I’ve decided to post another pit of my thesis…in progress. I have posted the “Prologue” as well as one of the interlude chapters, “Ash Wednesday.” Below is “Confessions.” To give you a little bit of an idea of how it works, the prologue comes first (duh!) with the little girl and the ashen phantom with the broken wings. Then comes “Book One: Invoking the Muse” – the first main, poetic chapter (unposted) which deals with a voodoo priestess (Mama Nancy) summoning a strange, sort of dark muse named Crow…she tries and gets this spirit to tell her the story of this “ashen phantom” as she has some unspecified purpose for it. Things don’t go quite as planned. Then a series of “interludes” take place – little prose chapters between the poetry of Book One and Book Two. “Ash Wednesday” (formerly posted) is one of those interludes, and “Confessions” is the last one before Book Two.
“I am ashes where I was once fire.”
-Lord Byron, To the Countess of Blessington
Sometimes, my congregation confesses too much and, kneeling reverently, they purge their sins in battery-acid heaves. All I can offer is forgiveness. And handfuls of sawdust. “Last call,” I shout to the lost souls.
A beer, Father.
Whiskey please, Father!
Father, I am not worthy to receive, but put my booze on a tab and I’ll be grateful.
They still call me “Father.” I objected to it, at first. It didn’t seem proper, not after the…not after. Eventually, I stopped objecting; even found some comfort in the title, an old worn thing to wrap myself in on nights when comfort and pain aren’t all that distant.
I pour the drinks, the libations – sacred things after the hollowing exhaustion of a day of labor or the humiliation of the welfare line. I make small talk. I make change. I go through the motions, perform the ritual.
The rituals are not that different.
A lost soul wanders in, out of the dark, makes an offering, shows me his coin. I say the pre-programmed greetings. Then, they confess. They confess their sins. They confess their thoughts, their wants, their frustrations, their lost youth, their given-up dreams. They confess more fully than they ever did when I sat in the booth, when I could still feel the strip of white around my neck. My God, the things they confess…
Then, I absolve them with a nod, prescribe sips of penance, and hand them liquid fire and they toss it back and burn it all away. They forget. There’s a river, in Greek mythology, called Lethe, which flows through Hades. Anyone who drinks from the dead water forgets. The myth has it mostly right. You can drink and you can forget. But it all comes back with the morning. The sun won’t let us forget. And so my congregation returns, night after night, and they buy their forgetfulness and their salvation in installments.
And so, my place becomes sacred to them. Their sacrament is whisky and beer. Their incense smells of carcinogens. Please open your hymnals and we shall sing a verse of “101 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” – repeat until oblivion.
“Last call,” I shout to the souls lost in this lost-soul neighborhood. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here is implied – the unwritten clause.
I make my way to the bathroom, under the muted glow of a neon cross. While cleaning, I am greeted by the stall-wall litany of obscenities – phone numbers, limericks, and angry vandalism – it accumulates like sin. There’s a new one. Jagged scratches on the stall’s inner door read:
THROUGH ME YOU ENTER INTO THE CITY OF WOES,
THROUGH ME YOU ENTER INTO ETERNAL PAIN,
THROUGH ME YOU ENTER THE POPULATION OF LOSS…
…NO THINGS WERE
BEFORE ME NOT ETERNAL; ETERNAL I REMAIN.
ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE
I don’t know whether to be sad that some poor wretch felt the need to write this while on the john, or happy that I hosted such a literate drunk. Writing on the stalls – writing on the stalls.
Outside the bathroom, I can see the whole bar, the whole picture – lost souls and broken shadows meandering through the dim – blanketed in perpetual, nicotine mists – playing games of pool and perdition in dark corners. And I realize this is my Purgatory, me and the confessing shades, now and forever. This is my Hades, and the Lethe River flows dark from the tap. This is my underworld and I have no way out. You don’t have to stay here, but you can’t go home. You know?
It’s the kind of finality that makes me want to go mad. But sanity always remains, like a sadistic demon who enjoys tickling scabs.
A morbid part of me wanted to name the bar “Hades.” But I didn’t. I did, however, name the dog “Cerberus.” An old Great Dane, he lays in one of the booths. More mascot than guard dog, he normally hobbles about, on three creaky legs, accepting pretzels, petting, and the occasional beer from the regulars.
They are all regulars.
Cerberus was the first one to find me when I opened the bar. The others soon followed, ever flowing, like a stream teaming with souls, as if this place were a beacon.
I gather the cigarette ash, the stuff accumulates like sin. Smells of burnt regrets. On the way to the back door, hauling trash and ash, I pat Cerberus on the head. He doesn’t lift his head, but I hear the thump-thump of his tail against the booth.
Outside, in the alley, it’s dark and late and there are predators in this city, but few of them would bother a priest, even a former priest, and fewer still would bother a six foot-seven priest with a knuckle-busting right hook.
At the old parish, after mass, I used to teach the inner-city kids boxing at the gym. Some parents complained about teaching children such a violent sport, but I always found that if a person knows they can throw a mean punch, they walk a little taller, have less desire to prove it.
The kids used to call me Father Joe and Giant Joe, and sometimes, I would carry the youngest of them on my shoulders across treacherous streets. I don’t know what they call me now. I’m not allowed in the vicinity of anyone under eighteen.
I remember the accusation. I remember the Bishop telling me he believed me, but they were paying the settlement and there was the insurance company to consider. I recall the police detective who came to me when it was all over, apologies in his eyes, telling me it was the toughest sort of crime – hard to punish the guilty, easy to punish the innocent. That was nice of him. He didn’t have to do that.
Something in the dumpster squeals when I dump the trash, and the memories assault me full-on – parish Halloween parties and child laughter, weddings and funerals and community, memories of happy and bright (the past is always brighter), and memories of place and purpose and function. Phantom child laughter echoes off alley walls, then is swallowed by inner-city sounds.
I slam the dumpster lid, hard, but angry muscles with no target soon melt to rubbery despair and I fold over the dumpster, resting my hands and face on the putrid metal, before the echo-clap dies. Above, the sky threatens rain. My eyes threaten…
He looks like he has a sad story. He looks like a sad story. Standing in the mouth of the alley, something in his posture feels unnatural. A dingy coat and hat droop over his gaunt frame. Judging by the rancid smell and the dropping maggots, both were a recent grab from the dumpster. Soot stains his hands gray-black, as if he’s tried climbing through a chimney. And maybe his face is covered too because I can’t make it out – his face seems to swallow light. It doesn’t help that the blasted street lamp, behind him, flickers and sputters.
I approach and this lost soul in the wormy coat fishes in the trash, pulling out a beer bottle, one quarter filled with flat, fetid fluid. In the manner of a marionette controlled by a palsied child, the wormy coat caricature throws his head back and tips the contents of the bottle (one part alcohol, two parts garbage juice) down the hatch. I don’t hear the sounds of swallowing, just the noise of water hitting desert sand.
Then, with a sad puppet motion, he examines the bottle, drops it, disappointed. It did not do what he wanted it to do.
He looks up. Then down. Something in the alien body language suggests he’s embarrassed by the maggots writhing on the ground, like each one is a red mark on his record. Wordlessly, I offer a cigarette. He nods. Or rather, he does a very bad impersonation of a nod, takes the gift and deposits it in his mouth, or where I assume the mouth is on that black patch of face. A click, a flare, and I’m lighting the cigarette and damn it all but the flame fails to illumine his face – though it must be reflecting in his eyes as they appear to faintly glow like embers – like dying stars.
I click the lighter shut and the eyes darken and there’s just the ember glow of the cigarette, floating in the darkness between hat and coat. In that silent flight of seconds between us, I realize that the stranger is familiar to me. Very familiar. He is not one of my congregation. He is all of them.
This platonic lost soul takes a long drag. I don’t hear the sounds of inhaling, just the noise of wind down a lonely alley. He takes it to the filter, a black hole swallowing light, and if he exhales, I don’t catch it. Raising the glowing ember to his face, he stares with longing regret. The eyes flare again, in heartbreaking contrast to the ashen exterior. Are there recollections in that glow? Brighter times? A vain search for hope in the cooling embers of memory?
I don’t know.
The eyes darken.
“So what’s your story, friend?” I ask in bartenderly fashion. The hat and head cock to the side, a little too far. His answer, a finger-flick, sends the butt flying through the air in a burning, orange arc. It falls. It falls from the stranger’s loving hand. It plummets out of the bounds of his gaze, tumbling away from the high place where it had form and function and meaning. With the hiss of dying light, it lands on the dank, dirty pavement, now indistinguishable from all the gray, discarded things and the blackness below, and I find myself feeling far sorrier than I should for a discarded cigarette in an alley.
How long do I stare?
When I look up, the stranger is gone. The cigarette butt, the tattered hat, the wormy coat, and a beer bottle with a sooty handprint remain. Next to these, smeared into the blacktop, reposes a puddle of wet ash. Something in the shape of the ash smear reminds me of something I saw in my youth. At the museum, amidst the stationary march of towering skeletons and the bones of primordial sea monsters, was a tiny fossil of one of those feathered dinosaurs, the precursor to birds. It always made me sad – something in the awkward angles of the limbs, the delicate imprint of the feathers, the smashed impression of this mythic creature of the sky, forever trapped in compressed earth. Sad symmetry. I don’t remember the name of the creature, but it meant “ancient wing.” I remember that.
I go back into the bar. “Last call,” I shout. Soon, I’ll lock up and try and make my way home, like all the other lost souls, wandering in the dark.
Simply dissolved into an incomplete thought
An empty shell cracked and disfigured
With no remorse, I have been blinded by the darkness
With no distain, I have received my punishment
And with no haste, I await them”