THE IVORY TRIANGLE
A Novel by Lisa Ebert
In the beginning, there is darkness, a pretty blackness and comfort, an incredible lightness, a sweet Godliness, and then a warm light pulling me home. I can feel the presence of my long-lost dad, and his mother, a grandmother I never knew on earth. My anger was made flesh and the flesh begot pain. In my physical cage, my humanity failed, and the flesh failed so many times, and finally the anger became air once again. And then the anger was joyful, and free.
Can anger be happy? And how? My mind turns over the questions as reality slides about, floundering. Why is anger my defining feature, anyway? There are warm, kindly hands reaching out to me; I can feel them gliding over my… flesh? No, the flesh is behind me now. Good riddance! And now I see my new muddled quest, laid out before me: finding a stairway to heaven and a way to shed my earthen anchor.
There are colder, living hands working frantically on my body, and I consider them with a detached curiosity. So sad. So futile. If they knew, they wouldn’t bother, those doctors and nurses. What waits beyond is so much better.
My earliest memory is from when I was a baby, about ten months old. There was a looming, gnarled mulberry tree outside of my bedroom window. It wasn’t a real bedroom, but an enclosed porch off our second story apartment, only a few feet from where Gretchen and Stuart, mother and father, lay sleeping in a stoned, hippie stupor. From a deep crevice of the tree stepped a lady wearing a filmy, billowing gown, her long, dark hair suspended around her, weightless. I remember thinking, Good Mommy. But the law’s the law, and a stranger can’t pluck away a baby, no matter how much a particular infant needs her, no matter how much the baby senses that she’s the correct parent, the one that was meant to be. She watched me with a loving expression, watched me for a long while until I fell back asleep. I saw her many times throughout my childhood, as if she followed me, guarding over me, even if she couldn’t take me as her own daughter.
It’s the Lady in the Tree that I look for now, but I can’t find her. I haven’t been able to see her since adolescence, and I would very much like to see her again, but a searing, hot redness overtakes me at that very moment.
Stuart loved the tunes from Fiddler on the Roof but Mom was more of a Beatles kind of lady, had been pregnant with me when they debuted on Ed Sullivan, but Gretchen was a girl in her heart, and I remember now. And Stuart left just after the Lady in the Tree appeared, not happy with his hippie ways, wanting to be more, and he became a shipman on the Mississippi, and sailed away from me, his little girl, and he later joined the service and he died in Viet Nam. Why hadn’t Mom ever told me? She always acted confused! She didn’t tell me. But later there was art and drawing for me, a quiet way to hide inside, away from sharp edges and moving cars and I didn’t run with scissors, but I became obsessed with catacombs and early Christian art, I don’t know why. Even now I don’t know why. I took a few classes, didn’t I? But the teachers didn’t see any artistic gift in me, so I retreated and I kept scrapbooks, snippets of myself, trying to remember what came before the Lady in the Tree, before I was born.
The redness makes me scream and scream. There’s a metal table above me; I’m hiding below it, curled into a ball, trying to make myself as tiny as possible so they can’t see me, those medical people with their sharp clicking tools. Why are health care professionals always a part of my life? There’s an apron of legs to every side, attached to panic-stricken voices barking out orders and directions. A cart falls over, sending loud metal tools and droplets of blood across the cold, linoleum floor. A doctor growls, “dammit” and “get that now.” The operating table over my head vibrates, a body thrashing upon it, its muscles twitching involuntarily – is that my body? – and a nurse announces: “She’s arresting.” White sneakers run across the floor, doors swoosh open, and the person calls for back-up. The floor is splattered with red droplets, the seeds of my life, and I keep screaming, and I cup my hands over my ears so I don’t have to hear myself, and then I jump.
The top of me — my head? — crashes through the metal table, slides through my own fleshy body, and floats up. I’m in wingless flight on the last breath of air that streams out of my mouth below, a tiny and weak puff, but enough to spiral me away from the bloody mess. I go up into the ceiling, past innards of colorful electrical wiring, up through a cold, quarry tile floor and into a lounge. It’s a quiet room where a sagging nurse in pink sits at a dining table eating a sandwich. Tiredly, she chews, pauses to pull her cardigan more tightly about her, and she trembles, and she doesn’t know why. I, unseen by her, continue up through a storage room of industrial shelves packed with plastic-wrapped medical products: syringes, tubes, monitors, bags. And then I’m going up again, through roaring, dusty air ducts, and a layer of sticky black tar, until I’m outside, above the roof, and shooting into the blue-black night.
I am spinning like a top and dizzy in a pleasant way, as if I’d had too many turns at the school picnic rides, oh that sick, childhood delight. I face north, then west, and east, but south at last: South St. Louis. There was never any other choice. My flight is crazy, a loopy gait at first, like a blind bat in the sky, but I smooth it out, think of myself as a raven instead, and it is so. Just like that. I go away from the hospital complex on South Broadway Street and head for home.
Down below are pinpricks of red and white light moving slowly on the roads, trails of vehicles underneath me. They guide me and steady the way; if I continue above Broadway, I’ll be led home to my neighborhood, the Ivory Triangle. It’s a good plan. The wind sends me suddenly upward, and then there’s a splash of drizzle; then it’s gone, but it leaves me with the good news: I can feel. I’ve been in this place before, briefly out of my flesh, but those times left me numb, unable to touch. Each time was a brief, frustrating slide show, like a movie reel full of riches, tastes, textures, none of which I could grab. Then always, those crucial seconds would pass and I would be sent back there, back to my body.
This time feels different.
There is Minniewood Park, and the fast food restaurant, the stores, and soon the Mississippi River glistens to my left, another familiar beacon. The highway bisects Broadway, and the noise of its traveling vehicles is thunderous to my ears, a loud whooshing and whizzing sound, a violent sound, and I cross over it, continuing along Broadway, glad to be away from that. There is pretty Bellerive Park with its wrought-iron fixtures and its dark pathways by the river. I played there as a child, and as a teenager hung out there, and the memories are too melancholy, so I travel on to the riverfront industries with their barges and docks, and the sound of water lapping on the banks, frothier than usual. Almost home now.
Up ahead, I can make out the faint lines of River des Peres where it meets the Mississippi, and that’s all the landmark I require; I veer west sharply, coast casually down, lower and lower, the small lights of the Ivory Triangle beckoning me. My little community, so near and warm. I touch ground, but then as I rather expected: there’s a violent yank backwards.
“Not this time!” I will fight it. Something urges me, Don’t fight it. But yes I will.
The sky begins sucking me back up, like I’m nothing but a stupid rag doll without a spine, the cobblestones slip out from under my feet, and that darkness threatens to overtake me. There has to be something to grab, an anchor, and I flail my arms about, touching nothing, until my ankle crashes into a hardness. It’s the stone cross on top of Holy Trinity Church. The pain in my ankle is good: it tells me I’m still on this side. I wrap my arms and legs around the cross and press my eyes shut in juvenile defiance. There’s a sickening tug, and now many voices call me back, but I won’t listen. They’re all just fooling with me, and I won’t go. I won’t go. I’m a baby in my crib again, having a tantrum, but there’s no Lady in the Tree helping me. Damn her to hell.
The air around me is a funnel, shrieking and pulling, and then a blackness envelops. Then it’s over. Just like that. I keep hugging the cross because I don’t believe it could be so easy. I cursed the Lady in the Tree, which is bad, but at least my ridiculous body has finally given up the ghost, has died, is kaput.
I’m finally free.
From the sharp peak of the church’s roof, I see all the world. The many lights emanating from buildings dot the dark landscape, twinkling in a mad dance — for me. There are strange bits of energy moving around me, through me, zipping playfully about in the sky. Clouds? Tufts of smoke? I’m cradling this cross so tightly still that a piece of it snaps off, the left arm of it, and it tumbles down the clay tiles, bounces of the gutter, and shatters on the pavement far below.
“The world feels me, too,” I muse, delighted.
But the things flying around me: some of them are dark and hostile. They put a coldness in my heart, making me sad. I go down then, to escape them, vowing to get stronger, and I settle my little feet on the paving stones of the sidewalk. What now? Look for a sign? A guidepost? A golden stairway? I feel a trembling below the sidewalk, deep inside the earth, as if a volcano is springing to life. I know, without reasonably knowing, that there’s a limestone cave down there. The locals don’t realize it; I surely didn’t know when I was alive. It’s buried fifty feet down, and it’s the size of several city blocks. I feel its energy.
There is energy, too, in the life aboveground. The sights have a sharp edge to them, shimmering awfully, and it takes a few moments to be able to look. The sounds are amplified: I hear voices from far away, the subtle click of insects in the earth, birds twitching in their nests, watching me, the newcomer raven.
And my first person up ahead. She’s irresistible, and I know her: that girl Valerie. She’s walking alone, playfully twirling her umbrella in the wind and the drizzle, laughing, holding her big mouth open, trying to catch droplets. It just figures I would see her first. It’s cruel that she’s so damn happy. I can’t very well pass without leaving my calling card, can I? I show her I’m here by shoving her fat butt into the street. That’ll teach her to cross me. She skids over near the curb and lands with a plop into gathering water in the gutter.
Such power! Such a joy!
Near the tavern ahead are the good-old-boys. I know them. They’ve just put in an honest day’s labor, and they’re ready to party. They’re friends and brothers, maybe with a woman or two in the group. They walk like comrades in their flesh, in their ugly desires. They smell like sweat, food, detergent, blood, sex, and other aromas I don’t recognize. Yet. They don’t look at me as I stand there watching them by the green art-glass door. No one even pauses. It’s a rocking Saturday night, and I watch through the windows. The bar is filling up; the stage is set for a rock show, instruments set up and waiting for their maestros, and black electric cords snaking about, criss-crossing in a menacing way. I can hear conversations, unimportant chatter about nothing at all. The people toss their heads jovially, bare their sharp teeth that positively shine, and cradle in their hands their fizzing and popping drinks.
I was never a part of their world. I was always somewhere in my own, cowering in a dreamworld of silence and art, and then later forming my own tight little circles. I didn’t make friends easily, can count them all on one hand. The customers at this bar enrage me; they never wanted me, did they? My own community. My own people. They shunned me and my crazy family. They crossed me in many ways. I am anger again, incarnate, and it gives me strength. I sit down on the curb to ponder it.
A lady looks my way. Is it possible? Does she see me? She’s an outsider, not of this place, her unease palpable. She looks at me another moment, and then goes into the bar.
I wonder again: can anger be happy?
I should be looking for my stairway to heaven, but right now, what I really want is a little bit of fun.