Penelope’s dagger


“Parlez-vous Arabic?” Peter Heffalump asks a sailor staggering by in the broken port town where he’d washed up after some serious blackout binging. Padre Heffalump, he’d been until recently, but defrocked now, stained and desperate. Peter Heffalump is disgraced, and in keeping with tradition had gone off the deep end with someone’s credit card, perhaps even his own priestly Mastercard. Way over the limit. Too far to fix it with prayer, and how is it that confession and forgiveness is not the same thing as keeping your job, Peter wonders. He is stained and greasy with the remains of his deconversion. He is not a priest anymore, just some schlub in a foreign country without papers and very much in need of a desk job in which to hide his shame.

Oh shame, Peter said to himself in English, Arabic, French and Lakota. Shame, the smoke that follows the burning bush, the revelation of sin. Sin is smoking, sin is a shakin’ groove thing forbidden to the hierophant and the Igors who serve him. “I kiss your ring, excellency,” says Peter. He imagines the ring sliding on and tightening ever so slightly and then kicks himself – stop it. Like water off a duck’s back, he tells himself, just let it go, but the image of the ring stays with him through one sermon after another.

Peter Heffalump is a poor sad overachiever, a hypochondriac and a toady. His best friend, Penelope Resin, came with him to seminary disguised as a boy and that was maybe an omen, amen. She didn’t stay long and sent him a dagger with her name engraved on the handle, and he had that dagger still, for just in case, just in case. Peter and Penelope ran with the fast crowd in soda shops after school in a mythical fifties that they saw at the drive-in and then in movies of the drive-in and the mythical fifties and then on sitcoms of the travails of teenagers at drive-ins in the mythical fifties until the broken record of pop culture created I like Ike Ike Ike Ike Ike and eventually they believed in it, so much like organized religion, like the blind faith of supply side economics. Peter believed everything he read, heard or saw. He was the most gullible of cultural consumers. Making Peter into a priest was like taking candy from a baby, easy, sweet, and him just looking up innocent and warm, apple pie and caramel, with ice cream melting at just the right moment.

Guilt is a fine thing, and shapely. From genuflection to pop-n-lock to shuck-n-jive to the gyrating pelvis of Elvis and the soul train of priesthood, Peter had a secret that he kept from himself, tightly wrapped in unbleached muslin and pressed against his chondriac. Once in a while he felt it as a pain near his solar plexis, which made him pause, words like plexis, words like solar, words like soap on a rope, slippery in the shower. Peter was prone to absent-minded reflections on sin, which seemed harmless enough until the day that the genie was released and then Peter lost his job, his calling, his address and some of his working vocabulary in several languages.

What would you do? Meditate? Pray? Call your mother? Peter had been a pastoral counselor and tried to give himself advice, but the language of guidance had gone missing along with the guide book and the page he so wanted to be on. A page we can all agree on, he said to himself, sitting in the noisy African port where the smells were so heavy, so spicy and dirty and raw. Back to dry land, must get back to dry land, he muttered, picturing himself as Peter O’Toole, dry-lipped and romantic. So he called Penelope, she of the secret priesthood and the dagger and asked her for airfare home and a couch to sleep on.

And now he is in Oakland, with the window open in her second floor apartment, and outside the air is damp and cool and he hears the sounds of neighborhood. This is a regular city neighborhood, American style. There is barking, a TV sound, the beeping of a truck backing up, an unknown bird trilling somewhere nearby. His heart is a sound too, a rolling, repetitive diadochochinetic sound that is uncertain, murmuring and warm, contrasting with the chill air washing over his forehead. Penelope is gone, gone to her desk job, gone to make some phone calls to help Peter get his first job without a collar, without an order, without an oughta. He does not know the rules of secular engagement, a battle he has not fought since childhood, when bigger boys with names like Bob and Doug and Al held his head in the water and baptized him in fear. Peter left them behind then and now he must interview with them, for jobs like selling lawnmowers, or managing a small print shop, or teaching English, or painting apartments. He fingers Penelope’s dagger, safe inside its small velvet box, and considers his options.

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2 Responses to “Penelope’s dagger”


  1. 1 lollyloo April 18, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    Oh, poor Peter and his peter. Isn’t it nice Penelope still cares, even though his whole life is one big rejection of her? That’s penelopeness for you.

    This is an excellent short short story. Round and complete.

  2. 2 Teresa April 19, 2008 at 6:34 am

    Glad you like it. It has a nice rolling rhythm when I read it out loud. Did you notice that Peter wishes he was an O’Toole? I just did, just now. Made me laugh.


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