The balaclava we don daily feels unquestionably natural, the way a second skin would if that sort of thing was normal. I take off my flat-bill cap and run my fingers through my jet-black hair. My other hand is gripping the trucks on my skateboard. The paint on the wooden bench two feet to my right is chipping. It is filthy and covered in bird shit.
The morning sun soaks into my skin as I stand on an upper platform on the southwest side of Chicago, waiting for a pink-line train with my friend Joseph.
I wish I'd been named Joseph; Joseph is such a good name, such a better name than William. I hate being William.
Joseph’s thin frame towers over me. He's wearing an oversized, baby-blue-colored hoodie. Inside his abdomen pocket, I can see his lighter and a pack of cigarettes. His jeans are tattered around his left knee.
“Who's this guy look'n at?" Joseph whispered down to me while eyeing a man who kept eyeing us. We stand out. We draw a lot of curiosity.
"I dunno. Ignore him."
"I don't like how he's look'n at us."
“Get over it." I replied while staring down at my shoes.
Joseph found pleasure in creepily staring back at the fellow.
A digitized woman's voice sounded on the intercom above, saying, "Attention customers, an inbound train towards the loop will be arriving shortly."
Joseph pulls his long hair up into a bun while studying a skinny girl with blue-eyes and blonde hair. She's cute. If she wasn't, all ten or so of us men waiting for this train wouldn't have paid any attention to her. I wonder if she felt all of our eyes scanning her? It’s probably uncomfortable to be constantly objectified by scumbags. I'd be lying if I claimed I wasn't a scumbag. Joseph’s a scumbag too. In fact, he’s admitted it to me, and I give him credit for being honest.
I can feel the reverberation of the approaching pink-line train in my legs as it enters the station.
We board the train.
The trains are made up of strangers from all social classes. Everyone tries to ignore each other, yet we can't help but give in and sneak a peek every now and then. It’s hard for me to mind my own business when the homeless go around asking for spare change, or when the ex-convicts who can’t land a job to save their life beg for employment, or when the young business professionals are scrolling through online publications on their cell phones like mindless zombies, or when the sleep-deprived are sprawling themselves out across multiple seats because they're exhausted, or when the crazies are screaming at people for whatever reason their damaged brains can scrounge up, or when the young moms fail to calm their crying babies, or when the obnoxious students are acting up in order to impress their friends on their way to school, or when the singers attempt to raise money or awareness for some cause.
Joseph and I are on our way to the meetinghouse.
We were traveling between Clinton and Clark and Lake when we passed over Mem.
In the law, it is written, “You shall honor Mem as long as you live in the land. By it, you are cleansed. Fall down to your knee and worship the creator of heaven and earth.”
The law is beautiful and we’ll never quite understand it. Joseph was the first to see Mem, so he dropped to his knee and then I followed suit. Certain words began to surface in my mind— phrases that had been branded into my young and impressionable brain so many years ago. I’m haunted by them.
We closed our eyes, bowed our heads, and threw our right fists over the center of our chests. Any semblance of coherence had fled Joseph's face. His dedication to the faith was so visceral. He had emptied himself into a mindless, pious trance.
I'm not sure why, but I can't bring myself to do that, and it makes me wonder: is there something wrong with me? Perhaps one day it'll just click. The light bulb will turn on. I'll no longer fear what others think of me.
I glance around at the uncomfortable facial expressions being directed at us before closing my eyes and attempting to ignore them. We recite the doxology: "All is Mem. Praise Thales from whom all blessings flow."
This episode didn't last longer than thirty seconds. We pulled into Clark and Lake and exited the train.
The narthex resembles a warehouse, except this warehouse isn't filthy and buzzing with machinery. It gives off a sterile, hospital vibe. The carpet lining the interior of the building has a rough texture to it and is an ugly cocoa-color. Above us, painted black, are air ducts running east to west. The harsh, cold LED's have a dizzying effect on my vision, which forces me to close my eyes and rub them using the knuckles of my index fingers. This helps shake off the anxiety that accompanies my recurring, unsettling, irrational fear of one day having a seizure. How and when exactly I started fearing such a thing isn't quite clear.
Joseph and I were both handed a trifold bulletin and greeted by a young married couple upon our arrival. I leave my skateboard by the coat rack just inside the entrance to my left.
The greetings seem hollow; their handshakes seem inherently forced, yet willing, because somebody on staff here most likely convinced them that their presence isn't only appreciated but absolutely needed.
There are 300 of us gathered under this roof, and each of us fall into one of two camps: staff and those who aren't. The staff are comprised of the discernibly-gifted. Some non-staff are gifted, but most are not.
A good example of a discernible gift is intellect or public speaking. These are invaluable and held in high esteem by virtually every one of the congregants.
Joseph and I are convinced we've been noticed by the staff because of gifts like these.
If you wanna be somebody important, you gotta be smart, trained in ethical, metaphysical, and historical argumentation. Most people have to go to school to learn what we know. We dedicated ourselves to read every relevant book we could dig up related to these topics. Our studies began when we were both eighteen and are ongoing.
The smiling greeters handing bulletins out at the front door, or the ushers who escort you to your seat after the public-speaker has begun his forty-five minute monologue, or the baristas serving coffee at the bar, or the valet drivers who stand outside on blacktop in the sweltering summer heat and wait to assist whoever hands them their keys— each and every person is needed to maintain this weekly event.
A man who often talks in riddles approaches Joseph and then they stomp off to speak in private, leaving me all by my lonesome. I head for the coffee bar.
I know the amount of creamer and sugar I use is unhealthy. I subject myself to absurdities I know full well are bad for me, and I legitimize these poor choices by telling myself the following: everyone is jumping off the same proverbial bridge.
That's what we're all doing.
I stir my coffee.
I spot two or three men and women that I don't care for entering the sanctuary. They're my brothers and sisters, and I'm supposed to love them, at least in a general sense.
Familial terms like 'brother' or 'sister' are constantly employed in meetinghouse circles because that's the lingo used by the ancient adherents of the law.
I wonder if the ancients meant it when they called somebody, “brother” or “sister”.
I stir my coffee.
I don't enjoy feigning acts of love or kindness, especially towards those I'll never get along with.
I’m fully aware that I shouldn't have these thoughts.
I wonder if I’m the problem?
No, it can’t just be me who has these thoughts.
It’s impossible to love everyone as we ought.
I stop stirring my coffee and watch it swirl around in the foam cup.
I can’t live up to the law.
None of us can.
We’re all hypocrites.
Oh well, might as well fake it til’ we make it.
I walk away from the counter and am shoulder-bumped by an older guy walking past me with a clipboard tucked underneath his armpit. Hot coffee spills onto my hand.
I grit my teeth and fight through the pain.
That man is on a mission, headed towards the children's wing to ensure that indoctrination is underway. He doesn't even look back to see whom he hit or if they're okay.
Some people aren't easy to love.
I see Joseph shaking the riddler's oversized, calloused hand.
Coffee in one burnt-clenched fist and bulletin in the other, I stroll down a side-aisle, scanning the many rows of metal folding chairs for what is going to be my seat during the service. The room is filled with veil-faced strangers; their familiar eyes are latched onto the big-screen that's above the stage at the back of the room.
Some creatively designed video the media assistant on staff threw together is conveying the importance of mathematics and astronomy.
The media assistant is full of himself and, based on my own personal calculations, I'm nearly positive he knows I think he is.
I sit down to listen to the announcements from the staff. For all we know there could be some important event being hosted this week we might want to attend.
I stand up to sing a few songs.
My attention fades.
The lead teacher assumes his stance behind the lectern. Each week his message bears a slightly different tone and emphasis. Today he mentions the significance of this particular day: the eclipse.
My mind sauntered elsewhere, but was quickly drawn back once Joseph plunged himself into the empty seat next to me.
"They offered me a job.” he whispered.
I was stunned.
"They offered me a job. Said they see my giftedness and want to offer me a paid internship." he exclaimed.
Bitterness flashed into my limbs as quick as lightning, leaving me with a sickening numbness.
I've worked just as hard as Joseph. They picked him? Makes me wonder if they’ll offer me an internship?
"Well done, Joseph." I whispered back.
"My name's not Joseph anymore. It's George.” he said.
The man with the clipboard stealthily approached George and I from behind.
"Keep quiet and pay attention. Your chatter is disrespectful to not only to those around you, but to Thales himself." he said. George nodded his head agreeably in shame.
"Thales doesn't care." I spit back with a fierce quick-wittedness.
I can't see the man's angered expression behind his mask, but it's definitely felt. His disposition tells me he'd like to strike me with that clipboard. With eyes sharper than the knife in my pocket, he stared me down while writing a note in an aggressive frenzy. He directed all his attention to me.
"You're new name is Kurt."
I kick with vigor. The soft wheels on my skateboard glide across newly paved concrete. I’m on my way home. I didn’t feel like taking the train. Whenever I start to slow down, I kick again.
His name is Arthur.
I wonder if Arthur ever had a beginning. I'm almost positively certain he'll never die.
"Ray," Arthur's face lay veiled behind his black mask, his eyes blazing with mystery, "who is it exactly that you believe one day you'll become?"
His hair reminds me of that photo everyone's seen of Albert Einstein with his tongue sticking out.
I had never given much thought to Arthur's question.
"No clue, really." I said.
I was staring at a boy my age with his family. His sister was young enough to potentially have zero recollection of their meal. The father was as animate as they come: waving his hands while explaining a story from his youth, laughing between bites of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon, giving glances of endearment to his wife. This diner, in all its dingy splendor, was where old folks dragged young people when they were hungry. Arthur brought me here out of a conviction that this is where great food is birthed.
"What do you think, Ray? What do you spend a lot of your time doing?"
Arthur's smile was outrageous. It was as if he knew something I didn't. A waitress filled our ceramic mugs with coffee.
I kick again.
I quickly scrolled through a myriad of responses from a mental list I'd generated for when questions like this were asked.
"I enjoy drawing” I said. “And hanging out with people. I really do enjoy talking with them."
"Good! Good! So you'd say you're a people person?” he asked.
"I think I would.” I said.
"That's wonderful! So you'd say you're creative?" Arthur's voice really carries. An uneasiness was beginning to form at the tables and booths surrounding us. They thought Arthur was a little crazy. I'm a little crazy, too. A willingness to sit and chat with him at all made me weird by association.
"I love art. I spend hours everyday studying anatomy, trying to perfect the human form in my drawings."
"Do you want to go to art school?" he asked.
"I'm not sure." I said.
The waitress tending to the family of four placed their bill faced down on the table.
"Take the art classes I'm in, for example.” I said. “When I look at the stuff some of the people around me are producing, I just have a lot of doubt. I’m not sure I’m cut out for it”
"Ray, there'll always be people who are better than you at something. You're most definitely better than them at something."
I nodded my head in admittance that he was correct, though I didn't fully agree with him. I somehow knew somehow he was right. I took a sip of coffee and burned my tongue.
I kick again.
"Have you ever thought of yourself as a leader, Ray?"
"No, never." Through the window to my left, I watch another family make their way into the diner.
"Never?" Arthur pulled his mask down to drink his hot beverage. I'd never seen his face before. He actually did kind of look like Einstein.
"Not really.” I said. “Guess it's never crossed my mind."
He stared me down while I uncomfortably looked out the window at the cars lined up in the parking lot.
"You think I'm staring at you," he mused, "but I'm not. I'm looking at who you're becoming."
"When I see you, I see a leader! I see a teacher and a messenger of Thales." he confessed.
"Arthur, I'm not entirely sure I even believe Thales existed. I've never even read his philosophies."
I could hear the incredulity in my response as I fidgeted with the spoon I'd used to stir creamer into my drink.
"You're young. In time you'll grow up into his teachings." Arthur leaned forward. "All is Mem, my boy! As it says in the law, ‘Oh that one day I might fully trust in your precepts!’ You'll be a great leader someday, and many will follow you."
I wanted to trust what he was saying. He believed in me, and his words were tempting. The doubt within painfully slashed away at my conscience.
"I don't know, Arthur. I'm just not sure. Let's say Mem is sacred, and maybe Thales's teachings make a ton of sense, but even if I wanted to learn more about this stuff, I wouldn't know where to start."
"Start by trusting me." Arthur set a black mask on the table.
I kick again and again.
He pushed the mask my direction.
"Put it on.” he said. “That's a good place to start."
"Why do you wear them?” I asked while examining it.
“In the law, it says, ‘We veil our shame. Though man and Mem are one, we taint It because of our dark hearts. We veil our unworthiness in Its presence’."
"I'm not sure I understand, Arthur."
"Life's sure full of mysteries, isn't it?” he confessed.
"You might as well jump in and see what all the mystery's about."
"You've followed these philosophies for years. Does Mem make more sense the longer you believe?” I asked earnestly.
"Parts of it, yes. Other parts, not so much."
My head was spinning with fear and confidence. It took everything to ensure my hands wouldn't shake as I hesitantly fastened the balaclava to my head.
Every eye in the restaurant had secretly been watching our exchange. All hope for me could be heard leaving lungs in the form of disappointed sighs. Arthur's lungs filled in ecstasy.
He threw two twenty dollar bills on the table and motioned for me to follow him outside and across the parking-lot to this car. He popped open his trunk and nearly climbed inside it to grab whatever was that was just out of reach.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
He turned around and handed me a skateboard.
"This, my boy, is a totem. According to the law, everyone is given a gift upon entering Thales's community. It is written, ‘you shall grow in your giftedness and serve Mem forevermore’."
He closed his trunk.
"I don't get it." I said.
All I could do was shake my head in confusion. My mind was attempting to cope with my choices.
"You've been given something that symbolizes what you're destined to become: a messenger."
"A messenger?” I asked.
"Messengers herald the Words of Thales." Arthur's skeletal hand was now on my shoulder, "Messengers criticize and energize the people of Thales; they rouse the people to hate wrongdoing, teaching them to love Mem and others."
Reaching inside his green jacket pocket, he pulled out his car keys and unlocked the driver's side door. I followed behind him in amazement; I'd become a believer. He climbed in, shut the door, and rolled down the windows.
"But now what?" I asked him.
"My boy, hope in Mem!” he said. “Trust that all things will become clear to you in time. I trust you'll become great one day, and that many people will believe in Mem because of you. I trust this because I see it in you."
He put the keys in the ignition and turned the vehicle on.
"As Mem is fluid, all of life is fluid. As followers, we too wish to bear the image of Mem through continual change and motion. A name grounds a person’s identity; its like wet concrete: it hardens over time. We mustn't find our identity in a name, or in anything outside of Mem for that matter."
I kick for the final time, arriving at my apartment.
“It is written, ‘As in water, face reflects face, so too must your name change." he said.
"What?" I asked.
"Welcome to the people of Thales, John."
That was the last time I ever saw Arthur.
I toss my skateboard in the corner of my room.
Maybe I'll be asked to join the staff another day, I think to myself.
I'm twenty-six years old and haunted by the very real possibility that I'm failing to live the life I was supposed to live, that I am living a life that is not my own, that somebody else chose this life for me, that I'm walking out a self-fulfilling prophecy, that I'm a weirdo and everybody knows it, that George is my best friend and is way weirder than I am, that I worked just as hard as George and am equally deserving of a job, that George fits the mold the staff is looking for and I don't, that I tend to question the status quo and that's why I'll never be offered a job, that my bitter jealousy is conflicted with the reality of me not wanting to actually work on staff.
I guess I just wanted to be asked is all.
The nicotine-coated walls of my apartment possess a yellow glow. This is partially due to George's chronic need to smoke a cigarette every waking hour on the hour, as well as my lack of initiative to clean the walls with a sponge and disinfectant.
My fridge is currently housing two beers, a bottle of ketchup, an old Irish stew George made about a month ago that he keeps forgetting to throw out, and baking soda.
I hate grocery shopping, especially since I don't own a car. Lugging several pounds worth of food across multiple city blocks and onto a bus is exhausting, so I tend to put off the task for as long as I'm able.
Three knocks at the front door take my attention.
I look through the peephole and see a skinny female with platinum-blonde hair. Unlocking the deadbolt, I swing the door open gracefully.
"You colored your hair?" I asked.
The expression on her pale face told me she couldn't care less if I noticed her deliberate fashion choices or not. She crossed her tattooed arms over her black shirt which bore the logo of a notable punk band in the city.
"You know what I’m here for." she said.
V is our landlord.
“I know.” I replied
“I’m at the point where I just want to throw your stuff out onto the curb," she said, half-heartedly.
I tossed myself onto George’s brown, battered-leather couch and let V close the door behind her as she entered, seating herself across from me on an equally battered-polyester-blend recliner.
"Thanks for not throwing my stuff out onto the curb.” I said.
“Thank me when you get your priorities straight and pay your bills.” she replied. “What's Thales think of you not paying your bills on time?”
"I'll be sure to ask him when I see him.” I replied, tongue in cheek.
"Ask him now. Isn't that how it works?” V clasped her hands together mockingly.
“Nope.” I responded simply.
My heart was beginning to race. Her gaze has a tempered malevolence to it.
“Won't your god forgive me? He's a forgiving god, isn't he?"
"Thales isn't a god. We don't worship him.” I corrected.
“Oh?" she voiced amusingly.
"He was a pre-Socratic philosopher whose teachings we revere."
"You mean worship, Ray.” She snapped back.
"My name's Kurt.” I said with a smile.
"Your name is Ray," she leaned towards me in the recliner, "That cult and people like that roommate of yours have messed with your head."
I sat upright on the couch, ”I've changed for the better, and you know it."
"I think you're worse off.” she confessed. "At first, I enjoyed that you'd found something to help you cope with your family’s problems. But over the years, the more involved you got, the more concerned I became."
"You wouldn't be concerned if you just came with me on a Sunday to see what it's all about.” I said.
"Not interested.” she said.
"V, you know what I believe. You know I'll extend an invitation to you for as long as I know you."
"Yup. All that repentance garbage.”
"Why can't you just trust me?” I asked.
"I'll trust you when you pay your bills."
A grin grew uncontrollably on her face. She stood up from her chair, quickly bridged the gap between us in her black boots, and shoved her index finger into my chest.
"Can't you hear yourself?” she said. “You sound brainwashed.”
I stood on my feet as she moved to the front door, casting it open.
“You’re the one who needs to be saved." she said as she made her way down the apartment hallway.
“Virginia!" I called out.
She turned to me.
“I'll have the rent check to you on Friday."
Those icy blue eyes teemed with sadness.
"I miss who you used to be before all this shit”
And with that she was gone.
I withdrew into my apartment and shut the door. Entering the bathroom, I climbed into the bathtub and laid down. I was staring out the small window. My mind emptied itself into a void, a mindless trance, a conversation with Mem as I watch the beginning of the solar eclipse.
What's wrong with me?
Am I broken?
I'm not normal.
Joseph, or George, or whatever the fuck his name will be next week: he's broken.
He's blind and can't see his weirdness.
I'm not blind.
I see my weirdness.
I need to change.
Can't compromise my beliefs.
There's got to be a way to be normal and not compromise.
I need to love people as they are, not where I think they should be.
Even if it means they never believe.
I need to break down what I've been taught, somehow, someway.
I’m going crazy.
Love is nuanced.
Get that through your skull, Ray.
Love is sacrificial. And time-consuming.
Love isn't vague or general.
It daily walks with people. Through all the specifics. Through all of life. To the grave.
I want to go back.
Please, Mem, let me go back.
I regret how I treated Virginia.
All these years, I didn't love her well.
A blinding light struck me. My body folded in on itself. I was floating and suffocating. My screams were muffled. Then noises filled me, noises only I would know. A deep and pervading sentimental feeling coated my bones. I heard a humming and then a ringing.
My head was on a pillow in a bedroom I once knew. It was my bedroom. I looked at the clock on the nightstand beside me. It read: 7:35AM. I reached for the flip-phone next to the clock and the calendar revealed that it was June 14th, 2006. It was the same day I was to go to breakfast with Arthur.
I was in the past. Mem had given me a second chance! This time I would work harder, possess more confidence and more love.
I attended the meeting with Arthur and joined the community of Thales. I maintained my friendship with Virginia. I succeeded George in everything I did. Years passed and I grew to an old age. Virginia and I married, and we had three children. Everything was beautiful. This was a better life than the one I had had before.
V and I are sitting outside on a warm day at a cafe in Chicago. Our kids have grown up and have gone on to bear children of their own. We sat there, smiling at one another.
“Ray.” she said, grabbing my hand. “Can you hear me?”
Virginia’s face became young again. My hand was no longer wrinkled by time. I looked down at my forearm and there appeared in it an IV. A soft, subtle beeping echoed in my ears. The smell of bleach, mixed with the cool temperature of the room, filled me with nausea. My mask is nowhere to be seen. I was in a hospital.
A male nurse walked in and stood beside Virginia. He looked familiar.
“Good morning there, Ray. My name is Eric.” he said. “You had a seizure. If it hadn’t been for your friend Virginia here, you might not have made it. Is there anything I can do for you?”
I shook my head no. The nurse left us. I know who he is: he’s the man Joseph had been eying while we were waiting for the train. I fixed my attention on Virginia.
“I’m sorry, V.” I said.
“For what?” she asked.
“For all the times I spit my religious opinions in your face, or wasn’t a good friend.”
My throat was dry and my voice was raspy.
“I wish I could take back everything.” I said. “I was such a fool.”
My heart felt relief as Virginia held my hand firmly.
“I’m so riddled with regret. Please, forgive me.”
“I forgive you.” she responded with a smile. “Look, there’s nothing you could’ve done differently. The way I see it, things were always meant to turn out like this.” she sighed. “Your life and my life—it is what it is.”
“Yeah.” I agreed reluctantly. “It is what it is.”
Had she seen what I’d seen and felt what I felt in the world I was ripped from, she wouldn’t want to return to this life. I’m convinced of it. I had imagined a far better reality, one where the outcome of every endeavor I involved myself in was positive. Sullenness soon took root in the pit of my stomach. The existence I had dreamt up was perfect— it simply wasn’t real. Life, real life, knows complication.
V let go of my hand.
“I’m glad to know you’re okay.” she said with a smile. “And I’m sorry for mocking your beliefs. It was out of line.”
The male nurse had entered the room again, this time with a cup of cold water in his hand. He set it on the tray next to my bed. I turned my face away in shame.
My mask! I’m in the presence of Mem without my mask!
“Is he in pain?” Eric asked Virginia.
“No.” she grabbed the cup of water and attempted to hand it back to Eric.
“Leave it.” I demanded, nostrils flared and tears welling up in my eyes. “Leave the water by my bedside. I’m tired of the rat-race that is religion.”
©Alchemy & Elegy 2020