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"Catharsi," short story excerpt

Sunday 6/13/21

God and Satan sat on a log commiserating, which happened more regularly than one might think. The log was somewhere in the woods of New York, or else it just looked that way. The scene had the trappings of Americana, as Americana was rendered in Hollywood films of the 1940s. But where they sat had to look like something, didn’t it? Satan ate shelled walnuts and God took no nourishment that Satan could see. He cocked his head back, angled his jaw in a manner towards the sun so that the light seemed to reflect off the dimple in his chin. But God also had a vagina. God had everything. Because God was God. Satan always had the bag of walnuts. “So,” God said, “what did you used to like best about working for me?” God had been Satan’s boss and Satan had hoped that they could just hang out on equal terms and he wouldn’t have to acknowledge the old hierarchy, which was tiresome, but he was muy wrongo about that, a Spanglish phrase Satan used a bunch. Normally Satan chomped and chewed on his nuts, waited for the moment to pass, so that they could move on to talking about more arresting subjects like who they should make win the Super Bowl and how all of the races were not actually created equal, which God had finally copped to. “Are you really that fucking arrogant?” Satan said that one time—it was just that one time—instead. “I beg your pardon?” God replied, taking down his head from the angle he was so careful to hold it at. “What did you say to me?” Satan repeated himself. “I said, ‘Are you really that fucking arrogant?’ ‘Oh, worship me, you’re in my image, I own you, pay me tribute. What was the very best part of all of the super great parts of having me as a boss?’ It’s played, dude. And I’m not your employee. You want to hang out, don’t talk down to me.” God didn’t know what to say. Sometimes he’d flash various images that people read a shit ton into, but cheap theatrics or celebrity faces in potatoes wouldn’t dazzle Satan who was now pouring the crumb contents of what remained of his bag of walnuts down his throat. Finally, after a century had passed, and they were still sitting on the log, God said, “I made you.” To which Satan replied, “You made my ass, man.”


***


A female rested in her hospital bed. She had pushed and she had pushed. She had shat in front of some people. They didn’t tell her that would happen. She didn’t read up on what might have happened. She wanted to get it all done as fast as possible. The quickest possible getaway. She called herself +/-, but not aloud and no one else knew. Plus because she was a mother in one moment, then Minus because she’d no longer be a mother in the next. She’d spent a lot of time shopping, though. She’d treated it as a mission. A seek and save mission. A seek and get-this-one-part-right-at-least mission. More time than the birthing, which had taken a whole seven hours. For that perfect gift. All of the stores she’d been to, and then there he was. A Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal, but a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal whose red top read “I’m yours forever.” Very effusive of Pooh. A loving note and one that itself had a note of sacrifice built into it. “I’ve done a lot for you,” she wanted to believe, as she held the boy. They had her hold him a bunch. Get a feel for him. She noticed that. Or maybe it was just how it went as the general rule, and the nurses weren’t really trying to say, “Are you sure? Make sure you are sure. Because I wouldn’t be sure. If I didn’t have my kids—“ And so forth. “How old are you?” the grief counselor had asked. “I’m sixteen,” she said. “And you were how old when your uncle…did what he did?” “I was sixteen when he raped me hard,” she said. It was a joke she used to make with her friends when they saw a hot guy. A wrong joke. “Did you see Patrick’s six pack at the pool? He can rape me hard.” She bounced the baby in the bed. He was so small that he’d fit in Winnie the Pooh’s shirt. They could share wardrobes. She hadn’t noticed before that hospital beds didn’t make noises. Like they don’t have springs. “I’m doing a lot for you,” she said. “I’m actually doing a lot for you. You’re here, aren’t you?”


***


“What do you think I’m going to do? Take a day off to see your dad?” The man’s wife reminded him of a cobra who spat venom, though he wasn’t certain if cobras really possessed that ability. “You said he’d be out of the hospital by now. It was just a fall, Craig. You have two hips. And I’m supposed to go there while you’re at work? And talk to him about what? The Yankees? Because that’s all he cares about.” “He likes you a lot,” Craig said, making himself not add, “for some reason.” “And with my mom gone, he’s struggling. It doesn’t take much to make him lonely.” “Aren’t we all?” his wife suggested, somewhat cryptically, but also not so cryptically. He’d thought of her as an ember when they were first together. Not a blazing one that would blister flesh, but the sort that could be placed inside of gloves if you were climbing Mt. Washington and there was a sudden temperature drop and you needed extra heat to stop from freezing on the way back down. The retreat. Later when Craig was remarried, his father showed up at his house, unannounced. “Dad,” he said, opening the front door, shocked. “How did you get here?” “I flapped my goddamn arms,” his dad said, then laughed. “I drove, you numbskull. Where are those grandkids of mine?” “Maury!” Craig’s wife said, busting into the commotion to see what her husband was chirping about. “The kids will freak,” she added. Craig loved to see her when she was pumped. “They’re still asleep. You can wake them up, if you want.” “Do you have any coffee?” Craig’s dad asked, rubbing his boy’s back in that way that felt like his hand was saying, “Good man!” and following his daughter-in-law into the remodeled kitchen he’d not seen in-person yet.


***


“Aspire to find happiness in a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread, one of those old glass bottles of cold milk, an honest job of the hands, like being a custodian, or a dishwasher, doing your writing when you can. Don’t chase fame and glory.” The professor said those words to one of his former students. The student was struggling and poor. He was alone. Some of the people in his life were people who wouldn’t have been in his life if he had anyone else. That left him vulnerable. He’d learn that bad situations prompt advice and advice can be a lot like a rainstorm of daggers. It’s what no one tells you about advice. “But you have two homes, man,” the ex-student said. “You have a bathroom as big as my apartment. You have a cottage on the beach in Chatham. It’s a private beach.” “It is nice,” the professor agreed. “But look,” the professor went on, “you stand for things. You tell the truth. That’s a hard road. You’re the kind of person who ends up being crucified.” Sometimes the professor tried to use what he thought of as younger person slang. Once they were meeting outside of a train station when the professor had a talk to give in the city where the ex-student lived. The ex-student was waiting, and when the professor showed up, he said, “Are you checking out the talent?” meaning the young women who were racing for the rush hour trains. But now he just said, “Life is gonna life.” Every day of his life the ex-student thought about the ways he was nailed to a cross without receiving the sympathy that went along with actually being nailed to a cross. You’d catch a break that day from people. From the advice. Then again, maybe not. Someone standing below was bound to say, “If you think about the nails through your feet more, you’ll think about the nails in your hands less. That will be better for you. There are more nerves in the hands than the feet, you know. No need to suffer more than you have to.” The ex-student talked to the professor less and less. He imagined him on his private beach a lot, raking it. He was one of those kinds of people who’d enjoy the activity of scraping seaweed into a pile, thinking 1. “This will be nice later for when we have the Barring-Goulds over, and the sand is immaculate which also reflects favorably on me and my fastidiousness/tact” and 2. “What a textured, whisky-like aroma this pile of seaweed would make if I burned it. Maybe I should. Is that legal?” And then everything changed for the ex-student. One day things were one way, the next day they were their opposite. More than their opposite. People wanted to be him, people wanted to be with him, as they say. The professor phoned, and he was so happy for his ex-student, who he viewed not just as a friend, but someone he looked up to, wished he was more like, but understood he was not made of the ex-student’s stuff. The ex-student used to think about—no, daydream about, because it never felt possible—what he’d say to the professor with his prior talk of washing dishes and all but finger-banging poverty pain, fear, and then asking all of it to marry you. He was going to say, “Why don’t you get yourself a bottle of milk and suck on that, you fucking prick.” But when he took the call, he just said, “Thanks, man. That means a lot coming from you. It really does.”