The Autobiography of Heaven and Earth is copyrighted 2006 by R. Earle Harris (firstname.lastname@example.org)
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Here we come, here we come!
--Azaka and Kamidake
Gender also is a quality, not of God, but a characteristic of mortal mind. The verity that God's image [Man] is not a creator, though he reflects the creation of Mind, God, constitutes the underlying reality of reflection.
--Mary Baker Eddy
Poor man, lost and almost naked,
In his robes of heaven and earth.
The morning wind off the river is stirring the splintered bamboo blinds and banging the old brown sword guard against the window trim. The hand-cast iron guard has beaten smooth the cracked white paint in a little patch that I can reach from the bed. The paint comes away in a powder upon my fingers. It smells of dust.
The sword guard was my father's. He left me a grey, cracked-glaze sake jar as well and one of those large red and white, almost chequered, scarves the Arabs wear. And then there is the sword which lies beneath the bed, wrapped in burlap. It is sharp enough to cut a hole in the day.
It was Trinka who hung the sword guard on the strings of the bamboo blind. She praises the sound it makes: a dull chime like a great bourdon of a temple bell ringing in the far, far distance, or the banging of a gate as it closes on the far side of death.
The sunlight coming through the blinds is full of life. Its shafts warm the white sheet and my bare legs beneath it. They fall across Trinka's almost translucent shoulder and upon her black, black hair with its bleached half-inch fringe of white -- as if hair as black as a medicine crow needed adornment, as if simple perfect beauty was not enough.
Trinka sleeps in a green faded tunic the weather is much too hot for. It is a Serbian tunic and when she rolls it tightly it takes up half the little canvas bag she came to this country with. There are holes in its left shoulder where something, a bullet, passed through and there are blood stains sagging beneath the holes. The stains, front and back, are a pale brown. Blood is only red when you can touch it.
Trinka sleeps with her tunic unbuttoned when she wants to be near me and buttons it tightly, all the way up to her throat, when she wants to be alone. Sometimes, when she does that, I just go sleep on the floor. Her tunic is open now and has twisted up on her. Its tails lie on top of the sheet that she lies beneath, wrapped in windings of its white folds.
I put on my thin, round glasses and quietly dress myself in a square of bamboo-barred sunlight, watching Trinka breath, listening to the dull chime of the sword guard. The grating noise of the rollers on the wooden door that lets onto the hallway is soft enough that my leaving wakes neither Trinka nor the dog she has her arms around.
The coffee-franchise latte is also too hot for the weather. Ma Lin hands it to me as I sit down on this bench. The concrete bench beneath me is grey and cold as if it has congealed here out of the local nightmares. I sit with my back to the sun that reaches slowly over the limestone skyline. My sandalled feet are cool in the thick St. Augustine grass that bends beneath the weight of last night's heavy dew.
Ma Lin hovers like a dragonfly, ignores my last question. It is not like Ma Lin to sit. She is tiny and mobile and dresses brightly in clothes from the boy's section of an ubiquitous discount store.
"Do you think the dead part is winning?" Ma Lin asks me, "Or the live part?"
She drinks her coffee and nods at the great live oak that dominates this little park. She expects me to look at it with her and answer her question. The tree's rough-ridged grey trunk is an enormous living pillar. Its shiny-leaved half-canopy is dense and broad and holding up the morning sky.
I refuse to look at the tree because I still want an answer to my question and because it is hard not to look at Ma Lin. Her brightly colored, little boys' clothes hang upon her neatly, as if touching her turned them all to linen. Her black, thick hair falls like darkness beside her face which is not a beauty of the present age.
She is like the rare Mexican man who will arrest your attention on the crowded plaza because you have only seen his likeness in Mayan carvings and you expect him to be followed by a feathered serpent.
Ma Lin's face is the delicate, beautiful harbinger of dragons.
And she is flawed like a cracked Ming vase. Her right foot twists inwards upon itself so obviously that no one can look at her without being caught by the tension of her face and foot. I am imprisoned by it now.
"Everything moves towards death," I answer.
"Do you mean like a train?" Ma Lin laughs at me. "Oh, no. Everything moves one way or the other every minute. Look at this tree."
I look at the tree that is filling the air with captured sunbeams.
Years ago, when this live oak was even more enormous, a man poisoned it because his girlfriend left him. The tree was older then than any name for the land it stood upon. There had been a common effort to save this ancient oak and half of it had been saved. The other half was dead.
"I'm looking," I tell Ma Lin and I fall upwards into its arboreal green light.
"Now answer my question from what you see before your eyes," she says.
The apartment building I live in was once a warehouse, on these heights above the river. That was long, long ago, before the iron train tracks behind it were pitted with dark and orange rust. The warehouse now is a great redbrick enclosure for humans, with painted wooden trim and a metal roof that thunders in the rain. Its outside surfaces hold back the natural world.
This outside has always been a warehouse. But inside, it has been as changeable as a house of smoke, shifting in the crowded desires men have for money. These men, like useless spiders, wove their sticky smoke into webs to trap the smoke of still other men's desires. No one seems to have ended up with much worth having.
The warehouse has been a large machine-shop, a sweat-shop that produced denim jeans, an import-export house, a cluster of boutiques, office-space for start-up software firms -- a history of decline. Now it houses those who would rather live poorly and downtown than own a house, drive the long commute, and give blood for a parking spot.
Each step in this redbrick warehouse's decline has been a further subdivision of the warehouse's interior. Do not look for another one. When the last software tenant filed for bankruptcy, the building was gutted down to the concrete stairwells and filled floor by floor with containers, the kind that go on cargo ships. Our apartments are these long metal shipping boxes with their ends cut out. One end is roughly framed out to support a sliding door that opens onto a low, plywood-floored hallway. The other open end is pressed up against the great windowed outer wall of the warehouse, looking out on river and sky.
Viewed from outside, this windowed wall is a storied, vertical patchwork of cheap particolored curtains and splintery bamboo blinds. Each tenant is allowed one note of individual expression that is visible to the outside world. But as Trinka puts it, freedom is always almost not there. There is talk of the owners installing vertical white blinds throughout.
The windowed end of each metal-walled living-space gets a tiny kitchen in one corner. It is about as wide as its sink and as inadequate as its plumbing. Above the sink is a microwave and below it, a tiny refrigerator. There is plenty of room in the ten-foot wide container to fit our bed between the kitchen and the opposite wall. Because each doubled floor of containers shares a common concrete and glass-brick bathroom, with too few showers, the sink in this weak gesture of a kitchen works overtime and the torpid air that belches out of it tells you what kind of work the day has seen.
I am climbing the cool concrete stairwell with Ma Lin's and my own empty paper cup stacked in my hand. Our plastic lids and stirrers are stuffed inside the top one. I can smell their dregs of coffee and steamed milk in the still, damp air of this echoing grey shaft. The sunlight enters these stairwells only at the top and is beaten into submission as it bounces down the hard grey walls. This central shaft is large enough to support one final leap of desperation -- if you don't mind banging against square iron handrails all the way down. I think even the desperate would mind.
As I open the sliding door, bamboo blinds are sucked into the room and clatter in the breeze. I close the door; they fall with a rattle against the wall again.
Gus is awake now.
Gus is Trinka's dog, half pit bull, half goof ball. Trinka has him pulled tightly against her, half inside the tunic with her. Her arms are around his neck and one of her bare legs is bent across his stomach. Gus's head is twisted so that his chin rests on the bed and he smiles at me.
The pit bull in him makes him look like a bone-headed, broad-mouthed reptile. I know from experience that bricks bounce harmlessly off that head -- not that I threw them. The goof-ball in him, some kind of rangy, long-legged, short-haired mutt, makes his body seem anorexic and his face perpetually happy.
He pants as he smiles.
"Is that my coffee?" asks Trinka.
"Empty cups," I answer. "I had coffee with Ma Lin down by Treaty Oak."
She looks out the window and down at the oak.
"Will you make me some?" she asks.
I make her a cup of coffee at the kitchen kiosk. I make it quietly while Trinka nuzzles Gus and stares down at the half-dead oak.
If you listen you can hear the huge fans turning beneath the roof of our building. They pull the air in from the windows and up through the vents of the containers. The earthy, green smell of morning along the river comes in on the rising metallic breeze.
"How is Ma Lin?"
"She's pretty upset. Her family found her again."
"I thought they went back to Malaysia," says Trinka.
Trinka is sitting up against the pillows now, with Gus hoisted against her. His legs are in the air, her legs around his waist.
"Because her father's mistress --"
"The famous karaoke singer?"
"The other one."
"The one who owned all the Asian bubble-gum bars?"
I am stirring the coffee and looking for the cinnamon.
"No. The general's widow."
"This father of Ma Lin's with the four mistresses--"
"He's the one with the toupee, fat cheeks, and no lips, right? We met him once."
"You don't find him attractive?"
Trinka laughs. I bring her coffee, black and steaming, with cinnamon dusted onto its surface. The smell of the spice sits in the cool damp air around us.
"He came over here to get away from this general's widow, didn't he?" asks Trinka.
"Right. The woman blew up his car when the real estate deal he talked her into went sour."
"She's the one with the spoiled children."
"No. He's the one with the spoiled grandchildren."
Trinka sips her coffee, then rests the cup on Gus's chest. Upside-down now, Gus smiles at me.
"Ma Lin ran away from them when they came over here," says Trinka.
"Right. Her mother, father, three brothers, a sister, and their two little grandsons moved in with Ma Lin. She put up with it for a little while."
I am fiddling with the folder that has today's work in it. But I don't open it yet.
"They came over here in a crowd." says Trinka. "Don't they have any money?"
"Her father has a money problem. He talks people out of their money and then he loses it before he can spend it."
"How many mistresses did you say?"
"Six. Counting the one that tried to blow him up."
"And what is it about this general's widow that keeps them from going back to Malaysia, where you can still find six women who think he's attractive?"
In the morning sunlight, the bleached band at the base of Trinka's black hair looks like burning magnesium. Her eyes are as blue as her hair is black. The white of her eyes shines in contrast to the deep color of her pupils. I am falling into the blue of her eyes as she talks and she knows it.
"She married another general and talked her new husband into killing Ma Lin's uncle."
"You mean her father."
"No. The uncle was in on the deal too. Now he's dead and his widow is after Ma Lin's father, just like the mistress."
"Does this story have a happy ending? Or even one I can understand?"
"I don't think it has an ending."
I sit down on the bed next to Trinka. This crowds Gus, who rolls out of bed almost spilling Trinka's coffee.
"Has Gus been out?" asks Trinka.
"No. He's been in your arms all night until now."
"I thought that was you," Trinka says.
Trinka rolls out of bed and pulls on her blue jeans, buttons her tunic.
"I'll take him down," she says.
Gus goes to wait by the door, grinning back at us.
"Do you have to go to work now?" she asks me.
"I don't know. I'll wait here for you."
Trinka is pulling on her shoes.
"So what is Ma Lin going to do?" Trinka asks. "Run away again like the last time?"
"No," I say casually.
Trinka knows me too well and stops to look at me.
I drop the other shoe: "I told her she could live here."
Trinka looks around at the inside of our converted container. When her blue eyes are looking into mine again, she smiles.
"Great," she says. "She can have the guest room."
My car is eight blocks away, parked on a concrete slope beneath an overpass. Sometimes I can park closer to the warehouse. But not very often.
This walk down Fifth Street to the overpass takes me past bars and abandoned buildings and auto-repair franchises. There is no sidewalk, only a gutter of broken glass, running past crumbling parking lots and dirt yards. Lonely oak trees dump their shadows onto the asphalt where they writhe in the morning's heat.
The rising heat of this spring morning has me sweating through my t-shirt and into the open light-green Hawaiian shirt I wear over it, like a light jacket. The tail of my t-shirt is out to cover the handcuffs that hang from my belt in the back. I wear the outer shirt to cover a gun in its holster beneath my right armpit. It is only a small handgun, an old revolver; but I feel self-conscious about wearing it openly. I have my boots on now.
The day grows hot enough to wake the cicadas. They begin their wailing as I walk through the exhaust of all these cars that rush past me. I walk by the welding shop where Trinka works the second shift. The sky overhead is a clear, high, hot blue with only little hints of clouds remaining, like crumbs left over from a moveable feast.
Trinka read my folder to me before I left. Today I have to find a Vietnamese person, a Mr. Tran Van Ng. If I find him, I will take him to the airport and put him on a plane for Houston. There he will join up with his paperwork and be put on another plane that will take him back to Viet Nam. That's what I do for a living: send people back to where they came from.
After Trinka read me Ng's entire folder, she helped me memorize his name and addresses. There is the address of his warehouse up north of town, the address of an apartment at the far northern end of Guadalupe, and the address of a house in an unpleasant neighborhood on the east side of town.
I stop to wipe the drops of sweat off the inside of my glasses. I am trying to decide where I will go first.
Some days I like to find the person in the folder, put them handcuffed into my car, and fly them off to Houston. As a contractor I get paid for piece-work -- so many dollars for each person I put on a plane. Some days I don't feel like tearing someone out of the life they have been building in this country. I don't want to see the resentment on their spouse's face, hear the crying of their children. Today is one of these latter days. I decide to start with the warehouse. No crying children there.
I go into a bar that has been built into an old Amtrak dining car. The rest of the train was in a big accident near here and the owner of the bar got the dining car for the cost of hauling it away. From the steps, I can see my ugly grey four-door perched down the way, beneath the overpass. It looks like someone has cracked the windshield.
I stop in this bar because it opens early and the bartender has a thing for Orange Crush in glass bottles. So do I. He pulls one out of an old ice chest when he sees me come in. He puts it on the counter, after twisting off the top. Then he nods and walks away before I get there. I put two dollars on the bar and take my Orange Crush back outside. The regulars nod at me too as I walk out. A young man who looks like a college student is trying hard to see the significance of my silent purchase. He's probably trying too hard.
Outside, there is no more shade between me and my car. The last two blocks offer only melting asphalt, blinding sunlight, shimmering concrete.
I'm not thinking about Mr. Ng anymore. I'm thinking about Trinka. She is the reason I still have a job. If it wasn't for her, I doubt I could have kept my new handicap a secret from the State. They wouldn't care for my problem and wouldn't hesitate to cancel my contract.
So far only Trinka knows my secret. Only she knows that I can no longer read.
She is sleeping on her side with her legs pulled up against her chest. One arm, its downy golden hair glowing in the morning sunlight, is around her legs. Her other arm is pulled up underneath her so that its fist is held tightly against her mouth. Shoulder-length hair, blond and fine, falls across her small face. Her nose is delicate, turning up slightly at the end.
Around her head and on the floor beside her are the tiny chunks of glass that car windows become when you hit them hard enough to break into a car.
I am down on my haunches with my arms resting against the ragged bottom edge of the rear-door's broken window. I touch the sharp glass with two fingers and wish I had kept my comprehensive coverage. The noise of cars passing below and above me in this underpass is deafening. I glance over into the front seat and see that someone has pulled the radio from the dash of my car. This someone was not worried about hurting the dash -- it looks as if they pulled the engine through it.
I am supposed to find Tran Van Ng and put him on a plane. It is getting on towards nine-thirty or ten. On the back seat of my car sleeps a young girl. She might be twelve. She might be fourteen. Maybe I should ask.
I softly open the back door a foot or so and then close it firmly, rocking the car. The little girl pulls her legs more tightly against herself and then stretches, pushing off from the far door. Rolling over onto her back she rubs her eyes with her fists and then bends her neck backwards, looking up at me, upside-down.
"Hi!" she says.
Her smile is bright, cute, winning. All she lacks are large, wet anime eyes.
"Is this your car?" she asks me.
"This is my car."
She sits up, pulls her legs against her chest, holding them there with both arms.
She wears khaki-brown polyester pants and a pink t-shirt that says: Busca Me. Kiss me. A red velour zippered sweatshirt is on the floor on top of more broken glass.
I am still kneeling at the window and have to speak loudly, almost shout, over the noise of the cars.
"Been here all night?" I ask.
She shakes her head, yes. The bright, cute, winning smile must be permanent.
"It was late when I got here," she tells me. "I was up there--" She points up into the angle of the overpass. "--on the concrete. I heard someone break your window. I came down to sleep on your back seat after they left with your stereo."
"Two of them. A boy and a girl."
"Must have been on a date. You sleep okay?"
She nods her head happily. I need to find Mr. Ng. He has a plane to catch.
"Would you like to tell me where you come from?" I ask her. "Where you live?"
She shakes her head, No. Her bright smile dims a little as if she suspects I will spoil this day of hers which has started out so well.
"I really think you should tell me where you live."
I say this as nicely as I can.
"I would rather not," says my twelve year old vagabond. Her smile continues its slow decline; Little Miss Bartleby would prefer not to.
I watch a car go by.
"How old are you?"
She looks young for her age.
"I look young for my age," she informs me.
"Were you thinking about going to school today?" I ask.
She shakes her head, No.
"And if we went to find a policeman who would help you get home?"
She eases towards the far door.
"I would run away," she tells me. She seems pretty sure about this.
I smile, remembering what it was like to run away from the grown-ups I had no use for at her age.
"I can live with that," I tell her. "You want some breakfast before you take off?"
It looks like her smile is on the rebound. I go around to the driver's door, get in, start the car.
"You mind telling me your name?"
She shakes her head, Yes, gives me more smile.
"My name is Sammi," she tells me.
Sammi. Sheherezade. Sailor Moon.
"Is that your real name?" I ask her.
She shakes her head, No, almost laughing at me. The bright, cute, winning smile is definitely back.
On this far northern stretch of Lamar Boulevard there are no buildings.
I pass an abandoned gas station and suffer from the momentary delusion that I am driving through open countryside. East of me, off to my right, Interstate 35 angles in this way, just out of sight. If I turned the air-conditioner off, which I won't, I could hear the eight lanes of its traffic through the back-door's broken window.
Just north of here are a few old neighborhoods and beyond them a great stretch of aging glass office-buildings from the last great economic boom. Out the driver's side window, open fields run on to a horizon of oak trees. In the rear-view mirror are acres and acres of old tract homes.
Also in the rear-view mirror, is Sammi. She alternates between loudly drinking her chocolate milk through a straw and hanging her head out the broken window to feel the pressure of the wind on her eyelids. Her head is outside the car now, her light hair blown straight back, her eyes closed, her lips parted in a smile that vibrates in the wind. Cute.
Some primal, parental urge stirs in me and I turn to tell her to pull her head in. But I remember those adults I had no use for, who yelled at me from front seats of other cars and mind my own business instead. I slow the car because my turn is just up ahead. I glance again in the mirror and see that Sammi's head has returned to the safety of the back seat where she is eating the last of her brightly-colored donuts with her chocolate-mustached mouth.
It's important to start the day with a good breakfast.
My breakfast was a great, grey, greasy convenience-store sausage kolache and I stuff the last too-large bite of it into my mouth in order to negotiate a too-tight turn with both hands on the wheel.
I enter a tree-lined street where run-down houses give way to run-down commercial properties. The trees, pin oaks and pecans, join hands above the street below. Old houses sag, wooden and white, torn and rusty screens over their broken windows. A broad and bitter Hispanic woman comes out a broken screen door to bellow at a black child, maybe her child. This is all I will ever see of their life together.
The run-down commercial properties are neither too commercial nor too proper. Those in the first block still show signs of life: a tattoo parlor with examples of the artist's work done in garish tempera on the front windows; a pool hall, big enough for one table, cardboard and duct-tape holding its broken storefront together; an adult bookstore with those whited windows, like the eyes of a blind man, or a sepulchre.
In the next block, abandoned buildings and vacant lots gang up on the lonely pink house of a Cherokee palm reader.
In the final block, before this dying street reaches its dead end, is a trailer park on one side and two small warehouses on the other. The trailer park needs more trees and fewer pit bulls. Every single single-wide has its very own killer dog attached to a chain that would take two men to lift. The dogs get up at the sound of my car and test the tensile strength of those mighty chains.
Sammi leans forward to tell me she loves dogs.
I pull into the parking lot of the two warehouses and stop, blocking the drive. One of the warehouses has been a cabinet shop. Now it is boarded up, its front wall covered with elaborate and beautiful graffiti. I wonder what it says. The second warehouse is Tran Van Ng's. There are two cars parked outside. One of the cars has an open door. The warehouse has an open door too that bangs wide-open in the breeze against the front of the warehouse.
Because this Mr. Ng is being deported for importing things he should not import and for selling them to people he should not be doing selling them to, I am not comfortable with the state of these open doors.
I back out of the parking lot and park my car across the street.
Sammi asks me if we are getting out. I ask her if she can scoot down so that no one coming out of the buildings across the street can see her. Her eyes get big when she finally notices my handgun as I clamber out of the car. I smile at her and something in my smile makes her scoot down in her seat like I asked her to.
"He's dead, isn't he?"
"Yes," I say, "He's very dead."
I am standing between Sammi and a dead man. This dead man has done a lot of bleeding on the warehouse floor. I should tell Sammi to go back out to the car.
"Don't touch anything, Sammi."
"Ooooh," she says, "his face."
Or what's left of it.
I have Mr. Ng's sheet in my hand. It has his picture on it. The picture is no help here at all.
"Take this." I hand the sheet to Sammi. "Turn around and read the description to me. There." I turn her around and point to the description.
"Tran Van Ng," Sammi reads. "Vietmanese --"
"Namese," I correct her.
"Sorry. Weight - one hundred and thirty-five pounds. Height - five foot five."
The body on the floor looks taller than that.
"Wait a minute."
I look around. There are some large open crates behind the body. A twenty-foot Stanley tape, silver and yellow, sits on the lip of one of them. I walk around the body to get the tape. Inside the open crate, I see a lot of sawdust and a little white powder. But whatever someone had packed in the sawdust has been taken away. I look around the room. Nothing suggestive of coming from a packing crate. Just crates, tools, a dead body, and a little girl.
Sammi is looking at the body again. I start to say something.
"It's okay," she says. "I've seen worse on video."
Of course she has. Silly me.
"Just don't touch it. Okay?"
I step over to the body's feet.
"Come hold this."
I give the tail end of the tape to Sammi and take my end to the dead man's head. Five-foot six as he lays there, all broken and crumpled and dead. Probably five-ten if you stood him up straight.
"Step over a little before you let go," I tell Sammi.
She does and I let the tape retract.
"Go ahead and read the rest to me."
Sammi reads more of Tran's description to me. The body looks Asian. It is not Mr. Ng. The packing crate is empty. Something has chewed off this dead man's face. I think of the pit bulls across the street. I think of the jawbone of an ass.
I turn on the overhead fluorescents and think. The room looks bloodier with the lights on. There is spray of blood across the floor that I have smeared by walking in it. Another spray on the wall nearest the body. More dark drops going toward the back door.
"Did you see anyone before you came in?" I ask.
"No," says Sammi. "Uh-uh."
"Stay here," I tell her.
I take my gun out of its shoulder holster. It feels small and heavy and warm in my hand. The air in the warehouse is cool. Bright sunlight comes in through the barely-open back door. Drops of blood look like dark syrup on the floor. If someone sees my gun and shoots me, I will leak dark syrup too.
I follow this trail of syrup out the back door.
The sun is shining in the alley and the smell of living grass and trees -- of flesh and fur and feces -- hits me with the light. The world is still, by and large, alive. The man in the warehouse is part of a sad minority. The pit bulls across the street are barking a lively chorus.
Sammi is behind me again.
"I told you to stay inside," I tell her.
"I'm not a poodle."
She is pointing at something curved and dark red, the size of a horseshoe. We walk over and find the bloody lower jawbone of a man. Or woman. I need to call the police. I don't do murders. I just put people on planes.
Sammi heads back into the warehouse.
"Where are you going?" I ask her.
"I have to go to the bathroom."
"You can't. It's a crime scene."
"I have to," she says.
Novel truncated at 1000 lines