Praying to the Porcelain God

Praying to the Porcelain God

by Steven Mayoff

Praying to the Porcelain God

Dani walks alongside M. Francoeur, who pushes his wheelchair, balancing on it as he would a walker. Today is her usual Saturday morning visit, and together they follow the oval footpath that surrounds the Mount Olive Senior’s Home, employing a pace similar to that of a wedding procession marching through molasses. Despite the bright sky there is an early nip in the air for late August, suggesting the coolness of autumn that is to come. Dani is comfortable in a light cardigan over a short-sleeved dress, but M. Francouer is wearing a windbreaker, partially zipped, with a flannel long-sleeved shirt underneath buttoned at the throat, and corduroy trousers. Dani is amused by the whispering whiff-whaff of the heavy material.

M. Francouer tilts his head, raising his face toward the sun’s buttery glare. “Ahh, de telles plaisir! A beautiful feeling, the sun on my skin.” The white mesh gardening hat sits back on his head, firmly defying gravity as the sloping canvas brim barely touches his shirt collar. His eyes are closed. To Dani, he looks lost in prayer. The morning’s radiance deepens every fold and wrinkle on his face, trying to illuminate the secrets of his ancient soul.

They approach one of the benches along the walkway. “Should we stop for a minute?” Dani asks.

He is too immersed in the pleasure of the sun’s warmth melting into his pores to answer right off. Dani leads him to the bench, helping his frail body into a sitting position like a rusty penknife folding in on itself. She puts the brake on the wheelchair, then sits on the bench. She had suggested going outside in the first place because his spirits seemed low when she went to his room this morning. Rather than sitting by the window, his wheelchair was by the foot of his bed and he seemed preoccupied with a corner of the wall. Even with the chair’s safety strap cinched firmly around his waist (a precaution, given his tendency to wander off due to what’s known as Sundowners Syndrome), his upper body swayed slightly, as if by some external force. It had taken her almost twenty minutes of gentle coaxing to get him to agree to go outside. The head nurse allowed that a little exercise might do him good, but that they should bring the wheelchair in case he becomes tired or agitated. Dani is pleased to see him enjoying the gorgeous weather. She had not been looking forward to spending her regular visit in his small room.

This is her first visit since the incident almost three weeks ago. She had wanted to come back sooner, but Mrs. Fairfax in Personnel, who also oversees volunteers, wanted her to take a couple of weeks. Yes, having M. Francouer force his hand down her jeans was a distressing experience, but Dani took pains to convince Mrs. Fairfax that she understood how people struggling with dementia, particularly in the later stages, often act impulsively, especially when it comes to sexual matters. Besides, she is pretty sure he had mistaken her for a boy, not that it matters, but she understands he was disoriented by his deteriorating mental condition. Dani tried to make it clear to Mrs. Fairfax that she didn’t blame M. Francouer for what he did, nor was she afraid of him. Still, Mrs. Fairfax cited the Mount Olive’s volunteer regulations, which stated that after any kind of traumatic incident, to either a volunteer or a resident, a minimum of two weeks leave must be imposed for the benefit of either or both parties involved. Dani grudgingly agreed. During her mandatory leave, the memory of the incident sometimes haunted, and she decided not to return to the Mount Olive. At other times she missed her visits and worried that Mrs. Fairfax would find a permanent replacement for her.

“Come on,” she says to him. “We’ll get a little tan while we’re sitting.”

He turns to her, his good eye registering a hint of recognition, and takes a long, deep breath through the teardrop-shaped slits of his nostrils and lets out a throat-rattling, but nonetheless satisfied sigh. “Un ciel vaste comme la mer, oui?” He rubs his hands. “So many possibilities under a sky such as this.”

Because the blue of his good eye perfectly matches the blue expanse spread out above them, she wants to believe him. Even the cataract in his other eye resembles one of the dreamy clouds floating above. She removes her cardigan, baring her slender arms and shoulders, and hikes the hem of her skirt slightly over her knees so that some of her pasty thighs might get a little colour. For a moment she feels self-conscious doing this in front of him, but his attention is on a plane flying overhead. She has to crane her neck, savouring the strain at the nape, while following the thin white jet stream before the airplane shrinks into a speck.

“I spoke to my dad on the phone the other day,” she says. “He seems to be really settling in at this rehab centre in Las Vegas. He has a new roommate there. A young guy, around my age, but they seem to get along. And…I can’t believe this…he’s taking Hebrew lessons. Talks about maybe having a bar mitzvah. He’s in his fifties…but he sounds happy, so that’s good. He used to not like the A.A. meetings because they kept talking about a higher power and he’s never been religious. Maybe that will change now. I don’t know what to think. With me here in Montreal, my mother back home in New Jersey and my father in Las Vegas…it all feels so…disconnected. But I’m trying to be supportive.”

M. Francoeur nods. “I understand. It was not a small decision for you to become a Jew.”

“What?” she says. “I am Jewish. I was born… you know? Jewish?”

Pardon. I do not mean to offend.” He takes her hand in his. “I know to lose a baby...c’est trés difficile. Becoming a Jew was necessary, due to the circumstances.”

As usual, they are not having the same conversation. He thinks she is someone else. Sometimes he thinks she’s his mother, whom he seems to dislike. Even during the incident, she thought he called her by a boy’s name. She is not sure who he thinks she is now, but his voice is gentle, sympathetic. He has spoken to her with this voice before and made reference to a lost baby, so perhaps this person was a good friend, possibly someone important in his life.

Dani had hoped the fresh air might keep him lucid. The way she imagines it, his perception of the world is filtered through a tear in reality and linear time no longer exists. Everything he ever experienced could be happening all at once, so that he might be wandering through moments of his past and present and, for all she knows, his future as well.

She tries to keep the conversation on track and hopes he returns to her. In any case, whether he is present or not, she feels comfortable being able to talk to him about what’s going on in her life. Even when he thinks she is someone else, it is like she is in disguise. Sometimes, when he has given her another identity, it becomes easier for her to speak candidly, almost as if from behind a curtain.

“I feel like I should go visit him,” she continues. “But he doesn’t want me to. Not yet anyway, or so he says. I remember when he used to go on and on about what a cool place Las Vegas is. I realize now that he was probably going through one of his manic swings, but honestly you couldn’t shut him up. At the time, though, I got all caught up in his vision of it. He said he would take me some day, and I’d see for myself how all the lights lit up the night like it was daytime. And we’d stay in a huge hotel where there was a circus and rides and stuff. My mother got so pissed with him. She said there was no way in hell I could ever go.”

“It will all work out,” says M. Francoeur, his friendly grin baring those large yellowing teeth. He lifts her hand to his lips and plants a barely perceptible kiss. “You are the strong one.”

They sit in silence and M. Francoeur nods off, his angular chin dipping toward his oversized, buttoned-up collar. The mesh gardening hat slides a bit forward. It is during this lull that she becomes aware of a slight queasiness in the pit of her stomach. She closes her eyes and tilts her head toward the sun’s reddish-golden glare behind her eyelids. This does nothing to quell the nausea, and she touches M. Francoeur’s arm. His head jerks up. She apologizes and helps him up, sitting him in the wheelchair, then cinching the safety belt around his waist. Even these actions, slowly as she performs them, don’t sit well with her turbulent insides. She breathes evenly as she pushes him along the footpath. Soon they are inside the main foyer, waiting for the elevator. The doors finally slide open. She has to press her hand against her mouth as the elevator jerks into motion and rises. Exiting on his floor, she is conscious of pushing him a little faster than she should. In his room, she does not even bother to close his door, but rushes directly to his bathroom and drops to her knees. Hands grip the bowl’s cold porcelain rim. A feral retch escapes her throat. Her stomach violently contracts, then empties itself.

After flushing the toilet and rinsing her mouth at the sink, she finds M. Francoeur in his wheelchair by the foot of his bed. He is struggling with the safety strap across his waist. She goes to his aid and easily undoes the belt. He grabs the footboard and pulls himself out of the chair, falling to his knees.

Dani is about to bend over to help him up, then notices that he is crossing himself. He stares at the crucifix mounted on the wall above the headboard, then clasps his hands and bows his head. Dani is unsure of what to do. For a moment she wonders if he expects her to join him. She rolls the chair away and stands by the window, where the sun beams through. She keeps her eyes fixed on the long shadow she is casting across the floor.

“But it’s just a soft-boiled egg,” Bubbe Rita says. “You barely ate anything yesterday. Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine,” says Dani, sipping her coffee at the breakfast table and allows her grandmother to set the eggcup in front of her. She sometimes wishes she could afford her own apartment, preferably in downtown Montreal, but for the time being it’s cheaper to live in her grandmother’s lower duplex in the northern suburb of Chomedey.

“I could make some toast,” says her grandmother. “It’s nice to dip in the yolk.”

Dani shakes her head. “This is enough, really.” When she woke up this morning, she realized that her period is two weeks late. She taps the egg with her spoon and peels away the shell.

Her grandmother sits at the table with her coffee. “It could be the start of the flu or something. This is the time when it sneaks up on everyone. It’s still summer, but there’s a chill in the air. You have to dress properly. You don’t want to miss the beginning of school.”

Dani prods the spongy white surface of the soft-boiled egg with her spoon, then pierces it. A gluey orange-tinged yellow liquid erupts, and she tries to capture it all in her spoon. The sight of runny yolk sickens her. Then she sees a spot of red amidst the yellow. Blood. Something rises midway up her throat. She forces it back down. “I can’t eat this.” She holds her spoon out toward her grandmother. “Look.”

Her grandmother clucks her tongue. “Feh,” she says and takes the spoon and eggcup into the kitchen. “I can make you another one.”

“Don’t bother.”

“But you have to eat something.”

The phone rings and Dani is grateful for the intrusion. The gratitude is short-lived when she hears her grandmother say her mother’s name. Why is she calling now?

“Yes, she’s right here,” says her grandmother and calls out to Dani to pick up the extension in the living room. Dani knows it’s no use to argue. She goes into the living room and picks up the other line.

“Okay, I have it,” she calls to her grandmother.

“No, I want Bubbe to stay on the line,” says her mother.

“Whatever,” says Dani. “Why are you calling now? Shouldn’t you be on your way to work?”

“In a minute,” says her mother. “I talked to your father last night. He told me he’s taking Hebrew lessons?”

“So?”

“And then he starts going on about having a bar mitzvah.”

“Yes,” says Dani. “I know. He told me too.”

“And you didn’t call me?” Her mother’s voice cracks with emotion. “You didn’t think to let me know?”

“I didn’t think it was for me to let you know,” says Dani, trying to keep her voice calm. “It’s his news, so he’s the one who should tell you.”

“What are you getting upset about, Roz,” Bubbe Rita interrupts. “It doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.”

“You should have heard him,” says Roz. “He couldn’t shut up about it. Like this will be the great change in his life. I know what’s going on when he gets like that.”

Dani can hear her mother crying. “It doesn’t mean he’s manic, Mom. He’s excited, that’s all. He’s trying to change his life. We should be supportive.”

Her grandmother agrees, but Roz won’t be mollified. She goes on to doubt whether he’s getting good care at the rehab centre he’s living in. Dani lets her grandmother try to calm her mother. Dani has had conversations with her mother about her father’s mood swings, his issues with staying on any kind of medication, how he believes this was passed on genetically from his mother. Dani sometimes wonders if this is something she needs to worry about, whether it can be passed on to her. She can’t get the image of the blood in the yolk out of her mind. Her stomach starts to churn.

“I’m going to be late, Mom. We can talk later, okay? I’m hanging up now.”

Without waiting for a response, she hangs up the receiver and rushes to the bathroom and locks the door. She lifts the toilet lid and kneels. She can hear her grandmother’s voice trying to calm her mother down. Her stomach twists. Her throat burns as she retches. Nothing but a string of bile floats in the bowl’s bluish water. It reminds Dani of raw egg white, which is enough to set her off again. She shuts her eyes as whatever was left in her stomach from what little she ate yesterday comes up. She starts to feel better and flushes without looking, then brushes her teeth.

Dani watches with fascination as perforated pages fold in on each other on top of the dot-matrix printer, producing manuscript revisions she had just typed out on the desktop computer. She separates the sheets, then hands them to Carl Farlowe, her first-year writing instructor. She has spent the summer as his research assistant and typist while he works on his new novel. They are in his office at Concordia University, an amenity the English Department bequeathed him for the summer after his first novel won a major literary prize the year before. He had also received a government arts grant, some of which was stipulated to pay Dani a stipend. That money has run out and today is her last day working for him. In a week she will start her second year in his Creative Writing class at Concordia.

“I’d be happy to do more typing for you during the school year,” she says. “I’ve learned so much just seeing how you revise.”

His novel is about an alcoholic who is trying to get sober but struggles hopelessly with the belief that he is at the mercy of a genetic disposition toward alcoholism that goes back for generations in his family.

“I still can’t believe you wrote your ending first and worked your way backwards,” she says. “I always thought endings are the hardest part. They are for me anyway.”

“That was certainly true with my first book,” says Carl. “I spent about six months on the last twenty pages. But with this one, I realized I knew exactly what the ending would be. It was the beginning that was the big mystery, so it only made sense to work backwards.” He goes on to explain that he was inspired to work this way by one of his favourite stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a man who is born old, grows younger through the years until, as an infant, his memory disappears, and everything goes dark. “Some people think that’s how life ought to work. That way we should have both youth and wisdom later on in life.”

Carl is sitting behind his desk. He opens a drawer and hands Dani an envelope with her last cheque, praising her abilities and letting her know how much help she has been to him. He wishes he could have paid her more than what basically amounted to minimum wage.

“I learned a lot this summer,” she says. “I would have done it for nothing.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he says with a laugh. “Seriously though, don’t ever say that to anyone. Writers get screwed enough as it is.”

“At least I’m getting some useful experience. We’re a few years away from a new millennium and I never used a computer before this. I still type my stories and poems on a portable typewriter.”

“I’m fairly new to it too,” he says. “My partner, Dennis, convinced me to use a computer. It’s a bit faster and easier to organize notes and drafts. All the same, no matter how advanced technology gets there are no short cuts through the creative process. Even after indoor plumbing was invented, people still did their business the same as before. It was probably better before, since we were at least fertilizing the earth rather than polluting our oceans.”

He tells her he has to leave soon and takes a folder out of the same drawer. It contains handwritten notes he made while researching delirium tremens. He wants Dani to double-check the sources and type up the notes in point form. He and his partner have an appointment at an adoption agency.

“That’s a new thing for me too,” says Carl. “Dennis is very focused on raising a family. The adoption process can take forever, so we’re also looking into surrogates.”

“You mean finding someone who’s already pregnant and adopting her baby?” Dani hopes her voice doesn’t betray the strange internal flutter that comes with sudden interest.

“That’s one possibility, I guess,” he says as he packs his briefcase. “Preferably, we’d find someone who would be agreeable to letting Dennis or me be the donor. Artificially, of course.”

Dani let’s this sink in. “What about your writing? Do you worry being a parent will affect it or maybe get in the way?”

“Sometimes,” he says. “I’ve always been very single-minded on my writing. I put out two story collections when I was barely out of college. Won a small prize for the second one and got the attention of an agent who pushed me to write my first novel. I look back and sometimes think it all happened so fast, maybe I published too young.” He snaps his briefcase shut, heads to the door and pauses. “You’re talented, Dani, and you have drive. You’re doing all the right things. Just don’t forget to live your life. Or else, what are you going to write about?”

The waiter sets down a deluxe banana split with marshmallow, caramel and hot fudge toppings in front of Dani and a blueberry milkshake in front of Caleb. They are sitting in one of their favourite places, a resto on Rue St. Denis specializing in desserts, called Le Rêve de la Crème. Dani digs into her banana split as if it’s her last meal, while Caleb watches with astonished amusement.

“You’re going to give yourself a brain freeze that will last longer than the ice age,” he says. Dani stops eating long enough to sprinkle a liberal amount of salt from the shaker over the sundae. “Mon dieu,” says Caleb, shaking his head. “What’s up with you?”

“The saltiness complements the sweetness,” says Dani with a mouthful of ice cream.

After finishing half of the humongous banana split, Dani tells Caleb about seeing the doctor, who confirmed she is almost four weeks pregnant. Caleb stares at her with furrowed brow and the hint of a smirk, unsure of whether to take her seriously or not. “Is it mine?”

“Is that supposed to be a joke?”

“Sorry,” he says. “I don’t know why I said that.”

“Because you’re a boy.” She continues to make short shrift of the banana split. “And you’re scared. Deep down you’re half hoping I’ll say no.”

“Come on,” he pleads. “I thought maybe you were…yes, it was stupid, I see that now. But you really think I’m so shallow? Don’t you know by now how much I care for you?”

“I’m starting to think that when it comes to boys, stupidity is a form of sincerity.” She stops to mix hot fudge and ice cream together, creating a thick soup at one end of the glass boat. “Anyway, you don’t have to worry. I’ve taken care of everything.”

Caleb wants to know what she means, and she explains that she has made an appointment at the clinic.

Pourquoi?”

“Why do you think?” she says, tilting her head with a mocking wide-eyed expression.

“So that’s it?” His face is serious. “No discussion, no compromise? You make the decision and it stands.”

“Compromise? In a few days I’m going back to Concordia and you’re going back to UQAM,” she says, using the common acronym for Université du Québec à Montréal. “Is there another choice? Anyway, it’s my body.”

“Ah, so you have biology on your side. And me?”

“All you have is a broken condom.”

Caleb reminds her that she is the one who wears an IUD, so her insisting that they be doubly safe has failed both of them. She shovels her melting soup into her mouth and he apologizes. They shouldn’t stoop to blaming each other. She’s right that there really is no other way and swears that he supports her decision, allowing that it is what they both would have agreed on. All he wants is to not be shut out. He hopes she will agree to let him go with her to the clinic when the time comes. Dani nods and pushes the glass boat away. Try as she might, she can’t finish the rest of the banana split. She stares at the hot fudge, caramel, marshmallow and melting ice cream pool into a morass of self-recriminations and disappointment.

Dani positions her face directly over the bowl with her hands pressed against the seat to keep it from tipping over and smacking the top of her head. Her bare knees welcome the coolness of the tile. One reason she likes Le Rêve de la Crème is because of how immaculate they keep the bathrooms. She stays close to the bowl to ensure her feet are not visible from the space under the stall’s metal door. Caleb is paying the bill. He still volunteers at the Mount Olive, playing guitar for the residents twice a month. When she finally told him about the incident with M. Francoeur, he was upset but listened patiently when she doubted whether she should go back and showed sympathy when she expressed concern for M. Francoeur. She knows Caleb’s a good person, sincere, a talented musician and obviously cares a great deal about her. It’s not that she doesn’t feel the same, but the thought of a life growing inside her enhances an awareness of herself. A feeling of detachment that is both empowering and frightening. Her insides churn, but it feels strangely static. She knows Caleb will be out there waiting for her for as long as he has to. A part of her wishes he would just go home. Abandon her. She wouldn’t be angry at all. She would welcome it and that scares her.

“Get this out of me,” she whispers and hears her voice eddy inside the concave porcelain, causing a slight ripple on the water, before her stomach spasms and her throat opens.

Dani pushes M. Francouer along the oval footpath. The day is overcast, cooler than it has been, but it was his idea to go outside. He is wearing the gardening hat and windbreaker but has added a green scarf (knitted by another volunteer) to the ensemble. A large willow shivers under a slight breeze, and Dani glances at the headstones behind the Good Shepherd Catholic Church on the other side of the wire mesh fence. She wonders whether the Mount Olive was built conveniently next to a graveyard or if the church saw an opportunity and set up shop next to a senior’s home.

Once they round the footpath away from the sight of headstones, M. Francoeur points to a bench. “Ici,” he says. “Let us have a short rest.” Dani stops and engages the wheelchair’s brake, then sits.

“Are you feeling tired?” she asks.

Moi?” He laughs. “It is you who does all the pushing.”

Dani tells him about her first week at school and how happy she is to be back in Carl’s class. She admits that she learned more about writing while working for him over the summer than she did in her first year in his class (something she would never say to Carl), but she enjoys his teaching style, which she describes as a kind of “tough love.”

“He pushes the students to critique each other’s work, not to hold anything back, then to apply that same brutal honesty to our own work. He’s like a referee overlooking a free-for-all who knows when to come in and smooth over the hurt feelings. A kind of benevolent Machiavelli.” In her mind she is leading up to talking about her upcoming appointment at the clinic and how nervous she feels but is cut short when M. Francoeur clutches her hand.

“Love is sometimes too tough on us,” he says. “And we are equally tough on love. You have gone through a great difficulty.”

Dani recognizes that tender voice, the one he uses when he thinks she is a certain woman from his past. The mystery friend. She wishes she could know more about this person. “Who are you talking to?” she asks with unusual bluntness. “Am I the one who lost her baby? What happened? How did I lose it?”

“You must understand how sorry I am,” he says. “For all the pain I caused you. I never meant to do what I did. I never meant to hurt you.”

Dani tries to think of another question to ask him.

“I don’t know why I would do such a terrible thing,” he says with great remorse. “Something inside me is changing.”

She looks directly into his good eye and suddenly realizes he is seeing her. Dani. He is apologizing to her about the incident. She feels more naked, more vulnerable than she has ever felt with him, even with all she has told him about her life. She realizes that her ability to forgive him came with the understanding that he did not know it was her he had violated. She had remained hidden behind the identity of some boy he knew. Now she feels afraid. Not afraid of M. Francouer, but of his momentary lucidity. It disarms her.

She takes off the wheelchair brake and pushes him, mostly so she doesn’t have to look him in the face, feeling safer walking behind. Once they are up in his room she sits on his bed, suddenly weary. She knows she should probably leave, but instead lies down. He wheels himself beside her. It feels good to sink the weight of her head onto his pillow. There is an odour, not unpleasant, that reminds her of dead leaves clinging to limbs and mist burning off the grass in the morning’s warmth.

M. Francoeur gathers up half of the bedspread and carefully covers her with it. She knows she shouldn’t let him take care of her this way. If a nurse comes in it won’t look good. Yet, she dare not move, feeling so much herself in his presence. It is a weird moment of clarity, to feel like herself and yet so unlike anything she has experienced before. Whatever nervousness she felt earlier about the upcoming clinic appointment seems to have dissipated, much like mist from the grass. M. Francoeur sits by the bed with hands folded in his lap, an untapped reserve of quiet strength and patience, there at her disposal should she need it to see her through the months ahead.

About the Author

Steven Mayoff

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Steven Mayoff was born and raised in Montreal and moved to Prince Edward Island, Canada in 2001. His fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals across Canada and the U.S. as well as in Ireland (including Crannog back in 2009), Algeria, France, Wales, England and Croatia. His two books of fiction are the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009) and the novel Our Lady Of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015). Upcoming is a poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat an ekphrastic cycle to be published by Grey Borders Books this year and a full-length poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone to be published by Guernica Editions in 2019.