by Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue
In Memphis, just past dawn, a couple is walking on a downtown street looking as if they’re searching for something. You know what I mean. Their heads swivel here and there, as if perusing the dank sidewalk for something they’d lost long ago.
The first thing you can’t help but notice is that the woman is shorter by about a foot than the man. But what you can’t divine at first glance is that the woman is also younger by ten years. Her name is Susan, and she is marching down the street like she’d steamroll over anybody who made their last mistake by getting in her way. The man’s name is Thomas, and he’s doing what he usually does, following along behind Susan, like a trained monkey.
Of course, he’s thinking about what a great sport he’s being, for he just now left the comparative safety of the Trailways Bus Station to wander through downtown Memphis in search of a Catholic church — all for Susan, of course.
Not that the bus station was much of a sanctuary, really – more like a phantasmagoria of the grotesque, society’s riff-raffs – losers, lonely hearts, small-time grifters, the habitually unemployed, dope-peddlers, opening their raincoats to expose, not their genitalia, but plastic sealed bags filled supposedly with only the best Mexican thunderfuck, a choice of papers (yellow and white), and a colorful cornucopia of pills of one sort or another, all of it staged with the background music of videogame aliens being annihilated combined with subtle undertones made up almost entirely of the tinny sounds of coin-operated TV’s.
So Thomas had left that special place to follow Susan. And Susan … well, she is one of those women who are terminally nervous. You know the type — fingernails bitten, probably some secret cloth hidden in one of her pockets that she rubs like a talisman. Having been brought up in Catholic schools and from the cradle fed whole gobs of guilt, she’s always dreamt of being a nun. Everyday she wonders why she is with Thomas or any man, really.
Her experiences with men had all been more or less the same. At first, she always enjoyed giving herself physically. And why not? She loved seducing men. It was always so easy.
She loved how after first meeting one he’d get so excited he’d take her on the floor, on a sink, and, even, once on a washing machine, while it was still running. But it was what came later she couldn’t stand. They always wanted more than her body.
As Susan and Thomas walk through an old neighborhood of redbrick apartments, the mostly poor, mostly African-American tenants step out to fumble for their rolled-up Memphis Posts, looking at the couple with a smile reserved for the uninitiated.
“How much further do you think the church is?” Thomas asks, looking over his shoulder at the black tenants who seem to him to be laughing at a private joke, or, most likely, at them, he figured.
“I don’t know,” Susan says, “I saw what looked like a church tower from the bus station. We’re near it, I think.”
“Okay, dear one,” Thomas says, forcing a smile. He was wondering, why had they left the bus station anyway? Who knows what goes on in this neighborhood, even in broad daylight? For God sakes, didn’t Susan know that blacks had a sixth sense for knowing if you were racists? He could end up dead out here, but did Susan care? Hell, no.
All that was on her mind was Mass, which as far as Thomas was concerned might as well still be in Latin. The Roman Catholic priests weren’t anything like the Baptist preachers he’d grown up listening to in East Texas. Now there was preaching. There was the eternal battle between good and evil. By contrast, the priests always seemed engaged in something foreign and, frankly, silly, like opera.
But no one was going to ask his opinion, and he sure knew it. Susan was one strong-willed, high maintenance, pain in the royal butt. And all the great sex they’d had in the beginning of their relationship was now turning into a faint and distant memory.
That’s why they’d gone on this disaster of a trip, he figured. It was a silly caprice, really, thought up one night after too many Cuba Libres, and after watching that old flick with Jimmy Stewart about him going to Washington and fixing everything up. Somehow they had got it in their sloshed heads to go visit the Lincoln Memorial to renew– what? – their innocence, their naiveté, their love. Thomas had forgotten which.
They never even made it to Virginia, too many fights, not enough money. The fact was that Susan was ill-equipped to handle the vagaries of hitchhiking. You could never know just when you were going to be picked up or how far you’d end up going.
Maybe you’d spend 5 minutes on some shoulder somewhere and get the ride of your life, somebody that would buy you dinner and wouldn’t expect anything in return. But more than likely, you’d spend hours under the unrelenting sun of the summer of 1980 at the side of some godforsaken highway, the asphalt turning into melted wax, and end up getting picked up by a fat middle-aged guy who’d seemed nice at first, but then after a few minutes he’d start rubbing his crotch, and hinting in a not-so-roundabout way about a threesome. Well, hitching obviously wasn’t for Susan. And now they were headed back to Texas by bus, tails firmly implanted between their legs.
As Susan rushes headlong, her fingernails dig into her palms. She wants so badly now to suck her thumb. Thomas doesn’t know about this habit of hers. She’s kept it from him, like so many things, her brief love affair last winter with her brother and the three tightly rolled joints hidden in a secret place in her purse. Thomas had found out about her biting her nails, and that had driven him absolutely apoplectic. If he knew even half the rest, he’d shoot through the roof for sure.
What she couldn’t figure out was why was she with him anyway? The sex wasn’t even good any more? She often wondered why did all men have to prove their loyalty to you by making sex more and more boring?
Thomas stops to look at a TV in a store window. It was one of those morning shows. Some serious-looking somebody is nodding at the host, who in turn looks serious, too. Then the camera stops on the host, who now breaks out in a huge grin showing off what must have been thousands of dollars worth of orthodontia, all the while looking right at the camera, speaking to an audience he couldn’t even see.
Thomas recognizes the host, but can’t quite come up with his name. He used to be on some doctor show some years back. Now he was just an actor playing a TV host. To Thomas, he seemed much more believable as a doctor, really.
Now Thomas watches a commercial. There is a bowl of cereal with milk being poured on it and all the characters — a mother, a father and two kids (one boy/one girl) are moving in fast motion. Thomas laughs. He always loves commercials the best. They always crack him up.
Looking down the street, he notices Susan already across it. “Damn,” he says, then speeds up. When he finally gets beside her, he declares, “Sure is a nice morning,” then trying to look down into her face, adds, “I like mornings like this.”
Susan nods her head and a faint smile rises to her lips, but she’s not really paying attention to even one word he’s saying. To her he sounds something akin to a tape cassette squalling before it’s rewound.
“Here it is,” Susan announces as she runs up the stairs and pulls on the handle of a big wooden door. When it doesn’t open, she glances back at Thomas and asks, “What’s wrong? There should be a Morning Mass here.”
“Uh-ahem,” Thomas coughs, having heard that clearing your throat was a good way to draw attention to yourself. “This sign says there’s only one service – on Sunday.”
As if doubting Thomas, Susan runs down the steps to check out the sign, but sure enough, her lips move as she reads to herself the church’s name that runs at the top of the sign: Brother Muhammad’s East African Free Church.
“There’s got to be a Catholic church around here some where,” Susan states, as if it were an obvious fact that any fool would fully acknowledge.
As usual, Thomas follows, while noticing how Susan’s small body sends out waves of anxious energy that are almost visible.
“Let’s not get too far from the bus station, dear one,” he warns as Susan rounds another corner.
“No, we won’t,” she says, pointing to the right, “The bus station’s that way.”
Thomas turns and points behind them, “Uh, I think it’s that way, honey bun.”
She shrugs, “We can always ask,” then she leans forward looking as if she’s sending out invisible sonar especially designed to detect Catholic vibrations.
“There’s one,” she says, pointing toward an ornate neo-Gothic church. She crosses the street, running. Thomas, afraid she’s going to be run over, scampers behind her, ever ready to push her out of the path of a speeding car, or even to use his own body to protect her, but the street turns out sadly, for him, to be completely void of any on-coming traffic.
Surprised his noble desire for sacrifice leads to naught, Thomas pauses to gaze down the empty street, but just as he does he trips on the curb, just catching himself before he would’ve smashed his nose on the dirty cracked and gum-encrusted concrete. As he brushes the sidewalk off his jeans, he spots Susan running, so he pulls himself up to catch up to her.
“The Ethiopian Church of the Raining Christ!” she declares at Thomas, as if somehow it were his fault. He feels his face growing red and hot.
“Look, dear one, I think all the Catholic churches moved from this neighborhood years ago. These are all black churches. I think it’s called ‘white flight,’” he says, but his voice comes out pleading, not nearly as powerful as he wanted.
“Oh, but there has to be one,” Susan says, just the way he wanted to say it.
Another church was down the street. Susan speeds toward it. Her little hands are now fists as what’s left of her fingernails digs into her palms. She jogs to the glassed-in sign and sees herself in its reflection, a round-faced, sweating pilgrim with blond tousled hair. Then she notices Thomas behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. For a split second, his unctuous hovering as always makes her sick to the very pit of her stomach, but then she notices the sign.
“Catholic,” she whispers.
Once inside she touches the water and bends one knee toward the altar where a priest and nun are passing out the elements of Christ to the few parishioners that have made it to this morning’s Mass. As she walks toward the chancel, Thomas slides into a corner pew.
He likes being inside the church. It’s cool and dark, but something eats at him. They don’t really belong here. They are sojourners, and he, for one, isn’t even a Catholic. But more than anything, the overt holiness of the Mass always makes him feel soft and mushy, which he hates with every fiber in his being.
After taking the body and blood, Susan sits beside him, calm now. Her head bent in prayer. This is always when Thomas loves her the best. She is so beautiful, her long, very fine blond hair falling over her face. Something about her small, compact body, her head bent like a supplicant suddenly gets Thomas excited. All the frustrations of the past few days fly out of his head. He wants her, and if possible, right here in the church’s pew, right now during mass.
When Susan stops praying, Thomas reaches over to caress her hand, but Susan doesn’t feel his touch. She’s thinking. Thinking about her body as the ultimate receptacle of saliva, semen, and even, of the body and blood of Christ. When, she wonders, will she offer her uterus, if not her heart, to the living God?