Poughkeepsie, p.22
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       Poughkeepsie, p.22

           Debra Anastasia
 

  Cole took his full bucket to the pew where he’d once held Kyle. Seemed an ideal place to start. He began scrubbing, determined to clean until the screams in his head quieted. Last night in that bizarre club, in that dirty bathroom, he’d unleashed a part of himself he’d worked so hard to tame.

  The feel of human skin parting like rotten fruit under his fists had brought it all back. For the first time in a long time, Cole remembered the crisis room at Evergreen Residential Home for Children. The Murphy Oil smell was overwhelmed by the memory of the odor of his own sweat and the gym mat he’d spent hours sitting on there.

  When he was twelve years old, Cole had been at the residential home for two years. He’d spent much of that time glaring at his favorite adult in the whole word.

  “Fuck you. Fuck you and your husband and your kids,” he’d told her. “I hope your two dogs get run over by a car.” He filled the rant with as much venom as possible.

  Mrs. D had been unmoved. Very little Cole could think up was original to her. He knew that because she’d told him. His predecessors in this room—this small, windowless room—had already thrown feces. Had already threatened her family. Had already spit in her face. Still, she sat in the doorway with her coffee in a silver travel mug.

  She had calmly taken a sip. “It’s nice you’re thinking of my family this morning.”

  Cole responded to her calm by growling and slapping the mat. Mrs. D just waited. Her eyes were an enigma. They’d spent hours like this, and Cole always tried to figure them out. Are they green? Are they hazel? The only thing he knew for certain was that he was safe when they were on him. She was what he imagined a grandmother could be like.

  When he was quiet again, she spoke. “Are you ready to go back to class, or do I have to bounce you off that mat a few more times?”

  Cole had known her threat meant a restraint. She was all of five feet tall, but when he lashed out, she could put him down before he knew what was happening. And he lashed out a lot. He did it more when she was around. This year she’d requested that he be in her classroom, which had puzzled him. No one requested Cole Bridge.

  His connection with her was undeniable, but he couldn’t understand it. She brought out the worst in him. He wanted to be restrained by her. Mrs. D would hold him tightly until he gave up. It could take hours. She always knew, though, when it was time, when he was ready. She’d ask him if she could let go of one of his hands, then wait until he nodded his assent. The process gave him back control over each of his limbs one at a time.

  Afterward, Mrs. D would stay close, easily within his striking distance. She would listen. He would talk—about what had set him off in the first place or his fears for the future. He was a young boy with the concerns of a much older person.

  “Shut the fuck up. What the hell are you anyway? A pissant teacher’s aide? Get a real job.” Cole rubbed his hands together.

  “You’ve acquired a new curse word for your vocabulary. Should I add that to this week’s spelling list?” Mrs. D smiled and took another sip.

  It had infuriated him. Enough! Enough with the smiling. Cole stood. At twelve he was a good head taller than she, but he was so small inside.

  She set her cup down and stood with him. Ready.

  “You better leave, Mrs. D. I’m going to start hitting. I’m going. I’m going this time. I’m going out to the road and let the cars run me over.” Cole spat to emphasize his words.

  He was serious. He didn’t want her to hold him close. He didn’t want to pretend she was his mother. He didn’t want to imagine going home in her car to pet her black labs. He didn’t want to dream about sitting down to a home-cooked spaghetti dinner at her kitchen table with her family. Those things would never be his. He watched her eyes switch from hazel to green.

  “Cole, I’m not going to let you do that.” She had reached for her walkie-talkie. She wanted back-up. Somehow she knew he wasn’t bluffing.

  “Mrs. D, stop. I mean it. Stop.” Cole felt his heart throw away its dreams. He walked toward her with a new, brazen self-indulgence.

  “I need a crisis worker to—”

  Mrs. D never got to finish her sentence because Cole punched her in the stomach. He had almost apologized as she crumpled from the blow. He knew she saw it coming. He saw the pain in her eyes, but it wasn’t from his fist. She was disappointed.

  Disappointed in me.

  Cole started running. He hit the side door and let it bang loudly against the building. He ran full tilt toward the busy road. This is it. I’m going down. Finally.

  The Evergreen employee who tackled Cole from behind wasn’t intending to be a comforting presence. “You little piece of crap. How dare you hit Mrs. D? You have some nerve. She’s the only one in this whole building who gives a rat’s ass about you.” He escorted Cole back to the crisis room.

  Cole had curled into a ball on the mat. Mrs. D will never spend time with me again. He felt his brain crumble with sorrow. He’d been there a while before he heard her.

  “Are you okay, Cole?” She’d walked in slowly.

  Cole’s head snapped up so quickly, he didn’t have time to hide the love in his eyes. He looked at the floor immediately. He shook as she sat down next to him, easing against the wall.

  Mrs. D had let the silence surround them. But time broke him. Cole could take it no longer.

  “I hit you. Won’t that make you go away? What else can I do?” he snarled. He’d fallen back on his old standby, anger.

  “I’m not going away, Cole, so maybe we can cut out the assaults in the future. You don’t want me to go away. I know that. You love me, Cole. That’s the feeling that makes you so angry.” She’d sighed and looked at the ceiling. “You don’t know what to do with it, because the people you’ve loved in the past caused you pain. That’s what you think love is. Pain.”

  She’d looked at his face until he met her eyes. They were still green.

  “But, Cole, I love you. Have I hurt you? Ever?”

  Cole had to shake his head. She hadn’t. Not once.

  “I’m showing you what to do with love, Cole.” She stood and held out her arms.

  A hug. A simple hug he didn’t have to earn by throwing a chair. Human contact that wasn’t required because he was trying to hurt someone. She still trusted him. She still saw something in him.

  He’d stood like a baby deer. He lurched toward her with no grace at all. She enclosed him in a hug that was so much better than a restraint. She’d patted his head just like a mother. Like a mother who cared.

  Cole’s body had heaved with tears. She kept hugging him. She handed his heart back the dreams it had thrown away.

  “That’s it, sweetheart. Let it out.” She rubbed his back.

  Her shirt was soaked by the time he stopped crying. They sat down together again.

  “I’ve read your file,” Mrs. D said. “What your parents did to you was terrible. It was a horrible, horrible mistake. You should’ve been cherished. You should’ve been treated like the beautiful little boy you are. They were wrong, Cole.” She held his hand. “I’m sorry for what they did to you.”

  Cole’s mind had flashed with images from his time before Evergreen. The cage. The belt. The drugs. They still made him feel scared.

  “You’re going to make it. You’ll be a great, thoughtful, proud man. I can see it. I know it as sure as I know my name.” She wouldn’t let go of his hand.

  “I’m always awful. How can you know that?” Cole’s voice remained thick with tears.

  “I’ve been doing this job for twenty-five years. I know a good one when I see him.” Mrs. D had stood and pulled on his hand. She walked him back to the living unit where he had his own room in a long hallway full of other boys’ rooms.

  Cole had never hit her again, though he did test her from time to time. He just wanted to be near her. By the time he was discharged from Evergreen, Cole had made huge strides. He’d been one of a very few to enter the foster care system instead of another residential program.
Mrs. D got all dressed up for his Awards Day. She’d made sure to take a lot of pictures with Cole, and she gave him a gift: a picture of her two black Labradors in a frame.

  Scrubbing the pew with renewed vigor, Cole wondered how disappointed Mrs. D would be if she knew he’d killed a man last night. He spilled the bucket in his haste to plunge the sponge back in and soaked his shirt. Cole pulled the T-shirt off and cast it aside. He’d have to turn himself in. How could he be a man if he didn’t own up to his sins?

  The Pew Crew would be here any minute, and he couldn’t be half-naked in the church. He went to the supply closet and threw on the flowing black cassock Father Callahan never used anymore. He buttoned it up and worked to contain the soapy water from the overturned bucket. The church door creaked, and Cole stood to greet the ladies.

  The air left the church in a whoosh as Kyle entered.

  Kyle.

  She waited in the doorway, her white sundress and trench coat fluttering like flags in the breeze. She ran a hand through her hair, all soft and wild. She looked like a heavenly messenger.

  Cole headed down the side aisle, silhouetted against the stained glass windows. Kyle mirrored his movement, walking up the opposite side. They orbited one another, step for step, as they cast shadows that interrupted the splashes of color the sun painted through each window. They made a complete circuit, three-hundred-sixty degrees of anticipation.

  When Kyle stood in the doorway again she shed her white trench coat in a puddle at her feet. The sunlight streamed in behind her, and the sundress became just a hint over her body.

  Cole unbuttoned the cassock and let it fall as well.

  Kyle took the first step, approaching him up the center aisle.

  Cole took a breath and a step toward her, away from the altar behind him. They moved one step at a time, slowly—like soldiers from opposite armies.

  But then Cole ran for her, sliding on his knees to close the final distance between his hands and her skin. Kyle wrapped his head in her arms, cradling him.

  “My sweet Cole. That’s better. That’s better.” Kyle braced her hands on his shoulders and slowly lowered herself to her knees. She put her hands on his cheeks and waited until he looked at her. “You forgot something last night.”

  Cole looked puzzled.

  “You made me promise you something. Now you owe me a promise.”

  Cole nodded somberly.

  “Be the real Cole. Promise me you will be you.” Kyle’s voice was strong and sure.

  Cole felt his heart soar with her embrace, settling the feelings inside him. “Kyle, I’ve done so much wrong. I think I’m done being the real Cole. How much hurt can I cause?” He could hardly speak through his fear.

  She smiled again. “I’ve done my own share of wrong, but look. Look around. We’re in the perfect place.”

  The church looked like paradise. A frame of broken rainbows arched above the lovers on their knees.

  Cole held her face to his, whispering, “Help me.”

  Kyle gave him the absolution he needed with her lips.

  24

  Fumigation

  ONCE SHE’D PARKED IN the church lot, Livia grabbed Kyle’s phone and scrolled through the contacts, looking for her number so she could call Blake. She wasn’t listed in the Ls—or under S for sister. Livia gave up and punched in her own number. Kyle’s phone proudly reported that she’d dialed “Whore-a-saurus” as the line began to ring.

  Livia rolled her eyes. She had her sister labeled neatly as “Kyle” in her phone and even had her in a red font to designate an emergency contact. Livia watched the church doors with the phone to her ear. She held her breath as it stopped ringing and connected.

  “Hello, beautiful Livia,” Blake answered.

  “How did you know it was me?” Livia saw her wide smile in the rear view mirror.

  “The phone looked sexier when it rang.”

  She could hear a matching smile in his voice and sighed. Livia hugged herself with her free arm. Just the sound of him made her skin beg to be touched.

  “Is there a cloud going in front of the sun where you are, Livia?”

  She leaned forward and peeked out the windshield. A fluffy white cloud defied the sun and tiptoed into its perfect circle.

  “I see it, Blake.” Livia put her hand against the glass.

  “Does it have a shape for you?” he asked.

  Livia ran her hand up to her neck, feeling his buttery voice everywhere. “Um…It looks like a—oh! It looks like a bunny. Aww, that’s so stinking cute.”

  The sun melted the cloud a bit, like cotton candy in the heat. Eventually, the cloud finished its dance with the sun and escaped as a circular blob.

  Livia bit her lip. “Well, that went from a romantic moment to horrifying bunny torture.”

  Blake laughed, and she wanted to put her head on his chest and feel it rumble through him like a happy earthquake.

  “Where are you now?”

  “Well, we’re at the car place, but I’m in Mouse’s car. I guess it’s considered a car—it’s actually a hearse with flames painted on it. I have a feeling it might even be bulletproof.”

  “Wow. You’d think I would’ve seen that bad boy rolling around town.”

  “I get the impression it’s a new purchase,” Blake said. “It’s pretty crazy. He’s got all this yarn lined up, like this is his storage closet. He has about three works in progress. The colors are amazing. This yarn in the passenger seat has perfect browns. It reminds me of your hair.”

  Livia touched her tresses, wishing they were tangled in his hands. “So is the mask up or down?” Livia wanted to know how to picture him in her head.

  “Well, fortunately for me, Mouse’s windows are tinted far beyond the legal limit. It’s like sitting inside a giant pair of sunglasses. I’m wearing the mask as a hat instead.”

  “You’re being courageous,” she said. “I think you’re noble.” She felt her heart fill with the picture of his victory in the sun.

  “I feel very noble talking on a pink phone.” He gave a self-deprecating chuckle.

  Sensing movement, Livia glanced in the rear view mirror. A slow-moving posse of women headed to the church. Livia gritted her teeth and saw that the church doors still stood open.

  “Oh, no! The ladies from next door are headed to the church where Cole and Kyle are. What should I do?”

  “Assuming they’re being…amorous right now, I would highly suggest a diversion.” Blake sounded amused.

  “Hang on.” Livia set the phone down carefully on the passenger seat. She hopped out and approached the ladies. She noticed Bea in her wheelchair.

  “Bea! Ladies, it’s so wonderful to run into you today.” Livia smiled anxiously from one woman to the next, using friendliness to block their way.

  A ripple of greetings ran through the crowd, but Bea was the spokeswoman.

  “Livia, what a wonderful surprise. Look at her—isn’t she just gorgeous? I swear her figure is fantastic.”

  Livia felt her color change to pink. “Thank you. Cole actually asked me to make sure no one went in the church for a little while.” Livia clasped her hands behind her back to stop their wringing.

  “Oh, well, we come every Saturday. We’re the Pew Crew,” Bea explained. “We have to keep the church fresh and clean.” Bea and her friends nodded in tandem.

  Oh crap. “He told me about that. But, ah, he’s fumigating. For bugs. He needs to fumigate.”

  Do they even fumigate churches? Is there some sort of special mass that’s said before they do something like that?

  “Is it those pesky ants again? I do declare, if you leave one crumb of food on the floor the ants flock to it,” said Bea. “We can’t have the ants again.”

  Relief washed over Livia. “That’s it. Ants. You got it. Hit the nail on the head. Can I help you ladies get back home?” Livia stepped behind Bea to turn her in the opposite direction.

  The other ladies began animated swapping of bug-infestation stories. Be
a kept insisting her wheelchair’s brake was on. Then after Livia determined it was not, Bea complained she was going too fast.

  Livia slowed to a snail’s pace, and the Pew Crew was far ahead when Bea began her sly comments. “Fumigating can really hold things up. I can clearly remember fumigating with Aaron.” Bea turned her head and smiled. “Some days I still miss fumigating. I did get three beautiful children from the process. Fumigation can be wonderful.” She settled back into her wheelchair.

  Livia jumped around to kneel in front of her. “Oh, please don’t say anything to anyone. It’s my sister in there with him. I bet he feels so guilty about it.”

  Bea gave a delighted cackle. “I’m sure guilty isn’t exactly the right description of Mr. Cole right now.” Her eyes softened. “Sweet Livia, young people can only learn with time, but maybe you can get a leg up. There’s no shame in true love. And if Mr. Cole thinks he has some big secret, he’s wrong. At my age, you can spot a man in love from a mile away. My friends and I probably knew before he did.”

  Bea’s eyes got a little misty, and Livia reached for her hand. “Speaking of love, how’s your beau?” Bea asked, brightening.

  Livia’s heart filled with joy. “He’s great. He’s doing great.”

  “That’s wonderful news. You’re a nice girl. Hold your head high. Now, Livia, I’m getting a bit of a chill.” Bea rubbed her arms.

  Livia popped up and wheeled her to the door of the retirement center.

  As Livia parked her in the lobby, Bea offered a suggestion with her gentle hug. “You might want to go back and close those church doors. Fumigating is best done in private.”

  Livia nodded as she waved to the rest of the ladies and sprinted back to the church doors. At first, there was no hint of her sister. After her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, Livia noticed Kyle’s romantical white trench coat discarded like a crumpled dove. She said a silent prayer for Cole and Kyle as she secured the big doors, dividing the church from the world.

 
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