Apartment buildings, locked. Like every car, locked. A parking garage, card-key entry. A doorway, all too illuminated. The Chinese Consulate, for Chrissakes, Falun Gong penitents kneeling in the dark and in the rain across Laguna. Furlong Gone, good name for a horse. And, yes, it is raining on both sides of the street.
Fifty yards north of the protest, rain fell on both sides of Geary Boulevard, too. Winded, Osamu hesitated. The traffic hissed east and hissed west like the output of a perfectly misaligned radio dial feeding into those expensive speakers only punks like himself could afford, rendering them, the speakers, indistinguishable from the cheap boxes owned by everybody else, and say, who listens to radio anymore anyway? So much for mindless acquisitiveness. Wheezing like you jogging straight into a coma, homeboy. Now arriving, Track 29, comatose. One lives like one lives precisely so one doesn’t have to jog one fuggin yard. Comma Toes a bad name for a horse. Light-headed. Waxing giddy. Good name for speaker-free one-room thatched hut on the road to the the far north, Arctic Hokkaido, koan-deep in snow, ionospheric vectors of geese, no internet—a veritable onslaught of deprivation.
Just show me the access port, baby, show me what button to push and watch me go there.
Across the teeming boulevard and a million miles away: Japantown.
If Osamu still had his phone he could have been running with it in one hand, and its solo koto ringtone would be continually interrupting the mephitic video called Now.
The hawk tattooed across the base of his spine tingled, a sure sign of danger.
Three grand, that tattoo had cost him. More than the fancy speakers, if he’d bothered to pay for them. And now?
It’s dark too, over there. You talk about your hot pursuit, but nobody ever talks about your wet pursuit. Either way, cops got the leeway to deploy lethal force. Hot lethal force, damp lethal force—same result. Hey, hawk-boy, it’s not the cops you’re worried about, capiche? You think this is some kinda weather channel manga? If this were the real deal, you’d be worried about the fat woman sitting on your face and sloooowly suffocating you. It never! In color… Stop it! Causcasian fleshtones… Stop it! Okay, okay, not in so many words, it’s true. Well then, there’s an opportunity. But is there a market? Are you kidding? When is there never a market? So okay, so file under Damp Lethal Ideas. Meanwhile, stay on the south side of Geary, keep moving, and maybe you’ll will get a chance to felch the honeycomb of the future. So: right and up the hill.
Hitami’s going to cave, probably already did. It’s all too much. Since the death of Kozo he doesn’t care anymore. That’s a police car. Down there at Fillmore. He’s using his turn signal, must not be wet pursuit. Either way, once the light changes, he’ll be coming up the hill. If you cross to the north side of Geary, he’ll be heading the wrong way. So will you. Unless he uses his prerogative as a peace officer to make an illegal U‑turn. Point moot. Now it’s the deserted parking lot of St. Mary’s. Lookit that soaring roof. The mass of Leviathan against the anti-empyrean of the teeming deep. It’s soaring, all right. High up. Reminds a thinking prole of Darrell Gray’s Amtrak Poem:
Oh nuns, sing to the rails
sing in the dome car
Your hymns there
closer to God.
There’s probably ladder access to the lanthorn and its bells, or else the four speakers wired to an electronic carillon. A great hideout, if you’re a pigeon, and pay me now for your new avatar. A pair of perpendicular parabolas, that roof, see how their apogees meet and intersect. Some wag called it the Maytag Cathedral, for the two perpendicular parabolas look just like the agitator in a washing machine, Maytag being a big manufacturer of washing machines at the time, an entity dissolved long since by the caustic grease-cutting detergent of capitalism, so much for the diminutional temporal referent. But, for the irreverent at any rate, the nickname stuck. You stick your head in a washing machine lately? No, but if you think it would help… It’s true that that roof looks passing homologous to the agitator in a washing machine. There’s probably some kind of rhetorical device embedded in the coinage, like for instance the treble assonance of the short a preceded by the single long a augmented by the spondee-iamb, Ma-tag Ca-thee-dral, a construction coveted by our vernacular end-users, of which salivation they are of course completely oblivious, said oblivion one of their more exploitable salients. Door’s open. Light within. Straight up the apse. Mercurial flicker. Get a load of that candle. Big as a whorehouse bedpost. Beaucoup lumens like a burning blunt. Say what? O, for a blunt and a dry crib. —Who’s that?
“Blessings, my son.” Sign of the cross. “You may approach the nave.”
He’s calling a spade a spade.
“Unless,” the padre nodded deferentially, “you prefer the narthex?”
All of a sudden, Osamu is shivering.
“If it doesn’t rain,” the padre smirked, “it will miss a good chance.”
A siren abruptly Dopplered past the street door, closing by its closer at a geologic pace, Eastbound on Geary. Did I say that aloud?
The padre passed a palm over his tonsure, looked at it, then looked up. “If that contractor would just fix the leak instead of responding to our every query with a Facebook posting about his time-share in Oaxaca.…” Diminutional temporal reference? The padre stepped to one side and shook his head. “I called him the last time it rained, in… was it 1983? Can’t be. The guy’s only 30. Anyway… The choirmaster came in the next morning and found a communion chalice dead center under the leak.” He shook a fist at the distant vertex, 120 feet over his head. “A communion chalice!”
You’d think a place this big would be drafty enough to render such a drip inaccurate… Osamu cast his eye about the vast room. Not a soul, other than himself and the priest, and no wonder, it’s maybe three o’clock of a Tuesday morning, but what he was looking for was a back door, an alternative exit, the portal of escape, forget bedding down in the bell loft.
“The bishop keeps a list,” the padre said. “Squamous desiderata, he titles it.” The priest rotated a pinched thumb and forefinger. “It’s all down to the age of the punch-list.” The priest sighed. “All the outside world sees is our resistance to change.” The priest chuffed. It sounded like a cat sneezing. “Misoneism, is the word. Resistance to, or hatred of, change. Yet change marches on. Although,” he paused reflectively, “mutatis mutandi, make the necessary changes, while changing nothing, and the centuries roll by.” Again the cat sneeze. “If only they knew.” He lifted the sleeve of his alb to point at the puddle on the stone floor, revealed by his side step of a moment before, then waved the hand toward the ceiling. “If only the press knew how we court, we inveigle, we imprecate, we beg for change!”
A pair of doors, clearly marked EXIT, if in un-illuminated carmine, bracketed the alter, rendering it virtually parenthetic. How the hierarchy must have fought the building department on that one!
“In one of many parallel universes,” the priest recollected, as if suddenly, “this roof wouldn’t leak. And,” he lifted both arms, accompanied by a rasp of starch, “everything else would be the same.”
This possibility tweaked Osamu’s interest in stalling the inevitable. “Everything?”
The padre beamed.
“This rain, this architecture, this—your—God?”
The priest blinked. “God especially. If only because God is everywhere. My son.” His arms still outstretched, the priest looked, for just a moment, the very picture of his vocation, with audio. “And in every universe,” he added reassuringly. “You have but to open your heart and He will come in.” He lowered his arms and smiled. “Like the reciprocal or contrapositive of our door being open and your coming in—” he glanced about “—here. A veritable Möbius of beatitude.” He made a figure eight in the air with a forefinger. “You open your heart to God, He comes in, God opens His heart to you—” the cat sneeze “—in you go, whttt, like a good little rabbit.” He sighed. “If only the Diocesan statistician knew the first thing about Fibonacci.”
Teeth clenched, Osamu nodded grimly: out of the frying pan, into the fire. This bifurcation of the vector of self-preservation could only impoverish his already meager resources.
“Sanctuary.” The priest sighed contentedly. He glanced upward and glowered. “Sanctuary from a world of egregious actors. Warm and nurturing.”
“Whtt,” he added, patting the belly prominent beneath his vestments. “God’s own marsupial pouch.”
Osamu cautiously shifted his weight. One of his five-hundred dollar sneakers squished in the puddle that had formed around it. The sound flitted like an ash of DeSadian rant trapped among the wood and stone of the vaulted space. Osamu lifted his eyes toward the ceiling. Up there, parallel to the floor of the main room, a large stained-glass cross united the intersection of the two inverted parabolas that formed the roof. No doubt there would be a source of artificial illumination available for special occasions, midnight mass at Christmas, for example; but the cruciform was dark at present, and sufficiently far above them to render nearly inaudible the sound of the rain falling on it. Here we are, having a bit of rain in the midst of a drought, Osamu found himself thinking, and I can barely hear it. I might as well be surfing the gamescape in a damp basement, he reflected hopefully; hopefully as in, were he to awake from this nightmare, perhaps he would find himself to have fallen asleep over his joystick. Or his phone. Or his prostatic crystal. And, in any case, gratefully so.
“God is everywhere,” intoned the priest, as if reminding Osamu of the obvious.
“Like the Platonic solids?” Too late, Osamu bit his smart lip. The lower one. As usual.
The padre raised an eyebrow. “Something on your conscience, my son?” He gestured stage left, as it were, toward one of the red EXIT signs behind him. “Would you like to confess?” And Osamu saw, to one side of that exit and set back from what might be termed the proscenium arch of the sanctuary, what looked like a two-doored portable toilet of polished tropical hardwood. Its grain seemed to absorb half the fugitive candlelight while reflecting the other half. Each door featured a grill of diagonal slats set into its upper half, like two empty wine racks.
Did you touch yourself? Osamu involuntarily thought. Did you touch someone else? Brother, did you kill somebody last night…?
“Mortality is a fugitive thing,” the priest reflected. “Here today, gone tomorrow.” Again, the feline sneeze. “Whtt.”
“You must,” Osamu said abruptly, “get a lot of sinners in here.” He pointed. “There.”
With barely a backward glance at the binary closet, the padre nodded. “Well, you’ve got to consider the neighborhood.” Osamu considered the neighborhood—perhaps, marveled would be the better transitive verb. Albeit long, practically bisecting San Francisco, Geary is just a street, after all; but, in regards to its brief traverse between Cathedral Hill and Japantown, it might as well be the Mariana Trench. And abruptly Osamu found himself welling with nostalgia for the good old days around the bar in the long-gone Japantown Bowl, on Post Street, just a couple of blocks… north. North, that forbidden direction. He could hear the cocktail shaker, the background chatter, the knock of balls gently transferring momentum amongst one another as a recent arrival joined them atop the return rack. He practically had to wring the neck of the reverie to get it to terminate.
“… get your stock brokers, your venture capitalists, your bond traders—their mates, actually; the genuine article is too busy to come to regular service, let alone, to confess. But they do send a check occasionally. Either way, if they’re not sinning very much, it’s a hiccup in the temporal budget. At least, they’re not sinning in a way that you might consider mortal—murder, in short. Not sos you’d notice, anyway… As to covetousness, adultery, like that… the seven deadlies?” Osamu frowned. He couldn’t remember the fundamental peccancies because he’d never known them—which is not the same as saying that his familiarity with the list would surprise him. The priest shook his head. “As to idolatry, replacing God with some other deity, usually the local football team, that isn’t idolatry, it’s lame.” The priest shook his head. “No,” he continued ruminatively, “the breadwinner sends the partner along with a check for the building fund, and anticipates no further interaction.” Here the priest raised his eyes and opened his hands, an inclusive gesture. “You don’t want to push it. After all, without them there’d be no roof to complain about. One must admit,” he added thoughtfully, “it’s almost painfully obvious when one or another of them is sleeping outside the confines of the, er, sanctioned arrangement.” He shook his head. “Who the heck cares?” He clapped a hand over his mouth theatrically. “Tee hee.” He crossed himself and touched his fingertips to his lips. “And how could we have a congregation without homosexuals? Really, one or another odd couple figures among our most dedicated congregants. Now, well might you observe, my son, that all this tergiversation weaves naught but a rebozo of hypocrisy—” The padre shot a glance under his preponderant eyebrows. Osamu, realizing that this may be some kind of an interrogative ges_ture, turned up his hands, shrugged, shook his head and stepped once, sideways, toward the exit. “Well,” the priest continued, himself making a quarter turn, “One must practice humility, understanding, compassion, temperance, and bombastic restraint. It takes all kinds to make up a congregation, especially in San Francisco, where, after all, we even have homosexual Republicans. And how weird is that? Not weird at all, if you follow the money! Am I supposed to close my door to them? Because of some clown temporarily in the Bishop’s residence or, God forbid, in the Vatican itself?” The priest wagged a forefinger. “It was James Baldwin who said, ‘All men are brothers. That’s the bottom line. If you can’t take it from there, you can’t take it at all.’ The Republican Party,” he admonished the air between them, “would do well to heed this precept. But are they listening? Noooo.” He sneezed like a cat: “Pwhttt. One third of registered voters in California are Republicans—one third!” The padre raised his voice. “You can’t get anywhere with that! To wit: in California, not a single state-wide elected office is held by a Republican! Not one! That goddam actor—” he swiftly crossed himself and touched his fingertips to his lips “—pneumatic weight-lifter, was the exception! And what an exception! A pot-smoking libertarian adulterer, to say the least! And who cares? The Republicans don’t care! It’s all about power and money, full stop. But hey, notwithstanding that, as a functionary of the Catholic Church I’m belaboring the obvious but, show me the chump who doesn’t care about power and money. I blush to think that we two stand in the city of St. Francis. But what are the trappings of power and money?” The padre enumerated his fingers. “Married with three kids. Came up from some ghetto somewhere. Bootstrapped his or her way through a state-funded college. Started a business as a political consultant and made a fortune, but harkens only to his first business, a copy shop in a mall which failed after burning through a loan from his father-in-law after eleven months but so what it’s the American way. Beside which, political consulting pays better. Way better. But what’s the first and foremost criterion for a Republican candidate seeking statewide or nationwide office?” Osamu took a modest step toward the exit. A little wild in the eye now, the padre held the forefinger of one hand against the pinky of the other hand, glanced at Osamu, stepped with him, then reverted his stare to the rhetorical dactyls. “He or she needs to be independently wealthy and, if so, he or she can afford to run for statewide or nationwide office. Why? Because only people with the money can run, because the voters,” here the padre enumerated his ringfinger, which digit sported an immodest garnet ring surmounting a lateral moraine of diamond chips in a gold setting which signified his wedding in Christ to the Church, and, Osamu reflected, he wouldn’t want to get clocked on the jaw with that baby, “aren’t going to spend a dime on one of these knuckleheads.” The father swept his arm across the pews, in front of him and behind Osamu. “I see them every Sunday, them and their surrogates!” A little spittle accompanied the sibilants of the padre’s invective. “It’s all I can do to keep them off their phones during the Eucharist. Shame used to work!” He shook his head. “No longer. Not by a long shot.…”
A bolt of lightning illuminated the cross, high overhead, but neither man looked up in time to see it. One thousand one, Osamu counted, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four.…. A rumble of thunder lumbered over the city, reverberating among the buildings and pavements of Russian Hill and Pacific Heights, The Fillmore and the Richmond, Japantown and Cathedral Hill. Forty-four hundred feet, Osamu told himself, about four-fifths of a mile. The cell is over Nob Hill if it’s moving northeast, or maybe Alamo Square if it isn’t here yet. This latter on the assumption that if, like most storms over the City of St. Francis, this one is spinning counterclockwise, as it moves south along the coast, its local effects—wind, rain, lightning, thunder—would be sweeping southwest to northeast.
If only, Osamu thought forlornly, if only I were being swept along with it. Maybe if I flap my arms.…
“Aye,” intoned the padre, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling, “crack ye the vault of heaven, Lord, rain pollywogs and pestilence and shredded hundred-dollar bills upon the heads of these recalcitrant Republicans, that they might see the error of their ways and emerge triumphant!” He clenched his fists and added, “In the very next election cycle.”
In the silence that followed this outburst a further rumble sounded much farther off, entrained by a transient clatter on the transparency high overhead.
“A shower of hail,” the priest marveled.
“Sounds like it’s moving inland,” Osamu said.
“Petrified shards of hundred-dollar bills,” muttered the priest darkly. “One of these days it will stick around long enough to re-burn the fear of God into the firmware of men.”
“Maybe, now that we have global warming,” Osamu thought to suggest, as he took a step sideways, “it will happen sooner than later.”
“Global warming,” the priest repeated caustically, clasping his hands behind his back. “These rich peckerwoods perceive global warming as a threat, not to the planet, but to their livelihoods. Most of them can’t see any further than the hood ornament on their Bugatti.” He squeezed shut his eyes. “You can’t imagine the conversations I have to endure with these idiots.” He pointed toward the doors by which Osamu had entered. “Right there on those front steps. Every Sunday!” He shook the hand of an invisible congregant, and beamed. His face couldn’t have transformed any more quickly is someone had trained a spotlight on it. “Yes, Mrs. Trollwiper. May the Lord preserve capitalism, not to mention its agents great and small.” He made a face. “God’s wounds.”
The dichotomy of Osamu’s desperation and this priest’s solipsistic weltangshuuang, the former highly specific with short-term consequences tapering as it were to a sharp point, the latter wide-ranging with zero consequences accruing within any finite compass whatsoever, was becom_ing too much for Osamu to straddle. If this were a game of conceptual mumblety peg, Osamu was toppling. The building, indeed, seemed to have central heating, although it would be a long time before it warmed Osamu sufficient to notice, but his hypothermia seemed to have stabilized, at least. The shaking had almost receded, taking the goose flesh with it. He was still wringing wet, however, and with no prospect of sanctuary. If, on the other hand, the lead role in a snuff movie isn’t the ultimate solipsism.… Osamu slid a tentative foot over the damp polished floor like a ballroom dance instructor on a listing cruise ship.
The priest, meanwhile, who seemed all too willing to while away the storm venting a career’s worth of slights, outrages and hypocrisies, sidled with him. “As goes the church,” he was saying, “it’s none the worse off for being a century or three behind the times. What’s a zeitgeist here or there against the wisdom of the ages? Take the ‘sixties, for example. I mean, really, who remembers the ‘sixties? A bunch of homeless cuticulae camped out at the far end of Haight Street and the T‑shirt venders who pander to them? Give it a minute! Dust in the afternoon westerly—that’s it for the ‘sixties! Do the math. Actually, leave us forgo the exaggeration, it’s only arithmetic. Most of the people who lived through the ‘sixties were in their late teens, early twenties at the time, so where are we at now?” The cassock rustled, and he enumerated his fingers. “If they’re alive they’re pushing seventy, at the least. The ones who really were in a position to exploit the legions of clueless, back in the day, are pushing eighty and dying fast. Writing books about living forever and the vitamin regime they can sign you up for. Hah! Another ten years?” He snapped a middle finger against the palm of its hand. “Dead as Vaudeville, and that’s it for the ‘sixties.” He narrowed his eyes. “Have you seen the contemporary newsreels?” He made a face. “Disgusting. The Church, on the other hand.… What’s that silliness got to do with two thousand years of tradition? Plus or minus the odd suppressed Gospel. Sure we got predatory perverts—what institution doesn’t? The ‘sixties had predatory perverts, too. Okay, okay, the ‘sixties posited a world without war, and the Church posits a virgin birth. As go illusions we’re even, although not without qualifications. To wit: eight million wars versus one lousy virgin birth! I ask you: is that fair? I’ll bet there’s a parallel universe that’s lousy with virgin births and only one war! But a parallel universe without war? Hah! Okay, one—that’s all I’m gonna give you! One! One parallel universe with no war whatsoever versus gadzillions of parallel universes populated by humans riven by perpetual strife. Just like this one! Not for nothing, do they call this place Saint Mary’s of the Assumption—not for nothing!”
Lightning lit up the sanctuary, accompanied by an almost simultaneous crack of thunder. But it was the modulation in air pressure within the volume of the church that got Osamu’s attention. Plus, his hawk tingled. He turned around.
Osamu hit the cross bar on the fire exit, burst into the thundering downpour, and kept on going, making a silhouette-size hole right through a hedge at the back of the parking lot.
Out of shape, encumbered by creaking gear, two uniformed cops huffed past the priest, only to come to a halt at the exit door. They held it open, as it tried to close, and peered cautiously into the teeming darkness.
A third policeman, in plain clothes, unhurried, ambled up to the priest.
“Frank” said the priest. They shook hands. “What took you so long?”