the story of fly's father
San Francisco, California-Memphis, Tennessee
The lights said motel. And there wasn't a bulb missing. Not that it would have mattered if it said otel. Or mote. Not in all that rain. Not after all they had been through. The earthquake, the road, each other. They had avoided crossing the bay altogether. The Bay Bridge had collapsed, but they didn't know that for sure then. They drove south, down into the righteous belly, the holy thighs. Saint Mateo, Saint JosŽ, Saint Luis, Saint Maria, Saint Barbara, Saint Clarita. All the good men and women giving their names to those sad cities. They stopped in the City of Angels. They took the 10 through San Bernardino. Drove through Cathedral City just for the name. Stopped outside Phoenix, where he dipped a wrench into the engine and made the car purr. A day later in Las Cruces. The crosses. There they held each other in the car while Soul II Soul streamed in through the car's CD player. They stayed on the 10. Ten became a holy number. They drove across Texas almost without stopping. But then they stopped. In Saint Antonio. Drove that city until they found the Black people. Slept on a grocer's floor. Bags of rice, their pillows. Then they started back north. "We got to avoid Louisiana," Gary said to her. "And Mississippi." It had been a mission until Texas. A sacred thing, a quest.
After Saint Antonio, the road was all Eloise dreamed. The long road unstopping. They were driving into hell, it felt like. It was getting closer to winter. And yet, they were getting hotter. They abandoned the 10, took I-35 to meet Saint Marcos. Avoided Dallas. Followed an off-road just to sight some water called Palestine. Then up and up, into Arkansas. The sign to a city read Hope. Eloise held on to that image. The next stop was supposed to be Charlotte. Then they would decide. North to New York or south to Miami. Either way, a boat ride to paradise. But then the rain.
Back on that first night in Los Angeles they had stayed on the couch of a dark-skinned pastor. A Baptist, Eloise supposed, though it was never said.
"An orphan like me," Gary told her. "But found his way through God. Missioned on me when the voices got nasty."
The two of them slept on the pastor's couch together, like children, brother and sister. Only they weren't brother and sister. Could never pass for that. And they weren't children. Why people opened their doors to them, perfect strangers, was strange to Eloise. Perhaps they could see her special gift. Perhaps it was as Gary said-that Black people wanted to watch out for them: a white woman and a Black man in love. But she didn't love him. Not then.
"We can stay here," she'd whispered that night. His body was clothed but still she could feel the all of him. "I don't mind waiting here until the dust clears. A week or two. I can work, even. I can type, you know." Her father had bought her the instruction manuals and the word processor. "And then we can find my parents. Get back to the church." She'd looked at his eyes, sealed taut in the darkness. Was he hearing the voices now? He did that, forced the light from his eyes when the voices became too bright.
"Ellie," Gary said, his lids softening and then opening. Now looking right at her and so close. "The dust is never going to clear. Isn't that what you said? We stay in the ark until the dove flies away."
It was true. She herself had indeed said that. That night among the angels he covered his ears with the palms of his hands and whispered to himself. She was pressed against his body and heard every word. "Leave me. Leave me go." And she knew better than to say anything. Sometimes just her voice made it worse for him.
In the morning, the pastor woke them with fried ham sandwiches, and smiled at them both as though they were his generous hosts and not the other way around. The radio was on. The pastor turned the sound up. And that's when they heard it. San Francisco had been spared. His infinite mercy. The deaths were in Oakland. Eloise's parents could still be in Oakland.
In San Francisco, Eloise had been a child. Her parents were in the church but she hadn't been baptized as yet. Still, at the morning services they prayed for the saving of San Francisco and Oakland, because of her, because of her vision. They prayed that the cities would move away from sin, because of what she had revealed.
Her parents went to Oakland weekly. Oakland was their special obligation. Their missionary work. There was a time when Eloise had wanted to go with them, but her mother said no. Eloise was not yet a woman then. After Eloise graduated from high school her mother had offered, requested, even beseeched. But no, Eloise didn't want to go anymore. Her parents had revealed the kind of women they missioned to. Eloise would rather work on her word processing than pray with prostitutes. But here she was on the road with a man not her kin. She was the same kind of woman as the rest. Still, she had the good gift. Hers was from God. She believed that. Gary's was not. She believed that, too.
When they'd left San Francisco, she hadn't thought they would keep going. On the road still a day later, he'd reached his right hand out, to touch her, she thought. But no. He'd fiddled with the car controls and then slid a circular disc into the mouth of the dashboard. It was a smooth, slippery motion. She didn't know cars came with CD players. "I modified it myself," he said. The secular music came on. And then she knew that they were not just fleeing desecration, they were fleeing their lives. In San Bernardino, Gary explained to her why they weren't heathens despite their abandon.
"You are Noah," he said with his soft big voice. "I am the animals you saved."
"You're not an animal," she said gently, to reassure him. He wasn't an animal to her. Despite his wool hair, dark skin. She and he were at an outdoor restaurant on the outside of the city. In a tiny Black part, which was also the big Mexican part, though still different parts. She couldn't tell, exactly, how it all was laid out.
She watched him tear the fried chicken with his teeth. She would have preferred they go to the diner they'd passed miles before, but he'd told her he didn't want white people to see them together. She tried to cut the chicken with a plastic fork and knife, but she only managed to discard the skin. Gary was looking at her as though he might bite into her. It was the same look he'd given when he first told her to get in the car, right now, Ellie. Get in, he'd said.
"I'm a tiger," he said now. "I'm a lion, a jaguar. A . . ." But he couldn't think of any other cats and he laughed at himself.
"A leopard," she said. "A puma."
"All that. Now, eat this chicken. You'll be hungry later."
She ate the chicken. She was like Noah. A believer.
Her visions were not a curse. But her asthma was. You get a gift, you get a curse for balance. The sickness was the sign of Satan on her body. In the Frisco public library she'd looked up great people who had been asthmatic. She wanted to be great, to spite the devil. The librarian directed her to a book about Che Guevara. He'd had asthma, too, but he'd managed to become a doctor and a revolutionary. A nonbeliever, but still a healer and a leader. What greatness, then, could Eloise not accomplish with God in her heart? Perhaps the sickness signaled something prophetic about her.
She believed it was her asthma that had driven her out of the burning city. Driven her out to the shaking ground, out of her parents' holy home. Driven her into Gary's animal arms. When he'd pulled his car up to her, like a saving grace, and said get in, she had. She could barely breathe for the buildings burning, for the smoke and the screaming.
They'd first met because he'd come to her church. He'd gone to all the churches. Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, Latter-day Saints. He heard voices. From God or a demon, he didn't know. Demon, he'd been mostly told. Exorcism had been suggested; Freudian analysis, too. At Eloise's family church, he'd just walked in and stood among them. The elders bade everyone in the chapel to introduce themselves, which was done whenever someone new wandered in. Eloise had been surprised at Gary's voice, a soothing bass. At the fellowship after, everyone flocked around him-a blackbird in a pitying of doves.
"The boy has voices," her father reported during dinner one night. A night when it was just Mother, Father, and Eloise. "The elders thought it best that I counsel him, given that Eloise has the visions." Eloise had pretended she wasn't curious. Had taken over the dishes from her mother, so that the parents could talk this through.
Gary came the next evening. Drove his own car up to their house. A car he claimed to have built, even the engine, with his own hands. Parked expertly in their narrow driveway, without fretting like her father always did.
"Where are you from, son?" This was a careful thing for her father to call him.
"Paradise," Gary had responded.
"Then you're like the rest of us. Cast out."
"Yes," Gary said. "Except I plan on getting back before I die."
After that Gary came once a week. On a day when her parents didn't mission in Oakland. He came, and when he did Eloise went to bed early. Her room just up the hallway. For a month just listening to his voice through her bedroom door caused the asthma to tighten around her chest. Until she finally realized it wasn't her asthma at all. Just herself. Until he came one night when the parents were in Oakland.
"They say you have voices, too," he spoke from the threshold.
"Visions," she corrected. And opened the door wide to let him in.
What they did that night, and for nights after, was read Proverbs. It was a perfect courtship. So perfect that she could forget he was Black. Just remember that he was a Christian. Until he told her one night that he wasn't a Christian.
"Of course you are," she said, to reassure him.
"I go to Buddhist prayers," he said.
"That doesn't seem un-Christian."
"I answer the call to prayer on Fridays."
"Prayer is Christian. Do not fear." She rested her hand on his.
"You're not listening, Ellie." His voice was firm. "I need help with my voices. I need divine help. I take it from wherever it comes."
"I can help," she said, because she was listening.
"I need paradise," he whispered. "And this is not paradise."
"No, this is Sodom."
He looked at her and then gave a trumpet of laughter.
"But I've seen it," she said evenly. "The destruction. I see things. God is going to destroy this place because of its wickedness."
"What you plan on doing when the destruction comes?"
"Pray. I will pray. As should you."
"I'll get out of here," Gary said. "Why stay in Sodom? I'll take you with me, if you want."
"You would save me?"
"If you wanted."
"Yes," she said. "I would like to be saved."
Could he see that she would be so happy without her burden of belief?