Sunday, May 29, 2016

"The Seven Seductions" (Chapter 7) by TAS

Chapter 7
(link to Chapter 6 here)

It was sometime around the middle of March, near winter’s end, when the prodigal daughter at last returned to St. Adalgar. A dirty, half-melted snow lay in speckled patches here and there across the thawing landscape where the deep ruts of tractor tires were etched into the muddy brown soil. The late-afternnon light was fading when Dawn knocked on the kitchen door at the back of the house.
      She stood, waiting there docilely, shivering in a long, drab lady’s coat that must have come from a St. Vincent’s store in the city. It had been fashionable once, and warm, years before Dawn was born, though the warmth had long since been worn out of it. The old coat might even have seemed a size or two too large when she pulled it off the rack, smelling of mothballs, its two-dollar asking price nearly all she had managed to scrape together that morning—“and that kind of money doesn’t buy style.” Yet now the shabby garment was growing tight around her middle, cruelly betraying the bulging curve of her belly.
      “Dawn!” Gretchen had seen her sister from the upstairs window and came racing down the stairs. “Dawn!”
      “No you don’t!” Harold stood in front of the door, blocking the younger daughter’s path. “You’re not letting that . . . into my house!”
      “But Papa!”
      Dawn knocked again, more insistently.
      “I don’t care if it’s God Almighty!” Harold shoved Gretchen to the floor. “Didn’t you hear me? I said no! There’s been enough disobedience in this house for a lifetime, and I’m good and sick of it. Now, go back upstairs and get your homework done.There won’t be any supper tonight. Get going—and don’t make me have to tell you again!”
      “Yes sir.” Gretchen began to back away, still in a sitting position, pulling herself slowly towards the stairs.         
      “Papa, please, let me in!” Dawn begged. “Can’t I just come in and talk to you for a while?”
      “Go away!” Harold shook his finger through the window, mouthing the words again as if in silent echo. “Do you hear me? You’re not wanted here. You’re not welcome.”
      “Dawn!” Gretchen had come through the front door and around the side of the house. “You’re home! You’re home!” The girls came together in a riot of hugs and tears, melting in each other’s arms, their weeping full of joyful agony and bitter grief. 
      “No!” Harold stepped out onto the back porch. “I won’t have her here! Not under my roof! Not after what she’s done!”
      “Papa, please,” Gretchen cried. “Please! For me?”
      “No!” Harold sputtered, the sound somewhere between nervous laughter and a broken sob stifled on his lips. He held himself tightly, arms folded across his chest as if to keep himself from flying apart.
      “Papa,” Dawn cried, “I’m going to have a baby.”    
      “No shit! And whose the damn father?”
      “I . . . I don’t know.”
      “Now there’s a big surprise,” Harold barked sarcastically. “You run off like the ungrateful little tramp you’ve always been, thinkin’ it’s gonna be all fun and games till you get yourself in trouble—”
      “I didn’t just get myself this way . . . Please, Papa!”
      “Then you come crying to me, thinkin’ I’m gonna let some filthy little slut waltz back under my roof like nothing ever happened? Like I’m supposed to suddenly forget the shame you’ve brought on us—on this family, on this parish—”
      “What about your grandchild?” Dawn bowed her head and laid a hand on her stomach.
      Harold spat.
“That bastard’s nothing of mine. You’re nothing of mine. Now get off my property before I have the sheriff run you off.”
      He stepped inside and locked the door.
      “Daddy! Please!” Dawn dropped to her knees, bawling uncontrollably.
Harold lowered the shade.
“Please, Papa!” Gretchen pleaded, throwing her arms around her sister’s heaving shoulders, holding on tightly, feeling the waves of despair that racked her body.
Their father had already turned his back on the two of them, moving quickly to bolt the front door.
“Papa?” Gretchen was suddenly unsure of where she stood. Was she still welcome in the house, or banished outside with Dawn? Yet, for the time being, she knew where she would choose to be.
The girls huddled together in the barn, waiting out their father’s wrath, hoping he would relent before the evening’s cold turned bitter. Dawn told her story to pass the time, a fairytale without a happy ending, in which the handsome prince abandons the gullible young princess within days of sweeping her off her feet. Rolando had left her without a single word of warning, stranding her high and dry with the gang’s unpaid bill at a diner near the freight yards on the outskirts of Lincoln. He was back in Mexico now with the wife and kids he had had all along, while Dawn had been forced to work off her faithless lover’s debt by washing dishes in the diner’s greasy, crowded kitchen. “So much for happily ever after.”
That night the fry cook had offered her a bag of stale buns and a leftover slice of pie in exchange for doing certain things with her hands and mouth, groping around in the restroom, fumbling, rubbing, tickling through unzipped flies, his thing against hers. She’d done it, not ungratefully, quickly learning that there was a fast, mostly painless way to make her life more comfortable, bartering her body for whatever she needed, a small favor for a place to spend the night, a bigger one for something more permanent.   
She waited the counter for tips because it was a good way to meet men and they were always interested in the off-menu items she recommended. A travelng salesman ordered peanut butter pie to go, then drove her to a motel and made a video of what they did together, with a hundred dollars for her trouble and a promise to tell all his friends.
The men from the railroad and the trucking companies came and went until they all began to look alike, doing their sordid, sweaty business on her body without a kind word or a second thought,  as if she were something disposable, too soiled or used up to trouble with afterwards. Dawn did not complain when they came on her face or between her breasts, or urinated over her swelling belly, or spent their transcient lusts into her mouth, so long as they were gone once it was done—so long as she could afford to eat another day.
Dougie, the short-order cook, treated her like a roach in his kitchen, and Dawn told herself it was what she deserved. He forced her up against the counter and had his way with her after closing time at the end of that first week. And later, in the backroom, whenever the mood struck him, he would take her, standing straight up and fully clothed behind her with her naked limbs splayed out against the wall in a pornographic caricature of crucifixion, the ugly nail of his penis driven painfully into her dry holes.
He pimped her out and she dutifully gave him his cut. He scoffed at her and slapped her around when she came home empty-handed and Dawn told herself it was her cross to bear. He drank too much and raged at her, threatning to put her out on the street like the worthless piece of trash she knew she was. In three months she had been beaten up and robbed, threatened at knifepoint, stiffed and cheated and, once, nearly raped when she refused to go with a fat old trucker who smelled like spoiled cheese.
“I honestly don’t know who the father is,” she confessed. “Could be Rolando’s from the first couple days or Dougie’s from right after that—or maybe the guy from the motel. Only God knows.”
 “What’s going to happen, now?” Gretchen asked.
“I suppose I’ll have to find a place until the baby comes.”
“I wish you could stay with me.”
“Me too,” Dawn said.
“Can I . . . Could I . . . feel the baby?”
“Sure.” It was a familiar ritual in St. Adalgar where at any given time, there would be at least one woman far gone with child, usually two or three. Dawn took her sister’s hand and guided it to her belly. “Meet your little niece or nephew.”
“Hello!” Gretchen cooed. “It’s nice to meet you, little one.”
“That’s the sweetest thing I’ve heard anybody say in . . .” Dawn choked up again.
Gretchen was in awe. Though the experience was nothing new, she had never thought about it all too deeply. Yet, here it was, pulsing beneath her palm, this warm, inarticulate mass of forbidden love, conjured from flesh and fire. She tried to imagine what Dawn’s lover had been like and how he had left his seed inside her womb, as if the ugly, swelling head of his penis had been magically transformed, slowly growing into the head of the perfect little person now waiting to emerge into the light, complete with eyes and ears, tiny nose and mouth.
“They’re going to put me away somewhere,” Dawn sniffed. “Some place where nobody will see me when it’s time. They’ll make me have it and then they’ll take it away from me as soon as it’s born. I’ll never get to hold it, or feed it, or know what color its eyes are, or even if it’s a boy or a girl. Some stranger will name it and raise it, and it will grow up never knowing that I even existed.”
“Shhh,” Gretchen petted her sister’s head soothingly. “The only thing that matters is that you’re back, home with me right now, and that you’re safe . . .”
Or was she? Gretchen wondered. If all life is sacred, then why do we despise it when it isn’t brought into the world just so? How can so much beauty come of something supposedly so lowdown, so filthy and disgusting? Must this sweet, innocent baby be born only to bear its mother’s disgrace forever? And Dawn herself, carrying this child to term like a good Catholic slut, enduring her pennance—her nine-month walk of shame— only to be treated like a criminal by her own family for the rest of her life . . .
Headlights swept across the yard, and a cab door slammed loudly. In a moment, a tall, square jawed woman stood in the barn door.
“He said you’d be in here.” She looked from one girl to the other. “I suppose you’re cold and hungry?”
Dawn stepped forward.
“Aunt Phyllis?”
 “Whore!” The woman slapped her, hard across the face. “Hope you’re happy with yourself.”
“What are you going to do to me?” Dawn whimpered. “What did I ever do to make you hate me so much?”
“I’m taking you over to Rose’s place,” Phyllis said curtly. “The both of you. Lord knows I didn’t want to be dragged into the middle of this—sure as hell not at this time of night. You girls’ll stay with Rose until Harold cools off—or Hell freezes over. How could either of you have been so damned dumb?”
Phyllis did not speak as she drove them into town, but Gretchen could feel her aunt’s smoldering fury every time the woman slammed on the brakes, so violently that the pickup seemed to rear up like a rowdy bucking-horse.

      Rose-Linda was Gretchen’s favorite aunt out of the dozens she seemed to have, though the two had never gotten to know each other very well. “A bad influence” Harold called her, the big-city-educated Cassandra of the family who no one ever listened to, though far too loyal to say “I told you so” when they inevitably turned to her in a crisis.
      Her given name was Roselinde, but everybody knew her as Rose-Linda, or, most of the time, simply Rose. She had been the seventh of ten children, born a year after the the twins, Harold and Phyllis, but  as different from her closest siblings as it was possible to imagine. In her own way, Rose was just as level-headed and practical as Phyllis, but without the sharp edges or, some said, the toughness, equally as blunt and to the point when the need arose, but never unkind. Where Harold could be bullheaded, dour and distant, Rose-Linda was thoughtful, soft-spoken and accepting, with an open mind, a gentle demeanor and a sweet voice that always felt to Gretchen like a warm hug.
Beyond that, the niece was aware of a few basic facts about her aunt, which had long since become part of family lore and legend. Years ago, Rose had gone off to Denver to study nursing. Now she worked at the Rural Health Clinic about seventy-five miles down the road—a short commute in that part of the world. She had been married once, to an outsider no less, a handsome young man on his way to a war from which he would never return. They recited their vows, almost on a whim, in front of a justice of the peace before a brief weekend’s honeymoon in the mountains—“living in sin” the folks back home had called it when she sent them a postcard by way of announcement, for marriage outside the Church was simply unthinkable.
 Gary, the husband she barely knew, had died along with so many others, in the jungles of Vietnam less than a year after the wedding. Rose never re-married, only reluctantly returning to St. Adalgar to care for her grandparents when no one else wanted the job. She had inherited the big comfortable house in town after they passed, much to the rest of the family’s jealous disapproval. 

      Phyllis deposited the girls in her sisters living room. The parlor had the feel of a cluttered antique shop specializing in Ausslander family history, with tall, curved-glass curio cabinets full of ancient photographs and gaily colored ceramic knickknacks from the old country. A Persian-style rug blanketed the floor  between the hulking grandfather clock and the ornately-framed crystal mirror that had been carried across the prairie to St. Adalgar in a covered wagon over a century before.
      “How’s Harold holding up?” Rose asked.
      Phyllis only grunted in response, throwing one last dirty look in Dawn’s direction before stalking out the door.
      “Don’t worry, honey.” Rose-Linda pulled Dawn into a crushing mama-bear hug. “We’ll out-stubborn her and your papa. Things will be alright.”
      “She slapped me. She . . . called me a whore!” Dawn was close to tears again.
      “Your Aunt Phyllis has always taken your papa’s side,” Rose explained. “Maybe that’s what comes of being the older one, even if she’s only older by two-and-a-half minutes. Phyllis has always been protective of him, never mind that he’s dead wrong about this.
      “Now let’s get you girls something to eat, a bath and some nice fresh clothes for Dawny. After that a good night’s sleep’ll be just the ticket, I think.”

      Later, after Dawn had begun to snore, Rose-Linda sat down beside Gretchen on the love seat in the parlor.
 “The baby’ll be fine.” Her tone was reassuring. “Us Ausslander women have broad hips and strong wombs. We’ve always been a fairly nice-looking bunch, good little workers, stubborn as the men a lot of the time, tough when we need to be, and . . .”
“What?” Gretchen asked.
“Oh, never mind, sweetie. It’s not important—”
“No, what were you going to say?”
Rose-Linda gave her a serious look.
“Well, just between you and me, kiddo, there’s something else about the women in our family. You’ve probably already started figuring it out. Maybe you could call it a blessing—the men who marry us usually do—but for some, like your sister, it’s just as surely a curse.
“You mean—”  Oh, God! Does she know about The Nameless One?
“I guess the only way to tell you is to come right out and say it.” Rose-Linda’s eyes twinkled. “We like sex, and we like it . . . a lot. Most of us can’t get enough of it—that’s why we almost always outlive our husbands.” She laughed. “Some of us can barely think about anything else.”
“Uh huh?” So I’m not so different after all.
“The family’s always denied it, of course. But they still try to marry off the girls as young as they can and make sure they have as many kids as possible right out of the gate—as if that’ll get it out of their system.”
“Does it?”
“Not likely, kiddo. It’s a part of you and it never goes away. Sometimes it even gets stronger as you get older. My oma—that would be your Großgroß, great grandma Vogel—lived for over thirty years after going through the change of life, and there were times it would still nearly drive her crazy—not to mention poor opa.”
 “Really?” Will it drive me crazy, too?
“Men are afraid of it—afraid of us,” Rose-Linda said. “They’re scared of anything they can’t control, but sex scares them like nothing else. That’s why they try so hard to keep us in our place, because we have a power over them they can’t resist. And for a woman to be—what’s that word?—hypersexual; it’s like a man’s sweetest dream and his scariest nightmare come true at the same time.”
Live as you will—grow up as fate intends—for you shall know my suffering in your own flesh. Desire shall drive you like the wind, even as your own remorse consumes you.
“Listen to me, Gretchen,” Rose-Linda broke into her thoughts. “There’s another thing people have used to keep the lid on us poor over-sexed womenfolk. Years ago a family like ours would pick and choose one of the girls—maybe even before she was born—to become a nun. It was her destiny from Day One, her own special sacred duty to her family and to the Church, and she had no say in the matter. When she was old enough, they’d pack her off to the sisters and that would be that.”
“But what if she didn’t want to go?”
“She had no choice, honey. None whatsoever.  A girl could fight tooth and nail, kicking and screaming all the way to the front door of the convent, but once she was inside, it was like being in prison for life with no possibility of parole. She was stuck.”
“Didn’t some of them try to run away?”
“Dear Lord, yes,” Rose-Linda gulped. “Once, when I was a little girl, much younger than you are now, our neighbors decided to send their middle daughter to the sisters. (This would’ve been back in the early 1950s.) She kept begging and pleading with them, crying and swearing, ‘Please! Don’t make me do this! I don’t want to do this! I can’t do this! I won’t do this! I’ll kill myself if you make me do this.’ But there was no reasoning with them and they sent her anyway. You can probably guess how that ended. Six weeks after they put her on the train, she came back home to them . . . in a pine box.”
“Oh!” Buried in that terrible place outside the fence, next to Mama and baby brother.
“Shhhh.” Rose-Linda seemed to read her thoughts. “Lay your head on my shoulder, sweetie. I’ve missed you girls so much . . .”
“Aunt Rose? Did you know my mama?”
“Of course, sweetheart. We were in the same class at school together. Cathy and I were pretty good friends.”
“What was she like?”
“She was pretty—one of the prettiest May Queens St. Adalgar’s ever had. But she was nice, too, not stuck up like some girls who know they’re pretty. Cathy never had a hard word for anybody, or a mean thing to say behind their back—you couldn’t gossip with her to save your life. That didn’t stop Phyllis and some of the other girls from being jealous of her. They called her The Witch—"
"What?" The pyres are lit and I can already feel the flames of Hell . . .
"—because she had green eyes, and nobody else around here had ever seen eyes that color. That's how it started, anyway. Later on, Phyllis actually started believing that Cathy used some kind of black magic to charm Harold—" 
 “Uh huh . . .”.
"I just put it down to Phyllis and her friends being immature and kind of stupid—but you never heard that from me, OK?"
"Sure, Aunt Rose."
“Anyway, it was kind of strange when Cathy started going with Harold. They were as different as day and night, and a lot of folks thought they weren’t well suited to each other. But that didn’t seem to stop them. She brought out a part of him that nobody else had ever seen. He was fun to be around whenever she was with him. He’d smile and laugh and joke, and he wouldn’t always automatically take Phyllis’ side in things—which is another reason Phyllis never liked her very much. 
“See, sweetie, all Cathy ever wanted was to marry your papa, be a good wife, help out around the farm and have a dozen of his kids. Turns out she was lucky to have you two girls. There was a problem with the lining of her uterus and very few pregnancies actually took. The ones that did were tough, and there was always a possibility of something going terribly wrong.”
“Were you surprised when she—”
“When she died? Yes. And maybe it’s not my place to say so, honey, but I’ve always thought she was driven to it. Somebody or something got to her that day . . .”
. . . or something . . .
“Your papa’s been worried about you ever since, even if he doesn’t know how to show it. He does care about you girls in his own funny way.”
“I want to believe that,” Gretchen whispered. “But today, the things he said to Dawn . . . it’s hard.”
“He’s afraid, the way men are always afraid, remember? This whole thing with Dawny running away, it was like a bad dream he’s had for years finally coming true, and he blames himself for letting it happen. Truth is, he’s been near his wit’s end ever since Cathy did what she did, and this nearly put him over the edge. Not that we haven’t all tried to help out, but the man is just so damned stubborn! His pride won’t allow for anything that looks like charity or interference—even if it’s for his own good.”
“I guess that sounds about right,” Gretchen said.
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you all this, honey,” Rose-Linda bowed her head and kissed her niece on the forehead. “But just now things have started to change. Your papa’s admitted to us that he can’t raise you the way he thinks you ought to be raised. I think what he means is that he’s afraid he can’t keep you safe any more—can’t just lock you up in your room at night and hope nothing bad will happen. He sees that now, after what’s happened with Dawny, and he doesn’t want the same thing happening with you.”
“So, what are you telling me, Aunt Rose?”
“He’s thinking about sending you away.”
“As far away from here as possible,” Rose-Linda said. “He wants to put you in a convent.”

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review of "Phantom: The Immortal" by Mitzi Szereto and Ashley Lister

Phantom:The Immortal is a slick piece of light erotic entertainment, playing out with a certain pulpish predictability, yet competently crafted and consistently enjoyable—beach readers take note! Mitzi Szereto and Ashley Lister’s stylishly steamy homage to The Phantom of the Opera at last brings the sexy essence of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 Gothic potboiler overtly to the surface in a way no other previous adaptation has dared—and it’s about damned time, too!

There have been so many versions of this story over the last hundred years: from the 1925 silent-film classic with Lon Chaney Sr. to the 1943 Claude Rains vehicle, and the 1962 Hammer films production, not to mention that giant, cloying, sugary “musical” detumescence of Andrew Lloyd What-the-Fu—sorry, I just threw up in my mouth.

All these versions treat the heroine as a kind of damsel in distress, a virginally un-self-aware airhead to be menaced by the Phantom and rescued by the handsome hero. And, one has to admit, titillation—far more than redemption—has always been a big part of this story’s appeal, the seething undercurrent of sex, bubbling sluggishly just beneath the action, calls to something in the deep subbasement of our psyche. We want—whether we’re willing to admit it or not—to see Beauty stripped naked before the horny Beast; we want—oh please!—to see Julie Adams carried off to the lung-man’s lair beneath the Black Lagoon to be shown how it’s done, her screams of terror turning to cries of salacious delight; and we really really want Christine to toss aside all that prissy vestal-virgin-on-a-pedestal pretense, and get jiggy with the Phantom. At least in this latter instance, readers can at last be satisfied.

She found herself staring at his lips. She wished she could lean forward over the table to catch them between her own, drawing them into her mouth and tasting the wine on his tongue. She wondered how they would feel against her skin, where he would kiss her, and if he would kiss her in that special place she most wanted to be kissed. She imagined him parting her thighs, his breath a hot mist against her folds.

Classic grand opera—what we automatically imagine when we think of opera—is, in essence, a ritual of elaborately sublimated eroticism. Sex is always—always—the dark singularity around which the story takes shape, from Massanet’s Thaïs and Bizet’s Carmen to Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde all the way to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to Berg’s Wozzeck and Hindemith’s explicit, hyper-erotic Sancta Susana. Gounod’s Faust, is certainly no exception, grand opera at its most grandiose, chastity is not one of its virtues; Faust’s satanically-assisted seduction of the pure Marguerite is central to the whole vast elaborate undertaking, and it was not by chance that Leroux (and, by extension, Szereto and Lister) employed Faust as the scaffolded superstructure of their story.

Phantom: The Immortal mines the melodrama of the source material for all it’s worth, yet never strays too far from its more down-to-earth erotic ambitions:

“This is how you make me feel. That’s what I’m trying to show you.”

He considered the remark and decided it was too obscure. Shaking his head, taking another sip from the brandy glass and drawing briefly on the cigar, he mumbled an apology. “I am sorry. I do not understand the connection.”

“You’re enjoying your favorite pleasures: the cognac and an Oscuro, yes?”


“You’re sexually excited, aren’t you?”

“I am pleased you noticed.”

When she next spoke, he could hear the delighted blush that colored her voice. “You’re enjoying those pleasures that make your life special. You’re enjoying the ultimate stimulation of your senses and your spirit, yet you’re still sitting in the dark.”

Understanding dawned on him, but, drawing again on the cigar, he said nothing.

She darted her tongue against the swollen dome of his glans. The teasing touch was so insubstantial it could have sprung from his imagination, but the gossamer lull of her breath told him it had come from a more substantial source. . .

Good, light, frothy, sexy diversion, not particularly deep or thought-provoking, this may yet open up a few long-locked synapses and set off a tingle or two. Recommended.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

"The Seven Seductions" (Chapter 6) by TAS

Chapter 6
(link to Chapter 5)

Still blank. Mary Chastity stared at the new page in the typewriter, begging, praying, bargaining with herself, with God, or with anyone who would listen, willing words to appear somehow, whether by miracle or magic, divine intervention, or some new undiscovered power of telekinesis. But the page was not the problem. The words simply were not there in her mind, let alone her heart. She had been sitting at the desk as if in a trance, waiting for inspiration, and it had stubbornly refused to come.
      She closed her eyes and took a deep cleansing breath, and another, in through the nose, out through the mouth, sweeping the cobwebs out of her head, making room for new, fresh thoughts. What if she were to type the first thing that came into her mind, regardless of what it might be? Could that, possibly—just possibly— help to get things going? She held her breath as her fingers began to dance over the keys:

Chaz could feel his strong arms around her like heavy bands of blazing steel. He leaned down and looked into her eyes, and all that she could see was her own deep desire reflected there. He kissed her forehead, chastely, but it was enough to take her breath away. And when his lips at last found hers, Chaz knew that she was lost. Then, slowly, he began to undress her, and she could only whisper “yes!”

“No!” Sister Mary Chastity stood up from the desk. “Enough of this! I’ve got to get this garbage out of my system or nothing’s ever going to get done. I’m going to see him this morning. I’m going to talk to him. And no,” she spoke to no one in particular, “I don’t care what you say . . .”

She wandered down towards the shore. A cool breeze blew in off the lake, teasing the hem of her jumper, exposing knees and calves. She kept a tight grip on the brim of her sun hat, lest the wind carry it away like a kite. At that moment she might have been a young girl in a Kate Greenway illustration. 
The water had taken on a dull silver sheen under the midmorning sun. She could hear the faraway whine of a motorboat—or maybe a chainsaw—somewhere off to the south. Things were quieting down now. It was early August and most of the summer people had already been and gone, getting their vacations in before school started.
The rocky bank was high and steep leading down to the dock. Old trees leaned out over the water, their branches like praying hands, shading the cozy horseshoe inlet where the young people liked to swim in the afternoon. Long ago, someone had hewn out a rustic staircase for the bather’s convenience, its unnaturally straight lines and angles formed a dignified interruption in the terrain. The lapping waves had eroded it some, the rough steps worn and bowed by generations of passing feet, the stone green and slimy with age.
      The young man was sitting in the shade near the dock with a sketchbook.
      “Hi,” he said.
“Kind of breezy today. Got some white caps out on the water.”
      “Uh . . . ja . . . looks like it.”
      “I’ve seen you around,” he said. “You’re staying at the Russo’s cabin?"
      “Lou and Connie’s, that’s right. They’ve lent me the use of it for a few months while they’re in Europe. I’m working on my—on a book.” She added this last fact rather timidly, as if apologizing.
      “Cool,” he said. “I’m at my folks’ place.”
      “Oh, your family’s here on vacation?”
      “No, it’s just me and my cousin this summer.”
      “Only the two of you?”
      “Well, to tell the truth, he spends most of his time with his girlfriends next door at the big house. I barely ever see him, which is OK.”
      “Don’t the two of you get along?
      “No, we’re cool. He just needs to socialize more, and I’m trying to get some work done.”
      “For school?”
      “No way,” he laughed. “I’m working on a graphic novel—what some people might refer to as a comic book.”
      “I know,” she said. “Sounds interesting.”
      “Hope so. Got a contract with a small publisher, but there’s a deadline, and I’ll be heading to Madison this fall, so . . . gotta get it done before then, no choice.”
      “Sophomore. Transfer from a little private college in Iowa, the same one my folks went to back in the ‘60s. Hated it—me, not them. There's no social life whatsoever.”
      “Sounds tough.”
      “Not academically. But what’s the point of going to college if you can’t meet women?”
“Hmm.” She ignored the question. “To me, reading graphic novels and comics is like trying to watch a movie with lots of subtitles. Sort of hard to take in all at once.”
      “How so?” he asked.
      “I don’t know . . . you keep taking your eyes off the action because of the need to read the text, and your mind can only deal with one thing at a time.”  
      “Whoa! You’ve really thought about it.”
      “A little, I suppose,” she said.
      “Hey, I’m Magic—I mean, that’s what my friends call me.”
      “I’m uh . . . . I mean, my friends call me . . . Chaz.”
      “I like it. So what’s your book about, Chaz?”
      “It’s . . . well, it’s . . .” she hesitated. “It’s . . . not going too well right now. Writer’s block, I think.”
      “Sounds like you could use a break,” Magic said. “Wanna go for a swim? Last one out to the raft’s a rotten egg and all that.”
      “Oh . . . I don’t think so—”
      “You burn easy?”
      “No, it’s not that—”
      “Because I’ve got some sun block you could use. SPF 50 and it smells sort of like coconut cream pie—”
      “No, that’s alright. Thanks anyway.”
      “Well, if you change your mind—”
      “No . . . thanks—”
      “—you know where I live now.” He nodded towards the stately cluster of hip-roofed gray-stone cottages peeking out above the nearby trees.
      “I should be going,” she said.
      “See you around, then, I hope—and Chaz?”
      “As an avowed skeptic of the graphic novel form, would you consider it beneath your dignity to peruse a sample of my work were I to show it to you sometime?”
      “Oh!” The suggestion, not to mention the way in which it had been articulated, was completely unexpected and it took a second for Sister Mary Chastity to process the fact that it pleased her. “Oh, not at all. By all means, prove me wrong. Bye now.”
      "Later, Chaz.” The boy watched as she made her way back up the path.  He turned over a fresh sheet in his sketchbook and began to draw. A few deft strokes of the pencil and she appeared on the page, frozen in time, a young woman somewhere in her twenties, wearing a dark jumper over a simple white blouse, clutching the wide brim of a Catalina hat with her right hand, looking pensively back over her left shoulder as she walked away.

And what had she been thinking? Lying to the boy when he asked her name?
      “It wasn’t a lie. My friends do call me—oh, alright, my students—the ones who don’t like me—call me Chaz  . . . behind my back—”
      But would it have been so hard to say I’m Sister Mary Chastity of the Order of the Daughters of the Divine Magisterium?
      “It is quite a mouthful.”
      And why that name? Why Chaz? Why not Gretchen? Still a lie of omission, but it would have been closer to the truth. Why not—
      “Why not Little Pearl? Why not Pippy Longstockings? I don’t know. It just popped out.”
      Lying does not become you, sister.
      “OK, you’re right. I thought about it beforehand and I chose consciously not to tell him who I was. It was just a name that came into my head when I was goofing around with that story—”
      And what about that story, sister?What could you possibly be thinking?
      “It was only a harmless bit of fun,  just a way to get myself into a more creative frame of mind, like stretching before a race. What’s so wrong about that?”
      Are you ashamed?
      “Of what?”
      Of who you are. Of what you are.
      “All this because I told a stranger—who, by the way, I don’t intend to see again—a little white fib about my name? Look; something held me back, OK? I don’t know what.”
      I think you do.
      “Please, just shut up and leave me alone.”
      What was it?
      “You sure you want to know?”
      I already know, but I want to hear you say it—or think it as the case may be.
      “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
      Excuse me?
      “You heard me. I want out.”
      Out? You mean . . .  of the order?
      “I’ve had it. I’m tired of pretending to be cheerful and kind and tirelessly attentive, and always interested in whatever people have to say no matter how inane or stupid or inappropriate it might be. Sometimes it’s all I can do not to scream, or throw up, or both . . .
“I am so sick of feeling guilty about the littlest things, of constantly being reminded of how bad and wretched and inadequate we all are until I begin to hate myself because so much doubt has been cast on my potential. If life is such a gift, why do we waste it in fear and disgust, crushing our spirits, stamping out joy, denying ourselves even the simplest of pleasures? And where does all that self-denial really get us? Not closer to God. Just hungrier, hornier, and a hell of lot more resentful.”
      She covered her mouth reflexively, surprised by the words that had tumbled out with such ease. “It’s just that . . . I get it now—I understand. I see why so many of the older sisters are so bitter and mean, and I don’t want to end up like them. I won’t let myself be like them.
      “And if I wasn’t completely forthcoming with the boy, well, for once I’d like to have a real grownup conversation with somebody who doesn’t feel the need to censor himself around me because he’s prejudiced by what I am. Is that asking too much?”
      That depends. Why do you want to talk to this particular boy?
      “Why not?”
      That’s not an answer and you know it. The truth has something to do with the reason you decided to stick with the order all those years ago, doesn’t it? The thing you discovered about yourself, the thing that scared you—that still scares you. And we both know what that is—
      “Don’t say it.”
      And now you think that leaving the order is going to make it all better? That all your conflict and doubt is suddenly going to vanish?
      “At least it would be my choice!”  Sister Mary Chastity buried her head in her hands. “I didn’t have one when I joined—remember? It was more like, ‘what mode of execution would the prisoner prefer?’ The slow lingering death of an old maid locked up in my father’s attic, or an illusion of purpose, buried alive with a bunch of bitter old women who would never fully accept me? I’d say it was the least undesirable of the two or three incredibly cruel options I’d been handed. And I admit, yes, it was a way to escape having to deal with all the things I hated about my life, the troubles with Papa and with Dawn, and then the thing that happened with Pig—”
      What else? Be honest, sister.
      “I don’t know,” she sighed, “so many things—”
      The loneliness, the isolation, the fear of rejection, lack of self-esteem. Your need to belong and feel safe from an insensitive world. This nagging sense you’ve always had that you can’t do anything right and have nothing genuine to offer anyone.
      “Yes, all that, but . . . now, with what’s happened—with Pig, with Dawn—I feel like I’m losing my faith almost the same way I seem to be losing people. For the first time in my life it’s not working, and I don’t know . . .”
      What are you saying?
      “I don’t know if I still believe in God anymore. Or the Church . . . or anything. And that scares me like nothing ever has, because I’ve never ‘not believed.’ My life hasn’t given me any sort of context for this. I don’t know how to process doubt. And the worst thing is—”
      Sister Mary Chastity gulped back a bitter sob.         
“I’m not sure I know how to change.”