DEEP CITY in Times Roman

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Keeping the Faith

A week later, Sophia’s faith in the Lord was renewed: Her microwave was fixed, and it was, as she’d prayed, better than it’d been before. Her parents had purchased the radiating oven for her graduation gift. Then, a week before the comps, Adam slid a popcorn bag into the keen cooker. The corn popped, but the floor of the microwave scorched and cracked. Smoke filled the kitchen and smells of burned popcorn and plastic wafted upstairs and awakened Sophia. It wasn’t a good morning. Later that day, Sophia accompanied her mother to the discount warehouse to return the merchandise. “No dice,” the manager had said and crossed his arms. He’d frowned and spoke in a monotone, telling Sophia it was her fault—she should’ve put a plate under the bag, he claimed. With the pressure of the comps building, the lack of even an extra dollar to repair the machine, Sophia grew depressed and wondered why a loving God had allowed all this to happen. Nonetheless, the microwave was under warranty, so Sophia took it to the repair shop the warranty recommended.

The following week, the repairman phoned. Explaining that the microwave could be fixed, he added that it wasn’t her fault. “Happens all the time. The floor was plastic. The manufacturers stick in cheap materials. But we replaced it with a ceramic part. Should last you a long time.”

After hanging up, Sophia phoned her mother. “It’s a miracle. It’s a sign,” she said then sighed, and her eyes welled with tears. “God worked it out for the best. And I didn’t have to pay for the repair, either.”

Her mother, the daughter of a physician and a traditional Catholic who believed every prayer should be prefaced by reminding God no request superseded the desire for good health, replied. “Uh huh. We should’ve bought a better brand.”

Sophia ignored her mother’s lack of faith—or at least, unwillingness to see God’s hand in this minute, household miracle. Sophia had yearned for such a sign. Even if the event was basically inconsequential, it helped her faith. Surely then God would also create something good that resulted from her failing the comps. In the meantime, she’d hunt for jobs in the classifieds. She sighed. She wasn’t sure she had the energy to return to editing or reporting. She stared at the scar on her wrist. It had healed well but still, it ached. She wondered how it’d hold up in a job where she’d type several hours every day. She stared at her wrist awhile and felt like crying. But it wasn’t merely because it was so vulnerable now. It wasn’t because she was unsure if she could work again in publishing.

Instead, it was because failing the comps had quashed her plans. Once again, her situation had forced her to put her book of poems on hold. She’d planned to work on it over the summer after she’d found a teaching position. That way, she wouldn’t need to bring in money, as long as she knew she’d reap a regular income by September. Now, no dice. She’d have to spend the summer preparing to retake the comprehensives. Plus, even if she re-took the examinations during the summer, she couldn’t rely on receiving her degree in time to search for full-time positions to start in the fall semester. After she hung up the phone, she sat at the kitchen table and stirred cream into her coffee. She decided that perhaps the good side about the comps situation was that, at least, after her parents had settled down a bit, it seemed to make her family a little gentler toward her, a tad more forgiving.

But immediately after the event, that wasn’t so. Sophia had thought that since she’d nearly died, no one would hold the divorce against her. She’d been wrong. Terribly wrong. The day after she and the boy had returned from Washington D.C., where they’d fled from the hospital and stayed with a friend, and returned less than a month after he’d stabbed her, Edgar had come to visit Adam at her parents’ house, the neutral ground Sophia had chosen. He wanted to take the boy away for a weekend. Sophia refused to allow it. At least, her father had said nothing until Edgar had left. Then he’d exploded. “You vengeful bitch!” he’d snapped. Sophia was in no way ready to release her child to a man she now regarded as a monster. In fact, that night had been the first time she’d seen her estranged husband since that night.

When her father had yelled at her, she’d stared at him and watched his eyes squint into triangles. His nostrils quivered, and the veins on his forehead throbbed.

“You don’t know what it’s like being almost murdered,” she’d retorted, her voice rising a decibel or two louder than she’d planned. Then, by instinct, she’d ducked. He glared at her then stalked into his room. Immediately, she told her mother “good bye” and drove home.

Her mother, at least, had visited her in the hospital. She’d handed Sophia a crystal bud vase holding a tiny red rose. Then, after the short, plump woman wiggled her hips to squeeze into an over-stuffed chair, she’d asked. “Were you stepping out on Edgar?”

Sophia stared at her, this woman whose pinched forehead had haunted her for more than thirty years. “No.” She sighed. “Edgar knew I wanted out of the marriage. We’d talked about it last summer. We were only staying together until I graduated.” She frowned. “And if I had been ‘stepping out,’ he still had no right to kill me.”

Her mother sniffed, arched her back and pushed out her chest. “I’m not saying what he did was right.” Then she crossed her arms and chattered about the curtains in the hospital room. Sophia wondered about the strange reality wherein she’d been raised—a reality that equated a near-murder with one’s daughter to making some every-day misstep. She wondered, too, if her family were a bit addled. Along with her parents’ strange initial reactions, her family seemed to ignore her feelings. After losing everything in commodities trading, Edgar had joined her father’s electronics corporation as a welder. Now, after the stabbing, he’d retained Edgar as an employee, even when a competing firm offered him a job. “He might take our customers away—or worse, give Fernando our secrets,” her father reasoned. “We’ve got to think of business.”

After seeing her family’s response, she’d begun to consider that perhaps the lower order mammals exhibited no healthier “family” values than human beings did. On the other hand, she changed her mind after she recalled the time when Edgar had backed a Toyota over a kitten, an offspring of Sophia’s cat, Curly. Curly watched the car small her child. She didn’t scurry over to lick it. Instead, she merely stared at the mangled thing whose decapitated body twitched in the gravel. When the kitten quit moving, Curly turned and strolled to the back porch. The cat showed not a jot of remorse unlike the elephants who grieved for the loss of one of their herd. At times, Sophia wondered had Edgar murdered her, would her parents have pressed charges against him? Perhaps her father would reason, “It’d be bad for business,” and her mother wouldn’t want to “make a scene—it’d be bad for the family’s image.” And yet, Sophia hadn’t pressed charges for assault, either. She shook her head. Inside it, voices from her friends still reverberated: “You’re not telling me everything,” one had said. He’d squinted and tilted his head. “There’s a piece missing. Why didn’t the cops throw him in jail?”

“Because I didn’t press charges.” Sophia had sobbed and wrapped her arms around her calves. “Do you think I tried to stab him first? Or toted some revolver and pointed it at him?”

The friend shrugged. “It’s weird he’s not locked up.”

“I agree. But the prosecuting attorney said ‘some individual’ had to press charges. The state could do nothing until then.”

And now, she couldn’t press charges against Edgar. She needed child support and maintenance money until she received her degree. Her job as a teaching assistant barely made the mortgage payments, and checks from her free-lance writing covered only groceries. Further, with the slashed wrist and severed nerves, her forearm couldn’t take much pressure. Her chest still throbbed and ached from the incision the doctor cut to insert a tube through muscle. That tube carried air to inflate her lung, which Edgar’s knife had collapsed. It would ache more in an office setting, she was sure. Plus, her psyche couldn’t handle working with strangers eight hours a day and catching city council and school board meetings at night. And driving around to interview people would likely drive her crazy. So if she couldn’t work as a reporter and editor for awhile, how else could she get money? Ironicly, no one who ranted that she should have Edgar incarcerated offered to give her cash to survive.

Plus, if she pressed charges, she’d go against her parents’ wishes. They worried that tossing him in jail would give Adam a poor self-image. But Sophia wondered what message her son received when a man who almost murdered his mother suffered no legal punishment.

She thought again about Curly’s response to her dying kitten and reconsidered that perhaps Curly might had expressed more concern had she not become “domesticated.” The cat’s loyalty was to Sophia now, more than to one of her own. Perhaps an analogy existed here. Perhaps that’s how Sophia’s parents had become—more loyal to their provider, the corporation, than to their offspring. It seemed to be the way society worked any more, and after mulling over the idea, Sophia wondered if it hadn’t always been that way. Nonetheless, it seemed when she was in her twenties, more people appeared to care about her welfare. Then, again, perhaps she’d been too naive and gullible. Probably, no one truly cared, except abstractly, about her well-being even then.

Generally, she tried not to think about the situation—it was too surreal to wrap her mind around. She’d moved through each day the past year, doing what had to be accomplished. Meanwhile, Edgar had gone to a shrink and weekly anger-control groups, and continued working for her father. She managed to avoid him but wished he’d move out-of-town—like to Russia—or to Korea, somewhere in a different hemisphere.

Sometimes the entire situation confounded her, too. For as traumatic as the stabbing had been, it hit her far less hard than flunking the comps. She’d left journalism and returned to grad school to work on poetry and teach. Apparently, this side-path had been a failure, too. She sighed again and exhaled slowly. For the second time that morning, she picked up Sunday’s Kansas City Star and thumbed to the classifieds. Just when she spotted a position as an assistant editor for a trade magazine, the phone rang.

It was Daniel, who was proofreading the literary magazine that Sophia had agreed to edit a third year. Although she’d planned to retire from the low-paying position, she was easily coerced into compiling another issue. Assembling poems and short stories bolstered her confidence. Creating a book always worked that way. As a child, she’d put together books, and completing each project made her feel worthwhile, like she deserved to exist. It was as good as producing a baby: It gave her some sense of control.

“I’ll drop it by on the way to Jake’s—can’t stay,” Daniel said, his words spinning out like tickertape. Since he’d set up the moratorium on touching, he never stayed at her house more than an hour. “I’m too attracted to you,” he’d explain repeatedly. “It complicates things.”

Nevertheless, she dabbed her neck with perfume, and patted some between her breasts and over her upper thighs. She also re-applied eyeliner and lipstick.

Daniel wore a gray corduroy suit. The past three times she’d seen him, he’d worn a suit. After he’d joined the ad agency, he wore one daily. Before then, he’d worn Levis and white sneakers, always white sneakers, even when they’d shared a candlelit dinner at a restaurant overlooking the city. She considered that perhaps, he wanted to prove he’d grown up, but she also felt it did nothing for her, not when she couldn’t touch him. It was also most frustrating that the suit set off his hazel eyes and black hair. Once again, she struggled to control her voice—rein in any sultriness. Mostly, she tried to control her feelings.

“How are you?” She kept her voice soft but restrained—she didn’t want to sound too eager. She wanted to sound enthusiastic but not too enthused. The muscles in her neck locked.

His pupils swelled a few seconds, then he glanced at the manila folder he held. When he handed it to her, his palm brushed the back of one of her hands. She almost flinched from the tingles she felt. His fingers pressed against hers while she opened the folder, and whiffs of his aspen smell spurred her fluids. Later, when they thumbs through manuscripts, their forearms touched: Their heads nodded toward each other. One of her wrists quivered when he explained something—what was it?—about the stories, or, one of the stories—she couldn’t make sense of his words because her brain absorbed only the rich, low tone of his voice, halfway between a baritone and a bass. His words, in fact, became senseless toys be bounced above them like balloons, while the warm resonance from his throat became her only reality.

“Sure.” She nodded and stammered, “I’ll check it out later.” She yearned to ask him to join her on a picnic or just to huddle with him on the couch.

But before she could spurt out an invitation, he stepped back, tipped his head, and squinted. Then his smile suddenly switched to a scowl. “Breaking away from this cheerful banter—” He chewed on his lip. “How can you call yourself a Christian?” He crossed his arms. “I don’t see how we can be friends until you apologize for your letter.”

Sophia blinked. She’d sent the letter three weeks before, and they’d discussed it briefly at week ago. She’d assumed that conflict was resolved. She wondered if sometimes Daniel brooded too much.

“Saying I have ‘no more consideration for you than I do for the mud on the soles of my boots.’ You’re just like every woman I’ve known—clawing at me when you don’t get your way.”

“But you hurt—”

“You owe me an apology.”

“I want to be your friend.”

“You don’t know how to be a friend.” He tapped her elbow. “Mull it over a while. And I’ll leave on that note.”

Her mouth gaping, she watched him leave and climb into his rusty Datsun. Apologize? Not a Christian? The letter had merely said that his barbs had begun to hurt her, that she didn’t understand why they no longer shared many sweet, mellow hours together. Obviously, the Unis had warped him, brainwashed him with their perverted vision of love. Now his mission was to hurt her, break her into slivers of apple-wood, revenge Eve through her, she was sure of it. While she stared at the now blackening sky, his words tonight cut deeper than Edgar’s knife had. What’s more, Daniel had nailed her heart. It was odd, she thought. Before the moratorium that began after Daniel had applied to the Unis, they’d rarely fought. Since then, Daniel’s tongue slung barbs at her relentlessly sometimes, like tonight, when she didn’t expect it. She stared again into the darkness. All right then, so much for romance, and smelling and touching. So much for Daniel. So much for trying to be friends with a man who couldn’t remain even polite for an hour. Then, she became angry. In fact, a storm of anger enticed her into a fantasy, a fantasy of pressing hedge clipper against his penis and snip-snip-snipping, yes, snipping it off.

Rubbing tears and runny eyeliner from her eyes and cheeks, she turned from the doorway and plopped onto her red couch. Then she stared at the large, sepia painting of Jesus. The holy man verged upon smiling, and in the painting, He looked as if her were about to speak. She sighed and felt guilty about her hostile fantasy. The world had been upside-down for Jesus, too. Such a gentle man, such a violent death. It was cockeyed. Sophia ached for Christ’s gentleness, the temperance she couldn’t maintain, no matter how hard she tried. She glanced at the rumpled newspapers. Now she could no more face the classifieds than she could stomach a job interview. Instead, she wanted to hike across the country, hunt down the Reverend Yung Sung Ghuune, trek up to him while he warbled his propaganda to the insecure, broken-hearted masses, then tear off his filthy white shirt, stomp on his white buckskins, and plunge a knife into his navel.

“Lord, Lord, forgive my thoughts,” she whined. Then she sobbed and pressed her face into a couch cushion.

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