They were all there and they all spoke with great honesty and clarity. There were no lies. A true grief lay just beneath every word that was said.
In the midst of the hot afternoon, someone touched my elbow. I turned and was surprised.
“Henry! How’d you get here?”
“I sure didn’t walk.”
“How’d you find me in all this mob?” I whispered.
“You’re the only Ivory soap, the rest is Chanel and Old Spice. I’m sure glad I’m blind on a day like this. Don’t mind listening, but I surely do not want to see this.”
The tributes continued. Mr. Fox, Louis B. Mayer’s lawyer, was next, a man who knew law but who rarely went to see any of the films they made. Right now, he remembered early days in Chicago when Fannie . . .
A hummingbird darted among the bright colors. A dragonfly hummed by soon after.
“Armpits,” said Henry, quietly.
Startled, I waited and whispered, “Armpits?”
“On the street outside the tenement,” whispered Henry, staring at a sky he could not see, speaking from the corner of his mouth. “Inside, the halls. By my room. By Fannie’s room. The smell. Him. The one.” A pause. A nod. “Armpits.”
My nose twitched. My eyes began to run. I stirred my feet, wanting to get away, go see, find.
“When was this, Henry?” I whispered.
“The other night. Night Fannie went away forever.”
“Sh!” said someone nearby.
Henry shut up. When there was a change of speakers I whispered, “Where?”
“Crossing the street early on,” said Henry. “That night. Powerful, real powerful smell. Then, later, seemed to me the armpits came into the hall behind me. I mean, it was so strong it cleared my sinuses. Like having a grizzly bear breathe on you. You ever smell that? I froze half-across the street, like I been hit with a baseball bat. Thought, anyone smells like that’s got a grudge against God, dogs, mankind, the world. Step on a cat rather than walk around. Bad-ass mean. Armpits, like I said. Armpits. That help you any?”
My whole body was frozen. I could only nod. Henry said, “That smell’s been around the halls some few nights now, but just got stronger is all, maybe because that dumb son-of-a-bitch was getting closer. I was tripped up by Mr. Smell, I know that now. I got it figured.”
“Sh!” said someone.
An actor spoke, and a priest, and a rabbi, and then the Hall Johnson Choir from the First Baptist Church on Central Avenue filed through the tombstones and gathered to sing “Great Day in the Morning,” “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” and “Dear God, Joy Me When I’m Gone.” And their voices were the voices I had heard in the late Thirties, chanting Ronald Colman over the snow peaks and down into Shangri-La, or standing on white clouds in the fields of the Lord in Green Pastures. By the end of their radiant singing, I was overflowed and joyed and Death had had a new coat of sunlight and time, and the hummingbird came back for nectar, and the dragonfly sank down to scan my face and go away.
“That,” said Crumley, on the way out of the graveyard, with Henry walking between us, “is the way I want to be sung out of the world. God, I’d love to be that whole damn choir. Who needs money when you can sing like that!”
But I was staring at Henry. He felt my stare.
“Thing is,” said Henry, “he keeps coming back. Armpits. You’d think he’d had enough, sure? But he’s hungry-mean, can’t stop. Scaring people is like Cracker Jack to him. Hurt’s his byword. Pain is a living. He figures to get old Henry, like he got the rest. But I won’t fall again.”
Crumley was listening with some seriousness.
“If Armpits comes again…”
“I’ll call you, immediamente. He’s fiddling around the rooms. Caught him fiddling Fannie’s locked door. It’s padlocked and pasted over by the law, right? He was fiddling it and I yelled him off. He’s a coward for sure. Got no weapons, just goes around putting his foot out so blind men take a whole flight of steps in one jump. Armpits! I yelled. Scat!”
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