Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Excerpt from Beggars in Heaven

~Daniel Bowman Jr.

God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding
and so gives himself away.

-Meister Eckhart

What else should I be? All apologies.

-Kurt Cobain

They are large and crisp and brilliant, Vera’s books that surround me. One is open to illustrations of sea creatures, all blues and purples like her blanket.

It’s April 2nd, opening day in Cincinnati, a day for hope and a parade. But I’m in old New York again, living among the ghosts. I’ll tell you about them. I want to get this down, mostly for my daughter who likes stories and someday might want to hear this one from the beginning. I know that when I was a kid, I wanted someone to tell me why things were like they were.

For example, the time I broke the cellar window with a baseball. My father came home from work, found me cowering on the top bunk, and beat the hell out of my scrawny eight-year-old behind.

A few hours and many beers later he called me into the living room between innings of the Yankees game and put me on his lap. He was crying and said, “I never had a father. What am I supposed to do?” adding, “He loved the Dodgers,” the line that to my surprise invoked the hardest sob. And I would try in vain to answer the question of what he was supposed to do, and to find the link between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the pain, even to understand why my father’s father killed himself in 1957.

But that’s another story.

This one starts when Kate and I met as freshmen at Jacobs College, a place that promised “Education for Character” (and, often despite itself, seemed to deliver). Of her journey to Jacobs Kate once said, “I got in the back of my parents’ car and fell asleep. When I woke up, we were there.” Mine’s a little different.

I like to think of something Pastor Williams of Grace Bible Fellowship in Mohawk told me the first time I stepped foot into his church. “You need to get yourself obedient, son. Don’t you know,” he explained, “that there’s beggars in Heaven? If you don’t start storing up treasures, you’ll be one of ‘em.” Years after getting over (sort of) the guilt and shame and attendant psychological damage, I can laugh about it.

So Kate and I might be a couple of beggars in Heaven. Only I’m guessing that Heaven is reasonably warm. The first time I met Kate, it was very, very cold.


December 1993, Jacobs College

Chapter One: How I Ended Up at Jacobs

It was the middle of the night, Saturday night, and I was walking back to Pierce Hall from the Townhouses, crisply buzzed. It was the first time I’d had a drink since coming here. The early weeks were bliss—the song circles, card games, and never-ending cups of coffee had not lost their appeal of refreshing innocence and wouldn’t for a while yet.

Almost a foot of snow had fallen and it was still coming down, making the walkway barely visible and, as it does, making everything strangely quiet. My breath formed thick clouds. The lake wind picked up, blowing the snow in little whirlwinds. I squinted so my eyes were almost shut but smiled a big, dumb smile with my mouth. My belly was warm. My joints moved fluidly in the moonlight.

I passed the Quads, allowed myself a moment to agonize over the plump, beautiful girls sleeping in their carefully arranged rooms. I pictured fuzzy brown buttons the size of half-dollars holding together their pink pajama tops. I imagined one, half asleep, climbing down from the top bunk to use the cold, bright bathroom down the hall, goose bumps on her thighs as she peed with her eyes closed. I wondered where she was from, who she was.

I wondered, too, who I was and what God wanted with me.

I had come to Jacobs practically on a stretcher, but ready to get cleaned up and think on whatsoever things were pure and lovely. It would be like a sneaker commercial—I’d wear a hooded sweatshirt and run the streets punching fog at six in the morning. At night I’d find a warm corner of the library and study. All my habits would change. Old things would pass away. All things would become new. But let me back up to the old things for a moment.

My bender started on a humid night in late July with friends of friends I barely knew. I was stoned when we left but thought I heard talk of the southern Adirondacks. It would be a last hurrah before something else, anything else; at the time I’d been thinking of joining the military.

We came to a lake, skinny dipped, drank from jugs of sweet wine, and smoked a lot of pot. I fell asleep, then woke to a breakfast of warm beer and hot dogs. I fell asleep again. The next time I woke up I was in a moving van, my mouth dry and legs numb. The pipe was passed when I opened my eyes.

By the time we got to Saratoga, things had taken on strange new meanings. While the landscape remained familiar, I felt I’d lost something along the way (later I would recognize it as the very context in which I had always understood people and events). The last hurrah was looking more like a bridge to some other place, a place I had not meant to go.

We danced in the fields of Saratoga, fields that seem to go on forever. Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers played on the stage below. A hefty guy wearing a long beard and dirty white t-shirt came around, walking toward us but looking off in the other direction, saying blankly, “Doses. Doses.” The girl from the lake took a walk with him. When she came back she held her index finger near my mouth and told me to stick out my tongue. I did. She put her fingertip on it.

Things got very weird very quickly. I walked a lot, crisscrossing through people until I was thoroughly lost. I became paranoid. I remember thinking that at least I was in a field, on a rolling hill even. How could someone out in a field be in very much trouble? I reasoned. At one point I felt I was being held, or fought against. I couldn’t tell from moment to moment if I was dancing or just kind of rolling around on the ground. For the first time since I was little, I prayed. I made an effort to focus. When I did, I saw five girls standing around me in a perfect semicircle as if in some children’s playground game. Their heads were bowed, hands covering their faces. Then they raised their heads slowly in unison. Each girl was crying. I wanted to cry too but couldn’t. All I could do was go back down to the ground, which I did in a wild animal-like maneuver I can’t describe, other than to say it was the maneuver of my salvation. There was no sinner’s prayer, no organ riffing with every head bowed and every eye closed. There was just a great deep silence, the smell of cool earth, and the terrible knowledge of my redemption, mixed with a feeling you might call joy. Looking up, I saw the stars and said, “Thank you, God,” not quite knowing what I meant. Then I got the idea to go to a Christian college. So that’s how I ended up at Jacobs.

And those early weeks were bliss.

The nights were everything. If you were up at all during the day, then each word and look carried the promises of night, the presence of God. Worship was driving down the back roads to a Phish bootleg. Our cobblestone alley downtown was cold and smoky; our fellowship was in the dark.

Sleepy Friday morning chapels—look past the clean-cut breakfasters in front, arms raised up, eyes closed, necks craned toward Heaven, lips mouthing the words—look in small pockets in the back of the middle and see the dreamy faces under ball caps. You woke to your secrets and in them you knew God and sang mysterious words like “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

Through the sermon you played out the chatter of the night before, open fires in the corners of your eyes. You saw the curly-haired trumpeter dripping sweat, playing piano with one hand, horn with the other, sound flooding into the alley, the tall girl with the shaved head and thin, tattooed shoulders avoiding the crowd as she puts too much cream in her coffee in the dark and someone on stage is praying for you now and it’s all blurred together, it’s all the same energy. Back to your room after chapel, get undressed, put on music, climb into your loft, sleep until dinner when it it’s dark again.

Chapter 2: Jack

Jack Mary was one of two tall Canadians who lived next door to Noah and me in Pierce Hall. His self-assurance was magnetic in a place where guys seemed to equate being humble with smiling a lot and holding doors for you, and sometimes clinging to a dress code from the ‘80’s.

Jack fashioned himself direct heir to a line of kings and the promises that accompany such a pedigree. I thought of myself in much the same way. While I book-ended my royalty with Woody Guthrie and Kurt Cobain, however, Jack’s promises were handed down by the likes of Leonard Cohen and some guy known as Ukulele Ike, with whom Jack was enamored. This struck me as particularly unusual and exciting.

Jack projected vigor, pitch-perfect wit, and a certain world-weariness buoyed by a secret love affair with the poor in spirit. He could relay this to you in the first thirty seconds of your acquaintance. I don’t know if he believed in all of it exactly—although if I had to guess I would say he mostly did. He believed heartily in performing it, though, which enabled him to refine it beautifully and wield it as a sword, shield, filter, church, or whatever would become necessary.

The first night I met him he was playing guitar and singing in his high tenor something about a bird and trying to be free.

Jack had recorded “experimental” music with a friend in Toronto: They looped a melody played on a broken toy xylophone from the Goodwill, then sampled a tape of his family singing “How Great Thou Art” at a nursing home. His oldest sister was tone deaf and hesitant; his father was missing a finger from a boyhood farming accident so one note was off on some chords. A lady in the background yelled things like “Where’s my baby!?” and “You sons-of-bitches!” Then it cuts to a scratchy beep and a baritone narrator from an elementary school filmstrip starts talking in measured tones about how maple syrup is made…meanwhile the xylophone loops back in. The whole thing repeats three times.

We listened in the dark. While contrived, it felt raw and original; more importantly, it signaled something powerful for me. I had come only to clean up, to work out my salvation with requisite fear and trembling. I had not expected a spirit of invention—least of all, of freedom. But that was how I would understand grace in those early weeks.

Jack should’ve qualified for the automatic deference awarded to any guy over 5'11'', but that merit was compromised by his almost extreme skinniness. He compensated in part by gaining a reputation as one of the smartest students on campus. He’d walk to lunch with Dr.’s L. Scott Nichols and James Casey and you’d never know he wasn’t one of them. Casey was a history professor with whom I took Western Civ first semester. Here’s the difference between Jack and me: After class, I might have images and ideas swirling around in my head and maybe take a walk and smoke a cigarette or try to write a poem. Jack wanted to talk.

He’d approach Casey on the way out of class: “Say, Dr. Casey. You mentioned that Richelieu’s politics were driven in part by his belief in natural reason. But how did that relate to his Catholicism? I mean, he was tolerant of the Huguenots but only until they became a political problem.” Casey would eat it up and off they’d go. I was sure Jack did this just to be a wiseass. I was equally convinced that he craved a deeper understanding of Cardinal Richelieu and the Huguenots and ten thousand other things.

Jack was a very good guitar player, probably the best at Jacobs—quite a feat considering the legions of praise-chorus-acoustic-slingers who dominated the campus. You’d think a few of them would get really good since all they seemed to do was sit around and “jam.” Jack was not to be found among the ranks, though. It was a point of pride with me that he and I played together quite a bit; Jack played alone or with me, and that was about it. He played a Norman, a Canadian brand that neatly excused him from the unspoken guitar competition on campus. Your axe had to be unique: a good brand or a different color or a suitably beat-up classic, maybe sporting a bumper sticker of an obscure band from the Northwest or a line from a Phish song, like “Smell My Mule."

(One acknowledged winner of said competition was Mike Flanagan, a PK (Preacher’s Kid) who lived below us and could be heard strumming and singing, in his average but absurdly overconfident voice, any one of hundreds of praise choruses or “secular” songs granted they had a kind of Methodist Youth Group stamp of approval. That list, at the time, was lead by “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and I recall there was a rather unfortunate version in circulation in which the verse that mentions making love in the green grass was dropped in favor of repeating the innocuous lines about laughing and running, hey, hey.

To make it worse, Mike wreaked his sanitized havoc on us by way of a gorgeous Martin D-28, originally his grandfather’s. “It’s like Elvis’s,” he said. It came complete with missing wood, a broken tuning peg, and admirable scratches to prove its authenticity. What an instrument. I hated him for it.)

My own guitar was a Korean-made toy-like instrument licensed through a department store that had since gone out of business. My mother bought it for seventy-five dollars when I was fifteen. I was always embarrassed, as it represented a sacrifice and she had no idea it was a piece of shit. Since I had no choice, I restrung the thing to accommodate my left-handedness and learned some chords out of a book my father had gotten from a guy at work who played bass in a local band in the ‘70’s.

The pick guard on top was enough to raise the eyebrows of the casual observer: Um, do you know you’re playing that thing upside down? And the action was half an inch high. But play it I did. I started to love the thing, and since it wasn’t worth a case, I walked around campus with it hanging off my back. Crunching maple leaves underfoot, I fancied myself all hobo.

Chapter 3: Kitty

Back to the walk. I was getting close to Union Avenue; in the distance I could see its single traffic light flashing yellow. The wind stopped for a moment as if to let me understand the deep freeze behind it. The parts of me that had moved fluidly were now bitterly cold and mechanical.

To my left was a small field where the wind returned to make swirls of snow leap into the air and disappear in the dark. I thought of my mother and the incident with the windshield wiper. My mom’s a nurse. One time she was on call and had to go out to the country in the middle of the night. We have this rusty blue Chevy van and at some point on the way to her patient’s, along a dark country road, the driver’s side wiper flew right off. It was snowing like crazy. She had to stop and get out and look for it. My mother can’t see anything, especially at night, even with her glasses on.

The next morning I was lying in bed and heard her in the kitchen crying, telling my father what happened. To my surprise he yelled at her as though it were her fault: “Jesus, you’ve got to be more careful.” She cried harder but now she was mad, too. Someone had dropped me off in the driveway just an hour or so before; I was hung over and sick and turned on the radio so I wouldn’t hear any more. I didn’t know how she got home and I didn’t want to know. I knew she never found the wiper, though, because I could see the van out my bedroom window and the wiper was not on it.

Since winter had come to Jacobs, the image of her out in the storm haunted me with the force of something ancient. I felt ashamed, not the kind of shame one feels for having done wrong, but the kind one feels over what he isn’t or can’t be. I had always hated being poor, and I had always felt guilty for hating it. I blamed it for everything, including the wiper incident, only the most recent in a long string of vehicular issues that plagued us throughout my childhood.

And the comforts of that elusive “upper middle class” were well represented at Jacobs, inspiring new bursts of jealousy in me. My first day on campus, I went to registration to find out if I’d been approved for the loans I needed. I saw a guy and his wife standing with their son. The father asked, “What’s the balance, then?” The registrar said, “Fifty-five hundred.” He mouthed the figure silently as he wrote the check while the wife smiled at the registrar. I was astonished. I felt like I was watching something illegal, like a drug deal going down or a mafia hit being commissioned. I imagined my father, how, if he’d been told that a balance for which I was responsible was fifty-five dollars (never mind fifty-five hundred), he would give my mother that familiar look meaning, “Is this gonna bounce?” then proceed to be stressed out for the rest of the night—often, the rest of the week.

Later I met the kid, beneficiary of the gaudy sum, who lived on the third floor of my dorm. His name was Andy Sitwell and he had a brand new Saab (pronounced “Sob,” I would learn—where I grew up, there were two types of car: Chevy or Ford). I went to the store with him once and I couldn’t figure out how to work the seat. Unprovoked, he explained: “Yeah, this was my graduation, birthday, and Christmas present.” Again I thought of my dad, sitting in the parking lot of Mohawk Tool at lunch, eating a pickle-and-pimento-loaf sandwich in his LTD, the closest thing our family would ever have to a boat. As if to distance itself from the inevitable comparison, however, it stalled when the underside got wet.

At last I reached Pierce Hall, stopping at the top of the stairs to steady my breathing and warm up. The wind in that little lake town made your bones ache.

The sign above our hallway read, “How excellent when brothers dwell together in unity.” I unlocked the door. The guys were playing Jersey Pitch. We had lately formed a little group. My roommate Noah sat on the floor; he put his long hair behind his ear with what was a popular gesture of our generation. Ryoji was in the Low-Rider, a very comfortable but legless chair we’d found on a curb downtown.

Ryoji had recently arrived from Tokyo. Despite the language barrier, his first act was to initiate a weekly walking-on-your-hands race—not for speed, but for distance. (I’ve since heard that it remains a tradition in the new dorm that was built when they demolished Pierce.) He won the first week. The following week, however, I harkened to my experience as a child gymnast and not only equaled his walk to the fire doors, but actually opened them with my feet and continued down the east hallway until I reached the staircase. I had half a mind to try walking down the stairs, too, but decided against it. The walk, as it stood, amazed several onlookers standing in their doorways and irked Ryoji to no end. When someone mentioned it he would give me an exaggerated scowl.

Jacobs, although not known for anything in particular, was not a top choice for the sciences. Ryoji was studying to be a physicist, making his choice of schools a little strange. He said it was the brochure: It was written in the plainest English of all the American college brochures. Ryoji, because he was still learning it, liked his English plain, supplemented from time to time by pop film exclamations such as his favorite: “I have the need—the need for speed.”

Jack and his roommate Steven were there, too, sitting on upside down milk crates by the window. Steven was on the basketball team. He went about 6’ 3’’ like Jack, only he was muscular—perfectly toned and proportioned, to be exact. I discovered this when I walked in on him shaving his legs in the bathroom late one night. We were both surprised and embarrassed. He said it was for biking and swimming, two things he did all the time.

Steven was a PK, which was the extent of my knowledge of his personal life at that point. His skin was pale and his eyes sat deep in his face. He almost never smiled. I assumed he was always at the gym—he would rarely hang around the dorm or join us on late night adventures.

Jack was holding the stub of a cigar between his thumb and index finger. He gave a quick wave while blowing a stream of smoke toward the propped-open window, absorbing every ounce of the juvenile pleasure one receives from smoking in a place where it’s not allowed.

A trumpet player went into a solo; the speakers shimmied. Noah dealt me in. We spun records and played cards. I was glad. I had things to think about.

I’d been on my way to the mailroom, which is why I was out walking to begin with. I ran into a girl who works at the library with me. Well, she works at the front desk, and I clean the place on a work-study through the Custodial department. Anyway, she was headed to the Townhouses for a party and asked me if I wanted to go. I was taken by surprise and felt I couldn’t say no; after all, she was cute and she was a Sophomore.

We went in together but it became clear that we wouldn’t be talking. Feeling nervous and out of place, I grabbed a beer and slipped into the deep cushions of the couch. After another beer (and a wholly undesired shot of Kentucky Sour Mash Bourbon—the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time), I managed to sneak away, looking forward to the rather long walk alone back to Pierce, the walk I’ve been telling you about, the walk where it all started, and the walk where, I don’t mind saying, I would become thankful for the warmth of the liquor in my throat.

Toward the end of that walk I nearly got hit crossing Union Avenue. A crowded Jeep flew by, then did a full donut in the middle of the intersection. I recognized it as belonging to someone in Greek Village. It was always parked by the door to Alpha House. The crew inside was laughing, blowing smoke. They were known for partying. The girls danced at the clubs downtown. From the back window of the Jeep, one of them looked right at me, her huge eyes filled with something like regret. Her name was Katherine Bachmann. At Jacobs, they called her Kitty.

Chapter 4: The Caretaker’s Daughter

I was holding both the nine and five of clubs but no face cards. I thought about bidding them but instead got up, measured out sixteen teaspoons of coffee, and brewed it. Upon percolation, the room filled with the aroma. Characteristic of those nights, our senses became properly saturated—scratchy Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club playing a little too loud, coffee brewing, the faint smell of cigar smoke, waves of heat visible off the radiator, heavy snow coming down in the dark, wind audible through the open window, dim light shining on cautious young faces.

“Let’s get out of here,” Noah said. He was the only one with a car, so we looked at him for direction. “I’m hungry.”

“What did you have in mind?” Jack asked.

“Nick’s, I guess. You guys coming? Ezra?”

“Sure,” I said. Ryoji didn’t have any objections. To my surprise, Steven, too, would be joining us.

When I opened the door to the back parking lot, the wind whipped it out of my hand and a gust of snow blew into the brick hallway.

We jumped into Noah’s car and headed east toward the city, Jack in front and Steven and I in the back on either side of Ryoji. Jack played a Phish show. They were into a rather atmospheric twenty-minute version of Icculus with a long refrain of Fluffhead in the middle. We drove past mostly dark houses; a few had a light on and I was happy not to know or care who was doing what in that light, happy for once in my life to be exactly where I was. I closed my eyes and took in every note.

Nick’s was an all night eatery that had been around forever. It was home of the Garbage Plate, which consisted of a bottom layer of home fries and macaroni salad with two cheeseburger patties or hot dogs on top, mustard and onions, then a ladle of Nick’s “Special Sauce,” a mixture of grease and Nick’s Hot Sauce that was displayed on the counter for sale in bottles.

If you dared to stand in front of the counter and look at the menu board, they’d yell at you and act pissed off, which was disorienting the first time but much fun now that I knew the game. I scoffed at rookies who got caught in the neutral zone.

Nick’s was no place for indecision. The cook would shout out of the corner of his mouth, without looking up, a syllable resembling “You.” And you’d damn well better have an answer—the right one. Clarity was chief among virtues: You had to speak loudly enough to be heard, but not be so loud as to be appear ungrateful for what you were about to receive, and fast enough to keep things moving, but not so fast that you mumbled. “Cheeseburger plate, mac/home fries, no onions.” “Hot dog plate, all mac, float it” (extra sauce). Several other variations were acceptable; a question or concern was not. And they never wrote down anything. I was always a little awed but acted properly bored.

We took a booth and got started. An unwritten code in Pierce specified that you were expected to finish every bite, including both pieces of bread they pulled out of a giant garbage bag sitting on the floor by the counter. The punishment for not complying was that guys would no longer invite you on Nick’s runs. The whole thing was like a bizarre test: Can you finish all that food? Can you deal with the cook while he stands there, inked arms crossed, waiting for you to be stupid? What about the bathroom—could you endure the perpetually sticky floor and rancid odor?

(I should mention that Nick’s was a test worth taking; a Garbage Plate is a good and perfect gift).

We talked idly, led by Jack’s musings. I said something about the Cohen album he’d lent me. It was hard to contain my admiration, though I knew I’d draw his sarcasm. “Do you view God as the sum total of all art?” he asked. “Truth from the top down?”

“No, maybe that’s me,” he continued. “Let’s think about you, Ezra Holleran, who waited patiently for someone to come along—a hero to dethrone his big brother’s hair bands. Someone whose thoughts were above firing up motorcycles and chasing women; someone not so easily amused. Is your Jesus just another longhaired twenty-something kicking around Seattle in a cardigan? Think about it,” he implored with his squinty eyes and a quick nod of the head. Jack was good at this—couching a cultural observation in a kidding tone, in case someone decided to take the point up with him, I guessed. Not that anyone ever did.

Jack stuffed a forkful of potatoes into his mouth. I had thoughts but needed time to sort through them. Noah, always action-oriented, bailed me out.

“Hey,” he said. “You know the President of Jacobs? Have you guys been up to his house?”

We’d only passed by the place, and Noah said you couldn’t see it well from the road.

“I took a walk up there the other night. It’s cool. Want to go?”

“Now?” I asked. I was happy to be warm and full.

“When we’re finished,” he said.

“Of course,” Jack said, and somehow it was as if he had thought of it himself.

Into the car again. Jack popped in a tape of his favorite, Ukulele Ike:

I know that Babe Ruth makes home runs
And Dempsy is the champ.
Marconi made the radio
And Cleopatra was a vamp.

I know that Spark Plug is a horse—
I'm a smart guy, there's no doubt.
But there's one thing that I don't know
And I'm dying to find out:

Who takes care of the caretaker's daughter
While the caretaker's busy taking care?
Gee, oh gosh, oh gee; that's what worries me.
I know that the caretaker must take care
And while he's taking care, she's alone somewhere.
Who takes care of the caretaker's daughter
While the caretaker's busy taking care?

Tired, drifting, I thought of Kitty Bachmann and the way she looked at me. I wondered if it had really happened. Since coming to Jacobs I’d felt in a way that I was only a witness to those who experienced this new life, those recipients of looks from girls like Kitty. For me it was always more like a dream. But there was no way around this one: She looked exactly at me, and not, I could tell, just because I happened to be out there walking. Her eyes held a meaning I needed to discover.

I should tell you that Katherine Bachmann and I went to high school together, sort of. We were both from Mohawk, a small village in the valley between Syracuse and Albany, once called Leatherstocking Country. Katherine was one of a handful of people I didn’t know at all. We’d passed each other in the school hallways for years but had never really met.

A natural beauty, she was the kind of girl who looked every bit as good jogging in sweatpants as she did in a dress. And those eyes—those huge green eyes might’ve been more animal than human.

Everyone in town knew that the Bachmanns were strict Pentecostals. Katherine and her sister never participated in school functions like the Halloween parade, and even in high school she was not allowed to go to the dances. But something happened in the winter of our junior year. People started talking. At first she was just absent for a few days, but she ended up missing over a month of school. When she got back I think she looked different but I wasn’t sure how.

Her cousin thought she’d gone to New York to sing with a band. This was believable, as Katherine was a gifted musician—she’d made All-State for both voice and cello every year since ninth grade, an unprecedented run as far as I knew.

I had heard her name come up at Jacobs, but the only other time I’d seen her was the day her family dropped her off. I was walking by and noticed them in the parking lot. Her father, a tall, imposing man, had “laid hands” on her and was praying in tongues, a thing I’d never heard before.

But I didn’t really know anything about her, and that bothered me. I knew we were the only two people here from Mohawk. I knew she was associated with Greek Village. And I knew that her smile made you want to live. But she wasn’t smiling in the back of that car.

Chapter 5: Dance

“Alright, boys, it’s truth time,” Jack said. The President’s driveway was all uphill and the fresh snow made the climb difficult. But we made it. We pulled into the regal circle and the first thing I saw were four enormous white columns running from the roof to the ground. I thought about our school’s founder, Edward Whitacre Jacobs, the great 19th Century Free Methodist preacher who had built the house and who was buried in the cemetery down the block. We had watched a film about him in Freshman Orientation. The sense of history began to overwhelm me. Our spirits had been high, but now as the wind howled and the snow continued to pile up, I for one was scared.

Jack, on the other hand, didn’t miss a beat. Without warning, he took off all his clothes. Noah turned around and looked at me, and with a laugh and good-natured shrug, began to undress, too. I did the same. Ryoji looked unsure but took his clothes off and, in his limited space, folded them into a neat little stack on the seat and pushed his thick glasses back up the bridge of his nose using just an index finger as was his habit. And Steven undressed as well, pale knees and elbows everywhere. We put our shoes back on, lacing them carefully while sitting in the buck.

There was no time to wonder how this would work because Jack opened his door and bolted out of the car. We were not far behind. He led us in a jog around the front yard, then headed for the duck pond. The ice was covered with snow but he managed to glide across it rather smoothly. “Ha, ha!” Jack laughed at the moon.

We celebrated, yelling and whooping. We danced like idiots. Steven wore a huge smile now. He was leaping around like some giant flightless bird that suddenly believed it could get off the ground. I danced until I stopped caring what I looked like. I danced for God. I was sure I was dancing for the love of humankind, on the idea that all the pain would someday be transformed into beauty. But mostly I was dancing for Kitty Bachmann, as if the act would draw her to me, as though if I were true to the dance, she would find me.

I was pulled out of my trance by the barking of a dog and a floodlight that tried in vain to illuminate through the storm. We laughed, we patted each other’s backs, we sprinted to the car, which was still running, got in, barreled over the crest of the hill, into the black night. In the snow, in the wind, in the dark, they would not know who we were or what we were doing, or why.

Chapter 6: Lipstick

Skip ahead a few days to finals week. The weather had let up a bit; the sun even came out once or twice, truly a gift in the ever-gray Decembers of Lakeview, New York. Noah and I went to The Towpath, an all night burger joint on the Erie Canal where Jacobs kids often went to study. The baskets of fries were extra large and they’d refill your coffee as many times as you held out your mug. It was a bit crowded; I recognized some faces from campus.

We had just sat down at a booth in the corner when I saw her walking from the ladies room to the back exit. She wore a tweed fedora and a long black scarf. The hat cast a diagonal shadow across her face, but I saw the red lipstick glistening from her mouth. She had the presence of a silent film vixen. It was Kitty Bachmann, all right.

Then I saw the same red lipstick on a white coffee mug sitting right in front of me. In the dim diner light, the lovely grooves were shining like stars.

“Sorry, guys, let me get this stuff out of your way.” Our waitress placed the mug on a brown plastic tray—rather recklessly, I thought. The lipstick side was still facing me and I watched it all the way through the kitchen doors.

A few seconds later, the waitress came back. “You guys know what you want?”

“That girl who just walked out—was she sitting in this booth?” I asked.

“I don’t know who you mean, honey.”

“The girl with the hat.”

“Oh, yeah, she sat here; why?”

“Nothing, I just maybe needed to talk to her…” I fumbled.

“Well, looks like you’re too late tonight, kiddo,” she said. “Did you want some fries?”

Later that night Noah and I sat up in our lofts studying. I was supposed to memorize a passage from the book of Acts for my Early Church final.

“I know where they were going,” he said.


“Kitty Bachmann. They were going to the Genesee Valley Museum.”

“What do you mean? It’s two in the morning.”

“You know Rick Barnes? I heard him talking about it at dinner.”

I recoiled at the name of Rick Barnes, who, I’d learned, was Kitty’s boyfriend and owner of the red Jeep. He was tall and had long, curly hair. It seemed there was nothing this guy couldn’t do: He worked on his Jeep in the parking lot, rebuilding the carburetor, I was sure, and doing other manly thing I’d heard my uncles talk about. Plus he was supposed to be a good snowboarder (at the time, this was an estimable nail in the coffin of any rival for the affections of a Christian college girl).

“What do you do in a museum at this hour?” I remarked.

“You hunt for ghosts,” he said as though it were common enough.

I could hear Mike Flanagan playing “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” in the stairwell below us. I was not in the mood. “I’m going out,” I said.

I took off for the athletic center, which contained our student union as well as the mailroom. Once inside, I glanced at my mailbox and saw through the tiny window what appeared to be a crumpled up piece of paper. People did that a lot—sent each other messages through campus mail—but I had never gotten one. Flying through the combination, I found a scribbled note: “Will you ride the 4:00 with me tomorrow? –Kitty.”

I’d call my mom first thing in the morning; she’d be happy to save a trip. I sprinted back to Pierce, my mind racing through the possibilities. Tomorrow afternoon, I’d be on a train with Kitty Bachmann.

Chapter 7: Ghosts

As we stepped onto the platform, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror across the aisle. I was short and awkward. I thought of Greek Village and its swaggering inhabitants. I could not match their ease. They were everything they were supposed to be, nothing less and nothing more. I, on the other hand, had no idea what I was supposed to be.

We sat across from each other. Her hair was in two plum-black braids hanging down to the top of her chest. I felt completely incapable of being with her. I could feel the seconds adding up—15, 30—slipping away already. Now I would have to talk to her, which was a little like asking me to talk to my dreams.

But she would go first. Digging through her book bag, she grabbed a piece of paper and handed it to me, saying, “Look at this.” It was a few minutes after four but getting dark already. I began reading.

The paper was an obituary from the Batavia Evening Telegram. This is what it said:

December the 24th, Christmas Eve, the Year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-Two:

To the great relief of those who cared for her, Miss Vera Peacock entered Eternity early this morning at the Genesee County Insane Asylum, due to pneumonia. She was 40 years of age, but mentally was an idiot. Dr. Seguin’s definition was most appropriate: “One who does nothing, thinks of nothing, cares for nothing.”

Her life was best explained by the irony contained in her own name, for Miss Peacock’s appearance surely stood in perfect opposition to the fine plumage of that well-known bird. The patient’s personal habits, would, I can attest, disgust you, gentle reader, to the brink of nausea. Her vile hair and fingernails, the cumulative result of an aggressive refusal to accept hygiene administration, were considered a source of contagion and pestilence. Dr. Benjamin Little, head of treatment at the Asylum, allowed Miss Peacock the benefit of the smoke of burning tar, recently discovered to be a powerful disinfectant, to which she responded with hostility of a fierceness that could only be demonic in origin.

Since her arrival at the Asylum as a ten-year-old child, Miss Peacock caused her caretakers unimaginable horrors, due to her aforementioned personal habits, along with her shrieking voice, which was never heard lest it was screaming all manner of atrocity, often in unintelligible sounds which, I can attest, carried a uniquely despicable quality unusual even among lunatics. The keen observer should, upon consideration of this writing, take note that our Lord and Savior in His Wisdom has indeed granted Lucipher dominion, for a time, over this fallen world. We must double our efforts in prayer in order to remain unspotted. One is reminded that the end times of which Saint Paul spoke are rapidly approaching: Upon my last visit, I stooped to bless her, and Miss Peacock reacted with a gnashing of teeth, betraying a mixture of blood and froth in the mouth. Let her serve as an example of the ravages of sin, which, left unchecked, consumes the sinner as Hellfire itself will surely do in the hereafter.

It is no wonder that the patient was not permitted to leave her room on the basement floor, located next to the morgue, from the day she arrived until the day she finally succumbed to the state befitting occupants of her neighborly chamber. It is a great mystery of Providence why, when so many of our finest and most potent die young and without explanation, this one should be allowed to linger, to burden society in such a loathsome manner for too many years. May the stench of that burden be forever extinguished by her death.

By the Reverend Dr. Elijah B. Miller of the First United Methodist Church, Batavia, NY

How do you respond to something so bizarre? I looked at Kitty. She was almost asleep, but her shoulders shivered and she looked at me like she was lost.

“Is this thing real?” I asked.

She said, “ It just makes me feel completely crazy, you know?”

“Where’s it from?” I asked, holding up the paper.

“Well, you’ll probably think this is stupid, but my friends heard about a ghost hunt? It was out in the country at this museum, so we went and they were taking us on a tour of the building and telling us about the ghosts, like ‘Sometimes people get their hair pulled or get kicked in the shins in this room, because it was part of the orphanage,’ so it was supposed to be the ghosts of children, you know?” She paused, shook her head, and closed her eyes again.

“I’m sorry, this is so fucking horrible…God, I’m so tired, are you tired?” she trailed off.

I gave a look of earnestness to show I cared. She continued, looking from side to side and sometimes closing her eyes. The rhythms of her speech were irregular. “They brought us to a room where people had electroshock therapy…and there was this recreation room and they said somebody sat down at the piano once and started playing swing music and all these spirits started dancing or whatever—they kept talking about ‘activity…’” She trailed off again, looking like she might cry. “I hated it and I never wanted to go there and I don’t want to know about ghosts or activities.”

“No,” I said, feeling I needed to jump in. “No, I mean, it’s not your fault.” I didn’t know what I meant by that, or what to say next. It was not how I’d pictured our train ride. “So, Vera Peacock. Jesus,” I said quietly.

“I am so tired, I never sleep—everyone was walking around on the different floors—it’s all abandoned and the owners won’t do any repairs or anything, to keep it original. Vera Peacock.” She blew her nose with a single Kleenex that had been far beyond its intended parameters.

“There’s this tiny room by the door where you come in? And it’s supposed to be a museum or whatever, and these pictures of the residents from when it was a nursing home and I was standing there looking at them and I was kind of high but, plus I’ve been sick, you know, I’ve been taking this Cold and Flu stuff all the time and I was thinking how I hated Rick for bringing me to this horrible place, no, I mean, but just everything, you know…I don’t even know what’s going on.”

She slowed down considerably now. “It’s like half my life I’m just riding in the back of somebody’s car and end up wherever and there was this rusty baby carriage in the corner that was supposed to be like an artifact but it was just sitting there looking so disturbing…” Kitty closed her eyes again and made a long snorting sound.

“And on the wall by the pictures was that paper,” she said. The pitch of her voice had climbed high, but her rhythm slowed to a crawl. She shifted continuously from side to side. “No one else even went in that room and I felt like a little kid, you know?” She started crying.

“But you’re from Mohawk”—her voice was barely above a whisper now, as though the rest of this were a secret—“and I remember you from 1st grade because you had a purple book bag with a turtle patch!” Kitty smiled. “Don’t you remember me?”

“Yeah, of course,” I said.

“Really? You remember me?” With that, the tears burst through her wide smile and she started crying and laughing nervously at the same time. Her cheeks became deep pink, snot ran down her nose, and her ears twitched. She was more beautiful than ever.

“I danced naked on the President’s lawn,” I said.

Without looking up she laughed in a little start. I dug through my book bag where I found some napkins and a box of raisins. I handed her the napkins. She cleaned up her face. It was pitch black out now. The dim lighting and the carpet, scarlet with green diamond patterns, made me feel like I was in an old movie. Perhaps Cary Grant would emerge from the snack car.

“No way,” she said.

“Seriously,” I replied, nodding my head.

“What’s that all about?”

“Well, it’s complicated. Want some raisins?”

“Sure.” I handed them to her. She craned her neck and emptied the entire contents of the box, chewing slowly on the left side of her mouth. Then she cozied up to the window, using her coat as a pillow, and closed her eyes.

“Katherine?” I was going to offer her my jacket for a blanket.

“Nobody calls me that,” she said.

I didn’t have an answer. “Katherine,” I repeated.

But she was asleep.


Who Takes Care of the Caretaker’s Daughter

Written by Chick Endor and Paul Rebere

Used by Permission of Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., Inc.