Robert Marswood – The Letter

The Letter
from Book II, Chapter 2 of Out of Zion
by Robert Marswood

“Fifty dollars for one lousy letter!”

“You want to make sure it’s sent from the other end of the country—and no one finds out you’re here?” Joe said raising an eyebrow.

Brad suddenly realized that Joe could not only send the letter, but also betray him. He felt sweat in his armpits. “How much could it possibly cost to get one of your air-steward friends to take it on his next flight to the East Coast?”

“Not much. But of course, this letter isn’t important to me. It’s important to you. What’s it worth to you?”

“How about 25?”

“How about forget it.”

“35”

“Not even warm.”

“45”

“And you buy me a drink.”

“I’m always buying you a drink every time I meet you in a bar.”

“That’s what people do in bars here. Buy each other drinks. Get drunk. Take each other home. Have sex—and leave the next morning. I guess you haven’t gotten the hang of that yet.”

‘And I hope I never do,’ Brad thought. He raised his hand and caught the bartender’s attention. A tall man with a military buzz cut and a strong jaw leaned over the bar to take Brad’s order. “A white Russian and a 7-Up,” Brad said.

“You remembered!” Joe said acting genuinely surprised.

“Yeah, that’s what happens when you don’t kill too many brain cells in a place like this.”

“You know just how to make a girl feel special!” Joe said as he picked up his white Russian. He stirred the ice cubes a few rotations with the little, red, swizzle stick to mix the cream on top before taking a sip.

Brad said nothing. He just watched the video playing on the screen above the bar. It was Madonna’s Vogue. The dancers wore 1930s or ’40s clothing and struck poses. ‘How appropriate,’ Brad thought. ‘Just what everybody in this bar is doing—posing and acting—badly.’ Brad turned his attention back to Joe who had quickly emptied his glass.

“Buy me another one, Jethro, and I’ll do it for free—if you show a girl a good time.”

“As appealing as that offer is, I think I’ll pass. Let’s just keep this strictly business.”

“If that’s the way you want it. So, how’s your new place on Haight Street working out?”

“H-H-how did you know I moved there?” Brad stuttered.

“Your super called to have the ad pulled. I asked who moved in. So, are you enjoying the roach motel?”

Brad was afraid and ashamed that Joe knew where he lived and that his apartment was a dump. He could tell the police exactly where Brad lived if they ever came calling. Brad was so unnerved by Joe’s comment that he almost walked away before giving Joe the letter.

“Sorry to cut things short, but here’s the money.” Brad counted out two twenties and a five into Joe’s outstretched palm. “And the letter. Make sure someone sends this within a week from the East Coast.” Brad handed Joe a thick, white, security envelope that wouldn’t reveal its contents when held up to a light. His mother’s name and address were typed on the envelope and Brad had affixed a first class stamp. Inside was a postcard of Times Square’s neon signs with the short message. “Living in New York City. Have work and a place to live. Hope you are well. Love, Brad.” He hoped that his mother would be the first to collect the mail as she usually did at noon when she walked the three blocks from the store to the house to make his father’s lunch. If she did get it first, Brad knew she would keep it a secret.

“What’s in here?” Joe asked as he waved the envelope in front of Brad.

“None of your business. Just make sure it gets mailed,” Brad said finishing his 7-Up. Then he walked out of the bar unaware of the half dozen men who watched him leave.

Alison Leigh Brown – Lavender

Lavender
by Alison Leigh Brown

Emily was not seduced by the perfume encoded on brightly coloured ads; they felt like sandpaper on her wrists, didn’t smell real. Her high school friends swooned and dreamt of lead roles in those glossy romances. But Emily just liked lavender—the colour, the scent. She remained faithful to it. Her friends laughed—they called her quaint. They said, “Emily’s crazy for lavender.” It didn’t bother her. She liked what she liked.

A woman now, she’s planted a border of the bristly stalks around her front garden. Saying good-bye to dinner guests, she fondles the stalks, brushes her fingers over the tops as if tousling a toddler’s hair. She rubs the dry flowers over her arms, even in the creases of her elbows. She says lavender reminds her of Provence, of Nana. David had taken her to France for their first anniversary. Her grandmother sprinkled its chalky powder on her dresses, on her sweet, old arms. So, Emily fills sachets with dried buds, adds lavender’s essence to chocolate desserts. Friends have caught her crumbling freshly pulled petals over lamb ragout.

Yes, Emily is mad for lavender. She has invented a delicate, yet potent blueberry lavender martini. When held to light, three distinct colour layers are revealed, each shade shown to advantage by the blueberry mint garnish she crafts. Her husband, David, is sick to death of lavender. He mocks Emily’s preoccupation with it, says she’s afflicted by sophomoric affectation. She thinks he’s joking.

When Ben first saw Emily, lavender didn’t come to mind. He looked up from his work and there she stood: modern and spare. Small of bosom and hip, she presented all legs and eyes. Ben was researching the division of marital property in Oklahoma on the public library’s Internet, trying to stretch out the time left before putting in a little face time at his office. He doesn’t have any afternoon clients, but has to review the Johnson file before tomorrow morning. That file. What a sorry record: grief and pettiness cutting across three states, requiring custodial arrangements for two sullen teenagers. There’s more pain than money here. Seeing Emily gives him a mini-daydream; trying to refocus on work, he notices a bright flash of white hair tumbling over the woman’s huge laughing eyes. He sees her again. She hasn’t moved out of his sight. Emily is wearing a short brown skirt and tall tight boots from which her long, pale legs extend. Ben gives his attention to her, catches himself thinking, she knows me. He smiles at her, asks if she needs anything.

“I guess I do,” she says, leaning deep into his space. It’s only then he becomes aware of lavender. He was expecting J’adore, or, perhaps, Poison. Last spring, his last girlfriend moved out. He missed the hominess, at first. When a letter comes for her, he takes it over in person. They chat; she makes him a drink. He keeps her many magazines for himself: Glamour, Self, Elle. She’s never asked for them. He likes to take the quizzes, scan the ads. He really enjoys them—looks forward to the next issues. He’s learned as much about himself as the minds of women. For instance, Ben now knows that as a woman, he’d be moderately conventional. Adding up the points of his answers reveals that he would not be kittenish in bed. He’s more demure.

He’s surprised when Emily asks him to join her for tea. She’s pretty and young. She knows exactly where they’re going and soon they’re sitting on fussy, overstuffed chairs. Their tattooed server sets down pots of floral infusions, clattering, borderline messy. She has to return with sterling strainers. It’s a haphazard establishment with no discernible theme, no trays. The tea, however, is excellent. Ben adjusts to Emily’s height, allows himself to relax into adventure. He confirms that he’s not married or in a relationship, and that he’s straight. He finds her questions irritating. She tells him all about her Internet search for Katy’s Tea Room; her tone apologetic. She says she’s a little tired from the drive. She’s come all the way from Oxford, not that she doesn’t make “cooler runs” all the time. Ben knows about the sedans and SUVs whose trunks are kept ready for sun chokes and decent arctic char. He’s familiar with the Memphis-Oxford food run. He’s suddenly tired too, realizing he’s cycling the names of perfectly decent places to buy groceries in Oxford. Emily turns business-like.

“I have a request.” She’s urgent, insistent.

Her direct examination bothers Ben. This is not a quiz in Cosmo. He is not half-asleep wondering how pathetic it is to answer yes to questions, he suspects should be no. He’s bothered but also baffled. She can’t know what he’s capable of doing or offering. He switches on lawyer mode, wary and precise.

“A request?”

“I’ve been married for five years.” She’s shameless, stares him flush on. “I’ve never had relations with anyone but my husband. David.”

“And this concerns me, how?”

“I don’t want a boyfriend, to have an affair or anything. I just want to know what it’s like with someone else. You know, to see if it’s different. When I saw you, I could see you’re clean. You don’t look like a creep.” Her voice loses steam. She pours more tea.

“Yeah. That’s me, a regular boy scout.” Ben is trying to figure out why he is so insulted.

“Would you be willing to have sex with me?”

Ben brings his napkin to his face. He realizes that he is embarrassed, shocked, flattered. His face is red, his mouth dry. He drops the napkin, rubs his hands on it.

“Just once.” Her tone is almost condescending. It’s the voice Ben uses to calm an edgy client. “No strings attached. I promise. We’ll just do it, and then I’ll leave. I’ll never call you. I won’t stalk you.”

Emily is so sure he’ll say yes, Ben wants to reject her out of hand. He wants to show her that men aren’t what they seem, that they aren’t so easily won. Instead he says: “Sure. Why not?” He follows with his spectacular smile. His partners call it is his closer look.

Emily stands up even though they aren’t half way through their little sandwiches, the dainty scones. He hasn’t poured a second cup, had been planning to make a better job of it, without dribbles. She starts chattering.

“Let’s go, then. Before you change your mind. I really appreciate this, Ken.” She takes a bill from her back pocket, slaps it on the table. Ben can see it’s only a twenty. Pretty sure this isn’t enough, he stands there, uncertain. It’s her party, but it’s his town. He adds a ten. The whole thing feels farcical. He hopes she hasn’t seen him increase the payment.

“Ben,” he states. “My name is Ben.”

“Of course.” She produces a smile of her own.

Emily’s eager to go. They leave, not looking back, not taking one last sip. Emily laughs again, amused as they bump bodies, each having decided they know which way to go. Ben likes her laugh. Still, he’s not as happy as he feels he should be. Has he been chosen because he’s non-threatening? There are lots of men in Memphis. Trying to make an almost creepy situation appear friendly, he takes her hand. Emily pushes him away as if he’s insane.

“Someone might see us! God, Ben. I’m married.”

Ben acknowledges his mistake. “I read law at Ole Miss.”

This is enough to convey to Emily his awareness that women who live in Oxford shop in Memphis and that he knows they talk. She nods relieving him of social embarrassment. They walk along in silence the few blocks to his car. Once inside, she puts her hand on the back of his neck, making little circles in his short, wiry hair. Ben knows this is how she plays with her husband. He puts the thought out of his mind, tries to just enjoy this domesticity. So this is what it’s like to be married.

Once home he looks for any evidence she’ll back out. There is none. Emily’s undressed before he’s shown her the bedroom. Ben is unnerved by her lack of artifice. Her tall boots are quickly dispensed. Emily hasn’t needed to sit down, to pull or wiggle. Zip and they’re off. She gets out of her socks like a youngster, using the opposing toes of each foot to scrunch the fabric down and then flip them off. She bends to stuff each one inside its partner boot. She is not worried about the view of her backside. He’s never been with a woman so unconcerned about her body. It’s like she’s getting ready for gym class.

“I knew your house would be tidy.” The words she chooses to describe him leave Ben feeling unmanned. He can’t argue with her assessment. He is neat; he is a gentleman.

So there she is: waiting, completely at ease, naked. Still in his suit, Ben thinks: I’m dealing with a child. Emily appears to be waiting for him to cause something, not unlike the way his previous partners’ children, his nieces and nephews, stand by swings, silently demanding a push, a boost up, or the way they eye teensy spoons coated with peas or beets. They know the spoon will end up in their mouths if they just sit there looking at it. Emily reminds Ben of a cat nuzzling a door in that way that shows time is not a concept for it, that it can wait as long as necessary for the knob to turn, the door to open. Emily makes him think of a baby waiting to be diapered.

“Are you sure about this? There’s this sense I’m having that I’m maybe taking advantage.” Ben imagines what his mother would advise for this situation. What is the right thing to do? He tries to understand why, with so many candidates to choose from, Emily has picked him. Why me? “Do you still want to do this?”

Emily nods. “Yes. I committed to this before I left Oxford.” After a pause and with nothing happening, she asks, “Don’t you have to call your work or anything, Ben?” And then with equal weight, “Is there something you want me to put on?”

“Emily. I haven’t had sex for four months. I need a little time to get to know you. And no, I don’t have to call into my work ‘or anything.’ What a wifely thing to say.”

He’s only trying to make a joke, to loosen things up. Boundaries are shifting too quickly for him.

Emily takes his comment the wrong way. She swallows, holds her eyes tightly together, a movement he knows from his divorcing clients is meant to keep you from crying.

“I knew I wouldn’t be good at this.” She sits down on a dining room chair, her posture perfect. Back against the chair, her breasts stick straight out, too small to go anywhere else. Each nipple is tiny; they’re pale—the colour of a toy doll. The pink fleshiness accentuates how white the rest of her is. Ben can’t get over her poise; the innocence of her relationship to her body is new to him. He likes it. “You can change your mind if you want to, Ben.” She’s composed her face and has resumed the negotiation. “I know this is bizarre. You don’t have to go through with this.”

His body isn’t anticipatory, even though here she is. He can’t stop wondering what men had been considered and rejected before she focused on him. Had she come directly to the library or had she tried her luck at the courthouse, the supermarket? Had she been with someone else forty minutes ago and when he gave her an out, did she say those exact same words? He can’t let her be rejected twice.

“Of course I want to, Emily. The pacing’s off. That’s all. Let’s start over again. Let’s pretend we know each other. You stay here and I’ll come back when you’re not expecting me. It’ll be more fun. Sex is not just the doing of it, you know.” He sounds inane to himself. The rhythm of his words seem childish.

“I know that.” She doesn’t pout. “Ben. I’m not a virgin. I’m just inexperienced.”

“Emily, we didn’t think things through. For me, I need a context. Look. You get dressed, go in the kitchen and pretend to be making dinner.”

Emily indicates she’s game. She asks how long she has to get ready.

“I’ll be home by five.”

“Okay, sweetheart.”

Ben leaves his house with the stranger inside. He doesn’t usually drink in the afternoon but he stops at a bar by his office and orders a beer. There are quite a few men he recognizes, but doesn’t know, chatting over cokes and pretzels. Ben nods and smiles. He drinks straight from the bottle, wondering whether he should bring Emily a gift. Decides against it. He wonders if she’ll be there when he gets back. He doesn’t know if he’ll be relieved or sad if she’s gone.

Emily is excited now that she’s alone. Anticipating sex warms her skin even before she sees its glow in the mirror. She blows a kiss at her reflection with her hands on her hips. Emily winks at Emily. She turns to Ben’s closet but finds nothing of interest there. His shirts are on laundry hangers. This makes her feel sorry for him, that he has no one to force him to use good wooden ones. She searches for any little something left by another woman—a slip, a nightgown, but finds none. The suits soldier from charcoal wool to pale linen, just like David’s do. She has no choice but to put back on her same old clothes. Knowing that this won’t take long and that there is no way she will eat dinner with Ben, she calls the first take-out number she finds. It’s a sushi place and they say it will be there around five-thirty. She’s never cared for any kind of Asian food; she orders what David would if he were here. Nothing with eel or octopus—a California Roll in case the fish is off.

With fifty minutes to kill, Emily doesn’t know how to follow Ben’s instructions. She remembers her lavender martinis and how they always cheer a place up. She goes out back to cut some fresh lavender, but remembers where she is. There’s nothing in Ben’s garden except a few trees, some grass and the sorts of perennials bachelors have. A look through his cabinets shows he doesn’t keep liquor at home.

Emily almost had sex with the boyfriend before David. There have only been the two. Her reason for constant deferral had been the gravity he brought to each encounter. They were young, freshmen in college. Allen got all red-faced and fumbling from wanting her. Embarrassed for him, she couldn’t keep her focus. David was older than Allen, a senior, and more experienced. He came at the whole thing playfully, pretending to be a cat, biting her toes. It wasn’t until years later that she wondered if serious wasn’t more in keeping with the nature of the thing.

Yesterday afternoon, Sunday, she approached David with a sombre face. She wasn’t sure how to convey what she wanted. She almost asked him to stop joking around but couldn’t figure out how to say this, without it sounding like a criticism of their entire shared life. So she wore the sombre face and willed him to notice what she wanted. David somehow sidestepped the force of her willing; he just couldn’t keep his mirth down. After they’d finished, he went, as he always did, to fetch some water. She lay there, trying to find the reason to forgive him.

Emily balances their checkbook, was an A student in college and now is competent at her job. She’s in charge of all the windows at Oxford’s department store and she signs off on all marketing initiatives. She has a good eye for fashion, colour, the juxtaposition of shape and font. David’s daddy owns the store; the three of them do their business things together across the square in their corporate offices. Over morning coffee, she gave David several chances to apologize for missing her cues, but it was like he didn’t even know anything was wrong. Infuriated, even though she knew she really shouldn’t be, she decided to go over to Memphis and set things right.

“I’ve got to get to Memphis, David.”

“Well, that’s good, Emily. You have fun.” David didn’t even acknowledge her resentment. He just smiled. “Be careful.”

The world turned until it became five to five at Ben’s house. She decides to take her boots back off. Ben suspects Emily will return to Mississippi to spend the night with her husband, so he stops at his office to pick up the rest of the Johnson file and to check in. He’s stalling. He can’t be late so he gets his car and drives back to the house. He sits out front, waiting for inspiration. Nothing. Letting himself in a little noisier than if it were to the customary emptiness, he announces,

“Honey, I’m home.”

She welcomes him with a warm, open-mouthed kiss.

“What’s for dinner?” When did I become such a ham?

“Sushi. It’ll be here in fifteen minutes—we can put it in the fridge for later.”

Emily hasn’t lost her self-assurance. She leads him into the bedroom. She doesn’t ask Ben about his day. She refrains from using funny voices. Emily kisses him again, so soon they are prone and panting, as people do. Pieces fit where they should; the feeling of being marionette is unavoidable. In spite of her intentions toward gravity, then, Emily giggles. Ben is relieved and starts in with a few jokey remarks. It’s a good time—sex is what it is.

Emily tells Ben she better not stay for dinner. She’s ready to go home. As Ben drives her to her car, she’s proud she keeps the lesson to herself. It’s exactly the same.

Ben’s life was not much changed by his afternoon with Emily. He sometimes thinks about their late afternoon encounter. Sometimes he allows himself to dwell on it. He credits its novelty for a happy conclusion to the Johnson affair. His altruism stoked, he made an extra effort to keep his client from haggling over furniture, from bartering weekends with distressed offspring for any other thing.

Two years after his tea with Emily, he finds himself married, domesticated. It’s a puzzle though, that he smells the stink of lavender everywhere—on his fingers, at the bottom of his drawers.

Switching from coffee to tea has produced a Ben who is almost prissy. He loves its paraphernalia; he even plans vacations to places where tea rites are prized. When tall, pale women hold his eye, he wonders why they pass him by. Why not me?

Occasionally, he finds himself thinking about Emily, whether he has damaged her. He holds the memory close, just as he does his tins of teas. The Assams and Jasmines are delivered to his office; he never shares them. After a trying deposition or a rare failed settlement, he warms a clay pot on the hotplate he keeps hidden in a bottom file drawer. From that same drawer, he retrieves an antique silver strainer with its porcelain drip bowl. Ben is soothed by lovely cups of tea.

Kristine is perfect for him. She’s stately and funny, numbers three and seven on his list of ten preferred qualities in a wife. She’s surprised whenever he gives her gifts with a lavender theme: soaps, hair pomades, little baskets filled with dry buds. She doesn’t like lavender. Kristine’s considered telling Ben lavender is not quite her thing, but she doesn’t. Over the years, she finds a way to just be grateful. He loves me. He wants to grow old with me.

Emily and David continue living. David takes over the store when his father retires. Emily returns home to raise the two children. Sons. Slowly, she starts using the perfumes David gives her for appropriate occasions. The men who did the back fence did such beautiful work that she asked them to fill the front garden’s borders with matching stone. She doesn’t have time to stuff sachets.

One day the doorbell rings. She’d been rushing to find the boys’ soccer cleats. Annoyed, she opens the door to find a florist’s box on her porch. Thinking that David has sent roses again, she finishes packing for practice, then confirms private goalie practice for the next day. She thinks she’s earned a hot bath and is about to take it when she remembers the delivery. She’s grateful, of course, but wishes there could be a little variation in this world. Lifting the lid, having already set David’s mother’s best vase out to receive its bouquet, she doesn’t immediately make sense of the two long stalks of dried lavender tied with twine. “A little lavender for Emily,” is typed by one of those machines that ape human hand. Emily’s not usually overcome by emotion, but she is utterly delighted. She sits at her perfect kitchen table, shoulders straight back. She’s pleased.

Robert Marswood – Good Cooking is Good Chemistry

Good Cooking is Good Chemistry
from Book II, Chapter 1 of Out of Zion
by Robert Marswood

Brad began to feel more at home as he cooked his first meals in his Haight Street studio apartment. Except for the flight of a dozen cockroaches the first time he’d used the stove, cooking usually put Brad into a good mood after a hard day at work. As he tenderized the pork cutlets, Brad thought about the lawyers who had requested the last-minute photocopies that had kept him two hours longer at work on a Friday. Imagining their heads under the tenderizing mallet, Brad struck the cutlets harder. The pyramidal spikes on the mallet head tore through the tough fibers in the cheap cuts making them easier to cook and to chew. With each swing, Brad felt a little better about another week of mind-numbing, back-aching work. First dinner, then the dishes and, after that, a run in the Panhandle. Brad hoped he’d be so worn out afterwards that for once he’d quickly fall asleep.

Brad dripped lemon juice over the tenderized schnitzels and then rolled them in peppered flour. As he dropped them into a heated fry pan, the cutlets spattered and their white coats yellowed in the hot oil. Brad quickly wiped up the oil splatters with a dishtowel he kept over his shoulder. He wanted to remove any tasty incentives rouge roaches might have to race across the top of the stove.

When he lived at home, Brad’s mother had always shooed him out of the kitchen as if cooking were some sort of magic. Every Sunday afternoon after church, Brad waited with his father and brothers in the living room for what seemed like hours as his mother and sister struggled to get the weekly roast on the table. If Brad went through the swinging kitchen door to look or to help, however, his mother immediately bounced him back into the dining room. Brad couldn’t understand what she had against men in the kitchen. It was as if she was the guardian of the family’s culinary secrets. Secrets that were to be kept from the men, so they would get and stay married.

It was because of this that Brad never forgot his parents’ surprise the first evening he’d made weenies, baked beans and salad for his younger brothers, who, as usual, had spent hours wrestling on the living room floor and rolling into the sofa and the television set. Brad was supposed to babysit them while doing his homework—50 pages of AP history and a ten-question calculus problem set.

“You’re their older brother,” Brad’s father would roar at him. “You’re in charge when your mother or I aren’t home.” Sometimes Brad’s parents, who both worked at “the store,” known to the rest of the world as Winton’s Pharmacy, weren’t home until after 9 PM even though closing time was 7.

That night his parents had gotten home especially late, around 10. Instead of finding the house the usual disaster with magazines and newspapers smeared all over the coffee table, lampshades askew and the crocheted sofa throw ripped off the couch and on the floor, they saw Brad drying the dishes. His younger brothers had been fed, done their homework and were upstairs in the bathroom brushing their teeth getting ready for bed. The boys’ schoolbooks and bookmarked homework assignments, including Brad’s, were lined up on the dining room table, ready for his father’s inspection. His parents’ mouths fell open and silent. They wondered what sort of coercion Brad had used to get his incorrigible brothers to behave.

He showed them the empty pork and beans can and the plastic frankfurter wrapper. “All I did was open a wrapper and a can, put them in a pan, stir them around and in ten minutes dinner was ready,” Brad said, as if he were trying to justify some wrongdoing. His mother gave Brad a wounded look, as if he had betrayed her. His father for once didn’t go into his 30-minute tirade until his mother got dinner on the table. “I also washed and cut up half a head of lettuce, two tomatoes and two carrots and made a salad.” Brad’s mother went upstairs to his parents’ bedroom and shut and locked the door. For a moment, Brad’s father looked as if he might ask Brad to make him supper. Then he turned towards the door, got back in his car and drove off, probably to some burger joint on Second South.

Many of Brad’s first missionary companions were almost as clueless about discipline, housekeeping and cooking as Brad’s younger brothers. After a hard day of tracting and having scores of doors slammed in their faces, Brad’s first senior missionary companion, Elder Stockton, enjoyed nothing more, once back at their apartment, than wrestling Brad to the floor and farting as close to his face as possible. Brad realized that this yokel, from some obscure corner of Montana, population 5,000, did this to reassert his bruised ego. He just wanted to make sure Stockton didn’t bruise him.

Stockton, just like Brad’s younger brothers, wasn’t too careful about the furniture either. End tables and lamps were knocked over. Then he tried to hide the damage by gluing things back together instead of telling their landlady, Frau Hagen, who was always complaining about something.

Brad had suffered from Stockton’s roughhousing for more than two weeks. Once Stockton had unscrewed the toilet seat and Brad had fallen off and hit his right knee against the bathroom’s hard, cold tile floor. Another time Stockton had stacked canned goods in the cupboard so they fell out onto Brad’s head when he opened the door. But Stockton’s cooking was by far his worst offence. It seemed like he’d learned it on some chuckwagon. All he ever made were pork and beans and sausages from a can and hamburgers that were burnt on the outside and bloody on the inside. Other nights, they ate peanut butter and jelly or cold cut sandwiches. Brad didn’t know if Stockton was running out of money, as many missionaries did towards the end of their missions, or if he just didn’t know how to cook other things. But after three weeks of bad food, Brad decided it was time to start making some changes.

The first was when Brad bought a cookbook on sale at the Hanover, Germany, Safeway.

“You can’t read that,” Elder Stockton quickly objected. “It’s not approved material,” he said reminding Brad that missionaries were only allowed to read The Four Standard WorksThe Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price, “faith-promoting” theological tomes like Elder Talmage’s Articles of Faith or Jesus, the Christ, or Elder Richard’s salesman-like tips for missionaries in A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. This ban also included newspapers and magazines whose front covers Brad quickly and surreptitiously scanned as he stood in the supermarket check-out line with Elder Stockton.

“Would you like to eat PB&J sandwiches, sausages, beans and half-cooked hamburgers for the rest of the time we’re together?” Brad asked. Elder Stockton didn’t answer.

“Besides,” Brad continued, “I don’t think there’s anything in here against church doctrine unless they throw in a little cooking sherry every now and then—and I’ll leave that out.”

Brad bought the book. It was about frying techniques since many Germans didn’t have ovens, just a few gas burners set at waist height on top of their half-sized refrigerators. Brad learned all about tenderizing, marinating, breading and frying schnitzels, sausages and other cheap cuts of meat in a pan at the correct temperature.

The first time he ate one of Brad’s cookbook dinners, Elder Stockton gave his companion the same open-mouthed look Brad’s parents had given him when he’d fed and pacified his younger brothers. Using just the basics—water, flour, egg, salt, pepper, sugar, mustard and a little heat under a frying pan—Brad had transformed the cheap, tough, supermarket pork schnitzels, which most missionaries tried to chew and swallow quickly, into something tender and savoury. Soon dinners became something not just to be endured, but to be enjoyed and even anticipated.

It was then that Brad discovered that good cooking was no mystery, just good chemistry. It required following recipes step by step and adding the right amount of heat to create a controlled chemical reaction. He’d set up and monitored much more complicated operations with glass funnels and tubes in the back of his father’s pharmacy—titrations and distillations—which sometimes ran overnight or all weekend to create customized, prescription drops, lotions or pills. Winton Pharmacy was one of the few Wasatch Valley drugstores that still did that.

The cutlets had browned on one side, so Brad turned them in the pan. It was getting warm in the kitchen, so Brad opened a window. Fog-cooled air rushed into the hot room.

Elder Stockton didn’t say a word, when a few weeks later, Brad bought a book on baking, a roasting pan and two, narrow cake molds. Soon they were enjoying chicken and pork roasts with potato, carrot, onion, turnip or celery trimmings twice a week with a banana or chocolate pound cake for dessert. Brad usually put the two cakes into the oven as soon as he took out the roast to save on gas. He didn’t want his landlady, Frau Hagen, complaining about the gas bill again or about the two missionaries’ daily morning showers.

Sie sind Amerikanen,” the mission president tried to explain to her to no avail. “Das ist gewöhnlich.”

The first cake was for Brad and Elder Stockton that evening and the next day. The second was for the other zone missionaries. Before he went to bed, Brad sliced the leftover meat for the next day’s luncheon sandwiches. The second cake he cut into 2 cm. thick slices and packed them into plastic bags for the other missionaries.

He’d also trained Elder Stockton to share the household chores—cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the living room and taking out the rubbish—in exchange for a warm evening meal, though he still made remarks to try to redeem his wounded manhood.

“Oh, you’ll make some woman a good wife some day,” or “You’re such a sweet spirit,” he taunted.

Brad liked to think that Stockton regretted it, though, when he was transferred to Bielefeld two months later. Elder Bergamo, as Brad was called, had two more senior companions who were prone to the same wrestling matches and practical jokes as Elder Stockton. This time, however, Brad initiated the food reward/response mechanism within the first days of their assignment. Thus he avoided, for the most part, the rough and tumble and bruises he’d gotten from Elder Stockton.

As Brad began to rise in seniority in the Northern German mission, he became shocked at how little some of his fellow missionaries had saved for food or received from home to eat. Before Brad had even left for Germany, his part-time farmer/full-time banker uncle in Ohio had transferred three thousand dollars to a Deutsche Bank account so he wouldn’t run out. None of the other guys had the ways or the means to put away such a financial cushion. Many could barely save enough for two, wash-and-wear suits, aeroplane fare and the first few months of groceries before they left the States. In addition, the Hanover ward members had been instructed by the mission president not to feed the missionaries because he was convinced that time spent having warm lunches or afternoon Apfelkuchen and ice cream with older members kept the elders from getting their baptisms. And the Hanover mission was going through a particularly long dry spell. There hadn’t been any baptisms in the last quarter.

Seeing his fellow missionaries poverty, Brad quickly organized what he referred to as the United Order. Joseph Smith, Jr. had used the same term to define a method of consecration in which the predominantly poor converts of his fledgling church, gave what they had to the bishop, and received what they needed in return. Although Brad’s “Order” wasn’t communist, the missionaries saved at least 20 per cent on their grocery bills through buying in bulk. Brad bought fruits and vegetables at the twice-weekly farmers’ markets, and meat and bread from neighbourhood butchers and bakers. In addition, these tradespeople were so happy with Brad’s regular business and charmed by his upper-level German that they gave him little extras. The fruit and vegetable vendors threw in extra produce after they’d weighed and Brad had paid for what had been on the scale. The butchers gave Brad free, special cuts like cow’s tongue or Blutwurst—things too exotic for the other missionaries, but a challenge for Brad to cook and an unexpected treat for his companions. And the baker threw in a pastry every week with the bread and rolls like Bienenstich with its yeasty dough, cream filling and almond and honey topping.

The pork cutlets were brown on both sides now. Brad took them out of the pan and put them on a paper towel on a plate to drain. An express bus lumbered down Haight Street momentarily rattling the apartment windows. He put the plate with the cooked cutlets immediately into the refrigerator. He didn’t want any of the apartment’s wildlife getting to his supper before he did. He set “the table,” which was a built-in ledge underneath the china cabinet in front of a wavy, funhouse, reflective mirror probably from the 1920s when the building went up. Brad still didn’t have any money for furniture. He had rescued two chrome-framed, ’50s style, red padded kitchen chairs from a construction dumpster down the street and brought them home. Rust had permanently scarred the bottoms of the chair legs, but the padded seats and backs were intact and the frames. Though irreparably corroded at the bottom, the chairs were still strong and springy. Brad, however, still needed to get a frame for his mattress and springs to get them off the floor of his studio’s livingroom/bedroom.

Brad took a head of lettuce out of the refrigerator and washed it in the kitchen sink, watching to see if anything washed or jumped out. Then he sliced up a tomato, shaved a few carrots and poured some store-bought, blue cheese salad dressing, the only thing he hadn’t made from scratch, onto the salad. He took the cutlets out of the refrigerator, poured himself a glass of cranberry juice and sat down. He said Grace aloud with his eyes wide open so he wouldn’t be caught off guard by the roaches, hoping also the sound of his voice would frighten them away.

Brad began to eat. He was tired and hungry, but happy with how everything had turned out. The cutlets were crunchy and sweetly caramelized on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside and not the least bit pink. Sometimes if he got the pan too hot, the cutlets browned too quickly and were tough. As he sat there eating, the door to the Victorian Pub across the street opened and Brad heard piano music and people singing Happy Birthday. ‘They must be having a party,’ Brad thought.

As was to be expected, the mission president eventually got wind of the weekly meetings Brad had organized at his apartment to get the zone reports done, divide up some the week’s food and receipts and give the elders a taste of his cooking.

“Elder Bergamo, what’s this I hear about you having parties at your apartment?” the short, balding man snorted at Brad as he waited for an answer. The tense silence was broken only by the ticking of an old mantel clock above the fireplace in the president’s office. On the same mantel was a picture of a thirty-year-younger version of the president with a full head of blonde hair, standing next to President David O. MacKay and his wavy, white mane.

“It was a zone meeting not a party,” Brad said. “We got a lot of work done—tracting schedules, contact reviews and German scripture memorization.” Brad left out the part about the weekly food distribution. The only additional thing he admitted was feeding seven hungry, overworked young men. Brad knew immediately who had complained. It was his landlady, Frau Hagen. He hoped he would be out of her apartment soon. A few nights before, it had been very cold. Nonetheless, at 10.30 PM, just like clockwork before she crawled into bed, Frau Hagen cranked off the heat to Brad’s and Elder Wilhelm’s attic flat. In a few hours it was so cold the two men had to get up and get dressed, even putting on their raincoats in order to be warm enough to finally fall asleep.

The president shook his head. “I don’t want any unauthorized meetings of missionaries. You are here to work—not have a good time!”

Brad promised there’d be no more meetings at his apartment. That week, Brad went out and bought the biggest saddlebags he could find for his bicycle and his companion’s so they could transport and transfer “the goods” away from the prying eyes of any ward sisters or the mission president. Brad felt like a Cold War spy making the transfers in the park. Brad’s addition of a batch of cookies and some slices of pound cake as hush money only added to this feeling.

The bar’s door opened again. This time Glenn Campbell’s Galveston seeped out into the windy, foggy evening. Brad remembered when his mother had taught him the refrain’s rising chord progression one afternoon after school. He also remembered the sheet music’s colour photo of the attractive, blond-haired singer with long sideburns, a cleft chin and his head tilted back, eyes closed. Brad and his mother sat in front of the big, carved, dark mahogany upright piano his mother had played in her father’s family band when she was a teenager. No matter how bad his day had been at school, Brad soon forgot his troubles as his mother patiently and competently taught him how to transfer the notes on the sheet music to the keys. Soon, Brad didn’t even have to think about where his fingers had to go. He could sight read and the keyboard seemed to become as extension of his body. His mother was a great teacher. Brad wondered why she hadn’t gone to music school or taught her own students.

Brad ate the second cutlet and his salad. About halfway through his mission, he was transferred from Hanover to Berlin. Here in the walled German metropolis, surrounded by East Germany, it had been even harder to get baptisms. But his assignment proved to be a godsend when the ward’s 78-year-old choir director, Schwester Hauptman, a stalwart who had remained active even during Nazis, suddenly had a meltdown during sacrament service one Sunday because she felt the ward no longer followed her direction.

Lauter! Schneller!” she shouted, tapping the podium with her baton as the ward members tried to follow her. The problem, however, wasn’t the ward’s volume or its tempo. Schwester Hauptman just couldn’t hear or see that well anymore even though she’d been told for years to get a hearing aid and have cataract surgery.

In the middle of sacrament service, after conducting a hymn and becoming increasing red-faced, she left the podium and walked out of the chapel even before the 16-year-old young man carrying the silver tray with the bread got to the rostrum. After the service, one of the president’s counsellors took her aside for a talk. The next Sunday it was announced that Schwester Hauptman had been released, which the ward confirmed with a quick, unanimous show of raised hands. It was immediately announced thereafter that Brad had been “called” as the new ward choir director, which was also confirmed with another quick, unanimous show of hands.

Brad was pleasantly surprised. Most of his mission, he’d hardly spent any time at the keyboard. It would be nice to practise and play regularly again.

“Great, now I’ll never get my baptism,” Elder Swensen, Brad’s new junior companion, complained as he sat at the back of the chapel during the choir practice since they always had to stay together, instead of “on the hunt,” as Swensen called it. All that tall, thin, blond kid ever talked about was hunting and fishing in some forest or stream in Idaho or how much he wanted to get his baptism so he wouldn’t go back home empty-handed. In Latin America, he complained to Brad, elders baptized at least one person a week. Here, elders were lucky if they baptized one person their whole mission.

“Just wait,” Brad tried to reassure him. “It’ll happen. Besides, I think people here would rather come to us instead of us bothering them.” Going door-to-door looking for converts hadn’t yielded anyone who was more than vaguely interested in joining the church. Most respondents were elderly men and women with time on their hands who were just curious about the well-mannered, well-dressed, young American men standing on their doorsteps or behind a table in the open-air markets. Most had pleasant memories of the Allies who, during their youth, had saved them from the Russian soldiers who had raped and murdered as they advanced block-by-block to the city centre and Hitler’s bunker. These people, out of curiosity and/or nostalgia, took the discussions, but all finally declined to be baptized.

Brad worked with the ward choir so that they could begin to enjoy singing together. He had twice as many women as men. That was OK, though, since the ward’s brothers and sisters, most of whom were over 50, couldn’t hear half the high notes any more. Brad used warming-up exercises to help build up the choir’s vocal power and range. Breathing, articulation and phrasing exercises also helped put the drama back into what had previously been monotonous hymns. In addition, he added some familiar German hymns, which were in the LDS hymnbook, such as Luther’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, but which Schwester Hauptman, for some reason, had never used. Brad also added some newer hymns like Ich bin ein Kind von Gott. Brad guessed these had been added decades after the older members had joined the church.

Best of all, Brad praised the choristers when they did something well, and corrected them separately, not in front of the group, unlike Schwester Hauptman. After a few weeks of positive reinforcement, the choir really did sound better and five ward members had asked to join. After practice, there were also cookies or cakes Brad had baked along with hot chocolate, warm, anise-flavoured milk or cool, sparkling Sprüdelwaßer.

A few months into his “calling,” Brad was in a mission president’s office again, but this time he had asked for the meeting. He wanted President Zimmerman to hold an open house with food and a concert to try to get people from the neighborhood interested in the church.

Das ist nicht möglich!” Zimmerman insisted, pounding his fist on his oak desk, his white eye brows raised and the blue vein on the right side of his forehead throbbing.

Warum nicht?” Brad argued. “Going door-to-door just makes people angry, information stands in the town centre don’t attract anyone except nuts who want to argue for hours or people who have pleasant memories, but don’t get baptized. The free English lessons also haven’t drawn any converts, just parents too cheap to pay for tutors. Why not give some public concerts? At least it’s a way to get people into the chapel—of their own volition.”

The big, tall man leaned back in his high-back leather office chair, his arms behind his head, his eyes closed, thinking about Brad’s proposal, trying to get his pulse back to normal.

Ok, … nur eine Konzert!” he said gesticulating with his index finger towards Brad’s face. Brad, at first, couldn’t believe his luck. He left before Zimmerman had time to change his mind.

The ward brothers and sisters invited their family and friends to the concert, excited about how good the choir sounded and how much happiness and fellowship Elder Bergamo had brought them. Schwester Käks, or Sister Cookie, as she was affectionately called by the missionaries because she still invited them over for afternoon ice cream, even brought two neighbors from her Seniorenheim. One was Frau Meindert, a short, rather fat women with white-blue hair who had a bald patch on top. The other was Frau Dressler, who was taller and thinner and who always wore some sort of butterfly broach. Brad started the concert playing Bach’s Jesus, bleibt meine Freude on the organ. The choir started by singing, Ich brauch dich jeder Uur. In the middle of the concert, Brad accompanied himself on a solo and the concert ended with Luther’s Ein feste Burg is unser Gott.

Brad knew he had been hungry. He looked down and realized he’d eaten everything on his plate in just ten minutes. It had taken three times as long to cook the meal, but that was what happened when you made and ate supper alone. Now, there was nothing left to do but clean up—wash the dishes, put everything away in double Tupperware keepers so the roaches couldn’t get at them and take out the trash on his way down to run in the park. He turned on the hot water tap, waited for it to run from cold, rusty brown to steamy clear, and then put the dishes into the hot water and suds.

The concert drew an audience that nearly filled the 200-seat chapel. Frau Käks’ two neighbours became interested in the choir. They accompanied her to the twice-weekly rehearsals and sat in the back of the chapel knitting and listening to the choir until it was time for refreshments when Brad then invited them to join in. After about a month of “visits,” they came up to Brad at the end of one rehearsal and asked if they could join the choir.

Daß müße ich an Präsident Zimmerman fragen,” Brad said.

“Only if they join the church,” was Zimmerman’s answer.

And to Brad’s amazement—after three discussions and their first baptism charge—they did. Schwester Käks and the other ward sisters helped the two women sew their white baptismal dresses. They both wanted Brad to baptize them, but Brad persuaded Frau Dressler to let Elder Swensen baptize her, because as Brad’s junior companion, he needed the experience for his Lehre or apprenticeship. She agreed, though Zimmerman never understood why Brad gave his second baptism to Swensen.

“With two baptisms, you could have driven the Mercedes to conferences for the remainder of your mission,” he chided. The mission presidents in Germany, along with those in other places in Europe, gave missionaries perks if they baptized more than one person. Two baptisms got you the driver’s seat for three months to mission conferences. Three or four baptisms got you an extra free day with your companion. Brad had even heard from a high school friend on a mission in Norway who had gotten a week away from his companion in the countryside after baptizing a family of five. During the day, he could travel on his own as along as he returned every evening to his LDS host family and their summer cabin.

“I don’t really enjoy driving that much,” Brad had said. ‘What kind of queer American is this?’ Brad imagined Zimmerman had thought and he wasn’t wrong—about the queer part.

The bar’s door across the street opened again. This time Brad caught a bit of Debby Boone’s You Light Up My Life—his mother’s favourite song. She had taught Brad how to play it when he was 10. She had also hummed it to him as she taught him how to waltz seven years later in their Salt Lake living room in the weeks leading up to Brad’s senior prom. Unfortunately, they’d had to leave his grandfather’s piano in Ohio before they’d moved West. Brad still remembered how his father broke the news to his mother.

“Too heavy…too big,” he said. His mother gave his father first a puzzled and then a hurt look. Then she sat down in the nearest chair.

One of the movers, however, had walked in and overheard part of his parents exchange.

“I think we might….” Brad’s father turned and glared at the man, stopping him in mid-sentence. He also flexed his biceps and shot the mover one of his famous ‘I’ve killed a man with these hands’ looks that froze Brad in his tracks. The man stepped back and stumbled into the sofa. Then he quickly walked out the back door. He spent the rest of the day outside loading the moving truck.

Fortunately, for Brad, his new school in Salt Lake had its own music wing with a piano in every room so he was able to keep up with what he’d learned at home in Ohio. He even arranged to continue his lessons with Brother Friedman, his high school choir teacher. His mother, however, sometimes sat at home on the sofa staring at the empty space along the staircase where her father’s piano had stood in their house in Ohio. There hadn’t been enough money to buy a new one, his father had said, once they’d gotten to Utah. Besides, they needed all their savings to start up “the store” down the street at 9th and 9th. Brad’s father suggested Brad’s mother could practise at the meetinghouse just a few blocks away, but she said she was too tired after working with him all day and then making dinner.

Brad wanted to call his mother. He knew it was hard on her not knowing where he was. But he also wanted to keep the Utah State Police off his trail. What if his father had agreed to have the phone tapped? That was one of the reasons Brad hadn’t gotten a phone installed. The other was because Ma Bell wanted a $500 deposit for the first year since so many people left San Francisco without paying their bills.

Then Brad thought about writing his mother. Not from San Francisco, of course, because the postmark would reveal his location. He remembered a new store on Haight Street called Air Male. It sold men’s clothes and postcards from around the world including those from New York City. He remembered seeing cards of the Empire State Building’s silver spire and Times Square’s neon signs. Brad decided to send one of these to his mother, but to have someone else mail it from another part of the country. ‘How can I find someone to do this?’ Brad thought. Then he remembered he knew someone in the Castro who could certainly arrange it.

Antonije Nino Zalica – Rocco Carbone’s Bodyguard

Rocco Carbone’s Bodyguard
(from Bandiera Rossa in Coralville)
by Antonije Nino Zalica

Dato gave me a pair of sunglasses today. Chris told me I looked like a war criminal, but it seems to me I look just like an ordinary one. Earlier on we had a group photograph taken, we were all there except for the youngest one, who went off with a girl, I suppose he even fell in love. The photographs were taken on a lawn by a river called Iowa. Actually, we are in a state called Iowa, in a city called Iowa, in a memorial centre called Iowa, in a hotel called Iowa situated, as I have already mentioned, on the banks of a brownish river called Iowa. Most of the people around us were wearing T-shirts with “Iowa” printed across the chest. Dato has bought a pair of shorts to play football in, so he has “Iowa” written across his bum.

Rocco Carbone could have been a perfect gangster, his name is definitely right for it, and he sort of looks like one; black, combed- back hair, sparkling eyes, a restless spirit, a puzzling melancholy surrounding him like an aura, strange and volatile. Rocco is from Calabria, which fits perfectly as well, however, he does not live in Chicago, but in Rome; of course, he is not a gangster, or a consigliere, nor a burglar, gambler or pickpocket. Rocco is a forever futilely in love melancholic, partial to a drink; he is a writer too, of course, as are we all here, in Iowa City. I did not play football with him because, as I was told, he got so into it during the first game that he tripped over his own leg and spent the rest of the programme limping.

Although he is well into his adulthood, Rocco Carbone is still constantly in love and suffering for it. Sometimes it seemed to me that the “right to suffer” was more important to Rocco than love and being in love. He would try anything, he begged and knelt, in an old- fashioned way, before the objects of his adoration. He was ready to sacrifice everything for a bit of requited love or for, at least, some sign of it. Then he actually resembled romantic outlaws and ancient poets: Propertius, Tibullus or, at least, Petrarch—his consciousness muddled by the ecstasy of amorous longing. It need not be mentioned that this love was unrequited, and that the “Lauras” and the “Cynthias” changed in a strange and quickened rhythm. At the time I was hanging around with Rocco, the position was temporarily held by a beautiful and, they say, intelligent American poetess of Irish origin. She lived somewhere in Iowa, but had a boyfriend in Illinois whom she visit every Friday. That gave a perfect excuse to Rocco for even more passionate bouts of suffering and drinking. And so Rocco was consumed by amorous agony, and we, of course, drank with him, as if to help him.

Friday nights were the worst, every once in a while Rocco would desperately cry out: “Dato, do you know where she is now?” He always addressed Dato, as if he were a personification of us. Dato would reply with the wonderful understanding that only the people from Caucasus posses: “Yes, I know my friend, I know.” Rocco would then almost squeak: “And do you know what is she doing now?” And so it went on every Friday, to the point where we substituted the word “Friday” for the word “Illinois”—by which it was understood that the current “Beatrice” was getting off with some guy in Illinois. “Tomorrow’s “Illinois,” Rocco would sometimes say, the trace of appropriate sadness already in his voice. “Yes,” Dato would reply, “tomorrow’s Illinois.” “She’ll go to Illinois tomorrow, do you know why she goes to Illinois?” “I know, I know,” Dato would reply with empathy unique to him. And, after midnight, Rocco would cry out in his drawn-out Italian accent: “She is now in Illinois!” He would always draw out that word, he would sing it, Italian style, emphasize it with a strange self-agonizing pleasure. And so one night, we had already had a few, and Rocco wailed about Illi-no-i-s for the seventh time. I asked him, almost seriously: “Rocco, you must have some relatives here, in Chicago or Cleveland, some of your Calabrese. Maybe they could help you to solve that minor problem, with the girl?” Rocco stared at me with drunken, hurt eyes, then shrugged and nearly cried: “But Nino! I’m here in-cog-nito!” And then he started explaining how he would have no time for writing if his family knew he was there, he would have to call everyone, visit them, buy flowers for aunts, kiss the hands of grandfather’s relatives and bring chocolates for countless children.…He talked, and then paused, sighed with a long awaited relief, his face beamed with an ecstatic smile:

“Yes, I know! We’ll kill the guy!”

Yes, really, an idea struck Rocco, the problem could be solved in an instant, of course, the entire problem is in the boyfriend—if it were not for him, she would go to Rome with Rocco and would not live here in bloody Iowa, but in the centre of the world and in the city of all cities! And she would not be going to Illinois on Fridays to get her fat portion of passion!

“Dato, shall we kill the guy?”

“Of course Rocco, we will kill him for sure,” replied Dato practically in passing, while rummaging through his notes written in ornate and strange Georgian letters. Dato was the only programme participant who had not wanted a computer and only wrote in hand.

“It is so simple. We just need to kill the guy!” Rocco kept on repeating this sentence with a strange happiness, which even Robert de Niro would find difficult to act out so convincingly. Rocco was not acting it out. He was just in a position to imagine that remote possibility of realizing his dreams, or, maybe, he saw that his suffering could come to an end?

Although we spent almost three months in the USA, we did not kill anyone. Rocco soon became infatuated with someone else, so the fellow from Illinois was allowed to continue living happily, and we later heard that the Irish-American poetess had dumped him; nevertheless, she never did end up in eternal Rome. And I decided, once and for all, to become Rocco’s, my idol’s, personal bodyguard.

In Rome, Rocco had a weird job. Of course, he was a writer as the rest of us were, but unlike many of us, he was even acknowledged and read—however, he could not live from it. After he had become bored of teaching literature in a high school, Rocco found a job at a women’s prison. Every afternoon he would go behind bars and give literature classes to murderesses. Actually, those were not real classes. He would read selected texts to them and then they would discuss the contents. Once he told me how he had read an excerpt from a Tolstoy novel and one of the inmates said she could not listen to it any more and ran out. Later she admitted to Rocco that she had done away with her husband in exactly the same way, with an axe. “You know, that one was not evil at all, she freed herself from her tyrant, and that’s it. He had abused her terribly, you know.” I asked him whether he had fallen in love with any of the inmates. “Yes,” he said, “but nothing could be done about that.”

“And did any of them fall in love with you?”

“They were all, of course, in love with me!”

I truly believe that all of those women had really been in love with Rocco Carbone, but his destiny was such that some mysterious net had always found itself between him and requited love. In this case, it was the prison bars. God Eros was simply too mean to Rocco Carbone, and that is probably why he had described the god as a wicked and worn-out tramp in one of his novels. And gods are, as you know already, too egotistical and vain.

We were once, I remember, sitting in our common room on the third floor of the Iowa City University campus, a bit idle in our conversation, with a bottle of tequila, a little salt and lemon and, of course, a whole pile of ice. (Those ice machines on every corner certainly seemed to be the height of American civilization!) Quite a few of us were there. We talked about our childhoods and similarly silly topics. As a child I was, of course, a “pioneer.” I do not know how much people know about this, but in socialist countries everything had to be organized and collectivized in some way, so all the children above the age of six or seven belonged to the pioneer organization and they had to swear the “pioneer oath,” swear to listen to the elders, to be good and faithful to our leader and to the ideas of socialism and progress. And all the pioneers had similar “uniforms”—black trousers/skirts, white starched shirts, red scarves and hats with red five-pointed stars. At some point, I realized that most of the writers present in the room should have some experience of the pioneer past, and I asked each one if they had been pioneers as kids. Andrej Stanislavovič Bičkov from Moscow said: “Of course I was. Could it have been any other way?” and he laughed. Bičkov was a very entertaining and hilarious guy. We all had to give some kind of lecture to the students, and Bičkov started his in a very unusual way; as soon as he reached the lecture theatre pulpit, he admitted that he was not only a writer, but a murderer as well. Yes, yes, a real murderer who had killed two people! Everyone in the theatre stared at him confusedly, even with a feeling of unease (what if he really was, and you never know with the Russians, do you?)—and he did not let himself be disturbed, he calmly continued his confession and described both murders in detail—the first one he pushed under a tram without remorse, and watched him get crushed by the wheels, and the second one he stabbed several times with a kitchen knife and then decapitated him with one stroke! The American students stared at the strange little man who spoke English with an accent worthy of James Bond films’ worst villains. And he stood there at the pulpit of one of America’s universities with a smile on his face as if nothing had happened. And when everyone was really shocked, Bičkov added:“But I’ll have to emphasize that the two were writers as well! Postmodernist writers! And I hope that you can fully understand me now.”

But, let us continue with the topic of pioneers: Mileta Prodanović need not have answered. He said something like: “Give us a break,” with a grin. Ghassan Zaqtan from Ramallah looked at me over his cigarette he had just lit, showed with his ever-beautiful smile, which could have meant both confirmation and negation. So I was not able to find out whether Palestinians had a similar organization, but that they were a part of the “progressive humanity” was unquestionable. And Ghassan also had his “Moscow years,” and talked about them often. Aida, instead of an answer, started singing a well-known, Yugoslav partisan song, which, I later learned from a klezmer band in Poland, was actually a Ukrainian song. Aida was an Arab from Israel, and had problems introducing herself. I was plagued by similar difficulties. The most difficult thing was when they asked me where I was from, and they kept on asking that. People normally have a short and simple answer to that, two or three words and all is clear. But I have to take a deep breath first, take a short break—and then I start explaining slowly; I come from Holland, from Amsterdam, but actually I am from Sarajevo, from Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which used to be a part of Yugoslavia, I mean, former Yugoslavia….I go on explaining, not because I have to, but because I feel a vague compulsion to. Aida is always edgy; a muted frustration is constantly eating at her. The way in which she is addicted to nicotine reminds me of Sarajevo and Bosnia. As if we had gone to high school together and had smoked in secret, hiding from teachers, I get carried away sometimes and want to address her in my language. I started talking to Dato in that language once without realizing, and I also got his name mixed up, as if we had served in the army together somewhere in Slovenia.

Antonia always gives out a strangely calm aura. Just for a moment, I notice that her voice faltered, that her jaw imperceptively quivered; in the blueness of her eyes I notice a slight wetness. She has a similar problem as Aida and I, she explains where she is from—she is an Irish citizen, but, actually, she is from the Northern part: “Derry, not Londonderry, we call it just Derry.” She grew up and lived for a long time in Belgium. Poor thing, she never even had a chance of becoming a pioneer.

Viet, from Vietnam, as his name implies, laughed his ever childish laugh—a definitive confirmation of his pioneer past and not only that—children there are probably still some kind of pioneers, and our Viet may never have ceased being a member. And our friend from Laos, Tongbay, smiled in a similar way and continued nodding with approval for a long time. Su Tong, probably the biggest literary star among us, the author of the novel on which the famous film “Raise the Red Lantern” was based, did not have to confirm anything. Clear as day—of course he was a pioneer! Even Marius from Lithuania, although the youngest among us, admitted to having been a pioneer for a few months. Young Polish poet Dariuš, said something similar.

Only Marek Zaleski, although quite a few years older than Dariuš, refused, with resignation, any possibility of ever having anything to do with pioneers. We tried to “explain” to him that we still thought it impossible, but he kept on denying it with a harsh, neurotic twitch in his face. He was not, period! There was something there that pained him too much, and we stopped insisting. Only Dato admitted to asking his mother to iron his hat the night following his admittance to the pioneers, and he showed us how he had slept with it under the pillow, gently folding his hands under his cheek.

Dato was some kind of a “mobile Georgia,” wherever he was a small Georgian colony would form around him. And so he found some Georgians in Iowa, who kept on coming round to see him and take him out; among them, a strange type of closeness and openness was present already at the first meeting. Georgians are great patriots; they adore their country and everything Georgian, and, of course, each other, or at least it seems that way when they are far from Tbilisi, the Black Sea or the Caucasus. Once we had a real spectacle on our campus: some important demonstrations were taking place in Georgia, they had liberated themselves from a lot of things, but the local dictator still remained, and he wanted to shut down the only remaining independent TV station, and the people revolted. Dato had been a leader of an important student revolt in the nineties; he received a call in Iowa during the demonstrations, the phone was connected directly to a loud speaker on the square and he addressed the masses in the streets from his hotel room. We awaited him eagerly in the common room, he came back quivering, flushed:

“I told them—don’t worry, Rocco Carbone’s with us!”

I do not know whether he did that, but I do know he was crazy enough to do it. Then, one night, Dato told us we had all been invited to a barbecue by a Georgian family in nearby Coraville. All of us, more or less, accepted the invitation, except Chris Keulemans, whose excuse was that he wanted to stay in and work on his novel, “The American I Never Was,” only to admit later that he got stuck again and spent the entire evening staring at the TV. The Georgians came to pick us up and we piled into cars the best we could, some of us even sat in the boot of a large Cherokee jeep. On our way Dato explained to us the rules of a Georgian party: the booze up is always headed by a person called the tamada, who is often the host or one of the elders. Our hosts had several of Dato’s books on their shelves. They loved him and respected him very much and insisted on him being the tamada that evening. Dato hesitated. He thought that the honour belonged to the host, but they were persistent. The tamada dictates the evening, from what should be drunk and eaten and when, to the order and content of toasts, which are an unavoidable and the most important part of the festivity. He explained that everyone had to, unconditionally, accept the authority of the tamada, do everything that was asked of them, almost blindly and unquestioningly. He told us how he had once drunk in a village somewhere high up in the Caucasus. The tamada had been an old man, the head of the village, and in a moment of excitement he had said: “And now we will drink the Georgian soil!” and had poured a handful of soil into his wine. Everyone had followed him immediately, without any dissension. They had drunk the strange mixture of thick red wine and reddish soil.

We arrived in Coraville, a pretty town with terraced houses. The hosts were excited and everything had been ready for a good while. Iced vodka from the freezer was being drunk from long “test tube” glasses. On a large, semi-spherical barbecue, above practically “volcanic” embers, something resembling our own meat on skewers, ražnjići, was roasting. However, the skewers were shaped like sabres and each peace of meat was the size of a hand. Later we drank wine, Georgian of course, which is probably the best in the world, alongside our “blatina.” Our tamada, Dato, skilfully maintained the level of celebration. We drank to everyone—our mothers, those we loved but who were no longer with us. We toasted and drank copiously. The last toast Dato dedicated to our home countries and I have to admit that he dedicated a part of the toast to me alone. He said: “We will all return to our homes soon. Only Nino won’t, he does have a home and a family, but no longer has his fatherland. This is why I dedicate this toast to him above all!” As a matter of fact, until then I had not realized how right he was; Holland is a fine country, a country that had, actually, adopted me happily. But, Dato was right—a mother is a mother, and a stepmother is, after all, a stepmother, no matter how good or kind. It is strange, but, in the tamada ritual, nothing feels fake, or pathetic or sentimental like in our quasi-folklore rhyming toasts, which were always a sort of recited paroles, closer to sleazy sycophancy than frank camaraderie. But, putting that aside, Dato in the end asked everyone to give everyone else something from their country. Rocco, even though he was drunk as a lord to begin with (what can you do, it was the first day of “Illinois”), recited some Tasso or Petrarch—clearly, without stopping for a breath. Sergio talked about the secrets of Argentinean tango; Antonia said something about Dublin and the painful beauty of her native North; Ben, if I can remember correctly, was very eloquent on the topic of his childhood—Oxford I think it was, something resembling the “Dead Poets’ Society.” Everyone gave something beautiful, honest and warm. Finally, it was my turn; I said that, well, despite everything, I still held my mother tongue dear, no matter what they called it, and that it was that language that was some sort of my only remaining fatherland, and that I would try and give them some of the melodiousness and beauty of that practically nameless language; and I delivered, in a long and slow rhythm, the only poem I could remember then, and probably the only poem I ever knew of by heart, but most probably the best fitting one for the occasion: Pučina plava spava / prohladni pada mrak / vrh hribi crne trne / zadnji rumeni zrak….

Later we went out to the terrace, we also took a guitar with us. I played La Bamba (the only one I can play even when completely drunk). Ben sang a few fantastic songs (Simply Red? Pink Floyd?), one of which he wrote himself, and in one of the verses he improvised something about a man speaking, as he called it, Serbo–Croatian. Sergio played some strangely tender Argentinean love songs, Tango again, with knives thrown in, just like in Borges. So, that was that one starry night in Coraville.

Rocco sat in a corner of the terrace, drunk enough to be close to crying. He would sing an Italian song, he was not much of a singer, but the song would reach us all with its beauty. I took hold of the guitar, already drunk enough to have difficulty finding the strings, and asked Rocco:

“Do you know which is my favourite Italian song?”

Although a definitely hopeless singer, I neighed without a trace of inhibition:

Avanti o popolo alla riscossa

Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa

Avanti o popolo ala riscossa

Bandiera rossa trionferà

Everyone took up the spirited rhythm of the song. And once we reached the refrain, Rocco got up on his feet, which could hardly hold him, his eyes full of tears: “You’re trying to provoke me, Nino,” he said while a smile fought with a tearful ache on his face.

“You don’t know that I, truly, was a communist.”

With a bitter, hoarse voice he began singing “The Internationale,” in Italian, of course. It sounded truly touching. In my drunken brain, bits of old films started whirling; horsemen shooting peasants asking for land from double-barrelled shotguns in Bertolucci’s “Twentieth Century,” bandit Guliano, who, in “The Sicilian,” hews down red flags on rocky ground with a heavy machinegun.

We all started singing with Rocco, and to be honest, our hearts somehow grew bigger in the middle of the state of Iowa. Marek Zaleski stopped us, his hands shaking with rage and some innate fear. He said it was the same as singing a fascist song, the same as crying “zieg-heil.” It is not the same—we tried explaining. It is not the same when The Internationale is being sung by Rocco Carbone, drunk on a terrace in Coralville and when it is being sung by a choir on a Warsaw radio during the Soviet occupation. This was in vain. Marek was still shaking. Although he was in the wrong, we had enough respect for his frustration and we started singing Dylan and The Beatles again, and I definitely decided to be Rocco Carbone’s trusty bodyguard for the rest of my life (which is why Dato gave me a pair of sunglasses, which, he swore, he was given by the biggest Georgian rock star).

But I never kept another promise I made to Rocco while walking through Little Italy in Manhattan; I told him I would write a story entitled, “I was Rocco Carbone’s Bodyguard,” which will tell a story of a young Bosnian, a war veteran and a refugee in New York, who, when he realizes how much respect the man is given (and the event took place during a book signing in an Italian book shop), mistakes the writer Carbone for a big mafia man and offers to be his bodyguard, just for a seven-day trial. In the story, a drunken Rocco agrees to the crazy idea, of course, and they become friends over those seven days. The concept was not bad at all, but every writer has to have a story that remains unwritten.

And then, I imagine, like a scene from an unmade film: the orchestra is playing The Internationale, unassumingly—some violin, a tempered piano. We slowly peruse the audience and notice—a gangster is sitting in an ornamented theatre box. We get closer and realize it is Rocco Carbone himself, and I am with him—I stand behind him in a black pinstripe suit and dark glasses of a Georgian rock star and take notice of every wink.

The Internationale is playing, the gangster is breathing in the smell of a red carnation. And he is crying, quietly, as if it were Ridi Pagliaccio.

Ronald Linder – Chapter IX from The Other Man

Chapter IX from The Other Man
(A novel written in the 1970s)
by Ronald Linder

Smiling in sleep, Jeff held Donald folded in his arms, pressing his softly breathing, young body everywhere…as Geraldine woke in Atherton Sunday morning to anticipate her husband’s coming home…and Daphne, already up an hour, rearranged the furniture again in her giant doll house, not knowing where to put the father-doll and finally sticking him in the basement. Geraldine allowed herself one minute as she was waking to worry that Jeff’s relationship with Ralph might have gone too strong. He’d never stayed away this long, and though she liked Ralph because he was funny and smart and brought so much life into a house that had become so dull since her father had died, she wondered if Jeff’s old problem had returned. It was five years since the blackmail letters. But lately he’d seem to need Ralph at least once or twice a week “because a man needs a man to talk to.” She knew those things were never cured, but Jeff had had so much to do since her father had died, so many responsibilities and a whole new future. He shouldn’t need any of those schoolboy attachments.

Daphne moved here furniture around angrily because her dad had already missed her birthday. “He’d better come home today!” Another year and she’d have that horse he promised her, but even twelve was an important age and Jeff had promised her a big surprise for now … but why did he stay in the City so long? When she had her horse, she dreamt she and her friends would take lessons and be champion riders in shows and open a stable together someday to raise horses and teach riding and have rodeos where she’d win the big prizes and mom and dad and she would move out of this big, spooky house and live on a ranch and she’d never get married because you can’t trust men to be home when they’re supposed to be—

“Daphne—where are you!” Geraldine called. “Hurry and come to breakfast … I want you to help me set the table for lunch so we’ll be done before your father comes home!”

Jeff suddenly jerked awake, cramped and stiff, on the floor next to Donald. His right arm felt numb and his lips dry and tingling from kissing all of Donald’s body. He pulled his arm from under the smoothly curved back and pushed up heavily from the floor, feeling dirty because he was covered in dust and dried sweat. Lazily, Donald opened his eyes, turned to contemplate Jeff, and smiled slowly and tenderly.

“That was fun,” he whispered. “I love you. We’re perfect together. Why don’t you think of moving in with me?”

Jeff stared shocked. “Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Why? What’s wrong? Didn’t you have fun?”

“Of course I did, but that doesn’t mean I’m moving in. I have other commitments.”

Donald rolled over on his stomach and Jeff glanced uncomfortably, but appreciatively, at the young man’s perfectly proportioned body—like a Greek, no, an Egyptian god. Soft like a woman, but the hips were too thin and muscular and there weren’t any breasts and the buttocks were flat and tight—but in his own way, Donald was something to lick and kiss and eat. Jeff felt he could start all over again, but he had to get home this morning.

“What kind of commitments?” Donald asked.

Jeff was sorry he’d said that, but the guy ought to know how things stood right from the start. He felt frightened at the way he’d let go completely during the night, not even counting how many times he’d come. How had he forgotten Ralph so completely—and forgotten how angry he’d been? It was a hell of a lot of fun and he knew if he didn’t stop now, he’d want to see Donald every time he came to the City. How could he handle two lovers, besides Geraldine and his mother and the family business? “I’m married and I have a daughter,” he said. “I guess I just had too much to drink last night.”

Donald’s head swerved up like a cobra’s, and a hurt, puzzled frown stamped his face. “You’re kidding!”

“No, I’m very serious. It was a lot of fun—but just for one night. I won’t be able to see you again.”

Donald pushed up from the floor, and without a word or looking back, walked to the bathroom. Soon Jeff heard water running and a flush and sat for a minute trying to clear his head. He knew he hadn’t drunk too much compared to what he and Ralph usually consumed, but he felt light-headed and drained. He looked down at his long, reddish legs and saw scratch marks—he’d have to tell Geraldine he’d got them in the garden. Donald had been like six people. He shivered just thinking of that young, blond body everywhere at once, making him charge and discharge through the night. Jeff didn’t think of himself as more than 20, even if he was 40, but he knew he couldn’t stand Donald every night. He’d been afraid and embarrassed to go to a bar or restaurant with Ralph—it would be a dozen times worse with someone as young and as girlish as Donald. And he knew they couldn’t just stay home and make love—that hadn’t worked even with Ralph, who acted sometimes as if he was ashamed to be seen with another man.

Jeff looked around the room. In daylight it was like a pastel mock-up of a room. The furniture was low-grade Los Angeles and he felt suddenly dirty and cheap, as if Geraldine might not take him back. He’d never felt that way when he’d left Ralph’s apartment. The two of them made one man who knew the answers to everything. Jeff didn’t even know Donald’s last name—but despite all the fear and guilt, he was terribly attracted to the young organist. Was he trying to fight the inkling of loneliness he felt even now for Ralph? Would it hit like a storm wave when he sat with Geraldine and Maddie and Paul talking about business—and when he lay in bed with Geraldine, trying to arouse himself when he knew she just wasn’t sexy anymore?

“You’re a son-of-a-bitch,” Donald said slowly, returning carry white briefs, his nipples especially red against the downy, yellow hair on his chest.

‘Probably from being bitten all night,’ Jeff thought. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“You should have told me before. I’ve never been to bed with a married man.”

“What difference does it make?”

“Plenty. It’s just not fair to have a guy open up the way I did when it’s just for one night.”

“Why? You had fun, didn’t you?”

Donald bent down graciously to pick up his clothes. “Sure I did, but I’d like to meet a man I can love for more than one night. I was attracted to you right away. You’re not like the average gay man. I was sure you were the one for me.” His eyes opened to a wide innocence and his lips pursed, as if he were waiting for a kiss.

Jeff felt annoyed and trapped, as if by an over-dramatic young woman. All the things he hated about gay men came to mind—the unmanly excess emotions and impulsiveness, the dramatic beckoning gestures. “I said I’m sorry. I didn’t know you would take it so seriously. Don’t you go out much?”

Donald glanced angrily. “No. I don’t!”

Jeff detected a note of hysteria in the young man’s voice. Donald was young enough to be his son … and Jeff felt grateful he had never had any boys. What if he had had a son who was gay? Jeff’s heart knocked in his chest, frantically urging him to leave. ‘Ralph,’ he cried inside, ‘See what you’re doing to me? I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you! I won’t let you leave. You can’t. I can’t handle this kind of life outside the Baths!’ It had been easy for a while before Jeff had met Ralph. When he had come to the City and had fun with a different one every week at the Baths and never saw or heard from any of them again—until that package came for Geraldine. And those letters. Someone must have opened his locker and looked in his wallet. But his whole way of looking at people changed because of Ralph. Before, he thought of queers—the ones who lived that life all the time—as freaks. He’d never known any for more than a few hours. And they never talked much. But now he saw there wasn’t much difference between them and him. How he could even feel sorry for them—not want to hurt their feelings. Goddamn! He suddenly realized he might be queerer than he thought. He didn’t like to dwell on it—and never let Ralph talk about it. They just loved each other in a way that couldn’t be explained. Only Ralph with only Jeff—that was all he knew. Maybe after Ralph spent a few days with that woman doctor, he’d realize there was no one else for him but his redheaded lover.

Jeff felt Donald’s small hand running through his hair and he looked up to see the young man’s shy, hesitant smile. “How about some breakfast? I’m not mad at you. I was just disappointed. Do you have time for a nap together—after?”

Jeff bent over to fumble in the pile of his clothes and stubbed a finger against his watch. After glancing at it, he yelled. “Jesus, it’s almost eight!” He saw his three women standing side-by-side, waiting, grim. His stomach fell, just as when he’d been late for finals.

“I don’t believe you can be married,” Donald said sadly. “How can you be married? How can you go to bed with a woman if you like men?”

“I don’t know. It just happens that way. I guess I just have an excess of sexual urges.”

Donald lowered his head to kiss Jeff’s lips, but the older man pinched the younger’s nearest nipple. He screeched and slapped Jeff’s leg, and the redhead laughed and sat cross-legged on the floor to sort out his clothes, wishing he had time to go back to see Ralph now that his anger was gone and ask him again if he really meant he wouldn’t see him anymore—but he had to drive home, or Geraldine would feel hurt in that silent way of hers and Daphne would pout and for some reasons he didn’t know and couldn’t catalogue, he needed them differently than he needed Ralph. Even Maddie was important. He didn’t want her to get angry. She might mess up the new family business and tie up his money or break one of her arms or legs and keep him busy running a million errands.

It was crazy and mysterious. In the City, on the loose, he could make choices. But as a socially acceptable husband, father and son he was stuck doing what others told him to do. Even his art had to be forced, because he was supposed to make money from his paintings.

Jeff hated all these grumbling thoughts. He should be happy! He was going home! He hummed a short stretch of a marching song from his Boy Scout days, but it sounded sour.

“What are you humming? Something that I know?” Donald asked.

“I doubt it.”

Donald lay sideways on the rug, his head poised on the back of one hand, staring hungrily at Jeff. “Are you sure you can’t stay a while longer?”

“No. I have to get home to my family!”

Donald ran his tongue over his lower lip, as if he wanted to say something nasty, but held back.

Jeff had the impression that the young man’s angelic face was just a mask in the front of a sneering, porcelain figurine.

“How do you like living in Atherton?” Donald asked, sitting up.

“How do you know I live there?” Jeff demanded.

“While you rocked in Morpheus’ arms, I had to go to the bathroom and peeked in your wallet. I’m so tired of seeing beautiful people only for one night. I just can’t stand all the uncertainty and surprises. You live at 5 – 3 – 1 Rosemary Drive, Atherton. That’s a perfect major chord … 5 – 3 – 1.”

Jeff scowled as his finished separating his clothes, but inside he felt suddenly very frightened. He stood to pull on his pants. His neck and back felt tight and sore. “What plans do you have for my address?” he asked.

“None now … but I do want to see you again …. I love you! I never loved anyone so much the first time. You do things to me … even just watching you dress.”

Jeff pulled on his shirt, cursing himself for having succumbed to the blond, cherubic devil. No wonder the old painters always made cherubs mischievous! The Baths were so much easier. There were never any problems—except with those letters, and Ralph. If this blond, young man ever called or came to his house and talked to Geraldine, she’d know he’d never gotten over being queer—and she’d figure out in a hurry how and why Ralph was sick. Jeff sat in judgment on himself. Of course he knew Ralph was right—no one with any self-respect would stay on the short side of an arrangement like theirs forever. But what could he do? He needed and loved Ralph—and Geraldine and Daphne—and Maddie and the family money. They couldn’t all go to bed together! But it was a problem Jeff had to solve alone. He wouldn’t let Donald blow away everything!

He squatted so his face came opposite the blond man’s. “You don’t fall in love with someone in one night! I’m twenty years older than you. You must have dozens of friends and lovers!”

“I like older men.”

“There must be thousands of them in San Francisco who would be crazy about you.”

“Not who look like you,” Donald sighed noisily, unfolded from the floor and stood with his hands straight on his hips. Jeff admired the youthful lustre and smoothness of his skin that would never be recaptured after another few years. Donald plunged into the corner of his black sofa, looking like a fair-haired kitten. “Oh, don’t worry, Daddy. I won’t blackmail you. I’m not that lonely, or that poor—and there is a fellow with the Danish Ballet who’s emigrating here to live for a while with some old male nurse who is crazy about me—the dancer, not the nurse—and most of the fellows I know would give up their Baryshnikov pictures just to kiss him! But I do want to see you again…. And if I don’t in a couple or three weeks, I’ll just call or write you a little reminder.”

‘Not more than 20, and all the sophistication of an old whore!’ Jeff thought. Ralph said gay people usually begin having sex three or four years earlier than straight people. But Jeff didn’t want this young sex maniac bothering him. “Donald, I don’t want you to call or write me at home! Do you understand? My wife doesn’t know anything about all this … and don’t forget I have a daughter. Knowing about me certainly wouldn’t do her any good.”

“Just a little reminder. I’ll use code, if you want.”

“Don’t call me,” Jeff shouted. “I promise I’ll call you in two or three weeks.” He wanted to hurt this young man, but he knew if he began, they’d probably end up in bed together. He had to go home, but hated to leave this loose end dangling. What could he do now? He’d been angry many times with Ralph for sitting home night after night, alone, waiting for Tuesdays. ‘Get a friend for in-between,’ Jeff had told him. But now he saw Ralph was right. In this gay world, or probably in any world, you just can’t turn friends or bed mates on and off to fit a schedule—especially gay people, because they are so lonely and hungry for attention and love. Maybe there was no way to keep Ralph. Maybe this was the end, and he would have to choose between the straight and the gay worlds. But he didn’t want to choose!

Jeff finished dressing but couldn’t find his tie, and then remembered he’d thrown it away before he met Donald. It had been a beautiful night and he didn’t want it spoiled. “Look Donald, I have to leave. Honestly! I told you the truth.”

“Just a cup of coffee?”

“No!” Jeff had to look away from the bulge in Donald’s briefs. Donald wrote his full name, address and phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to Jeff.

“Don’t forget—in two or three weeks or I’ll remind you.”

Jeff barely nodded goodbye.

Goran Baba Ali – The man who was a tree

The man who was a tree
by Goran Baba Ali

The young photographer was the first to see the naked man. It was never clear to him whether it was a dream, a vision, a drunk man’s imagination, or if he really had seen that young, naked creature in the dusk, at the beginning of the evening, turn into a tree and swiftly disappear between the other trees and bushes at the edge of the stream of Qilyasan, a small village just outside the city. From that day he began his obsessive search for the tree to photograph it and convince everyone of his integrity, to prove that he wasn’t crazy, neither a deceiver nor a liar, and hadn’t meant to bring the city into turmoil. He also hugely regretted that he hadn’t kept his mouth shut but instead, that same night, allowed his story to go around the city. In fact, it was not him who caused all that commotion. He had only told a few friends and acquaintances about that vision-like appearance. They were the ones who had told others about it and those others told some other people until the rumor, within a few weeks, had even reached Khatib, the head imam of the city, and gained a place in his Friday sermon.

Nobody believed that the tree, which some people claimed to have observed here and there, would be the same naked young man, who some other people said they had seen roam through the streets and alleys with a long, wide, fresh green leaf wrapped around one of his legs, crawling between his crotch to stretch further over his hips, his waist and under his armpit until finally wrapping around his neck and hanging over his chest. Who should believe whom and what, nobody knew. The whole town was talking about him, everyone was under the spell of the story, but nobody could confirm the existence or nonexistence of that creature. Most people were pretty sure that it was nothing more than an illusion. And for this they blamed the young photographer. They said he was the one who infected everyone’s mind with that delusion. When they talked about the naked young man, they also referred to a young photographer, although almost no one knew him or had ever heard about him. In a way they confused the two young men or they even mistook them for one person. At some point, most of the people also began to deny the existence of the young photographer. Even he began to doubt himself. He wished that all this were only a dream from which he would suddenly awake and breathe a sigh of relief.

For the young photographer, that day, during which he saw the naked man, was a special day. Not only because he thought he had seen Jesus, but also because on that same day, in the early morning, he was fired and permanently released from a crazy boss. Yet, at a later stage, he could not remember exactly what day or what date it was. And when a while later he asked his former boss if he could remember, the answer was, “No.” That day was certainly not so special for his boss; it was not the only time his assistant showed up so late for work that he threw him out for a few days before begging him to return. Remarkable days were, on the contrary, the days when he was on time. The only special thing about that day for his boss was that this time the fired assistant never returned.

That day the young assistant photographer appeared half an hour late at work. When he walked into the store, he found a crowd of angry customers who were impatiently waiting for the photos that they were supposed to get back immediately. Some of them were still waiting for someone to take their picture. His boss—as his assistant described him, an old crazy photographer who, until the autumn of his life, after years of shooting, hadn’t discovered that he had chosen the wrong profession, because he just hadn’t the patience for it—was in the darkroom working on developing pictures for a few customers. The poor man, on that busy morning, had to welcome all those hurried customers on his own, ask them what kind of photos and how many copies they needed, bring them quickly into the studio and take their picture. Most customers needed passport photos to apply for their drivers’ licences at the traffic police office, about two hundred meters away from the studio. After having photographed a few customers in a row, he had to lock himself in the darkroom, quickly pull the negatives out of the camera, submerge them in the developer, drag them between two of his fingers to get rid of any drops, dry them, then print them. After doing all of this on his own, he had to run out of the darkroom, drenched in sweat, give the pictures, still wet, to the customers waiting in his shop, take the money, bid them goodbye and quickly bring a few other customers into the studio, photograph them and so on, going through the process all over again on his own. And all because his assistant was late. But also because of the very fact that he found it too expensive, as his assistant had always suggested, to buy a Polaroid camera with which he could take, within a few minutes, four or eight photos of each customer without them having to wait for so long, sometimes up to half an hour. But also he and his assistant wouldn’t need to work so very hard. All in vain, however, because this suggestion always fell on deaf ears.

The boss himself had a much smarter and cheaper solution, he thought. He had transformed his Swedish Hasselblad into a fast operational camera. Originally the camera worked with rolls of the so-called 120-film with which you could take twelve square photos. But he cut the film in the darkroom into twelve loose squares and kept them in a separate box to protect them from light. Then, when he or his assistant had photographed a client, they put the negatives one by one in a template he had made out of cardboard. Then they put the template with the negative in it into the camera. If they had to photograph a few customers in a row, after taking the picture of one person they took the negative rapidly out of the camera in the darkroom, put another piece of negative in the template and put the shot negatives in a box on the left side of the developing device so as not to confuse them with the raw negatives. With the new negative in the camera, they went back into the studio to take the picture of the next customer. Then they developed a couple of negatives at the same time and printed them.

When they were both in the shop, they divided the tasks and everything usually went smoothly. As on an assembly line, one of them took the pictures and the other developed the negatives and printed the photos in the darkroom to hand them over to the other so that he could dry them, cut them nicely and give them to the customer before welcoming the next one. No real problems; everything went very smoothly.

But that particular busy morning the boss had to perform all the tasks on his own. When he heard his assistant on the stairs at the entrance of the shop greeting the cranky customers, he ran out of the darkroom swearing at him, his hair disheveled, drops of sweat running down his cheeks, behind his ears, his neck and dripping from his chin. His white shirt was steeped in sweat and stuck to his body. In the semi-transparent pocket of the shirt you could see a wad of dinar bills. When he stepped into the shop, he went directly to his assistant who had just reached the front door, poised to walk inside. He gave him a shove and shouted at him: “Don’t you dare enter, you lazy bastard! Go away! I never want to see you here again!”

The young photographer fell back down the few steps onto the sidewalk. With a jerk, he stood up and yelled back: “Yes, I’m a lazy bastard. But from now on I am a free man!” After five years working with this boss, he suddenly felt free. He was the only assistant photographer who had been able to work for such a long time with this confused madman. He saw himself more as his slave than his sidekick. Later he would say to his friends that although that day was an ordinary but surely miserable day for his boss, for him it was a very special day in which he cheerfully enjoyed every moment of his joblessness.

His resignation didn’t mean that he had become unemployed. Quite the contrary: that day was the beginning of a life with more responsibilities. He decided to work for himself as a street photographer. After he got up from the sidewalk and yelled at his boss, he dusted himself off and immediately crossed the street. He took the bus and went back home, grabbed his Polaroid camera, got on his bike and went to Serchinar, on the outskirts of the city. For a few hours, he wandered around the recreation areas surrounding the lake and took many photos of people who found it impressive that they got their pictures immediately after posing for the shot. They didn’t have to wait a few days like with the other street photographers who would give them a receipt for a studio where they would have to go to pick up their pictures—sometimes only to hear that, unfortunately, their photos hadn’t come out well. Now with his camera, they could see the results immediately because the Polaroids didn’t need to be developed in a studio like celluloid film. After he had taken a picture, or even two or three at the same time, he just needed to pull out the negative, which was not celluloid but paper, and shake it for some twenty seconds, then tear off the black cover and there you are: a Technicolor picture printed on the thick shiny paper.

After only a few hours, though, he’d used all his packs of Polaroid film. If he only had more with him, he could also have used them, he was sure. It was the beginning of a prosperous life, he thought. Within a few hours his pockets were full of money. He found it strange that his customers were happy to pay whatever he asked just for a photo that they could have in their hands right away. They looked at their pictures with amazement. The young photographer wondered if it was the secret of the camera and its quickly developed photos or the magic of recording the moments that enchanted his customers. It seemed to him that people felt happier about their lives when they could look at them from a distance, on the surface of a piece of paper. That made him enjoy his work even more.

But by the end of the afternoon his mood was changing. The smell of arak dominated his thoughts, a recognizable odour that excited and invited him to drink. His favourite drink, as it was for many of his countrymen, the most famous strong drink in the whole region and the pride of his country. In Serchinar, which was full of bars and people drinking everywhere around the lake, everything, even the trees, emanated that irresistible fragrance, with a sharp scent of aniseed. Once his film packs were finished, he bought a quart of arak at the kiosk and asked the owner for a plastic cup and some ice cubes in a plastic bag. He went through the chinar trees, the bushes, to the bank of the Qilyasan river, sat under a large tree on the edge of the creek, lit a cigarette and began to drink and unwind.

His exhaustion, but also his sense of indignation, were making him sad. He had a feeling of humiliation from working as a roving photographer, he realized. With each sip of arak and puff of the cigarette, he looked at his camera and thought about the sense and nonsense of his work. The longer he thought about it, the more he lost the enthusiasm and determination of a few hours ago. So much so that he now began to hate his camera, to which he had been so attached. He had spent the day strolling between the casinos in Serchinar, around the lake and through the gardens and parks that lie between Serchinar and Qilyasan, and had taken dozens of pictures of drunken men, especially boys who were just learning to drink.

It was two years since people had been liberated from a dictator who held them for so long in the grip of his regime and who had closed all roads to a normal life. They were still caught up in the euphoria of the uprising that had at last freed them from the so-called Republic of Fear. Going out in the evenings to hang out on the streets until late in the night was one of the rewards of that uprising. Everyone seized the opportunity, particularly frustrated young men who didn’t have to worry anymore about wars or being forced to serve in the military. You could find them in pairs or in groups of three, four or more in every corner of the city, in the many fields and hills on the way to the mountains, and especially in Serchinar. They went to drink and tell each other about their failed romances or the disappointments of their one-sided loves. They talked about the heartlessness of women and young girls who dressed up, wearing heavy makeup, and strolled through the streets without even a glimpse at all those frustrated men. It was like there was clean polished glass surrounding each of these women; you couldn’t see it but it was there. A glass wall that only those men who dared to approach them would encounter. And to work out all those frustrations, young men went to the outskirts of the town to drink in groups.

It was these men who asked the photographer to record them hugging and capture their eternal friendship forever. Some wanted him to photograph them while they were jumping in the lake with their clothes on. Or when they gave one of their friends a kick in the ass. He had to try to show in the picture how much the kick would hurt. It had to be an unforgettable kick. Or they asked him to go to sit in a tree and shoot them from there while they lifted their glasses towards the sky, clinking them together in a toast. He had to take the picture just at the moment that the drops of arak were splashing out of their glasses, like you see in western films.

Looking at his camera, he felt the weight of his disappointment more and more. Sadly he looked at the clear water in the creek in front of him; how confidently, unceasingly and without hesitation it flowed over the gravel and sand and how all the sticks, cans, bottles and caps under the transparent surface of the water sparkled, half immersed in the sand, left behind in an eternal silence, waiting for a merciful power to wipe them mercilessly away.

He took another sip, lit a cigarette and decided to put aside his gloom and not think about his frustrations. He tried to look at the events from a different perspective. To lose his job was for him a first step towards liberation from the bonds of a society from which he was completely alienated. He reached out his hand, grabbed his camera and laid it on his lap. Suddenly he realized that his camera could provide him with the distance he needed to protect himself from his environment, a society in which he felt like an unwanted element. He kissed the camera and put it back on his lap.

For the young photographer, Qilyasan was one of the most phantasmagorical places in the city. He often ran away from the daily lives of other people who, to him, looked as if they came from another planet. Although, in fact, it was he who seemed to them as if he was not of this world. Between the trees of Qilyasan he could be himself one hundred per cent. He could then build up a direct relationship with his inner world and forget the rest, the others with all their ideas, religion and political beliefs. It is not easy to live in such a society if you’re not like them. A feeling of alienation overwhelmed him when he thought about that society. The trees and the stream of Qilyasan and the smell of the arak in front of him strengthened that feeling so much that he forgot himself and became more and more a part of the world around him; a part of the trees, the river and the gravel and sand under the clear water. Every time he got drunk, he undressed and laid in the shallow water, gazing at the blue sky which was fluidly changing colors in the early evening; first to a pale orange that was penetrating slightly in the blue, then getting darker until becoming a colour between brown and dark blue and tending gradually to black. The glittering stars appeared one by one, the muffled sound of the birds little by little got quieter, until a heavy silence dominated the orchards. He thought that he was hearing, through the darkness and the tempered flow of the stream, the stars singing.

But that evening, when it gradually became dark and he peered into the stream and waited for it to invite him in, he was so tired, sleepy and drunk that he could barely open his eyes. He leaned against the tree, stretched his legs and put his feet on its huge roots, which were jutting out of the ground and stretching towards the water. Through his tired eyelids he saw many plastic bags, soggy papers, rags, empty cigarette packs and other things that were stranded between the roots. The gravel and sand at the bottom of the river sparkled under the orange light of the sunset and bewitched him into a deep sleep.

Suddenly the young photographer was startled awake by a strange noise that he just couldn’t place. A severe hangover swarmed around his head like a handful of iron filings. He did not know whether the sound came from outside or echoed inside his skull. He rubbed his eyes and saw in the water before him a strange creature crouching between the huge roots of the tree. He rubbed his eyes even harder and saw that it was a naked young man trying to detach himself from the roots. Wrapped in weeds and algae, he crept out of the water. Suddenly a new eddy of pain whirled through his head. He closed his eyes and started screaming. He pressed his palms to his temples in order to soothe the pain. When he opened his eyes again, the naked man had disappeared. He didn’t know if he should believe his eyes or accept that it was nothing more than a vision. But no, he was sure of what he had seen. He hung his camera around his neck, gathered his courage and strength and stood up. Reeling, he stepped into the water and crossed the creek. He ran drunkenly in all directions but didn’t find a trace of anyone in the dusk.

It was getting darker when he returned to the riverbank and, casting around, he saw in the water, a little further away, a naked man trying to get out of the river and reach the bushes, all with a large wooden cross on his shoulders, which in the dark could have been a tree stump or a very big leaf. The young photographer opened his eyes wide to get a better view. Quickly he raised his camera and tried to take a picture; a picture that could have been a masterpiece, as he always said later, a picture of the crucified Jesus, or a new Jesus with a big leaf on his shoulders. But when he pressed the button, he remembered that there was no film in the camera. Immediately, without thinking about it, he ran into the water towards the naked man. Just a few meters away from the fading ghost, which now seemed more like a tree than a man, his foot slipped on a rock and he fell forward. First his camera and then his face sank into the water. At the exact moment that his eyes reached the surface of the river, he saw the silhouette disappear between the trees in the small grove.

Philibert Schogt – Under the Mistletoe

Under the Mistletoe
by Philibert Schogt

Early one morning in central France, a woman was coming down a forest path, leafing through a travel guide. Years ago, when her husband had walked here beside her, there had been no need for written information. Now she read that the paths through this wood, radiating at equal angles from circular clearings, were the very ones taken by chevaliers in Medieval days. She sighed and dropped the book into her shoulder bag. The forest was awakening with bird song, sharp in the cold dawn air. The trees, covered with mosses and ivy, were thinner than she remembered, and in spite of fresh horseshoe prints in a muddy stretch of the path, she could not imagine noble knights passing this way. Looking up at the treetops, she smiled upon seeing the dense, bushy clusters of leaves clinging to some of the branches, clusters she had once mistaken for bird’s nests.

“Those are not bird’s nests,” her husband had laughed. “It’s mistletoe.”

Mistletoe,” she had whispered, savouring the magical sound of the word. She had gone to stand underneath one of the clusters, shy in her flowered dress. “You’re supposed to kiss me now.”

Obligingly, he kissed her on both cheeks, then took her by the hand and pulled her back onto the path. “Come on. We’re expected back at the hotel for lunch.”

“But look at all that mistletoe,” she said, gently squeezing his hand.

“Actually, it’s not as romantic as it sounds, at least not from a biological perspective.

“Oh?”

And with a dry little cough he had launched into another one of his lectures. Mistletoe was a parasite. Eventually, those clumps would choke the tree on which they were feeding.

“Really?”

With her husband’s voice ringing in her mind, expounding on the origin of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, on the use of its berries in making birdlime, she arrived at one of the clearings mentioned in the travel guide. She stopped at its edge, hugging herself to stay warm. In the middle of the clearing, jutting out from the bed of rotting leaves, was a small grey stone with a rounded top: an old road marker, perhaps.

“Which way to the hotel?” she wondered aloud. She had walked far enough, and was looking forward to breakfast.

Where’s your sense of direction, darling. Look at how lost you are without me.

She crossed the clearing, stepping carefully around the small stone. To her astonishment, it moved away from her, then froze at a slant, as if it were about to topple over. She bent down to take a better look. What she had thought was a stone turned out to be an owl. It cowered in the bed of leaves, blinking up at her. One leg hung limply behind its body, the talon groping helplessly in search of support. When she moved closer, it puffed up its feathers and tried to retreat, only to sag down farther into the leaves.

She knelt down beside it. Its head and neck were covered with a fine layer of white down. A baby owl. It must have fallen out of its nest.

“You poor thing,” she said, reaching out a hesitant hand.

Don’t touch it, dear. Don’t touch it.

As she stroked its trembling body, the eyes closed. Ants were scurrying around it; a shiny black worm was crawling towards its injured leg. The flesh had torn, the exposed joint was red and seemed inflamed.

“I’ll take you to the village,” she said.

You’ll do nothing of the sort.

“To the nearest farm. They will take care of you.”

You know the French. They’re not as sentimental as we are, honey. The only thing that interests them about an animal is whether it’s edible.

“It needs help,” she pleaded. “It cannot make it on its own.”

Then that’s the way it should be. Survival of the fittest is a law of nature.

She went to the edge of the clearing to pick a few blades of grass. Nothing happened when she held the grass under the owl’s beak. She brushed it lightly over its nostrils. In a dim reflex the beak opened, but only briefly.

A fine mother you would make! Owls are carnivorous, sweetheart. Try feeding it that worm.

She winced. If only she had worn gloves. She should have worn gloves anyway; her hands were becoming numb with cold. Gathering her courage, she picked up the wriggling worm and held it against the owl’s beak. There was no reaction now: the eyes remained closed, the beak would not open.

It’s no use. Even if you feed it now, it will starve sooner or later. Don’t prolong its agony. Leave it alone. Better yet, help it out of its misery. Wring its neck.

She cried out and threw the worm away.

The dampness of the forest floor was beginning to soak through her nylon stockings. She stood up, wiped the earth from her knees, and chose one of the paths leading away from the clearing. One final time, she looked back. The baby owl was sitting where she had left it, motionless as a miniature gravestone.

It’s no use, the whole forest seemed to say. She heard her husband chuckling softly among the treetops. In all her memories of him, he was laughing at her. Even on their honeymoon, here in France, in this very forest, he had laughed at her. About the mistletoe.

She now saw what he had meant. There was nothing romantic about this forest. The trees around her were slowly being choked by the mistletoe, and the ivy winding its way around the trunks would take care of the rest. She hurried on, longing for the comfort of the hotel.

Bonjour,” the woman said as she entered the dining room.

People looked up from their breakfasts and smiled sympathetically.
The young German couple she had spoken to last night greeted her a second time when she passed their table. In the far corner, a lone man sat chewing his bread while staring out of the window at the hotel gardens. She took her seat opposite him.

“Where were you?” he asked her.

“I went for a walk.”

“So I see.” He leaned over the table to pull a twig out of her hair, then went back to eating.

Alison Leigh Brown – Burning in My Bosom

Burning in My Bosom
by Alision Leigh Brown

Don’t you lay your hands on me, is what I’m thinking to myself, although I mean it for Gerald. I would never actually throw such meanness in his face. It’s just I just can’t lose my interior rant as I confront the heavy Arizona heat which makes our motions from car to office, from parking lot to the shopping opportunities we have in abundance, exercises in grit. I grind my teeth; pain radiates from jaw to damp fingers. Improbably, I want to pound him all over with my fists. I see myself slapping the broad shoulders on which I sleep each night. The grocery store is in sight, mirage-like and wavy. My violent urges dissipate, mirroring natural dispersal when our sun finally, blessedly goes down. There’s my enemy Mary, happily navigating her cart to a newly acquired, gun-metal luxury sedan. Her fit body and tidy packages confront me, a challenge. She must have gotten off work earlier to be finished so soon.  Everything she does is superior to what I eke out. Deciding I can’t bear to hear further successes of her perfect Madison, I mimic a forgetful moment and return to my old, unwashed clunker. Christ, it’s scalding in here; I can’t touch my inferior car’s steering wheel with bare flesh. Risking medical grade burns, I turn the key and edge onto the highway, driving with my forearms, my suit a shield for avoiding further damage. I am sweating, really sweating. The cold air finally blows strong. Respite is imminent. “Thank God for small favors,” I say to the dashboard.

I hate that I don’t know if this moisture results from the relentless 100 plus degrees of encompassing dry heat or if it’s a message from my hot flashes. I haven’t had a clear thought in the last four years. Somebody inhabiting my body might get an idea from its erratic synapse swings that Gerald hits me. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is as gentle as my own good daddy. They are decent men and I love them. Nor have I been hit much in my many years on this earth and of course “many” is relative, “much” is relative. I’m one of them, those of us who came of age in the Seventies.  We had faith we would die in our twenties. Remember how it was. An adult would tell us, “You know you really should stop smoking.” We’d roll our well-lined eyes and let them know all about how long we were going to live. “Do you think we’ll be around in twenty years?” we’d say. “Do you think that the planet will be around?” Well. We didn’t know as much as we thought we did.

When Beverly tells me that we are on the verge of World War III and that we should pay close attention to what is happening on the northern border of Iraq, I want to tell her, “Been there, done that,” but since I’m the parent I keep my mouth shut.  Let her think that hers is the final decade. The last century. We’ve all had that escape. And I do mean escape. I still have my moments of clarity. It’s much worse to acquiesce into the real knowledge that each generation is one more chain on the bead of life, one link in the great chain of being, a shell in the stack of turtles under the silk swept marble slab, and so on. Et cetera. I love this world and would rather die than part with it, so I hold my tongue around Beverly.

To get right down to it though, I’ve never wanted to be the sort of person who lies all the time. I’ve never even wanted to lie at all. I’ve made an effort to be honest, to get things right. The result is that no one trusts me because I’m forever qualifying everything as a result of this propensity toward truth telling and other matters of character too. My predilections pop up, priggish and irritating. Take my flight from Mary just now.  Her Madison is the fastest runner at the high school she attends with my daughter. Beverly gets straight A’s but no one knows. It’s politically incorrect to post an honor roll—it could hurt someone’s feelings. I secretly believe that they don’t herald our best and brightest because so many students are the cream. There’s not room in the newspaper; no principal’s door is sufficiently large that the never-ending list of distinction could fit. Still, even if every name were publically cried out, my Beverly’s among them, no one would believe she’d earned a place. She does everything she can to make it look as if she’s given up. Slouching around dressed in rags, she slurs her complicated vocabulary and swears more than I do. Mary gets the showgirl. I get the real deal. I know I should be happy but a little public recognition would be nice once in a while. That’s all I’m saying. I’m just articulating how fine it would be to play Madison’s mom for one second.  I’d hate to live with that girl—I don’t want her. I would just like to feel accomplished.

The other day, Beverly told me that I’m the worst thing that ever happened to her. We were sitting out back after the white Arizona sun had set so we could take in the cooling desert air. I’d been praising the essay she’d completed on Arthur Miller for her American history class. I want her to know I’m proud of her because I am. “You make so much pressure for me, Mom,” she said. “You’re always expecting perfection. I hate you so bad. You are the worst thing that ever happened to me.” Well. I thought, you are one lucky little girl if that’s the truth. I know from our joint therapist that turning such thoughts external is not productive so I follow the doctor’s orders and say in a measured, tolerant tone, “I’m sure you don’t mean that. You’re just feeling stressed out.” My tension is undoubtedly evident to Beverly. When my jaw locks tight, she stiffens and leaves.

I’m not proud of any of this. She just pushes me right over the edge and I’m forever too close to that line anymore. I’m the worst thing! Then she should count her blessings is what I think. She should lie down in our gravel garden and die from gratitude. When she talks I feel as if she’s snarling at me. Because of my advanced age when I birthed her, it is our fact that I’m hormonal when she’s hormonal. Poor Gerald! Poor us!

I should cut her some slack. Here’s the hilarious bit. The worst thing that ever happened to me involves my family of origin too. It’s possible she’s telling the truth. That I am her worst thing. I don’t blame my nadir on my parents. My irretrievable utterance involved a lie, which stemmed from my inability to understand the heaviness of religion, the dark wetness of it. My worst thing is having told a lie about what the other held sacred. I didn’t, and never have had, but he did. I’m pretty sure he did. He testified to it and he’s a good man. A decent man.

Funny word, decent. When I say it I denote high praise, but if you think about it in strictly ethical terms, “decent” is pathetically low on the totem pole of virtue. Do I want Beverly to be decent? Hardly. And I expect a great deal more from myself.  I’ve ceased expecting anything from Gerald. That guy.

After Beverly stormed back inside for comfort from her many friends, I stayed watching the sunset, listening to desert birds, waiting for bats to begin circling. Their arrival is my cue to go inside and make dinner with Gerald. I started thinking about my daddy and how the worst thing that ever happened to me was lying to him, not about where or with whom I was going to stay out past curfew, but about what he most treasured. Beverly is obsessed with honesty.  She doesn’t understand the dissembling of grown-ups in this world: “Why is everyone lying all the time?” I have my theories about this. But God, it’s hard to be a good parent. I want to tell her that there are lies people tell out of self-interest. These are those told by dishonorable people. You only have to identify who they are. Then, on a personal level, you keep your distance. In the public sphere you do everything you can to conquer them, to resist their power. I want to tell her that there are lies we can’t help. They come out of our mouths or into our thoughts as if living creatures circling the skies of our intellect replaced our ghostly inner workings. The bleakness of that position overpowers me. I say instead the immediately regretted, “Not everyone lies all the time.” So of course the conversation quickly turns into bickering, centering on an argument I can’t win. Why didn’t I bring the thing down to specifics? I’m the sort of mother who is always bringing everything up to general principles. I know better. I know that if you put principles before cases, rules before people, you turn out to be a big fat fascist. I know. I know.  So soon we’re just two bodies with alien words swirling around us. I should have told her that lying is complicated, that I’ve been guilty of betrayal worse than hers.  What would have been harmed by telling her that I once told the worst lie a person can tell and to my father, a man I loved and love? I should have told her that in the act of lying I was telling the truth, but that it wouldn’t hold still.

I know she is going through changes that probably make her feel as if her body is masquerading, something she experiences as a foreign object only loosely tied to the essence of Beverly. We could talk about our respective corporeal assaults. Sometimes I lie in bed waiting for my next flash of unbearable light and heat. The minute I feel that prickly demon crawling up my chest I am always already red; I have my gown of transition long before my bedside lamp gives light. I’d like to see my change happen. I’d have proof. My neck reaches for a position which might find rest. Wet and exhausted I wonder whether across the house Beverly is awake, waiting for a change she can catch. I wonder if in those moments she doesn’t have a fond thought for me. I want her to love me, a childish, needy all consuming desire.

I wanted the love of my father that same greedy way. It shames me that I lied to him the way that I did. I was still living in their house. It was around 1977, I can’t be certain of the year. I was almost seventeen, older than Beverly is now. I was constantly angry, furious about their religion, Mormonism. Beverly does not have that cross to bear. I have raised her rationally. When we have our disputes, we talk and talk. We visit therapists.  We work on our relationship. I was humiliated and enraged about being born Mormon, about being forced to come of age in a church decreeing Blacks unworthy for its priesthood. I couldn’t stand it. Never mind that I myself was under an identical prohibition. Cloud ceilings for women seemed less despicable than the Black thing, since hardly any religions preached sex equality. And sweet, sweet Jesus, don’t get me started about their position on the Gays. I watched my friends banished and despised, moving to cities and dying. I felt trapped but all the while I loved my father. My position was untenable. Because I didn’t know enough, I took the role of telling my parents that I could not tolerate injustice, that they had to send me away, back to grandma’s if necessary, that I had to get out.

One evening I say to my daddy, “I cannot be here one more second.  Please let me get out of here.” And I am telling the truth when I say it to him with every bit of truth I can gather in my flowering bosom. And he is about to relent. I can see it. He is going to let me go somewhere else. I have already been taking credits at the college so I could easily transfer to some other place. I’m old enough to take care of myself.

I cannot believe how old I am now. When I look in the mirror I see my young self returning my feverish gaze. When I startle myself in a window I see the same person I’ve always been. Photographs tell a different story.   Pictures of myself alarm me. I scan them closely. The woman in there doesn’t look anything like me, besides which she is so nervous. It’s alarming how on edge she is. Who is hurting her? Is she actually twitching in the snapshot? Is that even possible?

I look a little like Beverly. I am not so much better than she is, bless her lying little soul, which I mean ironically since I do not believe in souls any more than I believe in God although I do believe in duties, and my overriding one is to present a Beverly to the world who is at least decent, which she is after a manner of speaking, with her multiple earrings, her perfect grades, her gauges and scarred skin, her sullen way of looking straight in my eyes and telling me, me, who has loved her more than I ever believed I could love any one thing, that she hates me, that I ruin her life, that I am the worst thing that ever happened to her. I foolishly tried to make a joke. “Oh, I think you meant to say the first thing that ever happened to you.” Our therapist had said that I could defuse some of the hostility in the house with humor. What a joke that turned out to be.  Her advice is so bad that it makes you want to just call one of the hotlines and see what they dish up for free. Beverly becoming woman; me turning crone.

I remind myself excessively that she is merely separating from her mother in a healthy way. By contrast I was forced to extricate myself from my family of origin, to try to open my constricted lungs away from their beliefs so I could breathe. It might have been okay if we had cloistered ourselves in some little town where everybody looked the same and espoused the doctrines of the Church. No. We had to strike out into a city with scarcely anyone like us, taking with us our peculiar clothing, our documented racist beliefs. Our veiled hatred of homosexuals. Even if I had been born later, when the whole thing was more mainstream, when we were running for president and not like Joseph Smith did, getting shot and martyred, it might have been better. It might have been different. I think I tried. I wanted to be good, to be decent.  That from the perspective of the community I was neither, turned out to say more about that institution than my parents or me. I wish I could have those years back. I would have pretended more, told more lies. Instead, there I was trying to sneak jeans into my purse, rolling up my skirts, applying white sparkly lipstick. There I was with the potential of leaving. My father was changing his mind; he was almost ready to let me go with his blessing. My childish breast had to betray me by opening itself up to other lies, other comforts. I had just finished telling my father that I had to go, that I had to get out of there. I was suffocating.

It could have happened that I left for Grandma’s and that would be that.  Instead, I went to a party. I went to a party where the intellectual chatter was up and I was so hungry and alone. An elder of the Church was there talking down the dissent of other youth. Even then, I thought it was strange that LDS elders are eighteen years old. This one, Elder Greene, is about to go on a mission and he is practising his preaching. He’s patiently explaining to eager guests that it must be the case that Blacks do not have the priesthood because it’s a test for all Saints. What he told us was that God’s plan involved determining whether we would remain faithful to Him, even as the rest of the world derided us for our out-of-step beliefs. I found myself drawn into his counterintuitive sense. He said that as soon as enough young people would accept with full faith that those with tainted blood be barred from the priesthood, then, and only then, the prophet would lift the ban—that is, God would reveal a full restoration of the priesthood for our dark brothers. Hadn’t He done the same for our Indian kin in ancient times? I half listened to him and half thought about how one could take a lot of similar doctrines and twist them around. How frightfully disarming to turn roles of power upside down, how terribly easy. How wonderful for us to turn the least harmed into most harmed. We could opine, for example, that God was making us witness the deaths of war so that we could understand the burden of freedom. What I said to Elder Greene was, “Well, it is sure a lot easier for us than for them. They have to acquiesce a hell of a lot more than we do.” I wanted to tell the assembled party about a little boy who had been adopted into a Mormon family. Through the process, they believed the child was white. I heard this tale in Sunday school when I was seven years old. I don’t know if it’s true.  We were told many faith-promoting stories. Our teacher told us that he looked just like us; he appeared as white as anyone. What a surprise then, when on the day before he was to be ordained a deacon, which happens at age twelve, they discovered his blood was one-sixteenth black. How? How was this determined? And just in time! We did not ask and we were not told. His mother sat him down and told him the truth. She had no choice. She told him that he would never be able to pass the sacrament because he could never be a deacon, or a teacher, or an elder, or a high priest. Sister Olsen leaned in close to her charges, to me, to deliver the moral of the story. Some of us were crying. The poor child! The poor family! She’s smiling benevolently, spreading that spirit of tolerance and forgiveness we should strive to attain.  He did not fight against his curse. He did not rage. Instead he said, “I want to do what God wants me to do.”

I felt as if I were on fire hearing that story. I was sweating and I wanted to be screaming, not from some sense of political outrage—I was too young. I just felt like releasing noise and all that heat. So I’m making my theological point while having my different interior thoughts. Robert Greene, the elder, continues telling his telling, ignoring my contribution. I start daydreaming of running through cemeteries hollering, “Don’t cry! They’re not dead! God’s just testing us. He’s trying to make us believe in death.” Elder Greene had a monotonous voice but he sounded sincere. I felt so tired from this life. I couldn’t find a place where my noises would be words flowering sense. “The youth today,” he droned on, “have the largest burden to bear of any other generation. We are the standard bearers.” I could hear his words. All that was required to participate in this glorious new world was to accept what only seemed unjust. I had only to affirm inequality and cruelty. Then injustice would dissipate as all hot things do.

Robert Greene did not stop talking. I did not stop watching. I could see little pairs of students cluster around other elders. There was much laying on of hands. Robert came over to me. “You seem distressed.” It didn’t take a psychological genius to arrive at his conclusion. I was a bundle of nerves. My bones were exploding out of my body. I was so thin you could see elbows on both sides of my arms. I’d been distressed since I received the joint gifts of language and reason.

“I am distressed.” Up close and focused only on me, I could see that he was in a religiously ecstatic state. This gave me confidence. Maybe he would understand fully what my father could only glimpse in pieces. “I am distressed.” My repetition unleashed any remaining inhibitions. Sloppy sorrow poured out all over him. I wanted his blessing. I wanted him to say I could leave. I wanted to be good and decent. I told him how I had passed my CLEP tests, taken many college courses, received A’s. How my parents knew this and approved and had allowed me to stop going to high school, which I hated because everyone hated me. “I’m not the right kind of Mormon. I’m too thin.  My knees hurt constantly. I’m all skin and bones.”  Robert listened. I couldn’t stop talking, I lost track of what I was saying. Mine was a garden of unconnected words. Elder Greene put his hand over my mouth gently but with intent and without my permission. I was stunned. My father was a gentle man; he did not use that gentleness for violent means. I was being silenced. After my initial shock, I didn’t care.  He sat right down next to me, kinship close.

Our knees were touching. I could smell him the way you can when everything is so near liquids start happening. His scent was both clean and sour. I felt his hot breath on my right cheek. I couldn’t breathe. His hands were on my legs, then just one hand. His left one found his bottle of oil in the front pocket of dark suit pants. My daddy had a similar vial for when I was sick. I loved how he would rub that fragrance-free liquid on my head.  He would pray over me and I would feel better. Elder Greene rubbed a little oil on my brow, placed his hands on my silky, blonde hair and blessed me. He prayed with all his heart. His words kept coming.

I do not remember what he said. I do remember that I felt warm and at peace. In fact, I felt so blessed that when I was returned to my father’s home, I went straight into his room. My mother was there too, but she was already absolutely and completely asleep. I wanted to tell my father that everything was going to be okay, that his baby had come in from the cold, that I was returning to the fold. I couldn’t find the right words so I used our code: “Daddy, I felt the burning in my bosom. The Spirit touched me. Daddy, it’s going to be alright.” I made words for my dear daddy who was happy not just for me, but for all of them. “Welcome home,” he said. I like to think he had a good night.

Don’t you lay your hands on me, is what I’m thinking to myself, although I mean it for Gerald. I would never actually throw such meanness in his face. It’s just I just can’t lose my interior rant as I confront the heavy Arizona heat which makes our motions from car to office, from parking lot to the shopping opportunities we have in abundance, exercises in grit. I grind my teeth; pain radiates from jaw to damp fingers. Improbably, I want to pound him all over with my fists. I see myself slapping the broad shoulders on which I sleep each night. The grocery store is in sight, mirage-like and wavy. My violent urges dissipate, mirroring natural dispersal when our sun finally, blessedly goes down. There’s my enemy Mary, happily navigating her cart to a newly acquired, gun-metal luxury sedan. Her fit body and tidy packages confront me, a challenge. She must have gotten off work earlier to be finished so soon.  Everything she does is superior to what I eke out. Deciding I can’t bear to hear further successes of her perfect Madison, I mimic a forgetful moment and return to my old, unwashed clunker. Christ, it’s scalding in here; I can’t touch my inferior car’s steering wheel with bare flesh. Risking medical grade burns, I turn the key and edge onto the highway, driving with my forearms, my suit a shield for avoiding further damage. I am sweating, really sweating. The cold air finally blows strong. Respite is imminent. “Thank God for small favors,” I say to the dashboard.

 

I hate that I don’t know if this moisture results from the relentless 100 plus degrees of encompassing dry heat or if it’s a message from my hot flashes. I haven’t had a clear thought in the last four years. Somebody inhabiting my body might get an idea from its erratic synapse swings that Gerald hits me. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is as gentle as my own good daddy. They are decent men and I love them. Nor have I been hit much in my many years on this earth and of course “many” is relative, “much” is relative. I’m one of them, those of us who came of age in the Seventies.  We had faith we would die in our twenties. Remember how it was. An adult would tell us, “You know you really should stop smoking.” We’d roll our well-lined eyes and let them know all about how long we were going to live. “Do you think we’ll be around in twenty years?” we’d say. “Do you think that the planet will be around?” Well. We didn’t know as much as we thought we did.

When Beverly tells me that we are on the verge of World War III and that we should pay close attention to what is happening on the northern border of Iraq, I want to tell her, “Been there, done that,” but since I’m the parent I keep my mouth shut.  Let her think that hers is the final decade. The last century. We’ve all had that escape. And I do mean escape. I still have my moments of clarity. It’s much worse to acquiesce into the real knowledge that each generation is one more chain on the bead of life, one link in the great chain of being, a shell in the stack of turtles under the silk swept marble slab, and so on. Et cetera. I love this world and would rather die than part with it, so I hold my tongue around Beverly.

To get right down to it though, I’ve never wanted to be the sort of person who lies all the time. I’ve never even wanted to lie at all. I’ve made an effort to be honest, to get things right. The result is that no one trusts me because I’m forever qualifying everything as a result of this propensity toward truth telling and other matters of character too. My predilections pop up, priggish and irritating. Take my flight from Mary just now.  Her Madison is the fastest runner at the high school she attends with my daughter. Beverly gets straight A’s but no one knows. It’s politically incorrect to post an honor roll—it could hurt someone’s feelings. I secretly believe that they don’t herald our best and brightest because so many students are the cream. There’s not room in the newspaper; no principal’s door is sufficiently large that the never-ending list of distinction could fit. Still, even if every name were publically cried out, my Beverly’s among them, no one would believe she’d earned a place. She does everything she can to make it look as if she’s given up. Slouching around dressed in rags, she slurs her complicated vocabulary and swears more than I do. Mary gets the showgirl. I get the real deal. I know I should be happy but a little public recognition would be nice once in a while. That’s all I’m saying. I’m just articulating how fine it would be to play Madison’s mom for one second.  I’d hate to live with that girl—I don’t want her. I would just like to feel accomplished.

The other day, Beverly told me that I’m the worst thing that ever happened to her. We were sitting out back after the white Arizona sun had set so we could take in the cooling desert air. I’d been praising the essay she’d completed on Arthur Miller for her American history class. I want her to know I’m proud of her because I am. “You make so much pressure for me, Mom,” she said. “You’re always expecting perfection. I hate you so bad. You are the worst thing that ever happened to me.” Well. I thought, you are one lucky little girl if that’s the truth. I know from our joint therapist that turning such thoughts external is not productive so I follow the doctor’s orders and say in a measured, tolerant tone, “I’m sure you don’t mean that. You’re just feeling stressed out.” My tension is undoubtedly evident to Beverly. When my jaw locks tight, she stiffens and leaves.

I’m not proud of any of this. She just pushes me right over the edge and I’m forever too close to that line anymore. I’m the worst thing! Then she should count her blessings is what I think. She should lie down in our gravel garden and die from gratitude. When she talks I feel as if she’s snarling at me. Because of my advanced age when I birthed her, it is our fact that I’m hormonal when she’s hormonal. Poor Gerald! Poor us!

I should cut her some slack. Here’s the hilarious bit. The worst thing that ever happened to me involves my family of origin too. It’s possible she’s telling the truth. That I am her worst thing. I don’t blame my nadir on my parents. My irretrievable utterance involved a lie, which stemmed from my inability to understand the heaviness of religion, the dark wetness of it. My worst thing is having told a lie about what the other held sacred. I didn’t, and never have had, but he did. I’m pretty sure he did. He testified to it and he’s a good man. A decent man.

Funny word, decent. When I say it I denote high praise, but if you think about it in strictly ethical terms, “decent” is pathetically low on the totem pole of virtue. Do I want Beverly to be decent? Hardly. And I expect a great deal more from myself.  I’ve ceased expecting anything from Gerald. That guy.

After Beverly stormed back inside for comfort from her many friends, I stayed watching the sunset, listening to desert birds, waiting for bats to begin circling. Their arrival is my cue to go inside and make dinner with Gerald. I started thinking about my daddy and how the worst thing that ever happened to me was lying to him, not about where or with whom I was going to stay out past curfew, but about what he most treasured. Beverly is obsessed with honesty.  She doesn’t understand the dissembling of grown-ups in this world: “Why is everyone lying all the time?” I have my theories about this. But God, it’s hard to be a good parent. I want to tell her that there are lies people tell out of self-interest. These are those told by dishonorable people. You only have to identify who they are. Then, on a personal level, you keep your distance. In the public sphere you do everything you can to conquer them, to resist their power. I want to tell her that there are lies we can’t help. They come out of our mouths or into our thoughts as if living creatures circling the skies of our intellect replaced our ghostly inner workings. The bleakness of that position overpowers me. I say instead the immediately regretted, “Not everyone lies all the time.” So of course the conversation quickly turns into bickering, centering on an argument I can’t win. Why didn’t I bring the thing down to specifics? I’m the sort of mother who is always bringing everything up to general principles. I know better. I know that if you put principles before cases, rules before people, you turn out to be a big fat fascist. I know. I know.  So soon we’re just two bodies with alien words swirling around us. I should have told her that lying is complicated, that I’ve been guilty of betrayal worse than hers.  What would have been harmed by telling her that I once told the worst lie a person can tell and to my father, a man I loved and love? I should have told her that in the act of lying I was telling the truth, but that it wouldn’t hold still.

I know she is going through changes that probably make her feel as if her body is masquerading, something she experiences as a foreign object only loosely tied to the essence of Beverly. We could talk about our respective corporeal assaults. Sometimes I lie in bed waiting for my next flash of unbearable light and heat. The minute I feel that prickly demon crawling up my chest I am always already red; I have my gown of transition long before my bedside lamp gives light. I’d like to see my change happen. I’d have proof. My neck reaches for a position which might find rest. Wet and exhausted I wonder whether across the house Beverly is awake, waiting for a change she can catch. I wonder if in those moments she doesn’t have a fond thought for me. I want her to love me, a childish, needy all consuming desire.

I wanted the love of my father that same greedy way. It shames me that I lied to him the way that I did. I was still living in their house. It was around 1977, I can’t be certain of the year. I was almost seventeen, older than Beverly is now. I was constantly angry, furious about their religion, Mormonism. Beverly does not have that cross to bear. I have raised her rationally. When we have our disputes, we talk and talk. We visit therapists.  We work on our relationship. I was humiliated and enraged about being born Mormon, about being forced to come of age in a church decreeing Blacks unworthy for its priesthood. I couldn’t stand it. Never mind that I myself was under an identical prohibition. Cloud ceilings for women seemed less despicable than the Black thing, since hardly any religions preached sex equality. And sweet, sweet Jesus, don’t get me started about their position on the Gays. I watched my friends banished and despised, moving to cities and dying. I felt trapped but all the while I loved my father. My position was untenable. Because I didn’t know enough, I took the role of telling my parents that I could not tolerate injustice, that they had to send me away, back to grandma’s if necessary, that I had to get out.

One evening I say to my daddy, “I cannot be here one more second.  Please let me get out of here.” And I am telling the truth when I say it to him with every bit of truth I can gather in my flowering bosom. And he is about to relent. I can see it. He is going to let me go somewhere else. I have already been taking credits at the college so I could easily transfer to some other place. I’m old enough to take care of myself.

I cannot believe how old I am now. When I look in the mirror I see my young self returning my feverish gaze. When I startle myself in a window I see the same person I’ve always been. Photographs tell a different story.   Pictures of myself alarm me. I scan them closely. The woman in there doesn’t look anything like me, besides which she is so nervous. It’s alarming how on edge she is. Who is hurting her? Is she actually twitching in the snapshot? Is that even possible?

I look a little like Beverly. I am not so much better than she is, bless her lying little soul, which I mean ironically since I do not believe in souls any more than I believe in God although I do believe in duties, and my overriding one is to present a Beverly to the world who is at least decent, which she is after a manner of speaking, with her multiple earrings, her perfect grades, her gauges and scarred skin, her sullen way of looking straight in my eyes and telling me, me, who has loved her more than I ever believed I could love any one thing, that she hates me, that I ruin her life, that I am the worst thing that ever happened to her. I foolishly tried to make a joke. “Oh, I think you meant to say the first thing that ever happened to you.” Our therapist had said that I could defuse some of the hostility in the house with humor. What a joke that turned out to be.  Her advice is so bad that it makes you want to just call one of the hotlines and see what they dish up for free. Beverly becoming woman; me turning crone.

I remind myself excessively that she is merely separating from her mother in a healthy way. By contrast I was forced to extricate myself from my family of origin, to try to open my constricted lungs away from their beliefs so I could breathe. It might have been okay if we had cloistered ourselves in some little town where everybody looked the same and espoused the doctrines of the Church. No. We had to strike out into a city with scarcely anyone like us, taking with us our peculiar clothing, our documented racist beliefs. Our veiled hatred of homosexuals. Even if I had been born later, when the whole thing was more mainstream, when we were running for president and not like Joseph Smith did, getting shot and martyred, it might have been better. It might have been different. I think I tried. I wanted to be good, to be decent.  That from the perspective of the community I was neither, turned out to say more about that institution than my parents or me. I wish I could have those years back. I would have pretended more, told more lies. Instead, there I was trying to sneak jeans into my purse, rolling up my skirts, applying white sparkly lipstick. There I was with the potential of leaving. My father was changing his mind; he was almost ready to let me go with his blessing. My childish breast had to betray me by opening itself up to other lies, other comforts. I had just finished telling my father that I had to go, that I had to get out of there. I was suffocating.

It could have happened that I left for Grandma’s and that would be that.  Instead, I went to a party. I went to a party where the intellectual chatter was up and I was so hungry and alone. An elder of the Church was there talking down the dissent of other youth. Even then, I thought it was strange that LDS elders are eighteen years old. This one, Elder Greene, is about to go on a mission and he is practising his preaching. He’s patiently explaining to eager guests that it must be the case that Blacks do not have the priesthood because it’s a test for all Saints. What he told us was that God’s plan involved determining whether we would remain faithful to Him, even as the rest of the world derided us for our out-of-step beliefs. I found myself drawn into his counterintuitive sense. He said that as soon as enough young people would accept with full faith that those with tainted blood be barred from the priesthood, then, and only then, the prophet would lift the ban—that is, God would reveal a full restoration of the priesthood for our dark brothers. Hadn’t He done the same for our Indian kin in ancient times? I half listened to him and half thought about how one could take a lot of similar doctrines and twist them around. How frightfully disarming to turn roles of power upside down, how terribly easy. How wonderful for us to turn the least harmed into most harmed. We could opine, for example, that God was making us witness the deaths of war so that we could understand the burden of freedom. What I said to Elder Greene was, “Well, it is sure a lot easier for us than for them. They have to acquiesce a hell of a lot more than we do.” I wanted to tell the assembled party about a little boy who had been adopted into a Mormon family. Through the process, they believed the child was white. I heard this tale in Sunday school when I was seven years old. I don’t know if it’s true.  We were told many faith-promoting stories. Our teacher told us that he looked just like us; he appeared as white as anyone. What a surprise then, when on the day before he was to be ordained a deacon, which happens at age twelve, they discovered his blood was one-sixteenth black. How? How was this determined? And just in time! We did not ask and we were not told. His mother sat him down and told him the truth. She had no choice. She told him that he would never be able to pass the sacrament because he could never be a deacon, or a teacher, or an elder, or a high priest. Sister Olsen leaned in close to her charges, to me, to deliver the moral of the story. Some of us were crying. The poor child! The poor family! She’s smiling benevolently, spreading that spirit of tolerance and forgiveness we should strive to attain.  He did not fight against his curse. He did not rage. Instead he said, “I want to do what God wants me to do.”

I felt as if I were on fire hearing that story. I was sweating and I wanted to be screaming, not from some sense of political outrage—I was too young. I just felt like releasing noise and all that heat. So I’m making my theological point while having my different interior thoughts. Robert Greene, the elder, continues telling his telling, ignoring my contribution. I start daydreaming of running through cemeteries hollering, “Don’t cry! They’re not dead! God’s just testing us. He’s trying to make us believe in death.” Elder Greene had a monotonous voice but he sounded sincere. I felt so tired from this life. I couldn’t find a place where my noises would be words flowering sense. “The youth today,” he droned on, “have the largest burden to bear of any other generation. We are the standard bearers.” I could hear his words. All that was required to participate in this glorious new world was to accept what only seemed unjust. I had only to affirm inequality and cruelty. Then injustice would dissipate as all hot things do.

Robert Greene did not stop talking. I did not stop watching. I could see little pairs of students cluster around other elders. There was much laying on of hands. Robert came over to me. “You seem distressed.” It didn’t take a psychological genius to arrive at his conclusion. I was a bundle of nerves. My bones were exploding out of my body. I was so thin you could see elbows on both sides of my arms. I’d been distressed since I received the joint gifts of language and reason.

“I am distressed.” Up close and focused only on me, I could see that he was in a religiously ecstatic state. This gave me confidence. Maybe he would understand fully what my father could only glimpse in pieces. “I am distressed.” My repetition unleashed any remaining inhibitions. Sloppy sorrow poured out all over him. I wanted his blessing. I wanted him to say I could leave. I wanted to be good and decent. I told him how I had passed my CLEP tests, taken many college courses, received A’s. How my parents knew this and approved and had allowed me to stop going to high school, which I hated because everyone hated me. “I’m not the right kind of Mormon. I’m too thin.  My knees hurt constantly. I’m all skin and bones.”  Robert listened. I couldn’t stop talking, I lost track of what I was saying. Mine was a garden of unconnected words. Elder Greene put his hand over my mouth gently but with intent and without my permission. I was stunned. My father was a gentle man; he did not use that gentleness for violent means. I was being silenced. After my initial shock, I didn’t care.  He sat right down next to me, kinship close.

Our knees were touching. I could smell him the way you can when everything is so near liquids start happening. His scent was both clean and sour. I felt his hot breath on my right cheek. I couldn’t breathe. His hands were on my legs, then just one hand. His left one found his bottle of oil in the front pocket of dark suit pants. My daddy had a similar vial for when I was sick. I loved how he would rub that fragrance-free liquid on my head.  He would pray over me and I would feel better. Elder Greene rubbed a little oil on my brow, placed his hands on my silky, blonde hair and blessed me. He prayed with all his heart. His words kept coming.

I do not remember what he said. I do remember that I felt warm and at peace. In fact, I felt so blessed that when I was returned to my father’s home, I went straight into his room. My mother was there too, but she was already absolutely and completely asleep. I wanted to tell my father that everything was going to be okay, that his baby had come in from the cold, that I was returning to the fold. I couldn’t find the right words so I used our code: “Daddy, I felt the burning in my bosom. The Spirit touched me. Daddy, it’s going to be alright.” I made words for my dear daddy who was happy not just for me, but for all of them. “Welcome home,” he said. I like to think he had a good night.

The next day I had no choice but to recant. By morning that experience was gone never to be recaptured. Now I’m home sitting in my car which is in turn in the garage which in turn is attached to the house. I must exit my car, walk through the garage. I will enter our home to face my family.  Gerald is here; his car is sitting next to mine. Beverly will be there too—it’s Wednesday, the only evening she has no activities.  My task was to bring home the stuff of dinner. I have failed. We will eat out.  I only hope I can bear what Beverly will wear. No matter which persona she presents, I resolve to love that one. I choose the right as our evening sun goes down.

The next day I had no choice but to recant. By morning that experience was gone never to be recaptured. Now I’m home sitting in my car which is in turn in the garage which in turn is attached to the house. I must exit my car, walk through the garage. I will enter our home to face my family.  Gerald is here; his car is sitting next to mine. Beverly will be there too—it’s Wednesday, the only evening she has no activities.  My task was to bring home the stuff of dinner. I have failed. We will eat out.  I only hope I can bear what Beverly will wear. No matter which persona she presents, I resolve to love that one. I choose the right as our evening sun goes down.