by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
9) Stand and Deliver
By haranguing me nonstop, Carlos talked me into addressing the issue of loneliness as a spiritual goal. He convinced me “to set the tone” before handing the mike to the first comer.
“I know what I’m talking about. You have to be willing to stand up and say what’s important.”
What really got to me, though, was his argument about my own fear. Because I was afraid to stand up and say what I thought, I must stand up and say it. And yet, acquiescing to him felt like glass cracking, a thin tumbler filling with too hot a liquid—splintering shards and pooling tea.
But as the café filled with people I sat in the office, staring at nothing for who knows how long.
Eventually I managed to get up and enter the kitchen. No one was there! I was completely alone and so panicked about speaking, I couldn’t tell what was just me being psychotic and what might actually have gone awry. Carlos, presumably, was off on some errand, and so his assistants were smoking dope in their cars.
Closing my eyes, the smells in the room—caramelized pears, chocolate and almond, vanilla cream, sweet yeasty sugar, cinnamon, orange, and cherry kirsch—invaded my being. The waves of aroma that I smell all day and so normally never notice, beckoned with unworldly potency.
Then Carlos materialized at the back door and I jumped, brushing crumbs off my face and chest. Carlos licked his thumb and rubbed a spot on my chin. “Just a smear.” My head swiveled as I did a quick inventory. Evidently I’d eaten six brownies.
“Looks like—” Carlos patted my stomach, “you put a quite dent in the almond cakes, too.”
Another swoop, and he pinched me, fore and aft.
“Better drink something to wash it down,” Carlos said.
“No, that’s okay.” But he poured me a tumbler of rich whole milk anyway. Which I glugged without pausing for air.
“How do I look?”
“You look good. You’re ready. Don’t even think about it,” he cooed, his words both cooling and inflaming my neck. He dabbed seductively at my face again, “Go to it, man.”
Whereupon I sailed to the mike, eyes on a widening horizon. Except—Carlos immediately intervened. Waving his hands, he said, “Excuse me. Excuse me everybody.” I cast him a puzzled look and in return, he smirked. “Before we begin,” he raised an eyebrow, “I’d like to ask Malcolm—” And he turned to me with a lascivious look, “to talk about worship.”
“Worship? We’re here to talk about loneliness. Six ways to overcome loneliness.” I sent daggers, gazing at him. And in return, Carlos blew me a kiss. The asshole.
“Worship?” I shook my head. “Forget it, Carlos!” And I started to walk out. But he blocked my path
He held up his hands in an infuriating—and utterly false—show of innocence. “Why? What’s wrong with worship?”
“It’s nothing but another master-slave game,” I said. “That’s what!” I lifted my feet, as if to disentangle myself, but I was already in too deep. “What kind of God, ” I waved my arms, “demands that his creatures bow down and adulate Him if they want to be anything but lost and miserable their whole lives?”
The reaction to this was a squirming, and then a slow, languid shift. Looking at the faces, I felt a chill. We had the same people as last week attending: the professors, Ms. Maggie Townsend, the blonde, who it turns out is a good friend of Carlos’s. Old Mr. Downy and old Mr. Hedlund, and maybe a dozen new faces.
“Um, wait,” I sputtered. And before I could stop myself, I was asking if people didn’t think an All Knowing, All Powerful God was pretty weird to set things up so His pathetic little creatures must bow and scrape to proclaim His Glory?
“And beyond that, the business of denying our pleasures for the sake of God poses another problem. What if. . . it’s fun? What if throwing yourself on the ground and groveling because you’re not better than He feels insanely pleasurable? Does it still count?
“I mean, suppose, contemplating His Wisdom, we rend our clothes. Mortify our flesh. What if we starve ourselves to hear His Voice? Shave our heads and drive toothpicks under our fingernails at the first stirring of sexual sensation—which is what? Constantly? Suppose we practice prayerful, snaking dances, paint our faces and go outside, only to be spit upon. If you’re like me, you’re afraid you might get off on that kind of thing. Does God care if worshipping Him gives us a persistent thrill? Or is it only holy if it hurts?
“And again—you can’t get away from this—what if you like hurting? Once you’ve experienced suffering through prayer, even a conservative acknowledgment of God can be enough to trigger euphoria. Whether we wear loincloths or business suits makes no difference. Ultimately, the hunger will not go away. The need will not let up!”
In the kitchen, Carlos was literally dancing with glee, and I had to grab his elbows to get him to stop. “Why’d you do that to me?” “I looked at you and the truer issue showed on your face.” “Well, it showed on your face, too! There was a moment,” I said, “where everything was going to be okay. Nothing horrible was going to happen, and then your eyes shone with malice.” “It wasn’t malice,” Carlos said, folding his hands against the small of my back. “Just this once, don’t resist.” * It gets worse. Stephanie and Carlos’s friend Maggie Townsend went around collecting unconscionable sums—I’m talking hundreds of dollars!—in “donations.”
10) Maggie's Mission
Maggie Townsend is at the shop all the time now. My guess is that Carlos assigned her a secret mission: Hold my hand. Listen to my woes. Cheer me up. Make me smile. And she’s good at it. She’s pretty and funny and bops around like a tomboy playing the vamp.
Officially, Maggie has started waitressing here, because Stephanie is undependable. Of course, since the second meeting, with the clear smell of money in the air, Stephanie arrives on time. She stays late. In fact, they all hang around, all the time.
At least Maggie is straightforward. To get my attention, she dips and sways and goes into these pretty little poses, clanging invisible chimes. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she says. “‘Trix are for kids.’”
“The topic was loneliness! Everyone was supposed to stand at the mike. Everyone was to speak his mind. And what happens?
Carlos gets me off on the best way to approach God.”
“Well I thought you had a point,” Maggie says, her hands suggesting some goddessy maneuver. “Worship like anything else can be a trap.”
“Oh Jesus.” I lay my head on the table. “I was goaded and tricked and the whole thing is too mortifying to think about it.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” she says. “You’re a good speaker and lots of people have never thought about how inherently cheesy traditional worship can be.” Maggie smiles for two beats and then breaks into a musical half-scale laugh, a clear alto.
“All right, but what about all that money? Did Carlos put you and Stephanie through some kind of drill?”
“No,” Maggie says. “It just happened.”
“Yeah, right.” “You didn’t do anything wrong,” she says.
“What does it matter? My idea for a New College of Complexes is finished. It’s dead and buried.”
“Now that’s egotistical,” Maggie says. “Because you hogged the mike, you’re shutting the whole thing down?”
“I’m not! It’s Carlos! He’s the one who ruined it! It was like I was in a trance. The New C. of C. is dead and nothing anyone says or does can resurrect it.”
“How come?” Maggie asks.
“Because I hate Carlos. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him.”
“Oh,” she flashes that crooked little smile, “you think you’re the only one?”
“Okay. I hated Carlos before, but that was nothing compared to this. Now I hate him more than anyone! Now I abominate him in every way.” “Which,” Maggie says, “is exactly what he was going for.”