GIVETHEREADERSWHATTHEYWANT!
One writer's experiment to tackle any subject his friends come up with.
5/2/11-ANGELA BALDRIDGE

Of the World

One smooth, perfectly worn vamp red lipstick in a black case with gold trim.
A pair of Doc Martens.
“One day, I realized his words were echoing through the room, dancing all around me but never piercing me as they once had.”
A shredded newspaper on the wall.
Kabalevsky’s Sonatina in A minor playing softly on the radio.
Dark and comforting.
A basil plant in the window sill.
Neighbors yelling.
An open book, leather bound, half-written pages lined with scribbles.

 

Note: This is a work of fiction, and is not intended to portray any specific religious community.  Also, the song lyrics are from “Taste”, by Animal Collective.

 

Claire folded her legs up on the couch, then unfolded them again. She examined the worn blue denim, fraying around her knees. Perhaps she should wear shoes. No, this was her house, she could be comfortable in her way. But the Doc Martens were comfortable. Comfortably clunky, and simple. No, she never wore shoes in the house. Today would be no different.

Or would it? Brother Denby would be a guest, after all. He should be afforded that respect. But this is how she would treat any guest in her home. She would be honest with him. She, lounging on a threadbare thrift store couch, scribbling in a leather-bound notebook she’d picked up in a shop on the Ponte Vecchio – this was her relaxing. Except that today, under scrutiny, it was merely an image of her relaxing. She could not break out of the separated frame of thought, analyzing each pose from within the reference Brother Denby would bring.

Three years had apparently not been enough to escape the doctrine of the previous eighteen. But Claire had never been a rebel, never sought to up-end her teachings. She maintained respect for the members of the community, and for their role within the world at large. It was the community itself that saw no room for compromise. And Brother Denby, as its leader, embodied this will in the absolute.

Annoyed at her fidgeting, Claire got up to change the disc in her stereo. Kabalevsky. Introspective and extroverted, challenging but not grating. She wondered if Brother Denby would pay it any mind. She had fallen in love with music’s power in her middle teens. Her parents had brought her along on a rare trip into the city. She had kept her head down, but had been unable to ignore the pollution of sounds and smells. She was at once appalled and intrigued. As their buggy came to rest at a red lighted intersection, her parents stoic, she secretly wondering, a car had stopped alongside blasting a bizarre tune from which one lyric was repeated again and again. “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?” Claire had felt the release of thoughts long in forming. Against her discipline she had allowed her gaze to drift up from her dark, plain clothes to the rough wood of the small buggy, the lathered horse, her grim mother and patient father. And the world beyond. The smooth, paved street they rode on. The automobiles that passed in flashes of hot metal color. The hard-formed edges of sidewalks and storefronts, and the brilliant variety of people that filled this world.

The question had splashed against the backdrop of her asceticism. Were these lives just as much a part of her as the ones in the community? She saw her friend Melanie in the tired face of a young girl wearing a too-heavy coat and brooding makeup. In the slow gait of an older man crossing in front of them she saw Brother Denby’s plodding rhythm. She was seized by a compulsion to leap from the buggy and embrace these people, overcome with a love for their commonness, their joint pains and blessings.

This feeling of universal connection would not be quashed once it had been given voice, and could not be limited to the hundred people of her immediate community. After this realization, Claire often found herself on the wrong side of Brother Denby’s browbeating.

“Child, your interests stray too far from matters of our community,” he would say at times, eyes dark with portent. This evolved into “You continue to demonstrate an unhealthy appetite for worldly possessions and profane practices, at the risk of your immortal soul,” punctuated by a poking finger at her breastbone. When her interests failed to falter, she bore the full weight of his wrath, complete with a shaking so violent it made her clench her teeth. “Those people have chosen to live their depraved existence outside God’s law and are not deserving of our understanding. You had best set your mind straight on your family here because those sinners are going to hell and are only too happy to drag you along!”

Claire’s internal war between her family’s teachings and her own questions had made her feel like a homeless invalid, a wounded soldier behind enemy lines. “I see you thinkin’,” her mother would say, eyes squinting over her perpetual frown. And Claire would look away, ashamed. Her reveries had never been proscribed, but had always been noted, with obvious disdain. These parts of herself had felt like they were to be gotten rid of, exorcised. But she had held on.

Held on, as she had held onto the glass paperweight she’d found, chipped and thrown away in the bathroom of an office building. She’d been too young to know to pee before the long trip to the city, but not too young to know that the paperweight was forbidden. Mother had stepped out as Claire was washing her hands, signifying her impatient departure. As Claire was then throwing away, of all things, a towel made of paper, made to be wetted and used no more, she saw the glint of pink swirls, and had freed the bauble from its damp den. The folds and pockets of her layered clothes had been perfect for hiding the treasure, but she had suffered days of nervously relocating it before she had been able to tuck it beneath the wood pile.

Claire had precious few moments to herself in the community, and the opportunities to hold the flawed weight of glass could sometimes be separated by seasons. But her treasure’s real value was in knowing it was there, secreted away, a piece of another world, an answer to a question she hadn’t yet learned to form.

Claire walked into the kitchen to get some ice water to offer her imminent guest. She passed along the rough and random brick wall she’d exposed when she’d renovated her simple bungalow three years ago. She smiled, as she always did, at her private joke: the picture of herself on the Great Wall, framed among the bricks of her own wall. She remembered the young boy with the gap-toothed smile who had taken the picture in exchange for an American dollar, and relished that brief glimpse into a life so enigmatic and wonderful: the boy’s movements like quicksilver, his energy flitting about, alighting on her life, and escaping.

She returned with the ice water to her modest living room and set it on the section of oak trunk that served as her coffee table. She looked to the street, expecting Brother Denby at any moment, and her eyes fell on her bicycle parked behind the front door. Perhaps there was one thing of which he wouldn’t disapprove. Claire still eschewed automobiles, but now it was for favoring health and environmental responsibility rather than condemning modern conveniences. She could recall a variety of colorful experiences riding buses throughout the city, and was always taken by the color of life surrounding her, a vibrancy always waiting outside her walls.

Claire looked to the open window, where the basil plant stood, and hoped it could remain open during Brother Denby’s visit. Sometimes life was too colorful. She often heard her neighbors yelling, through the walls of their house, three feet apart from her own. She knew the couple only casually, having passed them often in their front yard. They had an odd calm about them that clashed with the audible persona she often heard at night. Perhaps their lives existed on a more dramatic plane than her own. This wouldn’t be unusual: she was aware that the lessons of her youth still left her with an unimposing manner, one which was unlikely to change.

Claire started at the knock. Her focus on Brother Denby’s arrival had distracted her from it. She hopped from the couch, took in her denim and cotton one last time, and strode to the door.

“Hello, Brother Denby. It’s so good to see you. Please, come in.” Claire stepped aside, and Brother Denby entered, his face a canvas that defied a brush of paint.

“Can I offer you some water?” Claire faltered. Man cannot live… “Or lemonade?”

Brother Denby refused both, wordlessly. His efforts at composure prevented Claire from asking him to sit. He removed his hat and stood holding it, legs slightly apart.  He was older than she had imagined, but still unbent: a dark tent-spike of humanity.

He lowered his gaze to the vermillion shag rug that centered the living room. He took a sharp intake of breath, then an interminable sigh. Finally he looked up, and his eyes bore into her.

“Child, I’ve come to take you home. You’ve done enough.”

Claire turned away from Brother Denby, to the assortment of things around her. Her Doc Martens. The basil plant on the window sill. Her notebook. Where was the comfort usually afforded here? These things were, after all, just things. They were not her. But they were things she had chosen. They were reflections of herself. Objects of the world have no more value than what we bring to them. She looked hard at her notebook, remembered the vertigo she’d had in that little leather shop suspended out from the bridge over the Arno River, thought of the pages she’d devoted to sketching and writing about her brief life in Florence.

She met Brother Denby’s baleful eyes. She swallowed, and worked to form her years of thought into words. “Brother Denby. I don’t know how these talks usually go. I’m sorry if my leaving seems like a challenge. But I didn’t leave to spite the community. I didn’t leave to rebel, or to revel in wickedness. I miss my friends and family terribly, and if I could visit, I would. I love the community, and its people. But it is not all of the world. And we are pieces of the world, all of us, perfect and imperfect in our ways. I left the community because to stay would have been lying to myself and the people I love. I didn’t leave to reject your beliefs. I left to fulfill myself.”

Brother Denby allowed Claire to say her part, then continued, unperturbed. He spoke of heaven, and hell, and the absence of anything in between. He brought his full passion to bear on the balance of Claire’s soul. There was time yet, he said. Repentance and redemption still laid themselves open, to be accepted or denied. Claire heard, and believed: Brother Denby spoke the truth of his heart, and it hurt him to lose her.

But in the end, Claire saw him to the door. She understood his love for her, and only wished that hers was acceptable for him. It was an irrelevant sparring: the convictions petrified by his seventy years against the fluid definitions of her youth. After saying good-bye and closing the door, Claire rested again on the well-loved couch, shoeless and quiet.

“I’ll pray for him,” she thought. Then, “I’ll just pray for all of us.”

 

Copyright Cole Bennett, all rights reserved.

 

 

6 Comments to “5/2/11-ANGELA BALDRIDGE”

  1. Cole Bennett says:

    Thank you! Beautiful encapsulated moments. One begins to see the whole as more powerful than the sum of its parts…

  2. Pat Bennett says:

    I like it a lot. It feels peaceful and joyous, like coming home.

  3. Hey Cole,

    I loved the story. Especially the description of Kabalevsky, and how you worked things in literally and abstractly.
    You’re a great writer.
    Thank you. :)

    • Cole Bennett says:

      Thanks so much, Angela! Absolutely my pleasure. I’ve been consistently amazed at what I find in these beginnings.

  4. Sean Gladding says:

    “Her reveries had never been proscribed, but had always been noted, with obvious disdain.”

    This one sentence leapt out at me. Unspoken contempt often weighs heavier than that which is articulated verbally.

    • Cole Bennett says:

      You’re right, Sean, and it’s the subtle, underhanded derision that is so hard to speak up against, because it’s the victim’s job not only to defend but to bring it out in the open to begin with.

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