“From the Master’s Table” – Fiction by Christine Ma-Kellams

The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ - Jean Germain Drouais, 1784
The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ – Jean Germain Drouais, 1784

“From the Master’s Table” is Christine Ma-Kellams‘ sardonic yet plaintive story of mental illness & loss from our Summer 2016 issue. (To hear Christine read the story, and discuss it with fellow FLAPPERHOUSE contributor Ilana Masad, check out episode 89 of The Other Stories podcast~)

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MR. P WAS NEVER ONE TO VOUCH FOR HEAVEN but considered God a useful trope for making conversations with people he wanted to keep at bay. He has always been attracted to the idea of being alone, and that’s why being a history teacher seemed like a good idea.

History always seemed to him like a useful way of rewarding and punishing the good and the bad (and sometimes the bad and the good). For this reason he could never take heaven seriously, because waiting until someone was dead to dole out the true consequences of their actions appeared counterproductive at best. He preferred to pay people back while they could still bleed.

He is one of the few functional schizophrenics that I know. I say functional because he is not homeless and owns a Craftsman-style grey house on the West side of San Pedro, in a neighborhood made up of right angles, seven minutes from the ports where he unloaded boats carrying precious Chinese cargo or the occasional carcass, and where celebrity-themed cruise ships now forage for travelers afraid to fly.

When he was in his first year of teaching at West High, several seasons before he was shamed into renouncing vagabondage for a more stable routine of the conjugal kind, Mr. P would spend entire nights at the Coffee Cartel, rambling on the backs of 5-page papers on the necessary prerequisites of civil society, the threat of a perpetual police state thinly veiled by democracy and terrorism, the disappearance of childhood, NPR, the Big Sort into like-minded communities, credit cards, the problem of consciousness, and beauty—usually of the agonizing, thoughtful, forbidden kind. He loved talking to strangers and his students were no exception, though he did not like hugging, which some of them found out the awkward way.

The madness peeked out rarely in those days: an offhand, ostensibly preternatural comment about the NSA, an insistence on sitting in the chair facing the exit at El Burrito Jr.

These days the episodes come on like waterboarding, a deluge of invisible visitors dressed in vapor, narrating every interpretational version of an ever-slippery reality. Mr. P obliges his ghosts, force-feeds them his insides as he tries to disentangle facts from evidence.

He emails me when entertaining these guests so as to keep himself company, I suspect. Whenever I hear the tap calling out from my phone at a risqué hour, I know it is from him, shooting his flare gun in search of a foothold on which to balance the remainder of himself.

He doesn’t forget things, not like the rest of us. Amnesia of the ordinary kind is a gift, he tells me over milk tea and yerba mate. Mr. P, he remembers everything, much to his detriment—what he ate for breakfast (nothing), when he last rubbed one out (10:27 pm, right before he started grading, so as to be unburdened), the color of his wife’s teeth (opaque, like milk glass from a thrift store), the knock of forehead against unfinished kitchen cabinets, as furious as snow crash-landing on asphalt. During an episode these memories will congregate and hold hands, forming an irrevocable guard against the present, relegating existence to a space known to some only as purgatory, denying him a gift the rest of us take for certain.

I still call him Mr. P. To say “Mark” or “Mr. Pesusich” or “pumpkin” would be inappropriate, given what we are. He, too, calls me “Ms. Ma,” even though that is no longer my name. Sometimes, more frequently now, he refers to me as “Professor.” Aloneness is a balancing act; every time we approach, a space forms between us.

It was his brother’s idea that he become a teacher. His brother works in forensics for the LAPD and is likely a sociopath of some sort; madness runs in families, after all, like money, or freckles. He never shows up on Reading Wednesdays when Mr. P and his friends and followers sit around to entertain the incomprehensible things we read in books. At these reunions I’d invariably end up talking to another academic of some sort, maybe an adjunct bouncing between nowheres, or worse, a gesticulating grad student who still believed that you could still teach people things they didn’t already know. Social arrangements like these make me very misanthropic. Sometimes I think I am one socially awkward conversation away from choosing the psychopathic lifestyle. It’d be a rational choice on my end too, helping the demographers with all the ills brought on by a ballooning population that thought it acceptable to confuse children with pets or pets with children. Mr. P asked me once, in the first months of our relationship, whether I considered myself capable of murder, and I thought the question strange, like a fish commenting on the state of water. And now it appears just as strange to perpetuate life, all things considered.

I used to read. In high school I ate everything my English teachers rationed and only threw up once—Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the one. I had little patience for beautiful protagonists, or at least beautiful protagonists whose book cover illustrator could only manage to depict as borderline fuckable; some incongruencies bothered me more than others. In college I picked Spanish Lit because Rulfo, Borges, and Bécquer tasted better than sex, and lasted longer than boyfriends. By graduate school I found out that reading, while harmless, led to nowhere, and needed to be replaced by more durable, promising alternatives, like experimentation and randomized controlled trials. Some farces are easier to maintain than others—something I discovered when applying for a sales job at the Fiat dealership, when I cited my intellectual agility as the primary reason I lacked any and all useful skills. This was before I stumbled upon my teaching job and vowed to expend the next seven years fixing the inequality of intelligence that nature and No Child Left Behind handed to universities everywhere, Harvard included.

For this reason (among others), Mr. P likes me. He doesn’t live at the Coffee Cartel anymore; he has a domestic partner he commonly refers to as Wifey, a former architect he met in Stockholm when he was counting cobblestones and she was drawing on the sidewalk. Not for money, he always reminds me, because even Mr. P has boundaries, and “no dating opportunists or homeless people” is one of them. Mr. P and Wifey dated internationally for five years and then lived together for two before going all in; it was just enough time for me to make it through grad school and establish my own island, lest I remain forever stranded on his. He said he wanted to be sure when I asked him why it took him so long; I married my current husband after four months. If it takes that long to be sure then there’s probably something wrong, I said. Of course, he replied, but it’s always nice to know that you’ve been somewhere and have made it back safe. Isn’t that what marriage is all about?

Wifey bore him three children and a mortgage; a pair of twins and a little boy, fat and happy in an oblivious kind of way. My own son is skinny and knowing. He is gorgeous everywhere—even strangers will inform me of this, and men on buses—but he is also difficult, and my husband will tell me he wishes our son were uglier because that would make him an easier child. I tell him God is not so precise in his sense of parity. On some things we will always disagree.

Once Mr. P saved a boy from trying to jump off the third floor of Building Three. He was a student at West High but not one of his own. Still, Mr. P recognized the empty, coin-less pools behind the boy’s eyes and thought he would toss in something small and valuable, like a hand. It latched onto the boy’s stretched collar and stayed there, until both were wet and lachrymose, albeit for different reasons. A semester after he had to do it again, to the same boy, no less. Years later I met the boy at a Campus Crusade gathering at Berkeley during one of those trademark cold summer nights known only in the Bay Area; we were on our way to stargaze for Jesus, or so we thought. At the time, I didn’t know that he disbelieved God; he prayed like someone in love, or who wanted to be. We came to know him as Paul but only after he succeeded in doing what Mr. P never allowed him to do did we find out his real name was Stars’ Pyre, a reference to a body as indistinguishable and immortal as his own.

Because of his ghosts, or perhaps in spite of them, Mr. P refuses to take photos. In high school I would be sitting next to him in my wrap-around laminate desk when the yearbook photographer—invariably an Asian—would knock on his door, breathless from climbing three stairwells in a building whose only elevators were the promissory ones. Can I get your photo for the yearbook? they’d ask, meek and appeasing or casual and perky, depending on their gender or temperament, but the returning ones already knew the answer. I don’t believe in photographs, Mr. P would say, refusing to look up.

There is one photo of himself that exists. It’s taped on the half-wall mounted in front of his desk, a smear of blue sky over concrete and a solitary, blurred figure captured mid-jump from behind, burnt citrus red basketball melting in one hand. At least, I assume that picture is of him, though from the looks of it, it could be anyone really, even me.

Why don’t you like taking pictures? I’d ask him this every year; it was our ritual, or maybe I just never believe people the first time. I just don’t, he would say, not understanding that the rest of the world suffered from a daily amnesia we cherished more than bread, for which the only antidote was taking photos of everything. Some schemes fail more than 95 percent of the time and yet still offer an irresistible marginal return; I should know. In hypothesis testing and relationships, the truth is unattainable but the odds are ever so occasionally in your favor.

One Christmas Mr. P gave me a hat. A powder blue beanie the shape of an igloo. He buys it at the military surplus store on the corner where San Pedro meets Long Beach. The store manager is not a veteran or even a soldier but a small Indian man who knows him by name and calls him what I dare not, Mark. It is the only word this man can pronounce without an accent, although he has been living in the South Bay for 28 years. I want to move him with my future self, force him to buy something more shallow and fitting, something that will make me stay. Otherwise I will forget the hat and look for other islands.

I live in Claremont now, where there is no traffic and it is very still outside, so still that the trees talk just to break up the silence. I am counting the years since I left him, twisting my fingers in the shape of months, waiting for the proverbial digital tap that I can hear from my bones, which forget nothing and collect rings like oak. He is not gone but mad, and as ungovernable as the sea on the Northern tip of Oahu, in the spot where rocks pay homage to the gods.

When a person disappears, they leave behind a trail of crumbs meant to curb the hunger of those they left behind, but more often than not it simply whets their appetite.

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headshotCHRISTINE MA-KELLAMS is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of La Verne. Her recent work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Straylight Magazine.


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