The God Box

by Michael Gaspeny

At his father’s funeral, surrounded by mourners among the evergreens, Johnny Garstang violated the dead man’s wishes. His father wanted the Episcopal priest to give the eulogy, but the Reverend’s generalities drove Johnny to find his voice at the fall of the priest’s last syllable. Johnny was normally tight-lipped when he wasn’t drinking with sportswriter colleagues. But his words sang as he told the story of his father’s ascent from Depression ditch digger to superintendent of parks in Norfolk. He mentioned the joyful reunion that would occur in the grave where Mrs. Garstang awaited the husband she called “Monks.” He included anecdotes illustrating those monkeyshines and a memory of his father massaging Johnny’s calves to relieve his growing pains.

It was 1992, and he closed by honoring a promise to his father: “Charley Garstang, Yellow Dog Democrat, respectfully requests that you vote for Bill Clinton in November.” The mourners laughed. Accepting condolences and praise for his recollections, Johnny adopted his father’s sociability.

Then, alone above the grave, Johnny was trembling and taking deep breaths when the sun struck the black dress of a shapely woman striding through the trees. He wondered where she was going, but he was her destination. He lost the oxygen he had regained. It was Joann Monucchi, a flame from thirty years ago, her dark eyes and hair still lustrous.

“I had to pay my respects, Johnny. I hope you’re not upset to see me.”

“No, Joann,” he replied, straining to keep an open throat. “It’s been a long time since we were together.”

“I’m sorry about your father,” she said, brushing the back of his hand. “He was a fine man. Your memories had me sobbing. I had to go to the car and put myself back together.”

“You did a good job.”

“Johnny, you made your father come alive.”

“I’m a sportswriter. That’s my job.”

She looked closely at him. No woman had done that in a while.

“When I saw the obituary, I felt for you. The old days came back. I said to myself, ‘Those blue eyes!’ They’re still the same. I have some things I’ve wanted to tell you for years. Could we go out for a meal? I won’t stir old coals.”

Her need opened a need buried in him. He had cared for her, even if it was eons ago.

“Tomorrow night?”

“Good,” Joann said. “I’d invite you to the house for lasagna, but my mother is there.”

“Then we better go out.”

They agreed to meet at an old haunt. Johnny watched her leave, stunned that Joann had reappeared and that she still lived with that iron-haired killjoy of a mother.

 

 * * *

 

When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the cheers of several of Johnny’s frat brothers sickened him. Because of all the fun with alcohol, he had missed the depth of prejudice at his small college for men near Richmond. Those celebrating the President’s murder had learned to hate everyone lacking their beliefs or color. To escape from campus, he hitchhiked along U.S. 1 at night, heading to Richmond or D.C. The drivers stopping for him were lonely men—some on the make. Their spiels were monotonous: “I’ll bet you have a girlfriend. Does she put you off? Women can be selfish, don’t you think?” When a driver propositioned him, he insisted on being let out of the car.

His girlfriend wasn’t selfish. Joann was a virgin struggling to be affectionate to him, also a virgin, while obeying her divorce-embittered mother. A mahogany-eyed, curvy Catholic, she crossed herself when she passed her church. As a girl, she cherished cards of saints like he treasured baseball cards.  He thought she could make him a better person and, in return, he could free her from her handcuffing mother.

The February after JFK was killed, Joann had promised to visit campus for a party weekend, but she phoned as the band began to play in the chapter room and canceled. Her mother had withdrawn approval. A pint of bourbon later, while the band did “Twist and Shout” downstairs, Johnny, threw his furniture out the window. It skidded down the side roof and crashed in the yard—chairs, mirror, desk, trunk, lamp.

Miraculously, he wasn’t suspended from school or frat. Instead, he became a campus legend.  Placed on alcohol probation, he was forced to attend Saturday morning group sessions, conducted by Chaplain Varstadt. One day, Varstadt asked a pumpkin-faced boy named Roker why he drank. Roker ruffled his pompadour and said, “Padre, I drink because it takes the rough edges off life.” That declaration became a rallying cry for a spontaneous renegade fraternity. Loaded, the probationers marauded in Richmond, buckling signs and thieving.

One afternoon, hung-over, guilt-ridden, Johnny stuck out his thumb, determined to see Joann. Outside Williamsburg, a driver in a Rolls stopped. Johnny had never ridden in such a ritzy car or with a priest, at least the plump man at the wheel looked like a priest because he wore a clerical collar and a flashy ruby ring. He had a birthmark—a cloud, pink as bubble gum, on his right cheek.

They talked sports. The driver correctly identified Johnny’s sport as basketball. Johnny had plugged along for his high-school team, struggling to compensate for mediocrity by throwing his body around. Once, he had been faked off his feet, and when the opponent ducked, Johnny toppled over the guy’s back and split his head against the floor. He told the driver the story of the ragged “Z” above his nose.

“The boys should call you ‘Zorro,’” the priest said, smiling.

He loosened his belt, explaining he was uncomfortable after a big lunch. Johnny was wary, but he gave the pleasant man the benefit of the doubt.

A little later, the priest said, “Still too tight.” He undid the buckle and the button of his shiny black pants.

“Please stop.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop at this light and let me out.”

“I’m tense. Tense!” the priest declared, unzipping his pants.

As his fingers fluttered, his voice shifted into mumbo-jumbo. A moan like “lastas” predominated. The priest’s jingling belt buckle and sickening chant infuriated Johnny.

He opened the passenger door, though the car was racing, and yelled, “I’ll jump!”

“Don’t!” the priest exclaimed and slowed down. He said, “I can see it in your eyes. You would jump! You need someone, too, don’t you, son?”

When a light forced the priest to stop, Johnny bolted from the car, yelling, “I’m not your goddamned son!”

However, that dusk, Johnny was forced to recognize a kinship when he repeated the priest’s sentiments. Loitering in Joann’s neighborhood of pre-fab houses, he approached her as she left the bus from her day as a clerk on the naval base. Joann looked astonished. She said, “I was just thinking of you!” On her porch, he declared, “We both need someone. We shouldn’t be alone.”

He embraced her. She melted. Joann’s mother whipped the storm door open with such force it whacked Johnny off the porch into Mrs. Monucchi’s pyracantha, whose barbs cut his arm. He rushed away, humiliated. Over the years, a wavy silver scar near his elbow occasionally reminded him of Joann.

 

* * *

 

The last time Johnny visited his father, they argued about Bill Clinton. They were cleaning the grave where Mr. Garstang would one day join his wife, who had died five years ago from breast cancer. Johnny’s father had photos of FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK above his work bench, and he wanted to enshrine Clinton there. Long before Clinton’s vault from the Ozarks to the stars, Johnny, a wandering sportswriter, worked in Arkansas. He interviewed Clinton, a young law professor, during his losing campaign for Congress. Johnny was assigned a sidebar on the candidate’s devotion to the Arkansas Razorbacks. A staunch Democrat like his father, Johnny looked forward to meeting Clinton. Because he loathed puff pieces, Johnny’s interview with the candidate ranged into politics, but on neither sports nor current events did he strike substance.

Mr. Garstang sheared the grass around the marble base of the grave. Johnny sluiced water from a plastic bottle over the plaque and, with a whiskbroom, gently swished the dust from his mother’s name, dates, and the epitaph—Happily Ever After. She had been a laughing soul, but a wasp when she caught Johnny in a lie.

He envied his father’s supple wrists and the staccato rhythm rising from his work.

“Bill Clinton will get this country moving again,” Mr. Garstang said, shears snicking.

“Pop, his self-esteem could fuel a moon shot.”

“I like a man with confidence.”

“I wanted to like him and I did vote for him, but I never met a man so pleased with himself. I have him on tape. Twenty minutes of self-gratification.”

“Maybe you didn’t ask the right questions. I wish I’d been there.”

“I wish you had, too. It didn’t feel right.”

His father, who had helped defeat the Great Depression, chafed at the mention of feelings. “What do you mean?”

“I can’t define it, Pop. But Mom always told me, ‘If it feels wrong, it is.’ I’ve done a lot of things that felt wrong, and she was right.”

He sensed his father auditioning phrases. “Johnny, does something always have to be wrong?” he asked. “Many people in this country, like Bill Clinton, work for the common good. Your mother and I tried to give you a positive outlook, but your attention wavered.”

“True, Pop. But I paid attention to Clinton.”

They returned the grave-cleaning implements to the tool box. Its contents shook like maracas as Mr. Garstang walked to the curb. He placed the box in the trunk of the car, while Johnny put new cloth flowers in the urn on the grave. Kneeling, he kissed his mother’s name.

As father and son drove away, Mr. Garstang smiled, shaking his head, and said, “I swear, Johnny, you’d smell a fart in a perfume factory.”

“I’m all nose, Pop. I know it’s not good.”

Sometimes Johnny thought his role in life was to do things that his father could have done better.

 

 * * *

 

Johnny’s humiliation on Joann’s porch was the last time he had seen her until his father’s funeral. He returned to campus, hating Mrs. Monucchi, the priest, Chaplain Varstadt and the college’s blathering president, Dr. J. Ward Foreman. Johnny was happy to get back to his pals. They shared alcohol, money, skin magazines, and books about real life, not that bullshit on the syllabi. They glugged wine and shot pistols in abandoned houses. Johnny liked to return to these plaster-scattered ruins after dark and scrounge around when the walls retained the sun and the blistered wallpaper smelled like parched hope.

The guys detested mandatory chapel attendance. At what Johnny dubbed “The God Box,” they were captive to Varstadt’s pieties or President Foreman’s self-promotion. The president often mentioned the dignitaries he counted among his “warm, personal friends”— Billy Graham, Dale Carnegie, and Richard Nixon. Johnny wanted to howl. His friends took up the cry of “The God Box,” and it pleased him to hear his label when they denounced chapel attendance.

The guys discovered amphetamines, buying greenies and white crosses at truck stops. Mixing speed and alcohol prolonged their rampages, burnt out reason, and left them bitter as the taste on their tongues. Wielding nine-pound hammers, they wrecked a phone booth, then a laundry mat.

That spring, Johnny lost his virginity. Tillie, an old friend from high school, appeared in an MG borrowed from an older man. She had a fatalistic attitude, often reciting verse from the Rubaiyat and Edna St. Vincent Millay. They bought a jug of wine. He had resisted her in high school, but that was when he believed in the future. She let him drive the car. He stopped at a river with sandy banks. She had rubbers. He had never experienced such exhilaration as rolling with Tillie in the breezy dark along the rushing river. She told him he had a nice back.

Tillie, in a hurry to return the car, dropped him off on the highway. They kissed and promised to see each other soon. He heard her shifting gears, flying.

His veins sang as he strolled through town to campus. He had never felt so alive—not even after his one magical feat on the basketball court when he slung a buzzer-beating game-winner from half-court. Cops’ lights washed the chapel, where the door was bashed in, its frame split. Stained glass, Bibles, vestments, and nine-pound hammers were strewn on the lawn. Through the jagged window where the Shepherd once reigned, Johnny saw the bent, dangling cross. Spinning lights flickered over profiles in the backseats of the cherrytops, including Roker’s pompadour.

Johnny still had blisters from swinging a nine-pound hammer against the coin machine at the laundry mat, quarters spraying. Tillie had saved him.  

 

 * * *

 

On the way to meet Joann, through the maze of malls and suburban villages, Johnny wanted to tell the truth about himself, including The God Box. In his pals’ conversation, he savored the contemptuous sound of the term he had created. It added to his stature. In later years, he saw it as rallying-cry catapulting the group from resentment to desecration. The attack might never have happened without his contribution. He couldn’t imagine the guys shouting, “Let’s get God!”

He left college the morning after the destruction and roved into press box life. He became a workhorse, always available, covering junior high football games and the Sugar Bowl with equal devotion. He loathed sloppy, superficial stories. Striving to write lean and clean, to get the maximum from each fact and syllable, he took every piece to the final breath before deadline. Cohorts saluted him as the last man to leave the press box. But alcohol and run-ins with coaches and bosses kept him on the move. In Arkansas, bar life led to a brief marriage with a drinking companion who reminded him of Tillie. They had a good time until they tore each other down.

At the restaurant, as soon as the hostess led Johnny to a table, Joann appeared in an aquamarine dress with frills at the bare shoulders. It was out of fashion; it was entrancing. For a greeting, they settled on a half hug, touching each other’s arms.

“You’re defying time,” he said.

“Thanks, Johnny. I belong to an exercise group at Saint Pius.”

The waitress brought menus and asked about drinks. He ordered a beer, and Joann chose a glass of red wine.

When the drinks came, Johnny asked the waitress for a few minutes before they ordered.

“I can’t get over your eulogy,” Joann said. “The words keep coming back to me.”

“My father deserved a tribute whether he wanted it or not.”

“You went against his word?”

“I did. Maybe he’ll lay hands on me when I go.”

“Tell him you made people happy,” she said and gulped wine. “I don’t see a ring. Are you married?”

“Not for a long time. How about you?”

“One proposal. It didn’t feel right.”

“Nothing else serious?”

“Not really.”

He was surprised. She had always been eligible. Men had an eye for her, and she craved affection.  Snuggling, she had fallen into a murmuring, crushing trance. Did that happen to a girl with an absent father and shackling mother?

The waitress returned. “Could we have another drink?” Joann asked.

“Another round, please,” he said.

“I don’t drink two glasses of wine a year,” she said. “But seeing you is special.”

He drained his beer and gazed beyond her shoulders at families out for a meal. They reminded him of Sundays after church in grade school when his father and mother took him to  The Bayside, a nice seafood restaurant. Being out with them made him feel happy, clean, and proud. Everything at their table shone—the silverware, the ice in the glasses, his mother and father smiling above the linen. After shrimp, lobster, or filet of flounder, they had dessert at home—burgundy cherry or chocolate ripple ice cream—and Johnny and his dad watched a ballgame, his mom ducking into the den from time to time.

The reinforcements came. He asked about Joann’s career. She had become head of a data processing department on the base. She and her mother had seen to renovations of the house. She was talking fast. At church, she was busy with this and that, especially the children.

“But what I wanted to tell you is no one has ever made me feel like you did. Even now, when you touched my arm, it was there. I remember how you held me.”

He was moved by her need and his, too. In the old days, when Mrs. Monucchi was out of the house, they approached the threshold many times. What if they finished what they had started so often, held each other, and talked, looking into each other’s eyes, not being afraid, really opening up, telling the truth?

Someone appeared behind him, and Joann jumped up so quickly her thighs banged the table, spoon flying. “Father Haun!”

“Joann! I’ve been brainstorming about the Easter pageant.”

“Father, may I call you tonight?” she asked, but he had returned her spoon, pulled up a chair, and started outlining plans.

Johnny had risen, too. As the priest launched forth, savoring his syllables, Johnny saw the pink cloud on his cheek.

With pleading eyes, Joann said, “Johnny, let me introduce you…”

“We’ve met.”

Father Haun extended his hand. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”

“You called me ‘Zorro.’”

Bending to Haun’s ear, with his back shielding Joann, he whispered, “Lastas, you bastard,” and smiled.

He wanted to draw Joann aside and tell her a story she couldn’t believe without renouncing herself. She would have had to trade the Father for him, and he had never been Mr. Magic. Had the failure of their relationship justified her self-denial? Because she and Johnny weren’t meant to be, she surrendered to her mother and Christ. Maybe she was a saint, still sealed.

With a slight bow toward her, Johnny said, “Joann, seeing you has brought back so much. Thank you for coming to the funeral.”

He placed some bills next to his glass and started away. Joann called, but she did not follow her voice.

He returned to his motel, packed, and headed out of town. With the salt breeze surging through the windows, he tried to speak to his father, but Mr. Garstang interrupted, saying, “Johnny, let’s get our ducks in a row.” The story he wanted to tell sailed beyond that master of know-how into the night and along the water that was everywhere.

It shone off  points and slopes, gleamed in moon-slicked marshes, ran below the light-strung Chesapeake Bay Bridge. He asked God to forgive his foray into dogma. He knew where the urge came from. He drank from the same apostolic cup as Father Haun, Bill Clinton, and Dr. J. Ward Foreman. They all had warm, personal friends, and Johnny knew exactly who they were. As the tires sang, he drove all night and thought about how to resist the magnetism of the God Box.

 

 

                                 


As a poet, short story writer, and reporter, MICHAEL GASPENY has published widely. For nearly four decades, he taught English and Journalism, mainly at Bennett College and High Point University, where he received the distinguished teaching award. While gaining an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Arkansas, he worked as a sportswriter covering the Razorbacks and as a general assignments reporter. His features on Bill Clinton’s first campaign for national office have been frequently quoted in biographies of the former president. Gaspeny holds an M.A. from the University of Richmond and an undergraduate degree from Randolph-Macon College. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife Lee Zacharias, the novelist and essayist. They have two sons.