23 February, 2009
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
It’s midnight again. Wilbo is on his way home. He’s tired, yet alert. He’s taking a different route; following the sign at the fork in the road. From this direction the distance to the business district is less than a mile. He hasn’t seen a single person since he left Levon’s cabin, over an hour ago. Nobody on the road through the redwoods, now dry and still, not a salamander in sight. Nobody at the fruit stand where he bought the last winter apple. The fruit stand in fact looks completely abandoned. All the signs have been removed and all the apples are gone. What’s left is a bare plywood structure that could easily be toppled by a gust of wind.
When he reaches the business district there are still a few people about. Some kids in the park are playing basketball. Some drunks swarms out of a tavern where loud music is playing. In an alley behind a market two men unload produce off a delivery truck. A lone figure in a wheelchair recedes down the sidewalk. Nobody seems to notice Wilbo at all. He passes invisibly through the downtown and onto the network of streets that run like rivers down to the sea.
Here he veers from the main boulevard and tries an alternate route. He’s not sure why he does this. All streets form a grid, he figures. One way is as good as another.
This street is tree-lined and the structures are large and old. There’s an ivy-covered apartment building with a courtyard where a fountain gurgles. A heavy, somber brick fortress turns out to be the public library. A path with boxwood hedges winds around the side of the library and back into the city park. Wilbo can see the dark outline of the courthouse across the park and the playground. On the next street there’s a row of stately craftsman-style houses with big trees just coming into leaf. In front of each house is an identical wrought iron post sporting an identical street light fashioned to look like a Victorian gas lamp. Even the incandescent bulbs are made to flicker like flame. The name of the resident in tasteful iron letters hangs below each lamp. Hawke. Levenworth, Saunders, Shufflebottom.
Before the end of the block, just after Adelsheim, the lamps end and the only light comes from the houses themselves.Half-asleep, half-awake, his eyes half-open, Wilbo drifts down the sidewalk, his feet turning automatically like the wands of a taffy-pulling machine.
Suddenly he hears music. It wakes him completely. It’s not in his head and it’s not on a radio. It’s real music, piano music- someone is playing a piano. He knows it’s real because there’s a mistake, a sour note, the music stops, then starts again. It’s a stride piano style with a strong walking bass. It sounds like Fats Waller.
He’s standing in front of a church. It’s a classic, whitewashed wooden church with an old rugged cross atop a tapering steeple atop a foursquare bell tower where a heavy iron bell hangs in the shadows. All the lights are on and the light filters through the rich colors of a row of stained glass windows and pours like sunlight out of an open door. The images in the stained glass are wildly imaginative. Angels with fiery wings ride creatures with the heads of lions and the bodies of horses. Insects like locusts with human faces and golden crowns are swarming out of the ground. In four large panes ride the four horsemen of the Apocalypse while in a larger center panel a winged lamb carrying a scroll rises above a menagerie of beasts, each sporting a fashionable ring of eyeballs around its head.
Then he sees the car parked on the curb outside, a dusty green Ford Falcon, the windows rolled down, the license plate askew.
“Ah,” he says out loud. “So that’s why I’m here.”
At the door he stands for a while, blinking in the blinding light. On the wall behind the altar rail, Jesus is in the middle of his Famous Dark Night, clinging to the rock with blood, sweat, and tears pouring from his face while the disciples slumber under a nearby olive tree.
The music is being wrung out of an old upright piano by a young black man in glasses. The man is clearly too young for this sort of music. He struggles valiantly to make it sing and succeeds in moments, but then his fingers stumble; he stops, curses wordlessly, starts again.
Arno sits in a pew toward the front, on the left hand side. Wilbo enters quietly, strolls up the aisle and slips in beside his brother. Arno has his eyes closed with his face raised toward some invisible focal point in the air above the altar. His face is smeared with tears. He’s got more tears in his face than Jesus at Gethsemane.
He knows Wilbo has arrived but he keeps his eyes closed for a while. He seems to be descending slowly from some high inner place. When he finally opens his eyes, he does not turn.
“Wilbo. I’m so glad you came,” he says to the air. “You don’t know how much this means to me. You knew where to find me.”
“Well, not really, Arno. I just found you, that’s all. I wasn’t looking for you. I was just walking and there you were. There was your car, out in front of this church.”
Arno finally turns to face his brother. He smiles a sad, ragged smile. “God works in mysterious ways. This is his doing. He brought you here to me. He looks after his children when they turn to him. He knows when the sparrow falls in the forest. He goes looking for the lamb that strays from the fold.” Arno intones these words in a deep, theatrical voice, with the hint of a southern accent. Then he turns his head away and resumes his normal tone. “I stopped by the Dogfish the other night, looking for you. You weren’t there. It made me so happy. I knew you would understand once you thought about it. I knew you would come through for me.”
Wilbo decides not to conceal his annoyance. “I haven’t come through for anybody, Arno. I haven’t made any promises. I just wasn’t drinking at the Dogfish, that’s all. You don’t know my reasons.”’
Arno smiles a self-satisfied little smile. He keeps his gaze straight ahead. “God knows your reasons better than you do. Jesus has called you, Wilbo. You’ve already heard him. Deep inside, you’ve already begun to respond. You just don’t know it. Jesus is standing at your door- he’s knocking at your door!” Arno’s voice is growing in intensity and the trace of an accent is creeping back in.
Thoroughly irritated, Wilbo makes a fist and socks his brother soundly on the shoulder, effectively stopping the flow of words. “Stop making that voice, Arno!” he cries. “That’s not your voice! Talk to me in your regular voice. Talk to me like… like I’m your brother.”
The outcome of this is not what Wilbo anticipated. Arno bursts into tears. He throws his hands into his face and doubles over in the pew, sobbing uncontrollably.
Wilbo wonders, is this really any better? Is this really an improvement? Arno used to cry like this when he was drunk, too.
The sobbing slowly ebbs. The piano music continues but it’s riddled with wrong turns and bad choices. Wilbo catches the piano man’s eye once, stealing a glance at the little melodrama going on in the pew. Finally Arno sits up and pulls his hands away from his face. Long strands of snot and slobber stretch from his nose to his fingers. Wilbo reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief.
“Here, Arno. Mop up your face. You’re a mess.”
Arno unfolds the handkerchief into a full square and then lays it on his face as if it were a tablecloth and his face a table. He blows his nose into it and then drags it off his face into a crumpled ball.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, his voice still choked with emotion. “This is so embarrassing. You must think I’m… You must think I’m a… I am a mess. You’re right, I am, but I have to be. I have to be a mess for this to work. I have to fall apart, before God can put me back together.”
Wilbo is only somewhat softened by these words. He still feels a little antagonistic. He still wants to challenge.
“Well, I hope so, Arno. I hope you’re not just going to fall apart and keep falling apart. I’ve seen you like this before, you know. I’m just not convinced that this is any different.”
“It’s different, Wilbo.”
Wilbo nods. His skepticism gives slightly. Still, it doesn’t break.
“But all this blubbering and slobbering you’re doing. All this whining and browbeating. If this is such a good thing, how come it makes you so sad?”
Arno takes some time to answer this question. He opens the crumpled handkerchief, then folds it back into a neat little square and dabs the corners of his eyes.
“I grieve. I grieve for all the years I’ve wasted. And for all the people I’ve hurt. I’ve made such a mess of things. I wish I could just go back and start all over.”
The piano man stops playing during this pronouncement. He’s looking down at his fingers but it’s not clear that he’s thinking about the music.
“That’s not the only reason,” Arno continues. “I’m lonesome, Wilbo. I miss my friends. It scares me. I don’t want to go back to that life, but I miss the people in it. I’m not strong enough to go back as a new man, doing new things. I would just backslide. I would slip into the old ways. But I’m lonesome. I’m all alone. I don’t have anybody. Just you.”
Wilbo looks around at the pews, the altar rail, the pulpit, the stained glass windows. The piano man sees him looking and quickly returns to his music.
“Well, what about this church? Isn’t this where it all started? They’re the ones that are responsible for the state you’re in. Aren’t they gonna stand behind you, help you along?”
Arno looks up and fixes his eyes on the picture of Jesus. “Oh, yeah. They would. I came here the very next morning. It was Sunday, you remember. I came to church. They were very friendly. They stood around me and they prayed with me. But… well, they’re… they’re different from me.”
“You mean they’re black?”
“No, no, it’s not that, I mean they’re just… well, they’ve got their own thing going here. They’ve got their committees, they’ve got their little friendships, they’ve got their dinner groups going on, their Sunday schools. It’s… it’s hard to break in, that’s all.”
“You mean they’re black.”
“Oh, stop that, Wilbo! That’s not what I mean, you know that. I’m not a racist, OK? It’s just.. it’s just hard to get to know them. Brother Jackson there, on the piano, he’s all right. He’s a good guy. He let’s me come in when he practices the piano and just sit here and… you know, talk to God and stuff.” Arno waves to Brother Jackson who is no longer pretending to ignore the conversation. “Hey, Brother Jackson!”
“Well, gee, Arno, it seems to me you ought to be able to find some people who… you know, share your beliefs. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Fellowship. Isn’t that a word they like to use?”
Arno nearly laughs. “You talk about them like they’re some sort of weird little group of freaks, like the Quakers. This is the truth, Wilbo. This is the one main truth. It’s the one truth that makes the universe go round.”
“Yeah, well, whatever. In that case you surely ought to be able to find someone who shares your beliefs.”
Arno doesn’t offer any answers and in the silence Wilbo feels a cascading spiral of weariness. He makes a mental picture of the miles he has yet to cover before he can sleep. When he looks up he sees a strange sight. Brother Jackson has stopped playing the piano and now he has his arms open wide and wrapped around the sound box with his shoulders slumped over and his head resting on the keys.
In this moment Arno says something totally unexpected. He starts making this little rocking motion in the pew before he says it, and when he speaks his voice is subdued, drained of his former theatrics.
“Do you think dad is still alive?”
Oddly, Wilbo doesn’t flinch. It’s like they have slipped suddenly into deeply familiar territory, like something they would talk about in younger days when they were drinking together. He can almost feel the glow of the alcohol.
“Yeah, he’s alive. I’m sure he is.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I went looking for him. You didn’t know this. I didn’t tell you. Maybe I wanted to be the hero. I tried hitchhiking to Tonepah."
"Yeah, Nevada. Where they exploded the bombs. I talked to some of his friends in Sacramento. They told me he was still alive but they wouldn’t tell me where he was. They didn’t trust me. Of course that was a few years ago. He could be dead now. But why would he be?”
Wilbo entertains a thought. It was like this when they were drinking, too. The two brothers would sit side by side, not facing, talking into a shared space about arm’s length in front of them, as if their words were winter clothes they were packing away in a plastic tote. Arno squirms a little.
“So what do you think he thinks of me? I mean if he’s still alive.”
“He didn’t know me that well. He knew you better.”
“He didn’t know anybody that well. He was a strange man. He had demons.”
Arno lets out a little puff of air. “Demons are real.”
“It's a metaphor, Arno. This religion thing you've gotten yourself into... Dad, he wasn't so big on religion."
"Dad needed Jesus."
"Oh, stop with this Jesus stuff. With this religion thing."
Arno turns to look at Wilbo, breaking the intoxication illusion. “It’s not a religion thing, Wilbo. It’s not even religion. It’s salvation. It’s the only way out of this vale of tears. This world has been given over to Satan. We can’t stay here. I’m afraid for you, Wilbo. I’m afraid for your soul. And Dad's.”
Wilbo can feel his heart sink and his arms and legs giving in to a great heaviness. These last few minutes were like the pastoral interlude in a Stravinsky piece, a brief respite in a field of agitation. He rises abruptly to his feet.
“I gotta go, man, I’ve had a long day. I’m exhausted. Hey, maybe we could meet for lunch some time.”
Arno sits up and starts straightening out his shirt sleeves. “Yeah, sure.” he says, rather absently. “You can call me. I still got a phone. Hey, man, I’d take you home but I told Brother Jackson I’d stay until he finished practicing. He’s scared to be alone in the church.”
Brother Jackson stirs. He lifts his head, then lays it down on the other side, eliciting a soft cluster chord from the piano.
Wilbo looks around to make sure he has everything he came with. Then he remembers something. He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a small card. It’s the other card he picked up at the Lighthouse, the one he didn’t give to Claudia.
“Hey, here’s something. I picked this up the other day. Maybe you ought to look these people up.” He hands Arno the card.
Arno takes the card, glances at it without really registering anything, and sets it down in the pew.
“Thanks, brother,” he says. “Hey, don’t worry about me, OK? We’ll get together in a few days. We’ll have lunch, what you said. We’ll talk it over. You should be thinking about yourself now, Wilbo. God has called you. ”
Arno remains in the pew. Wilbo is thinking, a handshake is a bit formal, under the circumstances. But after this last remark he’s not feeling all that much like hugs. Instead, he reaches out and swipes the top of Arno’s head with the flat of his palm.
“Yeah, OK. Take care.” He turns and starts for the door.
Just outside the church he has to stop and allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness. A little wind has picked up and the trees are rustling. Out by the sidewalk his eyes catch sight of something moving. Some long ribbony object is dancing in the wind. Strange. He hadn’t noticed it before. He steps out to the street to see what it is.
There’s a rustic wooden cross planted in the ground next to a sign that announces hours of worship in Gothic letters. The moving object is attached to the side of this cross and trails out in the breeze. It’s a complicated object, not just a piece of debris. He has to get close to see what it is.
It’s a teddy bear. One leg of the bear is nailed to the central shaft of the cross. This is obviously intentional. Whenever the leg of any warm blooded creature, or an image of any warm blooded creature is nailed to a cross, you can be certain it’s intentional. But the rest of the bear is free, and the position of his body leaves no question about his intent. He’s trying to escape from the cross. His body is twisted away from his nailed foot. He’s pulling himself up with both paws into the crook between the shaft and the arm of the cross. His right leg is already slung over the arm, like an escaped convict scaling a wall. The wind blown movement is made by a long flowing cape of brightly colored scarves and ribbons trailing out from his shoulders. He’s also wearing a pair of pink, polka dotted boxer shorts, and a tiny pipe-cleaner halo floats above his furry head.
The moment Wilbo registers all this, he bursts into laughter, uncontrollable convulsions of laughter. He doubles over laughing. He laughs until tears come to his eyes.
“Doralina Steindl Klas!” he laughs out loud. “Doralina! Is there anybody else who appreciates your art?” He tries to contain himself. He wouldn’t want Arno to come out to see what’s going on. How would he explain it? Slowly he is able to whittle the peals down into guffaws and the guffaws into chuckles. He stands there for awhile, giggling and gurgling in appreciation of Doralina’s work.
“Doralina, Doralina…” he mutters mirthfully, shaking his head. Then he turns away and sets out on the last leg home.