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Authors: David Bergen

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Year of Lesser

BOOK: Year of Lesser
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A YEAR OF LESSER

DAVID BERGEN

For Mary

Contents

Cover

Title Page

FALL

SAVED

EGGS, NEW-LAID

AGAIN

THE MIND OF CHRIS

WINTER

THIS DARKNESS

THEORY OF EVERYTHING

BLISS

SPRING

METHODS OF TORTURE

BABIES

IN

SUMMER

TONGUES

OUT

About the Author

Copyright

About the Publisher

FALL

SAVED

Johnny feels perfectly new. Two months ago when he kneeled before Phil Barkman and Phil laid hands on him, Johnny had felt like an ugly ugly man. “I’m all screwed up,” he told Phil that night and Phil had smiled and held him close. Then they’d discussed Johnny’s burdens and Phil touched Johnny’s head and they’d closed their eyes and Phil asked, “Can you feel it?” But Johnny couldn’t feel anything, just the weight of Phil’s hands. “It’s okay,” Phil said. “It’ll come, maybe when you’re in the car driving home, or tomorrow morning in the shower.”

Phil was right. It hit Johnny that night as he climbed into bed. It was like a large wave rolling over him. A warmth pervaded his body, starting at his toes and working past his knees, filling him up. His chest tingled. He thought of explaining this to Charlene who was reading on her side of the bed but her body was turned slightly, telling him she didn’t want to be bothered. Still, he lay there, hands at his sides, staring at the cracks in the plaster above him, itching for Charlene to notice. She did turn finally, rolling a leg onto him, her mouth at his ear. “Good night, Johnny.” She kissed him, offering the faint echoes of whisky from her evening drink. Then the light clicked and Johnny was lying in darkness. For a long time he did not sleep; he remembered the aquarium he had
owned as a boy, dipping his hands into the water and fishing for an elusive and slippery guppy. Salvation was that guppy and that night he had it firmly in his grasp.

And it has been two months already, a sort of record for Johnny Fehr. He’s a rock. At work—he is a salesman at OK Feeds—he fairly bounces. The girls in the office smile and he knows they must see a difference in him. He sits beside Leonard Ostnick in the coffee room and he forgives the man for who he is. Everybody knows Leonard is an angry, bitter man who doesn’t like Johnny much. But that’s okay, Johnny thinks, and an overwhelming sense of rightness springs into his chest.

Johnny knows that his equanimity baffles Charlene. She says it’s false and won’t last. This has happened before. Johnny becomes a Christian and for three weeks he’s an angel. He’s so perfect he doesn’t even want to have sex with Charlene, and though that’s not so bad she will let him know that sometimes she aches for the old Johnny. “But,” she says, holding his little finger, “I’ll wait, you’ll come back.” Perhaps Johnny knows too that this is temporary, that he lacks resolve, because he’ll stop the car at an intersection and sit there for a long time as if meditating or wondering where or who he is. Then, he drives and his face is not happy, not really new; it is slack and pulled down, as if a tremendous force were yanking him earthward.

On Friday and Saturday nights Johnny runs a drop-in centre. He’s borrowed a little place adjoining Herb’s Electric; he’s put in a pool table, stereo, couches. Pepsi donated a machine. He opened the centre for various reasons: he felt sorry for kids who had nowhere to go, he wants to prove that this time around he’s going to succeed at his new life-style, and he’s also trying to be a bit of a missionary. Though the centre’s been operating for over a month, the grand opening is on Saturday night. The mayor makes an early speech and then runs off, claiming another commitment.
Very few adults show up, they seem embarrassed by Johnny’s enthusiasm. Charlene comes for half an hour. She smokes a cigarette and talks to some other women and then they all go for coffee at Chuck’s. About fifteen kids straggle in and stand around looking at each other. Then some of them go outside and smoke. Johnny tries to interest a few in pool but it isn’t until he pulls out his old record collection that he snags the curiosity of the “heads” who wear big boots and flannel jackets and have just walked in after a joint underneath the glow of the Petro-Canada sign. They pass around Led Zeppelin, Peter Tosh, and Jimi Hendrix. Johnny knows from talking to the kids that in twenty years music has come full circle; this is what the kids like. Their faces are sullen, trying hard not to look impressed. Dennis, one of the skinnier kids—Johnny figures he never eats—says, “My old man had these too, then he hooked up with this Phil Barkman guy and he burned them. Nuts.”

Nobody looks at Dennis. One girl grunts in response. Her long brown hair is split down the middle and she pushes it back with a quick nervous movement. Another girl says “Hey” and holds up a picture of Janis Joplin. Johnny feels guilty. He knows he should have burned his records too. But he couldn’t, they mean too much. He feels badly now for sharing them with these kids, wonders if he’s leading them astray. But he doesn’t have to wonder long because suddenly they’re gone. They rise as one, clinging to and needing each other, and Johnny, watching from the centre window, sees the group zigzag down the street, their breath rising above their heads and disappearing.

By ten o’clock Johnny is alone. He drinks a cup of coffee and puts on some religious rock and roll that Phil recommended. It doesn’t sound any different but for some reason it stirs in Johnny a feeling of something okay. He looks around at his bare walls and says, “Gotta get some posters.” A couple of kids with skateboards come in and Johnny recognizes Chris, Loraine’s son. Seeing him makes Johnny want to see Loraine. They had something. “Hi ya,” Johnny says.

Chris stares, then his head stutters around the room. A kid in the back of the group says, “Fuck all, let’s go.”

“Streets clean enough to skate?” Johnny asks. He isn’t pushing, he’s just letting them know he knows.

“Yeah.” Chris says this. He looks at Johnny, neither good nor bad, and then he leaves. Johnny wonders if Chris knows about him and Loraine. Kids aren’t dumb, Johnny knows that. He often tells Charlene,
Kids are smart.
He finishes his coffee, turns off the lights, and locks the door. Driving home he thinks about kids and about Charlene. First Charlene didn’t want babies, then he didn’t, and then they both didn’t. The problem was they never both did and so they’ve stayed childless and sometimes Johnny thinks they’ve done things wrong, that maybe he’d find it easier to be clean if he had kids. Children make you faithful, he figures. Keep you honest. He pulls into the driveway of his farmyard and glides in, no power, in neutral. Johnny doesn’t farm. Never will. He rents his land out. He lives here because his father and mother died and left him the property. He sits in the shadow of the trees, door ajar, a slight wind blowing on his neck, and he watches Charlene work at the kitchen window. She doesn’t know he’s there and he likes that because then what he sees is real.

Charlene is rinsing out the sink. She wrings the rag, touches a hand to her forehead, dips and disappears, then pops up again. Her mouth is slightly open, her tongue touches her lip, dives back inside. Johnny watches her and likes what he sees. Her shoulders round to her arms. Her neck is hidden by hair and a high collar. Johnny likes to unbutton that collar and kiss the bones below her throat. Charlene turns, the light goes out, and Johnny goes in.

Wednesday at supper Johnny says to Charlene, “I’m going to a meeting tonight at Phil’s, this faith-healer guy from Arizona. Do you wanna come?”

“Tonight’s my book club, we changed it this week, sorry, sweetie.” She doesn’t seem sorry. In fact she seems pleased not to have to excuse herself in another way.

“What do you do at these book things anyway?” Johnny asks. Though Charlene’s participated in them for a long time he’s never really asked her about them.

“We sit in a circle and talk about a book,” Charlene says. “Simple. Kinda like a Bible study. Only more interesting.”

“Oh, that’s good. Who’s smart?” Johnny says. He stands in the bathroom and runs the electric shaver over his jaw. He pats on some aftershave. Charlene is sitting in panties and bra on the edge of the bed. She’s working panty hose up one leg. Johnny watches her through the mirror. Her leg lifts and he can see the softest part of her body just below the crotch, the inside thigh. The leg drops. “When are you leaving?” Johnny asks. He’s trying to weigh time and desire.

Charlene concentrates on her stockings. “About half an hour,” she says.

“Wanna have sex?” Johnny asks. He’s standing in the doorway, just in jeans. His toes curl in anticipation although he can tell by the way Charlene’s leg lifts what the answer will be.

“Yaaa?” she says, and her stockings glide on. And that’s that.

Johnny knows most everyone at Phil’s house. He went to school with a lot of them or he sees them around town. Chuck from the Chicken Shack is there with his wife Dora and their baby daughter. Mr. and Mrs. Bartel, an older couple, are already seated. Mrs. Bartel has a chin that extends like a hammer claw. There are a few basketball buddies, the Penner brothers, and there is little Erwin Heinrichs who is epileptic and once fell foaming at Johnny’s feet during silent-reading in Grade Eight. Melissa Emery is there without her husband. He’s a truck driver. Johnny remembers Melissa because she has wonderful teeth and a deep widow’s peak dropping into a polished forehead. Most of these people, like Johnny, were raised in a Mennonite church and then left because they wanted something bigger, an emotional lift the stoic Mennonite preachers couldn’t offer.

The room they are sitting in has been built especially for meetings. It’s hall-like, stretching the width of the large unfinished house. There are hard benches, some lawn chairs, and a small lectern at the front. Phil starts the meeting with a lengthy prayer and just as he’s wrapping up Melissa Emery shows her teeth and starts to speak in tongues. Johnny, who’s seated on the outside of the circle, opens his eyes and watches Melissa’s body move. Her hands snake, her body shakes, this alien language bubbles up, and though it makes no sense to Johnny he is taken by the sharpness of Melissa’s shoulders, by the poetry of her words. After Melissa sits down, groaning in ecstasy, two more people stand up and recite their own strange versions of rapture until finally Phil Barkman cuts in and says, “Because Mr. Singleton has come a long way to minister to us, we will forgo interpretation tonight. Praise God he can be a part of our small humble group.” Applause breaks out and Johnny wonders why, if he has the Holy Spirit—he recalls being smacked by it as he crawled under the quilt—
he
can’t speak in tongues too. He wonders if it has to be forced or if a special kind of breathing is required. He bites the inside of his cheek, then he breathes deeply ten times but only succeeds in getting dizzy.

Mr. Singleton is a round man with a small forehead that crinkles every time he pauses to snap a breath. He talks quickly as if trying to catch up to a splendid idea. His hands are all over the place. He gives a talk on the woman at the well and how that woman was immoral and an outcast and how Jesus accepted that woman. Then Mr. Singleton talks about homosexuals and he says they are sinners, “Probably the
worst
.” Then he quotes whole chapters of the New Testament.

Johnny’s mind wanders. His eye rests on Phil’s wife, Eleanor, who is breast-feeding their baby. Eleanor is barefoot, legs crossed, one foot flat on the floor, toes spread. Her face leans into the baby, cooing, she is not really listening to Mr. Singleton. Five children. How prolific Phil is; honey in his throat, honey in his loins. The bustle of supper remains in the air; dishes still on the table, fresh bread, cabbage, beets maybe. Beet jam perhaps, globs of butter. His own mother used to strain beets, boil up the juice into a froth. Drops of crimson on the yellow lino. Sticky
underfoot. Phil and Eleanor have to finish this floor. The plywood must produce slivers, stubbed toes. It’s like the rest of the house, unfinished. Cabinets without doors. No baseboards. There is a comfort in this. Johnny too has unfinished business at home. A large unmowed lawn, curling shingles, downspouts unhinged. A fallow wife. Eleanor’s baby stops sucking and pulls away slowly, leaving a shiny nipple poking out like the end of Johnny’s thumb. Johnny aches for a woman like Eleanor who accepts so easily the strife and commotion of children.

Mr. Singleton is in the foreground again. He says a loud “Amen” and is soon praying over Mrs. Bartel for her diabetes. In her excitement, Mrs. Bartel’s chin swings dangerously close to Phil Barkman’s eye. Then one of the old basketball boys has his bum knee touched. Chuck tries to have his gout cured and, of course, the climax of the evening is the laying on of multiple hands on poor Erwin Heinrich’s messed-up head.

At that moment, Johnny is tired and embarrassed for Erwin, whose epilepsy, he’s decided, is probably no more a curse than speaking in tongues. Johnny’s been on the outside of this group all evening, and decided a while back that these people don’t really know how to have fun. He’s been horny too, Melissa here, Eleanor there, Johnny’s hand in the fish tank, losing his grip. So, when the group throngs around Erwin, who looks like a cornered mouse, Johnny slips out the back door into the night and drives home to Charlene and again he lies beside her in the dark and says, “Melissa Emery can speak in tongues.”

BOOK: Year of Lesser
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