Winter 2009 [Issue No. 15]
Wiloughby ▪► Donald J. Modica
Puella ipsa, Father: Little Julia Vietato had eyes like thick green glass, and hair the color of cinnamon which fell in loose curls about her shoulders, shone with youth and health and bounced with her every step. She had thin wrists of ivory and onyx fingernails, and she smelled sugary, like some children’s breakfast cereal, eye-popping in red number forty and yellow five. When I think of her though what I most remember are the scents of incense, altar wine and coffee. She’s fifteen and I’m thirty-six and in odd and unexpected ways we run in the same circles.
When I first became aware of her I don’t remember. She hung with the skateboard punks who haunted Erie Street, lounging in the courtyard of the library, clustered on the sidewalk outside of The Enclave. She was everywhere, Father. Licking ice cream off her thumb by Johnny Mango’s, bundling her skirts between her knees to ride the swings in our little town square, pulling a dark duffel and - were they ballet shoes? - from a car’s trunk in the lot of the library. And always at Arabica, in the crowd of teens perennially stationed at the front of the store. I knew her name was Julia because, parked in back with my laptop, I’d heard one of her friends greet her when she entered the coffee shop one evening in the spring. I knew she was a Catholic girl because I’d see her at the noon Sunday Mass at Immaculate Conception. I knew her last name was Vietato and her address because she and her mother left church in a dull blue van crowned with a red extension ladder faded to pink and dirty white PVC tubes advertising 360 Electric, Complete Electrical Contractors, and a phone number, and it was nothing to look up the business and its registered agent, Julia’s step-dad, on the Ohio Secretary of State’s website and cross reference the name and number with the Lake County phone book. It was a fair bet she was one of the Willoughby South High School kids, so I knew she had a cat named Snickers and a foul mouth and a dozen young and beautiful handsome smart funny strong happy and limitless friends whose vitality I envied like a child watching his siblings play with a toy his father had only just taken away; that she liked Jolly Ranchers and Pink Floyd and that her deep green eyes were even more gorgeous than I’d gleaned from brief and distant glimpses stolen in passing; all this courtesy of her MySpace page, which Google quickly discovered from Julia +Willoughby +Ohio + “South High” and some trivial refinements and leaps of logic. I knew all this before I met her; and when I did meet her, I had to pretend I didn’t. I might have known even more had the Museum not fired me, cutting me off from Lexis-Nexus, along with a paycheck and health insurance and a place to go every day, except Arabica. The coffee shop had wi-fi and caffeine. And I told myself - frequently - and my mom, when she called to check on me - frequently - that I was there writing and job hunting. But mostly I was hanging out listening to music off the Internet, watching the South girls, who I knew damn well were way way too young, walk past and through the store in tight jeans and plunging tank tops, me feeling desire, anger, boredom, self-pity. Certainly, being unemployed played a big role in what happened last summer. Idle hands... And the drinking.
Father, I don’t know if you get out ever from Little Italy over to Willoughby. It’s still much smaller than Euclid or Mentor, but growing. It’s nice. White, middle-class, neat little houses on neat little streets with neat little lawns. Lots of independent contractors like Julia’s step-dad, union guys in oversized pick-up trucks, nurses in Hondas. Slovenians and Italians, at least the people I know. The new part at Route 91 and Euclid Avenue is strip malls and shopping centers - Target, Taco Bell. There’s Lake West Hospital, the public pool, the new police station. About two miles down Euclid, past South High, past Immaculate Conception, is the old part, what they call Downtown. Before it reaches the Chagrin River, Euclid Avenue turns north and joins with River Street to make a kind of inverted “Y.” The trunk of the Y is only about a hundred yards before it ends at Vine. You can walk up one side and down the other in five minutes. That little stretch is Erie Street, and it, and the tiny triangular park with its white gazebo in the crotch of the Y, where the big roads come together, is Downtown Willoughby.
I never knew it when it was run down. I grew up in Euclid and Richmond Heights. Our summers in college we’d go into Cleveland, down to the Flats. I don’t even know if the bars and restaurants were there then. But during the nineties, when I was in Chicago and New York - and I suppose when Julia was born and a little girl, God help me - they fixed it up, restoring and converting the red brick storefronts and workshops on Erie Street from Willoughby’s railroad days into a shopping and entertainment district: bars and restaurants, like I said, antique shops, a bank, an ice cream parlor, and the two coffee shops, Enclave and Arabica. I won’t call it fashionable; that’s a word for Beachwood or Woodmere. But it’s a nice area that someone with student loans who at least has a car that runs and a decent job can afford. About a three minute walk past the gazebo up River Street are the Riverside House apartments, a comfortable enough two-story Mod eyesore mercifully hidden from the Downtown. That’s where I live.
The morning Evania called me into her office my stomach was full of slurry and my head pulsed like low-level nuclear waste. I’d arrived to work on time, on maybe three hours of sleep and eight cups of coffee, which solved nothing. I’d become acquainted with a brown-eyed bartender at the tavern they’d made out of the old Willoughby Hills firehouse. Her name was Kristine with a “K” and all spring she greeted me by name and hung out at the end of the bar with me, in between serving her other customers and fetching quesadillas from the back, downing the Jaeger Bombs and Washington Apples I bought for her and asking me about Kurt Vonnegut, of whom I’d read and knew little but she even less. She kept telling me how smart I was. One night before I left as I pushed the credit card receipt across the bar to her she took my hand playfully and leaned across the bar on her elbows for a kiss. Which I gave her happily. It was neither chaste nor overly passionate, but I left that night high on Great Lakes IPA and the taste of the Marlboro Lights on Kristine-with-a-K’s lips. I was like a dog given a treat after that, tail wagging, paw extended hopefully. I tipped her well and asked her out, and she gave me a cell number but could never come up with a good time for us to get together. Besides, she said, she always saw me at work. She disappeared after Memorial Day and no one at the bar could tell me anything except that she’d called Genie, the manager, the C-word and left them all holding the bag on a busy Saturday night. Her cell stopped working at the end of May and through my extraordinary natural faculties honed by one of the finest educations available for any price in the United States, I began to suspect that Kristine-with-a-K might have been more interested in free drinks and tips at twenty-five percent than in my rock-star body or tortured artist’s soul. I stopped going up to Willoughby Hills and spent more time on Erie Street after that. I heard a long while later she went west or south somewhere with her boyfriend. For someone alleged to be smart I’m awfully damned stupid.
But none of the bad stuff had happened yet, and I was still enjoying my evening krush on Kristine and during daylight feeling anxiety for my failure, relative to those high school friends around me, to marry, to have a family, to make money, to write. Especially to write.
I’d been lucky to get the development research job at the Museum, and I spent my weekdays spelunking the public record for wealth indicators of Cleveland’s finest families: partners at Thompson Hine, Cleveland Clinic radiologists, the idle heirs of the fortunes of Standard Oil and Western Union. It got me health insurance and out of mom’s and into Willoughby. I could begin at least making payments on my Brobdingnagian student loans, checks approaching forty percent of my take-home pay, so much like throwing nickels in the Chagrin, quarters into the Lake. It didn’t leave much left for dating or toys or fun of any sort. What extra I had I drank, or had an espresso and a cookie at Arabica. I was lonely. Am. Stunningly.
The Rich and I have never gotten on, Father. I was struggling with money and suicidal ideation and weekly the eighty-eight year old granddaughter of some long dead nineteenth-century shipping tycoon would drop money she never earned in amounts that would solve every material problem I had several lifetimes over - not to save or transform a life, but for some old bauble, some Flemish bagatelle, so it could sit beneath Plexiglas in simulated sunlight with a one-by-three card beside it explaining how it was the gift of So-and-So or the Something-Something Fund. My bosses and co-workers at the Museum were the children of Bratenahl and Shaker Heights, Hawken grads, Laurel School. They attended Princeton and Stanford as a matter of course and came home debt free - thanks Grandpa - to live in Coventry and Tremont and those other trendy neighborhoods infested with the beautiful twenty-something scions of the ruling class. They spent their Friday evenings at the Shoreby Club, their Saturday afternoons walking puggles and labradoodles beside the Shaker Lakes; Fourths of July in Maine, holiday dinners by the fire in Vale. I often felt - and still do - that I was the only one there who actually needed his paycheck and was not merely accepting one for form’s sake. The Deadly Sins are deadly because they lead to others - but who am I telling?
I spent more and more of my work days hiding, stealing away to a vacant conference room or a dim back row of the empty auditorium with some book I was reading, some sad manuscript I was pecking at. Or just to take a nap. I’m not a lazy or dishonest person, Father. It’s just when I get that way - down, you know - it’s hard for me to motivate myself to do anything. I avoided opening galas and meetings. I took inconvenient sick days and spent them at home pointing my research skills at Internet porn. I drank and was hung-over, which made me even less there when I actually was.
I spent many years believing that as long as I showed up to a job on time and stayed all day till five that I wasn’t an alcoholic, and that no one would notice. But Evania had compiled a dossier, started a paper trail. Meetings with HR had taken place. She was right to fire me. I had it coming. I still hate her, though.
That morning when she called me in, she had my personnel file open on her desk. My last performance evaluation lay on top. Had this been St. Paschal’s, had this been sixth grade, Mrs. Wargo would have used her red ink pad, her little angry-eyebrow frowny face stamp.
“We discussed this,” Evania said. “You were warned,” she said.
We had. I was.
Kate gasped. “They fired you?”
“Good,” Andy said, handing me my third can of Miller. “Sit on your ass, collect unemployment.”
It was a warm late spring Sunday and Andy had been drinking since three, but it took a lot to get him drunk. Kate was on her first. We sat at the picnic table on their back patio, Andy tending three dozen marinated chicken legs on the grill. I spent a lot of evenings with the Medveds, who had taken me in almost like another one of their kids. Their house was walking distance.
Andy was a slab of a man - six-four, three-twenty, all ossified beer and Slovenian sausage. He drove a bulldozer for Operators Local Eighteen, spent long weeks of winter laid off watching the History Channel. Kate, his wife, was a little curly blonde we often forgot was several years older. She taught math in the Cleveland Schools in Glenville - Mogadishu, Andy called it - and she loved me because I’d had all sorts of education and had read all sorts of books and knew all sorts of writers and could talk with her about them. Andy was far from unintelligent, but he did lack education, which had never interested him, all the way back to high school at St. Joe’s, where I first knew him, and long before. His ethos was his father’s and his grandfather’s, the ethos of the Collinwood Slovenians: work hard, play hard, share what you got, shot and a beer. Andy’s a good man.
What exactly attracted Kate to him was a mystery, except that he was tall and a hell of a lot of fun and Kym needed a dad. They met while Andy was bartending in a dive down in Maple Heights called Paddy’s Tavern that was owned by another St. Joe’s friend of ours. Kym was Kate’s daughter from her first marriage. She was a late toddler when Andy arrived on the scene and almost blew the deal. He told me he had doubts about a woman with a kid, but it was the same time his speed habit was starting to kick his ass and he was ready for a change. Kate gave him some structure, got him off all but the legal drugs. She probably saved his life. They married when I was in Chicago, bought the house on Forest Street when I was in New York. Kym was a senior at South last spring, with a boyfriend no one liked and a nearly full ride to Kent State’s nursing program. Kate talked her up. She was so proud.
Kate and Andy wanted their own kids together, of course - mortar for the bricks, nails for the coffin - but an over-long period of trying followed finally by a wrenching medical process revealed a problem with Andy’s sperm, which may have been from his lost years of drug use or maybe just God pruning. So, next best thing, they became foster parents. Then they got slightly nuts about it. After I came back from New York, at any one time they’d have five or six kids in their care, plus Kym, who dug out a First Communion Bible and literally made her chuckling mother swear on it that they wouldn’t give up her room to more Lake County waifs while she was off at Kent.
Three of the kids they ended up adopting. Little Jay had been so traumatized by neglect he didn’t even talk until he was five. Carson and Francis weren’t so bad off, although Carson could sometimes have an explosive temper. It’s always been my suspicion that the Lake County Department of Family Services tried to hook the kids they knew would be problems - pretty girls attracting dangerous boys, angry boys attracting police - up with Kate and Andy, because Andy is indeed a huge man and before he allows you to know that his heart is bigger than the Gulf of Mexico he can be physically intimidating. Carson and Francis were a year apart and acted like they’d always been brothers, skateboarding in the street in front of the house, farting on each other. The kids didn’t always stay, though. Some came and went - two weeks, a month - while some emergency, which invariably involved booze, passed at home. One pair of siblings, Noelle and Matthew, stayed with them a year before the judge in Painesville declared their mother fit or cured or whatever it was and ordered them returned to her out in North Madison. Kate and Andy hated it, just hated it. They’d seen the house and their excuse of a mother and didn’t believe that she was sober, or even if she was, that it would stick. It made them sick, but there was nothing they could do. And last spring it was happening all over again with the oldest girls, Stephanie and Kendra. They were sisters, seventeen and fifteen. Their dad was long gone and their mom did meth and bikers out in Perry. The same hearings that had taken away Noelle and Matthew (with the same judge, Susan Blithe! A woman, of course, Andy said; a Democrat, of course, Andy said) were underway for Stephanie and Kendra. It was all playing out exactly the same, Kate had said, and she doubted they’d be with them come the new school year in August.
Andy finished grilling and piled the steaming chicken parts one by one in a luxuriant mound on a platter. He bellowed “Dinner!” into the open windows of the house and across the backyards of Forest Street and the three of us withdrew to the kitchen. Kate had everything laid out buffet-style. We ate at the table. The kids took theirs to other parts of the house or out to the front steps, eating with plates balanced on the tops of their knees.
“Why don’t you teach somewhere?” Andy asked.
“Love to,” I said. “Never published anything.”
“Can’t teach writing unless you’re published.”
“Teach something else then,” Andy said.
“Need a PhD.”
“Don’t you have a PhD?”
“What do you have?”
“Fuck is that?”
“You never published anything?” Kate said.
“Not fiction,” I said.” “Not since St. Joe’s.”
“That doesn’t count?”
“Doesn’t count,” I said.
“All your big education and you can’t be a teacher somewhere?” Andy said.
“Ironic,” I said. “I know.”
“You’re gonna be fine,” Kate assured me. “You’ll find a new job and you’ll be fine. And you can always come over here and have chicken.”
After, back out back with the dishes done and more beers, the West Nile mosquitoes came out. Kate sprayed Deep Woods Off from a pump bottle onto her forearms and rubbed it in from wrists to elbows. As she did, Stephanie appeared in the open doorway between the back patio and the garage.
“Kate, I’m going to Rosie’s now,” Stephanie said. She and Kendra called Kate and Andy by their first names. Because of the kids’ circumstances, they wanted to instill in them a sense of discipline and respect for adults that their biological parents never provided. The adopted kids called them Mom and Dad; that was easy. But Stephanie and Kendra weren’t adopted and they weren’t going to be. Kate and Andy weren’t their parents, but “Mister” and “Missus” seemed too formal for the intimacy of their relationship. Nothing ever seemed exactly right. It was awkward. Saying “Andy” and “Kate” was the best bad solution. They wanted the kids call me “Mr. Lussuria,” but it made me feel old and I didn’t like it. We all settled for “Uncle Bobby.”
“Did you eat?” Kate asked Stephanie.
“We’re going to eat at Rosie’s,” Stephanie said. “Then we’re going to Downtown.”
“Is Pete going to be there?”
“Are you lying?”
“Okay. When are you back?”
“Try eight-thirty.” Kate said. “School tomorrow.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes, sighed, and said, “Fine,” in a way that drew the word into two syllables.
“And what’s this you’re wearing?” Andy growled.
“This” was a pair of khaki shorts so tight the unbuttoned flaps of the pockets sprung out at right angles from her hips and thighs. Her scoop neck top had spaghetti straps and the exposed sections of her bra actually covered more of her upper chest than the ostensible outer clothing. Stephanie and her sister were both chesty girls, and headstrong. Kate and Andy waged constant battle with their cleavage.
“How ‘bout a sweatshirt?” Andy said.
A grey sweatshirt hung limp like the carcass of a small animal in Stephanie’s left hand. She held it forth with an expression of teenaged exasperation with adults and their arbitrary rules to show that she had it.
“How ‘bout you put it on?” Andy said.
I looked away to the turkey buzzards circling in the purpling sky above the Chagrin as Stephanie pulled the sweatshirt over her head and pushed her arms through the sleeves.
“Okay?” she said when she’d finished.
“Okay,” Kate said.
Stephanie said bye, turned and left, and we all said bye after her. Then Andy called, “Leave it on!” When she was gone, Andy said into the mouth of his beer can, “She ain’t gonna leave it on.”
“She’s fine, Andy,” Kate said.
“Don’t ever have girls, Bobby,” Andy said.
“Girls are fine,” Kate said. “Girls are wonderful.”
“...pain in my ass...” Andy muttered.
“The girls are no more of a pain in the ass than Carson or Francis,” Kate insisted.
“Aw, bullshit, Kate,” Andy said. “Carson ain’t coming home pregnant ‘cause he dresses like a tramp and got stoned.”
“Neither’s Stephanie! Jesus, Andy. She’s with Rosie.”
“I don’t know where she is when she’s not here.”
“She’s fine, Andy. They’re good girls.”
Andy grumbled. He guessed so. He’d volunteered for fatherhood and even went far out of his way for it. But it wasn’t always his favorite thing. He liked being easygoing, laid back, and when a problem arose his instinct was to take action, fix it. The kids interfered with his rhythms. When he was lounging on the couch with sleep lapping over him like a warm, gentle surf, he’d suddenly have to confront a crisis with Jay’s misaligned emotions. Or like now, with Stephanie and her clothes, when he wanted to do something to make something happen, or stop it, he just had to let it go. Such things gnawed at him. He took Xanax.
Kate got up, patted her husband on the shoulders and kissed his cheek from behind, then went inside through the sliding patio door to watch the Cavs game. Andy and I sat in pleasant silence a while, sipping our beers. Andy smoked, thought. We both watched the turkey buzzards glide.
“These girls,” Andy finally said. He leaned his bulky upper body across the picnic table toward me, pecs on his fists, elbows flaring out from his shanks. His tone was conspiratorial, Masonic, though Kate couldn’t have heard us inside with the TV on, nor the neighbors from their distance. He had gnosis, and the time had come to impart such secret wisdom.
“These girls, Bobby,” he said, “they get all freaked out when they get their periods, but it’s like twenty minutes later and they discover it’s like they’ve got a new superpower: sex. And they start to see this power it gives them. Attention. Status. Who the cool boys like. Who’s got bigger boobs. Those that have it, those that don’t. Haves and have-nots, you know? It’s like...I don’t know...wealth almost. Currency. They find out they can use it to get things. And it’s exciting, it’s fun. But because they’re teenagers and they don’t know shit they just have no fucking clue how dangerous a game it is they’re playing. Saw it with Kym. Saw it with Noelle, Stephanie. Kendra’s starting. That’s what we teach them, try to. That this shit can get out of control. That they wave their tits around like that ‘cuz it’s fun and it gives them power they might start something they can’t stop. It’s like these little girls are walking around with a loaded gun.”
I understood what he was saying. I wondered how much Kate and Andy knew of my acute awareness of their daughters as sexual creatures. I’d had embarrassing trouble learning the names of all the kids that they suddenly had when I returned from New York. Had they noticed how quickly I mastered Kym, Stephanie, Noelle and Kendra, and how long it took me to get Carson, Francis, Matthew and Jay through my skull?
Andy maneuvered his thick legs over and around the picnic table bench, grunting and groaning as he did. “You need a new one, Bobby?” he asked, heading toward the garage where his dedicated beer fridge stood.
Beer was the last thing I needed. I hadn’t figured that out yet.
Arabica’s all blonde oak - tables, chairs and floors, the staircase to the insurance agency offices upstairs, the blades of the antiqued brass ceiling fans. The long wall on the Spaulding Street side is red brick, the narrow end on Erie clear glass that fogs and sweats in the wintertime. The Willoughby Hardware Company once occupied the space, attested in red and white colored glass above the front door. It’s filled now with bright pastry cases, exotic teas in colorful boxes, long rows of Torani bottles on illuminated shelves like strings of Christmas lights. Paintings and photographs by local artists line the walls, for sale.
In the back, the broom- and shoe-scuffed baseboard camouflages a broom- and shoe-scuffed electrical outlet. The table nearest the outlet wobbles, the flaw readily corrected with a canary Splenda packet wedged beneath one black steel toe. There I array my kit: sapphire and charcoal laptop, wireless mouse, black earbuds. I plug in and power on, and as the computer boots I step to the counter and order, always keeping my computer in sight.
The girls on duty wear khaki pants and identical black polos with the green Arabica logo embroidered on the breasts. They look like college girls, maybe Lakeland, maybe Ursuline. I’ve drunk the coffee prepared by their hands a thousand times maybe, and never asked their names. One is short and looks Hawaiian, extremely exotic for Willoughby. She’s beautiful - honey skin, eyes like night, a tiny diamond in her nose - but never rude or mean, just cold. The other has strawberry hair and is pregnant, her outie poking through her polo like a nipple on her swollen belly. I see no wedding ring as she turns the knobs on the espresso machine and I wonder if she is in a bad situation or just takes it off for work. Little dramas all around us, even in Lake County. A single espresso for here costs a dollar eighty-six, and I drop the change from two in the tip jar, which I am well aware is incredibly cheap. Another sin to be shriven of.
I sip espresso and search Cleveland.com and The News-Herald, the website of the Northeast Ohio Society of Technical Communicators, Monster, Yahoo!, Thingamajob. I learn that the ideal candidate will possess three to five years’ (the phrase ominously penal) experience, and be comfortable in a fast-paced workplace, prioritizing assignments through multiple chains of command; that he or she must have excellent written and verbal communications skills and a strong attention to detail. The candidate must suppress all smoldering hatred he or she nurtures toward handicapped veterans of the Vietnam era, consumers of tobacco products, men over fifty, women over thirty, women in general, non-Christian faiths, and people of color. Above all, consistently, he (or she, I) must be flexible. My success as a Marketing Specialist II, or Advertising Writer/Creative, or Direct Marketing Copywriter, in my grey cube in Mayfield Village or Mentor or up in the Terminal Tower, will hinge on indefatigable flexibility. Flexibility to work three years without a raise because donations are down due to the poor economy, as graduated student loan payments turn the screws tighter and tighter and tighter. Flexibility to keep mum about the new $12 million bronze Apollo, acquired amid great fanfare just months earlier, perhaps being barely 100 years old, perhaps coming from a garden shed on an eastern German estate. Flexibility to lie to the media, trustees, shareholders, wives. Another sin for you, Father, another flaw, another failure - my venial inflexibility. And one last one: I don’t want any of these jobs. I have no right to feel this way, I know. For if a man will not work he shall not eat. Long, long before that though, he shall not get the next round when it’s his turn. He shall not have glass on his passenger side mirror. He shall not have a suit that fits for his uncle’s funeral, nor birthday gifts for his nephew. He shall not buy books. He shall not ever stop worrying.
But I cannot help it. I look at these jobs and they’re all the same. I see them. I’ve done them. Driving, parking, riding an elevator, sitting at a putty-colored steel desk beneath white-dwarf-bright fluorescent lights before the blue glow of Microsoft Office, bland meetings in glass conference rooms and jeans Fridays and cake for someone’s birthday whose name I think I know but really am not sure but don’t really care because I just want the cake, any treat, any tiny pleasure to distract me from the fact that I’m here, doing this, and to push the hands of the clock closer to five so I can just get the fuck out of here and go home to nothing and no one but I prefer it to this and sleep if I can then come back and do it again tomorrow and vaporize Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, and then I’m sixty, then I’m seventy, then I’m dead, and my dreams were just delusions and my life was just as ordinary and meaningless as everyone’s from St. Pascal’s and St. Joe’s whose lives I always secretly felt would be ordinary and meaningless while mine, somehow, naturally, would be extraordinary -- and indeed was for a time, and now is not only not better but actually, significantly worse than the ordinary lives of these friends I once disdained and who are now keeping me alive with food and beer and laughter and grossly, grossly undeserved unconditional love.
Of course, none of this is articulate in my mind as I sit in the coffee shop scrolling through the want ads. What I do have is a feeling like a damp, cold canvas sack filled with earth within my chest, slowly sinking lower, lower, like the weights on a grandfather clock.
In this descending miasma, like a glowing ember floating through the violet-black of a chill autumn night, she appears, Julia, all beautiful, hopeful, happy, unburdened, unconcerned, absolutely unaware just how much she means to me at that moment. I catch sight of her walking past through the first window on Spaulding. She walks determinedly, chin down, eyes straight ahead, a cocky smirk on her mouth. She disappears behind old brick and from the speed of her pace I can anticipate when she will appear in the second window. And there she is! Two more steps then gone again, and my pulse quickens. Where is she heading? Will she turn onto Erie Street? Down to The Enclave? Johnny Mango’s? The ice cream shop? One point three seven seconds later she appears before the floor-to-ceilings at the front of the store. And she’s reaching for the door handle! And she’s coming in!
My capillaries open. The thinnest film of sweat coats my nose. She traverses the length of the shop in eight sure steps. I can feel her footfalls translated through the oak floorboards to where I sit, and I savor, in a way even I find strange, the tactile connection. She has weight, mass. She exists in the world. I haven’t imagined her.
She stands before the glass counter with arms folded, considering. Her back is to me. She looks down at the pastries in the cases, up at the drinks listed in flowing colored chalk on the menu board, back down at the pastries. She’s wearing a thin green army jacket, a long skirt, flat red shoes. A big floppy bag is draped over her shoulder. She wants a large latte. She wants it iced. She wants it to go. She wants a cookie, but then doesn’t. She rests her wrists on the glass countertop and drums it absently and sporadically as she waits for her coffee to arrive.
I observe none of this directly. I glance, look back at my computer screen, tug at my chin. Before me is the HR website for University Hospitals. It’s right in front of me and I’m looking right at it and I don’t see a bit of it. My world is in my periphery. Julia, right there, eight, ten feet away. I want so badly to talk to her. I want so badly to kiss her eyelids and bury my nose in that cinnamon hair. I’m in love with her and she’s a child and I don’t even know her.
In the part of me I’m ignoring, in the part of me I’m telling right now to shut up, I know I love her because I don’t know her. There are so many pretty girls here in Willoughby, at work when I work, at the bar in Willoughby Hills, but I love Julia because she’s inaccessible and impossible. She’s real, yet pure fantasy. I need never fear disappointment. I need never fear rejection. She’ll never hurt me. She is beautiful and I can enjoy her beauty. At this moment, she’s perfect.
Much greater than the short distance between us though is time. And there are the choices I’ve made, the gambles that didn’t pay off. The dread of a whole life left having fired one’s bolt. In Julia, there’s none of that.
The Hawaiian girl brings her her drink. Julia palms a lid from the stack on the counter, takes a sip, and fixes the lid to the cup. She walks out of the shop, looks left down Erie toward Vine. I can still see her through the glass. She perks up, waves, shouts something to some unseen someone, and dashes away.
She’s gone. The faint jazzy music returns, sparse muted conversations, the hum of the gelato cooler. University Hospitals is a community-based health care system which serves patients at more than one hundred and fifty locations throughout Northern Ohio.
The damp canvas sack in my chest sinks lower. I’m back here in reality, the last place I want to be, aware again that the scant money I have dwindles by the day, that I’m running out of time. The sack sinks lower still. I feel sleepy. My head hurts.
On the fifth of June, Kym Medved graduated from Willoughby South High School, and thirteen days later Kate and Andy gave her a party. Through the afternoon, many of the friends who’d married and settled down while I was off exploring New York and Chicago arrived, lugging baby carriers and shifting diaper bags for hugs and handshakes. Though I’d seen a lot of these people almost daily when we were growing up, now it took a large and family-friendly event - something beyond a Christmas party or Fourth of July cookout, the kind that didn’t occur annually, the kind I could never engineer myself - to see most of them at all. They seemed established, stable, very together, very content. I felt like they all knew something, inherently, even when we were much younger, about success and happiness that all my striving, my education and ambition, had blinded me to. I wondered if that kind of life would or could ever happen for me, wondered if the fact that it hadn’t yet maybe meant that I didn’t want it to. My record of relationships was sporadic, and perhaps the only thing about me that was more jumbled than my work history. We all make decisions in our lives, Father. We’re told to listen for our calling, trust intuition, follow bliss. None of us can see where the road leads. That last thought used to fill me with apprehension. Not now, though. When anyone asked me if I was still at the Museum I said yes. My writing? Good. Me? Fine, just fine.
Andy grilled the burgers and Kym cut the cake. The day was hot, and we sipped Budweisers and guzzled Aquafinas and mini-Gatorades. The teenagers hovered near the beer tubs trying to sneak something they could drink behind the shed. Kate and Andy permitted Kym to drink beer that day, though she was only eighteen, but none of her friends could; they couldn’t accept the responsibility. Kym sipped half a Coors Light before abandoning the sweaty bottle on the picnic table by the grill. No one was fooled. We’d all been to high school.
In the early evening, a game of Texas Hold ‘em kindled in the garage. I know how to play, but I’m not the gambler my blue collar friends are, and I wasn’t comfortable betting. I gave up my seat and inspected the liquor table to see if anything intrigued me.
As I studied the booze, Kate appeared in the corner of my eye. She sidled in beside me and gave me a sideways one-armed hug, hand around my waist, head on my shoulder, which I returned.
“Hey, Bobby, this is Kendra’s friend,” she said, turning me. “She wants to meet you.”
Father, have you ever been in a fist fight? Have you ever been punched really hard in the head? I was in a fight once with a guy named Nick Zendrovich when we were in sixth or seventh grade at St. Pascal’s. I don’t even remember about what. But I remember Nick landing a good punch on the side of my head and not feeling pain - that came the next day - but seeing a blinding white flash of light. Not half a second. BAM! A couple of years later, in high school, I was working as a stock boy at Woolworth’s in the old Richmond Mall. I fell off a ladder in the back, not too high, just a couple of feet, but I bashed my head on the concrete floor. I saw the white flash then too. The other time I saw the white flash was standing at the booze table in Kate and Andy’s garage with the guys playing Hold ‘em at Kym Medved’s high school graduation party last summer.
“This is Julia,” Kate said.
There she was. Right there. All bright smile and bright eyes. She was short but she stood tall, feet together and shoulders back. Her long, crinkled white cotton skirt fringed with lace slung low on her narrow hips. It stopped above her ankles, the left of which suspended a thin gold bracelet dangling little charms. She was barefoot. A gold ring encircled one toe. A forest green belly tank top clung to her torso, her stomach flat as the blade of a knife. A tiny pink enamel butterfly decorated her thimble of a navel. It was clear she’d come directly from the air-conditioning inside.
She held her left hand behind her. Her right hand came up, elbow tucked at her side. “Hi,” she said, and as she did she made a single quick bounce up on the balls of her feet. It was the cutest goddamn thing I’d ever seen.
“Hi,” I said. I delicately shook her hand. Once, at the Museum, Bryce York, the Curator of Islamic Art, casually handed me a fifteenth-century ceramic tile spandrel with floral sprays from the palace of Sultan Selim II in Turkey, the likes of which he handled every day. I held it only briefly as he explained its provenance and artistic importance. I feigned interest, all the time aware only of its fragility and immense value, knowing it was something I really ought not to touch.
“Julia likes that writer you know,” Kate said.
“Mrs. Medved said you know Rodney Crain,” Julia said.
“How in the hell do you know about Rodney Crain?” I asked.
“I saw his picture in the Sunday Arts section of The Plain Dealer when he won the Davies Prize for The Turning,” she said. “I thought he was gorgeous, so I read the article.”
“He’s gay, you know.”
“I know! Total rip-off! Anyway, I read the book and loved it. That sent me to My Antonia, which started me into Willa Cather.”
“Oh, shit,” I said. “This is how it starts.” Kate, leaving, gave me a look, and I quickly added, “Excuse my mouth.”
Julia’s face brightened, though. She’d taken me for a guru and it pleased her to hear from such a one that she was on the path. It wasn’t what I meant at all.
“Who did you like? Who started you?” she asked.
“I liked Ray Bradbury.”
“He wrote sci-fi stories in the fifties.”
“I’ve never heard of him.”
“Well, you’re a kid. How old are you?”
“You’re at South with Kendra?” I asked.
“What year are you, then?”
“Junior. Gonna be a junior this fall. You really know Rodney Crain?”
“I really know him. I mean, I did. That time in grad school to me is like something that happened to somebody else now.”
“But how do you know him?”
Rodney had been one of my teachers at Butler. The women in the program fawned over him because of his movie star looks and sighed because he liked men. He wrote a book called The Turning which I don’t know if you’ve heard of or not, but during the final weeks of our workshop it won the Davies Prize. It was one of the biggest things that happened in the program while I was in New York. No one could find Rodney the week it happened, students or faculty, but he appeared in the Times and on Jim Lehrer’s Newshour, and on NPR, graciously accepting their congratulations and praise for the work, discussing his book and his prize and the writer’s art.
Our workshop assembled on its appointed Wednesday, though no one knew if Rodney would show. Cynthia Li, a rich girl from Princeton who lived above a bakery at Broadway and a 112th Street, brought petit-fours and champagne and a sleeve of Dixie cups to class. Rodney arrived fifteen minutes late in a jacket and slacks - he’d been on TV again; he never wore anything besides black jeans and T-shirts, snug to show off his chest and biceps. He was waylaid for another half hour by the faculty, all published writers themselves, who lined up, literally, to shake his hand and offer their congratulations. Finally, Rodney was able to get our classroom door closed and drape his jacket over the back of a chair and our workshop began, though, as a workshop, it was nearly worthless.
The ten of us gave him a round of applause, which made him blush, and we toasted Rodney and The Turning and Willa Cather and Joseph Davies, and interrogated him on the chronology of the events of the past week - how he was notified, when the media calls began, how Kenny, Rodney’s partner, had reacted. The cool part, though, was knowing how sought-after Rodney had been those past few days, and was at that very moment. A real literary celebrity. The Voice, the Times, all the networks, the BBC, they all wanted him, and we had him, all to ourselves, a few feet away, real. There were eight workshops in the fiction program and we ten students had gained some residual coolness that week because we were in Rodney’s, as though we knew something, as though we’d done anything. These dreams we young writers shared, improbable to all but impossible, they did come true sometimes. And we imagined that when we each won our Davies Prizes, all our colleagues, and our bosses even, would line up to show respect and offer praise, and our young disciples would bring us cakes and libations with worshipful eyes, and we’d handle it all as gracefully and humbly as Rodney had.
To my surprise, as I told all this to Julia, the story flowed from me, from a place that – since I’d been back in Ohio – I sometimes forgot was there.
I hope I make it obvious that my Cleveland friends are wonderful and generous and I love them. But the path I’ve chosen and attempted so ineptly to walk is far removed from my family and peers in Euclid and Highland Heights and Collinwood, practical places that don’t worry about the arts, don’t think about them, not because they’re luxuries, but because they are, in this world, ultimately unnecessary. No one I know here knows who Rodney Crain is. And why should they? I hadn’t when I left. It’s not survival-critical information. It doesn’t get you a house or beer or backpacks for the kids. It doesn’t get you laid. Not usually. There are whole wings of my life, of my mind and my soul, that I keep shuttered, curtains drawn, the furniture draped in dustcovers.
But little Julia devoured it, and I was done for after that. I was the beneficiary of Rodney Crain’s residual coolness once again. Julia had read The Turning – a couple of times, in fact (I think I saw that on her MySpace page). Residual coolness or not, I’d done some things, too: I’d lived in New York, in Manhattan, Harlem, for three years. Chicago before that. I’d studied the arts, gotten a fancy degree. I know writers – not the wanks who give Saturday seminars on Unleashing the Artist Within to middle-aged spinsters in the community room at the library, but real writers: people, if you followed such things, you might actually have heard of, who went on tours, whose books they’d made movies from. It’s true. I have their phone numbers. I have their e-mails.
Long before I’d finished the Rodney story, we’d moved inside, then talked for a long while after in the living room, I on the edge of the recliner, she on her folded legs on the carpeted floor. I settled into conversation with her with an ease I would not have expected. Julia asked lots of questions. Good ones. She knew a lot about fiction, particularly for someone in this part of the world. Way more than I knew at her age. She knew about writing programs. She was collecting anthologies. I didn’t know any of this stuff until well into my twenties. I surely would have been doing better at this point if I had.
“Why’d you go to New York?” she asked, hugging her knees.
“I wanted to be a writer,” I confessed. “I thought my dreams would come true.”
“So, are you a writer?”
“Your dreams didn’t come true?”
“But you’ve had stories published?”
“No. I haven’t written any stories in years. Another thing to think on is whom to trust. You ask the same question to a dozen writers and you’ll get twelve distinct answers. And they’ll all be wrong, and they’ll all be right. It’s not that they’re dumb or lying. You just can’t listen to anyone. I might not know what I’m talking about either. Think about that.”
“You’d lie to me? To throw off the competition?”
“I wouldn’t. Catholic school. Some would. A lot, in fact. There’s more, though. Lots more. Other things you should consider.”
“Will you tell me?” she asked, turning her head and resting her cheek on her knees.
I would have, Julia. I would have done anything for you just then, and long before. I know she doesn’t know that. Think she doesn’t, at least. At that moment though, Kendra appeared from the front room.
“Oh, God, there you are, come on,” Kendra said, and grabbed Julia by the arm and took her away.
Julia left me without a word or a glance back, back into her world, throwing me back into mine. I finished my drink, gone watery and pale. Then, what else could I do? I went back out to the garage. The seat beside Andy at the table was open and I took it. He studied his cards, lips pulled back from his teeth, a white Marlboro Light clenched in his canines, one eye pressed shut against the smoke rising from the ashen end.
“Bobby’s back,” he said, to no one but himself. “Gone a while. Did you fuck little red-headed Julia?”
It was a joke meant to shock, but ours is a jaded culture as you know and I’d known Andy since all-boys high school in Collinwood in the 1980s. There remained few clods of depraved humor yet to till, and in our thirties, pedophilia jokes are enjoying something of a vogue.
“Uh, no,” I said, in a way I hoped would make it sound obvious that I had not.
Andy rapped the table with his fingertips to check, then ashed his cigarette, blew smoke over the pile of chips and folded cards in the center of the table.
“Shame,” he said. “I would have.”
Secretly, achingly, the rest of the summer I spent Julia-mad. I staked out Erie Street, haunted Arabica, scanning, searching, praying for a glimpse of cinnamon hair, a flash of bright tie-dye on a tiny frame, my heart leaping from a little nod or a wave on the street, a passing “Hey” with a smile when her pack entered the shop. But we barely exchanged words after Kym’s graduation party. And really, until the Friday I got drunk at 1899, and even then and after, we never said too much at all.
That was the Friday in late September I went by Kate and Andy’s house and found it dark, which was odd for a Friday. Between all those kids, the big ones watching the little ones, Kate’s mom and her sisters and Andy’s cousin Tommy back from Afghanistan, there was always something. But that evening the garage door was down, the front door closed. No light in the kitchen. No lights upstairs. Around back the patio was buttoned up tight. One of those nights, I guessed. The risk and penalty for showing up unannounced. Still, I didn’t want to go home. The whole point had been to be with people. I walked back to my apartment building then kept going, up past City Hall to Erie Street, trusting Downtown to reveal something to me.
Off Erie on Second Street, right where the hill starts to fall off toward the river, there’s a bar called 1899. It’s neither especially nice nor a dive. Walking up Erie, I told myself I could have one martini. I asked the bartender to make it with Absolut, then watched him assemble and process the components. Willoughby is more of a Bud-Light-long-and-a-shot-of-Crown-to-celebrate kind of town, and he had to keep referring to the moisture-ruffled martini menu he’d recovered from behind the cash register to maintain his bearings. The drink arrived before me crystal clear and frosted with the humidity of condensing exhalations. The neon reds and purples of the beer signs refracted around its curves. “There you go,” he said. “Enjoy.”
I love drinking, Father. I mean, I just love it. I don’t know if I’ve got a gene or it’s growing up Catholic or just being from Cleveland, but the first cool sip of alcohol on a warm evening has been one of the few enduring pleasures of my life. If it’s liquor, or maybe sake at the sushi place in Mayfield, my gums tingle. And those expensive beers that I like taste and smell so rich and crisp with fruit and piney hops. Then, soon, magic, the bad evaporates. Insecurity. Doubt. What can’t I do? Who doesn’t love me? Of course it’s an illusion, brain chemistry. And the older I get, the more I pay for it the next day. But when I’m drinking I can know all that and not care. What a seductive mental state. Not so much like a dream, but like the feelings you have in a dream. Five ounces of 80 proof vodka in an Absolut martini from 1899 in Downtown Willoughby. Five shots, and three salty olives. It did its work. I ordered another. Charge it all. Fuck it.
Beneath the faux stained glass swag above the pool table a pair of girls shot eight ball, the intermittent cracks of the balls penetrating the low bar din. They looked about twenty to me, though I’d long lost track of which bars bothered to card anymore. The girls had dressed, it was clear: hair and heels, low silk tops. The taller one, who knew what beautiful legs she owned, wore a short skirt of faded denim. Her friend wore denim too, jeans like a thin coat of rich indigo, like something sprayed on with a compressor, perhaps even less modest. Their boyfriends stood nearby. I’d seen them talking earlier, leaning against one of the high tables. They drank green Rolling Rocks identically, holding the bottles between their fingers and tipping them up to their mouths, lips puckered, like chimps licking termites off a stick. Unshaven, they could have been homeless. One wore an old, nearly illegible grey and green Ohio University t-shirt. In his free hand he held a white Styrofoam cup which he raised to his lips and into it dribbled a flaccid stream of dark tobacco juice. They both stared up at the baseball game on one of the bar televisons. Their girls circled the table, exchanging turns, brushing past each other, trading comments I couldn’t hear, laughing. They leaned over and across the table to take their shots, the necks of their blouses falling open, smooth denim stretching tight over their curves.
I crested something with the martinis, passing softly to warm, and floated serenely, like a corpse in a river, relieved of all dire possibilities. The girls played pool and I watched them. I ordered a third drink. The third went slow. I was there a while.
When I emerged the sun had set, and a shower had passed and cooled the muggy air. Thick wisps of vapor rose from the asphalt on Erie Street and crept up the hill from the Chagrin. I knew I was drunk, aware of my every heavy breath; the individual beats of my heart thunked within my chest. I walked up River Road toward home, the floodlights on City Hall cutting cylinders of white through the nighttime.
I groped for my keys at my door, searching, I thought, every pocket, but failing to find them. I shook my shorts and heard them jingle. They were in there somewhere.
I thought I heard a voice. I wasn’t sure I actually had, and if I had, it could have been anything. It could have been the skateboard punks clattering down the steps of the Willoughby-Eastlake Technical Center, someone coming out of the Methodist church, cops at City Hall telling each other dirty jokes as they boarded their cruisers for patrol. But I heard it again, a distinct voice this time, and it called my name, “Bob-by...” Again I heard it, clear and unmistakable, lilting, teasing, “Bob-by...” and I scanned the night with bleary eyes. From the river mist into the pool of light outside the door stepped my dirty secret, my crush, my shame, my other addiction, my shining bad penny, Little Julia Vietato.
She wore sandals, another of the long skirts she preferred, and a dark hoodie sweatshirt with the hood flipped down. Her one hand was slung in the pouch pocket in front. In the other she held a journal, the kind they sell in stationery stores, clothbound in a floral pattern, pink and red and dirty white. She was chewing gum.
“Hey,” I said. “Where’d you come from?” I don’t slur when I’m drunk. I’ve talked my way out of two DUIs. I used to think I was lucky.
“Gazebo,” she said, and gestured vaguely back in the direction of the square. “Saw you walking. This where you live?”
“Can I see your place?”
Madness? Stupidity? Petulant sense of entitlement? Hubris? Hope? Idiocy? Denial? Infatuation? Indulgence? Thrill? Self-pity? Despair? Isolation? Rationalization? Pleasure of a secret? Anger? Disappointment? Exhaustion? Selfishness? Greed? Annihilation?
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
My apartment is small, and stuffed with books besides. Julia took her sweatshirt off and draped it over the back of my desk chair. She began to explore my bookshelves, which line the back wall of my living room. I live among books, Father. Always have. Volumes accrete around me.
“Your house is like a Barnes and Noble,” Julia said. She sat down Indian-style on the carpet to examine the lower shelves. She found my copy of The Turning, a hardbound first edition, rubber-banded to a mass market paperback of My Antonia, on which Rodney had loosely based his novel. Julia gasped in delight when she saw it and spoke its name, drawing it from the shelf with My Antonia attached. She removed the rubber band and set Willa Cather aside. Inside Rodney’s book were the programs from a reading he gave at the height of the Turning frenzy and from the awards luncheon for the Davies Prize. (I’d swung an invitation through my student job at the Butler Journalism School.) Rodney had inscribed the book’s flyleaf for me. Julia couldn’t read his scrawl.
“What’s it say?”
I knew it by heart. I’d read it many, many times when I was younger and more full of hope, but hadn’t for a long time, because the words now make me sad. “To Robert - With blessings on your own future book. Rodney.”
“Where’s your stuff?” Julia said. “Can I read it?”
I haven’t written fiction for several years. But I still have every note and every scrap from every seminar and lecture and workshop at Butler, thinking someday I might revisit it, find my spark again, maybe harvest some stem cells from the abortions penned in younger days. They await my return in four white banker’s boxes in my bedroom.
I fetched a fragment of something I remembered thinking was not so bad (my workshop had disagreed) about a young French priest sent to the Indiana frontier in the 1840s who is visited by the Virgin Mary. When I returned, Julia had moved to the center cushion of the couch, sitting with one leg beneath her, reading from my inscribed copy of The Turning. The left shoulder of her top had fallen and rested on her triceps. She paid it no mind. A tapering purple bra strap leaped over her collarbone and disappeared behind her shoulder.
I sat down beside her with my pages, dry from disuse and storage. She closed Rodney’s book and snuggled in close to me. Remember she is only a child. I was still quite high. I began to read.
“Above the dark trees a white band of dawn had only just appeared when the Brothers of the Holy Cross arose from their morning meal and bid each other good day. The men clasped hands and some kissed on both cheeks, murmuring to one another in English, ‘God bless you,’ and ‘God watch over you, brother,’ before filing out through the narrow doorway…”
I read the words I’d written, barely aware of them. The warmth of Julia’s body penetrated my side, seeping into me like a bloodstain. Her hip pressed into mine. Her breast into my arm. She laid her head on my shoulder, and there I smelled her hair, the sugar, like Fruity Pebbles. A feeling like too much coffee began humming in my chest. I held my pages in my fingers with my hands pressed hard against the tops of my thighs. I didn’t want them to shake.
“One large group of brothers walked east, to resume the arduous and blistering work of felling trees. They had begun cutting the day they arrived, two years earlier, and were likely to continue at least that long into the future.”
Julia shifted, pulled both legs up beneath her on the couch. She took my arm, sliding her hand between my ribs and my bicep.
“Another group walked northward, to take up their shovels from where they had left them at sunset...”
The letters turned to Braille before me. I turned my face to Julia and she looked up at me with those deep green eyes. I smiled, I think. She smiled too. Still smiling her gaze drifted down, slowly, God, slowly, to my mouth.
I kissed her, Father.
There’s a point where one is drinking on a Sunday, say, or jacking off on the Internet maybe, when one briefly perceives the after, the shaky hangover at work the next day, the self loathing and defeating guilt, but when it comes to drinking one more bottle to finish off the beer, or clicking one more link to finish off one’s self, one often continues anyway. The before was so lonely and boring and nothing and sad, and the now is – finally – pleasure and excitement and fun and life, so the after is not merely not to be considered, it just doesn’t exist. It can’t.
Our mouths and tongues mashed together, Julia’s and mine. Slick, warm saliva. Olive salt. Peppermint.
How far would I have gone? How much would I have taken? How far is there to go? How much is there to take? At that moment there was no future, no tomorrow, only a limitless past extending back into time, all roads, all causality, all intention leading to me, now, here, this. My hand left Julia’s waist and began its way up her side, its dorsal surfaces electric, anticipating the first apprehension of the taut flesh of Julia’s budding breast.
And at that moment, that instant as everything I was teetered on the fulcrum of time like the physicist’s cat in the box, neither living nor dead, waiting to be defined, there, see, God intervened, manifesting in the most banal of occurrences, propitious and strange.
From across the room, from Julia’s bag – tossed carelessly on the chair at my small desk – a tinny needle of sound stabbed like a hatpin at the filmy bubble that surrounded us, throwing us – me, at least – like a wave, half-drowned and sputtering, upon the shore. Julia’s arms tensed and she pushed away. With nothing in her manner of gravity or magnitude, she rose, crossed the room, fished in her bag and pulled out her cell phone. She checked the display. “My mom,” she said, then flipped the phone open with her thumb.
“Hello? Hi. Nothing. Downtown. Kendra and Mary. Skinny Mary. I don’t know. I guess pretty soon. Yeah, I guess. Okay. Like twenty minutes, I guess. Okay. Okay, bye.”
She closed the phone. “I gotta go,” she said, and quickly gathered up her things.
What was happening? What had just happened? Hadn’t it happened? What had we been doing? What had I? What had she? Julia moved toward the door. I followed. I couldn’t make my mouth work.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I won’t tell anyone.”
The door closed and I stood there. And there I was, in my socks with a throbbing erection wedged in my pants, my heart beating like dragonfly wings and all the natural and artificial chemicals churning in my gut.
I felt a cold sweat, then dizzy. I lunged toward the bathroom. I made it, but only barely. Some got on the shower rug.
Oh, Father, if I thought had a secret before. With my little forbidden crush and my stolen glances, my harmless fantasy, this indulgence. But I’d touched her now, and thus had lost control. I’d placed my fate at the whim and (in)discretion of a person the state didn’t trust to drink, or vote, or drive herself to school. Yet there she was now, with my life in her hands. Not her fault, of course. I’d put it there.
But you know what, Father? This awe at the gravity of my predicament is all in hindsight. I wasn’t worried about that. I wasn’t worried about crime or reputation or shunning. I didn’t care that what I had done and was doing was the wrong thing and that I knew it. I felt ill-used by the world, which didn’t deserve me, and that somehow gave me the right to drink myself mad in sorrow and loneliness until I felt free to indulge in whatever presented itself. I didn’t feel bad about it, Father. I felt something like hunger. Something like greed. I felt excited. I felt good for the first time in a long time. Nope. I didn’t feel bad at all.
That was a week and a half ago. About.
A few days later I called Andy on his cell, and a female voice answered. “Hello?”
“No, it’s Kendra.”
“Hey, Kendra. Uncle Bobby.”
“I thought you and your sis went home to your mom.”
“We did,” she said.
“So, you’re visiting?”
“No, I’m back here again with Kate and Andy,” she said.
“Aw, I’m sorry, hon,” I said. It was just as Kate and Andy had said, I thought. Mom didn’t have it together after all.
Kendra said nothing in reply. I heard the television in the background, overwrought music, tires squealing and gunshots, some kind of cartoon. As the pause grew uncomfortable I asked, “Is Andy there?”
A helium voice in the background declared, “That’s certainly more than I bargained for!”
“Yeah,” she said, and that was the last time I talked to Kendra.
I heard shuffles and crunches on the phone. I pictured Kendra handing it to Kate, who would be in her comfortable sweats with glasses perched low on her nose, doing the New York Times crosswords from a big inky-newsprint-smelling book of them beneath the end table light on the arm of the sofa. I heard Kate ask who it was and Kendra say my name. Kate thanked her and asked if she was okay, if she needed anything. I didn’t hear Kendra’s answer; maybe she shook her head no. “Okay,” Kate said. “You let me know.” The helium voice in the background moaned, “This is a catastrophe!” Kate didn’t speak for another second or two, waiting for Kendra to leave the room. Then, at last, she said into the phone, “...Bobby, Bobby, Bobby...”
“Hi, Kate. Where’s our Andy?”
“Andy...” she said. “Is not here,” she said.
“I stopped by the other night. No one was home.”
“Happen to be Friday?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Friday.”
“Friday was a big day, Bobby,” Kate said.
Kate emitted a wry chuckle. “Family stuff,” she said.
“Any idea where Andy is?”
“Oh, I know precisely where he is. He’s in the Twinsburg jail.”
“Uh oh,” I said, teasingly, having known Andy for twenty years, much longer than his wife, thinking DUI, maybe pissing on a dumpster out back of a bar. Thinking it was shenanigans, not seeing the brick about to hit my head. I smirked and asked, “What did he do?”
“...Bobby, Bobby, Bobby...” Kate said. And something there caught me. I don’t know if I finally heard something in her voice or in her tone or in the pace of her speech, or finally thought to put those things together with Kendra answering. Kate asked me to hang on a second while she took the phone into the quieter and more private front room. Once there she told me the story she’d strung together from things she’d personally seen and things she herself was told, by her husband, her kids, police, doctors.
Kendra and Stephanie’s mother, Nancy, had arrived at the appointed time to take them home. She’d shown up with her boyfriend, Mark, in his dull brown Trans Am, rolling into their driveway in a haze of white oil smoke. In their communcaitons with Nancy she had mentioned Mark often but Kate and Andy had never met him, so they were curious and discreetly looked him over. He was skinny, with dishwater hair and a small moustache, both of which needed trimming. There was a tattoo on the inside of his forearm of a rose with a stiletto thrust through it. The banner beneath the image bore the imperative, “Death to Cowards!” Andy shook Mark’s hand harder than he needed to. The men put the girls’ things into the trunk of the car. Then Mark and Nancy took the girls away. Kate barely slept that night.
She gave few details on precisely what happened back in Perry. The only witnesses haven’t told their stories yet. She may not have known much more than she told me, anyway. Right after Labor Day Stephanie was home alone watching television. The girls always lolled around in their boxer shorts and skimpy little tank tops, Kate said. She was always on them about it, throwing sweatshirts and afghans over them. Kendra had gone shopping and Nancy was at work. Mark showed up. He gave Stephanie wine.
Kendra found them, Mark on the floor of the tiny room the sisters shared with his pants still unbuttoned, Stephanie in her bed all but nude, one cuff of her flannel sleep pants clinging to one foot, an effusion of lavender vomit staining the sheets beside her head. Kendra screamed and started kicking Mark, trying to stomp his balls in fact, but she kept missing, bruising his hipbones and thighs. Nancy arrived home just as the screaming began and rushed in. When she came upon the scene she started screaming too, and as Mark shielded himself from Kendra’s blows with a pillow, Nancy joined in the beating then paused just long enough to retrieve an aluminum Rawlings bat from beside her nightstand. Mark seized the opportunity to push past Kendra and flee to his car, Nancy right behind him. She got a spray of gravel on her shins, but creased his fender with the bat as he sped away.
They didn’t call the police and didn’t take Stephanie to the hospital. Nancy was sure she’d lose her girls again if they did. So she cleaned Stephanie up, nursed her like she had the flu, told the neighbors the same. Stephanie didn’t talk or eat a lot in the next week. She told Kendra that her stomach hurt. Kendra grew sick in sympathy and with worry. She wanted to call the police but was afraid to. She wanted Stephanie to go to the doctor. She was scared to bring it up with her mother. She was afraid Mark would reappear. This continued for eight days. On the ninth day, Kendra came home from school and heard the shower running. She made a snack, sat down to watch MTV, and noticed nothing odd for forty minutes, when she realized the water in the shower was still going. She pushed the flimsy bathroom door in with her shoulder and found her big sister pale beneath the water, crumpled on the shower floor amidst a cloudy pink swirl circling the drain. In the sink lay a pair of pliers and the orange creamcicle shards of their mother’s Soleil Twilight. Kendra called 911 first. Then she called Nancy at work.
The Perry cops didn’t find Mark at his apartment. His Trans Am sat in his spot in the parking lot. No one at work had seen him for days. Nancy was charged with child neglect and criminal endangerment and still might even be considered an accessory after the fact for covering up the rape. She’s spent time in jail and is likely headed back. Kate got the call from Lake County DFS and drove out to Perry and brought Kendra back to Forest Street. Stephanie hadn’t actually cut that deep. They took her to Lake East Hospital in Painesville.
Andy vowed to kill Mark. Without exaggeration or irony, he told everyone on his dozer crew, his whole dart team, and every random guy who happened to occupy the seat beside him in every bar he visited for a Miller and a shot of Jim Beam after work in Mentor and Willoughby and Willowick and Wickliffe. He was gonna kill that motherfucker. Hand to God. He was going to kill him.
But no one knew where Mark was, which was the only thing stopping – the only thing that could have stopped – Andy from fulfilling the new purpose he’d found on the planet. If the dumb fucker had any brains at all, he would have been in Alaska within eighteen hours and paid cash for the ticket, but on the Friday I got drunk at 1899, Andy’s cousin Tommy was making extra motorcycle money under the table down in Twinsburg by helping a buddy of his asphalt a parking lot. After, they were having a beer in this bar called Marvin’s on Darrow Road and son of a bitch there he was at the end of the bar, no moustache, but that jag-off rose with the knife through it on his arm and Tommy was on his cell to Andy saying, he’s right here, right fucking here, I’m looking right fucking at the cocksucker. I’ll watch him and call if he leaves and follow him. Get the fuck down here. Andy and his crew were getting in overtime hours on a job in Mentor, about twenty-five miles away. He borrowed a length of pipe from the worksite and burned down I-271 in about fifteen minutes. Andy burst in the door, saw Tommy. Tommy pointed at Mark, and sure as fuck it was him.
Andy fell on Mark with a cruelty, something feral, something from deep deep in his brain stem, blasted to the surface by a hypergolic mix of adrenaline, testosterone, hangover and rage. Tommy held off Mark’s companions for a bit, but big as he is, he was only one against four, a mercy really, since it probably kept Andy’s felonious assault from becoming first degree murder then and there. He broke Mark’s left arm, eleven ribs, his left collarbone. He fractured his skull and collapsed the orbit of Mark’s left eye, which he’ll likely lose and serve his miserable time in Mansfield with a patch like a pirate.
“They arrested Tommy too,” Kate said. “He knew Andy was looking for Mark and he called him, held the other guys off. The lawyer says it’s just like he beat Mark up with him. So they’re both down in Twinsburg, Bobby.” Bitterly, she added, “You gonna go see ‘em?”
“I... Jesus, Kate. I... Jesus.”
“Jesus,” she said.
Eventually I thought to ask if there was anything I could do for her. She said no, her mom and sisters were around. They all needed family time.
“These kids,” Kate said, her voice tightening. She cleared her throat. It was the closest I’ve ever heard her come to crying, the closest I ever heard her come to complaint. “Christ,” she said. “They barely even get a chance.”
The last time I spoke to Julia was five days ago. I sat in Arabica, in the front this time, perpendicular to the glass, watching the creeping sunlight pour through the floor to ceilings, fingertips on a cold espresso I didn’t want. Had to buy something to sit. I just wanted to sit. I wanted to be out. I didn’t want to be home all alone. But I felt like shit. I just wanted to sit.
I stared down the street toward the square, toward Willoughby’s erect grey solider of Chickamauga, our white gazebo, and vaguely off in the direction of Forest Street, knowing Kate would be over there, all by herself maybe, dealing with that house full of kids. I thought of Kendra walking to South without her sister, walking home. I thought of Stephanie up in Lake East, sedated, imagined blood seeping through her bandages and spotting the hospital sheets at her sides while she slept, the easy wounds, the ones they could stitch up and wrap in gauze. I thought of Mark half dead in whatever hospital they took him to. In The News-Herald. In the ground, maybe. And Andy. I felt older, Father. I felt old.
On my mind was this: Andy was a recovering drug addict. He pissed away his family’s money at cards and drank every night and most days. He had bad sperm. He’d only grudgingly finished high school and lived not seven miles from the house where he grew up. But he’d achieved honor and character. He was stronger than me. He knew more. He was smarter.
On my mind also was this: that time had passed and I had not grown up. Something had come only so far and then gotten stuck. That I’m lazy, selfish and weak. A thief. That all I ever do is take. That a man grows strong, then bears burdens for those he loves, who love him. And the bearing is because of the love. And the bearing creates it.
On my mind, also, was this: I wasn’t like Andy.
I’ve made so many mistakes, Father. Omissions. Commissions. Done. Failed to do.
The sun moved closer. The black hands on the clock at City Hall walked around the dial.
They came up Erie Street from behind me, over my left shoulder in the direction of my stare, the obstreperous pack of South kids, four boys and two girls, and little Julia hanging off the sturdy arm of a big blonde middle lineman with shoulders like a buffalo. Glancing, she caught sight of me through the window, and patted the big kid’s arm, let it go and broke off from her friends. She entered the coffee shop and stood before me across the table, a hand on the chair opposite me, the other on her cocked hip. The big kid kept walking with the rest, crossing over Spaulding toward the library, but he looked me over through the glass. He didn’t like what he’d been left for.
I couldn’t meet Julia’s eyes, but she bent down and craned her neck to look closer at my face, trying to meet mine. When I finally did look at her, she grinned. She pulled out the chair opposite me and sat.
The fall’s brand new and that day was still warm like the summer. She’d come in wearing shorts and pink and white flip-flops, and she kicked one off beneath the table to stroke my ankle with her toe. “When can I come over again?” she said. “I want to hear the rest of your story.”
She still looked beautiful, but in a way I’d only just noticed. The sun behind her made an amber halo of her hair. Light in her eyes, naiveté – innocence really, potential, possibility. I saw a thing so rare in this world, a thing new, unworn, undamaged, unjaded with disappointment. I saw those things coming for her, inevitably. But for her, then – now – they did not exist. I thought of the things Julia had and didn’t know she had, the things Stephanie knew she’d had only after they’d been wrested from her. Looking at Julia I so badly wanted to die. A feeling I can’t shake, Father. Like smoke in my clothes.
I think what I asked her was if she had talked to Kendra in the last few days.
“Kendra went home to Perry,” Julia said.
I stood, slowly; Julia’s green eyes followed me up. I stepped around the table, rubbed my temple with the heel of my hand. Then I placed my hand on her bare shoulder. Her skin felt smooth and cold. I patted it, then once again. I left her sitting there in the window of Arabica and stepped through the door into the sunlight out on Erie Street.
The last time I saw Julia, Father, was Sunday, this last, at Immaculate Conception, noon Mass. We were both on the lefthand side of the church, she and her mom about ten rows ahead of me. I hadn’t seen them come in or sit. They were probably there before me.
I don’t remember genuflecting before I sat down in the pew. I don’t remember the Gospel. I don’t remember dropping a dollar into Mr. Pinto’s felt-lined wicker basket on a stick. I remember Communion. Some of it.
I remember the hymn beginning, and Mr. Pinto and the other ushers starting their slow backward progress down the center aisle. When he reached my pew I stepped out into the line shuffling up toward the altar. Julia and her mom had already received Communion and were heading back down the left side aisle toward their seats. As Julia passed beneath the Eleventh Station, our eyes met.
She sneered at me, Father. She squinted her eyes and curled her lip and looked away from me in disgust.
Grace upon grace.
Julia, you hate me right now, which is a mercy to us both and which, trust me, I totally get, because, for that and too many other reasons, I hate me right now too. Father Saggio and I are working on that. But there are things I know that I know you don’t. You have no idea how beautiful the month of June is when you’re seventeen. That’s coming. You don’t know anything about how much fun the summer after high school is gonna be. You don’t have a clue about waking up fully clothed on a Sunday morning beside that person from your philo class you seem to have been spending all your time with lately, watching them sleep and wondering if liking them this much means you’re in love. Jesus, Julia, you don’t know these things because you’re a kid. And you’re lucky, not just because you’re pretty but because you’re from a place like Willoughby that’s safe, or safer now at least. And you have a mom, one who cares enough to drag you to church every week. You’re going to appreciate that someday. She held you, Julia. She wants to keep you safe forever but she can’t. She loves you so bad it hurts. You’re lucky because you can still appreciate these quiet, immense, incredible things. No one’s taken the sight to see them from you. I’m lucky too. Pray for Stephanie.
When I reached the head of the line I could feel the corners of my mouth turning down in a wide, pained, painful frown. My jaw quivered and my throat began to close. Tears and incense stung my sinuses.
Through blurring eyes I saw Father Curran select another Host from the shining ciborium in his hand and hold the Sacrament before me between forefinger and thumb. He opened his mouth to speak but, seeing my face, paused, and turned his head just slightly to the side, lowering the Host perhaps an inch. The barest instant later he closed his mouth, straightened his gaze, raised the Host again, and extended his arms out to me. His voice, which I’d heard give so many homilies with the enthusiasm of a concession speech – I know you’ve heard him too, Father – sounded full in my ears, resolved, strong.
“This is the Body of Christ.”
I don’t remember making the reply. I remember drawing a staccato breath that burned. I remember the rack of blue candles before the icon of the Virgin and the varnished stray-dog ribs of Christ stretched out on his cross above the tabernacle. I remember casting my eyes down, white marble steps and green carpet. I remember the black Velcro straps on Father Curran’s shoes. I don’t remember saying Amen. Oh, but I must have.
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