Hope is a Four Letter Word


Harold has been straddling the abyss between sin and redemption since the day he was born, but no matter how hard he prays, he is always drawn more to darkness than to light. When he was an infant, his mother found him in his crib, still and blue, his small hands curled into lifeless fists. She lifted him gently, begged God for divine intervention, placed her mouth over his tiny nose and lips, and breathed hope and promises into his lungs until he sputtered and turned pink again.

People never believe him when he says that he can remember the moment his spirit returned to his body – how his mother laid him on the cold floor and dropped to her knees, wailing and testifying to the glory of Jesus; how she screamed her praise into the fading light of the afternoon until her voice was nothing but a hoarse prayer of gratitude, and then gathered him into her lap and whispered: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)”

Harold isn’t sure why he was spared, but he suspects it has something to do with a combination of fate, and his mother’s unwavering faith in a benevolent God. When he was a child, she used to put motivational reminders in his Roy Rogers Lunch Box. He would be sitting alone at the smallest table in the school cafeteria, and invariably, when he unwrapped his margarine and sugar sandwich from its translucent brown nest of repurposed wax paper, a small card penned in his mother’s tidy, pinched cursive would flutter to the ground brimming with two-dimensional inspiration: “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” “What does the Lord request of you?” or “Trust in His plan”, and Harold would stare balefully at the message, and wish he had never survived his potential crib death.

* * *

Harold met Lilly at a healing revival. Her father was a minister who traversed America with a dusty tent the size of a college football field, preaching the full gospel and laying his well-manicured hands upon the sick and the desperate, while beseeching Jesus to cure their ailments. Harold was there because a flyer nailed to a telephone pole said that Reverend Percy could “heal the hardest cases” – like cancer and polio, and that he was once reported to have facilitated a resurrection. It was the resurrection that Harold wanted to discuss with him. He needed to know if that person felt as empty as Harold himself felt. He also wanted to ask the Reverend if he believed in fate. Harold believed that Reverend Percy’s answer was critical for the development of his destiny.

When Harold arrived, the tent was only half full, but all of the folding chairs in the first five rows were already taken, and people were filing in in a steady stream. Some of them arrived in ambulances and were carried by stretcher to a special viewing area at the front of the tent. Harold chose a seat at the end of the twelfth row, and waited.

Eventually, Reverend Percy, emerged from behind the stage. He was a plump man with a widow’s peak, whose pants were pulled high and cinched over his ample belly with a thin leather belt. He greeted the crowd, and said: “If you’ve got just a little bit of faith as big as a mustard seed, and you begin to praise God – that faith will multiply, until fear and doubt are no longer able to live in your heart.” The audience erupted in a loud chorus of “Hallelujahs!” And he had to shout to invite the faithful to approach the stage with their requests for healing.

Harold watched apathetically as true believers and the desperate inched their way through the bourgeoning crowd seeking healing from migraines, ulcers, back pain, lisps and stutters. And he watched with mild curiosity as Reverend Percy plucked a cancerous growth from a woman’s face, grabbed metal braces from a polio sufferer, and boxed the ears of a deaf man – declaring all of them “healed in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior!”

After the final supplicant was ministered to, the Reverend walked to the edge of the stage, and peered out over the crowd until his ferret-like eyes seemed to fix upon Harold. His gaze never wavered as he spoke. “Last night, Jesus came to me in a dream. He said a seeker would wander into the tent today looking for direction and purpose. And He said that I should make a place at my table for him, and serve him as I would serve the Lord.” Harold felt in his bones that the dream was a personal message for him, so he got up from his seat, slowly walked to the base of the stage, stood between Reverend Percy and his daughter Lilly, and nervously awaited his destiny.

Harold and Lilly were married on a Sunday afternoon in a drafty Pentecostal church in Albany. On their wedding night, Harold stripped down to his powder blue boxer shorts, reverently unfastened the the faux pearl buttons of his new wife’s flannel nightgown, and attempted to penetrate her by mounting her like an nimble jockey. After several minutes of fruitless rutting, Lilly buttoned her nightgown, turned to face the wall, and fell into a deep, untroubled sleep. Harold quietly got dressed, grabbed the keys to his Oldsmobile, and drove off into the night.

Lilly’s inability to accommodate Harold’s penis was an unresolved area of contention for the duration of their four decade marriage. Several times, she tried to broach the subject with other women in her congregation, and they laughed uncomfortably, and urged her to pray about it. Eventually, Lilly made an appointment with a doctor, but he just recited labels like vaginismus, psychosomatic, and “Shy Vagina.” And future attempts at consummation continued to end with Lilly snoring soundly, the skirt of her flannel nightgown tucked between her knees, while Harold solemnly drove off into the night, stoically committed to the continued fulfillment of his destiny.

Lilly was a good wife. She made pot roast every Wednesday, kept a tidy house, and baked cookies for Harold’s office every Friday. He loved her like a sister, and accepted the lack of carnal bliss in his life as a manifestation of God’s will.

* * * *

Sometimes Harold is desperate to share his secret, but no one can ever know. That’s between him and God.

The first girl was riding her tricycle. Red streamers trailed from the handlebars as her chubby legs propelled the bike back and forth from one corner of Magnolia Street to the other. All it took was a shiny silver quarter. She went willingly. Her greed was her undoing.

Then there was Sarah. Harold drove past her house in his new Ford Fairlane, and noticed her crouched in her driveway, trying to coax an injured squirrel to drink milk out of a plastic bowl. He planned to bring her to the root cellar, but there was something about her grimy little hands offering comfort to that dying squirrel that made him change his mind.

And so it went. The lady slapping her toddler at the bus stop, yes. The freckle-faced boy with the UNICEF box, no.

As Harold ages, it becomes easier for him to find his victims. Nobody suspects that a frail old man asking for directions is capable of stealing their breath. He’s been watching Kristin for weeks – ever since she sat in his car and listened to him talk about how he likes watching the crows forage in his yard while he waits for the mailman. Later that afternoon, she brought him cookies, but for some reason, she’s been avoiding him ever since. He still has her plate. And he knows where she lives.

At this very moment, he is pulling into her driveway. The prayer flags in her carport are catching the wind. The kale in her garden needs harvesting.

(c) 2017, all rights reserved





“But along through those years I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on top of my skull.” ~ Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You 

I too, am trying to feel my way toward something honest, but my skull’s trapdoor is sealed shut, and my lists don’t evoke the lyrical inspiration of Bradbury’s lists.

Deer hearts; shiny rocks; pet rabbits for dinner; torn coffin silk; Palm Sunday; escape . . . . . . 

My grandfather was a hunter. Elk. Deer. Pheasant. Quail. Nothing was safe from him. When the woods didn’t deliver, he went drunk hunting in the backyard, where he released my mother’s two pet rabbits from their cage, shot them, and made my grandmother cook them for dinner.

So, I guess mom came by her cruelty honestly. It is probably also why she never allowed us to have pets.

Mom. It sounds unnatural to call her that. Rarely “mom”, never “mommy”, mostly “ma” – which makes her appear in my mind’s eye, as someone with false teeth and a gingham apron – not the woman who did Jane Fonda aerobics in our refinished basement, and had a host of cosmetic surgeries – including a full facelift, before the age of fifty.

ok, that was supposed to be about how my grandfather, always saved me deer hearts from his hunting trips, and how I used to take them to school for show and tell. Deer heart in a mason jar filled with formaldehyde. After a few weeks, the flesh turned from pink to gray, and bits of sediment flaked off and settled in the bottom of the jar. My Sears Garanimal bell bottoms and only-allowed-to-shower -once-per-week greasy hair already set me apart, so I don’t think this odd showing and telling helped to endear me to the other children. I actually can’t believe that my mother allowed the deer hearts in her home. I kept them in the garage with my chemistry set. It was one of those 1970’s ones, with all of the poison shit, and a real Bunsen burner. I spent a lot of time in the garage, pretending to be a mad scientist. I even touched the mercury, which feels like silver tears.

I can’t believe I’m still alive.

Turd in a Bucket

“There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you.” – Philip K. Dick

For as long as I can remember, my mother has used the the adage, you wouldn’t know your ass from a hole in the ground, in response to things I’ve done that are ridiculous or incomprehensible to her.  Every misplaced glove or crumpled piece of homework (you wouldn’t know your ass from a hole in the ground); my fear of learning how to drive (you wouldn’t know your ass from a hole in the ground)getting lost after a concert, wanting to be a writer, coming out as a lesbian (you wouldn’t know your ass from a fucking hole in the ground).

Now that I’m almost 50, this series of letters strung together have lost their power to destroy me. The once jagged edges of the words you, and wouldn’t, and know, no longer have the ability to tear at my skin from the inside. The words ass and hole-in-the-ground seem silly when I see them in the same sentence.  The incongruity of those words resting next to each other on the page, makes me laugh. It’s like imagining my subconscious in her underwear.

The stories that accompany those words are ancient history. They occasionally show up in my fiction – where versions of my child self make *bad choice* guest appearances as semi-forgettable minor characters – a young girl who gets scratched by a potentially rabid baby squirrel, or a kid who allows bullies to steal his UNICEF box. But their impact on my self-worth is negligible. The words that make up those stories have become an indistinguishable part of me, like my crooked pinkies or my genetic predisposition for alcoholism. I rarely notice them any more.

*     *     *     *     *       *

I recently got a part-time job at a small cafe in a tiny redneck town.  I didn’t really need the job, but I generate most of my income by working from home, and sometimes I get lonely.

The owner of the cafe is a micro manager who often refers to herself in the third person. She’s also a bit crazy. On my first day of work, she cleared a pile of debris off of a prep table to make room for some chicken, and a medical document depicting an outline of a woman fell out of a cookbook and fluttered to the ground.She quickly grabbed the paper and said: “They found a small mass in my breast. It’s no big deal.” Actually, it IS a big deal. She has breast cancer. But she has decided to forgo chemotherapy, radiation and surgery in favor of swallowing apricot pits and massaging her breast with frankincense oil.

The other employees are nice, but we don’t have anything in common. One of the cooks drives a car that still displays a *Bush 04 – A Safer America* bumper sticker. I’m a liberal. I am also a Buddhist. The main waitress runs an evangelical church out of her rural home.  Her husband is the pastor. On Sundays, they do river baptisms.

Several hours into my shift last Wednesday (after I had cut my finger on a broken glass, and soaked myself from head to toe at least a dozen times with the jerry-rigged sink nozzle), a drain backed up and flooded the kitchen, and I asked myself the same question I had been asking since the day I first walked into that kitchen: “Why the fuck am I doing this?”  Eventually, I unearthed the mop bucket from the storage room to find a glistening three inch black turd mocking me from the yellow plastic interior. I’m pretty sure it winked at me. And I think I heard it whisper, ” Because you don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground.”