- Long Arm of the Law
Alphonse whiteknuckled the screen door’s frame to steady himself, and he jutted his bearded chin at Marguerite. “Hit me harder.”
I leaned against the flaking yellow porch-rail and sipped from a handle of Bombay. Marguerite’s eyes pleaded with me; these two had just met on Tinder, and she didn’t know how to talk him down. More accurately, she didn’t know that he can’t be talked down. It had taken him something like twenty minutes to plead the first slap out of her. It was weak, hardly quarterhearted. She thought she was coming to watch a movie. Alphonse’s sisters were out of town.
Yes, she thought she’d be Netflix-and-chilling to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Alphonse decided it’d be something like sacrilege to watch it sober. So now, slumping hard against the porch-rail, I drained the last baby-blue trickle of gin. It was thick. Probably half Bombay, half backwash, but I figured it was a gesture of love to Alphonse, who’d supplied the other half of the spit. Marguerite squeezed her hands together in the hollow of her neck.
“What if I don’t want to?”
“Don’t you?” Alphonse spread his arms. I remembered a line I’d read in who-knows-what, something to the tune of “whoever would refuse to hammer Jesus’ nails is just a disappointed slave.” Alphonse, the second-greatest masochist in history, would add, “and never loved Him anyway.”
Marguerite turned back and slapped him with vigor. Some virulent love rasped in his throat, “Yes! Harder.” She gave him the full palm, and his head rattled against the screen door. He caught it just before it fell. For a week it had simply leaned against its frame: His younger sister had drunkenly walked through it, bird into window.
That was two days after I’d stood in Alphonse’s place, metaphorically at least, on another porch a couple miles west. This younger sister, Claire, whom I’d met maybe three hours prior, wanted to punch something. In a month she’d start her third year of art school in New York, and she hated it, and she had a monstrous excess of steam to let off. My back wasn’t nearly as bruised as her knuckles.
- Dixie Queen
“You,” she tilted her head at me and slanted her eyes like one of those sultry Egon Schiele nudes, “look like you can take a punch.” Her ex-boyfriend, Tate, offered to do the honors, instead, but she acted like she didn’t hear, and I stood in front of her, and she narrowed her eyes again, her muscles tensed in a concerted procession from calves to shoulders, and she punched me.
“That was as hard as I could.” She shook her hand and swayed.
I don’t mean to spotlight myself as some sort of alpha macho whatever. Really what I mean to say is—and I ain’t messing around, I’m an ordained pastor—the love of Jesus is nothing more nor less than a resounding, lusty “Yes!” to everything. Jesus is a riddlemaster: If God is “alpha and omega,” and if, as He claims in the Gospels, Hell is “outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,” then there is no Hell but denial. God is the whole run of time, conceived as finite (or at least as containable within the Greek alphabet), and so to “love the Lord your God” means you’ve got to love everything.
The much-lied-about “Christlike” life, then, is nothing less than the most extreme “Yes!”, pronounced with such lovedrunk overflow that it gurgles and rasps in the throat. He didn’t recommend “turning the other cheek” because he wanted people to roll over and give in like some sad beaten dogs. He said it because His love is that ferocious “Yes!” to every single component of God, to pain exactly as much as to pleasure or to generousness. When Jesus turned His cheek, we can be sure He didn’t just turn it. He turned it, jutted out His wine-soaked beard, and growled, “Harder!”
The next night, Alphonse got tired-drunk, and Claire and I put him to bed and went out and talked and drank on the first porch—the one where, one day later and one page ago, we left Alphonse and Marguerite standing, frozen, his head vibrating in time with her hand.
A few beers in, Claire walked straight through the screen door like the bird that really wants the cherries on your kitchen counter.
I remember our talk in bits and pieces out of Claire’s mouth, southern inflection through a New York filter: “My hand still hurts…Ah, I love Klimt! The way his figures are indistinguishable from their background…Tate was pissed at us…No, I haven’t heard of Schiele, but if he’s that sexy…” She showed me a few of her paintings. The figures were the background.
At some point I said I had to leave. I had held back vomit for half an hour, I think. “Are you good to drive?”
Of course I said yes. Later she told me she thought I left because I was uncomfortable talking to her, because I had so obviously lied.
I walked in circles around their apartment complex for five hours and vomited on all the trees. Around dawn my double vision faded, and I drove home and slept ‘til noon without undoing my seatbelt.
I should’ve wondered at the time, though I’d drunk way too much to do so, what drew Claire so irresistibly through the screen door. What cherries hid under the flaking yellow paint of the porch-rail, in the dogwood boughs behind it, in the sticky air itself? Something was there, I have no doubt—something I, for my part, was far too hammered to see; for she walked through the door with much more force than she’d used to punch me the night before.
Dearest gentle reader, I don’t hate you. The chronology’s confused, sure, and reasonably so: These pages are soaked in several liters of gin and who-knows-how-many cases of PBR. A timeline of the preceding, then, for your enhanced reading pleasure:
Night 1: Claire punches me, full to the brim with cheap beer and budding affection.
Night 2: Claire and I put Alphonse to sleep and drink on her porch. She busts the door with her face.
Night 3: Alphonse begs Marguerite to slap him. She does so, and capably.
And now this timeline is completely obsolete, and on we run.
Later in the summer, a week or so before she’d leave for New York, Claire took my hand and jogged down the block away from Charlotte’s Common Market bar. “Tate wants me to go home with him now. He’s mad again. Look, he just texted me: ‘Are you gonna fuck him?’”
I threw my head back and erupted with laughter. “Not right now.”
She slipped the phone back into her lacy bralette. “That’s what I told him. But I feel guilty.” She stood in front of me on the sidewalk while I sat on a low barrier wall. She leaned toward me and away, hands fidgeting in nervous fists.
“Guilt isn’t some impulse to do good. It’s a denial of life.” I spread my arms wide.
At this point, the rest of our group—sans Tate—caught up, and Claire accompanied us to Snug Harbor, and we danced a salsa so bowstring-tense and graceful it should have been impossible after so much PBR.
- Andy Warhol’s Shallow Grave
No arms can stretch wide enough to encapsulate the “Yes!” of Christ. Jesus Himself gave it the most committed attempt to date, and all His bones went out of joint.
Andy Warhol, on the other hand, committed perhaps the most egregious abortion of “Yes!” that history can furnish. Rather than simply saying, “no,” he became a disgusting poser, acting like everything can be a subject for fine art while keeping, for the most part, to classic forms and proportions: Portraits, dramatic depth, a keen eye for entertaining juxtaposition.
Warhol, that is, was the false prophet to Marcel Duchamp’s genuine ministry: When Duchamp stuck an information placard over a urinal and wrote his brilliant defenses of laziness, he expanded the boundaries of possibility that had constrained the artist’s “Yes!” for millennia. Warhol, for his part, simply painted a hole on that crumbling boundary wall and called it open.
In exactly the same way, when Alphonse recovered from his encounter with the loose screen door, and he beamed at Marguerite and spit and leaned again toward her tingling palm, and he yelled, “Oh, yes! Harder?”, he redeemed, with that simple, hammered gesture, all the last two thousand years of Christianity. We can now, as of that moment on that night on that porch, chalk up the entire history of the Church to a sloppy endeavor to become something like Alphonse—that is, to affirm Christ’s teachings unconditionally. Everything that has, historically, been called “piety” or “faith” has been gross, slurred, and failed attempts to say Alphonse’s gin-sharpened “Yes!”
That question mark after “harder,” then, is nothing less than superhuman: Having yessed everything clearly within grasp, that question mark, that slight upward inflection, marks a probing at the borders of God: Alphonse’s rising tone asks, all in a fraction of a second, “Was that it? Where does the possible end? Is there no greater pain that I can love? If not…again!”
Jesus claims, “There is no way to the Father but through Me.” Two millennia misunderstood…“through me”…if Jesus showed His divinity by yessing everything possible, the only way further—that is, the only way to godhood itself, to something so far above Jesus that it has the power to create him—is not only to yes the possible, but to yes the possible and the impossible, the knowable and the unknowable, to say, “Harder?”
Jesus, if He was actually all-knowing and all-powerful, could not have fathomed such a “Yes!”
And so only a human, and only an atheist, who believes that some things are unknowable and that there is no omniscient being that can know them, could fulfill the teachings of Christ.
Swaying against Alphonse’s flaky porch-rail, watching Marguerite as she tensed her hips in preparation for the final, hardest slap, I didn’t just see a run-of-the-mill expression of drunken masochism. I watched, personally, from only two feet away, the death and replacement of God, as prophesied by His Son.
- Same Old Blue Moon
I write this on a bench in the Stadtfriedhof on Hennebergstraße in Göttingen, Germany. It is nighttime, and I do not know the names for any of the trees, and streetlights glow a blue the cloud-trapped moon shines only to itself. Marguerite and Alphonse and Claire are far away from me and from each other.
Constellations burst or hide behind the Earth with changing seasons. For all that matters, with these clouds.
- Black Widow Waltz
I read somewhere (And what does it matter where, with these clouds?) that we can define “sin” as whatever breaks down the boundaries between us—put more sinisterly, as whatever violates our fundamental image of ourselves as individuals. Sin divides to add: It is the limit of the solitary “Yes!”: It is the moment at which Jesus says all His bones are out of joint: It is the moment of His death, at which even the sky tears apart, and the earth’s skin crawls, its fault lines blushing.
You can see that I do not say “we” lightly.
After she slapped him once more, this time more weakly, Marguerite walked back inside, saying she wanted to start the movie. Alphonse vomited gallons, seriously gallons, and demanded that we pour ice water over his head. Then he vomited more in his older sister’s toothbrush drawer. Then he said he was done and wanted to be dragged to bed. I obliged, and Marguerite and I laughed, and we watched half the movie, and she took an Uber back home.
Claire is an avid tarot reader. She has told Alphonse that he is fated for several “quick and loveless” marriages.
The saddest moment in the life of Christ: He kneels in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion. He is rent by all the conflicting tensors of the knowledge that He will be tortured and executed; that He, who has loved life in all its depths and painful summits, will soon be forced from it. He prays so hard that He weeps blood. And there is no one who can bleed with Him.
So for someone who has gone farther, who has said, “Harder?”, who has growled his “Yes!” into the echoless vastness of the impossible and therefore into the dark chance of his own dissolution—that is, for someone who has yessed sin itself, for someone whose “Yes!” has surpassed Jesus’ own—can there be anything other than quick and loveless marriages? The odds of finding another who has gone beyond Christ…who can bleed a bloodier Gethsemane…
Even Jesus could only find disciples, a gaggle of sycophants who gaped, open-mouthed, at His divine words and then spent the rest of their lives distorting them.
Alphonse, I’m sorry.
- Switchblade Knife
I saw Hiram, a couple of Alphonse’s hometown friends, play through their album Same Old Blue Moon—from which I have taken all these numbered titles—on a Saturday, in the back room of a brewery. Alphonse and Claire had just finished a run of The Taming of the Shrew with the Gastonia Youth Theatre. The night before, they’d thrown a party in their basement.
Originally conceived as the last cast party before the final performance, it gathered an enormous crowd of the wider Gastonia crew, as small-town parties never fail to do. Somewhere toward the end of the night, when everyone was good and plastered, Lex, a tattoo-coated good ol’ boy generally regarded with a sort of confused fear by the more boojie elements of the group, offered Alphonse a pistol.
“Russian Roulette?” If you could take William Blake’s famous Red Dragon watercolor and turn the Dragon around, you’d see Lex’s smirk.
Alphonse skipped no beats. “Sure.”
Lex, with a look of raw, skinned shock, put the pistol to his head, squeezed his eyes shut, and jerked the trigger with a weak click.
He handed it to Alphonse, who stood up and took a fighter’s stance, one bent leg in front of the other, but he jutted his chin exactly as he had with Marguerite on the porch. He put the pistol to his head, didn’t close his eyes, and squeezed the trigger slowly.
He gave the gun back to Lex, whose shock had mutated into concerned fear. “I never load the gun. But you’re the only guy that’s actually pulled the trigger.”
The next night, when Hiram, at the end of their set, hit the first chord of “Switchblade Knife,” Alphonse jumped and tossed his body and started the only mosh pit I’ve seen at a country show, screaming the chorus louder than the band:
I’ve got a switchblade knife,
and I really care about life,
but I ain’t afraid to lose it in a fight,
and he moshed and screamed, and after a while Claire jumped in with him, and in the song’s softer moments I realized that their fighting stances were the same and that hers looked the same as the stance I originally thought was a nervous sway, back in Charlotte, when we had run from the Common Market, when I sat on that barrier wall, when maybe—it dawned on me in a sort of revelatory cringe, watching her prepare to mosh—I had misjudged the source of her guilt.
The mosh pit had grown so that it almost filled the room. Bodies crashed into steel shelves and enormous brew tanks, and craft beer splashed across the floor in amber waves.
Surrounded by flying elbows and drunken hoots, I was struck still and buried my face in my palms. I—the I that sat on the barrier wall with his wide arms and grandiose statements—was a dumbass. She’d been six steps ahead of me the whole time, she was in her fighting stance, and in my ignorance, in my condescending arrogance, I’d become, for a short but crucial moment, the antichrist.
I had become the embodiment of guilt, precisely as I preached against it.
After the concert, shooting the shit on his porch over PBR tallboys with another buddy, who goes by Devil Tats, Alphonse remembered, “Lex asked me if everything was alright, in that voice like a psychologist has, you know, and I said yeah, absolutely, and sure, I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, maybe there’s something I’m not seeing because I watched somebody die earlier this week, saw them crash into a goddamn dog spa speeding off an interstate exit ramp, saw their car explode in this big burst of flames, and I called the ambulance and smelled the burning bodies ‘til they got there, and the other guys that stopped to try and help, I laughed because they’d just gotten back from Burning Man, so you can imagine, the car engulfed, blackening the underside of this dog spa’s sign, that rot-sweet smell of charred flesh seeping into everything, so much that I still haven’t gotten it out of my nose, and the paramedics running around hopeless, and there I am, my heart pounding like it never has but laughing like a perfect idiot, and these two Burning Man guys looking at me like I’m crazy, and maybe I am, but I don’t know, I feel like I should be more bothered, so the next three days I just went on this massive bender, but even that gasoline bitterness of coke couldn’t get the burning people out of my nose, so eventually I decided to just stay drunk, which I guess—” he looked down at his PBR and laughed—“is still what I’m doing, because what kind of guy am I if I can laugh like that, if I’m the first guy that’s pulled Lex’s trigger?” His laugh nosedived into the vast abrupt, and he eyed us, Tats and I, questioning, his eyebrows arched in genuine, desperate, even childish fear.
We managed nothing so expansive as the question required. The conversation turned to anime, philosophy. Eventually we huffed some keyboard cleaner and giggled and had one more round of PBR and called it a night.
The Revelation of St. John claims that Jesus will return riding on a cloud, and His tongue will be a sword. Folks generally take the bit about the tongue-sword to mean that Jesus is some kind of warrior. St. John certainly went with that interpretation. Something about smiting legions of the wicked.
But if I imagine having a sword for a tongue, my shoulders tighten against my neck, I squint, my hands ball into fists: I can’t conceive something so painful. By the time Jesus’ cloud touches down, He will be bleeding so profusely from His mouth that His speech will have become unintelligible, so that the only teachings He may possibly bring will be enacted, not spoken. In His Second Coming, Christ becomes a blood-soaked monument to the divinity of masochism. He becomes the standard by which we measure our own “Yes!” to pain. No wonder the rest of St. John’s Revelation is filled with scenes of God making wine.
Oh, but Alphonse, shivering as the muzzle of Lex’s pistol nestles into his temple, the smells of burnt flesh and cocaine lingering in his nose, as he pulls the trigger…
Christ has no need to return. All you Armageddon cults, part your praying hands.
Your savior has been surpassed: Bow to this man, sitting in a rocking chair on his porch, stage makeup running with his sweat, his thirteenth beer draining fast, slight black eye from a friendly elbow or the back of Claire’s head, droplets of keyboard cleaner clinging to his black nose hairs, feet bare and pocked with cigarette ash, his life itself both sword and mouth.