Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Garden of Make-Believe: 'The Passion'

          Now that's Lent, the season for sacrifice, this story may be in season in a weird (and wholly irreligious) way.
          I used to give up chocolate for Lent. Now I don't even pretend to (and this year appear actually to be increasing my consumption). That struggle is the background for the fictional story "The Passion" that was recently published in the online journal "Early of Plaid."           
           Here's the link:


          The story appears on page 226. But it takes some work to find it, so I thought it would be easier simply to post it here:




The Passion

            It was four o’clock in the afternoon when The Chris felt an irresistible desire for nonpareils. It was not a mere twinge of appetite, a hankering, a yearning, or even a craving. It was a true desire of the body, a stirring of the roots, a minor earthquake in the solar plexus, the peculiar expression of a unique soul-hunger: a matter not of choosing but of chosen-ness. The desire for nonpareils was not to be satisfied by M&M’s or Kisses. Maybe a Cadbury bar would do, as long as it was dark Cadbury bar, but he doubted that English Pleasures, his usual source for that variety of imported indulgences, had stocked up on dark chocolate since he cleaned out their stock. Oh, he might find a few dusty boxes of Chocolate Roses there, gathering dust on their bloom since Christmas, but the desire for chocolate, the right kind of chocolate, was a true calling of the higher Chris, and he wasn’t going to try to fob it off with anything less than what he truly desired. Tending to the flesh was, after all – in a way – his religion. Whether it meant a visitation to the overpriced English treat store, the Paky’s convenience store, or the hand-dipped candy store with the cutesy name (“O Fudge!”), he had received a calling which required an answer.
            The Chris had his coat on his shoulders and his hand on the kitchen door when he remembered that such pleasures were, as of the last forty-eight hours, denied him. 
            He had given them up. Remembering this struck him like a splash of cold water. His emotional state altered, plummeting to an afternoon low. A seasonal low. Maybe an annual low. He hated himself for being weak in the face of appetite – the pleasures of the flesh – and equally despised his willingness to offer a pledge of renunciation simply to show off his power. Behold! All this can be yours. Why had he done it? Sacrifice was a virtue he did not even believe in. Unlike those who had come before, he pretty much gave the whole virtue industry a pass. Yet in a moment of vanity and human weakness, he had accepted the challenge of his devil-spinster sister, Olivia Killjoy (The Eater of Herds), to give something up – something he would really miss – for Lent.
            “Oh, not meat,” she had chided, “you don’t even eat red meat, not really, Chris. When’s the last time you’ve had a steak? Whenever I see you in a restaurant you’re always eating the linguine and snails or something weird and totally unamerican.”
            “All right, I’ll give up linguine and snails.”
            “No you don’t. You don’t get off that easy. How often can anybody eat linguine and snails?”
            “All right, pasta. All pasta. All forty days.”
            “Better,” she said, pursing her lips in that dangerous, thoughtful, scheming way of hers, so that he knew, and dreaded, that she would come up with something still better, that is to say worse, something that would push him to take a stand he didn’t want to do take. Just to prove something – to her. The Devil Woman. Getting him to do things he didn’t want to do, maneuvering him into a position where he could not refuse, seemed to be her purpose in life. How did she do it? There was something truly diabolical about her.
            “I’ve got it,” she said, turning and fixing him with her steely pincer eyes. The Chris cringed internally, awaiting his doom, but maintained a wise, accepting visage on his outwardly noble brow. “Chocolate. That’s it. That’s what you don’t want anybody to bring up, isn’t it? It’s your weakness. Your dirty little secret. You don’t want people to notice, do you, Chris, bubba –  Momma’s little darling – when you pop your M&M’s like a handful of uppers. You go sneaking off into a corner where you don’t think anybody sees. I’ve watched you. I know you do it. It’s your secret vice, isn’t it?”
            “I don’t hide it, Olivia. I’ve always loved chocolate.”
            “Then give it up.” She stared at him, gazing coolly at the unruffled exterior he labored to maintain. “Give up chocolate for Lent, Chrissy. There’s a real test.” Accompanying this demand – this command – with a raised finger. A nasty, pointing, school marmish finger.
            “What do you care about Lent, Olivia?” Bitch. Witch.
            “You’re afraid.”
            He shrugged, as if the matter were too absurd to argue about. He snapped his fingers, riposting the dark woman’s raised digit. “Done. Whatever you say, Olivia. No chocolate for Lent.” Piece of cake, he told himself.
            “You don’t fool me, buster.” She glared some more. “You’re sweating. You’re sweating bullets.”

            He was sweating, perspiring with guilt and anxiety. Who would know, he asked himself. Who would know if he failed? Olivia? Who would tell her? He certainly wouldn’t. Did he really believe she could read his mind? Just walk out the door, he told himself, sotto voce (so the part of himself he was trying to get around – the anointed part – wouldn’t hear), go down to your favorite store, any one of them, and get yourself a goodbar, mister. Then come back home and feed your face. Nobody has to know. Nobody will know.
            Nobody, The Chris thought, but me. I have a table with the Father.
            He had known two days before, when Olivia the Scourge of God had made her awful demand, putting the screws to him in her inimitable fashion. Known that he would pay an awesome price for his pride, his sense of superiority, his ego, his determination to prove he was capable of doing what other people cared about, though he couldn’t care less. An awesome price to prove that very superiority. And that he was not sure – not truly certain – that he could bear it.
            Let this cup, he thought then, pass from my lips. No thanks. I’m fine, really. If it were possible. But if not, Pops, thy will be done.
            Who did he think he was he talking to? Was he losing his mind?
            The Chris shook his head. Foolishness. Just words. Words he had not meant to say, words his miserable pleasure-hating sister had forced out of him. And yet here he was, barely forty-eight hours later, standing like a stone jockey in his own doorway, paralyzed with indecision, unable to move. Sweating.
            The Chris took his coat off, hung it on the rack and walked circles in his kitchen. Around two o’clock, he recalled, he had slathered a spoonful of beach plum jelly on top of peanut butter on a rye crisp cracker and called it lunch. Except that he had called something else lunch an hour before that. So that had actually been his two o’clock fix. It lasted a while, not too long, and then somewhere around three o’clock he had sampled – something special. Something he was saving – saving for a low moment.
            He forced to himself to remember. Something that came in a bag. He pictured a bag of big round brown balls mixed together with pink and rather grayish pieces, and various nutty bits – all held together by a concept. Not an obvious concept. He thought hard, sweat forming on his upper lip, and suddenly the name came to him.
            Yogurt Passion. Sweet, he thought. Not bad. And not chocolate; a kind of idolatrous stand-in for the true God.
            The Chris had not known it would be this hard. One day his world had been awash in chocolate, fat nonpareils, fat Ecolier cookies compounded of sweet biscuit and good dark chocolate, homemade fudge (in the freezer) left over from Mom’s holiday baking season, a few foil-wrapped chocolate coins, a completely unopened package of Minty Elfmen purchased on the excuse that an ex-girlfriend with a kid might visit (fat chance) – and the next day he was entirely bereft. Yea, though I walk through the valley of fatigue. He had bagged the remaining nonpareils himself and handed them to his sister, Olivia the Bride of the Tomb, to take with her when she stalked out the house, pleased with her latest torture session.
 “Here,” he said, sweeping the candy out of the cut glass bowl, “take them with you. Don’t want to hear any nagging suspicions later when it’s all over.
            She had considered not accepting them. “You mean you don’t want to have any temptation around? Is that it?”
            “Fine. Leave them here.”
            “No,” she said, changing tactics immediately, “I’ll take them.”
That was the way she played the game, countering his every move in the blink of an eye. Slipping the dirk in, pulling it out, slipping it in somewhere else.

            It had been a long thirty-eight days. Many of them unbearable, but also forgettable, so in the end they ran together in his memory like powdered hot chocolate mix on a sea of time. He had thrown away the hot chocolate mix and then the old package of baker’s chocolate, even though it was unsweetened and utterly inedible. After the first few weeks he seldom went to his desk any more to keep track of the financial news – he penned the occasional market trends commentary for the local rag; it helped to position him as a financial wizard and drum up business as an investment counselor – because it reminded him of snacking by the keyboard, a favorite pastime in the good old days before the archfiend Olivia Bane of Good Hopes had destroyed his peace of mind by offering him the world if he would give up chocolate and denounce the Father. Is that how it had happened? He wasn’t sure any more. Did he get the world, the flesh or the devil? Two out of three?
Things were running together in his memory – the old days, the new days – and he was afraid he was beginning to see things. Little somethings – demons, he suspected – played in the corners of his vision. Ugly little buggers, cavorting, dancing around evilly, poking each other with sharp stakes like figures out of Bosch. It was as if his whole house had been re-wallpapered in “The Gardens of Earthly Delights.” Loathsome little creatures wavered in and out of focus. Afternoons were the worst, as they always were for him. He kept his appointments to the morning, afraid he couldn’t see straight enough to drive as the day wore on.
As darkness fell on the thirty-eighth day, a soft pre-vernal day, while the amphibians were slithering out of their tombs of mud and whispering sweet nothings in the orgiastic night, The Chris settled down for an evening of television and peanuts. Salted nuts kept his mind off chocolate, barely. He would stuff himself, drink a beer. It was Thursday, a Maundy, Maundy Thursday. Maundy, Maundy! Can’t stand that day! So was that the Last Supper? Were these his sacrifices of bread and wine? The peanut and the beer? Where were the damned apostles? Didn’t they know it was time for the picture? Did somebody forget to send the epistles to the apostles? Could you not wait one hour with me?
Why was he thinking these crazy thoughts?
The Chris blinked. The demons, nasty little buggers, retreated to the corners of his vision. Something hummed inside his head but he told it to shut up. On the tube Conan the Governor of California had just turned down the teen vixen Princess’s offer to rule Slabonia. No, he says – I will rule my own kingdom. I will have my own queen.
            The Chris loved that part, even if Conan was a bit thick, in all directions, to be a role model. Independence, not knuckling under, going his own way. Just say no – telling off the Princess (kind of a white chocolate bunny). 
The evening would be over soon. Tomorrow would be a Friday, a good Friday. And The Chris will be in a passion.

            Friday was gray, not warm, though admittedly no longer cold. But things went rapidly downhill, starting from his coffee, which he made too weak. First he could not find things, familiar things, like his date planner. He had a vague recollection of having marked the date, something about a court appearance, much ado about an accumulation of motor vehicle violations. A minor legal wrangle, like failing to sacrifice on the right day, render unto Caesar what was salad, or drive the monkey changers from the thimble? His head began to hurt. Better not to go anywhere today. Though it would be a bummer if some stood-up client (“Trust The Chris: He Loves Your Money”) rang him up all pissed off, which the self-important little Judas would express as “frankly a little put out.” Pissed off he could accept; everyone was pissed off. “Frankly” and “put out” he just could not deal with. Not today. The weather built, and his head hurt. The whole mockingly pointless day seemed to be set aside for some sort of crisis. They have betrayed me to mine enemies. Yea, though I walk through the dilly of the dally.
            When the house shook – miserere!—  it was some kind of genuine Weather Channel storm, he realized, rain lashing his windows, not just sunspot activity in whacked out Chris-land. His hands were shaking. Thunderclaps struck him, one after another, like blows. They mocked and reviled him. They know not what they do, he thought. He turned this way and that, but there was no place to hide. Time refused to pass, the darkness grew into an enormous craving filling the hole that was The Chris – chest, belly, loins, head. A thirst, or perhaps a hunger. Hunger was a kind of a scraping, hollowing pain, he had read (though never experienced), and a carving, craving pain was what he now felt. Miserere!
He needed a fix, bad. Where where where would he find it?
        Where had he put his passion? It was sweet, and he needed it.
         He began taking things apart. He took the books off their case. He looked under the pillows and cushions of the furniture. He raged at the cat, who hid under the coffee table. Thou hast prepared a table for me in the presence of my enemies. He stormed into the kitchen, where he pawed through take-out menus and unwanted coupons, throwing them on the floor, until his finger landed on an old thumbtack. He took two tacks from the drawer and laid them flat on his palms. He pressed his hands together. The pain shot through him, consuming the other pain, eating it up. Finito, he murmured. The day grew black. He fell asleep face down on the cushionless sofa.

            When he woke it was night, but he had left a light on in another room. The light made shadows on the wall opposite the sofa, and as he gazed at the shadows, the dark shapes on the wall resolved into a face. It was a woman’s face, he saw, round with gray eyes and wisps of hair that wriggled as he watched. The wisps wiggled and squirmed. They were creatures, he told himself, ants.
            Chocolate covered ants.
            He screamed.
            He was unconscious for a long time. A whole day passed, and when he woke for good he was hungry, very hungry, but his mind felt calm and dull and empty. He made coffee and was drinking it when his mother called to remind him that the Easter egg hunt was that morning. He had promised to help – don’t tell me you’ve forgotten, Chris!
“Olivia is already here,” she pleaded.
He told her he would be right over. The morning sky was overcast and the air had a bite. The Chris drove in a kind of blank, bodiless trance.
            Mom still lived in the house Dad built on a wide corner lot in one of his subdivisions. The grass in the yard was just beginning to come up in weedy patches. Elephant grass was ideal for concealing eggs, and there were plenty of shrubs and trees around to make for a decent hunt. She kept hosting the Sunday school children’s Easter egg hunt, Mom reminded him, because she had no grandchildren to treat on Easter morning.
“And here are my own children,” she said, opening her hands in a fluttery gesture to welcome The Chris and waving vaguely toward Olivia, who stood framed in the doorway, hands in her pockets. The Sister of the Grave threw him an evil smile, a look of mocking triumph. Olivia: Consumer of Hearts, Sucker of Blood. Fear pushed up from the deadness inside him like weeds through the spring earth.
“Oh good,” she purred, an evil burr too soft for Mom to overhear, “Wonder Boy’s back from the grave. Have some chocolate, sissy Chrissy.”
            The Chris brushed his mother’s cheek and pushed wordlessly past the Destroyer of Hope to enter the house. He felt the devil woman’s nails rake his ear as he passed. 
            On the buffet table the prizes for the Easter egg hunt leaned in a tall brown cellophane wrapped huddle. He moved silently toward his apotheosis of renunciation and triumph, chose a victim and tore the plastic with his teeth. By the time his mother entered and gasped, The Chris was tearing a bunny apart and stuffing pieces in his mouth. He could feel liquid, blood perhaps, running down his chin.
            “Oh dear,” Mom said, as lightly as she could, “those were for the children.”
            Olivia had begun to laugh, a harshly sibilant sound, which she broke off to hurl a mocking command at her mother. “Better call nine-one-one, Mom,” she commanded. “Your baby boy’s flipped out.”
            Mom’s gazed from one of her babies to the other, dry washing her hands. Olivia’s laugh had become an uncontrollable cackle, pitched to wake the dead.
            The Chris turned to her, wiping his fingers on his pants. “What are you laughing for, you devil?” he demanded. “It’s Easter. You’ve lost.”