Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Winchell’s donuts is one block over from our apartment house and four blocks down, a good place for everyone in the neighborhood to hang out, black chicano anglo drop-out boys taking turns at the classifieds left on the unsteady little orange disk stools grafted onto the tables like plastic school desks, reading the ads under miscellaneous employment and used cars from noon until suppertime. And the street girls after that, just waking up when the pavement’s cooling off, coming in for a couple of peanut-topped strawberry glazed creme-filled plain sugar and coffee to go, eating them out of the paper wraps, licking their fingers, waving little fannies in red sateen, hefty fannies in wide white hot pants at the winchell’s clientele on their way out the door.
Leo goes down to winchell’s to drink coffee and get out of the efficiency apartment that grows too small for three people fast, he reads about anarchy and talks to the winchell’s street-intellectual league, he comes home one night telling me about two men he met, one who does janitor work at the catholic church several blocks down where the illegal alien kids are taught illegal english classes in the basement, and one named judas who is an ex-child of god. The janitor had been reading w.g. wedgewood’s tudor and stewart poetry when leo walked in, a book leo thought only graduate english students ever read, but there you are, the janitor said he had bought it at a garage sale because it was only a quarter and looked like fun. They talked about poetry a little and tudors a little and then moved onto god when judas heard them talking and sat down with his coffee, a bible in his coat pocket, the three of them talking loudly until closing time.
You would like to talk to this judas, leo tells me while he climbs in on his side of the murphy bed, morgani not asleep yet on the couch, he knows a place to sleep for five dollars a week, he’s been arrested for panhandling in highland park. Leo tells me all he can remember that judas said about st. paul and women and who the seven-headed beast will be. Leo tries to report all religious conversations he engages in because he knows that sometime before he knew me I was supposed to have gotten a little bit crazy about jesus christ. I always tell him that was a stage, something that happens for a time to some women when they aren’t making enough love during their sexual practices, and then sometimes I tell him well, I was just hanging out with jesus until the right man came along, someone bearded and skinny with love of the word more than love of money, who would also screw a lot. Still, when leo begins to say that he said this and judas said that, I begin to make bad paraphrases of scripture and try to remember what books and chapters they are coming from, looking at leo in the dark with my eyes wide open, perfectly solemn about what I am saying until he is asleep and I am still awake, finally quiet after I realize I have talked too much. And I think while I am lying there that having gone a little crazy once for jesus is like having scar tissue left from a hot love affair. There is a ganglia of nerves somewhere along the spinal column, lines of body feeling fused and cauterized where they once converged after leaping simultaneously, making a lightning bridge to meet the fire raining down. And certain combinations of sounds hit those scar ridges just right so that little bits of matthew mark luke and john start tumbling around in my mind.
The next day on our way to buy a six-pack leo points out an apartment building with rotted out timbers across the porch steps, no glass in the windows, the front door half-open, useless padlock hanging by a nail. That’s the place judas has been sleeping in, he says. Five dollars a week, four or five men in a room sleeping on the floor. We walk on by and I can see just a little through a street-level window the paper-stripped wood which is an inside wall, imagining the men asleep together on the floor, the scurrying, rustling snores and groans and cries, terrible mingled smells sickness vomit urine and booze they must all share at night. It is amazing to me that I have walked by this place before thinking it was empty and uninhabitable, imagination never flashing that its rooms were filled.
A few nights later we walk to tom thumb supermarket for bread and longhorn cheese and there is a small man with pants on too long for him a black suit coat with sleeves over his hands, a plentiful beard.
Judas? leo says. The man turns and squints at us, is that leo? he asks.
How are you doing? leo claps him on the shoulders, this is my wife, he says that I was telling you about.
When judas turns to me I can see that I am younger than I am, he is hardly thirty, he has good eyes and a good smile even though his hair is dirty combed straight back in flat thin ribbons behind his ears and over the suit collar which is folded up on one side.
I decide not to say much, better not to say leo’s been telling me all about you or any of that crap, so leo and he talk a little about something, the price of longhorn cheese or how hard it is to carry a bunch of groceries home from tom thumb since they switched from paper bags to plastic. Then leo is saying listen, why don’t you come home with us for a cup of coffee, so I say really, like I have heard wifey-hostesses say all my life, and there is a flash of some kind of remembering across judas’s face that when people are being social this is the kind of thing they say and do. He looks from leo to me fast, his near-sight under squinted up eyebrows seeing something that looks all right, so we walk back to the apartment, leo in the middle, me not really listening. And I am thinking, well, I wonder about brother bob, if he ever started playing the piano again after god told him it was too much vanity, and if he still has the revival tent he bought from the piano sale. And I wonder about brother john, if he is still running the orphanage in zaragosa with his street preacher wife from mexico and if they ever got it straightened out between them whether or not women could instruct men or if preaching wives could only preach to other women. And then I wonder about brother david and brother mack for a while before I realize that I am wondering about all the religious men I have known, putting them in a major category like that, and then adding judas, so here, I am thinking, is another religious man. I listen to his voice tones a little bit talking to leo and like the slow straight way he has of speaking, all true tones. And then I think this judas is somewhat attractive even though he is down-and-out, something still fiery in all these men who really try to be religious, fasting and praying and trying to take st. paul’s advice about women to heart, something that makes me think when one of them does come in a woman, it must be like getting screwed with a loose power wire. But then too many of them begin to hallucinate, have blurred vision from their bodies not getting enough of just about everything, and that’s why a wise woman will keep aware when she finds herself alone at night with a man who has become overly religious, as the present moment they are sharing can suddenly dichotomize for him into the world he wishes to attain and the world he wishes to shun, and the unwary woman might find herself hacked to pieces when he starts separating his life into two piles.
At home I go to the kitchen to make instant coffee. Leo is saying to judas this is morgani my stepson, morgani with punk-purple hair steps back into the closet after the briefest hello, his battery-charged headphone amplifier hooked into his electric guitar with the door closed for the rest of the night, he knows this is judas calling from the way leo told him the winchell’s donuts story, but he’s seen too much of the religiously crazy himself, mother once crying crazy kneeling in the aisles, crazy preacher uncle converted hippie, crazy jesus christ aunt praying that his eyes be healed although they never are, he becomes a musician instead long before his mother brings leo home and stops reading the bible at night. I watch the teakettle while it starts heating up, thinking that I won’t go into the living room, I’ll let leo and judas talk, I’ll take advantage of the little social dance some women learn to do early, keeping to themselves while the men talk, doing things at the kitchen sink, closing the living room door, but then I think no that wouldn’t be kind . . . to treat a guest . . . leo bringing his friend home . . . a little social conversation. . . .
So I carry three cups of coffee to the living room, put one cup in front of leo, one in front of judas, sit down on the floor with mine because there are no chairs, only the couch that judas and leo are sitting on. I try one of those polite questions, I say, leo tells me that you are an ex-child of god.
Judas puts down his cup of coffee right away, frowns into the top of it, nods his head up and down.
Didn’t something happen to moses janez, leo asks, good casual conversation, didn’t he get a little strange, didn’t he get too interested in screwing around?
Oh yes, judas says swinging around to leo, there was sex all the time, everybody all the time into that.
Well, I say,
except for me, judas says, takes a sip again on his coffee not too serious about it after all.
Oh well, I say.
I had to pray about it all the time. But the truth is, he says, shifting his coffee mug on his lap, no woman likes to look at my dick, it was maimed in a terrible accident.
I don’t ask what happened, I don’t say anything, I keep on looking at him nodding my head, caught in a little pleasant social smile.
I was in a mental institution, he says, there was a homosexual rape if you know what I’m talking about, I don’t remember everything, electric shock, I don’t remember what the people looked like, now I probably see them everyday, sometimes I do see one that I think I remember but I can’t be sure because the electric shock confused me, I have a lot blanked out, but when I finally begin waking up it had already happened, I had been the subject of a terribly perverted experiment so now, he makes a vague pass of his hand over his lap, all of this is messed up. He sips his coffee, gives his head a little shake, like it’s a sad story all right but what else can he say?
I wonder what his penis looks like, I imagine something like a mangle-headed club, leo’s mouth is open but he has no words, how did you wind up in a mental institution, I finally say.
Judas holds up one hand. There are two fingers missing, the two middle ones, small stumps from the first knuckle up splayed red. I did this to myself with a hatchet, he says.
I guess that would do it, I say, it sure would, leo says, judas laughs, we all laugh like it’s a funny joke, yes it sure did, he says.
He tells me it is very good coffee, by the way. I ask him where he works and he says he is mowing lawns. We say some other things, leo shows him some photographs, we move into the kitchen where judas sits straight in a straight-backed chair, me washing dishes, looking at the soapsuds, copping out. Judas takes a wadded up piece of white bread out of his pocket.
I always carry some bread with me, he says. He picks off some of the crust and puts it in his mouth. The lord said eat of this bread and think of me, so I always feel better because of carrying this around. You might just try it yourself, he says, holding up the left-over pieces for me to see at the sink, then you can just take it out whenever you feel like it and have a little bit.
He gives a piece to leo who puts a little in his mouth, concentrates on its white wonderbread taste and judas pants pocket smell, it tastes all right, he says, good teevee commercial voice praising instant communion, hands the rest back to judas who holds it in the three-fingered hand, see this? pointing down to the stumps again, I was cutting wood with a circular saw one time, there was just one little slip and those had had it. He smiles and shrugs his shoulders, it’s sad to lose some fingers to an unhappy accident, but what can you say?
He finally gets up to leave. I want you to know, he says, that this is the first time in years that I have been in someone else’s house. Well, he says, I’ve been in other people houses some but not like this, to visit, and I felt that it was right. Well, he says, I felt that it was almost right. Leo pats his shoulder. You should just drop by again whenever you feel like it, he says. Yes you should, I say, maybe not exactly with the right sincerity but close, judas cocking his head to pick up all the off-vibrations, maybe I will he says, or well, for sure I’ll pray about it, I’ll ask the lord about it.
If the lord says it’s right, leo says.
That’s right, judas says.
We’ll just have to see, I say.
Well, we say, good night, good night, good night.
Morgani comes out of the closet. My god, leo, he says, why did you bring him home?
Now morgani, I say, he is an interesting man.
His name is judas and he is an ex-child of god.
Well of course that does sound a little crazy, I say, of course it is crazy, morgani stating the obvious because he is still young, only eighteen years old.
Well, leo says later when the murphy bed is unfolded and the lights are out, the light from the hallway only a sharp edge beneath the door, don’t ever open the door for him if I’m not here.
Oh don’t worry, I say, lying on my stomach, clutching the pillow, my eyes open, thinking what would I tell judas, what would I say if he came to the door knocking and leo was gone, would I forget all pretense then of being his friend, the slice of light under the door big enough so that I could see his shoes if they were standing outside, thinking that maybe judas’s dick is not maimed, maybe it is simply a dick which has erections which he believes women see as being ugly which, in fact, some women do, so he has had some bad experiences, he has been too sensitive to some young girl’s recoiling, he has looked too closely when some young virgin eyed his first hard-on, but usually there is morgani in the apartment at night always asleep on the couch, practicing his guitar at home usually when leo is gone, and it could be that judas is really maimed, bad things happen to people, terrible things, how young was he, I wonder, when he became a child of god, on and on thinking about judas, turned on my side, staring at the bottom of the door as the light in the hall continues shining.
Pat Ellis Taylor