The Believer

celestial orbitBy Karla Fetrow

“We’re missing something,” said Catherine.  “We are not all we should be.  I know you’ve heard it before, but listen!  You know it’s the truth.  Deep down, you’re lacking; missing something.  Don’t you feel it?”

Angie’s cell phone rang.  “Wait a minute.”  She listened to the voice on the other end.  “Just calling to see how you were doing.  I’ll bet you haven’t even missed me.”

“Of course I have,” she assured the male speaker.

The voice picked up in energy and confidence.  “I want you to know I’m doing fine.  Just finished helping a friend work on his house.  I’m doing a contract job in Arizona for the rest of the winter.”

“It looks like things are looking up for you,” encouraged Angie.

“And they have.  Listen.  I know you don’t like to say a lot of sentimental stuff and get all sticky, but you should know I’m thinking of you, okay?  You don’t have to say anything, just know it.”

“That’s nice of you, Steven.”  She let him prattle on a few more minutes, never pausing once to ask what plans might be evolving inside her head.  She promised to think about him when she hung up.  When she closed the cell phone cover, she looked squarely at her companion.  “I’m not going back to him,” she said.

“Do you see?  That’s the void.  We’re talking about relationships here, and you’re afraid to reach out, open up.  You’ve closed yourself, Angie.  And it’s not just you.  I sit  in the coffee shop each day, watching the people coming in; coming out; and they’re all wrapped up, all closed within themselves.  They’ve gotten away from their true nature.”

“Which is what?”  Catherine floundered, so Angie prompted her.  “You said we’ve gotten away from our true nature, which is what?”

“Well, everyone knows what that means, I’m sure, or else we wouldn’t be trying to get back to it.  It’s our nature to want to form relationships and bonds.  You’re not getting any younger, Angie.  Do you want to spend the rest of your life alone?”

“Maybe I do. Is that bad?”

“Yes, it’s bad.  It isn’t healthy.  There’s a very good group that could help you get over your aversion.  You might even meet someone there if Steven has worked out.”

Angie held up her hand.  “Call me evil.  Everyone else does.  But the whole relationship thing hasn’t sat well with me.  Each time I become entangled, I suffocate.  You talk about something missing.  That’s what goes missing.  I don’t have enough room for myself.”

“Nobody is calling you evil here.  We all know that your basic problem is you take in too many stragglers.  You just don’t know how to say no.  You think you’re being kind, but what you’re really doing is allowing druggies to continue their habits by giving them a place to go and enabling those who don’t want to work to continue being bums. You don’t feel enough self worth.  You need to learn some tough love.”

“Catherine, people don’t bring their bad habits to my house.”

“It doesn’t matter.  They only go there to dry out, then they’re back on the street again.”

“Have you seen where they go?”

“They are vagrants.  How should I know where they go?  You’re better than that.  You don’t need that kind of traffic.”  Catherine paused a moment, tapping her red fingernails on the table. “You’re simply avoiding real life.”

“And my real life is about relationships which I’ve apparently failed miserably at.”

“Yes!  And why have you failed?”

“It was time to move on.”

“Wrong!  Because you were afraid, so afraid to give up something of yourself.  I think you’re basically selfish,” said Catherine.  “You won’t let go enough of your driven life to make commitments.”

Angie closed up, folding in on herself like the wings of a butterfly, while Catherine elaborated on the methods for improving her life.  “People will only be as interested in you as you are in them,” Catherine emphasized.  Angie tried to be interested.  With a great deal of effort, she pulled away from her internal thoughts and focused on the speaker.  But there was too much familiarity in the pep talk.  Too much emphasis placed on the things she should be doing to fill a vacancy that didn’t exist.  She didn’t lack people who wanted her to be interested in them; their needs, their desires, their ambitions.  She lacked people who were interested in her.

Outside, a thick fog blanketed the establishment, and she longed to be wandering in it.  She smiled as she waited for her friend to wind down, then made excuses for leaving.  It hadn’t always been like this, she told herself.  She had once believed in… what was the word?  Love, but now she floundered inside the definition.  Someone had told someone who told someone that love was pain, that it was supposed to hurt.  It lumbered about, awkward and butchered, slicing away at the parts that cared until there was nothing left but the piece that refuses to hurt anymore, the piece that closes up and refuses to respond.

“Yes, I suppose I’m selfish,” thought Angie.  “Because I want to survive.”

The fog swirled around her like an umbrella held out in front, distorting the view from other pedestrians.  You learned, after awhile, to be neutral.  They didn’t love you enough that way to hate you, to stab you.  You become swirling molecules of grey matter, barely distinguishable in a white crusted, cavorting air.  You slide and fold neatly below other barely remembered faces that you know you’ve talked to.

It was okay if you didn’t remember the way they looked.  They were only swirling clouds of grey matter, anyway.  You recognized them by what they represented, like the personalities that visited your dreams.  You don’t remember whether they had physical features, but you knew who they were.  You knew what they would say.  This person resembles that one who is also another because they all sound the same.

It’s what she called the collective pool.  On the surface, they appeared tranquil.  As long as you didn’t disturb the pool, they circled around each other in scheduled, orderly fashion.  Yet at the center of the pool was a vortex that drew you deeper and deeper in.  Then you heard it; the noise, the confusion, the anger, the vicious clawing at each other.  It wasn’t conscious will that propelled them; it was gravity.  It pulled them in to smaller and smaller, more vicious circles.  They saw no escape so they grasped at anything they saw as an anchor.

You had to be careful of them.  They pulled you down.  Once you cut loose of one of them, you had to let them all go, because they wouldn’t follow you to the outer edges, only bring you back to the center.  Hardly anyone went to the outer edges.

The weak lights bleeding through the fog, announcing a house or a passing car, grew further and further apart.  She lived at the edge of town, close enough to walk to its humble center, far enough way so that the houses were staggered and hidden behind trees and bends.  She lived alone, or not so alone.  People had passed in and out of her life.  Some had stayed awhile, then moved on.  Others returned again and again.  They needed her to be there, placid and accepting, giving them some place warm to rest, a listening ear.  It was all that was necessary for these outer edge people; a bit of companionship. She had discovered over the years it was all she needed.

The dirt drive leading to her house spread away from the side of the road and curled up in the dancing fog, barely allowing a glimmer of the small, cottage like structure.  As she turned into the drive, anxiety rose in her throat.  Steven had once pretended he was miles away, while waiting at her house for her return.  When she had seen his car parked in her driveway, her knees had gone weak.  She had wanted to be alone that night.  She had wanted to break away from the voices climbing steadily in her head, pulling her this way and that, all hanging out their shingles of belief.  She had only to believe them.  She had learned, over and over, that to listen to them was a mistake.

Steven was a mistake.  She had folded to the pressure.  “What’s wrong with Steven?”  Catherine had asked.  “He’s the kind of person you need; a loner just like you.  Together, you could fulfill each other.”

He hadn’t fulfilled her.  “We’re both adults,” said Steven.  “Let’s quit all these friendship games and get down to what we really want. I’m lonely, and I think you are, too.”  What he wanted had exhausted her.  What had once been a friendship now meant spending every moment with him absorbed in his desires.  There were no more long conversations, movies together, rock climbing expeditions.  There was only her body being played up and down like a piano, only response without passion, only touch without affection.

“Now you do the same for me,” he said, and she did, wondering about these gymnastics that served no useful purpose beyond an involuntary spasm.  “It was good, wasn’t it?”  He said, smiling afterward and putting on his clothes.  “There’s only one draw back in living alone, and we know how to take care of it, don’t we?”

It wasn’t good.  She sat up a long time, smoking cigarettes and looking out the window, once he was gone.  Something was missing.  The little piece inside her, folded up and fragile, had not been opened.  It had not been examined.  It had crunched smaller and smaller until she had been scarcely able to find it.

The yard was empty.  Only the porch light, glowing dimly in the crystallized air, announced the presence of a shelter.  She would be alone tonight in her never quite aloneness.  She entered the kitchen, flicking electric switches and putting on water for tea.  The quiet was blissful.  She sat in it a few minutes, clearing her head.  Her dog trotted over and nudged her for attention, and she patted it.  Satisfied with her reassuring touch, he laid down by her feet.  That’s all dogs ever needed, the close contact, the knowledge that you’re there and agreeable with their presence. They didn’t try to sweep you into their private worlds.

“And what kind of world would you offer, anyway?”  She asked aloud.  “One of keeping your nose buried in the soil and rummaging through garbage?”  The dog looked up at her, its silly eyes large, dark and adoring.   The dog didn’t question its rights to dig through garbage, but neither did it try and convince her that it was a sport she should participate in, nor did it object to her scoldings or putting things back in place.  It simply accepted because it was a dog.

The voices were chuckling.  “Isn’t that what you’ve tried?  Just rolling over and accepting?  Where has it gotten you?”

It had gotten her Steven.  An unfinished business that had to end.  They had all been wrong.  He hadn’t given her what she needed.  Something was still missing.

She hadn’t told Catherine, but her own nineteen year old daughter had once spent a three week stretch on Angie’s couch, strung out on cocaine.  The girl had alternated her time between laughing hysterically, watching the television, weeping and sleeping.  She was afraid to visit her mother.  Catherine’s tough love would have turned her away.  Once she had cleaned up a bit, she had gotten a department store job and moved in with a girl friend.  The girl hadn’t told her mother these things, and neither would Angie.  She folded the information in neatly around her so as not to disturb Catherine’s flawless, rapidly and tightly spinning world.

Angie sighed, put away the tea things and put down fresh water for the dog.  Lately, she had gotten into the habit of sitting straight up in bed long minutes after turning the lights out, waiting for the crowded collective of voices to subside.  She couldn’t be carried down with them, into their twisted dreams, their shunted lives; their meanness.   “Yes, I know they are all in my head,” she had assured the psychiatrist, but it didn’t stop them from coming night after night, continuing the conversations they had held with her earlier that day, leaving those impressions of personalities that told her these thoughts were not her own, but belonged to someone else.

Lately, she had been someone else.  The little piece, held still and quiet for so long, was awaking on its own.  It traveled outside her, catching far away voices she’d never met or imagined.  It was feeding a hunger of its own drawn from somewhere deep in her sub-conscious.  It was in the twilight between awake and slumbering that she heard them, just as she laid her head against the pillow, their voices neither loud nor insistent.  They drifted by her, dangling with the scents of the own lives, their own beliefs, their own experiences.  They spiraled away from the chattering cluster, telling her to look in the opposite direction where space continued its endless journey, the comets sputtered and flared and the stars peopled their own comedy and drama.

She might be alone, but she would not be lonely.  They were all out there; the believers; and miraculously seemed to recognize this piece of her wandering among them.  They brushed by gently, their journey taking them deeper and deeper into other dimensions.  As she tumbled into the deepest part of her dreams, before they became the confused and garbled encounter with morning’s memory, she found the second piece that fitted so well with hers.  The eyes that saw as she saw, the voice that echoed her own questions, the yearning for exactly the same path.  In those final moments, while dawn breathed, and the final dreams had played out their pathos and settled into forgetfulness, she united with her soul mate.

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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7 Comments on “The Believer”

  1. Karla this is bittersweet at its best. A very good use of the coffee shop. It reminded me of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”
    “Did they get you to trade
    Your heroes for ghosts?
    Hot ashes for trees?
    Hot air for a cool breeze?
    And cold comfort for change?
    Did you exchange
    A walk on part in the war,
    For a lead role in a cage?”

    The strength of those who chose a difference in path is rarely understood by others.

  2. Great job, K.

    You stated it was your most maddening piece, but I don’t know if I buy that. I think reaching so deeply into our own subconscious mind actives a self-deprecating perspective in which we view our own desires and nonsensical thoughts as the ravings of our insanity. But I think understanding those thoughts, scattershot though they are, is essential to understanding our hearts and human life in general.

    Funny, but years ago after ending a bad relationship I always wondered how someone could walk away from “happiness.” I could never fathom the notion and tried for a long time to get it. I think you explained it rather well. The defensiveness, the maturing and the progression beyond our rational mind allows us to distance ourselves from feelings and see a bigger picture. We don’t owe anyone an explanation for who we are. Nor does someone one’s vision of happiness, or worse yet, society’s happy visualization of happiness, translate to a single person’s paradise.

    What we see as completely comfortable is another person’s madness. It was a beautiful piece and as usual, the narrative is smooth and enough to be hypnotic. The language is nothing short of capilarious, yes a word I had to invent to adequately describe it. Like the best of Bob Dylan, you write language that is so dense it eventually expands and takes on new meanings according to the listener’s growing experience.

    One of your best works!

  3. Great short story – it really resonates with my own experiences (both in my family life as well as sex life) in dealing with other people who attempt to cram their own concept of “what’s missing” down my throat.

  4. Grainne, i knew there was a reason i liked Pink Floyd. Actually, a lot of reasons, which at times does lead me to the dark side of the moon. There is a part in all of us that wishes to be loved for who we are, not for the perception of others of who we should be. This is the part that often buries itself because it feels there is something missing.

    Mitch, i’ve struggled a lot with relationships. Not all were bad, and as you know, there was one with which i was very compatible. Because we were compatible, we were able to explore our external boundaries of happiness without undue conflict to each other. Happiness isn’t quite the same as pleasure. Pleasure is found in certain routines, like that early morning cup of coffee, from stimulation such as play activity or personal accomplishments. It’s short termed and is group classified with other moments of habitual associations with pleasure by our dopamine induced minds. Happiness is unplanned and sometimes unexpected. It creeps up on you at moments when pausing in a laugh, you realize this laughter was truly spontaneous and that warm glow you feel is happiness. It comes back to you on reflection when you target particular memories and acknowledge, they were some of the happiest times of your life.

    Christopher, i think many people don’t like to face up to what’s missing from their lives, which is why they are so quick to assure you of what is missing from your own. Collectively, we use mirrors of ourselves over the reflection of others to explain our own behaviors. A line on a television show struck me the other day (i think it was “House”; one of the only shows that can hold my attention span for longer than ten minutes. One of the characters said, “being afraid of commitments doesn’t necessarily mean you are a bad person. Those who hesitate are the ones who understand exactly what a commitment entails.” I saw this show two days after i had published my short story and was very happy to see the two messages agreed.

  5. Karlsie,

    I’m not necissarily “afraid” of commitments, I just fail to see all that much need for them – I personally live a promiscuous lifestyle, so I can acquire the only benefit of a monogamous relationship that has any appeal to me (satisfying a base animal instinct on a recreational basis) with none of the baggage of a “commited” relationship. As the old proverb says “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

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