Sunday, October 28, 2012

We're from Philly

That afternoon at Westminster I put on the headphones and listened to Jeremy Irons tells stories of the British Royals enshrined and enthroned and entombed within the abbey’s stone walls.  St. Edward the Confessor’s crest and William the Conqueror’s crown.  Coronations and wedding processions, baptisms, and stories of love no grave could hold.  Walking through the Abbey’s dark passageways and listening to Irons huff Marlboro's into the cassette, I got so sad and lowly thinking my death won’t be worth a plug nickel.
There was a family there which caught my eye.  A mother about my age with run down socks and busted umbrella that wouldn't shut, and her two teenage children.  The boy had a screw loose.  That’s one way of putting it.  A better way was to give him a name like “nut job” or “ants in his pants,” but it was definitely autism, and it made me feel a slight bit better about myself knowing I could make such a fast diagnosis.

He wore this veil over his head like a scarf hood and had these tranquil blue eyes that stared off  into nothing.  He was lean with bony fingers, probably seventeen at the latest.  One minute he was following along holding the end of his mother’s umbrella through the crowd, the next he was climbing the catacomb walls screeching like a drunk chimp.  His mother would pull at his pant legs and yank him down.  Stick a finger in his face and scold him into a silenced crumbled ball on the cobblestones, ripping up his brochure and dropping the tiny pieces in front of himself like falling snowflake stars.
The daughter appeared normal.  Tall and angular, stunning at first sight, with these long legs, perfect features, and black hair past her shoulders.  She was older than her brother, but kept poking him like an under-sibling, and demanded my attention as I followed her into Henry VII’s Lady Chapel.  Soon I discovered she was off her rocker too.
She had these nervous tics.  Spasm shakes and head twitches, and the habit of biting her nails, tearing off the cuticles to blood with her teeth, then putting fingers inside her nose to pick away at the dead skin.  At first I hoped it was only a scratch.  But then I saw the deep invading of her nostrils and I had to look away as over and over she picked at the inside of her nose with a blank expression on her face.  Nobody wants to see a beautiful woman picking her nose.  Nobody normal at least.
So I retired to the Poet’s Corner.  That’s really my favorite place to be in Westminster.  Here some of the greatest English writers are honored.  Chaucer.  Dickens.  Shakespeare.  As I was sitting there on a stone slab sketching the facial busts of the immortals, I felt the presence of someone sitting next to me and looked over to see the lean autistic boy, staring into my eyes.
“Thomas Hardy’s heart is buried in a churchyard in Dorset.”  He said blankly.  “Only his ashes are here.  Hardy was an atheist, that means he didn't believe in baby Jesus.”
I went on sketching the tip of Shakespeare’s beard as the boy continued.
“There’s a legend that when the surgeon cut out his heart it fell off the table and a cat ate it.  So they buried a pig’s instead.”
“Oh?’  Nervously scribbling, not looking up.
“Oliver Cromwell was buried here too, but years later they dug him up and hung his body outside until his head popped off.  Then they stuck that in the ground at a Chapel in Cambridge.”
Now I looked directly at the boy.  It was obvious he wasn’t leaving me alone.  “Okay, what else you got?”
The macabre lesson continued.
“Percy Bysshe Shelley was a British poet who drowned in the Gulf of Spezzia aboard the doomed schooner ‘The Ariel.’  His body washed ashore later and was burned.  They encased his heart in silver and presented it to his widow, Mary Shelley.  She wrote Frankenstein.”
By this time I had stopped sketching the statues of Poet’s Corner and began tracing the speaking boy.  “You sure know a lot of odd facts, kid?  Where’d you learn all this?”
The boy scratched the back of his head.  “My mom.” He answered.  “She shot my father in the face when he made the fists and wouldn’t stop hitting.”
I put the pencil down.
“She says lots of things.  She’s always talking.  About the boys back in the neighborhood who are all hands and her father’s whipping belt.”  He stammered, “I… I… I'm a good boy.  I listen a lot to what my mother says.”
Just then the mother appeared and took her son by the hand, “Who are you talking to?” she demanded.
I stood up.
“You!”  She pointed at me.  “What are you doing with my son?  You… dirty… dirty… man!”
“Look,” I explained, “I was minding my own business when your son, the future Freddy Kruger, sat down and started talking about severed heads and cutting out hearts and…”
The mother started screaming, banging her umbrella on the ground in the middle of Westminster Abbey.  “You did it…!  You… you… filthy beast.  You dirty pig face.”
I said again, “Lady, I didn’t do anything.  I’m a teacher. I would never…”
Men in security jackets had circled us, speaking into walkie-talkies.
“You dirty man.  You are a dirty… bad man!” 
She swung her umbrella and I caught it above my head.
“Listen,” I spoke calmly.  “I swear on the lives of my three daughters.  I’m not that guy.”
In an instant the woman’s face calmed and tranquility took hold.  The security officers were helping up the boy, who had rolled into a little ball on the floor, leading him to his sister who stood without blinking.  The mother too, a woman had her by the arm coaxing her away.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, staring into my eyes.  “It’s just, we’re from Philly.” 
As if I knew what that meant.
“Yes, and now you’re here.”  I said, even softer.
She nodded, followed her children toward the entrance of the tiny door, and I sat back down to my sketch pad and trimmed the tip of Shakespeare’s beard.  

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