Faith climbing the stairs
Meetings of the Rock Island, Illinois, Writers’ Studio weren’t considered official until the scribbler we all knew as Faith crested the second floor landing and arrived into the shabby meeting room.
Faith’s flawed timing was perfect week after week. President Dave had always just requested the dollar dues count from Treasurer John when the door at the bottom of the stairs would bang open and clatter shut, heralding the beginning of Faith’s noisy assault on the creaking stairs, carrying her canvas bag stuffed with hymns and clippings. Faith might be mysterious but her effect wasn’t: The on-time fidgeters went rigid with polished agitation.
The first night she attended Writers’ Studio I made the mistake of trying to assist her up the steps. Trying to play the part of the group’s young buck (rickety though I felt at fifteen, a recovering anorexic), I galloped into the dim hall and looked down, sorting the stairwell shades into a figure poised at the 45-degree angle of a shopper on a stuck purgatorial escalator. Only her cat-eye frames appeared to be making progress. The lenses pitched on her brow hovered inches above a step at least six steps above the step where her pink dress shoes were digging in for the climb.
Her voice an amok blow dryer, mine an unhinged hinge.
“The bag? Want me to take it?!”
I then learned Faith suffered from the rarest of the many forms of deafness afflicting writing club members. She heard every forth sentence perfectly.
Attempting to fling the bulging bag into my outreached arms, Faith held the handle too long and the bag made a mid-air circle, landing behind her and tumbling away from her place on the stairs, vomiting her collected works against the lean street door.
Leg lifted, wheeze. Heel dropped, whomp.
The poor stairwell possessed one superior feature: acoustics. It broadcast into the meeting room every ornate decibel of her struggle with the incline’s jutting steepness, its unreliable railing, its walls tear-dropped with brown paint.
Would she keel over before reaching the long folding table’s spread of article drafts, stanza failures, top hat doodles, fairy tale folderol? Before burying a tan metal seat in the bulwark of her dirty dress? Would her exertions topple the frail brick building located in—to filch a phrase from Studs Terkel—the “rooming house heartland”? Could the club again survive the impact of her challenging company?
Faith’s “hubbub” (as Gordon called it) hit oldest members hardest. Such behavior violated their cardinal rule of aging: Never be a “burden” on others. Awful as it was to think, Faith might (mightn’t she?) consider “seeing the light,” “doing an about face,” hailing a cab, enter the nearest nursing home to preserve, with professional assistance, whatever remained of her dignity. So every Blanche Grammar or Nola Semicolon of a certain age who came to the writer’s group might wish.
Yet Faith was too busy inflicting music to face it. Too blind to see light. She kept climbing in the dark. She knew what little she needed to know. She knew the way. Up!
She groaned. She grunted. She clasped her bosom and paddled like a snorkeler, the buoy of the old hat following along. And as unsettling as her ascent was, the briefest break in the bedlam intensified trepidation in eyes trained on the doorway. Faith choking on paint chips sucked off the wall!? Faith fallen? Faith, get up! We need your spite to unite us!
Somehow an ostensibly hapless Social Security recipient, a ragged anonymity with no car and no friends we knew of and no relatives we knew of, horrible vision, poor hearing, a made-up (must be) fiancé Dean, bursitis, sclerosis, maybe TB…contrived to confront us with a power to which no response sufficed but submission.
Congested Norm liked to say Faith “did a sniff number on us.” Dave’s chin receded into his burgundy turtleneck. For the first time that night, Phyllis the Dramatist, the very thin divorcee, ceased dwelling on what had happened last night at her favorite dive bar and with who. Tall Alabama O’Banion, the more sedate divorcee, tabulated all the hells inherent in tabletop coffee rings. Connie Glossy sat “petrified” like characters in fiction ought not do if they were to be authentic to a critic. Karen Gothic’s lips remained typeset in a red ampersand on the pale page of her face. The brio of Roy Ribald withered as he nibbled a striped 7-11 coffee straw. Snuffling Norm Railroad Days frowned a rare frown, unhappily reminded of the roar of Engine #9, miscast star of a recent nostalgic poem. Cozie Ditty molded invisible kitten-sized prayers with cupped palms. Howard Chronometer, lemon leisure suit and white eyebrows, consulted his namesake wrist device thrice. Jack Wren, Vietnam Vet, flashed back to rice paddy helicopter landings and shot, heaving buddies. Gordon Literal envisioned his backyard woodpile tarp blowing away. Bess Rod and Reel—Argus outdoor life columnist—regretted not wearing her life jacket to the table. Betty Reviser repeatedly made the sign of the cross-out on a page. Shy Treasurer John’s affrighted stare listed between the vintage cola machine and the splayed anatomy of the broken ceiling fan.
That’s when I produced a teenage freak’s smile. With Faith around I felt better about my own flailing: instantly less at risk for no longer being the most at-risk attendee. With Faith around, the question—notify Social Services?— applied most urgently to her, and so not to me.
The meeting started an hour late. But after that most meetings only started a half hour late, delayed by the vernacular of a climb that made it sound like America’s most spectacular hot air machine had chosen, of all the literary havens between City Lights Books and the Algonquin Hotel, to grace our presence in a brick tenement a half-block off the failed downtown pedestrian mall in Rock Island, Illinois.
Faith takes her seat
“Well…” Faith exclaimed, askew in the doorway, her passage from the lonesome bungalow to a Paradise of listeners complete, “…I made it!”
Hers was a stamina of constant falterings. Unmoving, timber-braced, whiskered and damp, she coughed and gathered herself. A crushed brim melted into hairnet melted into wig tufts. Rouge. Fuming couplets of her nostrils. Yellow eyes nested like swallows under the pointy rafters of 1948 frames.
“Greetings!” she warbled to us on the edges of the ledges of our chairs.
Most reasonably, Dave suggested: “Please be seated.”
“Think I will!”
Girdled girth prepared, swaying, marshaling the power of embolism socks, she lifted her trail-weary saddlebag off the floorboards and embraced her own momentum. The direction depended on the physics of her mood and which hand clutched the bag.
Writers slid to free the seat nearest Faith for Faith, who inevitably pointed out the empty folding chair six or eight or ten bodies away: “That one! Over thar!”
Then members scooted in various new directions to clear paths to her chosen throne. The rectangular circle parted in three places, four, five, as she picked from many openings. Her tonnage poured eastward and westward. Her saddlebag slid the table’s length, upsetting careful arrangements of Scribe paraphernalia, scraping over battle-worn binders, notepads, bookmarks, index cards. Treasurer John’s ledger bumped and Alabama O’Banion’s naugahyde valise nudged and Norm’s sky blue rubber thimble (to aid paging) batted into the air like a tiny badminton birdie.
I held tight to the spiral notebook spelling out my fever dreams: At night the tree dances, ballerinas on its branches, jumping from limb to limb…
O, the slogan mugs Faith toppled! OLDIE BUT GOODIE kaput. Smaller spills her dress absorbed; larger spills dripped into the cavern beneath the table as Karen produced napkins from her own addled bag, mopping with the tremulous genius of the third grade teacher she still was. Faith’s thick wrist, flung backward, clocked Norm’s tin ear. Once a Blanche ashtray butt ignited a wrinkle in Faith’s dress and a second wrinkle extinguished the flickers. Regardless, Faith bulldozed on, reeking of mortality but smelling at closest range of her favorite drugstore eau. Lavender cocoanut, was it?
She became “a-tangled!” in sinews of reading glasses, quickly freed by the owner.
Saddlebag ephemera inched outward as she tramped with the timed expertise of a frigate cannon-tender. Table legs kicked! Toes squashed! Nearer chairs continually offered, continually rejected. That one! her left jab insisted. That one thar! Pardon me!
Betty to Blanche: She’s losing her marbles. Blanche to Evelyn: Batty! Not playing with a full deck. Connie—proud publisher of her own work with her corporate husband’s cash—mouthed in Latin: Non compos menti.
Thud, she hit a chair, arriving in an oddly spacious corner that must have backed away from her like none of us could, forearms pinned to table to keep it from capsizing in the high tide of Faith. In front of her plump face squatted the saddlebag.
“My fiancé—he’s a Protymist!”
Let it slide, let it slide, the general consensus. Begin the meeting, the general desire.
“John, could you give us the Treasurer’s report?” asked Dave.
Blue-knuckling the retrieved ledger, he couldn’t. Not for a minute.
“Bess, could you read the minutes of the last meeting?”
Yes, Bess, the sturgeon snagger, could. Her husband was the Moline fire chief.
“Meeting convened 8:05, July 25th…motion to accept the minutes?”
Howard always made that motion and did so again.
Faith’s eyelids battened down.
For the next few hours she slumbered as the rest of us read what we had written out of confusion or pain or jubilation or oblivious fulfillment of a routine suggested by The Writer magazine. Written in ink, in lead, on humming Selectrics or clicking Royals, vainly striving to show not tell and avoid clichés. Good egg…ne’r do well… The preponderance of hooey, I suspected, was conversely equivalent to the luscious quantity of substance we were trying to reach (or in my case displace) for the sake of sanity.
She produced the sounds of an Oldsmobile heard at a distance, the steady crooning of a motor on automatic save for the occasional revving hills required.
Notify Social Services tomorrow? Curl a finger, dial a number to separate Faith from her feather bed, tea cups, fiancé fantasy, scruffy scrapbooks, precious sense of a place in a community rather than a cell in it? Was this the assistance she needed? Was informer a role any of us was equipped to play? The idea kept getting tabled.
The nursing home at the apex of a winding drive: the S for shunted aside. These depositories for the old (not yet Orwellingly designated “assisted living centers”) club members knew from painful visits to relatives and former neighbors. Hushed hallways. One-window rooms. The odor: diapers, Lysol. No. How could Faith be consigned to such a fate as long as she had the gumption to tackle 18 stairs? Take a bus and dress—even if it was the same dress—and stay dressed—even if shoulder pads slipped and dangled? What was the rationale for warehousing Faith as long as she had funds to maintain the salt box on the tract block, Quasar television cleverly poised near the front door, tuned to the 24-hour shopping network bark to scare off robbers and other rapscallions of the urban Midwest, a region within a region vital to fully comprehending evolving American realities of gender and class?
Distasteful to mention, it was still positive evidence to be considered—Faith sported no open sores. She was not dehydrated. She was, if anything, over-hydrated and overfed on ring bologna. Regular sink (or bird bath?) washings kept hygiene just within acceptable parameters. Alarming as the “fee-antsy” fantasy was, it was totally natural to want a future at any age—one more shot to resurrect your viability. The help Faith really needed was help maintaining her independence.
Even Blanche, though perpetually aghast at Faith’s raucous meeting behavior, had no “truck” (her fastest verb) with reporting a club member to the Department of Social Services. Blanche would never interfere with anyone’s inalienable right to be worthy of her truculent “ach”s, not Faith’s right, not mine, not President Carter’s.
“Not a whit” (Cozie-speak) of proof existed that Faith was sick—or at least not enough evidence to survive an F. Lee Bailey cross-examination. Faith had committed no crime. She just made observers feel sick at heart. Who knows? For decades she may have been living just how she lived now. She trusted in us. There existed an organization to shepherd stray writers and, considering herself a lamb in songbird’s clothing, she traipsed to meetings to tender those proceeds of the heart still on offer.
Faith’s old clippings
President Dave hit upon an effective strategy for dealing with Faith’s presentations. She must “go” last. Once the ruckus began often the only effective method of quieting her was flicking off the lights. Awakened around 9:30 p.m. by a mantra: your turn, your turn, Faith opened one eye, then the other, peered through pearls of mucous. Her beige tongue flicked, pasting whiskers flat. Her eyeframes (pocked where gems used to be) jitterbugged on the abbreviated bridge of her nose. The hat-wig-hairnet conglomeration throbbed to the pulse of scratching fingers while the other set of cracked nails dredged out saddlebag souvenirs from a career of blessed creation. She rose to the surface of the room.
“Greetings!” she bellowed.
Faith proffered essentially the same material each Thursday, but never in exactly the same disordered way. Her audience had learned to be vigilant for the shifting points of transition from reverie to singing to tears.
First, fishy grin swishing, she produced corroded paper clips attached to clippings mostly not there. Her hymn lyrics had been published in previous decades. See!
Specks of these articles floated, joined by nebulous flakes of air vent origin. “It all telling,” she assured us, squinting into the whirring flurry that called for the fuzzier faster fabulous talking in tongues—“it all telling” of her husband’s church in “Lustriano”—its “goreous aleter [gorgeous alter]”—its “conogroanants [congregants]”—its “clycan suppers [??]”—its “keester sermons [Easter sermons]”—its “corer [choir]” singing her hymns and its “Whilitizer [Wurlitzer]” played by her too, and the “dahth [death]” of her husband at “thisix [thirty-six]” of “infartication [infarction]” period. His name was Dean also.
None of us were in a position to doubt. Not enough archival matter survived to confirm or deny. Triumphant inhalations guided the cloud of articles back into the saddlebag. I imagined missing paragraphs were safely archived—if forever unobtainable—in the lungs pumping out the memory-noise that made Norm wince. The old gal, she did not know the first thing about being nostalgic! She did not ah nor coo or make it easy. Norm mopped what he called his “bean” with a folded bandana.
She exhibited too well what knowing names too well for too long can do, language stealing language away, placeholders swallowed by the place held. In crashing dissonant cries, in dispersing grams of pulp, she depicted the brutal disattachments aging can inflict. A rampage of paperclips holding nothing together! See! Behold her adoration for empty columns of air, because a face, a story, had previously been there.
Faith’s new clippings
The first addition in decades to her collection occurred in May of 1980 when Faith frisked the bag, producing her birth certificate plus FRESH columns of newsprint stapled neatly together, unraveling to the right of her delicate goatee. She read from a report describing the recent eruption of Mt. Saint Helen’s in Washington State.
“Ahhhhsh!” was still settling on a hundred square mile area!
Learning this, hypochondriac John coughed, believing he tasted apocalypse too—dust on the window sill ahhhsh, dust on the cola machine ahhhsh.
Faith’s hikers were “massing [missing].” Faith‘s governor had put the “National Gourd [National Guard]” on active duty. The name “Harry Truman” she pronounced perfectly, having seen it twice before in a voting booth. He was the most famous victim. The curmudgeon’s refusal to abandon the resort he owned inspired many, including me. A smoldering mountain was his Titanic to sink with. “Bring it on!” he as much as told the national press. Now he lay under a blanket of cooling lava in his green John Deere cap.
Faith’s “lava” rhymed with “love.”
THE POINT! snapped Blanche’s green eyes.
She finally got to it. She again waved her birth certificate, edges tattered to taffeta. Any researcher care to see—to verify the stern planet of a town seal? Her birthplace: “Awaktalka!” That great volcano had erupted on her birthday. See!
Gordon’s partial swan dive across the table brought him within reading distance of newsprint and the certificate. May 18, 1908. May 18, 1980.
He glanced at the photograph of the Mt. St. Helen’s crater. He glanced at Faith’s mouth. He drew conclusions that made him withdraw. Faith’s paradigm for aging wasn’t When I am Old I Shall Wear Purple but a volcano dormant for a century before getting down to the last hot sticky business.
Two months later, in mid-summer, Faith extracted an even more explosive new news item from the saddlebag while talking about the “Protymist!”–no longer her fiancé but now her husband. At least it looked new–a bright white fresh Kinko’s copy.
Gordon snatched that column out of her hand: she wanted him to. He read the wedding announcement and passed it on.
Bess (gaze reeling) passed the clip to Dave (swallowing) who passed it to John (blushing) who passed it to Howard (numb) who passed it to Phyllis (teeth gritted) who passed it to Alabama (oh) who passed it to Blanche (ach-ing) who passed it to Roy (smirking) who passed it to Jack (stoned again) who passed it to Connie (blank) who passed it to Cozie (rosary out) who passed it to Karen (lipstick twisting) who returned the clip to Gordon for re-re-reading.
Now we knew Faith’s last name. Strand. Faith Strand of East Moline, married to Dean Strand, a Bettendorf hypnotist.
Faith’s not our problem anymore! She’s Dean’s! Good rid…? What a stew! Can’t derive any solace from it, having never believed in him! Geez!
Blanche stabbed a filter into an ashtray’s cluttered shell. A goner on a spree! Forget the nursing home! Forget the morgue! Wire Dr. Ruth.
She never burst into tune after showing off her clippings. She blabbed into tune, and it happened the evening of the wedding announcement, too.
Vague mumbled allusions to a delayed Las Vegas honeymoon assumed a sudden squall of octaves, the squall a brief harmonic lilt, the lilt instantly withering, submerged in a murky splurge of alto rhythmical lapses, and whilst this river of sound foamed wider and deeper, from the misbegotten saddlebag emerged crackling paper older than any yellow cell of 1936 newsperdermis, entire pages designed to endure. Parchment made for millenniums of pew sitters. Caffeine-stained staffs, like bridge beams, spanned the tabletop below the ringing and slurring and sparking and rhyming.
“Boulder of the Ages,” her sequel to “Rock of Ages,” throat secretions drowning lyrics, filling the room with what sounded like “Chowder of the Ages.”
Some individuals had noses and others had beaks and still others schnozzes. I was certain that Faith owned a schnozz. It was ballast in any storm. It was the second mouth when she sang.
“Chowder of His sacrifice…”
She held neighing notes with both mouths. I don’t think she ever finished singing some of them. Yes, some of Faith’s Gs Cs Fs Qs Ps Ds sailed through my 1980s and my 1990s and far beyond—which explains how I’m hearing Faith wailing now in Cambridge in a 600 sq. foot apartment above Brattle Street, around the corner from the Ash Street address tenant T.S. Eliot once entered by a side door and blocks from Longfellow’s lilac-surrounded manse—two authors Blanche did have it in her to tentatively admire.
Faith’s dentures see-sawed like a pro-active ship disassembling its own hull in Atlantic froth rather than sink: maelstrom-fooling razor rudders. Shoulders, and shoulders only, tilted way-way back. Her collarbone gazed up at a Hereafter of ceiling cracks the misted eye-frames could not monitor, busy interpreting sharps and flats between wrists.
“Chowder of His sacrifice…”
It was past time to pack up notebooks highlighters pencils ballpoints and be efficient about it.
“…Chowder of the Ages!”
To the mix she added “Chrust” [Christ]—to “Chrust” “Maaaintain” [Mountain]—to “Maaintain” nuclear amounts of “Liiiiiiiight”—and from light made Dylan-hard rain, embroidered hankie out, performing twin functions of fortress and bottomless reservoir.
Weeping! Like always too! Only wetter.
Gordon flicked off the lights.
Faith’s long trip home
Descending proved easier for Faith than ascending. She sort of rolled, sort of tumbled down the stairwell—sort of slithered, sort of helicoptered toward a less-dark dark at the bottom—observed from above by Dave (tummy of a Friar) and I (childhood’s bones). Both shoulder pads poised like bracket funguses on an oak trunk and that certifiable schnozz guided her to a safe landing, and then she made little noise, cried out, coughed out, wrung out.
She wore no wedding ring, I noticed. There was that to cling to, no matter the claims of the clipping.
On the buckled sidewalk Faith swayed, saddlebag dragging. Nearby club members chattered, for starters: “Good meeting!” followed by the softer “Nice meeting tonight…” then frantic whispers: “That Dean bamboozled…” “At her age a newlywed! What an escapade!” “Gold-digger!” “Did he pick her up at a church social?!”
Regardless of the season, on that bereft block, always the fickle reek of the garbage river gulls drop. I eased next to teetering Faith to steady her if she listed too far forward, too far backward. There were puddles around to fall into.
Evelyn the Petitioner, Karen’s tough-minded cousin in the velour warm-up suit, stood by herself, gazing in the direction of a pay phone. An attender of meetings of every civic stripe, she gave the business (her verb) to leaders who cut social programs. A roux of cosmetics and moonlight tinted her face maroon. What was Citizen Evie’s duty here? Should she notify the police since no airy-fairy writer had the chutzpah to? “Fiancé” claims, easiest to label a dementia symptom, had come true in a fashion. It either proved Faith was much sicker than we had let ourselves believe or, less likely, that we were the dangerously confused ones. Exploitation? Expiation?
Weekly the same five Wheel-less Wonders needed rides—Cozie, Blanche, Faith, John, and me—and the same pool of drivers milled between nail-studded telephone poles, every other club member save perpetually double-booked Connie (who “vamoosed”—her favorite verb—to make the next engagement.) Figuring who went with who should have been simpler, but as no Muse of Chauffeurs existed to inspire efficient solutions, a tangle of collective bargaining—consisting entirely of agreements—ensued.
Though Faith lived the farthest way and gave the most horrendous directions—as though caring less about arriving home than living forever in the back seat—interest in her shocking matrimonial news increased the roster vying to transport her. Bess’s “sure” and Howard’s “yep.” Norm’s “No (sniff) problem!” The solemn “yes” quavering on Karen’s lips. Roy’s daffy proposal that Faith ride home on the back of his Harley. Unshaven Jack beckoning from his banged-up pick-up truck.
Finally Dave, tests to grade in his briefcase, tugged the reigns, directing Wheel-less Wonders toward drivers most suited to them. Iowans Cozie and Blanche go with myopic Norm. Bess, best you ferry John over his raging river of dread, toward the foyer glower of a surgeon mother who tweaked hearts at Franciscan Hospital and impatiently doted on her only child. (“Late again! Are you mixed up with Beatniks?”) Bess and John lived near each other. Howard—least gossipy member—take Faith and…me.
Howard, Dave’s second-in-command, knew his mission, its honor: You are the most equipped to deal with these fragile creatures.
“Okay, folks, let’s go,” Howard suggested. He had given us rides before. It meant dropping off Faith first, since she lived in the opposite direction of his split-level ranch and my shadow-fanged abode. We knew we were lucky to have Howard. We would get lost only in spirit.
He settled into the town car and snapped on perforated leather gloves matching the perforated steering wheel cover. What this galaxy of tiny holes was about I did not know. Howard’s glow-in-the-dark chronometer darted like an angelfish in front of the dash. I helped Faith leverage her weight in. I slid into nice front seat scents (cologne, pipe, upholstery) and looked out across the street to see Evelyn folding herself into Karen’s compact pale blue vehicle.
Police had not been contacted, could not be, in Evelyn’s final estimation. Respecting Faith’s right to choose to be a dupe was more vital than protecting the lady herself. Another instance when feeling sure you were making an error meant you were doing the right thing. Karen, Evelyn, heads together, bemoaned Freedom’s absurd logic.
“Great meeting,” I tensely chirped.
“Some meeting,” Howard replied, putting an end to that little discussion. His Bettendorf home hosted the entire eccentric cast of The Who What When Where Why Writing Conference (aka the Mississippi Valley Writing Conference) one year. Over-stimulated by such luxury, I had plucked a black olive out of a salad and flung it at Dave’s forehead. No one liked it. I hoped Howard had forgotten.
“Dean!” Faith sputtered. Then she fell asleep.
Faith’s husband could not be. But the clipping proved it, he was.
We gazed down the block, not knowing what to hope for, and were off, bound for shingled fringes of the Quad-Cities realm, past Moline, where Dave lived in an A-frame (A for Adjective) with an adorable white poodle named Schatzi.
In new cars I kept my hands in my lap like caged animals that otherwise might poop on everything. I watched thistles of lit numbers on the dash gauges.
“How’s school?” asked Howard.
“I…” was flunking Geometry and Latin, so said no more.
Snort! The third turn shook Faith awake.
“Dean! Handsome as Spencer Tracy!”
Ah, the debonair comedic genius of her talking picture youth, and my elderly adolescence. Old movies on late night TV fanned my imagination then. To have acceptable possibilities sometimes a fella had to shut out the vengeance of his 1970s for a few hours.
“Redeemer! Bless His…” Snores.
Howard steered down the off-ramp and through East Moline’s long straight streets, past small square yards. Tall chain-link fences separated by a pool cue’s length. Septic systems, propane tanks, garage door hubcap montages. In this “berg,” as Howard called it, teenagers joined the Army or the Navy to be eligible for educational opportunities. There was a 1 ½ block stretch known as Hero Street in the next town over (Silvis) that had sent more young men to war than any other street of comparable size in America. At dawn red-eyed men in denim jackets appeared on corners to get day laborer gigs. The car slid at gondola speed down the narrow canal of open pavement between dented cars.
“Progress,” Howard dryly assured himself, if not me.
To an outsider, Faith’s neighborhood was less a place than a vexing rootless grid of PER MAR security signs, MOLINE DISPATCH newspaper delivery boxes and sooty pink flamingos, gutters stuffed with leaves though no trees were to be seen, turf pinwheels slowly revolving. Plastic siding that would last a century the color of crap after just a year. Tent-like carports in a nomadic line. Plywood decks where scant room existed for recreation’s engine: the gas grill. Tilted berets of smashed trash can lids.
“Almost there!” cried Faith, conscious again, breath steaming window.
Screen-gleam-gilded stoop—indigo lawn patches—there! The bungalow with its front door propped open in the interest of safety. Otherwise the TV acting as guard dog, positioned on the rug, could not do the job. “Zirconia necklaces!” went Rover’s bark.
We, and she, looked for a husband in the driveway. HYPNOIST’S LEAGUE bowling shirt, parenthetical tufts around baldness, bulge over belt buckle and the hand that once pulled out a chair for her—once held open a door like a “true gentleman.”
Howard applied brakes. Faith kept looking. I powered down the window. “Zirconia necklaces! Originally $99.99 now…” Buzzers. Bells. Bids. Faith kept looking.
A local chiseler had married Faith to snag this gem? Come off it! tactful Howard thought instead of said—the saying saved for the second limping leg of the trip. A property worth less and less, but each day Faith left it, she stepped out hoping for more and more. Howard later wondered what had “gotten into her.” I, also from a pit, did not.
It hurt to look at her house. It was wretched—a firetrap, a fixed-income savagery—all the more scary in that it was hope’s only available anchor.
This visit proved everyone right by proving everyone wrong. The wedding announcement was not irreproachable data. Hypnotist Dean was not in residence, apparently. Club fears that Faith had been suckered justified, and Faith correct in celebrating the only genus of spouse she could abide at this late date, absentee weight-loss guru. It remained to be seen who would get the best of the bargain in my estimation. Whatever the con man pilfered, he had not the power to get his paws on Faith’s fortune of inner resources: her patience, guile, pluck. Petty crooks don’t recognize that stuff as gold.
“Here we are, Faith! Get your things together!” Howard was pleading.
She issued non-committal grunts. I got out, opened the door. She rifled the bag and rearranged its contents before rising. The newest clipping must live on top to show people fast. SEE! a priceless pulp handhold on tomorrow. Her face had never looked rounder. “You’re home!” I quailed. She did not grab and squeeze my extended hand, but gripped the seat back with both hands and pushed. Stammering indecipherably, she pushed hard, trusting saddlebag would stick to mid-riff. It did. She abandoned town car comfort at the speed of bursitis, proclaiming to me and the galaxy:
“I’m fine! Just fine! Aye-men to that! Aye-men!” Back in the game!
Who were we to disagree? Actuarial Tables did and got her wrong. She faced her a-glow address, a pause, a shallow bow, and she wobbled. Sell sell sell inanity coursed from the stoop. Permanent Christmas lights blinked on a neighbor’s house.
I opened my door a crack in order to exit quicker if she fell.
Saddlebag cradled by crossed arms, Faith approached the fence gate on distressed heels. She unhitched the latch and caught her 82nd second wind.
“Oh, boy,” Howard said, elaborating with a whew.
“Do you think…” I said, and nothing else, nothing.
Was AWOL Dean snoring next to a girlfriend in Bettendorf? Huddled in a Perkins “Cake and Steak” booth, slurping carafe “java” as insomniac monkey business men called it, our local herd of joking carnival ciphers and tax-evading bunko artists?
She shoved open the gate to her “bridal sweep,” as she had called it at the meeting. Entered the miniscule yard, still believing. Shuffled a Bedouin’s shuffle.
This memory of this walk I would carry with me. She was showing—not telling—how it was done, how to keep becoming who you are to the finish of who you are. The effort’s semi-eternal circumference. The importance of not looking down.
She looked ahead. The lawn, where not illuminated, appeared gone. “Last bid!” an auctioneer caterwauled from the door framing an interior lapped by bluish light, a surf appearing to deepen with the crush of each successive day-glo wave. Faith speeded up: moving better than at any point in the evening. Saddlebag now over one arm lady-like.
Stoop steps hardly slowed her. She did not holler “Bye!” but it was goodbye. She never attended another Thursday night meeting.
She didn’t quite vanish. She resolved into an outline—fading dress, fading hat, fading wig, fading bag—as if devoured, purified of matter that did not matter, liberated from every human weight but last wild hopes.