Gaythal Dethloff, Mother of Murder  

Kellie Wells


Vivica Planet is schooling me in women with fallen hearts, women who know better than to nourish expectation. She called me up and asked if I’d take her to visit a housebound friend, someone she thinks I’ll be interested to meet. Since meeting Vivica in the Big-Big-Big & Tall store, where she backed into me beside a rack of floppy trench coats, I have occasionally encountered her in my dreams, have watched her debone my body with a fish knife and carve me into tiny bits, chum for a grander catch, then place the fragments under a lens that made each part of me tinier yet until all that remained was the glare of the microscope’s bulb on glass, and I found myself smiling hopefully when I awoke. Vivica is a histologist by training and looks for mutiny in the magnified cells of lonely lab creatures injected with unsolved illness.

I’m a tall drink of water, so tall I can save the city the trouble and change light bulbs in lampposts without the aid of a ladder, so tall I get lightheaded when I rise of a morning, so tall I am biblical, tall as a deluge, tall as a path carved in a parted sea, tall as suffering, more cubits than you can count on two hands.

I am a quarter inch taller than Vivica Planet—she insisted we measure—and this made her livid; she stifled a roar as she let the tape measure angrily retract, snap! So whenever we’re together she wears heels that have her mincing nearly on the tips of her bunions, implausible plus-plus-plus-size danseuse, and she rests a weighted mitt on my shoulder until I slouch. I am not the tallest tomato in the universe. There are women larger than I in Borneo and Patagonia, Lichtenstein and Turkmenistan, even in North Dakota, hardy beanstalks who best me by an inch or two, hulking exceptions who walk with a pronounced oxbow hunch so as to put the peewees at ease. They’re in for a lifetime of bulging discs and migraines, sciatica and creaking knees. I’ve read their stories in The Book of Very, Very Large Women, a gift from my father. In the chapter titled “Everyday Ailments of the Common Sheclops,” there’s a cautionary x-ray of a woman from the Azores whose hardened C-shaped spine kept her from ever gazing into the wide blue above her, though she was in closer proximity to the sky than anyone else on the islands. She died standing up, after having apologetically stared at her own feet for fifty years.

No, there are not many in the world as tall as I, though there are a few, and Vivica Planet is one of them. Vivica Planet, I strongly suspect, aims to erase me, erase us all, sister colossi surrounded by pint-sized families, and I find myself not entirely opposed to the idea. I have always longed to be less than I am.

Gaythal Dethloff was the size of a grand piano, wide as the day is long I could imagine my father remarking. She lay in a bed that appeared to be fashioned from several king-size mattresses, a molten mass of flesh erupting. She was geologic, cooling magma atop igneous rock marking the passing of time, rippling from epoch to epoch. Her belly bowed in the air like a yurt, a stupa, a shrine to her remarkable rotundity, and I imagined tiny people living and fasting and praying inside her. She reminded me of everything.

Her cheeks were freshly rouged, her face round as a dinner plate and dull with powder, chin upon chin, a glacier thawing, and her hair was an orderly cap of curls, snowy ringlets coiled against her taut scalp. The skin of her face was stretched nearly to the breaking point of its elasticity and her eyebrows plucked and penciled into two faint Greta Garbo arcs, a line of single hairs stitched on her forehead, making her appear permanently startled, as though she had awakened to find she’d ballooned overnight (Gadzooks! she looked poised to exclaim).  Her lips were beestung red. It didn’t appear that her hands could easily reach across the volcanic expanse to the mouth, and I wondered who had dolled her up, whose fulltime job it was to feed her and tend to her body. It was a body that had long ago exceeded all acceptable limits, and I imagined her bed flanked by television cameras eager to document and profit from the swelling excess of this vasty odalisque, slave to her surging flesh. I recalled catching the tail end of a news story not long ago, Live at Five, about a dame too monumental to walk on two feet, bedridden but persistent, her burdened heart beating against all likelihood and common sense. Green and lavender comforter rumpled around her, Gaythal Dethloff made me think of an ornamental cabbage. There was a funereal smell in the close air of this small house, mums and gardenias, roses on the wane.

“She was a music teacher,” Vivica whispered to me through lips straining to smile politely. “Before.”

Before? Before the asteroid’s extinguishing wallop, dinosaurs wandered the earth.

As we made our way toward Gaythal’s bed, we had to wade carefully through musical instruments, dusty and propped against every surface: violin, maracas, ocarina, xylophone, zither, cymbals, clarinet, French horn, ukulele, bongo drums, triangle, rhythm blocks, saxophone, tambourine, castanets, balalaika, flugel horn, piccolo, bassoon, accordion, harmonica, bass trombone and pedal harp, everywhere objects standing at the ready to percuss or chirrup or honk or warble. And then Gaythal’s disproportionately small mouth widened and out of it marched a resonant sound that made it seem cavernous and acoustically optimized. Lips aquiver, she ran through the scales, a mezzo-soprano with a quickly trilling vibrato that made me think of the wings of hummingbirds: “Mi, mi, mi, mi, mi, mi, mi, mi, meeeeee,” she sang and smiled, her beefy lips exceeding the outline of lipstick trying to lasso them down to size. Then she laughed and coquettishly nuzzled her shoulder, that is the flesh of the jowl that had spilled onto her shoulder.

“Gaythal Dethloff, Wallis Armstrong, Wallis Armstrong, Gaythal Dethloff,” said Vivica Planet, shaking the jumbo prawn of Gaythal’s pinkie.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Armstrong,” Gaythal said, and it seemed to me she batted her eyes, but it was hard to tell, two receding raisins pressed in a rising loaf. Everything about her suddenly made me think of food, the sort of food that makes a dieting person hate herself for gorging on it in dreams as she sleeps her malnourished and fitful sleep. She was a tipped-over gravy boat of a woman, a mountainous meringue, exploded strudel, melting butter pat, chicken pot pie. And then I thought of my mother, saw her scowling at me, which she did prophylactically hours before any meal, before my brother mutinied and secretly pressed food into my hand. I imagined Gaythal Dethloff being passed under the table, a yeasty dinner roll smuggled from knee to knee.

My brother, Obie, believed a delicious biscuit big as me, a wafer ample enough to fill the drooling maw of the most ravenous penitent longing to swallow the body of Christ, had to be God, and he built an altar at the foot of my bed and stared at me adoringly as I slept.

“Hello?” I said to Gaythal Dethloff, insufficiently.

Obie, my one disciple, disappeared from the world when he was nine years old, went into the woods and never came home, and aside from the beating of my heart where I keep him, he hasn’t been heard from since. Vivica Planet recently lost a brother, one with a long rap sheet and a dark history she will not speak of, and she’s determined to make of me a proselyte of the idea that leviathan women swim more gracefully without the anchor of small men dragging along the ocean floor beneath them. 

“Pull up a seat, gals, take a load off!” said Gaythal, who then let loose with a chortle. There were two kitchen chairs nearby, and Vivica removed the cello and tuba sitting upon them and moved them near the bed. I sat and Gaythal threw back the covers. I couldn’t help staring at the swollen stems that sprouted beneath the lacy furbelow of Gaythal’s nightgown—her feet were covered in mukluks, for which a herd of handsomely furred seals had given their lives. “Nestor gave me those,” Gaythal said, and her smile made me think of a camel in a canoe. “He dealt in exotic imports for a time.” She cocked her head slightly to the side, and Vivica picked up a framed photograph from the night table and handed it to me. In it a beer-bellied man with receding black shoulder-length hair and a woolly handlebar moustache, wearing amber-lensed aviator glasses and a fringed leather vest, stood next to a very thin woman in a sleeveless black pencil dress and kitten-heel pumps, dark hair swept into a French twist. On the other side of the man was an oblong tribal mask, carved from dark wood, tall as he was and jaggedly frowning. He steadied it with his hand and grinned like an angler who’d hooked a record-breaking bass.

“A real looker,” said Gaythal, “back in the day. Winsome as a willow,” she said, and one raisin disappeared in the dough of her cheek, a wink.

“That’s Gaythal with her son Nestor,” Vivica said, and she tapped the glass covering the picture.

Gaythal saw my expression before I could smooth the bewilderment from my brow, and she said, “Yep, bony as a beanpole. Before.”

Vivica scooted her chair a little closer to Gaythal and said, “Wallis doesn’t know about Nestor. Do you, Wallis?” She took the picture from me and returned it to the end table. The woman in the photograph didn’t even look like a distant relation of Gaythal’s. I imagined that woman inside Gaythal trying to tread her girth, sucked down by the enveloping undertow, sinking to the ocean floor, glug-glug.

I shook my head. I could see I was going to find out about another thing I didn’t want to know.

“Well, she’d be the only innocent.” Gaythal snorted. “I moved away to Council Bluffs, then came back a few years ago, but word travels, follows you around like a damn dog. You know, all those unsolved psychokiller programs and such on TV now. Might as well hang out a goddamned shingle.” Another abbreviated honk of her schnozzle.

“How are you feeling, Gaythal?” asked Vivica.

“Sensational, neverbetter, fitasafiddle,” she said. “And yooou?” Gaythal drawled the “you” accusingly.

“Very well, thank you.” Vivica threw me a sidelong glance of indeterminate significance.

“I’m, I’m well…too.”     

“Well, we’re all well, three fancy bantams in fine feather, terrrrific,” Gaythal said with a growl. “Arf!”

“So, Gaythal, Wallis is something of a crime buff, and I thought she’d be interested to hear about Nestor’s exploits.”

Gaythal grinned slightly, glared at me, and said, “Crime buffs. I hate ‘em. All you amateur gumshoes with your camcorders just waiting to catch an impromptu lunatic in some diabolical act you can sell to the tabloids to subsidize your cowardice. If you ask me, the devil’s witness has just as much blood on his hands as the devil does, and that includes that stuck-up muckety-muck God, the old spectator,” she sniffed, looking up at the water-stained ceiling.

I was inclined to agree. I’ve always felt implicated by the things I’ve seen. Also by the things I’ve failed to see. This is the problem with God’s sense of time, I once said to Obie. For God, who travels through time at the speed of both tortoise and light wave, millennia pass in the blink of his giant, all-seeing, astigmatic eye, therefore he cannot be expected to keep up with the pandemonium of human lives and so naturally there’s a surplus of suffering, and Obie said: “Don’t blink.”

“So, you want the skinny on Nestor, eh?” asked Gaythal Dethloff, mouth hitched skeptically to one side. No. No. No, I thought, and I nodded my head.

“All right then. First thing you need to know is Nestor wasn’t one of those little shits who drowns baby bunnies in a bucket for kicks or puts firecrackers in the ears of kittens and whatnot, junior psycho. He didn’t masturbate compulsively while stabbing Barbie dolls with a cocktail fork, nothing like that. He wasn’t a snot-nosed maniac whose parents chained him to a rusting bedstead in the basement and made him watch endless acts of deviant carnality. Are we clear on that? He didn’t come from diamonds either, but that’s the point: an upbringing average and unremarkable as a piece of toast.” Gaythal sneered at Vivica, who exuded her usual air of noncommittal mystery, and then with one exaggerated swipe, Gaythal wiped her lipstick off on the back of her hand, leaving a smear of red circling her mouth and making her look like she’d just eaten a strawberry bombpop. It seemed as though the lipstick had somehow been keeping a complicated truth from escaping, and she was now ready to confide all. Gaythal tried to move herself back in her bed and her elbow hit the table and the picture of her and her son fell face forward with a snap. She pushed the curls back from her forehead, and her massive arm looked lethal as the flesh swung from the bone (the bone itself an assumption, no more evident beneath her skin than a kidney), a flabby cudgel whose most halfhearted blow no mortal could hope to survive.

I could see Gaythal Dethloff did not gladly suffer fools.  

“Disappointment can curdle an otherwise honorable man,” said Gaythal, “like vinegar in milk,” and the hostility seemed to drain from her all at once. Her cheeks sagged and her eyes were barely visible now beneath the frosted profiteroles of her eyelids. “He was a deeply disappointed man confronted with the endless disappointments of other men.” Gaythal pursed her lips, ringed red as a bull’s-eye, and looked at Vivica, who sat silently erect, implacable as a sphinx.

“He met Ezekiel at the soup kitchen where he volunteered.” Gaythal reached across her bed and swept a pillow to the floor, revealing a phonograph. She lifted the lid and switched it on, thumbed the arm onto an album. The noise it made as the needle slid scratchily across the vinyl sounded like a giant amplified pair of pants being unzipped, and then it settled into a groove; a violin quietly wept. “Shostakovich,” said Gaythal, staring again at the stain on her ceiling. She pulled from beneath the bedcovers her own violin, whose strings she tried in vain to pluck. She made me think of a clown who carts around a world of objects in his sagging britches, bicycle horn and gardening shears, jack-in-the-box and parasol. “Can’t play anymore,” she said to me. “My hands.” I felt Vivica growing impatient beside me, though she didn’t move, didn’t twitch or blink. “Nestor never cared for music. Tinnitus. Certain pitches, he said, felt like an icepick in his eardrums. Brahms in particular.” Gaythal put her hand over her ear, as though she’d trapped it and didn’t want it to escape, beautiful nautilus swimming in a foamy sea of white curls. “I think a head that cannot abide music is a head doomed to think unmelodious thoughts,” she said. She turned the phonograph off, and it groaned to a stop.

“It all started with Ezekiel, a dark and fateful acquaintance. He was, of course, a prophet—a name is a destiny. And a mendicant, never had two plug nickels to rub together unless some guilt-ridden whitecollar dropped them into his tattered porkpie.

“Nestor’s split pea was a favorite among the regular ragamuffins. He didn’t like me calling them that. He said they were just down on their luck, Ma, but for the grace of blahblahblah. I grew to hate the indigent.” Gaythal looked me over, and I moved a hand to my chest, trying to conceal my pauper’s spirit, the bankrupt, soon-to-be foreclosed-upon soul I hid beneath my own deceptive windfall of flesh. Vivica, descended, to look at her, from a long line of landed gentry, sat with a stiffly aristocratic posture that suggested she held the Deed to the World, and the corners of her mouth turned up slightly in a feudal smirk. “It was Ezekiel, that rotten prophet, who soured my sweet Nestor.”

Book of Ezekiel

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, the day my check used to arrive from Social Services, as I stood among the exiles beneath the bridge, warming my arthritic fingers around the cans of fire, the heavens flew open, and I saw visions of God. The visionary, especially he who lacks lucre, is always suspicious to those ladling the soup. And many’s the time I myself have been subjected to the ravings of men moonstruck by biology and circumstance, miserable minions persecuted by dreams of the ravenous gnashing of God’s aweful and unmerciful teeth. But these words I speak are words to be marked, from God’s mouth to your ear. Mind.

As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the North, and inside it were the faces of four chimpanzees screeching and flapping their rubbery lips over yellow teeth with vaudevillian flare. They flung themselves from cloud to cloud in a ring, and there appeared in the center a throne, and on that throne sat, legs crossed, fingers drumming the arms, something resembling a human figure, a familiar shape wavering with fire, radiant with a long-simmering anger.


BUT, BUT, interrupted another booming voice that issued from a glowering form sitting, suddenly, befuddlingly, beside the first, hair ablaze with the rays of the sun. IT IS NOT THE LORD WHO SPEAKS THIS.  IT IS, RATHER, A MERE IDOL, FALSE AS ETERNITY IS LONG, KING OF DOUBLE-HEARTED KINGS, MASQUERADING AS THE LORD! said the, uh, erm, Other Lord? DO NOT TRUST IN THE CAMOUFLAGE OF A SIDESHOW JEHOVAH!

The sky was teeming with God.

Egads, God fraud! thought I to myself. What is a well-meaning prophet to do?

And the words of two Gods fuming grandiosely in a world with barely enough room for one hung side by side in the air sizzling with wrath. The chimps grew silent and sullen, longing for an accelerated evolution, and both Gods roared at once, END OF THE LINE, PRIMATES!  I AM YOUR COMMON ANCESTOR! And there was a high-pitched grumbling among the monkeys, that sounded like branches breaking, as they realized they could no longer aspire to be more than monkey, that ship having sailed long ago and with an empty steerage, and they soft-shoe side-shuffled as if to exit the stage, invisible hat and cane in hand, their wizened mugs pursed scornfully, then pop-po-po-popped like effervescence and were visible to the human eye no longer.

 Both of these Gods were equally convincing with their thunderous yawps, ex cathedra, both promising the same devastation if their will was not heeded, and I knew not whom to heed, knew not what to report as I desperately wished not to prophesy falsely myself (and I wondered: if a prophet prophesies falsely about prophecy that proves to be false, would this make it true? What is the mathematics of divination?). But if a terrifying Figure (or Two) in the clouds exhorts you to do His (Their) bidding, pass on His judgment and warn of the coming of castigation, who am I to question His (Their) authenticity? How can anyone say for certain he forecasts the truth until the destruction foretold becomes the holy writ of history, a future now come to pass?

So a soon-to-be-famous king-of-solemn-kings appears and says, The only solution is to split these squalling and self-disputing infants down the middle and toss the four fishes of their doubled remains into the shrill and gaping beaks of the masses, so starved for a definitive deity, and both Gods shrugged and bent down for the exacting calculus of the sword, but the king could see that this would likely only multiply the problem because a resourceful God, and even an ambitious chiseler, is, like a stubborn worm (worms everywhere not wont to face facts), high functioning when cleaved.

And then one God delivered a meteoric wallop to the other, whose presence shattered, turned into a cloudburst of a million silvery minnows that flopped against my skin and soaked me to the bone, and I fell to my knees shivering, implicated by my inability to sniff out the prevarications of a flimflam deity when he tries to snow me with his basso profundo. What sort of beetle-brained prophet can be so easily gulled? I too deserved to be reduced to a fishy rain. Make of me water, I begged, reduce me to lungfish, that is my fondest ambition.

And the remaining God, now unfurling Himself to occupy every inch of sky, like a rolling thunderhead in a hurry, said to me, in a commanding but conspiratorial timber: Mortal, take this message you are about to receive to the denizens of that flat and hapless heartland, the sober mopes of Kansas, the Unchosen Ones, people spoiling endlessly for a scrap about the origin of the species, hypnotized by a wide horizon, and tell them this: in the middle of the plains, off I-70, just this side of Paradise, lies the Garden of Eden, and there will come an unshod man of slight build speaking of divine events, a minor prophet and servant of the Lord. In the presence of the brittle, withered body of the Garden’s architect (a bearded pot-stirrer and once devoted member of the Populist Party name of S.P. Dinsmoor), this man will augur the coming of Me to the Garden, and the townspeople, weary of the hokum of prairie prophets, who have in the past promised them, for a modest lagniappe to help pension the endlessly wandering Word of God, an end to drought and dust, unstable gold standard, locust plagues, influenza, flood and tornadoes, foreclosures, and many varieties of human suffering, will listen briefly to his hariolation then return to their swayback davenports with the soiled antimacassars, their faces, sunken by shriveled longing, green and quavering in the cathode light.

The Garden of Eden, fallen as a startled cake, is a place of disappointment for both God and man, as anyone knows, and there will remain behind, after the others have slunk home, the prophet’s final auditor, man long hobbled by hope, a grizzled widower who eats nothing but Wonder bread and braunschweiger, a little onion, with a jelly jar of buttermilk standing night after night at the kitchen sink, fingering the faucet’s drip, and this man, wounded to the quick by the reverent optimism of this mystic, will lay his hands on the prophet’s throat and slowly tighten them until he has squeezed prophecy and promise clean out of him. The man will then cradle the head of the throttled prophet in his lap beneath the bodies of Adam and Eve, beneath the serpent. The body of the prophet will be discovered that evening by a little girl, regular visitor to the Garden, but will disappear overnight, and once this day has come to pass, giants will roam the Garden, the sky will light up with the death throes of stars racing to extinguish themselves, and the people, peering warily through drawn drapes, will resolve once and for all to steer clear of the lost promise of Eden.

“So every time Nestor saw Ezekiel, he asked him, ‘Has the Garden of Eden yet been sullied by homicide?’ E. always looked at him foggily, as though trying to recollect where they’d met, and shook his head. Then, over a bowl of oxtail soup, he confided to Nestor he’d foreseen his own end, said he too was destined to die a violent death at the hands of a disappointed man, and though his mind’s eye would narrow to a squint so he could see the malefactor who would be his final vision, he could never decipher his murderer’s features.

“Then one day, Ezekiel had a revelation, right there at the soup kitchen as he sopped up the last dribble of borscht (not a favorite among the floppers) with a crust of bread. Nestor was wiping down a table when E. grabbed his arm and said, ‘You, Nestor Dethloff, shall spend your dying days in a prison cell as you are a man of murderous intentions!’ and then he shrieked as if stabbed, and Nestor yanked himself free of Ezekiel’s terrified clutches, tripped over a chair as he backed away. Ezekiel’s eyes went wild, Nestor said, lightning crackling across their stormy skies, and he dropped to his knees and howled:

And because of all your abominations I will do to you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again! Surely, parents shall eat their children in your midst and children shall eat their parents!

“Which must have been as good as a hex, because after that day, I dreamt every night of eating Nestor, dreamt of him melting in my mouth like sweet cream, filling me up, flank steak and kidney, only to leave me famished in the morning, and it was then that I began to expand, like a too eagerly yeasted loaf. Nestor, he’d always kept a picture of me on his refrigerator, held fast with a magnetic banana, smartly dressed and looking, I must say, delicious, as I always did look once upon a comely yesterday.” Gaythal heaved a swollen sigh from deep in her diaphragm, a chinook blustering across the Rockies.

“After that Ezekiel up and disappeared, and Nestor, shaken by this biblical harangue, kept his ear to the ground for news of slain prophets in gardens, and when he passed wild-eyed men broadcasting from milk crates on street corners that the world would soon end, woe, woe, woe, as wild-eyed men have a habit of doing in these parts, he shrank from their shrill imprecations and hurried his step.

“After several months of keeping his eyes peeled for, but finding no, prophesied iniquity, Nestor began to relax, thought he was foolish to have become so undone by the addled ramblings of a ragged tramp—people were always doing that, mistaking beggars for oracles, madness for soothsaying, as though they believed God, condemning the lunatics to a life of medicated catatonia, had put those invisible transistors in their teeth Himself, had made them secret enemies of the state, and we’d all discover, come Judgment Day, the truth about the blessed cracked corn and their ability to see beyond time into the jackal soul of humanity and to glimpse the impending extermination of life we await and—and he kicked himself for having been taken in. In fact, he started to be standoffish with and feel generally less charitable toward the soup mutts. He’d never felt homicidal before for heaven’s sake, he told himself, but then he began to feel the vaguest irritation, like a pebble in his sneakers, at the thought that Ezekiel’s augury was simply the script of madness—such a convincing prophet had he been—Nestor became rankled to think there really was no way to know what God, in the infinite expanse of that all-knowing noodle of his, intends. And God Who anyhow? Who was this God person? Who died and made him King of the La-di-da Universe? Nestor’d never given God the time of day before, he had to admit. Though my husband, Nestor’s stepdad, gave money to various Presbyterian charities come Christmas, ours was not a pious household. Organized religion, I always said, does nothing but lead the lamb to slaughter, all that talk about hellfire and endless torment and thorny crowns and leprosy and the like. Which is why I never really took to playing the organ. We never mixed much with churchy people, always so blankety-blank grim, chastely awaiting redemption, ack. Just not our cup of sangria, if you get my meaning. Snort!

“So Nestor worried E.’s prophecy like a dog with a pig’s ear, and he began to feel sorry for him. A prophet’s whole reason d’etre, after all, was to foresee fated events, and if what he foresaw never came to pass, then he had no purpose in life, no reason to tie his shoes and wipe his nose and face the unforeseen day, and to Nestor’s way of thinking, there was nothing sadder than a man loosed of his purpose. He’d grown so weary of seeing long lines of hungry men who cling to life for no good reason, so many squandered futures, ragtag joes scarcely possessing the vitality to lift a spoon to their muttering lips. Nestor himself had begun to feel a little aimless, his import business at the flea market having foundered, less demand for fertility gewgaws in the heartland than he’d figured. And, wondered Nestor, if you were the muttonhead who nourished these empty carcasses, kept ‘em stretching their palms out and rattling their cups another day, what did that make you? The hole at the center of Empty, that’s what, thought poor, dejected Nestor.

“Well, you can surely see where this is headed. How could Nestor help lend meaning to these meaningless lives? That was the quandary that began to consume him, body, soul, and suit jacket. It reassured him to think that Ezekiel, failed crier of God’s wrath, might at least have met the harrowing end he foresaw, at least had that satisfaction. That was the rock and the hard place ‘twixt  which Ezekiel hunkered, Nestor could see that. He had to hope for his own slaughter so as not to meet the worst fate a prophet can suffer, which is to be full of h-o-r-s-e-s-h-i-you-know-what and talking all manner of unsanctified trash.

“So about the time Nestor begins to feel confident Ezekiel has met the end he predicted and therefore at last his maker, he in whose name he forecast the ill-omened future, there he is again at the kitchen, begging a bowl of navy bean soup and a slice of whole wheat with a smear of Blue Bonnet. It gives Nestor the howling yipyaps to see him there, failure visible in E’s withered but still-upright flesh, and also fills him with such sadness that he knows at once what he must do, and so he jumps Ezekiel as he rifles through the bags of trash out back. Nestor wraps the string of his poplin apron round E’s throat, and he believes he sees gratitude in his bulging, bloodshot eyes as the gusting tempest of his final vision passes across them. When Ezekiel’s heart falters and his final breath jangles free of his body and leaves him the corpse he fated himself to be, Nestor kisses Ezekiel’s empty lips and feels weak with relief, bludgeoned by it, and he understands all at once the enervating satisfaction God must feel when he finally makes good on his threats. Nestor has made of Ezekiel an honest prophet, one whose presentiments now have about them the stink of irreversible truth, the lingering stench of damnable fate. He is in death a purposeful man and in becoming so has made Nestor himself a man of decided consequence, win-win.”

Gaythal Dethloff emitted an exaggerated exhalation, like a balloon whose knot has come undone, and she seemed suddenly smaller, as though she’d aspirated this story of her son, which, with no pressure valve, no aperture through which to escape, had been distending her flesh for years. I imagined her flying speedily ass-backwards through the air powered by the whistling engine of a long pent-up family tragedy.

I looked at Vivica, who palmed a yawn then bent to look at her distorted biscuit in the tuba. She licked her finger and smoothed an eyebrow. “How is it that you two came to know one another?” I asked.

“I went looking for Hazard at the soup kitchen once,” said Vivica. “There I met Nestor, and he brought me home to meet his mother. She was better able to get around then but already a sizable dollop of flesh.” Gaythal smiled hatefully at Vivica and Vivica returned the expression. “He thought it would be good for her to meet another robust gal, one expanding in another direction. Isn’t that right, Gaythal? He admired my verticality.” Vivica looked me up and down, and I could tell she was thinking about that quarter inch. “Life is just a chain of no-count men,” she said with a throttled sigh, “connecting one sorrowful woman to another,” and she looked at us both in a smoldering manner that left no room for dissent.

“So Nestor went to prison for Ezekiel’s murder?” I asked.

Gaythal again dropped the needle onto the record, and a melancholy keening sliced the air between us, then she switched the phonograph off and it moaned to silence. “Well, after E., Nestor got it into his head that he could foretell the deaths of people he passed on the street: a dealer in pork and grain futures whose heart would be squeezed into stillness by myocardial infarction as he brokered what would be his final and biggest deal; a grammar school bully whose head would snap from its stalk when he fell from the jungle gym onto the boy with the port wine stain around his eye and whose adult blood would be poisoned by the bite of a brown recluse in the night; a veteran of three wars who would die of an embolism in his sleep while dreaming of blue-ribbon rabbits he raised as a boy, Jersey woolies whose fur fetched top dollar and whom he loved more than any furless, warring, hateful human. A woman who would sit on a tourist bus next to a man corseted with explosives and who would take her hand tenderly in his just before he detonated his torso. A man who would be suffocated by the stranglehold of muscles that thinned his breathing like the hands of an angry lover when he accosted a woman who caused in him an allergic reaction. A little girl lured, during a birthday party, by a limping squirrel with a broken tail to a lilac bush, behind which she would die mouthing the words “our father” into the callused hand covering her face.  Nestor saw all around him the looming mortality that dogs all our heels, the coming deaths prowling in shadows, waiting to fall foul of the passing bodies. He saw the future corpses we all are. Don’t look it in the eye! cautioned Nestor as the soon-to-be dead passed him on the street. Whatever you do, don’t run, don’t make any sudden moves, don’t try to feed it, don’t wear red, don’t let it smell your blood curdling, your perspiration souring with fear, don’t walk alone, but most importantly, you hapless Jobs, don’t count on God to spare you or save you from suffering!

“But it was the suicides that tugged at Nestor’s heartstrings, those people he could see plain as an August sun were plotting their own ends. It saddened him to think of them stirring their stumps mechanically, shuffling through their redundant days trying to figure out how best to get their bodies to corroborate what their souls were already wise to. ‘What, in the name of foresight and soup and fire-sanctified blood, would Jesus do?’ asked Nestor, ‘That’s the question they ask these days, isn’t it?’ And the answer he fashioned, though he’d never paid Jesus much mind until now, was: ‘Kill them, of course.’ Jesus would surely save these brooding doldrummers, woebegone as gib-cats, reasoned Nestor, rescue them from the afterlife of blistering torment and gnashing teeth that is the suicide’s due. Fly-right joe like Jesus, he would do the gallant thing and assure the Dejected their consecrated seat among the murdered innocents in heaven, no two ways about it. These future suicides, you see, they thanked Nestor for doing the dirty work of self-slaughter for them, some of them going so far in their final gratitude as to kiss the hand that had seized them. It was a service to humankind it was, euthanasia of the terminally heartsick, a way for those gloomy Guses to end their earthly career of irreversible misery without rattling God’s cage.

“It was, however, not the aided suicides but the heedless jabbernowls that would be his own undoing, those folks trundling along obliviously, sans clue, no inkling a terrible fate was soon to befall them, a sudden and unspeakable demise, living recklessly they were without even a modicum of dread, but Nestor’s prescience started to short-circuit, foresight on the fritz, and all he could make out were mouths gawping in disbelief, outstretched hands reaching into the haze of an evaporated salvation. Though Nestor could no longer picture specifics, he could see these were souls that had mistakenly stepped out of the hurtling train’s path and were living on twice-borrowed time, so it was up to him to collect and right the universe, as he’d done with Ezekiel, prove the existence of a God whose ambitions would not be thwarted, that inconsolable, all-ogling grump gunning for us all. These hangers-on were far from reconciled, it bears mentioning, to the drawing of the curtains and so they chafed at the garrote, ducked the shiv, clawed the hand that pressed the chloroformed handkerchief to their mouth, and generally raised a stink that landed dear Nestor in Leavenworth, where the inmates christened him the God Whisperer and were careful never to stand in the crosshairs of his cloudy foresight.”

Gaythal seemed at last relieved, her flesh pooling around her, her head a lone hyacinth floating. She began to sing and as she did she lifted the sagging sandbags of her arms in the air: Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, I hear the word of the Lord. Your back bone connected to your shoulder bone, your shoulder bone connected to your neck bone, your neck bone connected to your head bone, I hear the word of the Lord! Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around, dem bones dem bones gonna walk around, dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around, I hear the word of the Lord! The bed bounced, the room quaked, and Vivica rattled and grinned. Disconnect dem bones, dem dry bones, disconnect dem bones, dem dry bones, disconnect dem bones, dem dry bones, I hear the word of the Lord! Your head bone connected from your neck bone, your neck bone connected from your shoulder bone…  

Vivica stood up, smoothed her slacks, and said into my ear, “And so ends the saga of another enveloping woman and the man who made her shrink.” Vivica Planet yanked me from the room by the elbow, and Gaythal Dethloff, having gorged herself on her son, licked her rosy lips and liberated herself from all pretense of bones then surrendered to the cream pie she longed to be.

In this limitless woman, the undertow of whose oceanic swells I feel tugging at me now, Obie would surely see the broadening circumference and essential ingredients of God. And then I could retire, at last. But without being able to witness the faith of my one apostle ebb, I fear I am a lifer, Johnny-punchclock to the end of time. Without Obie, I am doomed to endless enormity. Without my brother’s love to engirdle me, I am an over-sized eidolon, hopeful opiate, just another reluctant cosmoplast roaming the backroads of the universe in search of the adoration of a sacrificial boy.