Excerpt from the novel, The Paraclete
CANNON SHOALS, April 1991
The two fornicators didn’t rush, but they never paused, couldn't, trapped in time (the way it seems to move by), they were voracious, the desire giving way to utterly selfish need. They were having sex on the sidewalk in front of her house. He panted and grinned like a wicked, ancient blue-faced heathen.
The sun glimmered through the elms and splotched the yard with warmth, and the fornicators with forgiveness. Great baby blue morning glories gazed down from the white slats of the trellis next to the front door, dumbly giving up the night.
Copulators, feeling ordinary and ecstatic,
we didn’t rush, we didn’t pause,
we fornicated to the end of our fornication,
Southland mucous (songbird rhythm in myxoDixian melody)
her tender thighs squeezing mine with all their strength.
And then she lay crying in gentle relief,
the flow from her closed eyes wetting the grass at her cheek,
her hair clotted around her face like dollops of butterscotch.
And done fornicating, I held the grin on my face,
found our blessed humicubation a blessing,
blessed, oh God,
found myself a pace back from the dewy brink of death,
a pace away now from the oblivion I would have welcomed yesterday. Yesterday, when I knew there was nothing for me,
when I had given my life away and it had been accepted in total
(and with gratitude), yesterday,
I would have preferred not to live without at least owning my life.
I was Leo, but am I now?
The last of my youth had long ago drained away
and left my face wooden,
my body a papier-maché sculpture
stuffed with ashes of dead rage,
the fire of my love cooled,
cold in me,
and black like burned letters.
Leo kept his weight on his elbows, considerate, they were on hard ground, partly on concrete. Janet’s eyes were closed, some of her butterscotch hair stuck in parted lips’ evaporated spittle glue. Last year’s wild cherry leaf, fleshless lace, clung to her flushed cheek and Leo picked it off and kissed it and dropped it into the grass and the trembling shadow of a dogwood blossom.
It was dogwood winter, the white flowers like patches of snow revealed low through deciduous forests as yet sparsely foliated. The foothills were warm, Cannon Shoals sleepy, tired from the week, from the semester, from the decades of deterioration that seemed to be culminating along with the century. Nine more years and the millennium will sweep away (imagine!) the last rain rotted eaves timbers, the rusted square nails that held together these temporary shelters against the frontier cold, and the rubble of brick downtown stores that were built too solid and lasted too long and looked antique in the face of the prefab-on-a-slab across the street. Less than a decade to go, and then the abandoned malls will fall, their interim discount stores leaking the rain, rotting, defunct, the owners retired, the prefab now defabricated and blown tumbling across the extinct pedestrian greenway, the pavement in the vast multi-storied parking lots all split and sprouted with milkweed, crumbling, all of it collapsing into the small town clay. Just let the millennium end!
Leo lifted his head and looked at Janet and she smiled, eyes closed tight against the sunlight, her mouth curled up at the corner near his face. He sucked into his nostrils the acrid faint decay from her exhalation, the smell of tea and honey and yogurt mingled in her all night girlish breath, and he was delivered for the moment to life: that is how important she had become to him.
It was almost six o’clock, full daylight. They lay together side by side now on their backs. A patch of sunlight had crept across the gritty gray concrete and slowly up to her breasts.
Very distant, a car horn honked, come on out, your ride is here, first shift, no doubt. Apprehension began to erode his numb bliss. He rolled his head to the side, glanced at the dark windows of the house across the street, imagined that the pharmacist who lived alone there might have happened to look out his window, maybe called the police. How many laws had he and Janet broken, he wondered, lying there together naked, fornicating, fornicating on the sidewalk in Cannon Shoals, on the dawn sidewalk leading up to her house, the light of the butterscotch sun on her butterscotch hair and the roof of her house, the butterscotch sunlight on her breasts. He was saved by sex on the sidewalk, saved by Janet, saved by her existence and by his lucky encounter with her. And the police of Cannon Shoals, what police there were, were asleep in his imagination (though not really asleep and he knew it). He was saved, and he breathed and was conscious of it, though he knew nothing and could imagine nothing of what the future might bring now. It was the first time he had ever been unfaithful to Leah.
In one of the days before sex on the sidewalk, Leo nosed into room 204. He checked his watch. Either he had the time wrong or the day wrong. Or something had changed. He sat at the oaken teacher’s desk, a heavy, boxy throwback to the fifties, stingy of leg space. The shallow drawer cramping his lap was locked. The three drawers down the right side of the desk were deep and ink stained, supplied with pads of forms and folders full of records he was not interested in. Not his desk.
Outside he could see the corner of the parking lot, but not his car, which was at the other end. A silver globe shone in the distance at the horizon. It was an alien space ship at first, then resolved itself: the water tower for Cannon Shoals. At its reflective edge, a black blob that would be the letters CA and part of N once he rose from the desk and went to the window for a better look.
Fifth graders charged in around him, an emaciated blonde girl in a jump suit almost balled him with her elbow. Quickly he stepped out of the flow of traffic. He hadn’t been off schedule, had just failed to allow for transit time from one class to the other. These students moved from their homerooms to take Specialists in 204.
The outside wall of 204 was windowed its entire thirty foot length from the ceiling down to the beaded wainscoting, countless windowpanes, two of them cracked. Yellowed shades were lowered halfway down on a few of the windows, but the waxy room was still flooded with daylight. Green chalk boards at either end of the room. Hardwood floor scarified homogenously by decades of metal desk feet. Steam heat registers, four of them spaced along the window wall just below the sills.
The group flooded in, voices and desks clattering, notebooks dropping flat on the floor with maximum noise. Little faces averted -- Leo caught one or two looking at him, not quick enough. He turned to face the windows again, leaned on the sill and checked to see if he could locate his car from this vantage point. He could not. It was around the corner of the building. The noise abated a few decibels. He would let things calm before slowly walking to the back of the room, away from the teacher’s desk, to confound them a little bit, make them think about him, try to predict, try to know what was expected of them. They were fifth graders. The very best age, he already knew from the previous few weeks’ experiences. As bright as they would ever be, and mostly not yet ruined with body chemistry.
“There’s a ship from Mars in Cannon Shoals,” Leo said softly, in his best deep voice. Tentative snickers, giggles, then a precious moment of quiet opportunity. “One Martian on board, injured, needing a safe place to hide while he repairs his craft and regains his strength.”
It was a great beginning. The class was utterly silent, hanging on his words. He had neglected one important detail, though. He had failed to wait for the teacher to show up. She came in chattering, breaking the spell.
“Hi, Mr. Nobles. I’m Miss Mabry. Well...” she raised her eyebrows and indicated with her soft blue eyes the quiet classroom.
He shook her hand and said quietly, “We’ve already started.” She smiled at him and took an empty student desk at the back, not uttering another word. He made his way along the windowed wall, aware that the glare of day was silhouetting his form.
“He has a name, but it’s hard for Earthlings to pronounce. I’ll need someone to supply that name.” Several attentive students jerked toward pencil and paper. “He has a little machine with him, something he keeps close to him. He intends to use it to convince some Earthlings to help him. He’s an ugly little thing, though, so it may not be so easy to get help. I need seven Martians.”
Hands shot up everywhere. Mr. Nobles picked four girls and three boys, spaced as widely throughout the room as possible. “I need Earthlings.” Again, hands shot up, more than before. Two or three Earthlings teamed with each injured, stranded Martian, and Mr. Nobles asked each team to work out a skit which either solved the Martian’s problem or did not solve it, but either way, he wanted to understand, through dialogue, how they arrived at a new equilibrium after the problem was introduced. He made them understand, glanced at Miss Mabry and saw her eyebrows in their appreciative, uplifted (a little amazed?) state above some decidedly blue eyes. During the remainder of the class, he consulted with each group to make sure they were on the right track, taking into consideration the Martian’s problem and the Earthlings’ situations and likely reactions, working out actions that followed logically from the initial situation, and finding a resolution. Leo enjoyed the creativity some of the students displayed, enjoyed the confusion of others, the helping them understand, enjoyed the occasional glance he allowed himself in the direction of Miss Mabry, who smiled pleasantly, appreciatively.
She took Leo home with her the afternoon before they made love on the sidewalk, ostensibly so she could show him a book about theatre improvisations for elementary school students. By now he had almost completed his week at Cannon Shoals as a visiting theatre artist under the state’s Arts-for-All program.
He didn’t care about the improv book. Janet was an attractive woman. In the classroom there had been something galvanical, some unacknowledged but undeniable flux between them all week. Now he felt uneasy, nervous, afraid, but he wanted to see where she lived and to get to know her outside the classroom. On a whim, they left their cars at school and walked the ten or twelve blocks to her house.
"I loved the Tennessee Williams improv you did today," Janet said. Leo smiled. "But that thing where you had them secretly choose between love and money," she said. "I could tell which they had chosen. And the way the boys chose love. I never would have thought, especially some of the ones who did. It was a safe way for them to express something they couldn't otherwise. What are you smiling at, Leo?"
"Oh, well, just at what you're saying, and I like the way you talk. We're being people now. You don't mind my saying so, do you?"
"It's more relaxed out of the school setting."
“You brushed my arm with yours,” she said, in mock warning as they walked along briskly, swinging their arms. He felt it was too much. He couldn’t reply. “Fuzzy,” she said.
“What?” he said, so stupidly he wanted to take pliers to his tongue and rip it out.
“You have a fuzzy arm,” she said. “Oh, look at that house. Oldest house in Cannon Shoals.” It was a wooden frame farmhouse, easy to imagine sitting alone on its stone foundation, but crowded now by houses on each side, fifty foot fronts to the lots, bungalows from the fifties. Fifty/fifty, Leo watched the old farmhouse, realizing he was between it and Janet, was turning his head away from her to see the house, hated the situation. He turned back to her and gazed at her lovely beige profile in the blush afternoon light. They walked on, walked in step, both became aware of it and didn't speak of it.
Her house was a frail octogenarian, drunk with honeysuckle and wisteria and, at the moment, retired morning glories. A single storied white wooden frame with steep roofs, deep eaves, and a front and side porch shaded by unkempt hedges, the house breathed slowly and evenly, cool breath out, in with the warmth.
“Just like Chicago, I guess,” Janet said, smiling, having seen Chicago on his resume. They trudged through crabgrass around the side yard and toward the back door, which was the only one that could be unlocked from the outside. The backyard of a vintage 1970’s rancher abutted Janet’s yard, the squat construction blatantly showing its plain bricky windowless butt end. In a sense, it was just like Chicago.
The screen door creaked appropriately. Leo stood back as Janet picked at the lock on the door. Giving her time, he took in the half dozen or so houses he could see, but partially, from here, mostly their tops, and the trees obscuring them. Time in the neighborhood was cracked into shards a decade or so wide and strewn helter skelter over the space of several blocks. Leo liked that; he had always been a time traveler.
The door swung open with a gentle glass rattling, and he followed her inside. There was something about the kitchen that comforted him. The table and its spindled chairs looked as fragile as childhood. The floor was linoleum tiles in a hideous pattern of white squares and maroon ones. Leo loved it instantly. Nothing in the room was modern. The countertop and cabinets were built in, not the manufactured kind. Handles on doors were chromed metal arcs designed to last forever. The gas stove was so old it had art deco design elements. It was happily greasy of burner dial, confidently chipped of enamel, mature in its faint breath of natural gas odorant.
Because Janet indicated it, Leo sat at the slender table. He felt its joints give slightly under his forearm, heard its complacent snap. Janet sat to one side of him rather than across.
Leo picked up the little saltshaker on the table and admired its kitschy details. It was a barn.
The pepper was a silo but I broke it," she said. She was resting from the walk, and Leo hoped he had not been rude to walk... but no, she had actually suggested it, hadn't she! "I’ll make us something in a minute.”
“I’m fine,” he said, “I’m good. Just...”
"I'd like you to tell me about yourself. You know."
Janet looked off to the side, as though she'd seen something crawling on the wall. Leo wondered if he had put her off , pried, but decided no. She tilted her head and he appreciated the new angle of view, particularly the length of her neck.
“Most of the arts teachers in Callan County are afraid for their jobs,” Janet said, taking up where part of their conversation had been interrupted earlier, as they were leaving the school grounds. “I guess you know the state cut the funding that we get paid from.”
“Seems like that’s all I ever hear. Funding cuts in the arts. I don’t know how there can be any funding left at all.”
“There’s not much,” she said, and suddenly stood up. “Let’s see what we have.” She looked into the refrigerator.
“I don’t really want anything,” Leo said, but he did. He wanted something cool and sweet to drink and he wanted...
He wanted -- and he let this become very specific without indicating in any way what he was thinking -- to wrap his arms around Janet and suck her down his throat, might as well start with the tongue, swallow her whole, become her and live inside her, yes, she would swallow me whole, that's it. So good with the poker face I am! Thought completed, admitted, will never happen, done with it.
“Having you in the county is a luxury,” she told him. “We just barely get the use of a classroom. The art teachers go out and buy their own supplies. Music teachers buy their own sheet music. CDs? Forget it. So far I'm the only teacher I know of who has gotten an actual visiting artist.”
“Do you think my salary could have been better spent, maybe?” Leo asked her.
“It’s not out of the same fund,” she said. “I checked.” And she gave him a wicked smile, then sat down with a cold wooden bowl of grapes. “Sorry these are a little used,” she muttered.
“I love grapes,” he said, looking straight at her.
Talk talk talk at the kitchen table. They completely forgot about the book of improvs. He liked the soft slow cadence of her voice, how it was so pristinely Southern, that surprising upturn at the end of many sentences, implying “you know?” Donna Lankford over at Dudley Elementary? Uh huh. She’s got art and music and sometimes throws in some drama? Yes.
Some of the grapes looked too far gone, too soft, too wrinkled. When does a grape become a raisin?
“Unmarried and childless,” she said about herself after a while, cocking her elbow over the back of the chair and working her chin forward. It was not so much a confession -- not a sin, for heaven's sake, to be unmarried and childless -- as an echo of some words she had thought, maybe even said out loud in a private moment, rehearsed for no future moment, or an unlikely moment. How often did she have a chance to say such a thing to someone?
Her face was pretty mostly because of the perfect, straight line of her nose and the loneliness of her dusty blue eyes, round and steady in their forbidden depth. He could see just the beginning of the swell of her breasts at the open collar of her faded yellow cotton blouse. Prettiest, though, was her comfortable mind. She was not afraid of their silences. They picked through the bunch for decent grapes, bumping knuckles good naturedly, while he imagined the delicate pale nipples of a maiden, unmarried and childless, though like him, she was almost old enough to have had adult children.
She babbled on about Tennessee Williams. They found they could joke with one another. He wished for a more comfortable place to sit, but never said anything.
It was dark outside before they remembered the book of improvs. Janet retrieved it from somewhere in the house, they looked it over for five minutes or so, then drifted onto another subject. Janet made a pot of coffee and they drank it.
“Let me show you the rest of the house,” she said. The thrill Leo felt was so electrified by the recent infusion of caffeine that he thought he might involuntarily laugh out loud or bark like a dog.
“Sure,” he said, immediately pleased with the civil tone he had managed.
Directly out of the kitchen they entered a hallway filled with amber light filtering from somewhere else, other rooms. To the right was the bathroom, straight across was the bedroom. Leftward down the hall he fell in behind her. Somehow she had lost her shoes, was noticeably shorter, the top of her head was clearly lower than his chin. The cut of her blouse was tight around her thin waist, which accentuated the flare of her wide hips. The incandescence glowed atop her buttocks and shaded away sharply to black below the sculpted musculature. The unfamiliarity of her build both discomfited and excited him.
"Bathroom back there, bedroom there. Here comes the... oh!" and she stopped suddenly at a framed print hanging on the wall. "This is my picture that was in my room when I was little."
It was not the picture (just a cheap print of a sentimental pastoral scene) that moved Leo, but Janet's sudden absorption in it. She seemed to forget him altogether and instantly. She tilted her head slightly and he could see her eyes darting from detail to detail in the painting, a bemused smile curling her mouth. He felt abandoned and indignant and had a mad urge to kiss her, but it was not right, and he was quiet, and tried to look at the picture, tried to appreciate it. See the bunny rabbit hiding under the bush? He was grateful when she simply turned and walked on.
The living room was cozy. He wanted to stay there for the rest of his life. (Meals could be brought in. He would happily sleep on the huge old-fashioned lumpy brown couch.) Janet turned the switch on a table lamp; more amber light feebly washed out toward the walls where it dissipated, seemed to soak into the yellowed wallpaper.
"I love this room," he said. "Love this room. Can we sit?"