Cold, White Tiles

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For the third time in as many days, they were asking if I’m sure I didn’t want to go with them. I tell them I’m positive. I could hear the mirth being stifled at the bottom of their throats, forbidden from passing their larynxes, driven back down with swallowed saliva. It sounded like condescension when it eventually came out as an “okay.” I’m a continuous spring of intrigue and amusement to them, I’m sure, but I’m beginning to feel like a pariah, a cynical outcast. Nevertheless, just last week they’d bought me my third Belgian loafer—a blue vanity I had showed them in one of those prissy magazines (The Esquire I think it was). For a year now, it has been their habit to surprise me with posh gear even though the bank has been calling about those unsettled loan payments for some failed entrepreneurship. Still, I’m sure they’ve seen that how I walk and talk has changed. And I suppose slight derision is the only way they know how to express what I’ve caused to settle at the bottom of their aged stomachs: worry— frigid and hard to walk with like a wide, burdensome block of thawing ice.

***

Cora lies in her queen-sized bed, under her favourite pink and blue blanket (or at least I imagine she does) and tells me that she hasn’t got out of it much since last week. She says she wants someone to hold her and gently, sympathetically whisper to her words that will remind her that the grave has no victory, that Satan has long been overwhelmed by the blood of the Lamb. Words like: “weep not for him, Cora. He was a Godly man. He’s gone home to receive a crown and a mansion, to walk streets of the purest gold. You shall see him again when you too shall have traded mortal for immortality.” I can’t hold her, though; that would be so impractical and it will be for yet a little while more. I can’t tell her all that stuff about crowns and golden streets either. And I sigh like I’ve just thrown off a cumbersome, back breaking load when she finally comes off the phone.

***

girl

When I was a boy growing up on the island, there was no spring, summer, fall or cold winter. There were only rushing winds and incessant, oppressive sunshine. If there wasn’t, it was only because we were under the veil of night, covered by a thick, smooth darkness, from under which the crickets would scuttle and start their crisp chirping—that soft, steady screeching that lingered until the first light of dawn. The mangy dogs would be up at ungodly hours too, all of them were strays; their only allegiance being to the hand that fed them—a fidelity that caused them to marshal the streets, barking and chasing the night walkers, most of whom were petty thieves. Sometimes bursting through the darkness as well, was a matchless, almighty noise—the sound of people having a good time, partying with speakers so loud that the prospect of them blowing was a salient concern. They’d make our windows vibrate, quaking with calypso, reggae and hip-hop beats, and sometimes a DJ saying “pick her up and turn her around.” Oh, how those heathens danced! Even after Mr Ramson would call the police, who’d flash their impressive blue illuminations an hour after they’d been summoned and leave five minutes later, going back to their domino games and shut eye. It was all so simple, so repetitive but still, so lively. Things are much the same. But I don’t sneak away to the parties anymore.

***

Remember to turn on the outside lights before you go to bed, they say. I tell them I will. They slip off the porch in their Sunday night’s best, his shoes clacking against the grey concrete of the driveway, hers clicking louder but more gracefully. The fragrance one of them is wearing stretches itself out, dawdles and is tickly to my nostrils; it’s a thick South American body mist, one from the set I’d bought them last month to congratulate them on their 31st year as woman and husband. Please remember to turn on the lights they say once more before entering the car. I say I will again but out of lip service. I’m what they ceremoniously called an absent-minded member of “the generation of vipers, the ones who will suffer the wrath to come” whenever Pastor Jones was around. They still pray for me, though. Any day now the Lord is supposed to pull me out of the mires of sin and shame and re-baptize me in his son’s precious blood that still flows from Calvary. And when I tell them I’m not that prodigal boy of Luke 15: 11-23, they tell me “the hardest heart is easy for Him to soften” and that “faith is the evidence of things unseen.”

***

Cora is calling again—the third time this hour. It would be so much easier to lie to her if she didn’t talk to my mother every other day or so. I snatch up the phone and glower at it. Something inside me speaks (I wonder who told it that it could!). “There’s a time to be cruel and a time to be charitable,” it says. I press the green button then walk to the front of my driveway where the other children and I used to shriek and yell “goal” back when we could hardly spell religion or morality or expediency, the mean streets where Christopher had wrestled me for my soccer ball and burst my lip. The spot where he had affirmed his 8 year old verve and dexterity by putting his knee on my puny neck is covered with brown, prickly, withering vines and thistles now—it used to be open, approachable, verdant grass.

“Noah? Are you there,” Cora says when she doesn’t hear me say hello.

“I am…that I am.”  She barely laughs for the first time in an hour, perhaps in a week.

“You shouldn’t blaspheme.”

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” I say. I don’t know why.

She says she wishes she could hold my hands and squeeze some strength out of them and that I should return soon. I tell her I wish was there too. And then that familiar, imposing, bitter sensation washes over me and a wave of weariness rushes through my body from head to toe then back up again. Five minutes later, the feeling has completely enveloped all of me, down to my very bones. I feel like I’m wrapped in mud—wet, cakey, heavy, vexingly religious mud. I feel inspired too—inspired to lean on something. So, I go over to the coarse, red brick wall in front of our porch and start licking the sappy strawberry jam that I had been putting on my fingers when she called. My lungs become a stable ebb and flow, steadily rising and falling like the tide on an evening of mild breeze. I’m convinced that there’s something spiritual—magical even—about this wall. I had pushed Rochelle off it, sending her crashing noisily into a heap of stones the masons used to fill building blocks when I was nine. On that unclouded July day, I had cackled while she cried and screamed and worked her little body up into a storm of feeble kicks and half closed fists as the heels of her hands bled. To this day she says it’s why I owe her and that we’ll be even when we walk into church arm in arm, cemented to each other’s sides. I tell her we’ll be even soon, but she says I’m being mendacious. Years of being around scammers, con artists— her family—are not without their advantages. “I always know when you’re lying, my stomach tingles as soon as you do,” she once told me.

There’s crying again. The thought comes to me that Cora’s such an attention seeker. I try to tell her to look on the bright side: she’ll be left with a sizable inheritance. She says I’m cruel if that’s all I can think of in this, her time of maximum bitterness, her greatest period of trial and tribulation. I tell her I’m joking. She says sometimes my jokes can be so needless and crass. I tell her I’m sorry and continue to lick the hint of strawberry jam that’s left on my fingers.

***

road

The air is light and chilly. Whiffs of it cool the tip of my nose. The moon’s out in full; its silent silver is far brighter than my porch light, any porch light. The stars are also out, an infinity of dancing white light. I imagine that it’s on nights like this when people like Buddha, Mohamed, Lao Tzu, Jesus would have stumbled upon divine discoveries. Buddha especially, I can see him wrapped in a red saffron robe, dirty from a day of alms begging, sitting with his legs folded underneath him—escaping the wheel of Samsara in my front yard on the very grass the dogs sometimes emptied their bowels on.  He’d say that there are no such things as faeces and urine, though; they’re just concepts our minds attribute to reality. And when we awake from this dream, this illusion, this samsara, we’ll realize that all is one, that we’re all just a part of a singular consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, that this process of being and becoming is just a cosmic game. He’d have sounded so lame to me now that I’ve taken Dr Wright’s class on the death of metaphysics.

***

Cora’s still on the phone making sobbing sounds. Just then another call comes in. It’s Rochelle again for the second time today. I tell Cora my phone battery is about to die, I’ll call her back as soon as I find the charger. She says to hurry. I tell her I love her, she says she loves me too. Then I answer Rochelle. She says she’s not going to church tonight. I stop licking the jam off my bony fingers. “Are you coming over then? No one’s here.”

 

“Do you even have to ask?”

I head inside. “Even so, come quickly.”

She laughs. “You’re soooo bad. See you in a few.”

I shiver a little when she hangs up and goose bumps sprout on my hairy, dark skin that smells of expensive lotions and ointments. I haven’t gone more than a day without talking to her ever since I saw her walking up these suburban streets, her pendulum hips swinging. Church sisters weren’t allowed to wear what she wore before I left; they weren’t allowed to put chemicals in their hair either. And I understood why when I saw her that day—August 23, 2012 at 5:06 pm. Her dark blue jeans squeezed her tightly in all the unholy places, her yellow blouse that said “Juicy” sat atop them, exposing then hiding her smooth stomach as she sauntered. Her oval face and oddly big eyes had seemed to burst out with a dizzying, riotous fervour when she saw me for the first time in years sitting on the wall as I always do these days when I’m tired of hearing songs about how amazing God’s grace is. She ran up, hugged me and then stained my jaw with her mirrored mauve lipstick and that was what had first given my body that sweet, violent urge.

No sooner than I’ve finished straightening a few cushions, arranging a few chairs, putting away a few half-read books, there’s a clunking on my gate. I move the burgundy curtains to look. It’s Rochelle. Her smile’s catholic, her teeth’s pronouncedly white beneath the soft pink of her lips. Her smile swells into a grin when I reach the gate. She springs a hug on me as soon as I pull the lock. My body responds. It’s working off memory. It’s excited—I’m excited.

***

It was about two months ago when my father first insinuated that I was cruel. We were on the back porch and I was noticing how the light from the street bounced off the leaves of the tall, wiry, barren plum tree in our neighbor’s backyard. Light: what was it? How did it come to be? Why can I see it? Of course I knew that it was electromagnetic radiation ranging from about 4000 to 7700 angstrom units and propagated at a speed of about 186, 300 miles per second; Physics 55: Light and Heat had been one of my most gratifying classes. But what’s electromagnetic radiation? A quantum phenomenon made up of particles? But what’s a particle? What’s an eye? What’s a tree? What’s anything?

“This world is wonderful,” my father said leaning back in one of the yellow plastic chairs that had become black with grime and age. He was starring in the same direction I was.

“Indeed it is,” I said sitting up in the other.

“It’s the handy work of God, son.”

“What do you mean by God?”

“The one that created the universe, Heaven, Hell, you, me.”

“I’m pretty sure that scientists say that the universe was created by quantum fluctuations in a vacuum. Is empty space your God? Are you saying God doesn’t exist?”

“End your blasphemy. I didn’t know I’d have a child who’d cast his lot among the wicked.” I stared at him as I would a puzzle.

“What?” he said.

“Who are you, Henry VIII?”

His voice started to rise and tremble after that, mine did too. Up to this day they still rise and tremble sometimes when we talk. Cora’s voice sometimes rose too when we spoke about her beliefs. We used to sit on the mahogany chairs of the university’s cocoa scented Starbucks chatting for hours like we weren’t worried about our GPA. I’d mock her precious Redeemer when we’d run out of more cordial topics. It would cause her to say my name like a young child who was being denied a fancy toy then roll her eyes. After which, I’d go purchase another hot chi-latte, inhale its steam and sip it slowly while I heard for perhaps the 1 millionth time how her Lord and Saviour had given her the wherewithal to cope when her cat, Mr Tate, ran away when she was seventeen; how he had worked a miracle to allow her to get into this famed tier 2 college; and how freshman year he had given her the stamina to stay up all night studying for that chemistry finals when the coffee shop was closed and she didn’t have enough fuel to last her the entire night like those five foolish Virgins of Matthew 25: 1-13.

“So hold up. He gave you red bull one night?” I’d sometimes ask.

“Spiritual red bull.”

“It would have to be physical red bull since it works on your physical body.”

“Shut up!”

Usually she’d get that blank look, a mixture of slight disappointment and tamed resentment, midway through my witticisms. I’d stop of course and promise I’m only teasing and that I’d go to church with her next Sunday to prove it—an assurance which would cause her face to blossom like a hibiscus with that beautiful, open, thoughtless smile. That’s what had made my family say “God has beautified her with salvation.” When I asked them if they liked Rochelle’s smile too, they said that there’s something off-putting about it.

***

door way

Rochelle and I shuffle into the living room, our lips locked, the curtains drawn, the windows closed, our muscles tense—so rigid that they tremble. We sound like we were mutually insistent on sucking the air out of each other. Something clatters to the floor. I don’t look, she doesn’t either. She just plays with the string of my shorts as she always tends to.  Just two months ago Cora had gotten me these shorts. They were white with black strings. The brand was Adidas. They stopped about two inches before they reached my knees as soccer shorts tend to. Both Rochelle and Cora say they make my legs look enviable—I think they mean pitiable. Cora and I had been at Finish Line when I said I liked them not to hint that I wished to own them but as usual she got them for me anyways.

I’ve often wondered what the eastern mystics I’ve studied in Dr Brandon’s Eastern Religions class would say about her. I hope they’d say she’s nice but only because she’s fragile, too afraid of ridicule to truly upset either man or God. But then again, who are they to judge; the more I researched them, the more I came across their names in criminal reports: some for murder, rape, and child abuse but most for scams. It had made me ask my father if some of the more famous religious leaders from antiquity could be conmen too. “Not Jesus,” he said. Still they’d say Cora is nice and deserving of real, honest love.

She and I were sitting on some park benches about two years ago when the chill from the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream she was enjoying must have cramped her cerebellum. It was a pretty cool night for mid September in downtown Jacksonville; the autumn winds were creeping in. And we sat under the Virgo moon watching some streaming ducks that were graceful, precise, careful, shy, thrifty with their crusades across the lake. I had begun to feed my salty popcorn with extra butter to the group of three ducks that had pulled close to edge of the water when I noticed that Cora had fallen silent for far too long. So I turned around and met her eyes, charming but heavy from all those all-nighters. And I started to feel it, a warmth rising like a slight puff of smoke from a small fire that sought to explode into flames. “What?” I said.

Her gaze averted, her cheeks became rosy.

“I have a question.”

“Okay?”

“Um…do you think we could…you know…?”

“What?”

“Be more than friends.”

“I’ll think about.”

Only the humming of the tires of her Prius broke the silence on the ride back that night. And when we reached our dorm, she only muttered “good night” after I had said it thrice. By then I had spent 30 minutes watching wet mascara run down her cheeks. Truth be told, I had half-expected her to ask the Lord to smite me right then and there but like a good, scared Christian she didn’t—not out loud at least.

Those days Christopher and I spoke of my adventures in a foreign land almost daily. And he told me I was a fool I was for not telling her what she wanted to hear and reminded me of how no one he knows back home with a degree has a job or any vision of a bright future. And two days later after that quiet car ride, I told Cora that I wanted her to be my girl if it wasn’t too late. She said she didn’t know now that she has seen my callousness. I told her that ever since my teenage years I had harboured a crippling fear of bombshells. She said that’s not how it seemed when she threw me that surprise birthday party. I told her that surprises like those are different because they didn’t remind me of years of my mother telling my father he’s an infidel. She said she thinks she understands. I said I was sorry if I seemed unfeeling, then I smiled; she smiled too. Then we stared out into the night from our perch outside the girl’s dorm. She seemed to be floating, mounted up on the wings of eagles, while I tried to remember something—a time when my mother had called my father an infidel—and couldn’t.

***

Rochelle still plays with the string of my shorts. I keep thinking that she has filled out well, almost too well for the teacher of the Young Adults Sunday school class at Mount Ebenezer Baptist Church where there’s said to be a regular out pouring of the holy spirit, especially in a week like this—their missions week. My hands starts to rove, her skin’s so smooth, so welcoming, so beguiling. She had said she didn’t believe in this type of thing before marriage when we had first started texting. Cora told me something similar too but Cora had meant every single letter.

***

It was Christopher who first told me that Rochelle wasn’t always true to her Christian creeds. He also told me who Craig from down the road kept bringing her into his father’s house; how Mrs Jones’ son had dropped out of Blair’s High School to start his career as a small time marijuana vendor; how Mr Daley never left his house much after his wife divorced him because she was tired of being controlled. Christopher had recently turned a police officer, a “Babylon boy” as we called them, and sometimes that gave him the right to know all this gossip which he’d exchange when we were on our way to Limelight where he’d make a night of sending the cheapest drinks to women who he thought were dull in the head—so sluggish intellectually that it made them interesting, if only for a night. I’d only sit, watch and drink my gin on the rocks—I haven’t danced since I got back.

Christopher was surprisingly prolific at securing an hour to half a night alone with one of these women; it didn’t matter if they were married. On the odd nights that he had failed though, he’d drive his undercover Ford Taurus to another place, Girls Galore, at a very private corner of the tourist area and pressure me into go in, saying things like “it will only be for short while, plus it’s dangerous to sit out here alone.” I’d go in (surely against my will, that’s what I still tell myself), find a little corner by the bar and turn my back to the selfish, slavish craving to satisfy base desires—to Christopher. Not for long, though—my head kept turning around, my eyes would push it. Usually when my eyes got their wish, I’d see Christopher’s clammy hands slipping money in one of the girl’s thongs. Her mouth would be curled into a smile as she danced, but unvaryingly her eyes would be wide open, searching him up and down, looking for some kind of clue on his closed-eyelids. I know the look; my fellow undergrads that majored in philosophy usually wore it after a week of all-nighters, right before they’d ask something weird like “why I am I so fond of abusing my corporeal reality?” or something like “I don’t care about this crucible of pain anymore.”

Once when we were driving back from the bar, I had asked Christopher if that’s how he wants men to treat his daughter, Renae, when she grows up. And if her mother knew where he actually was when he told her he was “chillin with the boys.” He laughed. “I’m a real stove, I’m no one burner.”

“You know those girls hate you?” I continued.

“It sure doesn’t feel like it.”

“Would you like it you were forced to have strip for money?”

“Hellll yeah! Plus, that’s what some women are for.”

I sighed. “Patriarchy”

“Oh, here we go again—college boy and his big words.”

“You’d do well to know some.”

Christopher got quiet like he did that day when we fought, then said “dude, you’re in no position to lecture anybody, you know you love that place. Plus, you’re getting married in September, 3 months from now, and…”

“Yeah, but that’s only because I’m getting married to the wrong woman.”

***

Rochelle and I are in my room now. Jesus is on her breath and I’ve caught him in mine. We aren’t asking forgiveness, though (at least I’m not); what we’re doing is its own solution—the bed’s our altar and we were sweating out our confessions, whispering selfish prayers, saying that we can’t get enough, making bedroom hymns—our carnal Eucarist.

There’s movement at my gate, a half-hearted knocking. We stop our praying. And Rochelle draws the blanket over her as if it’s enough to hide her, while I search for my shorts. I find them on the cold, white tiles of the floor. I pick them up, put them on and motion to a trembling Rochelle to hide somewhere. She heads under the bed, ignoring the perfectly clean and spacious closet. I go over to the living room window and peel the curtains back slowly. Thank God! It’s only Mrs Nelson our immediate neighbour, my hands become steady. She just got in from work and wants to know if I’ve seen her son. I tell her no.  I turn around and see a sweaty, glistening Rochelle—my diamond in the flesh—peering out. She has caught enough of my conversation with Mrs Nelson to stop being nervous. As she peers and smiles, my phone rings. She picks it up from off the table she is standing beside. “It’s a girl called Cora,” she says. My hands start shaking again.

by Mark Hutchinson // mark@eternalremedy.com

 

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