Thursday, December 31, 2009

little old homeless guy

How had he ended up being responsible for this sweet little old homeless guy? He was pretty good at looking after his own needs, but this job where he was looking after a flock of homeless people up at a camp outside Toronto was way beyond his talents. And now, this poor old guy had gone astray and who knows where he was? Was he sick – dead - or wandering around confused in some small town between here and Toronto?

He and Patty’d put the guy on a bus back to the Sally Ann in Toronto where he lived - but he’d never made it. The Captain from the Shelter was there to meet him, but the old man wasn’t on the bus by the time it got to Toronto. Now, Amos felt like he’d really screwed up. Like he’d been playing at being a shepherd but he’d lost one – the most vulnerable one – to the wolves of the world’s cold indifference. What did he think he was doing accepting this job – this responsibility? He was a child in a shepherd’s cloak and had no business messing with people’s lives like this.

He’d blown back into Trono like a spring seed carried on warm and fertile western winds all the way across the country – mysteriously, impossibly landing in the concrete asphalt downtown of Ontario’s biggest cold hearted, cold cash city. Between he and Nick they’d pretty much driven the fleshmobile non-stop all the way – taking turns crashing in the cramped back seat while Jacynthe rode shot-gun making sure the driver stayed awake. She didn’t seem to sleep at all.

The passage home was a blur – a dream – from day to night to day – three days dead to the world – in between there and where he would be. Amos would lift his head up from the back seat in the middle of the night to find Nick with his right arm straight out in a punch - his fist gripping the top of the wheel. The speedometer needle was pushing for the bottom, the little six-banger engine humming high. Amos wanted to say “go easy” but he recognized in Nick’s straight ahead stare into the night – his own desire. Now that he was on his way home, he just wanted to get there and get started. He had a new purpose – a new way to walk – the he couldn’t wait to test out on old familiar streets.

He and Jacynthe dropped Nick at the Bay Street bus station. She’d wanted to keep heading to Montreal too, but Amos had talked her into meeting his brother – Paul and Carol were living just up the road on the edge of the university campus renting a professor’s house with Lawrence and Denise.

It’d been a full year since he’d met Lawrence and Denise in the wild rocky mountains treeplanting – the start of his wild western rodeo ride - and here they were to give him bear hug “welcome homes” at the circle’s full turn. Paul had a knack for turning pretty much any situation into a celebration, but that night he killed the fatted calf for his younger brother’s return.

Carol went along – holding back a little – her face all smiles and fun but her foot on the brakes - as usual. Amos caught the sideways looks she gave his strange new companion – and how uncomfortable – jittery - Jacynthe was in this posh university setting. He knew right away it’d been a mistake bringing her here – she was a fish that swam in deep undercurrents and this was a place in the sun.

Not that his friends and family were snobs or anything – it was just that they were middle class puppies - happy and having fun playing on the shores of privilege - and she was a fish out of water. The song that Amos and Jacynthe had composed couldn’t be translated into this language.

They all did their best to make her feel at home. But later, showered and well fed like good little children put to bed, she told Amos this was not the place for her. Early the next morning she slipped away - an alleycat who can’t trade freedom for comforts behind locked doors. She didn’t ask Amos to remember her – but to remember always his heart’s song.

Later the same day, Amos was very surprised to find his song being sung by another cat. He’d met Larry last at the Brunswick Hotel. Friday afternoons theology students – friends of his brothers’ - would get a table, drink draft, and talk God. Amos would drop by before his cab shift and listen in to their crazy talk. They’d laugh and swear and compete to be the most sacrilegious – sure that the church would never be big enough to handle the vision and hope they had in their hearts.

Amos had bragged to them that if they really wanted to be with the people and reach out and touch them with hope – they should drive cab. They threw big words at him like those little sandbags kids try to get through the holes in the plywood. He’d taunt them saying those words were meaningless if they couldn’t make sense to a drunk. Still, at the time, he was impressed by their bold passion and piety-free sense of humour.

Larry, a wiry, dirty blonde, little guy with coke bottle glasses and an energy only matched by his wit-sharpened intelligence - had now graduated with top honours and bottom results. The National Church interview committees couldn’t get their heads around his prophetic, poetic passion for the people so far from the church’s doors that it’d never cross their minds to put a penny on an offering plate. Larry refused to make it easy for them to let him pass and so they put up the wall that had protected the Sanhedrin from Jesus - between Larry and his ordination as a United Church minister.

So Larry’d found –like water moving around a rock - a church where ministry was a matter of what you did - not who you knew or who you blew. The Christian Rehabilitation Centre – or CRC as it was known on the street - stood at the end of a little dead end street. Made from the same red brick, five storey, 1950’s housing-for-the-poor-solution – it was a part of the inescapable cycle of Regent Park’s poverty.

The CRC didn’t really serve the Regent Park community. The people in the apartments had troubles enough and need enough. But their troubles were different from the homeless ones who wandered unbothered among their children, streets and alleys. While the CRC spoke proudly to its funders about social change – it’s walk was all about just helping the poorest of the poor survive another day. This church, who’s sanctuary was seldom used, was a sanctuary for the men and women who lived hand to mouth in the streets, drop-ins, rooming houses and hostels and social service maze of Trono’s downtown east end.

Crazy Larry was well-loved in this ministry because he loved so well. He’d pour out his heart and soul and cry and shout as loud as he’d laugh - and as often. He had Amos talked into working for him that summer by their fifth beer in the El Macombo that first afternoon back home. Amos would babysit 20 homeless people at a run down old church camp on Lake Scugog – just ninety minutes from the city – ten thousand miles from his Scarbro roots and right back in the east end of the place he’d started from.

Larry’s tale
I knew the call had to come sooner or later. I was impressed that it wasn’t until the second week at the camp that Amos and Patty got into waters stormy enough to call for a lifeline. The call came just as I was leaving the CRC late one evening. Carmel was still there, but he was always the last to leave – even though he had the furthest to go – heading home to his late-blooming love.
Carmel, from the isle of Malta, and his Irish bride had both left their religious orders to pursue an earthy love. She must have been willing to share him with Jesus because Carmel still kept monks hours. He’d drive in from their country sanctuary before the sun rose, reaching the CRC by 6am. This hour was when his flock was being put out to pasture. The homeless shelters - using a rationale that the guys needed to get out and find work - evicted their tenants every morning and sent them trodding off to find breakfast at their favourite Mission. Most of them were walking-wounded – barely able to do the hard work it took to simply survive grazing in the fields of Toronto’s poverty industry.
Carmel would meet Eddie at the door and together they’d get a breakfast going for the guys who started lining up about 6:15 – the time it took to get from the Good Shepherd Men’s Hostel to the doors of the CRC.
These guys all had stories to tell of productive lives and victories won - of careers and wives and children. They’d been members of Lion’s clubs and churches. They’d served in W.W.II and Korea. They’d been captains of industry and foot soldiers in the construction ditches of skyscrapers - the towers of power that now blocked their sunshine as they panhandled and made their way through the cold canyons to the next dingy mission oasis.
There were the young warriors too. Guys too tough, too sensitive, and too stubborn or proud to stay shiftless at home in small town economies. In small towns everyone knows your misdemenours as well as your name. There was no chance for new starts where memories run long and rivalries deep. Their crimes were everything from truly jail-worthy acts to simply being born without all the smarts and skills, wits and family supports needed to find a place in tight economies without charity or imagination enough to let them fit in. Behind them were burnt bridges over rivers of memories too swift, deep and wide to swim back across.
While some had anti-social violent streaks in them, most restricted their victimization to themselves. Drifting from place to place, the excitement and adventure of being on the road would slowly begin to wear them down. Their clothes showed what was also happening to their souls. Slowly, you’d become immersed – then drown - in a skid row lifestyle that expected nothing more of you than to live and behave like cattle.
A couple of winters on the street and the fight would leave you. Not enough good food, too much bad wine or cheap dope - a visit or two to one of the city’s institutions for the criminal or insane - and any inner resolve you might have arrived with would slip through your fingers like grains of sand.

We were there, Carmel and I and a small band of revolutionaries from a variety of downtown agencies, to change all that. We were pursuing Christ’s vision of a community that set places of dignity at a banqueting table that the good and deserving had rejected. We were fighting for Tenant’s rights, for Affordable Housing, for a Welfare system that sustained people instead of penalizing them.
And all of us, despite our greatest efforts and hopes, would get caught up in the wheels of the charity business. It was where our people lived. It was how they survived and they needed friends like us who could help them deal with crooked landlords. Friends who could negotiate with keen and green welfare workers making it their mission to pull power trips with the purse strings of welfare rules and regulations. The Charity business was what paid our bills after all.
Church and Government grants would provide, like welfare, only just enough to keep our little agencies alive. Rock the boat too much and you ended up in the drink yourself – unemployed without that renewal of annually tentative fickle funding. As I liked to tell our fresh recruits to the cause – “give em a hand up – but just to their knees - not their feet.”
Always more optimistic than me, Carmel would quote “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.” Trouble was, the pond was behind fence and gates and fishing poles only put in the hands of well-intentioned social service workers.
So now, our latest fisherman was on the phone ready to quit. I had great hopes for this newest young revolutionary – Paul’s little brother - so I listened patiently. Paul and Amos were preacher’s kids like me. We lived up to the stereotypical P.K.’s taste for trouble and delighted in messing with social convention.
Paul and I had found in Jesus a kindred troublemaker. Like Jesus, we had a healthy suspicion of all things religious. And as his followers we had an umbilical cord connection to the church that we couldn’t cut. We loved to rail against conformity and church bureau-crazy confusions while quaffing ales on a Friday afternoon. Amos would drop by on occasion.
He’d boldly tell us older, wiser, divinity students that if we wanted to really connect with people we should all get behind the wheel of a cab. “I do more pastoral care in a day than you could do in a week. I have opportunities to share the gospel every. I don’t have to wait for a captive and already converted audience on Sunday mornings.” I liked his mischievous spunk and the troublemaking twinkle in his eye as he’d tell us we were all full of shit – daring us to make our book-learning come alive.
I lost track of him for a while. I’d finished up my studies, had been rejected by the church as a candidate for ordained ministry, and had been working at the CRC for a while when he showed up again. He’d been treeplanting in B.C. Avoiding law school, Amos’d spent a winter driving cab in Vancouver and found Jesus on the tidal mudflats. Or, maybe it was Jesus that’d found him? Anyhow, as a ski-bum/dishwasher in the mountains he’d heard the Almighty calling him back to serve in the family business – serving the Lord.
Amos was ripe for the Christian Rehabilitation Centre. Carmel and I’d cooked up a funding proposal for a summer holiday for a bunch of our favourite homeless buddies on the shores of Lake Scugog. There was a little house and sleeping cabin that had seen better days on the edge of an old United Church camp property. It was a chance for the boys to get out of the city and dip their feet in a lake, eat healthy and just stay in one place for a whole week. We’d done a test run the summer before - you could see the effects on the boys after just a day or two. It was like an enchanted spell lifted off of them as they started remembering what it was like to be a human being again.
The main camp was still being used by a single mom’s children’s program, but we’d managed to get the use of these other buildings for the coming summer. We got a Federal government grant to hire some students and put together a United Way application to cover food and transportation costs. We scrounged a van from the Central Neighbourhood House and tapped into the Fred Victor Mission’s food stores to keep the costs low.
Carmel went along with my idea to hire Amos and he picked out Patty; a green and eager Community Worker student from George Brown College. We gave the two of them use of my girlfriend’s old Datsun two-door five-speed beater. (Amos’ wheels had died. The motor blew within a week of his return. We’d tipped a beer to it’s memory.)
Carmel gave Eddie the summer off from CRC breakfasts and sent him for the summer up to Scugog. Eddie was a farmboy from rural Quebec. For years he’d been a C.P.R. crew cook and was used to fixin up belly-filling batches of meat and potatoes. Eddie was in his element at the camp; baking pies for the boys between smokes out on the deck. He loved the chance to spoil them with better food than they’d seen in years. It was still the same canned stuff of soup kitchens but Eddie made it for twenty instead of a hundred and he’d send Amos and Patty off to the farmer’s markets to get fresh veges and eggs. He stood a little taller in that kitchen. Or, at least, he was less bent over.
Patty and Amos were officially hired by the CRC boss Rev. John Faro. I truly enjoyed watching Amos trying to get an extra fifty cents an hour out of that stingy old holy scammer. He gave them the “you’re doing it for the cause” speech and they swallowed it just like we all did. We were true believers - there for the people and not the money - and most of us wore around some degree of guilt - like dirty underwear never spoken of – ‘cause we were makin a living off our friend’s suffering. We had money and a life beyond the circles of the homelessness – so getting lousy pay was part of our penance. It helped us convince ourselves we were together with the people on the shitty end of the stick.
Of course John didn’t tell these minimum wage-earners about his other two jobs that kept him occupied and mostly out of our hair. I had the pleasure of giving them the goods on John’s extra curricular jobs as a real estate broker and university chaplain that provided him with a Muskoka power cruiser lifestyle. I might have elaborated the extent of his scamming just a bit. But it was part of the myth of John Faro.
We were part of a long line of workers he’d exploited for the cause. There was no shortage of disgruntled former CRC staffers out working in neighbouring agencies - all the wiser for their tutelage under Reverend Pharo. He and Carmel had made an arrangement decades ago. Carmel ran the place and John did the power lunches and glad-handing politics that it took to keep the money flowing. John was the front man figurehead of the CRC - took all the credit - and that was just how Carmel liked it.
The new Camp Counselors were both pretty green to skid row. Amos knew the clientele from cab-driving but had no idea how the Social Service Industry worked. Patty was a pretty uptight, by-the-book, follow the rules student. There’d been no lectures to prepare her for this. The only rules for the camp were “no drinking or drugs”. She didn’t do too well with the free hand we gave the two of them to come up with a plan and make the first camp happen within two weeks.
Amos approached his father’s church to get them to sponsor campers for $50 a week. The guys in the drop-in dubbed it his “Send a Skid to Camp” program.
Patty was in tears in Carmel’s office before the end of the first week. Carmel asked me if I couldn’t have a talk with Amos. Seems like he was off and running with the ball while Patty was still trying to figure out the rules of the game. Amos was just making them up as he went along.
Over some beers that night we talked over the problem. I wanted to know just how long it would be before he got it on with her? He was obviously already messing with her head, when would he move on to the rest of her? I told him about the bets being laid on it already. Amos played the honourable professional and denied an interest. He told me a few stories about old girlfriend troubles and swore he couldn’t afford such trouble in his life right now.
He was a storyteller like me. A poet even - and as we drank ourselves into that place that only artists can describe (because it defies description?) we fell in love again with our own truly funny, radical, off-the-wall prophetic visions of community and peace.
He told me about a poem he’d written in Vancouver where Christ helped junkie with a fix in a downtown alley. A down and dirty Christ that met people where they hurt, and without judging, pulled from them enough hope to get them thru another day – survive the tragedy of their lives. I played him a Tom Waits song - “Misery is the River of the World – Everybody Row” and read him a few of my own poetic riffs. He lapped it up and showed he got the gist of it - even though his eyes betrayed some puzzling - not an unusual response to my poetry.
We were already pretty drunk when Paul showed up and dragged us off to the El Macombo. When the band quit for the night, the brothers of thunder found me passed out in the alley being ruffed up by the bouncer. I was playing dead and the bouncer was stuffing ice cubes down my pants trying to see if I really was dead. He turned on them “Do you know this guy?”
Paul denied me just like Peter denying Christ.
But Amos said “Yeah, he owes us money – we’ll take him from here.”
The bouncer left and, as Amos bent over me, I opened my eyes and said “get me the fuck out of here” He dragged my skinny ass up onto my feet. As I staggered, I clutched at his leather jacket ripping a few teeth out of the zipper. In years to come, Amos would point to those missing teeth and remind me just how tolerant he was of saintly, prophetic assholes like me.
Now that we’d established a good working relationship, it was all piss and roses from there on in. Patty survived her first week with Amos and the boys. Amos came back high on all the campfire stories he’d collected. “These are God’s people Barry! They’d give you the shirt off their back, share their last smoke, give you their bed and sleep on the floor. I’ve never met more generous people.”
“Just remember Amos” I warned, “the Devil’s in them just like in you. You never know how dark your heart is til you lose your light and way. Then the evil one will play you like a guitar” He nodded. “Yeah, you gotta wonder how such good gentle people could end up living like they do.”
Then Amos told me about this guy he’d jut met - Charlie…

So, Monday morning we packed them off - Scugog bound with another gang squeezed into the van. Some of these guys were carrying all their worldly possessions right along with them. This trip was a great risky adventure to leave behind the lifeline routine of marching from mission to hostel to soup kitchen. Patty had managed to get a few women to go along with the gang this time. Eddie just climbed into the cramped back seat of the Datsun chuckling “ere we go again.”
It was maybe three days into week two when the call came. I was a bit surprised at Amos’ shaking voice. For such a big, bold, young buck - he was out of his depth now you could tell.
“First we discover that he’s got lice. This beautiful gentle little man -couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds -must’ve been at least 80 years old. That was pretty bad. Beau and Rocky told me what soap to buy at the Pharmacy and helped me strip him and bathe him – he was skin and bones. We burned his clothes and gave him the smallest trousers and shirts we could find in our supply. He had to roll up the sleeves and trouser legs. He was a saint – humble and gentle and kept his sense of humour through the whole ordeal.”
I laughed at the picture Amos was painting.
“That night the Japanese church folks invited us over to their campfire. So a bunch of us go over for hot chocolate and marshmallows and this little guy starts talking in Japanese with them! We couldn’t believe it. Turns out that before the war, his family imported Japanese silk and he’d lived in Japan for some time before returning home to Germany.”
“Around the campfire later that same night he told me about how he and his family had been rounded up by the Nazis and sent off in trains to concentration camps. He said he still had nightmares about riding in those boxcars not knowing where he was going or what would happen to him.”
“That was hard to listen to, but listen to this - the next morning I’m having a coffee with Eddie and I hear someone shouting my name. I run over to the bunk house and Beau is standing there over our little friend. He’s rolling on the ground, shaking and spasm-ing like a son of a bitch. I’d never seen an epileptic fit before - but I knew what I had to do from the cabbie first aid training. I put him on his side and made sure he wasn’t swallowing his tongue and kept talking to him.”
“That’s really good Amos.” I reassured him.
“Yeah, but he should have come out of it. Well - he did for a minute or two - but then he’d go right back into it again. Patty was there by this time and I told her to call for an ambulance. Larry – I tell ya - he just kept going into these grand-mal seizures one right after another. It took the ambulance forever to show up. I was freaking. This poor little guy didn’t have the spunk to climb a full flight of stairs and now the stuffing was being wrung out of him by some epileptic demon. It was awful to watch him writhing there on the floor not being able to do nothing to stop it.”
I told Amos “You were Christ for him -with him – suffering in his humiliation and struggles man. That’s all you could do – and you did it.”
“I dunno – I felt so fucking helpless. It was awful. But that’s still not the worst of it. We followed him to the hospital and by the time we got there he was sitting up and okay. We didn’t know what to do with him next. So Patty called down to the Salvation Army Mission –y’know the little one off College. Some of the guys’d told us that’s where he stays. The Captain down there said to put him on a bus and send him back. Patty got him to promise to meet our little friend at the bus station.
So, that’s what we did. He was still pretty dazed and confused but I thought – once he gets back where people know him, he’ll be okay. We said goodbye and went back to the camp.”
“Good. Sounds like you two handled it really well.” I assured him, wondering why he was calling. Did he just need to report in?- just talk it out?
“Yeah, well, Patty called the Sally Ann about three hours later and talked to the Captain there and he told her that he went to meet the bus - but our friend wasn’t there! Larry - he must have gotten off at one of the stops along the way. All I can think about is that in his dazed condition - he’s living out his Nazi nightmare. He finds himself on this bus and he doesn’t know where he’s going and he gets off in a panic. Now – who knows where he’s wandering around? The bus must’ve stopped at dozen little places from here to there. What can I do?”
I paused and let his angst sink in to my heart a bit – as much as I could. Amos had come up against that wall of helplessness that all of us who serve crash into sooner or later. His resources and smarts and strategies had come to and end and he had nothing in his bag to offer. He’d opened his heart to the sufferings of a gentle innocent soul and Life was opening it even wider with a cruel crowbar’s yank. God knows it’s the helpless, innocent weak ones who get tortured right alongside the buggers who deserve it and bring it on themselves.
“There’s nothing you can do about it Amos. You have to let him go. God’s walking with him every step. That’s all I can say. That’s all that I can hope for. It sucks man. I know you probably feel like you need a drink - I sure do - but you’re at a dry camp and you’ve gotta keep it together for the rest of them.”

I hung up the phone and poured a large scotch. The vulnerable heart that made Amos a natural for working the inner city was also the weakness that could chew him up and spit him out. Now we’d have to watch and see. Would he harden up – turn professional social worker and keep the pain at a safe arms-length distance? Would he go native – let go of the comforts of his middle class status and try to trapese without a safety net? Would he run – get a church job and disappear into the lives of safer, neater, community-building? Hard to say what would happen to Amos Brown.
I only knew that my own soul was filling up with more pain than the booze could keep down. In my grandfather’s yarns, I’d been reading about how farmers used to put a chunk of pork fat into a cauldron of Maple sap to keep it from boiling over. Was Amos’ willingness to stay close and open to people’s pain - the fat in the cauldron? Was I that chunk of fat that was keeping Amos from boiling over? Was Christ the chunk of fat that was keeping me from boiling over? Each day the farmers’d put a new chunk of fat into the next batch of sap.
“God, give us the fat for another day. Drop it in this cauldron that boils us up. The syrup’s for another world – another time – give us the fat for today and we’ll keep watch on the boil ‘til you say it’s ready.”

I met the van when it arrived back at the CRC. The boys slowly wandered off – back to the tooth and claw scrape - hopefully with a little fresh perspective in their heads, some calories stored up for the struggle, and a few good memories to get them thru the tough nights ahead. I asked Amos how he’d made it through?
“Well, he grinned, when you’ve got no bottle – you start lookin for other comforts close at hand.”
“No! You don’t mean….?”
“Listen – Larry – what I found was that these guys are just like me. They’re at loose ends in the world. They have this inner desire to give – they’re so giving I can’t believe it. But, here in the city – all that’s expected of them is to receive. Receive handouts, welfare, soup-kitchen food, social worker’s advice…right?
“Right” Amos had come up with something I could tell.
“Well, we all know that it’s better to give than to receive – right?
”Right.” I nodded.
“But if all you ever do is receive, and never get your chance to give – then how are you ever gonna feel good about yourself?”
“Right!” he had it. He’d found the core of the problem.
“It’s all about dignity. It’s a basic human need – to contribute. It’s how I establish status in a community. It’s how I establish who I am.” “You’ve got it Amos – what are you gonna do about it?”
“I have no fucking idea.” he shook his head. “But I have a feeling that figuring out how I’m gonna contribute has something to do with figuring out how these guys are gonna contribute…”
“Sounds like GOD’s got ya by the balls boy” I told him – prophesying “you’re gonna go wherever that mission takes you I can tell.”
“YEEEOOOWWW” was Amos’ reply as he jumped in the van – a huge grin on his face, fire blazing in his eyes, Jesus in his heart, and a long story unraveling deep in his guts.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Washing the Pot

He loved the drudgery of it. Walking into the busy, noisy kitchen hustling to get up to speed for the dinner service, he’d approach the sinks like a gladiator taking the field. In the short time between the lunch rush’s end and the dinner start-up, when no dishwasher was on duty, the chefs would produce a pile of pots filling both of the deep stainless steel tubs overflowing into piles on the counter. Days when the three chefs were really working up something special, the piles would overflow under and around the tubs on the floor.

Undaunted by the task ahead, Amos would kick aside a path through the pots, making room to take a stand at his post, turn on the taps - take Chef’s “hurry up and get started.” in stride - and begin. The challenge was to make progress through the pile while the three chefs kept continually adding to it through the night. Soon the busboys would begin bringing in their carts of dirty dishes, glasses and silverware that all had to be done immediately to re-supply for the next sitting.

Dirty dishes were stacked into the heavy square plastic trays, hosed down and run along the stainless steel counter into the big industrial stainless dishwashing machine. Lift the lever, push the clean tray out the other side to cool before restocking the waiter’s supply, run the dirty tray in, lower the lever, pulling the steel box over the tray and hit the wash button for it’s five minute cycle. Back to the soaking pots for two minutes, then quickly back to stack the cooled dishes, and prep the next tray before the machine’s cycle was over. If the machine’s red “off” button glowed for more than a few seconds Chef was there to take out his stress on the low man “Hey – what are you wasting time for? Get those dishes moving!” It kept Amos’ mind on a short leash.

He’d come to the place of toil in the hero’s journey. The adventure was well wrought. He’d found the Grail, come to terms with the demons who’d trip him up, conquered the fearsome mountain trolls, and rescued the damsel – wait – no, there’d been no rescues. And here there wasn’t much chance. Amos was the grunt boy of the Resort. He’d taken on the low job, been given “whites” to wear that didn’t fit – the pants not covering his ankles, the shirts pulling at his armpits, buttons that couldn’t be done up over his t-shirts. Terrible pay, no tips, and a good daily dose of verbal abuse. It all only added to his ridiculous-ness, his humbling, his sanctification. It was more like he needed rescuing.

“Any port in a storm.” thought Amos. He’d skied Red Mountain for ten days and headed out when he realized his funds were getting low. He “had” to ski Banff before heading east. But between Trail and Banff there were a few clubs to try and by the time he made Banff his cash flow was down to a trickle.

He’d picked up a French Canadian hitchhiker just after he turned east again towards Banff. How could he pass up a guy standing at the side of the road with skiis in one hand and his other hand empty, arm out in that humbling gesture, thumb up, begging for a lift? Amos had traveled these mountain highways on the generosity of others. It was part of the code to now return the gift to the great universal recycling effort. He was a believer after all. And believers must practice their faith – putting it into action without hope of ever seeing the return – ever knowing how long, far and wide the arc of the cycle might be.

Jean-Claude spoke about as much English as Amos spoke French – to point a fine point on it – fucking little. The Canadian school system had ill-prepared them for this encounter. But somehow they managed to share their stories. Jean-Claude was also on a quest. He’d worked as a fishing guide, taking tourists by canoe into Northern Quebec where only the Indians lived. He was here to ski the Rockies with the funds he’d saved.

Jean-Claude told Amos about a winterized Youth Hostel where they could stay for cheap. It turned out to be a big old log cabin in the woods between Lake Louise and Banff. You cooked your own food and Amos got talking to people there about how they each were managing skiing with few funds. The Unemployment office in Banff held postings for all the jobs in local Resorts and Restaurants and Hotels. There was a steady turnover of positions as people got fired for skiing too much and working too little or moved their way up the job ladder.

Next morning Amos took a trip in and found a job posting for a waiter at the Sunshine Mountain Ski Resort. He called and set up an interview for the next day. He’d have to take the gondola up to the resort the guy explained. “Just give them my name and they’ll let you on.” he told Amos.

Back at the Youth Hostel, he and Jean-Claude agreed to ski Sunshine the next day. Amos just took his skiis along on that free Gondola ride and once up on the mountain no one seemed to be looking for proof of ticket purchase. The job interview lasted maybe ten minutes. Amos had tried to bluff his way into a waiter’s job – lying about his extensive experience. How hard could taking food orders be? But when the guy started quizzing him about how many tables at a time he could handle, the veil of lies became thin and he could see he wasn’t foolin anyone. The guy might have given Amos a chance if his beard, hair, and clothes hadn’t given a first impression of a wooly lumberjack fresh out of camp.

So, he found Jean-Claude and joined him for a sunny day of hitting the slopes. Up until that day, Amos had been thinking that his skiing was pretty fine. But Jean-Claude had skiis like Amos had never seen. Telemark bindings, Jean-Claude explained, were for mountaineering. They’d allow you to lift your heel to climb on the way up. On the way down however, you’d have to perform some pretty complicated dance steps involving almost kneeling with one leg dragging behind while your forward leg swept a wide arc as you shifted your weight onto it, turning to control your descent, while bringing the back leg forward as the forward leg dropped back into the kneel. Jean-Claude was tackling a whole new way of descending snowy slopes – with many tumbles and tries - that Amos had never encountered. “Just when you’ve conquered the mountain”, thought Amos, “the peak only shows you the next, more difficult, one to climb.”

At dinner back at the Hostel, they sat at the long crowded tables with an older guy. His middle age made him kind of stick out in that crowd of youth. Amos noticed that before starting his dinner, he bowed his head for a few long moments. Intrigued, Amos started pumping him for his story. John was from Calgary. He was walking to Vancouver. He was well spoken and well read and didn’t seem like a nutbar to Amos - but a very normal looking guy. John explained that he was taking this time in his life to spend mostly with God as he walked. “Just when you think you’ve cooked up an incredible spiritual quest,” thought Amos, “another more difficult one comes into view.”

Now, Amos was really broke. He might have to start walking east he thought. The last of his money had gone into another night at the Youth Hostel and some groceries for dinner and breakfast. In Banff he found a job posting for a dishwasher at the Post Hotel in Lake Louise. His last 5 bucks went into the Fleshmobile. He drove the thirty miles to the Post Hotel. He didn’t call ahead. He just showed up. He didn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t get the job – but - he figured “there was only one way to find out”.
Amos had just spent most of a month living in a tent. And he looked it. His curly hair was long and his thin beard was wisping over his lips as he tried to convince the owner of a five star Hotel that he’d fit right in. Sitting there in the lobby’s leather chairs. Henri, the Swiss Hotel owner, cut the interview short after a couple of quick questions and offered Amos the dishwasher position. It had opened up just that morning.

“Yeah, great, I’ll take it” Amos jumped at the morsel. When Henri told him room and board was included, Amos couldn’t’ conceal his joy. “Really?” Amos beamed like a birthday boy “Right on!”

Henri smiled. He introduced Amos to his beautiful Swiss wife Heloise, who nodded an acknowledgment in Amos’ direction before Henri passed him off to Wendell the desk clerk, telling Wendell to give him room #12.

On their way down into the Hotel’s basement, Wendell filled him in. Wendell was a wiry little guy. A few years younger than Amos, he came to the Hotel straight out of high school, starting as a dishwasher and had worked his way up to the front desk. Amos could see he was plenty proud of his position and obviously considered himself an authority. “You’re in luck boy, you and me got the only single rooms in the staff quarters.” He opened the door to reveal a dingy, small room with one very small basement window at ceiling height letting in the late afternoon sun. “It’s also the only double bed down here.” explained Wendell “I don’t know how you rate this – but Henri’s the boss. He must like you.”

To Amos, who been sleeping in the snow for a month, this dark little cave with a bed was luxury – a gift! “Bathroom’s down the hall. Staff dinner’s at five.” Wendell told him. “be sure to use the back kitchen door. Kitchen staff’s not allowed to mix with the quests.”
“That’s fine with me man. Thanks.” Amos replied closing the door. He knew he’d only be able to take this small man’s officious directions in small doses. Wendell was eager to give him some advice. “Thanks for your help. I’ll figure things out.”

Amos found that he reveled in the humble task of dishwasher. He loved being a spoke in the kitchen’s wheeling, chaotic, order. It felt like a ship in a storm; the captain barking orders, all hands working with skill and speed to keep the boat abreast of the hungry waves. He was working the bilge pump; bailing seawater from the hold – ignored but ennobled by knowing that he too was saving the ship and the day.

With his back turned to the frenzy, with the chefs’ hot pans sliding past his elbows into the sinks, he could listen to the talk, the bustle, the waiters bringing orders in and the chefs tossing together the plates of food. It was so good to have heavy, steady work to speed the hours by, with absolutely no responsibility on his shoulders. There was no doubt about it. Dishwashers were at the bottom of the Hotel totem pole. Chambermaids were slightly higher. Waiters stood a good head and shoulders above this lowly caste. The chefs lived like the Thunderbirds their wings outstretched with only the owners, who also managed from on high, sitting atop their shoulders.

After a month of being Mr. Hermit in the mountains, Amos felt that he’d lost his ability - or was it his desire - to make conversations. He kept quiet and to himself the first few weeks. Doing his shift, reading or walking at night. If he worked the afternoon/night shift, he’d ski. The Lake Louise mountain proved to be an extensive club with many challenging slopes. His favourite were off the back of the mountain. In that valley there was a chalet with a chairlift that went up the next mountain. It took time to get there and it was often less crowded than the main runs. The cost of the lift tickets would eat away at his minimum wages but he was loving this waystation on his way home and not too concerned just yet about needing to save the funds to get him the rest of the way back to Ontario. Not while there was still snow on the hills anyway.

Slowly, Amos got to know the Post Hotel family. It was a small exclusive Hotel. The staff was only the size of a large family. Chef was the notorious alcoholic father, with a legendary temper. He’d pounce on Amos, his black beady eyes glaring, and shout out some order at him like he should have known what was on his pickled French mind already. “Get me some rutabagas from the basement you Eastern bum!”

Amos hurried down into the cellar - only realizing when he got there that he had no idea what a rutabaga was. He sheepishly returned to Chef and told him so. Amos thought he could see the steam coming out of Chefs ears as he swung a heavy butcher’s knife in the air. “It’s a bloody turnip you imbecile. Where did you come from – a hole in the ground?” Amos could have asked someone else what a rutabaga was but like a cat who’s attracted to those who don’t like cats, he found he enjoyed getting under Chef’s feet. Amos retreated back to the basement before Chef could see the smile on his face.

Henrick was the other lead chef in the kitchen. As far as Amos could see he was the one who actually ran things. He had his own chalet behind the hotel on the banks of a quick wide stony stream. He’d been lured from Europe at great expense, according to him, to make a name for the Post Hotel.

Sebastian was the pastry chef. He worked away in his section of the kitchen with large windows and broad prep tables separated from the rest of the kitchen by ovens the size of a small zamboni. He was a happy mouse. Saying little, Sebastian worked away quietly creating mouth-watering pastries. At the end of a shift, kitchen staff could choose between a beer on the house or one of Sebastian’s creations. Amos rarely chose beer. Beer you could get anywhere.

The Sous-chef was Claude. He was a dark eyed, dark haired, attractive French Canadian lad from somewhere north of Montreal. He’d been to school in France, apprenticed in Swiss Hotels, and had now achieved a position as a Sous chef under Henrick’s demanding eye. He was also an accomplished mountaineer. He would trek up to the peaks surrounding Lake Louise, strap on his skiis and conquer the slopes with the same quick humour and skill he used in the kitchen.

One of the waiters, Mark, had been living in Lake Louise for a number of years. He was considered to be one of Lake Louise’s finest downhill skiers. After an evening shift at the restaurant, he convinced Claude to take him on the trek he had planned for the next day. Claude was hesitant, but Nick insisted. The next evening the kitchen crew was astonished to hear Claude’s sorry tale. Nick had missed a turn on his skis, fallen off a cliff’s edge and broken an arm. Rescue helicopters had to be called in to fetch him from a gulch. Claude was quite apologetic. Nick showed up a few days later with his left arm in a cast, reduced to slinging plates one-handed - and a reputation also reduced to ski slopes instead of mountain passes.

The waiters typically didn’t socialize with the dishwashers, chambermaids, and sundry hotel staff. The sat at their own table in the staff dining room Only Francine, would come and join their table. She’d learned that Amos was a student of literature and she would talk books with him. Amos warmed to this attention. She brought him out of his shell with a favourite subject he could talk easily about. Her attentions shone some light onto Amos. She invited him to ski with her some time. The other waiters took note.

There were three chambermaids at the Hotel. They were led by Marlene; a tall buxom barmaid type with long dark hair, strong limbs and a tough chick demeanor. Amos guessed she’d grown up in a family of brothers. Marlene’s first once-over assessment of Amos had been “just another cowboy.” Her two sidekicks were as different as dog and cat. Heather was a dyed-blonde party girl. A heavy metal rocker, she hadn’t been at the Hotel long and no one expected her to last. The other one was very different. She could often be seen talking in close confidence with Marlene. She was boyishly thin - thin legs, thin hips, thin torso, thin arms, and a thin oval head with pointed features and thin lips. Her short black locks were always a mess.

Jacynthe always wore black and seemed like she’d be more at home in a darkened studio than in the bright sun-sparkling streams and clear mountain airs of Lake Louise. She was not good-looking but Amos found the way she moved and kept to herself attractive. Her English was terrible and it took some coaxing to get her talking. She’d respond to Amos’ questions with curious looks and coy questions of her own – as if she was ignoring the surface question and looking for what Amos was really after.

It was Vince, one of the other dishwashers who first convinced Amos to visit the Cave. The Cave was the pub at the Holiday Inn where the Post Hotel staff would hang out. Amos had been questioning Vince about how he’d ended up in Lake Louise. As a cabbie, Amos had learned the skill of questioning – a way of keeping the attention off ones’ self and learning more about the ever-intriguing depths of human nature. Turns out Vince had escaped Vietnam in an open boat with forty people jammed together in a run for their lives. He promised to tell Amos more of the story if he’d buy him a beer at the Cave after work.

The place was almost empty. The chambermaids were there and while Amos headed for a table in the opposite corner, Vince walked right over and joined them. Amos reluctantly followed. The music was loud. Too loud to talk. The bar had a large disco dancefloor surrounded on all four sides by tables. The dancefloor was empty except for Jacynthe. She was dancing by herself – doing a strange, self-styled, expressionistic performance - the nature of which Amos was sure that bar had never been treated to before. She seemed totally absorbed in what she was doing and oblivious to anyone or anything else. Amos watched curiously – at first with some embarrassment for her. But as he watched he could see that she was totally into what she was doing and that intrigued him.

Marlene was watching him watching her. She was surprised he didn’t laugh and make jokes. Instead he began bouncing his head to the music enjoying the performance. He and Vince had a couple of beers, said goodnight to the three, and left. Amos wanted to get the rest of the story from Vince.

He told a harrowing tale of survival. Amos just kept shaking his head. Off Vietnam’s coast, they’d managed to escape the chase of pirates – who would have taken the women and all valuables – by running straight into a raging storm. Vince and his partner had fought the waves and kept their boatmates from panic. It took them six weeks to cross the Pacific. They lost 13 people to starvation and thirst and arrived at Vancouver Island where authorities locked them up for another 6 weeks. Eventually the Canadian government relented and issued the Vietnamese boat people – as the media called them – work permits. Vince had heard of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and jumped at the chance to be a dishwasher in Lake Louise. Amos regarded his new friend with much greater respect. His first impression was of a friendly, harmless, little man. Now, he saw a man with a lion’s heart and a backbone of fired steel. Amos doubted if he could ever produce such a courage himself.

Amos also discovered that Vince had never visited Chateau Lake Louise. They were just a short car ride down the mountain from the great CN Hotel on the picture postcard turquoise lake. “Do you have a swimsuit?” Amos asked him. Turns out he did. “Bring it along and meet me in the parking lot after the dinner shift. We’ll go for a swim.”

Vince was there waiting in the parking lot. To Amos’ surprise so was Wendell - and Jacynthe hung back behind the two of them. “Do you mind if I join you?” she asked shyly. “More the merrier.” Amos replied. She looked at him quizzically. “That’s a strange thing to say for someone who spends so much time alone.” she said slipping into the back seat.

Amos explained the drill on the drive up the mountain. “It’s all about being at home – acting like you belong.” And just like he’d told them, they sauntered through the grand lobby with high chandelier ceilings and deluxe carpeting and couches like they owned the place. Well – sort of. Amos greeted the staff behind the front desk with a smile and a wave as he led his party towards the stairs at the far end. Vince was gawking, his head turning left and right, spinning around every ten steps to take it all in. Wendell was trailing behind whispering urgent warnings “we can’t do this! we can’t do this! we can’t do this!” Jacynthe strode step for step with Amos, looking straight ahead, cool, collected and purposeful. Mom and Dad with a couple of kids in tow.

The young guy on staff at the pool probably wasn’t fooled by this small family of strange-looking swimmers. But there were no guests in the pool and either he didn’t care or he didn’t dare challenge Amos’ unsmiling request for four towels. Within minutes the guys were splashing around, jumping and diving off the spring board, a great racket bouncing off the stone walls and vaulted ceiling of the large elegant poolroom. They didn’t even notice Jacynthe slip into the water.

As if some chemistry in the water had changed them, the guys’ loud excitement waned. Vince and Wendell decided to head for the sauna. Not a big fan of the heat, Amos told them to go ahead. He sat on the edge of the pool and watched as Jacynthe began to move through the water. As in the Cave the other night, she moved freely letting one motion lead spontaneously to the next without plan or a need to perceive how she was perceived. She moved to a music now that was within. Amos watched and tried to catch the rhythm and tune. After a deep dive she rose facing Amos and gave him a wide smile. He’d never seen her smile more than a grin.

Amos slid off the edge in under the surface. With a few strokes he was beside her. She responded to his presence with a spin and a swirl. He circled her with long side strokes, watching her lithe motions. She dove deep and he dove to follow. They met at the bottom of their dive. She reached out and touched his hip. He touched her shoulder and it was like a current had found a path through them. Amos felt a warmth flow from hip up to his arm and out through the hand that touched her. It lasted just an instant as their buoyancy lifted them suspended in the moment together. They surfaced to find Vince and Wendell cannonballing into the pool on either side of them. They splashed water at the guys and played like three puppies and a cat in the deep end.

The next night, Wendell knocked on his door and opened it wide. Amos was reading in bed. Wendell had a beer in one hand and a joint in the other. “Hey man, come join us why don’t you?” Amos’ first instinct was to send him away. But Amos felt like it was time to squeeze the sponge. He’d been soaking up the spirit alone for a month now – and it was time to share it. He followed Wendell down the narrow hallway where half the staff were crammed into Billy and Steve’s – dishwashers too - tiny room with two single beds. Smoking and drinking and talking loudly over Billy’s banging on a guitar to the Eagle’s “Hotel California” they welcomed Wendell and Amos with a cheer. Marlene and Jacynthe made room for Amos to sit on the bed between them, backs to the wall. The chambermaids were chatting with others around them but their legs pressed on Amos’ on either side. It seemed a long time since he’d felt the warmth of human touch. He let out a long sigh and relaxed – enjoying the embrace of friends again.

Jacynthe passed him a joint and as their hands touched he again felt a warmth wash through him. After passing the joint along, he reached for her hand and – afraid of what the others would think and not caring – held it. She snuggled closer beside him on the bed saying nothing. Marlene elbowed him, looking away, pretending not to notice.

When the party broke up they were still holding hands. In the hallway people dispersed to their rooms either not noticing the couple or being modest and gracious enough to not notice. Amos’ heart was pumping as he led her to his door and without hesitation drew her behind him into the dark room. They embraced and enjoyed a long first kiss, mouths opening and enjoying the taste they found in one another. Clothes were slowly removed. She led him in an unhurried dance. Each time he went to push or speed things up she pulled away until he calmed and slowed and met her rhythm.

They coupled in the deep double bed. His large long limbs stroked and entwined with her thin strong arms and legs working together to draw and pull him in. Her fingers found every part of him and his hands cupped and wrapped around her small waist, buttocks, legs. He could put his thumbs on either side of her breasts and touch his fingers together in the small of her back. She took him in, breathing in his orgasm as he exhausted himself into her.

He rolled onto his back with a generous sigh. “That was good.” He said. “For a writer - good - is such an empty word.” She whispered throwing her leg across him and shifting onto him with kisses to his nipples. Had he told her he was a writer? “Is good the best you can do?” she teased, kissed and tongued him, stroked and pulled him into a new beginning when he thought they were finished. The dance continued. Every time he thought he’d completely expressed himself, she drew him out of himself further and further and he discovered a new passion, a new heat, a new rhythm that he hadn’t imagined there before. He lost track of the orgasms between them. They weren’t the end of the dance but only a peak or a valley in their journey into the night. He was fascinated that she found new places to explore in his bed and he never knew how many ways he could kiss and tongue and stroke and hold her. Each time he came up for air she would draw him back down into the pleasure of their bodies. She found in him an endurance he didn’t possess – or couldn’t find - alone. There were no words. Their hands and limbs, cock and vulva spoke what needed saying.

She finally let him go when the dawn’s light found it’s way in through the basement window at the ceiling of the room. There was no time to sleep. Time only for a shower and a shit and quickly dress to make the morning breakfast shift. The adrenaline kept Amos going all morning. After lunch he ate with the staff. Jac was there but only looked at him across the room like a cat. Keeping her distance. He smiled and let his attention get drawn into a conversation with Nick. He never thought he’d want sleep more. He left for his room, undressed and dropped into bed. In the second it would have taken to fall asleep she came into the room, undressed and joined him again in a coupling. He didn’t remember her leaving. He must have passed out.

In the weeks to come Amos seemed to be in demand. Staff members kept seeking him out; wanting to spend time talking in his room with him or inviting him for trips to scenic spots. Even Rod, the crusty thirty-something Hotel handyman who seldom spent words on the other staff, would stop just to shoot the breeze with Amos. This wasn’t missed among the small circle of staff and Amos found he’d developed a reputation without doing anything.

Amos wasn’t used to this popularity. Socializing had always been something he felt he had to work at. Now, the more he tried to keep to himself, the more sought out he became. He was happy to spend time with people; share thoughts, stories, laughs. He enjoyed meeting each person where they lived, talking about what they wanted to talk about, poking fun at them and always curious about what made them tick. He learned how to make Jacynthe laugh and she seemed to be coming out of her dark corner and blooming a bit in his presence.

Their dance continued. If he displayed any adolescent bravado it was like she didn’t even see him. If he pursued her, she slipped away. But if he was cool and collected and let her come to him, they would connect. They spoke about art. What it is to be an artist. He wrote her a poem - train thunder, clouds make the moon wonder – it started. She gave him a charcoal sketch of a nude that struck him as both ugly and erotic and it disturbed him – like her. She told him that before he’d arrived they where a bunch of people who worked together. With Amos among them, she said, they’d become a family.

He couldn’t see it but it made Amos feel ready. He felt like he was still a long way from knowing what he was ready for. Just that the sponge had been squeezed and she had done the squeezing – found the juice in him and gave him a taste for it. What had happened to him wasn’t just something in his head, it had changed him somehow, charged him with an energy and a spirit that wasn’t his own, but was his to share.

When the stones beneath the snow began carving chunks out of the base of his skis, it was time to go. Henri and Heloise always held a big Easter party for the staff – a thank you at the end of the season. Amos had given his notice a week before but hadn’t told anyone else. That night he said his goodbyes to each person not giving them a chance to grow sentimental. Jacynthe was catching a ride east with him. Nick was coming along too. Between the three of them they figured they had the gas money. Probably. He thanked Henri for such a wonderful going away party. Henri laughed and wished him well.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

In too Deep

He’d found the Golden Fleece. Now he just had to get it home. He’d discovered the Holy Grail. But would it just vanish when he brought it out to show family and friends? He’d reach into the bag that held it and find only dust? Before he made it home, there were things he still had to do. Things he still had to prove to himself. Things he still had to discover – live and breathe. Taste and digest and turn into muscle.

Skiing the mountains of B.C. was the metaphor for how he would live out the rest of his life. The way he went about this sojourn was the way he would tackle his next fifty years.

Did he know this? Could he have put that into words? Probably not. But he knew it still. He knew that this trip, this effort was about more than having a good time. He was watching and listening for more than what was going on - below the surface – for the meaning of what was said, not said, done. He had opened up his soul as a canvas for lasting impressions. A new innocence was within him. New eyes, new heart came as accessories along with the new purpose. To serve the Lord. But how? On this trip he was fasting from the food of friends – the influence of what sustained his sense of self – and trying to live only on the watery company of the One who knew his true nature.

The first stop Amos had planned was at an obscure little mountain ski club a day’s drive from Vancouver. He’d found it listed in the directory of ski clubs he’d researched and photocopied at the Library. It was late afternoon by the time he drove the Dodge Dart Fleshmobile up the winding mountain road. On the way up he noticed a driveway into a clearing – like an empty building lot protected from the road’s view by a band of trees. That would be his hotel room for this resort he decided – giving thanks to the Creator for that gift.

There was nothing else up there on that road. No condos, no restaurants, just a few homes here and there along the road. The big sign for the resort looked pretty tired. Needed paint. That was okay. Amos liked the idea of hitting a club off the tourist map as his first stop.

It was off the tourist map alright. The parking lot wasn’t plowed. The chalet was dark. The chairlift was still and empty. Amos pulled the Fleshmobile up and got out. “Well” he said to his quiet companion Jesus “The line ups won’t be too bad.”

He looked around a bit. Trudging through deep snow to get a look at what he’d missed. Considered camping there beside the chalet but it felt too lonely and sad. He didn’t like the feeling that “he was too late – he’d missed his chance”. Was this an omen for the trip ahead?

Back in the Dart, he drove back down to the clearing he’d spotted on the way up. He parked the car close to the snow bank on the road side and dragged the heavy canvas tent out of the trunk. The sun dropped low over Vancouver lying hidden beyond the hills. It took his thoughts to the small life he’d planted, and now uprooted, there. Should he go back? Was he giving up on a new life of promise? Was he giving in? Was going home gonna mean he’d fall back into the rut he left behind?

The tent up, chili heated and spooned down, he was in the sack reading Neitsche when he noticed the light outside. It was like a streetlight. Had to check it out. Pulling on his boots and not bothering with his coat he climbed through the tent door and out into the windless, frigid night. Out over the valley, where the sun had set just hours before, a big full moon was smiling at him. Amos smiled back.

While the sun had a power to pull, the moon repelled and pushed and cooled off the day’s passions. It said let go and keep going. It said there’s more to find in the dark night than the day’s sun can show.

Amos turned and took a few steps to the side of the tent to pee – to mark this moment of letting go. Enjoying the release, the sound of water tunneling down thru snow, steam rising, he looked up over his shoulder to the moon again. His heart stopped as his eyes narrowed and muscles tensed. A large white wolf stood at the edge of the clearing, head high, ears erect, watching him. No sound. No sense of aggression in the air between them. Just each noticing the another.

The pee had stopped flowing. Amos let out a breath that misted the sight line just for a second. He tucked away his dick to free his hands and shifted his right leg to face the wolf but in that instant - the wolf was gone.

Had it been there at all? Amos doubted it. And he knew it had been too. He stood there til the cold made him shiver and move for shelter. Before retreating into the tent again, he grabbed the lantern and walked over to where the wolf had stood. There were no tracks in the snow. Just as he’d suspected.

If he’d seen what he’d seen – it was spirit that he’d met. Was it just a reflection of his imagination? A projection of the lone wolf persona he was playing? Whether it came from somewhere deep within or somewhere beyond - like the moon - it was telling him that he was on the right path – and to keep going.

He’d heard a lot about Red Mountain – home of Nancy Green. Skiers at Whistler had told tall chairlift tales about the powder snow. Down on the border next to Idaho, sat the railway-mining town of Trail B.C. Amos headed south for Trail.

On the way was Kelowna. Big White Mountain was a disappointment. He spent two nights in a cheap motel. It left a sour taste – wasting away his stash of funds waiting out heavy snows and high winds watching crap TV. He was betraying his mission.

Peter had given him a novel and an address of an old girlfriend living in Kelowna. He’d made Amos promise to deliver it. The novel was about sexual freedom and discovery – a semi-spiritual, semi-porn, pop literary story. Amos called Sue up right away when he arrived in town. She gave him directions to find her place in a suburban outskirt townhouse. Sue was friendly but not exactly warm. Attractive for sure, Amos noticed, but she was world weary. Life had tired her out it seemed. For a young woman she lacked any true curiosity. Her life held no mystery. As if it’d all been laid out from here to the end and she just had to keep the car on the road. Neither was she curious about this stranger who had pulled up beside her. They chatted over a beer. It was her birthday and she invited Amos to a bar that night to celebrate with her friends.

He’d found the cheapest motel he could and showered and put on his best plaid shirt but somehow couldn’t find the party spirit to get out the door. He knew that in some mystical way he’d been delivered to that place on that day as a birthday present. He knew that the stars, or Peter at least, had set him up for some free love. He told himself he was crazy to pass up such a fantasy opportunity. The voice that tried to pry him loose and out the door was hollow and distant. He’d responded to it a million times before and it had always left him empty and alone in the end. He’d rather be by himself than betray himself again.

So he spent a night and a day receiving kicks from that old demon but refusing to budge. His mind filled with fantasies of what might have been. He got a pizza from the joint next door. Chatted with the bored pizza chef. The storm was keeping business slow. Watched some old movies on the cable TV. Tried reading but he was too angry. Amos was angry for being too timid to dive into a sexual adventure and angry because it wasn’t like he was being pure anyways – eating junk food and watching junk TV and spending precious time and cash wasting away in a room like a million other motel rooms.

Refusing to kill a third day in the motel room he checked out early the next morning and drove through the blizzard – that showed no signs of letting up - to the Big White Resort and bought a lift ticket.

It was literally a white-out – Big White all right – he could barely make out the ends of his skiis and from what he could see, which wasn’t much, the hills didn’t hold the kind of challenges he was looking for. It had nothing to teach him.

He left the Resort and got on the highway at dusk. It was still snowing hard but the plows had pushed the worst of it off the roads. He found the highway south and headed for the famed Red Mountain down along the edge of Canada.

This road hadn’t seen a plow in while and the snow was getting to be - what you might call - deep. Amos pulled the Dart up behind a transport truck stopped at the road’s side. He found the driver putting chains on his eighteen wheels. “The road ahead’s deserted. There’s nothing between here and Trail. It’s a mountain pass so it’s tricky goin. If you take it – don’t make any mistakes son. Me - I’m turning back.”

For some reason, Amos figured he could make it. Turning back didn’t seem like an option. There was nowhere level enough to camp and he wasn’t going to waste another $50 on a motel. So - into the night and snow he drove with two white-knuckled fists on the wheel. He didn’t even play tunes on his stereo – afraid of any distraction. Corner after corner, up one long steep climb, and down the next, fishtailing at times but too scared to stop – going slow but not slow enough to get stuck. Just fast enough to maintain momentum and control – if that’s what you could call it. Down another long black stretch, not knowing where the next bend would come, not knowing what obstacle around it might send him into a spin. Up the next pass he plowed on.

The road went on and on for hour after hour. The fuel gage was now hovering just above empty and every time he glanced at it, his grip on the wheel tightened again. Amos found that he was singing a hymn from his childhood. When he realized that, he also realized that the snow had finally let up. Just as he was beginning to compose his thanks into words, around the next corner, that larger than life – still almost full moon greeted him. It washed the dark road in a sparkling, other-worldly light. It felt like he had crossed over into another realm. He wound the window down and let the crisp cold air fill the car - clearing out the heavy air of the fear he’d been breathing.

The car was floating Amos over clouds as he cruised along through the night - his hands now tapping that hymn out on the steering wheel. Praising his Maker and his trip’s Mate. In such good company Amos at the same time realized suddenly how lonely he was. He was wishing he had someone to share such a special moment with. A moment like this is meant to be shared he thought. His heart reached out into the future for the one he’d find to share it with. One day he’d tell his love the story of this night and how he had thought of her then.

As enchanted as the mountain drive had become, Amos was still hugely relieved to see the sign that read “Trail 10 miles”. The gas gauge was sunk below E and he knew he was cruising on fumes. Coming into the outskirts of town, he passed the sign for the Red Mountain Resort. Figuring that was why he was there, he pushed his luck further still and cut off the main road onto the sideroad and wound his way up to the Resort’s parking lot. He could coast back down the mountain to a gas station tomorrow he reasoned. Tomorrow he’d deal with such a small problem. Today angel’s wings had carried him here and he knew they’d take him all the way to a safe landing now.

He parked his trusty steed in a far corner of the Resort’s dark lot, climbed out and stretched hands to the sky, arching back to take in a skyfull of lucky stars – the Milky Way like a thick band he’d followed here full of promise and high hopes. Amos tossed the heavy canvas tent over an eight foot snow bank as if it was his sleeping bag. Crawling up over the bank and down into the woods with the stove and his pack, he set up the tent in the clearing he just knew would be there. Cooked up some soup and settled down – wondering just how laid back the management of Red Mountain Resort might be? After surviving the threats the mountain trail had posed that night, any fears about human authorities seemed somehow not worth the worry. So he hunkered in and slept the night through like a bear down for the winter.

Next morning, Amos awoke to the sound of cars crunching through deep snow pulling into the parking lot. He climbed out into a sparkling sunlit winter wonderland to pee into the thigh deep snow. Hidden from sight behind the tall snow bank, Amos cooked a quick breakfast of oatmeal and raisins and apples chunks washed down with mint tea. Over long johns and a wool layer, he pulled on his Toronto Hydro issued (donated by a friend’s sister who worked there) baggy beige coveralls – his favoured ski apparel.

With a toothbrush hanging from his mouth like a cigar, he crawled over the snowbank and into society. The look on the coiffed middle-aged guy’s face as he stopped in his tracks beside his Jaguar had a kind of “do I have to share this mountain with a street person?” shock in it that made Amos’ day.

Amos smiled and waved at him – all bright and chipper like. The Jaguar owner turned, shouldered his skiis on his ski suit – together worth more than Amos’ car - and headed for the chalet. His wife closed her mouth and followed. Amos laughed out loud. He couldn’t have been happier if he’d been a two year old making art with the pungent brown stuff he’d just produced.

He bought a lift ticket at the outdoor booth and went directly to the chairlift. His plan, developed from weeks of practice at Whistler, was to stay completely out of the chalet, or any indoor spaces, as much as possible. His body had adapted to the cold now and he didn’t want to throw off his internal thermostat by adjusting and re-adjusting to indoors/outdoors temperatures.

He shared the first chairlift of the day with a guy whose beard and hair was even longer than his own. They traded stories on the way up. This character’d been skiing Red Mountain for a decade. He told Amos he’d left Ontario in his tracks. Amos thought “here is a man truly dedicated to a lifestyle.” He’d taken Amos’ dream, and made it into a life.

When he heard Amos’ story, he said “You gotta come with me when we get to the top man. The real powder’s off the back of the mountain in the powder fields.”
“Yeah, right on man, that’s what I’m here for.” agreed Amos.
“Wahoooo!” the wildman let holler go out across the still mountainside.
“Yeeee-a-ow!” Amos responded in kind, truly excited by this connection the mountain gods had arranged.

At the top, the hairy local took right off skating into the woods like a big cat after prey. Amos could barely keep up. There was no trail – just what the Wildman’d left in his wake. He pushed himself through the deep snow and branches and was panting heavy when he caught up with the big cat standing beyond the trees grinning back at Amos.

Approaching, puffing, Amos saw they were standing on a four foot ledge just above a field of pure white powder. The sun on the snow was blinding bright. The steep slope fell down the mountain for maybe a hundred yards before a boundary of trees stretched completely across the view down. Without a word except for a “WHOOOOOHAAAAAAH” the Wildman was airborne. Expertly plunging into the powder below, he carved one, two, three wide arcs through the virgin’s bed before disappearing into the trees.

Amos was alone. He knew he’d never tackled a hill like this before. He was in way over his head – whaaaaaayyy over his head.

For some reason, Amos figured he could make it. Turning back didn’t seem like an option. He’d been skiing the Rockies for a couple of months now and had taken on some pretty wicked slopes. He’d had a bit of experience in deeper snow - not this deep - but THIS is what he’d come there for.

And so, with a “WHOOUUOOOEEEE” to drown out the whispers of fear - he jumped. To his amazement, he landed soft and immediately sat back on his skiis carving one, two, three perfect turns through the snow performing the turns just like he’d read about in the magazines. “This must be what flying is like for birds” thought Amos, “the wind offering just enough resistance to lift and turn their weight as they simply shift their wingtips.”

Then, the forest came at him like a wall of reality about to wake him from his wonder. He was moving way too fast to stop now. Straightening out his skis, he plunged in like a needle into a haystack.

If you asked Amos how he made it through that twenty yards of forest, he couldn’t tell you. The best explanation he could come up with later was that he was killed instantly - but God sent him back into the forest just to see what would happen next.

He shot out the other side like a human cannonball. Except he wasn’t in a ball. He was more like a wildly thrashing windmill careening off its post. The landing was mercifully soft. The cold, deep, goose down received his tumbling limbs and smothered his velocity with its gentle white resistance.

It took long, long minutes before his mind caught up with him and he swallowed his good fortune . When the wind returned to Amos’ lungs and the puzzled expression finally left his face, he lay there still a bit more - thanking the Maker for what seemed like an appropriately humbled time.

Then, the trusty, sombered knight began the task of hunting and slowly gathering his gear, and his courage, together again. There was no sign of the Wildman – although Amos thought he’d heard a long hysterical hyena laugh as he’d flown through the air. It took him easily an hour to find his scattered skiis and poles and goggles, and then maybe another fifteen minutes to put his nerve back in place. After all, he still had a lot of mountain to ski before he’d make the bottom. But make it he did - eventually. After several more tumbles and a long hike at the bottom back around the mountain to the chalet.

He skied the groomed trails the rest of that day. Slept like a rock. A very happy rock through the long quiet winter’s night. Somewhere in the night, in a dream that told him he’d never be this way again. That he was working with more than luck. He found the resolve to try the back of the mountain – just one more time - again.

This time, he found a trail cut by other crazy types, and followed it for a long, long time through the woods. Just when he was ready to turn back and forget the whole thing, he the woods ended and he came out to stand at the top of cliff with a single narrow chute. It wasn’t a hill. It was a chute on just enough of a slope to hold snow. Bare rock shouldered either side. It was maybe ten feet wide, really, really steep and ran straight down in a really, really long – there was no other word for it - chute. There was no other way down. Amos made an oath right then, that if he survived, he would never again tempt the gods by looking for more mountain than he could handle.

He jumped, hopping his way down that chute – from ski edge to edge to edge to edge, left, right, left, right, there was no where to stop and it was either keep hopping or tumble all the way down risking crashing into the unforgiving rocks on either side.

On sight of the bottom, Amos went into a tuck, turned his skiis straight and sped past the rocks in a blur, thighs on fire, until the deep powder at the bottom slowed him and quenched the fire with the wonder of his heart still pumping life to his eyes instead of the black oblivion he deserved.

At the bottom, Amos and broke his discipline and headed into the chalet for a whisky. He’d just done something impossible. He should have been broken in two by the attempt but instead he’d been blessed with strength and skill beyond his measure to make it through the test – whole – somehow.


The turns in the snow these past few days had carried him to a new place. Fears were simply food, like pleasure, to be tasted, digested, and dropped off along the way. Each day brings turns only to those who choose to travel on beyond the circles already known.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Heading Home

Amos skied the Whistler mountain resort as often as he could. He’d drive up Highway #99 in the late afternoon. That twisting, coast and mountain-hugging drive was almost as much fun as skiing a slope in spots. He’d drive slowly through Squamish to the outskirts of the small town outside the Whistler resort. In the twilight, he’d find the dead end parkette he’d scouted out last summer and wrestle the large canvas tent out of his trunk, over the snow bank, and into the deep snow.

Getting the two centre poles between the eight foot cross bar up was like roping a calf in the deep snow. He’d lasso both poles then, holding both ropes, yank both poles with cross bar between into the air. Then he’d scurry to quickly peg the ropes deep beneath the snow into the icy ground swinging a hatchet out from his coveralls’ deep pockets. If he pulled too hard the whole thing would fall towards him to the ground. If he was too slow, the pole that wasn’t being pegged would yearn for attention and twist this way or that and fall to the ground pulling the centre bar out. When that happened, Amos would have to drop everything and begin the process all over again.

He’d work up a sweat by the time it was up and secure. Next he carried his bulky bed roll from the car, over the snow bank and laid it out inside. Two heavy blankets beneath a half decent sleeping bag and two more blankets on top. He’d bought the blankets at an Army Surplus. They were heavy mover’s blankets quilted with well sewn edges that wouldn’t fray.

The next trip was for the Coleman Stove and food pack. Only half of the eight man tent was up. The side with the door. In Toronto before heading west, he’d searched out a tailor down off of Spadina, in a basement shop, willing to put a new zipper on that door. He’d had to try many a shop before finding someone willing to take on his old canvas tent.

His family had inherited it from another family at church whose camping days were over. They’d used it on the great Canadian family car trek west and east in summers of his childhood. Amos had invested a hundred bucks into that new zippered door. The tent must have weighed close to a hundred pounds – with the steel poles for sure. Half the tent still gave him a 6’ by 8’ apartment. He could stand up at the centre poles and even the low side stood four feet tall where three poles held the corners and centre between two good sized screen windows with canvas flaps tied down against the wind.

He’d cook up a soup with noodles, or a pot of chili with crusty bread on the Coleman. Yes, he knew that running a Coleman stove inside was dangerous. But he’d keep the flaps open while cooking to draft the fumes. He’d read by lantern, spooning down his dinner along with Friedrich Nietzsche into the night’s fall. Even though he’d met his Lord, his friend Jesus, he wasn’t drawn to the scriptures.

The experience of Christ was still fresh with him. he was still living it – tasting it – savouring it anew with signs and signals in his every day that he wasn’t walking alone. A lyric from a song would strike him with meaning – a message lifted to his attention – to encourage. He’d notice and give thanks. A snatch of conversation in his cab – an encounter with a stranger was an angel’s lift or a devil’s test. An old alc-y could speak truth with a steady gaze piercing through the booze, A young lady’s subtle lie could twist him into seduction til he saw it for a cheap trick and could laugh it off. Sunlight breaking through the clouds and shining on his path across the Vancouver bridges wasn’t just nice scenery. It was his Maker letting him know he was on his way. He was noticing. Awake. Alive to the mystery present in every subtle and simple flow of moments strung together like pearls.

He didn’t want to spoil it – turn it into an academic exercise by reading about it. His days were holy scripture. The tent that had held his childhood family of five was now a lonely cocoon that he filled with great thoughts and questions of fate and future quests. How would he best serve his Lord? It had replaced the question “How would he make a living?” Now, instead of making the world work for him, he only wanted to work for the world’s hope.

Before climbing under the covers he’d strip down naked and go out into the frigid night for a pee. Lowering his skin’s temperature after stoking his stomach’s furnace was part of the winter camping strategy he’d picked up from library books. Diving in under the cold blankets, he’d wait for his body to warm their surfaces and begin holding it close to him. He was the heater. He was the source of the night’s comfort. He was the keeper of the fire that burned within – a sacred fire that required careful tending.

The next couple of days, he’d ski – systematically trying all the different hills those mountains offered – returning to the one’s that had beat him last time until he found his “line” to follow. He’d take a run for pure pleasure. Then he’d take on a hill beyond his skill level. Laughing, swearing, crashing, tumbling, collecting himself and his gear to begin again. He was competing against only his own sense of limitations and fears. He’d try to talk himself out of taking on that hill again. But, a courage kindled a confidence that gently led him back to the top of that hill – fear and fury stirring in his guts til he plunged down into the run letting out a wild war cry whoop – crazy for the thrill of finding a way down just beyond the edge of being in control. Tasting the place where body, mind and spirit synched with snow, slope and speed.

There was no one to pat him on the back if he did it. No one to notice the accomplishment. No one to prove a thing to. Just the man in the mirror. And the man unseen just behind – with his steady hand on Amos’ shoulder. Amos could see his grin in the snow blowing off the trees. Could feel his presence in the birds he shared his lunch with in a quiet snowy sunny spot away from the slopes.

The next week, he’d be up there again. Weekdays the line ups were thinner – and so were the cab customers – so he’d ski and ski. The evenings in the tent got lonely sometimes so he’d try out the Chalet scene. But he had no heart for it and the expensive drinks would cut into his skiing budget. He sought the company of people less and less and learned to enjoy the solitude of the green canvas walls, starlit sky, and blanket’s nest.

When Amos found that he could manage any and all of the hills to his satisfaction – dancing down even the most difficult in a style all his own - he knew it was time to test himself on whatever else the Rockies had to offer. This winter was his one chance to ski the Rockies. It wasn’t likely he would ever be rich enough to spend winter vacations skiing Rocky Mountain Resorts. He knew he wasn’t cool enough, or maybe care-free enough, to become a permanent fixture among the Mountain denizens.

Amos didn’t yet know what he would do, or where he would end up, but he knew that now was his chance to ski the Rockies – and he went after it with a puritan work ethic.

He found that he was getting settled in to life in Vancouver. He was beginning to actually know his way around the streets in his cab. Taking people where they wanted to go without asking them for directions or resorting to the map book, gave him a sense of propriety over the place. Almost like he belonged there.

Amos had a circle of friends now too; a girlfriend, and a soul brother in Danny who had given him much to carry and the muscle to carry it with. He could see that it would be easy to settle in and let some roots start growing in this fertile rainforest coast.

But it would be a transplant. He was an eastern species. His quest for meaning and purpose – the meaning and purpose for his life – wasn’t going to be found in the laid-back comforts of a Vancouver lifestyle. The new identity he was fashioning here wasn’t as important as the new sense of himself in his old shoes. The demons that chased him out here had been put in their places. He’d faced them and found he could walk strong among them without losing his way to their fearful diversions and distractions.

Besides, Vancouver was just too beautiful. It still seemed surreal to Amos. He felt that his fate lay somewhere in the cold, uptight, city streets of Toronto. They seemed more real and urgent and potent with trials waiting around the next corner. Toronto called him back to its centre like an electron back from the edge of its arc.

Goodbyes were always awkward for Amos. He felt like they were a test of friendship – how sincere, or insincere, would the pledges of staying in touch be? Let’s just say “so long” and leave it at that. He hated expectations of social ties he knew he’d lug around and never untie again. He was touched by sincere efforts to convince him to stay. But, his friend’s love was proven by their unselfish best wishes for him. They listened to him try to explain what was in his guts. They couldn’t understand it because Amos couldn’t either - really. It was just time to head home.

So, with as few promises as he thought he might keep, and some sincere words of thanks, with new rubber on his wheels (a deal from his new friend at the cab company’s garage), he left – heading east. It was a Sunday morning that he left Vancouver. On his way out of town he got the idea to stop at the skid row church in the East End that he'd been curious about but never yet visited. It was mid morning and he figured he’d have time to make the service.

It stood right on the southeast corner of Hastings and Main. The main crossroads of the downtown eastside. It was where the guys he’d pick up from Detox would want to be dropped. Where hookers and pushers and all kinds of folk footloose and free from society’s claims would cross paths. Amos was curious what kind of a church service he might find in the midst of such waters. He’d written a poem about Jesus in the alleys, helping junkies with their needles. He wondered if that kind of Jesus might be hanging out in there.

The service was in progress. He’d turned around on the sidewalk about three times between the car and the front door. Thinking it was dumb and a waste of time and what was he doing this for? Inside the front door he found an old man in an dark old suit. He put a bulletin into Amos' left hand and shook the other and left him to find his way into the sanctuary.

It was a large wide space. Two aisles ran between three rows and columns of pews up to a raised platform with oak railing and an empty choir loft. Silent brass organ pipes were the backdrop within a nave the size of whale's mouth. Over the nave was enscripted a banner that read “All ye who are weary, Come and I will give you rest.” The speaker who was introducing the next hymn stood - not up on the platform hidden behind the oak pulpit – but instead down on floor level, to one side, exposed behind a simple pine podium – a bookstand really with a single post to the floor. A piano accompanied the two dozen singers spread in bunches throughout the mostly empty pews.

The speaker had on a suitjacket and no tie. He looked like an ordinary young man of the cloth. No wild eyed street preacher. Not even a beard. Just a guy you might find working in an office downtown. He had a regular kind of voice. He gave a regular kind of message to a regular kind of Sunday morning crowd. There were no streetpeople in the pews. Amos was kind of disappointed by that. But not surprised when he thought about it. Sunday morning was for the good people.

There was an offering and Amos putting five twenties on the plate feeling large about it - making a thanks offering for what that city had given him. The closing hymn was all about moving on.
“I feel the winds of God today. Today my sail I lift.” In the last verse he discovered why he was there that morning. It spoke the vow he didn’t know was in him until he sang it.
If ever I forget your love
and how that love was shown,
lift high the blood-red flag above;
it bears your name alone.
Great pilot of my onward way,
you will not let me drift.
I feel the winds of God today;
today my sail I lift.

He lingered after the service. Said good morning to a few of the other worshippers. No one seemed much interested in him. All kinds of young guys must drift through there Sunday mornings he figured. Getting too friendly with them could cost you a five or a ten to send them on their way. He thought there might be an angel among them he was supposed to meet. But on his way out he realized he’d already been given the message he was looking for. So he lifted his sail and headed east mountain by mountain.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Stop Making Sense

John, Zachariah’s son, out in the desert at the time, received a message from God. He went all through the country around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins,
“The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

Luke 3 from “The Message”

He woke up on his back but couldn’t see. Aware of ten thousand conversations all happening at once, his ears took him out to the edges of the auditorium. Then the circle became very small. Amos was aware of a circle of people standing just above him although he couldn't see them.

Slowly, it dawned on him that he was lying on the ground – waking from a dream – or was it a dream? If it was a dream, it was one of those where you try to open your eyes but can’t. He blinked his eyes but there was only blackness – only sound was reaching him. In his ear someone was asking, in a voice heightened with concern, “Are you alright man?”

He didn’t recognize the voice. “Yeah, its okay – I’m epileptic” he instinctively lied like a rug
“Get me outa here will ya?”

The Voice helped him to his feet and took his arm and they began pushing through the crowd of Talking Heads fans. It was the 1983 Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” Tour at the Vancouver Civic Auditorium. He sensed - because his eyes still weren’t working, that they were passing through a doorway and out into the halls. The dull roar of auditorium conversations dropped now into a more intense, flatter hallway babble. They kept walking. The Voice gave quick curt explanations “It’s okay – I’m just taking him back here.”

The babble stopped suddenly as they pushed through another door and into the empty echo of what Amos guessed was a washroom. The Voice put Amos’ hands on the cold porcelain of a sink.
“You okay?”
“Thanks, just give me a minute will ya?”
“I’m going to call an ambulance. I’ll be right back.”

Amos bowed his head over the sink. This was it. The edge. He was at the edge of totally losing it. They were gonna take him away; lock him up, medicate him – he could feel the spiral’s centrifugal force, sucking him down into a vortex that would take just way too much effort to escape. He’d been dancing around its edges for months and suddenly now he was in a state of vertigo on the tipping point.

“Its decision time Amos Brown” he told himself. He felt the sweat turning cold on his scalp. “Either you pull it together and get back in the groove, or they’re gonna take you away and lock you up.” His hands fumbled for the taps and he lifted water to his face. The cold splash was like waking up – like suddenly remembering from a deep dislocated dream where you are and who you are – still freaked a bit by the forgetting.

Raising his head, Amos saw a ghost in the mirror. A pale, scary, stupid expression stared back at him. “This is no time to fuck around man” he told the ghost “get your shit together – now!”

It was the first mirror he’d looked into in months. Amos Brown was so desperately trying to figure out who he was that he hadn’t wanted to get distracted by any superficial glassy impressions. He didn’t trust himself not to project some internal fantasies onto his own reflection. He’d devoted his twenty-third year on the planet to finally figuring out what was what with Amos Brown. Done with following a crowd, done with the influences of friends and families, he was doing only what he thought was worth doing. That is - without much money.

Now, his path had taken him to the edge of a dangerous madness. It would be so easy to just let it slip and let someone else take care of things. No one expects much of a crazy.

He’d been surprised that his conversion – his “religious experience” out on the tidal flats after Christmas – hadn’t really changed him much. He still had the same array of silly and sincere thoughts each day. He had the same hungers and wants and fantasies and worries. He was in the same skin. So what had changed?

He had a direction. Did he? Well, no not really. He still didn’t have a clue what he was supposed to be doing with his life. He kept doing shifts, driving the cab to pay the rent. He spent his Christmas tip cash skiing at Whistler mid week to avoid the crowds. Working on his carves kept his mind occupied. But on the long chairlifts back up again he’d wonder.

It wasn’t that he had a direction. It was that he had a guide. He’d met the one who knew him better than he would ever know himself. So, he concluded, why not let go of the wheel and ride the bus instead? There was a great sense of relief in that. And there was an incredible sense of excitement. Like there was an incredible adventure ahead. More than he could cook up for himself. Serving this Master would mean a ride beyond the boundaries he’d always try to hide behind. Amos Brown could cook up some fun adventures. But Jesus the Christ could take him places he’d never think up on his own.

It wasn’t that he had suddenly become a nice guy. He was still self consumed and petty. But now he knew that it was all about giving. Whatever he had in him - it was put there to give. He'd been trying to get somewhere with it, trying to figure out what he could trade it for. Now, because he'd met a friend who was there for him unconditionally, he would do the same. He was trying to look at his choices with another set of eyes.

He was still judging the characters that jumped into the back of his cab from his Scarboro point of view. But now, when he would think to take a second look, he could see what he hadn’t seen before. It was like he could see beneath a layer or two on the surface – like he got glimpses of the heart inside. Sometimes he saw a child in the hooker’s smile. Sometimes he saw fear in the guy who was being a prick. He saw how lonely the braggart was. He saw how sad the laughing party gang was.

He still was having trouble seeing where he fit in to the picture. His ideas about being an author were still buzzing around his ears like house flies. But more and more they were losing their potency as a pull forward.

When he tried to tell his Vancouver friends about his experience the words and phrases fell flat on the ground between them. They sounded cliche. His friends would look at each other and raise their eyebrows - and he didn't blame them. Instinctively he knew that what he was trying to explain couldn't be told except with action.

His sister called him one day to say she'd be arriving the next. He picked her up at the airport. Andrea was two years younger than Amos. If Amos had been his older brother's first accomplice, Andrea was Amos' first confidante. The first female, besides his mom, who he’d loved to spend time with. They’d shared innocent hours playing – lost in imagination’s mansion where endless doors could be opened for children to explore – scenarios, dramas, adventures, pushing their tiny experiences into larger than life dramas overheard from adults or soaked up from bedtime stories, or – who knows where that idea came from?

He had fun showing her around Vancouver, telling her stories about his cabbie adventures and the strange people and places they’d go. Andrea had always looked up to him and she was full of questions about what he was doing out there?

She met Danny and he was charming and sweet. Amos told her about his experience with Christ and what he thought it was about. He didn’t know how – but he knew he just wanted to serve.

Andrea immediately assumed that meant he wanted to be a Minister. Amos told her he’d thought of that – it was the family business after all. But it didn’t seem quite right. Serving in a church seemed so limited to him. So ordinary and normal – not the adventure he thought Jesus was getting him into.

She spent four days with him. They walked the cool grey January beaches. She'd knitted him a huge grey wool sweater. Took her all fall she said. It really was huge – even on him. She explained that she’d had to guess his size from memory – hoping it would be big enough. He really was larger than life in her eyes. He liked that. The sleeves had to be rolled up and it came down halfway to his knees. It had a zipper all the way up front and a big wide collar that sat around his ears. He loved it. When she left he wore it every day. It was like wearing a hug. Better protection even than the shield of a leather jacket.

It made him realize that no one loved him like his family. While he was seeking freedom from their too large expectations and to small judgments they’d impose on him, there were also strong chords of connection there that he could never totally severe – even if he wanted to. Could he be who he was while living in the box they’d provided? Their province, their lifestyle choices, their safe and sacred church. He was afraid he might lose the ground he’d gained out here if he slipped back into the mold waiting for him.

Amos and Danny and their pals had been looking forward to the concert since before Christmas. On the big day, they gathered at his place and got tuned up smoking dope and drinking Jack Daniels. They were ready to let loose and have some fun with some heart pounding music they all loved. David Byrnes’ lyrics crossed the border from Rock’s cynical anger to a new place – hints of a spirit place to dance from in the midst of modern madness. The "Speaking in Tongues" album invoked the wild rhythm of a world beat and a world soul moving beyond, or maybe beneath, the box of religion and respectability. They’d listened to the album a thousand times and knew most of the lyrics – discussed where Byrne was coming from. Was he suggesting a new spirituality? Hard to unravel from between his strange art school poetry and quirky images of insanity and fun.

David Byrne was acting out his life on stage. He was dramatizing Amos’ internal confusion and lack of identity. He was singing about madness and losing touch with what matters in the messy world of the silly and superficial. He was cutting Amos to the bone with surgical precision and making a joke of his ego's holy quest.

There, in a crowd of thousands of people, Amos was exposed as the sniveling, weak and worthless human being he really was. All charades were over. He was being portrayed on the stage for the amusement and mockery of all.

"Watch out you might get what you're after
Cool baby strange - but not a stranger
I'm an ordinary guy
Burning down the house

People on their way to work say
baby what did you expect
Gonna burst into flame

My house S'out of the ordinary
That's right Don't want to hurt nobody
Some things sure can sweep me off my feet
Burning down the house"

Suddenly the music stopped and the house lights went up. Exposed to the glaring stares of everyone around him, he began to leave, walking from the front near the stage down an aisle past rows of seated people. Every face he looked at was a face from his past. Some one who’d tested him, teased him, scarred or stabbed him. Aisle after aisle, he’d find in each row an enemy, a foe, a friend that’d betrayed his trust and was now mocking him. He’d quickly avoid that stare only to be confronted by another and another of those who had judged him and seen only what they didn’t like. Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, schoolteachers, that nasty Sunday school teacher he was sure he’d forgotten – but there she was. The floor was on fire. He quickened his pace keeping his gaze to the floor but the fire was kindled brighter by his haste. It enveloped him. He knew what was happening. The hero of his story was being tested in the furnace. The dross and ugly parts of his soul were ignited by shame and self hate and his psyche was being steeled by a consuming fire. All impurities were being burned and, if he survived, he would be a new creation. He passed out at the end of the aisle and hit the floor like a felled tree.

Looking in the mirror now, sight returned, he straightened. He saw something he hadn't seen before. Out in the auditorium he'd seen himself through the eyes of those who'd found him wanting. Now the Lord gave him new eyes. He saw in his own eyes the light of Christ. He saw how all his imperfections were but fuel for that fire burning bright within.

In that moment he knew that the one he called friend and Master would use whatever Amos offered to acheive the redemption of the world. It was a battle worthy of the best Amos could offer. It was won already. Not because of strength and skill but because of an eternal weapon that was unquenchable. Love without measure, without bounds, beyond judgment and fear, untouchable and intimate. It was so impossible that it put a smile on Amos' face. It might have been Christ's eyes that were looking but that smile was all Amos. He turned away from the sink and headed for the door.

A young man came in and said “Hey where’re you goin? The ambulance is here.”
He recognized the Voice as his guide through the darkness. He didn’t look at him - just said "Thanks for your help man" and kept walking. The ambulance attendants almost crashed into him as swung through the washroom door and strode out into the hall.

A small group who must’ve watched him being led like an invalid into the washroom - and were waiting to see him carted off - were startled like geese to see this large smiling man striding right through them back towards the auditorium brushing helping hands aside.

As if on cue, as he entered the arena, the lights dimmed and the band started playing. He slowed his strides as the crowd closed between him and the stage. But he never stopped - he began gently bumping into concert goers as if they were flotsam in his path. They’d turn indignantly and then, looking into his face, would step aside.

“My eyes must still be on fire” Amos thought – enjoying the startled reactions. When he was close to the stage, he found his spot and began to dance. The show that had mocked his weaknesses now celebrated his strengths and fed his courage.

"Whatabout the time?
You were rollin’ over
Fall on your face
You must be having fun
Walk lightly!
Think of a time.
You’d best believe
This thing is real

What’s the matter with him? (asked Byrne)
He’s alright! (the chorus girls sang)
I see his face
The lord won’t mind (they assured)
Don’t play no games
He’s alright (no doubt)
Love from the bottom to the top

Turn like a wheel
He’s alright
See for yourself
The lord won’t mind
We’re gonna move
Right now
Turn like a wheel inside a wheel

Tina Weymouth, the hot bass player noticed him and they began dancing. The ten yards between them didn’t seem to matter. Their eyes locked and their smiles played back and forth. Amos saw David Byrne glance over at Tina between verses. Surprised that her gaze was fixed and not returning his look, Byrne traced it across the crowd to Amos. Amos grinned wide at him - still dancing. And the spell was broken.

He had nothing left to prove. Amos left the front as the next song started - hardly believing what had just happened (no one else ever believed that story either). From the very front, he now made his way to the very back of the auditorium. At the top of the stairs - where the seats met the roof, he sat and wondered about what had just happened to him. His metal had been tested – tested and purified somehow.

Of course his mind had just gotten overloaded with whiskey and weed and his body had thrown a reset switch. Sure, that was true. But in his imagination – a place as real to Amos as the concrete steps he sat on – he’d passed through hell’s doors and could no longer be scared by his own shadow. He was bigger and stronger than any box he’d grown up in. He’d pulled the sword from the stone, slaughtered the dragon, found the key, the treasure was his to take home and share.

[Letter from Thomas Merton to Czeslaw Milosz, Feb, 1959] Milosz, life is on our side. The silence and the Cross are forces that cannot be defeated. In silence and suffering, in the heartbreaking effort to be honest in the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty), in all these is victory. It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness to a light of which we have no conception and which can only be found by passing through apparent despair. Everything has to be tested. All relationships must be tried. All loyalties have to pass through fire. Much has to be lost. Much in us has to be killed, even much that is best in us. But Victory is certain.

Thomas Merton. The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers, Christine M. Bochen, editor (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993): 57-58.