Apotropaic | By Kendall Klym
I sit shirtless before a long row of cottonwoods at the park. On my headphones, I listen to Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht—if you don’t know it, it’s really passionate. A minute or two into the string sextet, I spot a slender man in a pair of white shorts taking off his shirt. He spreads his blanket just far enough away to make conversation a strain. He glances at me, and when I look back, he turns away. After smoothing the edges of his buffalo plaid coverlet, he retrieves a bottle of water and a book from his bag. I silently admire his sculpted shoulders and well-developed quads. Then I notice his book: The Sorrows of Young Werther, English translation. As he reads, he mouths some of the words, and every now and then, he goes back a page. I close my eyes and imagine him a professor of literature at the small private college outside of town. Wearing a blue button-down shirt and khaki pants, he faces a classroom full of deadpan expressions, heads turned downward and thumbs beating out text messages, as he explains why young men reacted to Goethe’s masterpiece by killing themselves. When I open my eyes, the man in the white shorts and his buffalo plaid coverlet are gone.
The next four days are cold and rainy, so instead of going to the park, I romanticize my man in the white shorts, button-down shirt, and khaki pants. Not only a professor of literature but also an aspiring poet, he’s waiting for me to make the first move. And when I do, he will speak to me in iambic pentameter, make love with the intensity of a spondee. That’s if I ever see him again. Still entranced, I go to the library and check out a copy of Young Werther and mouth some of the words. When I get to the part about suicide, I close the book and return it to the library. I remember why I changed my major from English to Museum Studies.
On Saturday, the temps warm up, and the sun comes out, so I go to the park. Despite the nice weather, the place is mostly deserted, not like 20 years ago, when sex aps didn’t exist. The few men I see on a regular basis are either too old or too young. The young ones wear baggy sweats or shorts beyond the knee and like to jog or walk with mean-looking dogs. It’s as if they’re trying to prove how macho they are in the midst of looking for other men. The old ones I try not to judge. After all, I’m headed in that direction. I find my place before the cottonwoods—leaves looking rough around the edges now that summer is nearly over. I strip down to a white Speedo. While smearing sunscreen on my face, I see an out-of-shape man approaching from the left. At least a decade older than I, the man drops his blanket next to mine. I scowl and look away. When he strips down to a pink thong, I put on my shorts, get up, and start walking. That’s when I see my poet-teacher, this time in a pair of black shorts, sitting on his blanket. Refusing to waste time, I set my blanket a few feet from his and sit down.
I’ve memorized a variety of first lines, all of which I forget instantly when he turns and smiles. Both of us speak at the same time. I start to say something about the weather, and he tells me cops are cracking down on lewd behavior in the park. He says his name is Art. He asks if I’m hungry. I say yes, and he invites me to dinner at his house. I look into his eyes, which seem to say he’s sane and sincere, not a closeted homophobe waiting to get me in a room and bash the bones in my face while quoting Christian scripture. I accept the invitation. While I follow in my car, I notice he’s a careful, safe driver.
Art lives alone in an impressive brick structure next to a big Catholic church in a nice part of town. While he opens a box of spaghetti, he asks me to go into the third cabinet on the left and select the sauce of my choice. He has four-cheese, marinara, and mushroom—all arranged in a perfect line, equidistant from each other and in alphabetical order. I’m impressed but slightly afraid that his tidiness is an indication of a hidden disorder, something that could turn Walt Whitman into Jeffrey Dahmer. After dinner, we cuddle on the living room floor. Art tells me he’s a nudist and asks if I mind if he takes off his clothes. I say that’s fine and do the same. In the midst of kissing Art, I notice a long black robe and some other garments hanging on a rack in a corner of the room. He notices me noticing and tells me he’s a Catholic priest. When I get home, I vomit spaghetti and sauce into the toilet. After brushing my teeth four times, I look online at the brand of sauce I had chosen and see it has anchovies, which I’m allergic to. I decide not to see Art again.
* * *
The weather turns cold, and I start going to First Fridays Art Walk a few blocks from where I work at the historical society. I meet someone I like. His voice has a homespun lilt, he’s a freelance artist, and his name is Sam—a real hottie in a white tee and jeans, that is, until he opens his mouth and flashes a set of yellow, brown, and black teeth. I try to overlook the negative, and we start to date, the slow way. We meet regularly at an art gallery or coffee house and chat for an hour or so. Then he says he has to go. Sometimes we take a walk. Hidden in parkas, we finally kiss on a frigid afternoon outside an old factory turned into lofts. No one seems to notice.
One night, I invite Sam to dinner. In the middle of the meal, he excuses himself and disappears into the bathroom. Over dessert, he tells me he has IBS, which causes discolorations in his teeth. I try to be supportive, offering to cook something that won’t irritate his bowels, but he says that food just does that to him. I tell him I’m determined to help and will use organic, non-GMO meats, grains, and vegetables to prepare a meal that will nourish and please. He says okay. The next time we get together, I make sauerbraten with quinoa salad, and he has the same reaction.
After that, we agree to downgrade to a platonic friendship. Within a month, I manage to perfect a concoction that fails to give Sam diarrhea: cream of rice with stewed prunes and 2-percent milk. I have no idea how I came up with the combo, but I’m glad I can help.
In exchange for meals, Sam agrees to paint a mural of my ideal man, a boyfriend who will be all I could ever want. It takes a month for Sam to complete the project on a bare white wall in my partially furnished attic. To my specifications, the man in the mural is olive-skinned, has long black hair, and wears a golden loincloth. His body is slender and muscular. On the day that the mural is finished, I cook dinner, eat with Sam, and present him with a gift certificate to the art museum bookstore. When he leaves, I head up to the attic to spend time with my new boyfriend. I name him AVB, short for Acrylic Virtual Boyfriend. AVB looks a little out of place in my Queen Anne Victorian, circa 1902, but I don’t care. When the sun shines through the windows of the turret, his skin looks real, especially in the triangular area between the trapezius and clavicle.
* * *
I start jotting down and acting out little scenarios I think of while AVB and I stand face-to-face. In one, which I call Scenario 3, I talk about stress-related issues at work and link them to aches and pains in various parts of my body. As the scene unfolds, I strip. I start out wearing multiple layers, so the encounter can last longer. During the striptease, AVB—I play his part, too—says exactly what he’s going to do to relieve my tension. Some of the conversation is super hot, and other parts are tender and sweet. On one occasion, I interrupt AVB in the middle of his description of how he plans to manipulate my calves and thighs and ask him what he needs from me to relieve his stress. When he tells me he wants to become three-dimensional, I get scared. Then I apologize for trying to make AVB human.
* * *
After a rather intense conversation, in which I tell AVB about my inability to trust, I turn on the radio and learn of the mass shooting at a popular gay club in Orlando, Florida. My mind jumps back to October 1998, when I learned that a college student named Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered by gay bashers in rural Wyoming. They had met at a bar. My stomach sinks. Sweat breaks out around my temples. My throat becomes so dry I rush downstairs to get a drink of water. When I return to the attic, I tell AVB I haven’t been to a club or bar in almost 20 years. Who decides who gets killed and who doesn’t? I ask. I’ve never stayed out past 1:30, which means I would have left before the shootings. AVB says I might have stayed late if I had met someone like him. I shake my head and try to imagine what it feels like to be dead. AVB’s loincloth suddenly looks dirty.
* * *
Sam invites me to a vigil for the 49 killed at the club, and I decline. When he asks why, I tell him I’m not up for it. Sam says no one’s really up for it, and I say there’s nothing I can offer the dead or their families or friends by attending a party or service or whatever. When Sam continues to probe, I mention the word schadenfreude—an expression that sums up my view of why some humans turn into barbarians: they get a rise out of other people’s pain. Sam says: This is not the time to get philosophical. Just go with me. I tell him no. I take a breath and make a prediction that someone will eventually come up with a theory that the Orlando shootings had nothing to do with homophobia, knowing full well that they did. Sam hangs up—for good, I think.
During the vigil, I clean out the closet facing the mural of AVB. First I take out all the junk from the people who sold me the house—boxes of broken Christmas ornaments, an old toaster with a frayed cord, and the rotting carcasses of three dead mice. When I rip out the faded pea-green shag rug, I accidentally pull up a couple floorboards. Putting on a pair of gloves to avoid splinters, I come across what I first think is a large dead rat. Upon closer inspection, I see that it’s a black elastic-sided ankle boot, quite scuffed, the elastic turning to powder when I finger it. Immediately I turn to AVB and ask if he knows its owner. For once the mural has nothing to say, its expression lifeless.
When I search a library database, I learn that concealed objects, particularly shoes and other footwear, are a remnant of British and Roman superstition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Shoes, boots, and slippers symbolize an attempt to be apotropaic, to possess the power to avert evil. People hid footwear in walls and between floors of their homes in order to ensure a good life. These items, an anthropologist says, are the one type of clothing that molds to an individual’s body; they express how a person moves, the way a person acts, who the person is. Shoes and boots symbolize the soul of a human being.
I try the boot and it fits. Then I close my eyes and take a few steps. I imagine a tall artist with dark wavy hair: a dropout from an obscure Catholic seminary—gay and alone, someone who spends hours looking at the backs of leaves, how they turn silvery when a summer thunderstorm is about to approach. Then he paints landscapes, mainly of trees with men in the background. My eyes still closed, I feel a sharp pain in my lower back, not unlike a kick. A moment later, I notice I’m standing a foot away from AVB, facing the opposite direction. I decide to break up with my virtual boyfriend.
* * *
While trying to nap, I remember an old TV movie about a straight man who discovered a batch of love letters—addressed but never mailed—in a secret drawer of a nineteenth-century desk he bought at an antique shop. He mails the letters and begins receiving responses. He and his pen pal meet. It turns out that the man has fallen in love with a Victorian ghost. The ending, which I don’t remember other than the fact that there was a fire, was rather bleak. I decide to take a break from the attic. I call a colleague, who tells me about Nathaniel, a guy who specializes in something called spirit removal. At work the next day, my colleague gives me Nathaniel’s card, saying she has never met the man, but her neighbor, a woman with a poltergeist that used to remove the toilet paper from her upstairs bathroom, says he’s legit. Knowing that my house has no departed spirits other than my own, I call Nathaniel. When he answers the phone, I find myself tongue-tied. I’m not sure why, but if I could conjure up a ghost to fill the boot from the attic, my specter’s voice would sound exactly like that of Nathaniel—soft and sinuous, masculine but sensitive, the sort of voice you’d want to tell you goodnight on a winter evening, when you’re sick in bed with the flu.
I need for someone to investigate my attic, I finally spit out.
Nathaniel asks what sort of incidents I’ve experienced, and I tell him I’m not sure.
Then I’m not sure I can help you, he says, still managing to keep the sensitivity in his voice.
I tell him about the boot, but not the painting.
Nathaniel clears his throat. I charge $50 an hour, one-hour minimum.
* * *
While waiting for Nathaniel to arrive on a dreary November afternoon, I reread a series of newspaper articles about the Orlando shootings. The papers are yellowed. In one, there’s a photo of a man in a loose tank top hugging another man. The hugger holds his left hand over his face, while the receiver of the hug buries his head in the hugger’s shoulder. A later article questions the economic impact of the shootings on the Orlando metro, especially its theme parks. A third article talks about how the shooter frequented gay clubs and social media sites, yet claimed allegiance to groups known for violence toward gays and lesbians and transgender people.
The doorbell rings. Wearing a gray V-neck tee and tight vermillion jeans, Nathaniel introduces himself. All I can do is keep my jaw from dropping. After an uncomfortably long pause, in which the two of us stare, I offer to carry equipment up to the attic. Nathaniel lifts his eyebrows, and the creases in his forehead make him look sexier.
No equipment, he says. I’m not that kind of ghost hunter. They charge a lot more than 50 an hour. I ask him how he does his job, and he tells me he’s a good listener. What I do is listen carefully with all my senses. Once I’ve identified the problem, we look at various options.
When we reach the attic, Nathaniel starts asking questions about the mural of AVB. I tell him about the kick and the events leading up to it. He says my entry into the closet after learning of the Orlando shootings is both melodramatic and trite. I agree. When I show Nathaniel the shoe, he says he wishes I had found the other. Polish them up, he says, and they’d look great with my Victorian coattails. When I ask him about the presence of a ghost, he tells me to paint over the mural and learn to get out more. Then he tells me there will be no charge for his services, if I let him rummage beneath my closet for the other shoe.
About the Author:
In addition to winning the Tartt First Fiction Award for Step Lightly, (Livingston Press, 2019), Dr. Kendall Klym has won numerous awards for his short stories, which have been published in literary journals including Puerto del Sol, Hunger Mountain, and Fiction International. Klym is a three-time honorable mention winner of the Great American Fiction Contest and has won writing fellowships at the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts, the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and Monson Arts. Two of his stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A former professional ballet dancer, Klym holds a Ph.D. in English, with a concentration in Fiction Writing, from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. For six years, he taught English composition, American literature, and creative writing full time at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta; however, he considers the Midwest his home, particularly Kansas and Missouri.