Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances, including many old and new Romanian dances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.
EXFOLIATING by Bill Vernon
Prices are about all that I check in the shampoo section of Krogers. A chemistry professor where I taught once told me all shampoos come from a basic formula, one that he employed, in fact, to sell hundreds of gallons of his concoction to soap manufacturers (a nice money-making sideline, which I, a science-challenged writing instructor, of course envied).
So I assume equality in this array of shampoo containers. Though each might smell and look different because of additives, any will produce thick suds sufficient to clean grimy hair. My discerning eyes center only on container size and cost. Two minutes of consideration at most to choose the most cost-effective, then I'm "off forth on swing," looking for bread.
Hours later, in a comforting shower of water, which seems to be God's natural cleanser, I open today's shampoo choice, and despite steam and flowing liquid, a new lurid claim, EXFOLIATING SOLUTION, glares at me from the pleasantly shaped and colored plastic bottle.
An innovative marketing ploy. Those business guys will try anything to make a buck, but I'm onto their tricks and unmoved. Exfoliating or not, the contents' slippery goop, with some finger massaging, foams up and does its job.
Rinsing off though, I realize that the product's boast, that phrase, especially the word exfoliating, has lodged in my mind the way Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Windhover" glided years before into my younger thoughts on the "rolling level underneath him steady air."
The word bugs me. A mental search recovers defoliation from the Vietnam War years. Agent orange. Dioxins. That brings back images of green jungles turned yellow and dead. It leads me off into the effects the poison had on our troops and the native population. I remember pictures of malformed children and people dying of cancer. I remember sit-ins, demonstrations, confrontations--but slow down. All that is off the point.
I refocus. De and Ex as prefixes can mean the same thing, from. Doesn't De imply a taking from? Foliate and foliation I know refer to plant growth, leaves, blooms, etc. Therefore, the taking or shedding of those things from their plant's body. For clarity's sake I finally look it up--thank you, Wikipedia.
So I learn that my hair scrubbing has supposedly employed extra help in ridding my scalp of dead skin, cells and whatever. Apparently, people throughout the ages have tried to rejuvenate their looks (if not their health) by hastening the departure of their dead and dying skin.
I don't think anybody in my family ever did it. If they had, they might have incurred more than strange glances. There would have been remarks. There might have been amusement at the "exfoliater's" expense. Then again I remember women relatives scraping their scalps with brushes. One of them even counted her strokes--was it 50 or even 100 times per day? I remember a body builder friend, a tough guy, who used pumice on his skin. When I asked what he was doing to his feet, he gave me a pumice stone in response and said to try it. That was decades ago, but I still have the stone somewhere, a little blocky, grey, rectangular thing, product of a volcano if I remember correctly. Maybe it's in that old gym bag in the basement. I do know I never used it as intended.
Anyway, did my accidental shampooing exfoliation work? I decide the difference in the effect of my "exfoliant" scrub from my previous non-exfoliating scrubs was so miniscule (if it happened at all) as to be insignificant.
Furthermore, isn't applying water to skin exfoliating? Isn't the rushing of air over skin? Doesn't brushing up against another person, say when you're dancing, have an exfoliating effect? These are the kinds of questions that plague me when I have time on my hands. Can I call what the dental assistant does with her tools on my teeth exfoliating the enamel? Can the diet I have trouble maintaining be described as exfoliating weight?
Just by comparison, I answer myself.
Regrettably, this thought of likenesses suggests that exfoliation might connect to many other quirks of life. With near hurricane force, innumerable similarities strike my mind and whirl me off, soaring, riding the currents, mixing metaphors indiscriminately.
There is delight, of course, in gliding high above it all, like "a skate...[sweeping] smooth on a bow-bend." But the lull of elevated flight also allows me to sense the dangers of what entanglements lie waiting below, the uncharted, crisscrossing paths that lead into mysteries that, if unresolved, might end in madness. I rebuff "the big wind" even as I know that I cannot pull away from it yet. So I search through that frenzied confusion below until, Aha! A target, a prey, the one specific subject I've been describing all along. I "here/Buckle" and dive toward it.
Actually, this bird, which is my exfoliating fugue, has since the beginning been carrying me here. I've been aboard the Bird of Cynicism, the Bird of half-understood psychology courses, the attractive bird of Negativity, and knowing that suggests that my sub consciousness knew all along where exfoliation was leading me. The word of course has to relate to myself (I've long suspected that everything's a mirror somehow). This sudden insight will be useful to escape my obsession with exfoliating. It's what I need to reach an acceptable understanding. A finality. A lid on the boiling water. A cap.
And here it is. After all these years of writing, playing with phonemes, the rhythms of speech, the attempts to imitate life, after typing every letter many, many thousands of times, after books and reams of wasted paper, I peer at my life through the lens of exfoliating and realize that I have been spending my time scrubbing with words. I've been exfoliating ideas, beliefs, and feelings from the terminally shrinking confinements of my cranium, the synapses and cells of retracting grey matter. Scrubbing with words. Cleaning off and rejuvenating. Making myself look better. Feeling good about myself. Laughing.
And these simple thoughts "gash gold-vermillion."
R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir, and 15 feature length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood. His most recent publication is a travel memoir entitled Love & Vodka, published through Fish Out of Water Books.
His work has been published in over 30 literary magazines.
He is also the writer/director/editor of several award-winning short films. His recent stage directing debut led to an Audience Choice Award at the Canton One-Acts Festival.
Fox graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in Communications and received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.
In addition to moonlighting as a writer, independent filmmaker and saxophonist, Fox teaches English and video production in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he uses his own dream of making movies to inspire his students to follow their own dreams. He has also worked in public relations at Ford Motor Company and as a newspaper reporter. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI.
His website is www.foxplots.com. Or follow him on Twitter @foxwriter7.
My Funny Valentine by R.J. Fox
As Charlie Baker drifted off to sleep, his last waking thought was how at peace he was with the direction his life was finally taking.
So naturally, the next morning, when his boss/friend Brian called him into his office, Charlie didn’t think anything of it. He naturally assumed it had to do with their weekly lunch plans.
“Wherever we go, it better involve burgers,” Charlie began.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Brian said, fidgeting at his desk.
“Well, I’m open to other suggestions,” Charlie said, oblivious.
Brian covered his face with his hands.
“Are you okay?” Charlie asked.
“No,” Brian began. “No, I’m not. I have to fucking fire you, dude.”
“You’re bullshitting me …”
“Wish it were so. You gotta believe me when I say it’s nothing personal – this is all coming from HR.”
“When did you find out?” Charlie asked.
“A week ago.”
“Fuck, indeed. I’m so sorry, man. I tried everything I could.”
“I don’t hold it against you. I understand how these things work.”
“Now, about that burger … it’s the least I can do.”
“As long as there’s a bar.”
“I am so fucking sorry.”
“On second thought, I think I just need to be alone. So how much time do I have?”
“You need to have your stuff packed by close of business.”
“I’ll be out of here at two.”
“Take your time.”
The last thing he wanted to do was take his time.
At 1:51 p.m., he was escorted out the door of the agency.
“Company protocol,” Brian assured him.
The same company where he busted his ass – slaved – for the last five years, making peanuts for a living.
He never once complained.
When he got into his car, he blasted some Charlie Parker and drove down the street to his favorite watering hole, hoping that he wouldn’t run into any of his co-workers.
Fuck them all.
He ordered his usual: a 7 & 7, knowing well enough not to exceed his personal limit of two and was holding up very well. He attempted to process his lay-off and realized that he shouldn’t really be surprised. Advertising was cut-throat enough during the best of times and especially not too kind to low-to-mid-level ad people. Charlie was stuck between a no man’s land of the two levels with no real hope for further advancement – at least not in this job market.
As he sipped his first drink, his stress and shock began to dissolve, looking through strained vision for the silver lining. He could still hang his hat on the impending publication of his book. Though not a source of income, it was his greatest source of pride. He suddenly began to see his firing as a blessing in disguise. Being out of a job meant he could now devote more time to writing his next book. Writing full time was something he always dreamed of. Now, he had his chance. Halfway through his second drink, he pulled out his phone and noticed a text from his publisher: “CALL ME ASAP.”
Under ordinary circumstances, he wouldn’t have thought much of it, but considering how his day had already transpired, his doom and gloom radar was on full alert.
He stepped outside and dialed his publisher.
“Hey, Charlie …” Henry began. Charlie could tell by his tone that this wasn’t good news.
“Please don’t tell me there’s more notes,” Charlie interjected. “I don’t know if I could handle any more notes.”
“No notes. In fact, there will never be notes again.”
“It’s finally done?”
“We’ve gone belly-up.”
“But you haven’t even started!”
“Trust me, we’re just as shocked as you are. Just know that we put our all into this. But unlike us, you can still live to see another day. You realize this means your book is free again. You deserve better.”
“You were my only hope. You know that.”
“We are devastated by this, too. You were depending on us for one book. We were depending on us for our livelihood. Now, we’re stuck in fucking academia from here to eternity.”
“Well, at least you got something,” Charlie said, unable to control his sarcasm.
“I’m certain advertising is far more interesting than academia.”
“I got fired …”
There was a long pause, before Henry summed it all up:
“Is there anything we can do?”
“Well, aside from that …”
“Please, no hard feelings.”
“It’s very hard.”
“Trust me. I know.”
“Any chance for any sort of Hail Mary here?”
“Trust me. We’ve used every last one.”
“Okay, well thanks for everything you’ve done. Especially for believing in me.” His words felt empty; his voice detached from reality.
“You wrote a kick ass book. Your dream is still alive.”
Charlie hung up the phone, and looked up into the starless, night sky, stunned and hopeful that it was all a dream – a nightmare. It was the only thing that made sense.
He headed back inside the bar and promptly ordered another 7 & 7. He had reached the point of no return. Halfway to his 7th, he decided he was drunk enough to deal with returning home. It was close enough to the end of his usual 10-hr. workday to stave off any suspicion. But when – and more importantly – what would he tell Jenny? He hoped that the answer would reveal itself on his drive home. Instead, all he could focus on was losing his contract, which was even more shocking and painful than the loss of his job. Losing his job felt like losing a bit of his soul. Losing his contract felt like having his soul ripped through his asshole.
The signing of his contract was the biggest accomplishment of Charlie’s life. Despite the contract, he wasn’t naïve about the publishing business. He knew the pitfalls that came along with it more than anyone, as the hundreds of rejections could attest. However, the moment the ink dried on his contract, he felt like his time had finally arrived. His dues were paid in full.
Now he was bankrupt.
In reality, he should have known better. Signing with a husband-wife start-up who had hoped to launch their entire business on his travel memoir was a risky proposition to say the least. Signing with them wouldn’t have been his first choice … if he had other options. But he didn’t. He was rejected by everyone else. He realized now that he would have rather never signed a contract, rather than getting this far, only to fall flat on his face. The only positive he could hang his hat on was knowing that the book was better than ever due to the endless revisions his publisher put him through. It still had a shot.
Charlie paid his tab, which had a semi-sobering effect when he realized how every cent he spent was now on borrowed time. As he headed out to his car, he realized he might have been too drunk to drive, but was too drunk and exhausted to give a shit. He tried to imagine Jenny’s likely reaction, before realizing he was in too fragile of a state of mind to come clean. Her wrath was the last thing he could stomach. She nagged at him during the best of times. This was certainly not the best of times. So he made up his mind: he would keep his dirty little secret to himself for at least another day.
He realized his firing now meant he could write “full-time” – something he always wanted. This was quickly overshadowed by a sobering thought: Could I ever write again? It was one thing when he wrote under the false auspices of a wafer-thin publishing contract that his writing finally had a purpose. However, signing with a publisher was a game changer in how he approached the craft. Prior to the contract, at least he had the illusion of hope on his side. Now, he had nothing.
While driving home, he shut the music off and let the silence take over, hoping that it would somehow clear his head and find the right frame of mind to enter into the house in order to create the illusion that all was fine and dandy. He had to do everything in his power to maintain a poker face – which was never a natural skill for him. Typically, trying to cover up stress and anxiety segued into cheating accusations from his wife. In truth, he never once came close to cheating during their eight years of marriage. Yet, it wasn’t enough to ward off unprovoked accusations, which he always suspected said a whole lot more about her, than him.
After what felt like the longest ride home, he finally pulled into his driveway, took a deep breath, and entered. His wife was sitting on the couch, crying. A box of tissue sat by her side.
How does she already know?
“What’s wrong?” Charlie asked, trying to feign both innocence and ignorance.
“I’m fine,” she said, failing miserably at showing it.
“You are sitting on the couch crying. How is this fine?”
She refused to tell him and quickly regained her composure. He debated if he should just come right out with his news, figuring that her vulnerable state would soften the blow against him.
“Jenny, I …,” he began.
“I’m leaving you,” Jenny said, before he completed his statement.
“Excuse me?” Charlie said in response.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, followed by a torrential downpour of tears.
“Is this some sort of joke?” Charlie asked,
“Do you really think I’d joke about something like this?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t understand …” Charlie said.
“It’s so complicated. I don’t even know where to begin …”
“You can start with why.”
“Please, don’t …” Jenny pleaded, as though she were the victim.
“I don’t think you have much of a choice here.”
“I met somebody.”
“Who?” Charlie finally asked after the shock passed.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters!”
“Please don’t make this more difficult.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Over a year. Almost two.”
He was too stunned to speak. He never felt more like a fool in his life. He considered dropping his bomb on her now, but what difference would that have made at this point? He decided not to waste his breath.
Frustrated by his lack of response, she headed upstairs. He considered chasing after her in an attempt to make things right. Despite everything else being so wrong.
In fact, he was certain that she would be expecting it. Instead, he stared out the window into the void that had become his life.
A minute later, she came down with a suitcase.
“Were you already packed?”
“Does it matter?”
“I’ll be back for the rest when you’re at work.”
“That’s mighty courteous of you,” he said, surprised at his ability to muster snark at a time like this.
She headed out the door. As he watched helplessly from the window as she pulled out of the driveway, the blinding headlights only adding insult to injury. He was surprised he wasn’t fighting for her – for them. But he felt so damn defeated.
In comparison to the dual dissolution of his job and contract, when it came to his wife’s decision, the writing was certainly on the wall – he just had his back turned toward it.
In fact, his writing – specifically the failure that came along with it – played a tremendous part in the evaporation of his marriage. He certainly couldn’t blame her. How many times did he turn down sex because he was in a “writing groove”? How many times did he choose his writing over going out to a movie? Or, staying in for one?
When the writing wasn’t holding their relationship hostage, his job was. She was frustrated with his long hours and even longer hours spent writing. If there was anything she wanted more than for him to find a better job, it was to go cold turkey and quit writing. In order to keep the peace, he kept his writing hidden from her, creating the illusion that he was submitting to her selfish demands. His writing became his mistress. He committed fully to her during his lunch hour. It was the only substantial time he got.
Now, none of it mattered.
He headed straight to his king-sized bed – which felt empty enough when he wasn’t alone. He lay down, staring at his dust-covered saxophone propped up on a stand in a dark corner of the room, eerily bathed in moonlight. It was a golden relic of his past – a part of his life that he set aside to focus on his writing career. Now, it felt so far from reality, he wondered if he could even play it anymore. There would be only one way to find out, but it would have to be for another day. On that thought, he drifted off to sleep, before awakening minutes later with a jolt, as his new reality hit him like a brick wall. As he tossed and turned throughout the night, he tried to vacate his mind of all thought, but managed to only add to the load.
The next day was a complete blur, as were the next several weeks. A few months later, he finally unlocked the secret of his wife’s “mystery man” when he ran into her at a restaurant sitting in a corner two-top with one of her co-workers – a man he knew all-too-well. In fact, so well, it should have been no surprise that they were fucking right under his nose. He rather it would have been a complete stranger. She pretended not to notice him, but he knew otherwise.
He downed his drink, left enough money to cover his tab, and headed straight home. Sleep continued to elude him, so he tried straight shots of whiskey. When that didn’t work, he gave sleeping pills a shot. When that didn’t work, he made a cocktail out of the two, which helped him sleep, but left him with a raging headache. It wasn’t until he stopped sleeping in the king-sized bed he had shared with his wife that sleep finally came to him, despite the guest bed being far more uncomfortable.
In the immediate aftermath of her walking out on him, he was confident that she would come home after a day or two. But even if she came back, how long would she stay once she found out that he was unemployed? As far as his book contract was concerned, she probably would have been relieved that he fell flat on his face. After a couple of weeks of ignored texts and phone calls, mild acceptance began to settle in. She did eventually reply back to a text begging her to at least tell him she was okay. She replied: “Please stop texting/calling me.” At least he knew she was okay.
It was time to move on.
Writing had a therapeutic effect on him, which he now needed more than ever, but he quickly realized the well had run dry. For once in his life, he finally had ample time to write, he couldn’t.
For the first time in his life, he was dealing with writer’s block.
He decided to put writing on the backburner for awhile, optimistic that it could stew into something later. In the meantime, he would turn his attention to accumulating a collection of one-night stands. If all else failed, he would resort to strip clubs. Or Asian massage parlors.
On a wintry Valentine’s night, Charlie headed downtown for some much-needed soul-searching. He cabbed it – a $45 dollar ride. He knew he shouldn’t spend the money, but didn’t want to take any chances. Not only was heavy snow in the forecast, but he was going to get shit-faced.
“So how you doing tonight?” the driver asked in a heavy, middle-eastern accent as Charlie took a sip out of his flask.
“Huh?” Charlie said.
“How are you doing?”
“Just fine,” Charlie said, staring out the window into the darkness, as static-infused lounge music played on an out-of-range AM channel.
As the cab entered downtown, a light snowfall punctuated illuminated the otherwise dark lonely Detroit streets. Despite its beauty, the snow made everything feel even more lonely.
“You can drop me off here,” Charlie said as the cab approached the center of downtown.
“Okay, my friend,” the driver said. “Have a good night.”
Charlie paid his fare.
“God bless,” the driver said.
“If only …” Charlie shut the door. The cab drove off, leaving Charlie feeling even more alone, as well as completely defenseless, which in this town, was never a good thing.
He looked around every which way to both get his bearings straight and to make sure he wasn’t being snuck up upon. He had no idea where he was going. He just knew that wherever it was would involve copious amounts of whiskey.
It began to snow harder, as the temp continued to fall toward zero. He didn’t have to walk very far to hear the faint, warm sound of booze-soaked jazz emanating from some unknown destination. He headed toward it, drawn toward it like a moth to light, until he reached the doors of Cliff Bells – an old school jazz joint that first opened in the 30’s, before closing its doors in the 80’s. It had re-opened its doors a couple of years back, rising out of the ashes.
Relieved that his search was over, Charlie entered the half-packed joint. He surveyed the round two-tops for a place to plop himself down for the remainder of the evening, as a jazz combo jammed on stage. He found the perfect spot in a darkened corner. A vintage, Jazz Age waitress approached. He ordered a vintage 7 & 7. As much as he longed for his whiskey straight, he knew he had to stretch himself thin lest he bring the evening to a premature end.
As Charlie waited for his drink, he sat back and grooved to the music that had been his lifeblood ever since he joined his middle school jazz band. It was Band-Aid over from his bullies – a muse when he wrote and the elixir he needed when he couldn’t. As the music soaked into his soul, mingling with the drinks he already consumed, he was hopeful his soul would catch a glimpse of salvation, despite the fact that writing never felt more distant and foreign. In fact, he felt no more qualified to write than to perform brain surgery. He was already accepting the reality that he wouldn’t.
As the band finished their set to take a short break, Charlie ordered his second 7 & 7, halfway between buzzed and loaded. He felt happy. Content. Rejuvenated.
When the band returned from their set, the trio introduced a singer – a curvy, redhead in a matching, red cocktail dress. She had a retro, throwback look that Charlie was instantly attracted to – not to mention a voice to match, which magnified her physical beauty on a deeper ethereal level. She was a vessel for the spirits of Ella, Billie, Bessie, and Sarah. Her voice filled his soul like whiskey filled his veins, hearkening him back to a much more glorious past.
As Charlie watched her perform one jazz standard after another, his initial curiosity morphed into a crush, which was quickly becoming an obsession.
Was he falling in love? And if not, then what in the hell was it?
He was well aware that she likely took no notice of him. As she sang, her eyes closed, making her even more tender, beautiful, and vulnerable to him. When she opened them again – though he couldn’t be sure – she looked his way, if only for a fleeting moment. However, he soon realized that that she seemed to be doing so to every customer. But even so, it still felt like she lingered on him longer than the others. He knew it was probably wishful thinking on his part.
Not wanting to appear like the stalker that he was certain he was becoming, Charlie looked down, honing in on a stack of white cocktail napkins, wielding the lounge’s art deco-embossed logo. He felt the square stack taunting him, daring him to fill their void with his words. And then, his attention was diverted as the band broke into his favorite jazz standard of them all: the seeping-with-melancholy “My Funny Valentine.” Her interpretation was the most haunting rendition he had ever heard, making Chet Baker’s version downright chipper by comparison. After the first verse, he returned his gaze to the cocktail napkins. They were no longer taunting him. They were beckoning him. Calling to him. He reached for one, removed a pen from his pocket – a habit he never shook, despite the fact that he was no longer writing. In fact, he had recently stopped taking a pen all together, having all but given up on ever writing again. Yet, something compelled him to take one along this time.
As the song reached its regret-soaked finale, Charlie looked up, making genuine eye contact with the chanteuse performing in front of him. A hint of a smile appeared on her luscious lips, before closing her eyes from the world as the song came to a close. He turned his eyes away from her before he could open them, for fear that when she re-opened them, she would no longer know he existed. He turned his attention back to the napkins, seeking in them traces of the former mistress who – until recently – had never let him down.
As he stared into the snow-white canvas of a solitary napkin, the equally snow-white chanteuse broke into yet another one of his favorite chestnuts: “At Last.”
At last indeed, he thought, as his pen dropped to the napkin right on cue like a needle to a record, freely moving on its own accord. He was simply the conduit. A vessel from which his words would flow, painting an all-too-familiar story about love and regret, loss and redemption, of love and regret. Never was he more in sync with both plot and theme, intertwined in such a way that they became one. In less than five minutes, every square inch of the napkin was filled, inside and out. He reached for another. Five minutes later and his pile quadrupled. He couldn’t remember the last time he wrote with such efficiency and precision. And he owed it all to his new muse in the red dress.
He wrote in perfect rhythm to the music, tune after tune, accompanied by jazz as hot as his pen. He had no idea what he was really writing about, or whether it was any good. But it didn’t matter. Nor did it matter if his scrawls would be legible, which was often not the case during explosive, drunken handwriting sessions. He didn’t give a shit if it were the worse writing of his life. All that mattered was that he was writing again, which in turn made him feel alive again. An hour or so later, he realized he had lost track of time, as happens when soaring through the wild, un-patrolled universe of creativity. He was also out of napkins and asked the waiter for more, pausing a moment to shake the numbing cramps from his hand. The waiter seemed a tad annoyed at this whole napkin business, but Charlie didn’t give a shit. His train was back on the tracks and nothing could stop him from finishing his journey.
As he continued to write, he would come up for air on occasion to catch a glimpse of his new muse, sharing a smattering of fleeting, but no doubt meaningful glances before turning their attention back to their art.
Following the next, gem-filled set, the band took another break and Charlie realized he needed a break of his own, following four 7 & 7’s spread out over a two-hour period. The band’s break was a good excuse to take a breather himself. After guzzling down a glass of water, he headed down a hallway toward the restroom, feeling as though he were floating on air, thanks in part to the whiskey, but mostly due to the natural high of an artist working at the peak of his ability. These moments are rare for any artist – let alone one whose writing had come to a standstill.
On his way out, Charlie spotted his new muse sitting at the bar, sipping on an Old-Fashioned. His instinct was to immediately bee-line back to his table, but realized he had just enough confidence to attempt conversation. Just as he took his first step toward the bar, she got up and headed toward the stage. Charlie headed back to his seat like a limp, deflated balloon, before finally taking solace in his attempt and the prospect that he would have another shot after the show. The band started their final set and Charlie decided it was just as well. Writing sessions such as this were rare, even during the best of times. He wanted to milk it for as long as possible. In fact, his next set – like the music that accompanied it – was even hotter than before.
The waiter interrupted him to ask if he wanted another drink. Charlie gave it some thought, but realized it was time to put on the brakes and asked for more water instead. The high he was experiencing from his writing was far more intoxicating than any booze could ever wish to be. And he knew damn well enough that too much booze put his inner muse to sleep.
Toward the end of the band’s final set, he felt the writing well was beginning to run dry. He didn’t fret, because he knew that even the greatest writing sessions eventually come to an end. Besides, his blistered fingers needed a break, but like any good workout, it was a good kind of hurt. He gathered up his napkins and stuffed them into his pocket, before sitting back to let the music take over for the remaining half hour.
The band finished their last set with an effervescent rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” – another one of Charlie’s all-time favorites. When the song was over, the houselights came on and the band began to pack up.
Charlie was overcome by another unexpected wave of confidence. Just as he made his way toward her, his waiter intercepted him.
“Time to head out, bud.”
For the second time that night, an attempt to talk to the person who unknowingly resurrected his creative soul was thwarted. Though disappointed, he was proud of the strides he made tonight – on many fronts.
He threw on his coat and headed back into the empty night. A heavy snowfall greeted him. Not a cab was in sight. He should have asked the bartender to call him for one, but cast his fate to the wind to wait it out. After he waited five minutes in the white, lonely night, a sudden gust of wind ripped through his soul and sucked the napkins out of his pocket like over-sized snowflakes, dispersing in every possible direction. He desperately chased them down, realizing it was a futile effort, despite managing to salvage a few of them. Hopefully, he would have enough to cobble everything back together when his mind was clear and he returned to what was sure to be a new reality.
As he continued to gather his lost art, he saw a peripheral vision of red and white joining the night. He stopped mid-pursuit of a napkin, as she stood there, with a warm, inviting smile threatened to melt the snowflakes into rain. She then helped him gather a couple of stray napkins and brought them over to him as her band loaded up a van.
“You shouldn’t litter, you know,” she said with a seductive smile.
“Trying to quit,” Charlie said. “You guys sounded great, by the way.”
“Thank you,” she said, a tad embarrassed.
They gazed at one another through the falling snow.
Words weren’t necessary.
“Let’s roll!” the bassist said, as he climbed into his rusted-out utility van and cranked up some be-bop. The white angel continued to hold her gaze with Charlie, as she slowly walked backwards, before finally turning around and joining the rest of her crew.
The van disappeared into the dark vacuum of night, leaving Charlie waiting for a cab, as the snow fell around him.
He never felt so wonderfully, utterly, and equally alone.
J. Lee Strickland is a freelance writer living in upstate New York. In addition to fiction and poetry, he has written on the subjects of rural living, modern homesteading and voluntary simplicity for various publications. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sixfold, Latchkey Tales, Atticus Review, Icarus Down Review, Garlic Press, Countryside, Small Farm Journal, and others. He is a member of the Mohawk Valley Writers' Group and The Hudson Valley Writers Guild, and served as a judge for the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award. He is at work on a collection of connected short stories vaguely similar in format to the long-defunct American television series, 'Naked City,' but without the salacious title.
SACRAMENT by J. Lee Strickland
“Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.”
“In peace let us pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
For Father Joseph the ritual wore the polish of countless repetitions, yet sometimes, as today, it could feel fresh and new.
“For the peace of God and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
“For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
He looked out over the congregation. They, like he, were old hands at this. He judged their engagement and commitment week by week by this participatory act. Sometimes the enthusiasm of one or two would infect the others, and the muddy murmur would rise to a crisp bark. He liked that, and his own call gained passion from it. His voice would deepen and his words, no longer slips of sound from the top of his throat, would rise like blossoms from within his chest, gathering deeper meanings as they rose, gaining in the rare instance, he thought, the true power of the Word.
In the response today he didn't hear the infectious enthusiasm that would draw others to its pole. It was another sound, a feminine voice, that commanded his attention. He had heard that voice the week before, and now, as then, his eyes scanned the congregation for its source. He found her toward the back, near the south wall, separate from the other congregants. A woman with her daughter, bathed in light from the tall stained-glass windows, they were new faces in a neighborhood where novelty was a rarity.
There was a time when Joseph had seen himself being sent to a backwater town in the midst of the godforsaken flatlands as a form of punishment; punishment for nothing more than a lack of the exceptional qualities that make for greatness. But he had come to see that ‘backwater’ was an imperial and dismissive concept; a place not in my mainstream. This place had its own stream and it ran strong and true. The flatlands were not godforsaken. Their very flatness likely was God's gift to the place, their seeming boundless fertility, the people’s source of wealth and well-being. A rich loam of honest self-reliance ran deeper even than the layer of pungent black soil that capped the land. It resonated with what some might have perceived in Joseph as a lack of ambition, but which he now recognized as inner contentment. In short, he now lived willingly in this undeclared exile. Even the petty bigotries of the few fell short of offensive. They were the necessary blemish on a beautiful face that makes it truly human. His was a flock of real people, willing lambs to his ministrations sometimes, stubborn goats at others, especially in the realm of charity and forgiveness.
"You can call me Joe," he had said from the very beginning, wanting closeness and familiarity, but they clung to ‘Father Joseph’ and it was a lonely while before he realized that they did not distance themselves by that term of respect. In fact, their respect was a special kind of intimacy because it was based on faith. That faith, the unfounded giving over of oneself, was from them, a deep and precious compliment. Even though he understood the great respect these people held for him, Joe still felt the tug, like a stream lapping persistently at a root, the desire for a moment of companionship uncluttered with public roles or expectations. He felt that estrangement as his eyes scanned the congregation.
Joe waited at the door of the church greeting congregants, murmuring pleasantries and grasping hands. When the woman appeared he reached out to touch her on the sleeve. "Hello. I'm Father Joseph." He extended his hand and the woman took it in hers. "I'm pleased to see you back a second time."
"You saw us last week?" She spoke with a pronounced accent Joseph could not place. Mediterranean or Eastern European, he thought.
"A new face stands out here," Joe said.
"We just moved to your city. I was hoping to find…" she paused. "Your church is nice."
"Thank you. May I ask your name?"
I'm sorry, yes. I'm Magda Romanescu. This is my son. He likes to be called Jesse."
Joe suffered a moment of confusion and embarrassment, but as he looked at the boy he thought it was no great error to mistake him for a girl. His features were soft and fine. His eyes were deep brown almost black. His eyelashes were long, and his eyebrows penciled slim arches above them, accenting the smoothness of his brow. His hair fell in lustrous black curls that covered his ears and the nape of his neck. He was beautiful in a way that transcended gender. Joe offered his hand and said, "I'm very pleased to meet you, Jesse. I like to be called Joe."
"I'm pleased to meet you too, Sir," Jesse said shaking Joe's hand.
"How old are you?" Joe asked.
"I'll be fourteen soon." Jesse beamed.
"Jesse might be interested in our Saturday Bible study." Joe addressed the woman. "It's mostly kids from about twelve to sixteen or so. They get together about five o'clock. They have dinner together. They do most of the cooking themselves. The church provides the food. Brandon, my altar boy, comes every week. He's about Jesse's age. Mrs. Amory, our Bible scholar, helps out as chaperone, discussion leader, whatever. It's very informal. If you're interested, call the church during the week. I'm usually in my office."
"Thank you very much. Jesse and I will talk about that." She put her arm around Jesse and pulled him to her affectionately.
"I'm pleased to have met you Mrs. Romanescu. I look forward to seeing you again next week."
"Oh, please. Call me Magda. I know in your country it is first names. I like that. You like to be called Joe? I like that." She turned and waved as they moved away. Then Jesse said, "Bye, Joe."
"Bye, Jesse," Joe replied. He felt strangely elated by their exchange.
Magda didn't call that week, but on Sunday she and Jesse returned for the service. They had moved one row closer but still sat a little apart from the others. That was to be expected. Joe knew his congregation. They did not invite novelty. They tolerated it in its place. They didn't glad-hand the stranger, and one earned a place among them only with great patience. Joe had thought, too, that novelty held no attraction for him, that his contentment lay in routine, yet the appearance of Jesse and Magda was invigorating. He found himself excited by the thought of the Sunday service, and during the service he became aware of each step of ritual as he tried to imagine what they heard and what they saw.
Joe was in his office struggling to refine a difficult part in his sermon when the phone rang.
A woman's voice said, "Hello, Joe?"
Joe was taken aback. No one called him that. After a moment he realized it must be Magda. "This is Joe. Is that you, Magda?"
"Yes. It is Magda. I am sorry to bother you. Jesse will like to come to the Saturday, the Bible study. You know he likes the Bible very much."
"Oh, that's great, Magda. Why don't you tell him to come to my office about five o'clock on Saturday. I’ll take him around and introduce him to the others. I'm sure he’ll enjoy himself. It's a great group of kids."
"I will tell him. Thank you very much, Joe. I think this will be very good for Jesse. He likes you very much, you know."
"Well, I like him too," Joe replied. "I look forward to seeing him on Saturday."
Jesse arrived promptly at the office and Joe walked him over to the community room where the others had already gathered. After brief introductions, Joe returned to his office. He was still struggling with his sermon, one which, when he first conceived it, seemed a simple one. The topic had started as idolatry and consumerism. Joe had thought to point out that the current social addiction to material things was precisely the impediment to salvation that Jesus spoke of in the parable of the eye of the needle. Instead his sermon had come out sounding like an attack on the members of the congregation.
By and large they were well-off. Many had large, beautiful homes, and they enjoyed the amenities of modern society. But they were hard-working honest folk. By their standards at least, they had earned their comfort. The culture of consumerism was certainly a form of idolatry, and it blocked the path to God, but the victims of consumerism were not the enemy. His task was not to punish or condemn, but to lead them beyond that. That was the point, wasn’t it? The Kingdom of God lies beyond the Earth. That was the real subject. But how could he communicate to them what he knew in his heart? That all that they saw and all that they knew and felt, that all that is now in the world and ever has been, was less than a dust mote against the splendor of the Kingdom of Heaven; less even than that, it all was meaningless. In the grip of that ultimate glory it would be forgotten more quickly than one forgets the face behind the ticket booth window or last week's back page news story. The things of this world were useless there, as useless as a shopping list in an earthquake. Earthly things were just that, their compass no greater than the dirt from which they rose. They served for that brief eye blink called a life, then were shed as easily as the reptile sheds its skin.
Tears filled Joe’s eyes as he felt the poignancy of that loss that everyone must experience once; a loss that would someday be his; the loss of everything earthly to gain eternal bliss. It was difficult from the mortal side to see that there was no loss. In his heart he knew it was so, but his mind rebelled. With a tightly clenched fist it gripped the pleasures of the senses and feared their loss. His parishioners, too, clung to their stuff, to their objects, to their appetites. He could see it in their faces when he spoke of charity and sacrifice. He was, in part, the source of their awe when he spoke powerfully of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
And that sacrifice, that was another story, too. His mind raced. Wasn’t Jesus God himself? And what was death on the cross to omniscient, omnipotent God? Less, certainly, in the infinitude of His being, than a pin-prick to some mortal. And yet Joe’s parishioners reveled in the horror of Jesus’ last day. His blood spilled was their own; his scourging brought to them the fear of their own terrible punishment. His innocence was theirs and the suffering more terrible for that. Each of them realized that even the greatest goodness could not shield them from horrible suffering. In their minds they knew Jesus was God. In their hearts he was a man, wounded, beaten, scorned, humiliated and killed, yet somehow carried beyond that to something better. This was the story they clung to. Not some grandiose scheme of everlasting life, but just a respite, a promise beyond nothingness. Joe’s head ached with the circularity of it. His mission was to bring them to God. Their demand, the job they really paid him for, was to carry them, one by one, over the hill of their fears, over the mountain of their suffering.
A knock on the office door interrupted Joe’s musings. “Come in,” he called. It was Ms. Amory with Jesse. “Is there a problem? Is something wrong?” Joe suddenly felt anxious.
“No, no, not a problem, not at all.” Linda Amory was a small woman whose self-confidence enlarged her stature. She was young and related well to the youth in her group, never spoiling the connection with any authoritarian bent. Now it seemed, she needed help. “Jesse has a question for you, one I thought you could answer better than I. Go ahead, Jesse. Ask Father Joseph what you asked me.”
Jesse hesitated a moment before speaking. “I just want to know, if Satan is God’s enemy, why does he help God?”
“Satan helps God?” This was not a question Joe had heard before. “How does Satan help God?”
“Well,” Jesse said, “he gives God a place to send sinners and he keeps them there and punishes them just like God wants.”
“Satan doesn’t do that to help God, Jesse.” He looked into the child’s face, touched by the innocence, the expectation, the remarkable beauty that he saw. It made him hesitate, the realization that this child was prepared to believe whatever he said. It was not surrender in those eyes but a faith that came very near to it. “Have you ever seen Old Pete around the neighborhood?”
Jesse nodded. “He talks to everybody. Momma told me not to talk to him ever.”
“Well, Pete, you see, has an addiction. He’s an alcoholic. He can never get enough of the whiskey. Satan is like that in a way. He lusts for human souls. He never gets enough and he won’t let them loose once he gets them.”
Jesse’s eyebrows pulled together in concentration. “Mom said the bartender at Tony’s Tavern shouldn’t let Old Pete in there; that it’s his fault that Old Pete sleeps on the sidewalk and always bothers people. Is God like Satan’s bartender?”
“Maybe that wasn’t such a good example. The Bible says a lot about what it takes to achieve salvation, and a lot about why some people are condemned. People really decide for themselves, by how they live, whether they’re going to heaven or to hell. God instructs us to do good works. We need to follow that instruction. You see, Jesse, it’s not what Satan’s doing that matters. We have to live our lives, not in fear of Satan, but for love of God. Does that make sense to you?”
Jesse nodded. His face was grave. His look did not waver from Joe’s face.
Joe came from behind his desk. He placed his hand behind Jesse’s head. He was surprised by the softness as his fingers tangled in Jesse’s hair. “I want you to know, my door is always open. If you have questions or just want to talk, I’m here.”
“Thanks, Joe,” Jesse said quietly. A look of surprise crossed Linda’s face, but she said nothing.
After they left, Joe felt shaken. Was he really so unprepared to answer the questions of a child? Wasn’t it his scholarship that qualified him to lead people out of the maze of these popular misconceptions? Yet, the question had come from Jesse. He had reasoned to the point on his own, and Joe felt somehow Jesse had uncovered something Joe had never seen before.
He pushed his thoughts aside and returned to the frustrations of his sermon.
Jesse came back regularly. On Saturdays he would come early before the Bible study-group meetings. One or two days during the week he would stop on his way home from school. Sometimes he asked questions. Often he answered Joe’s and in that way Joe learned a little of their former lives, of their time in Romania, of the death of Jesse’s father during the overthrow of the dictatorship. When they arrived in the United States, they had lived in Boston until Magda’s desire to find a haven away from the chaos of the metropolis led them to move again.
“We like it here,” Jesse had said once, “but Mama’s a little afraid of the flatlands. They’re so different from the mountains of her country.” Hearing that, Joe was struck with how quickly the child embraced the new and how easily he separated himself from Magda.
The compass of Joe’s life began to revolve around those visits. It was as if light flowed through a window he had never noticed. He became interested in things that before he had shunned. Where once he kept to his office, his private sanctuary, now he took to walking about the neighborhood. He discovered a park, several acres of green space a short walk from the rectory. It was beautifully kept, and when he penetrated to its interior it was possible to forget that he was surrounded by a sea of pavement, bricks and mortar. Even the otherwise ubiquitous brown noise of urban bustle, noise he had learned to ignore in his office, did not reach here. A few people strolled the tree-lined paths. Squirrels scurried through the grass, and birds sang from their perches in the trees. Joe found a bench and sat.
A voice, just above a whisper, called him.
Startled, he looked around. No one looked familiar. The few people walking by ignored him. The voice came again.
“Joe. Don’t look back too quickly. I’m right behind you, in the bushes.” It was Jesse’s voice drawn to a horse whisper. “If you stand up and turn around, you’ll see where I am.”
Joe stood slowly, casually, feeling partner to some indecipherable intrigue. He turned and saw a palisade of dense vegetation a few feet beyond the bench. There was no sign of Jesse.
“Don’t say anything,” Jesse’s voice instructed. “Just go around to the left, away from the path. There’s an opening, like a big rabbit hole. I’m inside.”
Joe tried for nonchalance, skirted the wall of vegetation. It curved around until, out of sight of the gravel path, he found the opening. Feeling foolish, he gingerly stooped, trying not to kneel in the dirt as he entered the hole. It was too low and branches grabbed at his clothes and hair. He dropped to his hands and knees and squirmed through. Inside the packed dirt floor was devoid of vegetation. At intervals, branchless trunks rose like pillars in a miniature cathedral, and Joe’s eye imposed upon them the symmetries of nave and choir. The impenetrable ceiling of intertwining branches and leaves was too low for standing, and Joe relaxed onto his haunches looking about with fascination.
Jesse beamed at him from the cool darkness at the far end of the space as Joe crawled toward him. It felt strange pressing his hands against the earth. He could not remember ever doing such a thing. He felt the fabric of his pants rubbing his knees and, through it, the unfamiliar texture of the ground. He thought of his housekeeper, imagined her puzzling over his dirty clothes. I’ll tell her I was playing in the dirt, he thought, smiling to himself. He was still smiling when he reached Jesse. He rolled over and rested his back against a trunk. He was about to speak when two of Jesse’s fingers pressed on his lips.
“You need to speak quietly,” Jesse said. “People can hear us if they listen.” As he spoke, Jesse’s fingers remained against Joe’s lips. Joe thought he could taste them… a hint of salt… perhaps the dirt from the ground of their sanctuary. He felt their weight tugging at his lower lip, the palm brushing his chin. Then the hand withdrew.
“What is this place?” he whispered.
“It’s my fort… my hideout.”
“But…” Joe looked about him gesturing. Jesse interrupted.
“I know. It’s really cool. It never gets wet in here and nothing grows underneath. We learned in school about how plants are sometimes shaped because of their water needs. You know how cactuses are fat because they have to store a lot of water?”
“Did you ever notice how some ferns grow so they look like funnels?”
Joe nodded again. He hadn’t remarked it, but in his mind’s eye he could picture what Jesse described.
“They funnel the water to the center of their root-mass when it rains. Well, other plants are shaped like domes so that the water runs off them like an umbrella. This puts the water out at the ends of the roots where the youngest parts, the tiny root hairs, can take it up. This shrub is like that. All these trunks are part of a single root system. As the plant grows, the lower branches get shaded by the new top growth. Once they stop getting sunlight they stop producing leaves so the middle gets hollowed out. It makes a great shelter.” Jesse rolled over on his stomach, chin on his hands. “I can lie here looking out and nobody knows I’m here.”
Joe settled next to him and peered out at the passers-by.
Finally Jesse broke the silence. “Do you think this is how God feels when he looks down at us from heaven?”
Jesse looked at Joe from the depths of his favorite chair. Like most of the furniture in Joe’s office, it was a luxurious, over-stuffed relic from another era surviving in near-pristine condition because it had been so rarely used. It was tucked into a corner between two bookshelves, and Jesse would sit in it cross-legged with a book on his lap, sometimes for hours.
“Why did God create evil?” Jesse asked.
Joe looked up from his desk. “Why do you ask that?”
“It says in the Bible. In Isaiah.”
“It says something about that… chapter 44?”
“Isaiah 45, verse 7!” Jesse said gleefully. He loved to master the trivia of Biblical reference, and Joe did not discourage it.
“Why do you think God would create evil?” Joe asked carefully.
“Well, I asked Brandon what he thought and he said God created evil so we could have some fun in life. He said all the good stuff is boring, and all the exciting stuff is bad.”
“What did you think of that?”
“I thought it was silly.” Jesse squirmed in his seat then settled down expectantly.
“Well some people think that in that verse when God says ‘evil’ he’s not talking about sin… the fun stuff, as Brandon calls it. They think he means calamities, disasters. You know, earthquakes, hurricanes and the like.” Jesse listened intently. “They think God created those things because it is through difficulties, trials, tribulations, that we become our best. The Latin goes, per aspera ad astra… through adversity to the stars. Other people say that God means he created the category of evil. They say that before God gave the commandments to Moses, before he spoke to the great prophets, Isaiah, Elijah, Ezekiel and the like, people didn’t know the difference between good and evil. In their freedom humans are capable of doing anything. All God can do is advise them of the good things and bad things.” Jesse looked confused.
“Look, if I tell you it’s a bad thing to break your neighbor’s windows and then you go and throw rocks through them, who did a bad thing?”
“If I threw the rocks then I did a bad thing,” Jesse said simply.
“Right,” Joe agreed. “I didn’t do anything bad. All I did was tell you it was bad. You could choose to do it or not. It’s the same way God could create the category of evil and not do anything bad himself.”
Jesse was silent awhile, then said, “What do you think, Joe?”
“What do I think?” Joe looked out the window. He could see, at the end of a branch of the horse chestnut tree, the green prickly fruits, not quite mature. As he watched, a catbird landed on the limb, its long tail pumping as it balanced on its sinking perch. “God is a great mystery, Jesse. The world is what it is. I think we spend our lives trying to imagine the God who made the things we know.”
As soon as Jesse left, Joe called Magda.
“Hi Magda. It’s Joe.” The familiarity still felt strange to his mouth. “Jesse was just by for a visit. I’d like to ask him to become an altar boy, but I want to ask you first.”
“Jesse? An altar boy? But aren’t there others already?”
“Just Brandon. He and Jesse seem to be pretty good friends. I think it would be a good thing. What do you think?”
“Oh, Joe. It is such an honor…” Magda was silent.
“So it’s ok to ask him? He might say no.”
Oh, no Joe, he won’t… I mean, yes, please, ask him.”
Jesse came by every day. He and Joe spent their time in enthusiastic discussions of each piece of the ritual from vestments to relics to the paraphernalia of the sacraments. Brandon, a boisterous and cheery boy, welcomed the companionship and the help. Even he sometimes fell silent and still in the face of Jesse’s intense reverence for the rituals of the altar.
One day Joe came in to find Jesse already in the vestry. This was not unusual except that he was still in his street clothes. Usually he put on his robe as soon as he could. Jesse sat without moving, facing the outer door. Joe sensed that something was wrong.
“Jesse, how’s it going?” he said.
There was no answer, but Jesse turned slowly. There were tears in his eyes.
”What happened?” Joe moved to him. “What’s the matter?”
Jesse opened his mouth and sobbed. Joe put a hand on his shoulder.
“They chased me,” he said shaking. “They called me a girl. They said I wore dresses in church. They threw things. I had to run away.”
Joe pulled the quaking body to his breast.
"I wish I was like Elisha," Jesse said between sharp, labored intakes of breath. "I wish I could curse them and have them mangled by bears."
Joe's fingers tangled in the soft dark curls. His other hand stroked Jesse’s heaving back, feeling the shape of each in-drawn breath. "Oh no, Jesse. They're just ignorant. They don't know. Don't curse them for that."
Joe's heart beat wildly as Jesse’s hot tears soaked his skin and hot, expelled breath washed his neck. Jesse responded to the stroking by clinging more tightly, desperately molding himself to Joe’s form. Joe murmured meaningless syllables, sounds that matched the inchoate whirl of his mind. A vision of Magda, somehow indistinguishable from her son, entered his mind and then was gone. Jesse had calmed some, and Joe shifted so he could see the boy’s face.
“I have an idea,” he said. “How about if Sunday you take over communion from Brandon?” Joe watched Jesse’s face transform from grief to excitement.
“You mean it?”
Everything else was forgotten.
Joe awoke, bathed in sweat, the bedding twisted around his body. He'd had a dream and now he lingered at the dream's edge. He tried to reach back beyond the one fragment that played in his mind. Magda's face approached his and he experienced again the fear and desire that accompanied the anticipation of her kiss, except it was Jesse's hand that stroked his arm. In the dream it was Jesse's hand that slid up his neck drawing his head toward that kiss. How did he know? It was a dream, and you just knew things in dreams. The most unknowable became patent certainty in dreams, but it was a certainty that rarely carried over to the waking world. There were times when Joe had cried for that moment of clarity, the revelation he knew had been there, suddenly and irretrievably lost. Now he reached again, futile reaching. Fear and desire still warred within him, their physical evidence, trembling and arousal. Jesse's and Magda's faces mixed together in his mind, and he fought the temptation to touch himself as he tried to banish them both.
The church seemed unusually full, the atmosphere thick with anticipation. Joe felt its echo deep within himself.
“The Lord be with you.”
“And also with you.”
“Lift up your hearts.”
“We lift them up to the Lord.”
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
“It is right to give our thanks and praise.”
Joe turned to face the communion table. Jesse was there, as still as the chalice, his eyes on Joe’s face.
“On the night in which he gave himself up for us, Our Lord Jesus took bread, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
"Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup, gave it to his disciples, and said: Drink from this, all of you, this is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Do this also in remembrance of me."
Joe approached the table, Jesse at his right side.
“Christ has died.”
He made the sign of the cross above the host.
“Christ has risen.”
He made the sign above the chalice as he and the congregation together intoned, “Christ will come again.”
There was conviction in that chorus. Joe felt it. He looked at Jesse, who stared up at him rapt. His face was beautiful, glowing amidst its halo of black curls. Joe felt himself sinking into its softness, like he was perched on the edge of a kaleidoscopic pinwheel. He looked away scanning the congregation for a life line and found Magda, a mirror of the face he had just left. He raised his hands in ritual gesture.
“Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.”
He lowered his hands.
“Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”
He turned to Jesse who held before him the wafer on its porcelain saucer.
“Body of Christ,” Jesse said, his young boy’s voice like a forgotten song.
“Body of Christ,” Joe repeated and closed his eyes. He accepted the wafer on his tongue. He waited for its thin, crisp blandness to dissolve in his mouth.
Something was wrong. It felt as if a finger lay between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. His tongue shifted the lump toward his teeth and an image of a strip of raw chicken flesh swam into his mind. He felt a spasm in his diaphragm, a clenching gut, and he fought the reflex to gag. Tears sprang into his eyes. His throat burned. He looked across the bowed heads of the congregation as he struggled not to vomit. A few heads were raised. A few pairs of eyes looked his way, but they were eyes that saw only what they believed. His private drama played behind the opaque screen of their expectations.
Jesse was on his knees now. “Blood of Christ.” He held up the chalice. Joe forced himself to swallow the foul lump that still blocked his esophagus. He saw that Jesse was crying.
“Blood of Christ,” he croaked taking the chalice. He resisted the temptation to press the goblet to his lips, to wash away the nausea. Instead he raised it above his head in a theatrical gesture he had not employed before. He paused searching for composure. He looked again at Jesse. Jesse's tear-stained face was suffused with joy, his eyes unfocused, gleaming. Whatever vision he contemplated it was not of this world. Joe was suddenly afraid of the goblet in his hands. What would be in it? Yet he had to put it to his lips, had to drink of it. He had to empty it and wipe it clean with the linen that lay on the table. It was the ritual performed countless times; what those who sat before him expected, and what they would see.
His hands shook as he lowered the chalice and brought it to his lips. The liquid oozed into his mouth, viscous, metallic, salty. He suppressed a sob, but even as he did, the familiar oaky bitterness of the sacramental wine began to fill his mouth. He drank gratefully, feeling tears again filling his eyes.
He could not say with clarity how the rest of the service went. Jesse remained kneeling and Brandon gathered up the remnants of routine. Joe moved numbly through the last steps of ceremony, each word, each gesture, a supreme act of will.
After the service Joe made his way to his usual station outside the doors of the church. There was electricity in the air, a strange restlessness and lack of order to the crowd as they exited. An attractive, impeccably dressed woman approached him, her eyes liquid, as if about to spill over her mascara-brushed lashes. She grasped his hand in both of hers. "Father Joseph, what a wonderful service. So..." she pumped his arm convulsively, "I felt..." unable to continue, she began crying freely. She bent and kissed his hand as he tried gently to pull away. He felt fear and nausea knotting his stomach again. He looked around and saw other faces on the brink of that ecstasy, a barely suppressed wildness coursing beneath the surface, so uncharacteristic of his quiet flock.
He went back into the church, and though he felt fingers plucking at his sleeves as he passed, he did not acknowledge them. His one thought was to get to the safety and solitude of his office. Beyond the altar he entered the narrow hall that led through the vestry to his office. Jesse and Brandon were in the vestry. He couldn't face them. Another door, never used in Joe's memory, led into the garden that he could see from his office windows. He pushed on it and it yielded to his touch. He ducked through the opening, not looking back.
He felt guilty for avoiding the boys, guilty for abandoning the people outside the church, guilty for this furtive escape, and guilty for this anxiety that nearly paralyzed him. He looked around in sudden amazement. The garden was beautiful. Cobbled paths wound around manicured beds of flowering plants, taller shrubs and small trees, and there to one side, the enormous horse chestnut tree, the one thing he recognized. How many times had he looked into this garden, never seeing the slightest detail of its beauty? How was it that he had never set foot in this place? And what had happened to bring him here?
He felt again the nauseating texture of the lump in his mouth. So many times he had petitioned the Lord to make of the wine and bread, the body and blood of Christ, never grasping the absurdity of the request. Modern magicians made rabbits and doves, and even fishes, appear, made elephants disappear, unearthed lost relatives of audience members, and surely turned water into wine, all in the name of entertainment, acts that counted as miracles in the foundational text of Christianity. Were people so weak that they needed carnival tricks to compel their belief? How would his congregation feel if they were confronted, as he was today, with some crude demonstration of seeming hidden power?
Vague disgust darkened his mood and shored up his will. He turned back to the door, but it was locked. Some mechanism permitted it to open from inside but prevented entering from the outside. Anxiety boiled up again inside him, and with it, the nausea that had dogged him since the moment with the Host at the altar. He headed for the horse chestnut tree, the one familiar object in the garden. Beyond it he could see what he guessed were the windows of his office, a magic refuge just beyond his grasp.
Near the base of the tree was a small statue of a woman, and before her, a stone slab and low wooden rail. Joe examined the statue, a fanciful evocation of the Virgin Mary. It was exquisitely detailed, hand-painted, almost life-like. Looking at it, he saw again Jesse's face, the tears flowing, not like drops from an eye, but like blood from a wound. The beauty of that face, that was a miracle. He fell to his knees on the stone, clasped his hands before him, collapsing against the rail, and closed his eyes, but there was nothing. He was alone, kneeling on a rock in front of a painted lump of plaster, empty of everything except desire.
The next afternoon Joe called Magda and asked her to meet him for coffee. He had slept little, but he felt lucid, on the verge of some revelation, and at the same time anxious, remembering the events of the day before. When she answered Joe talked quickly. “Magda, it’s Joe. I’d like to see you. I need to talk…”
“Oh, hello, Joe!” The delight in her voice communicated itself across the wires, pressing against Joe’s anxiety. He drew in his breath, willed himself to relax.
“Do you have time to get a cup of coffee? I’d like to talk.”
At the café Magda seemed to Joe like a different person. Her lustrous black hair hung loose about her shoulders, making her look young and accentuating her resemblance to Jesse. She made disarming small-talk as they made their way to a table, moving close to him, matching his step, her arm brushing his, as she recounted the events of her day. They sat and Joe looked across the table at her, drinking her radiance. She laughed and tossed her head.
“You say you want to talk and I do all the talking. Please, Joe, tell me what you are doing.”
“Magda, I want you to know that Jesse,” he hesitated, then started again. “Jesse and you have been a godsend for me.” He stopped and sipped his coffee. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoy Jesse’s company.” He paused again, gathering strength for the next step.”About yesterday…”
“Jesse told me,” she stopped him. “It was the most wonderful moment of his life. To hold in his hand the host… the chalice. The blood of Christ.” Her eyes glistened. Her face radiated joy. It was there in her face, that ecstasy he had seen in the others.
Joe shrank from the force of it. What had he wanted to tell her? What did he think she had seen? He felt alone again as he had at the altar and in the garden. Whatever had happened to him during the service, whatever cruel trick, had happened to him alone, and it had diminished his world. He reached out, a gesture meant to slow Magda’s rush to a place he could not follow, and her hand covered his. He fought the impulse to pull away. Heat passed in a wave up his arm. A vibration coursed through his body bringing each nerve ending to his awareness. He looked at her face and she returned his gaze without wavering. He needed to speak, to break the carnal spell.
“Magda, all my life I have felt that I was working toward something. I didn’t know what, but I thought that eventually I would step back and see that the bricks of my effort had formed a great building, that the chisel of my time had carved out some beautiful statue. In that moment, I thought, everything would become clear.” She listened with intensity and her fingers moved in a slow caress of encouragement on his hand. Joe wondered that no one had ever touched him with that honesty, with that intensity. He willed himself to continue. “It seems things are going in the opposite direction; the bricks are a jumble, the chiseling a pile of dust."
Magda interrupted him. "But, Joe, look what you've done for Jesse. Look what you've done for us."
"Jesse has been my teacher," Joe replied. "Jesse's insight has shown me my ignorance. In his beauty I see my own..." he looked away. "I see my own flaws." Magda had his hand in both of hers now, her look intense, mouth open as if she was about to speak, but Joe continued. "It's not Jesse, or you. It’s as if all my beliefs were just a decorative invention. In retrospect it seems my whole life, all our lives as human beings have been driven by guilt, fear, regret. The whole, great fairy tale of punishment and rewards doesn't make any sense. God doesn't make any sense. Not the one that would run the universe like some carnival side show." Magda’s fingers had stopped their movement. Joe was in dangerous waters.
" I don't know, Magda. God, our God, can't just be God for some people. Maybe there is no damnation. Maybe there is no hell. Maybe God just welcomes everybody into blissful eternity, clutches everyone to his bosom.” He watched Magda’s hands withdraw, as if from a stream of scalding water. Her elbows pressed her sides and her arms crossed tightly against her chest.
“Everybody?” she asked. “Child rapists? Murderers? Hitler?” She was tossing her head with each word. “Ceaucescu, who killed my husband and drove me from my country?”
“Everyone. Everyone. No exceptions.” Joe suddenly felt tired, overwhelmed with his own revelation.
“But… but why?” Magda was pleading now.
“Because this moment… this thing… this time we call a life. It’s absurd. It’s an absurdity. No one’s to blame for that.” He reached to take her hand again, but she pulled away.
“How can you say that? You are supposed to be God’s servant, his hand on earth.”
“Don’t you see?” It was his turn to plead. “It’s what God would want.” Magda was mute, staring at him. Her hands clutched her elbows. Her face was a rigid mask.
“Do you know what hell is?” he asked
She answered bravely, defiantly. “I know what hell is.” She paused and flame leaped in her eyes. “And I know what you are.” She pushed away from the table. “A blasphemer…” She stood. “A blasphemer… Stay away from my Jesse. Stay away from my boy.” She was gone.
Joe sat dazed. What had happened? What had he done? For the first time he’d said what he believed. Not some rote platitudes, but a thing that had grown in the private fertility of his own heart, something that he wanted passionately to be true. And like a club, his honesty had destroyed the one other thing that he wanted.
He wandered the darkening streets aimlessly. He couldn’t return to the rectory. Back-stage at the circus, he thought, and disgust hunched his shoulders. A light rain began to fall, and he found himself at the entrance to the park. He ignored the signs that warned that the park closed at dusk. He passed between the stone pillars. Jesse was his only connection to this place. His hand clenched spasmodically as if it still tried to grasp Magda’s. The rain fell more heavily. He thought of the copse where he had found Jesse, and how Jesse had said it stayed dry inside when it rained. He had no recollection of the place or the day, just the sound of Jesse’s voice, the packed earth floor, the stick-fortress walls, the passers-by oblivious to their presence. The closing canopy of trees deepened the darkness and the gray gravel path seemed to glow in the twilight.
He was deep in the park when he heard voices ahead. He slowed his pace, and the sounds coalesced into fragments of intelligible speech; obscenities, laughter, shouts, interspersed with loud reports, solid blows against hard objects, the rattle of wood against iron fence, the clang of yielding metal and the billiard-ball clack of stone against stone. A cry of pain, more curses and scuffling, and Joe moved from the path. He didn’t want to confront other people; not now. A few feet from the path he came up against impenetrable undergrowth. The approaching voices grew louder and Joseph thought he could see shapes lumbering up the path toward him. He pushed against the unyielding vegetation. His sleeve caught and tore as he struggled. He tried to run, tripped and fell into soft, moist earth, darkness all around, voices no longer decipherable blending with the thumping and stomping. What had Jesse said that day? He strained to remember.
“Go around to your left, away from the path.”
Joe pulled himself up and moved against the wall of vegetation. He felt but could not see it curving away from the path. He fell to his knees, remembering, and there was the opening, like a burrow, into the dry, embracing interior of the copse.
From the deep darkness of his lair the world beyond looked light, and Joseph could see the group of youths draw abreast of his position. Seeming unbothered by the rain, they moved, like a clump of gnats, to some random law with no discernible vector. Some carried long sticks. Others swung their arms and spun their bodies; packets of frenetic, pointless activity. Their speech was a near-incoherent stream of profanities.
“Jesus fuck, asshole. Whatcha fuckin’ hit me witcha stick!”
“I dint fuckin’ hitcha with my fuckin’ stick! You fuckin’ run right into it!”
Bodies spun and hoots muddied any sense of the exchanges. Joe watched the complex dynamics of the swirling group. There were seven or eight or perhaps more, impossible to count. Sticks banged against trees, lamp posts, a bench. Rocks flew into the darkness and landed with a thump. In spite of the unaccustomed rawness of the scene Joe felt a kinship with the group. He felt their dark, untamed power and a last kernel of faith withered in his breast. They were damned. He was damned. The indifferent universe gave back nothing. It sucked up desire and supplication and spit back the void.
The storm of noise drifted away. Lying on the ground, Joe closed his eyes and tried to quiet the pounding of his heart as he attempted to capture the sense of the fading epithets, the muffled thumps. Finally he could hear only the whisper of light rain on the leafy canopy above his head. When he opened his eyes, Jesse was looking down at him. He groaned and turned his head to the side. More carnival tricks, apparitions now. Obviously he was coming unhinged. He turned back, but Jesse was still there.
"Your mother told me to stay away from you. She called me a blasphemer."
Jesse reclined next to Joe, supporting himself with one hand, the other resting on his thigh. The pose reminded Joe of a painting he had seen in a museum, or on the cover of a book, he couldn't quite remember. Jesse pushed a lock of hair away from his face.
"My mother is a woman of great faith. She is a believer. But she also believes she might be wrong. That's why she's afraid. When you know, as you do, Joe, and as I do, then you know there is nothing to fear." He reached out and touched Joe's face. Joe felt the stubble of his unshaved cheek rake against the softness of Jesse's palm, and he thought of the texture of Jesse's hair when his own fingers had tangled in it. He could grow a beard, and perhaps it would be soft and a delight to touch, like Jesse's hair. Jesse's hand withdrew, and Joe wanted to grab it and place it against his cheek, to nuzzle it and kiss it and feel its warmth against his nose, but he did not. Instead he closed his eyes again.
"You should go to my mother, Joe. She loves you, and so do I."
When Joe opened his eyes again Jesse was gone. There had been no sound, but Joe sensed the emptiness, his solitude.
The damp had penetrated to his bones, and now Joe crawled with difficulty out through the rabbit-hole entrance of the copse. The grass beneath his hands was soaked, but the rain had abated to a mist, more fog than rain, that clung to his eyebrows and settled about him like a cloak. The darkness seemed nearly impenetrable, and Joe wondered how long he had lain inside. Was it minutes? Hours? He didn't know. He stood and walked slowly in the thick grass, feeling the moisture soaking the cuffs of his pants, his socks, seeping into his shoes. Each physical sensation was sharp, new, a kind of prod that made him feel awake. Ahead he could make out the dim outline of the bench where once he had sat, and beyond that the gravel path. Above the trees, the mist glowed as it refracted the lights of the city, and tendrils of light seemed to meander through the branches. He was surprised at how quickly he returned to the park's entrance. Twin beacons of light shone beyond the pillars marking the path's intersection with the boulevard.
Across the street from the park was a small market, its facade gaily lit in the wet dimness of the evening. Joe crossed the street and went inside. At the counter just inside the door was a familiar face, one of his parishioners.
"Oh, my God, Father Joseph, what happened to you?" The man came from behind the counter and stopped a few feet from Joe, hands out as if he didn't know what to do next. "Did you get mugged or something? Attacked?"
Joe laughed. "Jonathan, I'm fine. Nothing like that. I was in the park, got caught in the rain."
"At this hour? You're soaked. Your sleeve is torn. Let me get you a towel. Loretta!" He shouted, and a woman appeared from the rear of the store. "Father Joseph is here. I need a towel." Loretta came up the center aisle, stopped when she saw Joe, and disappeared again into the back. She reappeared with an armload of towels. Joe was protesting to Jonathan as she bustled toward the front of the store.
"Please, I'm fine. Just a little damp. Don't go to any trouble." But he accepted a towel and dried his hair and face. He looked down at his muddied knees, at his tattered shirt and said, "I guess I am quite the sight, but, really, I'm fine. But I'm wondering, do you have any bread?"
"Do we have any bread?" Jonathan's look was incredulous. "We have the best bread in the whole city. Your housekeeper buys it here all the time."
Once again Joe was amazed by his own ignorance. He had never thought to ask where the bread, or any other part of his daily fare, came from, nor how. He had never been in the store where Jonathan and Loretta spent their lives. He felt, as he had in the garden, that a new world was unfolding before his eyes, one that had been there all the time, hidden by his own blindness. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize I've never been in your store."
Jonathan laughed and touched Joe's shoulder. "Why would you come here? You have important work to do. Your housekeeper is a wonderful woman. She takes care of those things."
"I'll get you a nice loaf of bread," Loretta said. She took the towel from his hands and knelt before him to brush the mud from his knees. She wiped his shoes. Joe, surprised and embarrassed, could not move.
"Lorretta, please," he said, but she was already gone. Joe looked around the brightly lit store, at all the gaudy items that crowded the shelves. It was difficult to make sense of it. "Do you sell wine, Jonathan?" he asked.
No, Father, the law doesn't allow us to sell wine here, but I have some nice wine for you." Before Joe could object, Jonathan was again shouting to Loretta. "Loretta, get a bottle of wine from the pantry for Father Joseph. The good red." Loretta appeared a moment later with bread and wine.
Joe dug in his pocket for the money that the housekeeper had insisted he carry. "How much...?"
Jonathan cut him off. "These are gifts." Loretta held them out.
"But I want to pay you."
"Father, you can't," Jonathan explained. "If you pay me, then I sell you the wine, which is against the law. A kind of sin, you see?" He smiled and his eyes glistened in the fluorescent light.
Outside, the rain had stopped and the air had cleared. Joe cradled the loaf of bread in his arm like a child. The wine dangled from his other hand. He didn't know if he could find his way to Magda's home in this strange, new world, but he was ready to try.
Annis Cassells is a writer, poet, teacher, and life coach. A writer of memoirs and "poemoirs”, she re-visualizes the past but looks forward to the future and its infinite possibilities. She teaches a memoir writing class, Legacy in Life Stories, for senior adults who are writing their life stories for their families. Annis is a member of Writers of Kern, a branch of the California Writers Club. Read her blog at www.thedaymaker.blogspot.com.
THE BLESSING by Annis Cassells
“See that design painted above the stained glass windows?” I whispered, gesturing with my head. I winced at the carpet fibers pressing into my knees. I buttoned my blouse and straightened my skirt. “It’s from the Aztecs. The early padres knew they needed to incorporate the Indians’ art and symbols. To bind them to the church.”
Benoit, dear boy, turned his youthful, clean-shaven face and squinted upward in the direction I’d nodded. He fastened his silver belt buckle. I continued, “The windows are new, a remodel done a few years ago.” Struggling to regain my composure, I brushed imagined lint off my sleeves with a flick of my wrists. Then I threaded an arm through the braided leather handles of my red straw purse.
It was not my habit to become intimate with clients, especially those half my age. But meeting this young man the day before awakened feelings I thought long dead. After my husband walked out five years ago. The contrast of Benoit’s sensitive deep-blue eyes shining out of that rich butterscotch face stopped my breath the first time I laid eyes on him. It still makes me pause. I have to admit to flirting with him. Just a little.
A 22-year-old French-Canadian, Benoit was enrolled in a photojournalism summer workshop at la Universidad de Emilio Carlos. He chose my name from a list of professional guides and hired me for a two-day excursion. It was my job to take him to a series of area churches for photos and historical background. Our final destination, la Parroquia, a neighborhood parish in the colonial village of San Martín, was the most impressive.
Benoit was curious, asking numerous questions, and showed a genuine interest in the same things I admired about my culture. I loved that. Besides, his soulful gaze stirred me, made me feel understood.
We’d surveyed the front of the church, me reciting its history, both of us inspecting and admiring each artifact and icon. When our bodies brushed against each other, I couldn’t ignore the electricity between us. Benoit leaned into me, his voice low, “Sonia,” he whispered, instead of addressing me with his usual “Senora.” Both of us hesitated, allowed our bodies to linger.
After a sweeping glance around the empty church, I grasped his hand. “Come. Rapido.” Eyes still searching, I guided him up the single gold-carpeted step and past the rail. Soon we were entwined on the plush flooring behind the eight-foot-long cement base of the marble-topped altar. It was a miracle we could remain silent.
Afterward, all was quiet in the church as we prepared ourselves to return to conventional guide-client behavior. Benoit stood first, extending his hand to help me up. “Allow me.” Like one would to an aunt or an older cousin I thought, sucking in my breath but opting to reach up to him. Another chance to feel the current when our skin touches.
I watched, admiring his economy of movement. He scooped up his camera, eased its strap over his head and around his neck, and picked up his black leather equipment bag, graceful as a dancer. He slung the bag over his left shoulder. Holding hands, we turned around to face the pews.
Two boys, maybe ten years old, knelt in the second row. They wore their school uniforms, black pants, white shirts, and black-watch plaid vests. When they noticed us, they both clapped their hands over their mouths, but their giggles still escaped. Grabbing their backpacks, they bolted upward and ran, laughing as they careened through the side door. My face flushed. I imagined what they might have seen or heard and shivered, trying to shake the image.
Benoit stifled a grin as we continued exploring, strolling among the statues that lined the church walls. He took time and care while he framed and shot dozens of photos. Intent, he would ask, “And this is which saint?” or “What is the significance of that?” as he aimed his camera. Then he would listen as I explained and write a word or two on his small unlined notepad. When our heads bent together over an artifact, I would inhale his unmistakable scent and almost lose focus.
The church bells boomed again, with no discernible pattern for the number and frequency of sonorous gongs. We ambled toward the main entrance, me wondering what would happen once we were outside, our contract finished. After our tryst behind the altar, my heart pulsated in a combination of hope and fear. Would it be a business-like handshake and awkward parting on la Parroquia’s worn cement steps? A quick embrace? Or more? I was just beginning to feel again. I wanted more.
Before we reached the high wooden, center door, a commanding voice called out. “Wait! Wait, my children!” We turned around to see an old priest hurrying toward us. As he hustled along, he nodded to the few parishioners who had entered and scattered themselves throughout the pews while Benoit and I were completing our tour.
Standing before us a bit winded, the slender, slightly-stooped man said in a softer voice, “I am Father Eduardo. Blessings upon you for the generous gifts you are about to share with our poor church.”
Benoit and I caught each others’ eyes. I saw a surprised expression on his face and then a frown as he dropped his gaze. Oh, damn! I thought. Did this priest know we were behind the altar? “I - I’m not sure what you mean, Father,” I said.
Father Eduardo turned and pointed, it appeared, at the polished wooden column that stood near the altar. What’s this about? I wondered, following the column’s ascension. When I spotted the surveillance camera mounted about ten feet up, my heart froze. I saw Benoit’s face twist into a pained expression, his blue eyes squeezed shut. “No. No,” he mumbled, shaking his head.
My face and neck flamed. How could I have been such an idiot? How could I have let this happen?
I fished for my wallet in the straw handbag, hoping cash would satisfy the priest and relieve my feelings of embarrassment and guilt. Father Eduardo raised both hands, palms out, as I offered the money. “It’s for the church. Put it in the donation box. Please.” He nodded toward an ornate marble stand that held a locked acrylic box. I deposited the money and turned back to face him. “And may God bless you,” he said. Then eyeing Benoit, “Both of you.”
Benoit emerged from his trance. He dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of pesos. Not bothering to count it, he stuffed the wad through the slot in the lid.
In a strained voice, nearly unrecognizable to me, I confronted the priest “Well, I’m shocked that you would run a video camera inside the church, Father.” I stretched my hand out toward the offensive thing. “It’s an intrusion on parishioners’ privacy. The church is supposed to be a sanctuary.”
“Video camera?” He interrupted, then looked backward, over his shoulder. “Oh, that. It doesn’t come on until el diez de la noche, ten o’clock at night. We installed it last month after vandals had struck us several times -- at night.” He faced us again, “Truth is, half the time we forget to start it.”
Benoit’s head jerked. His eyes narrowed, and he stared at the priest. “So you weren’t watching us? Why, then, did you point us to the camera?”
“Oh, I didn’t. I only meant to direct you to the poster about our Feed the Poor program. I was sure if you knew about it you’d want to help,” the old priest said, his eyes unreadable.
Then I focused on the large sign that stood on the table in front of the column. And there it was: “Alimentar a los Pobres de San Martín.” I chastised myself. So stupid! How could I have missed that?
The corners of Father Eduardo’s lips edged upward. His weathered face became serene, almost angelic. “Good day, my children. God’s blessings upon you,” he said, tucking his smooth hands into his cassock sleeves. Then backing away, he made a half bow. “Bless you.”
Justin Zipprich is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has been writing since he was a child. From short stories and news articles to screenplays and comedy sketches, he loves to write it all. He has a love for the English language and the adventures it creates.
He is proud to have had his previous work published by Necrology Shorts, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Fiction and Verse and Whisperings Magazine as well as getting an honorable mention in Allegory. He has also had a story published in the short story collection “Luscious” as well as a Best Screenplay nomination at the Action on Film Festival for his script “One Moment”. See his website at www.jzipprichblogging.com.
The World is Falling Apart by Justin Zipprich
A light snow began to fall as Charlie Reardon departed the diner and made his way down Madison Street. Departed was a nice way of saying that he was actually violently thrown out of the establishment. It had all gone downhill so quickly. At one moment he was simply enjoying his beer, at the next he was involved in the first fistfight of his life.
When he was sober, Charlie was well educated. After a few beers he became a genius on all topics, a real know-it-all. To be honest, it was the other man’s fault. Didn’t he know that there were two topics you never talk about, religion and politics? If that man had never started spouting his mouth off about the latter, Charlie would have never have been forced to prove the man wrong.
The diner was a bizarre combination of eatery and brewery. On one side, families enjoyed hamburgers and French fries. Ten feet away from them, the town drunks sat at the bar grumbling about their hard lives while they got their nightly booze fix. Charlie sat at the end of the bar on a rickety, uneven stool. He wasn’t usually a drinker but after an especially hard day at work he decided that he would stop in and join the regulars for a few drinks. He was finishing off his third beer when a man sitting further down the bar was given his check. He was a small man with a beanpole frame. An angry grin seemed to be his default expression. When the angry man read his bill, he became instantly enraged. He claimed that he didn’t have enough money and that it was the government’s fault! His paycheck had been reduced to pennies after the greedy government had taken their share.
When the man’s voice escalated to angry screeching, Charlie felt he had no choice but to convince the chap to relax. He didn’t intend to further anger the smaller man. He merely explained that it wasn’t the government’s fault that he had no money. The gentleman simply had a paltry, low paying job and the income equal to a street beggar. If he wanted to make more money, all he had to do was apply himself and he would find a worthwhile occupation.
The plan, as anyone could have imagined, backfired miserably. The dirty little bastard became less of a civilized adult and more like a violent and frightened ape, growling and poking Charlie in the chest with a bony index finger. It didn’t take long to figure out that no amount of verbal persuasion would calm the man down. Charlie was about to give up and walk away when the excitable imp laid down the straw that broke the camel’s back. He raised one skeletal finger and held it no more than an inch away from Charlie’s face as he made his final, ignorant point.
Without hesitation, Charlie pushed the finger away, wound up and punched the man square in the nose. The drunkard didn’t stand a chance. The blow threw him off his feet and launched him backward. He crashed through a flimsy wooden table, landing on the hard floor with a loud thud where he remained, unmoving. Without hesitation, Charlie turned his back to the fallen man and started for the exit. He had to get out of there and fast, before he got himself into more trouble. His wish was granted as the largest bouncer he had ever seen suddenly lifted him off his feet. It was funny how there was no happy medium in this place. Everyone was either as skinny as a twig or as large as a buffalo. The hulking man took no liberties. He carried Charlie to the door and threw him like a ragdoll into the street, already cold and wet from the falling precipitation.
Now here he was, feeling buzzed and sore as he walked down the middle of Madison Street. It was a quiet night with not a vehicle in sight. Dark clouds filled the sky while a chill in the air forced him to tighten the belt on his coat. His head had begun to throb. The result he assumed, was a combination of the booze mixed with his violent exit from the diner. He hadn’t walked too far when he discovered the woman. She was a beggar dressed in filthy rags. She ducked inside her ratty jacket as she cowered against the brick wall of the Madison Street Bank. He despised people like her. What was so hard about finding a job anyway? It was easy to find work when one truly applied themselves. He always tried to avoid these people like the plague. However, on this brisk night, the elements worked against him. The wind seemed to push him towards the filthy woman even as he fought to stay away.
When she looked up at him, he was completely taken aback. Any resemblance of a female face seemed to have been washed away by disfigurement. The face that peered out at him was covered with bumps and boils of various shapes and sizes. Her other features consisted of a thin and lipless mouth and two small holes in the middle of her face that constituted a crude nose. Worse of all were those eyes. Underneath a flap of skin (a sad excuse for a forehead) sat the eyes of death. Sunk deep into their sockets, the eyes contained pupils as black as the darkest night. They seemed to gaze through him and into the deepest reaches of his soul. The sight of her stopped him dead in his tracks.
Charlie was frozen in place as the ghostly presence in front him made its plea. “Spare some change for a poor lady?” Charlie tried to respond, utter a sound, even grunt but he was too frightened to speak. “Please, just the change in your pocket will do,” she begged.
He was finally able to clear the cobwebs from his head and cough up the blockage in his throat as he spoke in the coldest tone he could muster. “I’m sorry, I have nothing.” With his stiff legs, he turned, trying his best to walk in the other direction.
“I know what you did.”
The words brought him to a stop. He turned back to face her. “Excuse me?”
The vagrant’s narrow slit of a mouth turned upward into a grotesque smile. “You like to hurt people do you? Does it give you some sort of thrill to knock poor drunks to the ground? I bet you feel like a real tough man.”
Charlie’s inner monologue spun into overdrive. Was she talking about his fight in the diner? How could she know? Who was this sick woman and worse of all, what was happening to him? He felt his head throb harder as the moments passed. He didn’t want to deal with any of this, he just wanted to get home into a warm bed.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re referring to,” he lied.
Her deformed smile widened. “How’s your head? I bet it hurts like hell. I bet it feels like a million tiny hammers are banging away in there, splitting your skull.”
This was too much; he had to get away from her and fast. Using every ounce of strength he had, he forced his body down the street. Behind him, the haunting sound of the old witch’s cackling kept his feet moving. As he walked, a more intense pain suddenly hit him. In addition to the dull throbbing in the back of his skull, he now found it harder to breathe. He felt as if his lungs were working against him. Every shallow breath took all the energy he could muster as it tried to make its way out of a throat that seemed to be caving in.
He was so distracted by the pain that he had little time to react when a young child burst out of a nearby alley, coming straight at him like a tiny pit-bull. Vicious with intent, arms outstretched, the boy ran up and wrapped his arms around Charlie’s legs, stopping him in place. He tried to keep his balance and stay on his feet but it was to no avail as he fell to the street like a falling tree. A sharp pain hit his chest as his entire body slammed to the pavement. He managed to turn from his stomach to his back as the pint-sized deviant stared down at him.
The child-like creature could not have been any older than six or seven years old. He was short and skinny as most youngsters were. What truly separated him from those other children was the face. The young boy had the same disturbing and disfigured face of the beggar. He could swear that it was the identical look: the slit of a mouth, the non-existent nose, those same fear inducing eyes. How could it be? Had he drank much more that he thought or was this some kind of waking nightmare?
Charlie realized that this experience was far too real as the hideous child bent down towards him, the disfigured face mere inches away. The child’s breath was hot and sour as he spoke. “I bet your feeling pretty bad right now,” it hissed. “The thick liquid running down your throat, the way your lungs feel like the hottest fire burning in your chest. It is exactly how he felt in his last moments.”
While Charlie’s entire body was aching, the worst sting came from his utter confusion. How could this child know how he felt inside and to who’s last moments was he referring? What was most disturbing was the gruesome face that both the homeless woman and this child shared. How could an old haggard woman and a youthful adolescent share the same grotesque appearance, the same harsh features?
He could not take much more of this. He needed to get away. He had to get home to his comfy bed and the open embrace of a good night’s rest. The demon child slapped Charlie hard on the chest and chortled. “How funny and ironic it is that you will soon meet the same fate as he!”
The demented crowing elevated as Charlie rolled back over onto his chest. Now on his hands and knees, he tried desperately to crawl to some sort of safety. The terrible child did not attempt to follow, nor did he attempt to hold Charlie back. He just hopped up and down in the middle of the street, taunting and laughing the most terrible laugh.
Charlie felt like an infant, crawling the way that he was, but the unfortunate fact was that he couldn’t stand if he tried. His body felt weaker by the second. Even the crude army crawl he was attempting took amazing effort. Add to this the fact that every ragged exhalation felt as if it might make his chest implode at any moment and he knew that stopping for even the briefest rest was mandatory.
Slowly he dragged himself through the cold, mounting snow. His clothes were now drenched, adding a completely new layer of misery. Finally out of the street, he found a small alley, a place to rest. His bed would be the rough, grainy asphalt. His pillow, the cold metal of a large, filthy dumpster. He positioned himself next to it, wanting nothing but to sleep.
He closed his eyes and thought back on his life. What differences had he made in this world and how would he even be remembered, if at all? His life, his work, they were all mundane experiences and as he had grown older, he realized that he had made very little impact on the people around him. The thought of leaving this life with few memorable accomplishments both disgusted and empowered him. He knew that there must still be time, he still had a chance to make the differences that he sought. It was time to get up and show the world what Charlie Reardon was capable of.
When he opened his eyes he instantly believed that his luck had changed for the better. Standing over him in full uniform stood a tall, statuesque police officer. His hat hung low over his eyes in an attempt to shield them from the descending snowflakes. Backlit, the official was swathed in shadow. While Charlie had at first considered himself lucky, the sight of the officer now seemed to disturb him in a way that he couldn’t quite understand. He wanted the officers’ help but all he could muster was a desperate wheeze.
“No reason to waste your breath,” the officer barked. “I’ll be doing most of the talking. After all, it’s time I’ve explained the little adventure you’ve had tonight.”
Even if Charlie had really wanted to ask the million questions that came to his mind, a thick liquid seemed to fill his throat, which rendered him unable to speak, only to listen. At least one of those questions was answered when the officer stepped forward, raising his hat. For the third and final time, Charlie gazed upon that same hideous appearance that he was far too familiar with. The same grotesque look shared by the sick woman and the excitable child also rested on this man’s face. Still the most disturbing features were those eyes. Only this time they seemed brighter, more intense. They glowed and pulsed, forcing Charlie to realize that these eyes were the pure essence of evil. The hope that he had once had now completely washed away, never to be seen again.
Charlie tried again to speak. His words coming out in hopeless fragments. “Your face. That face.”
“Ah yes, my face. You’ve seen this face before, am I right? The explanation to this is simple. The others you’ve seen tonight are just a few of my various incarnations. You see, I thought I’d play with you a little before you found out the truth. After all it is what you deserve, don’t you agree?”
“Please, it hurts, everything hurts.” Charlie pleaded.
A nasty smirk came to the grotesque officer’s face. “Oh I know your pain. I am willing to bet that every inch of your body hurts very badly. But you see it’s all in the name of science. Let’s call it a special experiment in your faith. You see, I want you to feel exactly how others you have mistreated have felt. For instance, take that man that you had the altercation with back at the diner a short while ago. Tell me, do you make it a habit to simply walk away from a man that you recently murdered?”
Charlie gazed up at the oppressive figure in utter surprise. He could not be speaking about the man he had struck in the tavern less than an hour ago.
“Murdered?” He asked, the words gurgling in his throat.
“Ah, the things you miss when you turn your back,” the vile man responded. “Had you stayed, you would have seen that the man you struck had fallen backward and hit his head on the ground precisely on that rare soft spot, knocking him unconscious. Into a sleep from which he will never wake. I’ve given you the privilege of feeling what he felt as his life slipped away. That thickness in your throat matches the blood that pooled in his as he lied motionless on the filthy bar floor. Your labored breathing mirrors the poor drunkard as he struggled to gasp his final breaths. The weakness in your heart is exactly how that poor soul felt in his last dying moments.”
Charlie was horrified by these revelations, wanting nothing more than to explain. But he was much too weak to say much of anything. All he could muster was a desperate: “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.”
The officer raised his voice to a threatening level. “Of course you didn’t know, not a single one of you mortals has the slightest idea! You were all put on this earth by a God who trusted you would do what is right, to follow his teachings and treat others how you would want to be treated. But do you do any of these things? Of course not! You treat each other like dirt. You inflict pain, you steal, you lie, you do everything possible to hurt one another and at the end of the day you get down on your knees and pray. You pray to your God to forgive you for all you have done. You assume you have been absolved and then you go out and do it all again. It’s a vicious circle and yet you never learn. These are the reasons why I have returned. I have come back to this world to remind you all about the other half of the equation that you all so easily forget.
“I am here to show you all that the devil still exists, has always existed. I used to watch from the distance but now I realize that I am sorely needed here. You people are no longer afraid of a Hell because you have created your own Hell here on Earth. You, Charlie Reardon, have not been the first nor the last to have the privilege of feeling the pain of your victims. Rest assured that this is not a punishment but a reinforcement of who you truly are inside. In the end, I will reveal to the world that their belief in a higher power to deliver them from their sins has instead transformed the vast majority into simple reincarnations of myself, thus proving that the devil is alive and well. May you die fully understanding what you have become.”
Those were to be the final words that Charlie was ever to hear. Satan left him, disappearing into the night, leaving him to die in the gutter, with not a soul in the world to save him. The light snow still continued to fall, blanketing him with a fine dust. He would die there, his last memory a sin that he had not realized he had committed. The last words he muttered were, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.”
There was no one there to hear him and no one there to care as he felt his heart beat one last time.
Brian lives in Ireland with his wife and two sleepy Pit Bulls who were rescued from a dog pound. All four moved to Ireland from New York about six months ago. Brian was an advertising executive but found the purposeful deceit and long hours disheartening. He walked out of what had become a trap and hasn’t looked back.
He and his wife bought a stone schoolhouse in the farm country of County Leitrim. The house was built in 1891 and was where the Irish patriot and martyr Sean McDermott received his early education.
Brian writes about things that interest him and that he can form into coherent stories. He has also published in Three Penny Review and Jelly Bucket.
The Santeria by Brian Wright
Rafa O’Bannon was sitting in a dark corner watching a video on the tiny cramped screen of his cell phone. The show was called “Just Kill Someone,” the adventures of an assassin named Chelsea. Chelsea was smart, blonde and sexy. When Chelsea reached under her jacket for heat, she meant business. It was a good show, especially if you were—like Rafa— toasted. In the conflict, gunman swooned liked jilted lovers as fields of fiery red flowers bloomed across their chests until the body count assumed epic proportions
Rafa rewound and watched again. Attackers moved at awkward tempos, drawing Chelsea’s attention and causing her respond with deadly accuracy. He toggled back and forth between different views—he could have done this all night as Chelsea’s butt was sumptuous—but a waitress wearing a gold-flecked leotard top interrupted. “You drinking or leaving?”
He took inventory of the bar. Prospects were dismal. A depressive male bartender in a filthy T-shirt, a few other hard-core male hangers on, two large females at a table by the window were probably gay and a woozy transvestite solo dancing to the sounds of ear buds stuck beneath a frowsy afro wig—a definite no go.
“You’re the hottest thing around here,” Rafa said to the waitress.
“Forget it,” she said. “Drinking or leaving?”
Rafa laid a small bill on the table and pushed his chair back.
Outside, chill night air hit him like a blast from the fridge. As Rafa walked, he warmed up. The city stank of its unique aroma of garbage and ozone. He flicked on his smart phone locator. “Friends” that were interested could find him. His status was “feeling sexy,” so if anyone responded, knew what to expect.
The illegitimate son of an Irish priest and a Mexican prostitute, young Rafa was a drug addict. When his mother did tricks in the next room to pay the rent, Rafa lay on the couch watching the shadows his mother’s candles made on the wall. His mother believed in Santeria and each candle was a different Saint. The flickering light from the candle represented the soul of the Saint freed from imprisonment. Eventually his mother would finish with her business in the next room and the John would leave. She and Rafa would sit on the couch praying together watching the light dance on the bare walls until Rafa fell asleep.
When Rafa got older the play of light from the candles became the light behind the video games he enjoyed playing. After his mother died, the video games became his reality and the wild and aggressive villains and heroes of the online world replaced the bloodthirsty Santeria saints of his childhood.
Rafa was mildly intoxicated. He’d had a few beers at the bar and together with some OxyContin tablets he’d taken earlier, was unsteady on his feet. As he walked home the New York night seemed to vibrate around him with energy he was all too familiar with. He settled in to the feeling like a role player in his own RPG. In every shadow he saw a mugger. He located snipers up on top of the brownstone rooftops and mentally calculated his own line of return fire. The night had a soundtrack all its own and the screech of tires, women shouting and the cackling laughter of maniacs played through his mind.
Near the river, the water was a cold oily black smear that made the chill air feel colder. On the other shore lights pricked the velvet darkness. He entered a park by a broken down playground. In the daytime, ex-cons worked their muscular bodies on the disused swings. Tonight there was nothing but the creaking of chains in the breeze.
The sidewalk was a cracked concrete coil that wound its way around back into itself. The lighting overhead buzzed and flickered. The broken smokestacks of an abandoned power station loomed before him. Cars raced by on highway over his head supported by huge T-shaped pylons.
Within his real and imagined cacophony, he heard something else. A cat was crying to itself. Behind a graffiti ravaged pillar, he saw a bundle of rags moving.
Rafa walked over to where the figure lay. “Are you all right?”
She was a black woman with blonde streaks in her hair. When she turned toward him, her face was bloody and bruised. Her dress was made of white gauze and was torn in several places. There was a scattering of feathers around her body like torn wings. Over the dress she wore a leather motorcycle jacket. Rafa looked but there was no motorcycle. Just graffiti scarred pillars holding up the highway.
“Can you help me?” She said.
“Can you walk? Should I call a cop?”
“A cab. Get me a cab.”
Rafa bent down and helped her sit upright, leaning her back against the pillar. Her body smelled like fresh meat. She straightened for a moment then her head sunk to her chest. He couldn’t leave her here and he couldn’t move her. When he tried to call 911, the call wouldn’t go through. More than likely, his service was turned off.
He went out to the main street. The bars were closing and cabs were cruising expecting stragglers in the night. The third one stopped for him but the driver would not go into the park to pick up the woman. Rafa went back to get her and bring her out.
There was nothing under the pillar except for bloody feathers. The river seemed to be moving backward, in a different direction. He went to the edge of the water and looked down. Snakes of light from the city writhed back at him. The sound of cars moving overhead made him feel dizzy. He looked and the ground was moving underneath his feet. When he fell, the wet surface broke across his face pulling him down and then up again and finally down.
He woke up in his own bed and tried to piece together how he had gotten here. He remembered the bar and the woman. But that was it. His hair was damp and he was naked. The blanket felt warm and good against his skin. His mind was still buzzing and he went back to sleep.
He woke again and the black woman from the night before was standing over him. The blood was washed from her face, which was broad and unattractive. There was a large gap between her front teeth, which were strong and white in contrast to her skin. Her hair was wet and she was freshly showered. She wore one of his white T-shirts and her large breasts swung freely.
She was holding a cup of coffee and, a look of concern flashed across her face, which was otherwise open and friendly. From outside he could hear the sounds of morning and a grey light of day flashed through the windows.
“It’s my turn now to ask,” she smiled. “Are you alright?”
On his third try he was able to sit up, although awkwardly. He wasn’t sure what she was doing in his apartment or how he had gotten there. He arranged his filthy pillow behind his head and reached for the cup. The coffee was hot and his senses started coming back
“I saw you fall,” she said.
“Yes but then what?” The world had inverted on him. It was his apartment but she seemed in charge.
“A cab driver helped get you out. I got your address out of your wallet. We brought you home.”
Rafael reached for a pack of cigarettes he kept handy on the dresser and lit up. He offered the crumpled pack to her but she shook her head.
“Those things will kill you.”
Rafa inhaled deeply. The smoke filled his lungs but when he breathed out nothing came out but air. He did it again. Smoke spiraled from the end of the cigarette, the cherry glowed but when he exhaled--nothing. The woman looked at him expectantly. “That’s a neat trick.”
“Trick? But I’m not doing anything?”
She ignored him and walked over to the tiny galley that served as his kitchen. He heard the clatter of dishes being washed.
Her name was Maria Vicennes and she was in no hurry to leave. After she washed the dishes, he could hear his wheezing and broken down vacuum cleaner rattling between the floor and the living room rug. When she went out he though she would be gone for good, maybe having stolen something, which was the way things should have gone. But later, she was back, and heard paper bags rustling and the smell of hot spices came to him.
He realized he was hungry.
The fish she brought to him on a plate still had its head on. He could see a kind of delicate rainbow skin beneath the layer of brown and red breadcrumbs. It was delicious.
That night, after turning out the lights she crawled into his bed and pushed her body against him until his responded. They went about their business, she with a workmanlike attention to detail while he acted in the same dream state that he had felt since he fell in the river.
In the morning he had his appointment at the methadone clinic. He had been in bed for too long. When he got it up he almost fell down.
She was sitting in his newly clean living room, with her feet up, reading one of his graphic novels, when he came out of the shower.
“That was really nice of you,” gesturing toward the tidy room. “Thank you.”
“What do you want to do now?”
“It’s not what I want to do. It’s what I have to do.”
He worried that if he told her, she would go away. But at the same time, part of him questioned what she was doing here and wanted her out of his apartment.
“I need to go clinic today for my methadone.”
“Methadone?” she said and she tossed her head like a horse. “Aha. That’s why you fall in the river. You’re a drug addict!” At this she slapped her hands together as if she just realized something that had been puzzling her. The sound was startlingly loud in the tiny apartment.
“You don’t understand.”
“Okay, so I don’t understand,” Marie said.
“I go to the clinic because I am not a drug addict.”
“Good” she said and stood up. She had a large straw bag by her feet and removed a bright orange and green scarf she wrapped around her hair and tied it with a precise knot. “You are not a drug addict and now we will not go to the methadone clinic to get you drugs.“ She opened the door and waited. “Okay?”
Rafa liked to think of himself as cipher that moved through life unnoticed. But it was difficult not to feel people staring as he walked with this flamboyant black woman in her bright scarf. Every time he lagged behind or walked ahead of her, Marie grabbed his arm as if she owned him.
On the subway, and even though the car was almost empty, she sat right against him. He worried that the few people who were on the train, were questioning what the relationship was between this light skinned boy with reddish hair and this large black woman. The more anxious he became the more she seemed to swell into the space, until the large black woman with the bright scarf on her head, took up the entire car. These thoughts bothered him as sat on the hard plastic bench. Her soft warm hip pressed up against him and station after station flickered by through the cloudy windows. The already thin crowd thinned out even more until his vision—her swollen presence—matched the reality of an otherwise empty car.
On the street, people were doing normal things like going to work, shopping and buying coffee. The sun was shining although it might rain later as the sky was clouding up.
The clinic was an unassuming one story brick building jammed into a unassuming block. Up and down the street there was nothing but parked cars and cracked pavement. Not even the graffiti was promising. Just a few halfhearted attempts at writing that petered out and then were overlaid with someone else’s failures. A larger than life Manhattan shone through gaps between buildings that had fallen into various stages of decrepitude.
“It is a beautiful day,” Marie said, as if her saying it made it so. “Why you want to go to this crappy place?”
He felt her watching him as he bent down to the window and handed in his forms to the shapeless, featureless man behind the counter. He could still feel her eyes on him when he drank his dose from a small plastic cup. The liquid was sweet his mouth. He looked over to her quickly but she was studying a poster on the wall the outlined ten steps to good mental health.
The drug calmed him and focused his thoughts. Maybe she was a little crazy, but she could stay with him a little while. After all, what did it hurt and who cared?
Their sexual encounters left Rafa breathless and even more confused. What started out as a workmanlike grouping soon became something else. As if the darkness could assume a corporeal form. Maria threw herself at him furiously. One moment they rolled this way and then the other. He soon had no control as she took the lead. Hands came out of nowhere and pushed him back on the bed. Voices told him to be quiet, animal eyes glimmered out of the dark and then disappeared and reappeared. When he thought it was all over it all started up again. He had, it turned out, needs that had always been buried somewhere deep inside of his psyche, unsparing, unrealized and unspeakable.
He lay next to her after she had finally fallen asleep. Her body was black and chunky--anthracite gleaming in the light from the street lamp outside.
He placed his arm over next to her and compared the colors against his rumpled sheets. His arm was dark and hers was darker. Her palms were pink like coral and her fingernails were a legacy of a different age, before people, when all living things wore shells and claws.
His own arm was covered with crude tattoos from several months he spent at Riker’s. A misshapen cross and a naked woman, her breasts and vagina emphasized to the point of obscenity.
The depth of their passion revolted him. Part of him hated walking with her in the street or even being seen at the bodega when they went out to buy something as mundane and wholesome as milk or bread.
Sex with a black woman was a rite-of-passage and gave a young man street cred. But this was different. He was giving too much of himself up in return for what he was getting. She moaned in her sleep and rolled over, she took her hand back but threw a leg over his, pinning him to the bed so he couldn’t move without her waking.
She was good for him and he knew it. Living alone, doing his drugs and playing video games was no life at all, but he had never asked for much. His fantasies were all of blonde haired seductresses like Chelsea the assassin. Maria was something else altogether and he didn’t know how to process that. Her body, her face and her fierce attention had no context that he could comfortably understand but it began to change something.
“I need a sacrifice,” she announced one morning.
“How much?” He had twenty dollars and he hoped that would be enough. Any more would severely compromise his weekly budget, which was based on an artful combination of welfare and unemployment.
“Ha. You think money is sacrifice, You crazy like this whole fucking country. The man on the TV from the bank, he can sacrifice money. You got to come up with something else.”
“Why do I have to sacrifice anything?”
“You so happy with your life the way it is? You got it all figured out? You don’t want to change nothing? Fine stay the way you are. I’m going to make some coffee. You want coffee?”
“No, I want to know why you think I have to sacrifice.”
“The evil spirit baby. Don’t you feel it. Evil spirit got a hold on you so deep, you and he the same thing. You want to get rid of him you got to sacrifice something. How you take it?”
“Milk and sugar. Not too much of either.”
Her weird logic was starting to work on him. He started to make sacrifices. First it was his marijuana. The few joints he had stashed around the house, got flushed down the toilet. He watched them go down, like little turds that at first resisted the pull of the whirling water and then succumbed and flowed out of his life. A few days later he made another sacrifice and threw the OxyContin pills off the rooftop. The video controller was gathering dust by the PlayStation. He hadn’t been online in weeks.
The worst part was, after all that, nothing changed. He had felt miserable before and he felt miserable now. He was just eating better and having regular sex.
He began skipping appointments at the clinic, even though this put his income in question. They kept track and if they thought he was back on hard drugs they could cut him off. But her weird logic was right. As long as he took methadone, he was admitting to himself that he was an addict. When he stopped, he became something else. What that was he wasn’t sure.
A woman was cooking bacon in the apartment next door. He didn’t just smell it, he heard the bacon crackling through the thick walls. Someone else was using the toilet. A child was playing with plastic blocks, clicking them together and babbling softly to himself. Outside someone had just lighted up a cigarette. He didn’t think these were hallucinations but how could they not be?
“So ‘Mr. I-am-not-a-drug-addict,’ what you want to do today?”
Her question snapped him out of his trance.
“I got nothing. “
“Then why don’t you come with me. C’mon, put your sneakers on sweetie.”
She took him to a small store. It had a glass front that was set right up against the sideway. The window was a hodgepodge of candles, statues and bottles of ointment and herbs. It was like a kind of apothecary. The owner, a wrinkled, yet refined black woman in a bright yellow dress, greeted Maria like a sister. They babbled at each other in a patois. It was English—sort of—and Rafa could understand every third or fourth word.
The store smelled strongly. In addition to body odor, there was peppery smell that was overlaid with a rich flowery scent that made his eyes water. There was also fainter smell of blood and decaying flesh. Almost like when a mouse dies and is trapped inside a wall.
Obatala, Chango, and Eleggua—he read names from the glass candles and it made him feel as if he were crossing some sort of line. Behind him, Maria and the old woman chattered away, grabbling powders and leaves and sticks, placing them in bag along with glass vials containing liquids. Their conversation dragged on and Rafa looked out into the street. A tall thin woman walked her dog by the window. Two boys, with scraggly beards wearing almost identical T-shirts and tight jeans strode by purposefully. A mother watched her child in the playground on the other side of the street. He felt the two worlds. The one inside the shop—dark and unknowable. The one outside—bright and impenetrable. Rafa belonged in neither.
Her bag was a big flouncy straw satchel with garish woven straw flowers on it. Inside it she placed everything the old woman had given her—everything she needed. No place was so permanent that it could not be left in a hurry. The spaces of the earth moved out from under her but she was ready.
He knew she was up to something. She had carved a small altar for herself in the corner of the room. Here she kept her statues and candles. There were cowrie shells and herbs. A cabinet she kept closed. The skulls of small creatures with tiny precise sharp teeth. She performed rituals before dinner and before she went to bed at night. In the morning he often found her there, muttering to herself. Everything became something else.
He watched Maria prepare their dinner. Shaking her head from side to side. She worked fast, as if she were on a mission. Not working so much as dancing. There was a rhythm to the world he could not feel but could only see through her. As if she were a transmitting signals from far away that he could barely pick-up.
She handed ingredients to hold. Asked him to chop onions. Measure out cups of flour. Salt, pepper, cayenne and turmeric. Simple things. Water, fire and blood.
Out of the dance came transubstantiation. Their supper— chicken salad and rice.
He wondered if he was going mad, And with no one else to talk to, he asked her.
She stopped abruptly and threw her head back and laughed in way that made him think he really was insane. “You one sorry ass son of ‘I-am-not-a-drug-addict.’”
“What do you mean?”
“You got to see what you see. Feel what you feel. Don’t question what is. You think you crazy now but that’s because you see what is.”
She reached across and punched him so hard in the chest he was two feet further away from her than he was before.
The bracelets on her arm rattled. “What are you feeling now?”
“I don’t know,” Rafa said.
“You’re going to die someday. That what you want on your gravestone? I don’t know and I never asked?“
“What should I want?”
“Look at this,” she said. She rolled her eyes skyward. Even though they were in his mall cramped living room the ceiling seemed to shift as if it was no longer there confining them in the small dark box of the apartment. She began to moan to herself, but rather than a cry of pain it was a kind of music, a keening wail that picked up speed and rhythm. As the rhythm became a song her shoulder started to sway in time to it the music. A dance sprang out of nowhere and he saw behind her other figures, moving in time to the music, and behind them more and behind them more and with them he saw himself, moving and dancing, one of the many, the dead and the undead.
The fire once started could not be put out. What did he care what anyone thought? At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was Maria. Let them take Maria into the office with them. Let them talk about her at lunch. She was after all, just another black woman on the subway or in the street. She was the one you hired to take care of your children or clean your homes.
She lived in your mind in a way you couldn’t talk about. Not to your wife, lover, boss or friend. What could you say, when you finally got home. “I saw a black woman on the subway today?”
Rafa shook his shoulders and danced to the rhythm of the earth’s rumbling core. People could see him or not. It didn’t matter anymore. The world was large.
Robert Knox is a creative writer, a freelance journalist for the Boston Globe, a blogger on nature, books and other subjects, and a rabid gardener, who makes his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. A graduate of Yale (B.A.) and Boston University (M.A. in English literature), he is a former college teacher and newspaper editor, whose stories, poems, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications. He was named a Finalist in the Massachusetts Artist Grant Program in fiction. His short stories have recently appeared in the anthology "An Earthless Melting Pot," The Tishman Review, and the 3288 Review. His nonfiction story "Preparing A Place" was published last month in Lunch Ticket. He is a contributing writer for the poetry journal Verse-Virtual, and his novel on the origins of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, "Suosso's Lane," was published last fall by Web-e-Books.com.
HOUSE MATES by Robert Knox
"Where is everybody?"
It is dark in the house when we arrive at our new home. It is never this dark on Long Island, where Penny and I have spent the last three months cohabiting in her childhood bedroom. We have been married for a year and a half. Even before I agreed to spend a summer lodging with Penny's family -- 'to save money' -- things were not going terribly well for us. Predictably, they get worse. I do not ask my wife why we no longer seem to have anything to say to one another, because the reason appears to be obvious. What do you say when Eros fails? Was this a problem that philosophers have investigated over the centuries? Is there a phenomenological approach? An existential analysis? A logical-positivist solution? Not that I have heard. Instead of confronting the problem -- or my problem; it was mine, wasn't it? -- I swallow my shame and go numb inside. At night, we draw apart, turning our backs on one another.
“Nobody’s here yet,” I reply. I didn’t expect to arrive so late in the day. "That's why there are no lights on."
“Obviously, Jon,” Penny observes shortly. “I thought you said they’d be here.”
“Harrison. And that girl.”
“You mean his wife. He said he’d be here this weekend.”
Harrison and his wife, Lisa, newlyweds, are the other couple we are sharing this old Connecticut farmhouse with. We also have two single housemates, both friends of mine from Yale. Although we were not particularly close, Harrison and I hung with the same crowd of guys for a couple of years. Ours is a commune of convenience. I have never met Lisa. I am closer to Ricky and Alex, but apparently they haven't shown up yet either.
Penny grimaces and gestures impatiently toward the house. Apparently, her body language says, somebody got the story wrong. Once again somebody has screwed up, let us down. A gesture suffices to convey this familiar state of mind. We have been let down a lot lately, disappointed in our expectations. I wonder if she’s disappointed in me; the answer seems pretty clear.
“What do you want to do?” I say.
“Go in, obviously.” She opens the driver’s seat of the car and gets out to explore. “There are some lights in there, I hope.”
Penny has never been to the house. I went to see it last spring and found some bored hippies sitting in the kitchen, wishing they had cigarettes. The house had plenty of bedrooms, and plenty of empty space around it outdoors, meeting my idea of all we would need to share a house with a few of my friends -- besides, of course, love. Harrison was looking for a place to live after a summer long “honeymoon” trip with Lisa. Ricky Fielder had won a university fellowship and was planning to hang around Yale for a year; Alex had another year as an undergraduate.
So we had it. Our group house; our commune.
“It’s big,” Penny says, stepping out of the car and taking in the six-bedroom two-story farmhouse. I get out and follow her and we walk up the driveway to the kitchen door on the side of the house. I remember that’s the way in; you'd have to climb through the shrubbery to get to the front door. On our way we picked up house keys from the landlord, a nice old man who used to be principal of the local high school and showed us the courtesy of exhibiting no interest in our lifestyle. Nevertheless, Penny tried to josh him – “So do we pass? What grade would you give us?” – which she laughed at, but he didn’t. It embarrasses me when her jokes don't connect, but Penny gave me a look that says no harm in trying. It's her strength, relating to people -- or at least trying -- while I stand back, careful not to offend, but also not risking anything, not sharing. I’m too sensitive, she tells me, when I cringe over bumpy social interactions. I hate feeling awkward around people.
“Go ahead,” she urges now as we gaze at the darkened house. "Open the door."
I've forgotten that I have the keys in my pocket.
It takes me a while to figure out which is the right key for this door and then we take turns jiggling it, swearing under our breath, and I am ready to give up when the door decides to open. We enter a farmhouse kitchen, a spacious room with basic appliances and a truly amateurish crayon drawing on the wall over the sink depicting caricatures of the previous tenants, facial hair everywhere, their faces inserted into the portholes of a submarine. To put yourself and your housemates in a yellow submarine (refrain: “a yellow submarine”) seems to me both corny and passe. But maybe I’m asking for too much from life.
We can barely see this ludicrous fresco now because the room remains dark even when Penny finds a switch and flips it.
“Maybe the bulb’s out.”
“Maybe the electricity’s been turned off,” Penny retorts. Another flub. Somebody's always screwing up. At least, I think, we're out of Long Island.
We move through the house in the dark, tentatively, like explorers or burglars, careful not to bang our heads or shins, but we can’t find a switch that turns anything on, or a lamp that works. It’s a warm night, but the house has a dank feel, as if shut up on itself and licking its wounds after the previous tenants found their cigarettes and moved away.
“We need some light,” Penny says. “Do you know if the fuse box is in the basement?”
“No.” I don't know that we have a basement.
“We need the flashlight.”
I don’t reply.
“We have one in the car, Jon,” she reminds me.
She tells me where it is. Since I'm going to the car, she adds, I might as well bring her suitcase in.
“I’ll keep looking around,” she says.
I come back with the flashlight (and the suitcase) and by its light we tread carefully up the stairs, locate a bathroom, explore the bedrooms, and choose the biggest one for ourselves. First come, she says, first served. I don’t quite agree, but don't choose to debate the point.
“You hungry?” she asks, sitting on a mattress on the bedroom floor. “I am.”
I don’t think much about food, though I'm in the habit of eating it whenever it appears. Penny tells me we passed a store a half mile back where we can probably get sandwiches, and more cigarettes.
“You go,” I say.
“You don’t want to come?”
“I’m tired of the car. Bring me something back.”
“Here,” she says, standing up and passing me the flashlight. She starts to leave, then stops and takes something out of her pocket. “Take these,” she said, handing me the cigarettes. “I’ll get more. You might as well have something to do in the dark.”
She laughs, inviting me to join in, but I don’t. I sink into silence. It's not her fault, I tell myself, but I'd rather have a few minutes alone.
After we have eaten our sandwiches and found some sheets in one of the suitcases, we make a bed up on the mattress left in the room we have chosen for ours. Actually, she makes the bed and I hold the flashlight so she can see what she’s doing. We still have no power. No electricity means no music either.
I help her open the bedroom windows (they stick a little) so we have air, and the songs of the late August night flood in. You don’t hear them at once; at first you notice only the irregular passage of cars. And then after a while you begin to hear the insect songs that fill the late summer nights in all the green and treed places of the world (as opposed to the paved-over places where we've been living); and after a longer while you can’t hear anything else. You can’t do anything but listen to them. We might of course make our own noises; we can talk. But we lie on our mattress, smoking, watching the orange cones of light at the end of our cigarettes curl through the darkness, and saying nothing.
We’re in our own house, Penny says, after a while. We could try again.
I loved the house.
It was never hers, never Penny's, but it was mine.
I loved it because you walked upstairs to the bedrooms and could still hear the sounds of creaking around downstairs. It was a compact, small-scale dormitory and I had lived in dormitories for three years before Penny and I got married and found our own off-campus apartment.
But Penny never lived in a dormitory because her parents refused to let her go away for college. Our year in a rundown apartment in a sketchy neighborhood not too far from campus was her 'going away' experience. She worked a fulltime evening shift in a local hospital to pay the rent while I finished my last year at Yale and got my diploma with the understanding that it would be her turn to go back to college the next year and my turn to use that shiny new diploma to pay the bills.
Now 'next year' had come. Getting a group together to rent a big house in what passed for 'the country' outside of New Haven was originally someone else's idea. Everything for me was someone else's idea. That someone, a classmate, pulled out, but by then I was in and Harrison and the other two of my Yale friends were interested, so we went ahead and signed a two-year lease. Sharing costs made perfect practical sense to me, but it was more than that. The idea of living together with your friends in a big old house, sharing your lives, or (more simply; childishly), having a cool place to hang out together had the imprint of zeitgeist fashion for those who could read the signs. I was better at reading the zeitgeist than I was at automobile maintenance or doing the laundry. There were plenty of precedents. The Band had just come out with their Big Pink album.
And since I was used to dorm living, a group house was not that big a stretch for me. Dorm life at Yale had felt like a free ride. It wasn't -- my father kicked in money every month for my 'residential' expenses -- but by my third year none of my courses took attendance and I lived a kind of carefree, 'lost boys' contentedly adolescent existence, the way rich young men idled away their university years in English novels. Then Penny came back into my life, confronting me with the fact of a commitment that seemed to have a precedence before all other desires and plans, and I gave in and agreed to place her truth over mine -- and took the leap. I walked into the dark, the way mystics said you had to, though maybe they had some other kind of 'marriage' in mind. But I missed the freedom of that lost boys life I had left behind.
I don't know why Penny agreed to the group house idea. Probably because she knew there was something wrong with me and hoped that a new scene, one I seemed to want, would help me find my way.
Harrison and Lisa Sears, the newlyweds, were the next to arrive. Harrison, a few years older than the rest of us, was a classic "non-student" of the sort who hung around university campuses, holding on to their youth and putting off 'the real world' as long as they could. After graduating from Cornell he spent a couple of years in the Army, then moved to New Haven, a college town where he had friends. Some of his friends were my friends too, but it says something that I had never met Lisa before we started sharing a house.
Penny and I met her together when she popped out of Harrison's blue VW Beatle
with her hair in a ponytail and a broad smile for all of existence. She was easy to meet and easy to get along with, characteristics I would not necessarily apply to her husband. She had married Harrison right after graduating from a small school in Pennsylvania, the two of them immediately launching a summer-long expedition to crisscross the Great American West. Now they had no apparent plans besides living together in our big old farmhouse and finding a chorus for Lisa to sing in. She would let Harrison manage his stock portfolio for the both of them.
The two young wives regarded one another at the top of the driveway on that balmy September day. I felt Penny hold her breath; I was doing the same.
Lisa introduced herself and said something about liking "big old houses."
Penny delivered one of her smart-alecky retorts. "Wait till you get inside this one."
Lisa laughed, easy to please.
Penny joined in, both finding something funny in the moment, though maybe different things. I breathed a little easier.
"I looked at what she was wearing," Lisa remarked to me later, "and thought, I guess I can live with her."
"Wearing?" I asked.
"We were both wearing sweatshirts and cut-offs."
Harrison terminated the welcome scene by reminding me that I "still" owed him money on the house's security deposit, his face turning from vague satisfaction to anger in an instant. "And I want it paid," he said.
Harrison had found the right kind of person to marry, I thought, someone who smiled a lot and would help smooth over his sometimes heavy-handed ways with people. Besides, after spending three months stuck in a car together in places like Nebraska or Montana -- a trial for any relationship -- they were getting along. A married couple, I brooded, who were, astonishingly, happy.
The wives' connection, however, didn't flourish. Once we settled in -- the "boys," as Lisa called them, university fellow Ricky Fielder and music major Alex Goodman arriving in their own time -- Penny cooked a few common meals, but backed off with a scowl when nobody else stepped forward to organize the next one. My college dorm fantasy of hippies sharing a house failed to include a dining service.
"I've never seen that girl set foot in the kitchen," Penny said of Lisa.
Not so hidden meaning: I am not the house cook. I am not your friends' servant.
"That girl?" I responded, avoiding the issue.
"Lisa," I said. "You could call her by her name."
I didn't know what to make of Penny's chilliness to our housemates; I didn't realize how much of it had to do with me.
Penny had met the 'boys,' college friends of mine, who lived with us. Alex was the only one of my friends she bonded with. Though younger than me, he had a soothing, wiser-head influence on both us. Charming, relaxed, a talented musician, he weathered his ups and downs with apparent ease and helped others weather theirs. When I learned one of my former roommates attacked a cop and ended up in a mental hospital, I stuck my fingers in my ears. When one of Alex's friends jumped off a roof, he comforted the widow.
It was Alex, as well, who opened to me the way Harrison's mind worked.
"We went to see The Doors last year in the Coliseum," he told me. "The place is packed tight, right. Freaks, greasers, guys in long hair and leather jackets. Smell of smoke, people on pills. Cops standing in the back of the hall too freaked out to do anything. You know how Harrison is, man."
I nodded, but I didn't.
"Harrison grabs me and whispers in my ear -- the whole place is screaming, teeny-bopper chicks jumping up and down when Morrison comes on stage -- 'Alex, Alex, look! look! All of Western history has led up to this moment!'"
Alex had talked Penny down from a few bad moments when we were tripping together as well. Ricky Fielder, however, never had time for her. Slender and graceful, artistic, intellectual, alternately garrulous and severe, Ricky was picky about people, and Penny's blunt, jokey expressiveness was too common for his taste. She felt slighted, and reciprocated.
One evening as we lay in bed upstairs we heard the footsteps of new arrivals and listened as Harrison and Lisa welcome guests to their eleven p.m. social hour.
"It's Peter, Lisa," Harrison called to his wife.
"Peter Werner?" Ricky asked, hastening downstairs to greet the new arrival.
"How's that gamma ray project of yours coming?"
I couldn't make out Peter's replies, but Harrison's cultivating cocktail party voice and Lisa's welcoming exclamations, were all too clear. Once you tune in the voices of people you're sharing living space with, you can't not hear them.
I lay in bed, listening; knowing Penny was listening as well and (the hard part) knowing what she was feeling.
"I don't belong here," Penny murmured.
Penny's pronouncement sounded like the conclusion of a discussion, or maybe quarrel we didn't have because we didn't need to. We were the only people in the house who needed to get up early. I knew Penny was feeling that the life Harrison and Lisa were seeking -- pursuing interests, cultivating "interesting people," not worrying about money because they didn't have to -- had no place for her.
I knew what she was feeling because I was feeling it too. But I also believed that if you simply hung around places, or people, with an open mind, you would learn how to belong. You learned who these other people were and how to be with them. You learned by listening; by placing a sort of neutral dust cover over your personality, your ego, your tastes and prejudices and expectations, and sitting quietly in a corner.
"Negative capability," I murmured back.
"Something Keats said."
"Keats." She groaned a little. "Is he coming over too?"
After a while Penny rose from the bed and pushed a desk chair against the bedroom's old door to make it close a little tighter. It still didn't block the conversation below or keep out the music. The voices flowed with the palpable lilt of people expecting to enjoy themselves.
I knew what it was like to feel out of place, but somehow I missed the deeper message in Penny's confession. She didn't say, "We don't belong here."
I'm the only person in the house with a fulltime job and the unrelenting day-after-day early morning schedule of the school teacher. When it came time for me to put my new diploma to use and hold up my end of the deal with Penny -- she had made the money the year before; now it was my turn -- teaching high school English was the only job I could think of. Freed of that responsibility, what would I have done with myself? Hung around the house, gone for walks in the woods, read books, scratched out my thoughts in a notebook?
I wanted to live like Harrison. I did belong in the hippie house, I just hadn't figured out how to do it.
I'd been hired by nearby Western High School, the school where my master teacher in Yale's cursory teacher-training program worked. In retrospect, he might have been savvier about the shortcomings of that program. I tried getting to bed early, but some nights at the house the party was as much mine as anyone's. I stayed up to smoke a joint with Alex and Ricky, to get into some kind of zone, dig the music. Then smoked the next one after that and grew steadily more morose over the prospect of facing the next morning; the next day. Some days the kids in my homeroom, those who bothered to show up, would place bets on when I would arrive.
Once I managed to drag myself inside the portals of big dark-stoned Western High, my goal was to get through the day one way or another without too many public disasters and make it back to the house before the flame of life within had turned to a smudge of ash in a schoolroom waste basket. Little disasters -- the kids who wheedled a pass out of me and spent the whole period wandering the halls until some 'real' disciplinarian teacher caught them and dragged them back to my classroom while offering public belittlement of my abilities -- were acceptable. I didn't much care what bullet-headed gym teacher Mr. Grumpy and the other prison guards, overweight middle-aged men and embittered women, thought of me. They were the walking dead, I told myself. Their disdain only made my adolescent charges realize that I was more like them than the people who made them go to school and told them what to do once they were there.
Making the time pass humanely among groups of twitchy, insecure, inhibited or exhibitionist adolescents was the bigger problem. My only 'lesson plans' were what I termed 'discussions' based on reading assignments most of the kids probably hadn't done.
I stood before them, with my long lank hair, my sloppy moustache, my paisley ties, as the 'young' rebel and sought to stimulate discussion, at times descending to such questionable topics as whether Paul McCartney was 'dead,' given the so-called hints and mysteries and nonsense on the latest recordings. I permitted myself, and sometimes the kids permitted it also, because I was not really part of 'the system.' I was only pretending because, as the brighter ones among them probably figured out, I needed a job. Maybe they also figured out that I needed a draft deferment too.
"There's this freak on the second floor who says he teaches English," a girl named Marybeth reported to her friends. One of the friends passed the comment on to me. It struck me as apt summation of my situation.
My days at Western High were about getting the so-called teaching over so I could go back to living the life that once I led (in the lost paradise of the undergraduate bubble), spending time with other like-minded people and lending my support to whatever was going forward. I wasn't a leader, but good followers were always in demand. Autumn blazed in the Connecticut woods on the other side of road. The little freight train ambled once day on the narrow spur line behind the house, as if looking for a previous century. After dark we found the stars you couldn't see in the city. The life of the house settled in to a few structural routines: climbing a summit in Sleeping Giant Park to watch the sunset, coming back indoors to scrounge up something to eat, then feeding our head with pot and music.
Penny's life moved in a rhythm opposite to mine. She found her comfort zone at her new college, New Haven University, judging from what she said, in the days when she was still talking to me, of her triumphant re-entry into the college scene: Look out world, here I come. The girl who knows the words to all the Dylan songs. Who drives a stick shift like her amateur race-car driver dad. Who takes positions, repeats quotations, roots hard for her side, makes allusions you might be able to follow if you're quick enough. Makes friends easily, and equally, from both sexes.
"It's all guys," she told me. "They're all taking engineering."
"You must stand out then."
"With all these guys around? It's not hard to, believe me."
She extends her left hand; in case I'm worried. "I show them this."
"So they know you're married."
"Yeah, but some of them -- you know how guys can be? They ask me, 'Are you really married?' I tell them 'I'm seriously married.'"
So we were still serious then. I wondered at times whether she was as ambivalent about out the course as I was. Whether she has walked into the same Valley of Despond I have, and yet we have failed to run into each other there. She treated college as a job, leaving the house in the early morning. I pictured her buying a Coke for breakfast in the student union, smoking the day's first cigarettes, looking over her homework in her new surroundings. She never asked me to come with her to campus to check out the place, say hi to her friends, meet a professor.
One day, however, she dropped in to Western High to 'sit in' on one of my classes, walking unchallenged into the building through the front door on Dixwell Avenue. My young (not yet twenty-one) wife, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, who could still pass for a high school student. She wore her black cowboy hat and green-tinted wire-rims, cool and speechless behind the lenses. She looked like the kid who couldn't wait to sneak a cigarette somewhere.
The kids in my sixth period junior English class had no idea who she was.
She didn't say who she was.
I couldn't manage to say something dumb to defuse the tension. 'This is my chick, kiddies. She's checking me out. So on your best behavior, everyone, and act like you're interested.'
Penny sat in the front row of our double-horseshoe seating arrangement, speechless and unsmiling, and her presence freaked out all the rest of my poor sixteen-year-old juniors, ordinarily my most responsive group, so that they didn't want to say anything either. That left it all up to me. She sat there watching while I spent an entire class period ruining Twain's "Mysterious Stranger" by talking about it too much.
Hint: "There's an antiwar message here, isn't there?"
No one wanted to take my hint.
"The Stranger hears the preacher in one church ask God for victory over their enemies. When he goes into a church on the other side he hears the same thing." I reached for a joke. "What's a God to do?"
"You're interesting," Penny said to me, her manner businesslike rather than enthusiastic, after the class ended.
I'm not sure I was. The observer distorted the observed. Didn't Heisenberg say that?
But her fascination for one of her own courses, and its teacher, was obvious.
"This guy," Penny said, who talked about the Transcendentalists, about art, what cubism and 'modern art' were all about, music even, "...it's, like, philosophy."
"Uh-huh." I remembered being a freshman. I remembered discovering 'philosophy.' I'd studied the Transcendentalists. Penny had been to college on Long Island, but it wasn't the same when you got in your car in the morning and drove five minutes to a large parking lot.
I didn't mean to be patronizing, but this was old hat. Philosophy wasn't doing me any good at Western High; no Transcendentalism in English 11. As Penny talked about her favorite course, I couldn't helping hearing Dylan lyrics in my mind: "But you and I have been through this, and that is not our fate. So let us not speak falsely now, the hour is growing late."
"He played this music the other day," she said, referring to the professor she called Sam. "This symphony where the last chord went on for ten minutes... or twelve minutes, or whatever. A single note -- for seven minutes! It's like it never ends."
I nodded. I knew vaguely what she was talking about.
"So he told everybody to sit and wait for it to end. But people were getting antsy, they wanted to go to their next class, or lunch, or somewhere. Finally he said, 'All right get out of here.'" She waved a hand, imitating Professor Sam's dismissal of the Philistines. "So then everybody got up and left and I was the only one still in the room. Still listening to the one chord go on for seventeen minutes."
"Uh-huh." I waited.
"So then I start walking up to his desk. 'Wow,' I say. 'Seventeen minutes!' And he doesn't say anything and just starts shaking his head. Then he just put his head down -- on the desk! -- and said, 'No, no!'"
I nodded. Still listening.
"Then he just stands up and starts to leave, waving his arms. Then he stops still and says, 'What do you want from my life?' "
The reason she was telling me this, I thought, was that she has to tell somebody. Even if that somebody is her husband. Could she not know what the man is talking about?
"Then what happened?"
"Then he just went out the door and kind of ran away."
Penny laughed, her face full of life. Like a kid with her excitement -- something weird or at least unusual, has happened, and it's about her! Possibly nobody has said, 'What do you want from my life?' to her before.
I pressed to know a little more about "this guy." Sam Ponti; professor in the Humanities department. He's been teaching at New Haven "for years."
Was he married? Did he realize Penny was? She didn't say; I didn't press further. She was a college kid, I thought, a young college kid excited by being the center of attention. I was something else.
Marybeth, the girl who tagged me "the freak who says he teaches English" began haunting my classroom. Showing up in my homeroom some mornings in the company of a similarly self-assured young woman she introduced as "Ellen." No surnames needed. They were the goddesses of Western High School. Seniors way too sophisticated for high school, the silly rules, the boring routines. They did not walk in the corridors so much as parade, progress, whatever royalty do. Marybeth carried herself like someone who knew who she was, though present circumstances failed to reflect her status. When she went home, she would be going someplace better than the other could. Her friend Ellen, who wore her fashionably straight dark hair almost down to her waist, gave rein to her quick, profane tongue, relying on her special status at Western High School because her father taught there.
The pair sashayed into my homeroom in skintight jeans and silk blouses to say hello. After Marybeth learned I was married, she would say things like "How's the wife and kids?"
"Don't say that, Marybeth!" Ellen chided. "That's not respectful!"
"It's OK," I put in, dismissively.
They ignored me. The dispute was between the two of them.
"What if he did have a wife and kids?" Ellen demanded.
"No he doesn't!" To me: "Do you, Mr. Russell?"
"No kids," I shrugged. "Except at this school."
They were not listening.
"He has a wife," Marybeth insisted.
I neither confirmed, nor denied.
My roomful of cowed juniors stared in silence as if watching TV as the two senior class goddesses ran this dispute into the ground, disappeared into the hallway, and burst into laughter.
The things we did in the house -- sunsets, music, getting high -- Penny liked them too (who didn't?), but, increasingly, not with us. When an afternoon class was canceled one day, she came home early, retreated to the little bedroom where we stored stuff we didn't use, and put her 'Big Brother and the Holding Company' album on at high volume to sing along with Janis. She was halfway through "Take another little piece of my heart" when a sharp knock at the door broke through the sound barrier and she found herself confronted by a rumpled, sour-faced Ricky Fielder.
"Can you turn it down?" he said. "I'm trying to sleep."
"Sleep?" Penny replied said. "It's two o'clock in the afternoon!"
"I think I have the right," Ricky pontificated in his best servant-of-a-higher-calling manner, "to choose my own schedule in my own home."
"What about my rights?" Penny demanded, describing the encounter to me.
I shrugged it off, as I did all interpersonal friction. Just make sure he's out of the house before you sing along at full volume, I told her. That was not what she wanted to hear.
Unhappily, the assault on Penny's deep reverence for Janis Joplin continued from an unexpected direction. Happy-go-lucky Alex, a composition major studying with a major international figure -- he shared with us his appropriation of the man's Eastern European accent -- was our music commissar. The gospel of jazz, as embodied in the recorded works of the great Miles Davis, gained a believer in Lisa, who worshipped at his feet and asked him to hold "a class in Miles Davis" so she could learn to appreciate the music as he did.
"You don't need a class," Alex responded, discomfited by the suggestion. "Just listen."
"I'm not just talking about jazz here," Alex said, warming to his theme when questions persisted. "Rock n' roll even. Rhythm and blues. Soul. The twelve-bar blues. Top forty. Everything!" He names a few favorites: James Brown, Sam Cooke.
"Take Booker T. and the MG's," he said. "He's better than anyone out there today."
This was too much for Penny.
"Better than Janis Joplin?"
Alex made a face. "I'm talking about the real thing here. Soul. Music."
Penny, outraged, turned to me.
"What do you think, Jon? Do you think Booker T. is better than Janis Joplin?" The insult of this opinion registered in her face.
An impossible position. I was not going to argue music with Alex, my own mentor in the field.
"Well, I don't know," I said, pathetically vague, "I mean, if we're just talking about the music..."
Penny looked at me with ill-concealed outrage.
"You always agree with them," she said. "Never with me."
Them?... My friends. The house divided up this way for Penny. The house was not her home. Her vanishing act was gradual, but steady. She disappeared from my life like the picture on a favorite coffee mug slowly vanishing from daily washings.
Sometimes I came home from school, scooting out after the last bell before anyone could stop, to find the house apparently empty. But then muffled sounds alerted me to the presence of the married couple upstairs and I would stand in the living room, paralyzed, as Lisa sang her arias of the flesh. If the house was more peopled when the love cries began, someone would make a humorous allusion to the behavior of newlyweds. But alone I fought the urge to listen, finally slipping out of doors to stroll around, buy cigarettes, or simply stand somewhere behind the house where a short grassy lawn backed up by the place we called the 'field.' Sometimes I walked back to the railroad tracks, hoping to see the approach of the slow-moving freight train that sometimes emerged, as if from another century.
Penny stopped talking about Sam's class. One evening as the days grew shorter and darkness fell early, alone in the bedroom -- Penny had taken the car and gone somewhere -- I noticed a folded piece of lined paper extending a little beyond the cover of a college book left on top of her dresser. Something told me that this folded sheet of paper was a 'note.' And that if you received a note at school, sticking it inside a book was something you were likely to do; and, further, it might contain some combination of words that you did not wish or were not able to impart orally. I had received many such notes in high school, almost all of them from Penny; and delivered plenty (not quite so many) to her.
Yet almost without reflection I pulled the paper out of the book and opened it.
The hand was not hers. I saw some spatial arrangement of words that looked like a poem and thought at once 'Who would be writing a poem to Penny?' while another part of me said, 'Put it back.'
Before I decided to follow that advice, my eyes fell on a line, took in a phrase, and then the unfamiliar writing transformed itself into a rapier thrust of meaning as I came to the words "our love."
I stopped reading and folded the note back into the book just the way I found it.
I put it back because I was spying. Because I was reading something not meant for my eyes. And, the real reason, because if I didn't read any more, I could pretend the note didn't exist, or at least in the form that I feared (and highly suspected) it did. I could put the whole subject away. Banish the universe of reflections such a note, a love poem perhaps, would necessarily give rise to. I could tell myself it could actually be addressed to someone else; Penny was acting as a go-between. Or it was poem copied for a course; from another book, maybe, or off a blackboard for study.
And while I told myself this, that other part of me was thinking, "Oh my. Things have already gone this far."
I said nothing about it. I asked myself if the note had been left purposely for me to find. Was it a warning? Something to give me the opportunity to ask Penny the questions I have been avoiding. "Why are you gone all the time? Is there something you're not telling me?"
I could ask her, in a sincere, non-judgmental way, Do you wish to try to stop this invisible but palpable slipping away? We are like two people standing on opposite sides of an icy summit, each of us losing traction, slipping downward. The speed of our decline will only increase.
And if I chose not to ask her these questions, then myself turned me into a co-conspirator in Penny's double life. An enabler.
I rejected the terms of the choice, that seemed to be forcing me into the conventional role of the jealously suspicious husband. I didn't want to be a part of that old pathetic comedy. Here we are in this house now, I told myself -- learning to live together as caring friends -- building something new.
The season declined, sunsets came sooner, blazing in the western sky over Sleeping Giant Park. We collected in the dining room, Ricky back from teaching his studio class to undergraduate art majors; Alex having dragged himself away from his fan club at Morse residential college where he regularly dropped by for friends and free meals, some days hanging out for evening jam sessions that turn into sleepovers. Standing, on our feet for some reason, sharing observations, making comments on something, the house's little collection of art books, or National Geographic, or some drawing that Ricky pulled from his portfolio to explain a funny, but probably complicated story of something that happened at Yale when he went in to teach or to show his stuff to some big wheel, and we are all into it. Somebody has walked into the kitchen to do something. Alex, maybe, growing through the pockets of his parka to pull out some treat laid on him at Morse for us to taste, or drink; or maybe smoke; perhaps somebody's hash brownies. One of those moments when call and response are flowing back and forth from all sides, like waves in a stirred-up bathtub
-- and then somebody notices the time.
"Hey, it's four o'clock." Slightly surprised.
"Four o'clock!" Harrison exclaims, eyebrows lifted, feet already in motion, a man coming out of a dream. Harrison was the first person I knew who timed sunsets.
"Lisa! We have to go to the mountain now."
It's on his schedule. The autumn day's defining event; maybe its peak moment.
"If we don't leave now we'll miss the sunset. Hurry!"
People do hurry, astonishingly. Breaking up the party in anticipation of better things still to come. Harrison races upstairs to get his 'equipment,' including the backpack with weights inside to maximize the climb's exercise potential. Lisa scurries away to find her hiking boots and lace them on.
"The mountain?" Ricky says. "I'm coming!"
He points at his feet, shod in black 'engineer boots.' "I'm ready, Harr!"
"You guys coming?" he says to Alex and me. "If you want to, you better get ready. I've watched Harrison fly out of this house. You do that, don't you, Harr!" Ricky calls, sending these words up the stairs to the rumble heard above us.
The rumble continues, weights dropping into a knapsack, but no reply.
"I'm as ready as I'm gonna be," Alex says, miming a yawn, unaffected by haste, preparation, hiking boots . Alex doesn't believe in changing clothes, in haste, in stuff.
I decide I'm going too, but I'm the only one in the house who wears a uniform, the kind of clothes you absolutely have to change out of in order to have fun. Upstairs in the room with the mattress on the floor, Penny's erstwhile high-volume retreat, I find my worn hiking shoes in the closet just as I hear the heavy slap of the storm door on the kitchen.
"To the mountain!" Ricky cries, playing a part, enjoying it.
Harrison echoes the cry, his voice pinched and high, but in the spirit of the thing.
I feel myself becoming the little kid trailing behind the gang, shouting "Wait for me!"
The others have crossed the state road, dashing between the commuter traffic, and started down the narrow path through the woods by the time I catch up. When we reach the quarried cliff face, we climb up a steep rock-hewn path that curves around one side of the face like ants traveling up the Giant's ear, to reach the 'sunset spot' at the summit. From there we can sit on the flatter rocks and look directly at the place where the October sun, already a red-crowned god in a cool, blue universe, a big fish in a small cosmos, is lipping the distant horizon, somebody else's green ridge.
After it slips all the way behind the event-horizon, the last direct glitter from its distant fire melding into all that is beautiful and remains to be seen, the gift of twilight, Ricky and Lisa begin to applaud.
"Hooray! Great sunset!"
"Why shouldn't we applaud a sunset?" Alex says, joining in. "Way to go, man. Let's hear it for ol' Sol. We applaud people, but who can compete with nature?"
"Hey," Lisa interrupts. "This is the first time that everybody's here together for the sunset!"
But everybody isn't here. Penny isn't. Nobody corrects her. I don't say a word.
I have to talk to somebody, I decide, about the note. Or about Penny and me. I choose Sandra, who as Ricky's girl friend comes to the house every weekend. A horn player in the Yale school of music, Sandra has black, curly hair and a round face that smiles a lot. Her presence has helped turn our weekend meal times into festive occasions -- especially because she cooks. But I choose her to talk to precisely because she doesn't live in the house and we don't have a long history together. I want to eliminate the house dynamic and concentrate simply on Penny and me.
"She's almost never here," I tell her. "We don't do things together anymore. I don't know what she's thinking."
Sitting on the floor of our bedroom, Sandra nods and murmurs in the right places while I talk. When I finish she suggests, reasonably enough, that I ask Penny to set a time when we can have an uninterrupted talk. What she's heard, I realize, is that our lives have grown apart. It's true, I think, but it's beyond that too.
"Is there something more?" Sandra asks, giving me another chance. Her face attentive, nonjudgmental -- a pretty good shrink for a horn player, I think.
Yes, of course there is. There's the note. But I hesitate -- deciding the note is suspect evidence, since I didn't fully read it, and therefore inadmissible. I thank Sandra for listening, tell her it's been a help to talk, and set her free to go back to her less conflicted life. She hops up to her feet and leaves the room after some cheerful words about the prospect of baking bread in our old oven.
My next attempt, acting on the same theory of appropriate distance, is to discuss my unhappiness with Alex's girl friend, Celeste. Likely Sandra has told Ricky everything I said; it's probably all over the house; but I'm trying to keep up appearances.
Also a musician but so sensitive about her art that she could never bear to play her violin if anybody was listening, Celeste was one of the most spiritual looking people I had ever met. Her white-blonde hair shining like polished silver, she looked like a thinly disguised angel or someone who could be her own grandmother. And her eyes could look through you, as they do when I sit down on the floor next to her one quiet Sunday morning.
Before I can launch my cri de coeur, she begins telling me a story of her own. Her violin teacher, she says, whom she regards as her guru, has a little boy who's ill.
"His son is the center of his life," she says. "He talks about him all the time. But he's ill. The doctors are treating him, but it's something he was born with, and they're not sure anything they can do will help."
I listen, my problems growing smaller.
"My teacher said to me," Celeste resumes, "that even if his son dies..."
She looks at me with an expression that says she's not afraid to think about death. I nod, unable to say what I'm agreeing with.
"...he will come home from the cemetery," Celeste's pale eyes drill into me, "and say, 'Hooray for life!'"
Not a matter of life and death, then; but important to me.
When Alex proposes, "Let's smoke this thing outdoors," holding up the joint he's rolled, "under the stars," I wonder if he wants to talk to me about Celeste. They're an oddly patched pair, Alex so happy-go-lucky. It's cold outdoors; it's November.
We stand at the top of the driveway, a dozen feet taking us beyond the circle of pale illumination thrown by the kitchen light. Even then the earth looks pale beneath our feet, a white scrim laid over the earth, stars gleaming above. Frost already, I think, licking at the low places. We stand in our sweaters over jeans, Alex's feet in the heavy work boots he wears everywhere. He tells people they help him keep his balance.
But I'm wrong about what he wants.
"So where's Penny?" he asks, softly, after we've shared the joint back and forth a few times between us.
I shrug. "I don't know."
I could make excuses, say "at the library, probably," but maybe out here, under the stars, I am beyond appearances. Besides, I know Alex has seen through them.
"I mean where is she, man?"
He's not questioning her whereabouts, but her head, her life. I understand the question, I can't really answer.
"I really don't know. That's it in a nutshell."
He takes a step closer me, as if to see me better.
"I see things," he says. "I can't help seeing things. Everybody does.... And I know what it looks like. But then I think, but Penny? I mean Penny?"
After a silence I say, "It looks the same way to me."
"I mean Penny and you," he says, with emphasis, "were like the tight couple, man."
His body shows me what he saw, still and steady, the inward crimp of his limbs. That's how we have looked to others. We don't quarrel, raise our voices in public, like many couples; like lovers do. We don't disagree in public.
I can't show him what goes on, or doesn't, behind closed doors. I'm afraid to try.
"I'm dealing with it," I say, at last. "Or trying to. But she's just not telling me anything."
We nod at one another in the shadows, the frost.
Alex looks up at the night sky, and then back at me.
"That's why I like living here, man," Alex says, lifting a booted foot and planting it solidly on the ground. "I mean here. On a planet." He glances starward. "Among other planets."
When the phone rings, a female voice asks to speak to 'Jon.'
"Someone from school," I explain to the others.
But I'm not fooling anyone. When it rings another evening, and the evening after that, Ricky picks up the receiver and calls out to me. "Russell, it's that girl again."
Yet when the crisis comes that fall, or appears to, it isn't mine. Someone is missing from our convivial, communal midst, without explanation. Not Penny, whom people no longer expect to see much of. But -- Harrison?
Harrison is always there. Reading his paper at the table, the only one of us who regularly does, though I suspect it's largely to check the stock market. Or with his check ledger out, paying the house utility bills, then figuring out each one of our shares (and helpfully pointing these figures out to us). Or alone in his study, the small first floor room reserved for his use, the door always shut --I've never seen the inside of it. The room where, I'm told, he keeps his own books, conducts his studies, his projects, or whatever we should call them. He does art; he does science. He reads history and politics. He exercises in the afternoon, then rests up before the sunset climb to the mountain, some days slipping upstairs for those musical rendezvouses with Lisa.
"Though, now that you mention it," Ricky says on the second day of Harrison's absence, "we haven't heard any of the conjugal music they used to make in some time. At least I haven't -- have you guys?"
Alex and I shake our heads.
"Do you think there's something wrong?" Ricky asks.
"Something wrong with Harrison you mean?" Alex says.
I grow quiet.
When Lisa returns to the house that evening from a rare night out with the French Table, the university club that's always looking for Francophiles to share meals and civilized conversation en francais, and stalks head down through the house, Alex stops her with our question.
"So where's Harrison been, Lis?"
"Oh, " she says, avoiding our glances, "he had to see somebody. Just some business."
We figure 'business' means something to do with money, and ask no more questions.
She goes upstairs. When I go up to change out of my hiking shoes -- we boys struggling along that day without our Peter Pan and Wendy -- I hear the sound of someone crying softly.
Harrison is back the next day, a Saturday, camped blithely in the living room's armchair, his wife's usual reading chair. I've been up for a few hours, but Harrison and I ignore each other. If he's not telling, I'm not asking. Alex, however, emerging from his first floor bedroom, sleep ruffled, his hair in his face, is made of sterner stuff. Rummaging in his stocking feet, he finds a smoke-able Kool in an ashtray and collapses into the couch.
"Hey, Har," Alex says, "so you're back."
Harrison grunts. He's hiding behind his newspaper.
I'm parked in a corner of the dining room with a stack of kids' papers, miserable attempts at responding to one of my rare written assignments. After a silence I hear Alex walk through into the kitchen, and hunt around for the cereal. When he's done eating and walks back, he finds Harrison still in the same chair.
"Oh... She went to visit her mother."
"Is she OK? She seemed a little down the other day." Alex calls for corroboration. "Didn't she, Russell?"
"Hmm," I say. Acknowledging that I'm hearing.
"Anything the matter?" Alex says.
"No," Harrison says. I picture his phony stonewalling grin. "She just wanted to get away."
Away from what? I think. The house? Us?
Or, possibly, her husband? They've gone on separate vacations, I conclude, taking a tip from Cosmo for jaded spouses.
"So this 'business' of yours, man," Alex persists. "Lisa was telling us --"
"She did?" Harrison looks up from his paper in alarm.
"She said you had some business. Where'd you go?"
"Where did I go?" Harrison repeats the question, calm now, playing cat-and-mouse tone. "To the city."
The city? Not New Haven, surely. No reason to be gone overnight there. Boston? New York? Harrison retreats determinedly behind his newspaper. We don't find out.
Lisa comes back from her 'visit,' and things return to normal. As the fall semester comes to an end the house fills with visitors. Celeste comes down from New York City with one of Alex's friends from home, a drummer who steps up the beat in the house's informal jam sessions. Ricky has a new girl friend, having pink-slipped Sandra, for no apparent cause. (Sandra is mourned by the rest of us, but then put behind us: group shrug.) The new girl, Deedee, a West Coast blonde, is both relentlessly cheerful and provocatively academic in her conversation. She keeps asking everybody about their college majors.
I leave the ongoing house party one evening for a "musical evening" -- meaning classical, chamber -- hosted by Marybeth's parents, who enjoy inviting teachers from their daughter's school to their events. The Watsons live in a beachfront house they insist on calling a "cottage," though it's probably the largest house I've ever seen the inside of. Marybeth's parents and their friends are happy to meet an Ivy League graduate who's teaching in the local high school. If I'm so smart, I am tempted to reply (but am too polite), what am I doing teaching your kids?
When I get back to the hippie house, the living room is filled with people listening to something new to me, it's jazzy but with a post-Hendricks electric guitar sound, apparently introduced to the house with great success by the Sears' friend Frederick. A med school resident, Frederick has a conventional look and a mild demeanor. I'm surprised when he rolls joints incessantly with a smiling obsessiveness that suggests his off-duty time is too precious to waste by leaving things half-done. People are reacting to the music, telling stories, carrying on their own conversations, throwing out comments on the weirder bits of overheard stories, and sharing punch lines that draw laughter from some and leave others confused. Laughter breaks out here and there, and I slip in among those sitting on the floor to make it easier to keep the joints moving. I don't think about who's in the room and who isn't.
Harrison uncoils his long legs, rising wordlessly with a provocatively self-pleased smile to go upstairs. Moments later lighter footsteps skip down them and Lisa descends neatly into a narrow piece of carpet between Alex and me, like a gymnast landing a fall.
"I've got some news, everybody," she says. The music is playing, so not 'everybody' hears.
"Good news?" Alex says since Lisa is obviously floating, happier than we've seen her for weeks. "Then lay it on us, babe."
"I'm going to London next week."
"London! Far out --" Deedee butts into our circle, chirping happily. "London, wow. England. You two should go all over the country. You'll love it --."
"Just me. Not Harrison. I'm going to England to have an abortion. My sister's over there, so I'll stay with her."
She waits a beat. "So there! Have I blown your minds?"
She has. Alex makes an impressed face. I nod blankly.
Emotion pouring out of her, Lisa blinks back tears, her features a mixture of all weathers, sun and storm and star-spackled dawn. They're tears of relief now that a marital crisis has been resolved with a trip abroad.
Frederick, the couple's medical connection, nods from a circle of bodies six feet away. His bland smile coasts benignly on as he rolls, puffs and slowly exhales. He hasn't needed to hear her news because he already knew it.
Alex throws in a question. "Why England?"
"Because my husband is so good to me," Lisa says. She wants us to know this, to feel it as she does.
Harrison is a planner, I realize, living on a budget. A trip to Europe was not been part of the year's spending plan, but now he has made some arrangement -- talked to someone, convinced himself he can afford it. So that was the 'business trip.'
I share a glance with Alex and his expression tells me what I'm feeling. Gratitude that life in the house will go on as before.
"I don't see why she just doesn't have the baby," Penny says.
A baby in the hippie house?
"Really, man," she insists, seeing my shock and disapproval, "why shouldn't she? It's not like they're doing anything else."
We're talking about other people, at least a little. Not about ourselves, but being in the car so much, first driving to Long Island and back for Christmas with family, now heading to a New Year's Eve party in Boston, has forced us to spend time together. The party is at a college friend's place. He married his hometown girl friend, got accepted to architectural school, and grew 'serious.' I'm not sure how well I know him any more.
The weather turns nasty just as we leave the house, snow and frozen rain alternating as we plow along the two-lane highway through eastern Connecticut. I'm driving. Penny, the person who taught me to drive stick, who endured my teenage misadventures behind the wheel when I got my license, is feeling too something -- uptight? edgy? -- to drive in bad weather on a poorly lit road. After a while I begin to have second thoughts myself, my confidence waning from feeling Penny's nervous vibrations inside the confines of the Bug.
"I can't see anything out there," she explodes, finally. "Can you?"
"Sort of," I reply. I'm staying on the road, but not sure how.
The journey begins to make less and less sense. We're feeding off one another's angst. I recognize this state as the closed-circuit emotional hotbox in which we have locked each other up over the years.
"Do you want to turn around?" I ask.
"Do you?" She sounds relieved.
She doesn't want responsibility for the decision laid to her side of the ledger -- her 'paranoia.' I agree to take it on mine.
"I don't care that much if we go to this party or not." Fact is, I hate New Year's Eve parties.
"Then let's turn around."
By the time we make it back to New Haven, the snow retreating now into rain, we decide to go to a restaurant as a substitute for a party. It's the sort of thing we would do in the 'old days.' Tell our parents we were going to a party or school event, but veer off to some isolated spot where we could be alone and then end up at a hamburger joint. Running away from the world with Penny, it's a familiar feeling. I feel it slipping over my psyche like an old coat, musty and in need of an airing.
"We'll go to Blessings," I say.
Inside the Chinese restaurant we're lucky to find a quiet back room. Here we are: alone again on New Year's Eve. But things are different. I force myself to talk about 'us.' When am I going to get a better chance?
"Here's to us," I say, lifting a glass of wine. "Another year."
I can't be serious, can I? Of course I can't, but my tone is bland, neutral, forcing Penny to make her own interpretation. That's what I'm hoping she'll do.
She looks at me carefully, running her own calculations.
"Another year," she repeats, but doesn't lift her own glass. After a moment she adds, "We made it this far."
Have we, though? Is she bullshitting me? She grows uncomfortable under my gaze, the color draining from her features.
"So," I say, taking the initiative for once, since Penny is floundering; it shows in her face.
"Do you want to tell me what's going on?"
Her face passes through a hundred changes. Some part of her desires to be frank with me, open. I'm the one person, she's told me in the past, who can 'understand' her.
"What's going on," she says, eventually with a shrug meant to be nonchalant, "is what's going on."
Bullshit, I think. Candor rejected.
"What does that mean?"
"What do you mean?" The old feistiness flying back in this reply, the backhand smash.
"C'mon, Penny. Something is going on with you. You're my wife, but you're never around... There must be a reason."
I watch her think, trying once again to find something to tell me that is not a lie. Did she think I haven't noticed? Or that I can be relied on to accept whatever comes my way without question? Maybe. Because it appears she's unprepared for any confrontation. She's not looking for the words to tell me the truth, I think. She's looking for a way to stop me from asking uncomfortable questions.
"Can you just tell me the truth?" I say.
"I don't know what you think is the truth," she says at last. Not an answer to my questions. Maybe not a lie, but clearly an evasion.
And yet I reply.
"What I think..." I pause as another possibility occurs to me. Is she giving me some hint that my suspicions about the writer of the 'our love' note are mistaken? Misplaced even?
"What I think," I repeat, "is that if things go on the way they are now, we won't be drinking a toast to 'us' next year."
I wait. Her face softens, but she doesn't appear able to reply.
"Because there won't be an 'us,'" I add. Thinking, Let me make one thing perfectly clear.
"What do you think," she asks -- yet again passing the ball, the onus to keep the confrontation going, back to me -- "is going on?"
"What I think," I reply, "is you don't want me asking you uncomfortable questions."
She shrugs, her face half hardened, half apologetic. "Maybe."
"What I think is that you'd probably be willing to leave the house -- I mean, leave me -- if you had some place to go."
Long, heavy pause. "You're saying this, Jon. Not me."
"Isn't it true?"
I watch her face grow hard all the way, her lively, light-filled eyes flatten. Her stare tells me 'no reply.' No self-incrimination.
Why don't I just come out and say it? I tell myself.
"Are you leaving me?" I ask.
Possible replies flash between us as I watch those eyes come back to life. I even have momentary flashes of hope that she will tell me the truth. Trust me with the truth. But that hope gutters when I hear her retreat once again to the fortification she has built to keep me, or the truth, at bay.
"Is that what you think?"
"What I think...," I begin again, determined somehow to get over the wall. But as I wait to hear the truth form in my thoughts, some tempest from the shared past blows through me again, knocking me off course.
"...is that you're doing your best."
I don't know why I choose these words. Because of the years we relied on each other, clung to each other, needed each other, for one reason or another? Because I am honoring what we were?
She throws her head back a little, shakes her hair away from her eyes. Her eyes soften once more. She smiles, gently.
"You're a nice guy, Jon," she says.
I want to lean across the table, and kiss her.
I know what this is. It's the kiss-off. It's goodbye.
MIKE JOHNSON - I started writing late in life. Age sixty four to be exact so I suppose that comes under the category: it’s never too late to learn! I’m English from the county of Yorkshire but moved to Spain in the year 2000. My writing career began after meeting other published author’s here on the Costa del Sol. My first novel; Dragon - written in long hand at first would you believe – was edited by my wife who I found was more than capable – and far less expensive – than the Publishers. The next two novels in the series; The Korean Connection and The Buddha in Ice followed soon after. It may be of interest to learn the wrap around front covers were designed by me, and illustrated by a local design company. You have no idea how cost effective that is for a first time writer self-publishing? In between these novels I began writing short stories: The Little Home on Wheels was one of them, but my readers wanted to know; what happened next? The story begins here in Spain in places I have visited and know well.
THE WRITER by Mike Johnson
My name is Joanne Miller and I’m a writer. Actually I suppose I should call myself a novelist or even a celebrity nowadays. I’m after all on the television and in the gossip magazines quite a bit. But I suppose I should start at the very beginning as Maria would say in the song!
DECEMBER – NEW YORK
I met Daniel at the Christmas office party. Talk about a cliché?
I worked for a local newspaper at the time and still did up until a few months ago. I loved my work and even if I say so myself; my gossip column was pretty good. My editor had just got me a raise in salary so I was even more ready to party; and I was single!
Daniel was also a journalist but with a rival newspaper with a circulation quite a lot bigger than ours. He wasn’t bad looking and got more handsome as I stacked up the martini glasses.
I think women give off some kind of scent when they get horny? Or maybe it was the way I was now beginning to leer at him across the room that made him introduce himself.
I think you can guess how the night turned out?
Two days later at work my desk phone rang. I get calls all day long so it took me a few seconds to realise who it was ‘Oh hello I wasn’t expecting you to call so quickly’ I stammered already blushing and trying to talk as quietly as possible. Big mistake that as everyone in the office now knew it was a personal call.
‘Oh dear Joanna you’ve got the after the office party regrets already?’ he sighed chuckling.
‘Oh no sorry I’m just a little busy maybe we can discuss this later?’
Discuss this later! What the hell was I talking about silly bitch!
‘Ok how about this evening?’
Well I had to agree just to get off the phone. The rest of the office were now straining to hear my conversation. I wrote gossip not made it!
I did meet Daniel that evening and realised it wasn’t just the martini’s that had attracted me. He was nice looking but that wasn’t it. I just felt like I had met a friend. Three weeks later we moved in together.
Our relationship lasted over two years which was definitely a first for me but in the end it was our work that made us drift apart. The job offers to work as a roving reporter all over the world was too good for him to pass up. When I moved apartments he didn’t come with me.
I was single again but dating was very far from my mind. The newspaper now had a new editor who I liked enormously and got on with like a house on fire. I did have a slight crush on him but that didn’t excuse the one-night stand. He was married and I knew it.
The next day I felt as guilty as hell. I also was not taking any precautions so I told myself to visit the local pharmacy just to make sure there were no problems! That day a big story broke and I was inundated with phone calls and typing. Six weeks later I got the morning sickness. I took the test but I already knew the result would be positive.
My god how could I have been so stupid? Two years with Daniel and not a problem. A one night-stand and I’m pregnant.
I considered not telling the father but that wouldn’t have been fair. When I did his reaction surprised me to say the least.
‘Joanna I must confess all this to my wife’ he told me ‘but I will of course help in any way you want me to’
What a nice guy he was. A week later he asked me to meet him at a restaurant to discuss something very important. I did; but I wasn’t expecting his wife to be with him.
‘Hello Joanna its very nice to meet you, please call me Emma!’ she said giving me a friendly hug.
Now come on; you must be thinking; what was going on? Her husband had just told his wife he had got another woman pregnant and she was treating the said woman like an old family friend?
The husband by the way wasn’t looking guilty either. He was actually looking quite pleased with himself albeit a little sheepish.
‘Hello Emma’ I replied. I was then just about to say how sorry I was but she stopped me dead.
‘I know exactly what you are going to say Joanna but please don’t. What I would like you to do is listen to me carefully. When I have finished I would then like you to go away and consider my proposal carefully. Would you do that?’
When she had finished her story everything became clear. Emma was barren!
They had been trying for years to conceive a child until the doctors finally admitted it was never going to happen. They wanted a child; mine!
At first I considered the proposal was ridiculous but the more I mulled it over the more I realised it was the perfect solution. Don’t get me wrong I would have brought my child up in a loving home but Emma was so sincere in her wanting his child that in the end I agreed.
Now how do you go about having a baby without the rest of the world knowing about it?
Well I don’t know how but we did; but what does a pregnant mother do if she is resting at home all day out of site from everyone; especially if she has worked as a gossip columnist for such a long time? She gets out her lap-top and starts writing that’s what she does.
Eight weeks and the novel was finished. How this happened so quickly I still couldn’t tell you but the words just seemed to flow onto the page. Two weeks after the baby was born I was back at work trying to fend off questions about my sabbatical!
The trouble now was what to do with the novel?
I needed someone to edit it. I was not arrogant enough to believe it didn’t need to but who could I trust?
In the end I collared the one person in the office I could trust to keep quiet. Her name was Lucy and she was our very own proof editor.
‘You’ve written a novel how wonderful’ she gushed. Lucy was a wonderful woman who still believed in Father Christmas. We had known each other for years and she was the nicest person you could meet.
‘You must promise me not to tell anyone. The reason will become obvious when you read the novel’
‘You did say it was fiction didn’t you?’
‘Well yes but just let’s say the characters are a little too close for comfort shall we?’
Lucy did the editing but when she asked to meet me discreetly I thought something was wrong. Was the story that bad I thought starting to panic.
When we met she flung her arms around me and started crying ‘I’m sorry if the book upset you Lucy’ I said feeling really bad.
‘Upset me!’ she said moving away ‘Yes it upset me. I haven’t stopped crying since the second chapter. Your novel is incredible’ she told me sniffing and wiping her eyes ‘and now I know why you don’t want anyone to know you are the author and why you’ve been away for so long’
‘Oh dear is it that obvious?’
‘To me it is. Oh Jo why didn’t you confide in me. You know I wouldn’t have said anything’
It was now my turn to cry. I had come to terms with giving up my baby but suddenly I was gripped with a terrible feeling of guilt. I needed someone to talk to and Lucy was the perfect therapist.
‘What do you want to do now, about getting it published I mean?’
‘God!’ I said genuinely stumped ‘I actually never considered having it published’
‘But you must Jo. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it’s the most gripping and heart-warming story I have every read’
A bit over the top but I did manage a very satisfied smile ‘ok let’s do it, but under a pseudonym’
Now working for a newspaper does have its advantages especially for a first time writer. An old school friend who was now a publisher agreed to do me a favour and proof read the novel. A week later I was signing a contract. Like I said it’s not what you know it’s who you know as the saying goes.
This was all happening very fast. Any first time writer will tell you the frustration in getting someone to read your novel let alone publish it. But like I said working for a newspaper has its advantages.
What really shook me was six months later it was on the Best Seller list.
It was at this point my publisher started quoting contractual agreements and all the other stuff I had not bothered to read carefully.
My anonymity was about to come to an end.
A media specialist was appointed to work with me. By now the press and T.V. where already speculating who the mysterious author was. My publisher also had just informed me a movie contract was in the pipeline.
‘Jesus what have I done?’ I suddenly thought to myself. The whole world will know that I have been a surrogate mother; what will they think of me? The panic was already setting in and it didn’t help when my media specialist told me I was booked to appear on a late night chat show.
Bloody hell I’m going to be a scarlet woman on national T.V!
The chat show host had been one of my favourites for a long time. Thankfully he was as nice in the flesh as he was on T.V. It was a big scoop for him introducing the author everyone on the country had been speculating about. How we managed to keep me a secret I’ll never know but we did. What I wasn’t expecting was the reaction of the audience when I made my appearance.
I actually had to look around thinking some pop star had come in after me. The applause was deafening and made me just stand there speechless for a while. Thankfully I found my voice and did the interview.
Within a week the book sales had soared. It would be a long time before I caught up with some of our more successful authors but it was in the right direction.
The next day I went to work as usual. Looking back, I still can’t believe I was so naive in thinking nothing had changed. The first thing I noticed was the Paparazzi milling about at the entrance. I actually knew most of them personally because I had done the same thing on many occasions. The proverbial shoe however was now definitely on the other foot so I did what other celebrities did; I used the back entrance.
The second I entered the office I was mobbed. Lucy was in tears again but the relief on her face was obvious. She had let her role in publishing the novel become known and had not stopped answering questions all morning.
‘I think our new editor wants to see you?’ she whispered.
I’d telephoned the father of my child a few days ago to put him in the picture ‘thanks for letting me know Jo it makes my decision to accept a new job offer that much easier. My wife loves the book by the way!’
The new editor was an old friend and well known in the business. He offered his congratulations then politely advised me it would be a problem having me as the papers gossip columnist ‘sorry Joanne but you may well turn out to be more famous than the person you’re interviewing’ he said pointing to the T.V monitors in the office.
I couldn’t argue; my face was appearing on the screen every half an hour.
In many ways I was sad to leave but it did make one thing easier; writing the next novel!
Since finishing the first one my head had been swimming with ideas. I’d been a gossip writer for many years and wasn’t short of events and people to draw from. Time to get the lap-top warmed up again I decided.
The one big difference between working in a busy office and working at home was the lack of people to converse with. Within a month I was lonely and starting to have conversations with the cat. Oh don’t get me wrong there were more interviews and a constant stream of phone calls but that was classed as business now. I missed my friends; one in particular. I was also a little peeved he hadn’t called me to offer his congratulations.
When the call did come I was ready to bite his head off. I didn’t.
We met the next day. I knew instantly that I was still in love with him but did he feel the same, and was it really possible to carry on from where we left off?
Well that’s my story so far. A fairy tale one some may say; but who says it can’t happen to anyone. All you have to do is get started and hope for the best. Oh by the way. Daniel and I are getting married next month; I really missed my friend.
Rony Nair slogs as an oil and gas Risk Management “expert/ director/ Vice resident/consultant”-up on the greasy pole! He’s been 20 years in the industry since starting off as an Industrial engineer a long time ago. Extensively traveled. Dangers fronted often. But that’s his day job. The one that pays for bread and bills. He’s been a worshipper at the altar of prose and poetry for almost as long as he could think. They have been the shadows of his life. (They’ve been) the bedsit at the end of a long day; the repository that does the sound of silence inimitably well. Not unlike a pet; but with one core difference- the books do suggest, educate and weave a texture that marginally provides streams of thought that are new. And one of the biggest pleasures of his life, is certainly holding a treasured edition in one’s hands. Physically. Rony’s been writing poetry since 1985 and was a published columnist with the Indian Express in the early 1990’s. He is also a published photographer about to hold his first major exhibition and currently writes a regular column for two online journals; one of them widely read over South India. Rony has been profiled by the Economic Times of Delhi and has also written for them. He cites V.S Naipaul, A.J Cronin, Patrick Hamilton, Alan Sillitoe, John Braine and Nevil Shute in addition to FS Fitzgerald as influences on his life; and Philip Larkin, Dom Moraes and Ted Hughes as his personal poetry idols. Larkin’s’ collected poems would be the one book he would like to die with. When the poems perish, as do the thoughts!
Nocturne. Imaginary Pictographs. by Rony Nair
I think about life behind an e-mail address... I do not even know if it is still valid. I don't even know if this will be read by you. The only way i can write is if i picture you reading this in my head.
Writing used to be a release. And i could write whenever i pictured you reading it. Now i visualize the night. I see the darkness. I see a curved terrace that looks out over green spaces. Over ponds being rapidly filled up, like spandex in flight. Of water bodies that flow, and narrow walls that take flight as pedestrians struggle to remain unsandwiched. Between the latest fast car; and the oldest crumbling wall.
The old high street. Night. Middle of somewhere. Copyright: Rony Nair
Every bit I used to write, I used to think of a person with a small balcony and lots of color on the inner walls reading it. A small plant perhaps growing in a corner. Occasionally tended. Someone who quizzically read with their eyebrows bending in. sometimes with the hint of a smile on the corners of their eyes. Sometimes with the glaze of irritation in them. But at least there was a thought that perhaps it was worth all the writing it if she smiled when spoke about it. Later.
And now. And I can't not think of you all the time. How you are, how absent minded you become sometimes when asking favors of your foes. How your most unloving pith, provides the most affectionate sanctuary they need. To be ephemeral. To be themselves.
How you juggle so many things with élan, your passion for the greater good, your essential sincerity.
Before the most abject brutality. Before the most unloving gesture. Before the lights fade and the darkness reins in.
We used to talk about the bike and the trip. You and me. India. The works. Driving through the night. Watching out, we always said, for trucks without lights. For those monsters stationed on the road, waiting to gorge their fill. On impact.
And now I am struggling to write. I can't write. Without knowing you look at it.
I don't know the exact nature of my crime but i miss you all the time, and then i get to speak to you, i say things in anger. When essentially all i am is being angry with myself.
And this night, through the rains. It seems so apt. That the minders wander. And the TV squeaks. And there is the night. The silence. And two curved terraces some distance apart. With a person in each perhaps looking at the sky and thinking of each other.
You and me. And the slow fade. Copyright: Rony Nair
Let me write of a day. Some years ago.
I first saw you I think come September. It was a Friday filled with old friends from a public school childhood. We were grabbing a bite on an upper floor quasi-place run by a distant friend of mine. An early lunch. Reminiscing about old school times.
We've had one leap year since that day. With 29 days in February 2012. So today, it’s probably 4 years or so. To the day. To the night.
The eyes were kind. Half mooned. They were your eyes.
I overheard snatches of conversation. The smile. The sense of humor. The cut to the chase perspective you had on things. The no-nonsense demeanor.
Yet the kindness in the eyes.
I doubted then, if you even noticed me when you said a polite, curt, hello.
You are always courteous, no-nonsense, humorous, firm; and incredibly kind. You were the same that day too.
It felt secure. The clouds rolled in a few hours ago. Night. Not a night that discharges cliché and obligation. But a night with an edge. A resonance. A somnambulist’s grace.
The next day I heard of where you lived. The first time. I walked that way. Saw this:
I went away and dealt with those feelings the only way i knew. By pretending that i had control over my feelings. Pretending to myself that it was fun, that it was a lark. Not daring to think too hard. Or too deep about you. Putting it away in a corner. But always thinking of you.
Not a day has passed since that first day in September all those years ago when I don't think of you, I don't feel your eyes on me, that crackle when you're about to say something funny, that way you have when you look.. Not a darn day.
I knew then; and I know now, how much everybody likes you. You have tons of friends. You are much admired. You are busy with doing things that matter. You've taught me that life should be about giving, about putting others first, about having time to reflect, about not sacrificing the essence of one's being, about being brave, about being true to oneself.
You've taught me so much. Just by being yourself. your innate loyalty to your friends, the time you give to the less privileged, the ability to understand what really counts in life, I could go on...thoughts of you have kept me going in some far corners of the world. Through a lot of late nights, through the "what will she say question" that i asked myself daily...
I still do.
And that night when I drove myself round the bend. As the dusk gradually played with the palavers that slithered through a humidity that was almost painful. It felt strange. To feel. All that was familiar.
And this night, through the rains. It seems so apt. That the minders wander. And the TV squeaks. And there is the night. The silence. And two curved terraces some distance apart. With a person in each perhaps looking at the sky and thinking of each other.
We drove past the haze and the early hours could have been night for all I cared. I held your hand and it almost could have been night for all I cared.
And I saw the flush. The rising sun on your tropical skin. And then you smiled. And the hands stayed firm until we could have seen this on the culvert near the bund.
Late nights? Early mornings?
A saree. A first.
Copyright Rony Nair
When people like me get to the age we’re at, they start thinking of obituaries and the small print in the newspaper. The 2 inches of column space along with the 100 other people on page 4 in a local newspaper. I will get two inches not because i was any good. It is too late for that, but because everybody gets it in the papers.
You will have dumped me by then. Another messianic cause to replace all the emotion that one saw in your eyes that day. You will have cast away the strings, the imagery, and the flush you felt when the splinters of glass rained through the half open car window. You will have discovered that a “cause” however tenuous, can compensate for being true to oneself.
And another September will come and go. And this time, we wouldn’t be speaking.
And this night, through the rains. It seems so apt. That the minders wander. And the TV squeaks. And there is the night.
There is only the night.
David Larsen - I was born in New York State and our family moved to Washington State when I was 14 years old. After a couple years of college, I served two years in the Marine Corps, and then earned BA degrees in English Literature and Business Administration both from the University of Washington. I worked in the Finance Department of The Boeing Company for 28 years before leaving that job in 2004. Since then I continued to operate the winery we founded in 1989 named Soos Creek Wine Cellars. My wife, Cecile, and I have 3 sons. I also enjoy running, golf and outdoor activities. “Yellow Footprints" is a memoir and is the first story I have written.
YELLOW FOOTPRINTS by David Larsen
The building in Los Angeles where we were sworn in was so nondescript that it appeared to be deliberately chosen for its non-threatening appearance; so there would be no reason for volunteers like myself to back out at the last minute. Taking the oath was as easy as saying the Pledge of Allegiance. But the excitement of my future adventure was replaced by a somber mood when the Sgt ordered us out of the room, down the stairs and out of the building. After we emptied onto the sidewalk, another recruit pointed out the Superman building, home of the Daily Planet newspaper in the old TV show. It was a welcome distraction because it lightened the mood as we got on the bus.
Passing through the gates of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot was an easy transition onto the base because the Spanish style of the buildings had the look of just another San Diego neighborhood. With such beautiful grounds and so few people, the place looked almost serene. Then the bus stopped, the door opened, and a drill instructor ran up the steps yelling
“I want every swinging dick standing outside on those yellow footprints in 30 seconds!”
“Move! Move! Move!” shouted the DI. He had gained control like the police do in a raid when they storm into a room without warning. We swarmed out of the bus and arranged ourselves on the eighty sets of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt – four columns of 20 recruits each, all pointed in the same direction and standing more or less at attention.
My girlfriend’s brother had been in the Marine Corps, so I had quizzed him about it before making my decision to enlist. Nothing he said about the experience had me worried. And I felt lucky to sit next to a Marine on the plane ride to San Diego just days earlier. His only comment was “I’d be lying if I said it was easy.” I thought not being easy was part of the appeal because I would become part of an elite group. Knowing what to expect had calmed my fears. And being a year or two older than most of the others, I felt above the intimidation tactics of the DI’s while standing on the yellow footprints.
The DIs then herded us into a nearby building for the sheep shearing – electric clippers mowed our hair down to the skin in waves of four recruits at a time. The loss of hair made us now look more alike than different. It was a silent ceremony, highlighted only by a pronounced smell of oil from the electric clippers and the growing pile of hair on the floor. After exchanging our civilian clothes for green Marine Corps utilities, I looked around the room of eighty recruits but could no longer identify anyone I knew from the bus ride. Everyone was now wearing the same dark green utilities, blank but obedient expression, and bald head.
We finished packing a few essentials into our duffle bags and started marching off to our living quarters. It was almost dark near the end of our first day and we were the only people on an ocean of asphalt. We marched into a desolate expanse so vast that it blended into the darkness at the horizon. Staying in step but drifting off-line, I felt a couple slaps against the side of my head. “Keep your alignment!” the DI shouted. I was really surprised by getting slapped but shook it off.
When we arrived at our Quonset huts, I glanced around at the other recruits who were standing at attention and thought they were overly intimidated. I considered myself mentally stronger though and was determined not to let the DIs get to me. To demonstrate my courage, I dropped the duffle bag off my shoulder to the ground. But my resolve was ambushed when I got walloped twice to the back of my head. The DI had come up from my blind side and hit me much harder this time as he yelled in my ear, “Who told you to drop your duffle bag, maggot?” I remembered that the first word out of my mouth was always “Sir”. So I bellowed, “Sir, nobody, sir”. This second encounter with the DI really jolted me.
In our isolated quarters, the DI’s had turned up the heat. I was so stunned by the force of the blows that before I could think about it, I was overcome by the same fear I saw in the other faces and had joined the fold. As one DI showed us how to make up our racks, the other strolled around correcting various offenses, always with a slap or two to the head.
The Spartans probably had better living quarters. Our Quonset huts were like elongated igloos skinned in sheet metal with only a concrete floor, footlockers and metal racks for beds. The ground outside was bare dirt with a strip of asphalt path running between the rows of Quonset huts. We were isolated in the northwest corner of the base and insulated from the world by the many other rows of Quonset huts surrounding us. I spent most of that first night trying to remember how to make up my rack in the morning so I wouldn’t get slapped again.
The next morning we got up when the reveille bugle sounded, dressed, made up our racks and fell into formation on the asphalt; suspiciously without anybody getting roughed up. Two DIs brought us into a Quonset hut and introduced themselves. Our platoon commander was Gunnery Sgt. Bush. He was the older of the two, lean with a dark tan and a fatherly air. He looked experienced in this role; years of the Marine Corps were visible in the extra lines on his face. He talked to us in a conversational manner for the first time, as though he was trying to connect and establish a rapport. Maybe the rough stuff was behind us now? I liked Gunnery Sgt. Bush ok.
Sgt. Minnifield was more robust and looked very serious about his mission of transforming us into Marines. His face was uncomplicated, from a simple black and white world and had the solemn, threatening gaze of an executioner. They both wore Smokey the Bear style covers and in contrast to our rumpled appearance, their utilities were without a single wrinkle, perfectly creased and their black boots had the deep shine of obsidian.
Gunnery Sgt. Bush explained the program to us. The primary purpose of boot camp was to teach us discipline, defined as instant obedience to orders. The Marine Corps had rules against the DIs striking recruits and limits on the amount of PT we could do. But they could not give us the training we needed to fight in Viet Nam by following the rules. He looked like he had been to Viet Nam and I got the feeling he had our best interests at heart.
“If you screw up, there are no excuses; we will kick your ass,” said Gunnery Sgt. Bush. “Is there anybody who disagrees with what I just said?”
Of course, nobody raised their hand. He asked us not to talk about the tough parts of boot camp in our letters home because it would just make our families worry, as though he was saying, “I hope you’re man enough to get through this without crying to your mother.” Stretching the rules to increase our chances for survival in Viet Nam seemed like a fair trade. So I bought-in to Gunnery Sgt Bush’s program.
By noon chow of our second day we were very hungry from doing so many pushups, sit-ups and squat thrusts. But before we were half way finished eating Sgt. Minnifield started yelling, “Get up! Get out!” He sent a message from across the mess hall in the form of a milk carton missile that hit the guy next to me in the forehead – Splat! “Get up! Get Out!” We shoveled in more food as we rushed to put our trays away but not nearly enough to finish eating and satisfy our hunger. At our next meal we were extra-hungry but stuffing ourselves as fast as we could was still not fast enough, so we learned to eat faster and faster before we ever completely finished a meal.
We marched everywhere, which was easy for me and most of the recruits. Our marching formation was the same as when we stood on the yellow footprints - four squads each in a column of 20 recruits. The first recruit in each squad was the squad leader. They had to be good marchers because any mistake by them would ripple through the others in their squad. The slow learners were called “shitbirds” and positioned at the end of the squads. The problem with learning to march was the promised ass-kicking whenever a mistake was made.
A couple days later, we met our third drill instructor, Sgt. Parrish. He was only about 5’ 6” with a wiry build. His face narrowed to a pointed chin that thrust forward baring his lower teeth like a bulldog. The way his ears stood out added to his comic appearance and he wore his cover tilted forward, apparently an attempt to make himself look more menacing.
We were in the process of learning a new marching maneuver when he became disgusted with our performance and shouted, “Platoon halt! Face half-right!” This confused us for a moment because we had never heard of that maneuver. But we all shuffled 45 degrees to the right. This would give us more room for doing PT. “Give me 30 squat thrusts! Ready begin!” he commanded.
In unison, we called out: “One” as we did a full squat and put our hands on the ground between our feet;
“Two,” we kicked our feet out behind us into the push up position;
“Three,” we brought our feet back next to our hands,
“One sir,” for the number of completed squat thrusts as we stood up again.
Sgt. Parrish stopped us before we reached 30 because someone had fallen behind, and then told us to thank the straggler before starting over again. Squat thrusts are not as hard as doing pushups, but that is the diabolical thing about them – no matter how tired you are, you can always do one more.
After one hundred, I felt totally exhausted and thought we must be near the end. Two hundred is more than anybody would ever do without a DI standing over them. At three hundred, I felt like I weighed five hundred pounds and was beyond agony. The unrelenting pain radiating throughout my body would subside with the hope of stopping after 30 repetitions and then kick-in at a higher level every time we had to start over. I had never been in a situation like this before, so the uncertainty of how long it would continue was ratcheting up the mental pain: from knowing there was no excuse for stopping and from not knowing when we would stop; all while listening to Sgt. Parrish’s tirade. After we finally finished, my legs were so heavy each step was like pulling my feet out of deep mud. We called these sessions “squat thrusts forever” and they were always preceded with the dreaded words “Face half-right.”
Mail call was after evening chow but before we hit the rack. The DIs would inspect every letter before calling out our names. Sgt. Minnifield examined one letter closely before telling Pvt. Borders to open it in front of him. Inside the envelope was a stick of gum, so Sgt. Minnifield went into his Quonset hut and returned with a bottle of hot sauce. He told Pvt. Borders to pour hot sauce on the stick of gum and chew it up without taking off the wrapper. After the effects of the hot sauce began to wear off, he then ordered him to swallow it, paper and all. Other Privates would occasionally receive a stick of gum and the consequences were always the same.
I wondered who would send the gum and why? It must be someone who knew about the consequences. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they send something better to eat? But if they knew the consequences, why would a friend send it or even an enemy, who would surely receive some payback? It must be from someone who had also received gum in boot camp and felt entitled to carry on the tradition, like a rite of passage.
At the end of another long day, Sgt Parrish showed up while we were all in the shower and climbed on top of the sinks to look down on us. While stalking back and forth, he ordered us to turn on only the cold water.
“On your gut!” he shouted and eighty naked recruits fell to the floor, slipping and sliding against each other like worms slithering in the bottom of a bucket.
“On your feet!” and up we jumped.
“On your gut!” before everyone was standing again.
“On your feet!” as we heaved and sloshed around in the cold water.
There wasn’t any way to arrange ourselves that wasn’t disgusting and degrading. But it was just a tune up for the next drill. After we returned to our area, he ordered all of us into a Quonset hut just big enough for sleeping 20 recruits and began shouting, “Move back! Move back! Move back!” to pack eighty of us tighter and tighter against the back wall. It was like mass hysteria when someone yells “Fire!” and the only exit is blocked. I didn’t have time to plan ahead and was in a bad spot – too close to the back wall. The force of the recruits pushing against me was like being compressed inside a garbage truck. I couldn’t expand my lungs, so breathing or even moving was almost impossible inside the huge mass of meat.
I sometimes tried to step outside the action as a way to feel like I still had some control. I suspected the last two incidents were part of the process to tear us down as civilians so they could later build us up as Marines.
We were beginning to lose recruits to the Physical Conditioning Platoon or Fat Farm and to Correctional Custody Platoon. The Fat Farm was where you went if you were too weak or overweight to do enough push-ups or pull-ups. Whenever we saw that platoon around the base, they were always doing PT. At the mess hall, I never saw them eating anything but lettuce and drinking only water. I didn’t immediately recognize one of our recruits only two weeks after being sent to the Fat Farm. His face was much thinner and his utilities had become several sizes too big from the weight loss.
Correctional Custody Platoon was for the recruits who needed an attitude adjustment, the defiant ones who didn’t want to “get with the program.” We would sometimes see them marching off in the morning with buckets and shovels over their shoulders. Pvt. Wirth joined our platoon from CCP and told us it was basically punishment all day long. One of the drills was to divide up the platoon into two teams. Each team would use buckets and shovels in a race to move their huge pile of dirt from point A to point B. When they were finished and collapsing from exhaustion, the winners got to make the losers do PT. I couldn’t think of anything worse. Then you won the booby prize – an extension of your total time in boot camp because time spent in CCP or in the Fat Farm was “bad time”.
Sgt. Minnifield told us that Pvt. Davis had complained to our Commanding Officer about the beatings he received from Gunnery Sgt. Bush. The bumps, cuts and bruises on Pvt. Davis’s head and face were apparently all the proof needed for Gunnery Sgt. Bush to be relieved of his duty as our Platoon Commander. Even though he was tough on us, Gunnery Sgt. Bush was fair and not someone we feared like the other two DIs. So we felt bad about losing him. Pvt. Davis was considered a traitor by Sgt. Minnifield and I thought what he did was cowardly and selfish. The DI’s rough treatment was not something anybody else complained about because it was necessary to teach us discipline. Pvt. Davis was transferred to a different platoon but I wondered how he would be treated down the road.
Pvt. Bray was a big, goofy, good-natured guy, slow to learn and he struggled physically also. Consequently, he was always catching hell from the DIs. Despite his extra hardships, he generally had a cheerful attitude and was amazingly resilient. One day Sgt Parrish took Pvt. Bray with his bucket and shovel off for some “one on one time.” They returned about an hour later with Bray looking dirty, tired and very scared. Parrish positioned Bray in the middle of the asphalt path with a row of us on each side.
Parrish blared “Tell the platoon what Pvt. Bray did to Sgt. Parrish.” “Sir, Pvt. Bray tried to hit Sgt. Parrish with a shovel, sir.” That really surprised me because Bray was such a gentle soul. And whatever his shortcomings, they were not for a lack of effort. So I questioned the need for whatever Parrish did that caused Bray to snap and wondered again about sadistic tendencies in Parrish. He then began his assault on Bray. Issuing reprimands as he punched and kicked him. Parrish seemed to be practicing his hand to hand combat and Bray was the punching bag. Wham! Parrish struck Bray in the groin and then Wham! struck him in the face as he was doubling over from the first blow. Then Parrish faked a blow to the groin and when Bray covered up, hit him in the face and then in the groin. Parrish then began circling his target so that Bray couldn’t see half the blows coming. We had all received some of the same and usually never even winced when another recruit was catching hell. We were more concerned with our own welfare and had turned callous. “Better him than me.” was the attitude. But this violent attack on Bray was hard to watch. By the end, he was completely broken; physically, mentally and emotionally. Whether it was intended or not, this spectacle was an example of what could be endured because Bray bounced back and graduated on time with our platoon. He had an innocence about him that may have worked in his favor. Maybe, in his mind, he had done wrong and deserved the punishment.
TO BE CONTINUED