Damage Not Appearance

One Thursday afternoon in April, a tornado lashes through a four block stretch of Montgomery, destroying one side of the Booker T. Washington Community Center, and the next few days Olan Cassell, who had recently left his job at the Center, got plenty of phone calls--wasn't it awful how that terrible wind tore up the place, and wonder how they'll patch up things until they can fix 'em--and on Saturday evening, sick of talking about it, Olan turns down his answering machine and sits in the living room eating popcorn shrimp and watching the Boxing matches he'd recorded, so not until Sunday does he finally get around to listening to the messages, including the one from Viviana Tinsdale.

"Plan to go see the mural," Viviana says, on Monday when Olan finally calls. "That is, if there's anything left. Why don't you come with me?"

Olan doesn't particularly want to go see the mural, yet almost before he realizes it, he blurts out, "Let's do it tomorrow afternoon."

On the drive over to pick up Viviana, Olan can't help thinking that he hasn't been that happy since he quit his job at the Center, but then he has a new job, so he's probably not happy because, six months earlier, his parents--who had converted to Jehovah's Witnesses were driving in the pre-owned Cutlass Supreme, which Olan, trying to make up for calling them crazy, had helped them purchase--crashed through the car's windshield on a church trip to Chattanooga. The funeral was small although Olan's ex-wife, Yvette, had the nerve to show up with the woman she's dating now.

At Viviana's apartment building--twelve-story, grey brick, located at the better end of the park with dishpan-wide kitchen counters and screened balconies, perfect for the country folks from Acton, where Olan was from, or Seavertown, or Green Pond, or any of the other well-water towns hugging the Mississippi border--Olan rides the squalling elevator to floor seven.

In the poorly-lit kitchen, standing at the counter, Olan inspects the water-color miniature of the mural that's spread out next to a pound cake while Viviana says, "I cannot believe it's been two years since I called to congratulate you on that promotion to Executive Director. I remembered you bragged about how different everyone treated you," and all this reminiscing embarrasses Olan, so he mentions how he had left college without the professional contract he was hoping to sign with the Caribbean Soccer League, and Viviana says, "I don't know about these things," but I don't imagine that a contract with a soccer league from the Islands could have possibly paid much," and Olan says, "you'd be surprised," and the miniature has faded, but Olan recognizes it anyway, at least the outlines of the five bodies barely filled in with color.

Olan and Viviana and her husband Carter drink iced tea with a few raspberries floating on top, listening to the street noises until Viviana says, "Seems like I finished that mural just last month," and then Viviana says, "Now why did I say that? That's preposterous. It was years ago. That's really how long it seems. Why did I say something crazy like that? Do you know, Carter?"

Olan stops trying to pluck the last raspberry from the iced tea just in time to see Carter shrug his shoulders and head into the kitchen and now Olan can only look down at Viviana's maroon dress which nearly matches her house shoes, and not at her wavy disheveled hair or her waxy skin, and didn't Olan hear somewhere that Viviana had been ill recently? And wouldn't it have made better sense to have waited until he saw what shape Viviana was in before agreeing to drive her over to the Center, and suddenly Olan wants to remember Viviana the way she was eighteen years ago when she instructed the boy and girl who were going to paint the mural, sixty-two years old, so spry that when the two cocky teenagers (both of who had completed several nice paintings of their own) began to get their own ideas about the mural, she clambered up one of the ladders and threatened to finish the job herself, but Olan has trouble remembering Viviana then, so he picks up the heavy fork and stabs the cake, which is damp and heavy and tastes faintly of buttermilk, and Olan starts to miss his parents, and his childhood, and his ex-wife, and he starts to feel as though he is living inside an enormous fizz, as big as that old custodial closet at the Center--stuck inside the fizz with his job and his evenings of popcorn shrimp, sometimes with his girlfriend, who is stuck in her own fizz, and when Viviana isn't looking Olan breaks off thumb-sized pieces of cake with his hands and eats them like cornbread, a wet finger corralling the crumbs at the edge of the plate.

A stolen Latin American History exam pushed under Olan's dorm-room door second semester of his junior year was what started the mess, if you disregard the three other stolen exams Olan had cribbed off first semester. Olan studied the single sheet of essay questions sitting on the steps of the field house with several soccer players and two girls waiting to do their Library shift. Olan studied the sheet again after practice. He was very satisfied with the C+ he got on the exam.

When Carter comes back from the kitchen with more iced tea, he says that the last time they went over to Viviana's sister's house for a visit, he had gone out in the back yard where he happened to see the pink rose bush that Viviana wants cuttings from to plant on the balcony, and Viviana asks how in heaven's name with all those rose bushes back there, Carter could possibly tell which bush was which, after all, he's hardly ever been back there, and also the bush hadn't bloomed yet, and Carter says that he could tell by the bark, and Viviana nods, but, to Olan, looks like she's not convinced.

"It might be because of the tornado?" Olan says.

"What?" Viviana says.

"Maybe the reason it seems like yesterday that the mural was painted, is because it might be damaged now."

Viviana take another sip. "Possible."

Viviana shakes her glass and two large spots the size of tiny beetles ride a vein on the back of her hand, and Olan stares at the beetles for a while, then looks over into the too-bright kitchen at the plants on the wall paper then over the balcony railing at the brand new building across the park, and finally down at the ants, two rows moving in opposite directions along the cement floor.

"This letter says you've been expelled," Olan's mother yelled into the phone. "When your father sees you, he's gonna give it to you good. Me too."

Olan picks up the fat, shallow glass and drinks more tea, which with no raspberries and the ice melted, tastes like wet cardboard, and the ants are large and rushing now, so Olan looks away only to see an image of Viviana lying ill in bed, the ants and the beetles scurrying over her narrow face, her thin chest, her speckled legs, and suddenly Olan imagines he is seventeen again, just graduating from the Center's Youth Leadership Academy, arguing with somebody about not wanting to be put in charge of the mural (although technically Viviana was in charge and all Olan did was round up the children and keep them from running off as they set things up) and all he can think about as he un-lids the paint cans, is how he wants to be someplace else.

"Ended up at Alabama State," Olan says, after finishing his tea.

"Thought you were at the University," Viviana says.

"Had some problems."

Viviana looks like she wants Olan to go on, but Olan can't, so Viviana begins talking about the Center again, surprising Olan with her ability to recall the names of the children, all the while stacking the emptied saucers which are bone-colored with flowers and leaves at the edges, the kind of plates Olan usually saw in magazines, and the balcony smells strongly of wintergreen scented rubbing alcohol and cigarettes just like the living room--any minute now Olan expects Viviana to look over into the house and maybe down at her magazine dishes and wonder how many more days she has left.

Instead Viviana smiles and says, "We ought to go over there now."

A few blocks from the Center, a policewoman wearing an orange hat, directs the car down a quiet side street with little damage, yet the calm unsettles Olan, who wonders if somehow a crashing death might be better than a slow lingering death, a thought that makes him look over at Viviana, who points at the side of the Center which has been caved in.

Nahem, Olan's best friend in college, who had already warned Olan many times that he was playing with fire by paying for those exams, came by the dormitory to help Olan pack. "If you're going to cheat like that," Nahem said. "Make sure the whole team's doin' it. That way only the coach gets in trouble."

They park and go inside to the gymnasium where a large section of the mural is stacked in a large pile with a large piece, the maroon dress worn by the seamstress, on top. The seamstress's head is missing. Is that it over near the water fountain?

Viviana, her purse lodged under her arm, approaches the pile and, with her free hand, pulls several small pieces out of the pile, arranging them on the floor, moving them around, trying to fit them together.

"It's all ruined," she says after a while.

During the ride home, Viviana talks easily while Olan laments the loss of the mural while also wondering, what in the world he and Viviana will talk about when they see each other again?

"I stretched the truth to get that job at the Center," Viviana says as they pull up to the building.

"How'd you do that?"

"Sculpture was what I did back then. Never able to draw. Still can't."

"You painted the mural."

"Carter painted the miniature."

"Oh. Why didn't Carter come with us?"

"He didn't want to."

"Seems odd to me that he wouldn't."

Viviana kneads her large, doughy purse. "Shouldn't seem that odd. Just because you make something, doesn't mean you have to be attached to it."

Viviana opens the car door. She twists her body out. Both shoes thump the pavement at the same time, sturdy, surefooted. Olan watches Viviana approach the building where she lifts her eyes to its wide face, which to Olan seems endless, except for that far corner, a sharp sturdy blade, cutting the slow drifting grey air.

About the author:

Jeffrey Colvin was born and raised in Alabama and recently received an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. He lives in New York and teaches Composition and Literature at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. An excerpt of his novel-in-progress appears in the current issue of Narrative.