Why did she have to wink just as the spiffy young priest passed the sacred chalice to my friend Claude? Should not sexy winks be prohibited in the House of God since they're in league with venality? Not that I have anything against venality, mind you, but picture Father Massini draped in his starched vestments, the chasuble so shiny and official, pivoting the cup of our Savior's blood onto Claude's lower lip, Claude stooping a bit to meet it, while I, wretch I, turned for a glimpse at the young woman a few souls down on the pew. I must admit that I glanced with intent, so I assume whatever guilt has accrued.
We live in a small outpost of the Blue Ridge where a venomous mutation of the Reformation thrives, the sole Catholic church is small, the noon masses on Wednesday attended by a mere handful of the faithful . . . almost always ancient, decrepit souls of now indistinct gender. So to speak makes me sound anti-geriatric, yet since I too am fast approaching the domain of the venerable (what with the AARP sending me daily reminders), I allow myself license. I assume honorary membership in the Chapel Moribundus. The living dead can call each other the living dead without incident. It works that way with all ethnic groups.
The point is, there was I, an older guy with silverish fringe surrounding his ears (tempered a bit through months of Grecian Formula), dallying with those who might pass as my parents, suddenly face to face with what throughout my entire life I have regarded as God's greatest gift: a young, beautiful woman. (And don't forget that beauty still resides in the eyes of the beholder.) I find the women who mesmerize Claude collectively unappealing, and vice-versa. There are no laws of aesthetics; aesthetics is wishful thinking. And spare me any feeble charge of sexism. Do not women find particular men attractive or repulsive? What's good for the goose . . . . And she was not ridiculously young after all.
Not even especially beautiful if we gauge that commodity by, say, Helen of Troy or Angelina Jolie. On some other day I might have glanced and thought no further about it. I'd say early thirties or so, and I'd pinpoint thirty-four, only because I like that age. By then women, and men too if men weren't so stupid, have just about figured it out, the games cease, and affairs of the heart had better assure comfortable survival -- or else no go. Better yet, we fiftyish males need no longer fret about not looking like Brad Pitt (oh, we do, but get over each daily sulk faster) or having muscles like the present Governor of Ca-lee-for-nia. We can sort of slump, relax, be ourselves and hope for the right pheromones. So thirty-four.
Alas, alas, fidgeting between her and a man I estimated around forty-five (her husband, natch, I would later learn from Claude). . . two children, sweet pre-Raphaelite cherubs, girls with cloud-like aureoles of golden, honey baked hair . . . why, why did she wink at me, when, despite the wafers and wine, I had languished for months on end, sick with desire for just about anyone much less a hazel-eyed woman of lithe proportions and tantalizing smile? Women should never wink at men, ever, unless they mean business, and, unfortunately, this one did.
So my heart catapulted, I was suddenly thrust back into the fray, I was shaken by primal, uroboric stirring. Hormones do not age. More to the point: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. But what if thy neighbor's wife covets you in return? And for reasons obscure, this happily married mother of two, this now breath-taking phantom of delight had, for a long moment, peered daringly into my eyes ' and then the wink. Claude, who knows every member of the congregation, including the entire Sunday populous, informed me later that her name was Astral Gilbert. Gilbert. 'Not,' I said, 'the hot-shot lawyer?'
'Indeed,' he laughed, 'Max Gilbert. That's him. He married her when she was still in college. Took their time to have kids. She's straight as an arrow.'
I did not mention the wink, though men have this way of intuiting each other's amorous inclinations.
'Don't even think about it,' he said. 'He could ruin you in so many ways. He'd haul you to court and you'd wind up an enemy of the state.'
'I am an enemy of the state,' I said. 'And who says I was thinking of anything. Just sort of nice to see younger people for a change.'
Claude lowered his eyebrows, gave me the Gallic frown, patted my back. 'Be careful, my friend,' he said, his basso reminding me of distant fog horns on a distant river.
That was Wednesday. On Friday I drove over to the
'Hello,' I said, my throat parched. I had not been so stunned by a woman for years, dare I say decades? Not at this pitch, anyway. I, like Claude, was gloomily divorced, paying child support, each of us to our second wives. But while Claude had found a new girl-friend and had become entrenched for the last year or so, I still made the rounds, checked out the laundromats and boutiques, peeked at the personals in local newspapers, feeling the whole while like an idiotic schoolboy. Seek and ye shall not find. Let's say I was ripe for a plunge, desperate for passion, charged with spare, unruly libido.
'Hi,' Astral said, smiling as usual, and I fully expected her to glide down the stairs, stalk out the door and return to hearth and home, Max Gilbert, the two angels. But no . . . curse fate, curse love, curse the human condition . . . she stopped, leaned on the handrail and looked at me.
'I saw you at Wednesday mass,' she said. Like a starry-eyed teenager groping for words, I saw you at Burger King, meaning, I saw you there because I planned to see you there and I'm interested and want to know if you're interested and who knows what might happen if we both feel the same way.
'I saw you too,' I said stupidly. How old is wise? 'But you know, I'm not really Catholic. I just attend mass every now and then when I feel the need.'
'But you took communion.'
A slight impediment in the flow. 'Uh, well, I figure that's between me and God. If God wants to damn me eternally for reckless imposture, then I want nothing to do with that God. I won't believe in him. When I'm there, in the church, I'm as Catholic as anyone else, maybe more so. We infidels go to extremes.'
She seemed slightly taken aback but intrigued. I was the bad boy cruising into town on a Harley, tattoos of Hitler throbbing on my forearms, rolled up cuffs, a Camel pinned between ear and skull. The same idiotic scenario played out endlessly in the junior high schools of
'Could you help me with this zipper?' she asked. 'It's stuck and I'm sweating and need to change in the locker room.'
I would have helped Astral Gilbert with her zipper even if bereft of fingers. I'd nip at it with my teeth. She was wearing not spandex on top - the spandex was all legs - but a tight-fitting sports t-shirt, an expensive one with a three-inch zipper at the nape. She turned, and I, my nostrils practically inhaling her fragrant hair, began to fiddle with the zipper. I took the opportunity to lay one hand gently on her shoulder. Is it possible to describe the fragile, splendid shoulders of a woman who has fired your kindling? She did not seem to mind.
And the zipper was not stuck, by the way. I slid it down with ease as if oiled with WD-40. There she stood, backside toward me, zipper down, my hand on her shoulder . . . and we lingered slightly longer than necessary on the mid-landing of a drafty stairwell, in pulsing silence, our breaths quickening. I did not understand what was happening and knew it meant trouble, but my every worry shriveled once I stopped pretending that I could resist even a crumb doled out by Astral Gilbert. I would go for it, dive in, accelerate with no brakes. Her shoulder was warm, a sizzling sculpture of flesh and bone. If we had so persisted for a second longer, I might have wrapped my arms around her and cupped her breasts. Not might, would have. This is the way it goes. No man could have resisted save Father Massini and I have my doubts even there. But Astral pulled away abruptly, turned, smiled again and thanked me. She took my hand and shook it as would a man.
'Thanks?' I said.
'For the zipper. Well, nice seeing you. What's your name by the way, in case we meet again. Seems we wind up in the same places.'
'I'm Ted Lawrence,' I said.
'I'm Astral,' she said. I failed to inform her that I already knew.
'Are you the Ted Lawrence who teaches at the university with Claude?'
'That I am. We work in different departments though. He's in languages, I'm in literature.'
'I just loved literature in college,' she beamed. 'Poetry especially. Whitman, that was my favorite.'
''One Hour to Madness and Joy.''
'I loved that poem. Thanks for reminding me to read it again. Well, I've got to pick up my little girls. Nice seeing you.'
And then she was gone. I moped for a while, defeated, thankful, regretful, anchored in confusion. I wanted to rush after her, spin her around, demand to know why she winked at me during the Sacrament of the Eucharist. I hoped I would never see her again. I would make evil, throaty, erotic phone calls to her deep in the night. I would cut my jugular on her doorstep. I would call Max Gilbert and demand that he turn over his wife to me so that we could flee to some remote island in the Pacific. I would make trouble. I wanted no trouble. Finally, I walked up to the track and began my brisk mile or two. All the usual girls in the usual shorts did not distract me. I jogged like a man possessed by a single, mad compulsion. I felt none of my usual tolerance for the geezers who limped along in the slow lane. I did not want them there to remind me of everything time would soon enough strip away. I felt the urge to kick them aside.
And of course, after the encounter, I showed up at the gym every day at the same time. But no Astral. Had I been dumped already? I detested my demotion to an adolescent deranged by unrequited love; maybe the pimples would flare again as well. I was too far down the road for this sort of cataclysm. Luckily, as we age, we learn to accept disappointment as routine; we don't have the energy to pine and thrash wildly on our mattresses; in other words, we quiver and bleat like sheep.
By the fourth day, when I had just about given up, Astral showed up on the track. I was half way around but saw her come through the door and set down her sack beside the wall only inches from my bundled jacket. My heart quaked, but I had commanded myself to stay calm, friendly but aloof, to flow with rather than try to channel the tide. I knew the rules of this treacherous game. Or maybe I had read it all wrong: maybe she had no interest in me beyond quaint curiosity. Then why the wink? I had to know the reason. How to approach her on the subject without degrading myself? I picked up speed and caught up. She didn't seem to notice. She seemed remote and looked rather disheveled. Spat with Max? Unruly children? Broken hot tub?
'Hello,' I said with mild enthusiasm.
This would be the final test, I had decided. If she responded warmly, with affection, I would stick beside her and run the course; if only a mild 'Oh, hi' I would jog ahead and leave it all behind.
'Oh hi,' she said dully as if not quite remembering who I was.
So I added momentum to my stride and passed her by. Was I pissed? Of course. But I didn't want to be pissed off. I hate being pissed off. I glanced at the serene duct work on the ceiling of the gym, a certain tranquilizer. Ducts have always had this effect on me, a secret I keep to myself. No need for psychotherapy when you've got duct work. And I figure if one ever needs to hide or get away fast, a solid duct with entry hatch is made to order.
Within seconds she had huffed up beside me.
'I'm sorry,' she said, 'I'm a little cloudy today. My husband's mother had a stroke down in
'I'm sorry,' I said. 'I've been through it too. I know it's hard.' Visions of my father flat on his back in intensive care fractured my mind like trumpet blasts. Another thing I didn't want to think about.
Astral looked a little ashen, a little older, though still, to my mind, ravishing. How I would have loved, as we jogged, to lean over and kiss her meaty lips. More trumpet blasts - a husband and two children. What kind of monster had I become? How could I even think of ever taking communion again much less stepping foot inside a church?
'She and I didn't get along,' Astral said. 'I wasn't good enough for her spectacular son. My people are West Virginian coal miners.'
'You don't look like a coal miner,' I laughed, attuned to her every word. Dissension in the ranks, strife in the compound? I had heard about Max Gilbert over the years. A true scumbag who relieved old ladies of their life savings. A loudmouthed, arrogant, bow-tied, Gucci-suited prick. I had never seen him before except during the recent mass. But since I loathe lawyers on principle, my denouncement of the man has no bearing. Most lawyers, I've learned from my dealings with the species, are either stupid or evil or both, and yet they prance about like Titans imagining that they, not beautiful women, are God's greatest gift to humanity. I avoid lawyers as I would exposure to pernicious viruses.
And then, opportunity of opportunities, Astral came to a dead stop and started to sob. 'Don't look at me,' she said. 'I've got to get out of here.' The usual runners whizzed by; the usual pipes clanked; the usual boys shouted and cheered down below on the basketball court.
We were about fifty yards from the exit, and I slowed to a standstill, took her hand, and inched her along.
'It's ok,' I said, 'I'll help you back to your car. Hey, I feel like crying myself. We could all use a good cry. It's ok.'
She brightened up some and managed a feeble smile. 'I'm so embarrassed. And I look like shit.'
No spandex today, just a pair of wrinkled running sweats.
'You look stunning,' I said. 'You could wear a haircloth and rub ashes into your face and still look gorgeous. Come on, let's go. Maybe you should go home a take a nap. Naps are like miracles. A little foray into unconsciousness, you come back energized and refreshed. In some ways we're all Lazarus.'
Again she smiled, but sadly.
I snatched up her bag and my jacket and cracked the door. Whoosh. One of the teenagers opening up below, a tall, skinny young man with baggy pants down to his ass crack. He loped up the stairs, veered around us and disappeared. Pimples, I noticed. Whoosh.
'I like stairwells,' I said as we reached the mid-landing.
Astral removed a Kleenex from her bag and blew her nose.
'I feel like such a fool,' she said.
I figured, well . . . fate is knocking. Now or never.
I lifted her chin with my fingers and gazed at her admittedly splotchy face.
'Why did you wink at me in church?' I blurted before I had time to stop myself.
'What?' she sulked.
'Church, why did you wink at me?'
She seemed puzzled. 'Did I? I'm sorry.'
Instant deflation. 'No, don't be sorry. I guess I misread. I'm stupid. I thought''
And smoothly she leaned forward to kiss me. Our arms wasted no time coiling round each other, we pressed into each other, we could hardly breathe as we groped for and explored our bodies in a maniacal rush of lust. We panted, groaned, cried out to God, tried to resist, reared back only to smash into each other again, tear at our clothing. I slid my hands under her sweat shirt and caressed her breasts, she stroked my thighs and groin. Whoosh. Both doors opened again. The lanky teenager swept down the steps, ignoring us . . . perhaps the sole, underrated virtue of teenagers: oblivion. But the one coming up, obviously older, more ponderous, slower, the one coming up . . . I watched Astral's face drain of blood. I didn't know the woman, but Astral did, a portly, sour-looking specimen with quadruple chins. In a leotard at her age! The shock on both their faces meant only one thing: we had been caught in the act, in flagrante delicto, hands up in the air, drop your weapons. Astral's bra had slipped to her waist. My pants were undone at the top. Astral's hair flared out wildly, and I, out of practice, had some trouble catching my breath.
'Oh,' the woman said curtly, 'hello, Astral.' She nodded sternly at me.
Astral tried to pull herself together but lacked time. There she stood, exposed, mortified, overwhelmed. One of her looped ear rings floated to the floor. The clink seemed to resound and echo throughout all spacetime.
'Hi, Laura,' she finally sighed.
Whoever Laura was had no use for me. When our eyes met ' and her ratty beads ping-ponged with insatiable curiosity between Astral's and mine ' they shot out tiny poisoned barbs. And, sadist of sadists, she didn't simply move on and allow us to crawl away in shame, no, she wanted to watch us wallow.
'How are the children, dear?' she asked. 'Is Amber over the ear infection?'
Bitch of bitches! Vagina Dentata! Torquemada! I fancied pushing her back down the stairs, gloat as she sprawled. Get thee behind me, Satan!
'Connie is fine,' Astral said as she hastily gathered herself, pulled down the sweat shirt, dabbed at her hair. 'The girls are both fine. How are you getting along with the surgery?'
Laura waved her hand. 'Cataracts. Nothing these days. I've never had better vision. I see everything now. It's amazing. I really recommend that Dr. Johnson highly.'
It was the most grueling, painful, agonizing conversation I have ever endured, and I had not yet said a word. I felt the need to speak coming on fast though, the need to rid us of this inquisitive menace. And I probably would have blurted something unforgivable had not Astral, now more composed, seized the reigns. 'Well, nice seeing you, Laura. Tell Richard hello. And the boys. We must be moving on.'
'Oh' was all Laura had a chance to say, her mouth forming a puckered, chalky vacuole. Astral took my hand, practically dragged me down the stairs, and out we went. We literally dashed from the gym and careened into her Mercedes. She started to laugh uncontrollably, the doubled-over belly laughs, the laughs with no sound that make you feel you're about to die, the wondrous thunder of both defeat and triumph. And of course I laughed too. Everything seemed ridiculous. Finally we both came up for air, spasmed a few more times, felt drained enough to fall limply into each other's arms. Astral shuddered as I held her, I, interloper, home-wrecker, coveter . . . yet her body spoke a language I heard but did not understand. A foreign language.
'Who was she?' I finally asked.
Astral took a deep breath, held it in, as if she wanted the name to flow away with useless, exhaled air.
Live in a small town, hear every name, but I failed to place it.
'Joe Donbaurant, my husband's law partner - his wife.'
'Ah, Donbaurant & Gilbert. I've seen the building. I stay away from lawyers myself. Will she talk?'
'She will relish every syllable.'
What could I say other than 'I'm sorry'? And 'but we didn't really do anything.'
Astral looked at me with the kind of resigned, serene smile I have seen on the exhausted faces of the dying.
'It's a done deal, Ted. She won't blabber all over town, but she'll tell Joe, and Joe will tell Max. He'll claim moral turpitude or some lofty crap. Of course, I've never mentioned how many times Joe has tried to put his hands all over my ass or when he showed up on my front porch drooling, begging.'
'What will your husband do?' I asked. I refused to refer to him by name. I despised the man, though I knew little about him beyond the sordid rumors. He might have been benign as Santa Claus, I would still despise him. I am far too entrenched in time to believe that I had fallen in love with Astral at first sight, but it's what I wanted and needed to believe. And it might be true in the sense that miracles happen. You believe in miracles on a higher level of intellect, not the sorry, mundane fog of insight required to tackle a broken pipe or figure tax receipts or tie up garbage bags.
'He won't do anything,' she said.
'No black eyes, torture chambers, chain saws?' I laughed weakly.
'He won't even let on that he knows, though I'll know he knows. Everything will seem the same but the key signature will shift ever so slightly toward the minor. Too subtle to notice most of the time. Just slow drainage, no tidal waves.'
'I've never done this before. I want you to know that. Do you believe me?'
'Yes,' I said. 'Will he come after me?'
'He'll inquire. He'll find out more about you than you know yourself. Maybe some telephone calls. Is there a weak link, Ted?'
I hugged her tighter and laughed. 'The whole chain! Nah, I'm lapsing into self-pity. Weak link? None that I know of . . . except you. Funny how the weak link becomes the greatest source of strength. Downright preposterous when you think about it.'
'I can't promise anything. I'll never leave him. We're like the ancient Persians and Greeks. One defines the other. And my two little girls come first. But I'll tell you this, for whatever reason, you swept me away. I don't know why. You're not especially handsome''
'Good to hear,' I mumbled. 'And I always fancied myself another Gregory Peck. He's dead, by the way.'
'Oh, come on, you're a big boy. And I don't know if you have some rare, bright mind that would dazzle me. I don't know anything at all about you. Sometimes it's just magic, which I don't believe in. But how else explain?'
'Will I see you again? That's all I care about. I'll wait until the moment of extreme unction.'
'I don't think I can resist. I'll try, but who knows when I'll come up the stairs as you go down? I'll feel you out there. Maybe we'll wind up making out on the altar.'
'The mystic delirium,' I sighed, aware that I was now worse off than before, when at least I had grown accustomed to involuntary celibacy and no prospects, at least none that ignited my every molecule. I would think of Astral Gilbert every moment, and she would be thinking about me. How could I bear it? Would our relationship consist solely of random humps on the
'I want you to know something else,' she said, clutching my fingers tightly.
'Please, no,' I said, 'what I already know tortures me.'
'This you must know,' she insisted.
'Ok, shoot. What the hell.'
'I did wink at you. It's all my fault. I knew what I was doing.'
How my heart raced at hearing those words. I knew I had not imagined it. I'm capable of having imagined it, of serious delusion, but not in this case.
'Jezebel,' I laughed. 'Why?'
'One second to madness and joy? Who knows why? I would do it again, too.'
'Have mercy,' I moaned.
She released my fingers, winked again, opened the door of her expensive, immaculate car and slid in. She did not roll down the window. She did not say goodbye. She started the ignition, backed out of the slot and drove away. And I was left with nothing and everything in my hands. Severe ironies never fail to surprise me. Light is both matter and radiation. The Eucharist is both red wine and blood, wafer and flesh. The cat is both alive and dead. Life is dreadful. Life is stupendous. She should never have winked at me. I thank God, whose wrath will justly consume me, that she winked at me. To be lost if it must be so!
BIO: Louis Gallo was born and raised in New Orleans. He teaches creative writing and literature at Radford Univ. in Virginia. His work has appeared in American Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Texas Review, Glimmer Train, New Orleans Review, Portland Review, Xavier Review, Baltimore Review, Greensboro Review, Amazon Shorts, Oregon Literary Review, and many others.