The Penitent

St. Anthony, the abbot and St. Paul, the hermit

Diego Valesquez…1635…Museo del Prado

“What matters in life, is not great deeds, but great love.”

-St. Therese

A taxi disappears on the street…much like fire hydrants or streetlights…unnoticed until they are needed. Events swirl beyond the windshield, and like fallen leaves, occasionally drift inside.

When I lived, for a fitful time in Paris, with a view of gothic rooftops, I tried to teach myself French by reading translated classics. An introspective little conceit that never helped me converse. I became adept at picking out words which were sprinkled through a conversation, but the strange sounds of speech left me in total confusion.

One of the stories I read was Saint Julien L’Hospitalier, by Flaubert. This was a strange tale of a French lord who had a penchant for hunting. A blood lust that was made all the more simple for him by the fact that his servants were dispatched to herd any available animals into a blind, where the “brave” Julien would carbonate his hormones by murdering the hapless beasts as they stood trapped on three sides.

One fine day, the animals had been gathered and Julien began his slaughter of several and sundry beasts, leaving for last, an entire family of deer. He killed the doe, and the fawns and had shot the stag only to find that the large animal would not fall. This being a French forest, it may come as no surprise that the stag began to speak.

“Julien, you bloodthirsty bastard”, he said, “because of your cruelty, I put a curse on you. Before this day is through you will murder your own parents”.

The stag finally expired and Julien, although surprised at the stag’s words, made little of it since he loved his Mere and Pere, and had no anger toward and certainly no intention of harming them.

While he was having his orgy of “sangfroid”, his wife, being a good and excellent woman, was extending the full hospitality of their castle to the very same parents who had come to visit their son unannounced. After a sumptuous feast she sent them to the most comfortable bed, the one which she shared with her husband.

When Julien returned late that evening, he bounded up the stairs, eager to tell his wife of the strange occurrence in the forest. Upon opening their bedroom door, he saw, what he believed was his wife, in bed with another man. This enraged him so thoroughly that he promptly peppered them both with arrows.

When he had discovered the incredibly bone-headed mistake he had made, he was so stricken with grief and shame that he renounced all of his worldly possessions and set out to roam aimlessly through the countryside.

After several punishment pages, our “hero”, contrite and penitent, finally landed a job as a ferryman, rowing folks across a wide river. This enabled him to live humbly, and far away from the life he had known.

One night, dark and gloomy, he heard someone call for passage from across the river. As he rowed his small boat across, it began to rain and the wind to blow, but he could just make out the figure of a man waiting on the other side. By the time he had reached the other shore, Julien could see that the man was dressed in rags, and had pustulent, leprous sores all over his body and face.

The leper was welcomed into the boat and as they began the journey back across, the poor man began to complain about getting wet from the rain, so Julien took off his hat and gave it to him. Then he began shivering, and Julien gave his coat.

The rain and wind only increased.

When they arrived at the shore, Julien invited the leper into his small hut, where he built a fire to keep them both warm. But he continued to shiver uncontrollably, so Julien washed his wounds and put him into his own bed, wrapped in the only blankets he had. But the leper, riddled with sickness, moaned that he was still cold, so Julien climbed into the bed, embracing him and sharing his body heat.

At this point, the leper, oozing and malodorous, promptly transformed into Jesus …and amidst a great fanfare of trumpets and glorious ululation, angels came to carry them through the ceiling to heaven in redemptive ascension.

Six months later, I was headed down hill in my cab… wondering at the strange waywardness that had me trapped in this job. A purgatory, I thought, to atone for many sins. It had been a slow day, and I made no money.

There was a call nearby on Ninth Avenue, and as I drove down the hill, I could see the wheelchair.

It is a truism, that many drivers refuse to pick up the old, the crippled, or the obviously short fare. I understand their desperation and their turning away. But I took each and every one of those calls as some sort of penance. I’d go to the grocery stores to take people three blocks to their home; I’d accompany the old folks with their walkers until they got to the door. Like Julien, I owed it to humanity, and the money I lost was a measure of grace gained…or so I told myself again and again.

Rolling closer to the address, I noticed the occupant of the wheelchair was black, and alone. I pulled into the driveway adjacent to him, and put the cab in park. When I got out, I could smell him. An acrid stench of urine, cigarette smoke and neglected flesh. Walking up to him, I could see he was horribly disfigured. The right side of his face looked like it had been melted; one eye bulging grotesquely from its’ socket. His head was in a permanent slump toward his chest and his clothes were speckled with ash and cigarette butts as if he were a human ashtray. In his crusted lips, was a half-smoked lit cigarette which contributed more ash with his every attempt to speak. He was completely paralyzed except for his left arm which he used to wave at me.

“Are you alone?” I asked without saying hello.

“Y’ur here!”, he said.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll tell you when I get in” he replied, which I took to mean not very far. He spoke as if he had a mouthful of bread.

I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to whoever had left him in front of the building. He was obviously incapable of even moving the wheelchair himself. I was thinking now that he was a veteran, maimed by some explosion or napalm.

As I wheeled him toward the cab, he told me he wanted to sit in front. This was a common request from the disabled, since the front seat offered more room and maneuverability.

“I’ll just get the door open and help you in…”, I offered.

“NO! I’ll get in myself, git me near the door.”

This guy weighs about two hundred and fifty pounds, and is paralyzed except for one arm and I’m wondering how the hell is he going to get in by himself?

I opened the passenger side door and slid the wheelchair into the opening.

“Just let me move you around….”

But before I could finish the sentence, he had grabbed the top of the door with his good left hand and hoisted himself up in a jerking lurch, apparently intending to propel himself into the cab with some sort of impossible gymnastic display. As my mouth hung open with my last syllable, I watched in slow motion, as he attempted to turn and twist and throw his enormous bulk onto the front seat, succeeding only in bouncing forcibly against the center post between the doors, and sliding roughly and necessarily down against the bottom of the opening before landing in a rude heap on the sidewalk.

I looked down at him in utter amazement, as he sat there in a soft cloud of disturbed cigarette ash…a helpless mass of melted man.

My gaze wandered up the street…no one there.

I looked more slowly down the street……no one there either.

No one in the windows, or even driving by…we were alone.

Without thinking, I knelt behind him, planted my feet, and slipped my arms under his in a bear hug. Using all my strength I lifted his inert blubbery frame, cheek to cheek, feeling the stiff fabric of his ashtray coat and breathing deeply of the unholy smell that pervaded the air around him.

I closed my eyes as he and I rose once again, and in that three second eternity, I listened for the trumpets,….waiting for the angels, the seraphim,… to lift us in great fanfare to heaven…

I succeeded in getting him to the edge of the seat. By levering his now compliant form, and rocking him from side to side as I had seen my stroke afflicted grandfather do, I arranged him on the seat. By the time I got him safely strapped in, I was sweating in rivulets down my face and back. I loaded his wheelchair into the trunk and wiped his cigarette dust from my face; got into the driver’s seat and began to back out of the driveway, wanting to complete this trip as quickly as possible.

When the cab tilted to the left coming off the sidewalk, his body shifted, and he slumped against me, his head on my shoulder, …as if we were lovers.

Straightening out the cab, he remained where he was, his only good arm wedged underneath his two hundred and fifty pound dead weight.

As subtly as I could I fingered the switches on the armrest beside me to open all of the windows. The cigarette was, amazingly, still clenched between his lips, and dropping ash down my shirtsleeve. The smoke that drifted into my face was almost welcome, since it somewhat masked the other less wholesome odors. But to my dismay I could smell the flesh of his lips burning. He didn’t seem to notice.

I pulled the butt from his lips and threw it out of the window.

“Thanks.” He said.

I said nothing. I watched the road, and taking shallow breaths, felt his weight against me.

“Do you wanna know how I got like this?” he asked through lips, swollen with burn holes from previous immolations.

His speech was slurred and garbled but given his proximity to my shoulder, hearing him was effortless, despite the rushing wind through the windows.

I think that, even he, was grateful for the fresh air.

“Hell, yeah”, I replied, grateful for any distraction from the immediate present.

Slowly, he formed the words with his sluggish facial muscles. He told me how handsome he had been; how the ladies loved him. It seems that he had been dating several women while he was married.

“I had the bitches comin’ and goin’. Nobody could touch me there.”

His wife, though, apparently had her fill.

“One night, she asked me: ‘Are you cheatin’ on me?’

No! …You fuckin’ crazy? I ain’t cheatin’ on nobody, bitch,…. and b’sides it ain’t none of your mother-fuckin’ business.

‘Ain’t none of my business? I’m your wife, you little piece of shit.’

Fuck you.

‘Fuck me???….Fuck me?!?’

With that she took out a gun, and shot him in the head.

“Now’ I’m layin’ there, bleedin’ and I can hear her sayin”:

‘You mother fucker, you still breathin’? Why ain’t you dead yet?’

And then she poured lighter fluid on me, and lit me up.

That’s all I remember.”

By this time we had arrived at his destination, a free clinic across town.

I got him out of the cab with slightly less trouble (he was much more accommodating this time). Another bear hug, another lungful of resilient humanity, and I began pushing his wheelchair down the long sidewalk to the entrance.

“You can leave me with the guard,” he said.

As I pushed, I looked down at his grey/black neck, and wondered what it must be like to live in that skin. At that moment a large roach, about an inch and a half long, crawled out of his shirt, over his collar to his shoulder, onto my hand on the grip and jumped off, ………like a rat deserting a sinking ship.

Leaving him with the guard, I refused the money for the fare, and drove back to the garage to clean the cab and turn it in.

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~ by theoxherd on September 12, 2012.

One Response to “The Penitent”

  1. thanks also for the re-introduction to Valesquez.

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