The Grotto And The Wall

Palestine3Bethlehem, Palestine – June 2010

As we approach the checkpoint, the taxi driver hands us some brochures. “It’s a Jewish tourist place,” he explains. “I can take you there, if you want.”

My husband and I glance at the brochures. “No, thanks.” I say. “We don’t have time. We’re driving up to Nazareth later.”

The taxi driver nods. “Okay. But keep those. If they ask, say that’s where we’re going or they might not let us through.”

Ours is the only vehicle at the checkpoint. A young female guard leans back in her chair, an assault rifle balanced across her legs. She has long curly blonde hair and a large gap between her front teeth. The other guard is a tall, thin man. He asks the taxi driver a couple of questions. The woman barks a couple of sentences at the young man. She smiles as she does this and leans further back in her chair. He looks from her to the taxi driver and back at her. The taxi driver’s grip tightens on the wheel. His smile is nervous.

Finally, they wave us through. The taxi driver glances in the rearview mirror a couple of times as we drive away. “They were making jokes,” he says. “I think the girl is from Poland. Many students from Eastern Europe come here in the summer.”

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When we get to Manger Square, the taxi driver leaves us with a tour guide. He introduces himself as Joseph. He takes us to the Milk Grotto, and then into the cave chapels underneath the Church of the Nativity. He is soft-spoken and melancholy. From time to time he excuses himself to take quick phone calls. With each phone call he becomes more preoccupied.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“Yes.” He pauses and looks at me intently. “No, actually. I’m not. My wife is in the hospital in Jordan. She’s about to go into surgery. After our tour, I will go home.”

“I’m sorry. You can’t go to Jordan?”

He shakes his head. “Come, we will go to see Jesus’ birthplace now.”

The line for the grotto stretches across Manger Square. Joseph looks at the line and shakes his head. He motions for us to follow him to the front. I avert my eyes from the people in line. I despise people who cut in line. But maybe since he’s an official guide, we have this privilege. I don’t ask, because I don’t want to know. No one protests as we edge ourselves in among those who are about to descend into the grotto. Most of them are retirees. A big-boned woman with the face of a bulldog and a camera hanging around her neck pushes her way in front of us as we enter the grotto.

The big woman swats at the rest of us. “Wait! Get back! Czekaj!” she shrieks. It’s not enough that we stay out of the photo, she doesn’t want any of us in the manger area. She takes her time snapping some photos and then moves to the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. It is marked by a silver Star of Bethlehem. “Czekaj! Czekaj! GET BACK!”

I look at the others. They bow their heads and close their eyes. I glare at the woman, and clamp my mouth shut, because the words that want to come out do not belong in this place. I will not further contaminate the atmosphere for these people who have probably waited all of their lives to see this. I will not disrespect this sacred site.

Joseph frowns. “Are you okay?”

I force a smile. My husband gives my shoulders a quick squeeze. He is well aware of the restraint that I’m showing.

Finally, the woman lowers her camera and stalks out. I hand my husband the camera. I don’t feel like taking photos anymore. I touch my hand to the silver star and then step back.

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(This is the only clear photo that I have of the grotto and, of course, it’s photobombed by Madam Poopy Pants. It’s quite obvious which one she is.)

The taxi driver is waiting for us in Manger Square. He asks if we liked the tour.

“Joseph was super.” I take a deep breath. “Can we see the wall?”

“Oh yes. I can take you there.”

A few minutes later we stand in front of the massive barrier. The only tourists. The street is silent, inviting solemn contemplation.

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The Witches

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*This is an excerpt from the memoir, much abridged for internet attention spans. It is darker than my usual posts. Mental illness, people on the perimeter of society. Readers who find these subjects uncomfortable might want to skip this one.*

San Diego, California – Summer 1989

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” He holds out a bony hand. Death’s head grin on his gaunt face. He emits a dank, organic odor. Ancient soil entombed in a cellar.

“Why do you think I’m a witch?” I push open the door and enter my apartment. He hovers in the doorway until I beckon him inside. I haven’t had a conversation in over a week. “You’re the manager’s roommate, aren’t you?”

He bats his eyelashes. “Houseboy. I’m his houseboy. My name’s Karl. Your name’s Julie, isn’t it?” He giggles. “I looked on the rental agreement.”

I grimace. “Sorry. Not a very mysterious name, is it?”

His grin widens into a rictus. He walks over to the window and looks out.

“You want some tea? It’s all I’ve got, except tap water.” My throat tightens. “Money’s tight. I’m only working part time at a bookstore. Haven’t been able to find a restaurant job yet.” I grit my teeth and look away.

He nods slowly. “The witches are making it hard on you. They always do at first.” He tosses his curls and sits at the tiny table. Demure crossing of the legs. “Tea would be lovely.”

I put the kettle on the stove. “What do you mean by witches?”

“This place is full of bad witches. They don’t like newcomers, especially ones as powerful as you.”

I smile, flattered by this bizarre praise. Across the alley, the piano music begins. Hesitant fingers on random keys. Sometimes it’s only a few notes and then it fades to silence. Sometimes the sad, haunting melody goes on a while. Every time it plays, I sit next to the window and listen, nodding my head in understanding. I open my mouth to ask Karl if he knows where it’s coming from. A plane roars overhead, shaking the building, cutting off my thought.

Again the spooky, clownlike grin. “Let’s have tea on the roof.”

We grab our cups and walk down the shadowy hallway. When we get to the stairs, I reach out and pull on the part of the padlock that’s attached to the door. It comes off in my hand. I look at Karl in astonishment. “I don’t know how I knew that it was Velcro.”

His eyes glow in the shadows.

We climb up the narrow staircase and step out to the roof. Before us is a row of apartments, the Five freeway that’s clogged with evening traffic, the airport runway, and, at the end of it all, the sunset’s glow.

A plane approaches from behind. Karl raises his arms and screams as it flies overhead. It’s so low that I can see faces staring down at us.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m stealing its power.” He drops his arms and exhales. “Try it with me.”

We sip our tea until another planes approaches. This time I raise my arms with Karl and scream. I let out all of the frustration that’s been building up since I moved to San Diego. All of the fear. When I drop my arms, I burst into laughter.

“You see. It works.”

* * *

The manager stands at the front of the small room. He picks up a pile of papers and clears his throat. “Our job application and interview process is, uh, innovative. We want to hire a person, not an employee.” He beams with pride as he passes the applications around to the hopefuls, some of whom I’ve seen at other group interviews. Mouths frozen into cheerful grimaces. Eyes full of menace. The forced camaraderie has vanished. This isn’t Palm Springs. Competition for restaurant jobs is brutal.

I wipe my sweaty palms on my skirt and ready my pen.

What is a quality you most admire in people?

Honesty.

What was the last book you read?

It by Stephen King.

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I look out the window and think of what they might want to hear. I hesitate, and then write the truth.

I want to go everywhere.

* * *

Stupid, stupid. I choke back tears as I fumble with the lock on my door. I should have lied and put France or Disneyworld or some other normal place. Everywhere implies indecisiveness, instability. They want someone who’s going to stay for a long time.

I burst into my apartment and slam the door behind me. Hunger gnaws at my insides. I touch the throbbing cysts that have sprouted on my jawline and cheeks. I collapse on the couch and bury my face in a pillow. The piano music drifts across the alley, keeping time with my sobs. It’s choppy, angry. A soundtrack for a discordant life. And then, a soft knock on my door.

I take a deep breath and try to compose myself. “Come in. It’s open.”

Karl peeks in, hesitant grin on his face. “You wanna go and see Rocky Horror tonight? It’s playing up in Kensington.”

I walk into the bathroom, tear off some toilet paper, and blow my nose. “I haven’t got any money.” I clench the snotty ball of paper so hard that my knuckles turn white. “I stole an apple yesterday because I was so hungry. I was walking home from the bookstore and there was a basket outside a shop and I just reached over and grabbed one as I walked by. I’ve never shoplifted before.” My rage subsides. I laugh and shake my head. “I can’t believe how easy it was.”

He shifts his weight from one foot to the other and giggles. “Michael gave me money. I have enough for you too, but you gotta dress up. The witches will be there.” His eyes brighten. “You must confront them eventually. Look what they’re doing to you.” He points a bony finger at the fresh crop of pustules on my face. A whiff of rot hits me.

I recoil. “What’s that smell?”

“Garlic. It’s coming out of my pores.” He stretches his neck from side to side. “I’ve been eating a whole bulb a day. To kill the bad things in me. And to keep the witches away.” He flutters his fingers at me as he flits out the door. “I’ll come and get you at eleven. Show starts at midnight. Wear something…fetish.”

I don’t know what he means by fetish, so I dress in my weirdest clothes. I put on tight black jeans and a black lace top with the accessories that I bought on my last trip with Ali to London – wide black latex and lace belt, black leather boots with metal skull buckles, and leather cap. I smile at the memory of the strange shops on High Street. Dancing all night to some new music called Acid House.

I take off the belt and throw a flannel shirt over my lace top. This is San Diego, not London. I grab my purse and walk to the door. When I open it, Karl is standing there, hand suspended and ready to knock.

“Oh my God.”

He flutters his eyelashes and fingers a strand of pearls around his throat. “You like it?” He’s wearing piss yellow satin gym shorts over white tights. Grimy white sneakers. A black leather jacket over a chest adorned only by the pearls. A tight leather cap with horns on his head.

I shake my head in wonder. “I think you’ve outdone yourself. Wherever did you get that diabolical thing?”

“It’s a Pan mask.” He pulls it off and unfolds it. It’s a full face mask with only slits for eyes and mouth. “Michael wears it when he beats me. I can’t see well enough to wear the whole thing over my face.” He refolds it and pulls it over his curls.

“You’ll be the belle of the ball.”

His eyes moisten. “You think so?”

When we arrive at the theater, the crowd opens up and welcomes us in. Magenta-wigged transvestite maids, bespectacled dorks, and other costumed beauties fawn over Karl and his pearls. I stand to the side and watch this assortment of misfits, wondering which ones are the witches.

Karl offers me his arm. He sashays me down the aisle. We slip into our seats as the theater darkens and a spectacle of gleeful defiance unfolds. An outcast extravaganza. By the end of the show, I’m moved to tears.

“Thanks for inviting me.” I say as we drive home. “I needed that.”

“They were there. Watching you.”

“The witches.”

He nods. “I don’t think they like you.”

* * *

I pull open the heavy wooden door and step inside. A tattooed hulk of a man sits behind a podium next to a heavy red vinyl curtain. Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” is playing at high volume.

“I’m here about the ad in the paper for a waitress.”

“I need to see some ID,” he barks.

I dig in my purse for my fake ID. My eyes slowly adjust to the dim light. When I look up, my eyes land on a framed photo. I gasp. “This is a topless bar!” I put my hand to my mouth and stumble through the door into the bright sunlight.

The man’s raucous laugh echoes in my ears.

I sit in my car and stare through the grimy windshield. A black box building in the middle of an industrial district. A void in the sunlight. Deep, throbbing music. Garish neon sign. Even an idiot could see that it isn’t a normal bar. I lay my head on the steering wheel and close my eyes.

“Ever seen someone who scared the shit out of you?”

I look up. A blonde woman is leaning on the hood of my car. She’s wearing a black midi top and short shorts, like some 1940’s pinup model. Everything about her is faded, like she stepped out of an overexposed Polaroid photo. Faint acne scars shadow her cheeks. Her eyes are lusterless. Dreams are dead and so what.

She walks over to me, exhaling cigarette smoke over her shoulder. She bends over and sticks her head in the car window. “There was this guy who came into the club once.” She frowns and shakes her head. “No. Not here. I was working at some shithole in Guam. Out in the Pacific you hear all kinds of things about military tests and UFO’s and whatnot. Anyways, one night I was dancing on stage and a guy stumbled in and sat down at the stage. He was wearing a suit. No one wears suits in Guam, because it’s too damn hot. His eyes looked like he just saw the devil. He was shaking and staring at nothing. At first I thought he was a psycho. You see them sometimes in this business. I even leaned over and asked him if he was. Then his eyes got real sad and I felt bad for saying it because then I knew he wasn’t. Psychos never have remorse.” She takes a long drag off her cigarette and holds it for a moment. Her eyes flicker with remembrance, and then fizzle out again. She looks at me. “What did he see that made him look like that? I still think about that sometimes. All the things we don’t know about. Going on behind our backs.” She grinds the cigarette into the pavement with her scuffed heel and walks back towards the club.

I close my eyes for a moment and breath deeply. When I open them, she has already vanished. And somehow I know that I’ll work in such a place and be okay with it. Not now, but someday.

What is happening to me?

* * *

“There are only three printing shops in San Diego with this kind of photocopier. They’re all protected by a special alarm system.” Karl points at a tiny shop. “This one will be the easiest one to get into. I’ve already scoped it out.”

We stop in front of an electronics store on the opposite side of the street. Television sets play the same program, but they’re out of sync by milliseconds. I stare at them. Humans are like that. Broadcasting the same reality, but trapped in the isolation of our egos. Are we all but apparitions wandering oblivious in parallel purgatories?

“What?”

“I didn’t say anything. Let’s go down to the beach.”

As we drive down to Ocean Beach, we discuss the details of Karl’s plan to counterfeit money. “If we do big bills, we can have more money in less time,” he explains. “We don’t want to stay in that place longer than we have to.”

“Yes, but big bills are more conspicuous. Maybe you can do some hundreds for yourself and I’ll do twenties.” My heart pounds. “We have to think of all the things that can go wrong. We shouldn’t be too greedy.”

“The hardest part will be getting into and out of the shop. Passing off the bills will be easy, especially in Mexico.”

I pull into a parking place across from a taco shop and shut off the engine. “Mexico.”

“I’m gonna do this and get the hell out.” He looks out the window. “The other day I went to Balboa Park to look for a john. I was at the Y earlier and didn’t score there. I found a guy right away at the park.” His voice breaks. “He hurt me.”

“Why did you do it? Isn’t Michael taking care of you?”

“Michael would throw me out if he knew. He’s trying to save me from all of that. But I couldn’t stop myself. I was compelled. The witches…”

I open my door and step out. “Let’s get some air.”

We sit on the hood of the car and watch the full moon shining on the waves. Karl lights a joint and passes it to me.

“I can’t believe that I’m desperate enough to consider this.” I clench the smoke in my lungs. Then a long, relieved exhale. “I’ve felt bad before, but I always thought that if I worked hard enough, I would eventually succeed. I’ve always been able to take care of myself. It’s like I’m being punished for being so confident. I had two years of awesome luck, but it’s over. It’s never going to be good again. My dreams are withering up. Maybe this is the life I’m meant to lead. I feel…”

“Doomed.”

I laugh. “Yep. That’s it exactly.”

“So you’re going to do it.”

“I don’t know. Probably. Let me think about it for a couple of days.”

A young man with long black hair glides across the parking lot towards us. He’s dressed in black. His eyes are piercing blue nuggets. He asks if we live in Ocean Beach. He lives here, but he used to live in Chula Vista. His name’s Juan. He works in a printer shop. It’s one of those on Karl’s list. Not the one we looked at earlier, but another one. The light in his eyes intensifies. He plays in a band called The Doomed. Karl and I say, “No fucking way.” He grins at us. Two other guys join us. They’re in The Doomed, too. So we know it’s real. Karl and I look at each other and shake our heads. The Doomed wave goodbye and tell us to come and watch them play sometime.

“You saw him, too.” I say as we drive home. I poke Karl’s shoulder. “And you’re real, aren’t you?”

He makes a face. “Why do you always question your sanity?”

I stare at the road ahead. “My father has schizophrenia. He hears and sees people that aren’t there. It’s genetic.”

“I’m really here.”

I fall silent. That’s what they tell my father, too.

* * *

I stare out the window at the yellowed lace curtains. And I know that, from the other side, I’m being watched. The piano’s last notes still resonate in the air.

I hear a voice that sounds like mine. “That piano is so spooky.”

Karl sits at my table. He dips corn chips into a jar of hot sauce and stuffs them into his mouth. “What piano?” he says through a mouthful of chips.

“Didn’t you hear it?”

“That’s not a piano. That’s a woman’s voice. Singing.”

As if on cue, the music starts up again. It is indeed a voice, but the words are obscured. I shake my head to clear the fog. “There’s this girl I see in my mind. She looks like me. Blonde and skinny. Bad skin. She wants to be an actress. She’s taking a class at the local junior college, because that’s all she can afford. She has a crush on her acting teacher. He’s a sadistic prick, but he hides it well. When she looks at him she sees a light. Not a soft, fuzzy light, but a searing blue-white one. It nauseates her, but she can’t look away. He’s impressed by her talent, even jealous. He wants to mooch her energy.”

Karl nods his head up and down in time with his crunching. His eyes roll back in his head.

My voice goes on. “There’s an old woman who lives in the apartment building across the alley from this girl. She can see into the old woman’s bedroom from her kitchen. The old woman watches her from behind her thin white curtains. One day, the curtains are open and she sees the old woman sitting in front of her vanity mirror. The old woman turns to stare at the girl. She’s made up her face like some 1920’s starlet. She smiles at the girl as if she wants her approval. The girl can’t deal with all the sorrow around her, seeping into her pores. Do you think we can have portals into someone else’s reality?”

The lace curtains undulate as if in reply. I turn from the window. Karl empties the last of the crumbs into his mouth. “Yes, but we forget about them when we merge with them.”

“She’s braver than I am. I want to be an actress, too.” I walk over and sit at the table. “My grandmother says that actresses are whores.” A surge of despair rises up. “I wish I could kill myself.”

“Why do you care what some old woman thinks? You always question yourself. The more I know about you the less I’m impressed.” He unfolds one of the cloth napkins and wipes his greasy hands.

“Isn’t it like that with everyone you meet? Have you ever met anyone who grows more mysterious every day?”

He blinks a few times and then shrugs.

“I’m sorry. I can’t go through with it. I got a job at the new hotel in the marina.”

He pushes back from the table and walks out the door.

* * *

Karl sits on my floor, rocking back and forth. “Didn’t do the money. I went to Mexico. Tijuana, then someplace else. Met some people. Worked the streets. Smoked some crack. Anubis was following me.” He rocks back and forth. His eyes roll around in his skull.

I take a deep breath. “I’m leaving San Diego at the end of the month.”

“I knew you wouldn’t stay here long.” He nods. “L.A.”

I shake my head. “No. Not yet.”

“Michael says he wants me to leave. He says that I do nothing but babble. ‘No more strays’, he says. He regrets…” He traces his finger around a dark pattern in the carpet. He rocks back and forth. “The jackal. Anubis. Devour dead eat flesh in the tomb. Going back to Mexico. Anubis. Look here. You see him, too.”

“What about the witches, Karl?”

“Witches.” He frowns. He says a few more things that might be words, but I don’t recognize them.

“You have to leave, Karl.” I go to the door and open it.

He glides out. The smell of decay lingers.

“You’re the witches,” I whisper as I lock the door.