Truth is One, but the wise have given it different names

Buddha was pissed.

“Reincarnation, your double-wide ass!” Zoroaster sneered between eerie riffs on his mistuned flute.

“It was always your destiny,” Jesus said in a calm, melodic, reassuring, and stoned voice that enraged Buddha further.

“Go bone a cow!”, Buddha screamed.

“Feh!” uttered Moses impatiently.  “Will you kinder stop with the argioyng already?  Every day, on and on.  Jesus H. Christ . . .”

“Yes dad?”, came His vacuous voice.

“You … you putz. How many times do I have to tell that I’m not your father.” shouted Moses. “I didn’t shtup that nafka mother of yours. That was God. Vey, goy.”

“Ignore the infidel,” screamed Mohamed, his forehead lowered, brows knit, one hand waving frantically above.  “He’s a bastard son of a dog.  He deserves to die. And you … kess ommak!”

“Oi.  And how do you kill a dead prophet?  Kimpetkind!”

“Can we get back to my problems?”  Buddha bellowed while deftly unwrapping a candy bar with one hand, and flinging the wrapper onto a rising monticello of discarded paper.  “I want to go back, and this fucking fraud. This reincarnation bullshit game was rigged!”

“Peace brother,” Jesus intoned with serious intent that nobody on their unknown plane of existence took seriously. No one wanted to mollify Buddha again, having endured his complaints for a few thousand years.  “Nobody wants to see you suffer . . .”

“Shut up hippie!”, lashed Zoroaster, who fumed in mid-pirouette.  “This is between me and the fat man.”

“Bring it on!” retaliated Buddha, struggling desperately to rise to his feet, finally undulating into a poor imitation of a Sumo pose. In between Buddha’s herculean grunts of effort toward a vertical posture, Zoroaster continued.

“You couldn’t go back if you wanted.  You were born enlightened, and had no chance at reincarnation in that world” he hissed as the thought of Earth passed through his mind and lips.  “And, why would you trade enlightenment for life among the infested?”

“For . . uff . . . starters you old . . . ah, ah, ah ayyyeee.”  Buddha tumbled as laboriously, but more wickedly, than he had stood. He paused for a considerable spell to catch his breath after falling back onto his arrayed, compressed and now nearly stuffing-free cushions.  “Anything is better than having to deal with you, and you, and you and all you idiots every day for the rest of time.”

“That’s no lie,” Zoroaster injected while absentmindedly plucking the last withered leaf off a long-deceased shrub, it then falling to dust through the nothingness that surrounded them. The shrub itself dissolved into a wisp of vapor. He passingly considered conjuring another plant into appearing. “Perhaps a tree,” he thought to himself. “Maybe one of those giant redwoods. That would jolt the others a bit.” But in the end, that amusement fell away as all others did, the effort outweighing the entertainment value.

“Oh no!  You don’t know asha from druj from your own mukhara,” Mohamed moaned. 

“Can’t we just love one another for a change,” Jesus said to the prophet he imagined was standing in front of him, but who was, as most were to him, a passing hallucination.

“They should have left you on the cross, you … you amateur martyr.”

“Would have saved me from his pathetic pacifism,” Buddha agreed.

 “Yes.  It is all about you cherbi.”

“Yes, it is about me!” Buddha yelled with a sob of frustration.  “I want to go back.  I don’t care if I am enlightened, which I am not.  I never had the chance.”

“They did leave me on the cross,” Jesus sadly recalled, albeit with his all too typical conversational delay, causing it to underlap when Moses spoke.

“So, what’s the big attraction with Earth?” Moses asked, absentmindedly fluttering a finger and causing his ample white beard to vertically part.

“Everything,” Buddha said wistfully, cheeks and jowls wobbling in time with his syllables. “Women, sex, air, water, children, animals.  It’s all so wonderful.”

“No woman on that planet would bed you, you son of a pig,” Mohamed screamed.  “You’d have better luck with the animals.”

“Says the child molester! Say hello to Aisha for us when you hump her next.”

“Hey Lao-tzu,” Moses prodded. “Got nothing to say?” Moses directed his general distaste for his eastern cousins to Lao, who was the most irritatingly passive of the lot in their anti-Elysium.

“It is the way. It is wu wei.”

“Wooo weee? Did Lao just have an orgasm or something?”

“And what good is air for you Buddha Boy?” Zoroaster chimed in.  “Air is for people who breathe, and that requires exercise.”

“And water?”, Mohamed tag-teamed.  “Like you ever bathe. Too much surface area to clean with an ocean.”

Moses chuckled under his breath, Jesus let lose a morose sigh from his olive hued lips, while Mohamed and Zoroaster laughed themselves to tears.  Buddha started to cry, which he did daily.

“Oh, shut up you infant, or I’ll nail you to a cross right after I tack Christ up there again.”

Death was not happy. 

He stared through one of the endless crystal panes, crafted by Satan himself, that encased Death and the other Horsemen. The crystal provided unobstructed views of Hell and televised images of every earthly acre, each person and all events. It was a window onto creation and onto their final battle field.

It was, to Death, wretched.

War had quit gazing out the window in 1945, simultaneously upset that he was not an active participant in the greatest armed conflict in human history, and somewhat frightened by it all. “This is big,” he thought about The Good War as the accumulated armies of an entire world maneuvered into position. “Battle on the ground. Battle in the air. Battle on the seas. Maybe soon, battle in space. This is where I should be. The slaughter is positively divine!” he had said to Hunger, who preferred more subtle modes for genocide.

Wars enthusiasm for The Good War remained high until a new explosive detonated above a Japanese city. That event, and another shortly thereafter gave War pause. It all seemed outside his capacity. It was, in a word, too much for War to find comfort in. He longed for simpler times when he could summon hordes of men, demons and creatures who had nothing at all to lose, who fought the way that animals did, and to who blood was a digestif. In those better days, there was true fear and horror. The face of a soldier – feeling the cold bayonet or choking on toxic gases – made War happy. It had purpose. It had humanity. When conflicts erupted, War could see entire battlefields and map in his mind what to do in order to maximize suffering and terror.

Global, push-button warfare was too big and too heartless for War to appreciate. It made War nervous.

Death didn’t much care. The means of humans dying were unimportant to him. This was why he saw himself the unanointed leader of the Horsemen. To Death, War, Strife and Hunger were merely tools of extermination. Death saw them as operational components to his mission, a mission far too long delayed by his reckoning.

Their internment behind the crystal walls was breaking the weaker of them, Death thought. War had quit speaking of orchestrated carnage. Hunger no longer bemoaned advances in farming technology and ever-expanding crop yields. Even Strife – Strife for Christ’s sake! – now found chaos to be uninteresting. Chaos had been Strife’s forte, his passion, his art. No more. Death alone remained focused, intent, ready.

Death knew that the crystal walls had held them longer than was healthy, and for this he blamed The Beast.

Beyond the crystal was a destiny delayed. In the smoke choked pastures between their cell and the center of Hades stood his pale horse, languishing in preparation though layered with centuries of grime. Three other horses were in even worse repair, unshod, fat from idleness, and as lifeless as most things in the underworld. Death tapped a bare distal phalange on the joint between two crystal panes in the anxious disgust that had become his existence.

Hunger had his own distractions. He found comfort only in the nagging suffering of the masses on earth, who he could see in the crystal’s projections. Recently Hunger had been mildly amused by a dictator who used famine and contrived shortages to starve the rebellious within his borders. This excited Hunger, but also saddened him. Earthly life had become narrow and routine. Food was now plentiful, to the point where the number of overfed bested the underfed. In many regions, obesity had quit being sinful and grotesque, and was the new normal. Hunger held a lingering fascination with a place called Arkansas, where humans were large and largely spherical. Hunger wondered if the trends in Arkansas might someday cause Earth’s already off-center axis to slip another degree or two from imbalance.

Similar worries depressed Strife, who did as he always did when worldly events made him melancholy. Strife reached for the empty table beside him to fetch a snack, one that would instantly appear and match his transient craving.

“Hmmmm, kitten!” Strife said with dulled glee before gnawing on a surprised Manx. He murmured vague pleasure as the cat’s hissing abruptly ceased. Yet even this tasty and formerly feisty nosh did not bring Strife true happiness. Millenia of inactivity and depression-stoked eating had left Strife listless. Strife craved nothing.

He watched with vaguely renewed interest, but not in the goings on of Earth. Mankind had long ago perfected animosity, destitution, cultural malignancy and elevator music. Strife now found interest in the other Horsemen, who exhibited their own symptoms of discord. Death was clearly impatient. Hunger had succumb to a lack of value to his original purpose. War, though far from pacifistic, was the most peculiar, wanting war and simultaneously dreading it.

“Have the End Times passed us by?” Strife recalled asking once during the Dark Ages when things should have been going his way in particular. Strife never posed the query again as the very ether of Hades shook at the suggestion. Satan himself had risen, somewhat sloppily, to peer into the Horsemen’s crystal cage, bloodshot eyes feebly focusing on his instruments of the Apocalypse. Though he dared not speak it again, the question haunted Strife. Had the end times been taken off the schedule? Were he and the other Horsemen obsolete? Were they ever to escape their see-through tomb?

Death knew what Strife was thinking. He instantly spun, grabbed Strife by his tattered cloak, and easily lifted him off the chipped floor of their involuntary bachelor pad. Death only used one-arm to drag Strife’s face up and to his own. “Never,” he growled in a baritone that rattled the crystal walls surrounding them. “Never think that. We have a mission, and that mission will come.”

What Death did not, and dared not say aloud, was “Even if I have to start it myself.”

“He is not happy, and I never know if that’s good or not.”  Etch peered unblinkingly across smoldering fields of sulpher, his eyes fixed but not focused. Just beyond the range of Etch’s vision sat his favorite place in Hell, the original bubbling tar pit – the first, prototypical of Satan’s torments – where a collection of original sinners spent eternity writhing as their flesh melted away, regrew, and melted again. The “Senior Class” Etch liked to call them. Cain was there, and being the first of the major league sinners, had long ago learned to ignore the searing agony of boiling tar. Cain could swim laps around the pit’s perimeter on days when the gunk was less viscous. Samuel was rumored to be there as well, though Etch theorized that Sam had sank to the bottom to spite both God and Satan. A census was impossible what with the pit being overcrowded, stocked primarily with tax collectors.

Bleclick scurried around the rock upon which Etch perched, waiting to slavishly serve whatever whim Etch presented. For the moment, that was nothing. Etch’s talons picked idly at fresh scabs on his forearm, ones he earned by awaking Satan at the wrong time, which was any time at all. Such were the occupational hazards for whoever had the misfortune of seniority among demons and was promoted to be the Dark Lord’s adjutant. Were Oblivion an actual physical place, instead of an infinitely tiny plain of alternate geometry, it would be filled with the corpses of Satan’s former right-hand demons, who one after the next were evaporated into non-existence for trivial violations of protocol. Such eternal sins included waking Lucifer, not stocking the cellars, or breathing, especially if done too loudly.

Bleclick, confused as he commonly was by Etch’s verbalization of inner thought, tilted what might be called his head. Whereas Bleclick marveled at, and attempted to respectfully absorb everything Etch did and said, Etch had only once pondered what Bleclick was. Among demons, such investigations are largely useless given the variety of malformations and mutations that living in the underworld can create. Hell was a chaotic evolution factory run amok. Bleclick stood upright, more or less, which made his crab-like exoskeleton nearly impressive. Worse for the continual wear, his carapace had at least kept him alive in a place where everything was out to get you. That each of his odd numbered legs – “Were they legs?” Etch could never be quite sure – had an almost complete set of hands, feet and claws, allowing Blecklick to run, grab, crawl and decapitate as needed. Blecklick rarely did any of this, being numbly street smart to the random violence of Hades and occupying what might charitably be thought of as the good-natured end of the demon attitude spectrum.

“Unhappy?” Bleclick asked, an upper mandible mashing sloppily against one of his lower labia. “Satan being unhappy should be a good thing, yes? Hell is unhappy, he is unhappy. All is right, no?”

Etch characteristically said nothing. Bleclick’s simplistic, borderline incogitant queries were much like Hell itself, rarely changing. With Satan, Hell, the tar pits and Bleclick, the week before had been like the week before that, and each week preceding, only worse. Nothing was as it should be, aside from the random chaos among the damned. Hell had fallen into disrepair mainly due to Satan’s decline, which Etch kept secret. That was one of the variables Etch constantly kept in mind. Demons were simultaneously evil, stupid and opportunistic. If any of them thought Satan was vulnerable, disabled, then all hell would break lose. But as long as all the underworld’s demons thought Satan was competent and ready to annihilate whomever or whatever he pleased, some minor sense of order persisted in the infernal regions. It was Etch’s burden to obscure the state into which Satan had devolved, all for the safety of Hell.

Etch scanned the horizon while pondering his options. His gaze stopped momentarily at the worm trench, over which selected sinners dangled by their tongues. On a good day, Etch might see one, whose oral membranes had finally relented to gravity, plunge into the slithering cauldron and begin the long process of crypt-like decomposition. On really good days, which in hell was nearly never, he would personally greet someone who had just returned from that same pit. After time, rot and worms had stripped their skeletons clean, they were reconstituted into flesh, and Etch would personally pierce their tongues, attach leads, and hoist them high once more.

Good times.

But for now, there was no joy in Hell, or even Etch’s favorite distractions. The situation was worse than it had ever been, and fractures in the fundamentals of damnation had begun to appear. All the demons were awakening to the disturbing reality that the End Times had not yet come, and despite there never having been a scripted date for the Apocalypse, they all knew it was well overdue. With each passing year, tensions grew, grumbling elevated, and all of Satan’s employees were growing unhappier than even Hell permitted. Tempting the forbidden, Etch had visited the crystal cage, watching the Horsemen and wondering if an alternative existed for the delayed demise of humankind. It was obvious that the Horsemen were as impatient for the final show to begin as was Etch. In particular, Death appeared antsy. Etch and Death locked eyes during his visit, which both intrigued and impressed Death. Only Satan and the other Horsemen could stare into his face and not turn in terror. Lesser demons who had been sent to perform maintenance tasks around the crystal cage returned as whimpering slugs of their former demonic selves, unable to torture a single human soul or even climb up off of whatever slab of coals they called their bed. Etch, having served at Satan’s command and disposal, feared nothing, including Death. By comparison to Satan, Death was a pussy.

The problem was not Death, nor the other Horsemen. It was not the seemingly endless array of deformed and violent creatures of the underworld, each ready for shore leave up above, the letting of blood by the bucket, and other vacation activities. The problem was that it would take Satan giving the final orders to begin Armageddon, and Satan was black-out drunk, and had been longer than Etch had held rank as a senior demon.

Etch first saw it while he was Zytog’s assistant. “How long ago was that?” Etch pondered. “Seven hundred, eight hundred years ago?” It was back in Etch’s time as the Assistant to the Arch Demon. Zytog’s predecessor vanished one day, and being savvy enough to know that instant and unexplained annihilation was not a good thing, convinced Zytog that it – Etch could not assess if Zytog was a she or a he, based on its mutilated nether regions – had seniority and that it, instead of Etch, should ascend to the role of Satan’s second. Months later, for an all too brief period when Zytog appeared to have Hell and Satan under something resembling control, Etch allowed himself into the Sulphur Palace, and for the first time saw Satan up close.

The Lord of Darkness was sprawled across a floor covered with recently emptied oak barrels that had been imported directly from Clermont, Kentucky. The room stank, though not in the way that most of Hell did. Not the malodor generated by rivers of sewage, decomposing corpses, flaming flesh, or Gehenna’s other familiar accent notes. This was a fragrant funk one would expect in a low rent biker bar situated in a bayou around mid-August. The aroma amalgamated stale booze, stagnated sweat, regurgitations that no one bothered to sweep away, urine, excrement and a hint of bile.

Sweltering amidst the stench, Satan was motionless, aside from labored breathing, occasional involuntary twitches, and a steady stream of poisonous drool sliding out of his agape mouth, down his face, dripping to the ground before pitting and discoloring the granite floor.

While Satan slept-off his binge, Zytog whispered commands to a platoon of lesser demons. They moved in as a unit, emptying whiskey barrels out of the room and lugging in filled ones. At one point, maintenance of the facilities was complicated by The Antichrist. This was evidently a recurring problem, because when it became obvious that Satan’s limp-self required relocation, to facilitate stacking of whiskey, wine and a minor sea of vodka, the army of demons fell into line on Zytog’s whispered command. In unison they gingerly rolled Satan off his back, and onto his side, stopping momentarily in rigid fright when the Big Man growled from beneath his gin blossoms. Once Satan’s snoring and the demons’ breathing resumed, they braced the sleeping fallen angel and continued to shuttle Lucifer’s dead soldiers out and living ones in.

Etch watched in morbid fascination until Zytog saw him. It was clear in Zytog’s eyes that nobody was to witness this, as became sickeningly apparent when Zytog snapped the stubs that were once supposedly his fingers, encasing the worker demons in unhewn stone sarcophagi, to await the next need for maid and bar stocking services. Zytog walked slowly and quite menacingly toward Etch, who realized he had nowhere to run and nowhere in Hades to hide. Zytog said nothing, but stared at Etch with what passed in Hell for paternalistic remorse. After Zytog had expended his reserves of intimidation, he smiled, acknowledging that Etch would not be punished. That would come later when Etch would be promoted to Zytog’s job.

This, Etch avoided for as long as was possible, which was for him an impossibly short period. Soon enough, Zytog had a momentary lapse of clarity which allowed Satan to experience a hangover in full force. In the social memory of everyone present, that was a very bad day in Hell. The firmament shook, stalactites fell, oceans of fire erupted, and even the Horsemen’s stallions brayed. Only the damned souls enjoyed the morning because their tormenting demons had all fled in fear.

In one of his thousand acts of random violence, Satan had swatted Zytog as he might an annoying housefly, rendering his right-hand demon into an undistinguished and unidentifiable film on Satan’s palm. In resulting power vacuum, and in the sudden absence of any other ranking demon – they having fled to the ninth ring for safety – Etch was left as the undisputed senior demon, and it was clear that he could not con anyone else into taking the job.

“What makes him unhappy?” asked Bleclick. He idly rubbed his fourth claw into is fifth hand while tapping his seventh foot. Bleclick was unsure if asking such a question was even appropriate. After all, Satan was not his to question but only to obey. Blecklic was an oddity even among demons, a class of beings known for an vast assortment of oddities. Bleclick was not scared of The Evil One for the same reasons he was unafraid of anything. He alone in Hell possessed a zen-like acceptance of whatever. Pain? OK. Suffering? Sure. Dismemberment as a recreational activity? Old hat, especially after the jihadists began arriving. Satan’s catastrophic decimation of the living and the dead over the Howitzer-grade throbbing left between his eyes from a seventy-nine day Jack Daniels bender? Par.

But Blecklick admired Satan as much as he took him for granted. Whenever Satan roared, when he would rise like a skyscraper above the molten plains, when he would shoot flames upward, frying legions of unsuspecting bats in a single breath, Bleclick was left thrilled. Satan was, to Bleclick’s limited mind, majestic in his brutality, complete in his evil. Hell itself was mundane and increasingly boring to Blecklick. Satan, on the other hand, was show worthy. Yet this was all too rare in these latter years. Bleclick wondered, but never aloud, if Satan was unhappy for reasons that might be detrimental to him or to Hell. But those thoughts vanished rapidly, as most of Bleclick’s thoughts did. In his eye, Satan was perfection, and any unhappiness was part of that perfect being.

Etch pulled his feet up, planted all eight talons into the rock on which he sat, and slowly stood in one smooth and effortless motion. His scales repositioned as the skin underneath stretched, his temporal ridge erecting and the afternoon’s brimstone dust fell away. In the distance, the soothing screams of those being fed upon reached Etch’s ears, and confirmed in his mind what had to be done.

“Stain,” which was Etch’s nickname for Bleclick, and one that Blecklick failed to understand as an insult, “We have work to do.”

“That presumes God doesn’t exist.”

“Christ, he’s at it again,” Becky mumbled to herself, returning a bottle of Bushmills to a lower shelf behind the bar and in front of a set of regrettably tasteless mirror that the disco era left behind. She was unsurprised by the track of conversation. Wednesday was the night when Michael, physiologically recovered from the weekend and intellectually rejuvenated by his internal dialog, would begin to ponder the mysteries of human belief systems and the metaphysical miscalculations therein. His philosophical insights could not be contained by a jaw loosened with Irish whiskey.

“God doesn’t exist. Never has, never will,” was Bennie’s half-hearted retort. Having been dragged down Michael’s rhetorical roads before, Bernie knew he was strolling into a spiritual minefield, and yet could not resist. That was Michael’s gift. He was, in a word, engaging in thought, charm, personality and inebriated conversation. Michael warmly smiled at most everything, with clear eyes that showed he was already thinking about the answer to whatever you had not yet spoken. His voice was mellow yet direct, invitingly seductive if you uttered a thought worth contemplating. Buying Michael a drink and saying more than ‘hello’ and would commit an unsuspecting soul to at least an hour of wildly ranging and passionate oral intercourse. Three hours if the conversation veered toward the sticky borders of logic, belief and religion.

“You state the unprovable, which has been confirmed by the entire history of mankind. We moderately advanced apes have unsuccessfully proven or disproven the existence or non-existence of God. We are batting zero. A shut-out. Yet we pretend to be certain within a perfectly uncertain state.”

His fourth Moscow Mule was telling Bennie that now was the time to shut up, but Bernie was inattentive and not yet narcotized. He was well practiced in exercising his right to remain silent, having been forcibly dragged away from many of San Francisco’s respectable cocktail bars. That is why he found himself once again at the Horsetail Lounge. Its lack of refinement tolerated Bennie when he had two too many, a state that Michael discussions handily accelerated.

“How’s the car business, Michael?” Becky asked, hoping to keep him from driving down the blind alley of human spiritualism and associated topics. She reached out a tattoo covered arm, rocking Michael’s glass to one side, physically inquiring if he wanted a refill. This was a mere politeness. Becky, a well-polished San Francisco fatalist, took nearly nothing as predictable. In a city that routinely shook, caught fire, survived hippies, and culturally folded back onto itself in ways that changed it into being more of itself, she never assumed anything except that Michael would want another drink if he had started to chatter about religion or philosophy. The only question on a Wednesday night, when Bernie or some hapless stranger wandered into Michael’s mental meanderings, was “Bushmills or Jameson”. He nodded, sending Becky, her tattoos and a mop of unnaturally colored clown-red hair back to the whiskey rack, assuming correctly to keep the Bushmills flowing.

“The used car business is meaningless, as always,” he said with satisfaction. “I find more meaning in that glass than in every transaction and unsatisfied customer I encounter.” He smiled, a slightly broken but utterly loveable grin that betrayed some Celtic blood that had snuck into his ancestry. It was a smile that broke the ice and more than a few hearts. It was one Becky avoided, having personally encountered its ability to remove both her hard-edge attitude and her panties.

“So, you believe God does exist?” Bennie ignored Becky’s glare, succumbing to vodka’s ability to incite bad decisions.

“Believe? No. One must have faith to believe in God. Faith is belief without proof, and there is no proof that there is a God. I also lack faith that there isn’t a God. My faith, so to speak, is in limbo.”

“But limbo is temporary, so some day you’ll come to disbelieve like me.”

“Or believe like him,” Michael replied, pointing to the bars vintage and occasionally cooperative television, still struggling to operate after decades of disrepair and the physical abuse of hiball glasses hurled when the Giants failed to win a game.

From behind a veneer of dust and the resin of cigarettes smoked in San Francisco’s more liberal years, the television relayed CNN’s report on the Pope’s recent veiled insult of Hinduism, and whatever convenient Brahman CNN’s correspondent could locate around Atlanta. Far from starting a religious war, the Pope nonetheless had kindled a Vatican crisis by insinuating that the world’s largest polytheistic faith was a pack of pagans destined to spend eternity being tortured by God’s own excommunicated angel.

“Hinduism is interesting …” Michael started with honest reflection.

“Too complex. Has no chance with today’s short attention span,” was Randolph’s reply. Occupying the stool on Michael’s other side, Randolph had laid low for most of Michael’s rumbling discussion. Randolph was devoted to a simple lifestyle. He rented a tiny one-bedroom Marina District apartment, furnished it with the barest of essentials – a single bed, two sets of sheets, one chair in an otherwise empty living room, one standard definition television, one tablet computer, and one neighbor with an unsecured wi-fi connection. He cooked nothing at home, and kept every aspect of his life within walking distance. This included the Horsetail Lounge, where he appeared most every night at the same hour.

“Isn’t that the beauty of Hinduism though,” Michael said as Becky leaked a sigh of resignation, seeing that the bar had once again forgotten its own history concerning Wednesday, Michael and all subjects philosophical.

“Homo sapiens have an explanation for everything, and Hinduism managed to create a God for each subject. I bet ya they tossed a dozen Vedas into the Ganges just due to the overlaps.”

“The Ganges?” Randolph asked, his simplistic life having never led him further afield than Oakland.

“A very spiritual river, my friend,” Michael replied with the glee of an academic eager to impart worldly wisdom to an unsuspecting freshman. “Hindus bathe in the Ganges to wash away their sins. Of course, this means people living down river have sin-poisoned water supplies, and thus are doomed.”

Michael had been saving that joke for years. Nobody laughed. Michael would have been disgusted if he had known how to be. Instead he made a mental note to replay the joke earlier in the happy hour, when the brain cells of bar patrons were less compromised.

“Have you been there?” Bennie was, for once, authentically interested in Michael’s religious insights. To Bennie, the Ganges might as well be the Moon – a place he knew existed, but which he also knew that he would never personally visit.

“No,” Michael said with a hint of regret. “I have not. I should. There are many places of enlightenment. Mecca, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya, Charlotte. Who knows, I might learn something,” he said, regaining his impish cynicism and speaking a thought he had never before uttered.

“Why not?” This time Randolph asked a bleeding question. For all his lifestyle simplicity, Randolph was not immune to the fundamental questions of existence, such as why a Michael, a yellow/white mutt of a man, with chromosomes donated by ancestors of Irish, German and Chinese genotypes, would not visit the holy shrines of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and pyrotechnic Christianity. His lack of travel to places of obvious interest was puzzling to Randolph.

“Work, I suppose. Living cheap ain’t cheap, you know. Not in San Francisco.”

“Poor excuse,” said Bennie who was fixated on the glowing, almost halo-backed image of CNN’s televised Pontiff.

Michael became uncharacteristically quiet. Contemplative. Still. At first nobody noticed, but he being quiet at the Horsetail Lounge – on a Wednesday, when Michael was standing his ground by leaning against the bar – was eerie in its peculiarity. It was abnormal, and soon each head turned to face Michael. Becky was the first to notice, given that Wednesday’s were her normal shift and the visual of a silent Michael was as unnerving as that of an honest politician. Randolph was next. Michael’s sudden quietness added complexity to the evening, and complexity was always unwelcome in Randolph’s world. A moment later, through the vodka vail, even Bennie was forced to swivel his stool and gaze through unfocused eyes at the statue beside him.

Michael stood, bent forward, elbows on the bar, peering in the general direction of a row of gin bottles. He did not blink. Bennie looked to see if he could detect Michael breathing, fearing that this might be a former activity. Becky bent at the knees to better see Michael’s eyes, to ensure they were still open. It would not have been the first time Michael fell into a relaxed snooze while standing at this particular bema, tough it had never happened so early in the evening nor so soon in a canonical conversation. Becky concluded, hesitantly, that Michael was as he often was, in deep thought. But instead of letting his thoughts escape via his tongue, they now circled within his head, churning and refining, being cleansed by fresh insight and the sanitizing effects of alcohol.

Becky was about to call a cab or an ambulance when Michael quickly erected. He stared at the bar’s chipped mirror, peering back at himself between ancient and autographed dollar bills and postcards from patrons who had ventured beyond Napa County. There was in Michael’s face something Becky had not seen before. It was a mug of unencumbered clarity. For all Michael’s good nature and charm, he was a cesspool of sweet cynicism and lackluster direction. He had perfected the art of a life with insight but no purpose. His aborted college education, minoring in philosophy and majoring in frat parties, had landed him a steady career as a used car salesman and itinerant analyst of all things unknowable. Before this particular Wednesday night, Michael had previously been untroubled by the unanswerable. Now he was.

“Yes, it is a poor excuse,” he finally said with sharp annunciation and conviction. “I’m off then,” he said brightly, a gleam sparkling in his mildly bloodshot eyes. He scooped up his tattered fedora, a gift from a lover in his dim and distant past. With a wrist flip, it easily landed atop his head. He tossed two twenties on the bar, slapping its surface once before announcing “It has been a joy knowing you all. But it is time. Time for me to leave. To find real meaning in life and whatever may come after that. I won’t be sending postcards, so remember me fondly.”

Michael patted Randolph on the shoulder as he strode past before exiting the antique saloon doors and into the foggy San Francisco Wednesday night.

“Right!” Bennie laughed. “You’ll be back tomorrow night.”

Somehow Becky knew otherwise. She knew that Michael was gone and for good. She turned to the cash register, not only to ring-up and close-out Michael’s bar tab, but to allow the moisture, emerging from around her mascara caked lashes and harshly hued eyelids, to go unnoticed.

Michael headed up familiar streets, reversing the normal and all too well traveled after-work path he took from Tex Thompson’s Pre-Owned Cars to the Horsetail Lounge. Michael had in his tipsy but suddenly uncluttered noggin what resembled a plan. Sketchy at best, absent in detail, but one with purpose. The plan, such as it was, was to see the spiritual centers of the globe. He intended to start modestly, to see what could be seen and experience what could be experienced in North America. He would visit snake handlers in Kentucky, Inuit animist in Canada, and score some peyote from any surviving Huichol down in Mexico. He would haunt cathedrals in New York, mentally molest Amish in Ohio, and perhaps track some elusive Anabaptist in Texas.

But first, he had to steal a car.

Michael’s newfound and nearly maniacal quest was briefly interrupted in the last block before Tex Thompson’s Pre-Owned Cars. A homeless man was screaming in panic, glancing back and forth between Michael and some being visible only to drug-addled street people. He looked down to his right at the nothing sitting next to him on the concrete, then turn back to Michael and point. “What?!?” What’s wrong with him,” he shouted in frenzied tones.

Having lived in San Francisco for far too long, Michael handled the situation in his own style. Never one to avoid a human, or even chemically befuddled former humans like the one screaming at him, he simply showed a bit of love and grace, using words that were both calming and confusing to his one-person audience.

“Peace be with you brother,” he said with a smile, and walked on past. The homeless man said nothing more while blindly shooing away whatever invisible acquaintance had incited his alarm.

Michael strolled through the well-lit parking lot of Tex Thompson’s Pre-Owned Cars. In this corner of one of San Francisco’s more affordable and thus more dangerous neighborhoods, stadium-grade lighting was essential, it being one of the few things that made breaking and entering a less appealing source of revenue for those who viewed narcotics consumption as a competitive sport, and stole what was necessary for the nightly entry fee.

Michael extracted keys from his pocket, let himself into the office, navigated past a window air conditioner that had been defective since the Summer of Love, and around the Army-Navy Surplus steel desks. He unlocked a cabinet holding the keys to the lot’s inventory, and mentally walked down the row of merchandise, skipping past anything likely to explode, catch fire, or leave pieces of its transmission along the freeway. He grinned when he came upon the keys to a newish Cadillac, a repossession and thus less likely to be someone’s former problem child.

He lustfully grabbed the keys, fondling them as he walked over to Tex’s desk. Michael bent forward, fetched a sheet of paper from the office fax machine and scribbled a heartfelt note. He thanked Tex for years of steady, if not profitable, employment. Michael said several sad things about missing him and his crazy stories about growing up in Wisconsin. ‘Tex’ had never set foot in Texas, but had a common-sense approach to small market branding. In his note, Michael apologized for taking the Cadillac, noting with precision that he was not returning it and had no money to pay for it, and that perhaps Tex could write it off as a loss come tax time.

Michael hesitated for one last breath of foggy San Francisco air, an odd mixture of salty Pacific mist, lingering hints of patchouli and pot from neighboring hippy crash pads, and unsubtle notes of sidewalk urine.  He caught a glimpse of, and waved to the shrieking homeless man who had followed him up the block, now looking no less panicky than before, but somewhat more inquisitive.

Michael turned the key, and felt warm satisfaction in the ungentle rumbling of eight American made, gas guzzling, over-powering cylinders, properly tuned and timed. He dropped the shifter to drive, eased out of Tex Thompson’s Pre-Owned Cars lot, onto one of San Francisco’s hill-plunging thrill-ride streets, and headed toward the Golden Gates, leaving Becky, the Horsetail, Tex and Tex’s confused accountant in Michael’s permanent rearview mirror.

Lagartija screamed in fear. This caused the homeless man he had been toying with to scream as well, which in turn startled the fedora-wearing man that terrified Lagartija.

“He’s … he’s … he’s got something!” Lagartija screeched. As Michael walked past, Lagartija felt his flesh shrink tight, his bones ache, and his forehead catch fire. He had felt this only once before, when he had stupidly thought he could disrupt a Chautauqua revival, only to feel the crushing force of too many people of too much faith. There, as with Michael, the force of spiritual purity was strong enough to cause pain.

That Lagartija was doing what so many imps enjoyed – a little psychomancy to bedevil humans who had chemically sabotaged their brains to the point of seeing past their human plane of existence – was not in and of itself bad form. But reacting as he did when Michael walked past, to wail at his sight and thus scare the sin right out of his homeless companion, was imp impropriety. The homeless man reacted as badly as Lagartija did, which drew attention to them both. It was unimportant that Michael could only see the bum. Lagartija’s panic only made the new and critical situation less manageable.

Lagartija lurched to his three feet, and loped after Michael, which caused the homeless man to follow since Lagartija was the only entity with which he chatted. In the mental haze that was this street person’s life, no San Francisco citizen would talk to him, aside from cops who tried in vain to direct him to shelters and showers, he needing the former most importantly. Lagartija was odd, inhuman, obviously evil, but this didn’t matter to the derelict. At least Lagartija would carry his half of a conversation.

But now, Lagartija was abandoning the homeless man as completely the other 800,000 people in The City. Lagartija was focused on and fearful of Michael.

“This is not good. Nooooo. Not good at all,” Lagartija hissed. He watched as the Cadillac slid down the hill and into the fog. Lagartija was not fond of Hell. One of the few benefits he and other imps enjoyed was not having to live there. Doing the Devil’s work at least allowed them free roam of the planet. But this … this person. This was unusual. This was trouble. Lagartija knew he had to go back, find Satan’s handler, and let them know what he had seen.

Know When The Devil Calls Again

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