An Angel Passed
It was a warm summer day in Meshugwa, on the Pacific side of the mountains, whose hoary heads were covered in a light brown haze, and Jack Crichton dozed on the side of the six-inch deep mountain stream that the town had taken its name from, his face in the shade of a sycamore. When the silence stole on Meshugwa, the waters in the brook moved but did not rumble, and Crichton’s chest and lips moved in somber syncopation, but made no breathy snore. The heat of the day was on Crichton, and in the silence he slipped into a deeper slumber and slept through it all.
Elmmist Street paralled the Meshugwa on its winding way for about a mile, and on the third house of the left Laura Milweeney stood before the great old black wood of her grandfather’s upright piano, stroking the chipped and slightly yellowed keys of real ivory, fingers barely daring to press them, testing the pressure to see how far she could go before the hammer touched the string, waiting to jump at inadvertent notes that never came. In the silence of the key-strikes, the girl grew bolder in her pressings, absorbed in her game, daring the piano to sound, but it never did. Laura felt the trembling of the strings through her fingers, the soles of her bare feet on the old wooden floors, but never a sound to her ears. So she pressed herself closer to the old black wood, hands jabbing at the keys, and laid her right ear directly on the wood behind the music stand. Though she could not hear the notes, she felt the change in pitch and volume with each key stroke, dipping through the octaves, the wood vibrating in response. Laura Milweeney grinned, and one ear against the wood, began to play.
At the head of the Meshugwa is a small, deep pool—a natural spring that fed the stream even when snow melt had fallen off in the summer, with a shallow-roofed cave at one end around a hollow ten or twelve feet deep, the bottom black and hidden by the arching shadows. No one knew how far back the cave might go under the water, but it was deep enough for a boy of ten or twelve to shuck off his pants and swim in, diving for the coins that tourists and lovers threw into the pool like a wishing well. There was a law in town against touching the coins, and old folk stories too going back to the Indians, but Barré didn’t give a damn about that, only the money. His fist closed on something that shined in the black silt when he lost the sound. The boy kicked hard, pushing against the weight of the water above him, once, twice, then broke the skin of the water and gasped in a lungful, ears still ringing a little from the pressure, hands clutching fistfuls of quarters and smaller coins. Barré tread water, shaking his head as the pain receded, waiting for the sounds of the world to come back, shivering in the water.
The end of Elmmist Street turned into Gambel Lane; the big old houses built into the hill between the wars, lots divided by sunken, low-lying fences of russet brick. Gambel curved against the hill and back down it to the Mesh, the town center, and Mallata Boule let her old blue Camaro pick up speed as the car carried her down to the little roundabout and the old-fashioned cement island in the road with the flashing yellow traffic light. Mallata took the corner with old practice, the car crouching into the familiar dip in the road as it bled off speed, and the rumble of the tires on the pitted asphalt was old and familiar. Half way ‘round the circle she saw the light change from green to yellow and stepped on the gas. The Camaro’s headlights weren’t even past the white line when the light turned red, but Mallata gunned it, lights blaring around her in silence as the cars in the oncoming sought to check themselves, horns and engines worthless. In her rearview mirror Mallata saw unvoiced chaos, crushed metal and broken glass, the twirl of lights but no sirens or screams.
The third house on Gambel belonged to the Martenses, Phillip and Juan. Neighbors would remember later the fights, usually late at night, with Phillip the loudest and most often drunk; the bruises Juan would sport when he went to do the daily shopping down at the Mesh, which he tried to cover with make-up. The police had appeared twice the last few weeks, lights flashing, Phillip meeting them at the door in a wifebeater, Juan almost invisible beyond the doorway, except for the bright blood on his face. The neighbors hadn’t said a thing about it, though Belinda Gibbs had a talk with a woman’s shelter, only to be politely and confusedly turned away. No one heard screams from the Martense house, that day, or that night, and except for the discovery, ever again.
Belinda Gibbs was across the street, writing when the call came. Her cellphone rang and rang, rattled and danced, but it was halfway across the room, and she did not hear it. As Belinda finished the page, the call went to her voicemail, and the caller hung up.
Andy Merrit sat in the rocking chair, cradling the baby against his shoulder, watching an old black and white television with the volume knob torn off. Alan Alda and Gary Burghoff were on screen in stark greys, and Andy didn’t hear a word, but smiled a little as his daughter cried in stony silence, her little pink face bunched up in pain or agony he couldn’t imagine. The colic had begun about six this morning, and he’d gone to get the baby, and the wife had kissed him about forty five minutes later as she went off to work, and then it had just been the two of them, the crying, and the unnaturally pale Alan Alda. Now, however long it might last, Andy enjoyed the quiet, and rocked his little girl, hoping she would go the fuck to sleep.
On the edge of Meshugwa, on Olympic Street which lead into the Mesh, and only a stones throw from the creek was a little yellow motel that rented rooms by the week and by the night and by the hour. In 4B, on the second story facing the creek and its lining of sycamores, Gwen Merrit sat at the edge of the bed, dampness soaking into the sheets, watching the slim young man squeeze into his too-tight jeans, the money from the dresser already in his hip pocket. It hadn’t been his fault, whatever it was. She had seen his lips move, the torrent of filthy words turning off, abruptly, and then she had almost beat him off of her. He had rolled away, and then they had made stupid for a few minutes, both apparently deaf, and neither able to finish. He left in silence, though Gwen didn’t think he would have said anything even if they both could hear. Andre knew what she wanted, knew what she needed to get her off, what her dull and loving husband wouldn’t do, didn’t have the mouth and imagination to manage. So she sat in the spreading stain on the sheet, breasts still naked, need still unquenched, and without the medium of expression for the dirty talk, to hear herself get fucked, to hear…Gwen sat, cold and alone, in her own private hell.
Jack and Jill Milweeney sat in their room, talking about sex, hands moving in the air, eyes on one another as they discussed what they had seen and heard and read. They were absorbed in it, Jack joking and Jill laughing as he made pumping motions with hands and fingers. Jack had snuck a peek at his grandfather’s Playboys and Hustlers, tried to describe with sign and gesture the shape of the women’s bodies, the positions they contorted themselves in for the camera. Jill made fun of the artificial poses, mocked them with her own tomboyish figure just to see her twin blush and move his hands, then told stories of her own, the stories that girls know among themselves. When it was just by themselves they liked to take the hearing aids off and just talk. They talked all day long, and never knew the difference.
Jen smelled the smoke on Olympic and drove towards it, towards the Mesh, the silent siren of the firetruck blaring for whatever good it would do (none), and the light flashing. There were people on the road already, some bloody and disheveled, smashed cars and people waving their arms at each other, trying to shout without words, aping their way through king monkey displays of dominance and power as they tried to make their way, to make themselves understood. Some were writing messages to each other, ugly ballpoint scratch on the back of envelopes or whatever paper would be hastily assembled. A few appeared to be texting. No one was running. Jen looked up as the blaze came into view, over the DrugRite, black clouds coming from an upper window already scorched and charred. She wanted a Bat Signal, a laser, something bright and hot enough to catch everyone’s attention, to show them what was going on…because if the fire spread… The MeshTVs blinked as their programming was exempted, and the herd of people downtown stopped and stared at the newsspot, Jen included. There were words on the screen, scrolling, not urging calm or panic, just news, and a camera shot of the fire, of Jen and the firetruck, standing dumbstruck, a firegirl caught in the headlights. Jen twirled around, seeking the camera, felt the breeze and looked up at the silent, hovering mass of the helicopter daring the quiet skies without the radio. People looked at the televisions, the fire, at her…and Jen moved her arms, grabbed people, showed them what to do, where to stand, swinging the wrench like a baton. Three men followed her with the hose as she closed on the fire hydrant, the flames already licking the next building, the Meshugwa Library.
Jim Cotton was reading on the second floor of the library when he thought he’d died, dark fingers tracing out the bumps on the page. He had not been born blind, but learned to cope with the loss of all things sight had meant to him, and sharpened his other senses—to live vicariously through his music and conversation, the place of the world around him in its echoes. The closing of that door of perception hit him like the lid of his own coffin, and with calm hands he closed the book. He had to check first, tried snapping his fingers, dragging his nails on the table, slamming the book on the table, trying to sing and yell and speak until his little-used throat was raw and achy, but no sound came. So with great care he walked his way over to the window. It was only a three story drop from here. He could feel the breeze, cooler out than the morning, as if the night had come on already, and stepped out to meet it.
The bats fell from the sky around Jack Crichton, and it was the impact of a small furry body that woke him with a start from his sound slumber beside the creek, face ruddy and flushed from a day’s sunlight reflected on the Meshugwa despite the shade of the sycamores. He looked around himself then, in the twilight, and saw more of them—tiny dark and fragile things, crushed and bloody from where they had crashed into a tree or crippled themselves on sharp branches, laid out over the bank of the creek. Jack yawned then, the sound of his own voice the first human noise he had heard since he woke, and as if by breaking a spell the sounds of nature came back in focus in his fevered brain. The creek babbled again, as if he had always heard it, and in the distance there were the human noises and machine noises—a siren, a helicopter, screaming and laughing. Jack rose and stretched, then paused when he thought he spotted something in the clear waters of the creek, in the silt. For a moment it looked like a shiny coin in a pale young palm, but then the night rolled in, and Jack Crichton could not tell what he had seen in the waters of the Meshugwa.