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This story is part of an archive of short fiction by Miriam N. Kotzin that is no longer readily available. All are copyrighted by the author. If you wish to reprint them, please contact her.


If she heard "At War With Satan" one more time, Kathleen Brennan told herself, she'd have to go to Confession. Through the thin walls that separated her row house from the Delahanty's she listened to the battle of the generations playing itself out in music. Her friend Nancy blasted oldies, but Nancy's teenage son, Sean, and his satanic rock were winning the skirmish, if not the war. Kathleen tried to concentrate on her talk radio program, but her mind wandered to what she heard at night through the wall as she lay restless, waiting for sleep.

A knock at the back door brought her back to the reality of her kitchen. His long red hair bright in July sun, Sean stood on her back door stoop. The voice on the radio urged her "to go take on the day," and the news came on as Kathleen hauled herself from the vinyl chair, her thighs sticking to the seat below her shorts, prickling as she stood. "No news," she said to herself, as she switched off the radio," is good news.

Kathleen watched Sean put his face up to the door, and peer into the square of glass between the avocado valence and cafe curtain. Kathleen forced a smile to her pale lips. She felt naked and ugly and old without her lipstick, without the eyebrow pencil that she used to draw pale brown brows over her hazel eyes.

Sean, shirtless and barefoot, wearing only cutoff jeans, brought the smell of stale smoke into her kitchen. It hung in his hair. Katheleen had smelled enough of marijuana in her youth to recognize it. How could Nancy who was so particular and kept her nails painted a sweet frosted pink, have raised a son like Sean. His wild curly hair rippled past his shoulders,and a tattooed snake curled down his arm onto his hand. And his piercings--they fairly sprouted like mushrooms after a rain. Whatever would his poor father have said if he could see his son now, just the age he'd been when he'd gone to war.

"Aunt Kaydee," he said, "I need a ride." His voice had changed, but Kathleen heard the voice of the little boy just learning to talk, tugging at her skirt when the Jack and Jill ice cream truck piped its way through the neighborhood. She'd none of her own to buy for, she had told Nancy, which Nancy knew well enough. And the vegetable dye tattoos that washed off, she'd bought him those, too, and how she and Nancy had laughed as he'd covered his arms with cartoons. Now here he stood inches taller than his father who'd come home from Nam with a flag.

They'd cried together, the two women, friends and neighbors. Nancy had showed her the medals, and Kathleen had touched the velvet of the box, and stroked the ridged silk of the ribbon and the cold embossed bronze. She'd been like a blind woman touching a face for the last time.

Kathleen stared at Sean's green eyes: over the bridge of his nose, between his eyes, a bar with steel balls. She'd learned not to ask if it hurt. "Something new?"

"Yeah." He shifted his weight from one bare foot to the other. "So can you give me a lift? Please. Mom's using the car today."

Kathleen noticed the red tongue of the snake just at the joint of his thumb. The green and black body wound its way up and around his muscled arm, the rattle ending just below his shoulder. Well, his mother had said he'd been lifting weights in the basement.

She told him that it depended on where he wanted to go and when. She had laundry to do. And he said to the El stop at Kensington and Allegheny so he could take the train into Center City to get tickets for a concert. And she'd asked whether the buses were running, knowing full well that they were, and wondered what he'd wear, but after all she wasn't his mother, and a good thing she wasn't. She kept to herself the memory of how when he got his first piercing after his ears, he and his girlfriend Jen and done their tongues. When she'd asked why, he'd actually blushed. And then she blushed too, thinking of him like that. A phrase from one of Sean's CD's that she'd heard so many times, "Scenes of blasphemy and lust" ran through her mind. At least she could pick up a few things at the Acme supermarket when she dropped him off. "Raging flames..."

"Did you say something, Aunt Kaydee?"

She told him that she must have been talking to herself and that she'd run him to the El in fifteen minutes after she had time to get herself together.

The snake's red tongue seemed to flicker. And then the green and black body of the snake writhed as Sean jammed his hands into the back pockets of his jeans with the casual disregard of the young for the feelings of their elders.

Her mother had warned her that impure thoughts could be read like banner headlines. She had warned her that impure thoughts led to impure deeds. She had warned her, as had the Sisters at Little Flower, even before she had entertained an impure thought, that her body was the Temple of the Holy Ghost and must not be defiled. She had been warned against occasions of sin.

And now, in her dead mother's kitchen she was endangering her soul just as she did each nght that she lay alone in her narrow girlhood bed, her ear close to the wall, listening for Sean, his music, his sounds as he moved in his bed, only inches from hers just on the other side of the wall. Some nights she almost held her breath waiting, listening.

"Without the holy grail," she murmured, "only evil can prevail."

He answered, "Raping the Holy Trinity, the Sabbath chimes ... ... boom, boom" He grinned at her, his father's cocky, crooked smile. "Cool. How do you know Venom?"

Her eyes moved over his body, savoring after a long hunger. The sunlight gleamed on the ring in his nipple, caught in the few curling red gold hairs that circled the pinky brown aureoles on his flat chest, and the sunlight flared the strands on his breast bone and the line of hair that began at his navel and ran down under the waistband of his jeans.

Kathleen remembered her lover, her Kevin who had never grown old. She liked to think of him as her Kevin, and no harm in that now, was there. Not now, not after so much time. And she'd been faithful to his memory, more faithful than many proper widows. And after all, who had been hurt, really. Her Kevin, his textures, the contrasts of silky young skin, the soft male hair, the coarse male hair. She wondered at the unyielding steel of Sean's piercings. She wanted to thread her tongue through his nipple ring and to catch hold of it in her teeth. She imagined his taste, and then his tasting her secret place, giving her pleasure as no one ever had, not even Kevin.

She had gone early to the wake. She'd sat by herself right behind Nancy to stare at Kevin's flag-covered casket. She watched the line of friends shaking hands with Nancy, hugging Nancy. Such a good friend she was, Nancy told her. Such a good friend to cry with her again and again, to cry so many bitter tears. Kathleen felt her face grow swollen with sorrow. She looked at Sean and saw his father's green green eyes "Holy Mother of God," she murmured. As Sean stared at her, slowly, deliberately she moved her right hand. For the first time in years she made the sign of the cross.

(c)2004 Miriam N. Kotzin
"Neighbor" appeared in SaucyVox, August, 2004.

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