Black Roses
by Gustav Hasford



The stained glass windows of Saint Louis Cathedral are blinding me slowly because I love the colors and fear the design. The windows warm my eyes…

Stained glass
ruby red sapphire blue emerald
green translucent golden yellow
Stained glass window of heaven and hell; an Angel’s breasts
In a brimstone saloon.
Stuck in the design—a mumbling wandering fool of a Jew hung on a stick…

    Twilight makes the windows glow as though each piece of stained glass has been dipped into a delicious wine… It's time to read my wife’s elegy, but I can't keep myself from composing bad verse about the mythological land of Hell.
    Poetry is my crutch, and I need it. Lyrical words and rhythmic phrases can sometimes bullshit a man into believing that his troubles are just the natural fruits of cosmic growing pains. And poems are handy vessels into which we amateur bards like to excrete our pain in the tradition established by drunks who hug toilet bowls and puke out their guts.
    Pain is supposed to be an artist's tool—an emotional plumber's friend with which to extract pictures from nightmares. As my old monkey?faced art instructor liked to say: "If no one lived with pain, there would be no art. Pain makes a man think.” If that little faggot was here now, I'd punch out his fucking heart.
    A year of watching my wife wind down like a broken doll has not inspired me. I'm a mural painter. I paint nature scenes on government buildings. I only write poems to give myself toys to play with. It's been a year since I’ve done any serious work, and the only thing that prevents me from cutting my throat is my curiosity about the fragments of verse that bubble to the surface of my mind like turds in a sewer.
    The Cathedral is cold. And quiet. Outside, the French Quarter mumbles like a distant carnival—strip show barkers, tourist shucks, Dixieland jazz—all filter in through the rainbow teeth of shattered windows.
    In silver candelabra, candle flames are slapped by a cold swirl of night air. Shadows blink across a great golden crucifix.
Ellen selected these poems herself—some of her favorites. My first poems were written to tell her how much I loved her. They were all about the glass roses and a poet's attempt to embrace a storm. But today all I can do is borrow words from braver men. As I read, Ellen watches my lips…

All lovely things will fade and die…

    Every real minister I was able to find was broke, but not one of them would read words over her. Bascom, that son?of?a?bitch, was disappointed. He wanted an old?fashioned church funeral. My wearing a priest's robe and carrying a Bible was the only compromise he would accept.

This same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying…

    Ellen smiles. Even while dying, she is a frighteningly beautiful woman. Her auburn hair burns the silky white lining of her coffin, ignites it.

And beauty dead, black chaos comes again…

    I look at Ellen. Then: "Amen."
    Bascom and Fat Dirty Billy wait for me to say goodbye. I whisper: "I love you."
    She smiles again. "I wish you did, Paul. I wish you had."
    "Don't say that. Why do you say that?"
    She touches my face. "It’s not important." Pause. "I don't want to leave you.”
    I kiss her pale, cracked lips. I trace the fine lines of her face and need words, but her final hours have knocked all the words out of me. I crush a handful of her black funeral roses. She loves flowers. The dark, drooping petals are obscene facsimiles of the purple roses I painted all over our bedroom wall last night while Bascom, Fat Dirty Billy and I stood the deathwatch over her.
    I kick down the three wreaths of roses—one at a time. All around me red flames whisper and grow. Flames eat the dusty pews and the brass and walnut and white satin of the altar and flames climb the paneled walls…
    Ellen says: "You never kissed me like that before."
    "I always meant to."

Two days after our three-month-old daughter Tanya disappeared, Fat Dirty Billy pounded on our door and before I could tell him to go away he’d slapped his business card into my hand: FAT DIRTY BILLY—LIASON LAWYER—I BUY LOVE/I SELL LOVE. He was black jello in red suspenders and baggy, striped trousers, with an expensive Panama slanted across his silver hair.
    I’d never met one of his profession, and I didn't know what to do. The Supreme Court decisions of 1978 had finally made "anything between consenting adults" legal. So I accepted Fat Dirty Billy as just another salesman, then told him I wasn’t buying.
    When he told us he could get our baby back, I threatened, Ellen cried, and we offered to give him everything we owned. When he told us what he wanted, I tried to kill him. And when that was over and his facts had broken our emotions, we knew we had no choice.
    His client, Billy explained, was a Louisiana dirt farmer named Mathew Bascom—a quiet, simple, family man. He was, in Billy's words, the kind of man "what spends Sunday morning singing in church and the rest of the day frying catfish."
    Bascom's lifetime dream was to make love to a dead woman. Fat Dirty Billy had fixed him up with New Orleans prostitutes who smeared their naked bodies with wax and underwent hypnocathexis to arrest all life?functions until they were like corpses. But Bascom was not satisfied. He wanted the kind of women it hurts to look at, you want her so bad. He wanted a beautiful woman who was about to die…
    Billy explained how he searched for months bribing nurses to look at medical records, dropping feelers on the grapevine, until he had a list. Then he and Bascom had observed the women. When he saw Ellen, Bascom cried.
    Instead of offering us money, Bascom had taken our child. As Billy said, “He know what he wants, so he don't give a dam."
After discussing every possible alternative with us, Billy made it clear that Bascom was desperate and would kill our baby—and himself—unless we gave him what he wanted.
    No police. No chance for rescue. No choice.
    Billy said he wanted to help us, and if we would agree to Bascom’s terms, Billy would arbitrate the deal. His job was making people happy, he said—not stealing kids. He said he was sorry.
    Then he left us alone.
    "The divorce…" Ellen said. "We'll have to wait…"
    "Don't worry. Tonnie will be okay."
    "But he wants…”
    "There's no other way, Ellen. And you're going to die… you're going to die, anyway. It'll be ugly, but…”
    "Paul, I want you to know—"
    "We can talk about that later."
    "I just wish you'd loved me, even—"
    "Love you? Love you? Why the fuck you think I married you?"
    "Oh, because we grew up together, took the same courses in college, got jobs together. In bed, we were friendly meat. It was the logical thing, marriage. Even so, I loved you, Paul. I wanted you.”
    “Will you cut the shit? I’ll never understand you. You treat me like a disease, but you love me!"
    "Let’s not talk anymore."
    “Tell me! What did I do?"
    “Will… Are you going to… Will you miss me?”
    "What? What kind of stupid question is that? Don't you think I'm going crazy thinking about—"
    "No. You're just afraid to be alone."
    “You never talked to me like this before."
    “I—“
    “Let’s go to bed."
    “No. It makes me feel dirty.”
    “You going to bitch about never having an orgasm again?"
    "No. It's not that."
    “Are we going to fight all fucking night!"
    “Let’s go to bed, if you want to, I don't want to think about Tonnie. We’ve got to get her back, Paul. I'll do it. Okay? I'm afraid."
    We talked about what we would tell Fat Dirty Billy and I made the decision and then I took Ellen to bed and fucked her and told her I loved her.

Now, in the coffin, life is leaving Ellen's perfect body, leaving her heavy breasts and dark nipples, her firm thighs, her full buttocks. She is drying up and decomposing a cell at a time; her bones are turning to powder in a million microscopic destructions.
    Bascom looks at me, his face dead. He waits, then strips off his faded overalls and dirty red longjohns. He looks at me again, then climbs into Ellen's coffin and tears open her midnight-blue evening gown.
    The Cathedral is a cave of fire.
    He moves on her.
    Frantic, I stumble around the coffin, slash at candles to kill the light. Darkness. Severed candles ignite the thick velvet drapes.  Flames climb the rich material..
    Fat Dirty Billy is yelling at me. Something about fire, candles, crazy. All I know is that I haven't pulled Bascom off my wife. I haven't broken our contract.
    In the darkness I can hear the sounds of it: Bascom saying, "I love you, little girl. I love you. I need you. I've waited so long…" and then tearing off the rest of her clothes.
    I put my hands over my ears, but my hands are too thin to keep it out.
    A burning rafter falls, crushes the altar.
    Billy tries to drag Bascom out of the coffin. Bascom looks at him for a moment, pushes him away, sucks Ellen's smooth flesh.
The sounds of Bascom and Ellen moving together are amplified as they grow more passionate. My fingers close around a thick rope that hangs down from the steeple and I ride It up and down until heavy bronze bells swing overhead. The Cathedral trembles with sound. But still I hear it.
    Ellen moans. In the darkness, she wraps her long legs around Bascom and he makes love to her slowly, kisses her with surprising tenderness, whispers to her. And I think: They're beautiful! The disgust I felt because it was what I expected myself to feel transforms itself into shock, awe, and I feel like a bag of broken eggs, and I know. I know that I do love Ellen, that I always have loved Ellen, and that knowing that I love her means it'll break my back to lose her.
    She responds, stiffens, whimpers, claws Bascom violently, then collapses. And I know she had her first orgasm and that hurts and I am jealous that I never made her so happy, that I will never feel as close to her as Bascom feels now.
The frozen image of the two lovers together is as warm and as tender and as beautiful as my most delicate painting: Ellen naked, her nipples swollen with milk, with our baby nursing her breast.
    I wanted to thank Bascom for loving her, for needing her and not being afraid to say so, and for letting her experience the way a man touches a woman when words won't do and his hands can't say what he means.
    I want to ask Bascom if he’d let me hold her—if he’d let me really hold her for a moment. Holding her, I could give her ice-cream flowers, fresh peaches, lemons and perfumes, wicker baskets of rubies and emeralds, gold and silver amulets, the feathers of African birds, the skins of tigers…
    I take a step. But Ellen's breathing falls off, stops, and I know she's dead.
    The floor dissolves and I drop into a cold pit of black silent aloneness that has no bottom and is made real only by pain.
    And I know without question that it's too late to hold her; it has been too late a long time. I always had what I always wanted but I didn't know I had it and so I lost it. Through a lens of pain I see the past for the first time and its reflection: my future: I will wander through a large room that is crowded with people I don’t know, and my memory will spin and whirl with worn cogs and gears of brass, projecting home movies of Ellen and Tonnie and I which will blink frame by frame into the grinding gears of my consciousness, and I will feed off them like a man chewing cardboard, and will eat my past until there are no more images, until nothing works anymore, until nothing matters…
    The ceiling falls.
    I regain consciousness on the soft grass of Jackson Square
    Fat Dirty Billy squats beside me, coughing. “Bascom told me where your baby is, Paul. She’s safe.” He massages his wrinkled forehead with a red bandana. "When you're able, we can get her."
    Sirens.
    Fire in New Orleans. Flames a mile thick spill over a hard black sky.
    In my fantasies, I see the mural I'll have to paint: the purple image of Ellen and Bascom together, making love, happy, touching in dark ecstasy, dying together in a beautiful fire.
    "Paul? Did you hear me?"
    I nod. "I'm okay." I lay my arm across his fat old shoulders and he helps me to stand. "I love my daughter, Billy."
    Behind the stained glass, pieces of fire wiggle and glow.
    My eyes bleed like little wounds and the windows are poems from which all the words have fallen.
    Sirens.
    Soft strips of lead melt and the stained glass sprinkles concrete, pieces of color fall to the street and shatter…
 
 

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