2010 summer fiction perplexedconscience

by Daniel Sullivan

Benny has been awake in bed for a of couple hours. He is on his side turned away from Anne. A dull light comes in through the tapestry he's draped over the window. Dust particles float around in the light. Beside him, she lays on her back wearing eye covers. She didn't wear them when she first started sleeping in his room. The first few times she had complained about the sunlight and how she couldn't sleep. She was used to sleeping on the other side of the house. Benny eventually conceded and fixed a tapestry over the window.

Outside a car door slams. Benny starts, but realizes it is too early for Nathan to be home. He never arrives from Worcester before ten a.m., and it couldn't be after seven. Nathan is Anne's boyfriend and Benny's housemate.

They had begun sleeping together about four months ago. Nathan often spent nights away in Worcester doing archival research for his dissertation. On those nights Benny and Anne would meet. They'd do dinner, movies, and shows. At first Benny had no problem sleeping through the night with her.

Anne turns toward him and drapes her arm over his bare shoulder. "Look me in the eyes," she says. He rolls over and looks at her black eye covers.

"I can't see your eyes.

"Do you think I'm beautiful Benny? Be cruel, I need to know the truth."

"Yeah." He gently lifts her arm off his body like he is removing a hair from his soup.

She rolls onto her back. Benny glances at her body. The sheet comes midway up her stomach and her breasts lay parted to the sides of her chest. He feels nauseous.

Outside car doors continue to slam and children are yelling. Mass is about to begin at St. Christopher's. Benny stands from the bed and walks to the window. He pulls the tapestry aside and sits on the sill. The church is at the end of the block. The priest is standing at the entrance greeting people as they file in. Benny thinks of his mother.

When he joined the ROTC his sophomore year at Cal State San Marcos his mother demanded he request the chaplaincy when he graduated. "You're too sensitive," she said, "you'll get PTSD."

More recently he has considered joining the priesthood. Father Benny, he'd be called. The closet thing on earth to God. Priests, he believes, have the fortune of existing in a bubble. They are protected by their holiness, which is enough to keep the whole world at arm's length.

As he looks down at the priest in his purple Easter cassock he half-feels he has missed an opportunity. No responsibility really, just some empty handshakes a few times a week and some scripted services. The only thing that he'd have to worry about is the homily, but he could probably get those online somewhere.

He imagines himself sitting in the confessional, wearing his wrinkled vestments and offering the sacrament of penance to anyone who comes in. "Listen," he might say casually, "Just don't do it again." This, though, is likely another one of his many escape fantasies.

He had one the other week when he was walking to work and saw a garbage truck stopped at a traffic light. He felt a sense of buoyancy as he watched the men hanging off the back of the truck. He had a feeling like he had just discovered the answer to an impossible riddle. All he'd have to do was collect the garbage and throw it into the truck, he thought. After twenty-five years or so he could retire and get a nice pension. When he got home that afternoon he had brought it up with Anne who told him to go see a therapist.

Outside the 9 O'clock church bells begin to chime. Anne sits up in bed and removes her eye covers. "I can't sleep with that light coming in. And those horrible bells." She leans over to the nightstand and takes a cigarette from of his pack.

Benny looks at her from the window. "Since when do you smoke?"

"You dunderhead. I've been smoking since I was sixteen." She leans back onto the pillow and blows perfect smoke rings into the air to prove it. Benny looks back at the priest. He is standing to the side of the steps. Parishioners walk by him as if he isn't there.

* * *

His mother had insisted for nearly two years and in the end he submitted. When the time came for post-graduate military placements he reluctantly chose the chaplaincy. Two months later, though, he was dive-bombing out of airplanes thousands of feet above the earth's surface and everything on it, training with the airborne infantry in Phoenix. He had, however, during his brief time with the chaplaincy, grown fascinated with his readings in moral theology. He was struck to find, for instance, that there was a way after all to answer every one of life's difficult questions.

* * *

"Get over it Benny. Come back to bed," Anne says. He turns to her. Her back is hunched forward while she looks at her hands and pulls at her cuticles. Her breasts dangle like torpedoes over the bed sheet. The cigarette hangs from her lips. "I'm waiting, come get me," she says with her eyes cast down inspecting her fingers. Benny stands from the sill and sits beside her. He watches as she plucks away bits of skin.

"Would you do my nails if I asked you to, Benny?" she says.

"Are you asking me to?"

"Play along for me," she says and regards him. She often asks him to play along with her ridiculous propositions. It's a way for her to get him to say yes to anything. It doesn't seem to matter that it never goes beyond the game. She takes a drag from the pipe and blows the smoke in his face.

Benny closes his eyes and says, "I would do your nails if you asked me to. But I hope you won't." He stands and walks to the bookshelf at the end of the bed and fingers through the volumes.

"Would you rather do my nails than sleep with me?"

He ignores her and pulls a book from the shelf.

"Remember that time I snuck in from Nathan's room? You didn't hesitate then." She stops picking at her cuticles and looks at him. "You're a pretty noble guy."

She crawls to the end of the bed and sits on the edge beside him. With her index finger she draws a circle on his belly. "Give it up Benny, it's too late. Don't make me talk dirty, I don't want to do that, you know I will." He lays the book down and looks at her hair. It is bleached and wispy and dark roots emerge from her skull. She wraps her legs around his waist and pulls him to her.

"Don't make me fucking hurt you," she says.

He lets his weight fall down on her. He lays his head on her chest. He keeps his head there. Her chest is soft and warm. It swells up and down. He feels her body relax beneath him. She wraps her arms around him. Her warmth makes him tired.

"Good boy, Benny," she says. "Sleep, you need to sleep. You're too stressed. Your job is too much. You can't even sleep you're so tired. Poor guy."

* * *

Benny takes a beer from the refrigerator and sits at the table. Anne stands beside him and runs her fingers through his hair. Outside it has begun to rain. In the distance they hear the faint crackle of thunder. "I need too many things," she says.

Benny cracks the tab of the can. "Like what?" he asks, and swallows a mouthful of beer.

She walks to the closet. "For starters, I need a makeover," she says while sorting through the hangers. "Did I tell you I'm getting my hair done? I'm bringing back the bob. Remember, like the girls in the 1920s? I'm sick of these curls." She pulls her jacket from the hanger and slides into it.

"I don't know about that," Benny says.

"You seem to want something new." Anne zips her jacket and opens the door. She turns to him. "I'll see you tonight," she says. She stands with her hand on the doorknob. He takes a sip of his beer and looks out the window. The rain is pitter-pattering on the roof.

"I'll see you tonight." He finishes the beer.

* * *

Outside it has begun to pour. Benny sits on the porch drinking a beer. He looks at his watch. It is quarter to ten. Nathan will arrive any minute. He will hustle in from the rain and say, "Benny, good to be home." Then Nathan will walk into his bedroom across the hall from Benny's. From his room he might yell, "How was last night, you treat my girlfriend OK? Anne said you two went for dinner." Nathan will emerge from his room with his raincoat on and say, "I'm glad you two didn't miss me too much then." Then they will walk down to the square for coffee. They will catch up. Nathan will discuss his dissertation work and Benny will listen. Benny will then complain about his job and Nathan will listen. If the weather clears they will stroll through the college campus. Or maybe go for a walk along the river. Then they might go used book shopping at the Salvation Army, get ingredients at the market, and have Anne over to the apartment for dinner. And Benny will do well in acting like nothing's happened.

***

Benny thinks he hears Nathan's car approaching. He looks into the street. There is no one. He stands with his hand resting on the banister. Overhead lightning flashes and seconds later thunder echoes. Down the street people begin running out of the church. The rain thickens and beats down on the pavement. It falls in torrents. Water flows down the road and the gutter begins to spew a mess of mud and leaves. More lightning flashes. Its thunder explodes. Benny walks down the steps from beneath the covered porch and into the road. Water flows into his sneakers and soaks his hair, his clothes. His head is down and the rain falls in sheets over him. Lightening strikes near the church. Benny turns and thinks of baptism. He lets it rain down.

About the Author

Daniel Sullivan is a therapist and graduate student in clinical psychology. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

322 Review publishes provocative emerging and established artists. Conceived and operated by former Rowan University graduate students of the Master of Arts in Writing Program, 322 Review is aggressively seeking the best fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and mixed media works of visual art.