She found blood in my beard.
She mentioned it in church. As if she’d been holding back for the perfect, worst moment.
I wanted to swear at her, but just the thought of doing so created a pulling sensation in my gut, as if the devil was starting to tug my soul out through my asshole.
Instead, I put my head down and pretended to pray.
The sermon ended, and the congregation stumbled into song.
I just flipped through a hymnal, counting the minutes.
* * *
Back at home I stripped out of my Sunday clothes to my underwear and shaved in the mirror. It had been a long time since I’d been clean shaven. I stared at the face that had been hiding there under years of scruff.
I looked at least five years younger, and not in a way that I liked or wanted. Like that photo in our living room, standing the fair on our second or third anniversary, my eyes like a scared deer’s.
Besides, even like this, I could still feel the blood in my beard.
I sat on the edge of the bed and watched tennis. A half hour. Birds gathered on the fence outside. My face itched. Sunday time ticked away like some essential fluid leaking from a machine.
Twice she walked by, pretending to be casual, glancing into the bedroom.
I watched the tennis ball bounce back and forth between the players and couldn't stop wondering what would happen if one of them just refused, just stopped lobbying it back.
The subsequent energy drain from the crowd—-the sucking sound of enthusiasm leeching into the earth.
How long had the blood been in there? And where did it come from? Is it like the soreness of the players bodies? Strange muscles tiring from not being noticed. Only used during a certain serve or a one handed backhand with topspin. They train for hours every day at a game invented by monks. And at any point they could just decide not to continue.
It's a crime not to love the person you're with.
She finally stopped, stood in the door.
"Are we going to talk about it or what?"
I looked at her.
Applause erupted from the television.
“I have some things to do in the yard,” I said, and stood up, opened up the dresser drawer and slid on a pair of sweatpants and into a sweatshirt. “When I’m finished we can talk. If you still want to.”
On my way out to the yard I glanced at myself in the mirror. The older me who looked younger.
* * *
It’s time to start the shed. I’m not getting any younger, despite what the mirror sees. It’s time to dig, build, hammer. The lawn needs mown. The weeds need pulled. The roof needs—-what does a roof need? I’ll think of something. I’ll spend the day up there counting birds. I should take the week off—Mondays are horrible at the office. I should stay here and spend the week digging.
I considered going over to the neighbor's to borrow Mike and Danny, the goats we used to keep the weeds in check, but I didn't. Maybe I should have.
My face was still itching. It didn’t feel right. I glanced back at the house. She was watching me through the window. I pulled up the hood on my sweatshirt to shield me.
I walked to the spot I’d leveled and the nearby stack of lumber, the mound of gravel, the six little holes on a grid.
* * *
In six weeks the shed was up. An 8 x 10 building where there had stood nothing.
We still hadn’t “talked,” and my beard had grown back. Was it intention, or just the way things happened when you let go? At some point it started to feel like my fault; like I was keeping two sets of myself in service to sow discord.
The inside of the shed was so empty and pristine. It smelled like a forest.
I hammered a nail in the wall. I hung a hammer on the nail. You build something and fill it with things. That’s what you do. I found an old tennis ball under one of the pine trees lining the backyard. It dirty and had no bounce left it in. It looked like an insult made directly to me.
I threw it as far as I could.
My shoulder instantly felt sore. I rubbed it.
I heard a dog start barking, barking like it really meant it too, dammit, like it had a real purpose in barking. It was a good honest sound. I felt like I hadn't barked like that in a dozen years
* * *
On Thursday night on I noticed she has left our Bible out and open on the coffee table. I see a passage faintly underlined in red pencil. I read it. I read it again. It’s not clear why she has marked this passage. I think about what it could mean. I know she has left it there for me to read. But I’m not sure why she’s chosen the book of Revelation.
I set down my take-out container of hot wings on the coffee table. I move the Bible to the right. I notice I spilled a small drop of blood-red Buffalo sauce on the page. Another sign of the apocalypse. Hot sauce will rain down from Heaven. On the mantel I see a picture of us. Our past selves looking down on us - judging or at least disappointed. I ate the wings. Left the celery.
I left behind a white chicken bone on table beside the Bible. My reply. It’s one way of talking.
* + +
So what if she found blood in my beard, I thought, sitting on a folding chair in the middle of the shed, jeans covered in sweat and mud. So what if the second angel poured out his bowl on the sea. So what if every living thing in the sea died.
* * *
Everything can be a message. Bones, dirt, space. Sound and soundlessness.
We met in church. I was there to fix the squeaky doors, level a pew. She was there to worship, to surrender herself.
When she talked about the Lord I listened and smiled. I saw something in her eyes. Something like desperation, desire, difficulty. I was tired of who I was. She seemed willing to talk to me, and that was enough. I decided to love her like I meant it.
Once, she asked me if I remembered what the sermon was that day we met. We were in bed and I was peeling off the dry, tacky condom. It snapped in the darkness against my hand.
She talked about something, forgiveness, sin, love, community, carpentry. I don't remember exactly what. It was the first, and only, time she ever brought it up. It was all news to me. I hadn't paid attention that day, being busy with the rust hinges on the door to the banquet area.
I threw away the condom and had the dumb realization that she hadn't known why I was there that day. She thought I was there for the reason she was there. I stayed quiet, kissed her on the forehead. I waited until she fell asleep, then went to the bathroom to masturbate.
* * *
I sat in the shed.
In the shes there was no religion. Only whatever I brought here. My chair. My hammer. The smell of a forest I’d constructed. I was the god of the shed. But I refused the title.
I felt like I could sit in my shed forever, like a hermit in a cave, thinking until I stopped thinking. Until I was nothing but a skeleton grinning in a chair. I felt like to get up and leave the shed at that moment would require more strength than there was left in the world, certainly more strength than there was in me. I lifted my fingers to my right temple, cocked my thumb, and dropped the hammer. "Bang!" I said, without conviction. That wasn't the answer, not the one I was looking for.
* * *
At night I paced around the hallway while I brushed my teeth. I heard her say my name softly. I walked past our bedroom. She was on her knees. Praying. I felt a tenderness for her. I kept brushing. Up and down. Then my brush hit a sensitive part. A pain in my nerve ending. Fuck I said through the toothpaste. Amen I heard her say through the air.
* * *
On Saturday, we drove to the zoo. It was like a date day. We were trying. In our own way. She thought the capybara looked cuddly. I stared into the eyes of the Baja Californian rat snake but I saw nothing that looked like temptation or sin. Or evil. The glass case that it was kept in wasn’t even have the size of my shed. I imagined living in my shed. One side made into a window. Her staring at me. Tapping the glass.
I bought us lunch at a food court decorated like a safari.
I saw myself reflected in the windows surrounded by plastic jungle canopy, raising a burger to my mouth. I thought of that Nabokov story, Terra Incognita. The dire circumstances, betrayals, descent into fever.
She was looking at me, at my reflection. We made eye contact thus, at an angle. Like she was looking at me from the outside, like I was seeing her in some parallel place. I raised my eyebrows in recognition.
"What do you think?" she asked my reflection. "About the zoo."
I thought for a second. The odd angle of her made me consider saying something less non-committal than "it's fine." I tried to probe into my actual thoughts.
What did I think about the zoo? Truthfully?
"It sucks ass," I said.
However insubstantial my reflection had been, I could feel it diminshining, banished to some nether realm.
No longer would I cast any shadow.
* * *
The pastor talked to me about football. I imagined Jesus throwing an interception that loses the Super Bowl. The pastor asked me how she is doing. I wanted to probe my actual thoughts and maybe even ask some the man some advice - but then I saw he had some lettuce in his teeth and his pants weren’t zipped all the way up. I said something like fine. And changed the subject to the choir box door that needs replaced.
Later, when I’d fixed the little gate, the pastor came over and looked at my work. He said: Looks good you really NAILED it.
He said it in all caps. I looked up at Jesus in all his eternal suffering.
I remembered him saying once the cross was made of pine, cypress and cedar.
I remembered her saying she needed me to pick up ice cream, toilet paper and wheat bread.
I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed until I cried.
* * *
Katie invited me. She lost her cowboy hat, but her friends found it — some girl almost stole it. Katie rolled around while Kana and I did coke. We danced to 1999 in 2019, and my fringe boots went to good use. I was new to the group. Sydney sat on the couch&watched. Fernet was to the left of the stove. Hanna welcomed me to the party. She later sold me shrooms. Patrick corrected my way of saying the name Franz Kline, and Jacob was heading to Indonesia soon sometime. I lost my ring there. It was a good time.
I saw eyes in the wall. On the bookshelf, in the carpet, in the sky out the window, eyes in her eyes, eyes in the palms of hands and in hair. I saw eyes blinking and the world was a million eyes.
The eyes that made up the universe all closed. And opened again. And everything looked different.
I knew that in the church Jesus on the cross blinked his eyes. And I blinked my eyes. And she looked new in my eyes. Innocent and lost. I watched her eyes search the room. She was searching. Everyone was looking for something in the sky.
* * *
I looked up at Jesus on his cross. His chapped lips formed the words: Are we done yet?