The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Feet of Clay

©2007 by Steven Alm

 

At his desk in his dorm room, Cedron Langford reread his mother’s novella, including the epigram from Rumi she had used to introduce it: “No more than three words, my whole in three words: I was raw, I roasted and I burnt.” The story was for class, a survey of modern American fiction, the last literature class he would take in college. Since the novella was considered an important work—right up there with Carson Mccullers and Shirley Jackson—they had been discussing it now for a week.

That the writer was Cedron’s mother put him in a somewhat delicate position vis-à-vis the other students, but not one he couldn’t handle. If anyone asked whether they were related, he always demurred. His mother would not have minded, he knew, and would not have considered it an act of disloyalty, but rather an effort to keep his own individual identity intact. It was not easy. She was successful and famous, having published several works of fiction—mostly collections of novellas—which had met with critical and popular success. Kathryn Flynn Langford was a star, a leading light in the barren literary landscape of the Midwest, and he was proud of her.

What he could not do, however, was read her work critically. For some reason, he didn’t want to understand how the story was structured, or spend time dissecting the layers of symbols his mother had strung on its branches like Christmas tree ornaments, or deconstruct the themes and their meanings in literary terms. Like everything else she had written, he just wanted to read it.

The professor, a friend of his mother’s, did not make this easy, however. The prof had kindly agreed not to divulge Cedron’s identity, but, at the same time, took great delight in calling on him in class. It was so obvious and deliberate that Cedron began to wonder whether the prof has selected the work just to put him to the test.

“What is the Kate Langford saying in this passage, Cedron?”

“Pretty much what it says, Professor.”

“Surely you can do better than that.”

“Not really.”

“Isn’t it obvious that she’s using the image of the bursting chestnut as a symbol for the hero’s ability to break through his shell of reason and allow his intuition to come to the fore.”

“Yes, I do, now that you mention it.”

“You’re usually such a fine scholar, Cedron. Why do you have trouble with Kathryn Flynn Langford’s works?”

“I don’t know, Professor. Maybe, I can’t see the forest for the trees.”

It was a great game, and contested with so much vigor and wit that most of the students eventually caught on. But Cedron didn’t care. Nor did he care about his grade. He didn’t like seeing beneath the surface of Kate Langford’s work, and nothing the prof did or said to him was going to make him change his mind. She was his mother, for god’s sake, not some literary luminary.

Cedron closed the book and pushed the chair away from his desk. He had no intentions of reading his mother’s story again. It was a great day to get on his Vespa and go for a ride. Riding to the small college town near the Twin Cities where his mother lived was perfect, he decided. Maybe, he’d sleep over. If anyone could solve the riddle his girlfriend Wendy posed, it was his mother. Like Wendy, she specialized in creating a babel of words which seemed to have no beginning or end. In her stories, you found yourself in a strange world with no idea how you got there, and once inside, with no idea how to get out. You wandered dark hallways with no lights and no guide except the narrator’s voice. You opened doors and saw what she saw, or what she told you to see. You smelled and touched what the narrator sniffed or touched. You wanted to give into that voice and follow it and flow with it forever, but you knew you couldn’t. It was unhealthy to do so. So, instead, you resisted. You resisted with everything that was in you.

The Vespa (a top-of-the-line model) had been his mother’s gift when he enrolled in college in the Twin Cities (it was her way of telling him how proud she was of him), and now that he was about to graduate, he wanted to show her it had been a wise investment and he was ready to enter the next phase of his life. The next step was going to be difficult, however, if it included Wendy, and he needed to talk with his mother about her. Lately, whenever he broached the subject of living together, Wendy would tell him he had feet of clay—those were her exact words—and then drop the subject, as if that explained why she couldn’t commit to him. Of course, he understood the allusion. It was from Daniel 2:33 and referred to the image from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (having feet partly of iron and partly of clay), which had become a colloquialism for a weakness in an otherwise strong person. When he pressed her to tell him exactly what she meant, Wendy would say only that he needed to figure it out for himself.

He did have one clue as to what that weakness might be, however. It involved his father, or, more precisely, having grown up without a father.

The Vietnam War was one of those things that never seemed to fade from his memory—the war in which his father had been wounded in 1972, one of three hundred thousand in the over two million who had served. His father had been drafted, trained, shipped to Vietnam, and then stripped of both arms in a friendly fire incident. Cedron had met many of his father’s buddies—they called themselves “the band of brothers”—and he was always surprised, even after twenty years, at the way in they talked about their experiences (like traitors who had committed atrocities in the name of some bright shining lie). They always hugged him, told him he looked just like his father, and tried to make him feel like he was one of them.

And, maybe, he was.

Like the veterans, Cedron felt damaged, but in a different way. His father had never held him or changed his diaper or told him that he loved him. He had never played with him at the park or watched him graduate from high school. Cedron had a dad who had gone to war before he was born, spent an eternity in V.A. hospitals, and killed himself with a shotgun with his new mechanical arms when he was only two.

There was a rapid-fire tapping on the door—Wendy’s characteristic knock—which always sounded like a call to arms. He imagined pulling on his leather brogans, blue wool trousers, dark blue sack coat, and his forage cap with the black leather visor, and then reaching for his Spenser repeating carbine before running to his unit, ready to face a fresh Rebel charge. It was not a bad analogy. Wendy was truly formidable. She could best him at almost anything—backgammon, chess, puzzles or games of chance, guessing games, riddles, trivia questions, standardized tests, feats of memory, flirting, puns, jokes, and all forms of conversation. And, also, at making love. She was the most sexual being he had ever encountered—so much so that just hearing her sweet, low Southern voice gave him goose bumps.

“Cedron, open up.”

The thing was, she didn’t look like a vamp. With her shoulder-length blonde hair, pretty face, and Southern charm, she seemed more like an all-American cheerleader from Georgia Tech or a model on a runway in Atlanta. But it wasn’t her physical beauty that attracted him. It was more a mental thing—something that only she had. Even in the midst of lovemaking, when she climaxed like waves thundering against the shore, she still remained just beyond his reach. She never clung to him, never seemed to need him. As a consequence, Cedron couldn’t get enough of her.

But was it love? he wondered.

“Cedron!”

He finally opened the door.

“Oh, hi. It’s you,” he said.

She laughed. “As if you didn’t know.”

Wendy eyed him for a moment. “Is your computer on? I want to check my stock options. You still have the Dow Jones software on your computer, right?”

“It was there yesterday.”

She smiled and headed toward his desk.

He watched as she popped open the top of his portable computer and settled in his chair to use it. As usual, she was a woman of contrasts. Today she wore black flats, black slacks, and a tight red sweater which emphasized her perfect breasts. He was already aroused. It had started the moment she said, “As if you didn’t know…” It was the timbre of her voice that did it, the perfectly modulated Southern drawl with its echoes of Gone With the Wind gentility.

“Shit,” she said. “I’m losing money.”

“You won’t miss it.”

“I will when I’m sixty-five.”

“I’m thinking of riding the Vespa to see my mother today,” he offered.

She spun around to look at him. “Why?”

“I want to see if the scooter’s okay.”

“Now that it’s fixed, you mean?”

“Un-huh.”

“Kiss me,” she said.

“Not now, Wendy.”

“No?”

“No, I’m not in the mood.”

“You’re always in the mood.”

“Not now,” he said, lying.

“Be careful, Cedron,” she said, smiling at him, “or I might take that as challenge.”

“Give it your best shot,” he said.

“Why don’t I come along with you?”

“On the scooter?”

“Yes, of course, on the scooter.”

“You don’t have a helmet.”

“I don’t need one. There isn’t a helmet law in Minnesota,” she said.

“It’s too cold and windy. It’ll mess up your hair.”

“You don’t want me to go,” she said, peering at him with feline curiosity. “Why?”

“No, it’s fine. You can come.”

“Cedron, you’re as evasive as a woman.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What do you think?”

“I just need to talk to Kathryn is all,” he said.

“About what?”

“About what I’m going to do after college.”

“You mean, you’re going to ask her what to do about me, right?”

“Why would I ask about you?”

“Because you’re frustrated and upset that I won’t live with you, and you don’t know how to deal with it.”

There he was, trapped in another box of Wendy’s making. “Tell me again what you want,” he said.

“It’s simple, Cedron. I want someone who will be there when I need him. Someone who won’t run away when times get tough. Someone who isn’t afraid to be himself. Someone who believes in happy endings.”

“And you think I don’t.”

“I know you don’t.”

“Then why do you stay with me?”

“Because I keep hoping that one day you’ll wake up and see what you’re letting slip through your fingers.”

“Wendy, I’m doing everything I can to keep you.”

“Hardly, Cedron. Before we can have any kind of serious relationship, you first need to fix your feet of clay.”

There it was again. That expression. Her catchphrase for everything that was wrong with him.

He lost his patience. “I’ll call you when I get home,” he said.

“You’re dismissing me?”

“Yep.”

“Then don’t bother. I hope you crash and burn,” she growled in her low Southern voice, and before he could say another word, bam, the door slammed behind her with so much force that it shook the cobwebs in the corners of the room.

When Cedron wheeled the Vespa out of storage an hour later, he noticed a note under the plastic belt that ran across the center of the seat. It was from Wendy. “I’m sorry about what I said. Please be careful.” He noticed she hadn’t signed it.

“First she curses me and then she takes it back,” he said. “Vintage Wendy.”

The Vespa started easily and drove like a dream. It actually seemed faster than the year before. He found himself going thirty, forty, and then fifty miles an hour through the city. He enjoyed his little triumph over Wendy and took great satisfaction in repeating the words to himself: “You’re dismissing me?” “Yep.” “I hope you crash and burn!”

He laughed out loud.

Along one downhill stretch on Highway 13, he had the scooter going sixty-seven miles an hour, a new record. To celebrate, kissed the air in wild abandon like a crazy Italian. “I’m stronger than you think, Wendy. Do you understand? I’m stronger than you can possibly imagine.”

Cedron was still celebrating when a Jeep burst onto the highway, seemingly from nowhere, and clipped him in the rear. The impact sent the scooter flying in one direction and him in the other. For a split second his mind floated free of his body. He thought…this is the part where I’m roasted. And then…and when I land, I’ll be burnt.

On impact, he lost consciousness.

Moments later, he came to, and realizing he wasn’t dead, staggered to his feet. His shirt was torn, his right arm was bleeding, and his jeans were ripped through to the skin. In the ditch the Vespa was burning like a scene from a spot on the news.

Where’s the Jeep? he wondered.

Most of the pain came from his right arm. The skin had the consistency of cooked oatmeal—it was mush from his shoulder to his wrist. The elbow was the worst. He stood at the side of the highway and absently picked pebbles and bits of twigs from his arm and tossed them away.

He felt strangely euphoric, as if part of his mind were still “flying” through space. It was then he heard his mother’s voice, speaking to him in the cadenced tones of one of her stories: “If men had wings and bore black feathers, only a few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”

His mind was soaring.

He blinked like a bird and his ears came unstuck. He heard hundreds of crows massing in the trees near the highway, calling to one another in raucous tones. They were getting ready to pair up, he knew. Like they did every year. Maybe he was one of them. A black crow, choosing a mate, getting ready to fly off with her.

Moments later a deputy sheriff’s car rumbled toward him along the gravel strip at the edge of the highway and stopped in front of him.

Cedron took a cab home from the emergency room. His right arm was stitched and bandaged from his shoulder to his fingers. By the time he got inside his apartment and sat on the edge of the bed, the endorphin high had worn off and he began to shake uncontrollably. He was in excruciating pain. Not even the painkillers helped. Reality had returned with a vengeance.

He called his mother to explain why he had not come as promised, saying that he had had a minor accident and was fine. He was relieved when she bought it and he didn’t have to explain. Cedron tried the same story with his girlfriend, but Wendy was too smart to accept it at face value.

“Explain what happened again,” she said.

“Someone hit the Vespa, but I’m okay.”

“Hit it how?”

“With a Jeep.”

“How fast were you going?”

“About sixty-five.”

“Sixty-five! Jesus, Cedron!”

“I’m okay.”

“Where did it hit you?”

“In back.”

“And then what happened?”

“I went flying in one direction and the Vespa wound up in the ditch.”

“What happened to the Vespa?”

“It caught on fire.”

“Caught on fire? Christ, how did you survive? Are you sure nothing’s broken?”

“No, I’m fine. There wasn’t anything on the x-rays. I have a few scrapes and bruises, but, otherwise, I’m okay.”

“Did they sew up any wounds?”

“Only in a couple of places.”

“How many stitches?”

“Fifty-two.”

“Jesus, Cedron! Fifty-two stitches? I’m coming over there!”

“No, Wendy,” he said, “I need to take a nap.”

“Bullshit. I’m coming over.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. “I’ll leave the door unlocked. But if I’m asleep, don’t wake me, okay? I’m in quite a bit of pain.”

“I can only imagine,” she said.

Cedron crawled under the covers, still shaking with fever.

When he fell asleep, he dreamed his mother came to him and sat beside the bed. She read him a story about a clay figure of a crow a Mexican artisan had fired and painted with such loving devotion that it came to life and flew away. As she told the story, her voice was young again, like it had been when he was a boy—soft and caring, sweet and full of love.