by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
30) Money Won't Change You
This time I saw it with my own eyes. The meeting ended eight hours ago and took in almost twenty-two hundred dollars! Two thousand, one hundred, eighty-six dollars, and seventy-five cents. $2,186.75. The number thrills me, though I know it shouldn’t.
Or if it does, I should, quick, give the money all back. Except it’s not mine. It belongs to Religion Without Rules. Which is way off the ground now; way up and running. And that’s what’s thrilling, not the money, not the amount, but what it proves: that we are undeniably on the right track. Anytime people throw money at you, you must be doing something right.
Even before Carlos counted it, he was so excited, he grabbed my face and kissed my mouth. Maggie and Stephanie squealed, digging it out of their uniforms.
“I knew it,” Carlos said, jumping up and down. “Time is with us on this thing. Whatever we want to happen is happening as we speak!”
(Well, really, as I speak, but of course I didn’t mention this. Carlos who basically preempted my program—the concept was mine, all he did was adjust the mike—comes on like he’s God the Father and I’m the Son. I mean, I do the talking, I deliver the sermons—and in the end I’m the one who’s going to get nailed.)
Oh, all right, sorry. Forgive me, One True Almighty One. It’s in no way Your Sublime Fault that Carlos has quit juggling the iron balls. Quit even looking at me; I mean at all!
He’s quit playing music—not one recording of rain falling or surf pounding, no chants, no Tibetan bowls, no saxophones, nothing.
“There is not time for that now.” That’s what he said Friday night.
There is no time for that, and he zapped off Charles Mingus. Ever since I fucked him, Carlos gives off a palpable air of: DO NOT DISTURB. He’s fed me nothing, and not touched me once! That is, until after tonight’s meeting, when Maggie and Stephanie heaped money on the table.
There was so much! So much that Carlos got carried away and gave me this big gift: He spontaneously grabbed my face and kissed my mouth. Like I should be: Thank you, Carlos! Oh! Thank you, thank you!
Baptism by Humiliation. Enlightenment through Remorse. A honey-soaked voice-over follows me around, testifying to all that I endure. The Prophet Rises Before Dawn, Cleanses and Girds Himself. In Perpetual Hunger, He Imbibes a Scalding Elixir, Waits on Customers, Calls on Suppliers.
To get through the day I imagine myself playing an exalted role of the insanely exalted role Carlos was fattening me for.
In a Shaft of Light The Prophet Concentrates on Everyone’s Pain and Suffering, Everywhere. Extremely juvenile, I know, but the game comforts me.
Carlos acts as if as if I’m no longer present. He makes donuts, cakes and pies early and phones realtors later, looking to buy a space that would combine living quarters for seven, hold activities for two hundred, and show off a glorious, new bakery. Meaning whenever the subject of mortgages comes up, lo! the scales fall from his eyes. He can see me again!
“How much have you got?” He means in addition to the business and the building.
“No shit.” He’s squeezing my shoulders, basking in my presence. The mere mention of my 350 thou in savings—the result of my never having gone anywhere or done anything but work in this shop—earns me a few hot moments of adulation. He gives me a maddening, lingering caress. I still want him desperately, but unless we’re talking down payments, Carlos is totally indifferent to me.
Since Carlos began ignoring my existence, I’ve been eating almost nothing. But tonight something happened. One minute I stood downstairs, staring at an Amaretto cheesecake. And the next, quivering from head to toe, I was allowing myself a little sliver . . . which, as it dissolved in my mouth, awakened an overwhelming need to go on allowing myself little slivers until the whole sweet rich thing was gone. Dazed, almost drugged, I tromped upstairs, demanding he tell me what’s wrong.
“Wrong?” Carlos shifted in his chair—my chair. “Yeah, what’s wrong? Well, let’s see.” Staring at the ceiling, he tapped his temple. Then he made a frame with his fingers and squinted at me. “When you ask, what’s wrong?” Carlos said, “are you inquiring about my health?”
About to walk away, I turned back. “You know what I mean.”
“Or why I’m sitting here unable to read because the light’s burned out?”
I retreated to the kitchen, but Carlos followed me. I put water on for tea. Carlos flashed me a loathsome smirk.
Before long I gave in to the unremitting fury and said, “Okay, Carlos. Why, once you become my lover, do you hate me?”
And then his face went blank. A shadow passed and he stood silent. I turned off the stove, about to walk away, when he jumped in front and shoved me against the wall. In a grotesque voice, he parroted me: “How come? But why? What’s the reason?”
I ducked past him but he grabbed my arm, which he twisted behind my back. When I struggled, he butted my head against the wall. The blow sounded a dull thud and produced an awful squish. The pain was shocking. Carlos let go; there was a string of stars; the hall light bulb swung from the ceiling.
He was shaking his finger at me. “You—you deserved that! Nothing but whining and sniveling. When I’ve always done all the work, and you’ve socked away all the profits.”
Then he whirled back at me. “But the thing I really can’t stand is that wheezy, sniffly sound you make when you breathe.” Tendons throbbed from his neck. A vein pulsed on his forehead. “The sound of you chewing and glugging. The way you mewl around, with your fat fucking tongue hanging out of your fat fucking face.”
This last had been punctuated by steps on the stairwell, which I hadn’t noticed until Carlos shut up. We heard the knock-knock. Instantly in control, he raised his eyebrows to indicate, Was I going to answer that or what?
Woozy with pain, I opened the door to Maggie, who tapped me brightly on the chest with the fliers she had rolled up in her hand. Wrinkling her forehead, she said, “Oh, did I come at a bad time?”
The three of us shifted to the front room.
Maggie said everywhere she went people were talking about Religion Without Rules. On campus, in town, everywhere. But the big news was, she’d found the perfect space for us, a defunct bowling alley, about ten miles west. At which point, I nodded and claimed I was going to bed.
Night Descends on the Baffled Prophet. Forsaken in his Room, He Awaits Another Dawn. The Walls Close In.
I could, it just occurred to me, take the money and run. With my three hundred and fifty thousand dollars in savings, I could go to California and join one of those Revelation/Apocalypse groups. I could travel the world, start a new business, whatever.
32) A Blow to the Head
Last night marked the ninth meeting of Religion Without Rules. Except for the first two meetings, with Connie Llewellyn, Victor Smith, Maggie, and then Carlos—I still do all the talking. Last night the crowd overflowed the shop. People milled about the sidewalk, while Louie Duvall set up a closed circuit TV outside.
We reap more money all the time, which I find so disturbing, I just let Carlos handle it.
But when I mount the dais and face the crowd,
I don’t know, I just go into this mode that feels so fantastic, I’m amazed no one’s tried to lock me up. (Yet.)
33) Despite Everything
I know now how it will go. If I close my eyes I can see the whole long dizzying trek into the future. Not all the way to the end exactly, but far enough to realize that whatever that is glinting off in the distance, it’s inevitable. There’s no changing it. Everything I said at last night’s meeting was true.
I said: “You can’t give up. No matter how often you pray for the experience—no matter how often you think you’re there, it’s finally, finally happening—only to discover that it was just a presage to transcendence and not the thing itself, you have to go on. You have to keep wanting it.”
“Because,” I said, “there is no alternative. Other than to spend your life blotting out basic questions. Ordering yourself to shut up, don’t think! How are you going to suppress everything you wonder about? Everything you dream?”
“Either,” I said, turning off the mike, my voice big with inherent reverb, “you’re fiercely seeking a spiritual awareness that never comes, that almost comes, that fools you into believing it’s almost, almost here, and then, after a second, evaporates. Or, you’re floating aimlessly, eyes fixed on a monotonous white sky. What choice do you have?” I asked the crowd. “Are you who’ve suffered a thousand disappointments going to sink into a stuporous life, accumulating the most expensive junk you can find? A shiny machine, a glimmering stone, a nameplate? Your own true-life saga this week’s mini-series: You think that will make it all worth it? The same day you fulfil your desire, you discover it’s not enough. You’ve got to have more! And then if it turns out, the thing you wanted so badly for so long makes you miserable, you’re a step ahead. Because if it robs you of everything you’ve ever loved, at least you realize what a fool you were!”
“But if, as also happens, the fame, money, power, knowledge, the beach house, just gets kind of old, kind of boring after a while, you’ll let down your guard, and all the questions you tamp down, blot out, hush up—will erupt. The minute you relax, the minute you shut your eyes or skip your medication, they’ll inundate you. All those silenced aspirations will deluge your mind.”
“Ultimately, everyone prays to someone. In dire straits, we all ask, ‘What am I doing here? And, why?’ Don’t we?” I asked, spreading my arms. “Don’t we all?”
The gauzy white shirt I was wearing filled the air. I raised my arms and the material colored the room, draping us with a soothing collective coolness.
“Whether we know it or not,” I said, “we all beg for faith. Faced with mortal danger, atheists turn hopeful; fundamentalists doubt. In desperation, we all whisper, ‘Dear God, please, keep the plane up; pull us out of this nosedive.’ Of course, after the crisis, our flickering prayers disperse. We jump head first into the mainstream. ‘Who’s going to win the championship, the election, the lottery?’”
“Oh, maybe a few saints, manic-depressives, people on the brink of death can sustain spiritual awareness. But the rest of us have to stick to the here and now. We can’t spend every second striving for what we can never, ever have. We have jobs to do. “Right?”
(Looking up I saw Stephanie and Maggie brandishing stacks of money.) “Besides, it’s really not up to us. There’s no way we can earn a direct experience of God. There’s no way we deserve it. It either happens or it doesn’t. The best we can hope for, if we say the right words, if we kneel perfectly straight, is a shivery intuition. And even then, even then, we can only stand so much. Anything closer to the Divine than a gentle, invisible flutter, a welling in our chests, and we’d keel over and die.”
“Right?” I said, spreading my arms. “Right?” And the air near my face shifted. My fingers tingled. My words went out to the audience and it was as if I touched each person in the room. My shirt billowed over their luminous, upturned faces. My words drew the people to me and I gathered their ravenous souls to my about-to-burst breast. I hugged them and cooed in their ears: “But that’s okay. It’s all right. For no matter how often the shiver, the bath of light, distant trumpet playing, the moment of levitation turn out to be just that and nothing more—turn out after a brief stab of ecstasy to be a chill, a glare, the odd reception from a passing radio and not signs from heaven—we will not give up. We will joyfully embrace every glancing, passing shadow that comes our way. No matter how futile it seems. Right?”
And then—shit—I looked down!