Sunday, August 21, 2016

A language gone to hell



When the devil speaks in your ear,
his whispered words appear scrawled
in red letters on the inside of your eyelids,
the same shade of red as his leathery skin,
red from being out working in his fields
under the noon sun for all eternity.
This way, if, in his mind, he’s misspelling a homonym,
like “your” when he means “you’re”,
as in “your not strong enough to withstand me”,
you can call him on it.
And when god speaks in your ear
his whispers also appear
on the inside of your eyelids,
but in stark, bright white.
They look like stars strewn across the sky,
as if they were so many monochromatic
Pollock paint splotches on a black canvas.
But you can’t read them at all, because god speaks
in Zodiac-like shapes and symbols, not words,
so you could never tell him he spelled something wrong.
The devil, he wants you to know
what he intends to do, he wants you to be aware,
and to be afraid, to live in dread.
So he tries to communicate in your language,
he listens to you, and also learns what he can
from online self-study courses at the University of Phoenix.
But even as clever as he is, human language is foreign
to him so he struggles, like you would if
you tried to learn to speak Dolphinic or Chimpanzee-ese.
Conversely, god doesn’t care
if you understand his intentions or not.
It makes no difference to him
if you are aware of his desires or plans.
The union requires that he post notifications
in public places as well as sending individual
communications under certain specific situations.
But there is no requirement that the notifications
and communications be in any specific language,
hence the zodiac symbols and various inscrutable miracles.

So, one in each ear would just about blind you.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Niko Nikolakos, Middleweight



Niko Nikolakos, Middleweight

Father O’Malley’s the one who got Niko into boxing, to help him find a way to use his anger and aggression. Besides boxing, the other thing Father O’Malley taught Niko about was the Bible. The verses and stories, the names and places, stayed with Niko long after he quit boxing. He didn’t necessarily always remember things exactly the way they were printed on the page, or the way Father O’Malley explained them; but, one way or another, it was all still in him. So, yes, Father O’Malley was a major force in shaping Niko. But there was another; someone Niko crossed paths with for the first time on a warm night late in the summer of 1952.

Esther was a waitress in the Depot, a dingy club with a sawdust covered floor that showcased blues and jazz musicians from around the country. On the night of his first visit to The Depot, Niko had stopped in to hear Lowell Fulson, the west coast blues singer/guitarist, whose piano player and musical director at the time was a young, unknown Ray Charles.  Niko was mesmerized by the young blind pianist, the way he rocked and swayed on his bench, the way his hands moved over the keyboard, sometimes seeming to dance lightly across the keys, sometimes pounding them as if trying to beat them into submission. It reminded him of boxing, of being light on your feet like a dancer while waiting for your chance to hit your opponent with all your strength.

He didn’t notice Esther that night.  But she noticed him.  He was nearly the only white man in the place, so pretty much every one noticed him.  Niko didn’t care about race or skin color.  He came to hear some blues, and wasn’t aware that he didn’t exactly fit in. It wasn’t just his skin color that caught Esther’s attention, though. It was the power and energy she could sense from him when she brought him his drinks, the strength she could see in his hands as he slapped the table in time to the music and in his hips when he walked out the door at the end of the night. She wanted to know what it would feel like to be touched with those hands, loved with those hips. Niko came away from The Depot with two new appreciations:  The piano playing of Ray Charles, and whiskey.  Esther came away with an appreciation for Niko.  Neither Ray Charles nor Father O’Malley were affected in any way, since neither of them were aware that Niko had even been there that night.

§

The chain of events that had led Niko to Father O’Malley in the first place began with the death of his mother. He’d never known his father, or had any other family, so, when his mother was raped and killed, 13 year old Niko was suddenly very alone in the world, and very angry. Niko’s mother, Angelika, had been working as a waitress in The Hibernian, one of the rowdier drinking establishments in the Irish ghetto. The owner only hired attractive women, and required them to wear short skirts and silky blouses with deeply plunging necklines. Angelika put up with the humiliation of being manhandled by the drunken clientele because she needed the job, needed the money to support herself and Niko. The general belief around the neighborhood was that the man (or men) who killed her and left her naked and bloodied in room 11B of the Sandy Acres Motel, out on the edge of town, was likely a cross-country truck driver. Young Niko suspected that it was actually Francis Callahan, one of the regular customers in The Hibernian, and the one his mother most often complained about being mistreated by.

Thirteen years old, full of grief and anger, lonely and confused, Niko broke into Callahan’s house in the middle of the night and beat him while he slept, until he was almost unrecognizable and barely alive. Five years later, at the age of 18, he was released from the County Juvenile Detention Center in Hendersonville. He was big and strong and every bit as angry as he’d been when he was first locked in there. Father O’Malley was waiting at the gates of the Detention Center, as he was the first Friday of every month, when the center released any of their inmates who’d reached the age of 18 during the previous month. He made the same offer to all the newly released young men: come to work for the Diocese, painting and landscaping around the parsonage, the church and the cemetery in exchange for a place to live in the attic above the garage. Most declined, some because they had families waiting for them, some because they didn’t trust this strange priest. But Niko accepted, mostly because he really had no idea what else to do.

 “It’s like she died for nothing”, Niko told Father O’Malley, over coffee and scrambled eggs on his first Saturday morning in the parsonage.

“Niko, this idea that one death has more meaning or more significance than another, this is a question I used to struggle with. But no more. Whether one death is more important or more meaningful than another, there is none among the living who can say. And, I rather believe, there are none among the dead who would even consider the question worth asking. It’s not the dead we need to worry about, son, nor the manner of their death. It’s how you live that matters, what choices you make here on earth.”

“You mean like me choosing to beat the hell out of the man who killed her?”

“Like that, yes, but also like deciding to come here and try to find a new path. It’s never too late, Niko. As long as you’re alive, your fate is still undetermined. Once you finish breakfast, I’d like you to mow the grass around the church. The mower is in the shed, and there’s a can of gasoline in there as well. If you have any questions, or need anything, I’ll be in my office. Lunch back here at 1:00, then we’ll go to the gym.”

That evening, after dinner, Father O’Malley read to Niko from his Bible, book of Matthew, Chapter 18, The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Peter has come to Jesus, privately, away from the other disciples, and asks him about forgiveness. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”  Jesus says to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Jesus then tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, about the king who forgave his servant’s debt, because the servant begged him for mercy. The servant did not forgive a debt owed to him by another, however, and instead had this other cast into prison. When the king heard this he said:  “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?" The King then has the unforgiving servant sent to prison, until he can pay the debt he owes.

The priest looked at Niko, who was listening intently, and recited the final line of the chapter, Jesus’ words to Peter: “’So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.’ Niko, you must forgive the man who hurt your mother. You must forgive all the sins and transgressions committed by your fellow men, else your own sins and transgressions cannot be forgiven you.”

“Is it that simple, Father, just forgive him, after what he did? It’s easy to say, but I don’t know how to actually do it.”

“Easy? No, certainly not. But you can do it, Niko, if you make the effort. I want you to think about this. And while you’re thinking, I’ll do some drinking.” The priest took a bottle of whiskey down from the shelf over the sink, and poured some over a few ice cubes. “Niko, none of us are perfect. We all transgress, we all have our weaknesses. You, me, Francis Callahan, even your poor mother. We are human, not divine. The closest we can get to the perfection of our Lord Jesus is to forgive others’ for their weaknesses.”

Niko went up to his room and tried to sleep, while Father O’Malley sat in his leather chair with his Bible in his lap and his whiskey glass in his hand. Sleep didn’t come to Niko, however. His mind swirled with thoughts of the night he’d beaten Francis Callahan. How, he wondered, could he ever forgive that man for what he did to his mother? And how could he himself ever be forgiven for what he had done that night?  Once he saw that the priest had turned out his lamp, and the parsonage lay in quiet darkness, he climbed out the window of his attic apartment and walked to town, lured by the glare of neon and the sound of trumpets and saxophones. He didn’t find forgiveness that night, for himself or for Francis Callahan, but he did find a way to forget, to escape from his own thoughts, letting the music of the night wash over him and fill him.

 §

Father O’Malley instilled in Niko the value of ritual, of routine: mornings mowing lawns, painting fences, and other small jobs around the church and cemetery;  afternoons jogging, working out and sparring at the gym; evenings either listening to Father O’Malley read to him from the Bible in the parsonage or sitting in on group Bible study classes in the church. This was the routine Father O’Malley gave to Niko. Niko added his own bit at the end, sneaking out to the bars and clubs to hear some blues or jazz after the priest had gone to bed. That’s how he spent his days throughout that summer, the days turning into weeks, into months.

He ran almost every day, building his endurance. Father O’Malley was a firm believer that running was as important for a boxer as sparring or weight lifting. “If you get tired before the other guy does, you’re done, no matter how strong you are or how fast your hands are.” His route started at the parsonage, led once around the perimeter of the cemetery, down Chestnut Street until it reached the railroad crossing, then along the tracks themselves until they led back to Main Street, and back to the parsonage, five miles, almost to the inch. In addition to getting into shape, Niko was also learning the town and its neighborhoods: the Irish and Italian ghettos on either side of Springfield Boulevard; the small 2 block section of Greystone Avenue where the Greeks had congregated; and the tenements on Oakwood Avenue where the blacks and the Puerto Ricans lived in uneasy peace.

The town had a kind of rhythm, too. The people had their routines, habits, rituals. One that Niko witnessed every Thursday afternoon as he jogged around the cemetery was Mr. Oakley’s weekly visit to the grave of his wife. Mr. Oakley would park his 1946 Oldsmobile Coupe on the side of the road, but leave it running with the radio tuned to the classical music station. He’d pull a folding chair out of the trunk and a bunch of pink tulips out of the back seat. He would walk slowly down the tree lined path until he reached Mrs. Oakley’s grave, still close enough to the street to hear the music from his car. He’d place the tulips on the ground in front of her headstone, unfold the chair, and sit down. He’d sit there for an hour or more. Sometimes he’d sing along if the radio station played an opera. Niko was fascinated by Mr. Oakley’s devotion and dedication. He wondered what it was the man thought about as he sat there. Was he remembering the times he’d had with his wife, the meals they’d shared, the little intimacies of a life lived together….or was he thinking of the times they could have had if she hadn’t died, maybe even wishing he’d been the one to go first. It’s much harder being the one left behind.

§

Niko returned to The Depot the next night after he’d seen Lowell Fulson and Ray Charles, and Esther made sure he noticed her this time. She flirted. She gave him her best smile with her warm hand resting gently on his shoulder. When the music was too loud for him to hear her, she leaned in close and let her lips brush his ear, “need another drink, honey?” When she brought him his next whiskey sour, she dropped her pen on the floor beside his chair, giving him a chance to examine her stockinged legs when he bent to pick it up for her. And when he handed it back to her, she used it to write her address on his cocktail napkin, bending over his table, exposing her milk chocolate colored cleavage for him. He was hooked, and she knew it. “Meet me at that address. We close at 2:00. I’ll be there by 2:15.”

Niko, for his part, didn’t say a word. He didn’t know how to act with a woman, at least not a woman like this. The ladies at Father O’Malley’s bible study were demure, modest. Esther was neither of these. When the band finished for the night and the lights came up, Niko moved toward the exit along with the rest of the stragglers. He glanced back toward the bar and saw Esther there, looking at him. He didn’t know what to call what he was feeling, but he couldn’t deny it. He saw her look at him, saw the shape of her, remembered how she’d smelled when she had whispered in his ear, remembered how her hot breath had felt against his ear and his neck. He wondered how her brown skin would taste, how it would feel to touch her. He nodded in her direction, ducked his head and stepped outside.

It was raining, a warm summer rain. Not a soaker, just enough to make everything seem clean and fresh. Niko looked at the address on the cocktail napkin. It was in a neighborhood he knew from his daily run, on the south side of town. He headed there, cutting through the cemetery he’d mowed that morning. He felt like he should bring something with him, some token to give to this woman he was going to meet, the woman he knew nothing about, but to whom he was suddenly drawn. There were no stores open at this hour, or course, but he knew he could find a fresh bunch of pink tulips at the base of the headstone bearing the name Rosalind Oakley, 1887-1947. Niko remembered Father O’Malley telling him “It’s not the dead we need to worry about”, and though he knew this wasn’t exactly what the priest had in mind, he felt that he was embarking on a new path, one that could help him erase the one he’d led up to now, one that could return him to the world of the living.

Wet but full of anticipation, he arrived at Esther’s place, a 3 story, 3 family tenement building right next to the railroad tracks. He knew she couldn’t have gotten there yet. Plus, he didn’t know which apartment was hers. The cocktail napkin only said “Esther…179 Oakwood Avenue”, no apartment or floor number. He felt strange about waiting on the porch, so instead he found a broad limbed maple tree on the corner of the property, and took some shelter from the rain beneath it. The only sound was the rain falling on the leaves overhead, until he heard the clicking of Esther’s heels on the sidewalk. He stepped out from under the tree, rain soaked shirt clinging to his skin, the bunch of stolen tulips in his hand and a shy smile on his face. Esther laughed gently and took his other hand, leading him around to the back of the building where there was an external staircase to the third floor. She held her umbrella over them both as they climbed, and he wrapped his arm around her waist.

Neither of them spoke as she unbuttoned his shirt and stroked his chest. There was no need for words as she let her dress drop to the floor and placed his hands on her. Esther led, and Niko followed eagerly. He was surprised at her strength, and by her softness. He thought he’d never felt anything as soft as her breasts when she guided his hands to them, and when she straddled him on her bed the power in her hips and thighs as she moved against him was something he never expected in a woman. By the time the first rays of the morning sun streamed through the window Niko had experienced much that he had only dreamed of before, and some things he’d never even imagined. He knew he should get back to the parsonage before Father O’Malley came looking for him, but he had no desire to leave Esther’s bed. Her head rested on his chest, their legs were tangled and sticky with sweat. He thought she was asleep, but as soon as he tried to move her so that he could get up, she spoke softly, “don’t leave me, lover. Stay. I’ll make us breakfast.”

She rose and he watched her as she walked away, her graceful brown body looking more beautiful to him than any of the stained glass windows in Father O’Malley’s church. From the kitchen he heard the sounds of cabinet doors opening and closing, pans and dishes, water running. He smelled bacon frying and coffee brewing. He slipped into an easy sleep, comfortable and warm. He woke when Esther brought him a plate piled with bacon and eggs and a hot mug of strong coffee.

“You need to refuel after all the energy you used last night”, she teased.  Niko blushed, but didn’t hesitate to dig into the eggs and bacon. “I don’t know anything about you, Niko. But I like you. Tell me about you, what do you do, where do you live?”

He told her everything, without hesitation or shame. He’d never felt so comfortable with another person, never so free to share, not even with Father O’Malley. When he told her about beating Francis Callahan, a tear came to her eye. She could see the thirteen year old Niko, still there inside the man, and she knew that he was still frightened and angry at the loss of his mother. She took his hand and brought it to her lips, then she pulled him to her and held him while he told of the years in juvenile detention, stroking his neck, and letting her tears roll down her cheeks and into his hair. They made love again in the morning light, this time with less frantic energy and more tenderness. Niko felt as though something that had broken inside him all those years ago was somehow mended. Not returned to its original state, but no longer ruined.

For her part, as much as she was drawn to Niko and felt his pain, Esther was not ready to open up to him in the same way. She’d been hurt too many times before by men who listened when she unburdened herself, who held her and acted sympathetic while she cried, only to prove in the end that all they wanted was to get her into bed. That’s why, now, she was determined to be the one to do the seducing. Not because she intended to do to Niko what had been done to her; only because she wasn’t going to let anyone ever to it to her again. She thought that if she controlled the situation, if she took the lead, was the aggressor, then the man wouldn’t be able to hurt her. She’d call the shots, get what she needed, and be ready to get out if things started to turn south, without feeling betrayed. So when Niko got dressed and said he’d better get back to the parsonage, she didn’t beg him to stay. She let him go, secure in the knowledge that she’d been the one to reel him in, and that if she never saw him again it wouldn’t be because he’d taken advantage of her.

§

Niko didn’t get back to the parsonage until 10:30, and found it empty. Father O’Malley hadn’t been as shocked by Niko’s absence as the young man might have expected him to be. The priest knew the ways of the world. He’d been an 18 year old himself once, with a rebellious spirit and a raging libido. He was aware of Niko’s nocturnal escapes, even if he didn’t know the exact details. At 38, he was far from an old man, and remembered well his own sense of teenage confusion and desire to experience the world. In 1932 it had been the big swing bands of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington that provided the soundtrack for rebellious youth, replaced now by the rhythm and blues of Lowell Fulson and the like. The essence was the same though, as it had always been and would always be. The musical style might change, but always there were places for young men and young women to find each other after dark; to hold each other and share a moment while the band played on.

Father O’Malley knew well the siren call that lured Niko from his bedroom into the seedy corners of the city. And so he wasn’t surprised as much by Niko’s absence from the breakfast table that morning as he was by the fact that it hadn’t happened sooner. When Niko finally appeared in the priest’s office, expecting a reprimand and some sort of punishment, he received instead an invitation to sit and share some tea.

“Niko, you’ve been training and sparring for almost 3 months now. I think you’re ready for a real match. I talked to my friend Jimmy Hayes who books fights over at the municipal arena. He’s got you down for a 3 rounder next Friday, second fight on the ticket, so we’ll need to be there at 6:00 to get you ready. You can use my old trunks and robe.”

“You sure I’m ready, Father?”

“Sure enough. The only way to be absolutely certain is to get in the ring and see what happens. What do you think?”

“I want to, yes. I’ll do it.”

“Good. There are still a couple of hours before lunch. Can you get over to the hardware store? I’ve ordered some boards and some nails to use to patch up that hole in the back wall of the shed. Need to get it done before the weather turns.”

“Sure, Father. I’ll head over there now.”

“One other thing, son, before you go. Have you given any thought to what you’ll do or where you’ll go when you leave the parsonage?”

“No, Father…do you want me to leave? Is it because I didn’t come home last night? I can explain…”

“No, Niko, you don’t have to explain. I understand. And, no, I’m not asking you to leave. You’re welcome to stay. But I wonder if the time isn’t coming when you’ll want to have a place of your own, with more privacy and more space. Some independence. I’ve no doubt you can handle the responsibility. You don’t have to answer now. Just give it some thought, and know that I’ll help you and support you whatever you choose. Now head over to the hardware store and bring back those supplies, then we’ll have lunch before we hit the gym.”

“Thank you, Father.”

Niko was full of emotions, full of new hopes and new fears, as he made his way to the hardware store. He had to cross Oakwood Avenue on his way. As he approached the intersection he heard sirens, saw a police car speed by with an ambulance close behind. He quickened his pace. He reached the corner of Oakwood just in time to see the ambulance attendants making their way down the staircase from Esther’s apartment, carrying a stretcher. The white sheet that covered the body was pulled all the way up over the face of whoever lay beneath it. Niko broke into a run and reached Esther’s house just as they were loading the stretcher into the ambulance.

“Who is it, what happened?”

A police officer held him back, telling him to move along, to mind his own business. But Niko pushed past him and pulled the sheet back off of Esther’s bloodied and swollen face. He fell to the ground, shocked. Memories of his mother’s lifeless, blood soaked body filled his mind. He watched as the ambulance drove slowly away, no flashing lights or siren; there was no need to hurry. Esther was dead.

§

The police officer on the scene was a member of Father O’Malley’s parish. He drove Niko back to the parsonage, and told the priest what had happened. The elderly lady who lived on the second floor, just below Esther, had called the police when she heard the sounds of a struggle upstairs. The police arrived just in time to apprehend two young men leaving the scene, but not in time to save Esther. The men were drunk, apparently had started drinking sometime the night before and never stopped. They told the officers on the scene that they’d taught that nigger whore a lesson, and that she’d be sticking with fucking men of her own kind from now on, keeping her hands off the young white boys.

Niko sat in Father O’Malley’s kitchen, stunned and silent, as the police officer told all this to the priest. The broken place inside him that had just begun to heal thanks to Father O’Malley’s strength and understanding and Esther’s loving attentions and acceptance was now broken once again, shattered beyond all hope of recovery. He couldn’t help but blame himself for what had happened to Esther. Those drunken bastards must have seen him with her, he was one of the “young white boys” they thought they were protecting from “that nigger whore”. A silent rage rose up inside Niko, at himself as much as at Esther’s murderers. Just as it had at Francis Callahan five years before. Would it never end, he thought. Would the women in his life always die violently at the hands of ignorant drunks? And what if he’d stayed with Esther that morning? Could he have prevented her murder?

Father O’Malley saw all these thoughts on Niko’s face, as plainly as if they were written there in black ink on a white page. He sat beside the young man, placed a paternal hand on his shoulder.

“Remember forgiveness, Niko. Forgive yourself, you are not to blame, there’s nothing you could have done. And forgive those boys, too. They’re drunks who’ve learned hatred at their parents’ knees. The law will handle them, see that they receive the punishment they deserve here on earth, and one day Our Father in Heaven will judge them as well. That is not our place, yours and mine.”

Niko heard Father O’Malley, saw him there beside him, felt his hand on his shoulder. But it all seemed like it was happening to someone else. He felt he was watching a scene played out on a stage or a movie screen. It wasn’t real. None of it was really happening. His mother hadn’t been killed by Francis Callahan, he hadn’t spent 5 years in the detention center for beating Callahan, and Esther wasn’t dead. She was waiting for him now in her apartment, in her bed, waiting to love him and teach him more about beauty and tenderness.

He continued to watch himself and Father O’Malley from a distance, watched as the priest guided him out the back door of the parsonage, up the stairs to his loft bedroom above the garage. He heard the priest’s gentle voice, though he no longer understood his words. He saw himself lying on his bed, saw the priest leave and quietly close the door, leaving him to his grief. But he no longer felt grief. He no longer felt rage or guilt, or anything else.

§

Niko was never quite right after that. He continued to live above the garage of the parsonage until the following spring. Father O’Malley could never get him to talk about Esther, or about his mother. He’d closed those memories away, buried them. He fought a few fights, coached and trained by the priest, losing as many as he won. He continued to study the Bible, again under the guidance of Father O’Malley. Here, also, though, he forgot or mixed up as much as he understood. And he continued to go to the bars and clubs of the city to hear music. But he never again allowed himself to be drawn to a woman, denied himself the pleasures of love. In this he was like a priest himself, imposing celibacy upon himself, but for different reasons.

And then one day, he simply wasn’t there anymore. He didn’t come down to breakfast in the parsonage kitchen. Father O’Malley found his room cleaned and all of Niko’s few belongings gone. When the priest returned to his kitchen the radio DJ was introducing a new record by Ray Charles. “Mess Around” was about to become an R&B chart-topper, and Charles was about to become a star. Though they never saw each other again, both Niko and Father O’Malley followed Ray Charles’ career over the years. And every time either of them heard “Mess Around” or “I’ve Got a Woman”, they thought of the other.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Having read books



Having read books, I know things,
I’ve gathered facts and knowledge,
I’ve eliminated false beliefs
Like so many hexagrams drawn in the sand,
Cleared by the tide.

I once had a mouthful of magic words
Which I cast into the wind,
Carried to unknown destinations.

This and other random acts of magic,
I now find to be meaningless
In a world ruled by the laws of physics,  
Just vain attempts to exert control
As the winds of chaos howl
At the kitchen door.

So you can pray on your knees,
Or throw the I Ching;
You can read your Tarot cards,
Or stare at tea leaves;
You can measure the angle of the stars,
And determine which house the moon dwells in;
But it’s all to no avail,
The universe does not recognize your superstitions.

And she says, “foolish man, how wrong you are
You’ve lived so long but not traveled far.
You can struggle against it, but however much you strive,
It’s my magic, you see, that keeps you alive.
It’s your physics and your rules that the universe ignores,
Your knowledge and facts that nature abhors.
It is magic that makes us who we are,
So, go ahead, make a wish upon a star.”

Fairytales and myths
Genies, monsters and gods
All just smoke on the wind

And she says:
“It’s made up stories, or so you insist,
But how can you believe it doesn’t exist?
Argue your point and I’ll defend mine, too,
But if there wasn’t a heaven, there couldn’t be you,
my Angel.”

And I am defeated.