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Jan/Feb 2007 Fiction

People on the Other Side

by Ali Fahmy

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber


The old soul singer drinks himself to sleep, crawling into dreams of capsized boats with men in sailor's caps and color wheels of kissed cheeks. He's out for the night.

Incubated, he wakes to a swan of a sunrise. The sun makes framed pictures out of nothing and gamma rays from flooded levees. He's still dreaming. Now he wakes for real.

He thrusts himself out of his sheets and walks into the kitchen naked. He makes a mental note: "testify" is overused. He thinks the new album's due. The street date is in two months, and Sister Mother dropped him a note. "Rent is due. I love you Baby." But he's wrong. He hasn't had a record contract in 14 years. And Sister Mother's dead.

There was a time when he had nothing and loved it. There was a time when he had love in his heart but they told him to "sell it like the devil." So he gave in, and his love spilled out of its edges. He found himself at shipping docks past midnight, the Long Beach harbor lights clearing a path. He met young sailors and overheard friendship vows—bonds in blood. He remembers only a little of what they said to him. "Hey aren't you the guy who sings so sweet like poison gone to seed, like heaven raining down?"

He puts on some clothes and sits at his small table built for two, winding down with coffee and a heel of sourdough, all that's left of the loaf. The bread takes him back to when Grandma brought him turkey sandwiches at his hospital bed. Goddamn chicken pox.

"Why don't they find a cure?"

"Because, L, they got other things to cure. The small pox. The polio. The Vietnam War."

"Am I gonna die, Grandma?"

"No baby, it's alright. It's alright."

The sourdough, he remembers now, was from last night. He went to the market, he thinks. Memory's fading. The Alzheimer's. No cure for that.

He remembers lights from last night. Bright white fluorescents. And that neighbor, white lady, what's her name? Rebecca, yeah, with the pink hair. Damn, what'll they think of next? In the bread aisle, she said, "Hi, Lawrence."

"Hi."

"It's me, Rebecca. Your neighbor from 19th Street."

"Oh yes. Hi."

"What are you getting there? Some cheese. Milk. Sourdough bread."

"Yeah. Gotta get the sourdough. Do I know you?"

"I'm Rebecca. I'm your next door neighbor, Lawrence."

"Neighbor?"

"You have a good night, Lawrence."

"Gotta get home for the McNeil-Lehrer."

"But they took that show off the air years ago. I think it's just one of them now."

"Gotta get home. The McNeil-Lehrer."

Last night fades, and he sends himself farther back. To the choir. As a boy, from the time he was nine, he sang in the church choir. When he was eighteen, an old man—Silver Ed, the boys all called him—said "L, you got the voice. I got some songs for you."

Though he was content with the Lord's songs, Lawrence recorded Silver Ed's compositions, and in a Memphis blur with Alabama overtones, it all whooshed upon him—the cocaine, the prostitutes, the gold-digging connivers, the dark nights, the stray alleyways. "Can I take a piss Justine? Is anyone looking? Justine, Justine, damn there's a door here and is this a bar? Can I get a drink here? Ain't it past Tennessee closing time, and why is everyone in here a man? Why are they looking at me that way? Damn I could use a drink. Justine where'd you go?"

The whoosh whooshed and the tale spun some more. Backwoods house parties, free hookers, goddamn connivers. And Lawrence whispering to no one as he tried to sleep, "Leave me alone, and find God. God is good."

Grandma died when Lawrence was 35, at the peak of his fame, his singing career a slow steely crawl north and west. Grandma lost her memory and her words and her breathing, and there she was, splayed for the Lord's lights and his precious workings.

Looking at Grandma in the coffin, Lawrence could see the golden spit light of smiling Jesus and his earringed horde—it's a quiet beauty she's got—and with that Lawrence gave up the cocaine and swore up and down to her body in the box, he swore, "No more drugs, no more hookers."

He never did touch the drugs again.

The heel of the sourdough is still in his thick, marbled hands. Lawrence stares at the bread. It seems half eaten but his mouth is clean. He's sure it's the devil's work, but then he remembers, "I gave up the devil at 35, at Grandma's funeral in Slidell."

He rebuilds Slidell in his head, a town he visited every summer for a hundred years, or was it seven? Doesn't matter. Grandma's town. Old Man Reid at his candy store, telling little boy Lawrence, "Anything you want, slugger," sweeping his fat, scarred hands over the depleted display case.

"Anything I want? But I gave up the devil," he says to no one as the crusty parts of the sourdough heel press into the too-dry skin of his bread hand and a small trickle of blood slips out.

He leaves the space for a few minutes, and the trickle grows into a stream. When Lawrence finds the space again, by triggering some cementy night in a San Pedro crack motel in '88, he screams. Loud.

Neighbor Rebecca knocks on his door ten times before he remembers that knocking means people on the other side.

"Lawrence. My god, you're bleeding!"

"And you got pink hair. So what am I gonna do?"

She rushes back to her apartment and returns with bandages and—"This is gonna hurt, Lawrence"—rubbing alcohol. When he's cleansed and bandaged and lotioned—"Because it'll just happen again with that dry skin of yours"—he sighs and says, "What's your name again?"

"Rebecca. From next door."

"Do you know your hair is pink?"

"Yeah."

"You got time?"

"A little bit."

"I got some sourdough," and Lawrence reaches into a pile of labeled videotapes in a brown box marked 1984. "And I got this."

He puts a tape into his state-of-the-art VCR and presses play. "McNeil-Lehrer, right before the '84 election—gotta see this—Lehrer thinks Mondale's got a shot."

"The '84 election? That's more than 20 years ago."

"And you told me last night they don't make these anymore."

Before the headlines segment is over, Lawrence falls asleep in his easy chair, the other sourdough heel in his other fist. Rebecca takes the bread away and lays a distinctively handmade wool blanket on Lawrence.

She watches a few more minutes of the tape. She still can't tell which one's McNeil and which one's Lehrer, but she's leaning toward thinking Lawrence is wrong and that McNeil is the one who said, and no one can deny it, it's on tape, "Mondale's got a shot."

But 1984 ends, and today comes back. She watches Lawrence sleep. She knows about him, that he's an old soul singer, seen better days, but doing alright now. He seldom tours, never records, had a couple of Grammy nominations (soul in the seventies, gospel in the eighties), and lives in Santa Monica because he likes the ocean. She knows his story, picking up some of it from Stella the apartment manager, who hasn't raised the rents in six years (not because of Stella's generosity but because of what Lawrence called "good old Commie rent control" one night, an hour past dusk, in the unlit laundry room).

Rebecca goes to the kitchen for a sponge because there's still a smatter of spilled blood on the floor. She can't find one but grabs some paper towels and sees postcards and photographs on the refrigerator. Photos of Asian sailors. Beautiful sixties-vintage postcards: clean tan men in white sailor suits and blue hats or red sailor suits and gray hats or, in one case, shirtless, hatless, Hawaiian, and giddy to be alive.

"What the HELL are you doing in my kitchen?" Lawrence slings an empty glass onto the floor. It shatters, like silverfish scurrying in fear of recognition. Rebecca shrieks.

"Who are you?"

"Lawrence, it's me. Rebecca, from next door."

"Ain't no neighbor of mine got pink hair."

"I came here 'cause you screamed. You were bleeding. See!" She points to his bandage.

"Damn." He begins to remember snippets of the day—but it's 1984 he remembers and not today. He pictures Mondale and the Samoan kid from North Long Beach who said he'd consider the Navy. He doesn't know what to make of the pink hair. He remembers bleeding. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"Rebecca?"

"Yeah."

"Rebecca, my memory's not so good anymore."

"That's okay, Lawrence."

"Call me L."

"L."

"L for lover. For Lanky Lawrence from Louisiana. L for Ladies' Man."

"L."

"Hey, Rebecca, you like to dance?"

"Yes, I do."

He walks behind her and puts his hand on her shoulders to initiate a dance to no music. She notices his bare feet.

"Lawrence, the glass!"

"Oh shit" and he steps away, bloodless, lucky.

"Let's dance in the living room. There's music there, L."

"I've got just the song to dance to."

He walks to his stereo and presses play on the cassette deck. After a few seconds of silence, Lawrence's voice from 35 years ago sings about gratitude, not pity. About time and no expectations. They dance, more closely than Rebecca expected, for a minute, cheek to pink hair, bandage to bare hand, until Lawrence walks away and turns off the stereo.

Rebecca watches him carefully choose another videotape. He ejects 1984 and puts in 1991.

"Oh I remember this one. Gotta sit down for this one."

He sits in his easy chair. Rebecca stands where she was dancing, the pink of her hair dulled by the big TV's news desk glare.

"Goodbye, Lawrence. Keep the bandage on. And let me know if you need anything."

"Bye, Rebecca."

"And don't forget about the glass."

She locks the door behind her. He stares at an unnamed female reporter going on and on about oil fires. He closes his eyes, and he's back in Slidell with Grandma, sent there by Sister Mother so she could "get some space," years before Silver Ed. He's in Old Man Reid's candy store.

"Anything you want, slugger."

"Okay. I want everything."

"Can't have everything, Lawrence."

"Yes I can."

Grandma and Old Man Reid in unison: "Oh no you can't."

They laugh at the boy's comeuppance. Lawrence opens his eyes. The desert's still on fire. He closes his eyes, whispers to himself, "I gave up the devil. I gave up the devil."

Lawrence is thirsty. He treads carefully into the kitchen, looking down to avoid the glass. He opens the refrigerator door, glancing at his postcards, the ones that have been there for years, collecting kitchen dust and sea-salt air through his open window, a mile from the Pacific. He grabs himself a beer, and when the refrigerator door closes he looks again at his sailors and smiles. He returns to his easy chair.

This time, when he drinks himself to sleep, in the daytime, he dreams of walking home from the harbor alone, humming church songs to himself. Silver Ed and Sister Mother appear as wraiths, flashing the badges of a military federation. The Samoan kid appears as himself, or maybe as someone else, it's unclear to Lawrence. The boy hums the melody of L's biggest hit, the one that still pays for this apartment.

Then, dream Grandma pays a visit. Her words, always the final words: "Ain't nothing easy about no easy chair. Ain't nothing easy at all, L. Takes me five minutes to get out of this chair. L, you better slow down. Don't be putting a run in my stocking! Grandma's got a hot date tonight." Lawrence stops dreaming and dies, drifting off to the other side on a gentle wave of forgiveness.

 

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