Personal Savior (pt. 2)
from ALL HAPPY PEOPLE
The conclusion of novella number three from my All Happy People project. Just as a teaser, the final story from this set also involves many of the characters from this one. I’ll share that piece with you early in 2022.
Back next week with some news, tidbits, and quite possibly a holiday giveaway for subscribers before I break until January.
Once again, here’s Jonas Yip’s beautifully evocative cover image.
Thanks for reading, and for letting people know that this is art worth supporting.
Only once on her eight-minute walk into downtown did she have second thoughts. Halfway across the Higgins Street bridge, a shuddering freight train of frigid air roared over her and down the Clark Fork. The gust went on for a solid minute before sighing out, leaving her fingers curled into claws inside her mittens and the wool of her hat frozen to her forehead. But she was closer to the theater than home by then, and when the wind didn’t return, she continued toward the Cathedral of Doves.
The Cathedral had been constructed in the basement of the Walter Hotel, Missoula’s finest for most of the preceding century. According to the Mess, it was intended as a shrine to its owner’s twin loves: old movies, and his pet pigeon, Kalei. The theater had pictures of the pigeon all over the walls, and a commissioned portrait on the altar in front of the screen, which was always bedecked with red silk flowers. When Shannon asked why the place wasn’t called the Cathedral of Pigeons—or Pigeon, as Kalei appeared to be the only one—the Mess had grinned and said, “I love Montana.”
Except for the ticket-taker/projectionist, a pimply college boy in a Skin the ‘Cats sweatshirt, she was the only person in the Cathedral tonight. The cheap desk lamp that always illuminated the silk flowers on the altar still glowed, and after a few minutes of just sitting in her seat and waiting, Shannon stood to peruse the pictures of Kalei. Pay her respects. From down in this basement, under the street, the gusts of wind overhead and outside really did sound like wings flapping, but thousands of them, not just this one sad bird’s.
Right before he dimmed the lights and started the movie, the pimply kid stuck his head out the projection booth window. “Hey. Would you mind just pulling the Cathedral door shut behind you when you go? It’ll lock itself. Storm’s coming. I’m going home.”
“What about the projector?”
“It’s our new digital. It shuts itself down.”
Only after the lights faded and the kid had gone, leaving her presumably alone with the flickering images onscreen, did Shannon remember that the owner of the Cathedral had died last year. The Walter hotel people had kept up weekend showings for tradition’s sake, or as homage. She’d heard they were closing it soon.
She hadn’t even checked what movie was playing, and winced when she realized it was “Pretty Woman”. At least that reminded her why she and the Mess hadn’t come here more often: neither Kalei’s keeper nor the Walter’s managerial staff had much taste or imagination; mostly, these days, the Cathedral screened movies you could also get in supermarket checkout lines or at the new Target out by the airport, in DVD/Blue-Ray Combo-Packs, for $4.99.
Tonight, though, to her surprise, Shannon found herself laughing—out loud, and more than once—deep into the movie’s second half, all the way up to the moment when it becomes clear just how Richard Gere plans to save poor, spunky Julia from her choices.
Nevertheless, Shannon stayed all the way to the end of the credits, enjoying being in public and alone, just sitting in the musty theater with the ghost of a dead man’s favorite bird. Finally, when the projector did indeed shut itself down and the lights sprang on, she moved slowly back upstairs into the lobby. The lights there, for some reason, were all on low, as though the place were running on emergency power, which couldn’t be true. The movie had worked fine, and the streetlights outside glowed above the empty street. There had to be staff in here somewhere, probably even guests, but Shannon neither saw nor heard any. As she watched, the front doors shivered suddenly in their frames, and the wind whipped a single sail of newspaper down the sidewalk, under the bridge toward the river. Right then, Shannon felt her first spasm of panic, and it surprised her. If she disappeared here—out there—tonight, who would know or care?
Her only idea for calming herself was the one she always had: she pushed through the doors into the wind.
Her next thought, as the cold nearly drove her to the sidewalk, was that she would freeze in place right here. They could maybe take her iced-over corpse and ensconce it by Kalei’s altar, as accompanying statuary, since she’d been no one’s favorite pigeon.
The air was like acid, peeling skin off her cheeks. Yanking her hat down hard with her mittens, she managed to tuck it all the way into her scarf in the back, then ducked her whole face up to her eyes inside her coat collar. She popped her nose free again because the metal zipper cleaved to her nostrils. Turns out they’d all been right, she thought, but with no panic now, no real feeling whatsoever.
Except amazement. Exhilaration, really. God it was cold!
She realized she really might not get home, though. She started running.
The bridge was the worst. In less than two hours, the river had iced over completely, and the wind hurtling down it filled her coat and threatened to toss her over the railing. There wasn’t any snow—the freeze had come too fast—but the gusts seized every loose leaf and paper cup and cigarette butt and set them all stampeding in herds over the new ice below like buffalo racing for a jump. Staggering finally off the bridge down to the sidewalk half a block from the Martha, she felt herself start to laugh at the way her skin had seized, literally cracking along the rim of her mittens. But opening her mouth let the wind in, and it sliced across her tongue like the edge of a blade. She smashed her lips shut, stumbling forward, and looked up just in time as she reached the Martha.
At least, when it had fallen, the ponderosa pine had somehow missed her apartment. It had actually missed the building almost entirely, crashing down instead across the front steps, where it writhed and rattled its branches like a tipped-over horse with its legs broken. Blocking the entrance.
Jumping up and down in place, Shannon closed her eyes, swore without making any sound, and tried to think. To my house? Meaning, the Mess’s house? She didn’t want to go there. Ruth had gone to her parents’ way out Brooks Street because they had more reliable heating. Not so far, really, but Shannon’s car keys were in her apartment. Along with her phone. She actually couldn’t think of anywhere to go. A homeless shelter? There were so many in this town. It was one of the things she’d loved about living here: the attempts genuinely made, however freighted with enforced prayer or group therapy sessions, to help. Somewhere in Missoula, the saying went, there was always a door open.
Right this second, though, she couldn’t think where any of them might be. She was having trouble thinking, period. It was all she could do stand.
Without any conscious decision, just a bark that came out a giggle, she dragged her eyes open—just in time, too, because her lashes pulled at one another before coming apart as though glued—and hurled herself at the tree. Whirling twigs smacked her in the shoulders and face, and twice she got a barbed needle of ice in the corner of her right eye, but somehow she found enough foot- and handholds among the rioting branches to haul herself to the porch. Kicking free of the tree, she plunged through the entrance into the hallway and shouldered the door closed as she fell to her knees on the carpet.
Prayer position, she thought. She found herself staring up at the bear with the whited-out mouth. In the moment, that seemed as meaningful a guardian angel as any.
Thank you, bear, she tried to murmur, but her lips stuck, and she couldn’t seem to spark sound in her throat.
She knelt a few seconds longer, and then her whole body began to sting. She hadn’t really been out there long enough to go numb. Had she? Pulling herself upright on shaky legs, she realized that in addition to stinging, her right cheek itched something fierce. She tugged off a mitten and slapped her hand up there and pulled it back, startled. Along the ridge of her cheekbone, a cylinder of frozen something had formed, like an icicle lying on its side. It felt scratchy and hard when she touched it again. One of the whacks from the tree branches had apparently drawn blood, and the blood had frozen solid the second it hit the air. Only then did she realize the ringing she was hearing was her phone, in her room.
Her fingers found the door keys in her pants pocket, all right, but the metal seared her skin as soon as she touched it. Pulling her hand free, she swore in frustration. Finally, dragging the hat off her head, she used the wool as a glove, grabbed the keys again, and unlocked her door. She was two steps from the phone when it stopped ringing.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she murmured, then wondered who, exactly, she’d hoped it would be. She’d picked up the phone to check when it rang again.
As soon as answered, her mother said, “Oh.” The audible note of relief in that single word spread slowly through Shannon like heat from her new radiator. Not warm, exactly, but enough to keep her alive.
“I’m fi—“ she started.
The voice her mother used next didn’t sound relieved or worried, and was, in fact, a pretty fair approximation of the automated recording that, in pre-iPhone days, used to tell callers the time. “At the tone, the temperature will be…one hundred…thirty-three degrees warmer…where I am…than where you are. Beep.” Her mother hung up.
Replacing the receiver, Shannon draped her coat over her desk chair, sat down by the radiator and dropped her hands on it. After a short, bearable while, the stinging in her fingers eased. The room seemed even darker than it had since she’d moved in, and she soon realized why. The wind had sucked up every bit of moisture it could find—dustings of snow, river spray, expelled breath from any last outdoor stragglers or moronic moviegoers—and pinned it to the windows. Then the cold had frozen it all there. She could no longer see through the glass. She couldn’t even make out the stump of the fallen pine that had to be right outside.
Eventually, she got up again to set all her faucets trickling so her pipes wouldn’t freeze and explode. That panicky, isolated feeling that had seized her in the lobby of the Walter whistled through her again. Nudging her computer awake, she tried opening a browser, but apparently everything was down. She checked the weather on her phone, registered the minus sign and double digits, and put the phone back on the desk facedown. As she flicked on the radio, she noted the tremble in her fingers and realized she really didn’t want to find silence. To her relief, KUFM came through immediately. “Our best current reading, with the wind chill, is 53 below. That’s 53 degrees below zero, folks. And it’s going to get colder.” Shannon shut off the radio and went to bed.
The phone woke her the next morning. She pushed up from her futon, fuzz-mouthed, limp-legged, aware already that she’d slept hours longer than was her wont. She found the phone, tapped Accept.
“At the tone, the temperature will be,” her mother said, “…one hundred…forty-four degrees warmer…where I am…than where you are.” Click.
The first full day of the storm passed in a frosted-out blur. According to the radio, most cable and telephone lines had frozen solid. No crews could be sent to service them. In the mountains and out the Bitterroot, most homes had lost power, and National Guard units had been mobilized. Shannon thought of Ruth, tried calling, but got only the repeating busy signal that indicated circuits were down or overloaded. “Whatever emergency you’ve got,” the chipper KUFM voices warned, “cancel it. Stay home.”
Shannon cooked up soup using leftover chicken bones from earlier in the week. Then, for the first time since she’d moved, she opened a new Word file on her computer and started fiddling. She didn’t really have a story in mind, just a Vietnamese woman she’d met years ago when she’d first moved to Missoula, a scratchy-voiced, elegantly scarved person who couldn’t have been five feet tall, and who’d planted herself outside the Walter to shove pamphlets into the hands of passersby. The pamphlets, which she’d clearly made herself, featured grainy, graphic images of wolves with their heads blown off, and decried a relocation project currently underway or possibly just under discussion within Yellowstone Park. The backs of the pamphlets featured a slogan, in big letters against a deep blue background the color of the twilight Montana summer sky. Shannon had never seen that color on paper or in paint before or since, and she still wondered how that woman had gotten it on her pamphlets. The words themselves, in bright blood red, read, LET WILD BE.
Shannon had watched the woman for two solid hours from across the street, then taken her to tea and finally dinner at the Shed. Why? At the time, she’d thought she was doing it because she herself was lonely, and because—wrongly, it turned out, and also stupidly—Shannon had assumed this person was also newish to Missoula, less because of her ethnicity than her subtly svelte, sophisticated clothing. Then she thought it was because her ferocity of focus reminded Shannon of Ligia, the most impassioned of Z’s old Parliament back in New York.
As it turned out, though, none of those were the reason. At the end of the evening, the woman had thanked Shannon, stood waiting for a few seconds beside her on the sidewalk, then shrugged and moved purposefully away toward the river.
Because I hadn’t offered to exchange numbers, Shannon realized later. Because I wasn’t actually interested in her.
Or rather, she was already more interested in the person—character—she might one day make out of her.
And now, all this time and one marriage later, here Shannon was doing just that: calling out of memory a woman she’d half-met and half-invented, and talking to her. It was as though she had gotten the woman’s details after all. The essential ones.
Nothing she produced over those next few hours was anything she would keep, she suspected, except the file name—LET WILD BE—right there at the top of the Open Recent list. That was plenty, more than enough, a good day’s effort. A start. The gift of more work tomorrow, which was still the best and most meaningful gift Shannon had ever received from work. During those hours, she rose from her chair only to brew coffee and make toast.
Finally, when the gray light through the frosted-over glass started darkening, she put her laptop to sleep and returned to her spot against the radiator and turned the radio on low. She watched the windows until it seemed she could see molecules rearranging themselves, the glass devolving, losing transparency completely. Her room had gone all the way dark and she was considering adjourning to her bed with a book when the phone rang again.
She considered letting it go, giving her mother back a bit of her own torture, because the phone calls were really about reassurance for her mother. Proof that Shannon was still in the world. That both of them were, actually. Then she thought it might be Ruth checking in or just calling out of restless-Ruth boredom, and she picked up without checking caller I.D.
“Your toilet work?” the Mess asked.
Groaning, Shannon sat down on the carpet, pulling her legs to her chest.
“How about your sink?”
“Oh, Mess. Tell me you remembered to leave the water running.”
Her smile felt easy, casual, not at all as though she were out of practice. And why should she be? She felt good tucked up in here, comfortable in cozy sweats and sweatshirt. Whatever else it did, the cold was acting as a buffer between herself and all actual and would-be tormentors.
The Messiah, she realized, hadn’t answered her question. She sighed. “Call the pipe guy, Mess. What’s his name, Mike? His number’s on the fridge.”
“Oh, I called Mike. He laughed at me, Shannon. Laughed at me.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask what you’re planning on doing about going to the bathroom. I don’t think the deep freeze is supposed to break for at least three more days.”
“Well, right now, I’m just kind of letting it pile up. In the toilets, I mean. Good thing we’ve got two. And it’s only my own in there, after all, since you’re gone. Maybe I’ll be able to—”
“Jesus Christ,” Shannon murmured, rubbing her eyes with her free hand. “The Mess, in full flower.”
“See? You’re the only woman I’ve ever met who can take my shit and make flowers.”
“All shit makes flowers if you know where to spread it.”
The Mess snorted. Then, abruptly, he cheered. “Hey! Shannon-Messiah banter. You’re grinning, I can hear it.”
“Well, I was,” Shannon murmured, and stopped.
Apparently, the Mess didn’t hear that. “Remind me again why we’re divorced?”
“So, so many reasons.”
“Give me one. Three. Give me three.”
“Because you like drinking so much more than writing.”
“You mean like 90 percent of the writers not named Shannon who ever lived? But okay, I’ll grant you that one.”
“Because you like softball even more than drinking.”
“I said reasons we’re divorced, not reasons you still love me.”
“Because you eat horrifically and are going to die young.”
“Let’s call that a half. So one and a half so far.”
Shannon hunched deeper into her sweatshirt. “How about you give me some?”
That question had its intended effect, at least: he shut up for a second. Several seconds. Too long, actually.
“Why? Why would I do that?”
“It might make you feel better.”
More silence, long and strange. She couldn’t even make out the automatic and perpetual Messiah finger-tapping at the other end of the line. Then, to her surprise, he said, “Okay.”
“Really? Finally? I mean…good?”
“One: you still talk to your mother—who hates me and almost everything else you love—at least four times a week.”
Without meaning to or even thinking about it, Shannon shot to her feet. She didn’t suck in breath, gasp, give anything away, she was pretty sure. But she should have known better than to divert the conversation in this direction or underestimate the Mess. Surely, four years of marriage to him should have taught her that.
He was waiting for her to confirm, she realized.
One, she felt herself mouth. But she couldn’t quite say it.
“Two: you pick your fingernails. Like, all the way down under the skin. I have watched the skin on your fingers ripple, you get so deep in there.”
Shannon let go of the breath she’d been holding. “You really want to go the personal hygiene angle? Do you?”
“Hmm. Okay. I retract that. Let’s try…Two: you prefer hiking with Ruth to watching me swat majestic home runs deep into the Bitterroot. Let alone, God forbid, joining my co-rec team, which I’ve asked you to do at least once a week since I met you, because joining my team would involve both playing on a team—so, so not your thing—and admitting that you actually kinda like sports. Which you do.”
“Point,” Shannon said immediately. All of that was true, and none of it bothered her. Maybe it should have, but…
“You really actually do like cauliflower more than chicken-fried steak.”
“If you live long enough, you’ll understand.”
“You not only won’t talk about what you’re writing with me, you won’t talk about writing, period. Not how you do it, not what’s driving you crazy, not sentences you’re proud of. Nothing.”
“That’s because talking about writing is boring.”
“Not with you.”
“Yes with me.”
“I’d talk to you about mine.”
“You’d have to write something first.”
“Low. Uncalled for.”
But he laughed. Was he liking this? Was she? In a way, but maybe a different way. What she liked was the possibility of still having these conversations in her life, going forward. Even Z had never given her this. Z supported, cheered, inspired, flitted off to his next project or friend who needed him. The Mess planted his feet and fenced.
“I’m just saying,” he told her, his mood finally sagging with the effort he was expending to prop it up. “It is never boring talking to you about anything. Even writing.”
“Except that by your own argument…how would you know?” Shannon murmured.
More quiet. She didn’t like it, so she filled it. “Whose point was that?”
“Let’s call it a let,” said the Mess. “First service.”
“Meaning my serve?”
“You go out of your way to aggravate everyone you meet. On purpose.”
“Oh yes, me.”
“And you’ll never admit it, Mess, but you admire me more than you love me. You always have.”
She hadn’t meant to say that or even think it, it just came out. She waited for him to deny, get furious, slam down the phone.
Instead, he said, “Yes. Okay. But I admire you a lot.”
The silence they shared then was the longest of the day, and this time, Shannon was reluctant to break it. But she had one more thing to say. It was going to hurt him even more. But it was a confession, not an attack.
“Me, too,” she said.
Of course, that was the moment, alone once more in his house with his own shit piling up around him, when he somehow became fully the Mess again. A complicated, brilliant guy well worth having tried marriage with, even if they had failed.
“I know,” he answered.
The tears that welled then made her want to throw the phone through the window, frozen air be damned. There was more to say, there had to be. Or maybe that’s what she was finally crying about: after four short and nowhere-near-terrible years, there just wasn’t.
Eventually, without one word more, the Mess hung up.