The Hidden Jesus
The electrician did not want to speak. He stared at the ceiling and scratched his muscled forearm, on which was tattooed the name Sarah, with a circle/bar over it. He was here to avoid jail time and that was it. He preferred to keep his yap shut.
That wasn’t good enough. That wasn’t part of the plan. He had to speak. They made him do it. They said, Tell us about your life. Tell us how it feels. Shegog, the Pain & Suffering Workshop leader, said they could wait. We can wait as long as it takes, he added. Redemption is in no hurry.
In this box of silence, Sanchez stared at his shiny black wingtips, new and loose, like the borrowed shoes of a dead cop. He heard coughs. A defrocked priest with a sweet potato nose and eyes like pools of sadness slowly ripped a white paper napkin into smaller and smaller pieces. Hull, the security guard, watched him do this. He wanted to grab the priest’s hands and make him stop, but he didn’t. The Pain & Suffering Workshop was all about learning to do what did not come natural. Hull imagined the napkin shreds projected into smaller and smaller divisions, like a reflection of mirrors facing mirrors, seeing yourself in ever-shrinking reflections down to the size of an eyelash morphing to a tiny peacock tail.
When the electrician cracked (as they all did eventually, it was only a matter of time), his chin trembled. All looked away. It was ugly business, this giving in. The electrician said his name was Sanchez and that he was an alcoholic, a drug addict, a sexaholic. Crystal meth, adultery, insurance fraud. You name it, he said. I done it. I’m a louse. I once stole from a March of Dimes box, for Chrissakes.
Shegog closed his eyes and nodded. Go on, he said. You are on the path to light.
Sanchez sighed and rubbed his watery eyes. I did some bad things. I threatened my wife with an extension cord because she refused to do me anymore. So I shouted at her I said, You don’t want me to touch you anymore, how about this? So I looked around and the first thing I could find was an extension cord and I yanked it out the wall and dragged her by her arm and tried to whip her with it.
He paused and shook his head. He went on: She grabbed the refrigerator door and squirmed away, and I started to feel bad. I just couldn’t do it. The look on her face, Jesus. I kept pulling on her and finally she let go and I dropped the extension cord. I twisted her wrist a little, but I really didn’t hurt her bad. Still she never forgave me for that. No sirree. You bet I heard about that, and will hear about the rest of my goddman fucking life. Welcome to Disneyland.
The others in the room stared at their feet. They sat in a conference room in a Christian rehabilitation center. Out the window, in the distance, loomed a snow-capped peak. Everyone called it Sorry Mountain.
Get it out, said the defrocked priest.
Jewel, the travel agent with the rough voice of a screamer, scowled. Oh, right, she said. Thanks for sharing. If you ask me, this creep ought to be shot, is what he ought to be.
Shegog frowned. Nobody is shooting anyone. That isn’t helpful.
No, you’re right, said Jewel. Not shot. I’m sorry. That’s too good for him, she hissed. Maybe ground up slowly on a meat grinder. Like, one hand at a time.
Now now, said Shegog. As head counselor, he’d already admitted he had once been a drunk and a heel himself. We’re in the comfort zone right now, aren’t we? This is where we share. This is where we listen.
Fine and dandy, said Jewel. I listen. I heard. I just happen to think shit for brains here, Sanchez, doesn’t deserve to live. That’s just my opinion, right? It’s a free country. Last time I checked.
We all deserve to live, said the priest.
Ha ha. Very funny.
Let her speak, said Sanchez. I can take it. No rules, no boundaries, right? And that means no secrets. If she thinks it but doesn’t say it, then it’s a secret. I know all about secrets, he said. Believe me. I used to screw my sister-in-law whenever she came to babysit Esteban. Karen would be away working the night shift and I’d do Sheila in my in-laws’ RV parked in the driveway. We’d pull the curtains shut and fuck like there was no tomorrow. I can sit here and feel guilty about it all I want, sure, but tell the truth? I loved it. It was different and, man, I needed that.
If being bad didn’t have its special moments, we’d all be good, right? He grinned. First we’d put Esteban to bed and if he was too wound up we’d fill his bottle with beer. After he passed out we’d go at it. Sheila liked me to hold her wrists down tight like I was a cat burglar or something and I’d just caught her by surprise, my pockets full of fucking pearl necklaces. Now well go figure I’m divorced and don’t even have visitation rights to see my son. Sheila and Karen? They still talk. They’ve gotten over it. Me? I’m the bad guy. So that’s my story.
You people are disgusting, said Jewel. I should have booked a trip to Mazatlan and got shit-faced on margaritas.
Outside the sun burned upbeat and optimistic. Beyond the claustrophobic interrogation rooms of the rehab center sparkled snow-dusted peaks of the Rocky Mountains like pop-up ads for scenic beauty. From the back of the recreation center a path led to an abandoned ski resort. The air there smelled forgotten and innocent. With the climate change of the last few years there had been a snow drought, and not enough fell to keep the ski resort in powder. The slopes were grassy and wide. The ski lift T-bars swung gently in the wind.
The Christian management who now ran the abandoned ski resort often referred to the former skiers as sinners and profligates who enjoyed the self-indulgent past-time of sliding downhill on wooden planks only second to sodomy or child molesting, and preferred, if they could get it, all in the same alcohol-fueled weekend sprees.
During the afternoon break Sanchez killed time, trimming his toenails. The conference center was adorned with crucifixes and lilies, which made Sanchez feel guilty just thinking the thoughts in his head, the thoughts that came naturally and without his bidding. His brain seemed a satellite television system over which he had no control, no remote, no nothing.
He lay in his rehab dorm room beneath a small painting of the infinitely gentle, master-of-suffering Jesus H. Christ, and remembered the hot tidal surge of want that swept him toward his sister-in-law. She had a sense of vulnerability and readiness, an aura of Do Me Now. Like, if he caught her in the basement, as he did, as he had more than once, folding clothes on the wooden table beside the dryer. If he caught her there and came up behind her and kissed her neck softly and with feeling, no matter how important it was that Christ died for our sins, she would whimper and squirm and never would she resist. She would simply lean over the wooden table and knock the box of laundry detergent to the floor. Tide it was, and tied she would be, her wrists bound with a terrycloth belt pulled from a robe clean and fresh from the dryer. He would lift her skirt and she would never say no. She would only say Hurry. Hurry, she would say: Someone might come down, she would whisper. I don’t want them to see us like this.
Why not? he wanted to ask. Why can’t they see us as we are? Not as we pretend to be? Because we are base. Because we are damned. Because we are not. What we pretend to be. We are lesser beings in our unguarded moments. Only a veneer of responsibility and respectability keeps us from degradation and disappointment, an image of the true hunger and seething that unfolds in constant heartbeat time in all of us.
Beneath the idealized and infinitely gentle portrait of Jesus he imagines his sister-in-law bent upon the table as if suffering him to enter her were a form of prayer. Sanchez remembered kneeling in the pews of St. Matthews cathedral, where he had taken communion, mouth open, tongue awaiting the body of Christ, where he had said his prayers in penitence for years before discarding this life of a Hebrew folk hero as so much well-intentioned hooey.
She, his succubus, his fallen angel, la hermana política, clutched the sides of the wooden table and whispered but not in pain or retribution or condemnation. She whispered in secret thrill and conspiracy for him to do what he wanted, what she wanted, what a man should want, what a woman should want. What both should never admit or give in to but they did.
They could not help themselves.
He finished with a shudder and, panting still, his head dizzy with the gush and heat of feeling, he zipped his pants and composed himself beneath the portrait of Christ. An ideal he could never reach, a life he could not, would not want to ape or emulate. He had no patterns to fit, no molds into which to squeeze his forms. He had only sins to want and after tasting to be punished for. Still the portrait of Christ hung above him and would to the end of his days and suffer he would in its shadow of piety.
Hull the security guard walked with Jewel the travel agent through an old West cemetery at the foot of Sorry Mountain, in the golden fields of a forgotten prairie, past tumbleweeds clumped against the barbed-wire fence. He did his best to separate himself from the other buffaloes in the rehab ranch herd.
I mean, sure, I did some bad things. I was a cop for a while, and sure, not all of my evidence reached the courtroom, you know what I’m saying? I might have snagged some party supplies here and there, sure. But Jesus, I never did my sister-in-law.
Score one for you, said Jewel.
I’ve never even hit a woman. If I saw someone hit a woman, I swear, I’d kill him.
Okay, now. Don’t get carried away.
They stopped before a bleached wood tombstone: Cyrus Hand, 1863-1888.
Jewel nodded. A man of few words. I bet he slapped around a few saloon gals.
He’s dead now, said Hull.
Your turn is next, said Jewel.
Oh. That’s good. Or not.
Now we get to hear.
What it is. You know. Your secret.
Hull shrugged. The usual.
I doubt that.
Seated at the center of the circle of sharing, Shegog looked shabby biblical, a discount liquor store prophet. His legs were painfully thin, and crossed awkwardly, as feeble as the arms of an old man embittered with failure and recrimination. His beard wizened and scraggly, his eyes blue-shadowed and droopy, both testified to the harsh life of a booze hound. Sharing the same room with him was like visiting a dead relative momentarily retrieved by the mumbo jumbo of a medium, one who had not expected company, his living room in the afterlife musty and cluttered. The jagged furrows in his grayish, gaunt face repulsed and fascinated Jewel, who wondered if the man had ever been foolish in love.
Following the line of his gaze up her skirt and between her legs, she squeezed her thighs tighter, then draped her sweater over them, like a drop cloth over a work of art. Pulling at his Egyptian desert beard, Shegog looked saddened and defeated toward the now hidden gems of Jewel.
The world is not done, he said. Ask yourself, do people change? Does anything ever change? Does it seem that we are doomed to repeat our errors? I shall give you an answer. The world is not done. The world is not over. Every moment of motion is a moment of change. Yes, the patterns are established. The patterns are in place. They are not fixed. We step outside the boundaries. We create new ones. There is room for redemption as well as for sin and chaos. Speak not only with your tongues but with your bones and fingers. Sanchez here shamed himself by pulling down the pants of his sister-in-law and thrusting himself inside her, his weak and gasping child mewling and hungry in the corner.
Shegog continued, his voice a beaten, swayback horse of god: Angry at his wife for scolding his sorrowful drunkenness, Sanchez berated his wife’s father for raising such a worthless woman and shouted he’d see them all in Hell before he spent another night in that house.
Shegog’s voice then dropped into a coarser and deeper growl. Before leaving he violated his hapless sister-in-law on the pool table of his game room.
Now wait a minute, said Sanchez. It was not actually on the pool table. Give me some credit. We were on the couch, for Chrissakes.
What the other rehab people did not know:
His sister-in-law was not a beautiful or funny or intelligent or glamorous woman. What made her remarkable was that she would feel for you, she could feel for a person. If you had a bad day and she asked you How is everything? and you told her, as Sanchez had, many times, My life sucks, she wouldn’t just ignore it. She wouldn’t tell you to get over it. She would ask Why? She would want you to tell her about it. She wouldn’t laugh at you and tell you how pathetic you were, that you’d been going downhill for a long time but now you’d reach bottom, or if not bottom you were close to it.
She would never say that.
Instead she would hold you in her arms as if you were a child, as if you were a baby, and in her arms you would weep and in that weeping you would be cleansed. The first time she had held Sanchez in her arms he had been surprised. He’d told her how he’d been late to work and how it wasn’t his fault, how the traffic had been backed up on the freeway, this head-on collision with people killed and everything, the jaws of life prying car doors open to remove the bloody, mangled bodies of a woman and her daughter. But his boss didn’t buy it. He said, Sanchez? You know what you’re problem is?
Sanchez hated that. When your boss asked if you knew what your problem was? It was never good news. It never meant you were getting a raise or a day off or a bonus. It meant you were getting fucked, is what it meant. So when his boss asked him that, he said nada. He just stared. His face didn’t move: Point a gun at me. Between my eyes. I will not flinch.
The problem with you, Sanchez, is that you’re what I’d call a sorry person. You’re always telling me how sorry you are. I’m sorry for this and I’m sorry for that. While, personally, I don’t give a shit. After a while I don’t hear it. You’re just sorry. I look at you and I think, That’s one sorry son of a bitch. Sanchez’s boss then shook his head and turned away. Get the fuck outta here, he said. Take your sorry ass somewhere else. Somewhere I don’t have to look at you.
When Sanchez told his sister-in-law this, she said, Oh, that’s not true. The next thing she held him close. Her body was warm and soft. Into her he melted. Through her he burned.
Don’t hide from the light, said Shegog. His hoarse voice sounded like Moses through the PA system of a hamburger hut. Shine the light on the darkness of your soul and it shall be bleached.
Yeah, well. I’m all for light and darkness, but—
Shegog held up his hand for Sanchez to be silent. He sighed. He spoke directly to the soul of each person seated in the circle. We must reach the bottom before we can look up. Above is redemption and the resurrection. For the penitent, there is money and forgiveness.
All right then, said Sanchez. Amen. Ain’t nothing else to do but admit the truth and move on. Life ain’t over yet.
Did he say money and forgiveness? asked Jewel. She leaned toward Hull, whispering. Did I hear right?
Which brings us to Mr. Hull. I believe it’s your turn to speak. Tell us why you’re here.
Hull sighed and cracked his knuckles. He looked at the carpeted floor in front of him, scorched black here and there with fallen cigarette burns, as if he were about to read his sins from a floor-mounted teleprompter. Well my name is Hull and I guess you would say I’m an alcoholic. I never thought of myself that way but you know to tell the truth I never thought too much one way or the other. Nobody’s perfect, right? But because all of my DUIs and all I lost my job and now they tell me if I do some time here in rehab I won’t lose my license which is why I’m here so here I am. He shrugged. I mean, I’m not Charlie Manson if that’s what you’re thinking. Then again I’m no boy scout.
You lost your job, said Shegog. You were an officer of the law and you brought shame upon your brothers in uniform.
I guess. Two sides to every story, though. I didn’t do half of what they say I did.
You pulled over a teenage girl for speeding and had sex with her in your patrol car in exchange for ripping up the ticket.
Hull folded his arms across his chest. He wouldn’t look up. That’s her story, he said.
Shegog stroked his wiry beard. His heavy eyelids closed and he continued without the need for sight. You fathered an illegitimate child in the back seat of your patrol car, while her wrists were handcuffed.
That was her idea, not mine. In the hearing the lawyer called her consenting but truth is it was she who lassooed me. I was just dumb enough to fall for it is what the truth is. That girl had an imagination and then some.
Shegog softened. So none of this is your fault? Is that what you claim?
I claim nothing. I did wrong. I know that. Hull lifted his chin and looked at the others: Shegog, Sanchez, Jewel, Father X. You know what started it all? I lied about my age. That’s what I think started it all. When I was thirty-two I decided to tell everyone I was twenty-seven. This was after my first wife died and I met all new people. No one from my old life was around. So I changed some details.
You didn’t like who you had become.
Do you? asked Hull. Do you like yourself?
You don’t have to like, said Jewel. Maybe just accept.
Who gives a shit? asked Sanchez. After all is said and done, isn’t it just all blah blah fucking blah?
Shegog uncrossed his wino legs and fished a Camel from his front pocket. What say we take five. Look at the time. Lunch snuck up on us like beer goggles, didn’t it? I understand today there is fried chicken and cole slaw. He grinned. Like mama used to make.
Hot damn, said Sanchez.
My sentiments exactly, said Shegog. We’ll get back to this later and take another stab at the throat of our nature.
Hull followed Jewel to the cemetery at the bottom of the hill, carrying their lunch in a brown paper bag spotted dark with oil from the fried chicken. They headed toward the cemetery for the comfort of ghosts. For the understated wisdom of epitaphs. Both Hull and Jewel disliked people, especially when they gathered around you, fallen and fly-buzzed, as they gossiped and croaked, as they picked at your bones.
The smell of the chicken seeped from the bag and followed them through the pines and aspens like an invisible dog. It reminded Hull of his childhood and how all those years ago he had been poor and happy and surrounded by his mother and eight other brothers and sisters. Now his mother and two of his siblings were dead and the rest of them so far away and out of touch they might as well be. He realized three of his sisters he would probably never see alive again. What was the point? Surrounded by these stones, by these gray tombstones on a windy prairie hill, he knew it was foolish to expect ultimate meaning. This gut feeling of pointlessness may be honest but didn’t make it any easier.
Sitting on the log bench beside Jewel, Hull was chilled by the fall wind. He watched the yellow aspen leaves clatter against the tombstones. Hull lifted his head and tried to give Jewel a smile. He had reached a point in his life when a melancholy nostalgia was as constant as the graying hairs in his scalp. It now seemed that all his life—all memories and visions of his past, his successes and failures, his loves and heartbreaks—were at the tip of his tongue. And this accumulation of past weighed on him like a reversed iceberg, with his visible self just the white and icy tip, and the dark submerged aqua weight of his past suspended above him in a cloud as big as the Atlantic.
Jewel was speaking and he had not heard.
Earth to Hull, come in, Hull.
I’m sorry, he said. I’m here. He shook his head. I’m drifting.
I know the feeling, said Jewel.
As part of the cleansing process at Sorry Mountain, the penitents were required to drink a great amount of water. Ten eight-ounce glasses a day, minimum. The Water Treatment it was called, and second in importance only to confession and submission to the will of a moody God. Their bladders swelled and they left the Circle of Sharing frequently to relieve themselves, the path of purity smelling distinctly of urine.
Like Hull, Jewel acknowledged the only reason her train stopped at Sorry Mountain was to avoid jail time. Plus to clean up her act.
I’m no different than anyone else, she said. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of. I’m no angel.
That’s where you’re wrong, said Shegog. He insisted there was an angel inside of Jewel, waiting to be released. Think of it as The Hidden Jesus. There is a Jesus hidden inside all of us. Merciful and just, forgiving and kind. A man we would like to be, a man glowing with love and glory.
I’ve had many men inside of me, said Jewel. Some of them glowed, too. But I didn’t want to be any of them.
Sanchez laughed, the defrocked priest grinned. Only Shegog scowled. The men you have touched called to you in voices of despair and self-loathing, the ventriloquists of lust.
And I returned the call, said Jewel. I star sixty-nined it. Her voice was faint and penitent. She told how she had seduced her psychology professor in his office, years before, in her graduate studies at college.
We did it on his desk, she said. I wore this bluejean skirt. I could tell he liked it. Then he started acting funny and said something about how he needed to save his marriage. He dumped me for his wife. She looked up at the group and smiled bitterly. So I got him back. I told the administration what we’d done, how he’d said it would help my grade. He never said that. I added that. I thought of it as extra credit. He had all these rules about how you could get extra credit in his class. So I made up my own, and claimed it came from him.
I got him fired and shamed and I was glad of it, too. He had me, so I had him. After he was finished, I felt good. I really did. We were even. Now, I don’t know.
The ex-priest coughed. He’d already told about having sex with altar boys, so he wasn’t about to point the finger.
Well now, said Sanchez. We’re not exactly little Miss Perfect, are we? And you thought I was disgusting.
You are, said Jewel.
Oh, right. All I know is I didn’t ruin anyone’s life.
What about that sister-in-law? hissed Jewel.
Sanchez shrugged. She doing just fine.
In the cemetery, Hull and Jewel poked among the golden prairie grass and the tombstones gray and iconic. They stood before a small stone cross. Inscribed in worn and faded letters was the legend: Dalva Hasselbeck, August 4 1881-September 21 1883. Bless this lamb, Now in the Lord’s loving arms.
Jewel had been crying. Her nose was pink and her long eyelashes matted. I was never the lamb of the Lord, she said. I’ve been a bad girl since I can remember. I mean, I used to imagine what it would be like to have sex with the Tooth Fairy.
I’ve lied about my age all my life, said Hull. That part about changing my age being the turning point in my life? That’s bullshit. For one thing, my name isn’t Hull. I never liked my real name so after high school I came up with something better.
What’s your real name?
I don’t blame you. But still. I don’t get it.
Why are you here? You changed your name. You lied about your age. You lost your job. Big deal. You don’t belong here. I’m a bigger fake than you are. You want to know the truth? Even my breasts aren’t real, said Jewel. She rubbed tears from her face. They’re as fake as the rest of me.
I have my reasons, said Hull. You don’t know—
You’re a fake too, is what I think. You just came here to soak up some pity. That’s what I think.
Jewel waited for a reply. She watched a redtailed hawk kite and soar over the prairie. She read the name on tombstones bedecked with American flags and plastic flowers. Anna, Wife of J.T. Skinner. Born June 20, 1831. Died September 9, 1881. Mother is not dead but sleepeth/We will meet again.
When she turned to look for Hull, he was on the other side of the cemetery, his inscrutable face glowing with a halo of golden sunset light.
The trouble with Hull was that he didn’t believe in redemption.
He didn’t believe he would ever truly change or that life would ever be essentially different. He walked between the rows of tombstones and took great care not to trod upon the graves. The names were of English or German ancestry, and he reasoned that for many of those people, those lives, this was their only record. John Sutherland, 1848-1883. Faded epitaph on a limestone tablet. Eliza Hamilton, 1888. Died 3 months, 16 days. Blessed child, lie down my lamb, take unto thee this sleep.
Is that all? What record will I leave? he wondered. A life of bitterness and resentment, a life of compulsive longing and surrender to the rut? What virtues will they remember me for? My family? My wife? Years after my death and disappearance from this world, will I be mentioned or honored? He paused before a guitar-shaped monument, at the foot of which lay a garland of plastic flowers, and he realized the gaping mouth of emptiness and unimportance opening wide its chapped lips to swallow him.
In the Pain & Suffering Workshop, Shegog announced that today perhaps it would be best to refocus their efforts of absolution. Sanchez had admitted to his depravity and Jewel had detailed her life as a vengeful temptress. The sins of all the others, including the apostasy of the defrocked priest, had been lanced like a suppurating wound and exposed to the curative oxygen of public scrutiny.
We must not have any private behavior, said Shegog. If all that we do and think is known, we will be cleansed.
Only one man remains who has not been set free, said Shegog. As his hoarse voice weakened to a whisper, all were silent and squeamish. Only one man, he added, has refused to see the light of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hull cringed as if he were the honoree of a celebrity roast. His task to grin and bear it. We were having an argument about one of my old girlfriends, he said. It all seems so stupid now. For some reason, Dianne was jealous of her. This was a few years ago, with Dianne, my first wife. We were drinking too much back then and it seems everything would be fine one moment and the next, I’d say something wrong and she’d say something wrong and it would set us off and we’d be at each other’s throats. For hours. So we were on this camping trip in the mountains, kind of trying to dry out, I guess. Clean out our pipes. Breathe some fresh air.
I said Let’s hike up to the waterfalls and have a picnic lunch. It was a beautiful day and everything was going great. The sky was so blue it hurt to look up. Plus we saw moose. Dianne was so excited. She had never seen a moose.
I don’t know why it turned out so badly. It just did. I’m sure it’s all my fault at some Freudian, subconscious level, but, really, I didn’t mean to hurt Dianne. It was an accident.
There are those who believe there are no accidents, said Shegog. That what we do and what happens to us occurs for a reason. The will of God.
That’s bullshit, said Sanchez. The other night I hit a deer when I was driving home from work. And I don’t care what you say, it was an accident. Plain and simple.
We are always under the watchful gaze of the Lord, said Shegog.
Right, said Sanchez. The way of the Lord are mysterious, blah blah blah frickin’ blah.
Let the man tell his story, said Jewel.
I don’t know what got us started on it, but somehow I told Dianne I thought she needed to wear a skirt now and then. A nice dress, I said. You’d look good in it. She always wore jeans and I told her I didn’t like her looking like a goddamn teenage boy all the time.
That set her off. She said I was sick and perverted. That my wanting her to wear a skirt was just another way to say I wanted to use her. She said it proved what a warped individual I was. She said, Why I ever married you, I don’t really know.
Well, go, then. Get out of here, I shouted. You’re not such a fucking catch yourself, you know that? You know that? Miss High and Mighty.
She stormed off, down the trail beside the waterfall. It was steep and slippery. And at first I just watched her. Then she disappeared into the gully beside the waterfall, in the rainbow haze of its spray, and I couldn’t see her anymore. I started down in a hurry to catch up with her. I rushed across the scree and after a few steps the whole slope started to slide and hiss with falling rocks. They clattered off the cliffs below me, above Dianne, and sent an avalanche of rock into the gully.
The first thing I saw, before I found her, was blood on the cliffs. A big rock cut a gash in her head and when I reached her, she was sitting at the edge of the waterfall, blood streaming down her face and neck. Dianne was wincing and rubbing the sticky wound at the top of her head. I’m not giving it back, she said. It’s mine and you can’t have it. She turned away and began to stumble down the steep trail.
Wait. Let me look at you, I told her.
You can’t have it back, she said, not turning around. Blood streaked down her arm, mixing wet with the spray from the waterfall.
Have what back?
My engagement ring. You gave it to me and it’s mine. What kind of cheap bastard wants his engagement ring back? Just because you don’t love me anymore doesn’t give you a right to take your gifts back.
Then she was screaming at me. Screaming all these things she must have been thinking for a long time, but she had never said before. Over and over again she screamed, YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN A CHEAP BASTARD! Then she got quiet.
I grabbed her arm and she jerked it away. But she did turn and look at me. I had never seen such a look on her face. It was revulsion. It was hatred. She sneezed then, spraying a fine splatter of blood droplets upon the gray stones of the cliff.
I don’t feel so good, she said. She sat down in the trail. Then she grimaced and slumped over and died right in my arms.
Hull was silent. He lifted his face to the others, who had nothing to say. Jewel wept. He turned to Shegog and said, So there you go. Does that make me any cleaner?
Shegog droned something about redemption and forgiveness. Hull paid no attention. He walked out onto the deck to stare at Sorry Mountain and smoke a cigarette. His hands were shaking. He placed them on the deck railing to steady them.
That night the air turned cold and still. They woke to a darkened sunlight as at dusk and the mountains cloaked in a shroud of clouds. Snow fell throughout the day and settled a pall of blue shadows in the rooms of the rehab center. There was a lull in the meetings and all were asked to read inspirational literature and drink as much water as their bodies could possibly stand. The defrocked priest had to be urged and cajoled to get out of bed and when he did so his eyes were bloodshot and remorseful, his steps hesitant and pained. He and Sanchez shared a cabin.
Shegog asked Sanchez to keep an eye on the priest, to try to be encouraging, to find the good man in his heart and urge him to come forward. Sanchez nodded and kept his eyes upon the page of Chicken Soup for the Recovering Soul. As soon as Shegog left the cabin Sanchez placed the book upon his chest and closed his eyes. He was waiting for the afternoon. He had plans. With his eyes closed he listened to the defrocked priest complain of headaches and being unable to breathe, how he could never seem to catch his breath. I don’t think I’m long for this world, he said.
Don’t be so dramatic, said Sanchez, looking into the blackness of his eyelids. It’s the altitude.
The priest began to whisper a litany of prayer and to this mumbled devotion Sanchez fell to sleep. He woke after a while and looked across the room to the still body of the priest, who was turned in his direction, his eyes open.
Sanchez rubbed his face and asked the priest what he was doing, staring at him like that, while he was asleep. Enough already, said Sanchez. You’re creeping me out.
My arm hurts, said the priest.
Sanchez looked at his watch. It was time. He got up and put on his boots, jacket and gloves. I’m going for a walk, he said.
There’s something wrong with me, said the priest. I don’t feel right.
You’ll be okay. Just get some rest and take it easy. Sanchez looked at the priest and his face was frail, bloodless, almost a blue color. He closed his eyes and even his eyelids were wrinkled. What hope for an old timer such as he? What thought of second chance? A sad thing he was. An old man with a head full of sin memories and a chant of prayers to ward off the cold.
Outside the cabin, Sanchez zipped his parka, pulled on his knit cap, and headed down hill, toward the cemetery. The snow squeaked beneath his boots. He passed through the forest of ponderosa pines into which a curtain of powdery snow drifted down like flour from a sifter. He was alone in the woods and heard only the hoots of owls calling to each other high in the branches of the pines.
When he reached the cemetery he headed toward a Subaru parked outside the gates, exhaust coughing out its tailpipe. Behind the steering wheel sat his sister-in-law. After he climbed inside the car they kissed and held each other close, not saying a word. She was crying a little and he told her to stop it. Everything was going to be all right. He was getting better and he’d be out before she could say boo. She wiped away her tears and smiled, her lips trembling. Her hair was bleached blonde and wispy. Sanchez could see she had made herself up for him, could see she wore lipgloss and that her eyes were darkened with mascara and shadow. She said she didn’t know if she could stand it, waiting for him to get out.
Sanchez touched her face, lifted her downcast chin. I’m here now, aren’t I?
She nodded. You’re here.
He smoothed a blonde strand of her hair behind her ear. Do you want to get into the back seat?
I don’t know. Someone might be coming.
To pay their respects.
On a Tuesday? In the snow?
They got out of the car and shut the front doors, then opened the back doors and climbed into the back seat. They kissed for a moment. She tugged down her underthings. She pointed her toes and wriggled free from her shoes, and he worked the panties off her feet. She straddled his lap and then he was inside her. It was so wet and warm he was delirious. He felt as if he were melting. As if he could die a happy man. In this instant. He shivered and trembled and when it was over, he sat panting, jeans about his ankles. Blue shadows tinged the car’s interior, the snow falling heavier, encasing the windows in a white cocoon.
Later he watched her car pull away, exhaust like a tail of smoke, her giving him one final, hopeful wave with her left hand before setting her face, unhappy as it would turn, on the way back to her husband and all things she would be. What they had just done now only a memory she would carry with her. He turned to the path out the back of the cemetery, uphill to the conference center, his rehab Sing Sing.
The pines held a fresh icing of snow and the flakes drifted like something pure and special. In that moment, with the smell of her still upon his hands and his lips, Sanchez felt good. He thought of nothing but the snow and the taste of her still on his lips and felt terrific. Soon he would be in the cabin he shared with the defrocked priest. Soon his life would resume its forlorn and inevitable course.
When Sanchez returned to the cabin he would find the ex-priest fallen upon the floor, his face twisted in a grimace, his forehead propped awkwardly on the floor heater vent, skin scorched purple from the heat. This he did not yet know. He trudged up the hill, thinking of nothing but the sweet, sad touch of this woman he was ill-fated to want, and the loveliness of the snow, and the sound of a horned owl hooting in the branches above.