Fiction — April 11, 2013 12:00 — 0 Comments

Black Bags – Peter Brav

The last time Hank remembered this much religious fervor in the neighborhood was the day Robin Green came home from Camp Pakatawa in the Catskills, declaring that she had talked to God at the bottom of the lake that separated boy hands from girl underwear. They were all 15 back then and God was delivering daily excuses for doubt in black bags with return addresses in Southeast Asia. There seemed no reason though to doubt Robin, one of the best students Red Oak Middle School had ever seen. She excelled at Math and Social Studies and had even made a metal dustpan with the best of them in Mr. Gotti’s shop class.

Signups for fall religious school classes were up all over town that month. Most grownups thought things were looking a lot more promising for the upcoming school year than the summer before when Lana Boren bolted through her red front door, black curled hair in hand, announcing in maximum decibels that she had reached puberty. Robin had credibility and if there was any doubt, it was about why her parents would elect to muzzle her after only three impassioned speeches at the corner of the block. But all that August, Robin stayed inside with the shades drawn. When Robin failed to make it to the bus for the first day of ninth grade, always obnoxious Ronnie Kramer was quick to point out the reason. She never once said God talked back to her, did she? Rumors ran rampant that it had only taken one hit of bad acid to leave her mind at the bottom of that lake.

Now forty plus years later, Robin Green was still here, six houses away from Hank’s, shaking, stuttering and smiling at increasingly odd angles to the earth’s plane, her aged parents always a few steps away, now exhausted masters at ignoring what could have been. She never said a word and when Hank thought about it, he knew that all he had ever heard from her after the summer at the lake was what he had heard that first year of high school. She would pass his house on a slow walk, a parent on each side keeping her steady, wailing why, why, why?

Until today, that was the one question Hank had purposefully avoided. Not why Robin, not why Hank, and certainly not why he and so many kids had stayed around, inheriting the poorly maintained neighborhood from siblings who had made it up and over the barbed wire fences of their own imagination decades ago. Some bodies had to stick around to drive the old people to their Medicare docs and help them remember something. And when there wasn’t much actually worth remembering, as it turned out, there was always Robin Green, right there on the block, a cautionary tale cautioning about something. It wasn’t acid though, that one had been discounted a long time ago, nor was it encephalitis from a Monticello mosquito or early onset Parkinson’s. It was just Robin. And the memory that talking to God, at him or with him, could be dangerous, could leave you unable to do quadratic equations or shape dustpans any longer.

So maybe that was as good an answer as any to why, certainly good enough for Hank. None of the folks on the block, Hank and his deceased parents included, talked to God any longer, or even tried to. That they left to the church leaders to do for them. That was what they were paid for. And the dynamic folks on the television, handsome visions of nonstop eloquence on tens of cable stations running 24-7 that preferred to show preachers shouting these days rather than black bags being lifted out of helicopters.

Today, a Saturday, promised to be different. A high profile preacher from Missouri, a healer named Jimmy Scoggins, had gotten in touch with Robin’s parents. Seems their desperate letter of August 9, 1970 had been misplaced and only now located by Scoggins. According to the piece in the local paper, he was on his way, still hopeful about being useful forty-three years later. Hank marveled as enterprising kids placed makeshift ropes around Robin’s driveway and charged fifty cents for prime spots for a blanket on the front lawn. Hank leaned against a utility pole across the street. Jenna had ignored the hubbub and was home preparing a fish dinner. Hank had plenty to do too but he was there out of respect. The problem was that all these years later he had no idea for what or for whom.

The 73 year-old man emerging from the beaten Buick had given up the fame name Jimmy Scoggins long ago and went only by JJ these days. He waved good-bye to his ride and doffed his baseball cap to the crowd. To Hank, he looked like no kind of preacher, even one on a day off from formal churching. He wore jeans and torn brown work boots caked with reddish clay, a red and black flannel shirt with a black patch on one elbow and an oversized hole at the other. His red and gray beard ran down his chest, six inches from his navel. Hank watched as he parted the crowd of mostly kids, tripped at the first step to giggles, then turned back with a bright white full-toothed smile that Hank saw as the only remnant of successful sermonizing days.

Robin’s father cracked open the front door, looked in awe at the crowd assembled in front of his house, then pulled the preacher inside.

Most folks hung around. It was a nice summer day Hank recalled as having the same kind of limitless blue sky as that day Robin made the first of her own three street sermons. Hank didn’t really like fish and he wasn’t sure he still loved Jenna so he waited outside with everyone else. Roger the mailman was breaking protocol by handing out most of the mail right there, then taking a seat under a magnolia tree. Ronnie Kramer, who had stayed around to become a local police sergeant, told anyone who would listen that it was a good thing he was off duty this afternoon or he would be busting them all. He took a seat under the same magnolia tree as Roger, still remembering how he would have loved to have had the chance to grill Robin Green as to whether or not God had ever replied.

Inside, Leo Green stared at an unemployed man who had just hitchhiked eleven hundred miles to answer a letter he had neglected in his preacher days. Time didn’t matter to Leo Green any longer, just that this man seemed to be learning more about Robin in twenty minutes than Leo and Elsa had all this time by her side. It didn’t matter to Robin that JJ had been tossed from his last paying gig in the early nineties after giving up everything he had ever known, or thought he had known, to that point. She trusted him in a way she trusted no one.

While her parents sat slack-jawed, she told JJ about Lonnie Coleman.

Why did Lonnie have to die? Why?

Who’s Lonnie?

And then there were answers, answers for anyone who wanted them. Lonnie was Robin’s 22 year-old crush from the summer before. A camp counselor with straight black hair and skin tanned by the upstate sun, a great swimmer, a guitarist who sang and played Can’t Find My Way Home better than Blind Faith ever did for adoring Pakatawans like Robin Green who sat by campfires sending the light of innocence across that lake divide.

Lonnie had simply been kind to Robin and she was devastated that second summer when his name was not on the list of counselors. No one knew why Lonnie wasn’t back at camp that summer, not the head counselor, not even Big Archie who ran the whole show. Lonnie Coleman was supposed to be a lifer, one of those who came back for at least the four-week session in July even when he put on a tie and took the railroad most mornings, when he married someone not named Robin.

Archie asked for a moment of silence one Thursday morning because Lonnie was no lifer after all. He was simply dead, brought back in a black bag like all the others. Robin had known right then and there that she was never going to find that kind of beauty and kindness in anyone ever again. All these years, she had known what JJ knew and all those kids on the front lawn would know soon enough as they watched the preacher man disappear on foot around the corner.

Good for Robin. Hank on the other hand still knew nothing, not even where that preacher man was going. Robin was still only six doors away. The woman he had learned to love would put the fish out and the dishes away and then she would fall asleep soundly as always. Yeah, who was he kidding? He had been given a chance to love, had learned how to love, and it was all still there. But he was lucky. That much he knew. What he didn’t know was why they started you off with that ten-inch dustpan when they knew you would soon enough need something so much larger.

Maybe it would all come flooding out of Robin now. It could just be that simple. He could make his way a few doors down, get into it like really old times, before her heart was broken, before she shut it all down. Really better than old times perhaps. Just like civilized people somewhere far away from here, where things didn’t just happen randomly to you as you waited for them to happen. They could sip tea, he and Robin, they could sit perfectly upright, far away from the fighting, all of the fighting that never ends. Robin could pour, slowly into fragile porcelain cups, and softly say in perfect unbroken English.

I know why.

And he could lean in gracefully, watch her hopeful eyes catch the light, and implore her.

Do tell, Robin, do tell.


PETER BRAV lives in Princeton, New Jersey with wife Janet, a college professor. Peter is the author of the novels The Other Side of Losing (2009) and Sneaking In (2000) and the plays African Violet, South Beach and Good Till Canceled.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney