Story: Jesus Dreaming by Joy Murray

Today is my younger brother’s birthday.  He would  have been 53 today but he passed away from complications of the flu (we think) and massive organ failure.  He had paranoid schizophrenia and refused to see a doctor about anything.  This is the third work of short fiction I’ve written trying to understand his illness and its impact on his family.  On me.  At the end of this story, I’ve posted some links to another short ghost story I wrote about him and a few essays about him.  I think I’ll continue to turn this subject around in my head often.  Perhaps eventually, I’ll have enough stories and essays for a collection.  Time will tell. Any feedback on this story would be greatly appreciated.

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collaborative art between my son, Timothy Allen, and me

Jesus Dreaming

“If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self – himself – he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.” – Oliver Sacks.

 

I was chopping veggies for gazpacho in the quiet of the kitchen.  My husband was at work, my daughter at school.  The kitchen was in the back of house and was like a sanctuary to me.  I’d opened the windows and a spring breeze wafted in through the screens.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a bearded man pass by the window and wave.  Next thing I knew, he’d opened the back door.  He wore a brown robe tied with a rope.  “God bless you, my sister,“ he said and came straight at me.

I pointed my knife at him.  “Get the fuck out of my house!”

His laugh was like soft notes from an old lullaby.  I dropped my knife.  “Patrick?”

“Yes and no,” he said.  I ran to him and hugged him.  His robe was scratchy.  He smelled musky like freshly turned soil.  Boney, I thought, my brother is boney.  His embrace was so strong I felt as if I was being swallowed by the earth.

“Oh my God, Patrick!  Where have you been?  We’ve been so worried.”

He stiffened and stepped back.  “And who is your god, sister?” he asked softly.

“What?”

“This god you called on — Oh my God — you said.  I heard gratitude in your voice so I know you were sincere.  But I need to know, is this the great Yahweh God, Father of us all?  Who is your God?”

“Just – you know – God.”

“I do know God.  Do you know Him?  Do you know His Son, who died for our sins?”

I chewed on my lip.  I wanted to answer him correctly and not scare him away like I did last time — 10 years, 2 months and 4 days ago.  “Jesus?  Our Lord and savior?”

Patrick smiled.  “Praise be His name.  I prayed you would know me, know my Father.”

“I’m so glad you’re here.  Are you hungry?  Where have you been?  Have you called Mom?”

“My Father told me to visit only you.”

“You saw Dad?”

“Your dad is not my father.  My father is Jesus.”

“Of course.  It’s better to think that way.”

I began pulling food out of the fridge.

“It’s not what I think,” he said.  “It’s what I know.  That man who claimed to be my father knew he wasn’t.  He even said it.  Remember?  He said it all the time.”

“Sure.  Do you want a sandwich?  I’ve got some sliced turkey.”

He smiled.  “May I sit?  Is there water for a child of Jesus in this house?”

I gave him a glass of water.  He drank it quickly, set down the glass and belched.  “He used to say he found me under a rock.”

“What?  Who?”

“The man who claimed to be my father.  We thought he was just saying that.  Tormenting me.  But it’s true.  He found me.  Not under a rock, of course, but in a basket on the Wolf River.”

I sat down, light-headed and confused.

“He brought me home,” he said, “and said I was his son, but I never was.  I was sent by my Father to comfort you and your mother, who were at the mercy of that demon.  I failed, of course.  But it’s because of the lies your father told.  He took me from the basket and vowed I’d never know I was a child of Jesus.  That Jesus created me on the banks of the Wolf River.  Jesus was exhausted from walking the streets of Memphis looking for a bit of charity among the so-called Christians.  He found only evil.  Your father laughed at him.  You were a child then.  Jesus saw the evil your father planned for you.”

He talked fast and little bits of spit frothed around the edges of his mouth.  I tried hard not to cry.  He still heard voices, but he was alive.  I wanted to hug him again.  I wanted to get a word in edgewise.

Patrick wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his robe.  He took my hand.

“Don’t cry, sister.  I’m here for you.  I know you need me.  I won’t hurt you again.”

“You never hurt me.  We were all just so worried when you disappeared, Patrick.  We were only trying to help and….”

He laughed.  “Patrick isn’t my name, you know.  My true name is Jesus Dreaming — for that’s how I came to be.  Jesus slept on the banks of the Wolf River and dreamed me into being.  He has dreamed my whole life for me.  I was blinded by your father, but now I can see the truth, the light, the dream that flows through me.  Your father ridiculed me because he was jealous that I am that chosen one.  I am not flesh and blood like you.  I am Jesus Dreaming.”

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~~~

Patrick lived with us for about a year before he disappeared.  He came to us broke and homeless — his roommates had kicked him out.  It didn’t take long for us to figure out why.  He’d stay up at night late, locked in my studio turned guest room, drinking coffee, and cussing out someone who wasn’t there.  My husband, Zeke, slept hard but it even woke him up.

It only took a few nights before he pounded on Patrick’s door, and told him to knock it off.  The next day, Zeke woke Patrick at 5 a.m. and told him to get dressed, he was going to work.

Zeke ran his own construction company and he hired Patrick as a laborer.  Zeke worked him hard, too.  The noisy nights ceased.  Patrick spent his first check on groceries for the family and cooked for us that week-end.  He bought a pork shoulder and he and Zeke got up at dawn to start smoking it.  They discussed infinite ways a pork shoulder should be cooked:  the right herbal rubs, the best way to baste, what to put in the sauce.  Between them they made barbeque that melted in your mouth, gave you something to chew on, and left a smoky aftertaste.  It seemed like Patrick was finally going to be okay.

Whatever Patrick did when we were kids was wrong.  Whatever Patrick did was wrong.  If he did nothing, Dad would yell at Patrick for being lazy and call him Patty the Pussy in front of everyone.  If he tried to do something Dad told him he would fail.  But Patrick grew up tall and strong.  He made quarterback on his junior high school football team.  Whenever he had a winning season, Dad would say, “Now you think you’re hot shit.  You think you’re better than us.”  Even though by the age of 15, Patrick was taller than Dad, Patrick would whimper as soon as the insults started, roll his shoulders forward and chest inward, as if that would protect his heart.  I’d hide in my room and plug my ears, but his cries came through.  I was too scared to do anything but curl in bed and wait my turn.

Patrick was very good at hiding his bruises, but when his coach finally saw them, everything in our lives changed rapidly.  He reported Dad and he was arrested.  One of Dad’s drinking buddies paid his bail.  Mom took us to her sister Clare’s house.  Mom got so drunk, she passed out in the bedroom.

Dad came straight from jail and broke down Aunt Clare’s door.  She, Patrick and I hid in the closet.  Dad stomped through the house yelling that he was going to kill Patrick.  He found Mom and tried to shake her out of her vodka coma.  We might have stayed safe in the closet, but Patrick ran out.  He pulled Dad off of Mom and punched him in the face.

Dad fell back unconscious, his nose gushing blood all over Aunt Clare’s beige shag rug.  She’d called the police as soon as Patrick opened the closet.  When he heard the sirens, Patrick panicked.

“They’re coming for me.”

We told him they would arrest Dad.

“No.  He paid them to kill me.  They’re coming for me.”  And he ran.

That ended the sham of our family life.  I was 17 and refused to leave Aunt Clare’s house.  Patrick’s coach took him in for a while and tried to get Mom to get Patrick some help.  But Mom took up with a man she met in a bar, and pretended she didn’t have a family at all.

Patrick began to fight at school.  He ran away from the coach’s house, only to show up a few days later, saying Dad was chasing him.  Patrick heard Dad threatening him on the school speakers and from radios.  He saw Dad scowling at him through windows and through the television screen.

Eventually, Coach got Patrick put in a Christian halfway house, where he accepted the Lord and learned some building skills.  He got jobs as a day laborer but they never seemed to last long.

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Cracked by Joy Murray

~~~

I asked Patrick to help me chop onions.  I thought maybe the sting from the onions would stop his chatter.  I was already exhausted from trying to make sense of what he was saying.  But even as tears rolled down his cheeks, he talked about how eating roots was once considered to be eating the devil’s food, since they grew in dirt.

“But mankind was made from dirt; roots are part of God’s goodness.  The rumor was started by old Beelzebub himself to starve good people and addle the minds of the wealthy.  Same with vegetarians today, mocking the order of things, even the blood Christ himself shed so that our souls should be nourished.  Meat is essential, else we grow to be sieve-like and God’s power drains through us.  In Eden, animals understand their fate.  The lamb lies down with the lion, the lamb understands he shall nourish the lion.  The lamb is reborn again and again to fulfill his sacred duty!”  He took a deep breath and seemed surprised to be where he was, in the kitchen, with me.  “Your dad thought I was a lamb.  But who is the lion now?”

I put the gazpacho in the refrigerator.  “I need to call Zeke and let him know you’ll be here for dinner.”

Patrick regally nodded and I escaped into the bedroom and shut the door.  I called my husband and informed him that we had a schizophrenic prophet as a house guest.

“Are you okay?  Should I come home?”

“I’m fine.  Can you pick Lizzie up from school, though?  Let her know what to expect.”

“What should she expect?”

“Oh, God, Zeke.  I don’t know.  He’s different.  He seems safe.  He’s talking crazy but it’s gentle.  He’s sermonizing.  I guess you can both expect to be preached at.  I’m going to set up the air mattress in my studio.”

“Well, I guess the evening will be colorful.  Do you think he’ll go to a doctor now?”

“Maybe a Christian one.”

We were silent.  Ten years later and we still didn’t have a clue what to do about Patrick.

Back then, he’d worked with Zeke for a few months, but his paranoia and night-time episodes started up.  On the drive to work with Zeke, Patrick would mutter about how other members of the crew made fun of him.  He’d threaten to kill them.  Then he’d babble an apology and talk about how the Lord would take vengeance for him.  Zeke told him he had to be quiet when they got to work and he was.  But he’d cuss through the night, threatening the other crew members as if they were in the room with him.  Zeke could only get him to shut up for a few hours.

We were exhausted.  Lizzie was 2 then.  We didn’t feel safe.  I pleaded with Patrick to get some help.

“There’s nothing wrong with me!  They sneak in through the window and when they hear you coming to check on me, they run away.”

One night we were watching the news together and he leapt up and shouted.  “See?  You heard that!  They can go in and out of a room without a door!  They confessed right on the news!  Now you see.  They’re out to get me.”

Lizzie started to cry.  Zeke said, “That’s enough!  If you can’t control yourself, you can’t stay here.”

Patrick stormed off to his room but he was quiet through the night and went to work the next day.

I talked to a friend who had a friend who did intake for mental patients at one of the hospitals in town.  He said all you had to do was call the police and they’d take him in to the Memphis Mental Health Center.  They’d get him on medication there.

My mom agreed to come over and help us explain what was happening.  Patrick was in his room and we called the police.

Their footsteps rattled the house.

We told them what had been happening but they didn’t seem to understand.

“Is he violent?” one of them asked.

“No.  He’s never hurt anyone.  He threatens, but it’s because he’s hearing voices.

Patrick walked into the room.  “Oh Martha,” he wailed.  “I never thought you were one of them.  I trusted you.”

“We called them for your own good,” Zeke said.

“You need help,” Mom said.

“All of you,” Patrick said.  “All of you are Satan’s minions.”

“Look Buddy,” a cop said and stepped right up to him, right in his face.  “You’ve been causing a lot of trouble here.  I suggest you get your things and move on.”

“You’re going to take him to the hospital right?” I asked.

Patrick barked out a laugh and stomped into his room.

“Lady, we’re not social workers.  All we can do is get him out of the house.”

Patrick had stuffed his clothes into a pillow case, walked past us all and out the front door.  Then he started to run down the street.

“You’ve got to take him in for help,” I pleaded.  “He’s sick.  We were told you’d take him to the hospital.”

They shook their heads.  “You were told wrong.”

“If he comes back and he’s violent, or tries to break in, we can take him to jail,” said the other.

And they left.  I ran down the block in the direction Patrick had gone.  But I couldn’t find him.  It was as if he disappeared.  He did, actually.

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Philosophy by Joy Murray

~~~

After hanging up with Zeke, I went back to the kitchen, Patrick wasn’t there.  I found him sitting on the front porch, finishing off a large bowl of gazpacho.  An empty sliced turkey package – enough for the family’s lunches for the week — was on his lap.

He smiled at me.  “It’s time for me to go back to work.  I just wanted to stop by and say hello.”

“Where do you work?  Where do you live?”

“After wandering this wicked country up and down and round and round, I have finally gone back to live at the place of my birth, at the banks of the Wolf river.  From there I can walk into the city and spread the word of God.  Those who have open hearts give me alms.  Those with closed hearts shun me.  I listen to my Father’s voice.  I am his child and his scribe.”

“Will you let me drive you home?  I’d love to see your place.”

Patrick pondered his callused, filthy feet for a bit, then said.  “I’d love for you to see what God has provided me.  But Martha, you must promise, as God is our witness, you must never tell another soul, neither your husband nor children.  Not your father especially.  Not even your mother.”

“I don’t even know where Dad is.  But Mom, you know, she’s quit drinking.  She even got saved.  She’s been a member of the Christ United Bible Church for almost 5 years and sober the whole time.”

“You mean that church of bigots and misers?”

I laughed.  “Well, she needs the structure, I think.  Keeps her from drinking.”

“And you, sister, where do you worship?”

I wanted to answer in a way that wasn’t a lie.  My family seemed to be driven in crazy circles between religious fanaticism and alcoholism.  My dad even blamed his behavior on his soul being held captive by a coven of witches.  He was born again while he was in prison.  He wrote me long letters in care of my mother.  I wouldn’t let her tell him where I lived.  He could rot in the hell he created as far as I was concerned.  When he got out, he ran off with a 17 year old girl.  I never heard from him again.

I sat down in my wicker rocker next to Patrick.   He seemed to have lost all his edges.  The beard and mustache filled out his gaunt features.  He had a few little crow’s feet wrinkles but his eyes were big and bright, with impossibly long eyelashes.

I’d always been jealous of his eyelashes, and his hair which hung in soft thick curls down to his shoulders.

“Every morning,” I said, “I sit out here and marvel at this old oak tree.  I mean, even in winter, when it’s so cold I can only bear to be out here for a few minutes, I take a minute and sit here under it.  And in the summer, it rustles in the wind and cools me.  I’m so grateful to be here.  To have this peaceful house and a sweet daughter and good husband.  Patrick, I’m sorry, it’s all I can do.  I sit in this peace on this porch and pray it never goes away.”

“In the sheltering arms of the Lord,” Patrick said.  “By His works, ye shall know Him.  It’s better to be here in God’s pure bounty than in the nest of vipers that call themselves a church.  Come now, and I will show you my home and church.”

Through a series of complicated directions, we drove to the outskirts of downtown.  We were close to where the Wolf River and the Mississippi converged.  We had to park and hike through a convoluted pathway for about half a mile.  It was getting to be the hottest part of the day and everything was steamy from recent spring rains.  Mud seeped up into my sandals.  Patrick walked with a practiced gait and I stumbled behind him.  Just as I was about to ask Patrick to stop, I needed to rest, we reached the river bank.

He’d strung up tarps over tree limbs like a bower.  Inside there was an old mattress, milk crates filled with bibles, and some pots and pans.  Several stumps surrounded a fire pit filled with ashes.

“Here is my home, my church, my destiny,” he said.  “I was kept from such beauty for too long.  Now the Lord has led me home.”  He gestured all around.  Ancient magnolias, oaks and pines stood guard — a green cathedral over his crude tent.

At the river’s edge, I saw a boat made of small logs, boards, and rope staked to the shore.  Water sloshed around inside and around it, though the river barely rippled.

“You don’t use that boat do you?”

“Patience, sister.  In the world of the Lord, things take time.  I am still gathering what I need for my boat.  Now I fish by the shore.  Soon I’ll fish in the deep water.  Who knows but I might catch enough to feed those starving on your city streets.”

I left him there and followed the trail back to my car.  I planned to go straight to a sporting goods store and buy him a proper tent.  As I tried to figure out ways of helping him, I tripped over a root, fell forward into the mud, and had the wind knocked out of me.

I writhed around, tried to stand up.  I made it to my knees and gasped and gulped for air.  The canopy of trees floated down like a green blanket, suffocating me.

Where was Patrick, God damn it!  If he was such a fucking child of Jesus, shouldn’t he hear me struggling?  Shouldn’t he help me?

I got up and staggered forward.  I’d skinned my hand.  Bright blood pooled on my palm.

Wasn’t I just in my cool sunlit kitchen?  Wasn’t I opening a window to a sweet breeze?

Mud clung to me.  I tried to rub it off but only ground it further into my clothes, my skin, my soul.  I lurched down the path, found my car, and sped home.

spirit tree
Spirit Tree by Joy Murray

Zeke waited on the porch.  I ignored his questions and rushed to bathroom to shower it all off and to be alone, but Zeke followed me.  He helped me peel off my clothes.  He stripped and got in the shower with me.  He tenderly soaped me up and I started to weep.  The water poured on us and between us, until I let myself be saturated with the illusion of cleanliness and safety.

How did I find such a good man?

He dried me tenderly and told me he’d given Lizzie the barebones story of Patrick’s return.  She already knew I had a mentally ill brother who went missing 10 years ago.

“She expected to find Jesus waiting here but instead she got the swamp monster mom.”

“Oh no!  Where is she?”

“I said she could watch anything she wanted on the VCR.  She didn’t even see you.  She won’t notice anything til her movie’s over.”

We went out for burgers.  I drank many beers when I got home while Zeke told me stories and made me laugh.  I slept in his warm embrace with no dreams at all.

Broken Open 001

~~~

Zeke came from a country where children were loved and educated and urged to be happy.  I am a refugee from a parallel country where parents beat and raped their children, then taught them to behave as if they were native to Happy-Family-Land.

Zeke had a weak heart as a child.  When he was a teenager, he started lifting weights and working hard.  He thought if the heart was a muscle, he should be able to build it up.  When I met him, his weak days were a distant memory.  He was only in his early thirties and already owned his own construction company.  He worked alongside the crew savoring the heaviest work.  He’d gotten a contract to renovate the building that housed the student studios for the City College of Art.

I’d gotten a scholarship there and was obsessed with being their most prolific student.  My art was minimalist but the canvases were big – 48 by 48 inch squares with gradations of pale colors and small animals hidden in the darkest hues.

He came in to survey the room at about 6 in the morning when no one was supposed to be there.  But I was always there when I wasn’t at work or in classes.  I’d learned to pick the lock.

Even when they started construction in the summer, I came.  I let the dust settle into the paint.  It added a mysterious texture to what I was doing.

He asked me to dinner.  Over burgers and beer, he said, “I bet you’ve got a lot more to say than that little bit of squiggle you’re putting in those paintings.”

“Those little squiggles are the reason I got my scholarship.  They said it showed depth and lacked the excess of many young artists.  My style has potential.”

“I know you’ve got potential,” he said.  “I just hope you don’t shrink it up so small you don’t get to say what you mean.”

“I didn’t think construction workers were supposed to have opinions on art.”  I sneered.  “Unless it’s pin-ups.”

He cocked his head and stared straight into my eyes.  “I think you know as well as I do there ain’t no such thing as supposed to.”

Once I fell into the deep pool of his warm, kind eyes, once I fell in love, my paintings got smaller and were filled with giant blossoms.  They didn’t get much praise from my professors, but they sold better.

Zeke accepted the challenge of having a refugee from a broken family as his wife.  He didn’t mind that I was broken.  He was a fixer.  A renovator.  He dealt with my dark times the way he did his own heart.  He built me up.  He got me out into nature.  He took me hiking, taught me to identify plants and birds.  He taught me to kayak.  We went to the ocean for our honeymoon.  We learned to snorkel.  Held by the warm salty water, I saw a world I’d been blind to.  I’d never be that blind again.

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~~~

I went to see Patrick every day.  He refused the pop-up tent I bought him. “This bower is all I need. The Lord my Father shelters me.”

I took him one of our kayaks.  Zeke offered to go with me, but I couldn’t let him.  I’d told Patrick I wouldn’t tell anyone where he lived.   I showed Zeke the general area, but I had to keep my word.  I figured if I kept the secret for the first few weeks, Patrick would relent.

I felt worried and restless all the time.  A spring storm could flood out the little bit of riverside he camped in.  He got dirtier and smellier.  His teeth were rotting.  He constantly scratched his head.  I offered to take him home and give him a lice treatment.  He only laughed at the annoyances of God’s little creatures.

I took him leftovers from dinner and sandwiches.  I couldn’t bring too much food because he had no way to store it.

Usually he was sitting in the tent, under the tree, reading one of his bibles, but one day I went to visit early.  Lizzie’s class was going to the zoo and I needed to be at the school by 9 to chaperone.

Patrick sat on the ground using a stump as a desk.  He had a dip pen and bottles of colored ink.  He was so intent on his work that he didn’t notice me approach.

He wrote – or rather drew – colorful symbols in circles around the paper, turning it as he drew.  Small birds spiraled in the center, bold letters circled them, lions and tigers and dragons circled the letters.  I say letters, but they only had the vague shape of letters, like some ancient alphabet that was still part hieroglyphs.

I watched fascinated.  Some of the work was smeared, but animated — like a swirl of color that was slowly revealing a story I could almost understand.

“What are you doing here?” Patrick suddenly shouted.

“I came early because I have to help out at the school.  Patrick, this is great.  You’re a real artist.”

Patrick hissed and spit and pulled the paper up to his chest.  “You can’t see this.  This is mine.  This my sacred work, dictated by MY Father, not yours.  Go!  Go!”

“But it’s great work.  You could sell work like that, make some money.”

He screamed words I couldn’t understand, his breath was hot and rank.  I stepped back.  He grabbed a limb and shook it at me.  I turned and ran.  He didn’t follow me but I could hear his rage as I raced back to my car.

I started the car and sped away.  It was too much.  I didn’t know what I was doing or why.  I couldn’t help that man.  That boy.  My lost little brother.

I was a wreck when I reached the school.  Lizzie’s teacher asked if I was okay.  I said I had allergy problems, that’s why my eyes were red.  I used my singsong voice, I’m fine.  She said I didn’t have to be a chaperone for the trip if I felt bad, but I had to.  I had to be somewhere besides in my head.  I had to walk along with children, to be normal.

I am a normal mother walking with her normal daughter through a zoo.  I think Lizzie sensed there was something wrong with me.  She didn’t walk alongside me, she stayed with her friends, slumping around in their 12 year old, “moms are so weird” way.  I smiled and nodded at the small talk of the other mothers, of the teachers.  In each cage I saw my brother pacing.  I saw myself throwing meat to an animal that really wanted to rip into me for dinner.

Patrick was on the front porch when I got home.  I was afraid to get out of the car, but he came out to the driveway to greet me.  He carried a bouquet of wild flowers.

I rolled down the window.

“Sister, please, forgive me.  I didn’t mean to scare you.  I was out of order.  I am so sorry, Martha.  I am still learning to do my Father’s will.”

He handed me the bouquet.  The stems were shredded from his tight grip.  “Please continue your visits.  My Father will visit me at night so you won’t disturb us.”

And he walked away.

I didn’t tell Zeke or Lizzie what had happened.

I visited Patrick the next day.  He seemed delighted to see me.

“I got the boat finished.  I caught 2 catfish out in the deep river.  I’ll feed you today.  I found bread, too.  My Father has provided loaves and fishes.”

He urged me to sit in the shade of the tent as he built a fire and heated oil a cast iron skillet over the fire pit.  As he busied himself, I noticed a bit of paper peeking out from under his mattress.  I reached for it and suddenly Patrick stood over me.  I jumped.

“It’s okay.  It’s the word of my Father,” Patrick said.  He pulled a few pages from under the mattress.  He took out a milk crate from between the mattress and tarp.  There were hundreds of pages of illuminated and chaotic spirals.  “It all brings grace to the savage chaos of our time.  I can’t tell what my Father means, but he guides my hand.  He will tell me when the time comes to share it.  Then the meaning will fly from the center of the page and into the hearts of man.  See how the doves start each page, each page starts in the center?  That’s our soul, that’s what our eyes will see, the dove of our souls flying into the hearts of the beasts.  See?”

My heart leapt as he showed me each page.  If only I could paint like that.  It was fluid and geometric at the same time.  The paper was torn newsprint he’d painted over with white acrylic.  To see the faint ghosts of news articles and ads behind the drawings added an eerie element to the composition.

“Where are you getting your supplies?”

“I spread the word of God.  People give me alms.  I buy what is needed to be my Father’s scribe.”

He left me and went back to tending the fish.  I pulled out two pages from the bottom of the pile and slipped them into my bag.

We were quiet as we ate the fish with our fingers off of newspaper.  I noticed the bread had a bit of mold on it and didn’t eat it.  “I ate before I came,” I said.

Patrick smiled.  “I guess you weren’t expecting to find such bounty here,” he said, then ate my bread.

I looked at the finished boat.  He’d nailed wooden patches over parts of it.  On each patch, he’d painted the words Jesus Dreaming.

“Please let me give you my kayak,” I said.  “Your boat is so rickety.  I’m afraid you’ll drown.”

He sighed.  “If it’s my time to join Him, my boat will make the journey as well as yours.  Besides, you know in your heart I’ve always had the power of God within me.  Remember when I brought that bird back to life?  It was after your father hurt you.  You found a dead robin in the backyard and you cried and cried.  It hadn’t been dead long.  I knelt down with you.  I held the bird to my heart.  It stretched its wings and it flew around our heads.  I told you then, every bird has a claw but not every claw has wings.  It made you laugh.  Remember?  Why sure you do!”

I nodded but I didn’t remember any such thing.  I left him and went home to wash the fish smell off of me.  Then I went to the College of Art.  Even though I dropped out, I was still good friends with my professor.  I showed him the drawings.

He was as taken by them as I was.  He called a friend of his who ran an outsider art gallery.  I went there and showed him Patrick’s art.  I told him a little of his story.  “He says he’s taking dictation from God.  I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want to be part of a show, but I could get his works together and help write a bio.”

The gallery owner said he had a collector who would almost surely pay top dollar for Patrick’s work.

I could finally help Patrick.  I knew he would be resistant at first.  I planned to let him get angry, then take Zeke out to see him.  Zeke could calm Patrick down and tell him that showing his art was a way of getting God’s word out to people and a way of supporting himself.

When I got to Patrick’s camp the next day, he’d taken his tent and bed apart.  He squatted on the ground rifling through his art, muttering and hissing.

“Are you okay?”

“I’ve lost part of The Word.  Or Satan has stolen it.  I didn’t see him come.  I slept too much.  I can’t find it.  Without the entire stream, The Word makes no sense.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Pages are gone!  Pages are gone from my Father’s word.”

“Oh Patrick, don’t be upset.  I took them.  I showed them to a gallery owner.  They want to do a show.  It’ll make you lots of money.  You won’t have to live like this anymore.  It’ll get the word out, too.”

He lunged at me and grabbed me by the shoulder.  “Get them back.  Now!  You have to get them back!  My Father is angry!”

He shook me hard and pushed me toward the path to my car.  “Go!”

I did as he asked.  I went to the gallery got the paintings back.  The owner was upset.  I was sweating and talking fast.  He may have thought I was the one who was crazy.

Maybe I was.

I took the pages back to Patrick.  He grabbed them from me and looked over them, chanting, turning them in circles.    He loosened his robe.  The rest of his work was tied to his chest with a rope.  He stuffed the pieces I returned into the pile.

“Patrick, you’ll damage them.  These are great works of art.  They can help you live a better life.  Maybe that’s what God’s message is.  Maybe that’s why I’m here, why He sent you to me, so I could help you through the art, so you could…”

“Help me?  You think by being a thief you can help me?  You are a whore!  I am NOT Patrick and you are NOT my sister.  I trusted you but it was you all along, you were the devil in it all.  You ruin everything.”

He pushed me to the ground and strode away into the woods.

I don’t know how long I lay there.  I wanted him to come back.  I was afraid that he would.

I eventually gathered myself up and went home.

I halfway expected the next day he would show up with another bouquet but he didn’t.  Or the day after that.

Zeke wouldn’t let me go back by myself, so we went together.  Everything was gone – the bower and all his stuff.  The boat.  The only thing left were ashes in the fire pit.

I ran around looking for trails he might have made moving his stuff to another camp site.  There was nothing.  I ran along the river’s edge.  Zeke tried to keep up with me.  He was talking steady and low, but I couldn’t hear what he said.  I ran in circles.  Patrick had vanished again.  And again it was my fault.

I saw a piece of wood floating in the river.  It was almost as brown as the water itself, but there was some color to it. I waded out to get it.  On the sodden dark wood I could read the bright blue paint:  Jesus Dreaming.

The Wolf River undertow pulled at my legs, gnawed at my calves.  Was this why they called it a wolf?  I heard it growling.  No, it was Zeke calling.  He guided me out of the water.

I don’t remember much about what happened next.  We drove to the police station.  It was hard convincing them to come look at the camp.  They only wanted us to file a missing person report.

I kept insisting they needed to dredge the river, that my brother had drowned.  The desk officer asked Zeke for a description of Patrick, but Zeke had never actually seen Patrick.  I’d kept my brother’s secret too well.  The clerk eyed me wearily but he sent a cop to survey the scene with us.

That cop talked a lot to Zeke.  They walked all around the site, but the cop saw no “real evidence” that there was a camp, that there was a drowning.

There would be no dredging, no further search.  Zeke was urged to take me home.

The days after were a blur.  I had to go back into counseling.  I went back on meds so I could keep from crying in front of my daughter all of the time.  I spent a lot of time laying on the floor of my studio.  I knew I should try to recreate what Patrick had shown me, but my efforts were no more than scribbles that I tossed away.

 

About once a week, now, I take my kayak down to the Wolf River.  My oars slice through the brown waters.  I go up and down and round and round.  I peer over the edge of the kayak but instead of my own reflection I see his – like when he was a child — as if he’s sleeping in the water, his eyelids rippling with unfathomable dreams.

sean flew away (2)

***

Thanks for reading this story.  It’s a work of fiction.  Though my brother had times of deep spiritual beliefs, he never believed he was a savior.  I have known other people with schizophrenia who did, so I’ve jumbled up family stories and stories I’ve heard from others.  I’ve gotten comments from several readers of this story about not being sure of the reliability of the narrator.  What do you think?

Here are links to other posts I’ve written about coping with schizophrenia in the family and the loss of a younger sibling:

Essays:

Passages, Mourning and Halloween

The Limits of Gratitude

This short story was written out of need to make a benign ghost story, since most ghost that I’ve imagined have been much more helpful than many mortals I know 🙂

Driving Home

~~~

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The Perils of Fruitcake

This is a story I wrote and told at December storytelling events for the last two years.  I hope you enjoy it and always get what you wish for.

The Perils of Fruitcake
 By Joy Corcoran
When I was 10 years old, I only wanted on simple thing for Christmas:  a Schwinn sting ray bike with a banana seat and high riser handle bars.
I had been so good, at least, since Thanksgiving.  I did all  my chores with minimum complaint.  I shared a room with my brother and sister, so I wasn’t about to keep the whole thing clean, but my bed was made and my toys were put away. 
My parents gave every indication that Santa would bring me a bike.  On Christmas Eve, I was so excited that Mom had to give me two pieces of fruit cake to get me to go to bed.
Now, the fruitcake in our family was not that dry little brick you find in the grocery store this time of year.  Our fruitcake was an old family recipe that had been refined and perfected by generations of alcoholics – each year a little more rum and sugar was added to the recipe.  By the time it got to my generation, it was dense moist slice of heaven.  Just opening the tin that it came in was an intoxicating experience.  I loved it.  It was filled with chewy sweet fruits and nuts.  It made me warm and happy, and calmed me down enough to go to sleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night thirsty and needing to pee.  When I finished my business, I heard my parents on the back porch laughing and talking.  It was a sweet sound to hear.  They had been fighting so much lately, mostly about money.  I peeked around the doorway to see what they were doing.  They were painting an old used 1950s clunker bike pink with yellow daisies. 
I was crushed.  I wanted to run into the room and yell that they got the wrong bike, but they were so happy, I just couldn’t.  I trudged back to bed but didn’t sleep well.  When my sister and brother got up, they had to drag me out of bed, which never happened before on Christmas morning. 
My mom was so happy about the bike.  The yellow daisies she painted on it were small and out of style.  She’d painted “Flower Powered” on the chain guard, but it didn’t have the right kind of mod over-sized flowers of the 70s. Nothing shined or glittered.  It looked like the kind of bike she would ride.  I pretended to like it.
I pretended to like the other gifts, too, but in our family, you had one big gift and the rest were just necessities wrapped up – pajamas, socks, underwear.
For Christmas breakfast we got to have anything we wanted.  I wanted fruitcake.  As I ate, I began to get a little hot and flushed.  I started thinking about how hard I’d worked and how good I’d been only to wind up with that awful bike.  My sister never made her bed and she got her easy bake oven.  My brother threw a major fit every time he had to take out the trash, but he got his GI Joe with the kung-fu grip. 
They were both eager to go outside and brag about their gifts.  They had on their coats and were out the door while I was downing one more piece of fruit cake.
My mom asked if I wanted her to help me carry the bike out.  I said no and put on my coat. 
“Don’t you want to ride your new bike?”
“I hate that crappy bike!”  I yelled.  “It’s an old ladies bike!”  And I ran out the door.
The girl in the neighborhood who was closest to my age was Sissy Manjialardi.  Her father was actually able to keep a job and she had all kinds of great toys and cool clothes.  And what was she showing off to all the neighborhood kids?  A brand-new, fire-red Stingray with a gold banana seat, and high rise handle bars with glitter streamers.
She rode it down deadman’s hill, half a block from my house.  It wasn’t really that dangerous, it was more like a rise in the road and she stayed on the sidewalk.  None of us were allowed to ride in the street.  She would speed down the hill, and fly off the curb and do this quick turn and brake and skid sideways on the asphalt leaving a mark on the asphalt. 
Then she would let one of us neighborhood kids take turns pushing the sacred bike back up the hill so she could ride it down again. 
I stood in line with the rest, but when my turn came, instead of waiting for her to mosey up the hill with her friends, I jumped on the bike.  I flew down deadman’s hill.  After all, in a fair world, the bike would be mine.  Besides, I knew I was cooler than her.  I knew I could do that skid thing way better than she could.
What I didn’t know is how wide those handlebars were.  They got caught on the street sign.  The bike stopped and bucked and I flew over the handlebars out into the street, skidded across the asphalt, and skinned my hands and face. 
Sissy and the other kids screamed and ran over to the bike to make sure it wasn’t hurt.  Sissy said that no one would ever be allowed to touch her bike again and she took it home.  I lay there dazed waiting for the other kids to beat me up – kid justice is swift and direct.  I started crying like a big baby, and I thought I probably deserved a good pounding.
But before anybody landed a punch, my mom appeared.  She picked me up and did that mom thing of fussing at me and hugging me at the same time.  “Can you move your arms?  I can’t believe you tried to ride in the street!  How many fingers am I holding up?  I knew those bikes were dangerous!  I never want to see you on that bike again!  You could have killed yourself.  You kids be careful, bikes like that’ll break your fool necks.”
She whisked me home and cleaned my wounds, which turned out to be minor. 
Later she and I went for a bike ride together.  She rode my dad’s bike, because, as it turned out, the bike was hers, painted up for me.
And that very day, my mom taught me how to ride in the street.  She said I was old enough and since I was so hard headed, I was probably going to do it anyway.  She showed me the hand singles and how to look all the way back before going around a parked car.  She made me promise to be careful.  And I was.  And it turned out to be a great bike for me.  I liked to wander, but no matter how far I went or how rocky the road was, that bike held up and brought me back home.
And that next Christmas, I did NOT have fruitcake for breakfast.

Story: Blaze of Dreams

My long short story Blaze of Dreams was published in The Oxford American, The Southern Magazine of Good Writing, in 1995, when I was using my maiden name, Tremewan.  The OA is still a vibrant magazine with a great online presence.  It helps broaden the view South. I’m in the process of developing Blaze of Dreams into a full length novel.  Set in 1978, it’s based on my own experiences after developing epilepsy at age 16, which became a turning point for the better in my life, even though it was a rough road.  I believe having to deal with a serious and complicated health condition saved me from the alcoholism that ran in my family and gave me a way to imagine a better life for myself. Here is a slightly edited version of the original story.
The published story was illustrated by the wonderful artwork of Micheal Anthony Donato, which you can see better in the gallery at his website. 
Even though it’s about a teenager, it’s a story for adults. Although, so many of us were adults long before we reached 18, it’s not always clear where to draw the line.  I do hope to remain true to the real struggles of young girls, the ways they navigate the confusion of our culture and develop their own powerful spirits. 

Blaze of Dreams
By Joy Corcoran
            For a brief time, during my sixteenth year, I had a blaze of dreams so vivid I was convinced I’d become a visionary.  I lay down in my bed and a goddess emerged from the sheets and put flames in my heart.  Tigers stood on their hind legs and embraced me.  I wandered in elaborate and ornate castles where stone rooms expanded infinitely before me and doors collapsed in my hand.
            I didn’t know at the time I had nocturnal epilepsy.  My nightly travels were auras, neurological foreshadowings of oncoming seizures.  I thought I was becoming like the oracles I’d read about in history class.  My dreams were as fantastic as the posters of Buddha Dreaming my father hung in his room before he left.  I thought I’d be the recipient of insights that would let me, finally, understand the chaos around me.
            When I woke from these dreams a thin, rigid ache creased the center of my head.  The sheets, rank with urine and sweat, assaulted my nose.  This, I suppose, should have been evidence that I wasn’t entering a better world but descending deeper into this one.  I thought I was becoming a visionary because my first aura lied to me.
            In those first moments of sleep a woman who had my features – only she was radiant, with wider eyes, fuller lips and hair that curled gracefully around her face – took my hand in hers.  She wore a vapor of silver lace and told me she was my true mother.  Your time with Inez and her children is to give you wisdom, to teach you mortal frailty.  Soon you will fly out of here.  Through your words, houses will fall and mountains will crumble. 
            I shook with pleasure and then I just shook.  I woke and it was Inez, my mother, shaking me awake.  Her brassy hair in pink curlers, her face pinched against the smell of my sheets, she said, “We ain’t had this problem since you was a baby.  Get these sheets in the wash and your butt in the shower.”  The light reflected in her glasses and glared directly into my eyes.  My head pounded.  “You slept through the alarm and if you don’t hurry, you’ll miss the bus!”
            Her shrill bitching got me to the bus, to school, where I sat, numb, through the dull haze of History, English and Math.  It was well into evening before I could think straight, before I could remember my dream and realize I’d been visited by a goddess, my real mother, and that soon I’d leave Inez, her drinking, her boyfriends, and her piercing nasal voice.
            I went to work on my looks.  I painted dark, slanted lines around my eyes.  I chewed on my lips to make them fuller.  I combed and combed my hair to get the unruly curls to fall more gracefully around my face.  I put on a white gauze dress I found in Inez’s closet.  I floated around the house trying to figure out what I was supposed to learn about human frailty.
            “You look like one of them flower children,” hooted Elmer, Inez’s tattooed, orb-bellied, greasy-headed boyfriend.  Inez squinted and laughed, but I knew she couldn’t see me.  She never wore her glasses around men.  I figured that’s why all her boyfriends were so ugly to behold.
           
            Preston, my boyfriend, was extraordinary to behold.  “Wow, you look great!” he said when I floated up to him in my loose white pants and blousy white shirt.  He’d never seen me in eyeliner, or any make-up for that matter.  I didn’t tell him right away about my vision.  I didn’t know what to say and I wasn’t sure he’d understand.
            He’d laugh, probably.  He had a chortling, boisterous laugh that I loved.  I never heard anything like it, so pure and delighted, so in control.  When I stood beside him, I was elevated.  Everybody loved Preston, loved his laughter.  At my old school, that kind of laughter would be directed at me.
            There’s a way of hiding who you are that makes you popular.  Girls with bright, eager eyes and quick, sweet smiles were like that, even if they’d been taking deep drags of cigarettes and crying in the bathroom just minutes before.  They smirked at me as they would a child, my face mottled with frustration, unable for days to get my lips to curl into a smile.
            That was my old school.  When I started at Central, I was new.  I had thinned in the middle and blossomed on the edges.  Preston plucked me from the gaggle of girls before I had a chance to be pegged as weird.  I was under him in no time at all, all tongues and yearning.  I fit around him like a suede glove.
            I was crazy about him, his spindly legs and his little round butt, his face that opened up in laughter, his long knobby fingers that slipped so easily under your clothes.  I knew if I spoke in a loving voice, if I listened carefully and closely to him, he’d love me forever.
            And when I became a visionary, when the bud of my heart flowered into magnificence, he’d worship me.  He didn’t know about me yet.  He couldn’t stop kissing me long enough to learn I wanted power more than anything.
            I hated the rambling life my mother had taken to after my father left.  I thought at the time she could have kept Dad if she listened to him harder, if when he came home late she could have said, Glad to see you, instead of, Where the hell have you been?
            My brother, Marty, and my sister, Brenda, left with my dad and I couldn’t blame them.  They were older and Dad seemed so cool.  He got fired from the pickle factory for letting his hair grow long.  He took to drumming on the week-end for the house-band at the Starlight Cruise.  Hippie music, Inez said with disgust.  The Starlight Cruise was so hip, kids my age bragged about sneaking in.  Daddy wasn’t making much money, but he made friends, especially girls – flushed, laughing girls not much older than my sister and me.  Mama drank Blue Ribbon beer when he went out Friday night and had plenty of bottles to sling at him when he came home.
            The result was he moved in with a young girl named Miracle.  She had long, black hair and wore love beads, tank tops and no bra.  When he came to pack his clothes, Inez chased him all around the neighborhood with a dinky pistol.  Somebody called the police.  They helped my dad out of a tree but arrested Inez – took her to jail despite her tears and even though the pistol turned out to be a cigarette lighter.
            Miracle didn’t expect her drummer to arrive with three teenagers in tow, but she cooked us something called tofu goulash and let us eat hash brownies for dessert, so we were very quiet.  Mama came the next morning fresh from jail and found us all eating cinnamon rolls and drinking espresso from Miracle’s thimble sized cups.  Inez, her hair a lopsided cone of knots, tried to persuade us to come home with her.
            “I’m going to stay with Dad,” Brenda said.  She wore a tank top and shorts she borrowed from Miracle.
            “I’m going to stay with Dad,” Marty said.  He wore cut-offs and was laid out on a lime-green beanbag chair, lips glistening with cinnamon frosting.
            Inez took each announcement as if it were a physical blow, grunting and grasping her chest.  I sat on the floor, next to the table, which was really an industrial wire spool.  Miracle didn’t have enough chairs for us all.  Before I could make my intentions known, Inez yanked me up. 
            “Amanda stays with me!”  she shrieked.  “She’s too young for your hippie friends to poison.”
            Dad laughed at her.  “You should let her decide –“
            At the same time Miracle said, “Take the others too.”
            Miracle and Dad looked at each other in a moment of love and hate.  An argument immediately absorbed them.  I heard their voices rising as Inez dragged me down the rickety, wooden stairs from Miracle’s carriage-house apartment.
            It wasn’t long before we lost our house.   Dad said he didn’t have to help pay our rent since he was stuck with two of the children.  Mama clerked in a drugstore, but started missing work.  She drank in honky-tonks, where they played music more to her liking.  Different boyfriends brought her home all summer.  They helped her sell of what few pieces of furniture we had.  Then she met Elmer, who helped us get a new place just ahead of the eviction. 
            Our new place was closer to downtown, where nobody cared if people lived in unfit housing.  It was a rankled down, three-room A-frame with spongy floorboards that gave under your feet.  It was no house to dance in.
            “It ain’t that bad,” Elmer said, and Mama smiled up at him, seeing it all with her glasses off.
            The tiger fur tasted salty and cottony.  I buried my face in his chest as we waltzed to “The Stars of Loredo.”  As we danced I grew larger.  The tiger’s paws slipped from the back of my neck to my waist.  His hot breath warmed my chest.  As it is in dreams, things changed instantly.  All of the sudden, I was in the castle of turtles, a swampy place where the pace slowed to that of dribbling molasses.  Jewels adorned the turtles’ shells.  They walked like men, upright, their stubby front legs replaced with Preston’s thin arms and hands with three knobby fingers.  The way is long, the way is slow, they whispered as I wandered through damp rooms, my feet chilled by the carpet of moss.  Is this the room where my mother waits?  The turtle woman smiled in her lipless, toothless way, her green skin wrinkled and warty.  Her black eyes were barely visible, but in them I saw my reflection.  She urged me through the door, but the knob turned to liquid, hot liquid.  It burned my hand and then between my legs.  I cursed her.  The rooms opened before me and I ran and ran and stumbled over a ledge and landed on the floor of my bedroom, urine, now cold, chafing my thighs.
            A college student named Clovis Barnes taught poetics at Central as part of Arts-in-the-Schools.  He assigned animal poems.  My head hurt.  My eyes watered.  “Don’t write about the physical characteristics of your animal.  Write what the animal represents to you, what feeling the animal symbolizes.  And I don’t want to see any poems about favorite kitties or puppies.”  I wrote of the turtles –
The way is long.  The way is hard.
They plot and point
All warts and wrinkles
Turtles don’t waltz
They point the way
They don’t tell you that you will fall
            Clovis read it to the class.  I blushed red in my white dress.  “This is brilliant, Amanda.  This is visionary.”  He kept me after class, stared directly into my breasts and told me to consider writing seriously.  I had no intention of taking anything seriously.  Soon I would fly out of my life, away from crisp voices telling me what to do.
            I tried to tell Preston.  I never ate lunch, afraid some warp of fat would envelop me, change me into my mother.  I sipped a soda and watched him wolf down school slop:  rubbery burgers and sodden buns, a nest of iceberg lettuce and clots of shredded potatoes called “fritter fries.”
            “Clovis says I’m a visionary.”
            “You’re certainly a vision.”  Laughter like a song.
            “I’m meant to be great.  I feel it.”  I took a deep breath and sputtered.  “I’m destined to become great – a goddess.  I’ve had a few dreams –“
            “You were a goddess last week-end.  I felt it for true!  And Friday Mom and Dad are going to see a movie so I hope to feel it again.”
            “No, really, Preston.  I’m having visions.  I’m going to be like a Greek oracle, like we read about in history, remember, who advised the gods.  I’m going to be like….”  My head pounded.  I couldn’t think what I was going to be like.  The clatter of plates and forks ricocheted in my head.
            “Sure, baby,” he said and smiled.  “You don’t look so hot.  Aunt Sally’s not coming to ruin our week-end, is she?”
            Aunt Sally was my period.  He took my hand across the gray-flecked linoleum where years of high school love were scratched into the surface.  He had an all-knowing look in his eyes and a drip of pickle relish on his chin.
            “No,” I said and smiled till my face hurt.  After lunch, I went to the school nurse for aspirin.
            I sat on my bed in the lotus position, dressed in a white robe, a white towel wrapped on my head.  I breathed deep to clear my mind, then on the outbreath, I begged for power.  With every breath, every little movement, my bed crackled, informing me I was nowhere near Nirvana.  Inez lined the mattress with a thick plastic sheet without even asking.
            “You know why,” she said when I asked her why the hell it was there.
            When you’re sixteen, you can overlook many things.  You can reshape what’s in front of you into something that will never happen.  There were images in my dreams that promised nothing and made no sense: vicious yo-yos, barking cartoons and collages of bizarre happy TV characters.  When you want to believe something, you can ignore jumbled dreams in favor of any thread of hope that runs through your life.
            When you’re sixteen you can also be mean.  Inez embarrassed me. She was hopelessly redneck and her boyfriend was married.  I spit in the bottle of Jack Daniels that Elmer left at our house.  I told Inez that Miracle made homemade biscuits every morning for Dad, Brenda and Marty, even though Brenda complained all they ever got was cold granola and soymilk.  Inez worked in a drugstore while women burned their bras and screamed into microphones.  They marched around in mini-skirts and made advances in the world, why couldn’t she?  I told her she was stupid to work where they sold laxatives and tampons.
            “Honey, I’m lucky to have a job there.  I quit school to marry your no good father.  You don’t see women like me on that damned TV.  Am I right?  Got to be twenty with big tits and a saucy mouth.  Ask your father.”
            “You could at least learn to type.”
            She swigged her beer.  “You just don’t know.”
            I begged the goddess to rescue me, breathing in, breathing out.  I didn’t know where I wanted her to take me, but somewhere, anywhere else.  When I dreamed of her again, she wore a slinky gown of brushed gold, her shoulders creamy and slight.  I kissed her feet.  She spoke to me, but her voice sounded far away, a wave of warbles.  She took my hand and I faced her and she turned into a man.  We hid from Preston who called for me outside the door.  I buckled on to an ivory sofa with the man.  He lisped, my love goddess, pushed into me, jumped up naked and ran.  The goddess returned.  Tell me when, I begged.  Soon and soon and soon, she sang.  Again I sat at her feet.  Her shoes were long, flat turtles, the turtle faces grinning and nodding, like Inez’s loving gaze at Elmer, flat and unseeing.  I started to think it might be insanity, not immortality, that had gotten hold of me.
            Dad made me visit him once a month.  I don’t think he really wanted me.  He slept all day after drumming all night.  Brenda had dropped out of school and moved in with her boyfriend.  Marty had dropped out of school and was holed up with some bikers in a gutted gas station they called a club.  It was afternoon before Miracle stumbled out of bed, round and clumsy with her first pregnancy, and vomited in the sink.
            My visit was the only way Dad could cause a flash of anger on Inez’s face.  He couldn’t make her mad about Brenda and Marty anymore.  I guess any hellhole is better than what you gave them.
            Brenda told me Miracle and Dad laughed at Inez, her beehive hair, her Tammy Wynette records.  “At first it was funny, then Miracle upped and called me and Marty white trash.  My baby isn’t going to grow up with a bunch of rednecks, she told Dad. You better get us to California before my sweet angel is born.
            They didn’t leave right away – Dad had a hard time earning money.  Plus he wanted to bug Inez, I think.  She’s still my daughter.  I believe he missed Inez, at least a little.  Inez went to work when he decided to be a hippie, but Miracle told him he’d better get more gigs because there was no way he was sitting around on his ass every night.
            I sat in their apartment alone.  I tried to have a vision, but nothing came to me.  I sat in lotus position in the beanbag chair, breathing and begging until my mouth felt papery.  The visions were of Dad with Miracle, Brenda with her boyfriend, Marty with his live hard die young tattoo, Inez with Elmer and me with nothing.  I called Preston.
            His mother and father were at a dental convention in Burlington, North Carolina.  He had to call his grandmother every morning and evening to check in, but the house was his, he said.  When I went over he led me to his room, through the valleys of dirty laundry, and nudged me into a great slurping forgetfulness.
            Since I started wearing all white, since I lined my eyes with black kohl, since I seemed distracted and moody, he’d taken to calling me goddess.  He’d grunt goddess in my ear while his hands slid all over me.  It felt good and right.  I was lonely beyond my own ability to comprehend it.  I fell asleep in his tangled bed and was visited for the last time by my goddess, the goddess of lies and mortality.
            The dream started as a Gumby cartoon.  He will walk through the wall if you want him to, but she emerged from the block of clay and grabbed my hand.  They’re after you now.  They’ll catch you if you linger.   I clutched her hand and we leapt into the clay.  I turned to claymation, tripped and disintegrated into white tear-shaped pieces, then pulled back together.  Gumby and Poky watched, their eyes enormous, their clay mouths drooped in wormy frowns.  I ran alone, the hall got longer.  A ball of fire burned in my hand.  Mother, Mother!  I called.  Inez screamed Drop the ball!  I didn’t know I had a ball, I dropped it and it exploded in my face – a blinding light and searing pain that cut through my forehead.
            A dream is usually in black and white, but not an aura.  It’s as real as the floor beneath you.  When you’re pulled out of a seizure, the real world seems more like a dream that what just happened in your head.  I slowly became aware of the paramedics.  They were jowly men, the top buttons of their navy blue uniforms squeezing their necks so that their heads looked like trapped balloons.
            “I think she’s coming to.”
            Preston was far away, dressed only in red boxers.  The red boxers were a beacon that made it all real.  I sat up straight and naked in front of crew of men I’d never seen before.
            “Easy does it,” a man said.
            “You’ve had a seizure.  We’re going to have to take you to the hospital.”
            I covered myself with the sheets.  “My clothes?”  Preston scrambled to pick them up, handed them to me, then turned his back, but not before I saw his disgusted expression.  Then I smelled the urine.  Drapes parted.  A vision appeared, real this time.  The men looked at me with pity and condescension.  I was sixteen in bed with a boy.  Not the wise and lovely goddess – if anything a sad vision, an emblem of youth gone bad.
            The realization that you aren’t in control of anything, not even your own body, can be instructive. 
            It took awhile to get my seizures under control.  Pills were doled out to me in varying amounts.  I spent the school day laying my head down in one class after another.
            They reduced the medication and I had a seizure at school.  It began with a vision of Preston reaching for me with his fine hands and it ended with a broken nose and split lip.  The electricity of my own body threw me to the floor in front of the entire tenth grade geography class.
            My mother was drunk when she arrived at the hospital.  I was hooked up to a monitor, and they had just finished a cat scan so blue and red wired glued like snakes all over my head.  Inez screamed at the nurses, “Why are you doing this to her again?”
            They tried to calm her, then ran for my doctor, but by the time he arrived, she had passed out and was snoring in the chair next to my bed.  When she woke up, she took my hand in hers and wept into the sheets.
            I came home from the hospital with a huge bottle of Dilantin.  They looked like peppermint capsules, pure white with a bright red belt.  They turned out to be the right drug for me.  They kept me contained. 
            On the day I came home I shook my bottle of Dilantin like a rattle.  I didn’t want to put it down.  Inez and I sat on the porch steps and watched the traffic speed past our house.
            “I’m not going back to school.”
            She looked at me and opened her mouth as if to argue, but stopped at sight of the bandage on my nose and the red slit on my lip. 
            “You didn’t learn a thing there anyway, except how to sleep with boys.”  She took a sip of her beer.  “Elmer called.  Said he and his wife are going on a second honeymoon.  Said it was better to end our thing and do the right thing.  He took back the car he gave me.”
            I nodded.  Mom had told him my problem while she fixed his dinner.  He said, “Epilepsy?  That’s that geek disease, ain’t it?”  Inez chucked him in the head with a can of beef stew.
            Dad hadn’t come to visit.  Brenda said he was on his way to California.
            Inez’s face drooped.  “What in the hell’s going to happen to us?”
            I thought of Preston’s face as he turned in fear and disgust, his face that hid from me all he so easily revealed before. 
            Before, before, the great before, when my dreams promised an ethereal new life.—before when he reached for me, before he avoided eye contact, his hands nested deep in his pockets.
            “Probably nothing, Mom.”
            She laughed softly to herself, took a gulp of beer, then cast the can into the yard, its contents frothing wet circles in the afternoon air.  We sat there, on the porch, not talking, not looking at each other, until it was dark and the bright lights of cars passing made us tired enough to go inside.
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Story: The Little Madonnas

A short, short story, originally published by Southern Voices 2.  I often use it in my storytelling programs, too.

Update: I’ve revised and illustrated this story.  You can see the new version here: http://www.joycorcoran.com/2013/08/little-madonnas-illustrated-story.html
The Little Madonnas
By Joy Corcoran
It was a hot sticky day and I was waiting for a bus that was supposed to arrive 15 minutes ago.  I wasn’t too upset.  I had my bottle of water.  It was the first of the month and I’d cashed my social security check.  I’d done some shopping and it looked like financial ends were going to meet for the month. 
The bus stop was down the street from Memphis Tech, one of those last-chance high schools.  While I waited with a crowd of others, two girls in school uniforms joined us.  I say uniforms – but they had tied their shirts above their waists and hiked up the skirts so they showed plenty of leg.  They came cussing, gossiping and laughing.  Bling was the style that year, and the girls were wearing their hair in elaborate sculptures of swoops and curls studded with gold and silver combs, and fake diamond barrettes.  Their hair was piled so high it almost hid the fact they hadn’t grown to their full height.
They were each burdened with a massive backpack for their school work, a massive purse for their appearance work, and a big pink sling to carry their babies.  Tiny baby girls nestled in the slings, each with pierced ears and pink ribbons tied artfully around their sweet bald heads.  They looked serene, rocked in the bough of their flashy, trashy mothers.
I rolled my eyes at the other people waiting for the bus.  We all shared that sneer people tend to develop as they age – like an allergic reaction to the youth of today.
Time passed.  It got hotter.  Then to make matters worse, a crazy lady dodged traffic and crossed the street to join us.  She cussed at the cars as they swerved to avoid hitting her.  She was dressed in such thin clothes you could see every bony contour of her famine thin body. 
She carried a plastic shopping bag filled with rags, cans and something jingly.  She quieted when she got to our stop and so did we.  She smelled of dumpsters, alleys, and urban decay.  I looked down to avoid eye contact and saw her long brown toenails sprouted through her thin canvas shoes.
“Anybody here got a green dollar?”
I had plenty green dollars but wasn’t about to open my wallet in front of that woman – or those girls, for that matter.  I looked down the street and tried to conjure up the bus that just wouldn’t come.
“All I want is a green dollar.  I got change for it.”  She flashed a snaggled smile.
In unison, the girls shifted their baby slings to the side and their purses forward.  They both opened their wallets and each took out a dollar.
“Oh, I just need one,” the woman laughed.  She reached deep into her bag and drew up a handful of coins.  She picked up a few then moved the coins from one hand to the other, trying to count them out but not quite able to.
One of the girls took the woman’s filthy hand and said, “It’s alright, ma’am, I can count it for you.”  She picked out a dollar in dimes and nickels.  “Now put the rest back in your bag so you don’t lose it.”  The woman obeyed and the girl pressed the dollar into her hand.
“You need some more money, ma’am?” the other girl asked.  “I can spare this.”
“Oh no!  This is plenty.”  She started to walk away.
“Hey, the bus’ll be here in a minute, don’t go now.”
“I don’t need no bus.  I just needed a green dollar.”
“You got somewhere to stay, ma’am?  I know a place where you can….”
“No, no.  I’m a rich girl now.”  She sauntered away singing,
“I got a green dollar,
Ain’t no need to holler.
You got a dollar in your hand,
You can make it in this land…”
The girls took out their wet wipes and cleaned their hands.  They unbundled their babies and held them tight.
We all waited in silence for the bus.  We waited and waited and waited.
When it finally came, the driver said there was an accident downtown and everything had to be rerouted.  I sat down and let the air conditioning breeze over me. 
I only had a short ride, but the little Madonnas had miles and miles and another transfer to make before they reached home.
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French Black Madonna
Little Madonnas by Joy Corcoran