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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Wonders

The motel room smelled of gym socks and of the damp creeping up from the cement under the matted orange shag carpet that looked a thousand years old except under the high-back chair where no one walked and it seemed almost new there… springy and still soft when she moved the chair to walk over it in her socking feet. Cindy opened a window to let air into the room but the left-over leaves still attached to the pin-oak tree next to the motel rattled like tiny skeleton bones dancing a samba in the moonlight and after a couple minutes she shut the window. Now, though, she still heard the noise leaking through the thin walls along with the sounds of fucking coming from the next room… she couldn't decide if the noise came from just two people or from twenty.
"I'm not going to lie to you, Cindy," the doctor told her on her last visit. "If you stop treatment now, this cancer will kill you."
"I feel dead already."
"Look… I know you've been through a lot," said the doctor. "And I know you're sick all the time and in pain. But we have this thing on the run… don't quit on me now, kiddo."
"I appreciate everything you've done for me, doc… but I want to live out the rest of my days without having to vomit every few minutes. Maybe I have enough time for my hair to grow back. I hurt all the time. I want to go somewhere… someplace warm… somewhere that I can sit in the sunshine."
"What about your friends and your family? Don't you owe them to at least try and beat this thing?"
"I was in the hospital for three weeks last month," Cindy said, with him glancing covertly at the clock on the wall above her head as if she wouldn't notice. His next appointment must be waiting. "Do you know how many of my so-called friends and family came to see me? Not one… so please, doc… don't try laying a guilt-trip on me. I've made up my mind. I've put everything in order. I'm leaving tomorrow. I just wanted to come by and thank you for all you've done."
She flipped on the television set to drown out the noise still coming from next door, the thump-thump-thumping that went on and on. Christ, she thought, if only Bradley could fuck like that she never would have left him. Lord knows her mother thought him the perfect catch… shit-fire handsome and rich… old money too… the kind that goes on forever down through the generations.
At first, she told herself the fact that he didn't try to initiate sex meant nothing. She sensed he might be impotent, perhaps embarrassed by his infirmity. As time went on she tried touching him but he shrugged her off… he said not now, Cindy. And mother gushed what a wonderful man Cindy had brought home for dinner and to meet the family and how could she tell her own mother that she wanted to feel his big hard dick inside of her… even if just one time.
"You know I love you," Bradley told her as he presented her with an engagement ring. "Can't that be enough? Sex is such a little thing…"
She led him on… Lord knows she did. Did she love him? Sometimes when the pain from the cancer eating her insides grew unbearable and the pills the doctor gave her didn't work she thought it might be a punishment for not telling Bradley the truth. Bad karma… some kind of retribution from on high or from down low, brought on by her malicious and uncaring attitude toward a man who really loved her with all his heart and soul. At least that's what mother said about him… to make her feel ashamed of herself.
Cindy couldn't help it that she liked sex… she liked the way men looked at her when she used to walked into a bar full of them with her tight-fitting jeans and no bra under her tee shirt bouncing with each step feeling all those eyes undressing her and loving it. She craved the feeling of discovering new skin… of a throbbing cock sliding for the first time in between her spread legs soaking wet with anticipation. Each moment though she saw Bradley reflected in their hungry eyes and finally she knew if she married him she would never again be free to explore those wonderful vistas of rugged flesh and intimate longings. She knew he had ways of making sure of that.
"You're a fool," her mother said and she knew it too… she didn’t need reminding.
The pain caught her unawares, stabbing through her middle like a malevolent demon inside of her gnawing its way out bite by little bite. She curled up in a fetal position on the bed waiting for it to pass, praying to a God she refused to acknowledge, moaning silently. The pain grew worse… just when she thought it might be too much to handle and she might scream out in agony, the pain vanished as quickly as it descended upon her.
Thump-thump-thump. She felt it through the wall… through the mattress on the bed. God, how she longed to be fucked like that again. But the doctors had cut off her breasts… her wonderful breasts… and she knew how Bradley must have felt… ashamed of herself… of who she had become, not by choice but by circumstance. All she had now were scars and memories and desires never satisfied.
"We couldn't tell if little Bradley was a boy or a girl," Mrs. King confided to Cindy over brandy alexanders on the patio after she and Bradley had become an item…. a couple… a couple d'amoureax as the French would have it. Leave it to a boy's mother to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle. "Well—Mr. King and I—we so wanted a boy, so Bradley had the surgery, of course. Later, when his breasts began developing, well… of course he had more surgery. I'm sure he's told you all this but it's best to get it all out in the open… especially since he's talking incessantly about marriage. He really loves you, you know."
"I hate it when men look at you like that," Bradley said the time they went to the beach on a boiling hot day in the middle of July and the sun was a blow torch in the sky and she wore her pink bikini and the edges of her nipples were peeking out just so and men kept peering above their sunglasses at her chest and she felt a magnificent sense of power over all of them… that only her choice mattered above all their choices… and she tried to explain that feeling of supremacy to Bradley but he moped all afternoon until she covered up with a towel and no one looked at her any longer and the sense of power faded into resignation.
Yes… Bradley loved her.
The pain started again… this time feeling more like a naked drill bit tunneling out of her liver heading for parts unknown… maybe to her kidneys or perhaps on its way into her small intestines. She reached for the pills shaking out three into the palm of her hand before adding two more on second thought. Her hands trembled so from the pain that she dropped the pills onto the floor before she could raise them to her mouth… they scattered white at first and then out of sight under the bed where dust bunnies and well-chewed gum and dried up snotty Kleenex tissues lived and she cursed the fact that she was ever born. She dumped the rest of the bottle on the bedspread and dry-swallowed five.
A knock sounded at the door.
Had she screamed out? She didn't think so but she couldn't be sure. She started to holler to whoever stood knocking at the door to go away but instead she managed to pry herself from the bed and to wade with shuffling feet through the shag where the chair once sat to peer out the peep-hole. She saw no one there.
"I guess they left already," she said to herself… to the empty room… to the horror that constituted her life. "Wrong room most likely… they're probably looking for the gang bang next door."
At nine years of age she lied and told the whole class in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that her father being an airline pilot could get them all free tickets to go to Disney World. Even the teacher seemed impressed. But then Missy Hinds her next door neighbor the same age as her spoke up saying that Cindy's father died the year before they moved to Kalamazoo and that Cindy's mother told her so and some of the kids started crying with one of them asking if that meant none of them were going to Disney World and the teacher told Cindy she might ought to go to the Principal's office and wait for her there while she called her mother.
When she turned sixteen the prettiest boy in the whole school asked her out but mother said no she was too young so she told the boy yes and complained to her mother how she didn't feel good and went to her room early and sneaked out of her window to meet him down the block where he waited in his car… a shiny black Delta 88 that everyone knew belonged to his father but he lied and said how it belonged to him. Later the boy told all his friends how she spread her legs for him and how he thought she might take up the whole back seat and all his friends laughed at her and made circles with their thumbs and forefingers and poked another finger back and forth through it while they leered at her.
The pills were not working.
She wondered if she should take more or give the ones she'd taken already more time to work. How long had it been? Had she fallen asleep? The thumping had stopped in the room next door so she turned down the sound on the television to listen if she could hear anyone still awake over there or if they'd fallen into a sex-induced sleep. She wondered what they would do if she knocked on the door and offered herself to them?
Bradley had a penis the size of the applicator end of a Q-Tip and scars crossing his chest that looked like boxes where they had cut off his breasts and sewed his nipples back on but they were crooked with one higher than the other or perhaps larger she couldn't be certain since he only let her look for a couple seconds that one time before clutching his robe around him and fleeing from the room as if he might be on fire. She opened her shirt up and stood before the mirror seeing the same shame that she saw in Bradley's face, ignominy and fear of the loathing others might feel at the sight of her.
"I can't marry you," she told him on a rainy autumn afternoon just when the weather turned and everyone knew there'd be no more nice days and summer clothes were packed away while the furnace clicked on at night sending musty smells throughout the house and the flies all died falling on window sills to be swept up when spring rolled around once again. He didn't say anything. He just sat there with the corners of his mouth tugging downward and the lump in his throat visibly absent and his delicate hands fluttering around the collar of his shirt as if it itched but he was determined not to scratch.
Two days later while showering she felt the mass under her armpit for the first time wondering if it had always been there or if it might be something precious and new, a new organ, perhaps… a second heart forming to replace the broken one beating in her chest. She knew it to be exactly two days as she marked each square on the calendar beside her bed with big AB's… after Bradley. Her fingers explored the lump each morning feeling it grow ever so little with each passing day. The doctor scolded her telling her she should have come to him right away and not to have waited six months and she said yes she knew that and she felt like she'd been caught in a lie again like the time she was nine and no one got to go to Disney World after she promised they would all get to go.
The knocking started again.
"Who is it?" she called out, thinking someone had the wrong room again and feeling just a bit irritated at being dragged away from the memories flooding up from the dank dark place where she normally kept them stored.
"It's me, Cindy." A man's voice rang out, familiar somehow and yet remote, a voice out of time, a thing that didn't belong here with the living but rather in the grave. "It's your father, sweetheart… please let me come in."
"You're not my father," she cried out, remembering how she'd spoken those same words the day he left never to return and how he'd tried to explain the lies an eight year old had come to believe in and how after that day she never believed in anything again. Even if you're not our real daughter we still love you, Cindy, he said. We love you all the more because we chose to bring you into our lives. We adopted you when your real mother and father could no longer care for you. She remembered how he cried and got up and left her sitting on the sofa while he picked up a heavy-looking suitcase and walked out the door without looking back. She never saw him again.
She padded to the door still in her stocking feet and when she looked through the peep-hole she saw only night. Are you still there, daddy? She thought the words but she didn't say them out loud for fear that he just might be.
Just before she took her eye from the peep hole the room spun violently out of control and when she tried to make it back to the bed to lay down she instead crashed into the bureau that sat next to the bed hitting it hard enough that she felt a gash open up on her forehead and her eyes fill with red that filtered the light coming from the television set into macabre pink shadows that danced on the walls seeping down and threatened to engulf the awful shag carpet to which her face seemed to now be attached.
She heard the bones rattling outside the window, rapping upon it, wanting to force their way inside. Thump, thump, thump. The sound started again but now she realized her heart made the sound… not the neighbors having sex. It sounded dry and whispery and as she lay listening it stopped. She pondered mildly if she should concern herself with getting it to start beating again. She remembered the quiet as that of the womb just before she sprang into the world squalling and kicking and wondering why. The door opened.
"Come in, daddy… I've been waiting for you."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Twittering

I finally got around to joining Twitter last month... February 2012. I'd heard about it for years (of course) but the whole concept of Twitter seemed rather foreign. I've belonged to Internet discussion groups since 1998 and I joined Facebook in 2008 or thereabouts if my new timeline is correct, but Twitter? I didn't want to be limited to tweets of 140 characters... most of my sentences are longer than that.
Anyway... I told myself that this is the year I'm going to break out of my comfort zone and do more socializing... at least on the Internet. I figure that's a good place to start before branching off into the real world and actually talking to other people. See... if I had my way I'd probably sit in front of this keyboard composing stories most of my waking life.
Fortunately (or unfortunately whichever the case may be) no one thinks my stories are good enough to buy so I have to work in order to keep the electric turned on and the Internet connection functioning, otherwise I receive threatening letters in the mail. Not good, that. So I work part time in the real estate field trying to convince people to buy over-priced properties in an under-valued market... or is it the other way around? I sometimes get confused about it all. Luckily, if I put on a suit and tie people tend to think that I know what I'm going on about, otherwise...
So I took the Twitter plunge and joined up... at first I thought... who am I going to follow? I don't know anyone that twitters. So my account sat dormant for six or seven days while I contemplated Twitter suicide (is there such a thing?) and other scenarios that might alleviate or at least placate the feelings growing in my mind that I was utterly lost and alone in the Twitter universe, other than the Internet prostitutes who were nibbling at my Twitter feed.
By and by, though, I discovered other writers who were twittering... tons of them! Ah! I thought to myself... now that's why I joined Twitter. So I followed one writer, and then another, and pretty soon I started to feel I was part of something a lot bigger than I imagined it being.
It has come as a pleasant surprise that I am learning so much about the craft of writing. My only regret is that I wish I would have joined years ago. I do have a few concerns as my list of people that I follow grows... it seems rather difficult to keep up with all the tweets from everyone, and I'm only following 117 people at the moment. How on earth do people manage to follow thousands? I guess I'll figure that out as the time goes by... or not.
Either way, it's been fun! Thanks everyone!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Thaumaturge - chapter 2

The truck creaked and groaned down the road in the mid morning glare of the sun surrounded by the greenery of the trees and the twittering of birds nesting there. The troupe steered clear of larger cities preferring to camp outside villages and small towns who welcomed the distractions from a hard life that a band of Gypsies offered. They’d stopped for the better part of a week by Penza, making camp a mile out of town, setting up tents and stringing ribbons and posters with pictures on each proclaiming the sights to be seen inside. Torches were made ready. The women took their best dresses stored in trunks and aired them out on ropes that they strung between trees before dressing in them. And then a group of the prettiest girls and women among them journeyed into town walking the rutted dirt road lifting their long dresses so as not to muddy them.
"I don't like those people looking at you." Ivan didn't want Yelena to go. He sulked like a pampered child the night before and when Yelena put his hand on her breast he drew it away… something he had never done before. "I can't help it, Yelena… you are my wife. I cannot stand the thought of men who you don't know looking at you and wanting you the way strange men are apt to do."
"Then I will stay here with you," Yelena proclaimed, although she knew when the morning came things would be different. She said it because she loved him and she said it because it made him happy. "You are the only man I'll ever love… my grandmother told me so. Another man—any other man—looking at me has nothing to do with our love… nothing at all now that I have you. There is only you and I and our love… all other people in this world are but ghosts to me. If I have to go to town with the other women, it means nothing. We are Gypsies… this is our life."
When she placed his hand upon her breast again, he kept it there, fondling her the way she had taught him. She arched her chest under his touch waiting for him to mount her. When she came she shuddered violently clutching at Ivan never wanting to let him go.
"Get up, Yelena, and go with me," Anastasya said, coming to their tent early the next morning and calling to her. Her sharp tone sounded more a demand than a request. "You are a woman of our troupe now… we must all do our part to draw the townspeople into our camp. Our coffers are low and we have many miles to travel before we reach our destination."
The townspeople always seemed delighted to see the arrival of the Gypsies. For them, it meant a festival had come unannounced. Spontaneous celebrations broke out throughout the town with much drinking in the streets and tables brought from inside homes out of doors and laden with good food for all to partake. It was as if the wandering nomads brought a sense of revelry with them into each town they visited, reminding the people that life was more than the drudgery of day to day living.
Yelena suspected that the wisest people who live in the towns where the Gypsies stopped knew they were being fleeced. But they either didn’t care or perhaps they thought giving up a few of their hard-earned rubles for a night’s entertainment was worthwhile. Young teenage boys ran alongside the Gypsy women asking to see their ankles and when one of the women raised her dress to her knees the boys ran away giggling and laughing and pushing one another. Yelena knew from experience that she’d see the same boys at the Gypsy camp later that night carrying coins in their pockets and hopes in their hearts of seeing more than just ankles.
“I don’t like to think of you dancing for anyone but me,” Ivan said when the women returned to camp having spread the word in town about the Gypsy carnival. “Can’t you do something else?”
“My grandmother taught me how to read palms,” Yelena said, knowing her young husband was jealous and loving him for it. “If you help me, we could set up a tent. People like to have their fortunes told. They’ll pay for it. We could make a sign like my grandmother used to have nailed to the side of her wagon… a palm with an eye in the middle of it.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon scavenging white-washed boards from a barn wall behind an old tumble-down farmhouse nearby nailing them together with bent square iron nails they straightened with a hammer on a rock and finding a brush and paint among the jumbled assortment of junk that had accumulated in the old barn lop-sided lee side west but still standing behind the farmhouse. The paint was blood red. The palm and eye looked black in the light of the full moon as it rose first low on the horizon then higher in the sky as the townspeople began trickling into camp migrating first to the torch-lighted tents where pretty Gypsy women danced and tapped their tambourines and later to Yelena’s outlying tent where they plunked down coins, holding out their left hands for her to peer into.
“You were very good tonight,” Ivan praised Yelena later when the crowds had gone and they were alone in their tent and naked in each others’ arms. “I liked how you rolled your eyes back in your head when you were telling fortunes. It looked so real.”
“What do you mean?” Yelena asked, puzzled. She didn’t remember rolling her eyes back.
“When you reached out and took people by the hand, sometimes your eyes went white,” Ivan explained. “I was standing there watching. And you’d speak in a strange voice telling people who they would meet and when they would marry and how many kids they’d have.”
“I don’t remember doing that… all I did was to look into their hands reading their palms.”
“Yes, but then you would touch their hands. That’s what made it seem so real. A shudder would go through you. I could see it from where I stood. It must have made quite an impression on the people as well,” Ivan said, counting the coins in the hat they’d put out. “We made a lot of money tonight, Yelena. More than I can remember ever making.”
“Do I ever speak in a strange voice when I touch you, Ivan?”
“Only when you’re coming very hard,” Ivan laughed.
“I’m serious,” Yelena giggled, punching him playfully. “Sometimes I get impressions from you that I don’t like to think about. Do I ever say anything strange?”
“You tell me not to go. I don’t know what you mean, though. When I ask you where I am going you only say it again… Don’t go, Ivan. Don’t go. I think you might be having a dream but your eyes are open. You don’t seem to hear me though…”
Yelena drifted off to sleep that night with a vague sense of foreboding. She dreamed that she was separated from Ivan, from everyone in the Gypsy troupe with whom they were traveling, and though she searched the countryside calling out for someone, anyone, to answer, no one did. She was alone.
The next morning she was awakened by Russian soldiers rumbling into the camp riding in trucks and carrying rifles. They pulled everyone out of their tents making them stand in a row covered only by blankets while a man who seemed in charge walked down the line with a wooden rod in his hand pointing out men and boys who were immediately pulled out of line and placed in the back of one of the trucks. And then they drove away. That was the last time Yelena ever saw Ivan or his brother Igor. The women and children who were left behind wailed and pulled at their hair.
Finally, Anastasya the Gypsy leader came to Yelena proclaiming this calamity was her fault… that before she had come to live with them their luck was good. Now it had turned ill. She stood pointing a crooked finger at her saying was Yelena’s fortune-telling that brought bad luck to the entire troupe. And that she was no longer welcome to journey with the troupe.
"But I told you we should not go this way," Yelena argued through her tears. "I warned you… but you wouldn't listen… no one would listen… and now look what has happened."
Anastasya walked up to Yelena slapping her face as she cursed the girl. They left her standing by the road with only the handmade dress on her back and the coins in her pocket she had earned the night before. Anastasya knew nothing of them or she would have demanded the money be given over. Yelena was fifteen years old and alone in a world in which she’d never been on her own.

American Jesus

Jesus ached.
He hadn't a clue to where he was… when he opened his eyes the darkness remained. He remembered running away from Massa… he remembered being caught once and whipped and hobbled… and caught again by a mob of ghosts…. turned in by someone he thought of as a friend seeking silver coins paid for run-away slaves… but happened between that moment and this particular one was a blur.
He tested his limbs discovering he could not move at all. He sensed uprightness to his situation rather than being prone but what held him in place seemed a mystery he hadn't strength to solve. An odor of rotting leaves penetrating his nostrils informed him he was out of doors… most likely in a forest or at least at the edge of one.
He wondered for an instant how he had come to end up here… he wondered if he might be dreaming but he couldn't wake up. A fragment of memory from his youth floated into his mind.
"Jesus… you gonna make Massa whip all the black off your hide," he remembered mami warning him. He might have been all of four years old. Mami wasn't his mother… the woman he took to be his real mother had been sold off a few months prior. Her distressed wails at being taken from him were stuffing for his nightmares.
He squalled a little to see her go his tears flowing down his cheeks wetting the dust at his bare feet… and Rachael Massa's daughter who was perhaps ten years older than him felt sorry for the little slave child suddenly bereft of mother. She took his hand bringing him into the horse barn to read him passages from her bible. What started out as a way to salve his angst at losing his mother became a regular pastime for them both… each morning after chores Jesus sneaked away to meet Rachael in the horse barn.
He had no way of knowing such things were strictly forbidden by Massa until mami came across the two of them on a rainy autumn morning huddled in a warm stall with Rachael reading in a quiet voice the parables of Jesus from Luke.
"Was Jesus white?" Jesus asked Rachael, unaware that mami was eavesdropping in the dim recesses of the horse barn.
"No… Jesus was a Jew," Rachael said. "His skin was probably brown."
"Brown like mine?"
"I don't know," Rachael told him. "Probably not as dark as yours but it might have been. No one knows for sure though."
"Child… you better be comin' with mami right now," the old woman said, erupting out of the shadowy stacks of hale bays and hanging saddles like a bad dream coming true. "Miss Rachael… you knows better than to be reading to this here little colored boy… Massa don't allow no learning amongst his slaves… you knows that. If he catches you all in here like this he's like as not to have hisself a fit."
"But it's just the bible, mami… pa wouldn't mind Jesus learning a bit of scripture, would he? After all, he named him Jesus. Why did he do that?"
"What Massa names his slaves is none of mami's business, Miss Rachael. I suspect he liked the name's all. It is a good name. That don't mean Massa won't put a whupping on this boy's rear end if'n he catches you two in here reading from that there book… likely's not he might be putting one on yours too, Miss Rachael."
Mami took hold of him by clamping her thumb and forefinger onto his left ear compelling him out of the barn. He saw the old woman look both ways at the door before exiting as if checking to see if they were being watched. That was the end of his bible lessons with Rachael. But the fire had been stoked and once the coals were burning it was impossible to quench the tiny flames of curiosity springing up in his mind.
"Those who have ears let them hear," Jesus told his congregation. He was seventeen years old… the other slaves had taken to coming to the barn Sunday morning before chores to hear Jesus speak. They were a mottled collection of young and old, toothless from both age and lack of it, and they all sat rapt listening to the teenage boy as he stood atop of the broken Chuck wagon seat Massa kept in there, out of the rain and safe from thieves. Jesus spoke with his eyes closed… he was shy standing in front of so many of the others though he knew them well… and he sensed them all crowding around him rather than saw them.
"This seed is the word of God," Jesus said, holding up a handful of dried corn. He tossed it into the air with the yellowed kernels landing all about… some on the ground, some on the wooden slats that served to hold the hay up off the floor to keep it from molding, some on the people themselves. "To you it has been given to know the secrets of heaven. Faith in the Lord is the way to wisdom… let these words grow in your hearts and flourish throughout the land."
"What's this I hear about you preaching in the barn on Sunday mornings, Jesus?" Massa asked Jesus, looking at him in a way that demanded an answer. Jesus knew better than to look Massa in the eye so he kept his head low staring at the mud caking Massa's shoes. "Is this true?"
"Yassuh… I say a few words… peoples they seem t'like my talking to 'em. Don't know rightly you'd call it preachin' though."
"Well… I'm not sure I approve," Massa said. Jesus could see him stroking his chin whiskers the way the man was apt to do but he didn't dare lift his eyes. "Where is it you learned to preach, Jesus?"
"Can't rightly say, Massa," Jesus said. "The words they just kinda come inta my mind and I opens my mouth and out they tumbles."
"I hear there are colored preachers over Memphis way rousing their people to demand their freedom. I don't like it. I treat all you people good… better than most."
"Yassuh, you surely do," Jesus proclaimed. Hate for Massa began forming in his heart but Jesus knew better than to let it show on his face.
Two days later a man came to the cotton plantation to take Jesus away. Massa had decided to sell him. Jesus rode in the back of the man's wagon until they came to a spot where they had to ford a creek at which point he jumped out and let the current carry him away. Jesus felt as if he were being baptized.
They caught up with him on the side of the creek where he lay drenched and panting. The man put a chain on his ankle securing the other end to the seat of the wagon as he drove Jesus back to Massa, demanding his money back.
Massa whipped Jesus that night. The bull whip sang sweet in the cool night air delivering its poisoned touch to his pristine skin, flaying it away in angry swaths that glowed angry red in the flickering firelight. Massa demanded Jesus be tied to a post in the center of the courtyard and saw to it all the other slaves gathered around to view the punishment inflicted on one of their own.
Massa decreed that night that Jesus be left hanging at the post and in the morning he had his kitchen help take a sharp knife to cut the hamstrings of Jesus so that he could no longer run away. They hauled him from the shackles of the post depositing him in the dirty barn where he lingered in a bed of straw, near death for many days, until his wounds healed and he once again found strength in the Lord.
"If a kingdom be divided against itself it cannot stand," Jesus said, standing uncomfortable in front of the crowd of people who gathered on a stormy Sunday morning down by the creek. He was a man now… no longer the boy who shied away from speaking by refusing to look at his congregation. He stood crookedly bent, high above them on a rock with his eyes wide and wildly open and his voice loud against the silence. "No one may enter a strong man's house and take his goods unless they first bind the strong man… then they may plunder his house. We's not cattle to be bought and sold… we's God's own men and women under blue heaven waiting to be free.
"One day Massa say to us… this tree bears no fruit… cut it down. Why should it use up the ground? I say to him, leave it alone, suh. We hunger for righteousness and freedom. I say to him… we's patient, suh… but we's not that patient. If'n Massa wishes to cut down the tree of freedom then I say we must bind him… we must bind the strong man as the Lord so sayeth and take what is ours. Are you's all with me here'n?"
"Yassuh…" the congregation all called out, their cries filling his ears. "Yassuh… we is with you till the end. We'll fight with you, Jesus. We'll bind that strong man and we'll plunder his rich house and we'll take our freedom for our own!"
*****
But one man crept away unseen. Massa paid this man an extra share of food to report all he heard when Jesus spoke. In a short while a white mob dressed in sheets came for Jesus, pulling him from the rock, calling for his blood, stripping him naked, stoning him with fist-sized rocks until he lay dazed in the sunshine pouring down from blue heaven above. They took Jesus and they gouged out his eyes so he couldn't find his way to his God, and carrying him away they spread-eagled him nailing his arms and his ankles to a tree at the edge of a black forest that grew in the shape of a cross while Massa watched in the distance high on a hill atop his white stallion that pranced under him like Satan chomping at the bit to carry him into hell.
*****
Jesus ached.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Better Place

I have a simple goal in life: To make the world a better place. There are many ways to do this and no one way is necessarily better than another. I tell myself how much I care about making the world a better place and then something like this happens…
She gets about seven hundred dollars a month courtesy of Uncle Sam... her widow's benefits. They take a part of that for Medicare so she has about a hundred fifty bucks a week to live on.
She's often lonely so when she sees the "OPEN" sign lit at the real estate office she'll stop in to say "Hi" and to grab a couple pieces of hard candy I keep in a big glass jar on the reception counter. I suspect she must have been very pretty many years ago and she still takes great pains to put her makeup on just the right way and to keep her hair dyed and fixed up nicely.
Time has its own way of winding down a body though and anyone can see she is slowing winding down. Her mind is sharp but I notice of late that she repeats herself more and more or perhaps she's simply refining her stories, recalling in each telling more and more detail until the stories come alive once again in her mind. When her hands tremble she turns away as if to hide a terrible flaw but she keeps talking.
Her name is Ana, short for Anastasya. She came to America from the Ukraine and from Russia before that. When I listen closely I hear a lilting trace of accent in her voice. She tells me that her journey to America took place just after the Great War. They'd gone to an art fair in Kiev, her and her mother. Her mother had met an artist exhibiting at the fair and they had fallen in love. The artist married her mother and brought them both to America to live in a little brown house at the edge of a large blue lake. She talks often of that period in her life so I've come to understand it as one of the happiest times in her memory.
Some time later she would marry a man who beat her and punched her in the stomach when she told him she was pregnant. She miscarried on the cold tile of the bathroom floor in the apartment above an old rundown Laundromat where they lived. She tells me of how she could smell the exhaust from the dryers below and how some time after that, her husband Donald became very ill and died before the doctors could figure out what was wrong with him. She tells the story as if it happened to someone else and then she skips back to telling me again of her childhood.
They lived on boiled potatoes and beets when she was very little and the beets stained the potatoes red and she fussed to her mother about it. She smiles at the memory. One day her mother brought home a goat named Lila. The neighbors all laughed when they saw Ana's mother feeding the goat lollipops and Tootsie Rolls but when she drank the milk Ana could taste the sweetness. She never liked the taste of goat's milk before or since. "Oh, you should have tasted it!" she exclaims as she helps herself to coffee and donuts that I bring into the office for customers who happen to show up on Saturday mornings.
The day is bright and sunny but it's bitterly cold. Ana seems to stop into the office quite often on such days. "I was born in Russia," she confides to me. "When I was very little the doctors told my mother we should move south to the farm belt. I was so scrawny. The doctors said only a diet of good farm food would fatten me up properly." She laughs. I see she has forgotten her teeth today, or perhaps her gums are bothering her again.
She lives kitty-corner to my office in a rough, weather beaten gray-shingled bungalow wedged in between an Ace Hardware called Stephenich’s and a gas station with a large brightly lit sign that flashes 'MARCLEY'S' over and over and over throughout the days and nights. Her front yard is concrete and she says her water tastes of turpentine. She mentioned to me once that her roof leaked. One day I bought a large blue tarp and spent an afternoon draping it over her roof and trying to secure it by tying it down to the rusted gutters but the wind soon blew it flapping loose.
She named her only daughter Zoya. She was born much too early and only lived a few minutes.
"In Russian, 'Zoya' is spelled with only three letters but it's pronounced the same," she informs me, between bites of donut and sips of coffee. "Something inside me was busted after Donald beat me that time and I couldn't have babies after that," she says matter-of-factly looking at my cup before pouring herself more coffee.
"I'm sorry," I stammer, embarrassed at being privy to such an intimate story.
She just giggles.
"I dreamed of goat's milk last night. I used to dream of it all the time when we first came to America but not for a long time before last night," she says, her eyes looking wistful and losing some of the hardness that wears around their edges. "Mother had a little hand bell she would ring and you know what?"
She looks at me expecting an answer but I just shrug. She takes another bite of donut and licks the chocolate from her fingertips.
"That goat would just come a running whenever my mother rang that bell, no matter where she was," she said, looking at me for some kind of approval. I nod and smile and sip my coffee.
About that time the bell above my door tinkles eerily as if it heard us talking of bells. A fat man wearing a heavy parka and blue jeans walks into the office followed by a fat woman wearing heavy overalls and a red scarf: Customers. Ana rises silently and dangles a hand over her shoulder as she exits out the back door.
A couple days later when I open up the office in the morning I look out the window and notice police cars sitting across the street in front of Ana's, along with an ambulance. There seems no particular hurry. I stroll over. A policeman meets me in front of the little bungalow, asking my business. I give him my card and tell him I know the woman who lives here. He says she is dead. He says that the postman knocked on the door two days in a row and no one answered so he informed the authorities.
The police went in and found her dead in the garage. She was living there since the house was uninhabitable. The roof had leaked so badly that all the drywall had fallen off the ceiling followed by the insulation. He says come on in so I follow him into the house. Standing in the living room you can see the hard sky. I shake my head. I cannot believe what I'm seeing and hearing.
"It looks like she froze to death," the policeman says as we watch two men dressed all in white roll out a gurney cart with a black bag on top of it the size of Ana. "We found a half bottle of vodka next to the lawn chair where she was sleeping. I guess she just drifted off."
I walk back to the office and turn on the open sign. I think to myself how misplaced our priorities as a culture have become. As long as someone has enough, they really don't care about anyone else. I jump at the sound of the bell above my office door tinkling yet I see that old blue tarp on top of Ana's roof blowing in the breeze and never give it a second thought. How many others noticed? It was a hard thing to miss.
Is my goal in life merely something to which I pay lip service? Is my goal something that I keep in mind only when it suits my own purposes? What's it say of a culture that lets an old woman die all alone in a country half a world away from her home? We're all part of the same hypocrisy I suppose. I pour a cup of coffee and vow to do better in the future. But inevitably I find I am too busy to remember the vow, working to fulfill the wants and needs of my clients and customers and myself. I forget about things like old women and goats eating lollipops and blue tarps blowing off roofs to let the rain in. I forget to care about important things.
Quality comes a knocking and I say, "Go away, I'm waiting for Quality." I find that I need constant reminding to care for others. Perhaps we all need that...