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.