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explanation enough for the way we are. The guy they wrote about in the Post the other day—the 600 pound man who hasn’t been out of bed in seven years but who they’re finally hauling to his feet with horse pulleys: still needs a back story. But how do you explain loneliness? You can point to this event, and that influence, and those genetic predispositions. You can blame it on the death of God and the birth of existentialism. You can list random things and see if they add up to a pattern that makes sense to anybody. Or you can throw up your hands in despair. My parents once had a little boy they named Bill who only lived for a few days. There was a problem with his heart. When I was born a couple of years later they gave me the same name, so all my life I had to wonder if it was truly me they wanted or if they would have preferred the other Bill. I asked my Mom once why they named us both Bill and she said it was just a tradition, that back in the old days people had big families, and high infant mortality rates, and not always enough names to go around. I pointed out that there were just the three of us in our family—her and Dad and me—but her face got cloudy. “And Bill,” she said. “We can never forget little Bill. He was a part of our family too.” “But I’m Bill,” I said, not that it did any good. Mom just nodded and said “Of course you are, and we love you very much.” So maybe it’s no mystery that when I was younger I didn’t have self-confidence. I was nervous and spent a lot of time in libraries, lying on dusty floors, surrounded by walls of books. I wasn’t athletic, or good-looking, or charismatic, or any sort of genius. I didn’t follow baseball and I didn’t work on cars. I barely spoke the same language as other people, although my mother tried to make up for that by volunteering to be my Den Mother, Sunday School teacher, Field Trip Chaperone, and Home Room Mom. She often spoke for both of us, which was fine by me: “Oh, Bill and I would love to come to Lester’s birthday party. What can we bring?” So that was one thing. Another was that we moved all the time. I convinced myself for several years it was because my father was a spy, but I came to understand that he was just restless. My Mom and Dad bought me clothes and food and band instruments that I never learned to play very well. My one virtue was an angelic voice. I couldn’t read music but had enough of an intuitive feel for the hymns we sang in the many choirs I joined in the many towns we lived in that I could follow along with almost no one noticing—never more than a fraction of a beat off. But a little off just the same. I set my sites on the Vienna Boys’ Choir, but it was the same old story: my voice cracked at the critical audition. Leper Larry lost his faith in Africa. I don’t think I ever had a chance to find mine. All those churches didn’t make sense if I couldn’t perform the high solos in their vesper choirs. Once you’ve sung soprano, it’s hard to drop back to being a lousy tenor. In those choirs I was somebody, I had an 3

Fall 2013 Volume 1, Issue 1

identity. My voice transported me and those who heard me sing, including my Mom and Dad. Once when I soloed through a verse of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” the congregation leapt to its feet and broke into spontaneous applause until the minister glared at them for the impropriety and they shrank back into their pews. My Dad thought all I needed to regain my confidence was Dale Carnegie. He gave me books and tapes on How to Win Friends and Influence People and it did help some. I picked up enough tips to help me talk to girls when I was in high school and college. I did well in my studies. But something was missing. My Mom said it was “seasoning,” and she said a little study-abroad was just the thing I needed. So I bought a backpack, said goodbye to my last girlfriend, and set off with a tour group for that mini-mester in India. We visited shrines, sat in ashrams, gave rupees to beggars, wept through curries. One day on a crowded bus in Agra a man wished me Merry Christmas. I thanked him and he said he was Hindu but knew this was the most special day for Christians. I thought about all those churches from my past, all those choirs I’d left behind, and then told him I wasn’t a Christian. He was puzzled. He asked what my religion was in that case and I told him I didn’t have one, that I was an agnostic. He was still puzzled. “But you must have a religion,” he said. I assured him that I didn’t. He shared his bag of burnt peanuts with me, and said it again: “But you must.” A week later I stepped off another bus in the Himalayan foothills not far from the Dalai Lama’s summer house, stumbled, caught myself, stumbled again—one of my legs must have fallen asleep–and then pitched over the edge of the mountain. When I came back from India after the accident, almost dead for the longest time, my Mom and Dad stayed by my hospital bed day and night as the surgeries and the complications multiplied. They tried to talk to me about what happened whenever I was lucid; I think my Mom blamed herself since the trip had been her idea. But I had malaria on top of everything else that was wrong with me, and the quinine treatment left a loud buzzing in my ears so for weeks I could barely hear a thing. When I finally left the hospital I had train tracks criss-crossing my torso and gauze pads stuffed into the gaping hole in my back. The surgeons had removed a rib so they could pump out old blood and bile and the yellow detritus of toxic infection. I weighed a hundred pounds and still couldn’t hear very well. A minister at my parents’ church told me it was all God’s will. You get cautious when you lose things. It’s because you know loss is real, and it’s because you’re afraid you will lose more if you’re not careful, and even if you are. So I became careful. I was meticulous with my laundry, avoided spicy foods, carried an umbrella, paid off my credit card bill every month, hid my horrible disfigure-

Profile for FLAR

FLR the Anthology 2013 - 2014  

A compilation of the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Volumes 1 and 2 (2013-2014)

FLR the Anthology 2013 - 2014  

A compilation of the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Volumes 1 and 2 (2013-2014)

Profile for amybayne