If I Entered Hell

My Beatrice would be a monk with whom I would never confess I was in love with

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If I became the female self of Dante

I would hope that Hans Rookmaaker would be my Virgil.

Hell then would be a circular art gallery, a gradual, seven story spiral ending in an ice box.

And within the ice box perhaps Monet, paint brush in hand.

Frozen in the act of painting light, a perplexed look on his face.

“Where is the sensation?” — his eyes would ask; sensation being the only reality of life

for him.

I would ask my guide if I should tell him that he is dead — and my guild would shake his head,

no.

‘Monet lives at last, he feels the cold of his encased death.’

And my guide would pity me, and take me to my Beatrice — a monk who writes the classics and beautifies the deep well walls of knowledge.

There I would stay never saying I was deeply in love with him.

 

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

 

Accidents

he sat stony-eyed not acknowledging Carlos at all.  “Darla will have a glass of the house wine,” I said hastily fearing she would do something unconventional. 

“I have one question.” She looked at me with something between dread and vexation which merged and culminated in a purely “Darla-like” expression.

“I know, I know but really just one question,” I pleaded.  Darla leaned back and gave me a slight nod.  Taking that as permission I blurted it out, “What happened to men?”

Her pale skin blanched to a sudden milky gray and her beautiful sculptured lips turned a leaden color her smile conveyed a sort of evil satisfaction.  “Nothing, they’ve always been that way, you’ve just noticed.  That’s what I hate about optimists.”

Darla’s voice sounded as if she were down a deep echoing well.

Carlos, our usual waiter, was walking up to our table.  I could tell he was having a bad day because his usually pristine and pressed black trousers were splattered with something shiny from the knee down.  His small white apron had a washed out yellow looking blob almost dead center.  I felt myself turn red because the stain was dead center so I hoped whatever hit him hadn’t been painful.

“Stop blushing you idiot,” Darla whispered, “and stop looking at his crotch.”

Darla was never very nice.  I looked away and tried to compose myself.

Carlos came up to me and didn’t smile.  “How are you today?” he asked and I knew he didn’t care to know.

“I’ll just have a cup of coffee and whatever pie you have today,” I said squinting up at him.  He had managed to stand just where the sun was painful when looking up.  I though perhaps he should have been an international spy or an assassin rather than a waiter.  I looked over at Darla, blinking heavily.  She sat stony-eyed not acknowledging Carlos at all.  “Darla will have a glass of the house wine,” I said hastily fearing she would do something unconventional.

Carlos walked away not letting me know what sort of pie to expect.

“You see?” said Darla.  He’s a man and a typical one.  He has had a bad day, splattering grease on his pants…

“Trousers…”

“His pants when emptying the garbage at home before he came to work.  While at work some clumsy American tourist like you…

“Expatriate, I live here,”

“Tourist spills their orange juice in a projectile fashion because they saw a spider on the table so naturally, he’s a total shit to you.”

“Oh I know men are moody and take out all their frustrations on women, I was just wondering what happened to them physically.”

Darla lifted her eyebrows to me in question.

I looked about at the street, narrow hipped men with billowing shirts and long hair.  “They are all different colors and heights but all look the same.”

“Perhaps you are simply become cured of obsessing over them,” Darla said.

Carlos reappeared, his face looking like it was carved in oak.  He placed my coffee and blueberry pie in front of me and Darla’s wine in the center of the table. “Will that be all?” I could tell Carlos didn’t want to be standing next to the table. Darla stretched out her long gray hand and pulled the wine to her side of the table.  Carols blanched visibly.

“She is here today?” asked Carlos.

“She sees you, Carlos.  I’m sorry for that, truly.  I’m sorry too about the clumsy American tourist.”

I was sorry too, Darla was relentless and very good in causing accidents.

Caves

The cave was deep and little was known about it.  That’s the thing with quiet little states like Indiana, nobody realizes the secrets it holds.  I knew simply because I was, for the most part, alone.  What else did I have to do than read books and listen in on conversations? 

The cave was deep and little was known about it.  That’s the thing with quiet little states like Indiana, nobody realizes the secrets it holds.  I knew simply because I was, for the most part, alone.  What else did I have to do than read books and listen in on conversations?

I hate the summer heat and to this day I lay low when summer is at its zenith.  I suspected that the small cave near the river was not just a small cave.  John Wilkie would take foolish girls there and so it began to have a reputation.  I suspect that John Wilkie, tall and good-looking as he was, really didn’t know what to do with a girl, so he took the doe-eyed ones to the small cave by the river just to get the girl to sit close to him and shudder.  There were a few fathers and elder brothers that didn’t weep at his memorial service but still, he has his name in bronze over at the courthouse square on the World War I memorial.

I digress.

John Wilkie, Salem Schultz, and Nathanial Barrow were the river rats of the town and on hot summer afternoons, they would take a raft up and down the river and spear carp and catfish.  Every once in awhile they would put a line in and pull up bluegill.  Salem’s father was a whiz at smoking fish and I even had the honor once or twice to try the delicacy as my father and Salem’s father were fairly good friends.  One such night, my hands greasy from smoked fish, my senses were deadened by the drowsy conversation between my father and his friend.  They spoke of their own fathers and their memories of the civil war, which to me, in 1914 seemed eons ago.  I was fourteen, wore wire-rimmed glasses and had grown at least two inches that year.  I stuck close to home, the library and anyplace relatively cool.

“Let’s go to the cave.”

“No, I don’t want to go to that stupid cave.”

“Why not?  It will be great at night.”

I spoke up, amongst the whispered conversation of the boys who never took any interest in a bookworm like me.  “You know, I think that cave is probably connected to a much larger cavern or cave system.”

There was a dead silence and I felt myself grow red.  The heat along my neck and face positively burned.  What had made me open my mouth?

“Who asked you worm?”  I couldn’t tell which one whispered that in my ear but all three chuckled as if the words were unique in the annals of slights and rudeness.  Perhaps that was what prompted my boldness, they were such dullards.

“Actually, I’m sure that cave is part of a larger cave.   There is even a possibility that an underground river is involved.”

I was practically drug to that cave with the words, “prove it, know-it-all, and smarty pants,” filling the air as we walked down the dirt road, and down the narrow path to the river.  The darkness was complete as the town’s lights disappeared behind the steep bank of the river.  We felt our way along the bank with the swift water just at our feet and the gleam of fast running river expanding out before us.  I was relieved when we all managed to crowd into the narrow cave opening.  To actually get into the cave we had to belly crawl.  I didn’t like it as I wasn’t fond of small places but the natural stone walls quickly gave way to a fairly large cavern.  Nathanial lit the lantern and the cave walls lit up with the spark of tiny quartz and dripping wet stone.

I had been in the cavern before and seen the impressive glitter.  There had even been some geologist down from Chicago to examine the cave.  It was from over hearing those men talk in my father’s store that they suspected the cave was part of a larger cave system.  The bought supplies from my father intent on exploring the cave in greater detail but were at the last minute called back to Chicago.

They never came back.

“It’s cold in here.”

“Hush, did you hear that?”

“Stop it, Salem, nobody wants to hear your ghost stories.”

“No, Nate, really, I think we should go.”

The cave did seem unusually cold.  I was delighted.  Perhaps this was where I could escape to occasionally from the heat.

“Hey, I think I heard it too.”

“What?”

“Like voices.”

I moved to the outer line of the light.  Nate had held up the lantern but his hand was shaking and the light shook with him.  Suddenly we were in complete darkness and what shattered me was that I heard nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  There was no sound from the boys, no teasing or angry words and I heard nothing hit the stony ground.

I am pretty good at keeping my bearings and I felt that if I followed my left hand straight ahead I could reach the small opening that led to the river.  I knew that I had been duped but still it was terrifying to be left alone in that cave.  I moved ahead swiftly and bumped into something soft and warm.  It bounced off of me and then seemed to swing back and forth a darker shadow than the blackness about me.

I fell to the ground.  The ground was wet and smelled of urine.  I scrambled forward and bumped into a soft lump that shuddered and cried softly.

“John?”

“Worm?”

I crawled over him and he grasped my foot following me forward.  I heard a soft scratching and some whispering overhead.  I moved faster and John Wilkie nearly crawled over me.  I felt the fresh air and so did John because he pushed me aside and pulled himself out.  As I crawled out I felt a stabbing pain in my right foot and I shouted out in agony.  I made it to the small cave at the river and found John standing at the edge weeping.

My foot and leg were never the same.  I wasn’t fit for active duty when the war came.  My parents spoke in whispers near my sick bed and to me, they were always a little distant from that time on.  I was ill for a very long time.  I even had to complete my first few weeks of school at home.

I was never a popular boy so I can’t say I was bothered by the solitude.  The whispers were what bothered me the most.

“He’s poisoned.  What got Salem and Nate got a piece of him too.  He can see in the dark and his eyes flash red.”

You see, it’s important now that I stay incognito, I’m not so changed I need a cave to hunt in.

Candle Number One

I was and still am the bad girl. She held my hand through the first disastrous marriage, the second lackluster marriage, and subsequent love affairs, Harley purchase, nude beaches in France and my feeble attempt at motherhood. She walked me all the way through.

“What could possibly go wrong?”

I stared at her.  Yes with obvious disbelief. And here is the thing, I was and still am the bad girl. She held my hand through the first disastrous marriage, the second lackluster marriage, and subsequent love affairs, Harley purchase, nude beaches in France and my feeble attempt at motherhood. She walked me all the way through.

And now she is the one asking that dumb ass question.

Before I could say anything she was on with another cliché – “you owe me.”

I furrowed my brows. Yes, I owed her until I died but her voice sounded possessed.

“What do you mean…”

“You went out with my boyfriend.”

“Whaaat?”

“You remember, I know you remember — Tom?”

“Tom was your crush, chic,”

“And you went out with him, knowing.”

I looked at my friend of over forty years.

“He actually puckered up when he kissed, Vicky, I saved you a lifelong trail of misery.”

“Did you sleep with him?”

“I was fifteen.”

“You lost your virginity when you were sixteen.”

“I was eighteen and I paid, I’m still paying.”

“Birth control.” She said it in her home economics tone of voice and I had a sudden urge to kill her. “Right, can we get on with this?”

She turned back to the cake on the table. I picked up the fiftieth candle and placed it in the middle, feeling suddenly like the ten-year-old girl in the backyard – her parent’s back yard. I had just moved in next door with my Mom and step-dad number two. I was drug over to celebrate the tenth birthday of a girl I never met.

I locked eyes with the fifty-year-old woman sitting across from me. Perfect life, perfect husband, two perfect boys and scared to death of fifty.

The cake looked like a damn porcupine.

“If you light them all before the first one melts, I’ll live to be 100.”

“And if I don’t make it?” I felt a shiver run down my spine. Secrets hushed to each other under the covers, tears, and pain during childbirth, weddings, and champagne, death and boredom all faced together.

“Then I’ll live to be 80 and that will be better.”

I lit the flame, watched it flare up between us and set it to candle number one.

 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Never Mind

What do I tell my children?  What do I tell my aging parents, honest in that they
Do not envy me.

How can I convey to you the heaviness of my heart?

I’m sure you’ve felt it, experienced the physical weight of sadness.

That sudden drop which suspends inside.

Lead within the quasi-weightlessness of water.

Water, wrapped in flesh, encased in a mind that cannot lift the eyes to see the horizon.

Just take the moment of temporary lightness, the mire of reality is unfair.

No one can help me, so I look to the earth for inspiration

I look to words for hope

I look to art for some sign of sympathy.

Never mind.

The earth has become paved over with concrete without thought to next week.

The words are glossed over by Freudian overtones that mankind craves.

Art has become not the object but the person who renders nothing but style.

What do I tell my children?  What do I tell my aging parents, honest in that they do not envy me?

How do I keep from mourning the family given and then taken?

The lessons have stopped and I am now atop the tiny dynasty learning faith.

And even that the world insists gets in the way.

Never mind.

Into Safety

Maybe some see already that her calm life was sailing blissfully into an evil maelstrom. 

Since being alone, she has been extremely busy.

She knew a woman, friends of hers, who were the same.  Extremely busy.  They sat down after work and read historical romances or went to movies by themselves.  They lived in the city, in small apartments that didn’t cost a fortune and rode the bus to the L and the L into the city proper and didn’t complain about the early rise because they didn’t have to drive in “all that traffic.”

She was like them, just like them an introvert with a busy schedule.  She joined a knit club with other introverts, men and women alike who told her where the best coffee shops were and the best nookish bookstores.  They would go out together and drink sherry once in a while just to compare notes.

After a long while of learning how to be alone; she liked it.  She liked her satellite friends who would be coming running if there was some sort of catastrophe, like a lost cat, or a pregnant sister.  They came because the catastrophes were few and far between and usually always brief.

Like all contentment however it slips past without any sounding alarm.  One evening rather than a predictable romance, she read “Jane Eyre.” Harmless enough and her friends encouraged her in the classics.  But the classic are dangerous books.  Why?  Because of the questions they pose.  The questions weren’t harmful by themselves:

“Who was president when Jane Eyre loved Edward Fairfax Rochester?”

“How old was the United States when Mr. Darcy proposed to Elizabeth?”

“What did Freud have to say about Wuthering Heights?”

Well okay, the last one wasn’t so much a question that has much bearing on her journey but if one has some time on their hands it could make quite a dissertation.

Maybe some see already that her calm life was sailing blissfully into an evil maelstrom.  Could she have made an effort to stop?  Sure, and she did but questions beget questions.  If it was the best of times how could it be the worst?   That made no sense, on the quiet bus ride into work.    Besides if any sort of enlightenment ushers in the guillotine then perhaps we should take a closer look at the crusades.

If that makes no sense just know, the more she dug into her questions the deeper into history she sank.

Until she found him blinking up at her from the dark tunnel of conflicting sources and original sources.  The wind was howling a city of Chicago winter storm when their eyes met over thick tombs that the librarians twittered and fussed about whenever they were requested.

Her heart sank.  She had been trapped, for there he was running his fingers through his hair and with a perplexed look on his face.  She understood, the Enlightenment was sinking into anything but and that was a hard lesson.

She imagined him several times during her work day.  What if he appreciated German opera more than Italian?  What if he liked to travel to see the very place where Antoinette died and she simply wanted to take a visual tour.  What if he preferred French to Portuguese?  What happens to a man who thinks that Dickens actually wrote anything worth reading besides the “Pickwick Papers”? What if he preferred Adams over Jefferson, what then?

Her heart pound in her ears, when she realized that he would speak to her, talk to her and the quiet smiles and bumping into each other in the history sections, were done.

What happened to those nice quiet nights knitting and reading alone in snow driven Chicago?

Before he opened his mouth or give her the warm smile she had shared with him for many weeks her heart felt suddenly leaden.  She couldn’t do it again.  She couldn’t.  It wasn’t the quiet, it was the burden.  Life was too good to complicate it with true love.

She ducked quickly into the medieval histories of the Spanish.  She heard his footsteps slow and imagined his surprised face.  He walked slowly passed her and into Ancient Greece.

Hollow

She knew that going wasn’t necessarily allowed.

She could not stand another moment in her small apartment – not with the carnival going on.  The carnival had been in town for three days – tonight would be its last.  She thought, with regret, of the workers waking up on a Sunday as she walked to church, silently unhinging their mechanical rides and sweeping up the small pieces of litter that escaped the trash receptacles.  She did not want to hear the squeak and rub of peopleless rides before she had a chance to enjoy a Saturday night at the carnival.

The town welcomed the carnival every year but she could never attend – the carnival was too worldly for her family – still was, but her family need not know she found the lights, the noise, the smells so fascinating. Besides she was on her own – she needed to make decisions on her own. She would be up early in the morning and get to church early, but tonight she had to know what the carnival was all about

She hesitated at the gate, five dollars was a lot of money to walk around a carnival.

“Half price, half price now until we close down.”

A sign she felt and so put her money down.

She would simply be careful with her milk and eggs – they could last the entire week.

She ducked her head shyly as a gust of wind pulled and fluttered the canopy at the entrance and the ticket taker gave her, what she thought was a wicked grin.

She hurried along the carnival grounds and listened to the sounds of young children shouting with delight as the mechanical rides twirled black against the red-orange sunset sky.  A small family of four walked ahead of her laughing and sharing pink cotton candy. She smiled at their compact and secret ways of knowing each other; the dip and sway of the candy making its way to sticky fingers all, in turn, the smiles upon each face.

She was careful to stay away from the rides but watched the Ferris-Wheel glided several times around against the then darkened sky.  The last of the summer warmth curled about her in a soft breeze that lifted her hair in a gently swaying lift that seemed to keep rhythm with the music being played.

“Do you want to ride?”

His voice was deep and directly behind her. She jumped and turned, then stepped back.  He was tall and slender and she was sure he had some sort of makeup on his face. His eyes were startling brown, golden flecked and when he smiled at her and tilted his head she thought for a moment that they turned red.

“You’ve been watching that wheel for some time. I own this little place – I’ll make sure you have a ride.”

“No thank-you.”

“Why not? This is our last night.  We’ve done very well – I don’t think we will miss the price of one Ferris-Wheel ticket.”

He glided her past smiling and paying customers and walked her up the back stairs, where weary workers, not much older than she, dressed in black and white shirts, stepped aside as they walked by. “She’s next,” and she went inside a small cage seat that swung precariously back and forth and she was lifted up into the summer night sky.

She came back down and he was still there and laughing at her frightened face. “Look straight out, not down, child.”

So she did and gasped at the sight.  Her small town was all alight. She saw the church steeple, the town square and felt she was level with the flag on the courthouse tundra. She twisted around carefully not wanting the seat on which she sat to swing too precariously – yes, just there but barely, the small farm where she was sure her family sat upon the screened in porch.

She swung down and felt her heart lift, she was sure that she could fly forward to whatever direction she chose.

He was standing there again, now smiling and she was lifted away gazing at his countenance.  This time she stopped at the very top.  She tried not to think of the small summer breeze slowly pushing the wheel backward and forward.  She closed her eyes the rest of the ride until she felt herself arrive within the well-lit exit.  A tired young man opened the gate and allowed her to step away unaided.

He was at the bottom of the steps. “Are you glad you went?”

“Yes,” she gasped and felt herself turn red to the tips of her ears and down her neck.

“Come I’ll buy you some cotton candy, looks like you could use some.”

“No, no please, I don’t really care for it. We had a cotton candy machine at church and I thought the stuff too sweet.”

He laughed aloud and she jumped, then smiled not comfortable but liking his laugh all the while.

“What’s your name,” he asked.

“Laurel,” she whispered feeling ashamed – this was no proper introduction.

“Well, Laurel, would you like to see the two-headed chickens or the trapeze act in the big top?”

She looked down and whispered no thank you and hoped he would believe her.

“Well then,” he said soft and low, “why don’t you let me make sure no one follows you home.”

She looked up into his face, somehow kind, somehow not.  He seemed without age and her heart pounded in her ears and her hands clenched around her waist.  She liked his stare and was very afraid.

“But you would be following me home.”

His face softened in the green, then yellow, then red glowing lights.  Touching his fingertip to her soft cheek, she felt a shiver deep down. He had found a hollow place within her brief existence.  She knew he would take and keep it.