Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Christmas Candle

Gladys had been unemployed for nearly a year. She thought about the coming Christmas fondly and sadly. This year she would not be able to have her traditional “big” party. Every year prior she had been able to invite a good group of people over to her smallish home, stuff them into her diminutive dining room and treat them like kings and queens. She really loved cooking for people occasionally. Although it was exciting and demanding, it always drained her—there were so many plates to spin, literally and logistically while wanting to meet the needs and wants of her guests. This exhausted her completely—but she relished the infrequent gathering.

If Gladys had been working she would have had to rush home and begin decorating. But as it was, she simply spent the last two days applying for jobs and putting up Christmas decorations. Her plan for the day was to unpack and artfully distribute her last box of yuletide filigree. She had also invited two of her neighbors over for cookies and tea in the evening. Cookies were inexpensive and a treat. This she could do.

Gladys put on some holiday music and sat down to unwrap the decorations. She pulled out a long, skinny bag. For Gladys it was out-of-sight/out-of-mind and unwrapping these things each year was like Christmas for Christmas. When she pulled the paper back she smiled with delight. It was the art nouveau Christmas tree—simple, narrow, tall and completely covered with bits of gold, jade, and blue-green glitter. She held it up and turned it in the light. Reflected halos danced all over the tree betraying the multitude of tiny facets eager to catch any available light. Gladys could hear the words of the song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” playing in the background. She quickly turned up the music, put the fashionable tree in its perfect spot and started whistling with the music. Finally it was Christmas in her heart. Turning back to her purpose for the day, Gladys unwrapped each holiday artifact with anticipation and delight. Her home was becoming a seasonal celebration of color, cheer and joy.

Gladys stopped for a moment to look for any Christmas-barren corners. Her eyes lingered when she came to the standard tree. All the bobbles and little globes glowed brightly in the late afternoon sun. The tiny lights did their best to compete with the sun and would attempt later to take its place as the great orb disappeared below the horizon.

She was nearly to the bottom of the last box. Suddenly Gladys remembered her favorite holiday candle. She spun quickly searching for it. Had she put it out already? It was nowhere to be seen. That meant that it was still in the box at her feet. It was such a small thing in the world, but it meant so much to her. She pilfered through the empty papers and bubble wrap looking for the familiar shape. As she grasped it in both of her hands she smiled before she opened it. This was the large comforting heart of the Christmastide decorations—always at the center of her dining table. When lit it glowed from within and the flame burned bright and steady, strong and true. It was a deep golden beauty which she set in the center of an adequately realistic spray of evergreen. It was the perfect candle. And it had warmed Christmas for many years.

Gladys took the spray and the unwrapped candle to the table. She set the spray at the center of the table. Gladys slowly released the candle from its bondage. The first glimpse of the candle made her smile again. She released it as if it were a red carpet for a queen. Gladys's eye caught an anomaly as the great candle rolled between her palms. There, deep on one side, was a gash that if inflicted on her arm would have laid her flesh open to the bone. Gladys gasped. She stared at the wound in disbelief. This was impossible! She had taken such pains to wrap it carefully last year. Her anger flared at the unknown assailant and then quickly cooled to defeat when she knew that only her own hands could have carried out such a crime. She sat there holding the ravaged heart of Christmas replaying the order in which she had unpacked the treasure, determined to find the offending edge that had cut so deeply and reproaching herself for such carelessness. Tears came to her eyes and the sorrowful strains of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" provided ample pathos for this holiday tragedy.

"This is ridiculous!" Gladys suddenly declared out loud. Resolve replaced sorrow and provided sufficient impetus for Gladys to pilfer every available coin she could find. Her guests were coming in a couple of hours and the discount store was just a mile away. She would have time to put the boxes away, vacuum and run to find an unmarked candle. Quickly she checked all of the receptacles for miscellaneous items and discovered $1.43 -- sufficient for one cheap candle.

It was bitterly cold this dusk and it took far longer to defrost the car windows than Gladys had anticipated. She also recognized that the roads were quite icy. Once on the road her energy for obtaining a perfect Christmas candle was transferred to the attention required for driving perilous roads. With a sigh of relief Gladys parked her car in front of the store. The garish florescent store lights cast an eerie pale green onto the snow and ice. Once inside the store, Gladys could feel her cheeks burning as her face warmed up. She peeled off her gloves and coat and stuffed them into the wire children’s seat on the front of the first available cart. It was far easier to carry these bulky items in this way, leaving her arms and hand free to shuffle the various candles as she shopped.

Discount stores rarely had all the same items in the same aisles so she would have to quickly reconnoiter the entire store to find all available ones. Her $1.43 might be enough to almost compensate for the tragic loss at home.

Gladys started shopping in earnest in the third aisle where she had spotted the first row of candles. She stood in front of them with a discerning and critical eye like an inspector checking for quality. Gladys pushed three pale yellow, fat and short candles to the side. She reached deep into the shelf to pull others out of the shadows. Two slightly faded yellow candles were quickly compared. One had a blue tint around the bottom -- the candle-makers error no doubt -- the other's top edge was marred around most of the rim. Gladys put them back and then inched sideways giving herself permission to consider other colors. The pine smelling green ones were acceptable. But green candles faded more quickly and any scratches prove white and glaring. Gladys bent down to peruse the thinner, tall, white candles but decided against these because they were too white. All of her decorations were deep reds, golds and earthy greens. This color of candle would obviously be a terrible mismatch.

Gladys saw the thick-soled, black work boots first. As she stood upright she took in the filthy jeans and a dark coat worn by a man with a strange grin on his face. Gladys immediately felt uncomfortable. It was apparent that he was not looking at candles. Gladys clutched her purse to her side and as casually as possible pushed her cart toward the next aisle. As she turned into this aisle she was relieved to find several other people looking for wares. Gladys headed toward the center of the aisle where the next array of candles stood. There were various shades of red here, but most of them were nicked or scarred in one way or another. This was just the plain truth about shopping in a deep discount store.

She smelled him first -- a recent memory. He stood several feet away feigning interest in some holiday glasses. One quick, knowing smile dashed her way and then he walked toward the back of the store. Gladys was feeling more uncomfortable and moved three aisles down where she thought she remembered seeing more candles. For a brief moment she almost surrendered her search, but then reprimanded herself for her unfounded fears. The man had not been seen for several minutes and candles resurged to their preeminence in her shopping purpose.

In this aisle Gladys found the candles at the back of the store near the freezer section. These were an odd assortment of candles with embedded objects -- pinecones, poorly painted wax figures of snowmen, Santa Clauses and garish angels. For a moment Gladys’ conscience pinched her with the truth that these sad little figures were painted by overworked and horribly underpaid Chinese hands. Yet Gladys rifled through the shelf in hopes of finding a hidden treasure.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a dark figure near the freezer cases. She looked squarely toward the freezers and saw him staring into them as if an intriguing program was on television. She heard a little, short laugh and immediately decided to head to the front of the store. She felt threatened and no candle was worth that. She heard footsteps behind her matching her pace. She tried to vary them and again they were matched. Then she heard the low laugh, now closer. Without a moment’s hesitation Gladys headed for the front of the store. She could almost hear the laughter next to her ear. In an evasive maneuver she suddenly stopped near the cash register by a small table of sale items. The man apparently did not anticipate this and nearly tripped over Gladys's cart. Gladys looked at the cashier doe-eyed and more than a little frightened. But the cashier wasn't looking at Gladys. She was glaring at the man. He recovered from his accident, saw the cashier's angry gaze, guffawed quickly and dashed out the front door. The cashier mumbled curses after him as the door shut.

Gladys thought she might get some sympathy from the cashier, but got nothing more than an obligatory smile. That's when Gladys saw it. There at the end of the counter stood a lone and nearly perfect candle. Someone must have set it aside before checking out. Gladys picked it up and rolled it between her palms. It was deep cranberry red with beautiful Victorian filigree brushed with gold. It was only half the size she had hoped for, but it would be perfect in the evergreen spray on her dining table. She would not know until she lit it if it glowed, but the filigree was charming enough on its own. She quickly looked for the price and was relieved to see that she could afford it. The cashier was hanging up the phone and ready to ring up this purchase.

"Watch yourself out there," said the cashier.

"Oh yes, I will. It's pretty icy."

"Icy, yeah. But there's more than ice to look out for.”

"Oh." Gladys could feel the fight or flight instinct jumpstart her adrenaline.

"Do you want a bag for this?"

"No, thank you." And with a short, but sincere smile she wished the somber cashier a Merry Christmas.

The wind hit Gladys in the face and she hunkered down into her coat, glanced to the right and to the left, and then with certain alarm launched herself across the ice. The man in the heavy boots had been waiting near the door. His newest grin had frightened her completely. As she raced toward her car, praying she would not fall on the ice, she could hear snow crunching on the median strip to her left. She felt her purse being pulled away from her tight grip. Gladys spun around, caught the man in her sights and threw the Christmas candle with all her might. In the next instant the Christmas candle lay half buried in the snow near his head.

"That's some shot!"

Gladys turned to see two officers quickly walking up behind her, grinning. She saw the cashier standing on the sidewalk by the front of the store, arms crossed against the cold, with a look of utter astonishment on her face.

"Did I kill him?" Gladys was stunned.

"No ma'am," said one of the officers bending over the man. At the sound of the officer’s voice the fallen man stirred and groaned.

"Let's get the paramedics here," said the officer as the man sat up, growling in Gladys's direction.

“But how were you here?" Gladys was simultaneously confused and relieved the officers had been there at just that moment.

"The store manager called. He's been harassing people at the store for the last week.”

"Will I be charged with assault?"

"No ma'am. As we see it this was an act of self-defense. If you would give officer Pickman your report of events you'll be free to go. The store manager is your witness and, I imagine, a grateful one at that."

Gladys gave a brief account of her brief encounter with the strange black-booted man who is now being whisked away in an ambulance. When the officers indicated that she was free to go Gladys started toward her car. In the snow she saw the half buried candle. It had been turned over and one side was smashed like a stick of butter dropped on the floor. Gladys left it there satisfied that her golden Christmas candle at home would do just fine.


Copyright M.R. HYDE 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Red Hair

She was not alarmed by the ringing of the bell as she pulled the door open. But she was alarmed when she realized that everyone in the diner was staring at her. It was as if they had been warned that a stranger was coming to town and that she just might be it.

It felt like forty-five minutes before she finally recovered from the alarm and decided that she had better find a seat. As she looked around the room, she saw that there were no solitary seats. All the tables in the center were end to end. All the tables on the sides were occupied. It was strangely European here in the middle of the West. You were forced to sit at a table you would never have selected in California. She prayed they wouldn’t look out the window and spot her license plates. But that didn’t really matter anyway—it was clear by her clothing that she was not native to corn, field, or harvest.

Every man in the diner wore denim and caps. No need to take their caps off. They all knew that revealing their starched white foreheads was just not done, except in front of their most intimate associates—their wives, their children, and on rare occasions their ministers.
The women wore cotton or polyester. No city cloth here. No rayon or silk, no lycra or linen—just gabardine and cotton. Theirs were completely durable, colorful, and economical weaves. That’s all that was needed.

The tables were made of chipped Formica and thick particleboard. Years of food remains had been plastered into the cracks and darkened as amber in a petrified forest. It was clean enough as long you didn’t dig into the soap varnish left by thousands of passes of the washrag.

The dishes were faded Melmac, the nuclear bomb–resistant food ware designed in the fifties. She was sure if taken to the firing range they would repel bullets. Clearly there was no reason to get new ones. The mismatched silverware might feel badly.

She sat down next to an elderly gentleman. There was an empty chair on his other side. The uncomfortable silence was briefly broken when she quietly greeted him. He mumbled a rather low reply because it was perfunctory.

She decided to study the menu stitched into its sheathing by some ancient book-sewing machine. The prices were reasonable, probably because they couldn’t get the yellowed cardstock out.
Chicken fried steak and eggs were the morning special. You could get your choice of grits smothered in gravy, biscuits smothered in gravy, or pancakes smothered in syrup. Ah, the food of the gods—or the artery-clogged.

She wondered how long one could stare at a menu. Every now and then she would look up and around, hoping a waitress would come soon. Her eyes met cold non-inquisitive stares instead. She felt as if they had no desire to meet her; they just wanted her out of their one-silo town.
She decided to stick this out. She was very hungry and did not know how far the next town would be or if she would get a reception worse than this. So stick to it she did—like the food that was going to stick to her ribs.

Finally a waitress reluctantly brought her a glass of tepid water. She was told that her menu selection was unavailable. Her second choice was unavailable. Her third choice she could get, but not with pancakes. Okay, take and eat.

She didn’t know what was going to happen next. Did the waitress go back and tip off the cook that the stranger was there? Was there a secret rural code she would not recognize whereby all the people would rise like zombies, slowly shuffle toward her, and remove her bodily from the diner, destroying her car by some ancient magic and leaving her to wander the fields until she was taken in by a family of speaking foxes to be raised as an outsider the rest of her days? She really should stop watching those B movies on Saturday afternoon.

A door in the back of the restaurant swung open. She saw the red hair first. Actually it was orange—bright orange and piled in airy cumulus clouds on top of a cheerful countenance. She could see the sheen of hairspray reflecting the gray diner lighting.

The red hair bounced toward the front of the diner and glided into the chair next to the mumbling man. Immediately, the atmosphere and aura at that chipped table changed for the better. Bright eyes met hers, and conversation was initiated.

“Where are you from?”
“California.”
“Where are you going?”
“Minnesota.”
“Why did you stop in this little town?”
“I was hungry.”
The red hair chatted away. Her husband barely moved. A dull stare seemed to be his greatest effort of the day—besides eating.

They had grown up here and had just come back to bring her mother to a retirement home. Her mother had been ill for some time and now wanted to come home to die. She did not want to die in the city. So Red Hair was glad to be home for a while.

The food came for their table. It was not what she had ordered.

Red Hair kept talking pleasantly and musically while her husband dove into his plate as if it were his last meal.

Her chatting seemed to be the conduit for old memories. There was a cave outside of town by the railroad tracks. That’s where she and her friends used to go to drink and dance. Whoo! What a time they had!

The little town had a newspaper. Now, the newspaper did not exist to tell the news. No! Everyone in town knew what had happened the night before, but everyone snapped up a paper the next morning to find out who did it!

The food wasn’t so bad. The table’s wobble and cracks could become endearing. The diner seemed a bit brighter, the water less warm. The husband smiled across the table. The staring residents had all faded into the background as Red Hair kept talking.

Copyright 2010 M.R.HYDE

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Fifth Floor

The woman sitting at a picnic table in the courtyard looked like a bug. She was portly, dressed in colors really too bright for someone her size and she had a rather garish bag -- lime green with blue and red dots. Peter broke into his usual amused smile. She had made him laugh when her first saw her. From five stories up she did indeed look like a bug, barely sitting underneath the mushroom colored umbrella.

He knew the ritual -- zip open the polka dot bag, pull out the lunch items out one by one, carefully place the napkins beneath one of the small reusable containers so they would not fly away, open the medium-sized bottle top to put the drink at ready, take a short pause looking off into the distance, then lunch would begin in earnest.

"Hey, Peter, are you ready for the three o'clock?" Rusty's voice was quick and hyperactive. Peter did not turn around.

"Yes, Rusty. I'm ready.” This was the routine -- staccato question with a mildly perturbed platitude.

"Hey, man, I'm just making sure." There was a bit of a plaintive whimper in this response and Peter characteristically made a move to pour oil on the wound.
"Rusty, come here." Rusty jumped at the chance to be included. Standing next to Peter he followed his gaze down to the woman at the table.

"She's been there every day for the past three weeks."

"Huh. Must be a new employee in one of these buildings. Never seen her before."

"I haven't seen her anywhere but where she sits right now."

"Why do you care?"

"I don't care. I'm just curious."

Rusty paused and watched the woman in silence for as long as he could stand it.
"What do you think she's eating?"

"I don't really know. It seems to be the same thing every day."

A quick knock on the boardroom door frame introduced a third party into the room. Frankie leaned in.

"What's going on?”

"Nothing much. He is staring at a woman in the courtyard."

"Oooo-ooh, Petey. Got the hots for someone?" Frankie took post near Rusty."Sheesh. Is that all you guys are looking at?”

"Yeah, have you ever seen her before?"

"No, man, I haven't. Do you have anything better to do on your lunch, Petey?” Frankie was incredulous.

"Listen guys, I just like to stand here looking out over the city to stretch my eyes. She showed up about three weeks ago. And now I'm just a little curious to see if she breaks her pattern."

Frankie was impatient. "Dude, there are some far finer babes in the cafeteria two floors down. In fact, there's this new cougar from Lichtman, Farnsworth, and Pewter that is something else."

"Gents, what have we here?" Stewart swung in with his usual swagger. There was an air of the hunt about him at all times. He took position next to Frankie -- four men were standing shoulder to shoulder now looking down five floors at the decidedly middle-aged, broad-bottomed woman.

"I'd do her." A general exhaust of disgust shot out of the other three men.

"You'd do anyone!"

"Yup, just about." And with that Stewart eased out of the boardroom leaving an eye-stinging cloud of bitter cologne he was constantly convinced increased his pheromone factor. The three men waved their hands in front of their faces attempting to move the cologne into the vent above. One of them coughed reflexively while nearly gagging.

"How long do you watch her?"

"Every day. She's there precisely from 12:30 until one o'clock."

"And no one has seen her anywhere else?"

"Have you?" Peter leaned forward and peered at Frankie.

"No. I haven't seen her."

The woman began repackaging her polka dot bag. Rusty glanced at the clock.
"It's only 12:45. Is she leaving early?"

"No, no. She does a couple of other things. She has this tiny cup with a lid -- it kind of looks like medicine. She takes what's in it and then sits very still for another ten minutes or so. She has this little book which she takes out, flips some pages and then jots notes into it. Then it's time to go."

"Go talk to her." There was a juvenile dare in Rusty's voice. "Go on, dude. Find out who she is."

The temptation had been there before. Peter had always dismissed it.
"Nah. She's just having lunch, that's all."

"Come on! What's it going to hurt?"

"Yeah. Do it." Frankie chimed in for the junior high peer push.

"No." Peter shook his head quickly with a scornful press to his brow.

"Come on!" Rusty shoved him in the arm then leaned close into the side of Peter's face. With a low growl he said, "I double dog dare you." Rusty and Frankie leaned back with a gleeful laugh.

"You can do it!" Frankie slapped Peter on the back. Peter shook his head slowly.
"Boys. Boys."

"I'll do it!" Rusty jolted from the room. They could hear his footsteps fade down the office halls and the bell of the elevator.

"He's really going to do it!" Frankie was pleasantly shocked.

A middle-aged man named Walter ran into the room with Randy his assistant on his heels.

"What's going on?" They skidded to a stop at the window.

"Rusty's going down to talk to her!" Frankie's voice had a peak in it like it was just about game time. Not knowing what was happening Randy leaned into the window anxious to see what all the excitement was about. A fast shadow appeared at the foot of their building. Within an instant they could see Rusty's head leading his body in a brisk trot. He brought himself up short and turned for a brief second to throw a brilliant smile up to the fifth floor. A deep, muted and satisfied laugh rolled out from the four men's throats.

"He's going to do it!"

Rusty casually approached the woman from behind. Her head turned slightly. It looked as if he asked if he could sit down. The woman moved her hand indicating an invitation. Rusty leaned his back against the table, pushing his elbows down against the sun-warmed top. His long legs stretched out and away from the woman as if he was sunning himself at the beach. A little giggle, too much like a schoolgirl's, escaped from Walter’s lips.

"This is going to be good." The four men stood as still as lions before a leap. If the men had tails they would have been twitching.

Rusty seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. He pulled his head back as if stretching, but used it as a ploy to shoot a grin upward again. He turned back to the woman. Their heads moved as in conversation. Rusty swung one leg over another resting his calf on his knee. Their heads bobbed a bit as they seemed to be talking pleasantly.

"What are you guys doing?" The voice of the unpleasant office nerd came from the doorway. As if in a Greek chorus, four men's voices boomed, "Nothing!" It was sufficient warning to the nerd. He left quickly.

"What do you think they are talking about?"

"I don't know." Peter was a bit annoyed now that his lunchtime reverie had been turned into a zoo experience.

Suddenly Rusty's posture and frame changed. His propped up leg dropped off of his knee and his back stiffened.

"What was that?!" The men's eyes were riveted.

The woman's head tilted slightly toward Rusty. She seemed to be talking intensely. The longer she spoke the more Rusty appeared to recoil. He looked as if he was curling back into himself. The woman kept talking. Rusty jumped to his feet, his back to the window. His entire body was rigid. The woman was still for a moment and then she pulled the little book out. Rusty's fist flashed in the air and just as suddenly he dashed toward the parking garage.

"Something's wrong!" Frankie whirled around. His footsteps could be heard running toward the elevator but harder and more urgently than the previous runner. The elevator bell rang. Peter, Stuart and Randy were glued to the scene below. It was just a couple of minutes when Frankie’s shadow preceded him into the courtyard. He stopped short at the table, legs splayed, arms thrashing the air. The woman turned calmly to face him. His body movements became more expressive and almost violent.

"This is too much for me." Randy spoke slowly, as if he knew he shouldn't watch, but was mesmerized. He backed away slowly from the window, bumped into a chair, then sprinted wildly from the room.

"Sheesh, Peter. What's going on down there?"

"I don't know."

"Shouldn't we do something?"

"I don't know."

"What if she hurts him?"

"What if she hurts him? I'm more concerned about him hurting her."

The woman stood upright and faced Frankie. Two gasps caught at the fifth floor throats. She took some steps toward Frankie -- not threatening, but confident. Frankie was instantly still. The woman was intent upon him. Then he too, like Rusty, bolted for the parking garage.
The woman turned her head slowly upward. Her gaze, though not completely discernible, seemed to be directed to a particular window on the fifth floor.

"Oh, God!" Stuart ran from the room.

Peter stood still. He slowly crossed his arms. Glancing at his watch he could see it was about time for her to go. But now there was indeed a break in the pattern. The woman sat down, put her notebook back into her polka dot bag. She placed her hands flat on top of the table. She was still, as if waiting for a sign.

Peter felt compelled by what he did not know. He moved softly across the boardroom, went to his office to get his suit jacket and car keys. Then he walked steadily forward until he reached the elevator door. A distant voice called to him from inside the office. "Hey, Pete! Where are you going?" Peter ignored the call. The elevator door closed and he descended into unknowing.
The woman sat just as still as he had last seen her.

"Hello." He spoke into her wide back. She turned with a genuine smile.

"Hello, Peter Easton Smith. I've been waiting for you."

“Oh, you have?"

"Yes, I have. Won't you sit down for a moment?"

Peter eased himself down next to her, facing out as Rusty had done, but with less confidence and some fear. It was silent for several minutes.

"What -- what do you want?" Peter's voice wavered a bit.

With an astonishing gentleness, the woman began to speak. "Peter Easton Smith, born on December the 12th in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of three sons, and now the only living offspring of Arthur and Roslyn."

"Yes." Peter fairly mumbled this response. He found it odd that he was not frightened and that she knew these things about him.

"I've been sent to tell you something."

Here was very still, not wanting to change this meeting that seemed so different than the encounters the other men had.

"Peter." The woman's voice was like his mother's waking him gently on a summer's morning. "I've been sent here today to tell you that you are beloved."

"Beloved? By who?"

"By the one who put the stars in place. By the one who saw you even before you were conceived."

Peter’s throat tightened as he felt tears surge into his eyes.

"Peter, you are beloved. And there is far more for you than what is at your feet this day." Her hand touched his arm with the tenderness he had never known. He dared not speak.

"Your other friends did not want what is being offered to you. They became angry and frightened. But their fear came from misunderstanding."

In a short silence he felt as if he was being gathered to his father's chest. He could sense a great heart beating steady and strong and he felt comforted.

"You are not alone -- nor do you ever have to feel alone again."

Tears started to roll down Peter's face flowing so freely that they splashed onto his shirt and tie. The woman's voice continued like fresh spring water.

"Leave this place, beloved Peter. Leave it now and never turned back. You'll be provided for and watched over."

"Where do I go?" Peter looked deep into the woman's eyes.

"Go where you know you belong. Do the things you love. Work hard. Be a good and kind neighbor. Live simply and listen for his voice. This is all that is required if you."

Peter felt a growing resolve. He turned his head up and back toward the fifth floor. The woman's fingers gently pulled his face back to hers.

"Don't look back, beloved. Don't look back."

Peter covered his face with his hands and wept with joy. He could feel her fingers caress his cheek.

"Go now, dear Peter. Go now." Peter stood solemnly and looked down into the woman's eyes.

"Thank you."

With a gentle push like a mother’s sending her son into the deep end, the woman pointed him in the direction he should go. Peter walked forward, uncertain yet confident that he had made the right decision at last.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gehenna

The acrid smell of smoke was alarming. It woke Jerry from a tormented dream. He was in a strange bed in an unfamiliar room. Orange colors danced across the ceiling and the walls. He thought it was the light coursing through the mottled, ginger colored curtains. He rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. He felt so utterly tired. But the taste of grit and ash on his tongue persuaded him otherwise. Get a drink of water, fool! He had always found berating himself to be an effective motivational force.

Jerry nearly stumbled when moving away from the bed. Near his feet sat a pair of large work boots covered in grime and blackened by dark tar of some kind. He worked his way around the boots toward a small sink with a chipped glass sitting near the faucet. The faucet handle was nearly as grimy as the boots. The sink was stained deeply with rust. Hoping that this was an older indication of bad water he suspiciously watched the water come from its source. Nothing fresh here, brother. What came out was brackish and thick. But Jerry’s mouth was so dry that he thought any liquid might cool his tongue. One good mouthful, buddy, then spit it out. His practiced self-talk did no good. The poisoned water nearly produced a vomit. He spat it out quickly and reached for the soiled towel hanging from a nail on the wall. It reeked of petroleum or something similar.

Jerry could feel his feet becoming strangely hot. He then realized that the floor was much warmer than a floor should be. Those boots are no good for anyone. I’ll just grab my shoes and get out of here. It was difficult for Jerry to see clearly and he thought it best to pull back the curtain enabling him to find his shoes. I must have left them near the door last night. Jerry was wrestling for normalcy. He did not remember coming to this room. He could not imagine why he would be here.

He pulled the curtain open with his left hand. What he saw immediately triggered a horrified gasp and his right hand covered his mouth. The sky was a deep rust color clogged with large plumes of black smoke. What the hell is this?! His eyes scanned the horizon. In the distance he could see the tiny silhouettes of men working furiously on a boat. They were battling a massive blaze that leapt and twisted ever upward from the surface of the water. Closer in, but obscured by roiling smoke, he could make out groups of people slogging over the blackened shoreline toward yet another blaze. Several people lay on the shore apparently exhausted. Everywhere he looked he could see people running and trying to put out fires. Good Lord, where am I?

He remembered the time he had come upon a large burn site high in the mountains. It was eerie then. Once he got out of his car he realized that there was no sound. There was no wind whistling through the branches primarily because there were no branches. There were no animals or insects rustling primarily because there were no animals or insects. He saw deep holes tapering down through the ash and he realized that the fire had raged so intensely that it had burned out even the roots of the trees. The ash clung to his clothes as he walked back to his car humbly mindful of the power and devastation of such a fire.

This was different, though. This was in the midst of fire and the roar of flame pressed against his eardrums even through the walls of the room. From the light searing through the window Jerry saw no shoes he recognized—only the boots by the bed. He jumped into them, leaving the laces untied, and bolted out the door in his undershirt and shorts.

“Get your overalls on, man!” The voice was sharp, fearful and commanding. “We don’t have time to treat your burns! Get back in there and get those on. Hurry!”

Jerry spun around feeling the tiny arrows of hot ash landing on his arms and neck. He quickly fumbled into a pair of overalls he now saw hanging on the other side of the sink. They were far too big for him, but time was of the essence. He had to help. Hanging over the door frame he discovered a beaten hard hat. This fit him perfectly and he fastened the chin strap as he ran out the door.

He couldn’t find the man who had yelled at him, but a sturdy woman was walking up from the lake toward him.

“You Jerry?”

“Yes, I am.”

“We need you on the East shore. Follow the water around until you come to a small building with a porch. It will be the only one with a porch. Now get going!”

Jerry’s running was awkward and slow. He could feel the hardened leather of the boots chaffing at his ankles. That’s going to hurt. Jerry’s eyes grew wider as he galloped toward his goal. Large and small groups of people were working together to put out large and small fires. Some worked with shovels, furtively tossing sand onto the flames near the shore. Others were digging trenches trying to keep the flames from leaping to the trees further inland. But their efforts were pitiful and failing. Tree tops looked like giant fireworks crackling and popping ever upward. Faces gleamed with sweat and reflected the orange glow of the atmosphere. The whites of eyes were no longer white but bloodshot and full of defensive tears. Looking at these eyes Jerry remembered that he needed to blink—his astonishment had kept his eyes open far too long. The instant his lids descended sharp pain lanced through to his brain. He cried out suddenly and loudly, bending over to cover his face with his hands. Oh, God, help me! As he straightened up, tears poured into his eyes attempting to wash away the ash. The tears helped some but the wind from the fires quickly shot more ash into his nose, eyes and ears. He squinted trying to protect his eyes with his lashes.

Ahead and on his left Jerry spotted a small landing protruding from a cloud of smoke. As the pillar of smoke moved toward the trees he could see a building attached to the landing. This must be the building. His heavy boots clomped across the landing and Jerry felt the raw flesh of his ankles. A prune-faced man drew open the door and stared hard at him.

“So, you’re the new one.” The man’s voice was grotesquely pinched and deep. Jerry found it disturbing.

“I suppose I am. But, I don’t . . . “

“Stupid! Of course you’re new! Where was you yesterday?”

“I was in my apartment having a glass of milk before I went to bed. I woke up here.”

“Likely story, beast! You’re working here on this side—under my thumb. Here’s a shovel. See those three men in that hole over there?” Jerry looked in the direction the old man was pointing. “You work there. The water tap is on the other side of the porch. Too many trips to that, though, and I’ll take it out on your hide.”

Jerry had nothing to say under such brutal command. He loped off of the porch toward the men in the pit.

“Screw with me and you’ll pay, fool!” The voice followed him like a dark shadow. No screwing sir. No sir!

When Jerry got to the pit the men looked up at him—but slowly. Their faces were drawn and sad. Their backs were arched from years of hard labor and their shovels were twisted extensions of their hands.

“Hi. I’m Jerry,” he said lightly as he jumped in. “I’m here to help.”

The eldest of the men stopped and leaned heavily on his shovel.

“So, you’re Jerry, eh? Welcome to the club.” Knowing and cynical smiles passed between the men.

Jerry noticed that the largest of the men had boots far too small for him. The laces were gone and the tongues lolled out like spent dogs.

“You want to trade shoes?” Jerry asked almost cheerfully.

All the men suddenly stiffened and looks of sheer terror seized their faces. One of the men slowly raised a finger to his lips. A raspy whisper came from his left.

“You best not ask for such favors here, son.”

Jerry turned and a small man grabbed his elbow, pulling his torso down below the edge of the pit.

“Nobody gets but what he’s got.”

Suddenly Jerry felt very frightened. He moved slowly away from the small man and grasped the shovel handle horizontally with both his hands. He felt a primordial response course through his entire body. He was ready to defend himself.

“We ain’t the enemy here.”

“Then who is?”

“Oh, you’ll know soon enough.” The big man’s voice was deep, solemn and sad as he turned to the others. “We’ve been standing still too long. Let’s get to work.” Then, as if he had done it for years, a terrified Jerry began to dig. He dug as if his life depended on it.


They only stopped working when an ancient horn had sounded. Jerry did not know where it had come from. He felt an immense sense of relief when the other men had ceased their labor, shouldered there shovels and climbed out of the pit. Never in his life had Jerry felt such sheer exhaustion. He had no sense of how long they had worked, only that they had been released from the pit many hours after his shovel first hit the sand. He stumbled to the water faucet on the side of the porch. He gagged as the other men rounded the porch heading west.

It was difficult to recognize which tiny shack was his, until he saw the curtain drawn back from the window. Jerry lurched through the flimsy door. He dropped onto the edge of the bed—the only piece of furniture in the room. He wrestled the boots off of his swollen and bleeding feet. The boots hit the hot floor with a terrible, dark echo. He fell back onto the narrow, filthy bed he had awakened in just that morning. Is there morning here? He turned his head toward the window and saw the flames licking what he thought was the sky. He desperately needed to sleep and his stomach ached, horribly pinched from hunger. No one had offered food or even suggestions on how to get food. He rolled his head away from the window and began to sleep furtively.


The acrid smell of smoke awakened Jerry from a tormented dream. The scar tissue on his ankles rubbed roughly over the soiled mattress as he swung his feet over the edge of the bed. The boots lay near the door where he had thrown them in a rage.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Spoil Hastens

“Maher-Shalel-hash-baz, Maher-Shalel-hash-baz, Maher-Shalel-hash-baz.” The chorus of voices increased in volume and intensity. “Maher-Shalel-hash-baz, Maher-Shalel-hash-baz!”

Adrian ran out of the room. He could no longer stand the chanting and the crazed behavior. Adrian had joined the group as a lark. He thought it was just strange enough to be entertaining and slightly intriguing. But now it was just disturbing. At first the lark was fun because he was with his old college buddies. They had invited him for beers several months earlier. They had a blast remembering old times and then invited him to their group meetings. A monthly meeting did not seem to be too great of a commitment, plus Adrian had been feeling lonely.

Catherine had left him six months earlier proclaiming that she could no longer stand the boredom. She was sick of his boring, boring life. His incessant online gaming was “no way to maintain a relationship with a woman”. Adrian had spent the last six months working off his little belly fat, which Catherine had described as disgusting, and had infused his wardrobe with items other than sweats, blue jeans and T-shirts. He was determined to act his age -- which was not that much beyond a university graduate.

He left the university with high hopes, inspired dreams and enough zeal to send him thrashing into the marketplace with glee. That glee and zeal had been quickly crushed by brutal competition. His academic adviser had promised easy job placement because of the excellent degree he had shaped for Adrian. It became very apparent that Adrian's academic adviser was somewhat removed from reality due to disassociation with the actual marketplace or his literal disinterest in Adrian’s success. Be that as it may, Adrian was now stuck in a job that did not pay half of what was needed to meet his expenses.

Adrian's parents consistently warned him of living beyond his means, but he ignored them as any young son would. He consistently got credit card offers in the mail and took them up based on his fundamental right to freedom. It was only now that Adrian began the slow but sure realization that freedom did indeed come with a price. Determined that his parents never know, he covered himself with confidence and numerous white lies. He was fiercely independent and completely afraid. No one must know.

His college buddies were all doing very well. Two of them already had wives, one had a baby on the way and all had excellent high paying jobs. As they met each month he learned more about their jobs through their casual conversation. Adrian occasionally became too curious, asking questions about bonuses, gross vs. net pay, etc. The flashing eyes of his friends were ample warning that he was going places he should not go. This struck him as odd because they had talked freely about everything in the dorm rooms.

As Adrian ran down the street the strange words were ringing in his ears, “Maher-Shalel-hash-baz”. He had never heard anything near this kind of language before, despite the fact that he had taken two languages at the university. His hands shook as he put the car keys into the ignition and started the car. He could see nothing outside yet as the rush of defrost pressed itself against the interior of the windshield. He tossed his head backwards and took a deep, cold breath. “Maher-Shalel-hash-baz”. His mind reeled with the strangeness and curiosity. Maybe it was some kind of strange code the group had made up. Maybe it was something they had learned in their fraternity. He had never pledged because he thought fraternities were a waste of his time. Maybe... His cell phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Adrian, dude, where did you go?” It was Vincent.

“I forgot that I had to contact my broker tonight.” A lie confidently replaced the truth.


“Oh, well, that’s a good man. Keep that money jetting around the globe!” Vincent’s voice was filled with satisfaction and delight.

“Listen we’ll let you off this time!” Jovial as ever, Vincent wasn’t going to let him off the hook. “So, be sure to not miss the next one, eh?”

“Sure, sure. Hey, it was good seeing you guys.”

“Until next time! Arrivederci!” Vincent was decidedly more European than he was American. His exotic Italian mother had always been the apple of all the boys’ eye, but now his French wife had taken his mother’s place. She was not nearly as beautiful, but there was something alluring in her as well. If there had not been, Adrian supposed that Vincent would never have been drawn to her.

After the phone call he could see sufficiently out of the front windows and was determined to get off of this street before the meeting ended. He looked at his watch and saw that within minutes the rest of the group would be leaving soon. Dashing down the street and making the first right he could, Adrian accelerated toward his apartment as quickly as possible. It was late and he had to be aware of the stealth cops hiding in alleys with their speed guns, but he was familiar enough with the area to know their haunts.

Vincent watched Adrian as he ran from the room and then he grinned. Turning back into the circle and without breaking the rhythm of their chant, he winked at Peter across from him. They almost laughed, but keep their voices trained on their mantra. The ritual now complete, the young men turned to the small, old bar near their table.

“This scotch is getting low.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re always complaining about it. Why don’t you get some this week instead of me?”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“What’s the matter? Is Johnny’s little wife a bit particular about her Scotch?”

“Yes she is. And you know that. Now shut up and make sure you don’t forget it next time.”

“Yes, sir!” All three others saluted him in sloppy mockery of the armed forces.

“Sit your butts down, fools. We need to go over the list.”

Sitting down, they all pulled folded sheets of paper from their coat pockets and spread them out on the table.

“We have more freedom now since Adrian left. So, let’s start with you Max.

“I found a connection for more lists. I can buy them for $.10 each in lots of 100. That should keep us busy for a while until we can train Adrian. Then we’ll be able to bulk up more.”

Vincent glanced at his list and grinned broadly again. “I was able to download 1,000 more this week.”

“Dude,” it was Jason-the-Cautious, “You need to be a little more conservative! That’s a big company your father-in-law has, but somebody’s going to notice if you don’t start biting off smaller chunks.” Jason punched Vincent in the arm. Vincent barely flinched and glared at Jason.

“You know he’s right, Vincent.” Peter’s voice was firm. “You’re putting us all at risk.”

“Alright, alright, you wimps! Smaller bites. Peter, what do you have?”

Peter cleared his throat meaningfully. “Gentlemen I hold before you the keys to the kingdom. With great patience and planning,” he paused to glare at Vincent, “I have the perfectly crafted resource for our needs.” He pulled a manila folder from his briefcase and laid it in the middle of the table. “Gentlemen, before you is the gold mine of gold mines.” Peter slowly opened the folder and the three leaned over with gasps escaping their lips.

“Dude, where did you get that?!”

“I don’t have time to give you the details, gentlemen, but it’s ours for the taking. I wanted to give you a glimpse of it tonight.” Peter withdrew the folder from their midst. “And, if Adrian is not here next month, I’ll lay out the plan. In the meantime, be sure to know that the influence I hold with this document will be used carefully and wisely.”

Max got up slowly from the table, rubbing his hands through his hair. He walked over to the bar and got another drink and walked back to the table. No one spoke until Max broke the silence.

“This, gentlemen,” Max tapped his left-hand fist on the table, “represents our next move upward. We must belay any fears or desires that will put this movement in jeopardy.”

“Oh, shut up, Max! You sound like a general on the field of battle.”

“Alright, but I’m serious. I would like to make a suggestion that Adrian be excluded from the group from this point forward. Too much work and effort have gone into this to let a rookie foul it up. Even if we just let him work on Max’s list he would have too much access to us. And I just don’t see how that is any good.”

Jason was eager to jump on this bandwagon. “Yes. I agree. Adrian should never come back. Did you see how he ran from this meeting tonight? Even if he really forgot a meeting with his broker, he was definitely afraid. Definitely afraid.”

Consensus seemed to be brewing and the room grew quiet. Peter was the first to say something again.

“Look, the loss we might incur from not bringing on a fifth member will certainly be absorbed by Peter’s plan. Agreed.”

“Absolutely.”

“Then, Vincent, why don’t you give Adrian a call in a day or two and tell him that we’ve disbanded. Maybe in a couple of months we could make an invitation to pizza or something and then cancel, then let the connection die out.”

“I think this is an excellent idea.” Max was anxious to get going. His wife would be too curious if he was much later.

“Look I think we should find a new place to meet, too.”

“Agreed.” Vincent took command as usual. “Jason, pack up the liquor. There is a box behind the bar. Let’s put the chairs and the table back where we found them. Peter, get a broom and sweep some dust over this area, too.” All four men quickly set to work, not wanting to disappoint Vincent’s wife. They might not be invited over for a while if he was late.

Adrian slumped over his morning coffee. His little kitchen was cold and there was frost on the windows. He had finally remembered to put his slippers on this morning. Autumn had turned to Winter rather quickly this year. A short pencil started to roll off of the table and he grabbed it as it was about to plummet off of the edge. A napkin lay next to his stained coffee cup. He pulled the napkin out and started doodling on the corner. He had slept poorly and was finding little room in his head for serious thought. It was Saturday and he let himself relax into that reality. He found himself sounding out the words, trying to write them phonetically to see if his memory could recall anything associated with it. M-a-h-l-er, scratch that. M-a-h-a-r, scratch that. M-e-h-e-r-s-h-a-l- it was coming together pretty nicely, a-l-h-e-s-h-b-u-z. Eating the last bite of his toast he opened his laptop and did a web search for this but found nothing close to it. Disappointed, he got up and put his coffee cup into the filthy sink. Suddenly Adrian was struck with purpose for his day. He quickly looked up the hours of the library and trotted off to the bathroom to shave.

The sunlight was warm, despite the biting wind on his face. Between blasts he could feel the rays penetrating his skin. It felt good to be alive with purpose. In the back of his mind he understood that this purpose was short lived, for as soon as he discovered the meaning of the crazy word, he knew that purpose would fall away. He always loved to learn and he considered going back to school again. But that required more money. He leaned into the wind, hunching his shoulders to keep it from clawing down his neck. The library was only a few blocks away and he wanted to save gas and his parking place, so he pressed on despite the tingling in his legs and earlobes.

Inside the library he was delighted with the warmth and the quiet. The clerk smiled carefully at him and he smiled back. “Is there a reference librarian in today?”

“Not right now. She doesn’t come in until noon.”

“Where would I find her when she is in?”

The clerk pointed to the reference area to the right. “She’ll be there at noon.”

“Thank you.”

Adrian sat down at the computer not knowing where to start. “Start somewhere, idiot.” This was the voice that always taunted him. He knew he wasn’t an idiot, but that voice was always there. He started with languages and would go from there.

Adrian had fallen asleep in the carrel, books piled high around him. When he woke he felt the drool on his mouth and chin and was embarrassed even before he knew anyone had seen him. He was grateful when it appeared that no one had. His search had been fruitless thus far. As he rubbed his face to help awaken it, he hoped the librarian was in. Glancing at the clock he saw that she had been there for over two hours.

“Can I help you?” The librarian was quite nice, middle-aged with rust colored hair.

“I have been trying to find a definition for a word that I heard the other day. I’ve looked for several hours and can’t seem to find anything near related to it. Would you want to give it a crack?”

“Well, let’s see what we can find. The librarian turned to her computer, “How do you spell it?” Adrian laid the napkin down carefully in her line of vision. “I didn’t ever see the word. I only heard it a few times.” The librarian looked at it carefully for some time, typed something into her computer and looked puzzled.

“Do you have any idea if it is one word or more?”

“No. It sounded like all one word. It was spoken over and over in a kind of chant.”

She looked at him curiously and then glanced at the clock. “What have you looked at so far?”

“Ancient languages, Central American languages, a few religions. I can’t seem to find any kind of hook or lead.”

“It would certainly help if we had the exact spelling.”

“Unfortunately this is all I have.”

“Tell you what, I have a few minutes before a class I’m teaching. Why don’t you take a look at this?”

She was writing a call number on a piece of paper. “I’ll see what else I might find. If I’m not here when you get back I’ll leave a note with the clerk if I find more.”

“Thank you.”

Adrian pursued the book through the shelves as if it were the Fountain of Youth. He fumbled along the shelves and found the volume the librarian had cited. His finger quickly ran down the table of contents. Finding nothing he flipped through the index. A few false leads had him prancing through the pages, but his search again was fruitless. He browsed the books close by to no avail. His stomach growled and he was losing interest. He hadn’t spent this much time in a library since his university days.

Adrian stopped at the clerk’s desk, inquiring if the librarian had left a note. The clerk apologized. Adrian decided he would go home, cook a microwave meal and do some gaming. He was tired of this and hoped that it would not re-enter his dreams tonight.

Adrian woke up mid-morning. He had been gaming with people in Japan and Russia all night and fallen asleep on the couch. His computer told the tale, “Game suspended. Retry?” He hoped that the other gamers weren’t angry with him. But he would probably never know. More than likely they had just obliterated his avatar and moved on. Maher-Shalel-hash-baz—there it was again! He must have been dreaming it. He thought that gunning down those avatars, beasts and mongrels would have pushed enough adrenalin through his system to destroy the word. But, that didn’t even work.

As he was shaving, Adrian was struck with the idea of attending church. He wasn’t really sure where this came from, it was just there. He mulled this over for a while. He had rarely gone to church. Every once in a while his cousins had roped him into it during Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it was always boring and he rarely understood it. But maybe on this day he would go. While cooking his traditional Sunday morning eggs and hash browns he looked up churches in the area. He had never known that there was an Episcopalian church on the other side of his block. Service began in an hour so he was sure he could make it.

The church’s high ceiling and marble floors were braced by thick and dark wooden beams. Adrian paused for a moment at the door to the main meeting room—someone had called it a sanctuary—observing how people entered and where they sat. He decided to sit in the back corner so that he would look less foolish to those few around him. The music started and everyone automatically picked up a small, brown book from the rack in front of them. Adrian quickly opened one of these. People were singing and reading aloud. It was difficult for him to hear all of the words because the large number of voices bounding down the long hall. Frequently people changed books, from the small brown book to a modestly larger book bound in black. He had finally given up exchanging the books because he could not keep up. So, he stood with the small, brown book resting on his palms.

Eventually everyone sat down and someone who looked like a priest stood up near the front. There were several people who had on similar robes with golden tapestry scarves hung around their necks. A voice rang out from the front of the hall, “The Old Testament reading this morning comes from Isaiah chapter 7 verses 13-25 and chapter 8 verses 1-3, Hear the word of the Lord. Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, "Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.. ."

Adrian was finding it hard to listen as he frantically thumbed through the pages. Someone behind him gently tapped him on the shoulder and handed him an open black book. Adrian smiled at the man and whispered thanks. The man leaned closely to his ear and pointed to a particular place. “This is where we are.”

Then Isaiah said, "Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah . . ."


Adrian was trying hard to comprehend these words, but without any context whatsoever he simply read word by word.

In that day the LORD will whistle for flies from the distant streams of Egypt and for bees from the land of Assyria. They will all come and settle in the steep ravines and in the crevices in the rocks, on all the thorn bushes and at all the water holes. In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the River. . .

Adrian’s mind started to wonder away.

. . . As for all the hills once cultivated by the hoe, you will no longer go there for fear of the briers and thorns; they will become places where cattle are turned loose and where sheep run.
The LORD said to me, "Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.


Adrian’s heart leapt. What did the reader say? He eyes drilled in on the words.

And I will call in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me." Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the LORD said to me, "Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. Before the boy knows how to say 'My father' or 'My mother,' the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria."


The reading suddenly stopped, but Adrian’s heart was beating all the faster. He turned quickly to find the helpful man, but no one was behind him. His finger was pressed to the paragraph where he was reading the words for the first time. Four words. No wonder he could not find it as one. Everyone sat down but Adrian remained standing his eyes fixed to the page. Someone cleared their throat behind him and he jerked his head up and discovered he should be seated. He fell back in his seat, careful to not move his finger from the words. He heard another voice coming from the front, but all he could do was read that paragraph over and over. The voice droned on and on while Adrian’s focus became blurred from staring at the words too long. He looked up and he heard the speaker roaring indiscernible words in his direction. It was something about prophecy and judgment and God. He didn’t really care what was being said. He was scanning the page and its neighbor looking for some description, footnote or parenthetical statement to tell him what it meant. There was little there except the context of the words themselves and the words were a name. He flipped the cover closed over his finger to see what this book was and saw “Holy Bible” impressed on the cover. Adrian was even more confused now. Those college buddies were anything but religious. Where and why did they use this name? Adrian heard little more of the service, which concluded fairly abruptly. Not knowing how to hang on to this revelation, Adrian slid the Bible under his coat as he left the seat. He would have to take it home to find out more.

The spaghetti slurped through Adrian’s pursed lips as he held the Bible in his other hand. He had read and re-read the section that had been read in the church, but he still could not understand it. Carefully marking the page with a long piece of ribbon and taking another drink of orange juice he flipped backwards in the pages until he came to what looked like the beginning of a section. “Isaiah” was printed in large bold letters across the top of the page. He decided he had better read it all the way through, then maybe he could figure it out. Leaving the plate on the table he carried the book to the living room and sat down to read.

The phone rang. Adrian was startled out of his study, and reached for the phone.

“Hey, dude. How in the world are ya?” It was Vincent.

Adrian’s voice caught in his throat for a moment. He closed the Bible quickly as if Vincent could see it and recovering into cheerfulness he responded, “Hey, Vincent. What’s up?”

“It was great having you at the meeting the other night.”

“Yeah, thanks for inviting me.”

“Hey, listen we decided to disband the meeting. It was getting a little too time consuming for all of us.
The wives, you know!”

“Oh, well thanks for letting me know.”

“But we don’t want you to feel left out. We’ve made some plans for a pizza party at Max’s pretty soon. I’ll give you a call then, O.K.?”

“Sure, Vincent, that sounds great.”

“Well, you take care, dude. I’ll talk to you later.” The phone was dead in the next instant.

Adrian was a little confused again. Vincent had told him that the guys had wanted him to be part of the group several times. He had assured him that this would be a good, long-standing group to be part of—which made this quick and cheery dismissal all the more curious. As uncomfortable as he had felt at that last meeting, though, he was very relieved to never meet with them in this way again. He would much rather hang out and have pizza than approach some old warehouse in the dark.

The librarian was delighted to learn how the words were spelled and that it was a name. Librarians were always delighted with new knowledge. She informed Adrian that their catalog included very little Biblical reference works, that there were a few things in a particular section, which she pointed to, and that there was a seminary library on the other side of the block. It was right next to the Episcopalian church. Adrian thanked her again sincerely, very grateful for her referrals. He rummaged through the section the librarian had directed him to and was met with frustration again, not understanding how to use the few books that were there. He would spend some time at the seminary library even though it made him a little uncomfortable being so near so much religion.

The seminary library smelled much older than the public library, and was obviously less traveled. But the reference desk was easy to approach and a man’s broad back was bent over the desk behind it. Adrian cleared his throat lightly.

“I’ll be with you in a moment.” He could see the man shaking his head up and down and heard a low tone of curiosity humming through his lips. As if alerted from a bystander, the man wheeled around to greet him. Adrian was pleased to see the man who had helped him in the church. At least this was a not a cold meeting. The man smiled more broadly than before. “And how can I help you today, young man? By the way it was good to see you in church.”

“Oh, thank you. It was nice to be there.” This last statement was true only because he had discovered the source of his haunting. “I was wondering if you might be able to help me with a particular Bible section.”

“Well, sure! I should put the emphasis on ‘try’. Sometimes we can’t always know exactly what we see in the word of God, but the Lord helps us with our misunderstandings, too. Are you a new seminary student? I haven’t seen you around before.”

“No, I just live around the block and have been doing some scouting.”

“Let’s scout some more, shall we? Tell me what passage of Scripture you are looking at.”

Adrian then realized that he would be presenting the Bible he had stolen from the church. He couldn’t remember what the section was called, so the only way to tell this man was to reveal his hand. Turning a slight shade of red, he pulled the Bible from his coat and handed it to the man.

Immediately the man recognized the Bible and tried to put Adrian at ease. “It’s good you took the good Book. Many people are lost without it.”

“I’m . . . I’m sorry . . .” Adrian stumbled over his words.

“Quite alright, young man. Quite alright. May I ask your name?”

“Adrian.” This came out a little more timid than Adrian would have liked, but it had been a long time since he had been caught stealing something. For a moment a similar situation from his 8th year of life wrenched his gut again.

“I’m Franklin.” Franklin’s kind eyes and light tap on Adrian’s arm seemed intended to dispel any shame.

“Why don’t we go over to the table there and you can show me what you have been looking at.”

As Adrian described his recent study of the section and the whole part called Isaiah, he could see Franklin’s eyes dance with delight. He told Franklin how frustrating it was to figure this all out on his own and that he would welcome any help he could get.

“Tell me what part is the most distressing to you.”

“This name here—Maher-Shalel-hash-baz—I just can’t find any description or meaning for it anywhere else in Isaiah.”

“Ah, that’s because it is an ancient word.” Franklin was careful not to jump into any seminary lingo and scholarly words. He had seen Adrian struggling with some of the most rudimentary descriptions of what they were looking at.

“If you have some time I would be more than happy to show you how we find such things.”

“I’ve got all day.”

Franklin fairly sprung into action, running to different parts of the reference area, stacking books on top of each other, going to another part of the library and bringing several more volumes. When he came back a bit breathless to the table, he looked a little chagrinned after seeing the stunned look on Adrian’s face.

“Oh, dear, I probably got a little ahead of myself. We won’t need to go through all of these books. I’ll just pick out two or three that will help.”

Adrian smiled quickly to relieve the older man of any discomfort. Franklin sat down next to him and started rummaging through the books, mumbling while he verbally sorted his thoughts. At last he seemed pleased with his selections.

“First of all, let’s see if we can find that definition right away.” Franklin pulled a thick book towards them. “This is a Bible dictionary, much like any dictionary you would find. If we’re lucky we’ll find it right away.” Franklin’s fingers and eyes raced over pages, flipping them quickly to find a match. “Ah ha!” Almost too loudly, Franklin declared his search was over. He laid the book in front of Adrian.

“Why don’t you read it for us.”

Adrian felt like he was back in grade-school. He grinned into the book remembering how wonderful it was to have a good teacher. “A symbolical name (‘the spoil hastens’, ‘speed the spoil’, ‘hasten the prey’) given to one of Isaiah’s sons to signify the quick removal of enemies . . . “ Adrian leaned back, more confused and unsettled than ever.

“What is it Adrian?”

“I don’t know. I just can’t figure out why they would use this name.”

“Who is ‘they’? Maybe that would help us understand why they chose it.”

Adrian was talking quietly in the air. “If this was a prophecy about removal of enemies . . .”

Adrian turned suddenly to Franklin.

“Franklin, I’ve got to think about this some more. I’m sorry if I’m being rude. But I’ve got to think about some things.”

“Of course. Of course.” Franklin did not appear to be too disappointed, hoping the young man would come back soon.

“Thank you, Franklin. I’ll probably be back next Saturday. Thank you.”

Adrian left the library deep in thought, as he would be for many more days.

Adrian found his scissors and shuffled to the kitchen table. There on the front page of the paper were the pictures of his old university pals Vincent, Max, Peter and Jason. Above their heads was the bold headline—Four Arrested in Massive Financial Scam. The article was riveting and disturbing. Literally millions of dollars had been skimmed off of Medicare. In addition to this, the four had been in the identity theft business since college. Adrian was dumbfounded. He sat down and just stared at their faces, now ugly mug shots from the police department. He drank his coffee slowly still having a hard time taking it in. He felt a profound sense of relief that the group had been disbanded. Or had it? Maybe they just did not want him in it. That was quite alright—especially now. The article made some brief reference to the groups’ code word of Maher-Shalel-hash-baz, an ancient Hebrew name. Beyond that there was no further explanation.

Franklin was delighted to see Adrian again. The young man had come back several more Saturdays and was showing real promise as a student of the Bible. They went to their usual table and Franklin was about to head off into the stacks. Adrian put his hand on Franklin’s arm, pulling him gently into the chair next to him.

“Franklin, I need to show you something. It will help you understand why I have been so curious.” Adrian unfolded the newspaper article and Franklin looked at him curiously.

“I read that this morning, Adrian. It’s so sad and alarming.”

“I went to school with these guys.”

Franklin shook his head. “How quickly some fall.” In hushed tones he asked, “Were you a part of this group?”

“No, thank goodness. They invited me in, but I was unnerved by their strange behavior.”

Franklin let out a little sigh of relief.

“Through all of your teaching about Isaiah chapters seven and eight I have not understood.” Adrian’s finger ran across the words referring to the name that the group had used. “And while I have some idea, now I really need to know why they chose this name.”

Franklin studied the article again. Shaking his head, he opened several books he had collected in anticipation of Adrian’s arrival. He shook his head again.

“It is strange that they chose this name because, in the context of this Scripture, it is in reference to the defeat of Judah’s enemies. The spoils are God’s, not the enemies.” Franklin looked Adrian in the eye. “The only explanation I may have is that they did not know the Scriptures themselves. Perhaps they got confused and thought that it would be an appropriate name for stealing and oppression. I just don’t know for certain.”

Adrian laid a hand on Franklin’s shoulder. “Franklin, I think that may be the best answer we can get to on this matter.” They both sat quietly staring at the faces of the young men in the paper.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Color

She could see the images tumbling like Monarchs through the trees. The colors were always brilliant and buoyant. If she closed her eyes, she would have to completely succumb to them, so she kept her eyes wide open, hoping the images in her head would subside.

She was a visual schizophrenic. There was always a new image that imposed itself on her--particularly when she was relaxed. Sometimes pictures would superimpose themselves on each other, sometimes they would arm wrestle for dominance, but always there were far too many to paint or even draw. She had learned early in her artistic training—and it had taken some time to let herself be an artist—that if she gave in to all their demands, she would never sleep, never eat, never stop painting.

And then there were the pencils and ink pens lying in wait in the foxholes. If she kept them visible and handy they would attack her outright, demanding attention and allegiance even more ardently than the images themselves. They were the means to the end--these pencils, pens, and brushes. And they were in league with their compatriots--the canvas and paper.

She frequently wondered about this barrage. Where did it all come from? Why did she see the world in pictures and not words? Perhaps it was a mad rush against the reality of her blind, deaf, and mute muse: her grandmother, the one from whom her parents derived her name.

Her grandmother had been an artist in her own right, one who before the vision vanished in her eyes, had produced delicate and intricate crochet work. The works of others’ were always cumbersome and lumpy. Her grandmother’s were like snowflakes—yes, like snowflakes.

Throughout her house her deceased grandmother’s keepsakes were hidden. For the first time this struck her as odd. Why they had remained hidden she did not know. Even after this moment of realization, they would remain hidden. Perhaps it was too painful and frightening a reminder that the senses she now enjoyed, even the ones she herself had suppressed, had been systematically taken from her grandmother.

Her first and terrifying memory of her grandmother was when she was introduced to her by means of sign language. Her son had patiently signed into his mother’s hand the letters of her name m-a-r-t-h-a. The moment the last ‘a’ left her palm, her grandmother erupted with pure joy and crazy guttural expressions: “Gul! Marpha! Gul!” Her light and long fingers had fluttered wildly over the terrified grandchild’s eyes, nose, cheeks, lips, and hair. Marpha! Gul! She was her Martha, her girl, the oldest daughter of her only son.

She remembered being paralyzed with fear as she was pulled simultaneously into her grandmother’s warm arms and the cold steel of her wheelchair. The joy and delight on her grandmother’s toothless, blind face was equally astonishing. This hung like a beautiful, ravenous painting in her granddaughter’s mind for years to come. Rarely had she experienced such joy and absolute acceptance in all her life.

Yet, like the persistent and random images, she did not have any true sense of history with her grandmother--only gul and marpha and those long and tender fingers touching her face. Like a million butterflies brushing her face, her grandmother and the hundreds of colors had been with her for a very long time. They sustained her. They had given her hope. They had encouraged her and filled an otherwise gray life with color more beautiful than the autumn aspens.

Perhaps that was why she selected very carefully the images and colors she would apply to paper and canvas. If she put them all out there, perhaps she would lose them and lose the courage of her grandmother. This she could not do. This she would not do.