Read The Heaven of Mercury Online
Authors: Brad Watson
IVE HUNDRED FEET
above the highest building in downtown Mercury, thrust up amidst the light and swirling, lifting fog, the tower beacon for WCUV-AM glowed on and off with the regularity of a low pulse. Its red bulb illuminated a sphere of fog, so that it looked as if some throbbing, miasmic planet were drifting in the nebulous field of another, yet unformed. But then the huge red sun rose behind it all, the fog dissipated in wisps and curls, and you could see the skeletal structure of the tower, its base attached to the tip of the Dreyfus Building, at fifteen stories the closest thing to a skyscraper Mercury had. From a great distance it appeared to stand like a lone building left after a cyclone, though actually surrounded by all the low and empty-eyed smaller buildings in this slowly dying downtown, where few even of the remaining residents shopped or strolled, a town of twenty thousand that had been twenty thousand now for almost the entire century, a static death in a growing region, all migratory growth flowing around it. The aging downtown buildings, homes, railyards and junkyards, fairgrounds, car lots, truck stops, drab shopping centers, and small factories of Mercury were strewn east and west from this locus along a narrow valley one hundred miles inland from the Gulf coast, as if hurled there by the tornado that actually had destroyed the old section of downtown by the railroad tracks in 1906.
That being the blow that both stalled the city's momentum as a growing rail and trade center and drove nearly all its black population out of what had been a discrete and sprawling neighborhood around the tracks and (destitute) to a wooded area around a long and broad wooded ravine north of town owned by the scion of a decrepit and brambly once-plantation there, a man who claimed that since the Case family had brought all the black people to Mercury in 1837, a Case should take care of them now when they had nowhere to go. He allowed them to squat in his woods, gave them rough materials with which to build little shacks, gave them food in the beginning, and there protected they huddled and intermarried and developed a reputation among Mercury whites as being insular, strange, and half-wild creatures of the wood, domesticated only to the point of performing household chores. Just in the previous thirty years or so, the last Case descendants either long dead or moved on to another kind of life, they had begun to trickle out to homes in old neighborhoods around the ravine and quietly slip their best (as wood creatures slip into our midst unbeknownst) into the local public schools and state universities and beyond, to live as real human beings in the real world. Mercury was still a curiously segrated town in that way. At this point, only its odd enervation knew no ethnic or social constraints.
The valley was a river basin once thicketed with tall pines and broadleaf and run by bear, panther, deer, raccoon, bobcat, coyote, and flown by all manner of bird. In downtown anyway, only the birds remained, with the occasional disoriented, desperate coyote or coon. The deer ran the woods around. The bear were gone north, the panther south and west, the bobcat to near extinction. When one spied a bobcat in the woods, the bobcat seemed as surprised, even alarmed by his own presence as the one who spied it. Again it was as if the 1906 storm, marking the new century's change, had tossed all the old far around and left it ravaged for the new. But the birds returned, unfazed, to flick and flit through the streets and around the old blank-eyed windows of downtown, to crisscross the air above the dwindling number of humans who toddled along its sidewalks, who stood dazed in its dusty windows, not long for this world, who seemed but images left behind, photocopied in little pockets of palpable humidity. The birds lived on with a sublime unawareness of oblivion or genetic continuity, an ever-present life form that would never go away as long as the earth remained the blue-and-green planet we all know. The old saying went the cockroaches would outlive everything, but Finus Bates, for one, knew the birds would feed on cockroaches easily, happily, forever.
Inside the tiny studio on the Dreyfus Building's fifteenth floor, Finus's burled and veiny, spotted hand flipped a switch and sent a signal up the tower and into the air. He left his finger on the switch for a long, symbolic moment. He was the medium between electric power and radio wave. He would give the senseless impulse speech, and speech which was the words of not just Finus but the whole community, which was for some in effect the whole world. He felt as if he tapped the strength of life itself, with which he could infuse his listeners as a tonic against the possibility of not rising to meet the day.
He had the ironic, wizened face of a vaudevillian straight man, which he actually had been a few times in his late teens. When traveling vaudeville acts would stop in Mercury on the circuit, they sometimes wrote him in as a kind of punching bag for their roundhouse jokes because his somber dignified expression, onstage, was funny. He'd even gotten to know George Burns, in those days before George had made it. Old George would sometimes call on the phone during Finus's radio show and they'd talk for a while, about vaudeville and Gracie and George's memories of visiting Mercury, and about George's revivified fame as Hollywood's favorite geezer. Finus's audience in Mercury, mostly old white folks, had gotten so used to hearing George Burns call him up every month or so that in unguarded moments they almost thought of George Burns as a fellow resident, someone with whom they shared a collective knowledge of their histories, their individual lives. After all, Finus would talk to George about them, George knew many of their names. These people wouldn't have been surprised to see George tottering along Mercury's cracked and cantilevered sidewalks looking for someplace to get a good martini. Some of the old men caught themselves at times pretty sure they had actually met George, stopped to shoot the breeze with him outside Ivyloy's barbershop, watched him screw one of those plastic tips onto the crown of his cheap cigar.
After vaudeville, Finus stayed off the stage until radio offered another, of a sort, in his old age. WCUV's owner asked him to just come in for a few hours each morning, talk to folks, play some music. Over the years his sense of his audience had become more and more personalized, as he developed a sense that the only ones willing to listen to him these days were the people he actually knew, who were many, and so he spoke to them directly, saying, -Alberta McGauley, this little number's for you in memory of the time you rode that hot air balloon all the way across the county and into Alabama, supposing just to land at the local fairgrounds, or,-All right, Ed Kruxmier, it's bean time so we're going to string together a few little numbers in honor of all you truck farmers already out there weeding your beans. Hear me, Ed? Got your Walkman on? Just wave if you read me, Ed. Just tap on the headset. I must be talking to myself, today.
He was a literate man and his favorite poet was Wordsworth. He'd read “Intimations of Immortality” and had a sense of how as he'd grown up from a child he'd moved further and further away from his spiritual self, his spiritual origins, and he sensed that most people experienced the same thing, a slow uncoupling, like someone stepping out of the rocket for a nice space walk, secure in knowing the life cord kept them connected, however tenuously, to the ship. And then one day they realized that the floating cord was only that, attached to nothing but their own ass, and that they were at best more like a moon held detached but distantly in tow to its planet. A body of pale memories of when they were part of the world.
Because he was a newspaper man by trade, a morning radio announcer by choice and local popularity, he kept up with the news. In addition to local items, the
printed any bit of interesting science news Finus got through press releases from the government and private labs. His latest fascination was the scientists' recent belief that there were other planets in other solar systems capable of supporting earthly life. There was water and oxygen. There were clouds and sunsets, seasons, the cycles of storms. Gave new meaning to the phrase “another world.” Now they were trying to explore Mars, to see if there'd once been some form of life there, preserved cryogenically beneath frozen oceans in evidence of God knows what. One of the scientists said, Take a good look at Mars, it's what the earth will look like one day. It had all made Finus reflective. He'd been on the air now with his morning show for twenty-five years. Was it not possible that some of his earlier shows had made their way to antennae on other worlds, through far-flung space travelers just passing through, or via some slip between or among dimensions that diminished time and space? If anything, radio waves would be the medium to slip through. Whether the antennae be metallic rods for electronic receivers or some delicate, antlike, cephalic appendage among a people for whom radio waves were the primary means of communication, he wished he'd come across as a little more intelligent. But at least if they heard his show they'd have to recognize that he was representative of a friendly race, kind and considerate of one another, willing to spend time in resisting the isolation of the human soul.
He felt the power move through him as he put on the first record, listened to its familiar bars, cleared his throat, and spoke into the microphone as if into the ear of an old friend nearly deafâclose, and loud enough to be heard, but not too loud, in his deep rich baritone twang, -Good morning Mercury and surrounding environs, thinking, Who knows how broad an environ may be? For if radio waves were not a manifestation of a Creator's presence in the universe he didn't know what was, and if there be a God well then his environ is Everything is it not? He felt the frequency run in his veins from the tips of his toes and fingers to the top of his head, vibrating the horny cartilage in his throat, -Good morning in the a.m. to y'all, each and ever one of you, and it's a beautiful morning, and he played his old 45 of “The Star Spangled Banner” and looked at the notes he'd scribbled on his pad: those who were born, those who had died, those who were winning at bridge these days, and those who had traveled and come home. There was a cancer-screening vehicle coming through for the outlying rural areas. He'd note that the garden club would be planting a tree downtown and that the Mercury Heritage Library had gotten in a large shipment of new books thanks to a grant from the Selena Grimes Foundation. He'd talk a little about what the almanac said as compared to the way things turned out to be, and chat with himself about the possibility of global warming, about the national debate over Social Security and medical care, and offer some words of wisdom for the millions of baby boomers already showing signs of being perplexed with a generation of youth who were making the impetuous sixties seem quaint and tame. Finus would put the world into perspective. There wasn't anything better for that than good conversation. It was how everything that happened in the world got filtered down into ponder-able reality, considered and thereby experienced by all. It was important to understand you were a part of the world, and of everything that happened in it. After the president had addressed the State of the Union and gone on to bed and dreamed about being a naked child standing onstage having forgotten the words to “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” after an astronaut had walked in space and come back and touched down and gone home and made love to his wife in passionate exhilaration and mortal fear, after a serial killer had murdered some innocent stranger and slipped back into rational life and gotten his hair cut and had a meal with his friends and maybe even gone to church on Sunday, was the experience soon any more his or hers than it was everyone's who'd heard about it, imagined it, envisioned it, and mulled it over in his or her mind? It didn't necessarily seem so to Finus, for whom all experience now seemed to have been filtered through his own blood and bones. He'd lived through eighty-nine revolutions around the sun. Long enough for the residual energy of millions of years to have mingled with and charged his own as if his body was a rechargeable cell.
But it would all become particulate, and slough away as dust adrift on the earth. The world would spin on, and toss and mix such dust as had been him and Albert Schweitzer and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and the poor souls of the Dust Bowl depression and the dead frozen Russians in Siberia, and poor Midfield who'd died the day before. And Birdie Urquhart, too, with whom he would visit nearly every day, sometimes for an early coffee before his show, when she would part the little curtains at the kitchen table,
It's candlelight, soon be time for Finus Bates to go in to work
. Even Birdie would be more a part of him than ever before, now that she was gone. Everyone would be filtered through the eyes, skin, and lungs of the living, into the very fiber and sap of the trees, mingling and mixing and some finally slipping back out into what was not emptiness after all, but was the vast, articulate space between beautiful worlds.
ATE MORNING, SECOND
day of a July Methodist youth retreat to a wide and lazy stretch of the Chunky River, 1917, young Finus Bates felt the effects of a little shine he and the other boys had sneaked off to consume the evening before. He rushed from the campsite down a trail and slipped inside the thick-leaved cover of a buttonbush beside a tiny clearing. Hadn't been there long, voided but still too shaky to leave, when he heard voices come along the path, and through the slivers of space between the whorled, elliptical buttonbush leaves he saw two girls, Avis Crossweatherly and Birdie Wells.
Finus went absolutely still. Birdie was soaking wet because (he would find out later) she'd slipped on the bank and fallen into the river fully clothed. Avis looked up into the air, then all around. Finus squatted under the dense, low cover of the shrub, pants around his ankles, ass cooling in a low breeze. Avis straightened and said, -My Lord, what is that smell?
-Something died, Birdie said.
Finus quietly began to scoop sandy soil and dead leaves between his legs over his sick scat.
But just after she'd made her comment, Birdie had peeled off the last of her wet undergarments and stood naked and pearly white in the light-threaded shade from the taller trees and this is what Finus looked up again to see. She had that shape and look all around of the actresses and models of the day, just fleshy enough to make a man think of reproduction. And that which had seemed merely ordinary inside her clothing now took on a baroque sensuality Finus could not have imagined in the abstract, much less in the reality of chattery Birdie Wells. Ample in the hip yet augmented in protruding carnality of bone, pelvic jut like a smooth white plow, a sweet little benaveled pooch, and shoulder blades beautifully awkward as the small futile wings of a hatchling. He gazed through the leaf lattice at the immaculate cradled shading of her visible ribs, smooth and defined of faint bone shadow, and the delicate scoop from which her long slim neck rose into an oval face made beautiful in this light and unself-conscious nakedness. A plum-shaped mouth, her sad and impish pale blue eyes. Not the face of a girl given to governing herself without considerable chaperonage and whackity discipline across the open palmsâat least that was the way Finus imagined it.
Her dark brown hair curled about her ears in a bob, fleeting red hues in the slim rays of sun that slipped in and fell upon it. Compared to Avis Crossweatherly's hard angularity, Birdie seemed like a regressive dream. Finus felt himself go curved and firm as a summer squash. He watched, his heart heavy with the grief of longing, as Avis approached Birdie with a white bath towel. But something struck Birdie at that moment. She turned away from Avis and did a naked cartwheel, her legs and low, scanty pubis flicking through the dappled light, the motion quick and graceful as a child's, the child she still was in ways he would never see again, and she landed upright with a look of surprise and conquest on her face, little breasts aquiver. They were hardly more pronounced than little halves of peaches, he'd never seen a delicate color brown like the brown aureole around her nipples.
Upon landing she gave a little yelp of surprise, and then laughed out loud, spreading her arms for imaginary applause. Birdie's face seemed so free of all self-consciousness and open, in a way he'd never seen before, to all the possibilities of her beauty. And never before that moment had he really understood beauty, or been able to look beneath or beyond the masks women wore over their beauty like veilsânot just makeup, but the masks of conventional behavior and attitude, of modesty, of keen privacy, and of coy lust. He never really considered Birdie to be “beautiful” in the conventional sense, but he'd felt some kind of discreet and inarticulate longing for her, which he'd vaguely imagined had something to do with their kindred spirits. And then Avis stepped up to Birdie with the towel and began to buff her down, vigorous rubbing with the towel all over her shoulders, her back, and then gently under her breasts and between her legs. They were giggling. Some sound almost escaped him, some sort of muffled carp, and he closed his eyes then and thought he'd actually made no sound but maybe he had, since before he could detect her approach the leaves of his hideaway rustled and he opened his eyes to see a pair of hands parting the branches.
It was Avis. Her long, kangaroo face peered at him with no more emotion in her eyes than the animal she was often compared to. For a long moment, they stared at one another. My God! All the requisite proprieties between him and this girl vanished in that instant, as if a mischievous god had tossed some sort of magical clarifying dust in their eyes. Finus's horrified humiliation was brief, for the look of cool, detached appraisal in Avis's eyesâthe gaze of an animal one realizes has no interest after all in eating one at that momentâboth calmed and created a sort of detachment in him. He thought, Maybe she'll stop paying so much attention to me now, stop embarrassing me with her flirtation when everyone knows I'm not interested in her. But she stared at him so long, her look penetrated him so precisely, that he understood this wouldn't happen. She knew exactly what he had seen, as if through his own eyes.
eyes, at that moment, were on his waggling member, which in spite of discovery still asserted itself. Avis Crossweatherly's eyes went back to Finus's own, and he sensed that she knew exactly what had happened inside him, beyond pure sexual infatuation, that he'd been imprinted with something beyond a simple, lustful fantasy. Years later, he would understand that she knew he'd been struck with an image of the ideal form as surely as if Birdie Wells had been a bathing goddess there in the wood, and sheâplain Avis Crossweatherlyâthe goddess's attendant maid.
-What is it, Avis? Birdie had called out then.
-Nothing, Avis said, and the leaves closed up again as she turned back to the glade. -Something dead, like you thought.
He would remember all this keenly years later, when he learned how Avis subtly worked on Birdie to accept the insistent but unwanted courting of Earl Urquhart, how Avis spoke so glowingly of Earl to Birdie's parents, how Avis even hinted to Birdie that if Earl were to shift his affections to her, she would feel like the luckiest girl alive. But by then he figured it didn't matter. He came to believe, in the late evening of his life, that it was all finally unavoidable. As fates will be.