Sunday, April 3, 2011

Traffic of Saints

Paglec was 75-years-old when he was helped aboard a train in Chicago by some fellow Croatian Franciscan priests. The Amtrak train would haul him off to a new post in the West where he would, he hoped, spend his remaining days. The three priests who competed dutifully for the older man's elbow, a small bag of walnuts, were much younger, and they regarded Paglec with palpable suspicion , despite their shared nationality.
     If they were competing for the bedraggled, slumping priest, it was only to load him onto the train and away from them more quickly. Conversation between the four of them in the depot coffee shop had been brief and nervous. The young priests mentioned the weakness of the coffee many times, and commented repeatedly on the damp drowsiness of the autumn day. On a day like this one is always tired, one muttered into a plume of his cigarette smoke. Paglec wanted to talk about a recent trip one of them had made to Zagreb, but he nodded  and silenced himself when the young priests digressed. One young father, Ritac, smoked feverishly and did not speak to the old man at all.
     Paglec kept his head bowed for the most part, wiped his mouth with his pale blue handkerchief -- the one with the sacred hearts embroidered into the corners -- and returned the other priests' comments with nods, shrugs, and stark, withered smiles. His English, once flawless, had become jagged and coarse with age, the words rattling at the back of his throat after he spoke, a now-permanent condition brought on by endlessly recurring bronchitis.
     Plaglec's face was pleated with waves of wrinkles, and his complexion was a pale yellow. The skin hung loose around his eyes and mouth and behind his ears, giving him a houndish look. The younger priests were of the opinion that this man was in no shape to take on a new assignment. They agreed this had little to do with Paglec's past -- what he had or hadn't done, what had or hadn't happened during the war. His breathing, his pallor, the way his elbow surrendered to their palms so completely, that was what concerned them.
     Look at him, they whispered, shaking their heads all together, as the train at last burrowed into the smoke and fog of its engines and the weather and was gone.
     Of course, the stories of Paglec's past, of the war, whether folklore, hysteria or fact, trembled just behind the young priests' eyes, on the tips of their tongues. In the coffee shop, they'd furtively searched the old man's face for signs of corruption beyond the obvious physical decay. In the end, as they left the station and drove back to the diocese headquarters, they found it quite difficult to separate the two. In confession, they asked  to be forgiven, made repentance, and were left with anonymous feelings of compassion for the ghost they would never see again.

Paglec slept on and off through Indiana and Iowa as the train fell through the drizzling afternoon. He had dreams, the sweaty, exuberant dreams of a young boy. He'd been having these dreams for over a year now, and they made him angry with himself. Not really knowing the exact symptoms of old-age dementia, he told himself these dreams were the first innocent onslaught of senility. He woke with a start several times on the train, his hands clawing at the air. Those around him smiled patiently, folded their arms, and looked the other direction. A middle-aged man in a brown tweed blazer and a red turtleneck nodded and said, "Father." He said it with exaggerated reverence, dusting his lapels off with the sides of his hands. Paglec knew this one had left the church. He could hear it in the man's voice. With his every step away from the faith, the man had become more indelibly Catholic.
     Paglec drifted off again, gave himself over to the warm summer hillsides of electric blue -- lavender-sea, asters, columbine, and ragweed. He ran and ran and somersaulted into avalanches of sunshine. He stripped off his shirt and his hairless chest heaved as he lay on the ruins of the old Turkish quarry. Muslim children stood watching from the edge of the meadow where the forest began. They were so full of secrets, but he had no curiosity, only energy.
     He felt alone with the world, the quiet, the yellow, the green and magic blue. He felt guilty, as if he'd stolen it. Guilty, as if he'd taken these moments from an expensive department store and arranged them to suit himself. He knew that the rest of the country -- the world, really -- struggled in the noise, which was never yellow or green or any kind of blue. His father was weak, but prospering despite himself, perplexed by all kinds of little financial miracles in which he saw not even an inkling of his own hand. He thought of bringing them -- his father, the world -- to this place. But with their ambitions...
     Here, he shed ambition. He was a shiftless thief, tired of his belongings, his clothes, turning hopelessly good. Something in this feeling eventually led him to God. He hoarded his faith, his vision of Christ the immaculate youth, from the outset. He spoke of it to no one, these moments he spent swallowed by Jesus, blind inside Jesus. Paglec was both afraid and unwilling to share it. Many times he thought he'd go mad. He still felt, now even, on the train, that he'd made the fever of his devotion known only once in his life and it had nearly destroyed him. He recalled being surprised after it that he was not the only one with this fever. Others were destroyed, or nearly destroyed. The least of whom were his fellow priests.
     He tried to be humble as a young man, but it was a lie. He confessed his pride and repented, but it swelled up in him again and again, until it became a part of his personal religion, the very crux of his love for Christ. Most novitiates avoided him, but he struck up a few cherished friendships with like-minded others, others who were attempting to hide the true fire of love which flashed and roared inside them. He remembered his first meeting with the Ustase so clearly. The word meant "Leap to your feet", and he'd been waiting so long for someone to say it. Two candles on a steamer trunk, a crucifix limned in flame, the tarnished revolver from the last war, the curved dagger. In his dormitory room he stripped off his shirt and read Mein Kampf aloud. A time of dreams, visions, what have you. In one he stared up at a glistening Byzantine Orthodox cathedral. It radiated heat onto his face, like the sun. It was beautiful but he could not say so. He let his mouth fill with saliva and taught himself disgust. These were political times and he taught himself political ideas, believed them with the faith of religion. He had no ear for politics, but he could route it through his heart by will. In that way he could make it mystical. He thought himself a mystic, thought he might disintegrate from this world into a million shards of holy light. Any time now, he thought. The cathedral -- with its winding, conical towers ballooning at the bases like Cossack trousers -- was a fossil. A dead, hollow thing.
     "Look around, Paglec," His brother instructed. Paglec looked around the frantic streets of Zagreb. "What do you see? I realize you're a student and see nothing, but try for me..."
     A Muslim boy who used to watch him swim at the quarry passed by. Paglec wondered why they'd never spoken, though he knew why immediately.
     "Orthodox. Orthodox. Catholic. Catholic."
     Paglec watched the Muslim boy. The boy studied a pear. He hitched the side of his leg.
     "Acquaint yourself with your situation, Paglec."
     Paglec cut through the water of the Adriatic, diving again and again, head on into the waves. His nose and eyes burned with salt. He couldn't hold his breath, not a second longer. He exploded to the surface. These old hands flew out in front of him there on the train, in the middle of America, knocking the sack lunch off the lap of the young man in the turtleneck.
     "I am sorry," Paglec said, jerking his body straight in the seat. A little dignity, a little pride at least. "I'm a tired old man. For your sake, I'm done napping."
     "It's nothing, Father."
     The man collected his lunch from the floor.

     Tyrnau had been many things over the years and bore scars from all the changes in direction it had taken to survive while other small towns died around it. It had been a railroad town, a fishing mecca along the enormous earthen dam a few miles away, a brief, understated historical marker on the interstate highway, an agricultural hub, and the site of a somewhat notorious St. Patrick's Day festival. The historical marker reminded motorists needing a brief stretch that Tyrnau had one of the most ethnically diverse populations on the Great Plains. Czechs, Irish, Croats, German Russians, Swedes, Poles, and even the Welsh, shared in the town's creation.
     Despite all the apparent diversity, however, and the town's proximity to the interstate, it had gone the way of most small plains towns. Its size dwindled despite the railroad, the history, the fishing, and the festival, and its resources were worth less with each passing year. State senators remarked, "Yes, but fishing isn't enough," and "Yes, but farming isn't what it used to be," and "Yes, but you can't expect just one festival to see you through the year." A dying town has little use for reason. Added to the "Welcome to Tyrnau" sign, when all was said and done, was the pathetic addendum, wood-burned into rustic railroad ties, "It's the People!"
     Every year, Tyrnau graduated 40 seniors from its public highs school, 30 more from its Catholic school, and ten from surrounding country schools. Each year, ten stayed to work on family farms. The other 70 went away, either to college in the east or into oblivion. The ones who graduated college returned for class reunions and, in order to recreate the excruciating boredom of puberty, pissed off the roof of the high school, screwed one another's wives and husbands in the back seats of new Le Sabres, and passed out on street corners to be distributed to their motel rooms at four in the morning by the town sheriff. They left in a parade of shiny Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs, less shiny Hondas and Toyotas, wearing sunglasses, sitting a safe distance from their spouses, and gripping their steering wheels with white knuckles.
     Of those in oblivion, some turned up in celebrity magazines, never mentioning Tyrnau, and others were reported dead from alcohol, car accidents, drugs, murder, cancer. They were eulogized in the small town news as hometown boys and girls, given more noble treatment than they deserved or desired from their neglected home. They were whispered about and -- although no one remembered their faces or how they'd comported themselves in life -- people said they always knew those people would end up just as they had. Tyrnau slowly became a town of whispering old ladies, of both sexes.
     There was talk of nuclear weapons silos coming to town. Just a rumor, but the rumor took fire. "When the silos come, then..."
     Instantaneously, every one became more patriotic, as though fervent patriotism would draw the silos to Tyrnau. Flags adorned every lawn every day. Bumper stickers condemned all kinds of aberrant liberal behavior, all the gravediggers and coffinlickers. The Irish Festival was moved to the 4th of July, but still called the Irish Festival to make sure previous customers wouldn't feel alienated. "Come to Tyrnau...Have an IRISH Fourth!" TV ads shouted, though no one had any idea what that meant.
     What it meant was fireworks, gunny-sack races, flag-waving, marching bands playing both J. P. Sousa and "How Are Things in Glocca Mora?", shamrock chains, green and red, white and blue streamers, blue and green beer, leprechauns, and a drunken street dance featuring the Tyrnau Rovers playing Johnny Cash's "This Old Flag" with a penny whistle solo.
     Tyrnau was Catholic to a man. The first church was a primitive affair far from the center of town because -- anticipating much expansion and the thousands upon thousands of fine Irish Catholic immigrants promised by Civil War hero, John O'Neil -- they needed room for a large, gated Catholic cemetery. There, all the generations of good Irish Catholics would be interred.
     It was a replica of St. Ferannan's church in Donaghmore, Ireland, but no one could say why that particular model was used. Built with undressed masonry, with a doorway of gigantic, jaggedly beveled stones which inclined inward at the top, the church was a grave edifice.
     Inside was a single, echoing chamber. A chancel was added much later. On either side of the church stood ornate high crosses engraved with biblical scenes. One cross depicted Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, another Balaam's ass, another Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing Egypt.
     Although later immigrants to Tyrnau were most fervently Catholic, they were not Irish Catholic, and they found the old church rather ascetic and cold for their tastes. A ridiculous-looking Eastern Rite chapel was built. Only a sod house really, its only exterior ornaments were Byzantine turrets shipped from the ruins of a church in the Balkans. The chapel, however, was stuffed with sacred bric-a-brac. Sunburst monstrances of gold, with the host held aloft in silver, moon-shaped trays by hundreds of little marble angels, sat on the altar. A statue of Mary, clothed in fine, oriental fabric, had to hunch forward to stand in the small chamber.
     This rough-hewn chapel was cluttered with remembrances from a dozen homelands East of Ireland. The congregation in dark shawls and frayed wool suits knelt crowded together among these looming holy things, praying mainly for air. The sod was eventually replaced with wood, but little room was added. Flagrantly extravagant use of candles burned this to the ground in less than a year.
     By this time, there were seven or so brands of Catholicism being practiced in Tyrnau, and priests met with the Bishop to avoid having to erect as many churches. The Roman Rite was agreed upon, despite some harsh going with the very old. Money was pooled and the Tyrnau Cathedral, St. Mary's, was erected. The congregation resigned itself to some aesthetic disappointments during construction. The Irish pledged solidarity as long as the cathedral wasn't another "goddamn mosque", and the Eastern Europeans said they would be satisfied if it wasn't a "druid mausoleum". The ornaments inside the new structure, which stands to this day, reflected a cacophony of cultures, space having been made -- in some cases merely rudimentary, last-minute niches in the masonry -- for all the icons the town felt were indispensable. For the young Catholics, this made their religious obligations more colorful, even exotic, but the old still grumbled, adding to each decade of their rosaries a "harumph" of dissent over all the compromise.

     Drizzle turned to rain as Paglec's train arrived in Tyrnau. His sister Erta, her husband Delbert, and their only daughter Page, sat on a bench by the station door. Erta and Page rubbed their hands together between their thighs for warmth. Delbert's hands were cupped over his melon-sized knees. Despite his promise to the young businessman, Paglec was asleep as the train jolted into the station. He awakened slowly, as if from one dream into another. Rain on the window diffused his vision. All he could see were blurred, dark forms on the platform, three shapes huddled together on a bench. It reminded him, as all such days did, as all such assemblages did, of the muddy, grim days after the war. Everyone traveled by train back to someplace from which they'd been violently uprooted, black shawls and capes huddled together on platforms, eyes bulging from grim candle-wax faces. He wondered back then how they kept the flesh from slipping away from the bone entirely. Often, in his dreams, the flesh did not hold, and the faces melted away entirely.
     On these trains, at least in the remnants of his country, no one took much comfort in seeing a priest. He tried to help them, to find the ones they searched for, to assist them in changing from one train to another, to lift their small, cloth bags into the compartments above their seats, but their eyes gave back nothing. Always silence: the Jews who'd been secluded without food on the island of Dalmatia; the gypsies who'd been at Buchenwald and now wandered as they always had, but without laughter, color; and the others, the others who saw him and found a different car in which to sit, or began to weep into the coat collars of loved ones at the very sight of him.
     These three shapes on the platform at Tyrnau seemed equally lost, as if they were about to board his slow motion dream, to take him back through the ages. Three ghosts to tell him where his one and only life had gone. And the train would be empty but for the four of them. They would enter a tunnel filled with fragments of his memory, flashing by the train windows like a confusing, ineptly-lit film. These ghosts and he would come to the end of it together. He would thank them and then become a ghost himself, to sit at another train station and await a similar passenger he could haunt from that station to the next.
     His mind was rotting in these groggy ruts, he knew. Every thought either the prelude to a dream, the dream itself, or the first moments of waking. He was too deep in his own head. No place for a priest. He needed to be startled into performing even the most menial actions. Like that very moment, when the main in the turtleneck had to shake him to tell him he'd reached his destination.
     "I think there are people waiting," The man pointed out the window to the platform, at the three huddled on the bench. One of them, a young girl, waved stiffly, her shoulders hunched up beneath her ears from the cold. Paglec dreaded going out in the rain. His bones ached.
     "Thank you. I know. It is just that...this weather."
     The man in the turtleneck nodded.
     "It's shit."
     There was a time when Paglec would have stared down this profanity, thrust out his collar with his proud Adam's apple and not blinked until the man showed signs of shame. There was a time when he'd have done far more than that even. But these days he often forgot he was priest. He'd done enough damage on this train ride, what with all the dreaming and starting and spilling and snoring.
     Paglec rose and walked slowly to the front of the car. Soon he'd need a cane, he thought. Then he thought, I need a cane now. The young ghost, his niece, helped him onto the platform. She certainly could not come along on that haunted train ride. He loved and cared for her immediately. She had color in her cheeks and warmth came through her mittens to his elbow and the misshapen knobs of his spine. History meant nothing to her. Her skin was not like wax at all. Instead it was like a piece of fruit. It changed shades as she felt. He smiled at her and that smile did not shake its way back to his usual dour mask for several seconds. She smiled back, a sustained, young smile that would come and go as it pleased.

     On the freezing platform, introductions were brief and pinched, slivers of glass falling from the women's mouths. Paglec caught little of these exchanges, but he nodded and flexed his wrinkles into approximations of cheer and self-reliance. The women created a flurry of fuss around him, lifting suitcases and setting them down again a few inches away, as if they were performing a dance. In the end, they both reached for to take his hand at once, toppling the suitcases like dominoes.
     Delbert intervened, his jaw chewing on nothing with great deliberation. He took up all three suitcases in his two mechanically-efficient arms as if they were spoiled, bawling children capable of walking on their own. He looked as if he were taking them down to the river to drown them.
     The two women started sentences, abandoned them, and then finished them later, trotting along at Paglec's side as if he were leading them. His legs dragged like a sleepwalker's. When the women and the priest reached the ancient blonde Oldsmobile, Delbert was already behind the wheel, his mouth around a silver flask, drawing bourbon from it with thick tides of face muscles.
     The car's fins were rusted down to stumps like some small, frilly fish gnawed apart by sharks. The hood was a fossil bed of bird shit and the curled wormsmears of mosquitoes and dragonflies. The sun was dead in the frozen sky.
     There were many sounds around the old priest as they stood next to the car, deciding on seating arrangements for the ride home. The priest ran through a loop of facial expressions, hoping the sheer array and vagueness of the tics responded adequately to the conversations he couldn't make out. His head roared with sonic snatches -- strange words, music from the car radio, his train leaving, boots scraping on the ice -- as if he was listening  in on many worlds at once. Was that the voice of his mother? Where did that music come from? What was the meaning of the word "anti-freeze" exactly? The women surrendered the front passenger seat to Paglec.
     "Yes. It's nice to be able to see," His sister said. "You'll know this place as much as there is to know by the time we get home."
     Delbert was working those muscles in his jaw again. Paglec faced the solid white glare outside, the black ice in the parking lot, the bent, bare trees like crowds of cripples. Tides of muscles splashed up behind Delbert's ears, tugged at his thick eyelids.
     Paglec nodded at his sister and pretended to notice landmarks on the long, uneven dirt road to his new home. A whole lot, a whole special lot for the fever graves, all little stones with lambs on top, she said. Boots on the fence posts. A rock and gem shop just up that county road. Geodes. Turquoise. Fool's Gold. Sun falling fast. Husks of corn like bones jutting from the ground. How long will they leave them there? He wanted to get out of the car and bury them with his bare hands, at least cover them with snow. He could see the condyles on the bone, the hand fallen away from the wrist. How long will they allow them to lie there like that? There is no stink in the winter, because the air is like a glass case. A museum simulation of slaughter. Paglec could see no skulls though. They must have taken them, or crushed them so they looked like broken soup bowls. He learned never to ask about the things or parts he couldn't see.
     "They're digging up a mammoth down there," The young girl said. Paglec's face couldn't muster up an ounce of wonder. "It's thousands of years old."
     The wrinkles of his face were now a folded fan, his flesh only a stencil for the awaiting skull.
     "You wouldn't believe how careful they have to be with it. One piece at a time."
     The driveway to the tall white house seemed as long as the road had been.
     "There's a little flesh on it still, I guess. So they had to be especially careful. If it touches the air it just turns to dust."

     You must be tired, and all the rest of the evening like that. Paglec felt like he was being spun around and around and around in the living room. All hands on him. Round and round and round. He was so dizzy, he fell into bed. You must be tired. He watched the ceiling spin as he lay there, and the faces of the two women waltzed around him, like witches they waltzed with a million faces and cold arms and hands. And then he was still and the light was off and he heard a little music -- one long fluid note after another, higher then lower, and then higher again, by half-steps, and that sound was sleep.

     Like performing the Angelus prayer with the beads, he followed strings of lights into the dream, letting one light after another slip between his thumb and forefinger -- the red, the blue, the green, and the painful candle flames interspersed. After awhile the lights were criss-crossed all around him, and the long, breathing notes of the music became the strange backward bells. First, the reverberations, then the strike, then the pulling of the rope. And the colored lights burst warmly in his hands, lit up his young face in green and blue and red. One after another they emerged from his thumb and forefinger, pinched tight -- pop -- they'd emerge. His face was free and laughing and the newborn lights swirled around him and draped themselves over streetlamps, into the dark, windy gestures of the bare trees, up the steps of the cathedral. Then the candle flame, and his hand would burn. He averted his face, his eyebrows singed. "Now I know what it means to be born again," someone shouted. Thousands pushed at the doors of these cathedrals in Zagreb. Each face with its own light, its own candle. Paglec foolishly attempted to spot himself among them, in their traffic, as if he weren't a participant in his own life. They sang devotions. This cathedral seemed taller than ever, its spire up into the fog of heaven. The lights spiraled endlessly upward, up the spires and beyond. Paglec loosened his grip on the string of lights and they cascaded from nowhere. Beautifully illumined, so much so it was like a pain in him, he tried to hold on to this unraveling stream of light, but the bulbs and flames spun out of thin air, fast as the wind.  His hair blew out behind him and he knew suddenly it was he who was speeding along, riding past the lights. He could feel the weak mount between his legs, knobs of its back slipping from side to side. Thick, horrible breathing beneath him. Its sweat on the inside of his thighs. This old Serb threatening to buckle between his knees. He reached down, despite his wobbling mount, and carved away the great long beard from the old man's chin with a pair of dull shears. Paglec fired his pistol into the air. His heart no longer beat, it became one long roar and then a coarse scraping in his chest, a dying drumbeat along his ribs.
     Atop the old man, as the crowd cheered and the Germans in sharp gray watched drowsily, Paglec let his arms fly outward, crucified to the wind.

- Charles Lieurance
Leland Hotel
San Francisco, 1988

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