VELLUM’S PARADISE, PART I

One late November day, Thomas Vellum sat by the window watching the families gathering in the portal of the church across the street. Tears formed and all hope dissolved in the flow down his cheeks. He was unemployed. His landlord was raising the rent in January. With the government’s permission the utilities were increasing their rates next month. Once, he was in the habit of turning off his lights when they weren’t needed; despite his frugality, he was paying more. He rarely used the telephone, his bills astounded him.

Winds buffeted the panes of glass. The cold air entered through the cracks beneath the windows and the dust, carried along in the drafts, swirled through the room settling everywhere. Dark clouds seethed overhead, racing eastward, unending and turbulent. The last member disappeared through the doors of the church, the father in the lead, the mother several steps behind, her children beside her. He remembered his mother’s perfume, the soft scent and the gentle touch of her fur collar. The warm air would sparkle as the light played in the colored glass, igniting first one color, then blue most of all. Now and then someone coughed and the same irritation would creep through his throat. Small noises would gather in the air, then disappear. Someone whispered, others would answer, the priest turned, the people would sit and the sermon began. He would verbalize the stations of the cross, articulate the images in the Bible and while he spoke, Vellum would sense God’s immutable gaze fixed upon him personally from above. On the vaulted ceiling over the apse, he could see The Old Man’s beard covering the blue ceiling in cloudy white assurance. He could feel God’s mighty arms reaching across the ceiling to embrace those below him, drawing them toward him, into the stillness of His bosom. The warmth of his parents overwhelmed Vellum. The holy words would mingle with the familiar fragrance of his surroundings, and the eternal grace would descend like flakes of snow, falling white feathers and silver birds. Struggle as he would to listen, the words would grow distant and the grace, in a profusion of forms, would populate his dreams. The mass would end with the parting of his eye lashes. Jarring bodies would disentangle on the front porch and remain there with hands joined, lips smiling and pleasant words exchanged. Everyone would laugh, the cherry blossoms would fall and the entire day stretched before him an eternal highway ahead.

The wind shook the bare limbs of trees, uplifted tin cans and paper bags and sent them echoing down the street. The first of the congregation appeared. Others followed. The children scattered across the street, shouting at one another. Their parents broke from the congestion at the door and followed. Small groups formed here and there which drifted further and further apart. A universe expanding, galaxies disappearing into the anonymity of space. They walked with their backs to the wind, shrouded in high collars. A car shook with syncopated noise. A clamor arose, and small pockets of life disintegrated as the cars drove off down the street. Before the last of them had disappeared, an old man in sneakers passed through, asked for change, was ignored, then he too was gone. Later an old woman, wrapped in several overcoats and carrying large shopping bags, tarried by a waste basket in front of the church. She found nothing and left. Ragged men congregated on the far corner to share a bottle. When they had finished, they too disappeared. At sunset a procession of burning torches approached from the west. Placards swayed in the air. Someone shouted; others sang sporadically anti-war songs. Many laughed with one another while others passed leaflets around. Someone saw Vellum in the window and urged him to come out and join them. He sat back embarrassed. He distrusted their message. When they had passed, the silence returned. He regretted not joining them.

At night he pulled the shades. The ceiling was just above his head and the walls forced him to pace in small circles around the table. Sometimes, while sitting at the table, a small flame glowed somewhere inside. His heart would beat furiously; he would look to the ceiling with expectations or stand, with his hands clenched, staring dumbly at the bare walls around him. But no patterns of release appeared to free him of his frustration. Without form to guide it, his imagination gradually suffocated. He lit the dark room with the pearl blue haze of the TV. The images on the screen, passing easily by, drew nothing lasting from inside him. His lethargy prevailed. Although the characters looked real enough, they lacked the substance of authenticity. Their actions seemed as they would on the street, but beyond these visible effects he could feel nothing more. In rapid sequence one serial ended, another began, later he would awake to the dull static of white noise. He grew weary of the serials, tired of the news, annoyed with the intermissions beguiling him to buy. He cooked heavy meals, devoured them at one sitting and craved for more; for awhile he actually contemplated fine cooking for a living.

Because nothing relieved him of his boredom, he railed blindly against everything. His room was cold; the bathroom was far away. His neighbors annoyed him. He could hear the front door opening and closing and the people in the public hallway laughing. Everyone had it better than him. Most of all he railed against Time itself which seemed intent on winding up his life abruptly. No, worse, it was dragging his life out beyond his endurance. He contemplated suicide and marveled at the ease with which he thought of it. One night he dreamed about the oblivion of intoxication. The next day he visited the local bar. The only lights were those of the TV and the illuminated signs. Tilted heads obstructed his vision of the screen and the smoke bothered his eyes, yet the presence of others comforted him. Someone told him his life story and they both cried. Before leaving he bought all his new friends a round of drinks. Outside the sun was bright, his eyes hurt, his head ached and he thought of all the money he had wasted.

He went to bed early, praying that morning would never arrive. In the middle of the night, his full bladder forced him out of bed and down the public hall to the bathroom. The fluorescent light irritated his eyes. Through the thin bathroom wall he heard his neighbors chanting, their voices undulating monotonously. Then he splashed his legs with urine. In his anger, he left the room without flushing the toilet. The next morning his back ached. The cold floor numbed his feet and ankles and the excessive heat in the upper levels of the room caused him to perspire. On the floor his dirty clothes lay in heaps; in the sink stacks of dishes remained unwashed.

Around this time his neighbors invited him to a meeting they were holding that night. He declined, but at the appointed hour, he dropped over and was encompassed by many hands. Faces with enormous smiles surrounded him and immediately he felt at home in all this attention. Before the last member had arrived, he had already promised to return. When the chanting began, a young black woman, sitting on the floor beside him, offered him her book. From time to time she looked to see if he was following. Enthusiastically she’d indicate the place. After this the leader stood and rallied the group. He introduced Vellum by his first name. Though pleased with the loud ovation, he sat down embarrassed. Other visitors were introduced and they too were applauded. Initiates described what the power of chanting had done for them. One had finally bought his dream car, another had been offered a higher paying position and one even announced a wedding. Each report was followed by more clapping and cheering. After an hour Thomas was tired of clapping but was afraid to relieve his smile of tension. Finally the meeting came to a close on a wave of songs. After that his phone rang continuously day and night. He was afraid to step out into the public hall, fearing they would suddenly appear and ask him where he’s been. People seemed to gather purposefully outside his door to converse in loud voices. He thought they were speaking of him. His loneliness increased, but he refused to return. He felt surrounded by motion, a whirling senseless motion that carried him where it pleased. At times he felt within reach of the reins, dragging behind the galloping Time. But when he seemed on the verge of grabbing hold, Time derisively sped ahead.

Secretly he chanted for a change. But nothing changed. He scanned the want adds in the paper, but usually found nothing. If a position was offered, he asked for an interview. But his qualifications were always more than what was needed or not enough. Sometimes the position was already taken. His dreams of success were scattering like leaves blown away in a storm. The endless interviews, the courteous smiles, the negative gestures became part of the décor filling his dreams. Day merged with night; sleep echoed day. The days would repeat the dreams. Endless days passed by unaccounted. He lost track of time, forgot what day it was. Desperately he tried to understand what was happening. What had gone wrong? He rarely thought of his future now. That far off day when he received his termination notice “with regret” receded, a faint point in a far corner of the universe. Between that winter day one year ago – he remembered it clearly and today, the full burden of a Time poured in, its uneventful nature erasing his confidence. When, he wondered, would the cycle end.

The day after he was “released,” with the holidays near, he promised himself a vacation. Without any dependents he figured his unemployment checks would easily support him, provided he kept a close eye on his budget. This period in his life would be an interlude and no more. Once he had accomplished all the things he couldn’t have normally done because of his work schedule, he planned to return to work the first available chance in the offing and continue preparing for the future. During the first months, he caught up on his sleep, frequented the museums and attended the movie houses and theaters. He enjoyed fully lying in bed through the mornings, without a care in the world. Because his mind was at work, he felt on the verge of a great achievement. In the papers, he read the reviews of the plays and movies he had seen and felt knowledgeable enough to disagree with the critics. Dozens of characters roamed through his mind. Although he forgot their names and confused them with others, he still felt he had something in common with them all. He congratulated himself on finally seeing the great works of art at the Museum of Art. Although he couldn’t remember who had painted what, the great names stuck in his mind and sometimes he caught himself speaking to these people personally, but this only made him laugh. On certain mornings, he jumped out of bed and lifted the shades to catch the first rays of light peeking over the tops of buildings. Then lying back, he dreamed of what he was going to do with the room, for this was only the beginning, the foundation. In time he would probably move to a larger place, but for now he found his studio more than adequate. One day he would grab hold of the future and achieve something spectacular. He would put all his money into some grand design. The possibilities were infinite as long as the capital was available.

Perhaps he would invest in the land, a small farm, somewhere in the west, far from the main roads, the noxious fumes and the upsetting racket or close to the sea, where he would sit on an enormous rock girded by swelling head waters and turbulent eddies. All the necessities of life would be available to him, provided he worked for them. The rich earth aroused his sense of touch, filled his hands with its potential and intangible goodness. When he shaped it, furrows of damp soil followed the contours of his land out beyond his vision. Enormous evergreen trees shaded his modest cabin from the harsh alpine light. When the wind blew, the trees purred and at night he heard rivers babbling across his lands. From his windows he saw an eternity of valleys and high mountains and sprawling acres of wind blown grain. From a helicopter he would survey his herds of cattle and see before him grape vines trellised on posts which looked like sentries marching along the yellow ridges covered here and there by groves of gnarled live oaks. He would rally his neighbors against the outrages of the middle man. A confederation would form around his leadership and big business would be brought to its knees. He would open the gates of his vast domain to the needy and the forlorn. His estate would become a haven for lost souls and the adobe walls of his hacienda a monastery. His brethren would gather around to hear him speak. Important people would come to him for advice. Around massive oak tables they would break bread together and share the fruits of their labors. If he grew weary of his terrestrial chains, as often he did, he would give all his wealth to the poor. He would buy a small sailing vessel of ripe vintage, with tall masts and acres of billowing canvas. Leaning over the railing he would pass the hours watching the patterns of whirling white water, learning the secrets of the sea while the sun raced alongside, his sole companion. From the crow’s nest he would sight the magnificent sperm whale. Porpoises would frolic within hands reach and by nightfall as the moon was emerging from its watery bed, a speck of greenery would appear, an uncharted isle, an undiscovered pearl. He would travel the world and never settle in any one place again. A star studded canopy would be his only roof and the only sounds would be the foaming water churning at the waterline and the wind in his sails. Every night flying fish would land on deck; in the morning he would eat them for breakfast, rejoicing over the abundance of the sea. Before sunrise, he would set out with the others, drop his nets. By late morning he’d return with his hold full of white bellied cod. He would sail the Caribbean, charting out for excursions. His guests would feast on wild pig cooked on hot stones buried deep in the while sands of the Pacific. They would recline in wicker chairs beneath tall palms, sipping rare juices from pineapple cones, while exotic orchids fell into their laps. Boys would scramble into the sky and retrieve coconuts. He would grow a bread, smoke a pipe and become familiar with the movements of the stars. He would live the life of a recluse and die at sea. Whatever he did, Vellum was confident of his success.

As the year dragged on, he grew tired of his indolence, became restless and irritable. In the mornings he found it hard rising out of bed and always found an excuse for not going out. Finding himself at home more and more, he had lunch with his old friends. When they met, he always found himself at a loss for words. His activities lacked adventure, while theirs were full of everyday occurrences. At first they could talk about the movies he had seen, the museums he had visited, but his enthusiasm waned as his interests quickly outpaced his ability to keep up. When he thought of something to say, he would say it, but it would lack the luster of his thoughts. Because their schedules were full, they seemed to be squeezing him in; he, on the other hand, could see them any time. They had nothing in common with one another any more. They had girl friends, one was even married now with a baby on the way. He longed to meet a woman. He longed for the office activity, for the intercom chit-chat and the long daily luncheons in the Madison Avenue pubs. The world was revolving around him, without him, was bursting with activity. Before long he was without friends.

Still he was determined to rejoin the human community. He had had enough of being useless, a mere pawn in the evolving process. This was America, the land of opportunity. A willing man could do anything. He doubled his efforts to find a job. But work eluded him. The available positions seemed to vanish just as he was arriving. The days passed. The abyss widened. When his unemployment check ran out, he was forced to rely on his savings. His future was in peril.

At Christmas, along with their annual calendar to all their policy holders, the insurance company, with whom he had been employed, sent him a notification that as someone no longer with the firm, his rates would be increasing. He was furious and nearly tore up the calendar in his rage; he cursed the advent of the new year and wished he was dead. Without even looking at it, he nailed the calendar to the wall, but in his anger crumbled plaster all over his pillow. After that he stood by the window until his anger subsided. The grey buildings across the way hedged his view; the stubby limbs of the trees shook in the wind. Returning to the table he looking up and saw the calendar on the wall. Above each month there was a reproduction of a Currier and Ives print, apropos to that time of year, framed in a brown, wood-like border. For January there was a landscape scene by George Henry Durrie, a small cabin nestled in a snowbound wood. The cabin windows glowed yellow with what he imagined to be the light of a candle or a blazing fire. He wished he was there. Then again he saw the notice on the table and his blood roared through his temples and he wished he could beat someone. When his eyes returned to the print, he asked himself what had become of America. He tore the notice in pieces, crumpled it in a ball and threw the ball into the basket. That was America, he thought, but not the real America. There was the real America, the one on the wall. While he gazed on this America and wondered of its lost greatness, the entire day passed unnoticed. By nightfall, Vellum had rediscovered hope.

 

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