|Sun on Water, oil painting by Brent Spink
Coffee, Cigarettes, and Crucifixes
by Laura Elizabeth Woollett
At thirty-three, he really did look a lot like Jesus. That beard, that hair, those
eyes- pale, searching, as he lifted to his lips a hand-rolled cigarette. His chest, which was often bare, was as luminous
as death, holy death, made earthly by the two pink coins of his nipples. His ribs showed slightly, like charcoal thumbprints,
walking open-shirted to the fridge. When, yawning, he stretched his arms above his head, his armpits peeked darkly through
his sleeves. The hair on his torso was scant, however: just a few straggled strands between the pectorals, and a snail trail
down the abdomen.
It was my sister who encountered him first, in the hallway. She had thought he was
a burglar and, accordingly, sent a shrill scream through the house. It was not her screaming that awoke me, however, but my
mother, who shook me awake, gently, and led my sister and I to the lounge.
I can still see us, as we must have appeared to him: two identical, black-haired, black-eyed
children, blinking brightly through the darkness. The curtains, I remember distinctly, were drawn. The dimness was velvety,
almost touchable, blurring the boundaries between objects. A mantle clock. A television, turned off, reflecting the adults’
standing forms in miniature. Our old black sofa with the geometric designs, smelling of stale cornflakes. The whole scene
suffused with a deep crimson light.
“This is Peter,” she told us, as if that explained everything.
Peter was one of seven brothers, all with names like ‘Matthew’, ‘Paul’,
‘Phillip’, and ‘John’. The family was dirt poor, of Irish extraction, and with a strange, schizophrenic
strain. Some brothers turned out better than others. There were normal ones with families, who we picnicked with on occasion
at the estuary. Another, severely afflicted, turned up on our doorstep one day with his minder. He was not introduced to us,
but simply led through to the study room, which was separated from the lounge where my sister and I were by a glass partition.
In silence we sat, slitting our eyes and hating from a distance the fat shirted back, the poverty and strangeness that had
been brought into our proximity. Many of the brothers were estranged.
In the beginning, we shied away from Peter, as if sensing his polluted lineage. As
his presence became more fixed, however, we were steadily drawn in, captivated by his strangeness. He had the tastes of a
child, but was indifferent to children: meaning, that when he bought sweets or switched on cartoons, it was not for our sake.
He was also impressively knowledgeable. He could take apart clocks and put them back together. He knew the scientific names
of tropical fish. He was always bringing my mother books- thick, hardback books with dust-laden covers and nicotine-yellow
And then there was his resemblance to Jesus. Jesus, who my sister and I knew only as
a bearded, barely clothed fellow with a tortured look, from the somber Baroque paintings that adorned the walls of our household.
The walls of my mother’s bedchamber were especially adorned, a fact that we interpreted with much amusement. “She
loves him because he looks like Jesus,” we whispered behind our hands, and giggled. “Like her paintings!”
My mother was a bad Catholic, if she could be called one at all. She did not go to
church. She smoked, she cursed- especially on wintry mornings, when the red Corolla refused to start before school. She had,
for as long as I could remember, always kept a roundlet of birth-control pills in the bathroom cabinet. Most telling of all,
she had never been married to my father, despite sharing a house with him for thirteen years. All the same, she liked the
art. She liked the male saints, especially Sebastian. She always wore crosses, silver crosses, about her neck. Her first name
Mary and Jesus. She was thirty-five, older than him by two years. It was her house
that she opened up to him, her bed that he shared. In return, he graced us with his presence, leaving behind as relics his
spilled tobacco, chocolate bar wrappers, and empty cartons of Masters mocha milk.
Ours was a household that invited clutter, a place where disarray took on romantic
associations. My mother would emerge from the bedroom, as late as noon on some weekends, still dressed in the deep crimson
kimono with the black lapels. She would emerge from the bedroom and, lighting a cigarette, would smile upon the spilled tobacco,
the chocolate wrappers and empty milk cartons. Peter would emerge minutes later, sometimes showered, sometimes not, and would
reach for his own cigarette box, spilling more tobacco in the process.
I was part of the same romance, drunk on the same dark air. Waking earlier than everyone
else, my sister included, I would wander the house in silence, taking in every detail of their depravity. I saw wine glasses,
left on the coffee table from the night before; burnt-out candles, dirty ashtrays, wadded newspapers and half-read books of
verse. I checked the chocolate wrappers for remnants and ate whatever was there. I shook out the empty milk cartons and, tilting
my head back, drank in the dregs.
Sometimes, late in the morning, I would hear them stirring; hear the tuning of a radio
and, beneath it, the gentle murmurings of conversation. Peeking through a crack in the door, I would deem it safe to enter.
They would be sitting up in bed, smoking usually, their bodies draped in dark red velvet sheets. Though I knew they were naked,
or nearly so, beneath the sheets, at seven I was too young for it to bother me. Likewise, I was too young to be bothered by
my mother’s lacy white undergarments hanging about the canopy bed, or by the staleness of the air.
Instead, I would climb into the bed and into her arms, inhaling the warm, ashy smell
of her olive skin. Peter would register my intrusion with a slight sneer, but would go on talking- perhaps glad to have an
audience. He was given to grand statements about life, art, and pleasure: statements that I took as creed, considering him
an oracle of good taste and knowledge. One morning, sighing after his first death-stick, he proclaimed that cigarettes, along
with freshly brewed coffee, were two of the three greatest pleasures in the world.
“What is the third?” I wanted to know.
He exchanged a glance with my sheet-clad mother, and the pair laughed.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“How old?” I persisted. “Fourteen?”
“Fourteen. Fine. Yes.”
I accepted this answer, and grew pensive, thinking of what life would be like for me
at fourteen; of the secrets I would be let in on, the adult pleasures I would know, the body I would have (little did I know
that at fourteen, I would still be among the uninitiated, the formless, pasty bodies and limp late blooms). My mother might
have suggested making some coffee, a proposal to which Peter agreed. In any case, I was always booted out of the bedroom when
it was time for them to dress: Peter in his faded vintage shirts and slacks, my mother- if not in her kimono- in one of her
white singlets and a pair of bootleg jeans.
I did not mind waiting for them to dress: always anticipating happily the payoffs of
his sweet tooth. On the weekends I could expect, almost without fail, a trip to the nearby bakery or, at the very least, to
the corner shop for chocolate bars, flavored milk, and soft drink. Best of all, however, was when I saw him putting on his
boots and taking the keys from his pocket. He would announce that he was going back to his flat for a while to feed the fish,
to collect his papers and attend to other business- that he would stop by the patisserie on the way home. He would slam the
screen door behind him and, unasked, I would rush out after him, buckling myself into the passenger seat before he had even
reached the driveway.
It was not only the pastries that made these drives exciting for me- though, I confess,
the choice between vanilla slice or éclair, tart, gateau, or doughnut, was never far from my mind. Yet the thrill of being
in a bachelor’s car, of riding upfront with a man who I was not related to, was equal to- if not greater than- that
of my impending sugar-fix. For it was a bachelor’s car, there was no mistaking it: no mistaking what those empty cans,
cartons, loose coins, old newspapers, and unlaundered shirts signified. It was a thrill to have to move all the clutter, just
to get to my seat; to sit with my knees up and my feet on the dashboard, for fear of them being nibbled by rats or roaches
if I let them touch the floor.
I was, though uninvited, not an unwelcome companion to Peter. He was an unscrupulous
adult, idle and impractical; I was a fanciful, pagan child with bare feet and no notion of hard work. We were kindred spirits.
I knew, without asking, that he favored me to my elder sister. I was the wild one, the ravenous one, the one with the imagination.
I was also, at the age of seven, perhaps a little bit in love with him. Perhaps- looking
at his profile as he drove, the fine, straight Irish nose and changeable pale eyes, whose color I could never quite determine.
During these drives, he listened to my childish prattle, sometimes even indulging me with stories of the supernatural: omens,
exorcisms, vampires, and headless horsemen. Once, passing a park where three crows were gathered in a circle, obviously plotting
some evil, he described the scene as being, “like something out of Edgar Allan Poe.”
“Edgar Allan Crow!” I corrected him, and laughed at my own wit.
I did not know who Poe was, or Pushkin, or Polidori—only Peter, who was utterly
original in my eyes. He called himself a writer and, though he had never published a thing, I believed him: because he carried
crusty, leather-bound notebooks; because he owned inkwells; because he wrote in a spidery, illegible hand with a real quill.
Visiting his flat, there was even more evidence of his occupation, in the form of loose leafs of paper, scribblings that,
try as I might, I was unable to decipher.
The inside of the flat was much the same as his car, only on a slightly larger scale.
One bedroom. A dingy bathroom, with copies of Mad magazine and Vampirella comics strewn over the tiles. There were posters
on the walls from old movies, film noir mostly, as well as a sultry shot from the French film Betty Blue.
The lounge was lacking in essentials- I had to sit on a milk crate-, nevertheless,
there were clock parts everywhere, waist-high piles of books, and, at the forefront of the room, the greenish glow of the
tropical fish tank, water rippling, filter humming in the dim.
I would drag my milk crate up to the tank, and watch the flashing forms and colors.
I would identify the species as they passed—discus, angelfish, neon tetra, and gypsy-skirted guppies, while Peter moved
from room to room, as slippery as one of his coolie loaches. He would appear again, in a different shirt, defrosting bloodworms
for the fish or searching for his special cigarette box, the one where he kept the green tobacco. The green tobacco, I sensed,
was more valuable than the standard brown stuff, since it came out less frequently and always with deeper sighs of satisfaction.
The tablet of bloodworms would go in the tank, clotted and dark as menstrual blood.
The largest fish, discus and angelfish, would usually be the first to swim up. They would pick at the threads until the whole
cube had disintegrated, worms dashing downward to be caught by the smaller fish. We would watch this scene together. When
his voice told me it was time to go, I would tear my eyes from the tank that contained universe of Technicolor fins and swaying
plants, with difficulty. Outside, the sunlight was always too harsh on the asphalt, blinding me on the path back to the car.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. She recently
completed a Bachelor of Creative Writing and Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. She enjoys exploring the boundaries
between the sacred and the profane, and has a passion for the prose of Vladimir Nabokov.
|Swans and Industry, oil painting by Brent Spink
Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. feels like freedom. I do not enjoy my
job, and at 5 p.m., I leave and drive to your apartment. You do not work Fridays, but you work Saturday and sometimes Sunday.
I do not like that we don’t get a full weekend. Sometimes, I only see you during the day on Saturday and Sunday, and
we are with Avery. If I want time with you alone, I have to pick you up at work when you are done, which is usually around
midnight. Some weekends, I sleep maybe 10 hours total. I do not tell you how tired I am. I feel as if I deserve to feel tired
because I am straddling two lives. I’ve given up on making my marriage to Holly work. Even if you and I break up, and
I feel the possibility of that growing each time we fight, I cannot go back to the way things were. Going forward, even without
you, is better than going backward.
One Friday night, I am late for our dinner. Holly was late leaving
work, so I had to get Avery. She wanted to talk about her day when she got home, and I could not think of a good reason why
I had to go as soon as she got home. She heated up leftovers from earlier in the week. I ate with her, even though I knew
I would be eating with you later. When I park in my spot in your driveway, I am thinking of nothing more than seeing you and
telling you about my horrible day. I do not like my boss. You know how much I do not like my boss. You tell me I should look
for something better. Holly tells me I need to figure out how to work with my boss, since the pay and benefits are good.
I do not realize I have not taken off my wedding ring until I am
already in your apartment and walking down the hallway toward the kitchen. I feel the ring on my finger, and I try to pull
it off, but it is not moving. I put my finger in my mouth and tug at my ring with my teeth. I feel it start to slip off my
finger at the same time I hear you open your bedroom door.
Rabbit, you call.
I’m here, I say. I finish sliding the ring off my finger.
You walk through the kitchen and into the hallway. My wedding ring is still in my hand. I try to slide the ring into my pants
pocket, but it slips out of my hand and falls to the ground. My ring makes a ting sound when it hits the hardwood floor in
your hallway. I wish the ring had hit the runner that covers much of the floor.
I pick up the ring without you seeing it. I put it in my pocket.
You kiss me, and ask if I am planning to stay the night to make up for being tardy.
You know I can’t, I say.
I know, you say, but I am going to ask you every night to make
sure you know I want you here.
When you take off my pants later before we have sex, I worry that
the ring will fall out of my pocket and you will ask me about it.
Holly is nearing the end of her first trimester, but she and I
have rarely listened to our baby’s heartbeat using the monitor we rented. We listened to our son, Avery’s, heartbeat
every night when she was pregnant with him. She knows something is going on. She does not like how much I have started to
drink. There is always wine in the house now, and rum. At home, I barely acknowledge her, and blame her when I cannot sleep
at night. I cannot keep this up, I think.
And then there’s you when you get high with your friends.
I don’t think you understand how I feel when you get high. I feel like I no longer matter. I feel like when you’re
with your friends, you are single and you are happy and you are not a father. I think you do not want to be a father. You
did not ask to be a father. With me, you are a father. When you are with your friends, I feel like I vanish. You do not know
how this disappearing feels, but if you would ask, I would tell you that it feels like you are a country and I am just a tourist
who doesn’t really speak the language.
To make telling each other how we feel about things easier, we
conceive of having buckets into which we put things that bother or upset us. These buckets, you say, are very small, and must
be emptied regularly. We have to ask each other what’s in the other’s bucket, and we must be honest about anything
that might be in the bucket. In time, you say, the buckets will always be empty.
It’s Buddhist, this thinking—address what you feel
when you feel it; do not wait until you cannot handle your feelings.
If I can convince you that I am real, that you and I are together
are real, then maybe everything will work itself out. So I buy you an engagement ring. I think you have been waiting for me
to ask you to marry me because you need to be asked. You need someone to make the leap toward you. You are tired of leaping
toward men who will not stay. I think once the ring is on your finger, then I can tell you about Holly, and you will have
no choice but to understand because you and I will be engaged.
I do not want to buy you a ring from a store. I do not want your
engagement ring to be like anyone else’s engagement ring. I want a ring that is as unique as the relationship—as
the life—we are building. A woman on Twitter who I follow mentions a metalworker in California who designs jewelry.
I talk to her about what I want, and she responds with timing and a price. The ring is silver. There is a W on it. Flanking
the W are horseshoes. Luck. Better than a rabbit’s foot; maybe if you didn’t call me rabbit. I guess at your ring
size. I do not know how to ask you your ring size without giving away the fact that I am buying you a ring.
I bought Holly’s ring at a jewelry store in a mall in Gainesville,
Florida. I had to buy it with a credit card. I needed nearly 12 months to pay for it. She knew the ring was coming. I knew
she would say yes.
I know you will say yes too, even though we seem to be arguing
more frequently, with the worst fights happening the days after you get high with your best friend. I’ve accepted the
nights when you get high in front of me, or when you get high before I come over. Part of loving you, I think. But I cannot
accept the nights when you tell me you can’t see me, or I can’t come over, or you need to cancel our plans because
you want to get high with your best friend, watch YouTube videos, and drive around town, when you are even able to leave your
apartment. These nights, I do not feel I should cede. I don’t want to cede these nights. Each time we fight, I wonder
if you are still worth it. And yet I can think of nothing better than to ask you to marry me and hear you say yes.
I think you and I are kind of each other’s keys to overcoming
our biggest obstacles within ourselves, if that makes any sense, you tell me one night.
I kind of think that we might potentially represent a happiness
if we could just get out of our own way, I say. It’s like, OK, Will, I’m going to put someone in your path that
fits. But to have it fit, you’re going to have to make some changes. You can’t hide who you are anymore. And I
represent someone to you who you can’t control. You can’t be my everything. I’m in something that’s
not going to disappear unless I do something about it. Taking a chance on you is a risk. To work as a couple, we have to grow
Well, yes, I am suddenly becoming a parental figure. It’s
not something you could have told me years ago or even last New Year, you know. Oh, this is what’s going to happen to
you in this coming year. You’re going to meet this man who, you know, kind of has another world on the side, and he’s
going to want to bring you into it, and you’re going to say yes.
Why is that again?
Because you love him. You love him and then you’ll meet his
child that he’s not going to tell you about from the beginning and you’ll be pleasantly accepting and invite them
up and put on a movie. And I’ve learned to accept a lot more things. Before I push something away, I’m trying
to think if it is something I should be pushing away or if I am thinking about pushing it away because it could bring a feeling
of rejection. Doesn’t mean I’m not going to have any more mental breakdowns.
You can, I say. I think this is one of the most honest conversations
we’ve ever had. I did not think loving you any more than I do was possible, but this conversation, this moment is proving
me wrong. I know that each time I lie to you, or each night I don’t tell you that I am married, that I am making a permanent
relationship with you impossible, but I do not want to lose what you and I have created. You and Holly are north stars; I’m
an astronaut dividing my time between the two of you.
But if I’m keeping up with my bucket, then there shouldn’t
be an opportunity. I hope we won’t have to turn around 15 years from now, and someone will ask, how did your relationship
work, and we’ll have to say, well, we had these buckets and they’re really small buckets so you can’t put
very many things into them. And we would just empty them. And every time we’d see each other we’d say, I love
you, what’s in your bucket. But, Will, there’s been nothing in your bucket.
No, I say. Do you feel you’ve done something bucket-worthy?
No. But I don’t think we normally do. I don’t think
if I would look at things in my bucket, I would say, well, you knew this would hurt me. I think that’s the issue with
why things end up in the bucket. We do something, and we don’t realize how the other one might perceive it. And for
the most part, it’s turned out to be misperception, you know.
For a lot of other people, it would have been enough to throw in
the towel. They wouldn’t have given the other person a chance to talk or explain.
I’m glad we did, you say.
Me too. It’s nice to hear you say you love me.
Do I not say it often?
OK. Good. I don’t time it. I mean, I haven’t been keeping
track. I know for a while there I felt I was saying I love you a lot, and I thought, maybe I’m saying I love you too
much. If there’s such a thing, I don’t want to wear it out.
William Henderson has written for local and national newspapers and magazines, including
the Advocate, the Boston Globe, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, Euonia Review, and the
New England Blade, where he served as editor. He earned a Bachelor of Science in journalism and communications from the University
of Florida, and a Master’s in Fine Arts from Emerson College, where he studied creative non-fiction. He earned a Hearst
Award in profile writing in 1998. Currently, he works as a freelance writer, editor and copyeditor, and is a full-time father
to his children, Avery and Aurora. “Astronaut" is part of an in-progress memoir, House