“Atonement” by Donnie Moreland
But no one spoke of the bodies, only of how those bodies were tainted by the bodies which they lay next to.
By Donnie Moreland
Only on nights like this, could “sweet” be an adjective to describe the air. A prize, really. All those brothers, shoulder to shoulder on the Mall, and you can imagine how much funk can stew in a day. But a soft wind started everyone on their way back from where they began their journeys. Back to Anacostia, back to Prince George’s County, back to Baltimore, back to Philadelphia, back to Chicago, back to Detroit, back to Georgia, back to Mississippi. And in a matter of hours, two million sweaty, chortling, tired bodies became a handful of stragglers soaked in an aroma of promise and the static lights of the country’s capital city.
Wallace lay against his cab, parked adjacent to the Air and Space Museum. He was taking a smoke break, waving away passersby who thought his unoccupied vehicle an invitation. When a homeless brother approached—hoping to make up the difference for the 85¢ which slipped from his pocket sometime during the march—Wallace damn near swatted the man across the face. But with the day’s events, he felt some guilt fire up through his bones, so he rummaged through his wallet for a dollar, whistled for the brother to return and absolved himself of some shame. What was it Stevie said today, he thought: “Me, for you and you for me.”
It was 9:07 PM, when Wallace let out his cigarette to play chauffeur for the sad, and sick, of Chocolate City. He entered the cab, turned on his meter and checked his rearview mirror. He was startled by the reflection of a brother not a few feet behind the trunk, who seconds later raised his left hand.
Wallace invited the man into the vehicle. There was nothing ostensibly threatening about this gentleman. He was maybe in his mid-30’s, with a fade that seemed to have lost its depth, a wide pair of spectacles, a black windbreaker and blue jeans.
“Say brother, where you headed?” Wallace asked.
There was dead air and a hard sigh from the back seat. Wallace looked into the rear view mirror and caught the man staring at him, the same. He asked again.
“Aye man, where we going tonight?”
“Home.” The man answered.
Wallace laughed a laugh, more astounded than annoyed. “Maybe this cat is high off of something,” Wallace thought. Not everyone met the Honorable Minister’s call with the most honorable intentions, he reminded himself.
“Well… you got a address for home, because I got folks all across the city who do and I can just…”
“2303 Good Hope Road.”
Wallace grimaced. Southeast DC was nowhere he wanted to be come sundown. He’d never forgotten finding a brick in the passenger seat of his Sedan, bathed in shattered glass on the block adjacent to where his cousin lived on Alabama Ave. His radio was ripped out, with such a poor hand that he would’ve preferred them remove it clean and leave him with less repair cost.
Dead air choked the upholstery as Wallace shakingly whistled the first refrain of Rare Essences’s Work the Walls, hoping he could reach for the pistol—in the glove compartment—if he needed to, and in the worst case scenario. He hadn’t looked in the back seat, for some time, hoping not to get caught in those eyes again. He just paid special attention to his side mirrors, alternatively. And then a fleeting thought. A thought that he was slowing down. Not significantly, but enough that he noticed the pressure his foot applied to the accelerator. The passing lights less passed but plodded, with a nocturnal hypnosis. But again, the thought was fleeting. At some point though, as with the homeless brother, Wallace remembered the dopamine rush of Black men hollering a single gospel of potential and felt that similar guilt of cutting another Black man at the knees with judgement. With—for him—proper intention, Wallace drew his eyes to the back seat. Whatever the pleasantry had been, replaced with hollow breath. Wallace could do nothing. Neither blink, speak nor scream. He could do nothing, in the face of such spectacle. The man was gone. Wallace sprung for the break, but was met with air. And then, solid ground as he now placed one foot ahead of the other on a lonesome road. Nothing visible but the immediate steps in front of him, lit only by dim street lamps.
Wallace shuddered. The air was so much more frigid than what had brushed against his skin earlier. He thought to shout, to run, to laugh but all he could do was fall to his knees, clasp his hands and pray. Whatever this was, whatever was happening to him was an unholy omen. A trick of some force demonic. So here, alone, he prayed. And then a voice.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
Wallace opened his eyes and leapt to his feet as the same man from the back seat stood over him. Wallace tried to swing, but he’d never had a well-anchored cross, so he just kind of stumbled as the man stepped aside.
“What the fuck is going on?” Wallace shouted, after recovering his step.
The man seemed different. His gaze was lighter.
“I don’t know.” The man replied, looking into the black beyond the lamp post beside them.
“Wha——”, Wallace couldn’t untangle the words. They were crowded in his mouth and none of them would suffice his need. And then the dread and the question which follows it. His stomach sank to his feet, as his tear ducts gave and the only three words—the most important ones—fell from his lips.
“Am I dead?”
The man looked at him with a face hovering between contempt and regret.
“Only I should be.” The man surmised, quizzically.
A hard, heavy malaise fell over Wallace’s face, looking on this brother’s brow. His very living face.
“Only I should be.” This man said this with such certainty. Such a matter of factness. As though the words came easy, like hello, thank you, goodbye and I love you. As though he’s said it so many times—and only to himself—that it became as empty as those words can become.
The man didn’t give Wallace time to find a response. He just turned his back to Wallace and walked towards the black in front of them.
“Where the hell are you going?” Wallace screamed.
“You won’t be here long, so just wait and… you don’t belong here, anyway.” The man said, in a tone somewhere between contempt and compassion. The man then started for the black and was gone.
Wallace, without hesitation, followed the man. He wouldn’t be left alone here, wherever here was. One foot in front of the other, and the light disappeared and then the ground, as he was immediately submerged in an oceanic abyss in which he struggled to find his senses. But there was nothing. No matter how much he fought, there was nothing to receive him. And eventually the stir of suffocation became the fright of nothingness. Just darkness, until he was stirred by the sensation of his limbs, pressure on his lungs and pain in his throat. His body had returned to him, as he flailed in shallow waters. He could see, but all there was to see was a harsh fog, leaving him as adrift as he was in the dark.
Wallace struggled to his feet, wet and despaired. He put one foot ahead of the other, in spite of the hesitation tethered to his bones. He moved forward, against the still water. Was the man here? Had he been duped by some great spirit? What had he done to arrive at such a miserable fate?
He moved along, but with each step, the fog remained still, like walking against an invisible wall. He couldn’t discern progress and then he heard a voice. A distant echo, but a voice nonetheless. He moved, hoping as the echo became clearer he’d be closer to something in the shape of rescue. And the echo did become clearer, as the indistinguishable letters which he soon figured formed a name. Someone was calling out to a name. What he didn’t expect was how piercing the call of the name became. And then another name struck his ears from the left and another from the right. And more, even clearer than the last. His hands over his ears, he fell to his knees, feeling something wet on his palms. His palms in front of his face, he hollered at the sight of his own blood. But beyond the sight of his own hands, he saw the legs of another moving towards him. Legs like his own. He tried to stand, to scream for assistance, but he was so disoriented, he could only fall forward. His ears bleeding, he lifted his eyes to find other legs, other feet, other bodies. He saw faces, many like his own, his father’s, his nephew’s and his brother’s. Some bruised. Some sunken. Some with lesions that continued down to the legs which passed him. Legs, which carried along with the brutal bellowing of names. Names like Joseph, James, Anthony and David.
And then the gripping of a hard despondency which failed his body and suffered his mind. He could only weep, at the intensity of such enduring pain.
And then a hand met his shoulder. He turned and it was the man.
Wallace could see his lips moving, his eyes of wrath and his burning scowl, but he couldn’t ascertain much else below the sounds of scorching names. He was lifted to his feet and moved further into the fog, past so many bodies. Some in hospital gowns, some naked and some, in the most frightful fashion, searing and inflamed. So many bodies, Black bodies among them, that Wallace couldn’t help but see that very day of solidarity—which now seemed a millenia ago—amongst his brothers in the living. But this wasn’t that. This was some cruel, bending otherworld of those memories.
Carried along, the names grew quieter until they became faint. His ears now adjusting to the quiet, as a distorted ringing droned on, to accompany it. They approached a row boat, in the mist. The man dropped him in the back and took the lead.
Wallace laid there, unable to speak. Unable to drift into sleep. Only able to look ahead, until the suppressive fog let up, just enough for him to make out the soft outline of the limbs of oak trees. He had strength enough to lift himself and see the engulfing marsh and swamp which the boat crept through.
“Where are we?” Wallace whispered, too tired to give over anything else to this trek of madness.
“Even if I had the words, I don’t think you’d want to know.” The man replied, sharply.
There was a kind of tyranny in how this man danced through inquiry, with such cryptic cynicism. He knew all there was that Wallace needed to know to orientate himself in orbit of reason. Answers. But just as Wallace could conjure a word, the boat dipped as though someone were entering the frail vessel. Wallace turned this head and he was facing the black, fragile back of another man, who turned to see him and whose lips released a mournful sigh.
“Calvin….” The man said.
“I didn’t think he’d follow me.” Calvin said, his face facing forward into the marsh.
His name was Calvin, Wallace thought. He wasn’t a demon or some amalgamous entity of mystery. He was a man named Calvin.
The other man kneeled and placed his palm on Wallace’s cheek.
“Yes, you are certainly alive.” The man confirmed, as though the alternative was a gamble and another was rolling the dice.
Wallace sat up, with a renewed investigative energy.
“Calvin! Is that your name? Well Calvin, you stop this fucking boat and you TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING TO ME!”
Calvin continued to row, as the second man, sunken—covered only in a hospital gown—grabbed Wallace’s hand and demanded Calvin explain to Wallace what he knew that Wallace could not.
Calvin rowed, until he didn’t anymore—as their eyes pierced his armor. He turned to the faces of the two, looking beyond them, above them, below them and finally into Wallace’s suffering.
Calvin explained that the man holding his hand was a man named Melvin. He explained how they’d met at the famous ClubHouse in 1988. He explained their shared interest in political talk radio, and local comedy. He explained their love for Chuck Brown and seafood. He explained just how many of their friends—from the club alone—died from AIDS related illnesses in 1989 and how Melvin was diagnosed around the time that the club had closed, a year later.
He explained how difficult it was to see Melvin suffer the virus’s grip on his body, and soul. He explained how it was at that time—more than any—how he thought of his mother, but couldn’t hear her voice because who he was couldn’t enter her home. He explained how Melvin died, not too long after his diagnosis. He explained how grieving tastes—true grief—and how he emptied his mouth, when he drove into a light pole, not two months after Melvin passed.
He explained waking up on that road Wallace found himself on, after letting Calvin into his cab. He explained that he inferred that where they were was a kind of in between. A purgatory of sorts. He explained that he roamed for what seemed an eternity trying to find Melvin, calling out his name, like so many others in that miserable mist, and he did. He explained that he found Melvin and they waded into those waters until they arrived at this marsh and in this marsh they journeyed until they discovered the boat—the same, which they all three occupied. He then explained that he had visions of the living world, as they journeyed deeper into the mist and further into the marsh. That he felt tethered. And that he felt tethered most strongly on the days where his ire for their misery—in death—was most consuming.
He explained that he would come to be able to project a vision of himself among the living. A vision which wasn’t fully composed, but still able to inhabit the world. He explained that while among the living, he saw his and Melvin’s burial plots, and the distance between the two, and how neither of them received their proper burial rights. Melvin having to be buried by Calvin, alone, accompanied only by Calvin’s rage. Calvin not knowing who would’ve claimed his body among the family he knew. He explained that this is what he believed held so many of those poor souls in such a place: having not been given over to the afterlife by a loving heart, but also pained by the loss of a lover.
One can only imagine how many souls like Melvin and Calvin over the last decade knew such specific heartache. He explained that among the living, he was working to find someone to offer them their rights of passage into eternal rest.
He explained that before he’d ever laid eyes on Wallace, he discovered two million of his “brothers” gathered together by a call for solidarity—at a site where so many of their “brothers” were dying, unheard and unseen. He found himself vengeful and enraged, swimming through a crowd of men who if they knew how he had lived—or why he died—might have reconsidered their wishes of prosperity, as he passed along. And then there was the orator—Minister Farakhan. The man who called for such a spectacle of a million men. The echo’s of moral platitudes from this mouth—the mouth of a man who thought Calvin and his lover as enemies—seemed so cruel that Calvin could only laugh, and then curse until in the safety of his partner.
But, Melvin could not calm him, upon his return to this underworld, and by the time he arrived to Wallace—and upon entering Wallace’s cab—his ruminations were harmful ones and such wrath coupled the two souls—one living, and one dead—into this in between.
Wallace was angry, sorrowful and all that burroughs underneath both emotions. But more than anything, he was sad. He’d not given thought to what claimed the lives of these brothers, though the residue of the epidemic was on everyone’s tongue in the barbershop, the church and the pool hall. But no one spoke of the bodies, only of how those bodies were tainted by the bodies which they lay next to. A shame settled, but one different than what he’d encountered in the face of the homeless gentlemen. This was a shame which couldn’t be absolved.
“We’re going to return you home.” Melvin announced, letting go of Wallace’s hand and sitting next to Calvin, who returned to row.
There was no reason for Wallace being here, aside from being in the way of Calvin’s anger, and for that he felt great grievance. But as he watched Melvin lay his head on Calvin’s shoulder, he remembered something Minister Farrakan had said that day: “When you atone, you become at one.”
Wallace looked into the trees, as they passed, and laid in his thoughts:
What are a million men to a million missing?
What does an absent foot weigh to a boot, in step?
Wallace thought. He thought and he thought until the thoughts hurt so deeply that he began to wail.
He wailed until he slept and then awoke, shaken by the interior of his cab, outside the Smithsonian. His breathing heavy, pushed open his front door, and in sprint frantically down Independence Avenue, believing he’d fall into another wave of nothing. But nothing never came, and so, where he stood, he dropped to his knees and he prayed. He prayed with a language, an intention and an urgency his tongue could not control.
In 2004, Wallace died of Colon Cancer. But before his death, and for 9 years prior, some say you could find him, when he wasn’t with family, or in his cab, at cemeteries throughout the city of D.C. and the state of Maryland. Some say you could hear him reciting words over markers, some which had never been visited and some new ones. Some say that every October—on the anniversary of the Million Man March—you could find him at the plots of Calvin Bernard and Melvin Peterson, specifically.
But no matter the site, you’d be sure to hear him sing a song. An old song—Deep River. He sang it, after praying his prayer and before wishing someone, someplace far—but never too far—a safe journey home.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.