Ktismatics

In the Days Before the Reckoning

PART ONE

CHAPTER ONE

The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you. Maybe it’s because you don’t want to hear the hostess pose the inevitable question – “Just one?” – in that reflexive tone of pity and scorn. There is no television perched up in the corner replaying football highlights, no stereo system blasting rock oldies on tinny speakers – only the classic silent aesthetic of bottles and glasses and polished granite. A long mirror stretches across the back wall; there’s even a bowlful of clementines on the bar. When the young woman in the black velvet jacket asks what you’d like you don’t have to think twice: a bottle of Bass, please. As she pours you notice the ornate pendant suspended from the black ribbon encircling her neck. You take a closer look: it appears to be an iconic image, although the coronet perched atop the leering holy woman’s head and the five-pointed pinwheel she wears above her left breast betoken no familiar theology. Some new-age mystic no doubt, maybe even an ironic citation of mysticism. Most likely the barista spotted the medallion at a consignment store and thought how good it would look with her black jacket.

The beer has been poured, and now you realize that you’ve been standing there staring at this young woman’s chest. She, who has surely dealt with your type before, asks if you’d like to sit down. Glass in hand, you step awkwardly around the two patrons to your left and take a stool at the end of the bar. She slips a coaster under your glass and holds out a menu. Scanning the daily lunch specials you see something you’d like. As you wait for the opportunity to order you can’t help but listen in on the two customers’ conversation.

“Two guys walk into a bar,” says the first guy.

“Already heard it,” the other guy says.

“But there’s a million guy-walks-into-a-bar jokes,” the first guy, feigning offense, retorts.

The second guy folds his napkin and sets it next to his plate. He stands, takes his wallet out of his inside jacket pocket, lays down a twenty. “You’ve got to realize, Stephen, that in my line of work you hear them all. Just this morning there’s this client comes to see me at my office, getting sued for divorce, wife caught him with the other woman. So this client launches into the Two Guys setup, and I just rock back in my chair and smile. Oh I’ll laugh when he’s done all right. Hell, I’m on the meter. He tells me the joke, then he tells me where he heard the joke, and I’m thinking to myself, this sure is an easy way to make a few extra bucks.”

Stephen pulls a thin roll of bills from his jeans pocket. He peels off a five and tosses it on the bar in front of his lawyer friend. “Okay, I’m paying in advance. So there’s these two guys. They walk into a bar…”

“That should cover the tip,” the lawyer says with a wink to the barkeep. Donning a pair of sunglasses he strides toward the door, the other man following closely behind. “So, two guys walk out of a bar…”

*   *   *

 Stephen Hanley shaded his eyes with his hand as he and Martin Drake stepped out of the cool dim sanctuary of Rik’s Café and into the midday glare. A block later they paused to watch a dreadlocked girl tapdance, accompanied by an old hippie banjoist’s competent rendition of O Susannah. Even though the buskers had set up their show on a grassy patch, the rhythmic chatter of the dancer’s feet was distinct and sharp. Stepping closer, Stephen could see that she was performing her act on a four-foot-square piece of hardwood, hinged in the middle for portability. Martin tossed a few coins at the bowl, then the two men continued their postprandial stroll. Two blocks toward the foothills, where the downtown walking mall turned back into a residential street, stood an old two-story frame house that had been converted into an upscale office duplex. “Drake and Daniels LLC, Attorneys at Law,” announced the discrete sign posted above the left entryway. “Let’s do this again,” Martin said, his eyes hidden behind the dark lenses, and Stephen couldn’t help but wonder whether Martin’s invitation reflected the casual professionalism that his old friend seemed to slip on and off as easily as his Wayfarers.

Stephen had parked in one of the reserved spaces behind Martin’s office but, since he had nowhere in particular to go, he left the car where it was and strolled back into downtown. He was exploring without curiosity the side streets branching off from the pedestrian zone, peering into the rehabbed frontier-era storefronts, when a sign caught his eye. Black print on a four-by-six white index card, stuck with yellowed tape to the wall, the sign certainly wasn’t designed to grab the attention of the passing window-shopper. It read:

SALON POSTISME
Portals, Intervals, Alternate Realities
Henry Adamowicz, Proprietor
“Get Different”
Walk-Ins Welcome
(ring bell for service)

A short corridor and a long stairway were all that could be discerned through the smoky glass door. With nothing to do and less to hope for, Stephen rang. A few seconds later a buzzer sounded. He tried the door: locked. He rang again. A man shambled down the stairs: tall and heavy-set but not paunchy, wiry steel-gray hair combed straight back – Stephen figured the fellow was probably older than he looked. He was carrying a large cardboard box, which he balanced under one arm in order to pull the door open.

“Sorry, I guess they still haven’t fixed the buzzer.” Propping the door with his foot, the man beckoned his visitor to come in.

“You know,” Stephen said, taking a peek up the narrow stairway, “it looks like you’ve got your hands full. I didn’t really have any business to transact or whatever. I was just curious about the sign. I’ll stop by another time.”

“No no please. Come up. Anyway, after today it’s too late.”

Stephen followed the man up two flights to a small office. A faded maroon couch, a couple of gray lounge chairs, an oak dining table that apparently served as a desk, a few flimsy side tables, some bookcases, a peeling silver-painted floor lamp with faux marble base, all of it huddled around a threadbare Berber carpet – garage sale material, but clean. Scattered around the room were boxes half-filled with books, file folders, stacks of paper and miscellaneous junk, all of it making the place feel even smaller than it was. The man gestured for Stephen to sit in one of the chairs. “I was just about to make myself a coffee,” he said enthusiastically. “Will you have one? I’m out of milk, so it’ll have to be a straight espresso. I’ve got some sugar here someplace.” He fumbled through one of the boxes.

“That’s okay. Really, I was just passing by. Maybe you’ve got a brochure or something.”

“No brochures. You’d think that would be a good idea wouldn’t you, but it turns out… Sorry: I’m Hank Adamowicz, but some people around here call me Prop.”

“You’re leaving?”

Hank nodded. “Headed to Lisbon next Tuesday. You, sir, have arrived on my last day at the office.”

“Oh,” Stephen sighed with relief tinged with disappointment. “Well I guess there’s no real point then.”

“No, I wouldn’t say that. Actually, today might be the perfect day. It would be a shame for the Salon to close up just because I’m gone. Work down here on the Mall, do you? Sorry, you said your name was…”

Without portfolio, anticipating the freedom of conversing with somebody he would never see again, Stephen Hanley decided to linger awhile with Hank Adamowicz. Three hours and three espressos later, the Salon Postisme was under new management. The rent was paid up through the end of the year, and Hank insisted on leaving the furniture. “Can’t very well take this crap with me to Portugal, can I? Hey, let’s go get a real espresso. Ever been to Rik’s?”

Truth be told, Stephen had been looking for a way out for quite some time. His friends, seeing him apparently mired in the sort of midlife crisis they could comprehend, eagerly and repeatedly shared with him the self-help tips they’d latched onto for getting themselves on track toward a more desirable future. Invariably these tips converged on the same basic scheme. Listen to your True Self. Discover your Passion. Become childlike. Believe in yourself. Be present and live in the moment. Visualize the future you want, make a plan, and relentlessly pursue your plan until you arrive at the desired destination. These were not the sort of tips that inspired Stephen.

“What if my True Self turns out to be an asshole?”

“Well in your case…”

“What if it turns out my Passion is to be the object of worship for everyone around me?”

“Well that’s pretty shallow, Stephen. You need to look deeper.”

“How do you know that’s not the deepest, truest me? Maybe if you looked deeper you’d realize that you really want to be a serial killer.”

“Look, nobody’s forcing you to read the damn book.”

“No really. The inner voice that’s telling you it wants six million dollars and a nice vacation villa in Tuscany – how do you know it’s really your True Self, and not just another imposter taking his turn at the microphone? Besides, aren’t you a little suspicious that everyone’s True Self wants pretty much the same things: chronic happiness, lots of money, good weather, universal admiration? Maybe everyone’s gone too deep. Maybe we’re all delving somewhere down below unique individuality into the universal unconscious, where everything is pure narcissism, will to power, and the longing for fabulousness.”

“Okay fine. So what are you offering up that’s better? Not to get too critical here, Stephen, but what I see is a guy who hasn’t made a dime in I don’t know how long, who’s probably going to have to sell his house, who if anything seems even less happy than the rest of us. Man, sign me up for what you’re selling.”

After awhile Stephen started avoiding these conversations. It was true: he had a fairly strong sense of what was wrong with the good life, but not much to offer by way of an alternative. That he was expected to elaborate some optimistic new game plan of his own he regarded as symptomatic of the cultural tyranny he was trying to resist. What’s wrong with a little pessimistic fatalism as the basis for a friendly chat among neighbors?

He wanted to perpetrate his own escape. Not only that: he wanted a language for describing the way out. He wanted something else to do, something else to think about. And so it was that Stephen Hanley became the new Proprietor of the Salon Postisme.

Stephen’s wife? She was fine about it.

“What have you been up to? You look like you just had about four espressos.”

“Yeah, well.” Stephen took his shoes off and set them on the mat by the door. “I got a job.”

“A job? I didn’t know you were looking.”

“I wasn’t. As of today I’m the Proprietor of the Salon Postisme.”

“You cut hair now?”

“No, it’s not that. There’s no pay, and I didn’t have to quit any other job, so I figured what the hell?”

“I’ll open the champagne.”

CHAPTER TWO

Miguel Obispo’s performance had been astonishing. Couched in the visual language of Christian masochism that had become all too commonplace among the avant-garde, this particular evocation gradually transformed itself into something far more disturbing. The blood, trickling slowly from the palms, would not stop. A minute, two minutes, five; it began to puddle on the floor. The young man stood, hands outstretched, completely silent. He seemed to be concentrating intently, as though willing the blood to flow. The onlookers, thirty or so, sat mesmerized. He gazed intently first at one audience member, then another.

He does not look at me, Stephen thought, surprised by his own disappointment.

An electronic squeal pierced the silence, jolting everyone in the room except the performer. With deliberation Miguel walked to the left side of the stage, red footprints marking his path. From behind a screen he retrieved a white vinyl-topped card table and set it up mid-stage. Next he brought out a white polystyrene picnic cooler, emblazoned on all sides with the “Biohazard” symbol, and placed it on the table. He tilted back the lid and began extracting various medical supplies from the cooler: an empty glass bottle, a smaller sealed bottle, a small vial, a syringe, a rubber hose, what seemed to be a bottle of mineral water. Each item he placed with precision on the tabletop. Lastly he removed a small gold standing crucifix and positioned it facing the audience at the front of the table. Calmly Miguel closed the cooler and carried it to the far back end of the stage, where he set it on the floor.

Returning to center stage, he began a series of ablutions. He opened the mineral water and sprinkled some of it over everything: his hands, the medical supplies, the table, lastly the crucifix.  Thinly diluted blood began spilling over the edge of the table and onto the floor, bathing the staged solemnity in the peculiar horror of its pink translucence. People in the front row lurched backward, even though they were seated at least fifteen feet away from the dripping table.

Miguel wiped his hands across the front of his white turtleneck and genuflected. He broke the seal on the small glass bottle, held it aloft for a moment, then poured its contents, a clear colorless fluid, into the larger empty bottle. He went through the same procedure with the vial, which held some sort of powder. He swirled the bottle for a few seconds in order to mix its contents. He took the syringe and loaded it with the mixture, pale yellow and slightly opaque. He rolled up his sleeve and cinched the rubber hose around his upper arm. Then he jabbed himself with the needle. Not a sound came from the enraptured audience. Slowly he pressed the plunger. Two or three minutes passed before the syringe was empty. He recapped the syringe. Then, methodically, he undid everything. Starting with the cross, he put it all back into the cooler, closed the lid, and carried it offstage. Then he refolded the table, the thinned blood sloshing onto the floor, and removed it also.

Standing in the small pool where the table had been, Miguel again wiped his hands across his shirt. Slowly he lifted his arms, palms turned toward the audience, in the classic gesture of benediction. He held this pose for a few moments. His palms had stopped bleeding. He put his hands down, pressed the palms together, and retraced his own bloody trail offstage. A few seconds later he returned to the very front of the stage, smiled, and bowed deeply. He had spoken not one word during the performance.

Wild applause ensued. Single red roses were flung onto the stage. Calls of “encore” elicited a derisive but gracious smile from the entertainer. Amid the gore, his white turtleneck thoroughly besmeared and bespattered, Miguel Obispo presented himself to his audience with the perfect decorum of a symphony conductor. As he left the stage he walked with a decided limp.

“What the hell was that, Rikki?” Earlier in the week Stephen had stopped in at Rik’s for a beer, and she had insisted that he come to Miguel’s Friday midnight show. The basement of the café was set up as a sort of underground nightclub, and Rik made a point of featuring only the strangest installations and the most outrageous performing artists plying the regional circuit. Rik had told Stephen nothing about Miguel other than that he would find the act “memorable.”

“HemoBoy,” Rik informed Stephen, relighting the half-smoked cheroot dangling from her lip.

That night the cellar bar offered three choices: bottled water, bottled beer, Bloody Marys. Stephen decided to stick with beer. He picked up a HemoBoy flyer announcing a series of upcoming shows. On it was printed a black and white photograph of Miguel from the waist up, hands extended, dark palms forward. In the brilliant white light his face looks ecstatic. The photo silhouettes the backs of the audience members’ heads: all look up at Miguel; not one turns away. Under the photo, a caption: “I bleed for you.”

Rik brought Miguel over to Stephen’s table. “So you’re what, a therapist?” Miguel asked abruptly.

Stephen smiled, not for the first time recalling his conversation with Hank Adamowicz. Was Hank Adamowicz the first Proprietor? Had he started the Salon? Stephen assumed so, but somehow he hadn’t asked. “And so you’re what,” Stephen had asked Hank: “a therapist?” Hank rolled his eyes. “Some sort of high priest?”

“More like an usher,” Hank had replied.

A former colleague of Stephen’s had been a therapist, but she’d quit to become a business consultant. She said she didn’t care enough about people. As the slow flow of clients merged into a monotonous stream, she began to forget from one week to the next: is this the one whose wife is threatening to leave him, or the one who’s afraid that her neighbor is going to kill her dog, or the one who’s trying to quit shopping? Everyone who came into her office could be slotted into a sadly small number of garden variety pathologies. No florid hallucinations, no multiple personalities, no hysterical anesthesias. Plenty of anxiety, paranoia, anger, narcissism, failure, victimhood.

Adjustment falls within a narrow bandwidth; the therapist is charged with tuning everyone to the same channel. Like Tolstoy said, more or less: every unhappy person is unhappy in his own way, but happy people are all alike. Stretched out on the procrustean couch, the client knows what the therapist is trying to do to him, and still he keeps his appointments with the executioner. He wants to be happy; he’s ready to be purged of all those idiosyncrasies that keep him unhappy. He comes prepared to tell stories about himself, stories he chooses specifically to elicit the helping reflex. It’s a ritual: the therapist bestows the recognized rites of restoration on the transgressor and the outcast. Stephen’s colleague had found this work increasingly distasteful. So she quit.

As new Proprietor of the Salon Postisme, Stephen believed he could avoid falling into the trap. He had faith that the unhappy outsiders would prove far more interesting than the happy insiders they might wish to become. Instead of snipping away at their stray threads, he would look for an alternative weave, a secret and subtle delirium unique to each individual. His job as he saw it was to enter into the client’s real strangeness, to have the client guide him into other ways of seeing, into exotic regions of the soul that they could then explore together. What he really wanted, of course, was to become the client. He didn’t want to pull the clients out into his normalcy; he wanted to climb with them into their madness. I guess I’m just a romantic at heart, Stephen acknowledged to himself.

“Not a therapist,” Stephen replied to Miguel. “More like an usher.” Miguel nodded, smiling: apparently he found the answer satisfactory. He agreed to meet with Stephen next Wednesday at the Salon.

CHAPTER THREE

Stephen Hanley and Miguel Obispo sagged down into the Salon’s butt-sprung chairs. No, Stephen didn’t mind if Miguel smoked. The window was open a few inches, the fan was plugged in, they each had their double cappuccinos – let’s go.

“So, Miguel, whose sins are you atoning for?”

“Nobody’s. It’s theater. Entertainment.”

“Entertainment where you draw real blood. Suppose we assume that all sacrifices are performed for somebody’s entertainment. When you’re on stage, who are you performing your own death for?”

“It’s HemoBoy on stage. And he’s not dying, he’s bleeding. For the clotters.”

“The clotters?”

“The non-hemophiliacs, the ninety nine point nine nine percent whose genes tell them to turn the blood off.”

“Why is HemoBoy their savior?”

“He’s not. He’s their blood sacrifice. It’s an ecological balance. For every ten thousand clotters there’s somebody like HemoBoy to bleed for them.”

“Why? Didn’t Jesus already do that?”

“Jesus saves souls. HemoBoy saves bodies. Why? Because people want to see blood spilled. It doesn’t really matter whose – it might even be their own. There’s a bloodlust in the world. But HemoBoy doesn’t feel it. HemoBoy is immune to bloodlust, because he bleeds all the time. He can’t stop bleeding. He’s got – I don’t know – call it ‘clot-lust.’ He loves the feel of it when the bleeding stops. In fact, it’s almost worth it to him to start bleeding just so he can feel it stop. So HemoBoy offers himself up as a blood sacrifice to satisfy the bloodlust of the clotters. It’s his mission.”

“And it’s also his pleasure.”

“Let’s say he’s happy to stimulate a little hemorrhaging in the clotters’ cashflow. Just squeeze a few drops of appreciation into the offering plate when it comes down your aisle, if you please.”

Stephen wondered if this is what it’s like talking to a man who’s standing on a seventh storey window ledge. He plunged ahead. “Why not let the audience inflict the wounds on HemoBoy, give them a little extra bang for the buck?”

“Because it’s more fun to watch. Sure, there’s always a few who’d get off on bruising me, cutting me. But that’s not what HemoBoy is about. It’s about the blood. Maybe if I was a woman I could stand up there and menstruate down my legs. That’s not my gift.”

“Why do you suppose it’s so compelling to watch someone who can’t stop bleeding?” In fact Stephen had found it harrowing almost beyond endurance to watch Miguel standing there, hands outstretched, as the blood trickled down, the blood that must stop but that would not stop. Not just agonizing: thrilling.

“You tell me,” Miguel challenged Stephen, knowing from experience that Stephen wouldn’t tell him, or couldn’t. “Were you disappointed when HemoBoy finally stopped bleeding?”

“No. By that point stopping seemed like a miracle, some kind of a magic trick.”

Miguel nodded. “Now go back to Jesus. They made him bleed, and they knew the bleeding wouldn’t stop until he was dead. But for him it was different. His blood is different. Even after he died he didn’t stop bleeding. Jesus’s blood never runs out. Priests conjure his blood out of wine every day of the week, all over the world, as much as they need. That’s the miracle of the Mass, right, getting the blood to flow? For HemoBoy’s mass, the miracle is getting the blood to stop. Tell me this, Prop: if you wanted to kill yourself, how would you do it?”

“Pills. Definitely pills.” Stephen wondered whether he was doing this right.

“Chemicals – good choice. For some it’s guns, or piling your car into a tree, or the razor. A lot of cutters come to my show by the way, which I suppose isn’t too surprising.” Stephen forced himself not to look at Miguel’s wrists as he listened. “But whatever it is you do to kill yourself, the point is that you have to do something. You have to pick your poison. It takes an act of will to kill yourself. Now let’s say you’re me. Suddenly it gets a lot easier. You do it by not doing. Just let yourself bleed out, and it’s all over. For me, it takes an act of will not to let myself die. So you and the wife go out to the theater for a night’s entertainment, and there’s HemoBoy up on the stage. You watch him bleed, and he doesn’t stop. After awhile you start asking yourself, how far is he going to let this go? And what’s HemoBoy thinking about all this time? Maybe he’s thinking, how far are they going to let me go?”

Stephen wondered how much of this Miguel took seriously. He realized that he wanted to let the conversation turn impersonal, abstract. Tell a joke. Anaesthetize the patient with humor, then spread him out on the table for dissection. Perform aesthetic surgery; cut the art out of the artist. Tell Miguel Obispo that he might want to lighten up a little. “Is it killing you?” was all that Stephen managed to ask.

Miguel leaned forward in his chair and grimaced. Clean cut, very pale but with a permanent five-o’clock shadow darkening his visage, almost painfully earnest, apparently uncomfortable in social situations yet impelled to make human contact, Miguel could have been a door-to-door missionary for his secular religion of sacrifice. Still, there was something about Miguel that kept people wary but a little off-balance, as though even he didn’t really believe – or wished he didn’t. Stephen was left with the impression that Miguel had absolutely no desire to sell him anything: maybe that’s what drew people to Miguel.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” Miguel said. “I’m afraid of passing away. The life is in the blood. Every time I bleed, another little bit of my life oozes away. It evaporates, and the molecules permeate the air. Everybody around me breathes in my blood, my life. I’m diffusing into thousands of other lives. And other people’s lives are infusing into mine. You know how hemophiliacs stop the bleeding, right? We shoot ourselves up with clotting factor. There’s a recombinant product of course, artificial biotech, posthuman you might call it. I prefer the old-school factor. It’s distilled from the pooled blood of thousands of people, thousands of clotters. When I infuse I’m getting diluted, over and over. Am I bleeding out slowly, less and less of myself left? Or am I some sort of homeopathic preparation? Every time I dilute I get stronger, not in blood but in essence. And the membrane that separates me from everybody else – it’s wearing thin. The thing is, I long for it just as much as I fear it.”

Suddenly, instantaneously, like switching TV channels, Miguel’s whole demeanor changed. He lit another cigarette. “Anyhow, that’s the legend of HemoBoy. What do you think, Prop? Does it work? Can I do better?”

Stephen couldn’t help himself. “Can I see you do it?” he asked Miguel Obispo. “Can I watch you make the bleeding start? I mean, just a little bit?”

Miguel flashed a look of irritated disgust. Stephen demurred immediately, but Miguel waved him off. Miguel’s just-lit cigarette sizzled when he dropped it into Stephen’s coffee cup. Still seated, Miguel positioned his hands palm-up on the arms of the chair. He glared at Stephen, as though his request had been a personal challenge. Stephen felt like the ninety-pound weakling begging the muscle man to flex just a little. The glare intensified; unmistakably it was a look of contempt, of arrogant disdain. It was hypnotic: later Stephen would wonder if that glare hadn’t been part of the performance, a prestidigitator’s trick to distract the rube’s attention. Suddenly he remembered the hands. He forced himself to look away, to look down. Beaded in the palms like drops of sweat, the blood had already started to come.

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