Monday, November 29, 2004

Cacophony--Chapter Two

Stupid internet. Our cable internet was down over the holiday weekend, and wasn't fixed til this AM, so I haven't had a chance to update. Afraid I was a major slacker from a writing standpoint, too, instead playing Gamecube with my sons. So... here's another older chapter. This is chapter two.

Chapter Two

Ah, Sunday. Sunday is probably my favorite day of the week. I get to go to church (twice) and I get to have dinner with Charles. Sunday is the day that I get my dosage of spiritual renewal.

In the morning, I go to the service at the Methodist church here in Evanston where Charles preaches. In the early afternoon, I attend services at an Assembly of God church in the inner city. I get two very different things from the two services.

Charles preaches a very sober sermon, very (for lack of a better word) white. Because it’s Evanston, there are a fair number of blacks in the congregation, but it’s still a very sedate Middle American sort of service. I’m aware of how stereotypical that sounds, but Chicago (and its suburbs) is a city of stereotypes.

The Assembly of God service is entirely different, of course. I am one of the few white people in the congregation and that suits me just fine. Where I feel like I’m renewing my spiritual education at the Methodist church, the AOG is where I exalt God and feel closer to Him.

Even the ride on the El to services is sort of a spiritual experience. When I first started going, I received a lot of dirty looks from the other passengers on the train as I drew closer to my destination. The church is in the heart of Black Gangster Disciples territory. Many of the people in the cars with me wear their colors prominently and flash gang signs at one another. A middle-aged white man carrying a cello was not the most welcome sight.

Occasionally, one of the younger gang bangers trying to prove a point would get in my face, flashing a weapon inside his coat, letting me know I was unwelcome. The first time that happened, an older woman with a bag full of groceries slapped the backs of his knees with her cane. I didn’t recognize her, but apparently she recognized me.

I didn’t hear what she said to the teen, but he slouched away without a further word. That day, I saw her in the service, bobbing her head as she sat in the front row, occasionally lifting her hands above her head in praise.

I take the cello with me to the AOG to play as a stand-up bass. The minister there was a classmate of mine at Northwestern, one of the very few black students I got to know there. We had never been especially close while in school, but we ran into each other at an open mic at a blues bar near Commiskey Park about ten years ago and started talking about what we’d each been up to since graduation. I’ve played at his church ever since.

I’d like to say that every service I’ve ever attended has brought me into a closer relationship with God, but that would be a lie. There have been many times that I’ve just gone through the motions. That initially concerned me, but conversations with both David (my friend at the AOG) and Charles revealed that even they felt distant from God at times.

Charles, by the way, doesn’t know about my membership in the AOG. I don’t think most Ministers would be very understanding of their members being members of other churches as well, especially those of radically different denominations. Likewise, I don’t really talk to David about my attendance at the Methodist church. I’d love to have dinner with both of them together some time, though.

Occasionally, the messages of the two churches coincide. Today was one of those days. Both services emphasized the importance of family, and especially the integrity of marriage within the family. Charles doesn’t preach on that topic very often, perhaps every couple of years, which I think is a disservice to his congregation, but also understandable. He hasn’t seen his wife in nearly twenty-five years or his daughter in almost as long. If he had the option, he’d probably never preach on the subject; he just doesn’t feel qualified. I knew, therefore, that dinner tonight would be a bit awkward, as one of the subjects of conversation is usually that day’s sermon. And there was still the matter of the habit and the jail. Fortunately, it was his turn to host this week. When the conversation is uncomfortable, I've found that it's easier if he's on his home turf.

I kissed Magda good-bye and threw on a windbreaker for the walk down the street. Fallen leaves littered the sidewalks. I love autumn. It's that back-to-school time, when all sins of the previous year are, at least momentarily, wiped clean. There are no students who've learned to hate me over the course of the year yet. Those that return either didn't hate me or have serious issues. And people with serious issues can be entertaining in their own ways. I rent the bottom floor of my house to one such student, and have for several years now.

Our street is reasonably quiet except for the occasional rumbling of the El overhead. We're one block up from the Foster Street station. When I was an undergraduate, there were a lot more students on the street and parties weren't at all uncommon, but it's quieted down considerably since I graduated. It's a very comfortable oasis not far off campus for grizzled veterans of academia like me.

Charles's beat up old Volvo was in his gravel driveway as usual. As much as I detest cars, I have a special fondness for the vehicles Charles has owned over the years. Every single one of them has borne one bumper sticker, "When the Rapture comes, can I have your car?" It's not something he'd ever have thought to put on his car himself. His daughter put the first one on a Volkswagen Rabbit he owned over twenty years ago, and it's been a tradition ever since.

Wafting over the smell of the leaves (deciduous trees have such distinctive scents; areas of America are as identifiable by those smells as part of Scotland have particular flavors of Scotch) I could smell meatloaf, a favorite. There was nothing fancy about Charles's meatloaf. There was rarely anything exotic about anything either one of us cooked and we liked it that way. Hamburger with breadcrumbs, onions, and a few fairly innocuous spices was our idea of gustatory heaven. And green beans and mashed potatoes with gravy. Is that not the perfect meal for a nippy October night in Evanston? There are only two things that could complete the perfection: a fire in the fireplace and a decanter of Dalwhinny. I knew Charles would have both ready for the evening. He's a good friend. Have I mentioned that?

Sometimes, I enjoy watching Charles squirm. This wasn't one of those days, so I let him off the hook right away.

"I'm working on the novel again."

"Ah," he said from the stove, where he was busily working the meatloaf out of a pot with a spatula. "That would explain it."

He knows that I take on odd behaviors when I start writing the novel. I don't do that with every story I ever write. Most of them, I just sit down, start typing, and a month or two later, I come up out of my fog, remember to shave and shower, and send the manuscript off to my editor. The story of Christy (this is the first time I've called her by name, isn't it?) does strange things to me, though. It's also the only story I work on during the school year. I can't write complete fictions while having to be engaged in the world. The story of Christy, however, heightens my awareness somehow.

"I was climbing a tree when the police picked me up." I pulled a couple mismatched plates and glasses from his cupboards.

"Is that illegal?" He slid a piece of meatloaf onto each plate.

"I didn't think so. Smells good," I said, and started carrying my cargo out to the dining room.

"Thanks." Behind me, I could hear him sliding the pot into soapy water in the sink. He came out a moment later with a serving bowl filled with green beans and another filled with mashed potatoes. The man knows how to live. As he lay them on the table, I returned to the kitchen to retrieve milk from the fridge. As we passed, he said, "The report indicated indecent exposure."

"You're kidding."

"Nope. That's what it said. Why do you think it would say that?"

I reached up to the cabinets above the stove and pulled down the gravy boat. Stretching, I saw that I hadn't put any underwear on this morning. Sometimes, I forget. Sometimes, I just don't have any clean boxers so I go without. I couldn't remember until later that night that it was the latter.

Pouring gravy from a pot on the stove into the boat, I said, "I think I just figured it out."

I returned to the dining room with the gravy and the milk. Charles took the milk from me and poured us each a glass. "I probably don't want to know, do I?" he asked, and returned to the kitchen to replace the milk in the fridge.

"Probably not," I said. He came back in, wiping his hands on a cloth napkin. He's rather fastidious.

I pulled out his chair for him and he sat down. I then took my place across the table from him. Honestly, we're like a married couple at times. We looked at one another, each of us with clasped hands, and then bobbed them up and down three times. I came up rock. He came up paper. That's our routine to determine who will say grace.

We bowed our heads. "Dear Lord," he began. "Thank you for this meal. Thank you for the cows and for the grains they eat. Thank you for green beans and potatoes. Thank you for milk. Thank you for autumnal evenings on the shores of Lake Michigan. Thank you for higher learning, both in the seminary and in universities. Thank you for letting us bring learning and light to those who desire it. Thank you for our talents, whether those talents be to minister to your children or to use language to move others. Oh, Lord, although our families are not with us, we thank you for families and for the structures of husband and wives and sons and daughters. We know these are the most effective means of bringing healthy people into your presence. And Lord, we ask of you to remind our friend Dave that if he wants to wear flowing garments, that he should remember to do his laundry so that he'll not be arrested for exposing himself." I opened an eye to a squint and looked at him. The ghost of a smile creased the corners of his lips. "Thank you, Lord, for friends such as these. Amen."

"Amen," I said, "you bastard." And smiled.

"Honestly, why don't you just let Grace do your laundry? She's offered often enough."

"She already makes me feel like a child as it is. I don't need her taking on a more motherly role."

"I suppose," he said and shoveled a huge chunk of meatloaf into his mouth. A dollop of gravy attached itself to one of his nasal hairs and hung there, bobbing as he chewed. I motioned with my napkin. He didn't take the hint.

"Charles, for God's sake, wipe your nose. It looks like you're shitting out of it."

He rolled his eyes at me, but wiped his nose. He looked into the napkin, just as one would look at a piece of toilet paper after wiping, and then replaced it on his lap with the stain facing up. He then ran his fingers under his nose.

"I'm getting old," he said.

"What are you talking about?"

"Honestly, have you ever known a young man to have such rampant nasal hair? It's an old man's curse." He plucked one of the offending hairs and winced, tearing up.

"Grace would probably trim them for you."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"Well, that's how I feel about my laundry."

He grunted. "Fair enough." He was nearly crossing his eyes, looking down his nose, fluting his fingers under his nostrils. "Do they make trimmers for this kind of thing?" he asked.

"Got me," I said, and spooned a small mountain of mashed potatoes into my mouth, making sure to get gravy on my nose.

"You," he said, "are a complete buffoon." He tossed a napkin across the table to me. "And I appreciate it."

I wiped the gravy from my nose. "So stop obsessing about your nasal hair. You’re making me think about it and I’m going to lose my appetite."

"Okay," he said, but I could tell he was still thinking about it. There was an awkward pause, broken only by the scraping of our utensils on our plates.

"Oh, for God’s sake," I said, and rose from my chair. "Come on, you’re driving me nuts." I headed to the bathroom. He appeared in the door behind me just as I was pulling a pair of nail clippers from his medicine chest. "Here," I said, handing it to him. "Cut them already."

I headed back to the dining room and sat back down. I was about to take another bite of mashed potatoes, but I saw a pattern in them. They looked like a cello. "Go away, Magda," I growled under my breath, and manically stirred the potatoes until they were shapeless.

Charles returned to the table with a blot of red toilet paper stuck to his nose. "I cut myself," he said.

"So I see." I pushed my chair back. "I’m not really hungry anymore. Are you?"

He gazed at his plate. For either of us to leave the table before cleaning our plates was highly unusual. And we both love meatloaf. I could see something like longing in his eyes for a moment, but then the waving tissue banner distracted him and his focus returned entirely to the tip of his nose. "No, I guess not," he said.

"Scotch?" I asked.

He sighed. "I don’t know. Is it okay if we skip it tonight?"

I studied him. "Charles. Are you all right?"

He sighed again. "Yes. I think so. I don’t know. I think I’d just like to be alone tonight."

"It was the sermon, wasn’t it?"

He nodded. "And you’re working on the novel again. We’re both thinking about her."

I didn’t answer right away. I puffed out my cheeks, ran a hand through my thinning hair, blew out the air. "Okay." I started picking up plates.

"Don’t worry about that. I’ll clean up," he said.

"Are you sure?"


"We’re still on for next week."


"Okay, then." I shuffled my feet, still uncertain. "Call me if you need company, okay?" He nodded. "Okay. I’ll see you next week."

I went into the kitchen and grabbed my jacket. As I was opening the door, he called out to me. "Dave, one favor?"


"Could you lay off the cello tonight?"

I nodded. I’m not sure if the blurriness was tears in my eyes or in his. Maybe both. "Okay, Charles. I’ll see you next week."


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