Breath & Shadow
Spring 2016 - Vol. 13, Issue 2
Is it a sin to love a person who doesn't return it?
It all depends on whether the poor wretch asked for it. That is, dreaming once too often of his beloved, calling her to mind again and again until she’s stuck there, igniting a fury of emotions and now what's he to do about it?
Forget the obvious answer, for she's already taken. Or, if she's noticed him, sees not a
Prince Charming but a Norman Bates. This is the age of crazies and stalkers.
Perhaps it's no sin, but it brings sin's consequences all the same. If the Spanish
inquisitors could have tapped into this fever for the purpose of extracting confessions,
they'd have done so. If you could measure it with something like a Geiger counter, it
would peg the scale. If you could pinpoint it on a geo-synchronous comsat, how many
tiny white sparks would you see, scattered across the land masses of the earth?
Probably more than I would like to think of, even if it adds to my livelihood.
The telephone rings. It sits on the carpet by the wall and has a rotary dial. I remain cross-legged on the carpet as my answering machine kicks in, the one ultrasophisticated gadget in the place.
"Dante," says the gadget. "How may I help you?"
"Is it true you make people stop loving people?"
The voice has the same jeering tone I hear almost every day. My machine detects this and disconnects, while noting the exact pattern and modulation of the wise guy's speech. If he calls back, it'll cut him off the moment he starts talking.
The phone rings again. "Hello."
"Can you get my ex-husband to stop loving me?"
Frequently asked questions: my machine deals with those, too.
"Only if he agrees to it."
She hangs up, disappointed.
The lights are off in my shoebox apartment. They always are. Too bright. A single candle on the kitchen counter provides a flickering orange illumination. It's in an aluminum bowl, a mess of melted blue-white wax at the bottom. I go through candles the way some guys go through six-packs. If it were bright as day in here, it would blot out the images and dioramas in my mind like city lights blotting out the stars. I need to see the inner fury playing before my eyes and across the four blank, pictureless apartment walls like screens in a cinema. This is how it vents out, like blowing off steam, in a way I can't quite understand. I see their faces:
Auburn Janine, the prototypical coed in her second year at Brown; blond and greeneyed Wilma, sadly and shamefully married; Yuki, black-blue hair hanging perfectly level with her chin. Between Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, Asian girls flock to Providence, and I see them out and about almost every day.
Now someone knocks on the door. After weeding out the cranks and the curious, I average thirty-five takers a week, some from as far off as Phoenix. All males; females I unfortunately can't help.
I stay put.
The door creaks and daylight slants across the floor, stopping at my feet. I'm wearing white gym socks and no shoes, along with pajama bottoms and a gray tee shirt announcing I've been to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. I rise, knowing already what the guy will look like:
Not quite filled out or solid enough, smallish, frail-looking, face sad, anxious or puzzled. Most would fit this description, although some might surprise you.
No way would they suffer from such a thing, you'd think. More likely they would be the "rejecters," the objects of some flutter-eyed damsel's unwanted attention. But if even Sir Lancelot could get a hopeless infatuation, then I suppose nobody's really safe.
"Come in," I say when nothing happens.
He shuffles onto the thin carpet. I see only a silhouette in the doorway. After a moment, he speaks.
"The 'crush eater.' Yes, that's me."
"Oh." He pauses. "So is that like..."
"A sin eater? Same basic idea."
"Oh. Okay." He offers a hand.
I take it, and inform him that my name is Dante. Not my real name: think Dante and Beatrice. You might call it a stage name. His palms are hot and moist; clients' hands usually are.
"You can shut the door now."
Quickly he does so.
"What's her name?," I ask.
"Any lights in this place?" He looks around. "Is your power out?"
"Just answer, please."
Jenny. Nice name. I don't ask what she looks like, or anything else about her. Whatever their actual appearance, these women are dazzling to the poor stricken men I've dedicated my life to helping.
"I've heard you can get it done right here and now."
" "How much do you charge?"
I tell him, then watch his mouth open and his eyes die. He can't afford it.
"All right, Brad. Just this once, pay whatever the heck you want, but let's get it done."
I can sense them already, the fevered mind, the emotions gone to meltdown. Jenny owns his heart and rules his mind, and she, the unwitting cause of his obsession, is completely powerless to cure him of it, even if that's the very thing she desperately wants. Ah, love.
Time to point out the obvious.
"You didn't bring any food."
He jolts. He forgot, somehow. Not all that surprising, actually. Sometimes they do. He falls apart.
"Oh, man, I'm sorry, I--do you want--?"
I hold out the phone.
"A pizza will do."
"Pizza?" He takes it.
Yes, pizza, your standard party dish, and I often use it. I ask him what he likes. Pepperoni; everyone likes that. I always go with Italian sausage and pineapple, so he calls up the place two blocks away on Thayer Street and orders a medium with all three.
"Make it a large."
He does so, though he knows he's paying.
I've used hot dogs before, apples piled into one of the candle-bowls, a dish of greens, cheeseburgers, even a box of cereal. Anything the fellow cares to bring over. Once a client brought a porterhouse steak, which he fried in my kitchen, and a bottle of champagne. It just has to be something I can take into my body.
I try to avoid the sin-eater comparison because it's got to creep them out, acting the part of dead men. So I purchased a couch like a shrink's, one end tilting up, to encourage the Freudian idea.
The pizza arrives. Brad answers the door, pays, wishes the delivery driver a nice day.
"Lie down here on the couch."
This always makes me sound like a shrink, and I want to say it in an Austrian accent.
He does so. I open the box and set half the hot pie, four slices, on a plate, two piled on two, and balance the plate on the flat of his stomach. He has a slight spare tire around his middle; he's been letting himself go a bit. Too much beer with the boys.
"I'm ready." He sucks in his breath.
I harrumph. They always think this is like sawing off a limb.
"Just relax. There's a short speech."
I pick up a slice.
”I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Thy travails shall now cease--'"
His face screws up.
"Don't talk. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen."
I devour the four tangy slices, one after the other, and wash them down with a glass of water. Then I attend to the candle, which is almost burned down to the stub, pulling it out and sticking a new one into the glob of soft, cooling wax. This has nothing to do with the ritual, the danged candle was going out, that's all. I light the new one, and blow out the other. It extinguishes in a blur of blue smoke.
Calmly I wait. I remember little now about the first time I did this, except that the incoming emotions hit me like a truck. The girl's name was Elsie, and I shivered and writhed for her. Elsie, Elsie! Longed to go out and search for her, to write her tender notes and all the rest, you know it well, while my client laughed and whooped and pumped my hand and bounded out the door, leaving me doomed to his agonies. That was the one and only time I did it for free.
But now it's not so bad. Not because I've grown used to it--abandon that hope!--but because I've taken so many infatuations and aching loves, longings and yearnings, that they've jumbled and mixed together, thoughts of dozens of women and girls. One might think this would drive me mad, but actually it helps. They collide and muddle and dull each other's sharp edges. I'm not fixating on any one girl.
So now I stand quietly and wait for Jenny to assimilate with the rest. I shudder. Like the scroll Saint John eats in the book of Revelation, it tastes good in your mouth, but once down inside it sours into new kinds of bitter. There...like a spate of passing dizziness. My muscles relax. Yes. I'm stable now. I let out a deep breath.
Brad sits up.
"Hey. I think it worked."
I turn around and nod.
"Forgotten already that you were tying yourself into knots over this person?"
"Wondering what the big deal ever was?"
"Yeah! Yeah, yeah! Hey Dante, thanks! You're the real thing!"
He's on his feet and practically dancing.
This, too, is expected. I bring him a bottle of beer from the fridge, and tell him to help himself to the other half of the pizza. He's in a celebrating mood. Eagerly, he grabs the bottle and digs in, mouthing muffled thanks.
I see now, in my mind's eye, Brad's princess and goddess. She's one of the Asians, almond-eyed Chinese or Korean, but otherwise not much to look at. But we all know how that works, when it comes to infatuations.
Along with these crushes come flashes of information, how my clients got ensnared and tangled up in them. They happened to spot girls across the college library. They might have known them slightly, saying hi every so often, and were surprised by the sudden smiting of Cupid's arrow. In some cases they went on a single date. Most of the time, it was a case of the fair damsels already having been claimed. Unavailable. No chance. Fugheddaboudit!
But Jenny is not taken.
Before helping someone, you have to experience what they go through for yourself. The lingering fixations, the suffering in silence. This whole business of "hitting it off" seems to me like pretty much luck of the draw.
You get to know some girl (if she's willing to go along with that), and if the dreaded Crush hits, you just hope like hell that the same truck hits her, or you're in for another three months of inner torture before the feeling fades at last. The kind of thing that happens only for a privileged few, like lottery winners. What astounds me is that it's not just a few, but seemingly everyone.
I like to think that my clients, once delivered, won't need my services again, but will go on to join that favored club. But some have returned.
Brad disrupts my thoughts.
"She's not taken."
I must have asked this out loud.
"Hasn't anyone else ever been available? Out of all your customers?"
"Are you kidding?"
Okay, maybe now and then. But my clients seem to have an infernal knack for setting their hearts on things that turn out to be out of reach.
His eyes twinkle.
He moves in closer.
"You want me to--?"
"You're not even friends with her."
He gives a start. Guys are disturbed sometimes at how much I know afterwards. Maybe he'll turn on his heel and leave. But instead he says,
"She hangs out at Starbucks every Friday night with her girlfriends."
Today is Friday.
"I know her well enough to introduce you."
Hot damn, he's really serious.
Already he's sounding playful again. I expect his eyebrows to flutter up and down, but he spares me that.
"Because you're looking at a man who's in love with about a hundred girls--"
But the emotions fade after a while, and the ones still burning are muddled in with all the rest, and they vent out across the walls, and--
Jenny's not taken!
Brad digs out his billfold and hands me a twenty dollar bill.
"Buy a new shirt?," he suggests.
So many times I've cursed and hated love, wished myself incapable of it. And the time came when I seemed to get my wish. The crushes stopped. A year, then another, and another after that passed with no new infatuations or writhings. I still liked females and admired their beauty, but I stopped losing my heart to them.
Did I worry, see a doctor? No. You couldn't have paid me to do so. Blessed relief, and good riddance! And then, somewhere along the line, guided by some newly-formed instinct, I began rendering my services.
Now I have to wonder if there could have been a reason for this, other than paying the bills and helping my fellow man a bit. When my heart refused anymore to "love," my talent kept me in touch with that venerable emotion. Kept it active in my brain, whatever weird chemicals or synapse ignition codes are responsible for the whole thing. They have a lot to answer for.
"Sure," I hear myself say.
"Fine. I'll try it...I guess."
Five minutes later, my best shirt is on, my hair is combed, and my shoes are tied. Brad nods.
"You look fine."
We walk outside and I lock the door. The answering machine can handle any calls in my absence.
Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Now he haunts Providence, Rhode Island, and his fiction credits include Weird Tales, Dreams & Visions and Big Pulp.