Sunday, October 3, 2010

diary of a heretic, chapters 15 and 16

to begin at the beginning, click here

by kathleen maher

pictures by rhoda penmarq

15) The Hot-Blooded Prophet

He’s washed his socks and underwear in the sink and is drying them in the oven. As I write this, he’s padding barefoot in an old robe of mine, his hair unbraided, rippling down his back.
He has a set of Chinese iron balls going counter-clockwise in each large thin hand and is pacing the apartment’s three rooms, rotating the balls so they chime rhythmically high and low without clicking together.

My focus shifts from his fluidly moving fingers and exposed wrists to his tawny feet and surprisingly sturdy ankles.
The robe covers his calf muscles and yet I’m so aware of them I have to shut my eyes and swallow hard, which only makes my breath louder and faster. For there is no reflex for blotting out his intense but roving concentration, his flowing hair, and the contrast between the delicate, synchronized chimes in here and the wind outside, which can only hint at the contrast between the callous sunless Carlos I’ve always known and the magnetism of the hot-blooded prophet circling my floor. 

16) Enlightenment Is Immanent

All through the snow, the shop had a fairly steady string of customers. We fed people who were cold and discouraged after traveling miles on foot and a few who’d flagged a rare bus or train for which they must have waited hours. People dropped into chairs and peeled off layers of sodden clothes. Carlos and I rushed to bring them coffee, tea, hot cider, or cocoa, as they worked their way out of ice-encrusted boots, wrung out wool socks (leaving puddles), asked for pans of warm water and dish towels, anything to warm and then dry their bloodless, sometimes swollen, sometimes frostbitten, feet.

We did not serve donuts. No sticky, gooey non-nutrition: The blizzard people got dark, nutty breads. Since Saturday, when Carlos’s dream recipes resulted in four incredible loaves, fragrant with different grains, we’ve served warm half-loaves with little pots of butter and jam.
Yesterday we had a family glide up on cross-country skis—mother, father, ten-year-old boy, eight-year-old girl all in good humor, the storm for them a pleasant adventure.

And of course we’ve had people hovering desperately along the edges.
Last night we allowed two hapless guys, Mason and Roger, to spend the night on the restaurant floor. Our preconditions were: no smoking, no noise, and of course, no weapons or drugs. Carlos frisked them, turning his face from their smell.
“No third person can sleep here,” Carlos insisted, finger in their faces. “Word gets out that you two have found a sweet spot and the spot disappears. Not to mention the other non-negotiable term—as soon as the temperature goes above freezing, you two return to the street.”

They nodded and Carlos barked, drill sergeant style, “Got that, motherfuckers?”
I handed them mops and brushes to wash the floors and scrub the bathrooms—after they’d washed their permanently discolored faces and brushed their grossly decayed teeth with spare toothbrushes I found in the paper-towel closet, back where I’d tried hiding the second-meeting fliers. The guy I think is Mason got a somewhat used, hard bristle toothbrush while the diminutive Roger got a brand new, child’s Big Bird number. Carlos warned them not to wash other parts of their bodies, or even a corner to their clothing. The stench would be too much. Any infraction of the rules, he said, and goodbye Mason, goodbye Roger.

“If it comes to that, “I’ll throw you out. It’s my shop.”
A detail I worry that Carlos forgets: My shop, not his. And I do any throwing necessary.
“Tough Guy,” Carlos whispered, his sinewy arm wrapped around me, his lips warming my neck, near my ear, forcing me to focus on the door handle.
“If it weren’t for me you’d be saddled with those two forever. And don’t think they don’t know it.”

Well, fine, so I probably wouldn’t know how to get rid of them. It’s as if they’re only half here. Mason and Roger stare into space and move with a painstaking, “don’t-mind-me” exactness. They’re barely visible. Partly a deliberate survival technique, but partly too, I think, the eradicating effect of poverty. Their clothes, their posture, their personalities all are ghostly. You glance at them and glance away.

Carlos sleeps four hours a night, and following his lead, I’ve found that a half-night of ecstatic REM is infinitely more refreshing than seven straight hours of dumb oblivion. All these years I’ve been sticking to a single course, a monotonous round: working the shop, closing it late, shoveling in food, skimming a tabloid, falling into bed.
But with Carlos’s visit, I’ve discovered that by doing the same things I’ve always done, only with more awareness and less sleep, I’m suddenly liberated. The cycle of boredom and disappointment that was my life has become a heart-pounding adventure. On four hours of sleep, pinpoints of light swim in the air. I am elated to the point of levitating. A phrase fills my mind; my pulse beats with it: enlightenment is immanent.

Carlos goes to bed at midnight. Ordinarily, I go to bed at midnight, having kept the shop open until ten. But I don’t wake until seven and don’t get downstairs until 7:30; by which time Carlos will be deep into the day’s baking, having started before five.
When I asked him today—astounded that I’d never wondered or cared—where he lived, his answer was vague. When I pressed for an address, working hard to suppress my panicky curiosity concerning roommates or other intimates, Carlos said, “I can’t say for certain where my rightful abode is at any one moment. No one can.”

Stephanie, whose shift starts at six, rarely arrives before eight. She’s usually just hanging up her coat or tying up her hair as I finish at the computer and Carlos moves on to tarts and cakes. When I ask how she justifies this, she says, “No one tips before 8:30. At six and seven, they’re fascists.”
“How do you know?”
“Trust me, it shows.” Stephanie does what she wants, as she wants, and I have no interest in interfering. Unlike Carlos, she harbors few secrets. She’s forty-two years old and lives above a beauty salon on Davis Street, where she gives manicures and pedicures, part-time. A long time ago, she was married to a drivers’ ed teacher who racked up huge debts on her credit cards. Irritable and competent, with a big round face surrounding pale, bunched up little features, she devotes a good deal of her life to caring for her older sister who has multiple sclerosis. Stephanie’s smart and bad tempered, and who can blame her?

With the storm, with Carlos sleeping here, I’ve been keeping his schedule. I rise instinctively during his meditation and we go downstairs together. He whips up three kinds of dough, then wakes the poor human bundles curled on the front-room floor. I make coffee while Carlos supervises Roger and Mason in the bathrooms.
By five we’ve handed them bagsful of leftovers and sent (more like shoved) them into the cold.

An hour later the aroma of Carlos’s baking has overcome any lingering smell of their fitful night on the hard cold floor. The miasma of deprivation, confusion, and illness vanishes with the first batch of donuts, the first hot tray of Danish. The shop reverberates with the grinding of coffee beans, the scalding of cappuccino and hot cocoa.
With the storm, Carlos and I have had only die-hard optimists in the mornings, dressed for business. In the afternoon we’ve had college kids, the occasional family, and a few giddy young couples, newly, seriously in love. They all seem jubilant, as if the blizzard has granted the world a reprieve from ordinary worries. People who normally push others away are temporarily sympathetic. Because we’re all in this together. And there is no other news.

chapters 17, 18 and 19


Dan Leo said...

I like blizzards.

By the way, I read this while listening to Miles Davis's "Birth of the Cool" album -- a good soundtrack for it.

kathleenmaher said...

One wonderful year in Chicago, we enjoyed several real blizzards--no public transportation and car owners without garages spent days shoveling just to find the windshield. No work, no school: Manny and I walked everywhere, often all night.
And thanks for reminding me of Miles. I love "Birth of the Cool." Is that Arnold listening to it lost as he is in Gertrude's novel?

Dan Leo said...

Right now Arnold is listening to Stephen Foster's skiffle band.

Old 333 said...

This really is great stuff...

rhoda said...

thanks, peter, as always. and thanks for digging so deep into the archives....