A portrait of a character from a novel I never finished. The novel blew up into a disheveled mess, and the characters in it were doing the same to my brain, so I put it away (probably permanently).
Emily Dickinson’s poetry is high-brow babble, well-presented gobbledygook, meaningless drivel. Silly female angst hidden in big words arranged disjointedly on the page. Discombobulated nonsense. She could never graze a Wordsworth or a Coleridge. What’s more, she, representative of all of her sex, never faithfully acknowledged the shallow pool of secondhand intellect in which she treaded fecklessly.
It was thirty years ago now when I first noticed Theodore in his boy scout’s uniform, waiting outside the church for his mommy, his red knees shiny under the white autumn sun. The weeping willows in the churchyard swayed towards him, pulled the wind to him like God’s arm swinging a fist down between his feet. Talking to him was as easy and unexpected as that moment when you touch someone you have somehow known you wanted but could not have for this reason or that and even the briefest, softest touch sucks all of the blood out of your organs and pushes it up through your chest. It is a feeling like vomiting or orgasm, and everything is raised because of your unawareness before it happened. Most people feel this when they fall into what they believe is ecstasy, humming gently underneath the beauty they see in this world of ours. Others … I felt this sensation when I sat down next to Theodore without a plan to or a need to. The desire was godly, unprovoked and organic. I asked him what his name was and he looked down as an angelic virgin and sighed, scraped his little feet against the cement steps he sat on. “Teddy,” he said.
“Where’s your mommy?” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“Inside the church, Teddy?”
“Mm.” His little head nodded and his green eyes still looked down.
“Does she love the lord?” I asked him.
He looked up, as I had intended.
“Do you?” I asked.
The cherub shrugged his shoulders and told me he had a dog.
“There is no use avoiding this question, Teddy, because it is very important. Do you know what important means?”
He nodded and balled his fists between his thighs.
“Ask your mommy when she comes out of there. If she loves the lord. She will answer you. Then you must decide whether you love him. I will come see you again for the answer.”
He smiled as if I were joking with him and I held my hand out to shake his. He reached out and I squeezed until his face grimaced. He had already been trained, so early, about this thing we call civility, which gives such people an excuse to avoid looking at the chaos around them. “I am very serious, and I will see you again soon, Teddy.” I handed him a quarter and went on my way before the matriarch emerged from the swamp.
As a child I often perched on the window sill when Pop-Pop was being particularly problematic for the family. More times than not, I fancied myself a young woman just coming out of the shower, innocently drying myself with a pink towel, having forgotten to close the bathroom shade, my nipples becoming erect against terrycloth, light reflecting in white-gold globes off my wet jiggly ass. I imagined myself into an orgasm unlike those I felt on lazy Saturday afternoons. When I was done, I cackled to myself hoping my tacky little guys had gained enough momentum to slice through the top of some pedestrian’s skull moving along the pavement below. No one would ever glean exactly how it happened. In front of them would be a circumstance: an innocent pedestrian killed by some unknown force right after she let someone ejaculate over her hair. Perhaps the dagger-semen of mine had gained enough momentum to extend through her neck, torso, and popping out of her now-useless vagina. How ironic would that be, eh? Her vagina rendered useless by the very thing it craves.
But I digress.
When I finished this ritual, I stared out at the cluster of rusty buildings in the tenement, and I would look and look, knowing something was out there. Night after night I saw nothing, but I knew it was there. This was a lesson in patience, patience. Faithful weeks passed and I practiced this ritual I saw one man’s silhouette in a window, then another in the next window over, exactly the same as the first. Then another and another and another until every window had in it one solitary man’s silhouette.
My own mother was the hardest there was. She could’ve been the top too. Her greatest gift to me was showing me the power of woman, the need they have to rule the empire. It’s innate. The day my mother gave me this gift was the last day I ever saw her.
Dad was a lost man. “Crazy,” my great aunt said, after the fact. I suppose when you would see him sitting at the table, chewing slowly and deliberately like a retard, staring into space like some fucking cow, one might extrapolate that he was crazy. But he was just lost, “weak,” as Mom would say. He had no direction for his passion and so kept it inside. I am sorry to say I see him in me, in my old self—the directionless passion and frustration. But nevermind, all that has been corrected as the spirit of my mother is resurrected in me.
We lived in a hole in New York. My brother, Thomas, and I were born in the twenties, in the peak of the Depression. I was the oldest by three years. As far back as I can remember, Mom, Thomas, and I slept together in the bed, while Pop slept on the floor. Pop was not a proud man. He was a worker bee, degrading himself for pittance at a local fruits and vegetables store. He brought us home whatever that storeowner didn’t want to sell, and in those days there was little they would not sell. Bread and cheese were expensive, and Pop was no fighter. Mom was. She sometimes spent days walking up and down Madison Avenue peddling neckties to the better-offs walking to and from their shopping excursions. When she came home, her feet were red and swollen with blisters on her heels and toes. But she brought home a good dinner of meat and bread.
When Pop passed out on the floor at night from his exhaustion, Mom, Thomas, and I lay in bed, and Mom whispered to us the virtue of strength. Thomas on one side of Mom, I on the other. We were not a religious family—well, at least Mom, Thomas, and I were not—but Mom would refer to Yahweh. “Yahweh knows what it is to be strong,” she would say, “now tell him your weaknesses and ask him for forgiveness.”
It took years of this practice for Thomas and me to learn what our weaknesses were. “Yahweh, my weaknesses are … I’m hungry … and….” Thomas paused.
“…you let people push you around like your poppa,” Mom finished for him.
Thomas looked at Mom, those big eyes wet with shame and self-pity. “I let others push me around.”
Mom kissed his forehead and looked at me.
“Yahweh,” I started, “my weaknesses are just one: Poppa.”
Mom looked surprised and I worried that she would slap me. But she hugged me to her breasts and cried, “Paul, you will always be my son! You are my perfect boy.” She kissed me on the lips and stroked my back. I glanced at Thomas to make sure he was appropriately jealous.
Mom and I always fell asleep looking at each other. She stroked my hair and rubbed my back. We looked into each other’s eyes like lovers. I admit, when I got to that age, I sometimes found I had an erection when Mom stroked my hair or my back. But I already knew that Mom was the only woman I ever would love like that, even though I was only ten.
But back to Pop: Pop sat at the dinner table, chewing his food as vacantly as a cow, or he smoked one of his hand-rolled cigarettes, reading his Emerson or Whitman—so-called romantics. After dinner, he passed out from exhaustion on the bedroom floor, snoring and farting like a pig. He was a weak soul, floating through life like a ghost. Mom and I knew that he was not truly there, not the way she was.
When that night approached, it was like we had been sucked into a vacuum and we could not hear the bell tolling over the pressure in our ears. Something had shifted in Mom. Thomas may not have sensed it, being so daft, but I sensed it, and Dad sensed it. I know because that was the first night he kneeled and prayed before passing out on his three blankets on the floor. I remember he cradled his Leaves of Grass in the crook of his left arm and passed out that way. Thomas remarked on it as we crawled into bed: “Poppa’s got a book in his arm like a teddy.” He looked proud of himself, like he had observed a shooting star. I patted him, albeit condescendingly. Mom came in, the voice of reason: “That’s because it gives him comfort,” she said. “He needs comfort tonight. Everyone needs comfort when the snuffer’s hanging above your head like an andiron.”
Thomas furrowed his brow. I patted Poppa on the head like a dog. I almost felt sorry for him. Then I climbed into bed next to Mom, feeling elated by her warmth. Then we said our weaknesses and went to sleep. Mom stayed awake the whole night—she did not fuss or sigh or do any of the annoying things that people who are not sleeping do.
Earlier in the evening, the event leading up had been bad, hard for me to hear, and even harder for Thomas.
Mom had been doing the dishes after a dinner of stale bread and mealy apples. Thomas and I were in the bedroom playing jacks when it started. We heard it when it climbed under the door and through the walls.
“What kind of a man lets his children sleep in the same bed as their mother while he sleeps on the floor like some bum?” I think Mom wanted to draw Poppa out. She had never confronted him about his weaknesses before. It was like Yahweh himself had grabbed hold of her heart and pushed the words out of her in some force of strength.
“I’m not a bum, Linda.” Dad’s reply was as weak as could be expected. He said it like they had been in the middle of a conversation about dinner and he was providing the obligatory responses.
“A weak man,” she said.
Thomas and I stopped playing and listened, the rubber ball rolling under the bed.
“A weak man lets his wife walk up and down Fifth Avenue all day, selling her pride to the rich he envies!”
Thomas tapped my elbow. I signaled for him to stay quiet.
“You’re a crazy woman,” Pop said.
“I’m as crazy as you are weak,” she growled.
I heard Dad shift, the chair squeaking. “I shoulda left you at the zoo where I picked you from.”
(Only years later did I understand the implications of this. But it did not bother me one iota. When it comes right down to it, whores are powerful because they hold all the cards. They get the money. The men who go to them (I never would) are weak, needing to pay a whore to get it off.)
There was a pause. Neither Mom nor I expected this, but I knew Mom would recover. And if she did not, I would rip out Poppa’s heart myself.
“I wish you would’ve,” she said. “At least there I’d get fucked!”
We heard a loud clammer, which had to be Pop pounding on the table, a warning. I heard Mom’s feet shuffle across the floor. She was moving closer to him.
“A weak man lets his family starve while he gambles away their food in an alley!”
Mom let out a grunt. A blunt noise, like a fist hitting a jaw. A collapse as Mom fell against the cabinets to the floor. I heard the wet noise of her spitting.
“Weaaaaak!” she shrieked.
I heard Pop sobbing as the front door opened and shut.
It must have been five in the morning. I remember even now that I was dreaming of rubbing myself against the corner of a wall. Something about that wall in my dream made me so hard I probably was touching myself as I lay in bed. Somewhere in my dream, I heard the cracking and smooth-soft sound of metal into flesh. My thrusts against the wall became faster and faster until the shudder. And I woke, feeling what I had done in my underpants.
I saw that Thomas was sitting up, wide awake and as pale as the sheets we slept in. I glared at him, waiting for the joke. But he stared over my shoulder, frozen and useless.
I turned to see where Mom was and what the hell Thomas was staring at, and there she was. Mom stood over Dad, or what had been Dad, blood dripping over the tip of her nose onto his lifeless body. The knife was gripped tightly in her hand. She looked at me. “Don’t walk here, Paul, it’s slippery.”
Thomas said nothing, paralyzed as he was.
Mom stared blankly at me, the bloody knife in her hand. I did not know if Thomas or I was next. But she went to the kitchen sink and proceeded to wash it.
I hopped off the bed, only vaguely aware of the sticky wetness in my pants. I stepped over Dad and the sticky mess around him. I could smell his blood—a pungent aroma like a dozen whispers—and I took note of his Leaves of Grass, which only his fingers touched. The book was open and sprawled out next to my foot.
I went to the kitchen. I shuffled over to the sink and stood next to Mom as she vigorously scrubbed the knife with a soapy rag. “Yahweh holds the snuffer,” she said to the air. “It’s our job to guide it.” She scrubbed and scrubbed. Then she stopped and looked at me. A line of blood crept slowly down her forehead towards her eye. I grabbed the rag and wiped it away. She pulled me to her with her red sudsy hands and kissed me hard on the lips. “You’ll always be my boy,” she said, then she walked out the front door. I found out from my aunt that she waited outside on the stoop for the cops to be called by a nosy neighbor. When the cops came, bewildered, they asked her what had happened. And she told them: “Yahweh holds the snuffer. I just guided it.”
When my aunt took us later that day to her home in New Jersey, I still hadn’t cleaned my shorts and they were crusty and stinky. Aunt Betty had to drag Thomas out from the bed at home. He’d been hiding there since that morning. At her house, my aunt took all my clothes and threw them out. I guess somehow I’d gotten blood on my shirt, probably from when Mom’d kissed me, as if she were transferring to me the responsibility she herself had carried that night.
Her name was Melanie and she had strawberry blond hair and freckles highlighted by her fair skin that glowed in the white winter sun. Her smell was musky and perfumed at once.
As I filled up my tank at a pump, she wandered around the parking lot, wobbling and faking relevance. A vagabond, probably a druggy. Her hair was thin and stringy and she wore tight grease-stained jeans. On top she wore an oversized man’s flannel shirt, which was tucked into her jeans. Her hair was the texture of a crimped horse’s tail. It was pulled back in a ponytail, I guessed because she had not washed it in days.
A frumpy woman in her forties toting two preschoolers in the backseat of her minivan was pumping gas next door to me. Melanie approached the woman sheepishly, avoiding me. The woman turned ninety degrees to avoid eye contact with her. But she wasn’t yet deterred.
The woman closed the door to her car to protect her kids from the filth, which I found a little dramatic. She ignored Melanie.
“Excuse me,” Melanie said again.
The woman glared at her.
“Do you have any spare change? I need to call a cab.”
The woman patted her jacket pockets and shook her head.
“Or can you give me a lift to the nearest diner?” Melanie glanced inside the woman’s car, saw the children. “Or if you have twenty-five cents…”
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, replacing the nozzle on the pump and getting into her car.
After the woman drove away, Melanie whizzed past me and went into the station. I followed her unnoticed. Inside the station, she went into the john. I stood in front of the coolers, ostensibly shopping for forty-ounce beers, and edged towards the door of the bathroom, pressed my ear to the door. I heard a retch, water running, and I thought it best to go back to my beer-browsing.
She came out and again whizzed past me, poured herself some coffee, dumped a third of the sugar dispenser into it. Gulped it down and threw the cup in the trashcan, headed outside without paying because the cashier was on the phone.
I paid for my gas and bought a package of Ring Dings and told the cashier he was a nincimpoop.
Melanie was leaning against the payphone smoking a cigarette.
If I treated her like a prostitute and she was not one, she would be offended and that would be that. I thought about this carefully. I could see strength in her posture, in the way she had stolen a cup of coffee without blinking. But the tremors that made her hands shake as she held the cigarette to her lips betrayed that strength.
I did my best old generic man bit. I let my arthritis hurt a little more. I walked stiffly over to her. She didn’t notice me.
“Excuse me, young lady.”
She dragged on her cigarette and blinked.
“I couldn’t help but overhear you ask that rude woman for a quarter.” I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. “Some people today just don’t care about others. When I was a young man, if someone needed help, people would line up.”
She paused. “That’s not any world I know,” she said with a smile.
“It’s a shame,” I said. “Anyhoo, is there somewhere I can drive you?”
She thought about it, weighed me up. “I need to go to a friend’s,” she said. “Downtown. It’s kinda far.”
“Oh, no problem. I have a doctor’s appointment in a few hours.”
“Heck, I’d really appreciate it, sir.” She stubbed out her cigarette on the concrete wall.
“Call me Roger.”
She shook my hand. She was buying the whole act. Her hand was skinny, bony. I wished it were soft.
I led her to my car. I felt very pleased with myself so far, but my nerves were kicking in. I could not believe it was happening. And I take no pleasure in admitting that I was frightened that some honesty (having been practiced perfunctorily for life) would seep out and betray me before I had her cornered. It would take a lot of this and I was not sure I had it in me. I still doubted, and I knew I needed only to open my soul’s coffin and let it free. I thought of my mother, her Yahweh, and I knew Melanie had been sent to me. I only hoped the gas station attendant had not seen me with her.
She happily got into my car, and I locked the doors. The stale odor of tobacco smoke stuck to her clothes, and on her breath, filled the car. This smell was very unpleasant to me. When she took out another cigarette and her lighter, I politely asked her if she would mind not smoking. I told her I had emphysema. I thought this illness would make me seem older and weaker.
Melanie directed me towards the highway. I asked her if she lived in the city or in the outskirts and her answer was vague.
We got off at an exit I do not recall specifically. The sidewalks were brown and the air smelled acrid with monkey shit. Near the ramp was what looked like a wasteland of industry—an old factory with a half fenced yard filled with abandoned junk. Melanie directed me to make a right onto a narrow street lined by abandoned buildings. I figured I was taking her to buy drugs. I felt this act would earn me trust points, but she was becoming more and more antsy with each second, glancing around frantically and biting her lip. I worried she had an inkling of what I was up to.
“Okay, here. Pull over here,” she said.
I pulled over and put the handbrake on.
Before I had a chance to think of what to say, there was a pocket knife in my face. I respectfully put my hands up. See here. I was impressed.
“What is this, young lady?”
“Gimme your money, pervert!”
“But Melanie …”
The blade touched my nose. “Listen, Mister, I don’t suck-off lollipop rapers for money. I’m just taking it.”
I could not help but smile. I understood why the universe had sent her my way. She was like my mother reincarnated. I wanted to kiss her. I took out my wallet and she snatched it from me, pulled out the cash—about $200. She put the knife back in my face.
“Listen, Mister, I’m gonna get out and go away. You start up your car and get the fuck outta here.”
I just looked at her in awe.
I nodded. I was confounded. In earlier times, I might have fallen in love with her.
She flung my wallet onto the dashboard, stuffed the cash in her pocket and before I could blink she was out of the car and around the corner.
Yes! I fouled it up! However, it taught me I was looking for the wrong type, that perhaps the type that compelled me was irrelevant. Compulsion is human, of the animal. Scientifically was the way to move things along. Organization, structure, a bit of creativity. Like writing the bible. I thought of it like writing the bible.