by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
20) Religion Without Rules
Well, they did it. They convinced me to give it another try. Carlos and Stephanie and Maggie Townsend spent half the night coercing me into giving the New C. of C. another chance. We’re planning one more—and I’ve sworn should it fail, last—meeting in two weeks. Why, I asked again, if they thought the idea was so “crucial” as Carlos kept saying, did I need to be involved? Why didn’t they start a theology group without me.
“Because,” Maggie said, “to succeed, the group needs a holy leader.”
“Why?” I asked. “Because otherwise it’ll devolve into a coffee klatch with pretensions.”
“So you be the one.” Tossing her head, Maggie mock-checked everyone’s face to see if she dared speak. “Hard to believe in this day and age,” she said, “but some Americans still have kind of problem with women’s spiritual superiority.”
“A problem,” Stephanie feigned astonishment, “with divinely inspired female leadership? You’ve got to be kidding.”
"Okay, okay.” I waved that issue away. “Then why not you, Carlos? You’re always saying you know how these things work.”
“Exactly. And they don’t work with someone like me at the top. Whereas you, Malcolm, if you’d only apply yourself—could qualify as a bona fide saint.”
“Oh yeah? Just how vain, and how stupid, do you think I am?”
“I’ve watched you for more than a decade, Malcolm; I know what I’m talking about. You’re a true innocent. You’re wildly non-materialistic and you go into these spells of communing with the universe, where you’re really, I mean really, out there.”
“Oh yeah?” Despite myself, I leaned back, grotesquely flattered.
Sometimes the more you swear something’s dead and gone—over and done with—the more inevitable that it pops up to prove you wrong. Carlos had taken it upon himself to close the shop.
He’d opened the front door and yelled at Mason and Roger. “Hey, you guys, the shelters miss you.” He’d cupped a hand to his ear. “Hear that? They’re calling your names.”
Two minutes later a rock cracked the plate-glass window. Carlos stopped rolling my hand around in one of those elaborate, comical-if-they-weren’t-so-infuriating handshakes and pulled a spool of duct tape from deep in his pocket. Without missing a beat, he taped the broken window while Maggie Townsend, chin on hand, eyes over bright, asked me pertinent, half-adoring questions about the New C. of C.
She tossed her blonde hair and said she could feel it in the air: something fantastic was about to happen.
Carlos was back to caressing the inside of my forearm. It took everything I had, life-or-death restraint, to hold myself immobile.
“Don’t you hear it all the time?” Maggie asked. “That hum rising to a buzz?” She personally was ready to dedicate herself to freeing legions of thwarted souls.
“What?” Upset about the window and determined to ignore Carlos, whose intricate, excruciating touch kept burning my arm, I asked Maggie how she and Carlos knew each other. What was their connection?
Lavishing even more attention on me, Maggie said, “From tai chi.”
They had taken a class together at the Y and had considered each other best friends” ever since.
Best friends? I couldn’t tell whether this was a romantic euphemism or a simple, plain truth. But nothing’s simple. Maggie Townsend talked too much. She wiggled in her seat and ran nervous fingers through her blonde hair. Her avidness was embarrassing in a way that made me like her. And, by now I was positive: No matter what she and Carlos shared ideologically, sexually they were impossible. Carlos was the archetypal secular gay monk. While poor, needy Maggie Townsend was obviously, tortuously “straight.” I liked her, too, because she agreed with me about the first meeting.
“False euphoria can be dangerous,” she told Carlos. “It was insulting how you set Malcolm up.”
(My problem is I don’t get out enough. My encounters with people consist of catering to customers, placating employees, and protecting myself from suppliers. Someone agrees with me on something more significant than decaffeinated vanilla-scented French roast and I am beside myself. Someone agrees with me on worship and it’s as if she’s saved my life.)
Fresh coffee and big squares of my carrot cake appeared before us.
Stephanie served us so unobtrusively, you’d think she had invisible powers. Pooling over, down and around each perfect square of cake was a luscious pineapple-cream cheese sauce only Carlos could have concocted.
“Okay,” he said. “So maybe the last meeting didn’t reach total rapture. Still, it was—it was perfect.”
Carlos was running his knuckles lightly, swiftly along my leg, “If you got carried away, Malcolm, it’s because the meeting took on a life of its own. And isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? No one person running it, no one dictating how things should go?”
(Did I tell him that? It was my guiding principle, but did I ever say so out loud? No. Not to anyone.)
“I never planned this far.”
“No rules,” Carlos said, “and ritual will develop spontaneously.”
“Where are you getting this, Carlos?”
Stephanie, who was serving me more coffee and cake, said, “It’s not so hard to figure out. Religion without rules. Everybody has their say.”
“Who’s talking about religion?” I yelled.
“No one,” Carlos said. “No one is talking about it explicitly. But. . .”
“But what? You think you can read my mind?”
“The New C. of C,” Carlos said, “may not have anything to do with religion, per se, but it is life-affirming, a forum for the whys and wherefores of life and death.”
“Really! And, how the fuck do you know?”
“Because, Malcolm, I know whereof I speak.” He was caressing my shoulder, one satiny brown hand squeezing the back of my neck. I dragged my finger through the leftover sauce, and was raising it to my mouth, when he swooped in and sucked it off. Sly with mischief, Carlos swirled his fingertips over my plate, and then over his. He wagged five silken pineapple-cream cheese caps in front of my face.
“No thanks.” I averted my eyes.
He smacked his lips. “Oo-yum!” But when I looked again, his sauce-covered fingers were still there in front of my face, waiting to be licked.
21) The Ultimate Believer
Ninety-nine percent of the time I’m sure they’re right: You don’t give up after one try. But when I close my eyes there’s a nameless but familiar face there, winking and grinning at how stupid I am.
Carlos is back at work—and thank God (no questions asked, no answers given), back staying with me. Tonight when I said his plan for reviving the New C. of C. carried whiffs of conspiracy, he wrapped his arms around me from behind. I was standing at the counter, opening another bottle of Côtes du Rhone. Carlos had been taking his bath; it was easier for me to mention “conspiracy” when he was in another room. But suddenly, there he was, standing behind me, wrapped in a towel. The ends of his hair were wet and warm beads of water were sliding down his arms, on to my arms. His almost regrown mustache brushed my face. “That mentality, Malcolm, is what makes you so perfect.”
I did not even try not to tremble. Carlos is starting to get old and there are places where his skin is wrinkled but he’s lean and brown, and thick greenish veins swell over his sinewy muscles so that you can see, (and really but feel) them pulse. For a second I thought he was going to throw me to the floor—and then he was at the other end of the room, clothed in my robe.
Crossing his brave-looking, high-arched feet, he leaned against the doorjamb and said, “That lunatic fringe mind-frame is what makes you so perfect as a spiritual leader.”
After managing a long, steadying sip of wine, I asked, “How so?”
“Because it shows such extraordinary ability to look past everyday logic.” He shook his head and laughed. “Conspiracy nuts are the ultimate believers. Think about it, Malcolm. What is faith but the ability to see connections that are not completely there?”
22) What Happened This Morning
That was two days ago, and what happened this morning was nothing. I know that. It was nothing!
My only excuse for even thinking about it is that it’s late. I can’t sleep. And I can hear Carlos sleeping in the next room.
At five this morning, after we’d kicked out Mason and Roger, but before Maggie and Stephanie’s arrival, Carlos was cracking eggs into the vat. I was leaning against the wall, still half-dreaming, so this next non-occurrence might only have been a figment. My eyes were half-closed and Carlos came over and placed his hands along either side of my face.
He stepped closer, pressing his body into mine. And then, cradling the back of my head, he kissed me, running his tongue over the front of my teeth at first and then pushing the tip along the roof of my mouth. Then, with a little push, he said, “Leave everything to me.”