Love and the Avenging Angel
I met her at Gabriel's funeral. Nothing like an eyeful of death to kick-start a good old-fashioned midlife crisis. That was going to be the excuse, anyway, when we got caught. Because you always get caught so you always have to think a couple moves ahead. I could pick up that much.
My mother used to say I cleaned up well. The Armani, black. Deep purple tie, Jerry Garcia. The Allan-Edmonds, still not broken in, tight on the instep. Tiffany links on french cuffs of the blood burgundy single needle Thomas Pink shirt. Izzy did the hair, trimmed my beard. It was as far as I could get into looking good without falling off the edge of the earth, reverse-gumby into a page of GQ.
Probably far enough. We're on the same mental line when they look up at me with their eyes half teary, mouths issuing confused phrases of ill-formed English from between slightly parted lips, tongue at the ridge of the teeth, the preening and fidgeting--then I know. It's wherever I want to go from here. They may as well just say it. Maybe they do.
When I was younger I never got it. The signals were eaten in self-conscious angst. Now that I have my mission I see it like daylight. The world is one never-ending vampire movie to them. They just walk up and offer themselves to you.
The deal's sealed from the second she says, "Hi." The rest is the dance. I crack open the door; pull back an inch. She takes a step forward. I inch backward. The slower you go, the harder they push. Step forward. They don't even know they're doing it. As soon as she feels the slightest bit comfortable, she's abandoning reason. Gotta watch out for that, because they surrender long before it's actually safe.
So the punchline: fifteen minutes later we're in half our clothes in the restroom in the basement of the funeral home. My trousers are on the towel rack. I've got her dress up around her armpits, back against the wall, she's groaning into my mouth like she's dreaming a nightmare beating. The slower I go, the harder she pushes. Trying to get into better position for motion. These things always look better than they feel.
When she gets to straightening her dress and combing her hair out I wonder why. Always do. Right around the time I'm lacing the belt she tossed, I'm thinking--what the hell are they looking for? They're not going to marry a guy they meet this way. Don't they know what kind of a world it is out there?
"When can I see you again?" she asks, staring into the mirror, rubbing something shiny on her lips with the tip of a finger.
"When do you need me?"
Without hesitation: "Wednesday." Then, "Jane McFadden. Uncle Gary's niece. You know--Bob's daughter. 408-867-5309"
The number I don't even have to think about. Let's see how far she's willing to compromise. How many lies? How much vanity? How much hurt? "How old are you?"
She squints, stops. I feel her thinking--why should she answer? And she does, says, "Twenty-seven," but I know her driver's license says thirty-eight. If she were to ask me her social security number, she'd be surprised I knew it. She'd be terrified when she realized I knew her bedroom walls were red and she slept in men's underwear.
That she has a kid she's given up. His name is Sam and he lives three thousand miles away in California with his adoptive parents.
That she cries about it, too much, she thinks.
"408-867-5309," she says. "You're not writing."
"When you were young you dreamed of horses," I say. Kiss the spot under her ear.
"All little girls..."
"You fall. You're trampled. Killed."
Palms on my jaw, she moves my head, stares into my eyes as if she's convinced I'm wearing a mask.
"Who are you?"
I lean into her, kiss her on the lips, feel them as they part. Eyes closed she tips her head and her tongue probes outward. I run one hand down her back. Feel the waistband of her panties through her dress. Probe a little bit till she sighs and I know she's ready then stop.
It started because she needed to control the fear. The men were bigger. Stronger. They couldn't be repelled, only deflected. So she had to run in the same direction. She had to stay ahead.
We separate an inch. Two. She whispers, "Wednesday--please." Now tears. "How do you know..." I stop her with a kiss. "What's your..." Put my finger on her lips like we're in a movie.
Kiss her again quickly and say, "Lock the door behind me and wait a couple minutes till you come out. Okay?"
I stop in the soup kitchen down on Mapes Avenue. The women are serving hot broth and cheese sandwiches. The poor gather their food and sit on benches letting the steam waft into their faces, fighting the urge to swallow everything at once by warming themselves over their bowls.
Sister Martha says, "Good thing you're here. The Hubert family is missing, at least no one's seen hide nor hair of them for three days and they got those little ones. Agnes says they tried to leave the city on foot to find work for the daddy in Jersey, but we think they came upon some foul play under the Cross Bronx, poor things."
"Try the police?" I say before I can stop myself. Last time the cops were out here was when Reagan visited.
"You going to help or not? Just say if you're too busy."
"Never too busy," I say.
She relaxes. "You look good today. Seeing a new lady?"
"Sort of," I say. "Can't really figure relationships these days. Anything else you need from me before I head out?"
She calls the other women from their serving and they pull in close, bowing their heads.
Automatically I recite, "Lord, protect these women. Bless their work and all who seek respite from the cold in this hallowed place. Shower your love upon them." I kiss each of them on the forehead.
"No harm in playing both sides," Sister Martha says, going back to her duties. "God loves you."
"We're all on the same side, sweetness," I said, heading out. "I'll go take a look for the Huberts, if the police don't beat me to it." I point toward the phone on the wall, but she ignores me.
"You're a good boy. Your mama taught you well," she says.
I remember that when I was young my mother told me the world was an outpost in space replete with angelic beings, each with the purpose to save one soul.
There's a poster on the door of the soup kitchen I pass on the way out. It says, "If each of us saves only one other, we are all redeemed."
The Wreck sees me on my way to the Cross Bronx overpass. He calls from the other side of the street where he and a few others huddle over a fire in a steel drum, rubbing their hands, shifting their weight from foot to foot as if the ground were hot coals.
"Anything for your old friend?" he says, holding out a hand hardly covered in a tattered leather glove.
I shove a twenty into his palm; pull the nearly empty bottle of Jim Beam from his overcoat pocket and toss it. The others look on, circling like sharks until I put my arm around the putrid geezer and lead him away.
"What you all gussied up for?" he asks me. "You got yourself a woman?"
"Funeral. An old friend. We have got to get you a bath. Your condition is unsanitary."
"Soon I'll be sleeping with the worms, anyway. So what you out for? Collecting souls for the boss?"
"He takes care of that himself," I say. "I was just paying my respects."
"Some respect. You stink like sex," he says.
"Cologne wore off."
"Who is she?"
I stop him in front of St. Andrews. Father Rappilier sees us and waves us in. "Go on, now," I tell the Wreck. "Don't let me see you hanging with those wolves anymore. They're bad company."
"She get killed?"
"Let it lie," I say, trying to keep my own wolf at bay. But when I look at him, I know he's not going to let it go. He's got nothing else to do for the rest of his life but remind me he knows what I am so I say, "She's someone who needs my help."
What the hell kind of shit-ass angel are you that runs in the gutter? You come home from a funeral dressed like Arsenio and smelling of cum and you won't go inside a church? Who ever heard of something so back-ass-fucked up?"
"Just go inside and get warm, old father. I'll be back."
I wave to the priest and send the old man in. Rappilier smiles and nods. He makes a sign of the cross with his hand, then kisses the metallic crucifix around his neck.
When I reached puberty my mother told me this story: God made an error.
The human mind only works in contrasts. It's the nature of the spirit. Nothing can be experienced in absolute. A child born into eternal light has no perception of sight. One who has never felt cold, knows no warmth.
He from whom all emanates builds nothing but love. Humanity could not perceive it. And so one came forward to correct the problem.
Michael cast him out.
Thus was created a role for each of us. Light and dark. Hot and cold.
Good and evil.
These things don't exist except in our minds, for there is only God and God's minions.
We are all God's minions.
The day my mother told me I had been born for the task, I didn't want to believe it. I denied it. Ran into the streets. My life was my life.
Instinct overwhelmed me. My reaction times increased to where I had to think about what I was doing after it was done. There was no time to be afraid anymore.
They'd bred it out of me, my mother had said. Fear leads to anger. Anger to hate. Hate to pain. And so I would grow to become immune to fear as the cause of all the world's grief. I would not be what I dreamed, but what they dreamedthat I would exist above and outside the world of men.
"You're not one of us," my mother told me, that terrible rainy afternoon. I ran out of the apartment to the park across the street. She caught up with me.
"What did you do, Ma? What am I?"
"You are a soldier, son. You are a superior being."
"Ma, don't say that. I'm no different. . ."
"You don't realize what you know, because you think everyone your age thinks like you do," raindrops rolling down her face from her saturated hair as if the immediacy of a storm could make truth of this fiction.
I knew I couldn't stop her delusion. I would have to prove her wrong through my example.
"We've waited for you for millennia, son. Someone has got to intercede for men."
"It's not true."
She tried to take me by the wrist, but I pulled away.
She said, "But it is."
From that point forward, I stopped trying to change her mind. It was hopeless.
There are screams from under the highway bridge. You have to be close to hear them over the endless road noise.
The winter sun is setting somewhere above the leaden clouds that encase us in damp and cold. Patches of dirty snow dribble tiny streams over brown-black ash and soil, join with other streams to form rivulets that slide down the bare concrete riverbank. The river flows. Water, blackish gray, supports a rusting tugboat that piles a crest of hissing white foam at its bow.
Above the cars keep moving. The tugboat chatters on. Planes overhead find their way to Newark and Kennedy.
And a child screams. I don't want to believe it's the youngest Hubert girl, but I'm shown it must be. Rounding the bridge stanchion I first see a leg jutting out, toes up, brown skin marred in white and purple streaks. Behind it a dark olive jacket oscillates back and forth.
A little further, a beige pockmarked rump, flaccid and sour. An arm that flails outward and down. A scream with each stroke of the arm.
At times like this I need to remind myself of my mother's most important lesson.
The rapist hears me. Looks aside as if not wanting to abandon his prey to what may be a weaker animal.
"Leave her alone," I tell him. Economizing movement. Anger wastes energy when one needs to focus.
They're all the same, when they choose this path. The violent believe they hold the upper hand in an element of surprise, but the path of agony they trace is well marked. The knife is not far from his hand. It's played and predictable. I would tell him but it wouldn't change his choices, and so can't effect mine.
He's not going to confront me with his pants down, so he's going to threaten the girl.
"Get away," he yells a couple times as I circle to find the weak spot. I watch him thrust the point of the blade against the girl's throat. She screams again.
I'm only inches from them now. I can smell the alcohol and bile on his breath. Crouching, I bring myself to his eye level.
"I'll do it," he says, now excited at the prospect of the exertion of will over another.
The child cries. Her eyes are nearly swollen shut. She begs the man to stop, her voice so hoarse she sounds like she's whispering. Pleads to be let go. Her mother. They always want their mother.
"God help me, I'll do it," he says.
"He won't," I say, because it's true.
"Close your eyes, baby," I say to the girl. She's seen enough. She does, sobbing.
And now the rapist is dying. He can't understand how it happened. What crosses his face is not pain but confusion as his vision begins to blur to gray and his ears begin to ring. How is it this is happening? He's thinking, "I must be dying," and becoming afraid.
To his mind the knife he controlled twisted in his grasp. He saw it happen the way people who watch card tricks misbelieve their eyes. He couldn't fathom how I had the strength in one hand to palm his fist, twist his arm so the blade faced upward, and with my other hand, press down on the back of his head and drove his neck onto it.
As he died I know he thought about his mother, of the father who beat him and the boys in juvenile hall who raped him and cut off one of his toes. It was the end of a long string of bad experiences that amounted to a human life, now draining in a dark sticky pool on the concrete beside the river.
Cars passed overhead. Somewhere above these clouds were stars surrounded in nothing.
I blessed the man I killed, and dead who lay around us.
Then I pushed him off the child, lifted her in my arms and carried her toward Mt. Sinai Hospital.
There was nothing I could do for the others.
"My uncle was into some pretty weird stuff," says Jane McFadden. She can't decide what to look at. She makes eye contact for a second then stares at the tablecloth.
The waiter comes and opens the wine. She tries it, tells me it's a great winery and a great year. The waiter fills my glass and then hers. When he leaves I take the wine glass by the stem and hold it up.
"To Wednesday," I say.
She touches her glass to mine. Sips and tries to speak nonchalantly but I can see her hand shake. "I was surprised when you called," she says. Then, "This is my favorite restaurant. But you're going to say you know that, aren't you?"
"If you want."
"How did you know my uncle?"
"He and my mother belong to the same church."
Now she can't hide it. Her hand goes to her face, and then realizing she's showing, she tries to occupy herself with a slice of bread from the basket on the table.
"What, church--exactly, is that?"
"It's called the Church of Light," I tell her. "Did he tell you about it?"
"No but my father said you were. . ."
"Witches?" I finished the sentence I'd completed for hundreds of people before.
"He said you worshipped the devil."
I smile; sip my wine casually. "So, is that what you think? You knew your uncle. Did he seem like a man who'd dress in a red cape and sacrifice newborns on the vernal equinox?"
She puts her hand to her face again, but this time her eyes begin to go red and tear. She says, "No," and then quickly opens her purse. As she rummages I hand her my handkerchief. She takes it and wipes at her eyes.
"No need to be. You were close."
"At the funeral--I don't want you to think--what you must think. Damn. You must think I'm terrible. My uncle Gary, he was almost like another father to me. I don't know what came over me. I miss him so much. I just needed someone to want me."
I reach across the table and touch her hand.
"I understand. I think I do." It had gotten in me, too.
"You must think I'm out of my mind," she says, wiping her eyes. She clears her throat quietly, then sips at her wine again. "I'm really sorry."
"You've just lost someone close to you," I say. Have to make her feel it somehow. "No need to apologize at all."
"But you don't seem--"
"I'm not a witch." They all have so much trouble with that word. "It's not like that."
"Then what is it like? You worship the devil?"
"There's no such thing," I say as the waiter comes. I order for both of us, and when he leaves I ask her to look within her own heart. Did she think her uncle was anything other than what he was?
"No," she says, and then lowering her voice, "But my mother didn't want him around. She said he was unholy. A 'bastard worshipper of the prince of darkness.'"
I hope my smile will let her know how ridiculous I thought that was. And she asks me, "Are you married?"
"Sort of," I say, and the look of disappointment crosses her face like the shadow of a cloud.
"Because I really don't want to be anyone's midlife crisis. Okay--I know I am, already. But we could just end it and not hurt each other."
"You can't hurt me," I say, "I'll do whatever you want."
"Whatever I want..." She turns away and stares. Wiped at her eyes again. "Then tell me who you are."
There's a way I like to explain myself to people when I need to get close. It requires solitude and a meditative mind. I have to provide a safe environment to allow them to first hear what's happened to me, and then intuit them without fear.
But in this public place I can't give her safe haven. So I need to feed her the truth in dribbles.
"I was taught that there is no evil that has ever come from the hand of the creator. Can you believe that?"
She nods a non-committal acknowledgement. "Why does this have to be a religion lesson? Are you a some kind of priest?"
"In your uncle's church, we believe all that we experience as bad, comes from mankind's misapplication of power, or his misinterpretation of nature. Your uncle believed that. That all of creation was inherently perfect."
"Then why did my mother think you worshipped Lucifer?"
"The bearer of light," I said to her. "If there was no darkness, we would never see the stars."
Her eyes widen as the idea sinks in and she gasps. Fumbles for her purse and get up from the table. I catch her at the door. She lets me touch her arm. Then she falls closer and I embrace her. She pulled her hands up to her face and sobbed into my handkerchief and I prayI could love this woman.
"Don't go. We don't have to talk about this anymore," I say.
"Then it's true."
"Only what you believe, is true. And you believe your uncle was a good man and he loved you."
I feel her head move against my chest.
"Then let's go back. Sit with me tonight. I thinkI know I need to be with you," I say, and I felt it as the words came. This soul. This time. She makes me feel I've been missing her for all my life.
"Just let me--just stand here for a minute."
I hold her and rock slowly, dancing to music in my mind. She composes herself. After a few minutes of silence I let her go and she takes some deep breaths. Straightenes her hair and dress.
Then she reaches, and I take her hand as if I've known her forever.
As I lead her back into the restaurant she says, "I can't believe it. This is really crazy. I don't even know your name."
"My name is Uriel. But my friends call me Ray."