KEEPING FAYTH

by E. Ann Bardawill


A cockroach stares up as me as I count what is left of the cash. I’m in the toilet stall of a bus station. The place smells of long neglect, fresh vomit, sweaty paper money.

I separate the bills into three equal amounts. One thin roll goes into a pair of socks in my backpack, another in my inner jacket pocket, the last into my wallet. Got my pockets picked in Vegas once. Never keep my cash in just one spot now.

Despite the reek, I linger to gaze at the cockroach with unexpected affection. A cockroach saved my life once. Long story.

I have a lot of long stories. Sometimes I write them down in those black books you find for cheap in dollar stores. I fill them up and send them back to my lifeline, Lucia. Part travel log, part letter, part diary, but mostly to keep times and places straight if I ever get a chance to tell my side of it all.

One of those journals saved my life once. Another long story.

In the bus station, I shuffle over to a filthy wall to use the payphone. It looks like a drunk took a baseball bat to it recently. I call the 1-800 number.

A canned voice clicks on. “Satori Psychic Hotline. Press ‘1’ for your horoscope. Press ‘2’ for a live psychic- ”

I press my emergency code. 32484. It rings exactly 7 times before Lucia picks up. Depending on how she answers I’m either safe or need to run like hell.

“Keep the faith, baby.” Oh good. I’m safe for now.

“Fuck faith. Talk to me.” Lucia’s lilting voice is a rock in my stormy life. I want a cigarette badly, but vowed only to smoke after sex. That means I’ve quit for good. Another long story.

“Oh Fay! You’re all right! Thank God!”

“Yeah-yeah. I’m fine. Did anyone get caught in the crossfire? Tell me that rat bastard, Welton, caught one in the heart, please.”

“No such luck.” Lucia snorts. “Tommi’s leather coat got a bullet hole through the armpit. Boy, he was pissed. He loves that coat, but he’s happy to get the extra street cred.”

“I’ll bet.” Tommi is okay. Good. I let out a breath. Twice Tommi’s saved my ass from Welton. There won’t be a third time. I’ll gut Welton myself before I let Tommi risk his life for me again. “Listen Lucia, I’m broke and in a bus station. Is there anyone in the Boston area?”

“You bet.” I hear the tapping of a keyboard. “At least sixte- no, sorry. Fourteen. Two died.”

“Gimme the name of a well-heeled one. I need cash.”

Lucia lists a few. One name, Pierman, jolts me. I don’t know the name or anything, but I’ve had these jolts before. Like something, or some one, pinches the back of my neck.

“Him. Yeah. I’ll take Pierman. I note the address in my little black book. “You’re a saint, Lucia. Thanks.”

“I know I’m a saint, but I’m the only one who knows it."

“Yeah-yeah. I know it too.” Saints don’t get annual raises and danger pay, but I’m not going to argue with Lucia. She scares the shit out of me. Well, in a good way.

“I’ll call Pierman’s place and tell them to expect you.”

“Warn whoever that I need food and a shower first. I’ll call you again in a few days. Tell Tommi I owe him.”

“Godspeed, girl.”

“Yeah-yeah.” I hang up.

Godspeed. Lucia always says that. If anyone else said it, it would bug the hell out of me.

***

Never been to Boston before. I study an ancient, grimy map on the station wall. Twenty minutes later I’m on a lurching bus to a treed area. As soon as I get off, the sight of executive homes in the distance makes me feel edgy. Even the sidewalks look expensive.

The looming mansion is surrounded by cold stone fences and black iron gates. I make my way though a meticulously maintained garden to the back. At the servant’s entrance, a well-fed woman answers. I show her the blue dragonfly tattoo on my right shoulder. Her honey-brown eyes widen. She crosses herself, then beckons me in.

Honey-Eyes leads me to a small, clean room in the servant’s section. Down the whitewashed hallways is a cramped bathroom. Plenty of clean threadbare towels are placed ready by the chipped enamel tub. Upstairs, no doubt, there are marble tiles, polished brass and thick bath sheets. I haven’t even met Pierman and already I can’t stand him.

Dried blood crumbles off my leg and slips down the drain. Three years I’ve been on the run and Weldon's desperate. Now he tells his goons to wound me. No use having Lucia circulate fresh rumors that I'm dead. He won't believe it. He'd want to see a body.

Wrapped in towels I return to the room. The bed, a wrought iron relic, is painted a depressing industrial shade. I want to lay down. Instead I pull out my last clean bra and panties from a large Ziploc bag. I find a mostly white T-shirt, a rolled up pair of jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt at the bottom of the backpack. The bloodied clothes have been taken away. Presumably to be washed. My hair is still damp. There is a hairdryer in the bathroom but I don’t use it. I need to eat. Now.

Honey-Eyes places a large platter of fried chicken, bowls of cold salad and a pitcher of iced tea on a worn table in the kitchen. I plow through six legs, five thighs, four breasts, a bean salad and half the pitcher of tea. Honey-Eyes is both appalled by my appetite and extremely flattered that I like her cooking. She stares, her spoon dripping sauce on the floor.

“Where’s Mr…” I pretend to check my book. “Pierman?”

“Upstairs.” Honey-Eyes jerks her thumb up. “We called your people months ago. He’ll be mad it took you so long. It’s too late for him now.”

“I don’t have much say about timing,” I shrug. “It’s one of those fate things.” Honey-Eyes nods and puts the food away. I wipe the grease from my mouth with a paper towel. “Is Mr. Peirman a good man?”

Honey-Eyes doesn’t look at me. She busies herself covering the left over salad with plastic wrap. “He signs my checks. The longer he lives, the more checks he signs.”

“Ah.” I take her answer as a ‘no’.

Pierman’s bedroom smells of human rot, despair and the futile attempts of scented candles to mask the foul odor. His skin is gray-brown, like parchment paper in shadow. His head, covered with wispy gray hair, is propped up by silk covered pillows. The vast bed’s oak headboard is deeply carved with rose blossoms. I examine the carved stems and find no thorns. Typical. He probably shared this bed with someone once, but there is no trace of her - or him - now.

“Fayth Heller?” His voice resembles sandpaper on a steel grate.

“Yes, sir.” I add the ‘sir’ out of courtesy, nothing else.

“You’re so young. I didn’t expect that.” Pierman peers at me, uncertain.

I’m not all that young. It’s probably the street clothes. I dump my backpack on the floor. “Shall I get on with it?” If my attempt to help goes nowhere, then I leave right away. Least said, soonest mended. For me anyhow.

The old man stares at me expectantly.

Honestly, I don’t know what some of these people want from me. I don’t do a song and dance. I don’t pray. I don’t do anything really. I don’t have control over this damn thing -my gift and my curse. I didn’t ask for it, I don’t want it, but I can’t deny it and I can’t not use it. I tried that once. It nearly cost me my life.

Another long story.

Pierman waves a spidery hand at me. “Just like that? No mumbo jumbo or anything?”

“No mumbo jumbo or anything.” I pull a heavy stuffed chair over to the bed. “Can I open a window? It stinks in here.”

“That stink is me. Go ahead.” His tone becomes belligerent. “You’re too late. That damn specialist gave me a few more weeks at best.” He feebly jabs towards his bedside table where syringes fill a medical waste container. “The nurses give me morphine when the pain is bad. It’s bad all the time now.”

The velvet drapes are heavy. I pull them apart to flood the room with light, crank open a window, inhale deeply. Cool spring air seeps in as I take a moment to appreciate the opulent gardens. Oak trees shade a courtyard. Stone paths wind through roses, peonies, geraniums, lilacs and a multitude of other blooms I can’t put a name to. I glance around the Pierman’s room. There are vases, but no flowers. Perhaps he doesn’t like to watch them wither and die.

Maybe I can help this guy, maybe not. People I think worthy are denied. People I think scum are rewarded. I no longer judge my gift in this respect. Not anymore. Who can say who should live or die? Not me.

“You have a first name, Mr. Pierman?” I know his first name. I’m being courteous again.

The sandpaper on steel voice falls to a courser grade. “Robert.”

I crack my knuckles, partly for effect, mostly because I like the sound. “Here’s what’s gonna happen, Robert. I will hold your hand. If my hand gets cold, I can’t help you. If my hand gets hot, that’s a good sign. I won’t make promises about how much you may be healed. It’s not up to me.”

“Who then?” Pierman is sweating now. His skin is so translucent I can see the pulsing webwork of failing veins underneath. His crusted, stubbled mouth twitches. He needs the morphine. Where’s the nurse, I wonder. As long as she stays away, I don’t care. The fewer witnesses the better. If my hand goes cold, I’ll give him the shot. I’ve done it before.

“Damned if I know.” From the corner of my eye, I spot Honey-Eyes watching from the hall. “God. Santa Claus. The tooth fairy. Pick whoever you like.” I shove the chair closer, then drop into it.

I hold Peirman's hand. He winces. I loosen my grasp and wait. We sit in silence for three minutes. Nothing happens. My hand does not go hot. It doesn’t go cold either. I let go of his hand and lean back.

“Why do you want to live?” I reach over and pull a tissue from a depleted box on his bedside table. I may need it, depending on his answer. I’m a sucker for a good sob story. That’s gotten me into real trouble. Another long story.

“I don’t want to die.”

Silence drives people insane. They always try to fill it. So, I wait.

“Isn’t that enough?”

“No.” I raise my hand. “Nothing’s happening.”

“I’m not sure I understand.” He picks at a loose thread on the comforter. I wait but he remains silent. Fuck. I hate it when this happens. I’m not a shrink and I don’t have time for bullshit.

“Mr Pierman,” I crush the tissue in my fist, “let’s say you can get out of bed tomorrow and you’re completely healthy. What do you do with the rest of your life? Maybe you’ve got three more years, or only three months or just three days. What do you do? Go skiing? Screw your girlfriend? Write a poem about daffodils? What?”

Again I wait. Then Robert’s eyes begin to leak tears. He looks at me, really looks at me. His eyes are a dark blue color. Like clear lake water on a cloudy day.

“Watch the sunset. Walk on a beach.”

“Bullshit, Bob.” I’m tired of being polite. “Stop sounding like a classified ad, for fuck’s sake. What do you do? What is the most important thing you do?”

Pierman’s thin fists clench at the stained silk sheets. “I want to find my son.”

“Why?”

“I- ” His lips pinch back a reply.

Honey-Eyes comes into the room. “A woman came to him years ago with a little boy. He gave her money to go away. She died later. He’s trying to find the boy. Hired detectives and everything.”

“Ah.” The writer of checks has regrets. I gently wipe the pooled wet from Robert Pierman’s hollow cheeks. “And if you find your son, then what?”

“Maybe,” he rasps, “forgiveness.”

***

The mattress in my dingy room is lumpy, but I sleep like the dead for a day and a half. For breakfast, Honey-Eyes fries me more chicken. She adds something special, an herb to the oil. I’m not certain what it is but I love it. As I eat, she watches in fascination. I get the same stares from owners of All-You-Can-Eat Buffets. “Protein cravings,” I lick grease from my fingers, eye the plate, reach for another piece. Her gaze slides away from mine.

Pierman’s doctor comes by. I lurk in my room and make notes in my journal. No doubt the good doctor will be gobsmacked by his patient’s miraculous recovery. Perhaps Robert will be mentioned in some future medical journal, a case of unexpected and unexplainable remission.

Like I care.

For experience I know that Pierman will be weak from months of immobility, but it will pass. He is 68 years old, but he might get another ten good years, if he’s lucky. I hope he doesn’t waste them. He wept and promised me he wouldn’t.

Whatever.

My backpack sits on a chair, stuffed with clean clothes and protein bars. My jacket is nearby, disposable cell phones in the pockets. In the lining I’ve hidden a few hundred in cash. Three new addresses are noted in my journal. One is within walking distance. Time to move on.

After the doctor leaves, I go up to say goodbye, but only out of courtesy. Robert Pierman sets aside a small bowl of vanilla ice cream when I enter his room. The window is wide open. A warm patch of sunlight saturates his thick Persian rug. A bird flits cautiously on a branch outside.

“Whom do I make the check out to?” He plucks a pen off the bedside table.

I scribble the information down on a nearby pad of paper and hand it to him.

His grip on the paper is steady as he reads it. “Acme Consultants?”

I prop my feet on the side of his bed. “Inside joke. Long story.” The bulk of my fees I send to Acme. Acme is Lucia. She guards my war chest. One day I’ll be able to fight Weldon on his own terms.

He props the checkbook on one knee. “Your rates are too low. I can pay more.”

“The money is only one part of the payment.” I crack my knuckles against my leg. Old habit. “You owe me your silence and a favor, Mr. Pierman. Please remember, it’s very important you tell no one about me.”

“So Miss Lucia instructed.” He clears his throat, hands over the check. “Look, I can get you more cash. Ten thousand isn’t much.” He sets the checkbook down to pick up his bowl of ice cream again. “You’re certainly not what I expected in a faith healer.”

“How many have you met?”

Robert Pierman smiles. It’s a good, honest smile. “Now that you mention it, you are the first.”

“Thank you, sir.” I stuff the check carelessly in my pocket.

Pierman’s cheeks suddenly flush. I know what he’s going to say. The rich ones always ask. Some insist. One guy named Welton demanded. Repeatedly. Didn’t take no for an answer. Still doesn’t.

“Stay.” His tone is humble, slathered with desperation. “Stay with me. I can -”

“No.” I get up and offer him my hand. He hesitates, then takes it in a strong firm grip. “Good luck finding your son, Mr. Pierman.”

Honey-Eyes packs me a bag lunch, so heavy it weights my backpack down. She walks me out to the gate. The stone path is wet from a morning rain, the vast garden wild with weeping blossoms. Yet another little paradise from which I am, again, exiled.

Honey-Eyes placed the call for the old man. Lucia told me so. I suspect I have been drawn here because of her, not the old man. No idea why. I try not to think too hard about this sort of thing.

Her welling eyes are downcast. Her pudgy fingers twist at a rosary. “God has given you a great gift.”

I take her hands and kiss them. They smell beautiful. Like almonds and cherries. My hands grow hot so I do not let go.

“Tell me your name.”

“Benita.” Her hands squeeze mine back. The rosary digs into my palms. “Benita Lacroix.”

“You make the best fried chicken in the world, Benita. Thank you.” I do not let go of her hands. Not yet. I wonder if she’s aware how ill she is.

“Do you need anything else?”

There is nothing she can do for me, but she is the sort of person who needs to do something. “Pray for me, Benita.” I finally release her.

She would pray for me even if I hadn’t asked. As Benita watches me go, I hear her pray in whispers as she stands under an arch of roses. Real roses. With thorns.

I do not pray. I am expected to, but I don’t. Some pray for me. Some pray to me. In my dreams I think I hear their prayers, but it’s not me who answers. I don’t know who answers. Sometimes I care about that. Sometimes I don’t.

A sparrow flits and bobs in front of me on the sun beaten sidewalk. It seeks safety up on an iron gate as I pass by. Curious, it follows me for a little while, then flies away.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

E. Ann Bardawill is a forty-something owner of a neurotic border collie. The brassy blonde and mother of two hulking teens enjoys composing rude limericks and bumming vodka coolers from cartoonists. She now writes in the horror genre after numerous failed attempts to produce a romance ended unhappily, the heroine eaten alive by a hideous creature. She also writes satire.

E. Ann Bardawill currently lives near Ottawa, and is working on her 3rd novel, a movie script and several short stories in hopes that she will soon be able to afford a decent therapist for her dog.

KEEPING FAYTH is based on a speculative TV series that E. Ann Bardawill developed a few years ago about an agnostic faith healer on the run from a mentally unstable patron and a religious leader, who both wish to exploit a power she cannot control.


Return to Spring 2006 Table of Contents

© 2006 SPINETINGLER Magazine - All rights reserved