It was late afternoon Thursday and the church they staked out from the back seat of Frank’s City Cab taxi showed no signs of life. Emile was convinced that something was about to happen, that Ty would momentarily appear, and with each passing moment, this sense heightened. But Lungsee explained the metaphysics behind this phenomenon and brought it back to Waiting for Godot. Emile remembered the play from school and agreed, ending their conversation with, Nothing’s really gonna happen, anyway.
Twenty minutes later, Lungsee was deeply considering the radio dial knob that the cabbie kept fiddling with. It was round with a wood panel face and in its fake grain he saw Munch’s Scream. He touched it. Smooth. The Scream is for children, he thought. A novelty of a painting. Fingerpainting, really. What interested him was the noise that forced the poor Belgian to cover his ears in the first place. Relative. And then he smiled at the song on the radio that made him nod his head. Brick House, by the Commodores, but he needed to gain more sway over the ditty because he felt it somewhat lacking and so he renamed it Brick Shit House by the Commoders and sang along accordingly. Lungsee enjoyed the wordplay. Yet he had not remembered a time where the scatological resided so in the fore of his mind.
The toilet from Graceland had been a spontaneous reaction to a situational clusterfuck. A lagniappe, honorable mention, a consolation prize. Show up, hang around, and you shall be rewarded. The American entitlement. Promise.
The funky song bopped on and Lungsee lost interest, and then The Doobies’ China Grove came on, and he remembered he hated few bands more than the Doobies. Fucking idiots. Sheriff with a Samurai sword? In Texas. Lyrics are important, Lungsee thought for the millionth time. Why not make sense? How hard is it? Samurai sword is Japanese, not Chinese. Edo Grove. Morons. He took a deep breath, spotted a Walnut tree across the church’s parking lot and took it easy on the Doobies. Like the Eagles might. If they were smart enough. He shifted in his seat because his ass was snoozing from the car’s poor design. He knew Detroit could do better, but then quickly shot back to himself that to complain was no good because of what the situation in China would undoubtedly be. A taxi-cab is a stinging-good capitalist idea turned ideal that separates us from them. The thought of two mature males sitting in a taxi like this over there, maybe in Shangqui, was wholly preposterous. Perhaps, to be fair, they had taxis in China, but what else? Nothing. Deprivation, starvation, doctors, dumplings. While even the thought of the word dumpling had resonance due to the scat-like wordplay going on in his head no end, Lungsee pressed on with the sociological truths. The indignities that the little yellow ones must suffer due to central administrative paranoia must make for a far more open society concerning blossoming mental illnesses. Ten bucks, he wagered to himself, they have depression over there. And another ten on mania. But do they have manic depression? Doubtful. We here are not afraid of putting the two together. America. Nixon plus Agnew. Send Kissinger. Go to the godless. Coincidence? Doubtful. Hmmm, Lungsee hummed. If there is anything to learn from sitting in a Buick taxi and staring at the radio dials and a church’s soup line entrance is that psychiatrists believe they know everything when in fact they should all be shot and raped or at least widely published so their feeble intellectual shenanigans can be mocked by the real world’s day’s light. Ellsberg. Grayson. They are no different than the ragged alchemists off some high street in London at the turn of a Dark Aged century preaching that minor lunar eclipses precede scorching cholera. Think of all the shit if those alchemists lived in China. A lot of food. Lot of shit. Egg salad. Gross. You like duck salad? Lungsee said.
Emile, for his part, sat behind the cabbie and gazed out to the gothic church that had been his personal childhood Sunday torture chamber and he thought back to the bouncy housewife teachers in silk espadrilles and cockeyed makeup and he remembered well another morning when a teacher not named Perkins-Rodriguez-McSorely-Lackey-Lupus said that Jesus once cursed a fig tree for not producing its fruit and this was to somehow mean something cool, and I then met their bet and said that Philistine foreskins were bartered like gold in old city. Teen Emile was not slapped this time, though. LLC liability provisions. Escorted to the alley. Huffily. Mrs. Gott.
But this was all deep past. Emile felt silly even thinking about all that now. He studied the individual stones of the buildings. Beautiful. Earth tones. Jagged and uneven, but solid and purposeful. And in them he saw validation of his identically unique theory: the rock of man is the flimsy of church.
But what of the opposite? Emile could see his eager young and subversive Vandy advisor, sitting there in his cramped basement office, brown chukka walking shoes propped up on his metal desk with a large photograph of a ghostlike Nikolai Berdyaev behind him as he railed on about the only two things he ever railed on about: the vileness of Harvard, and the confounding perfection of Russian history. Especially the Soviets. And especially what they thought they excluded. Church.
Is life easier without god? Emile wondered. Probably. It is certainly difficult with him. But that doesn’t mean god must be at home in our lives. Our lives are ours. Dumas. If god were forced to live like man, he’d kill himself. God is not welcome in our home. Or, we are homeless. Ty. Emile secretly romanticized homelessness. Its freedoms. The sheer narrowness of options would establish a world so tight as to render any choice whatsoever a triumph.
I will walk across the road. Marvelous!
I may or may not stoop and pick up that ort and eat it. Stupendous!
I shall sit on this bench. Outrageous!
Shit my pants. Free!
But then the terrifying, self-fulfilling and unforgiving essence of life on earth settled in. It infiltrated, seeped in quickly, causing grave doubt and trepidation and a future of crazed days, wailing and moaning unfree, drama therapies at nuthouses and free soup suppers at church and potentially people watching out for you, pissing on walls, or thinking you are somehow their brother and it was then that insidious pity that crept back into his mind and he thought he heard something. What? he said.
I said, do you like duck salad? Simple question.
What is pity, anyway? Emile said.
Lungsee adored the question. A most admirable probe into a semantic swamp. And Emile just flung it out there like a naked baby from a speeding car. But Lungsee said nothing. He stewed and stirred and then the bedraggled men appeared on the opposite sidewalk. All four of them. All over sixty. They shuffled up and formed their human clump for the free watery soup supper compliments of God.
Lungsee had performed this exact act before, but he was not prepared for seeing this. He didn’t know why. He had stood there, just like them, and looked out with wary eyes to the people in cars looking at him and was there any difference? Being here and not there? Wary eyes versus freewheelin’? The difference mattered because it all mattered so much.
Fine line between pity and loyalty, Lungsee said. And I know every single one of those guys. No Ty. What day is it, amigo?
Fuck it, said Emile. Has to be Tuesday. At least.
We’ve been sitting here for three days.
Maybe we should go in and, uh, ask around?
A rap of knuckles on Emile’s window startled him. He looked and there beamed the smiling brown spotted face of an older man of the cloth, in a tie-dyed dog collar, who looked as if his projection from a funhouse mirror had been thrown back at him and permanently applied. His beady eyes widened along with his mouth and he moved his right hand in a circular motion. Emile hesitated and the man simply made his hand circle larger and opened his mouth wider like a horse having a silent laugh.
Emile hit the switch and the window whined down and the peculiar man of the hippie clergy said, Inhale, this is my herb. He sniggered and offered up a roach of a joint that looked like a brown Pygmy’s toe.
Emile looked to Lungsee and Lungsee tightened his lips and turned to look straight out the windshield. Um… what? said Emile.
I’m blowing the whistle, man. I’ve had it. I’ve seen behind the curtain, and I’m blowing it wide open, man, blowing it loud and clear. The whistle, man.
Blowing the whistle? said Emile.
That’s right. All this… and he waved his hand through the air in little circles. All this is malarkey, man. I’m Derek, and I’m the Associate Pastor here, or Ass Pass, as I like to say, he said with another annoying snigger, and all this is figments of the imagination. But, and dig this and dig it good, it’s a figment of someone else’s imagination. And I’m blowing the whistle on it, man. Just like Deep Throat. The people need to know, deserve to know. Just the beginning, man. So, what are you guys up to?
Huh? said Emile. Uh, not much… You know…
Been watching you guys, Derek said off another toke and nodding to a small office window in the church. You’re onto something. And I want in. He inspected the inside of the cab like a nosy cop.
Uh, we’re not, up to anything, said Emile rolling up his window a bit. You know, just hanging out, man.
You’re not the fuzz, are you?
Umm, nooo. We’re not the...
Cease eye contact now, Lungsee said out of the side of his mouth.
But Emile couldn’t look away. We’re, uh, just like you… You know, sick of it all. Fed up. You know, trying to, discern reality. Man…
Sanctimony, man, sanctimony. Sanctimonious sanctimony. That’s the reality, man, and I’m blowing the whis… Just like Hal Holbrook said, man, Follow the money. The sanctimony just gets so deep sometimes, man, I think it’s all one big bank. A bank so deep I can’t…
Right on, man, said Emile. But, uh… yeah, I don’t really think you can equate Watergate with uh, you know, a protestant reformation…
Associate Pastor Derek leaned his head all the way inside Emile’s window. You’d be surprised what you can equate… He again toked off his roach but his fierce inhale this time sucked the burning brown speck right through his fingers and into the back of his mouth. He coughed and hacked and spit it on the seat next to Emile all as if nothing happened. You can equate all kinds of… If you were so inclined. I once equated the ideas of unique and identical, man, and once I did that, man, that was the beginning of the end. Seems we have a problem with these squirrely notions on this earth. Uniquely identical. Identically unique. You think on that for a while, and you’ll see, man, you’ll see, the end is nigh.
Nigh? muttered Lungsee.
That’s cool, man, Emile said. I can dig the snowflake… conundrum…
Yes! Exactly, man! Snowflake conundrum! Oh, wow, man. You got it. Uh, yeah. So. You’ve been out here, in this taxi, for like four days. In the parking lot. I feel like it’s all meant to be. You know? Like this is, my ride, hehhehheh. My ride out of here. You know how the world works sometimes. Things happen. You meet people. You learn things. You smoke things and you realize you’re condemned to the infinite…
Actually, we’re here on business, Emile said. We’re looking for a guy, my brother, and, uh, believe it or not, the, uh, fuzz told us, that uh…
Don’t say fuzz, Lungsee ordered. And ask him where exactly the audacity store is wherein he purchased in bulk the balls to wear that clerical and complain about figments of someone else’s imagination. Please do that. For me.
It’s my brother Ty, this Ty guy, a guy named Ty, and well, actually, the fuzz told us he’s been here…
Ty?! Oh, wow, man. I know Ty! He’s been here!
He has? Wow. He’s been here? Really?
Oh, yeah, man. Crashed here for a while. Under my choir loft. In the sanctuary. Lived up in there. Had some candles and sage in there, man. Brought some of his Big Star albums. Foghat. And Shuggie Otis. Couldn’t let him bring his bong in, though. The smell, you know, but he tried to convince me he was a door-to-door bong monger just passing through, but I told him I was hip...
Hip? said Lungsee.
Hip? said Emile.
Yeah, really. I’m cool, fellas. Honest. I was at Woodstock. Altamont. Summer of ’68 was far out, man. These 70s are kind of a harsh toke, know what I mean? Industrial Militant Complexities, and whatnot… Hey, you guys like to drop…
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Is Ty coming back?
Huh? Well, he lit out a few days ago, and I don’t think he’s coming back.
What? Why? Where? Where’d he go?
The bank, probably, Derek sniggered.
The bank? said Emile.
Ask this clown again just how exactly one is to blow the fucking whistle on the… You can’t blow the whistle on… the thing that everyone subscribes to, man. I mean… what the fuck is going on here?! Lungsee shook his head like a wet dog and tugged at his shirt, cape and pants. He couldn’t get enough air or elbow room. He needed space bad. His face dripped sweat.
Yep, the bank, Derek said. That merry lil prankster snatched three large from the collection plate closet.
Good fucking god of Galilea! Would you please inform Mr. 95 Feces of Theses on the Wall there that if he hadn’t… in the first place… he wouldn’t have to… blow the fucking whistle…. on the… essential… nature of nature! Dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard!
He stole three thousand dollars from the collection plate? said Emile.
Prit-tee fuck-ing heh-vee, no? That is buttfucking the sanctimonious if there ever was buttfucking the sanctimony, right? Am I right? Derek now laughed a stoner machine-gun laugh, indicating his increasing comfort with Emile. Actually, I don’t really remember that much. Maybe it was a hallucination. Or I dreamed it. Had some dynamite shit last night, he confided, looking around the empty parking lot. From Humboldt. Listen, I’m jonesing real bad. You guys holding? Can I cruise with? What say we go to LA, man… I got a friend in Silver Lake, this guy Andres…
Derek the Associate Pastor opened Emile’s door and began to scooch himself inside. Emile pulled on his side of the door and tapped frantically on the cabbie’s shoulder and the cabbie jammed the car in gear and mashed the gas as hard as all four laws of thermodynamics allowed.