Read time: approximately 25 minutes
Christina brings humanity and humor to Robert, the bedraggled protagonist of "Gethsemane." Join us as Robert retraces his steps through a day that landed him in a jail cell.
By Christina Robertson
Robert’s melancholy had turned into self-loathing. The whiskey made the pain of it exquisite, like the light still shining off battle-worn armor. But when the squad car pulled up it all became comical. Pathetic and hilarious. He laughed at their plastic-looking shoes and, as they dragged him to his feet, he tried to compliment the officers on their fastidious array of equipment, pausing to cheese for the body cameras.
The gray walls of the holding cell were gluey with all manner of excretion. He wondered whose happy job it had been to clean in here, and which year they’d given up. There was one other guy in the hold, but he was asleep. Robert was thankful. A headache was coming up and his curiosity had run dry, unlike his cellmate’s nose.
He forgot what he’d been hauled in for exactly. Maybe it was for yelling. Or falling. Laying on the sidewalk in front of that heinous Chinese restaurant. The thing that was important was the officers weren’t funny. All the great old character actors played the cops as Irish, always blustery, bone-headed, benign. And that was his disappointment now. The guys who lifted him up and deposited him into the back of the van like a slab of beef were Hispanic, or anyhow, not Irish. There were no fast wisecracks or colorful threats, no endearingly arched eyebrows. These two didn’t give a shit.
They did give a shit when that bumpy ride through neighborhoods of massive potholes made him yak all over the van floor. Even then they’d only groused about who would have to clean up “the old door knob’s barf.” He’d been called a lot of things, but to his face, and frankly, a lot more poetic.
Their bureaucratic bullshit disinterest is what made it funny when, after they’d escorted him into the hatch and locked it, he’d yelled out, “Gendarme! Je suis innocent! Gendarme!” At least he thought it was funny.
Staring down at a brown stain on the floor he tried to piece together what had set him off in the first place this time. He remembered sliding his SSDI check toward the anus cashier who’d said, “Here ya go, homie,” when he’d counted out and handed over Robert’s cash. He hated guys like that, dopes who bought their cool with overused street slang. Or maybe he hated how embarrassed he’d felt knowing that in no way was he a “homie,” that it was a tease; just a little shave-headed smartass at a currency exchange asserting his status above an old alkie. Anyhow, he’d gone over to the corner store after that, and spent a little on groceries, and some on a twelve pack of Busch and a couple of bottles of Seagram’s.
Robert stuffed his hand into his pocket. He must have spent a lot more on something else because he came up with only thirty-seven dollars. Oh yeah—as he was crossing the parking lot, Flick, who worked the corner of Touhy and Western, had hit him up. He could never turn Flick down. The guy had a metal plate in his head, claimed to, which caused his terrible temper, which caused substance abuse, which caused Flick to lose all his jobs (although Robert only knew of one job which was working the public for money). There was just something about the shabby little guy. He looked like a dirty Montgomery Clift with a lazy eye. He was hopeless and directionless. Each day was a total disaster for him. Robert had a soft spot for terminal losers who were, perhaps, worse off than he was.
The scrap with Mrs. Georgeoulis downstairs—that’s it. That’s what sent him into his cups. What a piece of lousy work she was! After he’d come home with his purchase, slamming him for having one drink on the back stairwell, as if it wasn’t his part of the stairwell, lecturing and gesticulating. Her Greek sounded like spit, like she was hocking it up, then aiming right at him. Her thick hands accused him of a repeat offense. OK, so he liked that spot on the stairwell. It was cool and cleaner than his apartment. She tried to crucify him with nails forged out of words like “children” and “shame.” Robert felt the stab. He’d had a little girl once. He called her his secret little pearl. A watchful, artistic child he hadn’t spent enough time with before Aggie whisked her off, along with most every other vestige of his life, in the divorce. Georgeoulis almost had him with that. He could have crumbled. But he came out fighting. He wasn’t sure now, but was pretty certain he’d called her a beast. He probably followed up with a keen analysis of why her bulimic daughter, Vicky, would rather go to a motel with customers at the end of her night shift at the IHOP than come home. Why her idiot son would be hitting the jackpot if he could land a job cashiering at a filling station.
Robert hadn’t felt bad insulting her. She was obviously no relation to the fabled Ancient Greeks, designers of ideology, creators of language, ministers of thoughtful discourse. Mrs. Georgeoulis was a course old hen, an embittered, husbandless wife. Mr. Georgeoulis had died, of sheer misery, Robert thought.
He experienced the satisfaction of victory when she’d slammed the door to her apartment on him. He’d even bowed, deeply, after she’d gone, a gentlemanly gesture. Then he’d had a long drink. He relieved himself on her begonias. He checked for any kids first, for the record.
But his row with Mrs. Georgeoulis didn’t account for the large chunk of money missing from his pocket. He always kept his bills folded with a rubber band around them. That was undisturbed. Robert ran his hand over the stubble on his cheek. He checked himself for a cigarette he might have missed. He sure had a taste for one. He noticed his cellmate’s fingers were yellowed. If the guy hadn’t been so revolting, and the thought of touching him so loathsome, Robert might have gone over and searched his pockets for a smoke.
There was smoke! Yes, smoke in his apartment! He’d fallen asleep. A little nap it was, only he’d dozed off with a lit cigarette and it set to searing a hole in the little throw pillow, the one Aggie had made for his armchair when they first moved in together in 1979 (and didn’t take when she left). He’d simply put out the cig, tossed the pillow off, and gone back to sleep. He’d awakened coughing, to a room filled with smoke, and banging at the door. Tiny flames lapped at the edges of the rug. Reeling, blinking hard, Robert had opened up to behold, through the smoke, creatures from the Black Lagoon.
The fire department heroes had pulled him out into the hall, then moved in, looking superhuman in their firefighting get-ups. As they worked they’d made Robert feel small, stupid, and vulnerable. After the flames were out, using official fire-speak they chastised him for his negligence and bullied him about the lack of a home smoke detector. If Mrs. Georgeoulis hadn’t called when she did, they said Robert very well might have been “consumed.”
Robert had never thought of himself as a giant bratwurst before. The image came and he’d snorted. The superhero hose draggers didn’t take kindly to that.
“I guess there’s no sobering up from stupid.” One said to the others as they were gathering their things.
“Have some coffee man,” the last hero said to him quietly, “and get some help.”
“Thanks. You get some boots that fit.” Robert retorted, amusing only himself. The quiet firefighter shook his head. The smart mouthed one said, “At this point, ya probably should close your mouth and open a window.”
They left. The apartment stank. Robert couldn’t cope with cleaning up. He hadn’t wanted to look at the pillow. Stuffed into it were the best and worst days of his marriage. The slick gush of wet paint as the climax of his feelings for his student Agatha rushed forth in joyful strokes; the desperate clutch of her lovemaking; their budget honeymoon on the rooftop of the apartment building, and then her sad eyes after he began to lose his grip, when too many deadlines were missed. Then little Pauline, born feet first, stubborn, an art spirit, a reincarnation bringing tears to his eyes, and later, the discovery of her empty room, of all the empty rooms when they’d left.
He did push open some windows and motioned fresh air into the place. Then he’d splashed Seagram’s into a travel mug and departed. He didn’t lock the door, there was nothing to take. Stepping out onto the sidewalk he’d paused for a second to call out to his neighbors (undoubtedly gossiping now), “Sorry all, I survived!”
Sauntering down the block, he aimed for the bus stop and boarded the first bus that arrived. Robert often played this game. He’d get on whichever bus pulled up first, no matter its direction. Each route had a particular destination point for him. He’d curated these spiritual oases over the years. Places to get lost. Sometimes he got off a half a block or so from the steps of The Art Institute, his alma mater, and to whom he still owed money. Robert figured it was OK; being out of work was an essential in an artist’s job qualifications. In any case, they hadn’t pursued collection since he’d called up, disguising his voice, and told them Robert Galen was dead. This place was a generous, forgiving mother. Sitting on the lap of her marble steps he could hear her say, You screwed up Robert, but you’re still my favorite.
Other times he’d get off at the university and check out all the earnest, deluded young faces. Immersing himself in a world of youth in motion, their blind faith extracted him from the pantheon of failure he had built for himself. The washed up, never-really-made-it-anyhow old artist could be, and was, invisible there.
If he crossed the street and took the bus in the opposite direction it would let him off at the stop that was not far from a narrowed branch of the Chicago river, and a place among the shrubs and reeds, an old wooden bench, lost in the weeds really, that brought him back to his childhood. There he would reminisce and blame and watch for the occasional beaver.
But the bus that came first today had been one that passed Solveig’s garden. So be it. He got on. The last visit he’d paid her was over a month ago, a month after he’d walked out of the open meeting of the dried up losers’ club. She might even be worried about him. Nah, why worry about someone, as she’d said, “determined to kill themselves?” Solveig shot from the hip in a distinctly unfeminine way, but damn she was real, bursting, her humanity climbed on top of you and you felt the weight of it. Those curses and curves of hers could wake a dead soldier. And her eyes were maybe evidence of God. Robert settled into a seat, nursed his travel mug, and, succumbing to the inevitable pull this direction had on him, watched the gray part of the city slide away.
By the time he’d reached her neighborhood he stumbled off the bus steps and into a bright patchwork of independent cafés, rental houses, hippy stores with hand painted signs, and a new CBD shop. Amused, he thought about how time can unspool, go backwards after all. He turned into the alley beside Rocco’s Tattoos, and soon showed up at Solveig’s back gate. She was outside in her garden, working on one of her ridiculous and yet curiously uplifting sculptures.
“Ephemera!” He blasted, mocking her. She looked up, squinting.
When she saw it was Robert, she smiled (did he detect imposition in her expression?) and motioned him in. God, she was beautiful. In the gold of the late afternoon, her skin was peach and mauve, her hair, twisted on top of her head and fixed with a pencil, was a rich yellow ochre, her Rubenesque body worship worthy. And those eyes. Two sirens, straight out of Homer, singing him into deep water.
“What the fuck, man?” She teased. “How the helluv you been, you rogue-ass rambler?!” Robert didn’t care for her language. She’d be better off silent, but it seemed, it came with the package.
“I’ve been wrestling the world for my soul.”
Solveig nodded, laughing. She got it.
“Hey, whaddaya think?” She indicated her enigmatic sculpture of epoxy-bonded refuse and random geysers of living green plants.
His brows tangled, then Robert grumbled, “It’s not for me, my dear. But some insufferably PC, metrosexual punk will dig it, I’m sure.”
Solveig had anticipated this type of response. She nodded again and again, laughed. Or maybe she conjured a laugh. He knew he was setting her on the road to become annoyed.
“Whatcha got in the mug there?” She pried.
“A wee bit of the devil.” He offered her some. Her hand went up right away.
“No, man. Shit.”
“It might help coax what’s left of your art spirit out of its coffin.” He looked around then, admiring her garden.
“Speaking of coffins, I see you’re still working on yours.” Solveig shot back.
“Oh, yeah, coffins generally are.” She wisecracked.
“This. Your garden, dammit.”
Robert did love her little half acre. With hefty determination she had transformed a few old, forgotten parking spaces and a patch of weeds into a retreat that spit in the eye of the urban rat race. She was a wizard with living things, knew all about them. She always brought some flowers from her garden to add to the coffee and donut table at the AA meetings they’d attended. That is how he’d first noticed her. She was sniffing each flower before tucking it into a little vase she’d set beside the creamer. The sad beauty had nearly crushed him.
“Too much midday sun now that that old mother of an elm had to come down. My irises just get fried. Damn peonies explode in a day. Fuck, it’s bumming me out.” She went over to a mound of bowing bubble gum colored blooms that looked as though they’d been tortured. Petals were strewn all around in the dirt like bits of shrapnel. “Look at this. That goddamn sun is merciless.”
For a moment they stood in silence.
“Sol, this is your masterpiece.” Robert gestured about the garden and lost his balance. He saw in her face, tolerance shut down.
“Robby,” she’d sighed, “thank you.” She’d paused, looking at him squarely with those mythical eyes. “But babe, you gotta go. I know it’s been hard for you . . . but, I’m gonna hope to see you back at a meeting. There is one tonight at the high school down on Division, in the gym. Come.” She headed back over to her work. As far as Robert was concerned, she’d only ruined the moment.
“Your eyes are beautiful, Sol, but they’re bloodshot just like mine.” Robert snapped defensively
“Go on, my friend. See you soon. Work your steps.”
“You work your piece of crap there.” He’d retorted. He knew he’d reached a drunk that wanted to get mean, entering a well-worn window of inebriated superiority. “Robby . . .” he’d uttered, echoing her sarcastically, then took a deliberate gulp from his travel mug and wove back to the gate, snapping off a blown peony and tossing it in the air. She said something, maybe one of her ubiquitous fuck yous, but he hadn’t been listening anymore.
She had definitely put a cramp in his style. He couldn’t shake it. The lusciousness of her. Her smooth voice. Her scrappy, unfeminine words. Good, sharp words, like a whipping. Her stoic love. Her superb and vulnerable garden. Shit, he wished the bus to the university or the hidden bench had pulled up instead of hers. Then he might have been absorbed into the future or into the past. He could have been carried away on familiar warm seas to places of anonymity, or better, fantasy. Away from a life choking on rules and definitions, smoke detectors, cheap language and guys with metal plates for brains. Escape the world of lazy art and lazy thought. Insufferable righteousness. What in the hell should he sober up for? To embrace all the losses? All the obstacles? The denial of grants, the gallery rejections? Loss of respect? The ugly suicide attempt? The bitterness of an ex-wife? A daughter who pitied him? Shame? Disenfranchisement? A life to hide in the weeds.
He’d taken to the alley, then turned and ambled down the street, passing by silly, self-righteous, politically correct candle shops and vegan restaurants. He remembered stopping and blinking at a storefront display of faceless, genderless mannequins in colorful flowing outfits. The look was kind of eighties roller queen meets Jesus. “Flew-id” was the name of the place. Though he didn’t really get the name, Robert guessed the amorphous yet curiously suggestive clothing was some kind of trend satisfying this baffling new preoccupation young people had with their sexual identities. He was glad things were simple in his day: there were men, gals, and the occasional faggot. Fags never had bothered him. He’d known several in art school who were damn talented in fact. The lesbians were good too, the rouge-less women who weren’t interested in him. Well, Robert guessed, whatever is going on now is a hell of a lot better. Let it all hang out. Be whoever you want to be. Staring at his own reflection layered upon a pair of neoprene shorts, he toasted this thought with his travel mug. Laughter emerged as he thought, maybe hoped, Solveig was a lesbian.
People were avoiding him. A messy-bunned girl with gigantic, gaping holes in her ears put a hand on his shoulder outside the CBD shop. Offered to buy him coffee. Her touch had sent a current through him. Standing in the cell now, he remembered that. The current was startling, warm. Something interred deep within himself had, for a dash of a second, been exhumed.
Suddenly it came to him, like a forgotten password: Gethsemane Gardens.
That’s it. The money—Robert remembered where it had gone. He’d lost some time; must have been when he’d taken the tumble in front of the Chinese place and lay there, blurry, feeling himself sink into a crap load of loneliness and self-hatred. People stepping around him as if he was vomit on the sidewalk. No. No, before that.
Now it came clear . . . paying his money out at that city garden supply place he’d passed, the one with the high green fence and grandiose name. He’d been drawn in by a pair of striking silhouettes; without taking his eyes off them, he’d handed his money right over to some little scraggle-bearded eco-twerp in a zombie T-shirt for a couple of fairly large, stunning Beech trees. Yeah! He’d seen those raised arms fluttering their glossy, plum colored leaves against the cerulean sky and decided right then to have them delivered to Solveig. Back alley Horae for her peonies, against that bitch of a Sun.
A tentative smile moved the stiff creases in his face. Verging on sober now, he stared through the worn bars of the holding cell, its awfulness pinned to the present moment like a badge to a uniform, owning each sickening throb tumbling through his head. The pain was inevitable and necessary. If for only just this moment, his burden of regret was lifted. At least what he’d done this time felt right. Yes . . . maybe that was a rat’s ass, a small reason to go on.
He wheezed a cough and spit, glancing over at the runny, drooling sad sack asleep on the other bench. He knew what that bench smelled like. He strained his gazed out into the hall again. He felt a bit ill. And ready. Where were the tough old turnkeys in this armpit?
“Hey! Gendarme! Got any joe out there?!” He heard the roughness in his own voice.
“Hey!” He waited. “Hello! Officer! What do I have to do to get some coffee?!”
An answer came. “Shut up.”
Robert had to smile. Massaging his temples, he conjured up the high school on Division street, its echoing halls and folding chairs, whether or not there might be cider donuts at the meeting tonight. Mostly he remembered how the bright gym lights made him want to tell the truth. How truth felt like sharp stones under his ribs. And about the others who would be there—the people he’s so often looked down on, the dried-up losers club—braving that, submitting, revealing, willing, turning their pockets out. And about Solvieg’s hair in that brightness, burnished gold, escaping its clip in willful curls, her simple offering of flowers on the table, her blunt words holding him accountable, coaxing with the light, reassuring him there is still a world in which to exist.
reprinted with permission
Christina had this to say about "Gethsemane":
In my work with fragile people, I experienced numerous unexpectedly humorous moments and anecdotes, and hard-won epiphanies—sometimes my own. I lived through many awakenings, was personally humbled many times. The people I knew and those I worked with struggling with alcoholism, mental illness, and their corresponding losses bared complex truths about life and sorrow which they revealed in a weaving of hardscrabble language, fevered imagery, and poetic instinct. Often what saved us all from buckling under the weight of it, the fear of empty futures, was humor. Irreverence. Blasphemy. I’ve known Robert for a very long time.
Christina Robertson’s (she/her) short fiction and memoir have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Sunspot Literary Journal, Midwestern Gothic, the anthology Eclectically Heroic (Inklings Publishing), as well as other print and online publications.