The pavement seems to shake slightly, like in the first rumblings of an earthquake, as I dodge vehicles to reach a phone on the other side. No one else seems to notice these movements. Someone beats me to the phone. I continue past pawn shops and liquor stores and a string of franchises, protected by the play of shadows, and through vaguely familiar neighborhoods constipated with burglar bars. Few cars pass. An occasional pair of eyeballs bulges from a darkened window. A patch of youths fidgets on a corner, staring down anyone entering their plane. It's like it's much later than early evening, and not a midsummer night at all when the outdoors should teem with life. That house on the corner brings back memories.
As residences give way to scattered businesses on the fringe of downtown, it's like the lights in the distance from the commercial core rush me, though I soon realize from the sound it's a copter. It hovers and then circles the few blocks around me, illuminating a wide swatch of the neighborhood. Tempted to run for it, I soberly feel my way along a fence through a back yard and around the block as the copter repeats its pattern. I eventually end up a few doors from a bar, the Breviary.
On the outside it looks like your typical neighborhood haunt, nothing too sordid or daring. It's perhaps the perfect venue for a nip, or spot of grape after mass with family friends, and even those who put the celebration together.
But not for juicing your attitude before mass, getting up at dawn for the jolt that gets you to the point of being able to consider what an attitude adjustment is all about, and then perfect it throughout the day; and certainly not for soaking your sins during it. The problem it seems is that the former can easily lead to the latter. You arrive early to taste one of the same substances that consecrate mass, spirits his reverence consumes to commune with spirits, and you begin to realize a few pops later that you're doing just fine without him, no need to move the feast elsewhere. Your visions prove it, at least until last call tells you otherwise.
And the dark interior of some of these secular temples can help make you feel, if the vibes from the congregation are right, that your body and blood might be transubstantiating.
I enter and find a space so dark I can barely make out the few forms scattered throughout. It seems to be transitioning between sports bar and throwback saloon, though the direction is unclear. There's no music, and only whispered flares of conversation. Each stares in a direction that seems unreachable by anyone else's. Either no one knows each other or everyone's so familiar that it doesn't matter. The bartender, his services not needed at the moment, reclines on a bar stool staring at an elevated TV screen on silent with his mouth wide open. He closes his mouth partially and turns to me, then back again to the muted picture.
I ask for a beer, while trying to make out the shapes around me more clearly. The bartender just gawks, like I speak a foreign language. I repeat my request.
"Where you from?" he blurts.
"Here and there."
"Don't remember seein' you round here before."
"That a requirement to get a beer?"
"Why you here?"
"I just happened to stumble on this place and I'm thirsty."
He continues to stare, but says nothing. Meanwhile most of the shapes become a gallery, waiting for the next move.
"Give him a break, Axel! Everyone's an outsider for somebody sometime. Ain't you from Carson or something? Wouldn't get too holier than thou if I were you, that's a pretty suspicious beginning," a guttural voice responds, piercing the quiet.
"Torrance!" Axel fires back.
"That ain't much different," the voice responds, which appears to hit the target, turning Axel's attention to servicing me.
"I'll have the local favorite."
My choice of words seems to pique the gallery, which now appears more diverse than I first thought. Though mostly male and old-timers there's a fairly young couple in the corner, one middle-aged woman at the bar and two others of indeterminate age near the door. The rest are males in their 30s and 40s.
"What brings ya to our fair city?" an old-timer manages to spray.
"High school reunion... came in on Thursday."
"You one a those fish eaters from up on the hill?" the woman at the bar throws in.
"Mostly vegetarian these days... never did pay much attention to those rules when..."
"...when did you graduate?" another voice lofts from the back.
"A while ago, back when we were in the final stages of whacking the commies and making the globe freer and safer for all!" I return, not sure if my words find their target.
"Oh yeah, the decade that made greed and fame our national obsession," someone else says.
"Mine's the decade of hippies and letting it all hang out," says another. "Can't ya tell!"
"Hey, you must be in my class! I didn't go this weekend, blew it off like a lot of us around town. Your face is somewhat familiar but can't quite recall your name... play sports?" the female half of the couple in the corner says as I inch to their table.
"Football... but didn't really have the fight, the heart... sorta went through the motions until was forced to face the fact it wasn't for me."
"The voice... your eyes, it's like they're..."
"What are you seeing? Old home week bring back too many bad memories? Or are you coming down from too much fun?
"Na, na... only stayed for a short while, basically crashed it... didn't really see anyone I remembered well. It's what happened after, too amazing to recount!"
"You got a scholarship to SC and played end?"
"Quarterback... got a partial at Nebraska Bible College."
"Hmmm... guess got you mixed up with... Fred!... must be you cause weren't you involved with Jocks for Jesus?"
"Yeah, that... well, for a while but not..."
"...so what could happen to you that was so amazing in a town where Jesus rocks and brotherly love is its gossipy passion? Especially since you kinda look like him! Can't imagine anyone here going at their object of devotion... maybe times are startin' to change!"
"It was a priest, well not a real one, or at least I don't think it was. He came outta nowhere and started yelling at me and said he was going to kill me, chased me out of this house I was at down the hill and ended up running into the church last night, barely escaping... and I think he's still after me!"
While I'm talking I notice out of the corner of my eye that her friend, who'd been virtually spellbound, erupts into giggles. The stark visual contrast leaves a clownish impression on his face. This chills the blurbs of conversation around the bar. I ease into a chair at their table captivated by his expression, which returns to its previous state. It now seems to say he's either heard all this before or is a complete disbeliever. His age is indeterminate. He seems a little younger than her, but in the relative darkness it's hard to tell.
"A priest after a likeness of Jesus! What's the punch line?"
"I know it sounds pretty crazy but... it happened, swear!"
"Maybe Rome sent out a hitman since you're veering too far from the creed or the haircut code. Lookin like Jesus today won't get you saved!" she adds, glancing toward her partner as if she's eliciting support.
"Yeah, well this priest was certainly clean cut, and very athletic."
"Like you, back in the day? Those eyes, what worlds you must've witnessed?"
"Did my time in some shadowy trenches! But where's everyone who's worth remembering from our class?"
"Some I hung with split and barely heard from them again, we never kept up... it's like once they got away they felt like exiles, crossing over into another world that canceled this one completely... remember Lucretia, Demian, Albert, Laurie, that crowd?"
"Sort of... weren't they involved with a magazine?"
"Laurie was. I went to Australia for a couple years and came back, but then off again after a year or so back east to school, and settled for a time in Texas learning how to be a real cowgirl. There's a bunch of us who left and came back, though we're not always tight, but we mostly keep our distance from the townies who never left... they're a separate breed for the most part and don't want much to do with us... they're often into some pretty strange things!"
"What breed am I?"
"You're definitely breedable!"
She tilts her head ever so slightly toward her partner as she says this, while keeping her eyes on me. After a lingering second he grabs her leg. I can see now from the angle of light that he's several years younger than her.
"We've done some interesting breeding with those who came here for whatever reasons from wherever and stayed, getting addicted to our warehouse bohemia."
"I don't know why I came back... hadn't given this place a thought for years and years even though I can't think of much that's really wrong with it... in the scheme of things high school is probably not all that big a deal, it's something to be transcended no matter what... guess just had a fit of nostalgia!... can you give me a lift to the airport?"
"You can't go home again as they say... it'll give ya the fits... I tried and ended up homeless for a while till I could reinvent myself!"
"My name? I didn't think you remembered! Melina. Was named by my adopted mother after Melina Mercouri, that silicone sex goddess with the plastic accent that I've never resembled in body or spirit...think it must've been about her fantasies."
"Your face looks somewhat familiar, but I don't recall that name...were you friends with any of the cheerleaders senior year?"
"Those bimbo mannequins, you gotta be kidding!...only one I even talked to was Marci whose parents forced her into it because they wanted her to be a model. She ended up doin' porn films down in Mexico."
"Yeah, I had a thing goin' with this cheerleader for a while but can't remember... she was into dressing up all the time and spotting stars. I've always been fascinated by that idea of leading cheers!"
"I was a cute punk rebel doing everything I was told not to!"
Melina's partner gets a call on his cell and jumps up and away from the table, finally going outside. Meanwhile the bar fills with more people and I decide to begin feeling my way out.
"Come with us!"
"No, I'm gonna mosey back to my motel and begin re-forgetting my past... maybe even start planning my future... at least if that priest doesn't get me on the way!"
"We should talk about that 'priest' thing... seem to be a few loose ends with..."
"...I'm tellin it straight...was at Louise Salomen's house, you remember her?"
"Not really... oh, yeah I think... wasn't she on the debating team or something?"
"Maybe for a while."
"Where can we reach you?"
"I'm staying at the Epistolay."
"Perfect!"...(To Be Continued)
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