collisions & causes
This is my gift to you.
In prayer and hope
that are only witness to the beginning
of an eternity of words
and eternity and a day with you.
My City In Flames
Here comes another miscast
Night of remembering when
I had a definite grasp
Of that particular something
Keeping my feet on the ground
Solid shoe shine style
My name engraved on this silver flask
You were my guide to a foreign land
Pulling me through those deserted streets
Was enough of a task...
You had your reasons for leaving
Mostly concerning me
Who would have thought
That by staying in one place
I'd become a refugee?
You rode your wagon south
Left behind my city in flames
A soldier of fortune sinking
In the mud and mire
Nobody else but myself to blame
When I was a little girl
I had a rag doll
The only doll I've ever owned
Now I'm gonna love you
Like I loved that rag doll
I'll never let you down
My City In Flames
She twisted the blue silk bow that wrapped around the cloth neck of the old rag doll. She felt a rumble and her will was overpowered as the four jet engines shot the plane forward. Tina Christensen, eighteen years old, strapped into the middle seat of a 707, was preparing to fly to Europe. The rap-rap-rap of the tires rubbing the tarmac and the roar of the engines and the quaking of her stomach was frozen as the plane pitched forward and lifted off the ground. She fought with herself not to look out the window knowing fully well it would only heighten her fear. The mountains to east-the ones she knew from childhood; the ones she saw everyday walking home from school; the ones her Girl Scout troop camped out in; the ones she painted with the pastel chalk her father bought her for her thirteenth birthday-looked strange and dangerous. The plane swung to the west and began its long circle over her valley making its way to Chicago. At thirty-two thousand feet, the plane stopped climbing and leveled off. She was so overcome by the anxiety of the moment, she forgot her hands and didn't realize she was strangling her doll. She apologized and kissed the doll's cloth lips, unbuckled her seat belt, and looked out the window.
For Tina Christensen, graduation seemed like years ago. But only four weeks had passed since she walked across the stage, found her parents in the darkened auditorium, shook the hand of the superintendent, and took hold the parchment. Only four weeks had passed since she ran into the arms of her father and kissed him, mixing both of their tears on both of their cheeks. He surprised her with I love you, and I'm so proud of you and here is a two-way ticket to Europe as a graduation present. Four weeks to plan the vacation of a lifetime. Four weeks to prepare for the University of Life. In the belly of the 707, she packed shorts, skirts, short skirts, and a camera. She was going across an ocean with the well-wishes of her family and alone. Four weeks ago, in her green and yellow graduation gown, she cried. This morning, at the airline gate, with her whole family present, she cried again. And now, staring out the window at thirty-two thousand feet, she held on to a rag doll and watched the clouds at her feet magically open and close swallowing her and the plane on their way to Europe.
Tina was every bit the eighteen years she spent in Utah. Five feet five inches tall, a round face surrounded by teased dark blonde hair, she was girlishly pretty. She was proudest of her soft blue eyes, she felt they were here best features, and she was embarrassed most by her short fingers-of course, she was the only one to notice them. She had that certain golden glow that comes from being a young girl. She smiled politely and spoke a little fast even in a whisper. She was excitable and excited. At that moment, in the air, she was both a little girl and a fledgling woman. She kissed the hair of her rag doll and looked out the window at clouds at her feet and wondered what the real world was really like.
When she was six, on a trip to Phoenix, Arizona, as her family drove the desert to Las Vegas around the Grand Canyon at night, her father bought her a convenience store rag doll to keep her company in the back seat where she felt small. In the twelve years since then, Tina Christensen held on to the rag doll when she felt vulnerable and alone. It was the only family she would take to Europe with her.
The 747 she took out of Chicago made a smooth landing at Orly International and by the end of the week, Tina had left the tour group and was rummaging around Paris just like a tourist-getting lost down little stone alleys, fumbling with the language upsetting the already upset natives, and spending too much on French trinkets probably made in Asia. The itinerary she had planned with her father was already discarded and Tina found herself sitting in a wire chair in a dirty sidewalk café on the left bank overlooking the Seine. It was there she met Arouet Houdon.
"Excuse me," Arouet said in a thin though definite accent, "I hope I am not bothering you. You are English?"
"No," Tina said. "I am American."
"American?" Arouet nodded his head. "...good country. My name is Arouet Houdon."
"You speak English very well, Mr.... Ar-ray Oo-don."
"I attended a university in England for two years. Listen...Did, do, does...see. Would you like me to conjugate further or would you prefer I buy you another drink?"
Tina laughed. "I could be talked into another drink."
"Where are you from..." He paused, gesturing for her name.
"...Tina, Tina Christensen," she said.
"So where are you from, Tina Christensen?"
"Kearns, Utah," she said. Arouet shook his head. "Salt Lake City?" she continued, "...Salt Lake?"
He didn't recognize the names. "I'm sorry..." he said.
"...oh yes," He nodded and repeated with an accent, "Mormons." Tina giggled and turned her head trying not to embarrass herself. He continued, "So is Kerz anything like Paris?"
"Kearns, Utah? Oh, Lord no. It's pretty and all, but it's Utah. And Paris is...well, Paris is Paris."
"The English," he said, "they have a word for Paris. They call it quaint. Do you think it at all quaint?"
She thought a second before she answered. "Paris," she said, "is like heaven. It is the city that poets claim as sanctuary, where artists give birth, and where lovers go to retire."
"So then, you are a poet?"
"Well," she answered, "I am a poet without words. You see, I've always thought of myself as being blessed with a poet's heart, but cursed with a layman's pen."
"Bel esprit," he whispered.
She tilted her head back and sucked in through her nose. "I could sit here for the rest of my life," she told him. "I have never felt so at peace."
"You look very beautiful at peace."
"Thank you again, Mr. Houdon," she said.
"How long are you in Paris?" he asked her.
"Until Monday, then it's off to Greece and then England and then home."
"Would you like me to show you my France?"
"I..." She hesitated.
"I understand," he said. "I'm sorry to come on so...comment dit-on...strong. It's just that you sit here alone and I thought you might need a friend..." He looked away. "No one should be alone in Paris."
He took her walking that afternoon. They walked down by the river and counted the bad painters scratching and discoloring perfectly good white canvasses. He walked her back to her hotel and made a date for the next afternoon. She waved good-bye thinking to herself that she said yes maybe much too quickly.
The very next day, Tina sat at that very same cafe waiting for Arouet. He didn't disappoint. He took her for another walk. He showed her the part of the city photographers forget. There was a building older than her own country. All day long, Paris lived up to its reputation. It was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. Even the old man in the dirty beret and stained teeth yelling at an old, slouching woman was beautiful, as if it were a show put on for her benefit. For three days they walked three directions away from the cafe always ending up at her hotel just before it got too late. He didn't ask her whether he would see her the next day, he just showed up at the cafe, found her sitting on the wire chair, and walked south-the fourth direction.
Arouet was youthful. His dark hair fell about his head in an unorganized order and a push from his hand would change its style instantly. He was about five nine and slim. He looked best in black button shirts and baggy pants, so he wore them exclusively. His face, smooth as it was, looked as if it had never felt a razor. His black eyes reflected like a mirror at night. He had a little dimple that appeared whenever he crooked a half smile. When he spoke, he had a definite accent. He sounded like a poet. Mostly, he was handsome-a bit distant, but handsome.
That afternoon, as they walked through another side of Paris, the skies darkened and they hid under a bridge and she fell in love in the rain. How far from home she was, how far she had come-she was halfway around the world and feeling as if she had just escaped a womb. Later they sat in Arouet's flat and talked of history and the future as he drew her face in a cloth napkin. She felt her inhibitions melt.
"The other day," she said, "when we first met, I was talking and you said something like el-spree. I looked it up and I couldn't find it. Do you remember?"
He looked up from his napkin, smiled, and nodded. "Bel esprit," he said.
"Yeah, bell espree, what does it mean?"
"It means a child with an artist's eye. It means anyone who shines in a dark world. That's how I first saw you, bel esprit."
"Do you mean that?"
"Of course I do. Isn't that how you see yourself?"
"Well, no. I've always seen myself as an awkward dreamer. Someone who paints life differently than everyone else does. I'm just a little girl from Utah looking for a white knight in a world where they don't exist."
"Some cannot afford fairy tales," he told her. "Some are forced to live in reality."
"Oh, I know that. It's just that...sometimes fantasy is much more refreshing."
"Arouet, could you answer me a question?"
"If you ask it."
"For three days now, I've spent all my time with you. Here I am in the city of love and meet a beautiful man who listens to me and shows me cobblestone alleys and makes me strange coffee. I've told you of my life and my dreams and my fears. I've moved in as close as I've ever come to anyone. And here I am all alone in your flat, sending all kinds of signals. And you do nothing. Why?"
"You make it sound like a fairy tale-like it's already been written," he said. "Like once upon a time has just passed and happy ever after soon will follow. Tina, my child, I am just a man and you are just a little girl-une jeune fille. In a week you'll be back in Kerz, America and you'll tell everyone you trust of the man you met and make up all kinds of fun we had. N'improte-it doesn't matter what happens here. It would be the best for you to invent the better part of me. I am not what you see. I am reality. In a city of love, as you say, I am refus, I am the forgotten child, me perdue, me perdue, do you understand? I am a lost soul."
She moved in close to him. She wanted him to hold her. She was in Paris and in love, there was nothing she could compare this to-it was heaven.
When she fell to his lap, he stiffened. She didn't feel it. When she stroked his hair he began to cry. She tried to kiss him and he quickly stood up. "No," he said, "I just couldn't. I'm sorry."
"You're sorry?" she said. She was embarrassed.
"You don't know," he said. "You could never know."
"But I want to know," she said, rolling away from him. Rain cooled their world. Drops ran down the dirty window. She stood above him and tried to talk. "I love you, Arouet."
"What do you know of love?" He spoke without lifting his head. "And what do you know of me? I could be evil. I could be the devil."
"But I know that you're not."
"But I could be!"
"Arouet, tell me what's wrong."
"Mi Amie, from Kerz, America, this is reality. This is not a storybook. Romance is dead. Love is dead. We are all dead. Don't you see? Don't you know that I'd love you if I could? I can't, I just can't. Go home...go home to Kerz and Hollywood and baseball and forget this rain. Remember the little walks and the little talks and the wine and Edith Piaf. These are memories that will live long after I am cold in the earth. I want you to remember me after I die. I never went to America. Perhaps you could live for me there. If I could, I'd explain-éclaircissement por amie. Go home."
Tina walked back to her hotel alone in the rain ducking under familiar awnings feeling wet and as uncomfortable as cold. She sat in her little tourist's hotel room and stared out at Paris at night. She thought of Arouet and tried to understand what he meant. Sans souri, she thought, a perfect little French phrase. It meant: without worry. It was the first time in her life she recalled sincerely worrying about someone else. In the past, all her worries and thoughts were proportionately equal to her own interest and benefit. She wasn't obsessively selfish, she was only a typical teenage American girl.
Tina Christensen walked in the rain at midnight through empty Paris streets. Her dark blonde shoulder length hair clung to her neck and draped over her sweater like freshly boiled noodles. She ran up the stairs in the three story apartment building and tried the door; it was open. It had been almost two hours since she had left, but she found Arouet still on the floor where she had left him. He looked up and knew he hadn't the strength to stand. Tina fell to her knees and held Arouet like she would her rag doll. The rain had grown cold and the silence and darkness froze as the two figures rocked back and forth on the floor. Morning came with a hint of sun through the dirty windows.
As the light crawled across the floor revealing a single pile of clothes, noise from downstairs awoke the two naked bodies. Tina rolled over and kissed Arouet on his forehead licking a trickle of sweat from the base of his neck. Arouet looked over his shoulder. "Merci," he whispered. "Mon aux Duex...merci."
"Shhh, don't talk," she whispered. "We're using an international language." She kissed his chest. "What do you think I'm saying now?"
Arouet was quiet for a time, ignoring her tongue on his neck. After a few moments he spoke. "I am twenty-seven," he said. "You never asked, but I'm sure you wanted to know. I know I look younger. I've always looked like a boy. At first it served me, now it only reminds me of the youth I've lost." He looked up at her. She was backlit by the creeping light of dawn. It was time for self-excavating. "I'm not from Paris," he said. "I am from a little village in the west of France that sits in the bend of the Loire River near the coast. No one famous comes from there. In fact, no one at all comes from there. I grew up helping my father fish and mend nets. He was a fisherman. Perhaps that is the one secret I am afraid to admit-that I am really only un pcheur.
"I can remember growing up in the river and coming home with my feet so white and wrinkled from the water that it would hurt to pull off my stockings. My father, he was an old man. He would stink of the water and come home and sit in the dark of the kitchen with the windows open sucking on a big pipe. I can remember him calling me to his lap. I remember being repulsed by his stench. He would put his rough hands around me and tell me that one day I would be un pcheur like him. Jesus made apostles of pcheurs, he would say, and if fishermen were good enough for Jesus then it was damn well good enough for me. Then he would laugh and blow smoke into my face. I remember going to bed sick to my stomach from swallowing his smell knowing that I could never be like him. I think I loved my father. I think I did.
"I was thirteen when I left the river and I've not been back since. When I was in England, I sent une lettre home. It came back unopened with a scribbled note from my father saying that his son was dead, and not to write again. I think I deserved that. I sat with la lettre in my hand when it hit me—the note...it smelled like fish. It brought back everything he told me and why I left. I knew from that moment forward, I would be alone."
Tina sat back on the twine rug and twisted her dark blonde hair around her fingers and into her mouth. Arouet continued.
"I went to Manchester for two years on scholarship when I was seventeen. A man who gave me shelter saw a talent in my scribbling and drawings, and despite knowing my real name, paid my voyage. I thought I was going to be a painter. I had an angst that translated well to canvass. I started out in my blue period and never left.
"I was a bohemian back then. I hated everything and everyone. Looking back, I wish I would have been a hedonist. The lack of a soul would have been a perfect alibi. However, like the fool that I am, I escaped into self-pity and let the years slip away from me. So I came to Paris as one of l'enfant perdus. Paris was asile for the millions of lost children seeking refuge. I took this flat and disappeared. I just disappeared from the face of the earth. You can, you know. You could live forever among the dead and dying and pretend that you are home. I found that true. I have flirted with faceless strangers and gave my soulless body for seconds of pleasure and walked away into the nothingness of the Paris nights. That, ma chéri, is history, that is my life. Now la maladie surges through my body and I have absolutely no idea where it will go. I am paying for my sin of being ambigu. I am dying and dying alone. And I have accepted that. Then you came along.
"I had forgotten how firm the body of a eighteen year old jeune fille felt; how youth tasted. I had forgotten the power of intimité. I walked the rivers of Paris as a lépreux and sucked in the smell of fish and hated myself and I hated the world for letting me exist in it. I had realized long ago that I was no artist. My hands, they had no patience. I was nothing in a nothing world just waiting for death to help me escape without paying un billet. Then you came along with your wide-eyes and American fairy tales and I felt alive again. You flew across an ocean to meet me in un petit river café and force my heart to pump again. I walk you around the city and hear you gasp in awe at the tired old buildings that litter my Paris and watch you rester bouche bée in front of churches broken, burned, and repaired by rotting planches and prayers and I grow more alive. In the streets where I am to die, I see birth and hope in your eyes. I leave you at the hotel at midnight and walk back home in religious extase. I find myself smiling without effort and breath in life when surrounded by your memory. I think of you frantically stumbling French and feel my heart in a crescendo. I am alive again. I leave you in the dark and happily realize that it always seems to rain in Paris at midnight. I walk through the wet and cold and look back at how you've left my city in flames and I thank you. You've given me un répit in my journey to my death and I thank you. Merci, ma chéri, merci."
Tina couldn't talk. She sat against the worn, yellow divan and stared into Arouet's eyes. He rolled over, fell to her feet, and kissed her ankle. She felt a hot chill shoot through her body. Her right eyelash had a habit of twitching when she sat stilled. She stroked his mussed dark hair and shook her head. "Arouet," she said, "last night, when I said I love you, I never said that to a boy before. I just wanted you to know that."
Arouet lifted his head. He saw the tears roll off her chin and into the cleft between her breasts. He followed one tear from her twitching right eye and kissed it just before it reached her belly. He said, "Would you like me to make you some strange coffee?"
Later that morning, after they washed and dressed, Tina sat straddling the divan wearing nothing but an unbuttoned white cotton blouse watching Arouet wipe the dishes dry. "I like this," she told him. "You're already trained. You'd really shock 'em back home."
"Don't boys back home lavar la vaiselle?"
"In the land of Zion?" she said, "Oh heaven's no, that's women's work. Tell me, are all men like you in France?"
"Of course not," Arouet answered. "I am much better looking than most." He looked over at her with a smile. "Are all women like you in America?"
"Of course not," she smiled back. "I am much smarter than most."
"Tomorrow we go north out of the city. I think you should see l'Europe réel. Paris is for tourists."
"Oh don't remind me of tomorrow. I wish it would never come. I fly out tomorrow. Greece, remember?"
"Oh yes, I remember, Greece. Pity, I was planning to take you to une féte champétre."
"Féte Champétre...a festival...comment dit-on...a fair."
"Oh...that would be nice."
"Go and see Greece another time."
She didn't answer. She knew what she wanted to say. She wanted to stay. It had become the most important thing in the world to her. "I couldn't," she said. "I just couldn't."
"Yes, you could. You could trade your ticket in and buy me lunch. You could spend another week with me...with my France. Or perhaps you wish to leave me."
"Oh no, Arouet, believe me, I do so much want to be with you. If I could, I would stay forever here in this room." The reality of being stranded in Paris frightened her. Through her entire fairy tale vacation, she always had home to count on. Sometimes, she realized, the risk vanishes with the safety of a net. "But I can't," she continued. "I have to go...I have a ticket. And I don't think I'm grown up enough to do something so impetuous. You understand, don't you? We have today, Arouet, we have tonight, and we have your Paris. You understand, don't you, Arouet?"
The new ticket she traded up for put her in London one hour before her already scheduled flight to New York City and home. She had a tidy little sum left over, a week extra in Paris, and Arouet.
"Lunch is on me," she said as the little car Arouet borrowed from the old man downstairs rolled along a small mountain road heading north out of Paris.
Back at Arouet's small room, Tina stacked her travel bags and locked her rag doll into a compartment next to her French II school book. She was attacking adulthood and she wanted to do so without crutches. Europe was to be a baptism of fire.
On a straight mountain road, Tina spent most of the ride absorbing the dark green of the small hills around her. "Is this the Verdun Forest?" she asked to a silent Arouet.
"Yes, isn't she belle belle?"
"My grandfather fought here in the first World War, and my father drove by on his way to Belgium in the second. It's beautiful. Hard to imagine so many men fighting in this lovely little forest."
"Two million died in these woods," Arouet said. "I am a student of l'histoire du Franéais. I studied it all. I grew up inside a world of black and white wars-my nose pressed into a century of conquerors and victims...I will tell you what plagues me most? I was always bothered by the fact that so many foreigners died here and so few Frenchmen were killed on their own terroir. Oh, of course, there are courtyard monuments filled with martyred French heroes from both wars, and my own uncle was killed fighting for la résistance, but so many étrangers have come to die on French saleté. We French, we love to talk of war, we love to dance because of war, but we hate to die for war. It was the one good Napoleone gave his country-légions of dead heroes. Frenchmen have not died so lovely since Napoleone. I am sometimes ashamed to see the courtyards of crosses with names of garéons from other countries. So many étrangers have died in the name of Franéais liberté, it makes me weep."
"You certainly have an...idée fixe with death."
"Perhaps it is because it will be the next journey I take."
"I refuse to talk to you when you are so morbid."
"This is a reality, ma chéri. Unfortunately we can not all live in your fairy tale."
They were quiet as it began to rain. The sun began to set behind them and the light clouds were flecked with sunlight and the beginnings of rainbows.
"Once, when I was a little girl," she said, "my family took our summer vacation to the Dakotas. That's a place in America near Canada. Anyway, we drove up from Utah and it took us all of three days. It was evening on that third day, just like now; it was raining, or trying to rain, and the sun was fighting the clouds. I swear it looked just like this. I was sitting in the back seat of my dad's station wagon clutching my rag doll wishing we could stop so I could walk around in this dream world. I felt that it existed only for me; that it was my fairy tale come true." She paused and looked out the window. "I was so confused. I was a silly little girl dreaming of paradise out the tinted window of a nearly new Ford so far away from any sort of reality." She stopped and swallowed. "That's when I saw it, right there on the side of the road. A cow, or what was left of a cow, lying on its side with its stomach stretched open and hollow. I could see the white ribs and thick dried tongue and the hollow black eyes. I tried not to look, but my dad had to slow down because of the road and I got an eye full. That was real-that was reality." She turned her head back to the front and nodded with the swiping of the wiper arms. "Look at me, will you, half the world away and I haven't even left my childhood. Here I am in the forest of storybooks, where Charlemagne ruled from horseback, where Joan of Arc talked to God, where Winnie-the-Pooh was inspired, where England's King Harry courted his dear cousin Kate and all I can think about is some rotted corpse in the Black Hills. See what you've done, now I'm being morbid."
"Sometimes reality is the only thing that makes sense," Arouet said gripping the steering wheel with effort. "I've gladly joined you in your fairy tale trip to my France, and I've tried to push you away; to spare you from my reality. But you forced your hope on me and I followed blindly. I begged you away, but you came in quand méme-with absolutely no regard for consequence. I can't be blamed when you leave pays des fées behind and rejoin reality. Remember, I tried to keep you at bay."
"I wish I knew what you were trying to say to me," Tina said to him. "You confuse me so. I wish I knew you."
"I think we maybe find a place to stay for the night. Tomorrow I take you to Magdelburg. I think you will enjoy Allemagne."
"...the Fatherland. I love Allemagne. Now they are a people who know how to die. They live every second of every day and then every twenty years or so they start a war and all die heroes. To die Allemand is to die héros."
"Arouet, I hate to be the one to explode your fairy tale, but to die is simply to die."
He looked over at her as the car began to slow down. He nodded and smiled, "You know," he said, "I think you are beginning to understand."
The room felt damp and cold, but under the blue quilt, Arouet and Tina battled the night through in comfort. The village where they decided to stop was just over the Belguim border. They checked in a small inn overlooking a small river that crawled out of the mountain like a loose thread hanging off a sweater. It was so calm and peaceful. As beautiful as it was, as picturesque, as European as it appeared, she couldn't help think how much it looked like the mountains of the Puget Peninsula. As much as she wanted to be, she wasn't impressed about Europe. Of course, she was thrilled by the beauty; of course, she gaped at the peace and the calm that wore the continent like skin; of course, she stood open-mouthed in front of cathedrals and church yards as old as history, who wouldn't, right? It's just that...she was happier just sitting on an old wooden chair, eating bagets and brie, drinking a wine made from a local vine, and watching Arouet watch her. She wiped the crumbs off his chin and spilled wine on her lap. The old man in a beige apron spoke a combination of French and German telling them of the sights they should see while in his village. It was a scene she had fantasized a million times inbetween tests in history class or driving back and forth to the mall downtown. It was, she believed, what all American girls dream about. Here she was living out a dream and feeling as if it was always meant to be.
Sitting out on the veranda overlooking the river huddled under Arouet's arms, Tina began crying. "What's wrong?" he asked her.
"Oh nothing. I've always been a big crier. I cry for everything."
"What can I do?" he asked.
"...pas de, nothing."
"Do you wish you were in Greece right now? Peut-étre you would meet a nice boy and be drinking Greek wine in some Mediterranean ville. Peut-étre you would fall in love under the shadows of the Acropolis and sneak off to some island and live out a Greek fantasy."
"Are you making fun of me?"
"Oui, I am making fun of you."
He reached under her chin and pulled her face up to his. He kissed her. They walked back into the room and under the blue glow of moonlight, danced in the silence of night.
In the silence that preceded dawn, she felt at peace. Arouet stirred and kicked the quilt off her legs and she felt a draft cool the sweat off her skin. She moved next to Arouet and awoke him with the chill of movement. "Are you asleep?" she asked.
He grunted and moaned and finally awoke.
"Are you asleep?" she asked again.
He rolled over and lowered his head to her shoulder. "No," he said breathing into her skin, "who could sleep with all this noise?"
"I was just thinking...I was just wondering..." She kissed his hair. "Arouet," she said, "did you know that you were the first boy I ever...you know? I wonder what they'd think of me back home. I wonder what my mother and father would say."
"Does it matter what they think?"
"I guess not. I guess it does."
"You are so young," he said, "so very, very young. I must remember that. You still have a need to please all those around you. Let me ask you. Are you lying to yourself?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are you true to you. What you do, do you do in vétité?"
"I know what I do," she said, defensively. "I'm responsible for own actions. Never, never can I be accused of being suspect."
"Don't get so angry. I'm sorry. Now let me sleep. Let me rest."
She nodded and brushed his hair with her chin. He kissed her neck and began breathing in steady deep breaths. "Do you know what I'm thinking about right now?" she said. "I'm thinking about my first slow dance. I was in junior high-Riverton Jr. High-God, how silly I was. Big stupid hair, pastel mini-skirts, and no breasts; I was just thirteen. Let's see...I think it was the Valentines Day Dance. I had a crush on a boy named Tony Lopez. He was so cute. Anyway, my best friend, Cyndi, told me he liked me too. Now remember, this is Utah, OK? So I get all dressed up and Cyndi and I have my father drive us to the school for the dance. It's like seven in the evening, but to us it's real late. So there I am trying to walk upright in heels looking all over the place for Tony, when I see him walk in with Lori. Oh, how I hated her. Anyway, the two geek DJ's started playing oldies thinking it was real cool. They played "Our Day Will Come" by Ruby and the Romantics. I looked out on the dance floor, see Cyndi dancing with Cody and I start to cry. What a stupid little girl, huh?" Arouet was already fast asleep. She continued. "Well, the song goes something like...Our day will come/ and we'll have everything/ We'll share the joy/ falling in love can bring/ No one can tell me that I'm too young to know/ I love you so/ and you love me. There I am, standing in the red glow of the flashing strobe light listening to a song that was done ten years before I was even born, crying my eyes out, when someone touched my shoulder. It was Tony. He asked me to dance. I walked out onto the floor standing a good five inches taller than him in my new heels trying to hide the tears on my cheeks. It's funny. Almost six years later, I can still hear the song. Tony put his hands around my waist and I put my hands around his neck and we start to spin around much too fast for the music. There in the dark, inside the music, Tony reached up and kissed me. It was at that moment I realized I was a woman. I remember feeling so different than I had ever felt in my life. Just as if I had awakened a part of me that begged off sleep. It's a sensation I feel when you touch me. Just imagine, here I am, in a little inn deep in the forests of Belgium waiting for morning to come in the arms of a French god and I've transported myself to a junior high gym in Utah." She sang, "Our day will come/ if we just wait awhile/ No tears for us/ think love and wear a smile/ our dreams have magic because we'll always stay/ in love this way/ our day will come. Do you think me silly? Arouet, Arouet..." She realized he was asleep. She kissed his head and sang herself to sleep. "Our dreams have magic because we'll always stay/ in love this way/ our day will come/ our day will come..."
It was Tina's first experience with the Autobaun. The Citroën Arouet borrowed from the downstairs neighbor was fully capable of attacking the low winding mountain roads of the Argonne and Ardennes and of carefully maneuvering with the too full, too thin Paris streets, but was overmatched by the arrogance of the German highway. It was perhaps the first thing she noticed about Germany.
They picked up the expressway in Liege, Belgium and, in crossing the Dierg River, made their way to the border. At Aachen, in Germany, Arouet flashed his visa to a blue-suited German guard and Tina had to prove that the girl in the passport was her and off they went to Cologne. They sat in silence as they passed the always ripe vineyards and the always cool streams and the always round housed villages that make up the Rhineland. The road to Cologne was spectacular but uneventful. In the loop around Kln, they entered the Autobahn. Almost instantly the cars changed from practical seats with engines to weapons. Arouet pushed the Citroën to the limit but still the Benz and Volvos and Volkswagens flew by. A high-pitched whine proved the effort it took just to survive in Germany.
"Do you know who built the Autobaun?" Arouet asked her.
"No," she said.
"Herr Hitler," he answered. "He asked for a road that would stretch from one end of the Reich to the other. A wide road, he told his architeche, one with all the hills flattened and bends straightened. A road in which he could move his soldiers and heavy armour from Prussia to the Rhien and from Berlin to the Alps. One road going to and one road going away. He did give Allemagne work. For a time, Deutschland was lucky to have him."
"Before Hitler," he said, "the people...ils avaient été avoir faim...you know...they were hungry. No one worked, there was no money, it was enfer. In France and in America there was strife, but in Allemagne life was intolerable. This man put soup back in the kitchens and coal back dans les fourneau. I know that so much evil happened, but it also should be remembered that Hitler did good for his country. Anyway, we are driving on part of the proof."
They drove through Essen, Dortmund, and so many other cities with names so different from those she had learned in ninth grade geography. When they passed over the Rhine near Cologne, it became Kln auf der Rhein. The country itself went from the English-Germany, to the French-Allemagne, to the German-Deutschland. This was the country of so many stories of war and so many films of horrors that Tina expected something surreal-like Dante's Purgatory. Instead she found a little country so much like the little country she had left the day before and the country she left across the Atlantic. There were thousands of small towns with thousands of small town people going about the business of getting on with business. In the Citroën, surviving the Autobaun, she experienced Deutschland in the same way she listened to European radio-with subtle sublime curiosity.
Back in Paris, Tina struggled with her French II lessons just to get through the day. Here in Germany, she was lost. Guten tag and auf wiedersehen were about the only German words she knew. Luckily, Arouet did the talking for both of them. They drove into a small village outside of Einbeck. He asked her if she was hungry. It was late afternoon.
"There is a cafe near here that I've been told about," Arouet said to her. "I should be a fine introduction to Allemand food. Are you prepared?"
"Let's hope so," she said, as she fidgeted in her seat.
"Bitte, wo ist der Restaurant rufed Das Lasser Haus?" Arouet asked the man behind the counter at the gas station.
"Das Lasser Haus? Ya, links um die Ecke," the old man gruffed.
"Ist es gut?"
"Ya, berhmt...seit Jahrhunderten."
"Ya, bitte." Arouet climbed back into the Citroën. He said to Tina. "Now I give you Allemand. Are you prepared?"
She remembered Arouet telling her that Germans say 'yes, please' when they mean 'yes, thank you'. She said, "ya, bitte."
They found the blue building and sat over white wine and peppered potatoes. He asked a passing waitress, "Bitte, Wie entfernt ist Berlin?"
"Gegen...zwie hundret Meile..."
"Danke." He turned to Tina. "Two hundred kilometers. We should make Berlin by tonight. Unless, of course, you want to stay here. But I so much want you to see the Kurfrstendamm Stra§e. I want you to stand under the Brandenberg Gate and see the rubble of a once iron curtain that freedom disintegrated. I want you to see the ghost of the Kaiser Wilhelm church at dusk. There is a little theatre on the east side I want to show you. There is just so much of Allemagne I want you to know. I think Allemagne is such a glorious country. I do not think you will soon forget your excursion to Deutschland. And I do not think you will soon forget me." He lifted his crystal of white wine above the table and waited for her to do the same. "As it is said in the fatherland, Zum Wohl, mein lieblich."
The rubbing of fine glass made a chill rush up her back. "I don't want to be the one to say this, Arouet, but you haven't talk at all about dying or death all day."
"Yes, I guess you are right." He stared at her while pressing his lips to the glass. He swallowed and said, "Did you see the statue standing in the middle of the square as we drove into town? Did you notice the names carved into the stone? Did you see the thousand churchyards dotting the landscape? Did you notice the cemetery behind each one. It would be difficult to step in any direction in Allemagne and not walk on a grave. Did you get a look at the headmarkers? If you did, did you notice the dates on the crosses? You know, there are soldiers from the crusades buried here; as there are martyrs who stood next to Martin Luther. There are gravestones over heretics who fried on a stake screaming and crying faith after an Auto-de-fe during the Inquisition. There are women and children buried who died of fever and starvation during the Black Plague. There are men and boys who fought against Napoleone and for the Kaiser in this soil. There are hundreds of thousands of innocents buried here, victims of the Nazi purge. Tina, ma amiee, you see I don't have to talk about death in Allemagne, death is a way of life here. You are surrounded by it. Soon it will envelope even you like a blanket. Soon you will see that death becomes only room in a church cour cimetiére. You see, I watch you and I know that in your heart you feel you will live forever. You are immortel. I hide behind a smile with you in Allemagne because I know the truth about life and lah humeur about death. I know death. I know it well. I've lived with its stench for years. Today I am in the bosom of Allemagne. Today I come to see death. Today I am visiting a friend.
They reached Berlin by nightfall. The city stretched out forever in all directions. The street signs were written mostly in English, or at least understandable in English. Tina felt right at home. The city surprised her. It was more like Phoenix, Arizona than the forced hub of Europe's culture. The cars slowed to an American pace and the main roads were wide and crowded. She felt at home. Arouet knew where he was going and after a couple of quick turns and narrow side streets, they were in front of an old rock building with the words Langerhaus Inn carved in Gothic letters into a wooden sign. The old woman knew Arouet and gave him a kiss on the cheek and a front-side room with a balcony. As he lay in bed with Tina at his side and the hum of the city outside their open window, Arouet rolled over and laughed out loud. She was happy and happy to see him the same way.
"I love you," she said.
"You know," he said turning to talk to her, "I believe you do."
"You certainly have a way of talking to me that makes me feel like a little girl."
"But you are, mi amiee, you are but a little girl."
"I'm old enough to be in a Berlin bed with you."
"That does nothing to prove your age, it merely proves your acumen."
"I'm beginning to wonder if you are the man my mother tried to warn me about," she said.
"Qu'est ceci? You think je suis sinistre? Do you think me a monster?"
She lunged over him and pinned his hands above his head. "You're not someone I can't handle."
He laughed again and easily broke free wrestling her until he had her pinned underneath him. This is the way it went in the yellow light of stained lamp covers and flickering light bulbs.
Finally, the frenzy ended.
With window closed and lights off, the room took on a calm. Tina pressed back on the stacked pillows. Arouet rested his head on her belly. He asked her, "Que prensez-vous mon Berlin?"
"What do I think of your Berlin?" She stroked his thick dark hair. "I think that if I were to die this very instant, if my soul were to be sent to heaven, I would have such a glow about me, the angels would beg that I tell them about you...and about your Berlin." Arouet turned his head and kissed her flesh. "I feel comfortable in Berlin," she said, "as if I am answering a call. As if I should have always been here. You know, even back in my own city, I felt out of place, like I didn't belong. I always thought it had to do with my religion. I'm not so sure anymore.
"I'm Mormon, you know. Where I come from, everyone is Mormon. We live in these square blocks called wards and go to church all day Sunday with hundreds of others who look just like us. It's scary. Even as a little girl I didn't understand it. It didn't feel right. Oh, it wasn't wrong or anything like that, it just didn't feel right. I can't explain it. Do you understand?" The room was quiet. "Sometimes I would start to ask my mother, but she would just shhh me and tell me not to fret my pretty little head about it. All little Mormon girls have pretty little heads. God, that's scary too. The one thing about Mormons is that they don't want to hear any questions. Everything is just fine if you just accept everything that is told to you. Trouble was, I couldn't." Even the city stopped to listen. "I lie here in your arms and wonder why I came all this way to find you and question who I am and where I'm going. It's almost as if I needed your sins to question mine. I think I would have eventually found myself, but I want you to know, Arouet, here in your arms, feeling your heat, smelling these smells, I don't think I can go back to Utah the same little Mormon girl that came here."
He asked, "Are you thanking or blaming me?"
She didn't answer him. She answered herself. "I don't know," she said in a whisper that hinted sobbing, "I just don't know."
The next morning they walked down the Kurfrstendamm hand in hand. This was Berlin. Funny how much it looked like America. Even Paris look foreign. They stopped in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and sat on a brick bench. Tina caught herself gaping. The burnt out reminder of the Allied bombs stood like a black ghost against the newly built, fresh, young city. The street was cut around the dead church and the plaza where it stood was lined with red and yellow flowers. She was struck by the dichotomy. Dressed in a dark green jumpsuit, kneeling inside the black wrought-iron fence, an old man dug at the weeds with a rusting knife. Tina watched him and wondered how he remembered Hitler's Germany and if he could remember when the church was alive. She looked at the burned walls and thought of so much violence and of so much destruction and of why it had to happen. She watched the crowd torrent by and saw the apathy that is evident in all humans. She turned to Arouet and wanted to tell him that she vowed that until the day she dies she will not be satisfied to be a spectator in this human's race. She wanted to tell him that she promised to live every second of every day and think about the waste of this world and never let it happen to her. She wanted to thank him for shaking life into her existence and for giving her France and Germany and those moments when she felt like a woman and not a little Mormon girl from Utah. She wanted to grab him and have him wipe the tears from her cheeks and calm down this world that had begun to spin much too fast for the music. But he was off staring at a young black girl sitting against the fence. It could wait, she thought, and if it couldn't, then it wouldn't. All this from the skeleton of a dead church in a city that has forgotten about a war that scarred the whole world. She stood with a tear on her chin crying for the billions of unborn that would never feel this and for the billions of the dead who never had the chance. She suddenly hated Hitler and Germany and even her own people for not letting her question right and wrong. She hated everyone who just walked by without bleeding for the dead church. She looked to her left and saw the old man with dead weeds in his hand. He crossed in front of her and made his way to the side entrance. Just before he stepped over the fence, he turned to a stone statue of Christ and with a reverent nod and the slow movement of his right hand from his forehead to his heart to both his shoulders, he crossed himself and genuflected. It was at that very moment she felt the church resurrect. And she knew God lived there. And she stopped crying.
It was late morning and the early summer sun was shrouded by high thin clouds. Peering into shops with Franéais indifference and American curiosity, Arouet and Tina strolled down the Strasse des 17. Juni hand-in-hand. Early afternoon, walking through Tiergarten Park and with Tina craving a hamburger, they found a cafe that served American food. Sitting on the second story patio, under a black and yellow umbrella, drinking Diet Coke out of a glass stein, they had a clear view of the Brandenburg Gate. The infamous wall that once grew from the symbolic portal to the state of Brandenburg was now but coloured rubble. The remains of a stone guardhouse stood as an empty reminder of the division of a city and the arrogance of an aging Soviet Premier.
Back at Kearns High School, seventh period, Mr. Jammons' Current Affairs class, they spent the entire second half of the school year talking about the ramifications of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. There was an essay question on the final exam worth half her grade on the Berlin Wall. How fitting, she thought, to be eating a burger with extra onions (her favorite lunch in the school's cafeteria) watching over the rubble of the cold war. Sitting in her class, and in classes throughout the entire United States, Tina's classmates, as did all Americans, had come to believe that they should take credit for the demise of the Bolsheviks. They were, after all, the Americans. Tina, herself, had spent many a lunch with the latest NEWSWEEK or TIME discussing, with anyone who would listen, her views on European politics. She was an expert.
There was a crowd around the remaining two or three foot high wall. Arouet and Tina worked their way over the spray-painted dust.
"Here," Arouet told her holding out his hand, "behold le passé." Tina reached out and grabbed a small rock covered in sparkling black and red paint. She held it out in front of her face. He continued. "Now you possess the Berlin Wall."
The name sent a rush through her whole body. At the cafe across the street, she still saw the wall at a distance. With a hamburger at her lips, Berlin was reduced to the size of a television screen. She was a spectator. But standing with the concrete in her fist, Tina became participant. She stood in the shadow of history and balanced her little life with the grand scale of the world. She thought of her political stance, and of Kearns, Utah, and of the state religion, and of how they allowed her to vocalize stands on subjects she had no control over, and of how when she questioned her faith, she was mistook as a traitor. She thought of seventh period Current Affairs and of the A on top of her final essay test and she felt ashamed. She thought of Mr. Jammons and of how he used to sit on top of his desk and lecture on why Europe is much better off with a common-market economy and of how Communism was dying because of American capitalism and of how Germany was lucky to have them as an ally. She thought of the evening news and of how thirty seconds of video was her only real exposure to the world. She thought of all the blood and all the tears and of all the courage it took for freedom. And she thought of her little cloistered country and her (even more) reclusive little city and how no one she knows fights for rights. She thought of every little thing she took for granted, sucked in a deep breath, and put the stone in her pocket.
They walked through what was left of Checkpoint Charlie and wandered into East Berlin. If West Berlin was young, fresh, and alive, then the east side was old, worn, and dirty. In the west, capitalist's money rebuilt bomb-scarred buildings and war torn roads. After the war, a new Berlin was born in the west. In the Russian sector, time had stood still. It wasn't that East Berlin was dying; it was merely sick.
They walked for a few blocks down the Under den Linden. Even in the business district, Tina was struck by the apparent poverty of the state. There were no frills, no indulgences, no ornaments; just the essentials. Tina filed the scene away and thought to herself that this was what she would think of when she thought of Communism.
They rested on a field of grass just off the Wilhelmstrasse. The city hurried by them. A dark green armoured personal carrier sat across the street apparently empty. A red star was barely visible through the dust that had settled on the sides. Arouet, leaning back on his elbows, said, "Probably it has been there since '45." He turned over on his stomach. "This used to be the Reich Chancellery building," he said. "It was razed by Allied bombs and Russian tanks. These petit tertres were pushed into place by the Soviets and left as dirt for years. It has been only recently that grass was implanted." He pointed toward the middle mound. "There, behind that tertre, that is where Hitler died. Underneath was where they burned his body. The Russians took what was left to Moscow. They blew up the bunker and push dirt over it all. I guess they didn't want a monument." Tina saw the little rise in the earth and wondered what it was like those last few days of the war back in April of 1945. She imagined being in the exact same place the morning Hitler's body was doused in gasoline and cremated. She thought about Eva Braun and of the last minute wedding and of going to the grave the wife of the Fuehrer. She heard Arouet say, "So what ever happened to the boy Tony Lopez?"
Tony Lopez, she thought, that was absolutely the last name she thought she would hear above the grave of Adolf Hitler. "Tony Lopez?"
"Qui, the boy a la danse...Jr. High..."
"What makes you bring him up?"
"I wonder if he is the boy waiting for you back in Kerz, America."
"Lord, no. I haven't seen him in years. As a matter of fact, that dance was the only time we were ever together. My mother and father didn't like him. They wouldn't let me see him. I didn't understand it. I couldn't see why. I mean he wasn't a convict or something like that. My sister told me later that Mom didn't like him because he was a Mexican. And if that wasn't enough, he was also a Catholic. I was sixteen when she told me that. I just couldn't believe it. I went to church that Sunday to ask my God how a woman who pretended to be so self-righteous could be so...artificial. I sat in the back row and began to pray. I looked up and watched some guy bear his testimony and noticed that there weren't any Mexicans. I mean, not one. And there wasn't a Black, or an Oriental. Just a room full of Caucasians dressed alike. I was confused. I still am. I never saw Tony Lopez after Jr. High. I guess he went to a different school. I think about him every now and then. Especially when I get confused about who I am and where I came from. Like the other night, I suppose. Anyway, thanks for letting me be confused with you. Here in Europe and alone, I have begun to find myself. I don't know who I'll be when I get back, but at least now I know questions to ask." She leaned down and rested against his body.
Arouet pulled her to him on the grass and after some silence, he said, "I say we go back to the Langerhaus. Tonight Berlin belongs to you. Tomorrow you must decide whether we go north or south. It is a bigger decision than you might imagine." He looked into her eyes and waited for her answer. He relied on fate. He knew what going north would mean. He left it all up to her. He waited for an answer; for her judgement; for her providence.
Tina flipped her hair out of her face and looked around. She thought to herself, Who is he? What am I doing here alone in Berlin? Who do I think that I am? She looked over at Hitler's grave and decided that she wanted to go north.
He pursed his lips and nodded.
Back on the autobaun, Tina felt at ease. Arouet talk of Germany before reunification and the guard stations at the border between East and West Germany. He told her that because he was an artist, he was given a special visa that gave him unlimited access through the border. The Communists were always looking for free propaganda and starving French artists always painted grey landscapes with colour. Arouet spoke of the villages that got to know his name and the big city backstreets that didn't. He spoke with affection of the people who shared so much of themselves and their country. As he spoke, there was little evidence of the despondent compatriot she found in Paris. He seemed happy in Germany.
They rode northwest through the old province of Mecklenburg, through miles and miles of rich green farmland. Every now and then, a church spire would propel out of the horizon and a little village would soon follow. It was a peaceful ride.
As soon as they passed Ludwigslust, the mood changed. Arouet escaped into himself. The radio was off and the whirl of the Citroën engine was all that could be heard. It gave her an opportunity to relive the last week.
It was only Monday last that she sat strapped into the aisle seat of a 747 watching O'Hare disappear out the window. She stroked the yarn hair of the old rag doll that sat on her lap like a child releasing nervous energy. In her pocket, she patted her passport, her airline tickets, and the itinerary with the tour group that was included in the European vacation package that was her graduation gift from her father. If she was going to Europe alone, her father insisted, she certainly wasn't going to travel alone. Her father wanted her next to a dozen other Americans. He didn't want to have to worry about her. He trusted his daughter. He just didn't trust the world.
It took her only a day to ditch the tour group. The touristy trip to the Champs lysée was unsatisfying. It was the same feeling she felt back in ninth grade geography class. It was sanitary voyeurism. Tina wanted to feel Europe touch her bones. She wanted to smell the mornings and hear the nights. It was something that couldn't be done with a tour group. She wanted to know Europe. So she didn't show up that second morning. She didn't get on the bus. Instead she walked the Seine until she stopped for lunch at the cafe and met Arouet.
In the passenger seat of the Citroën; behind a wooden table at a German restaurant; standing with a painted rock in her fist next to the Berlin Wall; lounging on the grave of Adolf Hitler; listening to the wind from a Belgium bed; in the arms of Arouet, she got to know Europe. And in the process, she got to know herself. Hamburg appeared and overtook the land. They stopped for lunch and Arouet still refused to dialogue.
Hamburg, being the second largest city in Germany and its industrial center, suffered through Europe's heaviest bombing of the second world war. The outer city was completely leveled. The city center, the old city, the center section nearest the Elbe River was mostly spared by Allied Command and few bombs fell on the cathedrals and churchyards hundreds of years old. It was like night and day driving from the new, shiny metal and glass Hamburg to the old, dark stone Hamburg. They sat, after lunch, in an old, dark cafe in silence.
Finally, Arouet spoke. "Do you know of Jean Antoine Houdon?"
The name sounded familiar. "No," she said.
"He was célbre; a sculptor. He was from Versailles. He went to America. He was my great-great-great-grandfather. I am a Houdon. All my life I feel Jean Antoine's blood inside me. Back when I so much wanted to be an artist, I would make believe I was Jean Antoine. I believe he once sculpted your President Washington. He was world célbre. I am proud to be a Houdon. I am a Houdon." He lifted his head up and thrust out his chin. "...orgueil, pur orgueil.
"I've told you of my father," he continued. "He was fifty-three when I was born. He was from Paris, not far from where we met. He lived with his first wife, whom he married when he was eighteen, in a flat near the river. He was trying to be a painter. It must have been the Houdon blood in him. He was mildly successful. He was high society. He lived off his famous name. My father was an example of l'Franéais nouveau. He had new ideas and new ideals. He was welcomed by l'aristocratie." Tina didn't interrupt. "Remember I told you he was a fisherman? Well, he was when I knew him. He was only a fisherman. He no longer painted. He no longer had ideas or ideals. He was no longer a Houdon. He was just a fisherman. Just an old fisherman who called himself Paul Liebré." There he stopped his story. He ran his index finger around and around the lip of his glass staring into the ripples of red wine. He was quiet again.
They got back into the Citroën and drove to the Elbe River. Arouet broke in sporadic chatter. "I come here often," he said. "Every time I visit Allemagne, I find myself in Hamburg. It is part of my past. It is why I cry. It is why I ache in the night. If everyman had reasons and riddles, then Hamburg both for me. Do you wish to go with me to my pain? Do you wish to visit mon faire mal?" Tina nodded. "Well then," he said, "we go."
They left town and within the hour they turned off the road into a growth of poplars and entered a half-full parking lot that stood in front of a clearing with a sign that read Bergen-Belson.
On a patch of grass, just off a hidden trail, with the sun falling into the forest behind them, they sat in silence. Tina was waiting for him to speak. Earlier that day, also in silence, they walked the grounds through the sparkling barbed wire. In a varnished wood building, through polished floors, a pictorial memorial stands silent and grieving. Hundreds upon hundreds of visitors walk past oversized black and white pictures of bodies and the remains of bodies. Eyes, too big for the skull-stretched heads, stare out into a self-effacing void of the future. In big white letters against a big black wall the words Bergen-Belson begged out for sobriety. History books and mini-series mentioned the names and addressed the horrors of the holocaust, but standing in the same dust and breathing the same air brought incredible focus to the moment. Tina began crying. No one spoke in the building. No one spoke walking the wire. They all cried. Tears watered the bright flowers that powdered the entrance way. No one spoke-they just cried.
Sitting in the grass, off the path that wove through the trees that surrounded what was left of the camp, just before dusk, Arouet finally spoke. "There," he said pointing toward the sun, "there is where the British came. It was just before sundown like now. They came over from the hills with the sun at their backs. Right where we are sitting tanks rolled. Over there, running towards town, what was left of the totenkoft ran away. The British, they set here for the night, less a mile from the wire. That night, sporadic gunfire scratched the darkness. The British soldiers were tired. They had just come from north of Belgique fighting the last great battle of the western front against Allemand Panzer Tigres. Earlier that fall, Eisenhower and Montgomery decided against attacking Hamburg until summer, but knew they had to liberate Bergen-Belson. Jews from libérer France spoke avec haine of the concentration camps. Bergen-Belson was to be the first camp entered.
"It was still cold here in early April. The British tanks rolled across Allemagne like rain chasing Der Wehrmacht from village to village. The once Wehrmacht enfonté, were now a ragged line of the defeated running ahead of tanks and soldiers and the end of the war. Surrender was just a matter of time, nobody wanted to be killed fighting a finished war. So the British heard the shots in the night but waited until morning to enter Bergen-Belson. It must have been a long night.
"You've seen the pictures. You know what they found. Nothing, I'm sure can prepare a man for a death camp. The odeur...it was magnifique. The cries of old men and dying children filled the day. By the morning, the SS were gone, and the British just walked through the gates. There were over 10,000 bodies littering the ground waiting to be burned or buried. The British had to step over the dead to take care of the living. Imagine yourself a twenty year old soldier killing in Allemagne because your county tells you it is your duty and not really understanding why and in a moment's notice, hating all that is Nazi. Imagine seeing this horror and having to wait helplessly until the press corps records it for the future.
"There was a young Allemand officier, an unterstrumführer, who during the night failed to escape. He made the mistake of exchanging clothes with a prisoner hoping to make his way out of the camp dans l'confusion. During the night, he was found out. The prisoners took vengeance. The next day, when the British found him. His flesh had been ripped from his bones. It was said that some prisoners devoured him. I guess evil chooses no sides. It was a wicked time." There was cold in his voice. No tears. "I've come here often. I've sat here on this colline and wondered what it would have been like to be a British soldier walking into this hell. And I wonder what it would have been like as a prisoner. Then I think of the totenkoft. I wonder what kind of man could be responsible for this horror. I wonder what evil must have been inside them. What kind of man would do that? There are no such things as monsters. These were men. But what kind of man could walk in this blood? What kind of man indeed?"
The late June sun fell over the German horizon and made its way toward Tina's Utah leaving two warm bodies huddled together in a grassy knoll outside of Bergen-Belson in the dark. Arouet choked out a few words and then fell back to the grass. "When I was twelve," he said just loud enough to be heard, "my father took me to the sea. We rode along the coast north towards Brittany. We stopped to lunch near Concarneau and later, we walked to the beach. My father and I sat on the sand and watched the sun splash into the Atlantic. I can remember watching him watch the white caps being swallowed by the sand struggling for something to say. It was dark. I know now that he was weeping.
"We were alone. I can still hear the waves pulse through my head autant que marteau. I was silent. 'Arouet,' he said, 'mon fils, do you know me? Do you know your father?' I didn't answer him. I just listened to the waves and the sound of his voice. 'I used to come here before you were born,' he told me, 'before I was Paul Leibré, long before I met your mother...' That is what he said. He told me that from this seat, he thought of going to Espagne or South America to make a home. He was me perdue. We sat on the beach under the stars. It was there he revealed himself to me.
"He was born Cesar Houdon just after the first world war. He grew up with middle-class pride and passion for his country-ferveur pour France. He was the future of France. At first, when he hinted manhood, he followed the Popular Front Party, pushing reform in a world vanquished by depression. Later, in 1936, he became a follower of Leon DeGralle, a French-born neo-fascist leader in Belgique. Both Belgique and France were falling apart from the inside. With Espagne to the West falling to Franco's Republicans, and with Italie and Mussolini to the south, and Hitler's Nazis to the east, France needed guidance. My father helped organize the French Socialist Party, which was associated to DeGralle in Brussels, and which became outlawed after DeGralle was arrested and tried for treason in Belgique. My father was arrested and spent time on trial which ended days after Hitler invaded Poland. He was just a little fish compared to the Nazis.
"Within weeks, Hitler's blitzkrieg liberated Poland and swallowed the North Land. By May, they turned towards France. What a funny war. On their way over the Maginot Line, the SS danced into Brussels and delivered DeGralle from prison. They came to Paris and marched down the Champs lysée and France was no more. My father stayed in Versailles and meet DeGralle when DeGralle called. They struck a friendship.
"Leon DeGralle went back to Berlin and formed a section of the Waffen SS. DeGralle's Waffen SS was a special army made up of volunteers from the newly conquered countries. Reichsfhrer-S.S. Heinrich Himmler realized that his men alone could not police all the entire Reich, so he equipped DeGralle with a special army. They were organized, trained at Bad Tlz alongside regular SS troops, and clothed in black uniforms with the double strike lightning bolts on the collar. They were men to be feared, these Waffen SS.
"Oberfuhrer DeGralle searched out all of France and Vichy for French leaders. He called my father and commissioned him an Hauptstrumfuhrer. I've seen pictures of my father in books of the time. He was striking. He was fearless.
"My father was a hero. He was one of the leaders of the LVF, le Legion Franéais. They took the trains in 1941 to the Balkans and threw the English off Greece. The LVF rode with tanks to Kiev and fought bravely against the Bolsheviks. My father was wounded and sent back to Warsaw. He received Der Ritterkruez from Hitler and Oberfuhrer DeGralle in 1943 at Berchtesgaden. There are pictures that attest to that. He was elevated to Strumbannfuhrer and given charge of a detail in the Rhine." Arouet looked over at Tina. She was mesmerized. "This is all history. This is in the books."
"What's a Riddercruz?" she asked.
"Ritterkruez," he corrected. "Der Ritterkruez is the cross of the knights. It is the highest military award a non-Allemand can receive. I believe it was first given during the crusades.
"By 1944, what was left of the best troops were sent to the fronts to slow the bleeding from the Allied advances. The Waffen SS was now given a new duty. They became the totenkoft." He looked down. She could hear pain in his voice. Just moments ago he spoke of his father with a pride she recognized. Now he fell silent. She didn't make a move. When he resumed speaking, his voice quaked. "The totenkoft were prison guards. They were sent to camps to take the place of healthy SS troops. So in 1944, my father, Strumbannfuhrer Cesar Houdon, le Franéais vaillant, the descendent of Jean Antoine Houdon, became the caretaker of Bergen-Belson. He was once a bright, intelligent, artist sponging off l'aristocratie of Paris. Now, he was nothing more than a butcher in black. This too is history. This too is fact.
"That April when the British rode into Bergen-Belson, my father was one of the totenkoft who ran towards Hamburg. He ran north. He ran south. He ran until he ended up on the beach near Concarneau. He was a war criminal. He lost his wife, his family, and himself. He became a fisherman. He became Paul Leibré.
"I was on that beach with my father when I was twelve when he told me of his life. He told me that he never regretted being with the Waffen SS or the totenkoft. He told me he never regretted his days at Bergen-Belson. He knew he was guilty of the crimes he was accused, but he knew he did what he thought was right. He looked at me and said that all men are basically evil and that had the Nazis won the war, Hitler would been the next Jesus Christ. He said that he would have made quite a life for me had the Third Reich lasted the thousand years it was promised. He then grabbed my face and kissed me. He said he was sorry for leaving me his legacy. He knew who he was. He knew who he had been. 'And now,' he told me, 'you know all that you are. You have to shoulder the burden for me. You have to carry my guilt. I am just an old man. I'm just a un pecheur.' How ironic my father was. The word for fisherman is pecheur, and the word for sinner is pécheur. I didn't understand the irony in that until much later. He sat on the sand and said, 'I am tired.' That's what he told me, 'I am tired.' Then we walked off the beach and drove home.
"I've lived with that night ever since. Through England, through Paris, on these excursions to Allemagne and Bergen-Belson. The first time I came here, I broke down. I signed the visitor's books as a Houdon filled with my father's guilt. I know that I shouldn't, but I do harbour my father's guilt. I know that you can't understand, but I live with the millions of murders caused three decades before I was even born. I am a Houdon. I am the son of a butcher.
"The day you met me, I was walking to my death. I was searching the Seine for bloody water, any place suited for death. I wanted to be baptized in the filth of a once clean river. I wanted a romantic suicide-une glorieux mort. You ended that. For a day, I wanted to live. I saw you as a respite to my grave. Then you fell in love with me. I watched you fall in love with me. But that was back in Paris. I had to come here to be reborn. I had to see Bergen-Belson to keep from loving you too much. I am only what you saw on that wall. I am Strumbannfuhrer Houdon's son. I must die in his place. I will die. Mercie pour these last few days. I hope you have some beautiful memories of Europe. It is a beautiful place. I hope that you have some beautiful memories of me to take back to Kerz, America. I hope that I live on in your memory. And I hope that Bergen-Belson returns with you as well. No one should forget what my father did. Or what my father let happen. He told me that night on the Concarneau beach that some men are born to bleed for humanity. He said that he realized after all that he had done, he felt no remorse. He hoped that I would bleed for him. He hoped that I would free him from his sins. It is my croix to bear. I am his savior. Funny, the Jews killed Christ who died for all of man's sins, and now I must die for one man's sin of killing Jews...comédie divin," he said over and over again, "comédie divin."
They finally crawled back to the Citroën just after midnight. For two hours, back on the grass, not a word was spoken. Occasionally, Arouet would stop his metered breathing and hold his breath as if he were ready to say something, but then he would blow out and start the pacing all over again. Tina was careful not to move. She was scared. She was paralyzed. The whole moment was just too immense for an eighteen year old American girl from Utah. She tried not to make any movement that would force her to make a statement. She didn't have a clue on how she felt. She was confused, scared, and paralyzed. Finally, Arouet stood and offered his hand. He struggled to pull her up. Her legs were like jelly. They walked back to the car in silence. She was getting cold. She shivered and brushed up against him hoping he would wrap his arms around her; he didn't.
The parking lot was dark and the white lights from the metal post struck the metal gates lighting them up like neon. He opened the door for her and when she sat down, she saw him cross in front of the car. In this strange, quiet, white light, she didn't recognize him. She shivered again. They drove out of the lot and the last thing she saw was the metal lettering backlit by the distant floodlights. In reverse, in big bold blocks, the letters spelled out Bergen-Belson. She gasped and reached over and grabbed Arouet's hand which was resting on the gearshift knob.
"Take a nap," he told her without taking his eyes off the road. "I think we can get to Belgique by morning." Those were the only words he said.
She reached for the radio and found an American station playing soul oldies and put her head back and closed her eyes. She wasn't sure if she was dreaming or not, but she heard Ruby and the Romantics singing "Our Day Will Come". She felt sedated. She thought she felt a kiss on her head. When she awoke, they were back in that little village near Lige. It was nearly dawn. She went up to bed and didn't stir until the afternoon.
She awoke with a cool breeze blowing over her body. She reached over for Arouet. He was gone. She crawled out of bed and dressed. She was tempted to look out the window to see if the Citroën was gone. She decided that she was in no position to panic. If she was indeed left alone in the Ardennes, she would have plenty of time to lose control. She sat on the wooden bench by the bed and watched the portire flip in the breeze.
The door opened and Arouet walked in with a white bag in one hand and red flowers in the other. He threw the bag and the flowers on the bed and followed them face first. He rolled over and reached up and kissed her arm. "How was your rest?" he asked her.
"I slept like a baby."
"I brought you some breakfast-croissants and jelly-a blackberry, they told me. Grown near here. Are you hungry?"
"Affemé," she said.
"So how would you like some strange coffee?"
"Oh, yes please," she said reaching for the bag.
Arouet rolled off the bed and walked out the door leaving it open. She pulled open a croissant and poured the jelly right out of the crock jar. She could smell the coffee coming. Arouet walked back in with two cups and kicked the door closed with the heel of his shoe. He sat next to her. She fed him a bite and when jelly spilled to his chin, she reached up and licked it off.
"Do you know what today is?" he asked her.
She thought hard. She should know what the day was. Monday? Tuesday? She squinted and said honestly, "No, I really don't."
"Today is the day of St. Jeanne d'Arc. On this day, in 1429, while leading Charles VII to the Cathédrale d'Reims to be crowned king, her army defeated the English near Chlons Sur-Marne killing the major portion of le Burgundian forces. Le Burgundians were the caretakers for the English. After they were defeated, most of Flanders was free. Today is the feast of that victory. I think, perhaps, that any reason is good reason for une féte champétre. This evening, we will célébrer. I think we should rest."
"I just rested," she said putting the cup on the bench. She fell back on the bed. "I'm not tired."
He grabbed her waist, flipped her over, and sat on her stomach. They played for most of the afternoon on that bed. It was as if the past night had never occurred. They were two different people. It was as if he was leaving her this as his memory. It was a gratuity he could afford and that she was grateful for. They played...then they rested.
Evening came and the city came ablaze with coloured lights and bon fires. Tina stood at the window and watched with childlike amusement. Arouet walked up behind her, rested his head on her shoulder, and said, "This is my Europe. This is my land. This is what I promised you." She pulled on his sweater and walked with him out of the hotel and into the streets. The noise was deafening.
During the night, Tina danced with old strange men and sang songs in a language she didn't understand and drank a warm beer and became drunk. She flung herself into the arms of Arouet everytime she saw him and kissed him over and over again. She yelled into his ear, "Ich lieber you, Ich lieber you." It is at moments like this when every shell is stripped away and every pretense simplified that we prove who we really are. Tina would forever think back on this night and be proud of herself. The feast lasted well into the morning. They toasted St. Jeanne a thousand times and danced until the fires became glowing round streaks. Arouet carried her to the Citroën and began the journey back to Paris. She sang to herself the German songs she was taught by the women of the féte. She finally fell to sleep and awoke in Arouet's bed back in the city. It was late afternoon. Tina stretched out on the bed and tried to remember the last two nights. How far she had gone. How far back she had reached. She wanted to touch Europe, she had no idea Europe would reach out and touch her.
Arouet didn't come back that day, nor that night, or even the next morning. Tina waited. The afternoon that she was to take a jumper across the channel to London, she could wait no longer. She took a walk down the Seine to the little cafe where she first met Arouet. She ordered lunch and conversed with the waiter like a native. She spent an hour just looking around waiting for Arouet to show, he never did. With less than three hours left to catch the plane, Tina took a walk through her Paris. She walked through familiar cobblestone alleys, and by mortar sealed churchyards, and by tourists doing touristy things. She hated having to leave. She walked over a bridge and leaned on the stone and looked at her own reflection. She hardly recognized herself. Her hair was darker and straighter. She had a glow she couldn't explain. She smiled and thought she looked pretty. She leaned against the stone and thought of the past week and of Arouet. She thought of his father and of Bergen-Belson and of history. She thought of his deathwish and of the guilt he was dressed in and of how she could not save him. Mostly, and selfishly, she conceded, she thought of the feast and her behavior and what she learned about herself and of how she felt she had become a real person that night. She took a copper ring off her little finger-the one her mother had given her when she entered high school-and dropped it into the Seine. She was leaving little Tina Christensen behind. The ripples barely broke the moving river. She watched herself for a while, then left.
Back at Arouet's, she gathered her things into a pile and stuffed them into her bags. She left the rag doll out. It was the one part of her old life she wanted to hold. She sat on the bed until the last minute waiting for Arouet to come home. She resigned herself to the fact that he was probably already dead. As she was about to leave, she walked over to her bags and kicked one of his shirts. She picked it up and brought it to her face. She could smell him. For just an instant, he was there in the room. She felt a brush on her back and she was filled with emotion. She was grateful. It proved she was alive. She couldn't count how many times this week she cried real tears. She was always a big crier, but she always cried for stupid little girl reasons. Movies, teen-age breakups, calls that never came, those that did; crying was just another way of being. This week, she was able to feel her emotions. She was proud of the tears. She was proud of her hurt. She stuffed Arouet's shirt in her bag. She walked to the door, turned around, set her bags down and decided to leave a note. She searched the table for something to write on. She turned over a napkin and found his pencil drawing of her. She was surprised. He was good. She folded the napkin and put it in her bag, then she pulled it out and stuffed the edge into the frame of mirror. She reached back into her bag and pulled out a stick of lipstick. Under the pencil portrait of herself, she wrote in big letters across the mirror...pour toujour...amour. She looked one last time at the room and walked out to the street. If he was already dead, then she could live with the memory of the room and the famous final scene, if he was alive, then he could live with her memory and her portrait. She took a taxi to Orly.
She waited by the gate for the boarding call. She was only minutes early. Her rag doll sat still on her lap as she closed her eyes and tried to remember the little girl who came through these doors just a week ago. She felt a brush on her knees.
Arouet was kneeling at her feet. He said, "I tried not to come. I tried to let Belgique be your last memory of Europe and me. I am sorry. I am here."
"Oh, Arouet, I thought I'd..."
"...I had to see you again," he interrupted. "I wanted to...Oh, I don't know why I'm here."
The boarding call for her flight was announced. She turned to the gate and back to Arouet. He was still on his knees.
"Have you been back to your room?" she asked him.
"I'm glad you did." She stood up and reached for her bags. She grabbed him instead. "I thought you were...you know...dead."
"I am," he said, "I was. I had to say goodbye."
They stood in each other's arms until the last call for her flight. He let her go and stepped back. She was frozen to the spot. He urged her on by picking up her bags. She took them from him. "I will never, ever forget you, Arouet. What you did for me. What you let me do for myself. I love you."
He nodded and grabbed her arm pulling her toward the gate. "And merci pour what you gave me. I thank you."
They were at the gate when she turned, dropped her bags, and grabbed Arouet. "Goodbye," she said, "adieu." She kissed him and let go. She picked up her bags and turned around.
"Tina," he said, "mi amiee, I have this for you. It is a gift. It is a message. Merci, don't open it until you arrive in America." He handed her a small white box tape shut on all four sides. "Merci," he asked again, "leave this for Kerz." She held it in her hand, reached back, kissed his cheek, and without looking back, with the strength of a heroine, walked into the belly of the 747.
Tina was in and out of Heathrow within two hours. She had precious little time on the ground to think about Paris. On the plane to New York, she sat in the window seat with her rag doll and the white box. Her stomach quaked on the take-offs and sudden changes in altitude. She stroked the yarn hair of the rag doll and thought of Arouet. She thought of how confused she had become because of all the things she wanted to know and didn't, and of how he was so confused by all the things he didn't want to know, but did. She ignored the movie and spoke to her doll in her mind. Could she have saved his life? Was there something she could have done? Should she have stayed? Did she do anything to polarize his thoughts? The rag doll didn't answer. She only sat on Tina's lap staring at the white box. Somewhere over the North Atlantic, thirty-two thousand feet above the earth, a thousand miles away from Orly International and Arouet's Paris, she realized that she wasn't mature enough to wait until she got home to open the box. She set her rag doll on the folding tray, leaned her against the plastic cup filled with ice water, adjusted the seat, and picked up the white box.
The tape torn off easily. Tina had trouble breathing. She sucked in the pressurized air and pulled off the lid. The rag doll leaned away from the glass and looked into the box. Inside, wrapped in white paper, the stem cut at a sharp angle, Tina found a rose. The bright red petals screamed out next to the white tissue. Underneath, neatly folded, was an unlined green note. She put the box on the table with the doll and opened the paper. It read:
Tina, Mi Amiee,
Sometimes poetry is stamped by its tragedy. A hero must realize when it is time to leave the stage. For all of my life, mon vie tous, I was aimed at this moment. All of my talent was saved for my exit. Like the fool I have always been, I fumbled my death as I had my life. These past days, in Allemagne, in Belgique, in my Paris, I came to realize what life had cheated me out of. I wanted to thank you for that. I know now what I must do. How I must end. I want to thank you for giving me a life to take. I want to thank you for giving me my que for my exit—for being my audience. Only a fool makes a sortie grand from an empty stage. I will not die a fool. I want you to own me in your memory. I didn't want doubt to cloud my mémoire. I didn't want you to wait for a chevalier Franéais to ride into your America. I didn't want you to spend time thinking of my suffering. I know now what I must do. With this note, back in your home, you will find a dead rose. The voyage killed it. Let that be my poem. Let that be my story. As with the rose, my life was killed by my voyage. Think of me day by day. Live for me in America. And with my mémoire, remember Edith Piaf. Do you remember the night in the square by the Seine? Se souvenir de l'chant? Remember, pour toujour...l'vie a Rose...
Tina pulled the rose out of the box and brought it to her face. She brushed it against her cheek and shook her head. Tina brought the rag doll to her lap. She then grabbed the ice out of the plastic cup and dumped it in the obsolete bean bag ashtray on the fold down table. She placed the rose into water and the note into the box. She brought the rag doll to her lips and kissed its yarn hair. She flew into New York and then into Dallas and it took all she had to carry through the airports, her bags, the doll, and Arouet's poem in a clear plastic cup.
Kearns, Utah hadn't change with her. It was still the same old routine. The little boys still played basketball on six foot baskets, the little girls still walked by watching them. The cars still drove by with music too loud. Nobody seemed to notice what had happened to her. Her family was waiting at SLC International. They waved a cheap looking dot matrix black and white banner and greeted her with hugs and kisses. They asked her to tell them all about Europe. Of course, she couldn't. They wanted to know where she got the rose. Paris was all she'd say. Later that day, later that week, later that month, she thought about Arouet. The rose was refusing to die. She bought new flowers to keep it company and, eventually, to take its place. She had left a little girl behind in Europe. She was a women back in Kearns. She got on her mother's nerves asking questions about faith. That fall she enrolled at the University and walked the campus slightly aloof. Her hair hung straight, her clothes were always comfortable, and she was worldly. A day didn't go by that she didn't think of Arouet, Europe, and her life. She was happy. She had her own life back. And from the day she set foot back in America, she always kept fresh roses in her bedroom. She didn't tell anybody why. She didn't need to. She kept her secret. She kept Arouet's poem.
Verities & Vaudville
Verities & Vaudville
So this is what is has come to, not the ending one imagines that comes with glory or hoopla. There were no wide-eyed children gazing at him with reverence, or stories written by those who knew him best and saw the hero in him even then. There was none of that. In fact, there was no one there at all. So this is the way it will end—alone and despairing. Had someone been there they would have seen a tilted, cynical smile stretch across his face; but no one was there at all.
He once wanted his name to last generations. Once he wanted to leave a legacy for others to remember him by. He wanted to be hero or antihero, victor or spoil, good guy or villain—anything to live beyond death. But this is what it had come to, so he sat in the darkness and listened to the rhythm of the waves and tried to change his mind.
The lake was big, bigger than he had imagined. The flicker of fading campfires was almost beautiful. It was one of those things that should be shared, but he sat alone among the firs and blue spruce without the strength to wipe the tears from his face. He was alone and all his good intentions were useless now. He looked around and prayed quietly for a reason—any reason—to turn back and go home. He couldn't find one. This is how it ended.
He was always an ardent critic of self-pity. He saw only uselessness in depression. One of his strongest criticisms was aimed at those who had taken their own life. Suicide was so selfish, he thought, he wouldn't be caught dead (his intentional pun) committing suicide. Suicide, he thought, was bad enough, it was the getting caught that he couldn't deal with.
What he wanted most was to leave this world without evidence. He wanted to just disappear. He didn't want to have someone find him and live with the memory the rest of their life. He didn't want someone to cut into his body to find out how he died. He didn't want the shame to be the last grief he would give his mother. He didn't want some mortician filling him up with fluids and forming a pasted smile on his rubber face. He didn't want people filing past his body with stories and comments on his goodness. And he didn't want to take up valuable earth with a metal coffin that would only slow down the decomposition process into decades. He wanted to go away and never come back. With all that in mind he began planning.
The questions had all been asked and he had never found suitable answers. There was no need rehashing the pain. He had decided, and now all that was left to do was plan. The reasons seemed so overwrought. It could all simply be explained as life and lonely being two things that he couldn't continue with together. He began planning.
If there was a god surely he would be forgiven for this. No! Not if there was god, there is a god! There has to be someone out there to forgive him. He had lived a life of little sins—all the minor indiscretions everyone lives with. Maybe he was above them all, but he wasn't guilty of murder or torture or something that would keep him from meeting his maker. Maybe he should have been different at times, and not so at others, but he survived day to day. Perhaps his life pointed him to this moment. Maybe it was his destiny. Maybe he couldn't have avoided the end. Like Judas at the Joshua tree, perhaps this is what it had come to.
He remembered reading where certain religions advocated suicide. Some Asian countries used suicide as a code of honor. Japanese warriors dishonored their families and emperor by surviving defeat—suicide was the only honorable alternative. There was a Scandinavian tribe who would change kings every few years and as ceremony, the old king would abdicate his crown by committing suicide. In Norse mythology, warriors who did not die in battle, nearing the end, could not enter through the gates of holy Valhalla unless they die by sword. Other myths told of heroes walking into flames in order to meet their gods. Suicide was once even romantic. Didn't Romeo swallow the poison over love? And didn't his Juliet snatch his dagger and cry, This is thy sheath, stab herself and die? Suicide was even noble. Cassius begged Pindarus to run his sword through his bosom and noble Brutus ran upon his own sword avenging Caesar's murder. Van Gogh feigned insanity and borrowed his brother's pistol and tore apart his brilliant brain. The man who started World War II for Japan ended it by committing hari-kari and lingered for hours waiting in agony to die as punishment. Suicide was not new, but he wanted a new day of dying—no evidence.
He decided that the only way he would go through with a suicide is if he found a way to disappear. That was the first contingent of the plan. He wanted to vanish completely—that was the only way. He remembered, back when he looked into every closet for god, that there were certain religions that needed a body for the passage into heaven. Taoist, from southeast Asia, believed that a body must be buried intact or live forever in limbo. French soldiers, and later Australian and Americans, would cut off the ears or head or hands and feet of dead Vietnamese as a warning to the enemy that they risk limbo if they enter battle and become killed or wounded. It was brutal, but effective. American Indians believed that if a body were disturbed or misplaced, the soul would return and haunt its tribe until the body was returned. To this day, Indian burial grounds are hallowed.
He wanted to disappear. He wanted to never be found. He believed his god would give him the sanctuary of immortality in spirit. It was this that kept him planning.
The second resolution of the plan involved, he selfishly conceded, was no pain. There was no real way of knowing if death is painful. Dying certainly is and there are ways of lessening that pain, but he wanted to know if death itself hurt. Everyone alive doesn't know, and everyone dead just ain't talking. He didn't know.
To avoid pain while dying, he eliminated hanging, blades, or poison; they were things he probably couldn't do anyway. Suffocation and drugs were not fool-proof (another of his forced puns) and asphyxiation seemed to take forever. He wanted a method that would bring about instant and certain death. He knew that if air were injected into a vein, that when it reached the heart, the void would cause the heart to explode. That is the reason you see doctors and nurses tap a needle before injection; they are tapping out all the air bubbles. That was a possiblity, but the brain could live for sometime without the heart and there might be pain involved—and he didn't want pain.
All that was left was gunshot. Some have lived through a bullet in the head. Sometimes the lead shell just passed through the skull leaving a hole and a not-so-whole brain behind. He wanted to decimate the brain. Without a brain, he figured, there is no way a body can feel pain. He read a book on the nervous system and found out that the nerve functions are controlled by the cerebellum's anterior half. The breathing commands and heart control modes are also there. He believed that in destroying that part of the brain, the body would die and die without pain. Dirty Harry showed him that a hollow-point bullet expands on impact and causes the most damage. He also knew that a bullet exit wound is a hundred times greater than the entry wound. He would have to aim up from the mouth to secure success. It was settled. It was to be a bullet. Now all that was left was to fulfill part one of the plan—to disappear.
It was as he flipped through a NEWSWEEK that it came to him. He found a way to disappear. In the spine of a glossy travel brochure touting the pleasures of the coast state, Crater Lake spoke to him like a ghost of need's past. Crater Lake, according to the finely typed propaganda, was America's deepest lake. Some have charted the depth to 2,000 feet. Others have claimed it to be bottomless. Crater Lake is on the western slope of the Cascades and inside one of the dozen extinct volcanic mountains that runs north and south near the northwest coast. An explosion a million years ago blew the mountain apart and left the shell of the slopes to fill with rain and melted snow. The results were breathtaking.
Finally he had a way to disappear. All he had to do was sink to the bottom of the mountain lake. No one would ever find him there. It was perfect.
For the first time he realized the finality of suicide. Of all the times he thought of dying, he was only planning it. Suicide was a way of ending life's pain. It was never the answer, it only ended the questions. Suicide was always the future; always—one day. Now it was real. He looked suicide right in the face, looked back on his life, and saw that there was no other way. He had already asked all the questions and the answers had been the same. This is truly what it had come to.
He thought and rethought the plan. He would make his way to the shore and steal a boat and push himself out to the center of the lake. He would weigh himself down to guarantee sinking. He could stand on the edge of the craft and shoot upward from his mouth. He calculated that the blast of the gun would push the boat toward the shore. He would die instantly and sink into the abyss and leave this world behind. It would be over. Finally and forever, it would be over.
He walked out to Interstate-5 and walked away from everything he knew. In his small backpack he had a Snickers bar and a revolver. He didn't need anything else. The boots he wore were almost a decade young and his jeans were like him—old and worn. He didn't say goodbye, there was no one to say goodbye to. He just pointed his thumb towards Crater Lake.
The first ride came along almost immediately. Some guy in a yellow Volvo joked about how stupid life was and that the only thing that really mattered was who you screwed to get what you want. The man only fueled the desire to go on. He was driven all the way to Klamath Falls, Oregon—one more reason to fall to the bottom of Crater Lake.
The second ride he found was with a family of six from Wilson Springs, Montana. They let him off on the first campsite that overlooked the lake. He thanked them for the ride and spent the rest of the afternoon walking the rim. By nightfall he was resting in the trees just above the boat launch. He watched the tourists spend tourist bucks for a chartered thirty minute tour of the hollow-mountain lake. He noticed that no matter how many groups boarded one of the three green launches, the group that got off looked exactly the same. One in-one out, and life goes on. He wondered if he were one of them. And he wondered if he had the strength to go through with it. He was there to kill himself, to end the verity called life. He watched the world and knew that no one watched him. He wanted to just get it over with and die.
How real this suicide had become; how chillingly cold. This was reality he thought. This wasn't a math test he didn't study for; this wasn't like calling a girl for a dance, or even knocking off a bank. This was for real. This was the end. When he began to doubt the gravity of his choice, he only had to reach into his backpack and feel the hard cold steel of the gun.
Why had it come to this? Why? He tried to give himself reasons to change his mind; he couldn't. All he could do was fondle the gun and stare at the tiny dinghy tied to the wooden moor.
He wanted to cry... but couldn't. All the strength he owned was spent stroking the gun. He tried to pray... it didn't work. He'd be talking to his god soon enough. He sat and waited for the dark and fondled the gun. After the night settled into Crater Lake, he pulled the Snickers from his backpack and choked down his last meal.
He wasted the last hours reliving his life and rechecking his plan. He thought of all the heroes that had committed suicide and of Romeo who had killed himself for love and how he was killing himself for the lack of it. He thought of the Taoists and of a body not being recovered and of spending forever in limbo. He thought of the god who would forgive him and of what a heaven would be like. He thought of all the people he wanted to meet. He thought of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Plato, Shakespeare, and Voltaire.
He thought of the questions he would ask. He would ask Lee Oswald if he killed Kennedy. He would ask Nero about the decadence of Rome. He would ask Thomas Edison if he was really only into it for the money. He would find Diogenes and ask him if he ever found that one good man. And he would ask Hitler if he knew about the genocide history has tattooed on his name. He would look for Judas because he knew god had forgave him and after all, he was an apostle before the Joshua Tree.
He would find both the Kennedys and Lincoln and Van Gogh because they all had one thing in common—a bullet in the head. They could talk about how it felt or didn't feel, they talk about which part of their brains were destroyed first, and they could talk about how it was to be dead. He looked forward to being there and of being away from this world. He fell to sleep dreaming of everyone he will meet and what afterlife would be like.
When he awoke he was saddened thinking it wasn't already over. He was back to the living and his dying was still to come. It must have been after midnight as he sat watching the stars bounce off the dark waters of Crater Lake. He looked up at the cloudless sky and felt the warmth of the summer on his skin. He saw the slow flicker of so many campfires left to burn themselves out. He heard the rhythmic pounding of the waves on the rocky shores and the sucking sound of the waves making their way back out to the lake. An occasional lark would call out to the night creatures only to be quieted by cry of a waking magpie. He stood and remembered the words of Chief Joseph: Today is a good day to die.
He walked over to the small boat and easily—much too easily—untied the tether and pushed himself out onto the lake. Crater Lake is huge, it's difficult to see from shore to shore. At times it become difficult to imagine it as just a lake, but the steep sloped peaks on all sides makes it impossible to imagine it as anything else.
After drifting for a few minutes, he undid the aluminum oars and began paddling out to the middle. The pounding on the shore was getting louder.
He had been paddling for quite some time when he realized that the beating of the waves were becoming louder and louder. He was going away from the shore, but the pounding was becoming deafening. He shook his head and tried to clear his mind of the pounding. He shut his eyes and held his breath and realized it was only his heart amplified.
He must have paddled for an hour when he finally reached what he thought was the middle. He sat for a few minutes doing nothing but trying to change his mind. He had come so far and there were only inches left to go. His heart sounded above the waves as he reached into his backpack for the gun.
He sat for another hour trying to talk himself out it. Every reason he could invent to save his life had already been answered. He looked back at everything he had ever felt and tried to put the good above the pain. He tried to remember a certain sunset or a barefoot walk in a cool mountain stream in the heat of summer. He tried to recall a favorite song, or book, or movie, or anything that he loved before Crater Lake. He tried to remember when he laughed without effort or when he didn't feel lonely or hurt. He tried to remember when life was good or at least bearable—he couldn't. He tried to convince himself life would change if he only paddled back to the shore and go home. He tried to pretend that tomorrow would be better if only he made it till then. He tried to make believe that the hurt would magically disappear—he just couldn't. He stood up and tied the anchor to his waist.
The anchor was at least fifty pounds and shaped like a large fish hook with an iron eye where a yellow rope was secured. He left only about two feet of slack and held the anchor in his left hand close to his body as is he were rocking a baby. He stood adjusting his weight still fishing for reasons to live. There was a part of him that wanted to go on living—the coward in him—and a part that saw death as the only answer. Nothing ever changes; tomorrow will be the same as today, as will forever and ever and ever. There will be moments of hope and some people can live on hope—he couldn't. His life hurt much too much. This is what it had come to.
He took the gun to the other hand and balanced himself on the engine mount. The pounding of his heart echoed off the slopes and he was sure everyone in the scattered camps would be awakened by the roar. It was a cool night, but he was dripping in sweat. He held the gun far to his right not mistaking his purpose until the final second. He balanced himself on the edge of the boat and held the gun loosely. One wrong move and he and the gun would slip into the lake. It would be a stupid mistake, but he would still be alive. Secretly he hoped it would happen. When he realized that it wouldn't, he began to move the gun toward his head. All reason was gone the moment the gun touched his lips. On instinct, he licked the barrel and was sickened by the oily, metal taste. He closed his teeth over the gun and held his lips away. This is what it had come to. He rocked back and forth for a second, then whispered through pursed lips, forgive me... forgive me.
The blast echoed and disappeared into the darkness and the boat was pushed quickly away. The gun flew out of his hand and splashed a few feet behind him. His head was jerked back as he let go of the anchor and fell to the water like a stone from a bridge. Blood filled a small area of the lake and along with brain and skull pieces pooled for a moment then dissipated until there was no evidence of what had just happened. He was gone, he had disappeared; this is what it had come to.
At first he thought he was just dreaming. He remembered everything—the blast, the fall into the water, the weight the anchor tug him down. He thought he saw the gun fall past him. He almost felt the pressure around him and the fast but slow decent. It seemed to take forever, but he finally reached the bottom. When he was jarred by the shock of reaching the end of his fall, he paused to think. It was the first time he had to think since he pulled the trigger. He was aware of everything. He thought of the light of the blast, the awkward dive into the lake, and how his body dragged against the water fighting gravity all the way to the bottom. And he thought of how painless suicide was.
He floated at the bottom of Crater Lake and decided that he was still dreaming. He was disappointed because he knew he had to wake up and go through with it. He wished it was already over. He did realize that the dreaming might make suicide easier. He had just blown his head off and it was painless. This might just give him the strength to actually go through with it. Now if he'd only awaken.
When the light came up over the mountains he knew it was true. It was day. He couldn't believe this was happening. He was dead and at the bottom of Crater Lake. Maybe, he thought, this was all part of dying. Maybe he had to stay put until god had time to pick him up. Heaven must be a pretty busy place. He had to wait his turn. He'd wait. He wasn't going anywhere.
After a hundred lights and a hundred darknesses, he knew god wasn't coming for him. The water pressure was beginning to eat away his flesh and pieces of him were rising to the surface. He was helpless to stop it. He was paralyzed—probably a result of decimating his brain. This was limbo. This is where he will stay until someone finds his body—and no one ever will. He made sure of that. He tried to pray, then gave that up when he realized it was useless. God couldn't hear him now. He was alone, dead, and in limbo.
Perhaps, he thought, the hell of the whole affair was that he couldn't sleep. He was awake—or at least not asleep—every second of every minute of every day. All he could do was float and think. He couldn't dream—there was absolutely nothing to dream of. He couldn't pray—no one was listening. All he could do was float and think and watch pieces of him fall of his body. He was going to have to spend forever on the bottom Crater Lake... forever! He couldn't think of his life because he had no life. He didn't even have pain. Flesh was falling off his body and he didn't feel a thing. He began wishing for pain, at least then he could prove he was there.
He couldn't cry—it was useless. And anyway, dead men don't cry. He was in limbo and will spend forever there.
He stopped counting how many times the sun crawled over the hollow sky. He also stopped counting how many times he said to himself that the pain of life was better than the nothing of death. But it was true, and although he stopped counting, he still said it over and over again.
He resigned that he was there in limbo and there he will stay forever. Was there a divine question to be resolved? Was this a lesson? Why did this happen? He questioned every moment. There was no humour in suicide and certainly nothing funny about limbo, but he did smile when he thought how ironic the man was who first said, Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true. How sadly funny.
He wished for death, he wished for suicide, he wished to disappear and never be found, and for all his good intentions, he received exactly what he wished for. This is what it had come to... and this is what it will be forever and forever and forever and forever...
To be or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'til nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take up arms against the sea or troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep;
No more: and by sleep to say we end
The San Medrano Tides
The San Medrano Tides
I leave behind no real regrets
No city scapes I can't forget
Except for one friend I met
Her memory makes me smile
The phone rang and she was, of course, doing someone else's work. After the third ring, her son lifted himself off the Lazy-Boy and answered it. "Mom," came a bothered scream, "...phone." She took an extra second, sucked in an extra breath, then walked over to the phone. She combed her hair with her fingers and cleared her throat, "Hello," she said.
Twenty years ago, she was sixteen and very typical. She attended the only high school in town and acted too old for her age. It was just beginning summer, and it was to be the last summer of her youth. What luck having to spend it in a small beach town on the California coast.
Tucked safely away in the Jauquin Valley, San Medrano was ninety minutes north of San Francisco and six hundred years rich in history. For centuries, the Pomo Indians lived off the rich soil and natural springs. In the late 1500's, the Pomos, a peaceful tribe welcomed the silver shining Spaniards with the arms of a brother. They allowed missionaries to freely walk among their people, and even assisted in the building of the San Medrano Mission. Up and down the Pacific coast, the Spaniards had built a series of missions all surrounded by huge fortresses. It was only in the peaceful village of San Medrano that the church stood alone. A town grew around the mission and the newly catholic Pomos integrated with Spanish blood until the tribe, the true tribe, was lost. Three hundred years later, Highway One was built around San Medrano forever making it a tourist town.
Angie Cordoba had spent the past six summers selling nickel Indian jewelry to old people in travel trailers along with X-tra large tee-shirts that said: I Survived The San Medrano Tides.
Scientists had long ago discovered the reason why every twenty years the tides rise twenty feet higher than usual around San Medrano. For six hundred science-free years, everyone with an imagination made up a story to go along with the San Medrano tides. When asked, at the gift shop where she worked, Angie told the legend of the Indian rain god named Bueuba. Every twenty years, as legend goes, Bueuba awoke to find his bed drying under the stare of Stiba, the sun god, and to extract revenge, Bueuba flooded the cliff bed of Stiba near San Medrano with the tides. It was the legend of Angie Cordoba, a story of her very own invention. It was her own private joke.
This was to be her final summer in San Medrano. She had planned to attend fall classes at Berkeley and go on with her life after that. She had a need to fulfill a wanderlust.
"Johnnie?" she said gripping the phone.
"Angie... It's so good to hear your voice."
"Johnnie, why are you calling me here?"
"I just had to talk to you. I just had to call."
On a Wednesday afternoon, twenty years ago, while it rained all over San Medrano, Angie Cordoba spent an hour dusting the same three totem pole clocks. The small bell over the metal and plate-glass door rang waking her from her daydreams. A boy walked in and over to the counter.
"Hi," he said.
"My name is Johnnie Riviera."
"Nice to meet you, I'm..."
"I know, I know... you're Angie Cordoba."
"Do I know you?"
"No, not exactly. I came to school just a couple of weeks before it ended. I saw you around."
"...now, don't tell me," she said, "you're the chapter president of Angie Cordoba fan club."
"No, ...but I'm on the waiting list."
"Look," he told her, "it really took a lot to walk in here, but I'll tell you this, if you keep it up with that cute little laugh, it will be hard to leave."
"Something tells me you've had this conversation before."
"Don't get me wrong, you're pretty good at it."
"Do you want to have lunch sometime?"
"Yeah, it's funny, I want to have lunch lots of times. Strange, but it happens mostly in the afternoon. Call me kooky."
"I heard you were funny."
"Ever hear of Frank Tralla?"
"Isn't he some circus side show act... eats snakes or something?"
"Not quite, he's my boyfriend."
"Oh... that Frank Tralla. Think he'd want to have lunch?"
"Tell you what, stick around for 'bout an hour and you can ask him yourself."
"He probably already has a date."
"Today he does." she paused, "but I know that tomorrow he'll be leaving town for a while; he won't have a date then."
"Yup, too bad. But I'll tell you what, tomorrow, right around noon, I'll start wanting to have lunch again."
"Ohh, ...around noon, you say?"
"Yeah, right around noon."
"Maybe I'll need to buy a rock clock right around noon."
"We sell 'em."
"Well then... maybe I'll see you tomorrow."
"I'll be here."
"Remember my name?"
"See you tomorrow, Johnnie Riviera."
The bell rang again and he walked out into the San Medrano rain. Angie went back to work. After that, Johnnie Riviera would forever be on her mind.
"Angie, can you talk?" He sounded cold.
"My husband is right down the stairs."
"There's a game on tonight, he'll never miss you."
"Johnnie, I can't go."
"I can't... God damn you, why do you haunt me?"
"Because you love me, and I love you."
"Where are you?"
"Well... I'll be at the fountain until the moon is full."
"I can't come."
"You have to Ang..."
"Angie, ...I'm getting married."
Johnnie Riviera stood across the counter holding a rock clock in his right hand. "Do you have this in metamorphic?"
"Johnnie Riviera..." she said.
"Not often a girl forgets dialogue like yesterday's."
"You think you might wanna have lunch with me today?"
"I'm gonna do you one better... I've got the whole afternoon off. And I'm looking for someone to share it with. Maybe with a stranger, maybe not..."
They spent not only the afternoon together, but most of the evening as well. She learned that his parents had just moved into town and he came along to finish high school before he joined the Marines and win the war for our side. She found out he was all of sixteen years old and came to San Medrano from Tampa, Florida. He told her of how he had been built by the six previous moves his family had made in his sixteen years, and that when he was old enough to settle down, he probably wouldn't. He told her how he never felt comfortable anywhere in this world and how he truly doubted that he would stay the whole year in San Medrano.
She told him of how she had lived nowhere else, and how a trip to Pueblo, Colorado was as far away as she had ever been. She told him of a cousin that had been to Paris and how she admired her even though her cousin had spent most of the week in a hotel room fighting off the effects of the plane ride. She told him of enrolling at Berkeley, and of going off to see a world she had only read about. She told him of the deep need to satisfy a wanderlust that she could not explain. She spent most of the lighted evening telling him about Angie Cordoba until they ended up at the fountain.
In the center of the plaza that runs beside the San Medrano Mission sits a stone fountain with the figurine of a crying woman. All year long, from an underground natural spring, fresh water circulates, leaving the well clear and the rocks to shine with coins from tourist well-wishers. But every twenty years, just as the tides rise, the fresh water turns salty. An underground cavern fills with the ocean tide and the sea rushes up into the fountain. It is one of the mystics of San Medrano.
It was there they shared the next four hours.
By midnight, their only visitor at the stone well was the nearly full moon. They sat wrapped in a comfortable silence.
She finally spoke. "Have you heard the legend of the tides?"
"No... I've seen signs and tee-shirts, but..."
"...well then, you're in for quite a treat. Let me make myself comfortable..." She stretched out on his lap. "...there, that's better. Now where was I? Oh yes, the legend of the San Medrano tides..." There they sat, him leaning back on the well, and her leaning back on him. The moon gave off more than enough light. The shadow of the crying woman stretched across them leaving patches of dark spots on her face. She wasn't looking at him; he was looking at only her.
"...the San Medrano Tides," she continued, "You see, every twenty years, the moon is at its closest orbit to earth and the sun is tilted just so and all together it causes the tides to rise over twenty feet above normal levels. The Indians that used to live around here were just scared to death by them. They used to offer sacrifices and hold special feasts to the gods hoping that the seas held back. Some real interesting legends came out of that fear. Which one do you want to hear?"
"All of them," he said. He was comfortable. He sat under the pressure of her head and wished time would stand still.
"I'll tell you my version..." She told him of the rain god who awoke every twenty years and of the sun god. It was her story; she told it well. "I made that one up," she said, "I get a charge out of how serious some people take it. OK, here's my favorite true legend. Now, this is the one I grew up hearing.
"Once upon a time..." she looked up at him, "there's really no other way to start it... anyway, Once upon a time in this valley lived a tribe of Indians named the Pomos. The Pomos were a peaceful tribe who had come out of the mountains and lived off the fruit and small game that flourished in the green valley. For a hundred years, the tribe lived and lived well. Their chief was a large man, in fact, he was the strongest man in the entire valley. He ruled fairly, but absolutely.
"It was as the chief aged that the tribe began to think of a new leader. And because the chief had no sons, attention was focused on his oldest daughter—Leahun. Leahun was very beautiful, her long black hair shimmered like windblown grass under the Spring moon, and her dark eyes reflected the souls of all she gazed at. Leahun was loved by all the men of the village, but because of her father being chief, she was unapproachable.
"Leahun's father, fully aware that he was nearing the end of life's voyage, reasoned that the man that she married would be the next chief. It wasn't the first time he had to put his own daughter behind the welfare of his tribe; he arranged a contest.
"Word went throughout the valley challenging all braves to vie for the hand of Leahun. Hundreds of men took part in the contest that lasted for weeks. Trials of strength, intelligence, and endurance, coupled with games of hunting, survival, and battle took up most of the contest, with nights filled with reverie and dance. Through it all, Leahun sat upon a throne tossing well wishes to all combatants.
"By month's end, one man stood above the others. He was Trollus, the son of the sister of the chief. He was indeed brave and strong and resourceful, and a very handsome warrior. Trollus ended the contest as the man who would be chief.
"Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to all in the valley, Leahun had already fallen in love. From across the valley, from a small tribe at the base of the white topped mountain, came a warrior named Rom. It was love at first sight. From the moment they met, the knew they were meant for each other. He was quickly out-manned by Trollus, and resigned himself to the secret nighttime meetings near the spring. They both left the festival and wandered off into the night and into each other's arms. This is a great story, isn't it?"
"Is this fountain that spring?" he asked.
"Now, don't get ahead of me, ok?"
"OK," she continued, "night after night, they held each other professing eternal love. They promised to love each other no matter what happened to the world. He brought her a cactus flower, and they both pierced their fingers and swallowed each other's blood consummating a secret and private marriage.
"After the contest, Leahun told her father of Rom. He understood, but told her it was her duty to the tribe to marry Trollus. She knew he was right. She told Rom. She told him that she would forever love him and as deep as his blood entered her, she would never lose his love. They both cried at the fountain and he left for his village, not once turning back to look over his shoulder at the only woman he would ever love."
She paused in her story and reached to her eyes to wipe away tears, "I'm sorry. Anyway, Leahun and Trollus married, but she could think of nothing but Rom. It didn't help that Trollus was anything but a perfect husband. He considered marriage part of the contest. Oh, he loved Leahun, but he loved the games more.
"One day, Leahun's father died. Trollus was made chief. The night of the funeral dance, Leahun sneaked off to the spring. There she was visited by the spirit of her father. He told her how sorry he was she was left with Trollus, but he reminded her of the good of the tribe. She told him that she still loved Rom. He understood. That night, her father's spirit visited Rom and told him of how his daughter had pledged her life to him. There was no magic, he told Rom, that would change fate. Accept that. Rom understood.
"Years past and Trollus was becoming unbearable. He was a poor chief, dissention abound. Trollus turned to tyranny to hold his band together. Still, Leahun's heart continued to die. She needed Rom. He was not there. She had lived with the memory of their time together and pressed on. But her heart continued to die.
"One night as the cactus flower bloomed, she visited the spring and prayed to be with Rom. The gods refused her and she cried. She cried and cried until the full moon burnt her shoulders. She needed love, and love was Rom and Rom was not to be her's. She tasted the salt of his blood on her tongue and cried.
"It was at the spring the next day where they found her. There she lay with a cactus flower clutched to her breast. She had died of a broken heart.
"The legend goes on to say that every twenty seasons of snow, Leahun returns to the spring and cries. In fact, they say, she cries so much, her tears overflow the seas and fills the spring with salty tears. Legend also has it that lovers who meet at the spring are doomed to eternal love."
"Legend says that once you love at the spring, there can be no other love for you."
"That doesn't sound too bad?"
"No?" She points at the statue of the crying woman, "ask Leahun."
"When the Spaniards came here, they built this fountain and to bless it, they took the old Pomos legend. It was a good will gesture to help bring the two cultures together."
"Yes," Angie sighed, "she is beautiful."
He leaned over and kissed her. She felt the rush of the wind over her shoulders and the heat of the nearly full moon.
Angie drove to the fountain to find Johnnie leaning back on the well almost as he had been doing twenty years ago.
"I'm back," he said. He reached up for her hand.
"What if someone sees us?"
"We'll tell them we're the spirits of Leahun and Rom."
"I can't believe we're here again."
"I can... you see, my dear, it's fate."
The next night, in the last summer of her youth, Angie met Johnnie at the fountain. She had worked the closing shift at the gift shop and had wanted to go home and change. She couldn't. She wanted to see Johnnie again.
He came a few minutes late and greeted her with a kiss and a surprise behind his back. She leaned in for a second kiss when he gave her the cactus flower. "Surprise," he said.
"I don't believe you. Where on earth did you find this."
"There all over the place near Winston."
"You went all the way to Winston just to bring me a cactus flower?"
"Yes, and to pick up my father."
"Look, Leahun," she turned to the statue, "he brought me cactus flowers."
They spent the next few days together, forever falling in love. At least once a day, they visited the fountain and greeted the statue as a friend. She even forgot all about Frank (who was out of town vacationing with his parents in San Diego). She was happy in San Medrano, and he was happy, finally, anyplace.
The next week brought thousands of tourists to San Medrano. There was no way to be alone at the fountain. It had been twenty years since the last San Medrano Tides, and the whole valley was gearing up for a tourist bonanza.
Twenty years had not changed a thing at the fountain. The world had grown, and so had Angie and Johnnie. So many years had gone by and still the statue's shadow fell over Angie's shoulders.
"She's still beautiful." Johnnie said.
"Yes, she still is."
"So are you."
"Still the charmer."
"I love you."
"And I still love you..."
"But I'm married."
"Yes, so you are. And how is the snake eater?"
"The same... only fatter."
"You deserve better."
"No... I deserve what I got."
"You could still have me."
"Didn't you say something about getting married."
"Well, technically, yes."
"I sorta met this girl. I like her. Anyway, we started talking marriage."
"...and you wanted my blessing."
"No, not exactly. I'm here to ask you to marry me. I'm here to take you away with me. To love you the way you should have always been loved—absolutely. I'm here begging you to let me make you happy."
"Oh, Johnnie," she started crying.
"...or, I'm here to say goodbye. If you can't go with me... I'm going to have to go myself. Angie, I love you more than I've ever loved anything in my life. I'm cursed to love you forever. Come with me, for once in your life, live for your own happiness. Let me love you."
They swore eternal love at the fountain late one night as dozens of tourists circled the salt water and bounced coins off Leahun muttering wishes for wealth and happiness.
Eventually, Frank came back and wooed his way back into Angie's life. She spent time between them and eventually ended up back at school a senior and Frank's girl.
Johnnie Riviera was right about one thing, he didn't last the year in San Medrano. Two months into the school year, and without Angie, he left for the Marine Corps.
Angie graduated and worked the next summer at the gift shop. She would spend her lunches at the fountain remembering Johnnie. By then, she and Frank were engaged. But something kept Johnnie close to her heart.
She went off to Berkeley for school and Frank followed. There was no way she could shake him. So they both left school and went back to San Medrano and were married. They had a lovely reception at the church near the mission. Nearly the whole town showed up. It was during the dancing, Angie excused herself and made her way down to the fountain.
She thought of Johnnie and the cactus flowers, and she cried. She thought of Frank and how she did love him, but how she knew she would always love Johnnie more. Frank found her leaning up against the statue of the crying woman. Standing in that wedding dress, he said, for a second, I thought you were the ghost of Leahun. I am, she said. They both walked back to the church in silence.
"Johnnie, I do love you," she told him.
"...then what's the problem?"
"I can't go... what about my kids?"
"Bring them along. I love them too."
"I can't leave Frank."
"He's my husband."
"...not much of one, I'd say."
"He's still my husband. I made the commitment."
"To be unhappy? Tell me, does he love you? Does he make you happy? Does he make you glad to breath every breathe of everyday? Does he make you feel the way I do? And answer me this, will he ever?"
"Johnnie, you understand, I just can't leave."
"No, I don't. I don't understand."
Frank and Angie settled into a comfortable little home and began a marriage. Trouble was, Frank was a better boyfriend than a husband. He drank, and got rough, and tried to paw all of Angie's friends. He was only doing the same things he had been doing as a single man. Angie thought marriage would change that. She thought she could change that. She couldn't.
She heard that Johnnie had died in battle. She went to the fountain and cried for him. Later, she found out he had only been wounded. She sent a letter to the Veteran's Hospital he was in, and he began writing back. She took a post office box in town, and so began years of secrets.
Angie continued writing to Johnnie and Johnnie would send mail to the PO Box. He told her how he missed her and loved her and she told him how unhappy Frank was making her. Whenever she had good news to share, she'd always send it off in the mail, and Johnnie would respond the way she wished Frank could.
Whenever she had to share sorrow, she knew her letters would bring sympathy. They fell in love again through paper and ink.
She wrote and told Johnnie about her pregnancy, and he wanted to be by her side. She told him of the new job she got and he shared her enthusiasm. She told him of the beatings she took from Frank and his alcohol and Johnnie wanted to catch a plane and beat the living hell out of him. Whatever happiness he had, she shared with Johnnie.
Johnnie never married. He was too busy with this or that, and whenever he felt the need for love, he'd just reach for the shoebox filled with Angie's letters.
Angie kept Johnnie's letter safely tucked away at work away from Frank. As the years rolled by, she told her kids about Johnnie. They knew how their daddy was and they needed to know that their mother had someone besides them.
So many times, after the wraith of rum, she'd threaten to leave, and the one place she knew she could go was to Johnnie. He begged her to come. She'd always stay.
Johnnie had become her fairy tale, her sense of balance in a unbalanced world. He was her fantasy when she was forced to face reality. Time and time again she tried to go to Johnnie. She'd always stay.
"Is this an ultimatum?" she asked.
"No. In fact, I see only one way to go here. I see you and me gone. I see me making you happy, and you making me happy. I see us together forever the way it's suppose to be. I don't see you going back to him and living a life of hell. I just can't see it."
"It's not up to me..."
"...But it is, don't you see? It is up to you, only you. You know how I feel, and you know how you feel about me. Haven't we wasted enough time? Haven't we?"
Through the years, Angie waited for the next tides to come. She wanted love that was as pure as the cactus flowers and the night of the full moon. She dreamed of a better world, but sometimes wished it would never come. Sometimes it's better to want than to own. The owning never seems to measure up to the wanting. Sometimes life is easier to live when all you do is dream. For Angie, her life was living out the dreams of the box of letters she kept hid in her office. There are so many things that could be worse than her life, she thought, but not many better than her dreams. This is why she stayed all those years.
"Angie," he told her, "the tides come tomorrow. The moon will grow to full. It will be exactly twenty years since we were cursed with eternal love. Let's not make the same mistake Leahun and Rom made. You see, I'm willing to face anything in this world and beyond as long as it's with you. I'm begging you to leave with me. All you have to do is say yes. One little word, just one word. It's fate, Ang, it's fate."
Angie stood in the shadow of Leahun and wondered why she was cursed to make a decision. Why couldn't she live forever with a dream? What was wrong with hoping?
There was no way she could leave Frank, she couldn't explain it to Johnnie, he wouldn't understand. She didn't understand it herself. She just knew she couldn't go.
"Johnnie," she said as she pressed her face into his shoulder, "I love you. And I... I want to thank you for all you've meant to me. You'll never ever understand what you've done to my existence. I hope somehow, someday, you're rewarded for that. I want you to be happy. That means more to me than my own happiness. I mean that. But I can't go with you... I just can't... I can't. Please understand... please..."
They were both crying. He stood and held her. The nearly full moon lit off the stone of the crying statue making the woman appear to come to life. Johnnie kissed her one last time, then turned toward the plaza. Not once did he turn back over his shoulder to look back at the only woman he would ever love.
Angie fell to the rock base of the fountain. Alone, with Leahun, she began crying. She cried for what seemed like hours. She lay there crying, under Leahun's stare, until the fountain filled with her salty tears. She didn't look up. The nearly full moon began burning her shoulders. Leahun's shadow fell over her back and the only sound was the swishing of the water in the well.
It had taken twenty years, and the return of the San Medrano Tides, but Angie had fulfilled the curse. As she lay there filling the well with salty tears, she let the only dream she had ever owned just walk away.
And in the years since you've been gone
I've seen the world the sun's set on
And wished that I had begged you home
Or followed you away
On a train from Montreal
I saw the sun rise and fall
And wished that I had begged you home
Or beckoned you to stay
Still at times I hear you call
And wonder if I heard at all
I wish you peace and I'll
Wish that you had stayed
Cucullates & Rainbows
Cucullates & Rainbows
If tiny little bluebirds fly
Why, oh why, can't I?
It was an almost too perfect a day. It was almost as if a writer had imagined the scene and it had exploded across this Missouri plain. Above, a sky so deep-blue, it seemed transparent, and so large, it seemed like a sea stretching from horizon-to-horizon interrupted only by the halo of the sun. Temperatures, at this mid-morning point, was around the mid-sixties, and at no point during the rest of the day would it rise above seventy-five. Temperatures so moderate that drinks remained cool and biscuits warm. It was almost too perfect a day.
On US-119, a silver Ghostliner coach steered straight down the road toward St. Louis unnoticed by the reds and greens and yellows of patchwork fields of corn and wheat and grass that Missouri should always be dressed in. With a capacity of forty passengers, the coach seemed empty with fourteen. Spaced every two seats and alternating side-to-side, from front to back, they sat—an old couple, a young mother with two children, an old man dressed in an oversized suit, a young girl in a yellow Sunday dress with white gloves and a matching hat, two cowboys dressed in like shirt with different plaid, a young couple, a pastor, and a soldier. The bus driver sat heavy on the single driver's stool and never once looked back after the bus began moving.
The bus left Kansas City early morning and made periodic toilet stops in nameless small towns that littered the plains. The road, though narrow, was smooth and pleasant and talk was minimal. Most heads were turned sideways out the coach and were lulled to a calm by the hypnotic grooves cut into the earth. Geometrically straight at two angles, each way you looked, you could pick up another row of parallel stems or mounds of turned over dirt. It was only colour change that proved the bus was indeed moving.
Minutes seemed like hours, and hours like weeks, until another black and white sign revealed the mileage to the next town. The combination of the road, the day, the plains, and the sky merged together to form travel without incident. Only once, when the cowboys began teasing the girl with white gloves, did the coach seem to acknowledge each other's presence. The moment lasted only a moment until the pastor stood and scolded them. They quieted and heads turned back to the fields. The morning passed until the air brakes sighed and the coach came to life in Monroe, Missouri.
"To all passengers heading to St. Louis, this will be your stop until 11:35 when your connecting bus arrives. For those of you on your way to Springfield, this will be only a ten minute whistle stop." The bus driver spoke to no one as every one listened. He turned back and said, "Check your tickets," then he yelled, "Ten minutes."
He bounced down the steps in a way only three hundred pound men can. His grey uniform stretched and pulled at each button hole. Some passengers followed him to the belly storage area, claimed their luggage, and looked for a place to wait out the next two hours. The pastor took the seat nearest the restrooms, while the cowboys set their bags in a corner and wandered around. The soldier sat on the corner of the L-shaped row of wooden chairs. Two seats away, and across the aisle sat the white gloved girl facing him. He smiled at her and she blushed and turned away. He tipped his hat and said hi. She smiled, rushed out a hello, then again quickly turned. They both watched the bus driver almost fall into the cafe and eat at record speed. When he finished, he brushed the crumbs off his belly and picked up a huge bag of doughnuts and cookies. The soldier tried to get the girl's attention. "I thought there was a shortage. Do you think he counterfeits E-ration stamps?"
The girl didn't answer.
The bus driver had to walk by them in order to get back to his bus. It was the shortest route and by looking at the man, he didn't seem like the type to take the long way. He stopped long enough to wipe the sugar glaze off his lips with the back of his hand and ask the soldier, "Hey, kid, you going back?"
The soldier stood quickly. "Yes, sir," he replied, "two weeks."
"Pacific huh? Well you kill a couple of 'em japs for me, hear?"
"Yes, sir," snapped the soldier, winking and saluting at the same time. The bus driver had to change the doughnut bag to the other hand to return the salute. He then laboured his way back up the steps and sat heavy on the padded driver's stool. The door closed and the silver Ghostliner pushed its way back onto US-119.
The soldier sat back down. They both watched the bus disappear until finally, even the noise was gone. They both relaxed. He sat splay-legged with one arm draped over the back of the chair next to him and the other hanging behind him. He seemed very comfortable smiling at her. She sat, straight backed, with her hands folded politely in her lap. She looked at him, turned away, looked again and quickly pretended to look at other things.
She turned away five times. Then on the sixth, she held his stare. Finally she coyly asked, "Did you really kill people?"
He sat stunned for a moment. His brow dropped as his smile widened. He leaned forward towards her sneakily looking from side-to-side. He whispered, "No... have you?"
"No," she said before she realized he was making fun of her. "I'm sorry," she said, "I guess that wasn't a very good question to ask."
"That's OK. My name is Abraham Murray. I'm in the army. I'm a corporal, that's not very good."
"Hello, my name is Cady Boy-er. That's French, you know? They say Boy-A, we say Boy-er. I like Boy-A better."
"Well then so do I. Cady, is that short for Cathrine?"
"No, it's short for Catrina... I really don't know why."
"Catrina Boy-A, I like the sound of that name."
"Where you from?" She sounded like a wide-eyed child.
"Watertown, New York, ever hear of it?"
She shook her head.
He continued, "I didn't think so. It's clear up state. It sits on the other side of the Adirondacks. Houdini came there once. He escaped out of a milk can. That was before I was born. They have a monument for him. It's a big deal there. I think it's kind of silly, but it's home."
"Oh, I've heard of the Adirondacks. I heard they were pretty. I wish we had mountains where I come from."
"Hacken City, Iowa," she said proudly, her head raised as she said the name, "It's right on the Hacken River. The Hacken River runs into the Missouri, and the Missouri into the Mississippi."
He interrupted her, "How old are you?"
She paused, "...eighteen. Well... almost eighteen—seventeen and three quarters."
In the warm bus station they sat engaged in small talk until she was comfortable enough to take off her hat and gloves. She laughed because he was funny; she listened because he spoke to her, not at her; she talked to him because he listened. He was just a nice guy. Now, she thought to herself, these two hours in Monroe, Missouri will just fly by.
She found out he was stationed in Australia. She found out he was in college when he was drafted. She found out he liked movies and writing. His favorite colour was gold and his favorite drink was Grape Crush. It was amazing what she learned in just twenty minutes. He had a girlfriend back in New York named Mary. He planned to be a newspaper reporter, or a writer, or anyone who made a living with a typewriter. She had never met anyone like him. Back in Hacken City all she'd ever known were boys. He was refreshing.
At first, she didn't speak much of herself, there wasn't much to say. She was a small town girl from a small town in Iowa. Of course she had dreams, didn't everybody? But she thought them silly. He asked and seemed interested. She trusted him. She opened up. She told him she wanted to be a teacher, a history teacher. History was so real, so interesting to her. She told him she wanted to be a mother and a wife and have a nice home and travel and see the world and just be happy. He listened and for the first time in her life she believed her dreams could come true.
They talked so hard and so fast they had to pause for a break. He broke the silence. "Are you hungry?"
"Well, I guess so."
"I saw this little cafe down the road when we came into town. Do you want to take a little walk?"
"What about our baggage?"
"They'll be fine. Don't worry. They won't be lonely. They can keep each other company." He stood and she stood with him. He walked over to the pastor. She watched as he leaned into the pastor's ear and whispered, and she blushed as the pastor stole a quick stare at her. She followed him out into a Monroe morning with a man she didn't even know two hours ago and felt strangely safe. She felt herself slightly mature.
They walked slowly and talked of little things. She felt at ease. She wasn't even aware of the distance traveled as each step became more and more effortless. "I'm on my way to St. Louis," she told him. "My grandmother's old and school just got out and mom thinks I should spend some time with her. Grandpa's been dead for years and nobody wants Grandma to be alone. See, Uncle Freddie just got married and he used to go see Grandma alot, but now... well, now he's married. I don't mind. I've never been to St Louis. I went to Chicago once, when Grandma lived there. It was big. We went to see the Cubs play. That place was big..."
"Wrigley Field, where the Cubs play."
"Oh yeah. Boy was that place big. We saw Lake Michigan. That was almost like seeing the ocean. I guess it was. I've never seen the ocean. But it was big. I don't think St. Louis is as big as Chicago but I bet it is still pretty big. I want to see the Mississippi River. I bet it's... uhh..."
"Ya. Hey, when you come from Hacken City, Iowa, everything is big."
"I'm on my way home, he said, "I left Australia Sunday, hopped over to Hawaii, flew to San Francisco, then to Austin, Texas yesterday, and I've been on a bus ever since. I'll catch a plane out of St. Louis and be in Buffalo tomorrow. From there, it's another bus to Watertown. I'll be home by Sunday."
"Wow," she said, "just imagine. In only one week, you go half way around the world. And I've only been to Chicago. How does it feel to fly?"
"Oh, it's alright. Kinda feels like a ferris wheel ride. Ever ride the ferris wheel?"
"When we go to the state fair in Des Moines, you can't get me off the ferris wheel. I've even been on the roller coaster."
"Wow, you are just too brave." He smiled at her and she smiled back. He stopped walking and grabbed her arm. She stopped cold in her tracks and looked into his eyes. "Looks like we're here."
She looked up and saw a white hand painted sign that spelled out MABEL'S in big black capital letters. He opened the door for her. She smiled and took a few steps in and froze. Her legs felt weak. He tried to follow her in and felt how rigid she was. He pushed her in and closed the door. He had to hold her up. She was frozen. He looked around and saw her discomfort. The place was full of blacks.
An overweight black woman walked over to them and smiled. "Welcome to Mabel's," she said. She spoke as if she were singing. She led them to a table. "Ya should try Mabel's Creole chicken, even make me jealous. But leave room for my world famous lemon pecan pie."
He held her arm as they walked past the half-wall filled with plants and wild flowers. They sat in a window booth and he picked up a menu. She sat with both hands folded on her lap. She remained silent as he browsed the menu.
"Boy," he said without looking at her, "I hope you're hungry. What do you feel like having?"
She didn't answer. She tried, but her mouth wouldn't open. She suddenly realized that she was eight hundred miles from home alone with a older stranger in a strange town completely surrounded by black men and women.
He looked around and leaned forward and whispered, "Haven't you ever seen coloured people before?"
"No," she rushed out, "I mean, there aren't none in Hacken City."
"Well, the rest of the world is full of them. Do you think they're different?"
She looked at him and felt seventeen. "I'm sorry," she said.
He patted her hands and looked back at the menu. "Let's see here," he said, "I'd like to get the Creole chicken, but I don't know if my Pacific palate is ready for southern spices."
She forced a smile and he understood. "I'm not prejudice," she tried to explain, "it's just that... I'm just a stupid little girl from a little town in Iowa. I'm sorry. I feel so ignorant."
"Don't worry, Catrina, you were just cursed being born a pretty white girl. I'm sorry you went so long before you could see yourself acting like this. I found out about colour on the Solomon Islands. Alot of white soldiers refused to share chow with the coloureds; just to shine 'em. Then, when a jap sniper pinned us down, nobody cared about the colour of the skin of the man lending support fire. And that jap, he didn't care 'bout the colour of our skin, just the colour of our uniform. And another thing, we all bleed red." He saw her mouth open. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to shock you. I guess I just got carried away. Listen, I've seen prejudice. And you, you just ain't. You're just young. What makes you special, makes you flawed. Hey, Catrina Boy—A, smile that old smile for me. Look... they have Grape Crush."
They ordered and she relaxed to the point of eating as if she were at home—dipping her bread into the gravy, filling her spoon with her fork. MABEL'S filled with the lunch crowd and she sat laughing at the soldier watching a part of her fly away.
He broke a momentary silence, "Have you ever seen THE WIZARD OF OZ?"
"No, but I've heard alot about it."
"I didn't see it when it first came out, but they brought it to over to the Pacific for the soldiers and that's when I saw it. It was in colour... Well, most of it was in colour. It had Judy Garland, and Ray... Bolger, and... I forget his name. Anyway, it was the story of a girl who is sick of being in grey old Kansas. She dreams of being somewhere with colour, somewhere over the rainbow; somewhere happier, see?"
"Hey, I'm from Hacken City, Iowa, to me Kansas is over the rainbow."
He laughed. "Well, she gets caught in this tornado and her house gets picked up and thrown into this magical land—somewhere over the rainbow. Well, there she kills a witch and this other witch wants to kill her. Oh, and there are all these little people running around..." He painted her the whole movie and it came alive in that Monroe cafe. "...so she meets this scarecrow who can talk and then she meets a tin man and then she meets this lion. She invites them all to see the wizard. You see, the scarecrow wants a brain, the tin man wants a heart, and the lion wants courage. Judy Garland only wants to get home to Kansas." The waitress walks over and they settle on sharing a piece of pecan pie. "...great movie, good songs too. It was some experience."
"Sounds like a neat picture. I sure miss alot of good movies."
"Well, this one was great escape. I saw it in the Solomons with a bunch of Marines who had just come back from Iwo. I mean, I had been shot at and stuff... but these guys were in a war." He paused and looked out the window and looked like he was nowhere near Monroe, Missouri. She didn't know what to say. Finally he laughed with his mouth closed and turned to her. "The reason I started telling you the story was... well, for two reasons. First, it only goes to show that when things seem bad, you can always imagine yourself over a rainbow. You don't even have to leave the room. You can just close your eyes and dream the hurt away. There, the pain is gone. It's pretty simple, you always have a rainbow to go to. And secondly, when I was in the Solomons, I was in the crew in charge of liaison between our base and the USO show. Well, this one time, I was on board a train checking the passenger manifesto when from out of the back coach came Judy Garland. I mean the real Judy Garland, and there she was right in front of me."
She sounded impressed. "What did you say to her?"
"At first I just stared. Then I said, Hello, Miss Garland."
"She smiled at me and said hello."
"You met Judy Garland?"
"I met Judy Garland."
The waitress came with the check, and he noticed it was getting time for the next bus to arrived, so they both gathered up and stood to leave. She walked out totally at ease. She left a part of her back at the table. She came in a frightened little girl and left open-eyed and mature. She would never look at the world the same again.
They walked into the station just as the bus pulled in. They took a seat near the entrance as the bus door swung open and the driver bounced down the stairs. They looked at each other and laughed. This driver could have been a twin of the first. She leaned over, "Maybe," she said, "he counterfeits E-ration stamps too." He laughed.
The bus driver leaned out the door slightly tipping the bus and yelled, "St Louis bus leaving in five minutes." Then he made a bee-line for the cafe.
The soldier picked up both of their bags. She followed him to the near-hollow belly doors and stood by his side. They just continued to talk; it didn't seem to matter where they stood.
The coach was just like the last only with less passengers. They sat together and talked. She listened to his stories and he to hers. She was funnier than she thought, and he was funny and wise. She felt so old next to him, not really old, but mature.
She told him of the times, when as a little girl, she would pick wildflowers and place them on the makeshift grave her brother had dug for her when she found a stray dog dead by the roadside. She had even named the dog and made her brother promise never to tell anyone where the grave was so that no one else would ever disturb it. There was a stream near by and she would sit in the shade by the grave when she wanted to be alone. She even told him that when she found a completely hooded cucullate, she would take it to the Hacken River and make a wish. She would then throw it in and run along side the stream until she reached the fence by the mill. She would watch it until it disappeared around the bend and make its way through the valley. It would eventually run into the Missouri River, cut through St. Louis, and rush into the Mississippi. She estimated that it took about a week to make it to St. Louis, and five more days to reach New Orleans and the gulf. She believed that if her cucullate reached the gulf then her dream would come true. Some did, most didn't. It was a difficult trip.
She released every dream she had ever known. She told him what frightened her, and where she felt safe, people she hated and those she liked. She let go of the stories where she had done silly things and laughed out along with him when he thought they were cute. She told him of the cities she wanted to see, the countries she wanted to walk in, and the names she wanted to name the children she wanted to have.
She became a complete person on that bus that day. Maturity comes at a time when childhood becomes memories. It was a confidence she wore. In his presence, she became a woman. She left that silly little girl back at MABEL'S. "Sometimes I wish I were prettier," she said, "and taller, and slimmer..."
"I think you're very pretty."
"Thank you." She smiled, "but enough about me. Tell me more about you."
He told her about Australia, college, disappointments every boy faces, finally growing up in the army, and Mary. He seemed uncomfortable talking about himself. He answered every question honestly, but unless pressed, he'd leave vague images. When he finally began talking about his childhood, he looked straight ahead out the window.
He told her of being the only child in an only child neighborhood. He told her that he remembered being alone alot. He said he wished he had had more people to talk to then. He wasn't bitter, it was just one of those regrets that come with a childhood like his.
He told her of the trips his parents would take to Lake Ontario when he was a child. He remembered that he thought it was the ocean because he couldn't see the other side. He also remembered that he thought Canada was England, and Europe was only on the other side of the lake. Since Watertown was on the Black River and the Black River eventually became the Erie Canal, he remembered growing up with a sense of belonging to history.
On and on they talked. The seven hours to St Louis flew right by. The sun was taking its time setting behind them as they followed the highway into the city. He stopped talking only when he saw a big sign next to the road that pointed out the Missouri River. She turned her head out the window and sat in her own silence. Up ahead, a railroad bridge crossed the river. At the base of the bridge a pier stood holding up the steel and holding back the water for just a moment before it rushed past and on down to the Mississippi. Debris cluttered around the edges. "Look," he nudged her, "there's all you dreams that didn't come true."
She almost started to cry. She wasn't sad. She just felt like crying. No one on earth had ever known her this well. To think that only twelve short hours ago she didn't even know he existed. She turned to him, "Abraham Murray, I'm so glad I met you. I swear I'll never forget you. You'll probably never know how much you mean to me." He looked at her with a half smile and understood. "You know," she continued, "I hope I can always see me through your eyes. And back there at the cafe... I'm sorry about that. Thank you." She leaned over and kissed him on the right jaw. "Thank you for everything."
He reached up and touched his own face and smiled. "Catrina Boy-A, I'm glad I had this chance to meet you also. You're special. I can tell your dreams will come true one day. All you have to do is dream them. Keep throwing those cucullates in your Hacken River. And remember, just like Judy Garland, there is always somewhere over the rainbow. You don't even have to leave the room. When you have to escape, close your eyes and imagine yourself over that rainbow.
They talked at a very deliberate pace, always careful not to mention goodbye. The bus recognized the station and pulled in. The driver turned around and yelled, "St Louis stop. Nashville passengers we'll be leaving in five minutes."
They looked at each other and realized that this was goodbye. He spoke first, "I don't like goodbyes. Tell you what, let's not say that word. You know what I mean, right? Just like Judy Garland, when things began to pain me, I'll wish myself over a rainbow. I'll think of today. You will be my rainbow."
She choked back her first words, "Ya, me too." They stood as the bus stopped. "Thank you, I'll never forget today... and you." He walked around the bus and brought back both of their luggage. He was surprised to see an amazon of a woman wrap her skinny arms around Catrina.
"Grandma," offered Catrina, "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. Abraham Murray, this is my Grandma."
He took his hat off and stretched out his hand. "Hello ma'am." She looked at him suspiciously. Just as it appeared to be too late, she shook his hand.
The old woman turned back to Catrina. "Honey," she said, "your Uncle Fredrich went out to get the car. He'll be waiting for us."
"I should get to a taxi," the soldier said, "and get over to the airport." He looked over at the grandmother and back to Catrina. "Well, Catrina Boy-a..."
"...Boyer," interrupted the grandmother.
"Grandma!" Catrina sounded embarrassed. She turned back to Abraham. "I'll walk you to your cab."
"Maybe you should stay with your grandmother."
They both looked over at the old woman. She didn't even blink.
"Thank you again," Catrina said softly, "I swear I'll never forget you... or today. Thank you."
The soldier picked up his bag and said, "You go on and be happy." He kissed her cheek. "Remember the rainbow."
"I'll remember." She began crying. He began walking away. She said louder, "I'll remember." When he was almost out of view, he turned and waved. She waved back and through her tears and to herself she said, "...I'll remember."
"What was that all about?" asked the old woman.
Catrina turned away and wiped the tear from the cheek he had just kissed and smiled. "He met Judy Garland."
Forty-five years later in a Tucson hospital, Catrina Boyer Tenner was dying slowly. Cancer had taken both breasts and she was being eaten alive from the inside by what was left of the disease. Drugs only seemed to dull the pain, not end it. Death was so close, it seemed cruel to let her suffer so.
She had become victim of a time when movie stars advertized the death sticks with smiles and glossy ads. Cancer was a gift of her time.
She had lived a full life. She married a man she truly loved, she had become a teacher, she watched a son and two daughters grow and marry. She had held her grandchildren with a pride that eclipsed any she had ever known. And she helped coached her son's baseball team. As she lived, she lived happy.
She knew sorrow also. She cried at her mother's funeral and flew back to Hacken City four months later for her father's. She was almost broken by the anxiety of having a son in a war in some small Southeast Asian jungle, and watched as a bad heart took her husband. There is no escaping sorrow. If you live long enough, sadness always finds you. Her life wasn't a tragedy, she lived long and very happy. It was these last few hours that were bitter.
At her bedside, her daughter sat in vigil holding her hand until the pain subsided enough to fall asleep. When she awoke, her daughter said, "Mother, I'm so sorry you're hurting. I wish there was something I could do. I love you so very much, and I hate to see you like this." She grimaced at the pain it took to reach up and hold hands. "Mother, does it hurt when you're asleep; can you feel the pain? I mean, you looked so at peace. You looked rested. You were smiling."
Catrina moved her eyes toward her daughter, "I was happy."
"Yes," she said as she looked away, "I was remembering a friend, a friend who met Judy Garland."
Cold can't even describe a Montana January. Temperatures hung so low even the pressed in air is much too cold to freeze. On the ground, the snow is packed so hard you could skate right across it, and above, the roofs appear naked where icicles should hang because the mid day sun won't melt the rooftop snow enough to freeze at night.
US Highway 57, a crisscrossing mountain road cut out of the peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains between Butte and Boise, spirals like a frozen snake shaking off snowfall with snowplows. This mountain road gives its summers to sightseers, but reserves its winters for warriors. Somewhere along US Highway 57, tucked into its own little valley, sits Wilson Springs. This small city, with a population of around 2,000; its own high school; one traffic lights, is the home of Jake and Sue's Cafe. Jake and Sue's usually fills for the breakfast and lunch crowd, giving it the opportunity to stay open all night for traveling strangers.
For the past three years, on the midnight shift, Meredith Townsend has worn one of the five dark brown polyester dresses that Jake rents for her. It's the kind of uniform that at first is unbecoming to a body but with time accentuates certain features. Meredith, though far from unattractive, owns one of those faces you pass every day with no second thought. Unblemished and surrounded by light brown hair pulled back and tied by a dark brown ribbon, her face could be described as striking. Closed-mouthed, she's more beautiful, but a smile reveals a slight crook in her upper teeth—one of the spoils of growing up in a small town without the services of a small town dentist.
Most daytimers ask her why she hasn't married yet. Rumours and stories would circle until conversation lead elsewhere. If she was asked, she'd answer, if she thought you really cared, that she didn't want to be stuck in Wilson Spring all her life. She had a future, she had a destiny, so she just sat back and waited for her life to change. Spending time in her night cafe, one could see she didn't really belong. In fact, for the three years she worked there, she didn't really belong. But she stayed and waited and waited and waited.
It was one of the third Tuesday nights in a Montana January. Wilson Springs was already sleeping, the one traffic light was flashing yellow, and the only two people still awake were working at Jake and Sue's.
Ernie Carlson was thirty-eight and a Vietnam veteran. He was born in Wilson Springs and even married there. But the war took away most of his will to run and his wife passed him by taking his two children with her. He was content spending all night working behind the grill. And because he learned to live without sleep, his insomnia was wasted waiting on strangers to shiver in and telling Meredith that she didn't belong there. Theirs was a special relationship. It's not often a man and a woman can spend night after night together and not grow physical. Theirs was a friendship.
The night passed quickly. The sheriff dropped in right on cue for his sausage and eggs and coffee, then left leaving a forty cent tip.
4:30 AM, the third Tuesday of a Montana January.
"Every night he comes in here and does the same thing," Meredith said as she scooped up the quarter, dime, and nickel dropping them into her apron. "He orders, reads the comics, eats, then goes to the restroom for twenty minutes..."
"Just like clockwork."
"...and every night he comes out with a piss stain on his pants."
"It's comforting to know we are all protected by Wilson Spring's finest."
"Did I tell you that I'm almost finished with that French course?" she said.
"You're almost done with it?"
"Almost, they still have to mail me the test. It should be a snap."
Their dialogue continued until she started sweeping the tables out of earshot. He went back to slopping bulk food together preparing the morning special. The cold outside didn't bother them at that moment. For that instant, they forgot it was a Montana January. She came back to the counter and sighed, "Ernie," she said, "what do you think the chances are of Mr. Right walking in that door right now?"
"Oh, about as good as last night's"
"I'd even settle for Mr. Wrong."
The bell on the door startled them. She turned and without thinking, stared with her mouth opened. Quickly, she caught herself and covered her teeth with her hand and watched a man—an almost pretty man—walk though the door. The bell sounded again and they stood staring at each other like they were waiting for the applause to fade. The stranger finally spoke, "Are you open?"
Meredith stepped back and came to life. She closed her mouth and answered, "Sure, come in."
Something was odd about the man. Even though he wore a thin jacket with collar turned up, he didn't appear cold. This is January and Montana, everybody is cold. The stranger sat at the farthest stool, "This place sure looks like an oasis to my eyes."
She moved up the counter. "I've heard Jake and Sue's called a lot of things," she said, "but oasis ain't never been one of them." She reached behind her and grabbed a steaming pot and reached for the upside down cup. "Coffee?" she asked.
He waved them off with the wave of a hand. "Well, it looks like an oasis to me. What do you call this place?"
He laughed a warm laugh and she melted staring into his eyes. She broke eye contact only to pour the coffee. She looked back and said, "My name is Mary, I'm just a waitress."
He reached out with a warm glove, "Scott, Scott Wine."
"Glad to meet you, Scott Wine. Where you from?"
"Ever hear of Lisbon, Nebraska?"
"...no matter, it's a long ways from here."
"I wish I were there."
"No, a long ways from here."
"You're not only cute, you're funny too."
"You really think I'm funny?"
"Yes. Do you have any food in this comedy club?"
"Oh, yes," she said, "I'm sorry. Would you like to see a menu?"
"No, just tell me what would fill a hungry cornhusker."
"Ernie cooks up the best damn sausage and hashbrowns in the whole valley."
"Alright, I'll take an order of those."
She turned around and yelled to nowhere,"#2."
A voice called back from nowhere, "#2."
She placed a napkin filled with tarnished silverware in front of him. He startled her when he touched her hand. His glove was gone and his hand was warm. "Does that come with eggs?" he asked.
The warmth of his hand had taken her breath. She shook her hand free and said, "...yes, I'm sorry, how would you like your eggs?"
"...over easy, if it's not too much trouble."
She stepped back and choked out, "two chrome domes."
Like an echo a voice called back, "two chrome domes."
The stranger smiled and said, "So, what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
"Hasn't failed me yet."
She spent the next thirty minutes telling him about being Merideth Townsend and why she was, one day, going to leave Wilson Springs. He was the perfect audience. She served him and kept talking. She poured him a fresh cup of coffee and kept talking. "One day I'll disappear from Wilson Springs and never come back. That will show them."
Finally he spoke up, "Why don't you just go now?"
"I have to refill your coffee."
"You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I know...Oh, I'll go...one day."
"Why not now?"
She turned away and rushed out her answer, "Maybe I'm scared, alright, are you happy now?"
"Yeah, well everybody ain't me."
"Listen, maybe I can help."
"Maybe I can grant wishes."
"Oh, this is great. A beautiful man walks in, steals my heart, then tells me he's a genie. You are a genie, aren't you?"
"Do I get three wishes?"
"How about just one?"
"Sure, I'm not selfish. One wish, huh?"
A grin exploded across his face. "Mmmm," he said, "not exactly."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?"
"Seriously, if you had one wish what would it be?"
"How about three more wishes?"
"Well, let's see, I shouldn't waste it on a pant suit, Penneys is having a sale this weekend. I do need new shoes..."
"Meredith!" he said taking on a strange, almost wicked look. She laughed at him and was shocked by his non-reaction. "I'm very serious, Meredith," he said.
She became more and more uncomfortable. "OK," she said, "OK, what do you want in return, and will it hurt?"
He smiled, "Oh, how about the health of your third child?"
"Remember I told you, Scott Wine, that I'm not having any kids."
"Oh yes, so you did. Well, then that means you win either way, don't it?"
"Yeah," she said trying to figure out his smile, "I guess I win either way."
"So it's a deal then?" he said extending his warm hand.
She heard Ernie open the back door just as he did every morning at this same time. A burst of cold air entered the cafe, pierced her flesh, and bit at her bones. "Alright, Scott Wine, or who ever you are, I'll play your little game with you." She closed her eyes and turned her head up to the ceiling. "I wish I weren't so cold."
"Cold," he smiled, "OK. So it's a deal then?"
"Yeah, it's a deal then."
The hot furnace kicked on and sent electric heat blowing over her body. It shook her for a second. He smiled and stood up. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a fist full of change and dropped it on the counter. "Thank you," he said as he stood and walked toward the entrance, "I won't forget you. And I do hope you won't forget me. Goodbye, or should I say, until we meet again?" He was almost out the door. The last words she heard him say were, "Meredith Taylor...I do believe every girl should have a middle name she hates."
He was gone for a few minutes before she realized what he had said. Never once, in all the things she did tell him, did she say that her real name was Meredith. And in her whole life can she remember telling anyone in this world her middle name—she hated Taylor. She shook her head and turned to the window. He was gone. Without thinking, she picked up the loose change. It burned her hand—it was that hot. She blew on her open palm and fell to a chair with her mouth opened. There she sat in silence ignoring even Ernie until morning came and it was time for her to leave.
She held her jacket in her hands, opened the door, and walked out into a Montana morning. She stood in the snow and looked up at the bright sun. She thought of the night, the hot change, her middle name, Scott Wine, and realized the sun felt warm.
Summer came early to Wilson Springs that year. Flowers exploded through the white blanket until snow was only a memory. For Meredith Townsend, the past four months seemed to pass like seconds. Ever since that January Tuesday morning and Scott Wine, she seemed to only walk around in a daze. Whenever she gave thought to something, it was always either the stranger or the hot change. She woke up each evening and fell to sleep each morning dreaming of that visit. She lived between daydreams and dreams. Leaving Wilson Springs began to mean much more to her than escape. It was her only hope of existence. For three years at Jake and Sue's she's lived for nothing, for the past four months, she was nothing.
It was May before she realized she had missed a February, March, and April. Four months had vanished from her life and she had nothing to show for it. She had gone nowhere, saw no one new, or dreamt new dreams. She just was—that's all, just was. But in her non-existence, she wasn't cold. Some price!
Somewhere in the middle of May, she awoke and didn't think of the stranger. She walked outside and smiled at the neighbor kid cutting his grandmother's lawn. She saw the bright red and yellow of spring flowers growing wild in her porch garden. She saw the beauty in a Montana May and felt the sun tap at her face. It wasn't the sun that stilled her, or the beauty, or the colours. It was simply feeling. Now those moments that she thought of Scott Wine became simply that—moments.
Suddenly, she found herself fitting into the small town mold. She found herself liking Wilson Springs. She found herself at small town functions, enjoying evenings with small town folks. And she found herself dating small town boys. She didn't even fear a Montana January. It had been so long since she had been cold, even winters seemed tame. She felt like getting on with the getting on of living. She was happy; warm, forever warm, but happy.
Brad Reynolds was a typical Wilson Springs boy. He graduated from high school only to work on his daddy's farm. Average looks, average height, average intelligence; he was the kind of boy Meredith used to make fun of—the old Meredith that is. Few were surprised to see them together. Even fewer were surprised when they became steadies. It didn't even surprised Meredith when she said yes the first time he asked her to marry him.
It was a huge Wilson Springs' wedding. Everyone was there. The day cooperated by spreading blue skies from mountain-to-mountain. The valley itself stopped on days like this. All the old people dressed in suits and skirts coloured and designed decades earlier. Children were dressed in newly bought department store outfits. And Meredith, in the gown worn by her mother twenty-five years before, looked beyond beautiful. She had a glow worn only by brides on their wedding day. Smiling, closed mouthed, she radiated happiness. It was a perfect day for Wilson Springs and Meredith Taylor Townsend. They both had a wedding to think about and not once did either one of them think of Scott Wine.
The honeymoon to Yellowstone was as unimpressive as inexpensive. They took off as man and wife ready to begin a new life together. They loved as never before that first Yellowstone night. They fell to sleep as man and wife, but awoke in the Rockies. Although Yellowstone had its beauty, they were already familiar with each other, and the tourist only made the whole honeymoon touristy.
Back in Wilson Springs, they settled into a modest life. She talked Brad into working at the munitions factory in Telson, fifty miles away. He had always wanted to leave the farm, all he needed was for someone to prompt him. Their future seemed bright and hopeful. He was a young man with a beautiful wife and a new good paying job and she was that beautiful wife with a new husband and the memory of Scott Wine.
Tempted as she was, and though she needed the release, she decided against telling her husband about the stranger and that night. She had a difficult time understanding it herself. It would be almost impossible explaining it to someone else. Fall was only a few short weeks away and winter comes early to the valley; she would be cold soon enough. This was Montana, you can't help but be cold here. And as soon as she feels the bite of a Wilson Springs winter, she'll forget all this Scott Wine business. She'll blame her wild imagination and feel silly worrying about that dumb old curse and laugh it all off. Soon it will snow and she'll be released. Even Scott Wine couldn't hold back Montana snow.
It was late August when Brad came home from work completely filled with excitement. He tried to wait for evening to tell her—he couldn't. It was just too good to keep to himself. He paced back and forth talking without periods. "Mary," he said, "you see, I was offered something at work today that I think is too good to pass up. I told them that I would have to talk to you before I would decide anything. I mean, this is good, good for both of us. It's a promotion, Mary, a promotion, a raise, and even better, a chance to work at the main plant in Faust, Arizona. Isn't this wonderful? Isn't this just wonderful?"
"Wonderful," she answered feeding off his enthusiasm.
"Arizona, Mary, it's summer there all year long. We'll never have to worry about Montana snow. This is just so wonderful. Think about it, you'll never be cold again."
Her mouth fell open revealing her crooked teeth as she lost her breath. She was shocked. She felt as if she were back in the diner with Scott Wine. All she could force out of her mouth was, "...when?"
"Today, tomorrow, as soon as we can pack." He was so excited. "I don't think you really know what this means to me. I've always known that one day I'd have someone like you to love and be able to take of. Thank you for that."
She sat and shook her head and tried to come to her senses. For a second, she thought she could smell the light musk that filled the diner that early Montana Januaryso long ago. She actually looked around the room for Scott Wine.
Brad sat next to Mary and wrapped his big arms around her. He kissed her on the cheek. He said, "Doesn't this just make you feel so warm inside?"
Faust, Arizona was nothing if not hot. At first she adapted well, pretending it was a Montana August. Placed in the middle of a desert, and on the edge of an Indian reservation, Faust grew up on the tailcoats of the nuclear age. The weapons plant that feeds the town supplied the hard material needed for tests at White Sands, New Mexico only two hundred miles away. Faust was exactly like Wilson Springs, except there was no snow, no mountains, no comfortable beauty, no family, and of course, no cold.
They were there only a short month when she noticed that she had fallen into a boring routine. Brad awoke at 4:30 every weekday morning, she cooked him breakfast—two eggs and toast, he showered, they ate together, he picked up the lunch she had prepared the night before, and took off for work. She would crawl back into bed and sleep until it time for Oprah at nine. Eventually she would find work, but right now, she was getting used to being in Faust and being away from Wilson Springs.
The morning of the third Tuesday of the first January in Faust, she stayed in bed fighting nausea with anxiety. The visit to the doctor Brad had made her take only seemed to frightened her more. She knew it was the fear of Scott Wine that she dreaded. This was to be the anniversary of his visit and she thought of little else. She played and replayed the whole night of a year ago as she lay in bed. She remembered the playful little smile he threw around, the warmth of his hands, and the heat of the change. She relived the moment of the heater blowing warmth all over her body...and she thought of the bet. She fell back on her bed and forgot the whole past year. The phone startled her. She cleared her throat as she answered the phone near her bed. It was her doctor giving her the results the billion tests she had taken. She closed her eyes and began crying. She was sure they would find Scott Wine inside of her. The doctor was quick with his news. It wasn't Scott Wine at all, it was a baby. She was pregnant. She couldn't wait to tell her husband. In fact, she called him at work. A baby, he said, so that's why you were so sick. Yeah, that's why she was so sick, she thought. She was pregnant and now it was time she told her husband about Scott Wine. It was something she couldn't live with any longer. Even at the happiest times of her life, all she could do was think of Scott Wine. He listened, he tried to understand. He knew of Jake and Sue's, and Ernie Carlson, that made telling the story easier. He knew that the sheriff stopped in every morning, and he knew that strangers sometimes stopped in to warm themselves from Montana winters. He held her as she began to cry.
"The baby," she said, "I'm worried about the baby. What if Scott Wine wants my baby."
"That's crazy," he said. "There's no such thing as a curse. It's stupid to even help some lunatic invent one. He was probably some nutcase who gets his kicks by scaring girls."
"But my baby..."
"Wait a minute," he said, "didn't he say your third child. Well, we'll only have two." It was his way of understanding.
She knew that was all she'd ever get from him. She smiled and cried and said almost to himself, "Yeah, we'll only have two."
The baby was born with no complications. He had his father's hair colour and his mother's high cheekbones. He was a beautiful boy. The called him Clarke after Brad's favorite movie star and so Clarke Reynolds became the first born son of Brad and Meredith Townsend Reynolds of Faust, Arizona, formally of Wilson Springs, Montana.
It was just before Clarke's first birthday when Merideth met Beth Williams. It was at the local shopping center. They met waiting for the generic-posed portraits when they struck up a conversation. They were both from out of town; Meredith being from Montana, and Beth being from Oregon. Both of their husbands worked at the plant and were about the same age. Both had little time to meet other people, and since both needed one, they decide to become each other's best friends. They parted swearing to exchange daily phone calls. 365-9672, she yelled out, Donald Williams, it's in the book. Call me. Meredith had every intention of doing just that.
Meredith sat Clarke on the carpeted bench and begged him to smile. While tunsung bulbs flashed on and off, she thought of her new friend. Finally, she had someone to talk to; someone to share with; someone she could tell about Scott Wine.
She was pregnant again and Brad wouldn't even listen when it came to Scott Wine. She was scared and she needed a friend. She thought of how silly she had become and wished she could calm herself. She knew that this was to be only her second child; she was frightened none-the-less. She thought of how wonderful it would be having a friend.
The moment she got home she pulled the phone book out of the top drawer next to the sink and sat down and looked up Donald Williams. She turned to the W's and was surprised by how many there were. For a town of only 25,000, there must have been a page and half full. Walters, Weeks, Widdson, Wiggins, Wine...Wine? There it was on page 89 of the Faust vicinity phone book—Scott Wine. Surely it wasn't the same Scott Wine. It couldn't be.
She found her fingers pushing the number. She held the phone to her left ear and stopped breathing. She felt her pulse beat in her fingers as she waited for the first ring. Her head was spinning by the second, and by the fourth, her legs were so weak she had to lean against the wall to keep from falling to the floor. On the fifth ring, still not breathing, she decided to hang up. Just as she pulled the phone from her head she heard the pop of a connection being made. She brought the phone back to her ear and fell to the floor. She was tortured by silence. Finally she heard a breath and she said hello. The breath broke on the other end and a soft voice finally said, Meredith? Remember...it's a deal then.
She threw the phone across the room.
She didn't talk for days. She finally told Brad, but he didn't believe her. He looked in the phone book but couldn't find a Scott Wine. He dialed the number Meredith remembered, but it was disconnected. She cried night and day and didn't talk to anyone. Brad took her to the doctor hoping he could give her something to sleep. She was pregnant with their second child and Brad was worried about how Meredith's health would effect the baby. The doctor checked her over and told both the parents with a smile that there was no need to worry about the mood change in Meredith. Most pregnant women experience mood swings and Meredith has double reason to be moody—she was going to give birth to twins.
It was August as she lay drugged up on a hospital table pushing two children into this world. The first child, a girl, almost fell out. The second didn't want to come out at all. The doctor finally had to reach up and twist the baby into the canal. Finally, with padded tongs, he half pulled on the head and a baby boy coughed out liquid and sucked its first lung full of oxygen and began life. Not a blessed beginning for one who was born with a curse, she thought. She flew around in her mind and tried to cry but the drugs refused her. She slept wide awake hoping it could all be a dream.
The bruises on her baby boy's forehead proved how real the birth had been. Her husband came into the room silently. He had lived with her paranoia the past six months, and after that phone call business, she was impossible. Her knew her fears. All he could hope was that her third child came out fine. That would be her only consolation. It would be the only proof that she would accept—a healthy baby boy. Problem was, her third baby was anything but healthy.
The yellow skin made the bruises seem even worse than they actually were . The jaundice paled the baby to a point that he looked dead. If it hadn't been for the squirming and crying, one might have thought that he was. Jaundice was something that happens to quite a lot of babies. It just hurts more when it's your child.
They named the girl Marilyn and the boy Marlon. The girl was happy and laughing and hungry, and the boy was sick and yellow and uncomfortable under the bright lights they used to cure jaundice. Her husband took Marilyn home a few days before Marlon was even released. Meredith stayed and cried when the incubator was brought to her room. When she was alone with Marlon, she would say over and over again, I'm sorry, baby, I'm so sorry.
Marlon spent most of his first few months in and out of doctor's offices. Most of what was wrong with him wasn't real serious, just troublesome enough to keep him from growing and getting well. Clarke was old enough to be left with a sitter, and Marilyn was no trouble. Meredith spent most of her time with Marlon.
Soon it became January and Marlon was not getting better. In fact, most of the time he spent laying there too tired to fight sickness. On the third Tuesday, Meredith took her third child into her lap, knelt on the living room carpet, looked up toward the sky, and said, "God, I know we haven't talked much. In fact, we probably have never talked. But I'm not the kind of person who asks for something without being able to give back. I'm just not the praying kind. But right now, I'm asking...no, I'm begging you, listen to me.
"I'm not sure what I've done, or what sins I've committed. I'm not even sure what caused all this. All I know is that my baby is suffering for no good reason. If you can't help, just give me an explanation.
"Look, I know I've denied you a few times, told people that I don't believe you exist. I think I've come to believe it now and then. I mean...let's face it, you're pretty hard to take at times. I'm sorry for all that. I believe you...I worship you...I'll live for you...Damn it! Don't you know that I'd say anything to help my baby. Look, what will it take? What do you want? Are you going to help me? Oh, please help me...please." She began crying.
"Could you tell me who the hell is Scott Wine? Who is he? Where did he come from? Why does he want from me? What importance am I to anyone? I was just a scared, confused little girl from Montana who only wanted to wake up each morning to continue dreaming. Why was I picked? Why couldn't I go on and have a normal boring life? Could you tell me that?
"Can you tell me what I have to do to be forgiven? Can you tell me if you can help me? No, I don't care if you help me, I want you help my baby.
"Can you tell me what my baby did to deserve this suffering? How can you curse a child for something it was incapable of doing? I can't believe you can let this happen." She became angry. She shouted skyward, "If you have all powers; if you are almighty; if you can change universes with the wave of a hand, then come down here right now and help my baby. You want someone to hate? You want someone to punish? Then punish me. Make me hurt; take my breath, make me suffer, only give me back the health of my baby. Be just, be fair, be the god we're suppose to worship. Take me...take me...do what you must, just help my baby.
"I'm sorry for what I've done. I apologize for everything. I don't know my crime, but I'm sorry for it. Forgive me...forgive my sins...only damn it, you help my baby!" She fell over her baby and cried. Marlon stirred. From in the front door, Brad ran in out of breath.
"Meredith," he said, "Meredith, come here. You won't believe this. It's a miracle." She looked up. Marlon swayed back and forth and opened his eyes. "This is incredible, Meredith. Come outside." She rocked her baby in her lap. He smiled. She set him on the floor, took off the blanket wet with tears, an followed her husband out the front door. "Look, baby, it's never happened in Faust. Doesn't this remind you of Wilson Springs? Can you believe it? It's snowing. It's snowing, Meredith. Isn't this a miracle?"
Meredith began crying out of control. She turned around and Marlon had rolled over on his stomach and began laughing. The babysitter was bringing Clarke home and she watched Meredith stand in the front yard dancing and catching snowflakes on her tongue. She walked Clarke up to the front door and told Brad, "I can't ever remember it snowing here. And I've lived in Faust all my life. Did you guys bring it with you from Montana?" Brad smiled and took Clarke by the hand and looked back to check on Marilyn and Marlon. Meredith was dancing as the flakes melted in her hair and on her face. Brad pushed Clarke inside the door and turned to Meredith. "Why don't you come in now," he said. "Aren't you cold."
She stopped and looked at him. It was difficult telling the difference between tears and melted snow. She felt a shiver of cold and she laughed out loud. "Yes," she yelled, "yes, I'm cold."