Dennis Vannatta has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Chariton Review, Boulevard, Antioch Review, and Pushcart XV. He has published five collections: This Time, This Place and Prayers for the Dead, both by White Pine Press; Lives of the Artists by Livingston Press; and Rockaway Children: Stories and Flamboyan: Tales of Love and Other Mysteries, by Rising Star Publishers. His first novel, Around Centralia Square, was recently published by Cave Hollow Press.
Among the Lenten traditions of Christ Redeemer Parish was the Mardi Gras carnival and parade for the grammar school children. The ladies and gentleman of the PTO ran the game booths, cake walk, and refreshment stand in the school cafeteria, while the eighth graders were responsible for the parade. This took the form of a dozen or so "floats": ribbon- and crepe paper-festooned wheelbarrows, baby carriages, and Red Rider wagons pulled and ridden-in by gaudily dressed lads and lassies who tossed handfuls of plastic coins, bracelets, and necklaces to the squealing children lining the parade's half-block route. These activities were thought too frenetic for kindergarteners and first-graders, who celebrated Mardi Gras in their classrooms with their mothers' homemade cookies and ice cream in paper cups. Second graders were judged to be in a sort of limbo: old enough to enjoy the celebration but not mature enough to be allowed to roam free, especially on the parking lot where the parade was held. Therefore, for many years it had been the custom that each second-grader be assigned to a seventh-grade "guardian angel," whose duty it was to chaperon his or her little charge for the ninety minutes of Mardi Gras. The seventh graders, of course, hated it. Generally speaking, the second graders didn't like it much, either. It was at the Christ Redeemer Mardi Gras in 1963 that Teresa Ann Gunther fell in love.
There was a lot of luck involved, but isn't there always in love? Teachers preferred to match boys with boys and girls with girls, but there happened to be more girls than boys in the second grade and more boys than girls in the seventh, so Teresa Ann got stuck with a boy guardian angel. Her friends went nearly paralytic with giggling to see Teresa Ann, the smallest girl in her class, walk off with the tall blond giant. Teresa Ann was mortified. She felt her face go all blotchy red and white as it did when she was about to cry. She did not cry, but it was a close call.
For an hour the boy followed her from game booth to game booth to refreshment stand. When she'd finish one activity, he'd say, "Well, Teresa Ann, what do you want to do next?" Had she been more objective, she might have said that he was gentle, kind. But she was too nervous, being in such close proximity to a boy five years her senior, for objectivity. She never looked him in the eye, didn't remember his name—if he ever said it—remembered very little, in fact, of her hour in the cafeteria, which was pretty much an ordeal.
Something changed, though, when the carnival portion of the festivities was over and everyone trooped outside to watch the parade. The boy took her hand. Teresa Ann thought that now for sure she would cry, but just at the point of welling up she shot a glance at two of her friends standing at the curb with their guardian angels and saw that they weren't giggling but looking at her with an expression she could not identify. At that moment, though, she no longer felt the desire to yank her hand out of the boy's.
They watched the parade—or at least her eyes were on the succession of floats. She could not have said what she saw. She wasn't even aware of the plastic jewelry and coins that that were being tossed into the crowd of onlookers until the boy let go her hand long enough to step forward and pick up a purple, green, and gold necklace, then hand it toward her. Teresa Ann reached out and took his hand, ignoring the necklace. He had to take it with his other hand and drape it over her head and around her neck. She said, "Thank you," her only words to him the entire day.
When the parade had passed and the teachers started herding the students back toward the classroom building, the boy bent down—even squatting he was taller than she—and said to her, "Now, Teresa Ann, Mardi Gras is over, and now Lent begins. Do you know what that means?"
She shook her head. It wouldn't have made any difference what the question was, she wouldn't have been able to answer. She could hardly see his face—in shadow, his head backlit by the afternoon sun crowned with fire—but he was so beautiful.
"Well, sweetheart, it means that for the next forty days you belong to God. OK? Do you understand?"
She nodded. She understood that she was in love.
# # #
The seventh and eighth graders, officially the junior high, no longer went out for recess, ate lunch a half-hour later than the younger students, and had all their classes on the second floor, the grade school children on the first. As a result, although she looked for the blond boy everywhere, Teresa Ann never saw him again at school.
She thought about him, though, and dreamed about him in waking and sleeping visions where he was always handsome, if vaguely so (she could not remember his face, but his hair shown like fire), and always heroic. She needed a hero. She was small, with delicate features and tiny hands and feet, and she was afraid of almost everything. When she was six, her father brought home a leaping, licking, snapping, yelping cocker spaniel, and Teresa Ann spent most of the next three days perched in the exact center of the dining room table, refusing all entreaties to descend and play while sending out silent prayers for some hero to take her hand and lead her to safety. When her father finally gave up and took the dog away, Teresa Ann attributed it to her prayers, although she understood that the hero was yet to come.
She gave her hero a name: Marty, after the boy on Spin and Marty, but her Marty was more beautiful that that other one, much more. Too, he was a boy of God. She dreamed that he'd become a priest and lead the mass so that she could watch him for at least an hour every week and take the host on her tongue from his hand. Years later at the junior high spring assembly, Teresa Ann won the seventh grade religion medal. She walked to the front of the gymnasium to receive her prize with her eyes lowered guiltily. She knew she didn't deserve it because now her most fervent prayer was that "Marty" not become a priest. She was too confused and shamed by her feelings to determine what exactly she did want from him.
It was also in her seventh-grade year that she saw him for the second time. A friend of hers had a brother who played for the St. Joseph's School for Boys JV basketball team, and she invited Teresa Ann along to watch a game. While they waited for the brother to shower and dress after his game, the varsity took the floor for their warm-ups. And there he was: the blond boy. The boy of God. Her hero.
He'd changed, of course. It'd been five years, and he was bigger, more muscular, his face longer than she remembered. As for his features, she couldn't say that they'd changed because she'd never had a clear impression of them in the first place. It was him, though. Someone shot the ball, and he went up high over two others to snag the rebound. Yes yes, he could do anything, save her from anything.
"Well, kiddies, it's time for us to be heading home," her friend's father said when he saw his son coming out of the boy's locker room.
"I want to stay and watch the next game," Teresa Ann said.
She didn't repeat it but only because there wasn't enough air in her lungs for speech. In the car on the way home she burst into tears. She was so happy.
Later that spring Teresa Ann went to a sleepover at that same friend's house. The brother who played on the JV had just gotten his St. Joe's yearbook, and the girls were passing it around and sighing over the dreamy freshmen. When the book came to Teresa Ann, she turned the pages to the seniors. It took her awhile to find him, the others asking her what she was doing and trying to pull the book away, but she held on until she found his picture, and then his name. John Fisher. John Fisher, John Fisher, John Fisher.
That year her growth had begun to accelerate. She was no longer the smallest girl in her class and in fact would reach a statuesque five-foot-nine before she was finished. She still thought of herself as small and fragile, though, was still very sensitive, cried easily, and cried now, holding tight to the yearbook. She didn't know if she was crying from happiness or misery. John Fisher, John Fisher, John Fisher.
It was nine years later, fall semester of her senior year in college, in one of those enormous 300-student lecture courses that she hated, that Teresa (she'd by now dropped the Ann) noticed something familiar about the blond-headed man sitting in front of her.
"My god, aren't you John Fisher?" she exclaimed. They met outside after class, Teresa in the meantime having spent the entire lecture trying to invent a plausible story for why she knew him and was so obviously excited to see him again. Judging by his ironical smile, she didn't think he'd bought it. No matter. They went to the student union and drank Cokes and shared a package of Susie Q's, and that evening Teresa broke off her engagement to Al Grau, who hadn't been Catholic anyway.
On their first real date, John took her back to his apartment, and Teresa made the first move by putting her arms around him. John drew back.
"Well, I might as well get this over with," he said with a long sigh. "I don't know how far this will go, but I'd better tell you—I'm pretty badly scarred. You've noticed my face and ear, I'm sure."
She had. He was missing the lobe of his right ear—it looked like it had been neatly clipped off with a pair of scissors—and there was a line that extended from the missing lobe across his right cheek and cheek bone. It was hardly noticeable unless he was hot or excited, but then the flesh beneath the line would be paler, smoother, somehow different from that above. Plastic surgery. He'd been hit in Vietnam. He wasn't exactly sure what it was—probably an R.P.G.—but he'd been standing beside a low watering tank of some sort—they must have been on a farm—when he suddenly went up in the air. They dug eighty-seven bits of galvanized steel out of him and performed five plastic surgeries on his face and neck. When they wanted to start on his back, he said forget it, he'd had enough. It was his own fault anyway. If he'd stayed in college after high school he'd probably have missed the draft entirely. But he'd partied hardy, flunked out, then served almost his full tour of duty before his luck ran out.
Teresa lifted his shirt off gently, as if he'd just been wounded. His back was a mass of scar tissue, ropes of it as thick as her little finger. He claimed not to be self-conscious of it, but she never saw him go swimming once in his life even with a T-shirt on, because if it got wet you could plainly see the grotesque pattern of the scars. Now, she ran her fingertips over them because she thought that's what she should do to show she wasn't repulsed. She wanted to say, "You look beautiful to me," because he really did. Despite the years and the scars he was still her bright shining hero.
But instead of saying that, she heard herself saying, "Did you pray to God?"
John was momentarily nonplussed. "You mean . . . when I was wounded?"
She couldn't back out now. "Yes," she said. "Did you pray when you were wounded?"
He laughed a short not altogether pleasant laugh. "Well, you know what they say. There are no atheists in the foxhole."
Then, as if aware that he hadn't really answered the question she'd asked and wanted to change the subject, he took her face in his hands and kissed her.
They married the following summer.
# # #
The years passed. They had two children, between them lost three parents and all their grandparents. John was not a perfect man, but he was a good husband, father, and parishioner—he was in the Men's Club and had served a term as grand knight of his K of C chapter. Once the Parish News had done a feature on Teresa for her charitable activities, and in the question-and-answer profile after "My hero is ___________" Teresa had put "My husband."
And he was her hero, even if that had been put to the test in any manifest way only once when they were taking a walk and were attacked by that big dog, a Boxer, John said it was. Teresa didn't know dogs. It had no doubt been a pet, had escaped from someone's back yard and was happily cavorting up and down the street, ignored John who loved dogs and went right for Teresa, leaping and lapping at her. "He's just playing," John said, but she couldn't help herself. She whined and shooed him away and kept twisting herself around to keep John between her and the dog, all of which only served to agitate it more and more. It began to bark, then snarl, and Teresa began to cry. When the Boxer lunged at her, John kicked it, hard, in the throat with the toe of his shoe, and the dog went down. It thrashed around the street for the longest time, then lay still. Dead. John was distraught. For the first time since his mother died, he cried—right there on the street. Teresa tried to comfort him, cooing and running her fingers through his hair and patting him on the back, the scars hard under her hand like a tangle of electrical cord. She felt a lot better about the whole thing than John did, needless to say. After all, her husband had saved her.
The years just flew. The children grew up, moved out, married, presented them with three grandchildren. One afternoon when he was sixty-one years old, John went out to rake the leaves. Teresa saw him through the kitchen window walking slowly back across the yard toward the house, studiously placing each foot carefully and then pausing before the next step, as if he were marching to "Pomp and Circumstance." She almost laughed. Then she saw the look on his face.
It was a heart attack. He almost died in the ambulance and almost died again on the operating table. It was three day later before Doctor Kahn said he was out of the woods—for now. He'd have to change his lifestyle—not that he was overweight or smoked or drank to excess, but the doctor could spot that prone-to-stress "alpha male" a mile away. "Heroes have to be alpha males," Teresa said, squeezing John's hand.
Alone in the room after the doctor left, John said, "So I'm your hero, huh?"
Teresa brought his hand to her lips. "You've been my hero for forty-eight years."
John thought a minute. She could tell he was doing the math, and that it wasn't coming out right. She'd never told him about the Mardi Gras in 1963. It was hers, her own private miracle, and to tell anyone, even John, risked cheapening it somehow. But now she'd make a gift of it to him.
"OK, I give up. How'd you get forty-eight years out of it?" he said.
She told him the whole story, trying to convey just how it'd been to her, a moment of magic such as a person is lucky to experience once in her life. John listened without saying a word, sometimes frowning quizzically, sometimes laughing delightedly.
When she finished, he lay there grinning that ironical little grin of his that could sometimes absolutely infuriate her, then said, "You got the wrong guy."
"You got the wrong guy. That wasn't me."
She squeezed his hand once more. Heroes are modest, too. "It was you, John."
He shook his head. "Nope. My memory's not the best, as you well know, but I do remember that Mardi Gras. I was Kevin Houlihan's guardian angel. Do you remember Jimmy Houlihan? Probably not. We were best friends for a few years back then, and I thought it'd be neat to be his little brother's guardian angel. Well, I turn my back for one second and the little bastard goes horsing around and knocks over the table with all the goldfish on it, you know, some game they had where you could win a goldfish in a little bowl. We both got sent to the office and spent the rest of the afternoon there. We didn't even see the parade."
Teresa dropped John's hand. Yes, she remembered it—or at least remembered the goldfish table being knocked over.
John barked out a laugh: "Ha! I'll bet I know. I haven't thought about that guy in years. Leonard Day. People always said we looked enough alike to be brothers, although I never could see it. It fits with that God business you claim I said. Come on, does that really sound like me? Leonard, though. He was a Jesus freak before they invented the term. Everybody always said he'd become a priest. I don't know what happened to him. I don't remember him being at St. Joe's."
Teresa walked out of the room.
# # #
John had been home from the hospital several weeks when one night he turned out the light on his side of the bed and reached over and cupped Teresa's knee in his right hand, as he always did when he was "interested." Teresa didn't even realize she'd pulled away from him until he leaned back and gave her a long look. Then he said, "It's OK, honey, you don't have to be afraid. The doc said whenever I felt up to it the old ticker's strong enough for sex. Just be gentle with me."
He said this last with that exaggerated leer of his that usually made her laugh, but not this time. Now she turned on her side away from him and said, "It's not that."
"Oh," he said. He paused for a moment as if thinking it over. "Well, what is it?"
She shrugged. "Oh, nothing. It's nothing."
"Of course it is. You said, 'It's not that,' which means it is something—something else. What is it?"
"I don't know," she said.
But she did know. John wasn't the person she'd fallen in love with. Oh, he was the man she'd married, of course, the one she'd had two children by and been through sickness and the death of loved ones with and lain beside every night for thirty years now. But he wasn't the one she'd fallen in love with.
She'd tell anyone he was a good man, and he was, but now his faults presented themselves as all too evident, all too typical of John Fisher. His refusal to do more around the house than mow the lawn and take out the garbage even though she had a full-time job, too. His air of dismissive superiority when the subject turned to politics, economics, or virtually anything else that fell under his ken. His selfishness in bed thinly disguised behind a teasing, pleading little boy persona, an act that had grown old decades ago. Selfishness, yes, selfishness right down the line—his foods for dinner, his favorite vacation spots, his TV shows to watch. Then too, despite his participation in parish organizations, she couldn't help recalling how often he missed mass on Sunday to play golf with his buddies.
No, John Fisher was not the boy she'd fallen in love with, not the boy of God.
She knew that this thing that had her in its grip was not entirely rational, and she fought against it. She began to have sex with John again, acted like she welcomed it, enjoyed it, and thought for awhile she had him fooled. But he began to reach for her knee at night less and less. One night as she was running a pumice stone over the calluses on her heel, he stood watching her a moment, then threw his hands up and said, "OK, I give up. Just tell me one thing, Teresa. Is it the menopause? Is that what this is all about?"
She was surprised she was able to keep her voice so calm when she really wanted to scream at him. "You bastard," she said. "I went through menopause four years ago. A thing like that as important as it is to a woman, and you don't even remember it."
"I just thought—"
She threw the pumice stone at him.
She went to see Father Canetella, whom she knew well from all her volunteer work in the parish. He was obviously surprised that she and John were having problems, but he tried to make it sound as if such things were only natural. "All married couples go through rough patches" was the way he put it.
She told him the whole story, trying to be fair about it, minimizing John's faults, insisting that he was a good man and a good husband, but, well, he wasn't that "boy of God" she'd fallen in love with.
"Teresa," Father Canetella said, "we're all children of God."
"That's not what I mean," she shot back, irritated at the platitude. "I'm not talking about all people. I'm talking about my husband. He's not the person I thought I was falling in love with. I feel like my whole life has been a kind of lie."
"What, are you saying it doesn't make any difference how religious a person is?"
"Of course I'm not saying that."
They went back and forth. She felt like she was arguing with John—that condescending superiority. There was not the slightest justification for this—the priest was never less than patient and open-minded—but that didn't alter the way she felt. At the end of close to an hour, Father Canetella sat rubbing his temples as if he had the beginnings of a migraine. Then he said, "Teresa, I'm always here for you, but sometimes in cases like this what a person needs is secular help. You know what I mean. Counseling."
"I was thinking of a different kind."
"Ah. A psychiatrist."
"There's no shame in it. You'd be surprised how many in this parish have sought that kind of help."
"I doubt I'd be surprised."
He lifted his palms. "Well, there you go, then."
Then he suggested they pray, and she let him.
It was a few more weeks before she worked up the courage to ask her doctor for a referral.
Dr. Weiss was a young woman, barely older than Teresa's daughter. On her first visit, Teresa was in the middle of her account—not pulling any punches, omitting nothing about John's selfishness, his arrogance—when Dr. Weiss held up her hand to stop her as if Teresa were getting out of control or something, although she wasn't, she'd been very calm, very methodical in her telling. "Teresa," Dr. Weiss said, "you've heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, haven't you? Like a soldier in combat suffers? Well, you've been through something every bit as traumatic as combat. You've seen your husband almost die. You were terrified, maybe more than you know. The mind creates all sorts of ways to deal with trauma like that, including lessening it by making the person we're worried about—in your case, your husband—seem less worthy of our fear."
Teresa hadn't expected an explanation, a diagnosis so soon in the process. She hadn't even finished with her story! But, caught off guard though she was, it took her only a second to come back with, "That's not what's happening here."
Maybe not, Dr. Weiss said. They'd continue the discussion next week.
On her next visit, Teresa told the whole story this time, emphasizing the boy at Mardi Gras, how heroic he was in her eyes, how perfect, her boy of God.
When she finished, Dr. Weiss sat with her head canted to the side, looking at her appraisingly. Then she nodded as if the answer had finally come to her and said, "Teresa, maybe you should go talk to your priest."
Teresa had her best laugh in months. Dr. Weiss said she only meant that analysis was a long, difficult, and expensive process, and before they embarked on that perhaps Teresa should consider other options. Teresa, though, kept right on laughing, forcing herself to stop only when it occurred to her that Dr. Weiss might think she was hysterical. Teresa didn't want to wind up in a straight jacket.
"Yeah yeah yeah," Teresa said, and walked out of the office.
Teresa's and John's relationship after that might best be described as courteous, like two strangers required by some caprice of destiny to inhabit the same house and determined to make the best of it. As far as Teresa could tell, John had resolved to go on in that fashion—until one evening, that is, when at the dinner table he suddenly put his fork down, placed his hands palms down on either side of the plate, and said, "I can't go in like this. I want my old wife back. Teresa, I don't know who you are any more."
"Now you know how it feels," she said.
He shook his head wonderingly.
Autumn became winter. On an icy gray day, John came in from work and slapped an envelope down on the table.
"Airline tickets to New Orleans. We have reservations at the Holiday Inn in the French Quarter. I've never been to Mardi Gras. I missed the one at Christ Redeemer, remember? Well, we're going."
He didn't sound like he was prepared to put up with arguments. "OK," she said.
# # #
Madness, madness. Teresa and John had made their first sortie out into the city before noon, and already the streets were crowded with laughing, shouting, jostling, shoving, kissing, dancing revelers, all with drinks—and not the first of the day—in their hands. The atmosphere was so frenetic that Teresa had turned to John and said, "I think we're too old for this."
"Like hell we are," John said.
They waited an hour for a table at a little café off Jackson Square, ate lunch, then shopped for masks. They weren't going to go all out with full costumes—even John thought that would be a little silly—but you had to wear something for Mardi Gras. They both chose eye masks, Teresa's a gaudy thing, hot pink with chartreuse sequins, but John's plain black. She told him he looked like the Lone Ranger, and he struck a he-man pose and intoned, "Come, Tonto, my faithful Indian companion." When she put on her mask, though, he said, "Ho, the lovely Esmeralda, mysterious beauty of the Orient!" She giggled, and he took her hand and led her out into the bright winter sunlight.
By early afternoon they'd been on their feet for the better part of three hours, and they were tired. They went back to the motel. John's face was flushed, and she was afraid he'd done too much, but then she saw the way he was looking at her. Without a word they began to take their clothes off. When they were naked except for their masks, Teresa pulled the straight-backed chair over in front of the dresser mirror, sat John down on it and then straddled him, the kind of love-making John in the past would have cajoled and whined for in his selfish man-child way. But now Teresa enjoyed it, too, because it had been given freely.
Afterwards, when they lay down to take a nap, John started to take his mask off, but Teresa said, "No, leave it." So they slept that way.
The sun was setting when they went out into the street again. After walking around for the longest time they gave up hope of finding a table in a restaurant and ate bowls of gumbo standing up in a little hole-in-the-wall diner on Royal near Canal Street.
They fought their way back through the crowds to Jackson Square where they tried to catch their breath by half-sitting, half-leaning up against the wall of St. Louis Cathedral. Then they rode the surge of the crowd out of Jackson Square and up Chartres where the beer cans rose up like snow drifts against the shop fronts. On Dumaine at a two-story café-bar, John bribed the bouncer fifty dollars to find a spot for them on the balcony. He cleared enough space for them to stand at the railing, then for another fifty brought them two tiny chairs to sit on. That's where they spent their Mardi Gras night.
Neither of them knew the routine. They thought they'd be watching the famous krewes pass by one after another like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. But the parades were already over for the day, and none came into the Quarter anyway. Their disappointment was short-lived, though. Everyone was his own parade, everyone on show, the cross-dressers especially in outlandish costumes, drunks begging onlookers to toss them just one more can of beer, young women baring their breasts in exchange for a necklace of Mardi Gras beads flung from a balcony. In this, too, Teresa was surprised and just a bit disappointed. She thought it'd be the people in the "parade" throwing the beads to onlookers. It was childish, but she really did want one of those necklaces.
They sat there for hours, nursing two beers each. With the jam around the bar and the waitresses run off their feet, they couldn't have gotten more drinks if they'd wanted them. At midnight exactly, the bar lights dimmed and then came back up and the waitresses and bartenders started hollering, "Everybody out! Everybody out!"
Down on the street lines of policemen were herding revelers out of the Quarter. Mardi Gras was over. Lent had begun.
They hardly spoke on their way back to the motel and once in the room were shy again, Teresa mostly because of fatigue and a vague sense of resentment—John had had his fun earlier in the afternoon, but what was there for her?—but John a different sort of shyness, as if he wished to do something but wasn't sure how to go about it. Then he reached into his pocket, took something out, and handed it to her.
"Well, aren't you sweet," Teresa said.
It was one of the Mardi Gras necklaces. But where had he gotten it? Maybe he'd picked one up off the street. There was something about this one, though, something different from the others, the beads smaller, or . . . yet it was somehow familiar, too, as if . . .
Dear God, was it her Mardi Gras necklace, the one she'd been given by that boy all those years ago? It looked just like it. She kept it in the bottom of her jewelry box. She could hardly believe that John even knew it was there, much less that he would have hidden it in his luggage or somewhere so that he could give it to her at just this moment, with the intent of . . . of what?
She looked at John, who shrugged and said, "Well, you know, something old, something new. A woman needs that," which made no sense—or maybe made as much sense as anything else. John didn't give her time to think about it, though, but took the necklace back from her and lowered it over her head. It caught on the flared corner of her mask, but John freed it and then lowered it around her neck.
"There," he said.
She stood with her fingertips just touching the necklace, as if it were infinitely delicate and precious. Then they removed their masks.