June 3, 2016

Fiction by Bill Pruitt: "Damnation"

I am a fiction writer, storyteller and poet, and an Assistant Editor with Narrative Magazine. I have published poems in such places as Ploughshares, Anderbo.com and Cottonwood and in upcoming issues of Off Course, Otis Nebula and Literary Juice; two chapbooks with White Pine and FootHills; and self-published Walking Home from the Eastman House. I have told stories in various places in Rochester and upstate New York, including the National Women’s Hall of Fame. My story “My Cousin Gabe” appears in a recent issue of Crack the Spine Literary Magazine.


    Paul lived a diminished life. He had been baptized at thirteen, only a year before, but already he was realizing there was more, or maybe less. This life appeared stressed at the corners, as if it was a piece of tattered clothing he would be ashamed of if he stepped back. But he didn’t step back. He would blink and change. He had no siblings and few responsibilities. It seemed like he could float or be blown away at any time. He felt s growing dread as he sat in the pew and knew his flesh was marked for pain, but damnation was worse than pain. There were stories: Joshua and Samson, who brought down walls; Jesus, who walked alone at evening; John, on the island of Patmos. But there was not much more to Paul Greer than the changing of the light.
    His mother, Elizabeth, talked a lot to his father, Don, who hardly talked, but volubility and taciturnity came, in this instance, from the same place, from shame; which for his mother arose from growing up in poverty in the city, from being dressed second-hand, from having a father who gambled and drank and vented away what money there was and a mother who continuously engaged in the weather of wrath and recrimination, who traded barbs for bruises and a bitter hook in her voice that remained all her life, to be used even with her shambling, chaste and sycophantic second husband; shame for Paul’s father came from being poor in the country, having no siblings (a twin died at birth), from growing up with parents who didn’t say much themselves, a strict father, a soft-spoken mother whose three brothers were preachers, old-time religion, life was a thing you endured if you followed the written code, which Paul’s father did, but he always stayed open, always said “maybe,” kept his sanity that way, kept his fear too.
    So Paul was an indulged only child who must have had a high opinion of himself, but secretly no high opinion at all, because although his mother encouraged him since she knew it was the right thing to do, and she thought of him as her special and only son, she held on to the bitterness and frustration and despair, keeping it inside, prizing herself an actress, hiding her feelings from others behind a mask of confident certitude (it was her one treasure and her bulwark against fear), so her encouragement had the taint of performance, the content of which Paul unconsciously translated as insincere, thus meaning the opposite of what she said. His father could not compensate for this glitch because he was not aware of it, and because he was secretly jealous of Paul, since Elizabeth changed when the baby came into the world, and gave all her attention to him, reassigning to Paul’s father a role he had not asked for, in which he received measured affection, grudging sex, (because it was harder to hold onto her feelings during sex), and a position of responsibility coming with the strings of frequent critique. There was a male in the household now to be considered special and smart, and Don sometimes tried to remind Paul he was not that smart, because Don had grown up as an only child too, but was not regarded as one, but as the half that had survived, and was considered to be less special and less smart than he thought he might be.
    But fourteen is a long time. That was the year he started high school and began dating-- his father would drive him and his steady girlfriend Janine downtown to the movies-- and he walked to high school football games Friday nights with friends Wayne and Mark who were a year older. Sometimes they would play touch football in Wayne’s backyard, or billiards in Mark’s basement.
    Paul had an uncle Frank who came to stay with the family for a few months to dry out and regroup. He had divorced his wife, whom Paul’s mother had been fond of, and with whom she stayed in touch. She said Frank could stay, but there was to be absolutely no backsliding.  Frank knew what this meant; his sister was a teetotaler. He stayed sober through the harshest part of winter, sleeping in their living room. When Don’s parents came to stay for the weekend in March, Elizabeth asked Frank if there was a place he could sleep for three nights. He said there was, and when he came over Monday morning, friendly but drunk, he scared Paul’s grandparents and Elizabeth told him he had to go.
    Paul was in school when this event occurred, and he knew very little about what went on in his family, but he went with his Uncle Frank to the bus station to see him off. He liked his uncle. He had an air, a tone to his voice, which Paul could only think of as worldly. If you asked Paul about it—and no one ever did, so he never thought about it— he would have associated this tone with an ironic knowledge about the world which was not present in his family. While Paul’s mother was looking at the bus schedule in the station, Uncle Frank put down his suitcase, and handed him a small book with a leather binding.. “Maybe, some day, when things don’t look too good, you’ll get some comfort out of this.” It was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It was a poem, organized into quatrains, with brilliantly colored Persian landscapes on pages facing the text. Uncle Frank got on the bus and went out of Paul’s life after that.
    Paul had been baptized, but the feeling that he was saved did not last. He saw how stiffly the elders moved when they served communion. He noticed that when the preacher pointed his finger, it was all nay. An unrelenting tone of scorn and blame had stained the stories, as if there were shame in the blood of the lamb on the door the Death Angel passed over.
        He had always loved girls, mostly at a distance. He had crushes in kindergarten and fourth grade, but dating girls was different. Before Janine, his parents had urged him to get to know the girls at his church, but a party he went to in a deacon’s finished basement filled him with embarrassment which could not be relieved because he did not know what he was embarrassed about, except that these teenagers, who listened to music, talked, drank soft drinks and didn’t dance since it was forbidden by their church, were acting sociable and friendly, and since he felt uncomfortable, he thought it must be because he did not have those qualities. He also decided he didn’t like to dance, and one reason he felt comfortable with Janine was that she didn’t like to dance either, although he didn’t think it had anything to do with religion, which they never talked about anyway.   
    One basement he got comfortable in was Mark’s, where Paul shot billiards with Mark and Wayne. Mark lived a few blocks away, and after Paul turned fifteen and got his learner’s permit, his parents let him drive the Galaxy 500 by himself around the neighborhood. It was a year old and their first new car. One Friday night in spring, as Paul played pool in Mark’s  basement with his friends, Mark pulled out a bottle of vodka and began pouring it into glasses half-full with coke and crushed ice. Paul had never experienced alcohol of any kind, and he was pleasantly surprised by the ease with which this drink went down.
    Next morning was cold and clear. Paul  awoke late, in his own bed, with no memory of how he got home. He looked down to see that he was lying on his own bare mattress, that his bed had been stripped, that he was covered only by a sheet. Shame bordering on horror fell on him full force. He must have been sick— he must have vomited on these sheets, he must have done it all incoherently, he must have been out of control in front of his parents as he forced them to clean up his drunken vomit. He had violated the story of who his parents had insisted they all were.  
    Desperately he asked himself, where was the car? Dimly, in some poorly-lit crevice of his mind, he could make out Wayne sitting next to him, steering the wheel as he inched the Galaxy into the garage. He hoped it was true.
    He felt cast out; he felt lost. He didn’t recognize this place he was in. This was not him. He would have to throw himself on their mercy— on her mercy— and show them that person who had been dropped in this strange locale, this place of damnation, was as surprised and repelled as they. He would have to show them the true Paul, which ironically, he would have to create some lies about to present. He did not know what was in those drinks. The alcohol had no flavor. All he knew was that it tasted very good.
    And he would have to be very good for this story to ring true.
    He opened the door to his room.
    Time, which he had thought stopped that cold spring morning, somehow moved again. It wasn’t hard to grow into the self he fabricated as he stepped out of that room; he was forbidden to go Mark’s house again, which seemed to be a small loss he could easily comply with. He did not understand that he could not help being the hapless person he had created in his parents’ eyes, the one to whom bad things sometimes just happened. His world began to expand again, as the constraints of his diminished state slowly relaxed, not from any change from without, but simply as a function of growing up.
    But as the old life returned, he had a new understanding of being alone. He felt alone because he was alone; there was no one else. He would repair to his room, and know that there was no one with whom he could confide, no one who knew how things were. He opened the book that his uncle gave him and read:
        Dreaming, when Dawn’s left hand was in the sky,   
    And he thought, it’s true. It’s really true. And wept, confirmed.  
  ~Bill Pruitt

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