Previous [Part 1]
Benzamin Harrows is not a bad man. After the plague ravaged San Francisco, the survivors needed to dispose of the dead. Instead of burial, Preacher Harrows invented the “Doctrine of the Firelight: The bodies of loved-ones are merely vases for the spirit, extraneous after the rapture; and they are fuel to light the way to the Father.”
Harrow’s last living relative, a brother, Raymond Rubens was a physics professor at Berkeley, and after, taught general mechanics to 9-14 year-old males. They are to become engineers for the new era. A student asked about Darwin, and Benzamin’s brother could not let the old knowledge go. At the end of his rant, his students picked up concrete slag, broken bricks, or what ever was handy near their outdoor Washington Square classroom, and rallied the crowd to join, chanting, “kill Darwin, kill Satan, kill science, non-believer, kill teacher kill Rubens.”
Benzamin lit his brother’s pyre. Without doubt about the future, and with Father Roberts blessing, he changed his last name to Harrows, for Jesus’ harrowing of hell. Restored to the Holy Bible, Robert’s Version. Before the resurrection and ascension, the savior traveled to hell to save all righteous souls.
“One more vodka and water over ice please, Jasmine,” I say. “Life is too damn long to stay sober.”
She smiles and shakes her rag at me, turns her back, and walks toward the vodka end of the bar. Vita’s has been in the city since the end of WW II, and Jasmine has owned it since ’84. She says it is the golden manacles. Fun as hell, but “you’ll age faster than a limo driver with a load of drunk strippers.”
“Howya doin’, Ambro?” Benzamin says, and sits next to me on the stool that was bent in a fight last year. Just enough to avoid, it leans to the side about 5 degrees. Vita’s attracts a lot of tourists, and in autumn, college kids. The competition can get as fierce as a 20-foot sailboat on a blustery day.
“Damn-it,” he says, and looks around for a better seat. The bar is full, and the regulars know to avoid the crooked spine. As if by luck or fate, Benzamin always chooses it.
“Dude, it was made for you. It’s your destiny.” I say.
He huffs through his nose like he always does, loud enough for Jasmine to turn and smile. She pulls a beer and sits it in front of him. Benzamin Harrows is ten years younger, but he’s catching up fast. His hair is thinner and grayer than mine. He’s five inches taller, and 10 pounds heavier. Benzamin is on the fast track in videogame development and data warehouse search and retrieval, with a staff of 33. His company also contracts with the military, and although he doesn’t carry a side arm, he can outshoot all of us at the bar. At least when he is semi-sober and plays a game to kill as many zombies as quickly as possible, House of Zombies–he can use the plastic revolver in either hand or both at once, and is infamous for the single take down headshot.
“I’ve got this one,” I say and lay a six ones on the bar.
Jasmine snaps it up, “Thanks,” and pockets two.
“What do I look like, your welfare mom?” He stands above me with a frown, his jaw out, and menacing eyes. It is hard to take him seriously. He looks like a late puberty teen in a righteous argument over comic books or Mary Anne vs. Ginger, Gilligan’s Island; he’s always overly thespian.
“Yes,” I hit on the vodka.
“Thanks, man. Thanks, a lot.” He says, sits, picks-up the beer and gulps. “I’d bow, but I might not get it up.”
“Hey Jasmine, aren’t the Giants playin’ the Socks tonight?” Benzamin shouts across Vita’s.
Jasmine ignores him.
“Hey Jaz, customer talking here,” he shouts louder.
The table of five women sitting behind us, still in their corporate armor–power pantsuits, pinned back hair, flat-point black medium heel shoes, and golden bands, diamonds, rubies, topaz, on fingers and wrists–all turn and look toward us. I duck on the mahogany; hands over my ears, I hide my face and twist my head side to side. I moan, almost silent.
“Jaz, Jazzie, Jasmine aren’t the Giants and Sox playin’ toooniiightee?” He repeats, looks up at the screen and points at it with both index fingers.
I see a deep sigh in her shoulders before she turns around and shuffles toward us. She stops at the cash register and picks up the remote. She smiles, shaking her head, and hands it to Benzamin.
“I think it’s on Fox.” He says, and tunes the onscreen guide.
“Not for an hour.” The patron on the other side of me says, and Benzamin keeps parsing the guide. He finds Fox. It is a commercial about a pay-per-view wrestling match.
“I see you’ve found it,” Jaz says and plucks the remote out of his hand. She walks away and returns it next to the cash register.
“Fuck, a woman is suppose to respec…” I knuckle him in the arm before he finishes.
“You want to get us 86-d, man?” I say.
“Shit,” he rubs his arm, lifts his mug, and gulps a couple of mouth’s full of beer.
Vita’s is one birthplace of the North Beach Beat movement in the 50’s and 60’s. It hasn’t changed much, except for tribute to Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs in articles and pictures, in frames or not on the walls, and scribbles above the urinal. A drink is named after Kerouac. It is rum, tequila, cranberry and orange juice with a squeeze of lime. Although the chairs and tables come and go, the diesel, dirt and dust are comforting, consistent. The retro-porn slide show, beta version, still repeats over the bar opposite the new LCD television. The paper mache black cat with the glowing green eyes still looks towards the entrance to ward off any voodoo mal. A gas chandelier flickers over the center of the bar, and a sign over the cash register quotes W.C. Fields.
“T’was a woman who drove me to drink, and I wasn’t decent enough to write and thank her.”
Cloudy, tiffany swag lamps hang over all the tables, and one chair against the wall is a round high back, bamboo throne. The men’s is downstairs in the basement, and the Women’s is on the second floor. Tables on the second floor circle the outer edges of the bar loft and patrons can look down on the bartenders, and the television. Or, they can watch people pass along outside on Columbus or Kerouac Alley. Cigarette smokers tend to line the alley at peak, and a few of use are known for a little blue fog to break the monotony of another beer, whiskey, vodka, rum, fernet, absinthe or what ever cures it.
“Benzie,” I grab his arm and lean towards his ear, ”lets go outside and try this Afghani hash I got off a merchant marine.” I whisper.
“The alley’s full.”
“The smokers won’t notice,” I say.
“No man, the alley is occupied.”
“Tourists and teenagers,” Benzie says.
“Really?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s a street tour.”
“Well what better place to educate foreigners and mid-westerners in the way of an enlightened city,” I say.
“Wait a minute guys,” Jasmine interupts, “I don’t want you two to scare off anyone.”
“Scare? What are you tryin’ to say Jaz?” I say.
“We worked hard with the neighbors and the city to get the alley turned into a walkway,” her fist comes down hard on the bar, “and the tourists are not to be fucked with.” She looks stern straight at both of us. Benzie shrugs and sighs.
“Okay, okay.” I say. “We’ll wait.”
“I’ve got to recycle this beer.” he says, stands up, and winks at me.
I shake my head and grin. After a few minutes and another sip of vodka, I follow. I place a napkin over the top of my drink, so Jasmine knows I’ll return. We meet up in the single stall downstairs, and close the door. It is cramped; the toilet between us, it’s obvious from the outside that my feet are turned the wrong way.
“I hope no one comes down. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea,” I say.
“Come on, who loves ya’ baby.” Benzamin says and smacks kisses.
“I don’t love you that much man.” I take a small wooden pipe out of a hidden coat pocket, open its lid, and set a miniature plastic lighter to it. I inhale slowly, deeply, but not too much, and hand the gear to Benzamin. He does the same. We stand silent a moment, and I am the first to exhale through the large, dusty exhaust fan above the tank. Benzamin exhales longer and deeper; he whistles like a teapot. We laugh. We’re loud: way too loud for two guys standing in the same underground toilet stall.
“Smooth,” he says between gasping for air and giggling.
I take a deep breath, exhale, open the stall door, and look around the corner. No one is in the bathroom. Chuckling, I twist the pipes lid closed exit the stall, and put it back in my coat. I wash my hands, look in the mirror to adjust my hair, glasses, and move up the stairs.
On the way up, a brown clay teapot sculpted as Benzie’s head flashes across the synaps, and it whistles, “smooth.” I snicker and try to hold in the laugh, failure. Laughing on the way up, the effect is instantaneous; I exhale deeply again and blood rushes to my head. A Cheshire cat grin reddens my cheeks, sweat forms on my brow, and my eyes squint to the harsh light in the bar. I am mellow, happy, and giggling like a middle-school girl over pink Jell-O at lunch. Another deep breath, I feel like singing or dancing, Charles Mingus, “Better Get It in Your Soul,” plays on the stereo. I feel good. I sit back at the bar and down the remaining vodka. Jasmine, not smiling, looks suspiciously in my direction.
“Hummm, that funny huh? Want another?” She points to the glass.
“Will you confess and repent, Mr. Barbary?” The preacher booms out one more time.
“Fuck you, Satan,” he says.
Three Agents of the Sword place a noose around the man’s neck. It is made of stout, nylon climbing rope with a heavy-duty climber’s carbineer on the end. The carbineer is looped around the bridge handrail, and when it clips on to the rope, the snap startles me; I look to the rail. It is a tiny detail that silences the prisoners; it is a last tick of the clock. A forearm’s length lariat, about 7 feet of rope is laid next to the man. They offer him a hood, but with an empty stare in his eyes, he drools, his mouth hangs open, and no response. They push and shove him up to the end of the ramp at a cutout section of handrail. The two oldest Agents each pick up a slag of concrete from piles next to the ramp, and tie one to each of Barbary’s legs. The man struggles against the weight and his wrists against the zip tie. The Agents steady him. They pause, inhale and exhale deeply, lower their heads, and avert their eyes.
The guilty turns his eyes towards the preacher, his face is red, snot puddles on his upper lip, and tears drop off of his chin.
“D, d, do it,” his voice sticks in his throat.
The preacher nods his head forward and places his hand on Shaun’s shoulder. Shaun can’t be more than 15; he pushes Mr. Barbary over the edge. Barbary screams. I shiver, close my eyes and listen. One, two, the carbineer clanks as it rasps the rail, and the taught rope interrupts the scream with a loud gasp and snap. I cannot look beneath the Gate. I cannot look at the water. I am trembling.
They say that sometimes the head will come off, and it and the corpse fall into the water. If not, death is instantaneous, and after the plummet, the soul continues to hell; the soul never slows down. The bodies are left hanging for week, and then cut free to sink to the bottom of the bay. The carabineers are recycled.
I look down. My shoes are untied. Will I loose them, will I drift out to sea or swing shoeless, fodder for the crows, grackles, and other non-believers? If I confess, repeal what I believe, repent, and join the one true church, nation, God; then I can enter rehab, reeducate, and find a new path for my life. I can find a new wife or two and raise children, lots of children. Extinction and science are against the laws of God and Farther Roberts? Elise is dead.
To Be Continued [Part 3]