|Jan/Feb 2015 Fiction|
I was walking down the Plymouth Road. Just the Rabbi and me. And after awhile, we arrived. We arrived in Plymouth. And there just wasn't anything there. Not even a rock or a sea gull.
"I guess we've gone about as far as we can go," I said to the Rabbi.
"I guess so," he said.
But it wasn't true. And both of us knew it.
"Is there any more of that beef jerky?" he asked.
"I think we ate the last of it an hour ago."
"It's not like I have to be anywhere in the morning," I replied.
"Me neither," he said.
We just kept walking.
On May 18th, 1926, Aimee Semple McPherson—Sister Aimee, Radio Evangelist, Faith Healer, Four Square Gospel, first woman ever in the USA to get a broadcast license, Sister Aimee, built the Angelus Temple in Echo Park, Los Angeles, yes, THAT Sister!—on May 18th, 1926, Sister Aimee entered the Pacific Ocean north of Venice Beach, California, and disappeared. She was with her Secretary. Parishioners drowned in the surf in the search.
About the same time, her married Radio Engineer, Kenneth G. Ormiston, disappeared. The two of them were subsequently seen together in apparent scenes of great amorousness, all up and down the West Coast.
On June 23rd of the same year—about a month later—Sister Aimee emerged from the desert alone in Agua Prieta, Mexico, just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. This is 1926 we're talking about here. She was wearing slippers. And they were not worn. But they sure were grass stained.
Quite the scandal.
She claimed she had been kidnapped, tortured. Claimed she was held for ransom in a shack in the desert by desperate customers, two men and a woman: "Steve" and the gun moll, "Mexicali Rose," and some unknown man. She escaped. She emerged from the desert with grass stained slippers after having walked thirteen hours.
Out of the sea and into the desert.
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past... The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned... This storm is what we call progress.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road. It was me and the Rabbi. But it wasn't really the same. We'd arrived at our destination. But we kept walking. So I didn't really know what road we were on. I kind of broached the subject with him. The Rabbi.
"Remember what you said?" I asked him. "I mean, about the end of the age?"
"You mean, 'Lo, I will be with you unto the end of the age'?"
"What about it?"
"Are you worried that the age is ending and I won't be there on the other side?" he asked.
"Well, I wouldn't exactly put it that way, but..."
There was an awkward silence.
"So let me get this straight..."
"You don't have to get your nose all bent out of joint," I said.
"No, no, let me just make sure I know what you're saying..."
"C'mon now, you're obviously pissed."
"I'm not pissed!"
"We've been together for a long time, I think I know when you're pissed," I said.
"Oh, so now you can read my mind?"
"Don't be like that..."
"Be like what? No, really, I'd like to know. Be like what?"
"C'mon now, I didn't mean anything."
"Well, if you didn't mean anything, why did you say anything?"
"I just... I mean..."
The Rabbi started to laugh.
"I really had you going there!"
"You probably think you're pretty funny, don't you?"
"Not as funny as you."
We just walked awhile in silence.
Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot's wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
—Genesis 19:24-26 NRSV
"Don't worry about it. I've got your back."
"I know but..."
"Listen, the only thing that's ever going to get in the way of you and me is your fear."
"But I'm so frightened..."
"Don't freak out. You still think I'm funny, right?"
"Well, you do crack me up..."
"Then you're good. The only thing that kills fear is laughter."
"I thought it was love."
"Rabbi...where are we going?"
"That's the question, isn't it?"
"You're not as funny as you think."
"Yes, I am," he said.
After a very brief but dark time in New Jersey, I found myself back in the Michigan of my youth. Not Ann Arbor, but Lansing. Such is the nature of actual places—places where people live—the distinction matters. University of Michigan versus Michigan State. Stuck up assholes versus the rest of us.
By all objective measures I had landed on my feet. A high steeple church with a heart. In Lansing.
Sometimes though, in the middle of the night, I would wake up in a panic. I could feel my memories eroding. I could feel the Michigan of my dreams—the Michigan of my childhood—so much milkweed—being replaced by new images and new memories and I was bereft—oddly, but firmly, bereft.
I was walking down the Plymouth road. It was me and the Rabbi. And we'd come to the part of our journey where we had arrived but still needed to keep going. I imagined in my mind's eye an oval, an undulating and lovely oval. I imagined that we had arrived within the oval. Breached the perimeter. Outrun the demons. We had arrived in the neutral place. Zero. Without sight. We walked and made progress, but never left the oval. We kept going, but never left where we always already were. Ground zero.
The landscape of the soul is not that of the ego. We live dual lives. The ego goes its own way. The way of the soul is another.
"OK," I said, "I think I get it."
"Well", the Rabbi said, "If you think you get it, then you pretty much missed the point."
We walked awhile in silence. But I could see that the Rabbi was pleased.
"I love you, Rabbi," I said.
"I love you too, Pilgrim," he said.
The oval. The Zero. It was dancing. The mountains clapped their hands and the sea—in this case, Lake Michigan—sang.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi and I could not trust the neutral place. Did not know Zero. I could not lay my burden down. I could not surrender. Study war no more.
I was freaking out. I was having a moment. I was being a drama king. The Rabbi just stood there. I vomited all over his sandals:
I remember hitch-hiking from Ohio to South Dakota with the girl with Campbell Soup calves. Made it all the way to Deadwood. It was in the Spring and the Great Plains announced itself as the great scroll was unrolled across the horizon. The grass was tall and red as the wind blew until it felt like you were watching the motion of waves—some ghost of the great ocean that once covered this land—grass waving like sea weed. I had seen the movement of reeds in shallow midwestern lakes. I recognized the rhythm.
I remember soaking dried cat-tails in gasoline and marching with torches on eighth-grade nights. I remember the creative need to destroy. I marched around the walls of Jericho in Illinois. In Michigan.
I remember stepping out of a subway into a pool of blood on the streets of New York. I remember the dead man on the street. And the sudden flurry of cops. I remember the bloody footprints on 110th Street and how they were mine—as I went my way.
I remember the way the wide-open-ness of the Illinois prairie struck me as holy and lonely as a child and now strikes me as a provocation. I remember dragging dying mama-rabbits home and tending the babes in the nest after she died. I remember smashing the head of a rabbit after I had hit it with the car and its back was broken and it was screaming and the amount of force I used with the stone to just stop it forever. Stop the screaming.
I remember the great loneliness and the way that trees could stop the eye and the imagination.
I remember snot-freezing-cold winter mornings when your hair freezes while you are waiting for the bus. I remember waiting for my Dad to pick me up after Wrestling Practice in Plymouth, Michigan and the sun has gone down and looking up at the stars and the sudden vertigo as I am night-sky-swallowed and suddenly know my God. My Rock. The Fear of Isaac.
I remember the sound of bug-zappers and lust—desire executed in the night—down by the new ball park with white concrete and wire link fences. I remember how desire was given the chair and just came back, like it was indestructible, like there was Resurrection calling out around the world in America.
And the softness of a young girl's lips and the blossom of Cezanne and Geometry.
I remember the delight of innocence. The license of innocence. I remember the overwhelming cleanliness. The preening and the exaltation.
I remember the great humor and the gales of laughter and the great hunger. I remember the sadness of gum wrappers—in bicycle wheel tracks—in spring-time mud—full of rain water.
I remember the sound of God walking in the garden and how even the terror was delightful. I remember singing hymns that made the world turn and graves being opened on a dreary Sunday morning.
I remember all that was lost and the knowledge that there were things lost I couldn't even begin to imagine.
I remember. I remember. I remember.
Angel of History. Spinning like a weather vane. Janie's got a gun. Just got to purge. Again and again. Out of the sea and into the desert.
Got to vomit on the Rabbi's sandals. Adam's apple all a-tremble. All this life. Stuck in my craw. Stuck in my heart.
I was walking in place with the Rabbi down the Plymouth Road and we came upon the Cities on the Plain. They were frozen in catastrophe as if History, itself, had paused in the very moment of disaster. There were two cities, but their names were unclear and inadequately translated. The first was the City of the Distracted and the second was the City of the Agitated.
In the first, the City of the Distracted, there were no living creatures at all, just structures on the lip of collapse. Architecture. Nothing but doomed buildings, virtual Towers of Babel—a fraction of an instant before they were destroyed.
In the second, the City of the Agitated, there was nothing but creatures in panic. History, itself, had stopped, but the inhabitants remained in motion, running hither and yon, back and forth, across busy thoroughfares; the city, itself, had become the Condition Of Terror.
In the first City on the Plain, the City of the Distracted, the Rabbi and I played soccer in the empty and hollow streets. (He won, three goals to two.) In the second City on the Plain, the City of the Agitated, the Rabbi and I met up with the Underground Resistance and helped to reinforce the Barricades. We installed Sleeper Cells, a Holy Remnant, to secure the future after the catastrophe. Each member of each cell worked independently; none of the Freedom Fighters knew one another—it was deemed too dangerous. Thirty-Six Zadikim.
We were walking, but we were walking in place. Always having arrived, but never finished with the journey. Always aware of the potential for the smell of bombs.
"I'm not quite sure I understand what's going on here," I said to the Rabbi.
"You've got to spread your bets around, Pilgrim. Can't put all your eggs in one basket."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"History is only a chapter in the Book of Life, and that book has always been written, but it is never finished. Got it?"
"Never mind, it doesn't really require your understanding."
The catastrophe hit. The Cities on the Plain were destroyed.
The Rabbi and I walked away with a soccer ball and the addresses of three safe houses. We just kept walking, dancing on graves and planting vineyards.
"History does not forgive," the Rabbi said. "But the vanquished will always return. And you've got to be ready, Pilgrim."
"I'm not kidding," he added for emphasis.
In 1919 the people of Centralia, Washington should have been happy. The war to end all wars was over. The boys were home. But the people of Centralia in 1919 were full of dread and revulsion.
Maybe it was what the boys had seen. What the boys had done. Over there.
They had not saved civilization. Not made the world safe for democracy. They had been trapped in trenches in a slaughterhouse. And they had done things that they had no Christian words for. And they were not all right, those boys. They were full of rage. Full of the need to erase. To release. Forget. And they were looking for someone to pay. Somebody had to pay. For this horror. This unholy thing. That they had become. Pay for being beyond the circle of belonging.
I suppose it's not really surprising that when the Legionnaires marched on the first anniversary of Armistice Day in Centralia, Washington, in 1919, they decided to raid the offices of the IWW—or the "I Won't Work" crowd as the boys called it. It wasn't surprising. The Wobblies had refused the role they'd been given. Found it too constraining. They were looking for something more. They were vagrants.
What was surprising was that the Wobblies were waiting when the Legionnaires came to smash their windows, break up their furniture, tar and feather any IWW man they could find. This time the Wobblies were waiting, and they had guns.
That surely did surprise the Legionnaires and the people of Centralia. People who were looking forward to dealing with their problems.
When the Legionnaires broke down the door to the offices of the IWW, Wesley Everest came out shooting. Shots were coming from everywhere, but Wesley came out through the smashed-in door. Gun in each hand like some Hollywood gangster from the 30's. Gats ablazing. You'll never get me alive, copper!
But they did get him alive. Cornered him at the river. He turned to face the mob before it got to him. And then he fired right into it. Fired into the mob. Killed one of the pack. And then they descended on Wesley Everest and beat the shit out of him.
They beat him because he'd killed one of the pack. Because they were full of dread and revulsion. Because it was Armistice Day. Like he thought he was better than them.
When they were done beating him, they took him to the jailhouse. They'd already rounded up all the rest of the Wobblies they could catch. Took him to the jailhouse and threw him on the floor in a cell crowded with other beaten Wobblies, where he lay groaning, unable to move.
Outside the jailhouse the crowds were gathering. The surprise was beginning to wear off and was turning to something else. Outside the jailhouse there were mothers and fathers, children and old men, veterans and clergymen. People of Centralia. Just folks.
The crowds gathered, and then they attacked. Just folks. Broke down the door. Smashed into the cell. Grabbed Wesley Everest. They weren't finished with him. They grabbed his limp, still-breathing, beaten body and put a rope around his neck.
When they got to the bridge, they tied one end of the rope to the railing and threw Wesley off. He jerked around a little, and they realized the rope wasn't long enough to break his neck, so they hauled him up again.
Someone went to get a longer rope. They tied one end to the railing and the other to the noose around Wesley's neck. Then they threw him over again.
But they weren't finished. When the people of Centralia were done throwing Wesley Everest off the bridge and watching him swing around on the end of the line, they all climbed down and went to the riverbank and emptied their guns into his body. They fired until there were no more bullets.
When the people of Centralia were done shooting at Wesley's body from the riverbank, they retrieved him, smashed in his teeth with a rifle butt, and castrated him. When the people of Centralia were done, Wesley Everest was dead. Like he'd never been born.
I was walking down the Plymouth Road. It was just me and the Rabbi. But it wasn't like the devil had just given up. He kept trying to intrude, permeate the perimeter of the dancing oval. The Zero.
I started to laugh, because he was making no headway. I pointed my finger at him and danced a victory dance. But the Rabbi rebuked me.
He wrote a Holy Name in the sand and breached the oval, the Holy Zero, and he invited the devil in.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
He didn't even bother to respond.
The devil hovered around the breach, but he would not enter the oval, the Holy Zero. Instead the devil wept and gnashed his teeth. He keened and added his voice to the great howl, the great sorrow. But he could not enter the oval. He could not cross that Rubicon. He could not violate the perimeter.
The price was just too great.
He wept an entire river of tears.
Entrepreneurs created ferry businesses and made a killing.
But the devil couldn't cross. Or wouldn't. He sat on the banks of the river he had created and wept. River of tears.
I looked at the Rabbi.
"There but for the Grace of God, go I," He said.
"That makes no sense," I said to the Rabbi.
I really wanted to give it to the devil. I wanted the Rabbi to give it to the devil. I had a Tertullian-sized grudge against the devil. I wanted to feel like the Victor.
"Just shut up, Pilgrim."
And he turned his head and wept.
Just like Jesus.
We were on the Plymouth Road. The Rabbi and I—and the Cloud of Witnesses—surrounding us. All of us together. Like it was Old Home Week.
"Is it just me or has everything been turning into its opposite and then turning back again? I mean, for quite a while now?"
"You'll get used to it."
"I'll take that as a 'yes'?"
"What, you thought this would be straight-forward?", he asked.
"No, I guess not."
We kept walking.
But I had nothing.
When I was a child, I had a remarkable lack of confidence that if I went around the block I would inevitably return to where I had started. Bad sense of direction. Each turn, at every corner, presented a new story, a new world, a new map. No home. No continuity.
We just walked—me, the Rabbi, and the Cloud of Witnesses. And after awhile I just lost myself in the company—keeping company—and was not afraid that I would not be able to find my way back.
We just walked.
Home is where the closed door is always open.
"You should maybe take off your shoes. This is Hallowed Ground."
"Yeah, you're right."
I took them off.
The dust was warm.
And I was not consumed.
I was walking in place down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi and came upon a natural theater in the woods. There was a summer stock touring company scheduled to perform. They were putting on a Cecil B. Demille spectacle. Real Hill Commorah stuff. Or maybe Oberammergau.
The Rabbi and I—well, we could've used a diversion—an infusion. We stopped to see the show.
The show opened with a mud creature that had been given the breath of life. Original Golem. The playwright had archly given the mud creature the name of "Adam".
Anyway, in the show, Adam and Eve—I mean, the two come together—sat outside the gates of the Orchard, entrance made impossible by flaming swords. (Between you and me, the special effects were a little alarming. An open flame in an outdoor theater. With this drought! No one seemed to notice or to care.)
Anyway, the audience was made to know that the mud creature and his "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh" were made to know that they could pass through the gates of the Orchard if they were True. The False could not enter the gates.
Every year at an appointed time, Adam and his Eve would come to the gates and supplicate themselves. They would purge themselves. Make themselves naked. They would become authentic. Pure. True. And every year they would be rejected at the Gates of the Orchard.
This was not some cheap propaganda from the Head Office. The Diocese. The General Assembly. This was the kind of theater that meant business.
Year after year, it was the same, they would come, they would strip off what was not necessary. They would become Pure. True.
And year after year, they were refused entry.
Until the final year. The last year. The Denouement.
At the end of the age, Adam and Eve arrived at the appointed time. They donned ridiculous costumes and wigs and false teeth. They came in disguise. And did not pretend to hide it. They became false.
And the gates opened wide. And Adam and Eve entered the Orchard.
The Curtain fell. The crowd of misfits and losers, rejects and dead-enders, tax-collectors and prostitutes—well, they just went wild. Gave a standing ovation that lasted for years.
It takes a special kind of person to acknowledge the bullshit—especially if it's your own.
Still, if you want to know the truth, I was kind of offended by the performance. The implications! I turned to the Rabbi, to get some affirmation. Am I wrong?
But when I turned to look at him, he just kept pulling his face off. Layer upon layer. It was turtles all the way down.
He was laughing, but not at me. Just peeling his face off like an onion. All the way to Infinity and back.
Alright, I'll give him that, when I settled down, I had to admit, it was kind of funny.
Still, I was unnerved by the whole thing. The layers upon layers of face. And it peeling like an onion.
"What?", the Rabbi asked, "you pissed at me?"
"Sometimes, you expect too much!" I shouted, the spit spewing from my lips.
"Yeah, but you still think it's funny, don't you?"
I threw a half-eaten box of popcorn at his face. He ducked.
I couldn't help myself, I burst out laughing, and sobbing. Both at the same time. Tears and laughter.
The Rabbi held me until I regained my composure.
The Rabbi was not a cruel man.
To reach satisfaction in all
desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possession in all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not
you must go by the way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by the way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
you must go by the way in which you possess not.
To come by the what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something
you cease to cast yourself upon the all.
For to go from all to the all
you must deny yourself of all in all.
And when you come to the possession of the all
you must possess it without wanting anything.
Because if you desire to have something in all
your treasure in God is not purely your all.
—St. John of the Cross
"Is this truly what is required?"
"Required? We're getting to the point where that's kind of beside the point."
"Is there any way out?"
"Out? Pilgrim, it's all about the way in. It's always been about the way in."
"Just be quiet. I mean, for once, just shut up."
"For your own good," he added after awhile.
I opened my mouth and entire silences came out. And it was glorious and beautiful and moving. I lost control of my fine motor control. I throbbed. My paper-thin hands fluttered; my knees buckled. Feeling faint. God-swallowed. I waited it out. Lack of oxygen to the brain.
The return of desire in the abdication of desire.
I regained my composure.
Everything and nothing had changed.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
—Psalm 19:1-4 NRSV
I regained composure. And then I lost it, again.
Pierced in the side with a dart of longing.
I was walking in place down the Plymouth Road with the Rabbi and we came upon el Santuario de Chimayo. New Mexico. Land of Enchantment. The way was cluttered with abandoned crutches and braces. The air smelled of rust, dried blood and horror. The air smelled of dust, thorns and healing.
It seems a memorial service was about to take place. The congregation was gathering. Pilgrims and ghosts along the Plymouth Road. We decided to stop. It is a good thing to remember the saints.
A slightly stylized version of myself dressed in vestments made of buckskin and fringe stepped up to the pulpit to give the eulogy as we took our seats.
"This isn't right," I said to the Rabbi.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I look like Kit Carson!" I protested.
"What makes you think that that's you?"
"Oh Jeeze Louise! Anybody can see that that's me!"
"I don't see the resemblance."
"For Christ's sake!"
"Really, Pilgrim? Haven't I told you a thousand times to watch your language? Anyway, would you please be quiet? I want to hear what the preacher has to say."
I bit my tongue. Listened to the preacher. And this is what he said:
Carl Bisson was from Maine. He lived on West End Avenue on the Upper Westside, in a comfortable and cavernous apartment somewhere in the 90's. He was an Elder in the Church. A Godly man. And a bit of a lech.
In some ways, in those days—mid 80's—NYC seminary days—in the days when AIDS hit the gay community like a stroke, leaving it hobbled and hamstrung—heartbroken and humbled—like a crippled horse—in some ways, he was a throw-back to the wicked, old and hungry days of the chiselers and nancy boys, of those orgiastic days of forbidden bath houses—and shame. And in other ways, in those days, he was like a lonesome pilgrim—poor wayfaring stranger—returning from a future most longed for—a Marco Polo of the heart—Marco! Polo!—bringing tidings of a home where every tear is dried and every sorrow turned to dancing—and every turning terminated.
Carl showed up once to a Bible Study at the church, absurd in his leathers. Though he was in his 40's, he was hopeful till the end that he would remain the mysterious stud, and that eventually all the beautiful boys would once and for all fall to their knees in adoration and astonished recognition. He explained that after the Bible Study he had an appointment with love at a leather bar in the Village. We groaned and giggled when he waggled his dentures, suggesting that there were advantages for a man of his inclinations with no teeth.
I, of course, was shocked and scandalized. From where I came—and in fact, from where Carl came too, though many years and miles apart—from Michigan to Maine—one did not walk in transparency or affirm what must be denied in the face of "decency" and "folks just like us." Carl, in New York City, wasn't like any "us" I knew, but nonetheless, danced before the LORD like the light of candlesticks on the Common Table on Communion Sundays, when all God's children got courage.
When I was scared and out of my league, Carl took me under his wing and showed me how to visit the dying in hospitals—how to touch the AIDS lepers with such faith and gentleness that in the touch itself, there was nothing for all us poor bastards to do but behold the face of the Christ in the poor and be at peace. Carl, in my suffocating Midwesternisms, Carl in New York City, taught me to be a Pastor. Carl was kind.
Carl is dead now. I went to his funeral. And I miss him something fierce. I wish, now that I am again scared and out of my league, that he would take me to lunch at his favorite diner right there on Broadway, where they have the handsome waiters and a good Monte Cristo, and teach me to remember again what I've always known in the great illiterate silence of my salvation—always known, but always forgotten—like the sound of your own name repeated until you got no words, just sounds that lean toward meaning.
Teach me to remember what I have always known:
We are loved.
And that is enough.
Good night, sweet Carl.
The lights came up and the congregation began to disperse. I didn't know what to say. I didn't have any words. As I watched the preacher speak I watched myself appear and disappear. A flickering wick. My whole life captured in an attempt to light a cigarette in the wind.
I felt a loneliness that was bigger than me, older than me. A light shining in the darkness. A light not overcome by the darkness. A light that could not be seen without the darkness. A simple light. Illuminating the Rabbi's face. A simple loneliness.
I turned to him, but he had already turned to me. And I beheld his face.
And Carl said to me—this is what he said:
"Good night, Pilgrim."
And I said—this is what I said:
"Good night, Carl."
And then the Rabbi and I kept walking, down the Plymouth Road, lined with abandoned braces and crutches—the spent whips of los hermanos penitentes—and the brutal tenderness of los flagelentes.
"Good night, Rabbi," I said.
"Good night, Pilgrim," he said.
As we walked into the setting sun, rejoicing and giving praise.
Through streets of blood.