No One Ever Gets Tired of Stories About Angels

To look at him you'd never guess his occupation. He had sallow skin, stubble he could never shave clean, and coat-hangar shoulders that peered out from his stained white tank-top. He looked like an emaciated janitor, but without the institutional smock with the cursive-script name patch.

He only visited Janice at inopportune times, bumming her cigarettes and drinking her fresh coffee when he caught her at home. His favorite times to arrive were too early in the morning, too late at night or when Janice was in the middle of something else.

Rodney and Janice first met in a half-empty movie house during an afternoon matinee. He just took the empty seat beside her and started rattling off stories from the 1960s. "I was there," he told her. "Dylan, Baez, Joan Didion, you name it," he said. Janice wondered, Who was this bum suddenly making it so difficult to follow the movie? Rasping away, Rodney described Woodstock, and when Janice whispered that his account sounded suspiciously like the famed Michael Wadleigh documentary, he looked back with the pity of a disappointed parent.

"This one's not too smart, is she?" he asked.

"Why are you speaking about me in the third person?" she shot back.

The following week he appeared at a brunch put on by Janice's friend Carmine. No one else noticed he was there. He kept by Janice's side the whole morning, telling her first that the idea for Highway 61 Revisited was really his, that past the first verse Dylan was simply transcribing. He kept bragging in this way, telling her that Grace Slick was insecure, Paul Simon difficult, T.S. Eliot overrated, as if he knew them or something.

His interruptions left Janice unable to concentrate on the stories her friends told over bagels and orange juice. By the time they left she was furious, convinced she'd wasted the morning and insulted several friends who had noticed her far-away looks.

"Who are you, why are you bothering me, and how come no one else can see you?" she demanded.

It took until their third meeting for Janice to realize who Rodney was. They were watching 70's television shows on local cable. He had just appeared again, out of nowhere. In the flickering blue light, that evening's spent pizza box splayed out before them, Rodney said, in his typically proud way, "the idea that Jim Rockford lives in a mobile home on the beach? Mine. Captures all the romance of transience, the beauty of the ocean, the suggestion of his life as a permanent vacation."

Immediately Janice saw it, and wondered how she could have been so blind. Then she reflected on their meetings so far, and the inspiration they'd failed to provide.

"How come you haven't come up with anything I can use?" she asked. "I thought that was your job: to come up with great ideas."

"Well, maybe you thought wrong," Rodney said.

"And why don't you look more angelic," she pressed, "like those putti in Raphael paintings?"

It was the kind of question her ex-husband hated, but she couldn't resist. And she could tell by the hurt on Rodney's face it hit home. His ideas hadn't been very good. His most ambitious, which he'd laid out the Saturday before, had been a novel that Janice recognized right off as a flimsy reworking of "Wings of Desire."

"God that movie was so in love with itself," Janice had said, not letting on how much she'd loved watching Peter Falk. "All those guy-wire angels and ponderous scenes. Real kitsch, you know."

Rodney had only talked through her, mechanically, like some sort of animated robot.

"I'm telling you," he had said, "no one ever gets tired of reading about angels."

Three weeks after their argument over pizza, Janice and Rodney stood at a small waterfall, in Olympic National Park, watching the mesmerizing cascade of falling water splash the rocks below.

Suddenly, Janice saw a grief-stricken man slowly killing himself by tumbling over Niagara Falls in a barrel, as a tourist attraction. The topic seemed equally plausible and mysterious, and something that might be taken for a story about death -- in other words just the sort of thing people were always writing stories about.

When she explained the idea to Rodney, he only took the credit.

"Typical," Janice thought.

"At least you're finally listening to me," Rodney said casually. Janice only glared.

"What?" he asked, windmilling his arms.

"You're impossible," Janice shouted, surprising herself with her anger. "You only thought that angel idea was good because you're confused and think you are one. You're just a wandering, delusional, unemployed janitor, you know. One who should probably be out looking for work."

Rodney shouted back. "You artists are all alike. This assignment is the worst. Next time I'm asking for a recent art school graduate, not some middle-aged wannabe."

That really hurt. Not even her ex-husband could argue that well. "Fine," Janice thought. Letting him have the credit was less painful than arguing.

When, weeks later still, she'd finally finished the story, not believing in the end it had actually been her idea -- thinking then it had been a gift from some unspoken place -- she knew that it was the best thing she had written. Her friends laughed over it, and repeated the best lines out loud.

- - -

Two Sundays later Rodney rang Janice's doorbell early, before sunrise. She opened the door but he didn't come in, so she just left him there. She padded back to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. It was a sleepless night and she was tired. Her study was dark, her desk buried in open books and scattered manuscript pages.

When the coffee finished gurgling she joined him on the porch, where they sat clutching their steaming cups. A jogger trotted by, making Janice smile at the vicarious pleasure of watching someone else jog at the crack of dawn.

"It's going to be a beautiful day," Rodney pronounced, his gravelly voice sounding worse than usual. "You got any cigarettes?"

He took one from the pack she offered, slipped it in his mouth and just started puffing. He never needed to light his cigarettes. It was a trick she'd been meaning to ask him about.

Then the sun rose, banishing the last vestiges of darkness from the nooks and small corners of the block. Janice wondered if there was any reason Rodney had dropped by. She offered him the Sunday Times but he waved it away. "Don't let me see that," he said, "it'll only give me ideas."

Janice put the paper down. She watched the starlings flock from tree to tree, and the robins survey the small patch of grass she called her front yard. Rodney sat his empty coffee cup down and unfolded his legs over the steps to the porch.

Then Janice saw something amazing. A woman was dragging her child down the sidewalk, on the way to the zoo in the nearby park. The red balloon tied to the child's wrist bounced along in the sky behind them. It didn't make sense to Janice that the child had the balloon before they'd even reached the zoo. The mother had her head down and marched forward despite the boy's attempts to hold her back. It was as if he didn't even want to see the animals.

But -- and here was the amazing part -- the bobbing balloon literally lifted the child off the ground. The mother didn't realize it, but she was spending half her energy keeping the boy earthbound.

"If she lets go," Janice thought, "he'll float right up into the sky, where he could play with the clouds and see the city from the perspective of a jet pilot."

Janice wondered if there would be anything in the boy's adventure in the sky. She had written so much that was just a rush of pretty words. But when she looked over at Rodney he was already grinning.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked.

She wanted to resist, to say it was a beautiful day, that no one should rightfully spend it indoors.

But then he whispered to her, and his words put a light in her eyes, the way he'd just done with his cigarette. And then an opening line spoke to her, as if out of silence, and then the next, and the next, until she wanted to write them all down, if only not to lose them to time and the rush of everything mundane in the world.

Rodney opened the door with an extended arm, the best form of invitation.

"That trick with the cigarette," she said, stepping inside, "I wanna know how you do that."

About the author:

Sean Carman lives in Seattle. He is an environmental lawyer, and the staff photographer for MonkeyBicycle.