OffCourse Literary Journal
http://www.albany.edu/offcourse
http://offcourse.org
 
 

Strides We Make Sometimes, by Harvey Sutlive.

Smith Hunt was a first-rate cellist. Once, when he was younger, he was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. But he damaged some back muscles in an accident while he was living in Philadelphia, and after that he couldn't play professionally anymore. He moved here to Marais with his family. He took a teaching position here at the college.

Smith stayed at the college three or four years. He was having a few personal problems, and he left his family and moved down to Charlotte for a while — he gave lessons out of a music store down there. I think after that he worked at a newsstand, or a shoe store. I believe he bagged groceries for a while.

He was on the street for a few years, then he went into a Christian men's home. Eventually he left the men's home and moved to Florida.

But he couldn't make it in Florida, so he came back to Marais. He lived in a little apartment downtown the last six or eight years of his life. He died in that apartment actually. The autopsy report indicated he had a brain aneurysm.

Smith used to work afternoons at the Fast Bar downtown. It's the nicest bar/restaurant in Marais. He opened and did some cleaning, then he helped out behind the bar during happy hour. After happy hour, he walked around to the opposite, customer, side of the counter, and sat down, and drank til closing time. He had a wide range of acquaintances here in Marais. After he died we all assumed his funeral would be well attended.

I'm part owner of an old church here in Marais. My partners are James Bone, an old friend, and Polly Hunt, who happens to be Smith Hunt's daughter. Polly thought it might be nice to have Smith's funeral in our old church. She checked with us about it, and James and I said yes of course.

Our church sits high on an old fieldrock foundation, in the middle of a big woodsy lot. It has the traditional clean steep roof and tall slim windows. It's a cute building. The old congregation outgrew the space — that's why they gave it up. They built something larger outside town, out by the interstate. We're going to make the building into a bed and breakfast.

My wife is a physician with a practice in Marais and the surrounding area. She took off work to go to Smith Hunt's funeral. Smith was a patient with my wife these last few years. She saw him as a tragic figure. That way he was more comprehensible to her. She liked him for being tragic, and for being her patient, and anyway he was an interesting person. She didn't feel comfortable going to the funeral by herself.

Smith had a national reputation as a cello player. Before he was in Philadelphia, he studied out in San Diego with a very famous teacher — one of those musical geniuses out there with a Slavic name. Before that, while he was still a kid really, he won an important music contest in Japan. He won two or three important contests in Europe, and several in the U.S. also.

"I don't feel comfortable going by myself," my wife said rapidly while she was undressing to get in the shower before Smith's funeral. I can take or leave funerals. My wife smells like a doctor's office, I'm afraid. We met in college. We took a travel year off together just after college. We got married while we were visiting Portugal.

After we returned to the States, my wife became interested in medicine. The rush and effort and intensity of medical school and the residency period afterwards clotheslined our old relationship but only one of us suspects that.

"What do you want to do afterwards?" she asked.

"Why don't we ride down to Charlotte and eat at Buzzy's?" I said.

I knew she would like that. Buzzy's is an expensive restaurant close to Midden Regional Hospital. A lot of doctors go there.

"OK," she said happily. She was glad I suggested Buzzy's. In Charlotte they said my wife couldn't make it with a solo GP practice in a small town. But her practice is four years old now and it's surviving. Our relationship is surviving also. Not our old relationship — that didn't make it. Our new relationship is surviving. The one we're growing into gradually by accretion, somehow, I guess.

"We should never have... let this... happen," my wife was saying through the bathroom door. She was talking about Smith of course. "...and... should have... in the community... prevention..." Her sentences were broken up because she was drying herself off with a towel.

"Well, you were his doctor," I said.

"I accept responsibility for that," she said rapidly.

Smith did change after he started seeing my wife. She lent him some money to buy a cheap cello. She worked on his shoulder and his upper back muscles so he could start practicing again. She thought playing music would be therapeutic. She thought he wouldn't drink so much if he could play. She wrote him Preludin prescriptions to help him concentrate while he got his form back.

But Smith did still continue drinking exactly the same unfortunately. After the Fast Bar closed every evening, he walked home to his apartment and switched to coffee and Preludin, and played cello til six in the morning. The Preludin prescriptions were supposed to be safe, but not when you crush three or four pills at a time with the bottom of a spoon and snort them like Smith did.

After six every morning, after the newspaper came, Smith glanced through that, then he went to bed. In the afternoon he got up and started drinking again. He died in his sleep one morning, and after that nobody saw him for a few days. Somebody (me) went to his apartment to check on him.

My friend James Bone is in real estate here in Marais. He's a big outdoorsy guy, active in the community. We've known each other since grammar school. Polly Hunt lives down in Charlotte now, but she also grew up in Marais. She drives back often to visit her mother. And to see James. They have a relationship. The three of us formed a little corporation when we bought the old church.

Polly is an attorney in Charlotte. She works mostly with low-income groups. She negotiates home improvement grants and daycare funding and better bus lines for poor people. She works mostly at the neighborhood level. She does commentaries on NPR sometimes about social justice issues. She gets on the air maybe six - eight times a year. It's too bad more people aren't like Polly, but they're not.

Polly and I often have dinner together when she drives up. James is often out hunting or fishing or showing somebody a house, and my wife works late many evenings.

Our church is such a pretty little place. High on the fieldrock foundation and the woodsy green lot. There's a big round green air vent high in the church front wall. It's six feet across. It floats in the wall like a green eye in a goddess's forehead. It takes in the town. Everybody in town has dreamed about that green vent. There are fourteen rows of pews in the church main body. It holds almost two hundred people. There's a small choir loft which holds twenty more people easily.

The church was absolutely full when my wife and I arrived for Smith's funeral. We barely got seats in the choir. I was shocked when I saw the crowd.

The church burned in the nineteen twenties. The community rallied after the fire and rebuilt the building on its original foundation. Several landowners in the area donated trees, and a local sawmill made boards, and the townspeople donated their labor.

The church attic is impressive. It's timber-framed up there. All those angular thick beams and braces. James Bone and I spent some time up there one afternoon. We were surveying the building just before we bought it. There's a whittled-away place in the very bottom louver of the great green air vent. A guy went crazy back in the early forties, a few months before Pearl Harbor, because he was in love with a girl in town, and she wouldn't marry him. He climbed up in the loft and locked himself in. He whittled out the little place in the bottom of the vent. You can put your eye up to the whittled out place and see all over town.

We found the building to be in pretty good shape, except the old floor joists weren't full strength anymore. Those floor joists came from the original church. They didn't burn in the fire, so they were salvaged and reused. The floor joists were actually these huge old chestnut logs. They were flattened on top to receive floor planking. They were shaped with an adze on the ends to fit into the sills of the building. The joists looked pretty charred and burned up in some places, and in other places they were full of bug holes.

My job, teaching high school, doesn't require construction expertise, or intelligence either for that matter, only patience and optimism, but James Bone, because of his real estate experience, has been around and under plenty of houses over the years, and he was disturbed by the look of the floor joists.

It was a late Saturday afternoon when we walked over from the Fast Bar to do the building inventory. James and I took it top to bottom, from the loft all the way down into the underneath crawl space. We looked out all over the town through the green louvered air vent in the loft. We were relaxed from being in the Fast Bar all afternoon. We had flashlights and a tape measure and papers and pencils for the inventory. Polly Hunt was supposed to come up from Charlotte to meet us that day, but she never showed up.

The church floor slopes from the entrance doors all the way down to the pulpit. It slopes the way a movie theater floor slopes. When we checked out the crawl space it was necessary to stoop, then squat, then get on all fours as we got closer to the pulpit end of the building. We found a massive old cast iron wood heater about halfway down the middle of the building. It was resting on four blank gravestones. We found old farm implements and old whiskey bottles and two rusty rotary-type lawn mowers. We were shining the flashlights around and looking for stuff. We located a small dead cat underneath the wood heater. This cat had crawled under the church and found the wood heater and curled up and died undisturbed who knows how long ago. It mummified gradually. A delicate little gray cat-apparition in our flashlight beams — velvety dry skin, pale cat teeth, empty eye sockets.

James wasn't impressed with the cat. He didn't like the old log floor joists. He didn't like all the beetle holes in the chestnut, and a certain punkiness or softness in the beam surfaces. He swung his flashlight back and forth across the flooring. He pointed out weak places and explained what he was talking about. Some full bottles of cold beer he was carrying under his arm in a double grocery bag rattled modestly every time he swung his flashlight.

I should have paid attention, but in fairness to me, James isn't very stable, so I pretended to listen, and I kept looking for stuff with my flashlight. After he talked himself out about the beams, James lost interest too, and we moved on to something else. We tried to drag the wood heater out from under the building, but it was too heavy. We were euphoric from being in the Fast Bar all afternoon. That made us incautious about the floor joists. We said what the hell, they've been there this long. Like the cat. We did scour in the dirt and pry up some rocks and beat on the soft places in the wood a little. No joists fell apart — that seemed encouraging.

Smith Hunt was a trim medium-sized guy with alert good manners and great physical poise — he carried himself like a ballroom dance teacher when he was sober. A quick cheerful smile and thick white hair brushed straight back. A thin face and big blurry blue eyes. He had some nerve damage in his back that affected his right arm, so he did most tasks left-handed.

Joanne, Polly's mom, Smith's ex-wife, was born here in Marais. They met and married while he was in Philadelphia. Joanne really went the distance with Smith and his drinking and the whole disability thing. It was years before she finally realized she had to give up on him. Her children were nearly grown before she realized it.

Smith ruined his bow arm in a fairly ordinary accident while they were living in Philadelphia. He and Joanne were helping some friends move, and he was carrying a dining room chair down a staircase. Somebody above him on the staircase tripped and dropped a box of stuff and it fell into his back. A couple of little bones broke and his shoulder was dislocated. That was all it took to ruin his playing career. He still knew how to play, of course, but it was painful. He didn't have control in his bow arm anymore. He had muscle spasms when he tried to practice. His back locked up. He took tranquilizers, but they didn't help him play better. He started drinking, but that didn't help him play better either.

After the shoulder injury, his career as an orchestra player was over. He took the teaching job here at Harris College. They fell over themselves at Harris College when he asked for a job. They gave it to him right away.

Smith was an upbeat genial person during happy hour at the Fast Bar. He was popular with students from Harris College. They all knew he used to be a great cello player. They thought it romantic that he was wasting his life. They bought him drinks. "The smarter you are, the more bad habits you pick up," he would tell them. Then lift his glass in a little toast. Kids love those kinds of remarks.

When Polly was in town, she and James Bone usually stopped by to see him. That always looked so dramatic to students when Polly came cruising through, flashing her body, with James her troll lover in tow, and she would stoop and hug Smith and give him a kiss on the cheek, and maybe sit down and have a drink with him if he was coherent enough.

Polly and James have been involved for several years. They have a relationship. Polly is willing to move back to Marais to be with James. She often mentions kids — that would be part of the package as far as she's concerned. James isn't interested in kids really. "You can have a kid — as long as you do everything — as long as you take complete responsibility," he told Polly. "As long as we stay clear on that."

James's parents put him in the Navy when he was only seventeen. He finished his enlistment and came back and got into college. He did college, and he's always held down a respectable job. But his take on women maybe has been a little casual ever since he was in the Navy.

After happy hour, Smith would switch bar sides and have several more drinks. Gradually he would get more and more withdrawn and mumbly. His head would shake, quiver really, and he'd say "I'm not going into that," even if he was sitting by himself. He could be sarcastic. He shocked students, especially the ones who were acquainted with the afternoon happy hour Smith persona only. Everybody knew he used to be a great cello player, so they made allowances.

So many people at the funeral ceremony. I expected forty or fifty or a hundred even but not a full house. I was scared about the floor. The usual funeral excitement coming off the crowd. Smith down front in a closed coffin. After the ceremony they would shoot him to a crematorium in Charlotte.

James Bone gave a little remembrance of Smith. A biographical sketch to start the ceremony. Really, after Philadelphia, there wasn't much to say about Smith that was believable that wasn't negative. "He had bad luck with an injury that cut short his performing career, and after that he burned his bridges professionally and socially, and he let his family shift for themselves." You can't say that. James gave a decent talk and sat down.

Polly came up front and announced we would have some music. Polly is tall and slim, like her mother Joanne. With Smith's huge blue eyes. She looked great in sandals and a linen skirt and a little sleeveless cotton blouse. Whenever we have one of those 10K charity races here in Marais, Polly comes up and collects a little money and runs. Tall and skinny and she 's got her mother's body, but Polly is more athletic, and she's developed definition in her legs and arms and shoulders, so she looks more sexy. She nodded at the crowd.

Polly's got swimmer's shoulders and arms, and she wears these little tops with the strings over the shoulders — her shoulders are her breasts I suppose from her point of view.

When she talks to you and she's wearing one of those thin little tops, she smiles and moves around and waves her shoulders at you the way some girls show off their breasts. She's a friendly animated person and it's appealing in a goofy way. I've always been a fan of hers. We used to date sometimes in fact. That was a long time ago, before I got married.

A serious couple walked down the center aisle and climbed on the platform. The guy was carrying an expensive guitar and the girl was wearing an earthy print dress. They gave us a bright little piece of modern music, a bright rotten repetitive thing. The same plinky scale over and over. "I am flying, twinkly, clear starlight and sunshine," the girl sang. Those were the actual lyrics.

After that, we had testimony from students who knew Smith from the Fast Bar. They thought it was significant that they knew him and he died. We heard "privilege to have known him" several times in one form or another.

The speaking platform was covered with flowers. Local stuff - bellflower and roses, sprays of forsythia. Poppies and thrift. The effect was powerful even from the choir loft where I was sitting. All that true color. The flowers possibly were for Joanne more than for Smith.

A guy from New York appeared out of the crowd and climbed to the speaking platform. A heavy-set black guy with a neutral expression. Nobody knew him. He introduced himself as a vocal coach from New York City. He and Smith worked together in Philadelphia years before, he said. He gave a few words in perfect sympathetic balance with whatever good memories we did have of Smith, then he sang "Old Man River."

To carry off that song you really need a singing voice. To keep it pure I mean when the volume goes up in the last few phrases. There's something fundamental going on there in the last bars of that song. Everybody cried. Everybody clapped hard for that.

Joanne got up and made an announcement about the flowers. The word went out about the ceremony, she said, and various people brought cut flowers from their yards. Joanne looked over the church, recognizing faces, ticking off the names. She thanked everybody.

And I knew the names. I played in every one of those yards when I was a kid. We bind our souls to these places when we're children — that's a great childish power and a great lost power. Below consciousness. The house where we lived when I was a child seems supernatural now. I dream of it often. The flower announcement made me cry even more. I hadn't gotten over "Old Man River" at that point. The person sitting next to me, not my wife but on the other side, a student I think, patted my shoulder.

A graduate student from a school in Florida came to the platform. A pretty palefaced girl with thick brown hair and a lumpy body. She'd been corresponding with Smith. She'd been listening to some of his old records. He had seduced her obviously with twenty-five-year-old cello playing. Later I learned this girl flew up and rented a car just to be at the memorial service.

She read a couple of Smith's letters. They were affectionate. Some of the passages were funny. When she flipped through the letters, you could see musical notation on some of the pages. She was crying hard but suppressing it. She was a nice person.

These past few years, towards the end of the evening at the Fast Bar, if you took a hard look at Smith, talking to himself and waving his hands, laughing and weeping at the same time, you would probably assume he was on to something untranslatable into human experience.

Then he went home and ate speed and stayed up the rest of the night playing cello. He was getting good again too. My wife helped him with his shoulder and back. And she gave him all that Preludin — that's what killed him, though she certainly won't admit it.

Polly's brother Scotty stood up out of the crowd. He walked down to the platform. Most of us were surprised he even showed up for the ceremony. Scotty got out of town and out of the Hunt family as soon as he was able to. He went off to college, and married, and stayed away. When he comes back to Marais to visit, he goes straight to Joanne's house. Never downtown. He hadn't seen Smith in years. A straight As, focused kind of a guy, with lots of baggage. He frowned at the audience and began speaking.

"I would say my father was an intelligent person. He mastered his instrument. In terms of ability I would say he learned a working musical vocabulary from Franz Schubert and Scarlatti and never developed much after that. I believed he loved me and my sister. When he was twenty-three, he was playing with the Philadelphia Symphony. That was an accomplishment. Dad had years of severe personal problems after that. The same years, unfortunately, of my childhood and my sister's childhood. As we recognize him, I think we should also remember and recognize Mom and her family here in Marais, and our friends in the community, who kept us going, when Dad wasn't there for us. Thank you."

He looked at us like he hated us, then he left the podium and sat down.

Nobody clapped. Polly stood and shrugged her shoulders and walked up.

"I'm sorry Dad was injured," she said. "That was a disaster for us. But we moved back to Marais, which we love. Scotty and I are glad we grew up here. Whatever else has happened, we feel good about that part."

Polly is an excellent public speaker. Her clothes hang on her like she's a model too. She looks great. She'd have married James by now, but he doesn' t want to have a kid with her. That wouldn't be a problem for me. I like kids.

She looked over the room. She wasn't trying to score points off Scotty. She was pulling Smith's story together and making something positive of it. And moving on. That's the feminine sensibility at its best. She had already moved on emotionally — she was far past her brother there. Scotty would spend the next twenty years of his life reacting to Smith.

"I'm glad we're all here and not in some strange place," Polly said. She looked at her brother as if she dared him to contradict her. He sat lower in his seat. She might have left it there while she was master of the situation. But the same feminine sensibility kicked in again, another aspect of it, and she pushed too far.

"Dad had already withdrawn so much before he actually stopped living with us. When he left it was incredibly difficult, but I can't say he ever defined who we were. As special as he was. He never defined our family." She shot Scotty a brother-sister look. A Big Sister look. "I think we're fine. I think we're OK. I think we should get on with it. We don't have anything to complain about."

She left the podium. Everybody applauded.

But Brother wasn't straight As for nothing. He walked past Polly without looking at her and got back on stage.

"I was pretty young when Dad actually left," he said. "The first thing I remember is the time after the music store in Charlotte, after the various odd jobs, when he was living on the streets basically. He was still hanging on to his cello at that time."

"Don't tell about that Scotty," Polly called out sharply.

"Here was this guy," continued Scotty, "a bum, living in a park with a cello in a case. Dragging an instrument big as a fifth grader with him everywhere he went."

He looked around the church. Everybody was quiet. "Scotty," Joanne hissed. Scotty kept talking anyway.

I don't know why they cared if Scotty told this or not. Polly already told it herself, on the radio, on one of her NPR commentaries. Everybody already knew about it.

I teach high school, and to combat boredom in the afternoons after lunch I often wear a little inexpensive FM receiver in my shirt pocket. There's a little wire and an earpiece, and I listen to NPR. I covered the brand name and the dial numbers on the radio with black auto muffler paint. My students think I have an inner ear disorder. I told them the radio is a biorhythm device. Anyway I was listening the day Polly gave the commentary about Smith and his cello.

Scotty ignored his mom and his sister and kept talking. His shoulders were hiked up too high. His head was thrust out grimly. He was an unhappy guy.

After Smith went to Philadelphia he put together some grant money and a bank loan and he bought an Amati cello. It was a first-class instrument. Over the next several years collectors bid the prices up on old stringed instruments, there was a lot of investment buying, and the Amati doubled in price and doubled again. It was worth some serious money.

Here was this guy living in the park with an extremely expensive cello that he couldn't really use anymore. He tried to play for spare change sometimes, but he didn't sound very good, even by playing-in-the-park standards. He was damaging the instrument by carrying it around with him in the weather. Any night he might lose it, or somebody might steal it and sell it for drinking money, or break it up and burn it to keep warm.

Joanne went down to Charlotte and found Smith and asked him to give up the Amati. She thought it should be sold and the money invested for Polly and Scotty. Smith refused, and she came back to Marais.

The police called a few weeks later — they had Smith in jail for public drunkenness. They wanted to know if the cello really belonged to him — and if so what should they do with it? Polly's grandfather was still living then. He drove down and discussed the Amati with Smith. They worked out an agreement.

The grandfather came back to Marais and checked out the details with Joanne, then he and Smith met again, and this time Smith gave up the cello.

Smith dictated an agreement, which the grandfather wrote down on a piece of notebook paper, on the way the cello should be sold and the way the money should be invested. They both signed. Smith kept the paper. He handed over the cello. As part of the agreement, Polly was also there, as a witness.

The three of them sat on a park bench together. Smith smiled at Polly while he talked to the grandfather. He hugged her a couple of times. He patted her head and kissed her after he gave up the cello. He shook hands with the grandfather.

"None of this has anything to do with you," he told Polly. "I love you. Make sure you realize that." He shook his finger at her and winked and clowned around a little. By then he was crying pretty hard. "I love you," he said. "Don't forget. Give your mother a kiss for me."

Then he got up from the park bench and walked away. He left Polly and the grandfather sitting there on the bench. Polly didn't see him again for years.

It was moving when Polly told this on the radio. Smith's lost talent, his damaged personality. Her grandfather standing, accepting the cello. The green park in the busy city. It was certainly moving. I remember I started crying myself, right there at my desk in the classroom in front of everybody. I was making up quiz questions. Tears dripped on the quiz master sheet.

And now Scotty was telling this same story. Not nearly as well though as Polly did on the radio. Polly's story had real emotional carrying power compared to Scotty's angry sketchy version. Of course Polly wrote her version ahead of time and practiced it. Scotty on the other hand was alone, before a crowd, floundering, pissed off, taking himself by surprise, talking with no rehearsal.

Also, surprisingly, in Scotty's version, it was himself, not Polly, riding down to Charlotte with the grandfather and witnessing the cello handover. Him not Polly getting hugged, being told I'm sorry, I love you, etc., etc.

As he talked Scotty spaced out more and more, and pretty soon he was just up there, communing with his childhood consciousness. "I see Dad's face sometimes," he was saying. "I dream about it. I see my face and I see his face sometimes when I look in the mirror." He was starting to sniff and choke a little. Tears in his eyes.

Obviously he wasn't lying. Obviously he had ridden down with the grandfather. Obviously Polly edited Scotty and replaced him with herself in the park when she did the NPR commentary. "In the mirror. I imagine the lines in his face imposed on my face," Scotty was saying. He coughed and said something incoherent, then he choked hard and broke down. He hung his head and sobbed. He turned and left the microphone.

Polly sprang back on the stage. She hugged her brother on her way past him. She bent into the microphone. "Dad was an interesting talker and I would say a genuinely humble person musically, and a good musical technician," she said dreamily. She didn't seem embarrassed about the cello story. Probably she would continue to tell her version in the future. "Somebody said to me once that Dad was destined to be a curious, fascinating old man, to tell stories, to play music with the weight of age and experience behind him," she said. "And I think of him that way. He had to get through the first part of his life, then it would have happened if he had lived."

"That's not it," bellowed Scotty. He was yelling from his seat. "That doesn't have anything to do with it!" But he didn't have the microphone. Everyone was clapping and that drowned him out.

Polly drew energy from the applause for a few moments. Then she held up her hands. "It's time to end this," she said. She looked everybody over. "Thank you for the flowers." She made a gesture with her shoulders. She threw a hand in the direction of the flowers. "When I saw the platform it made me so happy — the yards where these flowers grew are places where Scotty and I played our whole lives. When we're kids we have this magic sensibility that connects us to places - we lose it when we're older but sometimes we do have that little moment of... recognition. So. anyway. God bless everybody, and... thanks again."

I had that exact same response to the flowers! I stared at Polly.

Everyone was applauding. Smith's coffin seemed to be vibrate with the applause — Scotty was even applauding, clumsily at first. He turned in his seat and glanced back at all of us. His face was working. The applause seemed to double. He stood up and reached towards the podium and gestured towards Polly. Maybe he was gesturing to Smith's coffin. Polly blew him a kiss. We jumped to our feet for that — a wave of movement. Energy flowed through the crowd. The front section of the floor, all across the front of the pulpit, buckled and fell in.

The lights went out right away. But it was an afternoon service thank goodness and there was plenty of natural light coming through the windows. The speaking platform rocked — Smith's coffin wobbled in place. Polly with a confused but accepting look on her face half sat, half fell onto the platform floor. Once she was down she crossed her legs and observed the chaos alertly. Pews slid forward. Wood cracked, nails screeched loose. The collapsed section tugged and bent on the rest of the floor fabric.

The choir loft shifted slightly — my seat jolted — people poured down the loft staircase yelling. My wife shot past me with a hot purposeful look in her eyes — all those injuries she was thinking — she was down the stairs and turning into the main body of the building.

And there were any number of injuries. Pews broke loose and accordioned together. Joanne Hunt I learned later fell and broke her arm. The student from Florida had a concussion. Those were the only two serious injuries though. James Bone tumbled over a pew and a couple of students fell on him — he shrugged them off and stood up and started hauling pews out of the way and helping people stand and get out in the aisles. Mostly it was bruises and people getting jostled and banged up. A few people fainted, and there were knee injuries and ankle injuries, and people whipping out cell phones and calling 911.

Then the middle section of floor gave way and broke loose. It lapped the front part like plate tectonics. Polly was still sitting on the platform. The old wood stove in the crawl space below the church punched through the floorboards.

People were crawling back and forth like ants on the collapsed floor in front of the pulpit. I realized there was an exit behind the pulpit — a big room back there with an outside door — the church used that room formerly for daycare. I was still in the loft. I jogged downstairs and turned into the main church body. The church aisles were jammed with disarranged pews and panicky people. I jumped on a pew back and started balancing, pushing off, hopping pew back to pew back, negotiating a way towards the pulpit. Climbing down and crawling through the collapsed section.

I was watching for nails in the wrecked floor joists — I was wondering about an electrical fire. I couldn't remember about our insurance — the right lawyer would take this and crucify us probably — lots of wood crunching and pew scraping noises. People yelling, their cell phones beeping.

The doorsill to the daycare room was now chest high — I pulled myself over the threshold and into the room — kids drawings and watercolors were still pinned on the walls. There was the outside door to the little daycare playground — I opened that door first, then turned to call people through.

Polly from the main body of the church was pulling herself over the doorsill, then she was in the room — she closed the door behind her. "Let's pile up some pews out there so people can climb through to the playground," I said. Polly looked great. Her face was flushed and sexy. We looked at each other. We embraced and she kissed me — she grabbed my hand in one of her hands and squeezed it. She leaned into me. I felt she was giving herself to me.

But somebody from inside the church was hammering hard on that closed door and pushing on it and rattling it — Polly twisted the doorknob and pulled the door open. She reached down — she pulled my wife into the room — I could tell my wife was focused on care-giving for all those banged-up people.

"I just saw an EMS truck," she said. "Open that playground door and signal them."

"I've got it open already," I told her.

Polly leaned out the playground door and yelled at the EMS guys. In a few seconds they came rushing through. "Come on," Polly said to my wife, "let's stack up pews so people can come through here." Polly jumped down into the main body of the church. My wife followed her. The EMS guys started helping people to leave the building. My wife turned and flipped me a quick look before she went back in. I was scared for a second then I realized was supposed to admire her role in the situation. I raised my eyebrows in a salute.

I slipped out the playground door and past the EMS truck. More EMS trucks were arriving. I walked across the church lot to downtown. I went in the Fast Bar. You can see our church from the front windows of the Fast Bar.

It was a mess over there. The volunteer fire department arrived. The firemen hauled out Smith's coffin and drove it away in their truck. Banged-up people sat under trees. EMS vehicles were coming and going.

I ordered a beer and picked up the day's paper. I sat in a booth and read a piece of the front page. I looked out the window awhile. What a situation. My wife would be back and forth to emergency rooms in Charlotte for hours. She'd be exhausted when she came home. I opened the paper to the back and looked at the classifieds. I wished I had a book to read.

Polly entered the Fast Bar. She came to my booth and sat opposite me.

"Come on let's go to your house," she said cheerfully.

"Uh... no we should just uh..." I said, "there's no... it's good we got."

"No, come on," she said. "Let's go." She looked at me. At that point James Bone came in the Fast Bar and ordered a beer. He saw us and came over as soon as he got the beer. He had a worried look on his face.

"The EMS guys made everybody leave the building," he said.

"That's OK," I said.

"We're exposed to a hell of a lot of liability here," said James. "We'll have fifty lawsuits."

"We incorporated," said Polly. "The worst is the building — we might lose it."

"OK," said James. He ogled Polly. "What... whatever you think."

After that we hashed over the whole business for a while, then I left.

My wife got home from Charlotte after ten that night. She went straight to bed. I sat on the porch awhile and watched the street. Not much was happening.

I re-imagined kissing Polly in the church ten or twelve times. I re-imagined it when she squeezed my hand. That was a terrific commentary she did about Smith and the cello in the park on NPR. It got plenty of listener feedback the following week. I'm sure she squeezed my hand when we kissed — that was unmistakable.

I would probably have this one chance with Polly and no goofing around. She wasn't going to stand there and send out signals. I would have to jump in right away.

It's quite dark on our street at night — there are no streetlights on this block. The electric company will give you a security light, but those things make too much light really. It's a safe area. My wife and I were lucky to find something in this neighborhood.

I saw moving shadows - someone on the sidewalk. It was Polly, walking by herself. She saw me when she passed our house — she turned into the yard.

"Hello, fool," she said. She climbed up on the porch and sat down next to me. She put her feet on the porch railing.

"Hello, gorgeous," I said.

"Just checked on the building," she said.

"Great," I said. We both watched the street awhile.

"Mom's waiting for me. I'm staying with her tonight. She hurt her arm."

"What a day," I said.

"Hmm," she said.

"We should be together," I said. "I keep getting that feeling. I just want to mention it."

"Seriously seriously."

"I am serious."

"Come on then. Walk with me to Mom's."

"OK," I said.

So that was it. We kissed a couple of times, tentatively, and we glided away.

I say glided but we put our feet down pretty carefully — you can twist your ankle on these old sidewalks. You've got to watch it. We bumped into each other and sometimes we held hands. But the hard part was over — we were together. You can't see through the shadows on these sidewalks. But when we needed a reference point we just bumped each other. That way we stayed straight.



Harvey Sutlive's story, "The View from the Warehouse," appeared in Offcourse Issue #15. He lives in a rural area outside Athens, Georgia. You may contact him in care of Offcourse@albany.edu.


 

Comments? Tell us!

Back to Of(f)course home