art by Seth Alan Bareiss
When The Trumpet Sounds
by Sean Melican
I sneezed. My daddy held his hand over my mouth. "Hush, son, hush, all right?" He buried my face against his shirt, which smelled stale and faintly of rice, beans, and collard greens. "I love you. Try not to sneeze for a while, ok? Not 'til we're up there and then it's ok." His big hand pressed me tighter to his chest.
My memory of walking through the doors is just those few moments. I don't remember standing in line.
A fat, white nurse took me from my father. I cried and reached for him. "Don't be afraid," he said, and then he was somewhere else and the nurse put me on crinkly paper and stuck a thermometer in my mouth and then wrapped a cuff around my arm. After she'd taken away her cold stethoscope from my chest, read the thermometer and noted all this on a piece of paper, she pulled out a needle and a tourniquet. She said, "Do you know what this is for?"
I nodded. "Uh huh. My daddy told me all about it. You're gonna wrap that around my arm and that's gonna hurt, and then you're gonna stick that to take blood. He said not to be afraid 'cause Jesus had big, fat nails banged through his bones. I shouldn't be afraid of a little needle like that."
"He did, huh?"
I didn't know if she meant my dad or Jesus.
"Did he tell you what you should be afraid of?"
She did the first thing my dad said she would only it hurt a lot more than he said it would. "Lot of things."
"Well, if I need to, there are two very big men who will come in and hold you still. Most kids are really afraid and have to be held down. I don't like doing that. But if I stick you and you move, well, those big, bad men will come in here. You should be afraid of them."
I said okay, I wouldn't move.
After, she said, "That was very good. Very, very good. Another ten minutes and you'll be back with your dad and mom. Do you have any siblings? Brothers or sisters?"
She raised her eyebrows. "That happen a lot in your family? Twins, I mean."
"If it does, that's a bonus. Okay, be right back."
She was gone for a while. I kicked my legs and looked around and thought this wasn't like any doctor's office I'd ever seen. Which wasn't many. When she came back she looked very concerned. "The doctor's gonna talk to your parents for a few minutes, then they'll come in."
The two men who put me out like a mangy cat were surprisingly gentle. I would like to remember that the black one looked sad when he did, but I think this is only a dream.
I did not see the doors when I went in or came out. Going in, I had my face buried in my father's shirt. Coming out, I was crying so that I couldn't really see anything. I ran and ran and ran until I couldn't run anymore and then I walked until I fell down and fell asleep. That's where Moses found me, curled around a group of weeds that had pushed through the broken concrete and refused to die.
Moses was like those weeds. He could bend without breaking whichever way the wind blew, and he could always find a crack to live in. He said he used to sell drugs--not the kind like mine, the bad kind, the kind that people on the line won't buy--and he would steal and worse. He wouldn't say what worse was, only that he found a crack in jail too, a way that he could survive.
He said that was where the metaphor ended. A weed didn't care if it died. It didn't care if it hurt people it loved or hurt people it didn't care about.
He was nothing like my preacher daddy. To him, heaven was where he wasn't and hell was always where he was. He wasn't concerned about saving my soul or anyone else's. He was concerned with saving my life, and to do that, he taught me how to survive on the line. He taught me that the people on the line shouldn't be conned, because the white scientists had already conned them. He said they sold them a dream like Rock Candy Mountain or equality or justice or that anyone could be anything they wanted, even a poor black boy from the ghetto. He said it was a lie. Sure, a black boy could be a doctor or lawyer or president, but you had to have enough money to paper over your skin, like hiding a water stain with wallpaper.
He sold food. Him talking about selling drugs was where I got my idea, 'cause I didn't want to step on his toes.
Somewhere along the line, a child sneezed.
It didn't take long for me to find the family. The other families had moved apart from the sick child, shielding their own children with their arms or bodies.
It was a mother and an aunt, a father, a boy about six, a girl about six months. The boy's nose dribbled snot. The girl didn't look sick but her mother's hand stroked her curly hair absently, feeling her forehead for warmth.
I said, "They won't let you on if he's sick. Or her either."
The father was on the smallish side, his clothes neat but worn. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to show dark, muscled arms. The sort of man they wanted on the ship. "We know that." It was clear he wanted to cry but wouldn't. I liked that. No one who's on the line or services it has it easy.
"I have antivirals."
"Don't bullshit me," the father said. "If you have any medicine, it's aspirin. But probably you haven't got anything."
"I won't say you're a smart man, 'cause that sounds like sales patter, and I'm not a salesman. " I held up his hand to stop the father's protest. "Not a shyster, anyway. Some of the peddlers are. You probably got robbed more than once. Promises of antivirals. A meal to feed a family of four only to give away your money and find it's not enough for all of you, so you gave it to the kids first, then your wife. I'd bet you'd even insisted despite her protests."
The father snorted. "You could have seen that. It's not like there's anything to hide us." He gestured towards the sky.
"I didn't, but that's your second smart thought. I'm not looking for money."
That caught the father's attention. "No?"
"No. I would prefer to barter. I want her engagement ring. Not her wedding ring. That's cruel."
The father laughed. The woman gasped. "Leroi..."
"Of course not, baby. Thanks, but we'll take our chances."
I said, "It's two days to the front of the line from here. Maybe his flu will go away. It's not just a cold. I know 'cause I see the worried way your wife keeps touching his forehead. But I wouldn't bet on it. If he's not well, they might not let any of you on. So you'd have your diamond and your pride and no job, no home, nothing. Or they might ask you to leave him."
The mother said, "They wouldn't do that."