The last angel of the Lord

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I thought I was kneeling before the last angel of the Lord, knees crimped in a puddle of Oklahoma dirt, feet swole in my least pair of shoes.

“I am done being exhausted by you,” I cried out. “I have lived my years as well as I knew. I have worn my face as honest as I could, and if you don’t like what you see, you should remember me as a boy. I was not pretty or handsomely carved, but my sinew was as strong in sleep as it was awake. I never ran from a fight I thought I mightn’t win, and I never cheated when I knew I would be bloodied. So you can pierce me with whatever sword you carry in your scabbard, and I’ll lay down as humbly as I can. And the next time you see Him, after you’re finished stripping me of my guts, you can tell Him I wasn’t a bit sorry about crying out a little when you cut into my heart.”

But it was only Ma, come to ask me if I could fetch her that bucket of elderberries she’d been bullying me about for the past fifty-some years. She stepped out from behind the dense honeyed sunshine and revealed to me her homely face. She has held onto that expression — half exasperation, half astonishment — for all her life, and I never did figure if it was exclusive to me, or if it was for the world at large.

“You came back early,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting you ’til Sat’day. You can lift yourself from your knees now, go bring me my berries. Bucket’s beside the hand pump. You know where.” She shook her head, unsure. “You came back early.”

“I wasn’t particularly busy, but am disinclined to pick elderberries today,” I said. “It has been a long while, Ma.”

“It has,” she said, and she poked at a cold sore below her swollen lip. She looked frailer in her graveclothes. “I wasn’t complaining. You know I don’t complain.” She smiled, and then she asked me: “Did I really look like your angel?”

“I was expressing a confession, Ma,” I said. “You frightened me.” 

I watched the morning fall from the branches of the old sweetgum tree. It clutched at the leaves and left its debris at Ma’s feet. The tree had grown tall in the years I was away, and it was untidy with pale green flowers. There was a litter of old seed pods along the muddy driveway and surrounding the rotted flowerbeds. Time had halted, sped up, and halted again. Ma had not moved, and neither had I. Was I ten years old now, or almost seventy? I wasn’t sure, because both ages felt the same.

“Ma?”

“You brung me my berries? It has been an age since you brung me anything I wanted. There’s still ice cream in the ‘frigerator, your daddy purchased the vanilla especially for me.”

Daddy made his escape when he was still in his thirties, but he would not go away in her mind. She always had a story about him regarding the purchase of ice cream, or how he once buried a dog the wrong way, or that he was fucking that divorced woman in Eufaula back when I was still diapered, and how her hands were too unsteady to clean me when she found out. The curse words sounded like gravel coughed from her throat, but they almost brought her back to life. These were the memories she purchased for her old age. She was of an age when the scars didn’t care much about the damage that caused them.

“The house has gone to ruin,” I said.

“It has always been a difficult house,” she said. “The hardware store never kept the same colors of paint, and your daddy would not change his mind about it. He liked a particular shade of white. Funny, isn’t it, that white can be sold in so many shades? Some day, it will probably be invisible, and sold in a can just as plain as they want. They’ll sell you an armful of air, likely.”

“Mama, you need to get on,” I said. “ You don’t need to be locked to this place. Everyone is gone.”

“That’s not so. You’re still here. Not all the time, but you visit.”

“Because I have to remind you it’s time to move on. This place is an anchor.”

“You think your daddy liked that woman?”

“Mama, I was a child, I can’t remember him much. It’s been so many years. So many.”

“You gonna bring me my bucket? I can’t remember where I put it.”

“Mama, the elderberry bushes are all gone. They’ve been gone as long as me, you just don’t remember.”

She kicked at the dust underneath her. “This place has become so lonely,” she said. “Nobody visits no more, and you scarcely remember me. But where else is there? I don’t know any other place. Where do you go when you’re not here?”

“I don’t know,” I said, as honest as I could. “For a time, I’m here, waiting on the last angel to take me somewhere, and for a time, I am nowhere. I suppose I still don’t know how to lay still in death, and I still don’t know how to move through it.”

“I am sorry I brought you here,” she said, and I saw a shape fall before me.

My knees were crimped in a puddle of Oklahoma dirt, feet swole in my least pair of shoes.

“I am done being exhausted by you,” I cried out. “I have lived my years as well as I knew,” and it was the very first time for everything I knew.

The nineth part of a sparrow

(Adult language and sexual themes)

Thersites: Lo, lo, lo, lo, what modicums of wit he utters! his evasions have ears thus long. I have bobbed his brain more than he has beat my bones: I will buy nine sparrows for a penny, and his pia mater is not worth the nineth part of a sparrow. This lord, Achilles, Ajax, who wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head, I’ll tell you what I say of him.

Troilus and Cressida – William Shakespeare

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Chorus: Yes, she, Lucy Finn, not known for her patience or statecraft. She is celebrated for her fearless interpretations, intolerant of theater critics, New York rib joints, men generally, ex-husbands particularly. She is esteemed, but not beloved. Now dying of some awful viral scourge, probably. Fevered, alone, reminiscent in her grief, with a beautiful and dead Venezuelan boy locked up in the spare bedroom, occupying too much of her attention.

Lucy Finn: Help me, Victorio, I believe I am dying.

Victorio: Rest, dear Lucille. Shall I bring you your cigarettes, or would you prefer a magnificent ripened orange? You have not told me what mood you’re in.

Chorus: (Snorts). Lucille? Victorio was her first husband, and the only man who would ever call her that. She despises that version of her name. People would compare her to that other redhead, that vaudevillian redhead, the one with the television program. Not a real actress, not by any measure. Only Victorio could call her by that name and make it sound so erotic. 

Lucy Finn: That fancy gin you bought me. Over crushed ice, please. With orange peel? My throat is so dry.

Victorio: Of course. 

Chorus: Lucy recalls Victorio has been dead for nearly thirty-seven years. A suicide. He liked the young boys, had a fondness for them, and she caught him in the back of their Lincoln Town Car, his soft brown fingers stretching a condom over a fifteen-year-old boy’s semi-flaccid cock.

Thersites:  Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk; thou art thought to be Achilles’ male varlet.”

Lucy Finn: I loved that role. I was born to play it. And god-damn those critics who said it was not a woman’s role. It was an actor’s role. God-damn them all. I should have won the Drama Desk Award that year.

Davison Petre: You were volcanic, my love. You were Lawrence Olivier if Olivier were a woman. 

Lucy Finn: Or if he could be me, and a much better actor.

Davison Petre: Really, darling? You’re too much for your own good. What are you going to do about that dead boy in the bedroom? This is the middle of April, my sweet, and that corruption is practically in full blossom.

Lucy Finn: I don’t know, Davison. Could you help me? I’m really not feeling very well.

Chorus: Davison was really not there, of course. They divorced almost two years after Troilus and Cressida finished its brief Broadway run. It took them that long to realize they were not particularly tragic, just two semi-real people who did not like each other very much. Davison finished his career as a character actor in minor network sitcoms and movies-of-the-week. The last time Lucy heard from him, he was working on a memoir he hoped would be picked up by Random House. He was one of the first ‘celebrities’ to succumb to this new and outrageous virus. That was nine days ago. Sometimes Lucy forgets she was married to him.

Lucy Finn: Davison?

Daniel Large: I don’t know who that is. Was he an actor friend of yours?

Lucy Finn: He was… yes, something like that. Have you come here to help me with my little problem?

Daniel Large: Honey, I’m your big problem now. We signed a contract, remember? Branson, Missouri? That little theater gig you were supposed to headline? “Shakespeare and the Romulans”, or whatever it was called? You never showed up, and I gave you a lot of advance money. And now the devil has come for his due.

Lucy Finn: I don’t know you! I don’t remember you! I don’t think I would do such a thing. I’m practically retired now. I’m practically a legend now. Why would I ruin that? Why would I do something so foolish and… and so meaningless? I was the best Thersites, no matter what the reviewers wrote. I should have won for that performance, instead of Jessica Tandy for whatever bullshit play she was in. Poor dear, she was a pity-win, don’t you think?

Daniel Large: You asking me? Look here, you signed the papers. Old broads like you, I know you need your fancy boys and gigolos to help you believe you’re not past your best-before date, but sweetheart, you’re way past that now. You’re practically expired. You gonna get on that bus, or do I have to drag you there myself? And Jessica Tandy won for The Gin Game that year, and she was glorious.

Lucy Finn: You… you’re… you are not a very nice character. In fact, I would say you’re a cliché . This is not a 1970’s detective show, when that kind of acting was so commonplace. This is real life. You don’t belong here anymore.

Daniel Large: Ain’t nothing real about your life, lady. What about that boy in your spare room? Is he even real? Have you checked on him lately?

Thersites: “I would thou didst itch from head to foot and I had the scratching of thee; I would make thee the loathsomest scab in Greece. When thou art forth in the incursions, thou strikest as slow as another.”

Chorus: Daniel Large was an unemployed actor she met in 1997. He volunteered as a stagehand in a Trenton, New Jersey production of Henry VI, Part II. Lucy was cast as Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester. He was a large man in many ways, and Lucy took him to her bed throughout the entire run of the play, which was four performances. She was not even certain if ‘Large’ was his real name, but he was, and she enjoyed him, and never saw him again. She played the role of Eleanor indifferently, and can remember only one of her lines:

Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester: “What say’st thou? majesty! I am but grace.”

Lucy Finn: There are no small parts of me that do not ache for some comfort. To be held and reassured, and, yes, solaced by a perfumed whirlwind of adoration. You are all gone, all gone. If I pass, when I pass, it will be a surrender, not a walkaway, and none will remember me, by name, by scattered fortunes. The playbills have all faded, all cinders and dust now, inhaled by a morbid breeze. God-damn it, Roy, why did you send them away? I was ready! The wigs were freshly powdered, my contours smoothed and colored, the Bard’s words leaning strongly against my lips,  ready to rush… or walk… or tumble artfully in their proper exclamations of grief and submission. I was ready to go on! Roy! Why did you shutter the lights and empty all the seats?

Roy Alabaster:  None were seated, my dear. None! A few stray tickets, perhaps, collected by collectors to wipe their bums or freshen their ruined beds, but they were all taken by plague, all but a few who wander their rooms, starved for pity, seeking light, seeking better dreams than what currently adorns them. There are no lights to shutter, it is all gone dark now.

Lucy Finn: But what of the boy? Did he not attend to me? Did he wish to bear witness for me? I am blameless for my husband’s sins. There is no boy locked within that room, it is his ghost. Tell me so, I plead with you. There is no boy!

Roy Alabaster: Though you are not innocent, your reckoning will be kind, m’lady. T’is true. There is no boy, but for the one you project your own darkness upon. That boy ruined you as he himself was ruined. But he is gone, and now you too can rest, and peacefully, dear Lucy. Most peacefully.

Lucy Finn: Thank you Roy. You have been a good and kind manager to me. I think our business is done here now. I wish you well, old friend. May we both see clearly beyond our fevered imaginings, as we glance upon whatever truth rests beyond us.

Chorus: And Lucy slept, and she dreamed of certain things, and none of them could harm her.

Chorus: But wait! There is still the matter of  the beautiful and dead Venezuelan boy locked up in the spare bedroom, now occupying none of her attention.Lo, lo, lo, lo, what of he, dear friends, what of he?

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

 

Fifty-four years following an unfinished burial

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I.

The pigweed is choking out the old summer garden, 
and these morning glories have finally figured out 
the shortest distance between the dirt 
and the kitchen floorboards. 
 
The family pictures, all gone 
except for this one of Henry leaning against 
Mister Sam’s blue Chevrolet Coupe. 
You can see cousin Laurel’s shadow falling
across the patch of dandelions beside his boot,
him with a grin, and 
her, well, I don’t know
what happened  to her,
no one ever said whether living or dead.
 
That picture slipped behind the pantry shelves
and no one noticed it missing
for almost 60 years. 
Henry died back in ‘62. 
 
Spring, 1973,
another twister shredded 
the porch and the backyard tool shed. 
No one was hurt but 
for the way we thought about things.
We stayed on that particular patch of land.
Where else would we go? 
What else did we have?
 
Youngest brother Davy lost to lung cancer 
back in ‘89,
sister Marlene broke her hip down cellar
and it grew a blood clot, early winter, 2003. 
Mom, bless her heart, heart attack at 52, 
Dad, soon after that, broken-hearted 
and emphysema, 55.
And the rest that was left, cousins
and further-back kin,
well, they drifted away, you know, 
they just drifted apart.
 
There is no real hole in the moon
when it hoists itself up as a curled pale shaving,
it is the illusion of its incompleteness 
that sets your mind to doubt.

II.

Me and Lucille, we are the last ones. There is a particular sorrow in saying, ‘Remember Cousin Muriel?’ because no one does. Loo’s memory is fading, and I am right behind her. The years, you know, they pile one atop the other until the weight closes the lid. 

“They drift, honey,” Loo says, reading my mind again. “The memories, they drift like leaves, out of order, random as curtains. Sure, I remember Muriel.”

We are lying in bed, hearing/not hearing the oscillating fan that escorts us to sleep, thick family quilts piled by our feet, sardine-colored light pouring through venetian blinds. It is my turn to cook breakfast, but the floor is still cold, and I can see every word of our conversation turn to vapor. 

“I remember Muriel,” she says, and she squeezes my hand.

III.

Said my Loo: She was a very pale girl, short brown hair. Mousy hair.

I remember her lipstick, said I, what color would you call it? Brown?

Some kind of maroon, I think. It was an ugly color. Muriel introduced us, you and me, do you remember that? You were frightened of her, and that made me laugh. I don’t know why, because she scared me too. You lived just past the four-way stop, where it turned into Baltimore Road, and I spoke to you for the first time at church. You were quite a bit older.

I was two years older, Loo.

But I was a girl, she said. Two years is a lot at that particular age. 

Go on about Muriel. How did you know her?

Oh, said Loo, she sometimes taught Sunday school class, whenever Miss Barbara was ill. Her voice was so deep, like quarry water. She scared most of the girls, but she had a look in her eyes, a bedevilled look, like everything was a clever joke she constructed.

She was oddly built, I said. And her voice did come from her feet.

But she could recite those passages like she meant them. She could have become a preacher, in a different time.

And did she?

Did she what, dear?

Did she believe what she read, the gospels and the epistles, the psalms and the songs?

I don’t know, said Loo. I know she cursed when she was angry, which was often. Such vile words.

I remember her funeral, I said. It was an odd thing. It was so quiet until near the end of the service. You could barely hear the preacher speak.

No, wait, said Loo. I remember that, too.

Remember? Someone from town noticed she had been buried in the wrong plot.

They put her beside your cousin Henry, was that it?

Henry was not kin, I said. I’m not sure of his distinction. He was a friend of cousin Laurel, I think. Henry died the year before. Scarlet Fever? I know that Muriel was afraid of him, she made mention of it to everyone. No one ever explained to me why she was afraid of him. Oh, what a foolish mistake that was, burying her in the wrong spot. It made the whole thing feel so unfinished. I was twelve years old, and even I knew it was a bad thing.

Did they ever move her to a different spot?

No, I said. It would take too long, and cause too much sorrow for the family to go through it again. The church planted a rosebush between the two plots as a compromise, but the roses always died. In time, everyone who attended the funeral passed, or forgot, or stopped caring. Because that all happened in the old century, you know.

Just like us, said Loo, rather bitterly. From the old century. And then she smiled. But we still remember, don’t we, Charlie?

For now, I answered. This damn room isn’t getting any warmer. You want your eggs scrambled or over-easy this morning?

Oh, honey, you know how I like them. I trust you.

IV.

Take a look at this picture. It was taken by someone I don’t remember, of someone whom I can barely recall. But I remember the event, the time of day, the slant of the sun, the sound of the bees surrounding the morning glories, the smell of the illicit beer on Henry’s breath, my father laughing behind me, my mother watching through the kitchen window, and I remember my cousin Laurel sliding away from the camera. She was a shy girl.

Mister Sam drove his brand new Coupe straight onto our lawn, and he parked it beside the side porch. My father loved the lines of that car, coveted it for himself, and wanted a chance to drive it. The car was beyond his means, but he didn’t hold it against Mister Sam. They were friends.

Someone pulled out their box camera, Henry stepped in front before anyone was ready for a formal shot, and the picture was taken.

But look closely. Focus in on the shadow that leans into the dandelions by Henry’s foot. There is a second shadow intersecting the primary one. It belongs to me, reaching for a kiss from Laurel. She was trying to move away from me, and her shadow bumped into the portrait. She was afraid of me. It wasn’t my first attempt at a kiss. And she wasn’t the only cousin from whom I attempted one.

“Don’t,” she said, and then she ran away. She didn’t say anything when I met up with her later, when we were alone.

I have lost my dear Lucille, and my heart grows more weary with each step I take towards her stone. We were the last of our time, me and Loo, and now I’m the last. I will lay roses on her grave every day until I am unable, and hope they will survive me. She is the only one I need to remember.

It is the illusion of my completeness that sets my mind to doubt.

(photo from Pexels.com)

The hemlocks

Forty years on,

she follows the path of his ghost,

a slender and thorned road

that leads to a ruined ecstasy.

Above the carpeted dirt,

she remembers the boy’s twitching mouth,

so unaccustomed to casual pleasure,

and the slow burn of tobacco between them.

The last of the afternoon light

dripped between the hemlocks

and fell upon bare shoulders.

And she, alone, still wonders

if he ever smelled the gunpowder.