Something in Between
The houses of the Zodiac may offer guidance -- just don't forget about the homes here on Earth.
I was fifty before I cast my first spell.
"You have the power," Cleo had said. Cleo is my astrologer. And he knows things, but then he always has. "You have the desire," he had said.
Oh God, did I have the desire! Three really bad years had beaten me up. A divorce, eleven months of purposeful celibacy--not even dating--and then two love affairs that ended badly... oh yeah, I had the desire!
So I made my cast. Just a little thing. And what could it cost?
I wrote down everything I wanted in a woman. There were fifty items, all on green spiral notebook paper. A list.
--and so on, becoming more complex as I went:
- Great sensitivity
- Good looking
- Loves me
- I love her
- Is faithful
--and sometimes kinkier:
- Talks things over with me
- Comes to me with her troubles
- Knows when I'm having trouble
--and ending with:
- Number 35
- Number 36
- Number 37
That sort of thing. I put the list under my pillow. It was a new pillow, big and fluffy. I had bought new sheets and a comforter. The comforter was pink and green, but nice looking and not too feminine... just enough, I thought. And I was sleeping on this old black sofa that made into a full-size bed. There was a red indoor-outdoor carpet on the concrete floor of the basement. I could make the bed up and have a little living space.
- Makes me feel like a hero
- I make her feel like a goddess
No one had ever been here but Cleo. I wouldn't ask anybody else over. I looked up at the bare wooden beams that made up my ceiling. I thought I should get some cardboard, paint it white and draw the Sistine Ceiling up there. I could lie in my bed and admire Michelangelo. Life would be better.
And I slept on my spell for a month. I was trying to draw the perfect woman to my side. Cleo said, "There's no difference between making a list and praying. You're talking to God either way."
As I look back, I wonder if the list should have been longer.
Cleo comes over to the house I share with my sick father. We're a strange mix. I'm fifty, white, and down to 132 pounds. I make a decent living as an artist. Very good, for an artist, but I give half of it for child support. Cleophus Brown, my old schoolmate, is a black man. He was a lineman in football. Now he's a professional astrologer. Pop, who everyone calls "Darn" because he won't swear, is eighty-one. Retired. Waiting to die. You can see it in his eyes. Nobody knows what color they are anymore.
Cleo and Darn don't get along that well. Cleo has opinions. Darn doesn't tolerate them anymore. Age made him arrogant. I remember him as Pop, the good guy. The best man I ever knew.
I won't disagree with him. I tell myself it's out of respect. Maybe it's love? I don't know. I know he taught me to play golf when I was eight. He gave me a five-iron to use for every shot. He was a great golfer, and he had to put up with this little kid who shot 101 on the first nine and 99 on the back. I spent more time in the woods than on the fairway. But he didn't care. He appeared to be the most patient man in the world.
I didn't inherit his patience. I'm his opposite, like Mom was. The other half of his soul. Lack of patience is probably why I cast a spell--conjured up the perfect woman. But then, I look at Pop and know time is short and meant to be lived.
As men go in the singles market, I'm not much of a catch. My weight's down to my high-school days, that's true--it's nice to have no gut. And I've drawn myself a new chin using my beard for a drawing pencil. That works. But younger? Nope. That isn't going to happen. Richer? Well... not until Pop dies. Which I hate to think about, but it's always there in the back of my mind.
I have serious doubts about the future.
It's November now; football is in full swing. Cleo and I are remembering the old days.
"You're looking good," he says. "Old number ten! Sitting on the bench again," and he laughs. I know he's talking about my relationships, but I ignore that.
"Yeah, but I got in once, remember?"
Three hundred-pound Cleo was only seventeen years old and already weighed two-twenty. He could bench-press four hundred pounds without warming up, and he was the trap blocker on my play. Coach had drawn it up just for me. I was on the left. Everybody came toward me like it was a run around left end, but it was a delayed handoff up the middle. Cleo was supposed to pound anybody who didn't fall for the fake. There should be a hole up the middle big enough for our yellow school bus.
The play starts. I set up like I'm blocking people trailing the ball carrier. Cleo backs a step off the line and parallels me.
I get to the quarterback. He gives me the ball. I see the hole in the middle just like Coach said. It's huge! There's a pile of guys on the left, another on the right. But in the middle? Jeez! Nobody's in the middle. The hole is five yards wide. All I gotta do is run.
"Dammit George, if you'd just been patient," Cleo says.
I look at my feet. Patience never was my strong point.
"But noooooo, you see that hole and just take off!" He laughs about it. We still laugh about it. Good lord, it was thirty-three years ago.
One of the defensive linemen gets through on the right. Cleo is waiting for him. He won't even see him coming. Cleo will lay him out.
I see the hole and just go. I'm feeling good. I have the ball. I run.
Cleo screams something and points. I look right. There's the lineman from the other team.
Cleo and the lineman collide. I'm in the middle. Then, while I watch someone in the stands wave a flag and the cheerleaders talk among themselves, everybody falls down. My foot is underneath. Everybody falls.
Snap goes the ankle. I hear it. It's not a bad sound, just interesting, and I'm detached from it. Later the pain comes, and I lose my detachment.
Funny thing is, I end up learning to paint while I'm sitting out the rest of football season, and win a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. Things change quickly. I'm an opportunist.
"Moon in Gemini," Cleo says of that time. "Mr. Versatile. Mr. Changeable. Act now and ask questions later?"
When he's being catty like an old woman, he trashes me like that. "Oh, sorry," he says. "Sentences too long for you? George bored? George go home now?" He says it like he's talking to a cave man.
I give him my ugliest look--the one that means, "You're just puke on toast." It always makes him laugh.
He is puke on toast, but that's another matter. Besides, he calls me "White Slime Ass"... and that's when he's in a good mood.
His good moods are more frequent lately. He's doing well for himself.
It took a while. When we were in high school, he sent off to New York for an astrology chart. He was amazed. The mail-order astrologer pinned him to the wall. She told him things about himself that no stranger could know. Then she went on to tell him when he'd marry. She told him he'd divorce. He'd have one kid--a boy. Everything.
He lied to the astrologer. He said his name was Marcus Purcell. Doesn't matter. Everything in his chart had already either happened just like she said it would, or seemed so reasonable-- so likely to happen, and happen only to Cleo, that he swore he'd found the truth we all are looking for.
Then she has the nerve to call him "Puke on Toast." Hey hey hey.
Cleo shoulda known we set him up, but for some reason, it didn't matter. He began to study astrology like it was the Bible. I told him, "Cleo, be reasonable, the football team and I told that woman everything about you. It was a joke!"
He didn't listen.
He studied, he worked. He began to draw sentences from the symbols he saw.
Dammit, it shouldn't have worked. It was a joke. But Cleo made it work for him.
"I'm gonna do this stuff," he said. "I'm gonna study astrology."
Today he's living in a condo and running off at the mouth about his stocks. And his charts work. His charts are not fakes. They are not so generalized that could fit anybody: they are as specific as warts on a pumpkin. Turns out he had a gift. Jeez, we were just fooling around. The guy bases the rest of his life on one practical joke--and makes it work?
"You should put five hundred in AQCT," he says. "It's ten cents a share right now. It'll hit two bucks by August. Where you gonna get that kind of return?"
"You're a greedy little black man," I say. "Besides, what happened to you were gonna die in August?"
"Okay, I was wrong about that one." He looks sheepish. He did his own chart. He saw something coming in August. "You can't always tell what's coming," he says. "There's the high road, the low road, and something in between. I could meet the girl of my dreams. I could get killed on the highway-- but now I think I'll just make more money. The middle road is the most likely path, after all."
"The world wants us to be mediocre," I say.
"Now you just sound silly."
"Ah Cleo, I thought you were infallible."
"Silly, silly, silly. You were always the one that believed in me. But nobody's infallible. I calculate my angles, draw my charts, and make sentences. I see Venus in Virgo and think it means one thing. It could mean something else. Soon enough you see the real meaning. Besides, your own chart is the hardest to read. The sentences you draw up are always colored with wishes, you know? Or fears."
I could remind him it was all foolishness in the beginning, but he'd just say it was God's way of showing him his calling. Besides, look at him now. Look at me. I do believe in him.
He's always talking about drawing sentences. He makes me study my glyphs, the symbols that represent the planets and the signs. He makes me study house meanings. Sometimes I can draw up a pretty good sentence myself.
"Pop's gonna die in March," I tell him.
"You want me to look at it?" He doesn't like to look for death. It's really hard to find anyway. Serious health problems? That you can predict. Death? Not so easy.
Besides, as he says, "The stars impel, they don't compel." He says that all the time. It's caused us many an argument.
"I'm not going by the stars," I say. "Mom died three years ago in March. He always gets depressed then. I don't think he'll make it through another one of those."
We get on the computer to look.
Thump, thump, thump.
It's Pop banging on the floor. I'm up the basement stairs before Cleo can move, but then, I always was fast. And I'm feeling like a kid again since the spell worked.
Cheryl Ann is forty. She's five-foot-two and ninety-eight pounds. She has gray eyes when she's pissed and green eyes when she's horny. She's got honey-blonde hair--Clairol Maximum Golden Blonde, in fact--and the bone structure of a model. I could paint her for the rest of my life. Hands, feet, eyes, arms, legs--everything is perfect. I can't figure out how she's had four kids and still has such a body. Yeah, there're stretch marks--she won't wear bikinis anymore--but the skin's tightened up and the stretch marks are now tiny lines that glisten in the sun. They are battle scars you come to admire.
"Let's do thirty-five," she says. "Thirty-five. Thirty-five!" For I've shown her my list.
- She's incredibly sensitive.
- She's faithful.
- She's beautiful and sexy.
- I love her.
- And old number 35 is her favorite position.
She wasn't shocked. She was flattered. She put it in a scrapbook with our movie stubs. She calls it our "suvie book."
She is everything I've ever wanted. She makes me happy. Cleo says we don't marry for happiness; we marry to be complete. I feel complete with her. She brings me the joy I've never had. In bed she licks her finger and sticks it in my ear. I can't help but laugh. Nobody else would dare. We are like kids.
Fat, black Cleo was right. I had the power to cast spells. And I did. I don't know what the cost will be, but I don't care. I've never been so happy. For a visual man, she is the ultimate prize. I buy her double-zeros off the rack and they fit like blue paint.
It's amazing how much I've calmed down. But, then, life isn't through with me yet.
Thump, thump, thump.
I run upstairs. Pop's calling me again. It's December now--my daughter's fifteenth birthday. She's already pissed at me because of Pop. I canceled our dinner together because he thought he was dying. Right now she can't see it. She'll be self-centered for another year or two, I think. But no one's brighter, or more beautiful. She'll be all right.
Pop won't be all right anymore. The arrogance of growing old, when you think you know everything, but you won't do anything about it. And the depression that fear of dying brings about. It makes a nice man into something else. And you begin to wonder if you still love him.
"I'm feeling bad," he says.
"How do you feel. Tell me?" This is a problem for us lately. He won't answer any of my questions. I remember when he made a four-inch telescope and we took it out to the driveway. "There's Saturn," he would say. "There's Venus." And he would explain the mythology of the constellations. He was so smart, he could explain Einstein--and make you understand.
"I just feel bad." He's lying on his bed, which he hasn't left in days. The walls are covered with old black-and-white pictures from his youth. Somehow, it doesn't help. It only looks depressing.
"Dammit, I need more details."
"Georgie, I can't give you any more. I just feel bad."
"Well, are we going to the emergency room tonight?" We've been five times this year alone. That's why I canceled on Jennifer. You can tell when the ER visits are sneaking up on you like thieves.
"Don't know. Don't want to. I'll try to get through the night."
I try to get more information. He gets snippy. I'm pulling teeth--but if I did, his dentures would come out in one piece. I know he feels terrible. I also know he sleeps better in the morning. Nights are hell for him.
"Getting old isn't for sissies," he says.
Then stand up and fight, you old bastard, I think. If you'd just eat!
But he won't eat. Last month Cheryl Ann brought him a plate from Thanksgiving dinner. He ate one bite of potatoes and one of peas. Two bites total. Two! That was his food intake all day.
I'm going crazy. I don't like exchanging places. I don't like being the parent. "Eat," I tell him. "You gotta eat. You're gonna die."
It's only later I realize he is committing suicide the only way a Catholic can. It's the constant mumbling, the Hail Marys when he's out of his head, that make me understand. He's praying for forgiveness. He's committing the ultimate sin.
"Hail Mary, full of grace.... mumble mumble mumble." No one can make it out except me. I know what he's doing.
"Hail Mary. Hail Mary. Hail Mary."
Three years ago, when I moved in, we talked of fear.
"I worry about what it's doing to you," Pop said. He was sitting on our worn out dirty-gold couch. I put a two by three-foot piece of plywood under the cushion--support needed for aging bones to stand up. It matched the two ugliest chairs in Pleasant Hope, which, of course, were also in our living room. Along with a rug the color of brown pond.
Fear of dying. Fear of not dying. Fear of not dying well.
"Hey Pop, I made up a budget. Guess what? I've got a whole forty-four dollars left at the end of the month. That's good, right? I figured with my child support, I'd be in the hole."
So, he raised my rent forty dollars. Because he was afraid he'd live too. Afraid he'd live and not have any money. Get it while you can, I suppose. Mom left me some money in the will, but I never asked for it and he never offered. I knew why. He was scared.
I claimed the damned basement for some privacy. I was broke. I go through a period of five girlfriends in five months. Nobody stays. They think I'm cute. They'll go out with me. A couple of them even let me spend the night at their place.
Then it would end.
And that is what brought me to my spell. My case of desperation. The constant endings. Shelly left. Angie quit on me. Tracey thought I wouldn't amount to anything. Yada, yada, yada.
But I knew I had the power.
Cleo told me. "Pluto is approaching your ascendant. You can do anything you want over the next three years." And much of it is true. My finances improve. He introduces me to Victoria, an interior designer. She gets me a contract to paint two hundred small still lifes for Holiday Inn. I've got all the work I can handle for a year. I can move out, except I can't move out because now Pop is really sick--dying, in fact. Only I don't know it. I don't realize his heart's like a flat tire that can't be fixed.
"Then I'm gonna make me up a woman!" I say. "By God, if I can do anything, then that's what I'm gonna ask for."
"The Bride of Frankenstein." Cleo giggles. His belly rolls. I think he's gonna fall out of his chair.
"No one likes you," I say.
"Somebody has to be wrong." And he laughs again.
On Jennifer's birthday--December 21st--the emergency room is full. I go through the list of medicines. I repeat the diagnosis I've been told. "Congestive heart failure. Kidney failure. Diabetes." It never sounds good. And then I add, "And he won't eat."
"You've gotta eat," the triage nurse says.
"I'm just not hungry," Pop says.
Liar, I think.
"Besides, I can't breathe."
They try to get the fluid out of his chest. We're there until 4 a.m.--finally they decide to admit him. "He'll stay here tonight and then we'll see what we see."
I go home. It's dark and lonely. Depressing house. Grandma's heart burst here. Mom had a stroke here. Pop may not come back. I'll sell this son-of-a-gun if he dies.
It all started with that spell.
It changed things. First, Cheryl Ann came into my life, then Pop started getting spooky. He took me to the bank and changed his bank account into a joint account with me. It should have been a sign. It should have stared me in the face like Saturn opposing Mars. I should have read the symbols.
A bigger sign was when he ran into a smoky glass partition at the bank. Just flat out didn't see it. Knocked the shit out of himself. He didn't fall, which he's been doing a lot of lately, but jeez he was stunned. I could see it in those colorless eyes. I've looked at them long enough to read them. Yeah, they're dead like slate, but I can still read them, a little.
When we're done at the bank, he wants to go to the eye doctor. He thinks he has an appointment. I tell him he doesn't. He insists. God, he's my Pop. I drive him there. Of course, the damned place is closed for the weekend. He feels stupid and confused. He won't admit it. He tries to make up something about the eye clinic got the dates wrong.
"I'm sure that's it, Pop. Those secretaries don't always get things right," I say not believing a word of it but making an attempt to sound sincere. All I can do is try to keep his morale up. Pump that self-image like I don't know this is the end.
The first time cheryl ann came over to the house, he tried to be the old Darn Poke. He tried to be polite, and stand up when a lady entered the room. Jeez! He fell to his knees and I had to help him back to the couch.
He was so embarrassed.
"Bless his heart," Cheryl Ann said later. She didn't know how right she was.
I got her out of there so Pop wouldn't have to feel less of a man. I'd give him some time alone... then pretend it didn't happen.
I gave myself a break and spent the night with her.
When I got home, I find out he went into the garage. He had to get past two steps. He caught his toe on the top one and fell back into the kitchen. He couldn't get back up. He fucking crawled to the phone and called Charles next door.
"From now on," he said. "We can't lock the front door."
"You got it, Pop," I said. He was always scared somebody might come in and get him... then he's scared he'll die on the floor. You just gotta eat, I thought
"How about a pizza," I said
"Nah, I just want Jello."
"Christ, what flavor?"
I made it. He ate maybe half a cup.
"I'm full... thanks, Georgie."
"Pop, you gotta eat. This isn't funny anymore."
He started telling me where the safe deposit box key was. And how many CDs he's got. I knew what he was doing.
"Maybe I should put the house in both our names," he said.
"Not necessary," I said. "You're gonna live here another ten years, right?"
He didn't answer.
The doctors admit him to the hospital and they're planning on keeping him a week or so. "Are you eating?" I ask, standing in his room. There's a white curtain separating him from the next patient. I've brought his overnight bag. We keep it packed all the time. His extra razor is in there; socks, pajamas, crossword puzzle books. We're always ready.
"Oh yeah, I ate," he says. I can see the full tray pushed away. Looks like he took two bites of mashed potatoes... and he downed the whole damned Jello square.
At home, I find his stash of candy. That's what he's been eating to keep the hunger pains down. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Cherry Mash. Snickers.
He's gonna die, I think.
I toss the whole stash away. By God, when you come home, you're gonna eat right, I think.
A week stretches into two, then three.
People wonder why I've got an attitude. Ha! "You try living with someone who can't make up their mind to live or die," I tell Cleo.
"Georgie?" he says and I know I'm in trouble because nobody but Pop and Cheryl Ann call me that.
"I found a date."
I know what he's talking about. "Just tell me the details and I'll say if you're right." It's arrogant, I know, but I'm pissed. He goes along with me because this is it.
"Okay, I found it in your chart, not his. Sometimes a close relative, lover, family member, whatever... is where you find these things."
"Yeah, yeah, get to it!"
"Right. Anyway, you moved in here three years ago when Saturn hit the cusp of your fourth house... family, living area, et cetera. Saturn hits your fourth house cusp and you get divorced. Your living standard lowers. You change residences." He hesitates; his big old lips are stuck. "...so... you see, Saturn leaves your fourth house January 12th."
"Well, that's a good thing. Get the devil out of my house."
"Georgie, you don't understand. Saturn opposes your Sun at the same time. Natal Sun represents Father. Saturn is hard lessons, restrictions; it's called the greater malefic."
"I know, Cleo. Hard times facing my Pop. January 12th... that's four days from now. Hell, I could guess that, he's in the hospital, he's not eating... what do you want, a medal?"
"Georgie, there's more. Saturn is also commitment. It's moving towards the cusp of your fifth house, romance, creativity, etc. And, Saturn tends to reward as it leaves one house and enters another. It's leaving your family and home sector. It's opposing your Father. It's already rewarded you, as it moves towards the fifth, with Cheryl Ann. Now Saturn will get serious. Your relationship will get serious. How many times have I heard you say you won't get married again until your father dies?"
"Further rewards, Georgie. A new girl, a new life... your father dies and you finally get your inheritance, which you've put off asking for... now there's no asking. You are the only heir." He pauses. "There's only one way you get an inheritance, George."
"And there's only one way I'll ever leave this house," I say. I look at him and he looks sorry. He doesn't need to look sorry. I don't want to kill the messenger. I'd rather be warned than surprised. Besides, I'm the one that cast the spell. No spell is perfect. Spells are just changes. They are catalysts. You throw every thought you've got into making the spell work... and boom, it does!
"Thanks, Cleo," I say.
"But it might not play out that way. You'll just have to see, ya know?" He tries to look hopeful. To me he looks like a big black Friar Tuck.
"That's right. There's the high road, the low road and something in between. In between happens most often. Maybe he'll move to a nursing home for a while until he gets back on his feet. I take power of attorney so that I can pay his bills. He lives, I see Cheryl Ann... yeah, yeah, it could play out that way, right?"
"Sure, Georgie. Sure. That's probably it."
My beeper goes off. I'm at Cheryl Ann's. We made love and have been asleep for maybe twenty minutes. We both jump up. She looks at me like she knows.
"What the hell number is that?" It's a hospital number, but I don't know which one.
I call. It's the nursing station outside Pop's room.
"George," the unknown nurse starts. "Mr. Poke passed away about ten-thirty. I'm sorry. I thought you might want to come down."
"Yes, yes," I say. "I'll be right down. Gimme a minute. I don't know how to act." Pop passed away while we were making love.
"I understand, Sir. You just take your time."
My breath is gone. The adrenaline is flowing, but I know it has no where to go. It's a hole so big you could drive a yellow school bus through it, and my feet won't move.
I look at Cheryl Ann. She's so pretty. She has on a long silver gray nightgown. Her shoulders are bare. Hair down. Golden curls are spilling all over her shoulders. My dad is dead and I'm thinking about Cheryl Ann's permanent.
"I'll be right there," I repeat and hang up the phone.
"I'll go with you." I'm not sure how she knows.
"You don't have to, Baby."
"I want to," she says. She's dressed before I am.
It's a strange drive to the hospital. I don't remember it, but the car goes on automatic pilot. Weird thoughts keep going through my head. I'm rich, I think and am immediately sorry for it. Cancel that thought. Cancel, cancel, cancel.
Too late. It's already in my mind and it'll never go away.
Everyone is so nice when we get there. They get the on-call priest. They take me in the room and show me Pop's body.
Damn, he looks asleep. I try to wake him up, but when I touch his body he's cold. Cold is the only way I know he's dead.
"He passed away in his sleep," the nurse says. "I checked on him at ten. By ten-thirty he was gone. I don't think he felt a thing."
It really looks that way. There is such peace on his face. Not like the last few days when he was out of his head and mumbling his prayers so loud they had to move him to the end of the hall--he had his own private little monastery.
I didn't even go up to see him that day. The last one to see him was my daughter Jennifer. I think she's forgiven me for blowing off her birthday dinner. Cheryl Ann wants to take her out for lobster. Jennifer has never had lobster.
Somewhere in the last twenty-four days since he entered the hospital, I said, "Watch what I do here, Jennifer. You'll have to do this for me someday."
Not good. Not good at all.
The last time I saw him, he said, "How many people we got to take care of?" He meant, when you send me to a nursing home, will I ever come back? Or will you and Cheryl Ann get married and leave me here?
I told him, "It's just us, Pop. Just you and me." And he smiled.
Now, I look at him at peace and wonder if telling him made any difference. It's January 13th. Cleo was off by only one day. Incredible! How could he draw such an accurate sentence from such malleable symbols?
"Could you all leave us alone, please?" I ask. And the nurse and Cheryl Ann leave the room.
I sit in the chair next to his bed for awhile. We say nothing. I wait for him to speak, but he won't communicate. Life wants us to be mediocre, I think. You step on a Ladybug in Missouri and a kid falls dead in Afghanistan. You cast a spell--ask for change? You never know what's gonna happen.
"Was I a good son?" I ask. "Did I do it right, Pop?"
He doesn't answer. I guess that's okay.
Gary Cadwallader (email@example.com) lives in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a former fine arts major who has switched to writing because it is the most visual medium available... and it's cheaper.
InterText stories written by Gary Cadwallader: "The Greatest Vampire" (v6n1), "Something in Between" (v10n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 Gary Cadwallader.