Travis Hedge Coke
Hillel Simmons was thirty-two when he reached out for someone. It looks so great in movies, you throw out your hand as they fall and hands slap together or fingers go around a wrist and thereís weight a shudder and fear fades, a rise of relief. The same bounce, Hillel suspected, that you felt bungee jumping or on a carnival ride. His brother, who had the much kinder name of Jason, tried to console him twice, at the hospital. Jason reminded Hillel that he never knew the jumper. He told Hillel that it was the closest he would ever be to anyone, poking a finger into the bandages around Hillelís left hand.
The velocity of the fallen, against the stability of the unmoving or suspended body, you are unlikely to actually make contact. You have to be astonishingly fast or lucky, or know ahead of time theyíre coming down. The will is there, obviously, if you do make contact, but skin is only so elastic and muscle fibers can fray like rope threads at speeds far slower than you would think. Jason twice offered consolation, Hillelís four working fingers closing and extending on air, the empty cataracts of space between fingers no longer feeling another hand slip by. His own missing meat and skin, the tendon that had crawled up inside his forearm to leave a ring finger useless, all felt still there, still whole. The pinky-side of his palm was a hollow, he could see it was a hollow under the tender, fibrous blue white bandaging, he could poke his fingers from the right hand into the hollow and the bandages would just go in. He could. The meat still thought it was there, still believed it was whole, and the only missing thing was the other hand. The doctors had picked out pieces of her bones, washed her blood from his left hand while his brother made little jokes, earnest and stupid and trying to help.
Nobody knew where the car was when he came into the churchyard. Hillel could not remember where the car was or what he had been doing pushing his palms together and breathing into the hollow hot breath on his thumbs and wet but forgotten before it made all the way through his hands. Deliberate breaths, short and from the mouth, inhalations through the nose because they could be unfelt that way. It was okay that he could not remember did not know where the car was or how he had got to the churchyard. Hillel had not known why he was on the balcony in the snow in a small metal chair surrounded by flowerboxes vacant of anything but dirt, plant food and dead whitish stalks.
The churchyard was held back from the city, but the threat of invasion refused to cede. Refused to calm. Give up. Go away. And Hillel stood hardly inside the gates by a stone bench with carvings in the legs that might have been biblical scenes or maybe just fable extractions that amused the artisan, exhaling into his hands, numb from the waste up and everything lower sharp and cold and ungrounded. Stood facing the church itself its three fat spires and its two and a half stories, that awkward uppermost level not high enough to be stood in but still with curtained windows as if to pretend.
The city was all old, but it was so much newer than the church grounds, so clearly built before this was what we think of it today, the yard stretching out green and soft and carefully immaculate even as winter was working to cover the whole of the city outside of the churchyard. Sounds penetrated, though, car horns and stale screams, conversations and radios, and the shine of a thousand city buildings, skyscrapers and steel slabs and brownstones, glass-faced tenements that only became plaster and brick a floor or two up, also pretending. It was all pretend, structure and time alike, all pretend and impersonal and lamentable and cold and Hillel wanted to lie down on the bench, lie on the cold stone and let frost and time cover him, playing with the threads of his bandage, cotton coming loose one string at a time, or maybe synthetics.
He had only ever been in a church with his father and his father was not there so Hillel hesitated, held back, actually leaned away from the slow face the timeless distant and restrained doors of the church. Anything to not think about those doors he did not want to go through, touching the bench, waiting for it to get colder, missing his hands before his face, missing her hand in his as she was let go. No matter how much you want to hold on, if someone already has a trajectory picked out and they have the kind of velocity it takes to step free of a ninth story landing; Hillel used his right hand to touch the latch.
The door was carved thick with figures, surely religious and curiously distended, abstracted so that an actual lamb lay on the cross, a gout of blood cut into the wood running down the thin straight sheep legs. A man with a beeís head and a shaggy coat that flayed that frayed out like a fir tree occupied the space where the latch and locks were, the latch itself, that hard strip of curled ruddy black metal directly protruded from the honeybee-faced man, from his crotch. Hillel held the latch harder and swallowed bile, pushing his thumb into the catch, his whole body into the door as though he wanted to keep it closed at all costs and not pull it open. Of course he wanted it open. Why would anyone stand at a door and not want to open, but to brace against it and keep it ever always shut?
Ambulance wails cut through evening air as Hillel stepped inside and shut himself away. He couldnít stay, not without his father, not in his current state of confusion and pain, but he had to get in from the sounds. He had to come in from the light. From the city and from now. So much warmer inside, even the city was warmed passing through the windows and walls of the church, the sirens softened, the crystal glare of futurist and modernist and art deco towers turned mute, made only ambient illumination highlighting the edges of saints, of stations and serene women in blue robes, all of the figures compiled of colored glass in the most unpredictable of shapes. Maybe the church was abandoned, Hillel thought as he approached the platform at the front in near darkness and silence not silent but murmuring constantly, maybe its attendants were too careless to always lock up, maybe there was nothing worth stealing. All the maybes were holding him heavy about the ankles as he shuffled to the dais, itís silver-tinted pale wood and scarred shellac, its crisp purple covering with gold trim and one corner stained redder and heavier.
It was hard to be a preacher. Harder than anyone suspected, and the collar burned at your neck with every failure as sure as your soul would burn after we were all measured up in the afterlife. Hillelís father told him so often, more often after Hillelís mother had been lost to them, most often after Jason left. Anymore it was so that his father was the only family still perpetually there, perpetually in mind, in memory. Not even a face for his mother, no memory of her voice or what she might have worn. He had known his brother as an adult for three or four years now, but he failed at conjuring the brother of childhood no matter how much he tried. His fatherís words, his fatherís inflection and dialect were strong and fierce and permanent on Hillel as he sat beside the dais. He slid down to the floor thinking about his father, who probably would have made a great preacher if whatever had stopped him had not. He made a few slips, sure, but who had never fouled up some points in their life? Hillel had thought his fatherís attention to the bible was probably not all that thorough, when at twelve he discovered his namesake was not, in fact, the father of Abbadon. Abbadon was the avenging or some fierce something, thing of killing and ruin, Revelations, and Hillel comes from the Old Testament. Totally separate people. Not even part of the same history. Revelations is not history, but prediction. Warning.
Hillel let go of the dais and kissed his left hand with papery lips. He had bled into the platform, was still dripping blood. Not running free or spouting, but coursing up in bubbles from beneath the bandages. They looked bluer next to the rising blood, less white, less cottony. Maybe they were synthetic, the bandages. Maybe, if you could not tell whether a bandage was cotton or synthetic, if you cannot remember where you parked your car or how many times the feet per second has to go into the mileage of descent and weight of the falling before you calculate accurate velocity, maybe then you should not be allowed to criticize an old man who tried so hard as he did. It may not have been a mistake, even, just a joke Hillel had never understood, something he nor his brother could appreciate.
At least, thought Hillel with more bile at his back teeth, swallowing and tearing up, at least Jason was named Jason. Simple, that. Maybe that name and the four years he had on Hillel were why he left home so early and Hillel, himself, only so recently. Jason had laughed when Hillel called on him in Jasonís home on the fifth floor of the Corona, midtown. Laughed at his appearance, his presence, and his insistence that he was willing to do any work available and that a man willing to do any work at all was sure to always find himself employed. Something else his father had always told him.
Hillel had only left home after his father died. It was months of struggling for even minimum wage occupation, months of dinners at his brotherís expense, before he really accepted his fatherís death. He had always been dead and that was what made him so difficult to understand. The why may not be. Of course, he did not understand his brother at all, either, and he was certainly alive. Vibrant, sturdy; too annoying to be dead.
His brother was as impossible for him to get a grip on, as the location of his car or the final resting place of the woman he had let go of. He had not let go, had he? He was still holding bits of her when the ambulances and police moved everything around including him. Just that the bulk of her had passed out of his grip and made a mess of herself on black old street. They probably did not even spend any extra effort to clean all of her out of the cracks and pitting in the paving. People even now were passing over fragments of her ribs, rolling their slow cars across phantom catches of organs and spilled blood.
His brother had tried cheering him up, calling him the ďfather of abandonĒ in the hospital, not even asking him anything useful, like what color had her hair been, this woman, or why had she hurled herself off like that. Why had she killed herself? And why had she held onto Hillelís hand so tight and sure when he reached for her. She could have just pulled away or loosened her fingers and it would have been over that much more. That much more surely she would have been down and dead. But she had held onto him, her grip had been firm and there was enough time for Hillel to smell her sweat and her perfume before her hand started to break in his and his arm went out at the elbow and the shoulder and he was waiting for it to hurt but it all just felt hollow and disconnected. Distracting from the woman who was gone then. In a pile on the pavement while he was distinguishing her sweat from bottled stuff.
Why could he not have noticed before? Not for the same reason that he had only now discovered the staircase winding up to the second floor, but for very similar reasons, nonetheless. Most reasons are very similar to every other, he thought, approaching the steps. At the top of the staircase, Hillel forced himself to stop crying; held his breath. Rows of rooms without doors, rooms with open frames like cataracts in the night, and behind them, at least for the first four which was as deep down the hall as Hillel could bring himself, three to four women in cots. He walked backwards to leave the hall, breathing again at the stairs, but still backwards down into the church and only then did he turn around and face forward as he sought to expulse himself from the grounds. From the building, the yard, the gates, and out on the snow blanketed street, white crystals half melting into pavement like a mesh of spiderwebs, like wet cotton underfoot, he regained his car.
For ages, Hillel, father of Abbadon, slept facing the lining of his backseat. His breath in peaceful trill bounced off the upholstery and across his unshaven face, warm and full of murmurs. His hands were pressed together between the faux leather and his breastbone which felt as though it had nothing behind it at all. Exhausted and exposed, Hillel waited until after dawn in the backseat of his car, sniffing floorboard smells and refusing his bodyís urge to cry, to hurt, to cramp. And after the sun came up, he slept for ages. Slept three blocks from the convent in a two-tone nineteen eighty-three lemon while the windows iced over and the tires were buried in boots of snow.
Travis Hedge Coke
Hugo and Pushcart nominee, Travis Hedge Coke, is a regular columnist for The Comics Cube
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