by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
3) The World's Most Pink-Skinned Saint
Yesterday at about six o’clock, when I got back from Louie’s (my flour supplier), I saw this sign flapping across the plate-glass window, announcing the first meeting of the “New College of Complexes.” And beneath that, my topic, spelled out! How Can We Know Anything If We Only Believe What We Want to Believe?
Apparently while drinking the New Year’s champagne, I had divulged my opening topic to Carlos. I remember drinking and talking. About the topic, I remember him frowning. But he must have decided he liked it, despite himself.
For Carlos has seen and done everything six times over, something he never lets me forget. He’s worked in every ashram and monastery between LA and San Francisco. He’s studied religion his entire life and considers himself an authority on cults.
Nonetheless, the set-up astounded me. The sign! The banner! It was terrifying. About the topic, I pretended nonchalance, in my too-intense way. But Carlos was motioning me toward the swinging door to the kitchen. “Our timing’s dead on. See how the shop’s filling up?”
I saw old Mr. Downey and old Mr. Hedlund, who, true, usually leave by five. They come every day at three-thirty, drink espresso, eat biscotti and pay twenty percent of their bill—their reading of the seniors’ twenty-percent discount I offer. Unfailingly, I explain the math on their receipts, but the old men—eyes, I swear, twinkling—turn off their hearing aids until I give in and shout, “After you drive me out of business, then what are you going to do?”
It was out of the norm that the old guys were still sitting there, but downright surreal that a group from the university, probably graduate students, were in my shop, sitting around and whispering as if waiting for a performance. Two young women, one with curly red hair, the other’s dark and cropped, sauntered out of the rest room.
Carlos grinned at me and turned so that his nice little butt kept shifting oh-so-close to me. Meanwhile—how else to put it?—an influx of academic types. “Ready, Malcolm?”
Peeling off his hair net, Carlos crossed the kitchen, his braid swinging from side to side. From my office, he dragged out a microphone.
“Are you crazy?” I waved my arms. “The room’s way too small for that.”
Laying his hands on my shoulders, he put his mouth near my ear, “Don’t worry.” Once he set up the mike, I figured: It’s my shop, my dream, I’m doing the sound check! “Testing, testing. . . ”
And, sure enough, my voice was so loud, everybody winced. Bounding back over, Carlos readjusted the apparatus, and embarrassingly off key sang a few phrases from the John Lennon song, “Beautiful Boy.” Marking a line on the floor with a strip of electrical tape, he said, “Stand here.”
“You’re making too much of this,” I bent over to suppress a choking impulse. Stephanie, my irritable but highly competent waitress, glared at me as I pressed a fist into my diaphragm, trying to breathe. “Shit, Malcolm, if you’re not going to get the cocoas for table three, keep your fat ass out of my way.”
Whereupon Carlos, my horrible, totally creepy but brilliant baker who’s categorically above serving people said, “Allow me.”He got cocoas and teaspoons, little plates of butter, ice water, and hazelnut cappuccinos.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Not me,” Carlos said. “You. You’re doing this. I’ve seen these things happen before. But never with so much potential.”
I groaned and Carlos said, “You should decide what you want to be called. How about, The World’s Most Pink-Skinned Saint?”
What’s a snappy rejoinder for that? It was 7:45 and people nibbled at tarts and cakes and spooned up chocolate mousse from bittersweet shells.
“One rule,” Carlos gripped my arm and hissed, “whatever you make the big sin—money, sex, ambition—will pervade your religion. Law of nature, Malcolm: the thing you try hardest to overcome will end up corrupting you and all your followers.”
“I’m not starting a religion! And I don’t want followers!” My eyelids burned. “I only want a discussion group.”
“Call it what you want,” he said, drawing a knuckle down my left side. Making the walls shift, my hair prickle, my tongue slide over my lips.
“Don’t touch me!” And twisting the ends of his mustache (also dyed, though not as thoroughly), Carlos patted my cheeks, saying, “Show time, Daddy! Show time.”
4) Talk Dirty To Me
The café was almost half full: old men, students and professors—and Carlos leaning on the wall behind me near the rest rooms. Feedback from the microphone concealed the catch in my voice as I opened the meeting. “Welcome to the New College of Complexes. Where everyone gets a say. To get things started, we have as a topic: ‘How Can We Know Anything When We Only Believe What We Want to Believe?’”
Everyone was looking at me. No one spoke or moved and I had to conquer my panic that this might never pass. I might waver there forever, staring at these people. Carlos broke the spell. “Who wants to go first?” he asked, arms folded. A man and woman stood up, and I hastily added, “The main thing is: No rules. Anyone can talk about anything.”
The couple introduced themselves as university professors. He tipped the mike his way, and she wrestled it hers, as they argued about the tribulations of their chosen fields. At this point, I—suddenly—suffered a digestive attack, requiring me to tighten up for all I was worth.
Edging toward the rest rooms, I suspected Carlos of deliberately blocking my way. He stuck a thumbs-up in my face. “If there’s a lull,” he whispered, “want me to improvise?”
The woman professor swayed at the microphone after a spiel by her husband. Connie Llewellyn announced that although she taught public policy, her real interest was microbiology. Pear-shaped in a fitted suit, Professor Llewellyn stamped her foot. “Everything is spelled for us out by deoxyribonucleic acid.” Her words reverberated. “We’re born with a map, DNA, and anyone of normal intelligence who can’t solve the puzzle simply isn’t trying.”
Dr. Victor Smith, having relinquished the mike, harrumphed on the sideline. He yanked his beard, and when his wife finally stepped aside, he hopped back, fiercely spurting, “DNA doesn’t explain why a child has to die, struck by a speeding SUV out of nowhere.”
Red-faced, Connie Llewellyn shot back, elbowing her husband off stage. But before she reclaimed her ground, a voluptuous blonde woman in a black dress and fringed shawl slapped her palms on a table. She twisted in her seat, saying, “Sorry, but the only reason we know-slash-believe anything is to make our lives bearable. No one can bear the unadulterated truth.” Hands flying, she railed against how unreliable our eyes and ears are, to say nothing of our minds.
The married couple had sat down and was now blatantly playing footsie under their table, as if airing philosophical differences was a kind of “talk dirty to me.”
Carlos called to the blonde woman, “Don’t you want to use the mike?”
She twisted more in her chair. “Everyone can hear me, right?” “If you’re honest,” she said, “you can tell when your senses are fooling you. When the truth is all but beating against the box in your brain, demanding to be let out.” She bobbed her head and blinked.
There was a moment of throat clearings and the tick-tock of monosyllables from various people.
Tipping back in her chair, she said, “If we’re not obsessed with trivia; if we don’t overload ourselves with busyness, we already know more than we can stand.”
Extricating himself from his wife’s toe-hold, Victor Smith half-stood. “Re-enroll, Ms. Townsend, and for this alone, I’ll give you an A.”
Ms. Townsend shook her head and exhaled in a rush. “The thing that’s so hard to convince ourselves is that we matter: Not just ultimately but constantly.”
I could not follow what she said next. Two old guys were waving for more pink fructose water, which I grabbed from the case. My perspective as I crossed the room jumped wildly, as if I were watching a series of overwrought camera angles. Ms. Townsend shared a table with two girlfriends, both of whom studied the ceiling and floor as if they only happened to be sitting with her.
Her voice rose; she grew agitated, but I did hear what she said at the end. “And what if we do make a difference?” she asked. “Isn’t that even worse?” She covered her face with both hands. What made the meeting perfect was the feeling of life being such a palpable struggle, for everyone, all the time.