Ezra Titus

1966 – 2009

GUNN HIGHWAY

The exterminator came early in the morning. “Yeah,” I said, “Spray everything. I’ve seen some roaches – big ones.” He said, “They’re probably palmettos. The weather makes them want to come inside this time of year.” Before he left, I said, “Hey, spray around the doorway too. I think they get in through there.” He said, “You got it,” and before I could close the door, the guy started spraying. A misty breath of poison hit me in the face. Great, I thought, as I sarcastically said, “Thank you,” and closed the door. I wondered, Why am I so unlucky when it comes to clouds of poison gas? I leapt into the shower to scrub the pungent kill-mist off my face.
The palmettos had a point. It seemed to be about 162 degrees outside as April began in Tampa Bay. The sun was like a flamethrower pointed at me wherever I went. I wasn’t used to it, having lived all my summers up until then in the northeast. One of the ducks in the pond was dead, and there were so many lizards, they became a living carpet on every sidewalk that scattered in front of me as I walked to the corner for bottled water.
The palm trees were hurricane cut, and looked like stalks of celery. The hanging mosses on the oak trees and power lines made it look like the neighborhood had been covered in cobwebs left by giant spiders. Blue spray paint on the sidewalk indicated the locations of gas leaks. Sweat poured over my face. I exhaled oven temperature air, thinking it might catch on fire if I blew at the sun.
When it was breezy, I could smell the ocean. When the air was still, Tampa smelled like a swamp. An irony on the way to the corner was “Sweetwater Creek,” a toxic, fetid tract of mud and still water where ducks (some with visible tumors) searched forlornly for food amidst strewn garbage and a dead alligator.

At the store, a tiny, anorexic girl with waist length, six-colored hair behind the counter smiled and said “Hey.” She raised her eyebrows flirtatiously. I was surprised. I hadn’t encountered anything like human interest or affection in so long, I didn’t know how to respond. I’d forgotten how to flirt. Though I was only 28, my tour of duty in Afghanistan had left me feeling as though I’d lived too long. After four years in target acquisition, I found it difficult to interact with civilians.
I’d only been in Florida for a few months, but I felt like I’d been carrying these heavy cases of water home alone for a black-bottomed eternity. I was miserable. I saw a dead cat on the side of Gunn Highway, its face forever frozen in a vicious grin. It reminded me of the war, side-stepping over bomb-scorched body parts. These waking dreams tormented me. I needed something beautiful to relieve my mind, but after what I’d done during the war, I felt I should never be allowed to touch anything beautiful again.
Having about seventeen dollars in the bank, I decided to try to cheer up by doing some laundry. At the condo’s laundry center, I slid my quarters in, dumped an unmeasured amount of detergent into the water, and threw my sweat soaked clothes in on top.
I was so lonely I wanted to die. I thought of going back to the pharmacy to flirt with the skinny cashier, but I doubted she’d respond favorably. Putting my clothes in the dryer strained my soul. I just didn’t want to deal with it. But I could hear my Drill Sergeant from basic, screaming, “Suck it up, Titus!” I managed to deal with the dryer. I lowered my head and put my hands over my eyes.
When I looked up again, there was a girl wearing blue surgical scrubs, playing a video game on her cell phone. She was

a hospital. If, just before surgery, the patient says, “I feel like I’m about to die,” they cancel the surgery, because 90% of the time, the patient is right.
One day, while we were speeding aimlessly around central Tampa, she pointed to a gym and said, “Let’s join that gym. It’s bigger.” A black guy named Leon signed us up. When we were done, I shook his hand, but when Leon reached out to shake Pamela’s hand, she didn’t extend her arm. On the way out I said, “You didn’t shake the guy’s hand.” Pamela quietly said, “I don’t like to touch black skin.” I asked why, and Pamela looked ashamed as she answered, “You have to understand how I was raised.”
“I was born into the Klan, Ezra. My parents were in the Klan. Ever since I was four years old I’ve been told that all niggers should be lynched, or shot. When I was little, I was never allowed to watch black people on TV – nothing like that. I was told that if a nigger asked me a question, I was allowed to answer, but that otherwise, I was never to speak to them.
“Once, I had a black social studies teacher and my mom went to the school to have me taken out of that class. The thing was, they wouldn’t exempt me from the class, so all year, the teacher never called on me, except for one time, and she had me read the section in the book about the Klan. It made me feel ashamed.
“My mom’s doorbell plays Dixie. She has a bumper sticker that says ‘The South Will Rise Again.’ There’s a confederate flag in front of the house, and inside, there are figurines of Klansmen that say things like “KIGY” or ‘Beware all niggers. Night riders keep America free.’ My mom’s job was to make the robes, and my dad’s a cop, so …”

where there was a place that served Boba tea, a Vietnamese, crushed ice shake with fruit and tapioca pearls. It was amazing -even sweeter than Thai iced tea.
We rented wave-runners and raced out into the bay where we saw dolphins. We stopped the engines to watch them, and they came toward us to stick their heads up and check us out. They chirped. Pamela said, “This’ll never happen again. Let’s get in the water.” So, we jumped in and after a minute, we were petting the dolphins. “Listen to that, Ezra,” she said, amazed, “They’re trying to communicate with us.” They clucked and squealed.
One day, in the rain, she said, “Damn! I can’t get wet! Sugar melts in water!” At that moment, she became the center of my life. I was enamored with her and fascinated by her. She was flattered. We developed a bond of trust like best friends, and enjoyed each other’s humor. I teased her about her hair, telling her not to wash it because I liked it when it was all dirty and messed up. (I actually did.) She made fun of my laziness and elk-like appetite: “Ezra! What are you doin’?! Nothin! Get up and make somethin’ of yourself, boy! What do you want for dinner? A toboggan made of smoked ham? My lord! A woman could spend her entire life cookin’ for you!” At the condo’s gym, she tried to outdo me and said that after a few months, we were going to fight, to see who was stronger. She’d probably have won, quick and agile as she was. While I was fucking her, she could slip out from beneath me and be sucking my dick in the blink of an eye.
At night, we watched a lot of TV. She liked those shows like Hitler’s Greatest Moments, The Triumph of Jeffrey Dahmer, or Charles Manson – Misunderstood Genius that you see on A&E or the History Channel.
Pamela made me jambalaya and etouffe. She made me feel safe and welcome. She told me interesting things about working in

I didn’t feel confident enough to ask for her number. I hadn’t had a free date with an American girl in four years. I said, “Well, nice meeting you,” and started opening the door to return to my palmetto infested apartment. “Hey boy,” Pamela said, “Why don’t you give me your number? It’d be nice to know somebody around here.”
I suddenly felt happy, which gave way to a dumbfounded shock, because it was the first time since the war. Happiness felt ‘disorderly,’ if I can put it in a word. Pamela was alone too. A lot of people were in that city. We exchanged phone numbers. She called me when she was done with her laundry and invited me over.
Unlike mine, Pamela’s apartment was very clean. When I lit a cigarette she said, “Oh, hell no!” and made me put it out. She said, “You really shouldn’t smoke Ezra. You know what they say about that.”
“How about this instead?” she asked. Pamela broke out a big chunk of Florida-grown weed, which is uniquely identifiable, as generally, it’s grown underwater in the Everglades. It’s dense and pungent, with a hint of swamp. She had a rolling machine, which she manipulated expertly, and out popped a perfect joint, almost like a cigarette. We smoked, and Pamela stared at me as though she hadn’t been able to feel good in a long time either.
She liked Vietnamese food. In fact, she knew how to order in Vietnamese. After we ate, she asked the waiter where to get “Boba tea.” I asked what it was and she said, “Shush. We’re goin’ to get something good.” In her tiny Civic, she sped aggressively down Gunn Highway, weaving through traffic and yelling at anyone she passed. Pamela locked the brakes and screeched sideways into a strip mall on the corner of Anderson. That was

tall and svelte, with big, healthy breasts. Long waves of platinum hair silkily caressed her cleavage. She smiled at me with candy apple lips. She had light blue eyes, a beige tan and an angular face with high cheek bones. Something primal awakened inside me.
I stood next to her as I began to fold my clothes and said “Hi.” She asked, “Where are you from?” She had a sweet, friendly, southern accent, like Dolly Parton. “I’m from New York,” I said, “Woodstock – about 100 miles north of the city.” She smiled and said, “I can tell by the way you talk! New York! Damn boy! What the hell are you doin’ down here?” I said, “Looking for something I guess -1 don’t know what.” I didn’t want to talk about Afghanistan. She looked at me carefully and said, “I think you’re here for a reason.”
She told me she was from New Orleans. “Are you a doctor?” I asked, thinking that maybe she could prescribe something for my loneliness. “No,” she said, “I’m a surgical technician. You know -When the surgeon says ‘scalpel,’ I hand it to him.”
At 26, she’d come to attend a university program in surgical technology. She wanted to make more money to put toward her dream, which was to buy a beach-house in Waveland, Mississippi.
She asked, “What do you do?” I said, “Oh, I’m in terminations at Primestar Mortgage Funding. -1 fire people.” She said, “Damn. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.”
“I actually don’t mind it,” I said, “It doesn’t phase me. I fire about 500 people a week. It’s no problem.”
She laughed and said, “Well, I’m Pamela. Pleased to make your acquaintance. I hope you don’t fire me.” When I introduced myself, she repeated my name admiringly, “Ezra” she said, “Just like in The Bible.”

a shotgun, a weed sticking out of her mouth. I laughed out loud. “What?!?” she asked. “Nothing” I said, “I was just thinking of something that happened a long time ago” (like, around 1865).
Pamela wanted me to move back to New Orleans with her when she planned to. It was a good possibility, but in August, hurricane Katrina destroyed the city. Pamela went into shock, watching her destroyed home on TV. I had never seen her so unhappy. She was expressionless except for silent tears that rolled down from her heartbroken, blue eyes. Her parents’ house was under nine feet of water.
Eventually, Pamela and her parents would be living in a small FEMA trailer until their house could be repaired and Pamela could get a place of her own. I couldn’t have lived with her parents, and the rent for any apartments remaining in New Orleans at the time was more than I could afford. Pamela had to go back. She had a guaranteed job there, her child was there, and New Orleans was her home.
It was hard for me to imagine leaving my job in terminations at Primestar. I had never been so good at any other job I’d had. So, after we’d discussed it, Pamela and I knew exactly when our relationship would end. That our time together was limited helped us treat each other sweetly, and we had a great time together, laughing and comforting one another.
When April of 2006 came, I’d been dating Pamela E. Lee for a year. Still, only in the final twenty-four hours she was in Florida did I realize that I loved her more deeply than I had ever loved anyone else. I didn’t tell her. On our last night together, she tried to say something about how we wouldn’t be seeing each other anymore, and I interrupted her. “Let’s not even talk about it,” I said, “It’s just too fucking depressing.” She held my hand and put her head on my chest.

We spent that night in her apartment smoking weed and laughing at wild, Japanese TV game shows, just as we would have on any other night. We never said goodbye to each other. We only promised that one day, we’d see each other again. “Someday,” she said, “1*11 have that beach house in Waveland, and you can come too Ezra. There are no niggers there.”
***
Having known Pamela, I think that people in the KKK are afraid of non-whites. They feel they have to band together against them, or their culture will be destroyed. I also think that expressing her dislike of non-whites was one way Pamela knew how to bond with others: In her mind, we were both white, so we were on the same side.
Everyone needs to belong somewhere, somehow. Pamela’s mother had only provided her with a hate group to interact with. Although she did identify herself as “A Klan girl,” she was somehow empathic toward the hated. Pamela said, “I feel sorry for all the niggers, and for all the people in the Klan. After all the hatred I’ve known in life, I feel sorry for every single person in this world.”
The End

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