Saturday, September 25, 2010

Chapter 7 - Purgatory

In Christian lore, there are two kinds of sin, mortal sin and venial sin. If you happen to commit the former type of sin, you are screwed. Mortal sins are unforgivable by gods, people, wives and mothers-in-law alike. Venial sins are the class of forgivable sins. So long as the gods, those you’ve trespassed or possibly your wife will give you time to repent, almost any venial sin can be washed away and your soul once again made pure.

In the middle ages, the Catholic Church took the cleansing of venial sins very seriously. They even went so far as to create a whole new imaginary place called Purgatory for just such a purpose. They went even further by selling indulgences to the living and prayer services for the dead to help the faithful manage their way through this dark and terrible place with the least trouble possible. One day, to the delight of many, a plucky young poet named Dante wrote many cantos describing the place in great and morbid detail.

As you might imagine, purgatory is an awful place. It basically consists of a remote mountain sticking out of the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem with repentant sinners clinging to it on all sides. Every inhabitant is a sinner undergoing some sort of dreadfully painful atonement for their sins. The lucky ones, who are assisted through prayer (and money) by anyone who hasn’t yet joined them in Purgatory, are able to skip the interminably long punishment lines. They are afforded an escape from their awful fate and get to start enjoying the good life in a hurry. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that Dante’s Purgatory was an exact literary replica of the island of Oahu.

I woke that morning feeling good. It was an incredible contrast to the day before. I didn’t hurt. I had a skip in my step. I even caught myself singing “The Mayor of Bayswater” in the shower. As I showered, I imagined singing for an American Idol audition. Simon might not have sent me to Hollywood after hearing this cheeky number, I reasoned, but I was certain that he would have liked it. I hummed it into my morning shave and through the application of hair gel and cologne, finishing it off in my brassiest baritone, “And the hair from her dicky-dido hung down to her knees.”

The applause in the bathroom roared. It was just me whispering an excited “Ahhhhhhhh!” to myself, in such a way that it convincingly mimicked the screams of about ten thousand exuberant fans. I considered the contrast of my very on-pitch singing today (having done each of the three harmony parts in turn) with the horrifying noises that I must have produced in the bathroom only yesterday. The women, had they been awake for both performances, might have concluded that I was quite insane.

Today, I was ready for anything. Hell was behind me and Purgatory lay ahead. If Dante taught me anything, it is that Purgatory is doable. There was only one mountain to climb and I had been freshly and soundly shagged. There is something miraculous about being well bedded; it makes a man feel that he can do anything.

I knelt down to kiss my still sleeping Svetlana goodbye and whispered. “Je t'aime, mon chou,” into her ear. She didn’t stir, but smiled as she always did, feeling my kisses with her sleeping sixth sense. With a kick in my step, I headed out the door to the office, but not before perusing my bookcase for something to thumb through. It was obvious. Dante’s Purgatory jumped out, begging to be re-read. It was so coincidentally apropos that had it been standing next to a copy of “How to Get Rid of a Meddling Mother-in-Law,” I might have chosen it still. This would be educational. Surely Dante and his trusty guide Virgil would quickly lead me out of my own personal Purgatory.

I found myself still singing when I arrived at the office. After about an hour of work, I’d punched enough keys on the keyboard to meet or exceed the efforts of the past 5 weeks. I let the CEO know that there would be a showing of new software on Wednesday; a software engineer must release new things from time to time to stay relevant. I started into my new book and by the end of the first canto was ready to call Candy.

“Hi,” she said sullenly.

“Hi?” Was all I could think to say. Her familiar exuberance was gone. It suddenly made things greyer than the vog.

“Coffee time! My treat!” I chirped, to throw some excitement back into the air.

I was aware, having said this, that since I had known Candy, it was always my treat.

Despite her lacklustre greeting, Candy agreed to meet at our usual Starbucks, the one closest to her office. When I arrived at the register to order her special frappuccino, it had already been made. She had phoned in her order. I took our drinks to the spot with the comfy chairs and found Candy sitting there waiting. She was wearing a very pouty face.

“Whatever is the matter, my dear?” I said in a consoling voice.

“I felt like you were ignoring me yesterday.”

Really? I’d taken her driving for hours, walked on the beach, unloaded my problems and… Her pouty look continued to sear holes through the back of my head. I had to try and imagine exactly when I had possibly ignored her. It was impossible; I couldn’t think of a moment. It was time for an emergency blanket apology.

“I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t mean to ignore you. I was really in the most terrible mood yesterday. I’m a lot better now. It won’t happen again.”

“It just felt like you were only interested in Heather and it was all about her and you didn’t seem to care about anything that I had to say.” She scolded.

Aha! Then I understood. It was true. I was interested in Heather’s story. I suppose that I had imagined that she was also interested. I further imagined that had I not been there they would have carried on famously without me while Heather told her story, but now I knew I was wrong about that. I decided it best to cling to the apology I’d already made.

“Oh, Candy. I was just feeling a little down. That’s all. You have my full attention now!” I offered.

“Good!” She said as the sparkle start to return to her eyes. “Now promise me that you will never do that again.”

“I promise.” I said, not really being sure of what I was promising, but my pledge had melted the pout from Candy’s face and her sparkle flourished into a blaze. That was all that mattered at this moment.

Thinking back to everything that was said on the previous day, I suddenly remembered Candy’s contribution. It was a bombshell. She had a fiancé; a soulmate no less. From the time I’d know her she had never so much as mentioned anything like this in her life and yesterday she let it spill like it was absolutely nothing.

“So tell me, now that we have each other’s undivided attention. How long have you been engaged to Roland?”

“Raymond,” she corrected hurriedly. “For over a year now.”

“I can’t understand why you hadn’t mentioned him before yesterday. Is this supposed to be a secret affair? Is this relationship more of a fanciful idea of your mother’s as opposed to a romance of your own?”

“Oh no,” she lied. At least I think she was lying. “Raymond and I had a very strong connection when we first met. He has immeasurable faith in the Lord, and that’s what attracted me to him. He’s a very loving man. He spreads the Word on a Christian radio station three nights a week. We should listen to his show together! Also, as you know, he has this beautiful horse ranch in Waimonalo where Heather’s wedding reception will be. We could even go out there to ride if you want to.”

“So why didn’t you mention him before? Does he know about me?”

“Oh, silly! Everyone knows about you. It’s just that we have had so much else to talk about that I didn’t think that Raymond would fit into the conversation. You and I are always in such a rush!”

I had heard lies before and I was hearing one right at this moment. There is no way that a fiancé can slip one’s mind any more than a sighting of the Loch Ness monster wearing Star Wars underoos. My angel’s glow had softened in my eyes. She was less angelic all of a sudden. She had a personal agenda and would not stop at lying to conceal it.

“So have you set a date to marry him?” I asked. The truly engaged always have a date set.

“Well, his mother is not well and between that and his radio show, it seems like I only see him at church these days. I think we will start planning things once his mother is better.”

“Now that Roland is an open topic for conversation, I suppose that it’s time for me to meet him don’t you think?”

Candy looked up and to the left for the first time since I’d known her. She schemed. “Yes, let’s meet him tonight! We can listen to his radio show while we drive out to the ranch. Then you can hear him, meet him and get to know him, finally!”

Candy presented me with the back of her jaw for a goodbye kiss and once kissed, she skipped back to work. My evening was planned. I had a brief flash of worry that I my time would be better spent tending to my wounded marriage than wasting an evening sleuthing Candy’s fiancé story, but the worry subsided. I was still in a pretty good mood from the previous evening’s activity and thought I could rather use a drink of some sort to slow down my mind and better contemplate my situation. Despite the truce with my mother-in-law, I still had a situation that needed tender care in handling.

The feeling of being in Purgatory was ever present. I should qualify that. In the middle ages, purgatory was thought of as a real place. I’m sure that if Dante had been to Hawaii, his Purgatory would have consisted of Oahu and a half-dozen increasingly more boring islands such that the more exciting sins would get you the more boring islands as a punishment. Modern Catholics will tell you that Purgatory is not a place at all, however, but rather a process where one is cleansed of their sins to better prepare themselves for a perfect and eternal afterlife.

In Dante’s time, it was theorized that it would take a ridiculously long period of time to purge each and every individual sin; a period of hundreds or thousands of times longer than it took to commit the sin in the first place. I decided that I would not have that kind of time to devote to atonement and began to contemplate methods where I could purge my sins more expeditiously.

Then I wondered. What were my sins exactly? An average person will commit sins of various magnitudes almost every day, from little white lies to surfing the internet on company time, the latter of which would keep me in Purgatory for a very, very, very long time. How does one know which sins even matter anymore? Worshipping another god or taking god’s name in vain are constitutional rights in most countries that also have running water. Somehow I don’t think the ones about honouring one’s father or coveting a neighbour’s ass were relevant either. I suppose that the Ten Commandments were anachronisms even by Christ’s reckoning, since he only mentioned one or two.

So far, my life had been following in Dante’s footsteps, so I turned my thoughts to the seven deadly sins. The seven deadlies are a collection of forgivable or venial sins of a cardinal or really bad nature. In pre-renaissance times, it was determined that cardinal sins, if practiced often enough can add up to a mortal sin and become quite unforgivable. I reasoned that one of these cardinal sins was the likely source of my Purgatorial curse.

I began by ruling out gluttony right away. Though I had a penchant for good food and champagne, I was neither overweight, nor an alcoholic. Avarice was not my problem either, since no amount of money would exceed Svetlana’s ability to spend it. Sloth was right out, I worked day and night. There wasn’t much wrath in me, except a nasty letter to AT&T. Envy; I thought for a moment about envy. After a good long think, I realized that couldn’t come up with a single person on Oahu that I envied. That left lust. Was I lustful? I had a beautiful wife and a multitude of very attractive women friends. Sadly, I didn’t lust after any of them.

I counted the list, again. I only counted six. There was a sin missing. What was it? Pride; oh fuck, it had to be pride. As soon as I had said the word in my mind, I knew it was the obvious answer. All of the grief that I was suffering at this point my life could be traced back a single root cause and that was my ever-present sense of pride.

I did have a beautiful wife and a multitude of very attractive women friends. I had a cool car and a luxury apartment. I was a long time resident of enviable State of Hawaii. All of these aspects of my life fed my pride and the price of keeping these things was dear. I allowed myself to suffer for each and every thing that fed my pride. I suffered at the hands of the banks, the Immigration and Naturalization Services, my clients-come employers, my landlord, the credit card companies, my wife, and now my mother-in-law. Everyone who could make me suffer did and I had endured it all for the sake of my pride.

Then the real problem struck me like lightning. Had I committed any of the other seven deadlies, I would have been fine. I could have easily renounced those varieties of sin and began my penance immediately, but how could I part with my pride? How could I even mitigate it? My whole life up to this point had been an approval-seeking process, where I would pile up the the spoils of my various successes to reinforce my pride. My pride was everything to me. It was my soul.

Up to this point in my life, I had never even considered pride as a sin, especially not my pride. Yes, I had read Dante and Thomas Aquinas and I knew it was big on their lists of deadly sins. Before my predicament, I’d even mocked the list, citing that the seven deadly sins are necessary for the survival of the human race. For the first time in my life, I was seeing that pride had been deadly for me. What was worse is that I would not be able to atone for this sin easily, if I could atone at all. I would not be able to wash away the stains of pride afforded to me by beautiful women, cool cars and an exotic lifestyle without a complete and drastic overhaul of my life.

It was too much to think about. The irony of a sworn atheist being wracked by a cardinal sin was difficult enough to fathom, but there was more. This was happening while I was trapped in Purgatory and responsible for the care of an angel. They symbolism, real or imagined, was more than a sane mind should ever have to bear. At once, I knew what was coming for me in my dreams. A combination of fear and anger caused me to clench my fists in disbelief.

“I will not suffer this!” I swore aloud to an empty sky.

Passersby must have thought me crazy, but I was not far from Hotel Street where crazy is normal. I paid no mind to a gawking woman who blocked my way and made an awkward detour over the grass and around her. I returned to work and realized that my fists were still clenched. I knew my nightmare would return and that I would not be able to stop it. That was certain.

There was no way that I was going to be able to work. I picked up Dante’s Purgatory again and scanned through another few cantos. I hoped that maybe there were clues in it that would help me in what I knew was going to be a difficult time. I didn’t have to read far. The first terrace in Dante’s Purgatory deals with the proud. There, humility is both the punishment and the cure for pride. It was my least favourite emotion and perhaps my most often suffered one. I knew at once that I would suffer a great deal more.

I swore aloud and whipped the book across my desk. It hit the wall with a resounding thud. I wished I hadn’t thrown it. A co-worker or two had seen what I’d done. Now my co-workers would pass around the fact that was going crazy. It was time to go home. Beast or no beast in my home, I was no good to anyone at the office.

After a brisk walk home I arrived to find a happy pair. Mother and daughter were working away in the kitchen, chatting up a storm in their crazy Macedonian tongue. They talked and talked and talked and I could not fathom how it was possible that there was a subject left on earth for them to still be talking about. Svetlana kissed me happily and showed me the treats that she had been preparing for dinner. No one questioned why I was home so early and I did not volunteer an explanation.

I poured myself a very large glass of wine and bade that we change the language of conversation to English. After a bit of chit-chat it was evident that Svetlana was genuinely happy and Angelica seemed to be genuinely lacking her normal look of contempt for me.

“So, you ladies are not going to believe this,” I said temptingly.

“What? What? What?” The women begged.

“Candy has invited me out to a ranch this evening to visit with…”

Both women licked their lips in anticipation.

“…her fiancé!”

“No no, this is not possible,” said Angelica authoritatively. “When would she have time to meet a man when she sees you every day? This is not possible.”

It was a dig, but an uncommonly light one. I took it in stride. “I’m telling you. She had a fiancé all along. Apparently, he has a sick mother or something and she hasn’t seen much of him since she met us, or so she says, because he has not had time for her.”

“I can’t believe this,” Angelica added.

“It’s true!” I exclaimed. “I can take a picture if you like, but I am supposed to drive Candy out to meet him after dinner. I think we should all go out after that and I’ll tell you the whole story. I’m not planning to go in to work tomorrow so I can let my hair down a little tonight.”

I was already well on my way to relinquishing any pride I might have fostering regarding my employment situation. We chatted until dinnertime speculating on what sort of fellow might have captured Candy’s heart. The speculation continued through dinner with each aspect of the fiancé story being weighed and measured. We wondered how he might have courted Candy. We wondered how he asked her to marry him. We wondered if he asked her, or if she asked him or if her mother had set it all up or if anyone had asked anyone.

When dinner was done, Svetlana was practically pushing me out the door to go and fetch the answers to our many speculations. It was quite the opposite scene from the one where I expected to be begging forgiveness for offering Candy a ride. Sometimes Purgatory is simply elegant in its simplicity. I bade the women farewell and raced to my car like a superhero to his secret stash of super stuff.

I arrived at Candy’s at 7pm on the dot, just like we had planned. I called up. She said that she was going to be a few minutes and I punched the radio button for what I expected to be about a five song wait. Surprisingly, only a half a song had managed to play when I spotted Candy running toward the car.

“Hurry! Turn on the radio to AM 777!” Candy shouted as she buckled herself in.

I didn’t even know if I had an AM radio setting. After a minute of fussing with the controls, we were listening to the unmistakable sounds of Christian talk radio. Zzzzzzz, it was going to be a long drive. Raymond seemed pleasant enough on the radio, like a father giving advice to a child at one moment and quietly agreeing with a crazy caller the next. It was funny. The callers could say nearly anything and Raymond would listen patiently, quietly agree and go to the next caller.

Near the end of the show we were hurtling past Hanauma Bay, which is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sections of road on Oahu. I tuned out to look at the waves and the rocks and…

“I’m going to close the show with the Lord’s Prayer,” said Raymond in his consoling radio voice. “This is a very beautiful version of the prayer that you don’t hear very often and I thought it would be nice to close the show with it today. It was written by one Dante Alighieri in the thirteenth century.”

“Oh! Fourteenth century, dude. It was written in the early 1300’s.” I blurted out.

I turned sharply, sharply enough to make all four tires on my car squeal, a difficult and scary thing to do. Raymond’s mistake had probably saved both of our lives. When he announced that he was going to end with Dante’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, I wondered what the chances were that I had been reading this same prayer only this morning. Dante had associated this very prayer with humility and it was therefore a remedy for pride. My disbelief had caused me to forget that I was driving to contemplate the odds that I was hearing this prayer for a second time in one day. It nearly caused me to drive us both off of a cliff.

Raymond read on,

“Our Father, You who dwell within the heavens
but are not circumscribed by them out of
Your greater love for Your first works above,

Praised be Your name and Your omnipotence,
by every creature, just as it is seemly
to offer thanks to Your sweet effluence…”

There was more of course and as Raymond read, I noticed that Candy had developed tears in her eyes. I imagine that even a non-Christian would have to concede that this was a very beautiful set of verses even after a rough translation from Italian to English.

“Well, we’ve heard his show,” I said. “Will he be as entertaining in person?”

Candy didn’t answer. She was still weeping.

“What’s the matter, baby?” I said in my softest possible voice.

“Oh, it is just so beautiful. Sometimes the Spirit just takes me and goes all through me when I hear so much devotion and such beauty. Wasn’t that a beautiful poem at the end?”

I nodded in agreement and reached over to stroke her shoulder to console her. It was a brief consolation, as I immediately had to downshift while we careened through another tight corner. The stage was set. A weeping angel and an on-air preacher-man were about to show me their incredible love for one another. I had no idea what to expect, having never dreamed that I would see anything like this in my life.

The ranch was not too much further down the road. I arrived at about the same time as an old beaten up Ford pickup. It was a red and white affair that had long since lost its looks to rust. I expected that it might have been Raymond at the helm, returning from his radio show, but how could Candy’s fiancé drive such a wreck? No combination of my brain cells would permit me to picture Candy heading to church in that rust-bucket. I supposed that if he owned a ranch, this couldn’t have been his only vehicle.

I pulled up next to the old Ford and ground to a halt in the gravel driveway. The Porsche had very wide tires and wasn’t comfortable on gravel. It seemed an awkward thing for me that moment, parking next to a farm vehicle. It was the first time I had felt strange behind the wheel since I bought the car. When the truck door opened, a man clearly in his mid 50’s got out. He had curly dark hair and deep set dark eyes and the facial lines of a man who had shouldered many worries. His countenance reminded me of an old farmhand who longed for better days.

“Rayyyyyyyyyyymond!” Candy squealed as she skipped across the gravel, throwing her arms around the older man’s neck.

In the English language there are many synonyms for disbelief, but none that really properly describe the sensation of being completely unable to believe something. Having had a day filled with unbelievable things and having used the word disbelief already several times on this day, I found myself feeling loathe to use it again. When Candy clung onto this old cowpoke, however, my brain was so utterly shocked with disbelief that I feared I might be struck dumb. After the embrace, Candy led him toward me.

“Roland…” Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. “I’m sorry, Ray-mond. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Oh I’ve heard a lot about you,” Raymond said with a knowing smile. “It’s good to know that you are keeping Candy out of trouble.”

“Oh thank you!” I said, trying to gain my composure. I didn’t know anything about him. What could I possibly say? “It’s a nice place you have out here.”

Raymond didn’t answer in a real sort of way. He just tipped his head and gave a little laugh. With a nod here and a gesture there, Raymond directed us up to his house. He had a picnic table in the back and brought out a bottle of wine and three glasses. He clearly lived there alone and I could see that Candy would have difficulty visiting him, since she didn’t have a car. Glancing around, I didn’t see any vehicles other than the rusty old Ford truck. The lack of vehicles alone might have throttled Candy’s relationship with him. I opened the conversation with a question.

“We listened to your radio show on the way out. I wondered where you got the idea to finish your show with Dante’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.”

“Oh, I like to mix things up and show people new things and old things when I can. Did you like that version of the prayer?”

“I liked it very much,” I confessed. “I was quite astonished to hear it, to be honest.”

“Robyn said you got the year wrong,” Candy chirped as a red hue filled my cheeks.

Oh, why did she say that? Here was more disbelief for my day. “Oh, sorry about that,” I floundered. “I just remarked that it was written in the early 1300’s… which is the fourteenth century and then noticed that we were driving off a cliff, so I might have overstated mistake.”

“That woke me up though; you might have saved our lives that moment.” I added. “How did you know about it? How did you decide to use it?”

“The Lord has been with us for a long time,” Raymond explained. “He’s inspired so many of us to wondrous things and great works. I like to use my show to remind people that His Word has been a source of healing and inspiration for people from many generations and parts of the world.”

Raymond smiled knowingly and his dark deep-set eyes sparkled a little in my direction. While he spoke, Candy sat next to him and sometimes on him, continuing to shower him with affection to which he paid absolutely no notice whatsoever. I puzzled. Raymond’s knowing look was altogether too knowing at that moment. I realized that his choice of Dante to end the show was no coincidence. Was he an angel or a devil in the Dantesque play that my life had become? I’d have to sort out his intentions and how he did this magic trick later, but I knew that none of this was an accident.

“But it was a beau…”

“Oh are you talking about that Lord’s Prayer on the radio?” Candy interrupted. “I couldn’t stop myself from crying when I heard that. It is so amazing. I just love it!”

Candy’s need for attention broke the spell of Raymond’s gaze. All of his mannerisms told me that he had something more to tell me, but with the spell broken, the conversation slowed to a standstill. Raymond was visibly tired and it looked like further conversation was starting to physically pain him.

“Well my dearest angel,” I said looking toward Candy. “I think it’s time I head home.”

I said “I” on purpose, not knowing if I would be leaving her here with her magical preacher fiancé or taking her back home with me.

“Can you give me one minute and wait by the car?” Candy asked.

“But of course.”

I thanked Raymond for the wine and the company and wandered back to my car. Glancing back as I walked, I could see Candy fluttering around him still seeking some sort of real attention. Raymond continued to puzzle me. I considered that our whole time there, he hadn’t kissed Candy once. He didn’t even give her the traditional Aloha kiss. He didn’t hold her hand or put his arm around her waist. He did not do anything that would have indicated that he had any interest in her at all, let alone the interest of a fiancé or soulmate.

Barely two minutes passed when Candy came skipping toward the car, ready to go.

“I’m surprised that you aren’t staying behind,” I said.

“Oh, we would never do that, silly! I just had a few questions about the wedding reception. I have to work tomorrow.”

That was a good enough reason for me, though it didn’t seem to be true. We buckled ourselves in and I surfed over the gravel, skidded onto the pavement and raced my way toward town. We had made it most of the way back in silence until, I finally broke it.

“I noticed that he’s a lot older than you, Candy.” I said as diplomatically as I knew how.

“When you talked about Heather’s age difference with her fiancé you said, ‘I really can’t see how an age difference will affect them if they have a good relationship.’” Candy retorted as though she was quite ready for what I would say.

She had recalled my quote from a couple of days previous; word for word. I suppose that her acting and singing experience must have given her an improved memory for recalling dialogue. I wished I could do that. It had been a long day and I had no time desire to press Candy for more information about this incredulous and seemingly cold relationship.

I dropped Candy at her home, glided carefully past the ever-watchful Waikiki police and into town to pick up Svetlana and her mother for a nightcap at Le Baron Noir. I wanted to see the Baron more than I didn’t want to see Angelica, and thought that a pleasant evening might be in store. Svetlana and Angelica were ready at the door when I arrived and we were tipping glasses of wine in no time.

We had actually barely sat down before Angelica started, “Tell me about this man, this fiancé to Candy. Tell me about him.”

With carefully chosen words I drew the picture of this old farmhand with a broken down truck. Both women followed the story with what seemed to be a mixture of delight and disbelief. I continued to tell them about Raymond’s seemingly indifferent, if not cold, attitude toward her.

“How can this be? How is it possible? This is not human!” Angelica insisted as the wine started to take effect.

Every nuance of the story inspired conjecture and speculation. The women sometimes would have to switch back to Macedonian, lacking the English words to express their more wild speculations. They asked me if I thought it might be an arranged marriage or if Raymond was a widower and gave lots of money to the church in exchange for Candy.

Each glass of wine made their speculations more outlandish. I specifically left out what I felt was the important part of the story, the Lord’s Prayer and Raymond’s knowing gaze. Their speculations were meaningless without that part. I answered what questions I could and united in laughter, the ladies speculated until The Baron was closed.

When we arrived home, I found myself not wanting to go to bed; tired though I was. Something had reminded me that I was in store for a serious nightmare however sleep came for me as it did every night. I hoped this night would not be the one that I had begun to dread.