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You and Me Both : Victoria A. Walsh

It was while removing his pants in the sacristy that Lawrence first met Vaughn. Unable to find a hanger, Lawrence had slung Father LaPlante's chasuble over his shoulder and removed one shoe. Lawrence was expected in the church hall immediately after Mass to begin setting up for the children's Easter egg hunt. As he struggled to wrangle the other shod foot from the leg of his pants, he turned in time to see a parishioner slipping through the door. Lawrence felt like giving up. He braced himself against the side of the armoire that contained most of the priest's vestments and some altar linens from Palm Sunday, and rested.

Vaughn addressed himself to Lawrence as a new visitor by tugging at the hem of his jacket and grazing his oiled hairline with the heel of his hand.

"I didn't think anybody'd be in here. I always wondered where you all went afterwards. This is kind of like the green room Oprah's always talking about."

"I thought the door was locked."

"I know it might feel like you got caught with your pants down, but it's not really like that. Why not finish what you were doing. I'll avert my eyes."

Lawrence turned and did as he was told. He knocked his head twice on the armoire, and after pulling his sweater over his head, felt his hair shift substantially to the left. With someone else in the room he couldn't stomach the vanity of fixing it in the mirror, so he patted it down blindly.

"Did you need something? Did you come in here for a reason?"

It wasn't that Lawrence hated it, but that it was a mystery. The way you moved through the day was by talking to people—some conversations purely utilitarian, others, something more inscrutable. Lawrence was alone more than he was with people, but still he felt that conversations seemed to contain the sum of what it meant to be alive. More even than prayer.

"No. Well yes. I'm here today with my sister and my brother-in-law. After Mass he always wants me to stop off for a drink while my mother and sister go to make Sunday dinner. I can't stand him. I snuck in here hoping he'd assume I walked on ahead."

"Well I have to go right downstairs to the hall to set up for the children's egg hunt. I can't leave anyone in here."

"I ought to introduce myself. When I tried the door it just opened, so I came in. I was thinking there'd be like an anteroom or something of that nature. It didn't really occur to me that you'd be standing right here."

"Oh...well, I'm Lawrence Crane. You probably know I help with church business and what not."

"Nice to meet you, finally. I'm Vaughn Fatima. I've been coming here for about a year since I moved in with my sister."

Vaughn's sister had moved to Maine when she married her husband Don, who worked for MBNA and had accepted a job transfer to the area because it promised a promotion. In such an economically depressed state, it was clearly a buyer's market. Accordingly, Don and Patty put an offer down on the first house they looked at; a Victorian with at least five bedrooms and a carriage house. They lived two miles out of town and had old copper pipes, and the whole of the place smelled like wet pennies. The water turned Vaughn's hair a light shade of red, drawing attention, he thought, to the fact that what he lacked was a gold tooth. This is like some kind of shit Arsenio Hall would pull, he'd said to himself.

There didn't seem to be any way to remove the red, so Vaughn accommodated it without complaint or apology. Everything about Vaughn seemed deliberate and yet, of no consequence to him. This discouraged most others from offering comment. The problem with Vaughn, according to his brother-in-law, Don, was that he walked like a white man, or something else not normal; neither the shuffle of Sammy Davis, the rooster step of Richard Pryor, nor the syncopated strut of Snoop Dogg. It made Don suspicious—the evenness of each of Vaughn's steps, leading equally with his shoulders and his hips—almost as if he belonged to a third race.

"Is your mother Althea? She makes those sweet potato muffins for the suppers?"

"That's right. You know, maybe you missed your calling as a P.I."

"What's that? Well, we don't have very many people that, you know, black people up in this area, or in Maine too much. And at St. Joe's it's just your family that attends, so...but, I guess you know that probably."

"Yeah, the Roman thing never really caught on in the neighborhoods. My mother converted when she married my father. He was Cape Verdean. The church is big down there."

Vaughn was still getting used to Maine. He and his sister had grown up in Cincinnati, and after moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, working for the pork factories and Proctor and Gamble scions, Vaughn packed up and moved to Philadelphia, which he always preferred. The only thing connecting him to that part of his life was a 1971 Cadillac the color of Spanish onions, which he still drove and called brotherly love.

"Not everyone's born in. Everyone gets where they're going in a different way, I s'pose."

"Listen, Lawrence, now that I'm here. I was wondering, do you need an extra pair of hands around the place?"

"Uh, I know that Sister Betty is looking for someone to help out on Saturday afternoons with the adult class. Mind you, we always need lectors and volunteers for the offertory."

"No. I mean, I'm more interested in what you do."

"Hmm? I get paid to do what I do—the parish couldn't really afford to pay anyone else."

"I don't care about that. I just need something to keep me out of the house the days I'm not working. I like to be busy. Couldn't you use a hand?"

Over the course of the last few months, Vaughn was finding something redeeming about driving the sullen roads of Bingham, Maine, identified only by numbers. Fire Road 428 was the nicest one. It felt penetrating and moody, shouldered by front-yard orchards of juniper bushes that went on for miles, enough to roundly supply berries for generations of clandestine gin farming. In the late afternoons, he half expected to see radiator stills upturned in backyards, illuminated by the shafts of sunlight that visited the spaces where the birch and pine branches did not quite meet.

But Vaughn missed the city, and the look of a wide avenue. He missed the awe it inspired, which was nothing like the awe of mountains or of trees. Instead, it was an awe of human deeds and human-made things, which snared in him a sense of limitless possibility.

"Well I guess that depends. What did you have in mind?"

"I had in my mind that you took care of things—you know, in general. You do what needs doing. Fix stuff, arrange various goings on; a caretaker. Keep things up and run the show. I used to be an office manager. I know that line of work."

During his last month in Philly, Vaughn had lost his job in the business office of a department store. He was the Workflow Manager, which paid the same as an Administrative Assistant, but the title was supposed to keep him from joining the union. Vaughn ordered supplies, answered the phones, kept track of the expense accounts, and sorted the mail. He had been there for a year and decided to ask for a raise, saying that his workload had grown since the recent addition of three new staff, and he deserved it. His boss had declined, saying that he himself had not received a raise, despite the fact that he was doing the work of five. Vaughn looked straight ahead. "Five babies, maybe," he'd said blankly.

"How much time could you devote to it?"

"Ten or fifteen hours a week, something like that. My days off are Monday and Tuesday."

"I never shared my work before. I'd need to talk to Father LaPlante about it first. There are liability issues for the parish. Some things of that nature."

"That's fair. Can I check in later in the week?"

"Could you write down your name and your history, or, your personal information? Jobs. I'll talk to him tonight or tomorrow. You said you're working now?"

"That's right. I work at Thibeau's Shoe."

Vaughn had balanced his yellow desk orchid and miniature Zen garden kitty-corner on a cardboard box lid, and whistled the theme from Working Girl. He didn't know many of the words. He thought of Melanie Griffith's teased-out hair at the beginning of that movie, and how small it had made her feet look by comparison. Vaughn was just getting to that part of the song when Carly Simon sings "come, the new Jeru-sa-lem!" which he usually sang out loud rather than whistled, when Josh, a snazzy youth from the shipping department had approached, one thumb hooked in his pocket. "Vaughn, Dude, what can I say? The freakin' Man's got us by the balls. This isn't just happening to you, kid, it's happening to like, all of us." Vaughn had put up his hand to thwart any further platitudes. This gesture, mistaken for a confirmation of solidarity, caused Josh to slap his palm against Vaughn's in a triumphant high-five, and then squeeze and raise their clasped hands into the air. Josh looked up at the white and black hand together and said it was beautiful. Vaughn had said only, "I'm sure you'll get that job in PR."

"Put that down on there too if you would. I can call you once I've talked to Father Bob, but I, I've got to get right down to the hall now. I'd better hurry it up."

"All right, I'll be talking to you then, Lawrence. Thank you."

"You have a nice day."

Instead of going directly home, Vaughn stopped off at Grant and Nancy's for baked beans and whatever came with it. Today it was slaw and "wets." Vaughn had never eaten French fries with a spoon before, but these were drowning in chicken gravy. Jim, one of the regulars, was there at the counter, drinking his second Pepsi and talking about his wood delivery; nearly April and he claimed to be going through the extra cord he'd got in February like shit through a tin horn. A mesh baseball cap, besmirched with glue that signified bird droppings sat on Jim's head like a poor man's diadem, the silk-screened "Damn Seagulls" cracked and fading.

The absence of his familiar reference points and all the places he used to go to think made Vaughn feel that, for the time being, he had become stupid. Every so often, Vaughn thought, you ran out of ideas. You just stopped producing new ones. In Philly, he would go to Dirty Frank's to think. Vaughn would tell the bartender that he liked his Puerto Rican flag pashmina, and be left alone all night. Now, Vaughn talked mostly to his mother, who made no sense at the best of times, and less so since she'd had a small stroke. The rest of the time he talked to his sister and her husband, which he imagined was a lot like talking to a roomful of corpses; his voice unanswered and hollow, the words rounds of blanks shot off detachedly by a sociopath.

That's what sent him to church. The thought of being provoked. Since he'd arrived in Maine, everything Vaughn saw had made him shrug.

At 5 o'clock, Lawrence went home and looked over the résumé that Vaughn Fatima, the black parishioner, had left for him in the vestibule, packaged in a brown paper envelope marked "Lawrence." He listed many different kinds of jobs and had always worked, ever since he was thirteen. Lawrence couldn't remember exactly what Vaughn looked like, only the way he smelled, like coffee and coconuts, and his voice, which reminded Lawrence, when he thought about it, of the sound of hair being brushed; the way it was so quiet, but distinct, and did just what it meant to. He thought of Vaughn's hair, twinkling damp, like the spider webs on the juniper bushes at dawn. You couldn't brush, or comb it even, only smooth it with a hand. Lawrence pushed his chin into his shoulder and directed his eyes toward a collection of things in the corner of the room, urging his mind to move itself along. He made a list of the projects he decided he needed help on and dropped it off at the rectory on the way to the hospital.

For Easter, Lawrence had promised to bring a canister of peach blossoms, Aunt Mulva's favorite candy, a pearlescent sugar shell filled with peanut butter. Disgusting, he thought; of all things to miss once you'd become a shut-in. Not the sound of a violin, or the smell of the sea, but a foul and ill-conceived confection. Though at least where the candy was concerned she could still afford the real thing, not an inferior approximation of it. Here they were, living on the upper Kennebec River, the nearest hope of a live orchestra the high school band concert in April, and a whiff of ocean almost four hours away by car. Everything about the river was tiresome. There was never any doubt where it was headed, or how.

The first time Vaughn went to Mass at St. Joseph's he'd sat on the side nearest the choir, just in front of the Stations of the Cross, arranged along the wall on limestone tablets. Vaughn didn't see the point in showcasing that, and likened it to a decision made by one Philadelphia blues club to decorate the walls with archival photographs of a lynching. Behind the choir was a wall-hanging, appliquéd felt on linen that said "Pax Christi" in an artsy-ancient font below a cave-painted bird that he knew was a dove, because it was church and no other birds ever made it onto the walls there. Vaughn had thought for a minute how Christ's peace should be symbolized by a pigeon, because it was The People's Bird and everyone had seen one. Why should The Peace of Christ be something so rare and beautiful? Why not a bird that walked among us all the time and was mistaken for vermin? One that people persecuted and threw things at if they had the chance. Vaughn had nodded visibly as he experienced the didactic power of his own parable.

Other than it all seeming a little vain, Vaughn had felt unmoved by the display of the Mass. The priest looked about forty-five and fit; his commentary on the gospel seemed predictable, delivered in a tone of someone stating the obvious for the umpteenth time, approximating a large sigh. Vaughn mentally divided up the people in the pews into three groups. There were those who would hang their heads in shame and spend the next week being less bossy about the remote control and eschew the odd can of beer; those who would take the priest's suggestions cheerfully and spend the next week feeling enriched by their selfless efforts and superior personal hygiene; and the third, largest group, those who had spent a lifetime being kept in line by parents, spouses, bosses and priests, and considered sitting through such a talking to as itself sufficient, and would think nothing of it ever again.

The second time Vaughn had gone to Mass one man, the same man, did the first reading, came around with a collection basket and handed out communion. He was short and square but not fat, wearing a pressed suit and a smooth chin. Vaughn thought he seemed like someone who had overcome a nervous disposition in order to do what he did, and because of that, was stiff and guarded.

Lawrence believed that for the elderly people in town, daily communion was taken as an aperitif to prepare their palates for a diet of prescription drugs. But the Eucharist imparted a flush of health that no pills could effect. He saw it in their watery eyes as he shelved the wafer on their denuded tongues. Their belief was a source of his own faith, even at moments when he felt it leaving him, or himself leaving it. The only thing he never doubted was Jesus who, though divine, was also a man and therefore, subject to the same moods and vagaries as anyone. At times during Mass when Lawrence felt especially put upon, he would look up at the Stations of the Cross. That day, he studied the faces of the people, their mouths mostly open. Then he studied Jesus, dragging that heavy thing, sweating, bleeding from his head, only to be killed in number twelve. Lawrence felt he identified with Jesus more and more as he moved through each Station. I can only imagine how you must've felt, Lawrence thought. Cross? Cross?? Why don't they call those tablets 'Stations of the Furious?'

Lawrence believed this to be the Son of God's favorite joke.

The following week, the same man had done the second reading and carried the communion gifts up the aisle to the priest—wearing the brown suit, smooth chin and guarded demeanor. This time, Vaughn noticed his clean, thick hands and the natural low hang of his eyelids, which half shuttered the palest blue hearts, and made him look as though he was permanently fighting tiredness, or else gazing out at the congregation with bedroom eyes. The fourth time Vaughn went to mass, he asked his sister Patty the man's name.

"Oh, that's Lawrence. Crane, I guess? He's always here. He does everything."

After mass, Patty talked about how strange Lawrence was, and how he lived over on Lincoln Avenue near where the old middle school used to be. The same house he grew up in. That he was retired from a government job he had in Augusta for twenty years. That he never married.

Aunt Mulva's mind was going, and though Lawrence loved her more than anyone, this amused him and sometimes sent him hysterical into the hallway. The week before, she'd had a bladder infection that landed her in the hospital in Skowhegan. Before her fever broke she talked what he called "ragtime," much to the indignation of the doctors. When asked by a nurse how old she was, Mulva replied, "thirty-nine and holding." She then went on to talk about her broken engagement to Franklin Roosevelt and her outrage that she had not been informed beforehand that he used a wheelchair.

Tonight when Lawrence arrived with the candy she was feeling better, and he asked her, shaking his head, "What am I going to do with you?" Aunt Mulva looked down at her capacious body under the covers.

"I don't know. I'll freeze good. And probably be wonderful in soups."

"That's helpful," Lawrence said as he dumped a strand of rosary beads into her hand. "Then you'll be at the church supper after all."

She scowled. He said that maybe Althea Fatima would come to the supper too, and bring the sweet potato muffins everyone loved last year. Maybe she would bring her family.

Thirty miles north of here the river forks, Lawrence thought. And turns to rapids.

After Monday morning Mass, once Lawrence had helped the last of the parishioners to their wheelchairs and cars, he went over to the rectory to check on the oil burner. Father LaPlante was in the kitchen hunting for a tin of shoe polish. He said it would be nice to have a third person to call on in case Mrs. Parlin went further downhill and needed rides to church, or in case they wanted to replace those benches in the side chapel after all. He had placed a call to Vaughn Fatima while Lawrence was closing up the sacristy. Father Bob welcomed Vaughn aboard at St. Joe's and affirmed that he would leave everything in the way of scheduling to Lawrence. He then took the liberty of suggesting that Vaughn stop off at Lawrence's house that evening to discuss any details.

Lawrence offered Vaughn a seat in the kitchen; a wooden chair with arms, which he'd found at a tag sale held in the middle school basement, a week before they tore the building down. The chair might've been used in the school library or the principal's office. Lawrence had also bought the clock off the wall in the gym.

Vaughn lowered himself into the chair tightly.

"I feel like I'm in a Trans Am," he said good-naturedly and looked around. No one else had ever sat in the chair before and Lawrence felt self-conscious, as if Vaughn was very close to the crown of his head and could see how thin his hair had got in patches.

"It's a chair from the school I went to when I was a boy," he said.

Lawrence put a plate of Oreo cookies on Vaughn's knees like they were a teacher's desk and the cookies a completed spelling test, and quickly took his own seat. Lawrence smelled the air in the room and his chest emptied and filled again. He had not had a guest, not like this, in ten years.

"So, besides your family, was there a reason to move to Bingham?"

"Well, a few reasons. I lost my job in Philly—that's where I was living. You know that. And my mother's not that well. I figured maybe temporarily while I figure things out. Maybe I'll go back to my old job, you never know."

Just as Vaughn had been about to clock out for the last time, one of the women from the administrative pool had come over to him and handed him an unopened can of warm beer. "I keep it in my desk for emergencies," she'd said. Then she hugged him hard, pressing her breasts into him needlessly as she broke away. He looked down at himself to see if they'd left a dent. When he got out onto the street, Vaughn set down his box and removed his cardigan. He stood in a posture of manufactured defiance in front of the building: legs apart, back arched, pelvis pushed forward. He shook the can of beer furiously and cracked it open, spraying the foam back and forth across the front door like a rock n' roll hedonist, his tongue snaking out in scary seduction. A UPS delivery woman standing just inside the door jumped when the beer hit the window, and stared. Then she turned sideways and ignored him. Vaughn threw the can down on the ground. He picked up his things carefully and walked away, maintaining the puddle-flat comportment for which he was known.

"Just temporary?"

"Well, you know it's the kind of thing?you have to play it by ear."

"Right.... Speaking of movies, did you ever get down to Waterville, to the little movie theatre—the Railroad Square? By the train tracks...course. Uh, it had a little restaurant too with a lot of nice things for dinner or supper or what not."

 Lawrence tried to remind himself again what the point was in conversation. Had he decided that it was to accumulate knowledge about a.) the world or b.) specific people, or was the point of conversation c.) to pass the time? Lawrence thought that if it actually was to learn about specific people, he was unsure whether the end result was to find companionship in those people, or if conversation was the act of being a companion. He couldn't fold it up before bed at night, or lay it out for the morning, but in a day, conversation happened to be something that one had to take out and use up. His hands went over it in his mind like the edges of his shaving kit and the seams of his socks. He decided at that moment to regard it as one of his effects, along with his comb, and nose hair trimmer and shoe trees.

"No, I haven't made it up there yet. Maybe we could go one night?"

"Oh. I have that car that was my Aunt's?"

 His toolbox was like a pantry when Lawrence first looked into it that afternoon. One pickle jar, one jam, one mayonnaise and an Eight O'Clock coffee can. There was only one coat hook in the entryway. Unable to find another, he'd settled on a ten penny nail for the time being, laying out the distance by holding up his hat and marking the wall with a pencil. He banged the nail in with three good whacks and hung his duster on it, leaving the coat hook empty for Vaughn.

"Alright, well, that's handy. I have a car, too. It's a old Cadillac—we, I've had it almost since it was new. We bought it used, but only about 200 miles on it. Old lady had it."

"Geez, that's pretty good for you?. So, your family drive it too?"

"Not my family. The man I lived with. My 'roommate,' as they say in mixed company. His name was Al."

Some nights in Philadelphia, Vaughn had circled, over and over again, the same blocks around 17th and Locust—churning butter, his mother would've called it—where he had gotten to know everyone just enough to remain unknown. All the boys knew they could count on Vaughn, no matter how many gimlets he had, never to gossip that with your latest boyfriend you had downgraded from a cupcake to a ho-ho. Everyone knew that Vaughn went home alone, tipsy and content.

"Yuh. Oh I see, yuh."

"He died. He died about eight months before I moved out here."

"God. My God. That's a heck of a thing."

You can't help it, Lawrence thought. Sometimes you talk just to tell someone what you did when they weren't there, and what is the point in that? There is no point. You tell them just to tell them. So someone knows. So you can share with the only known resource on earth, the details of life; a mutual experiment whose objective eludes us, and whose results we are at a loss to interpret.

"Yeah, he was something. Something else. Chinese. People thought we made a funny pair."

 Lawrence thought he might say how God worked in mysterious ways. He thought he might tell Vaughn that he'd been pooped on by a pigeon that morning; which was embarrassing and a horrible mess, but lucky. It was good luck to be pooped on by a bird, and pigeons perhaps the most since it was a pigeon, wasn't it, in the Old Testament that had been sent out from the ark to tell everyone the flood had ended?

"It's alright. You know I suppose he's in a better place. Better than West Philly anyway. He gave me a run for my money—always pretending to die on me. He'd tell me he'd gone into the light and 'what did you know but heaven looked exactly like Peking?' Course his family was Shinto or some wild thing."

"Mr. uh, Vaughn...maybe did you want something more than those cookies? I mean, seeing as its suppertime. I could make chop suey. I mean American chop suey. With the hamburger and macaroni and what not?"

"You know what Lawrence, yeah. Yeah. I like this place. It clears my head out."

Before leaving, Vaughn memorized the room and everything in it. His eyes passed over objects, spaces, contours, lines. From now on it will be familiar, he thought. The angle of Lawrence's shoulder drew Vaughn's face along and he sat, amazed, as before a giant building that leads your eyes upwards to the sky, almost as if you could touch it.

Before bed, Lawrence opened his closet and parted the row of his clothes between a grey polyester suit jacket and a brown wool one. He drew one side far over to the left and the other to the right; in the center he placed a tie rack as a divider.

"Oh, the man I see," he said blithely to the doorway, his eyes focused on the switch plate to the left of it. "These jackets belong to the man I see." Lawrence straightened the brown wool jacket on the hanger and brushed the lapels.

He imagined telling it to Aunt Mulva.

"What man?" she would say. "Jesus? I seen him too. But he never left his clothes behind."