By Cynthia Reeser
That morning my car died a slow and painful death which had really only been prolonged from the vehicle’s first construction. The demise occurred on an unfortunate southern day in November, at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I happened to be obtaining a new license, since my wallet had been stolen from my car a week ago in the parking lot of the mini-mart. I took a cab home to where the useless car would be arriving via tow-truck at the messy Eastside apartment that awaited my solemn arrival.
The complex was small and old, built in the 1930s, and consisted of three buildings of four townhouses apiece. A fixer-upper, to be sure, but it suited me. I had only lived there a month and had yet to unpack most of my belongings. The smell of the old building, with its high ceilings and sculptured mouldings, its chipping paint and faded blue wallpaper, had already seeped into a sort of familiarity.
I walked up to the front door, number nine, digging for keys in my pockets. In my purse. In my briefcase. In my pocket again. Purse again. Inner pocket of the briefcase. Outer pocket. Jacket pockets.
I left the briefcase at my door and walked over to the neighbor’s. The sky’s hue deepened from mid-gray to darker mid-gray. Number ten didn’t answer. Neither did number eleven. At number twelve a young girl appeared wearing headphones over copper-kettle braids. She looked about nine or ten, and contorted her face into a nihilistic grimace directed at me.
–Hi, I was wondering if—
–My dad’s not home! she said, and slammed the door on my obviously lost cause.
I walked away, trying to decide whether it would be worth it to try knocking on the doors of the other buildings. A seventy-ish lady with a smoke cloud of hair walked a small, energetic poodle and greeted me good afternoon. I said hello and decided to take my chances with her. I would rather have asked her than knock on anyone else’s door.
–Ma’am, I said, I’m sorry to bother you like this, but I’ve lost my keys and was wondering if I could use your phone to call a locksmith.
–I’m sorry sweetie, I don’t have a phone. But there’s a pay phone at the gas station about half a mile up the street.
–Okay, well thanks anyway, I said. Have a good afternoon.
–You too, honey. And here, why don’t you take my umbrella. It looks as though it’s going to rain any minute now.
–Well, okay, I said, if you’re sure.
She assured me it was fine and I thanked her, asking where I could return it. She lived just over in apartment three, and I assured her I would bring it back at the end of my journey. The rain was beginning and the intensity of its sharp falling was beginning to pick up.
I accepted the large orange and green monstrosity whose hideousness was multiplied exponentially when opened. A little embarrassed, I headed down the street to the gas station, tripping at the corner and twisting my ankle a bit. At least the umbrella was big enough for me to hide behind so that no one would see me beneath it. Not that I knew anyone, really, but I would still rather not be identified with the thing.
When I was close enough to see the gas station’s sign through the oncoming fog, the rain started in with renewed vigor. What had begun as a light shower turned quickly into a drenching downpour, and I was grateful for the umbrella. As I walked closer to the gas station, a refrigerator truck went by, splashing murky water across my coat and jeans.
I had twelve cents in my pocket, so I bypassed the out-of-order pay phone and hoped the clerk wouldn’t tell me that the gas station phone was out of order too. I remembered the umbrella and quickly folded it up, leaning it outside the front door. When I entered, the clerk glared at the umbrella outside the door, then at me, wrinkling his nose and looking at the umbrella again, giving it the once-over. The gas station air was instantly chilling, and I started to tremble from the wet, the damp, and the air blowing from a ceiling vent pointed directly toward the counter.
The clerk was a man in his sixties who had been solemnly reading a magazine before I interrupted him by walking in. When he saw me, he closed the cover, keeping his place with a thumb and peering at me over the rim of his glasses. He was intently reading a copy of Game and Fish magazine. Larry, his name tag read. Larry looked perturbed at my very existence as I approached the counter.
–Can I help you? he asked me.
–Yes sir. I was wondering if I could use your phone, since the pay phone outside isn’t working.
As I uttered these last several words, he pushed the phone to me across the counter and immediately returned to his reading.
–Thank you, sir, I said. Do you have a phone book?
This he also pushed across to me without comment, again returning to his article as I searched the tome for a locksmith. I dialed the number of the last locksmith listed and waited through an eternal few seconds of silence for a ring. As I tapped my foot softly, a middle-aged man with graying, curly hair and a moustache, who wore a flannel shirt over a v-neck with a pair of mud-spattered jeans, stomped a sole-weak boot and looked at me as he approached the counter. The man then rudely placed a sticky bun and Yoo-Hoo next to my arm. “Frank” was embroidered into his shirt.
I still shivered in the direct stream of air gusting toward the counter, and was trying to shift as much as I could out of the chill when a gray voice answered.
It would be an hour and a half before the first locksmith could come to my apartment, so I politely declined and called a few others, working my way backwards up the listings in the phone book. I found one who could arrive within half an hour, and was beginning to give him my address when the line cut out, dead silent. I waited a few seconds longer, and still nothing. No voice or static could respond. I hung up the receiver and picked it up again, but still nothing. The silence brought to mind a Twilight Zone episode where a telephone line had been split and the end draped, fallen, over a grave.
I hung up the phone a little loudly, and my ears began ringing. The abrupt sound of the receiver’s click caused the old man to jerk his head up and look at me with his silent glare.
–The line’s out, I said.
–Sorry to hear that, ma’am, he said, pressing his lips together tightly at the end of his utterance like a grim punctuation. He looked at me as if I were one of the hunted sprung to life from the pages of his magazine.
Grim the day, and grim the man. Grim the plight.
I retrieved the ominously bright umbrella and continued on down the road heading away from home. I was sure that the next business I came to would have a working phone. The rain still came down, relentless and steady, and on my way I was splashed by another, larger truck (carrying two cargo trailers) going through another, larger puddle whose volume of water seemed unending as it splashed toward me, chasing my boots as I tried to quickly back off.
I walked for another ten minutes cocooned in my own shivering silence. The damp, though already heavy in the air, was just beginning to seep into the fibers of my coat. Finally, I saw a light gleaming through the windows of a diner in the fog. I headed toward the entryway, passing Buicks and old Ford trucks heavy with age and care, but lightening with oxidation, and stumbled into a pooling of muck that gathered in a depressed center of the wrinkled pavement.
The atmosphere of the diner was heavy enough to fry bacon in, with an ambience made of smoke and grease, constituting both smell and taste in the air. I fruitlessly hoped I would find respite here. Dirty truckers with lined faces and 48-hour whiskers watched me with suspicion in their staring eyes and flaccid expressions. Above their oily eggs and hash browns, they assumed expressions of wishful authority. But I was not their game.
A waitress with a bustling saunter hurried from behind the counter with a heavy plate of food balanced on each hand.
–Excuse me miss, could I use your phone?
–Line’s dead. Sorry.
Her answer was heavy with finality, greasy with it even. I could not have been less convinced of her apology, but thanked her anyway and made my way out, the door handle catching my coat pocket. I crossed the street and continued west, still heading away from my original destination. The sky was turning brackish now, and I wanted to find a phone as quickly as possible so I would not be stranded in the wet dark alone. The crepitant woods of the Deep South were foreboding enough in daylight, the Spanish moss stringing down from the oaks like the disemboweled spirits of ghosts. I passed a few businesses, but all were closed so I stumbled for fifteen minutes through more rain and around puddles which were becoming fuller and muddier as I went on.
I crossed the street for a change of scenery, but shortly thereafter through the rain and the fog, a dim but warm glow filtered hazily out toward the street. Light molecules scattered like fragmented beams of the sun through heavy clouds, but here in miniature. The light was here and there tinged with primary colors, and I walked toward it, drawn. The sky was almost completely dark now, with very little gray left to streak it.
The sweet and sulfur smell of the damp and the rain was as thick and smothering as I imagined amniotic fluid would be. The colored light turned out to be a refraction through the stained glass windows of a church. Walking closer, I found a stone path that led up to a wooden door. Outside of this, I left the umbrella and entered.
The church was warm inside, though I still shivered for several minutes after entering. There was a clock on the west wall of the entryway, which to me at that point was something of an irony, even more since there was a cross on the opposite wall.
Eternity, I thought, is too big for human comprehension, so it is broken up into Time, its divisions persistent in successions of moments, past, present, and future, when in heaven or eternity, surely all moments are one and everlasting? Or outside the concept of heaven or the hereafter, once we are dead, maybe all our moments merge and coincide.
The black sky outside now dripped thick, damp fog, pure atmosphere descending in each drop that fell, that contemplated descent or forced imbibery into susceptible spaces. The leather of my boots had not done much to warm my feet, and my toes were knobs of chill. I shivered a little harder when I entered the warmth of the foyer, another shiver as I adjusted to the unfamiliar sacred atmosphere and heated air.
I had almost forgotten what it was like to be comfortable, but by now I was warming up. The church was small inside and empty of people. The pews were hard, but I didn’t notice at the time. The water made a soothing sound as it dripped in pathless meanderings outside on the windows, and it still ran in mini-rivulets down the combed wool of my coat, which was now thoroughly darkened with moisture. For the first time, I noticed a cello leaning against the brown walnut of the upright piano, and a music stand with sheet music still resting against it next to the pulpit. I got up and walked past the altar, in front of which was a table covered with a white cloth used during what I assumed was sacrament. Dozens of candles still burned in red glass votives next to a window on the west wall. These lit a glow into the portraiture of the nativity etched into the stained glass.
On the sacrament table was a glass of red wine and a piece of bakery bread. I realized now how hungry I was, and without hesitation ate the bread and washed it down with the wine. I was not used to drinking the bitter stuff, and it shocked my palate with its sharp, pungent flavor. But the shock was a welcome and a warming one and my arms tingled with the sensation.
I returned to the cello and found its bow lying next to it with a pate of rosin, which I brought with me to the bench nearest the wall. I had not entirely forgotten how to play. The bow was brand new and had never been rosined before, and when it was ready I gently laid it across the strings at an angle, correcting the position of my hand. I always did hold it like a violinist. The first note was deep and rich, and resounded in the concentrated acoustics of the domed nave, and I played a baroque tune. The sound rose up, from the instrument, the waves surrounding the locus of origination and swirling around the curvature of the ceiling. The music lifted richly to penetrate, it seemed, the very material of the building, and was like warm brandy to me then, a sweet respite from all frustrations—these I had mostly left outside the door in the puddles of dirt and nothingness.
I scanned the room as I played, and noticed a bouquet of three roses lying on the altar, loosely tied by a yellow satin ribbon. One of the roses slowly slid down to the floor with the essence of a patient caress, but hit the floor with a thud as though it were very heavy. The sound startled me, and I jerked my right hand, which held the bow, over the very top of the neck. I was momentarily brought out of my reverie. As if to confirm this, the palm of my hand stuck on the end of a protruding wire from a string at the top and was pricked with blood. By now even the reverberations of the music had died away from the acoustics, and I watched the slow trickle of blood from the inside of my palm for a short moment before pressing my other hand to it. Both palms now were streaked with a red topography. I looked up at the ceiling in dizzy confusion and the bright light of candles pervaded my vision.
Then I jerked awake as my head hit the back of the pew in front of me. A kind voice asked me softly from somewhere if I was okay, and for a moment I could not locate the voice’s source, as it seemed to come from all directions. I stood, sleep-wobbly, and turned to see a priest standing in the aisle ten feet behind me, and leaned my right hand on the side of the pew for balance.
–Are you okay? he asked me. You look as though you got caught in the storm outside.
I noticed that it was now lightning in silent flashes and I could still hear the steady beat of rain on the roof, and I wondered how long I had been asleep. On one of the windows, Mary held out her hands in supplication, and a bleeding, cross-bound Christ posed in sanctified sorrow on the window next to her.
–Yes sir, I’m okay. I’m sorry…I fell asleep.
–No need for apology, he said in what I now remember as a mild-mannered way.
–I was locked out of my apartment and was walking trying to find a working phone to call a locksmith. I was cold and tired, so I came in. I hope you don’t mind.
–You are welcome here, he said. Our doors are open for all. If you like you can come to the rectory and Mary will make you some tea. This is no night to be walking about.
I noticed a faint trace of Irish brogue in his accent.
–That would be nice, I responded, thank you.
–I’m Father O’Donoghue.
–Julienne, or you can just call me Julie, I said.
I talked with the priest and Mary over tea and scones. I determined over the course of the conversation that Mary was the Father’s sister and lived here also. I found their chatter comforting, and when they offered the use of a spare room for the night, I gratefully accepted. The room was decorated simply and was immaculately clean. When Ms. O’Donoghue showed me in, she pointed out a few family pictures on the bedside table. One was of her grandparents, probably taken in the 1920s. There was another of her and her sister when they were children, sitting on a swing side by side. The third portrait she did not mention, but it was of a handsome man about my age, and looked to have been recently taken. He was probably in his early to mid-twenties and dark brown hair fell softly over his crown. His deep brown eyes were intense.
–And who is this? I asked.
–That’s my son Dylan. He died a year ago today.
–I am sorry, Ms. O’Donoghue.
–Please call me Mary.
Mary seemed at peace. She probably lived in faith that she would see him again someday. I had nothing of any faith to speak of, since I had no use for it. We talked a few minutes more then said goodnight. She paused before the door and looked at me wistfully with a slight smile for a short moment.
–How old are you, dear? she asked.
–Dylan was about your age, she responded softly. He was twenty-four when he died. Mary took a deep breath and renewed her smile.
–Goodnight, dear, she said.
I wanted to tell her that I understood what it was like to have the people you loved removed from you too soon, but I couldn’t find the words or the point of saying them.
I remember lying down on the soft twin bed and turning off the little blue nightstand lamp, then falling asleep immediately but sleeping restlessly.
I remember: a too-dark hallway, and the panic that seized me echoing my own terrified gasping, loud and ringing alarms in the darkness. A force was pushing me, and a hand, an accusing face, and a tremendous sense of guilt overcame me. Then I saw my parents’ faces before me, expressionless, and I was snared with fear so arresting that I forced myself to wake up.
Brief, disturbing snippets flashed through me in blind arcs.
In the morning, Mary made poached eggs and toast while Father O’Donoghue made the coffee. They let me use their phone, and I called the mechanic first to see if I had left my keys there. The guy on the other line sounded vaguely annoyed at me for calling, and said they did not have them. Next I called the locksmith from the previous day, who again said he could be at my apartment in half an hour. Finally.
I thanked the priest and Mary for their hospitality and exited, going not through the church this time but through the rectory’s open door. I was eager to get home to shower and change. As I headed down the dirt path toward the road, Mary came running out after me to return the umbrella, saying she found it outside the sanctuary door when she had been locking up for the night.
–Such a nice umbrella too, she said, it would be a shame to leave it behind. Oh, and happy birthday, love! she called out to me, smiling.
I thanked her for returning the umbrella, laughing inwardly. I would hurry back to my apartment and return the monstrous thing to the old lady in number three and then pick up where I had left off yesterday. One last check to make sure I had everything—purse, coat, umbrella… The road was still wet as I walked toward it, and puddles remained scattered here and there. As the rectory door clicked shut I stepped out into the street to cross, avoiding a large puddle. A dog barked loudly and I paused a moment to notice the sky. Today it was the clear, bright blue of a sky the day after a storm. All the clouds had passed and the air seemed new.
I thought I heard a scream from someone across the street over the Banshee-screech of brakes, and I looked west to see the swiftly oncoming steel grate of an International about seven feet away from me. There was the impact, then the feeling of falling, or of flying, I don’t know which; they are both so similar.
I was beginning to feel warmer and almost ready to wake up. I was rested, but felt different somehow, as though I had become unfamiliar to myself; perhaps I had forgotten, in sleep, my identity and would have to relearn it in the moment of waking. In my mind’s eye, I saw Dylan’s face smiling and recalled stained glass, a cello. I still had to give that ugly umbrella back after breakfast. It would be good to finally get home again.
When I opened my eyes, I saw Mary sleeping on the little chair next to the bed in her blue robe. This is odd, I thought. How long has she been here? I tried to rise from the bed but my legs gave out under me. I felt so completely weak that I could not get up again. I was embarrassed and hoped that I could regain my strength before she woke. This had happened before; my legs had occasionally numbed during sleep. Sometimes the muscles would become heavy and immovable. It was frustrating more than anything.
As I tried to lift myself up using the bed as leverage, I caught a glimpse of someone eye-level with me on the other side of the room. I looked again and noticed the floor length mirror, that it only reflected me.
Something was strange. I looked different somehow, things felt wrong; had I lost weight? I didn’t remember my legs ever being so thin. My hair was different too—Oh my God, I thought—and dim realizations began to creep in on me. My hair was much longer and had gray in it, a few strands of it here and there. All the highlights were gone completely. It was a plain chestnut brown again.
I gasped, and my heart skipped several beats in panic. Mary must have heard my fall. I heard the creak of the old chair and turned to see her standing. Her mouth was parted and her eyebrows raised above widened eyes. Her entire face was frozen this way and she remained still as a mannequin for about half a minute.
–Frank! she called. Julienne!..Julie…Oh, thank God, she breathed. Julie… Tears flowed in persistent streams down her sweet face.
–Mary, I whispered. What is it, Mary?
My eyes began to well up. I was already feeling the shock without knowing its specific cause. I tried but still could not get up. Mary saw my effort and fell on to the floor with me, not concealing a bit of her joy. She embraced me and kissed my hair. Sweet Mary. She kept looking at me, holding my face between her hands and smiling as if I were her own child and had returned after many long and difficult years.
–What is it? I asked again, but she couldn’t seem to find the words.
And then my memory storm-flashed across my vision, tearing the curtain away. I clearly remembered my last moments of waking in sequence: my last new day, bright sunlight glitter-cast in puddles on the black road, Mary running out with the umbrella, and a cold steel grate from oblivion. Then the scream and the dogs barking that had preceded the vital moment before, and then the impact—the falling, the flying. I looked again at myself in the mirror, Mary still holding me in one arm and wiping her eyes with the other.
I closed my eyes and swallowed hard.
–Mary, I whispered, how long has it been? I did not open my eyes, but only listened for her answer. I felt her hand on my face.
–It’s been two years, Julie.
My eyes still closed, I whispered back to her.
–Thank you, Mary. Thank you.
Cynthia Reeser is founder and editor-in-chief of Prick of the Spindle.