lost ironies

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Tag: Religion

ancient saints

to be an ancient saint
was to be dissected
if not first burned to a crisp
by a righteous mob

it was to be boiled down to bones
or mummified then
horded in reliquaries or
any old Catholic tin can
and never to sleep in the dirt

this was the duty of saints
among others things the
honour did not come cheap
and from on high they
witnessed their place
in a pious supply chain
presided over by ruffian monks
and the gangster devout

only in this way
could a simple soul who’d suffered
have possessed twenty-five fingers

the exorcist

The exorcist hunkered down in the alley, between two dumpsters. He was a rumpled man in a shabby dark suit and grubby clerical collar. There was a crucifix on a chain round his neck. A windstorm had put the power out. The city was dark. He’d have lit a candle if he could.

“Is this you?” he said, looking up at the Man standing over him. “The windstorm, I mean.”

“I don’t deal in windstorms,” said the Man. “I deal in souls.”

“Yes, I see. That’s very clever.”

The Man was dressed in a glossy teal sharkskin suit and alligator shoes.

“Are you prepared for the girl?” He said.

The girl? The exorcist turned some pages in his head, and there she was. Innocent, very young. Said to be crawling across the ceiling. Possessed. He had an appointment with her and her mother in an hour.

“I’m ready,” he said, lighting a cigarette. He took a flask from his jacket pocket and drained the liquor from it in two gulps.

“And try to make it look like something this time,” said the Man. “Throw in a little of that old Catholic witchcraft. The last one was a little too in-and-out.”

“Fine. Witchcraft. I’ll make a note.”

“You resent me instructing you, don’t you. Still, after all of this time.”

Resent, thought the exorcist. Yes. The Man was God, after all. Resentment, even disappointment, were inevitable. Besides, exorcism was for youngsters. The exorcist was ready for retirement.

“You don’t need me,” he said. “You could handle all of this just fine on your own. From a distance, too. You’d never even have to leave your living room, and I could settle down, maybe read a little.”

“But I like a good show,” said God.

“You’re a sadist.”

The exorcist opened his bag and rummaged. Everything was there, at least enough to get him through the next gig.

“Remember that thing you did for me in ’74,” God said, “in Genoa?”

“Yeah, that was rather good,” the exorcist snorted. “Satan wasn’t expecting me to put the old broad into a tub of holy water, and use the host as bath salts. The tabloids loved it.”

“They still do that bathtub thing, you know.”

“I know.” The exorcist smiled and drew hard on his cigarette. There was at least some joy in all of this. Even if it came out of events that happened so long ago.

“We’re good together,” said God, “you and me.”

“But I’m sixty-nine years old now. I need some rest.”

“Yes,” God said, “I know all things.” He lit a cigarette of His own.

“Then you know that this’ll be my last exorcism,” the exorcist said. “Then it’s quits-Ville.”

“You’ll hate retirement. There’s no glory in it, no honour.”

Honour and glory. The exorcist shook his head.

“You know,” he said, “you’ve coerced me into doing this, and I have nothing to show for it, no friends, no property, no family. And I’m still a virgin. All I have is a headful of fragmented memories, distorted by tragedy and time, and absolutely meaningless. My devotion has run out, and you’re to blame.”

“You took your vows,” God said.

“Yeah? Well fuck the vows. What could they possibly mean to you, anyway? You’re not Catholic. Hell, you’re not even Christian. You have no religion. You’re God.”

“Try to keep that part to yourself, please. It’s bad for business.”

“I’ve met a woman, by the way,” the exorcist said. “She’s very beautiful. She reads beautiful books, and she goes to beautiful movies. She says that she loves my smile, when I smile, which is rare I know. Her name is Rose. We’ve become close, and she brought up the whole vow thing the other day. She’s worried that I might be making too great a sacrifice in loving her.”

God looked down upon His alligator shoes, dropped His cigarette and snuffed it out. Then He sighed and said, “Religion is just politics, you know. Just a matter of opinions and tribalism.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t give a damn what two people do together, or that one of them is a priest, as long as no one gets hurt, outside of the usual hurt that comes with love.”

“She likes caramel corn,” said the exorcist. “There’s a place downtown that makes it from scratch. It’s her favourite.”

“Yes,” said God. “I know all things.”

sushi with Caravaggio

On the second day after he arrived, Caravaggio swallowed a handful of pebbles.

“It’s the food, Yorick,” he said. “It’s indigestible any other way.”

“Stones seem a tad extreme,” I said. “Or, maybe it’s just unusual. But let’s keep it to ourselves.”

We were sitting together at English Bay. He, near weeping. Me, with my arm round his shoulder, trying to comfort him.

Caravaggio was the name that he’d chosen for himself, after Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Baroque, Renaissance artist.

I’d reserved a computer for him at the Joe Fortes Library, the day before. There, he’d scanned what he could of the web in the fifteen minutes allotted, and in the process, somehow managed to shut down the Vancouver Public Library’s citywide servers. But before he did, he’d seen the Italian painter’s work, and immediately adopted his name.

The artist’s work, he said, best exemplified the human species’ kinship with the irrational and imperceptible, even better than the surrealists. I thought he lacked enough Earthly experience and knowledge of art theory to say so, but I’m generally not looked to for insight.

“The colours,” he said, hands trembling. “They bring me close to violence.”

I didn’t see the colours, myself. Not many, that is. Mostly just dimly illuminated Caucasoid patriarchs against black backgrounds, depicting a fair-skinned male governed allegorical narrative that rested on the reverence for, and the worship of, deeply flawed human characters, each now occupying an idea named Heaven for a fantasy called forever.

I told him this, and he said, “Precisely!”

But now we sat together on the beach. There were planets in his eyes—I saw them there—nebulae and vast black hushes.

I had panhandled all morning on Denman Street, and had bought us sushi with the proceeds.

“You eat it like this,” I said. “This is wasabi and this is soy sauce. These are chopsticks.”

“Home is too far away, now,” he said, analysing his California Roll. “Returning is impossible. I don’t know how I let it get away so easily. Miscalculations, poorly made decisions, bad assumptions. There were no maps beyond a certain point. Only the nose of my spacecraft to follow.”

“That’s how we lose our way on this planet, too,” I said. “And none of us has even been beyond the moon. You mix the soy sauce and wasabi together like this.”

“I may fade because of the grief. We do that where I come from; it’s the only thing that can kill us. Those who love you watch as you slowly vanish.”

So that’s what was happening. I swore I could see through him already.

“Don’t things ever just pass for you, and get better?” I said.

“Things never pass.”

He was very good with chopsticks, and enjoyed his sushi. That night we slept in the park because we were broke. By morning, he was fading fast, and was nearly gone by noon, but I could still hear his voice. We spoke for a while, and I threw rocks at crows. Then there was a long silence. Finally, I heard him say—

“Thanks for the sushi, Yorick.” And then he walked into the bay.

the soup line

Whiskey’s hard to get to know. A guy can spend his whole life trying, trying real hard. But in the end, laying there, raving in his wet brain hospital bed, with the priest shriving and the Catholic sisters tut-tutting, he doesn’t know whiskey any better than the day he met his first amber shot glass. And when he finally checks out, there isn’t enough left of him to look a friend in the eye and thank him for a hell of a good time.

Lots of guys turn to booze, sure. But Arson Willkie waited until misfortune whispered into his unguarded ear. He didn’t meet whiskey until after the trouble hit. So, I guess Arson was a drunk in the waiting. His reason and biology just itching to jump out of the window, when the moment was right. And you can’t help a guy like that. He isn’t going to take the pledge. He knows his feverish way of drinking is suicide. But if you say so, he’ll just ask why it’s taking so damn long.

The times of apple pie and stacked ham sandwiches ended when the market went bust in ’29. That’s when I first ran into Arson Willkie. Like him, most of the men who ended up in the soup line had been working in the woods, mining or fishing off the coast. Vancouver was where we landed, a stockpile of excess labour waiting for high noon.

A working man can be a fragile item, and our new found unemployment and poverty unnerved us. The women in the line had to be stoic on our behalf, as we queued up with our tin cups, meditating on the riots to come. The dismal relief camps hadn’t been thought of yet, and the conversation in line was about striking, occupying, pain and protest.

It was a rainy afternoon in February when Arson Willkie showed up in the city dump soup line, the day he finally gave in to his hunger. That’s the way it was with a lot of us, being too proud for too long for the good of our own bellies. At first, a guy would recognise things had gotten tough, but believed that hunger would never overtake him. But in 1929, hunger was catching up to everyone. The same way sleeping in a flea mansion flophouse or squatting in the dump was.

Before the crash had closed down the mills and logging operations, Arson had been a blunt, profane gang foreman, who’d rode a motorcycle from camp to camp, wearing leather jodhpurs, goggles and high laced logging boots, in full charge of himself and the men around him. Now he was at the mercy of a stony world. Maybe he always had been, but never knew it.

A soup line moves slowly; it gives a guy time to think about the ways he’s gone wrong. The march toward the tall steaming pots was nothing more than an ankle iron shuffle, while a preacher, standing on a beer crate, busted a gut over the mercy of Jesus and the grace He’d bestowed upon us, even those in league with Satan, because for a simple down payment of a forgiveness prayer, and a commitment to sin no more, Jesus would greet a man with open arms.

The trick was that a man had to find Jesus to enjoy salvation, like a drowning man might have to take time out from drowning, in the midst of his thrashing and gasping, to find his own rescuer to pull him out of the choppy grasp of the chuck. It was a strange kind of logic, only understood by those blinded by a certain sort of light. For the rest of us, it was just a Victrola playing backward.

Arson was greeted by some of the men in line, fore and aft, on his first day. But he held his head down, in the shame the new ones sometimes showed, the ones who’d thought that they were different and would survive, with a grin, what was shaping up to be the Great Depression. He took his tin cup, and rambled up to the soup pots, and the church women, with their ascetic calm and blame assigning eyes.

One of them handed him some bread and emptied her ladle into his cup.

“Say a thankful prayer to Jesus, friend,” she said.

Jesus was on furlough if He didn’t know, without a prayer, how grateful Arson was for his crummy little cup of soup and slice of sawdust bread. And he wanted to say so, but the woman’s terrible earnestness was a sword and shield, and he was unarmed.

“I prayed last night,” he said, gentler than he felt. “Before I went to sleep here in the rain, and I woke with a rat in my beadroll. Jesus sure is a puzzling fella.”

The woman blushed. Not for what Arson had said, but for how he had said it. It didn’t come out verbose, like so many other penniless censures of the obvious. And she feared him. She recognised the latent fury and subversion in his unshaven face, and saw a storm, of other men’s making, on his horizon.

“Well, that’s fine,” she muttered. “You move along, now.”

And he did.

What the church woman didn’t know was that even a man like Arson Willkie ached for passage into the mystic, same as her. But he knew it wasn’t in the cards for a bum in a squat, who didn’t belong anymore, who’d been pegged surplus by the world. He couldn’t reach the divine, riding on the same Sunday school chauvinism as her. And that night he spent his last dollar on his first bottle of hard liquor. It was the first and last bottle he ever shared. Within days, he’d taken to the streets, begging for pennies to buy more.

For a decade, I watched him drink like a true believer in the salvation of self-annihilation, during the chaos and hobo uprisings, and for another five years after that, as we fought through Europe, him drinking what he could find along the way, and detoxing painfully when there was nothing. He was hip deep in his own strange divinity, by then. By the time we were demobilised, he was ready for the soup line again, even though the Depression was over. He removed his stripes and badges, and sold his medals, then he slept in his fatigues for two years before he ended up in Shaughnessy Veterans’ Hospital, tied to a bed.

I was there the moment he died, his wild eyes gone blind and his mind tied to a rock.

“You there, Mickey?” he said, sensing my company. I stood by the bed.

“I am,” I said.

“Got a drink for your ol’ sergeant?”

A nurse in the room looked up form a chart.

“Sorry, Arson,” I said. “There’s a no hooch order in effect.”

“That never stopped us.”

I looked at the nurse, and said, “I think the order sticks in this vicinity.”

“Do you think I’ll see God?” he asked.

“Sure,” I lied. I wasn’t religious. But in the war, I’d lied to a lot of dying men asking after God. “God’ll be there,” I said, “behind the bar with a bottle and a jigger.”

“That’s a fine picture, Mickey.”

His hand was cold but strong when I took it. Another thing I recalled from comforting the dying at war.

“I guess there’s nothing after this, for a fella like me,” he said.

“Maybe.”

“Nothingness can be a fine thing, though,” he said. “Quiet as a forest after a rain.” His grip on my hand weakened.

Arson Willkie died in the ghostly isolation of the insane, his hasty spirit blowing town like a guy dodging a loan shark, riding his motorcycle on a highway somewhere toward his own Heaven, before God knew a damn thing about it. A couple of days later, I poured a swallow onto his grave, and left the rest of the bottle at his tombstone. It was February, and it was raining.

holy day

it is easy to lie about your religion
with hunger in your pockets
people will only look and wonder
how you will be saved from their good gods
will it be pills or e.c.t? or a
disconsolate edict
with new heels on its boots

it’s just that the doctors are crazier
and have their own lunch to consider
and who will cross the Tees
crosses on a hill, yes
there was more than just one
religion again
socks and salty soup
dished out by the stolidly saved

paradise cafeteria

Thursday is meatloaf
and the martyrs queue with their trays

God loves the Pet Shop Boys
and West End Girls plays

this can’t be right, one says
I gave my life for You

don’t worry, says another meekly
tomorrow’s Mulligan stew

prayer plant

there are Februaries
when my prayer plant sends forth no new shoots
no new leafy hands with which to pray
only the old ones and
the same old prayers from the mind of a houseplant
convinced it is exceptional in the universe
its personal prejudices
the scripture by which it will die
if need be

until it needs watering

guacamole

I remember believing in God
how He made the city translucent
the wrecking yards glow in the evening
rust in the shape of gang turf
the white face of Heaven
pockmarked from the fall &
Jesus with a nickel
looking for a phone booth
His well finned Cadillac
soaring like a bullet
in search of gravity, of
what is Holy like guacamole
or a nice spicy enchilada

our lady with all of the cats

God isn’t christian
she isn’t a republican &
she doesn’t sell Amway

she is unconcerned about truth
& trying to shoehorn philosophy into fact
she didn’t engineer intelligent design
nor does she prefer climate change
over the greenhouse effect

she just loves her cats
especially the calico tom
that basks in the sun
through the window over the garden
asleep in the monastery May

miracle on granville street

It was said that the Grove Café was so cheap that the Health Department had to bring its own cockroaches. It occupied an abandoned Bank of BC storefront on Denman Street in the west end of Vancouver, a mixed neighbourhood of the snotty middle class and the grubby poor. The café is gone now. The lease ran out, the landlord raised the rent and the Grove ceased to exist. The storefront sits empty now, and though he’d never admit it, the greedy landlord laments the loss.

But once upon a time, the Grove’s price point drew them in. The burgers and breakfasts were cheap, cheap, cheap. And that appealed to Ruben Karsh, though never to his friend Dwayne Radkov. Radkov would sit in the Grove and listen to Karsh’s stories because that’s what friends do. They endure.

“So,” said Karsh, “whatever happened to toothpicks?”

“What?” Radkov said.

“Toothpicks. Used to be that no matter how bad a grease toilet like this was, there were always toothpicks. Right there next to the napkin dispenser and the ketchup, which I notice doesn’t come in actual ketchup bottles anymore, just these crappy plastic squeezey containers.”

“We could go to Denny’s.”

“No way,” said Karsh. “Denny’s food makes you obese.”

“And the Grove’s food doesn’t?”

“Denny’s food is different,” said Karsh. “It stimulates dopamine secretion. Their food makes you feel good even though it contains no nutrients or fibre. It’s like taking crack, only more expensive when you figure in the tip. Artificial dopamine stimulation leads to disproportionate food cravings and food addiction, baby. That’s why all Denny’s customers are obese.”

“They are not,” said Radkov.

“The ones that aren’t physically obese yet, will be soon. If they’re slim now, then they’re just going through a stage called pre-obesity, a psychological phase in which a person is not physically obese, but mentally obese.”

“You’re insane.”

“I heard it on all night talk radio,” said Karsh. “It’s righteous. It’s this show that comes out of LA between midnight and 4:00 a.m. You should listen. It’ll wake you up, man.”

“You listen until 4:00 a.m.?”

”Most nights.”

“Then what?” Radkov said. “What do you do at 4:01 a.m.?”

“Surf the net. There’s some good stuff there. It’s righteous. It’ll wake you up.”

Fei Yen, or Fay as the clientele called her, was one of the Grove’s owners. She’d been in Vancouver for thirty years, but had never lost her Honk Kong street twang. Fay waited tables to keep labour costs down, and she arrived at the Karsh and Radkov table with the resigned composure of a soon to be martyred saint.

“What you have?” she said.

“Peanut butter and bacon on sour dough,” Karsh said, “with fries and a vanilla shake.”

“Cook don’t like that,” Fay said. “Peanut butter and bacon not on menu. You order from the menu.”

“Oh c’mon, Fay” Karsh said. “We do this every time. I say, peanut butter and bacon. You say, cook don’t like that. Then I say, peanut butter and bacon. And then we do it a couple of more times, and then you say, okay just this once, and you take my order. Why don’t you just put a peanut butter and bacon sandwich on the menu?”

“Can’t. Cook don’t like that.”

“Well’” said Karsh, “can I have a peanut butter and bacon sandwich on sour dough, with fries and a vanilla shake?”

“Okay, just this once.” Fay wrote it down. Then, looking at Radkov, she said, “And you? Just coffee, right?”

“Yeah,” said Radkov. “Just coffee.”

Fay shook her head, wrote it down and walked away.

“Hey, hey, look,” said Karsh. He pointed at a group of dark suited young men who’d just entered the café. Each had a name tag on his lapel. Karsh leaned forward, toward Radkov and said, “Mormons, man.”

Radkov looked and said, “So?”

The young Mormons sat at a booth and perused their menus.

“They’re missionaries,” Karsh said, whispering loud enough for the entire café to hear. “They’re here to convert us.”

“Good luck,” Radkov said, as Fay put his coffee down. It slopped over the side of the cup.

“You remember Raza Jamali?” Karsh said. “That Pakistani kid from grade ten, had that weird way of walking. Anyway, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints converted him. From Islam, man. That must have really pissed off Allah.”

“Allah can take it. He’s got big shoulders.”

“Whatever,” said Karsh. “Anyway, Raza gets all converted, goes and buys this black bargain basement suit and a pair of bad shoes, and starts walking the streets of Vancouver proselytising. He’s even got one of those clip-on name tags that sort of completes the costume.”

“Was he happy?” said Radkov.

“Sure, I guess.”

“Then who cares?”

“No, no, wait,” Karsh said. “There’s more. Because one day on one of his Mormon missionary strolls, Raza meets Christopher Walken.”

“Christopher Walken?”

“That’s right” said Karsh, “and for sure. The Walken, himself. He’s in town on some movie business, and he’s walking down Granville Street with his entourage. But Raza, God love him, doesn’t know who Christopher Walken is. He’s never seen Deer Hunter or Seven Psychopaths. His Moslem parents and Mormon proclivities would never have allowed it. He just sees this group of people walking together down one of the dirtiest streets in the city, and decides he’s going to perform a wholesale conversion.

“So, Raza walks up to Christopher Walken and he says, ‘Hello, I’m Elder Jamali of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Would you like to talk about Jesus?’

“And Christopher Walken just looks at Raza like Raza’s outta his mind. And Walken, I mean he doesn’t miss a beat, and he says, ‘I met Jesus once, while I was picking up my luggage at the Fort Gary, Indiana airport.’

“And you know how Christopher Walken talks. He delivers each sentence like it’s walking up the stairs, and when it gets to the top, it has no place to go. So, his words have a certain inflection that either confuses people or intimidates them.

“But Raza isn’t either of those things. He just says, ‘Jesus? While you were picking up your luggage? In the Fort Gary airport?’

“And Christopher Walken says, ‘Damn straight,’ like his words are walking up the stairs with no place to go. ‘And Jesus is just standing there,’ Walken says, ‘in a white suit and a Panama hat. Which, if you read your Kurt Vonnegut, you’ll know Panama hats aren’t made in Panama. They’re made in Ecuador. And Jesus is all calm and there’s this radiance about him.’

“So, Raza says, ‘Was Jesus flying to Salt Lake City?’

“And Christopher Walken says, ‘No. What the hell’s in Salt lake, other than Mormons? He was flying to Tampa.’

“And Raza says, ‘Why Tampa?’

“And Christopher Walken says, ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways, my poorly dressed friend.’ And then he says to Raza, ‘Would you like to come back to the Westin with us, and do some blow? I can set you up with a date.’

“And Raza says, ‘No, I need to be home by 9:00 pm.’

“And Christopher Walken says, ‘Well, that’s too bad because I think Jesus will be there. I think the two of you should meet.’

“And Raza says, ‘No thanks.’

“I mean, Raza blows his chance to meet Jesus and hang out with Christopher Walken at the Westin because he has to be in by nine. Can you believe it? He just walks away with that funny little walk of his.”

“That sounds like bullshit to me,” Radkov said.

“Swear to God,” said Karsh. “But the thing is, after that, Raza Jamali converts back to Islam.”

When Fay arrived, she dropped Karsh’s peanut butter and bacon sandwich on the table and said, “Cook don’t like it.”

“Well,” Karsh said, “cook don’t have to eat it.”

“Where’s Raza Jamali now?” said Radkov.

“He sells vacuum cleaners at Sears in Burnaby,” said Karsh.

“Same bad suit?” said Radkov.

“Damn straight,” said Karsh.