Into the Woods (a novel excerpt)

woods-edit

Another excerpt from my novel Seekers is up at Vol. 1 Brooklyn. Have a read.

Advertisements

A Story about Starting Over

Hymn to the Chaos

Even before it was clear they were bankrupt, Mike described the American economy as a hideous gargantuan lawn mower—the creation of some Deist’s god who set it roaring across the lawn and ambled back inside for a beer—all cogs and gears and whipping blades, stopping for nothing. A start up like his and Pam’s was tantamount to attaching another small machine into the mammoth jumble of constantly moving parts: if the little guy wasn’t well-oiled and cranking away from the beginning, it’d be churned under, mangled and sprayed away in pieces like a toy hidden in the grass. For a small business owner, the stuffing that scattered and drifted was life itself.

That song “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille” kept reeling through Mike’s head, with the lyrics he and his friends sang in junior high: you picked a fine time to leave me loose wheel. Now he had three boys, the oldest just eight, and Pam was gone, with only her clothes. That damn song kept rising up in his head; stupid as it was, it filled him with despair; he had to swallow hard every time to keep from breaking out in sobs. One night he rented that movie Because of Winn Dixie, and had to leave the room twice, pretending to go to the bathroom, to keep from crying in front of the boys.

 

Mike had a free hour after the breakfast rush. He would have to bust ass on lunch prep. Pam had finally agreed to meet him. She picked a coffee shop called The Daily Grind.

The two big tables in the middle were pulled together, full of stay-at-home mommies: muffin crumbs, toys scattered across the floor, strollers parked along the wall, diaper bags and shopping bags leaning together, babies on laps, babies sitting, crawling, ripping apart sugar packets on the floor. One woman was nursing without so much as a cloth diaper over her shoulder. She had on Gucci glasses and fingered a Mercedes Benz key ring with her free hand. The mommies all talked at once, no one listening, like the adult conversation was at max pressure and they were determined to bleed some off before naptime.

The girl behind the counter reluctantly left her homework to help him. He ordered a black coffee and drank it, had his free in-house refill then got another cup. He was sweating and needed to piss. His lunch prep time was being gnawed away while he sat on his ass. Twenty minutes, thirty-five minutes. He sat staring at the cup, empty but still steaming, he’d sucked the coffee down so fast. The mommy club prattled on. College kids came and left. Forty minutes.

“Excuse me,” Mike said to the girl. “I was supposed to meet my wife here. Did anyone stop in while I was in the bathroom—a Chilean woman?”

“No,” the girl said, “but we have another location across town. People get mixed up all the time.” She closed her Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, on her ink pen. “You want me to call over there?”

“Would you?” He turned and looked out the front doors. Each one had espresso, backwards from inside, in fancy little black letters.

“No problem.” She poked one button on the handset and waited.

Mike needed to piss again already. Lunch was going to be hell. Jerry, the owner, would try to prep him and get it all dicked up and half-done and Mike would be chopping peppers and onions in the middle of the rush with a bread knife while waitresses stopped their running for long instants to stare at him with their arms crossed.

“Katie?” The girl turned and smiled at Mike. She had freckles across her nose. “Is there a woman waiting for somebody over there?”

She picked up another ink pen and twirled it in her fingers. She said, “Not Mexican, Chilean… she’s there? Hold on.”

The girl held the phone across the counter to Mike.

“Hello?”

“I specifically told you the new one.” Pam said.

“I’m sorry. I’ll come over there.”

“I have to leave.” She asked her barista for a to-go cup.

“When are we going to talk?”

“I don’t know.”

“The boys cry for you.”

“Don’t start.”

The mommy club burst out into laughter. One of them was holding up a piece of notebook paper with writing and stick figures drawn on it. A timer started buzzing in the back of the store and the girl behind the counter jogged back.

“Just come over tonight, we–”

“That’s no good.”

“Why the hell not?”

“It’ll give the boys the wrong idea.”

“The idea that their mother abandoned them?”

“I love those boys—”

“You have a funny way of showing it.”

“This conversation is over.”

“How about we just meet somewhere for dinner. We can go out of town so your lover doesn’t see you with your husband and kids.”

Pam hung up.

The girl was on her way from the back clutching sleeves of to-go cups like a farm girl carrying corn stalks. He put a dollar in her jar. She said thanks and gave him a scrunch-nosed grin.

 

The lunch rush kicked Mike’s ass, and didn’t end until after three. At 4:30 he went home. The smell in the old rented house was familiar—what his mom called cowmoomush, but it was just chilimac with potatoes in it. It was something the boys would eat so she made it at least once a week.

“I have to run,” she said, putting on her sweatshirt, “I’ve got Vacation Bible School this week.”

“In October?”

“We were building the new sanctuary this summer, remember? So VBS is now.”

Mike collapsed on a kitchen chair and Baby Andy scrambled from the back of the house and climbed into his lap. There was a single orange dreadlock down the side of Andy’s head; it had that tangy tomato smell of Kroger spaghetti rings. Andy wriggled back out of Mike’s arms, took a few wild half-running steps, dove to his hands and knees, which were already paddling before he hit the floor, and scurried like an alien down the hall to the bedrooms.

As Mike’s mom backed out of the driveway, one of the older boys started howling. Mike reached down and massaged the throbbing behind his knees. There was a heavy thud, a long pause, and the other one started crying. Then a slap, and Baby Andy joined in and they were all three crying, and baby Andy wailed, “Mommy.”

 

Mike decided the American economy wasn’t like a machine at all. It didn’t have that kind of control. It was the Serengeti, like that poster about getting up running every morning, where each cruel moment was an intense focuse on survival. Pam and Mike had kept the restaurant open for three years.

Somehow, during that time they’d added Andy to the brood, popping him out and turning right back to the business, leaving him in the back office with sippy cups and potato chips and cheese slices and Barney videos, while Mike busted ass on the line and Pam stalked in and out of the kitchen yelling instructions to the wait staff. They had done this for an entire year already knowing it was doomed. The predators and scavengers alike—vendors, banks, government agencies, insurance companies, creditors—were circling in the high grass. They all wanted to get what they could before there was nothing left but a pile of cleaned bones.

 

Mike’s mom came at five the next morning. She lumbered in the door and said, “Mike, it’d make my life much simpler if you’d put the dinner dishes in the sink, and pick up their clothes off the bathroom floor. And drain the bathwater. Please”

“I was tired last night.”

“You’re tired every night. I’m tired. Everybody’s tired.” She limped to the table and started gathering up the plastic plates. “Doesn’t look any worse than it did when Pam was here,” she said. “She wasn‘t much on housecleaning.”

Mike’s mom came in every morning wearing the same sweatshirt, with an embroidered pot of flowers on the front and pills all over the sleeves and dirty cuffs stretched loose from being pushed up her arm. She then crashed on the couch till it was time to get the boys up for school. Sometimes she overslept. Arturo—Mike’s oldest, named after Pam’s dad, told him. Arturo and Allen had missed so much school that a letter had come telling Mike he had to come to the school for a truancy meeting or further action would be taken. They’d scheduled the meeting in the middle of his breakfast rush and he hadn’t had the energy to respond. The date came and went.

He said, “Sorry, Mom.”

She waved and sank into her spot on the couch as if someone were pulling on her shoulders.

“See you tonight.”

She waved again and swung her legs up onto the couch, hugging that sweatshirt.

On his way into work that Talking Heads song came on, and when the guy said in astonishment, “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife,” Mike had a surreal, head-spinning sensation that this wasn’t his life. He never in his strangest dreams would have found himself here, but here he was without question, and the most astonishing thing was that this which was not his life, sure as shit was his life. He pulled onto the shoulder of the road and pounded his steering wheel and growled and shouted. He sat breathing heavily for a few seconds, but pulled himself together quickly. Breakfast prep was waiting for him.

Instead of stepping out back for a smoke after the breakfast rush, Mike went into the office, closed the door and called Pam. The carpet was so matted down with tramped in food and grease a wire brush couldn’t have picked apart the fibers; right beside the white tile of the kitchen floor the carpet was as smooth and black as a tar patch in the road.

“What do you need?” she asked.

“Please just come over and see the boys.”

“I could come and get the boys. Take them to McDonalds’s play gym. Right now, I don’t think it’s the best idea for us—”

“To just talk?” Mike took a deep breath. “We need to talk.”

“It’s not getting us anywhere.”

“Just tell me if there’s a chance.”

“Chance for what?”

“For us to be a family again.”

“We haven’t been a family for years, Mike.”

“That’s not true.” Mike put his hand over his eyes.

She was silent for a long instant, and then said, “Too much has happened. We’re both different people.”

“I don‘t believe that.”

“This is not a productive conversation.”

A box of new water glasses was flipped open with a few yanked out on the old wooden file cabinet beside the desk; the desk was stacked with paperwork and a flipped-open box of clear plastic condiment bottles. Mike hadn’t taken off his apron. It smelled like Italian vinaigrette.

A waitress walked into the office to get linen napkins off the back shelf. It was Ashleigh, the twenty-four year old with two kids. She’d just kicked her boyfriend out.

She cut the twine off the bundled napkins with a wood-handled steak knife and pulled out two folded stacks of twenty-five napkins. She said, “You’re so intense on the line. It’s like you’re an artist, the way you concentrate.”

He didn’t say anything.

She turned and smiled at him, holding the napkins curled in her arm like a baby. In the dark office her face almost looked like an apparition—light eyes, small nose, pale lips—like there was no face there at all; it was more a suggestion of face than actual face, a reference to face, something that makes you think of face. Her ears turned out just a little. She kept her hair, so blonde as to add no real border to her fair face, pulled back in a ponytail. She never wore makeup.

“Oops, sorry, dude,” she said when she saw he was on the phone. She curled her fist in front of her mouth as if spitting out watermelon seeds and was gone.

“Hello?” Pam’s voice said.

Mike told her he was trying to be productive, he just didn’t know where to start and she could tell him what she needed from him, he’d do anything to save their family.

Pam said again that this was getting them nowhere so she was going, and he said wait, but she’d hung up the phone.

When Mike stepped out of the office into the bright kitchen, Jerry was rushing through. He told Mike that his dish bitch had just called in and quit with no notice, so his plater was on dishes for the next couple of days and Mike would just have to plate for himself. He’d better get prepped out the ass.

 

Mike decided that having a small business in America was like being on a jet ski in the middle of the roiling sea, with tankers and cargo ships looming and heaving on all sides. The forces that buffeted his little business hadn’t had the kind of purpose that animals did: winds blew here or there, seas rose and fell, all in total indifference to Mike and Pam. It was chaos.

Chaos had been Pam’s word. One day Mike and Pam had tried to waterproof their basement. They staffed the restaurant with their best people, though they could hardly afford the payroll hours, and stayed home all day working on it. Mike ordered nine tons of fill dirt and carted it with the neighbor’s wheelbarrow around the house load by load, all day long, then raked it and seeded it in the dark. Pam scrubbed down the cinderblock walls and concrete floor with bleach, and painted the walls with a sealant thick as muffin batter. That night Mike lay in bed with a dull ache in his legs and a sharp pain jagging across his spine. Pam wheezed and coughed and struggled to breathe, having bleached her lungs.

That same night it stormed so hard that the boys ran and crawled into their bed. Holding his back, Mike eased down the basement steps just far enough to see, not only water running in, but water swirling brown with the fill dirt he’d just spent twelve hours shoveling against the back wall. It broke through the still-damp sealant and trickled in little brown streams down Pam’s fresh white walls.

“The basement’s flooding,” he whispered as he sat on the edge of the bed and tried to pry his pillow from Arturo.

Pam shot him a hate-filled glare.

He shrugged.

Pam cried, “You do everything you can to get it together and push back the chaos, and there God is to shove it right back in your face.” She rolled to face the wall and was silent. The boys stirred and nuzzled and fell right off to sleep.

Chaos. An ocean of it. That was it. The two of them had held on to their tiny craft in the crashing storm, and eventually Pam had run out of strength. It was that simple: she’d lost her grip and was swept away in a blinding white squall.

 

Mike finished the rush, did some prep for the next day and went home. He fed the boys Kroger spaghetti rings and meatballs for dinner, bathed them, played roughhouse on their beds, rolling over the dirty clothes on their floor. At bedtime, all three crawled into his bed. He lay down with them.

After they were asleep, he swung himself out of bed and called her. He told her everything he’d been thinking about the Chaos and how it was like the ocean and it had ripped them apart, but now they had the chance to hold it together. Someday when they were old and sitting together at a boy’s college graduation or wedding, they could raise their hands with fingers intertwined and shout fuck you to the Chaos because it didn’t win.

He was out of breath when he finished.

After a long pause, Pam said, “You are thirty-five years old and you have no retirement.”

Mike did not say anything.

No retirement, Mike.”

He hung up the phone and wept until he was exhausted. He crawled back into his bed with the boys, rolling Andy out of his way like a twenty-five pound sack of sugar.

The next morning’s breakfast rush was steady. Mike got in a groove. When it ended, he did the lunch prep without even taking a smoke break. The lunch came early and built in successively heavier waves until they were swamped and the waitresses were skipping around each other, raising hell at the new dish bitch. He’d just gotten out of prison for possession with intent; he was slow and nervous at the Hobart.

“It’s okay, dude,” Mike yelled across the line to him. “Two hours, tops. You can do anything for two hours.”

“No shit,” the dish bitch said. “You can do anything for two years.” He was skinny and tall with a shaved head. The back of his neck was covered in tribal pattern tattoos.

The rush intensified. Mike drove the line like a ship’s captain, yelling out orders, setting up his own plates so the platers could run food and bus for the waitresses. When it died down, he grabbed a bottle of water from the bar and stepped out the back door to smoke.

Halfway through his cigarette, Ashleigh bounded out the back door holding a five-dollar bill toward him. “A guy told me to give this to the chef. He said it was the best steak he’d ever eaten.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “It was a grilled piece of meat, for Christ’s sake.”

“Shut up and take a compliment for once.” She shoved the money into the pocket of his smock, accidentally knocking his thermometer onto the asphalt.

“Oops,” she was down and back up before Mike registered what happened. As she handed him the thermometer, she said, “You were hot today, dude.”

“Every now and then it’s in sync.”

“You really are an artist on that line. It’s like you control the chaos.”

Mike jerked his head and looked at her. Her eyes were a striking light blue up close.

“What?” She pulled her head back.

“You just said chaos…”

“That’s what it is in there. Controlled chaos.”

Mike flicked his cigarette in a high arc. It bounced once and disappeared down the rusty iron grate in the middle of the back lot.

Ashleigh pushed a string of her blonde hair behind her little ear and said, “Can I buy you a beer sometime?” One of her black plastic shoes was cracked down the side, and the other had a dried gravy spill chipping off it.

She looked down at her shoes and her blouse brushed against the sleeve of his smock. “Just to hang out,” she said.

He said, “A beer sounds great.”

They watched cars curve around the freeway on-ramp that ran behind the restaurant.

She said, “Well, I’m going to get on my side work.” She patted his shoulder.

“Okay.” Mike lit one more cigarette.

“When can I get you the beer?”

“I have to see when mom can keep the boys.” He didn’t make eye contact. Pam had had the affair, she’d run out, and he was the one feeling guilty about Ashleigh. He set out to walk a wide circle around the parking lot before getting on prep.

“Okay,” Ashleigh said. “Let me know.”

He waved and kept walking.

 

On his way home, Mike took the five dollars into the dollar store and bought cheap toys for the boys; blinking pumpkin flashlights left over from Halloween for the older boys and a whistling ball for Baby Andy. He’d want a light too but he’d try to gnaw on the bulb.

His mom saw him coming, was pulling on her dirty flowerpot sweatshirt as he entered the house. She said she wanted to have the boys for four days the following week, at her house. She was taking them to a special Veggie Tales thing at her church and it would be easier if she didn’t have to drive an hour every morning to get them and then drive all the way back when the church was right down the street from her house.

Mike sat down and picked up Baby Andy. He gave him the ball. When it whistled Baby Andy tried to imitate the sound. The older boys bounded down the hall like dogs to the whistle. Mike gave them their blinking pumpkins but they wanted to play with Andy’s ball.

“Dinner’s in the oven,” his mom said as she opened the door.

“Smells great too,” Mike said. It was baking, but it smelled like cowmoomush.

Later Pam called to talk to the boys. Mike gave the phone to them and let them talk. Rage rose inside him as the boys chatted away with their mother. When they were all finished, he hung up without saying anything at all to her. He paced through the house holding the phone, taking air slowly in through his pursed lips, trying to calm down, trying not to do something stupid, like throw the phone through the window.

He played roughhouse with the boys, and then they crawled into bed with him. He was so tired he slept all night, not awakened by the boys once.

 

Ashleigh’s shirt had stains down the front from a busy lunch; there was a smeared green stain on the back of her shoulder too, Mike recognized that. It was from a baby’s mouth. She’d stopped at the line during a lull to chat with him. He’d watched her come and go all morning, waiting for this.

Mike told her the boys were at his mom’s house. He was free for three whole evenings. The house was too quiet when they weren’t there. It made him feel like crawling out of his skin, he told her. Just as he’d hoped, she said it was her chance to get him that beer. They agreed to meet at La Hacienda for margaritas and dinner. Ashleigh’s mother lived next door to her and would be happy to keep her two girls.

Mike had a date. The strangeness of it all made him laugh out loud a couple of times while he showered and got ready. She was in the bar waiting for him. Her hair was down, and she was wearing makeup, and Mike had to consciously not stare at her, she was so beautiful. She had on a silky jacket/blouse thing that showed light freckles on her chest. She had on jeans and sandals. She got up and hugged him. She felt thin and fragile, her breasts soft against him.

Their waitress was a short Mexican lady with a square body and pockmarked face. She spoke very little English. Mike ordered a Negro Modelo, and Ashleigh ordered a frozen Margarita.

They talked as they ate dinner, and ordered more drinks afterward. It was comfortable. Eventually Mike asked about her girls’ father.

She talked for a while, then said, “He was a total leach. It‘s hard to believe I allowed myself to be so systematically used. I decided taking care of two little ones would be easier than two little ones and one big one.” Ashleigh was on her second margarita, her blue eyes moist, mirthful, aglow.

Mike was on his third Negro Modelo. He took a long drink. It was cold and went down easy. “Would you ever take him back? I mean, if he changed.”

“I couldn’t. I’ve worked too hard to finally have enough respect for myself–no, I could never take him back.” She dipped a chip in the leftover guacamole on her plate, held her hand under it while biting, and said with her mouth full, “My mom told me when people show you who they are, you’d better believe them.” She chewed and swallowed. “He showed me for five years. He’s not going to change.”

They ate without talking for a while, then Ashleigh asked, “What about your ex?”

“She had an affair for eight months and then walked out on me and the boys.”

She shook her head. “I can see leaving a man,” she said, “but your children? I don’t get that.”

“I don’t know.” Mike took another long swallow of beer.

“She can’t be well. Not to run out on her children like that.” Ashleigh was getting less careful, letting her blouse drop open as she reached for chips; Mike caught glimpses of the lacy black bra cupping her right breast.

He waved the waitress down and asked for another beer. Then he talked himself into another aha moment. “She’s not well,” he said. “I don’t know what her childhood in Chile was like, she never talked about it, but she was a leach too, like your ex—an emotional parasite. She latched onto me and sucked me dry. I was so empty for years and she kept on sucking until it felt like my ribcage was pressed against my backbone, like my soul was a milk jug with all the air sucked out.”

“That sounds miserable,” Ashleigh said. She picked up her glass, held it near her mouth, but didn’t take a drink. Her fingers were long and thin. “It might not feel like it right now, but maybe she did you a favor.”

Mike liked where this was going. “We were both miserable. We were both empty. Her need was ravenous and I had nowhere to go to replenish myself. Eventually she went scurrying off to find someone else to bleed.”

That was it. Ashleigh was talking, but he was thinking of this: the Chaos was something people rode every day. He did, and much of the time enjoyed it; their dysfunctional relationship was the problem all along. Ashleigh had just used the word dysfunctional.

She said, “I had to get myself into therapy to find out why I let him treat me like that.”

“Why did you?”

“My dad abused my mom,” she said. “And, you know…”

“I’m sorry.”

She waved it off. “We all have our shit, don’t we.”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “We do.”

“Enough depressing talk.” Ashleigh flipped out her hand, accidentally backhanding the waitress, who had slipped in to clear away plates, right in the face. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she said, putting one hand on the lady’s forearm and the other over her own mouth, “Like your job’s not hard enough without people smacking you.” Her voice was muffled through her fingers. Her eyes were wide with horror.

The waitress laughed and shrugged and said, “No problem,” and asked if we wanted more to drink.

Mike was ready to stay and have another.

“Actually, I have to get home soon.” Ashleigh’s hands were shaking and she didn’t look up.

“Just the check, thank you,” Mike said, then tossed back the last sip of beer.

The waitress nodded and was gone.

“You have to get home?” Mike tapped his empty beer bottle on the table.

“Mom doesn’t want to keep the girls late tonight.” She covered her eyes and said, “I’m so embarrassed.”

“Forget about it.” Mike leaned back and took a deep breath. “You have to get them tonight.”

Ashleigh nodded. “They’re with their father tomorrow…” She shot him her attempt at a naughty grin, then looked immediately back down. “For the next two days they are,” she said, working her purse strap like a rosary.

“You want to do something tomorrow night?” Mike turned his bottle, rubbing stripes in the condensation.

“I was already planning on it.” She paused while he signed the credit receipt. “God, here I was supposed to be buying you a beer, and I’m beating up the waitress while you pay for dinner.” She threw her arms up. “Guess I might as well make a true impression from the start.”

He said, “It’s been worth it.”

“You like salmon and roasted root vegetables?”

“I like anything.”

“I’m cooking for you tomorrow night then. You drink wine?”

“Sure.” He didn’t, but he would.

At her car, Ashleigh leaned out and kissed him. He pushed a strand of her hair behind her little ear and then touched her face. It was a much too familiar gesture, something he’d always done with Pam. But she leaned her head into his hand and smiled.

“I’ll make up for tonight,” she said.

He said, “Shut up.”

They kissed in the dark parking lot until the restaurant doors swung open and an entire family jumbled out, talking loud and laughing.

As she got into her car, she said, “Tomorrow night for real? You’re not just getting rid of me?”

He said. “I hope for real.”

When he got home, the house was eerily silent, there were no dishes piled in the sink. The kitchen trash reeked of shitty diaper. Mike walked down to the boys’ room. The Game Cube Mike’s dad shipped them for Christmas was in the middle of the floor with the lid open, controllers pulled toward the beds over the piles of dirty clothes. Arturo’s desk had four empty juice boxes on it, squeezed in the middle like toothpaste tubes.

The phone rang in the kitchen.

Pam’s voice said, “Can I talk to the boys?”

“They’re with Mom this weekend.” Mike tapped out a cigarette and lit it. “You want me to call over there and have them call you?” He made a loose O with his lips and blew out smoke. Baby Andy’s stuffed raccoon lay under the open dishwasher door; it was on its side like road kill, nose gummed and sucked to a spindly point.

“No, that’s okay. Just tell them I called and I love them.”

“I will,” Mike said.

Twelve years they’d been married. Mike almost passed out giving her enemas when she suffered a third degree tear pushing Arturo into the world—the jagged scabs and purple flesh swelling against the stitches, her caught breath and cries as he tried to be gentle, tried to hold it together. So long ago. A different life. This voice on the phone was a stranger’s.

“Can I ask you something?” the voice said.

“Sure.” He flicked ash into the sink.

“Are you dating Ashleigh Conner?”

Out in the backyard the boys’ bicycles lay where dropped, handlebars twisted flat on the ground, front wheels sticking straight up. Baby Andy’s blue and white scooter dangled where it had been wound up in a swing chain.

There was no breeze. Everything was as still as a photograph.

“I went on a date with someone,” he said. He didn’t know Ashleigh’s last name. “Why’s it matter to you?” He couldn’t remember seeing anyone who might have called and told her about his date.

Pam was tentative. “I don’t know if this is a good time, but I’ve been thinking. About the boys, and you and everything. I’m ready to talk about reconciliation.”

Mike said, “Where the hell did this come from?”

“It might be hard to believe, but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”

“What about what’s his name?” Mike took a deep hit of his cigarette and held the smoke.

“It wasn’t right. I don’t know what I was thinking.” She was crying. “I’m so sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry I hurt the boys. You’re my family.”

Mike had been down between swells for so long he was only used to looking straight up; but he was finally rising—on this wave named Ashleigh. He could still smell her perfume on his shirt. He wouldn’t stop it, not for a stranger on the phone.

“Mike?” the voice said. “You there?”

He tapped ash in the sink again and turned on the water. The ash looped and hovered, looped again and twirled down the drain.

 

“Hymn to the Chaos” was originally published in Blue Mesa Review

image, culinaryschools.org

 

A Hot Day in October

 

The joke goes like this: What does a lesbian drive to her second date? A U-haul. What makes me think of the joke right now is my girlfriend Elaine. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not a lesbian.

This morning Elaine and I lounged in her loft and watched CBS Sunday Morning over coffee and blueberry scones, we ran by Barnes & Noble for a new crossword puzzle book. I priced new cell phones. Right now we’ve just finished an early lunch at Nawab. I got my mutton red masala Indian hot, and it lit me up, so I ordered a second 22 oz. Taj Mahal. I have a buzz going in the early afternoon and not a single thing I have to get accomplished today.

Taj Mahal isn’t bad. It’s beer. You know what they say about beer and sex and pizza: when it’s good it’s great, and when it’s not good… it’s still not all that bad. I told that one in the office once and my paralegal didn’t even look up from her desk as she said, “There’s a man’s perspective.”

The thing about the lesbian joke. Since my wife and I split, I’ve been out with a few women, and let me tell you, at my age, it ain’t just lesbians ready to load up the U-haul—it’s all of them, brother. That’s a punch line too true to be funny. Like the one about which food reduces a woman’s sex drive by 99%. Wedding cake. Right. You tell a married man that one and watch his laugh trail off into a gloomy sigh.

I haven’t heard any, but I suppose the jokes about gay men would have something to do with hit-and-run sex. What I’m thinking right now (while the Indian man at the register swipes my VISA and perfunctorily asks if my meal was okay without making eye contact) is that maybe lesbians and gay men have it easier in one enormous way: there isn’t all that Mars and Venus nonsense; they are wired to want basically the same thing their partners want. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

How I come to all of this is from musing on my good fortune at dating Elaine. She is physically feminine and sexy, but she interacts like a man, deals in facts, doesn’t manipulate. She is professionally successful, has her own money, her own place, and obviously needs no one to take care of her. She’s blunt, which I like; you know where you stand with her. Elaine is quite simply the best of all possible worlds.

I walk out of the dark restaurant full of food and booze. Our morning has been pregnant with sex humor and innuendo–afternoon delight back at her loft is the only other thing on the agenda for today. I can stay the night if I want, or go sleep in my own bed. No pressure, no responsibility. I laugh when I think about it.

Opening the door, Elaine says, “I need to swing by Burlington Coat Factory and pick up a gift.”

Air sucks into the entry as we open the door to leave, and it’s as hot as a blast of exhaust behind a city bus. This is the middle of October, and we should be riding the long, balmy descent into Fall, but the temperature has spiked into the low 90’s. The day is bright and shimmers like a mirage. Cars are inching around looking for spots. Thumping bass rattles from a car stopped at the light out at the edge of the parking lot. The light changes, the car turns, and the thumping recedes behind the Long John Silver’s across the road.

“No problem,” I say. “We’ve got all delightful afternoon.” Corny, I know, but I don’t care.

She reaches back and puts her palm lightly on the crotch of my chinos. I pull her back and she bares her neck for me to kiss. Her silky brown hair is cool from the restaurant, and at the base of her skull it still smells of her lavender shampoo from this morning.

“It’s a baby gift,” she says. “By the way, we’ve got a baby shower next Sunday.”

“A baby shower?” I say, “With men?”

“Yeah.” She takes my arm and leans into me. I have to lean back so she doesn’t drive me off the sidewalk. “I’m glad husbands are coming. Maybe there won’t be all those stupid little games.”

“Men at a baby shower?”

“Things are changing, old man.” She teases me about my age. I’m 47. I read in an Atlantic Monthly article several years ago that the average life expectancy for a man at the turn of the last century was, no shit, 54. Now 40 is the new 30, the life expectancy is still rising. I’m a young and fit 47. She’s an even fitter 32.

Men at baby showers. There’s something else that’s changed. A symbolic gesture, I guess. A nod to the way things are now—men expected to not just provide but actually nurture: to dip food from jars with rubber-tipped spoons, throw a cloth diaper (or whatever they use now) over the shoulder to pat out a gurgling burp. Change shitty diapers.

I say, “God, I’m glad those days are over.” My two are teenagers.

 

Elaine talks all the way down the sidewalk about silly baby shower games. We walk past the coin laundry, the CVS Pharmacy, The Sally beauty supply place. A man cruises by in a Jeep and it’s obvious he’s checking Elaine out from behind his sunglasses. I put my arm around her shoulder and smile at him. She describes game after game. Her tone is derisive, and her voice carries, has an assumed authority that takes effort to question. Elaine practices corporate; she’s the youngest member on the city council. She has a reputation in town: she’s not to be trifled with. I love it. I laugh again.

By the time we get to the doors at Burlington, she’s jumped to bachelorette parties. Once she won a door prize that was a pink pacifier shaped like a penis.

“You sure men are supposed to be there?” I ask.

“It’ll be fun. Come on.”

I follow her. On either side are brown-carpeted areas filled with rack after rack of clothing. Down the middle is a tile floor that gleams like the yellow brick road. I lag so I can watch her walk.

Her fit round butt fills the khakis just right. This morning I watched from the bathroom where I was toweling off as she pulled on a conservative pair of cotton panties. My impulse was to go out and pull them right back off. I’ve learned at least one important thing about women from being married though, so I resisted the urge. I move up and take her hand. People glance at us, and I can see them doing the math in their heads. I can’t stop smiling. The hot food, the beer, beautiful Elaine—this moment is a fuzzy and floating dream: not long, not long now and we’ll be back in her loft making love.

 

The lady at the Baby Depot desk is pregnant. She has on a loose purple flower-print dress and her cheeks are puffy as a chipmunk’s. There are two other women shopping. One is pregnant and one has a newborn hanging from her shoulder in what looks like a knotted piece of burlap. They both lean back and flip their toes out like duck feet when they walk.

As we sit at the desk, Elaine says, “How far along are you?”

“Eight months.” She leans back and cradles the mound of her stomach.

“Are you ready?”

“Lord, yes.” She taps the space bar to wake up her computer. “With my first, I was two weeks late. This one. Lord help me…”

Elaine leans up and puts her hands on the desk. “Do you know the sex?” Her voice sounds strange. It’s changing in pitch, going high and soft.

The lady winces. “Yes,” she says, “it’s a boy.” She puts her hand on the side of her belly. “And he’s a soccer player.”

Elaine laughs and stands up and leans out over the desk. “May I feel?”

She takes Elaine’s palm and slides it around the side of her belly. “Feel that?”

“Oh my god,” Elaine says. “Wow. Yes. Yes I can.”

“That’s his foot.”

“Oh my god,” Elaine says again. She sits back down and puts her hands in her lap.

The lady taps something on her keyboard, then looks up at us, ready to get to business. “Are you expecting?” She looks from Elaine to me, and then back to Elaine.

Elaine laughs. “Us?” she says. She looks at me and her whole face blooms in a bright bemused smile.

“If you wait till you’re ready, you never will,” the lady says. She raises her eyebrows at me. She looks back to the computer screen. “Registry?”

Elaine says, “Yes.”

“Who?”

Elaine gives her the name of both husband and wife.

The lady says, “I remember her. So pretty.”

“Isn’t she,” Elaine says. “And so tiny. From behind, you can’t even tell she’s pregnant.”

“I hate girls like that.” The lady tears off a printout and holds it out over her belly.

Elaine takes it, turns to me, smiles.

I smile back. The booze and the Indian food aren’t mixing well.

Elaine stands and pulls her shirt down at her slim hips. The fabric goes taut on her breasts. She takes my hand and pulls me from my seat. She says, “You ready to do this?”

 

The first item we come to is a stroller. Not the kind my kids had. This thing has bicycle wheels, spokes, air-filled rubber tires with heavy tread like a mountain bike. Baby Trend Expedition it’s called. It has black rubber grips and a cup holder on either side of a flip up wipe box.

“Honey,” Elaine says. (We haven’t said I love you yet, but somewhere we fell into using endearments.)    “Honey,” she says, “look how nice.” She grips the handles and stares down at it like a teenager in her first car. “It really is perfect for staying in shape after the baby comes.”

“Is this woman pretty active?” I ask her. Over the top of the racks, on the other side of the store, a good football field away, is a brown restroom sign. My stomach gurgles.

It’s so comfortable,” she says. “Try it.” She takes my hand and puts it on the grip.

There is a Velcro flap over a plastic sun window on the roof of the stroller, the kind that get cloudy and brittle with age. On the top of the flap the warnings are indicated by a yellow exclamation point inside a triangle. My gut is starting to feel like boiling oatmeal.

“Sweetheart,” she says, picking up a Happy Hippo Gym, “isn’t this cute.”

One of those plastic arches you put over a baby so it can grab and bat at the colorful dangling shit. Her voice has steadily gone high and soft, and now it’s occasionally tipping into falsetto.

The indigestion is getting to me. I feel a little dizzy as I follow her around a corner to the next aisle, which is extra-wide to accommodate cribs and changing tables. Purple and pink and blue pastels all around. She looks at a Duchess Collection 3 in 1 crib, she checks the printout.

“Someone’s already bought them this,” she says. “I’ll bet the new grandpa, by the price tag.”

My oldest is seventeen. She’s sexually active. Her mother put her on the pill a year ago. My being a grandpa is by no means out of the realm of possibility.

While I’m thinking about this, the smell hits me. It comes from the dresser beside the crib. Elaine has just picked up a Johnson’s Bedtime Sweet Sleep Set: liquid bath soap, baby lotion, wipes, a goddamn stiff-paged copy of Goodnight Moon.

It’s the wipes. Somehow I smell that sickening perfume of baby wipes, and it doesn’t bring back specific memories, but nevertheless fills me with… I’m at a loss here, not sure what I’m filled with, but it’s unpleasant in the extreme.

“That smell brings back memories,” I say.

“Did you change diapers?”

“My share.”

She smirks at me and says, “You’re a good dad.”

She puts the bedtime set down and picks up a picture. She almost sings, “Honey, this is the cutest thing.” It’s a baseball glove with fat little fingers, and a ball in the pocket and in blue letters the word, champ. That’s all it is, a picture of a baseball glove and a baseball.

At this point, two memories do hit me. One is of driving down Boyd Avenue with Elaine toward her loft not a week ago. I saw a woman with a red-headed baby and said, “Look at that red-headed baby,” to which Elaine responded, “I want a red-headed baby.”

The second memory is of our first real date. We were having an after dinner drink and talking shop. She made the statement, apropos of nothing we were discussing, “I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to. I’m ready to make some changes—take on different challenges.” At the time I didn’t consider what she meant by that.

She holds the picture out at arm’s length and says, “I love little boy stuff.” She’s positively cooing now.

I saw an article just the other day in The Economist about how younger women and older men prove to be more fertile than other pairings. My two are beautiful and in the Governor’s School, the both of them. Elaine adores them—no, she adores what they represent, the promise, the prize they offer. Elaine’s ovaries are humming, honing in, chasing down my wiggling sperm. She probably doesn’t even like me.

She says, “A little boy would be so much fun.”

The churning in my gut is unbearable, I’ve reached maximum capacity. I drop the Happy Hippo play gym into the Duchess crib and say, “I’ve got to run to the little boy’s room.”

She says okay and looks away from the picture. Her eyes are fuzzy, her whole face the same big dreamy smile she sprang on me at the desk.

At the far end of the aisle I have to maneuver around a whole shrink-wrapped pallet of Pampers. I make for the restroom sign on the other side of the store, ducking off the shining tile path and zigzagging through racks.

 

I push a button at the restroom door and wait for someone somewhere to buzz me in. I stay. I’m not sure what else to do; I’m not thinking clearly. I wait. The bathroom is cool and echoes every step and cough and belt jingle. I don’t feel better. I’m starting to chill. I need to get some sunshine.

Stepping out of the men’s room I am facing a bunch of rugs and runners draped over poles. I turn and there looms a monstrous rack of boy’s 2-T clothes: dress shirts with clip-on ties right inside the package, suit coats with sleeves sticking out at 45 degrees, no longer than a ruler. Beyond that are puffy ski coats so fat they could already have chubby little humans in them.

I quicken my pace and turn toward the front of the store. The merchandise goes by me in a spinning blur. Towels, shower curtains, yellow and blue women’s towel wraps.

I turn the corner and see the exit, and right there beside my head is a display for Burlington’s Sheer Legacy pantyhose, with tummy control and crotch panel. Just past that is a rack of baby Halloween costumes. There are front-zippered cats and bunnies. A dog costume with a nose and floppy tongue that hang over the baby’s forehead, and of course, long drooping ears. A strawberry costume with green leaves and a stem on top of the hood.

I pass the baby costumes. My gut hasn’t settled. I’m sweating and chilling. Food poisoning maybe. I skirt the edge of the entry where all the round tables full of seasonal stuff are and head for the doors. Then I make the mistake of glancing over at the registers.

Elaine is jabbing her card into her wallet while the girl is bagging up baby stuff. I see three bags. The one with the Hippo thing in it has a fat baby face on it big as a hubcap, drooling grin and rosy cheeks. She looks up and sees me. At first she smiles, but immediately sees that something is wrong.

I lose my cool. I break for the door.

“Honey?” Elaine yells. “Are you okay?”

I don’t answer. This Burlington used to be an Ames, with the entryway like a long hall with two sets of double doors on either side. If I go toward my car, she’s going to cut me off before I even get out of the store; if I run to the other doors, I’m shot out headed the wrong direction. I run away from her, to buy time to think.

“Honey?” She yells it this time. “What’s wrong?”

I run out the doors and down the sidewalk a ways, cut out into the parking lot. My Caddy is at the other end of the shopping center, in front of Nawab. Out in the middle of the lot, I turn and slalom between parked cars toward my own.

It’s so damn hot. The gurgling in my stomach has morphed into cramps. I need to stop and vomit, but I can’t. I pace my breathing, in for two steps, out for two steps. I focus on breathing and running. Elaine comes into my peripheral vision, running at a good clip along the sidewalk. She passes the Sally Beauty Supply, she passes the pharmacy. She’s carrying two bags by ropy handles and has the big baby-face bag cradled in her left arm.

I angle toward my Caddy, I see it, gleaming red in the bright lot. I get out my keys and unlock the doors on the run. She’s too close. I can’t make it. She’ll be there before I can back out of the spot. If a car is in the way, I’m done for sure.

Elaine pulls even with me, glancing my way as she runs. She steps off the sidewalk without changing her pace. A car has to hit its brakes for her. She’s too fast. She’s cutting off my angle now. She’s going to catch me before I even get to the car.

Like a kid playing tag, I have to hook out wide and abandon my bid for base. I run to the outer edge of the parking lot, where the Burger King building is. The restaurant, closed, and now there is a yellow and green sign in the window announcing, Need Money Now? No Hassle. Pay Day Loans. Checks Cashed. A woman is leaning into the back of a car, strapping a crying child into a car seat. I pick up my pace. Now I’m breathing in and out with every step.

I reach the stop light where the car with the thumping bass was. I stop and wait for the walk light, trying to catch my breath, and then run across the road. I’m in the Long John Silver’s parking lot. The smell of fried fish makes the mutton and beer percolate inside me.

I slow to a walk. I turn around, trying to breathe and swallow down bile. There she is, jogging across the street, closing in. I pull up and stop. I lean over and slap my hands to my knees and breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.

 

“A Hot Day in October” was first published in Sou’wester.

image, wikimedia.org

A Prophet of the Most High

“A Prophet of the Most High” is an excerpt from The Calling. It first appeared in Rock & Sling.

 

One Sunday afternoon in February, James and Andrew were playing kick-and-get-through on Andrew’s bunk. Andrew reared up and said for James to stop kicking, he heard something. Their neighbor from across the church parking lot Perry Taylor cussing at Timmy Jackson, saying he was going to kill him, was what it turned out to be, but they didn’t know it yet. Andrew’s head was sweaty and even though it was winter, he smelled like outside in the summertime, like dirt and grass.

James didn’t want to stop kicking; he felt he could win the game this time.

The past week James had finished all his AWANA books early, won his Timothy Award, even recited extra Scripture. He could say 1st John all the way through, and the first three chapters of the Gospel of John, and the entire Sermon on the Mount–which he recited for the whole church from beside the pulpit, word-for-word—and a bunch of Psalms and Proverbs, and hundreds of other verses.

That very morning at church, he’d heard an old woman, who smelled like Hall’s cough drops and left the wet rubber things over her shoes all through service, tell his dad that he was precocious; she said he probably knew more of the New Testament than Jack Van Impe, which his dad had already said from the pulpit. His dad had laughed and said, with his hand on James’s head, “It’s clear that the Lord’s hand is on his life.” James had come home and looked up the word precocious. Then he’d looked up aptitude, which was in the definition of precocious.

Because of that, he was feeling especially good this Sunday. He’d been holding his own against Andrew at kick-and-get-through, and usually Andrew kicked his butt hard. The game had gotten so rough they had torn the covers and sheets off the bed and the mattress was starting to slide off the box springs and slope down to the floor.

It was turning out to be a glorious nap time. Some Sundays their mom would storm in with her switch and tan their hides, four or five raging times in one afternoon, like she was waiting outside the door to catch them in willful disobedience. Those days she had prophetic fire in her green eyes—and watch out then, she would tan their hides, use the rod of correction to drive the disobedience far from them, Proverbs twenty two fifteen. Some days her eyes looked dead as peed-on fire pits, and the switchings and paddlings didn’t have any oomph to them, didn’t even hurt.

This was the other kind of Sunday: they could make as much noise as they wanted and she wouldn’t come in once, like she was deaf or knocked out cold.

Andrew had kicked James flush in the ear last game and it was buzzing was why at first he didn’t hear the shouting outside. Plus, he was about to knock Andrew off the bed and win.

So now, when Andrew reared up on his knees and said to stop because he heard something, James didn’t stop. James gave him a good heel kick that grazed his ear and landed solid on his collarbone.

Andrew slapped his feet away and whispered hard, “I’m serious, buttwipe.” His sweaty hair was sticking to his head in front of his ears. His face had three red marks from James’s kicks, and seeing that made James smile.

James still thought that Andrew was trying to trick him so he could lunge and touch the wall and be kicker again. James put his foot on Andrew’s chest and pushed.

Andrew punched a knot in his leg and hissed, “Stop.” When Andrew whispered it was louder than regular talking, so he might as well just talk.

James rubbed his leg and said, “I owe you one for that.”

Andrew tried to punch his leg again, but he jerked it out of the way. Andrew said, “Shut the hell up.”

“Don’t tell me shut up.” James knew that Andrew was jealous of him, like Esau was of Jacob. Andrew was almost twelve and still hadn’t gotten his Timothy Award. He didn’t have a very good memory; he had to go see a math tutor at school. Even Ricky could play guitar better than he could.

Andrew’s eyes widened and he cupped his hand behind his ear. The red splotch on his cheek, James remembered the specific kick that made that one. He smiled to see it.

Andrew said, “Hear that?”

James jumped to the bunk ladder, thinking his mom was coming to switch them was what Andrew was talking about. Andrew’s bed sheets were all on the floor. His hanging gray mattress had stains on it, both done by Andrew, yellow with dark brown edges. The big stain was from number one and the little one was spit up.

James closed his mouth and breathed hard through his nose and listened. Ricky was on his little mattress across the room, doing his beetle bug sleep with his butt in the air and his arms under his body. His mouth sagged open like a retard’s and he was drooling. Above his mattress was a plaque their dad had put up with a saying from that missionary, Jim Elliot, who got speared in the chest by Indians. Black letters on a white background: He is no fool who gives what he can never keep to gain what he can never lose.

Andrew tiptoed to the window and looked out. The window went straight up where the roof sloped down, so it was back from the wall inside a kind of box. It was low so that the windowsill was at their waists. When Andrew pulled the curtain aside, the bright white day flashed and hurt James’s eyes.

Andrew would get worn out good if their mom caught him out of his bed, and his bed all torn apart too. James felt a flutter of joy at the thought of watching it, and turned to let his eyes adjust back to the dark room, so he could see if the doorknob moved, still perched on the bunk ladder, ready to climb to safety.

Nothing.

He looked back at Andrew.

Andrew’s dark form in front of the bright window turned and put his finger to his lips and it looked like his arm fused into his body. James froze in place and listened. Men were shouting at the Taylor’s house. The Taylors lived in a brown house with a rippled metal roof. It was across the church parking lot. Two stories high, with a porch all the way across both levels, like a wooden hotel, except the upstairs porch sagged down so much in front, if you dropped a baseball it would roll right off. The house was shoved back against the hillside below the blacktop road, so that the only thing between the roof and the cars was a leaning guardrail and lots of weeds.

Men were shouting over there alright.

James tippy toed over and stood behind Andrew. He whispered, “What if mom comes?”

Andrew said, “Be quiet.”

James stepped into the window box and shouldered himself a spot so he could see. The paint was all scratched off the windowsill where their dog Barnabas liked to stand with his paws and look out and bark at squirrels. James had to squint till his eyes stopped hurting. They could look straight across the parking lot to the Taylor’s house.

Perry Taylor’s black pickup truck was there, with its rusty bed piled with rusty junk. There was also a red and white racecar with the numbers 442 painted on the side, jacked up with big wheels in back and little ones in front. The church parking lot was dirty tire-packed snow that you could dig up with a stick but not your church shoe heel. It shined like water.

James couldn’t see anybody, only the cars. “Where are they?” he whispered.

Andrew didn’t say anything.

James looked down the dirt road. The yards were melted to patches of snow under trees. Through the bald and black trees on the bank, the river showed all the way to the bridge. Flat white ice chunks flowed along, all broken up; looked like, if they were turned just right they would fit together like puzzle pieces and cover the river again. The ice chunks looked like they were sliding smoothly across the top of the brown water, not floating in it.

Last summer somebody had painted the old iron bridge down at the end of the dirt road light blue. Now it was easy to see it through the trees.

“Look,” Andrew whispered.

James turned back to the Taylors’ leaning house. Perry was striding down the front steps in his steel-toed boots and green work pants, a shotgun hanging loose from his fist like a stick of firewood. He only had on a t-shirt and no jacket. He was a trash man, and he was fat, so the cold didn’t bother him any. That’s what he’d told them one day when Ricky asked him where his coat was.

Another man came from around the racecar. It was Timmy Jackson from down the dirt road. His mom came to church. His dad wasn’t saved and neither was he. James’s dad called them rough customers. Timmy was an ugly man, had shaggy red hair and a big forehead; he always looked like he was trying to figure something out. He had on bell-bottom blue jeans, and had his fingers shoved up high into his jean jacket pockets that were too small for his hands.

The two men met at the bottom of the Taylor’s driveway and stood where the dirt road would be if it wasn’t covered in snow. Timmy took one hand out of a pocket and pointed at Perry and said something. Perry stopped, spread his legs, pulled the gun up and aimed it right at Timmy’s head. His t-shirt was tight on his big belly.

Timmy pulled his the fingers of his other hand out of their pocket and stood with his arms hanging down.

James could feel the cold from the window glass on his face. It fogged with his breathing. He wiped it. Andrew’s nose made a tiny whistle when he breathed in. James said, “Breath through your mouth.” and Andrew was watching the men so hard, he just obeyed James without a word or a hit or anything.

“Think he’ll shoot him?” Andrew said, not whispering anymore.

James said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

One time his mom had gotten Perry Taylor to drive them to the Kroger in Clendenin, and had paid him twenty dollars for it—twenty dollars for a ten mile ride, and he hadn’t even asked to be paid. (Perry had a big belly but he was as hard as a train car; it hurt to bump against him.) On the trip he’d thrown one of his KOOL cigarette butts out his window and it blew into the truckbed on the cool river wind and got stuck between James’s shoulder and the truckbed. It burned James’s shoulder pretty good, made a black hole in his shirt. Perry didn’t say sorry, but chuckled and said, “That ain’t the worst thing that’ll ever happen to you, boy. I promise you that.” Perry was the kind of man who hurt people on accident and laughed about it.

Another time Perry had left his truck window open, and James and Andrew snatched a crumpled pouch of Red Man from the front seat and ran with it to the riverbank. It was sweet and gooey in their mouths, and made James feel lightheaded and good. It made Andrew barf. But when they came back up, Perry was standing in the parking lot, and he walked over to them, and they were too scared to run. He had out his big pocketknife, held it in front of his fat gut. He said to the two of them, “If I ever catch somebody stealing my chaw, I’m going to cut their hearts out and feed them to the dogs.”

Thing was, James hadn’t been able to tell if he was trying to scare them, which is what it sounded like, or if he was serious, because it was Perry Taylor saying it and not a man from the church.

Staring down at the two men on the bright, icy parking lot, James said, “Oh yeah.” He nodded. “He’ll shoot him alright.”

“Here,” Andrew said, reaching up to unlatch the window. James helped him push it up a crack. Icy cold air came in at their stomachs. They got on their knees and pushed their faces to the cold opening.

Perry Taylor and Timmy Jackson were arguing now, but so low that James couldn’t make out what they were saying. Perry motioned with the gun as he talked. His big arms were stuffed into the t-shirt and were red and splotchy from the cold. His face was red too, glowing hot like a coal stove.

James understood enough to know that the fight had to do with sex. Ronny Stewart brought pictures to school. Naked women with their boobies hanging, spreading their legs to show the hair and floppy skin down at their privates. “Look at that big old pussy,” Ronny would say, or “Wouldn’t you love to fuck that thing?” as he folded open the pages he’d ripped out of magazines. James didn’t understand the stirring it caused all down his body, or the crushing guilt he felt afterward, but he knew satanic power when he saw it.

The two men were just standing there talking now. If Perry didn’t have a gun, it would look normal. It was starting to get boring.

James thought that Timmy Jackson probably took off his clothes with Perry Taylor’s wife, and they probably kissed; he probably put his dick in her pussy. That was fornication. The mouth of a strange woman is a deep pit; he that is abhorred by the Lord shall fall therein. Proverbs twenty two, fourteen. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications…Matthew fifteen, nineteen.

If Timmy Jackson did put his dick in Perry Taylor’s wife, they should both be stoned to death. They didn’t stone people anymore, James thought, at least not in America where people were turning away from God’s laws. Shooting would do. Perry Taylor should shoot them if they were fornicators.

James wanted to see Timmy Jackson get what was coming to him; Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap. Galations six seven.

He said to Andrew, “He’ll shoot him dead, is what he’ll do.” He turned and looked at the side of Andrew’s face. The red mark from his heel was still there. He said, “He should shoot him too. And his wife.”

“How come?” Andrew asked.

“Because Timmy Jackson fornicated with his wife.”

“How you know?”

“God told me.”

Andrew leaned closer to the window and started chewing on the inside of his lip.

Timmy Jackson was the only one talking now. Calmly, with his hands out, palms up, like he wanted to play firecracker. Perry Taylor was looking at the ground shaking his head slowly.

Andrew said, “Shouldn’t we get mom?”

Perry Taylor had lowered the gun barrel and it now pointed at Timmy Jackson’s belly.

“Shit,” Andrew said. “He’s going to kill him.” He shoved James. “Get mom. Hurry.”

James said, “You get her.”

Behind them, Ricky’s sleep-clotted voice said, “What’re you looking at?”

Andrew said, “Shut up, retard. This is important.”

“What’re you looking at,” Ricky repeated.

Andrew, said, “Shut up,” and gave a half-hearted horse kick behind him that Ricky easily sidestepped so that it only grazed his hip.

Ricky pushed himself between the two of them. “Let me see,” he said. He had a sweaty head and sleep wrinkles all over the side of his face. His breath smelled like the roast beef gravy they had for lunch, only sour.

“You smell like number two, retard.” Andrew said. “Get away.” But he was watching the men, and didn’t shove Ricky out of the window box. He said, “James, go get her.”

Ricky still wore pajama bottoms for naps, and a special big kid diaper that their mom made him wear even though he was eight because sometimes he slept so hard he still did number one in his bed. Something was wrong with him. Except he could play guitar better than James and Andrew somehow, the little retard.

Andrew shouted, “Whoa,” and James looked back at the men.

Perry Taylor swiped down with his gun barrel like he was hoeing a garden and gouged Timmy Jackson’s eye and cheek. Timmy Jackson put his hands over his face and bent over. Perry swiped up under Timmy’s chin and made his head jerk back. He tried to turn away from Perry and keep his hands over his face, but Perry smashed straight down on the back of Timmy’s head with the gun butt like he was digging a post hole. Timmy fell to his knees from that one. He tipped and kept falling like in slow motion, without moving his hands to catch himself, and landed on the side of his head so hard that James heard the thunk of it—like his mom’s knuckle on an unripe watermelon—on the hard ice from across the parking lot.

Timmy lay on his side with his hands over his face. The blood coming through his fingers looked black against the bright snow. Perry’s breath came in white bursts out of his mouth as he grunted and kicked Timmy, who just lay there with his hands over his face. Perry stopped and rested for a second, looking around—Andrew and James both ducked down, then raised slowly and peeked back over the sill; Ricky just stood there staring like a retard—then walked around and started kicking Timmy Jackson in the back with his steel toes, grunting with every kick. Then he stomped down with his boot heel on Timmy’s ear. Timmy slid his hand from his face to up over his ear and Perry stomped his hand.

Then he stopped kicking and aimed the gun straight down at Timmy Jackson. Timmy Jackson didn’t move. He stayed curled up. His hands were all bloody. It dripped on the dirty packed snow.

Andrew was still chewing his lip. Ricky was just staring all wide-eyed.

Andrew whispered, “He killed him.”

Ricky said, “Damn man, he killed him dead.”

“Get mom.” Andrew shoved James toward the door.

Switching or not, James knew he was special, he was chosen of God for a time such as this. It was his time to step up to the plate.

“I’ll do it,” he said. He ran across the room and pulled the door open. The hallway was dark. Miriam’s door was cracked open, and though his eyes weren’t yet adjusted, he saw her form peeking out.

“Perry Taylor killed Timmy Jackson in the parking lot,” he said. “I’m getting mom.” They crossed in the hall as she ran for the boy’s room. He took the stairs three at a time and burst into his parent’s room, yelling, “Mom, you have to come–”

She wasn’t there.

He ran through the living room and jumped over the heater grate into the kitchen.

The plates from Sunday dinner were perched on the strainer where Miriam had stacked them. Beside them the glasses were upside down on a red-brown dish towel. In the light from the window, James could see tiny ants crawling in and out from behind the creased metal strip that fit into the crack where the wall and the countertop came together. The countertop was cream colored with golden squiggly lines all over it so that if you squinted, it looked like brains all smashed together. The ants kept crawling in and out at the metal strip.

Their mom wasn’t in there either.

The bathroom door was open; he ran and looked in there too. He hollered, “Mom, Perry Taylor killed Timmy Jackson.” He ran to the utility room. There were two piles of laundry as high as his waist. He got on his toes and looked out the back door, but couldn’t see, so he opened it. He hollered out into the back yard, “Mom?”

He ran back through the house hollering for his mom, looked in her bedroom again, and then he ran upstairs and checked Miriam’s room. He ran across the hall and looked in his room. Miriam and Andrew and Ricky were at the window.

“What’s going on,” he said.

“Get mom,” Andrew said.

Miriam said, “Hurry, Jamey.” She was crying.

He ran back down the stairs and into the kitchen. He swiped the ants and hefted himself to his knees on the kitchen counter. He leaned over the dinner dishes and looked out the window. He smelled his hand and realized that ants smell like that blue window cleaner when you smash them.

Their dog Barnabas was at the back corner of the new church building, walking toward the river. James knocked on the window and the dog looked back for a second, then turned and disappeared around the building. James saw a flash of Rae Goins’ Jeep go around the corner from the back parking lot.

Rae Goins was the AWANA commander. She could have that position of leadership as a woman and still be biblical because it was only kids she was leading. She walked like a man. Like a man who plays football. Once James saw a pickup truck full of men going hunting drive by him. They were all in coveralls and orange hats. As they went by Rae’s voice came out of one of them. “Hello, James,” it said, and it had scared him. Then he saw it was her, sitting there on the wheel well with her gun between her big spread legs. Something wasn’t right about her, James knew. He saw it now. The filth of iniquity followed her like the dirt cloud around Pig Pen from Peanuts, and he didn’t know why no one else noticed, except that God was opening his eyes to special, spiritual truth.

Rae and his mom had been dearly close friends for years.

The back door opened and his mom came in wearing her gray AWANA jacket, and he knew she’d been out in Rae’s Jeep. He could tell she was in sin by the wide-open fear on her face, like she’d been caught at something. It only lasted an instant, but that was enough. Then she frowned and said, “Young man, what are you doing out of your bed?”

He jumped off the counter and blurted, “Perry Taylor killed Timmy Jackson in front of the church.”

“What are you talking about?” Her face was red from being outside. Her nose was runny. She pulled a balled up tissue out of her jacket pocket and dabbed at it.

“In the front parking lot,” he said. “He killed him with a gun.”

His mom shoved the tissue back into her pocket as she ran for the front door.

He followed her, his heart swelling with the importance of what he was a part of, matters of life and death, and him just ten.

His mom stopped on the front porch and hugged her AWANA jacket around her. James followed her out, saying “He killed him and I came looking for you. That’s only why I came out of my room.”

“Hush,” she said. She stared hard across the parking lot.

A police car was parked over at Perry Taylor’s now, but the lights weren’t flashing. It was Mike Humphrey, the policeman who lived in a trailer beside the high school. He was big as Perry Taylor, except his chest stuck out as far as his belly did. He leaned back when he walked, and always held his thumbs in his gun belt.

Perry Taylor was sitting in the back of the police car. He was crying and rocking back and forth, hitting his head on the back of the driver’s seat. Not hard. The fornicator Timmy was still on the ground, curled up. Officer Humphrey was squatting down with his forearms on his legs, talking to Timmy.

James’s mom said, “Go back in the house.”

James stared at the scene before him and knew the Holy Spirit was sending him a message: he was chosen by God because he was so smart, or made smart by God to do a special work–either way, he was a special, precocious boy, chosen for great things. If they called Jack Van Impe the walking New Testament, they were going to call James the walking Bible .It wasn’t called the King James Bible for nothing, he didn’t think.

He hadn’t forgotten about his mom’s sin either. She’d better watch out, he thought. Their women did change the natural use for that which is against nature…burned in their lust one toward another, Romans one twenty six and twenty seven. James knew things. His heart leapt for joy at the thought of his calling. He was a prophet of God. He had the fire.

“Obedience, young man,” his mom said.

Timmy’s leg moved. He was not dead. Perry Taylor’s wife came out of their house. She was flabby fat and only wore big loose dresses that James once heard his dad say she bought the material for at a tent store. She didn’t wear a coat either. All that fat. It was like having a coat on under her skin. Officer Humphrey stood up and walked over with his chest stuck out and talked to her. She pointed and waved her arm, the bottom part of it hanging down and swinging.

Without looking away from what was going on, James’s mom said, “James, obedience is?”

“Doing what you’re told, when you’re told, with the right heart attitude,” he mumbled as he turned and stepped back into the house. That wasn’t even in the Bible, and she used it like it was. He skipped up the stairs and ran to his bedroom. Andrew and Miriam and Ricky were still at the window, watching Perry Taylor get arrested. An ambulance was there now. Its red lights flashed silently across the white and shiny parking lot.

They all three turned and looked at him.

Andrew said, “Did you find–”

“Did you find mom?” Ricky cut off the end of Andrew’s question.

They stared at him expectantly.

What things the Lord had entrusted to him, to James Samuel Minor. He put out his chest and said, “For he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings…”

“Shut up, showoff,” Miriam said. She turned back to the window.

James raised his voice and continued, “For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. Acts nine–.”

“Remember what mom said about being a know-it-all?” Andrew said. He still had the red mark from James’s heel on his cheek.

Ricky said, “Yeah. Shut up, you know-it-all.”

“You shut up,” James said. “You little retard.”

Andrew and Ricky turned away from him too, and looked back out the window where the ambulance lights silently flashed.

A prophet hath no honor in his own country, John four forty four.

They would appreciate him in the fullness of time. They would stand amazed when he told on their mom, exposed her hidden sin.

God called Noah in Genesis six thirteen. He called Abraham in Genesis twelve. Jacob, Genesis twenty eight; Moses, Exodus three; Gideon, Judges six; Samuel, First Samuel three; Elijah, First Kings seventeen. He called Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea. John The Baptist, Jesus, the disciples. Paul. James Jesus’ brother. Charles Spurgeon. Billy Sunday. D.L. Moody. John R. Rice, Dr. Harold Perkins, Zechariah Minor.

And now: James Noel Minor. He would surpass even the great things his dad was out doing this very minute.

The Lord’s hand was on him. He was going to speak the Holy Word of God without fear, not letting any man despise his youth. Righteous anger rose in him—be angry and sin not—at the Devil for the evil he poured on this old world.

James would not neglect the gift that was given him by prophecy, 1st Timothy four twelve through fourteen. He was sure—beyond the shadow of a doubt, he was sure—that God had already made him a better preacher than Charles Spurgeon or Dwight L. Moody. He might be killed or crucified or scourged someday for the name of Christ, Matthew twenty three thirty four. What an old sin-sick world he was called to proclaim the truth to. The others weren’t paying any attention to him. They were watching out the window again.

What a glorious day. He’d been called with a holy calling before the world began, Second Timothy one nine, and soon he would stand before the nations and tell the truth he knew.

 

In Praise of Dirty Stories

Dirty Stories

Originally posted on the “Good Letters” blog, Friday December 9, 2011

 

By Vic Sizemore

For the second term in a row, one of my students died in the middle of the semester. He disappeared and left a gaping hole in the spot where he had so faithfully sat every class.

Last semester the student was neither young nor healthy, so the news led us to sad but un-shocked nodding.

This time it was a kid just out of high school. He looked as healthy as any other eighteen year-old boy. He was a smart kid and a diligent student. The one thing that characterized him more than anything, at least in our class, was that he was quiet. One girl in his workshop group affectionately called him Quiet Boy.

The email from my dean said only that he had died unexpectedly. No cause of death was given. Immediately I thought a car crash, as that is how most young people meet their demise (statistically anyway). Then I thought maybe it was suicide, and that’s why no one was telling. I have since discovered that it was a diabetic coma—he went to bed Friday night and never woke up again.

As I called the next class to order, the girl from his workshop group said, “We have to wait for Quiet Boy.” She was serious. Quiet Boy didn’t talk, but he didn’t miss class either.

I almost responded, “We don’t have that much time,” which would have appeared inappropriate and insensitive. Instead I sat down at the computer and checked the email against my roster to make sure I hadn’t misread the name—though I knew I hadn’t—before I told her that Quiet Boy was dead.

She had been in my last class to lose a student. She said, “My God, that’s the second time.” After she stared at me in shock for a few seconds, she said, “Your classes are dangerous. I’m not taking you anymore.”

We laughed.

That wasn’t the last laugh we had in class either. Further along, I realized that we were all laughing hard, having naughty fun with the reading assignment, even throwing in some of our own off-color quips. I felt a little guilty, like we were being irreverent.

I had handed back the reading quizzes and there on the lectern in front of me was Quiet Boy’s. As in class, he said very little in his short answers, but he managed to make his point. Here are his first six answers:

1. Carpenter
2. Astrology
3. Slut
4. Play guitar/stalk her
5. Sticks her butt out the window
6. Fart

I would like to have had a little more discussion of the characters, but he had obviously read the story.

It happens to all literature teachers I imagine. Every so often a student asks me, “Why do I have to read this stuff?” or “How am I ever going to use this in the real world?” That day in class I began to wonder about Quiet Boy. The last thing I had given him before he died was a discussion of a literary form called fabliau. The last bit of literature he read for me is a raunchy story that burlesques the weaknesses and stupidity of the human animal.

Maybe I would have felt better if we’d just finished something heavy and serious—The Death of Ivan Ilyich maybe—something that wasn’t just for laughs? I don’t know, but the more I think about it, the more I feel the funny stories are just as important in their way as the serious ones.

When we laugh at a ribald story, it is not the same as when we laugh along with the angry sneer of satire (though the line between categories isn’t always so clear). It is not the bitter laugh of despair either.

What I’m talking about is a hoot, a guffaw, a big old belly laugh. The fabliau is comic relief, the Falstaff of the literary canon, a narrative reminder to relax and take life a little less seriously. “It’s only life after all,” as The Indigo Girls sing—two ladies who, judging by their song lyrics, appear to have trouble taking their own advice on this point.

The dirty stories aren’t just comic relief, though, a way to blow off steam, release some of the pressure that builds up as we go about the hard work of survival.

We recognize two things in these stories. One is that we are physical—a fact we aren’t entirely comfortable with. Our pretenses to niceness and culture are stripped away and there is the animal we are, doing all the disgusting physical things animals do.

The second is troubling and comforting at the same time: we are mean and cruel and nasty to one another in ways that animals simply cannot be.

We laugh through tears of recognition. We admit that, yes, we are nasty and cruel. We cheat. We lie. We steal. We hurt the ones we love. In the admission is a glimmer of hope. Maybe since we can be so much worse than animals, we also have the potential to be so much better; maybe we aren’t mere brutes.

Underneath the laughter at ourselves burns the eternal longing to rise above the ugliness. We go about the trying in clumsy and bungling ways, but the urge behind all our goofs and screw ups—the longing for love, for meaning, for eternal life even—is deep and abiding.

That’s why we can laugh in the end. We believe there is more to the story. We believe this is comedy and not tragedy. As bad as things can be, we hold out for a happy ending.

What did I give Quiet Boy before he left? I can’t say for sure. But I can say I must keep teaching the dirty stories right along with everything else.

Every belly laugh is a big burst of hope.