pictures by rhoda penmarq
The character Malcolm came to me in January, 2000. I remember it being New Year's Eve but my memory might be claiming a fanciful conceit. However, during the years of writing Diary of a Heretic, Malcolm Tully with his queasy morality (or immorality), his fervor and fears lived full-time in my imagination.
Writing his story was immensely fun and--strange. I've rewritten it a few times now. During the last rewrite, I somehow lost faith in Malcolm's tale about the rise and fall of a spiritual movement that blossoms suddenly, and briefly, in his coffee shop/donut house at a terminal of Chicago’s El tracks. Rhoda has generously offered to illustrate some of Diary of a Heretic, and my guess is that her art will prompt me to believe in Malcolm again.*
Part One: The Beginning of the End
1) Justifying My Existence
For years I adhered to the idea that if I lived spartanly and maintained hope, a day would come when I would metaphorically if not actually be invited to speak my mind. And someone would listen. Someone would understand.
The way I imagined it: When you were called upon to speak,
you were supposed to say why you think you’re alive, why you were born, and why you’re still around: What are your reasons?
Everyone needs to come up with his or her own personal answer. After all, no one gets through life without having to justify his or her existence. Yet as a starting point, a topic for discussion night at the coffee shop, it would be insane. Can you imagine people lining up at the mike on Saturday night to say why they were born?
The biggest problem is that there is so much stuff we don’t know how to talk about. At least in my experience, whenever I ask someone: Does it ever hit you how weird, how really extreme it is being a person, this thing, yourself? Generally whoever I’m asking is like: “What are you talking about?”
Oh, occasionally someone quick, who was actually listening to me, will say: “Well, maybe it is weird being you, Malcolm. . . ”
A response that’s lighthearted and clever, but ducks the question. As if it’s gauche to ask, let alone answer: “Why am I alive? What’s the point?” People hate to admit their ignorance. They would rather cling to theories that are, in fact, very hard to believe, but for them, I guess, easier than saying, “Duh? I don’t know,” their whole lives. Personally, I think that special people, who work at it constantly, do get a clue.
It’s just that they’re so rare and their hard-won intimation so cryptic everyone else thinks they’re crazy. Perhaps the best you can do is: ignore the odds. Hope and pray that the impetus behind your actions glides along an invisible, parallel course exerting a distinct pull. Grasp it and you’ll have an answer.
2) Like Minded Souls
Was it a joke? Was he reading my diary? After closing yesterday, after all the money was counted and our customers had gone home to prepare for whatever New Year’s Eve rituals they would endure or enjoy, my head baker, the impossible, arrogant Carlos Villalobos, produced a bottle of Taittinger champagne and two tulip-shaped glasses.
With his weathered, houndish face and dyed-brown braid to his waist, Carlos works hard to project a sinister air, but he suddenly was Mr. Friendly. “To the New Year!” he said. Soon, feeling loose and flushed, I sat back on the countertop.
Carlos and I have worked together for twelve years. And though our relationship is uneasy, he does know me. He knows I’m socially out of practice. Do people still describe their pet fantasies the way they might let you know about their childhood? Do they consider it socially acceptable to talk about their fondest, impossible dream, the one they know will never happen, even though it won’t let go of them? To which a friend-in-the-making says, “Nice dream. Here’s mine…”?
Mildly giddy, I told Carlos that someday I wanted to start a discussion group where people would say all the stuff no one dares to worry about in private. “Let alone,” I said, “out loud!”
Impassive, unmovable Carlos suddenly dropped all pretence; he grabbed my arm and pulled me close. “That’s a great idea!” His enthusiasm startled me, and I squirmed, trying to laugh it off. But Carlos pressed for more and I couldn’t help elaborating. I told him how I rely on this fantasy to lift me from my darkest moods. It’s not exactly impossible, by any means. I do have the place already established here. What if this little coffee-slash-donut shop at the last stop on the El shed its sleepy ambience and became a meeting place for like-minded souls;
a haven to feel psychologically and emotionally safe; free to share the details, the ins and outs, the maybes and what-ifs surrounding their most urgent lifelong desires; their reasons for living, if you will?
Then I remembered my manners and asked him, “What about you? What do you want to happen in the New Year?” Carlos planted a hand on either side of my thighs and smirked. “You’ll never believe it.”
“Yes I will.”
“I want the same as you,” Carlos said. “And I want it this year.”
“With me, it’s just something I dream about, but not in any real context.”
“Name one reason we can’t do it,” Carlos said. “It’s bound to make money.”
“It’s my private fantasy. And actually starting an after-hours group, were it possible, would change everything.”
“Everything’s changing anyway,” Carlos said. “I’ve watched you a long time, Malcolm, and I can tell: You can do it. And with me orchestrating—” he refilled our glasses, “We’ll get very rich, very fast.”
I laughed and the worst of my fear abated. “For a second, I thought you were serious.”
He nodded and pointed a long skinny index finger at me. We finished the whole bottle of champagne. I was surprised so much time had passed. It was already almost midnight, the New Year. He wrapped the tulip-shaped glasses in two dishtowels and set them carefully in his backpack. When he put on his wool hat, I blurted out, “Hey, you’re not going. Look at the clock. Ten minutes.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He zipped up his thick leather jacket.
“If you leave before twelve, you’re being—stingy.”
“Malcolm, all these years? It’s too late for you to get sentimental.” Kissing my cheeks, he said, “Próspero Año Nuevo!” and left me alone in my shop.