Saturday, September 17, 2011

FICTION: Sacrificial Rites by Mitchell Waldman

The trouble started with the columnist. Where the hell did he come from, and why was he messing with the lives of Carol and her daughter? It was none of his business, not at all.

She should have known better than to trust him. He was a columnist, and she'd read some of his other moralizing columns. Like he was so damn good, better than all the people he was writing about. She should have expected it. It was funny really that she'd been so naive, considering what she'd been doing for the last three years. And when the column came out, she was afraid to walk out of the apartment. He didn't use her name, but put down enough identifying information -- the name of the school, the hospital, her position, even the class her daughter was in. God, there were only twelve kids in Patty's class. Did he really think he was doing anyone any good? Enlightening mankind by victimizing others? Or was it just to sell papers, sensationalism, like the talk shows on TV? Was that all it was? And now she was disgraced. Even her job was in jeopardy.

She could see him now with his innocent, youthful smile, the little bow tie that made him look about fifteen years old.

They'd met for coffee in a little restaurant near the hospital when she got off from her job at the hospital at three. He was already sitting at a booth in front of a coffee cup, waving her over.

"Mrs. Reynolds. Thanks for coming. I hope you don't mind I ordered ahead. I was afraid they'd kick me out if I just sat here. They seem to get their share of vagrant types."

She stood there, trying to smile at him, wondering what he meant by that. She'd suggested the place, after all.

"Well, sit, sit. Please."

She sat.

"What'll you have? Coffee, tea? A piece of pie, maybe?"

"Just coffee. I'm trying to watch my weight."

"Why? You look just fine. C'mon. I'll have one too. The paper doesn't give me much, but a piece of pie I don't think they would mind."

"No, really. Coffee's fine."

He smiled, a sincere sort of smile, at least it seemed that way then. "You're a woman who knows what she wants, huh? Maybe I'll use that as my angle."


"Well, you know. You write a column, you've gotta have an angle. You could write any piece twelve different ways and wind up with twelve different stories. Surely you know that. The news is only more deceptive for trying to sound objective. Take a murder. You can write it from the viewpoint of victim's family -- the blood-thirsty, justice-to-be done, hang the son-of-a-bitch angle -- or you can play it from the neighbors' viewpoint -- you know, the old, he seemed like a nice guy, watered his lawn, cut his grass, kept to himself, we never would have dreamed that he would be capable of such a thing bit. Or you can play it another way, say the poor guy, he couldn't help himself murdering the old lady, he had so much rage from his childhood, beaten by one mother's lover after another, locked in a closet by another without food for three days, that sort of bit, he's society's fault, ya' know? Anyway you play it, they're the facts. But objective? It's just a matter of how you marshal the facts. Know what I mean?"

He was stirring his coffee in quick little circles, the spoon grating as it scraped against the inside of the cup.

"Now, me, writing a column, I don't have to even pretend that I'm objective. I just write it the way I feel. What seems right, the truth, you know?"

The truth. He'd actually said that, just after he'd said basically that there is no capital T truth.

"So, why don't we begin." He whipped a little note pad out of his shirt pocket and clicked his fifty cent pen.

"Where do you want me to start?"

"Wait a minute. Where are my manners? I never did get you that tea."


"Yeah, sorry, Carol. You don't mind if I call you Carol, do ya'?"

"Not if you don't mind me calling you Bob."

"Yeah, sure." He grinned widely, staring at her with his deep brown, unblinking eyes. "Why not." Then he turned his head sharply and called the waitress by name: "Hey, Jill, how about some more java over here for my friend?"

A woman with bright red hair and a big backside came over, snapping her gum, smiling at the columnist. Everybody loved him. He was a local celebrity.

"Sure, Bob. What'll it be?" she said, still looking at him, a little awestruck maybe. Carol thought maybe she was a little, too, sitting with this guy whose face was in the paper everyday.

"Coffee, Carol? Are you sure that’s all you want? No pie? The paper, like I told ya'...."

"Just coffee," Carol said. The waitress gave her a cup and poured some of the steaming brown fluid from the coffee pot. Then she stood, mooning at Bob.

"You sure are cute. More handsome than that picture of you in the paper. Truthfully, you should get a new one. It doesn't do you justice."

"Hey, thanks, Jill. You're not bad yourself."

"So, when you gonna do a column about me? I'll give you the lowdown on why a woman of my many talents puts up with serving a bunch of thankless low-lifes -- yourselves excluded, of course -- everyday, with no thanks. Why do I put up with it, you wonder? When I've got a degree in English Lit? I'll let you in on a little secret. I've got a dynamite novel nearly completed, that's going to make a great movie. You'll be able to say you interviewed me when I was just a waitress at this greasy spoon. What do you say, Bob?" she asked, a hand on her hip. "I'll give you the inside story, an exclusive."

Bob seemed to be taking it all in with enthusiasm. Or was it just that she had a body to go with her mouth? "Hey, Jill," he said, "it sounds great. I'll tell you what. Right now I'm full up with stuff for a while, but here's my card." He pulled one out of his shirt pocket and handed it to her. "Call me in a couple weeks. Then maybe we'll see what you've got. Okay?"

"You mean it? Yeah, yeah, sure. Thanks."

The moment she was gone the columnist leaned over confidentially toward Carol. "They've all got novels, every third waitress from here to Albany. But they don't have anything. Now you, you've got a real story. Speaking of which...."

"What's it like to be so famous?"

He laughed a staccato laugh -- it sounded a little like machine gun fire. "It's not all it's cracked up to be, believe me. You work ten to twelve hours a day -- I get to work at eight every morning and leave at seven, sometimes eight at night. It's a lot of hard work, a little glory, and even littler pay. What can I say?

"So, where were we?" he asked, staring at his blank pad. "Start wherever you like. Start with what you told me over the phone. Refresh my memory."

"About my daughter, about Patty, you mean?"

"Sure. Why not."

So she told him about Patty, a sweet kid, a smart kid with big things ahead of her. "I'd do anything for that girl," she said. "To give her the best, a better life than mine. That's your angle, if you want."

"Hmmm?" he said, looking up. "Oh, yeah, sure, sure. Not bad. The mother who'd do anything for her daughter. Even sell herself to strange men."

Carol's pulse quickened, her face reddened. "It's not exactly like that."

"Oh, no, no, so tell me what it is like."

"Well, after I was divorced, I started seeing a lot of men. That's all. Most of them weren't all that pleasant to be around but I still, you know, had my needs."

"Can't live with 'em, can't live without them."

"Right. So, I had my needs, but wasn't really finding anyone I could really go for, and then there was the school, the city school, kids getting knifed in the hallways, I didn't want that to happen to my girl. But where else could I send her?"

"There are lots of private schools in the city."

"Sure. Catholic schools. No thanks. I went to one of them myself back in Philly when I was a girl. Thanks, but no thanks. I told ya'. I only want the best for my girl."

"So it had to be Springdale."

"Yes. The best."

"And that costs a pretty penny, doesn't it?"

"They have financial aid, but even with that, I couldn't afford it on my salary. Nurses' aides don't exactly make a killing in Rochester."

"I see. So, you had your needs, and you had your daughter's needs to think about, and you were seeing all these guys...."

"So, I thought, what the hell. Kill two birds with one stone. Meet my needs and her needs at the same time. It's not as bad as it sounds. I'm not strutting around on street corners in a leather miniskirt, poking my head in strangers' windows."

"What exactly are you doing?"

"I told you on the phone. I've got three or four friends, it varies some times. We have an understanding between us, an arrangement, that's all. It helps us all out. Everyone benefits from the situation. What could be simpler?"

He looked up from his notebook then and smiled at Carol with a bloodthirsty look that made her shiver, made her sorry for everything she'd said.

And two days later, when the paper came could he have done that to her? Made her seem so depraved, so ugly. She thought she'd made her position, her angle clear. But he had his own angle, going on, as he did, about how we lived in a time when nothing was sacred, when money was king, when people would do anything to get ahead, to help their children get ahead, no matter how ugly and degrading the act was. What ever happened to old-fashioned morality? That sort of sermonizing. His angle.

But as if that weren't enough, he'd put in those little details. He'd promised her before she'd left the restaurant that day that she would be totally unidentifiable, unrecognizable. He'd lied to her, the moralizing son of a bitch.

She'd seen the paper during her regular 2:00 lunch break in the hospital cafeteria. She'd spilled coffee all over herself when she'd opened to the second section, where his somber face appeared above his column, and she read the words. She managed to keep down the half of the tuna sandwich she'd eaten, although the taste of refluxed stomach acid was burning in her throat. She tried to regain her composure. She cleaned up her trash, looking at no one, not daring to, then headed for the door and the nearest pay phone.

She dialed the number, reading off the ripped piece of envelope she still had in her purse.

"Bob Shepherd, please."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Shepherd's on another line right now. Let me take your name and number and have him call you back."

He didn't call back that afternoon, or the next, despite the many times she'd called for him. He'd used her, chewed her up and spat her out. It was worse than what she did, what he thought the guys that visited her did to her. It was much worse.

For two days she didn't leave the house. Patty took care of her, started to worry about her. She even called Stan and Mark to call off her meetings with them. Stan knew what it was about. He'd seen the paper, sent her a dozen roses. What did that Shepherd know about anything? Stan was the most decent guy she knew. He cared, he truly cared about her. What was wrong with that? He'd even said he'd leave his wife for Carol, if she didn't have all that goddamned money. It was Rhonda's money that had financed his beer distributorship. He'd cut his own neck if he left her. And what was the need? Why couldn't people just leave things, leave other people alone.

For two days she stayed in the apartment, lying in bed, eating tuna sandwiches, eating one row of Oreos after another, while watching television. It was mindless noise, but it was needed right now.

When, after two days, she decided to venture out, she felt as if everyone -- Mr. Marx at the deli on the corner, the pharmacist at the drugstore, and her landlady, old Mrs. Griggs -- knew about it. Not even a hello amongst them. And what about the kids, what about the Springdale parents, or even Patty's own classmates? But, never mind them. Nurse Crawford, the head nurse, from the hospital had called. She said not to bother to come in to work, and that she wanted to speak with Carol at ten o'clock the next morning in her office about what she said was a very serious matter that had come to her attention. So, she could probably kiss her job goodbye. And what about Patty? While Carol had made sure the paper was not around for Patty to see the day the column came out, she could not be sure Patty hadn't heard about it from the kids at school, could she?

"You want me to take care of this guy, this Shepherd guy? I've got some friends who can do it for me." Mark Niccio was a friend. After two years of meeting twice a week, they were comfortable with each another, they were good friends. So much for Bob Shepherd's morality. Little he knew about it. Narrow-minded bastard.

"So, whattaya say? I could make a couple of phone calls...some of the guys from the old neighborhood...."

"No, Mark. Thank you. It's not what I want."

"Then maybe I'll do something myself. You know where the guy lives?"

"Now Mark, honey, please."

"I wanna do it, Carol. I need to do it for what he did to you and your little girl. I want to see this guy hurt."

"You won't Mark. You'd blacken his eye and what do you think you'd read about in the paper the next day? You want that? You know how complicated that could get?"

"No, no. You're right. We don't need that. I got enough trouble with Marcia, already, I don't need any more. I don't need you getting messed up with her. She's one tough broad when she wants to be. A real mean one. You've seen some of the marks she's left on me."

"Thank you, It's not what I want."

The next morning it wasn't Carol, but Patty who didn't get out of bed. Carol padded softly into her daughter's room. Patty was snuggling with her teddy bear ¬¬-- thirteen and still hugging bears, maybe that was good -- when Carol came into the room.

"You okay, honey?"

"I'm not feeling well enough for school today."

"You sick? Here, let me feel your head." Patty pushed Carol's hand away as she moved it toward her daughter's forehead. Patty was staring at her mother. "Go away. Get out of my room."

"Is something wrong, darling? Is there something you want to talk about?"

"I said get out of my room, you whore!"

Carol was shaking as she left the room. She sat down at the kitchen table and tried to light a cigarette, but her hands were trembling too much. So this is what it had come to, what Shepherd's words had done.

She had no one to call, no one to turn to. A sister in Poughkeepsie that she could never talk to. A brother in Baltimore that she hadn’t seen in five years. She’d been a mother, done what she’d thought she’d needed to do for her daughter. Was that wrong? Did that make her a horrible person?

She got up, grabbed her purse off the couch, and headed out the door.

She drove and drove in her old Toyota, not knowing where to go. Driving in circles around the town. There was the police station, there was the hospital, there was Patty’s school...around and around she went, when all she wanted to do, really, was to flee the scene, leave this town now, for good, and never come back. But how could she do that? She had a life here, her daughter had a life here. If only they would be allowed to continue to live them.

She saw people on the sidewalk as she passed, coming out of stores, walking hand in hand, smiling, talking to one another. Why did it seem that every face turned to her, the smiles gone, the eyes of accusation on her, as she passed them by? Even the cop on the motorcycle who pulled up next to her at a red light seemed to be glaring at her, scowling as the light turned green.

But it was her imagination. It was a small town, but not that small. She led a quiet life. Most people did not know her. It was her imagination. But why then, why were they staring like they did?

She drove for twenty, thirty minutes before she saw the church spire. She hadn’t been in a church in years, and didn’t know why she pulled off the road next to it now.

She turned off the engine, and slammed the car door shut. It made a loud, echoing sound in the stillness of the day. There was a slight breeze and a gray, cloudy sky above, as she looked up at the spire. She took a deep breath and walked up the concrete steps to the church’s large oak doors.

Inside, in the vestibule she remembered the smells of churches from her childhood, old wood, mustiness and dust. No smells of cooking or home or burning fires (not the pleasant kind, anyway). No, it was cold in here, in all churches that she remembered -- the chilly, rarified air. These are the things she remembered -- hugging her mother’s leg after the services, as the people smiled and laughed and patted her on the head, her father, now long gone, smiling with the brown front tooth and the grubby beard, trying to look his Sunday best before tearing off the tie in the car, scowling all the way home.

She opened the door to the church, staring up at the dark wood of the ceiling so high above her, then staring down the long aisle that led to the altar and the large crucifix of Jesus, surrounded by glowing candles. She knelt down at the next to last pew and made the sign of the cross (she still remembered how to do that), then slid in and pulled out the kneeler, knelt down and placed her head in her hands. Looking for words of prayer, but none came, only the tears that burst forth all at once. What should I do, what should I do? she asked, not expecting a response, feeling ridiculous and lost at the same time. She had given up her religion so long ago and this was, well… a sort of Hail Mary wasn’t it. But she had nowhere to go. Nowhere to turn.

The silence was broken for an instant and she saw the black robed priest coming from behind the altar and down the aisle, heading toward her. She quickly wiped her face, grabbed her purse off the pew and hurried out the doors. Escaping him, his eyes, his words, his feigned understanding.

And outside she breathed in the air deeply. It had been a mistake. Why had she even thought to go in there? She didn’t believe in it anymore, not any of it. It was not where she belonged. She started up the car and drove home.

The next morning she awoke, knowing exactly what she had to do. She would leave this town with her daughter. She would give them both a new start. There was no doubt in her mind. She would have to rebuild some of the bridges she’d so easily torn down, but this is what she would have to do.

She fixed her coffee, took a sip, then pulled her phone directory out of the kitchen drawer and opened it to the page with her brother Bob’s number. Then, her hand shaking slightly, she punched in the numbers and listened to the sound of the ringing, wondering what Baltimore looked like in the springtime.

1 comment:

Mitchell Waldman said...

An alternate, darker version of this story appears in my story collection, PETTY OFFENSES AND CRIMES OF THE HEART (Wind Publications, August 2011). Check it out at:

-- Mitchell W.