If We Speak as Men, If We Speak as Angels
short fiction — the third draft of a story in-progress
In 1985, Paul and Gabriel were freshman at St. Cataldo University in Spokane.
Paul was from Thompson, Washington, a small community near the Canadian border north of Spokane. Surrounded by the Colville National Forest, Thompson was the county seat, home to over 2,000 people—98% of them white. Among the few non-white residents were Colville Indians from the reservation across the Columbia River who’d married white Thompsonites. And there were Mexicans who’d come to work the forests, fields, and gold mines. And there was a Japanese woman who’d met and married a white soldier back while he was stationed on Okinawa. After he retired, he’d moved her back to Thompson, his hometown, and she’d served one term as mayor in the 1970s. There were two bars and four churches. One of the restaurants was open only on the weekends, the second was a pasta-pizza joint, and the third was the favorite haunt of the all-day coffee drinkers who used to work in the mines. Those ancient men spent their hours claiming they’d found baseball- and basketball-sized gold nuggets in the mountains but had been contractually forced to give them to the big bosses.
I woulda been rich if I’d kept it, they’d say. Shoulda snuck it out under my shirt like a belly tumor and sold it to the Russian Mafia in Seattle. But I woulda stayed in Thompson no matter how rich I got. You know how it is. Born here, die here. Only thing different about me having money woulda been the size of my coffin.
Even in their most grandiose fantasies, Thompsonites are buried only two blocks away from their childhood homes.
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Thompson had been a mining and logging boomtown, lucrative enough to support two railroad lines. But, in 1985, those tracks hadn’t hauled anything in more than seventy years. They had become just a sad reminder of Thompson’s original abundance. Some townspeople still dreamed about finding the gold motherlode. But only a few small mines were still operating and the timber companies were terminally ill. The county hospital was the biggest employer. The state and federal government maintained a small and stable workforce. There was a dependable if modest tourist economy from the bikers, hikers, fishers, and hunters. But nearly half of Thompsonites lived below the poverty line and more than half of the school kids received free lunch.
Paul’s father was the town cop and his mother was the high school principal. Their combined incomes made them royalty in Thompson. And their commitment to the town made them a cherished king and queen. They’d moved to Thompson on purpose. The oft-told joke had it they were newlyweds who’d gotten lost on their way to Calgary, stopped in Thompson to get directions, and never left again—with the self-deprecating punchline being, “Even Thompson is better than a Canadian honeymoon.”
Because his parents had extra money, Paul always carried a few dollar bills in his pockets. Sometimes, he surreptitiously gave money to poor kids so they could publicly buy their lunch, especially on Taco Tuesday. They got to enjoy a half-hour of small public privilege. Paul tried to be modest about his generosity. He didn’t want to be the Saint of Little Milk Cartons. He just wanted to be kind.
Paul was five years old when he first announced that he was going to move away from Thompson. His friends had nicknamed him National Geographic because he always talked about traveling the world. They called him Nat Geo for short. Or just Nat. His parents had seen enough of the United States to know they wanted to live in a small town, but Paul was collecting maps of other countries and continents before he even knew how to measure speed and distance. He studied hard, earned good grades, scored high on the SAT, and got into St. Cataldo on a full academic scholarship.
And he chose St. Cataldo University, a Jesuit institution, even though he wasn’t religious. It was just the best university that was the closest to Thompson. Paul wanted to travel the world but he needed to start with a small trek. He was still an astronaut tethered to his hometown. And he was an astronaut who didn’t believe in God, though he kept that information to himself during his years in Thompson. Nobody can object to a silent atheist.
Gabriel grew up in a house with picture windows on Seattle’s Lake Washington. His parents worked for different law firms because they wanted their marriage to endure. They were serious Catholics so divorce wasn’t an option anyway, especially for lawyers who thought it would be even more sinful to use their legal skills to obtain any annulment. Gabriel was their only child, and thus was the sole participant in his parents’ academic obstacle course. They’d escaped childhood poverty through compulsive scholarship so they demanded their son, even as privileged as he was, follow the same path. But, oddly enough, they never expected or required him to attend church. They were rabid about education and compassionate about religion. When it came to God and theology, Gabriel’s choices were his own. By the time he was twelve and beginning to forcefully assert himself as an individual, he’d decided to his parents’ relief and joy that he was going to be a decidely reverent Catholic. He wrote a mission statement and read it aloud to his parents: “Dear Mother, Dear Father, I reject the idea of being a casual American Catholic checking in with God only on Easter and Christmas. I have therefore chosen to become a literalist. From now on, I shall believe in transubstantiation. Through my faith, I know that the bread and wine are absolutely the blood and flesh of Christ.”
At St. Cataldo, he was one of the twenty or thirty students who, by intense family obligation or personal devotion, attended Mass every Sunday in the university chapel on the top floor of the old administration building. Over the generations, the college’s Jesuit priests had watched the students’ faith fade and nearly vanish, partly due to church corruption and crime, and partly due to the advancing secularization of the United States. Somehow, steadfast Catholics had become an endangered species at a Catholic university. So the Jesuits were especially grateful for the students who were as dedicated as Gabriel was.
In 1985, there were no algorithms that paired dorm roommates so Gabriel and Paul ended up together because they’d both listed The Grapes of Wrath as their favorite book and Apocalypse Now as their favorite movie. Those were unusual choices for high school kids and made them an easy match by the residential administrator. Gabriel and Paul were strangers on that first day of college but their lifelong friendship began on their third night as roommates when Paul woke screaming from a nightmare.
“Are you okay?” Gabriel asked in the dark.
“I’m sorry,” Paul said. “I get nightmares sometimes.”
He was ashamed and disappointed. Only little kids were supposed to have night terrors. And only little kids were supposed to wet their beds. He’d hoped that his regular nightmares and resultant bedwetting would stop the moment he started college. And he had stayed dry for the first two nights. But his underwear and sheets were now soaked with urine. He hoped that Gabriel couldn’t smell it. In order to keep his affliction a secret, Paul knew he’d have to sleep in the mess he’d made. Gabriel had an 8 a.m. class the next morning but Paul’s first class wasn’t until 10. So Paul would stay in bed until Gabriel left and then privately shower himself and launder his sheets.
“I have nightmares, too,” Gabriel said. “Bad ones. Really bad. I murder somebody.”
“Who do you kill?” Paul asked.
Gabriel took a deep breath and exhaled. He had the thought that his breath, if visible, might look like a skinny demon being exorcised.
“You sure you want to know?” he said. “It’s pretty freaky.”
“It’s okay. Tell me.”
“In my worst nightmares, I murder Jesus.”
“Whoa. I thought you were Catholic.”
“Well,” Gabriel said. “My nightmare is kinda Catholic.”
“My Mom thinks Catholics are space aliens.”
“That sounds about right. You know what else?”
“What?” Paul asked.
“After I kill Jesus, I eat him.”
“Yeah, I go cannibal on the Messiah.”
Gabriel knew he’d said too much. He’d been too literal. He wondered how soon it would take Paul to find a new roommate.
“I shouldn’t have told you that,” Gabriel said.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Paul said. “I’m just thinking, you know, because you’re a cannibal, I should stop using BBQ sauce as shampoo.”
They both laughed. Gabriel was relieved. He’d revealed something dark about himself and Paul hadn’t judged him.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Paul asked. “Then we’ll be even.”
“When I have nightmares, I usually wet my bed.”
Paul anxiously waited for the response.
“Is your bed wet now?” Gabriel asked.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anybody. You can clean up. I won’t watch.”
“Thanks, I will in a minute,” Paul said. “Can I say something else?”
“You don’t have to,” Gabriel said.
“I want to.”
“Go ahead, then.”
“I have these adult diapers I wear when I sleep,” Paul said. “But I haven’t been wearing them since I moved in. I was hoping it would stop once I got to college. I thought I’d be normal.”
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child,” Gabriel said. “I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
“What’s that from?” Paul asked.
“The Holy Bible. Corinthians.”
“Well, yeah,” Paul said. He was hurt. “I guess I’m still sorta childish.”
“No, I’m sorry,” Gabriel said. “That’s not what I meant. It’s just—this is hard to say aloud–but I think the Bible is sometimes wrong. I don’t think anybody ever puts away their childhood.”
“Wow, you’re disagreeing with the Bible.”
“If you take faith seriously then you have to ask serious questions.”
They didn’t say anything more that night. But they each silently recognized the vulnerability and courage of the other. There were only eighteen. They were still children indeed. They’d only known each other for eighty-six hours but they’d already shared something they’d never told anybody else. If they’d been asked, Gabriel would’ve said it was God who brought them together and Paul would’ve said it was good luck.
Gabriel had the only personal phone on the wing—a landline that was the most important technology in the dorm. There were community phones that accepted any incoming calls but you could only make outgoing calls to local numbers. So Gabriel charged his wingmates to use his phone for any long distance calls. His parents paid the bill so it was all profit for him. One dollar for three minutes if you were calling your friends or family back home. Two dollars if you were calling your long distance girlfriend. People in love were always willing to pay more, though Gabriel waived the fee when the call ended in a breakup. He liked to think he was a generous romantic. He gave 20% of the money he earned—a double tithe—to the church each Sunday. He also thought of himself as a literary Catholic. Every book, though far less holy than the Bible, was sacred to him. He was in a English 101 study group with a girl named Linda. They read the famous poem about the red wheelbarrow in the rain. Gabriel didn’t understand it. Nothing seemed to happen. There was no story. But Linda said, “It’s like the poem is a camera taking a picture.” Gabriel was stunned by her insight. It was the beginning of his love for her.
Gabriel also owned the only TV on the wing. A little color thing with unpredictable reception. It was almost exclusively used to watch The David Letterman Show and Saturday Night Live. But, in January, 1986, he was watching in the morning when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. He was alone at first but then Paul and ten or twelve boys crowded into their room to watch. They were young and dumb but nobody was young and dumb enough to make a joke. They allowed themselves to silently, seriously, and collectively grieve. And, soon enough, a few other boys and girls from other wings arrived to watch. Gabriel barely looked at the other kids. He was transfixed by the epic disaster. He knew it was the first time in his life that he’d witnessed something historic, a tragedy that he’d never forget. He thought he might cry when they showed a photograph of Christa McAuliffe, the woman who was supposed to be the first schoolteacher in space.
Then Gabriel heard sobbing. For a moment, he thought it was somebody on the television. Perhaps an astronaut’s spouse or parents. Or, most tragically, a child. But Gabriel realized that somebody was crying in his dorm room. He turned away from the TV and saw that it was Linda, his poetry study partner. Gabriel was surprised to see that she was weeping into Paul’s chest. How had Gabriel missed the beginning of that relationship? Had they been hiding it from him? How could he have missed the signs? Gabriel saw Paul kiss the top of Linda’s head. Damn, damn, damn. Gabriel was angry but he didn’t feel that he deserved his anger. It was vanity more than anything else. He was the tall and handsome one while Paul was short and plain with bad skin. Gabriel appeared to be the one who’d win any courtship battle. But he’d never declared his affection for Linda. Not to her and not to anybody else. Neither Paul nor Linda had betrayed him. But Gabriel suffered as he watched Linda wrap her arms around Paul’s waist—their skin separated only by a thin cotton shirt. Gabriel immediately recognized that his two friends had already been physically, emotionally, and spiritually intimate. It was an intimacy that would last for decades.
Gabriel knew he’d remember that day for two disasters and for two kinds of grief. He whispered a prayer for the Challenger. He whispered a prayer for himself. He whispered a prayer for Linda and Paul.
Then Gabriel turned back to the television as a reporter said, “In 1967, we lost three astronauts to a fire during a launch rehearsal, but this is the very first time we’ve lost astronauts during a real flight.”
During their sophomore and junior years at St. Cataldo, Paul went to Mass with Gabriel a few times.
On a certain Sunday, Paul asked, “Why are you okay with me being an atheist?”
“Because you’re good to people,” Gabriel said. “Because you see what’s beautiful about the world. And you see what’s terrible.”
“How come you never try to change my mind about religion?”
“I’m not Evangelical. People are called to God or they’re not.”
“But why don’t you try to get me closer to God?”
“Who says I don’t try?”
Gabriel enrolled in a creative writing class during his senior year at St. Cataldo. He decided that he’d write his own psalms. Or something close to psalms. But he also took the class so he could sit next to Linda, who was widely recognized as the best student poet. Maybe even better than some of the poetry professors. It was an odd distinction—the best poet on campus. Linda enjoyed the tiny glamour. And she was a good tutor. She helped other students write their best poems. But Gabriel, despite his hard work and editorial advice from Linda, wrote only one poem that he liked:
In this love triangle the opposite side is barely there. It’s written in pencil and she can erase it anytime she dares.
“That’s you, Gabe,” Linda remarked after that class. “You’re the opposite side. That has to be you, right? But who’s the girl? It’s Margaret, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said. He lied. “It’s Margaret.”
Everybody knew the story about Margaret and Gabriel. They’d been part of a group of St. Cataldo students who’d sneaked into a huge abandoned building that had once been a mental hospital. It was said the ghosts were made of screams.
“I’m scared,” Margaret said to Gabriel as they lagged behind the others.
A few minutes later, they were making out in a small room. A few minutes after that, one of the other kids stepped around the corner and shined a flashlight on them.
He and Margaret’s clothes were in a tender disarray. Buttons were unbuttoned. Zippers were unzipped. But no real sin had been committed. Gabriel brought it up in the confessional but even the priest shrugged it off.
“You’re a young man in college,” Father Neal said. “Your passions will sometimes overwhelm you. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your emotions or your body. You just need to be more careful about your choices.”
“But that’s not it,” Gabriel said. “I’m ashamed because I don’t love Margaret. The whole time I was kissing her, I was thinking about another girl.”
Eleven years later, Gabriel and Margaret bumped into each other at SeaTac Airport. They were both running late for their flights. After hurried pleasantries and a hug, Margaret asked, “How come you never kissed me again after the first time you kissed me?”
Gabriel took a step back. He felt a heat that he couldn’t put a name to.
“I don’t know why I didn’t kiss you again,” he said to Margaret. “I just thought I should be polite.”
“Polite,” she said. “Oh, Gabriel, I’ve never been that Catholic.“
She laughed and sprinted for her gate. Gabriel missed his flight and had to take the next one three hours later.
At their thirtieth college reunion in Spokane, which also happened to fall on the same day as Paul and Linda’s twenty-eighth wedding anniversary, Paul drank
so much that he’d passed out in the driver’s seat of his Prius. Linda, just three beers dizzy, had already taken away the keys. There would be no drinking and driving.
Gabriel was sober as he sat in the small backseat. Dang, he thought, I wish there was more room.
“He’s an alcoholic,” Linda said.
“What?” asked Gabriel.
“Paul,” she said. “He’s an alcoholic. He’s been to rehab twice.”
Gabriel was surprised by that news. And hurt. Sure, he lived in Seattle, over three hundred miles away from Paul, but they’d emailed, texted, or phoned on a weekly basis for years. Gabriel tried and failed to remember when he’d been out of contact with his best friend for twenty-eight straight days, the standard length of rehab.
“I don’t understand,” Gabriel said to Linda. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“Because of shame like the Northern Lights burning in the dark,” she said.
Ah, thought Gabriel, she’s still a poet.
“I didn’t know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“He hasn’t been the same since his parents died,” she said. “He keeps a folding chair in the trunk.”
Gabriel wondered why a drunk would need a folding chair.
“He goes to the cemetery late nights,” Linda said. “It’s his ritual. He sets up his chair. Sits at his parents’ graves. And drinks.”
Paul’s father had died of a heart attack ten years earlier. And his mother died of cancer two years after that. Gabriel still went to Sunday Mass with his parents and had dinner with them afterwards. He knew he was fortunate. His elderly parents were remarkably healthy. Gabriel didn’t literally believe that faith healed you but he loved the poetry of the thought. He didn’t know how it felt to grieve like Paul.
“His parents have been gone for a while,” Gabriel said and immediately regretted it. He knew he sounded cruel.
“He gets drunk on his grief, too,” she said. “People see him. They know what’s going on. He’s gonna lose his job.”
Paul taught American Studies at the high school. He’d originated that course of study. At first, the school board was somewhat suspicious. They’d never heard of American Studies. But he stressed to them that he’d be teaching American literature and American history. In his classes, the kids of Thompson would focus on the United States. He confessed that he’d teach his students about American failures but he also pledged that he’d teach them about American heroism. It would be patriotism without pageantry.
“America started out as a great idea,” he said to the school board. “And now, after two centuries of struggle, we’ve turned most of those great ideas into reality.”
The school board gave him the okay—the tacit approval to be a moderate Democrat in a far right town. And, over the years, Paul had sent a number of Thompson kids to college with critical thinking skills they might not have had otherwise. During the high school graduation ceremonies over the years, Paul had looked his best and most ambitious students in the eye, held both of their hands with his, and said, “Go find joy.”
Linda taught English. She assigned Shakespeare and Stephen King. Emily Dickinson and Dolly Parton. She encouraged her students to write poems and gave them extra credit when they did. Nearly all of the student poems were simple, rhyming lyrics about love. Inartful and earnest. But, every once in a while, a kid would write a real poem, something that made her cry. Or laugh. Or both. Maybe not a poem that would impress the world but a poem that was startling because it was written by a Thompson kid. And it wasn’t always the most studious students who wrote the best poems.
Years earlier, a poor white girl from the Thompson trailer park had written a poem about fear:
Some people are afraid of the forest. They won’t go inside. I’m afraid of the forest, too. But that’s where I live.
That girl, divorced with two kids, had never left Thompson and worked as a waitress at the North Star Cafe. Linda always left her a $20 tip after a meal. It was only a small amount of money for Linda but a significant bonus for a single mother.
Linda spent a lot of time in the Thompson restaurants. She’d had pizza delivered to her by many of her former students. It was funny. Pizza delivery in a town of 2,000 people. None of the delivery drivers needed to look up addresses. Over the years, Linda had gained thirty pounds and Paul had gained fifty. It made sense. They were Americans.
Gabriel was also an American but he ran five miles every day and lifted weights three days a week. His disciplined slenderness gave him a special power and charisma in any American space. It made him, as a lawyer, more closely resemble the lawyers played by beautiful actors in the movies. His fellow Public Defenders nicknamed him Grisham, after the author who wrote the best-selling novels about lawyers that were always adapted into movies about lawyers.
But Gabriel didn’t feel powerful as he sat in that Prius with the drunk and unconscious Paul and Sad-Eyed Linda of Clear-Cut Tree Stumps.
“I’m so lonely,” she said.
She turned around in the front seat and reached out her hand. Gabriel gently held it.
“I hate my house,” she said. “I hate my job. I mean—I love the kids but they’re doomed. So many drugs. So many addicts. I’m telling you. These days, meth and oxy are the only gold in town.”
Gabriel knew there was epidemic drug crisis in small town America. He’d read the news. He and his fellow lawyers had casually discussed the class action lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. It was nothing new. Causing pain has always been a lucrative business.
“Three years,” Linda said.
“Three years what?“ Gabriel asked.
“Paul said we’d only live in Thompson for three years,” she said. “He said we’d work at the school for three years. But we’ve lived in this town for almost three decades. We were supposed to travel a million miles.”
“Nat Geo,” Gabriel said, remembering Paul’s childhood nickname.
“They still call him that around here,” she said. “Going to Spokane is his biggest journey now, but they still call him Nat. Tell me, Gabe, tell me what happens when words lose all their meaning?”
Gabriel’s job required that he give new meaning to old concepts. But he didn’t want to say that. He only knew that he wanted Linda to be happy.
“You remember our wedding?” she asked. “You remember that Paul vowed we were going to visit every country in the world? He named some countries I’d never heard of. And look at us now. We live in a pretty green prison where the mountains are the guards. I hate this town. I hate this car. Everybody in Thompson drives a truck but we’re cruising around in this arrogant piece of electric shit.”
Gabriel was silent. He assumed that anything he might say would be condescending. He wondered if there was something to do. Was there a grand geature to be made? Then he arrived at a decision and would spend the rest of his life wondering if it has been an impulsive action or if it were part of a long-held subconscious plan. He leaned forward and awkwardly kissed the inside of Linda’s elbow. He didn’t know why he chose her elbow. Maybe it was oddly more intimate than kissing her hand. What was that book they’d read in college? Set in the 19th Century? The novel that he and Linda had studied together in a literature class at St. Cataldo? The novel where the rich man kisses the exiled woman’s hand and wrist? There was a movie adaptation, too, where that scene was played by two superstars.
Years back, Gabriel had taken a woman named Rachel to that movie on their second date. And she’d involuntarily sighed when the rich man’s lips met the exiled woman’s wrist. That sigh, so softly sensual, had greatly embarrassed Gabriel. And he instantly decided there wouldn’t be a third date with Rachel. His life was a series of second dates.
Then he snapped out of his literary and cinematic reverie and realized that his lips were still pressed against Linda’s elbow. How long had he been kissing her? Two seconds or maybe only three? Such an infinitesimal time in the history of the world. But it was still far too long. And he might’ve sighed. He wasn’t sure. Dear God, he’d revealed too much. And he was still kissing her.
Linda pulled back her hand. Her elbow. Gabriel looked at her. The word commandment echoed in his head. Then a full sentence roared at him—a sentence that was a set of words and a sentence that was a criminal punishment: Gabriel, you are covetous.
In the dark car, Linda stared at him. Studied him. In her head, a thousand nagging but unasked questions suddenly had the same answer.
Gabriel knew that she finally knew that he loved her.
“No,” she said.
Gabriel nodded his head. Linda nodded her head. They understood that nothing else would ever happen.
“Let’s get Paul awake,” he said. “And I’ll drive you both to your hotel.”
As Linda aged, she wrote more and more notes. Notes in the books she read. Notes on the morning newspaper. Notes on magazines. She wrote them on notebook paper, printing paper, and gift wrap. She wrote them on any scrap of paper she could find. She wrote them on her hand.
She wrote, I need to believe that the Columbia River forgives the Grand Coulee Dam. Otherwise, how can I believe that any human can forgive another human?
I’ve lived in the mountains for years but have never seen a black bear. I take this personally.
They should pump birth control into Thompson’s water table.
Truth or dare? Neither is possible. I choose the silent and sedentary.
For all we know, God could be an armadillo.
Sometimes, I wish I had a child. Then I remember that I never wanted to raise a child in a gold mine.
It’s been 23 years since anybody has asked me what it means to human. So I ask myself. What does it mean to be human? What is the essential state of humanity? It is this: we’ll always be punished for being loyal.
Some people in the world are made entirely of mosquitos.
Smalls towns shape people like clay. If you love the small town where you live then you become a good thing. If you hate the small town then you become something…smaller.
Fools, all of us are fools for false idols.
I’ve seen the sun and moon at the same time. So has everybody else. But, sometimes, the commonplace remains beautiful no matter its place.
My soul needs a spellcheck.
When he was ten, Paul saw a man cut his knee in half with a chainsaw. His father, the town cop, was driving the patrol car. Paul was sitting in the passenger seat and looking through the window at the same passing landscape that he’d traveled through all of his life. He looked up the hill toward Bucky’s trailer house. Bucky was the grandfather who’d been widowed thirty years earlier and was mostly ignored by his children and grandchildren. He was mean. He didn’t follow any rules, not the bureaucratic or social ones. So he was chainsawing wood to build an illegal bonfire when he lost his grip. The machine kicked in his hands. The teeth chewed into his knee. Bucky screamed in pain and fell, barely managing to toss the chainsaw away from him.
And Paul, completely by coincidence, saw it happen.
“Dad!” he yelled. “Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad!”
To be continued…