Darkness 'til the First
The ghost of Che Guevara himself was smiling on me the day Rafael walked into our East Trenton storefront; a Latino cur with a blood dream and bad teeth. Fat Sheila couldn't wait to tell him that we were really a clandestine revolutionary party, and he said, “Where are the guns, and when does the fighting begin?”
Thank God it wasn't me who had to educate him about the “infantilism of terrorist tactics.” Or convince him that going door to door in the ghetto, pitching the membership spiel to tubercular drunks, was more “revolutionary” than shooting cops. The drudgery of the day-to-day work, the bake sales and food drives, those were fine for middle-class white girls like me, or obnoxious rich girls like Sheila, with her neat file folders and social worker smile. But Rafael was a lean machine, born to carry a gun and hear it sing in the mountains. His dreams raced along highways lined with chain saws and bones. He said he killed a man for a fancy car and became a revolutionary so he could have as many as he wanted. I became a revolutionary because those things didn't matter to me. That's when he sneered and called it my “middle-class birthright” to choose what I wanted.
And I wanted him. In the basement of the office he pulled me to him, my lungs aching for one deep breath to spin through my blood and save me from certain drowning. He held my head tightly in his thick hand and forced me to look at him as he yanked up my skirt. He wouldn't let me turn away, or bury my face in his neck, but I tried! Oh I tried to hide my passion that first time, in a frantic attempt to save myself. But that sword-pierced heart etched into his arm: that was my heart already! And then he cursed me when he came and I bit that tattoo, and I was his now - Oh Rafael! - committed to his cause.
We were sent out together to canvas for new members on Tyrell Avenue when I decided to stop in on Evelyn. She opened her door and behind her there was near-darkness from the one light bulb that hung bare in her kitchen. When that blew, it was darkness ‘til the first of the month. She brought us in, raving: her cheekbones sliced the air, her breasts pointed to the floor. She was lousy with poverty and wasn't wearing enough clothing. She was ranting about her dead sister and how she couldn't find her marker in the cemetery where it was supposed to be.
“Squids and leeches, squids and leeches,” she mumbled. And we couldn't stop her insane rambling, and I didn't like her skinny almost-nakedness while we were supposed to be talking strategy and tactics. “Where's she at? They buried her didn't they? Where's she at?”
Then she made us some coffee “all sweet and milky like them Porto Ricans drink it,” she said, and turned on her oven to keep us warm. On her wall was a velvet portrait of Martin Luther King, and those poor dead Kennedys, all hung in shadows. Raf was trying to get me out of there, refusing the coffee and rolling his eyes. He couldn't figure out why I was wasting our time since Evelyn was already a member. I just wanted to get warm and to spend some extra time with him. Evelyn was my excuse, but I didn't expect her to be so agitated.
“She gone!” Evelyn howled. “She gone! Albert T. did something with her. What he do?”
Raf gave me hell as soon was we stepped outside but all I could think of was skinny old Evelyn, alone in all that darkness, and whether she was really crazy enough to lose her sister's grave.
I was trying to piece it all together back at the office when someone discovered two dead bodies out back. All over the city street-people had died in a surprise cold snap. These two guys had frozen to death behind the office the night before. We all ran out to get a look, but Raf hung back. I volunteered to stand watch until the cops came. These guys weren't even wearing gloves or a hat. They were wrapped in each other's arms obviously taken by surprise by the few degrees Fahrenheit that had turned them into corpses. None of us recognized them.
“Raf! C'mere,” I shouted. “Maybe you know these guys.”
But he refused. “How the hell would I know them?” and he left the office until the bodies were taken away and things settled down.
Then he was sent to pick up some food donations from the concerned-corduroy set in Princeton. I was all ready to suggest that he and I talk about Evelyn and her missing sister while we drove north, but for some reason he asked Sheila to go with him, not me. They left and I ran down to the basement to hide my rage, and I punched something, and gritted my teeth, and then when I sat down on that pile of old tires, I realized my knuckles were bleeding from hitting the cinderblock wall.
At ten o'clock they were still not back and they were more than two hours late without even calling. Everyone was worried and called the county hospital but I knew they were drinking out on Route One, at the Black Velvet Bar, where the trucks thundered by two feet from the front door. Where Rafael threw beer down his throat and told stories of doing time. Where he took me once and I sat at that bar and watched the chilly Autumn evening turn to dark so quickly, so quickly.
Oh Rafael where are you? You won't get away with this. You won't ignore skinny old crazy Evelyn or pretty little white girl me.
It was a week later, at the Party meeting that I had my chance. I brought up the problem of Evelyn and her missing sister.
“Evelyn! Jeez! All that bitch wants is to be fucked, fondled or fed,” Rafael fumed. And Sheila looked at him with her chubby cheeks aglow. Oh how could he stand her?
“Evelyn is only one member of our community organization,” I began, speaking slowly to sound rational, and sucking my cigarette in a thoughtful way, “who has mentioned the problem of not being able to find people in the cemetery. It occurred to me that most of our members use Albert T's funeral parlor. Maybe there's a connection. Anyway, our Party's mission is to take local issues seriously. Maybe Evelyn's sister wasn't really buried to begin with. Maybe Albert T. isn't even burying the bodies!” I was swinging in a wide uncertain arc, swinging out over them, saying things, crazy sounding things.
“Yeah, well I'm a goddamned revolutionary and I don't waste my time on dead people. Besides, who gives a shit? Even if he's dumping the bodies in the Delaware, we'll never know.”
“That's what we have to find out,” I countered. And Raf was furious at me for contradicting him. But when our eyes met I saw that he was impressed too, and suddenly the room was too small for the beating of my heart. “I propose we take a break and me and Raf pay a little visit to Albert T.”
Everyone got excited by the idea and it happened too quickly for Raf to formulate an argument. “You're fucking crazy,” is all he said.
“He can't be dumping the bodies in the river, Raf,” I told him. I was cock-sure now, puffing on my Marlboros, trudging up the long avenue. And when I looked up into his dark eyes I saw doubt, and it was so delicious I wanted to lay him down and climb all over him. “He'd be seen transporting them. Maybe he's just disposing of them somehow.”
“You're outta your fucking mind,” he said. His breath billowed out in front of him and blew away. “That puny little pussy-whipped asshole,” he mumbled.
I marched ahead. Down the long block, past the storefront churches, the record shops blasting disco, the vacant lots piled with crushed mattresses and junked tires, past Otis' grocery store, so cold his wife kept a barrel of burning wood at the register.
“He sure as hell isn't burying them. And there was a funeral just this morning. Whatever he's doing he's probably doing it right about now,” I said.
“Look, maybe we should just go back to the meeting and come up with a different plan,” he said, rubbing his hands to generate some warmth.
“So we can talk it to death and convince ourselves to do nothing at all? Forget it.”
“What the hell's gotten into you? You're gonna spy on him?”
“Jesus!” he said hopelessly.
“Will you just come on?” I hissed and yanked his sleeve.
He wasn't used to being ordered around by small white girls of the middle-class persuasion, so he followed. The glass door to the storefront funeral parlor was locked, so Raf had to jimmy it open. I had never actually seen the inside of Albert T.'s “office.” We were organizing in this neighborhood for six months before we even realized there was a functioning business behind these boarded up windows. The walls were covered in red, green and purple flocked fleur-de-lis. Not exactly a problem of poor taste, more like being too poor to afford anything but remnants. And the water cooler in the corner was broken and shrouded in dust.
I lead Raf to the back where I found the steps to the basement and Raf gave me a ridiculous signal --his finger to his lips no less-- to keep me quiet, and I walked softly down the steps, my eyes trying to adjust to the increasing darkness. At the bottom I turned and saw that he had stopped two steps from the top of the stairs, and was clutching the handrail.
“Oh my God…” I called up to him.
“What? What can you see?” he whispered hoarsely, but didn't move.
“Son of a bitch! The guy's fucking crazy!” I whispered.
“What do you see?”
“What?” he shouted down at me.
I turned away from him and scanned the basement. “Bodies. Clothes. Jewelry. Down there by the furnace. Look!” I ordered. But he wouldn't.
“Shit. I'm getting out of here!” He took the two steps at once and ran out.
For a moment I stood alone in the empty basement listening to the soft chug of the furnace and watching the thousands of dust particles spinning in the one shaft of pale light that barely lit the empty space. Then I raced up the stairs and ran outside where the dying sunlight forced my hands to shield my eyes.
Raf was behind the building, throwing up in the vacant lot. But I just stood there.
“Come on! We've got to get back!” I shouted.
“Jesus! That was disgusting,” he said, still gripping his stomach.
“Yeah, and you didn't even see it!”
We trudged back up the long block and Raf stopped in the bodega for cigarettes. My whole body was shivering from the cold and the muscles in my face twitched. I ordered a cup of coffee to go. He grabbed my arm as I turned to leave. “What're you gonna say happened?”
His eyes were still moist from the heaves and he was rubbing his arms frantically to warm up because all he was wearing was that denim jacket.
“The truth. Albert T. is burning the bodies and stealing the jewelry. I saw some -“
“We saw,” he corrected.
“We saw some mutilated corpses, but he seemed to be saving the fleshy parts for Sunday dinner,” I recited.
Rafael stared down at me. Then he put one hand on each of my shoulders, as if to steady me, and I looked up into his face expecting anything, desire crawling along the inseams of my soul.
“No one ran out. No one barfed,” he added, softly, his two big hands gently squeezing each of my shoulders.
“No one ran out. No one barfed,” I repeated dutifully. Then we both stepped outside, and it seemed to me at the exact moment we stepped through that narrow doorway, at that moment darkness fell. I looked up at the sky and thought, “You are mine now, Rafael.”
And the world was tilted towards me.
Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine