The Virgin, the Devil, and the Chosen One
Chapter 17

December 17, 1981




. . . Fire! Fire everywhere! Everything in the world will be destroyed! I crawl into a tiny box in the corner and emerge into another dream, where I burst into tears and wail, “All I want is Mommy and Daddy!”

I woke up badly shaken. Clearly I had enough to deal with. I decided to intercept the knife poem I’d mailed to Susan from Manhattan. Every day I met the mailman at the door. Three days later it still hadn’t come, which was a mystery.

My parents called to talk about my name change. “Why are you so intent on wiping out my Danny?” my mother asked. “Why don't you go back to Toombs?”

“Because I used up all my Toombs on Baker.”

“So now we don't have the same name. Are we still related?”

“All relationship is a matter of choice. I'm choosing to be related to you.”

“What about genetics?” my father asked.

“If genetics ruled the roost, I would never have believed Ariel was my son in the first place. Genetics is the only meaningless coincidence.”

“Humbug!”

I hung up feeling I’d been in a fistfight. Susan walked in without knocking and laid a thick envelope on my desk. “I got your poem, and here's my response.”

“How on earth did you get it?”

Only God could have gotten that poem past me.

“I met the postman on the sidewalk and he gave it to me. I'd like you to read this, then I'd like to talk to you.”

She was using the poem I thought would drive her to suicide as a reason to keep on relating. We were in the phase where I was trying to end the relationship and she was refusing to believe it was over. Next, she'd get angry at me, and I'd be hopelessly attracted. After sex she'd become helpless and clinging, and I'd try to end things again. I tucked her envelope away unopened. Keeping her reply but not reading it gave me the power to step outside the relationship and stay there.

I spent all day making shortbread for the Christmas party. The endless carols on the radio gnawed like rats on the ends of my bones. I saw myself writing and smoking in grungy Halifax coffee shops day after day, while Caleb, Wren, and Ariel were crying to see me only a few blocks away. I collapsed on the couch—then leaped up and got mop, bucket, and hot, soapy water. I mopped the floor like committing murder then felt a lot better.

I missed most of the party because three women, one after the other, needed to tell me in detail how I had offended them and how I should act differently in the future. My change-of-name certificate had come that morning. The assaults by women were a clear indication I’d done the right thing by changing my name.

Susan was waiting when I ushered the third woman out. She shoved me aside and marched to the center of my room. “I feel like everything changed when we made love. Then your poem came, and if I'm pregnant, we have to talk about it.”

“I don't want to talk until I've read your reply.”

“You haven't read it yet?”

“No.”

“Well, hurry up and read it then!” I began to close the door. I did not like being scared of her. “Oh, you're such a pain in the ass!” She stomped out. “Sometimes,” she added over her shoulder.

I went boldly downstairs to see what was left of the party. Children ran around playing hide and seek. I easily joined them, and soon they were squealing all over the house, into my arms and out again. I knew just how to listen to little children, how to hold them lightly. Being Daddy was the only form of love both Jesus and I approved of. Nothing could have given me greater pain.

Everyone gathered in the living room to sing carols. Two children, one boy and one girl, climbed into my lap as if they belonged. I sang out “Joy to the World,” and the happiness of Christmas fluttered down over my shoulders. I'd really believed I was the devil just to think of denying Susan's baby, and these two children were telling me with the weight of their little bodies that it was not true.

That night I read my journals from one year ago, about the disastrous visit to Halifax on Christmas 1980, the last time I’d seen my boys. It was after midnight when I finished. As soon as I lay down, my body shook with a torrential rage that made the hammock quiver. The door opened by itself and slammed into the wall with a terrific bang. Of course I had to have all three boys. I was their father.

I heard the sound of falling water. Susan was taking a shower and wondering if she could seduce me into starting up again. The shower went off. Her feet pounded toward my door. She quietly called my name. My penis did not respond! I filled with sweet relief, then sleep.

. . . Ball lightning flashes all through the house. I hug Ariel tenderly to my heart, and he merges into my chest. I woke up feeling blessed by the Holy Ghost. No one else was home, so I camped out in front of the fireplace to read children's stories onto cassette tapes, the only Christmas presents I could afford. “To Caleb, my son, Christmas, 1981—”

Susan banged open the front door. I grabbed my stuff and headed upstairs. She ran ahead of me, then blocked my way. “I'm pregnant!”

“Did you have a test?”

“My acupuncturist felt my pulses. I don't care if you have Halifax coming up, we have to deal with this now! You're being childish, immature, and irresponsible! A typical man!”

“No, no, I'm not, I—I—” I walked around her, then emptied my armload of books and tapes onto the desk. “My position is clear, in the poem and right now.” My voice shook because I wasn't sure.

She strode to the center of the room. “That poem was bullshit. It's not just my baby and you have to take responsibility.” She put her hands on her hips and crowed, “You can't deny it!”

I could be what I’d always been, or I could stand with my unknown poetry. A knife-dark abyss yawned between us . . . I stepped off the edge: “I deny it, utterly.”

She may have said something or yelled. After she left, I shut the door and shook. No God could save me now.

She clumped around downstairs, shrieking. The words I needed to say suddenly boomed around my head. I grabbed my dirty breakfast dishes and went downstairs. I was trembling badly. They loudly clattered and clinked. She was collapsed over the counter, sobbing. I dumped my dishes in the sink with a crash, then said, “It's not my baby, Susan.”

“Bullshit! You spurted sperm into my uterus! You're the only one who did!”

“That's what you say.” She staggered back with shattered eyes. I painstakingly washed my dishes, then leaned against the sink to hide my trembling.

“I don't want anything to do with you any more.”

“Good. It's mutual.”

“There's still a part of me that doesn't believe that,” she choked out, leaning her forehead against the cupboards.

“You'd better get all your parts in gear, then.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!” Her scream echoed through the empty house. She glared at me, her face contorted by wrath. She looked like one of the stone demon guards outside a Buddhist temple. For the first time since I’d met her, she was angry and she meant it. I put on water to boil, then tried to spoon tea leaves into the thermos, but my hands were shaking so violently, I had to lay the thermos on the counter and push the leaves in with my fingers. She ran out of the kitchen. I grabbed the edge of the sink and sobbed in silence until I retched dry heaves. My knees jerked back and forth, banging loudly against the cupboards. I'd committed the ultimate crime. The women would throw me out of school. I might have to leave town. The wailing began upstairs. She might be okay. If I’d been cruel enough.

The water boiled. I placed the thermos in the middle of the sink and put hot mitts on both trembling hands, then stood well back before I poured the boiling water. I must have really confused her. Susan would die before committing infidelity. I'd certainly confused myself. Yet I’d known to say those words like I knew how to get up in the morning.

As I screwed the lid on the thermos I remembered her saying, “You spurted sperm up into my uterus.” Like Jesus, she knew exactly how to get me. The floor opened up beneath my feet, and I began to fall into a bottomless pit of guilt—the phone rang.

“Hi,” Nancy said. “I really need you to make love to me tonight.”

“You have absolutely incredible timing!”

“I do?”

“Yeah. See you tonight.”

I couldn't be the devil if a woman loved me in my most bedeviled part. I tiptoed up to my room, aware that this was just a warm-up for the battle of my life in Halifax. In six days I would be looking Carol in the wife-¬brown eyes.

When I reached the point in making love to Nancy where sperm could not be stopped, my throat closed. I twisted and jerked, trying to get some air. I was all the way off the cliff of climax and unable to fall. There was nothing to do but go ahead and die. I released my soul to God—air burst out of my lungs, Nancy let loose a deafening shriek, and I erupted like Vesuvius. I lay stupefied on top of her, ears ringing, chest heaving. She rolled me off and turned on the TV. We watched in silence. Anxiety began to build about Susan. I thought, I can never tell Nancy about that . . . oops.

“I need to talk.”

“Sure, turn off the TV.”

“A woman says I made her pregnant. I love babies and children more than I love myself. She's pulling me to pieces.”

“Did you have sex with her much?”

“No.”

“Then she's really trying to screw you.”

I nearly crawled into her arms and cried. “In my terms, when a woman accuses a man of making her pregnant, he’s guilty—even if they never had sex. Jesus said that if you look at a woman that way, you have sinned just as much as if you did it with her.”

“You and Jesus really got a thing going, don't you?”

I turned the volume back up. Hours later, an old Hawaii Five-O came on, about a kidnapped boy who was rescued just in time before he drowned. He looks like Ariel, I thought—waves of fear seized me in alternating rhythm with intense despair. Reality rippled in response with garbled sight and sound.

“I really don't like the energy you're giving off!” Nancy snapped. I looked at her mouth, unable to understand the gibberish coming out of it. I shook my head, hard, then suddenly heard her words and said, “That woman, she lives in my house.”

“That's awful.”

“I am still seriously weird. Can I come back if I need to?”

“Sure. You're my enemy.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘That feeling is your enemy.’”

“Oh.”

It was three in the morning. New snow weighed down my feet. My shallow breaths were little puffs of terror in the air. My steps got smaller the closer I got to Susan. She might be waiting for me with a butcher knife, but I had to return to that house or die trying. Half a block away my feet refused to move. Alarmed, I started to say the prayer of protection against evil I'd learned at the Findhorn community in Scotland. “From the point of light within the mind of God, let light descend into the—” I blanked, like falling into a white sheet of paper. For me to forget the words to a prayer meant I really was in grave danger. My feet still wouldn’t move, in any direction. Then I remembered the lucid dream I’d had at Findhorn, when I tried to wake up and couldn't find my body. I failed three times to wake up, then I accepted my death—and immediately found myself back in my body, opening my eyes. That’s what I had to do now: Accept my death. The boys' faces appeared in front of me, streaked with tears. I desperately wanted to hold them each one more time . . . but it was too late. I said goodbye to each of my sons in turn, and then I was ready to die. Feeling rippled through my frozen feet and I began to walk.

“It's fucking raining!” Susan shouted hysterically. I was in front of the house. Terrified, I peeked around the side and saw a car in the alley with the engine running. I heard women's voices and ducked into the bushes. The car pulled out of the alley, then drove past the house, its headlights sweeping across the bushes I was hiding behind. I stood frozen for several minutes, then raced up to my room.

I looked at the spot on the floor where the abyss had opened between me and Susan that afternoon, then looked around in surprise. I was now on the other side of that abyss. It was a whole new world over here. Everything looked the same, but in this world love and poetry were stronger than common sense and genetics. This was the real world. The world most people thought was real was the dream.

. . . I inhale, and the world fills up with pain. There is a woman here who has not exhaled for 15 years. I pick her up and carry her to her next appointment . . . Why am I carrying this heavy woman? I put her down, finally.

I woke up to an empty house. I spent the day peacefully catching up my journal. When I walked out of my room for supper, I saw a folded square of paper in front of my door. I must have missed seeing it earlier. Apologies and recriminations rose off it like doggie doo. Furious, I got the unopened envelope with her reply to the knife poem, slid it under the little square of paper, and left them both on the floor. I wearily went downstairs to eat. Everybody was gone for the holidays. All the lights were out, and Bill had left the heat way down, as he always did. I opened the fridge and the shriek of a banshee echoed all through the house. I froze, freaked out, hand halfway to the milk. Susan’s howling scream cracked into sobs and sputtered out. I bolted out the door.

Several blocks later I jogged past a movie theater. I was right on time for Ghost Story. The dark-haired woman with wife-brown eyes comes back from her watery grave to kill the men one by one. I was frightened to cold sweats by the movie, then purified by the ending: the dead died. Always a good idea, I thought, for the dead to actually die.

I walked back home. Slowly and quietly, I opened the front door. The house was dark and quiet. She'd finally gone home to her mother in Ohio. Without turning on the lights, I dragged myself upstairs and into my room. Out of the darkness Susan came jackhammering up the stairs like a maniacal refrigerator on legs. I lunged for the door and slammed it shut, then leaned against it with all my weight. A shutter banged erratically against the side of the house, like a lunatic smashing his head against the wall from time to time, as he felt like it. I jammed the desk against the door. I could always get out the window if she torched the house. I went to bed with all my clothes on.

The next day I was about to go downstairs for lunch when I heard her talking on the phone in the hallway, probably spreading the news around town that I was the devil: a typical man. A sudden rage at her for scaring me shook me like a dog shaking a rabbit. I walked out of my room. She hung up the phone and looked at me. I picked up the envelope with the little square of paper on it. “I haven't read this yet.”

“You haven't?” Consternation messed up her face.

“No, and I'm not going to.”

“Oh.”

I handed it to her without touching her fingers. “I'm not going to read anything else you write me either.”

“Oh.”

Words condensed on my lips so firmly, I was startled and refused them. They condensed again, then rolled off my lips like stones: “This is permanent.”

I was taking furtive bites of a sandwich, standing in different places in the kitchen, keeping a careful eye on the doorway, when the phone rang. “I need another massage,” Nancy said. “I'm coming to get you in ten minutes, okay?” Nearly weeping for joy, I ran upstairs and got my journal. If Susan read it and found out I knew she'd been faithful, she'd wait 50 years to marry me.

Nancy walked into my room like a breath of fresh African air. I laughed out loud, I was so happy to see her. We walked into the hallway. Susan yanked her head back into her room like a turtle. I marveled at God's wisdom, as well as His superb sense of theater. Denying a baby was the abyss I had to cross. For Susan, death was the Other Woman. Only now could she give up on me. Nancy merrily gunned the car and we roared off to her massage studio in Northampton.

After a three-hour massage I went through my normal freakout when I saw sex was coming, but this time because it meant the loss of Susan. She was my flesh and blood, and I was split from her forever. I quickly entered Nancy before I started crying. When we came a few minutes later, with a horrendously loud, simultaneous shriek, I felt burnt like a piece of meat in the Godfire I’d labored so long to start that now burned out of control.

When I got home the sun was dying in orange, and two letters were waiting for me. One was from the clerk of the California court, saying the interlocutory judgment had been rendered, but the couple was still not divorced. The other was from Caleb. “To the very best Daddy,” he wrote. Then underneath, “Santa is sick.” Under that, to cover up his pain, “Merry Christmas. I bet you can't guess what I'm giving you!” The fading sun slashed an orange stripe across my chest. Carols on the radio faded in and out of static.

. . . I jump easily across a bottomless gap and back. Caleb does too, though it's extremely dangerous. “I can too. Let me, let me!” Wren says. I turn off the power, then grab their hands in the dark.

“Let's go!” I say and prepare to leap.


The bottomless gap was the abyss I leaped when I denied Susan's baby. I had to leap it again in the three-boys direction or the no-boys direction. I didn’t know which.

. . . Susan gives me a tiny baby. I go into the house where the two carpenters work. George takes the baby and throws it in the fire. Jesus was a carpenter, and today was the day of his birth. St. George slew the dragon of desire with the sword of shame, but baby Jesus is more powerful than any dragon and far more difficult to kill. Only my entire life burning to ashes in the fire of sex will be hot enough to kill this perfect baby boy who hates the flesh.

I packed what remained of my possessions, swept the floor, then wiped every wooden surface in my room with pungent lemon oil. The church bell struck the first stroke of midnight. I stood in the center of the house and, in time with the bong of the bell, collected all the memories into my open palms, then closed my hands in prayer and called them into my heart. I'd emptied the house so thoroughly of myself, there was no place left for me to be. I laid out my sleeping bag on the floor next to the front door. The phone rang. “I'm in trouble,” Nancy said. “My brother just laid a heavy religious guilt trip on me.”

“Want some company?”

“Sure!”

I raced out the door, ecstatic. “I made love to a woman today, and I am really freaking out,” Nancy said, her face crumpling into tears. “I walked in the door from being with her, and my brother phoned to try to convert me to Catholicism. My whole left side is going berserk.” I gentled her with easy touch and talk, then turned on the TV. “I can’t believe you’re here. I feel like nobody should love me after what I did, especially a man.”

“You save my life and I'll save yours,” I said and kissed her. After she put in her diaphragm, she fell asleep. I barely managed to turn off the TV before I was asleep as well. . . . “Go to sleep,“ l tell Nancy. I'm sad to see the sumptuous banquet we fixed but never ate. All the milk is still sitting out. I see the clock showing three, then four, then five. I woke to the bells of six o'clock and into deep fear. I knew what all the milk left out meant.

I woke up Nancy with forceful kisses, but then I thought of what terrible danger I'd be in if I couldn't ejaculate on the last day before Halifax and shrank to puny. I applied every spiritual discipline I knew to reduce my awareness to my penis. I finally began to erect and flipped into utter panic. While I was still hard, I gave the panic to Jesus, entered Nancy, and came like the Word of God.

After, Nancy's face scrunched up in fear. “I'm afraid my therapist will hate me because I made love to another woman.”

“Only a bad mother is jealous of her child getting loved by another.”

“I guess transference has been successful.”

“Hey! You felt like a baby in your mother's arms on Christmas Day with a woman named Mary. That means you're Jesus!”

“Ms. Jesus!” She made a face. She didn’t want any Jesus talk.

I wrapped her in my arms. “Mr. Rogers loves you just the way you are. You could always give him your problems.”

She laughed from a deep, easy place, and I knew she'd be okay. As I got dressed she turned on the TV. “I'm going to stay right here until Mr. Rogers comes on.”

I checked on my stuff in a corner of Bill’s garage: two boxes of groceries, two boxes of journals, and two suitcases of clothing. I felt wealthy beyond measure: I had all my feelings. On top of that, like a bonus, I had two American dollar bills and more than one pack of Marlboros.

I stood at the front door and waited. A few minutes later Debbie pulled up. I shut the door behind me then turned to face the house. I clapped my hands in case I'd missed any memories. I looked at my hands. They were empty. I left for Halifax.