In the mornings, Edwin walks down the Sixteenth Street Mall to Larimer Street and lingers in the natural skin-care shop on the corner. Around ten, ten-thirty the shop is filled up: people drink protein shakes at the juice bar while women push strollers, dropping bottles of calendula baby oil and boxes of echinacea tea bags into their shopping baskets. There are women who Edwin suspects are anorexic, the ones who stand in the vitamin aisle in leggings, scrutinizing labels.
Sometimes he catches himself staring at their hipbones or wrists and he grows ashamed. He would like to say something apologetic at these moments, or better yet supportive, but he is horribly shy and so never says anything.
Every weekday begins like this for Edwin, who is thirty-two years old and allergic to ragweed, cat dander and pistachios.
Before he has given up his book for the day, before church, or lunch with his mother-who has suffered short-to mid-term memory loss for nearly thirty years, the victim of a pesticide spraying in the early seventies when, driving through the Texas Panhandle, she was caught under a crop duster-Edwin stops by the skin-care shop. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are different because he sees Dr. Stan, his therapist provided by his father's life-insurance policy.
He and his mom have lived off this policy, along with some stock dividends, since Edwin's father was killed in the crash of United Airlines Flight 232. The plane went down in a cornfield in Sioux City, Iowa, back in July of 1989, killing 110 but, far more remarkably, sparing the lives of 186. Thursdays are just like Tuesdays mostly, except the third Tuesday of each month, when he goes to the YMCA at three for the O.F.F.A.F. meeting (Organization of Families and Friends of Airplane Fatalities, or Awful as he calls it).
Edwin begins his day at the skin-care shop because he is in love with the women who work there: they wear blue aprons, their skin exudes a glow of health, and their hair is buoyant and wavy, unlike his mother's brittle bun and his own thinned-out, prematurely gray strands. They're a fun group, the saleswomen. They laugh at each other, toss Power Bars back and forth and answer the phones with feigned gravity. Always, it seems, they're making plans for their next outing, or joking about something funny that happened on a picnic or hiking the weekend before.
Several months ago, on one of his more morose strolls through downtown Denver, Edwin glanced through the window of the shop facing Sixteenth Street and happened to see two of the employees standing by the cash register. He looked at them for some time, too shy to come in but too overwhelmed by their appearances to just walk away. The next day he saw two other shopkeepers, clearly different from the first two but also quite beautiful. Each day for the next three weeks he paused on his walk through Denver just a little closer to the door of the skin-care shop until finally, in an epiphanic moment on an overcast day in early October-his fellow pedestrians puttering by without any clue, looking over their shoulders for the mall shuttle-Edwin unlinked his hands, clasped to one another in the oversized pouch of his red poncho, and opened the front door.
He established a routine during his first foray into the skincare shop that day. Edwin always begins by wandering around the aisles in a very programmatic way, a way intended to suggest lackadaisical indifference but which-since Edwin is incapable of being either lackadaisical or indifferent-conveys instead some inscrutable form of premeditation, so that the people who see him on a regular basis usually shy away and make a concerted effort not to bump into him, which is difficult, as the aisles are very narrow-the store cramped and overflowing with products aimed at contributing to the good life-and Edwin's waist is quite large. Eventually, he makes it over to the shelf facing the front counter and, since it is Tuesday, places a bar of bee soap in the pouch of his poncho.
Wednesdays he takes oatmeal soap, Thursdays butter, Fridays white clay, Mondays glycerine. He then readjusts his poncho, sometimes tucking or retucking his plaid Abercrombie and Fitch shirt into his corduroys. He stands very still in front of the counter for a few minutes, too timid to look directly at the saleswomen so instead glancing furtively at the shelves of magazines that line the counter: Runner's World, Health & Fitness, Self. Then, very slowly, he makes his way to the door, pauses and walks outside.
In the scene he cannot help but re-imagine each day, one of the saleswomen darts after him into the street, calling out, “Hey! Hey!” and he stops, and the young woman points at his abdomen and says to him, “Hey! You didn't pay for that soap!” and Edwin looks at her, his eyes welling up with tears, and he smiles slightly, and the girl apologizes for her gruffness, laughs and then invites him to an upcoming party where the staff plans to share mud baths and homemade beer.
He doesn't think they notice him, the saleswomen, but they do. They call him soap guy. They dare each other to talk to him. Meanwhile, the bars have piled up in his medicine cabinet, on his dresser. “We do have a lot of soap,” has been added to the list of sentences his mother unveils anew each day, and Edwin has—with a touch of pained acquiescence— acknowledged himself to be one of those invisible kind of guys, the ones destined for neither marginal success nor stunning failure. “I feel as if my life trajectory is a flat line,” he said to Dr. Stan last week, “ending in an ellipsis.” Dr. Stan, by his own description a second-rate Jungian whose practice has been going down the toilet really since day one and is now sustained solely through insurance-company referrals, could only scribble a note and nod his head sadly, thinking to himself, It is true, the world is coated over with a certain melancholy, like pollen.
The soap jostling gently against his soft abdomen, Edwin turns down Larimer Street and heads over to the Market Cafe for a double latte with whole milk and extra foam. His favorite table in the corner taken by a nose-pierced couple splitting a plain bagel, Edwin takes off his backpack and sits just up the stairs from the coffee bar on the left, facing the enormous deli counter and cluttered racks of postcards. He unzips his backpack, removes one of his cloth notebooks, takes off his poncho and drapes it over the empty chair next to him.
They're playing Handel's Messiah; as usual, the cafe is filled with younger patrons: retail workers on break, students from Metro College studying and talking.
Edwin opens his notebook and takes out a pen. He is trying to write an allegory of Saint Francis's life that takes place in late twentieth-century America. The working title is Saint Francis in Flint. The book is to detail the rise of a union organizer in the Reagan era from assembly-line automaton to blue-collar redeemer. He is to receive the stigmata in the middle of bare-knuckle negotiations with Detroit automakers, in the process reviving the moribund American labor unions and spawning new consumer interest in brown robes and domestic cars.
As he traces the contours of the plot in his mind it is painful to admit that he has yet to write a single line of the book.
Part of the problem, he tells himself, is that he lacks a good work environment: home is too depressing, the public library— although beautifully redone a few years ago—is just a little too quiet, a little too serious. The Market Cafe could be ideal, but the tables are a touch high, at least in relationship to the chairs, and their near-Corinthian latticework makes it impossible to cross one's legs. But as he runs through these excuses, there resounds underneath them a refrain that reminds him that he will never, ever, write so much as a page of Saint Francis in Flint. He parts then re-parts his hair, sets his double latte first to the left of his notebook and then to the right and then to the left once more, opens, shuts and then opens the notebook again before creasing the immaculately white page and then creasing it again with the still unsheathed blue fountain pen that he so enjoys holding.
Listening now not to Handel's Messiah but rather to Bellini's Casta Diva, an aria that so often runs along in his brain, Edwin tries to think of what Saint Francis would have brought to a car plant for lunch. Instead, he cannot help but remark upon the awesome powers of the human brain, how it is able to do at the very least two things at once, and on a more hopeful note he considers, for example, how it provides background music-mostly Maria Callas arias sampled off one of his mother's old records-as he walks through the streets of Denver, at the same time that it imagines Saint Francis picketing or installing a car radio or washing his hands with green olive oil soap at the end of the workday.
Incapable of writing his book, Edwin instead scribbles notes in the expensive cloth notebooks he buys up the street at an art supply store, a store staffed by two old men with hearing aids, their voices scratchy from years of smoking. He has already filled three of these notebooks, mostly with illegible bits of phrases, photographs of cars clipped from the automotive section of The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News, chronologies of medieval church history, Francis's life, plant closings and what Edwin has termed-much to his satisfaction- “conversion” tables (for example: Pope Gregory IX= Lee Iacocca; Clare= Norma Rae; Count Orlando of Chiusi =Woody Guthrie; Brother Bernard of Quintavalle=Michael Moore).
It's not easy for Edwin to write anything, even conversion tables, especially in the spring. The last week has seen record high mold counts and Edwin doesn't want to mix his allergy medication with his antidepressants, so the choice is either to sniffle or kill himself. Whether it's because of a runny nose or severe depression, Edwin's case of writer's block appears to be incurable. Dr. Stan has tried to instill some optimism, suggesting that Edwin shouldn't be surprised that he's having problems, or give up hope quite yet, since he has never tried to write anything before. Even though he can't put pen to paper, when he's walking sometimes, at night, Maria Callas singing away, Edwin thinks of scenes for his book and they seem incredibly real. These are the best moments of the day, when he's shuffling along uneven sidewalks and the ideas are spilling out of him, although these times are also among the most painful, for of course the scenes he imagines will never be written, they will only be left, again and again, on the streets of Denver. If I could write as I walked, he used to think, then the book might actually become a reality.
Edwin looks down at the tiny indentations in the thick white paper of his notebook, the veins of glue dried along the spine. He holds his breath, then lets it out slowly. No, it's not happening today. He closes the notebook, reopens his backpack and pulls out the books he always takes with him on his morning walk: Thomas of Celano's biography of Saint Francis, John DeLorean's memoirs about General Motors, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis. A few heads are buried in books but for the most part people are looking around at each other as Edwin is doing, their eyes blank, their nails bitten off, their feet tapping from the caffeine.
He stares at nothing in particular, waiting for his watch alarm to sound. When it does he piles his books into his backpack, finishes his latte and leaves the cafe. Back on Larimer Street he waits a few minutes for the shuttle to take him up to Colfax. From there he walks four blocks west over to Saint Patrick's Cathedral for the noon mass. Just a few weeks ago, as Lent reached a feverish pitch, the twelve o'clock service was filled with worshippers, but of course they always disappear soon afterwards, and by late April only the regulars are back, scattered about the pews, keeping antisocial distar;ice from one another. Edwin settles into the side pew he likes the most, off on the left, eleven rows back from the altar.
He lowers the kneerest and makes the sign of the cross.
His head resting on the crook of his arm, Edwin prays for the soul of his father and the mental health of his mother.
He prays for the continued financial success of the skin care shop on the corner of Sixteenth and Larimer. And he concludes by praying for Francis's example of self-denial and modesty to work against the corrosive effects of the greedy, materialistic culture that swallows souls whole each day, depriving workers of appropriate health benefits and subjecting them to mindless drivel in the form of endless news magazines on TV and excessive coverage of sporting events ( excepting baseball, of which he is quite fond). Then he withdraws his rosary beads from his backpack and begins to whisper Hail Marys and Our Fathers, awaiting the beginning of mass.
Father Frank saunters out of the vestry with a perfunctory but decidedly relaxed air, which Edwin finds uniquely contrite, perhaps because it is so sincere, unlike the showy, august solemnity that marks Sunday masses, the only service of the week that Edwin must force himself to attend. Mass moves quickly: the readers don't bother over-enunciating and the homily is short and pointed. It is only when the parishioners offer their own prayers, something Father Frank permits during the weekly masses, that the service slows down considerably.
The five or six old ladies scattered throughout the first few pews cry out, first all at once but then in more restrained succession. “For my dying sister,” one says. “For my niece's sick baby,” another cries out. Two others offer only names: “Arthur!” Edwin will hear, then “Stanley!” He assumes they' re dead husbands. Another lady, more crumpled than the others, mumbles something incoherent. If the woman who wears the purple shawl is in attendance, which is pot the case today, there is usually some kind of political jab thrown in, such as, “For the derelict Philistines who make up our House of Representatives!” and Father Frank will wince as the congregation, haltingly, asks the Lord to hear that prayer (Hear £t, Edwin jokes to himself, but pay it no mind).
For his own part, he will, in a muffled voice sometimes, try to verbalize a prayer himself, saying something like, “For mother ... “ but his voice always trails off so no one ever hears him, at least no one all-human.
The Eucharist is prepared quickly, the congregation bustling through each of the required positions of genuflection as Father Frank barrels along. Edwin, drifting off, calls to mind that shadowy figure in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Simon of Cyrene, who helps Christ for a moment as he struggles with his cross before disappearing for good, and it is the role of this man-not Peter, certainly-that Edwin imagines himself playing: a brave man, even bold, but also inconspicuous.
He can picture Simon returning home that Good Friday, saying in response to his mother's concerned glance, “My God what a day! You wouldn't have believed it ... “ And then, perhaps just a short time later, Roman soldiers descend on their earthen house, root through their personal belongings, destroy their furniture, slaughter their cow, all because of Simon's meddling. And Edwin pictures Simon now kneeling before his mother, who wails at the sight of their wrecked home-a woman now destined to die poor, without a home or possessions, a beggar in Jerusalem-and Edwin pictures him crying out, trying hopelessly to convince her that he did the right thing, saying to her, “Really, mother, you would have helped too, if you had seen him, without even thinking about it.”
Not the words spoken by the priest and the congregation but these reveries choke up Edwin's throat. When the time to take Holy Communion arrives he watches the same five elderly ladies at the front of the cathedral jockey for poleposition and waits for their jostling to cease before following behind them to take the host and drink from the cup. The cupbearer, a gaunt, bearded man, intones, “The blood of Christ,” and Edwin meekly, his fingers never failing to tremSAINT FRANCIS IN FLINT 239 ble, holds the chalice, mouths the word “Amen,” and then takes a very modest sip of the blood-lest the cup be emptied out in the event that an unseen swarm of communicants have silently followed Edwin down the aisle.
At the conclusion of the service, as he leaves Saint Patrick's, he shakes Father Frank's hand-his favorite priest in the parish, a doting, kindly man, not like the young Jesuits who drop by occasionally, intent on flexing their spiritual muscles.
Father Frank smiles warmly at Edwin on the steps of the cathedral, just above the reclined bodies of two homeless men who have dozed off. Edwin dips his head slightly and gives a little wave goodbye-too self-conscious to raise his hand up by his shoulder and so instead waving sideways from the waist-before making his way down the steps to the busy sidewalk to wait on the street corner for the light to change.
When it does, he crosses over to the other side of the street, looks down Colfax to see if a bus is approaching, but seeing none and not in the mood to wait, he begins the ten-minute walk home for lunch.
As he walks he whistles softly to himself, Verdi's Caro Nome. Without thinking he has entwined the fingers of his hands with one another in the oversized pouch of his red poncho, and feeling suddenly his knuckles rub against one another he remembers what his father used to say: “If you are ever alone and feel sad that there is no one around whose hand you might hold, go ahead and hold your own. That's why you have two.” His father was a very wise man~not smart or intellectual, but very wise-and it pleases Edwin very much to see that not just his mind but his body, the muscular memory that performs its various tics, has made his father's words a part of its mechanisms.
A storm hit the night before-the last few winters have arrived late but lingered well into spring-and there are small piles of snow at the street corners. The adult bookstores, their windows tinted, are doing a brisk business; Edwin watches nondescript men, mostly in suits, walk in and out. He thinks of Christ dragging his cross down Colfax, whether anyone would look twice, much less give a helping hand; and what does it mean anyway, to help someone carry a cross? Wouldn't it be more compassionate, more liberating, to rip the thing apart? No, that's not right. Edwin corrects himself, although momentarily unsure why his assumption is wrong. He remarks with disappointment that he is a broken record, covering the same topics again and again. Men my age, he thinks, without friends, or social skills, we do not become cat lovers like our female equivalents. We become religious freaks. And yet, the acknowledgment does nothing to temper his mental habits, and in a matter of seconds he is deep within his story of Francis, imaging the saint giving away half of his tuna fish sandwich at lunch, then giving away his apple juice and finally parting with his lunch box, all the while his fellow workers smiling warmly at him, their eyes glistening.
Out in front of the enormous liquor store on the corner of Washington and Colfax the drunks lean up against the wall, shaking paper cups, asking for spare change. Edwin knows that he should empty his wallet for them, hand over his boots and coat, but he cannot. The latte is his one daily indulgence; otherwise, he must keep a close watch on their financial situation.
Perhaps, Edwin thinks as he nears home, perhaps at sixtyone his mother might have become senile anyway, irrespective of exposure to a cloud of toxic pesticide spray, but of course Edwin's mother is not senile at all. Neither is her condition debilitating in the way that, say, Alzheimer's would be, although she is required to wear an ID bracelet just in case she wanders out of the house and forgets how to get home (which has happened a few times). Her brain is not set in a fog; there are just some things it cannot do, some places it cannot go. It is something like a car with standard transmission that cannot run in first or second gear, so that the driver must instead put the car in third and wait for the RPMS to pick up before it drives smoothly.
He pauses for a second on the steps of their house, pleased with the analogy. He rings their doorbell, hears her footsteps.
The side-window curtain peels back.
“Who are you?”
“I’m your son.”
“My son's a baby!”
“No, your son is a grown man. His name is Edwin. If you look on the front door you will see a piece of paper. On the paper his name is written, as well as his social security number, which is 521-21-54 71. ”
It is important not to deviate from the established formula even slightly, not for her sake, as each time it's utterly new, but because the routine keeps Edwin calm. If he forgets a step, or cannot recall what he should say next, he might sound nervous, which can scare her. Of course, he has keys, but these he uses only in emergency situations-if she happens to be asleep when he returns, or out in back; but it is infinitely more frightening for her, the introduction, when it takes place in the house itself. Better to go through things as a door-to-door salesman would, on the porch.
The curtain closes. There is a pause before the dead bolt releases. Edwin steps into the foyer, slips the bar of bee soap into his baggy pants pocket and pulls his poncho off. She lifts it from his hands.
“Do I have a husband?” she asks.
He stands perfectly still. “No,” he says. “Dad died. I' tn sorry.”
She looks into his eyes, in free-fall for a moment. Each morning Edwin's father is reborn for her and each afternoon Edwin must bury him again. The evenings are different; sometimes he will get back from the Awful meetings or the grocery store, ring the doorbell, and she' 11 holler at him to come in. Other times she will have forgotten him again and he'll have to go through the whole routine.
Lunchtime conversation remains in the distant past, on the firm ground of long-term recollection. Edwin hears his mother recount on an almost daily basis the first time she met his father, what it was like growing up in Colorado Springs when it was still a cow town, before the army base grew larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. She remembers him only as a baby and so he has heard countless retellings of his behavior and habits as a newborn: how he liked to have his feet held, preferred formula to breast milk, would rock hard enough in his crib to send it across his room.
Today Edwin doesn't talk much. He's tired, he's not sure why, maybe from stepping over the piles of snow on the way home, lifting his legs in an unusually repetitive way. When they're finished eating he excuses himself from the table, apologizes for not helping with the dishes and sneaks off to his room in order to nap a little before heading off to Awful.
In his room, he takes the bee soap out of his pants pocket and places it on his dresser. Then, sitting on the edge of his bed, he pulls his feet out of his boots and lies down for a brief nap. Before shutting his eyes he looks around his room.
It has changed very little since his high school days. Most of the posters he first put up when he was only sixteen remain, although he feels-when he looks at them-that they must have belonged to someone else. His desktop, as well as the patch of wall just above it, are really the only space he inhabits now; Edwin has not even reclaimed the drawers of his desk, which are still filled with grade school doodles, pictures from family vacations, yearbooks, a plaque naming him Most Conscientious Swimmer on the eight-and-under team at Congress Park, a third place ribbon from a track meet held when he was in eighth grade.
On the desktop, in the corner underneath the lamp, is Edwin's study Bible. Piled up neatly next to the Bible are pristine notebooks he bought all at once. This was right after he had come up with the idea of Saint Francis in Flint and for a few days he had dared to imagine a series of books, each exploring another facet of contemporary America through modernized allegories: Saint Bonaventure in Boise was going to be about the demise of the American West; Saint Stephen in New York, about the effects of Robert Moses's highway planning on low-income housing. Now that he knows what it takes to write one sentence, let alone a paragraph, Edwin realizes that the notebooks will never be filled, that is unless he begins to clip newspaper articles and copy out quotations from his .readings, which he has recently considered doing, if only to fill up the white pages somewhat. Just above the desk is a print he bought down at the Denver Art Museum; it shows Saint Francis outside of Assisi, in front of a cave, his arms spread out below his waist, his eyes looking up at the blue sky, not hopefully but with a look of dread anticipation.
From his bed Edwin cannot make out Francis's body, as his brown robe blurs into the background, but he can see-as Francis himself appears to-the blue sky above, thick with cumulus clouds. He closes his eyes, folds his hands together on his chest and falls asleep.
About an hour later, Edwin gets up and puts his boots back on. The Awful meeting begins around three but he wants to arrive a little early since there could be a large crowd.
An editor from an aviation magazine who is an expert on DC-lOs is giving a talk and Edwin expects-as the subject pertains so directly to Flight 232-that some of the people from the old days might drop by. He heads downstairs and says good-bye to his mother, who is endlessly crocheting an afghan in the living room. She looks up, her face blank, before meekly waving. Outside the light has gone flat from low clouds and the temperature has begun to drop. It's a fifteen-minute walk to the YMCA. Edwin slips on his poncho, steps off the porch, sneezes seven times in rapid succession, then heads towards Colfax, his eyes set on the uneven squares of sidewalk, the grids of cement forced up at the corners by bulging tree roots, the contractions and expansions of the earth as it shifts from season to season, those life forces that push up stubbornly toward the sky-he likes to think-and he imagines just for a moment all of Denver overgrown, the buildings intact but covered with vines and squirrels and flowers, the residents wearing loose-fitting homespuns, and he chuckles at the thought of the poorly managed city works budget inadvertently ushering in an Edenic spell.
The Organization ofFamilies and Friends of Airplane Fatalities came into being in the winter of 1989, after the Sioux City crash. Back then there were sometimes fifty, sometimes one hundred people in attendance at the weekly meetings.
T devision reporters came as well, at least initially, and one nearly interviewed Edwin but ended up talking to Mrs. Stevens instead, which was only right, as she had lost her son and daughter-in-law in the accident. A lot of the victims on Flight 232—originating out of Denver and destined for Philadelphia, with a stopover in Chicago—had lived in Colorado.
Their surviving family members and friends and business associates met in the ballroom of the Denver Athletic Club, where one of the casualties had been a board member.
Over the years, though, as the crash faded further into the distance and the litigation began-at last-to sort itself out, fewer and fewer people showed up. The meetings became monthly. With less and less attendance they left the cavernous expanse of the D.A.C., moving first to a classroom at Gove Community Center and then finally to a modest room at the downtown Y. Attendance rarely hit thirty and more and more participants had no connection whatsoever to Flight 232. They had lost loved ones in private plane crashes in Summit County, or in regional commuter mishaps. A few were even trying to battle their fear of Hying and thought experiencing the worst that air travel had to offer might help them along. In response to their changing profile, the members renamed the group O.F.F.A.F. Edwin cannot recall what they had called themselves before O.F.F.A.F., something like “Remembering Flight 232,” but not quite.
Edwin enters the Y, checks his watch, smiles and waves at the stone-faced attendants and then heads up the staircase.
It smells of dirty socks and sweating bodies, the kind of smell that so terrified him as a child, when gym class was a daily hour of unmitigated torture and public humiliation. The meeting room is on the left at the top of the stairs. Mrs.
Stevens, the acting secretary of Awful for the last four years, smiles warmly at Edwin when she sees him.
“How are you?” she asks, holding out her hands, which—because she offers both of them—leaves Edwin momentarily puzzled, until he decides to mimic her gesture, seizing her hands with his own and giving her upper body a gentle tug.
'Tm okay,” he says.
“And your mother?”
“The same. How are you, Mrs. Stevens?”
“Quite well, thank you, Edwin.”
He nods his head, peering toward the ground, and then moves through the doorway, lest he hold anyone up behind him. There are only three other people inside the room.
Edwin takes a seat all the way at the left end of the aisle, carefully draping his poncho over the back of the chair. He checks his watch; only ten minutes before the speaker is scheduled to begin. He folds his hands together and sets them down softly on his stomach while he mumbles Hail Marys to himself.
He stops after only a couple. It's no use; the empty room, the drab white walls, the folding chairs arranged in uneven rows, it all has the effect of emptying him out. There was a time when Awful was a good outlet, a wonderful outlet. It was a little like church; they as a congregation gathered so as to meditate on a single mystery, a single puzzling and painful event with tremendous repercussions that were both felt and unfelt, understood and incomprehensible. What was the crash of Flight 232, Edwin has asked himself more than once, if not a re-enactment in some way of the crucifixion? Isn't that how the event could best be understood? Back in the old days, at the end of their meeting they would hug one another and-as in Church, when hands reach out and people give peace to one another, at least at Sunday masses, when people are sitting close enough to shake hands-Edwin would feel overcome by melancholic exuberance, so that the pain and beauty of the world would blend into one another and he would feel about to cry and cry out at the same time, which is a funny way to feel, and painful sometimes, in hindsight. And he knows, already, that he will not feel like that when the presentation today is finished and while acknowledging this unavoidable disappointment Edwin's thoughts are interrupted suddenly by a memory of his father-they flood him at the Awful meetings, such recollections, another reason why he always attends-and in this one Edwin sees the face of his father, smiling in front of their house while trimming back one of their shrubs, Edwin now on the porch holding for him a glass of sun tea, his father still smiling at him, then wiping his brow, then dabbing at his neck with a bunched-up handkerchief . . .
Stragglers, now nearly five minutes late, slip into the last row of chairs. It is not an entirely embarrassing turnout but it is not so good either. Mrs. Stevens moves down the aisle, to the podium, followed by a portly man carrying a very large briefcase and a manila folder under one arm. What if he were to pass out statistics, Edwin thinks, or diagrams, as other speakers have done in the past? To quantify things in such a way, it's so ... well, awful. Better just to drone on for a while. It doesn't even matter what he says; it never does. No one really listens.
“We're very pleased today to welcome Mr. ... “ Mrs.
Stevens looks down at the piece of paper she is holding, “ ... Mr. Dixon, a senior editor at Aviation Magazine who is going to talk about the electrical wiring of DC-lOs.” She sits down. Mr. Dixon steps up to the microphone, clears his throat and begins to speak.
He talks for nearly an hour. Edwin pays no attention. There is a handout after all, a diagram of the location of the fuel pumps in a DC-10 with lines traced about them to indicate the dangerous migration of electrical currents on their every side, but it is not so bad, glancing down at the sheet, not as bad as Edwin thought it would be. He thinks for a moment what he always thinks in these meetings, how he might describe the circumstances of his father's death to a friend, say to one of the girls from the skin care shop while having a double latte at the Market Cafe. “There is so much we expect from plane crashes,” he would say. “We expect the sense of finality perhaps to hit hardest, that the end comes so suddenly, but in fact the end is not so sudden; establishing the definitive passenger list is not such an easy thing. Certain names drift on and off the list. They' re either dead or experiencing a routine day of travel delays.” And he imagines the girl's head nodding, her eyes captivated, filled with pity but also sensing his subtle wit. Then he feels shame for the way he has endlessly imagined prostituting his father's death as a way of prompting sympathy from some girl on an all-protein diet. As if such a story would even have the desired effect in the first place.
When he finishes, Mr. Dixon gets a robust burst of applause, followed quickly by utter silence. No questions are asked. No one even approaches the podium. Edwin sits still for a moment, having tumbled again into prayer, and when he finishes he makes the sign of the cross without realizing it and looks forlornly about the room. He feels the calm of his antidepressants, the gentle buzz that displaces his melancholy with a form of cerebral white noise, beginning to wear off.
Mrs. Stevens is now standing at the doorway, having thanked Mr. Dixon for his time and sent him on his way. Edwin puts on his coat and approaches her apprehensively, unsure of what to say, and so he thanks her for arranging the speaker, reaches out his hand to shake hers, notices a crumpled piece of Kleenex and then looks into her eyes, which are bloodshot and misty.
“There's really no point is there,” she says to him, “trying to organize things? No one comes anymore.” б “Of course people come.” Edwin looks down at the floor, at the individual tiles traced by thin lines of dirt.
“Mr. Dixon agreed to speak only because he is on a crusade to change the electrical wiring of DC-lOs. Other speakers expect at least a modest honorarium .... ”
Edwin nods his head. He fears that Mrs. Stevens is about to ask for a donation of some sort, on top of the one hundred dollars he already gives each December, and while he could not refuse to give more, he dreads having to return to his budget calculations to see exactly how much he and his mother could spare. He waits for Mrs. Stevens's voice to pick up again, but instead she dabs at her eyes and gently taps him on his arm before turning and walking back into the meeting room. Edwin watches her from the doorway as she sits in one of the chairs and buries her head in her hands. He would like so much in these moments to be the kind of person who could say the perfect thing, or be so bold as to offer an embrace, but he is not that kind of person. What good is faith, he asks himself, if it does not lead to good works? He mulls over a convincing reply, finds none and so he orders himself to go to Mrs. Stevens and comfort her, only he cannot.
What if she screamed at him to get away, or what if he knocked her over by mistake, what then? Morosely, he pulls himself away from the room and walks down the hallway, then down the stairwell, then out onto the street.
It has cooled off considerably. The snow that had begun to melt during the day is now refreezing. Edwin sees the shadowy figures of street people shuddering in doorways. He begins to walk, tries to reenter Saint Francis in Flint but is blocked momentarily by the image of Mrs. Stevens with her head in her hands. He tries again, now with more determination, and finally breaks through: he sees Francis on his way to the GM plant in the middle of February, a brutally cold morning. He has set up a lonely picket outside the gates. A malicious campaign of misinformation has splintered the union and Francis is now attacked by his fellow workers (read Frederick Il's henchmen). They lob eggs and cabbages at his head. Security guards steal his lunch box and roll dice for the delicious egg sandwiches inside. Softly falling snow turns to sleet and ice. The workers and security men continue to haze him. Then, at first seeming to come from Francis's mind alone, Gluck's J’ai Perdu mon Eurydice, sung by Callas herself, begins to float through the air. Francis looks up to the sky, then over his shoulder. A battered pickup truck has pulled off the road, its window down, the aria pouring out of it. In the driver's seat is his friend, Norma Rae. Francis gives the thumbs up ....
“Ah!” Edwin's feet have struck a street person sprawled on the sidewalk. “Excuse me?” Edwin mumbles, and then louder, “Excuse me!” The music in his brain stops playing.
Francis fades out. And it was such a wonderful vision too, one of the best in some time. Edwin looks down at the man.
What is he doing blocking off the entire sidewalk? Doesn't he realize that people must use it to walk home, people who don't own automobiles, people who have been walking all day? And suddenly anger rises up in him. Is he, Edwin, supposed to lift his tired legs and walk around this man after having already been yanked from a reverie that would have otherwise carried him all the way home? It is when people, even indigent people, take such liberties that we all suffer, he thinks. It is a curious thought, not like any others that he can recall having, and he edges closer to another thought, this even more alien, that perhaps he doesn't like street people at all, that he never has, that his compassion has been only for Saint Francis's compassion for them, but that in him there is, rather than sympathy, actually antipathy toward these people.
Why do they have the right to ask strangers for money? Why are they entitled to turn public space into private sleeping quarters? And glancing quickly over his shoulder, just to make sure there is no one walking behind him, Edwin lets go a feeble kick in the man's rib cage, and then suddenly another kick, and another and another. He kicks and kicks at the homeless man but none of the blows seems to register with him, maybe because of the layers of clothing he has on, or because he's passed out or due to lack of muscle tone in Edwin's leg. Stepping over the body now, Edwin immediately feels a horrible rush of shame overcome him, shame mixed in with adrenaline, such that he staggers to a nearby phone booth and leans against it for a moment. He feels his eyes moisten at the thought of his cruelty, at the way the anger had burst out of him, and for a moment he feels the surge inside his veins as a testosterone boost of unrivaled proportion, but then another, more familiar rush overtakes him and he strikes his head-very tepidly-against the phone booth. How could he, a grown man who regards himself as a modern-day chronicler of the life of Saint Francis, even if he is unable actually to write his chronicle, but nevertheless, how could he attack a homeless person? And he feels something inside of him break, as if a taut line of rope or string from an instrument had been cut, and just for a moment-before he can stop himself-he thinks of his life as having ended, the life he has led these last few years, a life composed nearly entirely of inner fantasy, occasionally fed by an incongruous detail pulled out from his otherwise numb marches through downtown Denver. But then just as quickly-because he is powerless to stop it-just as quickly he thinks something far more terrifying but something that makes much more sense: perhaps he did not just kick several times a homeless man he stumbled upon randomly, but perhaps instead, after years of hearing of his devotions, Saint Francis himself had come down to Denver to behold him, Edwin Morris, and this of course makes sense because Francis would assume the appearance of a homeless man, not to test Edwin but just because that is what he would naturally do. Only it became a test when Edwin failed it: when Francis found that instead of being greeted warmly by someone who claimed to be bringing him and his God glory he was being beaten senseless by some ranting poser, some violent Manichean. It is all really too horrible even to process, and so Edwin scurries along, not daring to look over his shoulder, but rather imagining the sight: angels tugging at Francis's broken frame, lifting him back up into the clouds.
During the rest of his walk home, through the frozen streets of Denver, Edwin meditates on his feeling of self-disgust, mindful that he should push his ego to its very breaking point, to the point where every fiber of his own hypocrisy has been examined, but in spite of this noble intention the impulse for relief is too great, and so-with shame, but powerless to resist-he thinks of Saint Francis again, now journeying towards Mount Alverna to receive the stigmata, and he cannot help but feel himself trudging after Saint Francis to be stigmatized with him, and he closes his eyes just briefly enough to see the crowds pushing up against him and falling to their knees, begging to be blessed. When he thinks of this scene—unfortunately filmed in his mind by the TechniColor used in 1950s Hollywood bible movies, so the faces are all slightly blurred-yet nonetheless when he thinks of this scene it brings him solace, even if, perhaps because, it is not a scene from Saint Francis in Flint, and so as the temperature drops, without thinking he links his hands together in the oversized pouch of his red poncho, turns up Marion Street and rubs his thumbs against the palms of his hands.
Arriving home, he rings the doorbell and waits, hoping to hear her voice call down. Instead, he picks up her footsteps.
The light in the front hallway goes on, then, a moment later, the side-window curtain peels back.
“Who are you?”
“I'm your son.”
“My son's a baby!”
“No, your son is a grown man. His name is Edwin. If you look on the front door you will see a piece of paper. On the paper his name is written, as well as his social security number, which is 521-21-5471.”
The curtain closes. There is a pause before the dead bolt releases. Edwin steps into the foyer and takes his poncho off.
She lifts it from his hands.
“Do I have a husband?” she asks.
Edwin stands perfectly still, then nods his head. “Yes,” he says, “yes you do. He'll be home tomorrow.”