The beauty of the Lord of the Rings, I’ve always claimed, rests in the figure of Gandalf. No matter the circumstance, no matter the enemy, Gandalf was always there to lend his assurance. Whether before orcs or trolls or the goblin king himself, Gandalf’s magic was able to provide the necessary power to further the quest.
I suppose, then, that my appreciation of Father Chapman rested in the comfort and assurance I took from his company.
He was a “everything’s-going-to-be-all-right” kind of person, possessed of a benevolent grandfatherliness, and I can honestly admit on behalf of all of us who knew him that his presence in a room evoked this feeling of nostalgia in everyone around him–a nostalgia, perhaps, for the innocence lost that the old fellow had somehow willed to repossess.
. . . But the truth of the matter is that Chapman served as the town’s old, wise hermit, looking down from his cavern over mountains, streams and dale, and that his eccentricities were blooms of the spirit within–incredible riches from God–that we could smell and appreciate with the eyes, but never empirically address.
And it was through these blooms all dried and dissolved in life that we could form a salve . . . a cure . . . And it wasn’t necessary for us to conceptualize how these blossoms taking their lurid contour from the electricity of an old man’s soul could cure such spiritual infirmities as Charsmith’s to be sure of their magic, and so the trials of the vertical journey past stars ejaculating matter-consuming-emptiness and phantasmal aeons and a hogtied demiurge were well worth the reward.
Yes, if White Sands was the infection, Father Chapman was its cure, available to anyone who was willing to endure the sting of his spirit-penetrating syringe.
White Sands had several symptoms of disease: for one, White Sands had the highest rate of incest per capita in all of Canada; secondly, White Sands had one of the highest suicide rates in the province.
I, for one, would argue that the suicide rate soared because of the heightened religious sense of its residents in the context of its vice.
It’s my diagnosis–and I admit that I’m no psychologist–that White Sands suffered from a far reaching cognitive dissonance stretching from the gates of the town (clearly marked by two torpid grey angels soundlessly lifting trumpets to heaven) to the waterside and all inhabitation sandwiched in between.
Part of me suspected that Charsmith’s symptoms would prove likewise, that his conscience had spread through his body like a dreaded disease and that he was in dire need of Chapman’s priceless but costly remedy.
Well, if you remember, I left off with Charsmith rolling up his sleeve.
* * * *
Later I found out that the newest member of our discussion group put Chapman up to it.
“Big deal,” said Fancy, “I mentioned a few things when I bumped into Chapman on the street last week. We went for a walk and sat down on the steps of the Catholic church, under the shadow of that charcoal coloured statue of that Jesuit, Father Brebeuf–the one who endured excruciating torture and had his heart eaten by the Iroquois–and we just talked crap a while until Charsmith’s situation surfaced as I knew it would.”
Because of Fancy’s lack of restraint, Charsmith and I found ourselves walking across town to the priest’s abode. I needed the night air to sober up, and Charsmith felt like a walk. It was kind of like old times, I suppose. Neither of us wanted to pay a visit to the old priest, but respect demanded such. The priest was one of a few adults who took time for us as children, and the only one who expected nothing in return.
” . . . And when I had the impulse to give Euripides’ my sports jacket yesterday, I went with it,” I admitted as we trudged up town. “It was a very awkward moment between us, almost uncomfortably intimate, but it meant something to him, I’m sure of it. I just had to make some type of gesture of acceptance after he was kicked out of Symposium . . .”
Charsmith replied: “You’re projecting meaning into nothing, and anything means nothing to a dead man like Euripides. You know that.”
“What about Craven?” I asked.
Charsmith shrugged and instead chose to express his irritation: “I have nothing to say to the priest, Shannon. I don’t even know what I’m doing this for.”
We crossed Main Street, mechanical bird whistle for the blind urging us to the other side.
I had a thought: “When Craven so brazenly interrupted us, you never finished what you started.”
He kept walking, almost like he was punishing me. I grabbed his jacket and pulled him to a stop.
“You gave me your life story without a relevant explanation, without any inferable point.”
Charsmith pushed me away and kept walking. I quickly gained stride with him and composed myself; he would tell me himself.
Shadow on shadow, our silhouettes crossed and stabbed at each other as we hurried toward our destination. He stopped suddenly, feeling in his jacket for a lighter he didn’t have. I lit his smoke for him.
He didn’t move, only stood and smoked, looking yonder, perhaps at the television screen visible in a closeby apartment, clearly emanating pornographic dream images to the denizens of the alley, public urinators and alcoholics. Maybe he was being vigilant for late season bats or preparing himself for the waft of dumpsters often riding the White Sand’s air.
“Some people can only ascend so far,” he whispered, watching the television.
I gave him what must have been a puzzled look.
“Most people were made to be uncomfortable,” he added, “and to disturb this discomfort suggests risk.”
“Is this profound?”
“Shannon, enough of your crap. Weren’t you listening to me pry open my soul? Isn’t that enough for you?”
“For what? What does your biography have to do with me?”
He inspected me slowly. “Everything.” He tried to speak. Failed. Tried again: “I’ve ruined you, and I’m not sure I have the nerve to say how . . .”
“I’ve was ruined long ago, Charsmith, you know that. My parents cast me to the deities of Failure and Indolence, the Molech and Dagon of White Sand’s pantheon.”
We heard footsteps, and we turned to find Craven slowly approaching us, trenchcoat trailing after him like lifeless dark wings.
“You’ve been following us?” I asked.
Craven pushed me hard against the brick wall, and I found myself strewn on the ground beneath him. He hovered momentarily, and then kicked me in the stomach.
“What the hell!” I huffed, losing my breath.
I looked to Charsmith for support, but he only stood back impassively.
“You know exactly,” Craven replied, giving me another hard kick.
“Damn it!” I cried. “What’s this about?”
“I trusted you, Shannon. Lexus trusted you.”
“What about her?” I asked, getting up cautiously. “You didn’t have to become so violent, you know.”
“My cousin told me what you did to her.”
“Nothing really happened,” I insisted, prompting another hard push against the wall.
“Shannon, you’re a lying piece of garbage. I had you all wrong.”
“I was the one who directed Lexus to you . . . And then you . . . you trampled on her soul.”
“Don’t speak like that. I didn’t know . . . really, I didn’t know . . .”
“I’ve always trusted you, but you live in Cartesian terms, studying ethics and religion with your mind and getting your soul blackened in unsightly contradiction.”
“All I told her is that we’re different–”
“It’s no wonder you always talk about this need for wholeness, you’re the one most in need of fixing . . .”
He let this sink in, the silence of the evening evidence for the point, grunts of sodomites and howling harlots of the television world piercing our brains.
It was only too appropriate.
“We’re going to the priest’s,” said Charsmith coldly, breaking the tension.
“This guy will be in need of a priest if he violates my trust again,” replied Craven. “In fact, maybe I’ll sit in on open confession. You at least owe me that, Shannon.”
“I didn’t know . . .” I pleaded.
* * * *
Father Chapman’s apartment can be described as spaceless, rundown, dirty, with these paper-thin walls displayed in aging, peeling, dullish-yellow wallpaper. This wouldn’t be so horrible if it wasn’t for the natural inhabitants of such an environment, the fearless roaches. If you weren’t wary, you’d find them climbing your mug while drinking coffee, they’d scurry over your feet when you were in the bathroom, and if you ever made the mistake of staying overnight, you’d hear the insidious clamor of their general population. Chapman–a lover of life in general, an opponent to pesticides if it could be avoided– assured us that given enough time we’d get used to them, and even grow to consider them endearing and interesting company.
After a quiet walk uptown, we arrived at the door, to find it open a crack.
“Word your confession well, Shannon, for I’ll be there to help you recall every detail, rest assured,” said Craven.
“I can’t describe how sorry I really am,” I said pleadingly. “I feel. . . terrible, and, honestly, I desire such humiliation if only to prove to you–”
“Save it. What about me? She came to me in trust, and I had the choice of turning her to you or Fancy. You’ve misrepresented yourself and now I’m the bastard. Thanks to you, all three of us slice the pie of your guilt.”
“Enough,” said Charsmith. “Let’s get this over with now. You two make me sick to my stomach, you really do . . .”
We knocked lightly. The priest wasn’t answering.
“The old fellow’s probably passed out drunk,” I speculated, and we let ourselves in quietly.
A light was suspended above a table in the middle of the room, flickering a little from poor electric current. On the table was a manuscript reading: “Kierkegaard’s Diagnosis of the Ailments of the Human Soul.”
We sat down at the table resigned to boredom, and Craven and I continued to spar a bit–enough, anyway, to convince Charsmith to search the fridge and cupboards for something amusing to the palette and quenching to the soul.
“Did you get back into your program, Craven?” I asked.
He scowled. “Why should I tell you?”
“Well, did you?”
“I dropped out of school . . .” Craven admitted.
“No, no Crave, that’s not the way to go,” I advised, feeling my heart sink.
“The professors won. I’ll no longer haunt their lecture halls and contort their assignments, the bloody-blood suckers . . .”
Because I was so irritated by the whole episode, mostly by Craven’s rationale, I barely processed the ghastly moans on the other side of the door to the bedroom. Charsmith, noticeably grey and languorous, set down three filmy champagne glasses on the table and poured us some house wine he found stashed somewhere.
“Screw the medication, I’m having a drink,” he declared.
“Didn’t you hear that?” Craven asked.
“What, am I deaf?” replied Charsmith, seating himself and taking a good swig of wine. By the look on his face, the joy of the vine wasn’t very contagious.
“It came from the other side,” I pointed out.
Craven, gloomy and spooked, urged us to leave at once.
“No way,” said Charsmith. “Once we’ve enjoyed our beverage, we’re going to do some investigating. I haven’t been this curious for a lifetime.”
“What if Chapman returns?” I said.
Charsmith casually took another sip of his wine, replying in the tone one uses to address a naive child: “What if it is Chapman on the other side?”
“He’s not capable of such an inhuman sound,” I said.
“I don’t care what you twisted . . . ingrates do,” said Craven, “but I’m out of here.”
“You’re not going anywhere, Kafka–you’re a part of this up to your eyeballs.”
“A part of what?” replied the animated Craven.
“Settle down you two,” I said. “Besides, maybe we were just hearing things, or maybe it was from the alley.”
“All the more reason to check,” insisted Charsmith.
Craven and I looked at each other, perhaps in collusion for the first times in our lives, only helplessly to watch Charsmith walk over and painstakingly open the door. Unable to resist, the dark scholar and I found ourselves a second later peering over Charsmith’s shoulder into the darkness.
Another moan resounded in the darkness, or maybe it was more of a gurgle, like a man with a slit throat.
From the doorway, Charsmith felt along the wall for the light switch. When he found the dial, he gradually painted the figure in the corner with light: from a dim outline to a frightening Gestalt, all forms converged together in the form of a scene frighteningly real . . .
“Gentlemen,” said a voice behind us, “meet Uncle Pete.”
* * * *
“I’m sorry I had to step out for a while,” said Chapman, slipping off his shoes and walking into the room with a brown paper bag, ” . . .but I had to get some sedatives for poor uncle.”
Watching Chapman rest his green beret on a hat rack in the corner of the room, I almost unconsciously acknowledged his presence: “We didn’t know you shared your apartment, we were terrified you were the source of that . . . sound.”
“My apologies, gentlemen, I didn’t expect such enthusiasts of the nightlife to arrive so soon. A warm welcome to you, too, Mr. Ridley.”
Craven nodded politely.
My eyes cast themselves over the room: a print of a Salvador Dali above the bed, a multiplicity of inspirational psalms tacked to the near wall, and above the invalid on the cot was one of my paintings from high school, with the word LOVE . . .LESS printed across the top. The painting was of a swan in flight, with the sky progressing from blues to darker shades of grey in its ascension (I had forgotten about it). Surrounding the painting were cutouts of . . . my poems from Neutral Tones, tastefully arranged on posterboard.
Moving closer to examine the layout, one of my first poems composed the centerpiece, the one I called April.
“He likes when I read them to him,” said Chapman.
Looking down at the old man on the cot, I saw milky blue eyes staring up at me and a moist mouth trying to smile all friendly.
“You mean, he’s still got his faculties,” I said.
“Enough of them.”
Chapman walked over, and said to his Uncle Pete: “Uncle, this is Shannon–you know the poet–and Charsmith and Craven, and they’re here to meet you.”
The old man in the cot broke into a grin.
“Well, gentlemen, aren’t you going to introduce yourselves.”
“It’s a pleasure, sir,” I said.
Chapman rolled up the blanket, revealing stubs for legs ending approximately above the knees, all veiny and grotesque, although the absolute extremities were smooth and rounded.
“Go ahead, Shannon, shake-a-leg.”
“Are you serious?”
“Of course, they’re his hands now; they’re his way of coming in contact with others. You mustn’t be disgusted.”
“What about a simple handshake?” I said.
“His hands shake so bad with arthritis that he finds them embarrassing.”
“Get lost . . .” I said.
“No, I’m serious,” Chapman insisted. “He’s a character, I’ll give him that.”
Gently, I clasped one of the stumps and shook it until Chapman permitted me to stop. Charsmith and Craven followed suit.
“Uncle, Shannon here is the one who painted the picture, and wrote all those poems. Would you like him to read you one?”
“I’m not sure I’d be comfortable,” I said.
“Nonsense, read him April, he likes that one.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“I just can–he likes people trying to communicate with him, whether he can understand or not. Be sure to hold his leg when you recite it.”
I turned away with my head bowed. “It’s so . . . so . . . depressing . . .”
“Shannon, he doesn’t care about anything outside of sentiment, he’s a philosopher, you know.”
With my poems pasted to the wall, I felt overwhelmingly guilty, like for the first time that I had wronged God–had wronged the truly suffering, like Uncle Pete.
“Go ahead,” Charsmith urged.
“Very well,” I agreed, defeated.
So I held the invalid’s stump and transmitted my sentiment:
Withhold the rain . . . the snow . . .
Let the sun not shine, nor the stars
reveal their face . . .lessness
Permit me no access to the sedate glow
of Moon, nor the smile on
April’s seductive mouth.
Withhold it all from me and let me die
Or live . . .
But if darkness cannot be fixed,
I wish for sleet
Cold, cruel, grey sleet
That I may be consumed by my morbid
Pondering– wet and cold
And always in between.
April, kiss me, rest your lips on my own,
Breathe whatever you want of me into me,
As long as it’s not hope.
Disgusted with myself, I relaxed my grip and turned to my quiet friends somewhat embarrassed. Clearly they felt bad for me. Uncle Pete, however, glowed, like I had passed life from myself to him. It felt like this is exactly what had transpired, finding myself a little dizzy and nauseated, like I’d just given blood.
Chapman slapped me on the back: “That wasn’t so bad, was it Shannon?”
I nodded, ever mendacious.
“Now if you men will excuse us,” said Chapman, “it’s time for the old man to take his medicine.”
Chapman didn’t have to ask us twice, and we quickly departed from the room that seemed to reek of stale air and imminent death the more we thought about it, making sure to close the door behind us.
“That’s the least savory situation I’ve ever been in,” whispered Craven. “I need some more of that wine.”
“It’s one of the saddest,” I defended, but I was disgusted as well.
Craven shook his head: “Let’s be honest, Pete does more for Chapman than the opposite.”
The door closed again and Chapman joined us. Charsmith poured him some wine.
“No, son,” said Chapman, “the top shelf stores some whisky.”
Charsmith retrieved it, and poured Chapman a drink.
“Ah, I love this fine beverage,” Chapman approved, raising his glass and downing it. “Every mouthful is purgation before the Lord, ha ha.”
The old priest looked up to find us inspecting him curiously, and he lit a candle in the middle of the table with a match. Light was now flickering from above and below.
“I keep uncle in a cot because it’s more comfortable.”
“We don’t doubt it, Father,” I said, “it’s just that we always had you pegged as a solitary fellow.”
“Pete has been to hell and back, and, even though he’s been with me only two months, it seems that he’s getting worse. The only thing to do, it seems, is move to the big city, where there are the hospitals he’ll be needing in the near future.”
“Father, the way you’ve described this decision isn’t a pretext to cover the truth . . . is it?” asked Charsmith.
The old priest looked sad and defeated, even older than I remembered him. The sparkle in his eye was noticeably absent.
“The church couldn’t drive me away, I stayed. Despite the stigma of being anathematized, I stayed. But . . . White Sands has no place for me and Pete, not anymore.”
“Don’t talk like that Father,” I said. “You could lead our group again.”
“Not now,” said Chapman.
“Don’t you get it, Shannon,” said Craven, “Chapman knows what you did. I told him myself.”
“Like you’d make time for a priest,” I said anxiously.
Craven growled: “Explain yourself, Shannon, he has a right to recognize your baseness as much as us: he named you his successor in group.”
Appearing weak, Father Chapman asked me, “Is it true, Shannon?”
With little choice–humiliated–I admitted to the whole destructive affair with Lexus and the unconscionable thing I said to her. Chapman listened to me, his eyes becoming more and more vacant. How I disappointed him . . .
Face blanched, Chapman whispered: “Like I said, there’s no room for me and Pete in White Sands.”
“Father, it had nothing to do with you, it was, my own negative capability, and I take responsibility. Please, will you listen?” I begged.
“I can be of no help to you gentlemen anymore. It has nothing to do with me. Or maybe it has everything to do with me. You see, I’ve somehow neglected my own mystical association, my own wise man separated from society.”
“White Sands needs you more than ever,” I insisted. “The Refinement was an experiment gone awry, an adolescent attempt to spit in the face of love. But you were always there–through it all, you were there to see us through to the free thinkers we are today.”
Craven snickered: “You can’t talk your way out of it.”
The old priest replied to me plaintively: “I am lost to White Sands, do you understand? This isn’t a matter of choice.”
“I’ve always suspected this moment would come,” said Charsmith, placing a hand on my shoulder. “For you–the way you’ve lived your life, the development of your thought–it was only a matter of time.”
“I have to know, was Uncle Pete a casualty of war?” I asked.
“Yes,” admitted Chapman, “the old man has witnessed the darkest moments of human existence–foxholes and trenches, shrapnel and blades–but he’s found some security at last. Pete, I promise, will be with me for the rest of his life.”
(The news of Chapman’s departure was becoming too real, and in being too real the momentary effect was losing itself in the spreading circles of emotion estranged from the sugar-perspective of dream.)
“Will you return one day?” asked Charsmith.
“Of course not,” said Craven, face contorted in malice. “You two have chosen to go on your own. I’m only your dark reflection.”
“Craven, I can speak for myself,” said the tired, old priest politely. “The problem you gentlemen must overcome attests to my value in your lives. But I’ll let you know a little tidbit about my nature: to become mystical enough to live by faith is not spontaneous, but the result of hard, hard work, sacrifice and deliberation.”
“Nonsense,” said Charsmith, “Each life is a ticket in the cosmic lottery, you know, the big winners arrive at God in a sudden moment of clarity, like Descartes’ epiphany, where he perceived a proof for his own existence.”
“Theophany,” I said, “like Saul had on the road to Damascus. Just one moment, and then Shazam!”
“No, no, gentlemen,” said Father Chapman, saddened. “An idea didn’t just hit Descartes, even if that’s what he claimed, nor did Christ’s reality really just hit Saul (Saul was predisposed to conversion). It’s bred by the soul, and is the result of cultivation, meditation and certainly anticipation. The French philosophers loved to play games and puzzles, Descartes being no different. He thought his way through and arrived at thought. Think about it: in Descartes’ philosophy the spiritual was much more determinable than the physical, which we can empirically address. Saul was no different in that his outer conformity to Jewish law became superseded by an inner conviction. He lost his sight to the visible world for heaven’s sake.”
Charsmith stood up, visibly upset: “Then it’s true: the Epimenides-types–you know, the ones lucky enough to sleep through life with either a natural spiritual disposition or religious apathy . . . both grossly optimistic–are the big winners and . . . and us Cassandra-types . . . we can only moan and cry our way to destruction. I’m sorry to be impudent, Father, but I can’t stomach the fact that you no longer understand me, that you just don’t know what I need period.”
“But Epimenides eventually woke up to find his whole world shattered,” replied Chapman.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Charsmith on his way out the door.
“If you’d just read the introduction to my dissertation, you’d see–”
But deep-feeling Charsmith was not to be persuaded that evening, exeunting from the stage in a huff. We were only too familiar.
“If he only would have read my preface to my dissertation,” said Chapman defeated, “he’d see that I only truly can relate.”
Pete started moaning uncontrollably, and Father Chapman, old and defeated, emanated this apologetic look. “You gentlemen will have to excuse me . . . I . . . I must attend to the old veteran. It’s to be a long night.”
“Yes,” said Craven, “we were just about to leave.”
Chapman picked up the manuscript in front of him and handed it to me.
“I want you to have this, Shannon. And be sure Charsmith reads it. It will be of value to you, I can assure you of this.”
“Will we see you again, Father?” I asked, tucking the manuscript under my arm and extending my hand.
Clasping my hand, Father Chapman replied: “White Sands has no more room for me and Pete . . .”