Fiction

Ash Wednesday

by Stephen Poleskie

 

He and I watch from the pricey perch of our four-star box seats as the grainy intaglio of the city vanishes before the phosphorescent darkness of evening, a whirring and ring-ding-dinging escalating up from the streets below. Nonstop the motorbikes and scooters circle, their two-stroked voices screaming through mufflers long gone—or perhaps gutted—their vanished baffles aching the way amputated limbs still ache. An undecipherable roar of panic shouts up from the hallucinating square, parti-colored insects gone berserk, invading the soul of the city, any city, it is all the same at night when you want to sleep; which I did, but he did not.

I don’t remember that there were so many motorbikes in this city. He remembers the sound from Veracruz, where we had gone together, and where he and I had eaten fresh oranges from a stand on the Zocalo. But then he and I had never been in this city before. He cannot recall that this place contained such a tall building as the one we are in now, and I do not remember that it was a hotel. “The tallest buildings, the skyscrapers, are usually stuck up to be office buildings,” I remark.

“Corporate symbols,” he adds, “usually in some odd post-modern design, perhaps an open checkbook, the pages peeled back, leering down on the rest of the city.”

Please allow me to introduce myself. He is Johnny and I am John. We both were christened John but he chose to become “Johnny” back when world leaders were known by names like Tony and Bill. That was then. Can you imagine Angela Merkel today going by the name “Angie.”

He and I pass our time observing the whirling traffic, as it is not yet the hour to be doing anything else. The road around the square—actually a circle—is parted with tractor-trailers which seem so tiny from our vantage point, intermingled with a squadron of cars appearing much smaller. Even the biggest of them, those that carry mighty names like “Navigator” and “Explorer,” appear small from up here. The sleepless mopeds are the smallest, even smaller than the people astride them. “A man should not be larger than his mount; it is against the natural order of things,” a famous artist who rode a Triumph motorcycle, but who painted monks on donkeys, once confided to me in all seriousness.

Why are there so few motorcycle riders circling the square? he and I wonder. Where are the Hondas that we had ridden in our pinch-penny youth? Gone like our youth? The motorcycles passing below us now are mostly Harley-Davidsons, not transportation but modern folklore, an image ridden by wannabe outlaws—in reality bankers and stockbrokers on their way to an endless chain of Hard Rock Cafes.

Little by little the Mardi Gras curious arrive from far and wide to inhabit the square, a traveling carnival of unfortunates, who no one pays much attention to but each other. In the midst of a disorder that makes the square tremble, everyone performs their own act—and everyone is their own audience. The crowd floats, undulates, teenaged girls with naked bellies, and almost naked breasts, snorting their way through the pathless tract. Leaning over the railing of our hotel balcony, he and I watch as below life ebbs and flows in a great and eccentric spasm of frenzy. On one corner a circuit of applause opens up as a grinning homunculus displays his more than full-sized penis while peeing on a lamppost, someone’s dancing daughter daintily dodging the splatter.

“Show us your tits!”  The call comes up from the street to a group of young ladies disporting on a balcony below us.

“First show us your cocks!” the girls echo back.

A deal is struck and on the count of three: One, Two, Three! both sides reveal their attributes to much applauding and cheering from the passersby.

There is a party going on behind us. A festive gathering has gathered in our room, there are so many people we do not know, yet they keep coming. I don’t have a room but a suite. I am here alone, so why do I have a suite? I do not like parties—he does. He is not alone. He is with me. Is this his suite? His party?

“Hello! How are you?” a man wearing the frock and collar of a priest asks. The priest, wearing a sash of red, a cardinal perhaps, has been holding up the frivolity in a corner of the room.

At this moment I don’t know how I am, but he answers for me, “I am fine . . . Your Eminence.” Then he asks what I did not really care to know: “And how are you?”

“By the grace of God I am fine, and may He bless you too my son,” the red-sashed soul saver says adding, “it is good to see you again. We haven’t been together for such a long time . . . since you were an altar boy. I believe we have some catching up to do.” He smiles, pressing my hand with his ringed finger, and turns away.

“Bless me Father for I have sinned. . . .” we spout after his fleeing form, not sure why, perhaps out of habit, for we by our beliefs are not sinners.

“You must feel sorry for your sins, my son, do penance . . . mortification of the flesh, and all that.  But there is no time for it now . . . let’s get together tomorrow,” the priest shouts over his shoulder, his black robe flowing him back to the party.

A woman with the face of a spider appears; although I admit to never having seen a spider’s face close up. She asks him or me where the drinks are.

“The drinks are in there.”

Did I say that? How does he know the drinks are in there? We haven’t been in that room yet; we have only been out here looking down.

“Where?”

“There.”

Did I point, or just nod my head in a general direction?

“Oh! I’m sorry . . . wrong room. . . .” the spider-faced lady says backing out and turning to me. “There are two men going at it on a bed in that room.”

“Who is going at it on a bed in where!?”

“They are on a bed in there . . . be careful not to disturb them.”

“What are they doing in my bed in my room?”

“Your room is through there. . . .” Did she point, or just nod her head in a general direction?

“But that’s where the party is. . . .”

“What a lovely view . . .  you can see the entire city,” the cardinal says returning with a cup of red wine in his hand. The blood of our Lord Jesus?

“But my room is in the back of the hotel,” I protest, “I have no view. . . .”

“Then you are not in your room . . .  you must be down there.”  his eminence says pointing to the busybody street.

We see a man in a dark blue jacket and pants riding a light blue moped. He is a very tiny man on a very tiny moped. Why is the man weaving in and out of traffic?  “He is so small that he can pass under trucks. Watch him cut in and out as the trucks slow for the traffic light,” I say.

“Look! The moped rider is there . . . all the way to the front . . . next to the first truck,” he says pointing excitedly.

“Hello! Are the drinks out here? . . .” a woman with the face of a painted weasel—although I admit I have never seen a weasel with a painted face—asks, popping her head through the door.

“No. The drinks are in there.” I can’t remember if we pointed or merely nodded in a general direction, but the weasel-faced woman does not go away.

‘What are you watching? . . .”

“Look! See that moped, the light blue one, he can pass under tractor-trailers . . . watch him, there he goes!”

“I just adore mopeds, but I would never ride on one . . . too dangerous,” the weasel-faced woman says going back inside, trailing a scent of talcum powder and liver pate.

“The truck is accelerating . . . where is the moped?”  Father Frivolity asks.

“Watch, he will come out the other side . . . he always does.”

“I don’t see him!”

“Keep watching. . . .”

“The truck is too fast . . . the moped can’t keep up . . .  the rider and the moped will be crushed!”

“No, he’ll come out the other side. . . .”

“Are you sure? I don’t see him anymore,” the cardinal says turning away. “Where did you say that the food was?”

“Back in there Your Eminence.”

A man, who had been conceived late in his mother’s life and who had therefore lagged in growth, but who had, nevertheless, ridden his moped through the city’s worst flood, and coldest winter, lies motionless on the street. As the senile intemperance of fortune would have it, a tractor-trailer driver swerving to avoid the dumped moped squashes the unseen body of the fallen rider, who is further ground to pulp by two following trucks before anyone notices.

“Are the drinks out here?” a lady with a face like a ladybug asks.

“No, they are back in there,” I nod, but the dead rider can neither point nor gesture with his head.

“Say . . . aren’t you the guy who did that TV show?” the woman says, squinting at me through her ladybug eyes.

“No, he did the TV show.”

“That’s funny. . . .”

“What’s funny? The TV show? . . .”

“No . . . that you both look so alike.”

Amidst her senseless conversation time passed unnoticed, swallowing the whole empty period. A diffuse whiteness filters up from the square overtaking me with sleepiness. I turn in to turn in but find that my room is indeed occupied: “Excuse me . . . what are you two doing on my bed in my room?”

“This is not your room . . . your room is in there,” the man on top grunts, and gestures with his head, not breaking his carnal cadence.

“But the party is in there. . . .”

He asks the people in bed if I could use their mirror for only a moment. He looks in the mirror; the reflection I see is not my face. The face he sees is the face of a woman. From that time on his, or her, world will be not worth living in, at least not until this time next year.

Somewhere a clock strikes midnight. As it is now Ash Wednesday, the music stops, and the square empties of revelers. Hoping for enough miracles to become a saint, the frivolous cardinal comes down to the street and brings the dead moped rider back to life, who upon opening his eyes flies into a murderous rage at having had his blissful state disturbed. He immediately rolls under another passing tractor-trailer in an attempt to end his life once again, but it cleanly misses him, and he lies face down on the street crying in disillusionment.

“Now don’t get me wrong,” the resurrected moped rider sobs, pounding the pavement with his fists, “I have no disrespect for the church; however, it is precisely along these lines that all this got started.”

end

*****************************************************************************

 

Biography

 

Stephen Poleskie is an artist and writer. His artwork is in the collections of numerous museums including the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York: and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate Gallery in London. His writing, fiction and art criticism, has appeared in many journals both here and abroad including: American Writing, Essays & Fictions, Leonardo, Lightworks, Many Mountains Moving, Pangolin Papers, Satire, SN Review, and Sulphur River Literary Review in the USA; D’Ars, and Spazio Umano, in Italy, Himmelschrieber in Germany, and Imago in Australia. He also has a story in the anthology The Book of Love, from W. W. Norton, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has published five novels, The Balloonist, The Third Candidate, Grater Life, Vigilia’s Tempest and Acorn’s Card.  Poleskie has taught, or been a visiting professor at twenty-seven colleges and art schools throughout the world, including: MIT, Rohde Island School of Design, the School of Visual Art in New York and the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently a professor emeritus at Cornell University.

Web site: www.StephenPoleskie.com.

Art by Mel Blossom

 

 

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