Eighteen: Time to Talk
"Hey, Stupid Girl, you're back! You want to hear the latest word on the street?"
"Why yes, I do, Loathsome Bigot Woman. Tell me all."
"That's a nasty crack, what's it supposed to mean?"
"It means you're loathsome, and a bigot." Roj didn't feel that this interchange was going to be very fruitful, but if her guardian angel thought that she and Gerry weren't random acquaintances, then she had to give it a whirl. Even if it meant trying to explain to a numbskull why she was a bigot, even if it meant having to hear why she herself was stupid.
"I don't know what you're talking about," snapped the ghost, her underbite as pronounced in spectral terms as it must have been in flesh. "Do you want to hear what I've found out, or not?"
"Please tell me," Roj said, trying to be patient. Probably Gerry had heard that Garrison and his money-chick had been arrested.
"That policeman, Garrison, was arrested up in Lodi today!"
Roj refrained from one-upping by saying that she was there and saw it all.
"And our nigger buddy, Max Duchamps, is mad as hell's minions over it."
"Gerry, that's not surprising -- he won't want attention drawn to his operations, but will you please stop calling him a 'nigger'? Every time I hear that word it's like a knife is stabbed into my soul."
Roj had to stop and think about her question. "Because when you say a mean word about people just because of who they are, it hurts everyone."
"He's an evil man. You mean I shouldn't say he's evil?"
"No, no, it's not that, I know he's horribly evil -- Gerry, he shot me in the head! But you can call him evil without using the word 'nigger.' That's a word that is so hateful to all people that it hurts everyone, not just him."
"I don't want to hurt you, even if you are stupid."
"Thanks. Call him 'evil' -- that describes him best, doesn't it? His skin color has nothing to do with his morals, and so that old epithet 'nigger' is just a reminder of how ignorant people were about other human beings."
"It's what I was taught to call 'em. You saying my mother and father were wrong?"
It was one of those arguments you knew you couldn't win. If you said the mother and father were wrong, then you had suddenly been blazoned with a badge designating you the enemy. Roj felt weary, and wanted to go find Matt again and cuddle against him, or go back to the stars, but not to continue talking to this knot-headed ghost. "Yes, if they called people of color 'niggers,' then they were wrong."
The specter sputtered and thrashed around in consternation. "How do you know you're right?" she demanded in anger.
Roj thought about the first black person she had ever encountered, in a drugstore in North Dakota. A hellish snowstorm had been raging, and her mother had been sick with the flu. Her father had sent her to get some Nyquil-ish kind of medicine to alleviate her mother's heavy cough and inability to sleep. The drugstore had been sparsely staffed, and the cashier inundated by people wanting to check out in a hurry. Her skin had been darker than the leather of Roj's gloves, and she'd kept her eyes down on the register as she punched in the numbers on the tags of customers' purchases.
No one had asked her how her day had been, or how she had been feeling. Roj's memory of her was highlighted now, so much she hadn't noticed back then, back when she had been younger and clueless. Look at her, Roj thought, she's like a little black kitten in a herd of white pit bulls. She turned to Gerry, grabbed her arm. "Can you see this?"
Gerry nodded, blinking her spectral eyes rapidly, as though to clear them.
"Then see what I saw," Roj whispered, remembering.
The girl was terrified, because the customers were getting angry at their wait and the lack of service. She was sweating tears all over, of fear for her safety, for her family, and the sure knowledge that someone was going to blame the flurry of checkout customers and her inability to do the jobs of four other employees on her race. Someone was going to say she was a lazy nigger and had no right to be working when some white girl should have had the chance at the job. The stress vibrated off her like popcorn stuttering out of the movie theater popcorn machine, and the smell of her fear was like acid on the air.
She had processed the customers as quickly as she could, slowed by the old ladies who fished interminably through their coin purses for the right change, slowed by the women who argued that the store's coupons should have covered their favorite products and not just what they did cover. Roj, remembering, listened to her saying, "Yes, Ma'am, No it surely doesn't, Ma'am, Yes, Sir, I'm sorry, Sir," and the memory blazed bright at how little the customers cared about her being overworked.
In the line in back of Roj, someone had said, "Well, what do you expect? Damn lazy niggers don't have enough sense to call for extra help."
The man in front of Roj demanded a customer comment card to take with him. "You should be calling for other cashiers," he said in a harsh voice as she handed him his receipt and the card.
"We don't have any others. All called in sick, with this flu going around. The manager's out for his supper break, it's just me and the pharmacist tonight. I'm sorry, Sir, I hope you have a good evening."
"Goddamn niggers," the man said as he went out the front doors. A wisp of spirit followed him, whispering, Those niggers -- there's nothing to them but niggers.
The young woman took Roj's purchase and scanned the UPC code; in her memory Roj could see her pouring agony from her face and hands. Roj paid, accepted her change and her receipt, and went out the door.
I should have said something kind to her. She was feeling like a target in a carnival shooting game. "I fell short on that one, Gerry. I should have spoken to her, given her some hope through her fear. But I didn't, because I was too concerned about my mother, and ... because I didn't understand that people whose skin is different might feel different."
"She was crying from her face, but not from her eyes."
"She was crying all over, Gerry, because some of those people wanted to call her a nigger. The word 'nigger' suggests an inferior people, a people who should be slaves."
"But in Portuguese, it just means 'black.' Why ... "
"Negro in Portuguese or Spanish means 'black' but that's not the same word at all! Why can't you see that?" Roj had a sudden urge to grasp Gerry's ghost by her spectral shoulders and shake her. "Look at her! Do you think she's weeping because someone thought her skin was black-colored? She knows she has darker skin! What's hurting her is more than that!"
They looked again at Roj's memory. The man who muttered "Damn lazy niggers ... " had something dark and putrid wafting off him, oddly akin to the greasy odor of evil that Max Duchamps had oozed when she encountered him.
"Oh, that's disgusting!" Gerry-ghost said. "He stinks!"
"Well, no shit," Roj said, with heartfelt disgust. "And so do you, and every time you say 'nigger' or shit off on the Dutch or the Filipinos or the Mexicans, you stink worse. You're so horrible about people of other races or countries that I can hardly stand to talk to you. You're like one of those hateful voices that we shouldn't listen to."
Well, I've certainly learned how to alienate spirits, Roj thought. You wouldn't think that was a good after-life 4H project. She launched herself into the air, willing, begging, hating the need, seeking Max Duchamps.
She was pulled along as though she held some invisible string, leading her back to the expensive restaurant Richesse, her previous contact with Max giving her some kind of special link with him. The thought of that revolted her, but she could not tell whether the link was because he had shown her Death, or because she had spied on him before. Either way, the thread that tugged her across the streets was on target, and she found him once more.
He appeared to be having a late dinner with four other men in dark suits, though none of them were drinking alcohol, and only a few table breads had been eaten. Roj examined each as closely as she could, but did not recognize any of them from her death. She could have gone back to her memories and let them flow through her again, but she had no desire to re-live her murder in order to identify one of them as an accomplice.
Roj perched on the back of Max's chair.
"So you men understand what I'm saying? Everything in the warehouse has to move, tonight," Max was saying. "Tell the Fresno office, and get a storage unit for us. Get the trucks loaded and on the road, now. No trails, do my men got it?"
His four lackeys nodded and exited the room, some of them still chewing. Max himself sat back, waved for a refill of his iced tea, and looked at the menu, his shiny forehead wrinkling.
"Max, you murderer, you're just lucky I'm too naive to know how to slip someone a Mickey, or I'd have you under the table in no time. And if I knew how to do it, I might not do it this time, but another time when I could stuff that bag of meth from the top of the precinct building into your suit pocket, and use your little iPhone to dial 9-1-1." She didn't feel much like playing pranks on Max ... Garrison was a dupe, that was becoming plain. He thought he was a high roller, and lived like one, but when the bottom line came into view, he was just as expendable to Max as she and Matt had been. Garrison's reaction to pranks was to froth at the mouth in fury and look charmingly incensed, but Max was different. He'd look for reasons, for people to blame, and then those people would disappear, just like she had. She watched the confidence of his huge hands, the detachment in his eyes behind his tinted glasses.
The question uppermost in her mind was why Max was lingering here when he'd sent his scumbags hustling to clear their products out of the warehouse. She could understand the rationale behind getting contraband out of Modesto -- what if that chick with the gun decided to plea bargain? After all, fleeing a money bag brandishing a gun couldn't be conducive to the police just saying to her, "Oh, okay, sweetie, have a nice day." Or what if Garrison was to be investigated as to why he was putting out his flaming cash? There was plenty of reason to move the goods, but shouldn't Duchamps be racing to his shiny little office to get rid of paperwork himself? But instead he was comfortably seated at what must be his favorite table in Richesse, as this was just where she'd seen him meet Garrison. But wait, was he comfortable? Roj noted tiny beads of sweat on the skin behind Max's ear, and on his neck near the white collar of his dress shirt.
"He only sweats where you can't see him sweat?"
"He uses antiperspirant on his hands and forehead and scalp."
"Desai! I'm glad you're here -- Max scares me. Did you leave me because I offended you?"
"I never leave you."
"But I couldn't see you, or talk to you ... "
Looking past her, Desai nodded in the direction of the stairs. "Here is part of the answers to your questions."
Rumpled and pale, a man arrived at the top of the steps, escorted by a waiter. It was Hennessey.
Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-02-26
Image(s) are public domain.