Friday, May 27, 2016

The Farm

I was told to bring the brown manila folder with me when I reported to the lobby for my assignment, but first there was morning worship at 6:45 a.m. in the main dining hall.

I stepped out of my door at 5:30 into the dark and onto the wooden steps covered in two inches of fresh, crystalline snow. I had been in the cold and snow before, but this was different. The air was frigid and dry. My eyebrows and eyelashes hardened as I walked the nearly quarter mile along the northern perimeter path around the newly constructed residential buildings.

The new facilities would be reserved mainly for married couples, with the young bachelors aged nineteen and up staying in the older "E-res" and "A-res" buildings. Those with more seniority graduated into the nicer, newer rooms with their own bathrooms and kitchenettes, while the A-res and E-res provided dormitory-style lodgings. I was lucky, being assigned at least temporarily to one of the handful of detached modulars on the edge of the compound, almost exclusively reserved for married couples with more than a decade of seniority. 

My breath wafted up into the crisp morning air. I could hardly believe it, so enthralled was I with finally being at Bethel that I couldn't feel the crunch of the snow beneath my feet. I saw a heavy door that opened into one of the low corridors that connected the buildings together.

All of the newer residential complexes were built with three, triple-story buildings sticking out from a central hub with common areas such as libraries, laundromats, offices, utility rooms, and cargo bays. Each residential complex had a male "home overseer," with his wife more than likely assigned to the housekeeping detail for one of the complexes wings.

The home overseers' job centered around maintaining the impeccably high standards of maintenance and cleaning of the building, assignment of shared duties, outside congregation assignments, carpool group coordination, and monitoring the activities of the residents, particularly any single brothers. The overseers were among the most loyal Bethelites, and had to be elders for at least five to ten years or more, with a spotless background. 

After entering through the door, I walked down the long carpeted hallway, my fingers lightly brushing the wall as I went. My pace quickened as I approached the main dining hall.

Pushing open the double doors, I entered an immense room, filled wall-to-wall with over a hundred large, light-blue Formica tables, each with twelve chairs. The room, although large enough to accommodate several hockey rinks, was warm and inviting. Wood-paneled wainscoting skirted the walls, with white-oak posts and beams holding up the ceiling.

Along the far wall, near the gleaming ten-kettle copper coffee machine, was a sprawling mural in progress, partially concealed by curtains. It was of paradise, full of golden sunrises and green pastures and big-eyed children playing with elephants and tigers, painted by the recently-converted Margaret Keane.

Each post had at least two televisions mounted to it, angled down so that every table in the hall had a clear view. The screens were all in sync, with a black background and a large digital clock face with white digits counting down to when morning worship would begin. 

I poured myself coffee and carried the cup and saucer to my seat, consulting the map provided to me in my packet; a neat diagram with a line drawn directly to a seat which was second from the foot of the table, two rows down from the post closest to the kitchen doors.

Every table was identical, with twelve settings of silverware, plates, and cloth napkins. Each table had a pitcher of ice water in the center with a white cloth wrapped around the handle. I sat down on my cushioned seat.

On the far side of the room, there were fifteen-foot floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the pond, gazebo, and wooden arched bridges that were in the large inner courtyard of the compound. Ice crystals whirled outside in the dim, plum-colored dawn. The cold face of the Shawangunk Ridge was becoming barely visible beyond. 

I closed my eyes and bowed my head. I said my own prayer over an empty plate, clutching the bible I had brought with me to the dining hall. I had nothing but thanks to give. It was my first prayer where I didn't feel the need to ask him for all of this to come true anymore, or to ask him to help me in my struggle, to stay focused, to stay strong, and not let anything get in my way or drag me back into what I tried so hard to escape. 

For four years I worked at my ministry fruitlessly, with what I felt was nothing to show for it. I enjoyed my privileges in the congregation and loved teaching from the podium--never had I felt more alive than in those moments, in fact. But serving in the small rural congregation where I grew up, spending day after day going door to door, eventually knocking on every door in the valley that wasn't listed as a "do-not-call," and even then, calling on those homes once a year to see if they had a change of heart... doing all of this as a sixteen year old boy until I was nineteen, eschewing the more typical activities of a teen, avoiding any friendship that could distract me from my purpose, all of this made my end goal an imperative, a culmination of not just my fight but of my faith, as well. 

Wide-eyed, heart throbbing, I thumbed through my favorite scriptures, indulging myself for a few quiet moments as a few other early risers silently came in and meandered toward the copper coffee machine and went to their respective seats. I wavered in and out of prayer, meditating between the edges of sleep and a growing sense of God's love. But eventually I was brought back into my external space with the arrival of my table mates. I introduced myself and soon was in eager, ebullient conversation with my new brothers and sisters and the bleak anxious thoughts of my recent past faded quickly from my mind. 

The red light was blinking when I got out of the shower. I could tell by the number listed that it was the doctor from Miami leaving his third message. He sounded nice in the earlier ones. I continued brushing my teeth. 

Jesse had invited me to work with him painting condos down in Naples. That day would be over ninety degrees and humid enough to soak our Sherwin-Williams "Paint the World" t-shirts through by nine o'clock in the morning. 

I spent about ten minutes in the port-o-potty bleeding into the gaping plastic hole of shit and piss before I could join him and start rolling the exteriors with a twenty-foot pole. 

He introduced me to the crews we would be working with, consisting of two dozen Russian, Hispanic, and Romanian immigrants, each independent nationality and ethnicity with a team leader who was in charge of his crew only by virtue of speaking marginal English. Because we came alone--and because we were white, most likely--we were treated as our own crew and were ordered by the twenty-five year old superintendent to paint the garages of each condo in the sprawling hallow subdivision. 

Later, we found out that a few of the Russians spoke good English, although for reasons unknown to us they chose not to position themselves for a better job. A friendly man who introduced himself as Alex complained of a wife who kept him up all night begging for sex. He crawled up into an unfinished cupboard and napped for an hour or so as we rolled paint downstairs in the garage. Jesse and I laughed and joked deliriously as our sweat showered the fresh dusty concrete beneath our feet.

That night, Jesse dared me to drink the rest of the vodka in the bottle. I asked him to lock the front door and take my keys. I was excited when even the most energetic vomiting didn't trigger any bleeding. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Nothing but the Blood

It resembled thick red yogurt, jiggling under my breath. Bloody tissues surrounded my head on the counter near the sink as I leaned over, exhausted and panting. I had slammed my head several times against the wall, each time waking from a daze after having passing out repeatedly. I had smeared the blood across the mirror and into my hair, either by accident or on purpose, unable to remember which.

I had been speaking to Theresa over the phone hours earlier as I leaned over the sink, the blood still bright, bouncing against the scotch-colored porcelain before it started filling the sink and coagulating into a red whey.

We talked about everything and nothing. Minutes of silence would pass. I would hear her breathing and imagine my head resting against her body.

I clung to her small cheery voice as I felt my own hopelessness and anguish welling up inside me in equal measure to the blood collecting in front of my eyes. I needed her to go on and on as she was prone to do, saying whatever came to mind.

Jason's mother-in-law found out that I had something wrong with my sinuses. She arrived one morning at my doorstep and told me she was taking me to see her ear, nose, and throat doctor.

The doctor was a younger man, and had probably just started his practice. I lay on his reclining chair as he sprayed a steroidal substance into my nostrils. My nasal passages immediately opened up—they had been inflamed and congested for days. He brought out a thin metal rod, a telescope with a camera on the end about nine inches long. He gently eased it all the way back into my head from my right nostril. He didn't see anything. Then he tried my left nostril.

About half way back, near the rear of my nose cartilage area was a mass blocking his way. He said it was probably a polyp and not much to worry about. He thought that the bleeding was due to an overly-sensitive blood vessel on the inside of my nose and that it could be cauterized once he removed the polyp. He was about to grab a small pair of forceps when he decided to get a second opinion. 

He got on the telephone and called what must have been a more experienced specialist. I heard him explain what he saw and mentioned removing the mass. I heard shouting on the other end of the line and the young doctor stiffened. After he hung up, he began filling out CT scan orders, his hands shaking very slightly, and ordering his nurses around, getting me sample pills of various uses and paper printouts of "How to Stop Bleeding." 

I got up from the chair a little lightheaded, but I could breathe through my nostrils, which was a relief. I went to the bathroom in the hallway with the nurses following me, asking me if I was alright. I closed the door and leaned over the sink. Two small drops of blood dripped out of my nose onto the white porcelain. I broke out into a cold sweat and tried to brace myself. After months of episodes, seeing pints of my own blood standing in place like Jello and bright red toilet-bowls-full of bloody water and red streaks I was too weak to adequately clean on bathroom floors and mirrors, I knew no higher strength that would get me through what was happening to me but to breathe slowly and deeply, even with tears streaking down my grimaced face. 

I slowed my breathing, allowed myself a moment, and stared into the mirror. 

Whatever was happening to me wasn’t within my control. I was caught up in something. And yet, while knowing this, I wasn’t ready to give up what control I thought I had. For now, I was still in a struggle against those who were trying to rob me of my freedom. Except now it wasn’t just my family, or the Farm overseers, or the congregation elders, but life itself. Some script I wasn't aware of, written down on the other side of the universe, past the asteroid belts and nebulae and dying stars separating the crab-grass districts of Cape Coral from the God I didn't understand. 

He was allowing this to happen, so it must be good. Or was it neutral? It was neutral, yes. But that didn't mean he was indifferent. Because that wouldn't be loving. He was loving. He was love. What was happening to me was insignificant in comparison to everything else going on in the world. What would happen, would happen. 

The nurses and Jason's mother held onto me as I stumbled out to the car, ashen-faced.

A few days later I underwent the two-thousand-dollar CT scan, charged to my one remaining credit card. I learned how the micro-catheter is plugged into the artery in the arm, and then the dye-like fluid courses through the cardiovascular system, spreading a chemical wave of uncomfortable heat through the entire body. 

“It’ll get hot, but don’t worry," the radiologist said. "Just imagine it’s about ninety degrees outside, you’re on the beach, and you see a hot naked woman walk by.” 

He pushed the drug into my artery and walked away. The machine creaked, clattered, and moaned, and then it was over.

The next day I got a call from the ear, nose, and throat specialist that was the voice on the other end of the phone line when I was in the doctor's office. He asked me if I would come to see him, that he had seen the scans. 

I drove across the bridge into Fort Myers. He was one of those doctors with a deep strong voice, a little stern, but with humor in the eyes. He cut right to the chase and told me I had a condition called juvenile nasopharyngeal angiofibroma, a rare tumor that only occurs in males during their years of adolescence. It must have been growing for many years and only now presented itself with the bleeding in addition to the ongoing nasal blockage which I previously thought was due to allergies. We talked about the symptoms I had had growing up, and I told him of my frequent nasal inflammation. He said my more recent nasal obstruction was expected since the tumor had grown to such a size that it was completely filling my left sphenoid and was starting to fill the cavernous sinus area. It was highly aggressive, eating through my nasal septum, feeding off my carotid artery. Common symptoms included intermittent and uncontrollable bleeding, having to breathe through the mouth, loss of scent, dizziness, and of course the anemia that went with any extensive blood loss. I told him how I had just lost my job because of the bleeding, that I didn't know what to do. He talked about the nature of the tumor and how serious it was. 

I listened while gazing out the window at the tall palm trees, bending in the breeze. I absorbed it all with my eyes glazed over, stunned to be hearing all of my symptoms encapsulated and communicated back to me in a neat diagnostic package, devoid of the overtones of desolation that ruled my private life. He raised his eyebrows, made sure I was looking at him, and very deliberately said that this was something that would have to be taken care of. 

There it was again--"taken care of." Something easy and simple... some task or exercise that would go back in time and correct the script that was written for me. I asked what was involved.

The only way to do it, he said, was through surgery, opening up the left side of my face like a door, where the tumor could be resected. It was an intensive process, a serious operation, but he had done it before and had the resources to do it again.  

He asked me if I would be willing to undergo such a surgery, that it was the only solution. I said yes, I guess so, except that as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses I didn’t take blood transfusions. As soon as I mentioned this, he lifted his hands up and said he wasn’t going to touch me if I wasn’t going to accept blood. This kind of surgery would most likely require a transfusion, he said, as his last patient lost several pints. 

I sat there, not knowing what to say. It was an impasse; him wanting to see if I was serious about not accepting someone else's blood into my body, me not seeing anything else as an option. Our knees nearly touched as he stared at me over his long nose. My eyes wavered from his and stared outside at the palm trees. 

Finally, he nodded his head and asked me if I still wanted his help although he wouldn’t be the one to operate on me. I said yes, and he immediately got on the phone to call a doctor at the University of Miami who he said was the second-most renowned head and neck surgeon in Florida. The first, he said, who practiced in Ft. Lauderdale, was on vacation. He wrote down some numbers on a pad and handed them to me after setting me up with an appointment to see the other specialist. I thanked him and left.

~

The cherry tree was young and not too strong, even for a seven-year-old. It bent a little as I climbed up to a crook in its arms, barely concealed by its sparse shroud of leaves. I looked out into the pasture. Heidi's hooves were covered with mud as she nibbled on the grass that grew at the base of the well house. Joel and Jessica were somewhere inside the trailer. Mom wasn't home yet. 

I pulled the miner's lettuce out of my pocket and chewed slowly. I then yanked on the rope that I had tied to my ankle, pulling up the stereo tied to the other end. 

My favorite cassette tape was already in, an audio recording of "My Book of Bible Stories," narrated by a Governing Body member. I didn't have the book with me to follow along with, but I knew the pictures well enough and thought of them as I listened.

"Isn't this a good-looking little boy? His name is Samuel. And the man with his hand on Samuel’s head is Israel’s high priest Eli. That is Samuel’s father Elkanah and his mother Hannah who are bringing Samuel to Eli.

Samuel is only about four or five years old. But he will live here at Jehovah’s tabernacle with Eli and the other priests. Why would Elkanah and Hannah give someone so young as Samuel to serve Jehovah at the tabernacle? Let’s see.

It was just a few years before this that Hannah was very sad. The reason is that she could not have a baby, and she wanted one very, very much. So one day when Hannah was visiting Jehovah’s tabernacle, she prayed: ‘O Jehovah, do not forget me! If you give me a son, I promise that I will give him to you so he can serve you all his life.’

Jehovah answered Hannah’s prayer, and months later she gave birth to Samuel. Hannah loved her little boy, and she began teaching him about Jehovah when he was still very little. She told her husband: ‘As soon as Samuel is old enough so he does not need to be nursed anymore, I will take him to the tabernacle to serve Jehovah there.’"


My kitten Mikey clawed at the tree trunk below. As the cassette tape played, I noticed my mother's car coming down East Side Road, then turning onto the dirt road that led to our trailer up the hill. She arrived in front of the house and got out of the car. I stayed as silent as I could, holding down the plastic silver pause button on the stereo. She walked across the driveway and went up the steps into the trailer, sliding the glass door closed. 

Mikey rubbed his back against the tree and meowed. A hawk screeched in the distance.

~

After I left the doctor's office, I drove back across the bridge to Cape Coral and stopped at Safeway. I had just charged over two thousand dollars to my credit card, and I didn't see much difference in now buying a pack of Murphy's stout and a couple of deli sandwiches. Jesse greeted me as I walked in the door and we ate and drank as we played games on our computers. Jesse said Theresa called while I was out. I smiled, warm inside from knowing she was waiting for me.

I didn't know what she and I meant, and I was losing the desire to know. I didn't have any means to weigh the value of our intimacy. She had rejected a more formal relationship with me when I was in Richmond and yet we still talked every day, carrying on as before.

She knew I bled, knew more than anyone else. But I still never told her that I often bled while we talked. I couldn't tell her that it calmed me and helped me to not choke and gag on the threads of blood that formed along the sides of my throat. I had to keep something for myself, at least, and the details of the bleeding, the close-up images and character of the stuff I tried to keep solely in my own world. It was almost unreal, as long as her little voice carried on.

About half way through my sandwich, I felt something.

I quickly drank the rest of my beer, grabbed the phone, went into my bedroom, and closed the door.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sanibel Island

My friend Matthew came and picked me up and took me on a drive out to Sanibel. We stopped at an outside cafe for lunch where they served breakfast all day. Matthew was middle-aged, Indian, separated from his wife, and hooked himself up to a hemodialysis machine every night.

Matthew had sought out my friendship. He had accepted his own sickness and knew he would beat it. He was on a list for a kidney transplant and even though his odds of obtaining one weren't the highest, it gave him hope. He smiled and laughed easily. He was in real estate, and talked about the things people worry about when they own property. 

His cell phone rang, he answered, and then handed the phone to me. It was Theresa, and she was worried. There was a sense of urgency in her voice that I hadn't heard before. She had called my home, got Jesse, and he gave her Matthew's number. 

"Are you all right?" she asked.

I looked at Matthew, and behind him, at the thin, anemic palm trees bending in the wind, their fronds fluttering eighty feet above the street. Beyond the trees were the white sands Sanibel was known for, with pale, languid waves lapping up on shore. 

"I'm fine. I'm all right," I replied.

"You didn't return my calls for three days. What's going on? If you were all right, why didn't you call me back?"

"I just needed some time," I said. "I wasn't feeling well. I'm fine, though."

"I don't believe you. Did you see the doctor in Miami?"

"No, it didn't work out. Hey, Theresa, I'm out with Matthew. I'm okay, though. I'll talk to you later. Don't worry about me."

"I do worry about you," she said. 

I stared out at the pale blue waves and thought about how her voice used to sound before, when I had thought that she loved me. Matthew squinted his eyes as he chewed his eggs. 

After breakfast we walked out across the sand to a pier. The manatees tipped and teetered in the water, their scarred, bloated bodies floating aimlessly underneath the pier. The water moved gently around the piles as the waves ebbed. Matthew never told me to get it taken care of, and he never asked about Theresa. He knew how important it was for me to stay in the moment, to stay in the present, where there remained the smallest bit of control. I don't remember if we talked a lot about my illness. 

When I got back to the apartment, Jesse asked me if I had got in touch with Theresa. "She was so worried, man. She said she had already called like five different people to get a hold of you," he said, sipping a beer and eating a tuna sandwich. He was sitting at his computer and had paused his game of Diablo when I came in. 

I woke up the next day to find that Jesse had already left for his painting job. I made myself coffee, got dressed for work, and then realized my gas tank was almost empty. I spent a minute or two trying to think of what I should do, then called my boss to tell him I couldn't make it in. He asked if I knew anyone who I could get a ride with or borrow gas money from. I told him I didn't know, but that I would call him if I got something figured out. As I talked to him on the phone I noticed a large envelope from work. It was my health insurance packet, and now that I had worked ninety days I was eligible for insurance. My boss asked me if I expected to come in tomorrow. I hesitated and told him that I didn't know what to do, but that if something changed about my situation I would call him. 

I knew that if I drank alcohol and started bleeding it would prolong the episode. Knowing this didn't keep me from drinking. After I got off the phone with my boss, I poured some vodka into my coffee and sat down at my computer to read the news. It was just after 9:00 a.m. A splash of red ran across the page, with the words, "America Under Attack." It was still in those first few moments after the second plane struck, the reporter speaking in near disbelief. I spent the rest of the morning getting up and down from my computer, pouring vodka into my coffee mug, full of nervous energy. I watched the arms of people sticking out and waving frantically from between the grey spires, thick black smoke bellowing out from within. 

I laid face up on the living room floor, a tuna sandwich in one hand and the mug of vodka in the other. I chewed wantonly, not fearing the gush of blood that often came when I ate. Somewhere deep inside I sensed its presence near an inner bodily gateway. I felt the fullness above my palette and the first warm trickle down my throat. It came, but I was ready for it. I leaned my head over the bathroom sink, my forehead resting on the stainless steel faucet. 

By the time it was over, a bloody indent was there, where my head rested. My mind was numb from the blood loss and alcohol, and my hands and feet were cold. I wiped the dried blood from my face and neck with a rag, tossed it on my bed, and glanced across the living room at the computer. The webpage had refreshed and an enormous image filled the screen. A man, plummeting downward, one leg straight, one leg bent. In the split second the photo was taken, it gave the impression of a peaceful fall. 

I peeled off my clothes, put on my grandfather's kimono, and stepped outside into the blinding light. It had to have been nearly 100 degrees. I stumbled around behind the apartment building and into the dusty paved alleyway behind the 7-Eleven where Jesse had bought the vodka the night before. I laid down on the pavement in the sun, face up. Large ants, a quarter of an inch long, began crawling on my body. Letting them creep over me was like bleeding; I was used to breathing through my panic. It didn't make it go away, but I knew the secret to getting through it, and that was by letting it wash over me. My eyes filled with tears as the sun shone through my eyelids like a red shower curtain partially concealed by steam. 

I never heard a word from the woman who sat next to me on the non-stop flight out of San Francisco until we started circling Newark. She was from Trenton, and was excited to see her family. She had just woke up and felt the plane tilt on approach. My shoulder was still warm from where her head laid for the previous two hours. She was older, perhaps in her early forties, but was well-kept and not quite old enough to be my mother, and I could smell the shampoo she used that morning on her brunette hair. She asked me where I was heading. I told her I was moving across the country to be with my brother, but I didn't say anything about the Farm. She smiled and looked out the window. 

I carried my suitcase through the terminal, down past the baggage claim, and waited for my brother. He surprised me from behind and we gave each other a big hug. I could tell he was nearly as excited as I was. After four years, we were together again, and I had finally made it to Bethel. We walked out into the dusk and the bustle of the airport shuttles, taxis, with smiling and shouting people and the rush of cold air carrying the sweet smell of exhaust and something like sewage. I breathed deep. I embraced every turning moment because they were signposts of the freedom that was taking shape before me.

After a two-hour drive from Jersey to Pine Bush, New York, my brother dropped me off at the marbled lobby where I went in and met the brothers at the front counter. It was midnight, but the front desk lobby was always staffed around the clock. One of them, a friend of my brother, knew I was coming. He handed me a thick manila envelope and gave me the keys to my room. The envelope had my initial papers and instructions, including a map with a carefully drawn path on it. After saying goodnight to the brothers at the desk, I slowly walked through the maze of hallways and buildings and into the frigid February night air beyond the last door. 

Emerging, I found myself in a different world of spruce trees and gently falling snow. Lamp posts lit the path ahead, an undisturbed thin blanket of snow covering the walkway that led out toward the perimeter of the compound. The path led to a collection of modular buildings, a neat little neighborhood away from the main complexes up against the trees and fields beyond. Each of the modular buildings was split into four studio apartments, each with a small porch and its own light and unit number. I opened the door to my unit and walked in. The furnishings were all standardized and had a sterile feel about them, but something about the uniformity appealed to my growing sense of tranquility.

As I unpacked my things, I looked around the room: the plain desk and chairs, the cream-colored walls, the beige carpet, the linoleum floor. I knew I would have a roommate because there were two beds, but I couldn't tell if he already lived there or if he would be assigned to me later. 

At around one o'clock at night I curled up in bed, turned out the lights, and stared out the window, watching little specks of ice and snow falling through an otherwise seemingly-clear night sky, lit dimly by the lamppost. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Shawangunk Ridge

I became intimately knowledgeable about the linoleum floor of my bathroom. I studied its white ridges and little yellow valleys, running the tips of my fingers over every crack and bump, soothed by its cool surface against my body. After leaning on my elbows over the sink watching the blood drip and trickle, and sometimes spurt and stream, out of my nose and mouth for a couple of hours, my knees would shake and my legs would cramp and so I would have to sit on the floor with my back to the wall, my shirt off, a stream of red streaking down my neck and chest and down into those little crevices, creeping and spreading like a thick crimson fog.

I started to experience blackouts, although it took me a while to realize what they were. I would finally stop bleeding, heaps of toilet paper and washcloths on the counter, the toilet having been flushed a dozen times, too spent to clean the rest of the mess, and be turning to exit the bathroom to go lie down. Then I would wake up face down on the carpet, my feet still in the bathroom, my arms tangled underneath me. Fine crystalline dreams came to me in those brief minutes that felt like days, fast and blurring, more like echoes of dreams from deep inside me, and a peaceful rest and breath past the swollen mass in my sinuses. When I awoke, it was from a place of no worries and no fears, having breathed the easy, unimpeded breaths of someone with no swollen angry mass inside their sinuses.

The little red message-waiting light blinked on the phone at the side of my bed. Jason wondered if I had returned from my trip yet. His father just bought a boat and he wanted to know if I would drive up to Tampa with them to fetch it. Everyone knew something was going on. Jason was never pushy and didn't ask for details, but would always, without fail, tell me I needed to "get it taken care of," and in a way that suggested it was just some temporary thing and not the end of things that it sometimes felt like it was. I didn't know what to say when he told me that. I never saw him or his wife once without a smile. They were both blonde, had blonde brothers and sisters and blonde parents, and would eventually have blonde children. They owned a condo about eight miles up Del Prado, across a maze of canals and in another unnavigable quadrant of Cape Coral.

It was at their house where I stayed for a few days when I first flew out to Florida to scope out a job and a place to live. I had called him from the kitchen at the Farm the day after my overseers told me I would do better serving on the outside. Jason was the most positive and grounded person I knew at the time. If I had listened closer, I would have noticed the mild trepidation and caution in his voice when I told him I was leaving Bethel and wanted to come visit him. No one made it their goal to only serve one year at Bethel. But he and his wife had served with me there and would have known I had trouble fitting in. Jason and I would be cleaning the ham processor in the rear cooler of the food warehouse and he would lightly lecture me after I had responded angrily to something that one of the other newboys had said earlier that day. We were close enough in age to be friends, but being a few years my senior meant he could give me frank advice and I would listen. I waved the cleaning wand in the air, spraying foam on the walls and ceiling and my rubber boots, gesturing wildly at what I felt was unjust about the situation and he patiently nodded his head and smiled, his blonde hair bobbing. We scrubbed the machine, sprayed it off, and christened it with Sanifoam. We hung our rubber boots outside the locker room, showered and dressed for dinner, and walked together on the bark-chip path through the corn fields towards the dining hall.

It would have been early fall, then. The sweeping expanse of deep green that began at the perimeter of the Farm and ended abruptly at the base of the Shawangunk Ridge would have started to turn red and gold, because it was going to be a tremendous fall season that year, better than any I had seen in my life. The rich, thick air, full of the smell of corn and pigs and ripening apples rushed into my lungs as I breathed through my mouth. I had started having trouble breathing through my nose, but thought it was allergies. I would wake up at night sometimes... my head heavy and beating. But not being able to breathe well through my nose was just a mild nuisance then. The world was wide and deep and I was gaining a closeness with God that I could finally feel, after all those years praying into the late night hours, begging Him to get me out of where I was. It was near sunset as we emerged from the fields and approached the "E" building, and we looked up as the Ridge captured the red glow that glanced across the sky like a spear.

Jason ended his message with that familiar lilt in his voice, ending on mostly a high note followed by a short comforting cascade which I noticed he had picked up from his mother. Everything would be all right. Everything was manageable. Drive with us to Tampa.

I pressed the button.

The next message was from Theresa, with her small, girlish voice. She was worried that I hadn't called her to let her know I had got back safe from my flight. It had been a few days, but it had only felt like one to me. Her voice tightened and she left silent spaces on the line before she asked one more time if I was all right and if I would call her.

I pressed the button.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Shokoe Slip

My brother was getting married to a girl who lived in Richmond, Virginia. He had dated her when we lived together for a year in upstate New York. We would drive down to Richmond and back on a single weekend for him to see her. She had a friend and her name was Theresa and she was black. When I left New York my family didn't want me to date her. I was excited to finally see her again at my brother's wedding. I flew to Richmond and refused to have my family pick me up and told them I was having Theresa pick me up, instead. We hugged, packed my bag into her car outside, and then went to Subway to get a sandwich.

Later, at her house, she placed her head in my lap and I stroked her hair. Her younger cousin sitting across the room turned around and told us how cute we looked together. Theresa sat up and left the room. That night, we went and ate dinner in downtown Richmond with her family. It was a small soul-food diner and it was open all hours. Theresa and I sat across from each other and didn't speak. We finished eating before the others and decided to go for a walk while the rest of her family stayed and talked over coffee. We strolled around Shokoe Slip, where the James River is confined down to a small, brick-lined canal surrounded by historic buildings. The water barely moves there, its surface glistening black and still, absorbing all light. She asked me if what we were doing made any sense. I answered her by asking vague leading questions because I desperately wanted her to tell me she loved me again. Instead, she told me stories about the slaves who worked at the tobacco factories a hundred and fifty years ago.

We said goodbye at the airplane boarding ramp. She told me we couldn't do it anymore. I walked down the ramp and looked back at the square of light where she stood. I fell asleep on the plane and dreamed that a little girl had been brutally murdered and I was the only one who cared enough to follow her blood trail to try to find her. It led me down to the James River canal. I looked into the black water and saw the pale bloated bodies of dead Civil War conspirators floating and drifting deeper down, their faces twisted and frozen in despair. I turned around and saw a large wooden door in the concrete river bank. I opened it and descended a wrought-iron spiral staircase which ended a hundred feet down. At the bottom there was a heap of bloody clothes. A path was tunneled into the bedrock and I followed it down until I heard a deep drumming and saw a red glowing light coming up from below.

When I got back to my apartment in Florida I played through the phone messages. My boss wanted to know if I was coming back to work, the landlord missed my rent payment, my mother wanted to talk to me about my brother's concerns that I was no longer giving talks at church. The kitchen sink was still full of dirty dishes from three weeks ago, dead flies stuck on the window behind the blinds. I crawled into bed with my clothes on. As I lay perfectly still, staring up at the slowly rotating ceiling fan, that familiar tickle of blood in the back of my throat came on. I let it run from deep inside my head down my throat without getting up and going to the bathroom like I normally would. It created a long fibrous string down into my stomach, swelling and coagulating inside my throat. It became harder to breathe as I lay still, trying to suppress the urge to vomit. I heard the front door open and close, and Jesse's easy laughter filled the living room. He had brought a friend, and they wondered if I had returned from my trip so we could all go out to eat. He knocked on my bedroom door and asked if I was there.