StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Three)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on November 2, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013

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Third chapter from the novel I’ve been working on

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

CHAPTER THREE:

QUELL

In his second (and final) semester at Reginald Hill Bible College, Simon had met a girl named Belinda. Or, rather, Belinda was a woman, a woman of the world, up to ten years older than all the other co-eds. In San Francisco, she had worked days as a barista at the Daily Grind on Castro Street and nights as a sales associate at the Manly Pointer sex shop in the Tenderloin. She had been a bartender in New Orleans’s French Quarter, a Mumblecore actress in three indies in Austin and a lounge singer/cocktail waitress at Search & Distill, a speakeasy-themed tavern in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta. She had dropped out of school after school after school, from one coast to the other, until she had decided on her own that she needed to settle down and finish up a degree anywhere that would accept her surfeit of transcripts. So, being out of funds, Belinda had moved back in with her mother in Whimbrel Creek, the next town over from Wizard’s Stone, and matriculated into Reginald Hill.

Founded in 1979 by its region-famous Southern Baptist namesake, Reginald Hill Bible College prides itself on being one building, three floors and no frills. Austerity is the name of the game at this Christian commuter college. The outside is beige bricks; the hallway and classrooms are all white walls, no pictures, and black metal chair desks; the chapel is all cedar walls with knotty-pine pews, a three-step pine altar and a mahogany Communion table; the ladies rooms don’t contain a single tampon dispenser. A cross stands above a steeple merely to announce the building, which in its simplicity stands as a living testament to how the only grandeur is that of God and, by extension, he who once bore the name on the sign out front, the late Reginald Hill. The sign faces the aptly named Hill Street, formerly Piedmont Street, renamed by the town of Whimbrel Creek in 1990, upon Hill’s passing. The student body numbers at a maximum of 400 students annually, with a current graduation rate of 82 percent, and Reginald Hill ranks 131 among Bible colleges nationwide, according to Christian Nation Magazine’s Top 150.

The contrast between Belinda and the sweet-cheeked, wide-eyed underclassmen in this institution couldn’t have been starker: Belinda strutting into lectures with black nail polish, black sleeveless t-shirts, septum and lips rings, Himalayan demon tattoos, fishnet stockings and rows of sterling silver hoops, running from the topmost cartilage to the lobes of her ears. Her hair was down to her mid-back, dyed jet black, at times with streaks of fuchsia, and shaved to the scalp on the sides and back. She chomped gum during mandatory Bible study groups and smoked on campus, racking up violations and remonstrations that she’d just go right on smacking gum and blowing smoke at.

The common areas hissed with whispers about how, being one of those kooky-spooky girls, Belinda must go home after class and practice witchcraft, all the while flouting the school’s injunctions against dancing or listening to bands that didn’t make the college board’s List of Approved Music. And they were right, though the hardest she ever went with witchcraft was to work with an Aleister Crowley tarot deck and a Wiccan protection circle, which seemed to do the trick since nobody, not even the wickedest trash in the trailers at the end of her street, dared mess with her. Her immunity within the trailer-park community, however, might have had more to do with how she always paid cash on the barrelhead, nothing on account, whenever she bought weed from its main dealer.

Why Belinda had been admitted to Reginald Hill was no mystery: they needed all the warm bodies they could get and offered financial aid to good essayists, without even so much as an in-person screening, a policy they revised in an emergency meeting the day after Belinda first set foot on campus. For the essay portion of her application, Belinda had dashed off ten pages about the profanation of the sacred in Anne Rice (shrewdly omitting sex scenes), which she’d meant as praise for the author, but which the board took as excellent writing and a lurid exposé of Catholic hoodoo. They had welcomed her sight unseen, saying she would set a fine example and, with the right training, make a fine envoy of Christ. She didn’t even have to list her church-service experience to pass muster, unlike every other applicant—and, if it had been the kind of hard-and-fast requirement for admission they’d tried to make it out to be, she never would have gotten in, what with Anne Rice being the closest thing to religion Belinda had ever had in her life. Once in the door, of course, no one could figure out why anyone had let Belinda within 100 miles of the building, much less allowed her to sit in class. And with each second that ticked by at Reginald Hill, no one thought Belinda crazier for coming back to Whimbrel Creek than Belinda herself—except maybe her mother Hilda.

When any other parent in and around Whimbrel Creek said to their offspring, “Get out and stay out!,” it was by way of eviction, but when Belinda’s mother Hilda said it, she meant it in the hopes that her daughter would go out and do what Hilda herself had never gotten her own act together to do, namely to leave their part of Georgia behind as one would a bad dream on a sunny day. It’s not that the option of leaving had never been open to Hilda. She was a dental hygienist, a profession in demand in every town on earth. All five of her children, whom she’d had by three different men, were grown up and gone (at least they all had been until Belinda dropped back in to finish up school), so there was nothing tying Hilda down. But relocating to another small town would be nothing more than a lateral move and a big city is too big a leap, however tempting, so Hilda bided her time waiting for a sign. A sign, like every bozo she’d ever brought home wasn’t sign enough to get the hell out of Whimbrel Creek; like Belinda’s own father, who’d run off to Florida with the Diddy Donuts counter girl, hadn’t been sign enough to sell their ticky-tacky house and start a new life. Thing was, Hilda had had the same group of girlfriends since high school who’d stayed native and whom she never could stand up to, and they would take her out to bars not even a full day after yet another one of Hilda’s romances had gone south (or west to Texas or east to Florida) and fix her up with any takers in sight, and it seemed like, every time, there was another loser lined up to sweep Hilda away and then move into her house six months later, only to be out on his ear within a year, either on account of another woman or the need to jump bail or an immutable lack of ambition to get a job.

It had gotten to the point where Belinda had stopped bothering to ask the newest guy’s name whenever she’d call home from whatever city she’d found herself living in. But Hilda never stopped asking her daughter what she’d been up to, who she’s seeing, where she’s thinking of maybe moving next (just don’t let it be here, don’t be dumb like mama, stay out before you’re too old to go anywhere’s else anymore). Not once did she mind Belinda’s vampire getups, though she always did say she’d take her own Ann Murray and Elvis any day over her daughter’s scary-dairy music, which she always had to special-buy online or all the way out at some wacky record store in Atlanta. The clothes might be a little slutty, but long as she turned down lowlifes-with-no-lives and used protection and quit having those abortions she’d always been so down on herself for having, Hilda considered Belinda welcome to all the fun and frolics she wanted. Hilda only wished she herself were brave enough to appear so outré, maybe then she’d meet someone truly different—maybe even someone, ha!, as different as her daughter, if that were possible—to pull her out of her Whimbrel Creek wallow. But she acknowledged she was an old cougar now and she liked Ann Murray and Elvis, so she knew she couldn’t pull off Belinda’s look, though she admired the guts it took in a town like this.

But the Bible college? Oh, Belinda! What the hell were you thinking? Why not cosmetology school? Belinda never could stomach the thought of doing Georgia up-dos for the rest of her life, so she said no, and you meet too many gross guys doing tattoos and piercings, so she nixed that career option too. She said she needed a degree, any degree, and she could take it from there. Hilda said, well, just don’t let them Holy Guacamole types hypnotize you into giving up on who you are so you can start preaching door to door for them, or go screaming scripture verses on street corners, and I hope you can come out of there as something more than a Holy Guacamole yourself and keep an eye on those loans too so they don’t drive you so far in debt you’ll never afford anything worth wearing again.

Yet, recalcitrant though she seemed, Belinda was at least kind of committed to making the best of what she could tell from the gate would be a bad situation. She felt sure there’d be freaks at Reginald Hill to hang with, the good kind, the kind who end up in Bible colleges when there’s nowhere else that will take them because they fucked up by partying too hard or slacking off too much in high school and have to get their grades up so they can transfer to someplace semi-decent, where they can party harder and slack off some more. She’d come to know the kind well in all the time she’d spent kicking around the country.

Her first exposure to them was at University of Georgia, where she’d gone on a full scholarship to the Grady College of Journalism and Communications, and these were hardcore freaks, the kind who blasted Dead Kennedys from ghetto blasters and free-styled on skateboards after taking fistfuls of acid and who dyed their hair green and even leopard-spotted the bleached-out parts. A few were radical queers too—one was an estranged Mohican son of a preacher man, who was paying a lot of his way through law school by moonlighting as a rent boy for a prominent member of the Athens-Clarke County Chamber of Commerce, a Republican with a rubber fetish; another two were the brassiest spike dykes Belinda would ever come to love and fear. They out-freaked all the art-school goons who swanned around campus with their clove cigarettes, Goodwill rags and European airs. The best day of Belinda’s life was when she and the transfer freaks from the Bible colleges went up to the lab on the third floor of the Natural Sciences Building and made water balloons out of condoms and dropped them on the art students as they smoked and talked on the quad, all sophisticated and philosophical-looking. They bombed a whole circle of them! And those artistes looked around, agog and bedraggled, and went screaming to the R.A.’s in their dorms, putting the blame on the frat boys, who got some kind of warning from up top. Man oh man, those were good times! She’d even dropped out that year to go to San Francisco with the spike dykes and a few other stragglers, which led to the vagabond lifestyle Hilda so envied in her daughter. And Belinda didn’t think she’d have to look too hard to find a new pack of freaks at Reginald Hill, ones who’d help make Christian hell just a little more like heathen purgatory.

Turned out, though, Reginald Hill wasn’t what she was looking for when she went looking for freaks. There were none like the ones who’d transferred to U of G-Athens, not even a pretty obvious softball dyke, which at least would have been something. Everyone looked and acted squeaky clean and was bent on being a preacher or a missionary.

That’s what Simon had thought he’d be, a missionary. That way he could see the world. He even said as much on the first day of his New Testament survey class, which Belinda also happened to be in. Reverend Holmes went around the room asking why the students wanted to pursue the ministry. Most people said the right things, even if they didn’t mean them: they wanted to spread the Word of God, they wanted be a handmaiden of Christ’s love, there was a lot of my daddy is a minister and I want to follow in his footsteps even though I fear my feet aren’t big enough to fill his shoes. They hadn’t gotten to Belinda, but by the time the question had come round to Simon, he said, “I want to be a missionary.”

Reverend Holmes said, “Why?”

Simon looked to the ceiling and thought it over, “So I can see the world.”

Everyone looked askance at him, and so did Belinda, albeit for different reasons. When the rest looked at Simon screwy, it was because he hadn’t even tried to sound like he had a calling, which it’s an unspoken rule you’re supposed to do with every teacher at Reginald Hill, not just with Reverend Holmes. To them, it sounded akin to a heart surgeon saying he’s only in it for the hot cars and big houses the profession buys him, and, if he is, well, more power to him, but he should know better than to say it aloud. What surprised Belinda, though, was that someone from the area actually wanted to see the world. She continued sizing up Simon as he sat in the hot seat.

Reverend Holmes took off his glasses, “Your name?”

“Simon Minshew.”

“That’s right,” Reverend Holmes addressed the class, “We have here Simon Minshew. And, unless you’re not from around here, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Reverend Menard Jake Minshew.” Most of the class nodded their admiration. Reverend Holmes went on, “Reverend Minshew has been a beacon of the Lord’s faith, hope and charity throughout the community for more than 40 years. I know he has been no less than a mentor and an inspiration to me. And yet here sits his own flesh and blood (if Reverend Holmes had known the whole story, he’d have thought twice about that flesh-and-blood crack), and do you hear him talking about his daddy’s big shoes? No, no. He’s saying he’d rather traaaa-vel. Now, Simon, you want to try that again? Maybe step it up? Say something more high-minded?”

Simon looked quizzical, “You mean, you’d like me to start talking about my daddy’s shoes?”

Even the holiest members of the class cracked up, as did Belinda who thought maybe there’s hope of finding someone she could work with here. Reverend Holmes whipped around, “God does not abide hecklers, Simon Minshew, and neither do I. Out of respect for your father, I’ll let it slide this once. But don’t any of you all think you can get so much as one strike with me. Simon over here has used up the only free pass I ever have or ever will give any student. Oh, and Simon, some advice: you might want to look into getting a haircut for next time. It’s past your ears and you’re not a woman.” Simon pulled his lips between his teeth and nodded. (Menard had been too busy with the Christmas season at Calvary to monitor this infraction, but on New Year’s Day, he threatened to take a scissors to Simon if he didn’t get to the barber, so Simon was now doubly aware he was overdue for a trim.) Reverend Holmes quit asking for the rest of the students’ vocational objectives and turned to go back to his podium to start his first lecture of the term.

That’s when Belinda piped up, “I think he should grow it out.”

The class gasped and Reverend Holmes bared his eye-teeth, little knowing where to start with the one-woman freak show in row two, “Little lady, when I saw you at the start of class, I’d made up my mind to have a word with you later, in private. But since you’re being so bold, so will I be. Let’s, let’s just say on the matter of Mr. Minshew’s hair, I think I’m a better source of counsel than you. And you might want to do something about that doomsday garb you got on. Oh, and that head that looks like it was marauded by a tar bucket and a lawnmower.” Hardly a soul in class hadn’t been hungering for a chance to ridicule Belinda’s appearance, and they laughed in gratitude to Reverend Holmes for slinging the first barb.

But Belinda smiled and intoned, “Sir, there’s a whole field of mullet haircuts right before your eyes. But you’re saying Simon and I are the ones who should go do something about our looks? With all due respect, Reverend Holmes, I wouldn’t trust your counsel. Nor should Simon. At least he keeps his hair all one length. Just like Jesus. If you’re too blind to see how many hairstyles in this room are worse than ours, then how can any of us trust you to so much as find the right scripture passage?” Simon turned his head, ostrich-like, toward his desk, lest he be associated with the goon speaking in his defense.

Reverend Holmes grasped for the first cudgel that came to mind, “Well, vanitas vanitatum, little lady!”

“I take that as a compliment,” replied Belinda. Reverend Holmes was never in any mood for a sparring partner, much less one who actually caught his rarefied references, which Belinda had learned from reading Goethe, Thackeray, Anne Bronte and Anne Rice—not Ecclesiastes.

“Well, it’s not a compliment!” Holmes railed, “And you and I will be talking this over with the dean.” Everyone in class was too stunned to pull a smirk—it was well known that being called on the carpet in the dean’s office (well, there was no carpet, just a few sticks of furniture and a gray tile floor) was only a step down from Judgment Day. Belinda conceded to holding her tongue for the rest of the period but also played the classic head game of staring down Reverend Holmes the whole time, never for a second letting her eyes leave his, except for once when she couldn’t help but roll hers (and he saw it) as Holmes droned on about how Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?,” when Mary tells him there is no wine (a beverage forbidden to Reginald Hill students anyway) at the Wedding of Cana. However, by the end of the hour, Reverend Holmes had decided Belinda would be too much of a handful to wrangle into the dean’s office without the aid of some other faculty and maybe a couple men in white coats, so he let Belinda off with a warning, a favor that earlier he’d professed he’d never do for anyone but, on that first day alone, had done for both Simon and Belinda.

And so, after receiving Holmes’s warning without even the yes-sir that Reverend Holmes had demanded, Belinda glided down the halls, past the stares and whispers of her younger classmates huddled outside the classroom. Belinda walked out of the building to the parking lot where she spotted Simon, who was parked one spot over from her black Mustang. “Hey!” she greeted him. He fidgeted and gave a lickety-split smile before taking out his keys. “Sorry if I made you look bad,” she told him. Simon raised his shoulders, “Naw, you didn’t. If anything, I made myself look bad. And maybe my dad, but…”

She looked him up and down. Did she have a shot at getting laid? She’d been back in town a whole two weeks and nada, unless you count the spindly Thorgasm from Manly Pointer she’d stashed away in her nightstand drawer and also suspected her mother of taking out and using. But as she honed in on the little curlicue that had touched up at the side of Simon’s quivering lips, it struck her that she was looking at a dead end as far as all that goes. He seemed too much like the newbies she used to know back in the Castro, a certain dourness that couldn’t but explode into a thousand flames when exposed to the right catalysts. At this moment, all those boys came into full relief in her mind and she knew to the steel toes of her boots that even those ingénues were two steps ahead of where Simon was now. Her eyes beamed for the first time in a fortnight. Even better than the Thorgasm or getting her itch scratched old-school, she had found her freak.

Belinda asked Simon back to her mom’s place. Simon blanched, “I have to go to work,” and got in the 1988 Nissan Sentra that his Aunt Gloria had offloaded on to him six months earlier. Without even saying goodbye or nice to meet you, he backed out and tore out as quickly as he could, without violating the 10-mile-an-hour school zone sign that the township of Whimbrel Creek had posted on Hill Street, at the behest of the school, which otherwise preferred to keep municipal, state, and federal governments at rifle-barrel’s length. Belinda hopped into her seen-better-days Mustang and tailgated Simon all the way up to his job at Desiree’s Diner, off I-85.

That’s where it all got started—at Desiree’s. Nondescript as a highway-side diner, festooned with strips of hot pink and neon blue lights racing each other, might seem, it was the closest thing to Times Square going in these parts. People from more colors and cultures than normally would be seen in the region dropped in on account of the $9.99 Blue Plate Special advertised daily on the marquee and the Chevron station across the parking lot. Simon considered himself lucky to bus tables and wash dishes at Desiree’s, especially due to the contrast it made to home and school. He’d even broken the ninth commandment (thou shalt not lie) and the fifth (honor thy parents) when he told his mom that Desiree’s is so wholesome, they play Appalachian gospel tunes in the kitchen where he did all his soapy scutwork, and she passed this news on with an effulgent smile to Menard, who’d shared concerns over the kinds of walks of life he’d seen coming in and out of the diner on his drives up I-85. “Hope he doesn’t come back home one day with a trucker mouth,” Menard once admonished on his way to write a sermon in his study, “But no worries about him ending up with any of them loose ladies at the counter.” And, as he walked away, Simon’s mother scowled at the affront and (what she viewed as) imputation. Simon knew it wouldn’t have gone over well if he’d given her the real skinny about how even black people come into Desiree’s or that the other kitchen staff is either ex-cons or undocumented Mexicans or that the scullery soundtrack is mostly Mariachi, gangsta rap, and good ole shit-kick country.

And Menard was right about the truckers. They talked Jesus and pussy in the same breath, and with unequal fervor. The Talk Radio listeners among them often took to prating back what they’d heard from headline carny-barkers about threats to the second amendment, the imminence of Sharia Law, the necessity of preemptive strikes on Iran and Iraq and bills on the senate floor favoring freeloaders and illegals. More often than not, Simon rushed like the wind when picking up dirty dishes from Desiree’s tables and counters, lest he learn to take on the truckers’ tongues and notions. For him, four-letter words were the least offensive aspect of their discourse. In fact, he’d taken to using some curses himself, but on the sly, jawing with the illegals and formerly convicted in the kitchen: “Clean them forks and knives up goddamn good.”

Ever since she’d first tailed Simon, Desiree’s truckers were forced to welcome a new unwelcome element in the form of Belinda. They called her Resident Evil. For two months, she would camp out in the back booth with a bottomless cup of coffee, reading everything from Clive Barker to Nietzche to Rimbaud and Baudelaire—everything, that is, but the Bible, which didn’t stand her well at her new Bible college, but she didn’t care. The only reason she was even going to class anymore was to see Simon. It turned out Hilda was right. It was a bad move going to Reginald Hill and what she needed was yet another move, preferably cross-country, and already she was online every day putting out feelers to the hosts of friends she’d made along the way. In her first month in school, she’d already had three disciplinary hearings about her clothes and hair and backtalk and smoking, the last of which the student life administrator, Mrs. Hubble, called “the devil’s gateway practice” until Belinda reminded her that Senator Jesse Helms used to grandstand for Big Tobacco in North Carolina and all Mrs. Hubble could do was repudiate the hellion’s invocation of an all but sacred name.

Simon usually had downtime between five and six at night at Desiree’s and, two nights a week, he would work the late shift and Belinda would come and hang out at her usual table until all hours. As fate would have it, Desiree the owner was also Hilda’s best friend, so she didn’t mind Belinda staying forever and a day, just as long as it wasn’t too busy. And Desiree would tell off any trucker who made a remark about the wraith in the back booth—not that Belinda gave a rip what those knuckle-draggers thought of her and not that she could even hear them most of the time since she always had her headphones on with something like Einstürzende Neubauten blasting from them.

Yet Belinda was no all-day loiterer. She had work and school, at least for a while. Her first week back in the area, she had landed a part-time job stacking books at the Trueville Public Library. The head librarian was the kind of small-town anomaly who insisted on a culturally diverse collection and stuck up for banned books like The Anarchist’s Cookbook, but also asked Belinda if she wouldn’t mind staying in the stacks, out of plain view, if she insisted on dressing the way she does. And Belinda was happy to oblige since she stacked books faster than a possum plays dead, leaving her ample time at work to engage in a pleasure that was better than Acapulco Gold, better than the Thorgasm and almost as good as a prophylactic water-balloon raid—the pleasure of reading. She had always been one of those rare people who never even found hard books hard and who read so much that, for a time, she even had visions of being a comparative literature professor, that is, until she stopped joshing herself about having that kind of discipline. Plus, these days, she had to rely on books to take her away until she could take herself away, now that she was back.

Belinda always came to Desiree’s with the best books from the Trueville Library. In fact, she was the one who’d passed on to Simon one of her all-time favorites, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Simon knew something about existentialism. He knew who Sartre was. His parents might not have had Internet access and they did not allow non-Christian books or TV programs in the house, but he still managed to discover who the preeminent atheist philosopher of Twentieth Century France was. Once, while he and Belinda sat drinking coffee at Desiree’s, looking out the window over to the mountains on the other side of I-85, Simon had told Belinda that Sartre was one of those thinkers who just kind of snuck up on him in high school after he had caught a glimpse of a PBS special at a classmate’s house. He noted the name and, without his parent’s knowledge, did web research. The town library’s Internet system had a porn firewall but no philosophy firewall, so Simon was able to look into who Sartre and his influences were and how one could even get through life in a foxhole without recourse to religion. Now, given Simon’s fundamentalist indoctrination and unwillingness to insurrect, he never dreamed he would find as much freedom as Sartre had found, but any approximation of freedom is better than none at all, so he kept reading him. He even read some of his dry-as-dust epistemological essays. So, when Belinda put The Second Sex into Simon’s hands and said, “Beauvoir was Sartre’s lover, I like her even better than Sartre,” Simon brushed aside his Bible studies and went at The Second Sex like gangbusters.

Unlike Belinda, Simon was someone who found reading difficult. He couldn’t count the number of novels he had picked up, put down after a couple chapters and never picked up again, even while hoping to be a writer himself some day since enough teachers had told him his papers were well-written. And Sartre’s epistemological essays had been murder for Simon to read; he needed a dictionary for half the words, and Wizard Stone K-12 had done nothing to prepare him for that or any other book, even an easy one. Yet something kept telling him to keep reading, keep reading. And as he applied himself more, he found he could at least understand some of Sartre’s fiction and even a couple of his plays, which he had asked the local librarian to order from some obscure drama publisher in New York, and which she did with gratitude for the fact that at least someone around town was reading.

But as he lay in bed with his nightlight on or sat on an upside-down plastic crate behind Desiree’s kitchen, delving into Beauvoir’s hefty tome, Simon could see why Belinda liked Beauvoir so much better than Sartre. The more he read, the more he liked Beauvoir better too. The writing was like whitewater blasting through every bulwark of his mind. In discussing how women have been viewed and treated from the dawn of civilization, Beauvoir had marshaled a stunning amount scholarship in philosophy, world literature, psychology, religion, anthropology, biology, coming at her subject from every conceivable intellectual angle. The writing was brisk, the words accessible, the arguments so massive and complex, with semicolons outnumbering periods at least ten-to-one per page. True, a lot of Beauvoir’s assertions went over Simon’s head but they never ceased to awe, and he wanted to study all that Beauvoir had studied and break out of Wizard’s Stone and make the level of impression that Beauvoir had made, though he doubted he had the brains and knew that Reginald Hill wasn’t known for churning out great minds. But Beauvoir had a big case to make and as Simon kept reading, he saw his own mother, at the one end of the female spectrum, all balled up with Stockholm syndrome, and Belinda, at the other, defying all social doctrines.

Simon became convinced that, when he sat with Belinda at Desiree’s, he was sitting with Georgia’s own Simone de Beauvoir. She sounded so smart whenever she talked philosophy. He thought she would make a great teacher—shame that, as a student, she couldn’t stick with a school. True, in most of their tête-à-têtes, Belinda would do her best to turn Simon red with stories about fisting incidents in San Francisco sex clubs or about how the streets of New Orleans smell like semen for weeks after Mardi Gras, but then she would go and say something like, “Do you notice how Beauvoir doesn’t come at Freud with any sort of knee-jerk feminist rant against penis envy? No, she performs a thorough analysis of his treatises and contends that, if Freud is going to posit a philosophy, then he’d better be ready to defend it on philosophic grounds, rather than simply decree his own irrefutable authority.” Simon had no idea what she had just said, but he wished he knew how to say stuff like that.

Then there was the night Belinda saw that Simon was halfway through the book. And that’s when she said: “It’s not just about women, Simon. It’s about all modalities of subjugation, subjugation of the ‘other.’ Let me ask you, as you read this, do you see the subtle ways in which people like you are subjugated?” He didn’t ask what subjugation is. He could tell by the tone of her voice that it means something like oppression. But he did ask, “What do you mean people like me?” But Belinda didn’t need to spell it out. She only had to hone in with one of her stares. Unlike others rounded up in the witch-hunts at Wizard’s Stone K-12, Simon had been able to duck the searchlight all these years, but Belinda had found him naked, even as he sat in the booth in his white work uniform. Simon said, “Well, I…was…reading in, in…in the intro, how, how she got the, you know, the…the title for the book. A friend of hers, another philosopher, in, in, in Paris, he, he came over and he, he said that…” Simon looked down and breathed. He could hear his own breath. And over own his breath, he could hear the ticking of the neon diner clock, six feet above his head. And over the neon diner clock, he could hear something by Garth Brooks, sounding from the speakers. And for a while, he just sat there listening to his breath until it was all he could hear. Belinda’s stare came in again and Simon continued, “Her friend said that people like, like me…are…the third sex. So, that’s how she came to call it The Second Sex.” Belinda let the air settle and then came around to Simon’s side of the booth. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his neck. She said, “Not to worry, Simon. I know people who are already on their fifth sex.” Simon smiled and thanked the Lord, the same Lord that Sartre and Beauvoir and Belinda didn’t believe in, that another customer up front had paid and left and it was time for him to get up and go bus another table.

By the time Simon finished reading the book, two weeks later, Reginald Hill had finally expelled Belinda. By now, her infractions were so numerous, there was no explanation necessary on the part of the faculty and administration. Nevertheless, the dean had her sit in the middle of his office while he circumambulated her chair. He had rehearsed a twenty-minute lecture about the Expulsion from the Garden, expulsion from Reginald Hill, and the never-ending descent into hell that results from both, but he did not even get past the point of blaming the fall of man on Eve before Belinda rose up, spit in his face and left him in as bad a shock as Adam under the Cherub’s sword. The dean wiped the slimy loog away like it was boiling semen straight out of the Whore of Babylon’s maw.

The next night, Belinda dropped by Desiree’s to gloat, “You should’ve seen that holy-rolling fuckface! If only I went for the nuts, man. Yeah, maybe I’ll go back and go for his scrotes.” Simon thought maybe he’d hitched his wagon to a devil star if Belinda was so bent on going back for the nuts. Still, he chuckled, albeit with a tinge of sadness that Belinda would not be in school with him anymore.

Simon had never known what it was to have a close friend. He’d had almost all the same classmates most years at Wizard’s Stone K-12 but no real friends. Menard Minshew was too imposing a patriarch and his mother too warped a minion for him to want to bring anyone home, and both of them always wanted to know what he was doing and who he was doing it with, lest he be doing even the tiniest thing to stray from the ways of righteousness, so he rarely did anything with anyone and just stayed in his room and wandered around in his own head. Joining a sports team would have been one way out of this stalemate, if Simon had had any inclination for sports and if his high school had offered anything more than football or baseball. Menard Minshew would have stood the tallest under the klieg lights of every Friday night game, provided Simon had made first string, but Simon did not make any string of either team and Menard took every potshot at him he could for it, especially when bringing up how front-linesmen Tommy Sandage and Bob Jenkins were not only MVPs but model boys. He constantly goaded Simon’s three younger brothers into laughing at him for being a weakling, which being young, they did with glee, and Menard also said Simon would catch hell if he hit them or told them to shut up for it, so instead Simon learned to look down and raise neither hand nor voice to them, which turned out to be a good policy since his brother Ezekiel (Key, for short), two years Simon’s junior, did grow up to be a first-string front-linesman, twice Simon’s size.

Further isolating Simon was the reality that Menard had damned too many people, both from the pulpit and on the main drag, for anyone to believe that the apple could have fallen far enough from the tree. And Simon walked around so hunched and mopey under the scourge of all this that even those who held no brief with Menard weren’t lining up to be Simon’s friend. Daddy’s reputation might have preceded Simon in a good way at Reginald Hill—the one school his parents let him apply to, though they made him pay for what scholarships and grants did not cover, which was why he had to work so many hours at Desiree’s—but Simon had made such a practice of sticking to himself that he did not know how to approach even people who smiled at him at his new school.

And yet now here he’d found Belinda. In fact, she had sought him out. A bad seed, for sure, but he took what he could get and for the first time ever, felt his brain kicking into high gear, as well as someone literally putting their arms around him whenever she saw him, someone who was fine, ecstatic even, with knowing that hugs were about as far as he ever could go with her.

Simon did not know how he would endure the coming loneliness of Belinda being gone, but as it turned out, she would not let him endure it. Belinda became more a fixture than ever at Desiree’s, sitting in the back, crafting some kind of new plan for her future. Simon could tell Belinda had a lot more time on her hands now that she didn’t have school and was only working part-time. He thought she’d fill her spare time with reading, smoking, listening to patricide-matricide bands or maybe even venturing into writing disaffected essays that might later end up in some brainy anthology that would be such a call to arms, he could look back one day and say he knew her when. But her attention was too scattered for her to undertake much of any of those activities. Instead, she spent her idle time either ruminating at Desiree’s or, when she was at home, reconnecting with out-of-town friends online.

One night during this low point in her life, Simon sat down with Belinda on his dinner break when she whipped out a magazine, Euro Boy, right at the restaurant table. The cover showed a tan, frosty blond, callipygian ephebe—seventeen if he was a day—standing in the raw with his back to the camera, looking over his left shoulder with pouty lips, as the rest of his body faces an open window in a spare room that looks out over Prague Castle. Simon dropped his fork and pulled the magazine under the table. He looked around to see if any customer or coworker had seen it and, seeing none had, stared at Belinda, who fell back with laughter.

For some time now, she’d determined that she’d have to take drastic measures. On numberless occasions since his great confession, the grand inquisitor had asked Simon what boys he found cute. He couldn’t name one, which she could understand since she hadn’t seen anyone cute around either, so she went middlebrow and asked if any movie stars did it for him. She even would have taken George Clooney, mainstream though he might be, for an answer, but Simon didn’t go to movies, much like he didn’t know any music, not even what was on the Top 40, much less the underground stuff people like Belinda staked their identities on. So, she had to come up with something crafty and Euro Boy was it.

“So, what do you think?”

“Belinda,” he said blinking, “I’m at work.”

“Fine. Look at it later. But how ’bout that guy on the cover? You said you wanted to see the world, didn’t you?”

Simon slid Euro Boy inside the front of his pants and covered it with his work shirt. He did not take another sip of his milk or bite of his mashed potatoes and meatloaf and he did not speak to Belinda for the rest of the night either, though she stayed put for hours and he did not ask her to leave since that of course would have required speaking to her. Instead, he walked to the staff closet, slipped the porno into his backpack, and got back to work. Fortunately for him, a new rush of customers left Simon with enough table-clearing and dishwashing to do for him to work off a lot of his chagrin and aggression. When his shift was over, Belinda was still sitting where he left her, but he stormed out to his car and drove out to I-85 without so much as throwing a look Resident Evil’s way.

Simon thumbed through the magazine when he got back to his bedroom, though. He even laid back, put a towel that he kept under his mattress over his bare stomach and let Euro Boy’s various offerings from Czechoslovakia, Lichtenstein, Romania—and don’t forget that grape pickers’ orgy from Provence—help relieve him of what had for too long been backed up inside of him. It became an unholy rite night after night and he began to have a sense of what people were talking about when they said a trip around the world could help a man grow. Still, he didn’t speak to Belinda the next time she came looking for him at Desiree’s, and she didn’t make a scene, nor did she apologize. Instead, she had one cup of coffee, no refill, paid Desiree at the register, and never returned. Simon could feel the onslaught of regrets over the loss of his only friendship rising up, but he steeled himself with the rationalization that he had not lost a friend so much as gained a magazine, one which he kept secreted away in his backpack.

That is, until one night, when Simon came home to find Reverend Holmes sitting with Menard in the living room. Reverend Holmes had come by to deliver Simon’s Progress Report, a form that Reginald Hill only metes out to students failing a class and which requires a parent’s signature, a practice reviled in colleges that make a pretence of treating people in their late teens like adults in charge of their own lives. Normally, Reginald Hill teachers send these reports home with students or, in rare cases, directly to the parents by mail. However, Holmes had decided to go a step further and bring the report to Menard in person out of respect for how the venerable churchman would be bound to anguish over the news that his own son (stepson), once a student of promise, whom Holmes conceded “knows his Bible better than kids today know their video games,” had stopped turning in homework and even term papers, which Simon used to write with a spirited proficiency, as his teachers from the prior semester had confirmed for Holmes. He still got A’s on the multiple-choice sections of his New Testament exams, but in the essay sections, he’d begun loading his answers with subtle refutations of scripture (“The Four Evangelists present conflicting accounts of the Crucifixion”) and references to any number of atheistic philosophers (“Beware the man of a single book.” – Bertrand Russell).

During this sit-down talk, Holmes also had informed Menard, “Sir, Simon has not joined any extracurricular activities and he has fallen in with some strange company, specifically a dastardly little number named Belinda Quell, whom we recently expelled.” Holmes sighed and ran down Belinda’s entire profile and rap sheet. He added, “Some have reported seeing this Belinda pal around with your Simon at that diner he works at.” So, it seemed there was danger of Simon ending up with one of the loose women at Desiree’s after all.

The thing that sealed Simon’s fate, though, before he even put his key in the front door that night, was Holmes imparting to Menard: “Pastor, three times in a row now, Simon did not even bring his Bible to class.” This confounded Menard as much as it had confounded Reverend Holmes. Simon was always carrying a bagful of books and, at a Bible college, it only made sense that one of those books would be the Book of books. So, after Simon walked in, Menard ordered him to sit down and, without missing a beat, said to him in front of Reverend Holmes: “Bring out your Bible, Sorcerer. Open to Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Let’s talk about what it says to do with shirker sons.”

Simon said, “I’ll have to go get it from my room.”

Reverend Holmes said, “You had school today. Why isn’t it in your bag?”

“I forgot it.”

“Then what’s in your bag?” asked Menard.

“Other books,” Simon answered, drawing his bag between his legs.

Menard got up, grabbed the backpack and dumped its contents on the mousy-brown Stainmaster carpet. Over a heap of notebooks, pens, and religious textbooks that Simon might as well have left in his room with his Bible for how much he’d been cracking them open lately, The Second Sex and Euro Boy came spilling out in flagrante delicto. The pause that ensued over the frozen faces in the room was not unlike the one that arises between moments of laceration and hemorrhaging. Menard no sooner picked up the magazine than he let it drop like a handful of scalding water. As Menard seethed, Reverend Holmes collected the slick from right back off the ground and flipped to a centerfold of the Czech boy from the cover getting topped, dog-style, by a muscular, gay-for-pay brunette as night falls over the same daytime view of Prague castle that had appeared outside the window in the prequel photo. No sooner did Holmes cast Euro Boy down to the Stainmaster carpet, as though its acrylic threads were tongues of hellfire, than he kicked The Second Sex clear across the room, which led Simon to wonder if Holmes had heard of Beauvoir or if he just found the word sex unseemly, especially when emblazoned above the photo of a woman author on a Women’s-Lib book. He surmised that the answer was the latter but he did not have time to hash it out with himself as he looked up to find Menard storming at him from three paces away.

Not by a long shot was it the first time Menard had knocked Simon off a chair or punched him in the face. Not by a long shot was it the first time Menard had literally kicked Simon while he was down. It was the first time, however, that Simon fully understood the expression “seeing stars,” something he thought only happens to cartoon birdbrains when they get knocked out, yet here he was, witnessing a galaxy of stars exploding on to some invisible screen before his eyes, stars which began rotating in crazy patterns, so unlike the neat, orderly carousels of twinklers and tweeting birds that go around Loony Tunes characters’ heads after pianos or anvils fall on them. Menard wailed on Simon with pile-driver force, pounding on and kicking at him, as Simon either bruised or bled from his eye, nose, mouth, back, chest and stomach. It was as though, for this one moment alone, Menard had saved up all his contempt for all the things in life he had ever pronounced hateful. All the while, Reverend Holmes played backup at this bashing with an impromtu exorcism, where he read aloud from the Bible he always carried with him, flipping from Romans 1:18 to Leviticus 20:13 and all the way back up to 2 Timothy 3:1-5 as the mayhem crescendoed. Simon’s mother knew to stay in her room when these things transpired, so that’s where she stayed, crouched in a corner behind the door.

At one point, though, Menard had stumbled between stomach-kicks and Simon was able to grab his leg and throw him back so he hit the ground. This gave Simon’s bag of bones just time enough to grab the magazine, grab his keys and run like the hunted while Menard bolted to the back room to get his deer-hunting rifle, all to the shock and awe of Reverend Holmes, who now was making his first effort of the night to hold Menard back. Simon’s Nissan Sentra tore off to I-85 as Menard stood and cocked his rifle in the middle of the street. As Reverend Holmes pleaded with him to stop, to let God be the judge now that Menard had gotten some good licks in, Menard took Simon’s car’s rear window fully into his crosshairs, but, just as he was set to shoot, Simon had barreled down another street and was turning on to the highway ramp. Menard had to shoot something, though, so he turned the barrel up to the sky and pulled the trigger on the moon before turning back to the house, breathing in shallow gulps as though he were the one who had gotten the wind knocked out of him that night.

Simon had heard Menard’s shot from far away. He knew it had been Menard’s gun as surely as he felt every millimeter of his body howling and smarting with pain from Menard’s beatings. The shot resounded in his ears as he sped up I-85. It reminded him of a hodgepodge of stories he had heard as a child, ones meant to underscore the divide between man and beast, about families who raise a wild cub—a bear or a lion or a wolf—but eventually have to chase it back into the wild with a shotgun, no matter how much they love it. Not that Simon had any illusions about Menard loving him in the least, but maybe fate did, so it had sent Menard after him with firearms so Simon would be forced to move on to some new uncharted territory. But when he considered what Sartre might have to say about all this, all he could come up with was the aphorism: “Man is condemned to be free.” So, which was it now? Was he liberated when forced to run for his life from Menard’s house or was he confined to a wretched freedom, which might as well be hell, for the rest of his born days? Whatever the case may be, roaring up an interstate highway proved even less conducive to philosophical musings than being trapped in a room with two sanguinary preachers staring at a triple-X photo gallery. The only smart thing to do was run wild, run free, but where to?

The answer was easy: the only place left to run was to Belinda’s house. Although he had never been inside, he had picked her up and dropped her off a couple times when her Mustang had been in the shop with a broken taillight that the cops had kept pulling her over and ticketing her for, so he knew where she lived and how to get there. And if there were any such thing as fate, it knew how to drive its point right home: Simon’s old beater broke down for the tenth and final time, right at the Heavenly Grass trailer community, two streets down from where Belinda lived, and Simon was even able to pull it on to a patch of gravel and leave it for dead. He gave the 1988 Nissan a final bow and limped along to Belinda’s door, past a cacophony of ’70s southern rock, Harley engines and hillbilly carousing.

Simon expected that Belinda had found new friends since him and wasn’t home, but he would wait at her door for days if he had to, with his face and body throbbing and bloody. Now that it was past midnight, he didn’t want to ring the doorbell, but he didn’t own a cell phone yet and he didn’t know which bedroom window was hers to knock on, so he went ahead and rang the bell. A light went on in the hall and he was relieved to see Belinda’s figure coming his way through the square window. When she answered the door, she was wearing no makeup and a pink kimono that she had bought ages ago at a Burbon Street resale shop. She looked so pretty with high cheekbones, sky-blue eyes and soft skin, so why was she always walking around the outside world so grotesque-looking? But when she opened the door, she shrieked at the state of Simon’s face, making it clear that if anyone was looking grotesque, it was Simon.

She pulled Simon into the house and put his face in her hands as she assessed every bit of damage on it, every scar, cut and emerging bruise. Simon looked a few feet ahead to see Hilda standing in the hallway with the same expression as her daughter, albeit while wearing soup-can curlers and a red gingham housecoat. Belinda gave a quick introduction, “Mom, this is Simon, I’ve told you about him,” before she shot straight to the heart of the matter, “What happened?” Simon had heard enough about Hilda to know he could speak the truth in front of her. He reached into his back pocket and brandished Euro Boy. “He found it,” Simon said.

Belinda took Simon’s arm and brushed past her mother and the grandfather clock on the way to the kitchen, where she sat him down at the table, which Desiree had actually gifted her mother with when she had found she had ordered one too many tables for her grand opening, eighteen years prior. Hilda followed her daughter and Simon and stood in the doorway with her hand over her heart. Belinda began scooping coffee grinds into a filter, readying all assembled for the long night ahead, but Hilda could see Belinda was shaking so she took over the coffee-making while Belinda turned to Simon, breathing deeply with her eyes closed as she got her bearings.

Belinda walked over and manipulated Simon’s arms, legs, torso and hands to see if anything was broken. The only thing “off” was the look he gave her while she pulled on him, so she figured he was fine beyond the obvious contusions and gashes. After Simon gave a blow-by-blow account of what had gone down in his family’s living room, Hilda said her newest boyfriend would be home from a night out with the boys soon and she’d sic him on Menard but Belinda said, “Shut the fuck up, Mom,” and that put an end to Hilda’s silliness. The cops were even more of a no-go given the sway Menard held over Wizard’s Stone. Hell, they might even lock Simon up for hitting Menard’s fist with his face.

As Belinda and Hilda dabbed Simon’s face and upper body with rubbing alcohol, soap and water, and Neosporin, Simon asked, “Where’d you get the magazine?,” the same magazine that was splayed out on the kitchen table now, not even eliciting so much as an arched eyebrow from either of the mistresses of the house.

“From Robert O. I told him about you and he put it in the mail.”

“Who’s Roberto?”

“Robert O. Remember that for when you meet him. Call him Roberto, he’ll scratch your eyes out.”

Belinda had known Robert O from way back when she was slinging coffee on Castro Street. Born Roberto Gutierrez in a tin shack outside Laredo, Texas, Robert O had made a beeline for San Francisco almost as soon as he’d heard such a place existed. One or two times, he’d heard his papa’s day-laborer vatos make mention of it while they were all hanging around their work truck, saying they wouldn’t be caught muerto going up to that maricón town for a job, but as soon as Robert O saw some of them mincing around with limp wrists, throwing invisible feather boas, to denote the kind that swooshes around the City of Freedom, Robert O knew it was where he had to be. Flamboyant as a cancan dancer’s flashing petticoats, even as a niño pequeño on his dirt-road habitat, Robert O took his lumps at home, school, church and everywhere in between until he could get his high-school diploma and say adios forever. By the time Belinda met him, Robert O had been in the Bay Area for 13 years. He used to stop by the Daily Grand to see her, at least once a shift, for his usual triple skim latte. “Hey, Mortitia, honey!” he would say, leaning across the counter to kiss the cheek she always had offered up to him. Belinda’s style had not changed much since those days, but Robert O’s seemed to change with each new edition of GQ or Details that dropped on his doorstep. It was a good thing he had been such a sought-after stylist or he never would have been able to afford his mercurial wardrobe. In fact, even working more than sixty hours a week as head stylist and co-owner of his Affito Alto salon, with high-end clients who had to schedule three months in advance for him to sneak them in, he was still always living in the red. Normally, Belinda would have abhorred such a trend-sucker, but they shared the same yen for ecstasy, clubs and cock and recognized each other on sight as equally over-the-top. In fact, Robert O was the one who had hooked her up with her night job at the Manly Pointer when she was having trouble scraping by in the Mission District.

“What do you mean ‘when I meet him’?” asked Simon, “Is he coming over?”

Belinda turned to Hilda, “Mom, keep Simon company, k?” She unclipped her cell phone from her bra strap and left the room. It was a good fifteen minutes before Belinda came back and answered Simon’s question, “No, I just talked to him. You’re going with me to his place.”

“Now?” Simon asked.

“No,” Belinda said, “In a couple days. It’s cool, you can stay here till then.”

“Does he live around here?”

Belinda burst with laughter, “Reverend Holmes picked up Simon’s twink rag!” Hilda tried to ignore her daughter as she looked at Simon’s cuts and bruises with misericordia eyes, but soon her face also split with laughter at this non sequitur. The laughter grew and grew, now that they could take in with a fresher perspective the living-room scene that Simon had sketched out for them at the kitchen table.

A lone voice of gravity in the hubbub, Simon asked, “Well?”

Belinda caught her breath, “He lives in New York.” She and Hilda were doubled over now, in a giggling fit that hurt their guts.

Simon screamed, “New York!”

Both women were howling like witches now. Belinda fell to her knees, crying tears of laughter at her mother’s tears of laughter and at the thought of Reverend Holmes looking at those naked boys. Belinda looked up at Simon, eyes awash with hilarity, “He broke up with his b-b-b, bahahaha, he broke up with his boyfriend and moved there a few years ago.”

“From where? What? Who is—?”

Belinda got off the ground, “Never mind. Just find a time when no one’s home and grab whatever shit of yours you can.”

After a couple nights on Hilda’s red velveteen couch, Belinda drove Simon, still icing the bruises on his face, to his house so he could collect his personal effects, but they were already out on the front lawn in four Hefty bags that his mother had packed up herself. Simon ran up, grabbed two at random and bolted back to the car. He told Belinda to gun it, lest the next thing they’d hear would be another round from Menard’s rifle. Simon hoped one of those bags contained some changes of underwear. He and Belinda had five-thousand dollars of get-out-and-stay-out money, which Hilda had given them out of her life’s savings, but still Simon and Hilda would have to make it last all the way to New York and after they’d get there. Simon did not know whether to wave goodbye to Georgia on his way out, to its gargantuan mountains, forever fields and tumbling green hills. He did not know whether he would miss them or even what it meant to miss a place since he had never been anywhere but home. And even for all her time out in San Francisco, Belinda had no idea how quickly New York could go through whatever money you bring to it. Yet she had committed to staying in her next stamping ground this time, almost as much as Simon had to staying out of shooting distance of Wizard’s Stone.

To this day, Simon has the same issue of Euro Boy. Over eight years later, it would be one of the things he decided to pack in the one suitcase he took with him to France.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

 

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