You Can’t Blame Walmart For Everything That Goes Wrong In Your Life

If you are a regular reader of my blog you know that I love to write. You also know that I love Duchess Goldblatt. I promised Her Grace I would give her a short story for Valentine’s Day. This is it. And, I am excited to say, while I wish I had another week to work on it, still, it is the FIRST thing I have FINISHED in far too long a time. I am hoping these 6500 words are the beginning of the renewal of my writing mojo. One more thing for which I have Duchess Goldblatt to thank.

 

YOU CAN’T BLAME WAL-MART FOR EVERYTHING THAT GOES WRONG IN YOUR LIFE

Bad enough Paul’s life was a Balzac-ian complication of recklessness, rue, and repentance, but it was one of those days when his mother’s purportedly failing eighty-six year old senses were miraculously restored, as was so often the case, just in time to criticize him.

“Let me see,” his mother said, annoyed, from across the room.

“You can’t see, remember?” Paul mumbled.

“I heard that.”

Another miracle, Paul thought, but didn’t dare say out loud since it seemed his mother’s morning prayers had been divided between Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of the hard of hearing, and Saint Lucia, virgin martyr of the blind, whose eyes had been gouged out by her Roman captors only to regenerate the next day. The self-serving, conveniently timed healings Paul’s mother experienced were less dramatic. She attributed them to the hand-painted, leather icons of Saints Lucy and Frank she wore round her neck, talismans bought for her off Etsy by Judith, the Shalimar-soaked lay-Catholic-minister who brought communion on Sunday mornings to the Sylvan Commons religionists devout enough to desire it but not-quite-so devout as to suffer the ordeal of the elaborate ablutions and preparations required to hie self and preferred method of ambulatory assistance — walker, cane, wheelchair – to the lobby, out of doors to be hoist mechanically up and into the step-van with its logo of faux-bucolic design Paul despised for its seeming to announce, “This vehicle carries a cargo of the nearly dead; KEEP BACK!,” which van then shuttled the hell-fearing inhabitants cross town on a twenty minute ride to the church where they would be lowered again to ground, deposited at the foot of the handicap ramp, corralled into the too hot or too cold (depending on the season) nave, where one had to find a pew from which to tolerate the usually inaudible service after which one was rushed out, re-hoisted into the van, spend another twenty minutes trapped with a bunch of mostly unlikeable codgers and be dumped back at Sylvan Commons, hasten to one’s room, liberate one’s self into comfortable clothes, all of which burdensome trial seemed unlikely to curry enough favor with God to be worth the fatigue and inconvenience of all the effort, especially when gift-giving Judith was available, offering individual attention and Etsy-trinkets. Besides which, Paul’s mother didn’t care much for traveling in groups. She preferred being the center of attention with a dedicated attendant – preferably one to whom she had given birth – focused solely on obeying her commands on the way to and from destinations where the goal was less lofty and more useful than speaking with God; she could talk to Him on her own time and Judith made salvation portable, but new clothes required a trip to Wal-Mart or J.C.Penney or, best of all, Boscov’s, where his mother wished to bring up going today if only Paul could manage to peel the peaches correctly without getting furious at her.

“Just let me see. I can hear from the heavy plopping in the sink you’re doing it wrong. You’re cutting too deep into the meat of the fruit. I can hear it.”

Paul thought, unkindly, “I’d like to cut too deeply into the meat of this fruit, right around my wrists, and call it a life.” But he didn’t say it, and descended into a spasm of liberal guilt for the internalized, culturally embedded homophobia of the languaging of his death wish, and so, having been early conditioned to answer guilt with contrition, he obediently took her the peach, the skin of which, like the others before it, had refused to peel smoothly away, instead, pulling great, gouged strips of juiceless flesh along with it, the sound of which slapping too forcefully into her mini-kitchen-mini-sink, had alerted her to his most recent mini-failure.

“It’s not ripe, Paul –”

“It’s half-rotted, Mother.” He called her Mother when annoyed, its echoing of Anthony Perkins in Psycho both delighting and disturbing. As was so often the case, she replied not to what he’d said, but, rather, in continuance of a conversation with herself or in response to what she thought her youngest son ought to have said.

“– and you can’t peel them when they’re not ripe.”

While Paul had promised himself he would be nothing but forbearing and kind today, giving his mother no further claim to the mantle of Saint Monica, patron saint of patience, who wept each night praying for the reformation of her son, Augustine, who as a result gave up debauchery for piety and wrote lovingly about his martyred mother’s travails and agonies, managing to publish these accounts, an accomplishment Paul had yet to achieve, another of his medium-sized failures mentioned with some frequency by his mother, who Paul knew would be less than thrilled with the certainly not autobiographical novel he’d written in which the mother’s agonies created a mortification less to do with martyrdom and more to do with the crucifixion of others. Like Paul. Who was, today, failing at tolerance, patience, and restraint.

“It’s never going to be ripe, Mother. It will go directly from hockey-puck hard to brown mush because it is not peach season, Mother. Wal-Mart had these grown in some tropical country, picked before ripeness, plucked from their branches when not yet fully formed, still hard and far too young and green, having been bred on huge, corporate behemoth plantations where are employed slave laborer children at inhumanely reduced wages who — rather than go to school — are made to harvest these genetically altered Franken-fruits which are injected and sprayed with all variety of cancer-causing chemicals before being packed and shipped for storage in a refrigerated warehouse somewhere for who knows how long before oppressed illegal immigrant, minimum wage workers with no health insurance or benefits are forced to strain their muscles in freezing conditions, going numb from the effort of placing so-called peaches on the shelves of your precious Wal-Mart from which, because of all this, Mother, you ought never to buy fruit or vegetables or, well, actually, anything else, ever, unless you wish to contribute to the third world, classist terrorism of a prison-camp that this country is becoming thanks to Walmart and its partners in class-war; Disney and Comcast.”

As usual, she had stopped listening after the first few words and so had no idea what Paul was talking about or what she’d done now to set him off on another of his rants, but she could feel her shopping-plan for the day slipping away.

“Why do you go on like that? No one listens when you talk like that. No one else in the family has ever gone on the way you do. You should have put them in the refrigerator. They don’t go bad in the refrigerator. And Paul, you can’t blame Wal-Mart for everything that goes wrong in your life, you know.”

Paul wasn’t so sure about that.

The trouble with the world, he thought, was that now there were always peaches. Or, things that looked like peaches but, in truth, were nothing at all like peaches. One was fooled into thinking the getting of things like peaches or no-strings-attached liaisons was easy, but then upon the getting of those easy to get, no strings attached things – like peaches and married men who wanted blowjobs — one was disappointed. That, sir, is no peach. Or liaison. Once upon a time, everything had its season. Everything had its time.

Oh dear, he was thinking in Stephen Schwartz lyrics. Not a good sign.

Wasn’t there a hymn about having a season? Or, folk song? “There is a season, turn, turn, turn?” Wilson Phillips had recorded it before they dissolved into eating disorders and disastrous Baldwin brother liaisons. Liaisons. He was obsessing on liaisons today, he knew. That Baldwin brother for whom he’d had a thing – Stephen – had gone crazy Christian conservative Republican, proving once again Paul, without fail, chose the worst possible man out of any group, in any bar, on Craigslist or Grindr, name a subset and Paul would find in it the biggest loser or the worst possible fruit off of any stand, the worst possible – Baldwin? He’d also had a thing for Adam Baldwin who wasn’t even related to the famous brothers but who later proselytized opposing gay marriage. Paul had terrible taste. After all, Wilson Phillips? Why had he obsessively listened to them in his past? It had had something to do with someone he was pursuing – another lowest common denominator in a sexual-subset – which was as much as he could recall, not able to access specific data-memory as to which disaster of unrequited lust had prompted it. And Wilson Phillips Turn Turn Turn had been a pale imitation of the original, the provenance of which Paul had no idea and, anyway, it was beside the point, which point was: Wilson Phillips’ “Turn Turn Turn” was no more real or satisfying or ripe than the artificial peaches for which Paul held Wal-Mart responsible; posing as peaches, looking like peaches on the outside, prettily shaped and colored and fuzzed, but on the inside, nothing but hard, nasty, grainy, tasteless flesh.

Were it not for his mother, Paul would have nothing to do with out-of-season peaches. Or, Wal-Mart. They, like Wilson Phillips and Adam and Stephen Baldwin, not brothers after all, would be added to the torrential onslaught of renunciations shrinking his world during these, his declining years, these decades in which he lived inside a sensibility shaped almost entirely by mourning over the might and should not have beens.

“You can’t blame Wal-Mart for everything that goes wrong in your life, you know.”

Paul wanted to say, “You’re right, much of my life I could blame on you, Mother.”

But, he did not. Would not. After having had to tell his mother that her daughter, his sister, had died, and experiencing his mother’s keening wail; a feral, implacable, despairing ululation which had morphed into cursing the same god whose saints she wore round her neck to ward off just this sort of disaster, he’d made a vow to himself – not to god, because Paul no longer believed in a worthy of capitalization God – that a woman who had suffered sorrow enough to produce such a sound was a woman to whose greater pain he would, from that moment forward, acquiesce.

Plus, he wanted to be done with these unripe, overripe, whatever they were Soylent-green-of-peaches and leave for the gym.

Not Wal-Mart.

Paul was fifty-three, six feet tall, and one-hundred-eighty-five reasonably height-weight-proportionate, semi-fit pounds. Unless you’d met him on Craigslist or Grindr, where he was Bradley, forty-three, six feet, two inches tall, and one-hundred-seventy-five fit pounds. He called it The Rule of Ten, and assumed everyone followed it, or, expanded upon it. He’d met any number of men whose claims of being in their thirties and/or fit to athletic were as illusory as Bush/Cheney’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

He went to the gym almost every day; religiously, he might have said had he not been so busy trying to de-program himself from childhood Roman Catholic brainwashing. He was one of those ex-Catholics who never missed an opportunity to rant on about Papist crimes of misogyny, child rape, homophobia, the Crusades, etcetera, as if by implication some personal damage had been inflicted on him by the historical Piuses and Leos and Bonifaces and Benedicts, even though, ironically, his ability to rant with the vigorous elan that caused his mother’s “No one listens to you when you talk like that,” was a benefit of the classical education he’d received from the ruler-wielding, termagant Sisters of Notre Dame in his youth. Yes, he was one of those ex-Catholics who doth protest too much, who having sworn off the mother church and resorted to anger to fill the void remaining after the surrender of the rites and ceremonies and liturgies left behind, filling those empty spaces with anger shaped almost like prayer.

Paul knew too much about empty spaces. He’d been too much abandoned, forgotten, tired of. He’d loved far too many hopeless cases who’d left him depleted, too much maligned. Too much. Too many. To many, too much; truth he pathetically tried not to see, obscuring with strangers’ profligate touch in silent dark rooms and on bended knee — not in prayer but in worship, communion with no promises and no sacrifice, no eternal or temp’rary union, that for which he’d paid far too high a price: He’d nothing left in which he could believe, and little left to lose for which he’d grieve.

It was, this way of thinking, a dressing up of the truth. As the Sisters of Notre Dame had said, “A pleasant comportment.” Comportment, they had insisted, was as important as any subject they taught. But they’d never really explained what comportment meant. And why was he thinking of this now? Because it — their version of comportment like his practiced patience with his mother — had the patina of being well-behaved. Conformity to standards of civility. Yes, Paul tried, even now, ever still, and knew he always would to – to what? Appear well bred? Appear, at all, lately. And he knew his conformity was always a lie. His comportment was an act. How he felt about his empty spaces, about that and those, he did not tell the truth. Instead, he comported. With something shaped almost like dignity.

“The truth of religion is in its ritual and the truth of dogma in its poetry.”

See what truth did?

Even thinking of it.

Into the empty spaces rush quotes from one of the obscure British authors the Jesuit working on his PhD in Arthurian literature had bade him read. Yes, decrees about truth from John Cowper Powys. Porius. Seven-hundred page, out of print, Welsh Rabelaisian legend of giants and kings and such. J.C.Powys, author, philosopher, lecturer, friend of Isadora Duncan and Emma Goodman.

Paul missed him. The Jesuit, not Powys, who had, frankly, been a little dense and long-winded and, well, Welsh for Paul.

But, the Jesuit, him, Paul mourned.

Had mourned?

Did mourn.

Was mourning?

Those damn nuns had left Paul with chronic anxiety that his grammar and syntax were inadequate, unclear, misleading. He never felt certain he was actually saying what it was he meant in an unambiguous way. He’s say it, then edit, then restate in slightly different shape, then, perhaps, a few more times. He could never be sure he was communicating what he meant in an unequivocal manner. He worried his meaning was unclear. Fuzzy. Nebulous. Cloudy. He never believed he’d found the best way to say what he felt or meant. He was tormented by the suspicion he had failed the language and the nuns and the truth. He parsed and rephrased and repeated and in straining to be unambiguous became prolix, obscuring, confused, giving the appearance of not quite knowing what it was he meant to say.

He wore people out with his repetitions. Repetition.

His truth. Or, as close as he could get.

Truth. Empty space truth. Paul had, just last night — while he’d been simultaneously checking Grindr and contemplating which of the bedside table book-stack of Lydia Davis, James Purdy, Paul Bowles, Grace Paley and Elizabeth McCracken to choose – been made to weep by the truth that he had not been naked with anyone who might appreciate – or recognize – those authors’ names since the Jesuit.

The Jesuit; he’d been a mystery of faithlessness. He filled a space in Paul, a space shaped almost like love. Well, in the way that Paul managed to love. Which was not very well.

“Are you Catholic?”

It seemed to Paul an odd question to ask of someone who’d spent the last fifteen minutes on their knees performing oral ministrations on you. Then the Jesuit added, “The statues.”

By way of explanation. Yes. Of course. The purposefully dim lighting meant to make believable Paul’s ten year and ten pound fudging did not totally disappear the two-foot tall statues of the Virgin Mother and Saint Joseph, protector of children. Paul disengaged his mouth that he might speak.

“Lapsed. Was. Relics from my tumultuous and tortured past.”

“Right.” The Jesuit grabbed Paul’s head to return his mouth to worshipping, soon enough exalting, “I’m about to cum again. Amen.”

The “Amen” had won Paul over.

He neither expected nor wanted Craigslist penii to come with interesting conversations; this, though, was what came of inviting them into your home, an implied invitation into your life. But, after a certain age, blowjobs in tinted-window cars parked between semis in the backlots of Walmart — finally a good reason to go there — lacked dignity.

Dignity? The thing that goes first. “Dignity goes first.” Who said that? Perhaps, Paul thought, I said that. Of course, it’s not true. The knees go first. Or, wait, is it “dignity goes fast?”

He was going to start worrying about dignity now? At a point in life where one was routinely subtracting ten years and ten pounds from the stats being used to lure into one’s own Blanche DuBois-like web, one’s own Tarantula Arms of a two and a half room carriage house rental, those penii flogging others with their own mummeries of being ten years younger, ten pounds lighter, not to mention – check all that apply: Straight. Married. Top. Bottom. Versatile. Masculine. Twink. Otter. Daddy. Smooth. Hairy. Wild. Mild. Safe. Sane. Negative. Pos. On Prep. It could, Paul thought, be argued that dignity had long since gone both fast and first and the well-bred phrase of “less than dignified” had long since been sacrificed at the altar of “getting off.”

Then getting out.

All while maintaining comportment. Whatever the fuck that meant.

That first night, just when Paul should have been ushering out the Jesuit who’d harshed his hard-on with the Catholic-inquisitor-chit-chat, he heard the chirp of his phone, and hoped it was the “nervous, 18-year-old-first-timer looking for an older man to break me in.” Paul was – even with his deceptive decade subtraction – outside the age range requested, but he’d written what he thought was a clever seduction anyway, given it a shot.

Yes, Paul wanted that 18-year-old, many 18-year-olds, every 18-year-old he could possibly lure before the paper shade was violently and permanently torn to shreds, exposing his vampiric waste of a blanched face to the harsh glare of the bare bulb by the cruel, inhuman Stanley Kowalski beast of reality; so, yes, bring on the 18-year-old, let it be him buzzing, except, the Jesuit – who had not yet been thus christened – who Paul should already have escorted to the door, this Jesuit seemed kind and smart – in addition to being, as advertised, a smooth and mostly hairless, clean, hung, cut and masculine top. He talked, a lot, in between cummings, and explained that he was a traveling damage-rehab construction crew head, specializing in post-disaster clean-up and rebuild. He’d been in New York after 9-11, New Orleans after Sandy, and was now at the local military base, Fort Detrick, where sensitive labs had burnt to the ground. In secret. Meaning, it was a secret the labs had burnt and, he said, “I really shouldn’t be telling you this, Bradley, it’s classified.”

Like, Paul thought, my name.

“But,” the Jesuit continued, “this is only temporary, really. I’m working on my PhD in Arthurian Literature.”

“So, how do you go from Camelot to whatever you call what you do?”

“Disaster Repair. Well, long story, I meant to be a Jesuit priest but – things happen and so … I — like you said — lapsed along the way. Long story. So, disaster repair.”

Disaster repair. Paul laughed. “You’ve come to the right place.” And the Jesuit laughed. And Paul thought maybe he should keep this one.

And he had not managed to do so. And he was tired. And he wanted to go to the gym. And his mother wanted too much from him today and he could not say no because even though the Jesuit had gone he was still an unrepaired disaster and his sister was dead and his mother would always be more tired than he could ever be and so….

“Well, I just wanted to make Doris Stevens peach pie. Like your sister and I used to do. I can’t make it without peaches, Paul.” She said it in the tone she meant as apology. “I guess you should just throw them out.”

Her surrender was always Paul’s defeat.

“No, look, here’s what we’ll do Momma. I’ll slice them up the best I can. Save what I can. We’ll sprinkle them with some brown sugar and lemon juice, cover them up in the fridge and when I come back on Tuesday, we’ll make the Doris Stevens pie. How about that?”

“I don’t have any brown sugar. Or lemon juice. We’ll have to get some. It will be just like it was with your sister.” Walmart here we come, she thought. And maybe, Boscov’s. “Unless, I guess you have something to do? Somewhere you need to go?”

“Where do I ever have to go, Momma?”

He had managed to avoid Walmart for the first five decades of his life. It wasn’t so much a choice as it was not his custom; the temple of the bargain-shopper fell outside the middle-ground where Paul located himself, a location he knew was classist: Walmart was where trailer-trashy, likely-to-vote-Tea Party conservative, redneck types shopped, those people who didn’t care that their clothes were made by abused and starving children in third-world countries where populations were periodically culled by factory-fires, famine, natural disasters and epidemics, not to mention terrorist organizations with names made of initials who’d bought their weaponry from the CIA during Republican administrations. Classist, yes. By the same token and as apology, he hadn’t spent time in Neiman Marcus either. But when his mother had moved to Sylvan Commons and he had begun taking her out one day a week, and then, after his sister died, an increasing number of days a week, one of the places she wanted to go was Walmart.

What could he do?

As was their custom, he parked in the handicapped space, hung on the rear view mirror the placard she carried in her purse, fetched a cart and brought it to her – she didn’t like taking her walker on outings but felt safe only with something or someone to hold onto, and, at Walmart, he could not be that someone as she liked to shop alone – and so they would synchronize times, she with her watch, he with his cellphone, and plan to meet at the door in an hour.

She would buy something. Always. It was what she did. Paul would not. And though he disdained Walmart and the bad taste and advantage-taking-anything-for-a-dollar mentality it represented to him, though the people who shopped there frightened and horrified him in equal measure, people whose backstories he could not help but invent, backstories that often left him near tears – despite the fact he had no idea of the truth of them — still, with all of that, it was not the least favorite activity his mother required of him.

Five days earlier on one of their many trips to many different doctors, he had waited for her outside a lab bathroom from which she emerged, handing him a cup full of her urine. He’d had to label it with her name, birthdate, and contact information.

Worse than Walmart.

Because, at least at Walmart, there was the possibility of a blowjob in a car in the parking lot. Or, in a booth in the bathroom. Much to Paul’s surprise, once his Mother had begun dragging him along, he’d discovered there were to be had at the Walton Family Temple to Predatory Capitalism a startling array of predatory sexual adventures as well.

Paul had been lonely — not alone, but, lonely, for most of his adult years, until, at last, through a process and in a story too complicated for even one of his circumlocutory Proustian sentences of asides and digressions and ellipses and parenthetical leapings and lurchings and listings to one or another side then back again, those careenings off course, otiose bafflements of babbling meant to distract from the pointlessness of it all, through that, after that, somewhere at the end of one of those thats, as he’d long prayed for when he’d still believed in capital G-God, he found himself, finally, alone. And when at last shed of the people who’d made him feel so less than for so long, for some short while, he was able to mistake his un-encumbrance for happiness. But, it was brief. Soon enough, in a short, declarative sentence sort of way: The joy of liberation wore off.

He discovered he was not alone after all.

He was haunted.

So many, many ghosts; days and nights and thoughts full of who had gone, who’d been lost.

One night, shortly after his sister had died, he was eating at home as he did most evenings at the table set for two, when he’d given in to the sort of weeping his mother had done when he’d had to tell her she’d lost a child. But his weeping was brought on by remembering all the people who might have been there with him eating off of the good china his mother had insisted he take when she moved into Sylvan Commons; “Paul, what do I need with gold-leaf-rimmed china in that holding pen for death with all those old people?” He’d have no one to whom to give this china he ate from, alone, another plate in memory of all those people who if only he’d – if only they’d – if only, so many if onlys, and he could feel none of them there, only more empty space, for which he set a place each night. And that night, that night of uncontrolled weeping, rib-bruising sobbing, that extra plate, set for no one, he rebuked and mocked himself, “You’ve only ever known how to love ghosts. And now you can’t even convince yourself they want you. Even the dead have left you. Even the dead!”

Pushing away the memory and feeling of that evening had become his life and so, when it came back to him at Walmart while considering the purchase of a new gym towel, one with a sporty blue stripe along its bottom edge so that he might look better in the sauna, on the way to and from the shower, where having a towel that could be easily identified hanging outside the stall so prospective sharers of no-strings-attached, post-workout sex could determine which shower across from you to occupy, he reprimanded himself; there was no time to cry about the Jesuit or his sister or all the other gone girls and boys and opportunities. Get on with it.
Shit. He went on like this, often, at great length, although not always while keening, imagining himself a combination of the James brothers, William and Henry; psychologic and literate and mystical with a touch of boy band thrown in because he wanted, too, to be that sort of wanted, or, wantable, or, desirable. Which he was not. Any of the above. Which he knew. Had always known. Had known while being never alone but always lonely for two decades in a sexless, joyless union of a horrifying should-have-been short-story stretched the length of a multi-volume, vanity press Bildungsroman by some second-rate diva with a goddess complex and –

— wait, he knew he was off track again. He was lonely but wanted to be alone and so, what he’d needed was touch. Connection. To assuage the ache of the empty spaces. Fifteen minutes more before it was time to meet up with his mother. Who was always late. Always.

He headed for the bathroom.

Seven days earlier they had gone to four grocery stores in search of no-sugar-added Moose Tracks ice cream she insisted she loved and had to have. She’d given it away a day later to another of the Sylvan Commons diabetics — the population of which included nearly everyone in the place. It had turned out she didn’t, after all, love it like she’d thought – insisted – she would. Too many chocolate chunks.

“You know, Mother, Moose Tracks is supposed to be full of chocolate chunks.”

“Too many. I don’t like them.”

“So, it’s another brand of Moose Tracks you liked?”

“No, I don’t like Moose Tracks.”

“But you said –“

He stopped. Because it didn’t matter. Because she was not going to live forever and he didn’t want his last memory of her to be one in which he’d chastised her about ice cream flavors or grocery store trips. Because when he’d been younger he had been impossible and broken her heart and he had, somehow, while she was in her eighties and he in his fifties, to make up for those trespasses, to be forgiven, as he had forgiven her trespasses against him.

And now he’d visited the Walmart bathroom, stood at the Walmart urinal, and, alas, no one had arrived to lead him into temptation. So he’d gone to the frozen foods section. Walmart had plenty of no-sugar-added ice cream. Not, however, Moose Tracks. Which, now, of course, seemed not to matter. He had done what she’d asked, tried anyway, and as was so often the case in his life, what was asked of him was exactly not what was wanted after all.

“I’ve never,” he thought, “gotten what it is they want from me. Anyone. Wait. They never give me what they want from me. Right? I mean, self-esteem and all that. I fail them because they fail me and we all fail each other and that’s showbiz kid. Jesus. Shut up.”

It was just this sort of existential shit — slash — musical theatre quotes which had gotten him in trouble.

After their first hook-up at Paul’s place under the watchful eyes of his religious statues, the Jesuit invited Paul to his hotel. But the invitation came with Bond-like instructions: Paul had to drive there, park, text the Jesuit to make sure no co-workers were hanging out in the hallway. The Jesuit was on the downlow. The Jesuit was the supervisor of a construction crew and he thought it would undermine his authority if they knew he slept with men. The Jesuit had told Paul he didn’t want any strings, no commitment, he repaired disasters and moved on, never too long in one place. So when he and Paul — who he still thought was named Bradley which he’d dimunition-ed to Brad — had hooked up more than a few times, he said, “Spend the night, Brad. I want to wake up with you.”

Paul was cautious and carefully empty. Until he wasn’t. After which he was without boundary and full to overflowing. Until he wasn’t. At which point he would become more cautious, more emptied, and for a while, bitter. What he did not ever become was wiser.

He thought, maybe, the Jesuit might be the one to eat from his mother’s good china, and so, he stayed the night.

“Brad, when did you stop praying?”

“I don’t know. Capital G God became lower-case god sometime in the last five years. And please tell me you just thought: ‘JASON ROBERT BROWN’ so I can love you forever?”

Paul hadn’t meant to throw caution to the tsunami. Again.

“Not love as in in love. That’s not what I meant. It just, it slips out when I think about Jason Robert Brown’s music. And please, don’t be anywhere near me when I start talking about Sondheim because I’m all ‘love love love love love’ because musical theater. I mean, Sondheim I could pray to. Sondheim we should all pray to. Definitely capital S. Musical Theater was where I went after I wasn’t Catholic anymore. Sondheim is like father, son, holy ghost, and virgin mother all rolled into one. Right?”

The Jesuit was not a fan of musical theater. People did not, he said, burst into song in real life.

“Oh, well, I do.” Paul said, immediately sorry and starting that thing he did; trying to erase what he shouldn’t have said by saying as many words as he could as quickly as he could, as if blithering blathering prattle would act as time machine, magicking them back to before he’d said ‘love you forever’ and ruined the possibility of the Jesuit eating off the good china.

“I don’t think I can ever forgive the nuns for the seductive quality of their devotion to God — capital G — and that feeling of blessed inclusion in which I was trained to believe, in which I wanted to obtain purchase. I wanted to be a nun and when they told me I couldn’t, that I had to be a priest, well, I didn’t want to be a priest. I think, I mean — that was decades ago, but, even then, being told I couldn’t be what I felt in my heart I was meant to be, that was the beginning of the end of believing for me.”

“You don’t believe in God — capital or lower case?”

“No. And it’s devastating. I mean, I wish I could. The empty spot where belief once resided in me, that serious, church every day, privileged otherness of believing I was one of God’s chosen, it still aches, like the after-bruise of a migraine. I think, honestly, it’s why I’ve made such awful choices in relationships and life; this idiot effort to try to find that ritual again and recreate that all-encompassing, perfectly ordered, holy love and devotion. I mean, you know, it’s like some geologic void — like the space of a pothole or puddle, which is empty, right? Until the rains or the breeze or whatever and that vacuum is going to be filled with the run-off and the debris and whatever toxins or garbage or shit flood the landscape, filling the hollows, catching there. Absences, they’re like needs, and they get filled in with whatever comes along.”

Paul caught the bewildered look on the Jesuit’s face and recognized it as the beginning of goodbye. The Jesuit had entered and tasted and touched and used and made feel good every part of Paul’s body, but he had never experienced one of these improvised rants of confession, Paul having stayed carefully hidden behind being Bradley and The Rule of Ten, but now, with this, Paul had opened a door into his crazy and once that door was cracked even a little ajar, the force of all he kept inside came pouring out, a barrage, a bombardment, a blast with aftershocks almost always a disaster. But not, Paul guessed, the kind of disaster the Jesuit was prepared to repair. Which Paul knew. Which he understood. For which he already did not blame the Jesuit who was clearly too smart and too beautiful and too young and too accomplished and too employed and too full for him. No. This was the mistake that initiated departure, which trajectory once Paul saw begin, he would work to hasten to its inevitable conclusion, get the hurt and the new empty over with, add another ghost, get on with another tragic middle, because he had no gift for endings.

“I’m not Bradley. I’m not 43. I don’t weigh 175 pounds. I didn’t mean to turn into this me who isn’t me who’s here with you which I know doesn’t make any sense, but, the thing is, this was just going to be a one night thing, fuck and go, and once it wasn’t it felt like, I don’t know what it felt like. Too late, that’s what it felt like and like I don’t think god deserves a capital G, I don’t think I deserve a capital I either and I’m sorry. Really, i am.”

By which time Paul, no longer Bradley, 43, or 175 pounds, was weeping. And laughing. And finished everything that might have been by saying, “Amen.”

Paul got out of the Jesuit’s hotel bed, turned on the light, dressed, headed for the door, opened it to make sure there were no co-workers or anyone else in the hallway, and left.

His mother was, as always, late. Paul went looking for her and found her in the produce aisle.

“Look at these peaches!” Such a smile as she pointed to the plastic bag in her cart. “You think I shouldn’t get them, don’t you?”

Paul knew these peaches would be just as hard on the inside as the ones he’d failed at peeling earlier. These were not peaches like the peaches his mother and his sister had known, grown in orchards, in spring, juicy and delicious and fragrant and perfect in a way his mother would never again find a peach to be, perfect in the way his sister had become by dying.

“They’re beautiful, Momma. Let’s get the rest of the ingredients we need for Doris Stevens Peach Pie.”

“You’re sure? You don’t have anywhere to be?”

“Nope, just with you. Making pies.”

“Paul, you have to promise not to get upset. I didn’t want to give you this until you were in a good mood, because you know how you can be sometimes, especially about things like this.”

He did know.

“Okay, Momma. I promise.”

She reached into her purse, one of fifteen she had, constantly transferring the contents from one to another and usually losing something in the process.

“Here. I told Judith about you. She asked about you, I didn’t just start gossiping about you. I told her you didn’t have — that you lived alone. Well, I told her a lot of things but that came up. She asked. Did you have anyone? Anyway, the next time she came by she brought this. I said I would give it to you. You should put it on. It might help.”

It was a talisman, like the ones his mother wore of Saints Frances and Lucia, only it was Saint Sebastian, arrow pierced, loin clothed, and gay-porno mag muscled, gazing beatifically to the heavens.

“He’s the patron saint of the gays, in case you didn’t know. I didn’t know. Judith told me. Sometimes I think she knows a little more about saints than is possible. I think, I mean, she makes some of it up. You’re not going to cry, are you?”

No. He was not. Not then. Not in Walmart. He put it on.

“Aren’t you going to say anything? Paul? It’s not like you to not say anything. It makes me worry when you don’t say anything.”

“Momma, I love it. I love you. Thank you. And thank Judith.”

“See, now, see Paul? Some good things do happen in Walmart.”

“Yes Momma, I have had some good things happen in Walmart.”

“Amen.”

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