April 22, 2012 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
The story below was performed on April 21, 2012, at Cheap Theater, Black Forest Inn, Minneapolis, MN.
When Erica first asked me to tell a story on the theme “fresh,” I figured I had a lot of material for a story on fresh starts.
You know, beginnings that follow endings. About a month and a half ago I moved into an apartment in South Minneapolis with a friend. I had been living in a townhome in Hopkins that I bought in 2005, about a year after getting divorced.
That was my last fresh start. On March 7th, the bank took it back. Since then, the house has been sitting empty… sort of.
Moving has been a protracted experience.
I hauled the stuff out that I needed to live; I stored the things I thought I should keep. But I had a lot of things. I’d seen what happened to the stuff people left behind. There had been a foreclosure to the left of me and a foreclosure to the right of me, and one across from me. Westbrooke Patio Homes did not have estate sales. Everything got hauled away in a dumpster.
After the foreclosure date, I kept going back to see if the house was locked, but week after week, nothing happened. I got no notice in the mail or delivered by courier, no instructions about what to do with the keys, nothing. So I’d take a load here and a load there, as I had time, to a friend, or Goodwill, or the Salvation Army.
At first I locked the door when I left.
Later, I stopped, because there really wasn’t any need. All that remained besides what I was loading up to donate was old furniture that was too beat up to keep, store or give away. Oh, and the formaldehyde pig fetus in a mason jar that was my son’s science project. I left that in the refrigerator. I have this fantasy that some pre-foreclosure counselor has it on her desk at Citibank and talks to it on her breaks, like Hamlet to Yorick’s skull.
But my dining room table was there.
It was a Duncan Phyfe table I bought at a garage sale before I was married, and refinished myself. I was very proud of it, though as the years went by and it was disassembled and reassembled for a dozen different homes, it became rather rickety. Pieces that braced the legs fell off in moving trucks, and you couldn’t really bolt it together tightly anymore. The reupholstered harp-back chairs were held together with duct tape and gorilla glue. So I knew that taking it with me made no sense. Yet I had a strong attachment to it. And when I would go back for a Goodwill trip and see it there, even though the house was virtually empty, it would pull at me, in a welcoming way, like home does.
The last time I went back to Westbrooke, it was night. I had finally finished my taxes, and I’d come to pick up mail. When I pulled in the driveway, I knew. Downstairs the lights were all on, and I could see that everything was gone. Completely swept away. There was a lock box on the door, so homeless people couldn’t squat there, or strip copper from the pipes. Except for the paint on the walls, you’d never know I had lived there.
Giving things up for a fresh start releases a lot of stories. One of them belongs to that dining room table. And possibly to Dusty Springfield, who is going to roll over in her grave when she hears me sing her trademark song:
The only one who could ever reach me
Was the son of a preacher man;
The only one who could ever teach me
Was the son of a preacher man.
It was Trinity Sunday – the first Sunday after Pentecost, a hot, humid day in June of 1981.
I remember because the man I intended to marry was telling me how difficult it was to do a sermon on a day dedicated to a theological doctrine, and how all ministers feared that day. His father had told him so. I was a recovering Catholic, and Literature was supposed to be my religion – but literature is really better at being literature. He was an Episcopalian PK – a “preacher’s kid.” The Episcopal Church was having a public relations campaign at the time – they had posters in airports and everything. One of them was a picture of Jesus with his arms held out invitingly –a familiar portrait – and beneath the picture the words He died to take away your sins – not your mind.
We were discussing the rector’s sermon, which on a scale of one to ten, the preacher’s kid rated a seven. I was torn between being a good feminist who would complain that the doctrine of the Trinity was nothing but a homoerotic fantasy and being a good girlfriend, taking interest in the subtle complex knowledge of the man I had fallen in love with. Or maybe I was in love with subtle, complex knowledge – I was, after all, in graduate school – and the explicating man came as a bonus.
So there we sat, in my living room in the apartment on Thirty-Eighth and Harriet, drinking coffee on a hot and sticky afternoon.
Circling that Bermuda Triangle whose longitude and latitude is the Nicene Creed – the Athanasian Creed, if you really want to drown in the Sea of Dogma. I had not opened the drapes before he picked me up for church – and when we came back it seemed just cooler in the room to keep it that way, because I didn’t have air.
Or perhaps I was distracted by the preacher’s kid, by the open collar of his white button-down shirt, the rolled-up sleeves, the way his hand held the cigarette, gesturing as if it was a piece of chalk. There was still something of the decadent poet about him, and though he’d left grad school by then, and was working a menial office job, trying to figure out what to Do with his Life, there was still something in his manner of the student teacher scraping by. The shirts had been ordered from Sears; they were cotton, worn smooth and thin like sheets with a low thread count. I had to be in love if shirts from Sears were sexy.
He was introducing me to the Shekhinah, the feminine spirit in Hebrew Scriptures sometimes equated with the Holy Spirit.
Shekhinah: the cloud on the Tabernacle, the fire in the burning bush, the descending dove. Shekhinah, the protective maternal force midrash says drowned the Egyptians as they followed the Hebrews through the parted waters of the Red Sea. He was explaining her to me. At least that is how I have remembered it.
But you know, that really can’t be right. Because a year earlier I had taken an entire course on Women and Spirituality in the Women’s Studies department at the U – in which we surely covered Shekhinah, either before or after reading Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, or Rosemary Radford Ruether’s New Woman, New Earth. Why would I have to have the son of a preacher man explicate Shekhinah?
Perhaps because of that cartoon. That New Yorker cartoon over his desk in the graduate student office, the one that had first intrigued me. His father cut out all the funny New Yorker cartoons and sent them to him every Monday with the family letter. In this one there’s a woman and a man out to dinner, and she’s gazing earnestly at him, and his eyes are like laser beams staring right through her, and she says “What really attracts me to a man is intensity.”
He did not know he had a vocation yet. But I did.
And three months after we were married, I would, in fact, convince him of this. Convince him of what he already wanted to believe: that he was not just copping out by following in his father’s footsteps and seeking ordination. That the church was the path he had been destined for all along – Luke, it is your destiny – the one poetry had looked like, and theater had looked like, and teaching had most of all looked like. But it wasn’t just academic teaching he was called to. It was something more. I knew this. That’s what made me special.
Oh, I had plans for a career – in that world where English Ph.D.s were a dime a dozen, and finding a tenure track position was a three-year gypsy jaunt, if you were lucky, followed by six years of publish or perish – but I also wanted a family. It didn’t occur to me that there might be any conflict here, that I might have to make choices. Both my parents worked. My mother was a schoolteacher, and my father was a principal. I figured it would all just come together when I found the right person and we fell in love. But I also wanted to be swept away by a force beyond my control. And what really attracted me to a man was intensity.
A little before four, our conversation – if such it could be called, since the preacher’s kid was doing most of the talking – our conversation was interrupted by a low rumbling sound.
“I didn’t know that trains ran near here,” he remarked.
“They don’t,” I said.
He parted the curtain. There was a wall of black cloud coming down Thirty-Eighth street, full of dust and sticks and debris. How odd. “We need to go downstairs,” he said. No subtle complex knowledge was expressed in this statement. What I heard instead was a small child’s fear – a Midwestern child, someone for whom the Wizard of Oz was very real.
“Where’s your basement?” he asked. “We need to go there. We need to go Now.”
There had been no sirens. In the three years I had lived in Minneapolis, I had been through this drill many times before when there were, and it was always nothing. I couldn’t figure out why he was so upset. But I played along. I was being the good girlfriend. “This way,” I said.
There were probably twelve units in the three-story building, but no one else seemed to be home that Sunday afternoon in June.
As we went down the stairs, I felt the pressure change in my ears, like I was on a plane landing in the cellar. I remember a crashing, splintering sound. I remember how he held me in the basement, his back against the wall. A friend tells me I should have ended the relationship right there – that both of our backs should have been against the wall, because in a tornado, it’s the stability of a wall you want, not a person who can fall on top of you – but it was his instinct to hold me, and my instinct to be held. We both felt safer that way, even if it wasn’t true.
I remember I could feel his heart beating through the thin cotton shirt. In that moment we were all the life in the world. And above us was this tremendous force, this force that in and of itself was not a living thing – this cloud of unknowing dust and wind.
By the time the sirens got around to wailing, the wall had moved beyond us. The storm had passed. The next day we would learn that a boy of twenty, fishing on Lake Harriet, had been killed; that eighty some others had been injured, most at the Har-Mar Mall. At one point the weather service thought the storm was really three separate tornados; later they decided it was only one, touching down repeatedly. Three in one. Until 2011, it was the most devastating tornado to ever hit the Twin Cities, traveling fifteen miles in twenty-six minutes. And it came without warning.
When we emerged, the explicating man was ecstatic.
“We’re fine!” he cried. “We survived a tornado! We’re fine!”
I looked around. A tree had smashed the roof of the car parked in front of my apartment – the spot where he normally parked, how incredibly lucky – and its top was laying across my desk inside the sun porch, littering freshman papers with bits of bark and leaves. At the other end of the apartment the dining room window was blow in, and a piece of shattered glass was embedded in my dining room table.
I thought about the force with which that glass was propelled. I thought about both of us sitting in front of the living room window just moments before, swept up in the eroticism of intellect, our hearts open, ready to be pierced. The temperature had dropped precipitously, and the breeze moving through my apartment, from the dining room to the sun porch, was deceptively fresh, almost innocent. My legs began to shake uncontrollably.
“We’re fine!” he repeated. He looked at me, half tender, half amused. “We survived a tornado. It’s a good sign, don’t you think?”
It was then I began to cry. And he held me.