THE ETERNAL FLAME was out when I got to work this morning. I was in the middle of smearing on a little lipstick, and I nearly ran it right across my face as I stared up at the empty patch above the spire at the top of the Prayer Tower. This, of course, made me start worrying about some kind of large-scale, fiery gas explosion, large enough to level the Oral Roberts campus clean down to the clay dirt underneath the asphalt, all the way from Delaware Street to Lewis Avenue. I’m guessing that would be well-near impossible. Still, I imagined it like a pilot light going out and massive amounts of gas churning up in big, invisible, wavy clouds, just waiting for some unwary smoker or a quick strike of metal on metal to make the fatal spark that would scorch the Praying Hands and even the gold geodesic-domed auditorium right off the map.
I am usually wrong about things like this.
The majority of my knowledge is limited to poetry, which I teach over the internet, and the daily operations of the Prayer Tower Visitors Center. I’m the weekday manager, Tuesday through Friday. Truth be told, however, it’s the lack of daily operations at the Prayer Tower that’s allowing me increasingly more time to teach poetry online. People don’t visit the tower like they used to. I’ve heard that during Oral Roberts’ heyday it was quite the tourist attraction. I don’t know if the problem is all the trouble ORU has had in the news, with the president and the board and the alleged late-night cell phone calls from the president’s wife to underage boys. It could very well be that people just realized that saying their prayers one hundred feet up wasn’t getting them that much closer to God. I guess it’s not, but you’d be surprised how many people feel like they’re getting a leg up on everybody else by coming up here.
I’m surprised I noticed that the flame was out in the first place. I was walking in from the far lot. I haven’t been sleeping well since my grandma died four months ago, which has been causing me to get up later and later and get just about the worst parking spots on campus. That, and I don’t like to leave the house until I’ve seen Tom leave for work. He lives almost kitty-corner to me—three houses down to the left and across the street. He’s working at Vantage Petroleum now, downtown, so I’m surprised he can leave as late as he does and still get in at a respectable time. I haven’t talked to him since he took this new job. I guess the last time we had a real conversation was when he came to the open-house after my grandma’s funeral at the end of January. I do email him on occasion, which, to tell you the truth, is actually pretty often. I haven’t gotten any replies.
Back to the eternal flame. I can’t remember the last time I noticed the flame, honestly. I’ve been working here full-time for five years, ever since the year after I graduated from the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and also in the summers before that, and everything is starting to seem smaller. The sun was bright this morning, and I was covering my eyes because of the glare off of the gold panels around the base of the tower, and that’s when I caught the full view of the thing. The Prayer Tower is like a big blue-and-gold torch, or maybe the cut-rate Tomorrowland version of the Space Needle in Seattle, which I have never seen in real life, big and bright and spiky with crisscrossing outcroppings that I think are made of PVC pipe, and yes, there is a flame at the top, which, as you may have ascertained, is currently nonfunctional.
I made a few phone calls about the flame when I got in. Janet, who is technically my assistant, got in early because she came from Thursday-morning senior water aerobics, and she didn’t even notice. I said, “Janet, why is the flame out?” and she just looked at me, stirring her tiny little coffee in one of the tiny little cups we have out free for visitors. “Amarie, is what out?” Now, I try not to be critical, but what good is an eternal flame if no one realizes that it’s gone?
Karen Berg was the first visitor of the morning, which didn’t make me too happy. Don’t get me wrong—Karen Berg is nice. No one will tell you different. Everyone loves Karen Berg—it even says that on her signs and benches next to the bus stops that no one uses. Everyone Loves Karen Berg! She’s a real estate agent, and, according to her, she and her family have just about as many medical problems as there are listed in the Physician’s Desk Reference, so she tends to be a regular here to pray. I don’t quite understand why. She doesn’t even belong to Victory, which is the affiliated church here (where my parents and I go). She’s a Methodist.
But Karen Berg likes it here, and her visits run like clockwork. First, she’ll burst in wearing some kind of over-accessorized outfit that’s a size too small for her, smelling like Chanel No. 5 and the hairspray that keeps up her big, puffy cloud of brown hair, and she’ll say hello and get herself a tiny little cup of coffee and chat a bit. Then she’ll go up to the observation deck and stare out at the campus and think to herself, or she’ll get on one of the prayer phones with the phone-prayer people for ten minutes or so, and then she’ll come back downstairs and discuss her problem of the day with me.
She’s friends with my mom. They played tennis together for years at Southcrest Tennis Club until Karen Berg got tennis elbow. She doesn’t play anymore, but still belongs to the club and spends a lot of time drinking iced tea in the café and flipping through thick folders of contracts and showing her friends glossy photos of houses for sale. She and my mom also both belong to the Tulsa Garden Club. They just had Azalea Fest. Karen Berg sponsored my mom as a member, which, as far as my mom is concerned, is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for her.
It’s the end of the spring semester now, which means that the online class I’m teaching starts getting busy with grading and portfolios. I’m teaching adults again after a long stretch doing a high-school course for gifted kids, and it’s almost refreshing to do continuing-ed. With grown-ups, no one is convinced of their poetic genius—they just want an easy course to use toward consolidating their credits and finally getting some kind of degree in unclassified or general studies to hop up to a better pay grade or for their own personal sense of fulfillment. It’s nearly May, and I can say with pride that I have not yet read one abstract poem about emptiness or rage or a crushed soul (I once had a student pen the trifecta of awful, a poem entitled “Soul: An Empty Cage of Rage”). Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve had one poem with the word love in it either. That doesn’t make me proud. Maybe a little sad.
When she arrived around nine-thirty, Karen Berg came up behind my desk and rolled the other chair over to me. I hate it when she does this, since I have to pull up a spreadsheet to make it look like I’m doing something for the job I’m actually on the clock for. Plus, when Karen Berg sits down it means that she has something long and complicated to talk about, usually involving white blood cell counts or, barring that, a burning desire to explain escrow to me. She and my mom have hatched a plan to try to get me into real estate, which Karen Berg is more than one hundred percent on board with, since none of her own kids have followed her into the family business. My mother also works at ORU, as an administrator in the business school, and I think she always wanted to be a realtor herself. That, or she spends too much time with people richer than us, on account of hanging around the tennis club and the Tulsa Garden Club. Once she found out that Karen Berg can make more money on one commission that she makes in six months, I think she got fixated. My grandma used to tell her to let me alone about this stuff, but she’s gone now, so I’m fair game.
“AM,” Karen Berg said. That’s what everyone calls me, except Janet, who calls me by my real name, probably because it says Amarie O’Neill on my lacquered blue-and-gold nametag. She’d forget my name if she didn’t look at my left breast every time she started to talk to me. My dad went to Emory University in Atlanta, and he wanted to call me Emory, but it turned into one of those big naming compromises, the details of which are not interesting, though they probably used to seem charming to tell. Working at the Prayer Tower as long as I have and listening to people talk about themselves almost every day, I’ve learned that the same story can fall into two different categories at the very same time: a story that is fun to tell and a story that is intolerably boring to listen to. Stories about how you got your name usually fit the bill.
Anyway. Karen started digging in her big, expensive, logo-stamped purse for a rectangle of pink-patterned tissues and pulled one out to dab at her eyes, which had suddenly gone all watery. Her voice, which is already far too high-pitched for a professional adult, was breathy and heavy with anticipation of my reaction to whatever it was she was about to tell me. “I just went to the doctor yesterday, and I’m afraid I’ve got another set of real bad news.”
“Oh dear, Karen,” I said. It’s hard for me to not call her “Karen Berg.” My mom has another friend named Karen, so she always calls this Karen “Karen Berg.” That, plus always seeing her full name on the signs and billboards. In my head it’s one word: Karenberg, like a place, like Pittsburgh or Gettysburg. “What’s wrong?”
Karen took a deep breath and shut her eyes, smoothing out her cream-colored linen pants, which were already wrinkled up around her thighs, on account of being too tight and worn too high on her waist. “The doctor said I have lupus.”
“Lupus,” I said, sounding as concerned as I could. “What is lupus?”
“It’s very serious, honey.” Karen Berg’s shiny pink mouth went quivery, and she bit one of her bright, capped front teeth over her bottom lip. “It is incurable.”
“I’m really sorry, Karen,” I said, though I wasn’t so sure how sorry I should be. I don’t mean that because I’m a bad person—I’m as much of a good person as I’m pretty sure that I can be. I go to church. I’m nice to people. But it’s hard sometimes with her. In the past two years, Karen Berg has had pleurisy, three ulcers, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, and something she called pre-ovarian cancer that resulted in a hysterectomy. Her most recent malady was restless leg syndrome.
Karen Berg fidgeted in her seat. I knew that I was supposed to hug her, but instead I reached over and gave her shoulder a faint squeeze, and she sniffled, jiggling another tissue out of the package. I’ve known her almost my whole life, and I still have trouble getting close enough to touch her. I’m like that with most people.
“What’s next then?” I said. “Are you on a course of treatment?”
“Steroids.” Karen grimaced. “I’m going to swell up like a blimp.”
“Oh.” I tapped at the touchpad of my laptop so that the dense, imposing spreadsheet I had pulled up upon her arrival would flicker back into full gray-and-black, complicated relief. “I hear that’s hard.”
Karen Berg dabbed at her eyes and sighed, a short staccato little hmph!, and folded her hands back in her wrinkly lap. “I’d had a bad feeling about this, AM. I knew it was coming.”
“I’m sorry, Karen.” I gave her shoulder another awkward squeeze. “Did you have a good talk with the prayer group people upstairs?”
“Oh, AM, I couldn’t even get up the nerve to talk to them today. I just looked out of the window for a bit. Maybe I’m having a little crisis right now.” Karen Berg wrinkled her eyebrows, looking scared and embarrassed.
I have never talked on the phone with the prayer group people. This isn’t because I don’t believe that they’re helpful or good at what they do, it’s just never appealed to me. I don’t think I need a mediator when I pray, but I recognize that some people do need that third party to send along their dispatches from the Prayer Tower.
“God’s not giving you anything you can’t handle,” I said to Karen Berg. I meant this, though probably not in the best way I could have, since I suspected that maybe she wasn’t that sick, and I’m going to guess that fake lupus might be an easier challenge from God than the real thing. But I’ve never seen anyone come down from the Prayer Tower who hasn’t seemed a little bit better than when they came in, and I hated to see her leave all disappointed and anxious about something that she could probably feel better about if she went back upstairs and picked up the phone and talked to someone who was better at sorting out her problems than I was. “Why don’t you go back upstairs and reflect a little bit more—maybe give the prayer line a call? I can have Janet watch the desk, and I’ll go up and sit with you for a little bit.”
“Bless your heart, AM,” said Karen Berg. “That sounds like a good idea.”
I walked her back to the elevator and we rode up to the observation deck, and I pulled a chair up next to her as she talked on the phone. Afterward she turned to me and had a good cry right into my shoulder while I looked out the window over the tops of all the cars in the parking lot and across Eighty-first Street at the medical complex. It’s called the City of Faith, made up of three mostly empty gold towers that they can’t seem to fill, barely even with offices, no matter how hard they try. It’s a sore spot with a lot of people. The towers were built after a nine-hundred-foot tall Jesus appeared to Oral Roberts in a dream and told him to build them. Now, I don’t outright disbelieve this story—I respect the Roberts family and don’t have a problem with them, unlike an increasing number of people around here—but I’ve always wondered why Jesus didn’t ask to have some towers built that were at least big enough for him to stand up in if he ever came to visit them. I mean, the big tower is only sixty stories high, which means a nine-hundred-foot Jesus would have to stoop over pretty far to fit inside. I choose to give Mr. Roberts the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was only an eight-hundred-foot Jesus.
I thought about mentioning this to Karen Berg—because of the real estate aspect, I thought she might think it was funny—but I decided against it and let her keep crying into my shoulder, and I patted at her hair, which was stiff and strangely shiny, like a doll’s. We sat that way until she was done crying and pulled her face off of my blouse, which was thin and white and stuck to the gummed-up mascara on her eyelashes.
“Oh dear,” she said, patting at the black smear near my shoulder. “But some makeup remover should get that right out.” She delicately tapped the thin skin under her eyes with her ring-fingers, and stared at me right in the eye, unblinking as the remaining thick mascara fibers wiggled on the ends of her eyelashes. “Does your grandmother’s house have laminate flooring?”
“Pergo,” I said. “It looks just like wood.”
“Good value,” she said. “It’s tough stuff.”
I could work here a million years, I think, and never quite understand people and what exactly it is that makes them feel better. But I do what I can.
When I got home that night, I emailed Tom. The eternal flame went out at work today. And also, Feel free to write back sometime?
I have a confession: I am a terrible poet.
This isn’t so much a secret as it is an omission. The whole creative writing faculty at the University of Oklahoma knows that I can’t string together a stanza to save my life, but I am all right at recognizing what is good and teasing out what is better. I am clumsy with words—they knock around in my head all willy-nilly, plus I lack what someone once called “a sense of self,” whatever that means. But I am a good teacher. The problem was, I wasn’t so good in the classroom. I could listen well enough, but when I opened my mouth, I felt like the biggest idiot there ever was, and would end up encouraging the class to run the discussion by themselves. Of course, from what I hear from teachers, this is a great fall-back method, but I just felt scared and empty inside, and when I got out of college I taught one year at one of the expensive private schools here in town, but I hated it so much that I went back to my old summer job at the Prayer Tower, from where I moved up from the Janet slot to the job I have now. This is about when Tom and I broke up—we dated all through high school and college, and moved back to Tulsa together, where he bought his little house near my grandma’s.
But anyway, I’ve come to find that I really love teaching on the internet. I never have to know when someone needs to get up to go to the bathroom.
My grandma thought I was good at poetry, and she was the only person I read my poems to. It was her favorite thing toward the end, when she couldn’t get out of bed anymore, and we had the hospice nurse in and out just about all of the time. We set up the mechanical bed right in the living room, and I would sit in the purple armchair by the window and read to her. Sometimes I would mix in some other things, like Robert Frost or even Sylvia Plath, if I was in a mood, and even though I tried to tell her that they weren’t my poems, she would tell me what a good job I was doing. Sometimes it makes me so sad to think that she was proud of something that was not me.
I have another confession: I am not in love with Tom Wilbanks anymore, but I am trying to be, as hard as I can. I don’t understand why I fell out of love with him, and I am hoping, somehow, that I can fall back.
When I came down the hill from the parking lot today, which is Friday, the flame was still out. I don’t know if I mentioned this, but not one person who came in on Thursday noticed. If they did, they didn’t say anything to me, which is disappointing, since I’d hate for them to just move along thinking that the flame was out for no reason, or maybe have the same fear that I originally did, of a huge gas explosion. None of them probably did.
Karen Berg put up a “For Sale” sign on my house in the night. Well, not during the night—in the morning, probably, before I got up. My parents decided to put my grandma’s house up for sale. They broke this news to me over the phone, each of them on an extension at their house, trying their best to not interrupt each other, even though it was pretty clear they were speaking from a mutually-agreed-upon script. It’s time, said my dad. Market’s doing well. My mother said: And this way, Karen Berg can show you the ropes! The ropes, the inside track—more real estate. Like I said before, getting me into real estate has been my mother and Karen Berg’s project. For my birthday last year, and also as a “just because,” I have been gifted with not only Real Estate License Exam for Dummies, but also The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Success as a Real Estate Agent. My mom even offered to send me to some kind of Coldwell Banker boot camp. This was the last thing they said on the phone, both of them, one after the other: Aren’t you ready to move on?
I’ll deal with it. Lord, give me the strength to deal with this holy trinity: my mother, my father, and Karen Berg.
Anyway, Karen Berg’s sign was up before I went outside to water the plants and watch Tom jog past the house, which he has started doing in the last few weeks. I can see why—he put on a little weight around Christmas, and it hasn’t quite come off. The last time I saw him in line at the checkout at the Reasor’s, he had five boxes of Bagel Bites in his cart. When we were dating, he would pack away the entire box of whatever snack he was eating. The “Tom portion.” Over time it became one of those things that you used to be able to overlook or forgive when you loved someone, but since I didn’t love him anymore, I just couldn’t make myself tolerate it. Five boxes of Bagel Bites? I bet you anything he ate at least half of them in front of the television, watching programs about game show bloopers and ESPN Classic. How is it that that never bothered me before? It’s strange, falling out of love. It’s like amnesia. One day you’re eating gummy bears and standing in line to see a Saturday matinee of Lord of the Rings and suddenly you think to yourself, who are you? And who am I?
Maybe I miss him a little.
At work, I let Janet go out and run errands, like I do when things get real slow even though I’m not supposed to. It’s bad enough I’m doing work for another job, so I don’t think it’s fair that she has to sit around and do nothing. That, and she bothers me a little. She asks me what I’m doing and tries to look at my work on the laptop, and she’s always trying to get me into her Bible study, which is through Victory, too. No offense to her, but I just can’t spend three days a week at church in addition to being here all day. Everybody’s got to draw their line in the sand. She was a friend of my grandmother’s—not close, just an acquaintance, really—but I think she tries to look out for me. Nice, but not necessary, since I think I’m looking out for myself pretty well. Sometimes I miss my grandma so much that I can’t think about much else, but I guess that’s what’s nice about working in a prayer tower. I have a lot of questions about a lot of things, and being in a place all day where people are looking for answers is comforting to me.
While Janet was out, I did a few critiques for my class—still no love poems, somehow—and looked over the real estate contracts from Karen Berg. Not that I really have anything to do with them, but it’s all part of her “showing me the ropes,” which I still don’t think I ever actually agreed to. She faxed me the contracts, if you can believe that. It was the first fax our machine here at the Prayer Tower has gotten in about two years. When it switched into action and started beeping and shaking, Janet came running out of the back office jiggling her hands in a strange way. “Amarie!” she huffed and puffed, since her short sprint cost her a lot of effort. “Something’s up on the ditto machine!” This is what she calls just about all of our office equipment, from the printer to the copier to the scanner. “First page says it’s for you!” Karen Berg put a smiley face on it. Study up! it said.
Before she left, Janet said she’d heard something about a home-school group coming in on Tuesday, but with the weather being so nice and more conducive to things like going to the zoo or the new section of River Parks, I kind of doubt it. Not one person came in today. Maybe people think we’re closed.
When my grandma died, I burned all of my poems in the Weber grill that’s chained up to the fence in the backyard. I saw little point in keeping them. This was also after I kissed Tom in the bathroom after the funeral. That is wrong, actually—it was him who kissed me. I don’t care what he says. I know that sometimes it’s hard to tell when you’re all squashed up against each other and have had a few warm beers out of the almost-broken refrigerator in the garage, but I still say that the kiss belongs to the person who moves in first. Which was him. It was probably the grief and the fatigue and fact that I was just plain tired of talking to everyone that made me kiss him back (which, also, I don’t think counts for anything since he’s the one who kissed me), since I didn’t love him anymore, and I still don’t.
On Saturday morning, I got an email from Tom. It said: I have a girlfriend. Just thought you should know. I don’t believe him. I have not once seen this alleged girlfriend around his house.
This morning I woke up earlier than usual before the first Sunday service, and Tom was up early weeding his garden, so I made a pot of Earl Grey and sat on the floor near the window that looks out to the street, toward his house. I’ve figured out an angle I can sit at on the floor so you can’t see me from the street, and sometimes I sit and watch him, and think. I still have not seen this “girlfriend.” I was just blowing on my tea to cool it off when I heard my garage door open. Before I knew it, Karen Berg had made her way to the kitchen, which is where the garage connects to the house, and all the way to the dining room, where I was still crouched under the window. She had a huge, glossy smile on her puffy face and was wearing a ridiculous pair of oversized tortoiseshell sunglasses.
“Oh my God, Karen Berg!” I leapt up and knocked over the cup of tea that I had stupidly balanced on the arm of the chair I was crouching next to. “What in the world are you doing here?”
“My goodness AM!” In reaction to my shouts, Karen Berg had dropped two whole boxes of Dip ‘N Dunk doughnuts, and they had spilled out of their large green-and-pink boxes and landed with sticky little flumps on the laminate floor. “Did you ever give me a scare!”
“Me give you a scare!” I scrambled up from the floor and stood in front of the window, blocking the view of Tom Garden-Weaseling up the flower beds in his yard. “I’m sorry, but what is going on?”
“It’s open house day! Did your mother not tell you?” Karen Berg gingerly knelt down, her knees pressed together in her pink seersucker suit, trying to stay modest while squatting to pick up the doughnuts. The skirt was so tight I was surprised the seams didn’t pop as her fleshy thighs tested their strength. Control-top pantyhose are not given nearly the credit they should. “This floor is pretty clean, right?” She delicately pinched a doughnut between her fingers and gave it a shake, dropping it back into the empty box. “Five second rule,” she said with a giggle.
I still stood, hands covering my chest on account of the thin tank I was wearing, gaping at Karen Berg and thinking seriously about everyone else’s lack of communication skills, when she peeked past me through the blinds and out into the street.
“Oh, I see.” Karen Berg pulled down her sunglasses and gave me a wink. “I see you’ve got yourself a nice view there.”
“It’s a nice neighborhood,” I said. “Good resale value.” I stomped off back to my bedroom to find a sweatshirt to cover myself, while Karen continued to peel doughnuts off of the floor.
“I heard Tom Wilbanks is going with the youngest Robarts girl. Do you know her?”
I stared up at Karen Berg, who was now standing in my doorframe, eating a doughnut and holding another in her hand. Probably off of the highly valued Pergo floor. I put a hand to my face. “I don’t think he has a girlfriend.”
“This is just what I heard at the tennis club. Your mom knows the Robarts.” Karen Berg’s chewing slowed down, her fat cheeks stuffed with sugary dough. I could smell it from where I sat, and I took a deep breath through my mouth to avoid it. “Sweetie,” said Karen Berg. She came all the way into my room and sat down on the bed next to me. “I think it might be time to call it quits on him.” She did not say this unkindly, but softly, as though it only needed to be just loud enough for me to hear, which I did not want in any way, not in any shape or form.
I stood up fast enough that I felt dizzy, and steadied myself with a hand on the round knob of my brass footboard, leaning into the emptiness of my head and closing my eyes, waiting for the blood to come back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t care about what Tom does.”
Karen smiled a sad little smile, which, on her, was still a full-on display of lipstick and teeth. Her front teeth were packed full of macerated bits of doughnut, and she winked again, sucking the stickiness from her thumb. She started on her second doughnut, patting me with her free hand, which was still damp. She gave my hand a squeeze.
“Don’t you need to save some for the visitors?” I asked. I kept my tone cool, trying to speak the way I always mean to when I’m mad, without exploding into some kind of fit or name-calling.
“Oh, AM. It’s the steroids.” Karen Berg gestured with her bitten doughnut. “I’m a nut for sugar right now. Her sunglasses were pushed back from her face and into her hair now, and the way they blended in made them look like rounded ears, like the Karen Berg version of a cartoon bear. “I’m just glad I can get anything down, quite frankly, on account of the disease. I’ve been worrying myself to sickness.”
I must have stared at her too hard, or maybe something flickered across my face that registered as confusion to Karen Berg, because she raised her eyebrows, which moved her sunglasses in her hair, and she spoke as though I hadn’t understood what she had said.
“The lupus, sweetie.” Karen Berg looked up at the ceiling and pointed at the fan that was spinning lazily on the lowest setting. “That a Hunter-brand fan?”
By now, I was just about as mad as it’s possible for me to get, and I was clenching and unclenching my fist around the hem of my sweatshirt and trying to think calm thoughts, about staring out at a clear blue sky or being at work all tucked away at my desk and doing something else, or anything that would prevent me from yelling at Karen Berg. Outside, I heard Tom’s lawnmower kick on.
“Karen Berg.” I said this quietly. I moved toward the door to leave, because I did not want to see her face when I was done. “I don’t think you really have lupus.”
I walked back down the hallway to the kitchen to get a towel for the tea that I’d remembered I’d spilled, and didn’t hear anything at all. “I’m going for a walk, Karen,” I called. “So you can do whatever you need for the open house stuff.”
I jammed on my shoes and headed out the door, out into the wall of humidity in the open garage, feeling stupid and mad and in pajama pants and a sweatshirt and a tank top that was too thin to have on alone without the sweatshirt, so I just stalked along and sweated and fumed. When I got far enough away to feel like Karen Berg must at least be ready to leave, I made my way back to the house, kicking at the loose chunks of the sidewalk that had been displaced by weeds and shoots of grass that were poking up in the empty spaces. I felt like writing a poem, which is never a good sign with me.
When I got back to the house, Karen Berg was gone, but so was her “For Sale” sign. Across the street, Tom looked at me but did not wave.
Later, I received two messages on my machine, both from my mother. The first said, Why weren’t you at church? The second: What in the world is wrong with you?
If Laura Ashley were a real estate agent, her office might look like Karen Berg’s. Karen works out of the new professional complex on the southeast side of town, and her chintzy, Victorian décor clashes beautifully with the neo-Tuscan façade outside. There are big plate-glass windows down two sides—it’s a corner unit—with floor-to-ceiling draperies made of a heavy pink-and-white toile, the same pattern that is upholstered on the seats of the cherry-finished chairs around the room. Since it was Monday, and the Prayer Tower was closed, I had come to see Karen Berg. To apologize.
When I gave my name to the receptionist, who was a good six years younger than me and blonde and tan to the point of impossibility, she waved me over to a sitting area, where there was a couch done up in the same fabric as the drapes, and she offered me an iced tea. I always feel uncomfortable in situations like that. I didn’t want the iced tea, since I’ve never really liked it, but was afraid it would be rude to turn it down, so I gave my best “Yes, thank you,” and sat back on the pink couch.
“I hope you like your tea sweet,” said the receptionist. She brought me a tall and narrow glassful and placed it on a shiny silver coaster, so fast that I wondered if they kept a refrigerator pre-stocked with already-poured tea. It was complete with a straw and a tiny green mint sprig. “We don’t make it any other way here.”
The girl walked to the back, where I guessed Karen Berg’s personal office must have been—this was my first time there since she’d moved into the new place—and I waited, sipping at my tea, which was so sweet that I felt as though my teeth were ringing. I’m not going to email Tom Wilbanks anymore, by the way. I made this decision the night before, when I was cleaning the house and feeling terrible about Karen Berg and thinking that maybe someday I would understand exactly what it is that everyone wants for me. I wrote to Tom one last time. Before I went to bed, I sent him a final email. I don’t love you anymore, I wrote. Plus, I’m sorry.
I didn’t want any more tea. I placed it back on the table carefully, sliding it along on its expensive-looking coaster.
“I’m sorry, but Ms. Berg can’t see anyone right now.” The receptionist looked at me, and her face was confused, as though she didn’t quite know what to do with a person who Karen Berg might not want to see, since Karen Berg is usually happy to see everyone. I couldn’t blame her. I had done a terrible thing. “This is for you, though.”
She handed me a creamy, ecru-colored envelope made of heavy, expensive paper. My full name, or first and last, at least, were written on the front in a big, bubbly cursive: Amarie O’Neill. I thanked her and handed back my iced tea, of which I had only had a sip.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s all right,” said the girl. “I heard you teach internet poetry, right?” she asked. “Is that like blogs?”
“A little.” Sometimes, I figured, it’s best not to waste your time telling the truth.
When I got into the car, before I turned on the engine and got a good blast of air-conditioning to suck the sweat off of my arms and legs, I tore open the envelope, jagged and uneven, exactly the way you’re not supposed to. It was an envelope that begged a letter-opening knife, something with precision. Something to not screw things up, which, obviously, I don’t have. I let the thin, folded-up typing paper flutter into my lap, and when I flattened it against my legs, which were sticky in the heat, I saw that it was on letterhead from the Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. A quick scan confirmed a diagnosis for Karen Elizabeth Berg, age fifty-six, of systemic lupus erythematosus, signed by Dr. Richard Reingold. A doctor’s note. I just sat there and stared at it, blinking my eyes with my mouth caught open. Karen Berg got me a doctor’s note.
So what do you do with that? I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I drove to work on my day off.
After I unlocked the doors and came in, I turned on the TV and DVD player out of habit, but also because it was too quiet, and I am uncomfortable in that kind of stillness. I didn’t turn on the lights. The flame was still out—who knows when it will come back on. Oral Roberts’s long-eared and wrinkly face filled up the television screen, and I sat down at my desk in the cool dimness and watched the TV, which was now panning across a view of the campus, a shot most likely filmed from the observation deck of the tower. It’s an ugly place, garish and clashing with everything around it and unable to fit in even in its own time, even though it meant well, and still does.
I walked back to the administrative office where, much to my annoyance, Janet had left all the lights and machines on. I’ve tried to tell her about energy conservation, but it ends up seeming like a waste of the resource of my own time, so I’ve given up. I took a sheet of ORU letterhead out of the top paper tray and placed it on the table in front of me, a shocking white against the aged, yellowing beige of the Formica table top. I had an idea.
“I’m sorry,” I wrote on the paper. “Love, Amarie.” I fed the thin, watermarked letterhead through the fax feeder and punched in Karen Berg’s number, which I got from the coversheet she had sent, which was still sitting on the table, and I jammed down on the send button heavily with my thumb. It’s the closest thing I’ve written to a love poem for years, and probably the closest I’ll ever come, at least for a while.
So I don’t know. I wished I could go up to the observation deck and think and pray enough to understand what it is that people want for me, and what I want for me, and for forgiveness from Karen Berg and Tom Wilbanks and his new girlfriend, Whatshername Robarts, and to think about talking to my grandma again and wonder about the logic of an eight-hundred-foot tall Jesus, but I didn’t. Instead, I sat down at one of the uncomfortable little chairs in the back office and watched the fax machine blink and whine, the dial tone empty and echoing. I felt like there was a lot that I did not know.
Except for this: I hoped that the flame would be back on soon. Maybe no one else noticed it was gone, but I missed it. I can’t believe all the stupid things you don’t miss until they’ve been put out, or are gone, even if you didn’t think you liked them. Maybe they do something to your life—burn up the excess fuel or make you feel normal or special, or like everyone, or at least someone, anyone, believes you.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.