It was a Charles Mingus day. Old Gillespie, that Carolina trumpet brother from Cheraw, was back on the shelf. Instead, “Haitian Fight Song” filled Elijah’s ears this morning. It was a G-minor kind of day. When the rhythm of the instruments came together, Elijah could see dueling maroons, eyes locked, knives passed right to left, phrygian caps mixed with sweat, guayaberas saturated. That, at least, was the image in his mind as he walked up and gave his dull red 1972 Chevy Cheyenne pickup a kick with the side of his foot. That was his custom in the mornings. On this particular morning he and Bailey were out quite early. The sun hadn’t come up yet, though Elijah’s girlfriend Olive was up and preparing for work.
Elijah unscrewed the lid of his Thermos and smelled the coffee inside. The steam came towards his face and warmed his cheeks. ‘Yes, it will be some good coffee,’ he thought. Bailey came up slowly with his tennis ball in his mouth, still groggy. Elijah bent over and put his thumb and index finger on it, and the sleepy dog put up minimal resistance. He threw the ball hard and it went deep into the stand of oak and tulip trees on the other side of the property line. Bailey ran after it at three quarters of his midday pace. Looking back at the old truck, Elijah reached out his fingers and touched its side. Exactly the color and texture of rust. ‘It doesn’t get much better than that’.
The screen door shut with a bang and Olive stepped out. Her long, natural braids were up, and she was dressed for work at the office in a t-shirt, tights and sandals. The refugee resettlement office. Her role was hands-on, pantsuit off. She was not too keen on upgrading her wardrobe for a different position. If she wanted to do handshaking and grant-writing then she would have stayed in academia. By her expression Elijah could tell that she was still unhappy with him. “Hello, Eli” she said, continuing towards her car without pause, “Me a go to work. So what is it you do today?” Elijah followed her with his head as she spoke, leaning against the Chevy. He unscrewed the lid of the Thermos again and smelled the coffee. “I’m taking Bailey to Bold Moon. Don’t go to class today.” He looked up over the rim of the Thermos and saw Olive sitting in her car already, holding the door open.
“Don’t keep secret from me,” Olive said in her Nigerian accent, “Why aren’t you in bed? You didn’t teach trumpet last night?”
“I teach three classes tonight. That little Chinese boy cancelled on me.”
“Why did do that nah? Good for him, as I too know, hmm? You torture them children.”
“He… I think his mother had something different in mind. Marching band, or something.”
“You need you a new job, Eli.”
The two sat in silence, one against the truck and one holding the car door open. “I miss you,” he said. She smiled sympathetically as she closed the door, turned on the headlights and started the engine. Bailey walked around the front of her car, stared into the headlights briefly, then continued toward his owner. Elijah watched him smell his shoes as Olive’s car backed out of the driveway and drove off into the darkness. He thought back painfully on when they met three years ago, both volunteering with the refugee program. He a late bloomer barely shoved off from the corner liquor stores of South Carolina with a trumpet in hand, and her a promising student working her way into a new country with her head in her books. She whispered, in her maternal African way, “I will carry you on my back and wash you”. For his part, he picked up his horn and blurted “toot, toot”. That’s all he could ever manage. It had been enough. Going back to school was probably a mistake. Playing on the corners of Cheraw with a paperbagged bottle of 95% Everclear was a cultural practice that imbued him with purpose. Struggling to be a student and a professional musician was something else. He took it in stride, but he couldn’t feel like the man Olive had fallen in love with. Not anymore. Elijah screwed the lid back on the Thermos without taking a sip, opened the passenger door and whistled for Bailey to climb in. His eyes then stumbled onto his Zebco fishing rod and tackle box at the edge of the driveway, lying in the dirt.
He walked over and picked up the rod, turning the reel to check for moisture damage. It worked fine. He then opened the tackle box and lifted out of it a jar of neon green artificial chub bait. He opened it up and smelled it. It smelled rotten, like something a stupid little chub might still eat. He closed the jar and returned it to the tackle box, then carried the rod and box back to the pickup, dropping them into the bed. ‘There was a trajectory,’ he thought, ‘this didn’t just happen overnight.’ Bailey had dutifully remained on his side of the truck, eagerly expecting the ride and subsequent forest. Elijah started the engine and pulled out. ‘There’s been a trajectory to this point. There’s been a path that lead us here, for a reason. What was it?’ He remembered the conversation between him and Olive about her being Yoruba and Episcopalian. He had said, “Well, I’m Southern and Free Will Baptist, I suppose.” He then remembered when her aunt visited from Atlanta with her husband, a Nigerian of Igbo stock, and a raging evangelical. Elijah had gotten quite drunk the night they visited and watched him perform on Tate Street. Olive’s uncle nearly laid him out when he told the old man to “stop flapping your jaw”. Olive intervened, pulling him out of the bar by the arm.
“What is wrong with you?” She asked, stunned.
“He was flapping his jaw. His jaw was flappity-flap-flapping, and he was talking nonsense.”
“You must have respect for that man! He is older than you, and he is my family!”
“Listen, Olive, he was Bible thumping all night, alright? He’s a fundamentalist.”
“Oh, you know it, hmm? You know it all. All he said was he’s a Christian.”
“That among other things, but what he meant was that he rejects denominational distinctions, as in rejecting ecumenism, or dialogue between different denominations. He’s been brainwashed by some American missionaries who’ve been chased out of this country and are preying on developing nations. Ones who probably also fed him all that misogynistic, homophobic garbage he’s been on about. And didn’t you hear how he kept mentioning ‘Yoruba Muslims, Yoruba Muslims’?” Elijah raised his thumb and index finger to his temple and wiggled his wrist, saying, “There’s some weird African ethnic thing going on there. He’s unstable.”
“Oh, because Nigeria don’t have none of that garbage itself?” Olive said with one eyebrow raised. “He’s got his reasons, you know,” she added.
“Yes, reasons to talk incessantly about Hausa Muslims cutting off Christian heads. But I mention the Biafran War and all of a sudden I committed a faux pas. Who is this man?”
“He seems to be doing alright in Atlanta.”
“Yeah, driving an Uber and being a ‘Christian’. Hey, your point is proven. Nothin’ wrong with a man like that. Look, I would have gone on happily talking about Chinua Achebe and the music of Fela Kuti all night, but all of their talk about you moving to Atlanta…?”
“I want to live in Atlanta,” Olive said quietly, “I am from Lagos, I miss the city. There is more work, for me and for you.”
Elijah smiled, looked down at the sidewalk and scratched his head. “Yeah, maybe 2 Chainz needs a trumpet player.”
Olive laughed. “Hey, maybe,” she said. “So can you not respect that man a little? At least for his years?”
“He’s brainwashed, man”
“An aren’t we all tryin to follow a white person or two?”
“Well, the difference is you and I are here talking about it. We’re able to talk about it.”
Olive folded her arms and exhaled deeply.
“Not me, though. Obviously,” Elijah said, as they both turned to reenter the bar. “I’m Elijah X,” he said, putting the trumpet to his mouth and fingering the valves without blowing.
“You mean Elijah Muhammad?” Olive joked.
“No, I’m just a ‘Christian’,” he said. So that was the trajectory.
Elijah pulled the truck off the empty road in front of a deer crossing sign. It was still dark out. He could smell the fresh forest air through his cracked window. He cut off the headlights and looked at Bailey. The pitbull was sitting on his butt with a tight mouthed expression. “You stay,” Elijah said. He got out and walked around the truck, opening the toolbox. ‘Maybe African Orthodoxy would have been an option. Saint John Coltrane.’ Elijah began digging through the toolbox. ‘No, what mattered was that this had nothing to do with God, nor with Elijah, nor with Cheraw, nor with jazz.’ He pulled out a red circular reflector and thought about Rudolph for a moment. He threw it back into the toolbox. ‘Listen to you, so self-centered. But then again, this is the only path to God I know. Each will have their own.’ He fished out a permanent marker and turned toward the deer crossing, considering jet propulsion or flatulence. ‘I am a sinner,’ he thought. Bailey’s ears were back against the top of his head as he watched out of the passenger window with great concern. Elijah made up his mind: explosive diarrhea. He grabbed a footstool out of the bed and walked up to the deer crossing sign. He began his ornamentation from the leaping animal’s anus. “It’s the Asperger’s!” he mumbled to himself, repeating the excuse he’d always been prepared to use. He hadn’t been diagnosed, but he figured he could swing a diagnosis. Fixation on jazz and morbid thoughts, semantic-pragmatic language disorder when speaking to Nigerian Pentecostals… maybe there’d be a monthly check in that for him, too… as an Asperger-American.
A noise interrupted him. He suddenly saw a large doe standing fifteen feet away behind the sign. Elijah and the doe made eye contact. They seemed to remain that way for a long time, the man frozen on his footstool with his marker in hand, mid-diarrhea. The doe was beautiful. Were there more?
Elijah saw the reflection of headlights in the doe’s eyes before it jumped twice back into the woods. He ran into them, too, dropping his back against a pine tree. He slowly rotated his body around and peeked behind the tree at the Chevy. Bailey still watched him, a little more inquisitive this time. The dog turned his head as the headlights passed, then returned his gaze to his owner.
That hadn’t been the only sign of he and Olive’s trajectory. There was MLK Day, when the refugee center planned to march with some refugees in the Greensboro parade under a banner of “Identity”. That was it. The call to arms, as it went out in emails and posters, was just “Identity”. Elijah couldn’t wrap his mind around this. He said, “Yes, I know, you know I volunteered at the center, too. I care about them all. But let’s look at some facts: North Carolina has ranked 8 out of 50 for states taking the most refugees this year. At the same time rural, poor, and black longtime residents have been disenfranchised more and more. Since 2010 this state has been an Art Pope and Koch Brothers’ libertarian experiment to flip the most progressive state in the South and squelch the Democratic shift in its national voting habits. The recent legislative coup in Raleigh made possible by racial gerrymandering…”
“Oh, you know it, hmm?” she interrupted.
“The example for progressive Southern politics today has been set in this state, by the Moral Mondays, and the Poor People’s Campaign — It’s breaking the stranglehold, it’s bridging the exacerbated divisions between urban and rural, black and white… tell me, how many times did MLK mention ‘identity’?”
“I don’t know,” Olive said, bitterly, “I’m Nigerian.”
That was their trajectory.
The sun was beginning to rise as the rust-red Chevy pickup reached the end of the long, dirt road leading to Bold Moon. Elijah opened the passenger door to find Bailey’s nose protruding into his coat fabric. “Beat it,” he said, backing off. Bailey hopped down and begin sniffing the gravel of the parking lot. Elijah closed the door and look out over the tall grass standing immediately before him, between the parking spaces and the woods. There stood the remnants of the Bold Moon farm: a chicken coop, a pig pen, a few picnic tables, a few shacks. There in the midst of them all there stood a short figure with long, gray hair in a fatigue jacket. Elijah grabbed his rod and tackle box and began walking towards the assorted wood structures and the person who among them. Halfway there she turned briefly, aware of his presence, then turned back to face one of the structures.
“Howdy,” Elijah called when he was about ten feet away.
“Hi there,” the old woman answered, looking over her shoulder, “Yer in luck, there. The catfish in the fork get ta be as long as yer arm.”
“Oh, really?” smiled Elijah, lifting up his rod and tackle box and looking at them. “You come here often?” Elijah was now right next to the woman, looking at the same structure.
“They’re really lettin the vines overwhelm the goatshed,” the woman said, “We usta keep it so trimmed and tidy.”
Elijah’s eyes widened. “You were part of Bold Moon?”
“I reckon so,” she replied listlessly.