Archive for ‘Stories’

September 2, 2013

My Mind has a Hole

I am sitting in a Starbucks about twenty minutes from my home. When I left home, I wasn’t hungry. After a long morning at church, I had much to think upon and write about; my mind  churned as my tires turned. And then, half way to Starbucks, the pangs of hunger laid their hands upon my stomach; why had they not appeared before I left home? Before I left the residence of food I had already paid for?

The need to be satiated drove me to make a pit stop before Starbucks. But my mind continued to churn over the morning’s significance as my teeth gnoshed on green noodles. When I arrived at Starbucks, I stood patiently as the busy baristas prepared my simple coffee, and waited for my computer to turn on and connect and load. But then I found my churning mind had leaked everything I had pondered; there was residue caked to the walls, but the meat I had previously gnawed upon, tasted and moved about my mouth with my tongue, was gone. Like the keys that slipped through the hole in your pocket; like the wallet nested in yesterday’s pocket when you find yourself at the restaurant.

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May 25, 2013

One Evening

He put down the paper coffee cup. His stomach issued occasional murmurs of want, but these were growing more infrequent as it began to recognize the left over pasta that he had hastily shoveled into his maw. That was twenty minutes ago. In another five his stomach would be content – no, grateful – that he hadn’t heeded the cries for more food.

He had nuked the leftovers, his own interpretation of Chicken Tetrazzini, and booked it out the door. He now sat at the square Starbucks table, sipping at his excuse to sit unbothered, with his laptop unfolded. This was his night to be productive, to remove himself from the isolation of his room and transplant him in the isolation of a public corner with headphones. Here there were none of the innumerous and detailed tasks associated with house-rentership and no roommate whirlwinds to be corralled. There was just whatever he wanted to accomplish. Not that much would be found completed when the barista came to evict him, but there was promise for the evening.

Last night had been a different productive. Everyone had been home, a rare occurrence, and there were even a couple guests, of the girlfriend and long lost friend varieties. The variety where hellos and flummoxed introductions are great, but third-wheeldom is thoroughly uncomfortable. Some days that discomfort is requisite to future friendships, but last night was not one of them, at least in foggy foresight.

So he retreated to his Lair. He hadn’t dubbed it that, but it was preferable to his previous Dungeon, which he had also not named. Dungeons are sadistic torture chambers that belligerently betray the hopes of their inhabitants, both captive and captor. Lairs are seductive and sultry, where the venturous explore, engage, and emerge triumphant. He had crawled into bed, cool sheets lighting upon his bare calves. The desk lamp beside his bed cast its gaze not towards his face, but towards the adjacent eggshell wall, which absorbed the light and then gently dispersed it over the book before him, like a saturated sponge, squeezed.

His reflection on last night’s reading was interrupted by the microscopic earthquake in his pocket. “B ther n fiv”: his brother’s hasty text. Andrew had spent the past two weekends not only torturing his fuel and discretionary budgets with trips to the Twin Cities and Grand Rapids, but also his brother with his absence.

He took another sip of the lukewarm coffee. He crumpled his nose and stuck out his tongue in minor dissatisfaction. His next sip, probably his last gulp, would be truly repugnant, as it would not be for another five when the forgotten dredges of the cup had turned frigid. But this was every cup of coffee that was not hurried and tonight he was not hurried. Andrew’s imminent arrival would slow the already meandering night until the barista, tonight it would likely be the balding-well-before-middle-age-Bill and not the slightly-flirtatious, slight-but-curvaceous, college-cutie, Tinley, kicked them out far before they were ready. Just as well; he didn’t come out to flirt tonight.

The door opened, but his headphones insulated him from its activity, even if the entering cool spring breeze brushing the plentiful golden tan fields on his arms made the joints of his lips curl upwards. He continued to stare down the Word document, tapping intermittently at the keyboard. Ponder, ponder, ponder, type, type, backspace, re-ponder.

He picked up the cup of coffee, gauging its contents by the feel. “Hmm, two more gulps probably. I really wish Starbucks served Irish Coffee.” He started the first sip, and then, attempting his best reptilian jaw dislocation, took the entire sop. His cheeks ballooned to contain it and his eyes widened in disgust.

“Sup, Little Man!” Andrew set his pumpkin latte on the table before grabbing the chair opposite and slipping the forest green messenger bag from his shoulder. He had used this term of enragement for his older brother for years, continuing to the point where it was appropriated into their vernacular.

Little Man swallowed the bilge and slowly withdrew the headphones from his ears, glaring at Andrew – 90% playfully for the sobriquet, 8% for his sneaking up to the table, and 2% residue from the taste of cold coffee – saying nothing. Andrew sat for a guilty minute, gauging his brother’s pique, waiting, to mirror the grin lurking behind the glower. And then it broke.

“Hey Punk. How was your day?”

Andrew lifted the cup for a quick sip while his brother shut his laptop. “I’ve had a hell of a day. Didn’t do anything all morning, really; class – Spanish – and whatever, but nothing really. Then I went to work and that was just stupid. No one came in all afternoon. I just walked the aisles of the store tweaking box alignments and crap like that. Then dinner and just came out here. How was your day?”

He handed Andrew his empty cup and nodded toward the trash can behind him. “Be a dear?” Andrew reciprocated the 90% mocking glare his brother had welcomed him with, “I hate you so much right now”. Guilty grins all around as Andrew snatched the cup.

“Thanks. My day was meh. I think I don’t really remember – like normal – just a blur.” It was true. Sometimes it was just the easiest thing to say and other days it was the easiest thing to remember. Today it was true. It was also true that sitting there was the highlight of the day. “But work was good, I think. And nothing is really going on, probably. What did you bring to work on?”

“Nothing terribly specific. Spanish project on the culture of some country, a wellness journal, a..”

“I hated wellness”

“You’ve told me a thousand times.”

He grinned. “Sorry, continue.”

“Thanks. Anyways, a wellness journal and I’m brain storming for Lewis’ final project.”

“That’s awesome, I loved Lewis’ final project. The freedom to tackle Medieval Lit with whatever approach you want. What are you thinking so far?”

Andrew took a short pull from his latte. His pumpkin infused coffee breath drifted across the table as he sighed, staring at the circle his finger was tracing around the lip of his cup. “I’m not sure yet. I’m considering drawing a cartoon sort of thing. Harking to da Vinci’s Last Supper, a gemishekhts of a dinner party with character’s we’ve encountered this semester.” He quickly glanced up at his brother, stealing a quick, reciprocated smile at the Yiddish he dropped into their vernacular. “That’s really the frontrunner, based on its being the most solidified concept I have. I’d then write the short paper explaining the significance and whatever. What did you do? What did other people in your class do?”

“Ha, that was the class I attempted the Iron Maiden homage that failed when I couldn’t do Bruce Dickinson’s vocals.”

“What?! You submitted that to Lewis? I hadn’t realized that! That’s hysterical!”

“Yup.” His voice dropped an octave as he elongated the vowel. “I think it’s still on MySpace. But everything in it was defensible – school-wise, not musically – so I got a decent grade. I also wrote the explanation paper as though the song – wait, maybe not the song, but definitely the lyrics – as  though they were a medieval work that I had discovered and was analyzing.”

“Nice”

“Yeah, it was fun. I’m trying to remember what other people did. I had one friend – okay, he was from Texas, so the term ‘friend’ can only be used loosely,” impudent grins were exchanged – “who wrote a romance as a western. One of the neighbor girls did a photo essay. She took pics that she thought reflected aspects of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and wrote about those. There was a trifold poster presentation on the Mystics and few other creative writing submissions. But there were a lot of papers.”

“Really? I wouldn’t have expected that.”

“Yeah. I think part of it was the superiority complex of a lot English Lit majors, and I guess liberal arts students, to provide “serious analysis” of every piece they read. Plus there were just some weird, high strung people in that major and that class. I think I’ve told you before I hate a lot of English majors, but it was particularly true in that class.”

“Haha, yeah.”

“But I think a bigger factor is that people were intimidated by the freedom that Lewis extents. There is a comfort in having your routine for writing a class’ final paper. You may have a creativity that begins and ends in procuring and supporting a thesis –and that’s great – but the sudden opportunity to not write a paper changes the playing field. They’d prefer the relative normalcy of a research paper as a practiced intellectual task. Know what I mean?”

Andrew took another drink from the latte. Gyrating the cup in his right hand, he gauged its weight before setting it on the table and clasping both hands around it. He fixed his gaze to it. “Yeah, I do. And that is a little bit of where I’m at. I know that in a pinch, if I hit a creative wall I can go write a paper. But I really hate writing the papers. Actually, no. While I’ve relatively enjoyed the stuff I’ve read for this class, I’ve held little more than distain for the most of the other stuff I’ve read this past year. And having to write on stuff you don’t give a shit about is an abysmal process.”

Little Man threw his head back and issued a single “ha” that sounded eerily akin to a cough expelling phlegm, his consistent response to sudden humor that didn’t merit prolonged laughter, but surprised enough to receive more than a warm smirk. “Yeah, that’s school, that’s life.” He leaned forward, negotiating the presence of his closed laptop with his elbows, and began working his index finger along the flowing grain of the faux oak table. “Doing a lot of what you don’t like, or at best give a shit about, in order to occasionally do what you love. There are a lot of socks, boxers, and undershirts to be washed regularly in order to live between wedding receptions.”

Andrew raised his hands and shook his head, smiling incredulously. “What?! What are you talking about?!”

He threw a sideways smirk at Andrew and glanced up from under his brow. “I guess it’s a tangent I derived from a book I read for Senior Sem, The Quotidian Mysteries by Somebody Norris. Hang on, this is going to kill me.” He stared down at the tile floor, snapping his fingers irritably. “Jeez, what is her name? This is going to drive me nuts all night.” He stared at the floor and snapped his fingers, as though beckoning an errant puppy. “Gah, what the heck? Ah, I give up.

“Anyways,” he looked back to his brother, “I can’t say it’s directly from it, but what I derived from that book, and a lot of the class, was to find the holiness in the mundane and be content with it, because that is most of what makes up life. A lot of literature, a lot of good literature, focuses on regular boring life or how to live a normal life in light of the extraordinary event. We build our thought upon the potentially extraordinary, despite the majority of life not being what we deem “extraordinary.” Yet thought still permeates the ordinary life; our lives are being gently steered by philosophies that face no challenge until we hit the extraordinary event. Then push comes to shove. That is what I love about Dostoevsky; his characters voice their ideologies in leisure, but then he introduces the extraordinary that forces each character to take their ideologies to the full extent or relinquish them. This is only compelling because he is able to give every character their own voice in an authentic way, even when he disagrees with them.”

Little Man leaned back, slightly embarrassed by his emphatic description.  “They are also really fat books,” he added cheekily.

“Dude, you and your fat books; you are such a character. You are a total English major,” Andrew goaded him, “just like the ones you hate.”

“Shut up. I’ll kill you,” his brother growled, holding the practiced glare for as long as possible, which wasn’t long, before grinning.

Andrew’s laughter at the familiar idle threat broke over characters filling the coffee shop, the proselytizing students, the gossiping teenage housewives, the old men and their newspapers. There was no line at the register, and the baristas cleaned machines and wiped counters chatting idly, occasionally glancing at the time on their cellphones. “No, you are usually not one of those characters that aggravated your education, but you genuinely love reading books and talking about books past the point of being embarrassed by it.”

Little Man again focused on tracing the wood grain. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Andrew continued. “You know, I became an English major for a couple reasons. The first was because I like to write and I try my hand at journalism when I can; Wheaton doesn’t have a program that specifically caters to that so I picked the next best thing. Second, I saw how much you enjoyed it.”

“I’m glad I have so much sway over your decisions. You will now give me your new baseball bat,” he waved his hand in a weak Obi Wan Kenobi impersonation.

Andrew focused another death glare upon his brother. “Shut up. Jerk.”

Little Man issued another abrupt guffaw. “Speaking of enjoyments, I just finished another book last night. The Art of Fielding. I think you’d like it.”

“Yeah? What is it?” Andrew’s face was both curious and skeptical, deservedly so. Little Man had a habit of imposing his tastes – literature, music, and television, but not clothing – upon his younger brother. His success rate bested fifty percent, but not overwhelmingly so.

“Well, it’s kind of about baseball, specifically a single college shortstop in pursuit of defensive perfection, but it’s primarily a relational book, examining a number of different relationships all revolving around this shortstop.”

“Huh.” Andrew peeked at his phone. Little Man continued despite his distracted audience.

“Yeah. The author does a very good job of developing characters, whether this particular shortstop, his gay roommate, or my favorite, the team captain who recruited him. He is me, but with the skill and persistence for college ball. Catcher, football player, bad knees. He’s a history major, which was my Plan B. And last but not least, he’s very Jewish, to the point of being very hairy.”

Andrew’s outburst of laughter caused a couple of other tables to crank their necks towards brothers.

“Yeah, I was written into the book. But beyond the literary version of me indulging my ego, it is a very good book. From the relationship point of view it delves into teammates, friends, romance. There is a homosexual relationship that is addressed sympathetically, but without being too patronizing. The pursuit of perfectionism is put under the microscope as well; there are a lot of broken characters who are forced to look at their imperfections.

“The book has its own imperfections. The author wanted a larger story than he had the energy or ability to execute – when perfectionism begins to unravel it does so too quickly. The expectation that he has to have the ends tied up by the end of the book – and maintain a readable length – causes the story to burst at the seams. But the first two thirds are excellent. It’s inspiring to see a not-dead guy write that well.”

Andrew chuckled and glanced at his phone again. “Ugh, dude, it’s getting late. There’s no point in me starting anything here because I’ll have to pack up as soon as I get into a groove. I should just go.”

Little Man voiced his displeasure with a drawn out but quiet boo followed by a definitive, “you suck.”

“Dude, don’t even start. You’re the one who talked my ear off about your books. I didn’t even get the chance to open my bag.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I guess I was on a roll.”

Andrew rose, slinging the strap of his bag over his head. “Don’t worry about it. I still had fun. I’ll be around this weekend; what are you up to?”

“Friday night I’ll be celebrating a coworker’s birthday. Nothing Saturday. I assume I’m picking you up for church on Sunday?”

“Yes, please. You want to hit on Saturday? Forecast is clear.”

Little Man straightened at the suggestion. “Yes, please. I’ve been itching to play for a couple weeks now; basically, since the last time we played. I’ll see if I can scrounge up some more guys.”

“Sweet! Okay, I’ll see you later.” With that, Andrew walked briskly out the door into the spring evening. The store windows faced south, so the setting sun wasn’t directly visible, but the descendant arc was noticeably more progressed than it had been earlier. The outside world was polarized; darkening shrouds draped the eastern lies of every tree, car, and person as the western poles were bathed with the caress of the setting Midas.

Little Man reopened his laptop, scowling at the indigo glow as it slowly resurrected, bringing forth his work. Now that Andrew was gone, he’d have to meander back through what he’d written to restore the voice. There were some people who could just write, carrying with them a bag of voices to pour out upon the page. Some writers could draw out sweeping narratives in hours, leaving the minutia for another time or their copyeditor. He could not. He belabored the minutia – grand scheming be damned. Every word was a puzzle piece to be twisted, contorted, and connected to another piece that was twisted and contorted and purposefully selected in relation to the next. Which twisted the knife when he’d realize he’d forgotten to type a word. Or painted himself into a narrative corner with his details. Or discovered there was no exposition to follow his ornate epigraph. His unfinished, directionless Word docs could fill a flash drive.

He glanced at the clock. Bill would be making the rounds soon.  Andrew had left twenty five minutes ago; the same twenty five minutes he’d just spent staring at a screen. He hadn’t written a word, or deleted or rearranged any. He’d just stared. The shop was now devoid of patrons apart from a student staring at his own screen in a distant corner. Norah Jones wafted out of the overhead speakers, giving texture to his stare.

Knitting his fingers into a yarmulke, he leaned back and rested his feet on Andrew’s vacant chair. The words were not ready. He’d sit and wait for them to grow. They probably wouldn’t come before Bill would, but they could maybe germinate or fester until next time. But until Bill came he’d just sit and ponder.

April 6, 2013

That Which We Don’t Want to Talk About

I am still in my work clothes – black wingtips, black slacks, and a dark blue oxford with the sleeves rolled above the elbows, tie slackened to unleash the collar – when I walk in the apartment door. It’s not my apartment, but I’m somewhat of a frequent guest. I went straight to the hospital after work and then I came straight here. I suppose I should be hungry, but I’m just nauseous.

I glanced at my friend who does live here, sitting on the couch, his elbows on his knees and hands supporting his head at the temples. “Is he here?” I ask meekly.

“Hey,” he says, noticing my entrance. “Yeah, he’s in the back room. He just got here himself.”

I walk to the back of the apartment, taking care as I can to step gently. My steps leave no extraneous creak or echo in their wake, but each one still leaves its impression on the apartment. The sun soaked day outside had necessitated no coat, but I suddenly shiver and see the goose bumps rising on my forearms.

I approach the shut door of the back room and knock.

***

He’s a hardass; in a prior life he traced the gang life. His low voice is gentle, but the aggression which lies dormant is unmistakable. He married his baby’s momma when he got out of prison, twenty 27 years ago. His baby. Let’s not talk about his baby. His baby is why we are both here. I and this fifty year old. We know why we’re here and try as we might to not talk about it, we cannot.

“How is the family?” I somehow manage to ask, despite the stone lodged in my throat.

Twenty seven years ago he emerged from one hollow – a life of cracks and fissures. He caulked the cracks, kneaded putty into the fissures and applied a new coat of paint. But sixteen years later, new cracks emerged below the paint; eventually the depressions broke through and the paint chipped away. An expert, surveying the damage, offered his own prescription to restore the façade. Professionally sealed cracks, but running your finger along the surface and you can still feel the ridges.

“We’re okay man. I mean, my wife is distraught— worried. She was hysterical. The kids don’t know—the younger kids— the older two obviously know, but the younger ones don’t. They never will.”

“Mm, yeah…” I murmur knowingly as though I know anything.

His eyes are red rings of sleepless horror. He occasionally pauses, as though to wrap his fingers around his next composed breath, drag it into his clenched lungs, and force it out his pursed lips. The composition of his pristine goatee has inclined severely toward the greyed spectrum since we last met; the cap screwed upon his head obscures most of his hair, but the patches peeking out share the same range of hues— the stark blackness folding into elderly greys.

But those eyes. From the red rings, extending inwards, are rivers of blood screaming.

“So how is work? Are you still at the same place?” his voice is wrenching around those words, as though they are bolts and nuts which he has to spit out.

Do I realize what I had interrupted when I knocked on that door? He’s barely slept in days and if he was about to cry from shear weariness, he…

“Yeah, same place, same thing. Work is good. Nothing new going on.”

Of course— I realize now why that door was shut. Why, though his body clock said it was only 8 pm and it was only 9 pm here, he was “going to bed.” Why when I knocked there had been some hasty scrambling before he came to the door.

“How is working going for you? Are you still doing what you were before?”

“I have been. And it’s been fine. We’ll see what happens now, though.”

He’s not a small man. His second son will have his build when he’s 50. Rarely going to be the tallest kid on the block, but neither the shortest; you’re never going to mess with him, even if he doesn’t have his father’s jagged history. This is a brick of a man. A brick of a man whose baby is in a mental hospital after attempting to kill himself. A brick of a man who hasn’t slept in days because he’s trying to bring his baby home and the doctors won’t let him yet. The only thing he wants this evening, besides to have his baby in the car on the way home to his baby’s momma’s house, is to cry – from sheer exhaustion, from despair that this has struck his family again, from fear that his baby is broken just like him, from joy that the angels were on that bridge – and go to sleep.

And then I knocked on that door just as he was about to unscrew his eyeballs from their sockets and let the torrents spill out. And those eyes are staring at me like I’m staring back at them. As though a wayward glance will melt the hall we’re standing in and we’ll disintegrate into puddles of glycerol and pyramids of multicolored sand.

“Well, I just wanted to say hi. I’ll let you get to bed.” I grab his hand and wrap my left arm around for the hug; we pull each other tight. They’ll probably leave in the morning, maybe the next. I won’t be able to see them off. I’ve got a trip of my own to make – to hug my own father, my own mother, my own siblings. We release each other and I hastily retreat back down the hall, escaping the staring of those sleepless red pools. Behind me I can hear him close and lock the door.

January 16, 2013

A Bit of Goose Down, Harbored

He is already in the pew when I walk through the sanctuary doors.  I genuflect and take my seat four rows back. He has been there every Sunday that I’ve been there over the past four years, so I have no reason to assume he’s ever missed a Sunday, outside of the fact that he’s human, but given my seasons of spotty attendance, I make no guarantees.

But he’s impossible to miss.  He imposes himself upon your memory. His smooth head is free of nicks and the goatee surrounding his pursed lips is conscientiously trimmed. The skin of his brow balled up at the top of his nose as he scowls warily ahead. The first time I saw him, a Wisconsin Badgers football t-shirt, of the team unity variety, was stretched across his shoulders.

What had happened to him? I am, not for the first time, perplexed. He is six foot five, two hundred forty-eight pounds of muscle, and another fifteen pounds of fat. Why is he not at least on an NFL back-up? He could devour any foursome in this church. Why is he here on a Sunday and not preparing for a coliseum?

We have been standing through the processional of Lift High the Cross, and we remain so as the priest leads us in the liturgy:

“Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.”

“His mercy endures forever,” we reply in splintered union.

The worship band, making one of its better organ-less attempts at traditional sober church music, leads us in a variation of the Kyrie.

“Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy; Christe eleison, Christ have mercy.”

I stare down, toeing decade old gum, as the priest corrals our cries for mercy in the collect. I listen, comprehend, and affirm without my memory retaining the procession of syllables.  As we take our seats, the readers approach the lectionary. “A reading from the letter of Saint Paul…”

Again, I hear words I affirm, but five minutes later will be unable to recollect their reading. Instead, the focus of my attention is the infant in the arms of his grandmother immediately in front of me. In a white onesie sporting horsehide stitches and pinstripes, he sits upon her jackknifed left arm, following the most recent visual stimulation: the cross earrings dangling from her ears. His chubby hands clench and unclench at the air excitedly as his eyes grow wide, absorbing the light reflecting from the golden surface. Finally, unable to restrain himself, he lunges with both uncoordinated hands for her earlobe. He misses. The cross dangles freely but perturbed.

The child chokes a giggle at the dancing ornament. He bats at it twice with his right hand, grabs his grandmother’s chin with his left, and is jarred by the solid object his hand encounters.

“…word of the Lord.” The reader swallows the first word of the liturgy. I empathize.

“Thanks be to God.”

Grandmother turns toward the tiny fiend pinching the loose skin of her chin, her jaw dropped in mock surprise. The babe stares for a moment before excitedly waving his arm as a fledgling trying to rise from the nest, his own mouth opened in a cavernous, toothless smile; his attempts at flight falter and he merely lunges forward catching himself with the folds of his grandmother’s neck.

We rise with our Alleluias as the Gospel processes to the center of the Sanctuary. The deacon reading is old enough to have a ten year old in Sunday School, but young enough to still fit in Apple’s commercial paradigm.

“The Gospel according to Luke.”

“Glory to you, Lord Christ.”  I am one of a handful to cross my brow, my lips, and my heart.

The good news of my salvation is proclaimed, but my attention has yet to leave the child in his grandmother’s arms. His tiny eyes catch mine intruding upon his personal space. I respond to his sober stillness with a smile and he counters with a concerned scowl and grips his matriarch’s thin blouse all the tighter.  A second’s pause. Then I purse my lips, puff my cheeks like a balloon, and pull back the drapes of my eyes. My tiny audience widens his own eyes in surprise before tossing away his caution, unclenching his jaw to open the toothless chasm and gasp out a giggle.

“The Gospel of the Lord”

“Praise to you, Lord Christ.” And we drop back to our seats.

The sermon commences and I concur, but this afternoon I won’t recall what was said. The hazards of being a visual, not auditory, learner. It certainly doesn’t help when there is an infant constantly distracting me with his affinity for laughter. The sermon is the worst time to be exciting a child, and I’ve started a game he is unwilling to finish. When I cease to play, his boredom frustrates him and he begins to fuss. He manages to grasp Grandmother’s dangling earring, and he cries as she extracts it from his grasp; she whisks him off to the narthex, freeing my focus to either return to the sermon or explore the room—it’s a draw.

We rise for the Creed and we fall for Confession. We stand for the Peace and sit for the Offertory. We rise for the Doxology and yet bow our heads for the Celebration of the Sacraments. And we kneel again to contemplate the impending distribution of Grace to a collection of broken individuals.

My own contemplation is distracted as my gaze falls upon his shaved head. How many Sundays have I stared at the back of that head? He is nearly an enigma, but for her constant, complimentary presence. The white plumage, permed into manageable curls, is all that is visible as it barely reaches his slouched shoulders in the pew. My own grandmother, in a northern Minnesota nursing home, has the same hair, though it is probably thinner now than it was three years ago.

The LEMs are positioned, prepared to share the Paschal feast they bear. The usher waits to piously allow a trickle of postulants forward; there is no need for haste, loaves and fishes will feed five thousand, our bread and wine will feed five hundred. The sluice-gates creak open and the first row trickles out.

The usher takes a second step backwards, and the linebacker rises. Maybe he’s just older than I think he is. No, that can’t be; there are no flecks of grey in that goatee. Instead of quickly stepping into the aisle to his left, he cautiously leans to his right, a near genuflect, and gently wraps his massive right arm around her frail frame, gently supporting her far elbow as she lifts herself, grasping his left hand with her own. He guides her out of the aisle until they are clear of the pew and they reconfigure her left hand in the crook of his jackknifed right elbow. She is bit of goose down harbored in the lee of his stonish build. Baby steps, more of a shuffle, down the inclined aisle toward the holiness. The Eucharist is placed in her wrinkled and blotched hands and she lifts glory to her lips. He stoically accepts the Host himself before escorting his charge to the chalice and then along the long walk back through the pew, negotiating the hazards of purses and hymnals. Her gait is ponderous – when they return to their seats, the act of sitting is deliberate and labored, even with his aid.

As their procession ends, the usher releases my pew. I genuflect and somberly proceed toward the table, to eat the same bread and drink the same wine, our lips on the same chalice today that was used last year and the year before that to administer the same sacrament of four millennia. I cross myself before each portion and declare firmly my Amens after, though not with the volume my father does. I retreat to my pew, genuflecting and kneeling again in contemplative prayer.

The worship team invites the congregation to stand as they finish the contemporary communion songs, but I remain on my knees. When I do join the standing ranks of saints for the Prayer of Thanksgiving, I see the doting grandmother has returned from the narthex and the child is asleep on her shoulder. She sways gently and tiny tear stains are evident on his cheeks.

“The blessing of God Almighty, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you now and forever more.”

“Amen.”

As the worship band plays the intro to the recessional hymn I open my hymnal to 390, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation. Oh, how this congregation needs an organ! Towards the end of the second verse the Cross passes my row and I genuflect. The caravan of clergy, acolytes, LEMs, and choir recede and we offer the fourth verse toward the bare altar, cleared of the broken bread.

“Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore him! All that hath life and breath come now with praises before him! Let the amen sound from his people again; gladly forever adore him.”

As I close my hymnal and grab my coat, the deacon’s voice projects from the speakers, “Go forth into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”

My voice mingles with a congregation of sons and daughters, lifting the prayers of mothers upon grandmothers and fathers upon grandfathers, who have shared the same feast, “Thanks be to God.”

 

This is dedicated to my grandmothers, Doris Kelley and Terry Schlossberg, for loving me when I am a brat and for their holiness and faithfulness. I love you both, even when I am a brat.

October 21, 2012

Hitting the Block

A cool trumpet and some light brush strokes on the ride caress the molten evening sky. An empty square on the calendar is all he wanted, a meat grinder to cut up his brain into bite size pieces. No, that’s not quite it. He just needs the letters cut from magazines to collude with him for once and then they can take the back end excretions from the meat grinder for the sprouting mosaic. God forbid it turns malignant. But for now the calligraphy has tied itself in knots like an octopus.

There is that bright horn. It doesn’t blaze a path in the night, that is too unfocused, and a laser’s swathes are not broad enough. You’d tack it down for dissection but it has left the room, giving way a modestly dressed but voluptuous bass shaking it for the persistent percussionist. Insistent is more like it. And just when you think they are about to go back to his room, the horn saunters back, securing every eye. Let’s just be friends, the percussionist insists, because I can’t choose just one of you.

May 7, 2012

Fresh Ink

I cut the connection. I was done with that— I wasn’t going to prolong it. I was done hoping for that. But I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stop thinking about it. But whatever. I walked up the unswept stairs, past the furtive cobwebs, to the living room.  Nik and Daniel were there, debating the Phillies chances of failure or speculating on Daniel’s chances of not being awkward with another girl. I stood, not wanting to interrupt and afraid that if I sat, I would twitch until I generated enough static electricity for a lightning strike. They shortly paused and looked at me

‘Ashlee and I just broke up.’

Silence. Low mumbles reminiscent of a stomach grumbling eventually crawled exhausted from their mouths. If they knew how to react to such a starched statement, they were hiding it. If anyone was going to say anything definitive, it would have to be me.

‘Well, Cuddy and Ricky are going to John’s to play Rockband.  What do you want to do? I’m thinking of going. I haven’t seen John in a while and you guys would be welcome.’

‘Whatever you want to do,” murmured Nik. ‘If you need time alone or whatever…” Daniel nodded in agreement.

‘No, I want to go, but if you don’t want to, “I turned to Nik,” well, you are my guest…’ I stood, not finishing the thought, but flipping my keys around my index finger as I stared at the joint of two walls behind the television.

I eased into the driver’s seat of the Corolla and slowly exhaled.  With the turn of the key, Aesop Rock began to lay his smooth voice over a mid-budget beat, raising his voice incrementally as I turned the dial. The only voice in the car was Aesop’s, though I occasionally interjected swift, clamorous inhales from the imaginary cigarette between my fingers, clamping shut my lips to squeeze the imaginary smoke in my lungs as tightly as possible. The eventual exhale was like climbing into bed at the end of a long day.

We parked on the street and I called Ricky. I didn’t want to be the fulcrum of attention. Nik hardly talks when he’s with people he knows; he didn’t know John, and neither did Daniel. So we couldn’t be the first to arrive. Ricky answered and John was coming down to let us in. That Nik was more social with my friends than I was that night probably gave it away. But everyone gave me my space. I was off, but I was present and beating on the Wii drums with my usual abandon, so no one bothered me. I was just…off. And there was a screen to divert their focus. But I called the night early, and as we gave each other a parting embrace, I whispered the truth to Ricky.

But that was it. The two second, ‘We broke up,’ was all that was needed.  He mumbled his condolences softly without surprise, and I walked out as though nothing had been said.

Again, I eased myself into the car and, grasping the 2 and the 10 until my knuckles were snowcapped mountains, I exhaled. Clenching one’s lungs like one clenches the steering wheel is exhausting.  This time, my breath was visible like compressed nicotine- laden smoke escaping the bronchial cavity. I turned the key and Aesop resumed his monologue where he had previously left off. All he wants to do is pick apart the day and put the pieces back together his way.

Sleep came easier than it had the night before and still more easily than I thought it would, considering. I must have navigated by morning rituals successfully as I found myself in a pew, or as close as Glenbard West High School’s auditorium can offer to a vagrant Anglican. Gesticulating vestments guided my lips and body through the liturgy.  There was a too much internal static to concentrate on lips too far away to read. Turning the radio dial over and over reduced the static in cycles, but the relentless twisting had the effect of a citrus reamer. My folded hands shielded my eyes from the priest- lest he think his sermon was casting out my demons- as though he could see the meager trickle from across the room.

I got in the backseat of Cuddy’s van that afternoon, maintaining my presence but still avoiding the fulcrum. Fortunately, Cuddy chatters regardless of your attention span.  Our destination was a tattoo parlor in a north-side neighborhood which I did not frequent. I stared out the glass in front of me, absorbing the cyclical scenes of stoplights hung between six point corners. The wallet stuffed with fifteen Jacksons wedged under my left thigh cut off the circulation and my leg fell asleep, but I stubbornly refused to acknowledge my tingling discomfort. I heard Cuddy continue to form words and Ricky responded as necessary, but without their lips within my periphery, I couldn’t differentiate between the syllables.

I shifted my gaze from the crux of two walls inside Metamorphosis and found I had chalk outlines on my biceps. Three hundred dollars was a lot to spend for one sitting, but this was a match made by Heaven. This had been in my heart longer than I had known Cuddy and Ricky.  Longer than I had known Nik. Longer. My right bicep would bear the banner of my fathers, the Star of David. I had been born into this star and so had Albert Einstein and so had Jesus and so had Christianity.  Not that many Christians would admit it. The first covenant is woven into that star and the second is born into it. It is the beginning of me and so into it I wove the Alpha. My left bicep held the climax of the right; the cross, upon which Jesus died and upon which I have cudgeled my hopes, encircled with the Omega.

I sat on the faux leather stool with my right arm draped over a vinyl stand as Natalie arranged her tools. She slipped latex gloves over her tattooed hands and slipped plastic sleeves over two tattoo guns.  The stainless steel counter was covered in saran wrap and masking tape. Six ink capsules were adhered to the wrap with globs of Vaseline.

‘Why do you have two guns?’

I’m using two different types of needles.  The first is a single needle and I’ll use it to draw the outline.  The second is called a ‘shader’ and it is actually three needles to cover area quickly. Your other tattoo,’ as she touched my shoulder where my four year old Chi Rho was etched, ’is small enough that they probably shaded with a single needle.’

I nodded in affirmation and comprehension.  “Which was your most painful tattoo?”

She pulled one of the latex gloves up toward her fingers. On her palm was what appeared to be a simple sketch of the mechanisms sitting on the counter. ‘Probably this, although there is one on my foot that I have yet to finish because of the pain.’ She pulled the latex back down. ‘Are you ready?’

Again I nodded and murmured, ‘yup,’ as though I hadn’t heard the question.

If I hadn’t seen Natalie turn on the machine, I would have thought an angry wasp had entered the room and would have panicked. Her latexed fingers began to stretch my skin taut over my bicep. ‘If you want to pull out,’ I thought, ‘this is your last chance.’ And then I stared intensely as an oscillating steel needle injected black ink into my skin.

My muscles did not enjoy being stabbed repetitively and my skin did not relish being squeezed and stretched like silly putty. But there was no stopping now.  And it wasn’t because I’m not a quitter. And it wasn’t because I wasn’t going to walk out with an incomplete tattoo. And it wasn’t because I wanted to be a badass. It was because I couldn’t turn away.  To watch that needle weave its dark thread through my skin. To watch the excess ink mix with blood and flow like the Nile surpassing its banks to nurture the adjacent fields. To feel my nerves progress from calm to concerned, from concerned to pierced, and from pierced to burning. My whole body was coiled in reaction to the subjugation of its perimeter defense and my mental facilities were completely focused in observation.

To break the intensity, I’d allow my eyes to wander the studio. The walls were covered in sketches of varied themes and styles but my eyes frequented the grizzly bear flirtatiously covering her chest with one paw and carelessly dropping her bra with the other. But the drama unfolding between nerves, skin, and ink-covered needles always drew my attention back. All of me turned toward the etchings on my arms.

After she finished the six pointed star, Natalie wiped away the excess ink and the blackened blood that was creeping out of my skin.  She then grabbed a spray bottle and misted my muscle before covering the wound with saran wrap.

“What’s that?”

“Just a numbing agent,” she replied, before turning her attention to the omega and cross on my left. I shifted my position on the stool and lowered by right arm off the vinyl stand.  Even though I had taken care to move my wallet to the front pocket of my jeans, my ass was still asleep. She began to outline the diagram with the single needled machine.

As she approached the looser skin closer to my underarm, the pain sharpened and for a moment I glanced at the floor to the right of my feet. There was a dark mahogany dot on the lighter faux pinewood floor.  I glanced at my saran-wrapped arm. There were rivulets of blood with black splotches entrenched under the plastic, flowing under the edge. I grunted in surprise and Natalie raised her stoic eyes from her medium. She saw the blood stream and casually grabbed another paper towel, peeled back the saran wrap, and wiped up. Another mist was applied, the wrap was lowered, and she returned to the unfinished outline.

Before she switched to the shader, she took another look at my right arm; the rivulets were back. She started the cleaning process again.

“Did you get drunk last night?” she asked, not quite accusatorially.

I had to pause. I didn’t think I had. What had I done last night?  All I could think about and all I wanted to think about was the burning in my arms and how I wanted to get back to the stabbing. But I strained and dredged for the answer. Nik was over. So was Daniel. Did we do anything after leaving John’s?

“Umm, no. No, I just had one Newcastle. Why?”

“The only guys I ever see bleed this much are the ones who’ve been trashed recently.”

“I thought you had people sign a waiver saying they’re not drunk?”

“Yeah, here we do. Other places, not always. Sometimes that’s just lip service to prevent a lawsuit. And sometimes they’re coming in the day after a bender.”

“Oh, right,” I murmured as both our attentions once again sharpened on the color filling in the cross and omega outline.

Ninety minutes. “An hour and half,” Ricky replied, when I asked how long it had taken. Despite the numbing agent Natalie had sprayed on them, my arms felt as though they had been dragged across a gravel driveway. It was impossible to ignore the pain during the process, but I didn’t need it to stop- I could have kept going. Let’s get another tat now! But now that it was done- now that there was no process to watch- I just wanted the burning in my biceps to subside. I pulled three hundred dollars, fifteen twenties, out of my wallet and, folding them in half with my thumb, gave them to Natalie.  She in turn handed me her card with nonchalance. I placed it in my now empty wallet and stepped out onto the street.

There was a black Cadillac CTS parked in front of the studio, as close as it could get without the violating the personal space of a nearby fire hydrant. The temperature had dropped since we entered the building, but I did not put my hoodie on; instead, I draped it over my shoulder as I turned back towards the door to check on Cuddy’s progress. He and Ricky exited the parlor and we turned south towards the van. As I sauntered behind the two of them, I flexed to feel the lightning surging through my nerves.