Monday, April 12, 2004

ole stories of buddy don:
story writ to play with form


Hooks


"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"


The preacher, a bald man with a deep voice and a red face, swaggered back and forth before the congregation, his black eyes wandering through the pews of his little wooden church like a window shopper wandering the streets of a business neighborhood after closing time.  The members of the congregation sat stiffly upright, as posed and scrubbed as mannequins advertising beautiful clothing.


"And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet."  The Preacher's voice became a tiny whisper: "But the end is not yet."  Then the voice began rising to a scream: "No, brothers and sisters, the end it cometh, but it is not yet here.  Repent!"  He shouted; he pounded the podium: "Repent, I say, for the kingdom of God is at hand!"


Again he grew silent.   An old man coughed.  A pair of patent leather shoes scuffed against the wooden floor. Starched clothing rustled.


"For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and Pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.


He paused, rubbing his hands together.


"Even now,  brothers and sisters, that Satan incarnate, Hitler, stalks the lands of Europe.  Even now the unsaved Japanese masses prepare to make war and to shed innocent Christian blood.  The signs are upon us, the end is near, and I say we must repent.  Repent and be baptized, for the kingdom of God is at hand!"


Again the Preacher began pacing back and forth, pouring his angry eyes over the congregation, letting his holy wrath burn into their souls like flaming pitch from hell.


Among those afflicted with the burning truth of the preacher's words was Anthony Lewis, ten years old, uncomfortable in a pale blue suit whose pants went only to the knees.  He'd heard the rumors of war.  He'd seen his older brother, James, off at the bus stop over in Knoxville.  He just knew the war would be over before he got a chance to get in on it.


 ***


In a small Kneipe, Zum Steinbock, Anthony and Barbara Lewis sat back in their booth, relaxing after dinner with cigarettes, red wine and talk.  With them were Branimir from Yugoslavia, Richard Taylor from Southampton, Anna Muller from Frankfurt, and Suvi from Finland.  Anthony was certain war was imminent.  He argued that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was only a prelude.  Branimir laughed, slapping Anthony on the back and saying in his richly accented German that all Americans were alike.  Anna did not translate the remark.  Richard smiled also, but he said nothing.  Barbara lifted the decanter of red wine, shook it gently and  poured the last of it into Anna's glass.  Anna finished rolling her cigarette, stuck it into her mouth and bent towards Richard, who struck a wooden match, let the phosphorus burn and then lit the cigarette.  Their eyes met.  She smiled.  He blushed.  Barbara touched her husband's elbow.


"Anthony, enough about war.  We need more wine."


Branimir called for wine.


Anthony recalled himself, realized he'd been talking nonsense, smiled at Barbara, who indicated Richard and Anna with a twist of her head.  Then he suggested the party go dancing after they finished one more bottle of wine.  When his wife went to the ladies' room, he smiled at Suvi, whose Finnish silence attracted him.


 ***


That it was time to say goodbye seemed all too clear to Anthony.  They'd been going together for over a year, it's true, but they were only teenagers after all.  He knew they'd never marry.  They needed to get out, to be with other people, to get rid of their all too human restlessness.  He knew, deep down, in her heart, Barbara Mullins felt much the same way.  Wouldn't it be better to get it over with?


 ***


Barbara Lewis, thirty seven year old mother of three, didn't believe all that garbage about pollution this and pollution that.  Her husband, of course, was all stirred up about it, having read a book that already in 1972 was four years old.  She knew he'd grow out of it soon enough.  Lord knows, the world is the world.  Nature's as big a polluter as any man.  And isn't man a part of nature?


 ***


Anthony's best friend, Tom Jamison, believed war was unavoidable.


"We'll never make 1960," he argued.


He prepared by purchasing gold, weapons, and one of those new bomb shelters that were suddenly so popular.  He read newspapers in three languages that he knew he could only half believe by the time he got his hands on them.  Still, he read very carefully and filled in the missing details with his imagination.  He had his visa ready for entry into Switzerland.


Anthony was unconvinced.  His wife Barbara refused to discuss the matter.


 ***


Many of the members of the First United Methodist Church of Redondo Beach, California, worried about the poor in Africa.  Anthony laughed privately at this, but he didn't let his wife know how he felt.  She liked to point out that conditions in Africa were so backward that the people had to do without toilets and running water.  And now, with the rebellion of Rhodesia, the continent faced an uncertain future filled with war and rebellion.


 ***


No matter how he tried, Anthony could not avoid lusting after other women.  The problem had become especially difficult since his fortieth birthday.  He had a woman in every port of his life, all of them blissfully unaware of the lewd things he was doing with them in the privacy of his own mind.  There was that blonde headed girl, just a child really, certainly no more than twenty five years old.  He saw her everyday as he rode to work on the Kingston Pike bus.  Although he considered her a little too heavy, he found her blue eyes delightful.  Of course, it embarrassed him to be caught staring at her.  And how could he ignore the tall brunette secretary who wore those daringly short dresses  short for 1971 anyway  and ate at the third table from the door in the employee cafeteria?  And how he loved to watch the short but friendly little waitress at the restaurant he and Barbara sometimes went to after church.  And his son Joel's last girlfriend, Frieda, who wore nothing but shorts all summer long.  And at home, starring in one of Barbara's favorite TV shows, that beautiful girl with the huge mouth who sang like a man.  Barbara teased him about her, but she had no idea how he really felt.


 ***


They met at the Smokey Mountains National Park in 1948.  Both loved nature.  He had slipped away from his family as they were hiking Mt. Le Conte.  He found the waterfall that marks where the trail gets steep.  It was early spring and still quite cold.  Few people were about.  Barbara found him staring at the falls and said, "Oh, hello!" before she knew what she was doing.  Anthony blushed so violently that the pink showed through his acne.  And he knew it, but he smiled back at her anyway.  They were astounded to learn not only that both loved Gene Autrey's music, but that they also attended the same high school.  He'd never noticed her before because he didn't fool around with sophomores.


 ***


By the fall of 1981, they'd known of his cancer for over a year.  They knew it was only a matter of time.  Still, Barbara and the three children, Anthony, Jr., Jane, and Joel, were stunned by the news.  Jane flew in from Milwaukee to stay with her mother for as long as necessary.


 ***


Anthony hated dentists, but he knew he had to go.


 ***


And wasn't it amazing, really just amazing, how quickly little Anthony Junior picked things up?  Already walking and only eleven months old!  And his fourth tooth coming in!  And did you hear what he said the other day?  Just priceless!


 ***


They'd waited nearly three years for their 1965 vacation, and now this had to happen.  Who ever heard of a grown woman catching the mumps?  The children would be heartbroken.


 ***


Barbie couldn't believe how quickly the ceremony was over.  The rehearsal had lasted nearly two hours, but she felt sure she'd have missed her own wedding if she'd blinked her eyes.  It's a good thing her father had hired that photographer.


 ***


Joel attended the Harvard Business School and came home for Christmas 1974 predicting another depression.  All of the signs were right — look at the interest rates, inflation, unemployment, housing starts, a disgraced presidency, and the Japanese.  And this one, Joel promised as he passed his father the Christmas turkey, this one will make the last one look like a tea party.  Of course, there's not much you can do about it.  Jane missed the conversation, being occupied with her daughter, Lisa.  Anthony, Jr., rolled his eyes, but Joel's mother was proud of him.  Anthony changed the subject to football.


 ***


Anthony never could understand drinking.  Before taking a drink, he couldn't wait to get started.  After he'd had a couple, he felt great and figured, why not a couple more?  Then he'd hate that sleepy feeling he had, so he'd take another.  Just a short one.  Finally, he'd figure he might as well hit the sack.  Then he'd wake up around one thirty, and he'd have to pee, and he wouldn't be able to get back to sleep.  Then he'd hate himself for ever taking a drink in the first place.  Even so, he'd often get up, moving very carefully to keep from waking Barbie, and check to see if there was anything left to that bottle.  He rarely had to open a new one.


 ***


For two years, two nearly unbearable years for Barbara, Anthony, Jr., belonged to a Christian group whose specialty was counting earthquakes.  They seemed to rejoice each time a new one hit.  And they loved to hear about wars and rumors of wars.  They quoted all of the most knowledgeable pessimists on the environment and the economy.  The worse things got, the happier they got.  They knew whose side God was on.


 ***


Anthony heard from Chester Davis about the new family moving into the neighborhood, but he couldn't make himself believe it at first.  After he'd finally finished paying off his mortgage and put his garden in and built that beautiful pink brick wall and everything.  And with interest rates up in the stratosphere, there'd be no way for him to find another place half as nice.  Some reward for having towed the straight and narrow for twenty five years!  There's no justice in this world, he told Barbara.  He wanted to blame President Johnson, but he was a determined Democrat.


 ***


Anthony and the kids worked the surprise like this, see.  They told her about the party ahead of time, but they let on like it would be on Saturday night.  Well you shoulda seen her face when she got home on Thursday and everybody jumped out and screamed, "Surprise!"  She nearly died of fright.


 ***


The attack was well planned, Anthony was reading in the latest Time magazine, the troops were well trained, highly motivated, and completely equipped with the latest weapons, and the enemy had been lulled into a false sense of security by highly effective propaganda.


 ***


Barbara had his pipe and slippers laid out, greeted her young husband at the door with a kiss and a martini, and told him she loved him.  He could smell his favorite meal cooking in the kitchen — pizza!  Anthony felt so guilty.  He couldn't for the life of him remember what day it was.


 ***


Anthony, Jr., had been praying for that baseball mitt for three months, ever since turning ten years old.  He'd even saved up close to two dollars towards it.  Oh, if only he could talk his dad into it, he knew he'd make the starting team.


 ***


Barbara didn't mind living alone.  She planted a garden each year.  She was a regular at church.  She taught a class in knitting at the night school.  And should she really feel lonely, she could always call her granddaughter.


 ***


Glasses had been bad enough, but braces?  And Jane's father acted as if he were doing her such a big favor, making such a great sacrifice.  Well, she'd show him.


 ***


No one would believe that they wanted to spend their silver anniversary alone.


 ***


Many of Joel's most enlightened friends contended that man was his own worst enemy.  They pointed out his bloody history, his inability to end war, his willingness to create and use uncontrollably dangerous weapons and technologies, and, finally, his inability to understand himself.  They knew it was just a matter of time.


 ***


Like all of the other men, Anthony, Jr., put his faith in his union steward and committeemen.  If the union officials said it was thirteen percent or strike, then, by golly, that's just what it would be.


 ***


At first Anthony tried to ignore the rattle.  Maybe it would go away.  Of course, the car was still  under warranty, but he hated to interrupt his daily business to have the damned thing fixed.


 ***


Anthony's father claims that man's place in the universe is really very small.  He sees no pattern to human history and denies that man has made any significant progress in at least six thousand years.  Human life, he claims, is just a very temporary phenomenon in a universe that doesn't really give a damn about such trivia.


 ***


Jane just had to have that new outfit.  Her whole high school career depended on it.  She'd already talked her mother into it.  Now if her father could only understand.


 ***


Anthony, Jr., didn't see the boy chasing the ball from behind the hedge until it was too late.


 ***


Barbara knew there'd be a regular war at the dinner table if she tried that new liver recipe.  But what's a mother to do?


 ***


Reagan had the crowd stirred up.  Wasn't the enemy using chemical warfare?  Weren't troops massed on the border of an innocent land, poised and ready to snatch those precious raw materials?  Hadn't we let our military capabilities lag far behind theirs?  Anthony, like many other in the audience, was convinced.  He'd vote Republican for the first time in his life.


 ***


Jane turned over onto her stomach, reached back and undid the clasp to her bikini strap.  Then she wriggled into place.  Her husband didn't care if she was thirty years old: she was beautiful.


 ***


Barbara had just about decided to give up television when Anthony surprised her with one of those new color sets.


 ***


They each sponsored the feeding and education of an orphan in Indochina.  Barbara felt it was the least they could do, and Anthony didn't feel like arguing about it.


 ***


It was probably the happiest day of their life.  Little Jane had given birth to their first grandchild, a little girl whose name would be Lisa.  They celebrated by going to church.  The sermon was based on the first verses of John.  "In the beginning was the word."  What word? Anthony thought, avoiding the preacher's eyes.  "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us."  Barbara couldn't help thinking of Lisa when she heard the verse.

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