Rune Rofke - Glenn Emery
Phil gave me one last job before he went on vacation. The drywall that Pete had put up in the rental house needed to be sanded and painted. It was a tough job, being in a steep stairwell to the second floor, so getting up to the very top was tricky. I used a long-handled sander to reach all the way up there. It made my arms ache and my neck hurt, and all that fine white dust fell directly into my face. It got into my eyes and ears and nose and mouth, but I wouldn’t quit. I was determined to do a first-class job for Phil, to prove to him I was reliable and trustworthy and conscientious. I kept at it until it was all done. Then I came back the next day and painted the whole thing. It was perfect.
I fully expected Phil to pay me -- he seemed to have forgotten all about the truck -- but then he suddenly left on vacation and said he wouldn’t be back until September. I was so bummed out. I really needed the money, and when he stiffed me I grew resentful toward him.
I tried to tell myself that it was fair, because Phil had given me a place to live rent free, and that was no small thing. I would have been fine with that if that had been our arrangement. But Phil didn’t say I could stay there in exchange for doing some work for him. He had clearly promised to pay me.
My opinion of him dropped considerably after he split. I began to think that maybe Phil wasn’t so honest. Maybe he got his money from cheating people in the commodities market. I didn't know how the market worked so that someone could do that, but Phil certainly understood how it worked. The thought popped into my head that maybe he used his knowledge to take advantage of other investors who weren’t as savvy as him. The notion settled into a tiny crevice of my brain like a dandelion seed and refused to go away.
After I finished the rental house, I began hanging out with Pete more and more. Almost every day I went with him on different jobs. We got along well and he taught me a lot of things. I was a quick study and he was grateful for an extra pair of hands. He didn’t have any money to pay me, but I took my meals at his house most days and that was really all I needed.
Besides being of actual assistance to him, Pete made a point of noting that I didn’t drink or do drugs. Pete said it was one the hardest things about finding good help anymore. There were lots of skilled and semi-skilled laborers around, but it was extremely difficult to find someone who didn’t have a problem with the bottle, who wouldn’t disappear after one or two days, who hadn’t totaled his car, or who hadn’t lost his driver’s license from too many DUIs. And they were all destitute. They all needed to be paid in advance, or they always had some hard-luck story that ended with a request for cash. Pete said until I came along he preferred to work alone.
For Pete, I was sort of a tiny little miracle who could swing a hammer and who could make a precision cut and who didn’t cuss and who showed up every day and who never complained no matter how long or difficult or frustrating the job became.
I also became a regular at all the church activities. There was Sunday service, of course, and then potluck dinner at Kevin’s on Wednesdays and prayer circle on Friday nights at the church. This was the thing I looked forward to the most. There really wasn’t any structure. Anyone could share whatever they wanted -- read a Bible passage or tell an inspiring story or ask for help with financial or health problems.
I always went to the church functions with Desiree. I spent almost all of my spare time with her. We were becoming a couple, which worried me a little bit because of the strong emotional attachment, but I was very careful to keep our relationship strictly platonic. I was reluctant to even hold her hand, unless we were in the prayer circle. Then it was okay. I knew the day would come soon when everything about our relationship would be scrutinized and questioned, and I wanted to be certain no one could accuse me of trying to seduce her or behaving inappropriately. She might accuse me of anything -- I couldn’t stop her from doing that -- but I would know, and she would know, the truth. If all went well, and I was beginning to believe it would, we’d never have to cross that bridge.
Desiree lived in a basement apartment in a little white house at an intersection just a few blocks over from Mill Street. Sometimes I helped her make dinner at her place. Other times we’d go have dinner with some friends of hers. I was getting around, meeting a lot of new people because of Desiree. No one grilled me too much. I gave the same answers I always had given, and it was getting to be repetitive.
Mostly what everyone wanted to hear about was my first couple nights in Athens. The storm. The detour into Chauncey with Betty Lou. My bizarre friendship with Mooney. Some folks said they knew of the people I was talking about and would sit slack-jawed as they listened. I told them about my dreams and all the unusual things that had happened to me in my life to bring me to Athens.
At every opportunity, I emphasized that I wanted to stay, that I might not return to Indianapolis after all. And everyone would always add their encouragement. After a while, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that I would stay in Athens after August.
The hours alone with Desiree in her cool basement apartment were as delicious as forbidden fruit. We would lie next to each other on the floor, listening to her Christian rock albums, talking about life and love and dreams. One night after supper I was washing up the dishes and she came up behind me and slipped her arms around me and pressed her cheek into my back.
“I told my mother about you.”
“Oh my,” I said, feigning alarm. “What did you say?”
“I told her you were a beautiful man who loved Jesus and were very spiritual and you had been many interesting places and had many adventures.”
“What did she say? Run away, quick?”
“She wants to meet you.”
“That can be arranged.”
“After August. Let’s just see how it goes. Something important is coming up and I need to see how it turns out.”
“You’re so mysterious.”
Tonight was Friday night prayer circle, and we needed to get going.
“I don’t feel like going,” she said. “Let’s stay here.” There was a dangerous hint in her voice. Desiree might be a good Christian girl, but her body language told me she was thinking about bending the rules. Not going all the way, of course, but definitely more than what we had been doing so far, which was nothing. She took my hand and put it on her hip, and pulled herself closer to me. Our lips were dangerously close to touching.
“You know, I’m having a hard time here,” I said. “As much as I would love to, I can’t do this with you right now.”
“Shhh,” she said, and leaned in for a kiss.
Make no mistake, denial is a powerful aphrodisiac. The more I held back, the more aggressive and insistent she became. I should have been terrified, but I wasn’t.
I put both hands on her hips. I could feel a sensuous heat pulsing gently through my palms. She was ovulating. I was certain of it. I gently but firmly pushed her back just far enough so she wouldn’t feel my erection. If she pressed herself against me, I might not be able to prevent a catastrophe. There was a lot more at stake than our momentary, impulsive carnal desire.
“I hope you can appreciate how much I want to do this,” I said softly, “but I promised myself I wouldn’t. Not yet.”
“I don’t want anyone to ever be able to say I tried to take advantage of you.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that.” The spell was broken and she came back to the present. “We should get going.”
On the walk over to the church, I tried to act natural, nonchalant, but the brush with sex back in Desiree’s apartment had me rattled and distracted.
“You’re not like other guys,” she said, squeezing my arm.
I’d heard this so many times in my life that I had developed a standard reply: “I’m not like anyone you’ve ever met before. And you’ll never meet anyone like me again.”
“You sure are mysterious,” she said again, pecking me lightly on the cheek.
There was a lot more leeway about sex in her world than in mine. To her, kissing and petting -- maybe even oral sex -- were permissible. As long as it didn’t actually involve intercourse, there was little if any harm.
For me, on the other hand, there was no middle ground. It was all or nothing. Even the slightest sensual behavior, sooner or later, would lead to falling. Chastity must be guarded jealously. If I fell now, there would be no getting up, and I wasn’t quite ready to do that yet. The path I had been on for the past five years had been difficult and painful and enormously frustrating, and if I stayed in Athens, as was my intention, then I would be leaving that behind.
But I wasn’t ready to make that choice yet. I still had a couple weeks to decide which way I’d turn.
“I want you to understand that this is a huge deal for me,” I said. “Being with you have been the happiest moments of my life. I think about you all day, every day, and can’t wait to see you. But I have a code of conduct I must honor right now. I can’t deviate from that. It’s vitally important to me. Pretty soon I’ll be able to explain it more clearly to you, but for now you’ve got to trust me and help me be strong. I need you to do this for me.”
“You have my word,” she said. She put her arms around my waist and pulled me tight as we walked along, her head bouncing lightly on my shoulder. The quiet bliss of the moment ended much too quickly as we arrived at the church. No one said anything -- yet -- but this was the second week in a row we’d come to prayer circle together. I caught a snippet of a whisper: “... he the one?”
In the social hall, folding chairs had been arranged in a circle. Martin and Kevin accompanied on guitars while the rest of us sang to get the spirit moving. We all held hands and as the atmosphere ripened, a strange sensation came over me. It was like the jolt of electricity I felt the night I prayed at the end of my fast. It wasn’t as uncontrolled as that night, but it was still raw and powerful. I sensed a bright light building in the center of the circle, and a current of pure energy spinning around the circle. I think everyone else experienced it too. Within seconds it exploded into pandemonium.
Katie began speaking in tongues, palms thrust upward, body quaking, sweaty gibberish dribbling from her lips. Others follow suit, and soon the entire circle was entranced in an opium-like delirium. It was exactly the same thing I had experienced at Boonville. Not the speaking in tongues part, but the religious ecstasy.
I was happy for them, but I did not envy them. They had only crested the first hill of a very tall mountain, thinking they had reached the top. In truth, the pinnacle lay far, far ahead along an extremely grueling and rugged path that led down as much as up. I scanned the faces of the circle. Many could make it if they wanted to, but few if any would deliberately choose such a difficult way if they knew what trials were ahead.
Desiree’s movements and gestures seemed more by rote than inspiration, which I found troubling. And I was still bothered by her behavior earlier at her apartment, wondering how this relationship would ultimately play out.
At the end of the service, while everyone was socializing and winding down, Desiree was eager to leave. Some of the group were planning to go out and grab a bite, but Desiree begged off, saying she was tired and had a PT session at eight o’clock.
“Let’s take a walk,” she said.
“I thought you were tired.”
“I’m tired of being around them,” she says, nodding toward the others. “They’re so, so...”
“They seem all right to me.”
“They are. I just want a change of scenery.”
We stepped out into the clear summer night, crisscrossing the darkened side streets of Athens. I asked her about Kevin.
“He watches you quite a bit.”
“He’s got a crush on me,” she said with annoyance. “He’s been trying to get me to go out for a long time.”
“Seems like you two would be a handsome couple, as they say.”
“Yeah, everybody says so.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“It’s not that. We did go out once, but...”
“Let’s talk about something else.”
So I told her about some of the cities I’d lived in -- Denver, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Houston, Dallas -- and the hundreds of smaller places I’d passed through. “Athens is a great little town,” I said. “I could easily live here the rest of my life and have no desire to go anywhere else.”
“But at least you’ve had the chance to see other places. You have a frame of reference,” she said. “I’m jealous.”
I was anxious to get our relationship back on a more spiritual plane, if possible, and away from the sexual tension of her apartment. We stopped downtown by the campus bookstore to admire a famous poster by Maxfield Parrish, the one with a beautiful young girl facing a glorious sun and a breeze so balmy you could smell it. “That could be Eve in the Garden of Eden,” I said.
I explained how Parrish would begin with a board painted the brightest white possible. Then gradually he would add thin washes of colors, one at a time, exactly the way the printers would do when they mass-produced the posters using four-color separation. Because of the thin, translucent washes, the white background still shone through, seeming to light the picture from within. “His style is often criticized as cheesy and commercial,” I said, “but I like it. I feel good when I look at his pictures.”
Unexpectedly, she put her arms around my waist and hugged me. I ran my hands through her hair and down to the seductive dip in the small of her back, stopping short of her round buttocks.
We walked back to her apartment. She invited me in, and it tore me up inside, but I said no. Desiree asked me if I would like to come to her physical therapy session in the morning. I didn’t have any plans.
“You can meet Isaiah,” she said. “He’s really a great kid. You’ll love him.”
“You come get me,” I said. “I’ll be ready.” I strolled off into the evening air, the scent of mowed grass and incessant chirping of crickets like a thick fog.
Isaiah was, in fact, a great kid. He was about eight or nine, severely handicapped by both mental retardation and spina bifida. His face lit up at the sight of Desiree. He loved the attention she gave him, throughout the many exercise routines to keep his muscles flexible, and the quiet nurturing that followed.
I never thought I’d envy a handicapped child, especially one as extreme as Isaiah. But seeing him cradled in her lap, head lolling heavily against her breast, eyes gazing with loving adoration at her beautiful smiling face -- I would trade places with him in a heartbeat.