Book: Life of Buddha
Life of Buddha
Whenever the cops scheduled a raid on the shooting gallery to collect their protection money, old cotton-headed Pete Mason, who ran the place, would give Buddha the day off. Buddha rarely said a word to anyone, and Pete had learned that cops were offended by silence. If you didn’t scream and run when they busted in, if like Buddha you just sat there and stared at them, they figured you were concealing a superior attitude, and they then tended to get inside your head.
They had beaten Buddha half to death a couple of times for this very reason, and while Buddha hadn’t complained (he never complained about anything), Pete did not want to risk losing such a faithful employee. So on the night prior to the September raid, Pete went downstairs to where Buddha was nodding on a stained mattress by the front door and said, “Why don’t you hang out over at Taboo’s place tomorrow? Police is comin’ ‘round to do they thang.”
Buddha shook himself out of his nod and said, “Talked to him already. Johnny Wardell’s gon’ be over sometime makin’ a buy, but he say to come ahead anyway.” He was a squat black man in his late thirties, his head stone bald, with sleepy heavy-lidded eyes and the beginning of jowls; he was wearing chinos stippled with blood from his last fix, and a too-small T-shirt that showed every tuck and billow of his round belly and womanly breasts. Sitting there, he looked like a Buddha carved from ebony that somebody had outfitted with Salvation Army clothes, and that was why Pete had given him the name. His real name was Richard Damon, but he wouldn’t respond to it anymore. Buddha suited him just fine.
“Beats me why Taboo wanna do business with Johnny Wardell,” Pete said, hitching his pants up over his ample stomach. “Sooner or later Wardell he be gettin’ crazy all over a faggot like Taboo…y’know?”
Buddha grunted, scratched the tracks on his wrist, and gazed out the window beside the front door. He knew Pete was trying to draw him into a conversation, and he had no intention of letting himself be drawn. It wasn’t that he disliked Pete; he liked him as much as anyone. He simply had no opinions he wanted to share; he had cultivated this lack of opinion, and he had found that the more he talked, the more opinions came to mind.
“You tell Taboo from me,” Pete went on, “I been livin’ in Detroit more’n sixty years, and I done business wit’ a lotta bad dogs, but I ain’t never met one meaner than Wardell. You tell him he better watch his behavior, y’understan’?”
“Well…” Pete turned and with a laborious gait, dragging his bad leg, mounted the stairs. “You come on up ‘round two and get your goodnighter. I’ll cut ya out a spoon of China White.”
“ ‘Preciate it,” said Buddha.
As soon as Pete was out of sight, Buddha lay down and stared at the flaking grayish-white paint of the ceiling. He picked a sliver of paint from the wall and crumbled it between his fingers. Then he ran the back of his hand along the worn nap of the runner that covered the hallway floor. All as if to reassure himself of the familiar surroundings. He had spent the best part of fifteen years as Pete’s watchdog, lying on the same mattress, staring at that same dried-up paint, caressing that same runner. Before taking up residence on the mattress, he had been a young man with a fixture. Everybody had said, “That Richard Damon, he’s gon’ be headlines, he’s gon’ be Live at Five, he’s gon’ be People magazine.” Not that he had started out different from his peers. He’d been into a little dealing, a little numbers, a little of whatever would pay him for doing nothing. But he’d been smarter than most and had kept his record clean, and when he told people he had his eye on the political arena, nobody laughed. They could see he had the stuff to make it. The trouble was, though, he had been so full of himself, so taken with his smarts and his fine clothes and his way with the ladies, he had destroyed the only two people who had cared about him. Destroyed them without noticing. Worried his mama into an early grave, driven his wife to suicide. For a while after they had died, he’d gone on as always, but then he’d come up against guilt.
He hadn’t known then what that word guilt meant; but he had since learned its meaning to the bone. Guilt started out as a minor irritation no worse than a case of heartburn and grew into a pain with claws that tore out your guts and hollowed your heart. Guilt made you sweat for no reason, jump at the least noise, look behind you in every dark place. Guilt kept you from sleeping, and when you did manage to drop off, it sent you dreams about your dead, dreams so strong they began to invade your waking moments. Guilt was a monster against which the only defense was oblivion… Once he had discovered that truth, he had sought oblivion with the fervor of a converted sinner.
He had tried to kill himself but had not been able to muster the necessary courage and instead had turned to drugs. To heroin and the mattress in the shooting gallery. And there he had discovered another truth: that this life was in itself a kind of oblivion, that it was carving him slow and simple, emptying him of dreams and memories. And of guilt.
The porch steps creaked under someone’s weight. Buddha peered out the window just as a knock sounded at the door. It was Marlene, one of the hookers who worked out of Daily’s Show Bar down the block: a pretty cocoa-skinned girl carrying an overnight bag, her breasts hushed up by a tight bra.
Her pimp-a long-haired white kid-was standing on a lower step. Buddha opened the door, and they brushed past him. “Pete ‘round?” Marlene asked.
Buddha pointed up the stairs and shut the door. The white kid grinned, whispered to Marlene, and she laughed. “John think you look like you could use some lovin’,” she said. “What say you come on up, and I’ll give you a sweet ride for free?” She chucked him under the chin. “How that sound, Buddha?”
He remained silent, denying desire and humiliation, practicing being the nothing she perceived. He had become perfect at ignoring ridicule, but desire was still a problem: the plump upper slopes of her breasts gleamed with sweat and looked full of juice. She turned away, apparently ashamed of having teased him.
“Take it easy now, Buddha,” she said with studied indifference, and hand-led the white kid up the stairs.
Buddha plucked at a frayed thread on the mattress. He knew the history of its every stain, its every rip. Knew them so thoroughly that the knowledge was no longer something he could say: it was part of him, and he was part of it. He and the mattress had become a unity of place and purpose. He wished he could risk going to sleep, but it was Friday night, and there would be too many customers, too many interruptions. He fixed his gaze on the tarnished brass doorknob, let it blur until it became a greenish-gold sun spinning within a misty corona. Watched it whirl around and around, growing brighter and brighter. Correspondingly his thoughts spun and brightened, becoming less thoughts than reflections of the inconstant light. And thus did Buddha pass the middle hours of the night.
At two o’clock Buddha double-bolted the door and went upstairs for his goodnighter. He walked slowly along the corridor, scuffing the threadbare carpet, its pattern eroded into grimy darkness and worm trails of murky gold. Laughter and tinny music came from behind closed doors, seeming to share the staleness of the cooking odors that pervaded the house. A group of customers had gathered by Pete’s door, and Buddha stopped beside them. Somebody else wandered up, asked what was happening, and was told that Pete was having trouble getting a vein. Marlene was going to hit him up in the neck. Pete’s raspy voice issued from the room, saying, “Damn it! Hurry up, woman!”
Getting a vein was a frequent problem for Pete; the big veins in his arms were burned-out, and the rest weren’t much better. Buddha peered over shoulders into the room. Pete was lying in bed, on sheets so dirty they appeared to have a design of dark clouds. His freckly brown skin was suffused by a chalky pallor. Three young men-one of them Marlene’s pimp-were gathered around him, murmuring comforts. On the night table a lamp with a ruffled shade cast a buttery yellow light, giving shadows to the strips of linoleum peeling up from the floor.
Marlene came out of the bathroom, wearing an emerald-green robe. When she leaned over Pete, the halves of the robe fell apart, and her breasts hung free, catching a shine from the lamp. The needle in her hand showed a sparkle on its tip. She swabbed Pete’s neck with a clump of cotton and held the needle poised an inch or two away.
The heaviness of the light, the tableau of figures around the bed, Marlene’s gleaming skin, the wrong-looking shadows on the floor, too sharp to be real: taken all together, these things had the same richness and artful composition, the same important stillness, as an old painting that Buddha had once seen in the Museum of Art. He liked the idea that such beauty could exist in this ruinous house, that the sad souls therein could become even this much of a unity. But he rejected his pleasure in the sight, as was his habit with almost every pleasure.
Pete groaned and twisted about. “Stop that shit!” Marlene snapped. “Want me to bleed you dry?”
Other people closed in around the bed, blocking Buddha’s view. Pete’s voice dropped to a whisper, instructing Marlene. Then people began moving away from the bed, revealing Pete lying on his back, holding a bloody Kleenex to the side of his neck. Buddha spotted his goodnighter on the dresser: a needle resting on a mirror beside a tiny heap of white powder.
“How you doin?” Pete asked weakly as Buddha walked in.
He returned a diffident wave, went over to the dresser, and inspected the powder: it looked like a nice dose. He lifted the mirror and headed off downstairs to cook up.
“Goddamn!” said Pete. “Fifteen years I been takin’ care of you. Feedin’ your Jones, buyin’ your supper. Think we’d have a relationship by now.” His tone grew even more irascible. “I should never have give you that damn name! Got you thinkin’ you inscrutable, when all you is is ignorant!”
Nodding on his mattress in the moonlit dark, feeling the rosy glow of the fix in his heart, the pure flotation of China White in his flesh, Buddha experienced little flash dreams: bizarre images that materialized and faded so quickly, he was unable to categorize them. After these had passed he lay down, covered himself with a blanket, and concentrated upon his dream of Africa, the one pleasure he allowed himself to nourish. His conception of Africa bore no relation to the ethnic revival of the sixties, to Afros and dashikis, except that otherwise he might have had no cognizance of the Dark Continent. Buddha’s African kingdom was a fantasy derived from images in old movies, color layouts in National Geographic, from drugs and drugged visions of Nirvana as a theme park. He was not always able to summon the dream, but that night he felt disconnected from all his crimes and passionate failures, stainless and empty, and thus worthy of this guardian bliss. He closed his eyes, then squeezed his eyelids tight until golden pinpricks flowered in the blackness. Those pinpricks expanded and opened into Africa.
He was flowing like wind across a tawny plain, a plain familiar from many such crossings. Tall grasses swayed with his passage, antelope started up, and the gamy smell of lions was in the air. The grasslands evolved into a veld dotted with scum-coated ponds and crooked trees with scant pale foliage. Black stick figures leaped from cover and menaced him with spears, guarding a collage peopled by storytellers and long-legged women who wore one-eyed white masks and whose shadows danced when they walked. Smoke plumed from wart-shaped thatched huts and turned into music; voices spoke from cooking fires. Beyond the village stood green mountains that rose into the clouds, and there among the orchids and ferns were the secret kingdoms of the gorillas. And beyond the mountains lay a vast blue lake, its far reaches fringed by shifting veils of mist in whose folds miragelike images materialized and faded.
Buddha had never penetrated the mists: there was something ominous about their unstable borders and the ghostly whiteness they enclosed. At the center of the lake a fish floated halfway between the surface and the bottom, like the single thought of a liquid brain. Knowing that he must soon face the stresses of the outside world, Buddha needed the solace offered by the fish; he sank beneath the waters until he came face-to-face with it, floating a few inches away.
The fish resembled a carp and measured three feet from its head to its tail; its overlapping scales were a muddy brown, and its face was the mask of a lugubrious god, with huge golden eyes and a fleshy down-turned mouth. It seemed to be regarding Buddha sadly, registering him as another of life’s disappointments, a subject with which it was quite familiar, for its swollen belly encaged all the evil and heartache to the world, both in principle and reality. Buddha gazed into its eyes, and the pupils expanded into black funnels that connected with his own pupils, opening channels along which torrents of grief and fear began to flow. The deaths of his wife and mother were nothing compared with the hallucinatory terrors that now confronted him: demons with mouths large enough to swallow planets; gales composed of a trillion dying breaths; armies of dead men and women and children. Their bodies maimed by an infinity of malefic usage. Had he witnessed these visions while awake, he would have been overwhelmed; but protected by the conditions of the dream, he withstood them and was made strong.
And before long he fell asleep in the midst of this infinite torment contained within the belly of the fish in his dream, contained in turn within his skull, within the ramshackle frame house, within the gunshot-riddled spiritual realm of the Detroit ghetto, whose agonies became a fleeting instance of distress-the fluttering of an eyelid, the twitching of a nerve-within the dreamed-of peace of Buddha’s sleep.
The shooting gallery was located in the Jefferson-Chalmers district, the section of the ghetto most affected by the ‘67 riots. Hundreds of gutted houses still stood as memorials to that event, and between them-where once had stood other houses-lay vacant lots overgrown with weeds and stunted trees of heaven. The following afternoon, as he walked past the lot adjoining the shooting gallery, Buddha was struck by the sight of a charred sofa set among weeds at the center of the lot, and obeying an impulse, he walked over to it and sat down. It was the first day of fall weather. The air was crisp, the full moon pinned like a disfigured cameo of bone to a cloudless blue sky. In front of the sofa was a pile of ashes over which somebody had placed a grill; half a dozen scorched cans were scattered around it. Buddha studied the ashes, the grill, the cans, mesmerized by the pattern they formed. Sirens squealed in the distance, a metallic clanging seemed to be issuing from beyond the sky, and Buddha felt himself enthroned, the desireless king of a ruined world in which all desire had faltered.
He had been sitting for perhaps an hour when a teenage boy with a freckly complexion like Pete’s came running along the sidewalk. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and lugging an immense ghetto blaster. The boy looked behind him, then sprinted across the lot toward Buddha and flung himself down behind the sofa. “You tell ‘em I’m here,” he said breathlessly, “I’ll cut ya!” He waggled a switchblade in front of Buddha’s face. Buddha just kept staring at the toppled brick chimneys and vacated premises. A dragonfly wobbled up from the leaves and vanished into the sun dazzle of a piece of broken mirror canted against the ash heap.
Less than a minute later two black men ran past the lot. Spotting Buddha, one shouted, “See a kid come this way?” Buddha made no reply.
“Tell ‘em I headed toward Cass,” the kid whispered urgently, but Buddha maintained his silence, his lack of concern.
“Y’hear me?” the man shouted.
“Tell ‘em!” the boy whispered.
Buddha said nothing.
The two men conferred and after a second ran back in the direction from which they had come. “Damn, blood! You take some chances!” said the boy, and when Buddha gave no response, he added, “They come back, you just sit there like you done. Maybe they think you a dummy.” He switched on the ghetto blaster, and rap music leaked out, the volume too low for the words to be audible.
Buddha looked at the boy, and the boy grinned, his nervousness evident despite the mask of confidence.
“Ain’t this a fine box?” he said. “Fools leave it settin’ on the stoop, they deserve to get it took. “ He squinted as if trying to scry out Buddha’s hidden meaning. “Can’t you talk, man?”
“Nothin’ to say,” Buddha answered.
“That’s cool… Too much bullshit in the air, anyhow.”
The boy reminded Buddha of his younger self, and this disquieted him: he had the urge to offer advice, and he knew advice would be useless. The boy’s fate was spelled out by the anger lying dormant in the set of his mouth. Buddha pitied him, but pity-like love, like hate-was a violation of his policy of noninvolvement, an impediment of the emptiness to which he aspired. He got to his feet and headed for the sidewalk.
“Hey!” yelled the boy. “You tell them mothafuckas where I’m at, I’ll kill yo’ ass!”
Buddha kept walking.
“I mean it, man!” And as if in defiance, as if he needed some help to verbalize it, the boy turned up the ghetto blaster, and a gassed voice blared, “Don’t listen to the shuck and jive from Chairman Channel Twenty-Five…”
Buddha picked up his pace, and soon the voice mixed in with the faint sounds of traffic, distant shouts, other musics, absorbed into the troubled sea from which it had surfaced.
From the shooting gallery to Taboo’s apartment should have been about a twenty-minute walk, but that day-still troubled by his encounter with the boy-Buddha cut the time in half. He had learned that it was impossible to avoid involvement on his day off, impossible not to confront his past, and in Taboo he had found a means of making the experience tolerable, letting it be the exception that proved the rule. When he had first met Taboo seven years before, Taboo’s name had been Yancey; he had been eighteen, married to a pretty girl, and holding down a steady job at Pontiac Motors.
Three years later, when he had next run into him, Taboo had come out of the closet, was working as a psychic healer, curing neighborhood ladies of various minor complaints, and through hormone treatments had developed a small yet shapely pair of breasts, whose existence he hid from the world beneath loose-fitting clothes.
Buddha had caught a glimpse of Taboo’s breasts by accident, having once entered his bathroom while he was washing up, and after this chance revelation, Taboo had fixed upon him as a confidant, a circumstance that Buddha had welcomed-though he did not welcome Taboo’s sexual advances. He derived several benefits from the relationship. For one thing, Taboo’s specialty was curing warts, and Buddha had a problem with warts on his hands (one such had given him an excuse to visit that day); for another, Taboo-who dealt on the side-always had drugs on hand. But the most important benefit was that Taboo provided Buddha with an opportunity to show kindness to someone who brought to mind his dead wife. In their solitary moments together, Taboo would don a wig and a dress, transforming himself into the semblance of a beautiful young woman, and Buddha would try to persuade him to follow his inner directives and proceed with the final stage of his sex change. He would argue long and hard, claiming that Taboo’s magical powers would mature once he completed the transformation, telling Taboo stories of how wonderful his new life would be. But Taboo was deathly afraid of the surgeon’s knife, and no matter how forcefully Buddha argued, he refused to pay heed. Buddha knew there had to be an answer to Taboo’s problem, and sometimes he felt that answer was staring him in the face. But it never would come clear. He had the notion, though, that sooner or later the time would be right for answers.
It was a beautiful spring day in Taboo’s living room. The walls were painted to resemble a blue sky dappled with fluffy white clouds, and the floor was carpeted with artificial grass. In Taboo’s bedroom where he did his healing, it was a mystical night. The walls were figured with cabalistic signs and stars and a crescent moon, and the corner table was ebony, and the chairs upholstered in black velour. Black drapes hid the windows; a black satin quilt covered the bed. Muted radiance shone from the ceiling onto the corner table, and after he had fixed, it was there that Buddha sat soaking his wart in a crystal bowl filled with herb-steeped water, while Taboo sat beside him and muttered charms.
Taboo was not in drag because he was waiting for Johnny Wardell to show; but even so he exhibited a feminine beauty. The soft lighting applied sensual gleams to his chocolate skin and enhanced the delicacy of his high cheekbones and generous mouth and almond-shaped eyes. When he leaned forward to inspect Buddha’s wart, the tips of his breasts dimpled the fabric of his blousy shirt. Buddha could make out his magic: a disturbance like heat haze in the air around him.
“There, darlin’,” said Taboo. “All gone. Your hand back the way it s’posed to be.”
Buddha peered into the bowl. At the bottom rested a wrinkled black thing like a raisin. Taboo lifted his hand from the water and dried it with a towel. Where the wart had been was now only smooth skin. Buddha touched the place; it felt hot and smelled bitter from the herbs.
“Wish Johnny’d hurry up,” said Taboo. “I bought a new dress I wanna try on for ya…”
“Whyn’t you try it on now? If the buzzer goes, you can pretend you ain’t at home.”
“ ‘Cause I just have to deal wit’ him later, and no tellin’ what kinda mood Johnny be in then.”
Buddha had no need to ask Taboo why he had to deal with Johnny Wardell at all. Taboo’s reason for risking himself among the bad dogs was similar to Buddha’s reason for retreating from life: he felt guilty for the way he was, and this risk was his self-inflicted punishment.
Taboo pulled out a packet of white powder and a drinking straw and told Buddha to toot a few lines, to put a shine on his high. Buddha did as he suggested. A luxuriant warmth spread through his head and chest, and little sparkles danced in the air, vanishing like snowflakes. He started getting drowsy. Taboo steered him to the bed, then curled up beside him, his arm around Buddha’s waist.
“I love you so much, Buddha,” he said. “Don’t know what I’d do without you to talk to…I swear I don’t.” His soft breasts nudged against Buddha’s arm, his fingers toyed with Buddha’s belt buckle, and despite himself, Buddha experienced the beginnings of arousal. But he felt no love coming from Taboo, only a flux of lust and anxiety. Love was unmistakable-a warm pressure as steady as a beam from a flashlight-and Taboo was too unformed, too confused, to be its source.
“Naw, man,” Buddha said, pushing Taboo’s hand away.
“I just wanna love you!”
In Taboo’s eyes Buddha could read the sweet fucked-up sadness of a woman born wrong; but though he was sympathetic, he forced himself to be stern. “Don’t mess wit’ me!”
The buzzer sounded.
“Damn!” Taboo sat up, tucked in his shirt. He walked over to the table, picked up the white powder and the drinking straw, and brought them over to Buddha. “You do a little bit more of this here bad boy. But don’t you be runnin’ it. I don’t want you fallin’ out on me.” He went out into the living room, closing the door behind him.
There seemed to be a curious weight inside Buddha’s head, less an ache than a sense of something askew, and to rid himself of it he did most of the remaining heroin. It was enough to set him dreaming, though not of Africa. These dreams were ugly, featuring shrieks and thuds and nasty smears of laughter, and once somebody said, “The man got tits! Dig it! The man’s a fuckin’ woman!”
Gradually he arrived at the realization that the dreams were real, that something bad was happening, and he struggled back to full consciousness. He got to his feet, swayed, staggered forward, and threw open the door to the living room.
Taboo was naked and spread-eagled facedown over some pillow, his rump in the air, and Johnny Wardell-a young leather-clad blood with a hawkish face-was holding his arms. Another man, darker and heavier than Wardell, was kneeling between Taboo’s legs and was just zipping up his trousers.
For a split second nobody moved. Framed by the vivid green grass and blue sky and innocent clouds, the scene had a surreal biblical quality, like a hideous act perpetrated in some unspoiled corner of the Garden of Eden, and Buddha was transfixed by it. What he saw was vile, but he saw, too, that it was an accurate statement of the world’s worth, of its grotesque beauty, and he felt distanced, as if he were watching through a peephole whose far end was a thousand miles away.
“Lookit here,” said Wardell, a mean grin slicing across his face. “The ho already done got herself a man. C’mon, bro’! We saved ya a piece.”
Long-buried emotions were kindled in Buddha’s heart. Rage, love, fear. Their onset toe swift and powerful for him to reject. “Get your hand off him,” he said, pitching his voice deep and full of menace.
Wardell’s lean face went slack, and his grin seemed to deepen, as if the lustful expression engraved on his skull were showing through the skin, as if he perceived in Buddha an object of desire infinitely more gratifying than Taboo.
Wardell nodded at the man kneeling between Taboo’s legs, and the man flung himself at Buddha, pulling a knife and swinging it in a vicious arc. Buddha caught the man’s wrist, and the man’s violence was transmitted through his flesh, seeding fury in his heart. He squeezed the man’s wristbones until they ground together, and the knife fell to the floor. Then he pinned the man against the wall and began smashing his head against it, avoiding the fingers that clawed at his eyes. He heard himself yelling, heard bone splinter.
The man’s eyes went unfocused, and he grew heavy in Buddha’s grasp; he slumped down, the back of his head leaving a glistening red track across a puffy cloud. Buddha knew he was dead, but before he could absorb the fact, something struck him in the back, a liver punch that landed with the stunning impact of a bullet, and he dropped like a stone.
The pain was luminous. He imagined it lighting him up inside with the precise articulation of an X-ray. Other blows rained in upon him, but he felt only the effects of that first one. He made out Wardell looming over him, a slim leathery giant delivering kick after kick. Blackness frittered at the edges of his vision. Then a scream-a sound like a silver splinter driven into Buddha’s brain-and there was Taboo, something bright in his hand, something that flashed downward into Wardell’s chest as he turned, lifted, flashed down again. Wardell stumbled back, looking puzzled, touching a red stain on the shirtfront, and then appeared to slide away into the blackness at the corner of Buddha’s left eye. Buddha lay gasping for breath: the last kick had landed in the pit of his stomach. After a second his vision began to clear, and he saw Taboo standing above Wardell’s body, the other man’s knife in his hand.
With his sleek breasts and male genitalia and the bloody knife, he seemed a creature out of a myth. He kneeled beside Buddha. “You awright?” he asked. “Buddha? You awright?”
Buddha managed a nod. Taboo’s eyes reminded him of the eyes of the fish in his dream-aswarm with terrors-and his magic was heavy wash in the air, stronger than Buddha had ever seen it.
“I never wanted to kill nobody,” said Taboo tremulously. “That’s the last thing I wanted to do.” He glanced at the two corpses, and his lips quivered. Buddha looked at them, too.
Sprawled in oddly graceful attitudes on the green grass amid a calligraphy of blood, they appeared to be spelling out some kind of cryptic message. Buddha thought if he kept staring at them, their meaning would come clear.
“Oh, God!” said Taboo. “They gon’ be comin’ for me, they gon’ put me in jail! I can’t live in jail. What am I gon’ do?”
And to his astonishment, looking back and forth between the corpses and Taboo’s magical aura, Buddha found he could answer that question.
The answer was, he realized, also the solution to the problem of his life; it was a means of redemption, one he could have arrived at by no other process than that of his fifteen-year retreat.
Its conception had demanded an empty womb in which to breed and had demanded as well an apprehension of magical principle: that had been supplied by his dream of Africa. And having apprehended the full measure of this principle, he further realized he had misunderstood the nature of Taboo’s powers. He had assumed that they had been weakened by the wrongness of his birth and would mature once he went under the knife; but he now saw that they were in themselves a way of effecting the transformation with a superior result, that they had needed this moment of violence and desperation to attain sufficient strength. Buddha felt himself filling with calm, as if the knowledge had breached an internal reservoir that had dammed calmness up.
“You need a disguise,” he said. “And you got the perfect disguise right at your fingertips.” He proceeded to explain.
“You crazy, Buddha!” said Taboo. “No way I can do that.”
“You ain’t got no choice.”
“You crazy!” Taboo repeated, backing away. “Crazy!”
“C’mon back here!”
“Naw, man! I gotta get away, I gotta…” Taboo backed into the door, felt for the knob, and-eyes wide, panic-stricken-wrenched it open. His mouth opened as if he were going to say something else, but instead he turned and bolted down the hall.
The pain in Buddha’s back was throbbing, spreading a sick weakness all through his flesh, and he passed out for a few seconds.
When he regained consciousness, he saw Taboo standing in the doorway, looking insubstantial due to the heavy wash of magic around him; in fact, the whole room had an underwater lucidity, everything wavering, like a dream fading in from the immaterial. “See?” said Buddha. “Where you gon’ go, man? You barely able to make it here!”
“I don’t know, I’ll…maybe I’ll…” Taboo’s voice, too, had the qualities of something out of a dream; distant and having a faint echo.
“Sheeit!” Buddha reached out to Taboo. “Gimme a hand up.”
Taboo helped him to his feet and into the bedroom and lowered him onto the bed. Buddha felt as if he might sink forever into the black satin coverlet.
“Show me that new dress you bought,” he said. Taboo went to the closet, pulled out a hanger, and held the dress against his body to display its effect. It was white silk, low-cut, with a scattering of sequins all over.
“Aw, man,” said Buddha. “Yeah, that’s your dress. You be knockin’ the boys’ eyes out wearin’ that…if they could ever see it. If you’d just do what’s right. You’d be too beautiful for Detroit. You’d need to get someplace south, place where the moon shines bright as the sun. ‘Cause that’s what kinda beautiful you gon’ be. Moon beautiful. Miami, maybe. That’d suit ya. Get you a big white car, drive down by them fancy hotels, and let all them fancy people have a look at ya. And they gon’ lay down and beg to get next to you, man…”
As Buddha talked, conjuring the feminine future with greater seductiveness and invention than ever before, the heat haze of Taboo’s magic grew still more visible, taking on the eerie miragelike aspect of the mists beyond the lake in Buddha’s Africa; and after Buddha had finished, Taboo sat on the edge of the bed, holding the dress across his lap. “I’m scared,” he said. “What if it don’t work?”
“You always been scared,” said Buddha. “You bein’ scared’s what got them two men dead out there. Time for that to stop. You know you got the power. So go on!”
“You ain’t got no choice.” Buddha pulled Taboo’s head down gently and kissed him openmouthed, breathing into him a calming breath. “Do it,” he said. “Do it now.”
Hesitantly Taboo came to his feet. “Don’t you go nowhere now. You wait for me.”
“You know I will.”
“Awright.” Taboo took a few steps toward the bathroom, then stopped. “Buddha, I don’t…”
Taboo lowered his head, walked slowly into the bathroom, and closed the door.
Buddha heard the tub filling, heard the splashing as Taboo climbed into it. Then heard him begin to mutter his charms. He needed to sleep, to fix, but he kept awake as long as he could, trying to help Taboo with the effort of his will. He could feel the vibrations of the magic working through the bathroom door. Finally he gave in to the pressures of exhaustion and the throbbing in his back and drifted off to sleep; the pain followed him into the blackness of sleep, glowing like the core of his being. He woke sometime later to hear Taboo calling his name and spotted him in the darkest corner of the room-a shadow outlined by painted stars.
“It don’t feel right, Buddha.” Taboo’s voice had acquired a husky timbre.
Taboo came a step closer, and though Buddha was still unable to see him, he could smell the heat and bitterness of the herbs.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Buddha asked. “It musta worked.”
“I think… But I feel so peculiar.”
“You just ain’t used to it is all… Now c’mere!”
Taboo moved still closer, and Buddha made out a naked young woman standing a few feet away. Slim and sexy, with shoulder-length black hair and high, small breasts and a pubic triangle that showed no sign of ever having been male.
The air around Taboo was still and dark. No ripples, no heat haze. The magic had all been used.
“I told ya,” said Buddha. “You beautiful.”
“I ain’t…I just ordinary.” But Taboo sounded pleased.
“Ordinary as angels,” Buddha said. “That’s how ordinary you are.”
Taboo smiled. It was faltering at first, that smile, but it grew wider when Buddha repeated the compliment: the smile of a woman gradually becoming confident of her feminine powers. She lay down beside Buddha and fingered his belt buckle. “I love you, Buddha,” she said. “Make me feel right.”
Love was a steady flow from her, as tangible as a perfume, and Buddha felt it seeping into him, coloring his calm emptiness. On instinct he started to reject the emotion, but then he realized he had one more duty to fulfill, the most taxing and compromising duty of all. He reached down and touched the place between Taboo’s legs. Taboo stiffened and pushed her hips against his finger.
“Make me feel right,” she said again.
Buddha tried to turn onto his side, but the pain in his back flared. He winced and lay motionless. “Don’t know if I can. I’m hurtin’ pretty bad.”
“I’ll help you,” she said, her fingers working at his buckle, his zipper. “You won’t have to do nothin’, Buddha. You just let it happen now.”
But Buddha knew he couldn’t just let it happen, knew he had to return Taboo’s love in order to persuade her of her rightness, her desirability. As she mounted him, a shadow woman lifting and writhing against the false night of the ceiling stars, strangely weightless, he pinned his dead wife’s features to her darkened face, remembered her ways, her secrets. All the love and lust he had fought so long to deny came boiling up from nowhere, annihilating his calm. He dug his fingers into the plump flesh of her hips, wedging himself deep; he plunged and grunted, ignoring the pain in his back, immersed again in the suety richness of desire, in the animal turbulence of this most alluring of human involvements. And when she cried out, a mournful note that planed away to a whisper, like the sound a spirit makes falling through eternity, he felt the profound satisfaction of a musician who by his dominance and skill has brought forth a perfect tone from chaos. But afterward as she snuggled close to him, telling him of her pleasure, her excitement, he felt only despair, fearing that the empty product of his years of ascetic employment had been wasted in a single night.
“Come with me, Buddha,” she said. “Come with me to Miami. We can get us a house on the beach and…”
“Lemme be,” he said, his despair increasing because he wanted to go with her, to live high in Miami and share her self-discovery, her elation. Only the pain in his back-intensifying with every passing minute-dissuaded him, and it took all his willpower to convince her of his resolve, to insist that she leave without him, for Taboo and his dead wife had fused into a single entity in his mind, and the thought of losing her again was a pain equal to the one inflicted by Johnny Wardell.
At last, suitcase in hand, she stood in the doorway, the temptation of the world in a white silk dress, and said, “Buddha, please won’tcha…”
“Damn it!” he said. “You got what you want. Now get on outta here!”
“Don’t be so harsh wit’ me, Buddha. You know I love you.”
Buddha let his labored breathing be the answer.
“I’ll come see ya after a while,” she said. “I’ll bring you a piece of Miami.”
“In the bathtub, Buddha…I just couldn’t touch it.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
She half-turned, glanced back. “I’ll always love you, Buddha.” The door swung shut behind her, but the radiance of her love kept beaming through the wood, strong and contaminating.
“Go on,” he murmured. “Get you a big white car.”
He waited until he heard the front door close then struggled up from the bed, clamping his hand over his liver to muffle the pain. He swayed, on the verge of passing out; but after a moment he felt steadier, although he remained disoriented by unaccustomed emotion. However, the sight of the pitiful human fragment lying in the herb-steeped water of the bathtub served to diminish even that. He scooped it up in a drinking glass and flushed it down the toilet. Then he lay back on the bed again. Closed his eyes for a minute…at least he thought it was just a minute. But he couldn’t shake the notion that he’d been asleep for a long, long time.
Buddha had to stop and rest half a dozen times on the way back to the shooting gallery, overcome by pain, by emotions…mostly by emotions. They were all around him as well as inside.
The shadows of the ruined houses were the ghosts of his loves and hates; the rustlings in the weeds were long-dead memories with red eyes and claws just waiting for a chance to leap out and snatch him; the moon-lopsided and orange and bloated-was the emblem of his forsaken ambitions shining on him anew. By loving Taboo he had wasted fifteen years of effort and opened himself to all the indulgent errors of his past, and he wished to God now he’d never done it. Then, remembering how dreamlike everything had seemed, he had the thought that maybe it hadn’t happened, that it had been a hallucination brought on by the liver punch. But recalling how it had felt to make love, the womanly fervor of Taboo’s moves, he decided it had to have been real. And real or not, he had lived it, he was suffering for it.
When he reached the shooting gallery he sat cross-legged on his mattress, heavy with despair. His back ached something fierce. Pete was angry with him for being late, but on seeing his discomfort he limped upstairs and brought down a needle and helped him fix. “What happened to ya?” he asked, and Buddha said it wasn’t nothin’, just a muscle spasm.
“Don’t gimme that shit,” said Pete. “You get hit by a goddamn car, and you be tellin’ me it ain’t ‘bout nothin’.” He shook his head ruefully. “Well, to hell wit’ ya! I’m sick of worryin’ ‘bout ya!”
Buddha began to feel drowsy and secure there on his mattress, and he thought if he could rid himself of the love that Taboo had imparted to him, things might be better than before. Clearer, emptier. But he couldn’t think how to manage it. Then he saw the opportunity that the old man presented, the need for affection he embodied, his hollow heart.
Pete turned to go back up the stairs, and Buddha said, “Hey, Pete!”
“I love you, man,” said Buddha, and sent his love in a focused beam of such strength that he shivered as it went out of him.
Pete looked at him, perplexed. His expression changed to one of pleasure, then to annoyance. “You love me? Huh? Man, you been hangin’ out with that faggot too much, that’s what you been doin’!”
He clumped a couple of steps higher and stopped. “Don’t bother comin’ upstairs for your goodnighter,” he said in gentler tones. “I’ll send it down wit’ somebody.”
“ ‘Preciate it,” said Buddha.
He watched Pete round the corner of the stairwell, then lay down on the mattress. He was so free of desire and human connections that the instant he closed his eyes, golden pinpricks bloomed behind his lids, opened into Africa, and he was flying across the grasslands faster than ever, flying on the wings of the pain that beat like a sick heart in his back. The antelope did not run away but stared at him with wet, dark eyes, and the stick figures of those who guarded the village saluted him with their spears. The shadows of the masked women danced with the abandon of black flames, and in one of the huts a bearded old man was relating the story of a beautiful young woman who had driven a white car south to Miami and had lived wild for a time, had inspired a thousand men to greater wildness, had married and…Buddha flew onward, not wanting to hear the end of the story, knowing that the quality of the beginning was what counted, because all stories ended the same. He was satisfied that Taboo’s beginning had been worthwhile. He soared low above the green mountains, low enough to hear the peaceful chants of the gorillas booming through the hidden valleys, and soon was speeding above the lake wherein the solitary fish swam a slow and celebratory circle, arrowing toward the mists on its far side, toward those hallucinatory borders that he previously had neither the necessary courage nor clarity to cross.
From behind him sounded a distant pounding that he recognized to be someone knocking on the door of the shooting gallery, summoning him to his duty. For an instant he had an urge to turn back, to reinhabit the world of the senses, of bluesy-souled hookers and wired white kids and punks who came around looking to trade a night’s muscle work for a fix. And that urge intensified when he heard Pete shouting, “Hey, Buddha! Ain’t you gon’ answer the goddamn door?” But before he could act upon his impulse, he penetrated the mists and felt himself irresistibly drawn by their mysterious central whiteness, and he knew that when old Pete came downstairs, still shouting his angry question, the only answer he would receive would be an almost impalpable pulse in the air like the vibration of a gong whose clangor had just faded beneath the threshold of hearing, the pure signal struck from oblivion, the fanfare announcing Buddha’s dominion over the final country of the mind.