FROM DAVID SCHICKLER’S MEMOIR THE DARK PATH
Privately I’m still fairly sure that next spring I’ll join the Jesuits and become a priest. But last month when I confided my plans to Father Tillermacher, my Jesuit spiritual advisor, he gave me a hug and then squeezed my ass for several seconds past what might’ve been an acceptable football field butt slap from coach to player. I haven’t spoken to him since. I’m trying to pretend it didn’t happen.
It is September and I’m in my second, final year in the Columbia University MFA writing program. To earn extra money I’ve gotten a job as a writing tutor in the Learning Center. On my first day I work with an Israeli exchange student, then I check the sign-up sheet. Written in my next time slot is the name Melvin Duggles. I look around.
“Is there a Melvin Duggles?”
“Psst,” hisses a voice. “Over here.”
The two large ficus plants in the corner are whispering to me. I approach and see a human figure crouched behind them.
He emerges from behind the plants. He has bulging, froggy eyes and greasy black hair, and he wears a hooded gray sweatshirt with a flamingo on it. The sweatshirt is covered with coffee stains. Melvin has a picked-last-on-the-playground air about him.
I think, Be priestly, Schickler. Help the greater assembly. Help Melvin. We sit at a table and Melvin shows me a paragraph he’s working on for his English class. His assignment is to describe a room and a person entering it, and he’s been told to “set a mood via description.” As I read, Melvin watches me intently.
“I like you,” he says. “Looks-wise, you have a real Mel Gibson thing going on.”
His paragraph is single-spaced in caps and bold type. It reads:
THE MAN WALKED DOWN INTOO THE BASEMINT, WHICH WAS DRAK AND DICKENSIAN. ALSO THERE WAS A BAT IN BASEMINT AND THE BAT WAS ALSO DICKENSIAN. THE MAN DINT HAVE A NAME BUT HE WAS DICKENSIAN. PHANTASMAGORIA. THE MAN DINT LIKE THE BAT, ‘AH’ YELLED MAN, HE STEPPED ON BAT, THE BASEMINT WAS IN WALES.
My first ungenerous thought is to wonder how the hell Melvin ever got into Columbia. It turns out that he’s a gifted math major, but he needs to pass English Logic and Rhetoric to graduate and he failed it last year. I try to ignore his scent. He smells half soapy and half sour, like a hospital floor scrubbed with too weak a detergent. Get past it, I tell myself. Help the community.
“Let’s talk about diction, Melvin,” I say. “You’re trying to set a spooky mood in this piece, but-”
“You’re right!” Melvin crows. “Halloween is coming up and I want this essay to be creepy. And Dickensian.”
“Okay. But ironically ‘Dickensian’ isn’t a very Dickensian word. For example…which word sounds more powerful to you, ‘stab’ or ‘violent’?”
Melvin blinks at me with his owlish eyes. “You’re saying the guy should just stab the bat instead of stepping on it?”
“What? No. It’s just…you’re trying to write a dark piece, but ‘phantasmagoria’, for example, isn’t a dark-feeling word. It’s scientific-sounding.”
Melvin crosses out a sentence on his paper and writes over it. “I’m just gonna do what you said and put in lots of stabbing.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“No, you’re right,” says Melvin. “Life is violent. I’ll tap into that.”
Maybe Melvin read my subconscious, because violence has been on my mind since Father Tillermacher’s Ass Grab. I’ve always been skinny, but suddenly I feel defenseless. And increasingly pissed. I love God but no one gets to just grab me. In the
TV show Kung Fu, which I watched as kid, Caine is a contemplative monk but he’s also a lethal mofo. I decide that I’ll be like him.
I start taking Shotokan karate in the Teacher’s College gym two nights a week.
Wearing a gi – a karate robe – I learn punches, kicks and blocks, and I do hundreds of push-ups on my knuckles. My knuckles hurt all the time from this, but I can feel the bones in them getting denser, stronger.
One Monday night after karate I trudge to my apartment building on 121st Street.
My place is on the ground floor and through its open front windows I can see into my living room, where a crowd is having a party with my apartment mate, a Mormon law student named Tom Gumm. The university housing board threw us together.
I enter the apartment, go to the kitchen, get out my favorite stein and fill it with two bottles worth of New Amsterdam beer. Then I head for the living room.
“Hi,” I call to the group. I lift my stein in greeting and take a big swallow.
Everyone turns and stares at me and my beverage. It turns out that this isn’t a party, but a Mormon tradition called Family Home Evening. It’s a time for strengthening bonds of Christian love (with no alcohol allowed, I soon learn).
I talk with three Mormon girls in a corner, all of whom are openly hot for Tom.
“Tom took me to see Bob Roberts last Saturday,” says one.
A second girl says, “Tom took me out for soul food in Harlem.”
The third girl, Lurlene, is a hotel concierge and she alone seems uncomfortable discussing Tom, with whom she’ll soon have her first date.
“Isn’t it hard for you all to like the same guy?” I ask.
“Well,” says the Bob Roberts girl, “a true union can’t be based on jealousy.
You’ll learn that, David, if you ever experience true intimacy.”
I stare into my beer and think of my long lost college girlfriend.
A guy sidles up to me. “Bro…you look upset. Mind if I give you something?”
He pulls from his pocket a Book of Mormon and presses it into my palm. “Just think about reading it someday and, for now, enjoy your alcohol.”
“Okay,” I say.
I stash the Book of Mormon in my boxer shorts drawer, feeling it would be rude
to throw it out and misleading to display it. Then I go to the fridge for more beer.
Soon Tom Gumm begins exclusively dating Lurlene the Mormon concierge.
They often come back from dates holding hands and cooing to each other.
One evening Tom and I are in midtown and we stop in to see Lurlene at the hotel.
She introduces me to another woman concierge there, Sabine, who is a couple years older than us and not Mormon. Sabine is funky hot, with long black braided hair and she’s a slender six feet tall. She and Lurlene wear matching pink vest-and-skirt uniforms.
Standing tall in her shiny pink get-up, Sabine looks like every gilded female archetype – the Prom Queen, the Blushing Bride – that I’ll soon have to leave behind for celibacy. Her cheeks glow each time she smiles.
I get her phone number. Back at my apartment I tell myself that it’s okay to call her.
Maybe I’m inspired by Tom and Lurlene’s romance. Maybe I want to punish Father Tillermacher. I’ll still be a priest soon, Father G, I think, but since you acted out and squeezed my ass, I get to act out and squeeze Just One Last Girl before I’m a Jesuit.
I go out with Sabine on Halloween night. She lives in Queens with her aunt and uncle and she takes the subway into Manhattan to meet me. She wears tight black clothes and has a giant shoulder bag with her. She asks me to take her to see the horror flick Candyman. After the film we go to the Abbey Pub on West 105th.
“That movie was so freaking great!” she says. We’re at a table in a murky corner under a stained-glass window, drinking beer. There’s a lit candle between us and melted wax all over the table.
“I loved the decapitated Rottweiler!” gushes Sabine. “I loved the bees crawling out of the killer’s mouth!” Under the table, she’s rubbing her bare foot against my inner thigh. She nods her head with the music that’s playing. “I love this song! I freaking love Primus. Also Anthrax and Megadeth.”
“Okay,” I say.
She leans across the table and kisses my mouth. Her hair is out of its braids and one of her long tresses brushes the candle and catches fire. Flame races up as if along a wick and I slap my hand hard against her head, snuffing the flame. She sits back in shock, and we look at the puff of smoke beside her. The air smells burnt.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you. I thought it would spread.”
Her mouth hangs open in joy. “Don’t apologize. That was so sexy! Right when I kissed you, I caught on freaking fire! Are you kidding me?!”
“I really didn’t mean to hit you.”
Her eyes signal that she wants to be taken home, fast. We catch a cab to my apartment. Tom Gumm and Lurlene are watching TV in the living room, along with a Mormon whom Tom calls Sad Dog because the guy never has dates. (Sad Dog has given me six separate Books of Mormon so far, and they are all in my boxer shorts drawer).
Sabine says quick hellos, then pulls me into my bedroom and locks the door.
“David, I am so totally horny for you right now. I can’t believe I caught on fire.
And you took charge when I was in trouble. You hit me really hard.”
“I feel awful about that.”
“I’m saying I liked it, David. And if it happens again, I’ll like it again.”
I have no idea what to do with that comment. I wanted her to appreciate my manly karate knuckles, but she is taking things up a notch. She unbuttons her top, and taps her foot against her overnight bag. “Guess what I brought?”
I panic, picturing leather bondage items, possibly given to her by members of
Megadeth. “I don’t know.”
“It’s something you’ll like.” She pulls from her bag her pink concierge vest and skirt. “I’ll put these on now. I’m not coy, like some girls. I’m kinky. Way kinky.”
“Sure,” I say. “Um, yes. Me too.”
“Yeah?” She drops what she’s holding and slaps my face, hard. “Well then, how’s that, bitch?” She gives me a wild grin. Maybe this is standard concierge behavior. Or maybe it’s the true intimacy that Mormon girl mentioned.
“Oh, fine,” I tell Sabine. “That’s just fine.”
On nights when I don’t have karate class, I practice it at the apartment. After moving the furniture aside in the living room, I spend hours punching and kicking. I have upended a spare bed mattress and placed it against the wall as an opponent. My favorite kick is the spinning back roundhouse. I do it best when I stand on my left leg, wheel around on it and strike the mattress with my right heel.
Executing this kick thrills me. I practice it nonstop, somehow needing to. I start carrying the kick in me everywhere, the will of it. Something fraught is bubbling up in me, gathering to a boil. When I work on the novel I’ve been workshopping, I try to write my way into this fraught place. Or to draw from it.
I get good enough at the kick that I tear big holes in the mattress. Sometimes, when I get the kick just right, the mattress is Father Tillermacher’s face.
I have kept up tutoring Melvin at the Learning Center. But his hygiene gets worse with each passing month. He wears the same coffee-stained flamingo sweatshirt to every session and he smells like a gutter. The fact that he never speaks to others makes me think that he is friendless and lonely. So I try to help him.
In February Melvin comes to me with what he says is his most important English paper of the year. The topic is “Seminal Moments in Narrative” and each student has been assigned a novel as a source. Melvin has been assigned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He sits across from me at our table watching me read his essay.
“It’s my best essay yet, right? It focuses on a violent act, which you told me is a smart thing to focus on… right?”
I am having a hard time concentrating. The stench coming off Melvin today is putrid, revolting. He smells literally like a latrine.
His Huck Finn essay begins:
HUCK FINN THE BOOK HAS SEMINAL MOMINTS, LIKE WHEN HUCK FINN. THE CHARACTER. RIPS UP THE LETTER TO MIS WATSON THAT WOULD CRIMINATE JIM. THE NEGRO SLAVE, HIS FRIEND. HUCK SAYS “THEN I’LL GO TO HELL!” AND RIPS UP LETTER AND IT’S SEMINAL, WHICH MEANS HUCK IS EXCITED. HE IS ENGORGED AND HIS JUICES ARE FLOWING.
I stop reading. “Melvin, you can’t submit this to your teacher. Huck Finn is never engorged. His juices are never flowing.”
“Sure they are. They must be! This is a seminal scene, this letter-ripping business. My teacher said it was seminal.”
“It’s seminal because it’s a turning point. But it’s not a sex scene.”
Melvin’s face is livid. “I worked really hard on this. And a scene can’t be seminal without being sexual. ‘Seminal’ is from ‘semen.’”
He wrenches the paper away from me and stomps outside. I follow him and find him on the building’s front steps. He is holding his paper and glaring at it.
“I can’t fail again,” he says.
“You can edit it,” I say gently. “I’ll help you. You can fix it.”
“You fix it.” He pulls out a rolled wad of cash, holds it toward me. “There. It’s like two hundred bucks. Take it and rewrite my paper for me. Come on, we’ll sit here and you can riff about Huck and I’ll write it all down. It’ll work and I’ll pass.”
I stare at the money. I’m broke and I could use it.
“That’s unethical, Melvin.” I inhale only through my mouth. His stench is enough to make me vomit. “And I’m very sorry to say this, but you also…really smell.”
He shrugs matter-of-factly. “Yeah. Sometimes I don’t wear it. It’s a pain.”
“Sometimes you don’t wear what?”
“My colostomy bag. It’s not fair that I have to have it on all the time, so sometimes I just go without.”
I look at him in shock. The stains on his sweatshirt make a new, awful sense.
“You need help, Melvin,” I say.
He scowls and jabs my chest hard with the money wad. “What, all of a sudden you’re better than me?”
I bat his arm aside. I’ve suddenly had enough of him, of the eleven Books of Mormon in my underwear drawer, of the priest in my head.
“If you poke me again,” I say, “we might have a problem.”
His face crumbles and saddens, like he’ll cry. Pocketing his cash, he runs off, and I feel sick, sick, sick to my stomach.
“Melvin, wait,” I call, too late. He rounds a corner and is gone.