Thursday, April 10, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Eight: Wrestling with Jesus

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Shawn found himself attracting odd people. First was the wiry black guy by the apartment dumpster, who decided he had to give him a full account of his morning discoveries. (“See? You glue that earpiece on and these here, they work just fine!”) Within a block, two different men asked him for cigarettes, then a Chinese lady asked him for directions, outlining the address on her hand.
            The prize character came at a Starbucks near UW-Tacoma: a large, athletic man of 35 who sat reading a textbook. He wore a black biker vest outlined in squares of silver and turquoise, and a headband of silver circles over his long, blond hair. He ran a finger over the text and recited pieces of it in a calm baritone, as if he were giving instructions to a young dog.
            “My words... foment... much danger, remember? I can shatter your ulcers... assassination... Watch this missile... CIA – I’ve seen your computers, too... The archangel is circumnavigating... statement... see how you rebuilt cocaine reduction?... Let me give a warning to all nations: you do not question God.”
            Ah, thought Shawn. Religion and conspiracy theories: the principal indicators of mental disease.
            “The CIA has cookies!”
            Not that Shawn much cared. He had a date. Strolling back through the grand old buildings of downtown, he began to understand what had drawn him here. Tacoma was a town with holes to be filled, spaces to be used. He passed the construction site for the new museum of art, saw a sign for a proposed shopping center, looked across the water where the Museum of Glass Art was rising from its foundation. They whole town seemed to be preparing for some economic messiah, and he was happy to dig out a spot and wait for deliverance.
            Shawn climbed Market and passed a vacant bank, wrought-iron chandeliers hanging from high ceilings, green and blue tiles trimming the facade. It cried out for a restaurant or night club. He’d open it himself if he could.
            But first, he had a date.

They sat on a velvet bench in the lobby, sneaking bites of popcorn, waiting for the movie to get out. Rivulets of rain shifted on the glass as Tacoma answered the obvious question.
            “My mom’s first marriage lasted a year – precisely. She left on their anniversary. When the divorce came through, she took a flight to Los Angeles, rented a car and drove up the coast. She ran out of land at Cape Flattery, Washington, where she met my father. He was on a post-divorce getaway himself, having driven all the way from the south hills of Pittsburgh. Which is precisely where my mother grew up.
            “They figured it was fate. They were wrong. They drove back to the south hills and got married. When I came along, eight months after the marriage (I’ll let you figure that one out), they picked a name from the state where they met. I’m damn lucky they didn’t call me Spokane.”
            “Or Federal Way,” said Shawn.
            “About a year ago, for lots of reasons I will tell you later, I decided that it was my turn to flee to the West Coast, and figured, I’m named after the place – why not go there?”
            “Mighty weird,” said Shawn. “But... you don’t give this lengthy explanation to everyone, do you?”
            “Mom and Dad were hippies.”
            “That works.”
            “Oh, look – movie’s out.” She took Shawn’s hand and led him into the theater.
            The movie was about a children’s board game that kept whipping up disastrous enchantments: sudden floods, invasions of frogs. Shawn cringed at the extended screams – Hollywood’s latest overdone gag – but did enjoy its unusually dark edge. At times, you weren’t even sure if all the principals would survive. Not that Shawn much cared. He was lost in the light-fingered dance of Tacoma’s hand in his, the pillow of black curls against his shoulder.
            When Shawn was extremely happy, he tended to ramble. All the way back to Tacoma’s house, he gave the movie a thorough going-over, surprised at how much he liked it after the fact. Pulling up to her curb, he realized he had cowed her into silence.
            “You know, it’s all right if you didn’t like it. It ain’t Casablanca. C’mon, tell me what you think.”
            She smiled sheepishly (come to think of it, she always smiled sheepishly). “Wull it was entertaining. I thought the actors did a great job, and the special effects were amazing.”
            “Out with it!” said Shawn.
            “Okay. It’s just that all that witchcraft bugged me. You see, I’m a pretty serious Christian, and that stuff kinda creeps me out. It’s almost like... devil worship.
            “Plus, it’s... Something happened to me in Seattle. I went to a health store up there, in the Fremont district, to get this special ginseng tea. There was this strange man there, he was sort of... impish. He had yellow teeth, and you could almost see the horns sprouting from his head. He got all pissed off at me, for no reason, and I’m convinced he put something evil in my tea, because for the next two days I couldn’t think straight, like there was something fogging my thoughts. And I saw... visions. I haven’t been back to Seattle since, because I’m convinced that impish little man is after me. Oh, I...”
            She could see how hard Shawn was trying to follow her story.
            “I’m sorry.” She let out a nervous laugh. “This is hardly the thing to talk about on a first date!”
            What she didn’t know was that Shawn was fully occupied watching her lips move, and figuring how he was going to get around to kissing her.
            “Thanks for the movie,” she said. She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. “Give me a call soon.”
            He watched her walk away.

Shawn didn’t feel the spider-strings of dread until the next day, walking the seawall at Point Defiance, studying bits of poetry etched into the sidewalk. Then he was back on Wendy Fisher’s couch, doing the nightly dry-hump while the Rev and his wife snoozed away upstairs. He reached up the back of Wendy’s blouse and tried to undo her bra. Wendy grabbed his hand and held it out like a dead rat.
            “You just don’t get it, do you, Shawn? Sex is not a plaything. It is a holy sacrament. God does not intend for us to partake of it until we are married. So stop it!”
            Shawn had suffered two years of this treatment, in the hopes that one day Wendy’s constant horniness would drive her over the edge. But that night, the final tumbler clicked into place and he could see the Christian trap for what it was. He shot up from the couch, his penis still tenting his jeans.
            “Fuck your god, Wendy! Your god pumped you so full of chemicals you’re down here every night using me like some fucking human trampoline. And then he tells you you’re evil for doing it. Your god is a pansy-ass pricktease, Wendy, and so are you! I’m leaving.”
            Wendy’s shock turned quickly to sobbing, and for all the wrong reasons. She was petrified that her parents had heard Shawn’s tirade, that her evil urges would finally be found out. But her parents were engaged in boisterous canine sex, and wouldn’t have noticed if Billy Graham walked in for a personal sermon.
            Wendy also didn’t know that Shawn wasn’t just leaving her. He was leaving Ellensburg.
            “Centaur Systems.”
            “Hi Tacoma.”
            “Well hi.” Tacoma’s business voice melted like butter. “How are you today?”
            “I... um, I wanted to tell you something. I was thinking about what you said last night, and I thought it only fair to tell you: I’m not a Christian. I thought I should tell you right away, because I thought maybe you might be looking for a Christian guy.”
            Shawn had bolstered himself for any number of hurt responses, but not for what he got: the kind of lilting sigh one emits at the sight of a cute puppy-dog.
            “Oh, that is so sweet! That is so considerate. But no, it’s okay, really. I’m not necessarily... exclusive that way.”
            “Oh. Okay.”
            “So were you calling just for that, or were you going to ask me out?”
            “Oh, um – sure! What would you like to do?”
            “How about a drive? I’ve been dying to see Port Townsend.”
            They talked for another half-hour, about whatever they could think of, completely distracting Tacoma from her Saturday work session. After a dozen variations on “Goodbye” and “See you soon,” Shawn hung up, thinking, There you go. I’ve gone and become infallible.

Photo by MJV

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