by Derick Varn
continued from part II
“My god, it finally happened.”
On CNN, we watched the Twin Towers fall in an eternal loop as a banner screamed, in red, “America In Crisis.” The words scroll into infinity as we stared blankly.
“My god, it finally happened. We’ll be at war soon.” Myke says as we both rubbed our eyes watching the World Trade Center turn to powder. News about a plane crashing around Somerset, Pennsylvania had set me on edge. Sarah’s family lived about ten miles from where one of the planes had crashed. I spent several hours on the phone calling a dead line.
“Myke, I am not surprised and that horrifies me.”
“That building has been hit so many times and nothing ever really happened, but I never thought,” Crissie let Myke pat her shoulder. “My father is in Mexico right now, I don’t know when he’ll be able to get back across the border.”
“Who you think did it?” Myke hugs Crissie. The rest of the room was silent. Each of us beyond any possible knowledge that would come from the constant bombardment of late breaking newsflashes.
“Who know? Anyone could have. Militants from the mid-West, Arab radicals, French Canadians, who the hell knows,” I turned off the television. We had been sitting in a friend’s dormitory for two hours awaiting news and all we were getting was a speculative body count. The five of us sipped Cokes and silently mourned. My eyes blurred from a mixture of tears and television glare. “Let’s get some wine and watch some movies. There’s nothing more we can do.”
“Why do you do this, Sandoz?” I asked as my stomach growled. My face was bleeding, two blows in the head from skinheads who mistook me as one of their own. She tore off a piece of her shirt and pressed it against my head.
“Monk, you should go to a hospital.” Four days and she had taken to calling me Monk. My shaved head and my constant use of Buddhist koans had endeared me to her.
“Not an option, Sandoz. So why?” I winced as she wiped blood out of the open flesh. “Fuck,” I tensed as she burned a gash on my chest with her Zippo.
“It stops infection.”
“To answer your question. Well, someone has got to look after Judy and Spange,” she paused to make sure they were asleep. The gym of the abandoned elementary school was frigid and broken glass mixed with bird shit lined the floor. Judy and Spange lay entwined on the bleachers. The four of us had scored enough change to get us all one-way Marta passes to the south side of town.
“Anyway, I’ve been doing this with my father since he lost his job in the mid-80's. Two years ago, I was staying in a squat house with my dad. His house was raided and all 15 of us living there were kicked out. Some were arrested. Jen and Hawk lost their baby and the cops burned the building down. What’s left of it is still at 477 Florida Avenue.” At the sound of her echo, Sandoz lowers her voice.
“That’s a shitty way for things to go down, Sandoz.”
“Yeah,” she paused to run her fingers through her hair, “it’s cold. Better we don’t sleep alone, Monk.”
“Children it is the last hour; and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. Thus we know this is the last hour.”
--1 John 2:18.
“Thanks for meeting with me Father. I know you don’t get away from the parish often.” I said as Father Donavan sat beside me. He smelled of Old Spice and let a soft smile casually beam from his face. We met often, discussed Buddhism, the church fathers, and Irish lager.
“No problem, Chris.”
“Can I buy you a beer, Father?” I tapped the bar to get the bartenders attention. “Two Guinness Stout, please.”
“Just one, Chris. Too much beer doesn’t go over with the Diocese.” The bartender placed two napkins down. Then she slapped down two glass mugs. The beer was thick, and it moved like sludge as I twirled the glass.
“Thanks again for continuing these discussions.”
“It’s no problem. It’s my duty as a Jesuit to minister to those on the outskirts of the church, to clarify church matters, and. . .”
“To care for the needs of all those weak in and alienated from the faith. I know. My mother is Irish Catholic, remember?” I gulped down some of my beer. It stuck in my throat, oozing down to where I could feel it unsettle my stomach. “I was a Buddhist layman studying to be a monk. I doubt you’ll covert me back to Mother Church, Father.”
“Well,” He sipped his Guinness, “it’s my duty to try.”
“Do you mind discussing the Apocalypse with me?” I watched the neon glare reflect on my mug. “It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around it. In Buddhism, time is cyclic, so there is no need for an end time. There is a belief in an age in which the Dharma will deteriorate. At least, in some of the Japanese sects. Kamo-no Chomei writes about it as a ‘wretched and degenerate age.’ But even that’s merely a phase.”
“What exactly do you want to know?” Father Donavan slowly placed his beer on his napkin. I looked at his large hands—they were firm like dried clay.
“Can anyone be an Anti-Christ?”
“Get the hell out of here.”
We found ourselves hitting parking decks down the maze of Peach Tree Streets. A gaunt black man with open sores lining his arms and face approached us. The puss from the sores smelled of rot. People in black suits scurried by.
“Can you spare some change, brotha?”
“Does it look like we fuckin’ have change.” Germ spat on him. Sandoz slapped Germ .He spun around and belly punched her. Her scream spread through the parking deck. “You mother fucker, that man’s got AIDS. You heartless son of a bitch, look at his arms.”
“Dirty needles.” Germ swung around hitting her again like a gall gutting a trout. I dove for his boot and grabbed his knife. The steel glistened in the fluorescent light. He rushed for me. I sliced the air and his chest, dropping the knife as soon as it hit flesh. Judy, Sandoz, and I ran and hid under a Jeep Cherokee. Security officers scoured the area and we could hear Germ scream “fuckin’ pigs.” Then I felt a hand on my foot. One of the security guards pulled me across the pavement. My wounds scraping against the concrete, I yelped.
“Get the hell out of here.” He said, his hand on the nightstick on his belt. “I’ll have you vagrants prosecuted if I see you again.”
“Each Generation needs its rally point.”
When I was ten, I sat watching a documentary on the 1960's and 1970's. I was fascinated with the protestors and rallies, the speeches of the Civil Rights leaders whose vocal inclinations reminded me of a Sunday morning service. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Timothy Leary, Rosa Parks, and Governor Wallace flashed on the screen like religious icons. Secular pietas engraved on the American memory. I glared at the television for two hours.
“Each generation needs its rally point, son,” my mother said when she noticed what I was watching. “That was ours. That and Vietnam. They bring a generation together. I am sure your generation will have one. But trust me, it’s a lot less glamorous than it looks.”
I sipped cherry Kool-Aid as a Shower-to-Shower commercial took the documentary’s place.
“Funny how things work out.”
Judy sat across from me as I leaned over a plate of pasta and a glass of wine. Her hair cropped short, but natural auburn. No more blue spikes. She has gained weight and her two-year-old clings to her as she eats. We discussed her military husband, my girlfriend, and the virtue of a good glass of white wine.
“You still writing, Chris?” She slurped up her noodles gracefully. Dabbing a napkin around her mouth every few minutes, her posture remains straight. All her piercing are gone, but little holes perforate her skin were they were.
“Yeah,” I tossed another piece of Calamari in my mouth.
“Did you ever publish that article on us?”
“Yeah, I omitted a lot.” I paused, then took a gulp of my wine. “Whatever happened to Spange? I remember when you guys ran off to Chapel Hill. You came back with a kid and a new husband.”
“I haven’t heard that name in a long time. He got himself arrested selling meth when we were in Charlotte.”
I stared at Judy’s baby boy. He calls me “Uncle D.” His blond hair and constant smile unsettle me. His hands lack the calluses that mine have developed over the past few years.
“How’s life treating you, Chris? I heard you were in a monastery for a while, now you’re off to College. Sandoz always thought you’d be the one to make it.”
“What happened to her?”
“She married a recently ordained Methodist pastor and developed a trendy addiction to Codeine. Last saw her in 1999 at a party, it was our last night together. Her husband was an avid nihilist when they first met. Funny how things work out.” Judy spoke softly, hiding her inflections from her little boy. “Why don’t you talk about yourself?”
“Judy, I keep hearing about how amazing it is that I survived what we went through,” I took a deep breath and the another sip of wine. “You’re doing fine. So why make a big deal about me. I am a poet and a pizza manager, it’s a lot less glamorous than you make it sound.”
“There are questions that have no straight answers,” Father Donavan stared at the ceiling for moment. “In scripture the title antichrist or antichristos, is only directly mentioned in two of the Johannine Epistles. The battle with the antichrist at Armageddon is conjecture. Traditionally John of Patmos, who wrote Revelation, is considered to be the same as John the apostle.”
“I need another beer.” I motioned for the bartender and slapped down a wadded ten-dollar bill. “Please, continue.”
“While obviously Revelations is canonically accepted now, it wasn’t always so. St Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Jerome did not think the book was inspired,” Father Donavan chugged his beer down between sentences. “The German scholar Vischer continues this thread. He thought that the Apocalypse of St. John of Patmos was of Jewish composition then converted to deal with Christian subjects.”
“So the answer to my question?” The bartender winked as she dropped a fresh mug in front of me. “Add it to my tab. That’s a tip.”
“Second Epistle of John, Verse Seven: ‘Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”
“So any punk off the street who screams ‘God is dead’ or something similar is an antichrist?” I avoided Father Donavan’s eyes as I spoke, staring solely at his fingers.
“Depends on who you talk to. Some theologians believe Antichrist is an evil principle. Others believe it refers to a person of the past, like Diocletian, Nero, Simon Magus, or Caligula. Some Protestants have equated it with everyone from Napoleon, Mohammad, and any number of Popes.” Father Donavan paused, stressing the last syllable. “Of course, the Holy See does not agree with any of these statements.”
“So what is the answer, Father?”
“Perhaps,” Father Donavan swallowed down the last of his beer, “it is not relevant. Remember not all the Church Fathers held Revelation as canonical. Protestants love hellfire and brimstone, but I am not so sure that’s what Jesus would have wanted us to be constantly reminded of. I walk into a Walden Books and see books by Hal Lindsey or The Left Behind Series, all offering graphic visions of the tribulations. There’s something unhealthy about all of it.”
“What are you saying?” I bottom-upped my beer, forcing down a gasp.
“You may be asking the wrong question.”
.“I would say that disillusion is revelation and revelation is apocalyptic.”
–Li-Young Lee, Writers Chronicle, volume 34, issue 6.
Judy drove quietly from Macon to Milledgeville. Highway 49 was largely unlit and her child slept soundly in the backseat. She fidgeted as she zoomed by miles of forest. I listened to the wind whistle as it cut through windows. The radio was off.
“I’m sorry about losing my cool.” I looked at myself in her rearview mirror. My eyes lids were sagging and my lips were chapped.
“It’s okay,” she did not look at me.
“No really, it wasn’t very kind of me.”
“But it was true,” she turned on the radio, searching through static. “It has just been so long.” We say nothing the rest of the way. When we arrived at my apartment complex, she hugged me so tightly that I thought she would force all the wind out of my lungs.
After I thanked Judy for the dinner, I sat on my bed and read an interview with Li-Young Lee. I stopped on a line that spoke to me: “I would say that disillusion is revelation and revelation is apocalyptic.” Apocalypse literally means unveiling. A truth gradually exposed in a haze of ignorance. Sharon was an English teacher. She knew the definition of the word when she said, “Sin unveils things that shouldn’t be seen.” So did Father Donavan when he asked if I was asking the right questions. Y2K, the squatters, 9-11, Reagan’s doom’s day fantasies, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the fact that we survived each one led to another disillusionment. The rallying points my mother had promised me had turned their jaws on us.
Finally, I wrote a response to Jon in e-mail, but I never clicked on the send button:
One can accuse people born after 1979 of fatalism and it would be true, but it does not stem from apathy or contempt. We believe we see most of the systems around us decaying. Whether this is true or not is not an issue. It is, perhaps, the pressure of decay that has been illuminated by centuries of religious thinkers and violent politics. The burden is one that the young are not willing to bear. Or, more likely, simply don’t understand enough to even try.
I sighed. The whole paragraph rang as true while simultaneously seeming like total bullshit.
“Samsara is Nirvana”
The next morning, my inbox had e-mail from Jon. It simply read: “We are in agreement.” I poured myself a cup of coffee and laughed. I sat down and wrote him back: “I suppose so. Still I don’t claim to have answers for things I don’t understand. Perhaps, it was a dumb question.”
There was a saying that I always remembered from my Buddhist studies, “Samsara is Nirvana.” It meant that everything and nothing are the same. It meant that the physical and the spiritual were the same. It meant that the answer to a question is usually the question stated as the answer. Or more simply, it meant, stop asking questions and start living them.
The night after I typed those words, I slept peacefully with my rough-hewn hands under my head. I dreamt I watched Judy’s child grow.
I see him spreading paste on blue construction paper. Then reading Robin Hood, and then the Bible. I see his fingertips callus and the skin of his palm grow leathery. I see my mother looking out of his eyes. I see Judy, both the one I knew and his mother. I see him marry. I see his children and his children’s children. Lines of little hands waiting to grow hard, stretching for miles.
As I dreamt, I held Sarah tightly. Wrapping my arm around her waist, I knew all that there was to know about the Apocalypse. It had begun to unveil itself with each beautiful word. The dread that I felt, the dread others felt: it all seemed to stem from a question that never should have been asked. Despite Johnny Rotten, John of Patmos, and Hal Lindsey. Despite whatever doom Ronald Regan had anticipated. Despite my own secret dream of tribulation or revolution. There most definitely was a future.
When I awoke, I clasped Sarah’s hands tightly, palming the soft skin between her fingers. “You need to put some lotion on your hands, dear,” She said poking my side without opening her eyes. “You’ve let them get really rough.”
Derick Varn is a poet and longstanding contributor to Unlikely Stories. Check out his literary works at this site.