The Varieties of Erotic Experience
By Paul Reidinger
I have watched through a window a World that is fallen,
The mating and malice of men and beasts,
The corporate greed of quiet vegetation,
And the homesick little obstinate sobs
Of things thrown into being.
I would gladly forget; let us go quickly.
—W.H. Auden, from “The Age of Anxiety”
June felt bad about dying on Sam's mother. This seemed to be the very height of being a bad hostess -- invite the mother of your son’s friend to stay in your home, then drop dead -- and it certainly wasn't part of the understanding that had brought the other woman west so that the two of them could meet at last. The meeting was supposed to be about their sons, Philip and Sam, whose togetherness somehow remained incomplete while the mothers remained unacquainted.
And they finally did meet. They met because June, under sentence of death from the doctors, knew it was now or never and because Caricia turned out to feel much the same way. The bridge had never been burned, just never built.
They got on with each other. They ate breakfast together every morning and shared the newspaper over coffee as January became February and springtime peeked through the overcast. They walked, they napped -- or, June napped as Caricia quietly tidied up, saw to the laundry, emptied the dishwasher, and drew up a grocery list. They spoke of their sons and husbands. Each admitted being relieved about having a son who preferred other sons, and each was somewhat surprised to hear the other say so.
They went to church. This was mainly Caricia’s idea. She led the way and held June’s hand. June’s other hand clutched a cane. They didn’t go to a specific church but to a variety of them. In June’s long previous life as a healthy person, she had been only vaguely aware of churches as buildings she was speeding past on her way to or from important earthly business. Now, in a slow and slowing life, she saw how many there were just a few blocks away from her house.
The pagan city revealed itself as a city of churches, and there were people inside those churches, more than a few. But few of those people were people like her: upper-middle class, educated, and pale. Her kind had long ago abandoned the churches and everything they stood for as medieval and superstitious and somehow embarrassing. Faith was beneath enlightened people, even as cultural theater or a pleasant way to pass the time.
It was not with the greatest of ease that she stepped into these houses of God, even though Caricia stood beside her like a bodyguard and translator and the congregants were kind and were glad to see her. They had never seen her before, but they embraced her in all her strangeness. She smiled back, but she was thinking, Why is your God so angry with me, why is He killing me, why has He planted His terrible flower garden inside my skull?
And here she was, in a house of that very God in Whom she did not believe, hoping for a miracle of redemption and salvation she did not believe was possible. It was all a waste of time, but what else was there to do with time but waste it?
As these services flowed around her, foaming tides of music and poetry and ritual with sunlight slanting down through stained-glass windows, she tried to prepare herself for her meeting with her nonexistent Maker. She did not picture Him as Santa Claus’s foul-tempered older brother. She didn’t picture him as a grumpy old man with a white beard sitting on a throne in the clouds, heavily armed with thunderbolts. Instead she saw him as a trim, debonair fellow in a well-tailored blue suit, fortyish, with dark hair. This God looked a lot like a Hollywood movie producer or -- it occurred to her -- like her son.
He would be sitting at a big disk clear of any clutter and He would show her in, as if He were interviewing her for a job. She would sit, trying not to scratch her ear. Ear-scratching was unseemly. Ear-scratching was for dogs. Did dogs scratch their ears in heaven? Dogs went to heaven, surely. Did people? Was that where she was going? Was all this unpleasantness just His way of testing her?
Maybe she could open up with some light chit-chat. She could comment on the desk. Was it mahogany or English oak, like that one the presidents had used for so long in the Oval Office? She could note how well His suit fit. She might even ask Him how He felt about the gyrations of the old republic. It had been His country, after all. He had shed His grace on it and so on and so forth. Everybody knew the words to that anthem.
Whatever He thought of or planned for her, He should be polite to her. He should set a good example. He might have no intention at all of letting her into Heaven, but He should at least give her the impression that He would judge her life fairly. She had her blemishes, yes. She had her failures and flaws. She had told a lie or two and (mostly) regretted it. She had sometimes taken advantage of people or situations. But she had also carried burdens, discharged obligations, and done her duty.
She had buried a husband and raised a son. She had put her son through college. She might die very soon, but her son would survive. He would go on. He was an adult; she had given him that, at least. At the very least, she hadn’t been so inept and damaging a parent as to thwart his achieving adulthood on his own.
She would give herself a C+ overall, if she were sitting behind the big desk, handing out life's report cards like a teacher on the last day of school under a blazing June sun. She could have done better, but she could have done far worse. Wasn't He all about mercy and love and forgiveness, anyway? That's what she kept hearing every Sunday now. The God of those services was a bit of a soft touch who was ready and even eager to empathize. He forgave and overlooked, although overlooking must be very difficult for someone who could see everything and who knew everything. She felt she wouldn’t be very good at all that, if their positions were reversed and she were sitting behind the big desk. She would be judgmental and a nitpicker. That was the way she was, and she knew herself well enough to know it.
“Please have a seat,” she could hear Him saying. His voice was deep and gentle, rich with a hint of grit, like dark honey mixed with graham-cracker crumbs. He sounded like FM radio. She wondered if He’d been a smoker at some point. Almost everyone she knew had been. Later in life, almost everyone she knew had gotten cancer, even those who’d quit smoking years before. “I’ll be right with you.”
She did as she was told, slipping as gracefully as possible into one of the rather plain chairs in front of the desk. He looked preoccupied, with a furrowed brow, as if He weren’t getting enough rest. Was He pondering clemency for some poor soul on the clock, like a governor in one of the death-penalty states, considering an eleventh-hour appeal?
She waited patiently. Maybe St. Peter would bring in some coffee and doughnuts. Did He like glazed or jimmies? Peter had seemed a little frayed out there at the gates, like an employee who had stalled on the career ladder and was beginning to be resentful. He could have passed for Hea harried concièrge at a busy hotel in a city hosting a trade conference. It was possible to stay in a job too long.
But maybe there was a lull and Peter had been buzzed for some refreshments. There was no telephone on the big desk, but maybe it had one of those hidden switches of the sort bank tellers flipped to summon help during armed robberies. There didn’t even seem to be any walls around the office, though the setting felt quite intimate, just the two of them.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” He said.
“That’s all right,” she said. What else could she say? [_ No rush, I've got eons of time -- really! ] She was not aware of having come through a door, and therefore she had no sense of an escape route -- not that escaping seemed like a particularly good idea anyway. Where could she possibly escape to, and how could He possibly not know about it? She would be surrounded by angels in dark blue suits and mirrored sunglasses, thrown to the floor and cuffed, just like on _Burn Notice.
Luckily, she was quite comfortable in the uncomfortable chair. She didn't have to pee, and her head no longer ached. If He needed a century or two to straighten out some mess -- well, that was fine. She would sit patiently. And if she were indeed bound for Hell, then ... well, no need to be hasty.
“One of those days,” He said, peering up from a manila folder. He looked like someone who was at the edge of needing reading glasses and was torn between realism and vanity. Maybe a pair or two of the cheap ones from Walgreens were stashed in one of the desk drawers.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“It’s been a little nuts around here lately,” He said, sounding almost apologetic.
“I know the feeling,” she said, trying to kindle some sympathy with her interlocutor. She didn’t want to come across as complaining or entitled. It occurred to her that the manila folder He was going through was her folder; also, that the sight of the folder made her nervous. She had a dossier. There was dirt on her. She felt as if she’d found her way onto one of the FBI’s infamous lists.
“You look like my son,” she heard herself blurting out.
“Yes, she said, “yes, that’s him.” For a moment she was surprised that He knew her son’s name. They had never met, so far as she knew. Of course, it was preposterous to be surprised. “He’s gay.”
“Yes,” He said.
“I don’t know why,” she said, not knowing why she’d said it.
“Does it matter?”
“No. Well, I guess it does,” she said. “I’ve always wondered whether it was something I did, or Philip’s father.” She couldn’t bring herself to utter Theo’s name, although she assumed the He knew that, too, even if Theo had ended up down yonder, where he belonged.
“You mean, you wonder if you failed him somehow,” He said, “or if he failed you.”
“I have wondered,” she said, “both of those things. I like Sam a lot,” she added rather desperately, naming Philip’s friend. Already this conversation seemed to be headed in a direction she did not like. Yet she had chosen the direction. It was perverse. She wasn’t going to get this gig. No way. Her mouth had run off on its own like a badly trained dog that had somehow escaped its leash and then made a mess in the middle of the neighbor’s front lawn.
“You must have wondered, too, whether he was made that way. You wonder whether I made him that way,” He said.
“Yes,” she said, trying to sound as un-blaming as possible.
“Does it matter?”
“It does matter.”
She was aware of chewing her lip. This was an unseemly tic. She’d picked up the lip-chewing from Theo, years ago. First she was scratching her ears, and now this. He would think she had fleas or cold sores or both. Theo had been gone forever, but here she was, munching away at herself, just like Theo.
“It just does.”
“You want to assign blame.”
She nodded her head. She might as well concede this point, since, big surprise, He knew the truth already. She didn’t picture heaven as being full of blamers, and she was a blamer, she knew it. But maybe she would get partial credit for trying to be honest about it. She could offer a vow to do better. If He let her in, she would try to stop blaming. And she would stop scratching her ears and chewing her lips. Whatever it took.
“Blame implies that there’s a fault or problem someone needs to be held accountable for. Blame implies that something went wrong, rather than that there was just a variation. Don’t you think?”
Well, excuse me, something had gone wrong: She was dead, and she’d died of unhappiness. Her son was a homosexual, and apparently she was now being told that He’d made him a homosexual. She couldn’t possibly say this to Him, it seemed much too cheeky, but there it was, as plain as day.
“I wish he hadn’t been gay.”
“For his sake or your sake?”
This was an awkward question.
“You don’t have to answer that,” He said. “But it is his life and his destiny. Do you think Philip is loved?”
“You mean, now that I’m … I think he is loved, yes.”
“You believe that he knows what love is.”
Was He asking or telling? She nodded tentatively. She was thinking: No one knows what love is, and what do You mean by believe? That was a tricky word.
He looked at her, and she knew what He was thinking. It was as if she could read His mind instead of the other way around. He was thinking that love had come to Philip in the person of Sam. This wasn’t surprising, really, when you thought about what Sam’s mother was like. She was a loving woman who loved her son for who and what he was. And what was he? He was a human being afloat on the river of time like everyone else; he was heading right for the falls like everybody else. The shape of his raft really didn’t matter. Sam’s mother loved him so much that when his friend’s mother had taken sick, she’d come to help.
He looked at June, and His eyes were asking if she felt that way about her own son. His beautiful eyes -- blue-gray, she thought, though the light played tricks -- were quite different from Philip's, which were hazel, just like her own. She certainly had mixed feelings about Philip, and this complicated the love question. She wanted to say she loved him but didn’t always like him, but that would sound too clever and premeditated.
She didn’t like his ambition. That she could admit to; it was a bit less sweeping. Could she admit that she didn’t like it that he’d found love while she never did? She didn’t like it that he seemed to know what love was while she didn’t. She didn’t like it that he didn’t love her unreservedly, the way children were supposed to love their parents, their mothers in particular?
He made very little effort to conceal this shortcoming. Oh yes, he’d been a good son. He’d been there endlessly when she was ill, helping her out of chairs, bringing toast and brewing tea, looking after the house, watering the garden. But he always managed to imply that he regarded these exertions as his duty and obligation. He honored them for reasons that had little to do with her. He did not seem to care what she thought of him, and this was upsetting. A son ought to care what his mother thought of him. He ought to be swayed by her views. He ought to seek out and accept her guidance.
Perhaps, she thought, she should have been more philosophical about the path he’d taken through life. She shouldn’t have taken it so personally. According to him, it wasn’t a matter in which he’d had any say, yet she’d spent an enormous amount of emotional and psychic treasure in waging an unwinnable war to make him into the son she thought he should be. He was suppoed to be her son. Disapproving of a son’s life was like disapproving of the wind. You might dislike it. You might wish it blew from the south instead of from the north. It might bite your face and knock over your garbage cans in the middle of the night, but it didn’t care what you thought, and you couldn’t change it. It didn’t care if you disapproved, and it wouldn’t have cared even if you had approved. It would have gone on howling and whistling regardless. That was its nature and fate.
Of course, it was human nature to rage against indifferent and untameable forces It was natural to denounce the numbing wind and have the mischievous sea whipped if it rose against one’s navy. It was particularly human nature to rage against indifference if one were full of the sense that life had not unfolded the way it was supposed to. His eyes were calm and kind, yet she saw a lifetime of her own crushed and dented expectations reflected in them.
She saw that her life had been an exercise in thwartedness, and that her toxic feelings about that life had not found adequate expression until they’d turned themselves into lethal cancer. Her unhappiness had organized itself around her son because he was at hand. He was was supposed to be her junior and subordinate. Yet had made choices different from hers. By doing that, he had called her own choices into question. They both had eyes of hazel, but they saw different worlds.
Why had she been so miserable? She wasn’t miserable now, sitting in this office, looking into His blue-grey eyes and seeing a quizzical empathy in them. She was almost happy, even though the interview was going badly. She expected that any moment that He would push one of His little hidden buttons to send her tumbling down a chute to the netherworld.
Unhappiness was a form of pain, and pain was a signal something was wrong. It meant: change your life. She had chosen to express her unhappiness by disapproving of Philip, because that was easier than disapproving of herself. She couldn’t give Philip an illness, but she could become ill herself. She could let her misery fester into depression, and depression became illness: the feeling made flesh.
She could not help disapproving of Philip. It was the way she felt, and why should she be blamed for that? Surely it was unfair to judge someone’s feelings. It was unfair to judge a person by feelings she had. Feelings were not subject to the moral sense. He would understand this. It was a part of His design. He would have to judge her by her actions. How had she treated Philip, how had she behaved toward Philip?
Well, how had she? She had fed and clothed him and put him through school. She had endured his many phases and moods. She had accepted Sam as a permanent reality in his life. She had many times welcomed Sam as a guest into her home -- now their home, since the house had passed on her passing to Philip, and Philip and Sam were a union in the eyes of the law.
Since she liked Sam, she was reconciled about the change of possession. In fact she was happier that Sam was living there than that Philip was. Sam would take better care of the house. He was more considerate and gentle. He was less full of that terrible male drive for power and glory. He was less full of himself. Philip was a conqueror, and nobody loved conquerors. They were impossible. People did fear them and fawn over them, which could produce the illusion of affection.
Sam, she had long felt, had caught a tiger by the tail, yet he had managed not to be devoured or even scratched by the tiger. By some mysterious power, he was protected from the tiger’s fangs and claws. He rarely showed even the slightest exasperation. He was a man locked in a cage with his tiger, calmly reading the newspaper while the big cat paced and prowled, growled and glared. No matter how hungry the big cat grew, it would leave the man alone. The man would speak soothing words, and the tiger would come to be stroked. She wondered what those words could be. It was an impossible scene she had seen with her own eyes many times over the years.
She hoped that He would give her partial credit for her warm feelings toward Sam. She might even say she loved Sam, after a fashion. Certainly she was used to him. She treated him as another son and had even come to think of him that way.
At the same time, she was constantly aware that Sam wasn’t really family. Real family was blood; blood was all. Blood was a brute biological fact. Philip was her son, her blood, and Sam was not. Therefore it did not matter that she was ambivalent about Philip and was fond of Sam. Sam could be many things, but he could never be to her what Philip was, just as Philip could never not be whatever he was to her. He was her son, for better and for worse and forever.
“Do you think Philip and Sam are family?” He asked her.
“I think they think they are.”
He smiled. Would He laugh? He was always so grouchy in the Bible.
“You don’t think that’s possible,” He said. “Family is blood, that’s what you’re thinking, and blood is thicker than water.”
“That is what I’m thinking,” she said. “Is it a sin? Does it make me primitive?”
“No,” He said. “Well, yes. People are primitive. There’s no getting away from it. I do wish they were less tribal. That impulse seems to be a bit overstated. That’s my fault there, I suppose. I eagerly await the day when people aren’t quite so much that way. But I’m not holding my breath.”
The word tribal startled her. Urbane, cosmopolitan, educated ladies were not tribal, yet here He was implying that she was tribal! She stifled a sense of annoyance.
“Families aren’t tribal,” she said.
He laughed. “Of course they are!” He said. “But tribalism isn’t all bad. It esteems loyalty and stability, and these are important values in any civilization. But they’re not the high values. The high values,” He went on, intuiting her question, “are honesty, integrity, independence, and a willingness to do what’s right in the face of disapproval. And so much social disapproval is tribal! Tribes don’t approve of members who go their own way or who opt out of the tribe. Those people are the loneliest, most vulnerable souls of all, and also the bravest. I honor them for their bravery and for showing the way.”
At these words she thought of Philip, as He intended. She might have her doubts about Philip, but there was no doubting his independence of mind, his courage, and his nerve. These qualities had often galled her, but now that He had spoken, she saw them as proof of moral hardiness and an irrepressible sense of self.
It must somehow be to her credit that she’d raised a son with these qualities, even if she’d fought to stamp them out while failing to detect them in herself. In the shadow of His words she saw herself as petty, vain, and insecure. She was too aware of what others said and thought about her. She was too caught up in her own trials and obsessions to notice that everyone else had them too.
Philip, not she, had to carry the burden of his being different. He had done so as a child and adolescent without guidance or support. How had he done it? What had it been like? She could not imagine, and she felt a sudden warm wash of shame on her cheeks. Her role had been confined to being surprised by and disappointed in her son. She’d played those cards for all they were worth until she saw they weren’t worth much. She’d been defeated by Philip’s quiet resoluteness, his determination to live his own life by his own lights. He had defeated her not for the sake of defeating her but because doing so was the only way for him to get where he’d needed to go. He’d had to push her out of the way.
No wonder she found him so irritating. He’d been right and she’d been wrong. Being right was unforgivable. Being honest was unforgivable. Being honest about being right was beyond description. Being something the tribe did not want you to be and had no use for made you a pariah and expendable. The tribe communicated this message through its trustiest agents, parents. The tribe spoke through parents. Parents spoke the language and wisdom of the tribe. Parents embodied the tribe.
How had Philip learned to be gay? She found herself wondering about this. He hadn’t been brought up to be gay; she knew that to a moral certainty. There had been no gay figures in his youthful world she’d been aware of. Maybe she should have been more attentive. Had some twisted adult, some teacher or coach or family friend camouflaged by heterosexual marriage and institutional authority, secretly molested him?
He must know the answers to all these questions, but He didn’t seem inclined to clue her in. Instead He just stared at her. She would have found this rude if anyone else had done it, and she disapproved of rudeness and indeed of rude people. Maybe disapproval was a sin; maybe being rude was. All the dark feelings, so enlivening on earth, became problematic in this spare, tranquil, cloud-colored setting.
No wonder Philip had turned to the church as an adult. She had once thought it was Sam’s doing. She also suspected political opportunism, since any would-be leader had to have at least a nominal faith. But she understood now that the lure was more profound. It was a need more elemental than accommodating a companion or positioning oneself for approval from the body politic. He had saved Philip. He had delivered him, and Philip was grateful and wished to show his gratitude.
He had laid a heavy burden on Philip. It was a terrible fate for a child not merely to differ in the most intimate of ways from most people but from his family. These were the people nearest to him. They were the people into whose care he’d been born. But Philip had also found, or been given, the strength to bear that burden. Along Philip’s path appeared people to help him, to encourage and enlighten, to love, honor and cherish.
These luminous figures were people outside the family. They were not part of the clan or of the tribe. Philip had found his life with and through them. He’d made his own family. She was a part of his birth family and his chosen family too, but the latter membership was by his grace. He’d chosen her when he didn’t have to and even though he must have been as ambivalent about her as she was about him and maybe more so. Why should it have been otherwise? Children were as perceptive as dogs, and dogs always knew how people felt about them. Yet somehow Philip had pardoned her.
She couldn’t blame him for his feelings about her. She probably would have felt the same way about her if she’d been him. And she couldn’t blame Him for proposing to cast her into the abyss, to rejoin Theo in the stinky bottomlands of eternity. That would be hell, truly. But she was resigned to it.
Hopelessness felt like flatness. It was a featureless plain under a leaden sky neither dark nor bright. It had no smell or temperature. It was an absence, an emptiness. And why was He smiling at her as she thought these terrible thoughts? He had nice teeth.
“He doesn’t blame you,” He said. “He’s his own man, and isn’t that what you always wished for him, really? Isn’t that the point of being a parent?”
She nodded. When in doubt, nod.
“And he and Sam found each other, and Sam has a loving mother,” He continued. “You made room for her in your house and life. You healed a rift. You found an important piece to the puzzle and figured out where it belonged.”
“I think Caricia took better care of me than I did of her,” she said. “I know she did.”
“She took good care of you,” He agreed.
Caricia did take good care of June. Increasingly she did everything, as June declined. The decline was sharp and unexpected, not at all what the medical savants had forecast. The disease, like a guerrilla force with a wily, seasoned leader, refused to be defeated. It resisted the scalpel, the radiation beam, and the regimen of chemotherapy. It took casualties but managed to survive. It regrouped and renewed its campaign. The siege of the city tightened. Walls began to crumble and gates buckle.
At some point the slashing, burning, and poisoning of the afflicted person became so obviously counterproductive and barbarous that even the gung-ho in their counterinsurgency uniforms, hospital smocks, were forced to concede that these methods should no longer be used. Further resistance was futile. The sack of the city would proceed. The conquest could be deferred but not deflected, and it couldn’t be deferred for much longer.
The self of the afflicted person became ghostly. Strength ebbed, and will waned. The body would no longer do what it was asked to do. June was the lone passenger on a disabled boat drifting toward a waterfall. She could see what was happening. She could see people waving to her from the distant bank. She understood what was happening and could anticipate it, but she was helpless to do anything about it except try to estimate when the current would carry her over the brink. This at least gave her something to do, and the waterfall did represent resolution. It did have an awful beauty. Its roar grew steadily in her ears even as she slept. She slept a little more every day.
Patiently Caricia helped her, from morning to night. Her initial week’s visit became two weeks, then three. At first there had been the shared pleasure of being pensioners together: walks, fires on the hearth, dinner with the boys, church, rented movies, even a neighborhood gathering or two. They were a female Odd Couple, and, in a city of odd couplings, theirs did not stand out.
But the week before Valentine’s Day June suffered another tumble. It was a bad one that left her with a sprained ankle and a bruised wrist. Getting out of bed went from being an exercise she could perform unassisted, though slowly and with difficulty, to being an involved operation requiring another set of arms and legs. These extra limbs were provided by Caricia. Together they were like a team of workmen trying to maneuver a baby grand piano into a snug walk-up apartment.
Her bedroom had to be moved to the main floor, to the small den off the kitchen. The boys, with much huffing and puffing, lugged a single bed in there. Caricia, meanwhile, shuttled between the main guest room on the second floor and a bivouac in the parlor, where increasingly she spent the nights. She wanted to be close at hand if she were needed. The house began to look like a refugee camp, with blankets and pillows everywhere. Philip was anxious.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea, this move,” he said to Sam’s mother.
“It’ll be fine,” Caricia assured him. “Once the ankle heals, she’ll be fine.” Once the ankle heals: as if there were all the time in the world for this to happen.
“Anyway there’s no choice,” she pointed out.
“You can handle it, though, Ma,” Sam said, declaring his question and his doubt.
"If I can't, you'll be the first to know," Caricia said. "The neighbors --"
“The Knowleses?” Philip asked.
“They check up on us twice a day. She works at home, and I’ve got her cell number. Don’t worry.”
Philip couldn’t ask Caricia to stay in such circumstances, and neither could Sam. But it didn’t matter, because she wanted to stay. She was needed, and this gave her purpose. She was wanted, and this made her welcome. It was as if she and June had known each other all their lives instead for just a few weeks in winter at the end of one of those lives.
Caricia had known people who had died, but she’d never taken care of one. She’d never been there at the end, holding a hand. Her own parents had died years ago in hospitals. They’d been sequestered in intensive-care units and connected to various tubes and monitors. They were viewable only through plates of thick glass, as if they were bits of highly suspect debris from outer space.
She had been isolated from those deaths, but she would not be isolated from this one. It walked along beside her, slowly, a little more slowly every day; it slept now in a small room under the staircase, and she slept lightly nearby, just below the surface of wakefulness, like a fish in a pond, waiting for a lazy fly to alight on the water’s skin.
Death, in a warrior culture, had become so gaudy and theatrical that a quiet death, a slow withering, was almost unnoticeable. And then the withering turned out not to be so slow. Like a change of season that arrived on the shoulders of a single cold front, a shift achieved in just a few blustery hours, the disease announced that it was quickening the pace. Puddles would freeze, frost would glaze parklands, leaves would turn brown and be blown from tree limbs by bitter winds, and the bleak season of winter suddenly set upon them. The glories of Indian summer had gone without coming, and now the year was ebbing under raw gray skies filled with clinging mist.
In winter, it was not hard to see why so many people died in winter. Not all winters everywhere were made of snow flurries and frozen puddles, but all winters were dark and cold. All winters offered the chance to lay down one’s burden, to stretch out on a log and go to sleep forever while fluffy, obliterating snow fell. In summer, one was too busy blooming to die. Winter was a cessation.
Philip’s mother was ceasing. The possibility was not spoken aloud, by her or those around her, that she’d had enough. The living did not wish to hear that one of their number had wearied of life and was cashing out. No one would live forever and no one wanted to, but surely no one wanted to die, either.
The worst part of dying was waiting. Waiting was hell. June waited. Those gathered around her waited, wondering how much a person could lose of herself without actually dying. June was like a store that had held its going-out-of-business sale; the shelves were stripped bare, the check-out stands were empty, but here and there a lonely light still burned and someone had forgotten to lock the doors.
Was this still a store? What was it? Next week the bulldozers would come and knock the building down, and that would be that. There was no word for a person whose personhood had flaked and been blown away bit by bit, like old paint, leaving a shell, a familiar shape and familiar signage gone dark.
When, for the last time, June came home from the hospital, she was no longer Philip’s mother. She was a simulacrum and memory of Philip’s mother. Her decline was grievous, yet it was hard to grieve. She was neither living nor dead; she was un-dead. She lingered at the border.
June’s eyes remained open. They moved and blinked; they relayed information to a brain that could receive but not transmit. Her lips moved but said nothing. She would not be heard again. But those around her whispered to her as if she could still hear and understand them. Maybe she did. They were like people whispering into a vast, dark cave, straining to hear beyond the echoes of their own voices, wondering at the labyrinthine mystery. Where was she? Was she there? Where had she gone?
Don’t cry for me! June longed to say to them, through lips that wouldn’t work and breath that wouldn’t rise. It wasn’t as if they seemed particularly weepy as the moment arrived. Philip had cried when he’d heard the diagnosis, but since that moment he’d been as solemn and somber as a pallbearer. It was Caricia who’d actually broken down when the broken-down body stopped breathing, after a minutes-long eternity of gasps and heaves as the organism quit its struggle to go on.
It seemed to June, in departing, that the end of such a spectacle had to be a mercy for the witnesses as well as for her. A stillness descended, and her suffering, such as it had been, came to a close. But Caricia, holding her head in her hands like a melon, sobbed. Philip and Sam, standing nearby, bowed their heads and moved their lips, as if praying, although their voices, like June’s, could not be heard.
Don’t cry for me, June thought, I’m free now. She had escaped a prison, and what did it matter if there was an afterlife? She regretted only that she could not seem to make herself heard any better from this new position outside her useless, defunct body than she had been while occupying it. Also, she noted that Philip wasn’t crying. He didn’t have to collapse in sorrow, but a poignant tear or two running down the cheeks wouldn’t have been so terrible. If it had been him laying there there, cut down before his time, she was quite sure she would have wept.
At June’s funeral, Philip spoke. He wore a beautiful charcoal-check suit and a navy blue tie striped with rose and gold. He spoke of her, not of himself and certainly not of politics. Sometimes the best campaign speech made no mention of politics at all, and the campaign was still months away.
The funeral was held in the Catholic church just a few blocks down the hill. It was a small mountain of gray stone whose summit was a groined roof. Sam’s mother had befriended the priest and made known to him the predicament. A spiritually homeless soul was dying. She was a neighbor, and she would need a service. The priest agreed.
The deceased had wanted to be remembered with a party, not a service. And she would get her party. It would be held at the house, after the service. But Sam’s mother felt that, party or no party, a proper funeral was important, especially for a godless woman.
Funerals were really for the living anyway, Sam’s mother reminded the boys. It was the living who needed comfort and closure. The living felt the healing warmth of ritual. People needed to see the dead body to accept the death. They needed to gather and hear the old words and melodies. They needed to be told that everything would be all right. They needed to hear that death was merely in the nature of things. They craved reassurance that justice and mercy would be done and creation was not -- or was not only -- cold, indifferent, unforgiving, and meaningless.
Death had no meaning for the departed. One’s death lay beyond the boundaries of one’s own life. But any death shook the lives of those who stood nearby. It was as if a bolt of lighting had struck and split a tree in a forest, leaving the other trees unscathed but trembling. Those left behind wondered whether their affairs were in order. They thought about their own wills and personal effects. They wondered who would come to pay their respects and see them off when they, too, died.
“I want to thank all of you for coming,” Philip began. He spoke slowly and clearly. His hands grasped the edges of the pulpit. He did not gaze down at his notes (which he had scribbled on lined notecards) but out over the pews, where several hundred people sat. The assembly included family friends, college friends, childhood friends, friends of friends, friends of his, friends of Sam’s, friends of his and Sam’s, a girl who as a high-school sophomore used to baby-sit him and was now in her sixties and a grandmother), a contingent of doctors and nurses from the doomed struggle, a large squad of neighbors, several political types with whom he was particularly friendly and who might prove useful at some point or, in a darker scenario, become rivals. Aspiring politicos seldom missed a chance to appear in public. An event like this one was an important opportunity. The funeral oration was a recognized political form and had been so at least since the time of Pericles.
“My mother loved you all,” he began, “and I know that she would be touched and honored to see so many of you gathered here together this morning in this beautiful place to give thanks for her life.”
He paused and glanced down for a moment, as if checking his shoelaces. The faintest shiver passed through the crowd, like a whisper of breeze on a still summer day, barely enough to ruffle the glassy surface of a pond. Crowds at funerals did not burst into applause. They shifted in their seats, looked at their watches, and ran a tongue quickly around their lips.
“Her life didn’t last as long as we expected and probably not as long as she expected,” Philip went on. “Her serving of life was a little small, but the funny thing about a serving of life is that we don’t know how big or small it is until it’s gone, all eaten. Another funny thing is that the size of the serving doesn’t have anything to do with how good it tastes.”
“My mother loved her life,” he said. “She ate it up. She savored it. I know she wanted more, the same way we all wanted her to have more. We all want more for ourselves and everyone we know. She didn’t get more, but she didn’t feel sorry for herself. She was grateful for what she had been given. She enjoyed it. She enjoyed all of you, and I know she would be touched and honored to see you all here this morning, in her memory. So, on her behalf, I thank you all for being here today and for being part of her life. You made her time on earth richer and better, and I know she hoped she did at least a little of the same for you.
“As many of you know, my father died years ago, when I was a teenager. I know I wasn’t expecting his death and wasn’t ready for it, but maybe we’re never ready to lose a parent. It means too much, it’s always momentous, and the world can never be the same, but it happens anyway.
"My mother never complained about losing her husband, although she must have been as surprised and unprepared as I was. She never complained about being left alone to raise a teenage son -- about becoming a single parent involuntarily. She did complain about me sometimes – right to my face.”
He paused to let this laugh line play out.
“But she was always there. She made sure I had what I needed. She expected me to be something. She expected me to make something of myself. She had expectations, and a child needs those. You steer by them whether you agree with them or not. They help orient you to the world and figure out which way you’re meant to go, even if you end up going in another direction.
“I particularly want to thank Caricia, Sam’s mother, who came out here on a holiday just after the first of the year and found herself in a war zone. She laced up her boots and stuck it out, and there’s no way we could have managed without her. There’s no way for me to thank you, Caricia, for everything you did, everything I saw with my own eyes and a lot more I’m sure I didn’t see. I can only say thank you. I can only say that you made life better at an impossible time, not just for my mother but for Sam and me. If God is listening today, in this beautiful house of His, I want Him to know this about you. I’m sure He does know, but I want Him to hear it coming straight from my lips. You are what we should all try to be.”
Sam needed no introduction, so far as Philip was concerned. By not mentioning Sam’s significance, he was stressing it. With a quick nod of the head, Philip stepped away from the pulpit and returned to his seat in the front row. He had kept away from politics, spoken of love, been funny and, most important, been succinct. Voters tended to appreciate brevity in their speechifyers and to reward them for it.
The priest took his place on the dais. There was a prayer, a hymn, another prayer, a benediction and, at last, a recessional in which the casket was solemnly wheeled away from the front of the sanctuary. It disappeared through a door and out of sight. It would be loaded into a hearse for the brief trip to the crematorium and a small private service. The party, an open house, would begin in mid-afternoon.
It was no surprise, really, Philip thought, that tales of heroic and supernatural deeds lay largely in the deeps of time. The casket-wheelers paused at the side door.
Long ago, there had been no television cameras, no bloggers or texters or cell-phone video, and no 4G. Long ago, there had been more imagination, because there had to be. Imagination wilted in the glare of reality, and people too shrank. Famous individuals loomed large and godlike for a time on oversized flat-panel screens in sports bars and airport lounges, until their pettinesses, weaknesses and vices were exposed. Their humanness emerged, and they were replaced, for a time, by other oversized figures. As gadgetry dissolved imagination, the passings of the seasons of man were vastly accelerated.
Jesus, if and whoever He had been, wouldn’t have gotten far in such a culture, Philip supposed. He wouldn’t have had a chance. The tomb from which He rose on Easter Sunday would have been dusted for fingerprints and subjected to microfiber analysis. So would the rock the angels rolled away from the mouth of the cave. Surveillance cameras would show conclusive proof that the crucifixion had been faked, or the resurrection had been staged with a stand-in. The blood stains on the burial garment didn’t match Jesus’s known blood type and were in fact pig’s blood. Dental records indicated a hoax. Mary Magdalen refused to release her tax returns and had given inconsistent accounts to separate satellite-news services about the nature of her marriage and pregnancy. Judas had a Swiss bank account!
Jesus had been a dissenter and an outsider. He had challened received wisdom and established authority. Dissenters made fine kamikaze pilots who put on memorable shows for a moment or two, but they had a way of turning themselves into ashes and were soon forgotten. They tended to be history’s losers, and the winners wrote history. The winners wrote it the way they liked it. They wrote it in the way that most flattered them. Ashes were swept up and put in the trash can, or the urn.
Philip knew he stood to gain little by public rabble-rousing. He had no wish to turn himself into a heap of noble ashes. You could do no good in the world by getting yourself wiped out, even if you were right. At your mother’s funeral, you said what you were expected to say, and people would quietly applaud you for it. When it came time to vote for you, they would remember.
By early afternoon the spring sun was warm, but the air remained as cool as the sea. If you stood in the sunlight you soon glowed with heat and wondered if you’d remembered to put some sunblock on the tips of your ears, but if you stepped into the shade in the garden, you almost at once regretted not bringing a sweater. The garden, although a south garden, was full of shady spots.
People drifted by singly and in clumps, sweating and shivering. From two kettle barbecues rose rivulets of smoke that gathered overhead in a thin blue haze. The smoke smelled of chicken breasts marinated in lemon and garlic, kebabs of paprika-swabbed swordfish, skirt steak rubbed with chili powder, bratwurst parboiled in beer and onions, and hamburgers.
On various tables were piled dishes, platters and trays of other delectables brought by the guests. These included potato and pasta salads, macaroni and cheese, a cauldron of white gazpacho, blanched asparagus dressed with Meyer lemon vinaigrette, a strawberry tart, frosted brownies, an amaretto cheesecake, and oatmeal-raisin cookies.
In ice-filled coolers on the brick were dozens of bottles of beer, white wine, sparkling water, still water and fruit-juice coolers. On a nearby table sat a half-dozen bottles of red wine in various states of undress. People poked and picked their way through this bounty as if they were at a rummage sale, interested but anxious not to be seen as greedy or grabby. The smallest of the ambulatory children went straight to the sweets, seeing with their bright eyes one of those priceless childhood moments when the rules and regulations of grown-ups about food were unenforceable and the good stuff could be snapped up without further ado.
In front of the house, television vans fitted with satellite dishes were gathering. Lights flared. Power lines coursed over the pavement like tangled vines. Correspondents with immaculate hair clustered on the sidewalk in front of the house, but Philip would not let any of them in. He was polite but firm. This was a private function. No, he was not giving interviews at the moment.
Even ambitious political figures had limits, he thought but did not say. It was important to be seen as discreet; it was advantageous to be seen as not taking advantage of a solemn situation. He smiled and let his picture be taken, and that was it. Guests continued to flow up the front stairs bearing their tinfoil- and Gladwrap-wrapped vessels, as if they were ascending a temple to make an offering to some disgruntled deity.
“I see lots of familiar faces,” Sam said. “Practically the whole neighborhood is here.”
“Not to mention most of the board,” Philip said. “Have you seen the mayor?”
“Not yet,” Sam said. “I’m not sure I’d recognize her. She changes her hair every five minutes.”
At that moment their eyes settled on a woman standing at the door to the study. Was she the mayor? They should have been able to tell for sure, but they couldn’t. The woman was dressed in the subdued style of a certain class of the well-to-do, and she radiated an air of confidence and authority. The well-to-do were important in politics and in the lives of those who lived in and for politics. The politically minded person always knew who and where the well-to-do were and what they were likely to be looking for in the officials they helped elect.
The unidentified lady appeared to be alone, without a companion to help identify her. The study door was ajar but mostly closed. Philip had the simultaneous sense that he’d never seen the woman before and had known her all his life. Maybe she was a neighbor whose name he’d forgotten, someone who’d moved away. She might be an old family friend, or another, forgotten baby-sitter from long ago. Maybe she’d snuck in.
She didn’t look old enough to have been a babysitter of his, although it was hard to say how old she might be. Her face was of no particular age and her shortish dark hair of no particular color, yet in looking at her, Philip found himself to be completely captured. Her eyes and expression were keen. She looked at the two men intently without staring. Then she pushed open the door to the study and stepped inside.
As if pulled by a will not his own, Philip moved toward the study door, nearly tripping over the kitchen trash can as he went. He felt summoned, though he neither saw nor heard the summoning. He simply perceived and obeyed it.
The door clicked shut behind him. Had he closed it? He knew the door had no lock, and at the same time he knew it would not and could not be opened. He was alone with the strange woman, whose back was to him, but he was not worried. It was a familiar room in a familiar house, and crowds of friends and family were swirling just beyond the door. If she turned out to be some kind of nut, all he would have to do was shout for help. So, no, he wasn’t nervous.
His stomach was churning slightly, but this was probably because of something he'd eaten, a bit of potato salad made with spoiled mayonnaise, or from having drunk too much plonk. He had been inattentively nibbling for some time, and inattentively sipping cheap white wine too. Cheap wine was indigestion in a bottle. The body grew less forgiving of such insults as it grew older. It complained more loudly at smaller provocations and could, at times -- almost always inconvenient times -- become outright petulant. Alcohol was definitely poisonous. This was one of those brute facts that life presented to you sometime after your thirtieth birthday, at a surprise party for one thrown at 3 in the morning.
Philip felt a dampness on his palms and his heart beating in his throat. He wondered if the heartbeat was visible. It couldn’t be visible to her, since she continued to stand turned away from him, as if she did not know he was there. But she must know. She must have heard the door click shut, unless she was deaf. This was unlikely but possible. He tried to remember whether he knew any deaf people. He knew very little sign language: just how to ask for a restaurant check and how to say someone was cute.
“Excuse me,” Philip said. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
“Not at all,” the woman said. Her voice was a rich, smooth, contralto, like a fresh mocha. She turned to face him. “Let’s sit down,” she said, as if they were standing in her study, her private fief, her house. He noted the paradox of being treated as a visitor in a house that had belonged to his mother and now belonged to him, though it didn’t yet feel like his. Even as he thought these thoughts, the paradox floated away like a leaf on a bubbling brook, visible but receding and beyond recapture.
Instead of commenting, he accepted her invitation, or instruction, and sat at the end of the love seat. She settled into the chair behind the desk. They were more or less looking in each other’s direction without directly facing each other. Was this a face-off? A cheek-off? He felt expectant and defensive. She commanded the situation, he did not know how.
“Better,” she said. “This is quite a party.”
“I hope you found something to eat,” Philip said. “There’s plenty of wine and beer down in the garden. I’m not sure about some of the potato salad. I’d be careful there.”
The woman smiled. He found it awkward to be making this kind of small talk. He wasn’t good at it. On the other hand, he felt he had to say something. He had to make some effort to set her at ease. He couldn’t just sit there waiting for her to slip him a check or an envelope stuffed with cash, as though he were a dog expecting to be handed a treat. She would have expectations from him in return for the money. There must be a lot of money and high expectations for her to have engineered this little meeting.
“I haven’t made it that far,” she said. “Actually it was you I came to see anyway. I admired your eulogy. It was serious but not heavy.”
“I’m sorry, it’s embarrassing, I don’t remember your name,” Philip blurted. “But I do know I know you! It’s just been, you know, one of those days, and I have a lot on my mind.”
“I think you’re doing brilliantly,” the woman said. “I thought you did brilliantly in the church. You talked about her, mostly, not about yourself. That can be difficult to do. It was her funeral, after all, even if you were the one speaking. And when you did talk about yourself, you did it with humor and a light touch. I think people appreciated that. They’re so used to politicians talking at them, talking about themselves. They’re grateful for some genuine modesty. They get enough of the fake kind.”
“You were there.”
“I was there.”
“It was good of you to come,” Philip said, aware of his banality. Banality could be a useful instrument of subordination; he would be so banal that she would be forced to declare herself and her business. He would throttle her with banality until she cried out the truth. He did perceive a headwind blowing from her direction, a shapeless but insistent resistance. She was resolute in her caginess. He would have to be careful, even in banality. He was the host, and hosts did not hector their guests, even the uninvited, presumptuous and elusive ones.
“I never miss a party,” she said. She was now returning banal fire. Her gaze pierced him. He wondered if she were a mother and what her children were like. She looked motherly. Her children might have come to the party with her and might even now be eating lamb kebabs and chicken-apple sausages in hot-dog buns. They would have to be quite a bit younger than he was, because she wasn’t much older than he was -- five years, he guessed, seven at most. It was hard to be sure in an era when people no longer reliably fell apart after forty.
To his surprise, he felt a twinge of attraction for this older woman, this mysterious mother in expensive clothes who so politely declined to give her name. Philip had never been into women at all, and he had never been into older people -- far, far from it -- but now here he was, thinking certain thoughts about a woman who was older than he was, although not that much older. She wasn’t old enough to be his mother, thank goodness. The Oedipal crisis was averted.
“I loved my mother,” he heard himself saying. Certain random themes in his mind had fused, as in a dream, and those themes left him in the form of a spoken sentence, an unwilled expulsion, like a burp. Was he defending her or himself?
“Of course you did,” she said. “And if you didn’t, would it really be your fault? Does it even make any sense to use the word fault when we’re talking about feelings? No. Feelings are feelings. They come and go as they please, like clouds. I’m on the side of children, you know, in parent-child matters. Children take the world as they find it, and the world they find is almost entirely the creation of their parents, at least for the first few years. So parents are responsible. On the other hand, parents learn how to be parents from their own parents. It’s not as if they have anything like free will. You see where I’m going with this. You see why forgiveness is so important. It’s awkward, but important. Free will is quite a can of worms! I’ve struggled with that one for a long time.”
“Who are you?” Philip asked again. She sounded either like a child psychiatrist or a theologian. He couldn’t recall knowing any child psychiatrists or theologians.
“I think we need some Sancerre,” she said.
“Sancerre?” Philip said. “The wine?”
“The white wine,” she said. “There are red ones, but I don’t think much of those. But the white ones are the world’s best white wines. I’ve never had a bad bottle! But I don’t think anybody brought any.”
“No,” Philip said. “Just pinot grigio, which gives me a headache now.”
“In cheap vino, calamitas,” she said. “But, as luck would have it, I came prepared.”
From somewhere she produced a bottle of wine and a pair of goblets, along with one of those little corkscrews restaurant waiters carried and wielded so adroitly, like gang members with their switchblades. She was adroit, although he didn’t picture her as having ever been a waitress or packed a switchblade. But you never knew. In a moment the bottle was uncorked and the wine poured. They clinked their glasses. It felt strangely celebratory, as if he’d just been hired, or elected.
“I’d propose a toast,” he said, “but I don’t know what we’re toasting.”
“Well, we’re toasting the future, your future,” she said, “your future in this house. Your future generally. And we’re giving thanks for your mother’s life. How’s that?”
“Not bad,” Philip said. He took a sip of the wine, which was indeed excellent. He glanced at the bottle but didn’t recognize the label. The wine had a lemon flintiness he wasn’t used to. It was quite different from the flabby bonhomie of American chardonnay. The first taste shocked him with its slap of sourness, and then he liked it. He wondered what the wine said about her. It wasn’t what he was expecting.
“I don’t know if my mother would give thanks for her life. She thought that God hated her,” he heard himself saying. The confession wasn’t a form he often practiced or was comfortable in, but here he was, confessing to some strange woman who had plied him with sour wine. “And she didn’t even believe in God! She might have thought He hated her for that. I was never exactly sure. It didn’t make a lot of sense. I mean, if there is no God, why worry about what He thinks about you?”
“She told you that? That she thought God hated her?”
Philip shook his head. “She didn’t exactly say it, no,” he said. “But she’d kind of hint at it. I’m pretty sure that’s what she thought. I thought God didn’t hate people. I thought He was supposed to be sort of loving or whatever. I don’t believe in God, either,” he added. “So I’m probably doomed too.”
“Well, everyone is doomed,” she said. “I hate to break it to you. Certain truths are self-evident. Everyone is doomed, and life isn’t fair. People get sick, don’t they? They get old and that’s what happens. Bad things happen to all sorts of people. It’s like a lottery, except it’s a lottery nobody ever wins and everybody loses, it’s just a question of when. It’s fate. Not all questions have answers. The most important ones don’t. You know it’s an important question when there is no answer to it! And if there is an answer, it’s probably wrong. Comforting, but wrong. Wrong ideas have tremendous vitality, I’ve noticed. They’re sticky. They’re like sticky stuff people put their hands into, and then they can’t get it off, and they touch other people and it sticks to them too.”
“I’m not comforted,” Philip said.
“You shouldn’t be comforted,” she said. “But what people go through does not go unnoticed. Credit is given. There is such a thing as justice. I said it was a lottery everybody loses, but that’s just one way of looking at it. That’s oversimplifying.”
She had to be an academic of some kind, this mystery lady. She had to be a history or philosophy professor, a professor of religion or law. She seemed to be a great many things, some sort of polymath. It was important to associate oneself with brainiacs. They could be important sources of guidance and wisdom despite their social disabilities. Wisdom wasn’t an element commonly found in the realm of public life, or, for that matter, in any realm of life. It was a rare element.
Philip felt ravished by her words and by her, yet she hadn’t laid a finger on him. They had not touched. He felt as though he’d exposed a true and tender part of himself to her. He felt that she had somehow induced him to do that, and now he felt a shiver, as though a cold breeze were slithering through an open window somewhere. But it was a pleasant shiver. It gave a thrill.
“I should stop yakking,” she said. “And you should probably rejoin your party. I wouldn’t want people to start getting the wrong idea. I just stopped by to say hello.”
“Will you come with me?” Philip asked. “I’d be glad to introduce you around.”
“I’d love to, but I can’t,” she said. “I really just came to check in for a moment. I should get going.”
“Philip!” came a voice from elsewhere, through the closed door. It was Sam’s voice. “Phone!”
“I hate the phone,” Philip said automatically. He cracked the door open. It was of course unlocked, since it had no lock. “Tell them I’ll call them back, whoever it is!” he called to Sam through the crack. “I’m sorry, the telephone is such a terrible interrupter, isn’t it, which is just one of the many reasons I hate it. I couldn’t live without it, thought, without several, in fact,” he said, turning back to the woman, who was gone.
Where had she gone? Had she slipped through the other door? There was no other door. Had she gone out the window? The window had been painted shut and hadn’t been usable in years. Once, at his mother’s bidding, he’d tried to free the sashes from the frame by slicing the paint with a razor blade, but he’d had no success. The window remained stubbornly shut, like the lips of a criminal determined not to tell his interrogators anything at all.
“It’s Mom,” Sam said. He had glided up to the door and was now standing on the threshold to the study. “Were you talking to yourself again in there?”
“She’s down in the garden, grilling the burgers,” Sam said. “She’s on her cell. She needs more patties, more buns, more everything. You’re elected. You’re the bun-runner. I’m dealing with the desserts up here, and an influx of cheap wine at room temperature. How’s that for barbaric?”
“Your mom.” He felt as if he’d just awakened and his head was still full of dream haze.
“You all right? Yeah, my mom,” Sam said. “Who else? Did you find what you were looking for in there?”
“Was I looking for something?”
“I don’t know. You sort of rushed there for a sec, and then the phone rang, and we have a burger crisis.”
Philip looked at his watch, expecting to see that it was already past three o’clock, but it was just past 2:30. The watch was running; he saw the second hand sweeping smoothly along.
“I thought I saw somebody I knew, that’s all,” Philip said.
“Speaking of that, did you notice who just came in?” Sam said, lowering his voice slightly, lifting his chin and glancing in the direction of the foyer.
“Herself,” Sam said. “Madame. Our very own iron lady.”
Sam meant the mayor, but Philip was silent. He wasn’t thinking about the mayor or the state of her hair or whether she could be defeated at the next election. He wasn’t thinking about whether he would run against her in that election. He’d already made up his mind that he would, so he could afford not to think about it for the moment. He was thinking, instead, of a woman in a steel-gray suit. But he would have to go greet the mayor, of course. He was the host.
“The patties are in a tray in the fridge, bottom right, next to the box of oranges,” Sam said. “There are two bags of buns on the counter next to the stove. There’s also a huge bottle of ketchup somewhere, that kind with the cap on the bottom. We might be out of mustard. Check the pantry.”
“You’ll have to do it,” Philip said. “Or get somebody else. I have to go find her.” He meant the mayor, or whoever. He still had a few questions.
Paul Reidinger is the author of several novels, including The Best Man, Good Boys and The City Kid, as well as a memoir, Lions in the Garden, and Patchwork, a collection of essays and criticism. He grew up in Wisconsin, was educated at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and lives in San Francisco.
In a post-American city of old churches and ambitious pagans, death comes calling for an elderly woman – a bit ahead of schedule – while God takes a meeting (or two?) en travestie, and the eternal questions abide. A funeral becomes a party, a son inherits a home with an uninvited guest, the iron lady is in the house, and they need more burgers down at the Weber kettles, tout suite. The Varieties of Erotic Experience blends the sacred, the profane, the urbane, and the humane into a tangy literary cocktail.
In an American city of old churches and ambitious pagans, death comes calling for an elderly woman -- a bit ahead of schedule. God takes a meeting or two, and the eternal questions arise. A funeral becomes a party, a son inherits a home with an uninvited guest, an iron lady is in the house, and they need more burgers down on the Weber grill. The Varieties of Erotic Experience blends the sacred, the profane, the urbane and the humane into a tangy literary cocktail.