“Twenty minutes, Saul. You promised,” she says from the other room. A weak cry follows and then her weary voice again, “Hush now, hush… Daddy’s going any minute. Belly’ll be all swollen soon, then sleep, sleep.”
Eighty push-ups. Not too bad. Saul rises to his feet and faces the mirror. Only the table lamp is on because he looks more chiseled that way, his skin smooth again. He brings his wiry arms in toward his bare chest, admiring the oily sheen that clings to his body. He bites his lip, clenches his fists, then holds his hands loose by his side. Try to be loose tonight. Jaw loose, fingers trembling.
Her shadow falls into the room, but she won’t come in, just like he won’t go into the bedroom—-not anymore. Her neck is stained with old bruises, violet—-auber-jeeen, she once told a chipped mirror, hoping the delicate word would soothe her swollen lips. She clings to the words she used to read on boutique signs uptown, before he laid that first colourless clump of rock out on the kitchen table. Some days they soothe better than others.
“She’s already an hour late feeding.”
But he isn’t listening. He needs his shirt. Her long, sinewy arm penetrates the doorway. Her finger points. He follows it to where his shirt is hanging neatly over a mismatched dining room chair. He walks over and surveys it: the salmon coloured button-up, sixty percent silk; clean and crisply ironed, collar starched; looks as new as the night she bought it to celebrate his promotion at the factory. That was less than a year ago. He still keeps his shirts pressed, his shoes polished. Every Thursday he pins the weekly want ads to the fridge, a handful of futures marked out in shaky half circles. Every morning after he gets home, he folds his smoke-stained slacks along the pleats, thinking the next day he’ll set things right.
Her shadow sways as if she might say something else, but nothing. It wavers and retreats. Keys, keys. He scans the room, pausing at the mirror to take in his image, the stretch of the synthetic fabric across his chest. Sweat seeps from under each arm. Think cool. These are the dog days of August. The whole East Side smells like fish and sewage. He knows from experience things are only going to get sweatier. His jaw is beginning to ache. Keys. He sees them atop the television set, a green-tinted image trapped in a dusty, nineteen inch screen. He stops and, rubbing his dry, dilating eyes, blinks the picture into focus.
The Gordon Cherry show is on. A large, pixilated woman wearing a floral-printed drape of a dress sits painfully in the only chair on the stage. The set is dreary gray. A giant cherry bomb with a fizzling wick is spray painted in clumsy curves behind her. The audience cheers and hollers on cue, chanting the host’s name in a terrible, drunken fervor. The woman is leaning forward, her body massive in her austere steel seat, her chest heaving, gasping for open space.
“So, Shandee,” Gordon Cherry says, “you have something you want to say to your daughter-—”
“Yes sir, I do, but first I have something I want to say to you and your heathen audience.”
With that, the woman in the grey-green world pops like set jell-o from the mold of her seat, landing on one knee, and in the same instant produces a vial of water from within the folds of her being. The motion is so fluid and so practiced that for a just moment the audience falls silent, entranced.
“Oh Lord, Saviour, Son of God,” she intones, her tongue heavy and wet, “I invoke your name in this den of sin and inequity, seduction and misery, and call upon you to cleanse the souls of Mr. Gordon Cherry and his audience—-” The audience whoops, reinvigorated upon hearing itself named—-“Oh Lord, have mercy on those who ask for your mercy and wreak justice upon the unjust. In the name of the Lord I cleanse thee, Mr. Gordon Cherry,” she groans, eyes half shut, dipping two chubby fingers into the vial and flicking the water toward her baffled host. He wears the tired, confused, innocent expression that has won over housewife and prostitute alike over the last dozen years. A droplet of water hits his cheek. He closes his eyes, suppresses a chuckle with studied amiability. The audience roars. “In the name of the Lord I cleanse all you sinners in the audience today who worship at the altar of sex!” The crowd goes ballistic, lowing like cattle, braying like horses caught in a barn on fire.
“Hey, hey!” a stumpy man calls out from beneath the wave of catcalls, momentarily quelling the tumult. “I was wondering, would you anoint me?”—-the crowd falls silent–“Would you splash some of that holy water on me so I could spank my girl harder? So I could”—-he can barely rise above the swell of the revived mass—-“so I could riiiide my girl longer?” The static of overwhelmed microphones is too much for the television’s fuzzy speakers as the woman hurls her open vial into the crowd; a ghostly hiss dampens the electric air about Saul’s head. But he’s not listening. He can’t hear the ghost. The grinding of his teeth, the irritated scabs on his arms, won’t let him. Without thinking, he wipes a new, wet line from his gaunt cheek, and for a moment he sees his daughter’s sleepless eyes open wide; he sees the refrigerator in the kitchen and a handful of ink-smeared futures marked out in broken red circles. But the keys are already in his pocket. He flexes to ease the pain in his starved stomach, shields his thoughts from a baby’s cry, a mother’s heavy quietude, submits to the throbbing rhythm of his body on his way to find another tonight.
Michael Doyle is a student at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario and an alumnus of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Barry’s Bay, Ontario.