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Eraser

By Peter DeMarco


A Charles Bronson double feature plays at the movie theater in our strip mall. I work there as an usher, part-time, until I figure things out.

In between shows, the church pastor stocks up on chocolate at the glass candy counter. He never misses an action movie.

Do you have a favorite chocolate, Henry, he asks me.

I guess it would be Oh, Henry, I say. It was my father's favorite. He'd bring me one every night after work. I was even named after it.

Your father was a good parishioner, he tells me.

I wonder if good parishioner is a euphemism for generous contributor. Every Sunday my father would drop an envelope into the green velvet-lined collection basket. And the pastor would stand outside and shake his hand and say thank you, before driving off in an El Dorado to his summer house out East.

The pastor could've said that my father was a good man for working six, sometimes seven, days a week in his plumbing store to ensure that I had clothes, food and a comfortable place to live, before dying of a heart attack as he was unloading a box of toilet bowl plungers. And for taking care of a dying wife for two years.

After the second feature, I have a break, and the pastor asks me to walk him out to his car. He wants to know about my plans for the future, what's down the road for me. High school's in the rear view mirror, now, he says. Priests were always full of corny metaphors, it seemed. But he did have a point. My father had died just before graduation, and at that time, I had fantasized about going to Hollywood to be in the movies. I had a cousin who did some extra work. He said you stand in a crowd of people for hours, until someone with a bullhorn called for background noise, which was this cue for extras to begin their fake talking. I also thought about being a stunt man. As a kid, I jumped out of trees and rolled around on the lawn, pretending I was shot. My little Dan Duryea, my mother would call me, as she sat on the porch and knit.

I ended up staying at the movie theater where I watched the same movies all day. My father's partner in the store bought out his share, so I had money to remain in the house. And there was always something to do. Cleaning, mowing the lawn, painting.

The pastor tells me that there's a full-time custodial position available at the church and school, if I ever want a change of scenery, or until I make up my mind about the future. I thank him for the offer.

Going to be a hot night, he says. Good night for a swim. Do you use your pool much?

No, I say. I don't even know why I take the cover off. Tradition, I guess.

It was always a pleasure to be invited over for dinner and a swim, he tells me. Your mother was a great cook.

My parents were proud to have our church's pastor over for dinner. They would play their records for him, Ray Price and Tom Jones, The Man of La Mancha, and I'd talk to him about the latest James Bond movie. He'd tell me he was a big Duke fan and how he even got his autograph once.

The pastor starts his car and rolls down the window. Think about the job, Henry, he says.

I will, I say.

He drives off and I think about the way he'd say good night to me after dinner and a swim. He'd pat the top of my head and give an army salute to the G.I. Joe doll I was holding.

See you on Sunday, he'd say to my parents.

***

I'm surprised to find that the girls' bathroom is dirtier than the boys'. Maybe it's because they use more paper. It's all over the place, and hangs on the wall in wet blobs. There's also some graffiti. Miss so-and-so sucks.

I'm almost afraid to touch the metal box on the floor next to the toilet. It's as if it were a giant rock with some hideous bug beneath it. I lift the lid with my foot and stare at the bloody pad. Instinct has me hold my breath, which I release, and then I inhale deeply, seeking to discover a smell, if any, that could arise from the discharge. I wonder if any of these girls, as they sit on the toilet, think about how it's going to feel when a boy's cock enters them for the first time, releasing a new round of blood.

***

In the church parking lot, I run into the pastor.

How do you like the job Henry?

It's ok, I say. I'm going over to the convent to paint the hallway.

Terrific. Could you please tell Sister Kathleen that I'd like to talk about our carnival.

Sure, I tell him.

In the convent, Sister Kathleen shows me what needs to be painted. I've never been in the convent before, or in the presence of a nun. It's pure stillness.

She's dressed casual, not in uniform, which relaxes me a little. And she's very attractive, a little tall, with great breasts. I wonder if she's a virgin. I tell her about the pastor's request, and she says to help myself to lemonade in the kitchen. I think about all those stories I used to read in Penthouse, teenagers having sex with people like their mother's best friend, or a teacher. I couldn't recall anyone having sex with a nun.

The walls of the convent hallway are a dim yellow color. The paint that I'm to use is plain white. I use the roller and take my time. I find pleasure in covering up old water stains, and pretend I'm preparing heaven. But after a while, the monotony makes me day dream and I think about the nun's breasts and the Catholic school girls, with short uniforms and bare legs, using their about to blossom sexual energy to desecrate the bathroom.

The voice behind me is low, a soft Oh, my God, but the effect it has on me is the equivalent of an air raid siren going off in my ear.

I'm sorry, I manage, as my semen drips down the wall. Please leave, Sister Kathleen tells me. I fumble with my pants and sweep the paint roller across the wall one last time, erasing any trace of myself in the whiteness.

***

In a diner, I run over my options. I assume that I've lost my job at the church. I debate going back to the movie theater, or moving out to Hollywood. Or I could go work in the plumbing store. My father's partner said there was always a job for me.

The waitress is a girl from high school. I think she was the prom queen. She serves me a Western omelet and a cup of coffee. Hey, she says, you sat in the back of math class, right. It was really English class that we had together, and I sat in the front, but I don't say anything. In class one day we were talking about reincarnation and she said she'd like to come back as a question mark because this way she'd be a part of every question ever asked. I didn't tell her that I remembered that, too.

When she brings the check she rambles on about what this one and that one is up to. Some of the names I don't even recognize. Then she mentions a girl who died of cancer. There's something familiar about the name but by this time I'm watching the cars coming and going into the topless bar across the street. A lunchtime crowd. Like the diner, the bar has been there forever, with a couple of facelifts over the years. But I guess it didn't matter what it looked like, the cars would still be coming and going.

I leave a good tip and walk across the street. Inside, the men are either in suits or construction worker clothes. I order a gin and tonic at the bar and grab a seat at a small table next to the railing.

The dancer moves close to me. Her body is covered with glitter. Then the name of the girl who died of cancer comes back to me as I focus on a drop of sweat balancing on the dancer's nipple.

She was the fattest girl in elementary school and would neatly line up her pencils in art class and say that she always felt sad when she used a new pencil because the erasers were perfect. She always made fun of me because I drew pictures of monsters, like the Wolf Man and Frankenstein. She'd call me a freak and tell the other kids to stay away from my house on Halloween because I might poison the candy or put a razor blade in a candy bar. An Oh, Henry candy bar, she'd squeal.

One time I left the art room with tears in my eyes and bumped into the new music teacher, a young guy with bushy hair and wire rimmed glasses. He asked me if I wanted to keep him company while he ate his sandwich. So he took me to the music room and showed me a machine that played these round reels, like a movie theater projector. There was a song playing on it, the Beatles, he told me, and he was going to introduce it to the class later on.

I sat there and listened to the words: "Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer made sure that she was dead." It sounded like an eerie song.

I closed my eyes and pictured the silver hammer coming down to erase the fat girl from existence.

***

At home, I go for a swim in the pool, order a pizza and watch an old horror movie. I think about the fat girl who died and prom queens who smell like Western omelets. I even think about the school drug dealer. I'd gone to the bathroom one day in class and when I came back I saw him writing in my yearbook. It said: Hey punk, I hope your summer sucks.

***

My doorbell rings in the morning.

The pastor stands there, a container of Dunkin' Donuts coffee in his hand.

I'm sorry, I tell him. I was going to call you today.

I think we should talk.

I don't say anything.

This is about your future, Henry. You're avoiding something. I feel an obligation to your parents, Henry. Let's have dinner and talk. I know of a good steak place with great desserts. I've got a heck of a sweet tooth. He smiles.

All right, I say.

***

The steak is rare and bloody. Just the way the pastor likes it. He sips from a glass of scotch.

You've been through a lot for a young man.

Do you get feelings for women, I ask.

We do, he says, but we've chosen this life and we have to abide by the rule of celibacy.

Why can't you get married, I ask.

Our focus and commitment needs to be with God, he says. There would be too many distractions with marriage.

He orders dessert. It's my weakness, he says, and it's showing. I don't exercise like I used to.

Then I tell him something that I've thought about for a long time, how I felt like it was my fault that my mother died, because I didn't pray hard enough.

Guilt is a terrible thing, the pastor says. I want you to do something. Next time you get those feelings, I want you to picture a giant eraser.

An eraser, I laugh. But it's more of a response to my memory of the fat girl.

Yes, Henry, I know it sounds silly, but I want you to imagine a tremendous eraser. I want you to imagine that eraser wiping away your guilt. Guilt is useless. It's a cancer of your thoughts.

I'll try it, I say.

During the ride home, the pastor smokes a cigar. I brought along my bathing suit, he says. Nice night for a swim, don't you think? His hand pats my leg.

I'm kind of tired, I say.

Oh, just a little swim, it's good for the soul.

I don't know how clean the pool is.

I'm sure it's just fine, he says, and pats my leg again.

He pulls into my driveway. Go on in and change, Henry, he says. I'll be in the back.

Inside the house, I watch him through the kitchen window. In the luminance of the full moon, I see him put the raft in the water.

An absurd thought hits me that I could drown him. I could tell the police that he'd been drinking and must've hit his head or something. There would still be the fact that I allowed a priest in my pool at night. I didn't know what I was doing anymore.

I put my suit on and walk into the yard.

The pastor looks comfortable on the raft. There's something in his hand. The raft drifts around the deep end, drifts with no direction. I sit on the edge of the shallow end and put my feet in the water.

The raft moves closer to me. I wait for the pastor to say something.

But he's dead. His eyes are open. In his hand is a candy bar, half-eaten, half-encased in that familiar yellow wrapper that I looked forward to seeing every night when my father got home from work.

I call the police. They bring an ambulance and ask me questions. It was most likely a heart attack, they say. I tell them that we had dinner and he'd given me advice because I'd been through a lot lately, and then he insisted on taking a swim, and it didn't make me comfortable, but he'd been drinking and, like I said, he insisted.

The neighbors come outside, drawn by the colorful lights bouncing off the houses and trees.

Soon, everyone is gone, and it's quiet again, except for the pool water lapping against the sides. I told the police that I'd bring the pastor's car back to the rectory in the morning. Maybe I'd be able to keep it, which would be fitting, since my father was a good parishioner.

In bed, I imagine an eraser big enough for God to hold, and I see the priest, and the candy bar with my name in his lifeless hand, disappear.

 

Peter DeMarco teaches high school English in the Washington Heights
section of New York City. Before teaching, he spent some time pursuing an acting career. His stories have appeared in Pindeldyboz and Cadillac Cicatrix. Peter lives in New Jersey with his wife Charmaine, and two boys, Dexter and Sam.
 
 
Photo Diving Boy courtesy of Oystein Bjerkeland, Molde, Norway.

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