Westwind

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours

Jesse Arlen

A man sat alone on a park bench. He had come to watch the neighborhood children playing on the toys and on the grass. He had a book cracked open in his left hand, which he was not reading. In fact, if one of the parents had asked him what he was reading, he would have had to look at the title to tell them. He had simply grabbed it off the bookshelf of his son’s former bedroom to look like he had a reason for being there, and so no parent would take pity on this lonely looking man and talk with him.

He had perfected the chronic other-watchers art of peripheral vision, these last five years. Looking at the page before him, his focus was on the children. It was late in the Saturday afternoon, and just like every Saturday, his only company was himself. After golfing in the morning, he had nothing to do until he watched a movie at night. Most of the children at the park were probably between second and fourth grade, but he especially watched one five-year-old boy. This boy had one of those multi-colored hats on, with the little plastic helicopter blade on the top, that was supposed to spin in the wind. There was no wind today, but sometimes, when the boy ran fast enough, it would lightly twirl.

The boy knew this, and was running barefoot in the sand with all his might, trying unsuccessfully to look up at the twirling plastic blade. The man was happy the bill was in the way, for it was hardly spinning at all, and this would have been disappointing for anyone to know who was working that hard. Around the bend of one of the slides, the five-year-old boy collided into one older boy, who was probably nine. This boy hardly felt the other one, but the younger boy with the helicopter hat was knocked hard to the sand. The man flinched. Instinctually, without even looking at who or what he had run into (he knew only that he was hurt), he began to cry and seek out his mother. His mother, with her back to the toys, was talking to one of the other children’s fathers, laughing coquettishly and occasionally running her right hand through her straight, dark brown hair. Her son ran full speed towards her, and wrapped his hands around her leg. Only when he had hugged her, did she notice he was crying.

“Oh, what happened, dear?” she said, picking him up, and determining what happened by the sand on his knees, hands, and face. “Sorry,” she said to the man she was talking to, brushing the sand off her son.

“What’s ‘a matter, tiger?” the man asked, taking a feigned interest in the child’s condition.

“Don’t cry, Johnnie. You’re fine. You’re okay. Be a big boy,” his mother said, in a put-on affectionate tone. The boy, even thus nurtured, stopped crying, realizing there was no more pain. She let him down, and told him to be more careful and turned to resume her conversation. The little boy ran back to the sand, to see if he couldn’t get that helicopter blade spinning again.

The man on the bench smiled at the boy’s single-mindedness. He wished that sometimes the children would come alone to the park, and then he could play with them: he would push them on the swings, catch them at the end of the slides, push them around the merry-go-rounds, and pick them up off the sand if they fell, hold them, and sing comfort to them. But the parents were always there.

Five-years-old: it was his favorite age when his now-grown-children were young. He had four. Not one of them spoke to him anymore. Even before the crash when his wife was alive, they only really spoke anything meaningful to her when they visited. He may as well have been a picture on the wall when they came, or a house-dog, that you only acknowledge when you are saying hello and goodbye, or making humans-only plans and figuring out what to do with the dog.

Hadn’t he loved them all? His first child was a boy. He was living in Europe now, playing basketball in one of those long-named eastern European countries, since getting cut after two years on the extended roster of the New Jersey Nets. Hadn’t he taught his son everything he knew about basketball? He got him his first ball before he was even one, set up that hoop in the driveway when he was two, and made him practice almost everyday, once he was old enough to dribble. He played out there with him–teaching and correcting–practically everyday when he got home from work. He coached his teams growing up; pushed him harder than any of the other boys. Didn’t his firstborn owe him anything for this? He wondered if his son ever thought about where he might be today if he had had a less devoted father.

Three years after his first child, he had another boy. That child would never touch a sports ball. That child he never understood. He lived in SoHo in South Manhattan, in an appartment with his partner, who shared a passion for the French symbolist poets. In fact, he couldn’t remember that child ever addressing him on his own without first being spoken to, except before his twelfth birthday, when he asked for a set of the Harvard Classics. Those books were expensive! But he bought the whole set for him. And he never even took those books when he moved away. It was one of those books the man was holding now, Volume 8: Nine Greek Dramas.

The sun was dropping, and the day was turning that gray color. Most of the children and parents had left. The little boy with the helicopter hat had gone home too. He lit a cigarette. After quitting when his wife became pregnant with their first child, he had taken up smoking again the day after his wife died. It was a kind of company. He looked to his right, where he had sown Violet seeds earlier in the year on a landscaping-abandoned patch of the park. Nothing beautiful had grown there in years, so he first had to raze the weeds, the wild grass, and the brush before his seeds would do any good. With his mind calmed for the moment from the cigarette, he noticed the very first shoot had broken through the soil; a barely perceptible green stem. He put his cigarette on the bench beside him, and got down on his hands and knees to make sure it was actually one of his Violets. He gave it the slightest tug with his thumb and forefinger and it didn’t give. It was one of his Violets! There was nothing in that patch when he first sat down; it must have sprung up while he was sitting there this afternoon. He sat back down, picked up his cigarette and took another drag, but it had gone out, so he had to relight it with another match.

A year and a half later, he had two daughters–identical twins. They were mostly raised by their mother, but he felt fonder towards them than anyone else in the world, even his wife or his firstborn. Toward his wife and his sons, he felt the duty of husbanding and rearing, but toward his daughters he felt simply fatherly love. They were beautiful and smart. He approved of everything they did. He loved them without reserve, indulging their nearly every whim growing up. He sent them to a private, Catholic all-girls highschool. Rachel was expelled for having a boy stay overnight in her dorm room that second time, and Rebekah soon followed after she retaliated by spray-painting scenes from The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter on the walls of the school and writing “Puritan Freaks” and more obscene epithets on the principal’s door and teacher’s offices. Now he wondered if the school officials took more offence at the obscenities and graffiti, or whether it was because Rachel–or was it Rachel who slept with the boy and Rebekah who did the graffiti?–called those Catholics, Puritans. He smiled. His kids never had much of a religious upbringing. Why complicate their life with impractical myths and absurd rules? It never did him any good. But when they came home and their mother grounded them practically for life, hadn’t he sneaked into their room after his wife was asleep and had that secret conversation with them: congratulating them on standing up for themselves, for being independent thinkers, and hadn’t he promised to buy them a car on their sixteenth birthday next month?

 

The park was empty, except for a man sitting alone on a bench. It was dark. The parents with their children were probably sitting around a table, eating dinner. He would order Chinese food tonight, and eat in front of the television. He watched a loud action movie, so that his attention could be consumed and directed away from his thoughts. Even though he lived alone for the last five years, he had still not grown comfortable with the solitude and the silence. He feared where his mind would go when it was perfectly quiet, what intangible thing it might think of, what it might imagine. Even when he went to bed at night, he listened to the radio until he fell asleep, and he woke up every morning to its noise.

This night, lying in bed, it was some political station, but he paid no attention to the words; the sound was its only virtue. He would not even sleep in the dark anymore. He would admit this to no living being, but he could not pretend he was not frightened of the dark silence at night. Invariably, his mind would return to the day that half-crazy, traveling preacher had come one Sunday to the Presbyterian church his family attended growing up and delivered a hell-fire and damnation sermon (as he referred to it later in his thoughts). He remembered he could see the fire glowing in the preacher’s eyes when the preacher looked at him. The last thing the preacher said before he, a boy of twelve–terrified and furious and ashamed–had walked out of the church doors, leaving his family in the pew never to set foot in a church again, was All your righteousness is as filthy rags, and your deeds will be burned as chaff. And unless you repent, you will likewise perish. You cannot run from the mighty Lord, for the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth. He knowest your sitting down and your uprising. You can make pride your necklace and say in your heart ‘There is no God’ but all flesh is grass and all your goodliness is as the flower of the field; yes I tell you, all people are grass. And listen to the preacher: the grass whithereth and the flower fadeth when the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it. Yes, I tell you as the fire burneth the wood and as flame consumeth the chaff, and as the flame setteth the mountains on fire, even so the Lord, the Holy One of the ages, will come upon everyone that is proud and lofty. You will come to desolation in a moment and all your works will be turned to stubble and as in a dream you will awaken. But in your moment of utter weakness, in your loneliest hour of greatest distress, Behold! Jesus Christ will stand at your door and knock, and if you open up to him the smallest sliver, if you turn the doorknob of your heart to let him in, then the unrelenting love of the Lord will come, yes like a burning fire into you, and consume your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh–

He shouted to get the voice of the crazy preacher out of his head. He got out of bed, turned the radio up, and cried out in distress again; the unrelenting love of the Lord will come, yes like a burning fire into you…It would not cease. He plugged his ears, and then realized the only sound he was drowning out was the sound of that awful radio. He made a desperate decision. He turned the radio off and turned off the light he always kept burning, and it was silent and it was dark and he was alone. He quivered. His ears pulsed, and he felt somehow smaller. He crawled back onto his bed and lay down on top of the disheveled sheets and comforter. It was silent and it was dark and he was alone. He closed his eyes. There was no difference. Suddenly, the image of the new Violet shoot entered his mind, almost like it was put there. After awhile, he opened his eyes. He lay there looking up at the ceiling, and suddenly his left hand began to shake.

 

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