Thursday, December 30, 2010

“A Town Called Disdain”, Episode Fifty-Six: the unbearable loneliness of being Big Jake

By popular demand Larry Winchester now returns to that lovable rogue, the rancher Big Jake Johnstone in this our serialization of the masterwork Harold Bloom has deemed “the only book I would take with me on a trans-Saharan camel trek”.

(Go here for our previous episode; click here to return to the perhaps only dimly-remembered first chapter.)

September, 1969. The Johnstone hacienda, just a short hop through the wasted scrublands outside of a town called Disdain...

Things had broken up back at the ranch, fallen apart, fizzled out. Less than a minute after Enid’s truck drove off Grupler and Marlene announced that they wanted to take a romantic starlight drive; they mounted their Range Rover and headed off down the same road Enid had taken. The nice young couple said they were in the mood for a drive also, and they drove off down the road as well in their old Buick Riviera, followed in short order by Mr. Philips and Mr. Adams on their Yamaha dirt bikes.

Big Jake was rather drunk by this point, and he tried to get the Doc to set and jaw a spell with him. He loved to try to talk with the Doc about the good old days back in the European Theatre of Operations, where Jake had amassed a fortune on the black market in his capacity as a supply sergeant. But the big problem here was that the Doc couldn’t stand to talk to Big Jake at all about anything at any time, and in fact considered him to be one of the two or three most irritating people he had ever met in his half-century of life on this planet.

“Well, Jake,” he said, “I better be hitting the road.”

“Aw, come on, Doc, set a spell,” said Big Jake.

But the Doc was already heading back to the house to get his black bag.

Big Jake sat there at one of the littered and sticky picnic tables, all alone. Hope had bade a fond farewell to Enid and to Dick and Daphne, and then had gone back to the house with barely a nod to Jake, her own father, at least he hoped to hell he was her father. The band still played on, drunker than ever, but everyone else was gone, all his so-called friends who had only come for the free food and drink. Even the ranch-hands had drifted off. A great feeling of depression seemed to invade Big Jake from the enormous dark and twinkling sky, as if all the blackness of the universe had decided to enter into him and compact itself into a black hole inside his chest.

So Jake decided to drive into town and get his pipes cleaned out at Mel’s Photographic Arts Studio. After that he reckoned he’d have a couple-three more drinks and slap a few backs over at Burt’s, and then maybe he’d drive out into the desert and shoot his damn self.

(Continued here. Soon to be a major motion picture from RKO featuring Mr. Orson Welles as Big Jake.)

agent stax/agent volt, part 2

story and screenplay by jason gusmann

visuals by rhoda penmarq

to view complete episode, click here

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

it's winter...

by human being

illustration by rhoda penmarq


no wind
no rain
no snow
a long cold dry season
lasting a lifetime

they say people soon get used to things
they say people soon forget
but i got used to not getting used to
and i forgot to forget
i still remember the hopeful mountains of my city:
they used to walk with me everyday
before they disappeared in the smog
i still remember the sincere eyes of the people of my city:
they used to talk to me everyday
before they disappeared in the dark
i still remember who i am
and where to go
but no one believes me when i tell the truth
or when i say each step makes a difference
they have forgotten that caring is sharing
that sharing is all
they look at me strangely when i stop to watch the crows
or when i treat the street cats to some food
smiling at children is considered a waste of time
writing poetry a good way to kill time!
pens are mostly used to write shopping lists
books are written but not read
all have become shadows
dissipating in the light of lies
enveloping the city

all have forgotten
all are forgotten

sometimes a few come together to show off the collection of their pains
or to discuss their bed adventures
yet soon they retreat to their loneliness
they nod when you talk about preservation of the environment
but never get off their cars
they smile when you sing about freedom
but never open the door of their cages
they shut their eyes
and ask where beauty is
they open their eyes
and wonder why they cannot find the truth

no wind
no rain
no snow
a long cold dry season
lasting a lifetime


Saturday, December 25, 2010

the analytical geometry of a relation...




minus my height minus my friends
am still me

plus my height plus my friends
is not even she


Friday, December 24, 2010


by arnold schnabel

illustrations by rhoda penmarq

This somewhat disquieting sonnet first appeared in Arnold Schnabel's Philadelphia neighborhood weekly The Olney Times of April 27, 1963, not too long after his release from a three-month stay at the notorious Philadelphia State Mental Hospital at Byberry. The streets mentioned are in downtown Philadelphia, as was Leary's Book Store.

-- Dan Leo, author of Arnold Schnabel: A Reader's Guide; Assistant Professor of Classics and Phys. Ed., Olney Community College.


I don’t want to go downtown any more;
I want never again to open that door.

Chancellor Street, 13th Street, St. James Place:
Cocktails and chatter; despair and disgrace.

I wander through Leary's, fumbling through books,
And then through the stamp store, happy as a child;

At Horn & Hardart’s I avoid those idle looks,
But somehow I still hear the call of the wild:

It’s always just one beer, or one Manhattan,
Or so I say, as I approach that certain pub;

But once I sit down all else is forgotten,
As though I’d been struck on the head with a club.

I don’t want ever again to open that door;
I don’t want to go downtown any more.

Mirror, Mirror

I am a stunningly beautiful woman. I am six feet tall, I have natural dark red hair with a blonde streak strategically placed, a perfect complexion, big eyes, long, thick eyelashes that curl up perfectly, high cheekbones, luscious lips, dimples when I smile and a delightful chin. People notice and comment on my beauty every day since I was a stunningly beautiful baby. I do not need a mirror to reconfirm it, but I do get a kick out the vintage mirror I purchased at an estate sale. It always answers me like the Queen in Snow White’s did. Yes, it tells me that I am the Fairest in the Land. I carry it in my purse in case I have a bad day.  I promise you I am not an ego-maniac or narcissist, it is simply the truth, anyone will tell you and the mirror does not lie.
            My friend Paul wants to take me to a gay bar, he says they have these wonderful shows where men dress up like women. He thinks I will enjoy it and that they will love looking at me the way he does. He says I am a Drag Queen’s dream. Whatever that means. I told him I would go if we could do it tonight. So, now I am dressing up for this show and am inspired to dress in the sexiest outfit I have. If I am going to be a Drag Queen’s dream, I want to look and act the part. Leather bustier with my boobs pushed as up and out as far as possible topped by a sexy vest worn open in the front. Makeup applied perfectly with big green eyes and red lips. My weave accented hair hanging down to my waist in billowy waves. My leather skirt so tight my perfect ass looks magnificent. The black fishnet stockings add just the right touch and the strappy spike heels lift it all up and show me off for the stunning beauty that I am. Eat your heart out Drag Queens.
            I am stunned at how these men actually look like real women. They have no evidence of a stubble on their faces and no sign of their penis under very tight -tights and skirts as tight as mine. Their make-up is phenomenally perfect, their clothes are amazing and very sexy. It is hard for me to believe that a man can dance around in those spiked heels. I am having so much fun here, some are even singing in lovely womanly voices, although most are lip-syncing. The entertainment value gets an A++ from me. I can see why I would be a dream for them, they probably would all kill to have my looks.
            Now there is one coming out with a veil over her face. Suddenly, I hear a loud cracking explosion in my purse. The audience has erupted with cat calls and whistles as Miss Star Sapphire takes off her/his veil. OH MY GOD, I suddenly realize why my mirror, now just a pile of glass shards at the bottom of my purse has shattered. I am no longer the Fairest in the Land.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

“A Town Called Disdain”, Episode 55: Mannix

September 1969, New Mexico.

Our merry crew -- the returned soldier Harvey, the mysterious and glamorous Dick and Daphne Ridpath, the local sculptress and café owner Enid, and the British musician Derek Squitters -- have all decided to head out to the reservation and take part in a peyote ceremony with the Native American medicine man Paco...

(Click here to read our previous episode. Go here to return to the beginning of Larry Winchester’s sprawling epic. "Makes Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian look like Bridget Jones's Diary." -- Harold Bloom, on Oprah.)

What happened was that Enid wound up driving out to Paco’s with Daphne beside her in the cab and Derek and Dick and Harvey in the back, and as the boys bounced up and down in the bed they put away a fat Thai stick that Dick pulled out and they washed it down with a couple of cans of Falstaff apiece.

Derek opened up his guitar case and took out his old Gibson sunburst and bumpily sang some Jim Reeves and Jim Ed Brown songs in his nasal and whiny but somehow lovely cockney voice.

Harvey had put on his army field jacket for the cool night air (he’d cleaned and reloaded Mr. Johnstone’s revolver and stuck it in the right side pocket, and he had two loaded speedloaders in the left pocket).

Paco’s house turned out to be a small tarnished Quonset hut on the outskirts of the local Mescalero reservation. A 1955 Plymouth wood-paneled station wagon was parked next to the hut, and the wheelless hulks of several other automobiles sat here and there nearby in the moonlight.

Enid knocked on the door. They could hear the sound of a television. She knocked again and called out Paco’s name, and finally Paco opened the door. He was wearing a faded and torn green-and-white University of Hawaii t-shirt and a pair of striped boxer shorts.

“Hey, Chief,” said Derek. He had his guitar at his side with the strap across his shoulder.

“Derek,” said Enid.

Paco looked from Derek to Enid to Dick and Harvey and Daphne.

“Look, Paco,” said Enid, “this is Derek. He’s the guy I told you about.”

To tell the truth Paco had completely forgotten about the whole deal.

“Got the loot, too,” said Derek, and he took a wad of bills out of his PVC trousers pocket.

“And, Paco,” continued Enid, “this is my friend Daphne.” She reached past Derek and pulled the gorgeous Daphne to the fore.

Daphne flashed her most winning smile as Paco looked her up and down.

(Be it noted that Paco had a wife and five children, but they lived in another Quonset hut about five hundred yards down the road.)

“And this is Daphne’s husband Dick, and you remember Harvey? He just got back from the army.”

Dick and Harvey both raised their hands in tentative salutation and quickly lowered them.

Enid had made the proposition to Paco a few days ago at the little roadside stand where he sold local Indian artifacts which he bought direct from a factory down in Juarez. When Enid promptly accepted his jocular but deadpan price of five hundred dollars he just as promptly closed up shop and proceeded to tie a terrific load on. This particular evening he had been sitting on his couch watching Mannix and nursing a world-class hangover and wondering why he had gotten so damn drunk when Enid knocked.“’Ere ya go, mate,” said Derek, and he proffered the wad of bills to Paco.

Paco didn’t take the money but continued to look from one to the other of the white people.

“Daphne was wondering if she could take part in the peyote ceremony too,” said Enid, as if she were reading an unfamiliar cue card.

“She got money,” said Paco. He had a disconcerting way about him of asking questions in the form of statements.

“Paco,” said Enid, “Derek’s already giving you five hundred bucks. You can spare Daphne a few buttons.”

It was true, he did have a decent supply of peyote on hand, having recently gotten a good deal from the Motorpsychos.

“’Ere, Chief,” said Derek, “take the bread, man.”

But Paco still wouldn’t take it. He was staring at Dick.

“My friend,” he said.

“Hiya, fella,” said Dick.

For Paco was indeed no other than the Indian Dick had bought a shot for the other night. Dick put out his hand in his polite way, and much to his relief Paco, after only a moment’s hesitation, took it.

“And you the lady who dances,” said Paco, looking at Daphne.

“I am?”

“On the bartop with no shirt.”

“Oh.” Now she remembered. At least she had kept her bra on. She was pretty sure she had kept her bra on. “And how are you, Paco?”

“You all want to meet Peyotito,” said Paco.

“Who the fuck’s Peyotito,” said Derek.

“Derek,” said Enid, “put a lid on it. Peyotito is the spirit of peyote. Right, Paco?”

“Yeah,” he said. He was still gazing at Daphne.

“Cool,” said Derek. “Let’s go meet the geezer then.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Paco, “come on in, we all meet Peyotito.”

“Uh, wait, Chief, I mean Paco,” said Dick. “I should say that Harvey and I are just along for the ride here. We’d like to watch if we may, but --”

“No watch. If you stay, you meet Peyotito.”

“Oh,” said Dick. “Well -- maybe we should just sort of camp out in the truck then --”

“No camp out. If you outside your spirits interfere. You come in, meet Peyotito.”

“Well --”

Paco took the money out of Derek’s hand and turned back into the little house, leaving the door open.

Dick looked up at the starry sky for a moment. Stars. Billions of them. Ten billion species of sentient beings. Each creature with millions of moments of life. When he looked back down the others were all looking at him, as if waiting for him, as if he were in charge.

He damned well didn’t feel very much in charge.

“Okay,” he said. “let’s go meet Peyotito.”

They went in.

(Continued here.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rhinestone Harley Girl

She drives a classic model metallic-opal Fat Boy Harley enhanced with chrome spill guards, the pegs were embedded with rhinestones to match those edging the license plate and the seat. She rode low to the ground in her white leather bustier and fringed chaps that coordinated with the tassels hanging from the ends of the handlebar grips. The overall effect as she  roared down the street, her golden hair flying behind like sparks, was like a shiny, mother of pearl gem on a platinum rocket. She wanted to cruise the old neighborhood where she used to cruise in her dilapidated old Yamaha. Most of her friends had moved to jobs in other cities.  The few that remained had husbands who don’t seem to want the mother of their children to be driving a “death-trap”. The changes, which years away from this place, had brought were only on the surface. The white clapboard house she grew up in was painted a garish shade of purple. A half life-sized plaster elephant adorned with ornate scroll like cloths made her feel as though the circus had moved in on her past. The convenience store her father used to own, where she worked during her teens, was converted to coffee shop.
That’s where she saw Jimmy, as she slowed for the stop sign, standing there leaning on a shiny red mustang looking as cool in his black aviator sunglasses as he had when he was the hottest male in high school. They dated once, back then, a date that failed by her unwillingness to do something she wasn’t willing to do in the front seat of another mustang. To her surprise he recognized her and waved her over. Three failed marriages hadn’t wiped the little boy smirk from his face. He still looked up to no good, his jeans slung low around his hips, tattoos of coiled serpents adorning his muscular upper arms, a heart with half an arrow through it emblazoned his bare hairy chest. Time seemed to stop as they checked each other out, wondering whether that date would turn out differently if it happened right now. She could do it now, what he wanted then. He smiled at her like he could tell that she knew the kind of love-making he still craved. The heat from his stare burned her eyes. Sexual vibrations rose from his body like the vapor off a pot of boiling water.  She looked away, revved her engine and was gone before the thunder reached his ears.  

Date with a Swami (illustrated)

by romantic poetess

illustrations by rhoda penmarq

I was invited to attend a Darshan for a man called Swami G. It sounded like fun and the man who was hosting was a renowned chef with a reputation for incredible food.  I was excited to accept, as I had never been invited to one of his famous events. Eric, the host, was not exactly clear about what to expect. Yet here, in the heart of suburban Mineapolis, I was about to attend my first Darshan.
Eric made a wonderful table of delicious treats, although it was a cold winter evening and everything was cold. Someone made a comment about the coolness of the food and Eric informed us that Swami G was a raw food vegan. I could have sworn there were some cold meat delicacies on the table but I would have been wrong. Swami G, dressed in a long burnt orange robe with a bright orange scarf wrapped around his neck,

filled a plate and sat on the throne like chair Eric had arranged for him in the middle of the circle of pillows where the chosen audience to the great one would assemble.
Speaking while he ate he thanked us for coming out on this cold night to eat cold food and listen to an old man talk. The crowd smiled but no one laughed, we are very polite here in Minnesota and we didn’t want him to think we were laughing at him. He briefly explained that a Darshan was an audience with a holy man or guru, who was there to answer questions from us and to teach through those answers. He hoped that we would all leave the Darshan more enlightened. I was seated two people to the left of him, thankfully, he said he would answer one question from each of us, starting to the right of him. Breathing a sigh of relief, I would have time to come up with a question.

Eric was first and he asked Swami G why there were so many natural disasters and why the number of people dying in them seemed to grow each time there was another one. Swami G giggled and said, “Mother Earth is crying and she needs to call in as many souls as she can so they can be taught to care for her. When they have learned how to save the earth she will reincarnate them. It is Mother Earth’s only hope.” His answers to all of the questions were short and full of the exact explanation to why and how things were going to happen.

When he got to me, I asked him about people who rise to high office around the world that appear to have evil and dangerous intentions, like Osama Bin Laden or George Bush. Serious this time with a deeply furrowed brow he said, “We all have free will and when people use it for evil they are pooping on the world, they will return as poop collectors, spending life after life picking up poop until they learn.” I really loved that answer and the images of evildoers picking up poop picked up my spirits.

When the last question was asked, Swami G rose and left the room, bowing and thanking us for the thoughtful questions. I helped Eric clean up and was about to leave when Swami G walked back into the room and put his hand on my shoulder. “The Universe is smiling on you,” he said and handed me a card with his name and phone number. “Call me, I have a message for you that the Universe wants delivered, but this is not the time or place.”
Curious, but somewhat anxious, I waited four days before I called. I started to say my name and he said, “I know who it is my child, the Universe has been waiting to hear from you.” I tried to say something but could not frame the words in my mouth. “You need not speak my child, I will tell you what I have been told to say and you may go your way. Your real mother was a creature of the sea, half seal, half woman. Your father is the one you know, he was on his way home from Germany after the war and stopped in Ireland to visit the seaside village where his mother was born. Despite having a wife back in Minnesota, he fell passionately in love with a beautiful woman named Airmid and she seduced him into making love with her.

The result of that union was you. He wrote his wife, the woman you know as your mother, and told her that he was leaving her to be with Airmid. The day that you were born she told him that she must find her skin and return to the sea until you were ready to join her. Then she left and was never seen again. Legend calls these people Selkies, many believe they are mythical but they do exist and they live to create babies that are fully human. When they mate with a human and create a child, they are called to return to the sea.”

“Wait Swami G, are you saying that I am a Selkie? That is not possible, I am fifty years old and have no children. I love the ocean but I never wanted to live in it.” I was trying to exercise my Minnesota nice and not tell him he was full of poop. He giggled and said, yes he understood, but there was a reason for that. He said “ your father was so angry when Airmid left him and the villagers told him the story of the Selkie that he swore he would do everything possible to make sure that fate did not happen to you. He took you home to Minnesota, as far from the ocean as he could and when you were twelve years old he paid a doctor to sterilize you so that you would not be able to have children. He felt that it was the birthing that triggered the desire to return to the sea.”

Not believing a word he said and knowing that my father would never do anything like that, I said, “But, you said that the Universe was smiling on me, this is terrible.”
“Not so,” he went on, “You found me and I am here to tell you what you must do to truly live the life you were meant to live.”
“I am supposed to live the rest of my life as a seal, I don’t think so.”

“Not to worry, you can no longer be called to a life in the sea, but you are needed in Ireland. You must return to that seaside village and start an orphanage for Selkie babies, you are an example that will show them that they do not have to make babies and then return to the sea. You can teach them that they have freewill and can choose a different life than the one their mothers whispered in their ears on the day they were born.”
I was starting to feel sick and dizzy and yet I truly did not believe a word he said. I thanked him for his message and hung up the phone. I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them about this crazy story, yet I could not make myself do it. I called my doctor and asked if there was any way she could tell if I was sterilized. She said that she could order an ultrasound but I would have to pay for it myself since it was not medically necessary. I tried for twenty years with Boyd to have a baby. Boyd died in my late thirties and the desire died with him.
My father, mother and grandparents were all dead. I called my fathers sister and asked if my father brought me back from Ireland after the war. She asked me if I was doing drugs.

My mother’s cousin was the only one left in her family, she was eighteen years younger than my mother and told me that she was never told anything about me not being her real baby. I had my birth certificate with her name on it. I called an attorney friend of mine and asked if it was possible that it was wrong. She said that it was possible since it said that I was born at home. My mind was telling me that this was completely crazy but my heart was telling me to go to Ireland.

I have been in Ireland for thirteen years now and none of my orphan babies have returned to the sea. None have given birth yet. I teach them about their heritage and tell them that they have free will.  I cannot tell them not to go or recommend that they be voluntarily sterilized because I long to go myself. Only childbirth can show me the way and I am an old woman now. My sealskin is lost to me in this lifetime but I pray to find it in the next.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

4. of houses and humans...

by human being

illustration by rhoda penmarq


the new house is beautiful
the new house is bare
the new house is waiting for me

i should pack my things:

i cannot pack the walnut tree outside the window
i cannot pack its summer branches 
loaded with the screams of parrots and croaks of crows

i cannot pack the persimmon tree in front of the balcony 
i cannot pack its autumn attire
decorated with merry fruits and starlings

i cannot pack the sycamore maples
and their early morning dialog with the sparrows

i cannot pack the sweet voice of the neighbor's child
who asks why leaves fall down 
or why cats fight

i cannot pack my footsteps 
hushed on the trimmed garden of the carpets

i cannot pack all the wandering words i hunted
and the lines i tamed

i cannot pack all the songs i sang silently
and the tales walls listened patiently 

i leave the old house empty-handed
the new house is waiting for me
the new house is beautiful
the new house is bare


Monday, December 20, 2010

diary of a heretic, chapters 30 - 33

to begin at the beginning, click here

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!

31) Bafflement

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!

End of Part One

begin part two