Following is the third excerpt from my story “The Moping Man.” You’ll have to scroll down to read the other two. The story’s from a collection I’m making into an ebook titled AT A LOSS. Loss and grief and the all too often inability to adequately express grief or to bring it to a sufficient closing are common human problems that are at the heart of this collection. I had intended to bring out the ebook this month, but upon advice I’m waiting until the new year begins. Publishing dates look better early in a year than at its end. At this time the cover’s being designed, and it’ll be distinctive, professional, innovative, and appropriate to the collection.
Monthly Archives: November 2011
Winfred Smith’s sanctuary could have been in any of the rooms within his house, all of them furnished old but each immaculate in its paint of gold or beige and its worn furniture in browns and greens, lots of oak trim and brown carpeting, red and mauve imitation Turkish rugs in the smaller rooms. But it was not the plainness or the cleanliness and age of these household rooms and accoutrements that would have qualified them as a sanctuary, nor was it the absence of anything visually or electronically stimulating — plasma TV computer surroundsound components — much less alive like ferns or peaceplants or potted tulips, or even imitation living things like plastic sunflowers or ivy. No, it was what hung on the walls of each room including the full and half baths and the basement furnace room that would betoken sanctuary, it was the carvings and framed prints, the machinestamped and the handpainted graven images, the icons two and threedimensional of sacrifice and pain and horror, the monstrous.
Like the cells of a brothel or like peepshow booths, each room revealed its dedication to one common theme, a theme manifested and fulfilled room by room but also wafting throughout the house, main floor and basement and tiny second level: not the carnal gratification in the brothel cells but the agonized crucifixion of the SonofGod, Jesus Christ. Alone, bronze ceramic or plastic body on plain sometimes gilded crosses, in carved groupings with Gestas Dysmas and Longinus, Mary Magdalene and Mary Christ’s mother and some other Mary, in paintings and prints some depicting the three victims only and others crowded with mourners soldiers and the rabble, the Sacrificial Lamb holds center stage, often dead, sometimes in the placid stillness of complete shock, indifferent to the twisted and broken bodies that would outlive him by hours or even days on the trees to his left and right, waiting for the lance and sweet death, in each room the image supreme, the waylayer of every eye.
But at this stage of his life only Winfred’s eyes lay upon them. He entertained no one anymore, allowed no one in not even for repairs, he had learned plumbing plastermending electrical work years ago and he had no need of new cabinetry or larger closets or wallremoval. Four years had passed since his last guests, his sister Alex and her husband Daniel, had had the opportunity to gaze upon the lurid and disquieting artwork and to offer their views on both it and him.
My god Win, what’s going on with you Alex asked. Daniel, tall and straight and wearing a fine wool suit, brown with subtle blue pinstripes, given to him by Winfred, simply stared at the halflifesize paintedwood ensemble occupying much of the tenbytwelve room off the kitchen and occasionally, as he walked among the pieces, turned to oversee the disputants.
What do you mean what’s going on with me he responded. Nothing’s going on with me.
Win. she crossed herself. You’re bordering on lunacy.
What do you mean I’m bordering on lunacy.
Win. She whirled, her arm spread as though sweeping the air. Look at this.
Win. I mean, don’t you think you’re overdoing it? I mean, look at all this. These figures. Yuck. Jesus. The pictures on the wall. Every room. Every room. The kitchen the bedrooms all of them.
The john Daniel said.
Win, I haven’t seen you in three years and I come here and this is what I’m confronted with? Win. She approached him gently, grasped his arms just above the elbows. Win, are you all right? Do you think you might need some, some, some professional help? His flat gray eyes fastened on a wart beside her straight eyebrow.
Not at all Alex, I’m fine, he lowered his head, peered above his glasses at her, I go to work every day, six days a week, I open the store and close it, I’m fine Alex. I’m their best salesman, I sell more tuxedoes than anyone in town, more suits than anyone else in the store. I’m fine.
She released his arms walked to a wall studied the unframed poster pinned to it. Fifteenth century. Blood dripping from Christ’s right hand into Dysmas’s grimacing mouth. The thieves’s broken arms and legs, the blood and bones. Ugly little creature dragging the lost thief’s soul away, happy rosy angel embracing Dysmas’s cherubic pink reborn spirit. She shuddered, turned to Winfred. This isn’t healthy Win.
What do you mean.
Win, this is sick. Sick. She approached him, stopped, drew back. He widened his eyes, tightened his lips drew the corners down, tilted his head to the side, shrugged.
These are all holy pictures Alex. Churchpictures. Altarpieces. The sculptures and ensembles, they’re all holy. Some of them I had blessed by priests. Wait a minute. He rushed from the room, returned before Alex could gesture meaningfully to her husband, he held a thick wooden cross with beveled edges and a heavy wellworn bronze figure of a Christ quite dead, the face frozen in the sum of all pain. This belonged to a bishop Win said. Thousands of people kissed those feet on GoodFriday. Is that sick? What’re you talking about.
Alex’s eyes flitted from Win’s face to the image in his hand back and forth, Win she said, took a deep breath, you don’t even believe in God, what are you talking about. Daniel,blandfaced and dimplechinned, turned and gazed at her. You’re a nonbeliever Win, a nonbeliever and a blasphemer, and you’re sick to have all these things around here.
They all mean something to me Alex. They’re important to me. He looked hard at his sister, gave her one sharp nod, paused and turned toward the room’s lone window, he crossed the room to it with a clenched jaw that suggested this would be her last visit, he looked out one hand in his pocket gripping the bronze and wood of the crucifix at the midSeptember sunlight, the depening shadows. An abundance of apples a dull red tugged on thin branches, soon he’d pick them and carve out the worms and their grubby paths with his small pocketknife and eat whatever clean pulp he could find, his feet bare in the cool lush grass that now was rippling in the afternoon breeze. In that shaggy grass he saw a neighbor’s cat, black with white bib and boots and a white ear that looked painted, it was stationary, poised, and he saw a slight movement two feet ahead, a young chipmunk barely able to hop through the deepgreen morass. The cat seemed nonchalant, it would take three or four steps and halt, look around as if at distant flies, then hurry its pace and stare down the struggling little rodent as though newly discovering it, then swipe at it two or three times. This little drama pointless and inane gradually moved itself stageleft out of Winfred’s view and he gazed at the path left in the grass, the cat’s path, the chipmunk too small to have left much of an indentation.
He turned. He raised his hand and peered at the image of the dead Christ, bronze nails through bony feet one on top of the other, hands gnarled, stringy arms, gaunt face wearing the rvaged mantel of pain.
Win. You’ve got to leave all that shit behind. Don’t you think it’s time to do that Win? It was Daniel speaking and Winfred Smith looked momentarily caught short. His eyes shifted from Daniel to the crucifix he still grasped and he stroked with his thumb Christ’s smooth bony legs.
Somebody’s got to pay. He said this matteroffactly.
What you say?
I said somebody’s got to pay. There was silence for a moment, Alex and Daniel looked at one another, Alex closed her eyes bowed her head and sighed deeply.
Kathleen’s paying Daniel said, she’s been paying for what, twentyfouur, twentyfive years now Win.
It’s not enough. It’s not enough. Winfred’s face changed, solidified, hardened, the lines across his broad high forehead disappeared, his eyes behind his glasses seemed to vitrify. She’ll be getting out of it soon. A year or two then she’ll be out of it.
Alex took a step toward him reached out. A quartercentury in a stateprison isn’t enough? Win, for God’s sake.
Fuck a quartercentury. Michael’s dead forever.
Daniel took a deep breath turned and exhaled only after a few paces, he approached one of the ensemblepieces, a blackhaired blackbearded man with a large hooknose and a rock in a hand drawn up behind his ear and he studied it, his words to his brotherinlaw sufficient sufficient in number and directness to satisfy his obligation to speak. Behind him Alex crossed the room to Winfred, pointed to the figure in his grip. Look at this Win she said, look at your idol here. Didn’t you learn that he paid for our sins? Didn’t that little fact that you learned way back in elementary school mean anything to you? You’ve got the collection here, the reminders all around you. The great sacrifice. Redemption for your sins. My sins. Kathleen’s sins. Kathleen’s sins Win. Remember? He knew twothousand years ago that she would murder her only child and he died for her in advance Win, and she’s been repenting ever since, for a quartercentury now. Twentyfive years.
Not enough. He still peered at her over his glasses, she drew back, swept hair from her forehead. What do you mean Win.
Not enough. His back still toward them Daniel’s sigh filled the room. Head tilted back, eyes closed, mouth pursed. Not enough he repeated. It was all play for him. A production. A grand production. That’s all it was.
Eyes widening and mouth dropping open Alex stepped back. But Win, Win, no greater love . . . God sacrificed his only son . . .
Then his father’s got to pay too God damnit. God damn it. His father’s got to pay too. Killing his son. Winfred inhaled audibly, tensed himself, his neck seemed to inflate. Put him behind bars with Kathleen. Who killed her only son too. With a hammer. With the clawend of a fucking hammer. The clawend. That’s what she finished him with. Winfred said this as though Alex hadn’t known. She grimaced. So put the father in the cell with her and let him beat her over her fucking head with the clawend of a hammer. Redemption ha. Love ha. Fucking forgiveness ha fucking ha.
But Win. Daniel came to her, held her bent elbow.
He didn’t pay at all Alex Winfred said. At least Kathleen’s in prison. where’s he? Sitting around somewhere smirking that he got away with murder. Smiling down on his murdering daughter that he forgave twothousand years ago. And she’s getting out in another year or two. She’s getting out. Fucking cancer.
Daniel tugged at Alex’s elbow, guided her out of the room, out of Winfred’s life. The last time he had anybody in his sanctuary.
What leads one to write a story whose subject matter, content, style, and imagery seem completely foreign to the facts and experiences of one’s daily life? I don’t know. When I sit down to write my fiction a sort of transformation takes place — I’m still me but things flow differently inside somehow and I take control of that flow and direct it but at the same time yield to it and later, rereading the thing, wonder what happened. At any rate, what follows in the second excerpt from “The Moping Man” occurs late in the story, just before the end that connects the back cover to the beginning. A third excerpt will soon follow to show the character’s motivations.
Don’t forget to scroll down to see the first excerpt.
On the night he climbed his ladder up the sycamore, Winfred Smith on his porch took a toothpick in hand, licked its tip, leaned down to inspect closely a reproduction of a fourteenthcentury altarpanel painting, the parakeet chirping behind him. He muttered something vile, shook his head, said aloud None of this can be how can it, this is my fortune which I am condemned to play out. Dressed in a boldstriped tie and whitecuffed shirt, he picked up his glossy sheet of paper and sat back, he rested his elbows on the padded arms of his chair and he opened his mouth, he started to speak and stopped himself and looked almost contented for a moment as he focused on three streams of blood shooting out of a slit in the right side of the dying Christ’s chest, each jetting stream terminating in elongated drops that followed the nearly vertical shaft of a spear whose entire head was hidden in the chest cavity, down to the bearded man Longinus holding it. There were streams and drops everywhere his eyes roamed, copious flows down the narrow bony feet one nailed to the other and down the long toes that curled over the footrest like spigots. Blood dripped from the right hand above the open mouth of the good thief Dysmas’s head hanging back over the patibulum of his cross and over the spearplunger’s head and the heads of the various Marys, it sprinkled more sparsely out of his left hand and it poured from the sliced and broken arms and legs of the two crucified thieves , there was blood enough to satisfy the lust of any S-Maddicted moviegoer, even the long garment around Christ’s loins and thighs hanging torn and tattered resembled tumbling blood though dirty white, but that’s not what straightened Winfred up and drew him forward to the table upon which
he set down the picture and removed the toothpick from between his flaccid lips , removed his glasses and lowered his face to within inches away from the image, no, it was an urge, a kind of mental paroxysm turned into a holy mission, he could see it perfectly now, and using the toothpick as a sort of nib he commenced to trace the outline of one of the thieves, the thief on Christ’s right, Dysmas, the one whom the Savior promised heaven. Deliberately as though he were cutting a tiny diamond with an infinitesimal sliver of glass Winfred followed the lines of Dysmas’s jaw thrust skyward, his mouth open and twisted, his right arm hooked forward over the patibulum and pretzellike contorted behind his back and tied there at the wrist to the wrist of his other arm, hooked too over the horizontal post and clearly broken at shoulder and elbow. He followed the lines of the rope and the black elongated holes halfway up the forearms denoting ulnae hacked with hatchet or axe, he traced the blood. And then he paused, gritted his teeth, winced, closed his eyes, his face a double noselength from the paper, and he rocked slowly holding his wince, his arrested perturbation, and then he sneaked open his eyes, still rocking, and he followed the s-shaped body of the broken Dysmas, his chest against the backside of the cross, his back and bound and bloodraw wrists facing Winfred’s halfopen eye, his torso winding around the stipes and his legs, hacked and broken like his arms, twisted around from the front to join his upper limbs at the back and tied to the vertical post but not together, the left leg crossed over the other with its foottop facing Winfred and the right leg, lower, seen from the side but with the footsole at an almost right angle to it and facing Winfred, who resumed his laborious delineation.
When finished with Dysmas he sank back in his chair and gazed at the whole picture again, took it all in, he started, drew himself erect and with his toothpick he exerted short quick backandforth motions over the face of one of the women below the figure of Christ, the grieving woman with the biggest brightest halo, he pantomimed scratching out the face or erasing it, but the tiny instrument barely touched the paper leaving neither mark nor impression. And then he leaned down again and started tracing Gestas.
The unrepentant thief, the one who didn’t suffer his agony lightly, the one who failed to rejoice in his wheelcrunching precrucifixion torture, who wouldn’t earn Paradise because his obstinate and adamant refusal to give in to the soulcleansing efficacy of pain and disfigurement left him in eternal disgrace, this Gestus hung as grotesquely twisted on his cross and bled as profusely as his saved counterpart though his head dangled down and away from Christ, this savior who had condemned him, no blood of the lamb would offer him succor, and Winfred arduously traced the toothpick along his corkscrewed lines, glasses off, nose close to his hand, soft breath barely brushing the thumb and index finger ever so slightly holding that pick. And he drew as though he were creating the image himself out of his own blood and bile.
“The Moping Man” is a story begun a couple of years ago and will be included in my upcoming ebook titled AT A LOSS. It’s a fairly long story of 23 pages. My next post will be another excerpt, a deeper look into Winfred Smith.
Nobody in the neighborhood had anything bad to say about Winfred [Smith] and he knew it, and he figured he had them all pretty well duped, it was apparent by the way he snorted and drew the corners of his mouth tight and shook his head whenever he shut his thick oak door behind him after an evening’s stroll and some brief pleasantry with Marie his nextdoor neighbor, out picking up toys after laying her two little ones to sleep, or with Nathan from two doors down, a history teacher at the local twoyear college, a good conversationalist on any topic save clothing, which was Winfred’s field and had been for thirtyseven years without a stop even for wars. In the mornings and afternoons he didn’t see anyone, the kids gone to school or daycare and the parents working, it seemed that everyone who wasn’t little or in school in that neighborhood worked and so Winfred, who himself was down to two days a week at Morgan and Huntington’s Men’s Store in his slow skid toward retirement, had plenty of time in his house and his garden to mope.
He moped in the mornings when he went into his backyard, raggedy with weeds and mapleseeds and twigs, to hose down his twelve tomato plants and inspect them for the green worms too ugly for even birds to eat and then pick the red fruit and bite into and slurp them like juicy peaches or else take them inside to slice into thick slabs to grace his toast and mayonnaise, and he’d inspect his cucumber plants tied to homemade trellises made of thin bamboo rods and tied at the crossings with simple string, for some reason he liked to run his thumb and forefinger along the cukes’ little spines and he always picked them before the spines were shed so he could rub them off with his naked palms. He grew and nurtured basil and dill too, he prefered dill on his tomatoes, liked to sprinkle it on the runny pulp with each bite, and he grew a dozen thyme plants because with the basil he liked it on all his meats, even lunchmeat, and in the fall he dried and stored it, but he moped all the time he tended to these progeny of his passionless green thumb.
You sure keep a nice garden Mr. Smith his young meteorologist neighbor Judah Malliou would tell him over the cyclone fence between their yards. When Judah wasn’t offering compliments to Winfred the distant sight of his smooth skin and dimples and thinly braided hair curled the older man’s lip like sour milk, but the verbal emollients he customarily offered eased the distate.
Yep it’s a dandy Winfred would typically say, but I’ve been growing this stuff for a lot of years so it should be. You have to water the tomatoes every morning and sprinkle just a tablespoon of the right kind of fertilizer around their roots a couple of times a season, and they never fail to grow to perfection. And you have to spray the basil, especially when it’s young, but the other plants just grow like little kids.
(He’s too cute with his answers Judah Malliou says after supper one evening to D’Andra his wife, the first utterance smacking of chariness about Winfred Smith in the neighborhood as far as either of them know. He’s always got something cute to say. Judah and D’Andra like to wash and dry dinnerware together rather than use their appliance. They take turns washing and drying.
(Like what she says. She turns her head and upper body to the right and peers at Judah from the left corners of her eyes, her brow heavy.
(Like his plants grow just like little kids.
(She lightens up her brow, her eyes widen, her body relaxes. Hey that is cute isn’t it she says. She nods rhythmically, shrugs. And . . . so what’s wrong with cute? She turns playful, places her fists alongside her chin screws up her lips and with her head atilt wiggles her nose, receives a smile for her effort.
(I don’t know he says through his smile, then turns serious. A guy always says cute things but never has a cute look on his face, there’s gotta be something wrong. And he never says anything about his own kids, if he ever had any. I heard he did, but he never says a word about them. Judah turns to gaze at his own two girls playing a board game on the dining room floor.
(So why would you expect a cute look on the face of an old guy like that. She’s serious now too. And why should he have to say anything about his kids. There might be a lot of reasons he doesn’t and it’s none of our business.
(Just the same, he says too many things that are too cute.
(D’Andra tosses the drying towel on the counter, she’s tense now, fastens her dark eyes on Judah’s, nods to herself, tightens her lips. Besides that she says, he’s got to say cute things because, like you said, he sure don’t have a cute face.
(He’s got kind of troubled eyes. You ever notice?
(No, I never did, she leans against the counter, crosses her ankles and her arms, I mean, not just his eyes alone. What I notice is his whole face, the whole thing, eyes and all. The whole thing. And I’m not particularly pleased with what I see.
(What do you see?
(I see soggy ground.
(Soggy ground. You know, ground like sponge cake. You know, you walk on it and you . . . no, you’d probably sink a little and then spring up. Maybe more like taffy. You sink a little into it and then you have a hard time lifting your foot up. And you want to avoid the mouth.
(The mouth. Why the mouth.
(Because his mouth’s like an ugly churning maw.
(He laughs. A maw? Baby, you are all of a sudden a hard woman. What’s happening with you.
(A maw. An ugly churning maw.
(In the taffy?
(No, in the soggy ground.
(He pulls a stool up to the island he had made himself and sits on it. And the eyes?
(The eyes are driedout sauteed mushrooms.
(That’s why I don’t ever talk to him. I don’t want to get close enough to talk to him because I can’t look at his face closeup.
(Yeah I can see. He sees too that her face is very intense. What do you suppose goes through a guy’s mind like that he says.
(Cute things she says, cute little things that he likes to bullshit people with, she whirls around to face the window, the backyard, studies a robin splashing in its concrete bath, turns back and glares at Judah. But I don’t want Djooli’a and Shamika to go over into his yard.)