Encounters

I was supposed to quit you. Before you kill me, they said. But it’s a cold world and you’re a warm blanket. You’re a beehive in an old, dead tree. If there’s anything buzzing in me, anything sweet, it’s you.

I want you.

Colorless days I spent dreaming of dozing in your velvet embrace. And now my heart pounds against my ribs, a caged bird begging release.

I know you’re dangerous, but I can’t seem to get by without you. And so here we are again, you and I, another secret rendezvous, another encounter. The world’s grown small–just the two of us.

An alley beside a church, the familiar sour reek of garbage and wet-pavement must. I kneel behind a dumpster and, oh sweet Jesus, I draw you from my pocket, little white packet full of promises.

My need is a hunger, a bone-deep pain.

My hands tremble, drawing Love into a shiny new sharp. Bound vein stands proud, waiting. Sweet stabbing sensation, push the plunger and pull off the cord, tied tight around my arm. And waiting, breath held back, for the magic moment, the rush, the nod, the slip into sweet nirvana.

I’ve missed you.

Little wet kisses bless my face. I struggle to open my eyes and oh God everything is beautiful. Raindrops shoot past the streetlight like falling stars and dark oil rainbows swirl on the webbed asphalt. I am wrapped in a warm Universe, and the Universe loves me.

Jesus loves you.

Rain soaks my clothing, and the damp fabric feels like a hug. I drift weightless from alley to sidewalk and look up at the plum-colored city sky. I turn, see a row of angels and saints gazing down at me, and love emanates from their concrete chests, acceptance from their blank eyes. They whisper the gates of Paradise are open, and I have wings to ascend. Warm welcome glows from kaleidoscope windows.

From the vestibule, I peer through glass to the shimmering nave. The priest and pair of matching altar boys–like plump black-and-white pigeons–offer Mass for a handful of faithful, heads bent, gray as ash beneath the gilt of Heaven. Above the towering altar, the Spirit of God spreads its wings and dives straight down to earth to kiss it, penetrate it, make it fertile, fill it with Life.

I can feel it; you are buzzing inside of me and I feel alive.

I go in, take care to be silent, slip into the nearest pew. Across the aisle slumps an old woman in clothing layered like leaves of old newspaper, kerchief knotted beneath her jaw, a jumble of bags around her legs. She looks at me and nods, smiling. In this place we are kin, we are God’s fruitfulness. I smile back.

Sweet scent of incense and candle wax hang in the air. As a child I thought Heaven smelled like this. Here is Heaven’s embassy on earth, here He waits, stealth and silent God, to be consumed, body, blood, soul and divinity.

I watch the motions of the priest, and the soft edges of things sharpen and come into focus. I become aware of my limbs again, aware that my wet clothing is cold and my eyes are burning.

Bells ring alerting angels and men that God is with us, and the priest holds Him aloft.

***

I remember a time in my childhood, before I had ever tasted the dry, crisp, blandness of God, when I knelt in a pew and watched bread become flesh.

“Look,” I said to my mother, wide-eyed, my breath stolen from me. “It’s Jesus.”
“Hush, child,” she whispered back. “This is the holiest part of the Mass.”
I nodded, stared at God-Made-Man suspended between Heaven and earth.
“Hello, Jesus,” I greeted Him. And He smiled back at me.

***

Tears course down my cheeks and my nose runs. The old woman makes noise, rifling through her bags. She pulls out a crocheted afghan, garish colors in cheap acrylic, and limps across the aisle in black galoshes.

The small congregation, dutifully queued, makes it’s way to the priest, who doles out God to open hands and open mouths.

The old woman drapes the afghan around my shoulders and smiles, pats my back. But I don’t know her anymore, and God’s fruit rots on the vine.

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Kevin’s Family

The original prologue of my novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of your Fist, was a scene from Kevin’s childhood. I’ve long since changed that, and so this will not appear in the final canon, although it remains part of the character’s backstory. 


Last night Kevin dreamed about the zoo. He’d been there once, when he was little. He remembered walking between his parents, holding their hands. Together they counted, “One, two, three!” and lifted him into the air, swinging him like a monkey on a vine, and his dad called him Monkey and carried him on his shoulders.

When he woke up, Kevin thought he might ask his dad if they could go again some time. But he couldn’t ask now. His dad was dope-sick and looking for a fix.

“Dammit, Kim, where’d you put the goddam money?” Despite the chill in the apartment, his dingy tee clung to him, and he wiped his palms on his jeans.

“I told you, Gary. I bought food with it. Kevin’s gotta eat.”

Kevin glanced up from where he sat on the worn sofa. His fingers picked at the loose threads around a tear in the upholstery fabric. He wished it was a school day.

“Yeah? Yeah?” Kevin’s father stalked into the kitchen. Kevin heard cabinets being opened and slammed shut. “Yeah, Kim? Where’s all that food? You get a slice of pizza for the kid and a couple of six-packs and smokes for yourself?” He came out of the kitchen, face red with rage, and knocked the beer can from her hand. She flinched, took a few steps back, watched beer pour out onto the floor.

Kevin drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, trying to refocus on the Saturday morning cartoons. He couldn’t. He shut his eyes tight. “Go away,” he whispered into his knees. “Go away. Go away.”

“You’re holding out on me, Kim. You worked this week. You got some tip money stashed around here somewhere. I just need twenty bucks to get me through the next couple days.” He pleaded now, raking his fingers through his short, blond hair.

“If I had twenty bucks, I’d go and buy Kevin a jacket and shoes. I don’t have any money. Go find someone else to cover your smack.”

Kevin’s father took a backhand swing at her, and she fell hard against the table. Kevin saw her touch her face and his stomach rolled. His father’s ring had caught the bridge of her nose, and blood trickled down from the gash.

“Get up,” his father growled. “Get up, bitch.” He bent down and grabbed her by the wrist.

Kevin propelled himself from the sofa and leaped onto his father’s back, eyes blinded by tears, his thin arms hooked around his father’s neck. “Leave her alone! Go away! Just go and don’t come back!”

His father tore Kevin’s arms from his neck and flung him to the floor, knocked the wind out of him.

“Please, Gary, don’t,” his mother begged.

“You fucking little cockroach, I’ll throw your ass out into the street…” He grabbed the front of the Kevin’s shirt and yanked him to his feet. Flailing his arms, Kevin broke free and scrambled to the apartment door. He unlocked the deadbolt, bounded out onto the landing, raced down five flights of stairs and took off running down the sidewalk beneath a steel-gray Manhattan sky that threatened early snow.

 

It was dusk when Kevin returned to the apartment, shivering in his jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt. He forced his numb feet to mount the stairs, trying to count them as he went up, but was unable to concentrate for the cold and the gnawing emptiness in his middle. The low-wattage light bulb was out on the second floor, and Kevin walked sliding his hand along the banister to guide him through the murkiness. The stairwell smelled of cat urine and mildew. A door slammed on a floor above, and on the third floor landing Kevin passed a heavy-set black man in a parka who made brief eye-contact, but said nothing as he headed down the stairs.

The door to the apartment was locked. Kevin went to the far end of the landing, to the stairs leading up to the roof. He crouched down and grabbed the bottom stair tread with both hands and pulled it out. From the dark space beneath, Kevin retrieved an empty tobacco tin and opened it, dumping the contents at his feet. Four wheat pennies, a hood ornament from a BMW, a chain with his dad’s dog tags from when he was a soldier in the Middle East, and a slightly rusty key. He took the key and returned everything else beneath the step, replaced the stair tread and pounded it back into place with the heel of his hand.

Kevin turned the key in the lock and opened the apartment door. The lights were out in all the rooms except for the kitchen.

“Mom?” He flipped the switch by the door and scanned the living room. As he walked to the kitchen, his sneakers stuck where the spilled beer had dried. He went to the fridge and pulled out the grape jelly, a loaf of white bread and a carton of milk. He took the peanut butter from the cabinet, but as he opened the bag of bread, his hunger sharpened to agony, and he shoved a doughy slice into his mouth, nearly choking as he tried to swallow it. He had another while smearing peanut butter onto a couple slices to make sandwiches. The milk smelled funky, so he left the carton in the sink.

Turning on lights as he walked through the dark apartment with a sandwich in each hand, he looked around. His heart sank. The TV was gone. He guessed his father probably took it to pay for his dope.

He switched on the bathroom light, and a few cockroaches scurried across the floor. On the sink there was a beer can and some of his mother’s makeup. A towel smeared with blood hung over the side.

He went into his bedroom and polished off the second sandwich. Then he pulled on two sweatshirts over his T-shirt, took off his canvas sneakers, and put on another pair of socks. Tired as he was, he didn’t want to stay in the apartment by himself, especially without at least a TV to keep him company. Pulling on a ski cap, he went back to the kitchen and grabbed the bag with the remaining bread, then headed out, locking the door behind him.

On the first floor landing, he looked down the flight of stairs to see someone entering the building. A slim man with a pea coat and a thin mustache looked up at him from the bottom of the stairs.

“Hey there,” he addressed the boy, smiling. “You’re Kevin Sheehan, right? You remember me? I’m John Garrett from Children’s Services. I was here a couple of months ago. Can we go up and talk to your mom for a few minutes?”

“She’s not here.” Kevin eyed him warily and took a step backward. Garrett put his foot on the bottom step.

“Well, how about your dad? Is someone home I can talk to?”

Kevin took another step backward and then spun and ran up the stairs. Garrett took the steps two at a time in pursuit.

“Kevin! I’m on your side, man…I’m not gonna hurt you!”

As Kevin ran up the third flight, Garrett nearly caught up and stood at the bottom, coughing, his chest heaving. Kevin tucked the bread into his shirt and turned to look at him for just a moment. He put his hands on the banister and leaped from the stairs across the open stairwell to the opposite landing. Then he spun on his heels and headed downstairs as fast as he could run.

“Hey, Kevin! C’mon, buddy,” Kevin heard him shout from above. “I’m here to help you!” Kevin’s feet hit the pavement and he was running again, this time down the dark street toward the warmth of the subway, holding the bagged half-loaf of bread against his body as he ran.