Topanga Seed (Ch. 49)

Stepping outside the Georgian Terrace that morning was not as hard on Levi as either he or Damien had thought it would be. Peachtree Street at the Fox Triangle had been home to him and, even now–with Hollywood his adopted home and Atlanta relegated to his past and relegated there without sentimentality–Peachtree Street instantly felt that way again. The familiar street’s occasional changes jumped out at his eyes as if to say, “Hi there! We moved in since you left!” But it wasn’t only sentiment Levi was feeling:  an aggressive feeling ran through him, the type he felt when he knew he had an argument coming his way or a fight. Adrenaline rising, a determination to win flooding him. A need to win against his demons which had, so far, been defeating him.

Across the street from the Georgian Terrace was the Fox Theater, that elegant, odd, magical building, with its onion domes and architecture straight out of the Arabaian nights—an odd but charming fit on the most famous street in the South. Looming over them, the tallest building in the South and the tallest building in any state capitol, the bronze Bank of America tower, looking every bit a modernized, streamlined, redefined take on New York’s Empire State Building. And at the other corner of the intersection of Peachtree and Ponce de Leon, the Ponce Condominiums, its face following a long-removed curve now turned corner, its two ends crowned by rooftop belvederes keeping sentry over the intersection.

“I used to live there,” Levi explained, pointing to the gorgeous old majesty as they walked toward it. “Right up. . .there. Almost in the center, this side of the building. . .tenth floor.”

“You grew up there or—”

“No. I grew up, further up Peachtree in Ansley Park. I had a condo there, in the Ponce. Bought it about. . .what was it. . .two years after graduating from Tech.”

Damien seemed surprised. Levi laughed at himself.

“Yeah. At one time, I owned a home of my own. Wasn’t always a renter.”

“Did you sell it to move to L.A.?”

“To pay my medical bills,” Levi explained. “The insurance wasn’t covering enough.” He smiled. “Don’t get me wrong; my sentimentality today might make it seem like it was the best condo ever. It wasn’t; the building is pretty old. The windows let in every noise from the noisiest intersection in all Atlanta. But the unit I bought had been remodeled and it was as new as I was going to be able to get in that building. And it’s a great building.” He turned back to it and pointed out the brass door and the red carpet leading to it; a perfect image lacking only a top hat-wearing doorman. “Hardly anyone actually enters through the front door—we entered from the parking in back. But the lobby has this massive Tiffany stained glass ceiling. It’s a shame they don’t let the public in because the lobby? A remnant of the Jazz Age in the best of ways. And see those up there? Some of us used to go up there and just hang out at night. Glass of wine. Watch the city down below. The crowds going into or leaving a concert or play at the Fox. . .It was a great place to live.”

He froze for a moment and shook it off, ignoring the plaque they had come to stand beside. It had been erected since he had been away. Damien read it though and, nodding comprehension, did what he could, which was to place a comforting hand on Levi’s neck.
They both stepped out of the way as a tourist posed in front of the plaque, their friend being sure to get in the frame the sign’s verbiage, “ATLANTA TERROR ATTACKS: FOX TRIANGLE SHOOTING Commemorating the twenty-one innocent lives lost on this site.”

Death Tourism, the bizarre fascination with sites of murders and terrorist attacks, had come to Atlanta. Levi hadn’t realized it or even thought about that possibility until now.

It shouldn’t have surprised him: Pulse. Parkland. Sandy Hook. All sites of tragedies turned tourist attraction. Come see where people lost their lives-and be sure to take your photos to amaze your friends and family members that you. . .were. . .there!

“Um,” he said quietly to the couple. “The shooters were up there. In the belvederes. Shooting people in this intersection. Just telling you in case you want pictures of those, too.”

They thanked him, not detecting his sarcasm. He turned away before they could see his heart breaking.

“Why don’t we go back upstairs to the—” Damien whispered to him, seeing the whites of Levi’s eyes turning pink.

“No,” Levi told him, taking his hand. Holding Damien’s hand, feeling Damien’s other hand on his neck, rubbing away as if he could rub away the hurting, did make it all hurt just a little less. And sometimes, a little less was as good as it was going to get and that little less was something to be thankful for.

“Let me get this over with. I want the past over with. For us.”

 

***

 

They turned back up Peachtree, the Fox on their left, the Parisian glamour of the Georgian Terrace—still there, more than a hundred years after its opening–on their right, and the Ponce Condominiums and the disturbing memorial to morbidness—and its tacky tourists—behind them. They strolled up Peachtree—an odd moniker for a tree-lined street where none of the trees offered fruit of any kind—its two lanes in each direction crowded with passing cars and trucks. Yet another busy Atlanta morning in Midtown. Levi showed Damien silly things: the CVS he used to go to, the Einstein Brothers bagels shop he loved to hang out in Saturday mornings—bagel with schmear and a large orange juice—and the church he did not himself ever visit but which his friends flocked to because, unlike so many Christian churches, St. Mark’s welcomed the gay community into its congregation.

“One of their priests used to visit me in the hospital for awhile,” Levi said.

“Did you tell him you were an atheist so he stopped?”

Levi laughed. “No. I meant I got out of the hospital. He didn’t care that I was an atheist; he talked to all the patients.” He smiled at the church and its red door which shone against its gray stone and stained glass windows, the parish holding its place between new apartment buildings and their ground floor retail spaces which threatened to crowd it in on left and right. “I promised myself that one day I’d donate some money to them, atheist or not. I haven’t yet. But I will.”

“Let me do it,” Damien said. “How much should we give them?”

“No!” Levi said, incredulously. “No, Damien. You don’t have to—I was just saying—”

Damien leaned in close, doing his best stare-into-my-eyes thing that drove Levi crazy in a very good way. But his magical ballcap of invisibility’s brim crashed into Levi’s forehead.

Their gentle argument momentarily forgotten, Levi turned Damien’s hat around so the brim was in the back, giving him a handsome, hunky, middle-aged punk look.

“You’re still hot enough to pull off that backwards-ballcap look,” Levi insisted when Damien reached up to turn it back. “Leave it. It will still weave its magic web over you, rendering you incognito in Atlanta.”

“Well, as I was saying. . .let me. No—I’m not trying to pay your bills; it’s not like that. Look, Lee. . .think of this whole situation from my perspective. Please. I think about these shootings all the time now, now that I know you. Do you know, there are times I just stop what I’m doing, thinking how scared I am—even now—that you almost died? Driving. Eating. Working out. I just freeze for a moment. ‘Holy shit. He was shot five times. He could have been killed that day.’ And I didn’t even know you then. But I look back on all that—I heard the news stories. I read the magazine articles, the online stories. I watched all the news coverage. And had no idea that the man I would love was in there somewhere. No idea. And now here we are. And you almost died. I didn’t know you then so I wasn’t there. But had I been? Holy shit—I would have dropped everything. Every fucking thing. So when you tell me that that church there had a priest who kept you company—”

“And told some pretty good jokes—”

“And told you some pretty good jokes! I’m sorry. But I owe him, too. Because he took care of you long before I showed up. And I’d like to thank him. And his church. You don’t think that’s silly, do you?”

“Not at all,” Levi answered. “I think it’s sweet.”

“You want to pop in? Not today; we have other things to do before I have to go to the studio. But maybe on one of your trips over–”

Damien followed where Levi’s alarmed eyes went, peering past Damien’s shoulder.

“What is it?” Damien asked.

“That’s him,” Levi said, pointing to a figure crossing Peachtree Street at 5th Street.

“The priest?”

“Yes,” Levi said, stunned. He hadn’t seen him in years but there he was.

Levi stepped toward him, Damien behind him like a shadow.

 

***

 

“Father Bergman?”

Levi dismissed the sudden realization that he had a rabbi in Hollywood with an Irish surname and a priest in Atlanta with a Jewish one.

The priest’s weathered face lit up as he offered a hand, trembling with age. “Yes! How are you today?”

Levi knew the priest did not recognize him. That was okay. It was years ago. So long ago. So much had happened since the days when he had laid in a hospital bed, waking up into a state of being only half-awake, the opioids holding back the pain and full awareness. Those days when the words people said to him only half-registered.

“Can you move your leg for me?”,

“Brett Turner from Channel Five. I’d like to talk to you about your experience at Piedmont.”

“Your friend, the one you asked about? She’s dead. I’m sorry. She didn’t make it out of the park.”

“Levi?  Levi, stop screaming.”

“Your insurance isn’t going to cover more than 60 percent of your bill from here on out. Do you think you can get around enough on your own that you can finish your recovery at home?”

“We had a hard time pulling out the shards from your upper left chest. It didn’t puncture the lung—just missed—but we need to get them out. We’ll have to operate on you again.”

“Your parents are dead.  They were at Atlantic Station.  I’m sorry.”

“Ah. . .yes. You shattered some teeth there. When you get out; you’ll have to have a dentist repair those. Some nice veneers or crowns should do the trick. You must have cracked those when you were shot. You know, you’re lucky; there are several people who bit their own tongues off.”

“And the bombs went off in the MARTA station.  And Michael was there. At the Midtown Station–the one on Tenth Street. Oh my God, I am so sorry to tell you this. Especially now. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

And, spoken in a gentle voice, from dry, thin lips under weary, sad but loving, crystal blue eyes, “I’m Father Bergman. How are you today, my child?” And a hand softly holding his.

Levi took the priest’s hand and stared into those almost-white so light were they blue eyes, blue eyes that seemed almost faded from the years. “Father Bergman, you may not remember me. I’m Levi Hastings. After. . .” He struggled to explain. “After the attack. . . .you used to come to the hospital and—”

“I remember you,” the priest said. “Yes, I remember. Levi Hastings.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, Levi Hastings. And look at you! You’re walking again!”

The priest laughed and thanked God above with a heavenwards glance.

“This is my boyfriend, Damien Lanchester,” Levi said, presenting Damien.

“Ah, how do you do, Damien?”

“Very well. It’s such an honor to meet you,” Damien said. The priest was confused. “Levi was telling me about how you would sit with him when he was in the hospital. And. . .I didn’t know Levi back then. So I’m just glad he had someone like you when he was otherwise alone.”

“And now he has you,” the priest said.

“Now he has me,” Damien confirmed.

“How long did it take until you could walk again?” Father Bergman asked, holding Levi’s hand in both of his.

“About a year.”

“A year.” The priest tsk-tsk’d as if it was a great tragedy nonetheless in a tragedy where so many others had lost half their face, their legs, their arms, their eyes or their lives.
“Well, about a year until I was back to normal. Walking, I mean. I was able to walk before then just. . .not all that well. But. . .I’m fine.” He was lying. He knew he wasn’t fine. Never would be fine. He dismissed the thought. “Anyway. . .I just wanted to say ‘thank you’. I really looked forward to you coming to talk with me when you would visit the hospital—”

“Are you still an atheist?” the priest asked with a wink.

“I am,” Levi said with a smile.

“Bah!” the priest barked with a laugh.

Levi offered: “But I do believe in kindness and goodness.”

“Even after all that,” Father Bergman intoned. “You see kindness and goodness after all that dark?”

The priest gazed fondly at Levi. “All that kindness and goodness?  Levi. . .That’s God.”

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