After flying the pigeons for a few minutes Vincent was sweating again—still must have been pushing ninety—so he led the birds back into the coop and locked them up. Preacher Stanley Greene had already ducked back into the car to wait in the AC, where Vincent joined him.
“That was something to see,” Stanley said.
“It really was,” Vincent said, checking the shoulders of his shirt. “They crap all over the place, though.”
“Vietnamese homing pigeons,” Stanley said. “You know,” he continued, “there’s something I have to tell you.” He was looking dead ahead at the padlocked coop, the wood bleached under the car’s headlights. “Your father was a troubled man, Vince.”
And, to Vincent, something in that word, troubled, something about its vagueness, its formality, frightened him, like saying someone’s sick when you really mean cancer, when you really mean terminal, and last stages, and hospice, saying someone’s sick when what you really mean to say is something like your daddy ain’t waking up again. “Troubled how?” he asked.
“He confessed to me once.” Stanley gestured to the greenhouse. “I’d come out to buy some jasmine, to dress the railing on the church steps. I complimented him on his operation out here—he had this whole place filled with flowers, every color you could think of. Got them to grow out of this tough Georgia clay, too, which was really something, Vince. And he told me that he’d done all of it out of guilt, out of a great debt.” Stanley turned to Vincent. “He told me about you, Vince, about you and your mother leaving.”
Vincent felt stiff hearing this, stopped cold, confused, his hope and his anger fighting it out, because, contrary to what his mom always told him, if his father had talked about him to the preacher, it meant that his father hadn’t simply just forgotten him. And whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, Vincent just could not say—not right then, and not for a long time after.
“For years, your dad worked in chemicals, in pesticides,” Stanley continued. “For the military. In Vietnam. He told me he helped make something in the war that we used to kill crops, and it killed thousands of people, too, thousands of innocent people. Agent Orange. Ever heard about that?”
“No,” Vincent said. Though his mom had told him his dad had been in the army, and he’d heard how bad Vietnam was, he hadn’t known about any chemicals.
“It was a secret,” Stanley said. “That’s what your father told me. It was a secret, and he felt like he’d killed all these people and still had to be quiet about it. Wouldn’t say anything, even when the chemicals came back to kill him in the end. Thought of himself as a bad man and couldn’t see otherwise—couldn’t treat your mother right, couldn’t treat you right. Could only do this one thing.” Stanley indicated the gardens. He turned to Vincent. “I’m telling you this for your own good. So you know that about your father, that even though your momma left him, he was a good man. A good man who’d done some things in his life he felt very wrongly about.”
Vincent felt he’d been knocked back into his seat, like they hadn’t been parked at all, but had instead been accelerating at a fantastic rate. He felt transported in time, like he somehow knew exactly what his father had been feeling, though Vincent couldn’t say just why he knew it. It could be that seeing his father’s life here in Milledgeville had done it, that the desperate environs here had somehow proved at last his father’s guilt, had condemned him while simultaneously offering him a way out. Because that was the type of place Milledgeville was: damning and forgiving. Or, Vincent thought, when he thought harder, it could be that looking at our environments for explanation is flat-out wrong, that what we see in our environment, what we see when we’re looking out, is really just a manifestation of what we are inside, of what we can’t see otherwise, and so maybe his own sudden insight into righteous wrongdoing, that collision of damnation and redemption, the feeling of having at once committed and atoned for a great error, this feeling was already inside him, was put there by his father and now lay dormant in Vincent’s own blood, and was just waiting to be activated, by vision, by choice, or by fate.
When they got back to the apartment, Vincent noticed a white kid loping up the steps to their building. Tangled hair past his shoulders, a dark green t-shirt and long cargo shorts that reached his calves—Vincent put him around twenty. Stanley called out, “Hey.”
The kid had paused on the stoop and was looking up, reading the address, then spun around and looked searchingly in several directions. Vincent had never seen a white kid walking anywhere on MLK, figured this dude here must be lost, drunk or high or something.
“Hey,” Stanley called again. His voice was deep and clipped, it punched through the night.
The long-haired kid looked down, broke into a smile. “Oh, hey man.” He had a big, open face, looked like a good kid to Vincent. Stoned, though.
“Don’t want you round here,” Stanley said, approaching the steps briskly. He didn’t seem like he was kidding around. “Get on out.”
“Wow, man, hold on,” the kid said, holding both palms up. He looked in about three different directions before picking one and heading down the stoop, loping away, hiking up his pants, not looking back.
Vincent turned to Stanley, his chest puffed, his chin set. Stanley shook his head. “Drug dealer,” he said. He lifted his hand and pointed. “Look.”
Vincent turned, saw the white kid jogging back across MLK, hand on his belt, the pockets of his cargo shorts swinging, bulging, clearly weighted.
“He comes around a lot,” Stanley said, ambling up the steps. “He’s high and gets lost, looking for where he’s supposed to deliver. He’ll try five or six different addresses.”
Vincent, still under the influence of his father, the spell of seeing all those pigeons in flight, that garden that guilt had grown, felt his heart go out to this kid—another good person doing the wrong thing. “He looked all right to me,” Vincent said.
Stanley gripped the railing and paused at this, seemed to rethink things. “He’s all right,” he said. “Just a fool selling marijuana to white kids, finds himself on the wrong side of the street.” He turned, continued up the steps. “You’re right, Vince. You’re right. But also.” Stanley paused and turned to look at Vincent. “He’s a harbinger.”
“A harbinger.” Stanley waved in the direction the young dealer had gone. “Means something else is coming.”
“What’s coming?” Vincent asked.
Stanley looked at Vincent like he was dumb, and Vincent felt their understanding had disappeared, that whatever other plane of maturity they’d previously been sharing had dissolved right under his feet, and he was suddenly aware again of a number of things at once, things that all felt to him like holes, like negative space, like his soul had empty pockets—among them his youth, his family, the gulf of experience between Stanley and himself, the past, the present, and the future.
“School’s starting,” said Stanley.
And so the students began trickling back into town. Vincent could first tell by shifts in the traffic music: more machine-gun noise from huge white-boy trucks; and in counterpoint, immaculate Volkswagen Passats sliding past in preternatural quiet, piloted by a bulb of golden hair. MLK was also close enough to campus to hear the laughs and the commercial hip-hop and the shattering glass and deep calls of “Ohhhh shit!” from the frat houses on the weekends, and for a while, that was the only indication of higher education that seeped into Vincent’s neighborhood. The lines had been drawn in Milledgeville, and drawn hard and well, but, again, you can’t redistrict sound. Vincent, though, now wished they could.
Because right about this very time, when the sidewalks on the other side of MLK were crawling with rich white kids, Vincent’s building was also crawling. Bed bugs had invaded, suddenly and inexplicably, and soon enough Vincent couldn’t sleep through a night. He took to trying to catch some sleep in his chair out on the stoop, going out there during those “too” hours, when you couldn’t tell if it was too late or too early, those fragile, eggshell hours that were cracked not by sunrise, but by the escalation of traffic, that modern mechanical rooster that now heralded the dawn. After spending a few of these miserable nights alone out there, other building residents started joining him on the stoop, sleeping in their kitchen chairs and couch cushions and inflatable inner tubes. During these nights among the poor and the neglected—the Stoop People, as Vincent came to think of them—that big check from The New Kroger really started burning in Vincent’s pocket, and he wanted badly, so badly in these late hours, to just sell out his father’s memory, to hand the greenhouse and all the fields over to Gene Canton and The New Kroger for development, to cash the check and use some of the money to properly fumigate this building, to give all these folks sleeping out here on the stoop a literal new lease. And probably to buy himself a car. A truck. Slow riding. Low. Black. Sidestep. Because Vincent also knew that if he did sell out, he’d have nothing holding him here, which meant he’d have to make a choice: if he wanted to stay, he’d have to choose Milledgeville, he’d have to find a reason to stay here. And as anyone could tell you, nobody in the modern era, perhaps maybe outside of the clergy, nobody has ever chosen Milledgeville. So it’s either that or leave town, and the greenhouse would become a Verizon franchise or something, and his father’s memory would fade, unhonored, dishonored, and he, Vincent, by helping the Stoop People, and by helping himself, would have done the right thing for the wrong reasons. So when he couldn’t abide the pitiful scene on the stoop any longer, when check from The New Kroger became too much to bear, he got up and took himself for a walk.
The night amplified Milledgeville. Vincent would amble down MLK, past the empty bottles, empty oversized soda fountain cups, title pawns, flowerbeds made out of old tires, passing crackheads, methheads, the mentally ill, drunk and shuffling wraiths lapsing in and out of orange sodium streetlight, who were either blind or chose not to see him, either that or the darkness on this edge of MLK had physical properties, and so Vincent crossed the street and cut up one, two, three blocks, and suddenly he was downtown, on the college strip, and it was like someone had flicked a switch, the change was so quick, like he’d traveled three hundred blocks, or three hundred years, and he’d entered a sphere of clear and weightless light, a safety net cast by phalanxes of blue/white streetlamps, each with an iron band around its glass dome which bore the initials of the college, and above him now was not that hazy, sick orange sodium glow but the nurturing sprawl of live oak limbs, and the many angles of lamplight gave each single leaf several shadows, of several shades, a kaleidoscope of gray thrown onto the sidewalk and the stonework of the storefronts, restaurants, and bars, where inside, behind plate glass, ruddy young men in pastel Polo shirts and ball caps punched shoulders and called for shots, and both country and hip-hop boomed, though Vincent could count the number of black students he saw on one hand, noting the double doors carefully, the signs on them reading For the safety of all our customers please remove your hood, even though it was the middle of summer, these same double doors bursting open and chains of blondes streaming out, all in high heels and baubles, white shorts and shirts the colors of tropical birds, arms hooked, some doubling over and laughing, some throwing their heads back, mouths so wide Vincent could see flashes of bubble gum, some just frowning and pushing their way steadily forward, dissatisfied with their night and detaching from their chain, high heels clacking angrily, purse straps never sitting quite right, their eyes never meeting Vincent’s, though he always arched his brow as they passed, intent on appearing sweet, but well aware that he did not appear sweet, not here, out on the sidewalk and outside the bars, standing alone under the flickers of several-shadowed leaves, and even these lonely, angry girls passed him without looking, maybe without even seeing him, and it was only this selective blindness—his own insignificance—this and only this that seemed to unite the two distinct sides that Vincent saw to Milledgeville at night: that he, Vincent, mattered little to either.
And just then a remarkable thing happened: someone said hello. And even in silhouette Vincent recognized him—the long tangled hair, the hitched, loping gait. It was the drug dealer, the harbinger. And in his silhouette Vincent saw everything all at once, saw it as a slate of blackboard, a slate quickly filling up with ideas—he, Vincent, could keep the greenhouse and help the Stoop People; he could support the church without having to attend; he could honor his father and reward himself. He, Vincent, who until now had felt alien to all communities, so out of joint here, might actually be the linking unit, the one to unite Milledgeville’s two parts, the wrong and the right, the damned and the forgiven, and he understood what he wanted to do with the greenhouse now, what he could do with it, and this was why, as the drug dealer approached him, Vincent said hello back.
Vincent’s story will continue in the next installment of The New Kroger.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.