The "Brit a Day" series

What does a months-long parade of attractive British men have to do with fiction, you might well ask? These gentlemen have inspired some lovely scenes, part of the life I live in my head. Over time, some of these scenes reach out to one another and begin to form a story. For the present, each one of these pictures provides a writing prompt for me, a way to keep me writing with a sense of passion and narrative, even when the stories are not yet fully formed.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Church Cay, part 7

Part 7

At first I couldn’t understand why Frank would have his eye on me with someone like Dee around, but little by little I observed that men did not look at Dee the way I would have expected them to. She had something wrong with her back that caused her to limp. It didn’t seem to cause her much pain, but I could tell that she had altered all of her clothing to help hide the fact that one hip was a little higher than the other. In spite of her classically beautiful face and perfect hair, she must have looked like damaged goods to the men who came in the bar. I asked Frank once, didn’t he think Dee was beautiful, and he said he didn’t know. He said she was a good waitress, but it just hurt to look at her.

As for me, I tried not to think about the attention I got from the bar customers. The roadhouse had regulars, men and women, but it was so far from town that the majority of the patrons were one-timers, mostly men, truckers and such on their way to somewhere. If I wanted good tips I had to talk nice to them and dress in a manner that would give them a little hope, but hope was all they got. If Frank saw a customer looking at any part of me except my face, the white towel would get cranked down harder and faster into the glasses, and he would tell me to be careful. Under Frank’s watch, Dee and I never had much trouble. After closing and before he did the books each night, Frank would make sure that we got to our cars safely on our way home, in our opposite directions. Soon after that started, I started staying until Frank finished up, and soon after that, I started following him home in my car, but this time he knew I was driving right behind him. He invited me there. I walked in his bedroom. I saw my reflection on the inside of the window as my old self hiding outside, waiting to watch us make love for the first time, and I made Frank pull down the shades.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Church Cay, part 6

Part 6

When I got older, on the other hand, I went to work after school hours in a roadhouse bar. I was sixteen, and I would never let my parents forget that I was born in a room over a bar. I came home late from the roadhouse smelling like smoke and beer, and no matter how quiet I was, my mother said that I always woke up the whole house with that smell. Nobody liked it, but I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t sit in that house at night and listen to my father write his sermons.

The bar belonged to a twenty-seven-year-old guy named Frank, and Frank tended the bar. I knew from the first night I worked there that Frank had a passion for me. The first week I was there, he let me catch him making out his grocery list one night. The last item on the list was “grip.” I asked him what a grip was, and he said a grip was just one more thing he needed to get because he had lost his.

His hands were always moving and his knuckles were always cracked and red from washing glasses. I fell in love watching him dry glasses one night, three fingers twisting a white towel into the bottom of each glass. After work, I pretended to go home, but I went to his house and waited in the dark outside for him to come home from closing up. When he went inside and turned on the lights, I could guess where the bedroom was in the one-story house, and I waited outside the window to see him undress. I had never seen a naked man before, and I knew I loved him, so I thought it would be beautiful. But I remember now how I felt once he was naked as I stood and watched him walking around the room. His body was fine, but seeing him like that wasn’t beautiful, it was awful. I was so ashamed of myself, I had to hold myself with my arms to stop from shaking. As I tried to calm down, I just stood there and concentrated on his white shoulders, thinking I wasn’t so bad if I only looked at him from the waist up. Each muscle cast a faint shadow from the overhead light, and his chest was covered in light swirls of black hair that became so dense over his belly that it obscured his navel. His shoulders were perfectly bare and white, though. Down his arms were gradations of pinker skin, forearms slightly burned from the sun, hands red and chapped from the endless washing of glasses. I let my eyes follow the contour of his arm below his waist, and I was surprised at the appearance of his penis, redder than his hands, in its nest of black hair. There was nothing wrong with it, it just wasn’t what I had imagined. The only one I had seen before that was Jeff’s, and I hadn’t seen his since I stopped bathing him when he turned six.

I never told anyone that I had spied on Frank, not even Dee. Dee was the other waitress in the evenings in the bar. She was closer to Frank’s age, so she wasn’t someone that I could have known from school, but I felt like I had known her all my life. Dee was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen. One of her beauty secrets, she said, was to never sweat. She was much slower as a waitress than I was because she would stand for minutes at a time in front of the air conditioner if she felt a drop of perspiration coming on, her supple neck arching back and dry wisps of her long blonde hair streaming from her temples as though she were in freefall.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Church Cay, parts 4 and 5

Part 4

After I was born, my father decided it was time to become a minister, and my parents waited in Baraterre for their first assignment from the Methodist Conference back home. It was a full eleven months before they were placed. Because my parents had come to the Exumas on their own, there was no income from the church, only what was left of their savings. They continued to rent the one-room flat over Fat Billy’s Ball ‘n’ Chain, and that alone is testament to their poverty, because my parents were teetotalers. We survived, ironically, through the grace of Billy, who passed on to us the condiments from the bar each night—a lot of nuts and citrus—and once a week, his brother would just happen to have caught a few extra fish, and the windfall became ours. My mother was never able to tell the story of our Christmas there without crying. Billy brought her a chicken, a precious commodity on Baraterre, on Christmas Eve, saying that his brother had accidentally run over it with his truck. When my mother showed skepticism about the wrapped carcass, Billy assured her that it was freshly dead and that the only trauma it had endured was from the wheel of the truck. My mother thanked him and took it, only realizing after he was gone and she unwrapped it that the headless chicken was otherwise whole. It could not have been hit by a truck and still be so deliciously intact, she knew. It must have been picked out and slaughtered especially for us.

When his assignment arrived, my father thought he was being sent to Colorado to minister to an Indian reservation, and that thrilled him. But since he couldn’t get his hands on any kind of map of the U.S. in Baraterre that was less than forty years old, he couldn’t be sure. There were no Indian reservations in eastern Colorado, though, just little towns like First View and Wild Horse that, if they were going to keep their faith alive in those days, depended on a Methodist circuit rider to drive from church to church preaching all day on Sundays.

He should have been happy, doing the Lord’s work among the already saved, but at the time he had no idea that the Conference was going to forget about us, that all four of us (I soon had a little brother, Jeffrey) would be staying there for the next sixteen years until we dried up like dead leaves, crazy enough to let that great spiraling tendency life has fling us apart.

Part 5

Eastern Colorado is flatter than Kansas. My brother Jeffrey, four years younger than me, seemed to be attracted to the immenseness of it from the day he was born. Whenever we took him outside in the daylight, you could see his little eyes, just barely able to focus, zeroing in on the farthest objects, sometimes the horizon itself. In the summers when it was hot, when he got a little older, we’d often find Jeff lying under the house with one side of his face pressed against the cool ground, staring out across the plain.

Jeff is an opera singer now, a tenor, one of the best in the world, and he is known for reaching into the back rows of the largest opera houses and pulling the hearts right out of the patrons’ chests with his voice. But I think he does it with his eyes. He learned to communicate with big empty spaces as a child.

To be continued…..

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Church Cay, part 3

Part 3

My parents shortly learned, while they mulled over their unusual situation from the relative civility of Baraterre, that the church, on its grand bluff, had been visible from half a dozen islands grouped in a curl away from the main archipelago. A hundred years ago, the Christianized inhabitants of those outer cays came to the church for their weddings, their baptisms, to bury their dead in its well-tended cemetery. But when the last missionary died, no one was sent to replace him. So for the ensuing generations, the outer islanders returned to the practice of burying their dead at sea. No one set foot in the church from that time on, but the sight of it across the water gave the disparate islanders a kinship, a common knowledge of something beyond their immediate existence.

My father was not a stupid man, but he was such an innocent one. He could not have failed to see from the geography of the islands and the gaping mouth of the trench just below where he stood that the cay was slowly pulling out from under him as it had pulled out from under the church. But my father would not be deterred from his mission. He did not know what the first church had looked like, nor could he tell much from the wreckage that lay at the bottom of the cliff. It had been down there so long that most of it had floated out to sea as driftwood, and what would not float had become a part of the bottom of the trench. There was no trace left of even a foundation, if one had ever existed.

So my father brought long boards and white paint on an armada of small boats from Baraterre to the island he christened Church Cay. The locals, some loving an eccentric, some fearing a zealot, helped him carry the rough goods and the hand tools to the top of the cliff, but none volunteered nor were they asked to stay and help him. He and my mother cleared out one of the homes to be their base camp, and it was my mother’s responsibility to catch and clean something each day to supplement the canned goods they had brought with them, but she returned to Baraterre when the advanced stage of her pregnancy made it impossible for her to climb out onto the rocks to fish at the shallow end of the island.

All alone, then, my father built a perfect scale replica of a white clapboard New England style church, steeple and all, achieving a height of twenty-three feet. Its exterior was flawless in proportion, but lacked a lot of detail, and the interior was, well, non-existent. The front door was a fake, nailed onto the outside, and the church was hollow, like a cardboard Christmas model for the mantel to be surrounded by angel hair snow.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Church Cay, part 2

Part 2

Just after their marriage, my mother and father went in search of a nameless cay in the Exuma archipelago where, they had heard, a few people lived who were badly in need of a sense of community, a connection to the Lord. At that time, and still today, none of the islands northwest of Great Exuma had a name except Baraterre which might as well be a part of Great Exuma it is so close. But the cays beyond it are spread out across the Atlantic like the bones of a great dissected spine and are not considered to be inhabited, but only because no one takes the time to see if they are. Descendants of the ‘Indians’ who lived throughout the Caribbean before the European migration swept most of them up as slaves or killed them with Old World diseases are still living in the Exumas, in some cases only one or two families to a cay, living their lives much as their ancestors did with the exception of two things. One is that the children are all gone. They have commuted to the present, transported off to the main island schools for a better education, and they have not come back home. The other is that those who stayed behind were all converted to Christianity. My father learned of this forgotten flock with their church crumbling into the surf from an obscure reference in National Geographic. He used the magazine as his atlas in seminary as he planned his life as a missionary, but unlike some of his classmates, he was not evangelical; he did not advocate proselytizing Christianity to other religions. So the idea of rebuilding the church on the cay was irresistible to him, serving a gathering of ready saved souls that needed a pulpit placed before it. He convinced my mother, a junior Bible college graduate, to marry him and join him on his crusade.

What they found when they got there was an island that had been abandoned long before the church had shrugged its shoulders and collapsed into the sea. The tiny cay was shaped like a melted slice of cheesecake, the graham cracker crust being a magnificent broad cliff a hundred feet high, the melted-down tip a shallow and treacherous point of submerged rocks. At the base of the cliff, the ocean opened up into a deep blue trench that looked like a bruise when viewed from the top of the ravine left by the landslide that had taken the church. Any boat that arrived at the island had to land midway between the two ends, necessitating a short precipitous climb to the habitable surface. Three small houses still stood in a crescent around the site of the church’s demise, but they were overrun with vegetation.