by Thomas Healy
“Will you take five dollars for this?” a gangly woman in a Grateful Dead sweatshirt asked Galen.
He turned around and looked at the vintage leather bicycle helmet she held in her left hand. A blue price tag hung from one of the wrinkled straps.
“I would but the lady in charge of the sale probably won’t.”
“Where is she?”
“Inside the house.”
“I guess I’ll go check with her then.”
“Good luck.” Galen smiled. If it were up to him, he would have sold the helmet to the woman since her offer was only two dollars less than the asking price. But not Helen. He was pretty sure Helen would not budge on the price. She had hired him to work for her on quite a few estate sales and she was adamant that the first day of the sale the listed prices were not negotiable. It was only on the second or third day when everything under fifty dollars sold at half price.
Galen had met Helen the winter before last when they worked together on the serving staff in the dining room of the Ferrall Hotel. She had been there before him and was the first to leave when she got her realtor’s license. He was still waiting tables so she knew he could use the extra income and he was usually available to work during the day. He seldom turned her down. The wages were meager but the work wasn’t hard. All he had to do was to be polite and make change.
This morning he was stationed in the garage because it was crammed with so many items for sale, Helen wanted someone there to keep an eye out for shoplifters. He didn’t mind, though. The air was surprisingly mild for this late in October. Besides, he had brought along a heavy wool sweater and a thermos of amaretto-flavored coffee.
A bearded man approached him with a saddlebag tucked under his left arm. “Can I pay you for this?”
“You sure can.”
Carefully he counted out the money. “Whoever owned this place sure was interested in bicycles,” the man remarked, glancing around the spacious garage at all the bicycle accessories stored on the shelves and hanging on the walls.
“I didn’t know the owner. But I understand, in his spare time, he did a lot of repair work for friends and people in the neighborhood.”
“I’ve been in some bike shops downtown that didn’t have half the inventory in here.”
“I guess working on bikes was a real passion for him.”
Galen, sipping coffee, sat back in his camp chair and glanced over at all the tools and spare parts and chains scattered across the work bench in the corner. From some of the other estate sales he had worked he believed he could discover a lot about people based on their possessions. Obviously the owner of this estate was a cycling enthusiast, not only a rider, but someone who enjoyed working on two-wheelers. Galen figured the man was probably someone who had liked being on his own whether tinkering in his garage or riding along a street or trail. He bet he was not the sort of person who engaged in much small talk but immediately got to the point and then went about his business. Courteous, perhaps, but not cordial. People as serious about sprockets and cranks and gear shifts, he knew, preferred their own company.
A few months ago, Helen hired him to work an estate sale on the east side of town. The widow who had lived in the modest limestone house where the sale was conducted was very fond of cats and, not surprisingly, possessed numerous drawings, paintings, ceramics and sculptures of them. Right away, he assumed she was a quiet person who preferred to be left alone, yet kind and considerate toward her neighbors, and his assumption proved to be pretty accurate based on the subsequent conversations he had with people at the sale who had known her.
You are what you own, he discovered time and again, and possessions are definitely one of the clearest expressions of anyone’s identity.
“You a relative of Mr. Kleiner?” a customer asked Galen after he bought a claw hammer and a crescent wrench.
“No. I’ m not.”
“I thought maybe you were a nephew of his,” the man said as he shoved his purchases into a book bag slung over his left shoulder. “You bear some resemblance to him around the mouth and eyes.”
Galen smiled. “Sorry, but I never met the gentleman.”
“Well, he was a hard person to get to know. I’ve lived in this neighborhood almost eight years and hardly exchanged a word with him. I guess you had to be interested in bicycles to get him to open up.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” another customer chimed in as he handed Galen three dollars for some reflectors. “I’ve never known anyone so crazy about bicycles. You couldn’t get him to shut up sometimes once he got started.”
The woman beside him smiled broadly. “The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Mr. Kleiner is how he used to bicycle kids around the neighborhood on his big blue beach cruiser. They’d fit right between him and the handlebars.”
“Remember how he’d let them ring that damn bell practically the whole time?”
“How could I forget? It was as loud as an ice cream truck.”
Someone beside the cruiser, overhearing her, rang the bell on the handlebars, and the woman immediately cupped her ears.
“Yeah,” her companion muttered, also smiling, “he was kind of the uncle of the neighborhood. Good old Uncle Lloyd.”
“You’d never have said that to his face, though.”
“Lord, no. He would’ve thought you were making fun of him and stared right through you.”
“He was a curious person. That’s for sure.”
Galen looked at the clunky beach bike braced against the furnace, trying to remember when he was small enough to have sat on the handlebars. He was sure he would have rung that bell as incessantly as any of the kids Mr. Kleiner had given rides to, making believe he was perched in the cab of a fire engine racing through the neighborhood in response to a four-alarm blaze.
“Personally, I never had much contact with him,” an older man with bushy eyebrows remarked as he sorted through a cigar box of toe clips. “He always seemed pretty distant to me.”
The woman snickered. “Definitely took a while to melt a square of butter in his mouth.”
“I don’t know. I just never felt comfortable around the man. It was as if the last thing he wanted to do was talk with a grown person. Unless it was about bicycles. With kids, I understand, he was a real chatterbox, but not with people his own age.”
Around ten o’clock Helen came out to the garage and brought him a maple bar and asked if he needed to take a break.
“No. I’m fine, thanks.”
“You making much money?”
“Some, but not much. Mostly nickels and quarters.”
Faintly her shoulders swayed to the reggae music that blared from the boombox in the kitchen. “We’re doing pretty well inside,” she declared. “We’ve sold the fridge and stove and we’ve got quite a few bids on the credenza and dining room set.”
“Yeah, I’m pleased with the way things are going so far.”
“Have you had any problems?”
“A pewter salt and pepper shaker set went missing,” Helen said. so I assume someone must’ve taken it
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, well that happens at these sales, as you know,” she said. “But it really wasn’t worth all that much.”
She swerved to the music and surveyed the garage. “I’m surprised you haven’t sold any of the bikes yet.”
“I’m surprised, too, especially the blue one over there,” he said, “the beach cruiser. I’ve had quite a few people tell me Mr. Kleiner gave kids rides on it around the neighborhood.”
“Is that so?”
He nodded, jangling the change in his waist pack. “Several people remember him. Figured it might have some nostalgic value.”
“Any of the kids he used to give rides to talk to you?”
Galen thought a moment. “No. Now that you mention it, I don’t believe so.”
“That figures,” she said, suddenly becoming still even though the music continued to blare. “I’ve spoken to a couple people here who’ve told me they wouldn’t let their children get anywhere near him.”
“Why’s that?” he asked, startled.
“Apparently the parents of some little girl accused him of touching her inappropriately a few years ago. Nothing came of it, as I understand, but after that he was seldom seen riding with any children. Only by himself.”
“But before that had there been any complaints?”
“Not that anyone has told me about.”
“I’m amazed no one said anything to me about this.”
“I suppose it’s not the kind of thing people discuss with people they don’t know.”
“They spoke to you about it, though.”
“Lots of good buys here and inside the house,” Galen announced as two heavy women wobbled up the driveway. “Hurry before everything’s sold.”
They smiled and moseyed over to the shelves stacked with garden equipment. He had made the sales pitch so many times he doubted if he would ever get it out of his head, suspected it would linger there like a lyric from a popular song long after it had stopped being popular. Business had slowed considerably since the initial couple hours of the sale so he didn’t have to make the pitch as often, which he was grateful for, though he knew Helen was annoyed about the decline in activity.
Occasionally, as he waited for customers, he caught himself staring at the beach bike, finding it hard to comprehend something so plain could be involved in something so dreadful. It appeared safe, sturdy and secure. As harmless as a sand pail. He tried to picture its owner mounted on it, riding out of the garage with a youngster tucked in front of him, pedaling down the street like “a great blue cloud,” as Helen said someone had recalled. It all seemed so innocent. Small wonder so few people in the neighborhood were aware of what was really happening.
Most of the people he questioned about Mr. Kleiner that afternoon acted as if they had scarcely known him, despite the fact that the man had resided in this house for nearly thirty-two years. He suspected many he spoke to really didn’t know about the dark rumors that circled around the retired chemist, but he also could tell from the guarded responses of others that some did know. Their silence was deafening, their seeming ignorance not entirely credible.
The closest anyone came to admitting he knew of the stories was a burly guy in a John Deere cap who, after purchasing a set of thin cone wrenches, remarked to Galen, “I’m surprised that beach bike hasn’t gone yet.”
He shrugged one of his massive shoulders. “Maybe to bury the goddamn thing, I suppose.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
He started to walk away then paused. “To get rid of it and everything associated with it.”
“I don’t understand.”
Silent, the burly man shambled away, sticking the wrenches into his back pocket.
By the end of the sale most of the items in the garage had been sold, including several of Mr. Kleiner’s bicycles. The only ones that remained were a rusted old Raleigh and the beach cruiser. As always, Helen instructed Galen to pack up what was left in boxes to be picked up later by the Salvation Army. He managed to fill one and a half boxes with tools and bicycle gear before he wheeled the rusted Raleigh between the boxes and printed DONATION on a piece of cardboard and set it on the bicycle seat.
Galen then turned his attention to the beach cruiser, looking around the nearly vacant garage. From the kitchen the sounds of the Caribbean continued to play, and he smiled, imagining Helen’s narrow hips bouncing to the pulsating rhythm. Out of the half full box he found a screwdriver, got down on one knee, and began to remove the handlebars. Then he pried loose the seat, deciding to disassemble the bike piece by piece.
Thomas Healy welcomes your comments on “Up to Speed” at laurel462001[at]yahoo.com.
photo by dno1967b.
by Carl James Grindley
There used to be an old school patisserie on one side of Bastion Square and Lora and I would go
there on our way to work–the tip of my umbrella sticking for a moment in the wooden
cobblestones–and we would order pain au chocolates or rather I would order a pain au chocolate
and Lora would get a bran muffin because she was watching her weight although her weight was
perfect like her hair was perfect like her eyes were perfect like her skin was perfect like the list
of everything about her that could be made into a list was perfect and I would glance at the front
page of an imported copy of the New York Times but I never bought an imported copy of the
New York Times because it was four dollars and I did not know that many years later I would be
in New York and Lora would not be in New York and the patisserie would be long closed but this
is what I thought one random morning about everything:
Last night’s rain has blackened
The cobblestones and I slide
My left arm overtop of your right
Arm because I don’t want you to
Slip and you don’t slip, and suddenly
We’re alone in the alleyway between
Our apartment and the square
And I see how beautiful
You are and how beautiful
The morning is and like Eve
To Milton’s Satan, you are so
Beautiful that I cannot say
Anything, I cannot say, I cannot, I,
And my mind is blank: that’s how beautiful
You are and when I can speak again–
The sun moved a little just so–I would like
To tell you how beautiful you are,
But I’ve already told you
How beautiful you are twice
This morning and a third
Time might be too much and I don’t
Know if comparing myself to Satan
Will win me any friends
Or influence people,
But it’s true, you really are so beautiful
That for a brief moment
I forgot about eternal damnation
And sin and death and the full on
Spectrum of time from creation
To now and here, now,
All these years later,
I know I made a mistake,
Did the wrong thing, should
Have said something, anything, so.
I never actually ordered a pain au chocolate and I don’t think Lora ever had a bran muffin. The
bakery sold these expensive stuffed croissants–with like spinach and cheese–and we couldn’t
really afford either because we were so young and just starting out, so I think we either got
coffee or just walked on by. But it was a bakery that I always wanted to patronize. The
newspaper, by the way, was purchased frequently but at a newstand in Market Square. It was part
of my dim sum routine, but by then, Lora was long gone, replaced for a little while by
Carl James Grindley grew up on an island off the West Coast of Canada, and studied in the US and Europe. He has taught creative writing at Yale University, and works at The City University of New York. His book Icon was published in 2008 by No Record Press. He has recent work in Apocrypha & Apostrophe, Anemone Sidecar, A Bad Penny Review, Eunoia Review, Anastomoo and Atticus Review. Grindley is a founding editor of The South Bronx Review.
photo by Jean Louis Zimmerman.
by David Mitchell
Editor’s note: this is the concluding seventh installment of David Mitchell’s Fulfillment. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here and part six here.
I was seated at a high row in a hockey stadium, right next to my sister Monica, gazing in awe at a Tyrannosaurus. It was a hydraulic puppet moving on a wheeled stand that camouflaged to match the color of the floor. The narrator, who walked around on the floor in the ring constantly reminded me that the puppets were nearly all the right size. The scale was nothing short of awesome, but this was a confirmation for me, not a revelation. The narrator had taken us on a tour through the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, telling us a little about the inhabitants of each age. There was a limit to how much he could cover, but I was pleased that I had to lean to my left, whisper to Monica, and correct him only once.
It can be said on all levels that my awe of dinosaurs is nearly religious. I don’t know what the various parents surrounding me thought. I don’t know if they felt bringing their children to Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience was a guilty pleasure, a reminder of their own childhood, or of a particular early 90’s science fiction thriller with a preachy anthropocentric message and dated paleontology. The world of the Mesozoic was richer, subtler, more terrifying, more elegant, more sublime, and less predictable than anything that could have been imagined by a fantasy or science fiction author. There is a real poignancy in knowing that no work of art could ever hope to do dinosaurs justice; they are real monsters, real aliens, real history, and all we can ever conceive of their world must necessarily be a pale shadow of the world that once was. Though right here, for the moment, we could pretend otherwise.
More than twenty years ago, Monica shared her Big Sister Insight with me on a hideous oval-shaped red and orange rug that covered our living room floor, telling me fantastic stories about the creatures that once were and, sadly, were no longer around. She would even make crayon drawings of a prehistoric menagerie for me, which we cut out and taped all along the walls of my room to form a parade. But that time was distant to me. Children will believe in anything, even Santa Claus. And it seems that most people will unconsciously bury dinosaurs among the mass graveyard of childhood chimeras of no relevance to their adult lives, where dead angels, unicorns, dragons, robots and even their god may lie. It’s a much more shocking revelation when you find yourself thinking, in your adult life, “Holy shit, is this real?! Did this actually happen? Is our reality really a part of something much greater? And if this is true, then how can anything in this ridiculous, shriveled, materialistic world we’ve created for ourselves seem important ever again?” This is more or less the same reaction I had when I re-evaluated the Christianity my mother had imbibed me with and concluded I might actually have good reasons for believing in it after all.
The show concluded with an obligatory meteor impact, as if Tyrannosaurs had nothing better to do than step onstage, roar menacingly, threaten nearby herbivores, and wait for Armageddon. The audience cheered at this technical wizardry, and the cheer was well deserved, I suppose. I clapped out of courtesy as well, except contemplating extinction and the transience of life made me depressed. The birth, growth, decay, and death of a universe, solar system, planet, phylum, species, civilization, culture, lifespan, or a single relationship all seemed like reflexive microcosms of the other to me; tiny flickering flames between two immeasurable nights. Dinosaurs have a lot to tell us about our place in the world, and some of it is existentially terrifying. I wondered how many other people in the audience felt this way.
Long after the show, we were walking through the Boston Waterfront, passing Long Wharf, the New England Aquarium, and the Quincy Market place.
“I think I may be outside the realm of most peoples’ comprehension,” I muttered.
“That’s right,” Monica said, “You are. But you still have to meet them halfway.”
“And why does it seem like most people have no imagination whatsoever?”
“They don’t,” Monica nodded, “There’s a terrible shortage of imagination. But we’re lucky to be raised by two parents who are intellectuals. And who are still alive and married.”
“I’m glad for that, too, I guess. I’m kind of leaning toward ‘nature’ in the ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument. I think some things about us are just innate, no matter who raised us. The Oracle once told me I was like a sponge, as far as my sensitivity went. ”
“Maybe a little,” Monica mused. “Why is it that you and Lydia came out of the womb believing everything people told you about yourselves, and why is it that I came out knowing that was all bullshit?”
“Dad’s kind of a radical determinist, isn’t he?” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that he thinks whatever shortcomings we have are his fault. He thinks everything we do is a reflection of him. He feels this stupidly misplaced sense of guilt that two of his three kids are wounded, melancholy introverts instead of ambitious go-getters like him. Once I decided I didn’t give a shit what he thought of me, my self-esteem improved.”
“Good for you!” Monica said, “You tower above him emotionally. But you can still learn a lot from Dad. He isn’t perfect, but just watch the way he takes care of you and mom. Look at the way he organizes everything in his classes. He’s brilliant.”
“I know, I know . . .”
“It’s up to you to meet everyone else on their terms, not yours.”
“I’ve tried. It doesn’t work . . .”
“Shut up! You haven’t tried anything. This applies to your future students, Dad, Mom, me, everyone else. And please, no more analyzing of personality types or archetypes or anything like that. That’s so bullshit. If I listened to things like that I wouldn’t be married to Kevin. He is the exact opposite of what I thought I wanted, what I had been attracted to. We have nothing in common, not our personalities, interests, tastes . . . we agree on nothing. But, I knew he was the one for me. After that heartbreaking break-up with Shen, I yelled at God. I told him that I was done with relationships, that I’d had enough. I told to him to let me know who HE would be.”
I knew I couldn’t say too much before Monica would start lecturing me again, but I let her talk more. The lesson was not to be negative or something. I heard it as ‘be dishonest’ instead. Or the message was that a relationship should supplement your already perfect, self-sufficient life, and ignore the reality of your hunger for love. I never understood society’s intense obsession with success and competition. It made the world a lonelier place. We were passing a cemetery at this point, a lovely and quiet place atop a hill braced by a stone wall.
“ . . . so, lo and behold, after that break up in May, I started talking to Kevin at the movie theater where we both worked, out of sheer boredom. I can’t stand being bored. I learned that Kevin wasn’t boring—I mean predictable. We talked all week and decided to go see a movie and eat at California Pizza Kitchen—it wasn’t a date. At dinner, I remember being overwhelmed by this really warm feeling—I was so comfortable and peaceful. And then this voice said, quite literally, ‘This is what it’s supposed to feel like.’ And I knew that I was supposed to take a risk with Kevin. Of course, I told Kevin that I couldn’t be in a relationship, I needed to practice, and after three phone calls, I told him that I wanted to be with him.”
I wanted to tell Monica that I also knew what that warm feeling felt like, that I felt it with Serissa before she became abusive, that I felt it with Tara even when nothing existed between us except for an email correspondence, and that I felt it the first time I spoke with Losang over the phone. But though she meant well, I knew Monica would have none of that. I didn’t want to hear her tell me again that my feelings were false, since all of them were obviously the wrong choices. She’d already told me that she knew from the start Losang and I wouldn’t end up together, even though I told her next to nothing about the whole affair. Would I have known better had I listened to God’s voice, whatever that sounded like?
“But when you hear things like ‘this is what it’s supposed to feel like’ how do you know it’s God?” I asked, my voice withering, “How do I know it’s God, and that I’m not just retconning whatever moments of insight I have by saying the Angel told me?”
“Let me tell you a story!” Monica said, “I was engaged, and recently had learned to drive, like a year or two before. I thought I was nervous about driving. I remember one day, I was driving to Millis, to Rossi’s, place where we were having the reception to discuss details with their coordinator. I was feeling horrible and decided to turn on music to distract myself from feeling unnaturally afraid. I ended up pulling over to the side of the road. Mom was scared too. Then, later that week maybe, Kevin and I went to Riverside Park in Springfield. That was intense—I remember asking God that day to send four angels, one for each wheel. I had no idea why I did that.”
“Mom and Dad took the car in to be fixed—for whatever reason. The mechanic said that the axles were really messed up and that the car was a tragedy waiting to happen. Apparently it’s especially dangerous on highways.”
Monica turned and smiled at me, but I was mostly staring ahead. I didn’t know where we were exactly, but we’d reached an open-air café flanked by meadows, a fountain, and carefully placed trees. I wondered how many of the people around us were having conversations like this. I wished I could be certain that an angel—a real angel and not the ram-headed being I imagined—was telling me something useful and that I could actually listen. What did Monica mean to tell me, then? Trust my instincts and intuition about God, despite the paucity of affirmations, and believe they only lied to me about love, unless I had no use for it?
The Knight of Cups
I sat alone in the downstairs chapel, a good distance away from Father Ted’s confessionals. I don’t think he was present, but I hadn’t checked. The red light burning near the altar of the Blessed Sacrament was enough for me. This place, though stolid, was a sanctuary of peace. I started coming in here around the time I got back in touch with Losang, when I began to pray for her health and well-being. I even made special effort to phrase my petitions in the simple and effective manner that a Buddhist would. My hands were clasped, my eyes were closed, and my forehead was pressed against the wooden pew in front of me, but this time, I was praying just to hear God’s voice.
I could have listed a hundred reasons why I thought Christianity could be an internally consistent, intellectually viable, historically plausible, and generally beneficial belief system, as well as a vital force for good in this world. I could embarrass some militant atheists into silence by showing that I’d forgotten more about dinosaurs and paleontology than they would ever care to learn, tearing apart their scientific and rational pretensions, and proving that my views were more sophisticated than theirs. But none of that meant I had an actual experience of my faith, the way my mother and sister did, only an intellectual understanding of it. Serissa once said that she envied me for having a good relationship with God. I didn’t even know if I had that relationship.
I had to accept God’s will, yet for all I knew, God’s will could have been that I live a thwarted life full of regret, and that I die alone. That’s how I read the evidence so far, and it was consistent with what the Angel told me about growing in holiness through suffering and purification. I would have preferred to know now if that were the case. Even at my happiest, each moment of bliss seemed like a prelude to something greater. What meaning was there to be found in a series of isolated promises—aborted orgasms—that could never culminate into anything? I didn’t want to be teased again by a seemingly plausible goal I could never obtain, and then see my hopes dashed like an infant’s brains against a brick wall. It was all a big shaggy dog story. I honestly think Camus failed to make a case against suicide by re-casting Sisyphus as a great existential hero.
“Wouldn’t that be something?” chuckled a wry, but gentle voice to my left.
The Angel was standing in the aisle, holding his sword across himself, one hand on the hilt and the other on the blade.
“And yet you live anyway,” chuckled the Angel, “so you must be living with hope for something. You doubt you have true faith? You could have fooled me.”
I didn’t think it was particularly funny, but the Angel continued,”What is this desire of yours to know God but an act of faith? What is calling to the Lord but an act of deep trust? Do you truly believe that the people you would normally sit with upstairs, with whom you claim to have nothing in common, all hear God as they would like to? All of them feel the same emptiness you do, the same desire. Do you think even Father Ted is completely satisfied with his relationship with God? They all long for it. Wherefore is their thirst if it is a cup that can never be filled by anything in this world? As for the next, I think you described it to Tara well enough.”
“So may I suggest, as the Oracle tried to tell you, that although your reach will always exceed your grasp, you still hold that cup in your hands? That you are in the light, and the light is within you? A god who merely watches is cruel and indifferent, like Serissa’s god. Your god, the god she could not recognize, is much closer than that. He is in your heart. Every human tear is a divine tear. Be thankful that all he is asking of you is to let go, to reach your hand out into the darkness, and to let him take care of the rest.”
I didn’t know what to pray for this time. I had to stop and consider my track record.
“Let’s see,” said the Angel, “I’ll do my best to translate for you. You asked God to take away your pain, and God said ‘No, it’s not for me to take away, but for you to give it up.’ Then you asked God to grant you patience, to which he said, ‘No. Patience is a byproduct of tribulations; it isn’t granted, it’s earned.’ You asked God to give you happiness. God said ‘No, I give you blessings. Happiness is up to you.’ You asked God to spare you pain, and God said ‘No. Suffering draws you apart from worldly cares and brings you closer to me’. You asked God to make your spirit grow. Actually, in your words you, hmm, asked that God give you the skin of an Ankylosaurus and the work ethic of a termite. And God said ‘No. You must grow on your own, but I will prune you to make you fruitful.'”
The Angel then touched the tip of his sword to the floor and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, contemplating the more recent ones.
“You asked God to give youa woman so you could escape the existential torture of being yourself. I think you might have even phrased it that way, too. Or, on a better day, you might have asked God to give you a woman so that you could receive the love that you are unable to give to yourself, but prepared to give to another anyway. Either way, God said ‘No. Fulfill your own needs first.’ At one point, you asked God to reveal himself to Serissa. God said ‘Show her by example.’ You asked God to help you and Serissa grow in your love for him and each other, in whatever manner he saw fit. You alone grew in your love for God and Serissa; she grew in her ego and scorned both you and God. Then you asked God to help you and Losang grow in your love him and each other, in whatever manner possible and appropriate.”
The Angel chuckled, then he turned to me and smiled.
“I suppose you think God answered ‘no’ to that prayer too?”
I sighed and went back to resting my chin on the hard wood in front of me. I knew I could never hate Losang, but I didn’t want to think about her. She already chose, probably for the best. I suppose if I were more mature, I would have felt happy for her too. Perhaps I could have even pretended that I influenced her for the better to see her new relationship as a viable option in the first place. Even that was wishful thinking. I didn’t know her side of the story, or whether I mattered to her in the end.
I was feeling shame and disgust at the incompetence of the Attraction Council, and at the inexorable attachment that bound me to Samsara. Losang told me my work there had no end. It was an illusion to make me think I was happy. I wished I heard from the Angel more, so he could steer me away from it. I wanted the Angel to tell me who and what awaited me in my future. I wanted him to tell me how to—
“Oh, let’s not go there again,” said the Angel. “On second thought . . . hmmm . . . let me put it this way . . .”
I put my forehead back down on the pew in front of me, staring at my knees on the kneeler, and the hymn booklets stuffed into the wooden compartment in front of me.
“I may have a better understanding of God’s will, but I don’t know the future quite as clearly, David. But let’s suppose for a moment that I did. Suppose, back in 2005, I had warned you against emailing Serissa.
“Would you have preferred it if I showed up to you and said: Stay away from Serissa, David. She isn’t worth the effort. Too much of her adoptive-father’s abuse has rubbed off on her. She hates herself, and will most likely hate you eventually. It will take her a little while to let you touch her, and nine months before penetrating her, if even physically possible, after which she will feel no pleasure and eventually resent you for it. She will change her personality eventually as she changes her clothes, and she will discard you when she no longer needs you. She will hurt you more than anyone ever has, and it will take you years to recover, if you ever recover at all, while she’ll find a new boyfriend in about three months.”
I bit my lip, and my jaw trembled.
“Serissa herself will eventually approve of this message: Love is impermanent. Very cognitively impairing, in her terms, so enjoy it while it lasts, but know that it won’t be forever. Remember when she tells you that she’ll never look back on her relationship with you and claim that she didn’t love you, because you will find evidence that she will tell herself this anyway. She may not say so the day of the breakup, but she’ll quickly add that she won’t think about it much, either. And remember the prophecy that she’ll make when you take your first photograph together. When you embark on this loving, innocent, new relationship—your first as well as hers—enjoy the next 26 months, by all means, because that’s as long as it will last.
“Don’t learn that love is a decision and not just a feeling. Don’t love her to the capacity that you can with the heart that God has given you. Don’t delight in the vulnerability that can only come from being close to someone, the clumsy physical intimacy that is a pale foreshadowing of the intimacy you hope for in heaven, because it will cause you pain later. Don’t look for the lovely and caring person within her that could have been—that might still be. Would that have helped you?”
Tears were streaming down my face, and my whole body was trembling.
“And Losang?” the Angel said, his voice gentler, “What if I appeared to you that night in the middle of March, after you had your first real conversation with her over the phone and you realized without a doubt that she was someone special, and that in just five days your world would change forever? Should I have said, ‘Don’t get your hopes up, even though you are more touched and elevated than you have been in the last year? Don’t experience the intense joy of finding someone so attuned to the needs of your soul that resisting her would be insane—it will just hurt you?’
“Losang herself would approve of this message: All existence is cyclical suffering. The source of all suffering is attachment to the impermanent. Therefore, she offers temporary relief, nothing more. She’ll happily fuck you, but that doesn’t mean she actually desires a relationship with you—at least not the sort that you would prefer. I should also tell you she forgot to mention that she’s seeing someone else. And yet another will win her heart eventually, so by all means—enjoy the time you spend with her, if you choose to meet her at all, but don’t discover what a wonderful, if flawed, person she is. Don’t allow her to revitalize what is permanent with you: your capacity to love again, and deeply. And don’t—for Christ’s and Buddha’s sake—fall in love with her. Would that have helped you?”
The Angel shuffled himself into the pew behind me and sat, resting his sword against the seat. He gazed ahead of me, and continued to speak, but his voice lowered.
“And should I tell you now,” he said, “not to forgive her, because Serissa has already proven that doctrine to be useless?”
I looked at my folded hands, at the tabernacle, at the huge wooden crucifix some thirty feet in front of me, and back at my hands. It took me that long to realize that answer to all three questions was a firm, resounding, “no”.
“No?” said the Angel, laughing suddenly, “Well in that case, you’ve accepted your cross to bear, and God has performed the miracle of distilling sweetness from suffering.”
He looked back and forth in the empty chapel.
“A pity no one was here to witness it. You actually have something to thank him for. How’s that for a place to start?”
I rested my head on my folded hands again and closed my eyes, trying to empty my mind of useless and horrid thoughts. I wasn’t sure where to begin. I heard the Angel whisper somewhere in the pew behind me, “Try your own words, if you like. He’ll treasure them the way a father treasures the crude drawings of his child. Or try the words of your Lord. The Paternoster is especially appropriate. Just remember to say them as they were meant to be said and not to recite them.
Or you could stop, gaze with the eye of faith, and listen. Invoke. Praise. Thank. Petition. Confess. Appeal. Don’t give me, the figment of your imagination, your attention and rob God. Please, give God your attention and rob me. I can still be here when you’re done, if you want.”
I prayed silently for the next few minutes, on behalf of those dearest to my heart: Losang, Lolly, Tara, the Oracle, and the rest of my friends and family. I still could not bring myself to pray for Serissa, so I prayed that I would eventually. I used my own words, then the words that I remembered best; the Hail Mary, the Our Father and the Glory Be. When I stepped out of the pew, closed my eyes, and knelt to make the sign of the cross, The Angel stood in front of me this time, placing the flat of his sword on either of my shoulders, as if knighting me. When I raised my head, opened my eyes, he was gone.
The temple was beautiful. It was surrounded by various pagodas and arcades, and in the center was a mound-like structure, which, if I remember correctly, is called a Stupa. Many fig trees grew in the forest periphery of this place, but around the temple there was a heavily trafficked plaza, where netizens of every variety came to listen, discuss, and debate. I rode by here every so often. Often times I would see Losang, dressed in a saffron robe and with a prayer wheel in hand, imparting wisdom to whomever happened to be present. This was usually in the form of Dharmic teachings, but her sources were varied. Sometimes she even quoted the New Testament. I think she once quoted Dave Mustaine, too. The readings were worth hearing just for themselves, but I stayed a good distance away from the crowd, usually on a high hill that bordered the place.
On Father’s Day, I’d walked around the original battlefields of Lexington and Concord with my parents and with Monica. I couldn’t help but remember that Losang’s father had been dead for 17 years, and I felt sad. I sent her a brief a message stating that while earlier I thought I had nothing more to say to her, I thought of her that day and wished her well regardless. She appreciated the sentiment, but her reaction was baffled.
“You have nothing more to say to me,” said Losang from the entrance of the temple.
Oh dear. I suppose I did say that after all. Nothing more to say? How stupid was that?
Regardless, it caught my attention. I turned my head as far as the bevor allowed me to, then settled for turning the horse toward the temple instead. I still didn’t want to travel down toward the plaza for fear that the horse would defecate on the immaculate tiles, so I remained at the top of the hill. Losang was still dressed in her saffron robe, but she wasn’t reciting anything from the Dharma, I could be certain of that. She wasn’t looking at me, either.
“I’m sorry I can’t be at your beck and call. I’m sorry I can’t keep my phone turned on in a movie. I’m sorry if I can’t wait forever for you to make a decision. I’m sorry if you are too afraid to take a chance. Sorry if you think I do things to hurt you personally. I’m sorry if you missed the boat. I’m sorry if you hurt. I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry I am not passive. I’m sorry if you need to close that door. I’m sorry if my procrastination annoys you. I’m sorry if I can’t be your caged bird. I’m sorry I’m a contradiction. I’m sorry I am not trying hard enough. I’m sorry you didn’t take the time to understand me better. I’m sorry I can’t be what you need. I’m sorry I can’t be what you want. I’m sorry if you pin it all on me. I’m sorry she destroyed your trust. I’m sorry if you actually believe no means yes. I’m sorry if, well . . . I’m just sorry.”
“I wish you love infinite. I don’t know why you want to go back to war. I don’t know why you think I don’t give a shit. I’m here.”
After a few moments of puzzled silence, someone in the crowd said, “Whoa, who peed in your cheerios today?”
Losang shook her head sadly.
“Well, it applies to a lot of people,” she said.
Then she turned and went back inside the temple, leaving the people outside to discuss what they’d just heard. I stared for a moment, feeling more chagrined than I had in a while. If I was going to speak to her at all, it couldn’t have been here, so I pulled on the reigns of my horse and made my way down the other side of the hill. I wasn’t going to set foot in the temple, but I did have an idea of where to find her.
I found myself in an open field at the base of the hill. While there were several huge and magnificent fig trees around the perimeter, the field itself was empty save for a single wagon wheel that someone had driven into the ground. The trees beyond that looked gnarled and ancient, strangled in curtains of their own vines and roots. There was a dirt path in this field, and I followed it as it twisted around the base of the hill and toward the back of the temple. Eventually, the clearing gave way to densely packed foliage again, and the path split into three directions. One path had a broader width, the trees on either side distanced at equal intervals. It did not twist, and lead back to the temple. The middle path was wide enough for me to bring the horse into, but I could not clearly see where it led, and I would definitely have to abandon the lance if I went inside. The path to my right was extremely narrow and seemed to lead up another hill, only I would have to leave the horse behind to travel it. I was energized, and I needed to act. I glanced around, looking and listening intensely. I moved my horse in circles, not taking any of the branches. As soon as one looked like a likely bet, I quickly turned my gaze toward another. Eventually, I dropped my lance in the field and took the middle path. I didn’t know why, exactly, but it felt right to me.
I carefully navigated through the path, occasionally ducking from low branches and brushing foliage out of my way. The path eventually winded leftward, and it was there that I found myself in a grassy meadow where huge fig trees grew at respectable distances from each other. They were even larger than the ones I’d seen before, and their massive branches swept outward and toward the ground. They often branched near the base, resembling gigantic ‘V’s or ram heads with huge curling horns. The largest tree was in the center of this field. Its branches swept graciously outward toward the Earth, as if giving thanks to the thing that gave it life. I saw a tiny figure in a saffron robe hanging upside-down from one of these branches.
I urged the horse forward with a nudge from my spurs, but the closer I came the more I wanted to slow down, until gallop became canter, canter became trot, and trot a walk. As I neared, I dismounted and continued walking alongside my steed, until I removed my sallet and tossed it in the grass. I then removed my belt, scabbard, and sword, and tossed them onto the ground next to the helmet.
When I was within speaking distance of Losang, I slowed to a crawl, and my energy more focused than before. I did not take my eyes off her for a second. She was motionless from where she hung, upside down on the lower branch, one leg bent and securely holding her in place, the other folded neatly across her knee to form a “4”. Her hands were clasped in prayer, and her eyes were closed. Though she hung upside-down, her face looked peaceful and not flushed.
“Losang,” I said softly, “It’s me. I . . . I’m sorry for being an idiot back there on the Net and everything. I . . .”
Her eyes opened as I spoke, but she said nothing.
“I know you don’t owe me anything. I know you never promised me anything. But I don’t know if I ever told you how grateful I was that I met you. The Oracle once said to me that the various people we meet in our lives come and go for a reason, and I think I know why you came into mine. I . . . I just wanted you to be in it longer—”
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t all about you,” she said. “I was addressing some other things too. I’m sorry life is dumb like me. I was regretting my ramble. A friend hurt me; he’s going back to Iraq and he doesn’t understand why I care about him. It’s bad and I’m so concerned for him—”
“You made me feel safe and understood. You helped heal some of the wounds my ex inflicted on me. You—”
“Nothing ever turns out the way we plan. Nothing. I’m really grateful for you too even if I’ve done a shitty job of showing it. Life is never easy, and then there is Murphy’s Law. Heh. I didn’t take it personal. I know better. But I don’t want to hurt you. Or anyone. You know? I don’t. I’m sorry if I do or did. I’ll try harder—”
My voice was breaking, but I still had a point to make.
“Y-you made me feel like it was alright to be myself. I can even go as far as to say that you brought me closer to God. And like I said before—like I alluded to before—I will always love you . . .in whatever matter possible and appropriate.”
And then we just stared at each other. Given where I stood and where she hanged herself, it was about even eye level. I was first to break the silence.
“Oh God,” I sighed. “This probably wasn’t the right time. I’m sorry, I must seem like some sort of emotionally needy wreck to you . . .”
“I don’t think you’re an emotionally needy wreck,” she chuckled, “I was more needy than anyone I’ve met thus far. And wreck? Shit. I was a Hiroshima a year ago, dear one. Stay away or get close all you want. I’m here. Take all the time to do what you have to. I’m sorry, I’m just a struggling Buddhist not a Buddha! It’s frustrating. You just know I pray for you and your family at least two times every day.”
“I know,” I said softly, “I pray for you, too.”
“I hope you’re well, Dave. I care so much about your well being and I need to express it better through my actions. I’m sorry. I know I’ve been a lackluster friend. You take care and do what you have to do. You are always in my heart. I’m sorry for your pain. I know the feeling. I’m in excruciating pain right now. My tooth got bad again. It’s the one that’s still open.
“You know, tomorrow is Saka Dawa, the most important Buddhist holiday, akin to Easter. The Buddha Shakyamuni defeated Mara and attained enlightenment of the highest degree beneath the bodhi tree. I will be thinking of you and being grateful for you. May you have happiness and its causes. May you be free from suffering and its causes. May you never be parted from sorrowless bliss. May you abide in equanimity, free from bias, attachment, and hatred. May you have a long life, with sound health, surrounded by virtue.”
Doing my best to contain my sadness, I smiled, bowed slightly to her, turned around and led my horse out of the field. I picked up my sword and helmet on the way out of the meadow, and my lance outside the clearing. I didn’t even mount the horse again until I was well outside of the periphery of the temple.
I wandered the forests for months, perhaps, before I found the coast and plunged into the sea again, pressing onward until my steed changed into a hippocamp capable of carrying me across, then back into a normal horse when I reached another shore. This was a place I’d been to before, where lush forests abounded. I tethered my horse to a large tree and left my lance leaning against it as well, and went in search of a small cave under the roots of a huge tree. I found the cave where I’d remembered seeing it last, though the opening was smaller than I remembered. I didn’t see the cougar anywhere.
Ducking, I entered the cave and found a narrow dirt tunnel that sloped downward. I was able to squeeze through, regardless of my armor, and found that it went on for some distance. There was a dim glow at the end, from behind a heavy gray curtain. I gently lifted it. Behind the curtain was a large circular room with fat black and white candles placed in candelabras in strategic areas, bathing the area in a warm yellow glow. There was a cauldron in the center with smoldering embers underneath it, and, when I looked up, a veritable chimney chute, though I had no idea where it emerged in the woods above. A circle of chalk or salt had been traced on the floor around the cauldron, completely concentric to the room itself. Beyond that I could see a table, upon which there was a ceremonial dagger, a few coin stacks, and a chalice. There were potted lilies and roses on either side of the table. Removing my sallet and carrying it under my arm, I entered and looked to either side.
Lolly was there sweeping the floor, her gaze lowered. She was wearing a white chemise tightened at her waist by a Celtic leather belt, and a red cloak over her shoulders held in place by a broach in the shape of a lemniscate. Lolly smiled when she saw me, not looking the least bit startled or annoyed.
“David!” she said. She purposefully walked behind the table, and placed her broom alongside the other items.
Only a few days ago, my mother and Monica planned on taking a day to visit Lizzie Borden’s house, and it happened to be on a day when Lolly would be there. It was complicated, because while my mother knew she worked there (“Don’t worry, you haven’t even met her, so it doesn’t matter.”), my sister did not, though she knew I had met Lolly. Lolly was a good sport about it.
“Hi,” I said, “Looks like my family isn’t heading to Lizzie’s after all. Kind of a relief for me, actually. Though it would have been nice seeing you again. It was fun even discussing it.”
“Like I said,” Lolly chuckled, “I’m irony’s chew toy.”
“Irony’s chew toy,” I said with a smile, “I like that expression.”
“I was thinking that there was a grand amount of humor in it. And you know . . . if you ever decided that you’d like to see me again . . . discussing it would have been mighty amusing for us, at least!”
Lolly stepped around the table and moved closer to me, not breaching the circle on the floor. We were both smiling, but there was a certain amount of sadness behind it.
“Ah,” I said, “Is that why you wanted me to come by?”
“Yes and no. I’ve wondered whether you might like to, but barring that, I still have a lovely time talking with you.”
“That’s good to know, but if we don’t actually meet again, I’d just want you to know that it doesn’t have anything to do with you personally.”
“I understand,” she said, “And even if it did . . . that would be OK, too.”
“I think . . . and it’s kind of hard to explain this exactly . . .”
“You don’t have to explain, if you’d rather not.”
“I think it was sort of like one of those Biblical lessons where the protagonist fails at what he thinks is his primary objective, but passes a larger, more important test. The time I spent with you only confirmed it.”
“Hmm . . . not sure I understand.”
Lolly’s arms were folded, but it was not a confrontational pose. She looked lost in thought. So I tried again.
“I guess I’m saying I second-guessed myself a second time.”
“OK,” Lolly said, her voice softer, “Well . . . if the time you spent with me helped you learn more about your own feelings . . . then I’m just as glad . . . even if it means you don’t want to see me again.”
I watched her gesticulate awkwardly for a moment, but I didn’t move from where I stood. I kept my eyes on her as her gaze met mine again, in this room the candlelight made yellow. She was studying me too.
“There is one thing I’d like to know, though, if you wouldn’t mind?” she said.
“At the time . . . you didn’t do anything you didn’t want to do, did you?”
“No,” I said. “No need to worry about that. You were nothing but good to me.”
“OK. Thank you.”
“Better than OK,” I chuckled.
“Then I’m glad to have helped.”
“You have, but I really hope that doesn’t leave you feeling like you were used. I’m worried that I might have been self-centered and confused.”
“No, not all.”
“Glad to know that, too.”
“I knew that you might learn that you want more than the kinds of things I’m willing to offer right now . . . or that you might just decide that the age thing was too much for you after all. I was prepared for those things.”
“Yeah, I said I didn’t care about being seen in public with you, and what’s the first thing I did when we kissed outside? I looked across the water at those people on the other side.”
“I noticed. It’s OK.”
“One other thing you and Losang had in common, I think. You both thought more highly of me than I did of myself.”
“Maybe that should tell you something, David.”
“I know. The anniversary of my breakup is in two days. I want to believe I’ve cleansed myself of the last vestige of my ex’s lies.”
“Those days are hard,” she said, “And the truth is, even though it sucked, you still learn stuff from it.”
“I know that too.” I chuckled, “It’s kind of horrifying to think of what it would be like if I were still with her. I wouldn’t have known that there were women who are genuinely kind, compassionate, low-maintenance, and actually enjoy sex. I wouldn’t have had the capacity to imagine anything better. Ah, I might have mentioned all that before, I don’t remember . . .”
“Not those particular aspects of it,” Lolly said, “As for the compassionate and low-maintenance women . . . were you meaning me?”
“Obviously that included you.”
“Well, one likes to be certain. And thank you.”
“You’re sane, Lolly,” I smirked. “You aren’t hyper-sensitive to perceived slights and criticisms. You don’t have an abusive sense of logic. You don’t have panic attacks all the time. I could go on, but I won’t.”
“It’s fine if you want to. I don’t mind. I’m still listening, if you need to talk about this, any part of it, my part or otherwise. I’m just glad that I won’t be a regret for you.”
“You have nothing in common with my ex except you both know what I look like naked.”
Lolly laughed heartily, then she gazed back at me, pivoting back and forth from where she stood. Her palms faced up, gesturing both above and below.
“There are so many things I could say here!”
“And you’ve avoided all of them?”
“Well, yes. None of them are negative in any way, but given the circumstances, I’m not certain saying them would be appropriate.”
I smirked at her again.
“Why are you doing that?” she asked.
“To goad you on.”
“Ah, do you want me to be flirting with you? ‘Cause what I was going to say could be considered flirting . . . sort of.”
“Go for it,” I said with a shrug. “I flirt with everything female that has Instant Messenger.”
“Well,” she said laughing, “First I was going to thank you for what you said about me not having anything in common with your ex, and then I was going to say that seeing you naked was . . . well, lovely. You’re quite beautiful.”
“That’s not inappropriate, but you’re welcome anyway.”
We just smiled at each other for another moment or two, but there was only silence. I glanced around the cozy interior of the room again. Strange and earthen though it was, it felt comfortable, and not as cold or damp as I thought it would be.
“Anyway, I actually think I should be going now,” I said.
“OK,” said Lolly, “Would you feel more comfortable if I wait for you to contact me before we talk again?”
“Either way’s fine.”
“OK. I just wanted to make sure.”
“Good day, Lolly.”
“Good day, David. And thank you again.”
I smiled curtly to Lolly again, and left the cave. Back outside, I untethered the horse and found myself walking along the beach, reigns in hand. I had nowhere in particular to go, and nothing to watch except the sand clinging to my winged sabatons. Then I noticed a shiny object half buried in the sand. Tidal foam continued to cover and uncover it, but the metallic sheen remained. I moved as fast I could in the sand, a little awkwardly in my armor, and my horse was no less awkward in keeping up with me.
It was the cup I’d tossed out here nearly a month ago. I’d almost forgotten about it. I dug it out of the sand as the tidal foam crashed against my greaves and pulled back again, quickly washing it off in the tide. When I raised the cup toward the sun to gaze at it, it glistened and overflowed with seawater. Holding it both my gauntlet and my reverent gaze, I mounted my horse, pulled on the reigns, and continued on my way.
David Mitchell welcomes your comments on “Monica and The Knight of Cups” or any other part of Fulfillment at barlowe2003[at]yahoo.com.
photo by mcdlttx.
by Carl James Grindley
There is a type of honesty in distant
Birdsong, plaintive, openly colorful,
Spectacularly desperate, horny
To the point of irritation, a type of music
That even the artless must love
Or hate. Yes, another spring has
Begun, just as wet as the last one,
Just as wet as the one that will follow—
This is the image of you with green
Eyes, blue eyes, brown eyes with flecks
Of gold and hazel, this is the image of you
With black hair, with red hair, shorter
Taller, younger or older than you are,
Were, ever will be—this is the image of you,
Still at the window seat, carefully peeling
An orange forever, reading Wordsworth
Because of the way his words feel
As they drift across your tongue,
Reading Wordsworth forever.
Carl James Grindley grew up on an island off the West Coast of Canada, and studied in the US and Europe. He has taught creative writing at Yale University, and works at The City University of New York. His book Icon was published in 2008 by No Record Press. He has recent work in Apocrypha & Apostrophe, Anemone Sidecar, A Bad Penny Review, Eunoia Review, Anastomoo and Atticus Review. Grindley is a founding editor of The South Bronx Review.
photo by FelixJLeupold.
by Ernest Williamson III
Dr. Ernest Williamson III has published poetry and visual art in over 320 national and international online and print journals. He has work forthcoming in “The Columbia Review,” “Bricolage: University of Washington’s Literary Arts Journal,’ and many others. View more of his work here: www.yessy.com/budicegenius
by Benjamin Nardolili
The Scotch is not Scotch at all,
But they put a man with a kilt on it,
One wonders if you tip it over
If the plaid cloth will go flying up.
The vodka is distilled in Kentucky,
It is closer to the Bourbons
Than it is to the Romanovs,
Yet it has a double headed eagle on it.
The gin carries the elegant weight
Of the Old British Empire,
You can consume that former power
Without worrying about the dead Indians.
The wines really do come from lands
That they are named after,
It is the law that designated them,
But can you taste the grape picker’s hands?
This is the fetish that matters, the magic
We fashion and the idols we make
Out of what we bring into the world
Through pangs of collective exploitation.
When you begin to consider the efforts,
The wages of those in breweries,
Mix your liquor and beer together
Under a dead poet’s name, like Bukowski.
Benjamin Nardolili is a twenty five year old writer currently living in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, One Ghana One Voice, Caper Literary Journal, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, Super Arrow, Grey Sparrow Journal, Pear Noir, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Recently a chapbook, Common Symptoms of an Enduring Chill Explained, has been published by Folded Word Press. He maintains a blog at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is looking to publishing his first novel.
photo by Dan4th.