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Chris Semansky


It's November 19, 1978, and the headlines in the papers at the 7-11 say that more than 900 people have taken their own lives in a bizarre Kool-aid suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. I'm going door to door in a run-down apartment complex in Oxnard, California balancing a trayful of costume jewelry in one hand, knocking with the other. At 23A a woman – girl, really – answers the door. Her skin's the color of whole-wheat bread, and she's wearing a string bikini. Ocean blue. She can't be more than eighteen.

"Hola senorita. Yo soy missionaro para la iglesia . . ."

"Speak English."

I provide the usual opening line: I'm with the church, we're having a fundraising drive for a summer camp, we're selling jewelry. The apartment's nicer than the others in the building. No velvet pictures of Jesus or J.F.K. on the living room wall, no wailing children, no gaggle of dirty men swilling beer in the kitchen. There's a matching love seat and couch, clean white carpeting, and a wallful of books. I'm thinking twenty-dollar sale. Minimum.

She picks through the box, occasionally lifting a piece from the board and trying it on. After a few minutes she settles on a necklace, a cheap puca and coral number, then lopes into the bathroom to study herself in the mirror. From the couch I can see her back. She's undone the top of her suit and stands facing the mirror. The thin white strip crossing her brown back reminds me of the dividing line on the Santa Monica Freeway. It's been almost a year since I've kissed a woman.


No time to get adjusted to showering with two other men in a stall meant for one. You didn't ask questions, you just hopped in. George Hershon had bottomed out this particular day, spent the afternoon in a seedy movie house watching "Debbie Does Dallas," his product box shoved under the seat next to wads of rumpled Kleenex. He had sold one enamel pin, a Yosemite Sam, for three dollars to a drunk biker on Pico Boulevard. And that by accident when he sat taking inventory under a stop sign. As penance for his meager earnings, Commander Hayashi orders him to fast for three days, starting tonight. On top of that he's hit with a twenty-one minute cold shower condition. When he slides in, Stephen Cleary and I slide out. George's chest and legs gleam lobster-red when he finishes, and he shakes violently, teeth chattering. Tucked inside his sleeping bag, his body tugs and jerks like some huge animal caught in a trap.


A fat cholo in a black hairnet and with teardrops tattooed on his cheeks jumps Jim Boothby, scattering the bouquet of silk flowers Jim had clutched in his fist. He's holding a sharpened screwdriver to Jim's throat, demanding that both of us turn over our money. We had just begun the Pacoima blitz, a downtown smorgasbord of cheap Mexican dance halls, store-front bars, and restaurants. It's by far the best blitz in our region. With the right attitude, good weather, and a cooperative spirit world, two people can easily earn three hundred dollars a piece in a night's work. We make about thirty-five dollars in the first bar, a dive named "Obreros," packed with campesinos and heavily made up black-haired women in red dresses, and hand over the wad of ones without protest. All I can think of is Stuart Rooney, a nineteen-year-old brother from Wheaton, Illinois, paralyzed for life the month before when two punks outside a Denny's in Pasadena bashed in his skull with a Louisville Slugger after he refused to surrender his wallet.

"I thought they were kidding," Stuart said. "I thought Heavenly Father would protect me."

"God doesn't kid, only Satan," Commander Hayashi said.

The rest of the night until pickup we pass in a greasy taqueria, Jim praying for forgiveness, me working my way through a bowl of bad menudo. Scent from the tearose oil on the flowers mix with the smell of tripe and grilled tortillas. It's a strange nausea, but because of our exhaustion it seems familiar. Almost anything would.


These aren't the pictures I show to Jenka. The ones I show to her are of me and a few church brothers goofing it up on the shores of Lake Tahoe, or of the entire team, chopsticks in hand, scarfing Chinese around a huge oak table. Or of me perched at my makeshift Sombreros y Accessories stand on Centennial Boulevard sipping coffee, hair so short I could be a ROTC recruit. I'm pleased, but a little disappointed, that my having been part of a popular cult doesn't shock her as much as I thought it would. Even her mother wasn't upset when she found out. The only question she had was about Easter. She wanted to know what a Moonie Easter was like.

The pictures I don't show Jenka are the ones that keep coming back. Bits and pieces of them floating around the edges of my memory like so many partial eclipses. Deep into my third year hawking flowers and hustling product for True Parents I sank so far into myself that the hand of God itself could not have pulled me out. Every utterance, every act, every watery feeling of well-being was an effect of Providence. A plan existed and I had finally found my part in it. It mattered little whether I acted or someone acted on me, whether I spoke the words or the words spoke me, as long as there was a place with my name on it, an equation in which the terms of my existence were indispensable. That was not how I felt when I walked into our team's room at the Motel 6 in San Ysidro an hour ahead of prayer and saw the bodies. Five brothers, five of them, were doing it to little Karen Stanley, our team mother. They were in her from behind and below, and one of them, Captain Andy Pattavino, was moving in and out of her mouth while he shouted orders to the others. It's the way he looked at me when I walked into that room that returns now. It sticks more than the helpless expression on Karen's face, or the incipient shame on the faces of the other brothers. The look said: This is my team, and if you don’t like it, get off the team.

But these pictures, these faces, they don't keep me awake. They're more like colors that show up unexpectedly on days when nothing much seems to be happening, or when everything that does happen happens monochromatically. Even the word bores me.


This isn't one of those days. Jenka has just telephoned to tell me that her father was hit by a van. He was walking across the street at dusk and a blue mini-van, lights off, struck him head on. She said they found his glasses, unscratched, more than a hundred feet away. That's all she can get out.

"Well, did the driver stop?"

A minute passes. Two. "He's in the hospital in critical condition. He's unconscious."

This is happening to her. It isn't grief yet. When I see her later in the week it's still not grief. Her father's off the respirator and recovering, but abdominal surgery has turned up a tumor the size of an orange. She stutters when she tells me this. We're at the Gateway, a tacky bar and eatery off Elmurst Avenue done up in a seaside motif, though we're miles from any beach. It's a short two blocks from the subway, and denizens sip beers before heading up the hill, fanning out into the densely built neighborhood of three-family brick homes and row houses.

"He looks so small in that hospital bed, like he's going to disappear any minute." Her fingers slide around the frosted beer glass, like she's trying to sketch something into it, the way you write your name or make a face in a window full of steam. Or into a new pavement that has yet to harden.

I am once removed from myself, at least once. Every time I try to convince myself that this is real life, not the movies, I fall a little deeper into the script. I am a different kind of witness.

"Did they catch the guy yet?"


"The guy who hit your Dad. Did they find out who it is?"

"I don't know. I don't think so, no."


Hand painted with beeswax and glazed, Ukrainian Easter eggs can take up to eight hours a piece to make. Mine is blood red with a white band around the middle filled with smaller, more intricate patterns, and two diamonds with crosses in their center above and below the band. That's the best I can do for a description. If you saw it you'd see the design's much more complex, more detailed than that. I know the figures mean something, but I can't remember what. The egg sits in a black wooden egg holder on top of my refrigerator next to a three-inch high transparent plastic skull filled with candy, so I see it, or have the possibility of seeing it, whenever I open the refrigerator door. It's the most tangible and persistent reminder I have of our time together. Sometimes I'll pick it up and shake it, just to hear the hardened yolk rattle around.

Over pitchers of cheap beer in the neighborhood pub Jenka would tell me about Kiev and the war, how her father couldn't do anythingbut fight with the Germans. The Ukraine was being squeezed, she said. You made a choice, or one was made for you. Now, forty years later, her father is so afraid of Nazi hunters that their family rents a P.O. box and uses an Anglicized version of their name, just in case. Sometimes she'd speak to me in Ukrainian, and I wouldn't understand a word. But I'd catch the gist of things. We used to sit in the back booth with Jack Plinski, a thin pale guy from Staten Island who wore a shamrock earring and a "Bobby Sands Lives" button on his ratty denim jacket. Jack had a great grandmother who was one-eighth Irish, and using that as his trump card, he'd piss and moan about the "bloody fuckin Brits" who occupied his homeland. Jack the one-trick pony. Jello-matic Jack, we called him. Some people get hold of a cause and they won't let go. Only the cause isn't what they're holding on to. It's not that I didn't like Jack. It's just that I prefer natural trees to polyurethane. If something's empty, let it be, I say. Time alone's enough to fill it up.

And empty it out again.

When her father finally passed away, after weeks of hallucinations, after hours of bedside visits and strangled pronouncements of love, Jenka called and told me. That's when the grieving starts.


What do you call it when you stop seeing with your eyes, when everything that happens happens inside someone else, when even in the most illuminated space the best you can hope for is a peek, and even then that peek seems to take place years later?

Consolidation was the first thing you felt when you walked into our apartment, the sense that things had lost their use, been bunched into one spot, where they could be retrieved if and when needed. Which they had. In the few weeks after her father's death Jenka had shifted the contents of the living room to the center. Sofa, La-Z-Boy, end tables, desk, stereo, everything had been moved from their corners and clustered in the middle of the room. When I asked her why, why she had moved everything away from the walls, the corners, she said it was because she felt surrounded, that she wanted to know the shape of the room itself without the things that went into it.

"You mean you can't tell by looking at the walls?," I asked.

"Not these walls."

For three months I'd come home from work to find the curtains drawn, Dvorak on the stereo, and Jenka in the corner in a half trance, rocking. In the dark the heap of brown furniture looked like props from an abandoned set.

Here we are under the window sitting side by side, our shoulders just kissing. Her spine is slumped and tired. Her breathing heavy, her eyes closed. I imagine she feels her way through the day like a slug feels its way through dirt. She'd wince if she heard me say that, though she's often claimed the slug as her favorite "animal." I'd given up trying not to romanticize her, what she said was my normal way of viewing women. She used to claim that I saw her in a way that suited my own needs, but what I couldn't understand was that she was a human being before she was a woman.

"Before you were a woman?," I'd ask.

Jenka left me little room to breathe, yet my lungs were always full. That last line could easily appear in a Hallmark card. Stuffed in a fat red envelope with a LOVE stamp slapped in the corner. What's wrong with any of this, I still don't know. How do you describe what's tethered to the end of a long rope when the rope itself eludes description? Jenka had brown hair. Her mouth formed a perfect O when she laughed.


Doctrines don't excite me. I couldn't care less about rationalizing, rooting around in the why of things, the tangled algebra of assigning blame. The groupness of it all's what I loved. Shedding the skin of so much private desire. Not false desire, just too much. Objectless and kaleidoscopic. And no place to take it. In groups you can remain quiet without anyone bothering the point, or you can ramble on stupidly and it won't matter because someone else will start talking and the trace of your own words gets erased, covered up by the soundtrack of other voices. It's not that other people do your thinking for you; sometimes it's just easier to be part of the general babble, a willing member in the congregation of syllables fluttering along, meeting and changing the shape of whatever comes next.

During my first month at Camp K I lost almost all of my possessions including my boots and jacket, and my backpack, which contained a journal, some R. Crumb comic books, a five-inch switchblade, and a quarter ounce of hi-grade sensimilla I had squired away in two film canisters. I later learned that they had been piled with the belongings of other new "guests," holy salted, then burned, purified of the fallen world. Left were my bedroll and comb. And a small pocket mirror, which I kept under my pillow when I slept. Marcus Palmer, an older brother who bore an uncanny resemblance to Peter Tork of The Monkees and who had been appointed my guardian angel for my stay at the commune, swore innocence, said it wasn't unusual for the spirit world to collapse on itself and devour things in the material world.

Here's a good one: every human being is responsible for the transgressions of the seven generations preceding him. Example: if your great-great-great grandfather in Slovenia cavorted with a local seamstress behind your great-great-great grandmother's back, the next seven generations (at least) would live in the wake of that action, held accountable for the deed until sufficient atonement was made, voluntarily or not. Being visited by the sins of the Father never meant so much as in the Unification Church. Whenever something unexplainable or unfortunate occurred, say for example, you broke a leg tripping over some loose spinach on the kitchen floor, some brother or sister in their knowing way would inevitably chime up, "Whoa, you must be carrying some really heavy indemnity."


During the first week in April I returned home to find all of our kitchen utensils, Mr. Coffee, Veg-o-matic, pots and pans, thrown in the trash and our tropical fish, Rasputin and Jerry Atric, lifeless, next to a lemon rind in the sink. Our formica table had also joined the mound of living and bedroom furniture which stood as our domestic Stonehenge. Jenka sat slumped in the bedroom closet.

"They're back," she said, without looking at me.

"They're back?"

She nodded her head. "They" were the apartment ghosts, not necessarily her father, not necessarily anyone we knew or had known. Before his death, sometimes at night the wind would blow through the open windows and we'd both shiver, feeling something more than the simple bite of cold weather on our skin. Once we woke simultaneously from a bad dream, the same dream. Buried up to our knees in the midst of a scrapyard we'd be dodging hunks of metal dropped from above by a huge yellow crane which roamed the yard. You couldn't see the driver of the crane. It seemed as if there were none. Occasionally a piece of debris would catch a part of our head or torso, tearing off a chunk of flesh. "They" was an ominous signifier, but it was one which carried with it an alluring strangeness, because "they" came so rarely, and their visits were so short.

I asked her about the fish.

"They were too much."

"Too much?"

"Too many eyes, too much stuff."


"Everywhere, just stuff. Things. What good are they?"

"It's not going to stop, you know."

She took a deep breath and started to cry, then stopped. "I can't do it anymore."

When I returned from work the next day she was gone. No note, no explanation. A message from her sister was on the answering machine, saying that Jenka was okay, that she just needed to be away from me for awhile, and if I loved her I wouldn't call.


Brothers on the left, sisters on the right. Father moves through the middle like Moses through the Red Sea, now pointing to a man, now to a woman, then clapping his hands, sealing his choice. His aide-de-camp and translator, Bo Hi Pak, trails obsequiously, his mincing steps comical in their staccato patter against the hard carpet. The brothers are mostly under thirty, clean shaven, and dressed in suit and ties. The sisters, even the homeliest, look fresh scrubbed. Their white and pink dresses reach their knees. This is an engagement ceremony, a "matching" in churchtalk. The idea is that we'll spend eternity with each other, be the glue for God's kingdom on earth, the human infrastructure of paradise in a world full of sin. It's a paradise under construction and we are being contracted out. When I was twelve I saw the Orioles play for the World Series. This is the closest I can come to describing the anticipation, the smother of jolts that we felt in that room. All six hundred of us.

Cecelia Maria Benitez is my match, a light-skinned sister with bad teeth who works as a recruiter for the church in downtown Rio de Janiero. Her father ponied up the fifteen hundred dollars she needed to make the trip to New York City for the ceremony. Like most who had heard about the Church, he wasn't sympathetic, or crazy about his daughter bopping off to North America to link souls to another Church member. Not in Madison Square Garden. Not in a spectacle that would make the Guiness Book of World Records. But she had been involved with the movement for six years and, more than anything else in her life thus far, it seemed to make her happy. I'm not that pleased with Cecilia, but I agree to the match. For the glory of God, the future of heaven, and all that. By the end of the week, I can't go through with it. A month after that I drop out of the church and return to school. That's where I meet Jenka.


What happens to anyone is what I always ask. The story of my story is the story of rain, not the story of my life. That happens in between things, which itself has no shape. When someone begins falling, there's always an impulse to save them, to rescue them from a sure and sudden ending, to delay what may seem inevitable in the short term. If that someone is yourself, or someone who feels like it might be you, maybe instead of catching them you push harder. And maybe you wind up back in the middle, or at least in a place that feels like the middle. If you knew what your beginning was.


I never call back. Days and weeks pass, then months. Then a year, then five. I leave the furniture where it is, even toss in a few things myself from time to time. Hangers, plunger, pillows. The mound grows. Phone never rings. Ghosts never re-appear. I quit my job and move out of the apartment, drift up and down the East coast taking dead-end work long enough to screw up, get fired and collect unemployment. I talk to few people, think about little, remember less. Mostly I walk, in parks, at beaches, along the outskirts of small towns with their abandoned warehouses and little-used roads. I hunt for places where I can pass an entire day without seeing anyone or hearing any human sounds. Or if I have to see them, I want them far away, little squiggles on distant streets, dots, dashes, a drop of black fading to gray.

One day I walk into town for food. I'm sitting on a bench eating a sandwich. Maybe it 's a piece of fruit. A woman approaches me, smile as wide and empty as the sky. She asks me if I'd like to buy a cartoon pin for her church. She's holding a box full of enamel Tweetie Pies, Goofies, Mickey Mouses, Bullwinkles, Bugs Bunnies, and a black and red cat whose name I can't remember. I give her three dollars for a Bugs Bunny, and she clips it on my jacket and says thank you. She walks away so quickly, there's not enough time for my brain to gather what it is I want to say to her. And when finally she's gone from view I stop trying.

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