by Paul Oppenheimer
Jarred Henscher dropped out of school in Detroit at the turn of the century, mostly because he couldn’t stand the bad music. He went south and west, drifting into reconstructed gold-rush towns set up for the tourist trade, where as a blacksmith he did a dull stint or two: smithing held scant appeal: the ashes fouled his lungs: he sneezed in sleep, blowing himself awake, stunned, out of dark dreams: slag, rust and steely oil crept into his skin: weekends of showers left him wet and gray as a ghost or rotten weather: the money was miserable.
He hated the quaint leather costumes as much as the music: at night he read books, anything he could find–once a play by Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra, which someone had thrown away and that he slogged through, never having paid much attention to Shakespeare because he hated school so much that he had listened to almost nothing said there, anxious to get out.
He stumbled around the five acts, looking up words he couldn’t understand in the notes at the back: the plot seemed stupid but interesting: Cleopatra’s barge like a burnished throne, with perfumed sails, set his brain on fire for days.
He forgot about it, though, or thought he forgot about it: the word burnished came up once in conversation with a woman: she liked it, and he remembered that.
He made friends with people he didn’t believe could exist, men with no roots at all, or none they remembered: America threw them up like froth out of its muscles, unaccountable rancid gleams exposing tender meat.
He ran into Hiram Blows at a food dump outside Mattridge’s, an expensive restaurant in Seattle: they were foraging through tinfoil and grease, munching on cast-off chunks of filet mignon and stray string beans.
“I’m not a drunk,” said Blows, “or a druggie, or a nut, but I reject their phony moral systems–their phony codes of ethics, which amount to hypocrisy, which postulate impossible goals, fella. Nobody, not even a saint, could reach those goals. A god might reach them, but only a god without connections to anyone, a god who doesn’t give a fuck.”
Henscher tried to swallow this but spat out a soggy bean. “So?” He enjoyed playing devil’s advocate: smoking or getting lost in his cups–these were all right. Toxic evenings brought relief to the pent-up soul: crumpled bluejeans, speculations on the relief-pleasures of political assassinations, fantasies of escape, nightmares, panoramas of glitzy funerals, the narcotic assaults of bridal gowns, ribald schemes of forgetting or vanishing without notice, whispers in laundry rooms between unknown thirsty men and women–these moved like traveling salesmen in his veins.
He bought what they sold, or wanted to buy it, scouting out sleazy hopes of temptation.
“So, who accepts,” said Blows, “–this is what I say–any dumb ethical or moral system these days without going crazy? I mean, everybody knows about the religious fanatics, suicide bombers, genocidal killers, serial killers hunting down their prostitute targets, so-called pious people murdering their wives, loony fundamentalists strangling their errant daughters.” He touched his nose with his pinky, as if triggering the memory of a neglected appetite.
Henscher guessed that Blows was embarked on a quest, a particular je ne sais quoi (a phrase he remembered despite himself from a long-ago French class), that he offered a glimpse into appropriate possibilities.
“This is the age of mass murder, fella. It began during the French Revolution, then took off during the twentieth century when people invented elaborate sad ways of not getting along. The point of the last two centuries is better types of slaughter–rapid-firing guns, bombs, poisons, wounds, the German cannons back in eighteen seventy lobbing their shells over twenty miles into Paris out of traveling railway cars, abandoned Parisians during the German siege, reduced to eating giraffes, elephants and polar bears out of the city zoo. Later on, barbed-wire camps, gas-packed ovens, mechanical mass-death.”
It was Blows, up there in his forties, looking lean and young in his torn HAPPY BIRTHDAY tee-shirt as they ambled through the dark, who began to fill Henscher in on religion. This was a mistake because whenever God or any Heavy Stuff came up, Henscher opted for the moon. He had relished the moon ever since childhood, and especially once he learned that men had walked there.
He never understood why people needed religion if they had a good moon, or what religion was, or why everybody made such a fuss over churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, cowls, orles, priests, Bibles, Korans, kepis and the rest of the planet’s religious upholstery.
No one had told him, and he saw no reason to ask: religion and God, if God existed, were just props in some sleight-of-hand theater, even as the platinum moon outshone most mental flare-ups, and maybe even Cleopatra’s burnished throne.
Henscher felt isolated as Blows remarked, “No religion without sex, fella–that’s impossible.”
The sex angle bothered him. He knew a little about monks and had no problem with turning stroppy. “So how about monks?” “Your celibate monk is more obsessed with sex than anybody else, fella–the stimulation of the loins, between the loins, the promotion of the tongue. Sovereign over the ascetic monk or nun is the prepared body, the sensitive finger, contemptuous laughter, fiendish lapping. The pumping in the monastery is the pumping of the monastery. Your average monk pretends to find love filthy, fella, then tells you it’s the only game in town.”
“Maybe we should ask one.”
“You gotta be careful, fella. I could be thrashed for saying these things. I could be risking my life.”
But Henscher thought it was unfair to rake monks and nuns over the coals for their hypocrisy, if that was what it was. “Maybe we should ask anyway.”
Blows said he wasn’t opposed to asking, but during the night they checked into a homeless shelter and somebody stole Blows’s bluejeans.
He didn’t realize they were gone till the next morning. “You seen my jeans?”
“Didn’t see ’em. Didn’t want to see ’em.”
“Can’t hit the streets without ’em, fella. Not that they were special jeans.”
But Henscher was feeling coltish. “Jeans can usually be found.”
“People realize they’ve made a mistake.”
So, the two of them investigated, without success.
In the meantime, the weather beyond the shelter’s central sleeping room sank from brisk into cold. The sky spread a white sheet over the park beyond the window as they bent over a trough, washing their hands, faces and upper torsos with powdered soap and brushing their teeth. A mirror covered with scribbles of toothpaste stains ran the length of the trough. A row of solemn faces, maybe twenty male and a few female, flickered across the mirror. Blows and Henscher’s faces flickered there too.
“So how do you find my jeans, fella?”
Henscher said nothing. He was more interested in his stubble, whose roughness reminded him of an unwashed dinner plate. Whole days might pass without him getting a glimpse of his stubble, which may be why he opted for his change, or letting go of his dream of Cleopatra and her throne, together with any hope of seeing them along with her barge and its fragrant sails. Her barge might be old and creaky by now, if it still existed, but he guessed that it might also retain some atmosphere of decayed elegance.
He set down his toothbrush and looked at himself, meeting his own eyes in the mirror.
Where had he bought his toothbrush? When? He cared about these types of details.
Then he wandered off and in a short while came back with bluejeans.
Blows was still examining himself in the mirror, still brushing his teeth. To Henscher he seemed a complete and full person, fine and thoroughgoing, even if he didn’t understand various things.
“Those jeans look pretty good, fella. Still have their designer label.”
Henscher shrugged and in his whole life had never uttered any word with as much conviction as his next one.
Its two syllables felt firm, like the wire frame inside a tub of clay which you might shape into a human figure for a high school art class: a homunculus. His throat polished the two syllables as his voice lent them a shine.
The syllables felt solid, as if they had fallen out of a trade wind inflating the sails of a sloop marooned in Caribbean doldrums, a yacht whose rigging hung limp over a windless sea.
Behind them, though, back in the sleeping room, a noise rippled through the air and turned into a sigh, as if someone had fallen down in an empty house.
Henscher raised his chin and let it slice through the air. “I suppose you’ll start wearing them, and wearing them now.”
But Blows took a deep breath and hugged his elbows, gazing at Henscher as if lost in a trance. “Nah, there’s no chance of anything funny about you, fella. Not any. You’re probably the sort who waits. You may even be one of the old ones.”
And Blows took a breath of his own. “I tried telling someone back in there about my patience, but he didn’t pay any attention. Not any, or so you’d better believe.”
“I do believe it.”
“I mean, what else is there but this waiting, and after that, the teaming up?”
“Not much, fella, till the tide turns.–Is it turning now?”
Paul Oppenheimer, a widely published poet and short story writer, is the author of the novel Blood Memoir: or The First Three Days of Creation.