Short fiction by Denny Goetz
Accordingly, I took my leave, my sandaled feet moving me briskly toward Main Street and the location of House Claypeter. May I say, Lord, this was to become a path well-trodden. In the old days, before asphalt and the formal sidewalk, I would certainly have worn it into a substantial trench, as again and again I toddled in that direction. I say “toddled” because I was eager as an infant to reach that little home and sometimes brought forth small squeals of delight and excitement when it swung into view. Moreover, as anyone with a shaky colon can tell You, at the abode’s first sighting the cauldron in my middle was already well fired-up and coming to a boil. Invariably, upon being ushered into the artist’s sanctuary I would stride directly to the family toilet – there to sit in agony as my wretched bowels spewed their watery waste. What stench, Lord, what rumbling and sputtering! Consider my chagrin, Lord, as I squatted – separated by only thin wall-board – mere inches from the object of my total affection. A bottle of Mrs. Claypeter’s spray cologne in my unsteady hand, I would squirt in a pathetic, doomed effort to mask the tell-tale whiffs. Lord, I don’t mind admitting there were times – my cassock gathered high against soilage, my sandaled feet in wide stance for bodily balance – when I was ready to pound my thighs in vexation. Why? I would bellow within, why, why, why? Am I so completely wicked, Lord, that I deserve to suffer this way? On the other hand, Lord – the beginnings of a wry smile on my lips – I would weigh the Eternal benefits of my agony against this temporal storm and come down solidly on – guess which side, Lord? Go ahead, take one guess! Finally, Lord, as though these documented horrors were somehow insufficient woe, there was yet another element added to make my discomfort and chagrin complete.
For at just about the time of my bewitchment by the lovely Emily, there appeared a reddish spot on the right side and down towards the tip of my nose. It itched considerably for several days while I – staring into the mirror above the Claypeter bathroom sink – tried vainly to remove it. I first tried working with soap and warm water, and when that failed to erase it, I tried covering it with powder I found in the medicine cabinet. Though providing a temporary fix, this method also failed. Vexed, I raked at the spot with my lengthy finger-nails, managing only to anger it – or so it would seem, Lord – as it reddened alarmingly! Then, undeterred by my meddling, it set forth upon a prodigious spurt of growth. When all was said and done there was a nub, still small and not yet too unsightly, sitting there on my poor honker; but mere weeks later it had attained the height of about a quarter of an inch – and there the business leveled off: it was a wart, Lord! Oh horrid knob! Imagine my dismay.
It was my intention, thereafter, whenever I was in attendance with the angelic Emily, to show her – for obvious reasons – only my left profile. You may imagine, Lord, this sometimes required extraordinary contortions as I poured over plans and illustrations with the artist, as I twisted my neck this way and that in accordance with Emily’s precise location. And if my wart wasn’t troubling enough, don’t forget my gut, Lord. There I’d be, perched on the Claypeter pot, and, of course, praying. Finally, weakened to the point of nausea from wave after wracking wave of ghastly diarrhea I’d emerge and sit gingerly down with the artist. Here the whole family would assemble in the dimly-lit parlor. The Mrs. of the house – perhaps intuiting the tender state of my innards – hospitably would have tea and some sort of dry biscuit waiting. The three girls – all but the youngest in apparent awe of this Cleric – would array themselves about their mater’s big chair looking prim and interested. The oldest girl, Francine, tall and thin was mostly silent. Emily, of course, was sublime, Lord, and then came the saucy Carolyn with her earthy looks and her brash, defiant attitude. To cast a Priestly eye upon her was to invite her scornful stare. More than once, Lord, did I wriggle animatedly, a mere many-legged bug, pinned and helpless under her relentless, self-confident glare! Is it any wonder, Lord, I learned early on to avoid eye-contact with her, and always sought to appear perfectly busy anytime I felt her eyes on me? (regularly by thumbing through my portable Bible or simply sitting, eyes focused in Your direction while fingering my beaded belt below).
So there we’d sit, Lord, Claypeter pointing out this or that idea for his mural; I trying hard to pay attention, sipping my soothing tea, nibbling on the arid crisps. Simultaneously, remember, I hoped to keep my beloved Emily ever in view, while stationing myself to constantly project my left profile. Not easy, Lord. Meanwhile, the Mrs. sat atop a mound of down pillows and cushions, “For my hemorrhoids, and all” as she once confided, and against which, knowing what I know, I said nothing at all. And the girls, running the gamut from silence and a certain homely sedateness in the eldest, through sweetness and handsome features in the “middle girl”, all the way to volubility, garrulous discord and intense and constant confrontation in the youngest. All were part of – yet apart from – our little conferences. The artist and I might be discussing the relative size of one of Christ’s big toes to the size of the nail-head sticking from his foot, as the ladies entertained themselves with much tittering and considerable whispering. Self-consciously, You might imagine, my left profile would burn and flush as red as my cursed wart. And all the time it was growing. Soon I found it hard to recall this Clerical face as it looked unadorned by that extra little bit. And don’t think for a moment that I failed to make the connection – no, no, not for a moment, Lord! – with my growing love for this sweet Parishioner and the ever expanding nubbin. Clearly, the evil wanted out, Lord, and here, apparently, upon my beleaguered nostril, was the weak point, the site the Tarnished Angel had chosen for his attack. Within, a mental storm almost blew my wretched brains clean from my skull! Feverishly I recalled the boils and lesions of the wicked of old and how Our Lord, Jesus Christ had wiped them – in his Infinite Mercy – clean from their countenances. Prayer, Lord, and my beating heart cantered like twin, smart-stepping mares in harness; in the carriage, close behind, reigns securely in hand, sat Your Servant. Lord, there were times – oh painful memory – when irrationality’s hairy grip was at my throat. I would see myself as a sort of Pinocchio, only my problem was loving, rather than lying, and the more I loved, well, you know…At these moments, Lord, I envisioned a Unicorn-like offshoot, thin and glowing bright red, reaching ahead more than a yard. But the Claypeter bathroom mirror managed to calm matters, told the real story and the myth was exploded, Lord. The wart, tenant to my landlord nose, beaming and bright though it might be, never grew beyond ¼ inch. Oh ghastly squatter! Blasted knob!
Time passed. The mural was started, then wiped away, started a second time and again ended being deleted. Finally a good start was made. Large blue, paint-spattered drop cloths were hung to obscure the work from parishioners’ curious eyes. But one day, when one tarp slipped, a few in the pews nearby were startled to see a huge eye – actually the left eye of Jesus Christ, our Lord! – peering at them. All are said to have hurried into really intense murmuring prayer after that! The smell of fresh paint hung in the air, as did my Co-Pastor’s pesky grumbling. His glare, when he trained it on this Cleric, stung like iodine on a cut, Lord. Yet, he could really not complain at all – could he? Attendance at services – due no doubt to the novelty of the work being done – went skyrocketing! Excited, chatting, animatedly whispering church-goers were all over our pews; their children were everywhere. Who would blame me, Lord, if I say I chose to interpret this enthusiasm as a sign of forgiveness, a sign of acceptance and a dawning understanding of true Faith. Also true, (as You know, Lord) I had erred repeatedly, yet it appeared I was blessed once more with a soul washed and wiped immaculately clean.
As the work progressed I found it more and more important to confer with the artist and accordingly, I increased the frequency of our meetings. The original two or three times per week schedule was abandoned in favor of a daily one. Each evening, after Vespers, there would be a knock on the Claypeter door; a womanly voice would sing out in welcome; a Cleric – eyes ablaze with purpose and direction – would enter. Towards the end of the project I stopped bothering to even knock. I’d simply give a turn to the knob, push on the door, and there I’d be, glowing with cheer, youthful, ruddy and standing tall. Except for some mocking laughter from the wicked Carolyn, these entrances could have rivaled Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusale!.
“Tea Father?” the Mrs. would ask.
“Why, yes,” was my typical reply, “only allow me to freshen up.” I’d march straight to the facility, pausing only long enough to mutter, “Be out in a minute!” before shutting the door behind me. Muffled, insidious giggling from several of the Claypeter girls might then cause me to scoot with urgency the last few feet to the Claypeter throne. Imagine my dismay! Imagine the haste to raise my Cassock, to align my inflamed orifice with the bowl.
But they were peaceful evenings on the whole. The toilet business mercifully out of the way, we would usually begin with a quick look at plans. The artist, speaking rapidly, would point here and there. I would nod, or comment, or simply focus on the correct angle of my left profile relative to Emily, which often – You may imagine! – required some complicated positioning. Still, I was mostly at my ease. When music played – as was frequently the case – I might choose to tap a youthful sandaled foot in time. The lady of the house, of course, sat in the big chair. Soft and made softer by many pillows her chair occupied the full center of the parlor. Its décor was a print of brightly colored flowers and aimlessly drifting falling leaves. In it she perched like some large, roosting bird, perfectly content and perfectly genial. The generally casual postures of the younger girls, together with Francine’s stock position – which was to sit stiff-backed and composed over knitting needles – completed our little tableau. Our meeting over, Claypeter would pick up whatever book he happened to be reading. I would sit in silence – meditating, sipping my tea – and covertly keep track of my beloved.
But if it often was a kind of Heaven on Earth, Lord, to be in that placid parlor, it could also fly open suddenly like the fiery mouth of hell! At times, pouring over this or that facet of the mural with its creator, I would feel eyes stabbing daggers deep into my back. A quick check would yield nothing certain, but, of course, I suspected the hateful Carolyn. She knows, Lord, I would fearfully tell myself, she knows about my feelings for Emily! She despises me. I saw precisely how low and insignificant I must appear to her. In the night, my bowels burbling senselessly, I would awake from terrifying dreams in which Carolyn’s robed personage, high above me would sit in judgment of this Cleric, then zoom in to halt inches from my face, eyes fixed on my hated wart. Laughter would echo in my head with the taunts of innumerable girlish voices singing “Emery’s got a girlfriend!” “Emery’s got a girlfriend…!”
But in the parlor I held up a mental hand: Stop! How could she know? She couldn’t! My adoring looks in Emily’s direction were always carefully camouflaged; sometimes via an affected yawn, or in the startling confusion of a bible dropped – bam! – to the floor, or under cover of an occasional sudden fit of coughing or laughter. Sometimes – hands rubbing a weary face – an eye might peer through chinks between fingers at the beloved object. So, how could the vicious one know? She couldn’t. My secret was safe and I needn’t worry. I could sip my tea and crunch my crisp with confidence. And I don’t mind saying, there were occasions, Lord – and I say this with all due Respect! – when I could well believe these visits to the Claypeter domicile smacked of the Eternal. True, this may have merely been a lover’s wistful fancy. Which amorous post-adolescent lad is not convinced in just this way? An aura of immutability the like of which is just simply not seen south of the Pearly Gates, Lord – that self-same sort of permanence, of something higher which I have already pronounced upon – it was mine, Lord, mine, as I had known all along it would be. And I was prepared to fight, Father, tooth and nail, bell, book, candle, Holy Cross, whatever, I would fight to the last to defend it. So thought I, and so it would have been, Lord, had the expected frontal assault ever materialized. In fact, it never did.
Oh, happy time! Time of expanding horizons, of learning, of growing! There was music, art, literature. Claypeter was intimate with all of it, Lord, and he was easing this Cleric into that world. Sometimes he would read to us, something he was fond of doing. In this way The Canterbury Tales came alive for me. However, some relief was given this Cleric from the confusion of trying to make a lot of sense of the language of these Tales, when Shakespeare’s King Lear was next read. Of course this next reading was also in a language not spoken every day in this Cleric’s experience, at least I was able to make out the struggle between the old King and his three daughters. Three daughters? As we met them in the reading the three Claypeter girls gave no indication of seeing any parallels to their own situation, and when this Cleric gave them each, in turn, a thorough eyeing, nothing was revealed. That it was so apparent to me may well have been the product of my months-long indoctrination sitting at the artist’s feet. Lord, picture then the obvious look of satisfaction adorning the features of this Devout. Kings and Pious Pilgrims danced prettily in my imagination. Finally I was learning things that had seemed too dull to a school-boy who yearned instead to roll fishy-fingered in the saw-dust of meat emporia. The Seminary, of course, had filled us with the capacity for devotion, but the Liberal Arts did not exactly flourish there. Now, things the work-a-day Priest has no time for were at my disposal, abundant, exciting – virtually irresistible!
He introduced me to a book called “Gulliver’s Travels”. Naturally, Lord, I had heard of it long ago, but who reads such things? Anyway, he said to take it home with me, and I did. The next evening he wanted to know, what did I think of it? He assured me at once that the “best part” of the book comes right at the beginning with the voyage to Lilliput. “You don’t have to read another page after that, Father” he lectured, and went on enthusiastically: “There’s the life, a giant in a land of tiny people – you’d have the best of everything!”
Indeed, I thought to myself, but considered it vital to caution him thusly: “Such a man would need great wisdom, wouldn’t you say? So as not to abuse his position, he would need great humility, wouldn’t you say?” When no reply came I ventured further: “What did you think of Glumdalclitch?”
I explained quickly: the second voyage, to Brobdingnag. Gulliver’s nurse, Glumdalclitch, the seventy foot high little girl.
Claypeter nodded, but had apparently lost interest in the subject and was going on to something else. But the image of that giant little girl was astride this Cleric now, Lord. I could easily project myself within the reach of her protective embrace. Imagine her physical power, Lord, as she carries me about in a box – formerly the packaging for giant matches, but empty now – carries me by the thumb and index finger of one hand. She takes me out into the garden for my airing, sets down and opens my box allowing me to hop out and caper in twenty foot high leaves of grass; keeps a wary eye beaming down upon me and snatches me – at the penultimate moment – from the awful jaws of some 500 pound bug. Oh, Lord!
But let me be clear, our little literary seminars were the exception to what passed as normal activity in that parlor. More often than not, silence reigned supreme, and when we did choose to converse the subject was thoroughly covered. And for the most part, the subject was the weather: Today’s, Tomorrow’s, and when a point required support, Yesterday’s. Alternately, upcoming Church events were covered, and I would often end such talk with a jibe at the artist, thusly “So I’ll be seeing you in the pews then, Mr. C?” an obvious reference to his going to Church to paint, but never to pray. In other words, our discourse covered the commonplace; the cliché, the merely droll were more and more often heard. Above all, we had our own spheres of interest or activity. For Claypeter it was his art; for the woman of the house, her chores and petty complications; for myself it was Parish business and, of course, Emily; and for the girls – beloved Jesus! –boys!
Oh hyperactive louts! Were the charming Emily and that brat, the youngest, not delicate creatures? Was their skin not creamy and did their eyes not speak a soft language? Well they did, Lord, and they were exquisite, their complexions so smooth and alive, and – here’s a fact, Lord! – in their eyes one saw whatever one wished to see! So imagine for a moment, Lord Father, what the boorish louts thought they saw! See Yourself seated peacefully – as I was – deep in meditation when there comes a rapping, a rapid tap-tapping at the door – repeated before anyone can react. Go away! You bellow within, Go away! Can’t you see you’re not wanted here?
Oh, persistent boors! Claypeter would lay down his book and trudge slowly to the door as at 90 degrees from my left profile would come secret rustling and whisperings of elated females. “It’s Arty,” Claypeter’s noncommittal announcement would come (or Pete, or Arnold, or Georgie as the case might be) and the girlish whispering would accelerate. The Mrs. in her soft nest would first cast eyes at this stone-faced, benignly unconcerned Cleric, then say to the door and her husband’s back, “Emily can’t come out.” Alternately, she’d chirp, “Carolyn is staying in tonight!” There would be some loutish muttering, the door would be shut and Claypeter would resume his place.
Be aware, Lord, had the Mrs. as much control of girlish blathering, as she had over these antisocial callers, my lower tract upheavals might have been far less explosive! Because, echoing in my ever-sharp ears were the following: Had we heard about what happened to Skeeter? Had we seen Artie’s neat new car? Did we know Bunkie had been named tackle of the year? And isn’t Johnny divine?
Here this Cleric balked, Lord. Divine? I think not, and was prepared to say so on the spot. What manner of Divinity is this? I was ready to ask. But I held my peace, wondering why anyone would worship, would abase herself before such ungainly, pomaded urchins. Divine, indeed I scoffed within. Imagine my discomfort, Lord, in the face of these outpourings of school-girlish clap-trap. There I’d sit, facial features at their ease, wart glowing, hands folded neatly in my lap, one leg slung over the other, possibly moving to the rhythm of Sinatra singing ‘Strangers in the Night’, a particular favorite of mine. I don’t mind telling You, Lord, I couldn’t take much more of this. Many a night I became supersaturated with talk of Spinner and Tom and Skeeter, and God-knows-who-else – Dick and Harry, too, for all I care! Do I offend You, Lord, when I declare on these nights there would be a reprise on the family W.C. featuring this Cleric thundering at the gut? And as I sat there – and You know this, Lord – an endless string of prayer ascended. And what was I praying for? Yes, of course, anyone can guess I prayed that the fair Emily would reciprocate my love. But beyond the obvious, Lord, beyond the purely self-directed, I wished I had my devotional paraphernalia with me, here at my side in Mr. C’s parlor. Imagine, Lord, what I could accomplish with my Giant Cross! My Crown of Thorns! My Cilice! Why with my Cross alone I could storm the door at the moment of the next rap, tap, tapping! I could stand fiery and avenging the next time Skeeter or Paulie came calling. I could rout these teen hounds while also quelling the hounds within by judicious wearing of, say, my Crown of Thorns? Or, even more agonizing, just think how close to You I could be, donning my maddeningly itchy goat’s-hair shirt? Wouldn’t this sandaled Servant – laying my flicking switch across my shoulders – be approaching Sainthood, Lord?
Amazing to say, Francine knitted through it all. The hucksters, rogues and barbarians banging, so to speak, at the gate, Lord, banged not for her! Nor did she seem to mind. Neat rows about two feet wide of knit wool descended in even folds into a basket at her feet, and still she knitted. Moreover, during the time of my visits to that most beckoning haven, she developed a minor infection of the left eye. It began one evening with sporadic tearing and blinking and regarding her sideways from my left profile, I began to anticipate a sty. But the eye continued to seep into my following visits, and had turned a violent red, and began to run a discolored streak down alongside her nose. Oh, intrepid daughter! Her eye finally ended up closed altogether, for weeks, leaving her poorly armed with only the other one to guide her successfully over the pitfalls and jagged junk that life throws so indiscriminately across our path, and still she knitted.