Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sunday Scribblings #186: Shame

[Some of you already have this, but Mac's descent is a good dose of shame. Another excerpt from my novel Scarred Angels.]

Agnes and I spent the remaining nights before Christmas driving around town in search of neighborhoods filled with Christmas lights. With a large thermos in the front seat between us, Agnes would navigate slowly down the glittering streets while I kept our mugs filled with hot chocolate and, for Agnes, the obligatory half dozen miniature marshmallows. We'd circle the neighborhoods several times with the windows down, bundled up in gloves and coats, arguing over which houses should win our prizes. Agnes favored orderly, monochromed themes, nothing flashy, while I was invariably falling for sweeping cascades of gaudy Las Vegas lights, complete with plastic holy families sprawled out on the lawn. One house on our side of town had a live Nativity scene in their front yard, with rotating Marys, Josephs, and night visitors milling around a handcrafted wooden manger. Mustached with sticky melted marshmallow, Agnes would punch me every time I fell for another cheesy display.

We saved Windcrest for Christmas Eve, a huge subdivision off Walzem Road where owners and tenants must have had to sign contracts to decorate before moving into the neighborhood. We sat in traffic for an hour waiting to enter the subdivision where every house was blazing with electricity. Our arguments this time were with the homeowners' association that had already handed out what we both considered dubious awards.

We got back to my apartment about 11 o'clock and sat for awhile on the couch together, watching Daltry's face light up in her flashing circle of lights. I think we both felt her spirit near. Just before midnight, Agnes kissed me on the cheek and got up to leave.

"Remember, Mac, no earlier than six-thirty, but no later than eight. Before six-thirty and you can freeze on my steps. After eight, and I open my presents and yours without you." We were gathering in the morning for gifts and breakfast. For two weeks Agnes had been drilling me on when to be there.

"I'll be there at seven," I said, yawning. "If you'll get out of here and let me get some sleep."

I listened to her clomp down the steps and then out the front door of my building. I walked to the picture window and looked through one of Daltry's wings as Agnes climbed into her car, honked, and drove off. When her tail lights turned onto Astoria, I pulled the plug on Daltry's lights and went to bed.

About an hour later, I woke to the sound of knocking at my door, decidedly insistent knocking. What the hell, I thought, trying to waken to the urgency of the person in my stairwell. "Just a minute!" I yelled. The knocking stopped. I pulled on a pair of pants with the t-shirt I slept in and walked to the door.

"Who is it?" I said, behind the closed door.

"Me." The voice was muffled, low, struggling through tears, not a way I had ever heard it before, but I knew. It was Charlotte.

Before any other part of me could walk away, I opened the door. She stood in the doorway shaking, no coat, just a dress, ripped at the sleeves and neck. Her hair was matted, tears ran through her makeup, a bruise was forming under her left eye. I pulled her to me, closed the door, and held her in the dark of the living room.

"Who did this to you?" I said.

"Mac, please. Don't ask that. Just hold me."

"Bastrop. The son of a bitch." I was seized with a rage to destroy him.

"Mac. He was drinking heavily. He gets this way. Please, let it go. Just stay with me."

We sat on the couch and I held her to me, stroking her wet hair. I felt her breath settle, as her shaking stopped. My own body was stiff with a confusion of feelings, rage at Bastrop, suspicion of Charlotte, and my desire for her as well. I sat in the dark and stared at the figure of my guardian angel in the window, knowing what she would say: "Shake 'em loose, little man." I couldn't.

Charlotte roused herself from sleep about an hour later. She reached up and kissed me. "Mac? Have you got a robe I can borrow? I want to wash up and get out of these clothes. Walking to my bedroom I kept hearing the sound of Daltry's voice echoing in my brain. As I walked back to Charlotte with the robe, Daltry's voice began to fade. Charlotte had pulled the curtains over the picture window. "That angel's kind of spooky in the dark, Mac." She took the robe and walked to the bathroom. Closed the door, but did not lock it. Force of habit?

She ran the shower and I sat aching again in the darkened room. The water stopped, the shower curtain pulled back, and I heard the rustle of a towel as she dried herself. When I finally opened the bathroom door she stood naked in the steam, facing me. She unbuckled my pants and pulled them down. I lifted her gently and pushed inside her. Her legs encircled me as I plunged deeper and then cried out for her. I felt her shudder beside me as I whispered her name into the small dimly lit tiled room.

We moved from the bathroom to my bed where our lovemaking was slower and gentler, erasing all the conflicting emotions of seeing Charlotte in the first place. By the time she was beneath me in my bed, I was fully in her grasp, capable of going anywhere with her. The bruises on her face and arms were proof enough to me that she was no accomplice to Bastrop's villainy, but yet another of his victims.

We lay for two hours in the dark and I held her as she drifted in and out of sleep. Her body began to warm, and her breathing eased. About four o'clock in the morning, she rolled over and faced me, running the back of her hand lightly down the side of my face.

"Mac," she said, "I want you to do something for me."

I didn't hesitate. "Anything," I said.

"Come with me to my place."

"Let's go."

We left in her car and crossed town easily. Traffic was minimal, the whole city seemingly asleep in anticipation of a holiday that I had completely lost sight of. I was lost again in Charlotte. She drove in silence, wrapped in my jacket for warmth and to cover the damage to her own clothes.

Once in her apartment, she peeled off her clothes in the living room, while I did the same. Amidst the Christmas decor I noticed flower arrangements with Bastrop's usual flair, but relished the thought that he had probably seen the last of Charlotte's apartment. Charlotte walked up to me, kissed me hard on the mouth, and then took me down the hallway to her room. At her door I turned to go inside, but she continued walking down the hall to a door she unlocked with a key she took from under a vase of flowers on a table at the end of the hallway. I walked into a room that looked like a well- appointed photographer's studio. In addition to cameras and lighting equipment, the large room was filled with furniture, racks of clothes and costumes, backdrops, and several trunks of props. Feeling very much out of my element, I watched in amazement as Charlotte coolly trained a movie camera on a daybed in the center of the room.

With her eye behind the camera, Charlotte spoke in the indifferent manner of a technician. "Mac, get over on the bed. Let me see if I've got this shot set up right."

I hesitated, suddenly feeling like I'd walked into another of Bastrop's traps, with Charlotte as his infallible bait.

"What's this for, Charlotte?" I said. "What is all this stuff in here?"

She let her eyes take in the room and then looked straight at me. "My life," she said.

"So what am I doing here?"

Before answering, she walked over, pulled me to the daybed, pushed me down on my back, and stroked my thickening penis. Then she said, "I want you in it."

She walked back to the camera. I heard it begin to whir, and then a moment later she was astride me.

"Forget the camera," she said as she leaned down and whispered in my ear. The technician was gone, replaced again by the woman who'd come to haunt my life and dreams. In time, I did forget the camera, as its neutral eye recorded my ability to lose sight of all that was important to me.

When I woke hours later I felt drained of whatever decency I had left. Unlike the first night I had spent at Charlotte's apartment, it was I, not she, who was distant. Not that she entirely welcomed my presence, but given my absent manner, she feigned her own brand of being solicitous.

"Coffee?" she said. She sat robed on the bed beside me. I vaguely remembered moving to her bedroom just before dawn. Clouds had moved swiftly outside her window.

I sat up in her bed, my back against the headboard. Looking about her room, my eyes lit upon a pair of suitcases that stood in front of her closet door. She took my gaze for a curiosity I did not feel.

"Rome," she said. "I leave for Rome tomorrow afternoon." I didn't have to ask with whom.

"I think I better be going," I said, surprised at the calm in my voice.

She drove me back to my apartment, both of us silent. I rode with my window down, breathing in the warm air of yet another Texas Christmas that failed to deliver the bright chill of winter. It was a failure I felt oddly responsible for as we drove through neighborhoods filled with children playing in shirtsleeves and shorts.

In front of my building, I turned and looked Charlotte square in the face. She didn't say anything, but in her green eyes I saw what for her amounted to an apology. I reached over and lightly touched the bruises on her face. I could feel her skin relax and give in to the touch of my hand.

"Poor Charlotte," I said, laughing bitterly. I got out of the car and looked back down at her puzzled face. "You just don't get it," I said, and walked off.

She really didn't get it. I may have forgotten the camera, but she needn't have worried. I also liked it.

The presents were stacked neatly at the foot of my door. Mine to Agnes, anyway. Not one to be confused by sentiment anymore, she'd kept the ones she bought for me. I opened my door and stepped over the packages. They stayed on the landing for three more weeks, after which the woman who lived in the other upstairs apartment must have figured they were fair game. I can't imagine she liked the books I'd gotten Agnes, but I think I caught a glimpse of the earrings one evening as we passed in the stairwell. I suppose she was more discreet with the scarf and sweater, or maybe they just didn't suit her.

I bought my first bottle, a bottle of Scotch, on New Year's Eve. Not to drink it yet; just to be ready. I was curious to see what would finally drive me to crack the seal. I might as well have decorated it for all the grim cheer it gave me as it sat for weeks on my coffee table, taking my measure.

I knew to whom that film was headed. But, like Charlotte, I really didn't get it either.

I did learn, however, through the month of January, that it's not the drink that will kill you. You're already dead by the time the glass is poured. What goes in your throat is just an attempt to fill the void, maybe bring you back to life. When that first shot hit my stomach (it wasn't January, and it wasn't the bottle on my table), it was the first time in weeks I didn't feel like a ghost.

Upon my return to school after the holidays, I slid into an anonymity which suited my spectral sense of self. I had sense enough to avoid Agnes altogether. With her, in a manner befitting my own private equations, went my Tuesday meetings with Marvin. Knowing his views of Agnes' importance in my life, I figured I'd save him the trouble of yet another lecture.

Charlotte got back from Rome about a week after we returned to school. By the time I saw her car parked again in front of the school, my interest in her had completely ebbed. What quickened my pulse upon seeing her car was knowing, finally, that Bastrop was back.

I spent hours, both at work and back at my apartment, imagining his next move. Half a dozen times a day I'd check my storage closet for another of his cream-colored envelopes. In the late afternoons, while cleaning the empty school, I'd listen for the soft pad of his footsteps in the hall. On more than one occasion, I mistook an acrid smell in a classroom for his cigar.

Through this time, the only person with whom I had any recurring contact was Gloria Martinez. If anyone else could have replaced me in the kitchen, I would have avoided her completely. Her gaze was horribly reminiscent of my abandoned sponsor. In late January, I noticed she'd added another candle to her collection in the kitchen. She caught me staring at it one afternoon after lunch.

"San Judeo," she said, gruffly. "Tu lo conosces?"

St. Jude. Patron saint of hopeless cases. Yeah, I knew of him. I knew who she was lighting him for, too.

By mid-February my patience ran out. I'd waited seven weeks for the priestly axe to fall, a prisoner in the dungeon-like halls of the school. Both Bastrop and Charlotte had disappeared. Bastrop entirely and Charlotte almost so, save for an occasional visit to her office. For the most part, her door was locked to her lost children, many of whom I'd see wandering singly in the halls or on the edges of play in the field behind the school. I wondered how a woman with her touch could abandon them so completely. As for Bastrop, I wondered how he could delay the pleasure of finishing me off.

It was Valentine's Day when I finally walked down the street to the rectory. I had hoped to interfere with any plans he had with Charlotte, but to my surprise I found him in his study, dressed casually and, to all appearances, in for the night. He acknowledged my presence in the door with a quick dismissive glance and returned to the book he was reading. I realized then how I'd come to rely upon his unctuous manner as a prop for my own disdain of him. His silence completely baffled me. I felt myself close, very close, to my first drink in years.

"You've seen it, then," I said into the room's stillness.

He spared me the oblique reply. "Oh, yes, I've seen it, Mac. But, then, I've seen many of Charlotte's films. Yours was, well, rather pedestrian, don't you think?"

I'd walked into another of his knockout punches, my knees buckling, though I still had a bit left in me before the fall. "I wouldn't know," I said. "I haven't had the pleasure."

"Oh, I'm sure that can be arranged." His manner was still bored, betraying no delight in my evident discomfort. Was my demise that uninteresting?

"You said many."

He looked at me with mild irritation. "Mac, let's not dissemble here. You and I both know Charlotte is not one to approach something out of idle amateur curiosity. So, please spare me your feigned surprise."

"So how many films of you, then?" I was shocked to find that, behind my question, was a certainty that this was a line even Bastrop would never cross. To my relief, his answer was quick.

"None, I assure you, but not for reasons you might think." At this, he walked to his desk, opened a drawer and handed me a manila envelope.

I pulled out half a dozen 8x10 black and white close-ups of a man whose face was buried behind Charlotte's head as he lay naked atop her. I didn't need to see the man's face to know it was Bastrop. The width and the shape of his diminutive back was unmistakable. It took me a few minutes, though, to see what he really wanted me to see, something no amount of physical intimacy with Charlotte could have shown me. It took the relative objectivity of a profile shot for me to see something horrifying in the line of her face.

It was my recognition of that horror that finally brought a smile to his lips as he said, "You see, Mac, I detest home movies."

I'm not sure if he handed me the first glass of sherry, or if I poured it myself.

I cracked the seal of my own bottle later that evening, wasting it on myself. After my years of sobriety, I'd forgotten that a drunk doesn't drink for taste, so the point of a good Scotch was entirely lost on me. When I got down to the business of drinking in earnest, I came to my senses and switched to my usual rotgut gin. It filled the void quite nicely and was a hell of a lot cheaper.

All through the ensuing weeks, I figured I was headed for my final showdown with Bastrop, but that just showed another thing I'd forgotten. The priest much preferred to have someone else do his dirty work. How delightful it must have been for him to have Agnes as his accomplice in the minor venture of my demise.

She finally caught up with me in late March. I'd thought the school was empty and was dozing off in a classroom on the second floor. In those days, I'd come to prefer working in the late afternoons and evening. It gave me the freedom to clean and drink at my own pace. On plenty of occasions, I'd stayed until midnight before locking up and going home. A work schedule like that invariably required one or two naps, so by the time Agnes found me, they were a habit I'd come to see as just part of the routine. Besides, when you're at the bottom of a fuzzy well of drink, you could give a damn what sleeping on the job looks like to your boss, or even to the best friend you'd ever had.

I don't know how long she'd been standing in the door before I came to. I'm sure she didn't touch me to wake me. I think I just sensed her presence in whatever dream I was having at the time and then slipped from one state to the other, an easy crossover when a fifth of gin is your crossing guard. If indeed a drunk ever really crosses over.

She kept it simple. "I guess we're pretty much near the end," she said, and walked off. Her tone was matter-of-fact, just what I'd expect from the woman who'd delivered her prediction to me on that first day in the school office. Strange, even down in my booze, I missed the sound of my name on her voice, though I was grateful she'd not reverted to the formality of Mr. Bollinger. Not seeing her for three months kept me safely in the illusion that it didn't matter, but one terse sentence from her left me with a pain in my heart and not enough gin for the rest of my shift.

In the end, I went ahead and did the dirty work for Bastrop and Agnes both. In April I just stopped going to work altogether. My last check, signed with unmistakable flourish by Bastrop himself, came in the mail a week after my disappearance. Attached was a brief note, in Agnes' handwriting, requesting that I pick up anything I might have left during regular school hours. I could return my keys then or simply drop them in the mail. Again, no mention of my name, an omission I took to be the only evidence of what I had meant to Agnes Fisher.

I didn't return my keys, at least not right away. Instead, I returned to one of those things I do best: prowling. For a week or so, I crawled out of bed about nine o'clock and walked through the sticky warm night air over to the school. Whatever recovering drunk Agnes had hired to replace me was a lot more efficient than I ever was, so I had the halls and classrooms to myself. I think I was looking for what I might have left behind, though I knew it was nothing tangible. It wasn't in Charlotte's office, the first place I checked. It wasn't in the kitchen either, though I got spooked by Gloria's candles casting flickering shadows around the tiled and stainless steel room. I had a strong feeling that what I'd left was behind Agnes' door, but that was the one place I'd never had a key for.

The last night of my prowling I thought I saw a ghost. Daltry's ghost, in fact. I came down the stairwell to the first floor of the Dupont Street wing and saw a tall black figure standing with its back to me.

"Daltry?" I whispered, my heart beating as fast as the gin would let it.

The figure turned and a man, probably in his early sixties, faced me. He was about Daltry's height, and his black hair was cut short like Daltry's just before her death. The gaze he fixed me with was like the ones Daltry had turned on me in her kitchen. I could see one of the reasons Agnes had hired him to replace me.

"Working late?" I said, trying to act casual.

"Do I know you?" said the man. I wondered, had it disappointed Agnes that this was clearly a man who had never known drink? It was a feeling, a hunch, that Marvin would never have trusted, but I knew.

"Lipscomb," I said, faltering. "My classroom's on the second floor. I forgot something."

"I know Lipscomb. He's in the B-Wing." He continued to look at me calmly, forcefully. "But, I believe I know you, too," he said, finally. He reached out with his hand open. "I'll take those keys now, Mr. Bollinger."

I didn't argue. Mainly because, all evidence to the contrary, I still thought I was talking to Daltry's ghost, and she was one person I never could argue with. I set the keys in his large hand, stole another glance into his dark eyes, and walked off.

"None of my business," he said to my back, "but you sure broke that poor girl's heart."

I didn't argue with that either.



Anonymous Teresa said...

Wow oh wow oh wow! This just gets better and better (or worser and worser or tenser and tenser...) You done way better than good, Bro Murat.

11:08 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Teresa: Plenty of worser where that came from.

5:30 AM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

he is so broken.

8:32 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Ms Dee: Still breathing: barely, but still...

9:15 PM  
Blogger Americanising Desi said...


Shame on me

2:14 AM  
Anonymous quin browne said...

i can quote a number of excellent lines contained in your work... i can wax on about the beauty of plot, and the way i am involved in this story... i can do all of those things, and still not touch what a delight this is to read.

1:11 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

qb: Good to see you this fine fall day down here in CenTex. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and thank you for your fine words.

2:34 PM  

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