Lost Souls

Sister Mary Margaret, my eighth grade home room teacher, asked me to stay behind at lunch as she had something important to ask me.  I walked up to her desk after the other students had left for the playground.  She fixed me with her steely gray eyes and said, “Are you going to go to Archbishop Carroll High School?  I see that you haven’t enrolled yet.”  She tapped a list of names.

“No, my family can’t afford to send me.  I’m going to Fairmont East.”

“You could get a job,” she said apparently unaware that fourteen year old boys were not allowed to work in the state of Ohio and that the tuition at Carroll, comparable to state university fees, could not be earned part time at minimum wage.

“Mom wants me to focus on my studies.  No jobs…She and my Dad and sister all transferred to public schools after eighth grade,” I said.

“You’ll drift away from the faith,” she told me.  “Your soul will be lost.”

“My parents and sister are still Catholics,” I pointed out.

“Your soul will be lost,” she solemnly repeated.

I studied the flakes of dandruff that accumulated daily in shallow drifts on the shoulders of her dark habit and tried to find something to say.  One possibility, telling her that hell seemed preferable to an eternity spent with the likes of her, tempted me.  My instinct for self-preservation kicked in and I said, “I’m not going to Carroll.”

She squinted at me and a blush of red deepened on her cheeks.  She had been angry when she called me aside, and now my bluntness had made her angrier.  I didn’t care.  I knew that I’d be free from her and my parochial school in a few weeks.

My parents sent me to a public school for ninth grade and signed me up for CCD, a Monday night program at church that taught religious education to kids who had endangered their souls by attending public schools.  The classes were segregated by gender but undivided by age.  Few boys were older than I, but many were two years younger.  Their hopes of salvation had begun to fade even earlier than mine.

Our classes were taught by fathers from the parish, and few had training in education and theology.  The lessons faltered whenever questions beyond a Dad’s level of knowledge had to be suppressed and pushed aside.  Our instructors droned out a rehash of the doctrines drilled into us in lower grades.  These tenets could be reduced to the following:  Do what Mother Church tells you without question and get a free pass to heaven.

One night after class I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen in a few years.  His name was Ben, and he used to team up with a dim-witted giant who did his bidding.  Ben enjoyed picking fights and bullying boys larger than he was.  If they defended themselves or returned his insults he unleashed his bodyguard on them.  I once saw Matthew B., a rawboned kid with lethal elbows who played center on our basketball team, get beaten to the ground by Ben’s stooge. Ben looked on and smiled wistfully as if enjoying the beauty of a moment that would fade all too soon.

I passed by Ben as he sat slumped on the cement floor of the corridor leading to the exit.  I didn’t say a word to him.  He whispered, “Hey, pussy!”  I looked over my shoulder, not knowing at whom he had directed his insult, and saw him staring at me with sad, tired eyes.  I kept going, and he called after me, “Aren’t you going to come back and beat me up?”  He laughed as I pushed open the door and walked outside.

Years later my mother wrote that my sister’s youngest boy, Chris, had penned an essay that had been published in the parish newspaper.  He had attended the same parochial school as I, and apparently gotten the same warning when a nun found out that he also planned to go to Fairmont East.  I read a clipping of his article that Mom had included in the letter, and Chris’ words were a desperate plea for help as he entered into a world of non-Catholics conspiring to steal his salvation.  I thought, “Holy shit, boy.  They really got to you.”

Ten years passed and I attended Chris’ wedding.  Both he, his bride, and his bride’s family were former Catholics.  The wedding ceremony acknowledged the possibility of spiritual bonds in marriage, but there were no Bible readings.  The officiant was the mayor of a suburb of Cleveland.  I learned that the bride’s family were staunch agnostics and had removed their children from a parish school after a conflict of some sort.  I thought, “Good for them.”

I talked to Chris a few years later and mentioned his article in the parish newspaper and his later conversion to agnosticism.  “What happened?” I asked him.  He smiled and said that he had been dating a girl at the time he wrote his essay who was a bit hysterical about religious matters.  She had influenced him, but when he started to attend a public school his fears vanished.  He said, “The people at Fairmont East were so much nicer to me.”  I felt pride as I smiled back at my confident, free-thinking nephew.  According to the nuns Chris had lost his soul, but he appeared to be doing quite well without it.

 

Chapter 1: A Narrow Slice Of Time

Here’s the first chapter of A Narrow Slice of Time in which our misguided heroine takes the first step on her haphazard journey in time.

2036 (Standard Timeline)

Bill Plum and Aubrey Piazza climbed the steps to a gleaming, white building that resembled a knock-off copy of the Taj Mahal. The cylindrical towers on either side of the faux mausoleum were made from a material that looked like marble when viewed from a considerable distance. A sign carved in bas relief above the central, arched doorway was inscribed with the corporate logo:  GURUTECH.  The letters had the lilt and tilt of Sanskrit.

Aubrey was a hard faced, large boned, somewhat muscular woman of forty.  Her auburn hair had a few streaks of grey near the temples.  She wore tan slacks, a black silk blouse with a plunging neckline, and leather sandals. Her sunglasses were very dark, and her eyes were concealed by the reflections on the surface of the lenses.   She had deep grooves on either side of her down turned mouth, and when she paused as she spoke she sometimes twisted her lips and grimaced as if she were sucking on something distasteful.

Bill was a nondescript rabbit of a man.  His doughy face was dominated by a large, barrel shaped nose that skewed slightly to the left. His midsection sagged over his belt and his shoulders rounded forward.  His suit was gray and rumpled, his hair mouse brown, and his black shoes scuffed.  He had the neglected appearance of an aging bachelor, a threadbare man who had exhausted his meager promise long ago.  Bill pulled Aubrey aside before they reach the entrance.

“Did you study the packet, Aubrey?” he said.

“Yes, of course I did,” she answered.

“I know that you don’t believe in their mumbo-jumbo, but they won’t let you take your trip until you satisfy them.”

“Why do you keep after me about that?  I studied. I’m not stupid.”

“Tell it to me again.  I helped you pay their fee and negotiate your errand.  I don’t want to waste my time and money.”

“It’s always about that, isn’t it?  It’s all about the cash.”

“Yes, dear, it is.  Recite.”

“Jesus, what a pain…GURUTECH was founded in 2028 by a bunch of swamis from Kerala who enlisted the aid of a theoretical physicist from Stanford University named Fleming Anderson.  Together they discovered that all moments in time exist simultaneously; they’re stacked like slices of bread.  Every narrow slice of time has its own vibration signature and, and…and then they go on about string theory, Heisenberg, fluid time and gravity constants, mumbo jumbo Einstein, blah, blah, unified field, blah.”

“Correct so far.  They won’t expect you to totally understand the physics, but I would leave out the blah, blah, blahs if I were you.  Go on.”

“Right.  If a person can attune their own personal vibration signature to the signature of a particular time period, they are instantly transported to that moment. Then there’s something about a law of affinity and spontaneous attraction.  That part always sounds like a pick up line to me.”

Aubrey.”

Bill.  Stop fussing.  I’m not going to say that to the techs when I walk through that door.”

“Continue.”

“Most people cannot attune their personal vibration signal, or PVS, or maintain it long enough for the transportation to occur.  GURUTECH’s engineers developed a wave mirror chamber that echoes and enhances the chance vibrations that are synchronous with a distinct time period.  The person gradually comes more and more into alignment with their target destination, and within an hour they find themselves in Ancient Rome or 20th century Europe.  They are allowed limited engagement with the events of the target time period, and must return within seven minutes.  A chip embedded in the base of their skull acts as a portable enhancer and causes the traveler to fall into a trance at the end of seven minutes.  A warning buzz in the ear alerts the traveler to their imminent departure.  Traveling back to one’s own time is easier because the traveler is naturally in synchrony with their own period.  The transportation goes much more easily, however, if the traveler assumes the correct mental posture just before the portable enhancer goes off.”

“And you’ve been practicing that, I hope?”

“Yesss—you’re such a worry wart.  Yes, I’ve been practicing.  You close your eyes, center them on the magic spot in the middle of your forehead—“

“Stop calling it that!  Third eye.  Be sure to call it the third eye!”

“Yeah, yeah.  Then I watch my breaths.  I say Om when I inhale and moo when I exhale.”

“Stop being such an ass.  Om and aum.  Om and aum.”                                                                           “Don’t call me an ass.  Can’t you recognize when I’m telling a joke by now?”

“This is serious, Aubrey, very serious.”

“Yeah, yeah…Are you sure that it was okay to tell them about what I plan to do?”

“Yes.  Telling your ex-husband what a jerk he is, or was, or will be will not significantly alter the present. The man had literally no impact on anyone but you.  But remember to carry out your assignment too.  You have to buy the last vanilla iced cupcake from that shop near your old apartment.  That’s vital.  And it’s part of the price of your ticket.”

“Messing with Jeff’s head is okay, but it’s vital that I buy a cupcake.  That’s weird.”

“Vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles.  The gurus know what they’re doing.  Carry out the deal as stated in the contract or they might send you to medieval Germany at some random moment.  They don’t like it if you fail to carry out your part of the bargain.”

“Are we done now?”

“Yes, dear.  You know it’s not just about the money.  I care about you and I’m worried that something bad might happen.  Promise me that you’ll be careful and do as you’re told.  Please don’t lose your temper and do something rash.”

“Stop talking and let me get on with this.”

“It won’t really help, you know.  The satisfaction will be momentary, and it won’t improve things in this time.”

“Bill, at my age I’ve learned that all satisfactions are momentary.  You and I have proved that over and over.  Last night was another example.”

Bill sighed and let go of her arm.  They climbed the last few steps and entered a doorway to the right.  A sign above their heads told them that they were entering the Hall of Time.  The smell of sandalwood incense overwhelmed them as they passed inside. Orange robed monks and nuns walked about with quick, light steps, entering and exiting through arched doorways on either side of the hall.  The men had shaved heads, and the women wore light scarves that covered their hair. Bill and Aubrey walked down the long, marble-floored hallway until they reached a reception desk.  A few armchairs upholstered with a shiny, orange material were placed in a semicircle off to the left.  When she studied the chairs closely Aubrey saw that the cloth was stitched with magenta threads that formed pulsating, interlocking patterns. The receptionist wore a fixed smile on her face.  Her lips curled serenely, but the slight clench of her jaw gave her an air of willful determination.

“Namaste.  Good morning.  Welcome to the GURUTECH Hall of Time.  What is the nature of your business?”

“My name is Aubrey Piazza.  I’m scheduled to make a journey today.”

“Ah, yes.  I have you down on my roster.  Forgive me for not recalling your name.  We have had many travelers the last few days.”

“Don’t worry about it.  What’s next?”

“You will have to fill out some paper work: some forms giving us final clearance, a legal statement freeing GURUTECH from liability in all instances save technical failure, and a form declaring that your present physical and mental state is sound.”

“I thought that I already signed off on that.”

“Oh, no.  Many of our clients make that assumption when they begin training.  Those forms just cleared you for the training program.  These forms are for the actual trip.  And after you’ve finished with these there’s a short test that tells us whether you have studied the process and are aware of the parameters of your mission.  Please take a seat over there and use the touch screen attached to the arm.  This should only take about twenty minutes.”

“Seems like a lot of paper work for a seven minute trip.”

“You may back out of our arrangement if you wish, Miss Piazza.”

“I’ve come this far.  I might as well go through with it.”

“We would be most pleased if you did, Miss Aubrey, as our technicians have devoted a great deal of time and effort in making your dual mission safe, comfortable and full of purpose.”

Aubrey took a seat in the nearest armchair, swung a padded arm over her lap and booted the touch screen embedded in the arm.  Bill watched her type in her answers until he heard the receptionist cough politely.

“Sir, will you be traveling today also?”

“No, I just wanted to make sure that Aubrey, Miss Piazza, was taken care of.”

“She will be fine, sir.  Her trip has been planned meticulously, and our technicians will watch over her with great care.”

“Yes.  I remember you telling me that when I went on my mission.  That didn’t go as planned.  Did your technicians watch over me?”

“It’s Mr. Plum, is it not?  I believe that I have seen your face before on memos received from our legal department.  Your complaints about your experience have been taken into consideration, and your journey is now used as a case study when we train new technicians.  We are pleased that you made it back to our time and that the errors that you introduced into your time line were insignificant and easily erased.  I trust that your trip to Magdeburg was not too unsettling.”

“Magdeburg!  Do you know what that was like?”

“Yes, Mr. Plum.  All employees of GURUTECH are given a simulated experience of our default destination.  There were many choices that we considered during the Thirty Years War in Germany.  The 17th century in Europe was rife with wholesale slaughter, religious persecution, famine, pestilence and aimless destruction.  We narrowed our selection down to the Fall of Magdeburg as it was an event so utterly chaotic and disastrous that no amount of interference by our travelers could significantly change the flow of time.  Such moments in time are rare, Mr. Plum.  We regret any discomfort that you experienced there, and hope that the basket of fruit and bottle of brandy we gave you on your return relieved your anxiety in some small way.”

“I spent four weeks in a psych unit having the emotional scars erased.  I still can’t go to a barbecue.  My memories of that place are nearly gone, but I know that it was total hell.”

“Yes, sir.  Many of our default travelers describe Magdeburg with those very words.  If you wish to file another formal complaint about your experience, I can ring this buzzer and two of our most considerate monks will escort you to our public relations office.”

The receptionist pointed to a buzzer on her desk with her index finger, and looked over her shoulder in the direction of two burly men in an office behind her.  Bill raised his hands in supplication and took a step back from the desk.

“No, no.  I don’t want to make a complaint.  I just want to make sure that Aubrey—Miss Piazza is taken good care of.”

“Your concerns will be noted in our log.  Perhaps it is time for you to wish Miss Piazza a successful journey, sir.  Will you be here tomorrow in case Miss Piazza needs assistance following her return and processing?”

“Yes.  Do you still have my number on file?”

“Yes, sir.  We know all about you.”

The receptionist smiled as she said these last words, but there was no warmth in her expression.  Bill took another step back and turned in Aubrey’s direction.  She waved the back of her hand at him to dismiss him, and Bill stammered out a weak, “Good luck,” before hustling away.

“I’m ready,” Aubrey said to the receptionist as she finished her last entry.  The receptionist transferred Aubrey’s forms and the completed test to a screen on the reception desk; she maintained her fixed smile for the most part, but frowned occasionally as she clicked buttons on the keyboard and touched icons on the screen.  At one point, as the receptionist carefully studied a form, she reached for a phone, but hesitated and withdrew her hand.  She glanced up at Aubrey with doubt in her eyes as she reread a passage several times, and then scrolled through all of the documents one more time.

“Why yes, Miss Piazza.  You are ready,” she finally replied.  She gave Aubrey her cold smile and waved to the burly monks in the office behind her.  They stepped forward and Aubrey was surprised to see that they wore pistols in the orange sashes around their waists.

“What’s with the hardware?” she asked the receptionist.

“Bon voyage, Miss Piazza,” said the receptionist.

The two men rapidly came up to Aubrey and stood on either side of her.  The one on the right took a gentle hold on her elbow and began to lead her toward the office.  When she jerked her arm out of his grasp and tried to pull away from them, they simply picked her up by the shoulders and feet and carried her end to end as if she were a rolled up carpet.

“Bill!” she screamed once before disappearing behind the doors of the office.

 

 

REBEL REBEL

I wasn’t much of a rebel when I was a little kid.  I had strict parents who made sure that the consequences of defiance were costly.  They were good at “shock and awe”.  I was also given the impression (with continual reinforcement) that my opinion about any matter wasn’t the only one, and that my viewpoint was likely to be faulty based on my youthful inexperience and stupidity.

When I got a bit older I began to notice personal flaws in the folks in authority in my extended family, and while I usually kept my observations to myself and didn’t act on them, I began to give some value to my thoughts.  If my relatives weren’t perfect and got some things wrong, it meant that my opinions might be just as valid as theirs.  My aunts and uncles gradually understood that I was a quiet, observant child, and they seemed a little uncomfortable when I was lurking nearby.  They could see the wheels turning in my head as I studied their faces and listened to their talk.

My experiences in the Catholic church followed a similar route:  at first I was cowed into obedience by the supposed power of the nuns and priests over the fate of my soul;  then I started noticing that some of the priests were at times cruel, wrathful, self-indulgent, and that many of the nuns were frustrated and bitter living in the narrow confines of their rigid routines.  By the time I was fifteen I also figured out inconsistencies in church teachings.  When I was told that some things were inexplicable and best left to God, I realized that the faith was just a house of cards.  At some point a person had to choose to blindly accept the back story and fables of a religion, or strike out on their own and see what they could see.

I carried my habits of skepticism and close observation into art school and developed a strong dislike for those moments when instructors fell back on their professional mystique when their teaching got muddy and confused.  Some professors spoke in vague, enigmatic terms about their theories and practice as artists, and they reminded me of the priests.  Both sets of professionals appeared to be practitioners in cults.  And the art world in the 80s was divided into so many opposing camps that no one could claim any final authority.  If a professor looked down his nose at my realistic paintings, then I could find about twenty things to say about the weakness of his thickly painted, expressionist abstractions that looked like a knock off of Bill Jensen’s work.  There wasn’t any high ground.  We were all posers busy promoting our pet ideas.

Now I am an art professor.  In order to be effective I have to speak with authority and teach from an organized, logical syllabus that leads from one idea and technique to another.  I give students direct examples to look at and demonstrations on how to use media.   I try to avoid drifting into mystical artspeak.  I don’t want to be that hand waving, gobbledygook spewing professor who hides behind esoteric theories like the Wizard of Oz creating illusions of power and mastery from behind his curtain.

I’m fully aware that the creative process is impossible to codify and fully explain, but I create a bubble of certainty while my students are still trying to figure out how to draw an apple using a stick of charcoal.  I’m like a music teacher who sticks to the basics of classical music when teaching beginners while being aware that jazz and Indian ragas are valid, alternative forms of music.

At the end of every semester I usually point out that there are lots of other people in the art world who take a different stance from mine, that what I’ve taught them isn’t the only way of approaching art, that other instructors will contradict me and preach a different chapter and verse.  It’s up to them to choose what works best for them and means the most.  I invite them to rebel against me.

But there are semesters when I don’t give that speech.  I sometimes have classes with several students who seem to be questioning my directions and follow up instruction.  They watch me carefully and enjoy those moments when I say something garbled and awkward, when I appear frustrated and overwhelmed by the multiple demands on my attention.  I know that they’ve already taken me for something of a fool, as an illustration of the kind artist and human being they hope that they will never become.  These upstarts have an influence on the students around them, and by the end of the semester there is little chance that I can inadvertently brainwash any of them into believing that I am the sole authority concerning artistic matters.

At the end of the final class I watch the rebels trail out of the art room with smug looks on their faces.  They’re thinking, “I’ll never have to listen to that asshole ever again.”  And I think, “Karmic payback is such a bitch.”

 

 

Angst Vobiscum: Watching Cartoons and Thinking About Hell

When I was a boy I attended a Catholic parochial school from second to eighth grade and was given a  heavy dose of religious indoctrination.  It was unfortunate that I didn’t learn to ignore what we were being taught about heaven and hell, sin and salvation.  Most of my classmates just nodded along and waited for the lessons to end, but I sat and thought about them for a long time after.

My sister Carla suffered from a similar inability to tune out the nuns and priests.  In second grade she received a scapular, a brown patch of cloth with a holy image on it.  It had ties and was meant to be worn around the neck.  She and her classmates were told that they couldn’t die in mortal sin as long as they wore their scapulars.  It was a stay-out-of hell lucky charm.  They were given an instructive little story to go with their magic present: “Suzy got a scapular and thought that she could do anything she wanted to do and still avoid eternal damnation.  So Suzy got mean and rude and did increasingly horrible things:  she kicked old ladies; she shoved her sister down a flight of  stairs; and she stole a cupcake from a bakery.  As she ran out of the shop, laughing merrily as she licked the icing off the top, she didn’t notice the bus rounding the corner.  Suzy ran out into the street right in front of it.  The bus crushed her and as she lay dying on the hard cement she thought, ‘It’s okay.  I’m going to die, but I’m not going to hell.’  And then the ties loosened and her scapular slipped slowly off her neck.  She saw it lying beside her as she drew her last, horrified breath.  The end.”

Carla couldn’t fall asleep that night, but sat up in bed terrified that she might end up in Hell if her scapular fell from her neck while she slept.

When I was in fourth grade we were told in religion class that if we damned someone, even if we just thought “God damn you” without saying the words out loud, we had committed a mortal sin.  One moment of mental frustration and spite could earn the offender the penalty of eternal flames (unless he confessed to the nearest available priest before a marauding bus ran over him).  I took this piece of information home and brooded over it with a growing sense of foreboding.  I had a quick temper and a little brother who annoyed me.  We shared a tiny bedroom.  The odds didn’t look good.

I had never considered the possibility of damning anyone before the lesson, and even though the thought of committing that sin had been implanted by my teacher, I knew that I would be held accountable in the end.  Incitement couldn’t be used as a defense. And sure enough, late the next day, my brother did something sneaky and mean to Carla when the three of us were out playing in the front yard.  Maybe he hit her with a downed tree branch and hurt her.  Maybe he said something nasty.  I don’t remember.  I got angry at him for his behavior, thought the dread words and attached his name to the end of the phrase, and sentenced myself to be cast into the Pit.

I looked around me after thinking my bad, bad thought and wondered why nothing seemed different.  No one noticed any change in me, and I was treated just the same as before.  Why wasn’t I shunned?  I had committed a sin that was in the same category as murder, rape and desecrating a church, and there I went about my business for the rest of the day unmarked and unscathed.  I ate a cheeseburger for supper, listened to my parents talk as we watched Lawrence Welk, did the dishes and got ready for bed. I was a tiny bit relieved that there were no immediate consequences, but was also aware that God knew what I had done.  And though I might fool everyone else, HE knew just what kind of little boy I was. I didn’t bother to go looking for my scapular in the cluttered dresser drawer where I had carelessly tossed it a few months after getting it.  I knew that it wasn’t worth the effort to dig it out.  I could tie it with triple triple knots and it would still fall off my neck at my moment of reckoning.

The next day I woke up early on a sunny Sunday morning.  I fixed myself a breakfast of chocolate milk and a pop tart.  I sat down on the carpet in front of our television set with my brother and sister and we tuned in “The Tom and Jerry Show”.  This was my favorite cartoon.  I loved all the violence and vengeance.  And as I sat there laughing when Tom chased Jerry up a drain spout and got stretched out to ridiculous proportions, I had the nagging feeling that something was terribly wrong.  Then I remembered that I was going to Hell.  Jerry whacked Tom with a pool cue.  I grinned at my brother even as I realized that I was eternally estranged from my Lord and Savior.  I nearly snorted chocolate milk out of my nose when Jerry stuck Tom’s tail into a light socket and burned it to cinders.  But when I stopped laughing and choking the crappy feeling of dread returned.

I managed to resolve my spiritual dilemma during the car ride to church.  I knew that I could never go to confession and admit what I had done.  The parish priest was a grim giant of an old man who intimidated the adults as well as the children in the congregation.  I couldn’t face him in the darkness of the confessional booth even if it meant that my cowardice sent me to Hell.  I told myself to forget about the whole thing, that I couldn’t possibly be held accountable in such a terrible way for thinking a couple of words, and that I must have misunderstood what the teacher said during our lesson.

And I remembered a precedent:  when I was five I heard that an actor on a TV show got fired, and I thought that his termination meant that his boss tossed him into a bonfire and killed him.  I was very relieved when my mother cleared up my confusion and told me that the actor was alive and well.  I convinced myself that this damnation business was a similar case.

So I sat in our pew with a fairly clear conscience, sang the songs, rose, sat and genuflected at the right times, and went up for communion.  The sun still shone through the church windows and no angels descended from heaven with flaming swords to smite me when the priest placed the host on my tongue.  The last traces of guilt, fear and dread began to dissipate, and by the end of the day I felt just fine. The Scapular Slipped