Paul hangs upside down on his porch in Hendersonville, a short distance from the community of Bat Cave in North Carolina . It is Thanksgiving Day and he is defying gravity, in mid-air (and flair) suspension with the elegance of a microchiroptera (The scientific name for bat if my online research is to be trusted)—or in Paul’s case, megachiroptera, given his 6 foot 3 stature– in a black and white movie dissolving into a tux-attired vampire. However, he is not stuck but assuming a viewpoint, a pinprick—if you will—in the prevailing balloon, on whose course so many float. So many things are stuck to the roof of one’s mouth; like a clutch that won’t shift, stuck in reverse or in a gear that grinds into itself until it is stripped of its power to do what it was intended. Sometimes you can’t speak, the tongue isn’t in the right gear, isn’t lubricated with the right amount of knowledge, expertise, education or, at the very least, lucidity to allow a smooth transition, to change gears into the unknown.
“Why?” Paul asks
I sit, not knowing the answer (Not even knowing if i want to know)
“Why” Paul asks, “Didn’t God forgive Adam and just give him another chance?”
Being in apple country—Hendersonville, North Carolina, the 4th largest apple region in the state–one would assume the answer to this query would be common knowledge and perhaps it is among certain locals such as his landlord. Hell if I know, i want to reply, but my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth, perhaps a sun roof, maybe a skylight, yet it is stuck. Why is it stuck? Hell if i…
Paul poses these questions but they basically boil down to a single question…why? Paul, a good-looking brother of the Arthur Prysock (Young Prysock) variety; tall, in his 70’s, in good shape except for a bad back he acquired lifting weights in the service–a deadlift in excess of 300 some-odd-pounds.
“At 20 you can lift weight like that, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. He has the aesthetic of a Roy Hamilton, or Lenny Welch—classic crooners of an era gone by, preserved on wax in Paul’s record collection. On his living room table are magazines, pill bottles, wrappers, decorative holiday gift bags from holidays past that held goodies from his landlady who lives across the driveway demarcated by glorious Crepe Myrtle trees that have lost their deep red and purple hues in this time of year. Paul, single, shorn of matrimony due to both natural and unnatural circumstances, lives in a single family home, brick and solid wood with a landlady who holds him in such high esteem that, in this year’s holiday goody bag, hung on the door knob, are holiday oven mitts, mints, a card wishing God’s blessings and various red and green accoutrements.
By the recliner a toy rifle sits on a chair. It is solid and rust has built up; perhaps a toy from his youth in New Jersey. I run my finger across the barrel and recall the way my father talked about the cowboy movies of his childhood: Red River, High Noon, Shane—Audie Murphy etc. It is cold and the years have calcified; the elements settling upon it as it sits having survived the seasons. A few feet away sits a small photo of Paul. He is young, posing in his army uniform; a tall, good-looking, light skinned black brother. Was it Germany? In the background are barracks. He looks like one of those singers whose baritone rises higher than an entire fleet of bombers on its best day. Paul, looking like the light skinned brother in the group ‘The Main Ingredient’. I can hear the words, the lyrics on an endless set of wings: Everybody plays the fool…there’s no exception to the rule. And Paul’s voice breaks through. “Why?’ he asks. Why.
Paul is my stepfather Pete’s older brother, separated by a couple years. I am here from San Francisco on my yearly visit to my mother and Pete. There are 3 brothers in all, but Paul and Pete live in North Carolina, while, John, the oldest, lives in Florida. The three are sons of a New Jersey dentist and a school teacher who taught English literature. Each holds a strong resemblance to their mother, a fair-skinned woman with whom i became acquainted in her later years. I’ve seen pictures of her as a young woman, an exceptionally beautiful woman who elicits thoughts and images of the silver screen. She had a soothing voice that could recall and recite—word for word–biblical passages and poetry–an ability that lent itself to her profession as an educator. I can hear her voice say, well i declare when something struck her as odd or unusual. A beautiful woman, looking like a starlet in a black and white photo that her sons cherish; part Lena Horne, part Clara Bow. Well…i declare.
We drive through roads that twist, past a white A-framed church that was built in the late 1800’s by the Huntley family–whose family donated the land and subsequently, many decades later, ex-communicated one of the Huntley bloodline for asking too many questions regarding the biblical dictums communicated on Sunday Mornings. At the dinner table we join hands while Pete begins to say grace. Paul sits to my left. I reach for his hand. I reach for his hand but get fingers. Pete begins:
Gracious lord we thank thee for
These bounties of thy providence
And Pray these to sanctify and to
Nourish our bodies and God Bless
The hands that prepared it
In Jesus name…Amen
“Amen. That’s something i can say” says Paul as if enduring a 30 minute speech.
Pete pours wine for the guests, fussing over the position of people’s napkins and salad forks—where healthy amounts of turkey, stuffing and potatoes–the traditional—will decorate plates painted with holiday scenes—unleashed on this one day, to be sequestered in a wooden cabinet the rest of the year. We eat. I look around. Outside the sliding glass windows are trees stripped of leaves. Beyond them are the Blue Ridge Mountains, dotted with houses and covered in earthy tones that radiate warmth despite the cold. My mother and stepfather’s home is large, with an upper level where my mother’s office sits, complete with certificates and degrees–Humanities, creative writing and Notary Public–on the wall. A comfortable house with rugs, lamps, candles, framed pictures of zebras and various cushions and pillows for one’s sitting comfort. A glass table lies low on the carpeted floor in the living room with several magazines, coasters and an array of remote controls. Rodin’s “The Thinker” sits hunched in silent thought with an intensity deftly sculpted, particularly in the back muscles. Pete picks up a sharp knife with a silver handle.
“Tony” he says, “Do you want white or dark meat?”
“Dark” I say
“You don’t like white?”
“I like it but dark tastes better”
“In more ways than one” Paul interjects, with a slight smirk.
“Let me guess Paul”, Pete says, “Your yellow ass wants dark meat?”
“Both” Paul answers, passing his plate.
Pete carves the turkey, his hands slightly trembling with each blade stroke. He passes the plate to Paul, then gently places the dark and white flesh of the seasonal fowl on Kate’s and my mother’s plate. Kate lives up the hill with Sadie, a dog that resembles a wolf. We sit and begin cutting, seemingly in unison. We begin to chew, also in unison. Paul examines his food, rearranges it.
“Why” Paul begins, “Do people believe in the story of Noah’s Ark? Just think about it, Noah supposedly builds an ark and they got to get two of each kind of animal, within a 5 mile radius. And, mind you, they only got a week to do it. What I want to know is, how’d they get the polar bears in there? Did they go to the North Pole? That’s more than 5 miles away. And I’m sure Noah, at 900 years of age didn’t have thermal underwear.” Paul leans back a bit, arms crossed–not tense–as if his arms were limbs embracing the shape of the wind. I look at the position of his arms and think of a defensive boxing position, used by the late “Old Mongoose”, champion Archie Moore, known for both his pugilistic wisdom and wisdom of life.
I sit and listen and offer no answers.
“People just accept this” Paul continues, “But they never question what they’re told.
He’s got a point, i think to myself, conjuring images of polar bears and Eskimo pies. Pete listens while pouring a bit of wine.
“Pass the cranberry sauce” Pete says, adjusting his voice to the inevitable dialog/exchange.
Paul, not hearing the request, sprinkles salt on his turkey and mashed potatoes, despite high blood pressure. He passes the salt to Pete.
“Your problem” says Pete, “Is you’re too judgmental”
“It’s not that I’m judgmental” Paul answers. “It’s that I don’t swallow everything without questioning”
“You’re swallowing that wine”
“Yeah, and it isn’t sweet. What kind of wine is this?
Flo, Pete’s wife begins to laugh between sips of wine.
“What’s so funny?” asks Pete.
Flo wipes her mouth with a napkin adorned with the splayed feathers of a turkey.
“When you said swallow, I thought about the swallows of Capistrano” said Flo, placing an elbow on the table. “
“What about them?” Paul asks
“When I was a little girl” explained Flo, “I was forbidden to enter my parent’s closet. My dad told me that if I went in the closet the swallows would get me. So I never went in that closet.”
“And you believed that?” asked Paul, chuckling
“I guess you can say I swallowed that story. It kept me out of that closet though.”
“Logic can answer only so much” said Pete, gesturing towards Paul. “There are certain things that cannot be explained through logic. It’s not all about logic.”
“What is it about then?”
“It’s about humility, living by faith, by sight unseen but seen by the heart. To be able to see without seeing, to be able to feel it and say, I’ve seen it. “You see?”
”Well” Paul says, “That ain’t my scene. I need scenery that makes sense.”
“But you won’t allow yourself to see”
“I’ve seen all kinds of scenes, seen ’em all. I used to work at the airport up in Philly. I saw Yul Brynner, Tom Jones. Tom Jones got off the plane and a limo was waiting for him on the tarmac. This chick runs up out of nowhere and Tom Jones opens the door and she disappears. He must have slept with 10,000 women. Not a bad scene, until aids.”
Suddenly a wine glass is tipped over, leaving a map sized stain on the mauve table cloth.
“You’re a couple of pissed off apostles without a pot to epistle in” says Kate, laughing. Kate is a friend of the family, wedged in between 2 would-be apostles. Kate–with a tie-dyed shirt and necklace from a Himalayan trek from 30 years ago.
“Live and let live” says Kate, as Pete replenishes her wine.
“I love a woman who wears her wine” says Paul
“And I despise a man who whines”
Kate laughs while taking another sip of wine
“Go easy on that Martyrita”
“You mean Margarita”
The plates are carved at, stabbed at and finally, the images emblazoned on their surfaces emerge.
“You know what I just can’t see?” Paul says.
“What’s that?” Pete replies, glancing at the pumpkin pie on the counter
“The animals…they only had one week to do it”
“Get to the ark. Aren’t you listening?”
“Are you still on Noah’s Ark?”
“Yes, but I ain’t never been on it. Noah was 900 years old and they had a 5 mile radius to get to the ark. If you really look at it, i mean, use your brain, looking at it logically, you got to ask yourself, could this really have happened?”
The two brothers sit on opposite sides, separated by cranberry sauce, stuffing, potatoes, gravy–a bountiful bevy of Pilgrims Progress scooped, cut, carved, dismantled and, somehow, held together while instrumentals replete with woodwinds, violas, horns cuts through the contours and circumference of the house through the miracle of satellite TV, with an occasional interruption by Perry Como or Andy Williams for good measure, conjuring up sleigh rides, wreaths, snowballs and frostbitten digits. Pete thinks of the years that have squeaked by–seminary, the Peace Corps, marriage. Paul remembers the army, feeling it in the expanse of his back when he sits.
“You were there to save lives” he says to Pete. “We were there to take lives”.
Pete recalled that the Peace Corps were supposed to pay for his transportation back from North Africa–Mid 1960’s.
“I called them and reminded them that they were supposed to pay for my transportation. All they said was, “We’re sorry, thank you for your service”—then they hung up.”
Paul shakes his head.
“Thank you for your service”, he says, “Now go to hell.”
Pete nearly clears his plate. Other topics are brought up: The current president and his presidential brand of racism, hatred, buffoonery–in short, his overall base of operations.
“Who’s ready for pie?” Pete asks from across the counter. “We got chocolate cake too”
“You know what I want?” Paul says
“What? Chocolate cake?”
“No, to know why?”
“Oh Jesus, why what?”
“Why God didn’t give Adam one more chance?”
I look at the brothers. For some reason I think of the first time I saw a North Carolina license plate. The words: First in Flight under the license numbers. For some reason I had misread it, thinking it was Fist in Flight. Pete corrected me.
Pete cuts a slice of pumpkin pie, looks at Paul.
“You want whipped cream?’
Paul, at any given moment, has 10-15 cars in his driveway, his driveway a cordoned off portion of a 5 acre plot of land on which the house, which he rents, sits. I ask myself, has Paul had more women than cars or more cars than women. Has he left a woman for a car? Do the qualities he looks for in cars resemble, or approximate, those which he applies to a prospective love interest? Or are his cars–vans, sedans, two-door, four-door, utility vehicles, etc. an extension of him, his versatility, his appreciation for the fruits of mechanical harvest whose technologies change but result in the same problems, a lighter wallet, whose check engine lights are now illuminated by way of computer technology?
“Why do you have so many cars?” I ask, walking past each, trying to see the differences, the nuances in shape, design, logo–to hear their voices, if possible.
“These aren’t just cars”, Paul says. “Most of these they don’t make anymore, like this one”
Paul walks over to one of his several vans.
“This is a Nissan. They don’t make it anymore. They didn’t even have a name for it. They just called it “Nissan Van”. The engine is underneath near the steering wheel, not in front. You could freeze ice cubes in that car, you could heat food by attaching a burner. But it had a defect”
“A flaw in the design?”
“They recalled the vans. They were able to fix the problem but they didn’t want to deal with further liability so they bought all the vans back and destroyed them.”
“Crushed them to pieces—except this one”
Paul walks to the garage where a couple more cars sit.
“Check this one out, Tony”
It is a dark colored car, a 4 door. Looks a bit like the one I rode in to my best friend’s father’s funeral.
“It’s a Ford, a German Ford” Paul says. “They make American cars in Europe but they’re better. The companies figure that the people in America don’t know anything about cars but people in Europe–they know about cars”. Paul opens the backdoor.
“Take a seat”
I sit. The interior is dark leather, like a finely furnished home. Paul points to a set of buttons.
“The seats recline all the way back”
I looked about the car’s interior. It is elegant in the way that wine glasses are elegant. I slowly sunk backward into a fully reclined position. If a woman were to give birth, this would be a befitting place for it. I looked at a light in the car’s ceiling. I make out the dim luminance of the late afternoon sky.
“It’s got a sun roof” i say.
“Moon roof” Paul answers as my eyes linger on a slice of sky.
We walk to Paul’s house, a short distance from his stable of automotive excellence. All around are the contents of his life–prepackaged apple slices, donuts, cinnamon rolls, car parts and accessories, pill bottles, bills etc. I come upon a quote, words tacked to a door attributed to Miles Davis: Do not fear mistakes, there are none. I head to the bathroom. I walk through a room where perhaps one hundred issues of Car and Driver, Sports car, Road and Track, Buyer’s Guide, Motor Trend, Car and Stereo Review and other magazines sit in a rack. I gaze at the magazines, so many. So many makes of vehicles he has chosen. So many things that make each unique: Their engineering successes, shortcomings. If i need to know anything about cars, just ask me, Paul says.
Paul hangs upside down on a contraption that aligns his back. His back has been the source of pain. The contraption is one in which you lay flat on a board that is connected to metal and springs allowing you to lie upwards as if doing a headstand. Paul explains that the position allows the discs and vertebrae to align properly; that there is fluid between the discs and if you lose fluid it causes intense pain. He tells me he takes oxycodone for the pain but that people with substance about issues are getting a hold of it, causing what is known as the opioid crisis; causing non-addicts such as him difficulty in securing the medication.
“Don’t penalize me for what those addicts are doing” Paul says, looking upwards while his back realigns. “I just felt something pop into place” he says, snapping back to an upward position.
“You know, when i was taking care of my mother, I’d have to carry her to bed, to go to the bathroom. Sometimes I didn’t lift her correctly, you know, bending your knees first. It’s like carrying dead weight. And I remember his mother’s voice, soothing, with a slight drawl; Well, I declare. And the sky darkens above Paul’s house on 5 acres with a sweet landlady next door who likes the president. And I can hear Paul ask: Why? I look up at the light as it makes its way through the moon roof.
(c) Tony Robles 2019