by Jason Irwin
The story of a young boy who, trying to cope with his parents' divorce is obsessed with the image of the crucified Christ and Vincent van Gogh.
There I was: ten years old, sitting in church with my mother. It was Holy Thursday, the day Jesus was betrayed and arrested in the garden. We were in our usual pew, about fifteen rows up, on the far right, just below the station where Jesus falls for the third time. The priest is Monsignor Ken--who five years later would call on the phone, screaming in a rage at my mother, for going behind his back and allowing me to be confirmed in the Methodist church--has just begun the ceremony of the Stations of the Cross. I watch, transfixed, as he waves the incense, creating a fog around himself. I think of Merlin. Monsignor Ken moves from the altar, down the stairs and turns, along with two altar boys to the left and stops at the first station where Jesus is kissed by Judas and then arrested.
I'd been going to 7pm mass with my mother at St. Edna's, every night since my parents' divorce the year before, not to mention Thursday mornings with my fifth grade class, as well as myself, serving as an altar boy at least two other days during the week. I enjoy sitting near the aisle so I can watch the procession at the beginning of mass, with the pipe organ blasting and the choir singing off key and then being able to throw a dollar into the collection basket. the old man who ushers on Sundays is named Simon and he always winks at me. I like the smell of his suit and the grease he uses to keep his snow white hair in place. About six or seven rows in front of my mother and I, in the center pews sits Rocky. He's about thirty years old, looks like a wrestler and is retarded, as my mother tells me. Rocky's also here every night with his parents. His mother is a plump and proper lady who always wears a flowery dress, has big round glasses, and ties her long black, perfumed Puerto Rican hair in a pony tail. Rocky's father is named Moses and is a deacon here at St. Edna's. He is a gentle man, tall and quiet, with big dimples when he smiles, which he seems to always do. Sometimes when I see him smile it makes me want to cry, for he seems possessed with infinite patience and love for Rocky, and is aglow with the kind of unrestrained affection you would expect only a mother to bestow. Rocky always brings super hero action figures with him to mass. That night the Incredible Hulk and Spiderman were in engaged in a leg spinning, fist flinging fight atop his father's head.
Scattered around the church were a half dozen or so people, whose faces I knew, but did not know by name. I was fascinated by their ritual of movements: how they turned their heads, shifted their bodies, scratched themselves, picked their fingers, ears, noses. The way their eyes seemed to dart in every direction, like the spastic way squirrels move, how they appeared at other times to simply stare into space without any object of focus, least of all Monsignor Ken. I was fascinated by the way the light fell against their faces, finding its way into lines and cracks, illuminating some parts, while hiding others in darkness.
"Consider the first fall of Jesus under the cross", Monsignor Ken bellowed dramatically, standing below the third station. His deep baritone echoed through the church with a sense of pride and sorrow, like Lear, lamenting Cordelia. "His flesh was torn by scourges. He had lost a great quantity of blood." The word blood pulled me from my usual observations of people and different things in the church, like the patterns of wood grain in the pews, the giant pillars, the intricacy of stained glass, or orange carpet that reminded me of that powder the janitor at school always poured out when anyone puked. I turned to my mother with a wide smile, as if I'd just found Christmas presents, hidden under her bed, or was told I could pick out any toy at Kreskie's Department Store, savoring the simple sound of the word blood, as it repeated in my ears. My mother stood there looking solemn and attentive, like a saint. Her perfume, which smelled of vanilla ice cream mixed with the incense and the somewhat nauseating stench of the old woman who sat two rows behind us. As always, this blue haired, goggly-eyed woman with lipstick staining her dentures, smelled unmistakably like Campbell's Chicken Soup. Meanwhile, Monsignor Ken had moved on to the fourth station, where Simon the Cyrene is ordered to help Jesus carry His cross. I looked back at Rocky, only to find him massaging his father's face and smothering him with kisses: little pigeon like pecks, a look of perfect contentment spread across his face. Quickly I turned back to Monsignor Ken to study his Buddy Holly style, horn rimmed glasses and fleshy face. Unable to discern any trace of a jaw line, my hazel eyes fell on the life-sized crucifix that hung on the far wall, between the first station and the door that leads to the choir room.
Cast in a creamy plaster, I imagined the crucifix made of chocolate, like those Cadbury bunnies my Nana used to give me for Easter. At a glance it looked like the skull of some prehistoric long horn. In a frenzy my eyes began to trace Christ's dying form. Starting at His feet, where the spike protruded, I worked my way upward, across His legs: studying each line, curve and sculpted muscle. I passed over His loin cloth and feasted my hazels upon the gorgeous gash that the Roman soldier stabbed into His side. I could feel my heart flutter, my head swimming and the lights began to strobe, almost, little explosions of ecstasy traveling across the heaving arch of His ribs, to that winged expanse of His arms and clenched fists. I was infatuated with my suffering hero: suspended like a kite against an ash-blond void. His thorny head bent, in munificent agony, and in my ten year-old mind, I can only picture the magic marker masterpieces I would create once mass was over and I was home. His pink skin, long brown hair, and beard, and blood, cascading in beautiful rivers of the brightest red. In my young, yet contemplative mind, I envisioned a death no less dramatic and violent for myself. Yes, I was, even then an aspiring martyr, who longed, for some strange reason, I know not, even today, to die, to be murdered, tortured, assassinated, even, to go down in the brightest blaze of glory, without giving the slightest thought, as to what I would martyr myself for.
I'm not sure when, exactly, I first fell for the Nazarene. Maybe I was inspired by the religious classes at St. Edna's. Maybe it was that day in first grade when Father Jim was being transferred to another church-unbeknownst to us, that it was over his infatuation with Ms. Clarke, the principle, better her, than one of the altar boys-and all the kids at the school gave him one Reese's Peanut Butter Cup each, like our roles were reversed and the peanut butter cups were some kind of strange communion of passage that would somehow make his parting less painful, maybe even absolve him for breaking his priestly vows. Maybe it was my mother's devout, saintliness, or that scary church we used to go to with my father in Silver Creek. It was there I remember a man in a suit would make everyone, including my father, fall backwards onto the floor as he screamed. maybe it was those Sunday mornings I'd sit in front of the TV, holding my father's hand as he prayed along with Oral Roberts. Maybe it was all the times I spent in hospitals as a child, getting a thousand surgeries and needles and almost dying because of birth defects that made my esophagus close. All I know for sure is that I was in love: smitten, you might say, in the same way I was in love with Han Solo and Rocky Balboa: beaten, bloody and triumphant at the end of Rocky II, holding his championship belt over his head, arms outstretched-not unlike Christ-screaming "Yo, Adrain. I did it!"
Whatever inspired it, my love manifested itself in my prodigious drawings, which began to reveal themselves when I was only three. My drawings of misbegotten blobs and spirals quickly transformed into stick figures and from there-with no formal instruction, save for a few weekend classes with Barney Kazaraw, who lived across the street, and from my uncle Joe, whom I also worshipped-I started drawing entire movie scenes: tanks and spaceships. King Kong became an early favorite, along with Batman and Superman. By the time I was six I had already had several exhibits in my Nana's kitchen, as well as at the 4th floor nurses' station at Children's Hospital in Buffalo. I had filled sketch pad after sketch pad, won 1st prize in my second grade Fire Prevention drawing contest and though I was not technically good, especially with proportions, and grew impatient with landscapes and still life, I began dozens of full color interpretations of that famous scene from Golgatha, which I churned out with Van Goghian speed.
"My Jesus, laden with sorrows, I weep for the offenses I have committed against Thee", Monsignor Ken's voice screamed, as he stood right behind my mother and I at the eighth station. Surely, I thought, in all his priestly omniscience, he can read my sin filled mind. Surely he knew of all the terrible misdeeds I had piled upon my soul: not brushing my teeth before school or bed, flushing my father's shaving cream down the toilet,, pulling Tammy Crawfords' braided pigtails, for lighting the smoke bombs they sell at Pete's News and throwing them into open doors downtown with Joe Rancka, for not finishing my grilled cheese sandwich, or puking and not telling my mother, for fear she'd bring me back to the hospital, where Doctor Jewett would stick a long tube with a balloon at the end of it down my throat to stretch my esophagus. I was sure that Monsignor Ken knew all that and more, knew that I kicked my classmates with my leg brace, that I forced myself to burp out loud while Ms. Locke or Sister Cubert was trying to teach class, or causing my Nana's blood pressure to go up. Surely if Monsignor Knew that then he must have know of other infractions of faith, like how while serving mass I didn't ring the bells at the right time on purpose, or when I closed the big prayer book while he was still reading from it, or worse yet the times I picked my nose and made funny faces behind his back while he gave his homily.
Sweat began to gush from my pores and race down my face like the blood on Jesus'. It collected in pools in my armpits and I imagined Monsignor Ken would stop the mass to tell my mother and everyone else about my blasphemies. My days as an altar boy, I was sure, were numbered. He might even call the bishop, the pope, might even revoke the papal blessing my aunt Rose got for me before she died. Worse yet, I might even be sent to Hell, or public school! Out of the corner of my eye I saw him, slowly moving closer, swinging the incense urn, his white robe seemed to be radiating a bright light. I could almost feel my skin start to burn. When appeared along side of me I could see his tiny green eyes look into mine from behind his horned rims, which gave him an almost devilish look. I tried to look away, to find comfort in my mother's gaze, but I couldn't. I wanted to scream, to burp or fart, to confess everything and beg forgiveness, anything to break the silence and Monsignor Ken's focused stare. Nearly convulsing with fear, I managed somehow, to look to the crucifix and began reciting the Our Father to myself, but forgot what came after "Who art in Heaven" and began wondering whether there was indeed a Saint Art. The stench of incense and chicken soup, combined with my mother's perfume made me nauseous. I felt like puking. My eyeballs felt as if they'd burst from their sockets. I imagined them shooting out like rockets and Monsignor Ken catching them and eating them, and then to my relief, Monsignor Ken smiled and my mother and I and moved on to the tenth station, without a word about my many sins. Had God saved me? Was I not so terrible? Was my love of the crucified Christ not such a grave offense? Only five more stations remained and I would be free to go home with my mother, have some Oreoes and milk and lock myself in my room, amid an army of magic markers and create masterpieces, dreaming my dreams of stigmata and martyrdom.
Jason Irwin grew up in Dunkirk, NY, and now lives in Pittsburgh, PA. His first book Watering the Dead won the 2006/2007 Transcontinental Poetry Award and was published in 2008 by Pavement Saw Press.