Beyond Golgotha and the Kwiki Mart
by A.K. Forbes
2004 First-place winner of the New Discovery Literary Award
(For names of all winners, see bottom of page)
Published: July 2, 2004
|Punky started seeing God last summer. She didn't tell us right away, not that I blame her. I mean, who wants to see God? Well, dead people, maybe. But their only other choices are slowly rotting to nothingness or eternal damnation.|
People who are alive, who are busy signing up their five-year-olds for instructional soccer, who sit on the sidelines in broken-legged lawn chairs in the misty cold watching their children trace circles in the dirt with a stick, people like that do not want to see God. People like that do not want to even hear about other people seeing God.
So I wasn't too crazy about the fact that Punky chose me as her confidant. It was during the St. Ignatius alumni basketball tournament. Our overweight husbands were reliving the glory of their youth, short of breath but proudly galloping up and down the high school gymnasium, imagining a spotlight. Hunter was bored.
"Stop spitting," I told him.
He leaned his head down further, opened his mouth and let pink-stained drool slide from his tongue and drop onto the bleacher seat in front of him.
"I said, stop spitting."
Hunter popped the sucker out of his mouth and frowned. "I didn't spit. I just let it come out."
"Well then, don't let it come out." I looked at Punky and shrugged. For some reason, she--who spent four months at a detox center in Knoxville in 1989, who moved in with her Algebra II teacher during the spring break of our sophomore year, who once shaved her head in support of "anarchy"--for some reason, she had kids who sat politely in their seats, thank you very much, holding "My dad is #41" signs.
"I've been seeing things," she mumbled, barely above the echoing chaos. If I'd processed it, I would have stopped it right there. Changed the subject. Left for the restroom. Pushed her out of her seat and into Section 4. But I sat there, stone-faced and confused. Like she had just tried to share a recipe.
She stared straight ahead, across the court to the glass block windows on the other side--the windows that had been black and sticky and infested with cobwebs since we sat beneath their muted light in lace anklets and mini skirts, teasing each other about Nicky Sabo. Someone--I'm not sure who--told me that Nicky (later, Nick) ended up a branch manager for Hunt County Bank, balding and bulky, with a mortgage, a minivan and a milk intolerance.
"I know it sounds crazy, Liz. But I've been seeing things."
Laura Coldpepper's gaudy gold jewelry was jingling and chattering behind me as cheerful as her Max Factor All Day Berry lipstick, on my last nerve. I must have looked concerned.
"God ... I'm seeing God."
Why did it have to be God? Why not the ghost of Eric Abernathy, Punky's diving coach, who gave her a ride home on his Harley-Davidson and hung himself in Tower Woods on the same afternoon? People would understand that. People might even wonder why she hadn't started seeing him sooner. Or her father. Why couldn't she have started seeing her father, the man who hid behind emphysema and oxygen tanks and bitterness until he was just a rasping piece of uncomfortable furniture in the dusty corner of the living room? Let's face it--I could name a million things that would have won her more points than God. Am I wrong? So there was bound to be aftermath, the grinding and gnashing of teeth.
The strange thing is, Punky had always created her own universe. …On the third day, she discovered promiscuous, recreational sex and saw that it was good (until the fourth day when Marty Robinson returned from the doctor's office with a handwritten list of people to call, one of whom was Punky, which led to the fifth day, when she discovered organic artichokes and Birkenstocks.) With Punky, there was always another day. A time for every purpose.
The day I met Punky, she was sitting cross-legged on the girls' restroom floor, smoking a cigarette and twirling her fingers through her new crimpy perm like some kind of poster child for paradox. I felt like an intruder, disrupting her cloudy, tiled enclave. It was about a week after the Mr. Moriconi scandal and I was pretending not to notice her because everyone was pretending not to notice her. Mr. Moriconi had been fired and Punky had been "out sick" for a few days. We all did the math. As I washed my hands, I felt her eyes on my back, carving out truth like a mystical dagger.
"I was a virgin until Chris," she said. Her shallow, wispy, voice was not what I had expected. It took me a minute to realize that "Chris" was Mr. Moriconi and another minute for that not to creep me out.
I watched her snub the butt of her cigarette into the broken tile's dirty grout and I left. But the next day, or maybe it was the next week, I sat behind her in assembly and asked her how she was doing. And somehow after that, we bought tickets to a Duran Duran concert. I was there for her. I was always there for her. Well, the semester she walked around with a bald head and a ring in her nose I wasn't so there for. But her hair grew out and she took out the ring and I knew I could always smile and shake my head and mutter, "That's Punky." It explained everything. But now, I wasn't sure if "That's Punky," as encompassing as it had been, was quite big enough to cover God. And the thing that really bothered me was that it bothered me.
I daydreamed about it at St. Patrick's kindergarten orientation. Rick and I and the other new parents squeezed into tiny chairs and listened to Mrs. Bauman's monotoned musings beneath the polychromed crucifix. Leafing through pages 2 and 3 of the Kindergarten Handbook (Code of Conduct, Homework Policy and Religious Instruction Begins at Home), I asked him if he believed in God. He scrunched his face, the same way he did the entire Labor Day weekend drive to Akron for my family reunion, and breathed, but didn't, God love him, sigh.
That night, lying in bed, both of us staring at the shadowed ceiling as Hunter slept between us, Rick asked, "I wonder if God believes in us?"
Punky and I went to the Buckskin Bistro, which is about as glamorous as it sounds, and ordered Caesar salads and a pitcher of Bud Light.
I'm not big on uncomfortable silences. I did what I always do, which is to make a lame attempt at humor, ruining the moment. "So, what's God up to?" She looked at me over the top of her glasses, unnerved and unmoved. I recovered. "Sorry …"
She took a big gulp. I thought about the time we drank tequila out of funnels at John Kettron's Halloween party. I hoped she was scared.
"I'm not scared. Confused … but not scared."
We listened for a while to utensils clattering, to the cackle of the gray-haired group of husbandless bridge players, proposing a toast, celebrating their own longevity. What I wanted to ask was: Is the joke on us--is He really a he? Is he Father McCrystal, round and bald and bug-eyed in flowing green robes, shaking and crippled from Parkinson's, yelling at Sally Rossmore for writing "shit on Sister Elizabeth" on the girls' restroom wall? Or is he a sexy Jesus, beckoning us to follow him, beyond Golgotha, into his arms, to be lost, to be lost forever, until we wake up next to him, decades later, wondering why we never noticed the hairs that grow out of his nose, bending and straightening with each heavy breath. But what I asked was, "How often?"
She dropped her fork. "So far, only on Thursdays. In the laundry room. After Ricki Lake."
I folded the tip of my napkin into a perfect isosceles triangle and said, "Are you OK?"
She shook her head, "It's not always with my eyes. ... Not with my eyes."
A group of women from Punky's new church started gathering in her laundry room every Thursday afternoon, toting black soft-covered Bibles and cheese trays. I went once. It wasn't the worst experience I ever had. But Nancy Niemeyer and Debbie Kinsella started sobbing.
"Can't you feel the Holy Spirit? In this very room?"
If the Holy Spirit was shoving a Holy Hand in my back, pretending to be a cramp in my leg from shifting on the metal folding chair in Punky's yellow-daisied laundry room, then, yeah, I could feel it.
That's when I left. Because it hit me: If I didn't leave, she was going to take me with her. And it wasn't someplace you could just visit. If I went, I'd be gone--passed through the eye of a one-way needle.
I avoided her. I made excuses, kept busy, sidestepped the gossip as much as you can in a town the size of ours. People asked, "What's up with Punky Fitzgerald?" And I would answer, so cleverly, so brilliantly rehearsed: "She's really gotten spiritual lately"--which wasn't as encompassing as "That's Punky," but it was my way of defending and yet not defending, straddling the fence of friendship, precariously perched between sarcasm and statesmanship, not ready (not ever ready) to jump to either side.
I went to Mass--more than once--finding comfort in ritual and solitude, but I didn't ask Rick to go. I guess there was comfort, as well, in knowing which side of the fence he was on. I prayed--really prayed--for the first time since Hunter was a fetus. "For God sake, God, don't you have better things to do? Isn't there a famine in Africa or a tech-heavy portfolio that needs your attention?" And believe me, it was a hard thing to do, to come crawling back to God, to actually ask Him for something. I had made an uneasy peace with God years ago, wearing a paper hospital gown, wet-faced and weepy after the second miscarriage, thinking that nothing could be worse, holding Rick's hand and realizing, joyfully, that nothing could be worse, but letting God know the price of my silence. Where there's credit, there's also blame.
"What's up with Punky Fitzgerald?" Rick finally asked, a month later. He handed me the Giant Tub O' Popcorn and Hunter's Orlando Magic cap as he juggled the drinks.
Hunter skipped ahead, weaving in and out of the crowd to the theater's first row. "Let's sit here! Right in front!"
Rick paused midway down the aisle and looked longingly at the sensible seats beside him, but acquiesced. "OK. We'll sit down there."
We settled in, Hunter between us, bouncing on the seat.
"Stop bouncing," we said in unison.
"I'm not bouncing. I'm jumping."
The movie began, exploding with sound and flashing light. "She's seeing God," I explained, although I knew he had already heard.
"She thinks she's seeing God. There's a difference."
I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out just what the difference was. For the life of me, trying to figure it out.
At the park, I pushed Hunter on the swings.
"Is God really everywhere?" he asked, kicking both feet until the swing jumped and twisted. I pulled him to a stop.
"Sure, sweetie. God's everywhere."
He frowned, "I don't like that." He jumped down and ran toward the sandbox. I started after him, feeling helpless and panicky as he sifted sand through his clenched fist. "C'mon, mom. Let's pretend we're in the desert and we're Cosmic Fighter Warriors, OK?"
At the dinner table, I tried to convince Hunter to eat broccoli.
"Is God inside broccoli?"
Rick and I nodded, "Hmmm."
"Then I'm not eating it." Hunter jumped down from the table. We continued to nod, staring helplessly at the tiny overcooked trees, smirking with dignity atop the faded and scratched plastic Power Ranger bowl. Then we laughed. Really laughed, like the time we went camping, tipped the canoe and lost the paddles to the Dorsey River current but saved the six-pack. Rick said, "But surely not Brussels sprouts," and helped clear the table without me asking.
It all ended with a phone call from Punky's husband, Scott.
"Punky had a stroke."
In the hospital, left side immobilized, with slurred speech, she tried to make a joke. "God's trying to kill the messenger." But I knew the truth. I knew, better than anyone, what God was up to. I could see the glistening guilt, oozing out of the side of Punky's mouth, anointing me, tempting me to dab it softly clean, knowing that I wouldn't. … And the lukewarm I will vomit from my mouth.
She went home on a Wednesday. I visited as often as I could, entertaining her with the tabloids I picked up at the Kwiki Mart. Sometimes, the headlines were enough. "Monkey Boy Predicts the Future with his Toes," "Satan's Lover Is Parking Attendant at the Pentagon." I guess she had her good days and bad days. And it must have been a bad day, after I read "Tomatoes Speak to Indiana Farmer," when she sighed and said, "God visits suburban woman in her laundry room." The next visit, I brought a copy of Good Housekeeping. "50 Thanksgiving Table-Toppers for Under $30."
Later, I found out that she would regain the ability to walk, that her blurred vision would subside, that her short-term memory would return. But no one ever acknowledged that her marriage would not survive, that her daughter was a few workouts short of anorexia, that her martyrdom had cost her a lot more than a stubbled head and a hole in her nose. She never talked about seeing God again. But for a long time, she did her laundry on Thursdays. After Ricki Lake.
I felt bad about the whole thing, both the beginning and the end, like a meteor soaring inexplicably away from the steady dead planet that remains.
On the drive home from Akron in March, Hunter sat in the backseat booster, twisting a finger inside a nostril until, finally, he succumbed to a snoring sleep, and the rain began to fall, and Rick leaned over and kissed me, unexpectedly, right on the mouth. I said, "We need to stop at the Kwiki Mart. We're out of milk."
And at home, while Rick lugged a sleeping Hunter out of the car and up the steps, I stood in the prickling rain. Stood in its splashing cold assault. Stood there, in the quiet temple of its soothing rhythm. Stood there, even after Rick unlocked the door and disappeared into the dark with Hunter's dangling arms. I stood there and I saw it, not with my eyes.
New Discovery Literary Awards
First-place winner: "Beyond Golgotha and the Kwiki Mart" by A.K. Forbes
Second-place winner: "Turkey Dreams" by Sage K. Marsters
Third-place winner: "Hugging the Curb" by Mary Kappelt Skol
--Posted July 2, 2004