Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Strange Plots 11

With thanks to ML., NREMT-P, my man in the know about the details Vin would know. 



One benefit of being the unemployed member of a well-off household is that you can pick up and drive somewhere at short notice without worrying about how you’re going to afford gas or food. Vin was getting off shift, so, I made the drive to Titusville again, leaving the house before there was any chance of my mother getting home. The road had etching its way into my heart. Now I knew when to anticipate the tight curve that descended to the woodland bridge over a rivulet, and the places where farm and forest gave way to each other as the road skirted Brush Mountain, and the turn before Catawba where I left the valley and began to ascend to the heights.

I pulled into a slanted parking space in front of the diner and saw Vin waiting outside for me, slumped against the cold. He was tired, and more than tired — pale and drained despite the sun tangling fire-like in his hair.

“Wake up, I’m here,” I said, slapping his cheek lightly. “You look dead. Long shift?”

“Yeah, sorry,” he said, and shook himself. “Is it that obvious?”

“Obvious that you’re sorry, or obvious that you’re worn out? You have a job and you're making money and saving lives, and you’re human enough to be exhausted, and now you’re wasting precious energy apologizing to me for it, so no wonder you’re tired.”

“Sorry, I guess it does get old.”

I groaned in fond exasperation. “Do you do that on purpose?”

The diner was a different place on a quiet weekday than it had been during the chaos of the Fall Festival. We sat at a window booth and ordered at our leisure from large laminated menus. Sunlight bounced off of an old-fashioned springy metal napkin holder, casting a healthy glow over Vin. A revolving cast of regulars made entrances and exits through the glass street door, but we were cozy in our private little world of flecked formica tabletop, just he and I, no one to interrupt us…

“Back with your cousin, Vin?” the cook asked, leaning over the counter. “You found your great-grandpa yet?”

Not so private, then.

“Oh, we’re further back than that,” I announced, relishing Vin’s kick at my ankle. “We’re trying to find great-great-grandpa.”

"Too many greats for me, honey,” she said. “You want real memory, you gotta talk to someone like Eugene. Eugene!” she bawled to a geezer basking in the sunny table in the corner. “Bring your brain over here!”

Vin protested weakly that we were doing fine on our own, we didn’t need any help, we didn’t want to bother anyone.

“Will ya listen to him,” said the cook to me, or to herself. “He’d die apologizing before he’d ask anyone for help. All that side of the family, don’t ask for nothing.”

Eugene shuffled up to the counter, white wisps of hair still shaped to the ball cap he’d taken off when he entered the diner.

“I thought you only loved me for my body,” he said to the cook with creaky good cheer.

“Get out before I throw you out,” said the cook without rancor. “Hey Eugene, you remember Kay Titus’s mother?”

“You mean Helen Titus?” he said, lighting up. “Oh, she was a looker, that gal. I wouldn’t have minded taking her out, but she wanted something better. Nothing came of that except the usual — a baby to mind and no man to help around the house.”

“But what about Helen’s mother?” Vin, for all his unwillingness to have anyone else rooting around in the family laundry, was feeling the buzz of new information.

Eugene pondered. “Helen didn’t see her mother too much, I don’t think.”

“Didn’t see her mother? Why?” I asked. “Was she dead?”

“Well, not at first,” Eugene said. “But Helen never did live with her. Some of the other Tituses raised her, mostly. Now, what was the mother’s name?”

“Lavinia,” Vin said. “Lavinia Titus.”

“Ohhh, Lavinia, that’s right. Old Titus’s girl.” Eugene lowered himself into the booth to ruminate in earnest. Vin and I barely dared to breath lest we derail his train of thought.

“I don’t know that Lavinia was ever around,” he said after having chewed his cud for a moment. “I think they said she was in some institution, a home or a hospital. Anyway, she never lived in town, that I know of.”

“An institution?” Vin gently shredded his paper napkin into limp strips. “Why? What was wrong with her?”

“I never heard that part,” said Eugene. “If you were in a home in those days, you were just gone. I never heard my parents say anything about it other than that it was a shame.”

“But this is Titusville!” Vin burst out, sweeping up the pieces of napkin in frustration. “Nobody has any secrets here. Old Titus’s daughter in an institution, and there aren’t legends handed down from father to son about Crazy Lavinia? I would have thought it would have been the only thing people remembered. I’m surprised we ever talk about anything else.”

The old man looked at the young man with compassion. “It was a long long time ago, son. Maybe at one point people talked about it, but lots has happened since then. You youngsters don’t understand how hard the depression hit up here on the mountain. Some people lost their farms. Some people starved. Then our boys went off to war and never came home, and every family had their own tragedy to deal with after that.”

“My Uncle Rod died in action in Sicily,” the cook volunteered. “That was before I was born even, but I grew up with him just the same.”

Memory possessed Eugene. “I was the baby of my family, all boys. My oldest brother Virgil was lost at sea when the U.S.S. Johnston sank in Leyte Gulf. Maybe he got off first, we don’t know. My mama used to have nightmares about him being dragged to the bottom of the ocean in the ship. Twenty thousand feet down.”

The door bells jingling cheerfully as someone came into the diner, but I felt only the silence of four miles of black water pressing down on me.

Eugene stirred and carefully tucked away seven decades of grief. “Anyway, if Old Titus didn’t want his daughter talked about, people probably never knew much about what happened to her in the first place. They said he was a close one, that man, and prouder than God.”

“Shouldn’t the phrase be ‘prouder than the devil'?” asked the new arrival. I recognized the rich cadence and turned to see the Nigerian priest from Sacred Hearts, unwrapping a vivid scarf and puffing on his chilled fingers.

“Hello, Father,” I said, delighted to see the one person in town I had met all by myself. “Did you walk over from the church?”

“I did, and it is a day for moving fast,” he responded. “Hello again to you. You have come back to visit us.”

“Yes.” And on a whim, I added, “Sit with us. Please?”

Eugene raised himself rustily from the booth and nodded to the priest without committing himself. “Padre,” he said formally, and went back to his own table. The cook, who had shamelessly ignored the grill as Eugene talked, nodded as well and waddled back to her station.

“Are you always the life of the party like this, Father?” I asked, surveying our depleted company.

“I am, where I am known,” Father said, unoffended. “But being known is sometimes the hardest part of my job, and these are not my sheep to know my voice right away.” He extended his hand to Vin. “I am Father Leonard from the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church. I have met your friend but do not know her name, and I have seen you before, when you came to the church with the ambulance during Mass when Mr. Jones fainted.”

Vin reached his hand across the table. “Vincent Titus,” he said.

“Ah, so you have found your family after all,” Fr. Leonard said to me. “The Tituses of Titusville. Congratulations.”

“Well, yes and no,” I said. “Vin is related to my grandfather’s mother somehow. But I was looking for my grandfather's father too, the man of African descent.” And I told him the legend of the lynching, and of Aaron Moore left at the Catholic orphanage in Roanoke. I chose my words carefully, trying to report instead of feel, but my voice still shook as I described the corn maze and my own violent reaction to violence.

To my surprise, Vin took my part, squeezing my hand for emphasis. “But she was caught off guard, Father Leonard. You have to understand — that kind of evil, and happening to your own family… Anyone would be upset.”

“Yes. I can understand,” Father said gravely. His thoughts seemed to be half a world away. My own thoughts were right here at the table, pulsing to the beat of Vin pressing my hand. He had spoken up for me. He had spoken up to defend my yelling and my overreaction, the same things that always got me into trouble. When had anyone ever tried to understand me when I was angry? When had anyone ever asked someone else to be patient with me when I was melting down? Probably Vin thought my rage was righteous enough to be justified, and that was nice. But what if — just what if? — he actually cared enough about me to defend me even when I was being an idiot? Anyone can stand up for you when you’re dignified and elegant and stuff. But it takes a special kind of loyalty to have someone’s back when they’re acting the fool. Maybe that seems stupid to you. So what. It matters to me.

“Aaron Moore, a black child, or half black, from Titusville, brought to a Catholic orphanage.” Father shook his head. “It leaves many questions to be answered. But you have found your way this far. God is the Divine Author. He has already written the ending of this story, and every story.” He stood with us as we prepared to leave. “I am very interested to hear what you discover. It’s not often I meet someone coming to Titusville hoping to find a black man.”

Vin was suddenly anxious. “We don’t get a lot of new people moving into Titusville. I hope we’ve managed to be welcoming, at least.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Father said readily. “I am very exotic, you know, and that smooths my way a good deal. The experience of my colleagues suggests that I would face more difficulties fitting in if I had been born in D.C. or Detroit, or Roanoke. When people are uncomfortable with me here, it is mostly because I am a Catholic priest.”

Outside, Vin and I lingered by my car, not ready to part yet.

“Want to walk around the square?” he asked. “You might like to look at the court house. It was built before the Civil War.”

“I'd like that.”

Driven by the cold, we set a good speechless pace, and soon were stamping our feet as we regarded the pillars and crumble-edged steps and ironwork clock of the venerable county seat.

“A lady gave birth in my ambulance today,” Vin said, apropos of nothing.

“What on earth?” I yelped. “Are you absolutely serious? I can’t believe you.”

“I mean, usually we do make it to the hospital in time, but every now and then…”

“I mean, I can’t believe you. You only drop this tidbit now, after we’ve been hanging out for an hour? I would have led with that right out of the gate. ‘Hey Vin, good to see you, how’s it going?’ ‘Shut up, I delivered a baby today.’ You say it like it’s not the most amazing thing ever.”

“It’s the mother who delivers the baby, really. I just assisted her.”

“That is so pedantic.”

“Not if you're the mother.” And I kid you not, he started walking on as if he were done.

“No,” I said, dragging him over to a bench. “You can be alone with your thoughts when you’re alone. Right now you can not leave me hanging like that.”

“Sorry, I guess I'm still processing it.”

“Process it out loud.”

“There’s not a lot to tell,” he protested, but he allowed me to sit him down. “It was Code Three…”

“What’s that?”

“Lights and sirens, the works.”

“Was it complicated?”

“No. I barely had time to get my gloves on, and the head was crowning, and then the rest of the body just slithered out. It was a little boy.”

“Did you slap his bottom first thing?”

He smiled. “That’s not protocol. We catch the baby, dry it off…”

Ooh, I knew this. “Because of the waters, right?”

“Because of the blood, sometimes fecal matter.”


“Then we warm the baby, and pinch its feet if necessary to stimulate it.”

“Was it necessary?”

“Not in this case.”

“What about the mom? It sounds miserable to me.”

“It didn’t seem like she was having much fun during the birth. She was crying while I  suctioned out the baby’s mouth and nose. Baby didn’t like that much either, but I was glad to hear him crying. But after I cut the cord and clamped it, I gave her the baby to put against her skin to keep it warm, and the dad was squeezed back there with her, crying with her and smoothing her hair, and the baby just looked at them.”

His hands were in constant motion against the cold. I’d wanted to use my own hands this morning to smack the smug out of Mom, while his hands had been doing something that made the world a more lovable place. A baby’s first experience of the outside world had been Vin’s touch. An exhausted mother hand had relaxed, feeling him stroke her hair. No, wait, that had been the father. I wasn’t confused, exactly. I was just thinking how it would be I’d just had an emergency birth and it was all chaos and pain, and then I was holding a tiny crying bundle to my breast while I was crying too, I’d want Vin to be the one rubbing my head and back and telling me what a great job I’d done…

“What?” I demanded, as he turned his head a second to late to pretend he hadn’t been watching me.

“Nothing,” he said. “I was waiting to see if you were going to poke at me again.”

“I can process too,” I said with dignity. “But of course if you’re longing to say more, please don’t hold back on my account."

He shifted on the bench in an agony of articulation. “I’ve been thinking all day about our whole family tree, about how few babies had come into the world with their father and mother there to love them from the start. I can’t understand how a man could bear to be parted from his child. I don’t understand how he could not be there, willfully not be there, at the moment that child first sees the light of day. To walk away from a child, my own child, or to abandon its mother, the woman who carried my child… I don't see how anyone does it. I think it would kill me.”

“I would not like you to die,” I said.

He looked at me. “Nor I you.”


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