(Art by spoon+fork.)
Saint Maximilian Kolbe, the Roman Catholic Church I went to before my father freaked out, was also the place where I went to get my flu shot. It was especially terrifying because Maximilian was killed by a lethal injection in the arm by the Nazis. Who designated this church to give shots?
My Sunday school teacher told me that despite how crass and crude the Italian race was, they hadn’t lost the True Religion, and that was to their credit. The English had broken from God because Henry VIII was horny, she told me. I was six.
If you didn’t do the rosary everyday, you could lose your faith. The devil was real and was always working to get between you and God.
“Even I could lose my faith,” she admitted.
“How could the devil get you? You’re a nun,” I said.
“When I dress like a nun as a matter of routine and not ritual, then I am lost.”
My father was a heavy drinker but unlike most alcoholics he was home a lot. He usually lay face down or up on the couch but he would get up to make coffee in the afternoons and to get the mail. I looked forward to when I was old enough to drink and grow stubble.
One day he got a letter from his brother in Ireland that told him that his mother had died. He folded it up and put it in his back pocket.
My mother begged for him to pray for his mother’s soul in purgatory, that we all should say the rosary together. He refused. She begged again. I got scared when he laughed.
“Her spirit’s in another baby right now,” he said. “She’s being born again. She doesn’t need prayers.”
He woke me up that night, his breath stinging my eyes.
“The entire Irish race is being punished. We let the Christians pervert our Gods and smash our altars. They built churches over our sacred sites. This is where the troubles come from. ”
I didn’t know what the troubles were back then, but I kept quiet. I would have been stupid to ask him. My father hated listening to anything–people, news or music.
He had something under his coat. He took out a set of cheap dinner knives, still in the cardboard holder. The metal looked like tinsel in the light coming in from the streetlamps. They must have come from the 99-cent store.
“Boy, come with me. We’ll throw knives in the water to celebrate grandma’s life!”
I suddenly had a premonition as bright as operating-room lights. My father was going to bring me down to the beach, stab me and cut my throat. Then he was going to throw my body into a marsh. I would be found centuries after my death, perfectly preserved like those bog bodies I saw in National Geographic.
I rolled over and wedged my legs between the bed frame and the wall.
“No!” I cried out.
“Shhh!” said my father. “You’ve gone bloody mad! Want to wake up the neighborhood?”
I held fast and closed my eyes. When I opened them, he was gone.
The next day, when my father was asleep, I was in the kitchen with my mother. I told her about the knives. She shook her head but held her tongue.
“What’s wrong with Daddy?” I asked.
“He came here because bad people were killing each other in the streets. His sister was blown up by a bomb.”
“How come Jesus and Mary didn’t help?”
“Daddy doesn’t talk to them anymore.”
“Daddy doesn’t believe in Jesus because his sister was killed?”
“Daddy’s lost his faith. We have to pray for him every day. We don’t want him to end up in Hell.”
I prayed so hard and kept my thoughts so pure, I didn’t even think about eating candy. I said Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and even the Apostles’ Creed, which was so fucking long.
My reward for my new fanaticism was my father ripping apart my Bible in front of me. He warned my mother and I that if we ever went back to Saint Maximilian Kolbe, he would burn the church down.
I spent Sundays in my room, wondering what Purgatory felt like, if they allowed you to sleep when you were tired. I was scared to walk into the living room and disturb my dad. He would be asleep on the couch or doing the crossword puzzle with a pencil that he would snap and tape back together. If the house wasn’t quiet, he’d make it quiet.
There was nothing fun for me to do in my room, so I started doing my homework. I think my grades went up a little. One day I came home with straight Bs on my report card. I thought it would cheer up my mother. I found her lying in bed, her eyes all puffed out and veiny like jellyfish.
She told me that Dad had found a ship to take him and most of his money back to Ireland. He was over here illegally and was lucky he didn’t get taxed, thrown in jail and deported.
I asked her if we were going back to church. She said that she was in her wandering years now but before she died she would get it right with God.
A few years later I became the last person in my family to lose my faith, when I shoved my fishing rod down that sewer grate.
“What have you got there?” I asked, looking at the dry cutting board that should have been dripping with tomato slices.
“Sean, I wanted to show you some of my poems, but I couldn’t get my printer working today,” he said, sitting up. One hand was lightly perched on the keyboard of the laptop computer. “I felt a little inspiration once I got in so I wrote a few lines, just off the top of my head.”
I went straight for the coffee machine. I tore open two packets of grounds and poured them into the brass filter. I pressed both palms against my eyes to hold back the headache that would get worse if I didn’t have a cup soon.
I needed to feed the caffeine monster before I could start doing the prep work that Howard had spaced on. I always over-compensated, so the daily joint in the afternoon really took the edge off.
The machine pissed coffee into the pot. I took two plastic cups and shoved them together. I pulled away the pot with one hand and put the double cup under the coffee stream. Spilled coffee sizzled on the burner.
“Hey,” said Howard, “You’re taking the strongest brew right off the bat. You’re going to make the entire pot weak.”
“You’re weak, motherfucker,” I muttered. When the coffee level was about to top off in the cup, I swung the pot back in. The burner hissed some more and a coffee mist rose up.
I walked over to the order window. I put the cup to my lips and blew gently. Then I breathed in the smell and my sinuses crackled.
I looked at the window and saw small dots of paint on the glass around the handle. I managed to get a few sips of lava-hot coffee. I opened the glass window and closed the screen. Air came rushing in with the salt from the ocean, spiced with the smog from the California kids’ cars. They would drive even a lousy 10 blocks instead of walking.
I had some more coffee. I stared at a dirty seagull frozen in space with his beak open. I got the feeling that I wasn’t going to get laid the entire summer, and somehow I was okay with that.
The coffee started to kick in.
“Lemme see those poems, Howard,” I said. “I’ll read them as long as you cut up those tomatoes and lettuce.”
“I’ve been giving you free weed! You can’t expect me to do a reasonable share of the work!”
“Well forget it, then. I don’t want to read them.”
“Okay, okay. You win!” Walking like he was on the sea floor, Howard slouched off to the fridge and took out a crate of tomatoes and a crate of lettuce. He opened up the hood to the condiment bins and found yesterday’s knife, unwashed and sticky.
I read his first poem as I finished my coffee.
“My bones, chewy as calcium tablets,” it started.
Even if I didn’t know him, I’d think he did massive pot. I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t laugh out loud and hurt his feelings. I moved down the page a little. The laptop was really nice and the keys were soft as butter. They didn’t even make clicking sounds.
I read the 10 lines and forgot them immediately. I walked back to the coffee machine for a refill.
“Damn, you read fast!” Howard said, watching me.
“I’m a speed reader,” I said.
“Did you like it?”
“Oh, yeah. You’re a deep thinker. A real visionary.”
“I’m not a visionary. Right now I’m just sticking to a personal context. But I do want to move on to the next plane. I want to take the long view on life and write universal themes. We don’t see much art from Jersey because of the density of the population. There’s too much stimuli to provide the isolation a poet needs to thrive in.
“Jersey has only really produced two true poets: Springsteen and Danzig. Songs are really poems put to music, and their verses have already stood the test of time. In fact they are probably more poignant than ever in a post-9/11 world.”
“Hey, what about Bon Jovi? He’s a genius.”
“That’s party music. You don’t listen to it for the words.”
“Howard, how much was that computer?”
“How could you afford that? I thought you didn’t finish paying for college.”
“I’ve been saving. Keeping that college debt on my balance sheet helps reduce taxes for me. If I really wanted to, I could pay it off today.”
We went back to the laptop and he threaded a thin metal cable through a security latch and looped it through the slot on the back of a plastic chair. He snapped a special lock through the loop.
“Not that I don’t trust you,” he said. “But people train like ninjas to steal one of these babies.”
When I came back from my smoke break with Mrs. Angrywall, I found Howard pacing outside the burger stand.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Look!” he shouted, pointing to the shattered back of the plastic chair. “I went to take a piss and they stole my laptop! I was gone two minutes! They’re fucking good!”
“You call the cops?”
“No. Why bother? You know how this ends up. The police go on the lookout for a young black male and never find any suspects.”
“Did you see the guy?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“How do you know he was black?”
“Of course he was black! You think one of those white California kids stole it? Use your head!”
“You were really gone for two minutes?”
“Two minutes, tops. Anyway, it’s not really the money. I can get another one. It’s all my personal stuff on my hard drive. It can’t be replaced.”
“You can remember your poems and retype them, right?”
“I had a lot of contacts saved on there, too.”
“Contacts? What the hell are you talking about, Howard?”
“People I stay in touch with! In the working world, if you don’t have a support network, you won’t get anywhere!”
When Howard said he got another laptop the next week, I knew that he was a bigger dealer of modified weed and other things than I had previously thought.
(Part 14 next week.)