Jan 24 2013 4:00pm
Stepping Stone and The Love Machine (Excerpt)
Two excerpts for the price of one! Take a look at Walter Mosley's Stepping Stone and The Love Machine, out in one volume on April 2:
New York Times bestselling author Walter Mosley delivers two speculative tales where truth forever changes the way life, death, good, and evil are understood. Walter Mosley’s talent knows no bounds. Stepping Stone and The Love Machine are complete short novels in which Mosley entertainingly explores life’s cosmic questions. From life’s meaning to the nature of good and evil, these tales take us on speculative journeys beyond the reality we have come to know. In each tale someone in our world today is given insight into these long pondered mysteries. But how would the world really receive the answers?
“Excuse me,” a young woman said from behind.
The elevator car was stopped at the nineteenth floor of the Westerly Building and my mail cart was blocking her exit. But the thing was I didn’t notice her standing there behind me and when I had gotten in the elevator car had been empty, I was sure of that.
I had worked for Higgenbothem, Brightend, and Hoad for twenty-one years with nothing out of the ordinary happening. I mean, there was the World Trade Center disaster down around Wall Street and some freakish weather now and again; we, the nation, were fighting a war against somebody, and preparing to fight against somebody else, in the Middle East, though no one seemed to be quite sure who the enemy actually was. There were economic reversals and the rent, for most New Yorkers, had gone through the upstairs neighbor’s roof but nothing unusual had happened within the confines of HBH proper.
My employer occupied floors sixteen to twenty-two in the Westerly Building on East Fifty-sixth Street. I worked in the mailroom, had done so since my first day on the job in 1986. I started out as a mail delivery clerk and had ended up the manager of the department. There were just three employees in my section. The only difference between me and my two, perpetually temporary, subordinates was a title and $4.65 an hour. Kala Daws and Pete Mulray were responsible for floors sixteen to twenty-one, whereas I only had to deliver mail on the top floor and do the managerial paperwork for our small section, that was once a hallway, on floor seventeen.
I never was sure exactly what HBH did. It had something to do with finance and there were executives from around the globe that spent as much as twenty-four hours a day studying graphs and documents in foreign languages on their huge plasma screens. I didn’t even know the names of most of the languages nor did I understand the significance of the charts. But that wasn’t unusual. I had, what they called at my uptown high school, a learning disability. Information made it into my mind but unless it had some direct relation to the way I saw the world I wasn’t normally capable of using it. And the way I saw things had very little in common with my teachers, at least most of them.
“That don’t sound like no disability to me,” my aunt Tiny used to say when my counselors called. “Sounds more like common sense.”
Earlier on I had problems with what my teachers termed as “communication skills.” I couldn’t speak clearly and often used words in the wrong order when under pressure or confused. I could write okay and I had been reading voraciously since the age of six. I didn’t have trouble putting words down on, or picking them up from, paper but people didn’t want to read the notes of a boy who had a perfectly good voice and most of my teachers didn’t believe I was really reading the books that I carried everywhere.
My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Boucher, used to keep me after school and worked to help me think about how I put my words together. We would sit for hours in the study room of the library and talk. Whenever I made a mistake she would look at me and touch my hand. I’d realize what I had done wrong and repeat the phrase correctly. By the sixth grade I rarely misspoke anymore.
Miss Boucher cured my disability but I was already tagged as a slow learner and mildly retarded so I was shunted down a particular path of learning that was inapplicable to my needs but still valid, in a way—because all my teachers, except Miss Boucher, believed that I couldn’t be taught.
I wasn’t bothered much by what people thought, however. School didn’t interest me very much and I spent most of the time considering simple things like ants and cloud formations; the way brides smile on their wedding days and all the possible patterns that water can make if you turn on the faucet quickly and then slam it shut. Sometimes I’d sit all day in my small eastside apartment watching the various arrangements of people as they walked down the street.
The year before that girl appeared behind me on the elevator I went back to my old elementary school and asked if Miss Boucher still taught there. It was a long shot but I remembered she was young when I was in her class and I had just that March reached the age of forty.
“And who’s asking?” the head of the office inquired.
“My name is Truman Pope,” I said. “I used to go to school here and Miss Boucher taught me to get my words right.”
The registrar, Nancy Bendheim, had a stern visage and a reluctant air about her. But when I explained how Boucher had impacted my life she smiled a real smile and nodded.
“Alana still teaches here,” the registrar told me. “She’s in class right now but she’ll be finished at eleven thirty. If you’d like to wait . . .”
Mrs. Bendheim let me sit in a parent-teacher conference room down the hall from her office. The room was quite small with a beat-up old class table for a desk and two chairs. It was a grim place with light green, stained walls and a pitted wooden floor. But there was a window that looked out into the branches of an oak tree. The lunch courtyard was on a lower level than the entrance of the school and so the room was one floor up. There were all kinds of activities going on among the branches. Spring leaves, that youthful kind of green, and insects, caterpillars, sparrows, starlings, and even one frisky gray squirrel. There were initials carved here and there by brave student climbers and a pair of tennis shoes that had the laces tied together hanging from a precarious branch that was, no doubt, too perilous a place for the custodial staff to reach.
Those shoes caught my attention. They were old and weathered, had probably been hanging there for a few years. I imagined the boy who, after having outgrown his old footwear, wanted to get one more bit of use out of them. I thought of how happy he must have been when the bolo he threw grabbed on to that skinny branch. Did he pass by below every day in the lunch court and look up to see his finest hour?
“Truman?” a gentle voice said.
Turning away from the window I saw her through a small boy’s eyes. She was still slender, still copper skinned with brown eyes. Her brown hair had become mostly gray but that was the only difference. Judging from her face she had not aged a day since the afternoon I had said, “I watch go him,” and she touched the back of my hand so lightly that it almost tickled.
“Is that really you?” she asked, a friendly smile brightening the dull room.
“Um,” I said, unable to keep from grinning myself. “I, uh, I came by because I had the day off and I was walking around the old neighborhood and remembered, I mean thought about you.”
Miss Boucher moved to the chair next to my station at the window and sat so gracefully that I experienced a sudden intake of breath as I used to when I had my schoolboy crush on her.
“How are you doing, Truman?”
“I was just walking around the old neighborhood . . .”
She touched my hand to get me beyond the skip in the scratched record of my mind.
“I wanted to see if you were still here to ask you something,” I said.
“What’s that?” she asked.
I remember looking into her eyes amazed that more than thirty years had elapsed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean I guess it was just to say thank you. You know you were the only teacher I ever had who didn’t think I was an idiot. I mean . . . They always said that I had a learning disorder but, but . . .”
“But that’s just because they couldn’t understand you,” the older but still lovely teacher said, finishing my words now because there was no more I had to learn.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“So you just came by to say thank you?” she asked me.
“Didn’t you always used to say to me that if there was something then there was always something else?” I asked.
Miss Boucher smiled.
“Yeah, so,” I blundered on, “I guess I came here because I wanted to see you again and to thank you for helping me be okay with things.”
“What things?” she asked.
Answering that one question I must have rambled on for half an hour. I told her about how I had been labeled overactive by school officials and how I could never go to college. I couldn’t have gone anyway because my aunt Tiny got sick when I graduated high school and I had to work to help her until she was old enough for the state to foot the bill. I talked about my job and how much I liked moving from station to station delivering mail to people who rarely realized that I was even there.
“. . . and, anyway, I was, I just wanted to say thanks. You know most of my teachers never liked me. Or maybe not, I mean they didn’t not like me it’s just that they didn’t care and they didn’t understand. I mean I don’t think that it was because I’m black or anything. Tish Loman and Ronnie Dewar got along with some of the same teachers in different classes and they didn’t have any problems. But it was just that nobody would ever listen. I tried, I tried to do how you taught me but . . .
“Anyway. I’m not complaining, it’s just that I always think about how nice you were and how the reason I can do my job and make it to manager is because you showed me how to see things and say them too. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with me—”
“Certainly not,” Alana Boucher agreed.
There we were, in that ugly room sitting on the wrong side of the window, next to the branches of an ancient oak. Miss Boucher put her hand on mine as she had done so many years before.
“So you’re still here,” I said to fill in the silence.
“Where else would I be?” she said.
“If you taught all the classes in this school I wouldn’t have been called stupid by anybody and I could have gone to college,” I said.
“And what would you have done then?” she asked, smiling, holding my hand.
“I could have been one of those guys in suits making good money. My aunt Tiny wouldn’t be in a rest home but in a good place or in her own home with a nurse to make sure she takes her meds . . .” I wanted to say more but if I kept talking I would have started crying.
“I bet you visit your auntie every week,” Miss Boucher said.
I did see Aunt Tiny on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and most Saturdays. But nobody knew that. I remembered then that Miss Boucher seemed to know what I was thinking and what I was doing without me having to say. It was like she could see into my mind.
“And those people who work in those offices don’t know birdcalls and how clouds spin,” she continued. “They don’t know how to sit down and watch and listen so closely that the world seems to stop.”
She said more but I stopped listening to the words and went into a kind of trance. As I sat there and looked out I could see three hundred and sixty degrees around me, more, because I could see above and below too. The three dimensions of space flattened out in front of me and I could see it all as if it was on a movie screen. There was no up or down, front or back.
I remembered then why I had missed Miss Boucher so much. Often when I was with her as a child I had the experience of wide perception. I could see a spider crawling on the wall behind me and feel the wind against the window outside. The world became larger and more intricate.
In that ugly green room I could feel the grin on my lips and energy thrumming from the boiler room three floors below. I could feel the sky even and, when everything inside me went still, I perceived glimmers of life outside in the hallway and down in the lunch yard.
I knew that it was just an illusion but it felt good . . . like everything.
“But,” I said, coming out of the reverie, “but those guys at HBH are rich. Nobody wants to pay me to sit and watch bugs crawl.”
“Maybe you aren’t watching closely enough,” Alana Boucher suggested.
I don’t remember much after that. I sat forward in my chair to hear her better and she took my hand in both of hers. We talked, I’m sure of that, but I didn’t remember a word of what we said until the end when we were standing outside on the sidewalk in front of the school.
“You have to pay very close attention, Truman,” she was telling me. “The truth will reveal itself if you watch with intention.”
“Why were you always so nice to me?” I asked her. The answer to that question was the real reason I had come.
For a moment she just stood there looking at something above my head.
“I loved spending time with you,” she said at last. “The other teachers never understood how special you were. When we would sit in the remedial room and talk I began to feel elation and hope. You would show me things outside the window—birds and bulky little beetles trundling along. It was like you gave me a new pair of eyes.”
I came there to thank my teacher but our last words were her expression of gratitude. I left her feeling mildly confused but happy, still and all.
That evening I went to visit Aunt Tiny at Eastside Nursing Home for the Elderly. She was in the ward on the fourth floor near a window that looked down on Eighty-third Street. I had moved to the eastside in order to be close to her.
Tiny weighed well over three hundred pounds and she was shorter even than I am.
The hippopotamus and the spider monkey, she used to say when I was small and she held me in her arms looking into the full-length plastic dressing mirror she had in her bedroom.
The world and her moon, I would respond, remembering a phrase from a children’s book I’d once read.
“Hi, monkey,” she said when I pulled up a stool next to her chair by the window.
“Hi, Aunt Tiny.”
Tiny wasn’t small and she wasn’t old either. But at sixty-eight, with nearly twenty years of retirement already behind her, she had done forty years of hard labor and was, as she said, just tired—body and soul.
“What you do at work today, sugar?” she asked me.
The two things that Tiny and I had in common were our dark skin tones and the fact that we liked to sit and talk at the end of the day.
“I took the day off.”
“You played hooky from work?” she asked with a mischievous smile on her broad mouth.
“I took a personal day and went to my old school to see Miss Boucher.”
“She still walk there?”
“How is that nice lady?” Tiny asked. She lived in a rest home not for her mind but simply because she was too tired even to walk more than a few paces on her own.
I told Tiny about our talk and when I was finished she said, “Remember, Baby, anything Miss Boucher says is important. Even if you don’t understand, even if you don’t remember exactly what she said, you keep them words in your heart because that woman know sumpin’.”
And so a year had gone by and I watched everything that happened around me. I watched walls and floors, the ceilings and the people who never noticed me. I sat in my one-room apartment and looked out of the window at the brick buildings across the street.