The Milk of Paradise

by Michael Gaspeny

“Colleen’s been around the block,” Mincher whispered to Stone at the class reunion. It pained Stone that his friend’s fascination with decay had lasted into middle age.

Stone replied, “She still looks beautiful to me.”

Colleen’s green eyes seemed as hypnotic as they had thirty years before when she recited “Kubla Khan” at the fence where misfits smoked cigarettes for lunch. Her eyes blazed and her raven tresses flew, and, at the conclusion, Stone felt he had witnessed a miracle. He wanted to kneel in the butt-strewn gravel, press his crew cut to the shrine of her knees, and pledge eternal adoration. But on that day, four football coaches, torn from their Super Burgers by the excitement, drove the fence-trash back inside Lord Chesterfield High.

“How did you recognize me?” she asked.

“Your eyes are unforgettable,” Stone said.

Mincher’s smooth skin and dark, tousled hair made him look younger and freer than Colleen or Stone, who had been awarded the plastic trophy for Most Bald, although he hadn’t entered a contest. Earlier in the evening, he was on a list of people asked to assemble on stage. He and the others expected to receive door prizes. The emcee called his name first, and when he stood with chrome dome shining above the crowd, his achievement was announced and a dime-store Oscar thrust in his hands. He was furious that this had happened in front of Colleen. He wanted to smash the statuette against the podium. Instead, he rushed to the men’s room and left it on a toilet paper dispenser.

After gristly chicken cordon bleu, the luminaries of long ago danced, while the rest watched, following the pattern of yesteryear. Stone resented this motif. The older he got, the more he believed that watching was the curse of his generation, the first to be possessed by the magic box. It led to the expectation that life should be entertaining; it promoted distraction and instant opinion. The right to watch had assumed the authority of a constitutional guarantee. It was Mincher’s birthright. His father had been a pioneer in local television. Long before the advent of the multiple-set household, you could stand in the Minchers’ hall and see TV’s flickering in three different rooms and Mr. Mincher on the phone barking adjustments to his underlings. Stone could see the imperious father in the brusque son.

Colleen was so enchanted by the dancers that she looked as if she were seeing the Atlantic for the first time. In fact, on this moon-drenched Indian Summer night, the sea was tumbling on the beach below the ballroom windows, but the dancers blocked the view. Stone loved the ocean, though his ardor was mostly sentimental. He had never surfed, fished, or sailed, and his panting immersions reminded him of how weakly he swam. But he did like to charge into the spill and hurl himself into the breakers, which made him feel manly. And he had taken tempestuous walks beside the wild sea when his soul soared like a kite and he felt that God held the string. The Atlantic from Cape Henry to Kill Devil Hills had kept him at Virginia Beach and consoled him during an ineffectual career as a social worker. The tumultuous waves aroused his cravings for red meat, dark beer, vigorous sex, and an afterlife.

Stone was alarmed by Colleen’s enraptured expression as she watched the in-crowd dance. Back in high school, he had seen that look during the movie “Where the Boys Are.” The picture, selected by her, concerned the rites of college students spring-breaking at Fort Lauderdale. Inside the Visulite Theater, Stone’s dream of dazzling Colleen seemed to be coming true. But when he responded to her daze and put his arm around her, she jerked away as if a massive slug had settled on her neck. No one had ever shown Stone such loathing. It was instantaneous, visceral, and authentic, vocabulary words they had to memorize in senior English. Nor was there one iotaof hyperbole in her revulsion.

After the movie, she declared her love for one of the stars, George Hamilton. She discussed his virtues, including his cleft chin, as if Stone were her girlfriend. To keep from driving into a fire hydrant, he mumbled in the expected places. Later, he drank a half gallon of apple wine and tried to use a dumpster as a blocking sled, numbly slamming himself against the rusty iron until his arms bled. For decades, alcohol had served as his pal. He sometimes imagined calling for a double shot of Bushmills and a beer chaser on his deathbed. That tandem and a coffin nail, and he would be set for the big train to roar through his heart.

At the reunion, Stone was sick of watching the royals jitterbug and do the Twist. He asked Colleen to dance; she consented. The song was “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. It wasn’t their song because they’d never had one. In fact, he couldn’t remember if he had ever kissed her. Their hoofing didn’t succeed. He went at the music free-style, while she wanted to be led. He still didn’t know how.

When the dance ended, Stone was satisfied with his petty challenge to the hierarchy. There was no question of making a play for Colleen. Allowing a few minutes to pass, Stone made his farewell to her and Mincher. He would leave them to their watching. At her request, Stone exchanged addresses with Colleen and promised to keep in touch, as a matter of politeness.

Long ago, he had broken another promise—not to visit her home. During their relationship, at Colleen’s insistence, he picked her up and dropped her off at a drive-in restaurant featuring roller-skating car-hops. He always wondered if there were somebody else—a rich boy cheating on his steady, a Marine with a car, a Dixie Disciple on a Harley. He never stayed to find out. The big song that spring was Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” which he associated with Colleen even though she wasn’t his. Del’s desperation and the plaintively-piping organ haunted him. In the spring of Colleen, he often woke with the lyrics on his lips. One day back then, driven by longing, he had walked from his family’s ranch house in Thoroughood Estates six miles out into the sandy wastes of the county where he found her residence. It was a hut of rotting shingles on stilts above a puddle of rusty water. The shingles flaked like scabs. The place looked alive, though barely so, and infected. It was all he could see. It became the horizon. Then he understood her yearning for George Hamilton and her use of the drive-in. With all his heart, he regretted violating his word and her privacy. He hated that she lived in a house that shamed her. In a way he knew was pathetic, the stricken house made him love her more.

Leaving the reunion, Stone was saddened by Colleen’s dreamy absorption in the dancers. He wondered if she had ever known how radiant she was. That couldn’t have happened unless the in-crowd accepted her, and maybe not even then. As he drove home, he realized he had forgotten to ask Colleen if she remembered her recitation at the fence. He guarded that day, and maybe the question slipped his mind because he feared the answer. Over the years, it was easy to color things, especially if you often called on alcohol. At his front door, he was startled by voices inside the house and considered calling the police. In his career, he had been threatened now and then by antagonistic clients. The more he drank, the more he spooked. Then he saw light flickering on the drapes and realized he had left the TV on. “Oh, you hypocrite,” he thought. “Caught in flagrante with the detestable cathode!” This oversight and his peeled nerves warned him to leave the cap on the Bushmills. He went in, and as he removed his coat, a candidate for the Senate, a scion of one of the First Families of Virginia, was addressing a black-tie affair. He accused his opponent of trying to ignite class warfare by claiming a tax bill favored the rich. When he extolled the Old Dominion as a bright beacon of equality, his proponents rose and raised a swell of approval. These lies sped Stone to the beer and Irish whiskey. He hadn’t been good enough for Colleen, who had never been good enough for herself. Only a patrician like the candidate could have introduced her to the treasures of her being. And yet he knew that rage at class privilege was as often stoked by resentment of the rich as it was by solidarity with the poor. Because he couldn’t have Colleen, he hated those who could. And privilege was relative: in the raw eyes of the homeless, he himself lived like the Sun King. He also knew that he used his every ache to justify drinking.

It was a long way from Colleen’s hut to the forefront of the ballroom at the Surf-Rider, and she had never owned the tide. And yet her recitation of “Kubla Khan” had split his soul. Until then, she had been a curiosity at the fence, a shy, stunned-looking non-smoker with shiny hair among the school-loathing, weed-huffing cynics, numbskulls, sluts, and belligerents. Using a straw, she sipped milk from a carton so daintily that it seemed as if she were savoring the dew of heaven. She spoke in a whisper. Then one day she was seized, and her voice howled through Stone. In the whirlwind she raised, the misfits shouted, wailed, and shook the fence. When she finished, these habitual scoffers raised such a guttural cry of rapture that the alarmed coaches came charging from the gym and, wielding their thick arms, drove people in different directions. Colleen had shaken the temple, and Stone was enthralled.

That explosion of divine energy could have been random, and yet her hypnotic eyes would always radiate the possibility of another miracle. Stone recalled that Coleridge’s spell of composition had been shattered by a debt-collector drumming on the door and that the bard, never able to recapture his mood, had left his vision of Xanadu unfinished. Had Colleen lived with such pounding? He had beverages in both hands. In the bleary morning, he would charge into the ocean. And maybe when he got home, steeped in the brine of the Atlantic, he might attempt a letter to Colleen that began: “You have no idea…”

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.