11th and J

At Amy’s request, here is another godstory.  This one grows out of my fondness (and God’s) for the hard-boiled detective genre.

11th and J

God feels lonely, that pointless, empty, feeds-on-itself kind of lonely that knows no relief.  He’s also deliriously happy, but that’s another story.  He’s stretched out in the void like it’s an empty hotel, and he’s the only one there, and all the stars are streetlights, and time is just a slow walk down a dark street going nowhere.

He has good reason to be lonely.  Nobody really understands him.  How can they?  Not the Froobahs, not the Gullimulligans, not the Clydions.  Not even the angels–especially the angels, now that he thinks about it–praising him constantly eon after eon, as relentless as a dripping faucet, so full of adoration you’d think they’d all pop like ticks.  They’ve all watched It’s a Wonderful Life a few too many times—who hasn’t?—and haven’t watched Barbarella enough.

There are a few thousand of them now perched over his shoulder like a cobweb, singing their angel hearts out, as usual:

God is Mighty!
God is Mighty!
God is Mighty Good!
He’s not flighty
Day or night-y
He is Mighty Good!
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hal-le-lu-, Hal-le-lu-, Ha-. . .

God shakes his head sadly, and the angels stop singing like turning off a radio.

“Maybe you would like to hear a different hymn of praise, Most Holy One?� Gabriel suggests.

God shakes his head.  “No thanks.�

“Thanksgiving?�

No.

“Rejoicing?�

God misses Lucifer.  “You guys know any rhythm and blues?�

The angels shake their heads, fluttering their wings like a bunch of pigeons.

“Bluegrass?�

They scratch their heads, their own and each other’s.

Grunge and hip-hop are clearly out of the question.  “Know any jokes?� God jokes, barely raising a smile.

“You know them all already, All-Knowing One,� Gabriel laments.

“Yeah, I guess I do.â€�  All the punch lines mumble in his mind like voices in a crowded, smoky bar.  The laughter sounds cracked and brittle echoing off the tiles and mirrors where no one notices God looking back at them.  Do they think jokes make them laugh?  No.  It’s a gift of God.  It’s all up to him.  The whole kit and kaboodle.  The good, the bad, and the funny.  Ha, ha.  Ho, ho.  Or, as the Clydions say, krik-slog-a-ding-ding.

God glances over his shoulder at the angels, all staring at him as if he’s all there is to look at in the whole entire universe.  Get a life, he wants to say to them, but that would be his department, wouldn’t it?  “Do you guys ever get lonely?â€� he asks.

They look at each other, packed together so close they can all fit on the head of a pin.  “Lonely?� they say in unison.

“Never mind,� God says.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’m going down to Earth for a while.  Put in an appearance.�

The angels watch with rapt adoration as God puts on his trenchcoat, cinching it tight around his ample waist.  After some hesitation, he stuffs the beard inside the trenchcoat.  He puts on a mouse-brown fedora whose drooping brim is the very shape of loneliness.

“Should we learn some Rhythm and Blues, Lord, while you’re away?  Some Rock and Roll?�

With a shudder, God remembers those awful Pat Boone covers of Little Richard and shakes his head sadly.  Free will at work again.  He tried to talk Pat out of it, but he wouldn’t listen.  Him a believer, too.  “Just keep rejoicing, till I get back,â€� he tells the angels.  “And no movies or tv.â€�

*******

God hits the mean streets where the pavement is slick with the tears from a thousand dreams, as well as McDonald’s wrappers, straws, chicken bones, cat shit, dog shit, piss of all persuasions, cigarette butts, condoms, syringes, and gum under God’s shoe.  By the grace of God, a street cleaning machine chugs through, sucking it all up, belching on the dreams.  Except the gum.  God sends the gum back to the mouth of the guy who spit it out this afternoon.  What goes around comes around.  The Divine Plan.

God turns up his collar against the wind and lights a cigarette.  He’s tried to quit millions of times, but he just can’t.  Besides, it’s not like they’re going to kill him.  Just everyone else.  It’s nice to know the guys who make the damn things are going to get theirs.  He takes a look around.  It’s a corner like any other corner, only this one’s called 11th and J.  Nobody much is out because it’s 3 o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday.

God’s thinking about changing time zones, lose the trench coat for a Ninja outfit, when he sees somebody in the alley and goes to have a look.  It’s Winston.  He was sleeping fitfully inside a mattress box when he heard the clap of thunder God’s arrival occasioned, like somebody dropped a dumpster from the 13th floor.  He cautiously sticks his head out and finds himself looking into the eyes of God.

“Nice box,� God says.

“You’ve come for me?â€�  Winston asks shakily.  He’s already got his hands clasped in front of him—the beseeching reflex.  Beseeching gets on God’s nerves big time.

“Come for you?  Oh I get it.  No, I don’t usually do that.  There’s friends, relations, clergy—those guys especially don’t want me there gumming up the works.  Lots of embarrassing questions about how this whole immortal soul thing works.  I’m as out of place as a fish in a cassock.  So no, I haven’t come for you.  You’re not even dead yet.  Come out of there so I can have a look at you.�

Winston wastes no time exiting his box and standing front and center before the Lord.  He doesn’t dare look at Him.  He stares penitently at his feet.  “I have lived in a prison of sin.  I have long hungered after you,â€� he says.  Winston has had the opportunity to hear a lot of sermons in recent years, and eat a lot of soup.

“Hungered?� God says.  “Get a donut.�

Winston doesn’t know what to say.

“Tell me, Winston, are you lonely in this sin prison of yours?�

Winston shakes his head.  “Sadly, no.  The world is full of sinners.�

“That’s what I figured,� says God.  “Then what’re you doing sleeping in this alley?  If you’ve got so much in common with everybody, you must have some friends.�

“I lost my job,� he says.

“Jeff’s got a good job these days,� God tells him.  “He’ll let you spend the night—after a hot shower of course.  Might even have some clothes that fit you.  You’ve helped him out a time or two.  Am I right?�

“It’s three o’clock in the morning.�

“He just got home from work.  He’s making bacon and eggs right now.�

Winston’s hunger for God gives way to a hunger for bacon and eggs.  “I couldn’t do that,� he says.

“He’s your friend, isn’t he?�

“My best friend.�

God knows this is an exaggeration, at least on Jeff’s end, but Winston is entitled to his opinion.  “Well?� God gestures toward 12th where Jeff lives, some three blocks away.  “Tell him I sent you.  Shoo!�

Winston hurries off to Jeff’s place, though he doesn’t mention anything to Jeff about talking to God in the alley.  Which is just as well.  Jeff puts up with Winston’s whining for about three days before tossing him out—two more days than God would’ve given him.  God understands that Winston is going to live in the alley for a while, that he’ll sort things out eventually, but today he can definitely use some bacon and eggs and a shower.  Unfortunately, his splendid box will have been ripped off when he returns.  His big breakthrough will come in a couple of years when he tells a shelter shrink about the night he met God face to face in a dark alley, and he finally gets some decent help.

God himself has a hunger for a steaming mug of black coffee and a big wedge of pie.  He steps back onto the street.  He lights another cigarette.  There’s nothing but a parked car with an old Tom sleeping on the hood, the streetlamp buzzing like a fat mosquito.  Earth’s always lonely this time of night, and it’s always this time of night somewhere on Earth, thinks God, feeling lonelier than ever.  This thing could turn into a black hole if he’s not careful, a regular Slough of Despond.  Maybe coming down to Earth wasn’t such a good idea.

He’s pondering an appearance elsewhere, when a slender young man named Whistler steps out of the shadows and pokes a gun in his stomach.  “Hey Fat One,â€� he says, “You looking for me?â€�

“If you say so, Whistler.  You’re the one with the gun.�

“How’d you know my name if you ain’t looking for me, Porky?  Answer me that one.â€�

“That’s easy,� God replies.  “I’m God.  I know everything.�

Whistler laughs like he hasn’t laughed in years.  He can’t remember the last time.  God can, of course.  This time will work out better.  Last time, Whistler’s stepfather took offense and knocked out Whistler’s left front tooth with a skillet—which is, incidentally, how he came by the nickname Whistler.

He’s not sure why he finds what the fat man says so funny.  His girlfriend Joy says comedy’s all in the delivery.  “No, funny man,â€� Whistler says, still laughing a little, making little chirping noises through his missing tooth.  “I’m the only God on this street.â€�

“Then we have something in common,” God says.

This is plenty funny too, but Whistler’s getting a little self-conscious about the chirp and chokes back his laughter.  He pokes God with the gun barrel.  “So you got any money, or are you just funny?â€�

God smiles.  “I never carry any.  It’s the root of all evil, you know.â€�

“I hear that.  What is it you do?  You a comedian?�

“When I’m funny,� God says.

“You sure you’re not a cop?�

“Everybody’s always making that mistake.  I’m more like a private eye.�

“Who you working for?�

“Myself.�

“You don’t pay too good, do you?�

“The way I treat myself, it’s a wonder I don’t quit.�

Whistler laughs again.  He can’t help himself.  It’s the will of God.  “You’re a funny man.  Give me a cigarette.â€�

God shakes a cigarette from his pack and lights it for Whistler.  “It gets lonely being God, doesn’t it?� God asks as Whistler is bent over the match, looking into the flame.  He feels a real Twilight Zone chill go up his spine, and he jumps back from the flame.

Who the hell is this guy showing up on his street out of nowhere, cracking jokes, making wise, like he’s not afraid of anything?  “So what you doing here, Chubby?  Butcher send you over here to mess with me?  He don’t know who he’s messing with.”

“He’s messing with God,” God says.  “But no, Baxter Sinclair didn’t send me.  I’m on my own.”

“No man, Butcher Sinclair.�  Whistler chuckles and chirps.  “Baxter!�

“But that’s his name,� God says.  “I remember his christening.  Church of the Holy Cross, 6th and Manchester.  Great food.  Butcher’s a nickname.�

“You shitting me?”

“I shit you not: word of God.”

“That’s too sweet.  BAXTER!  ‘Hey BAXTER, how ya doin’, BAXTER?’â€�  Whistler chuckles with glee.  “You have made my day, old man.â€�

“So you won’t mind answering my question.  Does it get lonely being God?”

“Yeah,â€� Whistler says.  “I guess you could say that.  My mother threw me out of the house last Thanksgiving, told me never come back.  My girlfriend left me.  Only people who talk to me are cops or they’re wanting something.  Everybody always be sneaking around behind my back.â€�

God nods sympathetically.  “I know just how you feel.  Nobody ever says, Hey Whistler, let’s go have a beer.�

“That’s right,â€� Whistler says.  “You got it, old man.”

“I’ve been around,” God says.  “So what do you say, Whistler?  You want to go have a beer?â€�

“Everyplace’s closed,â€� Whistler says cautiously, eyeing God, sizing him up.  That’s the loneliest damn hat he’s ever seen in his life.  Maybe the guy’s for real.  A nice old guy just trying to be okay.  Or maybe this is some kind of setup.  But a cold beer and some conversation sound pretty good, even if he’s buying.  “Course, we could go up to my place,â€� Whistler says, putting his gun away.

“That’d be fine,� God says.  “Better, actually.  I don’t like crowds.�

Whistler leads him a block and a half away to his place.  “The elevator’s busted,” Whistler says, heading for the stairs.

“Let’s take it anyway,” God says.  The thing bongs open.  The lights inside all work.  They step inside.  They ascend.  Whistler wonders if the place sold or something.  The elevator hasn’t worked since he’s been here.  It’s too damn much trouble to complain.  His landlady’s this 900-year-old lady who’s got so many locks, takes her ten minutes to open the door, and when she does, she can’t hear a damn thing you’re saying.

His is the only apartment on the top floor.  The rest is storage.  “I like my privacy,” he tells God.

“I know what you mean,” God says.

Whistler has to move three personal sound systems and a portable DVD player off the sofa to make room for God to sit down.  Speakers, radios, boom boxes, cd players are stacked everywhere.

“I see you’re a music lover,� God says.

Whistler laughs, opening up the beers.  “‘Music lover’—you are too, too much.�

“Do you have any folk music?�

Whistler shakes his head.  “None of this stuff’s hooked up, man.  I haven’t got time to be listening to music.�

“I guess that’s part of being God,â€�  God suggests, as they settle back to drink their beers.  “Just don’t make the mistake of angels singing hymns of praise.  Trust me.  Gets old in a hurry.”

Whistler nods like he’s got the faintest idea what the old guy’s talking about.  Doesn’t matter.  He feels better than he ever remembers feeling.  Contented like.  He takes a deep swallow and starts talking and drinking, telling the old guy stories—all starring him, Whistler, in his own movie.  He doesn’t know what’s gotten into him.  Blah, blah, blah.  Stories from when he was just a punk kid, till just last week when some crazy woman’s Scottie dog tried to take a hunk out of him for a lousy purse.  He tells that one pretty good—very funny.  “Bad dog!” the woman kept shouting.  “Bad dog!”  Was she talking to the dog or was she talking to him?  He exaggerates a little here and there.  He doesn’t want to bore the old guy.  And maybe he makes himself sound a little better than he really is, but what does that hurt?  The guy seems interested.  He’s a great listener.  Before you know it, hours have gone by, and he’s told God his life story, the good bits anyway.

Must be the beer, he thinks, and then he realizes he’s been drinking the same beer all this time and it’s still full, still ice cold.  He can’t remember when he’s had such a good time.  God can’t either.  Whistler’s life hasn’t exactly been a day at the beach.

Then at the end of the third or fourth story about his girlfriend Joy, God gets all serious and says, “Whistler, do you mind if I ask you a hypothetical question?�

Whistler shrugs.  “Sure, go ahead.�

“If you were the only God—if there weren’t any Baxter’s or Eduardo’s or anybody at all like you—what would you do?�

“That is a seriously weird question.�

“I’ve been told I have a unique perspective.�

Hypothetical question, unique perspective—Whistler’s trying to figure how he understands what the old man’s saying when he says it, though he’s also aware he usually wouldn’t have a clue.  Maybe this too, like Joy says, is all in the delivery.  He turns the question over in his mind and watches the world in his head transform into someplace totally different.  He wants to make sure he’s got it right.  “You mean, like I’m the only one, I don’t have to worry about nobody moving in on me.  No matter what I do, I’m still it.  I’m still in charge.  I’m still the man.â€�

“Precisely.�

Whistler imagines the possibilities.  “Well, I guess I’d take it easy, maybe hook up one of these sound systems and listen to some music.  Maybe go down to the park.”  He pulls out his gun, still stuck uncomfortably in his pants.  “I could lose this thing.  I wouldn’t need it.  I wouldn’t be God anymore—know what I’m saying?  I wouldn’t have to do anything, prove anything.  Hell, maybe my girlfriend Joy might come back to me if it was like that.â€�  He shrugs his shoulders, takes another long pull off his icy beer, all of a sudden filled with a deep sadness, as bad as the good feeling was good.  “But that ain’t never gonna happen.â€�

God likes a challenge.  It’s time he was getting back to heaven.  The angels will be worried—rejoicing as instructed—but he knows them, always wound a little tight.  He stands and stretches, puts on his lonely hat and his trench coat, walks over to a particularly nice vintage TEAC in a polished walnut case, and starts punching buttons.

“I told you already,” Whistler says, staring into his endless beer.  “None of this stuff is hooked up.â€�

Guitar music starts coming out of some of the speakers—maybe two or three dozen of them—and these hillbilly women singing real pretty.  It’s like the whole gang of them are right there in the room with them:

It’s a gift to be simple
It’s a gift to be free
It’s a gift to be back where we ought to be. . . .

“How’d you do that?� Whistler wants to know, shouting over the hillbilly women, who both fascinate him and scare the crap out of him.  “What the hell kind of music is that?�

“Folk music,â€� God says and vanishes without a trace, except the music still playing out of a bunch of speakers.  Speakers that aren’t plugged into anything.  Speakers still inside their frigging boxes!

Whistler calls up his girlfriend Joy and begs her to come over.  “I got a haunted stereo over here,� he says.  “For real.�  He holds the phone up to the speakers, and she comes right over.

“The old guy was God,â€� she tells him after hearing the whole story.  She’s positive.  Wishes she’d been around to meet Him.

Maybe so, Whistler allows.  But he’s never quite sure, even though you never can finish that beer or get the hillbilly women to shut up, and, most amazing, his girlfriend Joy has agreed to move back in with him, since he got a glimpse of the old man’s hypothetical perspective and made a few changes in his life.  His mother’s even talking to him again.  Jeez, she’s even coming over for Thanksgiving.

******

When God gets back to heaven, the angels greet him with several loud Hosannas and a bunch of Hallelujahs.  He leaves them to their rejoicing and stretches out on a cloud, admiring the view in all directions, savoring a few long and poignant sunsets, the pounding surf of a dozen oceans.  Gabriel thinks to ask how his visit to Earth went, and God says he found just the fellow he was looking for.  Everybody needs to chill once in a while, he tells Gabriel, talk shop over a couple of beers, realize you’re not alone in your problems.

Gabriel doesn’t have the faintest idea what God’s talking about.  He’s just glad He’s back in heaven where He belongs.

2 thoughts on “11th and J

  1. I laughed out loud when I read the line about Pat Boone.

    You don’t happen to be a fan of Nick Danger and/or the Firesign Theater, do you? This reminded me of the comedy noir genre they’re famous for.

  2. I’ve heard Firesign years ago, but don’t remember them very well. I probably learned my comedy noir from Abbott and Costello. The best original noir, like Chandler, is filled with great humor even as the body count climbs.

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