TO BE A STRANGER
Wearing a beige suede jacket and a blue beret low over his right ear, James Frederick Dellinger stepped out onto his porch and looked around uncertainly at the new day. Clamping his aged leather satchel under his arm, he succeeded in locking his recalcitrant door and had just stashed the key under the fern in the Florentine terracotta vase when the expected shrill voice called: “Jimmy, now you mustn’t forget to water your tomatoes every day in this period. You’ll soon see the rewards of perseverance … and Jimmy, you shouldn’t leave your key like that. This neighborhood is not safe as it was when your poor mother was alive … bless her heart!”
He looked at his neighbor on the next - door porch and searched in vain for a caustic but inoffensive answer. He disliked the woman’s daily interventions in his life, her wise counsel, and her loving advice; she had known him all his life and had been a friend of his mother, but he thought of her as a spy who seemed to see into every crook and cranny of his being.
“It’s kind of you, Janet, to follow my garden,” he said, hopefully too softly for her to catch every word. “It’s my first attempt. I never had much experience with nature.”
“Well, you’re getting the hang of it fast, Jimmy.”
Above all he disliked her calling him Jimmy. The diminutive was a form of alienation. He thought nicknames vulgar and disliked initials in general and had always hated having to sign, James F. Dellinger.
He would have liked to be called Frederick but nearly everyone in town insisted on Jim or Jimmy. At the university people had called him James—and, some few, James Frederick. He had married one of the latter. He still smiled when he recalled that in Italy people had called him Federico, which made him feel closer to life.
“Sometimes you talk as if you didn’t grow up in these parts, Jimmy. Your poor mother had a vegetable garden.”
“She might have, Janet.”
“I always tell everybody,” she continued as he reached the front yard, “that now that Jimmy is back at home he has no more illusions about the world. You saw it all but you always knew where home was!”
“Yes, home is where you start from,” he said, so ambiguously that his neighbor cocked her head to one side and peered at him suspiciously. He knew that her words concealed more than they revealed. Just asking him about those foreign places that she claimed she had never cared to see would have been a sign of disrespect for their hometown. Stubbornly single - minded, he thought, she was condemned to be forever true to herself.
“Even if Anne insists you’re a strange man!”
Janet said the last with a certain reproach in her lowered voice. She liked nothing better than quoting his ex - wife who lived a few houses down the street, especially if it reflected on his lifestyle—his bizarre furnishings, his Mexican patio, his paintings hung outside, the loud operatic music booming from his house each evening, his two old parrots. Anne, she thought, was probity itself, and had once determined his criteria of good and bad lifestyle—until he rebelled and abandoned her.
Since his retirement a year earlier and his definitive return home from where he had “started out,” James Frederick had come to think of his three now unmentionable years in Italy as the highlight of his life. Magnetic and brilliant, they hung on the horizon, still a beacon of the real world.
Although he would have liked to speak of his experiences abroad, he had become used to the closed minds of his neighbors; gradually those untold memories had sunk so far back into the misty myth of youth that they seemed never to have happened.
Yet, he held onto the symbols of that period as paradigms of the full life—his lasting ambitions, his passions and his links with the rest of humanity. His stay abroad was the expression of his individual self. Without those places and times he would sink into the oblivion he felt around him. The barely surviving symbols kept intact the link between his past and his present.
He pushed strands of long thick pepper - and - salt hair under his beret and as every weekday morning set out along Montford Avenue toward downtown and the public library. Libraries were so much a part of his life that he concentrated better in the main reading room than in his study at home. He imagined he made an exotic image for people along his route—a tall man with a full beard and extravagant dress and often carrying a black umbrella. A man from another world.
The weather was perfect. The spring was as it should be—crisp mornings and pleasant afternoons and cool nights, with plenty of the rain that he loved. As much as he admired the variety of architecture of the old houses of the tree - lined streets—Victorian, Greek Revival, Neo - classical, Colonial Revival—something in him rejected the ease and perfection of the life they reflected here in the mountains.
With a sense of self - justification he repeated to himself the lines from Gibran Kahlil addressed to the people of New York, which he had once quoted in a lecture on freedom and which no one had understood:
“You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, but rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.”
His situation felt queer. In his secret interior self James Frederick consoled himself that he didn’t belong here. His hometown was increasingly distant from him—or he from it. He could never decide which. Most certainly, he admitted, he was withdrawn.
When he caught himself thinking this was the “last phase” of his life, he corrected himself aloud that change is always possible. He was, if nothing else, obstinate. He knew he still had another existence ahead.
This is home, he thought purposefully as he crossed the overpass over I - 240. Home in the traditional sense. So why reject it? Who would I be without it, and where? My former life is only a mirage. A chimera. No wonder I feel abstract at times, separated from myself.
Jimmy is home again—but Federico is still out there in the real world. Not that I belonged in Italy either. For Chrissakes, I’m already forgetting the language!
Before he went to Italy to live, now fifteen years ago, he had first imagined that his existence there—a chaotic life so colorful, inviting and different—would be just as it had seemed when he visited there as a tourist. So he was surprised by the feeling of unbelonging that had come over him in the new reality. He hadn’t properly understood the words of an American writer friend who said, “Italy is the country to go to when you want to escape yourself.”
Like smells of long ago one set of memories remained: he could conjure the sensation of walking across an Arno bridge or the Piazza della Signoria or through the Historic Center in Rome and being vividly conscious of his foreignness and otherness and wondering what it consisted of.
Far from escaping himself, Italy had made him become truly conscious of his own self—of his grossness, his diversity, his strangeness, even of his different walk, manners, and eating style, as compared to Europeans. It was a feeling that distanced him more and increased his sense of unbelonging and foreignness. He blushed when he recalled his attempts to bridge the gap by wearing broad hats and black capes. He had never acquired a grasp on the world.
Since his return home the memory of the sensation of his unbelonging abroad dominated his images of his real past. But gradually he became aware that he now felt the same unbelonging here, too. It was as if the lapse of the unbelonging three short years abroad had sliced into his life and removed from his memory the common but forgotten experiences he must have once shared with others here. Only vague memories of his schools occasionally surfaced, while there were no boyhood friends with whom he could exchange memories of how things once were. No wonder the world seemed misty and cloudy. He felt a void.
He walked around the strange town as if on a secret mission, alienated by the void but hungry for union and filled with unclear longings and desires and aware that he would not find the meaning of life in detachment. His links somehow had to be restored.
He turned into Haywood Street toward the downtown. On the spur of the moment he decided to look into the Basilica of St. Lawrence again. Yesterday he had sat in the last pew in search of some Florentine atmosphere. Again he took the same seat and began examining the stained - glass windows and Guastavino’s great dome. He hoped someone would again play the organ.
He was not Catholic. He was not anything. But the church stirred in him contradictory emotions—on one hand the coalescence of the foreignness he had felt here at Christmas masses as a boy and the slight accent of Italy he carried within him and, on the other, the mystery of why he found it so difficult to believe.
It was about the time he moved from Florence to Rome that he came to realize that far from regretting his unbelonging, he should cherish his feeling of foreignness. It was an exhilarating sense of freedom. The memory of his former belonging and then the awareness of unbelonging and his foreignness created in him a sense of suppleness and liberation from his origins.
Noting that the priest ambling up and down the nave kept looking his way, furtively as if fearful of disturbing him, he realized that Anne was right: other people were put off by the distance inherent in him.
The priest seemed very tall in his black cassock. James Frederick looked up at him and smiled:
“Buon giorno, Padre,” he said spontaneously.
“Buon giorno, Signore!” the other answered and stopped near him.
He started when he determined that the priest only looked much younger than he was—though strangely pale, his was a smooth, wrinkleless face topped by close - cropped hair. His eyes were blue. His expression was morose.
“Are you new here?” the priest asked.
He stood up, held out his hand, and introduced himself as James Frederick.
“Padre Teodoro!” the other said.
The priest smiled, holding onto his hand longer than necessary, and said, “Federico, eh. We see more Italians here recently—but you’re not Italian, are you? I’ve almost forgotten my Italian from my seminary studies in Rome.… Maybe you lived there, too? Are you here looking for the past?”
“The present, too.”
“Oh yes, the eternal problem.” The priest chuckled. “I meant to say the usual problem!”
It was true. His return from Italy had been bitter disappointment from the start. No one was interested in where he had been. No one needed his observations about the world he had returned from. As the years passed, first at his old university downstate, then finally back home, he was surprised that he had become a stranger in his own land.
So what held him here? He could strike out again. But where can I go, he asked himself each day? What can I do … to feel less alone?
“Trying to get a grasp on things,” he said. “I sit at home, I walk around town, I sit in the library, and ask myself everywhere why I felt free there—when I was not free at all—and why I feel like a prisoner here where I’m as free as ever in my life.”
The priest sat down in a pew facing him across the aisle, a tolerant smile on his face.
“And have you found any answers?”
“Sometimes I think oblivion would be desirable—maybe inevitable. Can God be there? In oblivion, I mean? In nonmemory? At least I would feel the freedom I used to feel in my foreignness in Italy.”
“Foreignness?” A puzzled light in his eyes, the priest looked out the open door toward the street, and back to James Frederick. “I’ve long been struck by this passage in Chronicles—‘For we are here but for a moment, strangers in the land as were our fathers before us. Our days on earth are like a shadow, gone so soon, without a trace.’”
After a pause, during which his serene gaze wandered around his basilica, the priest added, “Interesting that the Lord promises to preserve strangers.”
James Frederick stroked the smooth back of the oak pew in front of him and wondered what the words meant. He too turned his eyes toward the magnetic dome. Inexplicably he felt his face flush with embarrassment.
“You mean if we’re all strangers then no one is a stranger?”
“I think that’s the meaning.”
“How terrible!” James Frederick murmured.
“If we don’t make our mark!” the priest added.
As each day he stopped at the Civic Center to read placards of upcoming events—something or someone unexpected would surely arrive any day. He pondered the priest’s words. Is it true that our presence on earth is only a shadow? How tragic, if that is all. No trace? Then what kind of a god is that? Why did he go to the trouble of creating us? Are we then just unthinking and unaware protoplasm? But yes, thus far, my presence on earth has been truly a shadow. It’s the not knowing that gnaws in our bellies.
At Malaprops, a thick book in the window display caught his attention—Empire and Revolution. Every title with the word “revolution,” every mention of the word, had always struck a cord in the darkness of his self. In his “secret heart,” as he referred to it, he loved and admired rebels.
Anne used to laugh at his revolutionary fantasies. Lamentably his flight had been only rebellion. With sarcasm he told himself he was one of those willing to execute the coup d’état but too pusillanimous to carry out the revolution. Flight and escape had therefore become the mood of his life. Oh, my craven soul!
But in reality—except for those three years in Italy—his life had been static; his marriages, his academic life, his once popular off - beat lectures, his research, and academic papers now seemed to have been aimed at repressing his childishly violent instincts. If not for chance—he boasted to himself—he could have been born Che Guevara.
He occupied his place in the rear of the library at a window looking over Lexington Avenue and the Interstate below. While waiting for the matinal Elizabeth bearing him a cup of coffee—always milked and sugared, which he detested—he spread on the polished table his own books, notepad, and a small map of the Florence area.
The Anglo - American society there of the 1930s—the subject of his now nearly unlearned dissertation, which twenty - five years ago was so researched as to seem to him today like a forgery—still fascinated him; he often caught himself projecting himself into that fictitious ambience and trying to imagine the Scandicci hills of D.H. Lawrence or Berenson at Fiesole.
Elizabeth’s musical “Good morning, James Frederick” melted him. He smiled up at her as he took the white plastic cup from her hand. The young - looking, forty - five year - old, divorced and bookish - sexy librarian reminded him of his second wife. She even had Samantha’s sensuous habit of keeping a cigarette in the corner of her mouth for long seconds after she lit it. He felt it in his loins. Sometimes he liked to imagine those lips wrapped around him.
Her “What can I do for you today?” rang like an offer of her body. He felt himself blush, again delighted by her openness. Here was a woman who knew what she wanted. How many times he had said exactly those words about both Samantha and Anne. He had married two sexy masculine women and here was another for the taking.
“I read about a new biography of the American - English writer, Iris Origo. The bookstore doesn’t have it yet.”
Though James Frederick had lived in Fiesole overlooking Florence where the writer’s villa was situated, he had met Signora Origo only in Rome, a couple years before her death when she was already feeble but still eager to share her experiences of that unique period in Tuscany. She was his major source about the rich Anglo - American society in Florence up until World War II: Bernard Berenson had been her tutor and she knew writers there like Sinclair Lewis, D.H Lawrence, Edith Wharton, and Harold Acton. One line attributed to her rich New England father had made her forever exotic to James Frederick: “Iris should grow up as a little foreigner.”
Sensuous Elizabeth looked him full in the face. The air conditioner blasted a gelid brush across his forehead. He felt trepidation at the idea of hurting this good woman, and simultaneously wondered how she saw him—old, young, foreign, horny?
“Then we probably don’t have it, either. I’ll check.”
Elizabeth put a hand on her hip in the whorish manner he liked, looked past him with a half smile, and asked sardonically, “So how is your famous garden doing?”
This was standard fare. She brought the coffee, offered herself together with her services, and then bore in on his personal life. She wanted him to invite her home. Since he had twice taken her to lunch at a café down the street she acted as if they had a relationship going. That was far from his mind. He had just wanted someone to talk to. Thus far the library had been fine with him.
Though the book he wanted had not arrived, he felt he owed her something. He invited her to lunch at the Bistro on Pack Square. Over sandwiches and beer he watched her smoke one cigarette after the other, taking long drags and her head tilted backwards letting the smoke spiral slowly out through her nostrils, and leering at him. Something stirred in his solar plexus. He hadn’t been with a woman in over a year. And even that was not especially successful since it was with his ex - wife.
“You’re brooding again,” she said at one point as she sometimes did in the library when she caught him staring into space.
In that same moment he was wondering if he shouldn’t invite her to his house after all. By that time her lips had arrived in his lower belly. He shook his hand hard as if to shake away his trepidation of a hasty decision, the kind that could set off a concatenation of events which two times before had ended up in something different than what he intended: marriage. He would like to go to bed with Elizabeth. He would not like to enter into a lasting relationship.
“Yes, I have to stop brooding,” he said. “Actually I was just wondering about how we believe others see us must differ from the way they really see us. Did you ever think that?”
As he spoke he was aware that his head was inclined toward his right shoulder like hers, a body position he remembered Anne used to assume just before exploding in passion—or rage—at his “indifference.” He closed his mouth, lowered his hands onto his thighs, palms up, and forced himself to breathe slowly.
“I think most of us care how others see us and that we believe they see us much as we do ourselves.”
“Do you really? Amazing! Oh, I hope not!”
He drank off his beer and ordered another. He had a sudden urge to get drunk, something he had permitted himself rarely in his ordered and controlled life. From somewhere echoed the lines, O, won’t we have a merry time, drinking whisky, beer and wine. Each time it had been disaster. No, he would not invite her today.
“Yet, I see everyone doing the same things I do. Shopping, eating, talking to neighbors, everybody in more or less the same manner. It must have been the same one hundred years ago. Everybody thought they were moving in a straight line toward God—just as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had done. Life is just repetition. Plagiarism. Though I’ve learned that we’re all different, we still seem to resemble each other.”
“I have exactly the opposite opinion of you.”
“You do?” He was genuinely surprised. “I’ve been writing about other people’s lives too long. I’m ashamed of it but I sometimes don’t even know whether I like a book or a film until I read other opinions. Don’t you ever feel that way?”
“I try not to.”
“Then you’re more heroic than most people here!” He followed the smoke whirling upwards from around her face. It cast her in a new light. Elizabeth’s carefree fuck - the - world stance mirrored his dreams of transcendence more than she could imagine.
“It’s only a role,” she said, and grinned confirmation that he was not wrong. “But it gets easier with patience, practice, and persistence.”
When he told her what the priest had said about everyone’s being strangers in life, she looked at him with a puzzled look. But she understood he was putting her off.
Again in the library, distracted and disturbed, and feeling pleasantly licentious from the pull in his lower belly each time Elizabeth passed—Liz, he was now saying to himself—he looked more out the windows than at his books. Decadent daydreams of shadowy couplings. Merging with images of Liz’s voluptuous lips, the soft words of Padre Teodoro in the basilica.
Finally convinced that the strange priest was concealing something more in the church—perhaps true truth and magical transcendence—he loaded his satchel, put on his jacket, and took guilty leave of Elizabeth:
“I have to ask the priest about strangers in Rome.”
“What can a priest tell you that I can’t?” she said.
“I want to ask him what I’m to do.”
“Oh!” she said, as if he meant about her.
Something about the priest had made him think of the mystery of his nearly forgotten father. When James Frederick used to ask why there were no photos of him in the house, his religious mother would press her lips together and turn away. Even Janet refused to mention him by name. Perhaps, the ten - year old James Frederick had thought, he had never really existed.
He had come to wonder if his father’s hinted at dubious sexuality had rubbed off on him. Though he had been married twice, he had no children and he sometimes thought of himself as androgynous. He had long suspected that men not only did not respect him but also considered him not quite manly. He recalled with both shame and amusement the drunken weekend party when he had tried to get his second wife, Samantha, in bed with a muscular history professor. She never believed it was just alcohol and licentiousness.
He had always been infatuated with easy women and older single women. It was easier for him to demonstrate his manliness to them. It must mean something, he thought, that both his wives had an abundance of masculine qualities yet at the same time they delighted in his most manly attributes. All in all he had found the routine of living with his two wives tiring and boring. When asked how he would sum up his marriages, he said he thought of them as “shared experiences.” He had sincerely liked both his wives. Maybe loved them, too. Yet today, no, even immediately after his separations, he felt as distant from them as before marriage. Samantha said that the problem was that he had been largely absent.
The two women and the two marriages stood like milestones of the time divisions of his diverse existences. Anne symbolized the period between adulthood and Italy and Samantha, post - Italy until their separation now— how many years was it? —seven years ago. He missed neither but still retained great admiration for both. It was a paradox that while women had always liked him because, his analyst believed, they sensed his underlying phylogeny, he could never explain that he was simply a poor lover.
The basilica harbored none of the mystery of the now indistinct images of boyhood Christmas masses. Its simplicity mirrored a tranquil beauty. Serenity. Sunrays reflecting yellow and orange through stained glass onto front pews and the visible smell of incense rising in the white air choreographed the morose priest standing near his altar, his head again turned upwards, gazing at his dome.
Yes, his church, James Frederick thought as he sat down in the front row.
The priest had changed to a reverend’s black suit and white collar. His pale eyes swept down across his nose and fastened on James Frederick.
“I was still thinking of you,” he said.
“I couldn’t help but note the effect on you of our talk about strangers.”
“Yes, Father. I spent so many years charting the lives of expatriates that I can’t find a place for myself in Asheville. There must be a place for me.”
Curiously he studied the face of the old man, wondering if he should tell him more since today he was unusually garrulous. Strange that he had been waiting for him.
“What can I do?” he added.
“That’s the main problem—How to live and what to do for salvation?
For myself I found I had to return to real life—into today, year two, third millennium.”
“Return? Return from where, Padre? You sound like a monk. Are you an ascetic?”
“In a sense, yes. Or I was once—a real one.”
“You mean caves and fasting and sleep deprivation and breast chains and all that?”
Father Theodore laughed and slapped lightly the back of the pew.
“Well, I still eat and sleep little but I was unfulfilled by the seclusion and the silence. Admittedly I need the flesh—I’m a man—so I chose the route of besieging and harassing the foe! No Mount Athos for me! I’m just a low - level believer. I had to settle for the way of contemplation and deprivation, both of them moderate! Still, sometimes even that seems a hopeless battle.”
Intermittently the priest took several paces in each direction, all the time looking down at James Frederick, alternating looks of desperation, salvation and madness in his eyes.
“God speaks to us in many ways—to some through art, to others through nature, to others through love. I mean earthly brotherly love. And the love of the Great Mother, too. Not everyone can maintain the vow of silence. I loved culture too much for the ascetic life. And beauty and the word. Beauty is as fundamental to my faith as is reading books.”
“Yes, but what is salvation? I ask that over and over.”
“I believe salvation is simply the end of the suffering of the innocent. The acid test is not always the beliefs you hold but the acts you perform. I believe redemption lies in the moral life. My Christ is very human. Besides, in my personal faith, not Judgment Day counts as much as the new world to come.”
“Padre, you sound unorthodox, to say the least. I too have difficulty with all the right - thinking people! But I’m a rebel, not a priest. Besides, I grew up in the Baptist Church.”
“Oh, oh!” Father Theodore gazed down at him with a sad expression in his face. “I’m so sorry, figliolo!”
“I feel far from God … though I’m a spiritual person. I never really see the essence of us humans. The right thing to do and the word have been my obsessions. But I’m too selfish to act.”
Though this talk had willy-nilly become a confession, it would have been too embarrassing to reveal his daydreams of heroism. Of the heroic act to save—to save whom?
“Yes, it’s a question of the innocent,” he murmured.
“We have the children,” Father Theodore said softly.
“You’ve heard of them, no?” Again the priest flashed his tolerant laugh.
“We have an orphanage next door. We have one child with little life because she can’t talk. She doesn’t know any words.”
“I think life without words is … is a pitiful existence.” He had nearly said, paradise. “But then words are nothing to believe in, Padre.”
“Maybe not, but the fact is few people succeed in the ascetic life.”
The priest laughed with no attempt to mask his irony and gazed in his face for a long moment. He cleared his throat and tugged at his round collar.
“But you couldn’t bear the silence?”
“It was more than the silence,” the priest said, looking around furtively again, as if looking for an escape, James Frederick thought. “It was the images emerging from the silence. Unhealthy images. A sick silence that lead me into temptation. I couldn’t resist.”
“This is Mary. Maybe her real name is Maria. We don’t know. Someone left her here two years ago.”
The little girl gazed up at them distance and terror in her huge black eyes and sat down on the floor and fixed on her writhing and twisting hands. She had long curly black hair, slim olive limbs, a high forehead marred by a dark swollen spot just above her left eye.
“Physically she is healthy. Child psychiatrists visit her regularly. But she has never spoken a word as far as we know. Maybe she doesn’t even speak English—or any language for that matter.”
“She is beautiful,” James Frederick said softly so as not to frighten her. My mother’s name! She’s so sad. Pure, celestial spirituality. No, never will sexuality mark her face. Yet in her face he seemed to see the Madonna of the orthodox icons: he knew her Motherhood was concealed; it was just starting the long slide down through her body from behind those dark eyes.
“Remarkable,” he said.
“You can try to give her the word, if you like,” Padre Teodoro whispered.
The next morning James Frederick left his satchel of books and papers at home. Instead he carried a pink box, tied with a red ribbon, with inside a multicolored Mexican rag doll. He locked his door, put the key under the fern, and ignored Janet staring at him from her front porch. In his mind, her face smiled with malice and she spoke in her grating voice: ‘Oh, Jimmy, you think you’re special, don’t you? Well, you’re not, Jimmy. You’re just like everybody else in your hometown. Water your tomatoes every day, Jimmy! Don’t leave your key outside for the thieves, Jimmy. Take your pictures inside out of the rain, Jimmy!’
Oh God, oh God, let something happen.
Thank God, no library today! No temptations of the flesh either, he thought with an interior smile, images of both sexy Elizabeth and the once sinful, Christ - like ascetic Teodoro in his eyes.
Mary was sitting in a small chair in the playroom adjoining a garden. She was staring with an empty expression at the other children running about, laughing, and shouting. She looked up at him with no evident sign of recognition. She took the pink box and held it in her hands as if wondering what to do with it.
“Open it,” he said softly. “Open.”
He leaned toward her, untied the ribbon, and removed the lid. The doll’s tiny black eyes stared out.”
“Baby,” he said.
Mary touched the doll, took it from the box, and laid it on her lap.
“Baby,” he repeated. Madonna - like she gazed at him. Was there a smile hidden in her dark eyes? “Baby!”
She didn’t resist when he took her hand. “Bring Baby,” he said.
As agreed with Father Theodore they walked up the short incline to the Basilica. He held her hand. The organist would play this morning. They sat in a rear pew. She looked at the stained - glass windows and followed his finger pointing at the great dome.
When the organist began a Bach fugue he said, “music.”
This time she looked straight into his eyes. Yes, he believed there was a smile there. He kissed her thick hair.
When he went for her the next morning she was sitting in the same small chair. Baby was on her lap.
“Baby is beautiful,” he said. “Muy bonito,” he added, just in case.
She looked at him and maybe her lip twitched. He took her hand in his. She held the doll on her lap in the church as they listened to the organ.
“Music,” he said. “Beautiful music.” He kissed her hair and the black place on her forehead, too.
After the music the next day they walked down Haywood Street, passed the library, and looked into the bookstore. For the first time in his life he examined seriously the children’s books—until his eyes lit on a picture book of Sleeping Beauty standing on a low table at Mary’s level.
She pointed her finger at the girl dressed in white and looked up a James Frederick. She smiled. He picked her up, took the book, and put it in her hands.
For two weeks and two days the daily routine lasted. The walk to the orphanage, a quarter - hour of organ music, ice cream at Pritchard Park, and return to the library to read Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella or Snow White and to look at Elizabeth.
Mary - Maria liked to walk hand in hand and often looked him in the eyes and smiled when she was pleased by one thing or the other. The spot on her forehead had gradually gotten smaller and turned light gray.
On Friday morning of the third week the organist was late. Impatiently they walked around the church, examining now a painting, now a small statue. Mary’s eyebrows were pinched, a puzzled look in her eyes. Padre Teodoro turned from a vase of flowers he was arranging on the altar and shrugged when James Frederick pointed toward the organ on the loggia.
They stood in the nave near their regular pew. Mary looked up at him as if asking—What they were to do? What did he know, the stranger? He was unused to deciding such questions. It was the basilica. It was the sinner - priest blessing. He felt like Saul of Tarsus.
He leaned toward her and studied the beauty in her eyes.
It lasted only an instant. A flash and it was gone. What remained was a shadow. It was the tenderness and sadness and serenity of the Madonna in a Russian icon—she too was both the heavenly Queen and God’s Mother of the future.
The sudden blast of the organ over their heads startled both.
Mary tightened her grip, and still looking up at him suddenly pronounced loudly: “Beau - ti - ful music.”
He suppressed his surprise and led her to their pew. As they listened, he seemed to see the magical matinal notes of the crazed organist rise to the dome in a whorl, then echo off the stained - glass windows, and crash down among the oaken pews.
James Frederick felt redeemed. The universe surrounded him. He seemed to meld into it. Inexplicably he wanted to pronounce the embarrassing word: “spirit.” Was it so easy to feel the deity? Maybe salvation after all did depend on a word.
Mary still held onto his hand: “Beau - ti - ful music. Beau - ti - ful music. Beau - ti - ful music.”
He looked down and saw that the spot on her forehead had vanished.
Suddenly James Frederick felt the flush overcome him—a divine desire to procreate. Later, he thought, he would invite Elizabeth to dinner at his house. He would cook spaghetti alla carbonara and she would watch and wait, a hand on her hip and a cigarette hanging from her mouth.
© Gaither Stewart
This is the title story of Gaither Stewart’s book (print) of short stories, some of which appeared for the first time in Southern Cross Review. The book may be ordered directly from Wind River Press – or Amazon or B&N.
Gaither Stewart is a journalist who currently makes his home in Italy. A regular contributor of both essays and fiction to Southern Cross Review, Gaither has also authored several novels published by SCR E-Books and, in print versions, by Wind River Press.