Thursday, December 13, 2007


My boy was running down the road without a look back at me as I crept up in my car. That impressed me. Fourteen years old, confused as hell. The wind picked up his hair. Thanksgiving day was bending into the afternoon, threatening to break.

I opened the passenger door as I dragged up next to him.

—Hop in, I said.

He looked at me, his eyebrows hunched.

When he climbed in, I knew I ought to bring him home to his mother. But I wanted him. I wanted to spend the holiday with my oldest boy. Conflicted, I tossed him the option.

—You want tofu or turkey?

—Turkey, he said.

We made a right off Eagle Road, headed to town.

—We’ll go to the Ponderosa, I said.

He nodded.

Landsing Pike dipped down through farmlands in silence. I was glad to be out of Lower Plymouth, a poor neighborhood, the place Ellen and I had decided to settle down in fifteen years ago. The prices were right and the realtor convinced us that Lower Plymouth would be Plymouth proper in three years, five on the outside. He was wrong, or lying. But it was a good lie, and we wanted to believe it. In Lower Plymouth, cookie-cutter houses stacked close together and only the liquor store stayed open late. High school hoodlums claimed the town’s only shopping center, where a 7-11, a Wendy’s, a hardware store, a Payless Shoes, a Dollar Store, and a closed-down Chinese food joint orbited the liquor store. Families in Lower Plymouth lived on government food stamps, handouts from relatives, and hard work. Despite Reaganomics, nothing had trickled down. Everyone in Lower Plymouth worked in the service industry. I had done short order at The Shrimp’s Tail before quitting a year ago. Ellen was still at the supermarket, across the railroad tracks in Gwenydd. But only about a mile east of Lower Plymouth sat Red Apple Farms. When El started eating only vegetables and going to church, she used to drive to the Red Apple on Saturday mornings and buy a barrel of tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans, and broccoli. God and greens went to her head. On Saturday nights, she concocted vegetables into patties or loaves for the dinner table. I couldn’t eat the stuff. El said abstaining from meat was healthier, holier. But I never felt better eating zucchini instead of chicken. I just felt hungrier. So I drank an extra drink, the whiskey filling my stomach.

Pete was staring at a fly that had landed on his arm. An odd kid, touched, up in his head.

The Farm was open. Happy, veggie-carrying customers, giddy with Thanksgiving, paddled back to their mini-vans. As we passed the Farm, I drove fast over the bump in the road that made the car jump, giving you that funny, leap-and-drop feeling in your gut. Pete held his stomach and chuckled.

—I’m sure the Ponderosa’ll have a nice spread, I said.

—I’m hungry, said Pete.

—It’ll have meat. That’s for sure.

—That’s good.

The farmland dead-ended into Groving Road. I made a left. Into the nicer part of town, Plymouth proper. The country club was full of doctors and lawyers staving off family dinner with a drink and a round. We drove another couple of miles in silence until we hit the downtown area, right on the edge of the City of Brotherly Love. Cobblestone streets and brick-laid sidewalks. Fine shopping: Banana Republic, Nine West, the Gap. Stores for eyeglasses, picture framing, flowers. Antiques, wedding dresses, kitchen wares, everything. The Shrimp’s Tail was down on Wycle Street. The sun spangled off the storefronts, off the sidewalks, off a woman’s blond hair. The day had a chance yet. My spirits lifted as we crept along the cobblestone, looking for a parking spot.

That morning I had awoken to a fight with my girlfriend, Lucinda, who I’d been with for six months. Lucinda walked out on me, left me in hotel room 7B in the Pleasantville Lodge at the Jersey shore, snagged a few twenties from my wallet on her way. I laid in bed a while listening to the bay waves lapping, and slowly mustered up the determination not to see my Thanksgiving become a complete disaster. I showered and shaved and drove over the Delaware River to surprise my family, see the kids. My wife kicked me off the property with a sanctimoniousness that repulsed me. But fortune had delivered me and now my oldest and I were together. On our way to a feast. Things were looking up. I felt the day and its possibilities opening up before me, like a set of automatic doors.

—There’s a spot, Pete said, pointing to a spot on the corner beneath a waving American flag.

—Good eye, I said, cozying the tire up to the curb.

I was happy. I wanted to smoke a joint, to get my appetite up, but I figured I’d wait a bit. Didn’t seem quite right, what with Pete there. But as Pete got out of the car I transferred a jay from the center console to my wallet, stepped out of the car. I could see Pete fingering the penknife in his pocket.

—I see you carry the knife I gave you, huh, kiddo?

—What are you talking about?

—The knife in your pocket, I said.

He shoved his hands deeper in his pocket and said:

—I don’t have a knife in my pocket.

—Suit yourself.

My stomach growled. The excitement of the morning dropped into my gut, riled up my hunger. A nervous energy took hold. I pulled a toothpick out of my pocket and stuck it in my mouth, grabbed a free local paper off a rack by the door, out of habit, just to have something to read on hand. But once we were inside — the smell of good cooking wafting about, the sounds of other families bouncing from the corners — I was ready to celebrate good and proper. This was Thanksgiving after all. My favorite holiday. We took a booth in the far corner. A king’s spot, I told Pete. No response.

—Thanksgiving’s my favorite holiday, I filled in the silence.

—Yeah, Pete asked, why’s that?

—Because it hasn’t been co-opted by the corporations. It’s still pure. A concise, clear message: be thankful. Be thankful for all you’ve got. Look at us. We’ve got a nice booth at a nice restaurant. We’ve got a salad bar full of home-cooking just waiting for us. And we’ve got each other, we’ve got family.

—It’s not home-cooking, Pete said.

—Sure it it, I countered.

—It’s a restaurant, Pop, by definition, it’s not home-cooking.

—But it tastes like home-cooking, right? That’s what counts.

Pete picked up the menu and looked at the drink options. I was ready for a beer. My watch said 2:45. Almost happy hour. Hell, it was a holiday, a festive meal with my boy. My day had already seen two fights. I decided on beer.

—You going to get the salad bar? I asked.

—Yeah, I guess, he said. They got turkey up there?

—Sure, they got turkey, I said.

—Yeah, okay, he said glumly.

A family across the restaurant erupted in laughter. We both looked over. The place was decked in gobble gear. Orange and brown streamers, plastic turkeys, paper pilgrims and feathered Indians hanging from the ceiling. The customers looked Lower Plymouth — noisy families in old jeans and ratty t-shirts —doing it up in downtown Plymouth for the holiday. I watched the hips of the waitress saunter towards us in rhythm with the music playing on the jukebox. Young gal, not much older than Hannah, nametag said Linda. Along with her uniform black slacks and apron, she wore a tiny t-shirt, untucked so as to reveal her belly button with the slightest lift of the arms. Voice was full of attitude, her tone telling us she didn’t belong at the Ponderosa.

—Can I get you two fellows something to drink?

—What kind of beers do you have? I asked.

She bent toward me, turned the menu in my hand over to the back page.

—There’s the list.

—I’ll have a Coke, said Pete.

—How about a Yuengling? I said.

—Okay, she wrote down our orders. And to eat? We have a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Special.

—Isn’t there turkey on the salad bar? I asked.

—Sure, there is. But the special comes with stuffing, cranberries and our special gravy.

—Mmm. How much is it?


—And the salad bar?

—$7.99. All you can eat.

—That’s a pretty good deal.

—Which one?

Pete looked at me:

—I kinda want the Thanksgiving Day Special.

A few slabs of turkey and their so-called special gravy sounded like a rip-off at $10.99. And I was short on cash. But what was I going to do? Break my boy’s cranberry-loving heart?

—I’ll just take the salad bar, I told the waitress. So long as there’s turkey, I’m happy. But you get what you want, Pete.

Pete frowned at my order.

—No, check that, I said. I’ll take the Turkey Special. It’s good, yeah?

—Oh it’s good, she said and she winked at me. You two’ll love it.

What a darling this girl was, to wink like that, to catch and uplift the mood just like that. A wink and a promise.

—Yeah, two Turkey Specials for me and my boy, I said.

The waitress placed her hand on my shoulder. What a flirt this one was, with her big, boisterous bangs, her long, dangly earrings. With a little squeeze, she said she’d be right back with our drinks and that we could help ourselves to the salad-only portion of the salad bar. Using the small plates, she clarified. Sticking her pen behind her ear, she folded her black notebook back into her apron’s pouch, spun around and danced toward the kitchen. Pete and I made our way to the salad bar.

—All right, I said, let’s eat some greens.

I piled up a plateful of iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, peppers, beets and croutons. Linda brought my beer and lingered while Pete fixed his plate. She stuck her pen in the corner of her mouth and watched me as I took my first slug.

—Just father and son today? she asked.

—That’s right, I said.

Linda pulled her right leg up and scratched her ankle, as to draw my attention to her slender, runner’s legs. I changed my mind about her age: she was a community college girl. Probably taking courses in modern psychology or the role of women in literature. A smart girl. Curse my man’s mind all you will, but in that moment, I thought of having pretty Linds right there bent over that Ponderosa booth. Her two hands splayed out across the squeaking, green vinyl. The taste of salt, the smell of turkey, on her neck. She chewed on her pen a moment and I looked at her and then she moved aside to let Pete slide back into his seat.

—I’ll be back in a minute with your dinners.

Pete took a bite of his salad: mixed greens, mandarin oranges, walnuts, cottage cheese. He chewed methodically, contemplatively. I searched for an agreeable subject of conversation. I wanted to get into it with my boy. But all I could think of to talk about were the salad dressings: I had chosen the creamy Italian. Or the Eagles, who were adrift in a dismal season, having mustered up only 11 points in their most recent contest against the Lions. Or the revisionist history of Thanksgiving, a subject I knew Pete and I could riff on. But can you really talk about the unconscionable slaughter of the Indians without ruining your appetite? Who wants to think about smallpox blankets on a holiday?

—I read that book you told me about, he said.

—Oh, really? I said. Which one?

—Rabbit, Run, he said.

I felt the fool for having recommended a book about an unfaithful husband. When I had read the novel, I had related deeply. To the running, to the feeling of foot on pavement, to the exhilaration of freedom and the burden of responsibility. I gave it to Pete so that we might talk about these things, but now I couldn’t fathom where to begin.

—Did you like it? I asked.

—I liked it all right, he said.

—I really liked that first scene, I said, when Rabbit plays basketball with those young kids.

Pete drew Coke through the straw.

—You know, I said, Rabbit’s trying to recapture the glory of his youth. You can feel it in that first scene. And maybe that’s what the whole book is about.

—I just thought Rabbit was a bastard, Pete said.

He looked at me, his final judgement hanging in the air, transferring to me.

—Maybe that’s the point, I offered.

Pete coughed and then delivered a little speech that I imagine he’d been working on:

—The problem with the novel is its portrayal of women. We have Janice, the sloppy, dumb, alcoholic wife, who can’t hold onto Rabbit and then accidentally drowns her newborn baby. And he have Ruth, the fat crosstown whore and mistress who allows herself to be impregnated by an irresponsible adulterer.

Hell, I was no literature professor. I had just enjoyed the book. My boy, on the other hand, was bright and insightful. A bookish fellow. The trick with Pete was he made you feel like he had figured out things on a deeper level, but of course he hadn’t. He didn’t understand that book any better than I did. He was working with the model of such a life; I was living it.

—What about Eccle’s wife? I said.

—She’s only in the book to have her ass slapped.

Naive boy, thinking he’s so smart. His problem is he lives in his head. When he discovers his body, that’ll be his awakening. His reckoning. Everything’s clear in theory, impossible in practice. He’ll learn. Until then, he’ll come off as a know-it-all punk. My boy, angry, intelligent, but deadly. Bringing his self to bear at the dinner table, taking on his old Dad. I liked that.

Linda sashayed over with our turkey dinners. My mouth salivated. The Yuegling made me feel limber, giddy. The clean break of the morning, the invigorating fight with El, the flirtation with the waitress. I took a slug of beer and it warmed my innards, bubbled up to my brain. Our deluxe meals sat before us. Despite everything, I was with my boy and I felt frisky. Life is in the friskiness.

After a few bites of turkey, I realized that I hadn’t called El to tell her that Pete was with me. That seemed only right. She would worry. I excused myself and walked to the back of the restaurant where the bathrooms and the phone booth and the kitchen were. Put a quarter in the slot and dialed Eagle Road. Linda walked through the swinging saloon doors from the kitchen laden with two more Turkey Day Specials.

—Who are you calling? she asked coyly.

—The boy’s mother, I said, over the ringing on the other end of the line.

—Hmm-mm, Linda strutted on.

These young ones are the friskiest. Once they get older they carry too much past. History saturating every pore of their bodies. The young ones will still walk into unknown worlds with you without looking back.

—Hi Ellen, I said, it’s me.

—Is Pete with you? she asked right off.

—Yes, he is. He’s right here. We’re having dinner together.

—Why didn’t you call sooner? she asked.

—I didn’t get a chance until now.

—You bring him right back here after you two are done eating.

—I thought we might go to the park.

—You bring him right back, Michael, she threatened. Or I’ll call the police.

She hung up. And the click of the line brought back all the reasons I had left her. El had changed. God and greens had gone to her head. I wasn’t any fool for a pie in the sky. Too much magic in that kind of thinking. God’s a metaphor for the father. There’s a slice of heaven for all of us right here on earth if only we’re courageous enough to look for it. That was my way of thinking. El and I used to get high and listen to The Animals in her parents’ basement. Isn’t that heaven enough? How much better can a soul feel? When the record ended, her father yelled down the stairs that it was bedtime. Heaven came and went with the tides like that. Nothing’s always the same. The river flows and we swim along. But at some point, El got religion and started eating only vegetables, feeding a holiness she needed inside. And I just couldn’t get with it. The more I resisted, the more she hardened up. She stopped partying on Saturday nights and started going to church on Sunday mornings. “For the kids.” Said they’d need religion and order in life and if I wasn’t going to give it to them, then she would. Now look at her. She just said she’d call the police, a word she’d pronounce only with distain in the seventies. Back when we didn’t believe in authority, when we believed in ourselves.

I pulled a joint out of my wallet and pushed the exit door open to the outside. The day was brilliant. I sparked the joint, leaning halfway out the door. That first drag was dynamite. Quick stuff, it coursed through my limbs and lit up my head. Linda sauntered back toward the kitchen and stopped in front of the swinging doors. She was holding a tray full of dirty dishes.

—You going to leave your kid there to eat his dinner alone? she asked.

—Bring him a milkshake, I said.

She set the tray down, shook her head at me and asked:

—You gonna bogart that thing?

I beckoned her with a sideways head nod. She raised her hands above her head and clapped three times. Her shirt hiked up, her navel peeked out. As she walked toward me at the end of the little hallway, she smoothed down her apron. I imagined those thin, runner’s legs wrapped around my head. She and I could’ve walked out that door right then. There was nothing stopping us.

I handed her the joint and she sucked down a hit and then giggled and said something about how naughty she was to get stoned on a busy day at the restaurant.

—It’s a holiday, I reassured her, enjoy yourself.

She handed the wet joint back and teased:

—You’re naughty, and then she scurried back into the kitchen where a bell was ringing.

Dinner was delicious. I ordered a second beer when I got back, thinking Linda might comp me one. I felt lucky, which is the same as happy. My boy had chosen me to have Thanksgiving with. Linda was in the pocket. The stuffing was hot and moist and full of raisins and brown sugar. The morning had punished me, but now the good karma was flowing.

—So, I asked Pete, how have things been at home?

Pete leered at me, his eyebrows scrunched into his cheeks.

—Fine, he said. The stingy bastard.

—How’s school? I fished.


—What are you reading in class?


—Do you like him?

—Yeah, he measured. I like him very much.

—What is it you like about him?

—I like how he writes about self-reliance. Personal conscience and communing with nature. I like his attention to detail: the list of the vegetables he plants in his garden, the meticulous financial records, the reflections. The whole idea of spending time alone in nature appeals to me.

—Yeah, I dig Thoreau’s view, too. I like his philosophy of taking care of yourself. Because that’s really the most important thing in life: to just take care of yourself. From that, the rest follows.

Pete put down his fork and took a swig of Coke. Then he wiped his mouth with his napkin. I changed the subject.

—I called your mother, I said, let her know you were with me. I told her that maybe after dinner, we’d go to the park. Or check into a hotel and watch some football. What’d you say?

He shrugged his shoulders.

We finished our meals in silence. Linda dropped the check. She wrote, I’m off in ten minutes, on the back. I looked at my watch: 3:50. Pete slurped the last of his soda through the straw. He stood up.

—I gotta go to the bathroom, he said.

As he stared at me, I caught a glimpse of Linda’s ass over his shoulder.

He turned and made his way to the back of the restaurant. While I wanted to hang out with him, I figured I ought to get him home. Yes, I could dump him home quick, then come right back for Linda. That seemed fair enough. Linda, seeing Pete was gone, ambled over.

—Fifteen minutes? I said. That’s just enough time for me to run my boy back to his mother. You can wait an extra minute?

—Ten minutes, she said, sticking her pen in her hair, Tops.

I smiled and looked at my watch again.

—Ten minutes, I said. I handed her the cash for the bill, tipped her as well as I could, having to save money now for what might come.

—I gotta go close out my register, she said.

With that giddy, nervous energy that had been with me throughout the meal, I rapped my fingers on the table. I listened to the music. They were playing a new Madonna song. I lost myself a moment in the melody.

I looked toward the back of restaurant and wondered what was taking Pete so long. I looked at my watch: 3:57. I’d never make it back by 4:05. Was I going to miss my chance here because my kid was dropping base in a public restaurant? No. She was probably kidding. She’d wait. I stood and crossed the restaurant. In the bathroom, I called Pete’s name. No response. I checked the stalls: he wasn’t there. Fuck, I thought, where’d the little bastard go? Back in the hallway with the phone, I noticed the back door was open. I stepped outside and shouted Pete’s name. No response. What the fuck? I walked through the restaurant, checking back at our table, empty and cleared, and went out the front door. A scan of the horizon in all directions revealed nothing. I hustled to the car: empty. My heart beat on, hoofs in the dirt. The little bastard must be on foot towards home, I figured, I’ll catch up with him on Landsing Pike. So I got in behind the wheel of the car, started the engine, and backed out of the spot. The car plunked awkwardly backward, sunk into the driver’s side. What the fuck? I got out. Sticking out of the back tire was the penknife. The front tire, too, slashed.

I lost my breath and gripped my chest. I collapsed against the side of the car, caught myself, staggered through the door, and slumped into the seat. I turned the car off. I put my head on the wheel. I wept. Everything pushed through me. Everything rotten. Up in the sky, above the car, the flag wrested with the wind.

A moment later, Linda tapped on my window. I looked up, gathered myself, and motioned for her to come around to the passenger side door.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Scribbler

Jacob stepped to the urinal and lifted his tunic. His fellow monk Johannes stood beside him. A separator between them preserved their privacy. Jacob exhaled with a deep sense of pleasure. Ten straight hours spent transcripting, without rest, without sustenance, with only water to drink, had given him a tremendous pent-up urge to urinate.

“Oh yeah,” he moaned.

“A good one?” Johannes laughed.

“The best,” said Jacob.

Johannes zipped up. Without looking over to Jacob, he said, “I’ve heard about what you’ve been doing.”

“I don’t know what your talking about,” said Jacob.

“Look,” Johannes said, “Don’t make me spell this out. I’ve heard about it and I think it’s wrong.”

Jacob folded up his tunic and turned to face his friend. For a moment they locked eyes.

“Just stop,” said Johannes. “For your own sake.”

“It’s my life,” said Jacob.

“Yeah, I know it is,” said Johannes. “And you can stand on your head to prove your freedom, but you’re still standing on your head because of your need to prove your freedom.”

“Blah blah blah,” said Jacob. He’d heard that hackneyed argument a thousand times over during his years of theological studies.

Johannes shook his head and crossed in front of Jacob to the sink. He washed his hands in silence, enjoying the feeling of the warm water on his cold fingers. He thought to himself, the study is particularly chilly today. He shivered at the thought of returning to his carrel.

Jacob picked up the hand towel and handed it to Johannes.

“Thank you,” said Johannes, adding, “very kind of you.”

Jacob bowed in a show of respect. Before exiting, Johannes gave Jacob one last meaningful stare, as if to say: Stop, for the love of the Word, for the love of the Brotherhood, please stop. Jacob stepped to the still flowing water in the sink and placed his hands under its warmth.

Back at his desk, Jacob found his confidence flagging. He worked in the I.I.W. — It Is Written — wing of the Brotherhood. Their slogan was: We uphold the Noble Paradox — It Is Written, So We Must Write It. His official title was Senior Transcriptor. Jacob knew that to toil in the I.I.W. was a blessing and a noble calling. He understood intuitively that his Book had been discovered because his personality was well suited to this kind of pious work. His constitution had been designed to uphold the Order’s one thousand and twenty five precepts, including no entertainment, no games, no large beds, etc. His sole task in life was to transcript the text of his life. After all, his Book had been discovered — and its very physical existence was a miracle. (Chances were, the revisionists argued now, these Books had been written by the great prophet Jeremiah Johnson in 2041, but that was besides the point.) His Book existed. His life was leather-bound. The story of his time on earth had been foretold, forewritten, and fated, as were the lives of all human beings, if not in actual ink, then in metaphysical ink. The difference was a flesh-and-blood, paper-and-binding copy of Jacob’s Book had been discovered. So when he turned two years old, his intensive training began. In short, he was instructed in the art of transcription: how to trace over with his own human hand the predestined text of his life as it was written in his Book. Now a fully ordained monk in the Brotherhood of the Word, Jacob spent his every waking moment transcripting. And with each stroke of his pen, he felt closer to God.

Over the years, Jacob proved himself an exceptionally skilled transcriptor, the keenest and most rigorous in his class. He pioneered the time-loop method, a wickedly clever device in which a transcriptor could trace a page or two ahead of real-time, so that he might earn himself a brief respite. He was also quick to catch up in time, if necessary. So, after returning from the mandatory bathroom break, he was the first to write out the scene that had transpired in the bathroom with Johannes. Word for word, gesture for gesture, vital detail for vital detail, the drama of that conversation had been long-ago recorded in the Book, and then transcripted by Jacob. Within minutes of resuming his work, Jacob had brought his text back to the usual refrain: I am writing I am writing I am writing...

Of course, there was cause for the occasional hilarious variation: I am writing now or I am writing this now or I am writing I am writing I am writing with my favorite quill. The monks knew how to have a good time. I am writing all blessed day long. Jacob was the first to write that line. How heartily the other monks had laughed at the insertion of the word blessed into the already comical variation all day long. The other monks considered Jacob a humorist, a natural, a master transcriptor.

When he started cheating, rumors of his corruption spread fast. The other monks were genuinely worried about him, about his emotion well-being, and of course, about his salvation.

“What is he doing?” they asked each other.

“Does he think he’s being funny?”

“Does he want to go to hell? Cause if he does, that’s the way to go. He can write himself right into the seventh ring.”

The other monks were befuddled and their worried whispers filled the corridors of the monastery. Once, during lunch in the great hall, they shared a laugh over Jacob’s transgressions after someone made the wisecrack, “Does he think he’s the Word?”

Meanwhile, Jacob persisted in his private subversions. First, his hands shaking, he experimented with handwriting. With ten years of transcripting his text behind him, Jacob knew the exact flow of the original. He knew the i’s were dotted ever so slightly off-left of center. The l’s dipped just below the line. And the j’s were slanted, twelve degrees right of the vertical. One afternoon, with no warning, no sign, no revelation whatsoever, Jacob simply started correcting these minor imperfections in the handwriting of the original. For the first time ever, his transcriptions, his tracings, did not precisely overlay the original. In his heart’s core, he felt the thrill of the sinner.

Then one day he scribbled in the margin. He said to himself, I am the scribbler. He recorded this thought in his text. I am the scribbler. Looking at the very words in the text proper — I am the scribbler — Jacob thought to himself, It has been recorded that I would be the scribbler. Now I am become the scribbler. I am merely writing the text of my life, transcripting my every thought and action. I am scribbling I am scribbling I am scribbling.
This was what he wrote in the margin:
Look here! I am the scribbler. I am scribbling.
A rush of originality filled his chest and his heart beat madly. He quickly returned to the text proper, but then, an hour later, he again ventured to the margins, this time, writing, What a beautiful day! Outside my window, the birds make wondrous music. He didn’t know why he did it (and of course he recorded his transgression in the text proper), but he did do it. He’d written in the margins, twice now. That much was clear. He’d written in the margins of his Book, and the action baffled him. What does it even mean to write in the margins of the text of one’s life? Am I commenting on the text itself, merely making a few harmless observations? Or have I deviously and devastatingly departed from the path? The movement of the birds outside my window was gorgeous, stirring, aesthetically pleasing, and I felt I had to record this beauty. Pay witness, precisely as my vocation pays witness to the noble paradox. There is such beauty in the world, he said to himself, and then he continued on with the usual: I am writing I am writing I am writing in my study...

“Yes,” said the Order’s severe and chaste Mahamonk, later that evening, as they sat in his office, “yes, of course, Jacob, there is tremendous joy and beauty in this world, but this is not our calling, is it, to record this beauty?”

“No, sir,” answered Jacob.

“You must return to your given task,” said the Mahamonk. “You must continue to purify. Return to your transcriptions, without further wandering. As I see it, your situation is critical.”

Jacob briefly thought of a reading from his days in the seminary. The class was called “In the Margins: The Temptations of Interpretation.” The piece had been written by a master monk of the 22th century. It began, “The text is the text is the text is the text is the text is the text. There is no margin. Do not be fooled by the illusion of the margin. Open space is found only within the words themselves. Do not look elsewhere for your liberation. Be free within the infinity of that which is written.” Suddenly the entire essay came back to Jacob now. Only this time, his mind registered disagreement, discord. Cognitive dissonance. The texture of this thought was new to Jacob. He blushed.

“Do not fear,” said the Mahamonk. “This too shall pass.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jacob, almost mindlessly.

“Focus,” said the master, “Be intent.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jacob.

“You are excused,” said the Mahamonk, “but be warned: the waters in which you swim are deep and full of dangerous creatures of ambiguous origins. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir, my Maha.”

“Very well, then,” said the master, “Return to your work. May the Word be with you.”

“And also with you, my Maha,” said Jacob, with a hint of half-heartedness. Sensing the fissure in his student’s resolve, his master frowned. They bowed to one another in a show of mutual respect, and Jacob left the room. The Mahamonk cast out a desperate prayer — Bring him back, back to the path and back to the Word. All praise and glory be to the Word, Amen — then he pulled from his desk his own Book. He himself had not transcripted in ten years, but suddenly was called to do so. He dipped his quill in the holy ink and began. The first words he wrote were: Sorrow is a lonely bird...

“They say he is raving mad,” said one monk to another in the great hall. He lifted a spoon of porridge to his lips. “They say he began doodling. Can you believe it? Jacob, a doodler?”

“So unfortunate,” said another.

“A sad case,” chimed in another.

“But a fool or a king?” said the first monk. “Which do you think he is? From which sin does he suffer: ignorance or pride?”

The other monks shook their heads side to side or shrugged their shoulders, and returned to their gruel.

Jacob had been excommunicated from the Order of the Brotherhood of the Word that morning. The Mahamonk had no choice; Jacob had turned his Book into a travesty. With doodles in the side margins, great sweeps of poetry running along the bottoms of the pages, bold X’s and strikeouts scattered throughout, the Book itself was the proof of Jacob’s fall from grace.

“I heard he drew a picture of a naked woman over what was supposed to be the text of his morning meditations,” said one monk incredulously.

Nobody believed that salacious claim, but the rumors were enough to spoil their appetites. Their finest contemporary, their master, had fallen. He’d become a heretic.

“I heard” said another, “that he told the Mahamonk that he considered himself a poet.”

“Yes,” said another, “I heard that too. He claimed to be taken by inspiration.”

Finally, Johannes, the most reticent of the Order, and forever second in class to Jacob’s first, entered the fray. “Jacob told me it was a matter of perception. It was his eyes, he said. Not his mind, nor his heart.”

“What do you mean?” asked a young novice.

“He claimed to see a different text than the one the Mahamonk saw when he looked it over,” explained Johannes. “You see, Jacob said that his transgressions were all foretold, forewritten in the text. He said that he was merely playing out his part, that all along he was transcripting honestly. He said when he first drew a great X through an entire page of text, he only did this because the X was already there, in other words, It Was Written.”

“So He Must Write It,” echoed the young monk.

“Exactly,” said Johannes. “Jacob confessed to me that his eyes hurt. That they ached horribly. That he could hardly make out his text any longer. He told me that the whole exercise of transcripting was pandemonium every time he opened his Book in the morning. But he swore to me that his transgressions were forewritten. He told me he felt like Judas and that in his heart he was very sad, but that, at the same time, he’d never felt such a thrill, such exhilaration.”

The other monks briefly conferred with one another, murmuring excitedly. Then they looked back to Johannes and the young one asked, “What do you think, Johannes?”

Johannes exhaled deeply and set down his wooden spoon.

“I think he’s a liar,” he said gravely. “Perhaps he lost his eyesight, but the doctors said his vision was fine. I think he went mad. Mostly I believe we have the Mahamonk to thank for his wisdom and prudence in this matter. All praise and glory to the Word!”

“All praise and glory to the Word!” said the others.

They finished their meal in an uneasy silence, each of them guessing at the heart of Johannes and at the mind of Jacob.

Jacob wandered the desert outside the monastery for three years. He suffered from hallucinations, starvation, demons, disease, loneliness, and despair. He suffered the unutterable humiliations of the vagrant. Through it all, he transcripted. That which he saw in his Book, he traced over with his human hand. As he understood it, all of his life, even his transgressions, his wanderings, his excommunication, had been written. Every detail was in his Book and his vocation was to transcript every word. As well as every scribble in the margin, every doodle, every great X, and every poetic utterance. Whatever he saw in his Book, he transcripted. He feared that his vision was slowly leaving him, but he transcripted on. He feared that his mind was failing him, but he transcripted on. He feared that his body was dying, but onward, ever onward, he honored his calling.

On some days, Jacob could not be sure if what he saw was an illusion, a pale and sorry figment of his imagination, or the text proper, but he learned to forge ahead regardless. This lack of clarity caused him the most subtle and excruciating pains. Out loud, to the heavens, he wished that this same trial never be suffered again by another soul, that he, Jacob, right here and now, would undergo and purge this brand of suffering for all humankind. Ultimately, he could not afford to worry about possible discrepancies between what was written and what wasn’t, what was real and what was imagined. What was important was that he continued to transcript as best he saw fit. So he continued to run his hand along the page and trace the outlines of whatever his ailing senses presented to him as the world.

He grew a ghastly beard. He communed with the scavenging birds. He ate weeds and seeds and the occasional offering from a passing faithful who recognized his habiliment as that of the Order.

Three years passed in this manner, Jacob holding on tenuously to his sanity, to his vocation, to his dignity, and to his inspiration.

“I am inspired,” he recalled he had told his former Mahamonk. “I have come to depend upon my inspiration. It follows me daily and I obey it. I write what I see in my Book, and nothing more, my Maha. You must believe me.”

That was the case that he had made for himself, but the Mahamonk had not believed him. The Maha believed Jacob had fallen from the grace of the Word, that he had been possessed by demons.

“You are lying, Jacob,” he had said during that final meeting. “You are no better than the common street poet, proclaiming his inspiration to the ignorant masses. You have abandoned your calling, your Order, your Word and your Book. You are a disgrace to the Brotherhood, and you are hereby banished. Speak no more to me with your forked tongue. Leave immediately and sing your cursed poems to the other fools of the desert, for they will be your neighbors now.”

On some days, Jacob would find himself returning to the familiar refrain of I am writing I am writing I am writing or I am writing all blessed day long and he would long for the company of his fellow monks. At the same time, he would curse the simplicity of their lives, their cowardly escapism and false purity. I am the only one truly in and of this world, and thereby the world beyond, he said to himself, in self-justification, in self-consolation, and perhaps also in truth, for Jacob had become the true ascetic, the genuine seeker. Oh how they take even their porridge and warm water for granted, he cried to himself. What a tower of mortal pleasures they live in! Nevertheless, despite his moral indignation, at times, Jacob longed for the simple comforts of his former life.

On the fourth anniversary of his exile, having set up camp at the far end of the desert, three thousand miles from the monastery, Jacob ceremoniously threw his Book into the river. He wept as he watched it float away on the gentle current. He fell to the ground and repented. With this act, he let go of his past, of his desire, of his self — and he was profoundly transformed. Nevertheless, he still identified himself as a transcriptor at heart, and he still felt it was his calling to uphold the noble paradox: It Is Written, So We Must Write It. So he sat crosslegged by the river and opened a journal. Blank pages stared back at him, taunted him. But slowly, with trained concentration, his eyes, ever so slowly, began to make out words written on the pages, and so he passed his hands over the words that he saw take form before him, however ghostly they may have first appeared. He gave real ink to what had already been inked by the invisible hand of the Word. Such was his conviction as he wrote. Three more years passed in this way, Jacob filling book after book after book with witness, testimony, scripture and poetry.

“How come he no longer writes?” one of Jacob’s students asked another.

“He writes with his body,” said the older student.

“What does that even mean?” said the younger student.

“It means exactly what it says,” said the older, “it means he writes with his body. The world is the text and the body is the pen. You’ve read Book Twenty-Seven of the Works of the Glorious Body, yes?”

“Yes,” said the younger, “I think so.”

“Well, read it again.”

The two young monks continued their transcriptions. Jacob had eleven students now. That was enough, more than enough. He was eighty-seven years old, and he spent most of his days tracing forms in the air with his fingers. Beautiful, vanishing forms. He also sat in his study and conducted interviews with his disciples, a few of whom had fled the Brotherhood of the Word on the far side of the desert. One student of Jacob’s had been exiled exactly as Jacob himself had been exiled as a young man. This young novice John often barraged old Jacob with questions about the subtle distinctions between the world, the body, and the text. Naturally, John would become Jacob’s successor. And so Jacob’s nearly every thought concerned the proper training of this single, most promising student.

“I have fear,” said John. “Great fear.”

“About what?” asked Jacob.

“I don’t know exactly,” said John. “Mostly about the steadiness of my hand as I transcript.”

“Fear not,” said Jacob. “The Word shall keep your hand steady.”

“But sometimes,” the novice continued, “sometimes it shakes and I mistranscript a letter.”

A cry escaped Jacob. His outburst was pathetic, but brief, and he accepted that his old heart was so tired that perhaps he must allow himself a few tears.

“It’s all right, my boy,” said Jacob. “Your hand may shake.”

“But what then?” said John. “What happens when I can no longer hold steady to the form of the letters? What then?”

Jacob paused, and listened to the sounds of the birds outside his window.

“’What then?’?” Jacob echoed the young man’s question.

“Yes,” said John, “what then? What happens when I slip from the form of the letters?”

“Then you learn,” said Jacob, “that there are no letters, there are no words, there is no text, there is no body, and there is no world.”

“But what does that even mean?” said John.

“Indeed, what does that even mean?” said Jacob. He knocked his cane on the hardwood floor of his study, and the sound traveled to the ears of his assistant sitting outside the door, who promptly brought in a pitcher of water and filled their glasses.

“Will that be all, sir?” asked the assistant.

“Yes,” answered Jacob, with a modest bow. “That will be all.”

Saturday, October 6, 2007

To Be Consoled

a novel in voices

by Paul Charles Griffin

“There is no leaf of the forest, or lowly blade of grass, but has its ministry.”
-Ellen G. White, from The Desire of Ages: The Conflict of the Ages Illustrated in The Life of Christ

November, 1990
Lower Plymouth, Pennsylvania



The world was peaceful from the top of the evergreen. The wind was blowing from the south, from the schoolyard at the end of the street. The wind was blowing through the leaves of the other trees. The wind blows wherever it pleases. Jesus said that. Soon the leaves would change their colors. Maybe then Mommy would come home, I thought. That morning she had thrown plates against the kitchen wall, taken a busted plate into her room and locked the door. Uncle Don came over and broke down the door and took her away. There was blood on her arms. We were in the hospital for a couple of hours and Uncle Don yelled at us. Wagged his finger at us and told us it was all our fault.

The fiesta style plates were clean, fresh out of the dishwasher. Now they were shattered. Four of them in total. Through the wind, I could still hear the sound of each one hitting the wall.

I wondered what was for dinner. Sissy was not a good cook, but she’d have to make something. Maybe she’d put one of those Stouffer’s vegetable lasagnas in the oven. That wasn’t hard. I figured that was what she’d do. Sometimes I got a cold spot in my lasagna, but if it was warm throughout, it was okay. I wasn’t hungry, though, so I didn’t care.

Uncle Don said mom had gone away for a couple of days, maybe forever. And that it was our fault. That we had to behave, to be nice to mom so this wouldn’t happen again.

—Look what you’ve done to her, he said.

I figured Mommy would come back before the leaves changed because she loves when the leaves change. She taught me why the leaves change colors: because autumn arrives. She wouldn’t miss it. I wondered if the leaves changed where ever Mommy was. I thought so because nature is everywhere.

I could see the end of the block from atop the tree. The neighborhood boys were playing basketball. The ball clanged against the rickety backboard. This sound was jarring, like the sound of a plate shattering against a wall. Beyond the court, beyond the dead end, there was the schoolyard. The big red brick wall of the schoolhouse. The flags whipped around in the sky above the building. There was a strong wind.

—Maggie, come down from there.

It was Sissy, standing at the bottom of the tree. Sissy is beautiful. The bones in her face were made right. I will never be as beautiful as her. She has large breasts, like Mommy, and even though Sissy tells me that I too will have breasts one day, I know they won’t be as large as hers.

—Come down now, she said. It’s almost dinnertime. We’re having lasagna.

What is the word for knowing something before it happens? I asked my teacher in school last year, last spring. But that was so long ago that I forgot. I don’t like to forget things, it makes me nervous. For example, they told me where Mommy was, but I couldn’t remember the name of the place. It was a kind of Center. A place where Mommy can rest, Aunt Rita said.

—Maggie, are you listening to me? Sissy said. Come down from there.

—No, I said.

—Yes, she said.

Sissy flipped her hair back over her shoulder. She did this when she was nervous, she made this gesture to show off her beauty.

I was staring into space, trying to see the wind, but I could only see the wind in the wind-blown leaves.

—Maggie, are you all right?

Everybody was asking me this. Is there a word for everybody asking you the same question over and over again?

—Yeah, I said, I’m fine.

Sissy was standing at the base of the evergreen tree that stood on the corner of our property. Behind the tree was the sign that named our street, Eagle Road. I was at the top of the tree, like a bird. Once Daddy had come back when the leaves turned red and orange. He pulled up in a new-smelling car and drove us to the Ponderosa for dinner. Mommy didn’t come. But Daddy stood there at the door of his car, and he seemed proud. Red leaves blew around behind his head. We piled in the back of the car and as we drove down the road, Daddy played rock music from the stereo and we all sang out loud with the windows open and the fresh air pouring in. I sang too, even though I didn’t know the words. The chorus was easy: Forever young, oh, forever young. I poked my head out the window. I stuck my hand out the window, too, and let the wind catch it. I moved my hand up and down over the mailboxes and street signs as we passed them, tracing the forms, pretending that I had a wing.

—Mom’s going to come home soon, you know that, right, Maggie?

I looked down squarely at Sissy. She should have emptied the dishwasher, even if it was Simon’s chore for the day.

—When? I asked. When is mom coming home?

—Probably tomorrow morning, she said. Maybe before you even wake up.

I woke up before the sun came up, so I didn’t believe Sissy. I could tell she wanted to be telling the truth, but she wasn’t, because she really didn’t know when mom was coming home. I wanted to believe Sissy, but I couldn’t.

Angry, I turned away from her and started rubbing my arm against the bark of the tree. My skin got red and crumbled off. It hurt and felt good at the same time.

—You’re lying, I said.

I rubbed my arm against the tree real hard, staring off into the green wind. Bits of bark broke off the tree and stuck into my skin. I liked that.

—Maggie, come down now! screamed Sissy.

—No! I screamed back.

She was angry, too, and she began to climb the tree. As she got closer to me, my heart sped up. She was climbing quickly, gripping each branch so that her knuckles went white and then pulling herself up with great huffs. For an instant, I wondered if her anger was the same as my anger, if it existed between us, or if her anger was her own anger, and was inside her body somewhere, or if the anger was entirely separate from both of us.

—Get away from me! I screamed. I don’t have to come down if I don’t want to!

I rubbed my arm harder and blood started oozing out of my skin. That felt good, that was what I wanted. If Sissy got too close, I could wipe my blood on her to scare her off. My blood mixed with bits of bark. I was crying, though I hardly realized it. A gust of wind blew in from the south, from the dead end. I could see it coming because it swirled up the leaves lying in the street. I could see the great gust of wind coming at me and when it hit the tree, I held on tight. Sissy didn’t see the wind coming and when it hit us, her foot slipped, and she screamed a curse word.

—Fuck! she said.

I stopped rubbing my arm, and felt my arm tingle with pain. To escape from Sissy, I began climbing higher, but the truck of the evergreen grew thinner and thinner as I climbed higher, so I couldn’t really go much further. As Sissy got closer to me, my heart raced faster and faster. I was so afraid of her touching me that I had a hard time breathing. My breaths were short and choppy and frightened. I felt really claustrophobic. I couldn’t go any higher, but Sissy kept coming at me. When she reached my part of the tree, she grabbed my foot and pulled. I yelled at her to stop because I felt for an instant that I might fall out of the tree.

—Get away from me! I screamed. I’m going to fall.

She yanked at my foot and I was scared shitless. I thought we might fall. So I whipped my foot free, and with all my force, I kicked Sissy in the eye. Hard.

—Fuck! screamed Sissy, holding her eye.

I put my foot back on the branch and watched Sissy feel her pain.

—Damn it, Maggie, she said. Come down for dinner!

—No, I said.

Then she left. In defeat, she shook her head at me, and with one hand holding her eye, she carefully descended the tree. Pete and Simon showed up at the bottom of the tree and started yelling at us. The were all yelling at each other so loud that I couldn’t hear the wind anymore.
I just wanted to be alone.

I looked down at my brothers and sister and felt far away from them. I felt different, that’s all. Not that I didn’t like them, just that I was different. And different from Sissy in particular, who was so beautiful and girly and perfect. She backed down out of the tree, holding her right eye, yelling mean things at me, calling me a “brat” and a “freak”. But I didn’t care what she said. Even if her eye bruised, she would always be more beautiful than me. That was hard to understand. Why was Sissy so beautiful and perfect? Alone again at the top of the tree, my mind started racing. Two more things I didn’t understand were why Pete wasn’t wearing his glasses anymore and why Simon hadn’t emptied the dishwasher like he was told. Why was Pete staring at me like that? What was wrong with Simon? Why had mom thrown dishes against the wall? No matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t figure these things out.

It began to rain and Aunt Rita came out of the house and said dinner was ready. I would have to come down from the tree and eat dinner. I wanted to be alone, but I wasn’t allowed to be. Again, for just a moment, I looked out across the schoolyard, and then up into the sky where I could see dark clouds approaching, and I knew it was going to rain hard all week.


I could see Maggie in the tree just fine. I used my willpower focus on her. Come down from the tree, Maggie, I thought. Come down from the tree, Maggie. Come down from the tree. Down tree. Down tree. Downtry. Downtry.

She climbed down and joined the family for dinner.

Sissy had set the dining room table for supper. She used the cloth napkins and lit two candles. I don’t know who she was fooling. mom was gone and nobody was happy. Aunt Rita was pretending along with Sissy that everything was fine, commenting on how delicious the lasagna tasted, how scrumptious the buttered rolls. Sissy, the oldest, always had to have things perfect. Good looks, good grades, good prospects. When the country is ready for a woman president, it’ll be Hannah “Sissy” Lord swearing in on the Capital steps.

Maggie didn’t eat anything. I saw her stuffing green beans down her shirt, as if anybody cared if she ate her supper that night. Simon was eating with his fingers.

—Peter, please put your book down, said Sissy.

—Why? I asked.

—Because it’s Sunday supper and we’re going to talk, she said.

I laid my book, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, still open to the page I was reading, to the side of my plate. Not mom. Not mom. Not mom. Ntmum. Ntmum. I concentrated on steering the conversation away from the topic of our missing mother. When mom came back from Simon’s baseball game, she freaked out. I was sitting on the couch in the living room, reading my novel, focusing my energies. Trying to figure out why exactly I so hated this Rabbit Angstrom character. Of course I knew why. The bastard ran. I didn’t understand him. That’s why I hated him so much. Confusion, repulsion, disgust. These emotions were purged by my reading. “Purged” is a good word. mom walked by me and into the kitchen without saying anything. I heard her pull open the door to the dishwasher. She shrieked. I sat upright, my ears pricked. An avalanche of silverware fell to the floor. I ran to the kitchen door and stood there, a few paces from my mother.

Ours is small kitchen. A round wooden table sits before the window and takes up most of the space. Out through the back of the kitchen is the laundry room and the door to the backyard. The wallpaper is yellow and a ceramic rooster sits on the table next to the lazy susan. mom stood at the sink, straight ahead from where I watched. The dishwasher was to her left. Sissy, Simon and Maggie appeared beside me at the doorway just as mom threw the first dish against the wall, causing the clock to fall down, nicking her arm. I covered Maggie’s eyes with my hands.

—Have you finished your homework, Simon? asked Sissy as we picked at our lasagnas.

—Yeah, said Simon, lying.

—Did you have a lot of homework? persisted Sissy.

—Like a million tons, said Simon. And I got every answer right.

Simon had recently discovered sarcasm and I didn’t like it. I wondered if he’d ever talk straight again. If not, I’d hit him. Hard across the chin.

—Why don’t you wear your glasses anymore? Maggie piped up, addressing me.

But what could I tell her? She wouldn’t understand. Nobody understands anything.

—Don’t worry about it, I said.

See see see, I silently intoned, staring at my little sister.

—Can you see all right? she asked.

—Sure, I can see fine, I said.

—How many fingers am I holding up? she asked.

—Three, I said.

Everybody chuckled.

—Well, I don’t get it, said Maggie. I think it’s stupid.

Aunt Rita looked at me.

—Your mom tells me you think your eyes will improve naturally, she said. Is that it?

I rolled my eyes at her and thought, Nothing will help me from seeing your ugly face.

I said, Don’t worry about, I said.

I picked up my book. On page 85, Rabbit makes love with Ruth, his crosstown mistress. Her nipples are sunken brown buds, her bush a froth of tinted metal. It excited me to read this passage. I felt throbbings throughout my body. When I turned my attention to the story tucked within these pages, my anger abated, my family ceased to exist.

Then, in the present tense, when I look up from my book, the world rushes back into me. It is my presence that creates the world. The candles flickering with hopelessness. Aunt Rita, dumb and helpless, watching over this flock of her sister’s. The store-bought lasagna, ever cold in the middle. Simon, whose feeble mind has never stood still for a single minute, bless his heart, is looking out the window, his plate clean, his desire that dinnertime be over evident in his upward-titled chin, his longing, outward gaze. Dropped again from the sublime world of words into this physical existence of ours, I lick my chops like a beast, looking around at these strange fellow creatures, my family. Maggie’s feet are restless, almost running beneath the table. Sissy sits upright, ever mindful of her posture. The slab of butter, carelessly stabbed at on all sides. The sun is setting out the front bay windows, just over the hedge, out beyond the schoolyard, and the long day is ending.

—When’s mom coming back? asked Maggie.

—Soon, said Aunt Rita. Probably tomorrow morning.

She knew nothing. We all know nothing. The food in our bellies was our consolation.

—What’s the name of the place, again? Where mom is? asked Maggie.

—Redwood Center, said Sissy, certainty lending her confidence.

The name was somehow soothing.

We ate our dinners in silence until Simon asked to be excused and Sissy let him go. It was my night to do the dishes. Such a quotidian task. Names to contemplate: plate, sponge, Brillo pad, Palmolive. Drying rack and elbow grease. I dedicated myself to the job. I scrubbed the five plates — we were using our breakfast plates — and placed each one carefully on the drying rack. The excess water dripped off the plates and onto the towel beneath the rack. The few remaining rolls I put back into a plastic grocery store bag, closed the bag up with a twisty tie. I took the dish cloth and wiped down the counter and the table and the sink. Squeezed the dirty water out of the rag and draped it over the spigot. Stood back and admired the quiet glisten of a clean kitchen. Order, perfection.

Down the hall of our rancher, I got under my covers and opened my book again. A light seemed to beam out from the book as soon as I cracked it. But I did not pick up from where I had left off. I unwittingly returned to page 82. I was ashamed at this failure to exercise my will. But the pull back to the earlier page was like the undertow in the ocean on a stormy day. Stronger than I. What else is stronger than I? Nothing. I come into the present again and, without a forethought, I send out a prayer to a God I don’t believe in that I will encounter nothing else stronger than I. No other such insoluble problems. Please Lord, send me no unworkable situations. I even ask him to heal my eyes, and then am ashamed for having done so. I will heal mine own eyes. Mine eyes. Mine eyes. Have seen the glory but also the extinguished flame. Read about it in a book that moved me to read all night without sleep. Is that not then truth? To read all night without sleep and be moved in the heart. How else am I to discern truth from un-truth besides this inward fluttering? So, my prayer escaped now, no bringing it back, I return to my senses. And beneath the sheets, my hand begins to bring blood to my most precious member.

Galled, he shoves up through her and in addition sets his hand under her jaw and shoves her face so his fingers slip into her mouth and her slippery throat strains.

The fucking bastard. Fucking shithead Rabbit Angstrom. Why does he “shove” her face? My father told me he loved this book. The problem with books is authors are ghosts.

I imagine shoving up through someone. I try to imagine widehipped Ruth, but the face is more like Janie’s from school. There is a frantic passion to my stroking. Quickly now, the sock.
Shame, power, fatigue, vigor. My senses again grow keen. Self-control returns I look around, breathing in close, silently. The corners where the walls met the ceiling sharpen. The walls themselves pulse. My bed, a refuge. I am alone. With perfect concentration, I return to my book. The words flow to my mind like so many soldiers lined up and marching in a parade. There is no time but the time in the story. Fifty pages later I can’t take that no-good bastard Rabbit any longer. Yet, I am drawn to his story like a space ship to a black hole. I fear my own obliteration therein, but fearlessly, I read on. Another five pages.

My lights off, I perform my focus exercises. Work on my night vision. Place my eyes on an object across the room — the dark lamp on my desk. Notice its particulars: the long, black arm, the Philips bulb, the twisting switch on top. Intone: see see see. See. But this slogan morphs into mom mom mom. I allow this, accept this. Come home, mom. Come home, mom. C’mhmom. C’mhmom c’mhmom c’mhmom c’mhmom... Quieter now, a self-whispering, a sleeping... c’mhmum c’mhmum c’mhm’m’c’mhm’m...


The lasagna was cold in the middle. Gross. My stomach hurt. When I put the lasagna in there, it hurt more. Maybe lasagna and Now and Laters and Skittles don’t go good together, I thought, so I didn’t have another bit. When Aunt Rita looked away, I stuffed green beans down my shirt so it looked like I had eaten something. I hate when people bother me about my eating. So what if I eat a lot of candy? Stacy and I like to eat enough candy so our minds go Sugar Loopy.

—Peter, please put your book down, said Sissy.

—Why? he said.

—Because it’s supper and we’re going to talk, she said.

I wanted to know where Mommy was because I had forgotten where she was but I was afraid to bring it up. In my pocket, I found a few leftover Skittles.

When Stacy and I went to the WaWa in town in the afternoon before Mommy threw the plates, we didn’t have any money. Never any money, honey, Stacy says, and we laugh. There’s never any money, honey, she says, and she pats me on the back kinda hard. Her Pa is a trucker and is gone for days at a time and when he comes home all he does is sleep on the couch in front of the TV and watch re-runs of crime shows. Sometimes he leaves change in a bowl by the front door, but we looked today and there wasn’t any. We went to the store anyway.

We had a plan to put the candy down the front of our pants and just walk out the front door.

—I take stuff all the time, Stacy said.

—Really? I said.

—Sure, I do, she said. Because there’s never any money, honey.

We walked down the sidewalk, skipping over the cracks. We held hands.

—What does it feel like? I asked.

—What does what feel like? she said.

—What does stealing feel like?

—Taking candy isn’t really stealing, silly, she said, pausing. It’s gotta be, like, more than five dollars worth to be stealing.

—Oh, I said.

—What does it feel like taking stuff? I asked.

—It’s exciting, she said, and she let go of my hand and ran up ahead. There were dandelions in the lawn of library we were passing through. Stacy ran and kicked one and the white tufts floated up into the air.

Acne-faced Alex was behind the counter at the WaWa. The candy aisle was close to the front and when we got close to the candy, I got scared. The stuff the preacher said at church about the wrath of God flooded my head. Even though I often didn’t quite understand what he was saying, I could tell by the way he swung his arms that he was serious and that I would be in trouble if I broke the rules. Stacy didn’t go to church, ever. She giggled as she went down the aisle stuffing Fun Dip, Pock Rocks and Pixy Stix down her pants. But I couldn’t do it. She egged me on with her eyes, but I just couldn’t do it. The crinkle of the wrappers down her pants made me anxious. And when the cash registered beeped as other people’s items slid across the machine I got really nervous. As we walked out the doors, I felt Alex’s hand on my shoulder, but when I turned around he wasn’t touching me. If fact, he wasn’t anywhere near me, he wasn’t even paying attention to us. Didn’t he think pale, freckled girls like us ever stole anything?

We ran to the park and laughed. In the field, we collapsed and Stacy started pulling out her booty. The sun was hot and the air was cool and even though I hadn’t stolen anything, I felt exhilarated and sinful and alive in my heart.

—That looks like more than five dollars worth, I said.

—Whatever, said Stacy, unwrapping a Now and Later.

We lay back and ate our candy and felt the sugar go to our heads. It was Sugar Loopy time and we sang songs and stomped our feat and steamrolled each other in the grasses.

That was in the afternoon, before mom threw the dishes.

—Eat your dinner, said Sissy to me, all bossy.

But I didn’t feel like it. I wasn’t hungry at all because of I ate all that candy with Stacy and because my stomach felt funny about mom being gone. So I just pulled my leftover Skittles out of my pocket and ate them one by one, slyly so that Sissy and Aunt Rita wouldn’t see me. I think Simon saw me, but he didn’t say anything because he didn’t care. The sweet, candy-red in my mouth cheered me up, but only a little and not for very long.



The world is too loud.
To me, it’s like the music on the car stereo when the windows are down and my sister is yapping and the guitarist is shredding his guitar and the drummer is crashing his snare and the singer is screaming his rock. That’s what the world sounds like to me all the time. TOO LOUD in my head. I can’t control the sounds. I can’t keep them from coming in and I can’t turn them down.

Even at dinner with mom gone and everybody quiet and scared the room is screaming.

Even the silence screams.

What I like most is riding my bike. I rode my bike all day today and I forgot I was supposed to empty the dishwasher. I forget things all the time. I rode my bike behind the school and through the woods. Looking for the man in the woods the enemy the man with the evil in him. The man who my brother said hurt mom. I do not know what the man in the woods looks like, but I am looking for him, and when I find him
I will hurt him.

When I ride my bike the air blows by my ears so loud that it quiets down the world.

I don’t have to go to school tomorrow because mom is gone.

She threw plates against the wall and Uncle Don took her away so now I don’t have to go to school. That makes me happy because I hate school.

Today on my bike when I sensed the helicopter I chased down the sound. What I most love in all the world is heavy metal music and chasing down helicopters. I followed the helicopter through the woods to the river and the whole time I wasn’t even looking where I was going. I was just riding straight through the woods with my ears on the copter in the sky and suddenly I went crash into the creak. Got my clothes all wet and bent the handlebar on my bike. Came home all soaked that’s when mom threw the dishes.

I’m hungry

and this lasagna is cold in the middle, but I don’t care I’m soooooo hungry.

Mom is gone everyone’s mad at me. I can’t do anything right. I can never remember the things I am supposed to remember like math or chores.

Even during dinner when people are quiet I can hear their hearts beating loud and I can feel them feeling things loud. I can hear Sissy’s heartbeat louder than the rest. She is often has the loudest heartbeat and I feel bad for her and want to hug her but if I try and do something like that in the middle of dinner Sissy will just tell me to sit down. I can hear Aunt Rita chewing her lasagna. Everything is so loud it’s deafening.


I’m gonna be straight-up honest here, I always had a thing for Miss S. Not to be crude, but she was in fact a first-class MILF. A Mother I’d Like to Fuck, for those of you unfamiliar with the expression. Yes, Miss S was the neighborhood’s number one MILF before her friend Karen moved in, then they were tied for the neighborhood’s number one MILF. Ms. S because she was so damn voluptuous, you know, with her gigantic knockers and her ass shaped like a watermelon, and Karen, well, because she was young and blond and sexy in that bad Catholic school girl way. Six kids between the two of them and still, Good Lord, you wanted to screw them both. At the same time, if possible. Maybe that’s rude of me to say, but that’s the way I think. I’m constantly full of sexual fantasies. As far as I know, that’s the way all men think.

I used to mow Ms. S’s lawn. You know she had left her husband a while back, and I could see she had a tough time with those kids, financially and emotionally and whatnot. I mean, I saw her foodstamps lying around the kitchen counter once, and I also heard her yell at her kids, especially that younger one, Simon, more than a few times. Without a man around, I knew she had a hard time keeping food on the table and keeping the four of them in line. So I offered to help out and I got to mowing her lawn about once a week. It’s not like it was big deal, my brothers and me, The Giovanno Brothers Co., we mow laws all over town, so we have all the best mowers. When I told them I wanted to mow Ms. S’s lawn, they gave me the eye, like, You know she can’t pay for that, and I said I wanted to do it as a service, a kind of friendly neighborly service. And they said, Yeah right, you just wanna mow Ms. S. And they laughed, and I laughed too. But it’s one of those things, one of those truth on both sides of the coin things. Because, honest to God, on the one hand, I just wanted to do something nice for Ms. S. She was such a good person, you could tell by the way she looked at you. She was the kind of person who looked you in the eye and wasn’t afraid to look away, not at all, not for any reason whatsoever, and yet when some people give you that kind of stare-look, you feel this aggression, like the person is trying to laser you down with their eyes or something, you feel kind of annihilated by their stare, if you know what I mean; but Ms. S, her eye contact was completely different, there was this warmth and openness in it. I know that sounds strange, but believe me, I’ve done some shit in my life, especially in my relationships with women, and when people try to look at me like that, with that intense stare, sometimes I give way, I look away first, because, honest to God, what the hell are they looking for in my eyes in the first place. Most people, when they stare you in the eye, it feels like some sort of test, like, I’m going to stare you down and I’m going to look into your soul and I’m going to see whether or not you are a good person. That kind of aggressive morality test stare, I don’t like. But when Ms. S looked at me, with her special brand of kind intensity, I just felt all right. I’d even venture to say I felt love, in a general way, but honestly, I’m not sure I know what that word means.

So what I’m saying is I really liked Ms. S, and I liked being around her. She made me feel good, just standing around drinking lemonade and shooting the shit. She was always good for a talk, even if she was distracted by the kids, busy cooking them dinner or whatever, and even if she had to slip in some Jesus crap at some point, usually toward the end of our little chats, I didn’t mind, I still loved talking with her. In fact, hearing Ms. S talk about Jesus a few times even got me thinking about that old martyr again, about how he was a swell guy, maybe not the Sole Redeemer of All Humanity or whatever, but a good guy nonetheless, a fellow worth spending a couple of minutes thinking about now and again. Talking with Ms. S and thinking about old J.C. while walking home actually made me feel good. And for all of these reasons — that Ms. S clearly needed a man to help out once in a while, that she was a real good person, and that I just liked talking and being with her — all of these reasons made me want to mow her lawn.

But, I’m gonna be completely honest here, at the same time, I wanted to screw her. God, did I want to screw her. I’d get about twenty steps away from her house, pushing my mower down the street back home, and after a fleeting thought about old Mr. Died On The Cross, I’d be back to the rampant sexual fantasizing that occupies so much of my waking life. I know women like to joke about men thinking about sex all the time, but I am firmly of the opinion that if a woman, say Ms. S for example, got into a man’s mind, say my own hopelessly dirty one, for just a day, just one measly day, they’d be shocked shitless how much we really do think about sex almost non-stop. I read something like every three or four seconds, on average, and I wouldn’t doubt that for an instant. Yes, I wanted to lay that big-breasted, cheerleader-like, Jesus-loving mama like you wouldn’t believe. For me, Ms. S was your classic MILF, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I suppose that’s the flip side of the coin.

But the question is: Could I have wanted to mow Ms. S’s lawn for free purely out of the kindness of my heart, purely because she was a good person in need of a neighbor’s friendly helping hand? Could I just have been being a good Samaritan, as Ms. S always called me? Is that even possible? Or, deep down, in the final analysis, in truth, did I just want to bang her? Who the hell knows. It’s easy to say, Oh, a little of both. Okay sure, but can the truth really be so easy, so ambiguous and guilt-free? I’m not so sure. My hunch is that the latter reason, my raging sexual desire for the woman, is the dominant cause of my supposedly charitable behavior. I’m just trying to be honest. I’d like to believe that I mowed her lawn just because I was a nice guy. I’d like to believe that, believe me, I would, but I’m gonna be honest here, I can’t, I just can’t.



The compost bucket reminded me of mom. In the corner of the kitchen counter, mom kept a green Tupperwear container into which she put refuse: the outer layer of an onion, an orange rind, leftover salad. Then she would take the bucket out to the back yard, behind the raspberry bushes and under the pine tree, and she would dump the refuse into the compost, a small circular space enclosed by a wire fence. I was cooking scrambled eggs for breakfast. Aunt Rita was buttering toast. A fly buzzed around the compost container. Mom hadn’t come home in 35 hours. She hadn’t even called.

I was trying to remain outwardly calm, but my hands were shaking.

—Simon, I said, I want you to take the bucket out to the compost after breakfast.

He was eating Honey Nut Cheerios, reading the comics. He didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen.

—Simon, I said, lifting the wooden spoon to my ear, Did you hear me?

—What? he said, looking up.

—I said I want you to take the bucket out to the compost after breakfast.

—Okay, he said. He stuck his spoon into his bowl and pulled up a spoonful of milk and honeyed oats. The food in his mouth, he smacked his lips.

—Stop smacking your lips, I said.

He didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen. Or, as I understand his condition—Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—from my readings in my Psychology textbook, he hears everything, in fact, he hears all too much, and his mind can’t properly filter the information.

With my wooden spoon, I swatted at the fly. It lifted off a piece of lettuce, hovered a moment, then landed again in the Tupperwear container. Seeing that bucket, I kept thinking about mom. The eggs came out too dry because I hadn’t been paying attention. My mind was all over the place. I hadn’t slept well. I’d been up most of the night, again, waiting for mom to come home or call. My body felt tired and weak and achy. I swatted at the fly—three times I swatted—but it wouldn’t go away. I felt like crying, but I had to hold it together.

—Who wants eggs? I said, turning around with the hot frying pan in my oven-mitted hand. I’m sorry, but it looks like they came out a little dry this morning.

As I served Maggie a heap of eggs, I wanted to yell at her for disappearing yesterday. I hold grudges. But at the same time I was afraid to speak, because I was afraid Maggie would ask about mom. And I didn’t want anybody to talk about her. I felt like if anyone mentioned mom, I would break down. She would be home soon, I was sure of it. Because she had to see me off to the Homecoming Dance with Jason tomorrow night. She would be home by then. It was that simple.

Aunt Rita got out five small plates that we never used and put the toast on them and put the plates on the kitchen table. I was afraid Aunt Rita was going to talk about mom. How she didn’t call. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t called yet. Uncle Don called late last night and talked with Aunt Rita for fifteen minutes. But when Aunt Rita got off the phone and came into the den where we were watching TV, all she said was, “Your Mom’s all right and she’ll be home very soon.” We looked at each other in silence. Simon asked, “When?” and Aunt Rita said, “Soon.” But we didn’t believe her, at least I didn’t. We turned our attention back to the TV, which was playing an advertisement for L’Oreal.

I served Simon and Aunt Rita. Peter declined the eggs, said he just wanted cereal. As I put the pan back on the stove, I saw Maggie open her mouth. Please Lord, no.

—Can I go over to Stacy’s after school today? she asked.

Aunt Rita and I looked at each other. On the one hand, I wanted to let Stacy go, so she could be happy. But on the other hand, I was still angry with her for disappearing and I felt she had to be punished.

—Sure, you can, sweetie, said Aunt Rita.

Since when was Aunt Rita in charge? Where was she all the nights I had spent babysitting?

—Be home in time for dinner, I said, 6:30.

My hands still trembling, I scraped the remains of the eggs—the part that sticks to the pan and peels off in one piece, like a layer of skin—into the compost bucket. I let out a spurt of tears, but no one saw. I kept scraping even when all the eggs were already scraped out.

Then I had the horrible thought again, the thought that had been haunting me, the thought that had been keeping me from sleeping: What if Mommy had died? Because that’s what it felt like. Like she had died. Like she had killed herself. Like we had lost her and no one was telling us the truth. She hadn’t even been gone two days and yet that’s what it felt like. Like she was dead and gone. This thought led to the next horrible thought: What if she hadn’t died, but what if she came back and kept throwing plates against the wall? Would that be better than her not coming back at all? Ever? This was my horrible thought; it had nested in and stuck with me. It returned that day at the most unpredictable times: when I was scraping eggs, when I was taking my math test, when I was standing at my locker with Jason. And again at the end of the day when the final bell rang, the thought devoured me. What if Mommy had died, or what if what had happened to her was even worse. The thought had its own life. It led to other tormenting thoughts: What if Mommy had lost her mind? That happened to people. I’d read about it for my Psychology class. Mommy could have lost her mind. Why not? That happened. People died, and people lost their minds. Both were possible. In bed the night before I had looked up “nervous breakdown” in my Psychology textbook. Because that’s what I’d heard Aunt Rita say on the phone to Uncle Don. That Mommy had “suffered a nervous breakdown.” But my textbook said that this was not an actual medical term. Nevertheless, there was a section in the book devoted to it. Its possible causes included:

chronic and unresolved grief
academic problems
career burnout
social stress
sexual identity
post-war trauma
chronic insomnia and other sleep disorders
serious or chronic illness of a family member
death of a family member
a traumatic, violent, or near-death experience
deception by a loved one

—Sissy, said Peter, can you please stop scraping that pan?

I turned on the hot water and poured soap into the pan and put the pan in the sink under the water. I watched the pan fill with sudsy water then turned the faucet off.

—Sit down and eat something, Hannah, said Aunt Rita.

—I’m not hungry, I said.

—You have to eat something, she said.

So I sat down and took a bite from the corner of a piece of toast. Aunt Rita had put too much butter on it. The center of the toast was soggy and gross and fattening. Even though it wasn’t really butter—it was Country Crock margarine—I still didn’t want to eat it. I nibbled at the edges and prayed silently to Jesus to steady myself.

Dear Jesus, I pray to You in all Your glory. In Your all-powerful, all-loving grace and truth, I beg You to keep my mom well. I don’t want her to die. And I don’t want her to go crazy. I want mom to come home and be well, and when she does, we will all be good to her. We will do our chores and do as we are told and do our Bible studies. I will help Simon and Maggie with their studies because I know they struggle. I will read to them from the Book of John because this is Mommy’s favorite book and in this book Your story is told. In Jesus’s name I pray, Amen.

—Can I have a dollar? said Simon.

—What do you need a dollar for? I snapped.

—I just need it, he said.

—That’s not a good enough answer, I said.

I never know what to say, I thought.

—I want it so I can get something sweet, he said.

—What are you talking about? interjected Peter. Just shut up.

—At lunch, said Simon. I want something sweet at lunchtime.

—Don’t you get a dessert with your meal card? I asked. You should get a dessert with you card.

Simon shoved a spoonful of Cheerios into his mouth and said:

—But the dessert I get with the meal is stupid. Like pineapples or something.

—Don’t talk with your mouth full, I said.

—Get the pudding? said Peter.

—I don’t like pudding, said Simon.

—What do you want for Christ’s sake? asked Peter.

—Peter! scolded Aunt Rita. Watch your mouth.

—I want a Kit-Kat.

—Oh, shut up, Simon, said Peter. You don’t need a frickin’ Kit-Kat.

I stood up and began clearing the table. I could smell a piece of cantaloup rotting in the compost bucket. My chest was tight and I realized if I didn’t hurry I’d miss the bus. I stacked the dishes in the sink and told Aunt Rita I didn’t have time to wash them, that I would wash them later. With a sponge, I wiped down the counter, scooping up the crumbs under the toaster, sopping up a pool of spilled eggs.

I spoke the words in my head: For God so loved the world.

I knew Jason would be standing at the curb when my bus arrived. His bus always arrived earlier than mine so he waited for me outside and then we went to our lockers together. He took me to my locker first because he was a gentleman. I wondered if he was the kind of man my grandmother told me to look for: the man with the biggest mind who thinks the least.

From across the front yard came the sound of the middle school bell. The five minute warning bell.

—Simon, Maggie, did you hear that? I said. Get going.

Aunt Rita stood up and hustled Simon and Maggie along. As Simon was tying his shoes, I saw her take a Fruit Roll-up out of the cupboard and put it into Simon’s backpack. Maggie went la la la out the door as if her head were in the clouds and life was but a song. Pete sat at the table reading his book, eating his cereal; the rest of the action he blocked out. I don’t know how he did it, how he shut out the world and concentrated on his reading. It seemed unfair, almost inhuman. I gave both Maggie and Simon notes explaining why they had missed school the day before: absence due to illness. What else did the school need to know of our private affairs? At the door, I tried to comb Maggie’s hair because she always left it in tangles as if she didn’t even care. But she pushed me away and ran out the door and down the driveway, singing her la la la’s.

—Simon, I screamed, tie your shoes!

I heard the bus for the high school coming down the road.

—Peter, I screamed, the bus is coming!

He was standing right behind me, ready to go.

—I know, he said, it comes every day at 6:34.

Peter can be a real jerk sometimes. He stepped past me. Aunt Rita handed me my backpack and a banana and an apple and said:

—Honey, you’ve got to eat something.

I grabbed my things and kissed Aunt Rita goodbye and ran to the corner, where Peter was standing with one foot in the bus and one foot on the ground, holding the driver for me. For me: a total mess, an absolute disaster. My cheeks flushed red as I boarded the bus and thanked Sam for waiting. I sat down in the second seat and pulled out my math homework. I had thirty trigonometry problems to finish in only eighteen minutes.

I looked out the window and thought of the compost bucket, still full in the corner of the kitchen.

Friday, August 17, 2007


What happened to me on this trip was I decided I wanted to marry Amelia. I was vertiginous with fatigue by the time I finally dropped the car off at the rental place in Harlem. My road giddiness had been replaced by whirling exhaustion. After a zombie subway ride under the East River, I staggered the stairs of my apartment in Bushwick. It was seven in the morning and I had driven straight through the night from a writer’s retreat in New Orleans. I had spent a month in that ecstatic city finishing my first novel. My mind, aligned with my body, was but a soft and detached buzz, the effect of hours and hours of meditative fixation on the road, on life between the yellow and white lines. Bed beckoned my weary traveler’s soul as gently and straightforwardly as I imagine the white light calls us all in the end.

At times like this it was good to live alone. Just me, Mack Wilson, Baton Rouge born, blood writer, jazz lover, amateur mystic. No conversations, no explanations, no expectations awaited me beyond my door. I jingled the key into the dead-bolt lock and pushed through. I heard the sink running. Great, I thought, I’m being robbed. Again. Gentrification had yet to slow down crime in my neighborhood. Last time I was out thirty-five dollars and a brand new toaster oven. Moreover, I felt too tired to put up a fight. But why, I wondered, would a burglar take the time to wash his hands before making his escape? Ever so quietly I shut the front door, leaving it unlocked, just in case. My tiptoe down the hallway made no noise.

Suddenly I felt empty. My mind, not yet thirty years old, took a moment to judge all of life. Facing the threat of a murderer in my midst, I felt so completely exasperated with life, with yes, and with the renunciation of life, with no, and then again with life, and with the after-life or the next-life or the lack thereof, then with the renunciation of the after-life or the next-life or the lack thereof, then again with life, always again with life, with desire, always again with the sufferance of yes. Yes yes yes. Life was a great big yes. There must be some kind of way out of here, I thought to myself, and I was the joker and the thief was in my bathroom. Maybe a good joke would kill him. Maybe that’s what the thief wanted.

The thought occurred to me: this might be the end. And I didn’t care; I was resigned, humbled. Ready to surrender. The end comes, now or the next day, and though what comes next in my book is probably more of the same dream — my matter-energies conserved and transformed — it’s still the end of me. For I understand the end as the end of this, my soul and sojourn, and if this end was hiding, waiting in ambush for me in the bathroom, then so be it. In other words, I was in a rotten mood, courting my own death.

I picked up a black-handled knife in the kitchen and continued my creep toward the end of the hallway. The sink was turned off now and somebody was drying his face on a towel. Oh, the things people do, the things burglars do. Then the guy brushed his teeth. I shit you not. This was the unexpected twist at the end of my trip: a run-in with a hygiene-obsessed burglar. If only more burglars were like this one — patient, confident, clean — then I don’t know what.

I raised the knife over my head, pictured myself a warrior. I would not hesitate to murder this man. In fact, I’d always imagined killing another human would prove rather insightful, if done appropriately.

As I crossed the threshold of the doorway, I thought about God and whether I should settle my bets there.

But waiting around the corner wasn’t God and it wasn’t the end and it wasn’t a burglar. It wasn’t an angel either, though she had seemed to be one for a long time. It was Amelia, my ex-girlfriend, the love of my life. Damn woman still had a set of keys to my place.

“Well, well, well, Amelia,” I said.

I was home and here she was. In the moment, I finally realized my love for Amelia in all its glorious, ordinary fullness. I was ready to prostrate myself, to surrender myself, to go naked before her. For years, I had gone deep. Young souls must go deep. Boldly, alone, into myself, into my writing, into existential truths. But what was all of that now? What’s all of that when a man is in love?

Take a knee, I said to myself. I’d learned to depend upon my inspiration, to trust my inner voice, to have confidence in the secret unfolding of messages throughout my body and in the space around me. I’d learned to see how well the world flows of its own accord and how I merely had to pay attention in order to do the right thing, play the right note. And I’d learned how to take a knee when I had to, how to serve and be served. And so I did. I put my right knee down on the ground in front of Amelia.

The world rushed over my back like a wave. Like the waves that crashed over me in the ocean when I was a kid vacationing with my family on the north Florida beaches. Time, a gigantic wave, folded me into its story, my story, my life. Everything was distilled into poetry, for just a moment, and all the poets themselves cried out a great song of love from their perches in the watchtower. Yes, yes, they sang, an immortal refrain of yes.

Amelia was dressed plainly, in blue jeans and a plaid farmer’s shirt. White, toothpaste foam lined her small, proud mouth. Her ears looked longer than ever, her lobes delicious. Her face was still slightly wet from wash and a droplet of water hung from the bottom of her chin. Her eyes looked tired and beautiful and they said, Shall we go for one more swim, you and I, and see how far out we can go?

Either that, or, What’s with the black eye, Mack?

I opened my mouth, my heart jammed up my throat.

On my knee, I supplicated and I said it:

“Amelia, will you marry me?”

I will always love this woman. While love loves to love love, I love you, Amelia. This was the message my body was sending me and I only hoped she felt the same.

She wept. When I asked Amelia to marry me that morning, she wept. She broke down and cried. This was not what I had expected. At the same time, I saw the truth in her wet eyes: I was in too deep, I needed saving, I needed Amelia. For years, I had lived the life I had always imagined for myself. A penniless artist, like my father before me, who was a jazz saxophonist who’d spent his life on the streets of New Orleans. I had been a bachelor and lover of women. A solitary young man going deep into life’s mystery. As it should be and ever shall be. My soul was a sweet melody that I myself had written. A mournful, cheerful, be-bopping thing. But in this moment clarity struck: I was lonely and I refused to stay this way forever. I was woeful, adrift, steeped deep in the mystery, in the dark melodies. I had just driven home from a writer’s retreat twelve hundred miles away. Throughout the month, I had written brilliantly, like the fucking mad-hatter, and yet, for all my efforts, I had earned nothing. Not a nickel. But all that didn’t matter now.

I kneeled before Amelia, humbled and naked and changed. I had plumbed the depths and now I was returning to the surface. To the real, the factual, the everyday. What was clear was that I loved this woman. The rest, the mystery, would work itself out in time. From now on, I wanted nothing more than to have and to hold Amelia. I wanted to take care of her, I wanted her to take care of me. I wanted her to take this brilliant mess, this mad artificer, this soft, open heart. Take me, Amelia, I asked. Take me, save me. Save me, my love.

But she was crying. Things were not going well. She crumpled down to the floor, sinking into the corner, and cried. I crawled to her and put my hand around the back of her neck. She beat back at me, her half-balled fists flying at my face. She did not want me to touch her. Her feet kicked at my shins.

“You don’t have to answer now,” I said.

“Mack, no!” she said between tears. “Damn you, Mack!” Then she giggled — yes! a giggle! — and asked, “Why do you have a black eye?”

“I got slugged by a pimp,” I said. N’awlins was a tough town.

Amelia shook her head at me. I loved every last bit of this woman, unconditionally, absolutely. I loved how she shook her head at me. How she exercised her freedom. How she so straightforwardly demanded my total respect. How she moved through space.

“I can’t, Mack,” she said. “I can’t.”

“But of course you can, Babe,” I said. “I need you.”

“You need the world,” she said. “You’re married to the sea.”

She had it all wrong: I only needed her. Our love would drain all the seas, shipwreck every boat. The poets were right. Yes is the only word.

“Babe, you’re all I need,” I said. “Our love is all of God’s money.”

“If I come too close, you’ll lose your concentration,” she argued with me. She had listened. “You’ll lose your writing. You’ve said so yourself.”

“Come near to me and prove I’m wrong,” I quoted from a folk song that Amelia and I both knew and loved.

She shook her head no. She scrambled up off the bathroom floor, stormed down the hallway and into the kitchen. Her cheeks flushed, red, furious.

“Stop chasing me, Mack!” she cried. “Please! God!”

I pursued her down the hallway. She stood in front of the refrigerator and stared back at me. Even in the awful florescent light, she looked lovely.

“I can feel your longing in the middle of the night,” she said. “I can feel you lying in bed thinking about me. Don’t you know I can feel these things? You’ve been torturing me!”

So she could feel my spooky action at a distance after all. I stared into the truth of her eyes. She was volatile and I feared the possibilities of the situation, feared failure. I crossed the room, grabbed her by the shoulders, and pinned her against the refrigerator.

“Marry me!” I screamed. She shrieked an incomprehensible noise. It was these two words: marry me. These two words incensed her.

“Dammit Mack, marry you!” she cried. “Now you ask me! Now! Are you mad?”

“No, I’m not mad,” I said. “I’m crazy with clarity. I see what I want now: you. Marry me.”

“I’m not your savior!” she cried.

But she was. Amelia was my savior. There was no salvation outside our love. The poets were right. Yes is the only word. We have our share of paradise in this life, but only a lucky few ever find the secret valley, the sacred world. In a flash, all this became clear to me.

I let go of Amelia and she sank down to the floor, to the base of the refrigerator. I swear I wanted to kick her. If we could just get through this fight, even if I had to kick some sense into her, I knew we would find the secret valley, we would secure a happiness previously undreamed of, we would realize our share of paradise. And I was going to fight for it.

I fell down beside Amelia and pleaded, “Amelia, please. To hell with everything, I want love. I want our love and nothing more. Do you hear me? To hell with everything else, let’s you and me live happily ever after. That’s enough for me. More than enough!”

Again, I propped myself up on one knee.

Ringless, I asked again, “Amelia, love of my life, will you marry me?”

Through a bout of fresh, hot tears, “No, Mack,” she muttered. “No.”

Oh, damn her to hell, I thought. Why not?! Why the hell not! Granted, Amelia and I had been non-committal for five years; we had never fully let go into each other. Ours was the open love affair of two brutally honest artists. Our work was our passion. We had already shared and enjoyed one another for what seemed a lifetime. This was our story. We had even scoffed at the idea of marriage, of family, of settling down, more than once. Moreover, I hadn’t even seen Amelia in a few months. But time is bunk and love is forever.

“Why not?” I cried, taking her face in my hands.

“Because I can’t,” she said.

“Yes, you can,” I said.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Yes, you can,” I said.

A beat of silence.

“Why not, Amelia?”

Amelia, shaking free of my hold, looked down.

“I love you, Amelia.”

She looked up and through my eyes to the truth. And then she said it.

“Yes, I love you, too, Mack.”

The words hung there, a perfect reverberation of space, into which my soul dissolved.

And then she wept again.

“But I’ve fallen for another man, Mack,” she stammered. “He’s asked me to marry him, just last night. And I said yes.”

The words left me hollow. As if I’d witnessed my own soul peter out, witnessed it escape my mouth with the breath. I fell over my knees, bent over myself. She was saying no.

I felt emptiness, the gap. The sound of a single gust of wind passing through a tunnel. Amelia covered her face in her hands. She wept; endlessly, she wept. My body hurt all over. My heart freaked out, beating insanely. And yet, despite the pain, it felt good to have Amelia near. I felt my love and my panic, my desire and my loss, as a single tender ache. In the final analysis, all emotion, both pleasure and pain, is suffering.

I was on my knees, bent over the ground in front of the refrigerator. Amelia threw her arms over me, nuzzled her head in the small of my back, and wept.

“I’m sorry, Mack,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“I'm sorry, too, Baby,” I said.

Amelia was lying to me. A taxi bellowed. The world is mysterious, uncanny, supra-logical. A magnet fell off the refrigerator and hit me on the head, Amelia burrowed into my back, and I said to myself, The girl is in trouble. I don’t know what kind of trouble. Amelia’s own brand, to be sure. And she won’t tell me what’s wrong. And she won’t marry me. Tricky.

I sat with the silence. Then I tried to seduce Amelia.

To bed her: that would fix everything. Bed, the eternal cure. Something in me would not give up. Love, desire, yes-saying. We were crumpled before the refrigerator, me on my knees, bent over forward, as if in prayer, and Amelia too on her knees, slumped over my back, her hands dangling down by my face. I took her palm in my fingers and began to massage her skin. To touch her skin was divine. Each rub slowly moved down the full length of her finger. I was mesmerized by the texture of her skin, its softness, its give. I worked my way up her wrist.

In silence, I explored Amelia’s hands and arms. In her fatigue and shock, she permitted me to do so. Perhaps she was turned on. I don’t know. I didn’t always know what went on in Amelia’s mind; this is why I loved her, for her depth, her mystery. For a moment she responded to my advances with an openness. The thrill of which struck me in the bottom of my spine. The familiarity of this touch. The terrain of her body, a cascade of physical memories. The karmic spark of sexual desire, as if this were meant to be.

I brought Amelia’s hand to my lips. As I kissed her, I felt her entire body lurch and something released and she fell down upon me, more so and deeper now, relieving all of her weight onto my back. We were still in an awkward position, with her hunched over me on the kitchen floor, but such physical details were obliterated by our focus upon the kiss. I turned her hand over and put my lips to the hollow of her inner wrist.

Amelia wanted to make love to me. I believed she still loved me like that. But I was wrong. At that moment, when I kissed her wrist, she pulled back from me, tearing her hand from my grasp. Abruptly, she stood and ran her hand through her hair, as if to dissociate her hand from my caresses. She stood and straightened herself, yet from my vantage point on the floor, the whole effort appeared in vain. We were shaken to the core, and no cosmetics would cover up the raw wound we had just reopened. A spark was still alive.

I stood. She backed up, a step closer to the door. She shook her head at me, her hair falling before her eyes — she looked ravishing in her distress — and she turned to unlock the bolt (it was already unlocked). Then, before either of us could give voice to our desires, to our regrets, she was gone.

In the stillness of my apartment, I took the time to absorb the sudden emptiness, to take stock of the savage scene: a washcloth dripping from the sink, a knife dropped in the hallway, refrigerator magnets knocked to the floor. A pile of envelopes left on the kitchen table: Amelia’s mail. I perused the stack. Each was addressed to her apartment on Powers Street in Williamsburg, where she had lived since had moved out of my place six months ago. The first was a bill from ConEd for a total of $53.72 for the month of July, meaning Amelia had not been using her air conditioner, like a good, green girl. The second was a brochure for a writer’s retreat in California beginning the following week. Amelia, too, was a storywriter. Next, a mass mailing from a 2008 presidential candidate promising Hope is On the Way, A Better America is the Future, a prospect I considered unlikely. There was a postcard from Amelia’s best friend, Ally, writing from the deserts of the west. You’ve got to come to this year’s Burning Man, Amelia. It’s going to be AMAZING. Plus, I miss you. I miss you all over. Next, a blue ValuePak envelope full of fantastic coupons. And lastly, an unsigned letter, with no return address, already opened and read, from someone who had only this to say: Amelia, 2012 is nearer every day. Where are you?

This last letter freaked me out. Was it a joke? A call for help? A lover’s beckon? I had heard enough about the many metaphysical predictions about the year 2012 to know that the year would likely prove whacky, if not exactly apocalyptic. I didn’t believe in the apocalypse. Though, as a committed mystic, while I affirmed a fundamentally esoteric view of the cosmos, I also considered myself a sane man. If one can even says so, if one can validly say anything, about one’s self. But we create our own reality to a degree, so every prophesy, even mad 2012 soothsaying, carries with it at least a speck of self-fulfilling potential. But this was all besides the point. What was important was that, apparently, Amelia was hanging out with a kooky crowd. I wanted to hide her away.

I stood in the kitchen, stared out the window into the alley, and fingered the letters. A mouse ran across the floor, squeaked under the fridge. It’s a tricky world. Dark times. Oh God. Then a melody from a show I’d gone to see my last night in N’awlins bopped through my mind and I began to move about. I stuffed the letters, along with a fresh change of clothes and a cold re-used bottle of water, into my backpack. In the bathroom, I brushed my teeth with my stillwet toothbrush and splashed some water on my face. I turned off the lights, stepped outside and bolted my door. On foot, I made my way towards Amelia’s apartment. Miraculously, I was no longer tired.