Excerpt from Magic America: Coming of Age in an Altered State by C.E. Medford
Congenital tattoos were just the sort of wonder you could expect in Trenton. We were covered in little miracles to carry us through the tragedies, like each of us had a bejewelled flak jacket tailored right to us. Toffee and I had walked with the boys over to Noelle’s for a cookout and I imagined we were like knights, called to prove ourselves time and again in order to strengthen our armour made of marvel.
Marco scraped chop meat from the grill. He had spent the whole morning with Kurt and me talking about how to get Noelle to see things clearly. When he tried to talk to her directly she became defensive, so he busied himself with the hamburgers, and kept his reactions to the occasional frown. Eddie was one of the few men Marco could admit to respecting, but his feelings for Noelle were running fast in the direction of hopeless, stupid, death-defying, sacrificial, do-not-pass-go-and-screw-you-and-your-$200, love.
It was summer. There was a pink sky over Trenton, dotted with sardines making their way to the Delaware for spawning. I was sitting at the picnic table, waiting for a burger, watching Marco watch Noelle. Around my ankles, chocolate hearts were blooming out of the crabgrass. It was a beautiful day in New Jersey.
Three months had passed since the murder. It seemed greedy to talk to a widow about missing her husband, so we mostly just looked at the ground when we were reminded of him.
“I know y’all think I’m crazy. I can see it in your faces, but Eddie’s still alive.” In between talking Noelle kissed Angel’s hands. Marco grinned at the baby, who was only an infant, but already a good-looking kid, with big green eyes like Eddie’s.
Returning to the barbeque, Marco dealt out American cheese slices across the burgers. He wiped his fingers on an apron stamped “Moorings Bar and Grille.”
Kurt was nearest the barbeque. With a twist he withdrew his thumb from a loop on my jeans and reached for the first plate Marco held out. “If Dottie sees you stole that apron from the Moorings she’ll set you on fire while you wearin’ it,” he grinned.
Marco patted the apron over his stomach. “I ain’t want to get no more grease on me. Last cookout ruin that red shirt that went with my Adidas suit.” It was the outfit he knew he looked best in, white with red stripes, and he glanced at Noelle to see if the mention of it might have triggered some little bit of attention. She was blowing raspberries on Angel’s cheeks, laughing and paying Marco no mind. The next burger, dripping with plastic cheese, he pointed at her.
“Thank you Marco. I do love a cheeseburger. My daddy made the best in the whole state.”
Marco’s shoulders drooped.
Noelle gave him a little sympathetic frown. “Well, he was my daddy.” She put Angel in his bouncy seat and then reached for her plate. “But these are the second best. You can’t ask for a higher complement from me. You should see all the stuff I can’t ever tell another man he’s the best at, first from Daddy dying and then because of Eddie being away.” Her chin quivered and she clamped her lips shut before forcing a smile.
Marco took a quick glance at the rest of us and then stared off into the distance while Kurt and I looked down at the chocolate hearts that had melted into the grass. Bobby Joe rubbed his forehead, studied his Nikes. Things weren’t the same. Kurt and I weren’t the same. We had run out of things to say to each other. Noelle and Eddie were about the only subject we took a mutual interest in anymore.
As if he’d read my thoughts, Kurt squeezed my hand. The boys thought we ought to get Noelle to a shrink or a priest. As they saw it, apart from pretending her husband wasn’t dead, Noelle was good people. She was great with Angel. He was the cleanest baby for miles, big and strong for his three months. He had those birthmarks that made him look just like Eddie; like he was covered in tiny tattoos. Most mothers would have been upset about that, but Noelle took it right in stride. It took some explaining whenever Angel saw a new doctor; a baby with congenital tattoos. But Noelle only gazed in fascination at the angel that appeared just after his birth, the eagle that spread its wings across his back when he first crawled, and most recently, a thorny cross that came through on his father’s birthday.
What bothered me was everyone wanting to pull Noelle out of a fantasy where she clearly needed to be. I told Kurt that people don’t build their own little world for no reason anymore than they’d build their own house for no reason. “She got a house,” he said. I gave up there.
Noelle pondered our distant faces. “Believe what y’all want but nobody ever let me see the body, did they?” An Eskimo kiss joined her nose with her son’s. “I paid for the funeral. I packed away his stuff. I even went and said in the mirror over and over, Eddie is dead. You’re all alone now. Tried for a long time, but…nothing.”
Marco stopped mid-bite. “But nothin’ what?”
“But it hasn’t sunk in. I know Eddie can hear me somewhere. He comes to me in my dreams. I can see him clear as if he was right here with me. And he does the same with Angel, I’m sure. Sometimes Angel wakes up howling in his crib, and just before I get to him he goes all quiet and starts looking up in the air above his bed, smiling and laughing just like he does whenever somebody’s playing with him. A couple of times his mobile even started up, spinning round and playing music.”
They say never to wake a sleepwalker and I thought the same counted for Noelle. It was a shame to shake a sufferer out of a sweet dream. It was like knocking someone off a rainbow.
The sound of the doorbell came from the front of the house. Bobby Joe went to answer it. He had a car now, loaned to him by his Uncle Twenty when Twenty was sent to Rahway for manslaughter. It was a mint condition, matador red 1969 GTO. Since Twenty was sentenced to nine years he said Bobby Joe might as well drive it so long as he was careful. Bobby Joe liked to check on that car a couple of times an hour. Several minutes passed. Kurt was about to investigate when Noelle pointed out that he might just be polishing the chrome again.
The second set of burgers was sizzling on the grill when Bobby Joe appeared in the back doorway. His cheeks were slack and he was shaking his head, looking down at a letter in his hand. “It’s for Eddie,” he told us, just above a whisper, “Came postage due.”