David's ex-wife Helen used to say that belief is living as if you know something. That it really doesn't matter if you don't know it, or couldn't know it, so long as you live as if you do. But, she also liked to say, believing isn't for you, is it, professor?
It had been a long weekend. A lot of things Helen said floated up in the course of it, and David did his best to live in knowing over those few days. He tried not to spend much time remembering all the shouting, the things that couldn't be taken back. His father had told him that sometimes in life a man has to play rough, and when it comes time to take someone apart, you'd better get down to it. David tried not to spend much time remembering that, either. He had started the weekend by canceling his Friday classes in comparative religion and religious psychology, then straightening up his apartment. He gathered all the things that had piled up in his closets over the years—that he had moved from one closet to another along the way—and packed them into glossy black trash bags. A great pile of student papers, some several years old, went into a black bag. The students hadn't wanted the papers back enough to come looking for them, and he had preserved them with the same sort of willful forgetfulness that occupied most of his closet space. Some of the pages crinkled with the old ink of his unread comments, jammed in the margins.
He lined the bags up on the curb, where they settled in shiny heaps. On Saturday, he had washed his car and picked sandwich wrappers and soda bottles out from under the seats, vacuumed the carpets, and emptied the ashtray. The ashes had been there a long time and looked even more exhausted than new ashes. Later he cleaned out the storage space they had shared. Helen had long since removed her things. He filled a moving truck with his old boxes and drove them right to the dump, where he heaved them over as steadily as he had loaded them into the truck. Now his shoulders ached as he drove to Helen's mother's house to pick up the baby.
On Sunday, David had gone to the Jersey shore and sat on the beach for hours, watching the sea. He had stood just apart from the rides and arcades on the boardwalk in the early evening light, a light that changed quickly and was only good for happiness or sadness. His mind ranged over fragments of memory—old wounds, broken promises (his own and other people's), moments when he had failed to be fully himself—as it did at night when he couldn't sleep. Standing at the rail on the boardwalk in the overwhelming smell of funnel cake, David remembered a student from a philosophy of religion course he had taught ten years before, when he was a graduate student and Helen was still meeting him every day for lunch in her own break between teaching history courses on the floor below. The student was a painfully thin boy named Marcus Oliver, the kind of student who rarely spoke in class but expressed himself on paper with assurance, turning phrases with the gravity of a young person who already believes himself old. Marcus watched David in class with eyes that held no judgment but devoured everything. One of the papers David had dropped into a trash bag had been a term paper Marcus wrote on resurrection myths. David had set it aside while shoveling the other papers into the bag, paged through it briefly, and dropped it in last. He had closed his eyes before letting it go and tied up the bag before opening them again.
On the day of the final exam ten years before, a December afternoon of bright sun and fierce cold, David had returned Marcus's term paper along with all of the others. The paper had the extra scribbled weight of David's comments and a lengthy note at the end, with an A+ and Excellent work as usual! tacked on. David found the paper a few days later in his mailbox in the faculty lounge. The paper's title, "Resurrection and Reproduction," had been crossed out. Can Human Beings Make It Through the Day Without Resurrection Myths? appeared above it in a tight, straight hand that almost looked tapped out on a typewriter. David had paged through the paper, expecting Marcus's careful script to answer his notes and finding them alone as he had written them, alongside Marcus's discussions of the roots of Christian resurrection in the worship of the sun god Mithra and of the Egyptian cult of Osiris, risen after three days dead. Marcus took resurrection as rebirth and rebirth as reproduction. On the last page, in the long summary note David placed on all papers, he had praised the overall structure of the argument and the authority of the voice. He mentioned a few scholars who had made similar enquiries. David also suggested that Marcus might have tied it all together a little better. In looking at the yellowing paper before it went into the trash bag, he turned to that last note and the single misgiving line surrounded in praise. He looked at how carefully Marcus had underlined it. Marcus had also crossed out the last line of his own last paragraph in clean, angled strokes. In the margin Marcus replaced the line: Maybe faith in resurrection isn't even required—maybe even the godless can get by on the notions of Mithra and Osiris and Christ in their heads. Maybe the notion goes deeper, anyway, slipping past so cozily you'd never notice.
Lingering over the paper in the middle of his now-tidy bedroom, David closed his eyes and opened the trash bag with his free hand.
David drove home from the Jersey shore after dark and wrote a long letter, but he had really been writing the letter all weekend, though to anyone passing by he had been washing a car or clearing a storage space or watching the tilt-a-whirl, hands in his pockets. He had almost finished when he stopped and read the letter back to himself. He could see that he had just about written through to something, and that he didn't have much farther to go. He felt a shrinking sensation in his chest. He had found that when a person stands on top of a great fear, everything seems diminished in the valley of the fearful below. But David wasn't prepared for this particular climb. He took a long breath, balled the letter up, and started a much shorter one. He placed the second letter in an envelope and wrote Helen on the back, then propped it up against the desk lamp.
Helen's mother was polite when she answered the door, as always. It really was better, picking Rosie up this way. The baby's name wasn't actually Rosie—that was what he called her. She had another name his ex-wife had insisted on.
Rosie grinned when she saw him. He grinned back. There was no helping it. A mistake, he thought. A mistake to come here now. But he hadn't worked all weekend for nothing. So he drove back to the shore and stood on the boardwalk with Rosie, and the afternoon light settled and changed fast and made memory of the present, just as the day before, only in a slightly shorter time, as the days were already collapsing toward the fall and winter. He ate funnel cake. He let Rosie grab at the confectioner's sugar on his plate and stuff her pudgy fingers back in her mouth.
David stood with Rosie outside a water ride where older children splashed and screamed. A brightly colored island, a blue-green knob, sat in the middle of the pool that caught all the runoff and children from the slides. Two small and cartoonish palm trees—glowing a soft orange and lime green, bearing great plaster coconuts like scaled testicles—sprouted out of either side of the island. And he thought of Yeats and his lake isle of Innisfree, where moonlight is all a glimmer and noon a purple glow, where peace comes dropping slow. A place of solitude and fulfillment. A person must go there alone. But first a person must believe it is there, that the clay-and-wattle cabin waits only to be built.
Rosie liked the splashing kids. She laughed with delight, so he knew this for sure.
He walked past the house of horrors, a mishmash of an uncovered tomb, an overgrown and abandoned mansion, and Dracula's castle. Little black cars went in one end and out the other, and he knew from his childhood that the terrors to be found inside, in bright reds and plaster skulls, would fall short of all the promise by the time the kids came out blinking into the sun. He remembered one such ride from years before, the Haunted Mine. A jagged wooden prospector's sign announced in blood-red paint the kind of place it was. Before he had stepped into the line for the ride, he spilled some of his soda on his t-shirt. His father had taken notice in a slow and disgusted growl; his father had whispered harshly at his mother when she made some soothing noise. The whisper was full of all the thunder that had been gathering around his father since breakfast—since before David could remember remembering.
He had gone into the Haunted Mine alone. His parents stood outside the chains that guided the shuffling line into the dark. His father's back was hunched toward his mother. His mother looked at David and looked away. Inside the mine, the cars lurched around in the darkness and swept past skeletal miners grinning under lantern helmets. One of the tunnels in the mine led straight into Hell; another jagged and bloody sign pointed the way. The groans of the damned that came out of the tunnel didn't sound so very removed from joy, and the tracks didn't really lead there, anyway.
He barely noticed the giant spider poised to jump into the car with him. The rocking motion of the car didn't seem a bit disorienting, then. The blinking lights of the spider's eyes and the scratchy, screeching soundtrack failed to jolt his nerves. His father's voice had made it all cheap and pointless.
On the boardwalk, holding Rosie, David stood at the rail and looked at the sea. It really did seem to stretch off toward the edge of the world.
During his time with Rosie a week before, she had suffered some restless nights. One night was particularly bad. She awakened over and over, screaming until David came to her crib and rocked her in his arms, half asleep. He changed her diaper. He gave her a bottle. He dropped pain medicine in her mouth, in case her growing teeth kept her up. And still she screamed when he set her down.
As the night wore on, his mind had gotten cloudy. He pleaded with her. He shouted. The room trembled with his voice. Rosie's startled eyes stared at him before she began screaming again, harder. He swept Rosie out of her crib in one of her outbursts near dawn. A blue dark had begun to settle into the room. Her cries caught in her throat as she swung through the air. He almost dropped her in bringing her to his chest, where he held her tight and thrashed her from side to side.
Her little blotchy face offended him. Her howling was an insult.
Everything in the room seemed to be in motion. He reeled a bit on his heels.
Finally, she slept. She sucked her thumb, her reddened eyes closed and her face pale. Her breathing settled.
He went down to the kitchen and sat at the table in the half dark. All of the things in the kitchen slowly emerged into the light from the window. He sat there until Rosie awoke again. He found her on her side, beginning to cry. He picked her up and held her to him. The room was still and filled with soft light. The smell of her hair was like that light, he thought. His joints felt sprung and loose. Only his stomach remained tight, drawing itself into a dense ball that resisted his steady breathing.
It had not been the first time. He did a lot of thinking after that.
Rosie slept while David drove back home through the darkening pinelands. He lost himself in the serenity of driving to a certain destination; he played the radio and watched the reeling yellow line glow in his headlights. When he stood at Helen's mother's door holding the baby, her mother answered his knock with raised eyebrows. Helen's mother remarked that this had been a short visit with daddy, and that mommy wouldn't be expecting Rosie back so soon. David shrugged. He made the old observation about quality and quantity. Helen's mother closed the door, her eyebrows still raised.
He took a long drive. He drove along all the familiar roads and highways he knew nearby. He exchanged one for another and one for another and circled and circled. He played the radio, tuned to a station playing old rock n' roll songs. He swam in all his thoughts of sunset and the boardwalk and the cry of shore birds. He knew that Rosie would grow to know what all of that meant, even if she wasn't as sappy about it. She would know the shore breeze, the smell of hotdogs and cotton candy, the cool metal touch of the safety bar in a tilt-a-whirl car, her stomach dropping away in tumbling flight. Her mother standing alone on the ground, or maybe with a smiling man, waving.
He drove until the low bulk of a packinghouse began to edge over the horizon. The grass dropped away from the road to the brick wall of the packinghouse. The slope approached the wall in a broad sweep, so that the eye picked up speed in following its inverted arc. David considered the grassy slope and the bricks in the wall, mostly rusty shadows. David pulled over to the shoulder of the road and pointed the car down the slope toward the brick wall. He stopped the car but didn't turn off the engine. He reached down and disconnected his seatbelt; it snapped up into its housing behind his head. He gripped the wheel and closed his eyes. He turned off the headlights. Imagination is an act of faith, he had told his students, many times. You give yourself over to it. He sat there with his eyes closed and a few minutes ticked past, minutes he had refused to let himself think about or resolve until he could see the brick wall of the packinghouse and bring himself to pull the car over to the top of the slope, until he could sit there with no shaking in his hands and release himself fully. If believing is pretending to know how it will be, he knew, then. He knew how the slope would drop away beneath him if he released the brake. He knew what the moment would be, the immediacy of it, how it would be just beginning and just about to end. He knew that in all its potential confusion, motion does have a way of following through to some outcome; that a person can become a part of motion so easily and exist for a time as a whole being.
David feels it, knows it. He unfastens his seatbelt and opens his eyes. The click makes his throat dry. He takes his foot off the brake. He feels the tires bump here and there. Gravity gathers the car down the slope. His body rocks a bit from side to side, and the smell of the night is full of the colors and sounds of the grass. Things blur, quickening. The packinghouse rushing up from the edge of shrinking distance—acceleration. The bricks of the packinghouse only a shadow relief in the dark, seen in one drawn breath like the feel of the car and the grass and the air, then nothing. The nothing he never doubted.
David opened his eyes and looked down the slope to the brick wall, which seemed farther off in the distance. He drew a long breath and released it, then turned the wheel, took his foot off the brake, and swung the car back around onto the road. The first thing to do was drive home and throw out the envelope he had addressed to Helen. Part of his mind stayed back there as he drove home, and even in the blur and tumble, in the presence of the night and the packinghouse, there had been a sense of a reversal on the end, of carnival music and pier lights spinning past, of the air whistling around a silver tilt-a-whirl car full of laughter, hurtling and falling against a night sky with no stars, blind from the lights along the shore.
About the author:
Paul Elwork's fiction has appeared in Philadephia Stories, Quiet Feather, Edifice Wrecked, Johnny America, Pipes & Timbrels, and All Hallows: Journal of the Ghost Story Society. Casperian Books (www.casperianbooks.com) released his first novel The Tea House in October 2007. For links to other fiction and more info, go to www.paulelwork.com.
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