Friday, April 17, 2009

The Head of the Pin

“I’ve bin sittin’ here watchin’ ya
and if y’ll stand me a beer
I’d be for asking ya a question
and, may be tellin’ ya something too!”

This is a familiar face, one I’ve seen
back when I hefted aluminum barrels
into the holes where tired and dirty
factory shift workers poured their wages.

I have smelled this same pungent mixture
of souring whisky, smoke
and men’s sweat brewing
in these social cauldrons
that change lives through
some strange alchemy of spirits.

It is here the golden hope for prosperity,
through a strange reverse metamorphosis
is transformed into the dross
of poverty and anger.

Tossing the correct coins onto the bar
I catch the keeper’s eye
and nod at the old man’s empty glass.

His rheumy eyes are dark,
the whites glazed grey,
the border between iris and pupil
barely perceptible.

He lifts the vessel of amber liquid
to his lips carefully, is if to caress,
not so much tio savor the bouquet or taste
but more from the hard knowledge
that the next glass
will be hard to find in empty pockets.

Wiping foam from his lip
he leans on the bar, facing me,
his head slightly cocked.

His gaze into my eyes is not entirely direct,
too sidelong fro complete honesty or trust.
He asks, “ ya Cath’lic or Protest’nt?”

“Neither.” I say.

“A heathen then!” he nearly shouts.
“Unless y’ve adopt’d the fashion’ble
taste for saffron robes ‘n past lives
‘n such, ‘n a heathen then, I’m sure!”

A little taken aback by his words,
delivered aggressively, a touch of beer spittle
flinging through the air, I lean back.

“No. No heathen.” I say.
“I’m a believer. I believe in God.
The same God, I think.
I simply have little time
for sects and denominations,
the way they confine, dim
and blur the Light of God.
My faith tells me God is One
with everything
and God loves the many,
that there are countless paths
up the mountain.”

“Then y’r a heathen,”
he pronounces simply, smugly sure.
“Wit’out the church
y’ kin have no abs’lution.”

I sip my own drink, feeling its burn
aglow in my chest, warming to the debate.
“No. I am no heathen,” I respond again,
a little more forceful, finding the itch
of irritation at the accusation.

Tavern philosophers do not listen.
They prod you to answer
and capture the first questionable
dependant clause,
hoisting it like a flag
demanding some kind of salute.

This one was no different.
Ruddy complexion, dying eyes
sunken into creased flesh.
He had stopped listening early.
“If’n ya b'long to no church,
then what do ya believe?” he asked.

I have talked to his old man before..
As a young man, driving truck,
delivering beer to the multitude of taverns
lining the pathways winding through
the various ethnic neighborhoods
surrounding the mills of Pittsburgh.

“I believe God needs no statement of faith,
no special incense, robe or collar,
no specific ritual performed and spoken
in a certain way.”
This I say to the mirror over the bar,
peering into the brown eyes staring back,
seeking that glint of certainty born of faith.
“God will judge me, if He indeed judges,
on what I am and what I do,”
I say directly to the old man.
“I can profess to anything.
But what I do is what God sees.
He is no fool.
Does this make me a heathen?”

“Stand me another ‘n I will answer,”
the empty husk of a person beside me
orders hopefully.

More coins rattle onto the varnished wood.
He accepts the fresh glass and drinks.
“What has bin done t’ me ‘n my kin
by the English landlord,
the divisions beaten upon my father
‘n my father’s father’s father
by the theivin’ damn’d protest’nt English,
this gives me joy t’ bow t’ the priest
whose vow of poverty is known.
Y’ must believe and y’ must pray
and y’ must bow down ‘n beg fer yer forgiveness
or y’ be a heathen ‘n y’ be fer HELL!”

The word ‘hell’ echoes,
the dark smoke-filled room suddenly silent.
He throws the rest of the amber brew
down his throat, slams the glass onto the bar,
stands, turns and lurches for the door
as the stool he was perched upon
staggers and falls noisily to the floor.
Pass out and into the night,
a slammed door claps finality into his departure
and argument.

I turn back to the mirror,
sipping again from my beer.
Another withered old man
crosses the room, righting the stool
and assuming a seat next to me.

“Ol’ Finney, the poor ol’ mick,” he declares.
“Ain’t got much of’n unnerstandin’.
I guess it’s th’ Rom’n Cath’lic.
Him’n th’ damned Dagoes.
They all think their incense don’t stink!”
Hey pal, buy me a beer
n’ I’ll tell y’ the truth,
how it ain’t the damn’d priest
but yer tribe ‘ats import’nt.”

“Barkeep!” I call,
pushing paper toward the well,
nodding at the short, stout, dark
and somewhat swarthy new philosopher
at my side.
Mediterranean? Balkan? I wonder,
asking, “tribes?”

1 comment:

  1. Bill,

    Really great! Felt the moment, smelled the smells, wanted to join in the conversation.