Call me Doctor.
I know, you aren’t supposed to know my name because it shatters the “universality of the anonymous.” In a thorny world where we have adopted the compulsion to name everything, you’ve made it all this way without knowing who anybody in this whole damn book is. Must have driven you crazy, wondering, “Is that the same guy in those six stories?” and “How dare he talk that way about women,” and “That is the worst, most offensive black dialect I have heard since Joel Chandler Harris.” But Lawdy be, you don’ been throw’d in that briar patch, so you may’s well stick it out sin’ you already don in her’.
I’d been watching him since I got there for my shift, the night shift. I’m the overnight guard at the CoMA, the Columbia Museum of Art in beautiful downtown Columbia, South Carolina: state capital and home to the Mighty Gamecocks. Yes, that South Carolina, the one where John C. Calhoun himself declared laws that came from Washington could be nullified, setting the moral justification for Southern secession and ultimately for Northern aggression. The South Carolina where the first shots of the Civil War were fired over Fort Sumter. The South Carolina of the great Governor Ernest Hollings and resilient Senator Strom Thurmond, one white politician that liked black men and one that loved black women.
This is also the South Carolina where I grew up, oh, just a couple miles from here in one of the first suburbs the city ever grew. The South Carolina where my daddy was in prison when I was born and my momma died giving birth to me. The South Carolina where my granddaddy was lynched for talking to a white girl and the only family I ever really had was my Untee, who raised me until I was thirteen when she died—ran over by a damned train in one of the gruesomest accidents ever to occur in Waverly. It’s the South Carolina that gave me Booker T Washington High School and taught me to read out of books rescued from the trash heaps outside of Dreher High School. The South Carolina that needed a trustworthy soul to keep its most treasured art collection safe from harm at night—from ghosts—when nobody else was around.
This is the South Carolina where, at the age of ten, I found a nearly dead baby blackbird and brought it so far back to life that six weeks later it flew off my outstretched palm, free and high among the angels: where I earned and adopted my name “Doctor.” Born without a birth certificate, this name became as real to me as my original name, “Junior,” which never made a lick of sense.
Glorious, proud, and all-around awful place. South Carolina. Home.
“Stop!” I shouted as he listed again forward toward the clear wall of glass that separated the main gallery from what we call the “eight”—the atrium—of the museum. Donated space from the original hospital building with which it still shared a foundation, the atrium had eight walls, each leading to another gallery area. He had ferociously (and hilariously) hit the wall once with a clamorous reverberating thud, apparently not seeing it there, and in his dazed stupor was about to re-acquaint his face with the same unpierceable barrier. “Man,” I thought, “he is about to break his damn neck.”
“Stop,” I shouted again as I grabbed his shoulder and swung him around to face me.
I could tell through all the blood that he had the face of a very pretty boy. That deep gash over his eye was sure to leave a scar. “I’ll come up with a good story for it,” he said later while we waited in the emergency room at Memorial Hospital.
I wanted to suggest that the truth would make a fantastic yarn: “Attacked by wall.” He didn’t acknowledge the humor of the understated joke.
“Maybe I will have been attacked by a mysterious flock of sonar-deficient birds as I walked out of the USC library on Good Friday.” We both laughed at the sheer absurdity of that one. That we could laugh later about the day’s events brought us into a special communion; as if the day’s events hadn’t.
I noticed he had two more scars in the area, one nestled in the outer corner of each eyebrow, reaching out toward his ears. He was, apparently, prone to accident.
I had never seen anybody walk so ponderously through the museum which, by most critical accounts, is one of the worst most indecently Orientalist collections in America. Judging from the layout and flow of the collection, art and culture began in Rome during Jesus’ lifetime and migrated directly to the shores of America through England and France to land in the new center of Western utopian perfection: the great state of South Carolina. The rest of the world was a backdrop for this social and cultural ascension. Of course, one might guess from the collection, the Chinese gave us sushi and paper birds. But, I’m no art expert—not like he appeared to be. I’m just here to keep it safe, for whatever good that may do for the pride of the good people of my home state and city.
He told me that he usually enjoyed modern stuff, Picasso and Jasper Johns and some guy called Dada, but we don’t have any of that. This day, he said, he was in awe of works that were touched by the hands of men that lived a millennium before. We were breathing, he said, the air of culture that created in a different type of world: there was what he called “presence of life and death together.” His words rang true. He huffed for clean breath as he seemed to be kissing sculptors and painters in his mind.
He spoke later as though he were possessed, as though breathing the air that emanated from this art consumed him with a different soul. This same trance-like state that he slipped in and out of during the previous several hours was what had distracted him as he walked into that crystal clear glass wall and busted open his forehead.
“You all right, son?”
“Yes,” he answered in that, what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about tone that I could tell he employed often. “Yes, why?”
I know that my jaw was agape and my eyes were as round as saucers as I gawked at the rush of red that streamed down his cheek and onto the ground by his feet. “Um,” I answered, feeling a little queeezy on his behalf.
Reading my face, he lifted his hand to his forehead and rotated his fingertips before his eyes to reveal the blood, lots and lots of it. He grabbed the back of his neck with the same hand and smeared more blood on his white shirt collar.
“Which way is the bathroom?” He looked clammy and sweaty. He looked like his knees could give way at anytime. He and I were developing an audience. I pointed toward the glass door, hinged next to the greasy face-plant marker on the immediately adjacent glass wall. Realizing that I may have doomed him to a third run-in with the unforgiving glass, I ran in front of him and opened the door and pointed again.
“That way.” I was teetering between laughter and solemnity, but retained my composure as I know my cheeks were twitching.
After graduating from high school, I spent a year as a student at the University of South Carolina where I eventually quit because I became—suddenly and unexpectedly—a father. We settled back into Waverly and grew a family from the ground up. We had all the parts we needed: God, marriage, child, love. I can’t say it happened in that order, but the parts were there and we made a good go of it.
She became the nanny of a sweet white child whose progressive parents allowed our children to be cared for as siblings. I went to work as the custodian of the church where those same progressive parents were pastor and first lady. I worked at that church for thirty five years, eventually they made me deacon. We had two more beautiful children, Doc Junior and Isaiah, and she eventually opened a nursery that she ran out of our house.
When Reverend and Missus retired to Florida, my tightly wound world unraveled. The church leadership changed in ways I prefer not to dwell on—grudgin’ and gossipin’ ain’t what Christians do—and I left too. No pension and stiff joints left me with practical expenses. I still needed to work. Reverend made a call to his friend at the CoMA and I’ve been well taken care of here since then. If I work another thirteen years, I’ll get retirement. All three of my children went to college; none are Gamecocks.
I checked in with the manager on my walkie talkie and alerted her about the accident. She giggled after I confirmed that none of the art was damaged and then she told me to keep an eye on him. I followed him into the bathroom where he was holding an increasingly red wet paper towel up to his forehead. He pulled it down and moved his face closer to the mirror so he could diagnose the severity of the gash. He was still flush and dazed; he started when he saw my reflection enter behind him.
“You ok? Need to sit down?”
“I think I’m ok.” He turned around, rag still up to his head, blood still trickling down toward his chest. The gushing had abated. He looked at my name badge.
“You work here?”
“Yes, that’s my name.”
“Just ‘Doctor’ is fine.”
“Junior didn’t make sense to me; I didn’t even know my father.”
“Huh? Why am I bleeding?”
“You walked into that glass wall.”
I walked over to a closet and pulled out the First Aid kit, looking for a bandage.
“Does this happen often?”
“Once, a few months ago, an eight year old boy.” I chuckled as I recollected that one.
“You’re a junior Doctor?”
“No. Just Doctor.”
This finally seemed to placate him. “Can you look at this cut? Will I need stitches, Doctor?”
I grabbed a sterile napkin from the box, took it out of its sealed package and held it up to the cut. This close to him, I could see the tiny lines of age that were graciously emerging from the corners of his eyes. His skin was smooth. His features were soft; he had lived an easy life. I glanced over at his hand which he still kept close to his face, still holding a wet towel, and noticed that they were not the hands of a man who had labored.
The wound stretched about an inch and a half above his left eyebrow and down toward his nose. It was a deep cut. His nose, too, I could tell, had been broken before, and possibly again earlier.
“Probably. How’d you get here? Who’d you come with?”
“I flew here.”
“On a plane, Doctor.”
“No, just me.”
I stepped out into the eight and called my boss again and explained that the boy would need to go to the hospital. She told me to take him to Baptist just around the corner. “Don’t admit any guilt,” she suggested. “He’ll probably sue us.”
I verged on responding with indignity—I had breathed this boy’s breath and looked into his eyes— when I felt the ground shake. I did not know at the time that it was an explosion across town at a hall in the convention center. The crater it left on Lincoln Street (named for an obscure confederate major, not the nineteenth Century President) has yet to be repaired. I watched a tiny crack extend from the place in the wall where the greasy face-plant marker had begun my shift. It grew outward like a spider web, capillaries perhaps. Hollow-eyed, expressionless, marble, Roman busts watched with me as the giant glass wall crumbled twenty feet away.
Lawdy lawdy, brer fox, we got us a mess up in herr.
For a moment, I felt glass dust pelt my pant leg through the thick khaki uniform until a warm piercing captured my attention. I looked down to see a four-inch, sickle-shaped chard of glass hanging out of a bright red spot where my knee would normally have been. My pant legs were shredded.
I ran toward the bathroom to check on my patient.
He was sitting cross legged on the floor next to the closet from which I had originally fetched the first-aid kit. I watched his eyes trace my body up from my feet to my head, then back down; his gaze stopped at my knees, his eye level. The bleeding over his eye had stopped, and he continued to hold the wet rag in his left hand.
His drooped jaw betrayed anything that might have otherwise been cool indifference.
“Um, what was that?” He sat silently for thirteen seconds. “Doctor.”
I felt light-headed. Blood pooled at my feet.
I thought about the blackbird that I had saved at the age of ten. How many generations of blackbirds had grown from that single saved seed? I pictured Junior and Isaiah, in Boston and Atlanta, posing for portraits that might one day end up in a gallery like this one. I thought about my wife and the first time I saw her. I thought about the first time I made love to her. I thought about her heart of glass, and how badly I had shattered it when I was young.
The red puddle extending out along the travertine floor below me danced and rippled with the second explosion, this time nearer, much nearer, much much nearer! Blood from the floor splattered our faces. I fell in his direction. He stretched out in my direction to help temper my fall.
For a moment, we both lay on the cold spiney-cracked bathroom floor, fingertips outstretched, prostrate before each other. I must have hit my head pretty hard because when I opened my eyes, I was being dragged by him across the glass, marble, and canvas-riddled floor of the eight. His soft hands held me under the armpits and my unsturdy head drooped toward my chest. Breathing was difficult.
My mind answered, “Yes,” though my mouth did not concur.
“How do we get out of here?”
Limp people and people parts were strewn around us and, was that a jet engine?
“A plane just,” he started as he continued to pull me along the floor. I could only hear him as I half-sat facing the path that our bloody bodies cut through the debris and death. He never finished the sentence, though the circumstantial evidence indicated the obvious: a small plane had just crashed into the main gallery of the CoMA. I smelled diesel and smoke; I heard people screaming. I saw the blue sky through the hole ripped in the ceiling; steel girders dangled precariously downward. I looked back into the galleries as I was dragged toward the stairs which led to the first floor. The art exhibits floating along the floor were on fire; apparently the petroleum was being spread atop the water from burst sprinkler pipes.
I looked at my feet. My toes were exposed. My clothes were tattered. I was soaking wet. I looked down at the fingers of the hands that were dragging me and they were covered with blood. I could not determine if it was his or mine. I fought to rise on my own power, succeeded, and stood for a moment beside him as we speechlessly surveyed the disaster surrounding us. Yes, a plane had crashed into our museum. Everybody that was in the eight, the gallery, and most of the people who were on the grounded vessel of flight were instantly killed. Just forty feet away, in the bathroom, we were spared. The back wall collapsed and landed on me, but he managed to pull me out from under what was mostly drywall.
We carried each other down the stairs, listening to the increasingly loud mini-combustions behind us and the sound of sirens approaching from the outside. Three times, we stopped to check the vitals of corpses along our path. Three times we kept going, knowing that there was nothing we could do. Finally, I gained my composure enough to grab and shout into my walkie talkie. The only return sound was a low-hummed static.
Finally arriving at the shattered glass front door, we were both grabbled and ushered out of the building, where we sat on the stoop as a rush of firemen and paramedics flew in. We were seized by uniformed attendants who led us into the back of an ambulance. I held what should have been my hands in front of what should have been my face.
I was gone.
“Doctor,” I heard him say sheepishly as he wiped his bloody-again forehead with his shirtsleeve. Some time had passed; how much I was not sure. It certainly was long enough for him to have thought I wouldn’t wake up.
“Yes?” I responded, visibly scaring him. The look of shock on his face was as though he had seen a ghost.
He sat beside me and grimaced down in my direction as I lay still on the gurney, listening to the whir of the siren.
“Doctor. I thought…” he repeated, this time through sobs. The crimson flowing from his forehead converged with his tears as they streamed down in my direction and onto my chest.
“Tell me,” I said through labored breath, “what do you think of our fine museum?”
“I have seen better,” he answered with utter seriousness. When he realized that I was going to be alright, he launched into an unsolicited and passionate diatribe about art. He spoke of the now-obliterated space in a way that made me want to die for never appreciating the connections that were my nightly companions for the past six years. He trailed off, as the hysteria abated.
We were not the only people in triage at Memorial; we watched a steady stream of gruesomely mangled people flow in. From the hospital lobby where we lay, we could see the black smoke streaming into the clear sky as the ruddy, coral sun struggled to set. The burning cloud lingered in sight and seemed to float in our direction, carried by warm late-Spring wind.
We were among the least badly hurt. It was at the hospital that we learned about the first explosion—the one that was strong enough to bring down the glass wall in our museum before the plane even crashed into us—across town.
Baptist Hospital, which still shared some administrative offices with the museum building, was, itself, badly damaged by a third explosion which occurred after we had already been loaded into the ambulance and were en route to Memorial. It was completely unrelated to the first. Neither of the explosions was ever proven to be related to the plane crash.
It turns out that the first explosion was the opening salvo of something greater, something making Columbia strangely akin to the coastal relic Fort Sumter, marking a turn in the devices and mobilization of a new and de-centered anti-Federal armed and angry resistance. It was technically an assassination: a brazen and shocking attack on an election victory celebration. It was a violent answer to the failures of mob democracy and soulless capitalism.
“You alright son?”
“Yes, Doctor. You alright?”
“You think I’ll need stitches for this cut?”
“Probably, but I’m no expert.” I paused. “Hey, how you going to get home?”
“Fly, I guess.”En wid dat he skip out des ez lively as a cricket in de embers.