08 December 2016

Grace (A Response to James Joyce)

Tommy’s knees were hurting and he was longing to adjust his position, but he had not yet confessed a single sin. He thought of his big sins and wondered whether he would have time to address them before Pastor Henman moved on to the Scripture section, or whether he should talk about the little sins now and the big sins later. He imagined sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows, which never happened in Seattle except once on Easter Sunday, and Tommy imagined that it was a spiritual experience. The window-sills were decorated with candles, but Tommy knew they were really lightbulbs made to look like candles. To have real candles would be a serious fire-hazard. No point in taking unnecessary risks. University Presbyterian Church was well-funded and widely attended. It was well reviewed, too.... Tommy broke into a coughing fit, and his mother offered him a cough-drop.

Next to Tommy sat John Cunningham, whom Tommy didn’t think much of but whom he tried to be friends with because he was part of Power’s group. Michael Power was in the pew behind him, who scribbled a note on the service handout and handed it to the boys. John gasped and feigned mortification, turning redfaced with suppressed laughter. Tommy understood the joke in a vague manner, so he put his hand over his mouth and pretended to be affronted. Behind Michael was Wilken M’Coy, who strained over the pews to see what the note was about, but Michael ignored him, and the rest followed suite. 

Three pews ahead of Tommy sat Grace, who was busy unloosing her braids. Tommy watched her fingers elegantly remove the bobby-pins from the complex yellow loops of hair, and then watched it fall gorgeously upon her glowing shoulders. Tommy thought of passing a note to her, but he couldn’t think up jokes like Michael did. He wondered if the chandelier fell, would he have time to leap over the pews and throw himself over her before it crushed her. But now the confession was finished. Tommy resumed his seat and let his mind wander to other subjects.

Pastor Henman was reading from Romans. He said:

The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Grace…grace…grace. What was he saying about Grace? No: now he was talking about his high-school days. I was never good at sports, he said. I tried out for the basketball team, but I was so short that the boys could dribble a ball on my head. 

Murmurs of laughter rippled through the congregation. 

— Now for the point, he continued.  We all have our failures. I have failed too. Show of hands: who watched the Seahawks game last night? Wilson should have made a pass to the thirty yard zone, but how could he have known, at the time? It’s hard to make those decisions when we’re caught up in the chaos of life. 

He made a few more jokes and sports and politics that managed to draw out some more murmurs of laughter.

— But the point is, he said, we all have our failures……Jesus says that He forgets our sins. He came to abolish the Law. He called us friends…

Later, Tommy stood in the foyer, pouring his coffee into a foam cup. Michael pulled him away by the arm.

—Catch a ride home with me, he said. You won’t believe what John and me picked up.

—What? said Tommy.

—I can’t tell you now.

—Aw come on, said Tommy.

Michael Power lowered his voice and said:

—John got his hands on a pack of camels.

Tommy was thrown into an internal panic. He had no idea…..he had forgotten what a "pack of camels" was. For a moment he thought he might have to confess to Michael, and then he remembered he had heard it once in a show, in reference to cigarettes. But you couldn’t know for sure. He tried to test it by saying:

—Isn’t that a fire-hazard?

—Naw, there’s no fire-alarms in the basement, said Michael.

—I don’t know, I’ve got a cough and… began Tommy, who was sure by now what it was.

—We’re just gonna try a little, said Michael. Tell your parents you’re just going to my place to hang out.

Tommy thought about it and said, OK.

Grace was sitting at the round table. Tommy thought of going up to tease her, but he couldn’t with her friends all around. Instead, he sat down loudly and tried to enter the conversation.  His forgery was successful, and he said something that made Grace laugh.

—You’re funny, Tommy, Grace teased him. Tommy tried to say something else funny, but the joke died out, and the conversation moved on. He remained silent for the rest of the dialogue, and began think that perhaps Grace’s crowd wasn’t so great, after all. He began to get excited about going to Michael’s, and wished to get away from Grace and her friends.

Then Grace came to him. Tommy, we’re going to get smoothies later, she told him. Would you like to come?

Tommy felt sick. Suddenly the idea of going to Michael’s seemed absurd. Why had he even agreed? For a moment he considered dropping the whole thing. He would tell Michael later that he had discovered other things he needed to do that afternoon.  But surely John and Michael would find out he had gone with Grace. And they would tease him about it.  So he said:

—I already said I was going to Michael’s, trying his best to sound reluctant and obligatory.

Grace gave him a disappointed glance. 

—O, she said. Well, it would have been really nice if you’d have come. What are you doing at Michael’s?

—O, I don’t know what the heck they’re up to now, said Tommy, waving his hand. He wished he had gone all the way through with the swear word, but he couldn’t do it in front of her. Infirm of purpose!

Grace looked as if she was going to say something, but then she simply shrugged and bade him see-you-later.  Tommy wished dearly that things have gone differently, and called after her:

—Come by later.

Grace threw a glance over her shoulder, wearing a half-smile on her face, but not enough to reassure him.

◆   ◆    

Michael Power’s house was in the more wooded part of Tommy’s neighborhood. It was dimly lit and smelled of cat-fur. But what really made it odd was the life-sized likeness of Mr. Power painted directly onto the wall by the staircase. Tommy had passed it often as he descended into the basement, but he never asked about it, for fear it would appear anxious or childish. Tommy once came over for dinner, and Mrs. Power had politely cross-examined him about his family and his school. Tommy only managed to stammer out a few unsatisfactory replies and a lame attempt at humor before lapsing into silence. Mr. Power tried to make a comment, but Mrs. Power shut him up, reminding him that they had changed the subject now.

—Gotta keep up, she said, snapping her fingers.

Mr. Power looked down again and poked at his cold dinner, saying nothing.

The basement door was always hard to identify. More times than once, when Tommy had come upstairs for a bathroom break, he would open up what he thought was the basement door and instead find himself in the food cabinet. This was embarrassing enough, but he became even more self-conscious when he realized that Mrs. Power was always sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of black coffee, watching. He pretended not to notice, but he couldn’t help muttering to himself, loud enough for her to hear:

—Stupid. That’s the food cabinet, not the basement.

When the boys arrived, Mrs. Power informed them that John and Wilken were already waiting downstairs. She also reminded them that when the movie was finished, they were not going to stay down there chatting, or she would come down and send them all home personally. I’m leaving the house to run some errands, she said, so remember not to answer phone calls or anyone who comes to the door. Michael gave Tommy an inside-look of elation. Before he led Tommy into the basement, he locked the door behind them. 

—Just in case she checks in too soon, he told him. Tommy’s heart was thundering horribly.

At the bottom of the staircase, Tommy saw John and Wilken poke their heads out from the door.

—There you are. Where have you been? We tried calling you.

—You better not have started without us, said Michael.

—No, of course not.

Tommy followed Michael down the stairs, and Tommy thought he could already smell the cigarettes.

—Guess what else we got, said John, and he pulled out a cardboard caddy of Jack Daniel’s from a grocery bag. Michael slapped him on the back and congratulated him, asking him how he got it, and everyone seemed extremely pleased. Tommy felt he ought to put something in.

—Hash-tag real-talk, he said. Everyone gave him a look, and Tommy wished he hadn’t spoken.

It took a while to get one of the cigarettes lit, and John wasted three of them before Michael, cursing John, snatched the lighter from him and grabbed one himself, expertly twiddling the small roll in his fingers, as if he had done it all before. He got it right on the first try, which was just dumb luck, as far as Tommy was concerned.

—You exhale through the nose, he explained. In through the mouth, out through the nose. 

He demonstrated. A few weak coughs tried vainly to escape his lips, but he manfully suppressed them by transforming them into a clearing of the throat. He passed it around the circle. All of them coughed some. Tommy figured that it shouldn’t be that hard not to cough. If he could just keep it down, maybe they’d even think he’d done it before.

When Tommy inhaled the smoke, he felt a horrible burning sensation in the back of his palate. The coughing began almost immediately, but it was far worse than his usual coughing fits. This one seemed to resound throughout his head like a gong, and sent a sharp sting up his sinuses. Weak wisps of smoke escaped from both his mouth and nose. 

—Woah, Tommy, are you crying? said one of them.

Tommy tried to say he was fine, but he couldn’t. He gestured for something to drink, and Michael handed him a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Tommy chugged down three unhappy gulps, and nearly gagged from the taste of it. This set the three of them laughing.

—You can’t just gulp down whiskey, Tommy, they cried. 

Tommy wiped his eyes. It seemed his whole throat was on fire, but at least he was able to speak.

—You didn’t tell me it was whiskey, he managed to say. 

This made them laugh even harder. Tommy, you didn’t know what Jack Daniel’s was? What did you think it was, apple-juice?

Tommy tried to laugh with them, as much as he could without starting the coughing fit again. This was fun, he thought. He was having a good time. But then the thought occurred to him that right now, he could have been getting smoothies with Grace—beautiful, golden-headed Grace—and for a moment, real tears threatened to form in his eyes. But he mastered it.

—It’s not the smoke, he said finally to Michael after the commotion died down. It’s the phlegm. I told you I was down with something.

Michael’s gaze wandered away from Tommy’s, wearing that half-smile expression. A sudden chill possessed Tommy, because for a moment it looked very much like Grace. The association repelled him, and he pushed it out. If it looked like Grace, it was only a kind of vulgar parody. Both possessed the absence of reassurance; both looked on him from the inside of city walls, but while one seemed to pity him, the other withheld entrance in scornful triumph. Grace shut him out because she couldn’t let him in, but Michael shut him out because he wouldn’t, and relished in the injustice of it. 

 —Have some more whiskey, Wilken said finally. That’ll help you.

Tommy shook his head. He hated Michael’s crowd. He wanted to get back to Grace. He stood up and announced he was ready to go. Michael Power said:

—Hey, hey, come on man, we were just teasing. Can’t you take a joke?

—I have somewhere to be, said Tommy, trying to look as if he were going to cry.

—Where? Where do you need to go? demanded Michael.

Tommy didn’t know. An insane plan began forming in his head to find out where Grace and her friends were getting smoothies. Somehow he would get there, maybe take a bus. And perhaps it wasn’t too late; perhaps they were still there and would be elated to see him. Tommy! Grace cries out. We were hoping you would comeHow was Michael’s?

Ah, boring, replies Tommy, as they pull up a chair for him.  I only went there ‘cause I promised. Gosh, what a stick in the mud…..

—Hey, hey, Tommy, are you listening? interrupted Michael. We’re sorry, okay? Besides, not until Mom gets back …

—Come on, try another whiskey, said Wilken. You’ll get used to it.

They were all staring at him now: the moment was his. Michael sensed his hesitancy.

—You gotta harden up to this stuff, he said. You’re a man now. He’s a man now, right guys?

The other two cheered in approval at Michael’s comment, and various reiterations of you’re a man now, Tommy, circled around the room. Then Michael said:

—But first, we gotta fix you up. We gotta liberate you. That’s what friends do. Trust us; you’ll be grateful we did.

Tommy stared at the drink in his hand. He was still lightheaded from the smoke, but now he saw this to be an unbearable shame. He was resolved to crush his sensitive, understimulated Presbyterian upbringing, for he hated the way it looked on him. At last he would purge himself of all childish traces of naivety and softness, command his body to succumb to his will, beat his unsteady hands into submission and swallow the pain that swayed his purpose. With renewed vigor, he opened the drink, sucked the vile substance, and once again thrust himself into the conversation.

◆   ◆    

When Tommy woke up, the first thing he noticed was that the smell of cigarettes seemed considerably stronger than it had before. Secondly, although he had fallen asleep comfortably on Wilken’s lap, it appeared he had been thrown aside like a parcel, and was dangling half upside-down on the couch. Thirdly he felt a strange warmth on his skin which delighted him, and he wanted to get nearer to it. Lastly he noticed the voices of the boys, all cursing and running about the room.

—Throw your clothes on it! came Michael Power’s voice. Throw your clothes on it, you sons-a-bitches!

Tommy turned himself upright, and saw thin, pale fire, already spread to multiple places on the carpet, now catching the wooden stand where the TV stood.  He never noticed before how beautiful fire was. He wanted to get nearer to it, for he was so very cold…

John and Wilken were now half-naked, having flagged their shirts uselessly and lost them to the fire. Tommy was not frightened, but he felt some vague obligation to assist them. He cracked open the last bottle of Jack Daniel’s and dribbled the contents over the flames. The flame leaped to life and Tommy was engulfed in wonderful warmth and brightness. He glanced at Michael with a watery smile, hoping he would give him a word of approval. But Michael’s expression was incomprehensible; his eyes so wide the lids had nearly disappeared.

—You idiot! he cried. You f—ing idiot!!!

Tommy’s smile faded and the fluttery feelings of comradery and good humor turned into sudden contempt for Michael. He gave an animal-like growl—grrr…ow! and made a lunge for his throat.

For a while several things were happening. Tommy’s arms were interlocked with Michael’s, hands about each other’s necks and faces inches apart, as if they were lovers ready to kiss. Flames flickered around them like the tongues of serpents, while the other two boys, scorched and shirtless, had run up the stairs to the basement door, and had discovered that it was locked. Tommy heard them hammering the wall with their soft fists and crying:

—O my God! O my God!

For a moment Tommy believed he was frozen in that image for all eternity. No one else was there to witness it besides the tall greyscale image of Mr. Power who surveyed the scene with his hands in his pockets, half-smiling, and unable to assist them. In the next moment, it all dissolved, for a blinding light had come flooding in from the top of the stairs. Michael went limp and his body crumpled at Tommy’s feet. Tommy wondered if he was dead. Then he saw the two boys become absorbed into the light, and a white figure standing in their place. He wondered whether he recognized the figure, and then, with a strange mix of relief and fear, he saw Grace come bounding down the stairs.

Tommy! he heard her cry. TomCome out!