By Milton Lyles
I can remember exactly how, when, and precisely where I saw Amathis for the first time. I was in a make shift press box in a high school gym. I had lost interest in the basketball game some time before, and was quietly drinking myself into a functional state just this side of oblivion with the sour mash whiskey concealed in my waxed paper Coca Cola cup. She came out of the bleachers at the end of a lost state championship high school basket ball game which had been badly played by the Lake Saint Claire High School Swamp Panthers. The game had just been concluded and the graceless, overly tall, arrogant, home town hero from Byrd High School who had beaten the Swamp Panthers almost single handily was dribbling down to sink one last humiliating shot in the unguarded Swam Panther basket when all of a sudden Amathis sprang out of the front row of the bleachers. She had her white dress pulled up tightly between her legs and tucked up in her left hand. She was all flashing white legs and graceful bare feet, the toes of which were adorned with robin’s egg blue toe nail paint. She swept past the boy from Byrd, snatched up the basketball, and dribbled it away from him. She glided down the court all slender and graceful with him chasing after her like a clumsy awkward puppy dog. She launched herself gracefully into the air under the Byrd goal, seemed to hang in the air for the longest of seconds, and stuffed the ball into the basket. Her hand was a faint blur above the rim, her eyes were bright as diamonds, and her mouth was a study in grim determination. The crowd as though by some unspoken command rose as one and cheered, and a moral victory was snatched from a physical defeat. I wrote a short column on the score of the hopeless game, but most of the story was about the graceful girl who brought back a towns pride. No one called her crazy that night, and her face when she heard them cheer was the face of a saint who has just heard the one true voice of God.
A long wasted string of empty and uncertain years have quietly slipped by since that March night so long ago. I no longer blindly cling to words like honor, hope, fidelity, or love. I have seen to many lies acted out with to much sincerity. I have betrayed and been betrayed, and I have come to realize that all of life and most of living is a lie within which we all participate with difference degrees of belief. You don’t have to believe a lie to make it work, but you must participate in it.
The night Amathis made that basketball shot. The whole gym probably cheered what she had done. I may have to, but I don’t remember. What was real for me that night, what I remember with crystal clarity is that I wanted to protect her from all the hurt the world would offer up to her, to wrap myself around her and make the most tender, warm, fulfilling love to her. I very much remember that feeling. I never did make love to her. She would never let me, could never let me. She gave her physical self to me willingly. She let me have sexual relations with her, and she called it just that, sexual relations. She’d say after we had kissed and held each other in the most tender fashion, “let’s go to the couch and have sex.” We never did it in a bed until the last time, and I think she gave into me then and made love in her terms for the only time of the many times we were together.
She hated slang words like fuck and technical words like copulate. I thought at first it didn’t matter what she called it. When she and I got naked on that couch, I found the act of fornication to me more wonderful, more gratifying, more powerful, more explosive than any I had ever known before and I know I shall never feel that way again. But she told me, with that brutal honesty that shaped the parts of her life that she cared about, that first marvelous time and every time after that, no matter how well I pleased her or she pleased me, this is not making love. Making love is what you do to me and what I do to you that goes beyond the physical sensations of the body. Making love happens in my mind and yours simultaneously, and you may let me in your mind, but I will never let you into mine.”
I tried for some time to make her say we were making love. I used every emotional ploy at my disposal; lust, hurt feelings, flattery, gifts, and in the end tears. She never did say, “we are making love now.” She could be manipulated into saying she loved me, but she always cheapened it by saying things like I love you, and Hershey bars, and gin on the rocks, and the way Freddie Welch sings.
In the end my need to be and my failure to be her lover, her authentic, single, only true love, drove me away. It was an ego thing. I had before Amathis loved other women some prettier, some brighter, some more technically proficient. I won them all with my words and my need to have them need me. Because of or in spite of all my skillful manipulation, I could not compel her to love me without condition, and so I let her turn away from me knowing full well that all she wanted was for me to turn my back on my ego and turn toward her free of attachments and ego. She was seeking a man capable of putting her first, a man who could and would love her better than life itself.
For most of my life I have confused love with physical passion. I cannot recall ever experiencing as I did with Amathis the feeling of spontaneous joy brought on by the totally physically acts of any other person with whom I ever crawled into a love nest or bed of passion. My failing was that I had pride filled dreams that told me that just being me was not enough. I was driven by the need to insulate myself from any chance of losing her by gaining money and fame. I always came up just a little short of success. I showed potential for twenty years. The potential I exhibited w as the type which defines you as being too good to fail and not quite good enough to succeed, the kind of talent that can not quite be marketed but always garners interest.
Amathis loved me and I loved the image of me as something other than that which I was capable of being. I was an ordinary man seeking extraordinary success and unable to deal with my lack of deep talent and the ruthless cunning that allows a man to devour his weakness in order to feed his vision.
I had in that one whiskey muted perfect instant in a basketball gym experienced what I truly loved in life, and it wasn’t the girl in the white dress. I did not fully realize it then as I do now, but as Amathis made her leap, as she hung in the air suspended by cheers, as she defied convention and good taste, I loved how she made the crowd react, and I knew one day I would have to experience that kind of power, the ability to capture men’s minds and catapult them into spontaneous action.
I don’t know when I began to love her with such compulsion. I cultivated her father’s friendship just to be near her. I spent years like a miser spends his gold learning what she loved and learning to love those same things. I put aside my dislike of cats and took one for a pet. And I was totally surprised when I actually came to love that cat.
It was much later that I came to love the brightness of Amathis’s mind, and the great complexity of her that extended far beyond the pale cast of her beauty which was set off by the softness of her red hair and the eloquence of her low musical voice, and the deeply muted almost masculine sound of her laughter. There was to her honesty and a sense of justice which extended far beyond the limits established by common decency and conventional morality.
When I finally connived to take her into my bed and in the language of another time had my way with her, I called it making love and identified the act as having meaningful sex. “Making love,” she said her eyes alive with mirth and mischief, “takes a long time and is measured more in quiet sighs than in noisy ejaculations.”
My mind holds all those images of a woman who is now no more, and for me never was allowed to be as sweet a lover or as good a friend as I should have let her be. I let my ego and masculine pride murder any chance I had to be with her. She was to me an unfulfilled poorly tended lover, and unsatisfied lovers tend to disintegrate like sun baked mud pies left out in the Louisiana rain. My relationship with Amathis was one of those, “if you just give love and never get love, you’d better leave love alone” kind of affairs that Freddie Welsh sang about. It disintegrated into a series of occasional letters and Christmas cards laced with cotton candy sweet sentiments spun across the emptiness of time.
Seated across from me, his dark eyes moving over my face and body like little black bugs was Judge Champ Neal. He had been her husband, and by her descriptions not a good or decent kind of a husband. His eyes came to rest upon my eyes. They bore into me like ruby red lasers as he put the question to me without garnish or pretense. “What was she to you and what were you to her?”
The questions of madmen and pretentious politicians are equally dangerous and require careful answers. Judge Neal’s black, intense, intelligent eyes were the instruments of vision of a man who had the imagination needed to inflict hurt and the rationalization skills which could insulate his mind and free him from the emotional consequences of the harm he inflicted.
I began speaking carefully, the way old men with shaky hands build structures out of playing cards or toothpicks. I told my little lies with all the cautious, studied, honest intensity of an adulterer facing a hostile crowd armed with stones. “We were,” I began watching his eyes for any sign of belief, “friends”. I wrote a newspaper story about her when she was a girl. She had a school girl crush on me. We kept in contact over the years. It was a friendship. Just a friendship.
He took the box out from some concealed place behind his desk. The rapidly fading light of the lost day began to play funny little tricks as it filtered through the rain splattered glass of the large window behind the judge. It heightened my sense of impending danger and forced me to take refuge in obscure hiding places in my mind. I tried to make something special out of the judge’s casual but graceful hand movements. I was without knowing why it was important very much aware of the perfection of his hands. They were soft, waxen, well manicured, and very clean. The cleanest hands I had ever seen. I told myself Amathis had lied. The judge was too powerful to give into personal vices. Those hands were beyond hurting. This man was beyond hurting. I allowed myself the luxury of cursing her for doing what she did to place me in front of the judge’s hands.
“I found these cards and letters tucked neatly into a shoe box tied with a black ribbon.” He said it as softly as one might say, ‘it looks like rain, or pass the butter. “They were beneath her bed at the Montileon Hotel down in the French Quarter.” He continued in the same unemotional tone. “You were there with here were you not?”
His hands stopped being pretty. These were the hands that had beaten Amathis and put marks on her. The curses I had made against her burned like acid in my throat. I could not control my mouth. “Why did you beat her”?
The words spilled out, but he did not respond. There was no tension in his hands. His eyes did not grow hostile or dark. The smile did not fade from his face. His answer to my question was his own question. “I cannot help but wonder,” he said, “why you chose to run away before the police came”? They can do so much today with DNA.”
His voice was flat and cold and void of emotion. He joined his words so precisely they began to have the feel of cut and fitted pieces of stone. I had the feeling that once these words had been laid down they could be moved or challenged only at great risk.
“Leaving like that was not the kind of thing I would have thought Amathis would have done.” I was talking to myself. Nothing I said would make a difference, but I knew I had to find some peace within myself. “She just got out of bed without a word walked to the open window and jumped up like she thought she could fly. I saw her fly once years ago. She did not fly today. It was not a day for flying.”
The Judge looked up his eyes bright and filled with expectation and joy at the apparent ease of my rapid capitulation. “She hated to put things under beds.” I continued knowing that it was the wrong road but unable to stop my turning down it. I was like a man riding on a roller coaster track fearful of the turns to come but unable to free himself from the ride. “She always said, ‘if you put something under a bed it becomes the companion to dust bunnies and lost desires which settle upon it and bring bad luck when you take it out again. The only way to take the bad luck off is to rub the dust bunnies off of it with the dark moss from the rain stained side of a Spanish oak tree’. “I guess she wasn’t so worried about bad luck. May I have them, the letters, and may I have her now?”
I looked at my letters to her held in his hands, and I wanted very much to snatch them away from the Judge, walk out of the room and go alone down among the oak trees flanking the river’s edge. The river oaks seemed to stretch out toward the very end of doom itself. I did not have the will or the courage to command my hands to reach out or my legs to walk away. His eyes, his ingratiating less than earnest questions, my fear, my hatred of him, all these things, held me captive within the room just as his money and position had held Amathis prisoner while he tried to break her will and force her to give him the one thing that she could not give, love.
“Your letters and his poem were all she brought here. Hell, I didn’t even know she read poetry. She brought no money, no credit card. The police know it was your room. I know—she told me you were lovers for a time. Was she still your lover, or just an old love?”
His eyes were on me rubbing on me hard like the coarseness of Lava soap rubbing harshly on tender skin. I knew he was watching for some small sign, hating me for being there with her, wanting me to have killed her, or stopped her, or maybe just toying with me while he was making some complicated plan in his head.
“Was she still your friend? Were you here pimp, her dope dealer, her father confessor, or her dupe?” His voice was no longer unemotional. It was edged with hate. The kind of hate that fires up the crowd just before the lynching talk begins. “I hope that you will do me the kindness of telling me what all this means.” The words were coming in a rush now like spring rain. “The police think–know you were somehow involved. They want to think you are very much involved. The truth could help you. I can help you if I know the truth, the why of all this, but I have to–you know, know it all. Know all that you know–how much you can forget, and how quickly you can forget it.”
He let his voice trail off at the end and the single word, all, plastered itself to my mind like a heretic hanging from a dungeon wall. All I had kept of her was that single image of her in her youth leaping toward a basketball rim that had no meaning and the grace of her reaching upward toward some untold truth which might save her. What I did or did not do in her last minutes of her life did not matter in the long run. Her death could not be undone. The Judge did not want the truth. The truth saves so few of us. We fall not from a lack of truth or from the profundity of lies. Life is, I believe, what Joseph Glanvill said it was, “a thing driven by will.” We rise and fall on strength or the weakness of our individual will and the depth of our cunning. Amathis died from a lack of cunning. She was dragged down by the hard mendacity of lies told in silence.
I sat in the damp storm tinted darkness of the soft November evening taking comfort in the taste of the Judge’s Bushmills, looking into the dark pit of my own will and the labyrinth of my too shallow ingenuity, knowing full well that when it most counted, when her life was on the line, I had somehow failed her. I had cared too much about the sweet taste of her, the warmth of her nakedness, how much I had missed the feel of her naked body next to mine. I had not cared that she was the wife of a monster, and that the only way she could see to destroy the monster was to destroy herself. “I don’t have the guile, or the money, or the kind of hate it would take to bring him down.” She had said. “I came to you hoping against hope that your guile would be clever enough to save me from the judge’s need to fix blame and exact vengeance, but you are if anything weaker than me ‘cause you place being somebody above right and wrong, love and compassion, justice and injustice. You are him in a smaller suit.”
Those were her last words before she walked to the window. I thought she was going for a drink of water. I now felt cheated by her death, cheated out of something I never really had, but would now always want, and knowing that in her dying she had left me a due bill which I now had to pay. Even in her death she would test my love.
Champ Neal, the State Attorney General of Louisiana now held my fate in his soft corrupt hands “I know what killed her.” He said. “I was hoping you could tell me what she died of?”
What did she die of? My hands wanted to smash his face into a mushy blur of nothingness, but I made them sit quietly on the desk top and trace the imperfect circles of my whiskey glass on the slick perfection of his well polished oak desk top. “Judge,” I lied, “She died of that most common of twentieth century diseases, loneliness. Or maybe she died of a lack of passion. And then again maybe she just had nothing else to give.” The whiskey could not kill the taste of the lie in my mouth as I twisted my tongue around the words.
“You just lied,” he said. “There was a time, Mr. Malone, back when I was the parish sheriff that I would have had my deputies take you out in the country and nail your right hand to a pine tree and whack off a finger ever time you lied. You know why she killed herself. Let’s not pussy foot around. I know you know. And why in the name of God does she want you to have her body for cremation. We don’t cremate Catholics. Even those who did what she did. I can fix the manner in which she died with the church, but I will not permit myself to allow her to be cremated and to have you mix her ashes with her daddy’s. I thought she was—believed she was an orphan. But the note says you have her daddy’s ashes. Hell, I can’t permit that madness. Amathis was a saint. She never did anybody any wrong. Her suicide note is a sacrilege. She must have been mad. Listen to this drivel, “Mine and daddy’s ashes for all time mixed together in the mud and slime”. Did she really think I would let you dump her ashes into a pig sty?”
I saw the anger rising in him. He knew that I saw through his lies as easily as he had seen through mine. He was much more likely to pound my face into mush than me to pound on his. He had worked at keeping his body hard in contrast to the smooth softness of his hands. He was sixty-eight years old, and he reminded me of Jack LaLane on his birthday pulling those sixty-eight boats across San Francisco bay with his hands tied behind his back.
“I don’t intend to let you desecrate her remains by fire.” He continued. The rage running through him like a fast flowing shallow river. “I’m a powerful man in this part of the country–in this state. I can stop you. I can destroy you. You know I can, and if you know I can you must believe I will.”
I picked at my words like the unwanted food on a sick man’s hospital tray. “She didn’t get one thing she wanted out of life, Judge. Not one fucking thing. Let her have her finish as she wanted it now. Let me do this thing her way.”
“I will….might….if you tell me why she did it.”
I knew he was lying, but it was a less transparent lie. I knew Amathis’ wish to be cremated and had about as much of a chance of being honored as I had of walking out of the Judge’s house free and clear of the crime of murdering her. There was a good chance that I would never see the sun rise over the oak trees down by the river. He had not lied about hands nailed to trees, and old dogs do not change their spots.
I rolled around in my mind the litany of things that I knew, things I could not tell Judge Neal. I knew what he wanted. What he needed. He did not really want to sanctify her now, to wipe all the mud off her white dress, and to make her as pure as ‘folks’ thought him to be. Maybe Judge Neal really loved Amathis and grieved her loss as I did, but my being with him was not about love or grief. He needed to know that she had not shared his dirty little secrets with me before she died. Once that information was secured, he had to have a scapegoat for sacrificial burning, and he had chosen me.
I held on to the memory of the sweet feel of holding her, the clean fresh smell of her hair, the easy soft sound of her breathing, the exquisite warm taste of her kisses, and I knew it would not be enough. I knew I would betray her, and the only question to be resolved was this; how much pain would I carry in memory of my having made love to her? I had never known love to be strong enough in others I had read of, or talked to, or known as closely as men and women can know each other. After the lies were told and stripped away like the skin of dried onions, when the thin layer of truth was finally reached each of them gave into their pain and their personal demons and betrayed the thing or the person they loved because when all the bullshit is stripped away Shakespeare was indeed right, “The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment Can lay on nature is a paradise to what we fear of death.”
There are of course things that we in our softness have come to fear more than death. I was prepared to tell the good lie and tell it well. But as I opened my mouth the judge raised his hand, the way that only men who have truly known power can do. He silenced me before the first word flowed out. He got up and walked out of the room purposefully but without undue speed. There was no rush in his departure, no haste in his footsteps. The two big men who came in had on suits and ties. They were the judge’s ‘advisors’. “I have,” the judge said as he reached the office door, “asked my advisors to meet with you and explain my position on the truth before we have our little talk. I believe, based upon our previous conversation, that you lie very well, very quickly, and will continue doing so until you see the error of your ways. You can rest assured that anything you choose to tell my friends here will be held in strictest confidence”.
The ‘advisors’ asked no questions. They took down no facts, they used no tools, or tricks, or devices beyond their hands and feet and their teeth. I had not till that time considered with any degree of thought how much men can hurt you with their teeth.
My preparation for my interview with the judge took less than ten minutes. It would serve no good purpose to recount here how good those men were at their work. Modern society and situational ethics have stocked almost every government with such men. The simple fact of the matter is this. Once they began to hurt me, really physically hurt me, I could not find words of self-humiliation or betrayal fast enough. I betrayed everything Amathis had told me. I knew once I told them all they suspected that I knew that they would kill me and never give the act a second thought. It did not matter what I said or didn’t say, but they were so good at their job, inflicted such confusion on my conscious mind that I came to believe that if I found the right words and the correct way to say them it would be sufficient to make them stop hurting me before they were ready. I would somehow be in charge and able to protect myself from more hurt. They had over a lengthy period of time learned how to fully enjoy their power, and I had learned quite quickly how thin my courage was.
The judge returned to find me seated in my same little chair, wrapped in the hopeless sick smell of my own puke and excrement. Unable to drink the fresh glass of whiskey he poured for me. He let me tell my little face saving lies, about how she had taken her life because she had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child, because she was unable to know real love, because she could no longer face the pain of being unloved and unlovable. I knew the judge had sat in some room and had watched and listened on TV as I had blurted out my betrayal of all of Amathis’s secrets.
Judge Neal smiled. I saw in his smile that he felt safe now. I think as some point I smiled too. Mine have been the kind of smile that weak men always smile at strong men when bad but necessary deals are cut. The only joy I could take in my weakness, which had no doubt insured my rapidly approaching death, was that the two ‘advisors’ would spend all their unoccupied time wondering how long the judge would let them walk around knowing his dirty little secret before they two would have to be permanently silenced.
The last lie I threw in for no good purpose. The judge was a secret racist and I hoped it might offend him. My expectation was that he might think the lie was true that Amathis had betrayed him for a colored man. “She was a Catholic girl going to have an unwanted child,” I said, “she killed it with the scrape of an abortionist’s knife. It drove her mad, and she took her own life. She had never lain with a black man before, but she wanted to hurt you ‘cause you beat her. She thought she was pregnant and in her soul she knew the child was black – would look like a black child. She told me she asked to see the child—after the thing was done. The child they showed her was not black. It was a little girl child, but she didn’t believe it was hers. Hers was had to be black to justify taking its life.
Amathis felt guilty about killing the child. But she feared having a child more than the loss of her soul. she did not want to bring a child into a world where keeping children alive makes them what she called”hostages to pain and despair wrapped up in sweetness like sugarcane straight from the field.” She said, “life grinds all the sweetness out of a child. Children are squeezed to death daily. They are poorly used and die from a lack of love, not quick death from a major hurt. They die slow painful disease laden death, but in the end they are just as dead. I did not kill my child. I sacrificed her to spare her the suffering that I have in my life known.”
“She quoted the Shakespeare just before she left my bed. She had carefully memorized the whole little speech of Claudio to his sister in Measure for measure:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To battle in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice,
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be wore than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling! Tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed wordly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear death.
I should have figured out what she was up to-I should have stopped her. But she was never obvious. She had such an inventive mind.”
Judge Neal seemed to roll the words around in his head for a long while. It was as though he kept hearing the words after I had finished saying them. I don’t know at what point the two advisors reentered the room. They appeared as silently as they had before, and I knew that they had not come to hurt me. They did not even look at me. I had ceased to be a thing of importance in their scheme of things. One of them, it does not matter which one they were identical copies of their evil purpose, leaned over and whispered in the judge’s ear. His expression did not change. His hands which had been like him well cared for, rich, powerful, concealing the evil they did behind their civilized garb or rings and clear nail lacquer may have shaken as they picked up the remote switch and turned on the TV.
The newsman was jowl fat. He had the sleek look of a prize hog in his black eyes. He recounted a shocking story of the delivery of an envelope containing what were alleged to be photographs of Judge Sandy Neal engaging in sexual acts with children, boys as young as five years of age. Attempts were being made to contact Judge Neal, The State Attorney General, who was viewed in Democratic Party Circles as a Presidential Candidate front runner in the approaching Democratic primaries, for a statement. In a closely related story it has been reported that Judge Neal’s young wife had taken her on life hours ago, and that the State Police announced it had issued a warrant for Judge Neal’s arrest.
I just got up and walked out of the room and out of the house. No one spoke. No one stopped me. I heard the shot when my foot touched the last of the thirteen steps leading up to the Judge’s front door.
In retrospect I think Amathis wanted to make us both pay for our sins, the judge and I. And she wanted us to pay in proportion to our sins as she perceived them. I suffered the sin of pride. I though myself to be a very good writer, but I would not risk my integrity for the sake of truth, and I feared death and pain because it would unmask my greed for life. She could have chosen to spare me the pain the judge had inflicted on me, but she and I had often discussed honor, and honesty, and the betrayal of trust. I had always maintained that I unlike Peter who denied Jesus would never deny or betray her. She would laugh at my vanity when I said it and say, “You are a man, and you will when the opportunity presents itself. You really should read Shakespeare.” She would say that, and then immediately afterwards knowing the folly in it say, “Peter and the other disciples never read Shakespeare, but I think Jesus did.”
She won the argument. The night she stepped out that hotel window with a white dress pulled up between her legs and tucked up in her right hand. She leaped out that window reaching for the hoop of a full moon. She was graceful and unafraid. There are things worse than death. There is nothing worse than the memory of the love you could have had, the life you could have shared, and the last smile on a lovers face as she drifts below the moon and plunges in silence to the far side of doom.