“And if still after these you somehow remain unmoved, ma’am, allow me to speak briefly of Chelsea Blackwell, alleged daughter of the same Clarence mentioned earlier, last name withheld once more out of consideration for the departed. Chelsea Blackwell, a little girl strange and lonely who haunted even as she lived.”
I had been listening and not, keeping my lips unpuckered in silence. I believed in the necessity of presentation. I had learned how to nod without conviction and laugh without mirth. I had learned the graceful acceptance of drinks bought with filthy intent, to throw them quickly back and pretend. The roads were very long and my truck’s tires bare, its grill staring stoic at death’s horizon. The man pointed to my glass and I remembered: nod. Exhale through nose. Think of rainfall and the intransigence of potting soil.
“Though I suppose it’s a few feet short of fair to blame the girl for the lonely.”
Nearby were windows but the sun was long down, and there was little to consider out there anyway — parking lot, American cars, and beyond them the road and aside from these just crop, soybean I imagine. More specifically, trucks. And so I watched the old man when he spoke, sometimes even his eyes, or I watched the bartender, a heavy and mean woman who several times underwent an instantaneous mutation into a heaving laughter factory, issuing forth cackles that quickly lost momentum and seemed to abandon the woman suddenly, leaving her stranded.
“I suggest you believe in this much, which all if I can say all began the day Chelsea was delivered to Clarence’s front door out of the complete blue of a healthy summer sky. She was not ugly, exactly, and nor, would we learn, stupid. But certainly strange and deeply lonely. Clarence was a kind-hearted and good man. A strict non-Catholic from his generous core outward. Which is another story entirely but know that none in town held it against him, or held it even anywhere near him. Clarence was fine, quality people.”
His accent was glued to his language. I sucked beer through teeth and set my glass onto a coaster sogged limp. By this point I’d become, if not technically a listener, at least adept at seeming to listen. A more patient or anyway static person, better skilled at stomping instinct. My barstool was the sort that swiveled, allowing me to face the man or turn away without moving my feet. He was a piecemeal figure with ancient, mechanical wrists, forearms formerly taut that had lost grip of bone, and elbows like marbles. Farther up was a face gaunt and terrible and feature-heavy, a fine representation.
“That story being the one where Clarence find himself during his formative years burned something royal by a gang of thugs prowling his formative neighborhood, claiming to be Catholic. Skipping details inappropriate for mixed company, I’ll just say that the burning in his case was in fact literal, and plenty to keep Clarence himself a healthy soul’s-length away from any and all Eucharistical activity.”
The bar was one where people could and so did still smoke, knowing this was a liberty sentenced to death. Eventually the law would reach even this room five towns removed from the nearest city. Add three descriptors — dim, rank, and wooden. A bar named for a man and his possessive, it was a fattened shed ten miles from the river and three hours west of the lake. Can a bar have jowels? Earlier, this man had claimed to be the bar’s owner. I arrived here alone with my bag and he gestured widely, seated exactly here, inviting me to sit. My own truck had broken down a fifteen-minute walk east of here. Since then the bar had filled, peaked, and begun to thin out. It was becoming late. He shook his head and slid his glass from one cupped hand to the other.
“Chelsea was seven. Even today neighbors will speak of the afternoon when that social service woman pulled up in her unlabled white van and parked it like she was maybe afraid of the curb, then led little Chelsea by one hand up to Clarence’s stoop, then stood there with the hand resting on the girl’s sad skinny shoulder. Clarence going blank-faced in his open door. Robbed of color. Woman explained basically, good evening sir, here is your long lost daughter whose grandmother, last of this poor fleshy girl’s living family, has recently passed and whose mother years prior had decreed would become, in just such a nuclear outcome, your daughter as well. She enjoys reading the bible and eating bananas and crackers. Inside of her giant military duffel you’ll find her collection of stuffed animals that she believes harbor the souls of her many family dead and gone, which to be clear, after last week includes everyone but you, Mr. Clarence Stehr. Then asked if he had a cigarette she could bother for. But Clarence wouldn’t smoke any more than sip sacramental wine, so she left them then, daughter and de facto father, one befuddled, colorfree, the other demonic in her sadness and no less lonely despite her new daddy, half leaning on her large duffel with familial souls residing therein.”
Occasionally bargoers would approach and lift a shirt to reveal a scarred or roadburned midriff, or fold away lips to boast of missing teeth – the faulty consensus being that I was there to collect photographs or consequential impressions. To them I looked the sort of woman who works for public radio. I had the bangs and shoulders of documentary filmmaker, jawline of an independent songwriter, knowing smirk of an episodic internet personality.
“So what did Clarence do but make up the couch for the girl, course. And the next day drive her into town for toiletries and general provisions, after which errands Clarence, bless him, found himself about paralyzed by his sudden paternity, unsure what gestures would convey the brand new but strangely, he said, real-feeling love he had for his strange, pallid new daughter, whose eyes were always red, I swear, even when she wasn’t crying. So as a gesture Clarence did what many confused men do. Bought the girl some shoes.”
Tucked inside my sock was a knife that for a month straight lived inside my hand, and that in free moments, which were many, I would practice opening and closing. In the duffel that slouched vertical between me and the next stool was a handgun, a .38 that even a child could manage. The simplest of mechanics. Also an explosive device that some would call improvised though it was, I can assure you, not.
“Clogs in fact, from a Dutchman out on Highway J. Desperate for business, he’d concocted a model that lit up with each step, like something you’d see at Walmart. Real professional. He rigged up pairs with wooden soles and a some with rubber. And now Clarence, certain that here was the shoe to make his statement regarding newness of affection, love and cetera, still hesitated over which sole was righter before fatefully deciding for wood. Figured wood would work something like a bell on a dog and track Chelsea through the house. And then Clarence, being Clarence, of course had to jerryrig the clogs, hollowing out the soles to make room for several lithium-ion batteries and wiring them suckers in series to maximize the voltage. Led lights, too, the works. Potent suckers.
“And it must have worked, because once Chelsea saw the flashes of red with those first trial steps in her new footwear, the girl nearly, Clarence would swear to me inside this very bar, sitting right where you are now, girl nearly even smiled. Swore on it that her lips rose. On which point I admit I was conflicted, internally. Clarence knew better than to ask if I believed him. He was a generous and thorough man, and God knew as much.”
I recall perfectly the old man’s face in the bar’s mix of colored lights. He would reach an emaciated claw to scoop nuts from the wooden bowl between us. This was a period when any face I saw on a man of this age, between fifty and, say, seventy-five, was the face of that judge whose castigation I’d endured, standing there shackled, my case settled in a final outburst of one man’s moral rage. It is not terribly different than the face of my lawyer that night over the drinks he insisted we share, a very different bar. In memory the man’s face that night is a crisp video of slack skin, folded. Nuts fisted into a lipless mouth, his eyes convicted.
“And for awhile, alright, this girl found what she needed to approximate her depraved version of contentment in Clarence’s home, fulfilled by a neat cycle of lonely but complete existence. She got herself enrolled in the local grade school without help, figured which bus was hers, loudly came and went and meanwhile spent all free hours both alone and together with those stuffed animals of hers. Not a finger of help requested or apparently needed. If that ain’t suspicious enough.”
There was the man who lived with my mother for those fifteen years that to me exist as separate and distinct hours twined into fagots of time I can see stacked behind our house just inside that city’s limits. A tall and thin and gaunt and terrible man, murder-worthy and disappointingly death-ready. Another selective believer. There was my bedroom far enough from theirs that mom heard not a peep. Later a man who swore devotion between office hours puncturing his students, along with she who vanished after a folk flutist who collected bird feet. We all believe we know how to scream.
“He would speak, Clarence, of assorted concerns for the way the girl would try to feed her animals, which I don’t have to explain why this didn’t work. Stuffed beasts with mouths sewn on, no teeth or tongues to process food, no digestive apparatus, no anus to redistribute food back unto the earth. But it was a cycle of care for the girl, smashing banana or cracker against these stuffed animals’ mouthless lips then wiping away crumbs and banana flesh from their faces. Throughout, she would converse with the souls of her family she said lived inside the dolls where mouth and organs were not.”
Less frequently was I hearing balls clacking on the table. Less often inappropriate laughter. I wonder about men like these for whom gun ownership is automatic, so carefree with their tools. I remember the first time I held one such midget gadget. It looked too simple, a doltish combination of small steel pieces. In that moment I was unable to believe what the man in charge was saying about the gun. But it is stupid, I explained with genuine negative awe. He settled into sneer and once there answered, I will never love what you’ve got inside. Which I believed.
“But strange as this girl’s forced feedings of her stuffed animals were, nothing compared to Chelsea’s display of sadness. I hesitate an attempt to adequately describe the girl’s form of crying. You won’t understand because I did not, even after Clarence had gone to great ends to prepare me, until I became personal witness. And believe that afterward I made no few internal covenants to never again, to avert my eyes or flee by foot, anything. Clarence and I were standing in the front lawn one day when suddenly here comes Chelsea from around back, clonking across the side patio Clarence poured himself, rounding the corner and catching a foot wrong on the garden hose uncoiled for watering. Drought year, this one, and bad, so the ground wasn’t much softer than the patio. Try and imagine the opposite of normal crying, and I do not mean laughing. She blinked when it was starting, then balled her hands into fists, raising them to her eyes like someone miming the act. It was a pathetic mockery, the girl twisting her fists cartoonishly back and forth in time and meanwhile no tears to speak of under those fists, not a drop of moisture to be seen, and the whole display almost soundless, no moaning, no braying or sounds of any sort, only the gently audible reality of breath, a vacuum sound you’d be forgiven for mistaking for nasal or oral inhalation until you saw the drool leaving her mouth and crawling I swear to you up her cheeks, spittle traveling rails as they climbed, the fluid eventually reaching her eyes and welling there before disappearing into whatever ducts or demonry she had, sucked as it were to complete the process. Opposite of crying. I won’t say any more except that it was a bizarre and baleful sight that confirmed several sinister truths about the girl.”
I remember learning the history of a gold standard and for years ignoring the implications. But there comes a point when any living and thinking human must confront the arbitrariness of the numbers. Literal worthlessness. On maps the shape of the state I found myself this night is essentially rectangular, with some nooks added and a degree of stretch. I had many times watched men pay for my meal, flipping effortlessly gratuitous bills from a corpulent wad, a charismatic performance ineffective because they always forgot to ask.
“And of course the one book she had arrived with onto the stoop was none other than a New International version of The Holy Bible, which sparked the longest conversation the girl and I ever had. One afternoon while her alleged father was in the basement workshop of his, tinkering. I sat there flipping its pages and heard her clonking down the hall. Now, was I looking for notes or marginalia? Arguments? So I see the souped-up red lights and then there she is, sitting on the floor in front of me with a banana in one hand and a stuffed doll in the other, suspicious narrow eyes. Asking whether I was a Catholic. I am indeed, I told her, which she answered by affirming, me too. Which gave me pause, cautious not to trigger and witness again her version of tears. Well, I said, technically speaking, that isn’t true. Not until you take your first communion. And at this point she stared into my own face in a way I couldn’t describe if you gave me a full week.”
I looked for the bartender, who was nowhere to be found. I’d witnessed enough of the woman to believe that the man next to me was indeed the place’s proprietor, and that some nights he would lay the large woman onto the pool table, or bend her over the icemaker and assert the apostrophe.
“Then said the last words I’d hear her say: I need to talk to the father.” He waited a moment then added, “Vagueness intended.”
Any clocks I could find were all stalled in joke. I had traded away my watch in the spring – for the knife, in fact.
“Of course would Chelsea have landed on any other stoop in town, would even she had, Jesus forbid, gotten dropped onto my own stoop by that unlabeled white van, she would certainly have been enrolled in the preparatory catechism. But Clarence, recall, was good but not Catholic, fearful but not pious. And so there was Chelsea clomping through town, blinking electric red with every step until she reached the church doors and continued bright and loudly into the nave, introducing herself to Father Maldonado under our modest cathedral’s modest apse, and requesting private council in the rectory trailer, which was just out back and linoleum-floored. The Father was happy to lead her back there, the Father being the Father.”
And if I closed my eyes I could imagine the place — a trailer that bowed at its center, something nearly tubular with warp. To avoid false impression: it is not that my gauges for belief are rarefied, or honed – I have believed men and women who claimed love, fallen for the trappings of potential futures based on the same. I have trusted, slipped inside trust like a shawl, only to find myself engulfed in burn.
“And whatever you might have heard about the Father and his practices, there isn’t a word of that worth a damn.”
Here he waved at the air, shooing the dust mites and smoke that might facilitate false belief. It was no stretch to imagine his face coming apart and revealing a lizard.
“So the Father settled into the small rectory’s loveseat, crossing his legs professorially beneath his robe and receiving the girl, who I had spoken to him about at length and who now stood where so many others had over the years, stood or kneeled enough that the linoleum has depressed noticeably, sunk to form a kind of crater around her clogs. She explained her dilemma, a father whose personal history with the Church ran directly counter to her own passion for the Eucharist.”
I am a fully-grown human woman capable of knowledge. I have both the faculty of belief and the facilities to dispense it accordingly.
“She spoke of the church as pure sacrament. She spoke convincingly of Catholicism occupying another realm than science, a doctrine she noddingly claimed was lifted out of the reach of rational critical attack. Then Father Maldonado listened as she read through her laundry list of dead relatives living inside the vessels of her stuffed animals. At which point Father shifted in his chair and pulled from his robe a communion wafer, onto which the girl’s red eyes locked and followed as the Father stood, keeping the wafer level with her face. Hungry, he said, not quite a question. This a man I have hunted and communed with over matters large and small, man trained to know evil on first glance. And of course she was hungry, almost always, given Clarence’s lot and so general vacancy of kitchen cupboard. But not for the body of Christ, not this and not Chelsea, not the holy biscuit before her soul had been adequately prepared for the Catholic God. So when the biscuit drifted left and right on approach to her mouth the girl stood firm and refused its entry into her body. Crumbs fell to the floor and her lips stayed so tight that something inside her body must have broke, because it began, then, the crying. Of the traditional and natural sort, as all that her eyes had sucked in was at this point returned to the world in a series of throbbing heaves, the tears her eyes had collected now shot outward like projectiles, arcing upward and falling like rain to the trailer’s linoleum, splattering, the Father now with eyes closed and head swaying as he issued a prayer won’t anybody ever know which, the wafer destroyed, gone, his own feet wide and stable, pushing a second wafer toward girl’s mouth while young Chelsea went the route of her stuffed animals, a girl with lips but no mouth, no organs, no stomach, surface only, and adhering to her mouthlessness with terrible enthusiasm, blockading the crackers, bodies of Christ for which her interior was not prepared. And meanwhile the tears were puddling in the depression in which she stood, the linoleum warped but still water tight, a puddle growing inside the floor’s crater and climbing the crater’s walls. Remember how Clarence had believed, tragically, we come to understand very soon, that custom clog-lights run by exponentially increased voltage comprised the paternal gesture to convince this lonely little girl of his love. And that Clarence had chosen wood over rubber. Mean meanwhile Father Maldonado was by now on his fourth wafer, pressing it against lips she kept Fort Knox’d while inside she was tearing apart, hungry for the one thing she wouldn’t allow herself to eat, and thus the tears would not stop. And the puddle growing deeper with each forbidden crumb forced onto her lips. The puddle deepening and deepening and soaking through her clogs, eventually reaching the batteries and beginning to hiss, then popping with a jolt, the customized and too-thoughtful gift now providing the final shock the girl would ever know.”
The bar was empty. We were alone. The man and I were there and there together.
“And do you know what I told Clarence, who mourned responsibly but was able after a time to soldier on with his life and return himself to normal? Took my friend into my arms and explained that, friend, stretch blame far enough and it achieves the status of accident, two cars out on some road, nobody else to see. Meaning she went out of this world the same way she came into it, accidental.”
I remember the man’s yellow fingernails against the glass, jittering around lines of beer streak. Then suddenly his hands came alive, birthed into the story as their own characters, demanding roles central to what came next. In times like these I would recall the locations of my weapons, the color of clothing I’d concealed them inside.
“And now I’d like to hear you try. Not a peep for hours out of you, has there? So try. Go on and tell me that’s not proof of God’s hand reaching down to us here on earth. Go on and say you don’t believe.”
Everyone alive thinks they know how to scream. I coughed and reached for my bag, swiveling.
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