Ritual and Romance, by Michael Moran

#comedy #dating #religion #romance #shortstory

Billy Pruitt had lived all of his twenty-eight years in the same coal mining town in southern West Virginia. He married his high school sweetheart and made a good living as a mechanic working on heavy-duty mining equipment. But one day the world changed for him when his wife began speaking in tongues and eventually left him to marry a snake handling preacher in the next county. Heartbroken and lost, Billy sought new surroundings and landed a job with a large coal company in Wilkes-Barre, PA. The transition from the soft coal of West Virginia to the hard coal of Northeastern Pennsylvania was relatively easy. Adjusting to differences on the surface proved to be more challenging.

The people of Wilkes-Barre were a mix of Irish, Italian, Polish, and other Eastern European nationalities all holding strongly to their heritage and customs and all very unfamiliar to Billy. His friend and co-worker at the coal company, Marty O’Malley, tried to help orient Billy to his new surroundings. Marty, a ruddy-faced Irishman whose waist measured almost twice his in-seem, thought the best way to acculturate the recently transplanted young man was to introduce him to the local cuisine. Marty taught Billy the difference between cannoli and cannelloni, told him that in that part of Pennsylvania “pigs in a blanket” referred to stuffed cabbage, and that green peppers were called mangos. On Wednesday nights, Marty took him to Fumanti’s tavern for tripe, which Billy enjoyed until he discovered that it was cow’s stomach.  Although Billy appreciated Marty’s efforts, most of the culture lesson ended up giving him indigestion and, more importantly, it wasn’t food that was troubling Billy. As with so much of the world, religion was at the center of Billy’s angst. Knowing Marty to be a Catholic, Billy raised the issue with his friend one Wednesday night over beers at Fumanti’s.

“Marty, you know I’ve been dating Sharon Grady for a couple months now.”

“Yeah.” said Marty, “She’s real cute. You guys gettin’ serious?”

“We might be, but there’s a problem. She’s Catholic and I’m not. I was raised Baptist but I ain’t much o’ anything anymore.  ‘Course that don’t matter ‘cause you people got a problem with your women marrying anybody who’s not Catholic, especially if they’ve been divorced.”

“Oh yeah!” said a sympathetic Marty. “A Catholic girl marryin’ a divorced Protestant, that makes the Pope shit in his hat. She’d be excommunicated and her family would probably disown her. …You know you could convert and try to get your first marriage annulled.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if I wanna do all that. For now Sharon thinks I oughta at least learn somethin’ about her religion, so she wants me to go to Mass with her on Sunday. I’ve never even been inside a Catholic church and I’m a little nervous about it. I heard y’all do a lot of standin’ and kneelin’ and talkin’ in Latin. I don’t wannna do somethin’ dumb and embarrass her.”

“Oh, hell,” Marty snorted. “Half the men who go to church wouldn’t know what to do if they didn’t watch everyone else. Just stand when everyone stands, kneel when they kneel’ like that. And we say mass in English now, so when the congregation talks, just move your lips and mumble a little. We ain’t like you holy rollers always yellin’ and screamin’ and praisin’ Jesus at the top o’ your lungs, we’re pretty low key.  Let’s see… what else should ya know? … Oh yeah, when everyone goes up to take communion just stay in your seat, only Catholics are allowed to take communion.”

“Won’t that let everybody know I’m not Catholic?”

“Naw, they’ll just think that you committed some mortal sin and didn’t get to confession.”

“So it’s better they think I’m a sinner than a Baptist?”

“Sure, sins can be forgiven, but being a protestant… that kind of sticks with ya.  Oh, one more thing, before you get into your seat, you need to genuflect”

“What’s that mean?”

“You go down on one knee, always your right knee like this.” Marty clambered down from his bar stool to demonstrate, startling the bartender who thought that his rotund customer was having a stroke.  “Sharon’ll be real impressed if you know enough to genuflect.”

“OK, Marty. I’ll give it a shot.”

The following Monday during coffee break, Marty found Billy and asked, “Well, how’d it go Sunday?”

“Not so good”, replied a glum Billy. “Sharon was pretty nervous about showing up at church with a strange man, so she was lookin’ around to see if people were starin’ at us. I saw a couple of open seats and did that one-knee thing you told me about. Well she didn’t see me go down and she went flying ass-over-tin cups right over my back, looked like one o’ those Chinese acrobats on Ed Sullivan.”

“Ow! Did she get hurt?”

“Nah, just her dignity. But that’s not the worst of it. I really embarrassed her when I took off my top coat.”

“Oh no, I forgot to tell you that Catholics around here never take off their overcoats in church. That’s a Protestant thing.”

“Thanks for telling me that now. I couldn’t o’ felt more outa place if I was wearin’ a Masonic Lodge bowling shirt.  You Catholics have some odd ways about ya.”

“Well like my mother used to say, if you don’t like Catholics you can go to hell because there aren’t any there.”

“Funny, that’s where my mother always said you people were headed.”

As the weeks went by, meatless Fridays, sexual abstinence, and having to wear his overcoat in church wore Billy down. His relationship with Sharon ended and he began to look toward other women.  After a few weeks he once again turned to Marty for advice.

“I’ve been talking to Shelly in the front office. She seems like a nice woman. I think she’s Amish because she has a picture of her family on her desk and one old man has a big black hat a long beard like the guy on the “Dutch Country” pretzel box.”

“Her name is Shelly Goldberg,” said Marty, “So I think she’s Jewish.”

“Geez, I didn’t know there were Amish Jews.”

“They’re not Amish Billy…Oh never mind.”

“If there is one thing we got less of in West Virginia than Catholics it’s Jews. But she seems to be interested in at least being friends. Her sister just had a baby and she invited me to a family shindig on Sunday. I guess it’s like a Jewish baptism or somethin’, she called it a bris. If nothing else it’ll be a new experience for me.”

“Oh, I think that’s exactly what it’ll be,” chuckled Marty.

The following Monday, Billy didn’t even wait for the coffee break. He burst into Marty’s office looking like he had just returned from a space alien abduction.

“Do you know what those people do at a bris? cried Billy. “They trim up a baby’s pecker right there in the living room. Then they eat bagels with some kind of fish on them.”‘

“Yeah, bagels and lox, they’re pretty tasty, huh?”

“Are you kiddin’? After the pecker trimin’ I couldn’t eat anything. Y’all are crazy up here. I don’t know if I can live in this place anymore.”

Billy’s decision to relocate was helped along by economic factors.  As the coal industry in Pennsylvania declined, the company was forced to cut back on staff and Billy was laid off. Seeing this as an opportunity for adventure, he took a job with a copper mining company in Montana. He sent a letter to Marty telling him that the food in Montana wasn’t as good as in Pennsylvania but the people seemed more normal. He also told Marty this:

“I’m dating a nice woman. She told me that she is LDS. I think that means she’s got a learning disability, but she seems plenty smart to me. I’ll let you know how that turns out. Best regards, Billy”

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Gondola by Kelly Welsh

#Colorado #gondola #nostalgia #romance #skiing #winter #young love

I was twenty-two the first time I peed standing up. My hair snuck out from under my hat and whipped me in the face; my lower torso thrust forward over the edge of the open gondola door, knees slightly bent over the nighttime landscape. Davis held my hands behind my back, trying to keep me steady. He was my one line of security between freedom and an icy plunge down the frigid forty-foot drop to the slope below us.

“Hold on!” I yelled back to him. The tormenting wind garbled my words, forcing emphasis on a few strange syllables and carrying the rest away. A large gust threw the gondola jolting back and forth on its ridged wire.

“I am holding on. Will you hurry up? You’re a small girl—I don’t know how you can hold so much piss.”

“Sorry, am I pissing you off?”

I could feel his eye-roll through the back of my skull. I tilted my head back and let out a shout of delight into the stars. Maybe my voice would reach the ears of every tiny rodent curled and sleeping in snowy dens amongst the trees. They would wake up and watch me in my glory, noses posed and poking upwards in a pious and curious homage. My golden stream soaring through the air, leaving a trail across the pure white below me, tainting the beautiful. My voice breaking up in shaking decibels into infinity, and me—standing cold and in love and off balance on a hollow metal shelter suspended somewhere in the middle of it all.

I don’t want this to end. But just as the thought materialized, my empty bladder reinforced the inevitable. That’s the same thing I always think before every perfect moment comes to its finale. That’s why humans invented cameras—and Kodak invented Kodak moments—and poets invented poetry. There are no fireworks when moments end, only exploding wishes.

The wind gusted again and Davis jerked me back into the gondola. Both of us giggled as we barely avoided falling over. I shimmied my pants back over my hips, buttoning them, but leaving the fly unzipped, just so I could appreciate the breeze a bit longer.

“You’re nuts, you know that?” he asked.

“Yeah. I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t love you so freaking much.” And I did. Even with his stupid orange hat that clashed so badly with his stupid red shoes, I loved him. So I pulled him in and I kissed him and I wished the layers of coats and flannel and skin and secrets and pride would fall off into the Grand Canyon of Stupid Things and leave our vulnerable spirits to caress one another in their nakedness.

When he pulled back from our kiss, I saw that look in his eyes again. I didn’t want to see our future reflected in there like that.

“I don’t want you to lea—”

“Shhhhhh.” I put my finger to his lips. “Don’t say it. Just not tonight, okay?”

He nodded, but I couldn’t handle looking at the pain. That kind of pain that’s too stoic to give into tears, or anger, or admit to itself that it will be okay again. Too stoic to hate me like I hated myself when I saw that pain. But he was staying. He would continue to rotate on this gondola for another year, or two, or twenty. This was his home and he was at peace with it. I wished that I could be too, but I wasn’t; I felt the incessant tugging of something more. I could picture the law school acceptance letter resting on top of my nightstand in its seductive typeface. I could almost feel its weight. The future it entailed.

He couldn’t live in Neverland forever. I hated this line of thought, and to stop it, I bit it—his ear, that is—hard, poking out beneath the silly orange hat, just to get rid of it. Just to see the pain change into something physical. I could taste a trickle of rust swell up where one of my teeth broke the skin. Oops—a few precious drops.

“Ouch.” He instinctively shoved me away. “Son-of-a!” His hand went to his ear and wiped away the evidence, pulling the red smear on his finger in front of his face. He shook his head, half laughing.

“—fucking nuts.”

I felt a little guilty but I smiled. That was how he said he loved me.

The gondola car slowed down and lowered under the shadow of the overhang. Metal hit metal and the car snuggled itself between the runners. Walls blocked out the small amount of light that had been reflecting off the snow and seeping through our windows. The doors opened slowly, without us having to force them this time.

Here, at the top of the mountain, the air felt stiffer. The roof blocked out the stars and my lips were too cold to blow steam rings with my own breath.

“So what’ll it be?” he asked. “Are we going around one more time, or are we getting off?”

One more time, I wanted to say. I wanted to say, “Let’s keep going until the sun rises and we make fun the tourists with their cowboy hats and fur coats. Let’s go until we can smell coffee wafting out of windows from miles away and guess what brands are roasting. Let’s go until they catch us and arrest us for using our gondola keys illegally. Until we don’t just get fired from our lifty jobs, but every job we might ever have because we’re too late for the interviews because we’re here. Until they stop showing re-runs of Friends on TV. Until everyone we’ve ever known forgets us, until the ground forgets us.”

But my pocket was empty. We’d already used both the condoms I’d brought, the whisky was gone, and I couldn’t pee off anything anymore. My teeth were starting to chatter. I didn’t say let’s keep going. I couldn’t because, just maybe, I needed to be a bit more grounded.

Instead of saying anything I stepped off, and he followed. Both our feet fell on solid earth. The law of gravity wrapped us in its smothering weight, reasserting its obsession with us.

“What do you want to do now?” he asked.

I paused, but only for a moment. I couldn’t let the space between us fill into his eyes again.

Instead, I tore the hat off his head and sprinted towards the ski racks.

“If you want it back, you’re going to have to catch me.”

He chased after me, purposefully giving me a head start, probably because he was six-three and I was a slow runner. In a deft swoop he grabbed a handful of snow and fashioned it into a Calvin and Hobbes-worthy projectile missile, hurling it with the practiced precision that I could never master. The snowball flew, and fell, and crashed into my back as I sprinted away. I squealed, letting the little crystals fall down the neck of my coat. I ran and I kept running. Because of the momentum. Because that was how things worked. Just like the way everything else worked. With the exploding wishes and the perfect moments with empty bladders and the moving forward–the moving on. The melting.

Kelly Welsh is an author and editor at For more of her writing, check out

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