Winter 2020 - Creative Nonfiction

Dave Harrity

Et in Arcadia Ego

 

We lived in a house on Lee Avenue in Camp Taylor when we moved to Louisville. A blue-collar neighborhood of Cape Cods & bungalows, the mingling of kempt & unkempt yards, chain link & broken sidewalks, hilly with oaks & cathedrals & post-war predilection.

Across our street—a city park & pool. A good place for children to grow up seeing the varieties of lived experience: from stay-at-home moms to leather tramps camping for a night behind the cinderblock lav. Up the street, Lolita’s Taco (all the perverse connotation implied) & Marmaduke’s, where bikers, bitches, & third-shifters would sip beer, carouse, & shout at summer soft-ball any hour of the day. Sometimes a brawl, but only late at night, & only in the lilted swell of dead-summer, when the air thickens around cicada trilling—heat & noise cross- stitching into a palpable, living ache—a brink, a rash blistering for reaction.

For the most part, it’s a keen & quiet neighborhood—folks walking streets named for presidents, generals, & other American heroes of our burning wars stateside & abroad. The area boomed after World War I, when the land, which was a military installation, was decommissioned & developed for residents. The barracks became apartments; most of the standing houses there today built with wood repurposed from the base. The only obvious remnants that this land was anything else entirely: a small cemetery in a neighbor’s back yard & a Naturalization Monument in Zachary Taylor Park, commemorating immigrants swearing oaths to fight for the United States. Hard to imagine it was once the country’s largest training camp, &—before that—rolling farms of cotton, corn, & canola. How everything was something else & is becoming something else at every moment—& me trying to mark distinctions, variance.

***

Once, digging up his yard for massive daffodil beds, Chris found gnarled fragments of an artillery shell. The past was never far from him. He showed our children, doe-eyed Irish twins under four-years-old, the mortars. They were immediately taken with Chris who seemed to understand their innate curiosity. He paid attention to them.

Chris exchanged his drugs & drink for other addictions years before we met him: pouring concrete, praying to Mary, & expanding his yard into a strange garth of small ponds, gaudy sculptures, a hen house, & any variety flowering vegetable that would flourish. Frenetic, he never hid his moods, but he was never anything but kind, however withdrawn or grumpy, to us & our kids. When we needed a banister in the stone stairs of our house, he put one in & didn’t charge us a dime. When our water heater exploded the first week in the house, he gave us his keys so we could have a hot shower.

The year we moved, I taught English courses, trying to get students to understand that they have choice, autonomy. That writing is a declaration of agency—a comma or a contraction are decisions. That a sentence isn’t just a mode of communicating but a way to raise your hand up in the world & say what you are, want to be. A decade later, I still believe this, but I’ve adjusted my expectations for their revelations.

I would see Chris here & there & he would ask me questions about what I thought about God. I could never explain my belief to him. He thought I was a doubter & said so once, not meanly, necessarily, but frankly & with the surprise & frustration of a convert. It’s not that I don’t believe, but that the only god I understand is a conversation between two people, the sun glinting off a bat across the park, the night noise of laughter at the bar, or the way a stranger smiles when they give you help you wouldn’t ask for, like tossing you the keys to their front door. Yes, Chris, I pray sometimes. Yes, Chris, I know about Jesus. Yes, Chris, I know you’re telling me so that I won’t spend eternity in fire & pain. Yes, I know you’re worried about the children, too. It’s hard to fault the intentions of a man who lost & rebuilt his life on the back of dying a hundred times over, whose only reason of living is the work he does daily to suppress his addiction.

He’d jokingly call me Thomas on occasion. I was unbothered by it, holding back my opinion: Thomas was the only apostle who made any sense to me. The impulse to feel & express physical inclination, to ask for touching. Apostles could chastise all they want, call into question another’s faith—whatever. Curiosity can be mistaken as incredulity if you insist on putting your fingers in a wound.

***

The first spring in that house: I pull into our driveway next to Chris’s yard & a thousand daffodils in full bloom. They were green when I left to grade papers early that morning in the blue dawn, the neighborhood asleep. By the late afternoon they are wild & bright & unafraid. Each year after that, they bloomed two weeks after my wife’s birthday. An earthen liturgy worthy of veneration. I have never hoped to be saintly, but the perfection of nature helps me dream such things for myself—nature’s divine & consistent resolve, easily recognized as holiness. Four springs passed, the children grew a bit & we didn’t understand how fast the world was moving, was predictable. Each spring, with their fidelity to life & death, the flowers appeared & we remembered they were there all over again, surprised by the simplicity of things working as they should.

Some mornings, I wake up & am astonished by my luck. I am breathing, bleary-eyed—that my life is my life. The body cleaned & whole again. Not every morning, just many of them. The body cleaned & whole again. The world is a tuning fork humming out another day, clean & bright. I kept at work—grading papers, making poems. I spent many mornings & nights rearranging sentences, trying to keep my hand up, trying to touch the moon on either side of the day.

The consequence of my tenuous faithfulness against someone who easily believes. My only core belief: I must enter God if I am to keep believing. I want the opening & the mettle gathered up in my fingers, I want the unsentimental gore of the body. Where can I put them in, O my bloodied Christ? Is doubter the cruelest superlative that the believer can manage against the bold?

***

Another birthday for my wife & this year it falls on Easter. A day to celebrate dead things coming to life on a day to celebrate her life. We come home to find our neighbor Chris dead in his driveway, a pistol slacked in his hand, the side of his head broken like a melon rind. A stillness I had never seen before.

You fool, do not make a mistake: You must be brave after asking. You wanted to live & recognize you were living, you wanted flesh & blood & refused to believe in resurrection. Today has become the day. Did you forget that Thomas asked & Christ said yes?

The stillness in the driveway. What comes next is only fragments, images of a day’s passing & the significance of a life gone as quickly as a spring downpour. You will never get the details exactly, never be able to name it quite correctly.

First was the phone call. Then a duration—maybe twenty minutes? Maybe thirty? I sat with the body. Sat next to it, watched his blood soak into the gravel, watched a fly who found him. Careless flitting, jagged motion on his hair, the blue-lipped circumference of—no, did you look at his face? Yes, the wince. One eye pointed down & the other precisely taut, his jaw slack & salmon. His jeans, his red shirt, his jean jacket. The pistol limp in his hand, the gun & its one goddamn talent: to tear through & sleep until called to make another ending.

The police. Then neighbors. Then family. It was Easter; they were all together. He had not come to lunch, he had not gone to church. The sun & blue of the sky against the green of the park’s glade. The crowd was growing as the yellow taped belted about in the wind. Then the priest & his immediacy, his panting panic ducking under the line & running to stillness. If he did not get to the body in time, Chris would not make it to Heaven. But Hell was so close & so present that anything that could move seemed like love & charity.

I had found the stillness. I could walk between them—between the stillness & the family, past the police line. Strange ferryman, unprepared shepherd. I found the only rosary I owned & gave it to Chris’s father. They were rapt, speechless, exhausted by daylight. When they were allowed to cross the line, the eldest brother went ahead. No other family could find the path forward. The brother walked past the stillness & up the stairs to the front door, reported that the house had been cleaned, that there were arrangements neatly laid out on the kitchen counter—everything was in order.

***

Here is where you must enter. Give me your hand. Which fingers would you like inside me? Which piece of you will become a piece of me?

The police were packing up, swaddling the stillness into a black bag without ceremony. I ask about what they will do with the pieces of him that are no longer part of him, the gray matter, the slit of skull, the jellied clots caked onto snatches of rock & plant. We don’t clean that up they say. Neither do any of us.

What their faces must have looked like when the doubter kept reaching in. It must have been the first time any of thee—any of them—felt awe, knew belief. Thomas with his limp-dicked moxie now nauseous with flesh; the others with their self-righteous sycophancy twilled with desire to touch. How do you want me now? says Christ.

The whole foundation of the world trembles with the confluence of what we say & never have to act on, of the dumbfounded, striding arrogance to ask questions from a place of privilege—all the strawmen, all clean fingernails that go into shutting everyone the fuck up. What lies I tell myself about my goodness or my foolishness?

& that is today. I must clean up the brain of a man that I knew. No one will ask, but his mother shouldn’t have to see the body that she grew inside her laid across a lawn like elements on a dinner table. I find a shovel, a bucket, & set to scooping up the parts of my neighbor to bury in a hole I will dig in his garden.

***

After that, the putting to rest of the dead. The funeral in the rain, Chris’s fellow church go-ers far off & praying because Chris was the kind of Catholic where rules about suicide still mattered more than anything else & they couldn’t mourn next to his body. The members of his congregation crying on their own, with their priest, for a soul that is forever damned. The family, also Catholic, just wanting to bury a boy who lost his way without fear that some fleshless God might remember their sins. Why do any of us believe this shit?

For weeks, I am the person who found Chris. For weeks, people walk by the house & talk to me—ex-girlfriends, a nun, old drinking buddies, cousins. It seems I moved into this house for one reason: to help him die or to help the living unpack his dying.

People light candles & place them on the gravel. People cry in front of me. I sit on the dark porch each night & try to record all of it—what I feel, what I think, what I wish might be different. None of it matters to anyone, or even to me anymore.

*** 

I will say this, & I don’t blame you if you doubt me, as I was the one who didn’t know what he was asking when Chris asked if I had any faith at all: 

in April, in May, in June—

into the summer—the daffodils Chris planted greened, but not a single one flowered. Not one.

 

 


Dave Harrity’s writing has appeared in Verse Daily, Copper Nickel, Palimpsest, Memorious, Revolver, The Los Angeles Review, Confrontation, Softblow, and elsewhere. His most recent book is Our Father in the Year of the Wolf (Word Farm, 2016). He is a recipient of an Emerging Artist Award and an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council.


 

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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