The New Year
“I’m spending New Year’s Eve with a girl from the bible school.”
My buddies stared at me, shaking their heads. Behind them, here in Ray’s apartment, stood the gleaming keg, the bongs lined up on the window sills like trophies. There was a high stained-glass window. They yanked me to stand in the colored rays and spun me like I’d pin the tail onto something.
“Look,” I continued, “I just want something different. We’ll be in church at midnight, with a million candles.”
“Then you’ll be saved.” Ray pumped the keg, serious concentration on his face. He stood up straight and looked at me. “When you come crawling back here, we won’t even recognize you, with your halo.” They cracked up, the ignorant fools. I saw yellow, and then red.
The girl’s name was Lauren. She had an apartment in town and worked at the nursing home with me on weekends. We were aides, feeding and walking and cleaning the old people, both saint-like in our crisp white, serving others, but she had the clean beauty lit from within, something awesome and scary with her gray eyes like crystals, sending rays which made me feel weightless, like something held safely in a hand, yet insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
The day she asked me to come to her church for New Year’s Eve, our fingers were meshed together beneath the back of an old woman we’d just lowered into bed. Her weight kept us from getting our hands apart, or so we pretended. For moments we were weak, but then when I said, “Okay,” found the strength to come apart. She cleared her throat and turned pink and fiddled with the mass of her pinned up black hair. I wondered just how long that hair was. We abruptly got back to work, and did not speak of it again until the end of our shift, when she handed me a paper with her address. “The service will start at eleven, so come by ten of.” She smiled at me, her only imperfection being one crooked tooth.
Early on New Year’s Eve, after I left the laughing fools, I drove back home, a tiny place just over the mountain on the New York border. I lived there with my father, who was paying for my education with his savings – liberal arts, which meant I knew nothing about everything, but he knew anything was better than breathing welding fumes and digging holes and breaking my back like he had. He knew I had my mother’s sensibilities, built in receptors to the greater world that he lacked. My mother’s dying wish, besides a cigarette, was that I make something of myself.
She died here peacefully in her own bed, looking out at her garden, which my father had slaved over to keep perfect until the end. Then he let it overgrow until the pods exploded and millions of silky helicopters carried my mother’s soul up and away. We sat on the roof outside my dormer window and watched the tiny angels scatter, their filaments lit orange and pink by the setting sun. My father said, “What will I do without her?” He was asking the sky, not me. And what he did without her was drink and smoke and sleep more. Occasionally he’d balance on the peak of our roof and twirl his .30-.06 like a baton.
This was where I found him, minus the gun, three cans of Bud lodged into little igloos he’d built of snow. I climbed out of my window. “Dad, get down here. It’s slippery.”
“You should come up here.”
He rolled a beer down the slope but I let it go.
“Not drinking tonight.”
“On New Year’s?” He wore his orange hunting coveralls. He pocketed the remaining beers and slid down the roof on his ass. A plate of ice like a cracked mirror sailed past and he watched it fearfully, as if he saw a reflection of some memory slipping away. I grabbed his arm and held on.
“I’m going to church, with Lauren from work.”
“The Jesus freak?”
“She’s not that. She’s nice. Gentle.”
“That’s right, be gentle with my boy.”
I yanked the other beer from his pocket and threw it like a football into the trees. “I want you to go easy tonight. No driving. Just stay here.”
“Don’t you worry. I’ll be here, all by my lonesome. I’m going to watch the new moon for a sign from your mother.”
I cleaned up and put on black pants and a white shirt. That was their dress code, and even though she said I didn’t have to dress like that, being a guest, I liked the way I looked — simple, anonymous. The only white shirt I had was a turtleneck, kind of a fuzzy thing plagued by static. I walked into the night setting off tiny fireworks, my finger blasting my car door handle like a wizard enchanting his vehicle. I didn’t take a coat, and I shivered until my old Ford warmed up, shedding my spinning electrons.
There were two roommates, both taller than me. Cindy was a redhead with hair coiled like a snake. Grace had a blond mountain on her head. I stood with my mouth open, nodding stupidly. They were scrubbed and healthy looking in their black skirts and white blouses. They were not allowed makeup, but they didn’t need it, and in the soft amber light in the room I wanted to cry. Lauren came from the next room, bundling her black hair and spearing it with what looked like a leather cross. “Have to keep it out of the way,” she explained. “The candles.”
The three of them couldn’t keep from touching my electric shirt.
Lauren handed out the candles in their little holders, lit each one with a long wooden match. We marched down the street and into the school commons, merging with a thousand other identically dressed candle bearers. There was the moon my old man was talking about, and we colored it orange with our flames.
We filed into a chapel the size of an indoor stadium. We stuck our candles into a rack and climbed to seats where my ears popped. Way down there on a stage was their pastor, or leader, so far away and small and energetic that I thought of the word “plucky.” He spoke and gesticulated all the way to midnight. When I was young my mother had taken me to Catholic Mass, where you knew what was coming, when to sit, stand and kneel. The words you knew came to the priest from a higher power, he being merely the puppet relaying the message, but this little man in the black suit spoke like it was all his idea. It was boring, no one shouting, “AMEN!” or “HALLELUJAH!” No one danced around like taken over by the spirit, they just stood still, mesmerized, brainwashed. There were two good parts — one when Lauren’s fingers found mine, and then at midnight when we were to wish each other peace and the girls crushed me within their triangle and I gave them some good jolts with my shirt.
On the way out they clung to me, like I was their bearer of good news and rebirth and not the little hopping guy. They were flushed, their hair coming loose, pupils dilating. I knew this look. My scrotum tingled. Outside when I tried to break off and say, “Well, Happy New Year,” and, “Goodnight,” we were held together by static charges, one new molecule heading back to their apartment, their breath quickening in my face, their hands in my pockets, where maybe they thought that was an extra candle I was hiding. Lauren said she was surprised I understood the spirit so quickly, so completely, but I didn’t understand anything, and I wasn’t saying. She said something about us being chosen, and I didn’t disagree. I was surprised by how fast my breath was coming, but I believed it was lust, not the spirit. Maybe I was wrong. We spun together into the street, catching snowflakes in our mouths, but then a car swerved towards us and I heard some drunk yelling from the window, “Get the fuck off the road!” But instead of giving him the finger, I flashed the peace sign.
The girls closed the curtains, lit candles on every surface, killed the lights. Lauren peeled my shirt over my head and they ooh-ed because I was a human sparkler. They didn’t need to understand it was just the shirt. “I feel the spirit!” I said, and they were on me, tearing off their clothes and my pants, pushing me onto someone’s bed, pulling out a white condom with a red cross on it, but then I realized it was an arrow, and they all helped, their fingers used to making steeples. Hair came down, and I was in a tent of mixed shades and scents and textures, but after a while I couldn’t tell the difference, or the difference in the lips on my skin.
Someone turned on the stereo. Pipe organ, a chorus of sweet angel voices undermined by a thundering bass that shook the room and bordered on evil. The vibration changed the rhythm of my heart. I thought I might die. This was it then, giving up the ghost. Cindy was the first, moving slowly on me with the barely audible beat of the pedals, her chest swelling until it leaked the shrill but quiet note of the smallest pipe, there all by itself holding the note for eight beats and fading, fading into her polite orgasm, a little gasp like a quick refill of the organ’s bellows.
Grace was next, her long throat capturing the reed-like, mid-range notes. I placed my fingertips there, then my mouth, absorbing the melody into my lungs, echoing it as I latched onto a nipple. Her breasts were the size and color of snowballs, except hot, but still it made me think of my father up on the cold roof, an image I needed to last long enough to get through Grace and into Lauren.
Lauren whispered into my ear, words I could not understand, maybe some prayer to keep me with her, for the organ had spiraled into a deep cacophony of dying souls, and she quickened her pace like one moving hand over hand on the saving rope, the suction between her legs pulling me in, and with the last crashing throes of the music her orgasm was not like the others’ — she slammed my shoulders repeatedly, bit my neck and shouted, “Praise him!” but I knew she wasn’t talking about me, that I was being used like the priest, channeling almighty power. I was too freaked to reach an orgasm of my own, and the girls plucked the shriveling condom from the fallen steeple and went to their knees around the bed.
A window was open, streaming white light and cold. It was a new year, and I couldn’t remember a day this bright, as if the sun was closer than ever, but no longer giving heat, just light. It wasn’t even a special year, like the turn of the century or even the decade.
The three of them wore white robes and wings with feathers and glittering plastic halos. So I was dead. I sat up quickly and they giggled because I was still naked. They stood me up and dressed me. Their hair was braided in some complicated way, reminding me of loaves of bread I’d seen. They must have been up all night doing it.
I said, “Were you? Did we?”
Lauren laughed. “We have a concert. You can come if you want.” There was glitter on her cheeks.
Then my phone rang. It was my father. I couldn’t get it off speaker phone so the girls heard it all. He spoke like he was reading a note. “Son, it’s a new year but I’m back on the roof. This time I have my .45. Your mother spoke and said I should come to her. I’m sorry, Jack.”
But he’d hung up.
“Will he do it?” Lauren squeezed my arm.
“I don’t know. But I have to get to him.”
“We’ll all go,” Lauren said.
“We specialize in this kind of thing,” said Cindy.
“To the Angelmobile!” said Grace.
The Angelmobile was parked up the street. On the way we came upon yellow police tape. Some cops milled about with steaming coffee. “What happened?” I shouted at one of them, but he looked through me.
I’d never get laid like that alive, I thought. No way. The car must have hit us. I touched my shirt, electric no more.
We passed Ray. He stopped and bent over and puked on the sidewalk. He stared at us, shaking his head in disbelief. He gave me a thumbs up. “You can see them?” I whispered, and he said, “Duh?” Then he puked again.
“That’s disgusting,” my angels said, turning up their beautiful noses at someone that, on any other morning, could have been me. Not very Christian of them.
The Angelmobile was an ancient VW bus painted purple. Grace said it was her father’s, back when he was a hippie. They ducked their halos and folded their wings. I helped Lauren with hers getting into the back. One of her feathers fell off and I slipped it into my pants pocket.
Grace drove like we were above death or injury. There were no seat belts. I was sure the tires were bald, the way we fishtailed up and over the twisting mountain roads. The old guardrails drummed the fenders but the girls just laughed. We descended the long hill into my town sideways, feathers flying, and when I held onto one of Lauren’s wings I was relieved to find it flimsy, not substantial enough to be real.
There was my father as promised, straddling our roof in his long underwear, pistol twirling around a finger. When he saw us crossing the lawn he said, “Good God!” The gun flew from his hand, slid down the roof and into the gutter.
“How do we get up there?” Lauren asked.
In my room they removed their outfits carefully, folding the wings onto my bed, stepping over my piles of clothes. Underneath they wore the same kind of white long Johns as my father, except with delicate pearl buttons up the front. They slipped out of their flat glittery shoes and climbed barefoot onto the roof, their long toes clutching the rough shingles with the expertise of tree-climbing girls. Lauren said she was from Vermont; Grace and Cindy were mid-western girls. My father lost control of his face as he watched them come for him, the greatest thing he’d seen since my mother in her wedding dress.
They sat him down and hugged him. I was horrified to see the tiny turtle head of his penis poking from his suit, where he’d missed a button; but Cindy, with one expert swoop as deft and fast as a karate move, tucked it in safely and secured the button with the same hand, without him even realizing it.
“Do you feel the love of the Lord?” they asked, rocking him like a baby. “How He heals.”
I worried for a minute. I knew about this healing of theirs. My father cried as they caressed his head. “I miss her so much,” he sobbed. “ I wanted to be with her.”
“She’s here with you,” Lauren said. “We see her.”
“Take me with you,” he said.
“Your son needs you.”
I saw him nodding his head, rubbing his face into their shoulders and breasts, the perv.
We watched them head back to the VW — roughed-up angels, feathers fluffed and feet dirty, shoes in hand. “Those are some girls,” my father said.
“Tell me about it.”
We slid down until our heels lodged in the gutter. The gun was there somewhere. The sun was falling, star that it was. We did something absurd for father and son, held hands and closed our eyes. We listened to them drive away, the distant laughter which almost sounded mean. I heard one of them say, “Jesus H. Christ!” which was not the way I wanted to hear it.
We didn’t move, warm even with the little we had on. We waited for the moon to come back. I took the feather from my pocket, and despite the stillness of the night it floated toward the moon, edged with a fiery glow.