By Alexander Kemp
“You’re neither in Heaven nor Hell.”
“Is this Purgatory?”
The Old Man sighed.
“Some call it that.”
I looked around the modest cottage. The only furniture present was a wooden cross on the wall. Heat rose from the fireplace. The windows had thick black bars.
“Have I been here before?” I asked.
The Old Man pointed to the brown door.
“Put your ear to it and listen.”
Rushing over to the door, the knob vanished as I reached for it. I put my ear to the wood. No sound.
“Close your eyes,” The Old Man instructed.
* * *
My elderly father pounded the table.
“His eyes twitched. They opened. I’m serious, doctor.”
“This has to be God bringing him back,” my frantic mother explained.
Dr. North held his hands up.
“Eyes twitch. This happens sometimes when a patient is in a coma. I’m afraid your son is still in critical condition. He’s done a lot of damage to himself.”
* * *
I stepped away from the door. It was coming back.
Main St.—The Accident
Looking up, The Old Man was in front of me.
“Don’t make me remember,” I pleaded.
* * *
My motorcycle handled the wet roads well. I had just turned on Main St. and was only a couple miles from home, a couple miles from my wife, Ally. The bike skidded a little as I neared the stop sign. I turned on my headlight. The gloomy day transitioned into darkness. Thunder roared. Tires screeched. Blackness.
A speeding SUV smashed into me. The man later went to jail for driving under the influence.
I received a second and third opinion. The truth couldn’t be the truth. Ally held my hand and said it was okay. The bills multiplied. Our medical insurance didn’t cover it. Ally kissed me and said something like, “I’ll always love you,” before I receded into darkness. Finally, there was the fifth opinion.
The physician, a middle-aged woman, read me the verdict.
“Mr. Strong, the nerve damage you experienced in your lower back and pelvis was severe, but you’re responding well to physical therapy. The scars on your back and thigh have healed. With continual work, the movement in your legs will improve.”
She casually flipped to the next page of the report. “In regards to your genital issues, you’re a bad candidate for surgery. Your lower spine is functioning, but some of the nerve damage to that region was extensive, beyond repair. Mr. Strong, I never recommend an invasive surgery if I know it’s futile.”
The chair next to me was empty. I was grateful for Ally’s absence. I leaned forward.
“So my impotence is permanent?”
“There are advances in medicine all the time. Continue your rehab. And keep trying the pump. It can’t hurt anything.”
“Just my pride.”
She looked me directly in the eye. Medicine was her expertise, not gentleness. “You’re not young, but you’re not old. There’s still time.”
* * *
Ally had hazel eyes, curly hair. On her left shoulder was a small birthmark in the shape of a thin L. She always slept on the right side of the bed. Her favorite meal was shrimp scampi. She thought smiling at strangers to make their day better was silly, but she did it anyway. She often told me, “I love you” at random times.
After the accident, that first year was awkward, yet hopeful. The next year, the arguments started. Never about the real topic, but about forgetting to pick something up from the store, or how I was drinking too much. Or about money, that was a common one.
I asked Ally to keep my condition a secret. Even so, her parents abruptly stopped asking us about having a child.
* * *
The night of our sixth wedding anniversary, after we finished our steak dinners and a walk in the park, Ally lounged back on our couch. The hem of her red skirt rode up to her mid-thigh. My hand glided across her smooth calf, the same calf I had shaved that morning.
“Admiring your handy work,” she said.
“With you, always.”
We made out like teenagers. Reaching for her underwear, I pulled the lacy garment down and buried my face between her legs.
After I finished, and she caught her breath, she tenderly held my face.
“Do you want me to grab it from the bedroom?” she asked.
In the bedroom was a toy too humiliating to name. We had used it once and I promised myself never again. Intimacy couldn’t be manufactured from plastic and then sold. I had learned the hard way.
Years ago she told me I was the first lover to make her climax. Before meeting Ally, the term “soulmate” was juvenile.
She rubbed the back of my neck with one hand, and used the other to lift my wrist towards her mouth. Her tantalizing lips were full and soft. My fingertips traced them. Opening her mouth, she inserted my index and middle finger.
“Oh baby,” I said. “Yeah.”
She kept going.
“That’s great,” I lied. I counted the seconds until I could have her stop. These sessions were a lifetime.
Due to the debt forced onto us by my massive medical bills, we transitioned from a modest house into a rundown apartment. I stared at the chipped eggshell paint on the wall.
“That’s enough, baby,” I said. “That was amazing.”
Two arms encompassed me. She mouthed, “I love you.” For the first time, I noticed on our ceiling a growing water stain.
* * *
During the third year of my defect, I held her tight in bed and whispered, “Ally, talk to me.”
Her back faced me, but I knew her eyes were red from crying. It was nighttime; darkness flooded the room.
“We’ll be okay. It’s time for Plan B.”
“No,” she whispered.
“Don’t think about me,” I insisted, kissing her shoulder. “Hey, it was you that talked about wanting to be pregnant and snuggling a newborn against your breast. Honestly, that was on our second date.” I paused. “I can take it, you with another guy.”
“This isn’t what I prayed for,” she said.
“Ally, we can’t afford artificial insemination, but what if you chose a guy that looked like me? No one would know.”
Silence extended out a full minute before she spoke. “I asked my mom for advice, for help. She knows.”
I forced my way out of bed. My jeans were in the corner.
“We’ll adopt,” she offered.
“So what was with all those articles on insemination? I saw it on our web browser.”
“So now you want to adopt?” I yelled. “And don’t lie.”
“No,” she cried.
“I tried, Ally! I tried to be selfless. I tried to be close with you,” I said.
“There’s still other ways we can be close,” she pleaded.
“I still have it in the closet.” Ally was out of bed. “And if you don’t want to strap it on, there’s other toys.”
“Fuck you!” I kicked the bed. “A toy to make me into a man!”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” she screamed. Her crying gave me a headache.
Ally came closer to me. I tossed a jacket on. It would be cold outside.
“Stop running,” she yelled. She latched onto my arm. In the moonlight, I saw her wet face was puffy and contorted, in pain.
I yanked myself free.
“Coward!” Her spittle struck my chin as she hurled the insult.
My slap knocked her head back. She hit the floor.
Out the living room. Out the building. Out of everything. Into the heart of the night, snow drifted down. Starting up my old truck, words of advice poured from the Christian station. I shut the radio off and backed out the driveway.
* * *
The loneliness peaked when I was around others. One year passed, and then another. People smiled, held hands, and succeeded at living. There were those that looked in my direction, and they saw nothing. I opened my mouth, but silence remained my life’s anthem.
My friends, the ones whose calls I never returned, left messages telling me divorce is brutal, but I’ll get back on my feet.
“This is bad, but we all go through tough times,” one friend said . They eventually faded away. A gray hair appeared in my beard, and then a third, and then a dozen.
The last time I ever went to Mass confirmed the idiocy of it all. Fools praised and sang. The doctrine consumed was pure nonsense. I knew the secret. A higher power didn’t create my random, degrading existence. There was no algorithm for the pain or joy I experienced. The universe had taught me well the last seven years. I finally understood words I read long ago in a philosophy class. “God is dead.”
* * *
The evening I met Christy, we had exchanged several emails. Despite my research, I still wasn’t sure what the term “escort” entailed. The act of us meeting was casual and ordinary, not a scene from a seedy film. We met at a park downtown. Christy was a few years older than me, which made the whole affair appear respectable.
She was a lithe woman, wore glasses, a short black dress, and lavender lipstick. She talked in a girlie, upbeat cadence about the traffic she encountered while coming to this side of town.
The way I understood it, I paid solely for her companionship. Anything beyond that was unspoken.
It was Christy who suggested we find a hotel. She ordered our meals. After moving to the couch, she was the one who removed her high heels, placing her bare feet in my lap.
“May I ask you a question?” I sipped on the champagne.
“Are you going to be this proper the whole night?” She playfully smiled.
“Do you like your job?” I regretted the question immediately.
Her eyebrows furrowed. A calculation was being made. She took her legs off me and sat up.
“There’s no judgment from me,” I explained. “I’d be a hypocrite even if there was.”
“I just want to know more about you. And now you’re offended. I apologize.”
“Who’s offended?” She now spoke with a thick accent. “I’m from Boston, as you can tell (How does coming from Boston affect into her job as a prostitute?). This is just a side hustle. I do nails in the daytime. Sometimes I moonlight with the agency if my kids need something.”
“Kids. That’s nice.”
“When they aren’t being a pain in the ass. I have two, and one needs braces. But to answer your question, I try not to ask myself that. My ex once said, ‘Every woman has a gold-mine between her legs.’”
My guilt swelled.
Christy downed the rest of her champagne and shrugged. “It’s crass, but true. Want to know something funny?”
She refilled her glass.
“The only men who ask for a lady my age can pass for my dad…or grandfather. Usually they’re widowers. Some need a date for an event or whatever. They’re lonely, and kinda pathetic. Most, not all, but most are too old to do the deed, even with Viagra.”
Christy’s eyes bore into me.
“Ironic, right.” She checked her cell phone. “Hell, since you bought the whole night, we got time. What’s your deal?”
“Something awful happened. Nothing remarkable. How old are your kids?”
She waved a finger at me.
“I see what you did there. I’m a single mother of two teenage girls. My youngest needs the braces.” She once again downed the rest of her champagne. “What was the awful thing? Lose your woman?”
“Lost my God. I’m what the church calls a lapsed Catholic.”
Her head perked up.
“Boston is totally Catholic. My grandmother always took me to church when I was a girl. I liked going, but the music was lame. I took my kids for a little while. Someone told me Jesus was actually real, born in the Middle East and crucified at 33, but he wasn’t the son of God. What do you think?”
“Christ is a fairytale.”
“Fuck it, you’re probably right. We should find a church, walk in, and if I start to burn, we’ll know it’s true.”
“Nah, if you burn, I will too.”
Her smile was rueful.
“I just remembered being good. And kind.”
Later on, I played a jazz song from my phone and we slow danced. After a few minutes, she rested her head on my chest. As the night progressed, we talked about our childhoods, past triumphs from long ago, and the bleakness of growing old, all the while still moving. I twirled her once and then dipped her.
Her perfume was lavender.
Picking her up, Christy’s face hovered above my own. Her falling hair tickled my cheeks. Her pouty lips tasted of honey. We fell onto the bed.
I hiked her dress up and performed oral. Both her legs shook as she moaned. Shouts of my name eventually filled the room. All the while, one persistent thought plagued my mind, “This isn’t Ally.”
After finishing, Christy wrapped her legs around me and said, “Goddamn you’re good at that! I usually fake it.” Her hand reached for my crotch and I pushed her back on the mattress. We undressed. Tussling around, the inevitable came.
Her hand grasped my penis. Confusion struck her face.
She said, “I’ll have that fixed in two seconds.” Her mouth went to my pelvis.
I pulled her back up.
“Don’t. There’s no use. It’s not you; you’re perfect. I was in an accident. And now I can’t feel down there. I can’t feel. I can’t ever feel. I’m the problem. I’m broken. I’m useless.” The words spilled out.
Christy’s hands slid to my bare back and she held me to her chest. Last time I was in this position, I was a young child, and my mother soothed me by brushing my hair. Christy repeated the same motion.
“I can’t remember what it’s like anymore,” I confessed. “Not to be deformed. And now you’re holding me like I’m a fucking child.” I hid my face in her hair.
Christy rubbed my back, eventually touching my long, jagged scars. Another person hadn’t grazed my naked body in years. The sensation was pleasing, frightening, and ultimately shameful.
“I hurt her,” I wailed. “I hurt my wife, in the worse way. Because I’m weak, and stupid, and afraid.” My breathing faltered. “She was everything. And I hurt her. And I’m so fucking ashamed!”
Christy kissed my head. Her body swayed back and forth as she rocked me.
* * *
Ally sunk deeper in the bathtub. She gave me her other wet leg. I applied the shaving cream, evenly distributing it over her calf, and ever so gently, lifted my fingertips from her ankle. The razor was nearly weightless in my hand as it made contact and glided downward. I dunked it in the water and repeated the motion. One hand holding her foot, I used my other hand to traverse the smooth skin of her legs, ensuring there was no spot missed. She had the softest skin. Placing my cheek, and then lips, on her toned legs, I savored the warmth, the aroma, the exquisiteness.
* * *
Last night I sat across the street from your gated house. The Lexus your husband drives is nice. It’s a 2019. Turns out you do know how to pick ‘em. Anyway, I just wanted to say congratulations on the birth of your daughter. Fingers crossed a raging fire kills you and your little bastard. But I really mean it, congratulations. Be happy. You’ve always deserved it.
* * *
I hadn’t slept in days. Another tomorrow kept pressing on my mind, contorting my soul. Rest was what I needed. Couple days ago I donated my clothing to charity. I went by the escort agency and dropped off a surprise check for Christy. The amount was my modest savings account. The anger and fear disappeared. I slept on my couch until all time was lost.
In the note, I apologized to my parents.
The sleeping pills went down easy, all 13 of them.
* * *
“Repent,” The Old Man ordered.
“Never. Your God is bullshit!”
I snatched the wooden cross off the wall. The Old Man failed to reach me. I tossed it in the fire. It burned. The shape slowly disintegrated. The yellow became a bright orange, which transformed into a violent, unruly, bloody red. Sizzling roared in the cottage as sparks burst from the fireplace. There were three loud pops. The fire died.
I shivered. The Old Man glared at me as he wrapped his shawl tighter around himself.
The Old Man said, “The shame you have in your heart was placed there by Him. Confess your sins and He is faithful and will cleanse you from all unrighteousness.”
“John 1:9. I’ve spent enough years being brainwashed. Leave!”
He moved closer.
I grabbed the neck of The Old Man. “Fuck you! And fuck God!”
* * *
The lights flashed. The ventilator was sending an alert.
My parents slept in a corner. Sunlight burst through the blinds.
Before two nurses rushed through the door, I remembered being nine and swimming at the beach. A wave carried me out too far. I was terrified. The previous year, Judy Ellis, the funny, freckled girl who sat behind me in class, drowned in her parent’s pool. Death’s introduction. I was next. Another wave devoured me.
And then I was above water. You were with me, there was no room for doubt. And when I regained consciousness from the coma, I truly felt You for the second time, replenishing me. My body remained ruined; nonetheless, I felt resurrected. Your power and grace were unquestionable. Even so, I refused thanking You for my continued life; I saw the harsh road ahead.
Alexander Kemp is an MPA graduate from the University of Southern California. His work has been published in Literary Yard, The MOON Magazine, and Nzuri. He works as a job hunter for adults with disabilities. He currently lives in Los Angeles, CA.