August 1, 2016

Fiction by Arthur Powers: "Venus If You Do"

Arthur Powers is from Illinois.  In 1969 he went to Brazil as a Peace Corps Volunteer and lived most of his adult life there.  From 1985 to 1992 he and his wife lived in the Brazilian Amazon, working with subsistence farmers in a region of violent land conflicts; through his experience with the farmers, Arthur came to appreciate more deeply his own Midwestern heritage.

Arthur received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and numerous other writing awards.  He is author of two books of fiction and of a poetry chapbook, Edgewater.  His poetry has appeared in many anthologies & magazines, including America, Chicago Tribune Magazine, Christianity & Literature, Hiram Poetry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Main Street Rag, Roanoke Review, South Carolina Review, & Southern Poetry Review.

Venus If You Do...


You explain it.  Hubris?  Simple chance?  Superstition worming into a strangely vulnerable mind?  
1959.  The last Saturday in March.  Our band was playing at our school – Hartmann High’s – annual “March Home” dance.  We were an eclectic group – trumpet, piano, drums, clarinet, sax – based on friendship and whatever talent we could scrape up in our little high school.  But we were good.  I say that even now, looking back with unbiased, old eyes.  We were good.
It was Matt Thompson who made us good.  He was our leader, trumpeter, and vocalist – a better vocalist than a trumpeter, and a charismatic leader.  I had known Matt since second grade, and he was the kind of guy who other kids just naturally followed – always one step ahead, thinking of new games or new ways to play old ones, outgoing, self-assured.  Breaking rules, but with a smile and charm that always got him – usually all of us – out of trouble.  In high school he was our star quarterback, editor of the school magazine, a straight A student – the next year he would be valedictorian of our class.  His intelligence was creative, overflowing, incisive – those teachers who weren’t intimidated by him delighted in his responsiveness, his questioning, the challenge he presented them.  He was cocky, of course – as successful young men often are – but his half smile and his friendly hand on your shoulder made each and every one of us feel we were his special friends.  
His stated goal then was to go to law school, enter politics, and be governor of Illinois by the time he was 30.  Not one of us doubted he could do it.  
The night of the March Home dance he led with all his skill.  Frankie Avalon’s song, “Venus,” topped the charts all month, and Matt had us practice until we mastered it.  In the song, the singer asks goddess of love Venus to send him a little, bright-eyed, “lovely girl with sunlight in her hair.”  Matt crooned the words....
“Venus. if you do,
I promise that I always will be true,
I’ll give her all the love I have to give
As long as we both shall live.”
The crowd loved the song, and we sang it through twice – then once again at the end of the evening.
    “He sang it as well as Frankie Avalon,” I said to Bart Duffy, the drummer, as we were packing up.
    “Better,” Bart said.  
    It was Monday morning, and she was there.
    Matt and I walked out of our first period class, and she was there, standing alone in the hallway outside the front office.  Sunlight flowing in from the high windows touched her golden hair.  She was petite, bright eyed, marvelously made. She was – is, always has been – beautiful.
    “Billy boy,” Matt said, touching my elbow, “it looks like Venus answered my prayer.”  He flashed me his half smile, then walked over and started talking with her.  
    Her name was Sheila O’Conner, and she had just moved into town from Ohio.  She was a sophomore – we were juniors.  Within a week she and Matt were “pinned” - going steady.   For the next year-and-a-half, until Matt left for college, they were almost inseparable.  
    As part of Matt’s group of close friends, I got to know Sheila well.  She was every bit Matt’s match in intelligence and creativity.  She could keep up with his wit, and even sometimes beat him at it – she could be very funny.  But – I slowly came to realize – she was more grounded than Matt.  Whereas Matt’s flights of creativity had an airy, surreal quality – in retrospect, slightly manic – Sheila’s playfulness and comic sense were deeply grounded in a love of life.  She also had a genuine caring for people – could look into their hearts, whereas Matt seemed to look at people to see his own reflection.  
    The one place I saw Sheila without Matt was at church.  Her family and mine were parishioners at Saint Patrick’s – and she and I were often thrown together in confirmation classes and youth events.  I realized then that her essential qualities did not in any way depend on Matt – that she was definitely who she was even when he wasn’t there.
    Matt never revealed to me anything about their sexual relations.  As I found out later, there wouldn’t have been much to reveal.  But even if there had been, he would not have spoken of it.  He and I – all the guys in our group – had been taught by our fathers to respect girls.  I sometimes think our fathers’ generation was the last flowering of chivalry.  There were guys our age who bragged about their sexual exploits – or, more often than not, bragged about sexual exploits they never had.  Our group scorned such guys.  In my case, such talk made me uncomfortable – it denigrated girls who could have been my sisters.  In Matt’s case, such talk would have been beneath his dignity, beneath his pride.  

    Matt was accepted into Princeton, and went off to college in the fall of 1960.  A group of us saw him off at the train station, with great fanfare.  
    I was attending Quincy College, which was close enough to commute.  My family – I was the eldest of five – didn’t have the money Matt’s family did and, frankly, I didn’t have his academic record.  In any case, I had no desire to be away from home.  
    I saw Matt the day he came home for Christmas holidays.  He was upbeat and cheerful in his wry, ironic way – filled with Princeton.  He was confirmed in his decision to major in political science.  He didn’t ask about my studies or Quincy College, but talked about the wonderful courses at Princeton, the world renowned professors, the kids with famous parents.  
    “But it must be nice to be home again,” I said.  
    “Oh this podunk town.”  He waved his hand dismissively.  That rankled – I loved – have always loved – our town.  But then he smiled his half smile, and I let it drop.
    What with one thing and another, I didn’t see Matt again until after New Years.  I did see Sheila, though, at church on Christmas Eve.  Our families were coming out of mass.  I spotted her on the steps of the church and went over to say hello.  She was beautiful as always – a beige coat, a white scarf flowing from around her neck, a small white beret, her face glowing in the cold.  But underneath her smile she seemed sad.
    “Is anything wrong?” I asked.  
    “No, Bill.  Everything’s okay.”  She reached out and put her gloved hand on my arm.  “Have a Merry Christmas.”  And she turned and walked down the steps to join her family, waiting by their car.

    Early in January, I headed over to Matt’s house.  He would be leaving to go back to Princeton the next day, and I hadn’t seen him except for that one time.  His mom answered the door and welcomed me with a smile.  
    “Matt – Billy’s here,” she called up the stairs, then told me to head on up.  I must have been up those stairs hundreds of times since we were kids.  The door to Matt’s room was open, and he was placing neatly folded clothes into a suitcase on the bed – he was always fastidious about things like that.
    “Oh, hi Billy,” he said.  
    I walked into the room and plunked myself down on his captain’s chair – I must have sat in that chair hundreds of times.  
    “Getting ready to go?” I asked.
    “Obviously.  Can’t wait to get back.”
    “Oh,” I said.  
    Silence descended on the room except for Matt humming under his breath – the Princeton fight song, I think – as he continued to pack.  Silence between guys isn’t usually a problem – I’ve spent hours in companionable silence with friends – but this silence was uncomfortable.  I stood up and walked to the front window, overlooking the street, then turned back to the room.
    “How’s Sheila?” I asked, just looking for something to say.
    “Oh,” he said – again waving his hand dismissively.  “Sheila.”
    I was startled.  “What do you mean, ‘Oh, Sheila’?” I asked.  
    He had been leaning over the bed, precisely folding a sweater, and he straightened up and looked at me.  I was standing with my back to the open door, and I remember the scene clearly, as though it were etched in glass – the maroon bedspread, the beige carpet, the light tan walls, the two windows – one on each wall.  Downstairs I heard Matt’s mother call his little sister’s name, and the smell of cooking wafted up from the kitchen.  
    “Listen, Billy boy,” he said.  “Out east there’re some real women.  Bryn Mawr, Vassar – even the townie girls.  Sheila” – his lip curled – “would never give me what I want.”
    What happened next seems, when I remember it, to be in slow motion, though it could only have taken a second.  Rage flashed through me.  He was clearly talking about sex – and what he said was so dismissive, so denigrating – not only of Sheila, but of everything we believed in, everything we stood for, life itself.  I felt my hand form a fist, felt my arm pull back and move toward him, felt my fist hit his chin.
    Then he was sprawled on the floor – a surprised, half-sitting clown, one arm angled back, the other reaching up to nurse his jaw.  A bemused, then wry smile flitted across his face.
    “My God, Billy,” he said.  “It’s the thunderbolt of Zeus.  She said that it would happen.”
    I had no idea what he was talking about.  I turned, walked through the hall.  As I headed down the stairs I heard Matt laugh – an incongruous, unhappy laugh.  I walked out of the house, firmly closing the front door behind me.

    I rarely saw Matt over the next several years, and then only in group setting – weddings, funerals, and such, where we might at most exchange a few polite words.  As I remember, he traveled in Europe the summer following his first year at Princeton, and he was almost never back in town for any length of time in later years.  
I had news of him occasionally through his sister Penny.  She had been three years ahead of us, so I didn’t know her that well as a kid, but she stayed in Hartmann and I would bump into her from time to time.  It was from her that I learned, to my surprise, that Matt had dropped political science and switched into reading the classics – Greek and Latin.  I also learned that he had seriously started writing poetry – he had been a pretty good high school poet – and had poems published in several reviews that neither Penny nor I had heard of, but which were apparently prestigious.  
Matt was not much on my thoughts.  Sheila was.  She had started at Quincy College the year after I did, and we got to know each other better – often driving the thirty miles from Hartmann to Quincy.  We enjoyed being with each other, and increasingly did things together – movies, dances, church, parties.  I’d been in love with her since the first day I’d seen her – and finally, toward the end of my sophomore year, got up the nerve to tell her so.  She smiled, held out her hand and touched my cheek.  It was a cool spring evening.  I leaned down, and we kissed.  
About a year before that, Matt’s name had come up in conversation with friends.  “He’s a bum,” Sheila said, a look of distaste on her face.  The summer after that first kiss – when we were secretly engaged and knew we would someday marry – Matt’s name came up again and Sheila showed mild interest.  
“I thought you disliked Matt,” I said, as we walked away from our group of friends.
She thought for a moment.  “I suppose I don’t like him much,” she said.  “But mostly” – she turned and smiled up at me – “he’s irrelevant.”
Her answer was clear and simple and transparent.  For me, that ghost had been laid to rest.

Sheila and I were married the summer after I graduated from Quincy.  We moved up to Chicago, where I had been accepted into medical school, and started those busy young couple years.  Often now, we wonder how we did it, living in a tiny but much-loved apartment, Sheila working part time while taking nursing courses, me struggling with studies, then residency, and our first son, Paul, being born.  Finally we realized our dream and moved back to Hartmann, where I took over the general practice of an aging doctor – Sheila working with me when she could, especially after the kids – two boys and a girl – were in school.  
We heard about Matt from time to time.  Penny and her family – she had married and had four sons – were my patients, and she would fill me in during periodic visits to the clinic.  I got other bits and pieces from friends.  Matt had become quite well known: I was in medical school when his first poem appeared in The New Yorker, and he had several slim volumes published over the years that won prizes and were very favorably reviewed.  Out of old loyalty or curiosity, or both, I bought all of them.  I like poetry.  Matt used words extremely well, and had many very striking images.  His poems were complex in language and structure, somewhat reminiscent of Eliot, but they lacked something.  They didn’t have the faith that illumines Eliot.  But more than that, they didn’t seem to grow.  There was a surface quality, without human depth – expected, perhaps, in some young poets; but depth didn’t emerge as Matt grew older, as though the poet never matured.  
The personal side came through Penny.  Matt was married at least twice, neither time working out.  He was hired to teach at prestigious schools, would stay a few years, but would not be awarded tenure – would move on to another school.  “The trouble is,” Penny said, “he can’t keep his hands off women.”  The worst came when Matt would have been almost fifty – he was fired from a small university in Pennsylvania for sleeping with a nineteen-year-old student.  For about a year he disappeared, then surfaced again in New Mexico, where – according to Penny – he was working for UPS and teaching occasional classes at a community college.  
About five years later, I went to Albuquerque for a medical convention.  Penny had given me Matt’s address.
“Don’t tell him I’m coming,” I asked her.  “I’m not sure whether I’ll have time to see him.”
“I won’t,” she said.  “We seldom talk anyway.”
The convention turned out to be more boring than I expected, so I took off the last afternoon, and drove the rental car to the dingy suburb where Penny said Matt lived.  I pulled up in front of a small, neat but in-need-of-paint ranch house.  I sat in the car for a couple of minutes, then reluctantly got out and started up the sidewalk.  I was hoping Matt wouldn’t be home, but the door opened and he appeared – white haired, scrawny, but definitely Matt – in the front doorway.
“Billy boy.”  His voice was falsely hardy.  “I’ve been expecting you.”
I was surprised.  “Penny told you?”
“Penny?  No.  Saw it in the shells.”  
He stood aside and ushered me directly into a living-dining area with an open kitchen at one end.  The rug was worn and the furniture tattered, but the place was immaculately neat.  On the dining room table was a cloth – about a foot square – with small shells scattered on it, mostly scallops but a few others.
“The shells,” he said, pointing to them.
A shiver ran up my spine.
“Divination.  One learns a lot from the old Greeks and Romans.  It told me an old friend would be coming this afternoon – there aren’t many of those, so some simple yes-no questions told me it was you.”
He touched my elbow as he had in the old days.  He was clearly proud of himself.
“My oldest friend,” he said.  
He was facing me now, and I could see his eyes.  He was drugged on something, his eyes unnaturally dilated.  There was a tumbler of what looked like whiskey on the table, and he picked it up.
“You shouldn’t mix....” I started to say, almost instinctively.  
He laughed.  
“The good medical doctor.  Well, my good Watson, what will mixing do... kill me?”  He laughed again.  “Let me get you a drink.”
I accepted a whiskey, not really knowing what else to do.  We sat down – he on the sofa, I in the only arm chair.  Out the picture window I could see the front porch, the small lawn, my rental car.  I wished I could get in it and drive away.  
We talked about old things – growing up, high school, folks back in Hartmann.  His interest was clearly only on the surface.  He had the whiskey bottle beside him on the floor, and would refill his glass whenever it became half empty.  Once or twice he offered to refill my glass, which I was sipping as slowly as possible.  When I refused, he seemed relieved.
After about half an hour he lapsed into silence.  I sat looking out the window.  I was thinking of how I could detach myself and get out of there, when he spoke.
“You still a Catholic?”
I was startled.  “Yes.”
I half expected a sneer or a snide remark, but he simply pondered a moment.
“So you can be forgiven.”
“If you’ve offended your God – you can go to confession and be forgiven.”
“Yes.  Of course.  If you’re truly repentant.  All Christians believe that.”
“The Greek gods – the Roman gods – aren’t like that.”
“The old gods.  There’re no rules.  Just their whim.  If you offend them – they can forgive you tomorrow, or in fifty years, or never.  Depends how they feel – their whim.  They play with us – ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.....”
He was silent, lost in thought again.  After a minute he looked up.
“Have you ever wondered about my damned screwed up life?”  he asked.
“She’s behind it.”
“Don’t you remember?”  He suddenly broke into song.  “Venus if you do, I promise that I always will be true....”  He stopped.  His voice was a ghost of its former self.  
“You mean your life’s screwed up because you weren’t true to Sheila?”  I was incredulous.
He nodded.
“My God, man,” I said.  “You’re not the only guy in the world who ditched his high school girl friend.  That was ages ago.  Sheila’s fine – she couldn’t care less about all that – it’s ancient history.”
He laughed.  A dry, empty laugh.  
“You damn Christians,” he said.  “You think I feel guilty about Sheila?”
“Isn’t that what you just said?”
He shook his head.  “I’ve never felt guilty about anything in my life.”
Puzzled, I looked at him.  “But....”
“It’s not Sheila.  I don’t give a damn about Sheila.”  He was clearly drunk.  “It’s Venus.”
“Venus... Aphrodite.  The goddess of love.”  He pronounced the word ‘love’ bitterly, scornfully.  
“Are you joking?”
“I scorned Venus’ gift – ‘Hell hath no fury....’  I broke my promise to her.  She tortures me....”
“Tortures you?”
“Through her own weapon.  She makes me fall in love – time after time after time – love so overwhelming I have to have it, possess it – then throws me out of love as quickly.  But the damage is done.  She is a cruel and capricious mistress.”
“Ah, not in that sense.  Would that she were.  Would that she would embody herself and come down and let me grasp her, hold her, penetrate her.  Then maybe I’d be satisfied.”
His face had taken on an ecstatic, almost animalistic appearance. I felt repelled, but I had to try.
“Matt.  You need help.”
“Help?”  The empty laugh again.  “Who can help against her?  She who would see all Troy massacred for her whim.  The mother of Phobos and Deimos.  Do you know who they are?”
“Fear and Terror.  The goddess of love is mother of Fear and Terror.”
“Matt,” I said quietly, standing up.  I had to give him something to hold on to, something that would hold him until we could get him the psychiatric help he needed.  “Matt – Christ is stronger than all that.  You don’t have to fear the old demons.”
“Christ?”  He said it as though he were swearing.  “Your love is all agapé.”  His voice dripped with disgust.  “Ours is eros.”
“There’s nothing wrong with eros,” I said, “as long as it’s subservient to agapé.”
He looked up at me then, seeming surprised I had said what I did.  But his eyes closed.  
“Sleep,” he muttered, and let his head fall backward.  It took me am moment to realize he had passed out.  
I stood there, indecisive.  Matt needed help.  But I had to get to the airport to catch my flight home.  Years as a doctor, I told myself, had taught me that you can only help people when they want help.  If I stayed?  But I was reluctant.  Finally, I found a paper and pen and wrote a note, telling Matt I’d help him, giving my phone number, and urging him to call.  I set it on the table, next to the divining shells, and walked to the front door, opened it, glad to leave.
On the front porch I glanced down and saw a small circle of objects – I swear they were not there when I came.  I looked closely.  There was a small silver hand mirror, a dozen or so scallop shells, a small charm shaped like a dolphin.  Who had put them there?  I had been sitting, looking out the front window, and had seen no one come or go.  Nervously, I stepped around the circle and headed out to the car.
Matt never called.  I wasn’t surprised.  From time to time I’d feel pricks of guilt, thinking I hadn’t done enough.  I told Penny, of course, and I believe she tried to get some type of intervention.  But nothing worked.  
Two or three years later we learned that Matt had been badly hurt.  He’d been playing around with a truck driver’s wife; the truck driver found out, got mad, and hit him.  Matt’s head, as he fell, hit a rock.  Penny flew down to see him – he was unconscious but he opened his eyes once, smiled, and said something about Zeus’s bolt.  
When Matt died, the truck driver was charged with manslaughter.  Penny flew down for the trial.  
“It was pathetic,” she told me.  “The poor man kept saying he didn’t mean to kill Matt.  He said, what really made him angry was the way Matt talked – ‘he talked about Helen’ – that was the trucker’s wife – ‘like she was some kind of whore.’  I testified at the sentencing, as Matt’s sister, and asked that the sentence be light.  They gave him two years in prison.”
They brought Matt’s body home and buried him in the Presbyterian cemetery, which – I assume – is hallowed ground.  
Several months later, I was driving by the cemetery and turned in.  I got out of the car and walked over to Matt’s grave.  There were a few dried remains of flowers.  On top of the tombstone, someone has placed a silver hand mirror, a dolphin charm, and a dozen or so seashells.  
Whoever had done it, I thought it was in poor taste.  I turned away from the grave and headed back toward life, toward home.  
~Arthur Powers

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