The room was poorly lit with a low ceiling and open floor plan broken only by support columns in two rows of three down its length. It was mostly used to store folding chairs and tables, a dozen of the former and one of the latter set up. The chairs were in a circle in the center of the open space. The table was up against one wall with a carafe of coffee, cream and sugar and cups next to it. There was also a box of Dunkin’ Donuts sitting half empty next to the carafe, another box under it. The room was musty with that rarely used smell basements often get that was part mold, part old boxes, part old books, all overlaid by the faint scent of concrete. A box of bibles thrown haphazardly in a corner suggested the basement was beneath a church and the crucifix on the wall confirmed it. St. Jude Thaddeus the Apostle was a Roman Catholic Church and the pastor of the church, Father Bjornsson, was a careworn man who was beloved by his parishioners, not the least reason being his support of this weekly meeting.
The chairs in the circle were all filled with men of varying description. There were a couple of new faces, young men with baffled, lost looks on their faces as if they were trying to figure out how they got there or puzzle out the meaning of some complex problem. They hunched over their coffee like junkies, sipping frequently as their eyes darted around the room with something akin to panic. Five older, middle-aged men had resigned looks on faces lined with frown wrinkles, their eyes jaded to whatever carved those lines into their features. They clasped their coffee in both hands as if seeking comfort from the warmth, the lost looks long having been chiseled into their glazed eyes. Their faces would flash instances of confusion or exasperation before clearing, as if they were attempting to shrug off some problem of their own with meditation techniques that were not quite up to the task of banishing their worries completely. And then there were four older men well into their golden years, their expressions nearly blank with almost narcotic-quality peace. They had deep lines around their eyes, noses, and mouths and one would almost wonder if they were not senile as they sat there with slight, distracted smiles on their faces. They held their coffee negligently, taking no comfort in it but merely holding it as if out of habit.
The last person in the group was the aforementioned careworn Father Bjornsson in his black habit and white collar. He had a sad smile on his face and a bottle of water at his feet. He cleared his throat and began with, “We have a couple of new members with us tonight, so I will go through with the more formal rigmarole so that they know what this group is about and why we are all here tonight,” the gray haired priest said, his pale skin looking sickly under the wan light. He had light gray eyes that seemed to convey the feeling of a lead sky threatening snow in mid-winter but his smile told anyone who saw him that here was a caring, compassionate man of almost saintly disposition. That sincere face scanned the group before nodding to himself. “We are here to support each other as we labor under the knowledge that there are simply things in this life that we cannot change. God gives us the knowledge that this is so and in this group we try to support each other as we endeavor to accept and live with that knowledge. Each of us is here for a different reason and each of us came to be here after years of struggle with the burden we have been fated to bear. Sometimes it takes us longer to accept what we know in our hearts is true.”
Father Bjornsson looked around at the men, noticing the older men nodding even as the bafflement of the younger men deepened. “I think we will start by having a few of the older members explain how they came to be here. Any volunteers?”
The eldest among them nodded and stood. “My name is Harry and I am the grandfather of blondes,” he said in a quavering voice, weak with his advanced age.
Harry was a pale skinned man with age spots dotting his face and wispy white hair still covering his head. His brown eyes were sincere, sympathetic, and, beneath it all, as baffled as the younger men. Harry’s bafflement, however, was old and well-worn. He had long-since accepted that he would never figure things out, deciding it was his lot in life to simply try to help others come to acceptance as well.
“I guess I should have known when my daughter was younger, but I just turned a blind eye to it. I was a workaholic and when my wife finally had enough and left me, she took Ellie with her. She wound up moving across the country and so I would only get to see her for a week or two here and there,” he started his story, his tone announcing this was a story he had told many, many times. “Ellie would come; a lovely, energetic storm of confusion that stayed for a short time before leaving, taking the confusion with her. The visits became less often as she got older and so I could ignore things. Things I noticed but couldn’t, for the life of me, explain. Her mother died, she went off to college, got married, got divorced. When she left the idiot she married, she was in financial trouble and so she asked if she could come live with me. I had a big house with just me living in it and so I said sure.
“Now, Ellie is a pretty girl and always was. Natural blonde like my mother. She had two girls of her own with the idiot and so they came to live with me, too,” he told them all, his tone beginning to echo the bafflement of the other men’s expressions. Harry inhaled deeply and shook his head wryly. “For the longest time I tried to ignore the things I was seeing and hearing, hoping beyond hope that things would get better as they got older, but they didn’t. The final straw to break the camel’s back came in the summer of 1999. Ellie was at work and I was home watching the girls. We were all in the study and I was working on an assignment for a client and the girls were doing something involving giggling and pencils and paper.
“Then I heard them grunting and scrambling around one of the bookcases. I looked up and simply watched them in complete bewilderment as they were moving around the huge bookcase, grunting as they tried to move it,” he told them with a slight smile. “You gotta understand. Mel and Jen are nine and ten at the time and neither weighs much more than sixty or seventy pounds, if that. Yet there they are, trying to wrestle the bookcase away from the wall. After watching them for five minutes or so, I finally had to ask, ‘What are you girls doing?’ They replied, ‘Our green pencil rolled behind the bookcase. We need to move it to get it out.’ I almost cried. In the opposite corner was a broom they knew was there because they used it the day before. It never occurred to them to use it to brush the pencil out from behind the bookcase. And, when I suggested it, there was this blank look of amazement on their lovely faces before they quickly moved to get the broom. Not a thought in their lovely heads beyond ‘get the pencil.’ No contemplation of how best to do so or asking for help to move what was obviously a very heavy piece of furniture. That was when I knew I needed help.”
Harry sat down and a black man who was probably about thirty-five stood. Bewilderment seemed to have carved its way into his once handsome features, giving him a hang-dog look to his face and his eyes now had permanent creases between their furrowed brows. “My name is Jordan and I am the husband of a blonde,” the tall, athletically built man said morosely.
“Hello, Jordan,” they all chorused.
Jordan gave a stuttering laugh. “I guess you can tell that needing to come here came as kind of a shock to me. I come from a long line of sensible, intelligent black women,” he said somewhat sheepishly. He was the only black man in the group and he seemed to feel a little out of place despite the sympathy he saw in the faces turned up to him. “I met my wife Reba in college. I guess shortening a nice name like Rebecca to Reba could have been my first clue, but Reba was born with a gorgeous head of auburn hair. It was little things at first. Forgetting to put the keys on the hook and then losing them. Getting lost on the way to the corner store and winding up at the mall, spending two hundred dollars on clothes when she was just going out for milk and eggs. Shortening all of my relatives’ names to silly nicknames like her own. Nothing serious. I got a little more concerned when she came home from the hair salon with butter yellow hair a month before the final incident that made me ask for help.
“She went to Shop Rite to do our biweekly grocery shopping. It was dark when she got back but I heard her drive up and was waiting for her to come inside before helping unload the car,” he explained plaintively, shaking his head mournfully. “I knew something was wrong when she did not come in after five minutes or so, so I went outside to find her sitting in the car with a wide-eyed look on her face and both hands pressed to the back of her head as if she were under arrest. I opened the car door and asked, ‘What’s wrong, babe?’ She started crying and sniffled, “I’ve been shot! I am holding my brains in! Call an ambulance!’”
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