Jimmy is proud to have lettered in basketball. But he has come to think of his Saint Ambrose high-school varsity jacket as a private and public symbol of his life. It is a sort of Scarlet Letter of taint and shame for being sexually abused as a child and a bold blue A rating from the Health Department like at the zoo food stand where he works for appearing safe and clean.
At seven P.M., wearing that jacket (the gold leather sleeves are too short for his rangy arms), he picks up Magdalene in his new car with the new car smell of phthalate glue fumes from the carpeting. The odometer reads fifty-four miles, although at first glance he thought it said forty-five. Thick stickers from the dealership corner the windshield. A small, pewter Saint Christopher figurine hangs from the rearview mirror. It’s May but cold. Jimmy drives with the windows up to a graduation party at Mendel’s house. Pie Jesu plays on the dash radio. It sounds like an angelic choir boy.
“Orale! You look so nice,” he says as Magdalene gets in the car. Skirt and terracotta colored pull-over, sleek pale thighs, modest Roman sandals. Her wheat-colored hair in a ponytail sheaf, her eyes glimmer with youthful luster. “I like your pearl earrings,” he says. They tear-drop from sickle-hooks but the soft color reminds him of his abuser’s cum drops. Unable to erase the thoughts, he still kisses Magdalene’s dimpled cheek. She smells of eucalyptus lotion, almost soothing and cathectic as a biblical nard. He thinks of koala bears at the zoo eating gum leaves – toxic for human consumption but could make them smell so good.
“Orale,” she playfully mocks. “Jimmy, you are so white-boy Mexican!” Then she says, “Never been kissed by a celibate priest like that.”
“I’m not a priest. Yet. Think of me as a greeting card.”
“You are so weird sometimes. And you owe me a hug then. Oh! I know this composer,” she non sequiturs. She has delicate hands. He approves of her short nails – not polished or painted but cared for. She fingers the radio dial. “He’s French! Faure. Boring as shit. He probably fondled little boys, the chester.”
Trying to remain composed, he doesn’t want to know what or how she knows about Faure. There is always a theory, rumor, talk. About everyone. Heat rushes his cheeks and belly. He is one of those boys, but Coach Earl from Little League wasn’t a composer. Just a poser who did more than finger and fondle in the dugout and occasional motel room. Jimmy says, “Chester?” He pictures the same-name massive peninsula brown bear down the hill from the koalas who does tricks for treats in front of the tour buses. “I don’t know the word in that context.”
“For a smart guy, you don’t know a lot of words or contexts.”
“That’s me. And I’m not smart at all. More like a parrot.”
“So you are a parrot greeting card.”
“Something like that.”
She squawks and changes the frequency to AM. He is glad for the diversion. “How about mariachis?” she says and blasts the volume.
Jimmy yells, “The French like mariachis?”
“No.” Then she says, “Can I drive? I got my license in the mail today.” She smiles and bounces in her vinyl seat.
He looks at her.
“Just asking,” she says with her hands up like being robbed.
He turns the radio off.
+ + +
Later, she says, “Did you really win this car in a poker game? Or was it pool?”
“Close. A football bet. But it was only the down payment. I still have sixty monthly payments.” He is amused at his own lisp, dental prosthesis doubling the slush of his words. It is like talking with an ice cube in his mouth.
“Well, at least the car’zzz color’s right,” she says, making fun.
“Funny, French girl,” he says, knuckles whitening on the steering wheel. “Is there a wrong color?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do. It matches your sweater. Well, close enough.”
“The car has a darker shade of brick, but that’s why I wore it.” The wool shirrs in lieu of a placket, sleeves hiked to the elbow. She rubs his leg. “But you should have bought a cabriolet.”
“A convertible. Like a Karmann Ghia. You’d have more headroom. Wait, can you drive a stick?”
“You know I can’t drive a stick. And in a convertible, my big ears would get cold. Beside a Karmann Ghia is more your style. What is that – French?”
“You speak it, Mexican?”
“No. Just a lucky guesser.”
“Right. So where was this sedan made?” She picks at the sticker in the windshield like Jimmy would the caramel scabs under his scrotum. He squirms, afraid the neap of blood in his underwear, full as a Hebrew hin, carries syphilis. Magdalene pats the sticker and stops.
“Japan.” Sweat trickles down his sternum to the sacred cloth scapular.
“Hope that new car smell goes away soon, though. Smells toxic.”
“I like it.”
“You would.” She rolls the window down.
“Course, you smell like heaven,” he says and feels the cold filling the car.
“I should hope.” Then she says, “So, who did you bet – the mob?”
“Come on, who?”
“Long story. Tell you what, tell you later.”
“What?” she mocks. “Why do you sound like a hick sometimes?”
“I thought I sounded Mexican.”
“You do. Then you don’t. You’re a social chameleon. You change to whoever is talking.”
“Now you know grammar?”
“Orale, no. Close enough. Feel me?”
She belly-laughs. “Now you sound Bronx ghetto.” She mocks, “Feel me? You red-necked hick!” She glances at his crotch. “Besides, it would be a sin. And, I’m not a whore.”
“No, you’re gonna be a wife one day.”
“But you’re a priest.”
“It’s my calling.”
“God called you?”
“Yes, sort of.”
He wishes it had been a garden like an apostle at Gethsemane. Instead, it was the wold of foothills near Yosemite, his uncle’s ranch. The men smoked Pall Mall’s and worked the fenced fields until two in the morning. They furrowed dirt banks around insect-plagued dwarf apple trees illuminated by the cracked headlights of the tanker truck. Jimmy snored in the grimy cab. Then he heard a voice calling, and realized it wasn’t the one he prayed for.
“Where is that blue-eyed Mexican-Jew?”
“Roy,” came Jimmy’s aunt’s voice. “Don’t call him that. Would you do that in front of his mother? Besides, you sound like the devil.”
Jimmy half-hid, curled around the erect gear-shaft between the two torn bucket seats. Afraid a rattlesnake had snuck into the floorboard, he slept anyway. The smoke smell from the ashtray mingled with the carbaryl insecticide from the spraying earlier.
“Doreen, he knows I’m joking. Get him up.”
“Roy, your twelve-year-old nephew has worked twelve hours today. He’s probably in there dreaming of Jesus.”
The windows and windshield were dusty and looked steamed up at a drive-in. “He’s dreaming of white girls, just like I dreamed of you.”
“Well, aren’t you full of white crap.”
“Get him up. A thousand trees need water.”
“Roy, you’re just pissed ‘cause he won that stupid football bet. Same damn thing killed his father and probably will me.”
“Woman, you’re the strongest willed here. Get him up. By the way, smoking killed him,” he said and lit an unfiltered from a limp match. Then he said, “Hey, he tell you he was gonna buy a car with that money? Make him buy this damn water truck, tell you what...” Smoke plumed out both nostrils mingling with the side stream from the cigarette.
+ + +
Jimmy emerges from his thoughts, hands on the wheel, unaware of the last mile he’s driven. “Are you going to tell me?” Magdalene is saying. “And why are you going so fast?”
Jimmy lets up on the accelerator and the red needle drops to fifty-five.
She says, “I heard that the Greek Orthodox believe Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had kids.”
“We’re Roman Catholic. Not Greek Orthodox.
He says, “What do the Greeks know?”
“More than me.”
“And don’t ever call me Mary Magdalene.”
“I didn’t call you Mary Magdalene.”
It’s what her classmates at St. Mary’s jokingly call her, a play on words, like the characters in the Bible – they didn’t have last names. They were known by where they were from. In the gospels, Mary Magdalene – not the mother of Jesus but the Mary with the speculative reputation who traveled with him – was from a village called Magdala, thus the name Mary Magdalene. In Magdalene’s case, the name was inverted, jiggered to reflect school and not town, and shortened because it sounded better than Magdalene from St. Mary’s. Plus, it made her sound loose.
“Just so you know. And I’m not a whore.”
+ + +
On the freeway, she says, “How much later? And when are you going to tell me everything?” She goes sullen. “Are you really going away?” Then she raises her voice. “Or are you going to suddenly leave? I feel like you’re running away from me. What are you hiding?”
The pink glow fades from the bruised-colored dusk. Stars begin to appear. Jimmy turns the headlights on and says, “I’m not hiding anything.”
“When you asked me to the prom – by the way it was like a carjacking – I couldn’t say no going into class. I’m not good at saying no. Anyway, you pretty much knew from the beginning that I was spoken for and going away in August.”
He hears himself say porn instead of prom; even his hearing and lurid thoughts are dyslexic. He hopes the word did not slip out wrong.
“I know, I know. And I know we go to different Catholic schools and we barely know each other. You know, I almost switched from French into your Spanish class next door so I could see you for more than thirty seconds three days a week. Why are there still single-sex schools? And why can’t we cross campuses and have more than one class together? And at first thing in the morning? Who’s awake and functional? The brothers of St. Ambrose and The Sisters of St. Mary’s need to get it together. Anyway, I didn’t think I’d fall in love with you and your messy hair.” She runs her hand through his cowlick mop, still wet from a shower. He slams on the breaks and pulls over on the shoulder, steel radials grinding gravel. A dust wave passes over the car like the Angel of Death on Pharaoh’s Egypt. Jimmy wonders if the blood on his briefs counts the same as lamb’s on the lintel above the door. Even without a firstborn or cattle.
Magdalene pulls her hand back in fright, palm open.
Jimmy turns off the ignition and gets out. Cars whiz by, four lanes in each direction, rubber tires humming and bumping over lane reflectors. Headlights from the freeway bend illuminate the A on Jimmy’s chest. He walks around to her side, opens the door and says, “Boougsh.”
He looks at her.
“Your French sucks.”
He is still looking.
“I’m scooting over.”
+ + +
Nightfall. After they find the mission-style house with parapet, cupola, and parking around the corner, they go inside where it’s brightly lit. Jimmy drinks keg beer from red party cups.
Magdalene says, “What are you doing?”
“You’re not done driving.” He tries to hold back his burp. Froth fizzes in his nose.
She explodes a smile and claps her hands like a cheerleader. “In that case, I’ll get you another beer.”
Mendel, the valedictorian, weaves through classmates, a beer in each hand above his head like a Jewish circle dance. Already a sickly academic, the shabby corduroy jacket, sunken eye sockets, and round spectacles make him look like a malnourished POW. “Didn’t think you’d show,” he says, handing Jimmy a beer.
“Thanks. Nice place,” Jimmy says, grinning at the lush green felt of the billiard table. Solecism aside, he thinks of an English he knows – the kind to spin a cue ball, give it the right curve. His first bet was with his Uncle Roy who often hectored him to make an occasional pool shot and get his balls off the table, so he could shoot without so many obstacles. First, Jimmy learned why chalking a cue tip was important: to create friction when striking the cue ball, help make it spin, give it English. Next, he learned how to chalk the cue tip with the blue cube without scratching the ferrule – the part below the tip. Chalking was like painting a girl’s fingernails. Doing it wrong looked uglier than a bleeding hangnail. Roy threatened to dock his wages if he did wrong because it ruined the sporting implement. With the properly manicured stick, Jimmy practiced daily between summer work shifts; it was too hot to do much else. He practiced bank shots, draw and soft strokes, breaking. Then one afternoon, he ran the table, sank all his striped balls, curving around the solids. Roy never got a chance to shoot and paid the ten bucks. Then he threw Jimmy – clothes, steel-toe boots, and all (he waited until Jimmy had put the cue back in the rack) – into the indoor pool next to the table. Jimmy didn’t change; he walked out of the house, down the hill, and out to the apple fields, proudly carrying a hoe like a pool cue, dripping in the hot sun.
Now, he peers into the study at cherrywood furniture and leather-bound books with gold trim pages. “Parents out of town?”
“You catch on quick,” Mendel says and guzzles beer. “Anyway, still can’t believe the seminary at Notre Dame wants you. I didn’t even get in. How’d you swing that?”
“Gonna play football for the Irish, tell you what,” he says, joking and posing like a Heisman winner, preferring large X’s and O’s on a chalkboard to the jumbled, blurred letters in prose or a text.
“I thought you played basketball? You even mix up your sports. Anyway, I doubt you can play with yourself.”
Jimmy’s made a point not to; it reminds him of Earl. He can’t respond; his knee hurts from playing basketball and drops his football pose.
“Seriously, how did you get in?” Mendel asks. “Relative, somebody you know went there?”
“No idea,” he says and drinks. “Though I have to wait a year; I was late with some paperwork.
I’ll go to school in Belmont for the time being. You?”
“Berkeley. By the way, I read your Adam and Eve exegesis. It sucked. You missed the point.”
“Your writing sucks. You mistyped the number zero for the letter O three times.”
“Yeah, the O key wasn’t working. It was stuck. I had to improvise.”
Mendel then says, “As for the content, we don’t even know if it was an apple, let alone a red one. The fruit is never named in Genesis. We just take for granted it’s an apple, thanks to some Renaissance painter’s rendition.”
“See,” Jimmy says. “I have a thing about apples. A really big fucking thing.” He stops, knowing he can’t bridge the context. It would be like explaining how he knows pool English and not English grammar. Or that he worked in the garden he could think of as Eden. A weak, almost circular, reference at best. He continues, “But so what. God told Adam and Eve to enjoy the fruit of every tree except one. Yet they still ate from the forbidden tree. They got the boot for not following directions.”
“They weren’t mature enough,” Magdalene says in a French accent. “They weren’t ready to stay in the garden.”
Jimmy says, “So, who cares if it was an apple or not?”
“All the difference, because it doesn’t say apple. That’s the point. Exegesis is the study of words, context, and truth – how it applies then and now. Also, God only told Adam not to eat of the tree. He didn’t tell Eve.”
“That figures. God always has secrets,” Magdalene says. “Don’t tell the girl. Talk about mature.”
Jimmy smirks, then says, “Apparently not enough difference; I didn’t fail the exe...exe...” He can’t say it, feeling the beer already.
“You should have.”
“Here, have this,” Magdalene interjects. She hands Jimmy a shiny red apple after peeling the fruit company’s sticker. Jimmy thinks she looks more like Shirley Temple than Eve.
“What the hell?” Mendel says. “You get the goya, the apple, and the seminary! Is this show-and-tell?”
Jimmy says, “Thought you didn’t like girls.”
“I don’t, but fuck you, Irish!”
“Ah, I’m a blue-eyed Mexican Jew.”
“What my uncle called me.”
“And Notre Dame is French,” roars Magdalene.
Mendel says, “So why are they called Irish?”
Jimmy says, “Priest told me that army cadets during a football game a hundred years ago said look at all those Irish. And the nickname stuck.” Jimmy wonders if that’s how English in billiards came about.
“Idiots!” Magdalene says. She points to the apple and says to Mendel, “C’etait pomme.”
“Va te faire foutre.”
Jimmy gurgles, “Orale!”
“I don’t understand,” Mendel says. “What’d she say?”
“No idea,” Jimmy says. “But it sounded good. It could be the finger.” But then he imagines Earl’s finger.
Magdalene says to Mendel, “You know Hebrew but not French?”
Before Mendel responds, Jimmy says to Magdalene, “Where’d this come from?” He tosses the apple to himself like a baseball.
“The devil,” she says.
“Funny,” Jimmy says.
She says, “Biblical, isn’t it?”
“Actually,” says Mendel, “the word is Nachash, which translated from Hebrew is serpent. We don’t even know if it was the Devil.”
Jimmy says, “Serpent or devil, who cares. Something tempted Eve.”
Mendel says, “It doesn’t say Devil.”
“Close enough,” Magdalene declares. “Eat the apple anyway,” she tells Jimmy.
“I’d rather have pizzzza.” He is slurring his lisped words.
She says, “There’s no pizza. But you have to eat something.”
He takes the metal prosthesis from his mouth, incisors attached.
“Do you always have to do that?” Mendel says, disgusted. “You do that when you vomit or jerk off?”
Jimmy smirks, trying to cast off the notion. It tears at him; he feels the ooze of genital bleeding and starts to sweat again. He puts the prosthesis in his letter jacket. While he bites into the apple with his buck teeth, he feels Magdalene’s hand slip into his pocket. He looks over. She is wearing his falsies like a Halloween vampire.
After he finishes the apple, he hands her the oxidized, scared core and takes his teeth back. She gets him another beer. And then another. He forgets to hustle pool, make some money.
+ + +
He staggers to the car; she drives him home.
He slurs, “Je comte sur toi.”
She laughs. “I won’t crash. If that’s what you meant.” She rolls through a red light, then a stop sign.
Seatbelt slack, Jimmy weaves in the passenger seat. Saint Christopher dangles from the rearview mirror making Jimmy dizzy. He thinks about kissing Magdalene on the cheek. He knows what might come up.
She pulls up to the house. He says, “Thank you.” He burps and tastes beer bubbles and acid. “I’ll be back in the morning,” she says, smiling. “You going to be okay?”
After she drives off, he vomits on the sidewalk. Copiously. Frothy gruel splatters, jumps like albino fireworks. Bile billows. He realizes he has no keys but doesn’t want to ring the doorbell. He unlatches the side gate – there is no lock on it – and staggers to the backyard. He removes the window screen, then the horizontal glass slats, one by one. He climbs in. Then he replaces the slats. Delicate as a pool shot, and no breaking. He staggers to the bathroom, cold, shivering. He floods the tub with hot water, gets in, feeling warmed up. Stomach acid climbs up his throat, roofs his mouth plate the prosthesis usually covers. He passes out.
+ + +
When he wakes, the water is cold, he is a pink prune. He licks his palate again, acid lingering.
The toilet flushes. Gallons of noise.
Startled, he stirs in the tub in which he barely fits. Water whooshes flotsam. Some of Jimmy’s clothes bob like shipwreck debris. There are traces of blood.
The shower door slides open.
“What the hell?” his older sister Rachel says.
He looks up with heavy eyelids. He can’t speak.
“Oh, I see.” She gets him out of the tub with one arm – the other in a cast, broadsided by a drunk driver who ran a red light. Totaled her car. The doctor said the seatbelt saved her life. Her mother said Saint Christopher saved her.
Jimmy staggers like a boxer clocked by a cast. His legs have given way. Rachel sits him on the toilet and dries him off with a terry-cloth towel.
“Have fun?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says with a lisp. He is shivering.
“Where are your teeth?”
“I, I don’t know.”
+ + +
In the morning, he wakes – alarmed – at six to the blare of a car horn.
He hobos out the house, hair mashed, tan uniform miss-buttoned, fly open, grease-covered boot laces dragging on the ground.
“How’s your head?” Magdalene says in a yellow turtleneck and jeans that look painted on. She grips the wheel, still in last night’s pearl-drop earrings, still reminding him of Earl. Jimmy glances at Magdalene’s inchoate breasts. He wonders what her nipples look like and if that makes him a chester.
“It hurts.” Thankful the radio is off, he adds, “It gets worse.”
“Oh merde,” she says, laughing and covers her mouth.
“Shit is right.” Pain drills his skull.
“Where are they?”
“Guess I’ll never wear those again.” She says, “Wait, you can’t go to work that way, not all day. You’ll freak out the customers.”
“Got no choice.”
She starts for her parents’ house.
“Just take me to work and keep the car for the day. Go driving.”
She speeds through the city, running red lights. Jimmy tries not to vomit. She diagonals through empty stalls of the blacktop parking lot and drops him off at the employee entrance. He kisses her on the cheek. His breath is rotten.
“Thanks again,” he says.
“Anytime. Do you have mints?”
He shakes his head, and that hurts.
He nods, hoping the car will be in one piece.
+ + +
Sweating, he walks down the chilled fern canyon hidden from sunlight. Doves coo. Monk seals in a nearby pool bark and rasp for dominance and buckets of herring and squid. There’s a sound, a klaxon call. Jimmy looks behind to see if Magdalene got inside the park and is honking, tearing around. It’s only a pheasant in the road.
At the nadir, the road levels at the canyon floor. Jimmy opens the wood-paneled food stand. Inside, it’s hot from the ovens that remain on. He flips the light switch. The fluorescents illuminate the blue A rating from the Health Department on the scrubbed wall. The stainless-steel steam tables gleam, the exposed copper pipes sparkle. In the larder sit buckets labeled manteca. The bacon fat is soft as candle wax, sealed from thrips and mice Jimmy trapped before the inspector arrived last month. The chrome shelves are neatly stacked with canned cubed beef, refried beans, and boxes of rice.
In walks a slim, dark-skinned woman with a shellac sheen of melanin and a green money bag.
She has on a new tan uniform and matching hiking boots, looking ready for safari.
“Hi,” she says. “I’m Regina.”
She is from the American South, he thinks, but can’t be sure. After they shake – her hand is pillow soft – she kindly says, “I’m supposed to work here today.”
Pain blooms in his head, piercing his eyes, blurring and fogging his vision. He feels for the keys on the wall.
She says, “You must be the center on the basketball team at Saint Ambrose.”
“Only the center of attention.” Then he says, “How’d you know that?”
“Lucky guesser,” she says, smiling.
Limping, he walks her to the red popcorn wagon with the bright yellow wheels. His knee is sore, though basketball has been over for months. He does not miss running, jump stops, or layups.
“Hurt yourself?” she says.
“A little dizzy. Got hit by a keg.”
“Before or after you drank it?” she says, smiling again. “Young, aren’t you?”
“Old enough.” He smiles, forgetting he has no teeth.
“Looks like you had fun.”
He nods slowly.
The paved road sheds runoff from sprinklers watering the honeysuckle, lily vines and red ball trees covering the east end of the canyon. The sun emerges, lumens reflect off of puddles into Jimmy’s eyes. He squints at an enclosure of red-necked ostriches, the cock and major female incubating three-pound eggs in shallow, communal hollows. Jimmy wants to bury his head in the sand like them. A myth, he knows. Or they can’t breathe. He wishes his embarrassment were a myth. He breathes, feeling estranged from the air.
At the wagon, he shows her the cash register with the cramped buttons and regurgitating Z receipt with a series of zeros. Or are they O’s? Nearly regurgitating, he demonstrates the old-fashioned, theater-style popcorn maker with a pivoting kettle.
“How much popcorn will I need?” she says.
“Enough to leave a trail to my confessional.”
He says, “Depends on when the hippos hop out of their pool and get in line.” He points across the road. The murky water bubbles noses. “They get hungry about noon.”
She laughs. “I’ll watch for any signs of an angry charge.”
“Just fill up those gallon tubs,” he says.
There are hundreds.
She stops smiling.
+ + +
At day’s end, she straggles into the stand, swaddling the money-swollen green bag. A ring of keys dangle from her hand like tassels. Her shirt is untucked and spotted with butter. One shoe is untied. The fan above the door blows down.
Jimmy says, “Rough?”
“Rough,” she says. She purses lips and sighs. “I left a mighty long trail of popcorn to that confessional. You?”
“Rough. Wait. What?
+ + +
They climb the paved hill.
“Oh, Lord.” His legs feel like cement blocks.
“Gonna make it?”
“Call me Regina. It’s nice to see you have manners.”
They pass the sun bears napping in the shaded cement enclosure. A tan double-deck bus with riders groans by, gears sticking, then shifting. Jimmy quickens, walking between the bus and Regina.
“Chivalry. Two for two.”
“Not really. You may have to carry me.”
In the next enclosure, the peninsula brown bear, big as a grizzly, sits on the edge of the steep moat.
The female bus driver calls on the mike to him. “Chester? It’s trick time.”
With massive padded paws and sharp non-retractable claws, he flicks his pink genitals, pleasuring himself.
The driver attempts to get his attention. “C-h-e-s-t-e-r? Do you want to put your paws together and pray before a snack?” She pauses, then says, “Chester, I know you can hear me.” She throws a biscuit, which he ignores. After a moment, she says, “Let’s move on.”
Passengers shriek with laughter.
Regina says, “She should have thrown an apple to tempt him. Wait, what’s that bear doing?”
Jimmy says, “Don’t look.”
“My, my. Piercing blue eyes and you’re a gentleman. But, too late,” she says, laughing. “I think he was posing for some other kind of trick.” She waggles an extended index finger.
Jimmy doesn’t know what she means. He thinks of the Halloween trick or treat, then a cartoon TV commercial for cereal. Tricks are for kids. His bloodshot eyes burn in the bright sunlight and it dawns on him that what Earl and his pink penis did to him as a kid was some other kind of trick.
Regina says, “Thought of you today. Them hippos got real hungry. I thought of that every time I served a smiling fat person a tub of popcorn with butter. I know it’s awful, but I had to smile. Speaking of which, is that fat bear smiling like a little devil?”
Jimmy remembers Earl in the motel, posing and smiling devilishly. He remembers arguing with Mendel last night about the devil. Aggravated, blood crusted in his shorts, Jimmy changes the subject. “I can’t place your accent.”
“North Carolina. Ever been?”
“What brings you out here?”
“Married a navy guy, had a couple of kids.” She is separated and twenty-seven, says a lady would never admit either.
They reach the hillcrest, the midway littered with popcorn, seagull droppings, and eucalyptus leaves. The wind smells of elephant dung, dispersed as an invisible aerial bomb. Jimmy recalls summers at his uncle’s ranch, shoveling cow patties in the foot paths and tubular pig droppings in the runny slop of the caged pen. He nearly dry heaves, twice. Regina pinches her nostrils. They weave through a tantivy of Japanese tourists – its own exhibition, an invasion of gun-metal cameras on lanyards. A happy child eats pink cotton candy, face covered in sticky.
“What are your kid’s names?”
“Sounds like a receiver for the Eagles.”
“He will be. Big hands. Daughter’s name is Giselle.”
“Tiny feet? Going to be a ballerina?”
“Isn’t every little girl?”
“I bet your children are beautiful.”
“Are you a betting man?”
“Drinker and gambler. You sound like the seedy characters out of the good book.”
“Is that a western?”
“You know the book.”
“Well, those seedy characters were more interesting.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“You could say that.”
They pause at the koalas. Another packed bus approaches from behind, hydraulic brakes squeaking, compressor hissing. It reminds Jimmy of the tanker truck and watering the apple fields. Jimmy stands between Regina and the bus as it pulls up.
The driver sounds like Mendel. “The round-faced cuddly looking bears living in the trees aren’t very cuddly at all,” he says. “They’re reclusive and like their space. They’re finicky, too; they eat only eucalyptus leaves which can be poisonous to you and me. Matter of fact, they’re not even bears. They are marsupials indigenous to Australia. Their Latin name – Phascolarctos cinereous – means ash-colored pouch bear.”
The bus pulls away slowly, emitting odorless diesel clag. Camera shutters click in rapid succession as passengers snap last-second pictures of the animals.
Regina says, “Funny how we call things what they aren’t.”
“Like a black person who is really brown?”
“Or a white person who looks pinkish.”
“Underdone like chicken.”
“Something like that.”
They walk through a white-washed gate marked Employees only.
“This is us,” he says at the time clock. They loiter before punching out, her shoelace still untied.
Magdalene pulls up at the wire gate and honks twice, windows rolled down.
Regina says, “That your girl?”
“More like friend. And chauffeur for the day.”
“Win her services in a bet?”
“No, just the car.”
“Nice ride. Must have been some bet.”
Regina says, “A bet all the way to the confessional.”
Jimmy walks to the car, trying not to look back like Lot.
“Who’s that?” Magdalene says.
Too tired to explain, he says, “No idea.”
+ + +
At home, Jimmy stands before his mother who sits in a mission-style armchair like a judge. Or a prioress – she had been a Caremlite nun in her youth, and Jimmy awaits her wrath and Holy hell. “Where are they?” she grills. “Your sister told me what happened.”
“I must have flushed them.”
“When you threw up?”
“You don’t remember?”
“You check the sidewalk?”
“That’s where you threw up. Not in the toilet. I cleaned it up. Your teeth weren’t there.”
“I’m sorry you cleaned it up.”
“Did you eat an apple last night?”
He looks confused.
“You managed to hang up your varsity jacket, but I found your scapular wadded and soaked in the bath drain. Interesting priorities. Is that how you treat a sacred devotion? Besides, you could have choked yourself in the tub and drowned.”
He sees himself blue-faced in a black hearse.
“There was blood on your shorts. Did you cut yourself?”
He looks at his long arms as a diversion. “I don’t think so.”
“I’m so disappointed. I raised you better than that. Your father’s probably turning in his grave. Talk about not following directions. If the Mother of God, the Holy Queen herself, didn’t come down and admonish you. Besides, what would the seminary say if you did that there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Probably the boot.”
Then she says, “Do you know that people are going to laugh at the way you look.”
“I’m embarrassed. I’ll get fitted for another pair.”
“Out of your own money.”
“And don’t make another bet to pay for them like your car.”
He doesn’t say anything.
“How did Mary Magdalene get home?”
“She doesn’t want to be called that.”
She stares; he feels her tacit scorn, then says, “She took my car.”
“At least she has sense. You are so lucky to have your sister, Saint Christopher and Magdalene protecting you from yourself.”
+ + +
Next morning, after a good sleep and shower, he dons a clean brown scapular, kissing the tiny apron-like piece of cloth first, then praying, Holy Father, through Mary, You have crushed the head of the serpent. Purify my heart and grant that I may overcome the snares of evil. And grant that I might be a priest. He remembers the apple, the hand in pocket and rote response before eating. He goes to his closet. “Thank God.”
As he is leaving, Rachel says, “Since when do you comb your hair?”
“You meeting Mary Magdalene for Mass?”
“No. And don’t – ”
“Wait.” She puts her bruised fingers on his mouth. “Where were they?”
“In my letter jacket.”
+ + +
Mass crawls. The homily drones like Mendel. Just what is the message? At Communion, through transubstantiation, Jimmy receives the Body of Christ that will bring everlasting life. That thought dissolves like the flour host on his tongue. He skips the chalice; the idea of alcohol makes him gag. The Blood of Christ makes him think of the blood on the stiff motel bed, if Earl gave him anything like the Plagues of Egypt, and how long it will take to die. He doesn’t stay for announcements or the Closing Prayer. He gets to work early.
After clocking in, he hurries down the fern canyon in the still, damp coolness. Nothing is sejant.
Nothing stirs, not a cavy or a capybara, nor a springbok. Even the sundews and bladderworts sleep.
Jimmy opens the food stand.
A minute later comes, “Good morning.”
He turns to gaze. Regina.“Feeling better?” she says.
“Yes. You?” He smiles brilliantly.
“Oh, yes.” Then slyly, she says, “You have teeth today.” She leaks a sideways grin. “How nice!
You even combed your hair.”
Her voice is small, her laughter soft as an aria, a song without words. She is a gentle embrace. He sees her clearly now, sees the celestial lux of her dark eyes shrouded by black lashes. She has high cheekbones and lob-cut hair with finger-wave curls. He likes the way she smiles at him. Affirmation gives way to affection and a rush of heat through his body, a flush of desire. He hands her the keys to the wagon; the back of his fingers touch her palm.
At the door, she looks back and says, “Will you be here later to walk up the hill?”
“Did you want to spy on that bear?” He sees Earl, the Nachash, edging closer, up the moat. “Right after your confession.”
+ + +
He shows up at the wagon at lunchtime with her break person.
“This is unexpected,” she says.
“Billy can take over. I didn’t want to wait for the hill. Thought we’d go for a walk now.”
Her grin is sign enough.
They stroll in the trefoil and phlox, the variegated gardens. They come upon arums and tulips with flowers like blown bubbles of blood – a line from a school text, some literary story? He can’t quite recall. But he knows the bubbles of blood. The blown makes him pause: what Earl wanted, flopping his stubby cock on Jimmy’s mouth. He fends off the thoughts, bets that he can pick her favorite plant. “The Canna Lily.”
“Sounds elegant. Besides, it’s the least bizarre color combination.”
But she points to the sherbet-colored blooms with black ears.
“You would,” he says.
“The pink cigar.”
“I’m trying to behave.”
“That’s what the sign says,” she says trying to be serious and gushes a smile. “Can’t you just smell that heavenly fragrance?”
“Liar. Besides, you owe me lunch. That’ll teach you to bet.” She slides her hand inside his arm, hugging the crook of his elbow. He is dizzy from her touch; it buckles both knees. Then she pushes him away, laughing, “What do mean ‘You would?’ A lady would never – ”
+ + +
On one of their lunchtime walks, she says her husband wants to come back. His name is James.
“There’s a coincidence.”
She is silent. Then, “The children need their father.”
“And you? What do you need?”
She says nothing.
Jimmy has begun to notice her breasts, though he tries not to. Clothed in safari beige, they are supple, expectant, the kind to be suckled. He hears Earl again, hears: Nice rack. Tits to be sucked, right? And painted with cum. Blow me, pussy. Trying not to be a chester, he looks away, looks for a diversion.
He begins to speak of the poor, the subjugated, the needy. Maybe Marx was right. Maybe there is a class struggle. Have and have nots. Maybe the poor are poor because of capitalism and not because God wants them to be – what had been Catholic teaching through the ages until recently at Vatican II. “I’d like to be a missionary in Nicaragua.”
“Do you know anyone there?” she says.
“A priest named George.”
“Wait, aren’t the former Soviets running that country?”
“Any newspaper and my ol’ man.”
“Right,” Jimmy continues. “But there were priests in the government trying to do good. Grass roots stuff. Cooperatives. Eliminating illiteracy.”
“One of them priests George? How do you know him?”
“He was on sabbatical and volunteered at Big Brother and spent time with me after my dad died. Then the Jesuit order rescinded the sabbatical and sent Father George to Nicaragua for missionary work.”
“How long ago?
“That’s interesting. Priest as big brother. Sorry if it’s a pun. But the other priests, the ones in government, I don’t like it. Sounds like puppets of big brother.”
“Neither does the Pope. But the poor need a voice and the church can be that voice. So, I’ll take my chances.”
“You like taking chances. And your needs?”
“I don’t have any.”
He feels Earl slithering in his thoughts, slithering past the moat, coiling on his shoulder. You need a father. I could be your father. It’s just a little blood.
+ + +
Jimmy’s last day at work. Summer arrives like a plague of heat. Regina leads him to a shaded, slatted bench in one of the zoo’s gardens. Her nose shines with perspiration. They sit, their knees touch. The plumose canopy bowers like fig leaves.
“They name this palm after you?”
“S-h-i-t,” she says, reading the sign. “Foxylady, my black ass.”
With glassy eyes, she gifts a rosewood box, perfumed as a nard. He jokingly wonders if she will wash his feet. “A celibate priest shouldn’t be without one,” she says.
“Extra pair of teeth?”
“How’d you lose the original? Fight with the devil? Lose at billiards and not pay up?”
He smiles and could see it, being clocked with a cue. But his teeth were already gone. “No fight. Just congenitally missing.” He hears himself say he’s missing his genitals.
“Well, don’t ever lose your lisp.” Then she says, “I’ll miss you.”
He squints and nods slowly.
“I don’t want you to go,” she says, “but I know you’re not ready to stay.”
He is tempted and could confess everything. But Earl said not to tell, and Jimmy can’t find the right words. The fear of being found out is too great.
After a longing stare, he says, “Thank you for being so kind.”
“That’s close enough to what I wanted to hear.”
He opens the box. Wrapped in tissue paper is a gentleman’s folding comb, the insert hewn of ox horn, the gold handle inscribed from S. Regina.
“Hope your next girlfriend doesn’t object.”
“Or your current,” she says and motions with a nod. She rubs his knee as though in estrus. He gets an erection.
A klaxon call. Jimmy looks up and sees Magdalene hurrying into the garden. Along the path of gorse, tourists get out her way. Jimmy wonders how she knew where to look. Sitting in the middle of the garden, he feels caught in a forbidden tryst and knows she is not coming for a final hug.
“No orale?” she rebukes, out of breath.
He is silent.
She says, “I went to the wrong garden at first. How many are there in this fucking place? A billion? I wondered where you were. I went back to the food stand. They said you were at the popcorn wagon. But the guy there said you two would be here. He said you always come here. I know we said our goodbyes last night,” she says, breathing heavy and looking at Regina and Jimmy and the box on his lap – their legs are still touching.
Embarrassed, Jimmy can’t stand; it feels like a stick in his pants. He sees something go out of Magdalene just then. Repeatedly.
“I just wanted to say – ” She hesitates, her face is flushed from crying. “So, you were hiding something. You had a secret. God, I knew it. I just knew it. Fuck!” she screams. Then, composed, she says, “And I see I’m interrupting.” She stares at him. “I tell you what. I’ll just go, then. Honte a vous, Chester.” She turns and walks away, hand covering her mouth.
Jimmy feels haunted and ashamed. Able to stand now, he wants to go after, let her know, explain. Use English carefully so it sounds like he is not spinning the truth. But fear curbs courage. He does not take the shot. That is how he leaves it, and the garden, without a word.
+ + +
At home, he packs a suitcase, the vinyl shell hard as a Sulawesi tortoise’s scute. Jimmy leaves his varsity jacket hanging in the closet where he found his teeth. He heads to college in Belmont, California, in his Japanese-made car. Aired out, it no longer smells factory new. He has fifty-eight payments left, stickers curling in the windshield. Saint Christopher still hangs from the rearview mirror. Jimmy hopes for no wrecks, reciting the Angelus on the desolate stretch of Interstate 5 that needs resurfacing. The tires take it, rear suspension and shocks too. Hail Mary, he prays, please shield me from the enemy and myself. He drives the speed limit. The odometer reads 999. He watches the numbers turn, three zeros roll up with a one in front. The trip takes eight hours but feels like a thousand. He gets twenty-two miles a gallon. Unleaded fuel only. Amen.