Issue 3:2 | Fiction | Lynn Pruett
Aching for coffee on a morning when her breath tasted of stale beer and second-hand smoke, Andrea walked down Pleasant Street toward a diner that harbored homeless people. It was her favorite eatery in Northampton, an anomaly amid shops that sold Ecuadoran textiles, jewelry from the Far East, exotic ice cream, blintzes, enchiladas, and gnocchi. At first, she barely noticed the slight, bald man who fell in step beside her. He was wearing overalls and smelled like cow manure. She picked up her pace and swallowed against the odor. She’d wasted the night with a semi-stranger, another disappointment in her quest for a man who would return her passion. One who would understand, when, on the dance floor she turned a dip into a backbend it was about sheer physical pleasure, not about him or his chance to preview for his pals the one-night stand he was about to enjoy.
The old man caught her by the arm. He grunted a word she could not understand. He had no teeth and gummed out another word, then gestured at her chest. He waved a five dollar bill and touched his fly.
Andrea lashed out and felt a hard crack as her forearm met his skull. “My father is a minister, for Chrissake!” she shouted at the heap on the sidewalk.
How had he known what throbbed under her skin? Her jeans were ragged, her t-shirt dingy. She wore work boots crisscrossed with dyes. Yet he had sensed it, like they all did, this compulsion she could not turn off or satisfy. She dashed away from the diner, up the hill, then down the narrow alley to the dark brick burrow where Epithet Press was housed.
Inside, already at work, were Earl and Lloyd and Regina. The press was small and eclectic, owned by a wealthy Hampshire College drop-out. They made paper and organic inks and brought out small broadsides of sentiments copied from Victorian tombstones. Andrea watched Earl and Lloyd struggle to unload a crate of charred pawlonia wood. She’d transform it into ink, perhaps a shade of orange swirled with red like the yolk of a bloody egg.
She paused at the door and asked her reflection: oh what did she want? All right. Someone athletic, physical, in shape—say it, yes, it mattered. A man who listened as much as he talked. Tall, dark, handsome, yes, handsome would be nice for a change. But truly she couldn’t take a handsome man seriously nor could she deal well with blonds; they seemed insubstantial. Not a hairy one either. Maybe she was too picky. Maybe her problem was her.
She ate breath mints for breakfast and listened to Regina, an anorexic, wretch and flush in the bathroom. Pleasure followed by illness and regret was a pattern she knew too well. From now on she’d save herself for a man who could appreciate her sensuality, approve it, stoke it, and not be afraid of its power. A man who knew her before her need for sexual expression took the relationship toward a tawdry end. God, I am desperate, she thought as she clacked out a personal ad on the antique typewriter:
I am so tired of playing games. It seems the men you meet in bars are full of bull. I am in my early 20’s and pride myself in being fit. I dress well and enjoy dinner, dancing, and the usual forms of entertainment. I am looking for a sincere man who can appreciate me and wants to be appreciated, too.
A week passed and Andrea received only one response. She felt ripped off. Maybe her ad made too much of herself. Maybe the only available guys lived in bars. She cleaned her fingers, inky from the color of blue inspired by the great circles under Regina’s eyes, and delicately unsealed the envelope.
I have not been in a bar since I was a child, which I suppose is a bad beginning. But truth will out. I was in the bar to collect my father who fixed jukeboxes in the city of New Orleans. There, you have learned of my humble beginnings and where I spent my youth.
Although I do not frequent bars, I do appreciate restaurants that provide a dance floor. I prefer to dance to a pit band in dim light, with slow sensual sounds moving softly around.
A mystical blue light shading the room cool, and yet, a fire smoldering beneath the blue. Ah yes.
Describe to me how you dance.
Andrea didn’t know anyone who spoke like that. Maybe Richard was an artist. Maybe she was out of her league. She waited another week but received no more replies to her ad. She was getting moody, doodling at work, thinking of blue nights, of being cool and smoldering at the same time, of a long slow burn. That was appealing, so much more appealing that the wham-bam-who-gives-a-damn experience she’d been having lately. She found a run of miscut vanilla-scented paper in the dumpster, selected a clean page, and wrote in violet:
It’s hard for me to describe how I dance because I don’t think like that. I just dance. If the music’s hot, I’m hot, if it’s slow, I’m getting a drink of club soda. I never thought of music as hot and blue at the same time. I’ve been trying to imagine what that feels like, the way you dance. I can see the lights turning things blue and the music sort of under everything, but what does that feel like?
When I dance, I get into the music and it goes right through me, like the drum beat is my heart. I shimmer like the tremor of an earthquake.
Is that a religious affiliation? Friend?
Richard McCorvey felt the correspondence with #357386 was a mistake. Friend seemed a bit uneducated. The way she danced was cliche, perhaps mocking his overeager literary outburst in the initial letter? He’d answered her ad because it was the only one that mentioned dancing, or so he allowed himself to think. The scent of the paper and the strange Emily Dickinsonish ink, a backdrop for the almost childish chitchat, was mysterious in the way he’d found the actual Dead Sea scrolls mysterious. His curiosity then, too, had been about the hand that had moved across the page. Brown, surely, as his hand was and possessed of such confidence. Friend’s hand was strong, the lines clean and straight, the letters distinct, but the color—purple!—suggested a boldness he found distressing.
What to do? In the springtime an old man feeling not old at all? He put on red sweats and jogged up the road leading to the infernal cow farms that twenty years ago seemed doomed to the voracity of subdivisions. The hint of moist earth and sharp young grass filled his nose. In his early manhood, in the Deep South, if he, a black man, had jogged along a road, he would have been considered suspicious. But up north, he was expected to be athletic and it hadn’t been bad. In the early 70’s teaching at UMass felt like true liberation from childhood restraints. Gates fell, laws died. Everyone whooped it up. He could have sex without thought of matrimony—and with white girls.
Forbidden, he’d appealed to students who crossed town from the private women’s colleges to hear him say Pentateuch and Deuteronomy in his thunderous voice. The young women may have dressed slovenly in jeans, body suits, and hiking boots, but their brand labels were upscale. They drove expensive cars and took skiing trips to Stowe and Sugarloaf and Vail, and occasionally invited him to Lake George for a clandestine weekend. After a few confrontations with outraged white fathers, he declined those invitations because there was nothing about love in any of them.
His pace slowed to a walk. Though he ought to sprint up the long hill, he couldn’t make himself speed into the glare of twin silos. He blinked against the monstrous barns and equally monstrous white farmhouses facing off at the crossroads. From these pristine buildings would rise the odor of cows. It was only a matter of days before the nefarious cloud would roll west toward his house and loll there until the fall. He’d never gotten used to the smell of manure or the sound of lowing. After he retired next year, he would move, but first he wanted to find a wife.
He’d been married once, when he was younger, to a wonderful woman named Doris. How they had danced. The shimmy and shake of southern gospel hotter than any rock and roll, Hallelujah the most come-on word in English when Doris let it roll from her luscious lips, her mood choosing which syllable got the accent. He remembered them all, the “HA” times and the “lu-JAH” times. For him the word “wife’ conjured a supple being, with girlish laughter and thick hair. Though he could never say it out loud, he craved this incorrect thing—a young wife.
Doris had died of cancer when they were both twenty-nine. Her death had sent him whirling into education. Too hurt to minister to people’s souls, he’d taken The Word to their minds. He had analyzed Biblical texts, broken the books down into small, digestible words. He had become a popular teacher.
Richard walked home, breathing through his mouth to no avail. Already the air was tinged with cow. Overhead the leaves had fleshed out and darkened to a less-searing shade of green. It was time in this correspondence to ask some questions point-blank.
Andrea was put off by the religious questions but she figured she’d answer them and shake him loose. She was planning a better ad, one the lied but got more responses.
I am a PK. Preacher’s kid. I know that’s boring news for you. A PK who isn’t rebelling by hanging out in bars or joining the army. Methodist for generations. Personally I think religion is overdone but you asked so there it is.
Richard was thrilled by the news. They shared denomination, but more than that she was the daughter of a minister’s wife. She would be familiar with, not shocked by, that station. He liked this way of dating, a safe exchange of questions, which seemed more honest than a face-to-face encounter. He re-read her letter. She wasn’t rebelling against her parents. What was she doing?
I know you must be getting more interested in me and I suppose that’s the point. But when you write letters full of APB questions, I don’t like them as much as when you write about yourself.
So here’s the info:
College: over and done with. Job: satisfactory. I make inks and set type at a small press. Share a house with several roommates. Never been married, not sure if I want to be yet.
Now some questions for you: the same as you asked me but put them at the bottom of the letter. In the letter, answer the questions: what do you collect? Then I’ll tell you what I collect.
Her name was Andrea, a name that yielded few clues. More disconcerting was her request. Richard didn’t collect anything. Necessity dictated his budget. He hoarded food in case he was snowed in. Cans of every vegetable, meat, and noodle combination were stacked on shelves in the basement bedroom. Dental floss, Scope, seven green towels, jars of lotion, three sets of flannel sheets, these things he’d collected after his first Massachusetts winter. There were a few Minutemen game programs in the guest room. He followed the UMass basketball teams, first when Julius Irving was a star, then through the loss-laden ‘80’s, and now into the Top Ten ‘90’s. It got him through the miserably long winters. In the garage he found stacks of the bumper stickers he’d printed back when he couldn’t stand one more student asking if Tennessee was on the coast or if the people in the South really had worms. The stickers said, “Provincialism is Global.” Students passed out hundreds and he’d enjoyed some notoriety and popularity. But then in a cataclysm of diversity hiring, which Richard likened to the path of a pinball, sometimes wildly out of control, sometimes pointless, REAL Africans became the rage, then Caribbean-Africans with studies of cultures rarely found on North American shores. Anything to avoid self-examination, he thought. Perhaps now he felt unhip, or lame, or whatever word was current for his students. He poked around his house for several days thinking how he was going to lose this correspondence because he didn’t collect anything.
Andrea didn’t collect anything either. She just put that in the letter and figured she could forget about it. But the question gnawed at her while she mixed colors. Bent over pots of ash, she added secret drops of peppermint oil for her own olfactory enjoyment. She loved to squeeze sodden lumps of paper pulp but that was a habit, not a collection. She took home errors and false starts, malformed papers, some thick and pebbly, others creamy, all somehow delicious, flecked with wild grasses and frets of leaves. Scraps, they weren’t a real collection. What did she collect? One night stands. She couldn’t write that. Besides she never had anything but memories and what was special about those memories? If you collected memories that simply meant you were human.
I hold a doctorate. I work at the university. I own my own home.
Facts that told nothing yet how important they seemed when defining yourself. Impatiently Richard erased the sentences and dashed off:
Please join me for dinner April 11 at Chanticleer’s, 8:00 p.m. I will wear a white carnation in my lapel. I have a doctorate. I work at the university. I own my own home. RSVP.
Andrea paged through the dresses in her closet. She hadn’t worn a dress since Christmas Eve service at her father’s church. She hadn’t worn one on a date since the high school prom. Which to choose? Richard was a man who knew of simultaneous hot and cold and yet he obsessed on religion. Perhaps a religion professor? She sighed as her eyes blanked on the dark corner of the closet.
importantly, how did she feel?
Careless. Eight guys who couldn’t spell had answered her second ad, in which she claimed to be a retired air line stewardess from Sweden in need of English lessons and long walks on the beach. She closed her eyes and flung her hand into the closet. It brushed a patch of velvet.
She’d always worn velvet to the Christmas Eve service, green when her mother dressed her, red during the teen years, and finally, when she hit twenty-one, black. An hour before worship began, Andrea climbed into the balcony and take a seat at the railing. Below, the sanctuary glistened.
Candles threw light on the slick green holly sprays resting beneath the stained glass windows. The curved wooden pews, like large wide sleighs, shone, freshly polished. Anthems rolled from the organ while the congregation slowly filled the church. Most people were dressed up, their hair shiny and clean, the men in suits, the women and girls adorned in red, green, and gold.
In the balcony, things were different. Latecomers, fresh from parties, congregated there. Adults giggled without shame and every year old Mr. Addams fell from a rickety chair set up for the overflow. Andrea preferred to sit with the sinners, as she called them.
After the prayers and the sermon and carols, the electric lights were dimmed and everyone held still. The Sanctuary blazed with candlelight, the doublets mounted on the end of every pew flickering like hot white flowers. A huge candelabra burned on the altar and twin advent wreaths glowed near the pulpits. In the hush of expectation, Andrea’s father moved like a dark angel and lit the fifth candle. Christ was born. From the back of the church, beneath the balcony, a lone bell ringer swung the deepest bell, sending up twelve low golden notes that lodged in Andrea’s chest and buoyed her outside with the other worshippers, quiet but for the tramp of their feet on the snow. Warm with the bell tones, she waited for her parents in the parking lot and relished the cold air and white snow muting church bells across the Valley as they proclaimed Christmas.
Touching the velvet, she had a glimmer of what Richard meant of being warm and cold and blue at once.
She wore black hose and slight heels, and the black velvet V-neck dress with its flared red skirt. Her dark hair, fresh-cut, was short and sleek, her lips dark red. Chanticleer’s Restaurant suggested Richard was going to spend some nice money. She let herself dream against her past experiences. The man who’d fit, hmmm, he’d be a bit taller and wearing something hip but subtle, a suit was not too much to hope for. After all he owned a home, had a doctorate, and worked at UMass. If he was all flared out in color, she’d eat and leave. His interests and the way he wrote still mystified her. Religion mattered but so did music and mood. Someone spiritual but not New Age?
She stared at her chic self and thought of her daily attire, jeans, work boots, ancient t-shirts. What the hell was this all about? Good food. Conversation. Solving a mystery. To her red lips and made up eyes, she said, I will talk. Or else he will talk all the time and it will all be about him, not us. I promise I will talk about—she paused. If he’s a religion professor, she smiled at herself, dipping her chin and looking out of the tops of her eyes, I will talk about sin.
Chanticleer’s was busy, well-lit, and warm. It was expensive, the food trendy, their specialties seafood and steak. In the basement, there was a dance floor and a bar, offering the possibility of touch.
“I’m to meet a gentleman with a white carnation,” Andrea said to the host who smiled and led her around the corner and down a corridor to a table for two.
The man who rose was black. And old. And wearing a white carnation.
The host swept back her chair.
Andrea’s smile grew brighter as she held out her hand. This must be a joke, she thought, a big fat joke Richard’s playing on me. Well, she decided her grin luminous, if this is a test, then I will test him. Richard was probably a weirdo who answered personal ads for the sheer joy of humiliating lonely people. He was probably seated nearby, watching.
“I’m --“ she began.
“Andrea,” said the man, pronouncing it On-dray-yuh.
“Yes,” she slid into the chair. The man returned to his seat. It was difficult to guess his age other than to say over forty, perhaps even over fifty. His hair was gray and cut close to his head and, though there were a few wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, the rest of his rich brown face was smooth.
“I have taken the liberty of ordering a chablis,” he said.
“Good,” said Andrea.
He smiled. “Followed by red snapper from the Gulf.”
“Nice,” she said.
“I do not eat steak,” said Richard. “It helps the local economy.”
“Whatever.” At least she’d be well-fed. Her eyes darted to the next table which was occupied by two old fat ladies. The one behind Richard was encased in a wild green and white number that formed a backdrop for his sober gray suit but picked up tiny green squares in his tie. There was no reason to suspect the real Richard of being male, she thought. And yet, he had to be.
The wine arrived. They drank without a toast.
“Are you a religion professor?”
“A professor of religion, yes.”
She took a deep breath. “Good. Then you can explain sin. I was raised a Methodist but it was like we float above sin.” She gulped air then tried again. “I mean, it was so easy to be a Methodist. If you made a mistake, you prayed right to God and knew you were forgiven. My friends who were Catholic wrestled with guilt all the time.” She stopped but the man said nothing. A very clever imposter so far. She continued. “You’re from the South, right?”
“Alabama originally,” he said.
“John Wesley,” she said. “Tell me about John Wesley.”
“He got the southern Methodists all stirred up two hundred years ago and they still have sin. But up here Jonathan Edwards was hot ‘til he died and that was it. I want to hear about sin, the power of sin.” She poured herself a second glass of wine.
Richard smiled while Andrea talked. She seemed so young and needy. He felt like her parson or professor rather than her date. It was a good thing to have arranged this meeting and put an end to the whole thing. Relief, not regret as he had expected, rose as she talked naively on. He was too impatient, too old for the probable conversations they’d have. He considered living every day as if it was brand-new and took a bracing gulp of wine.
Just this morning he had answered a personal ad for a Christian African-American
Woman looking for like man. He imagined her to be a bit plump, over forty, with nice hair, a woman proud but not loud, a woman who would be both wife and minister’s wife.
As the speed of Andrea’s speech increased, Richard subtly glanced at his watch. “Andrea, the question of sin and the different manifestations of belief is interesting and worthy of discussion. You ought to make an appointment during my office hours if you want to talk of those things.” Richard said. She would never make a minister’s wife in those clothes. Her arms were firm as only a young woman’s are. A black woman’s face defied age. White women used creams and surgery to present more youth than was natural. Yet if he saw a woman’s upper arms he could guess with accuracy her age. “You look lovely.”
She blushed. “Thank you.” This was going all wrong.
“Your questions are about passion, not sin.” His eyes met hers but his tone was dry.
The exchange of passion for sin was a trick she recognized. She expected the next ten minutes to be devoted to fine lines. When her father spoke of passion, he meant Christ’s passion for his Holy Father. He preached on passion during Lent and traded his white vestment for a purple one.
Richard’s drone meant he wasn’t interested in her. Yes, this man was Richard. She felt him slipping into the familiar waters of religio-babble. Coming up for air at regular intervals like a whale, then plunging down through the deep green sea, his cheeks full but expressing only a few bubbles at a time, he spoke truths, dull, similar, transparent.
Ministers all wanted the same thing, a smooth wife, pretty or not, respectable and clean, a woman women would like and men would not covet. Her mother said once, in an uncharacteristic moment, “It’s easier to be Miss America than to be married to a minister.”
Andrea gazed down the v-neck at the curves of her breasts, her white breasts. She felt shamed, totally ashamed of herself. Richard was looking for a potential wife and he’d gotten a tart. Her cheeks burned. No wonder he fell into the sea of words; no wonder he kept his eyes underwater.
She smiled and nodded and gave him a flat, bright look to encourage him to keep talking. Poor lonely man, she thought. No on around here was into religions like he was. “I guess it’s hard for you to meet women in the Valley.”
He paused, as if slapped, in mid-sentence, then picked up his knife and fork and cut the salad leaves into pieces too small to chew.
Slowly the burn crept from her face to her neck and shoulder and moved down her arms to her fingertips, a crimson tide that colored her exposed skin like a birthmark. It’s not what I meant, she thought, but she could not say it. I meant religion, not being black. She kept her eyes low, on his tie as his utensils shredded the bright green sorrel and dark spinach.
When he spoke again, he sounded like he was talking about someone very far away, like his voice had gone out of his voice.
“There aren’t many African-American women here,” he said. “Most are professors. I’ve spent delightful, rigorous evenings debating great questions with them. But as a Christian minister, I represent patriarchy and an acceptance of the dominant culture, which renders me unsuitable as a partner.”
That’s not what I meant, she thought. The silence pressed on her as slowly as the ancient printing press anticipating fresh paper. She drank her wine quickly, hoping a buzz might rescue her. But that was what she always did if things got uncomfortable with men and she knew where that would lead. She needed air, fresh air, something light to remove this familiar sense of entrapment, of eating and drinking to occupy the mouth so it wouldn’t utter the very things pressing to get out. This meal reminded her of dinners at her parents, the air heavy with the unsaid. She swallowed the lettuce limp with honey-mustard. At home they never had honey-mustard. It was always something that came in a wishbone bottle, French or ranch.
She dropped her fork. Damn it. This is a nice date and I did not know he was old or black or looking for a wife. This is my date, too.
“You’re doing this all wrong,” she said. “You are looking to the future instead of right now. You are making plans and thinking I’m not right for you. Screw that. This is our evening.”
A smile touched Richard’s lips. Despite her heart-shaped velvet bodice and absurdly chic red lips, this woman was struggling for something more profound. She’d flubbed her line and was facing up to it. This was honesty and he liked it. She cupped the bowl of her wineglass with her hand and lifted it to her lips with ease, the gesture so relaxed and confident and gauche, he almost laughed. This girl was a gift, he understood. A beacon, a flame throwing light into the dark little world he’d constructed for himself. Professor, minister, what about human? He held up his glass of wine. “To tonight and the excellence of the company.”
“That’s more like it,” Andrea clinked his glass. The future, the next hour, she kept at bay. Instead she looked steadily at him and marveled at his face and the fact that he actually listened to what she said.
They ate the red snapper. Richard spoke of Mobile and New Orleans. Andrea described her work. Her fingers were often dented with letters as the type was old and rigid. Richard laid open his light-colored palm and said his grandmother was glad he’d never had a callous. She’d insisted on it, actually.
Andrea said, “I loved the calluses I got from playing field hockey. But there,” she showed the thickened caps of her fingertips, “look like deformities.”
Embarrassed, she ran her eye down the dessert menu.
“Andrea, would you like to dance?” Richard held out his smooth hand.
She led the way down the carpeted stairs to the dark room reserved for dancing. They were enveloped by a yellow fog borne of cigarette smoke and erratic lighting. Through the fog came a folk song and a pair of dancers with joints as loose as puppets’. Richard steered Andrea clear of them, and dropped two dollars into the jukebox.
“Wow,” said Andrea, reading the title. “They’ve got everything from Verdi to Twisted Sister. Sun-Ra, Patti LaBelle, Holly Near, Sinatra.”
“The Pioneer Valley,” said Richard as he picked all jazz.
A couple of janitors smoked near the jukebox. Andrea felt their eyes. She moved closer to Richard, to the feeling of Richard.
They danced close, without touching, to soft jazz. The lights turned blue. They were too close not to touch.
‘Richard, what do you collect?”
“Confessions,” he murmured, pleased and struck with his answer. “I collect confessions.”
Andrea thought, confessions are other people’s memories and I collect memories. I will give him a confession. “Well,” she whispered, “I always wanted to be a Shouting Nazarene.”
“Lord have mercy,” said Richard. “Lord, Lord, Lord.” He held her as if to waltz but their steps were small and light.
“Once I went to General Conference in Nashville. I wandered away in the middle of downtown and found a tiny church. The congregation had their hands in the air and they were shouting.”
“Do it here,” said Richard. “Become a Shouting Nazarene.”
Andrea stepped away from him. The next song came on, bright with brass and swing motion. She stood still, letting the rhythm of the music enter her blood.
“Do it do it do it,” Richard chanted.
Andrea spun in the smoky blue air. She flung her arms above her head and shook them; she shimmered and shouted, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus,” but only Richard could make out her words in the din, the formation of those syllables so alien and so familiar.
“Aaaah. Aaaah. Aaaah.,” said Richard, clapping. He was her drum, her beat, her guide, her getgo.
She turned blue in the light, her face and wonderfully long slim arms, blue in the light.
Andrea felt like a top spun on a golden thread that ran from her upraised hands to her pattering feet; it was a wonderful unknown feeling, joy.
Her face gleamed blue, pure and unspoiled, the face of a child, thought Richard and he felt a warm glow inside his frame. It wasn’t all words, all text, all lecture. He could touch people with the true gospel, joy and love.
“My dear, my dear,” he said as the song ended.
She slid her hand in his and they escaped the floor as it was assaulted with white laser beams and the first sneering lyrics of heavy metal.
The janitors blocked the steps, blowing smoke at them. Andrea recognized the type of guy she usually left with, cigarette pack in the breast pocket, dark hair, thick jaw, nasal accent, drunken leer.
“You dance easy,” the closer one shouted, his damp face shoved forward like a snorting bull’s.
Andrea expected Richard to drop her hand. She loosened her fingers but he held firm.
“Where are you going?” said the other. “You two.”
They rolled their broom handles from one thick fist to the other.
Richard sighed. No matter where he lived, it was always like this, when he was with a white woman. “If I carried my broom like a weapon and smoked like you do, showing I didn’t give a damn about myself, I might see this woman the way you do. But from where I stand, this woman doesn’t look like that at all.”
“Excuse us,” Andrea stepped between them, pulling Richard along. She glowed as the last touch of blue left her arms.
“You are so wonderful,” she said. “I am going to cry.”
A lump rose in Richard’s throat. He tried to swallow it but it wouldn’t go down. He could not speak. Silly phrases to diffuse the emotion he felt in response to Andrea’s tears and joy died on his tongue, and he was glad.