Tabernacle of Flesh: Fiction

By Eric Freeze

freeze-tux-largeTonight, the Brigham Young University men’s chorus would sing in the Mormon Tabernacle. When Darcy was growing up, he watched general conference—listening as the prophet spoke via satellite to everyone in the world. Between speakers, the Tabernacle Choir performed arrangements of the hymns: “For the Beauty of the Earth,” “How Great Thou Art,” “More Holiness Give Me.” The camera panned across the uniformed vocalists: the women in pink chiffon, the men in dark gray suits with matching ties. Sometimes the camera paused on a soprano as she was spiritually overcome, tears pooling in the corners of her eyes. It was, for Darcy, the pinnacle of religious veneration. That place, those songs.

Their bus was a Greyhound with individual seats and cup holders in the armrests. The whole BYU Men’s Chorus lined up single file, organized even when director Halpern wasn’t there. The men were used to regiment and anonymity. Over half of them had once been missionaries in all corners of the world. Now they substituted brass-buttoned blazers and thick blue-and-red striped ties for their charcoal suits and nametags. They wore gray wool slacks, black shoes, black socks. You showed up in khaki or brown and Halpern sent you home.

Darcy didn’t mind the uniform, felt it loosened people up, enforced something near equality. When he first came home from his mission, a two-year Guatemalan disappointment, he noticed that brands and insignia suddenly mattered in a way they hadn’t before. Like when he ran into his friend Malik at the quad on BYU campus. Malik was a business major; he wore designer jeans and carried a new smart phone. His parents wouldn’t get him the car he wanted, a boxy Nissan Cube. “They only buy American,” he said. Proof of how backward they were. Darcy himself was Goodwill-frugal. He carried his books in a green Jansport from the nineties that he’d picked up for three bucks second-hand at Deseret Industries. Most of his clothes he got free from a donation bin outside Campus View Apartments. After working the night janitorial shift once, he sifted through the bin at 4 a.m. A car honked at him as he wriggled into a pink polo, the same shirt he was wearing when he bumped into Malik. There was a dime-sized bleach stain on the hem, and for a moment Darcy wondered if the reason that Malik was being so cool with him, so absorbed in his own material well-being, was because Malik recognized the shirt as one of his cast-offs.

His Men’s Chorus uniform, Darcy realized, was the most expensive thing he owned.

On the bus, Darcy settled into a seat near the back with the other basses. Darcy was small for a bass, a wiry guy with an Adam’s apple that stuck out like a great stone had lodged in his throat. He always wore his hair in a near buzz with just a touch of gel to spike it up—but not because he cared about style. In the apartment he shared with five other guys, in front of the mirror, he could cut it himself—a ritual he undertook every couple of weeks. He locked the bathroom door, stripped naked, and buzzed all the excess hair away. Recently, he finished up his hair and then trimmed the edges using a hand mirror to see the back. He paused; done. Or was he?

He’d never been the hirsute kind, just a few wiry hairs sprouting on his chest. He started slowly: a little buzz around his nipples, the small cross-hatches of hair above his navel. Then he looked down. What the heck. He took the guard off and plunged into the dark thatch of pubic hair, shaving it all down to stubble. As he worked, his penis emerged like a rumpled worm; his testicles appeared like poached eggs. Later, in the shower, he cradled himself and felt that too-familiar pull. Every part of his body, slick and alert, yearned for release. When he opened his eyes, semen coagulated in the drain amid shaving-sized filaments of hair.

Now the hair was growing back and his testes were bothering him, itching like his buzzed bits had just been bitten by a horde of mosquitoes. He reached into his Jansport and got out the anthology for his peninsular Spanish lit class and then kicked his bag under the seat. The anthology was the perfect cover, enough to give him room to get his hand down there to scratch away some of the pain.

For a while, Darcy thought he’d have the row to himself. There were two buses going up and this one was a little over half full at best. He tried to look studious, hoping it would be intimidating to sit next to someone so engrossed in his work. But two minutes before the bus rumbled to life, Jordan sidled in next to him—took the seat like he was entitled to it, which, Darcy supposed, he was. Now he had a whole hour with this gangly giant sitting next to him. Jordan was one of the basses who always stood in back during practice on account of his height. They were jokesters, every one, who possessed the kind of easy male camaraderie that had always been difficult for Darcy. Darcy was shorter and was in the line of basses right before the tenors. Hopefully Jordan didn’t want to talk. The only thing Darcy knew about Jordan was that he made fun of people’s bald spots and once Halpern had almost dismissed him for tardiness, which made up fifty percent of their participation grade. And he was the only one in the choir who could hit a low b-flat without going into contortions.

The bus turned onto the highway and soon the steady hum of the engine and the noisy concrete of 1-15 shut down most of the chatter. Darcy popped up his head and looked around. Headphones trailed from ears, people punched buttons on phones, gaming, throwing digital birds against walls. Darcy slid the anthology off his knees and zipped it into his Jansport. His schedule had been psychotic lately. Because of his night janitorial shift, he had put all his classes in the afternoons and evenings so he could crash in the morning. But then he found out about an honors class called Intensive Writing. It satisfied his freshman composition requirement and was, in the words of his roommate, “waaaay easier,” since the class was small and populated by grade-inflated honors kids. He signed up for the 9 a.m. class, effectively cutting his sleep hours in half. Now, in the evening, he should be conked out like half the people on the bus, but he couldn’t manage to get comfortable. The seats were board-rigid and covered by this Velcro-like cloth that reminded him of the three-day stubble on his itchy crotch. If he’d had an open seat beside him, maybe he could sling one of his legs over and push his back in the corner. But with Jordan there, all he could do was slump or sit erect and try to keep his head still. Maybe if he had one of those u-shaped headrests? The kind old people used on planes? The guys would poke fun but he’d sacrifice his pride if he could just get his hands on one of those things. There was no reason, absolutely none, that he shouldn’t be blissfully unconscious. He read a book not long ago for Intensive Writing about a man living among Bedouin nomads. The Bedouin used camels to describe sound sleepers: not “slept like a log,” but “slept like a camel.” Camels, with their legs tucked under their bodies and their necks stretched forward in the sand, kneeled like creatures rapt in silent prayer. He imagined the weight of their humps and their camel sighs as they settled in the desert sand. Darcy squared his arm and rested his head in his right hand. There had to be some way to do this.

Jordan didn’t seem to be having any trouble. He stretched his legs into the aisle and his neck was just high enough that the back of the seat could act as a kind of head rest. His mouth opened like he was forming the notes of a song. It was a small mouth, ringed with saliva, leaving a shimmering oval like the trail of a slug. Darcy imagined Jordan dreaming of his performance this evening, his open mouth moving with the words they’d memorized, shifting in pitch with the other basses. His dreams would be hopeful; the performance a success. Darcy’s own dreams were always plagued with subtexts of inadequacy: alone, belting out the wrong note after Halpern had already cut everyone off; sleepwalking naked and waking up in class wearing only pair of crocheted slippers; turning over a final paper with an F and angry handwriting with plenty of exclamation points in red ink. Jordan’s dreams would be less quotidian, more exotic and adventuresome, the dreams of someone confident that he would one day claim the world.

Darcy was almost asleep now. He could sense it not far off, a hazy anticipation of his impending loss of awareness. The muscles in his upper back relaxed and suddenly, sitting sultan-like didn’t seem that onerous after all. Who says you can’t sleep sitting up? He regulated his breathing, deep and steady, until he wasn’t thinking about it anymore, just inhaling and exhaling like a child after a full day of play. He was dreaming a Jordan dream now, a scuba adventure with a many-tentacled squid and sharks that he kicked at with his finned feet. Once at an aquarium, a marine biologist rotated a meter-wide sunflower starfish like it was a great steering wheel and he was the captain of a ship. The spinning motion was somehow calming; it was an image Darcy had thought about frequently, the motions so similar to every pirate movie with a boat in distress. Just whip that wheel around and you’ve conveyed urgency, like the rotating dials in the cockpit of a plane as it diverges from its flight pattern and falls out of the sky.

But he wasn’t gone yet. There was something else, a soft pressure, not entirely unwelcome, along the seam of his slacks that pulled at his consciousness and brought him back from the brink. He slitted his eyes just a little (no use abandoning all the good work he’d done) and looked. A hand. It was Jordan’s, he knew, but by itself there on his thigh it was like a vestigial limb that had been cut off and was now creeping along like a drugged Thing from The Addam’s Family. The hand looked comfortable, the fingers slightly parted like a typist’s waiting for someone to begin dictation. They were relaxed, the elastic fingers of a dancer. The hand had to be a mistake, a slumberer’s misplaced intention. Jordan was long-limbed, not the kind of guy used to cramped seats on a bus. He was simply reaching for the chair rest that should have been there and just overshot. Without meaning to, he’d landed this appendage on Darcy’s chair-rest-thin thigh. Darcy wanted to move it, should move it, to save both of them from embarrassment later on. Maybe he could even slide over, shimmy out from underneath the hand so it flopped to the chair with only minimal disruption. It might be a jolt to Jordan but it was worth the risk. But there was more weight to the hand than Jordan had expected. The pressure just below his hip bone—was it perhaps purposefully pushing down on his thigh?

No sense attempting to sleep now. Darcy bent over delicately, turning his torso so he didn’t disrupt the hand. Maybe he could read, open the anthology on his right leg. Embarrassment or not, the energy from the hand was like electricity; leave it there and he could stay awake all night, get everything prepped for next week’s classes. And he was behind now, way behind, hadn’t even broken his books for the past several days. Jordan was very much unconscious: eyes moving randomly in what looked like REM sleep, mouth still an open wet oval. Darcy imagined him as a rumpled Beetle Bailey, the kind of guy who could sleep anywhere. He didn’t want to wake him. Jordan’s hand was simply an indication that sleep sometimes took hold and broke down social barriers. If he woke up now, they’d be like Steve Martin and John Candy in that movie. “Those aren’t pillows!” They’d both have to get up, do a junior-high gross-out dance. If he just waited, Darcy was sure the sleeping hand would migrate back to his seat mate’s lap.

The anthology was open now on his other leg, something about Dali and the Spanish Civil War. The words blurred on the page. The hand seemed to be moving up his thigh, sliding ever-so-slightly with the vibration of the bus. Darcy flipped the page, then flipped back. The parts didn’t connect—had he really read the previous page? There was an event he had missed, it seemed, but the surrealists never paid much attention to plot. The jumble of words was all that was interesting. Make sense and you’re undermining the movement’s cause. Too bourgeois; so old-school. He could see Dali’s look of contempt now. What Darcy was doing, what he could only hope to do, was to try to make sense of it. If only he knew what it all meant. But no, here he was, stuck with his own nonsensical scenario: two guys on a BYU bus, heading to the tabernacle, and a hand crawling like a fleshy crab up his leg to where his crotch itched like it’d been dipped in muriatic acid. Darcy thought of A Chien Andalou and the close up of a hand swarming with ants. On his mission, one of Darcy’s companions was a redhead they nick-named “fire-crotch.” And that’s how Darcy felt now: crotch afire, his genitals screaming in flames. But to scratch risked disturbing the hand on its single-minded journey. Perhaps there was another way.

Darcy slid his anthology over so the spine of it rested just above his penis. Flopped open, half the anthology covered the hand, ending at Jordan’s knobby wrist. If it had awakened Jordan, he wasn’t showing it. His eyes still flitted beneath his closed lids. The hand was an inch or two from his penis and its pace didn’t show any signs of slackening: same consistent pressure, same searching familiarity. Darcy drew the book further up his lap so there was space between the book and his pants, a little elongated tent for the hand. He could feel his blood flowing down and the pressure pushing toward the hand as though he were reaching out to meet it. Outside, shadows stretched along the sprawl of homes and businesses as the sun lowered on the Wasatch mountains. They passed Lehi, Turkey Point, Cabela’s, the point of the mountain with the naked homes on the bench. Below, the valley was already lighting up, illuminating the polluted haze. The hand was at his crotch now and Darcy’s world shifted as if, just for a moment, he’d felt the movement of the earth, the feeling of being on a rock hurtling around the sun at thousands of miles per hour.

The bus plunged down the mountain at a speed that destabilized Darcy, made him woozy, like he was on the tail of a roller coaster. He was still unsure about the hand’s intentions, whether its movement was accidental or amorous, whether his seat mate was tired and dreaming or a lonely lover of men. He’d always liked Jordan, he realized, but he didn’t know him. Could it be a prank? An I-dare-you challenge from one of his bass cronies? It was only a week ago that he had heard the crack about low-hanging fruit. He had missed its meaning at practice, but he laughed like the rest of them. He had looked up to see Jordan covering his mouth with his arm, almost biting it for how violently the laughter erupted, how hard he tried to stifle it. Low-hanging fruit. It hadn’t occurred to him till a couple days later.

The hand touched lightly like it was checking for a pulse. Darcy tried not to breathe too heavily. The book provided enough cover that the hand could explore without restraint, no worry who was watching now, but its movements were peculiar, so delicate they were in its ministrations. It wasn’t like anything he’d felt before, at once elated and sad. His skin bunched and prickled, the tiny hairs like cilia putting a single-celled creature in motion. They hadn’t much time now; soon they would be singing hymns in the Tabernacle in the many-tiered choir seating behind the podium. Thousands of people would be watching them, millions more around the world via satellite and internet. But for now the hand caressed Darcy’s crotch, igniting the flame of his itch. He risked a deep breath, his whole body awakening in pricks like a great slumbering limb. He shimmied just a little and slid his back down the rigid seat to give the hand something more to work with, so that his penis could stretch along his abdomen. The hand was a weight now, insistent. Its fingers started their slow curl just when the bus swerved before the off ramp, hitting the rumble strip. The pitch of the bus shifted the hand’s position and then it was gone, bounced away, its exploration over. Darcy still slouched for a moment. Peninsular Spanish lit was spread-eagled, flattened on his engorged penis. Jordan was erect in his seat now, pulling at the lapels of his sport jacket and cracking his neck as if nothing had happened. Darcy pulled up beside him and slapped the book closed.

Darcy crouched at the waist to shield his tented pants. The book would have to go back into his Jansport. He zipped it open, closed. Strands of frayed fabric gave the zipper trouble, an excuse for him to stay bent over. He half expected the hand to be waiting near the headrest to explore Darcy’s hedgehog hair when he sat up straight. If they’d been on a cross-country trip, anonymous in a Greyhound, they might have talked about what had happened, laughed, or held each other and explained. But the bus was slowing now, stopping at 600 S and NW Temple. People popped earphones out of ears and sat up. A couple off tenors hummed the first lines of “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Darcy kept focused on his bag as though he were wearing blinders. Pesky zipper. He yanked it right, hard, so the teeth bunched and he made a great show of trying to get it working properly again.

Jordan’s Florsheims bounced at the heel like he was keeping tempo in a hemiola or needing to pee. And then they were stopped, this time with the full lights glaring and the concert master making some announcements, saying leave everything on the bus: coats, books, phones, everything. All the men in the blue serge blazers and striped ties exited their rows one at a time like a procession at a graduation ceremony. It felt planned, guided, as consistent and organized as Salt Lake’s gridded streets. When Jordan got up, unbending his lanky frame, Darcy risked just one look. His quaking body had settled now, no cocktail of desire pulling him apart. He wanted Jordan to say, this is what we’ve done, what I mean to you. This is who I am. He tried to read his long back, arched in a question mark from the bus’s low ceiling. All he needed was a hesitation, a break in his stride wondering which way to go.