and roses.

A large feast was prepared for the family and friends of Lamont, with sumptuous fried chicken, potato salad, yeast rolls, banana pudding, and sweet iced tea. People discussed what a fine fellow Lamont was and how he would be missed, until dusk brought stillness and a kind of peace, with only the sound of chairs rocking and the occasional lighting of a match as people smoked their cigarettes, sipped their tea, and slipped into a kind of sleep where things like death and sorrow cannot penetrate, at least for a short while.

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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