ONE GREAT DISADVANTAGE of the truth is that it's so rarely believed. The story of how my friend Katie, for example, fell in love with the grave-digger at her husband's funeral and became a skating chicken usually produces a downward twist on the mouths of those who hear it, and a certain rolling of the eyes. Some, intrigued by the tale, are willing to suspend disbelief long enough to allow me to spin out the rest of the yarn. Others, more irritable, interrupt. They want to know why I have this annoying habit of making things up.
I'm reminded of the French magician Robert-Houdin, the nineteenth century master of legerdemain from whom Harry Houdini, otherwise known as Eric Weiss, took his name. In his autobiography he states that it's much easier to fool the clever than the dull. The clever don't mind going along with an illusion if it's well-done and amusing, if it's a good show. The dull, on the other hand, don't give a fig for the show. All they want to know is how they're being tricked. They're so afraid of being tricked , they can't allow themselves to simply sit back and enjoy the illusion. They spoil their pleasure and eyesight by picking apart the performance in a vain attempt to find the secret of the hocus-pocus. They refuse to admit the obvious--that the hand really is quicker than the eye.
True, I used to make things up. But I was younger then. And, like many who are youthful, I labored under the illusion that I had been granted immortality. This illusion is, I suppose, one of the compensations for the embarrassments we suffer during that awkward age.
Anyway, now, after nearly half a century on the crust of the planet, I find myself troubled by the melancholy realization that there's not enough time left for me to make things up. That it's as much as I can do to tell things the way they happened, to get them down before it's too late, before I, too, am stuffed into a box and join Katie's husband under the flowers, where the only mouths which move readily belong to worms.
In the days when I was still immortal, I used to regularly ping-pong from fringe to fringe of this fruited-plains continent in dilapidated cars, in search of perfect love. Katie's, conveniently situated in the Midwest, was an ideal pit-stop, a place to cool down my engine and bald tires. I would arrive, my head spinning from white-line fever, my hands so palsied from gripping the steering wheel of a vehicle with a poorly-aligned front end, all I had to do was put my knuckles against Katie's front door and they would knock by themselves.
Seems like it was always the middle of the night, her husband fast asleep upstairs or away on a business trip. A few minutes later, after a sisterly hug and a peck on the cheek, I would be sitting in the soft light of her kitchen, my hands curled around a mug of tea, a slab of warmed-up fruit pie of some kind steaming on the table in front of me. She would be picking up our conversation where we left it off, months or years ago, as though we'd just paused for a few minutes to answer a wrong number on the phone or pay the paperboy.
Used to be--before the miracles happened and her husband died and she married the grave-digger--Katie would regale me with stories of her trips on flying saucers. She recounted her journeys to distant stars with such ease, in such a homey, matter-of-fact manner, she made them sound no more strange or exotic than a ride on a double-decker omnibus from Piccadilly Circus to Charing Cross Road. In the vast flatness of the Midwest, vowels and events do have a tendency to become quite flat. The Midwest is definitely a state of mind, as well as a geographical location. It might even qualify as a religion, with its own peculiar set of beliefs and rituals, like voting for Republicans and serving hot pie to visitors the moment they step through the door.
Sort of akin to middle age it is, and every bit as difficult to define. Though with middle age, there's often some watershed, like the birth of a grandchild or the death of a parent, which pushes us over the hump and gives us a clear view of the downhill slope in front of us. For me, my first inkling that I was middle-aged came to me one day in Greece.
In the village where I chanced to be wintering there lived a woman I was mildly attracted to. Mildly is a tip-off. It's a kind of modifier that floats to the surface in the dying wake of the headstrong, turbulent passions of youth. You don't shinny up a tree in the moonlight and fling yourself through a window into the melting embrace of a woman you're mildly attracted to. You don't really want to. You probably couldn't if you did. Even if you could, it would very likely lead to cramps and panting. This might be taken as proof of the existence of a benevolent Deity--who else would be kind enough and clever enough to spare us from the unseemly by making sure that hormone levels and muscle tone decrease at approximately the same rate?
I happened across the woman sitting out on the steps of her house one glorious afternoon, looking miserable. So utterly miserable, I asked what was the matter.
The gypsies came through last night.
I didn't see why that should be such a terrible thing.
They steal underwear off the clothes lines when they come through.
Oh. People in the villages of Greece aren't wealthy, and underwear, considering the meager protection it affords against the elements, isn't cheap. I commiserated with her. I may even have put my hand on her shoulder as I spoke. My fingertips do seem to recall a small electric current passing through the weave of her dress.
But they didn't take mine, you idiot, she wailed.
Oh. A teardrop rolled over her cheekbone. I'm sure I wasn't supposed to see it, this tear a woman shed upon reaching that time of life when the gypsies no longer covet her underwear. But before I had an opportunity to turn my face discreetly aside, I did see it. I saw myself, clearly reflected in the tear of the woman I was mildly attracted to, and knew that middle age was upon me.
I knew there was more behind me than in front of me. I felt the sickening lack of world enough and time, heard the rumble of the winged chariot hurrying near. I was moved to begin telling the unadorned truth.
People believed me even less than before, when I was given to shamelessly making things up. How annoying, and contradictory! I mean, the listeners who shoot me the most skeptical looks of disbelief are the very ones most likely to suggest that marrying the grave-digger she meets at her husband's funeral betrays a want of delicacy on the part of my friend Katie, that it's unwomanly and unrealistic, or both. The only way they can imagine such a thing happening, they go on to say, is if maybe relations between her and the deceased were less than lukewarm.
Nothing could be farther from the mark. Katie loved him, dearly. She never would've met the grave-digger if she hadn't dragged herself back to the cemetery after the obsequies were over in order to be alone with him, to pour out her heart beside his final resting place.
A man with a shovel was filling in her husband's hole when she arrived, a sandy-haired man who laid the shovel aside and quietly left when Katie knelt beside the grave and lost herself in weeping.
He was much too young to die. It'd been a torment to watch him waste away, a strapping fellow turned by some mysterious disease into a bundle of bones constantly moaning in pain. During his last days, Katie asked the nurse to administer a shot which would put him out of his misery. The nurse refused.
Let me have the needle, then, Katie told her. The nurse fixed an injection, passed her the hypodermic and left the room for five minutes, closing the door softly behind her.
An now Katie was kneeling on the earth, her eyes swimming with tears for the man she loved enough to kill. A fine drizzle had begun to fall. And now there was a hand on her shoulder, a gentle hand coaxing her to her feet. A deep, soothing voice reminded her that the Lord was her shepherd and she should not want, that His rod and His staff, they would comfort her, and she would lie down in green pastures beside the still waters, and lo, though she walked through the valley of the shadow of death, she should fear no evil.
It was the grave-digger. She stood up, dizzy with sorrow, and buried her face in his shoulder, wetting it with a flood of tears. Fine rain came shushing down out of leaden skies, familiar words full of comfort fell from his lips. His arms around her were a consolation, and she felt herself sinking into them, as she might sink into a green pasture to lie down in.
I guess, she said to me during one of my visits, I have kind of a soft spot for a man who quotes Scripture.
THIS WASN'T ALWAYS the case. Katie didn't come from a particularly religious family. Her background was scientific. She possessed a knack for mathematics. In college, where I first got to know her, she was turned on by elegant quadratic equations, not psalms. Later, when she was married and settled down as a housewife in a county seat in the Midwest, the trips she began making aboard alien spacecraft to far-flung galaxies in the shadowy regions of red-shift at the edges of the cosmos did nothing to shake her faith in the basic laws of physics. Like most of us, she didn't believe in miracles until one happened to her.
Two, actually. Or maybe I should say a dual miracle, involving a sweater and a gas tank. The sweater was her deceased husband's favorite, a fluffy turquoise pulll-over he'd asked her to wash for him while he was away on a business trip.
She put off the task till the last minute. As a result, the sweater was still damp as the time to pick him up at the airport approached, so she laid it over a heating vent. He was such a neatnik. He would be disappointed if his sweater weren't clean and dry when he returned home, folded up and put away in a drawer.
She was running late. The red-eye special was probably already swooping into the airport for a landing. She could imagine how he would be waiting for her there in the empty night-time terminal with knitted brow, impatiently toying with the latch of his attache case. And when she checked the sweater, she found the back of it striped with yellow bars which matched the louvers of the heating duct.
Oh God, she groaned to herself.
There was nothing to be done. She was sure the sweater was ruined. She tossed it over the back of a chair and raced out the door.
A strange thing happened along the way. Katie prayed. She had no idea how it happened. It was as though some voice deep inside her formed the words of a prayer and the words just came out her mouth.
At first the prayer felt unnatural, awkward. Praying was something she hadn't done in years, not since she was a child on bended knee beside her bed beseeching the Lord to revive the pet goldfish she'd discovered floating motionless at the top of its bowl. There'd been no response to her plea, and the next day, insisting the poor little fishie was a goner, her mother flushed it down the toilet. That was the last goldfish she'd ever owned, and the last prayer she'd ever made, until she was driving to the airport in the middle of the night to fetch her husband.
The more she prayed, the less awkward it felt. She got used to the sound of her voice addressing some invisible Being. She talked to God as though He were there in the car with her, riding shotgun. She promised she would believe in Him, in His goodness and mercy, and dwell in His house all the days of her life, if only He would please make those yellow stripes on her husband's favorite sweater disappear.
About half-way to the airport, she noticed the needle of the fuel gauge well to the left of the red E for empty. She still had many miles to go, all of them over back roads, where no gas stations would be open at that hour, and she was running on empty.
Forget the sweater, she told the invisible presence travelling with her in the car. She'd take care of that later. She just wanted Him to get her to the airplane terminal.
She was running late, running on the last few drops of fuel, then on fumes, and finally, in her own words, running on nothing but prayers.
I have no information on how many miles per prayer is usual, but Katie made it. The red-eye special was also running late, and she was standing by the gate, ready with a smile as her husband stepped off his flight. It was a miracle, and the miracle continued. The car wheezed along on her silent prayers to the gas station at the airport, and her husband filled the tank for the trip back home, where she was greeted with yet more evidence of a supernatural power at work.
Her husband noticed his favorite sweater draped over the back of a chair the minute he stepped into the house. He was pleased she'd remembered to perform this little task for him. All the while he was expressing his thanks, Katie was wondering how she was going to break the bad news to him. She was about to begin an apology when he picked the sweater up and she saw that the yellow stripes had miraculously disappeared.
The sweater and the gas tank were Katie's loaves and fishes. The day before the miracles, she would've laughed at the notion that she would eventually become a Sunday school teacher at the Tabernacle of Tomorrows. The day afterwards--after the signs, the calling--it was obvious. It was the only path she could've taken. A sweater and gas tank transformed her life. These may appear to be trivial things, but there's a divinity, even in the fall of a sparrow.
She didn't join the Tabernacle with its ultra-modern glass-and-steel spaceship church right off the bat. First she had to grope her way through a variety of fundamentalist sects. Each time I made a detour to Katie's pit-stop in the Midwest during a coast-to-coast jaunt in search of love that would never die, she'd joined a new evangelical group.
Our conversations changed. We still talked late into the night. I still ate more pie a la mode than was good for me. But the revelations Saint John received on the island of Patmos replaced her intergalactic travels as the most popular topic. I remember how one Sunday morning, not long after the miracles, Katie coaxed me into attending church with her.
Church turned out to be a clearing in the woods where a crowd of people had gathered. They were in a state of trance, judging from the emptiness of their eyes, and the way their mouths hung open, exposing the gaps in their teeth. They milled about, performing what appeared to be a form hillbilly Tai-chi. As Katie and I got out of the car and walked into the clearing, a man stepped in our direction to greet us. Because he was wearing a black suit instead of overalls, I took him to be the minister. I reached out to shake hands with him when something blinked at me. It was a face, the triangular, slit-eyed, long-fanged face of the rattlesnake coiled round one of his arms, slithering round his neck and down the other arm.
I couldn't retreat to the car quickly enough. I hopped inside and stayed in there, with the windows rolled up, till the mass or services or whatever you call it were over. On the way home, Katie twitted me about my reluctance to pick up a sweet little snakie-pie. She tried to convince me it was only my fear which made the snake dangerous, and how free and in touch with the cosmos I would feel it only I could overcome the fear. But the next time I paid her a visit, she herself had dropped out of the snake-handling cult and moved on to a different group.
We were having one of our rambling wee-hours discussions. It was about dinosaurs, whether they really were cold-blooded, or, as a new book suggested, warm-blooded. Katie abruptly got up from the table to make what she said was an important phone call.
Fifteen minutes later a dark, bearded fellow with burning eyes arrived. Katie introduced him as the deacon of the new church she belonged to. Totally convinced that Charles Darwin was the anti-Christ, he'd rushed over to save my immortal soul by exorcising the demon of the Theory of Evolution from me. Apparently Katie had felt the ideas I spouted concerning the development of those large and extinct lizards placed my hopes for a tolerable after-life in great jeopardy.
He was a compelling figure. His eyes grabbed you. His hands moved with the grace and quickness of a magician's hands, and I half-expected the black leather Bible he waved about to suddenly turn into a white carnation or dove. He was actually quite handsome, his figure supple, his beard well-trimmed, very much the powerful male. Dark fires burned in his eyes, deep, sensual fires crackling with life, leaping forth, as full of sparks as the burning eyes of the last of the red-hot lovers in bedroom scenes from movies made in the era of the silent screen. Yes, there was definitely something intensely sexual about the deacon.
I wonder if he would've been shocked to hear this. Surely Katie would've been shocked. She's always struck me as one of those women--romantic, even boy-crazy, when they're young--who're ultimately disappointed by the physical act of love. The fumbling and the sweating troubles their sense of cleanliness, the juices, the rumpling, the mess and bother. It's much too hot and panting, too doggie-like. Still, their glands willy-nilly continue to produce hormones, the hormones produce hungers, and they turn their eyes heavenwards to satisfy them. Hymns and swelling organ music are their fore-play, holy communion a kind of orgasm.
There are cases, of course, when the fancy of a church woman alights upon one of the shepherds chosen to lead us through this vale of tears, a fact which can stir up unpleasant and ungodly scandal among the flock. I could easily imagine this happening with the deacon. I could imagine him with a whole harem of hypnotized ladies.
I dropped a distant hint of my suspicions to Katie after he was gone, but she failed to pick it up. Sex is a subject our conversations rarely touch upon. I do remember one night, though. The story of the prominent politico who died in a hotel room of a heart attack during an illicit rendezvous with a go-go dancer half his age was making headlines at the time, and Katie said she wasn't surprised it was usually the man who suffered cardiac arrest. After all, he did most of the work, while the woman just had to lie there.
I confess I felt a twinge of sympathy for her husband--the first one, fated to expire from some mysterious malady--when Katie made this observation. Though he was a professional bean-counter, fastidious, with the powers of expression of a jar of mayonnaise, I do believe he loved her. Had he been born with half the brains and heart of Shakespeare, he would no doubt have written her thousands of sugared sonnets. As it was, he did what he could to express his feelings. Her closets were packed with rack upon rack of dresses he'd bought for her. Not to mention the dream-castle of a home he'd build for Katie, or his easy tolerance of whatever religious kick she happened to be on at the moment.
SHE'S A PRINCESS, remarked a woman who was accompanying me on one of my cross-country jaunts.
I'd met her at a Halloween party in New York. We were about the only people not got up in an elaborate costume. The apartment was jammed with wizards of Oz, swine flu, witches, a giraffe, an assortment of characters from cartoons and zoos and a six-foot pack of gum, all dancing to the thump of a rock band shaking the loose plaster from the ceiling.
We danced. She was a good dancer, with the gracefulness that comes from years of ballet lessons, the knack for making one sure movement flow into the next. We talked. She was good at that, too. Our ideas about Percival the holy fool and his quest for the Grail pirouetted into a discussion of the music of the spheres and whether or not the Pythagoreans were correct and number was the guiding force in the cosmos, or at least an elegant metaphor for what might lie behind the veil of matter, and whether or not I should accompany her home on the subway.
It was cold. Though it was only the first of November, the air felt like snow. A saucer of milk someone had put out by her front stoop was frozen solid. Stars of frost glittered on her steps. We kissed. She clutched my hand inside the warm pocket of her coat as we kissed. She didn't let go as the kiss came to an end and her other hand went fishing for the key to the front door. Without a word, our hands still locked together in her pocket, she led me inside the building and up the stairs to her place, a couple cramped rooms with a few sticks of shabby furniture and a hissing radiator. The kitchen was a playground for cockroaches. It never saw the light of day and smelled of mushrooms.
Several months later I was still there. That first night--it was actually dawn already, gray light muzzling its way through the grimy windows--she wept after our love-making. As my fingers wiped the streaks of mascara from her cheeks, I asked her why, and she told me the tears were because she knew the end would come some day, but she would go with whatever happened, however long, till that last day came.
She's a princess, she told me, looking about at Katie's things.
We were in the upstairs bath, which opened into the master bedroom with its canopied bed and closet full of clothes. We were taking a bath together in the oversize tub, soaping each other. I was telling her about the snake-handlers and the sexy deacon and the Tabernacle of Tomorrows, which Katie had been with since my last visit. We were on our way to a new life together on the other side of the continent. It never happened.
The sky fell down one day. We went smash. The last time we slept together, it was on a porch under the sighing branches of oaks, with the noise of a nearby creek bubbling in our ears. It was so sweet, and so sad, a final fling for auld lang syne and all that. It was also one of the few times there were no tears in her eyes after making love.
But we didn't know that yet. We were in the tub, soaping each other on a lazy Sunday afternoon, talking about Katie. I think she was a mite jealous of the many expensive dresses tightly packed into the closets, the spaciousness of the bedroom and its attached bath, the fluffy towels and rugs, the luxurious bed and its colorful canopy and dainty dust ruffles.
Katie was a princess, she said, but that husband of hers was hardly a prince. He was more the doting Chancellor of the Exchequer type. And the pea under the mattress, she wondered if we'd find it if we looked, find out what it was.
I had things other than locating a missing pea on my mind just hen. Her, too. She leaned forward for a kiss. Soon--the woman I thought was jealous of the thousand dresses, maybe I should tell you she always found water very erotic--because she was a Pisces, she used to joke, just put her in a tub of warm water and the urge to mate would come over her--soon she was sitting on my lap in the soapy water.
It wasn't any big deal. I probably wouldn't even remember making love in the tub that afternoon, except Katie happened to be in the room directly underneath us, leading a special Sunday school Bible reading for a crew of teen-agers from the Tabernacle of Tomorrows.
She'd never been so embarrassed in her entire life. Having to pretend she couldn't hear a thing, and all that dreadful sloshing and sighing while she and the kids were working through a letter of Paul. To the Ephesians, it was unbearable. Splashing, thrashing, moaning. She though her ears would burn to a crisp. And they were leering, leering and sniggering in her house! She lied, God forgive her, about a problem with the plumbing. They weren't fooled. They could hear. What was she supposed to say? She had a pet tuna in the tub upstairs?
I apologized. I wasn't aware she'd returned from church, and certainly not with a bunch of kids. I promised never to be so indiscreet again. Katie accepted my apologies. She may have the trappings of a princess, but at heart she's a good soul, one of those rare churchgoers who're always ready to genuinely forgive us our trespasses, as we hope to be forgiven by those whom we've trespassed against.
If she wasn't, I probably wouldn't be sitting here in Katie's living room now, years later, waiting for her and her husband--the grave-digger, not the guy from the Exchequer--to grab their chicken suits so we can go off for a spin on the ice at the skating rink.
In the corner of the room there's a relic--the turquoise sweater Jesus saved. It's displayed in a glass case, like a saint's wrist bone or a splinter of the True Cross or the Shroud of Turin. And I'm thinking to myself, if people balk at the idea of sweater and gas tank miracles, of a woman marrying a grave-digger she meets at her husband's funeral, how can I ever expect them to believe the rest?
The gentle God-fearing man, you see, who wooed Katie with Scripture and made her lie down in green pastures that rainy day beside her husband's grave, he used to supplement his income from the cemetery by moonlighting as a mascot for a minor-league hockey team. As a skating chicken, if the truth be told. Upon learning that his new bride and partner in Christ was a pretty fair skater herself, the grave-digger approached the owner of the team with the proposition that two chickens are always better than one. The owner agreed. Apparently the idea of a man-and-wife chicken tandem appealed to him, too, and he provided the grave-digger with an additional beak and feathers outfit.
When the hockey season was over, the chicken drag hanging useless in the closet with the thousand dresses, Katie had her inspiration. Straight from God it must've come, it was so masterful, brilliant, so obvious, so simple. They had the skates, they had the chicken suits. Most important, they had the Lord. Why not combine the techniques of the Salvation Army and Sesame Street and dress up in the chicken suits and make visits to skating rinks to pass out the gospel?
And so they did.
The tracts they hand out to skaters are beautifully printed, the relevant Biblical passages set off in red ink, fine presswork funded from the coffers of the Tabernacle of Tomorrows. If you turn one of them over and look on the back, you'll see the logo of a chicken armed with a cross, the name they've given themselves spelled out on the banner fluttering from the chicken's claws.
Catchy, isn't it? Katie asked me the first time I headed out for a turn round the ice at the rink with her and the grave-digger. Skating Chickens for Christ.
Very catchy, wrote back the woman who once spent an afternoon in an oversized bathtub with me when I sent her one of Katie's Skating Chickens for Christ business cards. She said it made her laugh so hard, she cried. Real tears this time, love, she said, that last.