TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES
By John Thomas Tuft
Jimmy and Elaine will appear in no paintings. They will offer no interviews to talking heads on television, be displayed in no public circus, and angrily resist any attempts to portray them as icons who defy our culture’s endless, mindless pursuit of self-gratification. They are simply who they are. But by the time the evening shadows danced away with the last of the midsummer’s eve, I was enveloped, nay embraced, within the folds of two lovers whom I will never forget.
I have been in a few of the world’s great cathedrals, those designed to draw the eyes upward and out of ourselves into the presence of the divine. I have walked in primeval forests, so silent I could hear the moss bend as I fell to my knees in wonder. I have gazed at the incalculable host of the stars and been pulled into their cold, penetrating light with the sense of inevitable mystery that left me weeping at my insignificance. Yet standing in the doorway to their apartment, I knew with the utmost certainty that I must take off my shoes. For I was on holy ground.
The pain is writ large on his face when I first meet Jimmy. Dark circles surround his eyes, deep creases slash his gentle face. He is encased in a fortress of pillows, large and soft, to try to cushion his frame against the dreaded invader. His legs are withered and the hands that once coaxed and crafted gracefulness from wood tremble under the onslaught of the agony. Lani greets me with a smile, a tired vision who offers ginger ale over crushed ice and warm pumpkin bread, served as to royalty indeed. Her dark hair is woven into a large braid that hangs nearly to her waist. I’m surprised at the youthfulness in her eyes. This is not a life for those who are not old, I silently scold whatever gods hover nearby.
Writers steal pieces of people’s lives and Jimmy is wary of letting me within reach. His voice is clear, hushed. “Do you have children?” Through my socks I dig my toes into the worn carpet as I nod. “What brings you here?” asks Lani, perched gingerly on the side of the bed which fills the tiny living room. She’s careful not to disturb his comfort, but it’s obvious she wants to be near. “We wanted children,” she continues. “But when Jimmy got hurt in the mill I had to go to work. I waitress at the diner. Don’t know for how much longer, though.” She pulls up her jeans to reveal hideously swollen calves, purple with the tracks of bulging veins. “Jimmy’s pain’s worse than mine. Don’t worry though, we’ll be fine.”
The room is still. She reaches out and tenderly touches me on the arm. The gesture moves me deeply, though I don’t understand why. “I know why you’re here.” Eyes elegant with her pride, she urges him to give up his secret. “You want to see his box.” I lean forward, a supplicant at an unseen altar. Jimmy slides one hand under the pillows and retrieves a shallow box. It is covered in gold foil, tied with a white ribbon, the corners rubbed and worn. “I don’t know why you’d want to see these,” he tells me. “They’re hers.” But he’s not looking at me. He’s studying her face as though wanting to memorize it, to paint in his mind the curve of her cheek, the depth of her eyes, the promise of her lips, the glory of her hair.
Lani wipes her eyes. “Ever since the accident,” she begins, but has to stop for a moment. “Ever since then, Jimmy’s been in pain. The doctors tried everything. The insurance ran out…” Jimmy raises his hands to his eyes and covers them. A small sound escapes, like a gasp, maybe a sigh. “I can’t love her,” he whispers. “Like a man.” “It’s okay,” she murmurs. “Jimmy, it’s okay.” She turns to me with a small shrug and closes her eyes. “Every night, while I’m at work, Jimmy writes me a letter—a love letter. And poems. Our love is bound together…he’s so passionate.” She opens her eyes. “He touches me.” She searches my face. I watch his hand come across the handstitched quilt to cover hers. “He fills me with his love that way. Everybody needs that kind of love. Don’t you see?”
I hesitate to accept the proffered packet. “It’s alright. I’m not ashamed for you to know how he loves me.” I receive their offering with a doxology of deliberate grace. Later, I can hear the soft murmur of their voices as I’m settled in at the kitchen table. They could be laughing, they could be praying. I cannot tell the difference. And I am filled. Awed. Quieted.
It is only when I am back in my car that I realize that I am still carrying my shoes. Rightly so. For I am on holy ground.
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.