Fear no more, says the heart
committing its burden to some sea
which sighs collectively for all sorrows
and renews, begins, collects, lets fall
It’s near the end of sessions. The boys are doing penance for sins committed during the spring term. Petty deeds that failed to rise to the level of full suspension have landed them in a halfway house, a hot room in an old schoolhouse shorn of all life save the echoes of janitors shuttering the place for the summer. The heat makes everything in the session room quiver: light, dust, air. Sunlight has travelled millions of miles to end here, bending at a sharp angle to lie flat on the floor, a gossamer runner. The boys know better than to raise their eyes from the floor, to look up at the dead clock. There is no movement on its yellow face. They will wait in maddening suspense until some unknown hour of release.
In the moment, a lean boy, a bent boy, commits a breathtaking act of defiance. He jumps on a windowsill, gives out a holler, and drops out of sight. Two stories down he lands on a grassy hillock and rolls away toward summer. As he has before, the boy risks injury to rouse the timid. They will not be moved.
Eyes dart quickly from window to desk where sits an immobile proctor, red faced, imposing. The newspaper before him is wet with sweat.
In the fall the fugitive’s mother will be forced out of seclusion to repeat the tale of a missing father, a troubled childhood, an undiagnosed ailment that keeps her caged in a small house near the gritty east end of town. Hands clasped, the good principal will listen attentively, all the while eyeing mother and son for hints of deception. He knows she is blowing smoke, he knows her husband. The boy will be sentenced to menial tasks under the lash of vengeful staff. They will goad him to incite more riot, he may take the bait.
The school is seventy and shows its age. The wide wooden staircases have been worn to a pulp; soft and pliant they creak under the weight of heavy shoes meant for long wear by more than one owner. Too tight for some, loose-fitting on others, they are black and brown, scuffed and torn and many times resoled. Their owners are by and large sons and daughters of the laboring class, factory workers whose work days start and stop to a sharp whistle. There are exceptions, those from north of main street, up near the country club, but by and large this is a lunch pail crowd. The student body is mostly of two types, them with the temerity to jump out windows and them that watch, with awe or contempt. The latter play by the rules, eager to please, punch all the right tickets, most likely to succeed. The jumpers play jazz, shoot dice. One observer, Ishkhan, he prefers Ish, pronounced “Eesh,” is smack in the middle, the worst place of all, the province of also-rans, middle management. His thoughts are focused on the ocean in July, when the heat picks up and the crickets grow loud. He bides his time, makes his secret plans, readies for a pilgrimage to the sea.
Eesh’s beach isn’t fancy, not one of those places with precious dunes and roped off sections to protect some bird no one’s heard of. It isn’t a place where folks ask, “do you own or rent?” You don’t ask such questions in this place, because owning doesn’t put you in some special category. Everyone’s union. This isn’t the lower Cape where the credentialed summer. There is no cocktail hour, no dining al fresco, no oysters Rockefeller. You look forward to salt water taffy and oily onion rings in a newspaper cone. Folks wash down a fisherman’s platter, everything brown save for the watery slaw, with a bottle of Narragansett beer: “Hi neighbor! Have a Gansett.”
They usually travel in a small caravan, Eesh’s family in a Chevy Bel Air, aqua blue inside and out, only the windows spared the paint gun. His uncle and grandparents are at the head in a white Caddy Eldorado, the rising back fins leading like an elegant swan. He loves the red leather upholstery. Bringing up the rear in a mist green Buick Century is the secretive Rotarian Henry Kazanjian and his large family of small women. They all drive slowly, in the manner of law-abiding immigrants. Too long into a short trip the whiff of salt water is finally in the air. After the cologne and tobacco mix on his father’s suit, this is Eesh’s favorite scent. He’ll ingest Atlantic waters and taste the brine. The water will clear his nostrils, burn his eyes. He will lie on the gray sand, lick dried salt off his arms, listen to the breaking tide.
He has an unsure relationship with the ocean. Like a piper he scurries toward the water only to retreat when waves crash. He sees the shoreline as a terminus, not only of land but of meaning. The waves push out as a warning, a palm in the face. Not long ago they had beckoned, offered fluid passage from the old world to the new. He had accepted the offer gladly, enthusiastically. He would jump in without hesitation if the waters would carry him across. Now there is the possibility they will pull him under, into an unfathomable place where he will lose hold of what grip he has on reality. And as nauseating as is this reality, it is all there is, this or nothingness.
Eesh’s circle on the beach is decidedly female, a mother, a grandmother, and two inscrutable sisters, aliens really. Then there is his grandfather, who might as well be a woman. This brood sees men only on weekends; the men are easy to spot, farmer tans and sock lines, the short-stays bob along the slanted shore as if peg legged. His father is typical of the lot. He isn’t nearly as interested in the boy as the boy is in him. Friday nights Eesh waits alone at the foot of the hill that leads to what by any other name is a rooming house just up from the beach. They have one room and the grandparents another. Others are located up and down the beach in motels slightly better than this stout pillbox. He squints at the headlights of passing cars, his breath skips a beat each time he thinks he spies the Bel Air. He feels silly, diminished by a childish state of longing. All his fears are focused here, desperately seeking the car that will slow his racing heart, make his world whole again. He will run up behind the car, watch the rear lights go black. His father will see him and ask why he is out so late. Father will walk into the house, leave his son behind, leave love again to sour in the boy’s throat.
Eesh can’t remember a meal at the beach that isn’t served from a heavy metal cooler dragged from the car to a beach umbrella. The cooler and his grandfather, in gray pants, maroon cardigan, blue skull cap, are fixtures under the rusty gamp. The day’s provisions are packed early in the morning, so early that by lunchtime everything is waterlogged. Despite being encased in layers of plastic wrap the white bread and baloney sandwiches come out soggy, limp, oozing French’s mustard.
They see friends like the tedious Kazanjians on occasion, and Eesh spends some days with unexcited cousins, but the rest of the time his universe is a self-contained cell of three adults and three children. As the oldest he is regularly sent to locate his wandering sisters. These two are too young to be of any interest to him. He is prone to continue ignoring them save for an incident that will be talked about the rest of the summer, and that will stay with him lifelong. Its unfolding is near operatic.
It happens not far from where they camp each day just south of the boardwalk. On an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in late July, as he is contemplating the miracle of processed meat, a woman’s voice cries out, first at a distance and then closer, louder… louder than his uncle screaming at the younger boys to swim back from deeper waters. She is frantic as she runs toward where he was sitting – now standing – dragging a little boy whose rubbery arm is stretched to a string. The miserable boy wants to keep up with his mother, but his legs are too short. His face is a picture of incomprehension. No one can make out what the mother is shouting over and over. They can see wretchedness in her face. In all his years, all twelve, Eesh has not borne witness to anything like it. He is mesmerized, paralyzed, and stranded in a sea of purposive motion swirling around him. Fear turns to dejection. Behind the mother runs a group of lifeguards, orange bathing suits emblazoned with a patch that sports the letters “MDC,” carrying a tube like a giant pencil sharpened at both ends.
Groups of adults soon gather near the water, snatching the wee ones out of tidal pools, calling in the older ones, watching the lifeguards expertly maneuvering their pencils toward where the woman is pointing. He overhears a few whisper “the poor girl,” but it is not entirely clear if they’re referring to the woman, now clearly screaming “Nairi,” or the object of her frenzied attention. “My girl, my baby, oh God,” she cries out, drawing the words from her marrow. Puzzled no more by the tragic tableau unfolding before him, Eesh stays near the adults to see if the lifeguards can bring Nairi back. He admires their resolve to reach her no matter how far the surf takes them. They paddle hard to the horizon, toward what is sure to be disappointment. Still, those on the shoreline keep waiting, hoping for a miracle, something to restore their faith in the order of things.
The beach is silenced by horror; the familiar, soothing whoosh of the ocean now sounds ominous; gulls swoop down, screaming vultures, towel-covered beachgoers, like hooded monks, make their way toward the boardwalk. Although the child is of an age much closer to his, it is less her suffering than the mother’s anguish Eesh feels most deeply. He is sickened by it, made weak. The loss is complete, permanent. Strange physics at work here, laws beyond comprehension.
He wonders about the fate of her family. Stumbling in a daze to the motel where the mother silently packs their clothes, Nairi’s clothes. Her father, Herant, makes calls, and the brother sits on the edge of a bed running spindly fingers over the smooth contours of a small iron truck. They will drive home to a modest, three-decker, park on the street and make their way to the railroad flat where the women will make coffee in the kitchen at the back and the men talk in a lowered voice in the sitting room above the street. A young cleric will console the shaken parishioners left wondering at God’s will, made numb by pointless loss. There will be tearful embraces, but not more, all emotion having been drained in the aftermath of the drowning. All that’s left is to soothe with food and drink. The older boys, under orders from the kitchen, will take the young one, tenderly for once, to unload the car and pick up provisions from the corner grocer. They will avoid side streets that might lead to run-ins with local toughs who will give no quarter: “Who gives a shit the sistah died.”
Some days later there will be a miserable, sparsely attended funeral at the Apostolic church, its spire sprouting heavenward from a potholed, oil stained street dotted with sandwich-and-beer joints. Herant will sleepwalk behind the tiny casket, his wife, Miriam, not far behind, will drag a bored little boy in the direction of a lone hearse waiting curbside. A small cortege will break ranks outside, the lonely notes of the pipe organ trailing their last steps. Few will go to the cemetery, leaving it to Nairi’s kin to witness the interment of an empty casket.
The parents return home with the one kid, their life split and shed. Miriam sits at the small kitchen table and stares into space. Herant looks for words to comfort her, words that might pick up her flat soul, that might bridge the chasm widening between them. Nothing comes, he buries his head in a newspaper someone left behind. Who will clear her bedroom? The thought of touching her things fills Miriam with dread. She will call the sisters, beg them to haul it all away, sell every stich at the parish store. For now, she wonders how she will drag herself to bed. She lacks the energy to take the sleep aids. She can’t open the bottle, fill the cup. She’s been here before, alone, at the mercy of the tides. She tries to free herself, to gain some purchase on the familiar, but wakefulness is no comfort. Each day will come as a dull thud.
“What if there’s no hereaftah?” Miriam is shocked by the sound of her own voice. Herant lays the paper down, “no hereaftah?” “Yah, what if there’s no eternal weight of Glory? What if this is it? We get this one shot, then nothin. No chance of seein her again, evah again. No rhyme, no reason.” He tells her to stop talking that way. What happened is God’s will. “As the Father said, the Lord will not forsake us.” She looks away, finds another thought. Seconds later she spits back, “we’ve already been forsaken, for cripes sake, can’t you see? What merciful God would do this to a child and leave us here to suffer? Are we to rejoice in her union with the Lord? Do we have nothin to say about our own flesh and blood? Are we owned by Him?” He picks up the paper again. She persists. “I’ve had it, I’m not goin back to that church. I’m not givin them a dime.” He wishes she would stop.
Has she turned her back on God? he wonders. Is this what she meant when she said she wouldn’t go back to church? He wishes he could keep grief at bay, keep it from destroying her faith. He shares her sense of abandonment, but not her bitterness. They will go on, he knows, they have no choice. Losing their beautiful girl has cast out her belief, robbed her life of meaning, but leaving the church will only add to her misery. Abandon your faith if you will, but keep it to yourself, he hears in his head. There’s more to a house of worship than prayer. He, for one, never sets foot in the place, content to loiter outside with friends of a similar habit, indulging in small talk, furtively glancing at black stockinged legs slowly climbing toward the portico on the arm of a dark suit. Eyebrows arched, he pretends to be studying the steeple if anyone looks back. He likes leaning against the weathered stone, pressing his fingers into the rock face, feeling the smooth texture. The color of it has changed after repeated rubbings, now a darker hue than when it was quarried. The weight of the place grounds him.
Herant gets up early, ahead of the robin’s call, before the clouds are splotched red-orange. He puts the coffee on, the flame breaching the sides of the pot reminds him of an overdue bill. He turns on the bulb in the bathroom to start the first of his Sunday rituals. He works soap into a lather and slowly spreads it across the doughy folds of his face; stubbles push through the foam as if buds after a spring snow. He washes off the soap and lathers up again. His beard is soft, ready for a first cut, downstroke. He uses a straight edge, he likes the scraping against his face, the soft skin pulling back from the blade. Stropping the razor reminds him of preparation for solemn tribute. The ritual stills his mind. He rises early to have the bathroom to himself.
The blade slides north; he is in a villa in a wood in Shemiran in the slopes of the Alborz mountains, a chalk-white main house in British colonial style fronted by columns that accentuate symmetry. They have escaped the summer heat in Teheran by taking residence in the walled compound that in addition to the main house contains several outbuildings. They are in the company of a tight-knit cluster of families that have a long history of summering together. A gang of five schoolgirls and boys roam the property protected by tall walls and a large padlocked double gate. The gate provides their only contact with the outside world. Standing at the gate, warm sun at his back, a cool breeze washing over his face, he has a vivid memory. He is sitting on his father’s knee, in the sitting room of his grandfather’s house. It is a large room defined by rich carpets, silks and wools from Tabriz, and an imposing table, around which sit men in vested suits. Discussion centers on western manners. Someone places his leg on a corner of the table to illustrate American casualness. Some gasp, others break into laughter. The air is thick with the scent of tobacco, rose sherbet, baked sweets – shirini.
He remembers this, but it is the physical sensation of his father’s embrace that is most evocative. He will not be abandoned or left to a family that will change his name, warn him to stay silent lest the assassins come for him. He will live where he was born, avoid the privations of an orphan sent to some distant vilayet where he will lose his tongue, forget his history. Hidden under the dinner table, he hears of the women, left defenseless, always on the move, burying their children along the way, no tears, no wailing, dead souls on a silent march. He is made furious by their helplessness. Always at the mercy of others, betrayed, abandoned, made destitute. No safe harbor, no matter the tribute paid to greedy masters. Even now they must be careful, their hosts are benign; still, this is not their land, they are guests of an absolute monarch, they must tread warily.
He is the only one selected to recite a poem in his tongue and theirs at a school festival. It is an epic poem, stanza upon stanza, he has committed to memory. He is proud of his special status. The other children look upon him with admiration and envy. This is a moment of triumph, of a rare victory. His mother and he are late to a rehearsal. The sequence of preparation has been upset. The teacher in charge, a steely figure with ties to powerful royalist parties, tells them she has assigned the Farsi recitation to a Persian girl. The girl wears a haughty smile. He is devastated, his mother is speechless. They have no recourse. They suffer the humiliation in silence.
He knows he faces an abyss; should he fall forward he will meet a horrible fate in the teeth of a hydra. Yet he is safe with his father behind him; in his grip he is warm and shielded, a marsupial. He will remember this moment until his last breath but the sensation, never again. Had they stayed put, had they not picked up and crossed the ocean his father might have stood firm at his back, kept his spine erect, covered his flanks. But in the new world it was all he could do to find his bearings. He didn’t have time for his son, he could not understand what the boy was becoming, he paddled furiously just to keep from sinking. Shock after shock weakened his young heart; walls caved, tissues shred. His last breath was that of an old man.
He draws the blade south again. It is early morning in the compound. His attire is ill suited to the occasion. He is shivering. The young ones have assembled for morning exercise under the tutelage of a man who keeps different hours than the other fathers. He starts his work day much later, stays weeknights, misses the Thursday-Friday break. He is slim, smokes and drinks in moderation, stays away from the heavy dishes that strain waistlines. He places his cigarette on a stone and leads the assembled on a vigorous round of jumping jacks. The cigarette slowly smolders on the rock, leaving a thin line of ash. This holds the boy’s attention, the jumping is of little interest; still, he keeps up with the rhythmic calls. The exercise regime is informal, improvisational. His enthusiasm is false, he does not like it. He can’t wait for it to stop, for their leader to wrap his head in a towel, light a new cigarette and repair to the bathhouse.
He overhears a conversation between his mother and the other ladies on a day when feigning illness, he is allowed to sleep in. The women are drinking tea on the front porch of the main house near his bedroom window. The window is open like all others to let in a mountain breeze full of the sweet scent of the walnut trees that canopy the compound. Gauze curtains blow in and out to the sound of rustling leaves. The women’s voices are hushed. He lies still to hear every word. He is taken by the tone of high culture, the genteel style of their interaction. Each word is spoken with almost poetic affect. He imagines this was the mode of discourse in royal courts, passed down over generations to what now passes for nobility, the speech of the clergy, the learned, the monied. It is the language of plays and poetry, it has qualities that elevate discussion of the most commonplace to what seems a higher plane. It is, in fact, a comedy of manners.
He knows from the start they can only be talking about the one friend who is not there. The one who rarely rises before midday, the one with gentle, downcast eyes and a warm, attentive manner. The one who shuffles more than walks near always in her night robe, hands clasped as if in prayer. He has seen another side of her in photo albums, out on the town with the other couples, glamorous, vivacious, jet black mane pulled back tight, tension fixed by a courageous pin. She smiles at the camera, her face is illuminated, her arms are stretched around these women, pulling them towards her like a mother hen.
Then, in a flash, it all disappears, the scene turns dark quickly, as when after a bomb drops at night. She’s quickly aged out of her circle of friends, now ill at ease in their company.
She is his favorite.
They talk about how men drift, how they slide away slowly, then fast. They talk about betrayal as if having experienced it first-hand. He wonders how much of their talk is inspired by French and Italian movies, the kind his mother drags him to on lazy afternoons, movies where wizened widows sit amidst the rubble of a bombed-out church reflecting on the savagery of mankind. From whence comes such familiarity with the ways of men? They note the shift is subtle, almost imperceptible at first. The man misses a birthday, a child’s recital, then compensates with lavish gifts and solicitude. He works late, stays in the city longer. He is transfigured: slim, stylish, scented.
To his astonishment, his mother opines that women are not without blame, they should know men are weak and will take comfort in the arms of others if their wives are inattentive. She uses a crude term to describe what will keep them from wandering. He feels guilty pleasure at having heard all this. But has he betrayed the kind ghost? Should he hate her husband? Should he continue with the morning routine? Up until now he has not had reason to contemplate such matters. He has not borne witness to tension in the order of things. Men and women in his universe, and there can be but one moral universe, behave in accordance with rules deemed inviolable. Now there’s a small tear in the fabric, and where there’s one, there could be more. What lies beyond? Will the light of his world empty out, will darkness pour in? The world floats away from where he sits unchanged.
The blade moves east to west, now a quick dip in the dimple over his lip. They are positioned again at the villa gate, five boys, owl-eyed, climbing over each other to witness the spectacle passing by. They have been drawn to the gate by a rhythmic chant that rises and falls in a mournful cadence. Five boys in cropped shorts and striped shirts, western garb. The chanters are marching five abreast, shirtless for the most part, pant legs rolled to the calf. They are wet with sweat, and blood. The smell is that of horses after a race at Gonbad-e Kavus, which has stayed with him since a rare trip to the hippodrome in Gonbad in the company of his father and other men from the dairy in Tehran where he worked. He had gorged on saffron ice cream and become faint in the hot sun. No one had taken notice. The men before him step in rhythm, in the manner of a slow-moving cortege. At every step they swing chains and knives over their shoulders, first left, then right, puncturing the skin on their back. The blood on some has congealed into small bubbles, the texture of cherry jam, the skin of others has turned a purple-black.
Later in the day he tells his father about the sight of the marchers, purifying their souls through physical trials. His father chuckles and waves off the significance of the occasion. He dismisses the spectacle as street performance by the ignorant and the poor. Fanatics in the paid service of clergy who abhor a modernizing king and exploit the faithful to leverage power. He says the flogging is phony, they barely touch their backs, many having smeared themselves with berries and madder root. He feels diminished but relieved by his father’s cavalier response. He is in the company of hardened skeptics, he knows. They use cynicism to prepare the young, to steel them against what will come when the wall is breached, as it surely will be, when the senseless and cruel and barbaric will spoil the interlude of innocent summers. Such summers were also known to the children of ERZEROUM, DERTCHAN, EGIN, BITLIS, ASSOUN, MOUSH, ZEITUN, and all of CILICIA. They too thought the reign of good was everlasting.
Still, for now, in this place, the wall stands. It is a tangible thing, whereas what lies outside is a speculative matter beyond the ken of souls without the gift of prophecy. All things are possible within the wall. No harm can come to children within the wall, no one disappears. Each day inside promises fresh miracles: a shipment of bubblegum from America, a brimming box of Double Bubble; a birthday cake from Tehran, Lord Confectionary; homemade ice cream (bastani). Movies in the main house, the film jams, Mickey turns into brown bubbles; screaming, hilarity, brothers and sisters inside the wall, arms and legs draped over shoulders, across knees, intertwined like vines from the same root. They will be together tomorrow, and days after, all summer long, and years on. They will be lifted by summer breezes, eat sweet melon cooled by rushing rivers, hunt for red deer and wild boar. They will bring their children to Shemiran…
There is a knock at the door. Miriam has risen early. Herant’s precious idyll is over. It was but a wink.
Post Nairi, Eesh’s life enters a state of hyper vigilance. The walks to locate siblings along the beach pick up to slow trots and full sprints. On wobbly legs he runs, sure what he possesses in bone and flesh will crumble into a heap right there on the sand to be speared like jelly fish by some kid with a makeshift pikestaff. In these moments, his mind goes blank, bowels move without prompting. He can barely croak his sisters’ names as he surveys the beach. Relief, but also anger sets in when he spots them, all doe eyed innocence, wondering at his military-style orders to move closer to the family encampment. He is the self-appointed sentry now, only he doesn’t possess the requisite skills for the job, and the threats they face are known to him alone. The ocean is surely out for the little ones and what it doesn’t take is prey to kidnappers, mobsters and the odd organ trafficker. He wears small paths walking in circles anxiously awaiting the return of his flock from the most routine outings. He is deeply fatigued.
With the beach gone bad, and enervated by the rigors of family protection, he longs for distraction. Amusement parks become his refuge. He is drawn to games, to amassing enough tokens at skee ball to acquire a transistor radio by summer’s end. But arcade distractions cannot keep eidetic memory at bay; visions of his sisters taken under by roiling waters, of his father drifting helplessly toward a swallowing whirlpool, guilt at having failed to prevent disaster. He wakes with a start, soaked in sweat, his mother kneading his arms the way she did when scarlet fever boiled his blood. One dream in particular becomes his constant companion. He is walking alone on a rippled surface of hard sand that stretched far into the horizon. Surf rising and falling on the sand with a loud slap can be heard but there is no sign of water. Is he on a beach, or in a desert made wet by summer rain? Is he alive or dead?
Suddenly, there comes into view a small speck of hope, an object in apparent motion. It grows in size as it slowly draws near. Eventually he spies a naked body. It is difficult to make out at first, but he has no doubt who it will be. She has a ghostly aura, yet her body is in full form, fish belly white, puffed like a cheap kewpie doll. She is a snowman – eyes made of sea stone, mouth a clamshell, stringy hair of seaweed the color of pickled greens. The joy that possesses him upon first spotting her quickly turns to dread. Still, here is a flicker of life, the only entity in sight to have a human trait. He tries to call out her name. She makes a gesture he does not recognize. It is like the mechanical movement of a string-puppet. Her torso is perfectly still while her arms wave up and down. Her clam mouth opens a little then splits in half, the bottom shell turning to dust as it falls to earth. This sets in motion a general dissolution of her form, a sparkling, effervescent breakdown, the lattice of life imploding, gravity at work. He is at a demolition site. He is alone, again. The strange apparition has passed. He hears a dripping sound in his head, what, what?
July turns to August, and the nightmare of the drowning begins to recede. Three weeks by the sea have transformed him. He is glad to return to the predictable rhythms of life back home. What had been tiresome and routine is now comforting. Warm rays pierce through seams in a cloud-covered sky. Afternoon light is softer. Trees no longer menace night walks.
September is not without incident. The jumper is made to stand outside the cafeteria during lunch as punishment for his daring June escape. He convinces a small group to go on a hunger strike in a show of solidarity. For once the meek work up enough courage to participate in what is an unprecedented act. Not to be upstaged, the administration forces the strikers to stand in the hallway while the rest of the school eats lunch. The jumper talks them into feigning stomachaches and falling to the floor in full view of two hundred startled classmates. This causes general pandemonium, and the arrival of an ambulance, a fire truck. No one knows for sure who made the call instigating the absurd bit of theater. Fearing matters will get out of hand, the principal lets go the whole affair. The pardon does not prevent two history teachers from beating the jumper good, not only for suspicion of inciting riot, but for clearing out the school by peeing on hot radiators.
The jumper invites Eesh to his house. He accepts reluctantly. There are boundaries he would rather not cross. The jumper’s house is a brown shingled one-story affair half way between the east end of town and the main square. Inside, the air is musty, trapped by heavy curtains. A dark hallway with four doors at one side ends at his bedroom. The first door is partially open, the room is cluttered with twisted sheets and towels like a hotel room waiting for a maid, the second door is smaller, he glimpses a pink oval sink, a matching color counter overrun with jars and tubes of cosmetics. The third door, unlike the others, is shut tight. It might be a shrine to a lost child or a secret passageway to a tomb, he thinks. It will not be opened. They enter the last room and sit on the jumper’s bed. Everything is black lacquer, the dresser, the headboard, the nightstand. The walls are covered with prints of musicians. They are stock photos, the men pointing a shoulder toward the camera, cradling an instrument. They all have one name, Miles, Bird, Hawk. He likes hawk, hawk is smiling.
They sit on the jumper’s bed. They talk awhile. He has not met anyone of his tribe quite like this bent boy. The boy seems bored, he is shaking his leg. He leans over the side of the bed and pulls out a weathered black suitcase; inside, a tarnished saxophone lies snug in a pocket of blue velvet. He takes it out of the case. The intimidating instrument is almost as long as the jumper’s trunk. He places his fingers on the keys, his lips around the mouthpiece. He plays Summertime.