Old Newark Bluff

Engaging Tales From The Old Neighborhood. 

ATHENA BARRABAS

(Originally appeared in Burnt Bridge)

Tonight, my girlfriend’s reeling off my faults in an auctioneer’s voice to an imaginary gathering of women, all also displeased with their boyfriends.

“Good evening, ladies.  First up, I’ve got a boy who doesn’t share, doesn’t like to snuggle, and always argues with me when I’m feeling hurt.  I’ll start the bidding at five dollars.”

I sit quietly as she documents my shortcomings, provides evidence complete with specific places and dates.  She orchestrates a reverse auction in which my value plummets from five dollars to two to nothing, before the gavel drops.

She drinks two bottles of sangria, squats behind the couch, and begins a puppet show roast she calls “Boyfriend Bash Theatre” using her impressive array of stuffed animals.  She’s represented by a fox with red felt lips.  I’m represented by a tattered pink bear, the only one that survived her childhood.

“I don’t know why Little Girlie Bear doesn’t pay enough attention to me, wise Mrs. Owl.  I wish I knew.  I really do.”

No way can I break up with her though.  She’s perfected the art of the smoky eye, and dresses like she’s the leader of the all-girl gang in the 1970’s movie The Warriors.  Those are the only requirements I’ve ever expressed to her that I have for a girlfriend.

She’s clever to boot.  When I try to escape into the soothing world of Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” she flings the CD out our Cleveland Circle apartment window, saying she has no respect for a woman with such a pathetic knowledge of U.S. geography – “Coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago?”

She’s no longer religious but the next morning she gets me up early on Good Friday.  She returns from Russomanno’s Bakery wearing tall boots and her Catholic girls’ school skirt.  She posts her leg up on the kitchen table and presents me with a box of cannoli.

“They’re the ones from the back,” she says.

This means she intimidated Rocco Russomanno, who is five inches shorter than her even without her heels, into handing over the pastry that’s reserved for his family.

She leaves me in the kitchen and retreats to the bathroom to darken her eyes for the Passion of the Christ.

I’m three cannoli in, licking powdered sugar from my mouth, when I hear her in front of the mirror talking to the stuffed fox. It enjoys a special spot on a shelf above her train case of liquid mascaras.

“I’m serious, Foxie.  Things are gonna be different for us,” she says.

It’s the first time I’ve heard her talk to the fox out loud.

She puts on Jim Croce’s I’ve Got A Name while she finishes her makeup.  Jim Croce was her father’s favorite singer.  Both men died young in single engine plane crashes.  She sings along.

And I carry it with me like my daddy did,

But I’m livin’ the dream that he kept hid

That makes me feel bad because I know in some ways the fact that she’s not livin’ the dream is an indictment of me.  I’m the man she’s counting on now to lay the tracks across the chasm.

She turns off the music and shouts that this was supposed to be her week and she wanted to go to Mass on Palm Sunday but I “was too tired;” she’s sure the old biddies took all the good palms by now and put them under their mattresses, giving them another year of blessings.

Minutes later, we enter a church filled with Brookline Irish Catholics.  I spot a wardrobe box in the back corner of the sacristy filled with all the leftover palms.  I get so many reeds my beaming girlfriend has to cradle them in front of her breasts, like three dozen roses.  She looks even happier during the part of the Good Friday service where the congregation pretends it’s the crowd gathered in the courtyard outside the jail where Jesus is being held.   All around the country, Catholics are sleepwalking their way through this scripture in monotone voices.

Father McManus, playing the role of Pontius Pilate, asks whom he should spare from crucifixion and release from prison – Jesus, a man who has done nothing wrong, or Barabbas, a vile thief?

“Barabbas!” my girl shouts with glee.

The priest asks for an affirmation.

This time, I join her hand in mine.

“Barabbas!”  We shout in harmony, much louder than everyone else.

Fuck Sade, and the smooth rhythms she rode in on.  Each time, I call for “Barabbas” like I’m hawking red hots at Fenway.  The parishioners in the rows surrounding us disapprove.  Some try to politely shush us but we will not be stunted.

I get in the last word, adlibbing as I yell, “The bandit Barabbas!”

The service ends and we’re left alone.  My girl, Athena, sits in the confessional and hitches her skirt.  I lose her for a few seconds in the light that streaks through the stained glass window.  On the other side, I see black tears running — but they don’t create any distance from her past.  I won’t promise her a townhouse on Beacon Hill or weekends at the Cape or anything else I know I can’t deliver, but I will be right there with her to sort through the twisted wreckage of her runaway locomotive.

I enter the booth where as a boy I spilled silly sins of commission through an ashen screen and draw the purple curtain closed.